“I know what happened, Bud,” Eddie said. “I know she poisoned you.”
As he spoke, thirteen-year-old Eddie Webber sat with his knees drawn up to his chest and his arms hugging his ankles, looking out at the rolling hills and muddy river north of the farm. Then he turned to look at the wooden marker sticking out of the still-fresh mound of dirt beside him. On the marker were the roughly carved words BUDDY – 1876 – BEST DOG EVER.
It was almost two days ago that he’d found his little dog’s body, had literally tripped over it in the dark on his way to the outhouse after supper. Heartbroken, he had sprinted back to the house in tears to tell his pa, and the two of them had buried Buddy together, digging by the light of a lantern on top of the little rise behind the barn. The next morning Eddie had carved the words onto a board and sharpened one end and stuck it into the brown earth beside the grave.
The only one who hadn’t cried was Thelma. She had hated Buddy, and besides, in the six months since Pa had married her, Eddie had never seen Thelma shed a tear over anything. He had also never seen her smile. Thelma’s face, and her heart too, were as hard as the anvil the town blacksmith used for hammering horseshoes. Eddie honestly couldn’t imagine what his pa saw in her, and sometimes he wondered if Pa knew either. She’d just shown up one day at the farm not long after Eddie’s ma died of snakebite, and never left. Big Joe Webber was what everybody called “agreeable”; he didn’t like quarreling with anybody about anything, including—apparently—who and whether he should remarry after the sudden death of his one true love.
“If I knew Pa would be okay,” Eddie said to Buddy’s grave, “I’d leave now, just pack some clothes and the money Aunt Edna gave me that time she visited, and head for the Dakota Territory. Charlie Stewart’s uncle said they’re hiring men and even teenagers up there, in a place called Deadwood, to help look for gold, and you know I’m not scared of hard work. But I’d hate to leave Pa with Thelma.”
Eddie sniffled a little, partly because he missed his dog so much and partly because of his own miserable situation, and wiped his eyes with a shirtsleeve. “I’ll talk to you again tomorrow, Bud,” he said. “Maybe we can figure out what to do.”
As he rose to his feet and dusted off the seat of his overalls, Eddie heard a bark, and for a second he thought Buddy had tried to answer him. Then he realized it was the yapping of Luke Johnson’s big sheepdog, on the neighboring farm half a mile west. The wind usually blew from that direction.
When he’d trudged back to the house Eddie heard his stepmother’s voice before he even got to the door. It was the same old complaint: there was never enough money, Thelma had to work too hard, Joe didn’t work hard enough, the boy wasn’t earning his keep, etc., etc. It looked like they might not even grow enough corn this year to keep the horses fed. At one point, Eddie heard her say that what she really needed was for that outlaw Dorsey O’Neal to come riding through here one day. “I know what he looks like from them wanted posters nailed to every wall and tree in town,” she ranted, “and if I saw him coming I’d grab that rifle right there and shoot him dead, and get the reward.”
“That’d be fine with me,” Eddie’s pa’s weary voice said. “We could use a new milk cow, and a new roof too, for that matter.”
Eddie crept to one of the porch windows, peeked in, and saw Thelma glaring at his pa. “I said I’d get the reward,” she reminded him. “And the first thing I’d do is leave you and that worthless kid of yours.”
Eddie heard his father groan, saw him shift in his chair. “Don’t talk like that, Thelma. Eddie’s a good boy. And we’ll get the farm back on its feet, I promise, as soon as—”
“Soon as what, Joe? Soon as you stop drinking?”