Mid November in the January Hills, hunting ends at sundown. Shotgun season for deer wouldn’t begin for another two weeks, the shortest days and darkest nights of early December. Valerie and Jim drove their mismatched, rowdy pack of dogs into the hills where only the locals hunted, where no one was likely to mistake a pony-sized black and white Great Dane—much less a nine-pound Chihuahua—for a baggable bird.
The day was hurtling toward a 4:00 sunset, the time when the last of the hunters would be trudging out of the woods, guns over their shoulders, eyes still scanning the thickets for a last-chance shot in the fading light. Along Pratt Corner Road, they drove past a neighbor’s departing pickup, exchanging friendly nods with a man whose German Pointer was still pacing with excitement in a crate in back. The tops of the trees were burnished a metallic bronze by the unearthly glow of the departing sun, and the lower branches rapidly faded back into browns and grays.
Their four dogs barked and whined in spite of Valerie’s shushing as the familiar pull-off at the side of the road came into sight. She gave up and put her hands over her ears. Conversation was impossible, which was just as well. Jim needed his half hour transition from work brain to home brain. After 15 years of marriage, Valerie had learned that the dogs weren’t the only ones who needed to work the kinks out of their legs.
Although the possibility of running into hunters this late in the day seemed remote, Valerie put on her orange jacket with reflective tape and tied orange kerchiefs around the necks of all four dogs. Jim, having opted for comfort over caution, was wearing his faded red and black padded field shirt, a black knit hat and gloves. He sighed indulgently and submitted without protest as Valerie looped one of the orange kerchiefs around his arm. “One of the pack now,” he teased softly. “Absolutely,” she replied.
They started off at a trot, Jim soon far ahead. The dogs divided up, Hannibal looking elegant, as always, with his white chest, black coat, and four white paws, his long ears swinging right and left as he scouted the trail at the front. Elvis, the little generalissimo Chihuahua, dropped in at Jim’s heels. Valerie slowed to a walk at the first steep rise. Daisy and Cleo, the two old ladies, immediately took the opportunity to sniff, transfixed, rushing to catch up only to be distracted by another enticing scent. Daisy was Valerie’s constant shadow. She was a wirehaired Jack Russell with nine lives, hopelessly reckless in the face of danger. Cleo was a black and tan collie-shepherd mix with a gray muzzle, the opposite of Daisy in terms of guard dog duty. She would have handed the keys over to the first stranger willing to dole out a few scratches behind her ears.
When at last Valerie reached the decapitated pine that was a marker for them, the place where they reversed direction for the return trip, Jim was nowhere in sight. He’d gone a bit further on and she wondered if she should wait for him. The dogs both looked up at her, wagging their tails uncertainly. Daisy and Cleo preferred traveling with the whole group, believing there was safety in numbers. On the way back, they kept stopping and looking up the trail from where they’d come.
It took a second for Valerie to register the first gunshot, off to the right and followed by a second blast, even closer. She slowed and glanced over her shoulder toward where the shots had come. The dogs were at her heels, eyes and ears alert. Together they listened for Jim’s approach in the gathering dusk. A twig snapped underfoot and Valerie froze in place, her heart pounding. The woods had become completely silent. The only sounds were Daisy’s light, nervous panting and the blood singing in her own ears.
She sheltered beside a large boulder and squatted on her heels, zipping up her jacket then draping her arms over the shoulders of the dogs as they huddled around her. Daisy pressed her face into the crook of Valerie’s knee, trembling. Cleo faced away, her body rigid with attention with her ears pricked, as if willpower could overcome being stone deaf. A cartoon image came into Valerie’s mind of the three monkeys, as if this were all a joke. Daisy with her head buried could ‘see no evil.’ Cleo, nose up, scenting the air, could ‘hear no evil.’ And she was the most foolish monkey of all, hiding behind a big boulder, hand over her mouth. Something warned her not to call out. Who could tell what lay beyond the blackness overtaking the hills?
Daisy let out a sharp yip of fright as a deer burst from the undergrowth, changing course at the boulder, a streak of gray plunging away from them, eyes unseeing, no sign that it had noticed them at all. They watched the white of its tail mark each bounding leap before disappearing beyond the curve of the hill. Then the other dogs arrived, Elvis burrowing underneath, Hannibal leaning in as if he wished he were not quite so large and conspicuous. Valerie strained to see back up the trail, looking for Jim. If the dogs were with her, Jim could not be far behind.
The guns at the top of the hill started up again. Two shots each, two different directions. She heard the next deer long before she saw it crashing through the trees, first one way, then another before breaking free across the stretch of open field below. Valerie saw the glow of headlights, twin orbs of gray that stretched away forever into the night sky. Valerie and Jim hadn’t seen a car or truck at the trail entrance because the hunters had gone off-road, blocking a canyon. There was another single shot, another bullet that had found its target, Valerie thought. Deer really did freeze in headlights, and it was a low-life way to hunt. With the deer terrified, probably wounded, trapped by the steep walls and disoriented by the bright lights, it would have been like shooting fish in a barrel.
Time passed, there were no other sounds. The headlights dimmed and the sky darkened. Valerie huddled with the dogs for warmth. They waited. She closed her eyes and listened to the small noises of the night, frogs, a breath of wind rustling dry leaves, the shifts of movement of dogs who were teaching her patience, even now, when the dread of what might be threatened to seize her in its fearsome maw and swallow her whole. It was impossible to know what they thought or felt, these terribly spoiled dogs, these court jesters, impossible to live with, impossible to live without. Without dogs, Valerie and Jim would not be running up mountains late in the day, hiding out while some beer-drinking yahoos turned the woods into a shooting gallery. Valerie would be home figuring out something nice to make for dinner, not freezing and feeling this terrible weight, like a hand reaching in and squeezing her heart. She wouldn’t be waiting for such a very long time, envying the dogs their limited powers of conceptualization, or maybe it was just boundless optimism. Their experience, after all, was that things pretty much always worked out in the end. Their humans would leave the house, which took some getting used to in the beginning, but they always came back. And at least once a day they’d be invited to come along to some place with new smells, someplace to stretch their legs, someplace that reminded them that once, long ago, they had been wolves. There was no reason for them to think that their lives would ever be otherwise.
The dogs heard him first. They stood up and wagged their tails so hard their back legs were in danger of slipping out from under them. They waited until Jim was within speaking range, hearing their names spoken with a tone of voice that had gentle teasing, sentiments that corresponded to their own conclusions, that the world was right side up again, that it was time to go home.