Jessie Lilley
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November 2009     Web Edition     Issue #3

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Good Dog

A story by by L.J. Dopp

The Dark Holiday was taking far too much time to arrive in the fall of 1966. School had started in September and we’d gotten through that month all right; but, once October began the question of what we were going to be for Halloween, and organizing a costume to fill the bill, only heightened the suspense. It was the time of autumn leaves, pumpkins, and witches on broomsticks. And, according to the local scuttlebutt, I had a witch living on my street.

I’d pass her house every day on my paper route – the old woman who lived alone with her dog. Some of the children in Duncan, Iowa, called her a witch, partly because she wore dark colors and lived in that house. But late at night, odd sounds and weird lights emanated from the round window on the second floor – especially on Saturdays.

It had been called the “Witch House” long before Ms. Armistead had moved in the previous June: so-designated by its gingerbread-style architecture, sloping shingled roof, and rosette window. That round, central window was leaded and composed of irregular shapes of glass in the Art Nouveau style, popular at the time of the building’s construction. A single turret rose on one end of the roofline; and on the other, the brick smokestack of a large fireplace towered, which – now that the house was inhabited again – frequently sent dark clouds skyward.

I would nod to her and say hi on my route when she would walk her Labrador retriever, black cloak pulled tightly around her. Even in July and August, which were hot and humid in central Iowa, she always wore that dark cloak. She might nod back but never spoke except to him, and then it was always just, “Good dog.” He would bark at me if I passed too closely, but otherwise seemed good-tempered for an old dog, whatever his name was.

The Williamsons lived next door to the Witch House and about three months after Ms. Armistead had moved-in, their youngest, Kathleen, died of crib death. It was tragic, sudden, and unexplainable; and that’s when the rumors had begun – in August, before school had resumed. A month later, the family on the other side, which had made clear its dislike of the old woman, had their vegetable garden wither; and then, a mysterious fire broke out in their basement. The fire department arrived in time to save the house and no-one was severely injured, but after that, fortune made a sharp turn south for Ms. Armistead, and the few neighbors who had tried to welcome her to the neighborhood stopped coming.

Some of the older kids from a few blocks away called her “witch,” and hung nasty things on her wrought-iron fence to try and get her to move. Convinced she was behind the bad luck of her neighbors, people gossiped, but the delinquents from Dixon Street – where the train tracks crossed the river – actually threw rocks at her and the black Lab when she walked him. Turk Mallory was their ringleader, and he’d dared to put a rock through one of the panes in the round window, but it had quickly been repaired from within.

In mid-October, Johnny Woolchuck found a goat’s head behind the butcher shop and hung it on her doorknob. Two days later he was struck by a delivery truck and killed instantly. Even though Johnny’s act had involved illegal trespassing, not to mention being aggressively mean-spirited, the Woolchucks had still blamed the old woman for their son’s death. The fact that he’d been killed in an unrelated traffic accident didn’t faze them, and they picketed on the sidewalk in front of her house, getting a local TV station to cover it. They’d held protest signs reading “MURDERING WITCH!” and “GET OUT, ENDORA!” referring to the hit TV show about witches, still running at the time.

About a week before Halloween, around twilight, Turk Mallory, Denny Hendricks, and Denny’s husky little brother, Roger, had caught Ms. Armistead walking her dog near the park at the far end of our street. Its pond was nearly frozen after a chilly, rainy morning and the sidewalk was icy.

When the boys had begun throwing rocks at her, the dog barked, and yelped when hit.

“I got him twice, the bastard – and the ol’ witch at least once,” said Turk, later that evening. “She tried to drag him away, sayin’, you know, ‘Good dog,’ like she always does? But he wasn’t goin’ for it. It was his diggin’-in an’ barkin’ that made her slip, tryin’ to pull him away.”

“Yeah, we weren’t really trying to stone her to death,” Denny said, “just scare her. And, pay her back for what she did to our Johnny Boy!”

“Roger told me – she slipped. You guys got your story down, all right.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Turk said, bumping chests with me, half a head taller. “Her boot slipped on the icy cement and her legs went out from under her, Terry – you wanna make somethin’ of it?”

