novella

Chapter One



“You said you wanted to know when the bitch dropped them. And if you want to see them before I put them down, you’d better get over here fast.”



Clyde had jolted Ken out of a deep sleep. It had been a rough day. Classes at the college, followed by football practice. Then he had to stop at the pharmacy on the way home and pick up Laurie’s prescriptions and tend to her needs and get a meal ready for her. And then straight over to Clyde’s to help with Daisy. She was about to whelp and was having a difficult time with it. He thought Clyde was breeding her too close together. But that was Clyde. Always the bottom line with Clyde.



Ken was in such a hurry to get out of bed and over to Clyde’s, up the block from his mom’s house, that all he did was pull on his jeans and pause at Laurie’s bedroom door to make sure she was sleeping OK before he left.



Good thing he checked, because she had a live cigarette lying on the nightstand. It wasn’t close to anything flammable, but one never knew. It was close to an open bottle of bourbon standing on the floor between the bed and the nightstand, though. If the cigarette had dropped in there, chances were Laurie’s bed would go up in flames—with her in it.



As much as Laurie demanded of him, Ken wouldn’t want anything like that to happen to her. She was the only one he had left in the world in the way of family. And family had always been important to Ken.



Laurie coughed in her sleep and turned away from Ken as he stubbed the cigarette out in an overflowing ashtray and picked up the bourbon bottle. He had half a notion to pour it out and tell her in the morning she’d drunk it all. But they couldn’t afford it, and Ken knew she’d just open another bottle—or send out for another one. Ken couldn’t get the booze for her, but that’s what she kept Suzy around for—why she still held onto Suzy as her last friend. She didn’t need the friends so much as someone to buy her booze for her.



Ken exploded out of the house and padded up toward Clyde’s along the grass lawns in his bare feet.



Clyde lived in the original farmhouse that had been on this tract of land, where cheap bungalows had been built as close together as county code would permit around the farmhouse. Clyde had kept a sizable chunk of the land running back of his house, though, including the original barn area, where he’d installed fenced pens and a couple of dog runs. He had pens inside the barn too, and an office.



Clyde bred Labrador Retrievers. And Ken had been helping him part time since he was a junior in high school. Ken had been there when Daisy was born, and she was his favorite of all the Labs Clyde kept.



Clyde wasn’t big on affection with his dogs—for him they were just dollar signs—or debits. When they got to be debits, he had them put down. He wasn’t sentimental about them. Half the reason Ken stayed with Clyde was because he didn’t want that to happen to Daisy. When she came close to that, Ken wanted to be there to tell Clyde he’d take her, which would be less trouble to Clyde than putting her down.



Ken had tried to provide the dogs with what Clyde wouldn’t. Clyde worked him hard in the few hours he paid him for, but Ken had stayed on for extra hours and given the dogs exercise and affection. Daisy had been the one that returned the most affection to him.



When it was time for Ken to go away to college, he’d had several options, having been a state standout on the football field and an outstanding student as well. But there were impediments to him leaving home. It was just he and his mother—had been for years, his father having died in a trucking accident on a snowy mountain road—and his mother was plagued with illnesses real, imagined, and self-induced and was incapable of taking care of herself. She also was a holy terror to anyone else who tried to help her other than Ken, which was one reason her circle of friends was down to just Suzy, who wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and would just as easily accidentally kill Laurie as to keep her going. And another big reason Ken couldn’t leave for college was Daisy and the other Labs at Clyde’s.



Ken knew if he didn’t help give the dogs at Clyde’s some attention and affection, no one else would. Ken even could have gotten some better jobs, ones with better pay and better hours. But then there wouldn’t be anyone to help take care of the dogs. And Ken liked working with the dogs.



As fast as Ken had rocketed out of the house and displayed his running skills in covering the distance between his house and Clyde’s at three in the morning, he wasn’t in time. Daisy was already dead when he got there.



She’d whelped five pups, two of them stillborn, in a wrenching delivery during which she hemorrhaged so much blood that she had lost the ability to sustain her strength.



Ken found her lying on a gunny sack in one of the pens in the barn, all five pups around her. She was alone. Clyde was off in another part of the barn, running water into a galvanized tub the size of a small bathtub.



Ken knelt beside Daisy and ran his hands across her cooling body. He lowered his face to her neck and cried. He’d seen dogs die here before at Clyde’s. But none of them had been Daisy. Daisy had been born the first day he’d come to work for Clyde, back when he was barely out of elementary school and felt he needed a job because his father had just died. It was the first day Ken had seen the wonders of another living being coming into the world. He’d followed her all through what was an entirely too short life. She had been bred too close together. He knew that.



“Sorry, Daisy,” he mumbled through his tears. “I should have been here. Oh, god, I wished I had been here.” He sniffed and then continued, “But don’t you worry. I’ll take good care of your pups.”



That’s when he looked up to see that Clyde was reaching down and had the tiniest of the pups, the runt, by the scruff of the neck, was lifting it from where it had instinctively been trying to find a nipple, and carrying it toward the tub of water.



“What? Whatayer doin’, Mr. Snepp?”



“Putting them down. They’ve got to be put down.”



“No! Why.”



“There’s no bitch around ready to take them on. They have to be put down.”



“No, no, you can’t. Please.”



“I’m not taking care of them,” he said. And with the hand he wasn’t holding the new-born puppy with Clyde put a hold on Ken’s shoulder and let it move down to where he was palming Ken’s shoulder blade.



That was when Ken realized he had only come out in jeans. The palm of Clyde’s hand on his back felt hot, and at the same time Ken felt shivers raiding out of the center of that and down his spine. He could tell by the look Clyde was giving him that this had not been a good idea. Not a good idea at all. Clyde had been increasingly showing interest in Ken—the kind of interest Ken didn’t want shown to him by Clyde, although he’d been doing so ever since Ken had turned eighteen.



There was a time when Ken had substituted Clyde as a father figure, when Ken’s life at home was rotten, and he needed someone to confide in. Then Clyde had been all sympathy and compassion. That hadn’t been the real Clyde, though. Clyde had been interested in being more than a father to Ken even then. And Ken had let it slip—what his interests and inclinations were. And this had fit into Clyde’s plans perfectly. Ken had even told him about Lawrence—the friend who lived further up the block and had gone through school with Ken and then enrolled in the same local college and played on the same football team.



All of this had been a bad mistake. Not that it was a mistake that Ken had Lawrence—but that it dovetailed so well with the desires and plans that Clyde had of his own. If it weren’t for the dogs—especially Daisy—needing Ken, he would have left Clyde’s employ—and plans—a year ago, when Clyde first made it clear that he wanted Ken to sleep with him.



