The Many Incarnations of Blazer Chief

Elise Matthews

Blazer Chief, a black Labrador, pranced down Cedar Street in late April, 1948, and set up court in the abandoned farmhouse a few yards from the mayor’s house. At night he slept inside the house, and during the day he’d sit for hours on the rickety front porch and watch us. Chief never begged for anything, but we began leaving him gifts — mostly leftovers when we could spare them. Before long, those of us who were farmers brought him scraps from our slaughters. We put a bucket at the old well next to the house and filled it each morning.

It was hard to say what drew us to Chief. We all had dogs — working dogs on the farms and pets for the rest of us. Dogs were about as ordinary as people in Megargel, Texas. Maybe it was his stillness, his demeanor. It wasn’t that he demanded our respect and attention but that he had earned both somehow without doing anything other than being there.

Maybe it was the timing. Things were finally settling down after the war. We’d had time to adjust to normal life and start building families again. We were figuring out who we were. He came to us with his head held high and looked as optimistic as we felt, so we took it for a sign — from God or whomever — that we were on the right path. And we wanted to show that we understood and appreciated, so Chief became Megargel’s dog.

Our dogs accepted Chief’s elevated status. From the moment he entered town, the other dogs all deferred to him. None challenged him, even the most alpha among them. Our dogs also stopped challenging us when Chief was nearby. They stopped barking for no reason. He calmed them somehow.

We had no choice but to be devoted to this miraculous dog, and that was more than fine with us.

Every day, Chief stood sentry, as if we were his to protect. There was talk of the mayor adopting him so he’d have a better house to live in and since we’d been planning on tearing that old farmhouse down the next summer. But it was decided that Chief belonged to all of us and none of us, and he’d chosen the old farmhouse, so we wouldn’t make him move.

That didn’t stop the mayor — who thought owning Chief would lend him extra support in future elections — from trying to lure the dog. He’d leave treats on the edge of his property, and when Chief went to retrieve them, the mayor would offer something even more enticing from his doorway. But Chief never went into any house but his own.

Chief remained poised when approached and never growled, so our children quickly attached themselves to him. When school let out, they went straight to his house. In the summer, when they finished all of their chores each day, it was to Chief’s house they ran. We had a difficult time calling them home for dinner. They liked to play games in his yard, read, or just lie in the grass and watch clouds.

When the temperature dropped that winter, we gave Chief blankets, as many as we could spare. Before the first freeze, we worried the blankets wouldn’t be enough, so we went to work on his house. We made sure the old pot-belly stove worked and insulated that room as best we could. We brought all his blankets into that room, installed a large cat hole in the door to accommodate his size, and left the door closed to keep out as much weather as possible. Each night, we built a fire in the stove, and Chief slept in the pile of blankets in front of it. The fire never lasted all night, but it lasted long enough.

When winter turned to spring, we thought he might get bored with us and leave, but he seemed at home and content. We took back the blankets, washed them, and stored them for the next year, should he need them. When he’d been with us almost a year, we organized a parade in his honor and, on the anniversary of his arrival, marched down the main drag, right past his house. Chief’s tail wagged excitedly for the entire procession, but he was otherwise still as usual.

On his second anniversary, we organized another parade, and it became a Megargel tradition after that. We felt we owed it to him, though we weren’t entirely sure why.

A few days before his tenth anniversary, he wasn’t out of his house when the paper boy rode by. And even later, when we took our children to school and went to work, Chief still wasn’t out. We got worried when we went outside to eat lunch and he still hadn’t appeared. The porch looked wrong without him.

Late that afternoon, the mayor took it upon himself to investigate. We gathered outside the farmhouse. He returned to us carrying a tragedy. Chief was dead in his arms, and one of his hind legs was rotting faster than the rest of his body; the fur had fallen away, and his flesh was black. We found two puncture marks on his right thigh and figured that a rattlesnake had bitten him but had no way of knowing for sure. We found no snakes.

