by Joyce Anne Laird
(13207 Wentworth St., Arleta, CA 91331 USA)
Mrs. Dowling marched purposefully across the lawn, half leading, half dragging a sorrowful looking, large, shaggy dog. She arrived at the front door of the house and rang the bell several times. Mrs. Winter opened the door, but before she could say anything, the dog twisted free from Mrs. Dowling's grasp and bounded through the open doorway.
"He was standing right in the middle of what used to be my flower bed. Look at him! He's still covered in dirt." Mrs. Dowling scowled at the mud covered, gray and black dog who was now watching her from behind her neighbor's legs. "Here's the cost to replace my petunias." She tore a page from a small spiral notepad, handed it to Mrs. Winter, turned, and walked across the Winter's the front lawn, back to her house next door.
Mandy Winter closed the door and turned to look at her son who was on his knees hugging the dog. "We can't afford this, Tommy," She said. "He chewed up Andy Martin's cat's dishes, then it was the supplies in Mr. Bailey's shed -- and now this! He keeps getting out of the yard. If we put him on the chain, he barks all night. He chewed up all the linoleum at the back door when we put him in the service porch for the night. I have done everything to try to help you keep him, but he's just impossible."
"He's not! Charlie didn't mean to do that stuff. They just hate him!" Tommy shouted. He turned and ran out the back door, Charlie at his heels. He sat on the edge of the brick planter that bordered the Winter's back garden wall. "Charlie, you've got to stop this stuff. She'll send you away," he said. Tommy hugged the scruffy dog and buried his face in Charlie's fur.
"Maybe he didn't do it. My dad says you shouldn't convict without hard evidence and my dad's the best lawyer there is." Tommy looked up. His best friend Kyle Peterson was peering over the back brick wall that separated their yards.
"Mrs. Dowling saw him this time. She caught him and brought him home."
Kyle climbed over the fence and dropped to the ground. "Maybe something made him do it," he said.
"Another dog?" Kyle said.
"Mrs. Dowling didn't say anything about another dog. Neither did old Andy Martin when his cat dishes got all torn up. He said Charlie was sure to be the only one who could've done it."
"Another dog could've gotten into the Martin yard. Old man Martin leaves those cat dishes out all the time. He never said he actually saw Charlie chew up the dishes, did he?"
"But, Charlie always chases his cats if they get up on our fence," Tommy said. "And what about the shed? Mr. Bailey said there were muddy paw prints inside his shed when his boxes of dry food supplies for camping were torn up. Charlie was all muddy from the rain that night."
Charlie looked at Tommy, sensing something was wrong. He bumped his nose under the boy's arm, begging for an ear scratching.
"Poor Charlie. It's three strikes for him for sure." Tommy hugged the dog again. Charlie whimpered at his best friend's obvious distress and started planting slobbering kisses on the boy's cheek with his long, pink tongue.
"But, nobody ever actually saw Charlie, right?" Kyle continued.
"What about this morning? I told you that Mrs. Dowling did. She caught him diggin' up her flowers -- caught him red handed," Tommy said.
"Maybe she didn't see the whole thing. Maybe she only saw half," Kyle said. "It had to be dark. The sun's only been up about an hour now."
"I guess. But if anything else was there-- like another dog, wouldn't she have seen that too?"
"Not if whatever it was ran into the hedge and hid. The hedge is pretty thick."
"Like, if Charlie chased it? Oh, Come on! Nobody will believe that," Tommy said.
"Maybe we can prove it. I've got an idea. Come over to my house. We've got some stuff to put together." Kyle got up and started climbing back over the fence. Tommy watched him, but didn't move.
"Come on! Don't just sit there. You want to save Charlie, don't you?" Kyle looked down at Tommy and Charlie from the top of the wall.
"Okay. I guess you're right," Tommy said. "I'm going around. I'm not leaving Charlie here." The boy and dog headed toward the backyard gate together.
Kyle's plan depended on a bag of dog kibble, good timing and a lot of luck -- and being able to slip out of their rooms without waking anybody. Their weapons were a flashlight and Kyle's new digital camera.
After everyone was asleep, Tommy and Kyle snuck out and poured the kibble into a pile by the hedge that bordered Kyle's back fence. From the tool shed in his backyard, they had a good view of the kibble. They spread a sleeping bag on the floor and settled in. Charlie lay between them, happily munching dog biscuits Tommy had brought to keep him quiet.
As they waited, the excitement of the hunt began wearing off. Finally both fell asleep. Near midnight, a low rumble started deep in Charlie's chest. Suddenly, Tommy yelped in pain. He had Charlie's leash wrapped around his wrist. His arm jerked forward as Charlie leapt up, snarling. Kyle jumped up and helped Tommy hold the dog back. Something was coming toward the hedge. It was big, dark and furry.
"I'll get my camera," Kyle whispered. "Keep Charlie quiet. Don't scare it away. We've got to get pictures of it. Don't turn on the flashlight until I tell you to."
Tommy balanced the flashlight with one hand while trying to control Charlie, who was now standing, teeth bared, with all the fur on his back standing straight up like a porcupine.
Charlie gave a bravo of barks and bounded from the shed, dragging Tommy behind him. The flashlight went on. Kyle ran after them, clicking the camera as he ran.
Blinded for a moment by the flashlight, the creature looked up from the kibble and made a whirring sound --"r-r-r-r-r-r-r", it snarled. Kyle kept clicking. Tommy managed to dig his heels into the lawn and pull Charlie back.
The midnight marauder rose on it's hind feet and stared at them. It was a raccoon almost as big as Charlie. It munched a few more bites of kibble and then calmly turned and disappeared into the hedge without a sound.
"Wow! That's what Charlie's been after. He's huge!" Tommy said.
"He's out looking for food at night. That's why nobody ever sees him. I've read that raccoons like to eat slugs and grubs too. They even go after the nuts the squirrels bury. I bet that's what he was digging for in her garden when Charlie almost caught him."
"Sure. Then the sun started coming up and he ran away," Tommy added. "We've got proof now that it wasn't Charlie."
Between Charlie's barking and the boys yelling, lights came on in all the surrounding houses.
"Do you two know what time it is? What in the world are you two doing out there?" Kyle's dad yelled from an upstairs window.
"No sweat, Dad," Kyle called back, beaming with pride and waving his camera aloft. "I'm clearing an innocent client. Just like you would."
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