The Dogs

The young dogs whined uneasily as thunder rumbled through the valley. From the furthest corner of the farmyard kennels came an equally ominous growl. The youngsters’ ears flattened, and they bundled themselves into a whimpering pile of fur.

The far corner was also the darkest, a flash of lightning only briefly showing the white markings of the collie lying there. This was Tom – the oldest, toughest and most unfriendly of dogs. He had been born when the farmer was still a young man, although none of the other dogs knew exactly when this was. They just knew not to stray too close to the sullen old sheepdog, not if they didn’t want a torn ear or half the fur missing from their scruff. Although old, Tom was by far the largest and strongest of the pack, and he was well-used to putting arrogant young pups in their place.

The following morning was bright and chill. Dewdrops tipped each blade of grass, and the young dogs’ eyes reflected this miasma of jewels as they bounded over the open fields, last nights’ fears long forgotten. Only old Tom refused to frolic. He stuck to his steady trot, close by the farmer’s side.

The dogs and their master did their day’s work, and it was late afternoon by the time Tom and his companions were chowing through their bowls of scrap-meat. A fresh, unfamiliar scent suddenly assailed their sensitive noses. As one, the pack looked up.

The external door to the kennels opened, and in stepped the farmer. Cowering behind his legs was a small bitch – black-and-white, with eyes glazed over in fear. The other dogs crowded closer against the wire mesh separating them from this outer section, some of the more immature males yipping excitedly. The new dog shrank even further back, lifting her lips in a small snarl.

Tom took one disinterested look before turning back to his dinner. While he was finishing that off, and that which his neighbour had abandoned, the farmer was quietly talking to and stroking the newcomer.

“Now then, young Pippi. This lot’ll be your new family, but I’ll give yer a chance to settle in first. There’s nought to be afear’d of, my little lass. You’ve come to a good home at last.”

Tom caught a brief glimpse of ‘young Pippi’ through the moving bodies of the other dogs. She was trembling, her eyes darting constantly between the farmer’s face and her new kennel-mates. Even from a distance, it was easy to see the numerous welts and scars that crisscrossed her flanks, the missing patches of fur breaking up her already-sparse coat.

The farmer’s wife carried in a small bed. Two bowls of food and water were deposited alongside; then, with a final kindly pat, the farmer departed.

The new bitch curled up next to the bed, making herself as small as possible, with her eyes fixed on the rest of the pack. When she made no move towards them, the other dogs gradually got bored and slunk back to what was left of their dinners. Flo – the bitch whose meal Tom had helped himself to – gave an annoyed yelp, although she was swiftly silenced by Tom’s deep growl.

Pippi started at this threatening noise, meeting Tom’s eyes dead-on. Slowly, she lowered her muzzle once more, and Tom turned his back. All night, however, the old collie could feel the unwavering weight of her stare. It troubled Tom, making him feel like there was something he had failed or forgotten to do.

 

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It didn’t make any sense. Pippi was a bad dog, so why had she been brought to such a good farm with such a kind farmer? Perhaps it was a mistake, perhaps they didn’t know how bad she was.

She knew her former master was dead – he had fallen down drunk on the cobblestones close to her old kennel, cracking his head open and dying a strangely quiet death. Chained up in her small shelter, Pippi had been able to smell the worsening stench the whole two weeks it had taken another human to find him, by which time she was barely alive herself. She didn’t want to think about that or any of her past, yet those experiences dominated her mind. The raising of a hand or a sudden sideways glance by a human still made her shiver and flinch away.

It was her former master who had taught Pippi how bad she was; he must have died before telling these new people. Still, her new kennel-mates would soon sniff out the stupidity within her – perhaps they would turn on her, rip her to shreds? The big, old collie who slept in the corner certainly looked mean enough to do so.

A week passed, during which time Pippi remained in her separate kennel for meals and sleeping, and was taken out on a lead by the farmer to watch the other dogs at work during the day. She was a sheepdog, she had been given roughly the same training as the others, but now Pippi was ashamed at how superior they all were. She watched intently as they worked the sheep, and her new master would pat her head and murmur how she was a bright young miss.

She still hadn’t made any friends of the others. She disliked it greatly when they came bounding up to the farmer, nearly tumbling over her in the process. Unsurprisingly, it was the old one – Tom, she had heard him being called – who was the least spirited, the one who would give her a silent look before turning away. This indifference gave Pippi a strange feeling in her stomach, almost resentful yet grateful at the same time. As if by instinct, her eyes began to search for him out of all the other dogs.