We didn’t want to believe it. Some wanted to call for the vet in the next town over, but Chief was gone. But still, we prayed. We held a candlelight vigil that night and promised God we’d be better people if He’d just give Chief back to us. We swore to love our neighbors and never to miss church.

The next day, when Chief still lay dead on his porch, reason abandoned us. We’d left his body there, too caught up in our denial. Unable to avoid reality any longer, anger took us. The mayor declared we had an infestation of snakes, the devil’s tools, so we went hunting. We killed every snake we could find — harmless or no. They were all the enemy.

The town council banned snakes as pets next, though most owners had already killed their pet snakes. The Pentecostal church also killed their snakes — something the council had been trying to get them to do for years. All the churches in town drove the snake massacre. Snakes were Satan incarnate. Our bloodlust was insatiable. Armed with shovels and shotguns, we spent full days combing the fields outside of town. We forgot about our jobs and other responsibilities.

After a few days, we couldn’t find any more. We’d succeeded in purifying our town. We convened for a town hall meeting that night to discuss ceasing the hunt. Someone mentioned Chief’s parade would have been the following day. We cried and congratulated ourselves that we’d obliterated the vile reptiles before his anniversary. We felt he would have been proud of us — perhaps was proud of us, wherever he was.

Chief’s farmhouse was declared a historical monument, and we passed a motion to erect a sign out front to preserve Chief’s memory. We also decided to hold a midnight vigil instead of a parade on the eve of his anniversary every year.

We brought tents and set up camp in what used to be Chief’s yard. This first vigil needed to be more than just a few people standing around holding candles, we felt. So at midnight we lit our candles and sang songs and prayed and cried some more. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, we retired to our tents and slept.

When we emerged in the morning, the sun just clearing the horizon, we noticed something walking down the road towards us. It was on the edge of town, so it took a while before we could see that it was a puppy — a yellow Labrador puppy. As it neared our camp, it began trotting and hopping a bit. It walked right past us, up the porch steps, and sat right where Chief had always sat. It was calm, and its eyes seemed familiar and old.

“It’s Chief!” one of our kids said.

“Nuh-uh,” another said. “This one’s yellow.”

“Is so.” There was no denying his eyes.

Some of us fainted; others cried even more. The roughest of our men had long since given up any pretext of resisting tears. We’d become a very weepy town in just a few days.

The puppy remained still as we all crowded around to examine him. We decided he was Chief and proceeded to shower him with affection, which he accepted without losing his poise.

Chief as a puppy seemed appropriate. Our faith was young. We’d known he was special but hadn’t understood to what extent. We wondered at his return, probably more dumbstruck even than our children. It seemed silly and clichéd, but everything seemed brighter and — more possible. Like amazing things really could happen if we just wanted them bad enough. Rules had been broken, and we thirsted to understand.

When we recovered from the shock of this second miracle, we realized we still had time to put on our annual parade, so we scrambled to throw it together. New Chief oversaw the parade with grace and what looked like approval. The mayor declared the next week to be set aside for celebration. We hadn’t been to work in as long, but our jobs would have to wait. We continued our campout for the duration of the festivities.

Then things went back to normal, for the most part. We left gifts for New Chief when we could and reinstated the annual parade. Eventually, we stopped calling him New Chief, and when he was full grown, we forgot he wasn’t the original Chief, forgot Chief had originally been black. In our minds, we’d only ever had one dog.

But some things had changed. In the days following his return, the town council proposed plans to promote education: grants for school supplies and increases in teacher benefits, programs to involve the whole community, outreach to families who struggled and were unable to sufficiently support their children’s education. All measures passed, and no one protested them. We had a responsibility to provide our children with futures even better than our present. The town council also helped found organizations to assist families who had elderly and mentally ill members whose care was a burden.

