Jess," he said, when he was finally able to speak, "that's it.
It's all over."
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.
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
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 hadnt been able to sell
any lambs for a while. The early born lambs should have gone to market
a while ago, but theyd 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 hadnt
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 hadnt
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 hed 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 hadnt 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 wasnt really on. Even if the thought appealed
to him, the property wasnt 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
Ray went into the house, and where Ray went, Jess followed. Rays
wife hadnt liked Jess coming inside, so shed had a comfortable
bed out in the shed, but since hed 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
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
"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 didnt 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
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.
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