When Ben grabbed the fife I was whittling and tossed it in the fire out of spite that I wouldn't let him play it, I grabbed a fistful of hair and started pummeling him. He pummeled right back. Usually around Pa you tried to disguise the fighting as rough-housing. In a one-room cabin like ours there was little enough space for living, let alone wrestling. But all the pent-up frustration of an autumn cut short by the Territory winter and having a sick mother gave our fists more bite than usual. It didn't help that Ben was nearly my size now and wanting to prove himself. Before you knew it, we were rolling on the floor, a blur of fists and curses.
Pa yelled quit it from his seat in front of the fire, and Jackson, our long-haired cur, raised up from where he lay at Pa's feet, barking at the sudden commotion. Ma, sweat slicking her jaundiced face, also raised up on an elbow in the bed to see what the problem was, and Katy Starr came to her feet in annoyance, the cloth she'd been wiping Ma's face with still in her hand.
Her movement distracted Ben just long enough that I was able to maneuver a knee between us and kick hard, tossing him away toward Pa and the fire. I heard Ma's anguished voice anticipating and the hard scrape of Pa's chair against the wooden floor as he stood. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Katy Starr snatch at the air where Ben had been a moment before, but Ben was wind-milling, trying to stop his backward motion toward Jackson who was caught three-ways: between the boots drying in front of the fireplace, Pa on one side, and Ben coming at him. The dog tried to leap over Ben to avoid being hit, but Ben's pinwheeling arms knocked the dog backwards, and the next thing we knew, the boots and dog were in the fire.
Jackson lit out, fur and flames streaming behind him. He raced madly around the cabin, yelping and crying, his howls rending a space that was already thick with the smell of melted snow and unwashed bodies. Ma covered her ears and wailed along with the dog, while Pa reached to yank the boots away from the fire. The one boot that was afire, he savagely kicked all the way into the fireplace, and stamped out the sparks on the ones he'd pulled clear.
Jackson leapt and howled, twisting in mid-air to snap at the fire on his fur. I scrambled helplessly after him, but his pain made him fast and the fire made him impossible to grab. Katy Starr ran for the bucket of water we kept by the door, and I saw Ma, who had been unable to stand for eleven days, rear up out of her sickbed on unsteady feet and, with too-thin arms, snatch the quilt off of it to dampen the dog with.
The sound of the gun shot reverberated in the cabin like a thunder clap. Jackson gave one quick yelp and collapsed, dead. We looked to Pa who stood before the fireplace, his rifle at his eye. He lowered the gun, then moved quickly to snatch the quilt from Ma's hands and throw it over the still burning body of the dog. He smothered the flames, slapping at the sparks starting to catch the pitch of the logs until all were extinguished.
My ears were ringing from the rifle shot in the enclosed space, and Ben, who'd been frozen at Pa's feet and closest to the gun, had his hands over his ears. I guessed none of us could hear much right then, but as Pa rose to his feet and turned to glare at us, it was apparent that hearing wasn't necessary to glean his feelings.
Katy Starr lowered the bucket and came to kneel next to Jackson's body. She lay one hand on top of the quilt that covered him. She never could stand to see an injured animal and her quiet sorrow was almost worse than the fury in Pa's eyes.
Ma sat down heavily on the bed, her greasy hair hanging wild. In her tired expression I could see her recounting her whole history with Jackson, how he'd made the trip west with her as a pup and how she'd named him after the President she most respected, how he'd once held off a black bear until Pa could get hold of his gun, and how he'd waited patiently outside the cabin through every childbirth and kept her company as she grieved the death of the ones who hadn't survived.
Pa knelt and pulled the quilt off the dead dog, shoving it at my sister. The smell of singed fur and cooked meat wafted off the material, filling my mouth with spit equal parts disgust and hunger. Pa gathered Jackson's body up in his arms and rose to his feet, giving my brother and I one fierce look before he strode out the cabin door into the lightly blowing snow. Ben went to stand in the open door. I joined him and we gazed out after Pa, watching him make his ways across the snow-covered field toward the woods beyond as he threw Jackson's limp carcass over one shoulder so as to have a hand free to balance if he should hit ice underneath.
"Come away from there and close that," Katy Starr said, helping Ma back into the bed. "Ma will freeze." She tucked one limb after the other under the sheet on the bed still stained yellow from the various things that had leaked from our mother during her illness. My sister's hands were red and cracked from scouring the sheet with scalding water and ash lye, but she never complained. She gathered our sleeping blankets from the floor and arranged them over Ma who had gone silent. "And take that thing outside and throw it in the snow," Katy Starr said, waving vaguely at the boot still burning in the fire, its smoky reek of burning hide and fur pouring from the fireplace.
