We named him Ashkii.
He’d been given to us by the Navajo tribes as they came through a couple years back. Wanted to trade for some of our crop but didn’t have much on them. They wasn’t too well off as they marched through the dirt road leading to nowhere. All they had was a few puppies from a litter they was duped into buying from a Dutch swindler a few towns over.
The kid kept saying that word, over and over, shaking the little thing in front of us so we could see he meant to send it our way. They didn’t know english. To be perfectly honest, I ain’t too keen on my own language neither but I reckon that between us, we had enough for a good college teacher. Or maybe at least a bad one.
Jill wasn’t too happy about the critter. He was ornery and when the boy dropped him to the ground, went right after the hem of her skirt. I couldn’t help but laugh. She couldn’t help but slap my shoulder with the back of her hand.
We needed a dog, though. The area was dangerous. The indians weren’t even half the trouble neither. The traders in the valley brought in some of their ‘law men’ some time before. Those robbers with stars used to hoof it through the farms every month, shotguns and pistols in hand. They’d never tell you to give’em anything. They just made you nervous till you obliged them with whatever they was staring at. You could always get it back though, for twice what it was worth, back at the post.
I had a feeling a big, mean beast would scare them something fierce. Maybe it’d be enough to keep them away. Jill was sure they’d shoot him and then we’d be out the dog, the crops we traded for the dog, and whatever those b*****d’s take from us in revenge. I told her that he’d be growing into something the size of a bear. I said he’d be able to take a few shots to him. I was only kinda joking.
She didn’t believe me. She didn’t know what kind he was. I did. My daddy worked for a dog breeder in Duckwater when I was a boy. He wasn’t much of a working man. He came from a different kind of family. He was a rich boy that married a poor girl and caught her case of lacking. Their money dried up so we moved through towns, looking for odd jobs. He wasn’t happy. None of us were. The one thing he enjoyed was watching over those dogs. His pa owned a couple kennels. The work in that town made him feel like a child again.
I liked it too. It was the only time me and him ever talked. He’d tell me all about the pups, talking about what they were, how big they’d get, what they’d do when they grew up. He had a favorite breed.
“Son.” He’d call me son so much I don’t know if he ever knew my name.
“Son, I want to tell you about the best damn creature on god’s green earth.”
He told me stories of great black dogs used up north to dig lost fellas out of the snow. These wonderful monsters, he said, could swim for days in ice cold water and then wrestle a pack of wolves to a stand still. It took him a while to teach me the name. It was one of the only things I ever did learn from him.
I spoke the word aloud. It was one of those sounds your mouth just likes to say. They were called Newfoundlands, the black bear dogs.
We never had’em in the Duckwater grounds. There wasn’t much call for a cold weather dog down here where winter just plain don’t come around.
But I knew that’s what Ashkii was. My daddy never stopped going on and on about the black bears. He’d compare the others as we cleaned and fed them. I could picture the shaggy, loose-skinned dogs in my sleep.
I told Jill that this little puppy was gonna be as big as a man. Instead of not believing me, which was her usual way, she turned it back around. It became about food and a place for it to sleep. She kept asking me, even as the Navajo disappeared over the ridge out of the county, she kept asking how we could take care of such a big critter. To say she wasn’t keen on him’s like sayin the Alamo was a disagreement.
Jill was a good woman. All her talkin’ was just to keep me in line. She’d tell me that every night after supper.
“Jake, I’m hard on you because you still got a little bit of the boy you shoulda grown out of.”
Ashkii knew she was really kind and sweet. He was never far from her in all the days they were together. She never became quite as fond of him, though. She’d grumble at me during his feeding time. She always told me to feed him a little less.
“Thing’s gonna eat us out of house and home, Jake. Then it’s gonna eat us!”
I’d just laugh. He was the most loyal thing you could see. We never kept him on a rope and we couldn’t afford to build a fence. Didn’t need to anyways, no one around raised livestock. No one’s afraid of another’s corn coming into your field. But even without nothing holding him in, Ashkii’d stay put.
Things were goin’ alright during his first few years. He grew big. He started doing him job, keeping the patrols out of our hair. They didn’t shoot him. He didn’t scare them. He did something I didn’t quite count on.
One morning I came out to see four of the scoundrels on the edge of my property. Askii was hoppin’ around’em like a rabbit at a warren. One of the men put his hand down and Ashkii went straight for it. For a minute I thought I was gonna have to bury my dog. If he bit any one of them without being provoked, they’d be in full rights. Then I heard laugh’in.
