The stream that coursed through the meadow of yellow flowers was cool and clear. It was brisk along its entire course until the point at which it grew wide and slow, at the pasture near the access road. The wooded hills beyond the grass covered expanse were beautiful. A cold and clear artesian well fed into a small pool of water before the overflow traced a ribbon of water to meet the stream. It was a picturesque site, and had been that way for many years; ever since Thomas Runyon purchased the land.
He knew it was special the first time he saw it. Mr. Runyon was a successful Wall Street fund manager until he retired early at age 50. He had made his mark but had burned out on the lifestyle. That’s when he began to indulge himself into philanthropic endeavors. He never married and he had no children, but spent a good portion of his money on a poodle named Riley. Riley was a rescue dog and the love they shared inspired Mr. Runyon to purchase those beautiful 600 acres in the country where he and Riley would go to relax and have fun.
After Riley passed away at the ripe old age of twelve, Mr. Runyon decided to honor the dog by turning the acreage into a dog farm, where strays would be welcome and unwanted dogs like Riley could find a home. A barn was built and a circumferential fence was erected around the acreage. He acquired his first canine residents with a call to the largest animal shelter in the county and arranged for the delivery of every dog they had. From those modest beginnings, word spread about the dog farm. He was featured in several large publications and twice was featured by a national television news service. The dog farm grew exponentially. There was plenty of room and there were few complaints.
At first, Mr. Runyon hired people to feed and make sure the dogs were taken care of, but good help was difficult to find and besides, he loved being there more with every visit. Eventually, he did most of the work himself. Later, when his body began to degrade in its ability, he brought in volunteers to help from the small, private university on the far side of the county. The young students came and went as their time at the school did the same, but Mr. Runyon was always there. As he grew old, the dog cemetery on a hill inside the fenced acreage continued to expand, as dogs would live out long, happy, and healthy lives at the farm.
The day came when Thomas Runyon passed away. He was eighty years old at the time of his death and was laid to rest far away, alongside his parents in the town where he was raised. Mr. Runyon had spread his money to many places. One of those was the school, but it came with a contingency. The school would only be able to take monthly monetary installments from a huge trust, if it agreed to continue the tradition of service by the students to the dogs. In Mr. Runyon’s mind, it not only funded the school, but it gave the youth a much needed lesson in the care of something other than themselves. The young people at the school continued their work at the dog farm. That may have been out of the goodness of their hearts or it may have been because the university came to require of all students, a semester of service at the dog farm as a credit in animal husbandry.
His death was thirty years ago. While there remained a statue erected in his honor at the school, the young men and women only saw it as a tarnished perch for pigeons to destroy. The students continued to take care of the barn, and took delivery of the rations if they remembered to order any, but only a scarce few seemed to really care about the place. Most did as little as possible to earn their mandatory credit. The farm was 50 miles away from the school, which certainly didn’t help. Even the school found a way to give out the credit in return for watching an orientation video and writing a report on the care of dogs, for those students who had a hardship in travel. As a result, the property had fallen into disrepair, and seldom was someone from the university to be seen.
Cooper was a Border collie, full of vim and vigor. He herded everything in sight. He was almost two years old, which explained the reason his energy level was so high. He was native to the farm. His dad was a Border collie and his mother an Irish setter-German shepherd mix. Cooper must’ve taken his traits from his father, because to look at him, you’d think he was full-blooded.
The southern side of the fence had met with destruction over the years. That end of the property was wooded and several trees had fallen onto it over the years. The fence measured six feet tall, but its chain-link construction was no match against the force of the fallen trees. No matter though, it was rare for a dog to wonder that deep into the woods.
Cooper had just directed a rabbit back to its hole in the meadow when he heard something. He had heard it before, but never this close. He knew the languages of dogs, but these barks were different. These yelps and yips were difficult to interpret. The words were strange and thick with an accent. He walked through the yellow blooms of the meadow with his head at about the same level as the flowers. He wanted to spy on whatever sort of dog it was that made the strange sounds. At the edge of the meadow, where the hill sloped down to the woods, he got his first glimpse. It was a dog of some sort. Cooper bent down into the grass to conceal his secret investigation. He watched while a group of dogs walked cautiously out of the woods. They were of similar size and shape to each other, with only a little variation in color pattern. They smelled different as well; with a hint of something that reminded him of a deer after it had run for a while. He watched intently. They were fine looking dogs, athletic and svelte. The sun was going down and he knew that he would be expected back at the farm, but he was mesmerized by these newcomers. One of the larger ones yelped again and the rest followed suit. After a few minutes they began to scatter out. Some went back into the woods and a few others walked along the edge where the grassy field merged into the trees.
The first stars were out and the toads were singing a chorus at the pond when one of the smaller dogs from the pack began to walk toward Cooper. The wind was in Cooper’s face, so that the other dog didn’t pick up a scent from him until he got very close. Cooper wasn’t scared. He was bigger than the gray stranger. After all, that’s the way it worked back at the barn. The bigger dog was the boss, with few exceptions made for those who sometimes got their way through skilled barking. Cooper’s instinct to herd everything got the better of him when the visitor came too close. He jumped to his feet and barked. “Hey, what kind of dog are you?”
The other dog jumped back and brought its body low with a growl. “I’m not a dog!”
“Yeah right. Well, you’re not a bird. I’ve seen plenty of them. You’re not a rabbit or squirrel either. You look just like a dog. So, if you’re not a dog, what are you?”
“I’m a coyote.”
“Never heard of that,” Cooper admitted.
The coyote began to relax a bit and stood tall and straight. “What about you? What’s your story?” The coyote asked.
“I’m a dog, a Border collie to be exact.”
“I figured as much. You live around here?”
Cooper looked back toward the trail that led home. “Back at the barn.”
“Okay, I know where you’re talking about. I’ve seen it from a distance at night.”
“My name’s Cooper. You got a name?”
“Of course I have a name. It’s Peace.”
“Peace? That’s a weird name.”
“There’s nothing weird about it.” Peace turned to leave.
