Her first high yelp was thin and clear as the air itself, its tenuous and diminishing echoes sounding out the coves and hollows, trebling to a high ring like the last fading note of a chime glass. He could hear the boy breathing in the darkness at his elbow, trying to breathe quietly, listening too hard. She sounded again, and he stood and touched the boy’s shoulder lightly. Let’s go, he said.
The strung-out ringing yelps came like riflefire. The boy was on his feet. Has she treed yet? he asked.
No. She’s jest hit it now. Then he added: She’s close though, hot. He started down the steep hummock on which they had been resting, through a maze of small pines whose polished needles thick on the ground made the descent a series of precarious slides from trunk to trunk, until they got to the gull at the bottom, a black slash in the earth beyond which he could see nothing although he knew there was a field there, pitched sharply down to the creek some hundred yards further on. He dropped into the gully, heard the beaded rush of sliding dirt as the boy followed, came up the other side, and started out through the field at a jog-trot, the heavy weeds popping and his corduroy setting up a rhythmic zip-zip as he ran.
The cottonwoods at the creek loomed up stark and pale out of the darkness; he crossed a low wreck of barbed wire, heard again the resonant creak of the rusty staples in the checked and split cedar post as the boy crossed behind him. They were in the woods above the creek then, rattling through the stiff frosted leaves.
Lady’s sharp trail-call still broke excitedly off to their right. They moved out under the dark trees, through a stand of young cedars gathered in a clearing, vespertine figures, rotund and druidical in their black solemnity. When the man reached the far side, the woods again, he stopped, and the boy caught up with him.
Which way is she going? He was trying not to sound winded.
The man paused for just a moment more. Then he said, Same way he is—motioning loosely with his hand. His back melted into the darkness again. The boy moved after him, keeping his feet high, following the sound of the brittle leaves. Their path angled down toward the creek, and he could hear at intervals the rush of water, high now after the rain, like the rumble of a distant freight passing.
Watch a log, the man called back to him. He jumped just in time, half stumbled over the windfall trunk, lost his balance, ricocheted off a sapling, went on, holding his head low, straining to see. Trees appeared, slid past with slow gravity before folding again into the murk beyond. They were climbing now, a long rise, and when he came over the crest he caught a glimpse of the figure ahead of him, framed darkly for an instant against the glaucous drop of sky. Below him he could make out the course of the creek. They dipped into a low saddle in the ridge, rose again, and the man was no longer there. He stopped and listened. Lady’s clear voice was joined by another, lower and less insistent. She was much closer now, quartering down, coming closer. He could follow her progress, listening between the explosions of his breath. Then she stopped.
There was a moment of silence; then the other dog yapped once. Sounds of brush crashing. Two wild yelps just off to his right and then a concussion of water. A low voice at his side said: He’s got her in the creek, come on. The man started down the side of the hill, the boy behind him, and out onto a small flat set in the final slope to the creek and dominated by a thick beech tree. Something was coming down from the ridge above them, and they halted. A long shadow swept past in a skitter of leaves and on toward the creek bank. There was one short chopped bark and then a splash. They followed, sidling down the slope and out along the bank where the water gathered a thin membranous light by which they could see, directed by frantic surging sounds and low intermittent growls, some suggestion of figures struggling there, and the new dog striking out in the water to join them. The fight moved down, out in deep water and under the shadow of the far bank. The snarls stopped, and there was only the desperate rending of water.
A light blinked through the trees to their right, went out, appeared again, bobbing, unattached and eerie in the blackness. They could hear the dry frosted crack of sticks and brush, muted voices. The light darted out, peered again suddenly down upon them, sweeping an arc along the edge of the creek.
Howdy, a voice said.
Yeah . . . that you, Marion?
Bring that light; they’re in the creek.
They came down the slope, four dismembered legs hobbling in the swatch of light as they descended.
Throw your light, Sylder said.
They came alongside, dispensing an aura of pipe-smoke and dog-hair. The shorter one was working the beam slowly over the creek.
Whereabouts? he said.
Down some. Howdy, Bill.
Howdy, the other said. In the glare emanating from the flashlight their breath was smoke-white, curling, clinging about their heads in a vaporous canopy. The oval of the flashbeam scudded down the glides against the far bank, passed, backed, came to rest on the combatants clinching in the icy water, the coon’s eyes glowing red pin points, his fur wetly bedraggled and his tail swaying in crestfallen buoyancy on the current. The big dog was circling him warily, trudging the water with wearying paws and failing enthusiasm. They could see Lady’s ear sticking out from under the coon’s front leg, and then her hindquarters bobbed up, surging through the face of the creek with a wild flash of tail and sinking back in a soundless swirl.
Cas swung the beam to shore, scrabbled up a handful of rock and handed the light to the other man. Hold it on him, he said. He scaled a rock at the coon. It cut a slow arc in the beam and pitched from sight with a muffled slurp. The big hound started for shore, and Lady’s tail had made another desperate appearance when the second rock, a flitting shadow, curving, flashed water under the coon’s face.
He turned loose and struck out downstream, stroking with the current. The big dog, on the other bank now, had set up a pitiful moaning sound, pacing, the man with the light calling to him in a hoarse and urgent voice, Hunt im up, boy, hunt im up. He turned to the men. He’s skeered of rocks, he explained.
