Church Grim

Hellhound's Trail

~ 1921 ~

They awoke to silence. No songbirds greeted the morning, no winter wind disturbed the bare branches outside their windows. They looked out over the snow-packed street and held their collective breath, just like the rest of the world.

For half a mile down, overlooking the ice-capped river, Mounds Boulevard was painted with blood-red paw prints. A wolf, by the looks of it, and a mammoth one. The stride was impossibly long, but each print pressed barely an inch into the snow. Beyond, the rest of the city faded into monochrome.

The residents came out in twos and threes, children in close orbit, and gawked from their porches or driveways or lawns, but no amount of disbelief could send the prints back from whence they came. Instead, the witnesses fell into bickering over their origin and import.

"Let's not lose our heads; this must be the work of men." The loudest voice came from the slightest frame. Abigail Stevens had lost her husband in the war and figured there was little else the world could do to her. "Extortionists used to leave handprints like this to terrorize their victims. This is what happens when the police turn a blind eye to criminality!"

Old Man Vickers had a voice like a grindstone, worn and slow to turn, but it could pulverize anything laid before it. "The work of men?! How could men leave such light impressions in the snow? Were they suspended from balloons as they walked down the street, stopping only to dip the ends of their stilts in red paint? This is clearly not the work of men! A hellhound has marked us. Someone has trespassed and the spirit must be appeased!"

The quietest voice, strangely, belonged to a blowhard named Marsden. He looked upon the bloody tracks and saw a message addressed specifically to him.

By noon, the April sun had scoured the tracks from the road, but they remained indelibly on Abigail's mind. It had been a year since the passage of Prohibition and law enforcement had done nothing to shutter the speakeasies or stopper the moonshine. This kind of coddling would only embolden criminals of every stripe.

It was never enough to expect people to do the right thing.

That afternoon, Abigail marched down to the local police station with a bucket of red paint. She dipped her hand in and slapped it against the front door, then parked her skirt on the steps. When an officer asked her what she was doing, she slapped a crimson smear across his face. After that, the only things she could vandalize were her handcuffs.

Old Man Vickers cornered Marsden on his way home from work. They exchanged no pleasantries. "You need to make amends for what you did," Vickers tapped one gnarled finger against the younger man's chest. "You need to beg the Black Dog's forgiveness."

Marsden looked up and down the road. Seeing no one in earshot, he leaned in close enough for Vickers to smell last night's whiskey. "Be careful where you point that finger, old timer. You don't wanna lose it."

He looked upon the bloody tracks and saw a message addressed specifically to him.

"Everybody knows what happened to that dog of yours, Marsden. We all heard your kids screamin' bloody murder. The Black Dog haunted my father. It watched us through every window, from every shadow; its eyes glowed with hellfire and, eventually, it claimed him."

Marsden snorted his disdain and pushed past the old man.

"Don't let the same thing happen to you, Marsden! Don't let it happen to your family!"

Abigail pulled a reporter out of her hat, an old friend from the Suffrage movement. The newshound asked the jail bird just a few questions before promising swift justice and bidding abrupt adieu. She'd only been gone a few minutes when Abigail's jailer reappeared, twirling a ring of keys. "You're a lucky lady," he gurgled. "The DA decided not to press charges for your little stunt. You're free to go."

He rattled a key around in the lock and her cell clanked open, but the wind had gone out of Abigail's sails. She just stared at the open portal with a furrowed brow.

"Come on, then. I ain't yer hair dresser. Move along!"

Slowly, she rose to her feet and squeezed her way past the burly officer. Just before she crossed the threshold, just before the door frame blocked her view, she caught a glimpse of it. Something watched her from the deep shadows in the back corner of the opposite cell, crouched behind a dusty shaft of light. Its eyes glowed like hellfire.

The first Old Man Vickers had been one cuss of a father, abusive toward his wife and heavy-handed with his children. More than one neighborhood pet met its end after crawling under his backyard fence. He'd watch them work at it for hours, rocking back and forth in his chair and cradling a shotgun in one arm. Then, after the poor creature had forced its body through the earth, Earl Vickers Senior and his shotgun would eclipse the sky.

In the fall, he'd drag his eldest son out into the woods around Battle Creek to break several laws regarding firearms and hunting within city limits. Young Earl Junior always felt like they were trespassing on sacred ground. Maybe that's why the woods still hated him, still watched him with unseen, baleful eyes.