“Hey, I’m sorry. That was rude. Can’t help what your name is, I suppose.” Cooper said. Cooper trotted over alongside Peace as they began to walk slowly down the slope. “You care if I ask you a question?” Cooper said.
“Could I stop you if I wanted to?” Peace asked.
“Sorry, my dad says I don’t know when to shut up. But I wondered what you and your pack were saying earlier. It was hard to understand.”
He stopped and eased back onto his haunches. “We were praying in our ancient language.”
“Oh… Oh, cool. You do that a lot?”
“Everyday. Maybe I can teach you sometime.”
Cooper was always up for new things and nodded his head, “Sure, sounds good.”
A barred owl gave a ‘hoot’ from its perch in the tree above the pair. Cooper’s eyes grew wide and he looked up to the sky. Dozens of stars were already visible in the clear evening air and the western horizon had only remnants of color.
“Oh no, dog gone it. I’m going to be in big trouble. I’ve got to go.” He took off toward the barn.
Peace yelled, “Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Cooper yelled back and put his legs in high gear. He had blazing speed when he wanted to, and this was one of those times. The creek in the middle of the meadow was no obstacle. He jumped long into the middle of a shallow section and splashed once before he sprang across the remainder in a flash. He was home in no time and slowed to a trot as he came into the barnyard. Most of the dogs were already down for the night. There were scores of doghouses scattered around the barnyard and inside the barn. Many were vacant, since the peak of population at the dog farm had long since passed. Cooper walked into the barn and over to the corner where his family made their home. Everyone appeared to be asleep, so he quietly went into his doghouse and made a few circles before lying down. He breathed in deeply and exhaled with a loud huff through his nose while he rested his chin on his paws.
A deep voice came out of the doghouse beside him. “You were out late. Care to explain yourself?”
Cooper whispered back, “Sorry, Dad, I lost track of time when I met a new friend.”
“What was it this time, a raccoon? A turtle?”
“No, a coyote.”
“What?” His dad screamed. His mom and sister were jolted from their nap in the adjacent doghouses. “We don’t run with them! Do you hear me?”
His mom spoke up to calm things down. “Take it easy Patches, you’ll wake up everyone.”
“Look Clover, there ain’t no way a pup of mine is gonna be running with a coyote. It ain’t right.”
“Now Patches,” Clover said, “your dad said the same thing to you about Foxes and now we have red and gray foxes in and out of here constantly. Times change and dogs have to change. You know I’m right don’t you?”
Cooper listened to the discussion from the furthest point in the rear of his doghouse, but his sister, Bubbles, sat with her paws out of the opening of her house, with her ears perked high.
“I don’t like it,” Patches said. “They’re trouble wherever they go. They always want to fight. If they’re not fighting the other animals then they’re fighting among their own kind. It’s dangerous to have them so close.”
Clover walked out of her house and sat down beside Patches’ house. He was pacing back and forth like a caged tiger. “Honey, stop growling and come sit down beside me.”
“It’s dangerous,” he said one more time, but then came over and complied with Clover’s request.
She began, “Where’d you hear these tales about them fighting everyone?”
He looked down at the ground, “From the rats.”
“And what do we know about the rats?”
“They lie a lot.”
“That’s right. So why do you believe the stories they tell?” She asked.
“The crows said it too,” he argued.
“And what do we know about the crows?”
He took a deep breath and scratched and itchy spot on his ribs. He admitted, “They exaggerate.”
“That’s right,” Clover said, “you see where I’m going with this? Don’t jump to conclusions. I’m sure there are a few bad coyotes just like we’ve had bad dogs living around us before. You should let every dog stand on its own merits.”
“Coyotes aren’t dogs,” Patches demanded.
“Well, maybe not, but they’re canines, so we come from a common ancestor. That alone ought to be enough to tell you there’s some good in ‘em.”
Patches plopped his head down between his front legs to the ground in front of him. “I hate it when you use logic to win arguments,” he said.
Cooper slowly crept forward until his head was even with the door opening. “Does this mean that I’m not in trouble?”
Clover looked to Patches and smiled. Patches said, “I guess not.”
“So, I can see my new friend again?”
“Out there, not in the barnyard. Understand?”
“No problem, Dad.”
“Thank you, dear,” Clover said, “now let’s go to bed.”
Clover and Patches went back into the doghouses to get some rest. Little sister, Bubbles, who had been smiling in the beginning, now just scowled. “He gets away with everything.”
The next morning arrived to the calls of songbirds as usual. Most of the dogs were slow to awaken. Some stretched and yawned, while others gnawed on sticks. Suddenly, alarm barks were heard from the far end of the meadow, in the vicinity of the pond. Everyone perked up their ears and listened to the alarm. It was incoherent and panicked. The words were jumbled and didn’t make sense, but everyone heard the word, ‘Dead’. Several of the dogs began to bark back and asked for a repeat of the message, but Patches said, “Come on, Son,” and took off running toward the pond.
Cooper was right behind him. He was impressed with the speed that his dad maintained, even though he thought, “I can run faster.”
They were at the pond in less than two minutes. “What’s wrong? What happened?” Patches yelled as he put the brakes on at the pond.
A young Jack Russell terrier came running to them to explain, but no explanation was necessary. They could see for themselves. At the edge of the water, three dogs and a single adult coyote lay dead.
Other dogs from the barn arrived to the devastating scene, all with the same question in their minds. Cooper verbalized it. “How did this happen?” He asked his dad.
“I don’t know, but I plan on finding out.” Patches looked at the other dogs and said, “Somebody wake up the owl. We need an investigation. I’ll get the bloodhounds to meet him here.”
A little Shih Tzu offered to get the owl and took off into the grass, toward the woods and the owl’s favorite tree. “Dad, do you smell something weird?” Cooper asked.
“What do you mean?” Cooper raised his nose into the air and sniffed, “I’m not sure what it is but I smelled something. At least I thought I did, but now I’m not sure.”
Patches made an attempt to get a scent, but didn’t pick up on anything out of the ordinary. “I don’t smell anything, but your nose is younger and probably better than mine. Come on, we’ll go get the bloodhounds.”
