DOG ON DEATH ROW
Gertrude, a beautiful five-year-old German Shepherd housed in Kennel Run 10, was scheduled to die in the morning.
I had worked at whatever odd jobs I could find all summer long. Dusting furniture when it was so hot sweat dripped from the tip of my nose. Slashing at bramble vines until my arms and even my face looked like I’d had an argument with someone welding a horse whip. But I was nine that summer and Mom told me if I earned the ten dollars required, she would let me choose a puppy from the local shelter.
We had several dogs at home. Dogs my mother and I had scraped up off the highways, crushed by speeding cars, patched back together by a vet mom knew who didn’t charge us much. I’d helped those dogs to survive, getting up every two hours around the clock to feed them gruel and to change the newspapers when they got wet and nasty.
But this dog would be mine. One I had chosen.
The puppies at the shelter were housed in two kennel runs at the end of the aisle back near the right corner of the huge concrete room.
The older black man who led us through the heavy door and into the back, cautioned as we neared Kennel 10, “Ya’ll want to stay way away from that fence now,” he said in his deep, kind voice. “That thar dog wuz brought in ‘cause she mean. Cain’t noone git nowheres near her. Cain’t hardly feed her even; not without a catch pole.”
Just as we came even with the kennel run, the German Shepherd flew from the back of the short run, slamming herself into the cyclone fencing so hard it shook and rattled. Teeth bared, hackles up, she snarled. Clawing the fence, she seemed determined to reach us. I could feel my heart pounding as I scooted so quickly behind our guide that I stepped on the heel of his shoes. We were three runs away before I realized Mom had stayed behind.
I stopped and turned. The old gentleman did too. We both stared. He amazed; me in resignation. Fingers through the wire diamonds of the fence, I could see Mom’s lips moving. The German Shepherd stood, pressed against the wire, gazing up into my mother’s face.
“I be dogged,” the old man breathed. “I ain’t never seen the like.”
I shrugged. “My mom has a way with dogs.”
We proceeded to the back corner where Black Lab-mix puppies tumbled around each other as they all struggled to get closer to the fence. I stuck my fingers through and their tiny tongues slurped as if I had dipped my fingertips in cream.
“I’ll let you in to sit awhile.” The old man took a ring of keys from his belt loop. “You jest holler when ya want out, okay?”
Happily plopped on the cool concrete, puppies crowding in my lap, I nodded.
What seemed like a long time later, the old man returned. “Ya’ll ready to come outta thar?”
I carefully stood up, gently dislodging several sleeping pups. “I guess so.”
He walked me back up the aisle until we arrived at where my mother still stood in communion with the German Shepherd from Hell. The old man kept walking. I stopped a few feet away, but Mom whispered, “You can come on over, Sis. She won’t hurt you.”
I edged forward, only partially reassured by my mother’s words. Mom sometimes forgot that dogs who wouldn’t hurt her would gladly eat the rest of us. The big black-and-tan female glanced at me, but quickly returned her loving gaze to my mother’s face.
I could hear the tears in my mother’s voice when she said, “They’re gonna kill her tomorrow morning. No one wants to take her. They’re all afraid.”
Clearing my throat I asked quietly, “Why don’t you get her, Mom?”
My mother shook her head. “Money’s tight, Sis. I need what I got for groceries tonight. And I won’t get paid till Friday.”
Desperately, I said, “Maybe they’ll hold ‘er for you. It’s just a coupla days.”
“I asked.” Mom sighed. “They’re afraid of her, too.”
As I stood there behind my mother’s squatted form, I saw a tear trace silently down her cheek. My mother never cried. Not when our house burned nearly to the ground. Not when she got into a bar room fight that left her needing stitches from the slash of a knife. My mother never cried.
Taking a deep breath, I whispered, “I found my dog, Mom.”
Mom took a deep breath and I could see her pulling herself together. With a sad look she gave the dog a last cheek stroke then pushed up and turned to face me. The smile she forced on her lips wavered. “Well, what’re we standin’ here for? You better show me this wonderful animal.”
Closing my eyes for a moment, I slowly opened them and looked up at my mother. “Don’t need to go nowhere. I want to buy her.” I pointed at the German Shepherd who’s eyes had never left my mother’s face.
“Oh no, Sis,” Mom replied. “You don’t want her. She’d never really be your dog.”
I shrugged. “Don’t matter. Laddie’d be hurt if I brought home ‘nother dog. I wanna buy her for you.” Seeing my mother getting ready to argue, I hurriedly added, “For your birthday. An early birthday present.”
“Oh, Sis, you don’t have to do this. You’ve been waiting a long time to get a dog for yourself.”
“It’s okay, Mom. I can wait a little while longer. She can’t.”
The old man handed a leash to my mom. After he unlocked the cage, he scrambled away down the aisle. Everyone moved away as Mom led Gertie out of the front door.
Gertrude went home that day. As she heeled beside my mother, out of that cold concrete building and into the midsummer sunshine, Gertie never realized any other human was close by. Her eyes never left my mother’s face.
I hope you enjoyed this true story of Gertrude the German Shepherd dog and my mother, a complicated woman with a great love for animals.
I wrote the original story, Dog on Death Row, long ago as a high school English assignment.
The dog pictured in this post is the spitting image of Gertrude from those many years ago though her name is Niki. Like Gertrude, Niki is a proper German Shepherd who would fight and die for her family.
Unlike Gertrude, Niki has never seen the inside of the Death Row for Dogs. Handled properly, Niki’s protective instincts have garnered her admiration instead of the fear with which Gertrude was viewed.
For more adorable pictures of German Shepherd dogs, German Shepherd puppies and other fun things, visit my Pinterest page: http://www.pinterest.com/ayawalksfar
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