Riley had sassed his ma and was on lockdown, having to clean their garage. I’d offered to help, but his ma had shooed me away, in the process making a few cutting remarks about Riley that I thought were uncalled for. But I was alone and so decided to ride into town and see if Pa needed any help in the store. He almost always did if I offered. I could stock shelves, organize things that customers had messed up, sweep—stuff like that. What I liked was, Pa could have had me there all the time doing chores but never told me to. He said a boy my age should be free in the summer to be a boy, that that time of life is over way too quickly and there’s never another period like it. Putting things on shelves for a couple of hours wasn’t what a boy should be about.
So when I was able, I went in and helped. ‘When I was able’ usually meant when I was bored. I wasn’t bored all that often when me ’n Riley were together. Today I was alone.
I was riding my bike into town when out of the corner of my eye I saw Jeff. He was on his bike, and he saw me, too. I started riding faster. I knew I was in trouble. Jeff was mean, he felt he owed me one for the river, and his bike was one of those twenty-one-speed ones with thin tires and a lightweight frame while mine was a clunky one-speed thing that was fine for a boy to ride around on but not good for escaping from someone older who was meaning to catch up to him.
He was catching up to me quickly. There wasn’t anyone around, or I could have ridden up to them; I doubted Jeff would have done too much with a witness there. But the streets, at least right there where we were, were deserted.
I turned a corner, but that didn’t help. He was coming up, maybe five seconds behind me. He’d ride up and knock me off my bike. I could feel it coming. I looked for a place with soft grass to fall on instead of a hard curb. Didn’t see any good places.
I cut around another corner and almost ran into a car. My scare at doing that was suddenly eased, though. The car I’d almost run into was the town cop’s car.
Our town had only one cop. But we also had less than 2,000 people and very little crime; we all kind of knew each other; one cop was enough. Our cop had a rep with us kids.
He wasn’t someone you messed around with. We all knew him because he came to the elementary school every year. They had an assembly, and we all gathered in the auditorium. He’d be up on stage wearing his official uniform. Usually, on the streets, he just wore a uniform shirt and jeans, but on the stage he had a special uniform, black pants and shirt with gold trimming on the shoulders and down the sides of the pants. He had a revolver in a shiny leather holster and a bright, shiny silver badge on his shirt. He wore a military-officer-style hat on his head, even though he was indoors with us. He’d stand on the stage, his legs apart, forming a vee up to his crotch, no smile at all on his face, and he looked like he was seven-feet tall. He was a big man; Pa had told me he was five inches over six feet and weighed over two-hundred and fifty pounds. We were kids, and we all were sort of in awe of him. When he was up there on that stage, that was the only time we all were quiet, marching in and sitting down. One reason for that was he glared at us while we came in.
He spoke to us about safety, about looking both ways before crossing the streets, about being home before dark, about not running in public buildings, about obeying adults, about being cautious with strangers—not that we had all that many strangers in Lewisville—and all the rest of the stuff our parents had already told us. He also spoke about the laws we had to follow that pertained to kids. He spoke about being thrown into detention if we broke the laws.
He also said to come to him if we had anything he could help us with. But he said it with such a scowl on his face, we knew he didn’t mean it.
His name was Rupert Lodge. We called him Officer Lodge, which is what he said to call him. A couple of the older kids just called him Lodge when talking about him but looked around to see who was close by before losing that ‘officer’ title.
So I almost rode into his car. I braked, and my back tire skidded out, and I just missed hitting him. My heart had already been racing from the chase. Almost running into a car didn’t make it slow down any.
I stood there, straddling my bike, my feet on the ground, panting. I realized how lucky I was. The car had been stationary; if he’d been driving forward, I’d have been under it.
While I was regaining my breath, Jeff turned the corner. He saw me standing there next to the police car. He braked, skidded, then turned to ride off.
Officer Lodge saw all this, and when Jeff turned, he did something in the car because his siren suddenly sounded. Just two quick bursts, whoop whoop, but they were loud and startling. Then Officer Lodge was speaking over the PA system in his car. “Jeffrey Tenker, stop! Come back here!”
Jeff had reached the corner by then and turned it, keeping going. Officer Lodge sat a second or two longer, waiting for Jeff to come back, I guess, then spoke into the PA system again. “All right, Jeffrey. I’m turning Spider loose if you’re not back here in five seconds.”
I sort of winced. I’m real fond of all animals. Well, more than fond; I love them. There were many dogs in Lewisville, and I’d swear I knew most of them. They knew me, too, and would wag their tails when I came by. We were great friends, me ’n them. I’d even walked some of them from time to time when the owners were old or ailing or too busy, and I told the owners they didn’t need to pay me. Yep, I got along great with dogs. Except for one: Spider.