A few hours later, at noon, the bloodhounds came back into the barnyard. Their attitude and demeanor was always difficult to perceive unless they were speaking. Cooper and Patches ran over as soon as they saw them. “What did you find out?” Cooper blurted.
They looked at each other, then the oldest spoke up. She was gray around the eyes and had scattered gray fur around her snout. Her abdomen hung loose and low from the many families she had raised. She answered, “We can’t speak about it right now. It’s still an open investigation. We brought together a team that’s looking into the circumstances and should be ready to discuss the findings by the end of the day. If you don’t mind, pass the word around that we’ll have a meeting to go over our conclusions at sunset.”
Patches nodded his head. “Okay, I understand. I’ll make sure everybody knows. What about the bodies at the pond? Can we let the families in and move the bodies?” He asked.
“That should be fine.” The old bloodhound leaned in and whispered into the ear of Patches, “Don’t let anyone drink the pond water for now.”
“Is something wrong with the water? What about the stream or the well water that fills the trough here at the barn?”
“I can’t speak to it now, just watch out at the pond. Okay?”
“Will do.” Patches turned toward Cooper a few steps away. “Son, I’ll go get the families, you can go on your way. Just be sure to be back at the barnyard for the meeting at sunset.”
Cooper nodded his head and watched his dad for a moment while he began to talk to the families. The bloodhounds walked away in single file behind the older lady. Cooper had seen dogs die before, but never more than one at a time, and never in such a mysterious way. He turned into the grass and the well traveled trail that was close by the barn. He arrived at several forks along the path, and each time the trail became less worn and narrower. He continued slowly across the stream and over to a small area where the water pooled. An eddy current caused the water in that spot to rotate slowly in a circle. Cooper stared at a few leaves on the surface as they made the circuit. He thought of the families of the dead dogs and the sadness they must be going through. He shook his head and got a drink, then continued on his way. He decided to go to the rock outcropping at the eastern side of the meadow. The trail was basically nonexistent, but he knew the way. It was a favorite place of his, though he didn’t make the trip that often, mostly because his mom thought it too dangerous. After a strenuous effort, he arrived on the top of the rock slabs.
The view was unmatched by any place on the farm. He lay on his abdomen with his front legs extended out. From this elevation he could see almost everything. The forest was toward the left. As he scanned back toward the right, he could see the pond at the edge of the broad meadow. He saw a group of dogs there and figured what they were up to. The stream twisted through the meadow straight ahead before disappearing with a distant turn. The barn was toward the right but only partially seen due to the hill that arose between them.
The hill was a place where many stone markers were arranged into orderly rows. Folklore among the dogs said that the humans once buried dogs at the spot, but he had never seen that happen. However, it was still a place of death. Among the dogs, it was called Bald Hill. Maybe it was because the soil was rocky and didn’t grow grass at the top very well, but he figured it more likely called that because of the birds that hung out there. Vultures, or buzzards, as some of the older adults called them, were always perched on the stones that were erected on the hill. Sometimes after a rain, he would see them with their wings spread out wide, drying them he supposed. He looked back to the pond and saw that the dog procession was on their way to Bald Hill. The long held tradition of the dogs was to drag their dead to the top of Bald Hill where the vultures would complete the cycle of returning the dead to the dirt. He had personally never made the trip to the top of Bald Hill, but had watched the event play out enough times to know what to expect. Only families were allowed to take their own dead to the hill, with the exception made for those who didn’t have enough family to get the job done. He watched with sad intrigue as to what the families must be going through, knowing all the while that someday it would be his job to drag someone to the top. The dogs pulling the bodies stopped on many occasions, presumably to rest, as it was a considerable distance and uphill the entire way.
A noise alerted him to movement from behind. He jerked his head around and saw that it was only Peace. “Hey, I didn’t know you came up here too.”
“I found it a few weeks ago,” he said. Peace walked over to where Cooper was and sat down beside him.
“I guess you know what they found at the pond, huh?” Cooper said.
“Yeah, actually I do.” He looked down to the ground between his paws. “It was my uncle.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. Sorry about that. You okay?”
“I guess. I really didn’t know him that well ‘til lately. He’s been running with us for about a month. Seemed like a cool guy though. I know Dad and Mom will miss him even more. Dad’s been acting like a pup around him, which has been kind of funny. They really seemed to hit it off. What about you? Did you know any of the dogs?”
“Sure, I knew ‘em. One in particular pretty well, but they weren’t family or anything like that. Still, it’s sad to watch the families go through that kind of thing.”
“I hear you,” he said. Peace eased his belly down to the ground and stretched his front legs out. “What’s going on down there now?”
The dogs here always take our dead to Bald Hill. “Over there,” Cooper pointed with his nose. “The vultures eat the bodies.”
Peace snarled his nose and said, “Dude, that’s hard core. Doesn’t that seem a little harsh?”
Cooper tilted his head to the side and said, “I never have thought about it. Seems like a good idea to me. I mean the vultures are going to get ‘em anyway. What’s your pack going to do with your uncle?”
“They already got him.”
Cooper snapped his head back toward the pond to see for himself. “Oh, I see. I hadn’t even noticed that he was gone. So what do the coyotes do with their dead?”
“We feed them to the pups.”
“Wow, talk about hard core,” Cooper said.
“At least it’s taking care of our own. I like to think of it as a way to achieve immortality. I mean, he becomes part of us literally.” Peace looked at Cooper until Cooper felt the stare and looked back. He said, “I guess were pretty different in a lot of ways.”
The heat of the sun got to both of them at the same time, and they both began to pant. Cooper smiled and said, “We may be a little different, but I think we’re the same in a lot more ways.”
The distant sound of large flapping wings returned their attention toward Bald Hill. The dog procession had made its way to the top and sent a dozen or so vultures airborne. They used the wind currents to climb into a pattern of varied spirals while the dogs pulled their loved ones through the monuments and scattered bones to the very top.
