A cynical shelter dog learns to let down his guard and form a new animal family in this heartwarming and humorous friendship story from the author of Santa Paws.
Webster is too cool to be scared. Or alarmed. Or even a tiny bit nervous. So what if no one will adopt him? He’s had it with people anyway. He’s going to be a loner. Not going to get too comfortable in this new shelter, even if the home-baked treats are good. Not going to get used to the nice soft bed. Not going to make friends, no matter how much he kind of likes Jack the Terrier and even Florence the bossy cat. Nope, he doesn’t need friends. Acquaintances are just fine. And the first chance he gets, he’s hitting the road and living life on the range, just like one of the stoic cowboys he’s decided to model himself after.
But sometimes the best-laid plans (even those of a dog’s) have a way of backfiring. Will a tough pup like Webster find a home and family after all?
Webster CHAPTER ONE The dog was way too cool to be scared. Or alarmed. Or even a tiny bit nervous.
But, apparently, when it came to being adopted, the third time wasn’t the charm.
Did he care? Nope. Whatever was going to happen, was going to happen—even if it was bad. No big deal. He could handle it.
He had been so happy when the big, noisy family adopted him—but, he probably should have known that it wasn’t going to work out when the first two things they did were to slap a tight, metal-pronged choke collar around his neck, and then name him “Beast.”
It also maybe hadn’t been a good sign that they left him outside every single night, chained to a rusty metal fence. Even when it was cold, or raining—or snowing, he would be stuck out there by himself, trying not to shiver.
Today, one of the little girls in the family had snuck him into the kitchen, even though he was supposed to stay in the yard on his chain. She’d tried to dry off his fur with some paper towels, and then put a bowl of cereal on the floor for him to eat. Cornflakes and milk weren’t exactly his favorites, but the dog was so hungry that he pretty much inhaled them.
Then, the father came into the room and tripped over him. He yelled, “Bad dog!” and kicked him as hard as he could in the ribs. The dog had tried to scramble out of the way—and the man kicked him again, even harder. There was a lot of yelling and commotion, the kids started crying—from the baby, all the way up to the thirteen-year-old boy.
At that point, the mother slammed a plate down on the counter so hard that it broke. “That’s it, I can’t take it anymore!” she shouted. “He goes now!”
The next thing the dog knew, the father stomped off to work, and the rest of the family got in the car. The kids were all still crying, and begging for another chance, and promising to take better care of their Beast—but, the mother didn’t seem to be listening.
They took him to an animal hospital first, to try to have him “put to sleep”—which were possibly the three worst words in the whole world. Luckily, the veterinarians had refused to do it, and the family ended up bringing him to a place called the Green Meadows Rescue Group, instead. It seemed to be a farm, and there was a big white house with freshly painted black shutters, and an old red barn, and lots of outdoor kennels and fields. A few people were carrying around hoses and buckets and that sort of thing, and a bunch of dogs were running in a big grassy area, enclosed by a tall wooden fence. He could smell lots of dogs and cats, along with some horses and geese and chickens, and what might be a goat, too.
The children were all still really upset, but the mean mother signed some papers, and handed him over to a lady named Joan, who was the owner of the shelter or something. And then, just like that, the family piled back into their car and drove away. Left him. Alone.
The dog watched anxiously until the car was gone. Maybe they would change their minds, and come back? Not that it had been a great home, but at least he had had a home. His throat felt tight, and he was having trouble swallowing. With luck, no one would be able to tell how afraid he was.
Because, okay, he was scared. Petrified, even.
Joan reached down to pat him. She had long brown hair pulled back into a thick ponytail, and was wearing hiking boots, jeans, and a green sweatshirt with the black silhouette of a running dog on the front of it. “It’s okay, buddy,” she said, in a very kind voice. “You’re going to be fine now.”
The dog had learned a long time ago not to trust people—and he wasn’t about to start now. He could hear some barking out in the meadow, but it didn’t sound frightened, or frantic. So maybe, as shelters went, this was a fairly nice one? Maybe he wouldn’t be shivering on a wet, filthy cement floor for weeks on end this time? He hoped so, anyway.
