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Showdown At The McPhee Farm

Part One of GON's 2007 Fall Fiction Series

Brad Bailey | August 1, 2007

Clint McPhee sat on the ground with his back to a fence post and his binoculars resting on his knees. The rusted barb wire fenceline, grown up in Johnson grass and blackberry briars, was the high point on the edge of a cut hayfield that sloped away to a dark treeline 200 yards away. The blazing, late-August sun had set 20 minutes earlier behind Clint’s back, and the field was slowly fading to black. If the buck was coming, it would have to show itself soon. The whippoorwills were already tuning up deep in the woods.

“This feels almost like deer hunting, doesn’t it Mitzi?” he said softly to the border-collie-sized dog sitting beside him panting. “Except that it’s 90 degrees.”

A bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face.

The dog whined, staring intently into the field, and its tail began to thump softly in the withered grass. When Clint followed the line of the dog’s gaze, he saw something white moving against the deepening shadows of the far treeline almost in the corner of the field.

“What in the world…” he whispered, as he picked up his binoculars.

Across the hayfield was a low spot where what little rain had sprinkled from summer thundershowers had collected, making the grass a bit greener. It was where Clint expected to see the buck — if it was still alive.

He twisted the focus-ring of his binoculars, squinting through the optics until the white spot sharpened into focus. It was a deer, an unusual-colored fawn, trailing a doe into the field.

“Mitzi,” Clint whispered to his dog, grinning. “That fawn looks like it’s wearing white longjohns.”

The dog woofed softly, as if it agreed with the assessment.

Indeed, the deer looked like it had been dipped tail-first into white paint. Both back legs and hams were as white as paper, while the front half of the deer was normal brown. Clint’s view of the deer, however, was short. The fawn sprinted up to the doe and butted the bigger deer’s side with its head, trying to stop her to nurse. Instead, the doe suddenly wheeled and ran, its tall, white tail flashing as it sprinted into the treeline, the white legs of the fawn blinking in the dusk until they, too, disappeared into the dark woods.

Clint scanned the field edge, searching for the source of what had spooked the doe. His binoculars stopped at another spot in the field corner, and he gave a low whistle.

“There he is, Mitz.”

Standing stately at the field edge like a bronze statue was the biggest buck Clint had ever seen. He had seen the buck before, only once, a year earlier for a split-second, but there was no mistaking the buck for any other. The long-bodied buck’s belly seemed to sag, then rose to shoulders thick as a Herford’s. At 200 yards, Clint could not count points, but he could see enough to know there were lots of them, and they were tall and thick with velvet. When the buck turned its head, he saw what he was hoping to see, a drop-tine on the right beam.

“That’s him for sure,” he whispered.

Mitzi whined insistently.

“Shhhh, girl,” said Clint, his eyes still locked on the buck in his binoculars.

The dog rose to her feet, a low, rumbling growl in her throat, and Clint lowered his binoculars to look at her. The dog was staring at the treeline across the field to Clint’s left to a spot that was also about 200 yards from the buck. Clint followed her stare with his binoculars and at first saw nothing but a picket line of dark pine-tree trunks — then something darted furtively between two trees on a point on the field edge. Clint focused on the spot and recognized a human form braced against a tree aiming a rifle toward the buck in the far corner.

Clint jumped to his feet, and whistled sharply through his teeth. At that moment he saw the yellow muzzleflash spit from the barrel of the high-powered rifle the man had leveled on the buck, and in a half second the “KaBoom” crashed across the field.

“Hey!” he yelled toward the person — who had already begun to run back toward the road.

“Let’s go Mitz,” said Clint as he bolted toward his truck. He and the intruder were an equal distance from the dirt road that paralleled the high end of the field. The dog sprinted ahead, and when she came to the old Silverado, she leaped to the passenger-side door, clipping neatly through the open window and landing on the seat. She turned and stood, head out of the window barking, as Clint ran up and jumped in. Already he could hear the sound of another vehicle cranking up.

Clint turned the key in the ignition, and the old truck’s starter clicked, but did not fire.

“Not now!” he moaned.

