By Christopher Laurence
Something had been out there again, in the night. Its tracks wound in and out of the undergrowth on the edge of where he’d cleared it around the house. Small-pawed, pensive, light steps. Coyote? Maybe. Wolf? He hoped not. A pack of wolves wouldn’t worry him much. But one wolf, alone, likely meant the animal was sick, rabid, or desperate.
That snow is static electricity. A crinkling white blanket from wires long disconnected, and it covers his failures almost totally. Almost. Small, distinct footprints from underneath, like tiny mechanical moles or giant clockwork earthworms, wriggle beneath the pure white panes, almost perceptible to the naked eye. He never asked for this. But now, alone between the damp wooden slats of the cabin; gunpowder, wood-smoke and chalk fill his nostrils, attack his lungs. This was meant to be paradise. A curtain wall of tall pines. But something came clawing through the past alive like rain clouds in his head. Bounding, scraping, kicking up a dust-storm with its dew claws and drowning out all visible sense.
It wasn’t all that long ago, things were what he figured for normal.
A crawling cloud of rancid breath was fogging the window before his eyes and the realization made him jolt his head sideways, averting his gaze from outside and turning it involuntarily to the overflowing hamper and paste-spattered sink that were the only adornments of the small bathroom. Something had been out there again, in the night. Its tracks wound in and out of the undergrowth on the edge of where he’d cleared it around the house. Small-pawed, pensive, light steps. Coyote? Maybe. Wolf? He hoped not. A pack of wolves wouldn’t worry him much. But one wolf, alone, likely meant the animal was sick, rabid, or desperate. He’d have to keep the boy near the house until he could be sure.
“Baby! You gonna bring that hamper down to me?” Scarlett, his wife, called from the bottom of the stairs. “I knew there was a reason I come up here,” he thought. He snatched the inevitable wayward sock from the floor, tossed it in the hamper and lifted it. Leaving the bathroom, he shifted the hamper to rest against his shoulder, as he guided one hand along the rail and descended the stairs to where Scarlett was standing near the front door. She was hunched over halfway, zipping up their son’s coat.
He set the hamper down and stared out the front door’s window panes.
“Keep right near the house, boy. Don’t wander outside of where your momma’s flowerbeds end.”
“Yes, sir.” answered Noah.
“What is it, Lee?”
“Tracks again. Probly nothin’ to worry about.”
“You heard your Pa. Stay close, now.” Scarlett opened the front door with a bit of hesitation and Noah scampered out, kicking up leaves and pine needles on the walk. Scarlett panned her head slowly left to right, then closed the door, glancing quickly at the rifle set behind it.
“He’s old enough to carry a little twenty-two of his own. Now’d be the time.” Lee said.
“I suppose you’re right.. I just hate the thought of my baby growing up so fast.”
“He’s a hell of a long way from growed up. He still makes me read to him from that book ‘bout the talking bear every night before he’ll settle down.”
“I know. But it still goes by too fast for my liking. Hey, haul that hamper to the washroom for me?’
The remainder of that day passed without any incident, save Noah tracking mud on the floor and his mother exclaiming her always-empty threat to get a switch. After reading from the talking bear book, Lee slid into bed beside his wife and drifted off, while she flipped through whichever book she was reading then. Dreams filled with four-legged giants, stalking on white paws, snouts blood-speckled and breathing steam, haunted his sleeping mind. He awoke with a start as one was about to snap its steel-trap jaw on his neck.
“Pa! Pa!” came a cry from downstairs. Lee leapt from the bed, his feet nearly slipping from under him as they landed on the chilled wood and propelled him toward the cry.
“Shh, Pa’s sleeping, Noah!” he heard his wife say as he descended the stairs two at a time.
“What is it, Scarlett? What happened?”
“It’s nothing, nothing. Just look out front.”
Lee moved to the window at the front door, his fingers instinctively resting on the rifle behind it as he peered out. What he saw was a sad looking sack of wet fur, snow and ice clung to it in clumps, sprawled on the pathway.
“It’s a dog, Pa!” Noah said as he tugged at Lee’s sleeve.
“Is it alive, Lee?” Scarlett said low in his ear.
“Yeah, it’s breathing. See?” He nodded his head toward the heap, the middle part of which was faintly raising and lowering. Lee scanned his eyes along the mass, looking for paws. He found one sticking out behind the beast’s back end.