Spider was a mostly black German Shepherd, a big one, probably well over 100 pounds, so he outweighed me by quite a bit. He had a little patch of kinda-reddish hair on his chest, which accounted for his name. He also was the scariest dog I’d ever seen. Officer Lodge had trained him, and he was very much a working police dog. There was no play in that dog, no tail wagging, no begging for treats, no licking faces. He growled a lot, it coming from deep in his throat, and you just knew he was waiting for, hoping for: the command to attack. He always was sitting up in the car next to Officer Lodge in the passenger seat, his eyes and ears alert, watching everything going on outside the car.
I didn’t like Jeff. I was scared of Jeff. But the thought of Spider going after him, bringing him down, chewing on him until Officer Lodge came up and called him off, wasn’t what I wanted to see. I hoped Jeff would come back.
He did. I guess the idea of that chewing stuff didn’t appeal to him much, either.
Officer Lodge told Jeff to sit in the car. He opened the back- seat door and pointed, and Jeff sat, casting lots of glances at Spider in the front seat looking at him menacingly.
“Spider, come,” Officer Lodge commanded, and Spider jumped out his open side window like a shot and came up to Officer Lodge and sat beside him, looking up at him. Officer Lodge pointed at Jeff and said, “Guard.”
Spider moved so he was right next to Jeff, outside the car, standing on his four legs and staring at Jeff in a way I wouldn't have wanted him staring at me. A very low rumbling sound came from his throat.
Then Officer Lodge told me to come with him, and we walked several yards from the car, far enough so Jeff wouldn’t be able to hear us talk.
“What’s this all about, Travis?” he asked.
Huh? He knew my name? And not only that, his voice was soft, nothing like the tone he used up on that stage! I think my mouth dropped open. He saw that and grinned.
“I’m not who you kids think I am. No need to be scared of me. Unless you’re a bad guy, of course. You’re not a bad guy, are you, Travis?”
I shook my head, not trusting my voice. Then, because I had to, considering my middle name and all, I somehow squeaked out, “How do you know my name?”
“I know most of the kids in this town. Most of the trouble we have here is caused by kids. Best if I know who they are. Like old Jeffrey there, for instance. You’re a good kid. He’s not. So how about telling me what happened. What was he chasing you for?”
How was I supposed to do that, explain, I mean? I couldn’t tell him everything. Tell him about us being naked, riding bikes away from the river? Talk about what those boys were doing? I didn’t think so! Not in a hundred years! Boys have some principles of conduct. We don’t talk about things like what were going on at that river.
But he was looking at me. I could see compassion in his eyes, the last thing I’d ever thought anyone would see there, but even so, I just couldn’t say any of that. I did have to say something, though. Well, maybe I could come up with a condensed version. Yeah, that was an idea.
So I did.
“Uh, Officer Lodge, I . . . uh . . . I saw somethin’. He wants to make sure I never tell anyone. He thinks if he beats me up and then threatens me, that I’ll be too scared to ever say anythin’.” There, I guessed that would do it. He now knew everything he needed to know.
“I see,” he said, and I started breathing again. But then he said, “I guess I need to know what you saw.”
I shook my head. “There were other people involved. I don’t want to tell on people.”
“I understand that, Travis. As I said, you’re a good kid. You do well in school, you keep your friend Riley on the straight and narrow, which can’t be easy with all the spirit that boy has and considering his home life, and you help people with their dogs. But Jeffrey, now, he’s a piece of work. I can’t have him hassling kids like you. So I need to know what happened, not just the short version. I need the long version. But I’ll handle it discreetly. I always do. Please trust me.”
It was his eyes and his tone of voice that did it as much as what he said. Or maybe the fact I was a good kid. Maybe that could be my middle name, too.
“This is embarrassin’,” I said, for a start.
“I’m a cop. I see lots of stuff that’s embarrassing. You probably can’t say anything I haven’t heard before. And I understand I’m sort of forcing it out of you. I won’t hold it against you.”
“It’s sex stuff,” I said, looking down.
“I know about sex stuff—and about boys. Nothing new at all. But before I confront Jeff, I have to know what happened. Please, Travis?”
