Hartley waits at the corner of Sheep Creek and Phelan Road, his jacket collar turned up against the early morning chill. It is Sunday, and the roads are busy with church traffic. When the SUV pulls up, Hartley opens the door and climbs in, handing a coffee over to Rusty.
“Morning,” Rusty says.
Hartley nods and settles into the seat. He pulls his cigarettes from his pocket.
“Buckle up,” Rusty says, steering the SUV back onto the road. “And no smoking in my car.”
“Fair enough,” Hartley says. He sticks a cigarette behind his ear, leans back, and shoves the pack into his pocket. “Been a while.”
“Yeah,” Rusty says. “I didn’t realize you were back in town.”
Hartley looks at the picture taped to the dash of Rusty’s son, who used to be one of Hartley’s closest friends. Rusty looks at it too as they drive in silence down Phelan Road, outside of town, past the 15 and through stretches of desert and pockets of businesses in decay.
“What’s new?” Rusty asks.
“Nothing,” Hartley says. “Still looking for work. Otherwise nothing.”
“It’s tough out there.”
Hartley is quiet. Rusty turns the radio on. “You ready for this?” he asks.
“It’s a shelter,” Hartley says.
Again the two men sit in silence.
They pass the Sunset Hills Memorial Park, which is nestled into an amphitheatre of rocks and a patch of grass in the otherwise empty desert.
Rusty points. “Roy Rogers and Dale Evans are buried there,” he says. He watches it as they drive by. “So is my mother.”
When they reach the shelter, Rusty pulls the SUV onto the shoulder and lets the engine idle. He sips his coffee. Hartley does the same as he stares out the window.
“Did you bring clothes you can throw away?” Rusty asks.
“What about your shoes?”
“I don’t mind cleaning off a little dog shit.”
Rusty kills the engine. The radio goes with it, and in the quiet both men can hear the steady chorus of barking. “It’s not good in there.”
“It’s a shelter. Dean told me it’s in bad shape.”
“I want you to know I don’t care why you’re here,” Rusty says. “Bobbi will be glad for the help. Eighty something years old, but she’s a tough woman. She can’t pay you.”
“I don’t need anything from her,” Hartley says. He holds up a few forms and tosses them on the dash. “Just need your signature.”
“When do you need it?”
“When I hit the hours. Or as soon as you’re ready to sign it that I hit my hours.”
Rusty looks at him for a moment before turning his gaze through the windshield. “I haven’t been helping out here too long. Always loved dogs. I thought it would be…redeeming, I guess…to put in some work over here. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. When I showed up the dogs were starving to death. Buried about thirty.”
Hartley pulls the cigarette from behind his ear and sticks it between his lips. He pulls the pack out and offers it to Rusty, but he waves it away.
“Bobbi’s old. She’s been running the shelter for forty years, but she lost control. When the city found out she was ‘no kill,’ they reclassified her as a sanctuary.”
“What does that mean?” Hartley says.
Rusty reaches behind him and pulls up two cans of Budweiser. One he sets in the cup holder between seats. The other he pops and begins to drink.
“It means the city stopped funding the shelter. They starved for weeks. Just starved. Don’t know how many of them died before I got here.”
Hartley opens the door and is enveloped by barking. He steps forward, his boots crunching in the sand, and lights his cigarette. He laces his fingers through the chain-link fence that surrounds the four acres of shelter. Dirt roads and desert and power lines surround the shelter for as far as he can see. Abandoned homes rot boarded up and abandoned.
What Hartley sees through the chain-link fence is more chain link, a dizzying maze that separates sections of dogs. There is a beat-to-shit mobile home trailer with part of the roof caved in, kennels haphazardly running in all directions: tarps, trash, dogs, and sand. No grass or buildings. Lots of dogs. They chase one another, bark, and growl. Those in the kennels pace. Those in the open rush the gate, barking and snapping and running away before running right back. A single dog holds his ground on the other side of the gate, teeth bared, small with oversized ears that stand erect, one of them cut so that an inch of ear flops forward, a bead of fresh blood across the seam.
