By Warrigal Mirriyuula
1. Two Dogs.
Mongrel and The Runt were two dogs about town. Well known to all, they had their rounds of the place. A regular morning stop at the back of MacCafferty’s Butchery for the offcuts, then down to the creek for a good chew on the bones happily supplied by the old butcher; then up to the Central School to mess about with the kids at playlunch, always a chunk of sausage roll to be had or on really good days a sugar biscuit; and then a rest in the cool under the decaying concrete loading dock at the abandoned ice-works, snoozing out the heat of the day.
Their afternoons were less structured and usually involved a quick burst of speed up the lane behind the commercial precinct on Bank Street where they had taken to hassling the guard dogs chained up behind a few of the stores. They both enjoyed the excitement of the wind flapping their lips and jowls, supercharging all the smells and odours of the town up their nostrils. It was their daily news and told them all they needed to know about what was going down in town, whether old MacCafferty was butchering that day and what. Whether the timber mill was cutting boards or raw logs, whether the hospital on the hill was incinerating waste; and what was being cooked in the kitchens all over town. And then there was the risk that one day one of the bruisers wouldn’t be chained up. That added the thrill of the possibility of big dog action. They barked and yapped their silly heads off, stopping here and there to scratch vigorously on the paling or corrugated iron fences. That always seemed to get the guard dogs going. They’d bark up a storm, slavering at the mouth and nearly strangling themselves on their choker chains, silly buggers! What did they know of the life of two free dogs, two dogs about town.
Mongrel and The Runt had been their own crew of two for a few years now and like other colourful locals they were known at all the well patronised spots, the front bar at The Freemasons Hotel, the pavement outside Jimmy Hang Sing’s Takeaway, the forecourt of Perks’ Motor Garage, in fact anywhere where there was action and some fun for two dogs about town.
They were an odd couple, Mongrel and The Runt. Mongrel was a big dog with the conformation of a Kelpie, but somehow bigger and more powerful. His coat, generally short, had an undercoat of softer hair like a heeler. This undercoat of grey white gave the coarse black overcoat a slightly peppered appearance, which gave way to the tan and yellow of his legs and his blue spotted white “socks”. Big-chested, he had a blaze of thick “true blue” around his neck and chest that also covered his belly and reached up to the top of his head where it merged with the smooth black again, offset by dark tan eyebrows and tan and yellow round his snout. He was one handsome hound.
The Runt on the other hand was a dog only a bitch could love. Mostly Jack Russel Terrier, but with maybe some Fox Terrier too, and a few after thoughts for good measure, The Runt had never been certain whether he was a “plain” or a “wire haired” dog. Bits of him were one, bits the other, and some bits didn’t have any hair at all. What hair he did have seemed unable to make up its mind what colour to be, so it had settled for a kind of non colour, somewhere between off white and dirty grey brown. He was small and could, and often did, take shelter under Mongrel’s belly. He’d lost the best part of an ear before he teamed up with Mongrel and his tail was a mess of poorly healed breaks that gave it the appearance of a furry lightning bolt as The Runt ran after Mongrel on their daily adventures.
They’d first met up after Mongrel escaped from the local pet store where he’d been dumped by his aesthetically challenged human. Mongrel had been the biggest of his litter and the most variably coloured; traits that apparently didn’t fit the “lifestyle” of that owner.
He’d been very lonely at first but the girl in the pet store had liked his colour well enough and the puppy had ingratiated himself with her in the hope that one day she might leave his pen open and he could get away. And he did. One day shortly after Mongrel had treated the shop assistant to his best “wide eyed puppy” shtick, she lifted him out of the wood shavings and shredded newspaper that lined his pen and put him down on the floor. Before she had time to turn and pick up the chew toy she thought the puppy would enjoy, he was out the door and up Bank Street, flying as fast as his little puppy legs would carry him. He ran right into The Runt who, seeing the young shop assistant running after Mongrel, had clamped his jaws round the thick fur of the pup’s neck and dragged him quick smart up a convenient lane and under a shed. The pup was excited and frightened all at once and as soon as The Runt relinquished his grip Mongrel turned on The Runt and began to yip and yap at him in the cool gloom, dropping at the front, his little backside twisting, his tail wagging fit to bust. The Runt having rescued the pup now had no idea what to do with him.
