GHOST DOG

By Anthony H. Stewart

You were chased by a bully at school today? Did he catch you? I can see by your smile that he didn't. You're lucky, Sugar, getting to wear jeans and sneakers. In my day, I had to wear dresses, and usually sandals. Well, come here and sit down on the front porch swing by Grandma and I'll tell you about the meanest bully there ever was. It all started the summer of 1955. It was the year that I started seeing an old hound dog, a light tan female with dark brown patches and one dark spot over an eye that made her look like a bandit.

I would see it on dark nights, hanging at the edge of the shadows. One night I dreamed about it. I was walking the woods at midnight, and my spine tingled and my hair was full of electricity. Tall trees hovered around me like twisted giants. The air vibrated with violent force. When I saw the dog my skin trembled. Its body was phosphorescent, and her eyes had a reddish glow that reminded me of the fires of Hades.

Now, George, I'm not scaring the child. Why don't you be a nice grandpa and go fix us some lemonade? Don't look at me like that, and be sure to put the additive in mine.

Anyway, I'd see the dog digging in trashcans or in someone's garden. But the strangest thing, I would be looking at it one minute and the next thing I knew it had vanished. Now if I had been a wild Comanche Indian, it would have been my totem. But I was just a skinny kid growing up in Jenkin's Corner, a little jerkwater town west of Ft. Worth. To me,the dog was a ghost.

I turned twelve that year, and strange things were happening. I was beginning to like boys. You like boys? No? You will, sugar. It's both a curse and a blessing. But I didn't like Chubby. Matter of fact, I was scared of him. He was two years older than the rest of us sixth graders, with a chin that jutted out like Dick Tracy and a hard, stiff gut that hung over his belt and hair the color of fire.

Chubby Taylor beat up people just for the fun of it. He didn't like me at all, and I figured it was because Harry Taylor, Chubby's dad, and my dad didn't get along. Harry Taylor was even meaner than his son, and my Dad used to say a rattler would die if it bit him. I should have felt sorry for Chubby but I didn't. Chubby had no friends, but it was his own fault. He had flunked out twice, but the whole school was betting Principal Jenner would pass him anyway, just to be rid of him. Us kids were positive Chubby wouldn't make it to High School.

Thanks for the lemonade, George. Now why don't you go watch TV? Us girls are having a good talk. Go on, I'll behave myself. Mmmm, that's good.

It was on an afternoon like this one, with a royal blue sky and a warm breeze that got under your skin. I was walking along the creek that flowed in back of Chubby's house, holding my sandals on one hand, sticking my toes into the cool red sand along the banks. I loved the earthy smell of the nearby woods and the feel of the cool water on my bare legs. I wasn't supposed to be there, though. Mom and Dad were afraid I'd drown or hurt myself. I heard a noise and looked up. Chubby was standing on the bank, a wicked smile on his face.

I didn't think, I started running. My foot slipped on the slick riverbank and landed on a knee. I heard Chubby laughing, and the sound chilled my bones. I grabbed a root and pulled myself up. Chubby had threatened me several times, and the previous week he had knocked me down at recess. I looked back again. He was gaining on me. I plunged into some thick underbrush, scratching my arms and legs. I kept going through the woods and realized I was lost. I saw my ghost dog run behind a tree. I followed, and soon I was in the open, running as fast as I could toward our house.

We lived in a one story made of natural red rock that faced the main road through town. During the summer I would sleep out on our screened-in back porch, feeling the breezes and listening to the cicadas play their night songs. Dad did have an evaporative cooler, but he would only turn it on when we were expecting company. Too expensive, he would say. Open the window! Feel God's air conditioner!

"Annie Faye Tate," I heard Mom say. "You come in here, young lady. You're late, and it's almost time for supper."

"Okay, Mom," I said. "I'll be right there." I smelled roast. My stomach growled at me.

"You been down by the river again?"

"No ma'am," I said, shaking off the red dust that covered my sandals. "I was watching the boys playing baseball."

She glanced at the scratches on my arms but didn't say anything.

"Down by the Taylor Place?"

