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Authors: Livia J. Washburn

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Chapter 4

B
uilding a temporary ramp for Buck turned out to be easy. There were only three steps down from the porch to the yard, so Sam took a four-foot-by-four-foot piece of plywood, screwed it to a frame made of two-by-twos, and set it down over the steps. It was heavy enough to stay in place without being fastened to the porch, and Buck was able to scamper up and down it without any trouble. Like Dr. Baxter had said, he was adaptable.

It was a beautiful autumn day, crisp and cool in the shade, warm in the sun. Sam sat on the porch in a plastic lawn chair and watched Buck as the Dalmatian explored every inch of the backyard and marked every tree and bush. After a while, Buck seemed to get tired. He sat down in the sunlight and tried to stretch out on his belly, but he couldn't do that because of the cast. He wound up lying on his side instead, with his head against the cone rather than the ground.

“I know you'd rather have that contraption off, Buck,”
Sam said, “but it's for your own good. It and the cast will both be gone, all in good time.”

Buck's tail thumped against the ground as he wagged it at the sound of Sam's voice.

It wasn't long before man and dog were both asleep.

*   *   *

A while later, Phyllis opened the back door and started to step out on the porch, then stopped as she saw that Sam had dozed off. Out in the yard, Buck raised his head slightly and looked at her. Phyllis backed off and eased the door closed so as not to disturb either of them.

Carolyn came into the kitchen behind her and started to say, “How are they—”

She stopped when Phyllis quickly held a finger to her lips. Decades of teaching rowdy elementary school students had left Carolyn with a booming voice, and her time in retirement hadn't changed her normal tone that much.

“What's the matter?” she asked in a quieter voice. “Is the dog asleep?”

“They both are,” Phyllis said. “It's adorable.”

“I'm sure it is,” Carolyn said, but she didn't make any attempt to look for herself. “Have you given any more thought to those contests for
A Taste of Texas
?”

“Actually, since Sam and I got back this morning with Buck, I've been thinking about dog treats.”

Carolyn frowned and repeated, “Dog treats?”

Phyllis explained about the upcoming Halloween party at Dr. Baxter's veterinary clinic and said, “I remembered seeing a recipe for homemade dog treats a while back, so I
thought I might bake some and take them over there for the party. I looked online and found several recipes I wouldn't mind trying.”

“Are you sure your relationship with Sam isn't making you get a little carried away with this dog business?”

“I don't think it's getting carried away to bake something that pets would enjoy.”

“You were going to come up with something for the magazine contest, though.”

“I can do both,” Phyllis insisted. “In fact, I've made a list of what I'll need for that white chili casserole I mentioned, and I can pick up everything the next time I go to the store.” She paused. “Along with the ingredients for the doggie treats.”

Carolyn shook her head and said, “I give up. Tell me about the dog biscuits.”

“Well, they're made with peanut butter and sweet potatoes . . .”

Phyllis told her friend about the recipe, and she could see that Carolyn was getting interested in spite of herself. They talked about other things that could go into homemade dog treats, such as chicken, liver, or cheese, and eventually a gleam that Phyllis recognized appeared in Carolyn's eyes.

“You know,” she said, “if we each made a different kind of treat, the dogs at the clinic could have a little variety.”

“They could,” Phyllis agreed. She had a pretty good idea what was coming next.

Carolyn confirmed that hunch by saying, “And we could see which one they seemed to like the best.”

“So that would make it like a contest.”

“Oh, I don't know that I'd go so far as to call it a contest. There wouldn't be any prizes or anything. It would just be for . . . informational purposes, I suppose you could say.”

“Of course. And the dogs would get the main benefit out of it.”

“Exactly. What do you think?”

Phyllis thought that Carolyn couldn't resist the idea of turning this into a competition. Maybe she missed their friendly rivalry. Sometimes Phyllis thought she did, too.

She didn't mention any of that, however. Instead she said, “I think it's a good idea. We'll each come up with our own recipe, and we'll let the dogs choose.”

“All right.” Carolyn got a calculating look on her face. “I'll have to do some thinking about this.”

“I will, too,” Phyllis said.

She wouldn't be surprised if Carolyn was disappointed in the way the unofficial “competition” worked out.

Not because Phyllis expected the dogs at the party to pick her sweet-potato-and-peanut-butter treats over whatever Carolyn prepared, though. She figured they would gobble the treats with equal enthusiasm.

