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Sugar Creek Gang 25 The Ghost Dog
By Paul Hutchens
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1998 Pauline Hutchens Wilson
All rights reserved.
It was one of the hottest, laziest summer afternoons I'd ever seen or felt—especially ever felt—when the mystery of the howling dog in the Sugar Creek swamp began to write itself in my mind.
I was dozing in the dappled shade of the beechnut tree near the Black Widow Stump at the time. Poetry, my almost best friend, was sprawled out beside me. The two of us were waiting for the rest of the gang to come for one of the most important gang meetings we ever had.
Of course, I didn't have any idea how important our meeting was going to be or what exciting and even dangerous experiences we were going to stumble onto that afternoon, or I wouldn't have been so lazy and sleepy.
Up to now, every time I'd dozed off, my chubby mischievous-minded friend had said or done something to jar me out of my dream-world into the sizzling hot afternoon that was making me so sleepy in the first place.
As you maybe remember, the beechnut tree we were lying in the shade of is just west of the Black Widow Stump, where we have so many of our gang meetings. That stump was the most important stump in the whole Sugar Creek territory, because that was where a black widow spider had bitten Circus's whiskey-drinking father before he got scared half to death and gave his stubborn heart to God to be saved from his sins.
Circus, as you maybe know, is the curly-haired acrobat of our gang, who has to live with six sisters. He has learned to imitate almost every bird and wild animal there is in the swamp along the creek and the bayou, and he's always surprising or entertaining us with a bird-song or a growl or grunt or howl or screech or bark or squall or chirp.
That stump is also just south of the leaning linden tree that overhangs the incline leading down to the bubbling spring where we get our favorite drinking water. And that is about the coolest place anybody can find anywhere to get away from a long hot summer.
"Please!" I grumbled to Poetry, who had just punched me awake for maybe the seventh time. "Why don't you cooperate? You're going to get yourself whammed on the jaw or some place if you get my temper all stirred up!"
"Cooperate!" his ducklike voice came back. "Why don't you cooperate? I'm trying to tell you that Sugar Creek territory is going to be in the news—is already in the news. Here, look at this in the Hoosier Graphic! Here's a picture of the hollow sycamore tree in our barnyard and our old white mother hog with her six little pigs!"
"I saw it this morning," I mumbled back grumpily, "and it's nothing to brag about. Our old red mother hog raises her pig family in a modern hog motel, not in a hundred-year-old hollow sycamore tree in a barnyard with woodpeckers nesting in holes in its dead top. Last week our Red Addie had seven pigs, all of them with beautiful red hair like mine."
Saying that to Poetry, I sighed a saucy sigh in his direction, rolled over three or four times to the very edge of the shade, and tried once more to sail away into the lazy, hazy, wonderful world of sleep. Maybe this time Poetry would respect my wishes and let me alone until some of the rest of the gang got there, when I'd have to stay awake.
Now that I was farther away from my oversized friend, the weather didn't seem so hot. A lively little breeze came to life right then and began to rustle the glossy green leaves of the beech tree. Through my half-closed eyes I could see the leaves trembling and, with my lazy ears, hear them whispering like a huddle of girls in the schoolyard.
Maybe I ought to tell you that sometimes when I am alone in the woods or down along the bayou—or just moseying around looking for snails' shells or birds' nests or sitting on the bank of the creek waiting for a sleepy fish to make up its lazy mind to bite the nice, juicy blob of fishing worms on my hook—I listen to the rustling of the tree leaves all around overhead. And they do sound as if they are whispering—and sometimes even as though they are clapping their hands, as it says in one of Mom's favorite Bible verses, "And all the trees of the field will clap their hands."
All alone like that, hearing the water rippling in Sugar Creek and the birds whooping it up in the trees overhead all around, I like to think I feel like the Indian boy Hiawatha in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem. Then I'm glad to be alive enough to enjoy being alive. It's as easy as eating blueberry pie to imagine the birds are Bill Collins's chickens, and the chipmunks, groundhogs, cottontails, raccoons, possums, and even the polecats are my brothers—Bill Collins being me, Theodore Collins's "first and worst son," which is sometimes Dad's way of describing me. Sometimes when he calls me that, it's a joke, and sometimes it isn't.
Ho-hum! Lying there beside Poetry that sweltering summer afternoon, sailing along like Wynken, Blynken, and Nod in the poem in one of our schoolbooks, I was just beginning to drift farther and farther "into the sea of dew," when all of a temper-awakening sudden, Poetry let out a hissing sound like a tire losing its air and exclaimed loud enough to scare the living daylights out of me, "Hear that?"
Not having heard that or any other that, I groaned a grumpy growl and tried to yawn myself back into Wynken, Blynken, and Nod's sailboat to snooze off again.
