Ben & Venutha
The old man entered the sanctuary with a dirty yellow Labrador retriever at his side, but no one took notice of him. He set his backpack beside the pew and sat on the far right; the primary colors from the stained glass of a lighthouse danced along his tanned and wrinkled face. Ben sat near him, but his thoughts were on his new veterinary clinic and the fact that his wife Jill still refused to follow him to Morning Creek. The dog jumped onto the pew between the two men and settled her head in the vagrant’s lap. His gnarled fingers stroked her golden mane and she closed her eyes.
During the service, Ben’s attention twitched furtively on the man and his dog. He’d seen so many strange things since coming to Morning Creek and joining this church. People in strange garbs, carrying weapons, using hand signals, refusing to use a hymn book or Bible. But there was something vaguely familiar about this man beside him. He had the look of a soldier. He’d obviously missed too many meals and hadn’t seen clean water in a while. And his dog looked scrawny and worm-infested, but obviously adored her master. The old man bowed his head for the closing prayer and when Ben stood for the benediction, the man remained seated, head bowed, fingers curled lovingly in his dog’s fur. The dog whimpered softly.
People filed down the aisle and the dog’s whimpering grew in volume and manifested into a full, head-thrown-back, ears flat to the head howl of anguish. Her master was dead.
Atticus and Gwen made their way back up the aisle and stopped. Gwen pressed fingers into the man’s neck, waited, and then shook her head.
“Do you know him?” Atticus asked Ben.
Ben shook his head. “I thought he was a refugee. That’s his pack there.”
Chi gently moved Gwen aside and began examining the man. “We’ll move him to the clinic’s morgue. I’m sorry.”
“We can’t,” Atticus put his hand to stop Chi. “He’s a civilian. He’s not one of us. We’ll have to call the sheriff.”
“Oh no,” Ben couldn’t help the exclamation. He’d met the new sheriff. She’d brought her K-9 trained shepherd to be examined by him. The dog was gorgeous, as was the sheriff, but she made a snide remark about the church before she knew he was a member and he’d let his sharp tongue get the better of him.
“We’ll have to clear the church first and ask all the new refugees to keep indoors until she’s gone. She was real upset about the crossbows last time she was here.” Gwen crossed her arms. The two women had not bonded.
Atticus spoke firmly. “Chi, code yellow. Gwen, call the authorities. I’ll notify Morgan in case we need some red-tape snipped.”
Gwen and Chi headed away immediately, but Atticus studied the top of the man’s head.
Ben, not realizing he had been overlooked, cleared his throat. “Did he come here because he dreamed about you, do you think?”
“I don’t remember him. I don’t know him at all.” Atticus eyed the dog. Her head was still in her master’s lap and she was moaning.
“I’ll stay with him while you make your phone calls.” Ben had no idea why these words tumbled out of his mouth, but he was glad when they did.
Atticus nodded in that I would expect nothing less way of his and walked away.
“Well Lady, I’m so sorry about your friend.” Ben sat down and patted her rump. Her whimpering got louder.
Sheriff Joan Peters filled her uniform nicely. At her heels came Roland, her German shepherd. “Did anyone touch the body?”
The lab ignored her but Ben stood. He started to tell her no one had, but Gwen had, and so had Chi. By the time he could fathom a correct response, Atticus had already conveyed the same information.
The sheriff eyed Ben and then dismissed him, but Roland wagged his tail. The lab eyed the shepherd and the sheriff with equal despair and kept up her keening.
Joan reached down to open the man’s jacket and the lab quickly put her mouth around her wrist. Joan stilled.
“This your dog?” She kept her voice gentle.
“No, she’s his,” Ben pointed.
Her voice softened into liquid femininity as she addressed the lab. “It’s alright, girl. I won’t hurt him. I just need to see who he was. I promise. You’re a good girl for keeping him safe. Now it’s my turn.”
The lab released her mouthy hold and tilted her head up and back. Another howl resonated through the empty sanctuary.
Ben blinked away sudden tears and was surprised, and for some reason pleased, to witness the sheriff brush a tear off her cheek. Roland sniffed at the man’s ankle and unobtrusively pressed his shoulder against the sheriff’s leg.
Joan removed a beaten wallet from his coat. She whistled in respect; instead of a driver’s license, he had a gold colored military ID card. She nodded at the awaiting EMT’s who placed his body gently but efficiently on the gurney. The lab made as if to follow, but Joan blocked her. “No, no, girl. You can’t go with him.”
Again, before his brain knew he had decided, Ben’s voice promised, “I’ll take her.”
Joan pierced him with a look and voice totally different from what she’d used with the dog. “The county will not be held responsible for any fees, food, shelter or medical services rendered to that animal.”
Ben ground his teeth and took a deep angry breath.
Atticus rescued him, “The church takes care of its own. And we’ll provide a funeral for the man, if you can’t find next of kin.”
Joan smacked her lips – a strange mannerism Atticus had noted before during their few – and usually unpleasant – encounters.
She was halfway down the aisle when she turned back. Her shepherd was still sitting beside the pews. “Roland, heel.”
The dog hesitated, stood up and breathed into the lab’s muzzle before trotting to catch up with his mistress.
To Build an Army
© Evelyn Rainey
Available for publication.