Rusty gets out, stretches, pulls a faded Corona visor over his eyes and fumbles with the lock on the front gate. “Got it,” he says and flips the lock aside. “Bobbi had to start locking it after people wouldn’t quit dumping their dogs here. By court order she can’t take any more dogs or they’ll shut her down, whatever that means. The fences are supposed to keep dogs out. Doesn’t help though. Now they just chuck the dogs over the fence.”
Hartley thumbs a hand-painted metal sign. There is no more room at the inn.
“Sounds religious,” Hartley says.
Another man comes from between a row of kennels. He has filthy jeans, boots, and a long beard. “There’s no god in here,” he calls out. “You can leave that shit in your car.”
“That’s Todd,” Rusty says. “Been here a couple of years. Bastard was here while the place fell apart. Bobbi pays him to clean kennels, but he didn’t start doing anything until we showed up.” Rusty holds the gate open for Hartley. “Don’t worry,” he says. “These dogs won’t bite you. Todd won’t either. He’s full of shit.”
As soon as Hartley steps in, dogs surround him. They bark. None come within reach. A ring of dogs hovers around Hartley wherever he goes. Rusty tries to explain the layout of the shelter, the different sections, the different packs. “I won’t take you inside the trailer. That’s where she keeps the sick dogs. I don’t want you in there.”
Hartley only pretends to listen. His attention is on several dogs that rush at him from behind. Half the dogs are not much older than pups. They skitter away at each movement the two men make. The dogs bark and kick up dust.
“She can’t afford to feed them, let alone fix them. For every dog I bury, another litter is born. They run in packs in the different sections of the shelter. No way to separate the males and the females without a riot. I love the pups though. There’s a new litter I want to show you in the back. I’m thinking we can clean them up and adopt them out.”
Hartley tries to pet a couple of the pups, but they won’t come close enough to touch.
“These dogs are never handled. Most of them haven’t had any human interaction aside from someone giving them food. They don’t understand what you’re doing.”
Hartley drops his cigarette butt into the sand and snubs it out.
“Pick that up,” Todd yells. “Dogs’ll eat it if you leave it there.”
Hartley scans the immediate area, the trash that is intertwined with the fences, the piles of empty dog food bags, the piles of junk metal. Still he picks up the butt and flicks it through the fence outside the shelter grounds.
“What do you think?” Rusty asks.
“What do you want me to do?” Hartley asks.
“Start with these,” Rusty says. He hands Hartley a box of treats and points out a trailer where more boxes are stacked. “These were donated by a pet store in Victorville. We get a lot of supplies that are going to go bad. Give them out to the dogs. Break them up so there’s enough to go around. There’s about two hundred dogs. I’m going to grab those pups.”
Rusty walks away, and Hartley finds himself staring down dogs that completely overwhelm the area. They stand on every surface and poke their noses through the chain link. With Rusty gone the dogs focus on Hartley, and the ring around him is thicker, more frantic and slavering. He breaks up the treats and tosses the chunks around the yard. Each time the dogs scatter. Some nip in fear. It’s impossible to give treats to all the dogs.
Todd walks from between the kennels, and a large dog follows. The large dog changes direction when he spots Hartley and rushes towards him, the dog’s lanky form in something like a gallop. He stands well above the dogs around him. He alone takes treats from Hartley’s hand and allows himself to be petted.
“He’s the alpha of this section,” Todd says. He hefts a bag of dog food over his shoulder and takes it to the first kennel.
“What’s his name?” Hartley asks.
Todd shakes his head. “No names,” he says.
“I’ll name him,” Hartley says.
“Sure you will,” Todd says. “Except he doesn’t need some jackass to name him.”
“Fuck you,” Hartley says.
“Fuck yourself,” Todd says. He cuts away the corner of the bag with a buck knife that was sheathed on his belt. “They don’t need your names.”
