Chapter One: A Place to Stay
On a blistering hot day in mid-July, after the hubbub and crowds of Croakerfest had passed, a sleek ketch sailed into Oriental. It dropped anchor in the harbor in late afternoon. Behind the protective breakwater, Raccoon Creek was still as glass. Shrimp trawlers lined up on either side of the approach to the town dock, and the aroma of fish settled along the water's edge. A dinghy bearing a man, a woman, and a dog slid away from the sailboat. Five minutes later the woman and the dog stood on the dinghy dock, and the man putted his diminutive pram back to the sailboat, its weightless nose thrust into the air.
Muffin was glad to be off the Chesapeake Mistress. The humans aboard were rude and did not practice proper rules of etiquette. They seemed to eat every crumb of every meal, and when they didn't they cleaned their plates with a spatula. Dirty socks were in tragically short supply in the cabins. No one kept tennis balls or frisbees aboard, and there were far too many ropes lying about. Muffin knew ropes could become leashes, and she hated leashes. She never allowed her mistress to keep one.
Muffin looked at her now, a slim human with gentle hands and warm eyes. Her human had a habit of rubbing Muffin's forehead in a slow, distracted way, and whispering, “Muffie. Muffie.” Muffin sniffed her human's sandal, licked her toe, and lay down by her feet. It was too hot to stand up anymore.
The woman stepped over the lean beagle and sat on the peeling wooden bench located conveniently on the deck by the dinghy dock. “Here we are, Muffin,” she said. “Oriental. Kinda small. Seems kinda boring.” She leaned down and scratched Muffin's warm side. “What kind of adventures will we have here, old girl, eh?” She smiled a tired smile, the smile of a woman too long aboard without friends or a cold shower. “Voulez-vous l'aventure?”
The pair were from Canada, and a little French often slipped into their conversation. Muffin was quite fluent, in fact. She frequently sang in French, although she'd yet to find a dog who could harmonize well with her in that language.
No trees shaded the dinghy dock, so minutes later the human and her dog stood, hefted their packs, and made their way down Water Street toward Oriental's tiny hot spot and night life area – a stretch of road between the Bean coffee shop and the town dock.
“We'd better find ourselves a boatyard and a place to stay, Muffie,” the woman said. “It'll be nightfall in a few hours.”
* * *
Just around the corner, Farley the poodle mix and Jaxson the black pit bull were having a friendly disagreement over some shrimp that Buddy the fishmonger had happily dropped from his boxes while trollying them across the street to Fulcher's Fish Shack.
“There were five,” Farley said firmly. “I can count, and I know there were five. And since I spotted them first, and Buddy is my friend, I get three.”
“There were six, you nincompoop,” Jaxson growled. “You and I both know there were six.”
“You're a pit bull. I wouldn't growl if I were you. They do profiling around here, and you'll get arrested.” Farley plastered a smile on his jovial face, wagged his tail, and flopped one ear down. He instantly looked cute and harmless.
“That's not fair,” Jaxson said.
“That's dog life,” Farley replied. “Now, drop that shrimp or I'll call the cops. You've had your two.”
Jaxson spit out the shrimp. The tail and head were missing. He grinned. “Sorry. They fell off and slid down my throat.”
Farley polished off his snack and burped. “That one was a little salty. Let's go see if Buddy misplaced any more by the back door.”
They loped across Hodges Street. Jaxson tried to look as adorable as possible, he really did. Each morning he chose a fresh, bright kerchief and asked his master to tie it round his neck. He carefully brushed his head fur along the sofa, and left a few tiny water droplets dangling from his whiskers prettily, even though it tickled his cheeks. Humans seemed to find this endearing. He chewed a little mint each day for his breath. He always wiped his paws carefully before entering buildings, and he never, ever wiped his hind end on anyone's carpet.
But Farley? He was the most disgusting of dogs, and all the dogs in Oriental knew it. In spite of his weekly baths he always smelled bad and his dingy curls never looked shiny. Only Goldie who swam daily in creeks was muddier. Farley did not brush his teeth, did not keep his belly fur clean, did not do regular paw maintenance, and had the most appalling halitosis. Still, humans loved him. They kissed him – kissed that mouth! They stroked his head while eating their food and buried their faces in his fur. It made Jaxson shudder even to think of it.
