The Last Dog in England
by Jill Zeller
The second World War nearly wiped out England’s treasured Mastiffs, but a dog from the States is ready to revive this nearly extinct breed.
World War II changed everything for Kitty Rose. A war widow running both a California ranch and winery, Kitty barely has time for regret and loss. When her father brings home two English mastiff puppies to raise, and Kitty learns that the war in England brought the treasured dogs to near extinction. With the help of a handsome veterinarian, she rushes headlong into her dream of helping the English restore the breed.
Veterinarian Doug Marsh is changed by the war, too. An interrupted career, an impulsive English marriage, the loss of a best friend to Japanese American internment lie heavily on Doug’s mind. When a chance visit to Rose Ranch to treat two English mastiff puppies upends his life, he struggles with his pledge to help Kitty Rose get dogs sent to England, along with his growing attraction to her.
Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this.
She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. For more, visit her website.
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Tuesday, May 1st
Through the kitchen windows the softening night promised dawn and another hot day. Before the war, June Katherine—“Kitty” to family, friends and the entire town of Livermore, California—used to think about the future on mornings like this. Futures like marriage to Rusty Lukas. Helping Rusty run the winery. Children. Being something more than a rancher’s daughter. Then the war came, and she began to think about other things, like keeping the Lukas winery alive and running Rose Ranch single-handedly—or nearly so. The war took the cowhands, and her brother Danny, and Mom’s death knocked Dad off his pins, so to speak.
Expressing continual regret at having to retire from her job, Mom mourned her job as a nurse before she married Dad. Mom had many regrets, and probably died from the weight of them.
So Kitty was running two businesses now. Who had time to think about anything else? These thoughts ran through Kitty’s mind every early morning as she entered the kitchen, welcomed by the aroma of bacon and thick black coffee.
Before Kitty could begin to count her own volume of regrets she asked Berte, “Dad up?”
At the stove Berte supervised bacon in one pan and eggs in the other spewing steam like two small volcanoes. Her silver hair, wrestled into a bun at her neck, glimmered in the kitchen light suspended over the table. Berte had come to live with them in the aftermath of the deaths of Kitty’s mom and Berte’s son. And now she was one of them, the hard-working ranchers of the Rose family. The Rozézs, she would say at the Haygood Market. “I need flour for the Rozézs.”
“He went out. Drove down the road. Truck is not back.” Berte’s voice was always a clipped slurry with her French accent.
Kitty dipped her finger into her coffee. The sharp burn would help her wake up. Dad would do what he did best, leave without a word and return with a new used pick-up, or a load of peach trees, or a wading pool for Dickon the big black cattle dog to stand in during the hot days. Sighing, Kitty swirled her coffee, then, walking to the open kitchen window, she sighed again. Through the screen she smelled the mild morning as the sun sent a message to dawn about holding back, and there was the deep cool smell of alfalfa bales that needed to be moved to the west pasture, and the manure that needed to be swabbed out of the stable. Confused crickets persisted with night songs. But the geese were up and honking at invisible intruders. A possum, headed home, trotted across the lawn. She could hear coyotes at the creek. And cattle lowing at the gate, waiting for the day to begin.
Kitty needed to change the oil in the Farmall. She needed to get more feed for the hens. And there was the letter to her brother from the United States Army sitting on the table before her.
She heard Dad’s truck rattling up the road and slide to a stop outside the kitchen door. Just then Berte poured a pile of scrambled eggs, three strips of bacon, a freshly baked biscuit slathered with Rose Ranch butter onto Kitty’s plate. And then a similar steaming mound on Dad’s.
Dad burst into the kitchen, carrying under each arm two of the biggest puppies that Kitty had ever seen. They were pale blond, but the fur around their broad faces was the color of fine mink. Dad’s face was red, as if he had been running.
He dumped one of the dogs into Kitty’s lap, and handed the other to Berte, who grunted at its weight.
The one in Kitty’s lap struggled against her. She wrapped her arms around it, cradling it. Its body weighing heavily on her knees, it went limp, noisily breathing against her shoulder.
“Dad? What is going on?”
The dog smelled like wheat dry from the sun, and radiated warmth. It squeaked a little, then twisted its head to lick her cheek.
“Mon Dieu, they are huge!” Berte shoved aside a chair with her foot and plopped into it.
Both dogs appeared to be snuffling and sneezing, and the breaths of the one in Kitty’s lap came fast, as if it was having trouble breathing.
