Captain’s Christmas: Chapter Three

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“Feed the birds in winter, good luck all year,” said Great Uncle Jacob.

Sarah wasn’t sure she’d ever seen so many types of birds–blue ones Great Uncle Jacob called jays, gold ones he called finches, red ones called cardinals. “Like the ecclesiastics,” he said. “Dressed in red.”

While he was grilling sandwiches for lunch, she asked him, “Do the cats ever go outside?”

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“That they don’t,” he said.

“But why not, Great Uncle Jacob?”

“Just ‘Jacob’ will do.”

Sarah sniffed the aroma of butter and melting cheese. “Why not, Jacob?”

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“Cats are predators. Estimated they kill up to four billion birds a year, this continent alone. Island’s a safe haven, a refuge. So cats stay inside.”

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“They’re prisoners?”

“Prisoners of life,” he said. “You know what happens to strays on the wharf? A bad fate. These are rescued. They got the conservatory. Trees and plants. They get to live.”

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After lunch, Jacob said, “Heading over to the mainland. Coming?”

He let her pilot the ship across the straight. “Doing great, Captain,” he said.

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He took the helm as they approached the wharf, and he sent her to bow to keep lookout.

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Lobster traps, empty crates, seagulls, buckets of fish heads, coils of rope, hooks, chains, buoys–the docks had so much to see!

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“Suppose you want to know the rules,” Jacob said. “Simple. Stay out of trouble. Be back here by 3:15. Gotta make it back across the straight before dark.”

“Where will you be?”

He pointed at the row of offices and shops along the wharf. “Business,” he said.

She explored the docks, looking in every nook and cranny, until a grey-bearded fisherman growled, “Scram, kid!”

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She ran up the dock to the street then kept on running until she reached the beach at the road’s end.

She followed a boardwalk over the sand and past a marsh, where wood ducks, coots, and grebes circled on the water.

Through the reeds, a big white-muzzled dog crawled out.

“Hello, hound,” Sarah said.

The dog raised his tail in a cheerful wag and sniffed her hand.

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“Who belongs to you?” Sarah asked.

He didn’t have a collar, and he looked thin and raggedy.

“Are you a stray?” She remembered what Jacob had said about stray cats meeting a bad fate.

She took a sea biscuit out of her pocket. “Cracker, big boy?”

He swallowed it in a single bite. She fed him the rest from the bag.

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The shadows grew long. “I gotta go, boy!” He placed his front paws on her shoulders and licked her nose.

“I’ll see you! Bye! Be good!”

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He followed her back to the docks.

“Don’t you have anywhere to go?” she asked him, but she could see he didn’t. “OK, come with me.”

She led him down the dock to Jacob’s trawler.

“Get in here,” she said, opening a large crate on the stern. He hopped inside and she quickly shut the lid and perched on top of it.

She counted backwards from a hundred while waiting for Jacob, who arrived as she reached 29.

“There you are,” he said. “Prompt. Good job, Captain.”

He set a few bags of groceries and supplies in the cabin, then started the boat. “I’ll take us out of the harbor,” he said. “You can take us ‘cross the straight.”

“No, thank you,” she said, faking a yawn. “I’m very sleepy.” She wrapped herself in a scrap of burlap and curled up on top of the crate. “I’ll just nap.”

“Suit yourself,” he said.

They crossed the straight without talking. The big dog remained quiet and still, hidden inside the crate.

“Thar’s home,” Jacob said as they neared the breakwater.

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She had to hop off the crate as they approached the dock to help guide them in.

“Good work, Captain,” Jacob said. When the boat was alongside the dock, with the engine shut off, he handed her the wheel and climbed to the dock to tie the mooring.

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She thought she might be the last one off the ship, so she could leave the lid to the crate ajar, but he came back to fetch the groceries and supplies.

“Take this,” he said, handing her the lightest bag, and they walked together back up to the conservatory.

She tried not to turn to look at the boat, but she couldn’t help it once or twice.

All through supper, she kept thinking of the big dog, in the crate on the deck of the trawler.

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She washed up the dishes while Jacob played the piano. Finally, he headed into the bathroom, and she heard the water run in the tub.

She grabbed a bag of cat kibble and raced back down to the dock.

