The shot fractured the morning silence, a single firecracker pop followed by an anguished yelp.
Someone was shooting in the woods. The gunshot had come out of the fog, which was madness on a day with visibility reduced to a few yards. My black Taurus had been inching down the lonely country road, navigating a series of curves a-float in thick white condensation.
How could the shooter see his target? What creature had uttered that cry?
In the back seat, Misty, my white collie puppy, scratched at the window. She wasn’t afraid; Misty was never afraid. But I was.
A stray shot could well find me inside my car, supposedly safe, traveling an unfamiliar woodland route because my usual road had been inexplicably closed.
I didn’t even know the name of the road, couldn’t see a sign even if it existed, but I was aware of woods to my left, farmland on the right, and another curve ahead. With every turn the fog had seemed to thicken. It was as if I were doomed to travel this road forever while the fog enveloped me and every mile took me farther from home.
I didn’t like driving in fog, didn’t like curves. Curves in the fog were a dangerous combination. One never knew what lay ahead.
Keep moving, I told myself. You should come to a crossroad before long.
I heard another shot, then another.
Tuned in to my apprehension, Misty began to whine.
I followed the present curve and, when the road straightened, spied an animal body lying at the roadside, wreathed in mist and motionless. It looked like a deer. A doe slain out of season, or a fawn? No, that wasn’t right. It looked like a dog.
I pulled off the road behind the body. Leaving the Taurus idling and Misty fussing to accompany me, I made my way through high wet grasses to the still form.
It was a dog, an adult collie with a mahogany sable coat and no collar around its neck. Now the shots made sense. A careless shooter, a stray dog. Death. This kind of tragedy happened all too often in the country where many dogs ran free.
I should move it farther from the roadside, lest it be run over again. But as I neared the fallen collie, it lifted its head.
The dog had been wounded or stunned. Which changed my approach. As an experienced member of the Lakeville Collie Rescue League, I knew that a frightened, possibly wounded, dog was unpredictable. While I had no desire to be bitten, leaving the collie to die alone at the roadside was unthinkable.
I believed in being prepared for all eventualities. Knowing I might find a collie in distress at any time, I had the tools of my trade in the car’s trunk: a muzzle, a long leather leash, blankets, and a canine first aid kit, together with a small box of dog biscuits.
“Hold on baby,” I said. “Just a minute.”
Before I could turn to go back to the car, the dog scrambled to its feet, stood unsteadily for a moment, and limped into the fog. Blood smeared the grass where it had lain. Not an overwhelming amount, but blood nonetheless.
The dog was wounded; it couldn’t go far. A few more yards, perhaps, before weakness overcame it. Then I’d seize my chance.
With luck, the rest of the story would unfold quickly and neatly. I’d coax or carry the collie to the car, move Misty to the front seat, drive back to Doctor Alice Foster at the Foxglove Corners Animal Hospital, and hope for a happy outcome.
I hurried to the car and grabbed the muzzle and leash. Misty set up a feverish yipping, demanding to be taken along on this new adventure. Telling her to hush and stay, I headed past the pooling blood into the fog.
Undulating wisps of cottony condensation whirled around me. They clamped moist tentacles on my arms and legs. What I could see of the terrain appeared to slope gently uphill. This was a farmer’s meadow, I imagined. There was no fence, no sign banning trespassers, and, in any event, no one to challenge me. At least none I could see.
In spite of the warm April morning, I felt a chill. If only I could see through the fog, my search would be easier. I plodded on, calling softly, “Lassie? Where are you? ”
Lassie? All of my dogs were females. For some reason, I’d never owned a male.
“It’s going to be all right,” I said.
Misty’s howl followed me, adding to my unease.
I stood still for a second and listened. There was no sound, not so much as a rustle in the grass or a faint whimper. Only damp white fog, thick and secretive, swirling over the ground and spreading to the sky. It rolled back in waves as I advanced through clumps of blowsy white flowers, Queen Anne’s Lace or a white weed resembling it.
I held on to the muzzle and leash, ever hopeful but expecting at any moment to stumble over a dead collie.
The uphill grade grew steeper. Minutes passed, and reason struggled to assert itself. This foray into the fog-shrouded countryside was well-intended but futile. I’d left my car on a lonely country road with the engine idling and my puppy in the backseat.
My husband, Crane, would be angry—if he ever found out. A deputy sheriff who was well acquainted with danger on the roadway, he’d be incredulous at my recklessness.
I could hear him now as I always did when doing something ill-advised. “Never stop your car on one of these country roads, Jennet.” I knew that lecture by heart, as well as its companion piece. “If you’re ever in trouble, stay in the car, lock it, and call me on your cell phone.”
It was too late, alas, to heed his words. He knew about my work with the Rescue League, had often said he was proud of me. I couldn’t rescue collies without leaving my car.
A thorny plant slashed at my leg, making me wish I’d worn blue jeans to the animal hospital. I almost tripped on a rock.
Only then did I remember the shooter. He might still be in the area, hidden from my view by the all-encompassing fog. Who knew what his intentions were? I’d better go back to the car and call Crane or Terra Roman who had organized the Rescue League and kept it running smoothly. Still, I hated to abandon my search.
One more time, I thought. “Lassie, where are you? Speak.”
My labored breathing was the only sound in the mysterious white world. I couldn’t help thinking that the dog had already died.
Should I go on? Just a few more steps?
I scanned the wall of fog, willing it to part, letting me see what lay ahead.
I took those few more steps and saw a splash of blue perhaps three yards in front of me. If I continued in this direction, I would run into it.
When I was close enough I saw that it was a door painted cornflower blue with brass hardware. Could this be somebody’s house without a walkway leading up to it? How odd.
It seemed as if the door were slightly ajar, offering a silent invitation. The dog would have crept inside, having found a quiet place to heal in private or to die. But no sound indicated the presence of an animal.
I reached for the doorknob and touched a smooth surface. It wasn’t a knob, and this wasn’t a door but a realistic image of one painted on a wall, complete with specks of mud at the base. As for the door being ajar, that was an illusion.
I’d come to a weathered structure whose brown wood exterior contrasted with the clear color of the painted-on door. I stepped back in the moving fog and saw the simple lines of an old barn. Tramping through encroaching weeds and grasses I found the real door, secured with a rust-encrusted lock and chain.
Whatever was inside, it couldn’t be the wounded collie. Probably nothing was inside, nothing alive at any rate.
Why would anyone paint a door on the side of an old barn? Certainly not to deceive a trespasser on foggy days.
It didn’t matter. The dog did, but finding it in the fog was going to be impossible. I could still hear Misty, although her voice was muffled. She was howling, certain I’d abandoned her. The eerie wolf wail added to my unease.
This was no place to linger. There was something strange about the barn with the false blue door. Something that verged on the unearthly. The entire morning had been strange beginning with the sudden formation of the fog and the closure of my familiar road home. I felt the chill again, more intense this time, and remembered the shooter in the woods.
Had Fate conspired to bring me to this place at this time?
I retraced my steps and found the Taurus where I’d left it still idling.
Of course. Where else would it be?
Misty ran from one side of the backseat to the other, ears flattened, tail wagging. The blanket I kept for the dogs to snuggle on had ended up on the floor with her favorite toy, a little stuffed goat, once as white as Misty herself. Her joy at my return shone in her eyes and her joyous yips.
Misty had been a rescue. I had a house full of rescued collies, together with one dog I’d purchased from a breeder. I’d been in the League long enough to know how our organization worked. We saved one dog and lost the next one, but I wasn’t ready to give up on the collie who had run away from me to be swallowed by the fog.