I walked on up to them. They greeted me with a tug at their hats. They didn’t have any barrels searching around for things to take. Ashkii looked back at me, his jaws work’in on a piece of jerky. The head honcho, a guy by the name of Trent nodded to the dog.
“It’s the damndest thing, Jake. We’ve been walk’in by here every day for the last week and every time we come by your place, we found a little less jerky in the satchel.” He patted Ashkii’s head. “I held back yesterday, to see what was goin’ on, ya know. Lo and behold this great big bear of a dog’s been sneakin’ up on our horses, not even spookin’em and nick’in our provisions.”
I shook my head, grittin’ my teeth. I couldn’t see how this could be good.
“I’ll pay ya back for it, Trent. He don’t know no better, he’s young still.”
He leaned back and laughed like I was wear’in my wife’s skirt.
“No harm done. He only takes about a piece a day so we decided to give it to him as we pass.”
They went on by without botherin us that day, or any day after. They’d ride by, Askii’d run up to them. I’d hear’em have a good laugh giving him that piece of meat, remembering him crawlin on his belly, sneaking the first few bits.
Ashkii never met folk he couldn’t call a friend. ‘Cept for Jill, I guess. Still, things became civil around the house. Until the drought.
It lasted a long time.
What few hands we had hired on in the previous years left. Nothin was growing. They knew they wouldn’t get paid unless a crop came in. No crop, no help. Without something to harvest, though, you ain’t got much need for help, I guess.
I took some odd jobs in the city. At least, I tried to. Seems everybody else had the same idea. More than once a day, I got the sick feeling in my stomach, the feeling that I was my father. Jill’d tell me that was nonsense. She kept sayin’ I couldn’t be likened to him.
He actually got work.
I brought Askii with me a few times. He got the only paying jobs not already taken. There wasn’t much livestock in a wet year, even less when the rains left. He’d pull carts for the shopkeepers closin’ up. It didn’t last long. They only had so much we could haul.
Things were lookin’ bad that year. Ashkii lost a few pounds. So did I. So did everybody around. It was a country of skeletons. Jill stayed looking healthy. She got a little too healthy there near the later part of the year. She called it ‘angry weight’. Said it was my fault we was here. I don’t know how she could connect the two, but she told me if I’d never gotten Ashkii, none of this would happen. She was tired. She wasn’t sleepin’. I’d see her sneak out of the house at late hours while I was in bed. Didn’t know what she was doing but she’d always be gone till morning. Probably just sitting on the porch, crying.
It was one of those mornings, as she came waltzin’ through the door trying to convince me she’d gotten up early to think things over, that she told me she had come to a decision. She said it was high time I stood up for my family, by family, she meant her. The dog was too big and too needy. He was drinkin’ what little water we could get outta the well. He was eatin’ what little food I could hunt down.
He brought his head to lay in her lap. She smiled and ran her fingers through his dark fur. She’d never done this before. I tried to talk her out of it. I used everything I could, even goin’ so far as to say I was sure the drought’d only last until spring and I knew we could make it till then. None of that was true, but Ashkii was kin. She wouldn’t hear it. I was told that the next day, I had to sell him or shoot him.
There wasn’t many left in town by then. There were even fewer left who had money in their pockets or something to trade for a workin’ dog like him. I went to everyone within five miles during that week. I had some interested in him as a guard dog, until they saw his method of ‘guarding’. No one wanted nothing to do with him but me.
Besides that, more people were leavin’ every day. There was rumors of thievery goin’ on. More than what there’d been. Some nightcrawler, they’d said, was comin’ into people’s houses and takin’ what little they already had. The rich folk had left but they’d been hit first and so hard they couldn’t very well be called rich no more. They told me I should’a been happy I was poor. I told them that I’d be happier if I could keep my dog.
Every night I’d come home with him at my side, Jill’d glance at the rifle on the wall. She could glance all she wanted to. I wasn’t gonna shoot my dog. I got it in my head to travel as far east as I could, past a couple towns, and set him loose in the woods. There was game there, somethin’ for him to chase. Somethin’ for him to live off.
It took another week’s time to make it there. Every house we passed needed Ashkii’s inspection. Every person he saw needed to pay the toll of a scratch under his chin or a pat on his shoulders. He got to smell the air and nuzzle some children down by an old creek he’d never seen before. That trickle of water had been a river last time I came by. I was hoping the woods’d still be there.
They were. Mostly.
