Sample of Underdog
Jeffo licked the congealed blood from the underside of his paws. The swollen pads beneath his toes were cracked and torn, and had blistered overnight. The injuries stung as he rolled his tongue over them, reminding him of what had taken place in the other barn. He trembled when he remembered the angry faces of the men screaming him on.
‘Faster, you useless bastard. Fucking move yourself.’
At first he had struggled for balance. The rope harnesses that hung from the treadmill’s frame and held him in position felt awkward, hindering his attempts to break fully into a run. A stick was viciously thrust into his side, the sudden shock of pain forcing him to find more speed. Almost immediately he missed his footing and the bracelet of wooden slats making up the runway sped violently under his feet, causing the metal runners to screech loudly. His stumble was rewarded with striking fists that compelled him to keep moving, run faster. There was no escaping the blows, each one delivered with threats and laughter. As the speed of the treadmill increased, it became ever harder to find his feet until inevitably, he had fallen.
‘Up. Get up, you little shit.’
Jeffo was thrashed back up to his feet, then run for almost an hour. When the men finally unharnessed him, he was on the point of collapse. His feet were raw and the runway beneath him was streaked red and slippery with his blood.
Jeffo closed his eyes. None of it made any sense. Everything had changed so quickly; he longed to return to the safety of the sanctuary and the kindness of the lady warden. Miserably, he thought back to the moment when she unwittingly betrayed him, the trusting look on her face as she handed him over to what she believed would be a happy and safe home.
Slowly inching his way backwards, Jeffo moved deeper into the shadows, too tired to avoid his own mess that soiled the floor. The heavy chain around his neck snaked about his feet and the weight attached to it dangled clumsily below his chin, beating against his chest with each retreating step. The combined load pulled at his shoulders and made him unsteady as he shrank into the corner of his cage.
The skin beneath his fur, purest white apart from the perfect black circle centred on his back, made cold contact with the rusting mesh behind him. He lay down upon the bare concrete, curling himself into a tight, protective ball, his back twitching with each raindrop that dripped on him from the decrepit roof above. Every muscle of his compact body ached. The continuous regimen of training and lack of adequate food had stolen the last ounces of fat from him, draining his natural strength. He let out a pathetic sound, a wretched and faint cry that vanished in the damp air.
A gust of wind dislodged one of the rattling boards that covered a small window to the side of the barn door. The plank clattered to the ground, its fall exposing the bottom edge of a rotting window frame lined with shards of glass. The suddenness of the noise stirred the three other dogs from their slumbers. As they shuffled and rearranged themselves in their cages, the breeze whistled in through the newly formed gap and swirled around the barn, cutting through the sickly stench of shit and dried urine.
Ears pricked, Jeffo forced himself onto his feet and took a couple of painful steps forward, leaning his head in the direction of the barn door: a car was approaching. He listened attentively as the murmur of the engine drew nearer. The sound of wheels crunching over gravel finally woke the other dogs. They reacted to the noise in unison and jumped up barking wildly, rearing onto their hind legs to scratch and bite at the doors of their cages. The chains restraining them tightened and bit into their necks, choking their growls.
The car stopped. Its doors opened, then slammed shut.
Only Jeffo remained quiet. He stood still, his focus on the footsteps approaching the barn. When he heard and recognised the voices talking outside, his heart began to thump in his chest. He slunk to the back of his cage and lay down, listening over the barking of the other dogs to the jangle of keys as the lock was turned.
‘Shut that fucking noise up.’
The barn door swung open and a large man swaggered in. He kicked the nearest cage, the force of his boot sending Bane, the largest of the pit bulls, reeling back from his upright position. The other man, slouching in the doorway, laughed as he tossed the smoking butt of a joint onto the floor.
The ferocity of the shout silenced the dogs at once. They stood with their heads lowered, shifting their weight nervously as they looked up at the figure standing before them. Whilst this man was in the barn, they knew never to take their eyes off him, aware he might lash out at any time. Having glanced over each of the dogs, he stopped in front of Jeffo’s cage, a hand deep in one of his pockets, searching for the keys to the lock. Jeffo’s heart sank when he realised he was to be picked out again.
‘On your feet,’ growled the man as he threw open the cage door. He grabbed at Jeffo’s chain and began to pull. ‘Come here.’
Jeffo dug his heels in, vainly attempting to use his body weight against the chain. The blisters on his paws ruptured on the concrete floor as he was hauled forward. A hand thrust into the cage grabbed the scruff of his neck.
Once heaved out, he was held still, the chain drawn over his head and dropped onto the floor beside him. A punch struck his side.
‘When I say come, I fucking mean it. Don’t piss me about. I ain’t in the mood.’
Jeffo’s head was pushed down and forced hard against the floor as an arm wrestled its way under his ribs. His legs thrashed wildly as he was lifted, but resistance was futile; he was easily overpowered and held so tightly it felt as if the breath was being crushed out of him.
