The front doors flung open, revealing first the setting sun followed by the Cats. The fit and nimble pair strolled in with smiles across their faces.
“Well, I’ll be! If it isn’t Tom and Queen,” announced Peccary, carrying his cheerful tone as he recognised the youngsters quickly. “Finally of age; welcome to the Old Town Bar! Back from your studies, I see.”
“Indeed, yes!” said Queen, a slender thing with a coat of orange fur. She wore a large bow on her head stitched with all colours.
“Good to see you, Peccary,” said Tom. He and she sprung onto the first available table in their path, and both gazed around the hall with wide eyes, continuing their smile. “Wow,” Tom said, turning to Queen. “Would you look at this place? So rustic. So quaint!”
“I love the old-finish on this wood,” commented Queen, feeling the surface of a chair seated at the stone table. They noticed the paintings, the doilies, and the other trinkets crafted and inspired by the village’s ancestors. “And would you just look at all these great things. I feel like I’ve gone back in time.”
“Indeed,” said Tom, with a forced and dramatic look of art appreciation. He turned to Peccary, “I have to say, I have been looking forward to seeing this place for some the time since becoming a mature critter. We love what you’ve done with this place, Peccary! It has such a… such a… What’s the word I’m looking for, Queenie?”
“I think ‘bucolic,’ perhaps?”
“Was this the style you were going for, Peccary?” Queen asked.
“We absolutely adore your choice of décor.”
Peccary, blankly, looked around his bar, reviewing the furniture and decoration. “No,” he shrugged. “My father did all this. It’s been this way since the beginning.”
“Ah, right.” Tom said.
“Tom!” called Billy from the centre of the hall. “Come here, kid. Have a seat with us!”
The Cats made their way quickly and sat amongst the Goats. Billy gave Tom a big pat on the shoulder. “Good to see you,” the elder Goat added. “Buck and I sure do miss you around the yards.”
“I appreciate that, Bill,” Tom said with a laugh. Billy was taken aback at being called Bill. “Big B,” he said to Buck, likewise taken aback, “hi-ya! Good to see you all!” Tom said to the rest of the Goats. Tom and Wether exchanged an extra-long nodding toward each other.
Queen sat at a seat snugged in between Nanny and Doe.
“Hi, there, sweety,” said Doe as she took notice of Queen’s bow, and it’s appearance did not comply with her own aesthetic tastes. “This is… lovely,” she strained.
“Thank you,” said Queen, “I got it at a peace rally at my studies, when we resisted the speech of that strife-mongering fowl who writes in the newspaper.”
“Ah,” choired Nanny and Doe quietly.
Peccary hopped over. “What will it be for you new cats?”
“I’ll get what you’re having, Tommy,” said Queen to Tom quickly.
“What kind of ale do you have? How dark is it? The hop level?” Tom sputtered these questions at Peccary.
“Well,” Peccary began, “we’ve got an assortment of nice, local ales and lagers. Mr Buffalo over there likes the Żubr his uncles curate. I enjoy the Piglet’s Stout Ale. Er, what’re ya looking for, exactly?”
“We’ll have samplers of all your beers,” Tom ordered bluntly.
“Well, yeah, I can do that, I guess,” Peccary stumbled. He trotted back to the bar, leaving the table trapped in a state of awkwardness.
Tom examined the drinks of choice by his former summer bosses. “Ah, you’re drinking that stuff? You know, at our studies, if Trough Water Light was present at a social gathering, I would instead desire water.” The pleasantry of the surprise visit by the Cats was quickly wearing off.
“It’s the traditional drink of our village,” piped Buck proudly. Tom sneered at the beer.
“Oh, wait!” Nanny suddenly remembered something. “I recall seeing you, Queen, milling about in the village the other day. Yet,” her complexion changed to confusion, “weren’t you and Tom a bridled pair before leaving for studies?”
The imposing question injected additional unease into the centre of the hall – Buffalo and Goose thus retreated into their sphere of sport talk.
The Cats chuckled before Tom replied, with shortness, “We are.”
“But, I saw you, Queen, with another tabby?”
“Honey, stop,” muttered Billy.
Queen perked up. ”Oh! Yes, that’s Tabby,” she said, “a friend from studies. He’s a mutual friend of ours.”
“Oh, lovely! You brought a friend from afar?”
“Yes,” answered Queen. She briefly quivered in her seat, shaking off this current subject. “But, in fact, we don’t like the term ‘bridled’ to describe Tommy and I. It’s such an archaic clamp on critter-kind nowadays.”