They were dogs, after all.

How discriminating could they be?

*   *   *

For the next couple of days, Phyllis was busy thinking about the recipes she would use for both the dog treats and the casserole for the magazine contest. She and Carolyn made separate trips to the grocery store, and Carolyn had a secretive air about her regarding what ingredients she was going to use in
her dog treats. Her old competitive nature was coming out again. Phyllis could tell.

But that was all right. Judging by Carolyn's enthusiasm, she had missed competing against her old friend.

To tell the truth, Phyllis had missed it a little, too.

While they were doing that, Sam spent a lot of time on the back porch with Buck, either reading a book or surfing the Web with his iPad. The weather continued to be gorgeous.

Buck seemed to have gotten used to his cast. Whenever Sam had the cone off, Buck didn't make any attempt to chew at the cast, so Sam finally just left the cone off all the time. He explained to Phyllis that he would continue to keep a close eye on Buck's behavior and would put the cone back on the Dalmatian if necessary.

Phyllis could tell that it was sort of hard for Sam to leave Buck outside as evening fell. Buck just went in his doghouse, curled up, and went to sleep, though, seemingly as comfortable and content as if he had lived there all his life.

One night the sound of frantic barking woke Phyllis not long after she had gone to bed. There were other dogs in the neighborhood, of course, but she could tell this racket came from Buck. He wasn't an incessant barker like some dogs, but he had barked enough since being there that she recognized the sound of it.

At first she just tried to ignore it, but Buck was persistent and sounded like something was really bothering him, so she decided she had better get up and check on him. By the time she got her robe on and stepped out into the hall, Sam was already out of his room and at the top of the stairs, about to start down them.

“You heard the ruckus, too,” he said.

“It would be hard to miss,” Phyllis said. The barking had spread to the other dogs in the neighborhood, so now there was a veritable chorus going on.

“I'm sorry he disturbed you. He sounds really worked up about something.”

“Don't worry about me. Let's just go make sure he's all right.”

They went downstairs together without turning on any lights. After living there for forty years, Phyllis was so familiar with her surroundings that she could get around all right in utter darkness if she had to. The house wasn't completely dark, though. The faint glow of a night-light came from the kitchen and guided them.

Sam reached for the knob of the back door to open it, but Phyllis stopped him by saying, “Shouldn't you see if you can tell if anybody's out there first?”

“Yeah, I reckon that would make sense.” Sam leaned close to the door and pulled aside the curtain over the window in its upper half so that there was a narrow gap through which he could peer. He put his eye to it.

“Do you see anything?” Phyllis asked after a moment.

“Buck's standin' on the porch lookin' out into the yard,” Sam reported. “I don't see anything— Oh, Lord! Buck, no!”

Sam twisted the dead bolt, grabbed the knob, and jerked the door open.

“Sam, what is it?” Phyllis cried.

“There's a skunk out there!” As he rushed out onto the porch, Sam went on. “Buck, come back here!”

Phyllis cringed as the pungent, unmistakable odor of skunk blew in through the open door.

“Blast it, Buck. Get away from the darned thing! You, skunk, shoo! Get away from here!”

“Sam, be careful,” Phyllis called. “You don't want him to get you.”

Sam muttered something. Phyllis couldn't exactly make out the words, but she was afraid he'd said something about how it might be too late for that.

From behind her, Carolyn said as she came into the kitchen and turned on the light, “What's all this commotion? Is that . . . Oh, good grief! That's terrible!”

It really was, but Phyllis knew the smell would fade. It already wasn't as strong as it had been a few moments earlier. There was a good breeze tonight, and it would carry away the scent.

Except where it had gotten on Buck and maybe Sam, too. Phyllis could see them in the light from the kitchen as Sam came up the ramp with Buck hobbling behind him, and as they approached, the smell grew stronger again.

“The, uh, skunk's gone,” Sam announced through the screen door.

“You couldn't tell that by the smell,” Carolyn said.

“It coulda been a lot worse. He just sorta hit Buck with a glancin' blow, not a full-fledged drenchin'. Even less of the stuff got on me. But we didn't get off scot-free, did we, old son?”

Buck whined and wagged his tail.

Phyllis started to laugh. Carolyn said, “I'm not sure what's funny about this. We may have to fumigate the whole house.”

