Faith

©1995 By Bob Litton; ©2012 By Bob Litton

Mr. Fortuna’s house was in that sociological limbo between city and country where the inhabitants were too urbane to plant acres of land in cotton or corn for profit and too rural to support a shopping center.  All the homes were set back from the road nearly an acre, and the asphalt road that led up to the bridge over his creek was lined with mail boxes, their small red pennants angled acutely.  Off to the northeast one could dimly see through the morning’s haze the city’s rectangular peaks; and to the southwest, where the foothills steepened, the real country of sprouting fields and oases of barns.

The people who lived around Mr. Fortuna’s “house-on-the-creek” took what they thought was the best from both worlds.  They commuted to the city and got good pay (they said) for whatever they did there.  When they came home in the evening, they milked their cows or rode their ponies or plucked eggs from their hens’ nests or tended to their little patches of wired-in gardens.  To the pale-skinned, weekend visitors from the city of Cibola they exhibited their rosy, plump progeny.  In front of the occasional farmer from the steep hills, come to trade his produce off at their open-air market next to the community center, they assumed their most preoccupied air, became citified, and spoke diffidently to him of the fortunes they were slowly amassing from their occupations in Cibola.

Mr. Fortuna did none of these things.  He had no fami­ly, no chickens, no ponies, no cows, no visitors from Cibola or from the steep hill country.  One shouldn’t suppose, though, that he was a recluse or even that he was eccentric.  Many of his neighbors, however, regularly described him as such in order to enhance the romantic aura of their little community at the same time they exhibited their own psycho­logical acuity.

Mr. Fortuna seldom ventured any further away from his home than the front porch.  And even when he did, it was usually only to pump water from the well that stood in all its radiant rustiness a few yards to the morning side of the house.  He had had polio in his youth and, though it had not completely disabled him, it had made any such activity as strolling up to the road a tiresome chore even to contem­plate.  He sat, most of the time, in a cushioned wicker chair on his front porch and waved at passersby in the road.  Sometimes a neighbor would pause a few moments and yell a few words of local news or pure time-o’-day.  If what the person had to say intrigued Mr. Fortuna and if the stroller had time to spare from his perambulations, Mr. Fortuna would invite him up to the porch for details.

Nor was Mr. Fortuna indifferent to animals.  Though he kept no farm animals such as his neighbors all sported, he did have a dog—an old pit bull terrier with a homely, humorless face.  The dog would lie on the porch beside the wicker chair and gaze morosely toward the road, its wrin­kled, brown lips fanning out on the hardwood boards between two forepaws.  Frequently the dog would fall over onto its side, stretch out all four legs, and yawn.  No one in the community knew the dog’s name, if it even had a name, for they never heard Mr. Fortuna call it.  Whenever anyone had occasion to refer to it, he or she did so by calling it “that ol’ dog” or “Ol’ Fortuna’s dog”.

This pit bull was the only one of its kind in the neighborhood and had, by its innate apathy, aroused little curiosity among the neighbors.  It didn’t appear to be capable of learning tricks or in­clined to run rabbits.  Like the rest of its breed, it was surpassingly muscular, but how it maintained its sturdy condition in light of its habitual laziness was a paradox.  Mr. Fortuna fed it half a pound of ground meat and one egg per day.  Consequently, even in its old age it had a glossy brown coat.  Its remaining physical peculiarity was one rear leg which was white from hock to paw.

One spring morning when Mr. Fortuna was sitting in his wicker chair with his dog lying on the porch by his side, old Liz Hubing came walking up the gravel driveway. She didn’t yell “hello” first as custom required or wait for him to invite her, a sure sign she was in an irritable mood.  She strode up, carrying her eighty-pound frame as though she were a lance tipped forward in attack position.

“Hello, Liz,” said Mr. Fortuna in a low conciliatory tone, for, though a large man, he was really as meek as Moses.  “What you so fired-up-looking about this morning?”

“That durn dog of yours, that’s what!” she said, her brow dipping in the middle like a waning moon.  “That dog killed two of my chickens last night.”

