A Dog to Put Down

      by Brian S. Wheeler / Fantasy

Chapter 7 – Too Many Strangers…

Harmon supplied his son with a list of kennel chores the next morning before removing his van’s license plates and cruising into town. Before departing, he told John to remain near the ebony dogs, and he reminded his son of the combination needed to open the gun safe. When John asked what troubled his father, Harmon told his son of reports of dog thieves working the surrounding counties, a claim John little doubted, knowing well the value of his father’s animals.

Harmon slept little for a second night. His arm continued to hurt, and blood still seeped from the stitches broken during yesterday morning’s session with Horus. His soul was troubled. He sensed the fine hairs standing on the back of his neck. Each time he closed his eyes, Harmon imagined the faces of those strangers Sheriff Miller warned had been spotted in the rural town Harmon Fowler currently called home.

The streets surrounding Harmon transformed around him over thirty years ago, and the aftershocks of that transformation chased Harmon from the coast to the heartland. One street boss murdered another, and in the time it took for the blood to hit the ground, Harmon changed from a loyal soldier into a hunted mark. A bullet blasted through a street boss’s brain destroyed Harmon’s privilege to peddle sex and dope. No street corner belonged to Harmon by the time the echo of that bullet faded. The coffee shops through which Harmon laundered so much of the old street boss’s money would burn. A straight razor would shine, and he would feel the sensation of cold steel slashed across his throat. Then the new princes of the streets would lower Harmon into the ground, into a grave no higher or lower than that occupied by the street boss who Harmon Fowler served well for so long.

But Harmon escaped the purge. Like one of his ebony dogs, Harmon sniffed the coming enemy’s scent before they could set their trap. Harmon didn’t say a word to his second wife and he didn’t give his daughter a departing kiss before racing down the highway in the middle of the night, using all the bills he could salvage in his escape to pay for the gas needed to roll along so many miles. Harmon knew he must become a very different animal than the one he had been if he hoped to evade those hounds the new street princes would send on his trail. The new street boss might give a temporary promise of safety in exchange for a vow never to return, but Harmon knew that the day would come when that street boss would satisfy that itch to erase all traces of the previous street administration. Harmon was too long a dog of one master, and so the new street boss who replaced the old would not recruit Harmon Fowler into his pack.

“Two strangers always scout ahead,” Harmon grumbled as he peered through the windshield, “but the third stranger always carries the blade. Sheriff Miller won’t be able to recognize the third player. I have to depend on myself to spot the killer.”

A pickup truck perched upon oversized wheels blared its horn as Harmon lingered a moment too long at a stop sign. Harmon growled at the heavy, teenage boy whose multiple chins laughed beneath a foolish cowboy hat. Harmon was in the old blood. His senses were tense and trained. His fingers twitched to feel the blade tucked into his boot, or to feel the grip of that revolver stashed in the glove box. What did that heavy boy blaring that truck’s horn know about being a cowboy? Had that boy’s fat ass ever mounted a horse? Had that boy ever trained and kept such creatures? Had that boy ever spent days pushing cattle until the sun turned his skin into leather? Harmon knew how cowboys ate dust. He knew how they burned in the wind. Cowboys didn’t wear foolish hats, and cowboys knew enough about the world to know how dangerous it could be to blare one’s horn at people one knew nothing about. Harmon could so easily slip out of his van, casually step to that truck’s driver-side window, so easily grip that boy’s throat and claim his scalp before that fat fool’s dull mind had a thought to stop laughing. Harmon didn’t deserve to be mocked in a decaying town populated by the ignorant and idle. Harmon was no longer young, but his fists could still hammer artificial cowboys onto the ground. He was old, but his blade could still cut down the men who laughed at him. He could bark, tear and rend like no man any in that dying town had ever seen. Harmon knew how to bite. He knew how to survive. Yet the artificial cowboys of a festering town dared honk and laugh at him while he rolled slowly along the streets searching for dangers none of the villagers could imagine.

The fat boy in the cowboy hat shouted over his truck’s rumble. “Let’s go, old man! Maybe you shouldn’t be driving if it takes you this long to read stop signs!”

Harmon grinned a sinister smile. Behind his dead eye, he imagined so many ways he might kill a fool.

But it was not the time to let the wild blood pump freely, and so Harmon shook that truck’s rumble out of his mind and returned his concentration to his search for the strangers and their third man. He slowly circled all the town blocks. He trusted his remaining, good eye more than he trusted Sheriff Miller. What did a lawman of such a weak place, filled with such fat people, know of danger?

