Prelude to Barkingburgh

They were at the stern of the ship waiting for discarded meat scraps. A wolf scrambled over the side of the deck, pulled up by a rope. His arm had a chunk missing and he howled in misery. The deck was soon stained with blood. The other wolves laughed. As a young pup, Brody had already smelled things that most adult dogs would never smell, and would never want to.

“I hope they found some,” he said.

“And didn’t hurt anyone,” his mother added.

Brody and the other captives could hear the captain.

“Dat was much too slow. You der, stop dat fightin’. We waited too long fer de hired help. Which of dese buggers was on rope two?”

“It was de lil’ daggie and his mum, wit de fox.”

The captain bumped his head exiting the galley, “Argh, dese growlin’ crafties. Bring em to me, de lil’ one, and de fox. Leave de mum, I don’t want to hear all dat cryin’. I wants to take de lil’ one’s measure.”

The captain was bigger than the other wolves. He circled around the young dog and growled. The crew and captives were still.

“You der, fox, dis lil’ bugger been pullin’ his weight?”

“Most assuredly, young Broderick has a well established work ethic. We all have the highest regard for …”

He kicked the fox, “Enough,” and turned to Brody.

“Yer wiry. You givin’ yer full effort?”

The pup nodded, “Just hungry, sir.”

“Lil’ Daggie, we’re all hungry on dis ship.”

The captain picked up a wolf length of rope with his large teeth and threw an end to Brody, “Grab it. I wants you to pull with all yer might. Pull me over.”

Brody grabbed the rope with both paws as the crew jeered. They knew what was coming. The captain, with the sudden jerk of his head, neck and upper torso, pulled the pup to the ground. Wolves encircled him in an instant.

“If you’re wee! In to the sea!” ordered the wolf captain.

The wolves were on all fours, growling and drooling as they herded him towards the gangplank. His mother didn’t cry. The fox put his arm around her and gave Brody a knowing wink, and a grin. Brody jumped into the ocean as a wolf’s jaws snapped.

As the laughter faded into the distance he focused on the briny smells of the sea. They were familiar, but not comforting. He floated alone. The fox’s arrangement, as he’d called it, seemed foolish now.

Paddling in the direction the sun had set, he remembered he was hungry. His chest hurt, as always. Thoughts of his mother stiffened his resolve and he settled in to a paddle rhythm. His nose became more keen. There was something in the air that reminded him of cat. It was similar to a fish, but not one he had ever smelled. It swam by his legs. The startle broke his cadence and he took a mouth full of salt water. A dolphin jumped over his head.

“I need your help, please,” he called out.

It stared and smiled, at least it looked like it was smiling. Dolphins are a tough read.

Brody tried again with a fake cat accent, “Vill you help me?”

It swam away taking the smell of cat with it. He scratched his ear and waded ahead. There were no signs or smells of land. There was one unmistakable pungent scent now however, blood, deep, dark and thick. It grew stronger.

He sensed something else in the distance. It was the dolphin returning, but with two others carrying cats as passengers with her. They whirled towards him.

The blood stench bombarded his nose. It overpowered the dolphin’s and the cat’s smell, and he couldn’t figure where they were in the dark.

“Svim this vay, doggy! This vay!” the cats yelled as their dolphins streamed forward.

Listening to the voices for direction he paddled on, but his strokes were erratic, convinced he was splashing blood and not water. His chest was on fire.

“Keep paddling, doggy,” the two cats took turns speaking.

“Vhat is he doing?”

“Relax doggy. Vee vill help you. Come now.”

The blood scent was fading.

“Yes, hop on and follow us doggy. It’s safe now.”

“You are a tired doggy. We should not vait.”

The danger had gone.

“Very tired doggy, come now.”

“It vill be nappy time soon, doggy, but not yet, come now.”

One of the dolphins swam under Brody’s legs to place him for a ride. He tumbled off, unable to keep his balance.

“This vill not do. Try again, doggy.”

The dolphin tried a second time. Brody flipped head first with another splash.

