“The Bulldog and the Snake” is excerpted from a novel in progress about a hard-scrabbled and reluctant patriarch in a fight for his property and family in southern Oklahoma entitled Abraham Anyhow.
Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and put it upon Isaac his son and took in his hands the fire and the slaughtering knife, and both of them went on together.
The day was hot with noontime sun. Abe’s Bronco brought a cloud of dust with it into the diner’s gravel lot. The dust blew past Abe as he stepped from the driver’s side door.
He had spotted one of the Hammer boys’ trucks in the lot of the diner from a quarter mile or a little less but hadn’t bothered to brake until he was practically through the big plate glass window of the diner’s dining room.
Just as Abraham Dyson crawled out of the cab and shut the heavy door, Shane and Alistair Hammer came out of the diner’s double doors and into the steamy limestone lot. Abe stopped and leaned on the hood of the Hammers’ old orange GMC pickup and pulled a cigarette to light.
“You sure got big breeches leaning on my truck while you’re still holdin’ the other ransom.”
“Impound ain’t the same as ransom and you damn well know it Hammer.” Despite the hot approach into the parking lot, Abe was playing it very cool. He’d impounded the truck two nights past when OHP picked up Randy Hammer for speeding and driving with whiskey breath. Abe exhaled Marlboro Red. The Bronco ticked and clicked as the oil pan and engine pulleys and muffler and all cooled after the fast drive into town.
“Watchadoin’ sittin’ on my truck now?”
“This one yours yours, or just in the family? I don’t keep up with which one of you is driving what these days—especially since y’all always seem to travel in a pack most of the time,” Abe said, smiling and nodding at Allie who had yet to speak through his dumb and slightly agape mouth.
“Comes down to it, they’re all mine,” Shane said, lighting his own cigarette.
“Well go figure,” Abe said before getting to the point. “I come to town cuz I need to see a Hammer and looks like I have the ringleader right here.”
“The fuck you want, Abe?” Shane shot back, also trying to get to the point.
“Besides the impound fee for that piece of shit so I can clean it out of my lot, wondering if you know anything about King not being back at the shop this mornin’?”
“I ain’t got him if that’s what you mean.” Shane seemed genuinely surprised.
“Didn’t think you did Shane. But since ol’ Hoyt saw that ragged ass Scout that Andy and Randy usually run around in trolling around my lot last night, it got me thinkin’ since Randy’s the one got arrested and got that old truck impounded and there’s forty or fifty pounds of dog food in an open box covering God knows what inside that tinted camper on the back, maybe these two dipshits were snoopin’ around to steal the truck and when they couldn’t figure my fence and lock, they loaded up my dog instead. Like some dumbass kidnappin’ and ransom plot to trade?”
Shane was looking down at the gravel getting redder as Abe painted the picture.
“Like I said,” Abe continued, “just wondering if you knew anything about anything like that.”
“I, surely, do, not,” Shane Hammer replied, listing his words to underscore his point.
Abe aped in reply: “No, maybe, you, don’t, know, shit.” Then he tacked on, “Don’t seem to most times I run into you. Not your brothers or cousins neither. Must be a family condition—not knowing shit.” Again Abe nodded in Allie’s direction and Allie dully stared back, breathing through his mouth.
Shane continued for both of them: “Alright Dyson—find Andy or Randy then. Leave us alone.”
“I could spend my day doing that but how about this? You tell those assholes to bring King and the money for that mule in my pin. If they don’t, I’ll call one of my uniformed buddies and have ‘em sift through that Purina in the back.”
“Why you think I give such a shit about Randy’s problem anyway?”
“I took the liberty of checkin’ the glovebox—wrecker’s privilege. It’s registered to your mom—she’s going to have to sift through a pile of shit for that alone if it comes up a drug runner.”
“Damn you, Dyson.”
“Be pissy with your brothers. I’d just assumed filed for salvage on the truck after 90 days. But those morons had to get ideas of their own.”
“What if they don’t have King—or if—“
“Just get him back.”
Shane was beat by the box in the back of the truck but still wanted to lash out. He shoved his brother. “Go back in there and call Randy and Andy. Tell them to get the damn dog back out to Dyson’s place.”
Alistair thought he was still supposed to play dumb because he really was dumb: “What if they don’t have the dog, Shane?”
“Just fucking go,” Shane snapped. After a beat he tried to make peace to a degree: “I told Randy he had to take care of it since he got into that shit. Abe, I meant for him to pay you, honest. He got other ideas apparently.”
“Apparently—least I ain’t ever known Hoyt to tell stories.”
“Nah—get that old you got no reason to lie to yourself or others about what you see.”
Abe studied Shane’s acne scarred face, burned red by the Oklahoma sun, and his juvenile haircut as out of step with his age as the bright white basketball sneakers he wore. As he studied Shane, Abe realized this Hammer always did have the most sense, even if he looked like all the rest. They finished their cigarettes. Abe lit another.
