Max had taken off on his little hunting excursions before, but this time was different. He didn't return . . .
In the past, we have let him run around the hunt camp when there wasn't much hunting activity going on. In our minds, Max is not a "real" hunting dog. He's an old, arthritic, but very beloved family pet. We often watch as his stiff-old beagle legs slowly carry him around the camp yard.I think little ole Max, on the other hand, sees himself quite differently, possibly even as a legend in his own mind. Hadn't he shown us in the past that he was quite capable of hunting down very big wild game in a vast national forest? You can read about Max's first deer here. (You might want to judge for yourself, though, just how "very big" this wild game was.) On another occasion, we had watched with our very own eyes as Max sniffed out and unearthed a little gray mole who was digging up the yard.
Yes, I can see how Max might think of himself as the great-white hunter. When riding in the pick-up truck, front seat between me and Kenny, he sits alert and on standby for anything that moves through the woods as we're riding down bumpy dirt roads. His job is to let us know just as soon as possible when he spots the tell-tale flag of a white-tail deer or anything else of interest.
On one such truck-riding expedition, Max treed this little racoon while he (Max) was sitting right up there in the front seat of our truck. Well, maybe it wasn't really him who did the treeing. But Max was howling like an old coon hound just as proudly and loudly as if he himself had sniffed out that ole coon and sent him scurring up the pine. Yes indeedy, I think ole Max probably thinks of himself as a spry young-champ of a hunting dog.
I digress, back to the missing-dog saga. It was the day before the opening of gun season. Max was biting at the bits to get out of the hunt camp and into the woods. The air was crisp. Max was well rested from a good night's sleep and had a tummy full of doggy vittles. What the heck, we thought, let's let him run around a bit before the woods are full of hunters tomorrow.
It wasn't long before I heard his deep aw-whooool, aw-whooool, aw-whooool echoing through the forest sounding like a prized deer dog hot on the heels of a big ten-point buck. However, as I looked out the trailer window, I saw an elderly little doggy just toodling along the edge of the camp with his nose to the ground and his tail happily wagging. This must be what it's like in doggy heaven, I thought to myself as I watched what surely was a blissful beagle. Max doesn't appear to be too picky with his prey. With his little beagle nose, he intently follows the scent of - well, just about anything.
It was a beautiful day. I was busy sprucing up the camp from the inside, and Kenny was busy sprucing up the outside. Max was busy being a dog - smelling stuff, barking, and rambling through the woods.
About mid-afternoon, Kenny said he hadn't heard Max lately and asked if I had. No, I hadn't. Usually, Max gets tired after a few runs around the campsite and comes back for a drink of water and to rest for a while. Not that day.
It was getting dark and the temperature dropping. We knew that Florida black bears roamed these woods. Ralph, at the hunt camp to the left of us, told us about a momma bear and baby cub he had seen several times near his camp. Mike, at the hunt camp to the right, had seen a big ole narly-looking bear to the back of his campsite. We, too, had personal sightings of bears near our hunt camp. I fearfully wondered if beagle was on their menu.
We couldn't wait any longer for Max to return on his own. The search was on. We went to every campsite in the area and put the word out about our missing Max. The nearby campsites were filling up with dog hunters. Many times they will pick up lost dogs and try to find their owners. No luck that evening though.
Sadly, we headed back to our hunt camp, all the way searching the darkness for our little tri-colored beagle. There was always the hope, too, that Max would be sitting on the steps waiting for us. I held my breath as we turned into the two-rut lane to camp. I saw no dog - nothing. My heart sank.
The next day, we once again drove around the forest, coming back to our hunt camp and checking every so often to see if he had returned. Then when it was getting near dark, we came across a campsite where Hudson's bunch were staying. They said they heard what sounded like a lone beagle near the swamp. They had a lost dog, too, near that area, but had called it quits for the evening and would look for their dog the next morning.
Kenny and I headed for the swamp. This had been a hot and dry year, so no 4-wheel drive or winch were necessary.
The full moon and bright stars led our way through the thick bush.
Every so often, we stopped, turned off the engine, and listened for that one lonely howl drifting through the pines - aw-whooool. But there was nothing.
We drove down the ruts a few more turns and weaved through the trees. Stopped. Listened. This time we heard several quick barks. The bushes rustled. I watched and waited hopefully while the cold night air turned my beathing to a fog as I exhaled. The barking grew louder until finally he appeared. It was a dog, a hunting dog; but not my little Max.
Kenny checked the dog's collar and saw that this was the Hudson's lost dog. He put him in the dog box in the back of the truck. We went back to see the Hudson bunch and give them their dog. By this time, other hunters had returned to that camp, and they said they hadn't seen Max either.
Tears streamed down my face all the way back to our hunt camp. This was a time when I was really glad I am a female. We're allowed to cry, weep, or all-out bawl if the urge hits us. Poor old Kenny. He had to do the "man thing" and hold back his tears. I knew he was hurting too; but being a man, he "sucked it up" all the way to camp.
I've often asked myself, why do you get so attached to a dog? I don't really know, but I suspect that God gave them to us for a reason. Maybe it's to help us realize the humanness in ourselves, which is the capacity to love and feel emotion. Or, perhaps, they are an example to show us how to love unconditionally.
It was getting late. Not giving up hope, we would search again tomorrow.
