The snow stopped falling soon after dawn.
From somewhere along the frozen river came the harsh scraping of a shovel; otherwise, all was still.
The yard behind the dingy white house was somewhat improved by the snow — it had buried some of the junk and had given a jaunty white cap to a rusted old pickup truck.
One mound of snow shifted suddenly, and a shaggy black head rose from it. The big dog lurched up, snow sliding from her furry back then spraying everywhere as she gave a vigorous shake.
Pudding plunged through the deep snow along the chain-link fence.
“Awrraw,” she said questioningly, studying the corner where the snow drifted high.
With a happy bound, she plunged up the ramp that nature had made for her, and though she sank into the drift, her momentum carried her up and over.
With a small yip of joy, she bounded toward the river.
The bank was high on this side; Pudding sat at the top and just watched. A woman skated around a newly cleared rectangular space, then suddenly pirouetted, her graceful, spinning body a blur, long hair whipping from under a yellow knitted hat.
The ice dancer stopped with a scrape of a skate blade, then, as if performing for thousands, gave a low bow.
The woman glanced up, and Pudding grinned down at her, pink tongue lolling. The skater laughed and waved.
But the chickens were waiting.
Pudding loved poultry — yes, in her kibble, but she didn’t connect the fascinating, feathery fowl in the coop at the Richard Farm with food.
She’d crouch with her nose against the chicken-wire door and watch them pecking at the corn on the ground the way a human watches a favorite movie that never gets old.
This morning, though, as she approached the coop, she could hear the chickens were agitated, their gentle clucks ramped up to squawks that Pudding knew meant trouble.
It happened all at once — a fox with a plump hen in his jaws wriggled free of a hole in the coop, Pudding leaped forward with a growl and grabbed it by the tail, and the farmhouse door slammed as the farmer came running, shotgun in hand.
The fox dropped the hen and yanked free of the big Newfoundland, leaving the end of its tail in her mouth. Unseen by the farmer, it dashed away. Pudding was left nosing the chicken, urging it to get up and back under the warm light.
The gun fired, and, frightened, the dog streaked toward the river. At the top of the path, she glanced back; the man was raising the gun again. Pudding slithered down the path, out of control, and skidded as she hit the ice — right into the skater.
The woman fell, her head smacking hard. And she lay there, new snow lightly dusting her face.
The farmer hadn’t bothered to follow; he had a chicken coop to secure before another varmint could raid it again.
He knew who owned that black dog, anyhow, and Mr. Doug Bobby was about to get an early morning call.
On the ice, Pudding gently nosed the woman then tentatively licked her cheek. Then she lay close against the woman, head across her chest, keeping her warm.
“Get away from her!”
The dog looked up to see a figure on the bridge, waving its arms.
“Leave her alone!” a woman’s voice screeched.
Something hit the ice beside the dog, and ice chips sprayed both animal and unconscious woman. A rock skidded past.
Startled, Pudding loped off the ice and up the far bank — and a beat-up station wagon pulled up beside her.
Pudding sank into a crouch as Doug got out.
“Killed a chicken, you stupid dog,” he growled, snapping the leash to her collar, then yanking it hard.
He gave her a kick and pointed at the open back door of the car.
Pudding climbed in.
Dee Dee Christiansen’s face was white as paper, as white as the bandage on her head and the face of the man who sat beside her hospital bed, hands clasped in prayer.
“The surgery went well,” a nurse told him softly.
“She took a fall skating?” the woman asked.
“She skated in the Olympics,” he told her. “She didn’t just fall.
“A dog attacked her.”
The nurse gasped.
“Someone saw from the bridge — my wife on the ice, the dog on her.”
“But she doesn’t have any bites ...” the nurse said.
“That woman saved her. Screamed and threw a rock. And she called 911.”
Ron gently touched Dee Dee’s brow.
“She loved ... loves skating on the river as the sun comes up, when it’s just her and the ice.” His expression turned wry. “It’s so peaceful then.”
Doug used a cable to tie Pudding up this time in the fenced-in yard.
It was the pain in her ribs, where his steel-toed boot had struck her again and again, that kept her from running away, however.
Just now, anyhow.
Once a day — if she was lucky — the man would shove a bowl of kibble in front of her, slop some water into the bucket that was mostly ice now.
She’d come to live with Doug six months or so ago; he’d picked her out at the animal shelter after his yellow Lab Doozy died an early death from misuse and, Pudding was sure, lack of love.
Newfoundlands are good retrievers and great swimmers, so Doug figured the canine with the ridiculous name would make a decent bird dog.
