Secret Fear (continued)

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(continued from)

His first thought was she was barking at a deer. Except Sally never barked at deer. She seemed more curious than defensive about them. A bear? Every so often a black bear would wander this far down, but not usually this late in the season. They would be thinking about hibernation and near a main access road wasn’t very appealing to tired bears.

Ed squinted through the glass. A dog—a big one. In a clearing just off the road stood a large, brown dog. It was lanky with dark red-brown coat and silvery eyes. Its ears were standing straight, alert to the commotion. Abruptly, the animal stiffened as though it was about to dart into the trees, stopped for another quick look, and then turned, head down, and loped away. It was an impressive creature. It appeared to be part wolf. Probably, somebody was looking for it.

Sally quieted and sat panting as she watched the thicket where the dog had disappeared. Ed settled back behind the wheel. Stray dogs weren’t any more common than bears. He wondered it had gotten away from some tourist. It had no collar that he could see. Still, it may have pulled out of its collar. Maybe somewhere there was a California vacationer with a leash and collar but no dog. Ed noted where he was so he could tell any tourist who looked like he’d lost something where he could keep looking. A couple miles down the road was a campground. He would check there, although it had looked empty when he passed in the morning. Not surprising. It was early October. Hardly tourist season, and the area was off limits for hunters. Furthermore, it was a small campground and most tourists this time of year would be traveling in heated trailers with satellite dishes.

He came around a bend in the road, slowed and turned into the campground. Empty.

Maybe one of the locals. Ed thought for a moment. He remembered hearing that somebody in the area had a dog that was part wolf. He’d stopped off to have a beer with a friend and it had come up when they were talking. Ed struggled to bring back the conversation. They had been talking about some of the loggers; about hunting season, about poachers—Mauk! Carl Mauk. That’s who it was. His friend had said that Mauk had some kind of dog that looked like a wolf. It made sense. Mauk’s place was about a quarter of a mile from the forest boundary on Section Line Road, but just across the ridge as the crow flies from where the dog had been. Ed decided he’d stop and let Mauk know where it was before somebody shot it.

Carl Mauk lived in a singlewide trailer. He rented a couple of acres on the high side of the road into town. Next to the gate, propped against the fence, was a splintering 4×8 sheet of plywood that served as a sign. It was spray painted with orange fluorescent paint, “fire wood 80$ a cord.” Next to it was a battered mailbox with the box number scrawled on the side of it with the same orange paint.

Ed slowed and made the turn into the gravel drive. It paralleled a barbed wire fence on either side as it made a wide turn up to a level area overlooking the road. The only improvement on the place that Ed could see was the trailer, white and faded aquamarine with an unpainted porch tacked onto the front. The porch roof was two sagging 4x8s covered with a blue tarp, one end propped up with 2x4s, and the other end laid on the roof and weighted down with a couple of log rounds. There were cardboard boxes filled with empty beer bottles on the porch, a five-gallon gas can and a battered toolbox. A low, weathered wooden shed with a rusty metal roof stood about a fifty yards up the hill.

The place seemed to suit all the rumors Ed had heard about Carl Mauk, a sometime logger, frequent poacher and backwoods rowdy known for having been thrown out of every tavern and club in the county. He had a reputation as a loner who, if he had a couple of beers in him, could take offense at a sideways glance or careless remark over a game of 8-ball.

The only place he was still welcome was Jiminy’s Jump, a dusty looking dive run by a man named Jim Pollard, a hulking ex U of O lineman in his early fifties with a reputation for keeping order in a place that often needed it. Mauk had come in one night drunk and in foul humor, having been tossed out of a club in Bend. He took exception when Big Jim brought him a bottle of root beer instead of the Bud he ordered.

Mauk glared at Pollard. “What’s this?”

“You’ve had enough,” said ‘Jiminy.’

Mauk started to stand up. “I’ll tell ya when I’ve had enough,” he roared.

Mauk never made it to his feet. Suddenly, he was on the floor looking up at Big Jim who had one knee planted in the middle of his chest. The expression on Mauk’s face was the precise definition of surprise. When standing he was over six feet. In his work boots he was a monster. He wore a permanent scowl on his face that signaled a warning to anyone that might think about getting in his way. Mauk wasn’t used to being challenged. So when Jim Pollard took him to the floor his world crumbled into momentary confusion.

Big Jim escorted Mauk to the door and told him that if he was going to get wasted he should start the process at his tavern instead of spending money somewhere else then dropping by so Jim had to go to the trouble of kicking his ass. This apparently sounded to Mauk like an invitation. From then on he was a regular patron at Jiminy’s Jump.

If Mauk had frequented any other watering hole in the county, his presence would have been a blow to business, but at Jiminy’s it was understood that if he caused a problem, Big Jim would see to it that he got tossed out on his keester. There was a certain security in that. As for Carl Mauk, Pollard’s was the only place the owner wouldn’t call the cops when he walked through the door. He had a grudging respect for Big Jim.

