There is a dog barking. Not the sort of barking that demands play. Not the ‘Look at that! Look at that!’ sort of barking. Not angry barking. Cheyenne has never not had a dog. She knows what those all sound like, whether the dog is big or small, whether it barks like a plush toy or like its trying to shake down the moon.
It’s the rapid, high-pitched, desperate yapping of a dog demanding help. She’s never heard it from her current dog, but it’s a sound that pulls at her sternum like a deep-set instinct.
She stares at the bright yellow ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY. NO TRESPASSING’ sign tacked to the nearest tree. There are more of them in either direction, tacked to every fifth tree along the road.
The dog keeps screaming.
Finally, Cheyenne squeezes her eyes shut and takes a deep breath, eyes opening again as she huffs the breath out. She squares her shoulders and steps into the trees, not even sparing the highlighter yellow signs another glance.
The trees stretch on ahead of her, but within a few yards, Cheyenne comes to a deer path, and it seems to be a stroke of luck that it’s headed in the same direction as the dog’s frantic barking. As she follows the narrow, uneven path, the barking gets steadily louder.
Cheyenne walks for maybe half a mile when the trees begin to thin and the barking gets even louder, as if the dog knows she’s coming. She picks up her pace, and in just a few moments of jogging, trees give way to grass and a stretch of fence.
There’s another sign, wooden, handmade, and less impersonal than the yellow paper, but still with ‘NO TRESPASSING’ painted on it in sloppy black strokes.
The dog keeps screaming from beyond the fence, and Cheyenne pushes the gate open and follows the overgrown dirt path toward the noise.
The house she comes to after a few hundred more yards is small and has been unattended for at least a few years, with its gardens all choked by weeds and the windows caked in dust from the inside.
A dog—an enormous, shaggy, brown and white mutt with mismatched ears—comes bounding around the side of the house, barking all the more urgently once it locks eyes on Cheyenne. She follows it to the backyard without question, where it runs to a stone well, the sides beginning to crumble inwards.
Cautiously, Cheyenne peers into the well that the dog is now circling and her heart sinks.
At the bottom of the well, some few dozen feet down, a body rests in the damp dirt, long since rotted away to little more than bone.
Cheyenne can just imagine someone leaning against the well and going tumbling when the old rocks gave way. Maybe they died immediately, maybe not. Too far to call for help, there would have been nothing to do but wait for the inevitable while the dog barked in vain.
“How long have you been barking, huh?” she wonders sympathetically as she turns to the dog again. Its tail gives a tentative wag and it wuffs quietly. It still seems remarkably healthy; thank heavens for small mercies.
Even so, there isn’t much to do. Cheyenne has no way of getting the body back out of the well, and if anyone had been looking for the poor soul, she’s pretty sure they wouldn’t still be down there. There doesn’t seem to be much point in reporting it.
But where there are gardens, or what had once been gardens, there are shovels, and dirt is dirt.
The dog trots in Cheyenne’s wake as she heads back to the house and the shed tucked against it. The shed’s rusted lock gives way when she heaves her shoulder against the door, and there is a shovel hanging on a hook on the wall. Cheyenne reaches up, grabs it, and closes the shed again as she backs out of it.
The dog continues to follow as she heads back to the well, shovel over her shoulder.
Bit by bit, she begins dumping dirt down the well, in shovel scoops no larger than handful at first, until she gradually gets used to the dirt and the feel of the tool and she really manages to drive it through the ground. The work picks up a bit once she gets the hang of it, but it still isn’t a quick job by any means as she slowly but surely mounds dirt over the body below.
For well over an hour she works, and the dog sits patiently off to the side the entire time, tail wagging slowly over the grass as it watches her work with gentle brown eyes.
When at last Cheyenne plants the shovel in the dirt and leaves it there, there is nowhere near enough dirt over the body to be a proper burial, but at least they’re buried.
Cheyenne peers down the well one last time to check before picking up one of the well’s collapsed stones and planting it beside the shovel like an informal marker.
“What do you think about that?” she asks lightly, hands on her hips as she turns to the dog again, only to find that its patch of grass is empty.
Cheyenne turns in a quick circle, but the dog is nowhere in sight, and it doesn’t put in an appearance when she rounds the house to check the other side. The sun is going down, though, and if she wants to make it back through the woods and back to the road before it’s completely dark, she doesn’t have time to look for it.
She takes one last look around before heading back for the fence and the treeline.
The woods are quiet as she makes her way back to the road, save for the crickets and owls. As she puts one foot in front of the other, she can’t help but wonder just how long that dog has been waiting for someone—anyone—to care about its owner as much as it does.