They slept. It had been a long day hiking, up and over and through, and so after the father and the daughter made camp at the edge of the Ouiska Chitto creek and cooked a can of beans to share and each drank from the bottle of Four Roses the father carried in his pack, they tucked into their sleeping bags and curled against the cool late evening, still not even fully night.
When they woke in the morning, it was to the sound of barking. The daughter rose first, hearing the call and response of two dogs in the tangle of woods at their back. She rose from her sleeping bag and looked across the misty creek. The bank spread out around their little camp for fifty feet before it gave way to the thick trees she and her father had come through the previous day. She stretched, lifted her leg to ease the morning cramp in her calf. “Dad,” she said, as the dogs barked again. It wasn’t an angry bark, not a warning to some animal. It was the holler of two dogs at play, and it made her smile, thinking of these animals here in the wilderness, finding joy in each other’s company. “Dad,” she said again, and finally he stirred, rose bleary from his sleeping bag.
They’d brought biscuits wrapped in wax paper, which they ate cold with strips of beef jerky. They’d brought no coffee, so they washed the food down with water from their canteens and a quick swig of the bourbon to fortify them for the day. All through their breakfast, they heard the dogs, and the daughter thought of her father’s favorite dog, a golden retriever he’d gotten when she was in kindergarten. He’d brought the dog, still a small puppy, to her school when he picked her up that day, and she remembered the way it made her feel to have all her friends and her teachers want to hold and pet the puppy. They’d had the dog all through her childhood, but it died the summer before she left for college, and in the years since, her father had not been able to bring himself to get a new one.
“I figured we’d follow the creek for a bit today,” the father said.
“Sounds good to me.”
They were rolling their sleeping bags and preparing to move out when the dogs emerged from the woods. The daughter had expected them to be disparately sized based on the two different barks, one a deep bellowing woof, the other a chirping trill, but they looked like siblings, two mid-sized mutts with similar black-and-tan markings and high, pointed ears that stood up straight as they bounded onto the banks of the creek.
The father and the daughter, in unison, began to call to them, to coo and baby-talk them closer, and the dogs did not hesitate. They came eagerly, allowed the father and the daughter to pet them, to feed them each a strip of jerky, and to examine their tags, which identified them as Pancho and Lefty, a joke the father found amusing. Each tag was etched with the same local telephone number.
“We should bring them with us,” the daughter said. “They must have gotten out. I bet their owner’s worried sick.”
“How’d they get this deep in the woods?” the father said. He was scratching Lefty behind the ears, and the dog panted appreciatively.
“OK, you two,” the girl said, lifting her pack. “Y’all are coming with us.”
They walked for a long hour along the bank of the creek. At times, the sandy expanse shriveled and shrank, and they had to wade through ankle-deep water or else weave in and out of the trees at the edge of the woods. The dogs trotted with them, stopping now and again to drink greedily from the slow-moving water. They’d fallen into a rhythm, the four of them, and the daughter began to wonder about keeping them, about what they could do with these two dogs who already felt like their own if the owner didn’t want them, if they hadn’t gotten out by mistake but had instead been let out purposefully. She fantasized briefly about going to the owner’s home and discovering that the dogs were being mistreated. She thought about the righteous indignation she would level at the man, but she shook herself from this reverie and felt immediately guilty for it, for wishing harm on these dogs so that she’d have a reason to keep them. Still, as they walked, she reached down occasionally and trailed her fingers along the dogs’ bristly fur and felt a rightness to the match. It felt like fate, the dogs finding them there and joining them so readily.
It was a squirrel that broke the peace. They’d reached a bend in the creek, the kind of jogging shift the father always called a dog-leg. The daughter was looking at the water. The father was looking at the sky. Neither saw the squirrel bolt out into the clearing, but Pancho saw it, and he leapt from beside them, darted out across the sand and into the tangle of woods without stopping. Lefty stood beside the daughter, scratched behind his ear.
“We have to go after him,” the daughter said. She called the dog’s name, trying to be loud without sounding frightened, trying to bellow so that her voice would carry.
“Into the woods?” the father said. “He might come back on his own.” He, too, called out for Pancho.
The daughter dropped to a crouch, fumbled in her bag until she came out with a length of knotted rope. When she was a child, the father had endlessly catalogued the necessities of hiking. He had been meticulous about it. Now the daughter always carried a length of rope, a good knife, water purification tabs, a first aid kit, and a handful of other odds and ends.
She unwound the rope, held Lefty by the collar, and led him to the edge of the clearing, where a river oak had fallen. She tied one end of the rope to Lefty’s collar and the other securely to a thick, sturdy branch.
Lefty whined. She patted his head, told him he was a good boy, that they’d be back. The father and the daughter walked into the woods.
There was no path for the daughter and the father to adhere to. The father would have liked to have had one, a stretch of cleared brush, even a narrow one, that they could use as a touchstone for their searching. Instead they tumbled through underbrush, freed themselves from tangled vines and the grabbing branches of small trees. They moved through all of this slowly, methodically, calling out to Pancho as they pushed in the general direction they believed he’d gone.
“He couldn’t have gotten far in all of this,” the daughter said, but the father wasn’t so sure.
The day was warming gradually. Above them in the canopy of trees, they heard the chatter and sing of birds at play. The daughter looked up and thought briefly of her mother. Many years ago, she’d come with them, had brought her thick Field Guide to North American Birds, and had tutored the daughter on birdwatching. Now, years later, her mother gone, she looked at the grouping of birds, coming together and breaking apart in the shadowy tree cover, and she said quietly, “A murmuration.”