“Oh come now!  You know it couldn’t have been my dog.  I’ve had him for years and he ain’t ever done such a thing as that.”

“I don’t care what he ain’t done before.  Last night he bit the necks of two of my Rhode Island hens plumb in two.  I heard’em squawking clear from inside my kitchen and I went out to the hen house and I saw that durn dog of yours skit­tering under the fence wire.  He’s a mad dog, I tell you, and he ought to be done away with.”

“Since it was night, how do you know it wasn’t some other dog?”

“Cause your dog’s the biggest around here, and I saw that other one was big, too, even if I couldn’t see much else about him.  And I seen that one white foot, too, while he was skedaddling.”

Mr. Fortuna looked inquiringly down at his pit bull, which lay quite still with its nose between his forepaws.  It was still, but not asleep.  It watched the angry ejacula­tions of Liz Hubing with its dark, wet eyes as though it were observing the gradually depleting energy of a wound-up doll.

“Well, old fella, what do you say to that?  You been messing around with Liz’s hens?”

The dog raised its eyes, but not its head, to meet Mr. Fortuna’s distressed gaze.  Then it returned its attention to Liz Hubing.

“Whach’a asking that dog for?  He can’t talk, and I told you already I seen it.  Don’t you believe me?”

Mr. Fortuna reached inside his baggy cotton suit coat that belonged to another pair of pants and withdrew his checkbook.

“How much will you settle for, Mrs. Hubing?” he asked.

Liz Hubing had not anticipated this outcome.  She didn’t really know how much her hens were worth.  Her single objective had been revenge on the dog, not remuneration for her murdered fowl.  She considered the question in a discon­certed way.

After a lengthy pause, Mr. Fortuna asked, “How about twenty dollars for both?”  He filled out a check as he spoke.

After he gave her the check, she looked at it, folded it in half, and put it curtly into her apron pocket.  Then she glared again at the dog.  “But I still think that mad beast ought to be done away with!” she exclaimed, turning away.

That was the beginning. From that day, Mr. Fortuna was the recipient of complaints, charges that his old, lazy dog was terrorizing the neighborhood’s animal population in the deep hours of the night.  Some people came in person, but most phoned him and in angry terms demanded recompense or revenge.  Some threatened to kill the dog themselves.

Mr. Fortuna couldn’t believe that his dog would do such things as were reported to him, and he refused to pen the creature in or chain him to a stake.  “My dog has always been free,” he told Bill Sackley, the sheriff’s deputy, who came to suggest—and finally to demand—that Mr. Fortuna do just that.

“No sir!” Mr. Fortuna told him emphatically.  “It would destroy him to tie him up or confine him.  It would be a breach of faith.  Besides that, it would be absurd—that dog, who’s on his feet hardly an hour in the day, locked up or chained.  Can’t you see how peaceful he is?”

“I’ll concede he don’t look like no Jack the Ripper,” replied Bill, shaking his head in perplexity.  “Still, he’s the only dog around here that’s even potentially capable of the damage that’s been done.  I’ll have to ask you to find some manner of confining him.”

In spite of the fact that Mr. Fortuna never called his dog any particular name or showed outwardly any degree of affection, it was nevertheless true that the dog held a claim on a good part of the old man’s soul.  Lying on the porch beside him as it did day after day, the dog had become an extension of himself.  Although he had not given much thought to this affinity before (since it had not been threatened before), now he found that any complaint or threat against the dog was indissolubly and completely a complaint or threat against himself.  He shuddered every time he looked the dog’s way.

For several weeks there was a lull in reports of any dog attacking his neighbors’ animals.  Mr. Fortuna began to believe that the epidemic must be over and things would be normal again and he would still have his dog.  It was true that the neighbors did not wave as they passed along the road and across the bridge that extended over his portion of the creek, but that was all right.  They were just people, and people took a longer time forgetting an injury than did animals.  They would eventually cool down and stop to utter some brief, quiet greeting again.  And then one day they would even come up to the porch and exchange a joke or two.

