Hi all, This month, I thought I would do things a little bit differently and post my current work in progress – a writing exercise that has taken on a life of its own over the past month. I’ve always had an aversion to stories written from the animal’s point of view, but wanted to stretch myself and see what happened. This started as a simple attempt to create a cohesive backstory in my own mind for the dog characters in my Flint K-9 series…and then just sort of kept going. The story follows the early days of Casper, a pit bull who’s being used as a “bait dog” in a fighting ring in Northern California. When I worked in animal rescue out in Oregon, I worked with a few bullies with similar histories, and those wagging tails, soft eyes, and scarred bodies still haunt me. I wanted to try and capture that here. In the excerpt that follows, Casper has just been started as a bait dog after a particularly rough first few months of life.
The days and weeks that followed are a blur that I don’t like to think about now, filled with pain and blood and bared teeth. Graham started Banjo, Dragon, and me as bait dogs that spring, just as the weather was warming. A stake was set in the middle of the ring and we were chained there. We had each gotten collars with sharp teeth that bit into our necks if we tried to get away, so that I always felt something tearing into me, even when I slept.
It was worst in the ring, though. At the start of training, we weren’t taught anything but how to take pain, how to deal it out, and how to hate. Chained at the center of the ring, the bigger dogs – all of them experienced fighters – were set loose on us. I don’t remember any of their names, if I ever knew them. I don’t even really remember their faces. I just remember their gleaming teeth, the ferocity of their snarls, and the pain I felt when those gleaming teeth inevitably bit into my flesh.
I was supposed to fight back, I knew. Dragon did, and right away they stopped putting him on the chain. Even Banjo caught on. He had a lopsided look without his ears because Black Hat had cut them crooked, and he tended to tilt his head a little to one side. The shorter ear hurt him, he said, and that pain made him meaner than he’d been when we were young.
Anyway, my sweet, lopsided brother Banjo learned to fight.
“All you need to do is growl,” Banjo told me one night after dinner. “Just show some spunk.”
Spunk. That was Graham’s word. I knew he was getting frustrated with me.
“Forget just growling,” Dragon said. He was growing fast, muscle showing through his short coat. Already, scars marked his chest and flank from fights. “Go for blood. Get in there. That’s what they want. You give it to them, and life is a lot easier.”
“I know you’re afraid,” Banjo said, “but there’s just as much to be scared of if you don’t fight. Maybe more. Besides,” and here his chest puffed a bit. He held himself straighter. “It feels kind of good. Just let yourself go.”
More than the pain, that was exactly what I was afraid of. I’d been getting hurt since I was a baby – I was used to that by now. But I hadn’t forgotten the rage that had overtaken me when Black Hat killed Ammy. I had vowed then that I would never give in to that feeling again. No matter how hard it might be, I was determined to stand by that vow.
The more I saw around me, the more I believed I was right to stand by my belief. I saw what anger did to Dragon – how short his temper was with the rest of us in the litter now. How poorly he slept. How tight and hard he became.
More than the pain, that was what I wanted to avoid. That, and the nod of approval I saw from Black Hat whenever one of us tore into another.
And so, day after day, Graham dragged me into the ring. He chained me to the center. Set the other dogs loose on me. Shouted at me from the sidelines, as dog after dog after dog came at me.
I curled into a ball to make myself as small as I could. Remembered those early days with my mother, and the warmth and sweetness of that time.
I lay there, and waited for it to be over.
Thankfully, those painful early days are a dim memory now, and didn’t last nearly as long as they felt at the time. One night, while Black Hat and his men shouted and traded bills and watched my fellow dogs tear one another to pieces, I lay in my bed of muck and straw beside Sadie.
We were nearly a year old, and Sadie’s belly had grown bigger in the past weeks. She licked anxiously at my wounds that night. I had been the dog Black Hat used to get the others “stirred up” for the night’s fights, and the deep gashes on my legs, paw, head, and belly leaked blood despite Graham patching my wounds when I was no longer useful to the fighters.
“We can’t do this much longer,” Sadie whispered to me, her brown eyes on mine. “They’ll kill you soon, unless you start fighting back.”
“They’ll just put me in more fights if I do that,” I said. “Look at Banjo. Look at Dragon. They’re monsters now. I don’t want that.”
Sadie lay her head on my side with a soft sigh. “You’ll never be a monster. But you can’t take this if you keep just letting them attack you.”
“You don’t need to worry about me.” I nudged her, glancing at her growing belly. “You just worry about yourself – and those pups who’ll soon be with us.”
Instead of looking pleased, she frowned at me. “I can’t have them here. You see what happens. We lost Ammy. Flo. And we might as well have lost Banjo and Dragon – we’re all that’s left. I don’t want that for my pups.”
“So what do we do?” I asked. I could hear dogs snarling and men cheering in the fighting barn across the property. Across the aisle from us, other dogs were caged, pacing, their eyes wild at the smell of blood in the air. Sadie and I were the only dogs who weren’t confined – thanks to Graham, who had taken an almost unheard-of stand against his father to keep the two of us together.
Sadie looked around, lowering her voice even further to avoid being overheard. I leaned in, and flinched at even that simple movement.
“I think we should leave,” she said. Her eyes widened, and I heard her breath quicken. She was excited. How long had she been thinking about this?
“We can’t,” I said immediately. “We’d never get out. And if we got caught, Black Hat would kill us both.”
“Not if we do it right,” she countered.
I felt my own breath come faster, catching Sadie’s excitement. The idea hadn’t even occurred to me. We couldn’t just…leave.
“And how do we do that, exactly?” I finally asked.
And so she told me.
Jen Blood is the USA Today-bestselling author of the Erin Solomon Mysteries and the Flint K-9 Search and Rescue Mysteries. To learn more, visit www.jenblood.com.