After we ate, Mama would get the number three washtubs down from their nails and fix bath water for all of us and we’d get our only full bath of the week. Then, we would all pile into our Model T Ford and head for the bright lights of Rolling Fork, a town with a population of about eight hundred. My parents would purchase whatever staples we needed at the grocery store where, if I were good, I’d get to have a cold Orange Crush from the ice-water filled drink box. Most of the rest of the time would be spent sitting in the car watching people pass by on the town’s main street. We couldn’t stay late since we had to get home to do the milking and other chores before dark.
On this particular Saturday when the Model T rolled to a noisy stop beside the house, something was amiss. Ol’ Raymond did not come to the side gate to greet us. “Where’s Ol’ Raymond?” I asked.
“He’s probably run off chasing a rabbit or squirrel,” Mama responded.
“Naw,” my daddy replied, “he wouldn’t leave the house with no one here.” As he got out of the car, he added, “There he is lying up there on the porch.”
“Is he just asleep and didn’t hear the car?”
“He had to hear the car. He’s laying funny.”
“Do you reckon he’s sick? Do you think something’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know. Let me go see,” said Daddy as he moved toward the house.
We stood by the car and watched him walk up on the porch and squat beside the dog. He felt around on him, moved his legs, and examined him carefully around his head. The dog hadn’t moved. Daddy stood up and came slowly back to the car. He had a look on his face I’d never seen before. “He’s dead. Somebody poisoned him.”
Mama began to cry. Gene was too young to understand what had happened. I didn’t really understand either. I had heard about death, but I really didn’t comprehend what it meant. In my short life, no person or animal I had any connection to had died. I just knew that the feeling I was feeling inside was not good.
Daddy went back up on the porch, gently picked Ol’ Raymond up in his arms and carried him around to the back of the house. When he came back, we were still standing by the car. “The chores have to be done,” he said.
Mama went to milk and Daddy went to tend the livestock. Gene and I sat on the front porch. I kept wanting to see Ol’ Raymond come bounding around the house and up on the porch to greet me as he always did with his tail wagging as he administered wet licks to my face and hands. But it didn’t happen. I thought if I closed my eyes and wished hard enough, Ol’ Raymond would come. I tried. I tried real hard, but the only thing that came was the darkness.
Why would somebody poison a person’s dog? I’ve thought of that often since that day. Mama said it was just pure meanness. Daddy said that some people are always wanting to steal something and they just don’t like good watchdogs in general and they try to get rid of as many of them as they can. We surely didn’t have anything worth stealing. The most valuable thing we had was the meat in the smokehouse. Whoever did it knew we weren’t home, so he just walked by, threw a piece of poison-laced meat into the yard, and kept on going. When Ol’ Raymond knew something was wrong, he came to the front door for help, but there was nobody there to help him. Some lowdown human had done what the toughest coon in the swamp couldn’t do.
After supper Daddy got up from the table and said, “We’ll have to bury him.” He got a lantern and lit it and we all followed him out back. He stopped at the tool shed for a shovel and continued down the path that led to the field. When he located a suitable place near the corner of the backyard fence, he sat the lantern down and began to dig. The black buck-shot soil offered little resistance to the shovel and Daddy soon had the grave dug. Then, we all went up to one of the outbuildings where Daddy had put him. On the way back, Mama led the way with the lantern; Daddy came next carrying Ol’ Raymond; Gene and I stumbled along behind.
As Daddy was about to lay Ol’ Raymond’s stiffening body in the grave, Mama said, “Luke, we just can’t put him in the cold ground. Let me go get something.” She took the lantern and hurried back to the house returning shortly with an armload of newspapers. She got down on her knees and lined the grave with them. Daddy put him in and we all said goodbye. Mama covered him up with newspapers, tucking them in good so the dirt wouldn’t get on him. Then, we stood and watched as Daddy shoveled in the dirt.
As I stood there, I had a hurt somewhere down deep inside me that made me hurt all over. And the tears rolling down my cheeks didn’t help any. And that hurting stayed with me for a long time. I’ve experienced the deaths of my parents, grandparents, and numerous friends, but I don’t think my feeling of grief has ever been any greater than it was the night we put Ol’ Raymond in the ground.
Even as this was happening, I could not accept the fact that Ol’ Raymond was gone for good. I had seen Daddy plant things in the garden and corn and cotton in the big fields. Not long after the planting, green shoots would be pushing up through the ground. Why would this not be the same?
As Daddy was rounding off the dirt on the grave, I asked, “Daddy, will Ol’ Raymond come up?”
He stopped and leaned on the shovel for a few seconds before he answered, “No, son, he won’t.” But I persisted, “Daddy, I think he’ll come up.”
“No, son, I’m sure he won’t.”
But I would not accept that answer. I was sure Ol’ Raymond was going to come up out of that ground just like a stalk of corn did. For a long time, I went to his grave everyday and looked for a paw or his nose. No matter what anyone said, I just knew it would happen. In fact, I can remember two or three times going to my mother and saying, “I just passed Ol’ Raymond’s grave and I saw his nose sticking out. He’s coming up, Mama.” But each time I was told that it was just my imagination which, indeed, it was. Eventually, I had to accept as true what my parents were telling me. Death was final. I would never see him again.
Ol’ Raymond deserved better. He was a credit to his breed. He was faithful and brave. He helped his master in the hunt and he protected his family when he was gone. He didn’t deserve to be done in by a coward with some poison in a hunk of hog meat. It would have been better for him to have been bested by some tough old boar coon out in a bayou amongst the cypress knees and water snakes. That would have been a noble end for a noble dog.