Unequivocal, those ominous words on the metal sign, but, for the benefit of the illiterate—who make up I’d guess a quarter of the population around here—Calvin Hobart had also painted a forced-perspective image of a double-barrel shotgun, its two soulless eyes focused squarely on anyone dumb enough to approach his gate. I admired Calvin’s work. Not so much the stenciled warning about his notorious dogs, but the meticulously rendered Fox Savage twelve-gauge. Who would have guessed an ignorant redneck like him knew anything about perspective in art?
While stealthily circling the property on foot, I noted the rest of the warning signs on the six-foot, chain-link fence were store-bought generics. Only the one on the front gate made clear in customized terms how unwelcome you were, be you lost hiker, Jehovah’s Witness or one of the many folks Calvin had screwed over. I counted myself among that last group.
Now, playing poker drunk is a sure sign of poor judgment, but playing poker drunk with Calvin Hobart at the table is a suicide mission. In my defense, I never would’ve been sitting there at 2 AM with the likes of Dimebag Tillman, Ratcher Bean and that mulleted perv the locals call Skunk, had it not been for Brody’s bachelor party getting out of hand.
Normally the staid and sober type, I would reliably put in my hours at the sawmill so I could pay off that parcel of land fifteen miles north of here where sweet MaryAnn and me wanted to build our house, but I’d known Brody since kindergarten and couldn’t say no to planning his last night as a single guy. That’s what the best man does, right?
The beers came way too fast for a lightweight like me and, long story short, I ended up in a Texas Hold’em game early that Saturday morning, losing all but my shirt to Calvin Hobart. I’ll admit I was Coor’s-hammered, but not so much as to miss seeing him pull a six of clubs out of nowhere to upgrade his two crappy pairs to a kings-over-sixes full house. Problem was, the six he conjured was the exact same hole card I’d tossed before the flop. He cheated, and I intended to get back my money.
Complicating any retrieval effort were two enormous guard dogs. Calvin had never been required to fire his shotgun at an intruder, because nobody yet had made it past Booger and Dammit. While I skulked around the perimeter to scope for weaknesses, the threatening pair sent up such an unholy racket that Calvin finally flipped on the porch light of his dilapidated trailer and stepped out onto the dimpled metal stairs with the Fox Savage in his hands.
I faded into the shadows, while his tick-riddled mongrels charged the fence, snarling, snapping, and swinging heads the size of cement blocks in my direction. Walking the half mile to where I’d hidden my pickup, I wondered how I could ambush Calvin and recover what I’d been cheated out of. First step of any plan would have to be dealing with those dogs.
They’d barely been weaned when their mother made her escape a couple years earlier. Taking advantage of the brief time the gate gaped open for the propane delivery truck to come through, Sheba lunged hard enough to snap her chain, then took off like her tail was on fire. The propane driver pissed his pants when he saw one hundred ten pounds of mange, fangs and muscle bounding his way, but Sheba tore past him and kept on going, dragging a four-foot length of chain behind her. Or, at least, that’s how Calvin told the story at the Eat ‘n’ Go, where he had lunch every weekday.
Life for the two pups she’d abandoned went downhill after that, and their natural reaction was to break mean.
I’d seen Calvin at the co-op, hoisting forty-pound bags of dog food onto his flatbed, the cheapest, no-name stuff they sell. Sawdust on the floor of the mill where I worked probably had more nutrition and better flavor. And Calvin was widely known to beat a dog, which is why Sheba bolted at her first opportunity.
At one time or another, every man in town had muttered over a whiskey about shooting those dogs and breaking into Calvin’s trailer to get back what that S.O.B. had stolen from them or cheated them out of. Well, maybe not Pastor Wilson, although, God knows he had reason to. When he opened the poor box year before last to make his usual Christmas distribution to our less fortunate families, he found the bottom smashed out and all the donated cash gone.
His mind, like the minds of everyone else around here, went directly to Calvin Hobart being the culprit, but Pastor Wilson didn’t dare make an overt accusation or file a complaint with the sheriff, for fear Calvin would bring Booger and Dammit to town and turn them loose in the church.
While others mused about killing the dogs and getting back their part of the money rumored to be stashed in Calvin’s trailer, I took a more analytical approach. After all, Booger and Dammit were not the problem; they were merely the hurdle one had to clear to get to the problem, namely Calvin Hobart. What those dogs needed, I figured, was a friend.
First thing I did was buy a dusty, old boom box from Miss Alice’s Pawn & Guns, then carry it with me when I visited Calvin’s property the second time. Thing probably hadn’t seen action since Falco released “Rock Me Amadeus,” but with four new C batteries, the playback and record functions worked just fine. Leaving my blue F-250 in the same hiding place as before, I hiked the last half mile in the dark, hitting the record button about a hundred feet from Calvin’s gate.