“No – take it easy, Turk. Roger told me when her head hit the sidewalk, it kind of crunched, and then the blood spread out. He said she wasn’t moving anymore, like you did – so, I’m agreeing with you.”

Oh,” said Turk. He wasn’t the sharpest needle in the sewing box. “Yeah, she was dead all right, an’ you could tell by how much blood came out. That damn dog couldn’t tell, though. He went crazy barkin’ and growlin’ at us but wouldn’t leave her side.”

Earlier that evening, the coroner’s wagon had finally taken Ms. Armistead’s body away, after three squad cars, a fire truck, and the Channel 5 news-van had covered the scene. Flashing colored lights reflecting on the icy ground made for an eerie newscast – especially with the victim’s dog barking its head off, before eventually disappearing into the woods behind the park.

When the police heard a neighbor’s account, Turk, Denny, and Roger, were questioned in their homes, and the old lady’s death was ruled accidental.

The following week the authorities closed the Witch House, Ms. Armistead having been the sole owner with no apparent kin. Eventually it would be auctioned by the state, but at the time it remained a boarded-up curiosity and the topic of hushed conversation.

Halloween night was cold and dry, and while costumed as a suave vampire in a black cape, I had practiced the tips I’d gleaned from monster magazines to turn my little brother, Ted, into a scarred hunchback for our trick-or-treating. Being a vampire, one could remain free from sweaty plastic masks or uncomfortable and ugly make-ups like the one I’d plastered on Ted.

Throughout the evening we met up with other kids from school, each costumed and eager to reap a cornucopia of refined sugar products. It was such a bounteous Halloween, in fact, that we returned home at one point to empty our bags for a final assault. Then we ventured off our turf seeking fresh homes, closer to the river.

It was there, in the seedy blocks near the river – where I’d been told not to go – that we encountered Turk, Denny, and the younger Hendricks boy, dressed as hobos in ragged old clothes, with burnt-cork beards and mustaches. Roger Hendricks grabbed Ted’s candy bag and shook it for weight, saying, “That’s all? What a punk!” He took the candy and pushed my little brother to the ground. Though I knew better, I verbally jumped to Ted’s defense while helping him up.

“Aren’t you a little chubby for a hobo, Roger? They’re usually thin from going hungry,” I said.

“Listen to him! He’s beggin’ to go for a swim,” said Denny, and Turk laughed. “He’s got a point, Den – your brother has been puttin’ on the feedbag lately. But these boys got big mouths, so we gotta teach ‘em how to shut up.” Then he turned to me and said, “You’re on Dixon Street now, Terry – you insult one of us, you insult us all!” We knew none of the neighbors there, and none were outdoors to hail anyway, as the older boys marched us to the river, away from any place where we could seek help.

“Hope you sissies can friggin’ swim,” Denny said, laughing. “You’ll freeze solid walking home! That’s what you get – trick, or treat!”

“Yeah,” said Turk. “We’re just taxing you for passing through our neighborhood like they do on a toll bridge. And you don’t have the treats, so you get the trick. We were jus’ messin’ with that ol’ witch, but now we’re really gonna mess with you.”

Just as we got to Loomis Street, which bordered the river, two cops in a black-and-white made their rounds, slowing down to give us the fisheye. Denny whispered, “If you do anything to make ‘em stop, we’ll get your dog later on when you’re at school.” Teddy started to cry, but it just fit in with his scarred hunchback character and I didn’t make a move, so the cops drove on.

Denny had me, and Turk had Teddy, and we hiked up over the embankment and down to the edge of the river where it was cold as hell. Teddy was really crying by then, but I refused to utter the cliché, “Why are you doing this?”

They were doing it because they were bullies and that’s what bullies do.

Just then, and without a sound of his approach, Ms. Armistead’s black Labrador retriever leapt out of nowhere and knocked Denny to the ground, growling and tearing at his throat.

“Good dog!” I yelled. Turk kicked the dog hard and he yelped – then he jumped at Turk. I could see in the moonlight that the Lab’s eyes were blood-red and he was foaming at the mouth; it appeared that the retriever had gone quite mad in the past week without being fed. Turk threw him to the ground and the three older boys ran toward a small rise beside the river. I yanked Ted’s arm and drug him in the other direction, up the embankment the way we’d come, out of the riverbed.

