We adopted Bullet in the summer of 1975. I do not know if my mother had seen an ad in the newspaper, or if she and Dad had heard about available puppies through a friend. What I really remember is my younger brother, Tadpole and I, in the grass on a beautiful day, a dozen tiny puppies crawling all over us. It was wonderful.
I also remember my mother choosing the puppy. She took her time, petting them all. We could tell by the way Mom picked Bullet up and whispered into his ear that he was probably going to be our new dog.
Bullet’s parents lived there at the farm. His mother was a Collie who looked just like Lassie, and his father was a German Shepherd, who looked like my mother’s former dog, Fitz. Bullet looked a lot like his dad. Because he was still so small (none of the puppies were old enough to be separated from their mommy yet), with his shape and coloring, he resembled a bullet.
In a few weeks, Bullet came home. He was a good boy, and he learned fast: Bullet was housebroken in days. He’d lie down, sit, and shake paws when asked, in less than a month. He was never on a leash; we had a large, fenced-in yard, and he was free to run around all he wanted.
Over the next few months, Bullet grew, and while he kept his father’s German Shepherd coloring, his fur was long and soft, like his Collie-mother’s. He was a beautiful dog.
On my eighth birthday (that September), my father came home late for dinner. I had started thinking he was going to miss my birthday (even though he wasn’t that late) when he came through the front door, singing, “Happy Birthday to you!”
Then, his shirt moved. Curious, I stepped forward. “Daddy… what happened to your shirt?”
“It’s your present,” he said, with that I’m Up to Something smile of his. “Couldn’t wrap it.”
Out poked a little black kitten’s head.
I squealed and hopped up and down. “For me? Really?”
Dad unbuttoned his shirt a little more and held the kitten out to me. With each little “mew”, I was deeper in love.
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
He frowned at my mother. “It’s a little girl.”
I heard my mother: “Oh, great.” (I did not know that females were somehow more “trouble”. I now think Mom was a little upset because spaying a female is more expensive than neutering a male, and we weren’t Rockefellers.)
I held the little girl in my palms, a scrap of velvet, really. She meowed and purred and gave me head-butts.
I frowned, worried. “But what if Bullet doesn’t like her?”
My mother said, “Bullet? Not like someone? Tch! You should be worried that she won’t like him!”
Mom walked with me into the kitchen (Bullet’s favorite room in the house). Bullet sat, but his ears were up and his tail was going ninety miles an hour. He whimpered and put his front paws up. The kitten made no sound, but sat perfectly still in my hands.
“Just put her on the floor gently,” Mom said. I did.
The kitten walked straight up to Bullet, who had stooped so that his chin rested on his front paws (and his tail never stopped wagging). I think we all held our breath, waiting for a growl, a hiss, a bite, a scratch…
Instead, the little bit of velvet began licking Bullet’s nose and the side of his mouth. She purred.
My mother and I exchanged surprised looks. My father, standing behind us, laughing, said, “Look at that poor sumbitch’s face! What is that thing, Boy? Huh?”
We all laughed. Bullet was one bewildered dog!
Once his face was clean to her standards, the tiny kitten nudged Bullet’s front paws apart and fell asleep between them.
We named her Familiar (My brothers were into witches back then; a witch’s pet is a familiar, and in all the old stories, witches had black cats.).
Her favourite family member was Bullet. There was never a cross word between them. They ate together, played together, napped together (even when she became a full-grown cat, her favourite sleeping spot was between Bullet’s front paws, his chin resting on the top of her head), and they cleaned one another.
When Bullet was let loose from the yard one day (I think a neighbor-friend had left the gate open.), he was struck by a car. He was lucky (and so were we!) that it wasn’t very serious; only his tail had gotten hit. He ran straight into the kitchen, a nervous wreck. Familiar was the only one he permitted near him at first. She inspected him, rubbed up against him, and cleaned him up until he was calm enough for my mother to get a better look.
Familiar, an indoor cat, got out one night. She came back the next day. Soon, we realized she was pregnant. The night she went into labor, Bullet stayed in the kitchen, pacing nervously.
My dad, hands on his hips, said, “Is there something you wanna tell me, Boy?”
I had no idea why everyone thought that was funny at the time. Now, I giggle, thinking about it.
Familiar gave birth on February 21, 1976, in the wee hours. She had three kittens, the first being Charlie (I’ve written about him before). Next came Tiger, and then Loretta (who looked just like her mommy).
My mother had set up a box with old towels for Familiar and her kittens. It was in the kitchen, not far from our pets’ food bowls.
One morning, eating breakfast in the dining room (adjacent to the kitchen), I watched Familiar place Charlie into Bullet’s mouth!
“Mom!” I screamed! “Familiar’s feeding her babies to Bullet!”
I ran into the kitchen. There was Bullet, again with that “I have no idea what’s going on right now” look on his face, his mouth hanging open. Inside, Charlie sat like a king on his throne. Bullet deposited the kitten across the room. Then he walked back to the box, where Familiar placed the second kitten, Tiger, on his tongue. She then picked up Loretta and followed Bullet across the room.
My mother, who had just come up from the basement (she had not heard my scream), nearly dropped the laundry basket. “What the…?”
The dog crossed the room another time, and began nudging the box-home across the floor.
“Oh,” my mother said, understanding. “Mama cats move their kittens, honey. It’s an instinct, to keep the babies safe.”
Then she started laughing. “Bullet’s helping her.”
“I thought he was going to eat the babies!”
Mom laughed even harder. “Bullet? Never. He loves them!”
It was true. Whenever Familiar was eating, or taking a trip to the litter box, Bullet sat by the cardboard box and watched over the trio of kittens until their mommy returned. As they grew, he was their mattress, and their pretend prey. He never seemed annoyed, even when they chased one another ON him.
Familiar had another litter, not too long after those three were weaned, and Tiger and Loretta were placed in good homes (We kept Charlie. Mom said we kind of had to; he was the first animal my father loved that loved him back!). This time, she had five kittens.
One, a little tiger-striped kitty, was born kind of bald on top. Immediately, I named him “Kojak”. He was very tiny, smaller than the other four. My father tried to prepare us; he told us that Kojak was not well, and may not make it.
Kojak died in the night. We were all sad, but Familiar… She was devastated. I never want to hear that kind of crying again.
At Familiar’s side, crying as hard as she cried, and kissing her over and over again: Bullet.
I don’t think they were “ours” as much as they belonged to one another. They were best friends, sharing everything they had, and consoling one another when needed.
I like to think that I learned something about friendship from Bullet and Familiar.