The rain beat miserably on the roof of Dog's tank. He was huddled under his blankets with barely his nose peeking out. It was grey outside, with the rain sleeting down and flattening the grass. Underfoot, he knew, the mud would squelch up through the green blades and get between his toes. He buried himself just a little deeper, hoping that he might be able to stay inside all day.
The small, insistent noise took a little while to penetrate his cocoon of blankets. Dog cocked one ear. The cheeping didn't falter; in fact, it took on an increasingly plaintive note. He tried to burrow back into the warmth, but he couldn't forget the sound now he'd heard it.
Reluctantly, he dragged himself out of the warmth of his blankets and shook himself awake. Poking his nose out, it was wetter than he'd initially thought. He followed the noise around the side of the hut, to where three small chicks huddled in the poor shelter of a large tuft of grass.
They were wet and bedraggled, and their shrill cheeps didn't falter as he gazed at them, though they huddled closer together. Dog sighed. He couldn't imagine what they were doing here, really, but they couldn't stay behind his tank. Apart from the grating persistence of their woeful little noises, it would only be a matter of time till Horse found them. It was clearly the part of an honourable dog to help them.
Dog had seldom felt less like the Scarlet Manuka, but he supposed that saving the victims of tyranny could not always be done in warm, dry weather. He nosed gently at the chicks, encouraging them around the edge of his tank. It was slow going, with the rain hammering down, and the chicks showing a discouraging tendency to wander, but he got them to the front of his tank at last and encouraged them up and in. The cheeping took on a new air of contentment as they started to preen and fluff and roll in Dog's blankets. Thoroughly sodden now, Dog was about to follow in resignation, when he heard the distinctive clatter of the cattlestop and narrowed his eyes. He didn't know anyone who might be visiting on such a terrible day.
Bounding forward, he saw a tiny bright red car pull up in front of the house and Wal hurry down the steps from the porch with an umbrella. He was wearing his best shirt and Dog could tell, even from this distance, that he'd washed it. Suspicions mounting, Dog ran right up to the hedge and squeezed through the gap at the bottom just in time to see Cheeky Hobson being ushered up the steps onto the verandah and into the house. He gritted his teeth in outrage as the door slammed shut behind Wal.
He raced around the house, trying to figure out where they might be, and what Cheeky might be up to. He leaped up onto a table that had been shoved up against the dining room window, just in time to see Wal usher Cheeky into a chair - a clean chair - at the table, and see her survey the pile of papers and books and ledgers in front of her. Wal disappeared, only to return with a cup of tea as Cheeky picked up the closest pile of documents and started sorting. She was doing the accounts. The cunning cow.
Dog jumped back down from the table and crouched underneath it, alternately shivering and furiously planning. Cheeky was in the house, extending her brazen tyranny over Wal by the shrewd use of her calculator. He paused as he considered that; a calculator did not seem a likely item to use in her romantic schemes.
Hopping back up onto the table, he peered through in time to see Cheeky accept a biscuit from Wal. One of the best biscuits, the sort that Dog had only ever been allowed once, and only then because he'd stolen it from Prince Charles. His mouth watered at the thought of those biscuits, and his heart hardened against Cheeky and her plotting. He would find a way to not only get one of those biscuits, but to eject Cheeky Hobson from the house and back out into the rain.
Cheeky found a spot for her cup of tea on the table, next to a pile of smudged and dusty invoices. She turned back to the pile of documents in front of her, peeling each one away from the stack below it and sorting it by type.
Wal put a plate of biscuits next to her tea, sweeping away some dust with a mumbled apology. He had ushered her into the house and the room with his usual confidence, though she'd noticed his shirt was very clean. When they got into the dining room, though, the look he'd given the table was nothing short of terrified. When she took off her jacket, pushed up her sleeves and sat down in front of the disorganised pile of papers, he'd looked at her with real reverence.
