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The sheep barely stirred as the night breeze picked up. It was early, three-twenty-two a.m., and they slept unafraid, lulled into security by the presence of their guardian Border collies and the farmer’s house at the bottom of the hill. They were fat sheep, a herd of thirty strong, accustomed to all the sweet grass they could eat, a barn for shelter, piles of hay and corn thrown into their pasture in winter. The price paid in return was the loss of their wool once a year, a small price, indeed.
The collies also slept, their guard not once challenged in all of their time on duty. An occasional fox played fair game for entertainment but never proved a threat. It was a comfortable life for sheep and dog alike.
Tonight the full moon illuminated the pasture, deepening shadows within the thick stand of trees surrounding it. The farmer’s house and barn stood dark below where the sheep huddled together, their black faces disappearing into irregular mounds of grayish-cream wool trying to recover from the spring shearing. Occasionally an ear twitched or tiny hooves shuffled to regain balance, but otherwise, the breeze and flowing grasses were all that stirred on this quiet June night.
The oldest Border collie, Sadie, raised her head. Her younger companion still slept, but the hairs prickling on the back of her neck woke her. She never completely slept. She was seasoned, a real sheepherder before becoming so old her original master gave her away. Now she lived here, mostly as a pet, but her instincts had not left her. There was a tang on the air this night, and the scent prickled her graying muzzle. Not unpleasant entirely. But entirely wrong.
Sadie softly rose to her feet. She scanned the herd—her herd—painfully aware the night vision of her birth had retreated somewhat as the summers accumulated behind her. The sheep still slumbered in tight knots, their bodies knit like pulled wads of cotton. At the bottom of the hill below the pasture, the house, too, still slept, its paned eyes sightless coal squares in the white framework. Opposite the sheep on the other side, the tree line and a cluster of boulders walled in the pasture, a natural rock-and-timber border uninteresting to grazers of sweet Junetime grass. Nothing stirred there, or anywhere that the dog could tell. Sadie’s gaze dropped to Baxter, her younger companion. He remained curled nose to tail, puppylike and undisturbed. Perhaps she’d been mistaken. Sadie sniffed the breeze again. No. Something carried on the wind.
Sadie’s hair bristled, rising into a black-and-white ridge along the ruff of her neck. A low growl escaped through the beginnings of a snarl, a posture she had not taken since encountering a black bear many years ago. He had lumbered along the edge of another pasture she tended when barely older than Baxter. She ferociously barked and lunged at the heels of the large animal through the fencing, but her threats went barely noticed. The bear had not been interested in her or the sheep; he was after a blackberry patch a good two miles away and did not even turn to acknowledge the dog’s presence on his purposeful trek to those plump, ripe riches. Nevertheless, Sadie, trembling with a charge of fear and adrenaline, had trotted back to her unmolested herd, victorious. Her master of the time had arrived by then, gun in hand, to reward her with Good dog, good dog and a welcome pat on the head.
But this smell was not of the bear or any other animal Sadie had encountered in her fourteen years of guardianship, and the growl clearing her throat intensified. The noise roused Baxter; he stood beside her, suddenly alert. Both dogs lifted their heads into the breeze. Sadie took off at a trot across the grass, Baxter on her heels. She circled the herd, nose to the air, then the ground, then the air again in rhythm with her footfalls. Baxter emulated his senior, fighting the uneasy quaking of his juvenile heart. He smelled it now too, but it was alien to his limited experience. Breeding told the collie to wait, listen, discover, as the old dog did. But canine intuition pawed at a different level of breeding: survival instincts. Right now they were screaming run. Baxter ignored thousands of years of evolution and continued the purposeful exploration around the herd perimeter, only to run into the tail of his leader, who had abruptly stopped and faced the woods again.
Nothing moved along the bouldered tree line, but the smell uncoiled from that direction. It wafted on a steady stream toward the canine pair like a filmy oil, which clung to the hairs of their noses. Old rotting meat quarreled with their master’s chicken coop in their fine-tuned muzzles, but yet, it was neither scent. There was a dankness to it, like plowed dirt after a rain. Something ancient began to well within the elder Border collie as recognition slowly dawned. This was not a foreign stench after all. It was old, older than her breed, predating her farthest ancestors. An unexpected yearning diluted the dog’s concern—to leave her post and join the visitor, running free into the night, a pack of two beneath a cornflower moon. There was primal kinship here, but despite the sudden enlightenment, Sadie did not sense benevolence emanating from the strangeness in the forest. She sensed nothing at all except a scent that belied another’s camouflaged presence and a draw to it that caused fear and longing to wrestle side-by-side within her well-trained sheepherder’s brain.
