My daddy, Joe Norton, was a traveling preacher. Back in the '40s, when we didn’t have a car, he rode buses all over, bringing the Word of God to towns that were too small and too poor to have their own preachers. The five of us—Daddy, Mama, my big brothers John and Bobby, and me—lived in a tiny town ourselves, out by the oil fields of West Texas. Hamlin was the kind of place where folks didn’t even have locks on their doors, they trusted each other so much. When Daddy had to be away for a week or two at a stretch, he could rest assured we were safe at home.
I couldn’t, though. I had a hard time getting to sleep when he was gone. Usually, the boys had the bunk beds in the kitchen across from the back door. But Mama knew how anxious I got when Daddy wasn’t around. She would put the boys in the bedroom, then give me the top bunk and take the bottom one herself so I’d feel more secure. I’d climb into bed with my favorite doll, Trudy, whose expression changed when you turned her head. I made sure Trudy’s sleeping face was showing, but then I would lie awake myself, my mind awhirl with all the scary things that might happen without Daddy around. "He says God always takes care of us, Trudy," I’d whisper to my doll. "Well, I sure do hope it’s true."
The summer I was 9, I hoped more fervently than ever, because something terrible happened, something no one in Hamlin could remember ever happening before. A burglar was on the loose—a stranger going around breaking into houses, stealing things, and hurting people who got in his way. What if the burglar came to our house while Daddy was gone? What if he got me? Daddy didn’t want to leave us. Still, he had made a commitment to folks out of town, and we knew he couldn’t go back on his word. So one July day when the sun looked like a fat egg yolk in the sky, we went to the bus station to see him off. Daddy asked us kids to mind Mama, then we held hands and prayed. Just before he got on the bus, Daddy opened his Bible and gave us a short reading from Psalms, his voice more serious than a month of Sundays: “The angel of the Lord encampeth round them that fear him, and delivereth them.”
I repeated that verse to myself as we shaded our eyes and watched the bus pull away.
Coming up our walk back home, I heard Bobby holler, “Look at that dog!” I followed his pointing finger to our front porch, where a huge, mottled creature was sprawled at the top of the steps, taking an afternoon snooze. John whistled. “Never seen anything like him!”
The dog lifted his massive head, half-perking one ear, and surveyed us lazily, as if we were on his porch.
“He sure is ugly,” John said, noting his gold fur covered with black spots.
“Go away, dog!” Mama commanded. “Scat!”
The dog didn’t budge. He just stared at us with black eyes as shiny as marbles. Sighing, Mama stepped over him, turned, and lifted me across his bulk.
Creeeak. Mama opened the screen door. “Just leave him be,” she said. “Soon as he figures out we can’t feed him, he’ll go away.”
But he didn’t. That night, I checked outside before I went to bed, and he was lying on the front porch in the same spot. He stayed there for several days straight. I never once saw him leave the porch.
Before we knew it, Mama was telling us, “Daddy’s due back tomorrow.” That evening, the crinkles in Mama’s forehead smoothed out, and she smiled a lot during dinner.
It got dark out, and I climbed up the ladder into my bunk with my Trudy doll and turned her head so she was sleeping.
“Night, Mama,” I said, swinging my hand over the side of the bed.
Mama reached up and squeezed my hand. “Night, Libby. Sleep tight.”
The light from the alley behind our house shone into the room and hit the blades of the floor fan, making some strange, shifting silhouettes on the wall. I yanked the covers up so no one could see me. Daddy, I wish you were here.
Creeeak. What was that? It sounded like the screen door that led to our back porch! I peeked over the edge of my covers. A looming shadow moved across the wall as the kitchen door eased open.
“Shh!” she said, “I see him!”
I closed my eyes tight, not wanting to witness what the burglar would do to us. “God, please help us!” I whispered, hugging Trudy against me. At that moment, I heard a sharp bark.
The door snapped shut. Then a low, menacing growl. Closer and closer it came. Suddenly, it stopped.
I couldn’t stand it anymore. I opened my eyes and turned toward the door. Mama leaped out of bed and grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer. I cringed as she opened the kitchen door.
Only there was no burglar out back any longer. Just the dog. The extra-large, funny-looking, black-and-gold dog that had camped out on our front porch and refused to move for anything, except… Except he’d run all the way around back and leaped the fence to protect us from the intruder. Now the dog was sitting there at our back door, facing us calmly, as if nothing had happened.
Mama gave him a pat on the head and closed the door. She put the knife away and got into bed. “The dog is keeping watch, Libby, so we’re safe. Go to sleep.”
And that is what I did.
I woke to sun shining in my eyes. Daddy’s coming home! I turned Trudy’s head so she was smiling and climbed down the ladder. Hearing a noise from the front porch, I peeked outside. Mama was out there talking to the dog, who had returned to his usual spot. She’d given him a bowl of water and fixed some biscuits and gravy for him.
Three o’clock that afternoon, we went to the bus station to meet Daddy. As soon as he stepped off the bus, I ran to him.
“Hi, girl!” Daddy said, whirling me around in his arms. “I missed you!” “I missed you, too,” I said. “You gotta see our new dog! He saved us from the burglar!”
But when we came up to our house, the dog wasn’t on the porch. He wasn’t out back. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
I thought the dog might turn up the next time Daddy went away, but he never visited our house again. I guess he didn’t have to, because by that point I’d learned that even though Daddy couldn’t be there every second to protect us, the God he preached about always was, standing guard with his angels, who come in all shapes and sizes and colors.