The Hero on
by Eric Rasmussen
John called for his dogs, but they didn’t come. They never came. The canines both stayed on the small patio on the roadside of the cabin, where they could bark at passing cars and ATVs, at the squirrels and deer that made the mistake of wandering out of the woods.
“Tyler! Copper! Come here!” John straightened up and waited to see if they’d race to him. When they didn’t, he dipped his brush back into the bucket of stain and started the second coat on the wooden porch swing nestled into the trees behind the fire ring. A white birch color, this time. Real nice looking. After he finished one of the legs, he tried the dogs again.
No response, except from his wife.
“Would you please stop shouting?” She planted flowers in the boxes lining the deck, in a sunhat and bright pink gardening gloves. “They never listen.” This year she picked something purple for right under the bay window. Spectacular.
Sometimes John could entice the dogs to the lakeside of the cabin with a tennis ball, which he’d throw out over the water, and they’d swim to retrieve it. They seemed to like standing on the bow of the fishing boat like figureheads on an old pirate ship when John motored out to the best walleye spots. But as soon as he stopped, the animals paced the length of the boat and got in his way as he tried to fish. Like all the German shepherds John had owned, they enjoyed sniffing out frogs in the tall grass on the shoreline. But unlike all the others, these two killed whatever they found.
John couldn’t decide if he liked these dogs.
He stared at his wife until she looked up. “Would you mind grabbing them?”
“No way,” she said. “I’m not getting growled at again.” She leaned back down to scoop another trowel of dirt into the planter. “They’re your dogs. You want them down here, you go get them.”
John sighed. “You know what, they’re fine. I’m sure they’re fine.”
He fought the pain in his knee to stand up and move on to the next leg of the swing. He grabbed the paint can, and the piece of cardboard he set under it so he didn’t drip on the grass. What kind of trouble could the dogs get into? They wouldn’t chew the wood railings around the patio. He’d never seen them leave the driveway to chase a car or anything. Maybe they’d follow some wild animal into the woods, but they’d find their way back.
It was like they didn’t appreciate the life John offered them at all. They didn’t know how good they had it. Log cabin with a big yard next to a picturesque lake. Plenty of food, plenty of space to run. One-hundred-forty feet of lake frontage and an eastern-facing wrap-around deck that catches the sunrise over the far shore in a certain way that makes the back of your neck tingle.
“You know, I’ll just tie them up back here,” he said.
“Good idea,” said his wife.
By the time John reached the corner of the cabin, the soreness in his knees started to fade. But when he came around the front and saw what was about to happen, his whole body clenched up again.
Out on the road, some poor woman was jogging past his driveway. She made it a few yards down the asphalt, but John could still see her bright orange shoes and bouncing ponytail through the trees in his front yard. And the dogs had raced halfway up the driveway after her, silent as hawks, determined as starving wolves in winter.
The old lady from the German shepherd rescue group insisted these two were calm. That’s not true for all rescue shepherds. Some are ignored until they get mean, others are made mean to protect the property, or to live up to their reputations. “Not these two,” the lady said. “They’re nice family dogs. The owner just lost his job and can’t handle them anymore.”
“Tyler! Copper!” John screamed their names again and again as they rounded the corner onto the road, and as they came up behind the jogger. But when they made it to her, and she felt their teeth brush her calf, she screamed louder.
* * *
The third-most heroic thing John ever did happened forty-five years earlier on his second day as a volunteer firefighter. He signed up and took the courses because that’s what everyone in the northwoods did. Surviving the long winters and the mosquito and tourist-infested summers required a community where everyone pitched in. Some guys ran the sportsmen’s club, grooming snowmobile trails in the winter and running fishing contests every weekend during the summer. Other guys got their first-responder certifications, or helped the resort owners keep their places looking nice. The women ran the brat feeds and the spaghetti dinners and checked the empty cabins around the lake during the long, cold springs and the longer, colder winters.
John picked volunteer firefighting because he thought it sounded like fun.
And then, a little over forty-eight hours after he got his patch and certificate during the small graduation ceremony at the community center in Rhinelander, the station got a call from a cabin on the south end of Squaw Lake.
John met the fire truck at the town garage behind the overgrown softball diamond, and they all sped towards the widening column of smoke. They drove up the gravel driveway, then assessed the site, like their manuals instructed.
One of the neighbors ran up to them. “Mrs. Thompson,” he gasped, “she’s still in there.”
