Ed slapped absently at the fly attempting to land on his whiskered cheek.
He shifted his position in the ratty chair and took the last swig of diet Coke. It
was tepid and flat. The artificial sugar taste stuck to his tongue and made his face
crumple into a frown. "Damn these things are nasty. Don't even know why I drink 'em," he said
as he tossed the can over his shoulder. It missed the trash can, banked off the front
door and clattered onto the faded boards of the front porch. This commotion startled
the large brown Labrador sleeping at his feet. It sprang to its feet and offered
a few excited yelps before sniffing the can and plopping back down. Ed smiled to himself as he reached down to pat the dog on its head.
"Sorry, Zip, didn't mean to scare ya." The autumn sun painted his lap in gold and shadows. The birds chirped
away in the tree tops. The breeze wafted through the pines. Ed's head became heavy
and bobbed forward as he fought the inevitable drowse. As his eyelids finally lowered,
the fly made another landing attempt. This time it tried its best to fly up his nose.
Ed came to life, sputtering and sniffing. He lurched from his chair and fanned at
his face. Zip scrambled to avoid his flailing feet. The rifle leaning against the
wall to his left began to slide. Without looking, Ed caught it and pulled it back
in place. "Damn it!" As he was wiping snot and spittle from his face, Ed heard
the sound of an automobile approaching. Spastic movement yielded to a cat-like stalk
to the corner of the porch. He peered down the dirt driveway. "Looks like we got
company," he told the dog as he sat back down in the squeaky chair. The sound of the vehicle ignited a cacophony of canine voices that seemed
to be coming from everywhere. They yipped and howled. Invisible paws dug at chain
link. “Oh, shut up you muts!” Ed yelled over his shoulder. The gold SUV stopped a few feet from the porch steps. A cloud of dust
rolled over the shiny top and engulfed it momentarily. The driver's side door opened
and a figure moved like a ghost through the haze. The dog stood silently and took
a few steps forward with a low growl building in his gut. Ed looped a forefinger
in the leather collar and gave it a sharp yank. Zip immediately sat down at his master's
side. "Uh, hello?" "Got a problem?" Ed asked but didn't rise from his chair. The dust
began to settle and he could see a man walking tentatively toward him. They unseen
dogs continued to bark excitedly from the back of the property. "Uh, yeah," the man replied as he cleaned his sunglasses on his pale
blue shirt. He was tall, blond, and dressed in khakis and pristine leather hiking
boots. "I think we're a bit lost." He replaced his glasses and craned his head to
see around the small house. “Wow, you have a lot of dogs back there, huh?” The passenger side door snapped open. "John, I really have to go," an
irritated female voice announced from within. "Hold on, Joanna, I don't even know if he has a bathroom yet." John
continued to ease up to the porch until he spotted the dog. His eyes flicked from
the large canine to the rifle and then back to Ed's face. "We are trying to find
the Lost Pines trail head and I've gotten us turned around—" "JOHN!" John visibly cringed and continued, "And my wife really needs to go to
the bathroom. Would it be possible to borrow yours? I mean, if you have one." Ed allowed himself to smile, "'Course I got one." "With running water?" The woman asked as she shot out of the vehicle.
Her bright yellow hair was almost blinding in the morning sunshine. She was what
Ed referred to as "Terminal Blonde" and decked out in an all white outfit and brand
new tennis shoes sporting pink stripes down the sides. Her blonde coif swirled around
in the breeze as she stomped toward the cabin and up the steps. "Yes, M'am. Got a toilet. I'm not a cave man." Ed smiled even wider
as she came to an abrupt halt in front of the dog, her sneakers making a tiny squeak
on the wooden floorboard. She thrust a manicured hand in front of her. "Does he bite?" The growl that had been growing in his gut now gurgled up his throat.
Zip's lips curled, revealing sharp white teeth. Ed patted him on the head. "Only if I tell him to," he said, wearing the same amused grin. "Down
the hall, first door on the right." Joanna's need to pee seemed overpower her innate fear of the grumbling
canine. She tip-toed past Ed and ducked into the house. John watched her disappear
and then shrugged. "Women, what can ya do, right?" he said as he finished cleaning his Ray-Bans
and placed them on his face. After few seconds of awkward silence, he spoke again.
