Old Max – Short story …
Another short story from my upcoming ‘Rat’ themed collection later in the year. This time our little furry rodent shares star billing with one of our canine friends …
Still early days yet editing wise, so again, just a first draft here … let me know what you think? Thanks …
Old Max …
Old Max was as strong and vicious a brute of a dog as no one would ever want to come across; Tom Selby had made sure of that, conditioning the mutt through a sadistic regime of punishment and reward, only in poor Old Max’s case the only reward was whatever the punishment being inflicted at the time coming to a temporary stop. Tom Selby was the meanest and most miserable farmer in the county, and as far as he was concerned, Old Max was a working farm dog, a piece of property to be used in any way he saw fit, and if that included earning a few extra coins on the dog fighting circuit so much the better.
As a pup Old Max had growled and bared his teeth at any and every provocation but there was only so many times a body, and a small young one at that could take the full force of a leather whip cutting through its fur and skin, or a hard leather boot being kicked into its side. Old Max was too smart not to realise strength and ferocity alone wouldn’t ever put an end to his suffering and had long since learned to heel at his Master’s command, to at least play the part of the obedient ‘mans best friend.’
It was inevitable that some of Tom Selby’s cruelty would rub off on Old Max despite him once being the gentlest most adorable looking little pup there ever was, the sort that could melt a stone heart quicker than the morning sun melting a snowflake. But that cute little bundle of furry joy was gone, replaced by a wretched hate-filled creature from hell, the look of which might rival that of Cerberus, the mythical three-headed crazed canine Hound of Hades guarding the gates to the underworld. And just as any man or creature alike approaching his mythical counterpart, anything that still breathed coming near Old Max would be greeted with a snarl, a growl, and flash of rabid drool dripping teeth. Bitter experience had taught Old Max never to show his back to a stranger for fear of what might land across it and to face whatever potential threat head-on, ready to lunge as though his life depended on it as very often it did.
Old Max was having a long and lazy snooze in the sun, a rare pleasure he’d been lucky enough to enjoy on account of his Master suffering a bout of influenza; there was no loyal vigil by his Master’s door or bedside, waiting for a yearned or prayed for recovery.
Far from pining for Tom Selby’s return to health, Old Max would gleefully have torn into the man’s throat, ripping fat and muscle from bone and then joyfully bathed in his Master’s blood like a playful puppy splashing and jumping in a mud-filled puddle, not that Old Max had such a happy time to remember.
Still half dazed from his sleep, this was a rare unguarded moment for Old Max. He could feel something small and warm beside him, its fur and little whiskers gently tickling his skin, not that it was unpleasant in any way, quite the opposite. But it was equally rare if ever for Old Max to allow another living creature such close proximity except when forced, like when his Master needed extra coin and would pit him against some new opponent in the dog fighting pits.
Looking down he could see a small furry ball-shaped mass clearly asleep and blissfully nestled into his tummy. Old Max’s natural instinct was to spring to his feet and rend the little creature limb from limb to help satisfy his own constant hunger that came from a lack of food other than the few meagre scraps his Master saw fit to throw him from time to time. For whatever reason though, Old Max didn’t stir, content to allow the little furry mass to continue its equally contented slumber.
A little later he was again awoken by the small bundle of hair beside his tummy only this time it wasn’t the gentle tickling of fur and whiskers that had stirred Old Max from his sleep. The small warm mass, clearly now an infant rat to a fully awake Old Max, was shivering and half starved, obviously trying to snuggle the old dog’s body for extra warmth. Despite his own hunger, Old Max reached for one of the tiny meat scraps lying in his feeding bowl and dropped it near the infant rat’s mouth before starting to lick at its body. The warmth of his tongue and the copious amount of drool soon warmed the little rodent body, even more so when Old Max shifted his position to cosset the rat’s body in a thicker longer part of his fur.