Cheeky peered at another smudged, hand-written receipt. She sniffed slightly and put it with others of the same sort. She knew that Wal was more of a man of action, but she couldn't help but imagine what her Accounting teacher would have said at the sight of these documents. Cheeky had come first in School Certificate Accounting. Her own accounts, at her hair salon, were impeccable.Cheeky patiently pulled several more papers apart, revealing some more receipts, a flyer for a new drench, and half a torn up map.
"Is there anything I can get you?" Wal asked. He hovered at her elbow, clearly too terrified to touch anything. She smiled at him.
"No," she said. "Accounts aren't that difficult."
"For you, maybe," he said. "All the numbers look like squiggles after a while." Cheeky watched as he seemed to remember his manly pride only after making the admission, regretting it, but not being sure how to retrieve the situation.
"I was going to move to Gisborne once," she said, "maybe study some more and open a hair salon there, maybe be a full-time aerobics instructor."
"What happened?" asked Wal.
"Oh, you know," she said vaguely. Life happened. Her mother got sick, her sister needed help with her kids, her dad said girls didn't need an education, and she ended up sticking around.
"You would have been amazing," Wal said, as if he could clearly see her potential dazzling future.
"Thank you," she said. She watched Wal fidget for a moment and took pity on him. "Perhaps, if you have your old tax returns somewhere, I can make sure I'm not duplicating anything." Wal looked instantly alarmed and she cast her mind around, hoping to think of something else she could do with him. He was going to make a nuisance of himself if he stayed here.
She caught sight of that little border collie of his, the ridiculously possessive one, perched up on a table outside the window, pressed against the glass and looking thoroughly miserable. He was glaring with the particular misery of a wet animal, barred from cups of tea and biscuits in the house.
"Your poor dog, Wal," she said. The dog jumped down as Wal turned, but the ploy worked. Wal hurried from the room, no doubt to go shout fruitlessly from the shelter of the back porch, but it would leave her alone to impose some sort of order on these accounts.
Cheeky smiled to herself as she heard the back door open. She tucked a curl of beautifully blonde hair behind her ear and pushed aside all thoughts of the past. This wasn't a bad life, out of the rain and comfortable, with a man who looked at her like she was an angel, at least when he forgot his facade of manly stoicism. She would do these accounts like a dinner, and let Wal thank her later with his particular kind of inarticulate worship.
The rain pounding down on the roof was much louder in the porch, and Wal didn't hold out much hope that the Dog would be there, waiting to be sent back to his tank with a flea in his ear. He gritted his teeth. He had Cheeky Hobson in his dining room, bringing order to the chaos of his accounts with some sort of numerical witchcraft, looking cool and competent with the forms and pens and calculators in a way he found deeply attractive. It reminded him, a little, of his very severe cooking teacher at Feilding Agricultural High School. He pushed that thought away; he didn't need to think about that now.
Cursing quietly, Wal pulled on his hat and a raincoat, then his gumboots. He wasn't going to run any risks with that damn dog. Stomping off round the corner into the rain, he entertained himself with thoughts of Cheeky's bright blonde hair and soft lips, coupled with her cool gaze and bracing common sense. He was glad that the rain was cold and heavy, and, most importantly, quelling.
He turned up his collar as the rain dripped off his hat and tried to sneak inside his raincoat. All around him the farm was bright green and soft grey, and the rain muffled the world outside, wrapping everything up in a damp blanket. The mud squelched under his boots, and Wal, still shaking off his nostalgia, thought of the mud caking between his toes when he was a boy, running down the driveway to catch the bus to his little school in Apiti, winding down the gorge road with the rain beating on the windscreen.
"Dog," he called, "here, Dog." He didn't hold out much hope that Dog would appear, but he was determined to the the damn animal safely chained up in his tank where he couldn't cause any trouble. Pushing open the gate in the hedge, he made his way down past the cowshed towards Dog's tank, hoping that he'd be able to settle this quickly and get back to the house, where it was warm and dry and Cheeky Hobson was bringing competent order to the chaos of his life.
