by Gerri Leen
Jed watched the woman sitting on the riverbank with two yellow dogs panting at her feet— dogs big enough to feed him and what was left of the three families that lived on Eagle Mountain after the sickness took so many. He watched her for a spell, trying to get a feel for what she was doing wandering in these parts, but she just sat there with the dogs, so he got ready to make his move. It wasn’t in him to be a thief, but times weren’t what they’d once been.
“I know you’re there.” She didn’t turn around as she spoke, and the dogs barely reacted as he stepped from the bushes. She sighed and petted one of them. “There’s just no hope for you two.”
“Oh. Well, I’m not joking when I say I’m going to have to take the dogs.”
“I suppose you think you’re going to eat them?”
“I suppose I do.” He lifted his knife, not wanting to threaten her, but not sure what else to do.
She could come with him, could eat, too, even though she was a stranger and they normally didn’t welcome strangers. But either way, he was going to take those dogs — his friends needed the food, them and the little ones still living.
He tightened his grip on the knife. “I don’t see as how you have much choice.”
“Well, you’re half right. You don’t see.” She whistled, and he heard growling to his left.
And then to his right.
He turned to check out the dog on his left. Medium size. Not a type he’d think to fear, but its teeth were bared and it was growling.
“The one on your other side is even meaner.” She pushed herself up, snapped her fingers at the two by her feet. “I really don’t like that you were gonna steal my dogs.”
“I was gonna let you share.”
“Mighty generous of you. Still and all, I think I’ll pass.” She walked away, the two dogs following close behind. The two on either side of him didn’t move, just growled some more and he chanced a look at the other one. Big. Black. Pointy ears.
Devil dogs, his mama used to call them. It looked like it was ready to attack him if the woman just whistled again.
“Come on, boys.” Another whistle, then a low, throaty laugh, and the two dogs ran after her, disappearing into the trees.
His stomach growled, reminding him he was hungry, that folks back at the compound were even hungrier, that the woods were hunted out and the crops were long gone. He thought of how good those two yellow dogs would have tasted.
“Put it out of your mind,” he said, the way his pa would have if he was still alive and not felled by the sickness that had left only one person standing for every nine killed. The fever had made people panic, the shortages that came once it hit turned a bad situation worse. Things were a mess still. The government was concentrating on the places that generated food— places that were useful to them. And Jed’s place didn’t qualify.
But it was home. And somewhere there had to be a bunny or a bird with his name on it. He just had to find it.
Jed threw the wood he’d chopped into the back of his truck, then heard a snap behind him and knew without looking back that it was her, that woman. “You gonna sic your devil dog on me?”
“Hadn’t planned on it. Should I revise my strategy?” She walked out with a big curly coated dog prancing by her side.
“Got yourself a show dog this time?”
“She’s more than a show dog.”
“Is she now?” He noticed the dog’s brown coat was almost the same color as the woman’s hair, which was a pretty damn silly thing to notice, and he could feel his cheeks redden. The woman didn’t seem to notice, thankfully. “Your grand new dog got a name?”
“Yep.” But she didn’t cough that info up.
“Fine. Forget her. You got a name?”
“Hmm.” He went back to chopping. He wouldn’t have figured her for a Sally. She seemed harder than that.
Sally bent to pick up the wood. He was about to protest at her stealing his firewood, but she just tossed it into the bed of his truck. She was helping him?
She glanced at him. “Did I miss the part when you said what your name is?”
“Nope.” He grinned at her sudden laugh. “Name’s Jed.”
“Well, nice to meet you Jed. I’m new in these parts.”
“Do tell.” He studied her. “You and your dogs.”
“Yep.” She patted the dog she had with her.
Sally leaned back against the truck, and the dog sat at her side, staring at Jed.
“She’s looking at me like she wants to take a bite.”
“She’s hoping you’ll throw one of those.”
He saw that she did seem to be eyeing the sticks with a look that was more wistful than angry. “Really?”
Sally nodded and, with a word, released the dog from the sit position. “Her name is Lark.”
“Well, okay, Lark. Go get it.” He hucked the stick as far as he could.
“Nice throw.” She eyed the ax in his hand. “So you got me alone now. Any nefarious plans— like stealing my dog for your dinner?”
“I’m not really a man for making big plans. Besides you have a nasty habit of showing up with more dogs than I expect.” He went back to chopping just as Lark came running up with the stick in her mouth. She dropped it into his hands, and he noticed there wasn’t a single tooth mark.
“She’s not a retriever,” Sally said, “but she has a real soft mouth.”
He threw the stick again, watched as Lark dashed across the clearing to get it. When she came back, Sally whistled and the dog headed to her, dropping the stick into her hands.