"So, uh, what do you do with all those dogs?” He once again leaned around the corner
of the house to peer toward the backyard. “Listen to ‘em bark all the damned time.” He took a breath and then screamed,
“SHUT THE HELL UP, MUTS!” The canine choir’s performance almost immediately quieted. The progression
was quick but gradual, dotted by random yip and growls. Eventually the dogs were
silent once more. John’s tilted his head and smiled a forced smile. “Hey, that takes talent.
Um, how far is the Lost Pines trail head? Where did I go wrong? I could have sworn
I saw a sign that pointed this way." Ed nodded and scratched his chin. "Well, you haven't gone far 'nuff
just yet. The trail starts about two miles down the road." "Really?" John tilted his head and looked down the road. "On this map
it seems to be a pretty big hiking area. You'd think the road would be better—at
least be paved." "Wouldn't know 'bout that. Road's been the same for years. You get to
a mountain trail from a mountain road. Seems logical to me." Ed shrugged and caressed
Zip's head. "And Lost Pines trail starts about two miles down this road. Jus' past
the lake." John squinted and pulled the map from his pocket. "A lake? I don't
see a lake on this map." Ed leaned up in his chair to peer down at the map in John's hand. "Oh,
that's your problem right there. That map ain't worth a shit. Not sure what idiot
printed it but they sure hadn't been out here. Probably drew that thing on his computer,
sittin' in his office chair." In an exasperated gesture, John let the hand holding the map fall to
his side. "Great. Back down the driveway, turn left and then it's two miles down
this road then?" Ed nodded. Another silence followed. John shifted his weight from foot
to foot, picked at the dead bugs on the grill of his SUV and then spoke again. "So,
uh, you hunt?" His gaze had fixed on the rifle leaning against the wall. "Used to," Ed stated flatly. "What did you hunt?" "Anythin' that would run from me." Ed amused himself and issued a chuckle
that sounded like air escaping a tire. “Whatever it was had a chance of getting’
away from me, though.” He continued to smile as he patted Zip on the head again.
“But you can’t out run them dogs.” “Oh, so you used the dogs for hunting? Wow, I’ve heard of hunting with
hounds. So, you’re a houndsman then?” “Reckon so. It’s a thing of beauty.” “What’s that?” “Watchin’ ‘em hunt. It’s what they’re built for, what they do. Nothin’
stands a chance against a pack of dogs.” “I can imagine.” John managed a smile and laughed uneasily. "So you don't hunt
anymore?" "Aw, there's jus' so many deer you can kill. Gets to a point where it
ain't no fun no more." "Well, what about bears and cougars and dangerous animals like that?
Isn't that a challenge?" John had advanced a few steps toward the porch and put his
foot up on the step. Zip grumbled again, watching his every movement. Ed rubbed his whiskered face and sighed. "Well, there's some sport in
stalkin' a predator but then you're faced with the same question. How many of them can you kill? Now-days there's hunters under every rock out here, no matter the
season. They swarm like flies on a corpse." "Well, isn't hunting supposed to control the animal population? So they
don't deplete the environment?" Ed sniffed. "Yessiree, the critter population is bein' kept in check
alright..." He paused and patted the dog's head absently. "But is it really the animals
that need controllin'? I'm no mathematician but the way I figure, in a hundred years
or so, there'll be people on every single inch of this Earth." "That's a pretty a pessimistic outlook." Ed nodded, his gaze wandered off to the sky where a puffy white cloud
was passing by. "Yep. ‘Spose it is but it's true. Pretty soon there won't be any
animals to hunt no matter how hard the government tries to protect ‘em. Poachers,
cars runnin' over 'em, houses bein' built where they live, people movin' in, closin'
in, breedin' like rabbits, takin' over..." John paused before he spoke. "I suspect that's why you live up here,
away from it all." Ed continued his diatribe without even acknowledging John's last observation.
"Then you got the bunny-huggers, whinin' and cryin' about the hunters. They don't
even realize that the high-rise apartment they are livin' in was built on some animal's
home. They think they're better but they ain't." John smiled. "Bunny-huggers, huh?" Joanna burst from the house, gasping as if she was coming up for air.