An English bulldog called the meeting to order as the sun was about to touch the treetops in the west. “I would like to start by offering my condolences to the families of those dogs that were lost this morning. I knew them all and they were good dogs. In my lifetime we’ve only lost three dogs at the same time on one other occasion. Many of you remember the bear attack that happened about ten years ago. We investigated the situation at that time and found there was a cub involved and it appeared that one of our pups instigated the whole thing. It was truly a horrific event stemming from a misunderstanding.”
“What about this morning?” Someone yelled from the crowd.
“Yes, I’m getting to that. After all, it’s why we’ve convened. For those of you who may not know the details; this morning a terrible and tragic scene unfolded at the pond. Three of our dogs, a coyote, a beaver, two chipmunks, and a mole were found dead. There were no signs of trauma anywhere on them, so a mystery presented itself. We thought it appropriate to call in the bloodhounds and a favor from the owl to lead the investigation. Anyway that’s enough from me. I’ll step aside and turn it over to the investigatory team.”
The old female bloodhound stood and walked over to the center of the group near the Bulldog. She sat down and began. “I would like to say ‘sorry’ to the families as well. As to the investigation, we examined the area on the ground and the owl did an aerial survey to look for clues. We searched the bodies of our dogs and the others. We found the beaver before it died. It was of no real help. It simply said ‘taste funny’ before it died. We did pick up on an odd odor in the air, but it was so faint that we now think we may have imagined it in our efforts to find an answer.
“What happened to our dogs?” Someone yelled.
The old lady stared with her drooping eyes toward the heckler and said, “That is the question, and here’s the answer. In short, we don’t know.”
The crowd of dogs began barking from every corner of the barnyard. One made its voice heard louder than the rest, “We want to hear from the owl. Where is he?”
“I don’t know. He should be here, I mean, he knew about the meeting.”
With perfect timing, the owl flew into the barnyard and flapped its large wings quickly in an effort to slow its momentum. It finished the flight by stretching out its talons and gracefully wrapping them around a small limb. A couple more beats of its wings gave it a balance on the lowest limb of a white oak growing beside the barn. The murmuring of the crowd was silenced by the dramatic entry.
The bloodhound said, “Everyone wants to hear your wisdom about the deaths and why we can’t tell what happened.”
The barred owl’s feathers were ruffled and it shook its body quickly to arrange them in a more orderly fashion. He surveyed the crowd of dogs with a prolonged turn of his head. “I have new information,” the owl said. Many dogs started barking around the entire barnyard. Cooper was under the white oak tree. He originally went there to separate himself from his dad, who was in front of the bloodhounds, lapping up every word. Now Cooper found himself directly beneath the key speaker. All eyes were in his direction as the owl began his hypothesis. “I decided to make another sweep around the pond, with the sun in a different position, to see if there could be anything that I missed the first time,” the owl said. Every dog was held in a trance, waiting for the next word. Even Cooper was intrigued and looked up at the bird. He continued, “I did find something new.”
A mumble ran through the crowd, low and soft. “What was it?” Someone yelled.
“I found this,” the owl said and reached its beak into the thick feathers of his chest and pulled out a small green stem with a single partial wilted leaf. He dropped it to the ground. The twig bounced once in front of Cooper’s nose. “Don’t touch it,” the owl warned. I know how to handle it.” The owl brushed its open beak back and forth through its feathers until he was satisfied that no remnant of the plant was left. The crowd of dogs pressed in to give a look and a smell. The scent to their untrained noses was weak at best. When the bloodhounds arrived, they separated the dogs to give their noses plenty of room. All three sniffed and sniffed. The scent was weak to them as well, but their noses were keen and superior. The answer dawned on their minds and they looked at each other with wide eyes.
The old lady bloodhound announced, “It’s hemlock, poison hemlock.”
Some of the dogs gasped in shock while still others tilted their heads in confusion. The owl returned to its announcement. “This and a few more pieces were found in the pond. For those of you who don’t know, hemlock is the most poisonous and lethal plant that we know of.”
Again the crowd gasped, but this time they wanted more explanation. “We’ve never had hemlock growing around here. Where did it come from?” A dog asked.
Owls have always done a far better job of passing down history and tradition from one generation to the next, so it knew the dog’s statement to be false. “Actually, my ancestors reported that there was once hemlock growing in several places for miles through this valley. The meadow and forest within the fence was cleared of it when humans first began frequenting the area. It’s not inconceivable that a seed from a faraway plant could have sprung up near the pond.”
A dog spoke up and noted, “That don’t explain how it got in the water.”
“No it doesn’t. That’s true. Perhaps the beaver took it to the water. Perhaps a storm blew it in. Here’s the problem; I can’t find any growing in the meadow. As a matter of fact, I know of only one place where hemlock grows. It’s beyond your southern fence, about two miles. I’ve seen hemlock growing there.
“We never go past the fence,” a schnauzer said.
“Yeah, that’s right,” chimed another dog.
“No one? No one at all?” The owl asked.
A blue tick hound walked to the tree and admitted, “I’ve been there.” The crowd was quiet again. “A couple of times come to think of it. When you’re chasing ‘coons, you sort of zone out. You know, lose track of time and place. Maybe some of the other hounds know what I’m talking about. But I ain’t never seen no hemlock, and I shore ain’t brought none back.”
The crowd began talking so much that no one could be understood. The old bloodhound yelled loudly, “That’s enough,” and drew attention back to herself.
“You all know there’s no law about going outside the fence. Maybe there should be, but there’s not. No such law was ever needed back before the fence was broken. But now, I don’t know. We’ll need to look into it.”
“You don’t need to pass another law,” the beagle said, you just need to fix the fence. Then it won’t be an issue.”
A boxer agreed, “Besides we need to be concerned about other animals coming in more than one of us leaving.”
The crowd agreed and one screamed out, “Like those coyotes. Listen.”
The dogs hushed long enough to hear a small group of coyotes yelping in the distance. Then the dogs erupted again with disdain for their kind. Cooper was astonished to see the hate and fear coming out of the dogs that he thought he knew. The owl flapped its wings and got everyone’s attention. He looked down at Cooper and said, “Maybe this one’s got something to say about the coyotes.”