Sally tossed it into the truck and made a hand signal that brought Lark to heel. “You want to go hunting some day, I’d be amiable. She needs a test.”
“And you don’t have a gun?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you never have one on you.”
She reached behind her, pulled a pistol out. “Don’t make stupid assumptions, Jed.” She turned and walked away, leaving him feeling like an idiot.
He was sitting at the river, rifle over his knees when Sally showed up. “You’re a hard woman to find.”
“I don’t roost.”
“Yeah, I sort of figured that.” He’d resorted to sticking a message onto a tree that seemed central to where he’d seen her.
She had Lark with her. And one of the yellow dogs from the first day.
She patted the dog. “This is Marty.”
“Where are you getting all these dogs?”
“Here and there. I find them in my travels, train the ones I can, kill the ones that have gone bad.”
“So you do eat them?”
“Not my meal of choice.”
Marty came over and rolled at his feet, and Jed reached down to scratch his belly. “Didn’t warn you when I tried to sneak up on you. Big old goofball from the look of it. Wouldn’t this one be more useful as food?”
“Someday things are going to be better. And we’ll want dogs that do more than attack. We’ll want the nice ones, too.” She snapped her fingers and Marty was up in a flash and sitting in front of her. “And this one may never be a watchdog of any merit, but he’s turning into a hell of a bird dog.”
At least Marty looked like he should be a bird dog. Lark on the other hand… “You sure about her?” He nodded at Lark, who seemed to be grinning at him. “She doesn’t look like a gun dog.”
“Strange times, my friend. Strange times.” She bent down and let Lark lick her face. “Necessity is a mother.”
“That it is.” He lifted his rifle. “You said you wanted a test?”
“Yes, I did.” She nodded upriver. “Saw some birds up there a few days ago. Pheasant, I think.”
“You don’t know?”
She laughed. “I know dogs, not birds.”
“Fair enough. Lead on.”
They walked, the two dogs ranging out ahead of them.
He watched her making her way through the woods. She was good at it, moved efficiently, like the woods were a place she wasn’t a stranger. “So how come you know dogs so well?”
“Used to work with them. Different kinds of training.” She took a deep breath. “I’ve had cause to be thankful for the dogs. Not everyone is as decent as you.”
“How far have you traveled?”
“Too far. Not far enough.”
He glanced at her; she seemed a million miles away. “And you just found the dogs?”
“People dump them when they run out of food for them.”
“They should eat them.”
“They can’t. They’re their pets. Not everyone’s as pragmatic as folks up here.” She pointed at Marty. “He was starving when I found him.”
It was hard to imagine. The dog looked sleek now. And he was prancing a little.
There was a meadow ahead, and Jed stared out at it, seeing what he’d seen for months: big lot of grass with no wildlife.
Sally did more of her hand signals and Lark sat down. A few more signals sent Marty ahead.
“I thought this was to test Lark?”
Marty ran across the field, working it the way generations of his breed had probably done. Suddenly, he flushed a bird, not big enough to be a pheasant.
Jed shot it anyway, and Marty brought it back, dropping a wood dove into Sally’s waiting hand. She patted him and sent Lark out.
“You think there’s anything left?”
“Dunno. But you need more to eat, don’t you?”
He did. The crops were finally starting to come in, but people were still hungry.
“What about you? Don’t you need to eat?”
“I figured you could share. Isn’t that what you said at our first meeting?”
“I believe that was the deal.” He saw Lark stop and begin to bark.
“She’s not so good at this part.” Sally made a sharp “ssss” sound, and Lark took off like she was attacking someone.
A big bird flew up; startling Jed and making him nearly miss the shot. But he didn’t.
This time it was a pheasant, and Lark brought it back and dropped it when he told her.
She was prancing around, barking excitedly.
“She likes you.” Sally smiled at him, then called the dogs and started to head off into the woods.
“What about dinner?”
“I’ll take a rain check. I’m set for now.”
“Okay,” he said, hefting the birds over his shoulder and walking off. But he found himself a little disappointed that she wouldn’t be joining them.
He saw a trail of smoke, followed it until he found Sally sitting in a thicket, blanket unrolled and big brown dog laying on it. She was stroking the dog’s head, and it tried to get up when he came into view, but she kept it down. For a dog its size, it didn’t seem to be fighting her very hard.
“Yeah.” She glanced up at him. “Found him a week ago.”
“Around here?” He hadn’t seen her for several weeks.
“Nope.” She didn’t fill in the blanks.
He looked around, saw that the rest of the dogs were scattered all around.
