I posted the first half of an old favorite last week. If you missed it, you can catch up here. And now, I’m pleased to present the conclusion of “The Best Damned Squirrel Dog (Ever).” I’d love to hear what you think.
Elinor Thigpen’s hair bore the dual tints of the civil war: blue and gray. She sat behind a vast wooden desk looking like Winston Churchill in drag. Nan knew she’d found the Queen of the Archives.
“Yes?” Ms. Thigpen asked.
“I’m looking into an old case,” Nan said, “I–”
The matron opened a huge ledger. “What’s your badge number?”
“I’m not with the police.”
The ledger closed with the finality of a vault door, and Ms. Thigpen turned away.
“Perhaps you could help me find–”
“I doubt it,” the old woman said. “Good day.”
“You don’t understand,” Nan said, “I’m–”
“I’m not interested in your little project,” Thigpen said, making no attempt to mask her exasperation. “I have my own work to do. The archives are for the use of police and county officials. Do you work for the county?”
“Then that’s it, isn’t it?” She turned away again.
Nan clenched her jaws and her fists, the Cutter stubborn streak flaring as it had never flared before. But, rather than risk angering the matron further, Nan counted silently to ten and used the time to scan the Archive Queen’s lair. She focused on a framed certificate awarded by the Daughters of the Old South in grateful recognition of thirty years of dedicated service.
“As a member of the D.O.S., surely you’d want to see justice done for the memory of a proud band of southern heroes.”
Thigpen turned and squinted at her. “What are you talking about?”
Nan explained her theory about the missing gun crew and why they may have missed the battle. “If I can find the bones, maybe I can figure out what actually happened.”
Elinor Thigpen stood as her intractability evolved into a sense of greater purpose. “Follow me.”
For all her pomp and bluster, Elinor knew her domain. In less than half an hour she’d retrieved a large pasteboard box from a dusty corner of the archives. She broke the seal and set the lid aside. Atop an array of dried bones and several grisly skulls lay a manila file folder. Elinor opened it.
She quickly ran her finger over the first page, stopping halfway down and grunting. “Well! I should’ve known.”
“What is it?”
“For years we had a scoundrel named Smithford as coroner. I’ve lost count of the number of times he botched an investigation or made something up to satisfy the carpetbaggers that put him in office.” Elinor flicked the yellowed page with her finger. “Smithford,” she said, as if it were an expletive.
“How long ago did he leave office?” Nan asked.
“In the forties.”
Nan frowned. “Surely you never worked with him.”
Elinor grimaced. “No, but he was in office a mighty long time. He left his mark. Oh, yes, he left his mark.”
Nan touched the file. “What does it say?”
“Smithford claimed the cause of death was unknown and there were no clues as to the identities of the victims. He left the case open for years, but when no one reported seven people missing, he closed it and sent the file here.”
“But everyone in Little River knows about the missing gun crew!”
“Everyone but Smithford, evidently.”
Nan glanced over the coroner’s report and the statement by the boy who found the bones. Suddenly her heart beat faster. “Look!” she said. “It says the boy found the remains on land owned by Jimmy Ray Hastings. He was my granddaddy!” She dug out the letter and the daguerreotype and put them in Elinor’s hands.
“That letter was written by my great-great-grandmother.” She tapped the photo. “To one of these men: her husband. It was written the same day as the battle, and from what she says it’s plain he came to visit.”
Elinor examined Nan’s evidence with reverence.
The younger woman rubbed her eyes. “But why? Why would he take such a chance and leave his post?”
Elinor shrugged. “Maybe he was lonely.”
“In the company of six men and a dog?”
“You’re right,” Elinor said. “Maybe there’s a clue in these bones, but we’ll need an expert opinion.”
“Nah. He’s hardly any better than Smithford. The man I have in mind is a ranger at the battlefield park. Fella named Swan. I’ve known ‘im for years.” She put her hands on her broad hips. “If these bones turn out to be the missing gun crew, you can count on the Daughters of the Old South to do what’s right by them.”
Though skeptical, Ranger Swan agreed to investigate. Using a pocketknife, he dug a lead slug from a hip bone and examined it with a magnifying glass.
“Well, I’ll be….”
Nan leaned forward and peered through the thick lens. “What is it?”
