Prelude to Barkingburgh

The idiot Baxter experienced much as a young pup. On this occasion we were at a ship’s stern awaiting discarded meat scraps. A wolf scrambled over the deck’s side, pulled up by a rope. His arm had a chunk missing and he howled. Blood stained the deck. The other wolves laughed.
“Dat was much too slow. Which of dese buggers was on rope two?” the captain snarled.
“It was de lil’ daggie and his mum. Wit de fox,” a sailor said.
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.”
The captain was the largest of the wolves. That was their usual way. He circled around Baxter and growled. The crew and captives were still.
“You der, fox, dis lil’ bugger been pullin’ his weight?”
I assured the captain he was. I lied. The idiot Baxter was a drain. His mother, however, was a fine piece of tail.
The captain kicked me, “Enough,” and turned to Baxter.
“Yer wiry. You givin’ yer full effort?”
The pup nodded, “Just hungry.”
“Lil’ Daggie, we’re all hungry on dis ship.”
The captain picked up a wolf length of rope with his large teeth. Wolves can not use their hands, the poor devils. He threw an end to Baxter, “Grab it. Pull me over.”
Baxter did as he was told as the crew jeered. They knew what was coming. The captain, with a head and upper torso jerk, used his jowls to pull the pup to the ground. Wolves encircled him.
“If you’re wee! Into the sea!” ordered the wolf captain.
The wolves were on all fours, growling and drooling as they herded him towards ship’s edge. His mother didn’t cry. I put my arm around her anyway and gave Baxter a wink. The idiot Baxter sneered, and jumped into the ocean, avoiding a wolf’s snapping jaws.
Although the aforementioned idiot Baxter was present throughout this tale, I am dictating the story to him to make sure it is told as it should be. Any inaccuracies minus the necessary flourishes are his own. I can only work with what I am given.
As laughter faded Baxter focused on the briny sea smells. I’m sure they were familiar, but not comforting. He floated alone. My arrangement must have seemed foolish. As instructed, he paddled in the direction the sun had set. He was hungry. He stiffened his resolve and settled into a paddle rhythm. His nose became keener. Cat scent was in the air. There was fish too, but not one he had ever smelled. It swam by his legs. The startle broke his cadence and his mouth filled with salt water. A dolphin jumped over his head.
“I need help, please,” he managed to gasp out.
It stared at him and smiled, at least it appeared so. Dolphins are a tough read.
The idiot Baxter tried again with a fake cat accent, “Vill you help me?”
It swam away taking the feline smell with it. He scratched his ear and waded ahead. Land was undetectable. He was at sea. There was now one unmistakable pungent scent, blood, deep, dark and thick. It grew stronger.
Something was in the distance. It was the dolphin returning, but with two others carrying cats as passengers. They whirled towards him.
Blood’s stench was overwhelming. It overpowered the dolphin and cat scents, 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 the 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.”
“Yes, hop on and follow us doggy.

“You are a tired doggy. We should not vait.”
“Very tired doggy, come now.”
The blood scent would not cease.
“It vill be nappy time soon, doggy, but not yet, come now.”
One dolphin swam under Baxter’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. Baxter flipped head first with another splash. The air was still thick with blood.
“Vee vill do it another vay. Vee are very sorry, doggy. Very sorry.”
“Yes, very sorry, don’t be angry, doggy. Nappy time soon.”
Baxter felt something sharp clamp on his tail. He yelped. A 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 wolf’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 these cargo ships, “Spicies”.
The idiot Baxter went up the ladder first. The cats were surprised how well he managed. Judging by his imbalance 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 beat Baxter on deck as they scaled the ladder with two well-timed jumps. 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 Baxter, “Castonetti,” he said, offering a paw.
He was tall and rugged, and spoke few words. This chap and I go way back. What he lacked in flair and style he made up for in presence and natural charisma.
Baxter shook the coyote’s paw as a dog offered him a blanket. The dog had long hair covering his eyes. His scent was spicy and foreign. Baxter raised a paw and stepped away to shake himself dry.
“Go rest below, we’ve got a show tomorrow,” Castonetti said as he walked off.
Baxter felt the ship turn to port side as the dog escorted him below deck. The now familiar spices, salted meats, fish, dung, and rare creatures filled his nostrils. They stopped at a large hay pile near the ship’s bow. Prisms mounted in the deck boards allowed light to filter to them below.
“No flames. Holler for Poochy if you need anything,” the dog said, and he threw him a chicken thigh bone filled with meat.
Baxter devoured it, though it had an unfamiliar flavor. Part cinnamon but more curry is the best description I can offer. We called it what the cats called it, “warmy”. Baxter snuggled into the musty hay, and fell asleep to a song with banjo accompaniment.