The dog’s aging eyes once more swept the jagged silhouette of limbs and rock laced into a curtain of purple on black. The full moon overhead spotlighted her and her companion but revealed nothing. But what her eyes could not see, her nose told her well enough. She looked harder, breaking the search down into its parts starting ground up. Left to right, right to left, the grass, a tall stand of Queen Anne’s lace, the rocks large and small and larger still, the tree trunks…Sadie’s head whipped back to the left.
She saw it. The massive shape hunched, unmoving, on the edge of the woods. A boulder, she’d first thought, just like all the others clustered at the base of the trees, but with two sparks of light like pebbles afire, which had flared out of the rock, then died away as the intruder blinked or turned its head. It had been there the whole time, watching them. Baxter followed Sadie’s gaze. Orange eyes stared out of the boulders, two perfect pupils that blazed brighter before disappearing again. The woods were dark once more, but the hunched shape was still there, its outline barely discernible. Something was among them, and whatever its intentions, Baxter suddenly did not care. This was no fox or wandering house cat or lost neighbor’s dog come calling. This was not easy game or a night’s simple entertainment. The hair along Baxter’s back puffed out like porcupine quills, and his once proud tail melted between his hind legs. A tinny whine escaped him, then crescendoed into a piercing howl that broke the night. Behind the dogs, the sheep jolted awake. Confused, the animals lunged into each other, while their dog barked and howled at the trees. Sadie joined him then, adrenaline charging through her old veins. A sheep slammed into her side, twisting her haunches out from under her. A surprised yelp clipped her baying short, but she was up again and racing toward the tree line, unmindful of the blood streaming down her injured leg or the fact her once peaceful herd was now stampeding down the hill toward the barn, Baxter right behind them.
The house at the bottom of the hill snapped to life, first with a light in the upstairs of the house followed by the glare from the porch’s one bare bulb. A man stood beneath the dim glow, hastily buttoning his pants over the tails of his nightshirt. A big gun dangled from a strap over the man’s shoulder.
“Sadie! Baxter!” Andy Talbot came off the porch, squinting up the hill as his sheep came galloping toward him.
“What the heck?” The farmer stepped into the yard. The moon lit up the field in front of him, and he walked forward without a flashlight. The sheep huddled barnside now, crowded into the small adjoining paddock. Out from behind the frightened herd, something rushed toward the old man, and he attempted to unshoulder the gun, wrangling strap and barrel until it was free and pointed at his attacker. The shape emerged from the shadows into the light of moon and porch.
“Baxter! What are you doing down here, boy? What’s going on?” The dog heeled at the farmer’s feet. Andy laid a hand on the collie’s head. “You’re shaking like a quake, fella. Where’s Sadie? Sadie!”
He heard her, barking at the top of the hill. “Sadie! Sadie, come on down here, girl!”
The barking paused, then resumed louder than ever. Andy moved to shoulder the gun again, but the pitch of his dog’s voice advised him different. Better check it out, I reckon. Ain’t like her, ain’t like her a’tall. Andy skirted his sheep—none hurt, far as he could make out—and began trudging up the hill. The earth was pitted from the trampling of one hundred twenty panicked feet. Make that one-twenty-four. Andy looked back at Baxter, who remained within the circle of the porch light.
At the top of the hill, the farmer bent to catch his breath, his seventy-year-old heart complaining loudly in his chest. He pushed off his knees and straightened up, the gun clasped firmly in both fists. Sadie bounded back and forth a ways in front of him, close to the woods and raising the dead.
“Hey now, hey now, easy there. What do you see, Sadie?” Andy approached his irate dog much like sneaking up on a quail in the grass. She had yet to acknowledge him, and a nasty thought crept right along with Andy as he crept toward his beloved pet. Rabies. Sadie stopped barking and whipped around to face the farmer. Andy stopped and stood upright, the blood in his face running cold. Sadie’s lips were peeled back showing all tooth and an inch of gum. Foam dripped from her lower jowl, and her hind leg was wet, with urine or blood or something else, Andy could not tell.
