Winter came late to Deep Meadow Bog the year Mr. Barnes took sick. December never really happened. There was Thanksgiving, followed by a continuation of fall: clear, crisp days tumbling one upon the other that heaped a barrier of sunshine and blue skies against the approaching solstice. And then to everyone's surprise, mine in particular, Christmas arrived without any snow or cold weather.
There had been winters like that before in Massachusetts but none within my memory.
January fooled us, too. It started off cold, temperatures down to the twenties and low teens, fierce flurries in the turbid air signaling that New England was at last whipping itself into shape. But the flurries didn't last. Snow sifted onto the ground in thin coats that gave the earth a haunted look, as if everything had withered and died. As if because there had been no winter there would be no spring, nothing would ever turn green again. And then even that little tease evaporated and was gone and the earth lay bare again, barer than before.
Jay Jay was off in Connecticut with an aunt and uncle. His mom and dad had packed him off, "Because," my grandmother explained, "they need to try and sort things out." He was supposed to be gone only a week. That was in November. By January it looked like I might never see my friend again.
November was bad luck for everyone that year. It was in November, shortly after Thanksgiving, that Mr. Barnes caught cold and took to his bed. My friends and I would visit Mr. Barnes after school on rainy days, when there was nothing else to do, to listen to his stories of the old days. Living alone, without the usual amenities of electricity and running water, had made Mr. Barnes garrulous and crotchety. You had to handle him just the right way or he'd fly into a dither and the whole visit might be ruined. Even so, his ancient house with its leprous shingles, sagging porch, and shrubbery gone wild was a sort of club house for us. A club house with Mr. Barnes as president.
The cold became a cough that settled into his chest and developed into pneumonia. On Christmas Day Mr. Barnes locked up his house, crawled into the cab of his 1936 Chevrolet pickup and drove off to the hospital. For Mr. Barnes to do that you knew he had to be sick. In January the truck was still there in the hospital parking lot where Mr. Barnes could, if he sat up in bed and leaned a little, see it from his second-story window. Twice a week Uncle Dom got the keys from Mr. Barnes and started the engine, driving around the block a couple times so the battery wouldn't go dead.
Every day after school I rode my bike to Mr. Barnes's house to feed Ticklebelly, who—evicted perforce from Mr. Barnes's cozy kitchen—had taken up quarters under the tool shed. That old cat looked thoroughly demoralized. He missed Mr. Barnes, and the heat from the woodburning stove that Mr. Barnes kept fired up at all times. He always came when I called—he was too old and arthritic to wander far—with his tail drooping and his fur all matted like a gray fox with mange. Even the notches in his ears, scars from a pugnacious past, looked rattier, though I don't suppose they really were. I would have taken him home with me—Grandmother wouldn't mind—but every cat we ever owned inevitably got run over on the street outside our house. Despite the cold and the feral dogs that roamed the swamp behind Mr. Barnes's property, Ticklebelly was better off underneath his tumble-down shed.
The worst part of Mr. Barnes's being in the hospital was that kids under thirteen weren't allowed to visit. The hospital staff were very strict in the enforcement of that regulation. It didn't seem fair, since most of Mr. Barnes's friends were under thirteen and he didn't get many visitors, just Uncle Dom and a couple of old men who knew him from the days when he worked on the cranberry bogs.
And then one day the two men who had known him from the old days were caught sneaking Mr. Barnes a pint of ginger flavored brandy. For that transgression they were banned entirely from his room. It seemed only fair that the hospital should now allow at least one of us kids to take their place—we promised not to try and sneak anything in—but the nurse wouldn't bend, so all we could do was gather in the parking lot to wave at Mr. Barnes as he looked out the window at us standing next to his pickup.
In those days bog men worked six days a week, except during harvest when they worked all seven. With Jay Jay off in another state and Mr. Barnes cooped up in the hospital, the weekends were sometimes kind of long.
"You can help Charlie Perkins clear brush," Uncle Dom said one Saturday morning when I had persuaded him to take me along to Deep Meadow Bog. Unlike the other men who worked for Uncle Dom—drifters mostly, or drunkards, or even fugitives from the law—Charlie was a permanent fixture at Deep Meadow Bog, able to work at just about anything to do with growing cranberries. "Just be sure you stay clear of the saw and look out for falling trees."