Hartley ignores him and takes the treats over to the kennels. The three dogs inside each kennel hide behind their dog houses, many of which are pieced together from scrap wood or plastic, many of which are half-eaten with gaping holes and poor protection from the elements. The kenneled dogs act even more territorial and aggressive yet terrified at the same time as the thirty dogs in the open follow Hartley and create a mob against the fence. They pass freely between some kennels under damaged gates or holes dug into the dirt where there is no concrete slab.
“The two at the end will bite,” Todd says. “And so will these here.” He pats the chain link of a nearby kennel. The small black dog inside cowers. “Don’t let them fool you. It’s the timid looking ones that will get you.”
Hartley walks down the line, tossing in treats. They scatter as though he is heaving stones. He kneels until he is eye level with a shaggy red dog that paces in front of him. The dogs in the open rush in, and the dogs in the kennels become frantic, snapping at the air. Hartley stands again, staring at the ground of the kennels, at the inch-thick layer of mud, shit, and old soggy dog food. The resulting clay sticks to the paws of all the dogs and cakes the concrete flooring. The only kennels that look somewhat clean have holes in the chain link or holes in the ground. They don’t have any dogs.
“How often do they go out?” Hartley asks.
“They don’t,” Todd says. “What do you think happens if you try and go in there?” Todd asks. He pats another of the kennels. “Those dogs are terrified and defensive. That patch of dirt is their territory. Heaven help you if you try and remove them. And if you did manage to get them out, what do you think these dogs out here will do? Just because they haven’t bitten you yet doesn’t mean they’ll get along with other dogs. You don’t mean shit, but another dog is a threat to the pack. They’d love to tear up one of them dogs in there.”
Hartley leans a shoulder against a kennel and stumbles when the post gives. He looks down at the occupying dog, straightens up, and looks around for Rusty.
“Most of the dogs are back there with Rusty,” Todd says. “You his son?”
“No,” Hartley says, and the two men stop talking, Todd busying himself with the kennels while Hartley continues to divvy out treats.
The barking swells and grows louder, all the dogs around Hartley turning toward the heart of the shelter. Small bursts of dust billow over the tarped fences from skirmishes between the dogs. The barking has become something different, defensive and territorial, and all the dogs react in their own way. Some back into corners. Others nip and chase away the dogs nearest them. Rusty returns from the bowels of the shelter in a cloud of dogs and barking and dust. His arms are empty. He crosses the open ground toward where Todd and Hartley work and mumbles, “Maybe someone adopted them.”
“Nothing here gets adopted,” Todd says.
Rusty turns his head down. His face is hidden by his visor. “Maybe Bobbi took them inside,” Rusty says. “I found an older litter. Tried to grab one of the pups. You can hear what happens when you try and grab one,” he says, turning back toward where he had come. “We’ll get him later. I’ll show you the rest of the shelter. ”
Todd shakes his head and mutters as Hartley follows Rusty deep into the shelter grounds. A series of gates creates channels that allow the men to pass from one section to the other without a dog sneaking through. It reminds Hartley of jail. The stink is terrible even in the open. If Hartley doesn’t pay complete attention to the ground, he will step in dog shit. He can’t pay attention so he doesn’t try, and within minutes his boots are caked.
The dogs differ the farther in they go and the more crowded it becomes. More desperate. More territorial. Rusty points out the invisible boundaries that, if crossed by any dog, will result in the opposing pack killing it. Hartley watches the way the dogs charge each other but stop short of an invisible line that might as well have been another fence.
Amidst the chaos of the pack dogs, the dogs in the kennels seem timid, terrified. They circle their kennels with their tails between their legs.
“Those two are new,” Rusty says, pointing at a pair of cocker spaniels. “The owner was an older guy. Passed away. The kids brought them here. Bobbi couldn’t say no.”
One of the cocker spaniels paces inside and barks at the other dogs. The second hides in the corner and shakes.
“It looks traumatized,” Hartley says.
