I burned the pound cake I was baking for the family reunion.

Yes, I had set the timer. But I was running down the road when the timer went off.

It all started a week earlier when one of my gardening shoes disappeared. Not expensive clogs, just old tennis shoes, a little muddy and worn, but with months of digging and weeding left in them. As usual, I had plopped down on the back steps to take them off and left them there. They were wet from watering and needed to dry out, and they were covered with bits of leaves and grass which I didn’t want tracked into my house

For years, I have left my gardening shoes on the back steps. As I go in and out the back door, the waiting shoes are a visual reminder that I am not finished. I am never finished in the garden. They prod me to tend to the front sidewalk, to water the hydrangeas. When I finally persuade myself that weeding should be my next task, when I reluctantly go out to dig, I sit down and put them back on again. Eventually, my gardening shoes are so stiff that I have to toss them. They are too worn and dirty for the Salvation Army. It is time to rotate another pair into the gardening routine.

But this particular pair had a few months of gardening abuse left in them. And I noticed pretty quickly that the left shoe was missing. I looked all around the carport, the patio, the driveway and the yard. No left shoe. It was a mystery.

All the neighborhood dogs are well-mannered and don’t roam or wander without their owners. I decided it was a raccoon, or a fox, or an armadillo. I wanted to blame the armadillo. I could actually imagine a crow. Crows like color, and these shoes had been a bright orange at one time. Or it could have been a hawk. My shoe was about the size of a small squirrel and probably gave off a more gamey odor.

Nevertheless, I mentally ticked through the neighborhood dogs, dogs being lovers of old shoes, finally deciding that it couldn’t be one of my canine friends, that the old shoe would turn up. And besides, it was just an old tennis shoe. As I walked for the next two weeks, I kept an eye out for my shoe. Naturally, I couldn’t weed with just one shoe, so I enjoyed a nice vacation and was thankful to whatever critter had given me a respite.

On the Friday before my Stewart family reunion, I mixed up the sour cream pound cake and put it in the preheated oven. I consulted my list of reunion tasks and checked off a few. I was beginning to slice strawberries to sugar down for the next day, standing at my sink, when I saw an unfamiliar dog trot purposefully onto my patio, grab my single shoe in his mouth, and lope off around the house.

I didn’t even wash my hands, just took off after him/her yelling. By the time I got around the corner of the house he was out of sight. I started in the most likely direction, but saw nothing but empty woods into which he might have disappeared. I turned quickly and jogged in the other direction, but still saw nothing.

It didn’t occur to me that rescuing the second (right) shoe wouldn’t do me any good. I still didn’t have the left one.

But at least the mystery was solved. It was a strange black dog — it was no longer a mythical Hound of the Baskerville’s, a magical armadillo walking on hind legs, nor a fantastical shoe-hoarding crow.

I returned to my kitchen with some satisfaction that quickly dissipated when I heard the oven timer beeping and smelled burnt cake. What an idiot I had been to chase a dog over a shoe.

As it turned out, the cake was only burned on the corners, which were easily cut off. I had plenty of strawberries and whipping cream to heap on the top. Besides which I should have known better than to even try to make a dessert: Cousin Brenda brought two pecan pies made from Maw Maw Stewart’s Karo syrup recipe, so I brought plenty of cake back home again.

And I should have known better than to tempt a dog with an old sweaty shoe. An old gardening shoe is as tempting to a dog as a piece of Maw Maw’s pecan pie, or even a piece of burnt strawberry shortcake.

Cheryl Hilderbrand is a Jackson writer and educator. Email her at cmhild@bellsouth.net.

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