"Dog Will Hunt"
I passed the remnants of an old apple orchard to the left. The occasional green apple, for whatever reason fallen too soon, crunched under rubber as my tires tried to keep traction on the road that was little more than a rocky runoff from a spring up the hill. Those rocks brought me here; I meant to harvest flat stone to use in one of the dozen or so overdue landscaping projects that may, if ever completed, fulfill my existence. But yard projects just churn on, like this uneven road, grinding and grinding.
I wasn't alone on this uphill battle. Lina, who bears a close resemblance to her pariah dingo ancestors, and Dude, a golden retriever, trotted amiably along with their designated pack leader, a green, well-worn Honda Ridgeline. Dude takes the riskier path, tight by the truck cab's driver door unless the narrow width of the sunken road forces him to higher ground. Lina stays a few inches off the back-left quarter panel, just at the rear bumper. I try to keep one eye trained on them, tongues wagging in the July heat, and one eye on the road. When the road allows me to speed up, they speed up; they slow when I slow. Too bad they tug like draft horses when they're at the end of a leash.
I reached the end of the uphill climb where the road doglegs right over the creek, just past a bent and rusted "for sale" sign, and stopped right there in the middle of the track. Rush hour on this rocky trail is a hunter on a four wheeler passing by maybe once a month, once in a blue moon, so there's no need to pull to the side, not that there's much of a side anyway on a path so narrow that weeds clutching the road bank scrape the truck on both sides. A few days earlier Silas caught his first salamander here after it darted from a flat stone I pulled from the creek bank. It was a good spot not just for its easy access to the creek's rocks, but also because the creek created a diversion for the boy while daddy did his work. But there would be no need for such a diversion today; the boy was at the bottom of the hill playing with a friend whose family rented one of the two still-habitable farm houses among the many old homesteads that dot the expansive property. I planned on steady work.
By the time the parking brake wrenched me in place, Lina and Dude had ambled into the pines that had taken over most of this forgotten landscape and carpeted it with a thick layer of brown needles. Though they quickly disappeared in the woods, I knew they would both reassume their pack position as soon as the engine fired again and they heard the call of rocks grinding under rubber.
Lina hunts and herds. Many a startled chipmunk or rabbit has sent her through the thicket in an impassioned but usually fruitless chase. She's slow to give up, but eventually heeds my call to rejoin the pack and stands patiently while I pull the thorns. She delights in her power to send cattle on a stampede, or circle them in a tight knot, or at least she does until some angry farmer and his lead puts an end to it. I marvel at her herding instinct, and wonder where in her lineage she picked up the trait, but I don't want to lose my best friend so I try not to encourage it.
When Lina herds she runs with a low, swift gait, gliding fearlessly but dangerously at the hind quarters of any cows that don't start running before she gets close. I've never seen a rebel buck more than once before falling in line. On the hunt she is a different animal altogether, her wide, pointed ears perked instead of put back, her tail a backwards "C" over her haunches instead of held low. The coat at her withers scrunches forward and stands erect, changing her entire profile, and she bounds off four pogo sticks at her target like a bouncing wrecking ball off its chain. The herd is graceful; the hunt is pure power, or at least as much power as a 40-pound pup can muster.
It was the wrecking ball that broke the steady drone of flat stone thumping the hard plastic bedliner. Lina sawed through thin pine limbs, bounded behind me and across the road before disappearing downstream. I didn't get a glimpse of what she was after. Dude trailed. I got a look at his expression and it seemed he was running more out of curiosity than sport.
I went for more rocks. This time my work was interrupted by a shrill and distant distress signal. I think now that my mind didn't know what to make of the sound, so it made it into a familiar sound, a boy crying out. Had Silas followed me up the path and gotten hurt along the way? Did he get trampled by the stampede of dogs?
The cry definitely sounded human, but each time I called out for Silas the intermittent scream went silent. If it was Silas, or anything human that was hurt, and it had the lungs to muster a wail at regular intervals, then surely it would answer my shouts. My call should have elicited a response, not silence.
It was definitely animal. What did Lina sound like when she was hurt? I've seen her try to catch bumblebees in her mouth, all the while getting stung by the nest she disturbed, without ever so much as a flinch. Once I heard a little whelp when she twisted a paw wrestling with Dude. But what if she was really hurt? What if she was caught in some hunter's trap? Would it sound like this?
I called for her. Again the distress signal faded away at the sound of my voice, only to pick up again after a moment of silence.
I kept calling as I worked, maybe another minute or two, filling the bed until the black of the bedliner floor had almost been rubbed out by rock. The cry was calling me, but the pull of uninterrupted work is strong when you have a boy out of school for the summer. After my initial panic, the voice of reason kept telling me it was nothing. Keep working.
Then Dude came back. Alone. Lassie he ain't, but when I asked him, "Where's Lina?" he turned back into the pines and I followed. It was hard to match his pace while performing the difficult eyesight balancing act of looking down for snakes and poison ivy while looking ahead to steal the first glimpse of what was making that foreign, forlorn noise. I tried to stay amongst the pines; closer to the creek progress was slowed by stream-fed weeds that have marched unchecked for decades.
The cries faded out as we drew closer. Dude dropped down the creek bank and Lina popped up downstream, just far enough away not to startle me but close enough to see she was fine. But it wasn't Lina that Dude was taking me to. It wasn't a kid. It wasn't a dog. It was a deer, old enough to have outgrown its dappled days, but still elegant and fragile as the neck of a swan.
Bambi's big sister was on her side, legs outstretched and motionless in the water. Her neck curled upward, allowing her tiny mouth to stretch out for air just at the stream's edge. She breathed steadily. It wasn't labored. Her black eyes showed a trace of fear; otherwise, I might've convinced myself she was reclining in the stream to shake the heat of this humid afternoon.
Dude went to her first, licking her ears and neck with what seemed like affection. Then he stretched out beside her and drank, between pants, from what I hoped wouldn't be her watery grave. Lina stayed on the bank, as ordered, as I approached. When I got close, all four legs twitched as if to gallop, but she didn't get up, she didn't get away.
I made for the truck, less careful this time, briars gripping and ripping my ankles as I ran up the hill. I had left my phone sitting on the dash. Her lifeline. But the wildlife commission simply told me to let nature take its course. And when I got back to the creek bed, it had.
With one hand I brought her back hoofs together and lifted her from the stream to keep the imminent decay from contaminating it. Blood stained her white underside as a pair of fresh wounds, unplugged when I lifted her off the sandy creek edge, flowed anew.
I'll never know what exactly happened. Was the deer injured in the chase? Had it already been hurt, and the dogs stumbled upon it after their earlier chase concluded? Was the deer in the clutches of a bobcat or panther, and Lina and Dude chased the cat off, causing it to abandon its prey? Not likely. The evidence suggests that Lina caught it and killed it, likely breaking its neck or severing its spine once she got her teeth dug in. I think I feel near equal parts pride and sorrow that I sleep with a killer.
* * *
On the ride home Silas asked me what that noise was.
"What do you mean, ‘that noise'?" I asked, playing dumb. I am sure I will never forget "that noise," and I am not surprised that he heard it too.
"That screaming noise from in the woods."
My first instinct was to tell him that it was probably just an animal who got lost from its mommy, and that its mommy would be back soon to save it. But that seemed like a rotten thing to tell a kid whose mom left him when he was twenty months old, so I told him the truth.