Are we almost there?”
“That’s the tenth time you’ve asked, Susan,” said my older sister, Sharon, from the front seat.
Mom glanced over her shoulder at me as she drove down the hot dusty highway. “The turnoff is right up ahead.”
“Finally,” I said. “It’s about time.” I was hot, cramped, and thirsty. My younger brother, Johnny, and our dog, Val, were sharing the back seat with me. It had been a long drive to the state park north of Phoenix where we were meeting some other families for a picnic.
My dog, Val, was hot too. Her head was sprawled across my lap, and her tongue was hanging out. I stroked her freckled face. “Not too much longer,” I whispered in her ear. I knew she was as anxious as I was to get out of the car so we could stretch our legs.
We pulled into the picnic area. Three or four other cars were already parked, and folks were unpacking food onto the picnic tables. My cousins already had a game of dodgeball going on.
“Come on, Val!” I yelled as I jumped out of the car. “Let’s go!”
We zigzagged through the picnic tables on the way to the dodgeball game. Val bounced along by my side. A young couple, friends of my mother, were watching the game. When they saw me approaching with Val, the mother quickly scooped up their little toddler into her arms.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “Val is really good with little kids. She loves them.”
“Are you sure?” asked the toddler’s mother.
I nodded. “I take her to the park all the time. The little kids even sit on her sometimes when she’s lying down. She doesn’t do a thing.”
The toddler was bending over, reaching out to Val. The mother cautiously set her child back down on the ground. The toddler squealed good-naturedly and immediately grabbed some of Val’s fur. Val stood there patiently while the mother uncurled the toddler’s hand.
“Come on, Val,” I said, and turned to race off to the game. I was about 20 feet away when I realized that Val wasn’t following me. She was still standing near the toddler. “Val!” I called out. “Come on, girl!”
Instead of coming to me as she usually did, Val sat down. That puzzled me, because she always obeyed my commands. But I was too eager to go play to reprimand her. “OK, be that way!” I said. If she wanted to rest, that was her business.
I ran off to join my cousins. Soon I was caught up in the middle of the game.
Everyone froze when a rattling sound buzzed through the air. Living out in the desert as we did, we all knew the unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake.
I looked in the direction of the sound and stopped breathing. In the brush off to the left was the toddler, wobbling along with no idea of the danger. Val was still by her side.
Then everything happened at once. The child’s mother screamed. The child’s father raced for the toddler. Another man grabbed a shovel.
But it was too late. As I watched in horror the snake struck out at the toddler. At the same instant Val jumped on the child, knocking her to the ground. The snake’s fangs sank deep into Val’s neck.
The father snatched up the child as the other man whacked the head off the snake. I ran to Val, who was now lying on her side in the dirt. Her neck was swelling fast. I cried as my uncle picked her up and headed for our car.
“Susan, Sharon, Johnny, get in the car!” yelled my mother. She rushed to the ice chest and threw some ice cubes into a tea towel.
My uncle placed Val gently on our back seat, and my brother and I scrambled in on either side of her. Mom handed me the ice pack and started the car.
“Press the ice against her neck,” she shouted. She backed up with tires spinning and gravel flying. I’d never seen her drive like that.
Although we went a lot faster than before, it still took a long time to get to town. The whole time I kept saying a little prayer in my head: Please don’t let Val die, Lord. Please don’t let her die.
Fortunately Mom knew the location of an animal hospital on the edge of town. When we reached the clinic, she jumped out of the car and ordered me out of the way. She carried Val inside by herself, yelling at my brother to open the hospital door.
The hospital staff took one look at Val and quickly ushered us into a room. Val lay spread out on the cold metal table, as limp as a rag doll. Her throat was so puffed up that she could barely breathe. Her eyes were shut. The vet inserted a large needle into the swollen area and drew out a lot of fluid.
“Hopefully that will help take some of the pressure off her windpipe,” he said. “The biggest threat right now is her inability to breathe very well because of the swelling.”
Other than that, there wasn’t much he could do. We all hoped that the snake hadn’t injected much poison and that Val would live. The vet said she had a 50-50 chance of surviving.
We took her home, and she made it through the night. We took turns staying by her side, never leaving her alone. We offered her sips of water and warm broth, but for nine days she hardly drank a thing.
On the tenth day I ran home from school to see her. When I rounded the corner of our street, my eyes filled with tears. Val was waiting for me at the end of the driveway. She had pulled through! She was going to be OK!
Val went on to live a long and happy life. She never disobeyed me again after that day. Why did she disobey me then? If she hadn’t, she never would have gotten bit. But that child very possibly would have died.
I believe Val had a good reason for ignoring my commands that day. When she stayed with that child, she was waiting for instructions from someone with more authority than I. I believe she was listening to an angel.
Written by as told to Karen Troncale by Susan Hutzler
Illustrated by Javier Saltares