And he liked the idea of having a dog everyone would notice — at a year old, she already weighed 120 pounds. Doug relished the gasps of fear that the bearlike Newfie would cause as she emerged from the woods.
Otherwise, she’d proved worthless.
“Less than worthless,” Doug had snarled, very drunk, the night he kicked Pudding’s ribs in. “Had to pay for that chicken you killed. They say you attacked that woman on the ice — prob’ly get sued now, too.”
A sheriff’s deputy stood in the yard, studying Pudding from a distance.
“Mrs. Christiansen is still unconscious,” he told Doug. “She’s got a little kid who won’t ever forget this Christmas, that’s for sure.”
“Dog don’t retrieve worth a damn, but it’d never hurt nobody,” Doug told him.
Even now, in the middle of the day, he breathed liquor fumes, and Deputy Bruce Bing wished the guy were behind the wheel so he could pull him over and lock him up.
The dog, though huge, didn’t look mean. Tongue lolling, it seemed to be chuckling at some secret joke.
“I’ve got to take her to the dog officer’s, get her evaluated,” Bing said, waving some papers.
“Come on. I’ve got to fill out a report.”
Pudding backed as far as the cable would stretch. She wriggled her head back and forth until her collar slid off over the thick ruff that had kept it looser than Doug had meant it to be.
Her snow ramp had melted some with the start of an unseasonable warm streak, but the dog managed to fight her way over the fence. She trotted to the riverbank then down the path and across the ice, paws splashing in puddles here and there.
There were farms on this side of the river, too, the first a big one with long rows of cows in the barn.
The Newfie cocked her head, listening closely. Small cries of distress were coming from somewhere close by, and she followed them to a horse stall where, on a pile of loose hay, six tiny black-and-white kittens were mewing plaintively.
Pudding nosed each one then curled up beside them. When the farmer’s daughter found them, hours later, the dog was asleep, with one kitten snuggled against her left ear, four burrowed into her side and one curled up on her head.
The dog woke at the click of the girl’s cellphone, taking pictures.
“Their mama didn’t come home,” she told Pudding, petting her and the small felines. “Thanks for taking care of them.”
The girl found a box, lifted the kittens into it and carried them to the farmhouse, Pudding close at her side.
“Don’t worry; I’ll take it from here,” she told the dog.
So Pudding moved on.
Miranda bumped a hip against the barn door to slide it open and, hugging a bucket to her chest, stepped inside.
The wind was blowing outside, rain hitting the metal roof, but in here, it was snug and cozy. And filled with friends.
Prancer nickered in his stall, and Miranda dumped the oatmeal mash in the pony’s feed box. Her dad would clean the stalls later, when he got home from the hospital.
She missed him. Aunt Maggie was nice and a great cook, but since Miranda’s mom got hurt, her dad had been gone every single night.
It was like she didn’t have a mom or dad now.
He kept telling her that Mom would wake up any day now, that she’d be fine. But if he had to be with her that much, could that be true?
Miranda sniffed back some tears and dipped a cup into a plastic bin, filling it with cracked corn that she spread on the floor. She lifted the hinged top of the small chicken coop, and a big rooster and three hens made the short flight over the side to the floor. Miranda sat on an overturned bucket to watch them peck at the feed.
She rubbed an arm of her red jacket across her eyes; they ached from crying. Then she rubbed them with both fists. For from behind a bale of hay, a shaggy black head had appeared, and fear flooded the child.
It was a bear! But then she saw, no, it was a dog. Miranda’s fright didn’t ease much — she had never been around dogs much, and this one was huge.
The dog was standing now, plumed tail waving gently as she watched the chickens. She turned her head to look right at Miranda, pink tongue hanging out.
A hen flapped its wings, and before Miranda could do more than blink, the dog had pounced. Its mouth closed over the chicken, and then the big furry canine carried it over to the pen and deposited it inside.
The hen flew out, and the dog put it back in. One by one, until Miranda was helpless with laughter, the dog delivered all the hens to their coop.
The rooster, however, was not amused. It ruffled its feathers, fixed a beady eye on the dog, and attacked.
Still laughing, Miranda shooed the rooster away; it flew into the pen, and she closed the top.
The dog, a spot of blood on its pecked nose, sat waiting for the girl. And before she knew it, she was sitting on the floor beside it, scratching its ears and telling it her troubles.
“You have to be quiet when my dad comes in,” she told the dog firmly, after feeding it half a box of Rice Krispies and milk. “I don’t think he wants a dog.
“He’s got too much to worry about with my mom hurt so bad.”
Her lower lip quivered, and the dog’s pink tongue swiped her right across the mouth.
Miranda giggled and hugged the furry black neck.
