Two Dogs One Bone, by Marianne Castle

Two Dogs One Bone, by Marianne Castle (Fiction)

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So you don’t believe in dog gods, huh? You should. They sneak up on you when you least expect it. That’s what happened to New Zealander Katy Pallis. She had big plans for her future. But the dog gods had big plans for her future too. Quite different from hers. They won. They always do.   

Welcome, Katy. Their faces beamed down to her. Your new career awaits you – dog trainer, dog groomer and dog walker. And just in case she tried to make a run for it they put drop-dead-gorgeous, golden retriever Ben in her way. 

You two have fun now. The dog gods smiled playfully.

From: Two Dogs One Bone, by Marianne Castle

CHAPTER ONE

The dog gods. Interfering little buggers.

It was 1983 when they showed up. I was a bit busy for them but they don’t give up easily. You have to be on your guard. I was not.

I’d spent the last couple of years kicking around Australia, picking up work–mostly on farms–and bringing in extra cash with my dressmaking skills. I was trying to fill my pockets with enough funds to fly by the seat of my pants around the world. I was 23 years old with big plans. Not really clear what they were but, boy, they were big.

I had just finished a stint as a jillaroo on a sheep station in the outback. The vast barren land was too much country even for my country-loving self. Not a lot of customers for dressmaking out there either. Noosa looked appealing for a bit of sun and surf and to ponder my next move. I swanned around there for a few days before signing up for a job on a horticultural farm in Gympie, not too far from the idyllic little suntrap. That would see me right for a few months before I headed off to the next country.

I found an old farmhouse on twenty acres to rent close to the farm I was about to be working on. The rental had been a horse-trekking business. When it failed the owners had moved on to a more prosperous location and had taken their string of horses with them. Except one. They hadn’t told me about him. I found the bay gelding when I was exploring the place.

I got on the phone. “Hey, there’s a horse wandering about on your property.”

“Yep.” They’d said as if it was the most natural thing in the world to abandon a horse. “That’ll be Johnny. He’s old.”

“How old?”

“Oh, I dunno. About twenty. Could be older.”

“What do you want me to do with him?” I asked, incredulous at their lack of guilt.

“Nothing. He’ll be all right there. Probably die soon.”

Bloody hell. I should’ve reported them to the RSPCA but I didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t. I don’t know why I do, or don’t do, a lot of things.

“I’ll look after him,” I said and clunked the receiver down.

I wandered out to find Johnny. I thought I’d better explain the situation to him and how it was going to be.

“Look, buddy.” I ran my hand down his white blaze, letting my fingers settle on his velvet muzzle. “I’ll take care of you while I find someone who can give you a good home. I’m sorry it can’t be me. I’m off overseas soon.”

He gave a soft whicker. Poor old feller didn’t have a clue. He was just happy for some company.

I got the vet in to check him over and he was declared...old. But fit and sound with it. As long as I didn’t hoon on him he would be fine to ride.

I wasn’t in the habit of packing a bridle and saddle for my travels and certainly wasn’t going to fork out for the gear seeing as I wasn’t sticking around long, but I was keen to see what he was like to ride. I found some rope and belts and fashioned a halter out of them then rode him bareback, which wasn’t ideal on a bony old back. We loped around the property except for occasions when Johnny proved to me the old boy still had it in him by taking off at a canter uninhibited by a bit to restrain him.

It didn’t take long in this small community for word to get around that there was a free horse up for grabs.

“He is old,” I cautioned the woman who rang. “The vet said he was fine to ride but just gentle rides. Okay?”

“Perfect!” she said. “He’s mostly going to be a paddock mate for my other horse.”

“Great,” I said, a stab of regret jabbing at my heart. “When would you like to come for him?”

“Ah, that’s the thing. Not for about three weeks. Is that a problem? I’m buying a horse float and I can’t get him ‘til then.”

Fine by me.

She was insistent that I meet her to make sure I was happy about who Johnny was going to. “I’ll be at the dog-training club on Saturday afternoon. We could meet each other there,” she said. “We’ve got a dog obedience competition on. Why don’t you come and have a look?”

