It was a sunny, warm afternoon in the afterlife waystation known as Collarworld, where pets reside until they are reunited with their masters.
And on this day, the most agile dogs in Collarworld showed up at the Oval Pastures for the annual Agility Games.
“This is going to be a great day,” said Messer the Newfoundland, as he and Vincent the king orange tabbycat arrived at the Oval Pastures. “Oh Vincent, look, the obstacle course is the same as I remember it back in the day!”
“It looks like a bunch of seesaws and poles and hoops,” Vincent replied.
“Yes,” barked Messer, “but it’s the pattern of how they’re arranged. That’s the important part. We have to run up and down and around, and if we do it properly, and quickly, we can win.”
“You can win,” said the tabbycat. “I’m not much for the Agility Games. I’ve watched them in the past, though. I hope you win.”
“So do I. This is going to be so much fun. In the dog shows back home, my master trained me on these tracks. I almost won one year…”
Messer sniffed the ground. “Border collies. They always win.”
And at that moment, Vincent looked at the track. “Did you say ‘border collie,’ Messer?”
“Yep. They’re smart dogs. Almost as smart as me.”
“Um… Messer… are you sure you’re up for this? I mean, we can do some other things today – ”
“Don’t be silly,” barked the Newfoundland. “I’ve been waiting for weeks for this day. I’m going to win, Vincent. And when my master sees me, he’s going to be so proud of me. All the training he gave me… It’ll all be worth it. Now go sit in the stands, I’ll sign in and we’ll be all set.”
Vincent looked at Messer. “Good luck. I have faith in you.”
As Vincent headed toward the wooden review stands, Messer paced over to the start of the obstacle course.
“What’s your name?” barked a Scottie.
“I’m Saint John’s Maritime Messer Jubilee.”
“And your home in Collarworld is?”
“The Green Meadow.”
“You know Lord Vincent, don’t you?” the Scottie barked.
“He is my good friend.”
“Start at the track. You know the route?”
Next to the Scottie was a black-brown Labrador. “Gage,” barked the Scottie. “Wag your tail on my mark. Go.”
The Labrador wagged its tail back and forth. Instantly, Messer bolted for the obstacle course. The Newfoundland knew he had to run through the course – with the fewest number of faults – to win the Agility Games.
Up the ramp. Down the ramp. Through the wooden tunnel. Back and forth through the standing poles. A leap over the fence. A sprint to a white stone. Around the stone. And back. Over another fence. A jump across a small pond of water. And back to the start.
“Time. Stop wagging, Gage,” barked the Scottie.
“How did I do?” Messer asked.
“Sixty-six wags,” barked Gage the Labrador. “I wagged my tail sixty-six times.”
“Is that good?”
“It’s good for a raw score,” said the Scottie. “But you’re going to pick up four faults for your rear paws touching the water on the pond jump. So your total is seventy.”
“Seventy? Is that good?” asked Messer.
“We shall see,” replied the Scottie.
And for the rest of the afternoon, dogs of all shapes and sizes ran through the obstacle course. Messer joined Vincent and other spectators in the reviewing stands, and every time a dog went through the course, Messer counted Gage’s tail wags. That one dog was too slow. Another stumbled through the slalom poles. Four faults. Eight faults.
“I think I can win this, Vincent,” barked Messer.
“You’ve got a chance,” the tabbycat replied. “How many dogs are left in the competition?”
“Not sure… there’s an Airedale that just finished, and maybe that Basset hound… and a – oh no. Vincent, look.”
Vincent already knew. For on the years when Vincent attended the Agility Games with other dogs – with Paisley the pitbull or Bate the terrier, for example – there was one canine at the Agility Games who was completely unstoppable.
Her name was Bonnie. And she was a border collie.
“How good is that dog?” Messer asked. “Has she won before?”
“I’m not sure,” the tabbycat purred, not wanting to tell Messer that Bonnie had won the Agility Games every year for as long as Vincent could remember. The collar around Bonnie’s neck bore ten golden charms, one charm for every Agility Games competition she won.
“What’s your name?” barked the Scottie.
“My name is Bonnie. In the living world, I was Horicon Puppy Farm’s Bonnie Bless.”
“And your home in Collarworld is?”
“I am from the Golden Grove.”
“Start at the track. You know the route?”
“You know I do,” the border collie smiled.
“Gage,” barked the Scottie. “Wag your tail on my mark. Go.”
The Labrador wagged his tail back and forth. And Bonnie was off, to a round of cheers and barks and mews from the stands.
“A border collie. I can never beat a border collie,” whimpered Messer.
“Don’t say that,” Vincent replied. “You might have a chance. You put together a really good time. Bonnie might not make it through the course as fast as you did.”
Messer counted the wags on Gage the Labrador’s tail. Back and forth, like a metronome. “I think he’s wagging slower. He must be wagging slower.”
Bonnie sped through the course. She darted through the slalom poles. She jumped the fence. She spanned the pond.
“Time,” barked the Scottie. “Stop wagging, Gage.”
The Labrador’s tail stopped.
“Sixty-three wags,” barked Gage. “I wagged my tail sixty-three times.”
Vincent looked at Messer. “There’s still a chance. I could swear that one of Bonnie’s paws hit the water. That’s four faults, isn’t it?”