Patches ran over in front of Cooper and calmed the group with a chuckle. “He doesn’t have anything to add. That would be silly. Cooper’s just a kid. You all know that.”
Against his father’s wishes, Cooper admitted, “I know one.”
Patches turned and snapped at Cooper, “Why did you say that? I’m trying to protect you.” Cooper was headstrong, something Patches knew too well. Patches turned back to the irritated pack and explained, “What my son means to say is that he ran across one for the first time yesterday. That hardly qualifies as knowing one. Don’t you agree?”
The bloodhound jumped into the conversation before the group got a chance. “Okay, the kid met a coyote. I, for one, don’t see what the big deal is. We have much bigger problems to worry about. I mean, you can’t really control what stumbles into your path. Besides, there isn’t a dog law against that either. I think we’re losing focus on what we’re here to discuss, and that’s how the hemlock got into the water. From what I’ve heard, we can’t answer that yet, so we’ll need to be diligent in searching for an answer. For now I make two recommendations. One, that dogs don’t travel beyond the southern fence and two, that no one drink from the pond until it’s proven to be safe. Bark if you’re in agreement.”
Seemingly every dog agreed. No opposition was made, so the meeting was adjourned. The dogs slowly spread out around the barnyard and in the barn. Patches waited till most were gone before he whispered to Cooper. “You can’t say things like that. Dogs jump to conclusions and before you know it, you’ll be lumped together with coyotes and hated the same as them.”
“Dad, I just told the truth.”
“They can’t handle the truth, son.”
“Can you?” Cooper asked.
Patches bared his teeth for a second before he replied, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Cooper tucked his head and whimpered as he answered, “I spent most of the afternoon with Peace today.”
Patches walked off without saying a word, then came right back. “What are you doing, son? I told you they’re not good.”
“He’s not like that. He’s kind and nice. I felt sorry for him. The coyote at the pond was his uncle, for goodness sake.”
Patches took a deep breath and said, “Look your sweet kid, and he’s probably a good coyote, but I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff in my years. It’s safer to avoid potential danger than to risk being hurt over something unnecessary. There are plenty of dogs here that are your age. You don’t have to run with a coyote.
“You don’t understand, Dad.”
Patches growled and snapped at Cooper. “I understand plenty. You stay away from them. Do you hear me?” Cooper only whimpered, so Patches repeated, “I asked you a question.”
Cooper reluctantly answered, “Okay, I hear you.”
“Good. The rats ate a hole into a few bags of your favorite ration, and it’s spilled out from the loft near the door. Go get you a belly full. It’s time to settle down for the night.”
Cooper’s tail wagged with the thought of his favorite food. “Sorry, if I embarrassed you.”
“You’re not an embarrassment, ever. You made me very proud. If I made you think otherwise, then I haven’t been clear. I love you very much. You understand that?”
“Okay,” Cooper said and looked up with his dark eyes.
“Look, I’m going to tell you something that nobody else knows, not even your mom.” Patches looked around to make sure that the conversation was in private. “Everyone wants to act like the fence just recently got damaged but it’s been down as far back as I can remember. When I was a little bit younger than you, I used to wander around on the outside. I met a coyote that was my age. He was a great guy and we hung out together all the time that summer. I went home with him one day and everything changed. He told me the next day that I couldn’t come home with him anymore, and that he couldn’t be my friend. I was shocked. None of what he was saying made any sense. When I asked why, he told me that a couple of coyotes had threatened him and his family because of our friendship. His parents were okay with us in the beginning but after the threats, they agreed that we should stop running together. We said goodbye and I watched as he left. When he got to the bottom of the hill, he was attacked by two adult coyotes that seemed to come out of nowhere. I tried for a moment to help, but when I got closer, he was already dead and they started running toward me. I panicked and ran back over the downed fence and didn’t stop until I was back at the barn. I’ve never been outside the fence since then.”
“Dad, I had no idea.”
“I just wanted you to know where I’m coming from when I talk about staying away from coyotes. Almost all of them are good, peaceful, and caring, but you don’t know which ones aren’t till its too late, and that’s the problem. When it goes bad, it goes real bad.”
“I’ll be careful. I promise.”
“I hope you will. Well, I’ll see you later. I’m going to see what your mom and sister are up to.” Patches disappeared toward their doghouses in the back corner of the barn.
After Cooper ate all he wanted of the spilled ration, he went into his doghouse. His stomach hadn’t been so full in a long time. His body was completely satisfied which led to a deep sleep. He awoke the next morning later than usual. His mom and sister were still snoozing, but they typically did that. His dad was gone. Cooper was an early riser. When he saw that it was already bright outside, he panicked for a second and ran to the barn door. A pack of dogs were huddled together talking, where the well-worn dirt of the barnyard transitioned into tall grass. They saw him at the barn door and fell silent. They spread out quietly as Cooper got closer. Something was wrong. None of the dogs would look at him. The dogs parted to reveal the three bloodhounds that were instrumental in the investigation yesterday. The old gray speckled lady was not opposed to eye contact. She watched Cooper as he got closer. Cooper looked at the dogs around him as he walked. When he stopped in front of the bloodhounds, he asked, “What’s going on?”
The lady was to the point, “There’s been another deadly incident. This time it happened at the big eddy in the stream.”
Cooper’s mouth dropped open. “How many dogs were killed?” He asked.
“Six dogs and one coyote,” she replied.
Cooper shook his head in disbelief. “I guess Dad’s helping out with the investigation this time. Do you care if I help him?”
The old dog’s eyes seemed tired and sad with deep folds even more than usual. “Cooper, you don’t understand. Patches is one of the dead.”
Cooper’s eyes grew wide and just as quickly filled with tears. “No, no, it can’t be.” He took off running to the stream. The bloodhound tried to call him back at first, before she realized his determination. The grass obscured his view, but he knew the way. He may have never run faster than in that moment. His ears flapped in the wind and the force of his sprint. The path was clouded further by tears. “It can’t be. It can’t be,” he repeated in rhythm with his strides. He slid forward in the pea gravel when he applied the brakes at the edge of the stream. Several dogs were near the eddy where most dogs drink. He pushed his way through them against their mild protest. The scene was something no dog should have to see; especially a relative, especially a son. Despite his rapid panting, his breaths were momentarily arrested by the view. Patches lay half in the water and a half on some small, smooth, exposed stones. Cooper sniffed him and whimpered. Patches’ face was appalling, with his tongue far out of his mouth on one side. The other dead dogs were on the bank with one exception. That one lay completely submerged in the shallow pool near Patches.