One afternoon, Pippi’s still-fragile world collapsed. The farmer was leading her back to her kennel, still separate from the other dogs, with her little bed that she had at last learnt to sleep in, not alongside. When they got to the kennel, Pippi saw at once her bed and dishes were gone. This was it – they had discovered something bad about her, and she was being sent away again. Without meaning to, she hunkered down on the floor, whimpering.

“Now then, little lass,” the farmer said in his quiet, rolling accent. “Nowt to worry yerself about, but you gotta learn to get along with t’others.”

Looking through the bars of the kennel, Pippi could see the banks of sweet-smelling hay that ‘t’others’ slept on, each with their own little hollow saturated in their unique scent. Close to the front was a fresh bundle, which another dog was already sniffing curiously.

The inner door to the kennels was unlocked, and the farmer stepped inside. He gave a gentle pull on Pippi’s lead; body flattened as low as was possible, she slunk after him. It was useless to fight humans, she had learnt this many a time. At least she didn’t appear to be leaving the farm just yet.

The farmer shooed away the nosey sheepdog, as well as a couple of others who came over to sniff around Pippi. He showed her the new bed of hay, which she curled up on reluctantly, all the while shooting him sorrowful glares.

Heaving a great sigh, the farmer gave her a gentle scratch behind the ears before backing out of the kennel and closing the wire-mesh door. As he stood regarding the dogs with a reflective air and rubbing his stubbly chin, his wife entered behind him. She glanced at Pippi, who had not moved, and then her husband.

“Now then, Jack, she’s a pack animal, and this is her new pack. You gotta give her a chance to be accepted.”

“Aye, you’re right, Clara,” he replied softly. “I just feels for her, that’s all.”

The couple turned and walked out of the kennel, closing the door behind them.

 

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The new bitch had curled up on her bed of hay, her eyes roaming constantly between the other dogs. Just the once, her gaze settled on Tom; he felt strangely affronted when she passed on quickly. Huffing quietly to himself, the old collie turned his back and settled down for his usual late-afternoon nap.

His reverie was soon broken, however, by a cacophony of snarls and panicked barking. There was a painful yelp, and he turned just in time to see Rollo, one of the more higher ranking dogs, rip a shallow tear in Pippi’s right back leg. She was stood in a defensive position, body pressed as flat against the side of the kennels as possible. Two other males were looming over her, and her eyes had a wild, hunted look.

As the most senior in the pack, Tom had assumed a reluctant leadership. He very rarely acted on it – his natural grumpiness tended to mean he held himself aloof, and when it came to maintaining law and order, generally, he was content to let the others fight amongst themselves. But now, something in Pippi’s eyes, the pitch of her frightened whine, caused a thousand-odd years of instinct to come rushing to the surface. His heart constricted in panic; all of his senses were zeroing in on the goal of protecting the newest, weakest member of his pack. In short, he was in serious danger of making a fool of himself, thanks to the pretty, young bitch.

A low, thunderous growl rolled deep from within his gullet. The astonished pack turned as one, their bodies automatically going into submission mode, with heads lowered and tails tucked between legs. Stiffly, the old collie clambered to his feet and lurched towards the cause of all this trouble.

Wary-eyed, the two other males backed away immediately. Rollo, however, remained stood slightly in front of Pippi, blocking Tom’s path to her. His head was high, and Tom could scent the aggressive arousal pouring off of him.

What’s going on? Tom snarled menacingly. Anger flashed in the younger dog’s eyes.

She lashed out at me! His head jerked over his shoulder at Pippi, who was trying to sneak round the back of him. She fixed Tom with a pleading look.

He came too close! I told him not to!

At her protest, Rollo spun round, snapping viciously. Pippi cowered back, and it took Tom’s furious bark of command to stop Rollo from harming her any more.

Pulse racing with fury, the old collie padded closer. His command was absolute.

She doesn’t want you. His gaze switched to Pippi, and he jerked his head. Get over here.

Rollo lifted his lip, snarling in response. Tom nearly fell over in astonishment. Another dog was actually challenging him.

Hackles rising, the older dog took another step closer to his rival. His growls grew deeper, clearly proclaiming with every fibre of his being:

She. Is. MINE.

Rollo’s eyes widened in shock before his head dropped in grudging obedience.

As he stepped back, Pippi crept to Tom’s side. Without another signal, the old dog stalked back to his corner and laid down again. It took less than a second for the young bitch to follow, and she was curled up alongside him. She continued to shuffle closer, until his very soft growl halted her progress. Then, she carefully licked at the slight tear to her hind leg before laying her head on her paws and falling asleep.

