Mystique rumbled, low and long. She was right, of course. It was past time to move on. Her black fox-like body moved towards the shadows that thickened the riverbank.
Lita didn’t head for the farmhouse. Houses were not for the living. Not since the war. No, now life was scraped and scrabbled for and effort had to be made to conceal. The frozen ground and patchwork snowdrifts around the barn made for a forgiving cover to their numbers – six orphans for Jet and her to watch over.
Lifting the latch, the door laboured as she pulled – just wide enough for her underfed body to slip through. The wagon was always kept ready; the horses never far. Jet met her as she passed the conveyance. He took the rabbit she had snared, just a scrawny, winter’s thing.
“The nanny goat’s gone. We need to find her. We need her milk in spring.” As if Lita didn’t know.
Mysti, tail curled over her small frame, nose to ground, followed the invisible trail. It was only a few miles to the next farm. Jet and Lita unslung their rifles as they reached the edge of the forest.
The nanny-goat stood tethered beside the house.
“Let’s go scout it.”
Jet nodded his black capped head and started towards the back.
“Stay.” And the dog dropped to the ground, no more than a small lump in the jagged, dead tuffs of grass.
Dusk was coming and Lita used the light to skeetle down the hill and across the open yard to the goat. Nanny prated at seeing the girl.
“Shush!” Lita demanded as she unfastened the chain pinning the animal.
Making her way back to the forest wall, Lita couldn’t find Mysti. After some searching, Jet and Lita returned, goat in hand, to the barn in hopes that the small dog had made her way home. To no avail.
The children were hungry and dinner had to be made. The pair worked as a well-practiced team: feeding, cleaning, and putting to bed the children – not that either was much older than the youngest in their charge.
The next day, when Lita snatched her rifle to head out for the snare loop and to hopefully find her wayward companion, she saw the delicate, pink paper. Its pale colour and sheer manufacture made it both impractical for this world and foreign to her eyes. She crouched down and examined the page as if it were a bomb ticking.
In dainty letters, the script read:
We have your dog. If you, and those brats with you, want to see it again. You need to bring us back the goat. We were going to leave you alone, but given how you don’t like to share, you can just bring it all along. That’s right, all your food and the horses, or your dog will be stew by this evening.
Jet came up behind Lita and read over her shoulder.
“I shoulda listened to her,” Lita resounded like thunder.
The hike back to the other farm was curtailed. They knew where they were going. Leaving his rifle in the tree line with Lita, Jet walked out on the barren patch beside the house. A man stepped out on the porch. “Where are my animals?”
“Coming. Lita’s bringing them. Where’s our dog?”
The man motioned and another man brought the scruffed black beast: snarling and snapping.
A shot reported and was followed by another.
A red spray coloured the black, foxy coat as it fell.
Mystique rumbled. She was right, of course. It was past time to move on.