The next three days, Miranda fed the pup peanut-butter sandwiches, apples and cereal, brushed the burrs from her coat and sometimes dozed off as they snuggled in the loft.
The fourth night, she sneaked the dog into her bedroom.
“Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve,” she whispered as they passed the half-decorated tree in the living room. “I think Santa isn’t coming, but at least I have you.”
She was fast asleep when her father climbed the stairs and quietly opened her door to check on her before finding his own bed.
Her nightlight glowed enough to show the small head on the pillow, an arm stretched over the dark covers ...
Ron Christiansen froze in horror, unable to even cry out. “A bear!” his mind screamed.
Without thinking, he flipped on the light. The big, black animal raised its head, and another spasm of terror shot through Ron.
It had to be. The dog that had attacked Dee Dee.
“Off,” he commanded. “Now.”
Miranda sat up as the Newfie climbed off the bed.
“Daddy, she’s my friend.”
“Randi,” he said, trying to speak calmly, “this dog hurt Mommy.”
Ron had the beast by the collar now, and it seemed to be willing to obey him at least.
“But she carries the chickens, Daddy,” Miranda wailed. “She wouldn’t hurt Mommy.”
On the morning of Christmas Eve, the local paper carried the news that Dee Dee Christiansen was conscious again.
It told how, as the former Olympic medalist skated on the Great Chazy River near her home, she had been attacked by a Newfoundland named Pudding.
And how the dog’s owner would be in court on that very day, with the animal’s fate hanging in the balance.
Dee Dee sat up against the pillows, her eyes closed, as Ron read the news article to her.
“That dog was watching me skate,” she told her husband. “I, well, I took a bow, and she cheered for me.”
Ron studied his wife carefully, his concern clearly etched on his features.
Dee Dee laughed.
“The dog barked, silly, but at just the right moment. I felt like I had an appreciative audience.
“I really don’t think that dog attacked me.”
Aunt Maggie read the story in the Press-Republican as she sipped her morning coffee. And again, she murmured a little prayer of thankfulness that Dee Dee would be OK.
Humming “Joy to the World,” she began loading the dishwasher; she didn’t know Miranda had even been in the room until the child spoke.
“Her name is Pudding,” the little girl said.
She sat at the table, the newspaper in front of her.
“Are they going to kill her, Aunt Maggie?”
Maggie pulled out a chair and patted her lap. Miranda climbed up and leaned her head against her aunt’s chest.
“Pudding didn’t attack Mommy,” she said, her voice muffled. “I know it.”
The courtroom was full, and Town Justice Gordon Tetreault mentally rolled his eyes — the media had done its work well.
“OK,” he said, determined to wrap this unpleasant business up as soon as possible. “Who owns the dog in question?”
Doug stood up.
“Dog’s not worth a lick,” he said. “Wouldn’t go near a dead duck or goose when we was hunting. It’d almost sit there and cry about it.
“You could near kill the damn dog, and it wouldn’t fight back.”
“You should know,” muttered a man sitting two seats over.
“Mr. Richard,” the justice said, “you’ve got something to say?”
“I know why the dog was on the ice,” he said, sheepishly. “I was chasing it — thought it killed one of my best hens.”
“Go on, Guy,” the justice told the farmer resignedly.
“I fired my shotgun over the dog’s head, and it ran like the dickens over the bank. You ask me, dog maybe knocked her down. I don’t think it attacked her,” he said.
“Why do you say that?” the judge asked.
“That dog’s been visiting my chickens every time it gets loose. Never saw it do any harm; just seems to like lookin’ at ‘em.
“Thought I was wrong when I saw it with the dead hen. But then I found this,” the farmer said, holding up a rusty-red scrap of fur.
“Fox tail. Had fresh blood on it. I’m thinking a fox killed the hen — no way a dog that size coulda got through the hole in the chicken wire.
“Dog musta grabbed it by the tail, bit it off, then the fox got away.”
“So you’re saying this dog — this Pudding — tried to rescue your chicken from a fox,” the judge said.
There was a titter of laughter from some in the courtroom, but Richard stuck to his guns.
“Exactly,” he said.
“I don’t think that dog would hurt a fly,” said a teenage girl from the back row.
“Order!” the judge said, though mildly. “Stand up, young lady, and state your name.”
“Hayden Williams,” the girl said. “My family owns Seven Brothers Farm.
“That dog, Pudding, is a sweetheart. I found her taking care of orphaned kittens in our barn one day.”
She held out her cellphone, swiping it to show several photos of kittens nestled in Pudding’s fur.
Necks were craning, so Hayden obligingly handed the phone to Guy Richard, and it made its way from hand to hand.
