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JESS
Linda Spendley
"Well Jess," he said, when he was finally able to speak, "that's it. It's all over."

Aftermath
Life, as they knew it, ended for Ray, and his sheepdog Jess, on August 12th, 2001. Their last job was to bring the ewes and lambs off the hill. For slaughter.
The farm where they lived was isolated, and for a long while, life had gone on as usual. Jess was a particularly talented sheepdog, and between her and Ray, they'd worked hard to keep the sheep from straying too far over the hills. It was the only thing they could do to try to keep them isolated from their neighbour's flocks, but eventually, their efforts proved futile.

One day, the Men from the Ministry arrived. Foot and mouth disease had spread to the area, and the sheep had to go. To Jess, it started out as just another day. Regularly, throughout the year, the ewes and lambs were fetched down from the hill, and pushed through the race, which was made up of a number of gates fixed together to form a narrow alley, behind the farmhouse. Usually, it was used for worming or shearing, but this time was different. Nothing came out alive.
All day Jess did as she was told, keeping the sheep moving through the race in a regular trickle. When the shooting started, the sheep made a break for freedom, but with Jess at work, they stood no chance. She stood her ground and blindly obeyed her master, whatever the reason.
When it was all over, an unnatural silence settled over the farm. The only sounds to be heard were Ray's muffled sobs. Jess lay quietly by his side, her head resting on his knee, until his sobs subsided.
"Well Jess," he said, when he was finally able to speak, "that's it. It's all over." With that he rose from the ground and made his way into the house, the faithful dog close to his heels.

Ray and Jess had been a partnership for three years now. It had always been a struggle to make ends meet on the isolated hill farm, but they'd managed. Ray had loved the sheep, and the rough hill land they'd grazed. His work and Jess's companionship had been all he'd needed since his wife had died a year ago.

Now, in less than 24 hours, everything had changed. Of course there would be the compensation money, but it wouldn't be much, and it wouldn't come for ages. Money was always in short supply, but with the restrictions in force due to foot and mouth disease, Ray hadn’t been able to sell any lambs for a while. The early born lambs should have gone to market a while ago, but they’d had to stay where they were, competing for the sparse grazing. Money had gone out instead of coming in, as Ray had had to buy in hay, as supplementary feed for his hungry sheep. He hadn’t begrudged it all the time there was a chance the disease would pass them by, but it had all been for nothing.
Next morning, the wagons arrived to remove the carcasses. Ray couldn't bear to watch. He whistled for Jess, jumped into his old truck and took off for the village. It was opening time, and he needed a drink. He hadn’t been to the pub for weeks, ever since the first case of the disease had come to the area. He would never have forgiven himself if he’d carried the infection home to his flock. It was yet another precaution that had been to no avail. Although his flock had remained healthy, there had been no way to save them from the compulsory cull.

When he arrived at his local, he could see he wouldn't be alone. The car park was half full of vehicles belonging to people who, no doubt, had suffered the same fate. It wouldn't be a happy gathering, but today, he needed the company.

Inside, were several familiar faces, all wearing equally grim expressions. The conversation was limited to a single subject. Foot and mouth disease. The first farm in the area to be infected had been the beginning of the end. Fencing in the hill area was sparse, and a sheep's understanding of boundaries was limited. Some farmers, like Ray, had attempted to keep their sheep close to home, but to no avail. Once the compulsory cull was introduced, the area was finished.
The landlord's expression was as grim as the farmer's was. Although he was taking money from his shell-shocked customers today, it wouldn't be long before they started keeping their hands in their pockets. Common sense would reassert itself, and what little available cash they had would be needed to keep body and soul together. The disease had kept tourists from the area for most of the summer, and takings were desperately short. He had little doubt that the ‘closed’ notices would be going up before the year was out.

When Ray and Jess eventually returned home, the wagons had left, and all that was left of a lifetime's work were a few bloodstains, and some clumps of wool, which would have come out by the handful as the carcasses were loaded. Ray came close to tears again, but crying was no kind of answer.

If he were honest with himself, Ray would have admitted that he'd neglected the place since his wife had died. It was never much of a house, but somehow, she'd always managed to keep it homely and comfortable. Now, there were slates missing from the roof, with the inevitable dampness which went with it, and two of the upstairs windows were boarded up, where he hadn't bothered to replace the glass which had got broken during a wild storm the previous winter. When it was just himself he was looking after, these things hadn’t seemed important. All his energy and money had gone into building up his flock, and now, even that was gone.

Briefly, he considered the option of selling up, and starting a new life elsewhere, but it wasn’t really on. Even if the thought appealed to him, the property wasn’t very saleable. On top of the poor condition of the house, it was at the end of a long stretch of unmade road, which was all but impassable during bad weather, and there was plenty of that in this part of the country. Even the big developers who were buying, and doing up places to sell as holiday homes, would balk at the amount of work needed to fit even the most basic requirements of the average townie.
Ray went into the house, and where Ray went, Jess followed. Ray’s wife hadn’t liked Jess coming inside, so she’d had a comfortable bed out in the shed, but since he’d been on his own, Ray had started taking her in. She was company for him, and over the past twelve months, they'd developed a great depth of understanding for each other's wishes. Fewer and fewer commands had been needed as time went on, until a single word had been sufficient to send Jess searching the hills for their flock of sheep.

As the evening wore on, Ray dozed intermittently, jerking awake every now and then to take a swig from the bottle of whisky he'd purchased from the pub. It was money he could have used more wisely, but he didn't care. For now, he needed to forget, and alcohol seemed to be the answer.
The next time he came awake, it was daylight. His head was pounding and his mouth felt and tasted appalling. Jess had her head on his knees, and was whining.

"Oh God," muttered Ray as he struggled to his feet to let her out, "what have I done?" One look at the empty whisky bottle answered the question; it also brought all his despair back to him. Drinking to forget didn’t seem to have worked. He headed to the kitchen to put on the kettle. While he was there, he drank a mug full of water, swallowing a handful of aspirins with it. The effect was immediate. Leaning over the sink, just in time, he emptied the contents of his stomach. He thought it would never stop. At last, when he gathered enough strength, he let Jess back in and made it back to the sofa, where he fell into a deep sleep, bordering on coma. At some point, he became aware of the weight and warmth of Jess joining him, but it was hours before he fully regained consciousness.

He had no way of knowing what the time was without switching on the light, but his head was still pounding. Moving seemed like too much trouble, but at least his stomach seemed to have settled. As he lay there, thinking about the future, Jess whimpered in her sleep.
'Poor dog,' thought Ray. 'I never even fed her yesterday, what sort of life has she got to look forward to now. She'll be as lost as me without the sheep to work with.'
Eventually, with a huge effort, Ray made it to the kitchen once more. As he stood at the sink, preparing to take more aspirins, the sunrise began. As the sky lightened, Ray could see the empty hills, bringing home to him with full force the prospect of his empty future. Despair settled like a lead weight.

He knew the answer. There was no way he could go on. There was no point. Jess and the sheep had kept him going for the last year, since he'd lost his wife. Now, there was nothing. No amount of compensation would make up for the loss of his way of life. His decision was made. He went to the cupboard in the corner, collected his gun, called to Jess, and left the house.
Jess stood, looking back at him, expectantly.
"Away," said Ray, quietly. Jess took off to search for her sheep. As she hesitated before jumping the wall, Ray took aim and fired. Death was instant. Had she lived, she'd have heard a second blast.

© Linda Spendley
linspen@sniffout.com
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