A tall man with glasses and a lot of unruly blondish hair came out of the house, walking an arrogant little Yorkshire Terrier on a leash.
“What do we have here?” the man asked.
Joan sighed. “That family just gave him to us. Look at how thin the poor thing is.”
The man nodded. “It looks like he hasn’t had a decent meal in weeks.”
Okay, the dog would admit that he was rather slim, but in a totally excellent athletic sort of way.
In the meantime, the Terrier gave him a cocky You think you’re tough? I’m tough! look.
Which the dog chose to ignore.
“I run this joint,” the Terrier barked at him.
Oh, yeah, no doubt. “Move along, buddy,” the dog barked back. “Nothing to see here.”
The Terrier laughed. “You’ve got that right,” he said in a high yap.
The dog had walked into that one—so, he couldn’t be offended by the insult.
The dog tugged experimentally on the leash, and felt the metal prongs bite into his neck. He hated this collar. If this Joan person took it off him soon, he might actually start to like her.
“Touch any of my toys, and I will vanquish you,” the Yorkshire Terrier muttered.
Yeah, right. “You and what munchkin-dog army, little man?” the dog asked.
“Okay, guys, calm down,” Joan said, with a laugh. “You don’t need to bark at him, Jack.” Which was obviously the Terrier’s name.
The Terrier gave the dog a long do not underestimate me blink—and the dog resisted the urge to step on him.
Joan was talking to the man, who seemed to be named Thomas, about taking him to the vet—whoa!—but then, another shelter worker came out of the house and told her that the vet, Dr. Kasanofsky, was going to drive over as soon as his office hours were finished and examine him right here, instead.
As far as the dog was concerned, that was strike one for life on the rescue farm.
Joan led him inside, where there was a small office near the front door. File cabinets, desks, computers, and other boring stuff. It looked like the area off to the right was a regular house, and that the newer wing on the left was for animals. When the dog had been in other shelters, there were stained concrete floors everywhere, dented metal dishes full of stale water, and lots of rusty chain link fencing. With luck, this place wasn’t going to be as awful as those had been.
Not that he was planning to stay long. In fact, the first chance he got, he was going to escape. He was done with people. He would hit the open road soon enough, off to a new life of adventure, excitement, and, like, hijinks!
There seemed to be a couple of rooms set aside just for cats—not his favorite animals, so that was strike two—with lots of pillows on the floor, and carpeted climbing structures. Maybe the cats had their own cages, too, but he couldn’t see any.
They passed a grooming and bathing room, what looked like a doctor’s office, and a big kitchen. The kitchen smelled good, and he could see an older woman putting some large flat metal sheets into an oven.
“Do you have anything special for our new friend here, Monica?” Joan asked.
The older woman smiled. “Oh, isn’t he a beauty! What’s his name?”
She thought he was beautiful. Okay, in that case, despite his intense dislike of all human beings, the dog already kind of dug Monica.
And, you know, she was right. He was nothing if not devilishly handsome.
“His owners were calling him Beast,” Joan said.
“Oh, how awful. We’ll have to come up with something better than that.” Monica reached into a wicker basket, which seemed to be full of freshly baked dog biscuits. “Here you go, pal,” she said, and held one out to the dog.
He could smell liver and garlic and many other pleasant things. And the biscuit was still slightly warm! His stomach hurt a lot, and he really didn’t feel like eating, but he held the biscuit in his mouth, in case he changed his mind. He had never had a homemade biscuit before, and the concept sort of blew his mind, to be honest.
The dog area was a long corridor lined with small, indoor rooms, which were equipped with beds with canvas or fleece covers. The dog expected to be thrown into one of the kennels and ignored, but instead, Joan brought him into a room with low couches and thick rugs. There were balls and rawhide bones and Kong toys lying all over the floor, and he stared at them in confusion.