“Please, Mr. Snepp. Please. You can’t. These are Daisy’s pups. We can’t.”



“I don’t have the time or inclination to take care of them and wean them, Ken. It’s got to be done.”



Ken looked behind Clyde and saw the tub of water and knew what that was for.



“No, you don’t have to, Mr. Snepp. Daisy was good stock—so was the sire, General Crisp. They can pay for themselves. The pups can pay out. I . . . I’ll take care of them. I’ll wean them.”



“You don’t know what you’d be signing up to, Ken. They’d have to be fed every couple of hours for weeks. You’d have to be here almost constantly.”



Ken felt Clyde’s hand on his back tremble a bit when he said that.



“You’d have to be here frequently in the day and than a couple of times at night, too,” Clyde said as he hunched down more over Ken and his hand slid down Ken’s spine and his fingers went under the waistband of Ken’s jeans. Ken heard the intake of breath when Clyde discovered Ken was wearing nothing else under the jeans.



Ken knew the avenue he’d have to take. He’d always known that Clyde could be controlled with the hint of sexual contact. Clyde was a touchy feeling kind of guy, and this hadn’t been the first time Ken had his hand run down his bare back like this. And Clyde could be mean and brusque with the people working for him, but he’d always been nice to Ken—as long as Ken hadn’t balked at having Clyde touch him.



“I’ll do it, Mr. Snepp. I’ll take care of them. I’ll make sure I’m here every couple of hours. I’ll take care of everything.” Ken straightened his back, giving Clyde an eyeful of his well-developed chest and gave him a doe-eyed little smile. He could see that it sent chills through Clyde’s body. Ken knew he had won.



“Well, OK. But if you can’t keep up with them, they’ll have to be put down.” He leaned back over and let the runt drop beside its dead mother’s body again. “You’ll find formula over in the supply room. I don’t think you can manage it, but you can try.”



“I can. You’ll see.”



“You’ll owe me one, though,” Clyde said. “There are conditions that’ll have to be met.”



“Conditions?”



“Yeah, you’ll find in life there always are conditions, Ken. I’ll be straight with you. You know I’ve always been interested in getting a piece of what your friend Lawrence gets, and—”



Hey, there’s a car that’s pulled up outside, Mr. Snepp, Ken said. A couple are getting out of it. Ken had been saved—or at least given a reprieve. He didn’t have to ask what these conditions might be, and he had every intention to avoid them if he could.



“I can manage,” he said to Clyde’s retreating back, trying his best to exude confidence. Truth was, though, that he didn’t have the slightest notion how he would manage. All he knew is that he owed it to Daisy to try to save the pups she’d given her life for. He owed that much to Daisy.



Chapter Two



“Whateryoudoin’ home at this time, Ken? Aren’t you ‘supposed to be in school?”



“I told you, Ma, I’m taking the semester off.”



“Taking a semester off? Coach is letting you do that?”



“No, I told you about that too, Ma. I’m taking time off from the sports too. Coach will take me back, I’m sure.” But Ken couldn’t be all that sure of that. His close friend, Lawrence, had taken his position on the team after Ken had dropped out. And Ken couldn’t be sure he’d get it back the next semester, even if he could get back on the scholarship. And if Lawrence liked it at that position, Ken wasn’t sure he wanted to take it away from him again.



“Why’d ya do that?” Laurie asked. “School don’t suit you? You was so high and mighty about that. And you was goin’ a get a great job and take care of me. You find it too much to chew off?”



“No, Ma, I told you. There’s a litter of pups I have to get weaned up at Clyde’s. He was going to put them down—Daisy’s litter—and I promised I’d take care of them. But that means I have to be up there and feed them and clean up after them every couple of hours. So, that and taking care of you means I’ve had to put school aside for a semester.”



“That Daisy. She was the only one you could talk about,” Laurie snorted. She turned the volume of the TV down a bit with her remote, took a puff on her cigarette, coughed, and put the cigarette in the ash tray on the table next to her La-Z-Boy. “You would’a thought you were shackin’ up with her or something. You and that dog. And what do ya mean havin’ to take care of me? Don’t you go blamin’ your wantin’ to drop outta college on me. I can take care of myself.”



He didn’t tell her that his intentions to avoid Clyde’s conditions had run out just the night before, when lights had gone on in the house as Ken had done a 2:00 am feed, his mother having been dead to the world and not knowing he’d been slipping out at need to feed the pups.



Clyde had come into the barn in just his sleeping pants and with a blanket over his arm that he spread over a couple of bales of hay while he was telling Ken in no uncertain terms that the pups would be put down the next day unless Ken gave into his conditions right then and there. Again Ken had come down just in his jeans, and while he was still trying to sweet talk Clyde out of his “conditions,” Clyde pushed Ken’s back down on the covered hay bales and was unzipping the jeans and flaring them out to expose Ken’s cock. Ken moaned and buried his fingers in Clyde’s hair as Clyde worked up his cock with his mouth.



Clyde was good as sucking and when he rolled Ken’s pelvis up and moved his mouth down to Ken’s hole while pumping Ken’s cock with his hand, Ken came quickly. Then he just laid back and whimpered, having no will to fight it as Clyde coaxed his thighs apart and moved his hips between them. The first thrust was hard and deep, and Ken involuntarily arched his back toward the floor at the far end of the hay bales. Clyde’s powerful chest followed him down, and Clyde’s lips and teeth went for Ken’s nipples as the older man pumped Ken hard and deep and fast—giving Ken less time to adjust to the cock inside him than Lawrence gave him. And it was all over in just a few minutes and Clyde had turned and flipped his sleeping pants over his shoulder and was heading back up to the house with no further word to Ken.



Ken laid there, dazed, for several minutes more. Clyde didn’t last like Lawrence did, but while he was in there he churned harder and faster. And from what Clyde was mouthing and the grunts and groans he was making during the fuck, Ken knew this wasn’t the last time Clyde would want him.



“Sure, Ma. I left some dinner for you in the microwave,” Ken said in answer to Laurie’s question. “I’ve got to get up to Clyde’s for a feeding of the pups.”



“Well, don’t forget to drop by the drugstore on the way home and pick up my prescription—and at the gas station and get a carton of Virginia Slims. I’m about out, and they’ve got the best price in town.”



“Yes, Ma, I’ll do both of those things.”



“And the Laundromat. Did you get the wash back you put in the machines this morning?”



“Yes, Ma. I’ve already brought those home. Folded and in the drawers.”