“Don’t lick him,” one of the bystander said, “the water’s probably poison.”
Cooper heard the warning and complied, but didn’t acknowledge the dog in any way. He stared at his dad for a long time; half expecting that he would pop up at any moment and shake the water from his thick black and white fur. Cooper sat back on his haunches on the wet pebbles and looked around. He noted who the dogs were, and realized that he knew them all very well. One was a friend that was the same age. A mournful howl arose in the distance toward the barn. The voice was instantly recognized as his mother. “Someone must’ve just told her about dad,” he thought. More howls and barks erupted from the distant barnyard as the families were told the news.
Cooper knew that the investigation team would have to do their part, but he also already knew that the result would be the same. He could see for himself that there were branches and leaves of hemlock under the water and scattered along the rocks. Further down the stream, near some larger stones, Cooper saw the tail and rear legs of another dog. He put his nose in the air and realized that it was a coyote. He stood with water dripping from his back legs and tail but didn’t bother to shake it off. He walked straight to the coyote and saw it was an adult male like the other had been. Something green was in the coyote’s mouth. Cooper pawed at its upper lip and revealed a tiny green stem. It struck him as odd, but he didn’t know what it meant. It had no special odor to help them make sense of it. The grass parted in front of Cooper and three coyotes appeared.
“What are you doing? Don’t touch him,” one of the coyotes growled. Cooper jumped back and growled also, mostly as a reflex. The coyotes became agitated instantly and ran to surround Cooper, all the while growling insults toward him. The bystander dogs growled as well, but kept their distance. Cooper’s head spun from side to side as the coyotes advanced and tried to bite at him. Another coyote came through the grass and yelled out, “It’s okay. I know this dog. He’s good.”
The coyotes weren’t quickly convinced, but began to back away from Cooper slowly. They continue to growl but softer and more mumbled. “What are you doing here?” He said.
Cooper glanced over to his dead father, “That’s my dad. He’s dead.”
Peace offered no verbal condolence but dropped his head toward the ground. “This is my father, too.”
“I didn’t know. I’m sorry,” Cooper said.
Peace nodded his head. The others in his pack began pulling the dead coyote out of the stream. “I guess I need to help them,” he said.
“Yeah, I guess,” Cooper replied.
Cooper started back over to where his dad’s corpse lay. Peace called out to him before disappearing with the other coyotes. “Cooper, I’m sorry it was your dad.” Peace turned and walked away. The tall grass enclosed the space around him as his body moved through.
A Basset Hound met Cooper beside his dad. “Maybe it’s best if you let us handle the investigation. Why don’t you go back home for now and be with your mother and sister? What ‘cha think?” Cooper was reluctant to leave but knew his place was with the rest of his family. He nodded his head and began to walk back to the barnyard with his head low and his tail hanging limp. The Basset Hound yelled out to him before he got too far away, “We’ll let you know as soon as he’s ready for Bald Hill.”
Cooper turned just long enough to hear the message then crept back on his way. The very mention of Bald Hill made him nauseated. He wouldn’t allow himself to think about it now. He was dizzy with thoughts ranging from his dad teaching him to track rabbits to his conversation last night after the meeting. The time with his mother and sister was excruciatingly emotional. His body ached from the despair, but there was yet one more thing that had to be done before he could rest. That announcement was walking toward him in the body of the basset hound. “Your father’s body is ready to go to Bald Hill. Will you need help?”
“Um, yeah, if you’ve got anybody. We can probably use two or three more dogs.”
“All right, I’ll round up some dogs and have them to you in a few minutes.”
Cooper nodded his head. He gathered his mom and sister, then went to the trailhead at the edge of the barnyard. The three volunteers arrived moments later. They walked single file to the stream with Cooper in the lead. The trip from the stream to Bald Hill was as difficult as he thought it would be, maybe more. In his two years of life, Cooper had never been on Bald Hill, although he had watched from afar on a few occasions. He wished he were only watching it now. It was disturbing to everyone when the group lost its grip and caused Patches to awkwardly roll backward. It seemed indecent and disrespectful to handle the body in such a way. No one was to blame. After all, the hill was quite steep at that point.
As they neared the vertical stones, the vultures were already there. They hopped on the ground before resorting to flight to keep their distance. The smell of yesterday’s carcasses permeated up from the rocky soil. The bones near the peak were thick enough to cause a loss of traction for the dogs as they pulled the body into place. “That’s fine right there,” Clover said. Everyone dropped their hold and stepped back.
The vultures stood at a moderate distance, waiting patiently. Others had perched again on the old stone grave markers they had already passed. The three dogs who had volunteered to help backed out of the way to give the family a final few minutes with their loved one. The ceremony was brief but caused all of them to whimper when Cooper said, “I hope to be just like Dad some day.”
As they left the hill, the sounds of large flapping wings ensued. Cooper didn’t dare look back and he told his sister not to as well. At the barnyard, it was lunchtime. Clover told Cooper to go eat some ration in an attempt to make things seem back to normal. Cooper wasn’t hungry and decided to go for a walk. He told his mother, but she wasn’t at all pleased with the decision.
“At least drink till your full before you go,” she said, “you can’t trust the pond or the stream right now.”
“I will,” he agreed, and walked to the trough in the center of the barnyard. The artesian well was directed into it with a pipe. The water was cold and tasted good, but he drank only a few swallows and was content. He didn’t know where he was headed and wandered through the meadow at first, but found himself drawn to the rocky outcropping overlooking the property. The wind was at his tail, so he didn’t notice any other scents as he jumped from one spot to the next climbing the rocky perch. He was surprised to see Peace at the overlook when he crested the last point. Peace was lying down, already watching the valley below. He didn’t bother to acknowledge Cooper’s approach, until Cooper was beside him.
