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Southern Folks

I love all animals, but I'm especially partial to dogs. We have two Australian shepherds, Cowboy and Scout. They're brothers. They turn 13 in April. Jana and I still refer to them as "the pups" or "the boys." I like them better than a whole bunch of people I know. I trust them. They're consistent. That unconditional love thing.

Growing up in the South, it seemed like every family had a dog or two. I had Prince. Prince was actually a female. I didn't really notice the plumbing until she was older. It was too late to do anything about her name. She didn't seem to mind. Besides, I didn't want to start calling her Princess. It would be awkward.

Prince was mostly cocker and a little bit of everything else. She was short, with shaggy black fur, white paws, a few black spots within a white stripe that ran down the middle of her face and a white tip at the end of her constantly, happy-wagging tail. If I was somewhere, Prince was there with me.

Even though my mother graduated top of her class at Peabody, she had a tough time finding work as a teacher. She had some personal problems. In 1958, she was finally able to land herself a teaching gig in a little farming town not too far south of Columbia, Tennessee. I was in the fourth grade.

Most of the kids Mom taught were from local farming families. It was considered a major achievement if they made it through the 12th grade. Not that they weren't smart enough. Some of the boys and a few of the girls would have to drop out for a semester. They were needed at the farm. When times got better, they'd come back and try again.

There was one guy, well into his 20s, who finally graduated on the same day his fifth child was born. He and a girl named Betty had had a shotgun wedding their sophomore year. They already had a little farm and a bushel of beautiful children.

The school was an old three-story, dark brick building with black coal soot marks running across the brick and up the north and south ends.

Across the yard, in a separate wooden building, was the gymnasium, which sat up from the ground on heavy concrete blocks. It had an aluminum-tin roof. If there was a thunderstorm during a basketball game, the crowd's cheers and the hard rain on the roof made it impossible to hear the little fellow calling the game over the loudspeaker.

The school campus included the gym, a pasture turned into a baseball field and two small white, wood-frame houses, with a little whitewashed trailer in between them. That's where my mother and my two brothers and I lived. There wasn't enough room inside to do much more than sit. I could run and broad jump from the bedroom into the living room.

Mr. Graham, the school principal, lived on one side of us, and Mr. Thaxter, the school's head custodian and groundskeeper, and his family lived on the other side.

Eugene Thaxter was a big, red-faced man, with stained teeth and hair growing out of his ears. He was always in bib overalls and a felt hat. He rolled his own cigarettes, chewed chaw, drank hard liquor and carried a pistol. Rather than speak, he sorta growled. There was always a little dried-up dribble of tobacco juice on the side of his mouth.

He was a bigwig in and proud member of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Mr. Thaxter beat his kids and pushed his wife around all the time. Everyone knew what was going on but chose to look the other way. Just like most everybody else, I hated the man.

On the shady side of the Thaxters' house, in a 4- by 6-foot wire cage, was where Mr. Thaxter kept his prize coon hound, Skeeter. He pretty much starved Skeeter, claiming that keeping the dog hungry made him "a better runner and hunter." A few times, I had to cover my ears in order not to hear Mr. Thaxter yelling profanities and beating on poor old Skeeter. I'd pray to God to make the beatings stop.

I felt so badly and somewhat responsible for Skeeter's beatings, because after the sun went down, I'd sneak over to the back side of their house and feed Skeeter our leftovers almost every night. I had a system. Wait for Mr. Thaxter to turn off the living room lights and run the TV volume up full blast. That's when I made my move! Prince went with me.

No matter how much I fed Skeeter, he just didn't seem to get any healthier-looking. I could tell he was depressed. And he was lonely. During the day, while I was in school, Prince would go over and lie next to Skeeter's cage and keep him company.

One night, after Mr. Thaxter had laid into Skeeter, Prince and I made the decision to save our friend. It felt like old Skeeter wasn't going to make it too much longer. Word was, Mr. Thaxter had already shot two of his hunting dogs. Tonight's the night. No turning back. We'd have to be careful.

I could hear Mrs. Thaxter, over the blaring TV, yell out to the kids to start getting ready for bed. I opened the door to Skeeter's cage. He was somewhat wobbly and shaking. At first, he just looked at me. I was whispering to him, "You're free. Get going." I stood back from the open cage door, and he walked out. He and Prince said their goodbyes.

I was going to steer Skeeter around the back of the house, so that no one would see him, but he took off running, for about 50 feet, out to the front. He stopped and looked back at me for a few seconds. Then he took off again, across the dirt road and up toward the Thompson farm. I watched him run straight into the dark. Then he was gone.

I'm happy to report that they never did find Skeeter. While I never got questioned about it, Eugene Jr. told me that his father suspected that I'd had something to do with his coon hound getting loose.

For a little while, after the "great escape," I'd go out on the road at night and just stand there for a while. I missed Skeeter. Prince did too. Of course, I knew too well that there was no way Skeeter would ever come back. Not after all those beatings and practically being starved to death.

I felt that I had done the right thing, freeing him. As a precautionary measure, I prayed to God and asked if he had heard my prayers and moved me to free Skeeter. I remember a voice coming out of my gut telling me I had done the right thing and that I would see Skeeter again, someday, in heaven.

I was just 9 years old. But for all these years, I've rejoiced in the faith that I did the right thing for old Skeeter, and according to that little voice that came from my belly, I'm going to heaven. I truly hope so. It'll be good to see Skeeter again. And Prince.

On another note, I assume that Mr. Thaxter is deservedly tied to a stake and rotting in hell! That's good by me.

Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at bill_stamps@aol.com or through Facebook.

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