The barking drifts into my dream where it’s incorporated into the plot, but as it lasts I know something in real life is wrong and I force myself to awaken. I come out of my sleep grudgingly, and check the time: 3:30am. The barking is louder now, almost frenzied, and I can tell the dogs are excited. I am no Doctor Doolittle, but spend time with your animals and pay enough attention to them and you’ll understand how they communicate. Whatever it is that has them riled up is new, but has them scared. I dress and grab a high-power flashlight and open the gun safe. Bears are known in these parts and one was sighted on the property next to mine, so I grab the .223. I have no intention of shooting a bear if I come upon one, but I choose the tool necessary in case I need to protect myself or the dogs.
The night is clear and moonless, and all the constellations in the sky are the ones I’ll be seeing next season at a more opportune viewing time. I click the flashlight and scan. “Blue” the pack coward, the one I rescued and intended to become the guard of the pack, is at the edge of the clearing leading into the woods barking wildly. She runs back towards me, obviously relieved to see me, then runs forward in a vain attempt to prove she’s fierce. She’s not but I love her anyway. I call to the dogs, and shine the light forward. The beagle appears, her eyes catching the light and glowing somewhat demonically. A demonic beagle. Not exactly the hellhound of ancient mythology, and I’d appreciate the irony if my heart wasn’t throbbing in my ears and I wasn’t scared to the point where each step became like trudging through sand. Hearing my arrival the frenzy of the pack reaches a crescendo. Now the dogs want to show their bravery and I’m worried that they are going to do something stupid and get hurt. A dog is no match for a bear’s claw which can gut it from nose to tail with a single swipe. I push through the underbrush, thorns catching my jeans and cutting my arms as I hold the flashlight in one hand and the rifle in the other. I begin to regret my choice of weapon. A .223 round has too much velocity and will pass through an animal and put me at risk of hitting one of my own dogs. Perhaps the .12 gauge with buckshot would have been the wiser choice. But what do I know about guns; I grew up in the suburbs and even at the age of 12 my mother forbade buying a toy gun from the local Ben Franklin that shot pea sized rubber balls a whole 5 yards for fear I’d hurt myself with it. I’m learning as I go along.
Self doubt mixes with fear as the barking grows louder, but at least the adrenaline dulls the pain from the thorny vines. I push forward and catch in the light the stray shepherd I feed but who will not let us touch. He’s perhaps the toughest dog of the pack, and by far the wiliest given that he freely roams the surrounding area. But he defers to the dog I believe is his sister, a shepherd chow mix I rescued at the nearby bridge, and the pack alpha, a lab/border collie mix who used to be too scared to go into our backyard to pee in the suburbs at night without the Wife or me being with her. They are dancing and barking around the base of a tree, leaping up in a vain attempt to catch what shelters in its limbs above them. I raise the light expecting to see a huge brown mass of fur.
And find a snarling mouth full of sharp teeth in a long grey snout followed by a loud cat-like hiss.
A possum. The dogs treed a possum. All this over a possum? Possums may not look particularly dangerous when they are squished on the side of the road, but when they are up close to your face, those sharp teeth and claws are pretty scary, so scary in fact that hillbillies in these parts are known to get drunk and catch them by hand for fun. I thought this was a myth until a mid-level told the Wife about finding her husband covered in scratches one night with a can of beer in one hand and a possum by the tail in the other, grinning proudly. Different strokes for different folks I suppose.
Well my pack isn’t exactly the smartest and they are still learning the woods, and honestly I’m too relieved and tired to care. I don’t have to shoot anything, and no one, including the possum, is going to get hurt this morning. I call to the dogs and convince them one by one to leave the tree, and follow me back into the house. Eventually there’s just the shepherd, and he’s got better things to do than mess with a possum, so he’s the last to follow me back to the house where he stops at the edge of the driveway.
It’s now 4:00am, and the dogs are still excited, running around inside the house and barking as if they had won a great battle. And perhaps they had in their own little doggie minds; I was too tired to convince them otherwise. I locked the gun back up, undressed and returned to bed, assured that something even as small as a possum would not escape notice by my pack. It’s not the best alarm system in the world, and heaven knows it’s not cheap given the cost of dog food and vet bills, but it works.