Tuesday, 04 October 2022

F Fic, Non-fic


Mudball pic

by James David Stone

It was on one of these occasions I first saw Mudball. The wind had suddenly risen into a crescendo of howls and meaningless shrieks, and I unconsciously raised my eyes from the work before me to peer out through the window into the curtains of yellowish brown dust. The little dirty-white dog was hunched up a few feet away from the building, his hind parts to the biting sand, his coat of scraggy hair whipped into a knotty mat. As I watched, a sudden burst of wind bodily lifted the little dog and shoved his nose into the deep sand.

I placed my soldering iron in its cradle, and bracing myself for the blow I knew would come, opened the door and fought my way outside. The little animal was so exhausted he seemed to hardily notice as I picked him up in my arms. He whined weakly and raised his grimy face to mine. It was a pitiful little face, yet comical too, for his chops were lined with rings of grit and two great balls of mud had collected on the little face; one under each eye, as the dust mixed with tears which streamed from his sandblasted eyes.

And so he got his name: "Mudball."

During several days that followed, Mudball remained with me in the building. During the day he romped about the room or dozed at my feet. A bath and good meals worked wonders with his appearance. His little ribs showed no longer and his coat of white glistened in the sunlight. I left him outside at night, when I departed for my quarters downtown, but always in the morning, Mudball was waiting at the door of the transmitter shack, and rushed out to the car to greet me, actually bouncing high into the air, and if dogs could talk, Mudball would have.

There were respites from the sandstorms, and during these intervals Mudball played outside, rushing madly among the dwarf mesquite and sand dunes, hot on the trails of green striped lizards and small ground squirrels. Sometimes a rabbit came within Mudball's range and like a flash of white light, the pursuer and pursued would be off in a cloud of dust. Soon he would return, however, and lie panting in the shade of the car, or come inside the building and rest beneath the work bench, casting his eyes upward now and then at me as I worked.

One day, while out on one of his rabbit chasing sprees, Mudball failed to return by the time I usually left for town, and I finally decided he must have been a transit little cur after all, and had gone seeking greener pastures. But the following morning Mudball was waiting at the door of the transmitter building as usual, but this time he failed to bounce out to the car for the morning romp.

As I approached him, he held up a swollen bloody forepaw and gave forth a child-like whimper. Examining the injured paw, I found it to be pierced clear through by a mesquite thorn which had broken off in the flesh. Mudball licked the paw and gave me a pleading look. I took him inside and after washing the forepaw, I removed the cruel thorn with a pair of needle-nose pliers. He licked my hand during the operation and hardly made a sound as I withdrew the thorn. I applied Merthiolate and bandaged the foot with a dust cloth. There was no romping and playing about the premises for some time, but there begin to grow an even closer tie between the little fellow and myself. A much closer feeling of companionship than I ever thought would be possible.

But soon Mudball was back at his favorite pastimes again and I became involved in putting the finishing touches to my transmitter installation.

It became necessary for me to install some metallic conduit beneath the building floor for power circuits to the equipment, and this was proving to be quite a chore, as there was barely enough room beneath the floor joists and the deep sand that had collected under the building for me to wiggle about as I conducted my work.

I had entered the space beneath the building through the trap-door and pulled my materials, tools and extension cord light along with me until I reached the location where I desired to penetrate the flooring with the metal tubing. At times it was necessary to scoop the sand to one side and make room for my body and arm movements.

All was going well. I worked myself around until I rested on my side and reached for my wood auger brace that lay an arms-length away, just outside the circle of light. Then I heard a sound that made me freeze – the ominous sing-song rasping of a rattlesnake. Overcoming the momentary period of complete paralysis, I jerked my arm away as fast as my close quarters would allow, and as I did so, the flat, triangular head, and half the body of the huge rattler, shot into the light, the venom spewing from the curved fangs and missing my bare arm by the fraction of an inch. I rolled as far backward as I could, but my shoulder came up against a floor joist.

