Mhumhi breaks up a fight.
The crowd of yapping foxes started to clear rapidly from around the fight once Mhumhi appeared, his size and painted coat enough of a deterrent. The golden jackal backed up a few steps as well, licking her muzzle and growling. The domestic dog stood stock-still, though his tail was tucked. He still had the meat tightly clenched in his bleeding jaws.
“Are you police?” said the golden jackal, glaring at Mhumhi.
“Yes,” said Mhumhi, trying to raise his tail a bit to look more important. “What’re you fighting over? Has someone stolen that meat?”
The jackal looked him over, her lips still drawn back from her teeth. She was half the size of the big domestic, but easily twice as fierce, especially as Mhumhi could see the teats hanging swollen from her belly.
“That domestic,” she spat, “is a filthy killer. He’s killed before and he’ll do it again. You should arrest him.”
Mhumhi glanced at the domestic, uneasy now at the size and muscle of him- he was shorter than Mhumhi at the shoulder, but far broader and heavier-looking. The domestic did not move, though, just clutched his meat and stared at Mhumhi with those unnerving blue eyes.
“Who did he kill?”
The jackal gave a loud snarl. “Are you really police? You should know who he’s killed. He’s a domestic, anyway!”
Her last statement came out high-pitched and confused, and she stared at Mhumhi with an expression of consternation.
There was a yap, and a diminutive little fennec fox ran up to Mhumhi’s front paws. “Hey, police, I saw everything that happened!”
Mhumhi glanced down at the fox, whom he knew quite well as one of his neighbors, and who definitely knew he was not a member of the police.
“Then what happened?”
“Nothing,” said the fox. “He didn’t do a thing- he was just walking. She jumped out at him along Food Strip street and chased him down here. He never even nipped her, and look how she’s torn him up!”
“You little rat,” growled the jackal, and the fox ducked behind Mhumhi’s front legs.
“The way I see it,” he continued, from his safer vantage point, “she’s just picking on him ’cause he’s a domestic and she wants his meat!”
This brought out a great deal of yapping and whining from the foxes that still lingered in the area. Domestic dogs were not well-liked, but they were liked far better than meat thieves. The golden jackal trembled a little as she growled.
“Well, then,” said Mhumhi, glancing at the domestic dog. He did seem a little pitiable, such a big fellow, and as the fox had said it was he who was marked all over, not she. “I think you should leave, jackal.”
“I’ll let you go,” said Mhumhi, “but you’d better leave this dog alone from now on. And count yourself lucky he hasn’t fought back today.”
The jackal seemed shocked by his statement, and glared at him another moment in confusion. The domestic also gazed at him.
Someone in the crowd barked, and the jackal jumped, and snapped angrily at the air.
“You’re not police!” she cried. “I know what you are- you’re one of the children of that wretched pup thief!”
Mhumhi went stiff with anger and raised his own lip, but his tail tucked as she advanced on him, fur bristling.
“You’ve got no authority here! You’re as much as a domestic yourself, you coward!” She snapped her jaws again, threatening, and Mhumhi had to scramble a few steps backwards, ears back, and nearly tripped over the fennec fox as it darted out from underneath him and into a storm drain.
With an angry squeal, suddenly Sacha ran in front of him, all twelve pounds of her, and confronted the jackal with a terrible snarl.
“Get out of here,” she spat, as Kutta came to touch shoulders with Mhumhi, wagging her tail against him reassuringly. “Leave my little brother alone!”
“Your little brother,” the jackal snorted, but she seemed a bit too nervous to step forward again in the face of Sacha’s wrath. “They call you the pack of orphans! You all know that your mother’s a filthy kidnapper!”
“Leave!” cried Sacha, and lunged forward, and the jackal leapt and twisted in midair to get away. Kutta added her chatter, and darted forward and snapped at the jackal, who was forced to back up even further.
