ㅤEven if he could hear the radio over the hammering rain, Old Willakers still would have ignored its warning.
ㅤ“REMAIN INDOORS. ENSURE ALL WINDOWS AND DOORS ARE CLOSED AND SECURE. DO NOT TRAVEL OUTSIDE FOR ANY REASON. IF YOU ARE INJURED, REMAIN WHERE YOU ARE AND CONTACT EMERGENCY SERVICES.”
ㅤThe storm had been brewing for days, and all the inhabitants of Sutton Hill farm had felt it. The pigs had been restless, and even as the rain came down they paced up and down their pen, unable to lie still. Even the farm cat had found the darkest corner of the linen cupboard to hide in.
ㅤWillakers had most of the animals under cover, but the sheep were proving difficult. He dragged open the barn door, boots struggling to gain purchase on the concrete floor which was covered by an unceasing current of rainwater pouring from the burst banks of the stream. The sheep moved as one, a single organism of sodden wool and frightened eyes. The sheepdog team worked to corral them; one ran back and forth behind the flock to urge them forwards, the rest circled the outside and kept the livestock on course for the open barn door, ensuring none of the sheep were separated from the group.
ㅤThe front of the flock had found the door, and the dry refuge beyond it, and the sheep poured into the barn. Willakers saw the last ewe pass the threshold and pushed with every ounce of his strength against the wood. The door slammed shut and the farmer was quick to slide across the heavy iron bolt. The rain came down harder than ever as Willakers whistled to the dogs and splashed his way back towards the farmhouse. Inside, he kicked off his boots and counted the dogs as they came in and shook themselves off. Gem. Zip. Scout. Bram. Willakers looked around for Max. He was the youngest of the dogs and had just run his first lambing season. Willakers looked out of the back door through the curtain of rain. He could see no sign of Max in the yard. “Max! Oy, Max!” he called out. He put both hands to his mouth and whistled as long and loud as he could. “Maxy!” The radio emitted a long tone, and started to repeat its message over.
ㅤWillakers turned back inside to see the other four dogs look up at him. Their faces said Well? What now? Willakers cursed under his breath and jabbed at the radio to silence it. He jammed his feet back into his boots and turned to address the dogs. “Now stay here, all of you. I’m going to look for Max. If I’m not back in an hour, it’s ‘cause I’m dead.” The dogs looked back at him with identical blank expressions. Zip started to lick at the puddle of rainwater that was spreading from underneath him. “Useless animals,” muttered Willakers, and he stepped out of the house and into the storm.
ㅤA search of the yard and the barn showed no sign of Max. The storm was worsening and when the sky turned dark a search would be impossible. Willakers retraced the journey of the flock from the back field. He walked across the bridge that spanned the stream, stopping only for a moment to observe the water level. The rushing channel now covered the riverside path that used to sit a clear two metres above the waterline. Max hadn’t seen a storm this bad since he was a pup. Willakers quickened his pace.
ㅤHe reached the gate that led into the back field. The rain blurred his vision and the hedgerows on the far side were a smudge of brown between the green pasture and the darkness of the trees beyond. He called out again for Max. This time there was a reply.
ㅤA faint sound of barking floated across the grass from the field’s far corner. Willakers started towards the source of the noise. The farmer was unsure he would be able to carry the dog all the way back to the farmhouse if he was injured. He could hear an unusual tone in Max’s barks. It was the kind he gave at the postman’s van through the window. Willakers quickened his pace to a steady jog. As the farmer reached the edge of the field, he saw an alarming scene.
ㅤMax stood near the hedgerow, body low to the ground and teeth bared. The rain had flattened his black and white fur against his sides. He looked unlike the friendly dog that would rest his head on your knee and look longingly at the biscuit in your hand. Behind Max, a lamb was tangled in a mess of brambles. To either side of them, two scrawny foxes snarled back at the dog. When Max made a move towards one of them, the other would dart forwards towards the trapped lamb and Max would have to spin around to scare it off.
ㅤWillakers shouted and waved his arms as he ran forwards. The two foxes’ eyes widened at the sight of him and they turned tail and disappeared into the undergrowth. Max turned to his owner, tongue out and tail wagging, despite the rain. Willakers dropped to one knee to meet him. “Good lad, well done.” Max turned and pointed his nose at the lamb, who seemed rather shaken from the whole ordeal. “I see her, don’t worry.” Willakers pushed himself to his feet and went to help the lamb. He drew a penknife from his jacket and got to work hacking at the tangle of thorns that ensnared the terrified animal. He lifted the lamb and tucked it under one arm, inside his jacket. Willakers whistled to Max and the party began to make its way across the field and towards the warmth of the farmhouse beyond. A clap of thunder echoed across the valley and Max spun around, growling at the clouds. Willakers chuckled and patted his dog on the head. “It’s alright lad, you’ve done enough for the day. Let’s get you home now.”