© James J. Doyle 2012
The touch of a cool breeze slid across the back of his neck.
Uncle Joe reached his hand to the spot.
No wind moved in the trees.
The air was heavy.
Yet, it had felt like a passing puff of wind or walking under a rotating fan.
Removing the hand, Uncle Joe patted the shoulder of the Black Angus to keep the cow moving to the stock tank. This would be their long drink before bedding down for the night. Joe was walking half the cows up the hill to the water. As the cow path turned near the small cemetery, he heard his nephew Adam directing the other head to the tank.
Uncle Joe studied the graveyard.
A few stone markers stood upright. Most had fallen. All were stained and dark, the names no longer legible. The limbs of the oaks hung low, hiding much of the plot from view. Around the edge, an iron fence lay broken and rusted.
Adam had purchased the farm. He was so excited to be a landowner. Uncle Joe couldn’t remember his nephew saying anything about the cemetery.
Joe shrugged and turned back to follow the cows.
When he did, he caught a glimpse of movement, a shape between the trees.
Pivoting quickly, he saw . . . nothing, only the hanging branches and the shadowed graveyard.
As he hurried to catch up, Uncle Joe had the odd feeling he was being watched.
Reaching the tank, the cattle waded in for their drink.
Evening light faded beyond the stock tank and the standing cows. Overgrown with vegetation, the banks crowded close to the water’s edge. Bull frogs croaked in the shadows on the far shore.
Joe wasn’t scared. He hadn’t seen anything, so there was nothing worth being frightened about, but he’d felt something. Uncle Joe touched his neck and looked back toward the graves.
Cows emerged from the trees on the far side of the pond, trotting to the smell of the water.
Hand in the air, Adam waved.
Beside him, Boomer, Adam’s brown Labrador, broke free and ran to greet Uncle Joe.
Joe reached down with both hands and rubbed the dog’s neck.
Adam came up beside his uncle.
They stood and watched the cows.
“Where’d you say you got Boomer?” Uncle Joe asked.
“Thinking about a dog, Joe?”
“Well, I don’t know if you can find another Boomer. The neighbors on the far side of the creek had a litter. When they heard I was buying the property, they offered me one. Said it was an old line, going back to the frontier days.”
“They still over that way?”
“Nope. Older couple. They moved off to be closer to their kids. Don’t know what happened to Boomer’s parents, but they’re not there anymore.”
“Shame,” Uncle Joe said. “That’s one good dog.”
* * *
At the Auction Barn next morning, Uncle Joe leaned on the fence and studied the cows going up for sale.
“Looking for some cows, Joe?” Realtor Jay asked, as he leaned on the fence next to Joe.
“Maybe a couple head,” Uncle Joe answered. “To fill in the herd, over at Adam’s new place.”
“You know I found that farm for Adam,” Jay said.
“It’s good land.” Uncle Joe smiled.
Realtor Jay sighed, dropped a hand and put the thumb inside his belt.
“Joe, I tried to tell Adam about the cemetery.”
Uncle Joe glanced over at the Realtor.
“Is there something there, Jay?”
“I don’t know.” Realtor Jay placed the hand back on the fence. “Well, the owners did tell me . . . they told me they’d seen something out there, near that old graveyard.”
“What’d they see?”
“It wasn’t clear, Joe. They said it was a shape, a small shape. Near sunset, between the trees. It sort of glided in an out. They only saw it once, maybe twice.”
“A small shape?” Uncle Joe asked.
“Now, I told Adam this, even if he didn’t seem to hear what I said. . . .” The speaker hesitated and then continued. “So I’m not violating any confidentiality or anything.” He seemed to convince himself.
Realtor Jay moved his foot off the fence and faced Uncle Joe.
“There’s an old story about a frontier family in a log cabin around there. One night there was a fire. One of the younger children woke up first, alerted the family and helped get everyone outside to safety. Except for the family dog. That dog had gotten trapped inside the house. They could hear the barking. Well, the child, who’d saved the family, ran back for the dog, before anyone could stop the young one.”
Jay took off his hat.
“Joe, the cabin collapsed.”
The Realtor gazed off across the barn.
“They say the child is there in that cemetery.”
