Somewhere out in the night a dog was barking, breaking through the fragile barrier of my sleep.
No, that was wrong. Multiple dogs were barking, and most of them were mine. Inside the house and outside and across the Jonquil Lane, several canine voices joined in a discordant canine chorus loud enough to wake the dead, or at least Camille and Gilbert, my nearest neighbors. I didn’t have to worry about my husband, Crane, who was out of town on sheriff’s business.
But I did have to worry. No dog creates an uproar in the middle of the night without a reason.
I turned toward the beam of moonlight that fell across the bed, closing my eyes against the sudden brightness as I turned on the night stand lamp, and reached for my charging cell phone. It was almost midnight. Lucky for everyone concerned, tomorrow was Saturday and I didn’t have to go to school.
Sliding into my slippers, I crossed to the door just as it opened. Candy, my tricolor collie, launched herself at me and grabbed the edge of my long nightgown in her mouth.
Come! Hurry! A dog’s body language is easy to interpret.
Turning on lights, I followed her downstairs to the kitchen where the clamor originated. Halley, Gemmy, and Sky were prancing around the side door, all three collies in alarm mode. Candy plowed through their ranks and nudged the doorknob with her nose.
“No,” I said. “Wait!”
Anything could be out there. Anyone. And Raven, the rare black and white collie who accepted our food but refused to sleep in the house, was howling.
A light winked on in a second story window of the yellow Victorian across Jonquil Lane. The noise had awakened Camille and Gilbert then. Their dogs, Twister and Holly, were barking too.
I could hear Crane’s voice as clearly as if he were in the room with me. Strange how he never really left the house. “Don’t go outside after dark, Jennet. You don’t know who or what might be out there.”
Woods and a lonely cluster of unfinished houses that beckoned to homeless man and animal alike. The recently sighted bobcat that had escaped from a wealthy man’s preserve up north. The feral dogs set free by a misguided animal activist. A few of them had been captured and taken to animal shelters, but the pack was still large enough to pose a real threat to the denizens of Foxglove Corners.
And Raven was outside in the whimsical Victorian doghouse that Crane had built for her. Once wild herself, she would be no match for the pack if it decided to tear her apart.
I opened the door, stepped outside, and closed it again quickly, but not before Candy slipped through the opening.
A brilliant moon flooded the landscape with light, creating grotesque shadows amid the leafless trees. Frost and late fall winds had left the acreage surrounding our green Victorian farmhouse withered and bleak. The sky seemed close enough to touch, and a thick night silence gripped the land.
Nothing stirred. No one was there, and the dogs’ barking had subsided to a low rumble.
Wagging her tail, Raven braced her forepaws on the black wrought iron fence that Crane had erected around her house. It was purely ornamental, never intended to keep Raven in or any woodland creature out.
Raven had a jet black and white coat, without the tan markings that make the tricolor collie so striking. She was a throwback, a seldom seen bi-black, and she was mine.
I leaned over to stroke her head. “What’s wrong, Raven?”
Her howl ended in a plaintive yelp. All the dogs had fallen silent. Candy stood frozen at my side, her gaze focused skyward.
A bird of prey, I thought. Or Brent Fowler and his latest date flying over Foxglove Corners in his hot air balloon. It would be like Brent to add an extravagant touch to his romantic repertoire.
“Go back to sleep, Raven,” I said. “Candy, come.”
Neither collie moved. I reached for Candy’s collar, then remembered that I always removed the dogs’ collars at night. That brief memory lapse was the result of being yanked out of a sound sleep.
“But if you have to go outside for some reason, take a gun with you.”
It was Crane’s voice again.
I’d forgotten the gun and even Mace, not to mention my robe. With the crisis, whatever it had been, over, I realized I was cold.
“Okay.” Occasionally, I liked to call Candy’s bluff. “No dog in the house.”
She sprang into action and reached the door ahead of me.
I only hoped I wouldn’t lie awake the rest of the night.
My friend and aunt by marriage, Camille Ferguson, gave the teapot one last stir and poured our tea. She’d arranged a batch of orange muffins in a basket on the table and cut an apple-cinnamon coffeecake into thin slices.
Camille wore a yellow gingham apron over a white wool dress and looked as fresh as the morning sunshine. Twister, the black Belgian shepherd, and Holly, the collie, were stationed in the doorway, both of them bright-eyed and quite literally bushy-tailed.
I envied them. In spite of the light streaming through the cobalt bottles on the windowsill and the crisp blue and white kitchen, I was drooping. After our nocturnal non-adventure outside, I hadn’t fallen asleep until four-thirty in the morning.
