Mary keeps Duke at a walk on her way to the cabin, noticing the gray cloud cover and keeping an eye on how the wind blows. It’s still mostly calm, barely blowing the strands of her horse’s mane from their resting place on the long bay neck. It’s too soon to tell if the clouds will let loose their moisture before or after noon. At least the ride from town is dry she thinks, and I remembered my slicker for later. Mary glances down at the ruts in the road, looking for low spots where water will collect and turn to mud, memorizing distinctive plants or other trail indicators to look for on the way back. She begins wondering about Mr. Miller’s odd behavior at the puddle, now nearly a week past, leaning over it like he was. Was he looking for something, like tadpoles or other wriggling creatures, within it? Matthew didn’t seem like the curious type. In all the days from then until now Mary had never seen him pause so much as a minute at anything else, seemingly always in motion while he went about the farm’s business.
Hours later, Mary notices the chill in the cabin since the wind has picked up. Small cracks, few in as they are, between the logs have started to whistle with the increased force. The sound echoes quietly around the large room, seeming to bounce off the stones of the fireplace and increase their annoyance at having to slow down. A fire would rid the room of the chill. Then, if Mr. Miller comes in from the rain he’ll have somewhere to warm up and dry off. Gathering and rearranging the kindling into a small tower in the hearth, then striking the match, Mary smiles that the beginnings of a fire already throw off a little heat. The familiar rap at the window frame interrupts her chore for just a minute. She turns to see Saul’s approving smile through the glass as she stands and crosses the room.
“Feeling a chill?” Saul asks, once the window is open.
“Just a bit. I’m hoping to keep from getting colder once the rain starts. Have any idea how long?”
“We should have some time, the trees haven’t started to sway yet, but clouds like this tend to tease the land with a sprinkle and don’t really give it a good drink until nightfall.”
“I see you do have more clothes to wear.” Mary nodded toward his torso, observing a gray flannel left unbuttoned, draping over his broad shoulders. “Are you worried about a sprinkle?”
“Never can be too careful,” he said with a sheepish half smile. “Besides, I like the way it smells after it gets a little freshness in the fibers. I can hang it up inside the boat and keep the smell with me. It breaks up the fish smell that normally keeps me company.”
Another sound broke in to the conversation. It seemed the whistling was grating on the wood, but not exactly. Both Mary and Saul heard it at the same time and stood listening.
“Do you hear that? What is it?” Mary turned an ear back toward the inside of the cabin, unsure of the source of the sound.
“I don’t know what it could be. Let me look around a bit.” Saul began to walk around the outside, heading toward the front porch. Mary takes the same path and hears a more distinct scratching at irregular intervals. Scrtich, scratch-scratch. Now she could tell it was coming from the other side of the front door. Upon opening it, Mary discovered a scraggly, dirty, scrawny dog on the porch. Its brown clear eyes look up at her, seeming to ask if it could come in.
“Not looking like that, you aren’t,” Mary told it, “I can’t promise anything more than a bit of food.” Kneeling to get a good look at it, she examined the tangled mass of straw-colored fur for any cuts or injuries. “You seem alright, just bedraggled. Came here to get in out of the weather, did you? How’s a nap in the barn sound?”
A low laugh rumbled toward her from the edge of the porch where Saul had propped himself up with one hand on the outer wall.
“You’re not afraid of that stray dog one bit!” The surprise and amusement in his voice and on his face was clear. “I can walk him over to the barn if you like while you get him something to eat, like you promised.”
“Yes, Saul, I’d truly appreciate that.” Saul let out a quick whistle and Mary stood watching the newcomer turn and trot toward him. Just then a sprinkle of rain started tapping on the metal roof and hit the man and dog as well, causing Saul to shrug his shoulders a bit and turn up his collar, picking up his pace as he headed to the barn. Mary noticed what appeared to be a young woman, almost hiding on the other side of the barn and peeking toward the dog and then beyond it to her on the porch. The two women look at each other for a few moments. This stranger wears a cotton dress much like her own with a full skirt and long sleeves. It seems the dress should be yellow with small pink flowers, but it has faded from age and repeated washings. There is a small ring of lace around the collar which frames the young face well, all the more visible and attractive with her blond hair pulled up into a bun. When Saul slid the door into place after welcoming his new friend the woman took a few small steps toward the cabin.
“May I help you?” Mary called out, hoping this woman owned the dog, the two of them travelling and begging together. Maybe she wanted to see if these people were friendly before approaching herself. Instead of speaking, the stranger stopped walking and studied Mary for what seemed like a very long time. “You don’t need to worry. If that’s your dog you can stay with him. I’ll help clean him up, even bring you some warm water if you like,” she tried. This got no response. The stranger now appeared to have frozen as she was a few minutes before, neither shifting her weight, or shivering from the cool rain. In fact, she didn’t look like she was even getting wet.
The barn door scraped open again, releasing Saul out into the weather. Mary turned her view to him and called out, “Saul, will you…” and began to point in the direction of the woman. Saul turned as she indicated, and Mary couldn’t finish her sentence. There was no longer anyone to point at.
“What are you saying?” He hurried up to the shelter of the porch roof before Mary could think of an explanation.
“Didn’t you see anyone?”
“Just you. Standing here. I thought you went in to get that dog some food.”
“No. I saw someone behind the barn, thought she was with the dog or owned it, maybe.”
“Where?” he asked, turning back the way he had come.
“Nowhere, now. Must have scared her off.”
“Most likely. Might have felt safer out of sight. Maybe went through the other door into the barn, if the dog is hers. Maybe wanted to see it went to a good home.”
“Probably.” Something about that explanation didn’t seem right. Something told her she was wrong about the woman, that she’d seen her before. That she had nothing to do with the dog after all.
“Anyways, if she ran off and the dog needs more attention tomorrow, and a few fish, I’ll come take him off your hands. Ol’ Matt always said he’d take care of all the livestock the farm could raise but never a dog. Seems a shame to let him run wild when I have a perfectly good boat needing a watchdog.” Mary smiled at this, since Saul had nothing of value and never ventured out of walking distance to the lake.“Until tomorrow, then,” she said, looking out from under the porch to the last remnants of the sprinkle dripping off its edge. With a wave he was off.