“No,” Messer replied. “That run was perfect. Border collies don’t make mistakes like that.”
The Scottie turned to face the reviewing stands. “Canines and felines, all creatures and pets of Collarworld, the winner of this year’s Agility Games goes to the border collie known as – ”
Messer looked at Vincent. “What was that?”
“I know that voice,” Vincent mewed. “I know that voice, and … what is he doing here?”
The voice Vincent heard was a gravelly mew. “The Agility Games aren’t done. Because I’ve got the winner here. And he needs to compete.”
From the back of the stands, three animals approached the obstacle course – two cats and a dog.
“What are you doing here?” the Scottie dog barked.
“I have the winner of the Agility Games right here with me,” mewed the cat.
“Is that who I think it is?” Messer asked Vincent.
“It is,” the tabbycat said, immediately recognizing the black cat, the Dalmatian puppy and the Siamese kitten.
“My name is Mourire of the Ashen Forest, and my charge here wants to participate in the Agility Games. And he deserves his chance.”
“Sorry,” replied the Scottie. “The Agility Games is only for trained animals and pets. Not for ferals and strays like you and your lot.”
Mourire glared at the Scottie. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that,” the black cat snarled, his claws tensing.
“We’re done,” barked the Scottie. “We have a champion already. Maybe you didn’t see him when you stuck your head out of the Ashen Forest. Now go back, and take those runts with you – ”
The Scottie looked in the direction of Bonnie the border collie.
“Let the puppy run the course,” she barked.
“But I – but you won – ”
Bonnie walked toward the puppy. “What’s your name, friend dog?”
The Dalmatian puppy barked, “I’m Hickory of the Ashen Forest. This is my sister cat Beacon, and my master, Lord Mourire.”
“Have you ever run an obstacle course before, Hickory?” Bonnie asked.
“No – but Mourire had me run through some trees and stumps in the Ashen Forest. So I think I can do this.”
Bonnie the border collie smiled. “You will do fine. Go over there and start when I t4ll you to, okay?”
Hickory happily trotted to the starting point.
Bonnie then turned to Mourire. “You’ll have a better view in the stands. Good luck to your charge.”
Mourire nodded. “Come on, Beacon, let’s watch from the good seats.”
“You can’t do this,” the Scottie angrily barked. “This isn’t right. He’s not even from the Ashen Forest. I heard he’s one of those overbirths from the Rainy Barn.”
Bonnie looked over at Hickory. “Ready?”
Bonnie then looked at Gage. “Wag your tail.”
Gage smiled. His tail rocked back and forth.
Hickory quickly sprinted through the obstacles. Through the tunnel. Back and forth through the slalom poles.
“Come on, Hickory!” shouted Beacon the Siamese kitten.
“You got this!” Mourire cheered.
“Hey, that little guy has a lot of speed and agility,” Vincent said.
“He’s a little rough on the turns,” grinned Messer, “but he’s got raw talent.”
Hickory gamboled to the white stone, ran around it, and headed toward the water jump.
“Jump, Hickory, jump now,” Mourire called out.
Hickory reached the edge of the water… and jumped.
As he landed, the heel of his left rear paw slapped the water.
Mourire groaned. “That’s his displaced leg,” he grimaced. “Damn overbreeders in the living world. Finish strong, Hickory! You can do it!!”
Hickory made a final dash for the finish line.
“Stop wagging, Gage,” Bonnie commanded.
Gage looked up. “Ninety-five. I wagged my tail ninety-five times.”
The Scottie was furious. “You let this mongrel in our race. He’s not trained to run in the Agility Games. His heels hit the water. He was slow. There’s names for dogs like that.”
“Yes there are,” Bonnie barked back. “Hickory, child, come here.”
The Dalmatian puppy walked toward the border collie.
“Young Hickory, I’ve never seen any dog – in the living world or here – who showed so much spirit and drive and determination. I’ve trained for the Agility Games all my life, and I’ve seen talent before. You ran through the course with skill and dedication, even if it was your first attempt ever. Yes, there is a name for a dog like you. And that name is champion.”
“Champion?” Hickory barked excitedly.
“Yes. As far as I’m concerned, you entered this competition because you wanted to try your best. Win or lose, you tried your best. And you deserve this.”
Bonnie used her front paw to scrape at her collar. One of her golden jewels fell to the ground.
“Take this and put it on your collar, young Hickory. Because as far as anyone should know, you are a champion.”
“Thank you,” Hickory gushed, his tail wagging back and forth. “But I – ”
“What’s wrong, champion?” Bonnie asked.
“I don’t have a collar. I never had a master in the living world. So I don’t have a collar. I’m sorry…”
“Yes you do have a collar,” came a bark.
Hickory looked to the side, and saw a black-brown Labrador pushing a collar toward Hickory. “Take my collar,” barked Gage the timekeeper.
Hickory’s eyes were as wide as saucers.
“My mistress in the Living World will understand,” Gage barked. “I’d rather play with pull ropes and chew toys anyway. Besides, young champion, you need a collar for all the championship charms you will win in the future.”
As Gage and Bonnie helped Hickory put on the collar and attach the championship jewel to it, the grandstands erupted with barks and woofs and cheers.
For on that day in Collarworld, a champion was crowned. A new champion who won the Agility Games with heart and drive, instead of speed and skill.