“Well, then . . .” The volume went back up on the TV. “Grab me a Coke from the frig on your way out.”



“Sure, Ma. Coming right up.”



Ken hoped he could get in and back out at the kennel before Clyde even knew he had been there, but he was out of luck with that.



“Not a bad job with these pups,” Clyde said from the doorway to the barn. And he said it with a bit of admiration in his voice. “I sure as hell didn’t think you could manage. But you did. Another couple of weeks and they’ll manage on their own.”



“Yep, it looks like all three will pull through,” Ken said. He was busy petting the runt, a male he’d named Dusty and exercising him by making him follow his hand with his nose. This one had had the toughest time to survive—and it had been the one Clyde had picked up to drown first that panicked night. So, naturally it was the one Ken was attached to the most and also the one who gave him the most loving in return. He’d named the female Daffodil, to complement Daisy, although of course he quickly went to calling her Daffy. And the other male he’d named Dexter, although he felt he might as well have called him Dopey, as this was the slowest of the pups to pick up anything—but the quickest to the food and bottle. And, of course, he was the biggest and the most robust.



“Well, I guess they’ll turn out OK,” Clyde said. “The two biggest there should be worth something. The runt, though, I don’t know.”



Ken pulled Dusty to his breast protectively. “Dusty’s the smartest of the bunch, Clyde. He’ll do fine.”



“Well, I don’t know,” Clyde answered.



Ken thought that no time to ask was better than now—now when Clyde was actually acknowledging that Ken had made something worthwhile of not putting Daisy’s pups down. And he’d been thinking about it for some time. What he made from Clyde was just about enough to keep a puppy—so he asked.



“You want one of the pups?” Clyde asked.



“Yes. I figure leaving you with two you weren’t counting on should be enough to justify me taking one,” Ken said. “So what do you say?”



“I guess it would be possible to do that,” Clyde said after glowering a bit and looking like he’d given it some thought. “But not for free, of course.”



Ken was afraid of this. It was with a bit of trepidation that he asked. “How much, Clyde?”



“Doesn’t have to be a ‘how much,’” Clyde said softly, coming closer, crouching down by Ken’s side, and putting an arm around his neck. “You know what I want. I’ve told you what I want from you. I liked it last night; you’ve got such a nice, sweet little ass that I’ve been thinkin’ about it all morning. Give it to me twice a day when I want it, and I’ll give you one of the pups.”



Ken shuddered and looked up into Clyde’s face, trying to keep his composure. “How much in money, Clyde?”



Clyde paused, not appearing to like how the conversation had been deflected. “$800, Ken. These are purebred Labs, Ken. I’d get $1,200 for one on the market. I can’t just give one away. Is what I really want that much of a deal next to $800? Think about it. Those are my conditions.”



“I’ll think about it,” Ken answered. And he guessed he should think about it. It wasn’t like it wasn’t the same thing he was doing with Lawrence—although certainly not twice a day. But somehow Ken didn’t think it would be the same—as easy—with Clyde. Clyde had a mean streak in him. Ken didn’t really want to have a relationship like that with Clyde; the conditions were just too dire for him.



“I’m keyed up, Ken. You done that to me. I’ll let you think about the deal but only if you’ll put out again right here and now.



The blanket was still on the hay bales, and Clyde pushed Ken down on them on his belly this time and took him like a dog, holding Ken’s head down with a strong, veiny hand on his neck. Again a searingly fast and hard and deep first thrust. And this time Clyde was able to pump him a bit longer than the previous night before he ejaculated.



Clyde stood away from Ken when he was done and said, “There that was nice,” Again he turned and walked away, adjusting his pants, and left and Ken, unable yet to move from the position Clyde had left him in, looked over at Dusty, squatting on the dirt floor of the barn. The pup was nosing his muzzle into Ken’s hand and licking him and wagging his tail like he was on cloud nine.



“Where am I going to get $800?” Ken thought. But he knew something had to be done. The pups were getting old enough to either sell or turn loose in the general kennel population. Ken had to do something.



Later, he told Lawrence something of his dilemma out in the woods behind Clyde’s barn. They had met and driven into the woods there in Lawrence’s car and gotten in the backseat and worked the tension out of each other with Lawrence lapping Ken to a mutual release.



Ken was facing Lawrence and using his knees and forelegs on the seat on either side of Lawrence’s hips to raise and lower himself on Lawrence’s staff, which was considerably longer than Clyde’s but possibly not as thick. Ken liked running his fingers through Lawrence’s tight, kinky curls and down along the milk-chocolate muscle curves of his lover’s well-develop arm and chest muscles. Lawrence was playing with Ken’s nipples with his mouth, which Ken found a bit painful after the brutal attention Clyde had given them—but was arousing enough under Lawrence’s more gentle touch that Ken didn’t want him to stop—while his broad palms cupped, squeezed, and separated Ken’s butt cheeks to give Lawrence’s cock maximum depth inside Ken.

“I don’t see the problem,” Lawrence said as they were finished and Ken felt Lawrence’s cock softening inside him—knowing full well that Lawrence would be ready to go again in just a few minutes. “Just give him what he wants. Clyde is old but he’s got a good body. And you know what to do with a willing body.”



“I don’t know, Lawrence,” Ken answered. “I don’t really want to get into anything like that with Clyde. He scares me a little. And twice a day. He’s already fucked me—twice, so it isn’t that. It’s the being at his beck and call whenever he wants it.”



“So, what’s the problem?” Lawrence asked.



“He’s cruel and twice a day . . . and I’m not at all sure he’ll live up to his side of the bargain in the end anyway.”



“You take me fine more than twice in a day.”



“Yeah, I can feel another one rising even now,” Ken answered in a breathy voice.



And there then were no more words beyond “shit” and “fuck” and “yes, like that,” for the next half hour, as Lawrence pushed Ken over on his side on the seat, with Lawrence’s body cupping Ken’s from behind and one of Ken’s legs draped over the back of the front driver’s seat as Lawrence’s cock mined his channel deep and for what seemed like forever.



“He intrigues me,” Lawrence murmured after they both had recovered from the heavy breathing from the effort of a second fucking so soon after the first.



“Then you can have him,” Ken said. Months later Ken was reminded he’d said this and was to regret that he had. But for now, he knew he had to get back home and make sure his mother had gotten her lunch. And then it was time to check in on the pups again.



“Sorry about taking your position on the team,” Lawrence said as he drove Ken out of the woods.



“Someone had to take it,” Ken said. “I’m glad it was you.” And he was glad for Lawrence. He just hoped there would still be a position for him to come back to when he started back to college in the next semester—assuming the school and Coach would take him back. It had been quite a sacrifice to put school on hold to save the pups—but each time he went to the kennel to feed and groom them, he knew it had been the right decision to make.