He turned the key again, and the engine sputtered, then roared to life. The truck lurched from the side of the county road, bouncing from side to side as it crossed the roadside ditch, wheels spinning in the loose dirt as he turned right, toward the other side of the field. Mitzi leaned forward out the truck window barking encouragement as Clint floored the accelerator, tires spinning up dust. Ahead, where the road disappeared into the line of pine trees at the far side of the hayfield he could see a cloud of dust, but no taillights — the intruder was running in the dark without lights.

Clint’s truck plunged into the cloud of dust, his headlights showing little but the choking brown cloud, and he was forced to slow. Within a quarter mile, the road came to a four-way intersection, and when Clint arrived, the dust cloud was thicker still. The escaping driver had cut a circle in the intersection to deliberately throw more dust into the air. Clint slammed on the brakes, sliding to a stop, and he cut off the engine as he opened his door and jumped out to listen. The only sound he heard was whippoorwills and cicadas; he could not hear an escaping vehicle in any direction.

After a minute, he disgustedly climbed back into his truck to head for the house. His red truck taillights disappeared from sight and five minutes passed, then an engine rumbled to life, and 100 yards from the intersection a truck driving without lights returned to the road from behind a stand of young pine trees. The driver flipped on his headlights and drove away.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Friday afternoon, Clint stood in the yard of the family farmhouse head and shoulders under the hood of his pickup in the shade of a towering water-oak tree when his brother Silas McPhee drove up.
Silas was the oldest of the three McPhee brothers. He was 50 years old, heavy set, his bald head fringed by a halo of brown hair turning gray.

“Heard you had some excitement out here the other night,” said Silas.

“Yeah, more than I’d like,” said Clint, toweling the grease off his hands. “Wednesday evening I was down at the county road hayfield watching for deer when some joker slipped in and took a shot at that big 12-point drop-tine we saw last year.”

“So that buck is still here?” said Silas.

“No question it was him,” said Clint. “I am pretty sure the guy missed. Mitzi and I went back the next morning and looked carefully. I didn’t find anything that showed a hit, and neither did the dog — did you girl?”

Mitzi raised her head and woofed.

“Did find this,” said Clint. He pulled a spent .270 round from his pocket, and flipped it to Silas.

“Did you call the game warden about the poacher?” Willis asked.

“Yeah, I talked to Tom that evening. He said he’d keep an eye on the area. Maybe set up a decoy in the hayfield when it gets closer to deer season.”

Another truck drove into the yard, driven by the third McPhee brother, Willis. Riding shotgun was his 15-year-old son Cody, who was hanging out of the window waving to his uncles. Clint let the hood slam shut, and he grinned as his brother and nephew piled out to be accosted by Mitzi. The dog raced in circles, barking excitedly from one new arrival to the next.

Willis was the youngest brother at 42, three years younger than Clint. He was tall and thin with wire-rimmed glasses riding on his nose under close-cropped brown hair, and khaki pants and a collared shirt made him appear out of place — more a librarian look than that of a hunter.

“You ready to work?” said Clint, cuffing Cody on the back of the head, knocking his cap off.

“Yessir,” said Cody. “Won’t be long til deer season. We need to get my stand up — er, I mean our stands up.”

“How about something to eat?” said Cody.

“We’ll eat soon,” said Clint, “but we are going to be cooking on the gas grill this weekend, I haven’t got the stove fixed yet.”

“When are Jenna and Zack coming?” Cody asked.

“They should be here shortly — if Zack has finished combing his hair, yet,” Silas laughed.

Zack and Jenna were Silas’ two teenagers. Zack was 19 and heading for Georgia Southern in the fall on a football scholarship. Jenna, 17, was a rising high-school senior, a computer wizard and an accomplished hunter.

The three brothers shared ownership of the farm, but only Clint lived in the old farmhouse. The brothers had grown up on the farm while their parents were alive, but Silas and Willis had moved to the city to make their livings. Silas operated a Tractor Supply Co. store near Macon, and Willis owned a heating and air company in LaGrange. Their parents and grandparents before them had been farmers working the 550-acre farm coaxing soybeans, cotton, corn, peanuts — whatever crop might produce a profit — out of the dirt. It had been tough going recently, especially with the drought, and despite their best efforts the farm was deeply in debt. Of the three, Clint had fought with the most passion any discussion of selling the property. Since he was a barefoot kid, he had rambled the tract hunting squirrels and quail, doves and ducks, and especially deer. The farm, he told people, ran through his veins as surely as did his blood.