“So, looks like this’s what’s been making those tracks.” he thought. He felt a kind of relief knowing he could remove from his deposit of worries the vision of a rabid, snarling wolf bounding up his path. It was just a poor dog some sad bastard must have let free at the start of winter, when he decided he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be feeding it anymore. He could tell it was thin, and hunger must have finally forced it to put fear aside and come out into the open, where its energy failed it finally, and dropped it on their doorstep.
“What do we do, Lee?”
“Can we keep it, Pa?”
Lee knew that was coming. Damn, why couldn’t Scarlett have seen it first and told him before Noah had any idea it was there? Now, if he ended up needing to shoot it, the boy would be a useless mess, maybe for weeks. Chickens and pigs were one thing. Noah knew the way it went with them. And why they never named a chick or newborn piglets. But a dog. A dog was different. The idea of putting down a dog would leave a bad taste in Lee’s mouth, too.
“Alright. I’mma go out and.. see if I can tell what’s what. Ya’ll stay put.”
Lee cracked the door and stepped out, closing it slowly behind him. The dog remained unmoved. Lee crouched on his haunches from the doorstep, peering at the thing. Then he gave a low whistle. The dog’s head slowly lifted a bit and turned, its sad eyes locked onto Lee with an intelligent but pitiful gaze. Lee had a preternatural sense for reading animals, and he registered nothing but pure probity from this beast. “Aw, hell. Dang thing might be beyond help. Then what?” he thought.
He slowly moved closer to the dog, which kept a hopeful gaze locked on him, but not one other inch of it moved, as if all its remaining life force were now concentrated in its eyes, and the neck to keep them turned toward its possible saviour. As Lee got within reach he focused his attention on the maw, making sure it didn’t curl up in even the hint of a snarl, ready to snap. Seeing no sign of aggression he slowly extended his hand. Lord, the dog was thin. Obviously not equipped to hunt, it had wasted away in the wild. If it had been out there at least as long as Lee had been seeing the tracks, that meant weeks.
“What kinda sorry s.o.b. just lets loose a good dog?” Lee heard the door crack behind him and turned to see a slice of Scarlett’s head peeking between the slats. “Fetch me that old blanket out of the trunk and toss it over here.” The door closed again and Lee kept his eyes fixed on the dog for the short twelve count that passed before he heard the bunched-up blanket land several feet behind him. He rose slowly, with his eyes still resting on the animal, gauging its reaction to the movement. There was none, save for its eyes flicking up to meet Lee’s. He walked backwards and knelt to retrieve the bundle, grabbed one end in both hands and let it unfurl. “Now we’ll really see.” he thought. Taking slow, measured paces he got within reach and began to drape the blanket over the dog’s flank, which was rising slow but steady with intakes of breath. The dog remained still as Lee dropped the end of the blanket and slowly knelt. Running his hand under the midsection of the animal he could feel its rib-cage and his pity increased in measure with his anger at the dog’s former master. Slowly he began to lift, and there came no snapping or snarling or thrashing as he did so. Turning with the dog in his arms, lighter than he knew it should be, he paced back to the house.
Chance slept fur to fur on the bearskin rug. His muscled haunches nestled in close to his firm and rounded midsection. A spring day spent kicking up greensward in full turns, chasing Noah’s rubber ball tosses, had worn him out. The leisurely lifestyle he maintained making a mockery of any designation he may have had as a working dog. Lee let everything slide when it came to the animal. It was worth it for the measure of comfort Chance brought him. Now when he saw paw tracks around the perimeter of the home he knew what they belonged to. And when Noah scampered outside any time the impulse struck him, there was no deterring Chance from following at his heels.
But Lee had to keep up working. Today was occupied with cutting down several spruce trees to replace portions of the fencing that got rotted out. Lee’s hands were his gifts to life and family and, with them, he swung a rugged axe which had been made by them. He put his soul so much into his work that even the tools he toiled with were an extension of himself; the efforts of his will and sweat of his brow made manifest. He relished every kinesthetic aspect of his labors. The sharp, satisfying reverb of the strike of axe-head biting into bark and cambium – these were the chimes of his church bells.
When the rustic small spruce pines were arranged and woven through with branches and wire, and the steam of his breath was reflecting the rising moonlight, Lee began to head back to the house. Suddenly a twig snap just behind the reach of his peripheral vision spun him around, had his eyes dancing along the fence line.
