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Story: “Morgan Pack Dogs” (February 2024)

Morgan Pack Dogs

by April Grant

“So what we’ve been doing with Sugar is ‘solo training,’” said Tara.


“And what we’re going to the woods to do now is ‘pack field.’”


“Pack and field day!” Tara had a good laugh at her own joke. “How often do you – oh! We’re here! Take a right here!” Tara had alerted at the sight of the dented metal sign that said WESTFORD-DEAUVILLE WILDERNESS AREA.

“Yes, I know.” Faith considered she had likely been out here two hundred times over the years since she started raising Morgan pack dogs, but this was the first time with Sugar, or with a guest. She steered off the narrow highway onto a wide dirt road under pine trees. Sugar started yipping and panting in her crate.

“She knows something good’s going to happen,” said Tara, beaming.

Faith rolled down their windows. “Let’s let her smell some pine woods. Let’s smell them ourselves. Mm!”

They were driving down a series of winding curves through an evergreen forest that had been planted in rows. There was little undergrowth between the tall straight trunks that went straight up from the pine-needly ground, at regular intervals, like a child’s bad drawing of trees.

“I’m hoping today will be good in the long term,” Faith went on.

“That sounds ominous,” said Tara, with her usual lack of tact. “Why wouldn’t it be good? Pupper in the woods, playing with her friends, learns field sports and is a G.O.O.D. D.O.G, and that’s it, today, right?” Tara had learned to only say “good dog!” when Sugar successfully brought a throwing toy back and gave it up to the thrower’s hand.

“Well, I want to see her form. You can learn fielding technique, but you can’t learn form, that’s bred into you, and we can only go so far testing her form on her own. I need to see if she’s a good pack dog, and I need to see that she has staying power. Not too worried about the latter. She can focus when she has to. But we won’t know if she’s a true pack dog till I see her in the field.”

“Playing well with others?” said Tara.

“I suppose so. I guess that’s a good way to put it. I’d like to breed her one day, but if she really doesn’t field well, I’m not sure I can justify putting much more time into her.”

Tara hesitated. Faith could sense her wondering if that meant “spaying and rehoming” or “euthanasia.” Instead, she said, “I can see why you’re having a hard time pulling young people into this hobby. It’s awfully high stakes for an optional activity.”

“I suppose you might say that.” Faith wasn’t hurt. The younger woman was often tactless and never seemed to mean anything nasty by it. “I’m still hoping to get you hooked on Morgan dogs.”

“You hooked me the day you showed up at the athletic fields with a puppy,” said Tara. “I love her floppy ears and her enormous feets and I just want to brush her every day. I do wish I had a dog like her. But is this going to be like sending her to boot camp? I’m not sure I could be harsh with her.”

“Not at all. She’ll have a great time, whatever else happens. And I hope you will as well. It’s really kind of you to give up your Saturday morning to help out at field like this.”

“Give up? I’ve been dreaming of this day for weeks! I get to be in the middle of a big pile of cute dogs.” She glanced out the window. “Oh, the trees are in rows like soldiers.”

“The Civilian Conservation Corps planted them like that,” said Faith.

“You’d think they would have better taste and mix things up a little! It looks fake.”

Faith thought Tara resembled Sugar as much as a middle-aged human woman could: reddish-brown hair, round eyes, long legs, big feet, exclamatory high-pitched voice. That had always felt like a good omen, but it wouldn’t have been meaningful if Tara hadn’t also devoted a lot of time on weekends to meeting Faith and Sugar at the university athletic fields and teaching Sugar to fetch. She was just at the perfect time for a dog in her life, and after that maybe she would live a life of dogs.

They drove out of the woods into sunlight. The road ran along the top of an earthen causeway through the middle of a cattail swamp. Red-winged blackbirds flew among the dry grasses. Faith pictured Tara twenty years down the line as a skilled hunter, coming here with Sugar’s great-grandchildren and a series of still younger hunter friends and their dogs, and felt a surge of hope.

It surged again when Tara said, “What-all does everyone do? Do you have to be retired to have the time for this?”

“No, not at all,” said Faith, and told her how Marsha was retired and nearly eighty and had been doing this for sixty years, and Opal was a full-time duck hunter and guide, but Kathleen was an oncology nurse who did this in her spare time to unwind, and Vivienne was a librarian and Iona ran an organic farm.

“It’s perfectly possible to work hunting in with your day-to-day,” she said. “Sugar will be the sixth dog I’ve ever trained, and the others were all while I was still at Fidelity or teaching. You just have to learn patience. It’s hands down the hardest lesson I’ve ever learned. I am a flawed human being like any other, but Sugar should be under the impression that I am a gentle queen who never loses my temper.”

“Well, that’s exactly how I think of you, so it’s working,” said Tara.

“It’s my iron self-discipline.”