John and a few other guys put on their gear and grabbed their axes, but the front door was cool and unlocked. They entered the small cabin to find smoke had just started to fill the living room. The fire spread through the kitchen, and the cause was obvious. Mrs. Thompson had been heating the place with the oven, something everyone up north knew was a bad idea, but something a few of them had to do sometimes when the LP ran out. The curtains caught fire, and soon the whole place would, too.
Mrs. Thompson lay asleep or passed out in one of the recliners, and John didn’t even think before he picked her up. He just took charge. She was an old lady and didn’t weigh much more than a hundred pounds. He hefted her as easily as an armload of firewood. Before the other guys had a chance to do anything, John carried her through the front door.
Except maybe he moved a little too quickly, because he smacked her head on the doorframe. She jumped and tried to wriggle out of his arms.
“The hell are you doing?” she yelled. “Put me the fuck down.”
She was clearly drunk. After a few paces John set her on her feet. Mrs. Thompson staggered for a moment, then turned towards John and took a swing at him with her wrinkled fist. She missed, but the effort threw her off balance, so John stepped up to rescue her, again, and this time she threw up all over him, something bright green that smelled like limes.
“That’ll teach you to break into my place,” Mrs. Thompson said.
John turned to the other volunteer firefighters. “What should I do?”
“Oh, it looks like you’ve got things under control,” said one of the older guys.
The fire crew managed to extinguish the flames. While they worked, Mrs. Thompson wandered around and talked to them like it was a regular afternoon. “Looks like we’ve got quite a fire here,” she said. “Mind if I try working the hose?”
After that afternoon, whenever John saw Mrs. Thompson at the bar before she died ten years later, she tried to buy him a drink. The other result of Mrs. Thompson’s fire was, from then on, John couldn’t stand the smell of limes. Real limes, key lime pie, lemon-lime soda, nothing.
* * *
Tyler and Copper came back and the woman kept running, so maybe everything was fine. Half a minute after she shouted and the dogs caught up to her, they trotted back down the driveway with dumb expressions, like nothing had happened. John crouched on the patio’s threshold, and the animals ran to him.
“What are you two doing, huh?” John scratched them behind their ears and smoothed the fur around their mouths, checking for blood. While they licked his face, he felt their paws for shreds of spandex fabric. “Looks like you’re fine. Everyone’s going to be fine.” The attention excited them, and they almost pushed John over. “Take it easy now,” he said as he stood and his knee started throbbing again. He hustled them inside, and made sure the screen door latched tight. Then he sat on one of the patio chairs. The dogs whined for a minute behind him before something else attracted their attention and their claws clicked on the tile as they ran off.
John watched the squirrels scurry down out of the trees, a few cars pass, and the canopy of leaves rustle in the breeze. A few minutes later his wife wandered around the corner.
“Is everything okay? What are you doing?” she asked.
“Everything’s fine. Just taking a break.”
“Did I hear shouting before?”
“I don’t think so.” John scratched his nose, as if he needed to work to remember. “Oh yeah. I waved at some lady jogging by, and I think I surprised her.”
John’s wife held her arms out in front of her, careful not to soil her clothes with her dirty gloves. “If you’re not going to finish the swing, you better put the lid on that can of stain. You’re going to get all sorts of leaves and bugs in there.”
“It’s fine.” John smiled at her.
“You’re sure you’re okay? You’re not having a stroke on me or anything?”
“Nope. I’m okay.”
John’s wife turned to walk back around the cabin, but he stopped her before she got past the corner. “Now that I’m looking at it, I think we need to do something different along the driveway,” he said.
Her eyes narrowed with tender exasperation, a look he received more and more. “Honey, relax. The driveway is fine.”
“I don’t know. That mulch looks shoddy.” John stood up. “What if we did rock? Pea gravel? And then planted something in that?”
She looked at the driveway, as if she tried to see what he saw.
“What do you think?” asked John. “Hostas?”
“Sure,” she said. “Hostas would like nice.”
John’s wife walked back to the deck, and five minutes later, the jogger returned with a guy, maybe a husband or a boyfriend or a brother. They were both young. They both looked like they belonged in the city. She looked too made-up, and he looked too pudgy and soft. They stood on the road at the end of John’s driveway, the guy with his arms crossed and the woman with a big bandage on her leg.
“Hey,” shouted the man. “Are your dogs tied up?”
“Yeah,” said John. “They’re inside.”
The guy stormed down the driveway, glaring at John the whole way. The woman limped along next him.
