Adventures of Cookie the Stray, Chapter 8
It was still dark when the hot dog man and the two dogs awoke. The fire had long since burned to smoldering embers before forming a thick covering of gray ash.
“What’s for breakfast?” the man asked in a voice thick with sleep. Buddy perked up at the word and began to drool at the prospect of more food. Rover lay with his head between his paws, his chin on the ground waiting for clues concerning mealtime.
Hot dog man gathered his bedroll into a neat bundle and returned it to his backpack. He made sure the fire was out and scattered the stones before heading toward the lake with the two canines followed faithfully behind him. The path Rover and Buddy had followed on their quest for rabbits wound in circles around trees and thick overgrowth. The direct route the man took was only a twenty minute hike.
Early morning fog began to dissipate as rays of sunlight filtered down through the leaves. The three made good time despite Rover’s side trips circling around in search of fresh rabbit trails. Buddy stayed within eyesight of the man who reminded him of his master. His longing for home and his rightful place at his master’s side grew in the presence of the man.
They soon reached an opening at the edge of the wooded area which led to an expanse of clean, sandy beach stretching for a distance before the overgrowth took over again. The man hung his backpack on a sturdy branch and pulled a bar of soap out of a zippered compartment, then, began removing his clothing. He entered the chilly water and started lathering himself up. The lake was clear and calm like a mirror with an expanse of water that stretched across a vast valley surrounded by trees. After his bath, the man dressed and walked a short distance into the clearing and climbed out on a tree limb that jutted out over the lake.
Perched on the ledge over the water, he pulled out a flat spool of cardboard wound up with fishing line. Toward the hook end were knobs of crimped split shot to carry the bait to the bottom. Using rounded wads of leftover hot dog buns, he threaded the hook and cast the bait into the water and waited patiently for a strike.
He listened to the merriment of the dogs chasing around on dry land along old rabbit trails and flushing out coveys of birds. The sun was high in the sky when the hot dog man pulled in his fishing line for the final time and transferred the hand-sized bream from the hook to the stringer with the others.
The tired dogs rested on the bank keeping track of the man’s whereabouts with their eyes. They watched intently as he carried the stringer of fish to a flat rock where he scaled, cleaned and expertly cut them into fillets. He tossed the guts into the lake where a group of birds hovered on branches waiting to swoop down for the scraps.
“These are all good eating size. They should cook up really nice,” he told them.
Using the soap he’d left to dry on the fishing tree, he washed his hands and packed the fillets into the empty grocery bag. He grabbed his jacket, the duffel bag and headed back toward camp. The dogs hopped up and followed behind him, their noses focused on the smell of the fish bouncing against his knapsack with each step.
They found the clearing exactly as they’d left it. On their way back, the man had gathered branches and deadwood which he dropped next to the cold ring of ashes. He gathered the round stones from the night before and formed them into a circle. In the center of the fire pit, he built a platform using two large rocks that had a smooth surface. On top of those, he balanced a thin, flat piece of slate. With kindling tucked around the platform and a couple of logs underneath, he again set fire to the mound.
When the fire reached a certain point, hot dog man pulled a small pot from his knapsack and filled it with water from his canteen. He set it to boil on the rock platform. He dumped some coffee grounds into the water when it boiled. A tin cup came from his bottomless knapsack and he expertly poured the brown liquid into it adding a packet of sugar from another pocket.
He found his mess kit and flipped open the handle on the frying pan. One by one, he squirted mayonnaise on each of the fillets and dropped them into the hot pan. The sizzling aroma of fish frying had the dogs salivating where they rested lying as close as they dared to the blazing fire.
Off in the distant forest the shrill whistle of a train sounded and the low rumble of its powerful engine vibrated the ground. Rover sat upright and listened as howling began in the surrounding woods joined at once by Rover and Buddy. The aroma of food cooking had drawn a group of neighboring creatures which the dogs could smell but not see. Buddy was again reminded of the tracks he vowed to follow in his quest to get home.
For the moment, they were both content to be here with the hot dog man which they now thought of as the food man, who promised to share his dinner with them. The whistle blew again as the train moved further down the tracks and the man turned back to the fire to tend to the meal.
Soft tones of yellow and gray peeked through the branches of the surrounding forest as morning once again found the campsite. The man folded his bed roll stuffing it back into his pack as the anxious dogs looked on. They sensed a change in the routine that had developed over the past few days. Rover understood that the man would soon be heading back to the tracks to hitch a ride on the next train as he had done in the past. Buddy glanced eagerly at the smoldering ashes of the fire hoping to see signs of a morning meal. The man finally spoke.
“I have to be moving on down the road,” he told them. “Sure wish I could take you two with me,” he said with a genuine note of sadness in his voice. Pouring last night’s cold coffee on the embers, he packed away the coffee pot and gathered the remaining items scattered around the clearing.
He cut a small leafy branch from a low hanging limb and used it to sweep away his footprints around the site, careful to erase the path leading to the lake. He had a habit of covering his tracks. He looked over the campsite to ensure no traces remained tying him to this place, then, headed toward the rising sun through the brush.
In the distance, a low rumble vibrated through the ground. The oncoming freight train was still miles away. The howling voices grew louder as the train whistle blew again. Both dogs followed as the man worked his way up the sloping terrain where he would board the train as it slowed for the incline. Close to the tracks, he stopped and waited in the shadows beside the track.
From his pouch, he pulled out two portions of fish reserved from last night’s meal. The deafening roar of the engine churning up the hill prevented any final words when, at the last possible moment, the man ran out and jumped onto a flatbed car near the rear of the procession. He threw each dog their portion of fish as they skulked behind in the brush, fearful of the noise. Rover grabbed his fish and ran behind the caboose chewing as he ran.
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The gap between the train and the running dogs grew as the terrain leveled out and the train picked up speed. Buddy had swallowed his fish whole, then took up the chase in the dust of the vanishing train, finally reaching the spot where Rover had stopped running. They both stood on the tracks watching their man who had crawled to the top of a boxcar. He waved a solemn hand at the two forlorn dogs.
They followed the tracks where the train had disappeared over a hill hoping to catch up with their human friend. At first their pace was swift, the smell of the man still strong in their noses despite the fumes of the locomotive. As the day wore on, their pace slowed and tired legs and thirst took them once again into the cool shade of the woods.
© 2017 Peg Cole