An orange Datsun pulled into a gas station at the southeast corner of California, puttering up a cloud of dust into the fading light. Sidewinder sits on a crooked sign at the mouth of the parking lot, and its dark blue paint peels as the sun coats the metal. A young man steps out onto the pulsing concrete.
A german-shepherd called Tips glances at him from his spot chained to the gas pump. His skin is tan from spending copious hours outside, and his nose points down in a thin arch. His facial hair collects in thick curls at the base of his chin, trailing down his cheeks. A colt python sits low in its leather holster on his belt.
Tips let out a snuff. He watched with his head on his paws as the young man fills up, and as he stood with his hip cocked, he notices Tips lying there. He leaves the gas canister in the tank and goes to the trunk, opening it. From there, Tips could see an orange camping bag, a hunting rifle, a gallon jug of water, and a thick bag of rice. The man pulled out the water and brought it over to Tips, who watched him with wary eyes. He cupped his calloused palm and screwed open the bottle, pouring some into his hand. Tips came forward as much as he could with the chain digging into his neck, drinking until he was satisfied, then slumped back to his spot. The man studied the bloody slashes that stained his thick fur before his eyes trailed to the owner; a man by the name of Miller with eyebrows that arched downwards and fatty layers that hide his squinted eyes. Miller stands at the counter, hands on his belt and staring right back through the blue windows with his dry, cracked mouth set in a scowl.
The driver walked into the gas station. Tips watched from his spot, making out the voices through the door.
“You hit that dog?” The man asked as a way of greeting. Miller balked.
“Ain’t none of your business what I do,” He sneered. His chubby fingers clung to his belt loops and rubbed at the leather in a self-soothing gesture. “Tips is my damn dog.”
“How much for the dog?”
Miller blinked, but his hesitation was short. “Four hundred,” He spat, nose arched up. The young man pulled his wallet out, rifled through the bills, and slapped the paper on the counter.
“The dog, and a pack of Marlboros.”
Miller reached for the bills, licking his fingers. He counted four hundred and five exactly, and his beady eyes darted back to the man who stood still, waiting. Miller reached behind him and slapped the pack down on the counter. The man swept it off with his fingers, pushing back out of the gas station. He came over to Tips and crouched down, undoing the chain and snagging the handle of the plastic jug, throwing it back into the open trunk.
He whistled, and Tips slumped forward. He stood beside the man and followed as he went around the car, creaking open the passenger seat. Tips jumped in and the man closed the door behind him, finished filling up, before jumping in the driver's seat with him. Lighting a cigarette, he cranked the car, before pulling away from Sidewinder.
It had been a while since Tips had set foot outside the gas station. He imagined the sand between his paws and the taste of fresh meat under his jaws again, and he knew that his life could be how it was once he escaped the man. He watched the blue gas station disappear into the gray sky of the desert out of the back window before curling up and going back to sleep.
Life with the man was different than life with Miller. They drove during the day and camped at night. He lived on the outskirts of civilization, and more often than not, the two of them found themselves around a fire rather than in a motel room, using the rice for every meal, and when they could spare time, he hunted game with his rifle. The pistol always stayed in its holster, gleaming in the light. With Tips, the man acted as if he didn’t exist aside from giving him a share of water and food.
They puttered North on the border of California and Arizona. After the third day, the California border darted towards the West, and they were in Utah. Tips noted the location with crusted eyes and noted a tension that rippled in the man the further he traveled. Tips didn’t know what it was; he tramped new paths for survival, settled when convenient, but this man detested any signs of connection. He began to realize that the fact that he purchased Tips at all was a wild deviation from his normal behavior.
They followed the Colorado River to Lake Mead. The dormant excitement in the man reached a high fever, wobbling in the air between them, and it became impossible to ignore. It trembled the same in Tips, and it wasn't enough to sit curled up with his head on his paws. He craned his head out the windshield, desperate to get a glimpse of what had the man tapping an erratic beat on the wheel.
Finally, Tips could see the lake. He had seen bodies of water, wandered the rising hills in Southern California where the ocean licked against the rocks. But never before had he seen water like this, blue and thick as fresh paint and so still under the sky streaked with clouds. His eyes tracked the tangerine shoreline that sat in rocky clumps, decorated with wheat burr-brush. He looked at the man, who was grinning wide. Tips startled as his voice came over the purring of the engine.
