My favorite place to walk is just across this rattly bridge where the road curves by the old Shiloh schoolhouse and follows the river. River to one side, trees the other-sometimes a house or two.
And this particular afternoon, I'm about half-way up the road along the river when I see something out of the corner of my eye. Something moves. I look, and about fifteen yards off, there's this shorthaired dog - white with brown and black spots - not making any kind of noise, just slinking along with his head down, watching me, tall between his legs like he's hardly got the right to breathe. A beagle, maybe a year or two old.
I stop and the dog stops. Looks like he's been caught doing something awful, when I can tell all he really wants is to follow along beside me.
"Here, boy," I say, slapping my thigh.
Dog goes down on his stomach, groveling about in the grass. I laugh and start over toward him. He's got an old worn-out collar on, probably older than he is. Bet it belonged to another dog before him. "C'mon, boy," I say, putting out my hand.
The dog gets up and backs off. He don't even whimper, like he's lost his bark.
Something really hurts inside you when you see a dog cringe like that. You know somebody's been kicking at him. Beating on him, maybe.
"It's okay, boy," I say, coming a little closer, but still he backs off.
So I just take my gun and follow the river. Every so often I look over my shoulder and there he is, the beagle. I stop; he stops. I can see his ribs - not real bad - but he isn't plumped out or anything.
There's a broken branch hanging from a limb out over the water, and I'm wondering if I can bring it down with one shot. I raise my gun, and then I think how the sound might scare the dog off. I decide I don't want to shoot my gun much that day.
It's a slow river. You walk beside it, you figure it's not even moving. lf you stop, though, you can see leaves and things going along. Now and then a fish jumps - big fish. Bass, I think. Dog's still trailing me, tail tucked in. Funny how he don't make a sound.
Finally I sit on a log, put my gun at my feet, and wait. Back down yhe road, the dog sits, too. Sits right in the middle of it, head on his paws.
"Here, boy!" I say again, an pat my knee.
He wiggles just a little, but he don't come.
Maybe it's a she-dog.
"Here, girl!" I say. Dog still don't come.
I decide to wait the dog out, but after three or four minutes on the log, it gets boring and I start off again. So does the beagle.
Don't know where you'd end up if you followed the river all the way. Heard somebody say it curves about, comes back on itself, but if it didn't and I got home after dark, I'd get a good whopping. So I always go as far as the ford, where the river spills across the path, and then I head back.
When I turn around and the dog sees me coming, he goes off into the woods. I figure that's the last I'll see of the beagle, and I get halfway down the road again before I look back. There he is. I stop. He stops. I go. He goes.
And then, hardly thinking on it, I whistle.
It's like pressing a magic button. The beagle comes barreling toward me, legs going lickety-split, long ears flopping, tall sticking up like a flagpole. This time, when I put out my hand, he Iicks all my fingers and jumps up against my leg, making little yelps in his throat. He can't get enough of me, like I'd been saying no all along and now I'd said yes, he could come. It's a he-dog, like I'd thought.
"Hey, boy! You're really somethin' now, ain't you?" I'm laughing as the beagle makes circles around me. I squat down and the dog licks my face, my neck. Where'd he learn to come if you whistled, to hang back if you didn't?
I'm so busy watching the dog I don't even notice it's started to rain. Don't bother me. Don't bother the dog, neither. I'm looking for the place I first saw him. Does he live here? I wonder. Or the house on up the road? Each place we pass I figure he'll stop - somebody come out and whistle, maybe. But nobody comes out and the dog don't stop. Keeps coming even after we get to the old Shiloh schoolhouse. Even starts across the bridge, tall going like a propeller. He licks my hand every so often to make sure I'm still there - mouth open like he's smiling. He is smiling.
Once he follows me across the bridge, through, and on past the gristmill, I start to worry. Looks like he's fixing to follow me all the way to our house. I'm in trouble enough coming home with my clothes wet. My ma's mama died of pneumonia, and we don't ever get the chance to forget it. And now I got a dog with me, and we were never allowed to have pets.
If you can't afford to feed 'em and take 'em to the vet when they're sick, you've no right taking 'em in, Ma says, which is true enough.
I don't say a word to the beagle the rest of' the way home, hoping he'll turn at some point and go back. The dog keeps coming.
I get to the front stoop and say, "Go home, boy." And then I feel my heart squeeze up the way he stops smiling, sticks his tail between his legs again, and slinks off. He goes as far as the sycamore tree, lies down in the wet grass, head on his paws.
"Whose dog is that?" Ma asks when I come in.
I shrug. "Just followed me, is all."
"Where'd it pick up with you?" Dad asks.
"Up in Shiloh, across the bridge," I say.
"On the road by the river? Bet that's Judd Travers's beagle," says Dad. "He got himself another hunting dog a few weeks back."
"Judd got him a hunting dog, how come he don't treat him right?" I ask.
"How you know he don't?"
"Way the dog acts. Scared to pee, almost," I say.
Ma gives me a look.
"Don't seem to me he's got any marks on him," Dad says, studying him from our window.
Don't have to mark a dog to hurt him, I'm thinking.
"Just don't pay him any attention and he'll go away," Dad says.
"And get out of those wet clothes," Ma tells me. "You want to follow your grandma Slater to the grave?"
I change clothes, then sit down and turn on the TV, which only has two channels. On Sunday afternoons, it's preaching and baseball. I watch baseball for an hour. Then I get up and sneak to the window. Ma knows what I'm about.
"That Shiloh dog still out there?" she asks.
I nod. He's looking at me. He sees me there at the window and his tall starts to thump. I name him Shiloh.