Chris grabbed the waiting empty milk can and called his dog, Jack. “Come on, Jack! We’re going to fetch the milk!”
Fetching the milk was Chris’s morning job. On school days, he’d grab his bike and zip over to the farm, just half a mile away, along the country road that ran past his home. He’d be there and back in ten minutes; then he’d be off to school. But on weekends, and, like now, during the summer, he much preferred the forest path, a shortcut that began with a trail across the fields. There was no biking there, but Chris loved the forest and quite liked walking, too. And now it was another summer morning; his breakfast was done with, and the weather was superb.
“OK,” Jack said, got up, and stretched. Jack liked to get his body properly tuned up for the walk.
“What were you dreaming of?” Chris asked. “I saw your paws twitching and heard you sort of barking, or whimpering, or something.”
“I was chasing something, maybe a cat,” Jack replied. “Dog stuff. Yeah, a cat. Can’t help it; cats are so much fun to chase.”
They were halfway across the fields, approaching the edge of the small patch of forest that lay between Chris’s family’s smallhold and the farm belonging to farmer Joe. Joe was some kind of cousin, although his kids were the same age as Chris. All very complicated. But it was nice to get fresh, warm, whole milk every morning. Chris’s mother would pour the milk into a large bowl that she’d cover and put in the cooler; the next morning, she’d skim off the cream and begin using the milk. Pancakes or French toast with strawberry jam and whipped cream… Chris’s mouth watered at the thought.
“Why don’t you ever talk to Mom or Dad or Frank or Nellie, Jack?” Chris asked the dog. “They seriously think I’m crazy when I tell them you talk to me. It isn’t that hard to believe that a dog can understand his folks, but they just can’t get it through their heads that you can talk, too.”
Jack jumped across the last ditch before the forest began and stopped to smell the ground on the other side. “There’s a problem there,” he said, absent-mindedly. “Sort of a Catch-22. They don’t believe, so they can’t hear me talk. If they could, maybe they’d believe. But it never works in that order. You have to believe first.”
“It’s so simple for me,” Chris commented. “I just started talking with you when you were a puppy, and I never thought we’d have a communication problem. So we haven’t had one. Well, who cares, it’s their loss.”
Jack had his nose to the ground and was leading the way. Chris followed without paying much attention to where they were going; the walk was very much a routine. Chris was always more interested in the animals and the plants they passed than in the path itself. But eventually, he became aware of having walked much further than usual and took a look around. He didn’t recognize the place at all.
“Where are we, Jack?”
Jack reluctantly stopped and looked up. “In the big forest. Nice place, isn’t it?”
“Sure, but I’m lost. What kind of scent are you following, anyway?”
“Oh, it’s just a rabbit. Kind of old; I guess he went this way last night. But I like knowing that I can track them even as the smell fades away.”
Chris was getting worried. “That won’t do you any good! You’ll never find him after such a long time. What do you want with a rabbit, anyway?”
“Well, once I caught a jackrabbit, remember? I brought it home after I had gutted it, and Mom cooked it for dinner. Useful, don’t you think?”
“OK, but you won’t catch this one. And I don’t like it here; I’m not even supposed to be here. People get lost here. I’d hate to come across a skeleton!”
Jack determined to get the most out of Chris’s state of mind. “Not to worry; we’re not lost. See this nose? Dogs don’t get lost. And you won’t see any skeletons. They always find the bodies and bring them home. They take their dogs along when they go looking for lost people, you know. No skeletons; I guarantee that!”
“But what about trolls, then? Frank says there are trolls in the big forest. They could be dangerous, you know!”
Jack laughed in the funny way dogs laugh. You could see the sides of his mouth pulling back, baring his big, white side teeth. He panted and his tongue was hanging out a bit. “Frank was just trying to scare you into staying out of here. There are no trolls! And even if there were trolls, they wouldn’t come out in daylight. So there.”
“And what do you call that, then?” Chris asked with a slightly trembling voice, pointing at two bulging eyes set in a dark, hairy face, looking at him through some bushes by the path.
Before Jack could answer, the owner of the eyes took a step toward Chris. A very long step. A pair of huge antlers flanked a long, ugly face. A snort emerged from the big nostrils as the animal shook his head.
“A moose!” Jack yelled. “Don’t move!”
Jack tore away and placed himself behind the beast. He barked furiously and snapped at the moose’s hind legs and knees, making sure that he was never directly behind the animal, where just one kick could easily have sent him off into orbit all the way to dog heaven. The bull soon got annoyed and turned around, forgetting about Chris.
“Run!” Jack shouted. Chris took off along the path. Soon he got back to the familiar trail to Joe's farm, where he had never seen any big animals, and slowed down. By the time he came to the milk room by the barn, Jack caught up with him, routinely smelling the ground.
“I told you there are no trolls in that forest!” he mumbled between sniffs.
“Thanks, Jack! I’ll keep that in mind,” Chris said. He left the empty can there and took the full one along; then they set out for home.
“How come you know so much, Jack?”
Jack casually lifted a leg against a tree. “Well, first of all, I’m a lot older than you, so I ought to know stuff.”
“What do you mean, older? You’re 3; I’m 12.”