“It's just that I've never seen a couple of more hangdog expressions,” Phyllis said.

“Hey, Buck ought to be proud,” Sam said. “He defended
his territory. It's just that in this case, it might've been smarter if he'd stayed in his doghouse and let the skunk leave in its own good time.” He reached down and scratched Buck's head. “But that's all right, boy. I'm proud of you anyway.”

“You're both going to have to bathe in tomato juice,” Carolyn said. “That's the only thing that will get rid of skunk smell.” She waved a hand in front of her face. “And I'm not sure there's enough of it in the world to take care of this stench.”

“Maybe there's something else that will work better,” Phyllis said. “I'll have to look it up on the Internet.”

“Well, what'll the two of us do in the meantime?” Sam asked.

“It's not very cold tonight. I think you'll be all right on the porch for a while.”

Sam sighed and shook his head. “Banished,” he said. “We may have to find out if there's room in that doghouse of yours for both of us, Buck.”

Chapter 5

S
ome quick research told Phyllis that a mixture of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and dishwashing detergent was supposed to be much more effective at removing skunk odor than the traditional tomato juice. Since she had all those ingredients on hand, she mixed up a batch in a spray bottle and took it out onto the back porch after donning a pair of rubber gloves.

“This ought to work,” she told Sam. “You hold on to Buck, in case he doesn't like being sprayed.”

Carolyn watched from the back door and voiced her skepticism by saying, “You should use tomato juice.”

“That can be our fallback solution,” Phyllis said as she began to spray the mixture on Buck's coat. She worked it in with her gloved hands.

Somewhat to her surprise, the stuff began to work almost immediately. When the skunk odor had dissipated quite a bit, Phyllis said, “We're supposed to hose him off now, but it's too cold out here for that. I think we're going to have to take him in and put him in the bathtub.”

“Good Lord,” Carolyn muttered under her breath. Phyllis ignored her.

“Are you sure you don't mind havin' a dog in the tub?” Sam asked.

“Well . . . I don't suppose it's what I would prefer under ideal circumstances, but I don't see that we have any choice.”

“I sure appreciate this.”

“Don't be silly,” Phyllis said. “Buck is a part of the family now, isn't he?”

“It's mighty good of you to look at it like that.”

Sam picked up the dog and carried him into the house. The downstairs bathroom didn't have a tub or a shower, so they had to take Buck upstairs. To protect the cast on his leg, Phyllis wrapped plastic around it and taped it in place; then they put Buck in the tub and used the handheld showerhead to wash off the deskunking solution.

“I'm sort of odiferous myself,” Sam pointed out.

“You can wash your robe and pajamas with some peroxide and baking soda in the machine along with the regular detergent. That ought to take care of it.”

“If you'll leave that spray bottle, I'll sluice myself off with the stuff once we get Buck taken care of,” he said. “I don't know what's gonna get the smell out of the house, though.”

“Vinegar,” Phyllis said. “The same website where I got this recipe said to put out little bowls of vinegar and it would absorb the smell.”

“Or cover it up, anyway.”

“Well, I don't know about you, but I think I'd rather smell vinegar than skunk.”

Sam laughed and nodded. “I guess that's what they call the lesser of two evils.”

Buck didn't mind the bath, but he wasn't crazy about the hair dryer when Phyllis began to direct the warm air over him. Sam held on to him and tried to calm him down.

“You can't go back outside in that night air when you're damp,” Sam said. “You might catch a chill.”

“We need an actual dog bed that we can bring inside and put in the garage or the utility room when it's too cold for him to stay out,” Phyllis suggested.

“That's a good idea. I should've thought of that before now. I've had plenty of dogs.”

“Things are going pretty fast,” Phyllis said. “There's a lot to keep up with.”

“It's sort of like havin' a youngster again, isn't it?”

“Yes, it is,” Phyllis said. Buck was the closest thing to a child that she and Sam would ever have, she thought. She frowned slightly to herself as she realized what an odd thought that was to cross her mind.

It took until well after midnight to get everything taken care of, but things finally settled down so that everyone could get some sleep. Phyllis hoped that no more skunks would come around, tonight or any other night.

But if they did, the backyard now had a fierce and devoted—if somewhat reckless and impulsive—defender.

