“I was until you just disappeared. I called your name. Didn’t you hear me?”
Rachel and Elsie exchanged a glance. “No,” they said in unison.
“Did you see the meadow?” asked Rachel. “Did you make it that far?”
“Huh-uh,” Martha responded in the negative. “You guys just took off, right outside this bunch of trees.”
“Let’s try again,” said Rachel. There was an uneasy hitch in her voice.
“Just don’t run off,” warned Martha as she pushed herself up from her seat.
They hadn’t traveled very far, though, before Martha had again vanished from the group. Determined to keep her in sight, Rachel had been looking back every couple of seconds. After they’d lost her, Rachel explained that it was like Martha had stepped briefly behind a tree and then did not appear on the other side. The sisters returned to find the missing girl standing, bemused, in the middle of the little clearing by the fallen cottonwood.
“You did it again,” she accused.
“What is happening?” Rachel said, clearly at her wit’s end. She was massaging her temples with her fingers.
Just then, a dog ran past them.
They all froze.
The dog, perhaps following the specter of a woodland creature, tore through their clearing with the speed and obliviousness that only a canine could muster. It leapt over the fallen cottonwood without giving a second glance at the three girls and disappeared into the bushes.
“Did you see that?” asked Martha.
“Yeah,” said Rachel. “That was a dog. I think it was a retriever.” She paused before adding, “I don’t really like dogs.”
“Oh,” said Martha. “Still, that was strange.”
The girls barely had a chance to wonder where the dog had come from and w
here it was running off to in such a hurry before another dog, this one a large malamute with light gray fur, came tearing across the clearing. It, too, leapt the cottonwood and vanished on the trail of the first dog. In a matter of seconds a third and fourth dog, each different from the ones before, appeared from the one side of the clearing and ran after the other two. When a fifth appeared, Elsie tried to step in its way.
“Hey, boy,” she called. “Here, boy.”
The dog, a collie, merely dashed around Elsie; it was gone in a flash.
Then came the deluge.
It was like a buffalo stampede. This was the first thing that sprang to Elsie’s mind as she saw what could only be described as a clamoring herd of dogs crashing through the edge of the clearing and running toward them. There were easily thirty dogs, of every breed imaginable, and they were sprinting after their forerunners with gleeful, slobbering abandon.
Martha let out a scream and nearly fell from her perch on the tree; Rachel, exhibiting a show of athletic prowess Elsie’d never before seen, hurdled the cottonwood in a single bound and began sprinting away from the charging tide of dogs. Elsie, for her part, stood stock-still. The furry wave crested and spilled around her; it was clear that the three girls were the least of the dogs’ concerns. They were too busy chasing after the disembodied thing that had so enticed the preceding five dogs. One of them, a black pug who was taking up the rear on account of his stubby legs, even stopped and slobbered a little on Elsie’s boot; she petted him, and he yipped appreciatively before continuing on his way.
“Rachel!” she hollered, having recovered from her shock. “Martha!” Elsie vaulted the fallen tree and found Martha in a clump on the forest floor, trying to wipe mud from her goggles.
“What was that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Elsie. “But we need to go after my sister. She’s kind of scared of dogs.”
The two girls took up the chase. It was fairly easy to stay on the dogs’ trail; their wake in the snow resembled the path of a frenzied pack of football fans looking for a fast-food joint. The dogs’ paws, in their plurality, laid flat every plant in their path. Not far along, they heard a quiet whimpering; they found Rachel, petrified with fear, clinging to the lower branches of a maple tree.
“You okay, Rach?” called Elsie.
“I think they’re gone now,” suggested Martha.
“Oh my God,” said Rachel, lowering herself from her branch. “Tell me what just happened.”
“We got stampeded by dogs,” answered Elsie.