Sure enough, Booger and Dammit rushed the fence as soon as they sensed my approach, crashing their chests against the sturdy, steel mesh and barking like the hounds of Hades Pastor Wilson often claims in his sermons are waiting for sinners in the hereafter.
The trailer’s porch light came on and only seconds later, Calvin Hobart emerged in baggy long johns, cradling that shotgun with more affection than he’d ever shown to man or beast. I already had what I’d come for, so I backed away, slipping into the night as Calvin marched toward the spot where Booger and Dammit loudly dogsplained the issue of a trespasser.
After work on Friday, I drove the fifteen miles up to Icannoa to test the boom box’s remote control and playback volume on my property right outside of town. Using the opportunity to buy twenty pounds of hamburger meat and a large bottle of Old Spice aftershave, I ensured no local cashier or busybody would recall my making such a peculiar purchase.
MaryAnn had a retirement party to go to that Saturday night, and rightly expected her fiancé to accompany her. When I begged off on account of Mr. Chasen gave me D’s all through that miserable year of eighth-grade math, she sympathized with my lack of desire to shake his chalk-dusty hand and wish him well.
While sweet MaryAnn attended the party with her friend, Josie—history teacher and girls’ soccer coach—I made eighty balls of raw hamburger and laid them out on the otherwise bare shelves of my bachelor’s freezer.
My campaign to win over Calvin Hobart’s dogs began a few minutes before midnight on Monday. After taking out four meatballs to thaw, I slapped on a near-lethal dose of Old Spice, wanting to make sure Booger and Dammit could smell me coming.
While I didn’t have the best pitching arm in high school, it was good enough to take us to the regional play-offs my senior year, so I spent a couple minutes warming up my right shoulder before I hopped in my truck and drove to the parking spot a half mile from Hobart’s place.
As I approached on foot with one of MaryAnn’s Tupperware bowls in my hand, Booger and Dammit set up their snarling alarm and hurled themselves against the fence. Figuring I had a good sixty seconds before Calvin got out of bed, grabbed his shotgun and flung open the door, I darted forward, stopping ten feet short of that threatening sign on the gate.
One after another, I lobbed four beef grenades over the fence, shutting up both dogs for the nanoseconds it took them to gobble down their quarter-pounders. By the time the porch light popped on, they were barking again, but I was already a shadow in the darkness fifty yards away.
By the fourth night, the dogs associated the smell of Old Spice with an aerial delivery of something much tastier than the discount kibble Calvin dumped into an old paint can for them every day, so their warning to me came in the form of half-hearted growls too low for him to hear from inside.
After eight nights of making it rain steak tartare, I risked losing a couple fingers by holding a meatball and sticking it through the fence. As fast as it was snatched and gulped down, I handed another one through. The growling had reduced by then to a quiet burring sound.
On my twelfth trip, one of them—hard to tell which in the dark—let me scratch behind his ear after he’d devoured the amuse bouche.
By the fifteenth night, those two were cavorting with anticipation as soon as they got a whiff of my aftershave, and they greeted me with wagging tails and snuffling noises.
I climbed over the fence on my sixteenth visit, handing out meatballs, then sitting on the ground for ten minutes, scratching behind ears and patting giant, blocky heads.
Night eighteen, Booger, Dammit and I strolled all around the property without waking Calvin. When I climbed the fence to leave, both dogs stood up with their front paws on the chain-link, whimpering like they were sad to see me go, so I spent an extra few minutes doling out pets and baby-talk good boys.
I parked my truck much closer to the property on the twentieth night, as I figured Calvin would call the sheriff to report a theft as soon as I walked away with the three hundred dollars he took off me after Brody’s bachelor party. In case Sheriff Parnell came around to ask me questions, I wanted to be home in bed sleeping, ready to deny everything. Of course, there was always the chance Calvin would be too embarrassed to report such a clear betrayal by his dogs. Might give other aggrieved parties ideas about recouping their own losses, although I couldn’t picture Pastor Wilson scaling the fence to take back the poorbox cash at gunpoint.
With the boom box on my right shoulder and the last four meatballs in a plastic bag in my left hand, I approached the gate. Having already picked up the scent that signaled their Grub Hub delivery, Booger and Dammit waited for me, scampering around like puppies and whining for their treats.
I positioned the boom box on the ground, facing the trailer, then tossed the snacks over the gate, where the dogs inhaled them. Prior to scaling the fence, I patted the pockets of my work jeans, making sure I had the remote control in one and my father’s old .38 in another. The pistol wasn’t loaded, as I had no intention of harming any living thing. I only wanted to reclaim what was rightfully mine and make a clean getaway.