Clint lived alone in the two-story, white-clapboard house that his grandparents had built after the original homeplace burned down in 1920. The stately old country farmhouse with a wrap-around porch was surrounded by tall, spreading water oaks. To the right of the house was a 16-tree pecan orchard, to the left, out from under the umbrella of oak tree limbs was a parched, half-hearted attempt at a garden. Behind the house was a large barn and several weathered out-buildings for storing farm disk harrows and hay rakes. Just off the back porch was a fire pit where the McPhee Farm hunters gathered in the evenings to tell detailed stories about their adventures in the woods. Deer-hunting stories from the past hundred years had been told and retold on cool evenings before a crackling campfire.

Directly across the dusty road from the house was a 50-acre strip of 20-foot-tall planted pines — another attempt by the McPhee brothers to make the land pay for itself. Clint worked the farm and did odd jobs in the community, bushhogging, plowing, planting and baling hay. His parents and grandparents had prayed for a farmer in the family to continue the tradition and to keep the land. Clint was eager to fulfill his destiny — if they could make the farm pay — but there were those who wanted to take it away.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Zack and Jenna arrived an hour late. Mitzi barked a warning long before Zack’s dented, faded-blue pickup rumbled into the yard and expired with a backfire and wheeze of exhaust. When Jenna opened her door, Mitzi jumped into the truck whining excitedly to lick her face.

“Super-star here was running a little late, as usual,” said Jenna, kneeling to pet the dog. The girl in blue-jeans and a T-shirt was trim, athletic, with straight, sandy-brown hair that barely reached her shoulders. Her brother looked the part of a college-prospect quarterback: tall, with thick shoulders, bulging biceps and a narrow waist. His hair was a crewcut stubble. When Cody ran up to say hello, Zack picked the smaller boy off the ground and turned him upside down over his shoulder.

Zack and Jenna joined the others on the front porch.

“Zack, I saw your buck this week,” said Clint, and he began to recount the events of Wednesday night at the county road hayfield.

“Zack’s buck!” Silas interrupted. “That’s not Zack’s buck — that’s my buck!”

Silas sat close enough to poke his son in the ribs.

“Zack had his chance. If he hadn’t been counting points instead of aiming, maybe he would have made the shot.”

Willis grinned, watching Zack squirm to another re-telling of his blown opportunity at the buck of a lifetime.

“Oh, I thought he made the shot, all right,” Willis said. “Straight through the left ear.”

Silas rose from his rocking chair.

“Now that we are all here, dinner will be served by the fire pit in 15 minutes — Silas’ bratworst specials.”

In 10 minutes, everyone had wandered to the yard, where Silas was frying bratworst in a black skillet on a gas cook stove. Mitzi, ever present when food was being cooked, sat to one side watching with rapt attention as Silas cooked. Willis and Clint had just settled into camp chairs when Silas gave a strangled squawk. He hollered something unintelligible as he jumped backward, falling away from the grill, slinging two, nearly-done bratworst over his shoulder into the air.

Mitzi was on her feet instantly, her eyes on one of the spinning brats like a defensive back watching an errant pass. She sidestepped backward, timing her leap, then sprang off the ground and picked off a bratworst in midair.

Silas, meanwhile, was on his rear end on the ground scrambling backward away from the cook stove making strangled, “SSSS,” “SSS” sounds.

“SNAKE!” he finally screeched.

Like a thick, black fire hose a dark canebrake rattlesnake had oozed from beneath the base of the grill, inches from where Silas had just been standing. The snake, waking up to its situation, began to rattle. Silas scrambled to his feet and rushed into the house as Clint stepped up for a closer look. Mitzi, her airborne dinner completed, walked up, too, listening to the odd rattling.
“No,” said Clint firmly, pushing the dog away.

The screen door slammed as Silas clumped down the wooden steps stuffing shells into a Remington 1187.

“Wait a minute,” said Clint. “You aren’t going to shoot up your grill are you? There’s a propane tank there, and too many people around.”

Silas backed off while Clint dragged up a metal garbage can from the side of the house and a garden rake. He hooked the thick snake with one end of the rake, lifted it over the can and dropped it in. He carefully closed the lid on the buzzing snake and secured the lid with a bungee cord.