“Vee vill do it the hard vay. Vee are very sorry, doggy. Very sorry.”

“Yes, very sorry, don’t be angry, doggy. Nappy time soon.”

Brody felt something sharp clamp down on his tail and he yelped. The dolphin dashed off dragging him with her. It was not a pleasant ride, but he learned to breathe when she jumped, which she did often. The cats followed on their dolphins, trading places with simultaneous hops every once in a while for amusement.

A rope ladder lowered as they approached their destination. The vessel was larger than the pirate’s ship. It too was a cat design, but in better condition. Wolves prized these for their cargo, but never commandeered them. They had three masts, nine sails, and were too complicated for wolves. Cats called this type of cargo ship a Spicy.

Brody went up the ladder first. The cats gave each other a look of surprise when they saw how well he managed. Judging by his lack of balance on the dolphin they half expected him to strangle himself.

“Thank you hoppy hoppy friends,” said the first cat to the dolphins.

“Yes, alvays fun hoppy hoppy friends,” the second agreed.

The two cats almost beat Brody on deck as they scaled the ladder with two well-timed jumps. He noticed one of them had a patch over his nose. With a few more acrobatic leaps they were unfurling the sails atop each mast.

A coyote greeted Brody, “Castonetti,” he said, offering a paw.

Brody shook it as a dog offered him a blanket. He had long hair that covered his eyes like a lhasa apso but he had terrier traits, too. His scent was spicy and foreign. Brody raised a paw and stepped away to shake himself dry.

“Talkative, go rest below, we’ve got a show tomorrow and could use you,” Castonetti said as he walked off.

Brody felt the ship turn to the port side as the dog escorted him below deck. The smell of spices, salted meats, fish, and rare creatures filled his nostrils. They stopped at a large pile of hay near the bow of the ship.

“Holler for Poochy if you need anything,” the dog said, and he threw him a chicken thigh bone with plenty of meat.

Brody devoured it, though it had an unfamiliar flavor. Cinnamon is the best description I can offer to one of your kind. We called it what the cats called it, warmy.

Brody snuggled down in to the musty hay. Something poked his back as he did, a trombone. He set it aside and fell asleep to a song with a banjo accompaniment.

To bring them in a show you spin
Announce your name and propose the game
Fix the prize before all eyes
Bow low before you go

In Doggytown there is a diamond dirty
It breaks your heart right from the start
But makes a doggy sturdy

To bring them in a show you spin
Announce your name and propose the game
Fix the prize before all eyes
Bow low before you go

The hay had given way beneath him during the night to form a bed as comfortable as any dog could ask for. He slept well and awoke to the aromatic smell of a fish fry.

He emerged topside to repeated calls of good morning. An elephant, of all creatures, was on the dock below. The six-toed cats were busy securing the ship and furling the sails. Poochy the dog, and his shorter brother Punchy, were packing bags with food, trinkets and the tools of their trade.

At the aft of the ship was a small fire in a circular stone pit. Frying fish in two separate pans was a goat with a mouse on his shoulder whispering directions. Underneath each creature’s distinctive smell was the persistent smell of cat spices.

Brody followed his stomach to the aft of the ship and was grateful to see smiles on the cook’s faces. He was sure they knew he was there to beg, but before he could open his mouth they waved him over.

The smell of a frying fish is well-known to even one of your kind, but another wonderful smell hit Brody’s nose. There were seeds popping in the pan next to the fish. You would call them mustard. The cat’s name for them were nutty seeds.

They handed him a simple plate of fish, nutty seeds and a scoop of rice seasoned with warmy.

“Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome. My name is Arnav. This is Glove,” the goat replied.

“Thank you.”

The goat smiled at this second sign of appreciation, “We heard about your daring rescue, but tell us, how did you come to be in the ocean?”

The coyote, Castonetti, interrupted them, “Let this dog eat. Go check your gear.” He put the last of the fish on a plate for himself and looked at a scoop of rice. “Meh, how many times have I told that goat? No warmy. So, I’m told you’re a talent.”

