The dogs are gone.
First Murdoch strikes out over the softening snow, leaving the trail behind and weaving in amongst the new growth poplar trees standing shoulder to shoulder in great ranks, marching up the slight incline and over the undulating land. Molly follows close behind. I wonder if they have smelled something because Molly doesn’t stop when I call her, as she often does, turning her head, then her body to leap back over her footprints in the snow to return to my side.
I watch them skip together into the white-trunked forest of saplings and I don’t mind right away that they don’t return. I listen for sounds of them perhaps following parallel to our regular trail, the trail where I continue to walk. I am sure they will burst from the new growth tangle some way along and join me on our trail through the older, decaying forest. So I walk a bit, stop and listen, then walk a bit more.
It is not quite silent in the woods, though the sounds of bird wings and their cheerful voices are close by there are no layers of sound today. There is what is right here and then there is nothing. I can’t hear the dogs at all I can’t hear them running through the snow or their collars clinking in the distance.
And then there is a bark, a bark that sounds plaintive? Antagonistic? Alarmed? I can’t tell, but it is in the opposite direction from where I am headed. I hesitate for a moment before I turn and run back along my trail, following its twists and turns. I call the dogs but I hear nothing else.
I get to the spot where they left the trail and skipped through the shrinking unblemished snow. I follow their tracks into the stand of cramped poplars, using my hands to push aside tiny trunks as I pass. I see the trail ahead veers to the left, back towards the house on the hill which is not too far away, not for two fast dogs, but is also not so close.
I hear another bark like the one before, call for Murdoch because I know it is his voice, and then I hear a man’s voice yelling angrily “Hey! You get out of here.” And a beat and then, “Get out of here, the both of you.”
Oh crap, I think standing in the woods, my heart in my throat. Do I yell out? Do I follow this trail? Do I go back to my trail and head up towards that house from the back of our own forest?
I turn and run back to the trail, follow it back towards where our woods begin. I think again about striking out into the forest of poplars, taking more of a straight route, but it is not an easy route, overgrown like it is, it is a stumbling, tripping route that I would be blindly taking unsure of where I might be spit out, stumbling into this man’s back yard disheveled and unprepared to both chastise and defend my dogs. So I stick to the trail, the suddenly overly twisting trail that takes me away from where I want to go before turning again in the right direction.
I just pray that Murdoch is not being the jerk he can be, that Molly is not being the airhead she can be. I pray I do not hear a gunshot, because even though it is a stretch it is not unheard of for people to shoot nuisance dogs and I don’t really know the man who only sometimes lives in the house on the hill.
I break into my woods and round a corner, jog partway along the trail and then stop and listen. I can hear something coming through the woods, it sounds like a running dog. I think I can hear panting as well.
When Murdoch appears ahead on the trail running for home, relief flits across my heart but it is a flat relief, squashed by an overriding sense of disappointment and it is gone just as quickly when I see Molly is not with him. Murdoch runs up to me with an air of relief himself thinly disguised as cockiness at having “found” me again.
I am silent as I turn to take him to the house when I hear another set of running paws and I turn in the opposite direction to see Molly coming along the trail from where I had just jogged, leaping her joyful leap, wearing her ears in a jaunty kind of way.
I barely say a word as I start again down the trail to the house, the dogs fall in behind me and I wonder if they have any concept of being in trouble, of having done something bad, but our dogs are no strangers to the house on the hill. There is a dog who lives there too sometimes and our dogs have at different times, played with him, antagonized him, eaten his food. I have taken that dog food to replace what my dogs have stolen and sometimes we have seen him at a distance walking in our woods.
I put Murdoch and Molly in the outdoor kennel we built a couple of years ago, where they hang out on days that are too nice to be indoors for long stretches. I stand outside the gate leaning on it with one hand as the dogs stare back at me with bright eyes, eagerly waiting for me to restart the walk because there is still so much to do, and I listen for the sounds of someone stomping through the woods, perhaps having followed the dogs to see where they went.
Should I go up there? I wonder. See what my dogs were doing? See if they were bothering the other dog? See if I can at least apologize. But there have been stories too about the man who sometimes lives in that house, and although I am mostly skeptical about such stories told about people being unreasonable, being aggressive even, because there are always more variables than one story can tell, today I do not feel so confident.
So I leave the dogs in their kennel and go inside and think about our next walk, which will be on leash and probably stressful and frustrating. And I think about how some days can be so disappointing.