"Yes, ma'am," I said, and I didn't like the expression on her face. Proper young ladies weren't supposed to wander far from home, so I was already in trouble.

"I know, hun, but I don't want you hanging around Harry Taylor."

Mom straightened her flowery print housedress.

"Here, help me finish setting the table. Your father's home and he's ready to eat."

Dad looked up as I placed the glasses of iced tea at each plate. He touched me on the arm.

"Listen to your mother. I don't want you near that place, you hear?"

"Yes, Daddy."

He stabbed a piece of roast with his fork. Dad was a foot taller than Mom, thin as a shadow of a barbed-wire fence. His deputy sheriff's uniform was soiled and caked with mud, but I knew he must be tired after a hard time chasing bad guys. I put the mashed potatoes on the table and sat down. I usually didn't have anything to worry about with Dad. All I had to do was blink my baby browns and he couldn't resist.

Mom made me go to bed early that night, but I didn't go to sleep. Soon I heard my parents talking in the kitchen. I tiptoed out of my room and listened.

"I've heard Harry Taylor is a wife beater," Dad said. "That true?"

"The last time Mrs. Taylor was at church she had a big black eye," Mom said, her voice a whisper.

"Damn white trash. What's the latest, then?"

"I heard it from the Methodist preacher's wife. Mrs. Taylor has taken up with Zack Maples."

Zack was one of the few bachelors in town. He owned the feed store down by the depot. He was cute as lemon pie. He had a "hot rod," and Dad was always giving him tickets for slinging rocks down our main drag.

"That's hard to believe, but if Taylor hears about it she may end up with more than a shiner."

Mrs. Taylor had always been nice to me, bringing me cookies on Christmas and such. She told me it was because of Chubby. After I went to bed I couldn't stop thinking about her and at twelve o'clock I was still awake. I happened to look outside. A quarter moon peeked out behind clouds, but otherwise the only light was a small lamp by our back porch. At the edge of the shadows sat my ghost dog and its eyes seemed to penetrate the darkness. I almost strangled on my heart. I hurriedly ran outside, but it had disappeared. I returned to the house, but it was early morning before I slept.

The next morning was so hot the dust seemed to settle in the air. Even the leaves on the big pecan trees down by the Brazos River weren't stirring. Turkey buzzards soared the thermals above mesquite covered bluffs, looking for dead things in the canyons. It was early June, and school was out, so I roamed all over town, indulging my curiosity at every turn. I saw my ghost dog down by the Taylor place. I climbed down by the creek that went behind the house and wandered through the wood. The dog was digging in the soft earth, but when I approached it disappeared behind a storage building.

Curious, I glanced in the open door. Rakes and shovels stood like soldiers at attention along one wall, and a high shelf contained weed killers, bug sprays and animal traps. I lost interest pretty fast as I heard footsteps behind me. It was Chubby. I hid in the building as he walked by, his face all red with tears. I was puzzled, bu! t I didn't want him to see me so I scrambled back home.

I didn't see Chubby for a couple of weeks after that, and hardly thought of him until one night in July Mom went to a church social. Your great-grandma was a church-going woman. Raised on prunes and proverbs we'd say - but I didn't want to go, so I faked a bad cold and stayed with Dad. Rance Hobson, a deputy who worked at the county seat, had come by and he and Dad sat on the back porch drinking beer and swapping stories. I stood at the kitchen door, drinking a Coke and listening. I think Dad knew I was there, but I wasn't worried. After a bit the talk turned to local gossip and Harry Taylor was mentioned.

"When was the last time you saw Taylor at the courthouse, Rance?"

"Oh, about a week ago. He came by and talked to a lawyer. Wanted him for file divorce papers on account his wife up and left."

"I knew they'd been having problems," Dad said, taking a sip of beer.

"Didn't know she'd left. Wouldn't blame her if she ran off, but Taylor has a hair trigger temper."

"I heard about Zack," Rance said, chuckling.

Zack had dreamy blue eyes and long sideburns and thick black hair that reminded me of Elvis. Us girls were always curious about his exploits.

"I talked to him last week," Dad said. He claimed he'd never mess with a married woman."