“They were both house pets. Probably slept on carpet in a warm house.”
Hartley watches them standing in their filth. The dog continues to shake from the shadow of the kennel, its shaggy legs wet with urine.
“Fuck this,” Hartley says.
Several of the dogs show signs of injury, and he figures there are more injured dogs out of sight. A dozen identical black dogs with white socks huddle together and bark in one enclosed area, a smaller brown dog standing off behind them. One of the black ones has a pink mass hanging between her legs, but still she barks and stands with the others.
They continue to bark. They stand on their doghouses and bark. They poke noses through holes in the tarps covering the kennels, and they bark. Those with food eat in fits, barking between bites. Todd enters their area and seems to bark with them, yelling at different dogs for reasons Hartley doesn’t care to know.
And still, his attention goes back to the cocker spaniel that shakes in the corner.
“What can we do for the spaniels?” Hartley asks as several dozen dogs swirl around their kennel, barking at them, biting while the spaniels stand in their shit.
“Well,” Rusty says. “It’s complicated.”
“Nothing,” Todd says. “You can do nothing.”
It takes them until lunch to walk the expanse of the shelter and to give out the rest of the treats. Rusty and Hartley sit on the lowered tailgate of the SUV and drink beers.
“Half day’s work,” Hartley says. “I don’t feel like I did shit.”
Rusty nods. “Can’t afford to fix them. Can’t safely move them. I tried to move a pregnant female. The dogs go crazy. Absolutely crazy. That was the first time I got bit.”
“I don’t understand why no one fixes this.”
“There are two hundred dogs. No one can take on two hundred dogs with no vaccinations, non-neutered, that have never been pet and could probably never be domesticated. Half of them aren’t adoptable. The other half would take time and money to get them ready for a home.”
“I’m surprised animal control hasn’t come in and put them all down.”
“I was worried about that. I’m not anymore. It costs money to do those things. And if someone was willing to do it, you find me one dog that you would be willing to put down.”
A woman comes from the trailer. She is short with a weather-darkened face and old enough that she walks like someone worn down. She walks across the yard with measured steps and sits down on a stump. She puts on round glasses and blinks in the sunlight.
“That’s Bobbi,” Rusty says. “Her trailer is in its own section. She keeps all the sick dogs in there. They’re free to come in and out as they please. You can imagine.”
She calls out, and a fat black dog raises itself from a corner of the section where she sits. It sticks its head in the air and sways it side to side. She calls again, and it begins to poke its way across the yard, still swinging its head. It stumbles over the uneven ground until, close enough to Bobbie, she sticks a hand out and scratches his head. The dog lies down beside her, but she can no longer reach. Both remain still in the noonday sun.
The men sit, each lost in thought while the barking continues to pour over the shelter. Todd materializes here and there, but what he is doing Hartley doesn’t know or care to know.
“That guy’s an asshole,” Hartley says.
“I don’t trust him. He lives in the back corner. You might’ve seen his camper. I don’t think he’s worth his weight in dog shit here, but I don’t own the place.”
“You talk to Dean lately?” Rusty asks.
Hartley shakes his head no.
“Dean was having a hard time,” Rusty says. “Second marriage ended within a year. You wouldn’t have been around. I don’t know what happened. He won’t talk. She just left. You know how he struggles with that stuff.”
“He never talked to me about it,” Hartley says.
“Then the first wife comes around again. Hard to watch your son go through that. It just sunk him. Then he just disappeared. He’s staying with a friend down in San Bernardino, drinking too much. I don’t see him.”
Hartley looks down at the legs of his jeans, filthy up to his knees. He has gotten dog shit all over him. It dots his clothes, smudges his forearms.
“Then my mother passed.” He opens another beer. Hartley thinks that Rusty is drunk. Drunk or getting there. “I thought I could come help out here and feel better. Next month I’ll be fifty. Feel like a god damned kid. Worst part is that every time I feed these dogs I feel like I’m taking their pain and dragging it on. Everything I do just makes it so that they stay like this a little longer.”
