The boys were too old to play pirates, but that was the only way Dakota would help, and Brayden couldn’t catch the dog by himself. He wasn’t even sure they could do it together, but the dog’s safe return meant a $500 reward, and he and his mother needed the money.
“Come on, boy. Come on,” Dakota said, for the umpteenth time, as they tried to drag the pit bull along. She was heavy and squat, white with patches of brown in a pattern as distinct as a thumbprint. “Good boy. Come on, now.”
“It’s a girl,” Brayden said. His costume was nothing more than an eye patch and his father’s machete tucked in his belt. Dakota took things a bit further. He wore an eye patch, too, and a red bandanna, and he’d drawn on a mustache with eyeliner. There had also been a hook made out of a coat hanger, but this had been dropped and forgotten.
“Give him more treats,” Dakota said. He yanked hard on a leash but the dog didn’t budge. “Come on, boy. Come on.”
Once the boys found her, the dog hadn’t given them much of a chase. They called out her name and tossed pepperoni from the plastic sachet Brayden raided from home. Thus distracted, she paid little attention while each boy attached his own leash to her wide leather collar. But as the treats dwindled, so did the dog’s motivation. Brayden was now down to his last couple slices.
“I’m almost out,” he said. Then, to the dog, “Come on, girl. Let’s keep going.”
She plopped herself flat on the grass to pant in the sun. Even working together, the boys couldn’t drag her along as dead weight. Brayden gave in.
“Come on,” he said, reaching back in the pack. The slices of pepperoni were all stuck together with grease. “Here, girl! This way!”
It was gone in a single gulp, but the dog still refused to move forward. Dakota groaned with impatience.
“I told you,” he said. “We should have hired a crew.”
Brayden’s father was in jail for reasons that weren’t very clear. When he pressed his mother for why she said she’d already told him, and that he’d better stop asking about it. But all she’d really explained was that “daddy’s in jail to protect us.” Which didn’t make any sense. Nothing felt safer since he’d been gone.
After another half hour’s struggle the dog had accepted that these boys would not let go of their leashes, and that life would be simpler if she just went where they led. The fact one of them fed her a pound of pepperoni was also fairly persuasive. Brayden knew where to find Jessup Road, and after that they’d just follow mailboxes until they found the address from the flyer. The only trouble now was to get paid without Dakota seeing how much money it was. Brayden had only offered his first mate ten dollars as reward, and that was what Dakota agreed to—his father was still living at home.
4450 Jessup was the last house on the road, a position it held by some distance. It was a one-story ranch on a large plot of land, flanked by two corrugated steel outbuildings and an RV plugged into the house. As the boys started up the long gravel drive the dog jerked suddenly back, hard enough to shake off Dakota. But Brayden held tight.
“Go ring the bell,” he said. The dog began to dig at the grass. “Hurry.”
Dakota ran to the front door. A man answered, looked confused, saw the dog, came running. He had a word tattooed across the front of his neck, but in the commotion Brayden couldn’t read what it said. The pit bull twisted around harder now, wrestling and rolling, and Brayden could feel the leash burning his palm.
“Easy girl,” he cooed, without any effect. “Hey. Easy. Don’t you want to go home?”
When the man grabbed hold of the dog it came as a relief to Brayden. Big as he was the man still had to fight, but he got her across the front yard and into the door. Brayden followed close on his heels, machete slapping his thigh.
“Is she yours?” he asked, trying to keep up. “I saw you had a reward?”
The man didn’t answer, but he didn’t stop Brayden from walking inside the house, or Dakota from following them both. And now there was somebody new, a thin figure who loped out from around a dark corner and startled both boys to a stop. He did not have an eye patch, but it seemed like he should. In the spot where his left eyeball should be was just a pink puckered hole.
“Well ain’t you two dressed up,” said the man with the missing eye. He reached over the boys and pushed the door shut, then twisted the knob for the deadbolt.
Dakota had no qualms about eating his chocolate bar. Brayden only managed three squares. The man with the missing eye sat in front of them, blocking the only door out. He referred to this room as the “office,” but the only furniture in here was the chairs.
“I need you to tell me,” said the one-eyed man, “exactly where you found that dog.”