They say all good things come to an end, and so it was for Old Max when his Master recovered from his influenza. Those three short weeks had been the happiest time of Old Max’s life, free from the catalogue of abuses or fear of being dragged to the hated dog fighting pits; Old Max knew he wouldn’t survive many more fights – he was still as brave and ferocious as he ever was but the daily beatings and accumulated battle injuries were taking their toll, as was the passage of time, Old Max was indeed becoming ‘Old’ while each new opponent in the pit seemed just a little younger and stronger while Old Max was equally just a little older and not so strong with each additional fight.
Tom Selby had debts that needed paying. He looked towards Old Max. It had been three months since their last visit to the dog fighting pits, more than long enough for the old mutt to have recovered. He’d heard that a newcomer in one of the neighbouring villages had a couple of angry young Rotties he was desperate to arrange some matches for. He’d also heard they were the most vicious dogs anyone had seen in years with no one that keen to risk their own dogs against them; that might be to his advantage though, he could demand a bigger share of the purse and if Old Max should manage to win one last time it’d make him an even more valuable asset for a few more fights in the future.
Little Whiskers hissed and spat his anger at the huge two-legged creature that was dragging Old Max by some cord around his friend’s neck. Old Max was clearly reluctant to accompany his Master to wherever it was they were going. The tiny rat had never seen a human up close until now. He wasn’t impressed – they smelt and looked funny, and they didn’t appear to have any proper teeth or claws. He wondered why Old Max didn’t simply turn and sink his fangs into the soft exposed flesh of the two-legged creature’s neck, surely it couldn’t be a match for Old Max’s strength and teeth or be able to resist a swipe from one of Old Max’s massive paws with his claw-like nails outstretched. But just as Little Whiskers had never seen a human up close, nor had he yet witnessed the great cruelty and cowardice they were capable of.
Without warning, Tom struck Old Max across the back and side with a riding crop. Little whiskers was startled by the whining yelp that practically exploded from Old Max’s mouth. The force of the blow drained Old Max of his strength, almost causing him to buckle under his own weight.
Again Little whiskers hissed at Tom Selby, and this time several more of his friends emerged from various hidey-holes to dart in and out of Tom Selby’s path. The shock of seeing so many rats at is feet startled him, causing him to drop the leash he was holding Old Max by and stumble back. Seeing the separation between Tom and Old Max, Little Whiskers ran between them, urging Old Max to follow in the direction of the adjacent barn.
Together they made their escape from Tom Selby’s sight, disappearing deep inside the barn. It felt good to Old Max being able to slump into the soft warm hay to soothe the still smarting lash of the riding crop. He wondered if he’d done the right thing, following his little friend into the barn. This was the first of his Master’s real cruelty Little Whiskers had yet seen, or that of any human for that matter. He knew his Master wouldn’t let a few rats prevent him from dragging him back on their journey to the dog fighting pits, and upset by the delay would surely take out his anger with further cruelty along the way.
Sure enough, Tom Selby appeared in the doorway to the barn, towering over both Little whiskers and Old Max, and all the other rats darting back and forth at his feet. He gave an angry kick with his foot that sent a few of them tumbling away in a rolling motion to the side. He then grabbed hold of Old Max’s leash and tied it to one of the support beams before grabbing the nearest implement, an old heavy manure shovel.
Little Whiskers leapt at Tom Selby’s feet, trying to bite at the ankle area but his leather boots were too high and thick for the little rat’s teeth to penetrate. Tom Selby took a step back and swung out at the creature.
The force of the shovel sent the little rat flying several feet into the air before landing in some loose hay at the far end of the barn. Old Max barked and growled his anger at the way Little Whiskers, his only friend had been set upon by the human, straining at the rope around his neck, the hated leash keeping him from springing to the little rat’s defence. He would gladly have endured any amount of pain to tear free from whatever it was he was tied but even Old Max’s great strength and determination weren’t up to breaking the grain of a two-foot thick solid oak support beam. But where brute strength was insufficient, stealth and guile and a thousand little razor sharp teeth were sure to do better, the latter busily gnawing away at the individual threads of the rope leash until in its half chewed and weakened state, it gave way to one last determined tug from Old Max, almost catapulting the Old dog towards his hated Master. Tom Selby instinctively raised his arms and hands to protect himself but the sheer weight of Old Max hitting him head on sent Tom crashing to the ground. He tried desperately to shield his face from Old Max’s snapping jaws only to be rewarded with long sharpened fangs lodging themselves firmly in his soft flesh. Old Max was revelling in an inexplicable frenzied joy, at last having the opportunity to indeed tear flesh and muscle from bone, happy indeed for his fur to be soaked in his Master’s blood. It would be no easy task though – Tom Selby was a big man, and a strong one too, strong enough to put up quite a fight against a dog in the twilight of its years. But Old Max wasn’t fighting alone. Little Whiskers and a hundred or so of his kind had amassed round Tom Selby’s body on the ground, each nipping away at the clothing and underlying flesh. Hundreds of vicious bites and scratches stabbed at the farmer’s body from what seemed a thousand different angles and directions, Tom’s high-pitched screams practically assaulting Old Max’s acute canine hearing.