“Hey,” he said. His tone was completely without expression.
Cooper’s tone was no better. “Hey,” he said and plopped down to his abdomen with a thud, as if standing expended his last energy reserves. Cooper couldn’t help but to notice the vultures huddled together on Bald Hill. Their sheer number kept any disturbing view from exposure. He guessed there must be twenty or more on the hill. He took a deep breath and found a level of relaxation as he exhaled. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” Cooper said, “I mean, I just talked to him yesterday. Everything was normal. He was fine. It just doesn’t seem real.”
“I know what you mean,” Peace agreed. “My father always said to live everyday like it’s your last. He lived the life he wanted. I don’t think he had any regrets.”
“That’s a good way to live,” Cooper said. The sun was beyond its peak. They lay there under its waning heat in perfect silence, sometimes napping and sometimes staring at nothing in particular. Cooper broke the silence, “What do you think is up with the hemlock in the water?”
“What you mean?”
“My dogs think that the pond was poisoned by hemlock stems and leaves, and I think the stream was too. What we don’t know is how or why?”
“Yeah, hemlock. That’s what my pack said it was too,” Peace paused, “there are worse ways to die. It’s pretty quick, I’m told.”
“That’s looking really hard for a silver lining, don’t you think?”
Peace considered the comments, and offered, “I think when something is God’s will, it will happen. You just have to accept it.”
“How is this God’s will?” Cooper asked. For the first time he began to be agitated. “Dogs taken out in their prime, and leaving families behind. You telling me God wants that?”
Peace attempted to calm Cooper. “I’m not telling you anything. Who can know the mind of God? We just have to seek what he wants from us while were here.”
The calling attempt worked. Cooper’s hair on his back fell down into position. “I guess you’re right.” Silence became the rule again for a long time after their brief conversation. The sun was approaching the horizon, so Cooper sat up and said, “Mom expects me back before dark, and I’m sure everyone will be meeting to listen to the bloodhounds in a little while, so I guess I’ll be heading back.”
“Okay, I’ll see you later,” he said.
Cooper got to the edge, where his first jump down would be required. He thought it odd that Peace wasn’t coming as well, so he looked back and asked, “Isn’t your pack expecting you back soon?”
Cooper stopped his progress, turned and walked back. “What does that mean?”
“My pack is different from yours. Their ways are different.”
“So, what are you saying?”
“I’m on my own.”
“On your own? That’s wrong. How can they put you out at a time like this?”
“It’s our way. I’m not a pup anymore. Mom’s been taken in by another uncle, but I’m supposed to start my own pack now.”
Cooper shook his head, “Dude, that’s a lot to take in. What are you planning on doing for the next few days?”
“I haven’t got any further than right now in my plan.”
“Well, that’s it then. You’re coming to live with me.”
“I can’t do that,” he said.
“Just for a few days, till you figure out what to do.”
“I really don’t think I should.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re coming with me and that’s all there is to it. You understand?”
Peace smiled for the first time and relented. “Okay, but just for a few days.” Peace stood and stretched, then walked a direction that wasn’t the way down.
“Where are you going?” Cooper asked.
“I’ve got a supply bag over here. Mom packed it and wouldn’t be quiet until I brought it with me.”
“Supply bag? What’s in it?”
“I have no idea. I haven’t cared to look. I feel like an idiot dragging it around, but I promised her I’d take it with me.” Peace pulled an old black purse from under the ledge of rock. It had a flap to cover the opening and the strap was broken. He bit the long strap and pulled it behind him all the way back to the barnyard.
When they got there, the meeting was already underway. They stopped in the tall grass before they revealed their position. “Let me handle this, okay? I’ll do all the talking,” Cooper said. A conversation was ongoing in the barnyard between the investigation team and the rest of the dogs. Cooper held his paw up and whispered, “Wait, I want to hear this.” They sat down surrounded and concealed in the tall grass.
The old lady bloodhound was speaking, “So we think that the stream at the big eddy and further downstream should also be avoided for drinking water, at least until further notice. The well here in the barnyard is unaffected, so feel free to drink all you like.”
A dog spoke up, “One incident could be regarded as an accident or fluke, but two? Someone is poisoning the water, and I for one think it’s the coyotes. We never had this problem till they came around.” Several in the crowd barked with agreement.
Cooper looked to Peace and whispered, “Sorry, everybody doesn’t feel that way.”
The bloodhounds said, “We don’t have any evidence of direct coyote involvement. For goodness sakes, they had a death each time too. Why would anyone kill themselves in the process? I don’t think you’re correct.”
A cocker spaniel from the back of the crowd said, “We don’t need to take any chances. If our ancestors and the humans who built the barn thought we needed a fence, then we probably need a fence. We should fix the fence at the southern border.” That response was well accepted by the entire crowd of dogs. They all barked and howled for several minutes.
When the bloodhound was able to quiet the crowd, she said, “Whether or not to repair the fence is a mute point. How do any of you think these repairs would get done? We have no supplies sufficient for repair and much of the fence is trapped beneath trees that weigh more than all of us combined.”
“We can’t just sit here and do nothing. We can repair and rebuild the missing sections with sticks and rocks if we have to,” someone in the crowd said.
The bloodhound held up her paw, “You haven’t considered everything. Let’s say you fixed the fence. What do we do with all the coyotes inside the fence already? Answer me that.”
A German shepherd said, “We forcefully remove them. That’s what.” The crowd barked loudly.
Just at that moment, the wind shifted and blew across Cooper and Peace into the barnyard. Everyone smelled them simultaneously and fell quiet. A few of the dogs began to growl. The old lady bloodhound knew exactly who it was. She said, “Cooper, you want to come on out? And bring your friend.”
The pair slowly came into view as they pushed through the grass. Their heads were low and their tails tucked between their back legs as they walked. Peace’s head also pulled to the side a bit as he tugged his supplies along. It seems to Cooper that every dog in the place was growling. They stopped near the bloodhound and she said, “Do you wish to explain yourself?”