Charlie slid the chain saw off the bed of the rack truck while I scrambled up the sideboards to retrieve the gas can from up front. He unscrewed the cap and sniffed the can to make sure it contained the right mixture of gas and oil.
"Best take that ax along, too." With the saw in one hand and the gas can in the other he set off into the woods with me in tow, ax over my shoulder like Paul Bunyon eager to chop down a forest or two.
From somewhere deep within the swamp a dog began to bark. Charlie stiffened. He stood and listened, tall and angular, ears bulging like radar disks below his red woodsman's cap.
"Must be them wild dogs they been talking about."
Charlie had a prominent Adam's apple. When he spoke, it bobbled like a cork on a fishline.
"They been raising heck all over town. Attacked a couple of sheep last week."
"Uncle Dom says there's ten or twelve of 'em running in packs," I said.
"I seen 'em last summer," Charlie said. "Only at the time I didn't know they was dangerous. Five or six heading across a dike. They's two kinds. One kind is all black, the other kind is all yellow. That comes from inbreeding."
He took out a blue bandanna and blew his nose, sounding a Klaxon louder than a factory whistle. "Well, I guess when they hear this chain saw they'll stay clear of us. Best keep that ax handy, though."
When he reached the spot where he'd left off the day before, Charlie set the saw on the ground and lit up a cigarette. Resting on its side with its broad, flat blade angled upward, the chain saw looked like a duck-billed platypus. It did, at least, to me. When I mentioned the likeness to Charlie he looked at me kind of funny, then said, "Let's hope it don't lay no eggs."
We were at the very margin of the swamp, near an inlet of Deep Meadow Bog where briars and brambles and small trees had crept down to the ditch and now threatened to cross over and invade the cranberry vines. To keep weeds from spreading and insects from breeding, as well as to permit air circulation, which would help prevent frost in spring and fall—for all these reasons the swamp had to be cut back from the edge of the bog periodically, every eight or nine years.
Charlie sat on a stump and smoked, contemplating the swath he had hewn. He had been cutting brush now for about a week. A strip fifty feet deep followed the contours of the bog, cleared of all vegetation except for a few spared trees: six or seven hollies, the females bejeweled with bright red berries (making up, in part, for the somber season, the lack of snow); a lone cedar, home of half a dozen boisterous sparrows; and a clump of paper birch, their bark so white you could peel it off, stretch it over the ground, pretend it was the first snowfall of the year.
Mounds of neatly piled brush alternated with stacks of trimmed saplings. Later—ideally when there was snow on the ground, if it ever did snow that year—Charlie would burn the brush. (If it was on a Saturday I would be allowed to help.) The saplings he would saw into stove-length pieces to be burned by Uncle Dom on frost nights, or by the men when they repaired boxes in the screen house. The first truckload, though, would be for Mr. Barnes, for when he came home from the hospital. Mr. Barnes would not be able to burn the wood that winter—it was too green and had to be seasoned—but it would save him from worrying about next year's supply.
I never doubted that Mr. Barnes would get well. He was a tough old man, too tough to be felled by pneumonia. He had fought in World War I, had survived the Great Depression, had eaten snapping turtle. Like the swamp—like Deep Meadow Bog itself—Mr. Barnes was elemental. A part of What Was.
Charlie finished his cigarette, squeezed the butt into the damp soil, then rose from the stump to begin work. We could hear the dog barking, closer now, shrill frenetic yips wolflike in their intensity.
"Must have something treed," Charlie said. "A possum or a raccoon. Or a woodchuck cornered away from its den. I seen a woodchuck do a tune on a dog's nose once. Cut it all to heck. Don't never mess with a woodchuck. They's got razor sharp teeth."
"Don't they hibernate in winter?"
"As a rule. But a winter like this, they sometimes come out."
He propped the saw against the stump, spat on his hands and grabbed hold of the starter cord. Jabbing the air with his elbow he jerked the saw into life. He squeezed the trigger a couple of times to warm the saw up before tackling a clump of maples.
Charlie worked quickly, slicing through trees like a butcher trimming off fat. The buzz of the saw drowned out all other sound. I wondered if the noise would scare the dog off, or merely cause it to pause a moment, cock an ear in our direction before returning to its prey. I wondered whether it was one of the black kind, or one of the yellow. Then I got busy lugging bushes and limbs that Charlie had cut and hacking at bullbriars with the ax so that the chain saw wouldn't tangle and do a flip flop into Charlie's face, and forgot about the dog.