Although if he could figure out which ones belonged to the cocky Yorkshire Terrier, he would be tempted to chew each of them just enough to be annoying.
Joan unsnapped his leash, and the dog quickly looked around, to see if there was an easy escape route. The two windows had screens, and he could probably leap through them—but, the openings were kind of narrow, and maybe he would bide his time.
At least until he found the energy to eat his biscuit, because it would be just plain wrong to let it go to waste.
He was startled when she took off his collar, and slipped a soft red nylon one over his head, instead. But, it felt a lot better around his neck, no question about that.
He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do, so he stood stiffly by the door, waiting to see what was going to happen next.
Joan sat down on one of the throw rugs, folded her arms around her knees, and watched him for a minute. “You’ve had a tough time, haven’t you, fella,” she said finally.
Well, yeah, maybe he had, but the dog didn’t necessarily think of it that way. He was an admirably strong survivor, and maybe even a role model for canine fortitude—not some pathetic victim.
And proud of it.
After a while, she came over and patted him—which he permitted, but didn’t encourage.
“Okay, no pressure,” she said, and withdrew.
Thomas came in to tell her that the vet had arrived. So, Joan brought him down to the room that looked like a medical office, and the dog slowly stepped onto a clean metal table that felt slippery under his paws. When it started to rise into the air, he almost jumped off, but Joan gave him a soothing pat.
“Don’t worry, it’s okay,” she said. She squinted at the number on the tiny screen above the table. “Seventy-three pounds! You’re going to be big, once you gain enough weight to be healthy.”
Too big, the mean family had always said.
The veterinarian walked into the room with a small medical bag. He was a cheerful-looking guy, with curly hair and a mustache.
“Thank you so much for coming over here, Dr. K.,” Joan said. “He’s pretty stressed out.”
What, was that surprising, under the circumstances? Yeah, he was much cooler than the average dog—cooler than any other dog, in fact—but, that didn’t mean that he wasn’t a nervous wreck, at the moment.
“Well, I can certainly understand why he would be. Hey, there,” Dr. K. said to him, and held out the back of his hand.
Since it seemed like the sensible thing to do, the dog dutifully sniffed the vet’s hand.
“Don’t worry, boy,” Dr. K. said. “We’ll take our time, and make this as easy as possible.”
The dog had his temperature taken—which was no fun. Then, Dr. K. began the full exam, checking his eyes and ears and teeth first.
The dog wanted to pull away from him, but made a point of trying to stay detached, instead. Let them do whatever terrible things they were going to do to him, and just not pay much attention, if possible. Besides, it was always better if people thought that animals had no idea what they were saying.
“What do you know about him?” Dr. K. asked.
“Not much, although I think he may have come from a shelter somewhere here in New Hampshire,” Joan said. “The mother said they had had him for a few months, but that he was too difficult for them to handle.”
Dr. K. shook his head, as he checked the dog’s legs, hips and paws. “He seems pretty gentle to me.”
“Once he relaxes, I think he’s going to be an absolute sweetie pie,” Joan said.
Was that what she thought? The dog was entirely confident that she was wrong about that. She would be lucky if he decided to be nothing more than ornery, as opposed to outright surly or hostile. But, he could pretty well guarantee that “sweet” was never going to happen. Not no way, not no how.
“I’m guessing he’s mostly Labrador retriever,” Joan said, “but what else do you think is in the mix?”
Dr. K. studied the dog carefully. “With the red undercoat, maybe some Rhodesian Ridgeback? Or possibly even Vizsla or Redbone Coonhound.”
Okay, now they were both very much mistaken. He was a black dog—all black, and totally fierce and independent and impressive. In fact, he was his own special breed, which could never be duplicated.
Just, you know, for the record.
“He’s certainly favoring his right side,” Dr. K. said.
They could tell??? The dog instantly stood up straighter, even though it hurt. A lot.
“The mother said he was climbing around and fell off their swing set and might have gotten ‘banged up.’ Had they ever brought him in for an exam?” Joan asked.