John had worked with plenty of people like this when he was on the volunteer squad. All sorts of folks were mad at him before they even met him. Something had gone wrong, and they were having one of the worst days of their lives. The blanket accidentally fell on the space heater, lightning hit the wrong tree, mice stripped the cloth off some ancient wiring. Most of the time it was no one’s fault, but the victims still needed someone to blame. As they watched their lives go up in flames, all they could do was point their fingers at the next closest guy. For a lot of years, that was John.
“How can I help you?” said John.
“Your dogs attacked her. They came right out on to the road and attacked her.” The guy talked like he had his speech planned out ahead of time.
“I know, I saw it,” said John. “I am sorry. Really, really sorry.” He faced the woman. “Are you hurt?”
Before she could talk, the guy interrupted. “I am… We are not going to stand for this.” His cheeks and his neck turned red. “You’re lucky I didn’t bring a shotgun.”
“Hold on,” said John. “You don’t need to talk like that.” He held his hands out like he used to when talking to victims he met on the job, back when he had the authority to calm people with the force of a gesture. “I can promise you that will never happen again. The dogs are new, they’re still getting used to the place.” He turned toward the woman. “Are you okay? That’s what’s important.”
“I guess.” She looked at the ground. “I shouldn’t need stitches or anything.”
“Thank God for that,” said John.
“No,” said the guy. “That’s not good enough.”
The couple jumped at the sound of the dogs barking from behind the screen door. John ignored them, like it was more birdsong or any other woodland noise.
The guy squared his shoulders to John. “We’re either going to make this right, or I’m going to call the sheriff. And they don’t mess around with violent dogs. This is going to cost you big time.”
“What did you have in mind?” John asked.
“I don’t know,” said the guy. “Make me an offer.”
John crossed his arms, and shook his head. “Where are you two from?”
“My dad has a cottage down around the corner,” said the woman.
“So you’re not from around here,” said John.
“Just north of Chicago.” A tremor raced through the woman’s body. She might have been in shock, but she put her full weight on the bandaged leg as she shifted back and forth. Her green running pants and orange shoes looked brand-new, like they had been purchased that morning.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” said John. “You need to head to the Minocqua hospital and get that looked at. I’ll cover that bill. No question. But after that, you need to understand this was all just an accident.” He squinted, and nodded. “That’s the way we work up here. We forgive each other and move on. We’re a community. We work together. Alright?”
The guy paused. Then his face grew redder. “Fuck you.” He grabbed the woman’s wrist and pulled her towards him. “That’s actually not how things work, anywhere. Your dogs…” He breathed a few times, like he was about to cry or throw a punch. “…attacked her. And that is not… I will not…” He paused again. “I am calling the sheriff right now. We are calling the sheriff right now.”
They walked up the driveway, angrier than before, and the dogs barked until the couple made it out onto the road. John watched them leave, then allowed himself to relax a little.
Until he heard his wife clear her throat behind him.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“Oh,” said John. “I didn’t know you were here.” He checked to see that the couple had walked well out of earshot. “They’ll cool down and forget about it.”
“I doubt it,” said his wife. “I hate those dogs.” She took off her dirty gardening gloves and held them in her clenched fist. “You need to take care of them.”
“This isn’t a big deal.”
“You heard what that man said. The sheriff’s going to send someone out, and they’ll take the dogs and put them down anyway, and then you’ll get a citation. It’ll be in the paper.”
John gritted his teeth, then breathed and got himself under control. “I know most of the guys at the sheriff’s office. I’ll talk to them…”
“You need to take care of this.”
“I’m sorry, Carol, but I don’t take orders from you.” John turned back towards the road, towards the quiet of the forest that was only rarely interrupted by the crack of hunters’ rifles or summer storms, by hungry fires or wild animals chasing down their prey.
“John,” said his wife, “listen to me. You need to listen to me.”
* * *
The second-most heroic thing John ever did only happened because some people are such cheapskates. A call came in about smoke way out in the middle of nowhere, so the crew got in the truck and wove through dirt fire lanes, watching the sky at every clearing to figure out if they were getting any closer. By the time they found the property, the fire was well on its way to becoming something major, something that threatened to consume hundreds of acres of dry, late summer forest. A dirt path led to a small hunting shack, but the fire had started in one of the half-dozen sheds and garages that dotted the property.
The whole compound looked abandoned. When the state fire inspectors released their report a few weeks later, the department learned that all those out-buildings held a few decades’ worth of old gasoline and paint, cleaners and other chemicals that the owner stashed there because disposing of them in the city cost too much.
But John and his guys didn’t know that at the time. They got off the truck and went to work trying to contain the blaze that had already spread through a garage and consumed several trees on the way to the next structure. John ordered his men to establish a perimeter around the hamlet, clearing a line and using the water they had to contain the fire.
