A Fresh Start

It was getting dark before Jake summoned up sufficient courage to return to Hill Top Farm. He knew he’d be in trouble, but he was hungry and hunger drove him. As he drew close to the yard gate, he lowered his body to the ground and inched forward hoping not to be noticed. His sides were sore from yesterday’s beating and mud stuck to his black, matted coat, but the smoky smell of the barbecue drew him like a magnet. He crept through the open gate and slunk along the side of the barn, keeping in the shadows.

The bonfire was just beginning to die down, the glowing logs creating a warm circle of flickering light that illuminated the cheerful faces gathered round. “I brought some fireworks. Shall we have them now?” asked one of the younger men.

“Ooh yes. I love fireworks.” His girlfriend, Brenda, grabbed his arm, spilling some of his beer.

“Look what you’re doing you silly mare. What do you say Greg? Won’t upset your dogs will it?”

“Nah. They’ll be all right. They’re all shut in, except that stupid collie. He got out again this morning when I went in to see to the puppies. He ran off when I tried to catch him.”

“Have you got puppies?” asked Brenda.

“I might have. Are you looking for a dog?”

“I’ve got a friend who is. Can we come and see what you’ve got?”

“Yes, but give me a bell first. Now, where’d you put these fireworks, Tom?” 

“Are you sure this is such a good idea?” said Brenda. “I didn’t realise you had dogs here. She looked appealingly at Greg’s wife, Nora. “Dogs don’t like fireworks do they?”

“Don’t worry about them. They won’t fuss, said Nora. She was such a kind person that Brenda was reassured. 

The first of the rockets went off just as Jake, who had sneaked up close to the table, had his mouth round a cooling sausage. The sizzle and swoosh as it launched made him flatten against the ground, but the series of deafening explosions was too much. He erupted from under the table dragging the cloth, scattering food and the box of fireworks that fell on to the dying embers of the fire. He shot across the garden and crashed his way through the hedge. As he fought his way free of brambles, one of the rockets ignited taking off along the ground, glancing off the wall of the barn and turning back into the shocked crowd around the fire. Bangs and screams rang in Jake’s ears as he started to run. He ran faster and further than he had ever run before. 

“What the hell was that?” demanded Tom, who had ruined his new sheepskin jacket smothering the flames licking round the remaining fireworks. 

“It was that bloody Jake,” said Greg. “Must have been after the sausages. I’ll have to take the gun out tomorrow.”

“The gun? You can’t shoot him.” Brenda pulled her fleece jacket close round her neck, seeing again the animal’s terrified eyes, a split second snapshot, before all hell broke loose with fireworks going off in all directions. 

“No, of course he won’t.” Nora put a warning hand on her husband’s arm. “But someone else may. This is sheep country. But don’t you worry, my dear. I’m sure Greg will be able to catch him. 

Tom didn’t suggest any further meetings when he dropped Brenda that night. She knew she’d upset him by spilling his beer and he probably blamed her for his spoilt jacket. She wasn’t sorry. They didn’t have much in common. 

Next day, when her work mate, Sally, told her she’d found a puppy, she was relieved. She didn’t want to have a reason to revisit the isolated farm on the hill. Nora was lovely, but she didn’t trust Greg. She was finding it difficult to get that dog out of her mind.

Sally rushed on “It’s a Cairn terrier. It won’t need much exercise, I’m told. I’m collecting it this weekend. It’s at Hill Top Farm, up on top of the ridge.”

Brenda felt as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over her. “How did you find out they had puppies?”

“There was an ad in the local. They’re not breeders as such, just decided to have one litter from their pet dog. There’s only one left. They’ve got homes for all the others. The woman on the phone sounded ever so nice. I’ve got to go at half past eleven on Saturday. She was very specific about the time because she’s got some church function later in the day. Do you want to come?

“I’ve just remembered that I promised Mum I’d go over this weekend,” said Brenda hastily. “But I’ll come and see the pup when you get it home”

There was something very odd about the set up at Hill Top Farm, mused Brenda. She’d been in the farmhouse several times with Tom and there’d been no pet dogs around. She wasn’t sure what to do about it. It wasn’t her business was it? 

Jake spent the following day hiding out on the hills. He’d travelled a considerable distance and the farm where he was born no longer drew him. He was lucky to find a sheep’s carcase that had not been too badly scavenged. There was sufficient left for his immediate needs, but it was lonely up there and he was stiff and sore. It was cold too on the high ground. Instinctively, he followed a spring downhill, looking for shelter. 

