My daughter, Laney, she got pregnant not long after her sixteenth birthday. Me and Nora were disappointed, sure, but we didn’t come down on her with lectures or anger. We just told her that we’d help out as much as needed, but she had a whole new world of responsibilities getting ready to crack open on her way before she was old enough. Cartin’s father bolted a week before Laney went into labor. The first two years he mailed Christmas cards with fifty bucks in them, but then he was all the way gone. Cartin was born premature, all shriveled and tiny. He made it through the close calls with beeping machines sending nurses back and forth at all hours of the day. We thought Laney would do okay when we first saw her with him. That didn’t last long at all.
By the time he turned one, Cartin was, for the most part, Nora's and mine. We allowed for it because Laney made promises to go to the local community college and get a part-time job. She kept her word on the job, holding down a waitressing gig at Reno’s Roadhouse. Some nights she wouldn’t come by to pick Cartin up. Some nights she would come by to get him staggering drunk with some guy I never got to see close up at the wheel of a truck that, by the sound of it, didn’t have a muffler. If Cartin was sleeping, the roar of truck would send him bawling loud and red-faced out of whatever dream he was caught in and it would take half an hour to calm him down.
Laney eventually stopped coming to get Cartin altogether. It worried me and Nora, but we were more than happy to
have him around. I’d watch him play in the backyard and smile when I’d catch him staring up at the hills behind the house. I knew he probably heard a squirrel heading for one of the tall trees, or maybe a rabbit getting brave and making its way closer to the yard.
“Papaw,” he said to me one day. “What’s alive up there?”
“Just about everything, buddy,” I told him.
The summer he turned ten, I started letting him wander around up in the hills. I always kept a close eye on him. I’d been all over the area looking for mushrooms and ginseng, so I knew it was safe. He’d spend an hour at a time roaming around before he’d make his way back to the house, dirty with scrapes from briars up and down his arms and burrs sticking all over his back and in his wild brown hair.
The next spring, I took out a loan and built us a new house the land where my father used to have a farm. It gave Nora plenty of room to plant her little garden and I’d always wanted more dirt to call my own. It was mine after my father died, but it didn’t feel like it belonged to me until I had a house on it. We deeded the old house over to Laney and her live-in boyfriend, Amos, that I’d only met twice. Nora told me he had a good job with the railroad, but, since Laney always borrowed money off of us, I doubt it was that good.
Not long after we moved in the new house, Amos drove over with a dog box in the back of his truck. I walked out to see what was going on. Amos went around to the back.
“Come on over here, Olin,” he said. “Look what I picked up for Cartin. Got him a pal to play with.”
Amos let the truck gate down and opened the dog box. A big mutt slinked out and took a nervous jump to the ground. It looked like a cross between a collie and a hunting dog. It sniffed at the ground and made a few circles around the truck.
“Name’s Winston,” Amos said. “Got him from a guy in Lexington pretty cheap, all things considered. Promised to do a little roofing work for him, but I don’t plan on it.”
Amos laughed and squatted down to pet the dog. It took a couple of steps back and stared at him.
“Hell with you, then,” Amos said. “Tell Cartin me and his mama will come back over this weekend and see how him and Winston’s getting along. We got some business to attend to down around Frankfort tomorrow. Take it easy, old man.”
They always had some kind of business to take care of in Frankfort. I never nosed around enough to find out what it was, but I can imagine it would have pissed me off enough to have whipped Amos’ ass, so I just let it go. I didn’t want to strain things between Laney and us anymore than she already had.
It was three days later when I drove up the dusty one-lane road leading to my house and saw Cartin with a wash rag held against his nose as he walked fast in the opposite direction.
"Cartin, what are you doing?" I asked. "Where's your grandma?"
"Damn dog bit me so I killed it," he said. "I was looking for you. I ain't sorry. It bit me."
The dog wasn't dead, but it was hurt. Cartin had cracked its head with one of the bricks laying in the yard, left over from the expansion of the house.
I looked at his nose, the bridge covered in dried blood. The dog had closed its jaws right between Cartin's eyes.
"I just tried to pet him," he said. "He growled and I tried to back up but he jumped on me."
"It's okay," I said. "Go in the house and get your grandma. You need to head down to the clinic and get that looked at.
When Nora left with Cartin, I went inside at took my .38 from the top shelf of the closet. I walked back outside and found the dog hunched up against the back of the garage. One eye was closed and it growled at me and bared its fangs.
"Winston," I said. "Laney. Amos."
I pulled the trigger and turned the crack made by Cartin's brick into a cave of blood, hair and bone. The dog was in the ground before he got back from the clinic.