After a while Charlie killed the engine and sat on the stump to rest and smoke another cigarette. I lounged nearby on a pile of saplings and munched on a cookie. A blue haze hung over the woods, tainting the air with the acrid odor of the saw's exhaust. Despite the cold, beads of perspiration formed on Charlie's brow. Joining in tiny rivulets, they trickled into his eyes and over his nose. He yanked out the bandanna and swabbed away the sweat.
"Don't hear that dog no more," he said. "Must have given up. Or else caught whatever it was after." He puffed contentedly a moment or two, then added, "Too bad about them dogs getting out of hand. Bad enough when they kill wildlife. But when they start attacking livestock you can bet the next step is people. First thing you know they'll be mauling some kid or old lady. You wait and see."
Even with wild dogs in the offing it felt peaceful there at the edge of the swamp. I sure did wish it would snow, though.
I looked at the sky. Not too promising. A robin's egg blue, the wrong color for January, with just a scattering of clouds to the south, low and brooding, like those two old men sulking in a corner for not being allowed to visit Mr. Barnes in his hospital room.
We were just getting ready to resume work, Charlie gassing up the saw while I polished off another cookie, when we saw it: a yellow smear against the backdrop of leafless trees. It just stood there at the edge of the swamp, looking at us.
"Female," Charlie said. "Teats swollen with milk. Must have a litter somewheres."
Flank parallel to the swamp, she held motionless, blending in with the woods. If she had been black instead of yellow, we might never have spotted her.
"She doesn't look wild," I whispered.
Her coat was sleek. She didn't have that starved look you'd expect a feral dog to have. Hunting must have been good that winter, with no snow and mild temperatures. I knew from what I'd heard that the pack regularly raided trash cans and stole food left out for pets. And that they'd taken to attacking domestic animals, killing cats and other dogs. There had been articles about them in the New Bedford Standard-Times.
She was beautiful, though—an amalgam of collie, lab, shepherd, a dash of hound or setter, and maybe a dozen other breeds. Stories I'd heard of coyotes and wolves mating with wild dogs to create a new species came to mind.
"Could've been her we heard," Charlie said softly.
I knew what he was referring to, not the barking we'd heard that morning. Of course that was her, prey at bay, seeking the food she needed to produce milk for her pups. No, Charlie was referring to the night that past spring when we'd heard strange whooping sounds deep in the swamp, the night we saw King Philip's ghost.
It had been Charlie who had told me about the great Wampanoag chief, how he'd led an uprising against the English invaders and how the English cut off his head and stuck it on a pole. The night we saw his ghost there had been a killer frost and I'd ridden with Charlie to start the pumps because he was too scared of the dark to go it alone. As we swung around the last curve of the dirt track leading to the pump house, a spectral figure sprang out from the brush—leaped toward us—then vanished into nothingness.
When we told Uncle Dom about the incident the next day, he laughed and said it must have been an optical illusion, the reflection of the pickup's lights on the aluminum siding of the pump house.
But Charlie and I know what we saw.
And now, even though I knew it wasn't a dog that made that sound—it was most likely a red fox—I shared the feeling that prompted Charlie to say it. For that feral dog seemed to bring the wilderness into focus, to gather around her all the mystique of what the land had once been, before it had been burned and slashed and trampled under.
And I knew that if civilization suddenly ended, if all the people vanished from the face of the earth, the dogs would survive, would be there to greet the wolves as they trekked down from the north.
And then she was gone. Simply turned into the woods and disappeared.
Charlie waited a moment then said, "Ain't likely the rest of the pack would be around. She'd have her litter off by herself."
Even so, he kept glancing around him as he worked, peering over his shoulder so often I felt certain one of us would fall victim to the saw or a felled tree. But somehow, we made it through the day unscathed.
Sunday began with overcast skies and a faint promise of snow. A mass of heavy clouds hung overhead like a soggy mattress. If only it were a mattress, with stuffing the winds would buffet and tear apart, scatter in a blizzard of furious white.
Lugging brush all day Saturday had tuckered me out, so I slept late. After dinner I hopped on my bike and headed across town, so bundled up—in knitted cap and scarf, thick woolen coat, two pairs of pants, galoshes—I felt like Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. It wasn't that cold. But Grandmother had heard me sneeze that morning, therefore the scarf and second pair of pants.