As Allie came back out of the diner, Abe offered clear terms. “Alright,” he said, shifting his stance and holding his lighter like a tommyhawk at Shane, “we just wanna say Randy made a kindhearted mistake—picked up a stray with the best of intentions—didn’t know where he belonged. Long as King makes his way back, all it ever needs to look like.”
Allie, still the bluntest Hammer, thought he had an insight and had to share: “Everyone knows that your pup, Abraham Dyson.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure out something, Alistair, to help your brothers find their way to get my dog back today.”
Shane cut off whatever reply was slowly working its way out of Allie’s slack jaw: “No problem, Abe.”
“Bring money for that mule too—it’s takin’ up space in the yard.” Abe pocketed his lighter.
“Yea,” Shane shot back. Abe wasn’t sure if it was real or a brush off but didn’t want to stir the shit anymore for the moment.
The ride back was hot and dusty as the white gravel resin from the diner’s lot blew off the hood of the Bronco and over the black hairs of Abe’s big mechanic’s arm as he rested it on the open window and made the turn onto the 2-lane back to the shop. The Bronco’s glasspacks rumbled as Abe accelerated.
Billy was waiting in the shop office, sitting on an old van bench seat tack welded to a couple of rusty jackstands that worked as a couch. Billy had a tinfoil bag of greasy chicken strips in his hands and a big Styrofoam cup of tea was crotched between his legs.
“Y’anna chicken strip?” he asked offering the greasy bag at Abe.
“Yea, gimme one, I didn’t grab anything to eat in town.” Abe reached and poached one of the pieces of chicken. Afterwards he slid the moist soft pack out of his sweatsoaked shirt pocket and pulled a Marlboro from it before returning it and lighting the cigarette.
“Reach me that lighter,” Billy said, breaking Abe out of a sort of spell once he’d smoked the cigarette about a third of the way. In the meantime, Billy had rolled a cigarette from his pack of cheap Bugler having set the bag of strips aside to enjoy the early afternoon smoke with Abe. When he’d got his stringy cigarette lit and inhaled deeply, he asked with the exhale, trying not to be too eager, “Find King or the Hammers?”
“Run into Allie and Shane as it happened—made it clear I’d take the dog and impound fees on that truck by the end of the day.” Abe didn’t elaborate and Billy took the hint not to ask anymore.
For his part, Abe simply didn’t want to spend anymore worry on it until he’d give Shane time to keep to his word.
After lunch King normally lounged in the shop’s office. The dog’d report back to the property sometime early to mid morning after running all night. Sometime around 9 every night, after dinner, when Abe was watching TV, the dog would go to the door and stand until Abe let the big beast out. Some nights there’d be a dog or two waiting on the porch for King to be let out, other nights, King ran up Duff Avenue and out of sight on his own. When Abe came out of the house in the morning with coffee and cigarette on his way to the shop at the north end of his lot, King was liable to be curled up on the porch. Otherwise, he’d be around within an hour or so of Abe starting work, lounging on the van seat couch in the office to recover from the night. At the end of the workday, the dog followed Abe back up to the house to be fed and nap near Abe’s chair until night come and he wanted out again. A time or two, the dog had come back snake bit. A time or two, he’d come back shot for roaming on the wrong property no doubt. But he was tough and big to boot, and it never slowed him more than a day or two from his usual routine.
Abe wouldn’t have really been all that worked up about finding the damn dog around lunch that day and flown to town to find the Hammers—he’d of allowed the dog more grace period than that to return home. But Hoyt wasn’t one to lie and Abe bet right on the old man’s word that if confronted, the Hammer clan wouldn’t deny it.
As he finished his cigarette, Abe grew almost nauseous. Dealings with the Hammers was never easy, and there’d be trouble this time too, of some sort, if odds had their way.
Abe returned to work, recharging air conditioners, replacing burst hoses, and replacing stuck thermostats—all common jobs this time year brought on by the summer heat and swelter. Billy piddled around on his own truck out in the gravel shop yard. The truck was a contraption of his own devising being half ’54 Ford pickup and half ’85 Chevy Blazer. Abe worked away in the shop stalls. The temperature was the same inside as out—107—owing to the baking effect of a corrugated tin building on top of a concrete slab in the Oklahoma sun.
Late afternoon found Abe again resting in the shop’s office with a cigarette and coffee. He was contemplating the framed picture of his dad’s old circle track Chevy that sat on his desk. Abe’s father had built it and played in it on weekends when he wasn’t turning wrenches for a living himself. He’d picked up the trade in World War II working on dozer and ship and plane engines. Abe learned from his dad.
“What’s your old lady gonna think about this whole thing with the dog?” Billy’s question again pulled Abe out of a sort of spell.