“I’ll take care of the snake in the morning,” said Clint.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

An hour later, the McPhee family was sitting on the front porch as the last crimson shades of the sunset faded from the sky. Willis, who was sitting on the steps next to Cody, happened to glance across the street toward the planted pines. He turned to Cody, sitting next to him.

“You see that?”

“See what?” said Cody.

“Coulda sworn I saw something flash down one of the rows of pines.”

Willis stared a long while into the darkness beneath the pines.

“Nothing there I can see. But I’m sure I saw something. Maybe it was a deer’s eyes reflecting the light.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

At midnight Mitzi awoke from her pillow at the foot of Clint’s bed. Her toenails clicked on the old heart-of-pine floor of the first-floor bedroom where Clint slept. The dog jumped up to the window, her forepaws on the wooden frame and she stared out at the gray nighttime light. She growled softly, then barked.

Clint rolled over in his bed.

“Hush, Mitzi,” he said. “Probably just an ol’ raccoon. Go to bed.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Early the next morning, Clint awoke to pounding on his door.

“Did you move that dern snake?’ his brother Silas called.

“I’m still in bed,” said Clint. “What’s the problem?”

“Come look,” said Silas, a distressed tone to his voice.

When Clint walked into the yard, the garbage can that had secured the rattlesnake was lying on its side, the lid gapped. The snake was gone.

“That’s funny,” said Clint. “I didn’t think that snake was near big enough to turn the can over.”

Silas was mortified. His one dark fear was snakes, especially rattlers.

“That means that snake is still around here — I knew I should have killed the thing,” Silas moaned.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Clint. “You never saw the snake before yesterday, and you aren’t likely to see it again.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

After breakfast, the McPhee hunters scattered onto the property. Silas, Willis and Jenna went to put up ladder stands on three food plots. Clint planned to check his ladder stand off of the powerline that ran through the middle of the property, and Zack revved up the 4-wheeler, with Cody sitting on the back seat grinning from ear to ear. The two teenagers roared away in a cloud of dust.

Clint opened the door to his truck, and found Mitzi already sitting upright on the passenger seat, tongue hanging out, grinning, ready to go for a ride.

“Don’t think those two will get much scouting done from a 4-wheeler,” said Clint to his dog. “’Probably take Cody a week to unlearn all he is going to hear from Zack today.”

Clint turned right out of the driveway onto the road, his tires stirring up a trail of dust that hung like red-clay smoke behind the truck. The old vehicle rattled along, the engine periodically making noises like nuts and bolts clattering in a tin can. A half mile from the farmhouse, he pulled over and shut the engine off.

Mitzi instantly leaped out of the window to begin her olfactory examination of the property. They crossed the road to the edge of the powerline that ran almost parallel to the road, Mitzi running left then right sniffing every tree and bush, her nose likely conjuring up images of coyotes, rabbits and deer.

The whine of an engine made Clint turn back toward the road, now a half mile behind him. He watched as the 4-wheeler carrying Zack and Cody flashed through the powerline opening, kicking up a rooster tail of dust.

“Cody isn’t learning much about hunting from Zack today, is he Mitz?”

Fifteen minutes later, as the crow flies, Clint was directly in front of the farmhouse with only a couple hundred yards of planted pines separating the powerline from the home place. The powerline continued another mile before it passed off the McPhee property. From that direction, the flash of sunlight reflecting on a truck windshield alerted him to a vehicle slowly approaching on the powerline.

In a few minutes, a black, four-door Ford Dually diesel pulled up and stopped. The lettering on the side read, “Granger Development Co.” The driver door swung open and Roy Granger, the owner of the adjacent property, stepped out. His teenage son, J.R., climbed out of the passenger door.

“Well, hello, Mr. Clint. How are we today,” said Roy.