“So, you saved another one.”
“And I had to shoot one. It had gone wild, gotten mean. Although maybe it just had rabies.” It sounded like she really wanted to believe that.
“You okay for ammo?”
She looked up at him in surprise.
“It’s just . . . well, that’s not something a dog can flush out for you.”
“I’m okay. I trade the game they help me find for bullets.” With a wink, she went back to the dog.
The devil dog moved over to lie down at her feet and put its head on its front paws, looking very vigilant, despite the relaxed pose. Which was a good thing— it worried Jed a little that Sally just roamed the way she did.
“I have plenty of room at my place, Sally. To sleep, I mean, if you want to get out of the woods.”
“I’m fine. I grew up in the woods.”
“Me, too. But that doesn’t mean I want to sleep in them if there’s a house nearby.”
“People get nervous now around dogs. It’s just easier to be out here.”
“Easier, maybe. But lonely, right?”
She looked at the dogs. “I’ve got them.”
“Last I checked, they don’t make much conversation.”
“Conversation’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“Well then, how about a game of checkers? I’ve yet to see a hound master that.”
She laughed. “I’m fine.”
“If you’re so fine, why’d you let me see your fire? You’re not usually that obvious.”
Her grin was very sweet. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Right.” He sat down, and Lark lay down next to him with her head on his knee. “She’s a good girl.”
“Promise me you won’t eat her and you can have her.”
She nodded. “But promise me.”
He let his hand run over Lark’s rough coat. “I promise.”
“She’s an Airedale. They’re good guard dogs, too. And she can drag things through open ground if you rig up a travois. I’ll teach you the commands I use.”
He frowned. “Sounds like you’re fixin’ to leave.”
“I am. It’s time to move on.”
“Oh.” He felt a strange feeling in his gut. “You could stay.”
“I could. But I need to get going. I’ve been here long enough.”
“More dogs to save?”
“I’m not sure I’m the one saving them.” She met his eyes, and he was surprised to see tears in hers. “I think they’re saving me.”
He wondered again what had happened to her. “Well, I think there’s some mutual saving going on, Sal.”
“Nobody’s called me that in a long time.”
He met her eyes. “You’re always welcome here. Whenever you need somewhere to roost for a spell.”
He nodded and wasn’t sure what else to say. So they just sat in silence, surrounded by the dogs.
Lark was acting up, bringing a stick to him and bumping him with it. “Girl, I have to get this chopping done. Winter’s coming and we got to keep warm.”
She barked, dropping the stick suddenly and stared off into the woods.
She sat. He’d learned from Sally the commands he needed, had come up with some of his own, too, since she’d gone away in the fall.
He heard barking, began to smile, felt his smile break into a broad grin as Marty came flying out of the trees running right up to Lark, barking and play-bowing like a puppy. More dogs than he’d ever seen in one place came tearing out of the woods, and Sally was following them.
Her grin was as wide as his. “Hi.”
“Well, hi, stranger.” He gestured to the dogs. “I see you found more.”
“Yep. Went as far as I could and still . . .”
“And still . . .?”
“And still get back here before winter set in.”
He tried to dial down his grin, but it was impossible. “Did you now?”
“Could have kept going south. But I was worried for Lark.”
The dog, sleek and happy, was rolling at Marty’s feet. “Yeah, she needed worrying about.”
“I can see that.” She moved closer. “Some of my dogs are real shy. Scared of men. Sort of want them to get used to just one first. So . . . you’ll do.”
“In a pinch.”
They both laughed and stood smiling at each other like cussed fools. Finally, he said, “Lot of folks are jealous of Lark’s knack of flushing birds. Think you can train up a few more?”
“You vouch they won’t end up in a stewpot?”
“I’ll consider it, then.” She put down her pack. “Plenty of time till spring.”
He could tell the wander lust would take her before then. But she was smart enough not to head into the woods in the dead of winter.
She seemed to be assessing him. “I like to roam.”
“I know.” He reached out and touched her hair. “But roaming doesn’t have to mean straying— you could always find your way back.”
“Yeah.” She laid her hand over his, pressed it against her cheek. “I bet I could.”
Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. She has a collection of short stories, Life Without Crows, out from Hadley Rille Books, and over fifty stories and poems published in such places as: She Nailed a Stake Through His Head, Sword and Sorceress XXIII, Dia de los Muertos, Return to Luna, Sniplits, Triangulation: Dark Glass, Sails & Sorcery, and Paper Crow. She also is editing an anthology of speculative fiction and poetry from Hadley Rille Books that will benefit homeless animals.
Visit http://www.gerrileen.com to see what else she’s been up to.