Friday, September 25, 2009

The Black Dog

The road that ran past the cabin was a road in name only, really little more than a meandering pathway amidst strands of nettles, baked hard and dusty in summer, a muddy quagmire in the winter rains. Like the cabin it lead to, it had a woeful and deserted look. A casual passerby would have thought that no one ever came this way.

For many years, few did.

The only regular travelers on the road were the local farmers, taking the shortcut across the glen, and the old couple who lived in the cottage. They made occasional trips as far as Poteet for their few meager needs, and they rarely missed Mass. But they had no visitors, save for the parish priest. The occasional hitchhiker or walker who rambled onto the road quickly discovered that it was guarded by a huge black dog of mixed pedigree.

The black dog would slink silently out of the briars and nettles when a person following the road came within a half mile of the cabin, then skulk along behind them, gradually narrowing the distance, until the click of its claws striking stones in the road would alert the traveler that they were being followed. And when they turned, the sight of the dog was enough to strike terror into even the hardiest of travelers.
It stood waist high, solid shoulders of defined muscle rippling underneath a slick coat. it’s head was larger than a normal dog’s, its ears laid flat against its skulls, blood red tongue lolling from its gaping mouth, in which yellow teeth glinted. Its eyes were the color of rust. No one dared to walk past it and continue up the road to the cabin.

In Pleasanton, the nearest town, the shaken traveler would have a shot of whiskey in the saloon to calm shaken nerves, and if they were unwise enough to mention their encounter with the black dog, they’d be regaled with all the local legends…

The dog was not a real dog, but a demoniac being known to haunt that particular roadway. The old couple who had lived there never admitted to seeing the animal, but it had been witnessed by travelers for many years.

The dog was the devil himself…the spirit of a long dead highwayman…the ghost of a faithful dog…a portent of death….

And when the traveler left the saloon, the fact and fancy would have become so confused that their own encounter with the creature would become less terrifying. If they thought about it again, they would remember nothing but a large black dog , perhaps bigger than any dog they had ever seen, but still, a dog. Nothing more.

But the black dog was much more than that.

The black dog had appeared when the Stones, the couple who had lived in the cabin were young, or at least younger. They had a son then, Austin, a tall ill-tempered lout who spent his time drinking, playing the fiddle, and pursuing the local girls. When Jack Stone threatened to throw the boy out if he did not find work or even help out on the small farm, Austin towered over his father and raised his huge fists silently. The threat was unspoken at that time. But shortly after he made the threat, he punched his father. And once the first blow was struck, others followed. An aura of bitterness, as cold and dark as a wet winter, settled over the Stone cabin then.

Sara and Jack came to fear their son, and he, in turn, began to hate and resent them. He could have left, but he had no desire to travel, not while he could intimidate his father and live rent free.

So he stayed.

And the bitterness stayed, deepened, fed upon itself, poisoned all three of them until one day a furious argument broke out, and Austin Stone hit his mother with his fist for stepping between himself and his father.

In the shock of silence that followed, they all knew it would never be the same after that.

That night in his bed Jack Stone could not sleep. Although it was dark, he thought he could see his wife’s bruised face, feel the throbbing heat of the bruise. And though she she was silent, he imagined he could hear Sara’s soft sobbing. Staring upward, his eyes wide, his cheeks damp, he looked into the future and saw nothing but years of abuse and fear.

At last, he got up and walked over to the wardrobe, and pulled out his fishing tackle. Reaching into the wicker box, he lifted out his fishing knife, a bone-handled sliver of razor sharp steel. He turned over his shoulder to glance at his wife, she lay on the bed immobile. In the moonlight, the bruised side of her face looked black. And that decided him. He crept out, and into the adjoining room where his son was sleeping.

Sara awoke, she dozed semi-conscious, unsure if she were awake or dreaming. She heard a gasp and a grunt, but that might have been the animals in the barn, then a muffled crackling, as if someone had turned over on the straw filled mattress, then silence. As she drifted back into a troubled sleep, she heard the sound of a heavy weight being dragged across the floorboards. The last sound she heard before her nightmares took over was the faintest of splashes, as if something large had tumbled into the well beyond the cottage.

When jack brought her a cup of tea in the morning just after dawn there was a note in his hand. On a single sheet of paper, the words, written in pencil,
“Gone away, will not be back.”

And that was the story they told in the town. Jack produced the note in the saloon to verify his story, and the boys disappearance was seven-day wonder only. The boy was no loss, the locals said, and life went on as usual. Austin Stone was one of a trinity that almost every town possessed: The drunk, the fool, and the rogue. The first pair were harmless, but the town was usually a better place when the rogue left.

With the boy gone, things changed up at the cabin. The air of brooding menace had vanished, and Jack and Sara were seen more often in town. They even had a new well dug on the hillside quite a distance above the first. “The old well’s gone bad.”, Jack explained.

And then the black dog appeared.

No one knew when it first appeared. About a year after Austin Stone had left to seek his fortune elsewhere… a year and a day, others added significantly.

Suddenly the dog was just there, shadowing the footsteps of anyone who came down the road past the cabin. It’s stillness, it’s silence, the faintest of odors… of dank and rot, the stink of fetid meat, that clung to it, told their own story.

Though it might look like any other scared stray, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was a fey beast. Legend had it that they were the souls of the damned, condemned to walk the Earth until Judgment Day. Connections were drawn to Austin’s disappearance and the dog’s appearance.

That was when the cabin began to be shunned. Eventually, even the parish priest, a stout-hearted man, did not feel it incumbent upon himself to pay many calls on the taciturn and morose couple who now rarely left their cabin. They rarely spoke to one another, as if some terrible, festering secret lay between them.

Time passed. Summer, fall, winter, and eventually the coupe died within a fortnight of one another. Sara first, then Jack. With their deaths, the locals expected the black dog would vanish also. But the black dog remains, it continues to guard the twisting, overgrown track past the tumbled cabin.

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