They drove into the deep shade of another wood. This one had grown without human planning, and was leafy, mostly oaks and hickories, with pricker bushes and huge tangles of wild roses packed in between the tree trunks. The shade was dense and cool.

Faith decided to risk it. “You’re what, thirty-nine? Forty?”

“Forty-one. I’m old.”

“You’re young by Morgan hunter standards. I was exactly the age you are now when I started training my first dog. There were Morgan dogs before that but other people had brought them up and I took them on later.” She thought of having to rehome Kelly’s dogs and remembered the sense of despair, overwhelming at the time, foggy now.

“That’s encouraging,” said Tara. “I always pictured you taking it up as a teenager in competitions and stuff. I just realized lately I’m not going to get much better at any of my sports, no matter how much I train or stretch. It’s just a slow spiral down to the tomb while getting worse at things along the way.”

“That’s not an inevitability,” said Faith. “Some physical callings you get better at as you age.”

“And this is one of them?”


“Like, from wisdom you’ve acquired along the way?”

“I’m sure that’s a part of it.” Faith couldn’t help smiling.

Before Tara could pepper Faith with more questions, they came over a rise and saw the other hunters.

Everyone was parked along one side of the road, near two picnic tables by the trees, with some of the dogs out and on the leash. At a glance, everyone else was there already, but Faith was pleased to find they were still three minutes ahead of eight. On such a potentially unlucky day it was best to do everything right that was within her control.

“Oh, there’s tons of dogs!” said Tara in delight.

Faith parked behind the last car. “Better have a big drink of water, we’re about to be out in the sun for a long time. A big drink. Half your bottle.” She leapt out and hurried around to the back of the car.

Sugar was wild-eyed and full of jittery energy, panting hard in her crate. She tried to push her wet pink nose and then her whole body through the gap between the bars.

“You look like the camel trying to pass through the eye of the needle,” Faith told her. “Lie down!”

Sugar lay on her belly. Only her eyes lifted.

Faith opened the crate, grabbed the spiked safety collar from her bag of tricks, and added it to the remote collar around Sugar’s muscular throat. She made sure they were buckled just tight enough. Then she backed away, letting the tension build. “Come here!”

Sugar leapt down, bolted to Faith and put her head up against Faith’s shins, her tail beating so hard that it stirred the dry pine needles. Faith praised her and rubbed her silky ears and made much of her. It couldn’t be possible she was lacking in any way. She was ten months old, she’d grown past any risks to her hips or her vision, and she was getting stronger and faster every day. “My satin girl,” Faith whispered, for luck, and then, aloud, “Go say hi to your friends.”

“You made it!” Marsha came swaggering towards her flanked by Perrybelle and Colonel.

Marsha was five feet tall, nearly eighty, built like a mini-refrigerator and apparently indestructible. Her dogs were gorgeous barrel-chested auburn giants. One day if all went well, Sugar would look like them and have the same relaxed air of authority and silky but alert ears. They were old friends to Sugar, who went into a frenzy of wagging and sniffing and licking out of joy to be reunited with them. Perrybelle put her head on Sugar’s back, for all the world as if trying to emotionally steady her.

“Baby been off her food lately?” said Marsha. “She looks a little more ribby than I remember.”

“She had diarrhea midweek,” said Faith, heated with guilt. “I’m still not sure what caused it but it seems she may have licked something off the counter. The vet says she’s fine now.”

Marsha grunted. “I’m putting you in first for simple retrieves so she can get her ya-yas out. After that we’ll see.”

“Thanks,” said Faith, not sure if she was being favored or scrutinized for a fault. It was hard to earn Marsha’s good opinion and fatally easy to lose it.

The other hunters were always easier for Faith to be friends with, even if they were all very different people. Everybody in the group but Faith favored dingy old event sweatsuits and sneakers. Faith knew she looked a little odd beside them in her peach leggings and lavender sunguard shirt, but she liked to have pretty colors, and no one ever remarked on her being too fussy. They all crowded around to exclaim over Sugar’s growth and breadth of chest and responsive sits, and she was straightforwardly pleased to see them. Vivienne even hugged her.

“Who’s this tall girl?” said Opal.

All the hunters and some of their dogs turned and stared at Tara, who was wandering aimlessly behind the parked cars. She felt their eyes on her, turned, and said “Oh, uh, hi,” and did a little wave.

“You gonna steal my car?” said Marsha, grinning in her most unfriendly way.

Tara looked like she wanted to hide behind herself.

“This is Tara! She’s with me,” said Faith. “Tara, honey, come over and meet everybody.” She instantly regretted the honey. She knew Tara found it infantilizing. But it was a smoothing-things-over word.

“And tuck your pants in your socks, there’s ticks here,” said Kathleen.

Tara ducked down to yank her socks up over her stretchy modern jeans, while also reaching up from her crouch to shake hands with Vivienne (skinny as a rake) and Opal (unlit cigarette hanging out one side of her broad mouth) and everyone else. She blinked and stammered a lot in the process.

