The dog sniffed at the gray objects. They were small, and smelled faintly like those abominable green creatures that he knew from his excursions through the swamps beyond the trees. He sniffed again, and heard a vague, primordial instinct whisper something in his ears, perhaps a warning. Or, maybe it was telling him to eat. He wasn’t sure. A cautious lick resolved the matter. There was nothing here to indicate that danger was afoot; nothing stirred beyond the creek, in the brush, where he’d heard the human sounds the day before and where he’d smelled the smells of death that spiked his hackles and, at once, sent him loping in retreat.
They were here, the scents of sudden, anguished death he’d smelled before. But they were older, less threatening, a memory, now wilting in the shadow of his hunger. Since his banishment from home a week ago, he’d subsisted on whatever he could find—a foolish chipmunk, sour berries, and a smoky stick of meat he’d burned his mouth on when he’d snatched it from a human’s backyard grill. Famine festered in his gut.
He had killed a noisy clucker at the farm. Big deal. And for that, he’d been evicted. Well, the clucker had deserved it. Cluck cluck, crow crow, cluck cluck, until the dog’s ears ached from the sound. Then the clucker would stop, only to start it all again at the next day’s dawn, when the dog was in the middle of his dreams chasing tasty little meals and warning human intruders and sampling the fur on the master’s cat, the cat that thought it was in charge of the house and, especially, the dog.
Cluck cluck! Crow crow! Cluck cluck! How’s a dog supposed to sleep with all that racket? Well, he can’t. So, he’d killed the feathered wretch. Master Bart had yelled a lot, mostly words he didn’t know, such as mongrel, cur, and fleabag. Then he’d chained him to the truck and dragged him miles through the woods, set him free, a bloody heap, and left him there. Well, he’d make it on his own. Dogs were strong. He would join a feral pack, choose a mate, and hunt the land. He would live on local deer, and the foxes, and the rabbits, and the cluckers when they ventured near the brush and clucked their foolish feathered hides into oblivion, an offering of folly to the nobler, smarter dog.
Master Bart. What a scum.
Overhead, water fled from heaven’s wrath, chased by shotguns in the sky, also arrows. But the arrows always missed, striking trees and sometimes poles before they reached him. He was safe. He could snack without concern upon the bits of stringy flesh that hung enticingly below.
Nature waltzed in perfect cadence with the wind. From his muzzle, water dribbled, giving drink to blades of orphaned yellow grass that looked beseechingly toward heaven and its storm, toward the god who hadn’t answered in a month despite their obvious distress but who was answering them now, albeit angrily.
He peered into the brush, pricking his ears against the clamor, senses heightened. Was that a sound? Something moving through the scrub? It was difficult to tell. Perhaps a tree limb had been struck, had split in two, and then had fallen through the tangles to the ground. Yes, a tree limb.
Just a limb.
He licked again, no longer cautious. Then a nibble, taking meat with practiced skill from where it hung from brittle paleness. It was fishy. No, not exactly fishy. Something different. Something … something very good. He nibbled more.
Stopping then, he raised his head. The wind was changing, turning forty-five degrees. No, fifty-five at least, to the north-northwest. Though the dog did not know numbers or the compass, he was mindful of the whims of woodland winds, a prerequisite for living to a ripe old canine age amid the perils of the woods. Bears were brawny, grouchy too, and they could bite and claw your stomach into pulp with little effort. And the humans—if they found you, they would chain you to their trucks and drag your hide across the ground until you bled and screamed for death.
With a sudden change of wind, new aromas would arise. And they did: first, a fox; then a clump of rabbit dung; and a patch of wildflowers that had weathered weeks of drought to raise their splendor to the sky. And …
Nose and hackles rose together. And he knew, in that microsecond moment, that he’d foolishly forgotten one direction when he’d scouted every trail, every clearing, every hollow in the undergrowth for threats. One direction. Only one. But, tactically, the most important. He had thoughtlessly forgotten, in the stupor of his famine, in that fog of blind resolve that sometimes comatizes thought, to occasionally check behind.
The dog whirled.
Then, the thought that kept arising in his mind was that he longed for iron chains. For the truck.
For Master Bart.