The sodden skies cast a gray pall over the earth like sheets draped over furniture in a vacant house. A deep mat of leaves filled the ruts of the dirt road that led to Mr. Barnes's house. Other years the repeated passage of the 1936 Chevrolet truck would have scattered the leaves or ground them under. But this year I was the only person using the road, so the leaves piled up, like so many pieces of paper left by the wind, messages no one could read.
Mr. Barnes's house stood alone in the woods, bleak and forlorn. I missed the friendly curl of smoke from the chimney, the pungency of burning wood. I missed, too, the glow of the oil lamp that Mr. Barnes would light up to dispel the gloom of late afternoon.
I leaned the bike against the side of the tool shed. It was a toss-up which supported which; the shack was so dilapidated, woozy on its foundation, the bike might well be doing the supporting. I removed a paper bag from the wire basket, and called, "Here Ticklebelly! Here kitty, kitty."
I waited for him to emerge from the underbrush the way he usually did, tail erect (with the expectation of chow) and mouthing a voiceless greeting. But after five minutes, having called several times without success, I dug into the bag and took out a can of cat food.
I clanged the can opener against the side of the can like a dinner gong. "Chow's ready. Come and get it!"
It worked in the movies when Gabby Hayes did it. Hearing the gong, the cowhands would stop dead in their tracks to brush the dust from their chaperjos before heading in toward the chuck wagon.
And it worked for me. "Tex" Ticklebelly poked his head from beneath the tool shed—where he'd been ensconced all along—and opened his mouth, this time in a real meow. I expected him to rub against my leg. Instead, he kept himself half hidden under the shed, ears flat against his head as if pinned to his neck.
"What's the matter, old fellow?"
I removed his saucer from the bag, poured milk from a pint bottle and placed it on the ground. He hesitated. I reached down and stroked his fur. Meowing, he squeezed from the crawl space, sniffed at the quiet air, then came over and lapped the milk.
He was skittish, though, the way Charlie Perkins had been that night of frost on Deep Meadow Bog when we saw King Philip's ghost. He started at the slightest sound, cringed, ready to dash for the hole under the shed. He was making me nervous, just as Charlie had. Crazy coot of a cat was making me believe the place was haunted.
Could have been. Mr. Barnes could have died just then, his ghost fleeing the hospital to come back to take possession of the house.
But if that had been the case—if Mr. Barnes had died (and I didn't believe for one moment that he had)—but if he had, why should Ticklebelly be afraid? Alive or dead, Mr. Barnes loved that cat. And Ticklebelly knew it.
No. Something else was spooking him. Something from the swamp?
I pried the lid from the can and scooped the contents into Ticklebelly's dish. Phew! It was smelly stuff, pure caviar, the way he gulped it down. As a rule he liked to nibble at his food, take a few bites, leave it, return to it later like a lion to the kill. Not today. Today he ate it the way a dog would, competitively, to beat the clock.
While he ate I went to the hand pump. Like Mr. Barnes, who seldom needed priming (save for a shot of what he termed "lubricant"), the pump was always ready to pour forth. It never froze up, even on the coldest days.
I filled Ticklebelly's water dish, a piece of carnival glass from the Great Depression. Mr. Barnes once told me he had picked the dish up as a promotional give away at the old State Theater in New Bedford, "Back in the Thirties, when I went twice a week to the moving picture show."
Even in the dim light of that January afternoon the dish shone iridescent, like an oil slick on a puddle after it rains. It had a talismanic feel, an aura, to it. If I rubbed it against my sleeve, might some of the magic—magic of that mythic time when, long before I was born, Mr. Barnes sat enthralled in the spell of the cinema— be bestowed upon me?
And maybe my thoughts were confused, as Grandmother insisted they had been when, later, I tried to explain what happened then. But I did rub the dish, gently, as I set it down near the tool shed within easy reach of Ticklebelly, where the rays of the morning sun would strike it and melt the ice that formed at night.
I rubbed the dish, just for luck. And that's when they burst forth from the woods, three of them, fur bristling, fangs bared—like wolves, in the days when there had been wolves on Cape Cod.
They went straight for Ticklebelly.
Seeing—or hearing—them an instant before I did, he was already on the run, less than six feet from the tool shed but cut off by the foremost dog, a fierce black brute with jaws like a mastiff's. Ticklebelly angled to the right, momentarily thwarting the black dog but placing himself directly in the path of the other two.