Hartley watches four small pups whine under a scrub tree.
“I didn’t go to her funeral. Haven’t stepped foot in that damn place. Sometimes I think I’m coming to the shelter just so I can drive by.”
Hartley is silent. He grabs another beer. He lights another cigarette. He offers one to Rusty, but Rusty waves it away. He has nearly gone through the pack he bought this morning.
“Shit,” Hartley says. “Shit. We’re not so different.”
“How’s that?” Rusty asks.
“I was kicked out,” Hartley says.
“Yeah. And school before that.”
“For being a dumbass.”
“You still wear your dog tags?” Rusty asks.
Hartley pulls them out of his shirt and looks at them.
“I guess I came here looking for the same thing you did.”
“Well, whatever you’re looking for, you’re not going to find it here. I’ll sign your papers.”
Hartley throws his beer can into the sand. “The hell you will,” he says. “How pointless does this all have to be? You could have signed them at the gas station.”
Both men watch Todd as he enters a vacant kennel and starts shoveling shit into buckets.
“Those puppies you were talking about,” Todd shouts, gesturing at the hard dirt just outside the kennel. “Found half a pup over here. Never found the others. This one died too,” he says, gesturing at the vacant kennel.
Rusty and Hartley say nothing.
“What do you do with the dead dogs?” Hartley asks.
“I buried them at first,” Rusty says.
Todd looks up at this, stops what he is doing, and leans on the shovel. “If you want to do something that matters with a shovel, help me with the kennels. If you want to dig holes, do me a favor and do it at your own damn place.” Todd shoves the shovel against the chain link of the kennel, grabs the buckets, and leaves.
“You used to bury them,” Hartley says, turning to Rusty. “What do you do now?”
Rusty doesn’t answer, and Hartley doesn’t ask again.
They have a few more beers. Hartley is good and buzzed when they walk back. He follows Rusty to the rear of the shelter. They pass through a section, and one of the dogs startles and dives under the fence, crying out as a broken link catches its leg. Within seconds the dog has tangled his leg in the fence. The dogs around him become ferocious at his cries of pain and begin to attack one another.
“Damn it,” Rusty says. Hartley moves towards the dog. “No,” Rusty shouts over the roar of barking. “Put your back to the fence so they can’t get behind you.” Hartley does as he is told, and they watch the scene. The fighting escalates as two packs collide over the invisible line. The barking grows louder, the dogs attacking one another in flashes of teeth and fur. “Go to Todd’s trailer and ask him for bolt cutters. You’re better off hopping the fence.”
Hartley climbs on top of the kennels and uses the small bare trees as handrails to get him to the calmer side of the fence. He takes a moment to look around, and from the elevated view he takes in the utter desperation, the plume of dust being kicked up, the dogs facing in the direction of the stuck dog and barking and howling, the hundreds of dirty ears that perk up or lie flat in curiosity or fear. He jumps down and runs toward the back corner of the property, the dogs scattering away from him and hiding, a few nipping at his heels.
Todd’s trailer is an old camper, the kind that is hitched behind a truck. It’s the kind that has a small bathroom, kitchenette, and a bed that all fit within the size of a large bathroom. Hartley pounds on the door and then goes to the window and looks in. There are stacks of magazines, an old guitar with a couple popped strings that glint in the sunlight pouring through the yellowed interior. Blankets. Empty bottles with candles sticking out the top. There is a box of dog treats on the small table, the same kind Hartley was divvying out. Half of one sits beside a dingy gallon of water that’s been half drunk.
Behind the trailer sectioned off by chicken wire are rusted toolboxes, scattered tools, and a tarp with disassembled things that Hartley can only guess at. He grabs a pair of metal sheers and runs back toward Rusty.