Marsha went from hostile to businesslike with no transitional state in between.

“Did you bring armor?” she asked Tara.

“No, she’s a normal person,” said Faith, glad to be getting down to practicalities. “She can borrow my old set, if we get that far today. I have armor and a shag suit both rolled up in the seat compartment.”

“A’right. Circle up, everybody.” All the hunters called or whistled – or just patted one leg – and were flanked by Morgan dogs, facing in to hear Marsha’s plan for the day.

It would be solo fetches as a warmup, then chasing the lure, then tackles. No surprises for Faith. She was worried Tara would feel left out, but Tara just remained sitting on the ground while the hunters talked, for all the world like an extra dog, her reddish-brown ponytail coordinating well with Sugar’s ears. She glanced around at the alert pack dogs with her face full of longing, like she wanted to pet them but knew it would be out of line at the moment.

Everyone scattered to get supplies, and Kathleen, in her “My Grandkids Love Me” puff paint sweatshirt, pulled out a tube of SPF 50 sunscreen and made Tara hold out her hand for a gob. “Learn from my mistakes, sweetie, put it on before you go any further,” she said. “I’ve had four melanomas taken off me. I used to sunbathe, we called it in the seventies. Lie in the sun, oh, for hours! I was a moron.”

Faith feared Tara would say something stand-offish like “Don’t call me sweetie,” but she just took the sunscreen and said, “I’m glad the melanoma didn’t kill you,” while coating herself.

“There are so many nicer ways to go than skin cancer,” said Kathleen.

Marsha and Iona came back. Marsha had clipped her captive bolt gun to her belt, loaded and shiny, safety on. Faith had a moment of worry that Tara would panic at the sight of any kind of firearm, no matter the purpose; since today was only training, Faith hadn’t needed to pack hearing protection, so in turn it hadn’t occurred to her to warn Tara. Still, Tara was fixated on something different.

Marsha and Iona were each carrying two five-gallon buckets, the big kind from Home Depot. In each bucket were six mallard ducks, some still frozen so that their necks were rigidly upright, and some that had thawed out enough that their green glossy heads drooped over the edge of the bucket like wilting flowers. The ducks had been in and out of the chest freezer in Iona’s basement for the past four trainings, and they were looking visibly worse for wear, chewed and slobbery.

“How’s her throwing arm?” said Iona, looking right past Tara to ask Faith.

“Well, I’m not sure, you’d better ask her,” said Faith, blandly.

“I can throw a fetch toy or a rope toy just fine,” said Tara.

“Grab a couple,” said Marsha, holding out a bucket of ducks.

Tara looked over at Faith in horror and disbelief. Faith went on smiling and nodding, to reinforce that this was just part of the process. There was an awful moment when she thought Tara would burst into tears or run away. Then Tara grabbed two frozen ducks, composed her face, and stood holding the ducks stiffly away from her body.

Everyone headed for the clearing. Sugar was full of fire and kept forgetting how to heel, getting ahead of herself. Faith had to use her name a couple of times and whistle once, and Sugar was sloppy even then, dancing just far enough away that it pushed her luck. That felt like a bad sign. Faith reminded herself to stop thinking in terms of omens. Sugar did look very grown-up in her spiked protective collar and she didn’t seem to notice its weight.

It would do her good to be around the grown dogs. They moved softly, they barked rarely, and they no longer wore remote-control collars because they’d learned to listen. Opal and her Morgan dog moved together like they were going out to take down a mammoth in caveman times. Faith fell to the back of the pack in her efforts to make Sugar walk at a slow pace, and Tara stuck close to them, ducks at the ready, mouth open in awe at the older dogs.

“Never seen anything this good, right?” said Vivienne to Tara. “Come on.” She passed by with Lambchop close beside her.

“What do you think?” said Faith softly.

“It’s like they’re psychically connected,” breathed Tara. “You all are. I’ve seen you put a thought into Sugar’s head without words. I didn’t know other people could do it.”

“Good communication is magic,” said Faith.

“Whose car has the Trump sticker?” said Tara, in the same undertone.


“Someone here has a Trump sticker on their –”

“Oh, yeah, that’s Marsha.”

“Wait, what? How are you guys friends?”

Faith wasn’t sure she and Marsha were friends so much as a lifelong student and a difficult mentor, but she felt the urge to defend Marsha anyway. “Well, I don’t like that about her, but I can be friends with someone without approving of everything they do.”

“ ‘Approving’ – it’s more – I, uh. She’s a lesbian, Marsha. How is she also far-right?!”

Tara really should not have taken things in that direction. “No, she’s not,” said Faith firmly. “I wish you wouldn’t make assumptions about people.”