Dog watched from behind a macrocarpa tree as Wal stumped past with his collar turned up and hat pulled down. He hoped the cheeping of the chicks, now unceremoniously stuffed into a box and dragged across the mud, wouldn't attract his attention. Wal made it past safely and Dog smiled with the just and stealthy satisfaction of the Scarlet Manuka. He nosed one of the chicks back into the box and started dragging it across the grass again.
He was getting wetter and colder by the second, and the absurd piping of the birds was getting on his nerves, but if he made it to the back porch before Wal came back, he would bet anything that the door hadn't been closed properly, and he'd be able to execute his plan. The chicks would no longer be his problem, Cheeky Hobson would be routed, and the great Scarlet Manuka would triumph. One of the chicks pecked his nose as he bit into the edge of the box to drag it again, and he gritted his teeth. It would be worth it.
The porch was deserted and Dog nosed at the door. It was just ajar and he eased it open with his paw. So far, this was going very well. A chick escaped the box and had to be forcibly encouraged back in before Dog heaved the box up the steps and into the house. He dragged the box along the kitchen floor, already anticipating Cheeky Hobson's shrieks of dismay, when two unfortunate things complicated his plan.
"Wal, is that you?" called Cheeky. The scrape of her chair on the floor didn't greatly alarm Dog, but the black and white paw slowly easing the door open, did. While he was sure that the sight of the chicks being crunched on by Horse would revolt Cheeky very effectively, he had his reputation as the Scarlet Manuka to consider. He could not allow innocent chicks to fall prey to Horse.
Dog heaved the box more quickly towards the door, bringing it to a stop nearly by Cheeky's feet as she came into the room. She seemed to take in Dog's bedraggled state, the helpless cheeping of the chicks, and the undeniable menace of Horse's slow approach through the door all in one glance.
To Dog's utter shock, Cheeky shoved the box into the dining room with her foot and slammed the door behind her. Horse began to growl softly.
"Did you bring those chicks for me, Dog?" she asked. "How did you know how much I love chickens?"
Dog slunk backwards, behind a chair, as Horse's growl rose slightly in pitch.
Cheeky sighed and stepped towards the table, where removed a can of something from the huge handbag she'd left there. She started to shake it.
"You know," she said, addressing Horse in a very level voice, "I probably can't stop you from eating those chicks, if you really want to." Dog cowered miserably and tried to look as small as possible.
"But," continued Cheeky, "I rather like chickens. In my hand is a can of extra strong long hold hairspray. I'm not sure that it will stop you. But you will be exquisitely styled. Is that what you want?"
Dog watched Horse coil tighter and wished he could just magic himself out of the house. He hadn't planned on getting Wal's girlfriend maimed, just inconvenienced.
The door slammed open and Horse shot up into the air with a malevolent yowl as Wal stepped on his tail. Clawing his way viciously up Wal's best shirt, leaving ribbons of brushed cotton in his wake, he launched himself out the door from the top of Wal's head, leaving deep, raw scratches and a shower of hair.
The Dog blinked. Cheeky put down the can of hairspray with a clink on the table and rushed to Wal's side, smoothing down his shirt and thanking him for rescuing her, and the chicks, from the cat's menace. Dog waited for Wal to explode and demand an explanation, but somehow, without Dog really understanding how it happened, Wal had simply smiled rather foolishly and bustled around getting towels and Savlon and a lamp for the chicks.
The Dog stood in the middle of the kitchen, aghast at the turn his plan had taken. Wal stumped into the room, clearly planning to eject him, when Cheeky called his name. He turned towards her and caught the thing she threw to him. As he was unceremoniously heaved out the door, he realised it was one of the best biscuits. He crunched it meditatively as the back door slammed and left him out in the cold, with Cheeky Hobson unvanquished.
He gathered about himself the somewhat downtrodden dignity of the Scarlet Manuka. They really were rather nice biscuits.