“I’ll tell the real police about this!” she snarled, but she knew she had lost the encounter pretty badly. She ran from the scene with her head and tail very low, and disappeared around a block of houses.
At once Sacha and Kutta turned around and ran to Mhumhi together. “That vicious little thief!” Kutta said, licking his right ear, and Sacha, who was standing up against his shoulder to lick his neck, growled, “You could have taken him, you dumb brute.”
Mhumhi shut his eyes, quite overwhelmed, then opened them again. The domestic was slinking away in the opposite direction that the jackal had gone in.
“Wait!” Mhumhi said, struggling to break free of his sisters’ affection. “Don’t go yet!”
The domestic looked back at him and tucked his rump and ran in a sideways, frightened scuttle. Mhumhi chased him, catching up easily with his lanky legs, wagging his tail.
“I won’t hurt you! I just want to ask you- since you’re a domestic-”
He caught a flash of the dog’s vivid eyes as he looked back again. The meat- not more than a few mouthfuls, covered in blood and drool- swung from his teeth.
“I won’t steal your meat!” Mhumhi cried, running to bound along directly beside him, so that he cringed away into a doorway and had to stop.
“It’s all right,” Mhumhi emphasized, wagging harder- he could hear Kutta and Sacha coming up behind at a more sedate pace, and he wanted to get the domestic to talk before Sacha bared her teeth at him. “I won’t steal it- just speak to me.”
The domestic either believed him or recognized he had no choice in the matter, for he slowly put down his meat. Mhumhi wagged harder and licked at the blood caking his muzzle as the dog flinched away.
“Tell me,” he said, encouragingly, “have you seen any other domestics around this area? Any female domestics?”
“No,” said the domestic. His voice was rough and blunt.
“I’m looking for a white female,” Mhumhi pressed on, “who’s kind of stout, with a curled tail and folded ears- are you sure?”
The domestic hesitated, his jaws open, his lower canines just grazing his upper lip. His thick pointed ears were laid flat against his skull.
“Maybe,” he said.
“Maybe!” cried Mhumhi, bouncing on his forepaws. “When? Where?”
The domestic had shrunk back from his excitement, and flinched as Sacha and Kutta came up to flank him.
“Where what?” said Sacha. “You didn’t-”
“He says he’s seen Mother!” said Mhumhi, eyes alight. “He’s seen her, Kutta!”
“Where!” said Kutta at once, leaning towards the domestic. “Where, where did you see her? How recently?”
Mhumhi had to glance at Sacha, but she was standing still, her small eyes devoid of expression.
“Not…” The domestic seemed quite terrified. “Not recently. And only maybe. I saw her… I saw a white dog… She was running towards Big Park.”
“Big Park?” said Kutta, exchanging a confused look with Mhumhi. “What would she do there? That’s…”
“Domestic!” barked Sacha, making them all jump. “How many days ago did you see her? What did she look like?”
“I don’t know,” said the domestic, cringing. “I don’t know how many days ago it was… many… She was white, but her belly was black with mud… small…”
“Was she carrying milk?”
“I don’t know… the mud was on her.”
“And was she hurt?”
“No, not that I saw…”
Sacha let out a small huff. “I see.”
Mhumhi and Kutta looked at one another, Mhumhi’s tail wagging hard, Kutta’s waving more slowly.
“Tell me,” said Sacha, pacing a bit before the cringing behemoth, “where are you going with that meat? Who are you taking it to?”
Mhumhi glanced at Kutta again, though she was focused on Sacha now. Domestics could not regurgitate for pups the way they could; they all knew that very well, which was likely why the domestic had been forced to carry the meat in his jaws, a moving target in the city full of dogs.
He seemed loathe to answer Sacha, glancing furtively from side to side, but a stern whine brought his attention back to her.
“My sister,” he said, finally. “She’s… she’s sick, she cannot feed herself.”
“Too weak to even walk to the dispensary?”