“No,” Dr. K. said. “They showed up out of the blue for the first time today, and she said they wanted to have him put to sleep. So, when they wouldn’t surrender him to us, we sent them over here to you, instead. I had Jeff drive over behind them, to make sure that they didn’t just let him loose somewhere.”
Really? Okay, the dog hadn’t even noticed that. He needed to work on his spy skills.
Joan looked disgusted. “Can you imagine? A wonderful, healthy dog like this? What’s the matter with people?”
Dr. K. shrugged, putting his stethoscope in his ears. “I’m afraid I had to stop asking myself that a long time ago.”
When the vet started palpating his ribs, the dog winced in spite of himself, because it hurt so much.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. K. said, and instantly lessened the pressure. He frowned, and checked inside the dog’s mouth again—although the dog couldn’t imagine why. Then, he felt the dog’s ribs some more, and checked his heart, stomach, liver, and kidneys.
“What do you think?” Joan asked.
“The same thing you do,” Dr. K. said. “Someone kicked him, probably more than once. I don’t think anything’s broken, and there doesn’t seem to be any internal bleeding, but I want to run some bloodwork and do a urinalysis. Heartworm test, vaccinations, the works. He’s a little dehydrated, too, so I’d like to give him some fluids.”
To the dog’s absolute horror, he had to stay in the little medical office for a few hours, lying on a fluffy towel, with a needle taped to his front leg, and a big IV bag hanging above him. He was too tense even to close his eyes, so he just waited grimly for the treatment to be over.
When the IV bag was finally empty, and Dr. K. patted him and left, Joan put a rabies tag on his nylon collar, and gave him a new name: Webster.
Webster. Hmmm. It sounded pretty smart, but he wasn’t crazy about it. Although it was a lot better than “Beast.” But, whatever. For now, apparently, he was Webster. Not that it mattered. He wasn’t planning to answer to it, anyway.
Joan brought him back down the long hallway, and set him up in a small wooden room, with redbrick–patterned linoleum on the floor, and a soft fleece bed for sleeping on. It was a kennel, although he had to admit that it was a lot nicer than any of the ones he had ever been in before. But, prison was still prison.
There was a low swinging door on the other side of the room, so he could go outside to go to the bathroom anytime he wanted. Not that he had the energy to go check it out. Yeah, he was still going to escape and have adventures and everything—but, maybe he would wait until tomorrow, when he was less tired.
From what he could see through the opening, the door led to a fenced-in concrete run. He was curious about what would happen if he had an accident on the floor—would they yell and scream at him, and call him a Beast? Probably, yeah.
There were other dogs in the kennels next to his, and even more dogs in the kennels across the hall, but he didn’t care enough to go to the door and check to see who his new neighbors were. What did it matter? It wasn’t like they were going to be friends, or anything. They were just like, cell mates.
There was a big sturdy bowl full of cool, fresh water in his kennel, and a dish with some hard brown kernels in it. They smelled much better than the ones he had usually been given, but he still wasn’t hungry. So, he just sniffed at the food, took a small drink of water, and then stood by the wall.
“It’s okay, Webster,” Joan said, and indicated the fleece bed. “You can lie down right here.”
Maybe later. When he was alone.
As suppertime approached, the atmosphere around the farm seemed to get louder and more excited. All of the other animals were eager to have their evening meals, apparently, and there was a lot of barking and meowing going on. Monica, the elderly lady who had baked the dog biscuits, brought him a dish filled with cooked hamburger, hard-boiled eggs, mashed carrots, brown rice, and other stuff. It smelled good, and even though he was exhausted, he took a couple of bites. Then, aware that she was watching him intently, he retreated and stood by the wall again.
“Oh, you poor thing,” she said. “Don’t you worry, Webster dear, soon you’ll be feeling nice and strong.”
Maybe. He waited until she was gone, and then he took two more bites. But, that was enough effort to make him feel tired again. He stretched out on the floor instead, moving carefully so that he didn’t jar his ribs.