Brayden’s father’s machete was pinned to the floor by the sole of the man’s heavy boot. He’d asked to see it and then stepped on the blade, ignoring the boy’s pleas to be careful.
“It was out by the cornfields,” Dakota whined, sick of repeating himself and kicking his legs out of boredom. He did not seem very afraid. He spoke to the man as he might to a parent who annoyed him with too many questions. But Brayden understood deep down in his guts that this was a little more serious.
“That’s not good enough.” His eye now turned upon Brayden. “You understand I’m asking you nicely.”
Brayden nodded. The man started to say something else when the door behind him creaked open.
The man with one eye turned and stood up, moving his chair to let in his friend. Brayden fought back an impulse to scramble toward the machete.
“Cornfields,” the man with one eye said.
The man with the tattooed neck looked angry. “You think she just dumped the dog? How the fuck we supposed to find her, then?”
The man with one eye just shrugged. Then his friend leaned down and picked up the machete.
“Where’d you get this?”
“Kid had it.”
“The fuck?” The tattooed man stared at the weapon, then looked harder at Brayden. “Where’d you get this?”
The tattooed man turned the blade sideways and slapped it hard against Brayden’s ear. “Where?”
Brayden’s eyes stung with tears. “I want my fucking money.”
For a second, both men looked startled. Brayden must have looked startled too. He braced himself to get hit, but the two men started to laugh.
“Your dad Corey Brock, by chance?”
Brayden wasn’t sure whether to lie.
“Ah, fuck.” The tattooed man let the machete droop toward the floor. To the man with one eye he said, “We better call John.”
The police had been friendly. That’s what confused Brayden when they drove away with his dad. The cops had come to the door and asked in politely. Corey went out to meet them with a bologna sandwich in hand. Then they stood on the porch and just talked for a while. Brayden watched it all from the window. His dad said something that made the cops laugh, then he tossed his crusts into the grass and followed them out to their car. That was it. He did not wave as he left, or run back to tell Brayden goodbye. He just got in the car and went like it didn’t mean nothing at all.
Now, Dakota climbed into John Brock’s truck the same way. Unworried. But Brayden knew how these things could go. Sometimes you got in and you didn’t come back.
Uncle John drove to Dakota’s house. They dropped him off and watched him run across his front yard, red bandanna bopping its way through the grass. Uncle John grunted. “Kinda old for that pirate shit, ain’t you?”
“It was the only way he’d do it.”
Uncle John thought about that.
“How’d you find the dog?” he asked.
Brayden shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I didn’t get the reward.”
“Those guys didn’t pay you?”
“Cheap asses,” Uncle John muttered. He leaned to one cheek like he was planting a fart but pulled out his wallet instead. Then he counted out five hundred-dollar bills and handed them over to Brayden. “Will you tell me now?”
In his relief, Brayden would have said anything.
“I took my bike to cover more ground,” Brayden said, “and I asked every person I could if they’d seen the dog. Once I found people that did I figured we just needed to wait nearby, so Dakota and I sat in the cornfield until we saw her ourselves.”
Uncle John smiled at this.
“Pretty smart,” he said. “Your daddy was smart. You know that?”
“That dog you found belongs to somebody who owes me some money,” Uncle John said. “I was hoping we’d find them together. It’s a lousy person that gets rid of her dog just to save her own skin, don’t you think?”
Brayden nodded again. His uncle liked to ask questions to which the answer always seemed to be yes.
“But you know,” Uncle John went on, “I don’t think she’s gone too far away. How’d you like to help us go look? She won’t be watching out for a kid. You could work for me, just like your daddy.”
“My dad’s in jail,” Brayden said.
“He’s in jail to keep us all safe. I pay him for that, and so he keeps quiet. You understand?” He looked sideways at Brayden. “I guess I should have a talk with your mom. Maybe I ain’t paid him enough.”
They sat quiet a moment, Brayden feeling those bills in the palm of his hand. All that, just for a dog. He wondered how much more he could get.
“I could help out,” Brayden said.
“Good man. Good man!” Uncle John said. “She won’t be watching out for a kid. It’s good to have you aboard.”