When Hartley gets there, climbing back down from the fence, Todd already has the pistol aimed at the dog’s head. Rusty is yelling. Hartley jumps down toward the dog and begins to cut away the fence. The dog gets its leg free, and before Hartley can pull the sheers back the dog bites him on the forearm. Rusty pulls Hartley up by the shoulders.
“I hope it was worth it,” Todd shouts. Hartley watches the dog as it tries to walk, scooting itself into a corner and biting at the other kennel dogs that now surround it. “He’s on the wrong side of the line,” Todd yells. “They’re going to kill him. But fuck it. You deal with it.”
Todd makes his way back through the chaos. The dogs seem to part for him, but they don’t calm down. Not right away at least. Gradually they settle down, and the shelter goes back to its usual hum. Hartley stares at the wounded dog. It hides in the back corner of a kennel. The opposing pack circles outside. Rusty stares at Hartley’s forearm, a trickle of blood running from each of the puncture wounds on his forearm. “You need to have that treated. Now.”
Hartley looks at his arm.
“I’m going to grab those pups,” Rusty says. “You take these back to Todd. Then we’ll get out of here.”
Hartley continues to stare at his arm, following the trickle of blood.
“You alright?” Rusty asks.
Hartley looks up, spits dust into the sand, and turns for Todd’s trailer.
This time Todd is there.
“Don’t take my shit without asking.”
“You’re an asshole,” Hartley says. “Forgive me for saving that dog instead of shooting it. Next time I’ll let the thing die before I touch your shit.”
“You didn’t save a damn thing,” Todd says. “That’s a wounded dog in the wrong part of the shelter. The other dogs are going to kill her.”
“What about the trailer?” Hartley says.
“To stay with Bobbi? Those dogs are just waiting to die, too. I’ll tell you what. If you can manage to bring that wounded dog out of there, which you can’t, I’ll see that Bobbi takes care of her. You look dumb enough to try.”
Hartley drops the metal sheers onto the tarp.
“Make sure you have that taken care of,” Todd says. “The puncture wounds get infected.”
“That’s bullshit,” Hartley says.
Todd drops what he is doing and scratches his beard. He stares at Hartley.
“Trust me,” Todd says.
“Not that,” Hartley says. “You would’ve shot that dog like it was the right thing to do. It’s not the right thing to do.”
“Whatever, kid. Do me a favor and get the fuck out of here. Tomorrow, when you’re done being charitable, this is all going to be some story you tell your asshole friends.”
Hartley grabs a plastic lounge chair and sits down. He pulls the t-shirt off his back and uses it to stem the bleeding.
“There’s a way to fix this,” Hartley says.
“I hope you’re talking about your arm,” Todd says. “The only people who deserve to be here are the ones who are stupid enough to believe it can be fixed.”
“We can repair the busted kennels. Start there. Get the dogs out of the packs and into kennels.”
“Jesus Christ, kid. You’re looking for some kind of ending here. What the hell do you think is going to happen? This place is fucked. If you try and section off those dogs, the pack will kill you. Even if someone was willing to pay the bill, and no one is, and if we had fifty volunteers each to restrain a dog, you’re saving two hundred dogs that will never be anything other than what you’ve seen today. We can’t even get a vet in here to fix them because it’s too much of a safety risk. They have no place other than here. End of story.
“And before you act like some kind of savior, the truth is you’re going to go home tonight and feel like you helped fix something. You’re going to throw those boots away once you realize the smell won’t come out, and you’re going to buy a new pair. Tomorrow I’m going to wake up in this piece of shit at sunup because it’s too cold to sleep, both for me and the dogs. We’re running out of food, so there’s a good chance we’ll lose a few more dogs over the next few days. Even if there’s enough food a few will still starve to death because I can’t even make sure they all get food because there’s a shitload of god-damned dogs all trying to eat at once. The only ending we have is that these dogs aren’t going anywhere. They’re going to starve to death or eat each other, and when Bobbi dies we all go with her. These are the only shoes I’ve got, and the smell is on me so it doesn’t really matter if I replace them. All that shit you’re thinking about doing, that’s for you. It ain’t for them. It’s so you can go home and feel good.”