Cooper tilted his head to the side then answered, “This is Peace. He’s my friend and he didn’t have a place to stay tonight. His father died at the stream too, and he’s been put out of his pack.”
“Too bad! That’s not our problem,” yelled a little Chihuahua, and most agreed. It yelped, “He has no business here.”
The bloodhound raised its paw again and asked, “Is that all you have to say about it?”
“No, there’s more. I think all of you liked or at least respected my dad, Patches. He taught me to love my enemies and to be kind to those who persecute me. Was he wrong?” The crowd was quiet. They had no answer because they had been taught the same thing. Cooper continued, “It’s just for two or three nights, till he can prepare for his new life.”
The basset hound spoke up, “This coyote did help Cooper this morning at the stream when some other coyotes were about to attack him. I vote that he can stay for two nights, if for no other reason than a gesture of gratitude for helping Cooper.”
“I too think that would be appropriate,” the bloodhound said, “let’s put it to a vote. All in favor?” A few dogs barked but most abstained from voting. “Any opposed?” Asked the bloodhound. None were determined to go against the idea. “Get him set up in your corner of the barn,” the bloodhound said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Cooper replied and they walked into the barn amid an occasional low growl.
Cooper showed Peace over to their doghouses and introduced him to his mother and sister. “What do you have there in the purse?” Clover asked.
“I really don’t even know yet. I haven’t looked. My mother gave it to me. She said it was supplies. It seemed a little silly to me.”
“Oh, it’s not silly, it’s sweet. Come on over. Cooper, I think your dad would have wanted you to take his house and Peace can take yours.”
“Sounds good, Mom.”
“Peace, put your supply bag in the doghouse and both of you go eat some rations where they spill out. Everyone’s very tired and we need to go to sleep early.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they both said.
They ate until they couldn’t eat another bite, then lay down. “What you think about your house?” Cooper asked.
“Roomier than it looked at first.” Peace jumped to his feet with a startle. “What time is it?” He asked.
“About sunset by the looks of it, I suppose. Why?”
“With all the stuff going on today, I almost forgot.” Peace came out of the doghouse so he could stretch his nose to the sky and began to howl and yelp.
Cooper really wished he would say his prayers quieter, but it was over soon enough. “You’re not going to make many friends around here if you keep that up.”
“I can’t help it. I have to,” he said. “All good coyotes pray at certain times.”
“Whatever, dude. I’m just trying to keep you safe.”
They settled into their houses and got comfortable. It had been an exhausting day, both physically and emotionally. All were asleep in no time.
At dawn, Cooper yawned and stretched before coming out of the house. The sun wasn’t up yet, but it was plenty bright. The dog ration from the previous evening left his mouth dry as a bone. He strolled toward the trough in the center of the barnyard to lap up some water. He noticed that Peace wasn’t in the doghouse, so he figured he had needed water as well. He trotted a little faster to the barn door for concern that other dogs might be mean to him. When he turned the corner at the door, he was met with complete devastation. Twenty or more dogs were lying around the trough, presumably dead. With them were two coyotes.
Cooper began barking loudly and alerted the rest of the dogs. They were out in the barnyard in seconds. Cooper was in a panic as most of the dogs were with the discovery. He saw the two coyotes, one lying with its head on the other’s abdomen. He recognized the smaller one on top as Peace and ran to him. Peace was still alive, but barely.
“Peace! What happened?”
“Don’t worry,” Peace said weakly. “Mom just told me that all good coyotes go to heaven.” With those words Peace’s head slid off his mother’s abdomen and he died.
Cooper was in shock. The world seemed to be spinning. He saw things in a type of slow motion. Faces were blurred as he stumbled over the dead dogs on his way back into the barn. He must have passed his mother and sister in the barnyard, but if he did, he didn’t recognize them. He wandered in curving paths to his doghouse. He lay down in front of it and couldn’t help but whimper. The voices of the other dogs became more coherent as the shock of the massive death scene had more time behind it. He heard things about the fence and about coyotes in general. But his heart was too heavy with all his recent loss to care much about what they said. He lay with his head to one side on his paws. His old doghouse was directly in front of him and he could see clearly to the back. The supply purse that Peace had brought along with him seemed different. It seemed empty. The curiosity got the better of him and he went into the doghouse to take a closer look. He grabbed the flap that covered the storage area and pulled it back. As he suspected, the purse was empty, or almost empty. At the bottom of the purse were two small stems of hemlock.
How far will you trust? How far should you trust? Where is the line drawn between goodwill and self-preservation? For the Christian, it goes a step further. Which is the greatest responsibility; sharing the gospel of Christ, or protecting one’s family?
It’s a universal tenet of the Christian faith that God can redeem and “save” anyone if only they accept the truth of whom and what Jesus is. One of Christ’ final instruction to his followers was to “go” and “make disciples”. This has been done for over 2000 years with varying degrees of earnestness and enthusiasm. Many have paid the ultimate price of this commission by taking to heart another of Jesus’ messages, where He said that “whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.”
On an individual one-on-one basis, many still would be willing to risk their own life for the sake of the gospel. However, is it proper to risk one’s family and one’s country? There is no doubt that we should “love our neighbor”. Jesus illustrated through a parable that we are all each other’s neighbor. This highlights a problem. It’s difficult to know which neighbor is bent on your destruction in which is willing to coexist. Perhaps a lifestyle of situational awareness and a healthy dose of suspicion and caution would put into practice the words of Christ, when He said to His followers, “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
The world needs His message of love now more than ever. May we each have the spiritual discernment to know how to proceed in a dangerous world.
Dog Farm examines the dilemma of radical terrorism through a dog's perspective. It observes the reaction, over-reaction, and politically correct under-reaction of western society in the face of a resurgent threat. How far will you trust? How far should you trust? Where is the line drawn between goodwill and self-preservation? For the Christian, it goes a step further. Which is the greatest responsibility; sharing the gospel of Christ, or protecting oneâ€™s family? Dog Farm explores the choices made by a young Border collie in an attempt to find a balance in a dangerous world.