He remembered the match vividly. After that – after he had fallen by the bridge – he had no recall and only knew what had happened from the statements of witnesses at his trial. The day had been oppressively hot, the sky heavy and dark with a threatening storm. Inside the barn it was stifling, the air thick with the smell of blood and the stink of the rats. The dogs were going wild. Tripper, the innkeeper’s black- and- tan bitch; the two white pugs that belonged to the Craigs; and a squat, brindle bulldog, who was there for the first time, were all tethered to the rings that ran along the wall. All of them were barking nonstop, their eyes dilated, saliva flooding from their mouths. He had shouted with the others all through the matches. They all had, even the Englishman who made such a point of being unruffled. Delaney had Flash in his arms and was having a hard time holding on to him, he was squirming so much, wanting to get back into the ring. Everybody knew this terrier had won unless Havoc got more kills. The stakes were high as they always were at Newcombe’s matches, and Harry had put down a lot of money, every dime of what he’d saved over the summer. He was glad he’d drawn the last run because the later dogs were always more ferocious.
“Havoc up! Last dog. Flash the one to beat with forty kills,” Lacey, the ring- keeper, called out. He released a cage of rats into the pit. They were dull brownish grey and fat from their summer feeding. At first they stayed close together, noses twitching, dazzled by the light. Lacey stirred them up with his crooked stick, then he shouted again.
“NOW! LET LOOSE YOUR DOG
Harry dropped Havoc into the ring. Immediately the terrier pounced on three rats in succession, killing each one with a single bite and a violent shake that broke their necks. The rest started to run, circling the small walled pit. Some tried in vain to climb up the smooth sides. For the next, long ten minutes the dog pursued them, biting, shaking, and dropping one after the other. The men took up the count, calling out the number of hits.
. . . TWENTY- THREE
. . . TWENTY- FOUR
. . .”
One of the rats twisted up and gripped the dog on the nose with its razor teeth, but Havoc wasn’t deterred, running on until finally he slammed against the wall crushing the creature and it dropped to the floor. Several of the other rats tried to huddle in a corner, but Lacey banged on the side of the pit wall to get them going. The terrier killed all of them. The chant got faster, driving him on. His muzzle was crimson, his coat flecked with blood and spittle.
. . . THIRTY- ONE
. . .”
Briefly, the little dog seized one of the corpses.
“Dead un! Leave it!” yelled Harry, and Havoc obeyed. The brown- and- white feist that belonged to White almost broke his leash in his attempts to get over to the ring. As if sensing what was at stake, all of the other dogs grew more frantic and shrill until it was hard to hear anything at all.
“. . . THIRTY- SIX
. . .”
The dog captured another one, almost tossing it out of the ring.
“. . . THIRTY- SEVEN
Lacey was watching his big brass clock, which was on the ledge where everybody could see it. His hand was at the ready, clutching the rod to strike the gong beside him.
Suddenly the terrier stopped, panting hard. He looked toward the ring of spectators. Harry yelled.
“Go on . . . Get ’em. Go on!
” But the dog didn’t move.
” Lacey sounded the gong. The match was over.
“Pick up your dog,” he called out.
“It was a cheat. My dog was stopped. We could have won.”
“Please pick up your dog now, sir,” repeated Lacey.
“Don’t be a sore loser, Harry. It was fair and square,” said Delaney, who was across from him.
Harry turned on him in fury. “You’re a cheating liar. You did something, I know it. We could have won.”
He reached over into the pit and snatched up Havoc, who yelped at the roughness of his grip. Normally Harry would have felt bad at hurting the dog, but now he was too angry to care and he thrust him into the wooden carrying box.
Newcombe, who always had his eye out for trouble, who was always pouring oil on boiling water, came over to him. “Now then, don’t take on so. It was a fair match. Your dog got himself distracted. It’s happened to us all at some time or other.”
He tried to place an arm on Harry’s shoulder to placate him, but Harry would have none of it.