The domestic flashed his pale eyes at her. “It is a long walk… and she will not eat the meat. I must tell her it is from somewhere else.”
“Won’t eat the meat?” exclaimed Kutta. “Why not? What’s the matter with her?”
The domestic gave her a frightened look. “She- she thinks it made her sick. She is childish. I can help her. But I must get her this meat, or she will die.”
“And where do you tell her the meat comes from?”
“Where… a… a rat?”
“Is she stupid? She believes meat like that comes from a rat?” Sacha was growling softly now. “You know, that jackal was right about something- there have been dogs that have disappeared lately.”
“Sacha!” cried Kutta. Mhumhi felt stunned.
“You and your sister don’t know anything about the disappearances, do you?”
The domestic whined, thin and terrified. “No! I would not- I could not kill a dog! I would not!”
“Sacha, smell the meat!” said Kutta. “It smells like ordinary meat, come on, he’s speaking the truth. No one would- I mean, no dog would eat another dog, that’s ridiculous!”
“Domestics don’t think they’re dogs,” growled Sacha, but she sniffed at the meat, then took a few steps back. “Fine. Go on and take your meat to your stupid sister. But I don’t want to see you near our house again!”
With a final whine, the domestic snatched up his meat and leapt straight over her, pushing roughly between Kutta and Mhumhi to dash pell-mell down the street beyond.
“Sacha,” Kutta said, sounding weary.
“He’s lying, and I have a feeling I know what he’s hiding,” said Sacha. She swung her head around to look at Mhumhi. “And you- you’d better not believe a word he said about Mother, you know very well he was only telling you what he thought you wanted to hear!”
“But Sacha!” exclaimed Mhumhi. “He said he saw her near Big Park, that’s not so far, maybe we could search-”
“Big Park! You think for a minute she’d go to Big Park?” Sacha whuffed with scornful laughter. “That’s the hunting grounds of the police pack! You know they chase down hulkers there- why would Mother dare set foot into that place?”
Mhumhi was quiet for a moment, head turned away, and then he said, “She found me, didn’t she?”
Sacha seemed to tense, and Kutta drew nervously away from the two of them.
“Found you?” she spat. “Found you? She stole you, Mhumhi, right out from under your real mother! And you!” She glared for a moment at Kutta, who now had her tail tucked. “Don’t you dare forget that! Don’t you dare forget what she’s done to all of us!”
“So… so what?” said Mhumhi, though his voice sounded feeble even to his own ears. “We grew up together… it’s never made any difference…”
“It makes all the difference!” Sacha gave an angry little shudder. “It’s good riddance she left- and didn’t you notice when she did it, just as soon as Kebero started eating solid-”
“Stop it, Sacha!” Kutta was quivering too. “That’s enough!”
Sacha gave both of them a furious look and ran down across the road, back towards their home. When she had got twenty or so feet away from them she slowed to a walk, but her tail was still pointing up.
“Mhumhi, I’m sorry,” said Kutta, licking at his ears, but he was still watching Sacha walk away, looking tinier and tinier.
“Should we stop looking for Mother?”
Kutta seemed surprised by the question. “Of course not. Maybe we shouldn’t tell her about it, though.”
Mhumhi let out a soft whine. “I want her to come back, but is that bad?”
“No, no,” said Kutta, pressing against his side. “Of course not. She’s our mother. Don’t think about what Sacha says about her. You’re right that it doesn’t matter.”
Mhumhi did not respond, head low: despite what Kutta might say, he never could stop thinking about his oldest sister’s words
“Let’s go home now,” Kutta said. “She’ll work herself out of it. She always does. Just don’t cross her for a bit.”
“All right,” said Mhumhi, but he was feeling very hollow now. The words that the blue-eyed dog had said should have filled him with hope, but now he could only doubt them. Where they true? And if they were, what was their small, domestic mother doing going towards the park where the massive pack of painted dogs hunted for red meat?