All three closed in forming a circle with Ticklebelly in the center.
It was taking place so fast I didn't have time to think. I groped around for a weapon, something to swing or throw at them. If only I had my ax, which had given me courage the night Monteej challenged the frost god Geada. But I didn't have an ax, I had only my hands, so I threw myself into the melee, foolishly, not out of courage but out of desperation because I didn't want to see Ticklebelly torn apart.
Distracted, the dogs paused just long enough to permit Ticklebelly to bound free of the circle. One of the dogs—yellow, just like the dog Charlie and I had seen the day before except this one was male—lunged after him too late, snapping at empty air as Ticklebelly scooted under the shed.
Ticklebelly was safe. But what about me? What if the dogs decided boy was an acceptable substitute for cat?
And that's the conclusion one of them came to: the black dog, the one that looked like the Hound of the Baskervilles.
Maybe The Hound of the Baskervilles was the movie Mr. Barnes had seen the night he received the carnival glass dish. And maybe Grandmother was right, maybe I did have too vivid an imagination.
But what happened next was no figment.
Growling, it sprang at me. The dogs had been silent until then. I suppose that's how actual wolves attack; no need to growl when the whole pack closes in for the kill. Instinctively I threw up my arm, and that's what saved me.
That, and the thick clothing Grandmother had insisted I wear.
Fangs sank through the fabric into my arm as the force of the assault knocked me off my feet. As I hit the ground I struck out with my left hand, which only made the dog more vicious.
We rolled over a couple of times, the dog locked tight like a moray eel, me kicking and flailing. My head struck something hard, dazing me, but not enough to prevent me from reaching behind with my free hand to dislodge a piece of wood from Mr. Barnes's fuel supply and slam it against the dog's skull.
With a yelp the dog let go. I swung again, missed, then scrambled to my feet, ready to take on a whole swampful of rampaging canines. But the other two dogs had slunk off, indifferent, or cowed by some racial memory of man as friend. The attacking dog backed off with a snarl, turned, and loped off into the woods.
Grandmother was in a dither.
"You've got to do something about those dogs," she said to Uncle Dom, after she had put a plaster on my head and tended to the bruises on my arm. "He could have been badly mauled or even killed."
"That's what Charlie predicted," I piped in. "He said they'd go from attacking livestock to attacking people. We saw one yesterday when we were clearing brush on Deep Meadow Bog."
"See," Grandmother said. "They're everywhere."
"They keep mostly to the swamp," Uncle Dom said. "But you're right, they've gotten out of hand. The Town, at least the dogcatcher, can't seem to control them. I'll call the Chief of Police tomorrow. One way or another we'll get rid of them."
"How?" I asked. "You gonna trap 'em?"
Uncle Dom shook his head. "Shoot them. It's the quickest, and in the end, the most humane way."
"Can I come?" I asked eagerly.
"Humph," Grandmother said, squelching that notion.
Next day after school she drove me in her car to Mr. Barnes's house. Our tires crunched over the matted leaves, a reminder to Nature that the juggernaut of civilization was advancing.
She parked as close to the tool shed as possible. Ticklebelly, looking like a woodchuck prematurely seeking its shadow, poked his head out—I doubt he had left his hiding place in the past twenty-four hours—and we fed him without incident.
"I wish Mr. Barnes would hurry up and get better," I said on the way home. "Poor old Ticklebelly might as well be locked up in a cage."
"Mr. Barnes will get better in due time," Grandmother replied. "In the meantime that cat is lucky he has someone to look after him."
By the end of the week Uncle Dom, with permission from the Chief of Police and the help of two of his bog crew, had killed eleven feral dogs.
"I think we got them all," he said to Grandmother Friday evening at supper. Turning to me he added, "This morning we shot that yellow female you and Charlie spotted last week." He shook his head. "I'm glad it's over. I don't like shooting dogs, feral or otherwise."
"It had to be done," Grandmother said.
"Tomorrow, can I go help Charlie clear brush again?"
"If it doesn't snow," Uncle Dom promised. "Looks like we might get the first real snowfall of the year, if you can believe the weather reports."
When I snuggled under the covers that night, drawing the quilt up to my chin and closing my eyes, it was with the anticipatory pleasure of waking to snow in the morning and—double treat—helping Charlie clear brush or, if it really snowed, burn the piles he'd already cut. We'd heap branches and twigs on old rubber tires soaked in kerosene, strike a match, and whoof! create a bonfire visible for miles around, so magnificent that even the ghost of King Philip would desert his haunts to come and dance, headless, around it, thinking it an English settlement he himself had set afire back in 1675.