Abe hadn’t thought about Sara in the hubbub of the day. She loved the dog—would be okay with Abe doing what he had to get it back. She’d worry but she generally trusted Abe.
“She’ll just be glad we haven’t lost King. IF I tell her.”
Billy wasn’t sure why Abe wouldn’t tell her, but never having been successfully married himself, he didn’t question it. Instead he offered, without any real reason to doubt and only in neat parallel to Abe’s last thought, “IF you get him back.”
“They won’t try to pull nothin’ with the dog. Least I don’t think so.”
On cue, King came leisurely strolling into the open shop bay on the north side of the building. Abe and Billy saw him through the window that looked from the office into the work stalls. They went from the office into the shop to see closer.
“What the hell? Where they at?” Billy asked as he bent to scratch the completely unexcited dog.
“Yonder,” Abe said and pointed his cigarette to the end of his gravel lot through the shop’s big bay door. The Hammers’ Scout was pulling away on its bald tires. “Guess they didn’t scrape together enough for the truck.”
Abe didn’t mention the Hammers or all that had happened, but enough folk had seen Abe and the Hammers in the cafe’s lot that Sara had already heard from customers at the Oakland Grocery.
“I really wish you wouldn’t be so reckless with these people.” From Sara this really was a kind request.
“Was I going to NOT get King back?” was all Abe offered his second wife.
A little after nine, when King stood at the back door, Abe ignored him, figuring it best to keep him home for at least a night after everything.
When he went to bed, Abe dreamed about his son and the snake.
The dream was as clear as the memory.
Ike was three years old, the year before Abe and Agatha split. He was playing in the bar ditch on the Fourth Street side of the Dyson lot when he stepped, barefoot and dead-center, on a copperhead stretched out in the grass.
As Abe was coming into the house from the shop, he saw his frozen son in the bar ditch. He saw something was wrong.
Ike was dead still as the angry snake coiled his little leg in one snap motion, then inched up his leg toward his crotch.
Abe acted instinctively, racewalking across the yard toward his son in the ditch. Without breaking stride he stooped to pick up a shovel handle Ike must have dragged into the yard as a sword or baseball bat or some other plaything. As he approached the statue of his son Abe took a mighty swing and connected clean with the copperhead’s arched-back head that was ready to strike. The snake’s head flew across the road. His body uncoiled and fell limp at Ike’s foot.
The first shot couldn’t have been fired from anything more than a .22 pistol given the pop it made. Abe wouldn’t have woken for it except that it had pierced the bathroom window and knocked a shelf of toiletries off the wall behind the bathroom door. It was 2:14 in the morning when he sat up.
Abe heard the next round of shots—plain old multi-load buckshot. Much louder. Sara and the dog both woke at those.
Sara still hadn’t formed words when Abe was on the move, telling her, “Stay down on the other side of the bed,” and pulled his jeans on and stepped into his boots as he went out of the bedroom toward the backdoor, guessing correctly that the shots were being fired from the shop or back lot. He grabbed his .45 revolver and a box of shells off the gun rack in the living room as he passed through and was loaded by the time he swung off the back porch toward his shop.
He caught another flash of pistol blast, the .22 again, in the corner of the lot by the impound fence’s gate. He turned his march off the path he’d worn to the shop’s door each day and moved kittycorner to the gate.
As he did so, he raised the gun and fired two shots into the persimmon tree branches that reached from the east edge of his property over the impound yard. Hot sticky leaves and fruit pulp and branch rained down on the two figures at the gate, who crouched and began to aim their guns all around, wildly searching for the shooter as Abe continued toward them in the dark. The figure to the right fired another shot from the pistol at the house.
“That was goddamned hand cannon!” Abe heard Randy Hammer whisperyell to Andy just as he was close enough to see and hear the youngest Hammer boys. He was now within twenty-five feet or so.
“Is it Abe?” Andy asked.
“How the hell’d I know?” Randy snorted. They were both still crouching and bobbing and pointing their guns any which way trying to cover against their assaulter.
“I tol’ you not to fire at the damned house,” Randy said in a half cry, his voice breaking.
Abe was within a few steps and still unseen, but the Hammer boys could hear his movement.
“Where is that sombitch?”
No sooner than Randy had asked when Abe found himself at arm’s length. Still in step, he pulled back his right arm in a big motion and hammered the Colt’s butt down across Randy’s nose and Randy dropped as suddenly as the dead snake’s body had. After half a beat, the pain hit him, and Randy began spinning wildly on the gravel lot. As he did, Andy ran, barely hanging on to the black bag they’d brought and his pistol. He disappeared in the treeline that edged the property.
Abe kicked the long double-barrell shotgun Randy had dropped under the impound gate so it was inside the pin.
