2012 NZ Writers' College Short Story Competition Fifth Place



‘Skinny’ – by Richard Hall


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“Nippy up here Col.”
“You’re not wrong.”
First word’s we’d spoken in about an hour. Frost crunched underfoot as we worked our way along the tops. Not much to say so why waste time on words. We left the hut just on sunrise, after a feed of baked beans and bacon. No deer for a real feed yet. Colin’s a man’s man sort of bloke.
 
Tall and built like a whippet with red hair that’s taking a trip south and a temper that’ll scorch the earth when he’s riled, he’s none-the-less salt of the earth. A bloke you could trust your back to. Colin always reckons he was born too late. His prime, he reckons, would have been in the forties; you know, when men did what men should do, like going off to fight real wars and Women were good in the kitchen and knew not to backchat. Not that he’d say that in ear shot of his Missus. He’s not stupid. He wants a quiet life, not a clip round the ear. Me, I’m not as tall as him but at least I look like I’ve had a decent feed in the past week. Still got all my hair too which I reckon annoys him no end. I like hunting when Colin and me can get out, which isn’t as often as it used to be now that we are both married, me with a couple of kids. Diane, the wife, she’s pretty good about it all, as long as I bring home a bit of venison for the freezer sometimes and remember her and the kids birthdays.
 
We followed the ridge, eastwards, with the breeze at our backs, before dropping down the south face into bush.  After about ten minutes we came into a clearing near the foot of the valley and Colin stopped under a young rimu.
“See that,” he said, fingering torn foliage. A bit further on I kicked at droppings on the ground and Col nodded.  We followed what was there was to follow, quiet now and that’s not about not talking, it’s about real quiet, careful with footfalls, careful not swiping undergrowth with our bodies. We didn’t need to speak; we both knew what the other would do.
 
Colin saw him before me, a young stag, downwind, about 90 metres out on the other side of the valley. He lifted his rifle. If either of us missed, it cost us a dozen. Tui for me. Colin drank Waikato for some reason known only to him. The stag dropped where it stood. We bled and gutted it and Colin hefted the beast onto his wiry back then headed for the hut. Fired up the pan as soon as we could.
 
“Not a bad way to spend a day,” I said, round a mouthful of venison.
 “Yup, too right. Lucky with the weather.”
 
We had been lucky with the weather. It was raining now. Steady rain, set in rain. I’d finished my steak and packet mashed spuds and chucked another log on the fire, poured us a whiskey and sat down again, staring at my boots next to the fire.
 
“Bloody good boots those.” They were new, only their second time dirty but comfortable as all hell.
“Nancy boy boots if you ask me,” Colin said, with his mouth full of food, concentrating on his plate.
“Geez mate, your boots are knackered. Look at them! You should donate them to that flash museum in Wellington!” Colin grinned. He seemed to like the idea that his boots could be an exhibit at Te Papa. The rain grew heavier on the tin roof, so loud now talk wasn’t easy. Just as well we
weren’t big on yarning. A mug of tea, time for the scratcher.
 
“That’s one hell of a skinny dog,” I said. We were standing on the porch of the hut, mugs of tea in hand, watching it pour down on a mongrel of a dog that had appeared out of the bush while we had been standing there sizing up the day. The dog watched us back.
“Somebody’s pig dog,” Colin said. We stood there watching it watching us. I took a swig at my tea.
“Lost,” I said.
“Yup, lost.’’ “Must have a few clues though, otherwise it’d most likely be dead by now. Good dog is worth its weight in tucker,” Colin observed and disappeared inside, returning with a hunk of venison.
“Only good for sausages,” he said and tossed the cut at the far end of the porch.  The dog’s eyes followed the meat’s flight from hand to boards and he stood cautiously for a moment before creeping forward.  Then he leapt up onto the porch, grabbed the meat and was gone.
“He’ll be back.”
“Yup.”
 
The rain didn’t let up all day so hunting was out. I read my book; the History of the Bentley. Colin spent his time pulling our rifles to bits to clean them.  He said to me once that he reckoned cleaning guns to him was like meditation was to those lentil munchers. Said he kind of zoned out when he was pulling down rifles. “Don’t have to think about what I’m doing- it just kind of happens,” he said to me, “and then I sort of come round when I’ve finished.”
I had to give it to him; he did a beautiful job and I reckon he could have actually done it in his sleep.  The dog came back near the end of the day and we fed it some more and it buggered off again but then came back and stuck around.
Wouldn’t come near us but hung around.  It was still raining. We left the door open to see if he would come in by the fire. He poked its head around the door but that was all.
 