Jack had a lot of patience when he really needed it. “3 dog years are 25 human years. I’m twice your age. When I was your age, a couple of years ago, I chewed up Mom’s slipper and got quite a talking to. That sort of thing gets left behind as you grow up, you know. Maybe I should be putting the leash on you when we go on the road and not the other way around?”
“That would be after you give up chasing cats and following cold rabbit trails,” Chris laughed. “But you do seem always to have an answer to my questions.”
Jack had expected such an answer. “Anyway, maybe I know stuff because I lie around the living room all the time. You all think I’m sleeping, but a dog’s got to guard his home, so I always have one ear open and an eye ajar. That way I get to overhear a lot of grown-up talk between Dad, Mom, and Frank.”
“Frank’s no grown-up!”
“He’s 16, and as far as you’re concerned, that’s practically grown-up. Sometimes I even listen to the radio, when it’s on. You can learn things that way, too.”
“Oh yes, I like the radio, too,” Chris enthused. “Especially the music—Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and all those guys!”
“Hmph. If I want music, I make my own. I mean the news and the talk shows; they can be quite interesting. Recently, they had a program about dogs, and it actually made a lot of sense. But lately, there’s been so much talk about war, and it gets boring. I don’t even know what a war is. They keep saying it’s in Korea, but wherever that is, it can’t be around here. Maybe it’s in town. Mom and Dad seem to worry that Frank may have to go there.”
“Korea is a lot further away than town.”
Jack didn’t like that at all. “If it’s that far away, he won’t be able to come home for lunch, and he’ll have to eat some slop made by strangers. That wouldn’t be good for him.”
“Sorry, Jack, but if Frank had to go to Korea, he wouldn’t be coming home at all for quite a while. It’s that far away.”
“I’m telling you, it’s a bad business, this war thing.” Jack snapped at a big black fly. “Somebody ought to put an end to it.”
It had got stifling hot, although the sun had gone behind a cloud. Just as they came to the last ditch on the border of their own land, at the spot where Chris had built himself a small hut to play in, the sky opened up.
“Into the hut,” Chris shouted. “We can wait out the shower there.”
The hut was no more than five feet square, made from the trunks of young trees that had been cleared away from the ditches. Chris had nailed the sticks to the corner posts and left a door opening; the door hadn’t yet been made. Frank had helped him lay the roof, made of scrap wood found in the outbuildings. The hut provided some shelter, although by no means perfect.
“Where’s Chris?” Mom asked herself in the kitchen. She looked out the window but saw nobody in the fields. And then she saw lightning strike Chris’s hut. A wisp of steam rose from the wet wood, but there was no fire.
“Oh, I hope he isn’t in there!” Mom exclaimed.
Chris had slumped over on the bench where he had been sitting. Jack was licking his face, but Chris didn’t move. Jack realized that Chris wasn’t even breathing.
“Uh-oh,” Jack thought. “I’ll need some help here.”
He tore into the kitchen, barking wildly. “Chris is hurt! Come quickly!”
“Frank!” Mom yelled at the top of her lungs.
Frank, already alerted by the barking, came down the stairs so fast that it sounded as if he were sliding down on his heels.
“Chris is hurt!” Mom cried. “Hurry to the hut!”
When they got there, Jack was already there, licking Chris’s face.
Frank checked Chris’s pulse on the side of his neck and said, “No pulse.” He laid Chris down on the bench and started giving him CPR. Frank’s summer internship that year was with the fire department, and he had just completed his First Aid course.
Jack switched to licking the carotid artery where Frank had felt for the pulse. “No use resuscitating a brain-dead boy,” he thought. “This will force some blood to his head, I hope.”
“Go call the ambulance, Mom!” Frank said. “I’ll keep this up until they come.”
Mom ran back to the house and turned the crank long and hard. When the operator answered, she had to control her voice. “Nancy, we need the ambulance fast! Chris has been hit by lightning.”
“They’re free at the moment, and they’ll be right there. Meanwhile, do all you can for him.”
Nellie had come down, still in her nightie, and clung to her mother, tears in her eyes. “Is Chris going to die, Mom?” she asked.
“No, he’ll be fine,” Mom forced herself to answer. “Frank is trying to revive him. We’ll have to wait here. When the ambulance comes, we’ll go down with them.”
The ambulance took less than ten minutes; town was just a couple of miles away. By bike, you got to school in ten to fifteen minutes, depending on whether you were late or not. Mom led the way down to the hut.
Chris was sitting up, looking dazed but otherwise normal. Mom couldn’t stop hugging and kissing him, and Nellie got up in his lap for a while.
“Good work, Frank!” said Frank’s elder colleague, the ambulance driver. “You’ll get full marks for your internship for this. Our work doesn’t get any better than that, it’s that simple. Chris’s vital signs are fine, but we’ll take him to the hospital for observation for the day. His dad can bring him home after work. Onto the stretcher you go, boy! You come along, Frank. You can go straight to work when we return to the F.D.”
In the kitchen, Mom and Nellie sat down properly to thank Jack.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Jack!” Mom sobbed. “Chris would have died if you hadn’t come to tell me he was hurt.”
“That’s OK, Mom,” Jack answered modestly. “I love that boy as much as you do. But do cheer up and look at the bright side: Chris will be fine, and you now understand me when I talk! That’s worth something, isn’t it?”
“And so do I,” Nellie said happily, and planted a big, wet kiss on the dog’s soft, brown muzzle.