Lawrence left him off on a corner two blocks west of his house so that no one would be the wiser what they had been up to. This wasn’t a big town. Gay and black on white would be a double-whammy problem here.



As Ken approached the house, he, first, saw the fire engine on his block, and then, as he broke into a run, he saw the ambulance. It was in the driveway to his own bungalow.



They were bringing Laurie out on a stretcher as he got there. The medics were apologetic when Ken identified himself, and they said they were doing all they could. But Ken knew just by looking at his mother that she already was gone—that the fast trip to the ER and pronouncement there were just formalities.



They were very good to him. Let him go along in the ambulance and spent as much time with him as they were with the woman on the stretcher—probably knowing that the living needed them more than the dead did. And Ken spent the entire time with jumbled thoughts on just where he was now and where it could go from here. He was coming up empty on both counts.



Chapter Three



“Sorry to hear about your mom.”



“Thanks, Coach. Say, the team’s looking pretty sharp out there.”



“Yep. I think we could go all the way this year. Of course it would be easier if you were on the team.”



Ken sat up on the bleacher seat from where he’d been sprawled back with his shoulder blades and elbows propped on the bench above it. He’d come out to watch the local college football team practice. He was about to shove off to St. Louis for a special summer job, and if he could get the coach’s attention, he wanted to check out what his prospects were for getting back on the team in the fall. The coach had noticed him in the bleachers and had come over to talk to him; he sat down on the next bench seat below Ken and between the younger man’s spread legs.



“I don’t know. Lawrence is looking pretty good out there,” Ken said, torn between wanting the position back and wanting to stay loyal to his boyfriend. Besides, he did think Lawrence was doing a good job at the position he’d had to give up.



“Yes, Lawrence is fine. But he’s not as good as you are yet.”



“But he might be by fall.”



“Yes, he might be by fall.”



“So, Coach . . .” Ken paused because what he asked now was really important to him. “. . . So, what are the chances I can get back on the team in the fall if I can get back into the college?”



“Hmmm. That might be possible . . . depending. You’re going to be away still when we start summer drills, aren’t you?”



“Yes. Yes, I guess I will be. But I think I can be back before the heavy practicing begins.”



“Well, it would be a stretch . . . and I don’t think I could put you right back on first string. Lawrence is doing me fine. But maybe I could get you back on scholarship and you could move back up. There’d be conditions, of course.”



“Conditions?” Ken asked. He looked down and saw that the coach had a hand on his leg.



“Yeah conditions. I know about you and Lawrence . . . and if you were to give me what Lawrence . . .” Coach’s hand moved to Ken’s crotch.



“You’ve been balling Lawrence?” Ken exclaimed. It didn’t surprise him that Coach leaned in that direction. There had been rumors and Ken had seen how Coach would come into the locker room after practice and watch the guys shower and dress. But Lawrence? Ken now wondered what Lawrence had done to get his position on the squad. Maybe Lawrence wasn’t really as prepared to step into Ken’s position on game days as Ken thought he might be. But Lawrence was a top. And coach was acting an awful lot like a top now too.



“I . . . I don’t know, Coach.”



“I could show you a good time,” the coach said, giving Ken’s cock a squeeze through his jeans material, leaving no doubt what Coach wanted. “I know you are giving it to Clyde Snepp too, Ken. No, no, don’t be like that. Just calm down. There are just a few conditions—nothing you aren’t doing for others, Ken. But there are always conditions for getting anything you want, you know.” Coach’s fingers were on the zipper pull for Ken’s jeans.



“I don’t know,” Ken managed to say, sitting up straighter on the bleachers and causing the coach’s hand to drop off his crotch. “I’ll write to you from St. Louis. We’ll . . . see.”



Always these conditions. Ken felt his life was beginning to be ruled by conditions. And it was like a vice closing in on him—all of his options being reduced to the same one—with just the name of the guy who wanted him varying from moment to moment.



A whistle blew from the field, and the team was moving into another drill. The coach grunted and stood up from the bleachers. “It could be fun, Ken. And you’d probably get your starting position back in no time. Anyway, think about it. And, again, I’m sorry about your mom’s passing. I know it makes it rough on you.”



Yes, it made it rough on Ken. It did so partly because it meant he was losing the roof over his head within a week. The rent was due and now the Social Security checks his mother had been bringing in on her own account and her husband’s survivor’s benefits had dried up. Ken was over eighteen and on his own. It was all he could do to scrape up that $800 Clyde wanted for Dusty and then he’d have to move someplace else anyway. That’s why he had taken a summer job out in St. Louis. He’d be working in a training kennel there and hoped to maybe pick up some marketable skills in training service dogs. That would earn him enough money to get back into college in the fall, it would provide him room and board, and, the clincher, they’d said he could bring a dog with him.



The one thing Ken knew was that he wanted Dusty. He wanted one thing he could cling to that gave him loyalty and affection that didn’t come with conditions. He’d thought that Lawrence could provide that—but if Lawrence was doing the coach behind Ken’s back to get his position on the football team, Ken knew he couldn’t count on even Lawrence.



Ken climbed down off the bleachers and headed for Clyde’s. He had time to put in there and he had his $800 to pay for Dusty.



“Dusty?” Clyde asked. Then he laughed. “No, I don’t remember telling you that you could pick which of the three pups you could have for $800. For that you can have Dexter. That one’s eating me out of house and home anyway.”



“It’s Dusty I want,” Ken said stubbornly. “All along it’s been Dusty we’ve been talking about. Dusty’s the runt. You’ve never considered him worth anything. It’s Dusty. Why do you suddenly value Dusty higher than Dexter?”



“You know why. It’s not the money I want.”



Ken cast his eyes down at Dusty, who was squirming with delight in his lap as he crouched down. Ken was almost in tears, and he buried his face in Dusty’s neck so that Clyde couldn’t see the effect this was having on him.



“These are my conditions, Ken. You can have Dusty, and you can have him for the $800. If. If you move in with me—in my bed—but I keep the papers on him. You let me take you down to my basement and bind you and use my toys and you can have Dusty for free, with the papers.” Clyde laughed. “I figure after that experience, you’ll want me so much you’ll just move in here and Dusty won’t be going anywhere. Those are the conditions. Or, give me $1,200 and you can have Dusty here, on the spot, complete with papers. Otherwise walk out of here for your summer job and take Dexter for the $800. It’s up to you. Pretty good deal, I think. I don’t know why you don’t jump at it. I know you’re doing it with Lawrence. I’ve seen you off on Larson’s lane and doing it in the backseat of his car. And I’m twice as good as he is, I don’t doubt.”