‘Bit lively, ain’t he, Cal?’
‘He’ll learn. He ain’t no different to the others.’
Jeffo was carried the short distance to the far end of the barn, still struggling as the men stopped next to a large barrel: a swim-pit that dominated the end wall. Without any warning he was upended and plunged headfirst into the cold water. Disorientated, he thrashed wildly to right himself and reach the surface, where his wide-eyed panic was met with laughter. Jeffo gasped for air, his legs paddling frantically beneath him. The men ignored his whimpers.
‘How long you giving him in there, Cal?’
‘Twenty minutes or so. Not long. I want to get Bane on the Jenny next door and give him a go with that cat. When he’s done we’ll get this one out. If he ain’t sunk.’
The men sniggered as they strode off to fetch the pacing, brindle dog from his cage.
Jeffo panicked when he heard the men leave, the barn door slamming shut behind them with a heavy thud. He tried to bark but water rushed into his mouth, filling his throat, and as he spluttered his head began to slip under. Terrified, he began scratching at the smooth sides of the barrel in an attempt to find some purchase and stay afloat, but his claws slid hopelessly against the plastic lining. He paddled in a tight circle.
As the minutes passed he began to feel increasingly heavy. The movement in his legs was becoming uncoordinated, the kicking weaker as his muscles were stripped of their strength. Each breath was harder as his lungs burned. He could feel his body dragging him down.
The barn door opened just as Jeffo’s head sank below the surface. A hand grabbed the scruff of his neck, heaving him out of the water. As he was scraped over the sides of the barrel, he slipped free and fell, letting out a feeble yelp as he hit the floor. He tried to stand but his legs buckled beneath him and he collapsed onto his belly.
‘Get up,’ snarled the man.
Jeffo flinched, his ribs stinging as the toe of a boot hit him.
‘You’ll be getting worse to do than that, you spineless bastard.’
The man looked furious as he stooped to haul Jeffo onto his feet. He dragged him back to his cage and shoved him inside. Jeffo took a few faltering steps, then stood obediently as the chain was thrown roughly over his head and jerked tight around his neck. Despite the dirt and stench around him, and the weight of his tether, it was a relief to be back in the cage.
Jeffo watched as the brindle was led back into the barn. The dog panted heavily as he was caged and chained. Small clumps of matted ginger fur were stuck to his muzzle. Blood dripped from his jaws.
‘I’ll tidy up the mess next door, then, Cal. Only take a minute.’
‘Throw what’s left of it into the bushes. I’ll see you back at the car.’
Jeffo took a few steps further into the cramped space, his movement slow and unsteady on shaking legs. A metal bowl was tossed into the cage behind him and clattered against the floor, the sound making him turn sharply. He fixed his eyes on the man, who locked the padlock on the cage door and left the barn. His departure was soon followed by the sound of the car’s engine revving noisily as it drove over the gravel outside and accelerated away.
When he was sure that the men would not return, Jeffo felt safe enough to sit down. His small ears pressed back, flat against his head, and he shivered as water dripped from his sodden coat.
He slumped to the floor. His mouth was dry and he lapped at the puddled water in front of him, not minding the dirt that came with it or the sourness of its taste. Although hungry, he was too exhausted to get up and did his best to ignore the raw meat half filling the dirty metal bowl.
Jeffo gazed into the dim light. Stretching out his aching forelegs, he sought out a place to rest his chin. Gradually, his anxiety was replaced with an overwhelming tiredness. He closed his eyes and his mind drifted. As he began to doze he remembered the life he once had, the happy times shared with his family. From out of the darkness a memory of the boy came to him. He could see him smiling.
Jeffo did his utmost to hold onto the image, shutting out any thoughts of his surroundings and of the men who had mistreated him. He fell into a dream. He was running free.
When lonely and troubled teenager Tom White secretly witnesses the world of underground dog fights, he is horrified by what he sees.
But Tom feels a deep connection with one of the dogs he momentarily encounters, a young pit bull snatched from an animal shelter by the vicious gang of ‘dog-men’.
Without a thought for his own safety, Tom steals him.
While on the run, a remarkable bond develops between dog and boy that rekindles lost feelings of love and trust within each of them. It is a friendship that offers hope and salvation to both …
Until they are caught.
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On leaving school Euan Leckie found work at a number of London media agencies before embarking on a career within the computer graphics industry as an animator. He took the opportunity to write Underdog following a redundancy and returned to education as a mature student, winning a first class degree and overall University prize for academic excellence at the age of 44.
A keen angler and environmentalist, Euan has fished all over the world supporting catch-and-release and sustainable fishing practices. He is currently involved in a number of environmental initiatives in the UK that include wave energy, sustainable development and urban farming.
His interest in dogs and their welfare is shared by his wife Emma. Together they live on a countryside smallholding in Northamptonshire with their children Esme and Ralph; and family of rescued dogs, cats and horses.Find out more