Randy Shelley

It was cold, early morning, and my father and I’d been out hunting duck. There was a little wind, just enough to raise the fog off the water. The current ripped, tugging our skiff all over the creek. The rice fields had been flooded by the North Santee River, a dark winter blue carving through high golden grain—with deer upriver and schooling spottail in the shallows.  

The dog came out of nowhere, trotting on three legs down a rickety-looking dock, half-sunk and bleached by sunshine. A black pit mix with a sharp, narrow bark. He was all bones and balls, standing at the edge of the good part of the dock, as if stranded on some lost island. He held his back foot up, hesitating to touch it down.

“What’s wrong with his leg, Daddy?” I asked, paddling from the bow of the skiff.

“Can’t say. Let’s have a look,” he said. “Grab that line and loop it around the piling when we get close.”

The dog looked smaller when we got to him. He was skittish, clumsy as a puppy trying to limp off to where he’d come from.

“Stay put, son,” my father said.

The dock’s planks buckled beneath his waders as he followed the dog. My father’s hair had greyed early for a man of forty, tucked behind his ears under a brown toboggan. He wore a tan and green hunting jacket over his waders. The dog looked confused, curling on his side, as my father squatted down with his hand out.

I was nine years old and remember being excited, bouncing a shotgun on my knee, hoping the dog was okay. That we could take him home and surprise my mother. I couldn’t hear what my father was saying to the dog, but I knew he had a good bedside manner. My mother said she wished I could have seen what he was like with his patients, witnessed his tenderness.

“He’s been bit,” my father said, carrying the dog in his arms. The dog was wet and muddy, his swollen paw throbbing as he set him down in the boat. When I reached for the dog’s foot, he growled, foam bubbling from his gums.

“Goddammit, Jasper. Don’t touch him!” he yelled.

“What got him?” I asked.

“Looks like a cottonmouth.” My father showed me fang marks in the dog’s paw.

The motor sputtered as he spun the skiff around in a hurry, making a thick wake of heavy rollers. The salty spray stung, hitting my face like sand. I watched as the dog’s head bumped against the skiff before we planed off. I turned away from him, staring at the orange crack of the horizon, hoping he would make it back to Rice Hope alive.

Rice Hope Plantation was the only place I ever saw my father happy. He leased the property with three men I didn’t know. We hunted duck in the winter—mallard, pintails, and blue-winged teal. During springtime we went after turkey, then whitetail deer in the fall. I never shot anything. Didn’t have it in me, but I liked being outdoors with him. Growing up, we weren’t close. He never had much for me back home unless there was a ballgame on. But at Rice Hope, he was different. Dogs were allowed in the house and cursing was tolerated. It was a place of playing poker, smoking cigars, and at times, entertaining sweethearts.  

The plantation was in the middle of the Francis Marion National Forest, part of the Santee Delta, almost four hundred acres of wetlands, full of alligators and cottonmouths. During the summer, the mosquitos were the biggest I’d ever seen, some the size of my palm.

The house was an empty mansion, with thick white columns. Inside, it was like a dorm, smelled of mothballs, and had no heat or air conditioning. The living room had a bay window overlooking a creek, wall-to-wall turkey and deer trophies, a secondhand sofa, ratty pool table, and stacks of old Playboys scattered on a jittery coffee table. An old RCA television with rabbit ears sat in the corner next to a wood-burning fireplace. Game One of the 1988 World Series was coming on that night—the A’s were playing the Dodgers. I wasn’t going to miss it.

The dog’s tongue slid out and he looked dead. My father put him on the pool table, hurrying out to get his black leather doctor’s bag. When he returned, he was carrying it along with a bow saw. I’d seen him hack the legs off big bucks, but never a dog. I felt sick thinking about it and threw up on the carpet.

“Open those windows,” he said.

I unlatched the windows and raised them, the rotting smell of sulfur rose off the salt marsh and passed through the curtains.

​“Hold him still,” he said, loading a syringe. He put the cap in his mouth and thumped the syringe to get the bubbles out.

I watched as the needle tore through the dog’s backside. He whimpered, trying to raise his head a little. The bitten paw had swollen to the size of my father’s hand. The pads throbbing and worn down, rough as sandpaper.

“Are you going to cut it off?” I asked, watching as he tied the dog’s hind leg off above the knee.

“I don’t see any other way, son. It’s the only thing I know to do for him. If the venom’s gotten into his blood, he’s a goner.” He slid the leg over to the edge of the table, hunching over its dark shape and began sawing.

Gail was the first woman he brought to Rice Hope. I was six. At first, he tried to hide her in a way that might seem normal. He said she was one of his patients. I believed everything he told me, the way boys do with their fathers. He took Gail to the good bedroom we never used. Before we brought sleeping b