Clyde knew Ken didn’t have $1,200 and couldn’t get it. He was surprised as hell that Ken had managed to scrape up the $800.



“Tell you what, you give up the idea of going off for the summer and move in here with me and give me pleasure down in my basement. You satisfy me, and I’ll sign over half the kennel to you—on the condition that you continue satisfying me. That would solve all of your problems.”



Ken shuddered and stood up, releasing Dusty with great reluctance. Dusty wove in and out of his legs, rubbing against him and pawing at his calves.



“I’ll be back at the end of the summer with the $1,200 for Dusty. Take good care of him until then, please.”



And then Ken turned and strode out of the barn without a look back. He knew if he took another look at Dusty, he’d start crying. Worse, if he did that, he was afraid he would cave in to Clyde’s expanding conditions—all given with every prospect that Clyde would just keep dangling new conditions in front of his face and not honoring them.



Chapter Four



“You’re looking good. By the end of the summer, you’ll be able to handle the training all by yourself.”



“Thanks, Brad,” Ken answered. “You know I won’t be staying to the end of the summer, though, don’t you? Got accepted back at school, and I’d like to get back in time to try to regain my football scholarship.”



“So I’ve heard,” the dog trainer most of the guys working at the St. Louis Service Dog Academy called “Big Guy” said. “Hate to lose you. You’ve been a big help around here. That’s not the only reason I hate to lose you, of course. Ken, I . . .”



Ken moved uneasily from the sitting position he’d taken on the top of the rail fence while he and the head trainer watched Cindy take the Lab service dog Apache through his paces out on the training field. “I’ve got to go back, Brad. There’s something there I need.”



“That Lab puppy you’ve told me about.”



“Yeah.”



“You know we have a couple of litters coming on in the kennel here. You know you could have one of those.”



Ken turned and looked sharply at Brad, waiting for what the “conditions” were, having known for some time what Brad’s preferences were and that Brad fancied him.



“And what would I—?”



Brad laughed an easy, open laugh. “No charge. You’ve earned it. One of the hardest workers I’ve known, and you came with skills. You’d worked with dogs before.”



“Yeah, I’ve helped raise them to sell. But that isn’t anything like you do with them here, Brad—training them as guide and seeing-eye dogs for people who need the help. It’s a mighty fine thing you’re doing here. And I wish I could stay. Maybe after I’ve finished college. Maybe Dusty and I will come back then—if you still want to hire me on then.”



“Dusty. Is that the pup’s name you’re going back for?”



“Yes. I raised his mother. And she died having the litter that Dusty was in. I appreciate the offer of one from a litter here, but it isn’t just that I want a dog. I want that dog—the runt from Daisy’s litter. It’s sort of like having Daisy too. I can’t really explain it.”



“And, you don’t really need to explain it,” Brad said. “But it will be nearly three months,” he continued after a spell of silence. “You know a dog can grow and change in that time. How will you even know you’d be getting Dusty? From what you’ve said about the kennel owner, I wouldn’t put it past him to pull a switch on you—just out of meanness.”



“I’m sure I’ll recognize Dusty,” Ken answered. “For one thing, he’s got a notch out of his ear. I was there when one of his litter mates did that to him. Clyde wanted to put him down again then, but I told him I was the one meaning to buy Dusty and having the notch didn’t bother me, so there was no reason why it should bother him either.”



“Well, you and your Dusty will always be welcome here, Ken. Don’t doubt that. And it’s not just because you are a real good worker.”



Brad was looking down toward the ground when he said that, but he lifted his head and what Ken saw in his face was raw emotion, wanting Ken to understand. And Ken understood all too well. He’d been fighting the impulse himself for nearly four weeks now. Brad was a great guy, and, despite being so tall and muscular, he was gentle with the dogs in a way that moved Ken to admiration and something else too, something Ken didn’t want to think about, didn’t want to acknowledge he was feeling. But the look on Brad’s face was just too raw, too wanting.



“Think we could get into your room at the bunkhouse without being seen?” Ken asked in a low voice.



“You’d do that?” Brad asked. “You’d let me . . . without anything . . .?”



“I want you, Brad. There’s no conditions from me. Just you. Now, if you want.”



They fucked languidly for much of the rest of the afternoon on Brad’s bed. They disrobed for each other, standing across the room from one another, their eyes glued to the other man. And, when naked, they moved, simultaneously, as if by signal, close together and began running their hands over the other, the breath of both becoming progressively heavier, the touch progressively more intimate. When their mouths met, Brad’s hands went to their cocks, holding them together and gently pumping as they swayed back and forth, one unit, until, with a shudder, Ken came. Ken had put a hand down to get the measure of Brad and he moaned and came all the sooner at discovering a cock that justified his “Big Guy” nickname—bigger than either Clyde or Lawrence—or possibly both together.



Brad guided Ken to the bed and laid him down, full prone on his belly, and straddled his hips. He didn’t enter him immediately, but ran his hands over Ken’s torso and while he slowly ran his cock up and down on Ken’s buttocks crack. He held the bulb of his cock at the entrance of Ken’s hole, every so slowly working it in, as Ken gasped and groaned. Ken reached back with his hands and spread his butt cheeks and came up a bit on his knees to present better to Brad. And then there was a long slide deep inside Ken as he panted and moaned and declared that no, he didn’t want Brad to stop or hold back.



And then Ken was going to heaven, never having been fucked like that before—never wanting it to stop—and gasping and groaning when it very nearly never did stop.



Later that evening, in his own bunk, reality started to set in. Life was too complicated. Ken couldn’t stay here. He wanted to finish college and he still wanted to play football—and he had Lawrence waiting for him back home. Why did life have to be so complicated?



But Ken heard the door squeak quietly on the hinges and the weight of Brad’s torso on his and the hands spreading his thighs. And the cock head once again insistently pressing at his hole and then possessing him and beginning its rhythm of complete mastery.



“Sorry, I couldn’t keep away.”



“Shhh, don’t speak,” Ken moaned. “Just fuck.”



Much later, exhausted, Ken turned his eyes and watched Brad walk away from him in the light of the dawn. A million-dollar man, that. Worth all of that to someone lucky enough to have him. Just if life weren’t so complicated.