But as I drifted into sleep a sharp rapping at the window jounced me from my dreams. I woke with a start. Jay Jay! Home from Connecticut.
I flung aside the covers and dashed for the window. Lifting the shade, I peered through the pane into the black wall of night.
Suddenly a face loomed before me, a gangling, gawking countenance that bore no resemblance to my friend Jay Jay. I stood frozen in the dark, too scared to move.
Nose pressed against the glass like a fish in a tank, the face stared in, and then I recognized who it was: of all people, Charlie Perkins.
"Charlie!" I raised the window halfway. Icy air streamed in. Something wet flitted against my cheek. A snow flake. It was snowing!
"I need your help," Charlie whispered.
"My help? For what?"
Charlie gulped, like an iguana swallowing a fly. "Get dressed. I'll explain outside."
"It's real important. A matter of life and death." He began to draw back. "I'll meet you out front."
I started to protest but he was gone, like an apparition I might have seen, or only imagined. I stood shivering, then closed the window and pulled down the shade. So far as I knew Charlie Perkins wasn't crazy, even if he sometimes acted like he was. But I did know for a fact that he was scared of the dark. So for him to venture forth in the dead of winter, on a moonless night with nary a star twinkling above, there had to be a compelling reason.
I dressed warm, in essentially the same outfit I wore the day the feral dogs attacked, including two pairs of pants and galoshes.
I considered leaving a note on the kitchen table, just in case I didn't make it home by morning, but thought better of it. With luck, even if the adventure lasted until after dawn, I might still be able to sneak back in without Grandmother or Uncle Dom suspecting I'd ever left.
Charlie's beat-up sedan was parked out front, a film of snow forming over it, ghostly on the dark street except for the hood, where the heat from the engine melted the flakes as they landed. Dented fenders gave it a haunted look, fugitive from a graveyard of wrecked cars.
But oh, it was snowing! Great white moths, shavings from a bar of Ivory soap, floating down to earth with a feather's touch.
I ran into the street, head tilted back, and let the flakes drift into my open mouth. I saw a toad do that once, one summer on Deep Meadow Bog after a prolonged drought: hop out from under a rock, head angled to the sky, to gulp in the droplets of a passing shower. Such a comical sight that had been, that squat toad slaking its thirst like a fat Buddha. I suppose I looked funny, too, all bundled up toadlike, gaping at the midnight sky. But I couldn't resist. It was snowing, the first snowfall of the year.
Charlie started the engine and I ran around to the passenger side and hopped in.
As he pulled away from the curb he said, "I searched all day, best I could. Course I had to keep busy so as your Uncle Dom wouldn't suspect nothing, but every chance I got I looked. I didn't find 'em but I got a pretty good idea as to where they might be."
Charlie took a corner, slow because of the slick pavement, then turned and stared at me.
"Them puppies. Your Uncle Dom shot that yellow bitch this morning."
I stared back. I had forgotten about the puppies.
Misinterpreting my stare, Charlie gulped. I could sense if not actually see his face turn red.
"Bitch ain't a bad word when you're talking about a female dog."
I told him I knew that.
"Without their mother them puppies will die."
"But Charlie, we're not even sure she had puppies."
"Course she had puppies! You seen the condition she was in."
He swung off the main road onto the dirt track that led through the swamp to Deep Meadow Bog.
"We can't leave 'em out there all alone to starve or freeze to death."
The snow was falling harder now, the flakes smaller, a sign that the storm would last. It was warm in the car, Charlie had the heater on full blast, but outside the wind was picking up. You could see the tips of overhanging branches begin to sway, as if nudged by the force of our headlights as we pushed through the night. Snowflakes swarmed toward us like insects drawn to a lantern.
Charlie, we'll never find them, I wanted to shout out. There are as many places in the swamp where they might be hidden as there are flakes of snow pelting this car. But I kept quiet, as much for my sake as for Charlie's. I wanted to find the puppies, too.
Suddenly the road debouched into the clearing where the old screen house stood like a baronial ruin on the knoll overlooking Deep Meadow Bog. As we crested the knoll the beam from our car swung out across the bog, a lighthouse beacon probing the storm-tossed Atlantic. That it was only a cranberry bog and not an ocean made no difference at that moment. The immensity was the same.
