I was ill, and in bed when my father brought Sixpence to meet me. I can still feel that little dog as he lay calmly there next to me on my kapok-filled mattress, and looked at me with dark, friendly eyes. I was just beside myself with joy. Even as a small pup, he had an uncanny sense of need in others, and now immediately curled up closely to me, as if that would somehow encourage me to recover quickly. It worked too. As I stroked him, he snuggled up even closer, wriggling slightly with happiness.
The puppy was a homely little fellow. His parents were of dubious parentage themselves, and he was obviously carrying on the tradition. I think he had some fox terrier in him, but at the same time his coat was a bit bristly. My father had paid sixpence for him from a passing Zulu man who had tied a rope around the pup's neck to try and force the little dog to keep up with his walking pace. I don't really remember ever thinking of him as MY dog. He just seemed to love everyone in the family, and his affectionate energy would be dispersed depending on who needed it at the time.
Sixpence mixed in happily with a raggle taggle family of six children. He always cheerfully ate his food, and submitted gracefully to the indignity of being dressed up at times. He entered into ball games with enthusiasm and a constantly wagging tail.
But his favorite occupation was energetically killing rats that were always present in the hedges. He would lay out several rat kills at a time, displaying them with obvious pride. He never ate them, fortunately, unlike the cats. That used to turn my stomach. He was a ratter extraordinaire.
On this day, as I sat comfortably ensconced on the branch, I noticed the boarding school "croc" walking up towards our home. Many children used to stay at the boarding school, because the outlying rural areas made it impossible for parents to get their children to school each day. The lucky ones would go home sometimes on weekends. Others might stay at the boarding school all term, until the holidays. I was grateful to be able to stay at home. The children would have to walk in pairs, one behind the other, all the way to school, ( the line was known as "the croc") and were expected to be on their best behavior. It was a matter of school pride. They all wore their school uniforms.
Now, perched safely on the huge tree branch, I watched the children walk along on the sidewalk. Suddenly, almost as they reached our home, the 'croc' broke ranks. There was a confusion of squeals, cries and children moving this way and that.
The prefect on duty snapped the children back into their line. Imagine - in those days children actually listened to older children who had earned the right to be in charge! They moved off again, but there was one easily heard difference. A little girl was sobbing loudly as she walked. It was the sound of terrible heartbreak. In spite of all the children's excited voices I couldn't hear what had happened, but I knew it must have been something awful.
I craned my neck,but couldn't see anything. My gaze returned from the children to little Sixpence, who had made a sudden appearance at the bottom of the tree. His little legs stood squarely on the ground. His tail was wagging joyfully, and then I saw it . . . Something hung out of his mouth.
I zipped down the tree in record time, aghast. It looked like a big worm. "Drop it!" I commanded, horrified, my voice quavering. He was a well trained dog, thanks to his desire to please, and our enjoyment of having him learn new tricks. He could roll over, play dead, beg, come, or stay on command.
He dropped it, beaming at his own cleverness! A little white mouse fell onto the grass, not moving much, but quite unscathed. I picked it up, and its tiny claws scrabbled against my hand.
Suddenly everything clicked. The heartbroken girl, the excitement and disarray in the 'croc', and now this soft little creature in my hand. "Stay, Sixpence!"
I ran after the croc as fast as my legs would carry me.
The teacher looked at me sternly, as I gaspingly caught up. "Please, Miss," I said, "I have something here for Jenny." I opened my hand and she saw the rat. She smiled, stopped the children in their tracks, and I caught up to Jenny. It was a magical moment when I handed over the tiny creature. She was so happy!
When I arrived home again, a little wire haired dog was there to meet me, as he always was. I sat down next to him, and stroked his soft muzzle. I told him he was such a good dog, and I was so happy he hadn't killed the white rat. His kind eyes looked at me, as if he was faintly surprised I would even think he'd do such a thing.
His little legs seemed to anchor themselves even more firmly on the ground. His tail wagged non-stop. He'd done his good deed for the day.
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