“But…” Tara looked ahead at Marsha, leading the pack with buckets of ducks. “She is butch as hell. Belt-loop bludgeon and all. How is she not a lesbian?”

No wonder Tara hadn’t panicked about the gun. She hadn’t recognized that it was one. Still, this couldn’t be allowed to go on. “Do you know, when I was first a teacher, the other staff thought I was a lesbian? They wouldn’t make friends with me or speak to me. I finally talked a lot about my boyfriend who I made up, and they relaxed and liked me then after that.”

“I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me with that anecdote. I’m sorry you worked with homophobes.”

“I’m just saying, you don’t know whose reputation you’re going to hurt by what you call them. And you can’t always just say ‘so what of it?’ How are you doing with those ducks?” she added, to change the subject good and hard.

“They’re not as heavy as I thought they’d be,” said Tara. “I have just accepted that this is something I have to do in order not to look like a wimp.”

“We’re nearly there.”

The clearing was sunny and full of goldenrod. Faith had never seen it look anything but beautiful. The ground was pebbly, with tall grass, rising to a low ridge across the middle of the clearing.

Tara was stationed under a tree at one end of the ridge, as thrower, with the buckets of ducks beside her. Faith queued up with Sugar on the downhill side, and kept Sugar distracted with sits and stands while, in the distance, Marsha gave Tara a crash course in duck throwing. Tara was inept with fear at first, hurling a duck up only to have it land on her head at one point, and then got steadily better at lobbing the ducks in the same way she usually threw Sugar’s fetching toys. Each duck corpse described a graceful arc out into the sunlight to get lost in the grass.

Meanwhile, Sugar was rolling over for tummy-rubs at her owner’s feet. Faith let her stay distracted, and only brought her into line as Marsha came lurching and wheezing back down the slope to her own dogs.

What followed was close to the smoothest fetch session Faith had ever experienced. Tara blew on a whistle to get each dog’s attention, then, with an air of intense concentration, hurled a duck out into the grass. Sugar’s eyes tracked the duck to its landing position and fixated on the spot. Faith let go of her collar and gave her the order to run, and Sugar tore up the slope to find the duck. Once she missed it by running so fast she overshot it, but she circled and sniffed it out quickly, and Faith whistled and called her as usual. Every time Faith summoned her back, Sugar raced home, duck flapping, Sugar’s hind legs moving so fast her back end kept swiveling out to the side like she was a car about to spin out on the highway.

Every dog got to do five fetches. The growing heap of partly-thawed ducks had to be brought out to Tara a couple of times to replenish her supply. Her arm must have been tired, but she kept throwing without a visible decline in style.

Sugar was dancing on the spot. The fetches had only increased her energy. Despite the jitters, she had sighted perfectly, waited for the word to go, and only had to rear up a couple of times to find the duck in the long grass. Faith gave her a “Good-girl-well-DONE!” and stroked her satin ears over and over, thinking, she’s going to work out, we can do this, oh, thank God. The cold water and sponges went around, and Sugar stood trembling with excitement while Faith dampened her down. She was warm but her panting was no faster than normal and her nose was still wet.

Marsha gave the hand signal to get ready for the pack exercise, and everybody headed back to the cars, except for Tara, who remained in the field watching people leave.

“Is it over already?” she yelled.

Faith patted the air to warn her to keep her voice down. It would have been smart to just tell her not to shout in the first place, but that ship had sailed. She beckoned Tara.

“I thought we were just getting into ducks!” Tara continued to shout as she closed the distance between them. “What’s going on?”

“Pack drill,” said Faith softly, to enforce a similar tone. “Time to reset the field.” There was no reaction. They had been over this, days earlier, in the comfort of Faith’s living room, but from the look on Tara’s face it had flowed in one ear and out the other.

She went back over the salient points of how Tara, if she was still on board with this, would put on crash pads and the shag suit, and then make threatening gestures till the dogs knocked her down and gripped the suit in their teeth. “And you can’t anticipate their grabbing you early, you understand? This is not professional wrestling. Don’t take a fall first to make them happy. You have to really let the dogs jump you and get a grip on the bite pads, and when they’re weighing you down – then you can collapse under them. Then just lie there and we’ll whistle them off. The vital thing is to make them be brave. They’ll be very scared of you, and the only answer is cooperation.”

“Well, or flipping their lids and scattering all over creation,” said Opal, as they caught up with her. “But we have so many old soldiers with us that they’ll teach the little ones.”

Tara’s lips moved, rehearsing her instructions. “So, uh, suit up, act scary, then they have to bite me before I take a fall. And then what happens? You’re going to call them off before they rip my throat out, right?” She giggled.

“I sure hope so,” said Marsha, still genial. “Otherwise we’re going to have to dump your corpse before we go home. Faith, I put down a tarp for you to lay out the suit. Don’t let her sit in the grass, she’ll get ticks. I already found one.”

