Based on the song “Ol’ Red” by Blake Shelton.
Red was diggin’ at the fence when I walked up to the pen.
He growled when he saw me. More of a whimper really, but I knew he was anxious to get out. The ol’ Georgia sun beatin’ down on the place didn’t cool much of anything, let alone an old dog’s itchin’ to get out an’ run.
I took the leather strap leash from its place on the chain-link fence for the last time. Red stood up and pushed his big ol’ paws against the gate, tryin’ to get it open before me, but I had a hand ready to catch his collar and leash him before he could get away.
Everyone else on the farm was used to my privilege of takin’ care of Warden’s old bloodhound for my sentence. I still got looks, especially from the new-comers, but it would be over soon. This was my last visit with Red.
I paraded him through the building, past the mess hall and down a long line of cells. The inmates still in their cells for whatever reason glared as we passed, but not so much at me as at the dog trailin’ my heels. No one liked Red. He wasn’t aggressive or ill-behaved by no means, but he was the best tracker in the state. Warden would tell a tale that there had been a gator that up and ate his favorite King James Bible that had been sittin’ on the porch next to a plate of ribs. He said he seen the gator climb up his lawn from the swamp and ran to get his gun, but when he came back all that was left was the plate. “Gator musta thunk the leather was still on the cow,” Warden would laugh, before braggin’ about how he and Red had spent a week in the swamps trackin’ that very gator just to shoot it dead and stuff it. “Never got my Bible back, but that gator sure gave me enough skin to work with.” He never admitted it, but I knew that his favorite belt came right off that gator’s back. I could only think that’s also what he did to the men who tried to run away.
I turned the corner into my cell and dropped Red’s leash. He strode over to my mate Randy’s bed and nuzzled his sleepin’ hand, wakin’ the poor guy up in a fit of cursin’.
“The shit do you think you’re doin’, bringin’ that damn dog in here? Tryin’ to get him used to my scent, are ya?”
“I need some time alone, Randy.”
“With the god damned dog?” He swung his legs over the edge of his bunk, rubbin’ his eyes, his denim work pants undone around his waist. “What’re ya gonna do, screw him?”
“You’d like to see that, wouldn’ ya?”
Randy glared at me and shuffled out of the cell. I saw him glance at the sliding door, tempted to shut it and lock me in, but I guess he thought better of it. I did have control of the best huntin’ dog in the state.
I laid down on my bunk, and Red jumped up with me, restin’ his droopy head on my chest and lookin’ at me, beggin’ with his big and brown and sad, love-sick eyes. I scratched him between his ears just how he liked and ran my hand down the short fur on his back. He huffed and closed his eyes.
“I’m not gonna be able to see ya anymore, Red.”
The old dog didn’t move, just laid there gettin’ pet.
“If you think about it, it’s all Betty’s fault that I’m in this mess. I’ll see her soon, though, and that rotten new man of hers. You remember me tellin’ you about them?”
I wanted to imagine that Red was listenin’ instead of fallin’ asleep, but I saw clear as day the first time I took him out to run him when he was still a pup. I’d go south, because it was easier to walk next to the trees while the sun was settin’ instead of havin’ to shade my eyes goin’ out the west gate. He was just a li’l guy then, ‘bout as high as my knee. He’d be runnin’ everywhere and trippin’ over his own ears. His big black spot was still tryin’ to come in through the red and his howl was nothin’ more than a whine. I took him to the field down the way about a mile and just let ‘im run to his little heart’s content. He found his way back to me sittin’ against a big willow and I told him how I found Betty in bed with by best man Jed, an’ how I beat the shit out of him ‘til he didn’t move no more before turnin’ around to start on Betty an’ there were cops behind me. The damn pup looked like he was gonna fall asleep by the end of it so I picked ‘im up and carried him back to the farm. I had to carry him for the first few weeks.
