We first saw the footprints on an icy February night.
Milly our black turning gray Lab was outside sniffing and pawing a fresh bootprint close to our outside cellar door.
The fact she had three legs never seemed to bother her too much, while not the most graceful or nimble canine in her old age she could still get around.
Declining health, failing kidneys & the passing of time had her days numbered.. But engrossed in the moment, having a purpose, she was like an overgrown pup.
An inch of new snow had covered the already frozen ground, Her nose traversed the outline of one of the prints in a double line that started out at the edge of our surrounding woods.
Someone had walked to the basement hatchway doors, They hadn't turned around, The doors was padlocked shut. Something was happening here?.y
After a lot of coaxing & finally by the scruff of the neck we returned inside shortly thereafter,
The chill followed us and I stood in front of our fireplace heating my hands in the few remaining embers of a waning blaze.
I will need to get more wood, I thought to myself, After this mystery is over..
Heather had finished a chore in her home office, after I told her the story she sat there physically shivering and unsettled.
"We need to check the basement..I mean it's probably nothing, a kid was walking thru the woods, cut through our property to get to the road, the other prints must have been covered when you got outside"
Yes of course, I thought & fought the urge to say the bootprints leading to the door would have been the first ones to disappear in the falling snow.
This house in the woods had been her uncles'.. an outdoorsman if there ever was one, He always said he was in Heaven on earth living here, hunting, fishing & watching the stars.
A 20 minute drive from the Interstate & close enough to civilization to hear our screams if Bigfoot knocked on the door, we had made it our home a few years ago after Uncle George had passed.
After adding a few modern conveniences such as satellite TV & an updated kitchen it was totally livable, comfortable & serene.
The tragedy had taken Uncle George had happened this time of year, Mid -February, give or take a few days off the calendar from now,
A terrible auto accident , a tractor trailer with faulty brakes had slid on the icy road & broadsided him on the highway,
Uncle George had died instantly, Milly, protected somewhat by the seat back had lost a leg after being pinned between the car & the frigid road,
They were on their way to a observe the Canis Major, "the Great Dog" constellation from a mountain observation point. The star pattern crossed the meridian this time of year.
Heather & her uncle had been very close, The spitting image of her mom, Uncle George's sister who had died in childbirth,
She had been a living memory of her to him. So having foresight (or maybe intuition), he had left this property, his house & the care of Milly to us in his will.
I opened the inside basement door & prepared for the waft of mold and dank air that slapped you in the face in greeting. Down a set of cold concrete steps & found the drawstring of the 60 watt light bulb that hunt bare overhead.
We often joked that a mushroom farm could be created down here pretty easily, Right now however, in the icy darkness I doubted even fungus stood a chance of survival.
The basement room at the bottom of the stairs had an old freezer standing guard against one wall. Uncle George would store his fish & game in it,
Relics of his outdoor passion, Fishing poles, tackle boxes, camouflage clothing, a box of shotgun shells & other tools of the trade were stored on metal shelves.
A twisted hunk of metal & glass on a wobbly tripod leaned against a dark wall, The remains of Uncle Georges' refractor telescope he had bought in Tokyo in the 1970's.
We had talked about selling this stuff, We had no use for it, just dusty memories, lying in darkness waiting for their next assignment or garage sale.
The opposite end of the room led to the outside aluminum access door, There was no evidence of recent entry, Nothing but spider webs and rust, dust & neglect.
We stood there for a moment, Not a mutual feeling of fear, More of one of making contact..
"Where's Milly?.. Did she come down here with us'? Heather walked back toward the other room, the steps back into our home, out of this gloomy place.
"At her age she doesn't even try the steps anymore..Three legs pointing downward isn't a preferred position for any creature '.. I followed behind her, the absolute quiet disturbing & everywhere.
As we reached the top of the stairs another set of dark, sleet covered bootprints was there to greet us, these led from the side door just down the hallway from the basement door where we stood,
The prints abruptly ended in front of Milly's dog bed.
We hadn't heard anything while in the basement, Surely Milly should have at least whimpered a bit when we has descended?..or barked if in the presence of a stranger?..
Come to think of it we would had seen a shadow if someone had walked past the open cellar door?.. A visible chill came over me,
The prints were similar to those that were outside, The heel pattern that of snow boots, A snowy outline of large feet that appeared out of nowhere in our home & again no set of prints leading out exiting our home. A one way walk from nowhere, & Milly was gone...
Heather stared at the floor, the empty dog bed, the 'Life is a Beach" calendar on the kitchen wall ..Incredulity slowly turning to understanding and I saw acknowledgment enter her eyes.
"Come on!, We have to back down stairs, bring the flashlight," She pointed at the mag-lite on the counter, I followed her down the musty steps, & in the poor light she began to burrow through a pile of Uncle Georges' belongings,
She found them under a rain slicker, an old pair of snow boots, Duck boots we called them sometimes, She wiped the dust off them quickly with a rag & high-tailed it back up the stairs.
The boots were a perfect match for the prints leading into our kitchen, Heather stopped, looked at nothing and everything, a knowing smile on her face.
"Put on your jacket we need to go back outside"..She quickly got jacket & gloves on we took the boots and the flashlight outside & I led her to the scene of the footprints.
The ones' that I had seen initially & had gotten Milly so excited had been covered by the newly fallen snow,
In there place was a new set, bootprints leading from our side door heading back into the woods accompanied by a set of dog paws, a set of three which changed to a set of four just a few feet from the edge of the woods. Both sets walking alongside the Alpha male.
The snow had stopped, We both looked in the mid-February night sky, Sirius glowed strongly & Canis Major was radiating overhead.
There was an energy in the calm stillness, a warmness spread throughout us despite the freezing temperature we stood in.
We silently took it all in for a moment & walked back inside.
The house was very warm, A light glowed from our den, We entered it and saw a roaring blaze in the fireplace, several logs were creating an inferno.
I thought about the little I knew of fixing old telescopes,
Heather thought about the 20 pound bag of dog food she had just bought & wondered what time the local animal shelter opened..
The flames jump and spat and for a minute seemed to form a smile..
Michael French lives in a seaside town on the North Shore of Long Island.
He lives with a four legged Tibetan Terrier named Milly.