Hush a minute, Sylder said, taking the light from him. Lady was already some thirty yards below them. When the light hit her, she turned her head back, and her eyes came pale orange, ears fanned out and floating, treading the water down before her with a tired and grim determination. She had her mouth turned up at the corners in a macabre and ludicrous grin as if to keep out the water.
Ho, gal, Sylder called. Ho, gal. They were moving down the creek too, raking through the brush. She’s fixin to drownd herself, someone said.
Ho, gal, Ho. . . .
He never even felt the water. He couldn’t hear them any more, hadn’t heard them call since he left them somewhere backup the creek, when he hit the bullbriers full tilt, not feeling them either, aware only of them pulling at his coat and legs like small hands trying to hold him. Then he was over the bank, feet reaching for something and finally skewing on the slick mud, catapulting him in a stifflegged parabola down and out into the water, arms flailing, but not falling yet, not until he had already stopped, teetering thigh-deep, and took a first step out into the current where he collapsed forward like a shot heron.
But he didn’t even feel it. When he came up again, he was in water past his waist, the soft creek floor squirming away beneath his feet as if he were walking the bodies of a colony of underwater creatures clustered there. He could see a little better now. There was no light on the bank, and he thought: I come down too far. And no voices, only the sounds of the creek chattering and running past all around him. Then he went in again, over his head this time, and came up treading water and with something pushing against his chest. He got his arms under it and Lady’s head came up, and her eyes rolled at him dumbly. He reached and got hold of her collar, the creek bottom coming up and sliding off under his feet, falling backwards now with the dog rolling over him and beginning to struggle, until his leg hit a rock, and he reached for it and steadied himself and rose again and began to flounder shoreward with the dog in tow.
They came with the light and Sylder looked at him huddled in the willows, still holding the dog. He didn’t say anything, just disappeared into the woods, returning in a few minutes with a pile of brush and dead limbs.
One of the men was kneeling with him and stroking the examining her. She looks all right, he said, don’t she, son?
He couldn’t get his mouth open, so he just nodded. He beyond cold now, paralyzed.
The other man said: Son, you goin to take your death. We better get you home fore you freeze settin right there.
He nodded again. He wanted to get up, but he couldn’t bear the rub of his clothes where he moved.
Sylder had the fire going by then, a great crackling sound as the dry brush took, orange light leaping among the trees. He could see him in silhouette moving about, feeding the flames.
Then he came back. He gathered the quivering hound up in one arm and motioned for the boy to follow. You come here, he said. And get them clothes off.
He got up then and labored stiffly after them.
Sylder put the hound by the fire and turned to the boy. Lemme have that coat, he said.
The boy peeled off the leaden mackinaw and handed it over to him. He passed it around the trunk of a sapling, gathered the ends up in his hands, and twisted what looked to be a gallon of water out of the loose wool. Then he hung it over a bush. When he looked back the boy was still standing there.
Get em off, he said.
He started pulling his clothes off, the man taking from him in turn shirt and trousers, socks and drawers, wringing them and hanging them over a pole propped on forks before the fire. When he was finished, he stood naked, white as a slug in the cup of firelight. Sylder took off his coat and threw it to him.
Put it on, he said. And get your ass over here in front of fire.
The two men were behind him in the woods; he could hear them crashing about, see the wink of their light. One of them came back toting a huge log and dropped it on the fire. A flurry of sparks ascended, flared, lost in the smoke pulling at the bare limbs overhead, returned, tracing their slow fall redly through the dark trees downwind.
He sat in a trampled matting of vines, the long coat just covering his buttocks. Sylder made a final adjustment to the pole and came over. He lit a cigarette and stood regarding him.
Kind of cool, ain’t it? he said.
The boy looked up at him. Cool enough, he said.
The clothes had begun to steam, looking like some esoteric game quartered and smoking on the spit.
Then he said, What’d you do with the coon?
Yeah. The coon.
Goddamn, the boy said, I never saw the coon.
Oh, Sylder said. But his voice was giving him away. Hell, I figured you’d of got the coon too.
Shoo, the boy said. Over his teeth the firelight rippled and danced.
The two men were warming their hands at the fire, the shorter one grinning good-naturedly at the boy. The other hound had appeared, hovering suddenly at the rim of light and snuffling at the steaming wool and then slouching past them with nervous indifference, the slack hound grace, to where Lady lay quietly, peering across her paws into the fire. He nosed at her, and she raised her head to look at him with her sad red eyes. He stood so for a minute, looking past her, then stepped neatly over her and melted silently into the black wickerwork of the brush. The other man moved over to her and reached down to pat her head. One ear was mangled and crusting with blood.
Coon’s hard on a Walker, he said. Walker’s got too much heart. Old Redbone like that—he motioned toward the blackness that encircled them—he’ll quit if it gets too rough. Little old Walker though—he addressed the dog now—she jest got too much heart, ain’t she?
When Sylder let him out of the car, his clothes were still wet. You better scoot in there fast, he told him. Your maw raise hell with you?
Naw, he said, she’ll be asleep.
Well, Sylder said. We’ll go again. You got to stay out of the creek, though. Here, I got to get on. My old lady’ll be standin straight up.
All right, we’ll see ye. He let the door fall.
Night, Sylder said. The car pulled away, trailing ropy plumes of smoke, the one red taillight bobbing. He turned toward the house, lightless and archaic among the crumbling oaks, crossed the frosted yard. His shadow swept upward to the lean-to roof, dangled from a limb, upward again, laced with branches, stood suddenly upon the roof. He slid downward over the eaves and disappeared in the black square of the gable window.