James herriots dog stori.., p.19
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       James Herriot's Dog Stories, p.19

           James Herriot
 

  ‘Right . . . right . . .’ I stumbled down the garden path and drove away. It was not a happy departure.

  Next morning I could hardly believe it when there was no call from Marston. Maybe all was well at last. But I turned cold when an urgent call to go to Lilac Cottage was passed on to one of the farms on my round. I was right at the far end of the practice area and was in the middle of a tough calving, and it was well over three hours before I got out at the now familiar garden gate. The cottage door was open and as I ventured up the path a little brown missile hurtled out at me. It was Cindy, but a transformed Cindy, a snarling, barking little bundle of ferocity; and though I recoiled she fastened her teeth in my trouser cuff and hung on grimly.

  I was hopping around on one leg trying to shake off the growling little creature when a peal of almost girlish laughter made me look round.

  Mrs Dooley, vastly amused, was watching me from the doorway. ‘My word, she’s different since she had them pups. Just shows what a good little mother she is, guarding them like that.’ She gazed fondly at the tiny animal dangling from my ankle.

  ‘Had the pups . . . ?’

  ‘Aye, when they said you’d be a long time I rang Mr Farnon. He came right away and d’you know he gave Cindy that injection I’ve wanted all along. And I tell you ’e wasn’t right out of t’garden gate before the pups started. She’s had seven – beauties they are.’

  ‘Ah well that’s fine, Mrs Dooley . . . splendid.’ Siegfried had obviously felt a pup in the passage. I finally managed to rid myself of Cindy and when her mistress lifted her up I went into the kitchen to inspect the family.

  They certainly were grand pups and I lifted the squawking little morsels one by one from their basket while their mother snarled from Mrs Dooley’s arms like a starving wolfhound.

  ‘They’re lovely, Mrs Dooley,’ I murmured.

  She looked at me pityingly. ‘I told you what to do, didn’t I, but you wouldn’t ’ave it. It only needed a little prick. Ooo, that Mr Farnon’s a lovely man – just like Mr Broomfield.’

  That was a bit much. ‘But you must realise, Mrs Dooley, he just happened to arrive at the right time. If I had come . . .’

  ‘Now, now, young man, be fair. Ah’m not blamin’ you, but some people have had more experience. We all ’ave to learn.’ She sighed reminiscently. ‘It was just a little prick – Mr Farnon’ll have to show you how to do it. I tell you he wasn’t right out of t’garden gate . . .’

  Enough is enough. I drew myself up to my full height. ‘Mrs Dooley, madam,’ I said frigidly, ‘let me repeat once and for all . . .’

  ‘Oh, hoity toity, hoity toity, don’t get on your high horse wi’ me!’ she exclaimed. ‘We’ve managed very nicely without you so don’t complain.’ Her expression became very severe. ‘And one more thing – me name’s not Mrs Dooley.’

  My brain reeled for a moment. The world seemed to be crumbling about me. ‘What did you say?’

  ‘I said me name’s not Mrs Dooley.’

  ‘It isn’t?’

  ‘Naw!’ She lifted her left hand and as I gazed at it dully I realised it must have been all the mental stress which had prevented me from noticing the total absence of rings.

  ‘Naw!’ she said. ‘It’s Miss!’

  Points up the fact that sometimes you feel you are a loser from the start. When you can’t even get a client’s name right it is no use trying to prove you are using the correct treatment. When I first came to Darrowby Siegfried told me that veterinary practice offered unrivalled opportunities for making a fool of yourself. He was right.

  19. Only One Woof

  ‘Is this the thing you’ve been telling me about?’ I asked.

  Mr Wilkin nodded. ‘Aye, that’s it, it’s always like that.’

  I looked down at the helpless convulsions of the big dog lying at my feet; at the staring eyes, the wildly pedalling limbs. The farmer had told me about the periodic attacks which had begun to affect his sheepdog, Gyp, but it was coincidence that one should occur when I was on the farm for another reason.

  ‘And he’s all right afterwards, you say?’

