Nala, the world’s bravest and boldest border collie, bounded through the brambles.
“The river just jumped its banks, Duke,” she reported. “We need to herd it back to where it belongs!”
“You can’t herd water!” said Scruffy, his wiry whiskers twitching. “That’s harder than herding cats!”
“Well, we need to do something,” said the steely-eyed Duke. “Because the Wilkins farm is directly downstream!”
“The Wilkins farm?” shrieked Scruffy. “Their new puppies will be swept away in the flood!”
“Oh no they won’t,” said Duke.
“Not on our watch!” added the noble Nala.
“When trouble calls”--Duke arched his left eyebrow heroically--“it’s Dog Squad to the rescue!”
Duke took off running.
“Follow me!” he shouted over his shoulder.
The three dogs raced alongside the swollen river. The music was very dramatic, with lots of DUN-DEE-DUN-DUN-DUNs. It was the kind of music that made a chase scene even more exciting.
“There!” said Nala, focusing her laser-sharp eyes and pointing. “In the rapids! Six puppies!”
“I’ve heard of giving dogs a bath,” cracked Scruffy, “but this is ridiculous.”
“Dog Squad!” shouted a weeping mother dog on the far shore of the river. “Help! Save my children! They’re in trouble!”
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” boomed Duke over the roar of the raging rapids. “No harm shall befall your pups. Not today. We’re the Dog Squad.” He gazed toward the horizon. Wind tousled his fur, just so. The sun glinted off his eyes. “And we’re going in after them!”
“We are?” said Scruffy. “Those rapids look pretty, you know, rapid, Duke.”
“That just means we’ll get downstream faster!”
Duke leapt into the water.
“Pawsome!” cried Nala as she jumped in behind Duke.
Scruffy sighed. “Nothing’s too ruff for us!” He sprang off the rocky riverbank and belly-flopped into the churning stream below.
Grunting hard and flexing every muscle he had to flex, Duke fought his way to the middle of the whitecapped water. Muddy waves crested, dragging along branches torn from trees upstream.
“Help!” peeped an adorable puppy, bobbing up and down in the water. “Help!”
“Hang on, son!” shouted Duke. “We’re coming.”
“Duke!” cried Scruffy. “There’s only three of us but six of them. We can’t possibly save ’em all.”
“Oh yes we can, Scruffy. We’re the Dog Squad.”
“Saving puppies is what we do best!” added Nala.
“But how?” gurgled Scruffy, spitting out a mouthful of dirty water.
Duke could see all six puppies. Three were flailing. Two were frantically treading water. One was biting a stick like it was a chew toy.
“Of course!” said Duke. “Bite onto a couple of those branches, gang. I’ll strip some bark off this log. We’ll lash together a raft and float these puppies home!”
Like dogs all across America, Fred was glued to his human’s TV, watching the new episode of Dog Squad that had just started streaming that night.
Fred loved the heart-racing, tail-wagging adventures of Scruffy, Nala, and their fearless leader, Duke!
All the dogs in the show were voiced by human actors, of course, because even though dogs could talk among themselves, they still hadn’t cracked the code for human speech.
“Hop aboard, sport!” Duke called to the last puppy still furiously paddling in the swirling water alongside the raft Fred’s heroes had just lashed together.
“My name’s Rocko, not Sport,” the puppy snapped back.
Fred laughed. On-screen, Duke chuckled the way all heroes chuckle as he plucked Rocko out of the river. Then he gave the little guy an ear nuzzle that made the puppy giggle.
Awwww, thought Fred.
It was one of those cute awwww moments that Dog Squad always did right after its action scenes. Fred loved the awwww moments. And the action scenes. He loved EVERYTHING. The whole show.
Fortunately, Fred’s owner, Big Tony Bomboloni, wasn’t home most Thursday nights, when fresh episodes came online. Big Tony wouldn’t want to watch Dog Squad, because Big Tony didn’t really like dogs. He’d only adopted Fred from the animal shelter because he thought that, with enough harsh training, Fred could become a guard dog--the super-aggressive kind that Big Tony could sell to the highest bidder.
Big Tony was always trying to get rich quick.
Just the other week, he bent all his refrigerator magnets and tried to sell them online as miracle medical bracelets to gullible senior citizens.
Fred frowned thinking about it.
If Big Tony was on Dog Squad, the good guys would catch him, lock him up, and throw away the key. It was too bad that justice wasn’t as swift or fair in real life as it was on Dog Squad.
Truth was, Fred just wasn’t cut out to be a guard dog. He wanted to be part of a forever family, not a moneymaking scheme. A real family. Like he’d almost had with Susan.