* * *
“Don’t throw rocks at that snake.” Adam’s voice was sharp. At his side, Boomer watched the snake but did not bark.
“Why?” Adam’s younger cousin Lance asked. The two stood next to the stock tank. Lance was thirteen and he had just tossed a rock at a small mesquite tree to the side of the pond. It was after school and Lance had come over to help Adam move the backhoe down near the water. Sediment had built in the pond, and Uncle Joe had promised to show Adam how to remove it.
“That’s a water moccasin.” Adam gave Lance a cuff on the shoulder. “Those are mean snakes. You don’t want that big old snake coming at you with its cotton mouth and those fangs.”
“It’s just a snake.”
“No, it is not just a snake. That is one four-foot-long cottonmouth.” Adam paused. “Didn’t Uncle Joe tell you the story of Grandpa Henry and his cousin throwing rocks?”
“No, what story?”
“Well, this was when your grandpa was a boy. He was playing with a cousin. That cousin saw a water moccasin hanging in a tree and tossed a big rock right at the snake. He missed, but not by much. Cottonmouths are territorial and easily irritated. If they think they’re cornered, they attack. That snake slid down the tree and charged those boys. The black shape moved fast, the jaws wide open showing the white color of its cotton mouth, the dark eyes fixed on the boys and the fangs dripping and ready to bite. Those two cousins turned and ran as fast as they could with that snake chasing after.”
“Did the snake get them?” Lance asked.
“They never looked back until they were at the house, with the screen door slammed hard behind them. They couldn’t see that snake, but it smelled really bad. Water moccasins are ferocious critters and when they’re threatened they release a bad-smelling spray like a skunk. Those boys knew that snake wasn’t far. It was hiding outside and it was waiting to get ‘em.”
Adam paused for effect.
“Grandpa Henry says his cousin wouldn’t leave that house for a week, and he had a healthy fear of snakes for the rest of his born days.”
Adam pointed at Lance.
“I suggest you have a healthy fear of those critters too. Don’t throw rocks at snakes unless you’re ready for the consequences.”
“That’s a good story,” Lance said, lifting a finger. “Do you mind if I use it at school tonight? We’re having a party for All Hallows’ Eve and there’s a contest for the scariest story.”
“For All Hallows’ what?” A perplexed look hung on Adam’s face.
“All Hallows’ Eve, the old name for Halloween,” Lance explained. “We learned about it at school. November 1st is All Saints’ Day, which used to be called All Hallows’ Day. Hallows is an old word for saints. So the evening before All Saints’ Day is All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween. That’s October 31st and that’s today. I mean tonight.”
“What are they teaching you in school these days?” Adam smiled and almost knocked Lance over with a pat to the back. “Sure, go ahead, use the story. Maybe you’ll teach someone else not to throw rocks at snakes.”
The cousins started walking back up the hill. The house and barn were near the stock tank, just at the top. Adam and his wife Melissa and had just finished moving all their things and their new baby girl Charleigh into the house.
“And, thanks,” Adam added. “I forgot it was Halloween tonight.” He laughed. “I mean All Hallows’ Eve.”
Adam made a scary sound and reached to grab Lance, who took off running with Adam in pursuit.
Melissa was standing near the barn, holding the baby and shaking her head at the two kids playing.
* * *
Far off between the clouds, Uncle Joe saw the lighting flash.
He waited and heard the delayed rumble of the distant thunder.
It’s not that distant, Joe thought to himself, and it’s moving this way.
“We need to get you up to the barn, young lady.” Joe patted the side of the heifer he was walking beside. “With this storm, a stall with warm hay is a better place to welcome your baby.”
Adam was bringing the other cows up by the far path.
As they passed the graveyard, Uncle Joe glanced into the shaded cemetery. He felt nothing, which was good. There was enough to do. They didn’t need any delays.
Rounding the end of the tank, Joe felt a large drop of rain on his hat.
The pregnant cow took off running to the water.
“Slow, girl. Be careful in there.”
Movement in a small mesquite tree near the water drew his eyes away from the cows. Uncle Joe stopped and squinted into the half-light. Something was on a branch there. He moved to take a closer look and heard the bellowing of a cow in distress.
