Tails from Natal

It was a misty late spring evening, cool and quiet. I had a Bible study group round for the evening, which was why I was checking horses at 10.00 p.m. instead of being in bed as I usually am at that time.

Walking around the front of the house, counting dogs, checking everyone was there, I heard a high yelping sound. It sounded like a dog in trouble. I walked to the gate and stood listening intently. There was silence except for the rippling of the river under the bridge over the Mooi, a hundred yards from my gate. Well, I told myself, must have been one of the skinny mongrels from the black township near me. Probably chasing a rabbit.

I went into the house and got ready for bed, tiredly sliding between the sheets and switching off the light. Hardly had I closed my eyes when I heard the sound again. I went to the front gate and stood listening. Quite clearly the sound came again. Not a dog, I decided, a puppy and definitely from the river.

It was a dark night and the veld in front of my house is rough, with small ditches and potholes. My German Shepherd Radie trotted next to me and quickly we reached the river. The yelping was clear and sharp as I climbed down the steep bank of the water. No, the sound appeared to come from the other side. Back up the bank I went, across the bridge and down the slope on the opposite side. Nothing. Than I realized the sound was coming from the middle of the river, under the bridge. I shone my torch into the river there, tight in the middle of the swirley water was a fallen willow tree, newly in leaf.

I stepped into the cold, muddy river. It was dirty after a winter of no rain and swirled past me sullenly. My courage deserted me. I climbed back up the bank and headed home.

My neighbours, Richard and Cherry Garland, are great dog lovers and I knew that although they were certainly asleep, they would help me. They did. Cherry listened to my story and in five minutes Richard arrived in his bakkie (LDW). We drove to the bridge and slid down carefully down the slope to the water. While Richard held the torch, shinning it on the water, I stepped in. It was cold and despite being low, reached to my hips. I struggled to the tree, slipping on old bicycle wheels and other horrid foreign objects, frightened I would fall face down into the water.

I reached the tree and using my torch, searched for the puppy, which was typically now silent. I began to feel along branches, terrified I would touch a spider or worse a snake. Once my torch picked up to bright eyes. " Please God" I prayed, "don’t let it be a snake". It wasn’t. It was a large toad, it’s eyes gleaming like jewels in the torchlight.

I heard a whimper and feeling under a low branch, pulled out not one but two puppies, tiny, scrawny things, shivering desperately with cold and fear. I put them in my pocket and treading carefully, took them to Richard. Then I heard another whimper. " Oh no", I thought, "there’s another".  Back I went, searching slowly and carefully in the branches of the tree. I found them, crouching an inch above the water, one brown, one black, cold and afraid. Richard helped me back up the bank and we got into the bakkie, Radie riding in the back and went home.

As I breed Saint Bernard’s, I have two lovely puppy runs with deep, clean shavings, lights and a heater. I put the tiny skinny puppies in one of the runs and went to heat some milk, which frightened as they were, they drank hungrily. I put on the heater switched off the lights and went to the house where I ran a hot bath and stripped off my wet smelly clothes, got into the perfumed water. Once again I slid into bed, switched off the lights and prepared to sleep. Barely had I closed my eyes than I was awakened by the sound of yelping. "Must be the puppies in the shed," I told myself. It wasn’t………. the sound was coming from the river.

I contemplated ignoring it, but the thought of a tiny puppy drowning, when it had fought so hard to live, got me back into my disgusting wet clothes and saw me, accompanied by Radie, truding once more across the rocky veld,  my way lit only by torchlight. I reluctantly entered the water again. It seemed colder and more revolting than before. I made my way to the willow tree under the bridge, ducking right down in the water to search low in the branches. A huge splash made my heart leap wildly, but it was only Calamity Jane, my woolly Saint Bernard. She splashed towards me barking furiously, yelling about the unfairness of being left by herself while everyone went off swimming. " Mean and selfish," she yelled, always leaving me behind, it’s not fair."  "Great," I thought to myself, "now I’ll never find the puppy while she splashes around like a demented whale." But it was she who found them, two tiny scraps of misery, hiding in a hollow branch a bare inch above the dark water. " Look Jen," she shouted, "look at these horrid things, what are they? Shall I eat them?"

I collected the last two puppies and putting them in my pocket walked slowly back to the house, Calamity Jane leading the way, plumy tail waving in triumph. As I walked through the dark night I contemplated the wickedness of someone who would condemn those tiny creatures to die a horrible death by drowning, when the S.P.C.A. or the local Vet would willing have put them painlessly to sleep. I compared their miserable lives with love and comfort I gave my dogs and felt endlessly sad and angry.

I deposited the two puppies with their now dry siblings, heated some more milk for them all and after bathing for the third time, got back into bed. As I leant over to switch off the light I glanced at the little bedside clock…..it read 3.45 p.m.

P.S. I fed the puppies until they were fat, shiny and confident. They all got loving homes.

Jenny Mc Connell
Snowyriver Saint Bernards

Snowyriver Calamity Jane is the dam of Joanna Riccio’s Fancy now living in the USA. The sire of Calamity Jane was Ch. Montacrie Amadeus of Richtavier.
Horst Kranz
Richtavier Saint Bernards