They lounged at the rim of the pond across the road from my mail box, three of them in a small friendly pack that had made that place their own. In the first few days they were here, I only saw them at the pond or alongside the dirt road. They were half grown, headed toward big dog adulthood, one with a whitish face and the markings of a German Shepherd, the other two some combination of hound, maybe some shepherd.
They watched me drive by with the hopeful curiosity of dogs who recently knew a home. There had been people, regular food, a few words now and then. Now there was nothing and they didn’t know what to do about it.
One morning a week or so later, agitated barking by my dogs brought me outside to discover the strays had moved further up in the woods. They sat about sixty feet from my house, watching the deer that always move through that section of forest at that time of day. Maybe they recognized the scent of deer from some primal instinct that spelled out ‘food.’ Maybe they were attracted to the smells and sounds of my fenced yard, where scraps might be thrown out, where my well-fed animals come and go in comfort. I didn’t see them chasing deer, but I didn’t try to watch.
Better to not see, not know, I’ve learned from experience, what animals go through once they’ve been dumped.
Don Miller called a few days later, early in the morning like he does on the rare occasions when he needs to talk to me about something. Stray dogs had been chasing his cattle in the pasture he leases next to my land. He had asked around. Nobody claimed them.
“We could try to catch them,” I said. “Take them down to the animal shelter.”
“Tried that. They won’t come to me.”
He was planning to shoot them. I said I wouldn’t want to try, since I only had my .22 with bullets so small that even a perfect shot might leave an animal alive for hours, bleeding, suffering. He said he knew his aim and his shotgun would bring them down quick. He planned to do it the next morning.
I never heard the gunshots, but then, I tried not to. The dogs weren’t there on the lip of the pond or at the edge of the road when I left for town. I felt relief that I didn’t have to worry about them anymore, didn’t have to think about how hungry they were or whether they had been hit by a passing car.
But several days later, I saw one of them pacing along the perimeter of my yard fence. It was the one with German Shepherd markings, his whitish face staring at me through the wire. I had put a pan of leftovers for my dogs out in the yard and he had picked up the smell. He ran at the sight of me. At the far end, he came to a weedy rise and then I saw his companion, another one of the original trio. When the companion tried to join with his white-faced friend, both of them skinny and tantalized by the smell of the leftovers, he hobbled along, unable to move one of his back legs. They disappeared into the woods.
What had happened to Don Miller’s dead eye aim with a shotgun? It wasn’t hard to guess the scene: managed to kill one, shot at the second one and injured it, and missed the third altogether. It had been days. The two survivors had been hiding out, maybe stealing food from the neighbors’ dogs.
Then I didn’t see them anymore. More days passed. One morning as I pulled out of the driveway, there was white face, sitting at the edge of the road. There was no sign of his crippled companion. He watched me pass by.
How could he forget the people who had once been his family? This must have been the spot where they had left him and his friends. How long would he come back here, waiting, hoping?
Last night, I heard the wild dogs in the canyon. I’ve heard their long piercing howls before, some years more than others. Some say they’ve mingled with the native Red Wolf that used to hunt this land during the time of the Native Americans. I never see the wild dogs but I hear them. They come close in the winter. On some long cold nights their howls seem just outside my fence.
Last night, there was one howl and it was close. There was something about it, something that held meaning. It caught my attention and I went out to stand on the porch. I didn’t hear it again after that. But I think White Face found them. I think they welcomed him, as long as he behaved respectfully, took his place in their established hierarchy. After all, they’ve known for a long time where to find water, when to kill deer, how to find rabbit nests and eggs on the ground.
He’s proven himself, I guess, after all these weeks since his human family threw him out, left him and his brothers to die on some back road far enough out of town that they didn’t have to worry about looking up one day to see that their Lassies had ‘come home.’
Maybe they thought that out here, dog food grows on every stalk of blackberry vine and somehow the seeds ticks of July won’t stick to their pet. Maybe they didn’t wonder about the cold of winter, when ice covers the ground for days and even the ponds are frozen. Maybe they assumed that country people like me don’t have enough dogs of our own and are just sitting out here waiting for more dogs to appear on our roads so we can take them in, pet them, feed them, and let them sleep on the floor by our beds when the wind blows at five degrees.
Or maybe they didn’t think at all. In all the years, all the dogs and cats that have been left at the roadside on this mountain, I’ve never been able to understand, to assign any rational process to the phenomena of dumping animals. I’ve made a few wishes, though, like the morning when Don Miller planned to load his shotgun, when I stayed in the shower a little longer than usual so I would miss the sound of the blasts, the dying howls.
I wish that the minds and the hides of the people who leave them were unavoidably linked to the minds and hides of the dogs, so that every pellet of buckshot, every hot burning injury bleeding out life, crippling to a long lingering death in the bitter cold of winter, that every moment of hunger and terror and longing known by those dogs would be known by the people, felt in every moment, every waking hour, every dream, until they could no longer bear the pain and they too would have to track half-starved down to the canyon, seek out the wild ones, and beg for a home.