In the distance, the daughter thought she could hear the scuffling of the dog, but she realized it could be anything making that noise. She looked at her father. He wiped at his forehead, where a branch or bramble had nicked him, smearing the blood as though it were sweat. He smiled when he realized she was watching him and said, “Just another father-daughter adventure” in a faux-cheerful voice.
The daughter smiled back, though the deeper they moved into the woods, the more guilt she felt for insisting they go after the dog. This was not how their hikes were supposed to go. She was just about to suggest they turn and go back when the tangle of trees lightened, space opened up between them, and they found themselves emerging into a small clearing.
Though the grass grew tall here, tangled with vines and weeds, there were no trees, and at the center of the open space was a little house of rough wood, long abandoned. The corner of the roof sloped low, beaten down from the years, and the windows were smudged with grime. The front door stood open, and from inside, they could hear the dog scuffling, rooting.
At the doorway, the father called out, “Hello?” He turned to the daughter. “Just in case someone actually lives here.” There was no response, and the daughter crossed the threshold.
Dust layered the sparse room they walked into. An old table and chair were coated. A tipped coat rack lay on the floor, its top gray from the dust, its bottom still the rich brown of its wood. The only disruption to the blanket of dust was the dog’s footprints, which ran the length of the room. “Pancho,” the daughter called quietly. She did not know why she was being quiet or why she was moving through the room slowly, with a kind of reverence, but she found herself trailing a slow finger across the table top, the near wall, as she moved to the little hallway.
The father found Pancho. In the back room, next to an old metal bedframe, a hole was broken out from the floorboards, and in the dark of the narrow crawl space below, the father could see the dog’s nose peeking into a small band of light. “Hey, buddy,” the father said, dropping beside the hole. “I found him.”
The daughter came into the room, knowing immediately that something was wrong. “Is he OK?”
“Oh sure,” the father said. “We just need to get him out of this hole.” He reached a hand down to coax the dog forward, closer to where he could reach down and lift him out, but the dog backed away, retreated into the crawl space.
“Let me try,” the daughter said. She took off her backpack and brought out the jerky. Dangling a piece above the hole, she called the dog’s name, spoke it with the same soothing whisper her mother had used when waking her for school each morning. She repeated the dog’s name over and over, wishing she could run a hand along his head, could ease him out with her words and with the physical connection, as well.
“I don’t think he’s coming out,” the father said. He stood, hands on hips. Many years before, his wife had called it his “engineer pose.” A tree fallen across the shed after a hurricane would lead to twenty minutes of the father standing in the yard, hands on hips, surveying and planning before moving to act. After a time, the father said, “Slide back.”
He dropped to the floor where the daughter had been, braced his hands against one of the floorboards, and began to pull. The wood was old, untreated and disintegrating, and the nails pulled free quickly. The father tugged upward until the board was prized free. The hole, larger now, revealed the edge of the dog. His head was still in shadow, but they could see his right side, and they began to understand.
The dog’s hind leg was swelling. On the haunch, two bright red puncture wounds oozed pink. “Snakebite,” the daughter said, and the father nodded.
The daughter began to tug more floorboards loose. The dog whined. “It’s all right, buddy,” the father said. “It’s OK.”
When the hole was large enough to reveal the whole dog, the daughter dropped in over her father’s warning. She reached down to the dog and lifted him gently. She had expected him to snap at her out of defensiveness, but he eyed her sadly, whined briefly, and acquiesced.
The father took him from her and laid him on the floor while she climbed from the hole. “Should we try to suck the venom?” the daughter said.
“It’s too late for that,” the father said, eyeing the inflammation.
“What do we do?”
The father did not answer at first. His mind uncoiled, the memory of a cold February morning rising up. He’d stood in a chill falling rain, phone in hand, trying to get the courage to call the daughter, to tell her that it was over, that her mother was gone. He’d been soaked by the time he made the phone call, and he remembered still the feel of the warm bath he drew, the way it tried without success to leach the shivering from him. “We can’t do anything for him,” the father said. “Maybe make him comfortable.”
Tears rolled down the daughter’s cheeks and dropped heavy to the dusty floor.
“Let’s get him on the bed,” the father said, not knowing why he hadn’t laid him there to begin with. Together they lifted him from the floor and laid him down. The daughter tried to give him water from her canteen, but the dog turned his nose. The father felt the length of the dog’s body.
They looked at the dog, and each of them tried not to think of the daughter’s mother and the father’s wife, lying sick, but they each failed, memories of her coming in the way they always did.
“Pancho,” the daughter said, after a time, resting her hand on his head. As she spoke his name, the dog breathed one final breath and died.
The daughter and the father walked their long path back to the banks of the Ouiska Chitto without speaking. The daughter thought of asking the father questions, the kind she would have asked as a little girl. She thought of holding to him, crying into his shirt, and asking, “But why?” Instead they walked in the quiet of the late morning, passing between them the bottle of Four Roses.
All around them the trees shushed with a low wind, their leaves speaking the news of the world, but the birds had all gone, and they saw no deer or squirrels or other animals.
They came back to the sandy shoreline and found Lefty, who sat panting and scratching, a grin spread across his face. The daughter went to him and untied the length of rope. He trotted around, pissed in the sand, barked once.
The father thought of how to tell the dog that his brother was gone. He dropped down beside him and ran his hands along the dog’s back, ruffling the fur the way his own dog, his now-dead retriever, had liked. The daughter dropped beside him, too. She scratched beneath his chin and lifted his head to look into his eyes, which were either happy or baleful.
The father and the daughter sat with Lefty a long while, thinking of what could be done, but when they finally came to understand that there was nothing left but to walk away from the Ouiska Chitto and out of the woods, they stood and tightened their packs and tied the length of rope around the other dog’s collar to lead him back and away and to whatever came next for each of them.