Tom watched through half-lidded eyes as the rest of the pack settled down, a strange, worrying feeling in his gut. Rollo snapped a couple of times at some of the weaker dogs, and Pippi whimpered quietly in her sleep. At least the farmer was delighted, albeit secretly, when he saw his two most isolated dogs – Tom and Pippi – lying side-by-side later that evening.

 

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A week after the stand-off, the pack was slowly growing used to the new dynamic. Out of instinct, Pippi had stuck like birdlime to her protector. Tom was grouchy, uncommunicative, and he frequently snapped at her if she brushed too close. But that was ok because Pippi could be sulky and sometimes didn’t care to speak for an entire day. Now and again, she would feel strange stirrings of joy, and she would let him know via tiny yips and barks.

When this happened, Tom would glance up, study her for a few seconds and then, as likely as not, ignore her. He tolerated her presence, however, and she fancied his eyes would soften very slightly when he saw her tail wagging.

The farmer had not long begun to train Pippi as a proper sheepdog, and when he saw how much she preferred Tom over all the other dogs, he introduced the old collie as a sort of mentor. Pippi watched how Tom rounded up, held and guided a couple or so sheep, and she gradually started to learn the different commands of ‘come by’, ‘away’ and ‘lie down’. With the better food she was now receiving, her brain began to pick up and retain information; in short, Pippi felt like she was actually living rather than just existing. Each night she laid her head down, the day’s teachings would sink a little deeper into her consciousness, and she began to think like a sheepdog.

Tom now let her sleep close enough so that she could feel the warmth emanating out of his thicker coat. The rest of the pack were terrified of him, and Pippi took great pride in being the one to prick the hoary crust of the old dog. It was just Rollo who still frightened her, as she knew he had not forgotten nor forgiven their previous encounter.

His revenge came nearly a whole month later. Pippi liked to explore the big cow-barn that was empty during the summer, and the farmer was happy to let her do so. Sometimes she would find a spot where the sun peeked through the shutters, curl up and go to sleep. Once, when she had woken up, she could have sworn Tom’s scent was in the air close by, and the straw next to her was flat as if a heavy body had laid upon it. She gave him a funny look later that evening, but he merely growled, half-heartedly.

Back in the barn, she would chase mice, and very occasionally rats, in and out of the rusty old troughs and between the odd bits of farmyard machinery that were stored there.

Today, she was on the trail of a creature she had never encountered before. The scent was deep and musky, and as fresh as air itself. Trying to stay as quiet as possible, Pippi let herself be drawn into the furthest, darkest corner of the barn, behind a large green-and-red combine harvester that she had never seen in use. Suddenly, the musty scent of blood filled her delicate nostrils, and she saw a long, thin brown animal stretched across the straw before her.

Pippi gave a quiet growl, but the animal didn’t move. She was now picking up the rotten smell of death, and she could see the creature’s neck had been broken by powerful jaws. Just as she started to feel a sense of unease, there was a sound behind her. Pippi turned; there was a whirl of black-and-white fur, and Rollo was upon her.

What happened next was frightening and painful. When Rollo was finished, he fled from the barn, leaving behind a whiff of fear as though he suddenly regretted his actions. Pippi lay in the straw for a little while before her sore body allowed her to rise. She gave herself a half-hearted clean-up and then limped away.

 

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Tom was out in the fields, not returning until early evening. A nervous hush was hanging over the other dogs. Their eyes were scared and downcast; the younger pups’ hackles stood on end. There was a sour smell in the air – something fetid and rank, mixed with blood.

The farmer, immediately noticing there was something amiss with his dogs, held a roll-call. When the dogs were lined up, and only Pippi and Rollo were missing, Tom began to grow agitated.

“All right, lad. We’ll find her,” the farmer muttered, patting Tom’s head. Swiftly, he called for his wife, son and daughter-in law, and the search began, even as night drew close.

It was Tom who found Pippi, lying beneath a raised ironwork trough. She was curled up in a ball, and when he tried to wriggle beneath the trough to join her, she snapped at him.

Between Tom and the farmer, it took a good hour to coax her out. She limped badly on her hind legs, and they could see she was torn and bleeding. Tom wanted to lick at her wounds, to clean her up and erase as much of Rollo’s stench that he could, but her eyes were too wary, her whole stance mistrustful.

The farmer and his son instead scooped her up between them and carried her into the hallowed mysteries of ‘The House’. Tom followed them to the back door, where he was stopped with some difficulty.