“Oh no.” Joe ran to the water’s edge.
Sunk in the mud and water almost to her belly, the pregnant cow struggled to free herself.
“It’s okay, girl,” Uncle Joe said calmly. “We’re coming to help.” He moved to the backhoe, which was near the water where Adam and Lance had left it, reached behind the seat and grabbed the hip boots.
“How can I help?” Adam said, panting. He’d heard the bellowing and rushed up the other path.
“Attach that strap to the bucket of the backhoe,” Uncle Joe pulled on the rubber waders. “I’ll take the other end and loop it around the heifer. When I signal, push the lever to lift the bucket. With the extra help from the bucket, she should be able to break free.”
Adam climbed up to attach one end of the strap to the back hoe, while Uncle Joe spread and straightened the other end to form a harness he could loop around the mired animal.
“Ringgg, Ringggg.” Adam grabbed his cell phone. “Joe, it’s Melissa at the house. I’ve got to get up there. It’s the baby.” The baby was only two months old and was Adam and Melissa’s first child.
“Go,” Uncle Joe yelled. “Hurry back, if you can. I don’t like the feel of this storm.”
“I’ll leave Boomer with you.” Adam jumped of the backhoe and fixed his eyes on the dog. “Stay,” he said firmly. The big Labrador nodded and jumped onto the seat of the backhoe, turning his head to watch Uncle Joe.
“I’ll be back,” Adam shouted as he took off running up the hill. The barn and the house were close.
“Well, it’s just the two of us and Boomer,” Uncle Joe said in a comforting tone to the heifer as he waded into the water. “Once I get this harness on, we’ll have you out of here in no time.”
Two dark eyes followed Uncle Joe movements into the water.
A long black body slithered down from the branch and entered the pond.
“Okay, young lady,” Joe said, patting the side of the cow. “Now let me fix this strap in place and you’ll be all hooked up.”
Bending down, his head almost touching the water and his neck extended, Uncle Joe worked to attach the looped harness under the heifer’s rounded belly.
Behind Joe’s back, a triangular head lifted above the surface of the stock tank.
A wide white mouth opened and extended sharp dripping fangs.
Rearing up, the snake prepared to strike and bite.
With a loud bark, a brown streak launched from the bank, flew above the surface of the pond and struck the water with an echoing smack.
Uncle Joe bolted upright and spun to see the Labrador’s head surface. The large jaws shook a long dark rope-like object. Boomer’s head dipped down and with a powerful jerk tossed two pieces spinning into the air and onto the bank.
Twitching twice, the broken body of the water moccasin lay quiet.
Uncle Joe started to say something when a flash of lighting and loud thunderclap split the night.
Startled, Joe saw a shape backlit on the seat of the back hoe.
Before he could look closer, the strap in his hand tightened as the bucket of the backhoe raised up. Around the body of the pregnant cow, the harness lifted the animal. Uncle Joe guided the straps as the cow’s legs were freed from the grip of the mud. The pregnant heifer scrambled to the solid ground of the bank.
Sloshing to follow, Uncle Joe reached the side of the cow and released the harness.
“Thanks, Adam,” he yelled to the backhoe. “You got here just in time.”
There was no answer.
Uncle Joe looked around.
There was no one. Adam was nowhere to be seen.
His hand on the side of the cow, Uncle Joe felt her shaking and fussing, wanting out of the weather, ready to deliver her baby.
“Okay, mom. Let’s get you up to the barn. It’s your time.”
Uncle Joe touched the head of the Labrador at his side. “Thank you, Boomer.” He paused. “You saved my life.”
The big dog nuzzled Uncle Joe’s leg and turned his head down the path. Uncle Joe followed the dog’s direction in time to see a white shape disappear into the trees.
* * *
Wobbling upright, the Black Angus calf stood on shaky legs.
Rubbing one thin leg with her nose, Mom mooed softly, encouraging the young one.
“That’s one good-looking calf,” Adam said proudly. He reached down and scratched behind Boomer’s ear. The dog sat quietly, careful not to bark and startle the baby.
Adam turned to Uncle Joe, who was putting some water on a clean towel.