Looking back, I saw the boys topping the small rise, but another dog now stood at its crest. The moonlight revealed a collie, its matted fur streaked with dirt, like the feral dogs that haunted the junkyard on the other side of town. It barked, baring its fangs, and chased the boys the only way left, between a stand of trees and the river, with Ms. Armistead’s retriever back at their heels.

Then, without logic or precedent – as they were rarely seen south of Minnesota – a gray wolf stepped out of the trees to block that third and final path, growling like a goddamn lawnmower. She was dark, mottled, and huge compared to the dogs. The retriever jumped Turk again from behind, but the boy swiveled and punched, knocking the old Lab down a third time, which did not please the wolf. She raised her head up to the sky and released an ungodly cry, which caused the two dogs to momentarily heel.

We were halfway up the embankment by that time, but the animals hadn’t shown any interest in us, just in the three bullies. Their brief pause had given the boys time to momentarily escape.

“Up this tree, hurry!” Turk yelled, clambering up a big elm, pulling the other two after him, just in time. Its trunk split about six feet up, and there, a thick, perpendicular branch grew out, just high enough to be out-of-reach to the animals below. We could see Turk and Denny crawl out onto that branch and begin shooting rocks down with their slingshots.

“I hope they eat ‘em alive,” said Teddy, wiping off tears and makeup with a sleeve.

“Don’t say that,” I told him. “C’mon – just a little further!”

The Lab, the junkyard collie, and the she-wolf showed no signs of disagreement in their ranks, howling and leaping at the three boys in the tree. Turk yelled, “Stupid witch-dog!”

“They’ll find us when we don’t come home,” said Denny. “And put your ass in the pound!”

“I got some jacks – aim for their eyes!” said Roger, the heaviest of the three. He began to crawl out onto the branch from the split in the trunk where he’d clung since their assent, holding out the jacks to Denny.

“Stay back, fat-ass,” or you’ll break the branch!” said his brother.

Then, the she-wolf began to utter a deep, moaning growl that slowly built in intensity, and rose in pitch, once again raising her head. The collie and retriever joined her, howling in concert, noses pointed at the purple sky… then all three abruptly ceased and the branch cracked loudly, dipping.

“Get help!!” Turk yelled at us. We were atop the opposite ridge by then but could still see what was happening below by the light of the moon.

When the branch fell, I covered my little brother’s eyes, but he could still hear the screams. I have never seen so much blood in my whole life, before or since. The wolf took off Turk’s face with one bite, but the boy didn’t go down right away. She let him stagger around a bit, eyeless and screaming through a red hole. Roger had a bone sticking out of his leg while the two dogs played tug-of-war with him. The collie’s jaws locked onto his head. Denny tried to run out on his little brother, but the wolf was too fast.

At that point, we ran down the side of the ridge toward town, back to the safety of our own neighborhood and home, leaving the screams behind with a big chunk of our childhood. At least Teddy wasn’t crying any more. When we got home, we told our folks the whole story and I got grounded till Christmas – but I gave our bulldog, “Willy,” a big hug and a Milk Bone.

They had a funeral for the Dixon Street boys the following week, with three caskets draped in flowers – although I heard they could barely scrape up enough remains to fill one. And Ms. Armistead’s black Labrador retriever was never seen again.


I am 65 now; my wife died a few years back and my brother lives with his family in Rochester. Our long-widowed mother passed recently, and since Ted still has nightmares about that Halloween, we settled the estate so that I could move back to Duncan and retire in the family home. I have a little min-pin named Molly and am reasonably happy.

The town has changed a lot. I learned that several families had owned the Witch House over the intervening years, but it’s un-rented and boarded-up again – an anachronism in modern Duncan.

The weird thing is, sometimes when I walk my dog down the street around twilight time – especially on Saturdays – and we pass that empty house, I swear I can hear Ms. Armistead’s Labrador retriever faintly barking, from somewhere behind that round upstairs window! I know his bark, and I also know I’m not crazy, or imagining it… because Molly hears him, too.

© 2017 — L.J. Dopp