I think it was the ‘please’ that made me cave in. He wasn’t forcing me; he was asking. So I fessed up. I told him about me ’n Riley going fishing. I guess I forgot to say the other reason why we went where we did that day, but did remember the part about fishing being why we went. I didn’t want to talk about those other, older guys sitting there doing what they were doing, but that was why Jeff was out for me, me having witnessed that, so how could I not make that part of my story? I had to tell him about them sitting there naked, all with stiffies, and what they did then, and about Jeff claiming to have won, and about Riley falling in the river and Jeff talking about drowning him—and me, too—and them stripping us and Jeff hitting Riley in the stomach and Sam sticking up for us, and then the girls coming and laughing at the naked boys and us riding away. I didn’t tell him we were still naked at the time. I didn’t see where that was an important part of the tale at all.
Officer Lodge didn’t seem all that surprised by what I told him. He didn’t blush or act embarrassed or anything. He’d said he’d heard everything before. I couldn’t really believe he’d heard anything like this before, but maybe. . . Anyway, he thanked me, putting one of his huge hands on my shoulder and squeezing ever so gently. Then he said, “Come on,” and led me back to the car, where Spider was still rumbling and hadn’t moved an inch from where he was standing, and Jeff was looking a bit pale and frightened.
“Jeffrey,” Officer Lodge said after having Spider stand down, “I’ve heard all about that little party you had at the river. I have about six different violations I could arrest you for. I could have your ass in juvie for a long, long time. You want to go that route, son? You want to spend a few years playing with the hard cases they have in there? Doing the things they’d make you do? That what you want?”
Officer Lodge’s voice wasn’t anything like the voice he’d used with me. It was much more like the voice he’d always had on that stage. Jeff’s voice, when he answered, wasn’t like the one at the river, either. It was higher and tighter. He sounded much younger.
“No, sir. I’m sorry, sir. I was just going to talk to Travis here. That’s all.”
“Lying to a police officer is another violation, Jeffrey. You just don’t stop. You don’t learn anything. You’re a sorry case, Jeffrey. Admit it to me, now. You were going to teach Travis here a lesson about keeping his mouth shut. Weren’t you, Jeffrey. Weren’t you?”
“Oh, no, sir. I wouldn't do anything like that.”
“Hmmm. So me being nice and trying to cut you a break won’t work, will it? Well, I guess it’s juvie, then, or maybe, just maybe, I have another idea. Spider!”
The dog’s ears poked up, and he moved next to Officer Lodge and sat, very alert.
Officer Lodge looked back at Jeff. “Maybe Spider can convince you to start telling the truth. He’s good at that. Let’s try, huh? Spider, GUARD!”
Spider jumped back into position, and Jeff immediately cowered back further into the car.
“Jeffrey, this is your last chance. One word, that’s the command, one word, it’s spelled A-T-T-A-C-K, and this dog will be on you like maggots on a week-old corpse, and you’ll be screaming for mercy. I’m ready to say the word. It won’t take long. Or, you can tell me the truth and avoid being in the hospital for a week, in pain as they clean out your wounds. What’ll it be?”
He took hold of Spider’s collar, looked at Jeff, and started to say the word. “Spider . . . ATTA—”
“No,” Jeff cried out. “I’m sorry. Yeah, I was gonna punch Travis so he wouldn't say anythin’.”
“Boy, you just saved yourself a world of hurt. Since you did, I’m going to cut you a deal. We’ll forget all about what you did at the river to Riley and the threats you made and the sexual stuff with minors, but only if you promise me you’ll leave Travis and Riley entirely alone, both you and the guys you hang with. If you don’t or if anything happens to these two boys or they go missing or whatever, I’m going to set Spider on you for real. By the time I call him off, you’ll wish you were dead. You got it? Tell me what you’re going to do?”
“I’m going to leave Travis ’n Riley alone.”
“Damn right you will. I’ve still got a case against you for the other stuff and witnesses who either I or Spider can talk into testifying. All those guys at the river. You’re getting a last chance to go straight, Jeffrey. But just one. Don’t waste it. Now get out of my car, and you’d better not have pissed in it.”
Jeff got out, staying as far away from Spider as he possibly could, then got his bike and took off as fast as he could, not looking back.
“You did real good here, Travis. You should be proud of yourself. There are kids’ rules about snitching, and you have to decide when to obey them and when it’s dumb to do so. You did the right thing, the smart thing, today.”
Then he stuck his hand out, and I figured out I was supposed to shake it, so I did. Felt funny, my small, soft hand in his huge, callused one, but we shook, and he sort of saluted me with one finger and got back in the car. He didn’t have to say anything or even whistle. Spider raced around the car and almost flew into the open window on the passenger side.
My pa had some sorting for me to help him with, and I spent most of the rest of the day in the store with him.