I walked down the alley and wondered where I was going to get a dollar. Right now Sarge had stopped ahead of me and was sniffing the tall grass behind Banker Watson's fence; I was sure he smelled that snooty little white French dog Miz Watson usually kept in the house. He found a new smell and I waited for him, wondering what he had found that was so interesting.
As I stood there I pitched the baseball in the air and watched the torn flap spin in the bright summer day. It reminded me that dogs weren't too smart after all. Certainly not as smart as people like my friend Lennie said. It had been awfully hard to teach Sarge not to chase the ball when we played in the vacant lot on the corner. Just when I thought he understood, he had to go and show me up in front of Bugsy and Charlie and the other guys. It was his fault this ball was in such sad shape, but I loved him anyway. He was my very best friend. I just wished I had a dollar for a new ball so we could play again tomorrow.
"Brendon! Brendon Nelson." That was mean ol' Miz Watson calling me from the back porch of her big house. No one else ever called me Brendon, except my grandmother sometimes, but Miz Watson said that nicknames like Buddy weren't Christian and she didn't hold with such foolishness. She always called me Brendon. And she always called my grandmother Sarah instead of Miz Nelson, but insisted on being called Miz Watson. It sure made Grandma mad.
"Yes'um?" I didn't really want to know what she wanted since it was probably some errand or chore that would take me most of an afternoon. Often as not she would forget to pay me, or sometimes she would tell me I did it wrong and didn't deserve to be paid. My dad said Mister Watson was like that too, but it was best to be on the good side of bankers.
"Brendon, I want you to mow the grass, and I insist on a better job than last time, young man." Miz Watson was a big stout woman and had a booming voice. Sarge must have thought she was mad at him because he tucked his tail between his legs and came over to stand behind me. "The mower is in the shed there; when you're through, knock on the door and I'll pay you the usual price." She went back in the house without waiting for me to answer and I could hear her telling that dumb French dog to shut up.
Hallie, who was Miz Watson's cook, stuck her head out the door and said, "Buddy boy, would you and that nice big dog like a piece o' cake afore you start?" I grinned at her but before I could get another "yes'um" out in answer we heard Miz Watson yelling for her to leave me be, that I had work to do. Hallie made a face and said, "Well, after you're finished then." She winked at me and turned back to the kitchen.
The shed was near the back door of the kitchen. Mister Watson kept his new 1946 Ford V8 in there when he was home. The air looked like solid gold where the dust floated in bright sunlight coming through the cracks.
I wheeled the lawnmower out and took it to the front of the house. The grass there was easy to cut since it was mowed more often, but the back was going to take most of the afternoon. Half the time Miz Watson didn't want to pay for cutting the grass back there but I hadn't done it the last time and it really needed it.
When the front was finished, I pushed the mower around back and started cutting patterns in the high grass. It had been a long time since I cut it last, and I was thinking it was sure worth more than the quarter I would get for doing the smaller front lawn. Maybe I'd get enough for a new baseball after all.
I must have jumped a mile when my bare foot came down on the back of the snake. Its soft body wriggled under my foot and I knew immediately what it was. I just didn't know what kind until I stooped to look at it. It was a little grass snake and it was dying. They're harmless, and I wished I hadn't killed it, but from the looks of it I had run over it with the mower. I threw it over toward the trash cans by the back door and watched Sarge as he got up from under the porch and approached it. His neck hair was raised and he walked stiff legged with his nose out until he realized it was dead. He looked at me as if to say he knew it all the time, but I knew better and laughed at him.
When I finished, I knocked on the back door and waited for Miz Watson to come inspect my work. She paid fifty cents for both lawns and I was hoping for a little more when she stepped outside and, in a voice as if I had mowed all of her flowers said, "Brendon, what have you done?" She stepped to the edge of the porch and surveyed the back yard which looked as good as the court house lawn. I was proud of my labor and started to answer when she said, "I only wanted the front yard done, young man, and I'm not going to pay for the back. Here's a quarter."
It was right about then that Suzette, that sassy French dog standing just outside the door, saw the snake. With a yelp she bounded down the steps and picked it up in her mouth. She was shaking it every which way and Sarge must have thought it had come back to life because he jumped up and was prancing and barking right beside her. Miz Watson turned pale and started for the door, but Hallie, who had heard the barking, was there first. When Hallie saw that wriggling snake she screamed and slammed the kitchen door in Miz Watson's face. I started yelling at Sarge, and Miz Watson began banging on the screen hollering for Hallie to open the door. That dumb Suzette took the snake up the steps and I was sure Miz Watson was going to faint right there, but she didn't. Instead, she started backing away, shouting "Oh my Lord!" When her skirt snagged on the wooden railing, and she couldn't back any further, her eyes got big and she yanked hard at her clothes. About the time the buttons popped she stepped out of her skirt and heaved all two hundred pounds over the side of the porch and took off running. The skirt stayed there though, snagged and hanging on the porch rail.
Suzette and Sarge must have figured she wanted to play because they both leaped after her. I was right behind the two dogs, yelling at Sarge, who was still barking, and having a hard time keeping up. Anyone who knew her would have bet a dime she couldn't run at all. Big ol' Miz Watson, in pink bloomers that went to her knees, careened around the shed, all the time screeching and hollering for Hallie to open the door.
As we came around the shed and got close to the back door I saw Hallie had the door open, but her courage deserted her as that fool dog bounded toward the kitchen with the snake in its mouth. She slammed the door shut again. A second time we all went a hollerin' and a whoopin' around the shed. Miz Watson must have been concerned about being outside in her pink undies because she made a grab for her skirts as she went by, but Suzette was right there and Miz Watson screeched again and threw the clothing at the poodle. With a flap of arms she bolted again.
The next time we came around, Hallie had a broom and was waiting for us. She started swinging long before we even got close and Sarge, who had some experience with my grandma's broom, darted in front of Miz Watson and sent her sprawling headlong into the shed. She probably thought it was the best thing to happen to her because she managed to kick the door shut before Suzette could get inside too. That silly dog jumped up on the door and continued to shake the poor little dead snake.
Suzette still wanted to play this noisy game, but I sure didn't. Sarge was jumping and barking his head off, but at least I managed to get a hand on his collar. All I wanted to do was get out of there, since I knew I was sure to be blamed, but as I turned to run I heard Miz Watson's voice, first gasping and then screeching, come from the shed.
Finally, in the voice of doom, "Brendon? Brendon! Are you still out there?"
"Yes'um," I was still there, but I sure didn't want to be. I dreaded what was coming because Miz Watson could be mighty sharp tongued when she was riled up. Sarge, almost quiet now, was whining to get to Suzette who was scratching at the shed door. "Brendon, take that snake away from Suzette and tell Hallie to get a dollar from my purse and give it to you."
Surprised, I stood silently for a moment, wondering if I had heard her right. Was she really going to give me a dollar for what had happened?
"Brendon?" Miz Watson waited for me to answer. I was too surprised to answer immediately and a moment of silence went by. Finally, her voice rising to her best church soprano, she said, "No, no, tell Hallie to get two dollars, but don't you ever say a word about this to anyone, you hear, boy?"
"Yes'um!" But my fingers were crossed because I couldn't wait to get home to tell my dad and my grandma.
And maybe some dogs really are as smart as some people. After all, Sarge knew that snake was dead.
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