“Sadie? It’s me, girl. Don’t you recognize me?” Andy held the gun like a protective bar out in front of him, but at the sound of his voice, Sadie’s expression relaxed. She ran to her master and barked up at him, then raced back to the edge of the woods, doing the same. Andy’s breath escaped in a loud whoosh—he hadn’t realized he’d been holding it when Sadie raced toward him. Both dogs had given him a scare tonight, and he was starting to feel like a foolish old man. Nevertheless, something had them all stirred up bigger than shoot, and he stared hard into the woods to try to see what. The forest revealed nothing he hadn’t seen for the past forty years: trees and rocks. Andy wished he’d brought that flashlight after all.
“A fox out looking for my chickens again, old girl?” Andy didn’t think so. His dogs would’ve chased a fox off without waking him or stampeding the herd. Especially Sadie, the smarter of the two. She didn’t go ape like this over foxes, and Baxter loved to chase them, not run away with his tail between his legs. This weren’t no ordinary behavior from his dogs; this was pure spooked.
Andy swallowed, but his throat had turned to desert. Grit clogged his gullet just over the rise of his bony Adam’s apple, and he coughed. His mind’s eye focused in on a newspaper lying open on the workbench back at the barn. He’d saved the paper, but Margie wouldn’t let him keep it in the house. Too morbid, his wife had said, as she tossed it out back onto the burn pile. Andy had snagged the front-page news out of the flames, then spread the charred print across the bench in his shop to read again and again. Clifford Hughes, their very own deliveryman and Margie’s cousin’s neighbor, the latest victim just one short month ago. In the woods. Torn to pieces. Definitely another animal attack. Just like all the others. Under a full moon.
The old farmer tilted his head back, his knobby chin pointing straight toward the sky, the moon a giant blue-yellow cheese wheel hanging just over his head. He swallowed again with no luck. Dry mouth, sweaty hands, you are an old fool. That’s what Margie would say. Andy tried to laugh, but he choked on the effort. The loaded gun did not feel reassuring in his hand. Not at all. Nothing moved in the trees, yet Sadie was still berserk.
Andy mustered his courage and walked toward the woods. The boulders drew closer, black figures in the dark. He held the gun at belly-level, but the barrel trembled. Standing before the frightening black forms, he hollered over top them: “Anybody there? Anybody out there? I got a gun, so you just get on out of this place, you hear me?”
Only the wind answered, swirling the grass around Andy’s ankles and rustling the leaves in the trees. Sadie ceased the relentless barking and jogged from boulder to boulder, sniffing each one from top to bottom before moving to the next. An unsettling whine scraped up her throat, raw and thin, as she traveled between the rocks.
A bright light shone behind Andy, cutting the forest all around. Andy turned to see Margie behind the wheel of their pickup, perched right where hilltop and hillside met.
“Get in this truck right now, you crazy old coot,” she yelled. Andy looked at his wife’s frightened face and didn’t argue. He turned as casually as he could muster casual and forced himself to walk all the way to the truck. Baxter hung out the passenger window but scootched to the middle of the seat when Andy got in.
“What’s up here, Andy? Did you run it off?”
“Nothing. Dog’s gone all peculiar over some rocks. Must be the full moon.”
“Yes, the full moon. Let’s get back inside.” Margie reached for the gearshift, but Andy stayed her hand.
“Wait a minute, Margie, where’d Sadie get to? She was just beside me. We got to get her.”
“What we got to get is to the house. Sadie knows her way.”
Andy leaned out the window and whistled. “Where the heck is she? Drive on up closer to those rocks.”
“We’re going to the house—”
“For Pete’s sake, woman, just drive on up to those rocks. I don’t want to leave her up here.”
Margie’s lips thinned, but she held her tongue and wrestled the long stick shift around in the floorboard. The gears grumbled, but with a final knock and a yank, Margie wrenched the Ford back into first gear. The truck lurched forward as her bedroom-slippered foot slid off the clutch.
“There… she is…I…see her,” Andy’s voice hiccupped with the bump of the truck across the field. Sadie still ran from one boulder to the other, nose to the ground.
Andy leaned out the window. “Come on, girl! Come on, Sadie, let’s go to the house!”
The Border collie stopped, and listened. She turned her head to her master calling just as a flash of movement barreled toward her from the other side.
Andy’s eyes widened as something large and burly ran toward his dog. “No!” he thought he yelled, but it was his wife’s terrified scream that jarred him. Andy grabbed for the shotgun, but Margie, with no trouble this time, slammed the truck in reverse, knocking the gun to the floor. The truck flew backward down the hill and away from the terrible howling that followed them.
(c) 2005,