It was me and Captain Charlie Ahab versus the universe.
No direct route led to the spot where we first saw the feral dog. We could skirt the bog on either side, or follow a network of dikes that zigzagged across the bog itself. Even in broad daylight, in good weather, the dikes were risky. Narrow. If you didn't keep to the exact center, you could slide off into a ditch. A truck driver did that once with a load of cranberries. It took two wreckers half a day to pull the truck onto solid ground again.
We made it across. By sheer bravado, or luck, or maybe just because Charlie was a skilled driver who knew Deep Meadow Bog better than anyone else, including Uncle Dom.
He parked at the edge of the swath of cleared ground, aiming the car homeward. Though so far less than half an inch had accumulated, there was no telling how deep the snow would be when we were ready to leave.
"Here." Charlie thrust a flashlight into my hand.
He reached into the glove compartment and grabbed another for himself. I slid out of the car into the storm, letting the wind whip the snow into my face, and played the beam over the mounds of brush Charlie had stacked so neatly at regular intervals. Coated with snow, they looked like midden heaps left by a long-forgotten tribe, or barrows on an ancient burial ground.
It was very quiet there at the edge of the swamp, the only sound the occasional creaking of bare branches rubbed together by the wind. If it hadn't been for the wind, and that infrequent grating of bark against bark, I might have thought I was standing on the brink of a remote world, far away in space and time.
"The only place I figure they can be where I ain't looked is that rise of high ground back there," Charlie said, directing his flashlight toward a part of the swamp that was still virgin, had never been cleared, as pristine now as on the day King Philip's father, Massasoit, greeted the Pilgrims.
"We'd best keep together. This ain't no night for one of us to get lost."
He led the way across the open, cautiously, on the lookout for stumps and tangled briars. As I walked behind him the light from my flashlight bounced off an object he carried in his left hand: the ax we used when clearing brush.
Charlie would have said he brought the ax with him in case we needed to cut a path. And maybe that was true. But I think he carried it for the same reason I would have, as protection against the night.
"It makes sense she would have put 'em on high ground," Charlie said, his voice trailing off into the wind.
The land dipped before rising. Pools of standing water, frozen now, made walking easier, though in some places vegetation grew thick, forcing us to pick our way around brambles and clumps of trees.
We spent hours in that swamp, tramping up and down, while the snow fell and grew deeper. Charlie didn't say much after a few faint mumblings, just plodded along, around in circles for all I knew, playing the beam of his flashlight over every square inch of ground, or over the same square inch a million times.
It was in a crevice eroded from the base of an outcropping of glacial rock that we found them. Charlie walked right on past, he was in a daze by then, and I suppose it was only a miracle that I stumbled almost on top of them.
"Charlie!" I shouted.
He turned abruptly and piled his light on top of mine.
They lay in a huddle, protected by an overhanging ledge from the snow. But not from the cold.
"They're dead," Charlie said.
He knelt in the snow and picked one up. The little body was frozen stiff. He picked them all up, one by one. There were seven altogether, all dead, all but the last one. The last one was still alive, protected from the cold by the bodies of its brothers and sisters. It squirmed in Charlie's hands and nipped feebly at his fingers.
"Quick. We gotta get him to the car. They's warm milk in a Thermos in the trunk."
He unzipped his jacket and bundled the puppy against his chest. I grabbed the ax and Charlie's flashlight and somehow, under the guidance of whatever deity watches over fools and young kids, picked out a path through the snow.
Charlie started the engine to get the heater going, then got the Thermos from the trunk and, using a sponge, dripped milk into the puppy's mouth. When the puppy had fed and fallen asleep Charlie put the car into gear and started for home. We slipped and slid and stalled a half dozen times but we made it before dawn, in time for me to sneak back into the house and crawl into bed.
And that's how we saved the puppy. It was yellow, just like its mother, and wild at first. But after a few weeks of Charlie's tender care it tamed and grew into a domestic dog. Charlie took it to work with him during the day, keeping it in a warm box in the car, and let it sleep with him at night.
It turned out to be a female, which was okay, because Charlie eventually had it spayed. There would be no more feral dogs, the wolves would not return, not yet. But there was always something of the swamp in Charlie's dog, something untamed, of the wilderness, and that was okay, too.