I came to live with my grandparents up on the Red River in the summer of 1964. Their hardscrabble farm sat exactly one mile from the domino hall in Center Springs, a one-horse settlement named after the clear-water spring that feeds Sanders Creek, which then drains into the Red.
When I climbed down the metal steps of that hot old bus outside the Greyhound station in the much larger town of Chisum, Grandpa and my grandmother Miss Becky were waiting on the sidewalk. I was so proud to see them I could have busted, Grandpa especially. There he stood in his sweat-stained old straw hat and overalls, with a tiny badge pinned to his blue work shirt.
I knew a revolver was in one of those big pockets, because he was the Law in Lamar County, though you couldn’t rightly tell if you didn’t know.
He hugged me against his big belly. Miss Becky was nearly dancing with excitement when he turned me loose to throw my suitcase into the truck bed among the bailing wire, empty feed sacks, and loose hay. He’d parked right at the curb, and the bus’ front bumper was right against the tailgate. When the bus driver stopped a few minutes before, I could tell he was aggravated because the truck was in his way, but he didn’t say anything.
“Why Top, you’ve growed a foot since we last saw you!” When Miss Becky hugged my neck, she smelled like the bath powder she kept in a round tin on her dresser
“C’mon, Mama, we have to go.” Grandpa opened the door for us. “Get in hoss, and let’s go look at a dead dog.” He was always in a hurry to get out of town and back to the country. I crawled onto the dusty seat full of holes and Miss Becky gathered her long skirts and climbed in behind me.
“Ned,” Miss Becky softly scolded him when he pulled away from the curb.
“Aw, Mama, it ain’t nothin’ but a dead dog and we’re liable to see two or three in the same condition on the side of the highway before we get back to the house. It won’t hurt him none.”
“Well, y’all can drop me off at the house first, then.”
“I intend to.”
Ten-year-old boys are always up for an adventure, so twenty minutes later we let her out at the house and fifteen minutes after that I followed him through Mr. Isaac’s chest-high corn. Grandpa led us between the rows with a hoe thrown over his shoulder and a ’toe sack dangling from the back pocket of his overalls. I wasn’t sure how he knew where we were going until I looked down at his brogans and saw footprints leading through the rows in the sand.
I cocked my Daisy air rifle he’d remembered to bring for me. The BB gun’s barrel was hot to the touch from the blazing summer sun. “Glad we have a gun.” He always enjoyed kidding me. “You never know if you’re gonna run across a booger-bear out here.”
I rattled the air rifle to see how many BBs were left. “Is this your corn?”
“Nope. It belongs to Isaac Reader. I usually don’t like being alone in another man’s field. It feels like trespassing, but since Ike called me, here we are.”
Turkey buzzards drifted on the thermals high above the thick corn stalks surrounding us. Locusts sang in the trees at the edge of the field. He stopped and wrinkled his nose at the edge of a tramped-down area in the corn. “Sheew. That stinks.”
I almost gagged. The sight of what lay at our feet nearly made me fall out. Someone had used a heated two-handed screwdriver to torture a poor bird dog lying beside the cold remains of a fire. Dark stains on the blade and the German shorthair’s wounds told us what had happened in the clearing. Burn marks made crisscross patterns in the animal’s hide. Deep puncture wounds from the once red-hot blade still oozed fluid.
Despite the heat, a chill ran up my spine. I’d seen dead dogs on the side of the highway, but I’d never seen one intentionally mistreated. My stomach rose, but I choked it down again. The stink made my asthma act up, making me wheeze. I dug my puffer out of my jean pocket, stuck the atomizer end in my mouth, and gave the bulb a squeeze. My lungs tickled deep down inside and I began to breathe better.
“Bastard.” Grandpa had a habit of talking quietly to himself. He hooked the sharp blade of his hoe under the stiff corpse and lifted it off the ground. Flies rose and buzzed all around us. “This one makes five now.”
“Five what, Grandpa?”
“Just you never mind.”
I waved flies out of my face as he knelt onto one knee and pulled a damp scrap of paper free from the sand. He unfolded the raggedly torn advertisement from The Chisum News. I got a peek at the drawing of a boy and girl playing catch.
He stood with a grunt and backed off a step.