  ‘Right as a bobbin. Seems a bit dazed, maybe, for about an hour, then he’s back to normal.’ The farmer shrugged. ‘I’ve had lots o’ dogs through my hands as you know and I’ve seen plenty of dogs with fits. I thought I knew all the causes – worms, wrong feeding, distemper – but this has me beat. I’ve tried everything.’

  ‘Well you can stop trying, Mr Wilkin,’ I said. ‘You won’t be able to do much for Gyp. He’s got epilepsy.’

  ‘Epilepsy? But he’s a grand, normal dog most of t’time.’

  ‘Yes, I know. That’s how it goes. There’s nothing actually wrong with his brain – it’s a mysterious condition. The cause is unknown but it’s almost certainly hereditary.’

  Mr Wilkin raised his eyebrows. ‘Well that’s a rum ’un. If it’s hereditary why hasn’t it shown up before now? He’s nearly two years old and he didn’t start this till a few weeks ago.’

  ‘That’s typical,’ I replied. ‘Eighteen months to two years is about the time it usually appears.’

  Gyp interrupted us by getting up and staggering towards his master, wagging his tail. He seemed untroubled by his experience. In fact the whole thing had lasted less than two minutes.

  Mr Wilkin bent and stroked the rough head briefly. His craggy features were set in a thoughtful cast. He was a big powerful man in his forties and now as the eyes narrowed in that face which rarely smiled he looked almost menacing. I had heard more than one man say he wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of Sep Wilkin and I could see what they meant. But he had always treated me right and since he farmed nearly a thousand acres I saw quite a lot of him.

  His passion was sheepdogs. A lot of farmers like to run dogs at the trials but Mr Wilkin was one of the top men. He bred and trained dogs which regularly won at the local events and occasionally at the national trials. And what was troubling me was that Gyp was his main hope.

  He had picked out the two best pups from a litter – Gyp and Sweep – and had trained them with the dedication that had made him a winner. I don’t think I have ever seen two dogs enjoy each other quite as much; whenever I was on the farm I would see them together, sometimes peeping nose by nose over the half-door of the loose box where they slept, occasionally slinking devotedly round the feet of their master but usually just playing together. They must have spent hours rolling about in ecstatic wrestling matches, growling and panting, gnawing gently at each other’s limbs.

  A few months ago George Crossley, one of Mr Wilkin’s oldest friends and a keen trial man, had lost his best dog with nephritis and Mr Wilkin had let him have Sweep. I was surprised at the time because Sweep was shaping better than Gyp in his training and looked like turning out a real champion. But it was Gyp who remained. He must have missed his friend but there were other dogs on the farm and if they didn’t quite make up for Sweep he was never really lonely.

  As I watched, I could see the dog recovering rapidly. It was extraordinary how soon normality was restored after that frightening convulsion. And I waited with some apprehension to hear what his master would say.

  The cold, logical decision for him to make would be to have Gyp put down and, looking at the friendly, tail-wagging animal, I didn’t like the idea at all. There was something very attractive about him. The big-boned, well-marked body was handsome but his most distinctive feature was his head, where one ear somehow contrived to stick up while the other lay flat, giving him a lop-sided, comic appeal. Gyp, in fact, looked a bit of a clown. But a clown who radiated goodwill and camaraderie.

  Mr Wilkin spoke at last. ‘Will he get any better as he grows older?’

  ‘Almost certainly not,’ I replied.

  ‘Then he’ll always ’ave these fits?’

  ‘I’m afraid so. You say he has them every two or three weeks – well it will probably carry on more or less like that with occasional variations.’

  ‘But he could have o
ne any time?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘In the middle of a trial, like.’ The farmer sunk his head on his chest and his voice rumbled deep. ‘That’s it, then.’

  In the long silence which followed, the fateful words became more and more inevitable. Sep Wilkin wasn’t the man to hesitate in a matter which concerned his ruling passion. Ruthless culling of any animal which didn’t come up to standard would be his policy. When he finally cleared his throat I had a sinking premonition of what he was going to say.

  But I was wrong.

  ‘If I kept him, could you do anything for him?’ he asked.

  ‘Well I could give you some pills for him. They might decrease the frequency of the fits.’ I tried to keep the eagerness out of my voice.

  ‘Right . . . right . . . I’ll come into t’surgery and get some,’ he muttered.