To bring them in a show you spin
Announce your name and propose the gam
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 gave way beneath him during the night to form a bed as comfortable as any dog could ask for. He slept well and awoke to an aromatic fish frying in foreign oil.
He emerged topside to repeated good morning calls. An elephant was on the dock below, which would cause anyone to pause. The cats were busy securing the ship and furling sails. Poochy the dog, and his shorter brother Punchy, were packing bags with food, trinkets and the tools of their trade.
At ship’s aft 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 were cat spices.
Baxter followed his stomach. He was sure the goat knew he was there to beg, but before he could open his mouth they waved him over.
Frying fish intermingled with new scents. Seeds popped in the pan. You would call them mustard. The cat’s name for them were, “nutty seeds”.
The goat handed him a plate with fish, nutty seeds and rice seasoned with warmy. His expression was somber.
“Thank you,” Baxter said.
The goat nodded, “My name is Arnav. This is Glove.”
“Thank you.”
The goat cracked the smallest of grins at this second appreciative gesture, “How did you come to be in the ocean?” he asked.
The coyote, Castonetti, interrupted them, “Cuss, let this dog eat. Go check your gear.” He put the last fish on a plate for himself and considered rice. “Meh, how many times have I told the goats? No cussing warmy.” He turned his attention to Baxter, “So, I’m told you’re a talent.”
“A talent?”
Castonetti stared at him a moment before he walked away, “Dump the cussing scraps overboard and stack those plates. Meet us dockside when you’re done.”
A large cart was dockside packed with bags and provisions, but it also held a few irregular items, musical instruments, baseball bats, leather gloves and balls. Baxter watched the crew get everything squared away as he finished eating.
Castonetti was the first to greet and handed him a hollowed-out turtle shell with a leather strap.
“Put this on your head. Walk,” he commanded.
Baxter walked the length of the dock with the shell atop his head.. He felt self-conscious.
“No, like this.” Castonetti walked with an exaggerated knee bend and his torso bobbing. It was silly. The idiot, Baxter mimicked him.
“Good enough. You’ll walk in the back.” He sauntered off.
Each cat took a turn jumping on Baxter’s turtle shell hat and laughing. Baxter scratched his ear as Castonetti climbed on the elephant to give instructions. I imagine he made an impressive sight. He always did.
“Cats, we’ll do the pepper routine on the second lap. Goats, smile, cuss cussit. I’m going to take it for a walk when we arrive. You, Turtlehead, keep up.”
The band marched behind the elephant as they left the dock. Castonetti counted them off and played banjo. The cats joined in with fiddles, while the goats pulled the cart and did their best to smile. Poochy and his brother played snare drums, and the mouse had a small silent triangle. Their music was in the key of G, rough, but upbeat and pleasant. Baxter did his best to walk as instructed.
As the parade made its way along a path lined with leafy vegetables, rabbits emerged from the countryside to follow them. A crowd grew as they marched along. Rabbits waved, cheered, hopped and laughed. Baxter 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 a triangle like Glove the mouse had.
Rabbits were to Baxter’s 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 Baxter’s walk. They had huge smiles on their faces and they cheered. They smelled like raw vegetables.
Castonetti stopped playing and slung the banjo on his back. He pulled three baseballs from 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 the idiot, Baxter. Some moved in front and cut him off from Castonetti and the rest. They enveloped him. Castonetti gave a disapproving glance back.
Baxter’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 behind Castonetti and the others as they reached a field, a baseball field, green and fragrant.
The parade continued around the large bright white cauliflower head bases. On the second lap, the cats stopped playing their fiddles and pulled baseball bats from the cart. Castonetti alternated tossing them each a ball they batted right back at him. It was impressive because Castonetti was still atop 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 Baxter, one after the other. He caught the first, but could not dodge the others. The rabbits bounced and laughed some more.
The elephant walked out to the twirler’s mound as Castonetti bowed low and raised his arms for quiet. “I am Castonetti, of the Castonetti Nine. I apologize for our last visit. I regret how it ended. We are here to challenge your best nine to another contest.”
An older more distinguished rabbit stood atop a rabbit pyramid. He answered, “Your apology we accept. Your challenge we accept.”
The rabbit army cheered, “Hurray!”
Castonetti raised his arms once more, “You are too gracious. We offer cat spice from over the seas.”
This impressed the rabbits. 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 but the goats laughed at Baxter and his turtle shell hat. He scratched his ear and stared 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 we will, 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 dogs dug a fire pit in the clearing on the field’s third base side. The cats pitched tents as the goats made meal preparations.
Castonetti stood on the elephant giving instructions, “No cussing warmy, cusshead goat, no warmy.”
Baxter offered to help the dogs Poochy and his brother Punchy, 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 behind him. Glove was on his shoulder.
“Let me show you how to use the shell,” he said.
Baxter had forgotten it was on his head. He took it off.