A little while in, he saw a deer jumpin’ over a dead log. That’s all I heard of bein’ in that place. I never heard tell of no bears or wolves or coyotes, though I was sure Ashkii could handle a coyote at the very least. He took off after it, forgettin’ about me and Jill and the house.
I left soon as his barkin’ faded away through the trees. I went back quicker than I’d came. No one wanted to stop and shoot the breeze with a lonely man on the verge of tears.
Jill was standin’ on the porch when I came home. She was sittin’ in her chair, holdin’ the rifle. I expected that. I reckoned she’d keep it with her while I was gone. The one thing she knew I was good for was protectin’ her.
I didn’t bet on her sending the devil’s stare my way when my boot hit the first step.
“You’re gonna need this.”
She lifted the gun up and wouldn’t let it down till I took it. I opened my mouth to say somethin’ but I guess he heard me breathing.
Ashkii came running in from the fields. He’d made it back a day before I had. Jill said it was only out of respect for me that she didn’t take care of him herself while I was gone. I thanked her for it. She’d never stayed quiet unless I had. She raised her hand and pointed to the open field behind the house.
“I threw a shovel out back. It’s for his own good too, ya know. We could just let him starve.”
I nodded. Not really agreeing.
We could just wait it out. We could just have a little faith.
Even though the gun was in my hand, I was sure she’d find a way to use it on me if I’d said what I really wanted to. I slapped my hand to my leg and called out for him. He came right quick, he always did.
As I was openin’ the front door to cut through the house, Jill tugged on my pants’ leg.
“Tell me when you’re done, Jake. You know I hate the sight of blood.”
I nodded and pushed Ashkii through the doorway.
He followed me out back and layed himself down on the loose, dusty dirt. That was his spot during the summer days. I made him move. I couldn’t bear to think of putting him in the ground anywhere else so I marked the area and began to dig. I knew I’d have a hell of a time trying to shovel if I shot him first. I let him enjoy the last of the sun. I let myself enjoy the last of him.
It was hard going. Just like everything else, the soil was dry. I got about four feet down in and decided it was good enough. He came boundin’ over when I climbed out. I sat down with him, rubbing his neck. He stared at me. He wasn’t really searching for anything, it just seemed that way. He’d already found all he was looking for. He had no idea it was gonna be taken away. I turned my mind off. It had to be done, I kept telling myself that, it had to be done.
I picked up the rifle and told Ashkii to sit. He did, tail waggin’, ears as up as they could be. I brought the barrel a few inches from him. I didn’t want to miss. My finger slid across the trigger, testing the tension, dawdlin’ like the rest of me wanted to. It gave Ashkii time to lean forward and lick the black metal. When he was satisfied what it was, he stopped, looked back at me, opened his mouth in a great smile and waited.
I breathed out. I breathed out everything. I breathed out so much I couldn’t breathe in again. I tried to close my eyes but they wanted me to see what I was about to do. I looked past him, tryin’ to fight against the whole thing. I kept my focus on the run-down piles of wood at the edge of our land.
They were going to be built into a shed to hold some of the new equipment we’d have been buying. Like I already said, the hands had left. It would have been a rotting mosquito heap had the rains come. Now It was just our supply of fire wood.
I squeezed the trigger.
Ashkii yelped. He ran back behind the pile of dirt. He nearly jumped in his own grave. The bullet pounded into the ground, sendin’ a cloud of smoke into my face. I sputtered, trying to get it out of my eyes. I still had more work to do.
The dirt pile filled in quick. I was rushed. I was rushing myself against Jill gettin’ over her dislikes. I patted the last of it down and tossed the shovel to one side.
While I was lookin’ at what should have been a shed, I got to thinkin’ it coulda been somethin’ else. I grabbed a thick rope and my hammer from the table near the door. I put the rope ‘round Ashkii’s neck and led him the ways out to the pile. I tied him to one of the posts we’d driven into the ground to mark the site. It’d lasted this long, I was sure it’d last against Ashkii.
I fixed that pile up right nice, making sure not to change too much of how it looked from the house. The shed was going to be pretty large, but old Ashkii didn’t need that much space to hide out from Jill.
It was morning when I’d finished. He had a nice place to lay, free from the sun. I didn’t know how I was gonna explain the food disapearin’ or his miraculous return when the rains came back. I didn’t really think about all that then. I still had Ashkii.
He was having a time digging back behind his new house. I’d never seen him go at the ground so hard. He kept clawin’ at the dirt, then stickin’ his nose to the ground. He started a grumblin’ and growlin’ at something. I thought there must’a been some kind of animal bury something back there. While I hammered in the last of the nails, he brought me what he’d unearthed.