That could be a pleasant way to spend the afternoon, I thought. I’d never been to one of those before.

The dog gods grinned.

I’d never seen so many dogs in one place before. A big gluttony smile spread across my face as I mingled in the crowd. I felt very happy. Oh, so dangerously comfortable.

I strolled over to the clubhouse and asked for Lynette Bishop. “She rang me the other day, told me to meet her here,” I said to the woman manning the office.

“Yep, sure thing. She’s right here…somewhere.” said the woman, twisting her head around in all directions. “Hang on a mo.” She disappeared for a second, returning with a friendly-faced woman who I supposed would be mid-fifties.

Lynette and I chatted for a few minutes until she apologised profusely. “So sorry to have to leave you, Katy, but I’ve been roped in at the last minute to do stewarding. Going to have to run out on you, I’m afraid.”

We arranged a time for her to come to my place to meet Johnny and then she disappeared to a ring over the far side of the field.

She seemed perfect for Johnny and I didn’t mind that she had to leave so soon. I was glad to have some time to myself to take it all in.

My eyes feasted on dogs and their humans working together. Such camaraderie, such…such… teamness!

The dogs looked up at their owners with adoration, watching and listening for every voice command, every hand signal. Sit. Down. Turn around. Stick like glue to your master’s leg. I’d seen plenty of farm dogs work their magic with people and stock but this...this was different.

Man, I thought dreamily, I wouldn’t half love to do this stuff! The unspoken statement must have beamed like a light from me because it wasn’t long before someone from the club spotted fresh blood and approached me. As club people do.

“Hi, I’m Sally Coombs,” she said with a bright smile. “I’m a member of the club. I’m one of the stewards here today. ”

“Hi,” I replied, holding out my hand, “I’m Katy Pallis.” Sally shook it with vigour. “Pleased to meet you, Katy.”

“This is wonderful!” I waved my arm over the scene before me.

“Ha,” she laughed, “they’re only the novices. If you think these guys look impressive you should go over there.” She pointed to another couple of rings further over. “They’re the experienced ones and they’re pretty sharp. What breed do you have?”

“Oh, sorry, no, I haven’t got a dog.” I turned to her, taking my eyes off the action for a second. “Yet.”

She grinned at me. That spider was caught easily into the web. “What breed would you be after?” she asked, weaving her web some more. “We might be able to help with names of breeders.”

“As a matter of fact I’d probably not choose a purebred. “I’d like to rescue a dog in need from the RSPCA.”

That wiped the grin off her face. “Ah,” she said like a mother about to disappoint her child, “if you want to compete in the obedience trials you must have a purebred.” And to ensure I was under no illusion, she added, “A pedigree. With papers. That’s the rules here in Queensland.”

And that wiped the grin off my face.

“Er,” Sally continued as she swept her hand over the field, “they’re all purebreds here in case you hadn’t noticed.”

I hadn’t actually. “What’s wrong with a bitzer? They can do anything a purebred can,” I whined.

“I’m sorry but that’s the rules.”

If I was going to get a dog, which I wasn’t, I would want one that needed rescuing. I have nothing against purebreds, it’s just that I’ve had my heart set since childhood to rescue a dog in need. But only when the time was right. Which wasn’t now.

“However –” Sally’s tone had taken on extra effort to win a new member “– if you’re happy to just come along and learn how to train your dog without the intention of competing you’re more than welcome to bring a mixed breed.” She finished with another warm smile. Warm and enticing.

“Thank you, I’ll give it some thought,” I said and I excused myself to go over to where the “pretty sharp” ones were working.

I stopped by a ring. This one, unlike the novices, had jumps in it. A woman stood inside the ring at a marker peg with her Border collie sitting expectantly beside her left leg. In her hand she held a wooden dumbbell which the judge ordered her to throw over the jump. As it hit the grass on the other side the dog’s eyes shot a look up towards her face. Now? Now? Can I? Can I? Pllleeeeeease?

After a dramatic pause the judge’s voice spoke out. “Send your dog.”