"I mean it!" Poetry's voice exploded into my peace and quiet. "I heard a dog howling!" He rolled over several times to where I was lying and bumped into my back. Then he sat up and shook me by the shoulders. "Wake up, Theodore Collins's first and worst son! I heard a dog howling!"
"A dog howling or a boy's brains rattling—if he has any?" I came back with.
Up to now it seemed that everything in nature had been cooperating with me, trying to help me get the nap I needed. There was the buzzing and droning of seven hundred or more honeybees gathering nectar from the thousands of creamy yellow, sweet-smelling flowers of the leaning linden tree. Every now and then a lonesome crow croaked a cracked-voiced caw from a tree somewhere in the woods. Down in the creek the friendly little riffle laughed gaily along, singing a singsong song, which is one of the most musical sounds a boy ever hears in Sugar Creek country. And the hot sun was scattering showers of heat all over everywhere, and ...
Even though all nature was trying to help me, the nature of the roly-poly boy who was my almost best friend was not cooperating.
"Do you know what day this is?" he asked, and I didn't and didn't care and didn't answer him.
Then's when Poetry tickled my nose with what felt like the feathered flower of a blue-grass stem, which made me sneeze a sneeze that woke me all the way up.
"I don't care if it's day or night!" I growled. I sighed a sizzling sigh at him and turned my face toward the bayou.
"The calendar"—Poetry answered his own question—"says that today is just one month since we buried Alexander the Coppersmith, and that gives us something to do today: go up to the haunted house cemetery and help Little Jim put a bouquet of wildflowers on Alexander's grave."
That might have interested me, but it actually only irked me a little more at my round-in-the-middle friend for trying too hard to get my attention.
I could have let my mind do what it had done so many times the past month—unroll the story of one of the most exciting things that had ever happened to anybody in Sugar Creek history. That, as you maybe know, happened just thirty days ago. A fierce-fanged wildcat as big as a mountain lion moved into the neighborhood, and my cousin Wally's copper-haired, city-bred mongrel, named Alexander the Coppersmith, had saved Little Jim's life. He had attacked the savage-tempered cat while it was flying through the air straight for Little Jim's throat.
You have to hand it to that nervous, nonsensical, half-hound, half-Airedale for being brave without knowing it and living a dog's life better than any dog I ever saw. He proved that day to be one of the biggest dog heroes in the county—maybe in the whole state—by diving headfirst into a fierce, fast, furious fight with that wildcat. You can imagine what the battle looked and sounded like if you've ever seen and heard a neighborhood dog, who ought to know better, and our old black-and-white house cat in a tooth-and-claw, life-and-death struggle for the survival of the fightingest.
There was barking and yelping and hissing and scratching such as I'd never seen or heard before. I watched and cringed and yelled, "Attaboy!" to Alexander, while Little Jim beside me, saved by the battle, clung to my right arm as if he was holding onto a tree root on a cliff side to keep from falling over the edge.
"Sic 'im!" I yelled to Alexander, and he did sic 'im, more savage than ever, while Circus and Big Jim, Dragonfly and Wally, and even Little Jim also kept on rooting for that daring dog doing what was natural to him.
It was not only maybe the fiercest fang fight ever fought but also one of the shortest. All of a sudden, the battle came to a spine-tingling, heart-sickening, bone-breaking end. I saw it and didn't want to believe it but had to because it was happening right before my worried eyes. That copper-colored canine and tawny-furred feline, all of a barking, hissing, howling, eye-scratching, fur-flying sudden, started to roll over and over and over like two tangled-up tumbleweeds in a Western wind, right toward the edge of the ledge they had been fighting on. And over the edge and down they both went—down and down and down and down and down!
Even while they were still falling, my eyes leaped ahead of them to see where they were going to land. Maybe a hundred feet below was an outcropping of jagged rocks.
We buried Wally's brave little mongrel not far from where he fell in battle, in a sandy place we found on the bank of the fast-flowing canyon river. Never again would we see Alexander streaking like a flash of burnished copper down the road, giving chase to a passing car. Never again would we hear at night his high-pitched wailing as he ran with Circus's dad's hounds in full cry on the trail of a coon down along the bayou. Never again would I get to sit on our side porch under the ivy canopy and stroke his half-sad, half-glad head—when I could get him quiet enough to let me do it.
As the last bit of gravelly soil was shoveled onto his grave, I realized that at last he was a quiet dog and would never again get himself into any trouble for not thinking or planning in advance what he was going to do.
A day or two after the funeral, we had a second one for the same dog, because we got to worrying. What if there should be a flash flood some day or night? It might send a wall of water roaring down the canyon. It might wash Alexander's body out of its grave and carry it a mile or more downstream, where it would lie exposed to the weather and might be eaten by buzzards or some carnivorous four-legged animal that sometimes roamed the hills of Sugar Creek territory!