When harvest season came, the farmers whose crops had failed weren’t left empty handed. Those who had shared with those who had not. Instead of hoarding excess, we made sure everyone had enough. We held ourselves to a higher standard than we had before. We thought, maybe if we did enough good, we could keep him forever this time.

Somewhere in our enthusiasm to earn Chief and to prove ourselves worthy of him, though, we took advantage of what we’d been given. Chief was the face of everything. The town council needed public support for some proposal? Then they said it was Chief approved. The schools needed to motivate kids to do their homework? Chief specifically requested they do their part; the teachers read letters he’d written to their classes. Blood drive? Food drive? Chief wanted us to give. He endorsed political campaigns and local businesses. His image appeared on posters all over town. And everyone in town wanted a picture with him — the young, aspiring photographer who’d offered his services for such a task made a small fortune within just a few weeks.

In 1975, we lost Chief again to another snake bite, and we remembered the tragedy that struck us in 1959, something we’d quickly forgotten. But we knew what to do this time. Again, we rid the area of snakes and told God we were sorry we’d gotten lazy and let them back into our town. We swore never to slack in this again if He would just grant us another miracle.

We didn’t cancel the parade because we believed, but we did dig our tents out of storage and hold another vigil. This time, our children were grown and had their own children. They begged us to stay home, said we were too old to camp this time, said they would stand in our places. We refused. We couldn’t be anywhere but Chief’s yard that night.

We were all up before sunrise the next morning, each of us eager to spot Chief first. We wondered what color he’d be this time. One of our grandchildren saw him first, but as he neared, our faith faltered. This dog wasn’t the right shade of any color we expected — more of a rusty grey. His nose was too narrow, his tail too bushy, and his ears stood up. Our children clutched their children and began to flee, but we waited. We wanted to see his eyes.

This was a young coyote, but his eyes were dark and old — Chief’s eyes again. Our children watched from a distance, but we stayed to greet him as he approached. He walked past us to the porch, ignoring the food still out from breakfast. When he sat, our children recognized him and returned, though hesitantly.

We wondered at his transformation but quickly accepted it. We didn’t care that he looked different, so long as we had him again.

There was talk every few years about erecting a statue in Chief’s honor, but no one could agree on what it should look like. Some of us were for making it in the likeness of the original, especially since that statue would also look like the second version. Others liked the current version of him better for a statue, said this version of Chief was more Texan, local. Still others argued for every version of him, envisioning the yard full of statues of different breeds in the future. Instead, we settled on portraits, one for every incarnation.

We watched Chief die again in 1983. As before, we found him with flesh quickly rotting around the bite and again found no snake in or around the house. We’d been careful about keeping them out of town this time, hoping we could avoid Chief’s death altogether, but we went hunting anyway and found nothing.

We thought maybe a scorpion, but the Olney vet confirmed snake. We swept the town again. We raided the Pentecostal church. We searched the rooms of our grandchildren who had taken to wearing black clothes and makeup and hair. Surely they were harboring Satan’s servants.

Yet no snakes were found. Chief’s anniversary approached, and this time, we had nothing to show for ourselves. Would he return? Would he know we’d tried to avenge him? Would God? Would He accept our failed attempts? We called a town meeting to discuss it.

“Is there anything else we can do?” some of us asked.

“How can we prove ourselves if we can’t kill his killers?” others asked.

“Have we failed?” still others asked.

We were frantic and confused, and the new, younger mayor was unsure of how to calm us. He’d been born after the first Chief arrived in town. Like his peers, he didn’t know life without Chief, and he was afraid. How would we explain to our grandchildren that the now legendary dog would no longer oversee or join their play? What else would bring the town together like he had?

We threw all of our hope and effort into the vigil. We began a full day before the anniversary. Pastors gave sermons on God’s faithfulness to provide. Musicians sang songs — hymns for God and ballads about Chief. We set up a shrine on his porch: the portraits, photos of us sitting or playing with him, his favorite blanket, and a stuffed bear our second graders had given him when he first showed up. The bear was in sad condition from years of use: eyeless and missing an ear and covered in as much fur as the blanket.

