Of Dogs and Men
In which Dodger witnesses a mystery unfolding
With all the talk of ‘injuns’ and the like, Dodger expected to end up at some lonesome tribe, a pocket of natives that had yet to be shoved aside by the heavy hand of Manifest Destiny. Instead, they came to a stop at a quaint farmhouse hugged by a waist-high picket fence. To one side, there rested a wide field of freshly tilled earth. To the other, a hastily built barn. The place had a serene feeling, but that serenity wouldn’t last much longer.
Douglas was already off of his horse and heading for the fence.
“Michael!” he shouted as he slammed open the gate. “Get out here and face me like a man!”
The other men dismounted in a rush. Robert hit the ground running. Dodger followed at a respectable distance.
“Calm down,” Robert said as he tried to catch hold of Douglas. “Ain’t gonna serve no one if you go in fists swinging.”
“I’ll do better than that,” Douglas said, then drew his pistol.
“Put that thing away!”
“He killed my Lilly!”
“We don’t know that. Now put that gun away, or I’ll arrest you too.”
“Are you here to arrest me as well?” another man asked.
On the front porch of the house, there stood a native.
A huge native.
The man was seven feet if he was an inch, and almost as broad shouldered as Buster was big around, with hands twice the span of any man’s Dodger had ever seen, and bare feet to match. Dodger tried his best to pick out signs and signals of the man’s tribe of origin, but it was no good. Whatever heritage the man had, he hid it well. The native dressed in a shirt and slacks like those of the other men. No tribal jewelry. No tribal markings. Nothing to delineate him from the other men save for his slight accent, his deeply tanned complexion and his waist-length dark hair.
“Not at all, Mr. Walking Bear,” Robert said. “We came to talk to you about your dog.”
“Rascal?” the native asked.
“That’s the one. I’m afraid there has been a, well, a disturbance in town, and-”
“You killed her!” Douglas shouted.
The grieving man lunged for the native.
“Boys!” Robert commanded.
The younger Pitches jumped into the fray, but, to Dodger’s surprise, not to fight. No, sir. Obedient to the senior Pitch, the son and grandson yanked Douglas back by his collar and dragged him a few yards away.
“Pull that stunt again,” Robert warned, “and they’ll escort you to a cell. You hear me?”
Douglas didn’t answer. He flared his nostrils and stared hard at the Indian.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Robert said to Michael. “He’s just upset because someone went and killed his Lilly. Left her in a right bloody mess, too.” The sheriff rubbed the back of his neck and whistled low. “Most terrible thing I’ve seen in a long time.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss, Mr. McBride,” Michael said as he nodded to the redhead.
Douglas growled and lunged forward again, but the Pitches held him back. “I’ll bet you are you, son of a bitch.”
Michael turned his dark eyes to the elder Pitch once more. “I don’t understand what Rascal has to do with this.”
“Well, you see now … this is where it gets a bit tricky. William, bring it here.”
Robert snapped his fingers at his grandson, who released his hold on Douglas and scurried to the horses across the yard. There he struggled to unbind a large burlap sack slung across the back of Doug’s horse.
Robert continued. “I know you and Dougy here have been fighting for years over that patch of clover that sits between your places. You say it’s yours, and he says it’s his, and-”
“Get to the point, Sherriff Pitch. I have work to do.”
“We all have work to do, son. The point is that something tore Lilly to pieces.”
“And you think I sent Rascal to do this deed?”
“I’m not saying you did.”
“Then what are you saying?”
Dodger had to admit that was a fair question, because it sounded like the sheriff was accusing the man of murder by means of the man’s dog. The whole thing sounded a bit far fetched, but not impossible. It wouldn’t be the first time a human had trained an animal to kill in his place. And it wouldn’t be the last.
“I just wanna take a look at him,” Robert said. “That’s all. Just a look-see. Nothin’ more.”
“To see if he still has blood in his teeth?” Michael asked. “Is that it?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you meant it. You want to know if he still has the stink of death on him.”
“No need to get vulgar, Michael. We just want to have a look at your dog.”
By this time, the youngest Pitch had unbuckled his load from Doug’s horse and hauled it to the porch. The lad unceremoniously dumped the sack on the hardwood with a wet slap. A trickle of red ran from the darkened seams of the sack and along the porch, tracing the knots and grain of the unfinished wood.
“Dear God,” Dodger whispered when he realized what the sack contained.
They had brought the body with them.
“Now I ain’t sayin’ your dog did nothing,” Robert said. “But we got some pretty damning evidence if things match up. Tooth and claw, I mean. Understand?”
Michael nodded, solemnly. “I understand.”
Robert snapped at his grandson again, and William leapt into action, unwinding the thread that held the bulging sack shut. With each wind, Dodger’s gorge rose to the back of his throat. Were they really going to just dump her body out and squabble over the claw marks like … well, like animals? At gut-wrenching last, William parted the sack and pulled it away from the corpse hidden inside, shucking it like a bloody ear of corn.
Just as the sheriff described, the body was torn asunder, almost to the point of being unrecognizable as a once-living thing. Dodger was just about ready to voice his opinion about their inhuman treatment of the poor woman’s body. And he would’ve too, if his eyes hadn’t landed on the crimson-stained fluff gathered in great bunches around the wounds.
“Lilly is a sheep?” Dodger asked.
“Was a sheep,” Buster said. “She’s mutton now.”
“Manners, Buster,” Robert said.