“A talent, sir?”

Castonetti stared at him a moment before he walked away, “Dump the scraps overboard and stack those plates. Meet us on the dock when you’re done.”

A large cart was on the dock packed with bags and provisions, but it also held a few items that seemed out-of-place, musical instruments, baseball bats, gloves and balls. Brody watched the crew get everything squared away as he finished eating.

Castonetti was the first to greet him on the dock and he handed him a hollowed out turtle shell with a leather strap.

“Put this on your head. Now walk,” he said.

Brody walked self-consciously down the dock and back.

“No, like this.” Castonetti walked with an exaggerated knee bend with his torso going up and down. It looked silly.

Brody mimicked him.

“Good enough. I want you to walk in the back like that. Watch out for flying baseballs.” He hurried off.

Each cat took a turn jumping on Brody’s turtle shell hat for fun and mischief. Brody scratched his ear as Castonetti climbed on top of the elephant to give instructions.

“Cats, we’ll do the pepper routine on the second lap. Goats, keep it steady. I’m going to take it for a walk just before we arrive. You, Turtlehead, keep up.”

The band marched behind the elephant as they left the dock. Castonetti counted them off and played a trombone. The cats joined in with trumpets, while the goats pulled the cart. Poochy and his brother played snare drums, and the mouse had a small triangle that no one could hear. Their music was rough, but upbeat and pleasant. Brody did his best to walk as instructed.

As the parade made its way along a path lined with leafy vegetables, rabbits started emerging from the countryside to follow them. The crowd grew as they marched along. Rabbits waved, cheered, hopped and laughed. Brody wasn’t sure, but for a moment he thought they were laughing at him. He wished he knew how to play an instrument, even if it was just a triangle like Glove’s.

Brody could see nothing but rabbits to his left and right. There were thousands and their numbers only grew. The elephant blocked his view ahead. Rabbits jumped into the path behind and followed them. Several young ones imitated Brody’s walk. They had huge smiles on their faces as they cheered. As you can probably guess, they smelled like raw vegetables.

Castonetti stopped playing and slung the trombone on his back. He pulled three baseballs out of a satchel and juggled. This was well received. The cats threw him two more balls he incorporated into the rotation.

More young rabbits followed and imitated Brody, some of them moved in front of him, cutting him off from Castonetti and the rest of the parade. They enveloped him. Castonetti glanced back and gave him a look of disapproval.

Brody’s turtle hat fell over his eyes as the rabbits picked him up over their heads. Tiny little paws passed him forward and yes, it tickled. They set him down behind Castonetti and the others as they reached a field, a baseball field.

The parade continued around the bases. On the second lap, the cats stopped playing their trumpets and pulled baseball bats out of the cart. Castonetti alternated tossing them each a ball that they batted right back at him. It was impressive because Castonetti was still on top of the elephant, and more impressive because he kept juggling throughout.

As they made their way to first on the third lap, Castonetti threw his baseballs at Brody, one after the other. He caught the first one, but unsuccessfully tried to dodge the others. The rabbits bounced and laughed some more.

The elephant walked out to the pitcher’s mound as Castonetti bowed low and raised his arms for quiet. “I am Castonetti, of the Castonetti Nine. I would like to apologize for our last visit. I regret how it ended. We are here to challenge your best nine to another game.”

On top of the others arranged in a rabbit pyramid, stood an older more distinguished rabbit. He answered, “Your apology we accept. Your challenge we accept.”

The army of rabbits cheered, “Hurray!”

Castonetti raised his arms once more, “You are too gracious. We offer a variety of cat spices from over the seas.”

This impressed the rabbits, “ahhhhhhh, oooooooh!”

The elder rabbit responded, “A fair prize this is. Fresh vegetables and training shells we offer. Wear them on your heads we hope you don’t!”

Everyone laughed at Brody and his turtle shell hat, the rabbits, the cats, the goats, everyone. He scratched is ear and looked down at the ground. The dog Poochy patted him on the back.

“We accept these prizes as fair,” Castonetti said with a smile.