I’d never seen anything so horrible in my life, and I wished Grandpa hadn’t brought me. Center Springs was always my safe place, where I didn’t have to worry about anything except running outside, hunting, and fishing. That’s why I came.
Another truck rattled down the dirt road and pulled into the shade beside ours. Grandpa slipped the folded clipping into the deep pocket of his overalls, removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his bald head with a blue bandanna. “That’s your Uncle Cody’s bird dog someone stole out of his pen last week. But you don’t say anything to him about it. I’ll tell him.”
He stared down at me with those pale blue eyes of his. “Because I said not to.”
Behind him, I saw the tops of several corn stalks twitch, but there was no wind. I started to say something about it, but a man got out of the truck and hollered across the field. Had I known someone was creeping through the field with us that morning, I could have told Grandpa and we might have ended what was coming for us right then and there.
He also might not have had to do what he did.
But at the time I didn’t know I’d been slapped square in the path of a maniac who had it in for our family.
A cold feeling of dread grew in Ned’s stomach as he absently folded the piece of newspaper. Animal mutilations were stacking up in the river bottoms, but for the first time, the threat pointed toward children.
Ned shivered at the future in his sun-browned hands. Crows called in the distance. Blinking sweat from his eyes, he wondered if he’d soon be staring down at a child’s body.
He rose with a grunt and slipped the paper into his pocket as Isaac Reader slowed to a stop in the shade beside Ned’s own pickup. It was Isaac who found the dog the evening before and called Ned on the party line. Isaac slammed the door and hurried into the field.
“Dammit. I hoped I’d get through here before Isaac showed up.” He rubbed a damp bandana over the back of his neck. Sweat plastered the faded blue shirt to his back. Top didn’t pay much attention, watching instead the corn stalks moving behind his Grandpa.
His youthful imagination in overdrive, Top pointed the muzzle of his BB gun toward the booger-bear Ned had warned him about. It was a perfect way of avoiding the corpse at his feet. He shot at a corn stalk and cocked the gun again. Ned glanced down at his grandson, then back at Reader.
A short, talkative man, Isaac Reader moved with quick jerky motions, as if he’d been weaned on too much caffeine.
He matched Ned in a way that only comes from a lifetime of farming together. Dressed in faded overalls and soft blue shirts, both men wore straw Stetsons which fell under the “absolute necessity” category like a tractor, plow, and a good sharp hoe. With the first norther of autumn, they traded the breathable straws for a warmer felt.
He talked as he bulled his way across the rows toward Ned, breaking and shoving through the cornstalks without consideration toward his own crop. “I told you on the phone last night it was something!”
Waiting until Isaac was within conversational distance, Ned drew a long-suffering breath and stared at the distant tree line along the nearby Red River. He hated to be yelled at and any conversation with Isaac drained all of his energy.
Isaac soon joined him in the rough clearing. “Gosh-a-mighty! That stinks, don’t it?”
“He’s pretty ripe all right.”
The little farmer noticed the youngster holding his BB gun. “Hidy Top. What are you doing here?” Before the youngster could answer, Isaac pointed to the dog. “Listen, I couldn’t believe it when I found that thing laying here. It weren’t here three days ago, because my hands chopped this entire field. I believe if they’d seen anything I’d have heard about it.”
“It probably happened night before last. He swelled pretty fast in this heat.”
“I don’t give a fiddler’s fangdang when it happened. I don’t like what happened.”
“Well.” Ned pondered the dog’s corpse.
He thought about burying it right there in the cornfield, but he knew Isaac wanted the animal gone. “I’ll carry it off a ways down to the river, but don’t you tell Cody how we found him. You know how he is. He doesn’t need to know how his dog was killed. I’ll find the right time and tell him you found it already dead somewheres down here. I don’t want anyone to know about this.”
“Listen, I ain’t telling nobody nothin’.”
The trio stood in uncomfortable silence for several long moments.
Isaac hated silence between men when, in his opinion, they should be talking. “It’s a crying shame. Who would do such a thing?”
“I cain’t call anybody’s name right now, but I’m afraid we probably know him.”
“You don’t say.”
“I do say. Strangers can’t come in here like this without being seen by someone who’d talk about it.”