“Pretty, huh, Tips?” He said with a smile. Tips cast his eyes back out the window—this was the first time the man had spoken to him.
They pulled off towards one of the rocky shores away from the road. There was a storm off to the side, the cumulonimbus clouds a dark stain hanging over the violet shadow of the mountains, but neither noticed. Tips was jumping out of the car as soon as the man cracked the door open, darting towards the water. He moved on an instinct he couldn’t name, and when he hit the water the glee roared in him. He bounced, scooping up mouthfuls of the water and shaking his filthy coat. It was cool as it ran against his skin and he glanced back as the man followed him, stripping off his shirt and following into the water. Together they washed. The instinct hummed inside him, drilling through his legs like cricket song.
He kept the man near as he sniffed about, exploring the new area. The lake would draw wildlife, and that meant that he could stay—the food would be sustainable and he would have enough water. And with the marks from the lashing now scars against his skin, he was in good enough condition to make it on his own.
So when the man gestured him over, calling with a voice croaking from disuse, he sat on his hind. And when the man walked over he growled in warning, his ears lying flat against his head; he would not be leashed again. The man rocked to a stop and shoved his hands in his pocket.
“You want to stay?” He asked. He glanced out into the horizon, his eyes wrinkling against the light. Then, he sighed. “Okay.” Tips stayed put, his ears relaxing. He watched the man pack up his things once more in the orange Datsun, and with a meager wave, the man fell into the driver seat, before pulling away from Lake Mead. Tips watched him disappear, and then glanced at the storm. He had dinner to find.
It was a day later that Tips found himself in the grips of death. Two coyotes had caught him hunting after he had taken a fall chasing after a rabbit. They would have been no trouble for him if he had not injured his back paw, but in his state, he knew it would be a struggle to fend them off.
Their thin legs dropped and moved with quiet ferocity as they circled him. Whenever Tips turned his attention to one the other would lunge and he had to move to avoid the gnashing teeth looking for a home in his neck. He didn’t know how long he had been limping with his head whipping between them. He couldn’t go for much longer, and as he growled towards the bigger coyote, the smaller one moved with impressive speed. This time, Tips couldn't avoid the hit; it latched onto his shoulder and pain shivered through his body from the point as the thin teeth dug into his muscle. He howled, thrashing, but the coyote was insistent. They both fell to the desert floor, and out of the edge of his vision, Tips saw the other coyote go for the kill. He writhed, but he was pinned—there was nowhere to go.
A shot rang against the walls of the valley. There was a thunk and a whimper and then a thud. Tips found the strength to shove to his feet, and in the confusion he roared, pinning the smaller coyote under his bigger form. His opening was a small one, a moment of hesitation, but deep-rooted instinct took over; he dug his teeth into the coyote's throat and shook his head, closing his eyes. It whimpered under the powerful clench of his jaw, scraping for its life, but it could not fight him in its position. With a crunch, he snapped its neck.
He whirled around to fend off the bigger coyote, the taste of blood in his mouth, only to find it dead a few feet from the sight of the other. It had been shot with a rifle. He cast his eyes in the distance, searching for the shooter. He could make out a silhouette of a man on the horizon, too far to make out, but the car beside him was orange like the desert. The man perched his rifle on his shoulder and raised his hand in acknowledgment, and Tips snuffed, ruffling his fur. The man had saved his life for the second time.
He had not come out unscathed, though. His shoulder was still oozing blood, and his back paw sent pulses of pain through his body with every step. He looked back at the corpses of the coyotes, before gathering his wits and heading towards the man on the horizon.
It was easy to trace the tire tracks left in the sand, but it was a different story to follow them. Tips had to pause for long durations to catch his breath, panting with pained rasps at the journey. By the time he stood on the ridge where the man had looked on with his rifle, it was dark with night, and the storm was finally overhead. It bared down onto the desert like a shock blanket, trapping heat and moisture thick in the air. It began to pour.
Water came down in slush, filling the thin road the man had taken. In the downpour, Tips could see the man sleeping in the car with his head against the window. He looked over and saw the foaming water like spit in a rabid animal’s mouth. He began to bark, pacing along the side of the ridge, trying to warn him, but the storm drowned him out. He let out a growl and began down the ridge.