“Provide the owls and play where we stand at the new sun we will,” said the elder rabbit.

Castonetti bowed low as the excited rabbits hopped off. The game would be in the morning. The parade and show had taken most of the daylight.

The dogs dug a fire pit in the clearing on the third base side of the field. The cats set up tents as the goats made meal preparations.

Castonetti stood on top of the elephant giving instructions, “No warmy, goat, no warmy.”

Brody offered to help the dogs Poochy and his brother Punchy dig, but they declined, “No thanks, go see if the cats need you.”

“Hello, doggy, no help. Go play. Go play, doggy,” said Buttons.

“Nice doggy, go play, go play doggy,” said Mr. Buttons, who had the patch on his nose.

As he considered offering his help to the two goats, Castonetti came up behind him. Glove was on his shoulder.

“Let me show you how to use that shell,” he said.

Brody had forgotten it was on his head. He took it off.

“Bunnies use turtle shells to learn how to field. It’s why they have soft paws and catch everything hit at them. Roll me a ball.”

Brody watched as Castonetti strapped the shell to his left hand and gently cradled the rolling ball with both paws. “Like that, mouse, roll him a few.” He turned towards the goats, “Hey goat, no warmy. I can replace you.”

As Castonetti attended to other matters, Glove helped Brody practice fielding, but didn’t speak. Brody soon learned that to catch the ball with the shell he had to use two paws and cradle it as Castonetti showed him, otherwise it just bounced out. He improved with each repetition.

Castonetti returned, “I’ll take it from here, go keep an eye on the goats, tell them no warmy,” he said to Glove.

Glove scurried away.

“How did you escape?” Castonetti asked Brody, as he tossed him pop-ups.

“I was told to jump when the time was right.”

“A fox told you to jump in the ocean, and you did it. Did you know we’d be there?”

“No, but my mother trusts him. Wait, how?”

Castonetti sighed and walked away, “I figured. Remember to move your feet, Turtlehead.”

Poochy had been lingering nearby. He asked Brody, “That fox, Francis?”

Brody nodded.

“He was with us for a while, left after we played these rabbits the last time.”
“Why?”

“Don’t tell Castonetti I told you this, but that fox, Francis, is magic. Made a ball disappear, scared the fluffy tails off the rabbits so they chased us off.”

Brody scratched his ear.

After a meal of chicken seasoned with warmy, the Castonetti Nine went to sleep in their tents. Brody and the other dogs slept outside near the fire with the elephant.

They woke before the sunrise to pack their gear and prepare for the game. Rabbits flooded the field and the surrounding hills as they did. The thousands that watched the parade the day before had brought friends. The air smelled like baseball, rabbit fur, raw vegetables, and elephant droppings.

Castonetti and the elder rabbit met with the owls at home plate to exchange lineup cards and discuss the ground rules. The rabbit’s field didn’t have an outfield fence or a backstop. The rabbit fan’s curiosity determined the field’s dimensions. They could change on any given pitch. The pitcher’s mound was unusually high and the grass was long.

The rabbits sprinted out to their positions. Glove the mouse would be the first hitter for the Nine. He swung a bat twice his size, small enough to pass for a broken cooking spoon.

The cats led the chatter with their alternating instructions, “Get on base, Glove.”

“Vait for a good one!”

Glove, after fouling off three pitches, drew a walk and trotted to first base. The next hitter was the goat Arnav, followed by his brother Amit. They each dusted off the plate and bowed to the owl before they too drew walks. Next up was Castonetti, with the bases loaded.

“Hit them home Castonetti.”

“Vait for a good one!”

Castonetti stepped to the plate, and as he did, the rabbit fans lining the outfield backed up to make the outfield larger. He held up a paw telling the owl to give him a moment to get in the box. The first two pitches were low and away, but the third wasn’t, so he stroked it into right-center field. Glove scored, but the rabbit center fielder cut it off and threw out Amit for a force at second base. Arvan stopped at third.

“Ok doggy it’s your turn, hit them home.”