None of the cars occupying the parking lot in front of the town’s cheap hotel seemed troubling to Harmon. He saw nothing out of the ordinary to suggest that the few rooms currently occupied held anything more than pill addicts spending what little money remained to them for a little, private shadow. Harmon scowled. The state government running that country might’ve judged there was nothing wrong with doctors pushing so many pain pills, but Harmon’s illegal dope had always been pure and healthy. When he pushed the dope, Harmon made sure his marks returned for more. He never peddled anything like the meth that tainted that rural countryside. His dope never produced anything like zombies all too common in that small town Harmon was forced to call home. He had always respected his clientele. He had never pushed tainted product. He had always believed in quality control and customer satisfaction. Harmon growled as he glanced back at that motel falling away in his rearview mirror. The country needed to purge all those pill pushers and meth chemists. The country needed to machine-gun the zombie horde those drugs created.

He parked the van behind both the town’s Chinese and Mexican restaurants to watch who drifted in and out of those establishments’ back doors. Harmon suspected food to be only a simple front. Harmon suspected that sheltering illegal immigrants was the money-making enterprise that kept both businesses open while their tables always seemed empty. Harmon doubted anyone but him would even suspect such a diabolical trade taking place beneath their noses, until everyone in that town awoke one morning to discover that only the minority spoke English anymore. Harmon thought that those strangers that hunted him may have known allies in those enterprises. If he watched carefully, Harmon might recognize something in the way one of those alien cooks and servers walked. Perhaps he might see something in the manner of their hands. Perhaps Harmon’s good eye would recognize the tell that betrayed the killers, whose guns and pistols sniffed for him. Perhaps he would recognize the face of that third man, the one who always arrived just before the blood spilled. Perhaps he would see, and smell, the threat, and so earn advantage over those hounds who tracked him.

Yet none among those cooks and servers jolted his senses, and so Harmon guided his van still another time through town. The community was a small, but Harmon distrusted so many storefronts and neighbors that it took him the complete day to cover all the locations in which he feared strangers might lurk.

Peril waited for Harmon around every turn. It waited to ambush him behind every quiet, brick building. He watched the local police office, worried that the enemy street boss conspired with officers beneath Sheriff Miller’s command. Harmon parked his van across from the post office and stared at every mail carrier who hustled up and down the front steps, his good eye squinting at each package for hints of bombs and poison to be delivered to his home’s mailbox. He watched the entrances to all the law offices of those small-town attorneys, wondering what part those counsels might’ve played in the preparation of that trap designed for Harmon Fowler. No town corner lacked conspiracy. There was no place which was innocent of plotting against him. He watched the school playground to spot any stranger pumping children for information. He watched the doctor’s office, checking for new faces among those who required care. The sunlight dimmed, and Harmon despaired. Strangers filled that community. He counted no friends among those he spied.

“I’ll smack that sheriff until he’s black and blue if he’s playing some kind of trick on me,” Harmon snarled. “I don’t care if he owns any badge. I’ve knocked cops around before.”

Harmon started to doubt himself. How would he recognize those strangers the sheriff warned him had come into town? How would he spot the third man? How would he notice the danger before the garrote or the blade spilled his blood? Was old age responsible for numbing those senses that once preserved him on the streets? He sighed as he looked to his empty passenger seat. He needed Tonka. Tonka’s nose had tracked danger like no dog he had ever trained.

But Tonka was gone, and Harmon was the man who put that animal into the ground. Harmon shook his head. What had gone wrong? He spent so many afternoons working that dog, and Tonka showed such a strong balance between instinct and control. Tonka showed confidence. Tonka knew what sounds deserved an answering bark, and who deserved a snarl. Tonka reserved his ire for the moment it was required, and Tonka knew the difference between friend and foe.

Brooding wouldn’t lift Tonka from the grave. But what had turned the dog wild just as Harmon believed Tonka attained such control? What turned Tonka savage? What moved Tonka to tear his master’s arm, and leave Harmon with no option other than to put down his champion dog? Why had Tonka failed him, when Harmon needed Tonka’s senses more than ever to alert him to the dangers that dog smelled?

Harmon drove slowly home to consider his options.

“I hate doing it to John after he’s put so much effort into his dog,” Harmon spoke to himself, “but we just don’t have the time for John to stumble through the last of Horus’ training if danger’s on my heels. John will have to understand. I’ll make it up to him somehow. But I need Horus now. I need Horus to be the best he can be. I need Horus to succeed where Tonka failed.”

The dogs filled their kennel with noise as Harmon stepped out of his van. That din reassured him. He needed the pack to be on edge. All that training would finally pay returns. His dogs must’ve sensed his own alarm and agitation, and so they were ready to growl to protect their masters and home from the cruel, savage men Harmon feared were approaching.

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