“Down, Sally!” The dog’s ears went slack. Sally paused for an instant as though she was considering some mutinous stand-off and then, thinking better of it, slid sullenly to the floor where there was an old blanket for her to curl up in when she was banished from view.

Forest service employees were forbidden to have animals in government rigs, reruns of Lassie notwithstanding. Ed ignored the rule. She was good company and he couldn’t bear to leave her home. Fortunately, the Keller house was right off the main highway between the ranger station and the forest boundary. It was a simple matter for Ed to drive to the station in the morning and take care of whatever business needed doing and then swing by the house on the way out to the field. Sally would wait on the front porch until she heard the truck round the corner at which time she would crouch down—an arrow ready to fly—waiting for Ed to give the signal: a quick tap on the horn. Seconds later, Ed would open the door and Sally would leap in, almost before the truck had come to a complete stop. Ed only expected one thing of his stowaway companion: when a tourist, or Dalt, the district ranger approached she was to hide on the floor and stay there until invited to join the civilized world again. Truth was, most everybody, including Dalt, knew about Sally. Officially, she wasn’t there. Unofficially, she worked for the US Government.

Ed nosed the truck in next to a battered four-by-four with a plywood jockey box in the back. There was a gun rack, empty, in the back window. That Mauk had his rifle inside with him made Ed a little nervous.

“Sally, stay!”

He got out and rounded the front of Mauk’s truck. Somewhere he heard a dog barking.

“Whadayuh, want…” It was more of a challenge than a question. Carl Mauk was standing on the porch as if he intended to charge down the stairs if Ed took another step. He was a big man with a sagging paunch. His hair was long. Tied back it hung well below his collar. He was bearded as a matter of laziness. Wide, red suspenders were hitched to faded jeans that had been cut off just at the top of thick-soled work boots. He had half-drunk bottle of Heineken in his left hand.

Ed stopped. “Howdy…” He tried to sound friendly.

“Whadayuh want?”

“Are you Mauk?” Ed knew very well who he was. Mauk said nothing. “Do you have a dog that’s part wolf?”

Mauk was expressionless, but his eyes were threatening. “So what if I do?”

Being good with people was part of his job, but Ed didn’t like being bullied. It irritated him. He had come to do the guy a favor and it was turning into a throw-down. He felt like telling this moron where he could stick it.

Ed took a breath. “Listen, man. I’m not here to get in your face. I saw a big dog just beyond Slip Creek Camp—part wolf. I think it might be yours. I heard you had a wolf-dog so I stopped by…”

Mauk sipped his beer and seemed to soften a little. “It ain’t mine.”

“Are you sure? I just…”

Suddenly, Mauk let out an ear-piercing whistle. “Choker!”

The barking from the shed stopped. There was the sound of a heavy chain being dragged and a big grey dog came into view, ears standing at attention.

“Like I said. My dog’s right here. And I ain’t got but one.”

“Well…” Ed said. “Sorry. Just figured I’d ask. Figured you’d want to know if he got loose.”

“It’s OK…”

“Gotta say, though, that’s a good looking dog. Did you get him around here?

Ed was thinking that there were others from the same litter in the area and that Mauk might know who else was missing an animal. Not only that, he wanted to leave on good terms. If Carl Mauk liked his dog, then Ed would talk to him about his dog. Mauk was a drunk and a bully, just the kind of guy you wanted to stay on the right side of in case you ran into him on a lonely forest service road someday. The Mauks of the world made better friends than enemies.

“Alaska,” Mauk said.

“I hear that’s pretty country. Work up there?”

“Naw. Friend there. Has sled dogs.”

“What is he, wolf and what? Part Malamute?”

“Yeah. One bitch had got loose. When she come back she had a litter of four pups. Choker’s one of ’em.”

“Know of anybody else that has a dog like that around here?”

“Nope.”

“Well, maybe it belongs to some tourist.” It was time to go. Mauk wasn’t much of a conversationalist. Anyhow, Ed could feel the lateness of the afternoon and he didn’t feel much inclined spend any more time with this guy than he had to.

“Well, hey, thanks for your time. Sorry to bother you.” He pushed out his hand.
Mauk hesitated for a second then took Ed’s hand and gripped it hard—unreasonably hard. Ed stifled a wince.

Seconds later, he was getting back in the truck, working his fingers. What a jerk! Friendly handshake and he pulls some macho bullcrap! What an asshole. Ed turned the truck around and headed down the drive. He was going to wave as though nothing had happened, but Carl Mauk had already gone inside.
Ed fumed most of the way back to his place. He had intended to check in at the ranger station tonight, but his irritation made him change his mind. At least the encounter with Mauk had taken his mind off the forgotten logging. He’d check it out tomorrow.

(To be continued, next scene.)

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