Whatever it was, hiding under the lowest boughs of the fir tree, far back and deep near the narrow trunk where it's always dark and shadowy, had Duncan's attention.
Our morning walk had taken us down The Run, through the shrubs where the squirrels and little gray and brown birds hide, to The Glen, which the sun had only just began to touch. The grass was stiff and frosted with the silver cobwebs of a hard frost and the air was cold and unmoving. As the sun slipped over the line of buildings its rays softened the ice and ignited the dew drops into a millions golden globes, playing with our eyes even as it blinded us. Duncan burst into a hard run, circling me and sliding on his side down the hill. He ran and ran around me, panting in that untamed, exuberant way that dogs have, his tongue hanging out, his eyes wide but focused on everything simultaneously, as if he was seeing the entire morning, racing to capture its every aspect.
And then he stopped. His body went utterly rigid, except for his left foreleg, which was raised, barely hovering above the grass while the paw quivered slightly as though stirring the cold air. He took a very slow and cautious step, lowering his head and peering under the low boughs of the tree. I leaned forward and peered into its depths, expecting to see a lone rabbit or perhaps a squirrel perched at the base of the trunk, its eyes riveted on Duncan, waiting to decide what to do. But there was nothing. The leaves, blown wild from last night's tremendous wind, had formed a deep, unmoving undulating pool there, deeper in places, nearly bare in others, tall frozen waves rising and falling in a brown and yellow ring. I stepped to Roo's side and followed the line of his vision but couldn't see anything. He took another step, pushing his shoulders back and steadied his hind legs as he prepared to leap.
And then he sprang straight into the needles, parting them and slipping among the branches. I expected an explosion of sound as whatever creature huddled there jumped into action, ran in a quick circle as the squirrels often do, screaming and cursing as they clamor for safety. But no, only utter silence. Duncan drove inward again, invisible except for his tail, a red and gold propeller that rotated and pushed him ever forward. I heard him snort and huff and then he began to scratch at the leaves and earth, shredding them as he strained and moved, moved and strained.
And then he emerged, jaws wrapped tightly around something small and brown, soft-looking and snug. Oh God, he's found a dead rabbit, I thought. Now what? What do I do? He kept his head low and turned away from me as he darted around and away from me, as he does when he's being coy about a game of fetch. I followed him, shouted his name and commanded him to stop, which he did. As I leaned in he turned his head, swallowed and bit down.
"Duncan," I said sternly. "Drop it. Drop it now."
So he did. The thing rolled down the hill, bouncing as it went, cutting a vague path through the leaves before coming to rest twenty feet away. Duncan made to move again but I beat him to it, sliding on the wet grass and bending to pick up a large chocolate chip muffin.
"This?" I asked. "This is what you've been stalking?" He whined and beat the earth with his tail and made pretty eyes at me but I did not give in, although I did laugh and pat him on the head, and tossed him a papaya and mango treat. "Good boy," I told him. "What a brave hunter you are. What a serious mission."