The handler gave a subtle command and her dog sprang from her side, raced towards the jump, flew over it like a bird, picked up the dumbbell and flew back over the jump. He came to a skidding halt at his handler’s feet, planting his butt into a perfect sit, and arched his head back to present the dumbbell, every fibre of his being plump with pride.

The judge said, “Take the dumbbell.”

The handler took the dumbbell out of the dog’s mouth. He gave it willingly. The judge then instructed, “Return to heel.” The handler flicked her wrist to command the dog to come to heel. Her dog whipped around her body and sat at her left side, grinning up at her. Then the judge announced, “Exercise finished.” The handler gave a whoop of delight, swung her hands in the air and lavished praise onto her equally happy dog.

Wow! That’s it. That is so damn it! I want to be a dog trainer. I want to teach people what dogs can do. And to be one of those I would have to be one of them.

And just like that, with a come-to-heel flick of the wrist, my grand plans of travelling the world – bon jour France, well hello old chap UK, howdy pardner USA and all that jazz – just went pffft before my very eyes. Instead I would be getting a dog. A pe...di...gree. With papers.

As I drove off a seething rage began to burn up my brain. What! No bitzers, huh? No indiscriminate heterogeneous hounds here, please, we’re Queenslanders. Them’s the rules.

What a bloody dumb rule!

But that there bloody dumb rule led me to what was to become one of the biggest heroes to enter my life. Ben, a six-month-old golden retriever. PEDIGREE, WITH PAPERS.

And the dog gods allowed me to get in the last laugh. He was a RESCUE. Yesiree! Stick that up your pedigree pipes and blow it out your bums.

I rang the number in the paper. A Brisbane number. “Hello, yes, I’m answering your ad about the golden retriever.”

A gruff-sounding woman snapped out the words: “I want a hundred dollars for him. Yes, he’s got papers.”

“How much?” I gasped. “A hundred dollars! Er, sorry, I think perhaps not.” I said goodbye and hung up. “Good grief,” I muttered to myself, “he’s not even a brand-new puppy.” I went outside for a walk. Get a grip on yourself, girl. Forget it. Dumb idea. Overseas, remember? C’mon, focus.

But those niggly old dog gods turned me around and marched me straight back to the phone.

“Hello, yes, it’s me again. Look, I can offer you $50.00 and the best home you could ever ask for him.”

“How soon would you be able to pick him up?” “Oh, well, let me see. How about next Saturday?”

“No, it’ll have to be sooner than that,” Mrs Gruff said.

“How about tomorrow?” I said.

I can’t believe what I’m doing. Did I even ask any questions about this dog? No, I did not. Why? I haven’t got a clue.

I am not impulsive by nature. I can’t even buy a dress without trying it on several times and then returning to the shop a couple of times more before I’m really sure. And here I am getting a dog that I’m going to live with for, possibly, around fifteen years. Sight unseen. By God you dog gods....

It was a two-hour drive and dead easy to find. I arrived in good time. I pulled up alongside the kerb, engine idling. Nice house, I observed, very respectable looking. But I got an attack of cold feet. I haven’t met this dog. I know absolutely nothing about him. I can’t go through with it.

Boot it, babe. Go to the RSPCA, pick yourself out a nice, homeless pooch that the staff can advise you on and forget this obedience competition nonsense. Yep that’s what I’ll do. I mean, this woman did give up rather easily about the hundred bucks. Why?

Off I drove. But I had to park up soon after to consult my map because I didn’t have the foggiest clue where to go. Ah, problem number one: map reading. Problem number two: I would have to get on the motorway and then find the correct turn-off and navigate myself all over the bloody place. I can drive tractors up hill and over dale and get behind the wheel of any type of vehicle and I’m home and hosed. But put me on a busy motorway or try to get me through a maze of city streets and I’m snookered. And besides I didn’t even know if the RSPCA were open.

The house back down the road is though.

The dog gods smiled.

I knocked on the door. A ferocious looking human being, a bitch, opened the door. Oh, good, it’s you. Come in.”