“I can’t believe anyone in Center Springs would do something like this. Who’d wire up a dog and burn it with a screwdriver like that? And why pull its toenails? It looks like he wanted to make a necklace out of it.”
Ned agreed. “It ain’t nothing but puredee meanness.”
“Listen, look at it. The poor thing’s been halfway skint. Why would anyone peel an animal’s hide back thataway? Do you think it was alive when he did it?”
Ned cut his eyes toward Top, who didn’t seem to be paying attention to their conversation. He was busy shooting at corn stalks. “I can see it right there Isaac. You don’t have to tell me to look at it.”
“Listen, you reckon it’s them circus people over there in Hugo?” Isaac never did like the Carson and Barnes Circus people who wintered across the river in Oklahoma.
“They’re not there in the summer.” Ned knew Isaac had always been suspicious of circus people because he’d been afraid of clowns since they were kids running the bottoms in Lamar County.
“I know it, but there’s always a few of those people still hanging around all year long. Maybe it’s one of them freaks they carry with them, like the feller that bites the heads off ’n live chickens.”
“Now you’re thinking about those little carnivals that come to town.” Any other time Ned would have laughed at the familiar conversation. “The circus just has elephants and clowns and such.”
Isaac shivered despite the heat. “I hate clowns. People can hide under all that paint and colored hair and you don’t know what they’re up to. I bet there’s a lot goes on over there we don’t know about. Maybe one of ’em went crazier than usual and they left him behind.”
“I doubt it.”
“Listen, don’t tell Joshua or any of my coloreds about this. I’m ’possa have thirty hands here in a week to gather my corn and this could scare ’em off. I have enough trouble getting good hands as it is. They’ll probably think its voodoo or something. You know how them niggers are. They’ll think this field is haunted.”
Ned nodded toward Top and frowned, hoping the man would get his intent. “Joshua is as Baptist as you are, Isaac. His mama got the name from the Book of Joshua in the same Bible you carry in your hand to the white Baptist church every Sunday. Besides, they’re just folks like you and me, only their skin is a different color.”
“Well, listen, I don’t care. All I know is that none of his people need to hear about this. They’ll think the bogey-man lives out here and then I can’t get anyone to ever hoe this field again.”
“You’re right. No one needs to know, black or white. I won’t tell anyone, and you don’t neither. Neither will Top, will you?”
Top pointed his air rifle toward the now still corn stalks and pulled the trigger. Satisfied with the snap, he cocked the rifle again. Neither farmer paid any attention to the youngster’s shot.
Suddenly tired, Ned didn’t want to talk any longer while stewing in the disgusting odor. He drew a ’toe sack out of his back pocket and handed it to Isaac. “I’ll have to study on this some more. Here, hold this open.”
Isaac knelt, making a face at the odor of decay. Ned took a long piece of bailing wire out of his pocket and looped it around the dog’s hind feet, then used both callused hands to lift the dog’s body into the sack. Isaac waved flies away from his head. One flew into a nostril and he jerked back in revulsion, shuddering and shaking his head. He gagged for a moment and then held the sack open.
Top giggled at the sight.
The loose weave of the burlap was no relief from the stench that settled deep into their sinuses. The shade called as they filed down the rows, Ned silently leading the way. Isaac followed, staring intently at the dry ground. Top brought up the rear, turning around now and then to be sure whatever had been moving in the corn wasn’t coming after them. It was fun to pretend Indians were stalking the trio of pioneers as they made their way though the wilderness.
In the shade, Ned settled the sack gently beside the tree and exchanged the hoe for a shovel from his cluttered truck bed. Much to Isaac’s agitation, Ned dug a hole in the soft sand.
“I thought you were gonna take him down to the river.”
“I thought about it, but it’s too hot to go off down there. Burying him here in the shade won’t hurt nothing at all.” Ned lowered the dog gently into the bottom of the hole.
“Well, I declare. I could have done the same thing myself.”
“But you didn’t.”
Ned was thankful that Isaac had called when he found the dog. The scrap of paper would have probably been overlooked by anyone else, putting Ned’s quiet investigation one more step behind. Finished, he refilled the hole and kicked at the sand around until it looked relatively normal.