He dropped a spit-covered gold watch at my feet.
I couldn’t believe it. He’d found gold! It was in a mighty odd form, but it was gold none-the-less. I patted his head, watched him lay down, then headed for the house with the watch in my pocket. Maybe I could trade it for some food.
I climbed into bed that night. Jill had stopped steppin’ out. It felt good to have her sleepin’ near me again. I kept turnin’ the watch over and over in my hands, wonderin’ how it’d gotten there and how much I could get for it. I couldn’t show it to her. She’d want to hock it for something nice. I wanted to get some cheap cuts and bones.
The next day I had a bit of a worry over leaving Jill alone in the house with Ashkii just out a sight. I didn’t know if she’d go back there.
“I checked out that old pile a’ wood last night after… after I said goodbye.”
She stopped eatin’ and looked up at me.
“Why’d you do that?”
I shrugged, hopin’ she wasn’t on to me.
“I heard some noises back there. Seems some kind of coyote’s been callin’ it a den. I caught a glimpse of it and high tailed it to get my gun again, you know how dangerous lone coyotes can be.”
She sipped her water.
“No, actually, I don’t Jake. Please tell me how dangerous a damn animal we’ve had livin’ in back of us why you were out galivantin’ around tryin’ to sell a dumb animal you ended up shootin’ anyway.”
I’d never heard her talk like that ‘less she was speakin’ bout Mrs. Loretta, the lovely young lady who used to work at the saloon.
“It’s not gonna come to the house, Jill. Just make sure you stay away from the back of the house. I’ll spend some time tonight tryin’ to get it.”
I had to hold back a smile. I’d always been told I was dumber’n a horse’s hoof. I thought my little game was gonna pay off. Who knew how long it was gonna take me to kill that damned ‘coyote’?
Jill slammed her cup down and grabbed my unfinished breakfast away from me. She was fuming. I couldn’t understand why, s’not like that was her favorite spot in the world. She’d always liked the front porch, so the neighbor’s wives could see how pretty her dresses were and how lady-like she could walk along the wooden boards.
I left to go to town, told her I was gonna try finding some jobs again. I kept flippin’ that pocket watch around. It was beautiful. It had engravings and everything. There was even initials on it. I couldn’t quite figure out who KBM was, but they sure lost out when they’d dropped the watch. For something to be buried in the dirt that far down, it’d have to have been years. That, or someone put it there. I couldn’t figure why they’d do that, so I assumed it had been lost.
I went down to old Miller’s post. It was the only place left open. He’d been doing business there since before there was a town. The roads were still busy with travelers comin’ through. They always needed things, Miller always had things.
I slid through the door, watch in hand, steppin’ like I was a law-man. He kept starin’ at me till he saw the gold. Then he smiled.
Then he stopped smilin’.
Then he grabbed his gun.
“Now where in the hell do you get off comin’ in here, trying to trade me what I had stoled from my own damn house?”
I put both my hands up. Miller was an old man, he had no teeth left in his mouth but I guess he still had some bite.
“Mr. Miller, what are you talkin’ about?”
He huffed, wavin’ the revolver’s barrel at my hand.
“The watch, you ignoramus. It was stoled from my dresser. Last piece a worthful junk taken from the town ‘fore the thievin’ stopped. I thought the crook done left town.”
He winced at me behind his glasses, took a breath, then whispered.
“I guess he just tried to wait ‘till an old man forgot. Got news for ya, Jake Fulton, I don’t forget nothin’!”
I looked at the watch in my hand. He said it was his. I’d never had any reason to doubt him before. Miller was the only good trader I’d met in town. I put it on his counter, as soft as I could, and slid it across to him.
“I’m might sorry, Mr. Miller. I had no idea it was yours. I found it on my land last night. Thought I could trade it for some dry cuts a anything you have and maybe an old ham bone.”
Miller’s gun shook a little. I guess I’d never given him no reason to question before either. He chuckled a bit and lowered the barrel.
I nodded, lettin’ the fear out through a breath.
He took a look at the watch, holdin’ it in his fingers like he was holdin’ a baby mouse or somethin’ that needed a soft touch. He was smilin’ at it like he’d found an old friend. They musta seen some dark times. That watch was surely somethin’ special to him.
He cleared his throat and brought out a warbly tremble.
“Well, then, I guess we can replace that bullet I was gonna give you with a reward. You brought back my good luck charm. I’ll wrap Ashkii up somethin’ nice.”
