M. K. Theodoratus, Fantasy Writer
Showdown at Crossings.
Ebe Brown grew up thinking his home a paradise on earth. But that was before the king built the great freeway some hundred miles to the south of Crossings, a small town tucked into the Sierra foothills and forgotten after the Gold Rush of the last century. Ebe had loved his hometown’s isolation and slow, flowing days.
Back then, only the bravest tourists attempted to drive the twisting county roads around Crossings and fish its streams. Most still turned back south along the district’s Mother Lode Highway to visit scenery easier to see. Yet the tree lined, district road and absence of mine tailings drew adventurous travelers to the crossroad town.
But that life had vanished.
The new freeway brought outsiders from the Central Valley to the foothills town in greater numbers. Strangers who stayed and built vacation homes among the pines and along the streambeds. None were so weird, in Ebe’s book, as the odd newcomers who bought the valley field his family had sold when he was a boy. The cretins had destroyed his former neighbor’s cattle pastures to raise vicious guard dogs for city slickers.
Or, so they say, thought Ebe. Something’s not right there.
The strangers badgered anyone who came within spitting distance of their fences. Set their dogs on local fishermen who dared to fish on the king’s side of their boundaries. Took guns to the tourists taking pictures of the scenery. The dog-men even beat up a local rancher who had stopped to change a tire, claiming he had trespassed on their land and upset their dogs. The rancher swore to the deputy sheriff he’d parked on the king’s side of the road.
If a local tried to complain, the newcomers claimed they had friends in Trebridge, the district capital. The way the sheriff in the county seat, road crews and forest management people cowered when the scum growled made Ebe think their claims true.
But Ebe had had his own experience with the scum, but he didn’t talk about it. Just chewed on it like a piece of gristle.
At first, Ebe hadn’t thought much about the men camping down in the valley after the land sold again. Soon the newcomers were building a cluster of homes and doghouses on the hillsides well above the flood plain of Lazy Man Creek. No dog runs. Just poles stuck in the ground to keep the dogs contained. Ebe thought it funny they built on the north-facing hill where the sun didn’t shine, but he refrained from calling them stupid like some locals did.
Ignoring the bustle, Ebe kept to his placid pattern. His morning chores put food on his table. In the afternoons, he napped, whittled fancy canes for a friend’s tourist trap while listening to the breeze in the oaks and sugar pines at the back of his cabin, and visited his friends. He spent evenings reading. Ebe lived each day much like the last, except for the fall mistletoe harvest that boosted his cash income.
Then, Dipper, his mixed-breed, long-legged hound, disappeared.
Expecting a neighborly hand in finding him, Ebe drove to the dog compound. The hill, lined with rows of miserable dogs tethered with chains to poles by their doghouses, shocked him. He’d always let Dipper roam as he pleased. The operations center looked more like an army barracks than a hamlet with its gravel paths and lack of plants except for a scattering of manzanita trees. A roof covered the quad between the barracks, creating a huge, flagstoned patio. Ebe’s memory of standing in the shade, hat in gnarled hand, in front of a gauntlet of moon-shaped-faces and gimlet stares haunted him.
“Hi, there,” he’d said, taking a deep breath. He almost coughed at the fetid smell surrounding then, but stopped himself in time. “Name’s Ebe Brown. Live up on the hill across the road from your place. My dog’s gone missing, and I was wondering if any of you have seen sign of him. Looks sort like a black, curly-haired German Shepherd-type dog.”
“Sounds like a mutt to me, runt.” The bruiser in front of the group smirked at Ebe until the old man felt even shorter than usual. “You sure you want him back?”
Laughter greeted the sally, and Ebe surveyed the newcomers as a couple more men came out of the barracks. A chill spilled down his back. While some were taller than others, the men looked as if a cookie cutter made them, huge torsos balanced on bent short legs with faces as round as the moon and wide slits for mouths. Their noses weren’t much more than a slit either. An image of a frog leapt into Ebe’s mind.
Wouldn’t be surprised if their tongue flicked out when a fly flew by.