The next morning slipped up on us. There was no sunshine heralding it's arrival. The sky was gray and the air damp as Kenny and I began our trek by foot deep into the woods surrounding our hunt camp. Maybe we could at least find his collar or dead carcass,I thought. At least I would know to quit looking for him. As I thought these thoughts, the tears once againdripped from my eyes. Shut up! Don't think that! I had to tell myself. Next were my thoughts of hope. He's just around the next bush curled up from the wet and cold. You'll see. He's just laying there waiting for us.
Kenny and I walked out through Ken Ray's camp, back toward the area that caught fire this past summer. We walked the fire break until we came to a clearing. No sign of Max. We crossed over the clearing and then down along the creek. We walked and walked until we came near the riverbed. No sign of Max.
Even on a dreary and misty day, the forest is beautiful and filled with woodsy aromas. I've often felt that the forest is a sanctuary of peace and quiet where you can breathe clean air. You can clear your mind. You can reflect on life and talk to God.
I know, too, that there is another side to the forest as well. There is a harsh reality of the wild kingdom. The survival of the fittest. My thoughts turned quickly to Max. He was anything but "fit." He was old, his tired old muscles ached, and his little legs were stiff when he sat too long. He wasn't quick either. Heck, I could probably out-run him if I had too (and I'm an old lady). I knew there were snakes, bears,and coyotes in these woods that could harm him. I've heard them and seen them, too.
We circled back through the dense forest. Still no sign of Max. Teary-eyed, I went to the trailer. Kenny checked at the nearby hunt camps one more time with the hope that maybe someone had seen or heard him. However, our efforts that day were futile.
The misty, dreary day turned into a stormy, rainy night. Each streak of lightening bolting through the sky was like an arrow shooting into my heart. All I could think about was poor little ole Max. If he was still alive, I knew he must have been frightened. He doesn't like thunder and lightening. He would always come and be close to me and Kenny as if we could protect him from the violent forces of nature. All through the night I checked the porch expecting to see him huddled in a little ball waiting to come in out of the cold and rain.
By daybreak the rain had cleared, but there was still no sign of Max. We had to leave and return to town. I had an eerie, anti-reality feeling as we drove out the gate toward the highway. A part of me was lost somewhere in these woods and nothing felt "normal."
Maybe someone found him and would call us at our phone number listed on his dog collar. We put a "Missing Dog" notice on our website. Maybe someone would contact us through the website. Kenny and I checked with the animal shelter. Maybe Max lost his collar and someone picked him up and brought him to town. Maybe this, maybe that -- there was always a "maybe" for hope. But up to this point, Max was still missing. We were running out of "maybes."
A couple of days had passed before we were able to return to the hunt camp. The darkness of night slowly encompassed us as we traveled down the highway.
We had traveled this road so many times - Kenny driving, me riding shotgun, and little ole Max sitting between us.
Hazy memories drifted through my head. I almost expected Kenny to say as he always did, "Max, look for deer, boy." I could almost feel the pressure of Max's paws on my lap as he positioned himself for a better view out the window. I could almost hear the little whimpering sound he made when he got excited. Almost, almost.
It was completely dark by the time we rolled up to the gate at camp. Kenny got out of the truck to unlock the gate.
"I think I hear a dog," he said.
I quickly rolled down my window. "Yes, yes. I hear it too!"
I sometimes think Kenny should have been born in the "Daniel Boone" era. He's always thinking of hunting and catching things. Before we left camp after Max went missing, he put food in the coyote live-trap cage. His thinking was that if Max came back to camp and we weren't here, Max would be hungry and go to the cage. Max would then be trapped in the cage and wouldn't run off again. Plus, Max would have food to eat. On the other hand, if he didn't get Max, he'd get a coyote, possum or coon. He says those pecky possums and coons can be a menice when they get under your house and tear out your insulation.
We rolled down the dark two-rut lane into camp. On our left, in the direction of the live-trap, we heard a barking dog.
"That sure sounds like our Max," I said.
Suddenly the familiar "aw-whooool, aw-whooool," turned into a frantic yapping bark that didn't sound at all like our Max.
"Well, we caught something," said Kenny, "I'm just not sure what yet."
I knew his heart had to be racing, because mine certainly was. I was already reaching for the door handle before the truck stopped.
"Hold on," said Kenny. "Let me stop first."
We both grabbed flashlights and ran towards the yapping animal rattling in the cage. I could hardly see for the tears in my eyes. Happy tears, excited tears, emotional tears. It just had to be him, I thought.
"It's him!" exclaimed Kenny, as he reached inside the cage for our very excited Max. He quickly snapped a leash to his collar, which probably wasn't necessary. But we weren't taking any chances in him running away again. Max trembled from head to toe with excitement as he lunged toward Kenny and me.
I grabbed Max and hugged him tightly. Then Kenny grabbed and hugged Max. I hugged Kenny. Then we all three had a slobbery group hug with tears of joy. It wasn't long before Max dragged us running to the trailer and his food dish!
Thank you, Jesus, for answered prayers.
I will always wonder just what happened to our little ole Max while he was gone. He didn't appear to be harmed or have any cuts or scratches, but you could tell that he had lost a few pounds. I'm guessing that maybe he got carried away being a beagle sniffing, hunting, and barking. He probably got on the trail of that big ten-point buck and followed him deep into the woods. I'm so thankful, though, that he found his way back home!
The Happy Ending!