*   *   *

The vinegar worked to take the skunk odor out of the house, so that by the next day there was only a lingering scent of polecat that hung around the kitchen, Sam, and Buck. So even though Phyllis would have preferred that the nocturnal invader had stayed away to start with, at least she had learned something useful, she told herself.

Over breakfast that morning, Carolyn said, “You know, something occurred to me. The people at that vet clinic probably plan to hand out dog biscuits of their own at that Halloween party. You know, whatever kind they sell. It's an advertising gimmick. They might not appreciate us just showing up to hand out something that we made.”

“That's a good point,” Phyllis said with a frown. “Plus there's the matter of them not knowing what is in the treats. They might not trust us.”

Sam said, “What do you mean? Like somebody might put poison in treats like that and give 'em out?”

“You should never underestimate the meanness in the world, Sam,” Carolyn said. “I know you prefer to see the good in people, but unfortunately, that's in shorter supply than it used to be.”

Eve said, “Yes, we've all heard stories about terrible things people have done on Halloween.”

“Shoot. I always figured those were, what do you call 'em, urban legends,” Sam said.

“Unfortunately, some of them were true,” Phyllis said. “And Carolyn's got a good point. We can't just show up with doggie treats and expect Dr. Baxter and his staff to let us hand them out.” She shrugged. “I guess we'll have to give up on the idea.”

“Not at all,” Carolyn responded instantly. “What it means is that you and I need to go out there and talk to this Dr. Baxter, Phyllis, so he'll know what sort of people we are and see that we don't mean any harm.”

Phyllis thought about that for a moment and then nodded. “I don't suppose it would hurt,” she said. “If Dr. Baxter refuses to go along with the idea, at least we tried.”

“We'll go this morning,” Carolyn said. Once she made up her mind, Phyllis knew, she didn't see any point in delaying what she intended to do.

Because of that, by ten o'clock the two of them were on their way to the veterinary clinic in Phyllis's car. When they got there, the place didn't appear to be nearly as busy as it had been the last time Phyllis was there. Only one car was in the parking lot.

They went inside and found the redheaded young woman behind the counter. Holly, that was her name, Phyllis recalled.

“Hello,” she said. “My friend and I were wondering if we could talk to Dr. Baxter for a minute.”

“Is this about a pet?”

“Well, not really. It's about the party you're having here next week.” Phyllis pointed to the sign she had seen when she and Sam were there a few days before. “We were wondering if we could donate something for it.”

“Well, I don't know. That would be up to Dr. Baxter. Did you see the barn when you drove up?”

“Around in the back?” Phyllis asked.

“That's right. He's back there checking out a goat. That's where he works with livestock.”

“I didn't know you handled patients other than dogs and cats.”

“Oh, yes,” Holly said with a smile. “Goats, horses, cattle, pigs. Whatever you've got, Dr. Baxter will take a look at it if there's a problem. If he doesn't know what to do, he can send you to somebody who does.”

“Well, we don't have any livestock, just a dog,” Phyllis said.

Holly's face lit up with recognition. She said, “Sure, I
remember you now. You're the mama of that Dalmatian with the broken leg, aren't you? Duke, right? No, wait. Buck, that was his name.”

Phyllis smiled and nodded. “That's right,” she said. “His name's Buck.”

“How's he doing?”

“Very well, as far as I can tell. He gets around without much trouble, and he and Sam are getting along wonderfully.”

“I'm glad to hear it.” Holly pointed vaguely in the direction of the barn. “You and your friend can go on around there and talk to the doctor if you want.”

“You're sure he won't mind?”

“No, I don't think so. You won't find a nicer guy than Hank.”

“All right, thank you.” Phyllis turned to Carolyn and added, “Let's go.”

They were on their way out the door when Holly called behind them, “Have a good day, Mrs. Fletcher.”

Phyllis let the door swing closed. As she did, she saw Carolyn looking over at her.

“What?” she said. “It's an honest enough mistake. I was here with Sam, and we never explained that we aren't married.”

“It's none of my business,” Carolyn said. “But the two of you
do
have a dog together now. Evidently that means something these days.”

“We don't have a dog together,” Phyllis said. “Buck is Sam's dog.”

“Maybe . . . but it was you washing the skunk smell off of him last night.” Carolyn paused. “Buck, that is. I don't really know how Sam managed. I'm not sure I want to know.”

Phyllis rolled her eyes and said, “Get in the car.”

“I'm just saying.”

