“I used to have a dog.”
Jin did not know where that sentence came from. In fact, he nearly gave a start when he heard Erron Black utter it. He turned his head away from the mirror towards the other side of the hotel room, where the cowboy lay on his single bed, his head inclined towards the window. He wore a blank expression, although his eyes - half-lidded as he stared out the window into the darkness of the night - were filled with thought.
“You had a dog?” the Shaolin monk affirmed, the question coming out like a flat statement.
Erron nodded. “Yeah.”
“And you’re telling me this because …?” Jin ventured to ask.
The gun-slinger rolled his eyes. “That dog we saw in the park reminded me of my old dog.”
“Oh. Well …” the younger man tugged on his ponytail, moving towards his own bed.
Sitting down on the side, he glanced back up at Erron, who still had eyes for the ink-black world on the other side of the glass pane, pinned with the artificial lights of the urban city. It was strange to see the mercenary without his camouflage make-up on; same case with the mask. Truth be told, Jin did not know whether he preferred this jarring, human side of the older man or when he was wearing his Kung Fu Panda get-up.
It’s freaky to see him like this. And now this dog story … didn’t peg him for an animal-lover. Then again, that dog in the park hardly left him alone …
“So, uh, Black,” Jin began, trying to fill the disconcerting silence that had filled the room. “You had a dog.”
“Didn’t realise that I stuttered, Junior,” Erron murmured.
The other man flushed a deep crimson colour, biting down hard on his tongue to prevent a curse from flying out.
I bet Ermac doesn’t give Takeda this much problems!
Taking a deep breath to soothe his mind, he addressed the former Earthrealmer once more. “What was your dog’s name?”
“Mm.” Erron’s fingers began to fiddle with the cords of his pants. “Scruff, ‘cause that’s what he was, kid. A piece of scruff.”
Jin’s eyebrows furrowed, his mouth contorting into a frown. Well, isn’t that a nice way to describe a dog. “What breed of dog was, um, Scruff?”
Erron shrugged. “He was a pavement special. Reckon he had a bit of Blue Lacy in him, that’s for sure.”
“I see,” said Jin, who had no idea what a Blue Lacy was - his knowledge of dog breeds was pretty poor, if not non-existent. If he had to differentiate between a Pinscher and a Doberman, he would probably say that they were exactly the same thing.
Wounding the cord around his index finger, Erron continued, his voice a low, thoughtful murmur:
“I remember the day he walked up to our ranch, this dirty, skinny piece of scruff scavenging for food. No more than a few weeks old, by the looks of things - I was probably five going on six. Daddy wanted to shoot him lest he gave the cows a scare, but my mama stopped him. Said that I could do with a friend …”
Jin canted his head to the side, digesting this information. He tried to mentally picture Erron Black as a child, though the only thing that came to mind was basically a mini-sized version of the mercenary, toting guns too big for his holsters, a hat too big for his head and big, azure-blue eyes ringed in black. Trying to imagine what this child sounded like when he said “Daddy” or “Mama” was just too hilarious to consider.
Thank the Elder Gods Takeda isn’t here, otherwise he’d read my mind and laugh himself to death.
Still, he’d agree that it’s weird to be hearing all of this from Black. Didn’t think I’d be getting a history lesson-cum-autobiography session from this guy.
Solemnly, he spoke up. “So did Scruff become your friend?”
Erron finally looked away from the window to glance at him. “He was my best friend, Junior.”
In that moment, his voice sounded deeper - heavier - than usual. His eyes beheld an odd shimmer, and his mouth was pulled into a frown. Jin was taken aback at the somberness of his expression.
The Shaolin monk sneaked a glance at the gun-slinger’s revolvers on the bed-side table, whom he assumed were the only things that the cowboy considered “best friends”.
“Yeah, he was,” Erron answered gruffly.
He looked up at the ceiling, absentmindedly running a hand over the tally-marked scars etched into his left arm. “Mama made me give that pup a wash, let me feed him some raw beef and she even let me give him his name. Said if I was going to take care of him, I had to show him who was his master from the beginning.”
Again, the image of a mini-Erron came into mind, this time shouting commands and waving his humongous guns at a scruffy-looking dog with a bone in its mouth.
“I bet you trained him well,” Jin remarked, wondering how much input his “Mama” put in.