Randy clutched his face with both hands as he sat up and scampered to his knees so he was half standing facing Abe Dyson.
“You sombitch,” Randy managed to echo into the cupped hands across his face.
“Damn me—hitting an armed invader,” Abe conceded and stooped to pick up another object on the ground he hadn’t seen before.
“This a goddamned crossbow? What were y’all aimin’ to do with this?” Abe asked, half laughing as he picked up the weapon.
“I don’t know—it’s Andy’s,” Randy managed as he stooped forward and then crawled up to standing from his knees.
“Must be a quite a pile of dope you’re after—taking my dog, sneaking out here again,” Abe offered, tossing the crossbow over the impound fence where it landed next to the shotgun. He looked down at the padlock on the impound gate. It had several small dents where Randy and Andy had blasted it with buckshot and the .22 pistol. It remained intact. “See you tried to bust the lock to boot.”
“Whatcha mean?” Randy said, not responding to any specific accusation. Hammers came out coy. Never admitted to anything, not even in elementary school.
When Abe moved toward Randy he smelled whiskey. “Why you didn’t think to just track down a pair of bolt cutters ‘stead of assembling a little arsenal is what gets me.”
Randy Hammer wasn’t paying attention, was simply holding his bloody nose, head tilted back, and waited for Abe to be done before asking all he cared about: “You gonna call the cops on me, Abe Dyson?”
Abe thought honestly for a moment. Calling the cops hadn’t occurred to him. Then he replied, “Nah—you didn’t do anything besides scuff my lock and break a window. I known drunks to do way worse.” Abe didn’t want to escalate the fight though assured, “Could be the other end of the.45 next time.”
“Alright, Abe,” Randy said beat, managing to keep only a single eye open.
“Git on,” Abe said, and walked toward the shop office to grab a cigarette. As he entered the side door, Randy crossed the northeast corner of the lot and walkran toward the highway holding his busted gourd all the while. Abe grabbed a cigarette from an open pack on his desk and lit it with a match from a box in the drawer. He closed the shop office door behind him and made his way to the house with his cigarette.
Sara met him at the porch with some panic, “A bullet went through Ike’s window. Lodged right in the headboard.”
This hit Abe awkwardly. He just thought of it as a bedroom, hardly Ike’s room. Abe’s son hadn’t lived there since the divorce. He’d only stayed there a few weeks of a few summers. Though Sara was right—it’s where Ike would have been if he’d been there. “Damn,” Abe managed.
After Sara was back asleep and Abe had laid there restlessly for an hour or more, he crawled back out of bed still wearing his jeans from before. He put his boots back on in the kitchen, went back out the back, and crossed the lot toward the impound pin, now in the just-daylight.
He unlocked the scuffed padlock using the ring of keys from his pocket and loosed the chain from around the right cyclone gate door before pushing it open as he moved toward the Hammer’s impounded truck.
The camper on the truck’s bed was unlocked. Abe lifted it, stepped up on the bumper, and dove into his waist grabbing the back edge of the big cardboard box with the dog food. He slid the box back to the tailgate by dropping down off the bumper without letting go of the box.
He let down the tailgate to give his five foot eight inch frame a better look. After a brief pause he reached into the dog food with both arms and began to sift around. He’d reached near to the bottom before he found it. Both hands stopped, blocked hard by a bigger, solid object. He grabbed and pulled the object. A briefcase surfaced from the dog food.
Abe tried to imagine who around here would carry a briefcase. Bankers, a couple of accountants, and lawyers at the courthouse, where Abe suspected the Hammers would have lifted this one.
He debated opening it when he saw a little metal plate engraved with “CW Trailer Mfg.” on the case lid’s right front corner.
Abe took the case into the shop’s office, leaving the truck camper and tailgate open and the shotgun and crossbow laying in the gravel. He remembered to wrap the chain and snap the lock shut on the gate.
In his office, he pulled another cigarette and lit it and looked at the case and thought about welding. Abe welded livestock trailers before he opened the shop. He worked for Canaan Wheeler ten or twelve years before he’d had enough and opened his own branch of the family business. He knew the company man this case belonged to.
He hoped what he had was not what he had, but knew better. He put the cigarette into an upside down piston head he used as an ashtray, balancing it on the edge. Abe grabbed the case and unsnapped both latches and let the case lid open.
Adam Van Winkle was born and raised in Texoma and currently resides with his wife and two dogs on a rural route in Southern Illinois. Van Winkle is founder and editor of Cowboy Jamboree Magazine, a bi-annual online rag dedicated to western and rural stories. He has published, read conference papers, and edited in the academic field on Bob Dylan and James Joyce in addition to publishing short fiction and creative nonfiction of his own in places like Pithead Chapel, Dirty Chai, and The Vignette Review (forthcoming). Van Winkle was named for the oldest Cartwright son on the television series Bonanza.