The armor was one-size-fits-most and would have been uncomfortable on almost any body type. It was heavy and stiff and smelled like Febreeze and sweat. Tara barely fit into it, with the buckles on the last hole in all the straps, and Faith made sure there was no room between the arm sections for even an accidental nip to get through. Tara lumbered around getting a feel for the weight and padding, digging her fingers under the neck plates where they dug into her jaw.

All the dogs were back in the cars with their humans cranking up the A/C while they waited. Sugar was pressing her wet pink nose on the glass to watch. She knew something was up, even if she didn’t have the context to see what. The big dogs, Snobby and Colonel and Perrybelle, were wise to the situation. They were growling from the backs of their respective cars so loudly Faith could hear them through the glass. It was still a thrill even after so many years and so many half-grown puppies to train. Faith tried to send a psychic message to Sugar: listen to the big girls.

She made Tara roll up the shag suit and carry it off to the clearing to change into it there, to make her as unrecognizable as possible to the dogs. Tara surprised Faith by not continuing to complain. She was sweating that water out, but she had a clamped-down focused look like a dog who half-gets the idea.

“We’re teaching these dogs to kill, then?” she said at one point.

“No, no.” Had Faith’s words made so little impression? She was disappointed in her own teaching style. “They don’t kill. They hunt their prey by smell, stop it, and hold it till a human gets there. That’s what they were bred for, but they have to learn it too.”

“Nature and nurture,” Tara panted as they climbed the slight rise in the middle of the meadow. “Is that why you had your old dog put down? He wouldn’t learn?”

That was a gross oversimplification, but Faith nodded.

They came over the rise and came face to face with three hikers, young dusty men with giant backpacks, who looked at Tara’s armor and Faith’s remote control wand, and went “Uhhh…” in horror.

“You’re in a private event space,” said Faith, keeping level. “We’re training dogs here this morning.”

“Absolutely, ma’am, I’m so sorry, we just, uh, don’t know how to respect that and also get back to where we parked,” said the nearest hiker.

“Route 20, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He took off his sunhat and held it in front of himself.

“Double back to the turnoff for the ranger station and go up their driveway. It comes out on Route 20 by the public parking.”

The hikers backtracked, shouting “Thank you!” as if Faith had done them a favor, and practically ran into the woods whence they had come.

Tara was looking at Faith with her eyes protruding from her head. “How’d you do that?!” she breathed. “They did what you said!”

“Just practice,” said Faith. “See if you can get it to zip all the way up.”

They got the stretchy shag suit on over Tara’s armor. It was no particular color, and zipped up one leg, up her hip and chest, and fastened around a clear plastic mask, so that every inch of her body was covered except for a portion of her face. Tara looked like an indeterminate long-furred primate. She danced a few lurching steps on the spot, to test her range of motion.

Faith guided her to wave her arms, to lumber at the dogs like she was charging them, but slowly, so they’d have a moment to think about it and consciously decide to jump on her.

“And if none of them jump me, I… what, just keep going till I meet up with you?” said Tara’s muffled voice from inside the baggy monster.

“I mean, if that happens, yes, and we all go home early today and re-start everyone’s training from first principles,” said Faith. “But they’ll do better than that. Now, can you keep yourself entertained for five minutes while I’m gone? Act menacing, make sure the dogs don’t see you behaving like a human.”

“Go do what you gotta do,” said Tara, dragging her knuckles like a gorilla. “I’ll perfect my lurch and my swagger.”

Faith laughed and left her strutting and lunging in the low ground. It was nice to be reminded that she’d invited Tara out here for a reason other than trying to recruit a Relatively Young Person. Tara did have the ability to simply go with things and not waste a lot of time picking them apart.

Sugar came to the leash like an angel. She knew there was something big out there, probably just from reading Faith’s body language, and she would be a good girl till she got a chance at it. At this point in her life, she was probably picturing an extra-big duck.

“Come be in the first heat,” said Marsha. “You did the heavy lifting.”

“Shouldn’t someone else get a turn?” said Faith.

“G’wan, you earned it, we’ll go next,” said Dale. “I want him in a pack of strangers, anyhow.”

They all waved her on, so the first pack was made up of Pippin, Colonel, Perrybelle, and Sugar: two old dogs flanked by two young ones who’d never fought in a pack with them before. It was so perfect Faith felt a little tearful. Kathleen and Pippin walked with a perfect lead – Pippin half a length forward but with slack in the lead, head up, tail down, ears forward on the alert for danger – and Sugar did too, except that she kept glancing sideways to make sure Colonel would think she was doing it right.

When they entered the clearing, Tara was out of sight on the far side of the ridge. Perfect. They came to the line and did a sit, and Faith unclipped the leash and gripped Sugar’s collar, ready to let go when Marsha loosed Perrybelle. She pulled the leash through her belt.

Tara shrieked at the top of her lungs, just over the rise.