“Vait for a good one!”

Punchy struck out. With two outs, it was Poochy’s turn.

“Doggy, you vill do it. Come now, hit the ball.”

“Vait for a good one!”

The rabbit fans on the first base side began to form a rabbit pyramid by climbing on top of one another. It was roughly fifty rabbits tall and growing.

Punchy hit a grounder deep in the hole between first and second that the rabbit first baseman picked cleanly. The pitcher didn’t cover first so Brody was sure it’d be a hit. It wasn’t. The first baseman dashed to first in a flash for an easy out to end the inning.

It was the rabbit’s turn at bat. The Nine took their positions leading one to nothing. Castonetti strode to the mound with purpose. Poochy was his catcher. At third was a glove with the mouse, Glove, tucked neatly inside it. He looked out of a hole cut in the pocket. Buttons and Mr. Buttons were at short and second. Punchy rolled warm-up grounders at first base. The goats were in left and center. Out in right, to the delight of the now one hundred rabbit tall wobbling pyramid, was the elephant.

Before the first pitch, Castonetti moved his infield and outfield in. He took off his mitt, picked up some dirt and rubbed it between his paws. His first pitch was a strike on a missed bunt attempt. Its velocity startled the rabbit crowd and their pyramid toppled to the ground. They laughed and began to build a new one. Castonetti went on to strike out the side.

In the top of the second, Buttons led off for the Nine. He popped the second pitch up foul down the first base line. The first baseman scaled the one hundred rabbit high pyramid to make the catch.
As Mr. Buttons strode to the plate for his at-bat, Castonetti called Brody over, “Hey Turtlehead, you’re on deck. You to hit for the elephant.”

“I’m going to play?” Brody asked.

“My right fielder is an elephant, of course you’re playing. Rocks? Same thing, hit it and run to first.”

Mr. Buttons struck out on three pitches, “I did not vait for a good one. You vait for a good one,” he said to Brody.

Brody walked to the plate as the army of rabbits cheered and teased, “Your hat is where? Have to go poopy do you?”

The first pitch was by him before he was ready for strike one.

“That vas a quick pitch bunny,” shouted Buttons.

“Vhat vas that?” hissed Mr. Buttons.

Brody stepped up again, and as he did the rabbit threw another quick pitch for strike two. He readied himself for the next pitch as the ball made its way back to the pitcher. Sure enough, it was on its way. He swung hard and hit a grounder to the pitcher. He was an easy out at first.

The innings went by one rabbit pyramid after another. In the seventh the rabbits on the first base side and the rabbits on the third base side each had a pyramid going. The owl halted play when they started jumping from one to the other over home plate in between pitches. It was their tradition.

Castonetti showed his class on the mound and the score stayed one to nothing throughout. However, in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, he walked a batter. This put the tying run on first. The runner stole second and third on the next pitch to make matters worse. The game was in the balance. Castonetti glared at Poochy behind the plate. He should have known to throw two bases ahead.

The rabbits had only managed two base runners the entire game and hadn’t hit a ball out of the infield. That changed when the batter popped the ball up behind Punchy at first, a towering blast by rabbit standards into shallow right field. The pyramids fell as Brody ran forward with his turtle shell. Punchy backed up to catch it, too. The ball seemed to hop up and down in the sky as Brody ran. He could smell Punchy getting closer so he barked, in a meek voice first, “Mine.” Then much louder, “Mine!”

Poochy backed away. The rabbit pyramids that were still standing swayed towards them for a closer look. It was up to Brody, a catch meant they won.

Castonetti presented the elder rabbit with a generous supply of warmy after the game. Glove whispered something in Castonetti’s ear as their elephant led Caravan made its way back to the ship.

“Yea, I’m a sweet guy,” Castonetti said with a smirk.

Brody Beagle made that catch, and many more as a player for the Castonetti Nine. He travelled and played with them that winter throughout the known southern lands. On the cusp of spring he left them, and travelled a short way to the dog town of Barkingburgh. His adventures had only begun.

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