Just before night fell he came upon an isolated smallholding deep in a valley. He waited until the lights went out in the house and all was dark, then he crept forward, all black like a piece of the night. He found the remains of some cat food and some carelessly split cattle cake. He spent the night in the barn drawing comfort and warmth from the cattle, but when morning came he left the barn and headed back up the hill.

It was a week before Ted spotted him. “I’ve just seen a dog, black as the night. Came stealing the chicken feed. Wonder if it’s the one that went missing from Hill Top Farm.” Ted looked questioningly at his wife. 

“I was reading about that in the paper. A terrible business. But surely, it couldn’t be the same dog. That’s miles away.”

“By the road it is. Not very far as the crow flies. The girl who reported them to the police described the dog that ran off as all black. There were people out over the hills for days looking, but they never saw hide nor hair of him. I reckon he’s been hiding out over here all along. I was wondering what had been in the bins.”

“What shall we do about it? I suppose we should report it to the police.”

“Not just yet. They’d have to send the dog-catcher and most likely frighten him away. Let’s put out some food and see if we can coax him in.”

“You’re soft one, Ted Fry. I suppose you think this one has been sent to replace poor old Bob.”

“Well you have to admit it, Mary. It is strange him turning up here just after we’d lost the old boy.” 

“Yes and after you agreed you’d not have another.”

“I know, I know.” Ted stumped away. He’d promised Mary he would retire when he lost his old dog, but he didn’t want to retire. He was only sixty-two. He and the dog should have had years to go. His wife smiled wryly and went to sort out a bowl and some food. 

Jake could hardly believe the full bowl of food. He backed away. “Not stupid anyway,” muttered the old farmer watching from the upstairs window. He waited until the animal came back, unable to resist the temptation to wolf down the food. “Starving. Poor sod.”

For two nights Jake came and polished the bowl, but the third night the bowl remained full. 

“Oh dear. Perhaps he’s run off again,” said Mary. “Maybe he likes to be on the move.”

“Maybe. But I’ll have a look around.”

Ted found him in the corner of the barn. Jake bristled and snarled, when the man approached, but he didn’t run. He lay on his side panting. The farmer went back into the house. “Ring the surgery and tell them I’m bringing a dog in. I know it’s a Sunday, but tell them it’s an emergency”

“Oh dear. Just don’t get yourself bitten.” Mary picked up the phone and was already in the driving seat of the van with the engine running when her husband emerged from the barn with the limp body wrapped in a blanket. “I hope this isn’t going to end in heartbreak,” she said to herself.

When Jake finally woke up, he found himself in a strange place. There were voices and people moving backwards and forwards. He raised his head cautiously and identified a man and a woman.

“He’s awake, but take no notice,” said Ted. “Let him make the moves. How about a cuppa.”

Mary went to put the kettle on. She’d been looking forward to retiring to a small cottage by the seaside, near their youngest daughter, but Ted wouldn’t have been happy. He’d cut down on the stock, but he needed to keep going while he still could. She looked across at the dog stretched out on the crocheted blanket that had belonged to old Bob.

“He’ll be a nice looking dog when he’s not so thin. He’s not a purebred though. I wonder why they kept him. The papers said they were breeding pedigree dogs to order. The state of those barns was awful, they said. Thank goodness that young girl had the guts to do something about it.”

“Yes, most people wouldn’t have bothered, wouldn’t have wanted to get involved. It was the sight of this one, she said, so terrified, running away from the fireworks. She couldn’t get it out of her mind.”

“His coat was singed, probably just from loose embers. It was an old wound that caused the infection. The vet was shocked at the state he was in. He looks a bit of a mess with half his coat shaved away, but it’ll grow again. This is our chance to gain his trust, while he’s weak and wobbly.”

“If anyone can do it, you can, Ted. Remember what the old dog was like when he came to us.” 

“Yes, we’ll sort him out. Thank goodness they’ve closed that place down. Someone up the pub was saying they had several litters of puppies in those barns, all pedigrees being bred for one of them posh London stores. You hear stories about puppy farms and the like, but you don’t expect it to be going on so close to home. Of course, they had no licence and won’t get one now. From what I was told the RSPCA will be taking them to court anyway.”

“What really surprised me was that some people seemed to know all about it, knew what was going on up there and did nothing, animal lovers too supposedly.” 

“You’re right. There’s no accounting. What shall we call him, Mary? Shall we call him Bob like the old fellow?”

“The man in the pub said they called him Jake. Isn’t it unlucky to change a dog’s name?”

“Not for this dog it isn’t. What he needs is a new name and a fresh start. We’ll call him Bob. What d’you say, Bob?” Bob’s eyes turned from one to the other. They were still droopy from the anaesthetic. He closed them and rested his nose on his paws. He hadn’t the energy to move, but his tail tentatively brushed the floor.