* * * *



It was Ken’s last weekend in St. Louis, and he was all keyed up. His attraction to Brad hadn’t waned in the last couple of weeks—it had strengthened. And now Ken was torn by what he wanted to do, what he wanted out of life. He wasn’t all that sure that he wanted to return to his college now. There were colleges here too, and Brad, in a last-ditch effort to entice him to stay had said that Ken could tailor his work hours around going to college here and that the training academy would even help with tuition.



The more Ken thought about going back on the football team, the more he was reminded of the conditions Coach had blatantly specified. Clyde was bad enough, always after him. If Ken went back on the team, he’d still have to work part time for Clyde—or for someone else—and he’d have them both at him. Maybe it would be best to just let Lawrence have his position on the team. And to have Coach too.



That seemed to be the real glitch here. Ken had something going with Lawrence. But if Lawrence was giving it to the football coach, where did Ken really fit into that? Dusty certainly wasn’t an impediment to coming back. Brad had said Dusty would be welcome here.



Brad, Brad. Everything seemed to be coming back to Brad.



There was just too much of this to think about.



Ken felt he needed to blow off some steam. So, when Brad’s assistant, Cindy, said she was driving into town and would be busy for a couple of hours down there on Saturday evening, Ken hitched a ride with her and arranged a drop off and pick up place and time. Brad wasn’t at the kennel. He had a bunk room at the kennel, but he lived downtown and hadn’t worked this Saturday.



Cindy let Ken off on Manchester Avenue. Ken had Brad’s address in his pocket and a general location. Brad had said he lived near the St. Louis University Medical Center. Ken had a vague notion of going to Brad’s and surprising him, and relieving this tension that was building up inside him and putting an end to the indecision. But here, on the street, where Cindy had left him off, Ken got cold feet. Instead of walking toward where he thought Brad lived, Ken started off in a tangent direction.



He needed time to think and to gather his wits about him—and maybe a drink or two to steady his nerve and his resolve. This indecision and beating around the bush—not knowing what he wanted, what he should do next—was tearing him apart.



Ken was walking up Chouteau Avenue when he saw a couple of guys dressed out in leathers entering a bar. The side of the bar facing the street had four blacked-out windows with a logo identifying it as Bad Dog.



Prophetic, Ken thought. Dogs had become Ken’s life, and here was an establishment that was welcoming him on his own turf—and matching the mood he was in. So he walked into the Bad Dog and up to the bar and ordered a beer. It was a pool hall sort of place, laughter and smoke. All guys, and most of them dressed in leather. The noise rolled over Ken, making him feel protected and unnoticed. So he sat up on a stool at the bar and ordered a second beer.

But Ken wasn’t unnoticed. Several of the guys at the tables and playing pool were watching him out of the corner of their eyes and marking him as fresh tail—and inviting.



First one guy and then another were at the bar, engaging Ken in chit-chat conversation and finding anything he wanted to talk about fascinating. Finding chit-chat a good cover for not having to think about what he didn’t want to think about, and thinking these were really friendly guys, Ken felt comfortable with them and was happy to talk to them about St. Louis and how it differed from where he came from. And he was happy to let the two guys buy him another beer. And then there were three guys and yet another beer.



And before he knew it, Ken found himself in the alley behind the bar, with the biggest of the guys who had been talking to him backing him up to a grimy brick wall between a set of trash dumpsters, his face leering into Ken’s, the tip of a pool stick under Ken’s chin and forcing his head back against the bricks, and the other guy’s big fist gripping Ken’s crotch.



There was a guy on either side of Ken holding his arms up against the brick wall with grips on his wrists, and cutting through the beer buzz he had on, Ken heard one of the guys mutter, “You first, then me. Sam, you’ll have to take sloppy thirds.”



Ken began to moan as he felt fingers at his belt buckle.



But then he heard a godawful noise that he barely was able to identify as a car horn and the alley was being lit up by the beams of two headlights.



The guys accosting Ken evaporated and Ken sank to the ground, only to feel himself being lifted and being hazily conscious of the concerned face of Brad looming into his vision.



Somehow Brad got Ken out of the alley and into his car, and Ken was only vaguely aware of being taken back to Brad’s apartment, a cup of strong coffee being lifted to his mouth by Brad’s hands, and being stripped and tossed in the shower and soaked with cold water.



When Ken woke, it was morning, and his head was pounding, but he was conscious enough to know that he had escaped an involuntary assault—if, certainly, not a subsequent deep fuck from Brad—and had been very stupid to allow himself to get into that position.



He knew before he opened his eyes that he was naked and between sheets and felt very warm and content. He felt the pressure along his side and opened his eyes to find that Brad was laying there next to him. He wasn’t asleep, though. His eyes were open and were staring at Ken.



“Hey,” Ken said in a quiet voice.



“Hey, yourself,” Brad murmured.



“My Prince Valiant. You saved me.”



“It appears so.”



“How did you know I was there?” Ken asked



“I didn’t. I go to that bar. I was entering as you were being hustled out the back. It’s happened before at the back of Bad Dog’s. And there were three of them. So, I thought it best to get my truck on our side. It worked out.”



“Yes, it seems to have.”



“What were you doing down there?” Brad asked.



“I thought I was coming to see you. But I got cold feet, I guess. I wound up in Bad Dog’s just because it was there and I thought a drink would help me get courage.”



“And how did that work out for you?”



“Not too well, or pretty well, depending on how you look at it,” Ken answered.



“How do you feel?”



“Like a bad dog.”



“Anything I can get for you.”



“Yes, as a matter of fact. You can get under these sheets.” Brad smiled and lifted his body so that Ken could pull the covers out from underneath him and flip them over him.



Then, as Brad rolled over to face Ken and Ken’s hands went to Brad’s belt buckle, Ken murmured, “Of course I think you’ll find I still have cold feet.”



“I’ll manage,” Brad whispered with a husky voice.



Chapter Five



“You going to call me every fifteen minutes until I’ve been to the kennel to get Dusty?”



“It depends,” Brad said across the miles. “Where are you now?”



“I’m walking down the street,” Ken said. “I can see Clyde’s kennel now. I should be in and out in the next half hour or so.”



“OK, then, if you call me as soon as you’re out and have your dog, I won’t have to call you again. Have you been to the college to get reinstated in classes and to check on your sports team status?”



“No, not yet. I wanted to do this first.”



“Sounds like a plan. Call me when you know something about anything. Love you.” It came bouncing off the signal towers into Ken’s ear. It clutched at him whenever Brad said that. Ken hadn’t dared say it back—at least not yet. Or at least not within Brad’s hearing. He groped for something to say, but Brad saved him the trouble. He laughed and closed the circuit.