Fred sighed. Whenever he thought of Susan, he remembered long walks in the park, cozy cuddle time on the couch, and a bowl that was always filled with kibble.
Susan had loved Fred. She even gave him his name. F-R-E-D. Wrote it on his collar in big, bold strokes. But then Susan fell in love with Mike, and Mike thought Fred was a mutt (he was). Mike didn’t want to be seen walking a mutt in New York City’s Central Park.
If they were going to get married, Mike told Susan, Fred had to go. If Susan needed a dog, Mike said he would buy her a new one--a purebred from a trainer he knew about in Pennsylvania. Purebreds made much more fashionable canine companions. Susan agreed. Because she was more in love with Mike than she had been with Fred.
Three weeks before their wedding, Susan took Fred to an animal shelter on East 110th Street, where she told a whole bunch of lies, including “My fiancé is allergic to him.”
Fred blinked hard. Sometimes it was so sad to think about Susan.
“Duke!” shouted Nala on the TV. Her eyes narrowed. She was focused on something rising up behind the raft.
Oh no! Fred saw it, too. A towering wall of water.
“The beaver dam upstream,” said Nala, somehow keeping her cool the way she always did. “It must’ve burst. Here comes a tsunami!”
“Cowabunga, everybody!” Duke scooped up all the puppies, tucked three under each arm, and stood on his hind legs to ride the rickety raft like a surfboard on the crest of a thirty-foot wave.
It was so cool! Fred wished he could do it too! He wished he could be like Duke!
“When trouble calls,” Fred said in his best Duke voice, “it’s Dog Squad to the rescue!”
He leapt up on the ratty sofa in Big Tony’s basement TV room as if it was the raging river. He pretended the cushions were puppies in need of rescuing.
“Saving puppies is what we do best! Nothing’s too ruff for us! We’re pawsome!”
Fred plucked up the cushions, one by one, and tossed them to safety on the floor.
He was rescuing a throw pillow, thrashing it back and forth to free it from a tangle of imaginary vines, when he heard the cellar steps creaking.
Fred knew what the creaking steps meant.
Big Tony had come home early!
“What the heck do you think you’re doing?” Big Tony shouted at Fred.
Fred tucked his tail between his legs and dropped his eyes. Big Tony had pasty skin, oily black hair, and angry, beady eyes.
“That couch cost me twenty-five bucks! Do you have twenty-five bucks? No. Because you’re nothing but a lazy moocher!”
Big Tony grabbed Fred by his raggedy collar.
“What was I thinking?” snarled Big Tony. “A stray like you could never become a guard dog! You’re afraid of everything! Even thunder!”
He dragged Fred up the steps to the first floor.
He threw open the apartment’s back door and tossed Fred out into the alley.
“Get out and stay out! You no-good, miserable mutt! I can’t believe I wasted my time trying to train you! And don’t come back, neither!”
The door slammed shut.
Fred’s spirits sank. He wasn’t surprised by what had just happened. Big Tony had told him, over and over, that he was useless, that he’d never be mean or tough enough to be a real guard dog. It was true. One time, Fred saw a pair of mice in the kitchen. He didn’t chase them away. He just watched them nibble the chunk of cheese that had fallen out of Big Tony’s sandwich. The mice were hungry.
And now, so was Fred. He was starving.
Without a home, will I ever eat again?
The thought rumbled through Fred’s head as hunger grumbled through his belly. Big Tony hadn’t fed Fred lately. His only supper had been a pair of half-chewed pizza crusts he’d found on the kitchen floor.
Fred started up the alley, sniffing for familiar scents.
But it had rained recently. The smells had all been washed away.
What would Duke do? he wondered.
Easy! Duke would chase down a dog food delivery truck! Then he’d jump up on its rear bumper, work open the doors with his snout, and help himself (not to mention Scruffy and Nala) to a dog food feast. He’d also repay the kindly truck driver by saving their life when their gas pedal got stuck to the floor.
Yep. That was what Duke would do. But Duke was brave. Fred wasn’t. If he saw a runaway dog food truck, he’d probably run the other way.
The alley was quiet. Except for the sound of Fred’s paws slapping against the wet pavement.
There was a streetlamp up ahead. Its misty cone of light shone on a dumpster.
There might be food in there! Fred realized. He heard the muffled clanking of dishes. Sniffed the delicious odor of steak and meat loaf and baked potatoes. Because the dumpster was right behind a restaurant!
He picked up his pace and trotted over to inspect the hulking treasure chest. His nose wiggled and widened, savoring all the smells.
An elderly dog, so skinny Fred could see its ribs, stepped into the light and pawed at the dumpster.
Man, thought Fred, that old guy looks even hungrier than me.