Swan said nothing but reached for a reference book and thumbed quickly to an entry near the back, read it, and nodded his head. Satisfied, he handed the misshapen lump to Nan. “What you have there is a slug from a Williams Patent Bullet. .58 caliber if I’m not mistaken. It’s pretty messed up, but you can still see the zinc base.”
Nan frowned. “And that means something?”
“Oh, absolutely. Y’see, the zinc was intended to clear residue from a rifle bore, a nicety only the Union could afford. They issued ’em right along with the usual Minié ball cartridges.”
“Then this proves the gun crew didn’t desert,” she said. “They were returning to their posts when Yankees ambushed ’em.” She exhaled wearily. “What a relief to finally clear that up.”
“Hold on now; I’m not so sure,” Swan said. “You don’t really have proof of anything. Those boys may have been the missing gunners, but they died a long way from the battlefield. In my book, that still makes ’em deserters.”
Nan dragged out her great-great-grandmother’s letter and read from a passage near the middle. “‘I hope you’re happy now you’ve made a fool of yourself over your useless, biscuit-eatin’ dog.'” Nan frowned. “No, wait, that’s not it.” She moved her finger to a spot near the end and started reading again. “‘And once you’re back at camp, be nice to young Jeremy, though I doubt you’ll ever get him to swap dogs.'” The letter ended shortly thereafter.
“Now, look at the date. Don’t you see? The men went to visit and were killed returning to their lines. The letter was addressed care of my great-great-granddaddy’s unit. She wouldn’t have done that if he was running away; she wouldn’t have had to. I imagine the same Yankees who killed those men killed her, too, but they missed her daughter.”
Swan held his hands up in mock surrender. “Okay, I’m convinced! I think you’ve figured it out.”
“Then I can tell Ms. Thigpen to proceed with the funeral ceremony?”
The old ranger nodded. “You might want to alert the next of kin. If you need help finding ’em, I’ve got a friend who can track down just about anyone.”
Nan returned to the earthworks and paused in front of the brass sign. Jeremy and the other ghosts crept close.
“It looks like the Daughters of the Old South will have to come up with a new marker,” she said, “right after the funeral.” Then she turned toward the earthworks. “No more of this deserter nonsense!” She brushed her hair back over her ears. “Too bad we’ll never know why they left here in the first place.” She shrugged and resumed her run.
“Did you hear that?” Gus said. “There’s hope!”
“It’s a miracle,” Jeremy said.
Bart Cutter put his arms around a pair of his ghostly comrades. “At long last–the Final Muster. I’m just sorry it took so long. Y’all deserved better.” He shook his head. “And I’m sorry I got you into this. If I hadn’t been so pig-headed about my dog this never would’ve happened.”
Jeremy frowned and reached for his dog. “I hope they clear ‘Scotch’s name, too.”
Nan couldn’t believe her ears. She faced Elinor in the compact Memorial Hall at the Confederate cemetery. An oak casket with brass handles dominated the little room.
“What are you saying?” she asked.
“No dogs.” Elinor crossed her arms. “I won’t have it! The men buried here are heroes. I won’t sully their memory by buryin’ them with a bunch of dog bones.”
Nan crossed her own arms. “What makes you think the dog wasn’t a hero? Look at the photo–they gave her a medal, too!”
“It’s too silly to even discuss,” Elinor said. “We’ve already made all the arrangements. Since there’s no way to identify specific remains, they’ll be buried together. That’s as much of a compromise as I’m willing to make. No dogs.”
“I won’t hear another word about it.”
Nan frowned. “At least let me have the dog’s remains. I’ll take care of them.”
Elinor waved impatiently at a cardboard box on a chair near the door. “Help yourself.”
Nan slipped the box under her arm, then looked back at the casket, blinking to keep back her tears.
Bart Cutter lifted his head with a jolt, as if something had bitten him. “Lord have mercy!” he gasped, gaining his feet.
“What is it?” Jeremy asked.
“I don’t know, but something’s changed. I can feel it. Hell’s fire, I can see it, too!”
“What’re you jawin’ about?” Gus asked.
“My hands! Look at ’em–they’re glowin’ like hot coals.”
Jeremy frowned. “They look normal to me.”
“I wonder…” Cutter danced to the top of the earthworks and leaned out. All the others watched, speechless, as he toppled down the other side.
“How’d you do that?” Gus gasped, following in his footsteps. But when he reached the top, the invisible barrier had been restored. Gus bounced back toward the cannons.
