By Sloan Ranger
The disheveled man trudged awkwardly through the field, cursing as he sloughed along. Breathing hard, his rancid breath turned into fog in the cold October air. He shifted his unwieldy bundle from his left shoulder to his right. The man staggered — partly from his burden and the mud after two days of rain — and partly from the half finished jug he’d left at home. Angus Toper would not have left a jug half-finished for anyone else, but old Missus Crayton was not one to cross. She had a queer way of looking at you. Make you question a parson with that look.
Angus’s wife had finally left after their boy was grown and off on his own and his drinking had gone from bad to worse. Ol’ Jeb Crayton had helped the Scot many times since, if he needed it. And many’s the time Angus sorely did need it. The boy Tobias, a grown man now, came around a few times a year to check on him or give him a little money. No two ways about it though, Angus preferred the company of his jug to that of his woman or even the boy. He’d do odd jobs now and then, but if he could find none he’d show up at Jeb Crayton’s cabin, standing on the slab step, weaving and holding his hat. Cray’ had always helped. He came up with work, a piece of wood for the fire or a piece of meat for the pot. If Angus was shaking badly, even a bit of the juice.
So when Miz’ Crayton sent word that Jeb was on his last be,d the drunken man went to visit his benefactor. He could hear the sound of the old hound’s mournful baying long before he got to the cabin. When Missus Crayton shished the dog and let Angus in, Joe slunk along and made his way back to where Jeb laid. He was lying beside his master before Angus ever got to the room. He found the old man about done in; the hound dog Joe, lying beside him atop an old yellow blanket. The old man whispered something forcing Angus to lean in close and right quick, Jeb grabbed him by the shirt.
“I been a friend to you Angus,” the old man spoke fiercely. “You’ll be after helping my old woman if’n she needs it. You hear?”
Angus gasped; he hadn’t thought the old man had so much strength left in him.
“I said — do you hear me?” Jeb Crayton shook Angus by his shirt until the only button left came off and until the sick man had no more strength.
“I hear you, Cray,’ I hear you,” Angus answered. Only then did the old man leave go and fall back onto his bed.
He turned to quiet his dog who’d begun a low growl. “You don’t and you’ll have me to answer to,” Crayton rasped.
“Why, what d’ye mean, Cray? ‘Course, I’ll help her.”
The old man turned back to the Scot and hissed loudly: “I mean I’ll hain’t you if’n you don’t!”
Angus shivered. He was a superstitious man and the thought of Jeb Crayton coming back to haunt him was a real source of fear. Considering the state his mind was usually in from drinking, seeing spirits was entirely within his realm of possibility. It almost scared the water out of him and Angus suddenly felt the need of liquid fortification.
He finished his leave taking with Jeb and started out but as he got to the door, the old man with his weakening breath cautioned him again. “Don’t forget what I said, Angus.”
“No, no I won’t, Cray.”
The old man died that night and a week later, when Crayton’s dog Joe, followed his master into the Great Beyond, Missus Crayton sent for Angus at sundown. She put it upon the drunken man to bury Joe next to Jeb.
“Not rightly sure what the Elders’d say Angus, about letting a man’s dog be buried beside him. Best all around not to know I guess. Can’t say no to you, if’n you don’t ask.”
The dog was lying in the corner of the front room of the cabin, bundled in an old blanket. Angus went to get him. Close up, the blanket looked like — why it was, the very same yellow blanket Cray’d had on his last bed.
“Missus Crayton, that’s your bed blanket. Ain’t new, but it’s mighty fine to be burying a dog in. You want I should bring it back?”
“It was what Jeb asked fer Angus, for the dog be wrapped in his blanket. You know he loved that hound.”
Angus said nothing, just grunted and picked up the dog. The animal was heavy for an old hound dog and the Scot tried to shift his weight so’s he could carry him easier.
“Jest put him as close to the grave as you can. If the earth’s still loose,” Missus Crayton said, “I reckon you could put him right on top a’Jeb. Just so he ain’t dug up later. Jeb’d hate that, his dog dug up or got to by the wild things.”
“Yes’m, Missus Crayton,” he said, and started out.
“You ain’t after being a superstitious man, Angus, it bein’ All Hallow’s eve’?”
“What’s that, Miz Cray’?” The Scot was already pretty far into his cups.
“I say, it’s the night before the Saint’s day – night of the spirits.”
Angus almost dropped the dog then — he was a superstitious man. But his inebriation cushioned him from the depth of his dread. He shook it off and left.
There were two cornfields that came before the forest, harvested now, and the Scot had passed over these. He was on the narrow trail that led through the dense woods to the cemetery. A pale moon shone, but in these woods, it gave little light.
It was not an easy trek; the recent rain had made the trail difficult. The night creatures were beginning to make noises and the wind was coming up. Tree branches, wet with leaves barely clinging to them, were swiping at his face and clothes.
Angus heard an owl screeching as it swept down on some poor rodent, but it wasn’t an owl that flew by his face and struck him. He screamed and dropped his load as the thing flew back into the trees. What in blazes’, he thought, shaking as badly as the tree limbs. He told himself to calm down, t’weren’t nothin’, nothin’ a’tall — probably an old bat. He shivered twice as much then because Angus feared and hated bats.
“Unclean things, don’t care what nobody says, hate ‘em,” he said aloud. “Whisht –- now they got me talkin’ to myself.”
He picked up his burden again but couldn’t seem to get a righteous hold on the bundle. A 35-pound dead dog is an unwieldy thing to carry. He finally got old Joe over his shoulder when something else hit his face. Another of them black devils, he thought, terrified. It flew right at him and side-swiped his cheek, again.
“Aaahhhh,” Angus cried and he dropped Joe again, slapping at both sides of his face as though there were ants on them. He jumped from one foot to the other and finally ran off as fast as he could. Angus was back in his cabin within minutes, pouring a drink from his jug with a shaky hold.
The tin cup shook so badly in his grasp that he lost half the contents. The remains however, he got down his throat by grabbing tightly with both hands. Exhaling loudly, he was starting to feel better when someone knocked on the door to the cabin.
“Who’s that?” He said, his voice risen, to carry over the sound of the keening wind.
“It’s Jeb Crayton’s widow, you fool,” the old woman answered, her voice loud and cracked over the wind. He looked out the only window in the cabin, filthy now – his woman gone for so long.
He opened the door a mite and found Cray’s wife standing there holding a bundle of branches and sticks in her arms like they was a baby. She wore an angry scowl and the wind was trying to tear the hair from beneath the ragged scarf on her head.
“Why, what’r ye doin’ out there in this storm, Miz’Crayton?” He tried to sound concerned. “Come on in out‘a that wind.”
“I’m gatherin’ firewood a’fore this blow gets any worse and I ain’t comin’ in. Question is Angus, what in blazes are you doin’ here? I know sure as sin you ain’t had time to bury that dog.”
She was getting that queer look on her face.
Sloanranger began writing seriously a few years ago after returning to school and her writing began winning contests. Writing, short stories, verse, essays and a novella, she now focuses her efforts on submissions and locating a Literary Agent. You can find more of her work by googling: Wattpad.com/sloanranger. She is also on Twitter as: Sloan Ranger/#sloanrangerWP.