Roy was dressed in black jeans, a black shirt, and he wore a tall, black cowboy hat. With his barrel chest and black, slicked-back hair, he looked the part of a sleazy used-car salesman, Clint thought.
Mitzi went to the teenager, who knelt to pet the dog. J.R. Granger, a quiet and polite teenager, was 18, and dressed in faded blue jeans, a white shirt, and his long hair was pushed under a John Deere cap.
The McPhee brothers and Roy Granger had grown up together in the small town, but Roy’s fortune had been set early through a series of real-estate deals. The palacial Granger mansion included a pool and guest house. Roy’s trophy room was lined with several mounts of outstanding bucks, bucks a little too nice, most people thought, considering his hunting reputation. It was rumored that Roy had dispatched most of the bucks from the comfort of his truck, spotlighting them from deer feeders on his, and other landowners’ property.

“How you like my new truck,” said Roy loudly. “Got it yestiddy. Paid cash.”

“Nice rig,” said Clint. “What’s it doing a mile onto our property?”

“Well, now, it’s your land today, but it’s going to be my land, soon as y’all sell,” said Roy, lighting up a cigarette. “I was just over here enjoyin’ picturin’ in my mind how the four-lane is going to look coming over that hill. The lots on that ridge are going to be high dollar — might keep the top of that ridge for my own place, right on the 18th green of the Granger Golf Course. Has a nice ring to it, don’t it?”
“We’re not interested in selling,” said Clint.

“No?” said Roy, grinning knowingly like a Cheshire cat from behind a blue haze of smoke. “I think you mean you aren’t ready to sell, but Silas is. He needs money bad. Those two kids are about to go to college. An’ poor ol’ Zack don’t even have a truck worth drivin’

“An’ Willis will sell, too. He don’t care nuthin’ about hunting, neither does his boy. An’ did you hear what Willis lost in Vegas last spring? You could use the money, too. No money in farmin’ this dirt. Yessiree, it’s yours now, but it’s goin’ to be Roy’s, just you wait an’ see.”

Mitzi had sidled up to Roy, who reached down as if to scratch her ear. Then the dog squealed as he pinched her ear.

Clint took a half step forward.

“Watch it, Roy,” he said. “Mitzi, heel.”

The dog circled and sat beside Clint, regarding Roy closely.

“Aw that dog’s just a mutt,” said Roy, flipping his lit cigarette onto the ground. “Just a pound pup, ain’t it?”

Clint stepped forward to crush the cigarette under his boot.

“Get off our property, Roy,” said Clint. “The line is marked.”

“It is?” said Roy. “Well, I declare! I must have missed it. Come on boy, let’s go.”

J.R. stood silently, watching his boots, embarrassed.

“Nice to see you, Mr. Clint,” he said. “Tell Jenna I said hello.”

“One more thing,” said Roy, stopping at the door to his truck. “That shore is one mighty-fine drop-tine buck runnin’ this area. I hear tell you’re the best hunter amongst the McPhees, Mr. Clint. Well, I’m the best hunter there is. Looks like we’re goin’ to have us a little showdown over who kills that buck.”

He climbed into his truck.

“That buck’s gonna look right purty on my trophy-room wall.”

Clint and his dog watched the flashy truck weave down the powerline and finally go out of sight over a ridge.

“You don’t suppose he saw that deer last Wednesday night?” he said to the dog.

Mitzi wagged her tail, and woofed.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Zack tapped the bottom of the grain bag to get the last golden kernels to drop to the ground.

“Isn’t putting out corn illegal?” said Cody, who was sitting on the back of the 4-wheeler watching.

“Naw,” said Zack. “There are still three weeks to bow season; this is just supplemental feeding.”

He threw the empty bag into the bushes. After leaving the farmhouse, he and Cody had driven the 4-wheeler to the edge of the property to pick up his secret stash of corn.

“That sure is a big pile of corn,” said Cody nervously.

“It’s just to keep the deer in the area until the season,” said Zack, who was hanging a trail camera aimed at the yellow pile of corn. “You can hunt right here, Cody. Just think, you’ll probably kill a big buck opening day. When you come into camp with a big 10-pointer, everybody is going to be impressed.”

“Well, I guess if the corn is gone by then…” said the 15-year-old uneasily.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Clint and Mitzi dropped off the lower side of the powerline into the woods following a 4-wheeler trail along a narrow, steep-banked ravine. A creek drained a long section of the powerline and the pines back toward the farmhouse, and erosion over the years had cut a ditch like a knife slash in the earth. They came to a precarious wooden bridge that spanned a 12-foot narrow. Fifteen feet below the water pooled 2 feet deep.