Erron simply nodded, his lips curling upwards (he’s actually smiling?!). “Scruff was damn clever, Junior. Picked up quickly on the rules I established for him - he always listened to me.”
“Didn’t think you had a lot to say in the first place,” Jin muttered under his breath. The older man was never one for speaking, preferring to stay quiet; when he did speak, he sounded calm but he meant business. The baritone of his voice added to that effect.
The former Earthrealmer did not seem to hear the younger man. “He was a good hunter. Sometimes I took him down with me to the creek to hunt for toads. He could pick up their scent a thousand miles away.”
Reptile wouldn’t have stood a chance, Jin thought with a grin.
“But kid, Scruff was a helluva great herding dog,” Erron said, looking at him now. His blue eyes were positively shining. “He could round up cattle faster than you could load a gun chamber. Daddy always had to ask me for my permission to use him when he needed to move the livestock. Scruff was that incredible.”
He looked, and sounded, chuffed as he spoke about his dog, a drastic difference from the stony-faced, soft-spoken appearance that Jin was used to.
If only I had a camera … my Friendships profile page would explode …
Then, Erron withdrew his gaze, fiddling with his cords again as his face grew somber once more.
“He was a good dog, Junior,” he muttered, his voice low. “Been my best friend for many years, ‘til …”
The sentence tapered off.
Jin frowned, staring at Erron with a sense of foreboding. “Until what exactly?”
A few seconds passed by until the gun-slinger finally answered, albeit in a quiet voice. “I was 16 when Scruff got sick. He didn’t want to eat, he lost weight and he struggled to swallow water. Had a big lump on his side, too.”
“Oh no …” Jin looked down at his lap, unable to look at the other man, who emitted a tired sigh.
“He was suffering something fierce,” Erron murmured, closing his eyes, reliving the memory. “We couldn’t do anything for him. Didn’t have that kind of medical tech back then. That’s when Daddy decided that he … y’know, ought to go.”
“No,” Jin said again, feeling his body shiver. “Don’t tell me …”
“I wanted to be the one to do it, though,” Erron went on. “Couldn’t let any one else do it. Borrowed my daddy’s shot-gun and a shovel, and I took Scruff down to the creek. Dug a big enough hole …”
He stopped, opening his eyes. He peered up at Jin, an aura of sadness surrounding him.
“It wasn’t the first time that I shot an animal, kid, but it was the first time that I shot something that I loved,” he said. “If there’s one thing that I ever praised God for, it was for the fact that Scruff went out peacefully.”
Swallowing the lump that somehow appeared in his throat, Jin mustered up the courage to look Erron dead in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, Black, about you and your dog. I know it’s sounds pretty dumb, but I really am sorry.”
Erron nodded in thanks. “Pretty nice of you to say so, Junior.”
“So, er,” Jin cleared his throat, “did you ever get another dog?”
He regretted those words the moment they left his mouth (damn it, Jin, Black just gave you the sob-story of the century, and you’re asking him if he got a replacement for his dead dog?! He’ll grab those guns and shoot you in the face!), but to his surprise, the former Earthrealmer just traced his tally-marks as he said:
“No, kid, I didn’t want another dog. I didn’t want to go through all of that trauma again, getting close to it and losing it. Besides, I was busy, y’know, training with the best of ‘em, ending up in Outworld, making my living … didn’t want anything to hold me down, not that there’s any animal vaguely resembling a decent dog in Outworld.”
“Least you spent some good times with your dog,” said Jin, slipping under the covers of his bed. “My parents were anti-pets since I was a kid.”
“Why get a pet when they had you?” Erron remarked, a hint of a smirk on his face. He ran his eyes over the Shaolin monk’s ponytail. “With that mane you got, you could shed more hair than a German Shepherd. Plus, I’d bet shouting at you made no difference in your attitude since you never listen.”
“Shut up,” Jin barked without malice.
He watched as the mercenary turned onto his side, his back facing him. Making himself comfortable, Jin grabbed his book off the bed-side table and, laying his head on the pillow, began to read.
A minute or so later, he heard a low voice piping up from the other side of the room.
“You know, kid, I might just get another dog some day. Maybe a Blue Lacy or a Rottweiler. I’ll even name it after someone I know.”
“Oh? What are you gonna call it?”
Jin did not see Erron smile as he murmured:
(See la preview of another MKX fanfic for more details.)