—a childhood lifetime of haint-filled bedtime stories, the dark of cold and cement, low-lighted by bare bulbs swinging slightly with a ghosted breath and creating shimmering shadows, the remnants of sins not yet committed, a basement where a far off presence was vaguely but truly felt upon each descent–
Lee snapped himself back to his present. Another twig snapped and he held himself together to scan the edge of his sight-line once again. He could see nothing out there in the dense undergrowth, a blanket of dark being rapidly pulled over it all. He froze stiffer still, listening, waiting, leaning against the half of his instinct which said turn and run. No, he was the protector. The last and only line before the evil of the outside world (whatever shape it took) would reach all he loved and cared for. Man like the world had cause for and yet had been trying every day to dispense with. He tensed and braced himself. On the edge of the cleared land a doe poked its head out above the brush. Lee straightened up and relaxed, and upon seeing this small movement the doe startled and sprang away back into the woods. Lee let the hand that held the axe drop to his side, and stood a minute just breathing in pine deeply, until calm fully came over him again. He walked steadily back to the house, the smell of supper growing stronger with each step he covered.
“Mmm-mmm. Something sure smells good.” Lee whipped his head to look where the voice had come from. A man in a long black coat with a black, worn gambler’s hat tilted low over his face, was standing on the edge of the clearing, staring at the house. Lee’s mind seized up; he couldn’t think, couldn’t speak. He said nothing. He stared, waited. The man bent down, and with a curved branch that seemed to appear in his hand, began scratching in the earth. Lee could hear the skritch of the branch on the dirt, or thought he could, barely, over his own heart beating.
“It’s gonna come, Lee.” the man said, staring out at the treeline. “I’m sorry I ain’t here to face it with you.” Lee felt his breath leave him in white vapor.
“You ought to talk to him, Lee.” Scarlett shifted her weight to get down off the stool, slowly lowering her pregnant form and standing as straight as she was able. “He’s grandfather to our child.”
“By blood, maybe. And nothin’ else. For sure not in any way that matters, after all he’s said.”
“Lee, he doesn’t know better. He thinks we’re doing our baby some kind of harm. Worse, he thinks he’ll be lost.”
“I don’t give a damn what he thinks. That’s my child, not his. And was a time I thought like him, but I learned better. He ain’t too old he couldn’t do the same. It’s stubbornness what drives him, that’s all.”
“I just think you ought to try. Just once more. Otherwise, it seems to me, you’re going against what you claim to be standing up for.” Scarlett turned and with a hand under her stomach, walked out through the archway. Lee was left standing alone, wrestling inside between anger and a deep fear of what he might lose, or had lost. Either way he went was cutting off a part of something intangible but that felt desperately important. Pride or family were the avenues open to him. He chose pride, already, and knew it.
His son was born, his father died, without one being ever in the presence of the other. Life moved fast afterward. Regret was not allowed to manifest itself. He and Scarlett found a plot of land in the mountains, took a loan, bought it, and began to build their home. He wanted more room to grow food, to build, wander. He needed space to let his son play, and later to teach him to shoot, hunt, track and forage. The family lived in a small trailer on the outskirts of the property while the main house was slowly erected. Lee dug rocks, stumps and roots out of soil he could tell would be fertile with some work, and the haunting of the space unoccupied by his father’s presence was all but forgotten.
Lee knew a darkness. At twelve his mother had taken a spill down the steps leading to the cellar of their house. Her head had bounced with violence off the concrete wall along the side of the landing, and struck again on the unpadded carpet. Lee heard the sick sound and came running to the door, unable to swallow his heart back down to where it belonged. He found his mother unmoving, blood pooling around the gold crucifix she kept about her neck, not in defiance of her husband, but out of a greater love.
That cellar became the most frightful place on earth to Lee after that, and nothing inspired dread in him like his father demanding that he go down and fetch something from it. The dim, bare bulbs and half-shadows they created solidified his feeling that something down there also wanted him dead. Lee grew up the rest of the way in that house, with that ghost and his father, who had had something of himself sheared off in the death of his wife. Lee could tell his father’s departure for work each morning came just a little bit more laboriously. He talked much less at the dinner table, hiked the hills behind their home less frequently. He stopped bringing Lee to fish and hunt, but encouraged him to continue going alone. He did not fall into any sort of despair or depression. He was still himself, only slightly less so, and for Lee, who was broken by the event, this fostered a greater resentment. That his father’s life went on seemed to Lee like a terrible betrayal. Lee nurtured that feeling and assigned blame for it to the one thing which had been a rift between his parents. That thing which was the source of his mother’s bottomless hope and joy, but was a source of deep, angering confusion for Lee’s father.