But Farley was a poodle mix. And Jaxson was a black pit bull. Discrimination was a sore trial in the dog world. Jaxson knew he was at the bottom of the heap. It was a miracle that Farley condescended to play with him.
Both dogs glanced down Water Street as they approach the fish shack, and they noticed Muffin coming toward them with a tall, tanned human wearing a tank top and a sarong. They admired the lean, well-muscled beagle. She carried her tail well – curved regally into the air and bobbing slightly as she walked.
Farley had a particular talent of whistling while smiling, and he utilized this talent the moment he saw Muffin. It was a long, loud wolf whistle. Muffin stopped, glared down the street, and scowled at the culprit. Her scowl, naturally, fell on the pit bull. “What a rude character!” she thought. To the sweet-looking poodle with his happy smile, she gave a friendly wink.
“Jerk,” Jaxson mumbled again.
* * *
Muffin's human quickly found a friend in Buddy, who had been selling fish for over twenty years and knew everyone in town. Of Oriental's various large marinas and boat yards, he directed her toward the one most useful in her situation.
“Sail Lark is yer best bet,” Buddy drawled. “Friendly folks. Lots of boat work goin' on. Prob'ly somebody there'll hep you out.” He pulled a dog biscuit from his pocket and lowered it to Muffin's mouth. “Here, sugar.” Muffin sniffed it carefully. She detected residual traces of tobacco, fingernail clippings, shrimp scales, lint, Walmart bags, and another potent animal aroma that she couldn't quite identify. Gingerly she received the biscuit between her teeth without touching it to her lips. One never knew where a human's pocket had been.
She turned quickly and made for the doorway of the fish shack with her treat. Blocking her way were the poodle and the pit bull. She gave them both a withering gaze.
“I wouldn't eat that if I were you,” Farley said quietly.
Muffin kept the biscuit between her teeth.
The pit bull spoke. “He'll steal if it you drop it.”
Farley continued. “Do you detect that strange, unidentifiable animal trace? A bit repulsive but at the same time somewhat alluring? Do you know what that is?” He smirked languidly.
“Don't listen to him,” Jaxson warned. “He's such a jerk.”
Farley cocked his head slightly and smiled at Muffin. “Possum. Buddy keeps possums in his back yard. As pets.” He shook his head at her sadly. “Yep, that's possum fur you're holding in your mouth.”
Muffin dropped the treat instantly and spat slightly on the pavement. “Bleh!” she said.
Farley dashed forward, gobbled the biscuit in a gulp, jumped back, and laughed. “Thanks!” he said. “I like possum.”
“Told you,” Jaxson said to her. Muffin's ears sagged in dismay. “He's a jerk. Buddy doesn't keep possums. He does have a pet ferret. I think they smell worse.”
“Ferret!” Farley choked and spat on the pavement. “Ferret!! I detest ferrets!” He bared his teeth briefly at Jaxson. “Why didn't you tell me?”
“You didn't ask,” he replied. “Besides,” and here he cut a handsome gaze at the beagle girl, “she doesn't strike me as a girl who eats ferret.” He trotted out the door into the sunshine with Muffin. “And you do!” The pit bull threw this comment over his shoulder with a laugh as Farley hacked a chunk of ferret biscuit into the gutter.
“Thanks for that,” Muffin said to him. “I'm Muffin.”
“I'm Jaxson. You new in town? Off a boat?”
“Yes.” Muffin lay down in the shade of a crepe myrtle tree. “It's so hot here.”
“Where're you from?”
“Well, we came from Virginia this week, but we're originally from Quebec.” Jaxson looked puzzled. “You know – Canada. Way up north.”
“North of the hardware store?”
She laughed. “Yeah. North of everything around here.”
Just as Jaxson was about to ask her to the Tiki Bar that evening, the lady exited the fish shack and called. “Muffin! Here girl!”
Farley and Jaxson watched the two stroll down Hodges Street toward the park.
“Didn't get very far with her, did you?” Farley asked.
“Farther than you, ferret breath,” Jaxson replied.