  ‘Fine. But . . . er . . . you won’t ever breed from him, will you?’ I said.

  ‘Naw, naw, naw,’ the farmer grunted with a touch of irritability as though he didn’t want to pursue the matter further.

  And I held my peace because I felt intuitively that he did not want to be detected in a weakness; that he was prepared to keep the dog simply as a pet. It was funny how events began to slot into place and suddenly make sense. That was why he had let Sweep, the superior trial dog, go. He just liked Gyp. In fact Sep Wilkin, hard man though he may be, had succumbed to that off-beat charm.

  So I shifted to some light chatter about the weather as I walked back to the car, but when I was about to drive off the farmer returned to the main subject.

  ‘There’s one thing about Gyp I never mentioned,’ he said, bending to the window. ‘I don’t know whether it has owt to do with the job or not. He has never barked in his life.’

  I looked at him in surprise. ‘You mean never, ever?’

  ‘That’s right. Not a single bark. T’other dogs make a noise when strangers come on the farm but I’ve never heard Gyp utter a sound since he was born.’

  ‘Well that’s very strange,’ I said. ‘But I can’t see that it is connected with his condition in any way.’

  And as I switched on the engine I noticed for the first time that while a bitch and two half-grown pups gave tongue to see me on my way, Gyp merely regarded me in his comradely way, mouth open, tongue lolling, but made no noise. A silent dog.

  The thing intrigued me. So much so that whenever I was on the farm over the next few months I made a point of watching the big sheepdog at whatever he was doing. But there was never any change. Between the convulsions which had settled down to around three-week intervals he was a normal active happy animal. But soundless.

  I saw him, too, in Darrowby when his master came in to market. Gyp was often seated comfortably in the back of the car, but if I happened to speak to Mr Wilkin on these occasions I kept off the subject because, as I said, I had the feeling that he more than most farmers would hate to be exposed in keeping a dog for other than working purposes.

  And yet I have always entertained a suspicion that most farm dogs were more or less pets. The dogs on sheep farms were of course indispensable working animals and on other establishments they no doubt performed a function in helping to bring in the cows. But watching them on my daily rounds I often wondered. I saw them rocking along on carts at haytime, chasing rats among the stooks at harvest, pottering around the buildings or roaming the fields at the side of the farmer; and I wondered . . . what did they really do?

  My suspicions were strengthened at other times – as when I was trying to round up some cattle into a corner and the dog tried to get into the act by nipping at a hock or tail. There was invariably a hoarse yell of ‘Siddown, dog!’ or ‘Gerrout, dog!’

  So right up to the present day I still stick to my theory: most farm dogs are pets and they are there mainly because the farmer just likes to have them around. You would have to put a farmer on the rack to get him to admit it but I think I am right. And in the process those dogs have a wonderful time. They don’t have to beg for walks, they are out all day long, and in the company of their masters. If I want to find a man on a farm I look for his dog, knowing the man won’t be far away. I try to give my own dogs a good life but it cannot compare with the life of the average farm dog.

  There was a long spell when Sep Wilkin’s stock stayed healthy and I didn’t see either him or Gyp, then I came across them both by accident at a sheepdog trial. It was a local event run in conjunction with the Mellerton Agricul­tural Show and since I was in the district I decided to steal an hour off.

  I took Helen with me, too, because these trials have always fascinated us. The wonderful control of the owners over their animals, the intense involvement of the dogs themselves, the sheer skill of the whole operation, always held us spellbound.

  She put her arm through mine as we went in at the entrance gate to where a crescent of cars was drawn up at one end of a long field. The field was on the river’s edge and through a fringe of trees the afternoon sunshine glinted on the tumbling water of the shallows and turned the long beach of bleached stones to a dazzling white. Groups of men, mainly competitors, stood around chatting as they watched. They were quiet, easy, bronzed men and as they seemed to be drawn from all social strata from prosperous farmers to working men their garb was varied: cloth caps, trilbies, deerstalkers or no hat at all; tweed jackets, stiff best suits, open-necked shirts, fancy ties, sometimes neither collar nor tie. Nearly all of them leaned on long crooks with the handles fashioned from rams’ horns.

  Snatches of talk reached us as we walked among them.