Faith jumped nearly out of her skin. Marsha said, “I thought you told her to be quiet,” while Sugar tried to wriggle out of her collar and see what the fuss was about. Meanwhile, Pippin threw his weight against Kathleen’s legs, toppled her into the weeds, and bolted.

“I’m so sorry! I couldn’t hold him!” Kathleen shouted, dusting pollen off herself.

“That girl’s a bozo,” said Marsha. “Eh well, run them all and let them have their fun. GO!” She loosed Perrybelle and Colonel and they shot up the clearing.

Faith let go of Sugar, who was off after Colonel like a ray of light. Tara kept on screaming. Faith sprinted after her dog in an ecstasy of fear and admiration. She should not have let Sugar go, but what a clean break she had made!

On the other side of the rise, on a crushed bed of goldenrod and long grass, a furry creature was writhing in the fetal position. This was Tara in the suit. She looked smaller than she had before. The dogs were circling her, snarling and baring their teeth. Dents appeared in the fake fur on Tara’s neck and shoulders. Tara went “Oof!” as she collapsed further.

No, Faith realized, squinting and scowling till her eyes burned. Something was on top of her and flattening her down into the dirt. The something was tearing mouthfuls of her shag suit off and spitting them on the ground.

“REAL ONE!” screamed Faith. “WE GOT A REAL ONE! GET IT!”

The dogs piled on. Colonel moved first, but they were all in such accord that it was like watching one dog with four bodies. They bit down on a big pile of shapeless something that was in turn piled on top of Tara, who uttered a wheeze and fell still, pinned by the added weight of the dogs. Colonel looked almost like he was floating on air above Tara with his paws spread, except that Faith could see, if she looked hard enough, that the air was full of badness.

It was small, and perhaps it was young, but it was fighting hard. When the hunters had thought they’d wiped out all these things back in the winter, this one must have already been big and biding its time. Sugar hung on, her jaws clamped onto it, and it rose up under her and tried to shrug her off. Her bite strength was too powerful and she stayed attached, letting her hindquarters whip back and forth. Her nasal little growl rose over the voices of the pack. Faith had never felt so proud of a dog in her life.

“Gun!” she shouted, not turning away. “MARSHA! SHOOT IT! NOW!”

Marsha lumbered up, wheezing with asthma, and unclipped the captive bolt gun. It was a fat brass cylinder with a worn wooden pistol grip. It would probably have been valuable as an antique if Marsha hadn’t numbered her kills with fruit-shaped stickers stuck to the barrel. The oldest was a pineapple with a smiley face and the newest was a bunch of grapes with big eyes in the middle.

“Cover your ears,” Marsha roared at Tara.

There was a flailing motion at the bottom of the stack of creatures.

Colonel sank back on his haunches as he hauled away, his jaws set, wrenching something’s head around towards its shoulder. He must have it by the lip.

Marsha stalked in, grabbed the empty air, and yelled “SCATTER!” Dogs fled in all directions. She pressed the muzzle to a surface, and pulled the trigger. There was a deep BOOM and smoke filled the air, almost concealing Marsha like a vanishing act.

Sugar’s sensitive ears were in agony and she rolled on the ground, crying. Faith called her, in tears herself. Moving on autopilot, Sugar scampered to Faith and did a loop around her legs. Faith lavished petting and praise on her, hoping to Christ she didn’t have hearing damage.

It was over now. All the dogs were being called off, and everyone else was crowding around to help. Vivienne and Kathleen both hauled at the thing on top of Tara, and Marsha grabbed back the captive-bolt gun – the bolt was now protruding six inches from the muzzle and it came away with a slurping sound. She also got a grip of something and heaved, and its weight rolled toward Kathleen, who braced herself to pull.

“You’re on my leg,” said a small voice from the ground.

Faith darted around the struggle and gave Tara a hand up. Tara looked red and sweaty and unfocused. The neck and shoulder fluff had been ripped off the shag suit, leaving bald cloth, but there was no blood. Faith unzipped the suit and started helping unstrap the armor and saw a rough pattern of red marks and bruises over Tara’s collarbone. No broken skin. She had been lucky and the armor had held just long enough.

“Oh, it’s over?” said Tara.

“Yes, yes, it’s over, and I’m grateful you’re alive,” said Faith. “I’m so sorry that happened. I don’t know how it could have happened. We wiped them all out here over the last six months.”

“I’d feel a lot more grateful if you’d told me to wear ear protection,” said Tara. “I hope that didn’t wreck my hearing.”

“You’ll be fine,” said Faith. “I know it sounds loud, but the caps go off in a register that doesn’t do any damage.” She hoped that was true.

Tara pulled off all the armor and scattered it at her feet, and stood, soaked in sweat. “What the hell do you mean, grateful I’m alive?” she snapped. “I smell like Satan’s armpits, and I faithfully played out your whole charade, and you’re telling me I did it wrong?”