Sweating profusely despite the shade, Ned stepped over to a hand water pump jutting three feet above the ground and primed it with leaf-stained water from a nearby rusty barrel. The water pump had been there most of his life, a place to get a drink during a hot day or to put fresh water into an overheating engine. He worked the handle until pure cold water gurgled up from below. He immediately felt cooler after rinsing his sweaty face in the icy water, then handed Top a dipper. “You want a cold drink of water?”
“Yessir.” Top held the dipper under the stream.
Isaac couldn’t take his eyes off the drying sand of the fresh grave.
Finished, Top handed the dipper to Isaac. “Can I pump it for you Mr. Ike?”
Top used both hands to work the handle.
“Now I mean it, Ike.” Ned dried his hat band with a bandana and put the Stetson back on his bald head. “Don’t you say anything about this here killing or what we found today. No one needs to know but us. I’ll tell Donald and Judge Rains later, but it don’t go no farther.”
For the past three years Sheriff Donald Griffin served the office, but Ned had little use for the man. Griffin was more politician than lawman and Ned considered him a criminal to boot.
In his opinion, there was nothing worse than a crooked lawman.
Ned intended to watch Sheriff Griffin as closely as possible, especially since he was a first cousin to the most notorious former sheriff in Lamar County history, Delbert Poole.
Judge O.C. Rains was the cantankerous county judge and a good friend to Ned Parker. The white-haired old man scared Isaac more than clowns. Using his name was a calculated move to quiet the farmer’s loose tongue, though it probably wouldn’t last. Isaac might keep his mouth closed for a day or two, but sooner or later he’d mention it up at the general store, or at the domino hall next door, and then it would be all over the county. “Listen, I won’t sleep a wink now for worrying. I reckon I’ll need to keep the shotgun beside the bed for the next few nights.”
The introduction of a new idea on a subject often led Isaac into fits of worry that lasted for months.
“Well, it never hurts to be ready.” Ned absently toed the dirt, watching a red harvester ant search for a way around his brogan. “Listen. I heard Top here had come to live with you and Miss Becky.”
“He sure did.” Ned flashed his grandson a quick smile, though he didn’t intend to get into his personal business. He was glad Top hadn’t offered an explanation. Youngsters needed to stay out of adult conversations, in his opinion.
Isaac waited, hoping Ned might offer more information. When that failed, he tried tact. “Well, y’all will get a kick out of such a good-looking grand-boy.”
“You’re right.” Ned opened the driver’s door of his truck and put one foot on the chipped running board. “Get in son. Ike, let me know if you find anything else.” Top trotted around the truck and climbed onto the dusty seat.
Four rows away, restless fingers dug into the sand, incredibly anxious to begin work but holding back until the time was right. Top slammed the door, and the man relaxed, melting back between the corn rows.
Isaac kicked a little more sand around on the grave. “All right, then. Listen. I’d like to know who would do something like this.”
“Well, like I said. I’m afraid it’s liable to be someone we know, or somebody from close around here. All I know for sure is that he’s bad, Isaac, mean as a snake and you probably can’t tell by looking at him.”
Isaac started to say something else, but then his eyes traveled from Constable Ned Parker’s pale blue eyes down to the tiny gold star pinned to his shirt beside the gallus of his overalls.
Tiny letters stamped around the small gold badge read:
Constable, Precinct 3
Center Springs, Lamar County
“Listen. You find him before he does this again, or hurts someone.”
Knowing Isaac would stay and talk all afternoon if he had the chance, Ned slammed his door so it would catch and started the engine. “I intend to.”
As they drove down the dirt road, Top looked through the open window at the crops drooping in the heat. “Grandpa, why would someone do that to a dog?”
Ned wished he hadn’t brought the boy. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision sparked by his joy at having Top safe with him at home. And now he was obliged to hold a secret from his Uncle Cody. It was a bad start, and Ned felt a great weariness settle onto his shoulders.
“Like I told Isaac. It’s nothing but meanness, I guess.”
“That ain’t right. You think that kind of feller would hurt a person if he took a notion?”
Ned thought about the clipping in his pocket and worried that the next victim might be a child. “He might. That’s why some people just need killin’.”