The justice sighed. Any more mushy “awws” over the cute pictures and he just might get sick. Right there in his own courtroom on Christmas Eve.
“Order!” the judge said, more forcefully now.
“Um, could I say something?” came a timid voice from a far corner of the room.
“I’m Barbara Sergeant,” a tiny woman wearing a bright red Christmas sweater spoke up. “I’m the one who called 911.”
“You saw the dog attacking Mrs. Christiansen,” the judge said.
“Well,” she said, “that’s what I thought I saw. I just happened to glance over the bridge as I was driving by, and there was a body on the ice with a big dog — at first, I thought it was a bear — standing over it, I mean her. Its nose was right in her face and then it lay down right on top of her. Or that’s what I thought I saw ...”
“You didn’t see the defendant — I mean dog — knock her down?”
“No. And then I read the story in the paper and thought I’d better say something.
“You see, I’m afraid of dogs,” she added apologetically. “And that one was so big, well, I ...”
“And Mrs. Christiansen didn’t have any injuries commensurate with dog bites, Ron?”
Ron shook his head.
“Then why am I here on Christmas Eve, and why is that darned Pudding dog locked up?” he said. “She seems more like a guardian angel than a vicious killer.
Ron caught up with Doug before he could drive off. Digging in his pockets, he came up with $76.12.
“Here,” he said. “I’m buying your dog.”
“Sold!” Doug said.
But Justice Tetreault had joined the pair and neatly plucked the bills out of Doug’s hand.
“Ron takes the dog, I don’t pursue an investigation of your treatment of it,” he said. “This, ah, little misunderstanding has brought some interesting information to my attention ...”
Doug’s beat-up station wagon exited the parking lot in haste, leaving Ron and the judge grinning at each other.
“My little girl’s Christmas just got even better,” Ron told him.
Miranda threw on her coat, stuffed her feet in her boots and headed out. She didn’t know where she would hide Pudding, but she just had to try.
There was water on the ice, but just a few days ago it had been frozen hard. Miranda jumped on it close to shore, and it seemed plenty solid. She moved closer to the bridge so she would be less visible to passing cars — especially her dad’s.
The ice gave way so suddenly Miranda didn’t have time to yell.
Pudding ignored the dogs barking all around her and studied her pen. It was a sturdy one, with sides too high to jump over. Secure latch, concrete floor.
Time for Plan B.
The dog officer was at the hearing; his 12-year-old daughter, Tammy, was holding the fort — and very curious about their most notorious guest.
Pudding’s water dish was tipped over, and she nudged it with her nose, whimpering pathetically at the girl.
“I can’t go in,” Tammy told her. “You’re supposed to be a mean, nasty dog.”
The giant pup sank down, nose on paws.
Tammy grinned, then lifted the latch, opened the door. But quick as a wink, Pudding charged. As the girl cringed, the dog flew past her.
The water closed over Miranda’s head, and when she fought her way upward, she didn’t break the surface; she was caught under the ice.
Lungs desperate for air, she struggled to find the opening, but the water was icy, and she already felt its chill deep in her bones. Her thoughts grew fuzzy ...
Pudding skidded onto the ice as recklessly as she had the morning she had bowled over Miranda’s mother. Across the river, the child’s father lay face down, sliding himself carefully toward the hole in the ice.
But the dog got there first, ducked her head into the water and hauled Miranda up by the hood of her jacket like a sodden puppy — or chicken.
The ice broke beneath Pudding’s weight, but she didn’t let go, just swam with powerful strokes, the thinner ice under the bridge giving way before her as she headed for shore.
Ron, Miranda and Pudding, an enormous red bow around her fluffy ruff, crossed the hospital lobby and stepped onto the elevator.
“Therapy dog,” Ron told a woman who had shrunk back against the wall.
Dee Dee was sitting up in bed, a gold Christmas bow stuck to her bandage. She put out her arms, but before Miranda could move, Pudding was on the bed, licking the woman’s face.
“Like she remembers me,” Dee Dee marveled, laughing. “Like she’s happy I’m OK.”
“Judge called her a guardian angel,” Ron said. “She just might be.”
Editor’s note: The real Pudding is a member of News Editor Suzanne Moore’s family. She weighs only 100 pounds.
Every year, one of staff members writes a fictional Christmas story, carrying on a tradition started by Steve Manor, who staffed our Northern Tier bureau until his death in 1996.
Here's our 2013 story, written by News Editor Suzanne Moore. As is also a tradition, the story is illustrated by local artist Les Cosgrove and is dedicated, with affection, to Steve Manor.