Before he could make up his mind about what to do next, the decision was taken out of his hands. The boy tossed two more fistfuls of grass into the air, and this time, instead of falling straight down on top of him as they had done before, a small breeze stirred at just that moment and carried them off in the direction of the woods. The boy turned his head to watch the flight of the green particles, and as his eyes scanned the space between them, Mr. Bones could see his expression change from one of cold, scientific detachment to one of absolute surprise. The dog had been discovered. The boy shot to his feet and began charging toward him, squealing with happiness as he waddled forth in his bloated plastic diaper, and right then and there, with his whole future suddenly on the line, Mr. Bones decided that this was the moment he had been waiting for. Not only did he not back off into the woods, and not only did he not run away, but in his calmest, most self-assured manner, he gingerly stepped out onto the grass and let the boy throw his arms around him. “Doggy!” the little man cried, squeezing for all he was worth. “Good doggy. Big old funny doggy.”
The girl came next, running across the lawn with the doll in her arms and calling out to the woman behind her. “Look, Mama,” she said. “Look what Tiger found.” Even as the boy went on hugging him, a wave of alarm passed through Mr. Bones’s body. Where was this tiger she was talking about— and how could a tiger be prowling around out here where people lived? Willy had taken him to a zoo once, and he knew all about those big striped jungle cats. They were even bigger than lions, and if you ever met up with one of those sharp-fanged babies, you could kiss your future good-bye. A tiger would rip you to shreds in about twelve seconds, and whatever bits of you he didn’t feel like eating would be fine stuff for the vultures and worms.
Still, Mr. Bones didn’t run away. He continued to let his new friend cling to him, patiently bearing the brunt of the tyke’s phenomenal strength, and hoped that his ears had been playing tricks on him, that he’d simply misheard what the girl had said. The sagging diaper was loaded with urine, and mingled in with the sharp ammonia scent he could detect traces of carrots, bananas, and milk. Then the girl was crouching down beside them, peering into Mr. Bones’s face with her blue, magnified eyes, and the mystery was suddenly cleared up. “Tiger,” she said to the boy, “let go of him. You’ll choke him to death.”
“My buddy,” Tiger said, tightening his grip even more, and although Mr. Bones was gratified to discover that he wasn’t about to be devoured by a wild beast, the pressure on his throat was becoming severe enough to make him squirm now. The boy might not have been a real tiger, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. In his own little way, he was more of an animal than Mr. Bones was.
Fortunately, the woman arrived just then and grabbed hold of the boy’s arm, pulling him off Mr. Bones before more damage could be done. “Careful, Tiger,” she said. “We don’t know if he’s a nice dog or not.”
“Oh, he’s nice,” the girl said, gently patting Mr. Bones on his crown. “All you have to do is look into his eyes. He’s real nice, Mama. I’d say he’s about the nicest dog I’ve ever seen.”
Mr. Bones was stunned by the girl’s extraordinary statement, and just to show what a good sport he was, that he was indeed a dog who didn’t bear grudges, he began licking Tiger’s face in a great burst of slobbering affection. The little fellow howled with laughter, and even though the thrust of Mr. Bones’s tongue eventually made him lose his balance, the rough-and-tumble Tiger thought it was the funniest thing that had ever happened to him, and he went on laughing under the barrage of the dog’s kisses even as he thudded to the ground on his wet bottom.
“Well, at least he’s friendly,” the woman said to her daughter, as if conceding an important point. “But what an unholy mess. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dirtier, scruffier, more dilapidated creature than this one.”
“There’s nothing wrong with him that a little soap and water can’t fix,” the girl said. “Just look at him, Mama. He’s not just nice, he’s smart, too.”
The woman laughed. “How can you know that, Alice? He hasn’t done a thing but lick your brother’s face.”
Alice squatted down in front of Mr. Bones and cupped his jowls in her hands. “Show us how smart you are, old boy,” she said. “Do a trick or something, okay? You know, like rolling over or standing up on your hind legs. Show Mama that I’m right.”
These were hardly difficult tasks for a dog of his mettle, and Mr. Bones promptly set about to demonstrate what he could do. First, he rolled over on the grass—not once but three times—and then he arched his back, lifted his front paws up to his face, and slowly rose up on his hind legs. It had been years since he had tried this last stunt, but even though his joints ached and he tottered more than he would have liked, he managed to hold the position for three or four seconds.
“See, Mama? What did I tell you?” Alice said. “He’s the smartest dog that ever was.”
The woman crouched down to Mr. Bones’s level for the first time and looked into his eyes, and even though she was wearing sunglasses and still had the straw hat on her head, he could see that she was ever so pretty, with wisps of blond hair curling down the back of her neck and a full, expressive mouth. Something shuddered inside him when she spoke to him in her slow, drawling southern voice, and when she began patting his head with her right hand, Mr. Bones felt that surely his heart would break into a thousand pieces.
“You understand what we’re saying to you, don’t you, old dog?” she said. “You’re a special one, aren’t you? And you’re tired and beat-up, and you need something to put in your belly. That’s it, old-timer, isn’t it? You’re lost and alone, and every inch of you is tuckered out.”
Had a poor mutt ever been luckier than Mr. Bones was that afternoon? Without any further discussion, and without any further need to charm them or prove what a good soul he was, the weary dog was led from the yard into the sanctum of the family house. There, in a radiant white kitchen, surrounded by freshly painted cabinets and shining metal utensils and an air of opulence he had never even imagined could exist on earth, Mr. Bones ate his fill, gorging himself on leftover slices of roast beef, a bowl of macaroni and cheese, two cans of tuna fish, and three uncooked hot dogs, not to mention lapping up two and a half bowls of water in between courses as well. He had wanted to hold back, to show them that he was a dog of modest appetites, really no trouble to take care of, but once the food was set down in front of him his hunger was simply too overpowering, and he forgot the vow he had made.
None of this seemed to bother his hosts. They were good-hearted people, and they knew a hungry dog when they saw one, and if Mr. Bones was that famished, then they were perfectly happy to provide for him until he wasn’t. He ate in a trance of contentment, oblivious to everything but the food going into his mouth and sliding down his throat. When the meal was finally over and he looked up to check on what the others were doing, he saw that the woman had removed her hat and sunglasses. As she bent down near him to lift the bowls from the floor, he caught a glimpse of her gray-blue eyes and understood that she was in fact a great beauty, one of those women who made men stop breathing the moment they walked into a room.
“Well, old dog,” she said, running her palm over the top of his head, “feeling better?”
Mr. Bones let out a small belch of appreciation, and then he started licking her hand. Tiger, whom he had all but forgotten by then, suddenly came rushing toward him. Drawn by the sound of the belch, which had greatly amused him, the boy leaned forward into Mr. Bones’s face and let out a pretend belch of his own, which amused him even more. It was shaping up into another wild barroom scene, but before the situation could get out of hand, his mother swept him into her arms and stood up. She looked over at Alice, who was leaning against a counter and scrutinizing Mr. Bones with her serious, watchful eyes. “What are we going to do with him, baby?” the woman said.
“I think we should keep him,” Alice answered.
“We can’t do that. He probably belongs to somebody. If we kept him, it would be just like stealing.”
“I don’t think he has a friend in the world. Just look at him. He’s probably walked a thousand miles. If we don’t take him in, he’s going to die. Do you want that on your conscience, Mama?”