The Rescue

­I went into the woods that day because of the dog. Normally, I avoid the forest paths because of ticks. I’ve had one case of Lyme’s disease and that was one too many for me, so I prefer to stick to the well-trampled path that runs around the edge of the open meadow. I leave the shadowed, tick-infested wood paths to braver, more fool-hardy souls. After all, what’s the point of walking for my health if I’m simultaneously courting another bout of Lyme’s. I’d rather face a vampire, to be honest, because I’m a lot less afraid of fictional monsters than tiny little blood-sucking bugs that actually exist.

There I was, speed-walking along the sunny, relatively bug-free path when I saw him. The dog was no more than fifteen-twenty pounds and had big, soulful eyes half-hidden by scraggly gray-brown fur, fuzzy ears that tipped to the side, and a little goat beard hanging from his pointed chin. I don’t know who his parents were, but they weren’t very well connected, if you know what I mean. Mutt doesn’t even begin to describe this little guy, I couldn’t even begin to guess what breeds had gone into his background, but there was definitely a little terrier, a bit of beagle, and maybe a touch of hyena. He was so frickin’ ugly, he was cute. I looked around for his people, but we had the path to ourselves. He stood still as I drew near, watching me, head up and ears tilted forward.

“Hey, buddy, what are you doing out here? You all alone, or what?” I slowed and approached with a friendly chirp to my voice. As a single woman in her thirties I had barely avoided crazy cat lady status by collecting a house full of dogs instead, and I could never pass by a stray without at least trying a rescue. My ex used to say I’d rescue a cardboard box on the side of the road if I thought it looked like a stray. Which isn’t even fair, there was just that one time, and it was dark, I thought it was a golden retriever. I only took it home because cleaning up the roads is everyone’s responsibility. I wasn’t going to keep it, for heaven’s sake.

The dog shied at my approach, ducking away and backing up a step. I could see that he was a male and wasn’t wearing a collar. I searched my pockets for stray dog treats, but I had stopped for a quick walk on the way home from work, and my work slacks were free of liver snaps or other yummy goodies. I crouched down and extended my right hand, anyway, making encouraging noises to the dog.

“Come here, baby, we’ll get you something to eat. Are you hungry, big guy? How about a cookie, want a cookie?”

The dog tilted his head and looked at me for a long moment, then he suddenly turned his head and alerted on something I couldn’t detect in the dark woods behind him. He glanced back at me and for a moment, I thought he would trust me, but he seemed to make up his mind and turned away and darted into the forest, almost invisible in the shadows.

I sighed and followed, trying not to spook him, moving just fast enough to keep him in sight. I couldn’t just leave him at the mercy of all of those ticks, now could I?

Fortunately, the dog didn’t dart into the underbrush or gallop along the path, instead he trotted ahead of me, just out of reach. After a couple of attempts to get him to stop and return to the sunlight with me, I gave up and followed and we settled into an easy pace. I’ll say one thing for the forest paths, they’re a lot cooler than the sunny meadow. I tried not to shudder every time I brushed up against a bush or tree, doing my best not to picture ticks falling into my hair or on my clothes. I was beginning to think that maybe I should talk to someone about this fear of ticks, but come on, those things are nasty. On the plus side, I was getting a good workout, as the dog set a faster pace than I would have chosen on my own.

I was just thinking that maybe I should try falling on the ground, with a fake injury and a cry of distress, in an effort to get the dog’s sympathy – and a brief rest – when the dog veered off the path and headed into the underbrush.

“Are you kidding me?” I called out. “Do you know how many ticks there are in those bushes?”

Unmoved by my complaint, the dog spared me only one glance over his shoulder before pushing his way into the dense growth.

“You’re an idiot,” I told myself. “You’ve got five dogs at home already, do you really need one more to worry about? Maybe he’s not even lost, maybe he lives near here.”

I ignored the insult and the rationalization – knowing it was hopeless. Smarter people than me have tried to talk sense into me about dog rescue, I surely wasn’t going to convince myself with a stray wandering loose right in front of me.

I followed the dog into the bushes, biting back curses and flinching away from the thorniest branches. I don’t think it was my imagination that the dog slowed as I fought my way through behind him. He never got far ahead of me and I only lost sight of him for moments at a time. Eventually, we broke through into another path and the dog turned and headed deeper into the woods, unless I had gotten turned around, which was entirely possible.

We went on this way for more than twenty minutes and I was beginning to wonder how deep these woods went, when the dog sped up and disappeared around a turn in the path.

“Hey now! No fair, I’ve come this far, don’t disappear on me now!” I pushed my pace and jogged after him, feeling the burn in my calves from the exercise.

I rounded the corner and found the dog bouncing happily around a man sitting with his back against a tree.

“Hi?” I said, making it a question. “Are you okay?”

The man ducked away from the small dog’s tongue. “That’s enough, Brutus, enough.” He looked up at me as the dog settled down at his side. “Not so much, no. I think I’ve got a broken leg, actually.”

“I think that qualifies as not so good,” I said, pulling out my phone. “Have you called for help?”

“No, I left mine off the charger and the battery died,” the man said. He looked to be around my age, maybe a few years older, with just a touch of gray at the temples. It looked good on him, giving him a kind of George Clooney look.

“Is this your dog?” I asked, as I waited for 911 to pick up.

The stranger nodded and scratched behind the small dog’s ears as I talked to the operator. With the help of the injured man, I was able to give decent directions to our location and ended the call after being reassured that someone would come to help.

“So, did you send him for help or was that his idea?” I asked, settling myself on the ground near the injured man. I was wishing I had taken at least a basic first aid course, but other than a little CPR, I’m hopeless with that stuff. I thought the least I could do was distract him while we waited for the EMTs. “I’m June, by the way.

“Simon,” he said, ”and this is Brutus. It was all his idea. I don’t know what happened to his leash and collar. He took off soon after I fell, dragging it behind him. I was terrified the leash would get caught on something out there in the woods, and maybe it did and that’s why he slipped out of the collar. Unless you removed it?”

“Not me, he wouldn’t let me that close. He was missing the collar when I met him out on the meadow path. We were just getting acquainted when he seemed to want me to follow him, so here I am.”

“Hero of the day, aren’t you, Brutus,” Simon asked the dog, tickling under his chin.

“Hey now, I braved an entire forest full of ticks to rescue you,” I said, indignant.

“You’ll have to share the credit, then,” Simon said with an easy laugh and I agreed.

We chatted until the EMTs arrived and I learned that Simon was a professor at the local college, unmarried, and a nut for ugly mutts.

Our first date was a week later, and we’re going to introduce Brutus to my pack tonight. If all goes well, this may be the best rescue ever.

The only question is, who rescued whom?

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