He learned how to run right soon enough, but that came with the height. Warden would take him huntin’ on the weekends, an’ bring ‘im back to me to take care of durin’ the week. Poor dog saw me more than his owner, but neither of us cared all that much. With Ol’ Red pinned up in a fence all day and me pinned up in a metal cell, we both liked gettin’ out a bit every night.
The other guys were always buggin’ me that I should just run one of these nights, take the dog with me and Warden’ll never find us. But I knew Red was trained to come at a whistle and that nothin’ was gonna keep him from comin’ to that whistle. And if Red didn’t come at a whistle, then Warden would jus’ find a buddy’s huntin’ dog an’ use him to track the both of us down. I ain’t dumb.
Soon enough I had an idea though. I ‘member that my ol’ cousin Reid was getting’ a litter of blue tick puppies and him sayin’ that one of the ladies was a real beauty. I managed to get a guard a pack of hand-rolled cigs, rolled ‘em myself, and he sent a letter out for me without it bein’ searched. That night, I went an’ marked a tree with a big ol’ X around where I would let Red run every night. I’d let the boy go and one night I finally heard two pups barkin’ in the woods, an’ Red would start comin’ back all tired more than usual. He’d start tuggin’ on the leash after a couple weeks, and that’s when I knew it was done right. He was a handsome boy that fin’lly found a pretty little lady to have.
But now ol’ Red was laying his head on my chest, making it a li’l hard to breathe but I loved that damn dog so I didn’t care.
“You ‘member that first time I took ya ta see Blue down in the swamp after cousin Reid tied her up for ya?” I ran one of Red’s smooth floppy ears between my fingers. “You were just crazy ‘bout her. Guess it’s a good thing too that you pups hit it off the way ya did.” I stopped pettin’ him and let my arm rest on his shoulder. I felt him breathin’ real slow, surely dreamin’ ‘bout chasin’ gators in the swamp or makin’ his way back to Blue the next time he’s let out to run. “You’d always come runnin’ back to me when you was done with ‘er though. An’ we’d sit under that big ol’ willow tree in the field and watch the sun go down and the stars come out.”
I knew talkin’ to the dog was useless, he couldn’t hope to understand a word I was sayin’ to him, but it helped me a little I think. “I hope the next guy takes ya to see yer lady like I did. I don’ wan’ her forgotten about. I’d tell Warden to get Randy to do it, he’s seen enough of ya, but then he’d know I was up ta somethin’.”
Red stirred in his sleep, shakin’ his leg to make himself more comfortable.
“Just make sure you get to see your lady again.” I could feel my voice crackin’, and I knew Randy would be punchin’ me right about now if he was still there. “Lord knows I’m not gonna see mine.”
I laid there with Red for a good while, jus’ lettin’ him sleep on my arm before I shook him gently to get his collar back on the leash. He looked at me all annoyed, but followed me back to his cage. I unhooked the clasp and hung the leash back up on the fence before crouchin’ down to pet the old dog one more time. Ol’ Red kept pawin’ at the fence. He knew somethin’ was up. The sun was gettin’ ready to set, and it was time to go for a run, but I wasn’t gonna be lettin’ him out of his cage anymore.
“Bye Red.” I stuck my hand between the chain links and roughed up his jowls a bit, sendin’ slobber drippin’ to the ground. “I’ll miss ya, old boy.”
I knew they’d be callin’ dinner soon, so I snuck along the barbed wire fence that ran the perimeter of the farm, waitin’ until the guards switched shifts. One was goin’ down from post and the other was waitin’ to head up, so I ducked behind a stack of old tires and pulled myself through a just-too-small hole in the north fence I’d made a few days ago when no one was watchin’. The sun dipped below the tree-line to the west. It’d be a while before anyone knew I was gone. I usually was out with Red now, so no one would be lookin’ for me jus’ yet, so I had some time.
I just hoped Ol’ Red would run south to see his lady so I could run north and hop in cousin Reid’s truck back to Tennessee.