The two dogs danced circles around me as I approached the dark trailer, settling on their haunches while I took out the gun and remote, then positioned myself to get the drop on Calvin when he rushed through the door.
With the press of a button, the night filled with recorded barking, snarling, and howling coming from the direction of the gate. Pricking their ears, Booger and Dammit trotted off to investigate their own voices, although they seemed more puzzled than alarmed.
Returning the remote to my pocket and pressing back against the side of the trailer, I waited for the light to click on, tightly gripping the unloaded pistol. The door flew open and Calvin Hobart stepped out in his dirty long johns, a death grip on the twelve-gauge, while he scanned for unwelcome visitors.
About that time the recording ended and the dogs came bounding back. They stopped short of the trailer, panting excitedly and wagging their tails, as Calvin descended the steps. He didn’t realize they were looking behind him, rather than at him, so he lowered his weapon to read them the riot act.
“I don’t feed you worthless curs so you can wake me up for every raccoon or possum that waltzes by,” he snarled, loosening his hold on the shotgun so he could land a kick under Dammit’s jaw.
Luckily, that Neanderthal was barefoot, so the blow didn’t do too much damage, but when the force of it sent the dog sprawling with a yelp, I took advantage of the distraction to step from the shadows and roughly shove the barrel of Daddy’s .38 into Calvin’s lower back.
“Drop your weapon or say good-bye to your kidneys,” I ordered, trying my best to sound like a badass.
Mean, but not stupid, Calvin put his left hand high in the air while he slowly squatted and placed the shotgun on the ground. His right hand mirrored his left’s surrender, and he stood up again, still facing away from me. Dammit reappeared, although he kept well out of kicking range.
With a weary sigh, Calvin said, “Well, then, I guess you’re fixin’ to rob me.”
“I’m just here to take back what you cheated me out of.”
He had sounded so resigned to his fate that I wasn’t prepared for his right elbow to knife backwards and smash into my solar plexus. In a heartbeat, I was on my butt, empty pistol sailing out of my hand. Copperhead fast, Calvin snatched up his own firearm and aimed it at me.
Instead of seeing my life flash before my eyes, I envisioned the sign on the front gate, except the hand-drawn shotgun in my mind didn’t have two bloodshot eyeballs glaring at me over the side-by-side barrels. Dimly aware of a menacing growl nearby, I prepared to meet my maker as Calvin bid me a fond farewell.
The blast sent a gout of gravel high into the air not ten inches from my ear, so I rolled under the trailer, knowing the bastard wouldn’t miss twice. When the second shot went wild and ripped through the side of the trailer, I ventured a peek and saw Calvin hit the dirt, frantically punching out at Dammit, whose massive front paws pinned his tormentor to the ground. After a lightning jab caught the dog on its sensitive nose, eliciting a squeal of pain, Booger joined the fray, powerful jaws clamping down around a stringy thigh. Dammit recovered from the snout punch and leapt for Calvin’s throat.
Living up to their vicious reputation, one dog tore open the man’s femoral artery, and the other ripped through his carotid. Calvin went out in twin geysers of his own blood and screaming profanities. Even after the threat had been eliminated, the dogs played a violent round of tug-of-war for another minute, and a detached finger plopped onto the ground right in front of my face.
Deeply rattled, I scrambled out from under the trailer and picked up my father’s .38. Things had gone way beyond what I had intended, and I couldn’t afford to leave any evidence that could incriminate me.
I looked over at the dogs, heart drumming in my chest. Their muzzles dripped gore, and an ear-shaped gobbet clung to Booger’s collar, but they hung out their tongues and watched me like they were waiting for a reward, as two swishing tails painted the gravel red. There was nothing to be done for Calvin, so I made a practical decision to complete my mission before climbing the fence and fleeing the nightmarish scene of canine carnage.
I entered the trailer in search of my three hundred dollars, mindful when I climbed the steps to avoid leaving footprints in the places where liquid Calvin pooled. Once inside, I easily found my money, along with what looked like all the cash that sumbitch had stolen from other folks over a lifetime of cheating, thieving and double-dealing. It was everywhere: stacked on the counters, under the mattress, in the freezer, spilling out of dresser drawers, and crammed into cereal boxes in the pantry. About the time I realized it was way more than Calvin could have squeezed from his long list of victims, I discovered why.
The stained toilet bowl had no water in it, so I checked the tank. Also dry, but filled to the rim with wrapped bricks of what I guessed was heroin. Whoever Calvin had been doing business with, they were far above my weight class and I needed to clear out of there ASAP.