  ‘You got ‘ere, then, Fred.’ ‘That’s a good gather.’ ‘Nay, ’e’s missed one, ’e’ll get nowt for that.’ ‘Them sheep’s a bit flighty.’ ‘Aye they’re buggers.’ And above it all the whistles of the man running a dog; every conceivable level and pitch of whistle with now and then a shout. ‘Sit!’ ‘Get by!’ Every man had his own way with his dog.

  The dogs waiting their turn were tied up to a fence with a hedge growing over it. There were about seventy of them and it was rather wonderful to see that long row of waving tails and friendly expressions. They were mostly strangers to each other but there wasn’t even the semblance of disagreement, never mind a fight. It seemed that the natural obedience of these little creatures was linked to an amicable disposition.

  This appeared to be common to their owners, too. There was no animosity, no resentment at defeat, no unseemly display of triumph in victory. If a man overran his time he ushered his group of sheep quietly in the corner and returned with a philosophical grin to his colleagues. There was a little quiet leg-pulling but that was all.

  We came across Sep Wilkin leaning against his car at the best vantage point about thirty yards away from the final pen. Gyp, tied to the bumper, turned and gave me his crooked grin while Mrs Wilkin on a camp stool by his side rested a hand on his shoulder. Gyp, it seemed, had got under her skin too.

  Helen went over to speak to her and I turned to her husband. ‘Are you running a dog today, Mr Wilkin?’

  ‘No, not this time, just come to watch. I know a lot o’ the dogs.’

  I stood near him for a while watching the competitors in action, breathing in the clean smell of trampled grass and plug tobacco. In front of us next to the pen the judge stood by his post.

  I had been there for about ten minutes when Mr Wilkin lifted a pointing finger. ‘Look who’s there!’

  George Crossley with Sweep trotting at his heels was making his way unhurriedly to the post. Gyp suddenly stiffened and sat up very straight, his cocked ears accentuating the lop-sided look. It was many months since he had seen his brother and companion; it seemed unlikely, I thought, that he would remember him. But his interest was clearly intense, and as the judge waved his white handkerchief and the three sheep were released from the far corner he rose slowly to his feet.

  A gesture from Mr Crossley sent Sweep winging round the perimeter of the field in a wide, joyous gallop and as he neared the sheep a whistle dropped hi
m on his belly. From then on it was an object lesson in the cooperation of man and dog. Sep Wilkin had always said Sweep would be a champion and he looked the part, darting and falling at his master’s commands. Short piercing whistles, shrill plaintive whistles; he was in tune with them all.

  No dog all day had brought his sheep through the three lots of gates as effortlessly as Sweep did now and as he approached the pen near us it was obvious that he would win the cup unless some disaster struck. But this was the touchy bit; more than once with other dogs the sheep had broken free and gone bounding away within feet of the wooden rails.

  George Crossley held the gate wide and extended his crook. You could see now why they all carried those long sticks. His commands to Sweep, huddled flat along the turf, were now almost inaudible but the quiet words brought the dog inching first one way then the other. The sheep were in the entrance to the pen now but they still looked around them irresolutely and the game was not over yet. But as Sweep wriggled towards them almost imperceptibly they turned and entered and Mr Crossley crashed the gate behind them.

  As he did so he turned to Sweep with a happy cry of ‘ Good lad!’ and the dog responded with a quick jerking wag of his tail.

  At that, Gyp, who had been standing very tall, watching every move with the most intense concentration, raised his head and emitted a single resounding bark.

  ‘ Woof!’ went Gyp as we all stared at him in astonishment.

  ‘Did you hear that?’ gasped Mrs Wilkin.

  ‘Well, by gaw!’ her husband burst out, looking open-mouthed at his dog.

  Gyp didn’t seem to be aware that he had done anything unusual. He was too preoccupied by the reunion with his brother and within seconds the two dogs were rolling around, chewing playfully at each other as of old.

  I suppose the Wilkins as well as myself had the feeling that this event might start Gyp barking like any other dog, but it was not to be.

  Six years later I was on the farm and went to the house to get some hot water. As Mrs Wilkin handed me the bucket she looked down at Gyp who was basking in the sunshine outside the kitchen window.

 

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