The new Old Man Vickers came here to think. He knew the value of facing one's fears; he would have to teach Marsden likewise, if he wanted to avert a tragedy for the man's wife and child. How do you get through to a man like that? One who hides behind his bravado and drowns his conscience in bathtub gin?

He let those thoughts rattle inside his skull as the snow crunched beneath his feet. There was only one thing he knew for certain: If he didn't do something, the Dog most definitely would.

Marsden poured himself another shot from the whiskey still in his cellar. It was getting late; Isabel had already put the children to bed. He dunked the shot glass in a bucket of water and splashed a little on his face. Time to come out of exile.

He trudged up the stairs and glanced out the window, his eyes drawn to the back yard by guilt's gravity, and what he saw drained the booze right out of his brain. "ISABEL!!!" He blew through the kitchen like a gale, no thought paid to sleeping children or watchful neighbors. "ISABEL!!!" His wife was just coming down the stairs from the children's room. He grabbed her by the collar and hauled her back through the house, pressed her up against the kitchen window. "Tell me you did this! Tell me it was you or so help me God!"

Out in the yard, a cross made of two sticks stood silent watch over an empty hole in the ground.

Its eyes glowed like hellfire.

She started crying. Marsden spun her around and raised his fist, knocking the bulb that hung from the ceiling. Shadows ebbed and flowed across his face. "Tell me you dug it up, Isabel. Swear it was you." He saw the light of a lie in her eyes, but what if he was wrong? What if it was the old man? Or worse...? How could he trust his own judgement after three hours with the still?

He tossed his wife to the floor and charged the back yard. He knelt next to the tiny grave and picked up two handfuls of dirt, felt their cold reality ooze around his fingers. Frantically, he pawed at the dark interior, but found nothing. Nothing.

He started crying, quietly, but the sobs wracked his broad shoulders. One fist pounded the ground, then he stood and retrieved a crowbar from the tool shed, marched back inside...

They knocked down Abigail's door shortly after dark. She bolted out of bed, groped for a baseball bat she kept in the corner, and crept slowly out into the hall. Men in long coats were downstairs, tossing her furniture like bales of hay.

One of them spotted her at the top of the stairs. "Miss... Abigail Stevens?" He flashed a gun and a badge. "We received an anonymous tip that you've been making moonshine on these premises. Is there anything you'd like to confess?"

"Balderdash!" She responded, baseball bat still high in the air. "You... you can't intimidate me like this! I'll have your badges!"

The spokesman advanced up the stairs with metronome steps. "So, we won't find evidence of any crimes, here, Miss Stevens? You may not be a bootlegger, but anything we find in the course of our inspection may be grounds for charging you with other crimes, far worse crimes. Merely being accused of some crimes can destroy a person's life, Miss Stevens." He snatched the bat out of her hands and threw it against the wall, shattering a family portrait.

An explosion from somewhere outside rattled the windows. The scent of whiskey followed on its heels. The policemen exchanged alarmed glances, then rushed out the front door. "Consider this a warning, Miss Stevens!"

Old Man Vickers saw the whole thing happen. He was crouched in the bushes along one side of the Marsden place, a dirty shovel in one hand and a wet sack in the other. He saw Marsden manhandle his wife, storm out into the yard, then storm back inside with a crowbar and a purpose. Through the tiny cellar window, he caught glimpses of Marsden smashing his bottles and battering his still. He saw the seal begin to pop, then...

The world spun three ways at once. Vickers dropped his ghastly bundle and tried to prop himself up on the shovel. He swooned, stumbled, and when he finally got to his knees, he came face to face with a nightmare. It snarled with a mouth full of knives; its breath stank like a charnel pit. Its eyes were funeral pyres.

He ran, then, ran like a man possessed. He ran with his shovel still locked in a death grip, ran screaming around the front of the house and into a mass of men in long coats. They fired and he fell.

Marsden emerged from the house, wife behind him and children on the stairs. He saw the badges before the guns and put his hands on his head. He wouldn't see his children again for five unspeakable years.

Three days later, Abigail buried Old Man Vickers. Stray dogs were the only other attendants at his funeral.

- Daniel Bayn, 2013