Something had been out there, prowling around in the dark. I just hadn’t seen it.
“Whatever got the dogs all riled up last night?” Camille asked. “Gilbert was going to investigate, then they stopped barking. I hope it wasn’t the bobcat,” she added.
I tried to hide a yawn. “I couldn’t see anything, but I don’t think a wild cat would slink away because I came outside.”
Camille shivered. “It was looking for a tasty dinner. Too bad Crane wasn’t home to protect you.”
I broke a muffin in half and spied the orange peel inside. Good! My favorite. “That’s one of the advantages of having a husband, but nothing ever happens when Crane is home. It wouldn’t dare.”
Before my marriage to a deputy sheriff, I had lived alone in the country with my one collie, Halley, for company and protection. The woods had held the same dangers then, and I’d managed to deal with whatever came my way. Now, with four collies on perpetual guard and access to Crane’s gun collection, not to mention my own gun, I felt confident that I could take care of myself.
“I’m glad we’re not spending the winter in the south,” Camille said. “Gilbert enjoys his job at the university more than he misses his Tennessee home.”
“I’m glad too. I missed you last year.”
Camille gave her dogs two homemade biscuits and took a sip of tea. “English Breakfast. My, that’s good.” She paused and transferred a slice of coffeecake to her plate. “Jennet, I’ve been meaning to talk to you. A friend of mine, Barbara Bennett, has a problem, and I haven’t been able to help her. I think maybe you could.”
“I’ll be happy to, if I can.”
“Her collie, Honey, died and Barbara is still grieving for her. She can’t seem to get over it, and I’m worried about her.”
“That’s not unusual,” I said. “How can I help?”
“Maybe talk to her. You’re compassionate and good with words.”
“Well, so are you.”
“When I told her about how I lost Snowdrop, I started crying.”
Years ago Snowdrop had been killed by Camille’s vile first husband. She still kept her picture on the buffet.
“We’ve all lost dogs,” she said. “Their lives are so short. It isn’t fair.”
I nodded, not wanting to think about short life spans or the dogs I’d lost in the past. “Losing your best friend can be devastating. Then people expect you to bounce right back. That doesn’t happen for everyone.”
“Barbara and Honey went everywhere together, even on vacations,” Camille said. “Now Barbara hardly ever leaves her house. It’s been a whole month since Honey died.”
“There’s no timeline for grief,” I said.
“I know, but every time I see Barbara she looks worse. She’s sunk into a deep depression. She lost weight and her zest for living as well.”
“Are you sure there isn’t something else the matter?” I asked. “Something physical?”
“She says not. It’s losing Honey. Barbara thinks there’s no reason for her to get up in the morning now.”
“I’m afraid she needs more help than I can give her,” I said.
“I agree, but she won’t see a professional. I thought the three of us could have lunch together. I’ll come up with some pretext to get her out of the house.”
I smiled. “Tell her I’m the friend with the problem.”
Camille gave a sigh of relief. “I knew you’d help her.”
I thought of the orphaned dogs in the Foxglove Corners Animal Shelter waiting for new homes that might never be offered and of the feral dogs who were about to face a long, cold winter. At one time I’d thought they would all be returned to their shelters by now. That hadn’t happened.
Maybe Lila and Letty Woodville at the shelter had the one dog who could put Barbara Bennett’s broken heart together again.
“I don’t have a magic formula,” I said, “but sometimes taking care of a new dog keeps a person too busy to keep mourning the lost one. Especially if that new dog is a puppy.”
“I suggested that, but Barbara vetoed it,” Camille said. “She says Honey was her last dog.”
I finished my tea slowly. The tea and muffins had only made me sleepier, and the temptation to waste a Saturday morning napping was strong. What I needed was fresh air and exercise. A walk with my own dogs followed by a trip to the Corners or Lakeville would be a better option for a precious weekend day.
Our conversation had left me a bit depressed. The thought of losing one of my collies made a deep cut in my heart. Halley was the oldest of my brood. Like Barbara, I’d taken her everywhere with me. For years. Long before I moved to Foxglove Corners and met Crane. Since the other collies were rescues, I had no way of knowing their ages.
But time didn’t stand still for any of us. The day would come when they’d grow old, their muzzles would turn gray, and their limbs arthritic. When they could no longer walk. Even the unflappable Candy.
Every dog lover knows one bitter truth. Losing a dog is the high price one pays for the years of joy. But people tend to forget that until somebody else’s grief reminds them.
In a minute, I’d be crying as Camille had wept over Snowdrop.
“I wish Crane was coming home tonight,” I said.