It was a sad day for all of us, especially for Wally, and extraspecially for Little Jim, whose life Alexander had saved. It was too sad for me to even write about it for you at the time. But we dug up his body and carried it in a gunnysack through the woods to Old Tom the Trapper's dog cemetery behind the haunted house where Old Tom himself had once lived. There we dug a deep hole in the southwest corner under an elderberry bush and buried him again.
And I will never forget the time the gang made a special trip to the cemetery to help Little Jim put up the grave marker his father had made out of a slab of birch wood. His mother, who is an artist as well as the best pianist in the whole neighborhood and is our church organist, had stenciled a sleeping dog on it and lettered what is called an epitaph, which Little Jim decided he wanted on it. It was:
ALEXANDER THE COPPERSMITH Long may he live in our hearts.
There were tears in my eyes as I stood looking at the mound of yellow earth under one of the overhanging flower clusters of the elderberry shrub. That one cluster was so heavy, and hanging so low, it was like a ripe sunflower head, almost hiding the epitaph's last three words, "in our hearts." It seemed we had lost a member of the gang instead of a dog.
While we were all standing and thinking, I took a quick look around at us. Standing nearest the marker, sort of leaning on his shovel, was Big Jim, our leader, his jaw set, his almost mustache like a shadow under his nose. Dragonfly, the pop-eyed member of the gang, was holding his handkerchief to his nose, maybe to keep from sneezing. He was maybe allergic to the gunnysack we'd buried the dog in or to dog hairs or to some weed or wildflower around the place. Poetry's round face under his dark and shaggy eyebrows was very sober for a change. The very curly brown hair of Circus, our acrobat, was shining in the afternoon sun. And, last of all, there was Little Jim himself—last except for me, Bill Collins, Theodore Collins's first and best son. Right that minute anyway.
I wasn't the only one to have tears in my eyes, either. Little Jim gave his head a quick jerk, the way he nearly always does when there are tears in his eyes and he doesn't want anybody to know it. That quick shake of his high forehead shakes the tears out without his having to use his handkerchief. Not any boy I know would want anybody, especially any other boy, to see him cry.
We all turned away then, carrying Alexander "in our hearts," as it said on the epitaph. Not a one of us said anything for quite a while, but all of us were doing different things to make it seem we weren't as sad as we felt. Some of us were picking up rocks and throwing them at anything or nothing. Others were taking off on a fast run in some direction or other, leaping up and catching hold of tree branches and chinning ourselves or skinning the cat—things like that.
And that was the last of Alexander the Coppersmith, the most wonderful, nonsensical dog hero there ever was. At least he was the most important dog that had ever lived and hunted and howled in Sugar Creek territory.
The last of him, that is, until a mystery dog began howling in the Sugar Creek swamp and along the bayou at night. And the howling and bawling and baying and squalling sounded exactly like the sounds Alexander the Coppersmith used to make when he ran pell-mell with a pack of hounds on the trail of a coon or fox or other varmint that lived in our neighborhood.
When you and your parents and your common sense all tell you there isn't any such thing as a ghost dog—that when an animal dies that is the last of his life on earth or anywhere else—and then all out of nowhere you hear the dog yourself after he is dead, you get a creepy feeling moving like cold chills up and down your spine.
Was Alexander alive or not? Before the week was over we were going to find out, in one of the strangest adventures that ever happened to the Sugar Creek Gang.CHAPTER 2
In the late afternoon of the day we set up Alexander's epitaph, Little Jim stopped at our house to get his bicycle, which he'd parked against the walnut tree near our front gate only a few feet from our mailbox. Just before he swung onto the seat of his neat blue racer to go flying down the road to the Foote house for supper, he got a faraway look in his eyes and said, "I wonder if there is a heaven for dogs."
It was such a surprising thing to say that for a minute I studied his face to see if he really meant it, wishing I could tell him there was but not knowing for sure if there was or wasn't.
When there had been quite a few more silent seconds, and still I hadn't answered, he came out with "Alexander didn't get to live even half as long as a healthy dog usually does. It seems like he ought to have another chance somewhere."
"He will live in our minds," I thought to say, remembering the epitaph on the grave marker under the elderberry bush.
"I don't mean live that way," he answered and sighed a sad sigh, giving his head a jerk. "I mean I wish he could live somewhere in his own mind and know he is alive."
For what felt like maybe three extralong minutes, neither of us said another word. But I had my mind made up to ask my parents about it the first chance I got. Both Mom and Dad were Sunday school teachers and studied the Bible a lot. We also had a special book in our home library that explained every verse in the Bible.
Excerpted from Sugar Creek Gang 25 The Ghost Dog by Paul Hutchens. Copyright © 1998 Pauline Hutchens Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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