The newcomer with the broadest shoulders cleared his throat. “Rabler here. You sure your dog didn’t get hit by a car and et? There’s enough traffic on the road.”
“Maybe he should’ve tied his mongrel up like we do our purebreds,” said someone hidden by the group. Chuckles greeted the comment.
“Dogs are like people.” Ebe raised his head to look at the dog farmer in the eye. “They like to run free.”
“You don’t like how we keep our dogs?” asked Rabler quietly.
“How you keep your dogs is your business. Mine is mine.” The words escaped Ebe before he considered, and he could feel his color rising, though he’d said what most locals thought. “I just want to know if anyone’s seen my dog.”
Turning to the other newcomers, Rabler said, “Anyone see a curly black mongrel?”
Heads shook as a chorus of ‘nos’ responded.
One voice muttered in the crowd. “Must’ve been a runt like his master. Too small to notice.”
Rabler’s expression hardened. “We can’t help you, but I will warn you. We’ll shoot any stray dog we see on our land. Our breeding stock is valuable, selected for intelligence and bravery. We don’t need any mutts messing with our bloodlines.”
Ebe’s voice grew cold. “You saying you shot my dog?”
“I’m saying nothing. Just giving a warning if you’re smart enough to listen. Now git, you’re trespassing.”
Several of the men stepped forward. Ebe decided to take the warning and skidaddled as a hint of prescience tickled his mind but escaped before he could understand it. He was always much braver when he talked to himself in his head than when people stared down at him.
The old man called himself a fool for expecting the newcomers to treat him like a neighbor and help him find Dipper. But he had learned something the locals only guessed about.
Assholes are raising pit dogs under the authorities’ noses. Anyone with an ounce of brains knows those aren’t guard dogs.
Afterwards, Ebe did his best to avoid the flat-eyed, moon-faced asswipes, when he went into town. Blamed them because he no longer felt a warm welcome when he curved around the granite scarp that began the twisting glide down into the Crossings’ river valley when he returned from Hardscrabble, the county seat, to Crossings.
The ‘dog-farmers’, as the old time locals called them, had destroyed the soothing atmosphere of living in the quiet foothills along the edge of the commune of the magic-working hill folk called Dissenters after they had refused to use hydraulic mining on their land during the Gold Rush. Ebe used to delight in the trip back north along the tree-lined Mother Lode highway, humming big band dance tunes as he drove, enjoying honking at people he knew.
Now his white knuckles clenched the steering wheel, wondering if one of the foul-tempered dog-men trucks would crowd him off the road. Ebe didn’t relax until his truck turned onto his own land along the east-west county road where he felt safe, even though his hillside land overlooked theirs. Row after row of dog kennels, lining the sides of the valley where once cattle had roamed free, annoyed Ebe most of all.
Why can’t the hill people just get rid of the obnoxious jerks like they did when they stopped the lumber road through their lands? Ebe’s thoughts often swirled through his head while he whittled on his back porch of an afternoon. The Dissenters, who lived in the high Sierras, had run the area, in spite of the king’s men, since the Gold Rush. It wasn’t like them to avoid the dog-men. They’ve run off everything else the king’s men tried they didn’t like. It’s like they’re scared of the scum.
Dipper was gone. Ebe had loved to splash in Lazy Man Creek on a hot afternoon with his dog. The dirt bags now controlled the flat part of the creek. Ebe’s mind chased a hundred possible explanations, but none of them worked with the facts.
Dogs didn’t bother the cattle none. Wouldn’t bother the dogs if they had proper kennels.
Most days Ebe did his best to ignore the dog-farmers, especially after the deputy sheriff warned him off when Ebe suggested the dog-farmers needed watching. Townspeople guessed the newcomers really could pull strings down in Trebridge and avoided them. The scum tended to get mean when crossed or they drank too much. Local gossip had it that they’d as soon as punch you in the face as spit on you. He knew they killed dogs that strayed on their land, even if he hadn’t seen the deed. Too many loose dogs had disappeared.