“No! God, no, honey,” Faith could hear herself becoming maternal and hated it but couldn’t keep the sweetness and light out of her voice, “you did everything just right. That thing should just not have been there. It’s the middle of the afternoon, for crying out loud! Thank goodness you’re alive.”

Tara paused.

“There’s a thing,” she said, giving the cast-off suit a beady look. “That’s a real one of what I was dressed up as.”

“Yes,” said Faith.

“It bites.”

“Well, not anymore,” said Faith. “The others are going to dress it out and some of it’s going to the dogs later. Literally.” Marsha and Kathleen had sent Vivienne off for more buckets and a machete. The carcass would go into Iona’s freezer alongside the ducks.

“And it’s a bad color,” Tara continued in the same uninflected voice. “I almost can’t see it except if I strain my eyes.”

Faith nodded. “I can barely make it out. Sometimes as your vision deteriorates with age, you get better at seeing them. We almost all have that. Marsha sees them best. That’s what really gets people into Morgan pack dogs, big time.”

“Ah,” said Tara, nodding. “You have to age into seeing it. OK. So. What is it?”

“Best not to think about it,” said Faith.

“Oh, come ON!” Tara shouted. “That thing nearly killed me! And now you’re going to shut me down? JESUS!”

“We didn’t mean for you to see it.”

“You set me up. Was I a sacrifice?” Tara was red-faced and on the verge of tears. “I thought you liked me! Did you, have you just been pretending to be friends with me so you could use me as, like, bait?”

Faith had a moment of distaste. Tara’s worst qualities were easy to forget when she was in a good mood, but her manipulative streak was visible now. Still, the last few minutes had been scary, and she could be forgiven for not being at her best. “I like you. That was an accident, and it could have happened to any of us. You’re not hurt in any lasting way, right? Try to work your neck around.”

Tara gaped at her. “Tell me what that was. It’s real. It’s not nothing. Its breath smelled like dead fish.”

“Yeah, it was real,” said Marsha, waddling up between them. She reeked of gunpowder. “It’s nothing nowhere anymore, is what it is, that’s all. Stop carrying on about it.”

Tara looked down at her and tried a couple of times to speak but finally blurted out, “Take this, I don’t want it.”

She pushed her fist toward Marsha, who reflexively reached out and took something. It was a lump of substance with no particular color, and it weighed like wet putty. Faith could barely see it, but she smelled it: a burst of the whiff that was all around them in the sunlit meadow.

“Where’d you get that?” said Marsha, for once wrong-footed.

“Bit it off,” said Tara. “The dogs were biting, so I thought I should too. At first, I thought maybe that all was supposed to happen, and it was a toy or a dummy or something.”

“Come and wash your mouth out, honey,” said Faith.

As they headed back to Faith’s SUV, Opal called out to them to know what was going on. “We made a kill,” said Faith, and that was enough to set Opal running for the clearing to see the damage. It was good to have a moment alone.

First Faith made Tara drink two pint bottles of water and eat a protein bar from the glove compartment. Then she made her groom Sugar till the hackles went down along the dog’s spine. It was self-serving – Sugar did need to be brushed clean, so not a speck of blood could remain invisibly dried onto her coat to collect dirt. But work would also calm Tara down. Faith stroked Sugar, fed her green beans and mixed bottles of warm and cold water in her dish so she could have a big drink without getting a chill. Sugar’s floppy ears wiggled and twitched when Faith whispered that she was a good girl, a hero, a killer, from the pack of power. Good. With any luck, there wouldn’t be hearing damage. The vet would have to confirm that, though. For now, Sugar was brushed and stroked and tummy-rubbed and told she was Faith’s queen of the world.

All Faith wanted now was to go home and be alone with Sugar. She felt badly at leaving the others to deal with dressing out the carcass, but when she checked back on the kill, Colonel and Pippin and Perrybelle were sprawled out licking each other in the dust, off the alert and looking delighted with themselves, with Lambchop looking as smug as if she’d taken part herself. Vivienne was butchering the carcass into five buckets and on her way to filling a sixth.

“We don’t need squat,” said Marsha. “Get that girl out of here before she gets overexcited.”

“She’s calmed down a lot,” said Faith.

“Take her home and I’ll see you at agility Wednesday.” Marsha smiled for a second. “Sugar did good today.”

Faith was moved. It wasn’t often Marsha said that without qualifiers. “I think she’s got it in her.”

“And don’t let her be discouraged it flung her off,” added Vivienne, slapping flies off her jeans. “That’ll take care of itself when she’s full-grown.”

They each clasped hands briefly. Then Marsha looked up and barked, “Quit that! Put it down!” Tara had followed Faith right back from the car and was taking pictures with her phone, angling the lens down at the ground, nearly where the carcass still lay. Vivienne reflexively threw up her arm to cover her face from the camera.