Dickon, who felt deserving of some respect in the size issue, began sniffing the dogs, starting with their butts and moving along their bodies to their noses. They licked the big black mutt, too. Then he sat between them, tail wagging, looking up at Kitty as if asking her if these house guests were going to stay.
The puppy on Kitty’s lap spread warmth, melting away her devoted family of regrets that stood around her, as if banished by a spell cast by the good witch.
“Well, Dickon, I guess you have a couple sisters now.” Kitty smoothed the fur on her pup’s head. “Oh, she feels very hot!” Feverish, ill, squirmy and whining.
Dad raised his hand, half-closed, and waved it at Kitty, his way of saying he would explain later. Dad had mostly given up speech the day Mom died. But Kitty had learned to read his face, body, feet, even the way his hair was combed.
Kitty nodded. “You’re going to get help? Dr. Walt?”
Kitty thought he would nod assent, but his eyebrows came down, lips thinned. Both hands came up, palm out, in his way of denial.
Shrugging, he left.
Berte muttered something that sounded like cursing in French. Kitty knew how she felt.
“Monsieur Rose, what about your breakfast?” Berte called after him. It was a complaint, not a question.
As she listened to the pickup grumble to life and drive away, Kitty’s mind began to spin.
“Berte, we have to keep them warm, and make certain they have lots of water.”
Nodding, Berte, a true French soldier like her son, was always ready for action. “Laundry basket. Blankets—”
“Too small for the sisters,” Kitty heard herself say. She knew, somehow, that the two were from the same litter and that they were both female, by the clear similarity between the two dogs: fur the color of pale toast, a circle of chocolate around their buckwheat honey eyes.
“What kind of dog do you suppose they are?”
Berte rose from her chair with difficulty, still holding the pup. “Mastéque Anglais.”
Berte shook her head. Her face began to shrink, and Kitty knew that when Berte’s face grew tight and small it was time to just let the subject alone for a while.
There had to be a bigger box, a snuggle-den of a place. Kitty ran through the inventory of her mind, seeking the file—and there it was, a crate in the barn—she had just seen it from her bedroom window this morning, through the open barn doors. The new rake had arrived in it, and they would never get rid of the box—it could be used for firewood, or something.
And now, a nice little kennel.
“Wait,” she said, getting up. “Is Danny home at least?”
Berte nodded fiercely. Then she sat down again, cradling the pup in her lap.
Carrying her dog, Kitty ran up the stairs to pound on Danny’s door.
Normally Captain Doug Marsh didn’t go on local calls because he was still in the Army and working for the military, but Mother insisted. She knew the rancher, apparently, because she knew, as she always did, about all the dogs in Alameda County and their breeders, and who had which dogs and the particular breeds they favored. There had been an outbreak of a respiratory illness running through kennels and killing puppies. Mother was worried it had infected the rancher’s new young dogs.
So he took the ancient Ford with barely enough gas in it, and one of Mother’s hoarded coupons for the emergency fill-up, and drove east through Crow Canyon, following a winding road through brown hills dotted with California oaks, along the creek bed just going dry as the hot California summer began. He loved this part of the Bay Area, far from Berkeley with it’s intrusive fingers of fog and into hot farmland where walnut, peach and cherry orchards thrived and struggled, thirsty for the water being pumped from the canals to the Army and naval bases for their priority uses.
It took nearly forty minutes to reach Rose Ranch. It was a large one, Mother had told him, spreading over 2000 acres in rolling hills of open ranch land just east of Livermore.
The war had treated Livermore well. Doug remembered it as a dusty cow town, a place of belligerent cowboys. Its two redeeming factors in Doug’s view was the yearly Rodeo and multiple vineyards. Especially the vineyards. The road took him through town—banners announcing the June Rodeo were strung across First Street. Then it was a straight shot on East Avenue past the Livermore Naval Air Station, where row upon row of shiny Navy trainers lined the runway, and the metal roofs of the Quonset huts glinted in the newly risen sun.
But Doug could see, as he turned into Rose Ranch’s entrance, that the place had seen better times. One of the ‘R’s had lost its right leg, and the sign arching over the entrance badly needed a new coat of paint.
But the drive was lovely, passing through oak and eucalyptus hugging a creek. Quail darted across the road and turkey vultures patrolled the clear blue sky. A long bridge spanned the creek, still shuffling water along in this early summer. Everything smelled of sage and acorns and drying grass, and Doug left the window open despite the dust.