Then, just when Mr. Fortuna had begun to think that the nightmare was all over, Mrs. Montrose, who lived two blocks up the road, came stumbling into his yard carrying her daughter’s pet lamb in her arms.  Its bloody head drooped to one side.  Behind her, red-faced and in tears, came her ten-year-old daughter, Ruth.

“Look, Mister Fortuna!” screamed Mrs. Montrose.  “Look what your dog’s done now!  See this dead lamb, Mister Fortuna?  See its bleeding neck?  It’s dead!  Your dog done it.  Your dog killed Ruth’s lamb!”

Mr. Fortuna’s throat felt as though he had swallowed a cup of stale coffee in one gulp.  All the other victims of the mysterious attacks had been invisible creatures to him—reports of invisible creatures—but here was one in the flesh complete with white wool clotted with dark red blood.  He did not reach into his pocket for the checkbook this time.  Nor did he look at the dog.

“I’ll take care of it,” Mr. Fortuna whispered, realiz­ing immediately how irrelevant and absurd his comment must seem to Mrs. Montrose and her daughter.

    “You’ll take care of it?  How? Mister Fortuna, this lamb is dead!  There ain’t nothing anyone can do for it now. Your dog is a good hunter, Mister Fortuna, a good hunter.  You should enjoy the kill.  Here.”  She laid the lamb on the porch step.

“What do you want from me, Missus Montrose?”

“Nothing,” she murmured, as she turned and walked away, with her daughter under her arm, crying. “Nothing, nothing.”

Mr. Fortuna sat gazing at the dead lamb on the porch step.  When the flies began to buzz around its head, he stood up.  Taking up his cane, he hobbled out to the tool shed at the side of the house.  He went into the open shed and pulled down a shovel that hung against a wall.  Near the steps of the porch he began to dig in the soft earth. After several hours of what for him was painful labor he had a hole deep enough for the lamb.  He wrapped it up in a potato sack and lowered it into the hole and then slowly covered it with earth.  He left the shovel by the grave and hobbled back onto the porch, mopping his brow with his white hand­kerchief.

The dog still lay on the porch. Its eyes, turned up to Mr. Fortuna, expressed an indecipherable question.  Mr. Fortuna looked gloomily at him.  “There are others,” he said.

Mr. Fortuna went into the house and came back a minute later carrying a .22 rifle, a weapon he had not fired since he was a much younger man and he was not sure it would fire on this occasion.  The dog was sitting up on its haunches, moving its soporific head in whatever direction Mr. Fortuna moved.

The old man, after walking out upon the lawn, aimed his rifle at the pit bull terrier’s head and fired.  He hobbled back to the porch, grabbed hold of the two rear legs of the bloody hairy mass that used to be his dog and dragged it out to the middle of the drive.  He left it there and returned to the porch.

A young couple passing by that afternoon on their exercise walk saw the dog lying in the driveway.  And they saw Mr. Fortuna sitting on the porch with the .22 rifle supporting his head.

Nobody reported any strange attacks on their animals after that.  About three weeks later, however, a propane truck driver stopped by the local service station and told about how he had seen a hybrid red wolf-coyote hanging from a fence gate post beside a seldom used county road.  “Looked as though it might have been killed in a fight with another animal,” the truck driver said.

Next day, at the local coffee shop, Liz Hubing came up to where Bill Sackley was sitting with some of her neigh­bors.  She was twisting a small white handkerchief.  “Bill,” she said.  “I feel awful upset.  Time has passed and with it my certainty about what I saw.  You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I know what you’re talking about,” Bill replied.

“Do you think it mighta been that wolf-coyote all the time?”

“Don’t know.  I never saw anything but the after-ef­fects.  Maybe it was whatever killed the wolf-coyote.  They’re kind of rare but they obviously ain’t extinct around here yet.”

“Guess we’ll never know for sure, will we?”

“Nope.  We’ll never know for sure.”

Finis

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