She had come to him six months after Ida passed. As Buck was approaching the Indiana landing to pick up a waiting car and its passengers, the dog had raised her snout to the sky and howled sorrowfully. It was a bluetick, a coon hunter if trained early enough. Buck could see straight away the dog’s ribs pressing out against her mottled hide. She had worms, that much was clear. Plus, once he’d landed the ferry and got a closer look, he could see the bare, mangy patch on her left hind leg.
The hound sat back on her haunches and scratched at an ear. After the car pulled onto the ferry deck, she followed, prancing up to Buck as if this was exactly what she had been waiting to do.
“Your dog?” he asked the driver of the car, even though he knew better. The dog had been cared for poorly, if at all, and most likely was dumped somewhere on one of the deserted roads that wound through the river bottoms and eventually petered out in some overgrown weed patch like a bad idea.
“Nope,” the man said. “She was here when we showed up. A stray, looks like. Never seen a motlier-lookin’ creature.”
When the dog sat down in front of him, looking frankly into his face as if to say, What now?, Buck moved a back leg aside with his boot and peeked past her pink hairless stomach to confirm what he’d guessed: the hound was indeed a bitch.
“I’ll tell ya this much,” he said, meeting the dog’s gaze. “You go with me over ta my place, and I’ll feed you some grub ’til your owner shows up and takes you back home.” But he knew there was no owner coming to claim this halfstarved, mangy, flea-bitten animal. He wasn’t ready to admit it to himself, but he had already decided to keep her.
As soon as Buck dropped into the steer boat and started across the river, the hound lay on her belly on the ferry deck next to him. Her drooping black ears flapped in the wind.
“What’s your name, ol’ girl?” He reached over and scratched her on top of the head. “Not gonna tell me, huh? Gonna make me guess.” He thought for a moment. “Blue,” he said.
He watched for a sign of recognition from the dog. She continued to look straight ahead. She yawned and then snapped at a fly buzzing around her head. She caught it on her long, pink-and-gray tongue and swallowed it lavishly.
“Not Blue. Too easy.”
Buck flipped up one of her ears and peered inside. A flea jumped out onto his hand and leaped away. He stuck his thick index finger roughly into the hound’s ear and then sniffed his finger. No infection. He did the same with the other ear. She shook her head, her ears slapping mightily at the sides of her bony skull. Buck scratched the dog on the head again. He had always thought if he were ever to get a dog, it would be a bluetick.
He leaned toward the hound and said quietly, “Just between you and me, that feller don’t know a good dog when he sees one.”
Once home, he tried several more names, watching for her ears to pick up. When they didn’t, he gave up. Because of the way she looked out upon the world, as if she knew precisely what it was about and didn’t find it the least bit interesting, he landed on Rebel. “If you end up stayin’, your name’s gonna be Rebel. If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
But she didn’t leave. From then on, she never left his side. He fed her beef bones, with sinewy strings of fresh red meat clinging to them, and thick slabs of bacon fat, for which he paid a half-cent a pound at Solner’s Grocery, where he did his regular trading. And from a man he knew who worked in the oil fields over in the western part of the county, he picked up a jar of crude oil, which he rubbed on the dog’s mange. In a few days, the raw, unsightly spot on her leg was gone, and the fur had begun growing back in, full as ever. For worms, he forced Days O’ Work chewing tobacco down her gullet. Fleas? Mashed garlic cloves rubbed vigorously into her coat sent the little vermin packing within two shakes of her skinny tail. After the pungent flea treatment, Buck tried making her sleep out on the porch, but she created such a ruckus, howling and moaning, he finally relented and brought her, stinking to high heaven, back in the house to sleep by his bed. He slept with his arm over his face for two nights running.
For everyone except Buck, she peered out of her blocky head with the same droll, bored look. For him, though, from the first time she stepped foot on the ferry, her ambercolored eyes gazed upon him, as pure as pure can be, with something akin to love.
So the die was cast; she was his dog. Right away, Rebel began riding in the steer boat with Buck like it was her rightful spot, her long ears flapping and billowing in the wind like sails. Now and again, for no apparent reason, she would place her paws up on the channel side of the steer boat and bay out over the river, as if boasting to the world about her special, privileged rank on the Millerville ferryboat.