Instantly, the rattler coiled again, the horned rattles setting up a blurred arc in the light as they sung out their song of death. The coils tightened and the great head reared back into a striking position. The seconds drug out. The lidless, beady eyes seemed to survey my helpless position, and the split black tongue licked at my face, only inches away. I held my breath until my lungs seemed to catch fire. I knew the least movement would be an invitation for the rusty colored snake to strike me fully in the face.

Thoughts pass swiftly through the human brain at such moments. I pondered the possibility of trying to beat the lightning quick strike of the rattler and reach for the extension light. With the light guard between us, perhaps the reptile would be blinded and some protection afforded by the wire-mesh guard.

The song of the rattler rose and the splotched body drew into a stack like a coiled spring. I knew the moment had come and I ducked my head down into the sand, with the few inches of movement I had, and reached wildly for the light.

Then a ball of white shot into the dust-filled area of light. It met the huge rattler head-on. It was Mudball! Without a sound the little dog took the full force of the snake's blow squarely in the face. The reptile's fangs buried into the shiny black nose. Mudball pulled away, but instantly was back again while the rattler was still stretched out after its powerful lunge. Mudball grasped the snake just behind the head and shook so vigorously he lost his balance for a second. The rattler coiled about Mudball's head but the white ball of hair hung on.

I could do nothing but watch. Dust quickly filled the air and breathing became difficult. The battle raged outside the lighted area and I pulled the electric light around. The little dog's attack was so vicious the snake was carried backward several feet. A great lump welled in my throat as I watched my small companion of the past weeks tighten his grip on the writhing body, his chomps drawn up, as though the act of biting into the snake was a loathsome thing to do. His sharp white teeth crushed time and again into the scaly body and he pushed the ugly head into the sand. I heard the snap of bones as Mudball made a final effort to break the reptile's spine, and minutes went by before the serpent ceased its death struggles.

"Let him go, Mudball," I finally gasped. "Let's go." The lump in my throat seemed to choke me and unashamed tears came. Mudball released his hold and it was then I saw him stagger slightly. "Come, boy!"

I crawled for the trap-door and my little champion did likewise. His breathing was rapid and came in short whiffing sounds. Clearing the trap-door, I reached down and pulled him through the opening. Now he gave a whimper and I felt my heart break as I saw what was once a small moist nose turned into a hideous swollen blob.

Even as I cuddled him in my arms, Mudball went into convulsions, his little body quivering as though with cold.

Knowing it would be too late, I placed him on the floor and dashed for the car, where I kept a snake-bite kit with my First-Aid. I returned to find Mudball lying still, and the kit dropped from my fingers to the floor.

Mudball stirred weakly and I picked him up again and moved to the doorway. The once bright eyes were glazing over. I squeezed him in my arms, and Mudball's swollen tongue appeared for a moment from the enlarged muzzle and licked at my hand. That was his farewell. With a final little whine, barely audilble to me as I pressed his head to my face, and a slight quiver, which passed through the small dust covered frame, like a fleeting moment his life went from him.

For a long time I held him and let the tears course down my cheeks. Here, indeed, was love in the form of a little dog. I gazed off toward the distant Franklin Mountains and thought how wonderful it would be if mankind held such devotion in its heart.

I buried Mudball in a small wooden box, and used a short length of soft pine board I found in the equipment room for a marker. It bore the tooth marks made by my little friend as he had gnawed upon it in days past.

Two summers ago I visited the site with my family. Bulldozers have long since disturbed Mudball's resting place and the transmitter building no longer exists. I left my family in the car and walked out through the leveled area to the spot where I had buried the little stray. When I returned to the car I made excuse for my wet eyes.

"Got something in my eye" I said weakly, and slammed the car door. We sped away, but Mudball will always be with me – in memory.

James David Stone was born in 1916. A native Texan, he was an award winning author of short stories and poetry with numerous publications, spanning more than four decades, in prestigious literary journals and poetry collections.

He is the grandfather of author Shawna K. Williams. Shawna is Submissions Editor for TWJ Magazine, and it is her family's pleasure to share this true story, written by her grandfather about life events in the decade following WWII.

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