Hartley’s fists are balled up, his stare boring into Todd. The look he receives back from Todd unnerves him, maybe because of the lack of anger.
“Someone just needs to come and shoot them,” Hartley says. “Get it over with.”
“Who the fuck are you?” Todd says. “That’s what most people want, to kill the dogs because then they don’t exist and no one has to lose sleep.” Todd walks to an old sleeping dog with wiry hair. When Todd grabs the dog it panics, and though there are less than a dozen dogs in this part of the shelter they all panic and begin to snap at one another and at the two men. Todd doesn’t flinch. With one arm Todd holds the dog above the ground. He uses the other to push the handgun at Hartley. Hartley holds it instinctively, recognizes the M1911 that a few of his superior officers carried, pops the clip, finds it loaded, pops the clip back in and holds it with the barrel pointing towards the ground.
“Go ahead,” Todd says. He uses both hands to keep his grip locked on the scruff of the dog’s neck. The dog’s snout is pointed straight up, teeth bared, his pale eyes terrified. Hartley stares down at the dog. Hartley makes no move to raise the gun, and eventually the dog flops itself over and gets its teeth on Todd’s forearm. Todd lets it go.
When he takes the gun back blood is running down the length of his forearm.
“That was stupid as shit,” Hartley says.
“You think these dogs deserve to be shot, you can do it yourself.”
“You’re crazy. You were just about to shoot that dog less than twenty minutes ago.”
“That’s the difference between us. I know when to pull the trigger,” Todd says. “I’ve had to do it seventeen times over the past three years. That’s seventeen trigger pulls closer to hell. And kid, I wasn’t that far away to begin with.”
“So you can shoot them, but you bitch if Rusty buries them?”
“Shooting a dog takes only the time to pull the trigger and to drag it where it won’t rot and make the other dogs sick. When Rusty was burying them dogs it took him two days, while the dogs all needed to be fed and watered and guess what? He does it for himself.”
The two men stare at each other. The barking stops, and they both look up. There hasn’t been a moment of quiet since Rusty turned off his SUV the first time they pulled up. Only now in the quiet does he realize how overwhelming the barking is. Some of the dogs look around as if they are surprised, too. They give a couple of lazy flicks with their tails.
Across the road a cloud of ravens plume into the sky. They hang there for a time, swirling around what Hartley assumes is another dead thing, and then they settle back down. He can see a few of the ravens, black spots on a large Joshua tree. He can hear their squawks echo across the desert, can hear the locusts and the dust and the breeze. Spring is coming, and the sand is dotted with patches of green. Amongst those green patches, Hartley spots the mounds of shallow graves. He tries to imagine the dogs under the sand, if they starved or if they were shot, and he can feel the heft of the handgun again in his palm.
And then they hear a single bark, and the whole shelter barks. The drone is louder than before, drowning out all the other sounds of the desert, and Hartley knows that somewhere in there Rusty has snatched up a puppy and that the dogs are going wild in their bones. There is a pause, and then the regular rhythm of the shelter resumes. The two men look at each other again.
“God damn, kid. Why are you here? You can’t do anything for these dogs.”
Hartley leaves Todd standing in the shade of his camper. On the way back Hartley finds her, the dog that had been tangled in the fence. She is already stiff, contorted, matted with blood. Hartley looks at all the dogs in the open, wondering which one did her in as they piss and sniff about her broken corpse. Hartley approaches the dog, and the others scatter. He kneels, and with nothing better to do he lifts his dog tags off his own neck and places them around the neck of the dead dog.
Rusty finds Hartley sitting in the SUV, seatbelt on, smoking. Puppies whine from the back, but Hartley doesn’t look. The two men don’t talk on the drive back to town. They drive past hills of desert. They drive by broken houses. They drive past green grass of the Sunset Hills Memorial Park, and Rusty stares. Rusty stares, and then it’s behind them.