The house was a mission-style, single story. Sycamores and walnut trees shaded it and the drive. A large weather-stained barn stood across from the house on his right. Two bay horses and a milch Jersey cow watched him from a paddock next to the barn. Chickens and geese fluttered across the dusty expanse between the house and barn. An ancient Chevrolet coupe and a newer pick-up were parked outside a good-sized garage, also of stucco and red-roof tile.
As he pulled up next to the pickup a movement in the rear-view mirror caught his eye. Two people were crossing the yard behind him. Turning, he watched a woman in dungarees and a plaid shirt pull a young man in rumpled trousers and an undershirt toward the open barn door. Barking excitedly, a big black lab-like mutt followed them. Doug sat for a moment, feeling both embarrassed and amused, watching them disappear inside the barn. This reminded him of something, a memory from England of him and Pen running into a sheep shed at the farm where she was working during the war to snatch a moment together. Her body pressed against his, and he could taste her lips again. His face became warm, and he turned back to the task at hand, putting his hand on his leather bag and opening the car door.
As he got out, he saw the woman and man emerge from the barn carrying a huge wooden crate. It appeared to be very heavy, and they struggled with it. The young man, who looked strong, nearly dropped his corner.
Putting down his satchel Doug came to the rescue, catching the crate before it crashed to the ground. The three of them carried it through a picket gate to the rear of the house and onto the back porch, and at first it seemed as if it wouldn’t fit through the screen door.
“God dammit, I told you it wouldn’t fit,” the young man grumbled. He had black hair and scowling black eyebrows.
“No, wait.” The woman bent down, brushed a lock of long hair, the same color as the boy’s, from her face. “If we turn it on end, then I’m sure it will go through.”
Doug saw that she had a point. Without a word he helped her place the crate upright. She glanced at him, and smiled, and with some pushing and much cursing from the woman’s brother, because that was who he had to be, they got the crate inside.
“Danny, help me carry it to the kitchen.” The woman’s voice was sharp, and, still scowling, Danny obliged, picking up the crate by himself and, banging against walls and keeping up a running monolog of complaints about his sister and life in general, muscled it into the kitchen.
Doug stood near the door while all this went on. The spacious kitchen smelled of fresh coffee and bacon for breakfast. Plates still loaded with untouched scrambled eggs sat on a round oak table. At the table was an older woman, silver hair and sharp, dark eyes taking him in under startling dark eyebrows. One of the mastiff puppies Mother had told Doug about snuggled in her lap.
Doug nodded at her, gave her a smile she didn’t return. “I’m Doug Marsh, the veterinarian. Dr. Walt was busy.” He felt his voice drifting away as the woman gazed at him in an unreadable way. Is this Mrs Rose? Why doesn’t she speak?
His face growing warm, he glanced at his shoes. Under his feet was broad dark planking and the plaster walls were painted a soft pearl color. To his left was an arch leading to a wide hallway. The girl must be the rancher’s daughter. Having vanished while her brother battled with the crate, she now appeared through the arch carrying a load of blankets and towels.
“Are you the vet? We were just getting the puppies settled.” She looked at him eagerly, as if he was the best thing she had seen all day. Her eyes were deep green and her skin pale, but flushed with sun. She seemed a normal height and weight, and was maybe, he guessed, around twenty. But she seemed large, busy and strong—and in charge.
Doug nodded; she gazed at him, and he saw a smile lift one corner of her mouth. And he realized that he was staring, because she was beautiful, well, no, very pretty, not classically or Hollywood, but smart and bright and lovely and suddenly, uncomfortably, very familiar.
To do something, anything to hide his interest, Doug stuck out his hand. “Doug Marsh. My mother, she knew about the dogs and called me.”
The woman laughed because her hands were full of wool and linen. “Glad you were able to get away, Captain. I’m Kitty Rose. That unpleasant young man assisting me is my little brother, Danny.”
So she recognized Doug’s uniform, even without his cap, which he had taken off and tucked under his arm.
“You said both pups are in the kitchen?” Doug looked around for his satchel, then realized he’d left it sitting on the ground in the yard.
Kitty Rose nodded. “The crate is for them. To keep them warm, you see.”
Turning away abruptly, she dropped her bundle into the crate that Danny had positioned beside the stove. Doug forced himself not to watch her and went to fetch his satchel. He stood in the drive for a minute, looking east to hills burning quickly from green to brown in the June sun. She didn’t recognize him. She wouldn’t have known him as different from any of the mass of boys at the Hayward swim meet that year. She wouldn’t remember them standing side-by-side when the awards were handed out.
And here she was, all these years later. And he still nursed the biggest crush of his life.
Kitty Rose. I should have known.
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