Fridays were different, his fun day of the week when he went into Crossings to do his business and buy supplies. Fridays were poker days.
“Ain’t you right glad the county road skirts that damn valley so you don’t have to travel through their land and witness them poor dogs’ misery?”
Ebe spoke out loud to hear something beside the wind in the clump of sugar pines through the open door. He often pretended Cora still bustled around the cabin or sat on its broad back porch, fiddling with something or other. He’d loved to hear her sing the old-time songs as she worked, the secular ones best of all. Ebe smiled when the memories flowed. Cora had been the first person to consider him more than a runt with a funny name. Old Nance of the hill folk had also liked him and even tried to teach him the hill folk magic, but Ebe had failed her private classes major big time.
Now only silence greeted his comments. What little bravery he’d had had gone AWOL without Cora by his side. He left the dog-farmers alone, not using his leftover ties with the county to watch them.
He combed the sparse hair over his bald dome. Looked around for his teeth. The upper plate, that is. The bottom one gave him the miseries. Cora, bless her sweet soul, had insisted he wear his teeth when he went into town. Didn’t want to be seen with an “old man with a puckered hole below his nose,” she’d said. Not that Ebe paid that much attention to her complaints. He even sat in County Council meetings without them.
I didn’t mind her lumpy, bent-over self either. Truth be told, I miss her fussing. Ebe paused as memories washed over him. Miss her cooking more. The Widow’s a good restaurant, but their dinners don’t come close to hers, though it’s nice not to have to wash up.
Ebe sniffled up the tear that threatened to drop.
“There. I remembered my list,” said Ebe to himself, pulling a square of paper from the board. He saluted the mirror. Think I’m as presentable as an old geezer can get. Even if I didn’t press my jeans like Cora did.”
Ebe rubbed his hands together and ended with a clap, anticipating the poker game. With any luck, he’d beat Old Nance like last week. All he had to do was stop at the bank for his five rolls of new pennies and keep a straight face whatever hand he was dealt. He gave a little skip even though his joints protested. He kissed his fingers to his lips, and then touched Cora’s lips on their wedding picture by the door for luck.
Outside, the warm air promised a hot, dry day, adding a bounce to his step on the way to the garage shed even if it was beginning to cloud over. Once he, Cora, and their friends had driven the mountain roads during the deep of the night after dancing until the bars closed. Now he only drove his truck during the day when he’d have no trouble navigating the tight turns down the mountain into town.
Getting old’s a bummer. Wish I were one of those Dissenters, hiding behind their magic and living like a young buck forever until they collapse.
Halfway down the road, the chug of a tractor warned him of a coming farmer. Ebe steered onto the pullout. Looking over the edge to the open-air dog farm below, Ebe snorted. More poles sprouted from the ground, leaving more dogs scattered in rows than he’d seen before. The bad-tempered brutes looked like puppies from where his truck was parked.
Ebe shook his head at the notion that the outsiders trained security dogs, wondering why anyone bought that fairy tale. The stocky dogs looked like fighters to him. Pipes crisscrossed the hill so they could water the dogs without hauling pails. The only times Ebe had seen dogs free of the poles was when they trained, although a few lucky ones roamed the place to discourage visitors.
Once, at the beginning, he’d watched the strangers put the dogs through their paces, back when the scumbags were still pretending to be friendly. Wasted most of the whole damn day, and all he got was shivers from watching the brutes jump the well-padded men, their long jaws sometimes ripping the cloth. The kennels with smaller, gentler dogs proved the lie as far as Ebe was concerned. Made him glad he didn’t have dogs around his place any more unlike his friend, Old Nance, who had three huge brutes roaming around her place.
Good thing Nance lives far out on the East Road. Wouldn’t put it past the slop suckers to shoot hers at first sight. They roam all over the hills whenever they wish.
(C) 2014, M. K. Theodoratus, All Rights Reserved.
Slight of stature and lacking magic, old Ebe must destroy the demons who killed, Nance, his long-time friend and mentor to regain his self-respect. A prequel to There Be Demons.
Showdown at Crossings: A Tale of Andor