As Ken got closer, he saw a car in Clyde’s driveway he didn’t expect to see there, and he had half a notion to turn around and regroup, having a good idea what it meant. But he had put this off long enough, so, although he had pulled up short for a minute, he got his rear back in gear and walked down the drive and to the kennel in the old barn at the back. He could hear Clyde whistling happily away as he approached.



“Well, lookie here. Look who’s back.”



“Hello, Mr. Snepp. I came back for the Lab pup—for Dusty—just as I said I would. And I’ve got the $1,200 you’re asking for.”



“Well, now, I thought maybe you’d ask about your job first, sonny,” Clyde said as he lowered the sack of dog food he was bringing into the center aisle from the storage room. “Gone nearly three months, leaving me in the lurch for help. And I suppose you thought you could come right back into the picture. Does that mean you’ve considered my conditions and are ready to play?”



“Let’s settle on Dusty first, please, Mr. Snepp. Then, yeah, I’d like to know if the part time job is still open if I can get back into the college. No conditions though, please.”



“Well, the job’s filled anyway,” Clyde said, with a bit of a smirk on his face. “I can’t go three months without having the help. And the other position is filled too.”



“Well, then, that’s OK,” Ken said. He looked through the barn door up toward the back of the house. As he did so, he saw a curtain at one of the windows flutter and the hint of a figure there. And he wasn’t all that surprised. Disappointed on one level, but for some reason his insides were turning over and he was feeling all excited deep down at his core. Somehow doors were opening for him and possibilities were falling into place—streamlining his life maybe when he had thought it was tied up in knots.



“OK, I can live with that,” Ken repeated the sentiment. “I’ll just settle up with you and take Dusty then and be on my way.”



“Well now, that would be a fairytale ending and all that,” Clyde said. “But as much as I’d like to take your money, that’s not possible. That runt of Daisy’s came down with distemper and I had to put him down about a month ago. I might sell you one of the other . . .”



Ken didn’t hear the rest. He had sunk to his knees, blood rushing to his eardrums and sounding like a pounding surf. What Clyde had baldly said cut him to the quick. He was taking gulping breaths and had his arms stiffly propping up his torso, ready to faint away dead on the floor.



* * * *



When Ken was able to regain his composure he struggled up from the floor of the barn and started walking—out of the barn, down the driveway, and down the street, toward his home that was no longer his home—trudging like a zombie. Not thinking about anything at all. Still in shock. The tears running down his face nearly blinded him, but he had walked this route so often that he could have done it in his sleep. He almost had done it in his sleep several nights when Clyde had called him in to help with some sort of trouble with the dogs. Like the night Daisy died. The night she whelped Dusty and then died. And the nights he’d cared for her pups.



About half way to the house that no longer was his home, he noticed that a car was driving alongside him slowly—at the same pace that he was stumbling along.



He recognized, first, the car and then the driver. He stopped dead in his tracks and the car stopped too.



“Get in,” Lawrence said. “Get in and I’ll drive you where you want to go. But get in now. I don’t want Clyde to see us.”



“No. I don’t want to get in, Lawrence. I don’t want to—”



“I’ve got something to tell you. Something you’ll want to hear.”



Ken stood there for the longest moment, looking at Lawrence. Seething at what Lawrence had done. Even before Ken had left for St. Louis, Lawrence was getting it on with the coach and taking up Ken’s position on the football team. Being willing to bottom for men when he was a top just to get what he wanted. And now Clyde. He had betrayed Ken. Had shown he wouldn’t be faithful to Ken.



And then Ken’s face went red with embarrassment at the realization that he hadn’t kept faith with Lawrence either. That he had made love to Brad. And not just the once. So he didn’t really have a reason to feel all that betrayed. And it was worse than that. When Ken had seen Lawrence’s car in Clyde’s driveway and Lawrence slipping behind the curtain in the window of Clyde’s house, what Ken had felt was release and relief. He had already subconsciously made the decision he wasn’t coming back for Lawrence. And Lawrence had saved him the embarrassment of having to say it.



Ken sighed and walked around to the passenger side of the car and got in.



“Where to?”



“I don’t know. I don’t really know where I was going. I had planned to go back to the motel with Dusty, I guess, and then over to the college. Don’t feel like going to the college now, so I guess it’s back to the motel. The one over on Sycamore. You know. The one we went to one . . .”



Ken let it die there. He didn’t want to talk to Lawrence about that just now.



“OK, the motel then, I guess,” Lawrence said. “Can’t go back to my place, because I let that go.”



Ken sat there, staring out the passenger wind, not wanting to look at Lawrence’s face.



“I let it go because I’m living with Clyde now.”



“I figured that,” Ken told the window.



“He needed help and he offered me room and board in addition to pay . . . and . . . a share of the kennel if . . . if . . .”



“I know. Those were the same conditions he offered me,” Ken said—still to the window.



“Still going to college but I’m not on the team anymore,” Lawrence said. “I sprained my ankle in practice and by the time I could have gotten back on my feet on the field to resume practices, I’d moved in with Clyde. And then I didn’t . . . well, you know. You can get your position back on the team now. I don’t think Coach was ever happy you weren’t in that position.” The last two thoughts were more cheerily offered than the explanation that went before it.



“I know Coach’s ‘conditions,’” Ken spat out. And now he did turn and face Lawrence. “They were the same conditions he offered you and you accepted before I even went to St. Louis, right? Coach told me all about the conditions you were meeting.”



“Ken . . . I . . . I . . . don’t—”



“You don’t have to say anything, Lawrence. I wasn’t faithful to you either when I was in St. Louis. I only tell you because we both know where we stand now.”



There was a long pause during which Lawrence kept his eyes glued to the road and Ken stared him down from across the wide vinyl bench seat of the old convertible. Then Lawrence said in a low voice, “You came to Clyde’s for that Lab pup you had your sights on, didn’t you? It wasn’t for me.”



“Yes, it was for Dusty. How was I to know you were there? But Dusty’s dead. And that means there’s really nothing else for me to be here for. I can go to college someplace else just as well as here. Right, Lawrence?”



“That’s why I followed you from Clyde’s, Ken. I didn’t want you leaving with what Clyde told me he told you on your mind.”



“What do you mean?” Ken asked. He was staring at Lawrence real hard.



“Clyde lied to you, Ken. That Lab pup you want—Dusty—it ain’t dead. Clyde didn’t have it put down. He sold it. He sold it to an old lady who came looking for a Lab puppy one day last month.”



“Sold him? Dusty’s alive?” Ken could hardly get the words out through the gasp. And he would have slid across the seat and kissed Lawrence for telling him that if it wouldn’t have set back their mutually understood relationship break by a mile.



