Dad brought him home from a
fishing trip in the mountains, full of cockleburs and so
thin you could count every rib.
Mom said. “He’s filthy!”
“No, he isn’t! He’s
Rusty,” said John, my eight-year-old brother. “Can we
keep him? Please... please... please.”
going to be a big dog,” Dad warned, lifting a
mud-encrusted paw. “Probably why he was
“What kind of dog?” I asked. It was
impossible to get close to this smelly
“Mostly German shepherd,” Dad said.
“He’s in bad shape, John. He may not make
John was gently picking out
“I’ll take care of Rusty. Honest, I
Mom gave in, as she usually did with John.
My little brother had a mild form of hemophilia. Four
years earlier, he’d almost bled to death from a routine
tonsillectomy. We’d all been careful with him since
“All right, John,” Dad said. “We’ll keep
Rusty. But he’s your
And that’s how
Rusty came to live with us. He was John’s dog from that
very first moment, though he tolerated the rest of
John kept his word. He fed, watered,
medicated and groomed the scruffy-looking animal every
day. I think he liked taking care of something rather
than being taken care of.
Over the summer, Rusty
grew into a big, handsome dog. He and John were constant
companions. Wherever John went, Rusty was by his side.
When school began, Rusty would walk John the six blocks
to elementary school, then come home. Every school day
at three o’clock, rain or shine, Rusty would wait for
John at the playground.
“There goes Rusty,” the
neighbors would say. “Must be close to three. You can
set your watch by that dog.”
Telling time wasn’t
the only amazing thing about Rusty. Somehow, he sensed
that John shouldn’t roughhouse like the other boys. He
was very protective. When the neighborhood bully taunted
my undersized brother, Rusty’s hackles rose, and a deep,
menacing growl came from his throat. The heckling ceased
after one encounter. And when John and his best friend
Bobby wrestled, Rusty monitored their play with a
watchful eye. If John were on top, fine. If Bobby got
John down, Rusty would lope over, grab Bobby’s collar
and pull him off. Bobby and John thought this game great
fun. They staged fights quite often, much to Mother’s
“You’re going to get hurt, John!” she
would scold. “And you aren’t being fair to
John didn’t like being restricted. He
hated being careful—being different. “It’s just a game,
Mom. Shoot, even Rusty knows that. Don’t you, boy?”
Rusty would cock his head and give John a happy
In the spring, John got an afternoon paper
route. He’d come home from school, fold his papers and
take off on his bike to deliver them. He always took the
same streets, in the same order. Of course, Rusty
delivered papers, too.
One day, for no particular
reason, John changed his route. Instead of turning left
on a street as he usually did, he turned right.
Thump!... Crash!... A screech of brakes... Rusty sailed
through the air.
Someone called us about the
accident. I had to pry John from Rusty’s lifeless body
so that Dad could bring Rusty home.
fault,” John said over and over. “Rusty thought the car
was gonna hit me. He thought it was another
“The only game Rusty was playing was the
game of love,” Dad said. “You both played it
John sniffled. “Huh?”
there for Rusty when he needed you. He was there for you
when he thought you needed him. That’s the game of
“I want him back,” John wailed. “My
“No, he isn’t,” Dad said, hugging
John and me. “Rusty will stay in your memories
© Chicken Soup for the Soul:
Loving Our Dogs