No small talk then? We marched off down the hallway to a door leading to an internal garage. She opened it and a hairy yellow bomb exploded fair smack into my stomach. I buckled under the violent blow. Bitch didn’t bat an eyelid.

He took a moment to try drowning me with his slurpy tongue before rug-surfing his way on the polished floors to the kitchen where he proceeded to bounce off all the cupboards. I was still recovering from the belt in the guts and the stench that came from his lodgings in the garage.

“So–” I breathed shallowly “–what’s his name?”

“We just call him Ben.”

“Can I ask why you’re giving him up, please?”

“I got him for showing but he’s no good. See that black mark on his leg?”

I peered at his fast-moving limbs for the black mark. There it was, on his right front leg – a teensy bit of hair that didn’t come out golden like the rest of him.

“No good. Can’t show him with that fault,” she continued with her unwavering bluntness, “so I need to get rid of him.”

I had no idea about showing dogs but as I glanced again at the black mark I suddenly had zilch interest to get involved in that game if something so petty made a dog undesirable.

“Had a lot of bad luck lately,” she moaned at me. “The one before him was a poodle that turned out no good too, and the one before –” She shot me a stern look. “You’re still taking him, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely.” I stared her down while I fished into my purse for the $50.00 cash. As I handed it over I said, “I’m not interested in showing. I’m going to do the dog obedience competitions.”

“Hah!” she shot back. “He’s bloody hopeless. Can’t walk nicely on the lead to save ‘imself.”

“Does he do a sit on command?” I grasped for some morsel of hope.

“No, but us show people don’t teach that. Don’t want your dog sitting in the ring. Judges don’t like that. All right for your stuff but not for the show ring.” She crossed her arms defiantly across her big bosom.

We walked back to the garage to collect his things. Ben ricocheted himself off the hallway walls, showing off his athletic skills.

The stench in the garage was overwhelming. It was also dark as a moonless night in there. She flicked a switch and the lights lit up the ugly truth. Poos dotted the floor like landmines. Puddles of pee glistened under the lights. He had a chewed bowl that served as both his food vessel and his only toy, and a chain lead “because he’ll eat through anything else, mark my words”.

As she rummaged around in an old set of drawers for his papers and vaccination certificate I wondered how anyone could fail to feel ashamed of all this.

“Umm,” I ventured with caution, “what was going to happen to him?”

“I dunno. Get put down, I suppose, if no one wanted him. He’s been in the paper for a while now.”

That’s strange, I thought. Ben really was a beautiful looking dog, and besides his lack of decorum seemed to be quite a likable lad. Surely she wouldn’t snuff out his life just like that? Was it just too convenient? The easy way to dispose of a problem? I’d worked at an SPCA back home in New Zealand so I wasn’t naïve as to what people will do but it never fails to take me off balance all the same.

She walked us out to my car. “He sits in the front.”

I wanted to say no, he’s going to be a backseat dog, but I didn’t. I figured I could handle that problem in private. I opened the door and he happily jumped in, settling himself into the front passenger seat. I drove off, but once out of sight pulled over. I went around to his door, clipped his lead on and escorted him out. I opened the back door and he jumped onto the back seat. Piece of cake, I thought.

It wasn’t. By the time I had returned to the driver’s side he had squeezed himself through the gap between the bucket seats and was grinning at me from his position on the front passenger seat. I got in and heaved and wrestled Ben into the back. I was determined that he would have to learn to like the backseat. Remembering that performance back at the house I didn’t want a big golden lump suddenly leaping onto my lap while I was trying to drive.

As we headed into territory that he obviously didn’t recognise he became “little boy lost” and made determined attempts to squeeze between the bucket seats again to regain his “rightful” position on the front seat. Oh dear, our first argument. But I wasn’t giving in. I stuck my arm across the gap until he resigned himself to defeat.

All the way home the commitment I had just plunged into seesawed between frightening reality and childlike excitement. I glanced again in the rear-view mirror at my new responsibility and was taken back in time to when I was a kid nabbing anyone’s dog, horse or cat that I could get my nabby little hands on.

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