Intending to take only what was due me, I had not brought any kind of satchel or duffel bag, but it seemed a pure shame to abandon all that cash. I pulled two pillowcases out of the reeking hamper by the rusted washing machine, stripped another filthy pair off Calvin’s bed, then commenced to stuff them full. Rubber-banded hundreds, rolled fifties, and a shit-ton of Lucky Charms-flecked twenties strained the seams of my makeshift money bags when I tied them closed with twine I found on the kitchen counter. Staggering under their weight, I made my way to the fence and tossed each bulging sack up and over, anxious to follow them and get the hell out of there.
The dogs had bounded alongside as I covered the distance from trailer to gate, but they lay down to watch me send the bundles airborne. That’s when it hit me: the first thing Sheriff Parnell would do when the mutilated body was found is shoot Booger and Dammit. They’d had motive, means, and opportunity, and would be given the death penalty without benefit of a trial.
Running back to the trailer, dogs cavorting around me, I sidestepped the poorly assembled Calvin puzzle and located a set of keys on a hook just inside the door. As soon as I got the padlock open and swung out that gate, the killers escaped into the night, searching for a better life like their mother Sheba had done when they were still pups.
An open gate would alert the sheriff—or, God forbid, Calvin’s “business” associates—that another person had been on the property, what with dogs not yet having mastered keys and padlocks. For my own safety, I needed Booger and Dammit to take full blame, so I restaged the scene, closing and locking the gate and replacing the keys on their hook.
All I had to do then was establish a plausible way for the dogs to have escaped on their own. A tool-box by the stove provided me with a claw hammer, which I used to pry up the bottom of a two-foot section of the chain-link, high enough for a massive dog to crawl under. Using the claw side of the hammer head, I chunked out a shallow trench from the dirt under the bent fencing, so anyone could conjure a picture of Booger and Dammit digging the hole and forcing out the steel mesh with the strength of their bodies.
Shortly after the news broke that Calvin Hobart had been torn to pieces by his psycho mutts before they took off for parts unknown, mysterious happenings around town fueled rumors of his ghost making reparations. It all started when Pastor Wilson found the new poor box full of hundred dollar bills. Then, Velma Simms, the gray-haired day waitress at the Eat ‘n’ Go, trudged out to her battered old Civic after a long shift and found a stack of fifties on her front seat, more than enough to make up for all the tips that cheapskate had stiffed her for in twenty years of eating lunch there five days a week. As the months passed, everyone Calvin Hobart had cheated or stolen from got their due, so folks speculated St. Peter had taken one look at the old reprobate and told him to get lost and not come back till he’d atoned for his many sins.
A rumor I did not hear, which I’d been expecting, was about the drugs, so I’m guessing one of Sheriff Parnell’s deputies made a fortuitous discovery and is working a little something-something on the side until his supply runs out.
And me? Well, I took a job at the Tractor Supply up Icannoa way, close to the site where sweet MaryAnn’s and my house has been under construction for five months. It’s a cozy little two-bedroom, with only the final interior work left to be done. I’ve already moved in, and once the school year ends, MaryAnn will join me. We have a June wedding planned, then a whole summer together before she starts teaching art to the local seventh-graders.
Last weekend, Brody came up here to discuss his duties as my best man and take a tour of the house and property. He expressed surprise that I could afford the six-foot high, redwood fencing that encloses my full two acres, so I fibbed about those years of work at the sawmill down yonder earning me a deep discount on the lumber. The labor I did myself.
As we headed toward the front door, he noticed the two large doghouses I’d also built, just as Stanley and Feebs woke from their afternoon naps and emerged from comfy bedding to yawn and stretch in the warm sunlight.
Yep, the night of Calvin’s demise, I’d arrived back at my F-250 to find the perps in the bed of the truck, wagging their tails and letting me know I was the new alpha. I did not have the heart to chase them away to be hunted down and shot for doing what the rest of us were too chicken to do.
As the well-groomed, sociable pair ambled over to check out my guest, Brody turned to me in confusion.
“Hey, ain’t those Calvin Hobart’s dogs?”
“Shhh,” I replied, raising a finger to my lips. “Witness protection.”
April Kelly is a former TV comedy writer (Mork & Mindy, Webster, Boy Meets World, ad nauseum) who now writes short fiction. Her work has appeared in Down & Out Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Mystery Weekly (now Mystery Magazine), Tough Crime, Mysterical-E, Floyd County Moonshine, DASH Literary Journal and many other publications. Her story Oh, Here! won enough money to buy a car (toy, plastic, model: Dollar General) in the Mark Twain royal Nonesuch Humor Contest.