JACK AWOKE FROM HIS DREAM with his back legs still running. A horrible man with a whip had been chasing him and Jack had run in terrified circles around and around inside a barn, unable to escape.
What a relief it was to open his eyes to the place where he was loved and not in Billy’s Big and Happy Circus, where he had barely escaped with his life years ago.
Now his life here was perfect, except for the one thing that pestered him like a nasty flea: he was growing old. Or maybe he was already old. Getting up in the morning from his rug by the side of Luke’s bed was no longer easy, not even for a Border collie. His legs were stiff. In cold weather they ached. Sometimes, to his embarrassment, he would grunt a little in pain.
Still, he always awoke before Luke, who liked to sleep in. Jack would poke his cold nose under the blankets, searching for just the right spot to make Luke squirm. “Aw, Jack,” Luke would groan. “Can’t you let a guy sleep?”
But Jack’s nose wasn’t needed to get his best friend out of bed this morning. The minute Luke’s eyes opened, his feet hit the floor and he was climbing into his work clothes.
“You know what, Jack?” Luke said, pulling on his boots. “It’s my birthday. I’m finally a teenager. Isn’t that great?”
Jack didn’t see the difference. Luke had never acted much like a kid, and he looked the same as always, only taller. He liked his sleep—who didn’t? But when it came to doing his chores he never let his family down.
It was the same for Jack. He would rather die than disappoint Luke.
This morning, Jack bounced along on Luke’s happy mood. They got through their chores in record time, feeding the dogs, the cats, and milking Bertha the kicking cow.
A bright ball of sun was peeking into the world, spreading warmth through Jack’s bones. A soft breeze ruffled his fur. He followed Luke out to the barn, and when he saw Luke grab his saddle, he began rounding up the two-year-olds.
Today Jack was determined not to go easy on them. He would put them through their trials and expect perfection. He needed to see which of them could take over when he retired.
He didn’t want to retire. The thought of staying behind while the younger dogs did the job he was born to do troubled him, but it was irresponsible not to have someone ready to step in. His job now was to find that dog and train him to lead. He would do it as he’d done every job he was ever given, to the best of his ability.
He gave his signal bark and Sarge came at once. Sarge, a two-year-old, was a good collie, strong and responsible. He wasn’t quick, and his senses were not as sharp as they should be, but he was a dog Jack could count on for backup when he needed it.
He touched noses with Sarge and barked his signal again.
Casey and Freckles came around the corner of the barn together. With their nearly identical white faces, they were impossible to tell apart when they were born, at least for Luke, who couldn’t pick them out by smell alone. It wasn’t until they began to wobble around at about three weeks that the spots on Freckles’s snout began to darken and gave her the name she was called by.
He and the three two-year-olds waited outside the barn until Luke climbed into the saddle. “Ready, Jack?”
Jack’s answering woof put boy and horse into motion. Sarge, Casey, and Freckles set off behind them. Jack was about to take his place at the end when he heard a familiar bark and turned. There was Jackie racing as fast as her year-old legs would carry her, heading straight toward him.
What was she doing? He had told her that she was not to come. And here she was disobeying him. But she was his favorite and she knew it. Stopping just short of her grandfather, her eyes as filled with excitement as Luke’s were this morning, she woofed.
He didn’t answer.
She ran three circles around him, then stopped and waited, panting, her tail wagging eagerly. Her face with its classic black mask was so like his own. Let me come, let me come, she pleaded.
Freckles bumped Jackie’s rump, hard. Casey gave her a low growl.
But Jackie wouldn’t back down, and Jack finally gave in.
It was more than love that made his decision. Jackie had talent. More than any pup he’d ever known. He supposed her mother had something to do with it. Callie was one smart female and, like Jack himself, a prizewinning herder. But it was not only that. Jackie’s instincts were strong and unfailing, so like his own.
He gave Jackie his no-nonsense look and ordered her to stay right on his heels. Any misbehaving and it was back to the barn. She fell into step behind him, stopping only to sniff the ground when her nose made her do it.
Jackie was thrilled to be out among the sheep, and Jack remembered exactly how that felt. He would let her wander for a while, then give her a taste of sheepherding. How much trouble could a yearling pup get into anyway?
The wolf was growing weary and his pace had slowed. Instinct told him that he must stay strong or he would be taken down like prey.
His wound from the rodent bite had begun to fester and itch. He tried to put it out of his mind, but he could not.
When at last he saw in the distance a swath of thick trees, his spirits lifted. He loped ahead until the woods surrounded him. There he ate whatever he could find, squirrels, rabbits, a fat juicy snake.
Revived, he moved on through the woods and found a field again, an open, grass-covered field stretched out beneath a deep blue sky.
And prey! Prey he had never seen the likes of. Slow prey. Fat and thickly furred, they waited to be taken down. The wolf raised his snout. Instinct was strong. He needed to howl. He wanted to call his pack to the feast, though he knew they would not come. They would not even hear him, and he would give himself away.
On his haunches, he was about to make his move when the canines appeared. Too small to be wolves, they were as agile and quick as the fat prey were slow. If one of the prey wandered from its kind, a canine was there on the spot to bring it back.
As he watched from behind a tree, the wolf could see that the alpha canine had age bearing down upon him. The young one who resembled the alpha in color and markings was faster. She looked to the old one for approval. The two touched noses, and the young one ran off again.
An unfamiliar feeling arose in the wolf. This, too, he tried to ignore, but it was as if something had stuck to his paw that he could not shake off. It had made for a restless sleep, this feeling he had no name for.
He had no kind. No one to greet with the touching of noses and rubs and licks. No one to return to. He was alone. He might always be.
Copyright © 2013 by Valerie Hobbs