We were due to walk out the next day and we knew it would be a slog seeing as how there been so much rain.  The weather had cleared in the night but it was still as wet as a bloody swamp out there.
We could hear the creek roaring off in the distance but figured we were okay as the only river crossing we had was over a swing bridge. The dog was curled up on the porch. It wasn’t a bad-looking dog, except that it needed a bit of meat on its bones.
“If I was a betting man,” I said to him, “I reckon Lab and Staffy with maybe a bit of Foxy thrown in.” The dog stretched, stood, turned
around and lay down again while watching me intently.
“It’s the other bugger whose been feeding you,” I said.
The dog put its head down between its paws.
“Yeah, you know,” I said. “You’re not stupid, are ya.”  I bent to him and he let me scratch him behind his ears.
“Think we might call you Skinny until we find out your real name.”
 
We started walking out and as we thought, it was slippery all the way. Colin slipped off the track at one stage and down a bank – slid quite a way too but luckily a log stopped him. I damn near burst a blood vessel I was laughing so hard.  The dog had followed him off the track and stood staring down at him as he lay in the mud.
 
“What the hell are you looking at Dog,” Colin yelled.  It took about four
hours to get to Colin’s truck, parked at the end of the road and thank Christ no one had touched it this time. One time we had come back and found the windows smashed and the stereo gone. The dog was keen as to get in the back. As we were driving out Colin said, “We should put an ad in the local paper to see if anyone claims him. If nobody does, I’ll keep the little bugger. That is, if you don’t want him?”
“Nah, Diane would go spare if I brought a dog home, but the kid’s would love him”.
“Cheryl’s probably going to go crook,” he said.
 
The traffic was as thick as a whale sandwich on our way back into town.  We crawled up the southern and over the bridge. “Tell me again why we live in the city”, I said to Colin.
“Money mate. That’s all there is. Oh, and our Missuses probably wouldn’t live in the bush. Christ, we coulda walked home by now,” he added, the traffic stretching as far as the eye could see.
 
I opened the back door and the first thing I got was, “You’re not coming in here like that! Strip off there and I’ll turn the shower on”, and then she said, “Kid’s, your fathers home!”
Our youngest Jane came hurtling across the kitchen floor and bear-hugged my legs.
“Daddy you smell,” she said
“Not me,” I said. “Must be your Mother ,” I winked at my eight year old Harry, who had just finished his sock sliding entry into the kitchen by crashing tackling the rubbish bin.
“Mummy doesn’t stink, you do,” cried Janey, clearly thinking her father had completely lost his marbles. 
“Get anything Dad?” said Harry.
“Yeah,” I said, “Colin got a young stag and….”
Before I could tell them about the dog, Harry yelled “Cool”, and ran off with an imaginary rifle, shooting loudly at what we could only guess were imaginary deer. 
“Come back here Mister! I’ve got something else to tell you”, I yelled, above Harry the hunter’s shooting noises.”
“What Daddy, what?” Jane asked impatiently.
Harry finished his shooting in the lounge and then launched another sock slide from the other side of the kitchen toward me, this time executing a perfect stop next to my armful of three and a half year old.
“What?” he asked.
“We found a dog.”
There was an immediate chorus of “Can we keep it? Can we? What colour is it? Is it big? Is it a boy or a girl dog? Does it have a name?”
At this point Diane came back into the kitchen with that ‘look’, on her face – the one that says you haven’t talked to me about this.
 I held up my hand and lowered it slowly as I did when I wanted the kids to calm down.
“We’ve called him Skinny and he’s with Colin until we find his owner, if we find his owner,” I said. “If nobody claims him I think Colin might keep him because he seems quite attached to the little fella already.”
“Can we go see him?”
“Not tonight. But soon.”
 
A couple of days later Colin and me were having a beer at the Cossie club.
“No luck with finding the dog’s owner?” I said.
“Nope”.
“What’s Cheryl think of him?”
“Well, when I got home I chucked him in the wash house over night to keep the bugger warm. Cheryl got up the next morning and went in there, didn’t turn the light on and stepped in a pile of dog shit. Wonder you didn’t hear swearing from your place. Geez, she went crook!”
“So you’re not keeping him then?”
“I reckon she’s coming round. Reckoned the dog needed feeding up so she bought all this fancy dog tucker yesterday. Next thing, I’ll be outside with a chain round my neck and he’ll be sleeping on the bed”.
 
A few weeks later we were back at the hut in our favourite part of the world with Skinny who was now Colin’s for good it seemed.  It was early morning and we were standing on the porch, mugs of tea in hand. The sun was rising over the ridge and mist hung low to the ground. Skinny was curled up on a sack by the door.
“One hell of a skinny dog”, I said, tossing the dregs of my tea out onto dewy grass.
“Somebody’s pig dog”, Colin said, looking out to the sunrise.
“Lost,” I said.
“Nah; was,” he said.  “Must have a few clues though, otherwise he’d be dead by now.”
Skinny looked up, stood up, stretched, turned around and lay down again.

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