From the bridge, the man and dog cut into the woods, following a deer trail that paralleled the creek. In 10 minutes they came to a white-oak flat lining the creek. For 100 yards in every direction white- and red-oak trees 90-feet tall towered over the creek, their spreading, green canopies shielding the sunlight and giving the area a hushed, cool feeling as reverent as any cathedral. It was one of Clint’s favorite places on the farm.

The land sloped gradually away from the creek, and the ridgetops stood in a mix of pines and hardwoods with a thick understory. Better still, from a deer-hunter’s perspective, downstream as the land flattened the creek had been dammed by beavers. A short distance away, and visible when the leaves dropped, the wide-open oak stand transformed into a thick green wall of privet, alders and other swamp-loving vegetation. The effect was a 15-acre snarl of swampy vegetation as thick as a jungle that was perfect bedding and escape cover for all deer and especially for the biggest of bucks.

Clint walked to a ladder stand leaning against an oak tree.

“Reckon I’ll see that drop-tine buck from my old ladder stand again this year?” he asked the dog.

The dog just yawned.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Saturday evening after the sun had set, Zack and Cody stacked a small campfire and after dinner the brothers and the teenagers sat in a circle around the fire to discuss their scouting.

Mitzi lay at Clint’s feet sleeping, her nose resting on one of his boots.

“I bet I’ll bring in the first deer this year,” said Jenna. She had found a damp spot on a food-plot edge where several persimmon trees had successfully loaded down with fruit. In the heat of August, the fruit was ripening rapidly and looked like it would be falling by opening day of archery season.

Zack wouldn’t reveal his hunting plans.

“But Cody and I found a great place for him to hunt,” he announced, with a wink at Cody. Cody blushed deeply, the young hunter hoping the firelight hid his distress over the presence of the corn.

Mitzi suddenly jumped to her feet at the sound of a shrill, descending cry from the woods outside the home place. The long, pealing squeal was followed by a chorus of yips and barks from coyotes. Mitzi ran to the edge of the firelight and barked, then sat and howled, imitating the coyotes. Silas laughed at the dog with her head thrown back like a miniature wolf.

“That is one worthless dog.” “Worthless?” said Clint. “She just can’t stand coyotes. Mitzi. Come!”

The dog trotted back into the circle of chairs, her big brown eyes staring expectantly at Clint.

“Silas says you’re worthless,” he said emphatically to the dog, pointing at Silas. “Get Silas.”

The dog turned and located Silas, then approached him lowering her head and growling playfully. She barked at Silas then nipped his pants leg and shook her head pulling at his blue jeans.

“OK, Mitz,” said Clint. “Get me a Coke.”

The dog ran to a cooler that Willis was sitting on. When Willis stood, the dog grabbed with her teeth a rope loop attached to the lid, jumped on top of, and then over the cooler, pulling on the rope. The lid swung open and fell backward. Mitzi dropped the rope, stuck her head into the cooler and emerged with a can held carefully in her teeth.

The dog pranced to Clint, her tail held high, wagging proudly as she delivered the can.

“Good girl, Mitz,” said Clint.

Jenna and the boys cheered.

“She could be in a Super Bowl commercial with that trick,” said Cody.

“Yeah,” said Clint, grinning as he popped the top of the Coke can, “If I could just get her to open the can and pour it over ice…”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

At midnight the drop-tine, 12-point buck was standing in the garden to the left of the farmhouse. The campfire had been left to burn down and was now just a low glowing heap of red coals. The buck ripped a mouthful of collard greens from the garden and stood munching on the greenery, absently watching the dark silhouette of the farmhouse under the trees. Sudden movement to its right, across the street caught its attention and it turned its head. Like an apparition, a dark figure emerged from the planted pines across the road and headed for the house. The person was carrying a large sack, holding it away from his body. The buck turned, and in a soundless trot, disappeared into the darkness.

Inside the house, Mitzi raised her head and she listened. She rose, padded to the window and looked out, ears forward, a rumbling growl in her throat.

Clint rolled over in his bed.

“Shhhh, Mitz,” he said. “It’s probably just raccoons. Lay down.”

Reluctantly, the dog lay on her pillow, but she continued to whine softly.

 

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