Then the shed behind them exploded in a ball of fire and jet-black smoke. A piece of corrugated metal slammed one of John’s crew in the back. While the rest of the guys ran for cover, John raced toward the unconscious firefighter. He grabbed the victim under the shoulders and tried to drag him away, but the shed still had fuel to burn. Each container of noxious chemicals popped like a firecracker and spewed more smoke and shrapnel into the yard. Every time John heard another crack, he spun around and covered the injured man with his body, his back towards the burning shed, and hoped like hell he didn’t take some piece of wood or rusty nails through his old fireman’s jacket.
Finally he got the guy behind the fire truck, where the rest of the crew waited. They all looked at him like they didn’t understand what was happening. They were all basically kids, and they all believed that they had signed up to lend a hand and experience some of their firefighting fantasy adventures, not crawl around, inches from death like some war zone. John told them they would be okay, even though he wasn’t convinced of that himself.
The fireman who owed his life to John never thanked him. In fact, John never saw him again. The ambulance took him to Minocqua, and after he was discharged, he packed his things, put his new lake home back on the market, and returned to Iowa. John heard a rumor that the guy had brain damage, while others who knew him said he was fine, but was so shaken up he had to leave. John got a medal, though, and a plaque at the village fire station that would probably hang on the wall until they bulldozed the whole place someday. Everyone talked to him differently after that. Everyone called him a hero after that.
* * *
John found the leashes in the basket under the coat rack that held the umbrellas and, in winter, extra hats and gloves. He hated taking these two for walks. No one trained them to heel, and they just about pulled his shoulder out of its socket whenever a chipmunk or a dragonfly crossed in front of them. John’s wife tried taking them for a walk once, and didn’t even make it to the end of the driveway.
Which was fine. They were his dogs. He insisted they keep taking rescue shepherds because it was another way to be a good member of the community. They’d fostered some rough animals before, but all the dogs came around, eventually. John had to keep showing them his authority, and showing them he cared, and these two would come around, too.
“Tyler, Copper,” he shouted. “Let’s go for a walk.” The dogs knew that word, and they came running, tongues out, almost hopping with excitement. He clipped the leashes to their collars and opened the door, and they nearly pulled him over as they struggled to get outside. The animals choked themselves as they dragged John up the driveway.
On a Saturday, it would probably take a sheriff’s deputy a few hours to respond to a dog attack call. There was always too much for those guys to do on summer weekends in the northwoods.
John took a right onto the road, then a left into the driveway for his big garage across the street. He let the dogs yank him past the building and the lean-to where he kept his firewood. A few yards into the forest, he tied the leashes to a birch tree. The dogs sniffed through the underbrush for small animals.
John returned to the front of the garage and raised the big door. Along the wall lay his own collection of highly flammable chemicals, which he should probably dispose of properly. In the corner was his dangerous space heater, the old kind with exposed coils ready to spark their own blaze. And leaning up next to the workbench sat John’s rifle. He hadn’t hunted in years, but he kept the gun around to shoot red squirrels out of the trees. Otherwise they chewed obnoxious-looking holes through his siding and made nests in his insulation.
He grabbed the firearm and returned to the back of the garage. The dogs didn’t even look up.
John’s wife was right. The sheriff’s office didn’t show violent pets any mercy. John knew from experience. A few different dogs had been put down in connection with calls he had gone out on over the years. There was a chance John could argue that the woman’s wounds weren’t severe enough, but he didn’t have much hope that would work.
He watched the dogs pounce through the bushes, tails wagging, tongues out. Maybe he could unclip their leashes and they’d dash into the wilderness and live off frogs and moles, and John could be proud that he did his duty to protect and serve. Or maybe duty meant disposing of them with two bullets, quickly and painlessly.
John didn’t know what it meant to be a hero. Maybe he was one, maybe he wasn’t. But if being a hero meant doing what was required of him no matter how much he didn’t want to, if it meant taking charge and taking action no matter what anyone thought, one of those two options for his dogs would be the most heroic thing John ever did. He just couldn’t decide which one that was.
Eric Rasmussen teaches high school English in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He is pursuing an MFA from Augsburg College, and his work is featured in Sundog Lit, Pithead Chapel, Black Fox Literary, Mulberry Fork Review, Forge Journal, Chariton Review, and Volume One Magazine, among others. He serves as editor of the regional literary journal Barstow & Grand, and fiction reader for Split Lip Magazine. www.theotherericrasmussen.com