This haven amongst the brick piers holding up the shed was obviously a regular resort for The Runt, maybe even home. There was an accumulation of old bones in various states of denudation and crunchedness. There was a large piece of tattered green tarpaulin and a number of shredded old jumpers and a blanket all wadded into a very comfortable nest. The pup shut up and gave himself a distracted scratch behind the ear, a quick spot of attention to his pizzle and then he got up and went over to give The Runt a good introductory smelling. The Runt did the same. There must have been something in the air that morning. They were instant, inseparable companions from that moment on.
In time the pup grew larger and stronger on the tucker they scavenged about for. It wasn’t exactly a good life, living on human garbage and scraps, but they were their own dogs and their own company was enough for each of them.
Late one spring day they’d found a dead lamb on the outskirts of town. The crows and maggots had already had the best of it but there was still plenty of good left. They crunched on it a bit, really enjoying the sweet fragrance of decay. They chewed on the woolly carcase until after dusk. There was still a sizeable chunk of the lamb left and they’d decided to drag it home so they could enjoy the smell later. Perhaps even have a roll in it. It hadn’t worked out for them though. The very next day while Mongrel and The Runt were pursuing their morning rounds the owner of the shed had come out the back to get something he’d stored there. Opening the door had been assaulted by the gorge raising stench of animal corruption and death seeping up through the ill-fitting boards of the floor. He soon discovered the malodorous carcase and the detritus of the dogs’ lives under the shed. Holding his breath and pulling all manner of disagreeable faces, he’d cleared the whole lot out. By the time the dogs got back that evening the shed’s owner had installed chicken wire between all the outside piers. The dogs couldn’t get in. They hung around a while, half-heartedly scratching and chewing on the chicken wire, but it was no good. They’d have to move on.
It was Mongrel who had found their new home at the ice-works. He’d been bounding after a big rat that had disappeared under the tangle of bent and rusted rebar and broken concrete that was the remains of the loading dock. Once out of the sun Mongrel lost interest in the rat as he looked around in the dark cool where the collapsed front of the dock created a commodious and weatherproof space. Mongrel clambered back outside to bark The Runt over so he could give it his approval. Both satisfied, they’d taken to searching out some new bedding for a nest and within a few days they were as right as rain. Nobody would disturb them here. This was a place abandoned by humans.
Humans are odd things. Sometimes Mongrel thought they were better off without them and other days, when he saw house dogs playing with their human companions, he wished he and The Runt had someone to throw the ball and play Frisbee with, a basket and a blanket by the fire to go home to. The Runt didn’t like people at all. He’d been cruelly treated as a pup and would often draw close to Mongrel and growl if a person took an interest in them. He could carry off a very forbidding act of aggressive posturing with all the attendant growling and barking, but he was only a little more than a handful so no-one was fooled no matter how good a performance The Runt gave.
It was one of the humans that regularly gathered in the front bar at The Freemasons Hotel that confirmed the two canine companions in their names. Mongrel was just returning to The Runt from a little way up the street where he had run after a cattle-truck on its way out to Wellington. He’d given it a great deal of barking and lunging at the tyres of the speeding, clattering, rattling monster right up to the turn by the Baths. The Heeler in the dog box under the trailer had said “g’day”; just one bark before being obscured by the dust as the semi turned the corner.
It was quiet in the front bar at The Freemasons. The radio was playing the races at Towac Park. Truant smoke from the neglected durries hanging from every drinker’s lip lazily filled the afternoon air. The barman, cleaning glasses and looking out through the street doors had opined, “That silly mongrel’ll get himself run over one of these days.” It was just for something to say while they all waited for the next race on 2GZ. “Not that mongrel. He’s too bloody smart.” another drinker had responded. “Too bloody smart by half. Have you ever seen a more fit pair of strays than that mongrel and the runt he has for an oppo?” He turned the page on his form guide and made a few notations for upcoming races. “They get around like they own the place. Old MacCafferty’s feedin’ ’em most mornin’s.” The other drinkers nodded as though that explained and settled the matter. It seemed that in no time at all the dogs were known around town as that Mongrel and The Runt, and being officially named seemed to give the dogs a legitimacy and license not vouchsafed to other canines in the small central western town. Molong really was their town.
(Come back next week when out two intrepid hounds play cat and mouse with the dogcatcher and Old MacCafferty goes to hospital, creating a kerfuffle when Mongrel and The Runt come to visit.)