This time we were too old to camp all night. We joined our children and grandchildren at dawn to welcome Chief once more. We found more people than we’d left the night before. Visitors from nearby towns who had heard stories had come to wait with us.

This time, when an old sheepdog entered town, head held high, no one questioned or retreated. We knew before we could see his eyes that it was Chief. The crowd parted when he reached us, but he didn’t immediately go to the porch this time. Instead, he sat in front of the old mayor’s wheelchair, looked him in the eye, and licked the old man’s hand before taking his historical spot once again.

That was the last incarnation of Chief we saw. On our death beds, we made our children swear to continue to care for Chief and to teach their children to do the same. And they did, for the most part, because they had been there when Chief first arrived. Their kids loved Chief but didn’t understand why their parents made such a big deal about it every year, why they got so upset when he died. They knew he was coming back, so why cry over his dead body? And was a parade really necessary? For a dog? But they still continued our traditions without fail, moved by the stories they’d heard from us.

They passed these stories on to their children who cared even less for all the pomp required to honor a scrappy-looking dog who did nothing but sit on an old porch and watch people all day. They liked to play with him when they were young, but when they grew up, they tired of caring for him. They wanted dogs of their own, ones that slept in their beds and loved only them. And some of them thought they should be allowed to have pet snakes because snakes in terrariums didn’t actually hurt anyone. They didn’t like having to check on Chief every morning during the winter to make sure his space heater hadn’t tipped over and shut off the night before. They argued over whose turn it was to fill his water bucket each week and who needed to wash his blankets. They got greedy and stopped bringing him food from their homes, instead opting to buy cheap dog food in bulk and have it shipped in with other supplies for the local farms.

Worse, they quit taking care of each other. They built an old folks’ home where they could send their elderly, where someone else would care for them. The state cut funding for schools, and instead of finding a way to keep our programs going, instead of finding a way to keep our schools better than the rest, they fired teachers and increased class sizes. They shipped their mentally ill off to institutions in Dallas and rarely visited. Successful farmers sold everything they didn’t need for their families, leaving nothing for the community, nothing to share with those whose crops had failed that year. And when the less fortunate complained about being abandoned, the fortunate called them lazy, entitled, said it wasn’t the job of those who succeeded to feed the rest.

After their parents had passed on — yes, surrounded by their children, but after long sicknesses in lonely hospitals with infrequent visits — the descendants canceled the parade indefinitely, and when Chief died, only a few people showed up for the vigil. The next morning, he — this time a scraggly little mutt — arrived well after sunrise and already looked old, older than we’d ever seen him. He sat for as long as he could each day on the porch, but by the time everyone got off work, he had lain down.

When that Chief died only a year later, no one noticed his absence for a few days, and no one could find time or motivation to spend the night outside his house once they did figure out he was gone. No one got up in the morning to greet the next Chief, which was just as well because no dogs came up the main drag that whole day, or the next. No dog ever returned to the old farmhouse, and no one noticed.

Eventually, they wanted to tear the house down because the new mayor wanted to build a big, new house on the property. The town council had to vote on removing the historical marker status from the house, and they passed the motion unanimously. No trace of Chief remained where he had once lived.

They put his portraits into storage when they renovated the town hall and never brought them back out once renovations were finished. Their children didn’t care for stories about a dog that supposedly never really died because he had died and hadn’t come back. To them, Chief was only a myth, a local tall tale. They all knew that dogs couldn’t really be reincarnated, that one dog could not have possibly watched over the town for more than half a century. Once something died, it was just dead. Period. And because they believed it, it was true.

ELISE MATTHEWS lives in Denton, TX, where she studies fiction and teaches freshman composition at the University of North Texas. She serves on staff for American Literary Review and North Texas Review. This is her first publication.

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