It would be easier to just go ahead and let Carolyn have the last word, Phyllis decided. They got in the car, and she followed the drive around from the parking lot to the big metal barn about fifty yards behind the clinic. The building's double doors were open, as they had been the last time Phyllis was there. She spotted Dr. Hank Baxter kneeling just inside the opening next to a wooly, short-legged goat.

Baxter glanced curiously in their direction as Phyllis stopped the car and she and Carolyn got out, but most of his attention was on the goat. His left hand stroked the animal's pelt to keep it calm, while his right held the end of a rectal thermometer he was using to check the goat's temperature.

“Hello, ladies,” he said. “I'll be with you in . . . just one minute.”

A moment later he withdrew the thermometer, looked at it, and nodded in satisfaction.

“Your temperature's back to normal, Festus,” he told the goat. “Looks like we've got that little respiratory infection licked. I figured we did when I saw you got your appetite back this morning.”

He straightened, set the thermometer aside on a little table, and opened the gate of a stall to herd the goat back inside. Then he closed the gate and turned to Phyllis and Carolyn with a smile.

“I appreciate your patience,” he told them. “I didn't want to get distracted while I was doing that. I let go of a thermometer once when I was taking a goat's temperature, and it, uh, sort of slipped farther in than it should have.”

“That's terrible,” Carolyn said. “What did you do?”

“Well, I had to go in and get it, of course. Luckily, the problem didn't require surgery, just determination on my part and tolerance on the part of the goat.”

Phyllis had to laugh. She said, “That's a very cute goat. Is it a baby?”

“Nope, full-grown. That's a Nigerian dwarf goat. They don't get very big. At least, the ones that are fit to be show goats don't. Now, what can I do for you ladies?”

“I'm Phyllis Newsom, and this is my friend Carolyn Wilbarger. I was here several days ago with my other friend Sam Fletcher and his dog Buck.”

“Sure, Buck, with the broken leg,” Baxter said, nodding. “How's he doing? No problems, I hope?”

“No, he's fine, other than a run-in with a skunk.”

“Ooh. Sorry. That'll happen. Buck didn't get bit, did he? Skunks are notorious carriers of rabies.”

“No. The skunk just sprayed him a little.”

“I'm glad to hear it. No problem with the cast?”

“Not so far.”

Baxter nodded. He looked like he was starting to get puzzled.

Phyllis went on. “The reason we're here is that I saw the sign in your clinic about the Halloween party next week.”

“Yeah, that's something we do every year,” Baxter said, smiling again. “I don't know how much the animals really appreciate it, but the owners and their families get a big kick out of it. We hold it late enough during the afternoon that kids can come after school. People love to take pictures of their pets dressed up in costumes and see all the other pets, too.”

“And it's a good way to advertise the dog biscuits you give out, too, I suppose,” Carolyn said.

“What?” Baxter shook his head and waved off that idea. “Nah. I don't care about that. It's just for people to have fun. You know, most of the time when people bring their pets to a vet clinic, it's because of a problem. Usually the animals have something wrong with them, sometimes something serious, and so they're scared and upset and their owners are, too, and those are the feelings they associate with the clinic. I want 'em to come on Halloween just to enjoy themselves and see that it's not so bad here, at least not all the time.”

“That's an excellent idea,” Phyllis said. “Carolyn and I were talking about homemade dog treats, and we got the idea we'd like to make some and bring them over for the party.”

“Really?” Baxter seemed surprised by the idea. He thought it over for a moment with a look of concentration on his face before he began to nod. “Well, that sounds like something we might be able to do. What sort of ingredients were you thinking about putting in them? They'd have to be healthy.”

“Of course. I was going to make some with sweet potato and peanut butter.”

Baxter chuckled and said, “A couple of things that dogs really like. What about you, Ms. Wilbarger?”

Carolyn hesitated, and Phyllis knew that her competitive nature made her want to keep her recipe a secret. She couldn't very well do that, though, if they wanted Baxter to go along with the idea, so she said, “I was thinking of using pumpkin and oatmeal.”

“That sounds like the dogs would really go for it, too,” Baxter said.

“You don't mind, then?” Phyllis asked.

“No. If you ladies want to do that, go right ahead. Don't just bring the treats and drop them off, though. I expect you to stay and party with us.”

BOOK: Trick or Deadly Treat
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