Tara almost put her phone away when Marsha raised her voice, but not quite. “I have to see if this does anything, gimme a minute,” she said.

“Tara, quit that,” said Faith. “You came out here on the understanding that no pictures were allowed.”

Tara didn’t make eye contact. “I came out here on the understanding that I wasn’t going to be chewed on by a demon,” she said. She sounded tired. “All bets are off.”

Marsha advanced on her like a tank.

“Oh, what do you care, this isn’t working. Look,” said Tara, showing her the phone screen. It held a wonderfully detailed photo of empty buckets in a sunlit meadow, plus the toes of Vivienne’s black orthopedic sneakers.

“Do you want to see it?” said Marsha, her face so serious that Faith could tell something was up.

“Yes, I want to see the damn thing,” said Tara. “What’s so funny?”

“You gotta let me clean your eyes real quick.”

“Wait, I,” said Tara, and then squawked. Marsha had grabbed her head and yanked her down to a crouch, putting their faces on a level. She stuck out her spitty tongue and licked Tara’s eyes, once each. By the time Tara recovered enough to slap at her, Marsha had let go and was backing out of range.

“It’s enzymes in my spit or something, I dunno,” she said, grinning. “What’s that thing look like now?”

“You asshole!” said Tara. “You hazing-ritual old asshole! I thought — ”

She stopped, staring at the buckets and the crushed place in the meadow and at Vivienne. Her mouth moved wordlessly.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” said Vivienne, still swinging her machete. “I remember my first time. I threw up all over the place. You learn to suppress the reflex.”

Faith strained her eyes and could still barely make out the shape of things, let alone the color. Part of her hoped it never got any clearer. Still, when Marsha and Vivienne were too old to do this anymore, someone would have to be the eyes of the pack.

She made her goodbyes. Tara was standing, pale and sweaty, so she took her by the sleeve to draw her away.

Tara dodged away from her, then said, “You should go over your hands with a wet wipe before you get back in the car.”

Under the circumstances, Faith let Tara use another bottled water and one of the car towels to wash her face before they headed out. Sugar was restless in her crate, shredding her plush fox; the air conditioning did little to set her at ease. They hadn’t left immediately, so she was visibly hoping to get right back out and be part of a pack again. Faith stroked her ear with a finger through the grille but didn’t let her out; she could zoom around the backyard all she wanted at home.

They drove the hour home to Somerville in silence apart from Sugar’s occasional yips and farts. Tara kept scrubbing her wrist over her eyes. Faith had some despondent thoughts about inter-generational friendships, but she kept them to herself.

She finally turned down their own quiet, tree-lined residential street and parked at the curb, halfway between their separate buildings. There weren’t many people about – at two on a sunny Saturday afternoon, everyone in their neighborhood would be out having fun somewhere – but a couple of the college boys were on their front porch drinking out of red solo cups. Good. Tara would be less likely to fuss with an audience.

“Delivery to your door!” Faith said, trying to keep the tone light.

“Do you want a hand getting Sugar in the house?” Tara sounded even more deadened than before.

“Thank you, but no, I should be able to handle it.” Faith was already sweeping up her bags from the back seat.

She only wanted to make a clean getaway, but as she circled around to the back to let Sugar out, Tara came around the other way and caught her arm.

“What was it?” she said. “Seriously. You can’t just call it ‘that.’ It’s got a name.”

“There really isn’t any more to tell,” said Faith, withdrawing her arm gently. “You were a great help today and I appreciated your being there for me and Sugar. Now go home and rest.”

“Is it fear itself?” said Tara.

Faith hadn’t been expecting that.

“The thing,” Tara pressed. “Is it made out of my fear, like, is it a concept? And if I learn not to be afraid, will I go back one day and it just won’t be there?”

This had to stop. “No, it’s not a figure of speech,” said Faith, hearing herself sound more testy yet unable to control herself at last. “It’s not a concept. Could a concept have tried for a bite at your throat like that?”

Tara pawed at her own collarbone to feel the bruises, which were going from pink to purple above the neckline of her shirt.

“If you go back one day and there’s a grown one, it’ll just eat you,” said Faith, still too loud. The boys across the street were openly staring at them now. “Fear or no fear. Don’t waste your time on that.”

“Then what can I do? What can any of us possibly do?”

“If you get to be able to see them, help kill them. If not, give us a hand or stay out of the way, that’s all you can do. Now. Please excuse me, but Sugar needs to be let out in the backyard.”

At last, Tara left, looking wounded figuratively as well as literally. Faith tried not to watch. She could tell there was a good chance Tara wouldn’t be joining her for Sugar’s training sessions anymore, and it made Faith want to cry. But she freed Sugar from the crate instead and took her to their backyard – their beautiful, fenced, private backyard, where she could throw rope toys and Sugar could bound after them over and over, without having to please anyone but themselves.