Living and working alone as he did, no one found what little was left of Tom Selby’s body for the best part of a week. It might have been longer but for a neighbour stopping by to collect some monies owed him. Being a farmer himself, Jim Franklin recognised a farm that had been neglected of its daily tasks for several days at least. At first glance, Jim Franklin thought Tom must have been injured and had discarded some torn clothing among the blood-soaked hay, such was how much was actually left of the body once the rats had had their fill of it. It was true that it was Old Max that had inflicted the injuries that led to Tom Selby bleeding to death more quickly but Little Whiskers and his kind had been just as content feeding on Tom Selby’s dead body as they were feeding on his live one.
Like most farmers and other country folks, Jim Franklin was no stranger to seeing the devoured remains of a dead body, just not one almost picked to the bone and even less so a human one. He could see from all the rat droppings nearby that it had been rats that had done this, not that he would have needed such a clue, there was little else that could have stripped a body of every last bit of flesh so effectively.
His attention was distracted by the sight of Old Max appearing in the doorway to the barn but what held his attention was the sight of Little Whiskers by his side. It was a quite a surreal sight, this huge brute of a dog with this tiny rat nestled alongside one of Old Max’s front legs, totally unafraid under the protective wing of his canine friend. Jim smiled. He had a soft spot of Old Max and had always resented Tom Selby’s treatment of him.
Old Max slowly approached him, his teeth discreetly hidden from sight as were Little whiskers’ who was trotting alongside. Both creatures were acutely sensitive to the nature of any given human and decided this particular specimen to be friendly. Jim fell to one knee and held out the remains of a half-eaten sandwich to Old Max before dropping a small part of the offering to the ground for the wee rat. Both accepted the gesture and fed on their unexpected meal.
“Well Old fella, you fancy a new home with me?” Jim asked while gently stroking the back of the ageing dog’s neck. Neither Old Max nor Little whiskers understood the words but the soft kindly tone of his voice was enough to entice Old Max into following Jim to his horse and cart, and to a new home and life in the twilight of his years.
Just before jumping into the back of the cart, Old Max stopped and looked back to where his little rodent friend was still standing. Little whiskers stood on his hind legs and looked back at them. He knew Old Max’s proper place was with a human Master, one that would love and care for him, someone like the man who had just fed them. What he didn’t know was his own place. Rats and humans weren’t exactly natural friends – Would the two legs want him tagging along?
Old Max looked up at Jim with a tearful glint in those huge brown wide eyes before turning to look back at his little friend, like he was being torn between the two. As well as seeing the warmth and gentleness in Old Max, the first time anyone had seen those qualities since all the time he had been with the now very much deceased Tom Selby, he could see Old Max was loyal too, loyal to the little creature that had obviously befriended him in some way Jim Franklin would probably would never know. Again he fell to one knee and patted the front of his thigh, beckoning the little rat to come and join them.
In the years that followed, Jim Franklin was oddly enough the only farmer for miles around who never had a single problem with rats on his farm.
If you enjoyed this story you may also enjoy a story I posted a while back, Dark Eyes, another short story to be featured in my upcoming collection later in the year …
Click the picture below for the link to it …
Dark Eyes …
Keep an eye out too for my upcoming ‘Rat Tales’ collection later in the year – (possible covers)