"Cattle dogs bond quickly to their owner. You and Sue should share his care for a few days, so he won't get bonded to just one of you," the aide at the Humane Society said, handing Sam the leash. "Enjoy you new pet."
"I feel like a parent taking a new baby home." Sam patted the dog's head on their way to the car.
The leashed dog walked sedately alongside him, then curled up on the back seat and slept through the ten mile ride home, unlike any dog Sam had owned before, totally disinterested in his surroundings.
Named Badger by his previous owner, Sam decided the name suited the heeler, a domesticated breed of Australian Gingko dogs. Sue groomed and fed their new pet, but Sam took him on daily walks and on outings to the vet or pet mall.
On good behavior the first month in his new home, Badger quickly became housebroken, adapted easily to the schedule Sam set, and did not bark excessively.
"Badger doesn't care much for petting or grooming," Sue said one night as she ran a brush down the dog's legs. "He barely tolerates my efforts and hops down off the bench if I forget and let go of his collar." Even as she spoke her grip loosened and Badger jumped down. He dived under the computer desk and glared at her.
Sam chuckled. "Guess he's had enough."
Badger had immediately made himself at home, spending his evenings perched on Sue's lap, his stance one of domination, his guileless grin to Sue seeming to say She belongs to me.
One morning as Sam touched his lips to hers for his usual good-bye kiss before leaving for work Badger bumped the back of her legs. Sue's knees gave way. Looking down as she grabbed the breakfast table to keep from falling, she thought she must have imagined the satisfied gleam in the dog's eyes as he turned away.
Over the following days Sue recalled and pondered that look, surprised by the feeling of animosity Badger unleashed and giddy with guilt. Could she be jealous that Sam spent so much time with Badger? She didn't think so. They'd had other pets. But not one of them had ever spawned these niggling doubts.
Later that same week Badger hopped onto Sue's lap, all forty-five pounds of him, and turned to look her squarely in the eye, his mouth curving into a devious smirk right before he slumped against her chest, his sagging weight limiting her ability to inhale. As she struggled to get air into her lungs Badger's triumphant stare held her gaze.
A wave of panic rippled through Sue.
Afraid? Of a dog?
Memories of his sly look continued to plague her, images that refused to fade.
She must be imagining things. Dog's don't connive. Or do they?
She began to watch Badger, really watch him. Around Sam the dog was playful, mischievous, and loyal, never devious. But just let her be home alone with him and she felt Badger studying her with that intent way he had, his eyes following her as she went about her chores and never letting her out of his sight. He would stretch out on his haunches, belly flat on the carpet and muzzle resting on his crossed paws, appearing to sleep. She knew better. He was watching her with shuttered eyes, his canny brain planning his next assault.
The next unprovoked attack came just as Sue started down the stairs, her arms filled with dirty sheets, neither hand free to hold the stair rail the way she usually did. Badger took that moment to slam against the back of her knees again. Sue tumbled head over bundled laundry down the stairs.
Thanks to that bundle she escaped the fall with only bruises and a sore back that kept her bedridden a few days, days when Sam and Badger lavished her with affection. It was only when Sam was away that Bader jumped onto her, his weight making her wrenched back ache, his devilish gaze fixed on hers.
He refused to move. She'd long since given up ordering the dog off. His look seemed to say, Just try and make, so she'd given up, defeated by their household pet.
Eventually Sue drifted off to sleep, her dreams about a bear-sized dog whose shifty eyes made cold fingers of dread wrap around her heart. She awoke remembering that huge dog's malicious gleam as she'd limped from room to room trying to escape his constant pursuit.
Panicked, Sue opened her eyes, only to meet Badger's soulful gaze. When he seemed to nod his head in satisfaction, fear constricted her chest.
When she recovered enough to resume her usual duties she tried to speak to Sam about her fears. She started by telling him the things Badger had doing to her, but Sam scoffed.
"He's just a dog. No way could Badger possibly hurt you. He loves you. Look how he jumps up on your lap every night. He never climbs up on mine." Defeated, Sue's shoulders dropped.
Badger was shedding, but Sue stopped grooming him, turning that task over to Sam. She couldn't bring herself to willingly touch the dog. Badger still hopped onto her lap in the evening and Sue sat ramrod still while the dog seemed to doze contentedly. But whenever Sam went to the kitchen, Badger lifted an eyebrow and looked Sue in the eye, his crafty gaze locked with hers.
What is he thinking? she wondered, looking into those bright brown eyes.
Was he aware he terrorized her? Was he planning another of his underhanded tricks, waiting until she wasn't looking? Or was it all her imagination, as Sam seemed convinced? She didn't know. She only knew their dog held her prisoner, herding her at his will, forcing her to follow his directions by nipping at her heels or bumping her calves.
"Have you seen my newest fishing reel?" Sam asked one night, digging through his fishing gear in preparation for a weekend trip with his friends.
"It's on the shelf in the hall closet."
I've always enjoyed being alone when Sam's away, Sue thought when Sam left the room, but not this time.
In the past she'd relished having the house all to herself. "You won't be alone," Sam had reminded her once he'd confirmed the date of his trip. "This year you'll have Badger to keep you company."
Yeah, right. Sam would laugh if he knew his pet scared her witless. The thought of a long weekend spent with their conniving dog terrified her.
Anticipating Sam's fishing trip, Sue had bought a small handgun. The salesman said a Beretta best fitted a woman's hand and was small enough to carry in her purse.
As soon as Sam drove away, Sue went to her bedroom closet, slipped the Beretta off the closet shelf and into her pocket, then closed the bedroom door.
The easy chair beside the bed looked inviting and she reached for the latest John Grisham novel she'd been waiting to read.
Half and hour later she gave up the futile attempt. She couldn't concentrate. Not with Badger right outside the door, his pleading whine impossible to ignore. The door hinges rattled, but she refused to open it. Preferring the sanctuary of her room to the company of that treacherous dog, she watched TV.
When she could no longer ignore her hunger pangs, she went down stairs and let Badger out. She left him in the back yard until she feared his barking would annoy the neighbors. Settled in her favorite chair while Badger ate his dinner, Sue examined the little handgun, aiming down the barrel just as the store clerk had instructed. The weapon felt light in her hand, not at all the way she'd expected. She released the lock and aimed at the floor again, her finger relaxed on the trigger.
Forty-five pounds of fur-covered flesh flying landed in her lap, crashing into her. The impact forced her gun hand awkwardly into her chest and broke her wrist. Blinded by pain, Sue's fingers clenched.
Bang. The loud noise reverberated throughout the house, sending Badger scurrying under the bed. Sam found him there two days later, hiding from the bloody mess that had been his wife.
Why had Sue taken her own life? Sam wondered as he went through the motions expected of him at her funeral, still unable to believe Sue was gone.
He arrived back at home to be welcomed by Badger's mournful howl. Sam felt like howling, too, but his grieving pet needed him. He devoted several hours to comforting Badger.
That night Badger jumped onto Sam's lap for the first time and settled with a contented sigh. Sam noticed a triumphant gleam in Badger's eye.
Think you ought to warn Sam?
Please note: This is a work of fiction, is not intended to disparage the many gentle heelers faithful to their owners, and was written in loving memory of Stieglitz, the sweetest-natured heeler ever born.