As the two men and Pippi disappeared down a dark passageway, he just caught the younger man words.

“Imagine what it’d have been like if she were in heat!”

“Thank God she isn’t,” came the farmer’s husky response. “We won’t have a litter of ill-gotten pups to deal with.”

The women of the farm shut the rest of the dogs away for the night, all except Tom who refused to leave the back door. He stayed there all night, watching the stars come out one by one.

He had never been out at night, so had never had the chance to notice how the sky dipped from lilac to violet to black, or how the stars emerged slowly and not all at once. He sat staring at the thin slice of moon and found himself wishing that Pippi was with him to see this strange beauty.

 

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The following morning, the farmer stepped out to give a weary-eyed Tom a scratch behind the ears and a bowl of meat and biscuits.

“Your little lady’s doing grand,” he said calmly. “We’ll get the vet out just to be on safe side, but there’s don’t seem to be too much damage. All right?”

Tom growled in response, and the farmer sighed deeply.

 

“I know. Once a dog’s turned bad, he has to go. We’ll deal with Rollo.” With a final pat, the farmer trudged away to start his day’s work, leaving Tom to scarf down his breakfast.

Rollo actually returned later that morning, of his own accord and full of himself. His cocky demeanour vanished, however, when Tom came racing full-pelt towards him, ignoring the farmers’ cries behind them. Instinct kicked in; Rollo turned and scarpered, and the hunt began.

The two dogs ran out of the farmyard and into the leafy lane that bounded the farm on the west, narrowly avoiding the startled postman on his bicycle. Being that much younger, Rollo should have been faster but, somehow that morning, Tom was proving impossible to lose. The old collie’s breath was literally ruffling the fur on Rollo’s hind legs, even as he made a sudden dash right.

Hurtling into a small copse, Rollo had been hoping to gain a few seconds with the suddenness of his move. Tom lunged right too, however, his snapping teeth almost catching Rollo’s right back leg.

Entering the copse proved to be a bad idea on Rollo’s part, as the trees and undergrowth slowed him considerably, whereas Tom seemed able to plough ahead, heedless of knocks or scratches. He was almost on top of the younger dog, when daylight broke through the trees and a wide, fast-running river opened up before them. Without thinking, Rollo dived into the choppy water.

Tom skidded to a halt, narrowly avoiding going in himself. The old dog was wiser; already, he could see how Rollo was struggling against the punishing flow.

It was finished in less than a minute. The farmer and his son arrived some time later, breathless, only to find a silent Tom, sat staring into the river. Downstream, about half a mile where a large branch had fallen across the water, they recovered Rollo’s body.

That evening, the farmer’s son looked across the dining table at his father. The older man glared back mutinously.

“I know what you’re thinking, and no.”

The son just shook his head. “You would have had Rollo destroyed for being a dangerous dog. If Tom had caught him, he would have ripped his throat out. Doesn’t that make him a danger also?”

“Does he look like a danger to you?” The farmer nodded into the adjoining living room where, through the open door, they could see Tom and Pippi lying side by side in front of a roaring fire. The bitch’s eyes were half-lidded, her muzzle lying across Tom’s front paws. Tom was giving the top of her head and behind her ears a diligent seeing-to, occasionally pausing in his ministrations whenever Pippi grumbled.

“Tom’s my best dog, always has been,” the farmer said firmly, watching the shining love in Tom’s eyes, the proud tilt of his head as he gazed down at Pippi. “I’ll not part with him, no more than I would you or your mother, and that’s an end to it.”

 

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It wasn’t quite the end, however. Just over a year later, the human tenants of the farm were stood gazing into the small, purpose-built kennel, filled with straw and now home to a new family.

Pippi lay in the middle, feverishly licking her smallest pup. The pup squeaked surprisingly loud, and two of his three siblings immediately joined in. The fourth, busy suckling, ignored everything but the pull of his appetite.

Very gently, as though he were afraid of breaking them, Tom snuffled around the two puppies not currently being cleaned or fed. Their eyes still sealed shut, they immediately recognised the scent of their father and tried to burrow deep into his fur.

With the lightest touch possible, Tom picked one up and carefully placed him close to a redundant teat of Pippi’s. He then repeated with the second pup, sitting back to watch with contentment as his family settled down.

“And I thought we’d be safe leaving them alone!” One arm round his wife’s shoulders, the farmer’s son chuckled. “I could have sworn he was too old to sire.”

The farmer just smiled and shook his head.

“I always knew there was life in the old dog yet,” he said softly.

©2020 by Nicola Niemc