When I came home, I skirted the edge of the field. I came to the pile of wood and knocked on the door. Ashkii’d missed me. He came out and pounced me to the ground. I gave him a piece of the meet and tossed one of the bones in his hut. I put the rest down my trowsers. I’d shrunk so much cause of the shortages, I could hide most anything in ‘em.
Ashkii begin grumblin’ at me. He’d walk a few paces, turn around, and grunt. He wanted me to see somethin’. It was his way of tellin’ me when things weren’t quite right. I followed him to the back of his house. He’d dug down more into that hole he’d made.
I’d never seen so many fine things in my life. Silver and gold and things I’m sure I’d never even heard of were reflectin’ the dusk back in my face. I remembered Mr. Miller. His watch had been stolen. All this must be the same.
He hadn’t said nothin’ bout anything else, though. I was sure this new bounty had to belong to the others, the ones that’d already left.
The ones I’d never get to see again so I could return what had been taken.
It was a darn shame they’d moved away. But, I couldn’t help thinkin’ what a waste it was to let it all stay there in the ground forever. I covered it back up and told Ashkii to stop diggin’ there. It could wait another day or two. There were traders a couple towns down who didn’t know the people here that well. They’d surely not pull a pistol on me and claim I had stolen what I rightfully found.
I set to go back to the house, fixin’ to come back with the rifle and ‘coyote hunt’ when I heard some soft footsteps comin’ from the house.
Jill had the gun in her hand.
It was pointed at me.
“Goddammit, Jake, I knew there wasn’t no coyote!”
That was the second time I’d had a gun pointed at me that day and it hadn’t gotten easier after the first. I don’t know why my first instinct was to always raise my hands, it just happened.
“Jill, listen. I found somethin’ back here. I"“
She didn’t let me finish. She fired off a shot at Ashkii, hittin’ him in his front leg. He screamed hid in his house. I could hear the wood shakin’. I turned and became stern for the first time.
“Woman, I swear to the lord above, if you don’t give me that gun, I’m gonna take it from you and put it where you never let me go.”
She laughed and pulled the trigger. She was either a terrible shot or she had just wanted to scare me. The hole in the ground was a few inches away from my shoe.
“Jake, hush yourself. I know what you found. I put it there. You think I was gonna let you mess up my life? I was plannin’ on leavin’ you tonight. I’d stashed away enough to last me quite a while.”
I took a step closer but she took aim again, warning me by closin’ one eye.
“I’m confused. This must’a taken you a while to plan. You must’a been goin’ out and taken things for months.”
She smiled, going to the back of the hut.
“So what’s vexxin’ you, Jake? You too stupid to see that I’m too good for you?”
I grabbed the edge of a plank of wood still loose on the side of Ashkii’s house. I could hear him whimperin’ inside.
“If you was plannin’ on leavin’, why’d you send me out to kill Ashkii?”
She pulled out a bag and started pilin’ the jewelry and goods into it.
“Because I hate you. Because I hate you and that damn dog. I’m still gonna make sure he’s dead ‘fore I leave. I can’t leave you with nothin’. I’m still wonderin’ if I’m gonna leave you alive to bury him or not. Which’d you prefer?”
She finished and stood up again. The weight of the bag was too heavy for her to hold both it and the gun. The barrel dropped. I ripped the plank and chucked it. It smacked her straight in the face. As she fell, blood from where the nails had cut deep into her face, sprayed on the gun, the bag, and her.
She lost grips on all three and hit the ground hard with her back. I went to get the gun but somethin’ from the hut made me stop. Jill stopped too. She could see it better than I could.
The pieces of the house were splintering. There was a rumble comin’ from inside. Somethin’ fierce and angry. Ashkii’d heard her, I was sure of it.
He broke through the dark planks, payin’ no mind to the splinters and nails. His thick fur kept most of them at bay anyway. Jill grabbed the gun and tried to roll out the way.
I patted down the dirt for the second time. Putting the body in was harder on my heart than my back. It weighed more than it should but not enough to keep me down.
I turned and left Ashkii’s spot in the back of the house. He always liked laying right there in the summer. He’d always liked Jill, up until the end that is.
I went to the kitchen to get a rag. I wet it down and knelt to my knees. I slapped my leg and gave Ashkii a call. He came, like he always did.
Even now, years after the drought, with Ashkii comin’ closer to his own end, I think it’s fitting for her to be resting under his favorite place.
She always hated him.