People kept coming to check on him, and he would wake up for a few seconds, and then go back to sleep. To his shock, later that night, Joan brought in a sleeping bag and slept on the floor right next to him. It made the dog uncomfortable, but he had to admit that it was nice to know that someone was concerned about how he was doing. He couldn’t ever remember having anything like that happen before.
He spent the next day sitting either on the linoleum, or on the cement in the outdoor run. But, when he was outside, the dogs on either side of him—including the irritating Yorkshire Terrier—kept trying to talk to him, and be friendly, and all—and he just wasn’t into it. Not even a little bit. So, for the most part, he stayed inside, where he could have some privacy.
At about noon, Monica carried in an early lunch of plain chicken, rice, and yoghurt, but he still couldn’t quite bring himself to finish the entire dish of food. Partially because his stomach still hurt, but also because the simple truth was that he really didn’t have any appetite, because he was sad. Very, very sad.
Maybe the family that had adopted him hadn’t been nice, but it was pretty mind-blowing to get returned to a shelter, like a shirt that didn’t fit, or something. It made him feel small. And damaged.
Which was really depressing.
It was creepy to have people peeking in at him all the time, so he got up, pushed through the swinging door, and went out to his cement run for a while. The dog in the cage on his left tried talking to him again, but he pretended he didn’t hear him, and stared blankly out at the farm. It was kind of cold, but he liked being in the fresh air. In fact, he liked it so much that even when it started raining, he stayed outside.
Later, when Monica brought his dinner in, he quickly gulped down half of it, so that everyone would stop hovering over him already. Then, he went back outside and curled up on the wet cement.
The next time he woke up, it was dark. The rain was still coming down, and he was completely soaked. Would he get in trouble if he came inside and got the kennel all wet? Maybe. So, it was probably safer to stay outdoors and let the rain keep falling on him.
On the other hand, it was very quiet, and maybe all of the people and other animals had gone to bed. So, it might be okay to go inside and lie down on the floor. In fact, if no one was looking, he might even finally try out that tempting-looking fleece bed.
So, the dog hauled himself up from the cement and shook off as much water as he could. Then, he ducked through the swinging door and went inside. Yes! The lights were out everywhere, and he was by himself! Excellent.
The dog immediately flopped down on the bed, and was delighted to find out how comfortable it was. Wow, he had wasted a lot of time out there on the soggy cement, when he could have been resting in here, instead. When the people got up in the morning and started looking at him, he could always go back outside, if he felt like it.
With everyone keeping such a close eye on him, he hadn’t seen anything resembling an opportunity to run away. So, he would just have to be patient, and bide his time. Then, when the moment arrived—whoosh! Off he would go, never to return.
And since he wasn’t sticking around, he couldn’t think of any good reasons to try and be cooperative and fit in. He was a bad dog, right? That was the rumor, anyway. And bad dogs totally were not team players.
So, okay. He could make his own rules, and be a proud, noble dog that everyone would admire, but never quite understand. He would never depend on anyone again, and no one would ever have a chance to be mean to him. He could picture himself strutting down the street, while people watched eagerly and wished that he would to choose to live with them—not the other way around.
Yep, that was his plan. He would be a loner. A rebel. A canine icon. They would write inspiring songs and poems in his honor, he would trend all over the Internet, and Hollywood would film unforgettable action movies about him, that did huge box office during their opening weekends.
Oh, yeah, that would be awesome.
But, he was going to need a much better name than Webster. It would be hard to be an icon, if he didn’t have a really impressive name. Something memorable, and dashing. A name to create fear and awe in the hearts of all who were lucky enough to pass his way.
He drifted off to sleep, dreaming about what the journey towards being a canine celebrity would be like. Then, right in the middle of an entertaining part about him being the supreme commander of a pack of admiring and respectful dogs, his eyes flew open.
What was that?
Somewhere, out in the corridor, he could hear a strange, scary sound. Was it—stomping? No, it was more like something stumping along. Stumping, and skittering, and—he had never heard anything like it.
And whatever it was, it sounded like it was headed straight towards him!