Another of the men stepped past him. “I feel it, too,” he said, climbing the low wall in two strides. With his arms extended, he ran down the embankment and joined Cutter.
“C’mon, y’all!” Cutter said.
One by one the others tried to escape the gun emplacement, but none succeeded.
“You two best get movin’,” Gus said. “If I had a chance to make the Final Muster, I’d sure as hell take it.”
Cutter protested, but without conviction. The others urged them to go.
Cutter waved goodbye then looked straight at Jeremy. “I was wrong,” he said. “You do have the best damn squirrel dog that ever lived. If I’d just admitted that early on–”
“I know,” Jeremy said. “Hell, Sarge, we all know. Now, git outta here!”
As the two ghostly soldiers loped across the wide battlefield, Jeremy noticed a third runner. “Look who’s here, boys.”
Nan stopped when she reached the marker. She sat on the wall, faced the cannons, and drank water from a plastic bottle.
“It was a nice ceremony,” she said out loud, despite being alone, “but somehow I expected to feel a lot different. Maybe I would have if more family members had shown up.”
As she took a long sip of water, Gus stood up and grinned.
“You, too?” Jeremy asked.
“I sure hope so.” Still beaming, Gus walked right through the young woman to exit the earthworks.
Other than a slight shiver, she gave no sign that she noticed him.
Gus paused before entering the battlefield. “You’ll all have a turn. I’m sure of it. The bodies are in the ground now, so it’s just a matter of time. Have faith. As soon as someone sheds a tear, you’ll be on your way.”
Several days passed, and Gus’ words came true for all of the remaining men except Jeremy. He sat beside Butterscotch.
“Well, girl, it’s just you and me now. Feels kinda funny not having anyone to argue with anymore. He rubbed the phantom dog’s phantom ears. “Cutter was right, y’know.”
As he looked out at the tall grass of the battlefield swaying in the gentle breeze, his skin contracted as if he’d been caught in a blizzard. Alternating waves of hot and cold brought him to his feet. He stared down at his hands and saw the glow so many of the others had described.
“It’s my turn!” he yelled, rushing to the top of the embankment. There was no resistance, and he jumped straight in the air. “Can you believe it, ‘Scotch? Finally, after all this time!”
He leaped from the top of the earthworks and landed lightly on his feet. Turning, he called to the dog still sitting where he’d left her. She wagged her tail but made no attempt to leave.
Jeremy looked back across the field to the monument where all the others had gone before him. He heard a sigh from ‘Scotch and turned in time to see her lay down and put her chin on her paws.
“I’d cry for ya if I could,” he said, “but I ‘spect that ain’t the problem. Folks have odd notions about who gets buried where.”
Butterscotch blinked at him but otherwise didn’t respond.
“It’s my time,” Jeremy explained. “You understand, don’t ya, girl? I’ve gotta go. It’s what we’ve been waitin’ for.”
“I’ll never forget you.”
She closed her eyes.
Jeremy paused at the top of the embankment, torn. He looked from the dog to the monument and back again. He felt the unyielding pull of the Final Muster, dragging him out of the gun emplacement where he’d been trapped for 150 years.
He’d earned the right to leave. It was only fair.
He’d paid the price.
It was his time.
And then he sighed and stepped back inside the earthworks.
Butterscotch raised her head, and Jeremy settled down beside her.
It had been a week since Nan last visited the old gun emplacement. The trips just didn’t seem to have the significance they once had. She smiled when she saw the old ranger digging up the brass sign. She called to him, and he set his tools aside as she approached.
“I’m glad I found you here,” she said. “I meant to drop by or call you and apologize.”
“For leaving you with that box of dog bones. I just didn’t know what else to do. I thought maybe you could bury them here or…” Her voice trailed off as he shook his head, and the muscles in her stomach tightened. She knuckled away a tear.
“There’s no need to apologize,” he said. “Shoot, I’ve known Elinor Thigpen since grade school. She never did like dogs, and I never did like arguing with her.”
Nan looked up, puzzled.
“So I didn’t say anything to her when I put the dog bones in the casket with all the others.”
Nan sat back in a mild state of shock.
He smiled. “I thought you’d be pleased.”
“Oh, I am!” She laughed despite the tear tracks on her cheeks. Suddenly, she rubbed her arms.
“I could’ve sworn I just felt something run past me. On both sides!”
~ End ~