"You believe him?"

"You know, I really should talk to Taylor."

"You're gun-shy, ain't you? After he chased you off his land one time. What happened, anyhow? You never told me much about it."

Dad reddened.

"It was several months ago. His son had been getting into fights at school and Jenner wanted me to have a talk with his father. Taylor was sitting on his front porch, drinking from a bottle of scotch. He jumped up and asked me what I wanted. I tried to talk civil, but it didn't help. He said that there was nothing wrong with his son, and unless I had a warrant, I could just leave. I saw a shotgun leaning against the doorsill. I didn't want to cause an incident, so I left."

"Did you see his wife?"

"Yeah. As I was walking out the gate I looked back and saw the curtains move. She peeked out the window, but when Taylor went toward the door, she jumped back."

Rance shifted in his chair.

"Where do you think she might have gone? Ft. Worth? Abilene?"

Dad shook his head.

"No idea. Ann's gossip mill told her that the Taylors had a big fight a week ago. People driving by on the highway heard it. I hear a chair was thrown through a window."

The next day I ran outside right after breakfast and soon I saw my ghost dog, trotting along Taylor's fence line. I followed, and it dropped something from its mouth and ran off. It was a human fingerbone, small and thin like a woman's. I shuddered, and the little girl in me wanted to cry. Somehow I managed to shake off the sick feeling and went into the house. I found a small rag in the kitchen, went back and picked it up very carefully. Later that night I showed it to Dad.

"A dog dropped it, Dad. She was coming from the direction of the Taylor place. You think something's happened to Mrs. Taylor?"

Dad had a sour look on his face. He put a hand on my shoulder.

"I'm going to take this to the sheriff tomorrow. Maybe I can get a warrant."

The next morning Dad left for Hadley, the county seat, but not before telling me to stay home. He might as well have told the wind not to blow. When Mom got the call from Dad that he was on his way with a warrant, I snuck out before Mom saw me and explored down by the creek where I had seen the dog digging.

After a couple of hours I found a spot where the dog had been sleeping. I blanched. Part of a human arm was poking out of the ground. I took several deep breaths to keep from being sick, but then I heard sounds of an argument coming from the house. I crept closer until I could look through one of the windows. Harry Taylor sat on the couch, his head in his hands. A shotgun leaned up against a nearby wall. I didn't see Chubby, but I heard someone with a bullhorn tell Taylor to give himself up. It was Dad, along with the sheriff's posse. In the distance beyond them I saw my ghost dog.

I decided to get out of there, but as I ran into Dad's arms a shotgun blast shook the house. They found Mrs. Taylor's body near the creek where some of the water had washed it away. Dad told me later that there were big purple bruises on what was left of her body.

"Looks like Harry Taylor beat his wife to death," Dad said when I asked about it. "Then he buried her to hide the crime. Damn bastard. Then he took the coward's way out and shot himself."

"Did Chubby say anything?"

"He wouldn't talk to us."

At the funeral, Chubby placed a single rose on his mother's grave. Chubby left town soon after that. Months later, after I had a chance to think about things, I asked Dad what the doctors said about Mrs. Taylor.

"I'll have to admit," he said. "It was strange. Despite the bruises, the doctor said she died from poison. I guess it was suicide. Her husband beat her, Zack didn't want her, and she saw no other way out."

"If it was suicide, Dad, why did he bury her in the back yard?"

Dad nodded. His face looked drawn and sad.

"I figure Harry Taylor was afraid he'd be accused of murder. We'll probably never know for sure."

After the funeral, I hung around the graveyard for a while. The more I thought about it the more I knew Harry Taylor didn't commit suicide. Chubby shot him. Chubby was afraid of his father, and his mother was constantly being beaten. He saw his chance, and took it. Even though Chubby had been my enemy, I felt pangs of sympathy for him. He had reasons for being mean.

When I left the graveyard, I saw my ghost dog lying on the ground, panting softly. As I sat down beside it, stroking its soft fur and feeding it some cookies I had in the pocket of my dress, I knew it was no longer a ghost.

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Copyright 2000 North American Rights A.H. Stewart