"Dear God," she stated, her voice raspy and broken by heavy breaths. She scooted
quickly past the dog and trotted down the steps. "How could you live in a place like
that?" Ed watched her walk briskly to her husband. "'Scuse me?" "Really, honey, there's no need to be r—" "With all those dead eyes staring at you all the time." A visible shiver
ran down her spine. She dusted at her gleaming white clothes as if picking off cooties.
Joanna then turned to her husband. "He's got stuffed animal heads all over the walls
in there. In every room. There was even a dead eagle or something staring at me while I went to the bathroom!" John put a comforting hand on his wife's shoulder. She dodged out from
under it and pulled the car door open. "Let's go." John sighed and gave Ed a feeble wave. "Thanks for letting us impose
upon you." "Not a problem." "Two miles up the road, just past the lake." "Yep. You'll see a little sign and an arrow pointin' to the trail." "Great. I enjoyed our philosophical discussion. Have a great day." Zip uttered one last growl as John jumped into his fancy sport utility
vehicle and shut the door. Ed could hear Joanna's voice through the open window droning
on about the animals heads and not seeing a rabies vaccination tag on the dog. Her
voice gradually disappeared as they drove back down the driveway and turned left.
Both man and dog watched them go. Ed leaned back in his chair and sighed. Zip's
gaze moved from the road to his master's face. He stood, shifted nervously and sat
back down. Ed closed his eyes and stretched in an exaggerated movement. A blue bird
landed on the porch railing and eyed the pair for a few seconds before jumping down
into the yard to chase a bug. Another marshmallow cloud drifted across the sky.
Ed studied it, tilted his head and studied it some more. "That look like a moose to you?" he asked his canine companion. "No,
look, there's the horns and the rounded nose...see it?" He traced the moose's outline
in the sky with his index finger. Zip paid no mind. He held his master in an unflinching
gaze. Ed scratched his chin, shooed away the same annoying fly and looked down at
his dog. "What?" Zip let out an excited whine and leapt to his feet. His toenails made
a ticking sound on the floor as he danced around in circles. One of the dogs from
the back answered with his own high-pitched squeal. Then the chorus ensued. "What do you want?" Ed stood with grunt and scooped up the rifle. He
plucked a battered camouflage hat from a hook on the wall and walked down the steps.
Zip remained on the porch until his master beckoned him to follow. “You think your
kin might like to play too? Let’s go let ‘em out. Come on.” Zip scrambled down the step in two giant bounds. He led Ed around the
side of the house to the row of ten kennels that lined the back fence. Two dogs stared
out of each gate, dancing and barking and yowling. They weren’t Labradors like Zip.
They were smaller and sleeker with wiry brown fur that was tipped with black. Some
were doing back flips off of their dog houses; some were climbing up the chain link
fence and tearing at the metal with their teeth. All were drooling with anticipation
and staring at their master with cold black eyes. Ed walked to each gate and flipped up the latch. The dogs began to circle
around him in a whirlpool of fur, sniffing and snorting. When all were liberated
from their confinement, the noise and movement suddenly ceased. All twenty of them
were frozen, staring up at Ed. Every muscle in their bodies were tensed and strained,
ready to spring at a word. "What did he call it, Zip? Population control?" Ed chuckled as he ejected
the magazine from his rifle, looked at it and shoved it back in. "Well, come on then,
hounds. Get movin'." He made a flippant gesture toward the forest. Without a sound, the pack of dogs was a brown and black streak that shot
down the well worn path into the woods, noses on the ground, hair raised in a line
down their backs. They swarmed trees and rocks as they progressed down the trail.
Zip waited near the tree line. His pink mouth was open, tongue lolling. He barked
at his master once and wagged his tail enthusiastically. "Don't let ‘em get too far ahead. You’ll miss all the action. ‘Sides
we gotta give those city slickers time to get up the trail or it won't be any fun.
I jus' wonder how fast she can run in them fancy sneakers." Ed followed slowly, shuffling
his feet, rifle resting over his shoulder, and mumbling to himself. "Invest in a
coupla signs and never run out of opportunities to control the population...umm-hmm...I
hope they got better drinks. Sure am sick of diet Coke."