Chastened and glad for something to do, I took the iron tongs and grabbed the steaming boot between the pincers. Ben held the door wide for me as I walked it outside to a snow bank and plunged it in with a sizzle, watching the snow melt around it and form a delicate ice shelf at the top of the hole. When I looked up, Pa was striding back through the snow toward us, empty-handed and flint-eyed. He grabbed me up by the back of my coat collar and half-dragged me behind him to the door where Ben stood open-mouthed. Pa put one large hand on Ben's shoulder and pushed. Ben stumbled backwards into the cabin and sat down hard with a cry, then began bawling, whether from realization of what we'd done or because he was hurt, I couldn't say. Me, Pa dropped inside the door jamb like a deer he about was to dress. I was sick with the turn of events, equal parts grief over Jackson and fear of what Pa would do to us.
Pa whirled on me. "Get the shovel and the pick."
Pa went to Ma's side and whispered something to her that we couldn't hear. Ben told me later he thought he saw her nod, but I was running for the tools that leaned against one wall, not wanting to provoke Pa any further. I handed the shovel to Ben as he climbed to his feet and rubbed his backside where he'd come down hard. The three of us children watched quietly as our father helped Ma to a seating position and knelt at her feet to tenderly pull her thick wool stockings up around her calves. He was a big man, Pa was, but never did he look bigger than right then when he scooped Ma up, blankets and all, and turned to face us with her cradled in his arms.
"You're going to bury that dog," he told us, and carried Ma to the door of the cabin. Ma's face, ill-looking and tear-stained, was propped against his broad chest. I didn't know what was harder to take: Pa's tone or the fact that Ma wouldn't look at us. Over from the foot of the bed where she'd moved, I heard Katy Starr stifle a sob.
"Clean this mess up, girl," Pa said to her as the sound reminded him of her presence.
"Yes, Pa," Katy Starr said, and fell to crying softly.
To us, he said, "You two, come with me."
"But Pa," Ben wailed, pointing to his foot. "I only have one boot." I wanted to push Ben down just like Pa had. I wanted to pummel him all over again.
Pa stopped in the door, his back going stiff. He didn't turn around, and I wanted to believe he might be weighing the potential of a frost-bitten foot, but I saw him set his shoulders and heft my Ma in his arms to be more comfortable, and I knew instead he was weighing the cost of adding additional violence to the day. I elbowed my brother hard and his crying caught in his throat.
We followed a little ways behind Pa as he carried Ma across the field to where he'd left Jackson. Standing a distance off, we watched as he lowered himself to one knee next to the burnt carcass, balancing Ma on the knee so she, unlike Ben with his unshod foot, didn't need to touch the snow at all. Blocked from view as she was by my Pa's form, we could see little of her until, from behind Pa's broad back, one frail hand reached out and touched Jackson's snout. It combed the singed hair there, caressed the back of the animal's untouched neck. Ma left her hand there, buried in Jackson's scruff, as the snow lightly swirled around them. I began to cry, and then Ben did.
When Ma drew her hand back, Pa struggled to his feet, holding her tight against his chest as if he was protecting her not from the cold but from the sorrow that I saw etched across her face when they turned back to us. I thought about how Ma loved Jackson more than anything in this world, and about how Pa loved Ma more than anything. We children were the ones stood between both of them true loves, hoping for some scrap to fall for us.
His eyes red-rimmed but his expression stony, Pa glared at us as he carried Ma past. "Bury him deep so the animals don't get him."
Ben and I watched him carry her back to the cabin. He slipped once, his foot coming out
from under him, but his upper body seemed not to be affected at all. He remained as steady as an ox.
When they were gone, Ben and I wiped our noses and turned to the task, our tears a cold penitence we paid along with the raw and bleeding hands we would hold up to the fire later that night as Ma kept her face to the wall, never, we'd come to find out, to look back again.
I cleared a patch of ground, even scraping an area right down to the frozen grass underneath so that Ben would not have to stand in the snow anymore. Then I took the pick from him and began to swing it at the spot I'd cleared. The contact with the frozen ground set my arms to wobbling each time I struck. Ben removed the dirt with the shovel, and when I grew tired, we swapped jobs. We spent the better part of two hours digging a hole to put Jackson in. A half hour in, I stopped and gave Ben the boot off my foot.
Later, as we tried to rub the life back into our feet and hands before the fire, I played and re-played the events in my mind: the clatter of the wooden fife hitting the back of the stone fireplace, the soft give of Ben's stomach as my knee drove into it, the anguish in Ma's "No, no, no!" marking Jackson's leaps and yelps, and the sound of the bullet whistling close past me and thudding into the dog. Ma loved Jackson and Pa loved Ma, and forever after, whenever I looked at the little stump where my pinkie toe had been, I found myself wondering how true my father's aim had been.