“So, Joe, you think Boomer tripped the bucket of the backhoe when he jumped out to go after that big water moccasin?”
Uncle Joe walked slowly toward the black calf with the wet cloth in one hand.
“Someone did,” Uncle Joe answered. “That lever was moved.” He smiled at the young mother. “With the help of the backhoe, this young lady freed herself from the mud.”
“With your help too, and a lot of it.” Adam was quiet for a second. “Joe, I’m sorry I wasn’t there. That was too much for one person and too dangerous. The good news is you, Mom here and the calf are doing fine. And my Charleigh was sleeping like a baby when I left. She just needed a little comforting from Dad.” Adam rubbed the brown lab’s head. “We’re lucky Boomer saw that cottonmouth.” The big dog gave a low growl and shook his head as if he were saying something.
Kneeling next to the calf, Uncle Joe watched the Lab.
“I don’t know how Boomer could have seen that snake.” Joe lifted the towel to the baby’s forehead and stopped in thought. “There was very little light, and the water and snake were both dark colored.”
“Maybe something drew the dog’s attention to the pond.” Adam said. “But what or who was that?”
Uncle Joe rubbed the young animal’s forehead.
“What are you doing, Joe?”
“Something’s here. Could be from the hay. Dirt, a smudge.”
Carefully holding the calf’s head, Uncle Joe examined the mark.
“It’s not coming off,” Joe said, a curious look on his face.
Adam peered over Uncle Joe’s shoulder.
“It’s white, Joe. A Black Angus calf can have white splashes, almost like paint. It’s not that unusual, depending on the parents.”
Uncle Joe touched the forehead. “This is more a shape than a splash.”
“You’re right.” Adam leaned closer. “It looks like a keyhole. See the rounded part on top and the triangle below?”
“Or,” Uncle Joe said softy, “a small figure with a white sheet draped over the head and body.”
“Yes, I can see. It almost looks like. . . .”
Before Adam could say more, a flash of lighting lit the windows. A thunderclap shook the barn and the door blew open.
The touch of a cool breeze slid across the back of Uncle Joe’s neck. As he turned, Uncle Joe saw a small white shape glide out the open door.
Adam’s eyes were fixed on the door and he gulped as he finished his sentence.
“. . . a ghost.”
Uncle Joe watched the small black calf take its first sure steps, toward the open door, the brown Labrador at its side.
“That calf’s not afraid.” A quiet amazement was in Adam’s voice.
“Not afraid at all,” Uncle Joe agreed.
“I don’t know, Joe.” Adam stumbled on the words. “What just happened? What was it that I saw?”
“I think we just saw,” Uncle Joe said, “who helped Boomer find that snake.”
Joe glanced at the dog, who hadn’t taken his eyes off the open door.
“A little one who remembers a brown Lab who meant so much.”
Uncle Joe swallowed and raised a finger to his eye.
“A small white shape who knew we were in danger and helped, expecting nothing in return.”
Taking a deep breath, Uncle Joe slowly exhaled.
“A friendly ghost, Adam, who has finally completed the work here and left for another place.”
“I don’t. . . .” Adam’s mouth hung open.
“Understand.” Uncle Joe completed the sentence.
Joe placed a hand on his nephew’s back.
“I don’t know if I do either, but what say you and me, just the two of us, spend some time next week fixing up that old graveyard? Trim the trees, cut the grass. We can repair and paint the fence. I’d like to clean those old stones and read the names.”
Adam nodded, his forehead creased in thought.
“And while we’re at it,” Uncle Joe said, “I’ll tell you about a frontier family, their small child and the family dog.”
“Ringgg, Ringggg.” Adam lifted his cell phone and without thinking pushed speaker.
“Adam, this is Lance.” The cousin’s voice was excited. “I won first prize with your story.”
“Story? Right . . . story.” Adam’s brow relaxed as a knowing smile grew on his face. “Do I have a story for you. And it has a real. . . .”
At that moment, the barn door slammed shut with a bell-like clang, Boomer lifted his head and barked twice, Uncle Joe laughed and the young mother nuzzled her baby and licked the small white shape on the calf’s forehead.
Happy All Hallows’ Eve, Y’all.