Suddenly, a tough, muscular bulldog with a spiked collar emerged from the darkness.
The bulldog was growling.
Another mean-looking dog, a Doberman pinscher, slunk out of the shadows behind the bulldog.
The Doberman’s collar was spiky, too.
“Whatcha doin’, Grandpa?” the bulldog grumbled.
“Well,” replied the old-timer, his voice shaky, “I was hoping I might find something to eat inside this dumpster. You see, I’ve fallen upon hard times and--”
“Boo-hoo,” sneered the bulldog.
“Yeah, boo-dee-hoo-dee-hoo,” snickered the Doberman.
“Step away from the buffet, Grandpa,” commanded the bulldog. “This is our alley and our dumpster.”
Fred was still hidden by shadows, but he crawled forward. Inching closer to the dumpster.
He wasn’t sure why. He just did it.
“Come on, friends,” begged the old dog. “Surely there’s enough scraps inside for all of us.”
“Ah, quit your whining,” barked the bulldog. “My name is Dozer, see? And I ain’t your friend. The only dog I’m sharing my dinner with is my pal here, Petunia.”
“Do not make me rip out your fur, old man,” snarled Petunia. “Because you ain’t got much fur left!”
Fred had never been brave. In fact, he was pretty much a coward.
But for some reason, Dozer and Petunia reminded him of Mike and Big Tony. They were all bullies, and bullies were only interested in what they wanted, not who they might be hurting.
Fred was tempted to sneak away and hide. But he couldn’t let the two mean dogs rough up a weak old stray who looked like he might not even have any teeth. So Fred rose up out of his crawl and stepped into the dim light cast by the streetlamp.
“Um, you guys?” Fred was so terrified, he wondered if the bulldog and the Doberman could hear his heart thumping inside his chest. Yep. This had been a really bad, terrible, no-good idea.
“What the what?” gasped Dozer. “It’s that dog. Duke!”
“Huh?” said Fred.
“Duke!” shrieked the Doberman. “From Dog Squad!”
“I knew they’d nab us one day!” said Dozer.
Fred glanced down at a puddle and studied his reflection.
Okay. There was a resemblance. He didn’t have the same heroic glint in his eye, and his fur didn’t ruffle as majestically in the breeze, but he did look a little like Duke. Especially in the murky light of an otherwise dark alley.
“Cheese it, Petunia!” cried Dozer.
The tough dogs took off.
Fred laughed a nervous laugh. “I’m not Duke, I’m--”
But they were long gone.
“Thank you, young fella,” wheezed the old dog. “You’re very brave.”
“Me? Not really. I was actually kind of scared. Did you see the fangs on that Doberman?”
“I certainly did. But true courage doesn’t mean you’re not afraid. True courage means you’re scared but you go ahead and do what needs to be done anyway.”
Fred helped the old dog forage for food in the dumpster. Mission accomplished, he found a few scraps for himself, too.
It was food. Sort of. But it was also disgusting.
Suddenly, a rattling truck crunched up the alleyway.
“Uh-oh,” said the old dog. “Now we better ‘cheese it’! That’s Animal Control!”
The old dog moved fast.
He darted behind the dumpster just as a man dressed in coveralls climbed out of the truck. The man carried a long pole with a loop at the end.
“Well, hey there, big guy,” he said to Fred, sounding very friendly. “You lost?”
Fred wagged his white-tipped tail. He did that sometimes when he was nervous.
“I’ll bet you’re hungry, too.”
Fred’s tail swished even faster. He was hungry.
“How about I take you someplace nice where they’ll feed you two meals a day?”
Fred’s whole body was wiggling now. He did need someplace to spend the night. And he was still hungry.
“Just need to loop this around your neck . . .”
The man slipped a soft circle of rope over Fred’s head. Fred smiled. This was his lucky night! This nice man was going to take him someplace safe where he could eat two meals a day! Maybe a restaurant. Maybe he’d get to slurp down stringy spaghetti like he’d seen dogs do in a cartoon once.
The man tugged on a smaller loop at his end of the four-foot pole.
The rope cinched around Fred’s throat.
“Ha! Gotcha!” the man shouted triumphantly. “You’re comin’ with me, fleabag.”
Fred’s whole body slumped. The man had tricked him. Big Tony was right. Fred was dumb. Now he might wind up someplace even worse than Big Tony’s!
The man tugged hard on the pole and dragged Fred over to his truck. Its cargo area was a series of locked and vented doors. He opened one and shoved Fred into what turned out to be a very cramped, very dark prison cell. Fred felt the loop loosen around his neck and was about to smile in gratitude just as the jail door slammed shut in his face.