The crate was empty. Somehow, the big dog must have found his way out.

She whistled and called him, but he was nowhere to be found. He had to be there somewhere!

She opened the bag of kibble and made a trail of it from the dock up to a dark corner outside the conservatory, and there she left the open bag, with the sides rolled down so that it made its own bowl.

He’d find the food, she felt sure of it. Then, the next day, she could build him a dog house out of driftwood, and he’d have a place to stay.

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Whisper 1.29

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We’re looking for Stray Dog.

Everywhere I go, I keep an eye out for him.

Every day after school, Marigold heads up to her fort and uses her telescope to look over the fields.

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She sleeps in the tree fort, then bright and early, she’s looking again.

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We haven’t seen him yet.

“Do you think he’s OK?” she asks.

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “Me and Stray bonded pretty closely, so I can still feel him. I would feel it if something were wrong.”

“Then where is he?”

“You know what I think it is? I think he’s a free-loving roaming wanderer. Some individuals are just like that. I bet he loves living wherever he chooses, sleeping under the stars, doing what he wants.”

“Kinda like me,” Marigold says.

“Yup,” I reply. “Kinda like you, Bunny.”

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A few days later, Marigold goes to a friend’s house after school.

When she comes home, she’s so excited.

“Mom!” she says. “Guess what? They have an actual table for doing homework! They call it the dining room table. It’s so awesome.”

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“Oh, yeah,” I reply. “I guess that’s pretty standard, to have a dining room table.”

“And you know what else?” She asks, enthusiastically. “They’ve got this room they call the living room and it’s really pretty with matching lamps and even matching chairs and a rug and a TV, and we could sit there together, watching sports and talking! It was so cozy.”

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“It sounds like a nice house,” I say.

“It is,” she replies. “It’s really pretty.”

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I start thinking about how much money we have in savings. We’ve got a bit of a cushion. I’ve been saving it up for Marigold’s college and so that, in case anything happens to me, she’ll have something to fall back on. I’ve talked to Mara Nix, and she’s agreed that, if I go before Marigold is old enough to live on her own, she’ll come and take care of her, so the savings is for that. It’s hard to think about, but I figure I’d better face it and be prepared. Maybe that way, it won’t happen.

Anyway, all this calculating of our savings is so that I can decide if we have enough to buy a real couch and a dining room table. Marigold seemed so excited about her friend’s house, and I want her to feel like she has everything she needs at home, too. Not everybody feels that cheap college-student decor is comfortable, I remember.

The next morning, Marigold asks the mailman if he’s seen Stray Dog.

“No,” he replies. “My route’s just here in the north bend. But I walk all over, and I haven’t seen him.”

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Marigold looks sad when she comes in.

“Bunny,” I say, “I’ve been thinking. Would you like us to fix up the house a little? We can clean up all the spray paint on the walls, maybe get new wallpaper, buy a regular dining room table and a couch and a chair that matches. Would you like that?”

“No,” she says. “What for? I like our house how it is. You wouldn’t wipe off your art, would you? I love it!”

“Really?” I ask. “But I thought you liked your friend’s house.”

“I do,” she says. “For them. But I like our house for us.”

“Then why are you sad?”

“I want a puppy.”

A few days later, while Marigold is doing some research for a class project on the computer, I surprise her.

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While she was at school, I found out that the shelter had a young dog available for adoption, and I arranged for them to bring him over that afternoon.

“Look, Mom,” she says while he sleeps on the floor. “He’s got a tail like Stray Dog.”

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He looks a lot like Stray Dog, only his coat is lighter.

I asked when I called to adopt him if they knew his sire and dam. They said they knew the mother, and they suspected that the father was a gray stray with a borzoi tail.

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We think maybe Zoey is Stray Dog’s pup.

“Mom! I love him!” Marigold laughs. “He’s our own Zoey dog!”

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Zoey loves it here. He settled in right away, sleeping on the couch, on my bed, on the floor, and he’s been doing a great job eating the beef stew I fix for him.

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That evening, when I’m standing outside watching the mist settle over the meadow, Marigold rushes out to me.

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“Thanks, Mom,” she says. “I have everything now.”

I know just how she feels.

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