Michael dropped to his haunches over the dead animal. He poked and prodded her, grunting and groaning in discontent. “This was a cruel death. She suffered greatly.” The native glanced up to Douglas. “I am very sorry for your loss. She was a good animal.”
“She was a prize-wining sheep!” Doug hollered. “And you knew that. You did this to spite me.”
The native rose again, looming over the five men. “Rascal was with me all night.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Robert said. “But you see what I’m up against here? He said he saw your dog. And you say your dog stayed home. It’s your word against his.”
“But it ain’t jusht hish word,” a familiar voice said from the doorway.
“Ched?” Dodger asked as he looked up.
Sure enough, the driver was leaning against the doorframe, his thumbs hooked in his overalls, his permanent eerie grin beaming. “Howdy, sharge. What’sh all the fussh?”
“Damn, son,” Robert said in an almost-whisper. “What in the hell happened to you?”
The younger Pitches drew back in revulsion, and even the angry Douglas was silenced by the appearance of the not-dead man.
“Where have you been?” Dodger asked. “I was worried sick about you.”
“Were ya? Thanksh. A man appreshiatesh being misshed.”
“This is the fellow you were looking for?” Robert asked.
“Yes, sir,” Dodger said.
“He was with me most of the night,” Michael said. “He was lost from his friends. I invited him to stay for a while.”
“This true?” Robert asked.
“Shure,” Ched said. “I wandered up thish way about two or three in the mornin’. I woke Mr. Michael here on acshident, and he wash good enough to let me cop a shquat for few hoursh. Good thing too, caush I wash dead on my feet.” Ched eyed Dodger as if daring him to smirk.
Instead, Dodger glared at the driver. There was no need to mock the locals.
“We stayed up the rest of the night, talking,” Michael said.
“Turnsh out we have shome shimilar intereshtsh,” Ched said. “And I’ve alwaysh been a shucker for a friendly dog.”
“Then you can confirm his story?” Robert asked.
“Yesh I can.”
“There we are. Case closed. It wasn’t the dog.”
“You’re going to trust this stranger over me?” Douglas asked. “I told you I saw that animal on my farm, killing my sheep. It would’ve killed them all if I hadn’t shot at it.”
“Great gravy, son. He’s got a witness. You don’t. End of story.”
“We still haven’t seen his dog,” Buster said.
Robert heaved a tired sigh, then looked up to the native again. “I’m sorry to bother you like this, but is Rascal about?”
Michael whistled a high, sharp note. There came a scrambling noise from inside the house, just behind Ched. After a few tense moments, a furry head peered out from beside the driver’s legs. Indeed, it did look like a wolf.
“Come here,” Michael said.
The animal whined, lowered his head and pawed at the floor. He may have looked like a wolf, but he had the temperament of a small child. It was probably some mixed breed, not full wolf but just enough to fool the eye.
“Come on,” Michael said. “Let the sheriff have a look at you.”
Rascal stepped timidly onto the porch. There he cowered, tail tucked and head hung, awaiting his next instructions. The sheriff crouched over the dog, lifting the animal’s paws, checking for whatever it was he thought he’d find. Rascal whimpered and shook every time the older man laid a hand on him. If this was the same animal that killed the sheep, then it was a fine actor as well as a killer.
“Calm down,” Robert said. “I ain’t gonna hurt ya.” The sheriff lifted the dog’s paws, one at a time, inspecting them with a shake of his head. “Clean as a whistle. Not so much as a blade of grass twixt his toes.”
“The injun coulda bathed him,” Buster said. “Or that … man.” The pause suggested that the deputy wasn’t sure what to call Ched.
“I don’t know if you notished the shmell,” Ched said. “But I tend to shy away from water and shoap. I have very shenshitive shkin, ya shee.”
“Rascal was here with me all night,” Michael said again.
“I believe you,” Robert said.
“What about his wolf?” Douglas asked, nodding at Ched. “He saw a wolf too. What about that?”
“What wolf wash thish?” Ched asked.
“The one you saw earlier tonight,” Dodger said. “The one you and Lelanea ran off?”
“Oh that one.” Ched stretched his lips to their limit as he tried to grin wider. “That weren’t a wolf. It wash a rabbit.”
“Yup. I caught up with it jusht outshide camp. I wash gonna come back and tell Missh Lelanea not to worry about it, but I got to walkin’ and ended up here.”
“A rabbit?” Dodger repeated. “Those prints were the span of my hand. That couldn’t have been a-”
“A rabbit ish what I shaw, Dodger.” As if his use of Dodger’s name weren’t foreign enough, Ched stressed it with special emphasis.
Dodger picked up on the signal. “A rabbit? Really? Huh. My mistake.”
“City boy,” Buster said, then guffawed. “Can’t tell a rabbit print from a wolf print.”
“Yeah,” William said between laughs. “Even I can tell that.”
Dodger burned with embarrassment as he stared daggers at the driver.
Ched smiled on, unperturbed by the laughter or Dodger’s glare.
“I’m afraid that cinches it,” Robert said. “Case closed.”
“No!” Douglas shouted. “He killed my sheep. I want him arrested!”
“The man has a corroborating witness. You don’t. End of story.”
“This isn’t the end of anything.” Douglas finally yanked himself free from Buster’s grip and shoved an accusing finger at the native. “You hear me, Michael Walking Bear? This has only just begun. I swear you haven’t heard the last of this. Or of me.”
The redhead spun about, stomped to his steed, mounted and took off with a crack of the reins. In stupefied silence, the others watched him leave.
CHAPTER SEVEN CONTINUES
In which Dodger dosen't get answers