Lee found this thing appealing, and it held answers where he thought none on earth could be found. He began to learn of it and then cling to it, but in silence and isolation. In dark closets and stairwells with his mother’s books. This fire grew in him, and years later it was in seeking fellowship and discussion about it that he met Scarlett.
Lee came around to himself sat in the cold grass thirty yards from the back of the house. The apparition was gone, and Lee stood slowly, his head swaying internally from side to side, as if he were standing wide-legged on a sailboat. The sun and moon both were in the sky and he began the walk beneath them toward the house. He entered the back door and found Scarlett in the kitchen beginning supper.
“Something happened.” Lee said.
“Are you alright? What was it?”
“I think so. It was.. I saw him. He spoke to me.”
“My father,” Lee breathed out the words in disbelief. “He was just there, scratching in the dirt.”
It was after two AM when the men broke in. They were quiet, unlatching one of the windows somehow and crawling through. They each had .22 caliber Ruger target pistols, bandanas covering the bottom half of their faces, and knit caps on their heads. They wore no gloves, as they knew no one would be coming out to collect fingerprints. Moving slowly through the hall they made their way to the staircase. Walking in tandem they eased up the steps, to where Lee and his wife and son were sleeping, aware of nothing but dreams. Dead to the world, and soon to be permanently.
The first man reached the landing and peered slowly around the door frame, seeing Lee and Scarlett prone on the bed. He extended the fatal lever of his arm through the doorway, pointing the Ruger at Lee from a distance where it was impossible to miss. Just as he began the slow squeeze of the trigger so that no error was possible, his arm was suddenly jerked down hard and went dead with pain. He cried out and was spun to the ground. Glancing sideways he saw his forearm clenched in the death grip of Chance’s jaws, the gun gone from his hand. His partner came around from behind him, in a state of semi-shock, reacting on pure instinct with the intent to free him by shooting the dog, but it was too late.
Lee had sprang up at the sound, grabbed his .38 Smith & Wesson from under the bed, and unloaded a shot into the man writhing on the floor with his arm in Chance’s maw. At some point Scarlett had rolled to the floor and began crawling toward the doorway, intent on reaching her son. Lee’s eyes settled on her for one second and in that instant the second man bolted from the room. Panic came over Lee and Scarlett for an instant that stretched out into an eternity of slow motion. But while their emotion had caused them hesitation, Chance sprang after the second stranger, snarling in protective madness.
Lee and Scarlett rushed after him and were met with an anguished scream and a gunshot as soon as they entered the hall. Coming around the corner to their son’s room expecting horror, they found the would-be assassin face up on the ground, Chance having sunk his jaws into the man’s throat. The shot he had managed to squeeze off had penetrated the outside wall. Noah was sat straight up in the bed, clutching his covers to himself, frozen in panic, but unharmed.
When the wind picked up enough and whipped through the trees it looked as if the blades of grass would be woven together like the strands in a basket. The howling was like that of some undiscovered cross-breed and Chance’s ears always perked up when he heard it. But listening stiff-necked and sniffing the air for a moment, he soon relaxed, sensing nothing out of sort. No danger rode over the wind again to their home.
It would take some time to rebuild normalcy. A sheriff had driven the long miles from town with a coroner in tow. He looked over the morbid scene and spoke to Lee as the young coroner worked the bodies into the truck.
“I’ll send the fella out to retrieve those slugs from the wall and help patch ‘em up. Don’t want winter’s chill blowing in on you.”
“I appreciate it.” said Lee. The men shook hands and the sheriff walked outside to see the coroner shutting the last door on his truck. There would be no trial, not out here. The sheriff knew who the two men were. He’d been after them already, for a while. A time was they ran with Lee’s daddy; a few smash and grabs, a small post office hit. When they got violent on an old man during what was meant to be a routine break-in, Lee’s daddy cut ties. His next call was to the sheriff to turn them in.
“No reason to trouble Lee with it all,” the sheriff thought, “He’s been through trouble enough, and come out a good man.”
Just a month ago, directly after their release, the men had hit several homes closer to town, and wandered out to the wilderness to try to shake the heat they’d called down on themselves. Instead of the safety they were looking for, they’d found death and justice. The sheriff tilted his brim toward Scarlett, who was standing on the porch, then climbed in the old, brown cruiser and headed off. Lee looked down the stairs as his wife entered through the front door, his son walking to her and resting his head under the crook of her arm. He breathed in, smelled the slightly chalky air, thought of his mother, and got to work.
Written by: Christopher L
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