Ken almost had to beat Lawrence to do it, but before Ken agreed to get out of the car at the motel, Lawrence had promised to go through Clyde’s papers to try to find out who Dusty had been sold to.



* * * *



“Her name’s Rosemary Temple and she lives over in Glendale,” Lawrence reported to Ken over the telephone the following afternoon. “Do you want her address?”



“Of course. And, Lawrence . . . thanks. And let’s just leave it at that, shall we? Let’s leave it all at that. But thanks for not letting me leave Clyde’s thinking that Dusty was dead.”



Ken rented a car and took out for Glendale. He was husbanding his money, so he couldn’t let this drag on. There was the college tuition money to throw into the kitty now; he could start college later—after he’d gotten Dusty, if the woman was willing to sell him—when he’d gotten a job and Dusty and he had settled down. He didn’t have to give much of a thought to where he’d go and what kind of job he’d get. With all connection to Lawrence now gone, there was no reason why he couldn’t go right back to St. Louis and take Brad up on his offer to take on both Dusty and him. Everything was falling into place—just as soon as he managed to get Dusty.



But two and a half hours later, Ken’s whole world had fallen apart again. He was setting at the curb at the address he’d been given for the Temple woman—and was staring at a house that had been burned nearly to the ground.



He was so emotional and his hands were shaking so much that he had to sit there for more than a half hour trying to pull himself together, not knowing where to go from here.



It was significant to him, even then, that when he was able to take any action at all, it was to call Brad long distance in St. Louis.



“Calm down,” Brad said, using the soothing voice he used on the dogs during search dog training when they had gone on overload. “You have options. Talk to the neighbors about what happened and when and where the woman and Dusty went. Check with the nearest fire department; they should know. Have you done either of those yet?”



“No,” Ken said with great difficulty, his throat constricted in frustration and worry. “I called you first. I couldn’t think of anything but calling you first.”



There was silence over the line. “Do you want me to come out there? I’ll hop the next plane. Just say the word.”



“No. No, thanks, Brad. It’s just enough for one of us to be calm and to know what to do. I’ll talk to the neighbors and then check with the fire department if none of them can give me information.”



“Well, call me as soon as you know anything. Don’t wait until you’ve done a lot of leg work. Call me at each new piece of information you pick up. I’ll be right here. We can get through this together.”



“OK, thanks. I’ll start checking in the neighborhood now. And . . . Brad . . . thanks for being there when I called.”



“No, Ken, thank you. Thank you for calling me first.”



The check with the neighbors led Ken to a convalescent center not more than two miles from the burned home. Mrs. Temple was elderly and had some minor burns and smoke inhalation and was still in rehab. Nobody knew about Dusty, although two of the neighbors were pretty sure that Mrs. Temple did have a dog she’d recently gotten and that the dog had made it out of the fire.



“Yes, Dusty. That was the puppy’s name,” Mrs. Temple said when Ken tracked her down, sitting under an afghan on the nursing facility’s summer porch. “Good thing I had him. He woke me up in time to get out of there.”



“Why, yes, he did make it out of the fire. But, no, no, I don’t know what happened to him. I was gaga for days afterward, and when I asked they were kind of vague—said he’d probably been taken to the SPCA. None of the neighbors who have visited said they’d taken him in. It’s really been too much. I’ve worried about what happened to him, but I haven’t been able to do much more than worry about myself yet, I’m afraid. I’m sorry. Certainly, if you can find him, I’ll sign over any rights to him I have to you. I can see that my days of independence are over—I’m not too far gone not to realize that. There will be no place for a dog with me now. But I’m sure happy he was there that night. I sure do hope you find him.”



“Stay put,” Brad said when Ken called him from the convalescent center’s parking lot. “I’ll send money if you need some. We can both start calling the local pounds there. Do you need me to send some money? Do you want me to come there now?”



“No, thanks,” Ken answered. “It’s enough to know you’re there when I need you. I might try picking up a temporary job, but I’ll be spending time trying to find Dusty through the pounds—and I’ll go to the fire department. Maybe someone there took him someplace.”



“Well, if you need a job referral, just let me know who to contact. And if . . . no, when . . . you have Dusty, you know you can come here. No strings attached that you don’t want attached. No conditions, dire or otherwise.”



Ken had been quite open with Brad concerning the pressures he’d gotten from both Clyde and Coach to have sex with them.



“Thanks, Brad. Those are the best conditions I’ve heard in quite some time.”



Chapter Six



“I’m glad you stopped by. I wanted to get in touch with you. And, oh my, what a beautiful bouquet. Are those for me?”



Ken had settled into a motel and was stopping by the convalescent center to give Mrs. Temple a contact number for him in case she heard any more about Dusty—and he was in luck, she had.



“It was my niece, Anne. They called her as my next of kin when I was brought into the hospital, and she came up from Spring Hill. The fire department turned the puppy over to her.”



“So, she—”



“No, I’m sorry, she doesn’t have Dusty anymore. She was afraid I’d want to move back into a place of my own and she didn’t want there to be any reason I would argue to do that. She’s interfering that way—about my only living relative, but I’m glad she’s as far away as Spring Hill. It’s bad enough having to make decisions like this at the end of life, but it’s worse when you have someone standing over you and pushing.”



“She doesn’t have Dusty anymore?” Ken interjected, not wanting to be impolite but seeking much different information than he was being provided.



“No, I’m sorry, she doesn’t. She gave him over to the SPCA down there in Spring Hill. I made her give me a telephone number for the place, though. I had to convince her it wasn’t so that I could retrieve Dusty for myself. It’s around here someplace. The telephone number, that is. I know it is. Maybe over there on top of the bureau next to the phone. Yes, that slip of paper there, I think.”



* * * *



“Hello, Brad? Ken here. I’ve got some . . .”



“I think I may have located Dusty,” Brad said. The excitement in his voice palpable.



“. . . information on Dusty. The SPCA in a place south of here—Spring Hill—”



“Spring Hill?” If anything Brad became more excited.



“Yeah. The lady with the burned-out house told me her niece in Spring Hill took Dusty but already has turned him over to the SPCA. I’m about to call them, but I’m too excited to be coherent to strangers, I think. So I’ve called you first.”



“You don’t need to bother to call them, I don’t think,” Brad said.



“Oh? Why? What do you know.”



“Well, I know that a Lab named Dusty was at the Spring Hill SPCA. And I know that I can make some calls and get you set up to check the dog out and see if it’s your Dusty.”



“OK, I’m listening.”



“Somebody’s already taken the Dusty the SPCA there had—”



Ken groaned.

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