“It suits you to say that, Vince Newcombe.” He pointed accusingly at Lacey. “I had more time due to me. He cheated. I’ll wager he’s getting a cut of the take.”
The timekeeper shrugged but said nothing.
Again, Newcombe tried to soothe. “Walter’s honest as they come and never makes a mistake. Come on, let me stand you an ale. The match was won fair and square.”
“I don’t believe that. Those rats looked half asleep to me. You probably smoked them.”
The innkeeper wiped at his face. He was a living replica of the old- time monks, with his bald head and round belly. “Why would I do that? It’s all the same to me who wins.”
“Not if he gives you a cut, it isn’t.”
The man, Pugh, who had been running the bulldog, spoke up. He’d come on his wheel, dressed for it in a bicycle suit of brown tweed and matching cap. His beige leggings were stained with blood and dirt. His dog was useless, more afraid of the rats than they were of him. Pugh was as garrulous as a jackdaw.
“You lost, sir. Your dog balked. Nobody was cheating you. Take your lumps and stop whingeing.”
Delaney started to approach his opponent. “You’ve got a game little lad, there, Harry. It was a good match. Why don’t we shake on it like gentlemen.”
He held out his hand. However, Harry turned away and spat on the dirt floor. “Hell will freeze over before I kiss the arse of liars and cheats.”
For a moment, everything hung in the balance, and they all knew it. Out of the corner of his eye, Harry saw that Lacey’s hand was on the handle of the water bucket ready to douse them both if need be.
“Tell me how I cheated you,” said Delaney.
“You made some kind of sound. Something, I could tell the way he looked over. You’ve got a whistle I bet.”
Delaney abruptly turned out all of his pockets, jacket and trousers. Harry thought they hung down like hounds’ ears.
“Nothing, see. Will you be satisfied now?”
At this point, his son moved in closer. He was big like his father but smooth chinned and soft faced. For a moment, Harry thought he’d have to take on both of them, but then he saw that the boy was afraid and needed to take comfort from his father rather than defend him.
“He’s not going to buff down for you, Harry,” said Pugh. “Leave it now.”
There were three other competitors in the barn. The Englishman, Craig, was the oldest man present. He looked ridiculously out of place in his suit of fine grey tweed, as if he should be in church rather than in a barn spattered with blood. He spoke up in an English accent as impeccable as his clothes.
“Mr. Newcombe, this has been a most exciting evening, but it is damnably hot in here. I suggest we Corinthians settle our bets and all get on home before the storm breaks.”
Harry glared at him. “You’re so eager to finish up here, aren’t you? I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re not in on it as well.”
Even to his own ears, his words sounded slurred. He’d lost count of how many glasses of ale he’d tossed back, although he knew Lacey was keeping a close reckoning. Craig flicked at his moustache, which was waxed to such a thin point you’d think he’d be afraid of stabbing himself.
“It might be a good idea for you to cool off outside yourself, sir.”
Lacey made a slight movement, making it clear he was ready to assist if need be. James Craig stepped over, but unlike Philip Delaney, he was obviously ready to stand with his father. White wasn’t saying anything and didn’t look as if he would give any fight. Harry looked around at all of them, spat again, and picking up the box where he had put his dog, he left.
Outside the coming storm had overwhelmed any light still lingering. He saw the lightning flash, and from habit learned at sea, he counted until he heard a crack of thunder. The storm was nearly here. He hesitated but he was consumed with thoughts of revenge: all his money gone, stolen from him. He turned toward the end of the road and the path that led down into the ravine, Delaney’s path home.
It was darker as he descended, the trees thick and lush with leaves. He was about to cross the bridge at the bottom of the path, but he misjudged his step and tripped, striking his cheek hard against the railing. Cursing, he staggered further along, but he was too full of liquor and fell to the ground. Havoc barked at being jolted, but Harry had to find a place to rest. He crawled into the dense grass that was at the side of the path and lay down.
That was all he remembered.
Excerpted from Let Loose the Dogs by Maureen Jennings. Copyright © 2010 by Maureen Jennings. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.