He lost his footing in the thin film of water and slipped down. His whole body thrummed with pain as he collided with the ground. He got to his feet shakily. The man was still asleep in the car, and the water was rising, coming midway up the tires.
He sloshed forward, barking as loud as he could as the water rose and rose. He made it to the door and howled, pointing his snout to the window. When he ran out of breath, he shook his head and howled again.
Finally, the man blinked awake. Tips could see him coming alert at once. He met Tips’ eye through the window and began to shout words Tips couldn’t make out. The dog backed away so the man could open the door—when he did, the water kept it open, rushing against the leather. Tips was beginning to lose his footing in the surge as the man stepped out, and without hesitation he dug his hands down into the muddy water and picked Tips up, carrying him in his arms as he waded towards the trunk. He pushed Tips onto the car and the dog crawled onto the hood and then the roof so the man could open the trunk. He looked for a way up the ridge, but the way the man had driven in was a full river now. They would have to climb up the steep edge that was eroding more and more by the second.
The man strapped on his backpack, latching the canteen of water to it. He slung his rifle on his back and went to reach for the rice, but the water had made it into the trunk by then. It was to the man’s hips now. Tips barked in warning, growling; they had to move if they wanted any hope of getting to safety.
The man opened his arms and Tips jumped in, and they began to wade towards the edge of the ridge. The water came down hard in a brown fall, and Tips jumped out of the arms holding him to work his way up the embankment—his previous exhaustion was forgotten, and the blood from his wounds mixed with the mud and sweat coating his body. He found steady holds in the ridge and climbed up with strength he’d never used before, and the man followed, placing his feet in the safe footholds Tips sought out. Together they climbed, stopped, climbed, panting with exertion. They were almost to the top. They were almost safe.
He heard a harsh cry from behind him. Tips whirled on the edge that was washing away and saw the man slipping, beginning to fall back down into the river. He could see now that the car was out of sight, leaving only the ripple of water where it disturbed the currents. The man was falling. He reached down to steady himself with his hands, but it was too slick; he began to slide down.
Tips could reach the top now. It was just a good jump away. He could survive. But he wasn’t thinking of that as he latched his jaws on the harness of the backpack and began to haul the man up. The edge he was on was vanishing by the second, but he growled and tugged, pushing his back against the muddy wall. His teeth ached with the pull, and the fabric tasted like sweat and sand on his tongue. His injured leg collapsed, and he pushed it weakly, trying to gather some ground. He squeezed his eyes shut, knowing then that they were going over together.
The man reached up above them just as the last of the edge washed away. Hidden in the mud—yes! There was a rock ledge, thick and sturdy. The man grasped it with his filthy hand and pulled them up with a mighty tug. He stuck his boot into the mud and used the meager second of stability it provided to push them over the edge and to safety.
The two of them collapsed in exhaustion, the warm droplets of rain hitting them hard. Tips panted, so worn down he thought he would never walk again. The man pushed himself up with arms that trembled, glancing down into the embankment. “There goes my Datsun!” he shouted with the breath he had, before slumping down again. They were both caked in mud. Tips used what energy he had, shivering, to curl into the man’s side. He welcomed the dog, wrapping his arms around him; Tips could feel his pulse in his arms, strong and sure.
They lied like that until the storm cleared. In the morning light, the river calmed, running lower and lower. It looked almost feeble in the pink light, and Tips knew that they were both lucky to be alive. He nudged his nose against the man's hand where it rested on his stomach. A limp hand settled on his head, scratching at his ear in reassurance.
“S’okay, Tips,” The man said. “We’re okay, thanks to you.” He sat up with a groan and Tips sat up with him. “Guess we’re on foot for now,” He mused. Tips snuffed in agreement. Then, the man tilted his head back and began to laugh; it was a deep rumbling that spread like thunder, and Tips grinned, lolling his tongue out in a way he hadn’t since he was a pup.
Together they stood. The man’s hand stayed on his head, running up and down his neck. “You staying with me this time?” Tips shoved his nose in the palm for an answer, and the man chuckled. “Yeah, I figured. Guess it’s Alex and Tips against the world now, huh, boy?”
Dirty, tired, but alive, the two of them began back towards civilization, and Tips’ life began.