The stray dog showed up in camp before the tents were pitched. We had been warned about him by the landowner, and Al and I told the boys to ignore the beast.
Mark, who has been hearing for eight years about how I despise dogs that don't work for a living, did his part in trying to drive the mongrel away. But Andrew, who is six and has both a dog and a soft heart, undermined the program by sneaking in a pet whenever our backs were turned.
It was hard to blame him. The dog, really just a puppy, was a tan-and-black mixture dominated by wirehaired terrier and perhaps dachshund. He had liquid brown eyes and a cringing, woebegone manner that testified to the mistreatment that had driven him into the wilds of Southern Maryland. He reacted to threatening gestures by adopting the submissive posture of the wolf family exposing his belly and flank. And ribs. s
The two fathers explained to the boys that rejection was the greatest kindness we could offer the dog, because we weren't going to take him home, and encouraging him would just keep him hanging around the property. Soon he would be chasing deer, and the land-owner would have to shoot him. The boys dutifully tried to accept all this.
We didn't feed him, but couldn't chase him away. He retreated just beyond the circle of firelight and burrowed into the leaves against the chilly night.
In the morning he was gone, but he showed up again as we were setting off to canoe the Patuxent River marshes. He followed, struggling through the sticky mud and swimming the leads and guts, whimpering faintly when we pulled away, always catching up. It went on for miles, until we cut across a bay a mile or more wide. We watched the puppy try to follow, nose and eyes barely above water, until a sudden northwest gale drove us down on the lee shore. During an hour spent marooned on the beach we searched the waves with binoculars but couldn't see him.
"He gave up and turned back," I told the boys. The pup had surely drowned, Al and I agreed privately, damned shame, he sure had a lot of heart.
Everybody pretty much forgot about the dog as we struggled to get back to camp against wind and water. Sometimes paddling, more often dragging the boats through waist-deep gluey mud, we went on for hours, managing to capsize three times. The boys were so muddy, cold and hungry that we made it to bedtime with hardly a mention of the puppy, although I found myself half expecting to see him, so much a part of the camp had he become.
Toward noon the next day, while we were working on a wildlife observation platform high in a tulip poplar, the puppy showed up again, bright-eyed as ever. Andrew sneaked pats and Mark pretended to drive him away while Al and I shouted from on high. But the dog simply lay there and looked up at us; the hopeless are beyond discouragement.
There wasn't room enough in the cab of the Jeep pickup that came to haul us out of the woods when it was time to go home, so the boys and I rode in the back. The puppy followed, and although the landowner drove as fast as he could through the muddy ruts, the dog stayed with us mile after mile, yipping forlornly, tongue hanging out, little bandy legs pumping in a blur.Occasionally he would pull even with the truck, running in mortal danger beside the wheels.
He couldn't keep up the pace, I thought, musing the while on the rich exactness of such shopworn phrases as dogged determination, dogging his footsteps, sorry as a dog, miserable cur, doglike devotion, a hangdog expression. . .
Well, he did keep up the pace. When we got to the paved road and stopped to change cars, he fell over on his side as though he had been shot, and lay almost too exhausted to pant. The boys had been manfully suppressing their humanity; I looked from their eyes to the puppy's and saw the same thing.
"Well," I said. "We'll take him home and see what Mother says, but you know what that will be. At least we can take him to the pound, so that he'll have some chance of finding a home."
"I was hoping you'd crack first," the landowner cackled. "Otherwise I'd have had to take him home myself. That's some dog."
"I'm going to call him Hunter, because he hunted us up," Mark said as the puppy slept on his lap in the van.
"That's a good name, but maybe not such a good idea," I said. "You know how your Mother feels about hunting."
"Okay. I'll call him Tracker, because he tracked us down."
Mother was out when we got home. Tracker ate half his weight in puppy chow before I put Mark to bed on the back porch, with a pile of the boy's clothes beside the couch for the dog to sleep on. The bag of dog food was left on the dining room table where Mother would see it not quite right away, and I hunkered down in the living room as her car pulled up.
"What is this?" she said, with the air of one who has been betrayed.
I mumbled a hasty explanation, leaning heavily on my efforts to resist and the inevitability of the outcome.
"Absolutely not," she said. "No dogs. We have a rabbit. Two cats. Three gerbils. Goldfish. And that damn snapping turtle."
Actually it was now two damn snapping turtles, because we had found another one in the marsh that day. But I thought I would wait until later to correct her.
"Where is it?"
I led her to the porch, where Mark lay sleeping like the cherub he was before he turned into a boy, with Tracker curled in his arm. Norman Rockwell could not have improved upon the scene.
"I am not going to fall for the old boy-and-his-dog trick," she said. "I did not ride in here on a load of punkins."
Tracker raised his head. The light from the kitchen window kindled a glow in his eyes as he looked up at her.
"Wow, is that dog ugly," she said.
"But he has a lot of heart," I said.
"Also a lot of fleas, no doubt."
"Nope, just ticks. And I think I got them all." She rolled her eyes.
Tracker sensed that something important was going on, and assumed his whipped-dog posture. "Who cut off his legs?" she said. "And his tail is deformed."
"It's what you do with what you've got that counts," I offered meekly.
"What you've got here is a mutt," she said, poking at him. "His fur feels like a scrub brush." Tracker licked her hand. During this weak moment sister Karen came in, exclaiming over how cute the puppy was, and it was time to strike.
"I told Mark it was up to you, so let's not drag it out," I said. "You tell him first thing in the morning, and I'll take the dog on down to the pound."
"You rat," she said. "But I am not going to feed this dog. I am not going to wash this dog. I am not going to clean up after this dog. This is not my dog." And then she scratched him behind his floppy ears, and Tracker wagged his deformed tail and curled up on his couch and went back to sleep.