“Bunnies use turtle shells to train. It’s why they have soft paws and catch everything. Roll me a ball.”
Baxter watched as Castonetti strapped the shell to his left hand and with a tender touch, cradled the rolling ball with both paws. “Mouse, roll him a few.” He turned towards the goats, “Hey goat, no warmy. No warmy. You can be replaced you sack of cuss.”
As Castonetti attended to other matters, Glove helped Baxter practice, but didn’t speak. Baxter soon learned to catch the ball with the shell using two paws and cradling it as Castonetti showed him, otherwise it 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 Baxter, as he tossed him pop-ups.
“I was told to jump when the time was right.”
“A leap of faith, or desperation?”
“A fox told me.”
I’m sure this peaked his interest and earned Baxter no trust whatsoever. This Castonetti and I were less than chums, but enjoyed a mutual professional respect, at least for my part.
“Move your feet, Turtlehead,” said Castonetti.
Poochy had been lingering nearby. He asked Baxter, “Your fox, goes by Tally?”
Baxter nodded.
“He was with us for a while, left after we played these rabbits the last time.”
“The fox is magic. Made a ball disappear, scared the fluffy tails off the rabbits so they chased us off.”
I will interject one more time. I did more than make a ball disappear. Yes, I performed low brow trickery for rabbits numbering in the thousands, but I did more. I convinced four rabbits to fight one another to near death over a poke filled with rotten cabbage. Why? I am not altogether sure, but I do recall a lady rabbit with the cutest little cotton tail. I made her smile. Let us continue.
After a chicken meal seasoned with warmy, despite Castonetti’s instructions, the Castonetti Nine went to sleep in their tents. Baxter 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 pasture and the surrounding hills as they did. The thousands watching 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 a backstop, or any enclosures. The rabbit fan’s curiosity determined the field’s dimensions. They could change on any given pitch. The twirler’s mound was elevated and the grass was long and fragrant.
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 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 army lining the outfield backed as one to make the outfield larger. He held 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. 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 army on the first base side formed a rabbit pyramid climbing on top one another. It was fifty rabbits tall and growing.
Punchy hit a grounder deep in the hole between first and second. The rabbit first baseman picked it clean. The twirler didn’t cover first so Baxter was sure it’d be a hit. It wasn’t. The first baseman dashed to first in a flash for an easy out.
It was the rabbit’s turn at bat. The Nine took their positions leading one to nothing. Castonetti strode to the mound with purpose. He had a presence as I mentioned. It was his most enviable quality. My bedazzlements required effort and talent both innate and developed. He charmed without effort, the cad.
Poochy was his catcher. At third was a glove with the mouse, Glove, tucked inside it. He peeked out 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 field, delighting the now one hundred rabbit tall wobbling pyramid, was the elephant.
Before the first pitch, Castonetti moved his infield and outfield in, took off his mitt, grabbed some dirt and rubbed it between his paws. His first pitch was a strike on a missed bunt attempt. Its velocity shocked the rabbit crowd and their pyramid toppled to the ground. They laughed and built 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 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 Baxter over, “Hey Turtlehead, you’re hitting for the elephant.”
“I’m going to play?” Baxter asked.
“My right fielder is an cussing elephant, you’re going to play. Remember rocks? Same thing, hit it and run to first,” he said pointing.
Mr. Buttons struck out swinging at the first three pitches, “I did not vait for a good one. You vait for a good one,” he said to Baxter.
Baxter walked to the plate as the rabbit army 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.
“Quick pitch bunny!” shouted Buttons.
“Vhat vas that?” hissed Mr. Buttons.
Baxter stepped in again, and as he did the rabbit threw another quick pitch for strike two. He readied himself as the ball made its way back to the twirler. Sure enough, it was on its way. He swung hard but hit a weak grounder to the twirler. He was an easy out.
The ends 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 jumped 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. The game was in the balance. Castonetti glared at Poochy behind the plate. He should have thrown two bases ahead.
The rabbits only managed two base runners the entire game and hadn’t hit a ball into the outfield, but the next batter popped the ball behind Punchy at first, a towering blast by rabbit standards into shallow right field. The pyramids wobbled as Baxter ran forward with his turtle shell. Punchy back peddled to catch it, too. The ball hopped in the sky as Baxter ran. He felt dizzy. He could smell Punchy getting closer so he barked, in a meek voice, “Mine.” Much louder, “Mine!”
Poochy backed away. The rabbit pyramids still standing swayed towards them. It was Baxter’s moment, a catch meant they won. . .
Castonetti presented the elder rabbit with a generous warmy supply 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. The clever cad had given them a parting present.
The idiot, Baxter made the catch, and a few more as a player for the Castonetti Nine. He traveled with them throughout the known southern lands all winter long. As Spring approached, as I had directed, he left them and made his way to Barkingburgh. We’d both see them again.


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