reprinted from the print anthology My Dog is My Hero

A black dog ran towards us, it was pretty fast, but there was something a bit odd about the way it ran. When it ran up to us and stopped, I saw the reason. “That dog’s only got three legs,” I said in childish surprise. One of its hind legs was only half as long as the other and didn’t reach the ground. I’d never seen anything like it. 
     “Somebody said he got caught in a hay mower,” my Dad said. “He gets along all right. It’s a good dog.” My Dad had been working at the ranch for a month or two; my Mom and little brother and I were just moving in. I was much too young to go school, and my little brother was a year younger than me.
     The three-legged dog had learned to compensate for the missing appendage and got around really well in spite of his disability. He could keep up with the horses and did everything a ranch dog was supposed to do. He immediately adopted our whole family and went along with anybody going out of the ranch yard, especially my little brother and me. He wasn’t a constant companion like dogs in the proverbial boy-and-his-dog stories, or at least I don’t remember it that way; maybe I was still too young to develop a close relationship with a pet.
     The three-legged dog was born and bred on a ranch and was a ranch dog through and through. He would start off with us and then disappear following a scent, to investigate a noise, or maybe just to check out his territory. After a while, he would come back and hang out or play a bit, and then he’d disappear again while we played. My mother said he was protecting us, but I didn’t really know what she meant when she said it. Until we moved to the ranch, my world had been a suburban lot and my grandparents’ yard. 
     A couple of months later, my brother and I were watching a bull in one of the corrals. A calf was in the corral with the bull. The bull pushed the calf away from the hay. The calf tried to get at the hay again, and the bull snorted, put its head down, shook its horns threateningly, and took a menacing step toward the calf. The calf backed way off, looking scared and hungry. 
     Almost fifty years later, I can’t remember if we were there because Dad was feeding the cattle or not. It doesn’t matter. The bull was an object of fascination. Grown men were afraid to go near it. The day before, we had watched Dad and two other ranch hands on horseback trying to drag the roped bull back to the ranch and put it in a corral. It bucked, reared, dug in its hooves, and threw itself from side to side fighting the ropes and the weight of the horses. My Dad and the other two men had to fight the bull for every inch of ground.
     “That bull won’t let the little cow eat,” my outraged brother objected. Before I realized what he was doing, he slipped between the rails of the corral fence and was walking toward the bull. 
     “We’re not allowed in there,” I told him. “Come back.” I shouted it once or twice more, but my brother ignored me. 
     The bull had his head down eating the hay on the ground. My brother marched straight up to that big, ferocious bull and kicked it right between the eyes. I could hardly believe it. The meanest bull on the range backed up a step or two, looked at my little brother with red-mist in its eyes, put its head down, and started pawing the ground. 
     I knew it was going to charge. I don’t think I understood what death was at that age, but felt it encroach on some instinctive level. Then I heard barking, and from out of nowhere that three-legged dog came running up to the corral, ducked under the bottom rail at full speed, and planted itself in the space between the bull and my brother. The bull kept pawing the ground, but the dog stood its ground, barking furiously. 
     My three-year-old brother just stood there glaring obstinately at the bull, oblivious to what a dangerous situation he had created. The three-legged dog continued barking viciously while feinting and diving at the bull. Once or twice, he forced the bull to take a step backward, away from my brother. 
     “Get out of the corral. Now!” My father’s voice boomed from somewhere behind me. 
     My brother stopped glaring at the bull, turned, and ran for the fence. Because that three-legged dog never let up and kept the bull occupied, my brother was able to make it to the fence, where he quickly climbed out of the corral. 
     When the dog looked back to verify that my brother was safe, the bull lunged forward and tried to gore the three-legged dog with its horns. The dog saw, or sensed, it in time and avoided the horns, dancing out of the way on its good legs and then spinning around to face the bull. The standoff resumed for a moment, and then the three-legged dog decided his presence was no longer necessary and made a mad dash for the fence, spinning around frequently to bark at the pursuing bull to keep it at bay. The bull made a final charge at the three-legged-dog just as he dove under the corral fence. The dog slid under the fence in the nick of time, and milliseconds later the bull rammed into the bottom rail, causing the whole corral to shake—and that bottom rail was a solid log well over a foot in diameter. 
     Almost fifty years later, I still believe the three-legged dog saved my brother’s life that day, and if that’s not heroic, I don’t know what is.

 


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