“What do you mean?” Doe inquired.
“We are a pair, yes, and so are Tabby and I.”
“Nice critter,” Tom quickly added. “Great fence-walking partner.”
“You,” stuttered Nanny, “you and this Tabby are bridled? And you with Tom, also?”
The Cats nodded proudly. “Yes,” said Queen. “It’s a beautiful thing.” Nanny and Doe grew visibly appalled. Billy and Buck stared down the necks of their bottles, demanding comfort and answers from them.
“I’ve been looking for a friend to walk with,” said Wether to Tom.
“He’s swell,” Tom said. “You should join us sometime soon. This weekend, in fact!”
“Why, I’d be glad to,” Wether blushed.
Buck sat up in his seat. “No, you can’t,” he bleated, “we have that sport match to attend, remember?”
“You know I don’t much like sport,” Wether bleated back.
“Too bad,” Doe impeded strongly, “we already have tickets, Wether.”
Peccary arrived to distill the unpleasantness, bearing a massive load of drinks upon his back. “Goats, I have your second round.”
“That’s a good lad,” said Buck, relieved.
The Goats took their respective drinks, leaving on Peccary’s back a tray of five shot glasses with an assortment of beer filled for the Cats. Tom leaped onto the table and took the tray and thanked Peccary.
“Alright,” he said, curiously, “let’s see what we have here.” Queen joined him on the table. The Cats engaged in a well-rehearsed ritual of scrutiny which required all five senses. Those in the hall laid eyes on the Cats as they engaged in this peculiar behaviour.
“Let’s see, here. Speckled Hen. Hmm. Not as nice of an ale as the one I like. Too light; Ah, what’s here? This is the Żubr? I generally don’t like lagers, unless they are foreign; No, this is water, too; Hey, try this one – Piglet’s Stout Ale – this one could be enjoyed for an extended period of drinking; I think not. Too heavy; Remember the aged batch we had when studying abroad? Now, that was an ale! These are fine, I guess; The Blonde Mane? I like the name. No, no, no, I’m sorry. This is too sweet. Not your typical lowland blonde beer.”
“Would you two just pick something?” bellowed Buffalo from the end of the hall.
Tom was not cowed. “Excuse me, sir, we are trying to acquire a taste for, we hope, at least one of the local brews of our ancestral home. I can say we have some room for improvement in this village.”
“Yes, rather plain and unrefined, I am sorry to say,” added Queen.
Buffalo snapped back into grumpiness, and Goose could sense the agitation pulsating in the air.
“Cats, please, be respectful,” Goose said in his practiced psychiatric tone. “These are the works of our local villagers, you know. Be glad we have such an eclectic array of poison,” he snickered. “Ah, I remember when I was your age, also. Seeing the wider world for the first time, and thinking the world you came from was so dull, so primitive. Trust me, you will learn to love this village for what it is!”
The patriotic blurb by Goose was met with a round of hooves thumping on the tables. “Here, here!” cheered the Goats. “Aye!” said Buffalo.
The Cats said nothing, but continued to examine the beers.
“How rude!” Nanny cried. “You are offending poor little Peccary! Isn’t that right, Peccary?”
Peccary shrugged, “Not really. I’ve been around the world, too. I’ve tried drinks of all colours and flavours. I am proud to serve these here,” he pointed to the barrels.
The Cats, still unperturbed by the other patrons beginning to harbour disdain for them, had finally made their decision.
“We’ll each have a Speckled Hen,” Tom said, defeated. He and Queen returned to their seats.
“Right away,” said Peccary. His drink-pouring showmanship amused the Cats.
“Would you look at that!” cheered Tom. “Now, that is something I’ve never seen before!”
Queen gasped as Peccary caught a falling mug from the air. “Oh, my! I was thinking you’ll drop that, Peccary!”
Their amusement was noticed by their table. “There’s a bit of culture for you,” Billy snarked.
Peccary delivered the drinks to the connoisseurs. Having discovered their complete disconnection with the Cats, the Goats, minus Wether, entered into a conversation of their own.
Wether detected the exclusion from his own kin.
“Hey, Cats,” he said to the Cats, “come here. Let me show you this one piece of art that Peccary collected. I really adore it.”
“Brilliant,” Tom said. The three got up from their seats, leaving the Goats. The visit to the artwork was brief and more of a ploy devised by Wether to remove themselves from the table. They spent no more than a dozen seconds looking at the artwork. Between the two Cats, only a “I like the colours” comment was spoken.
“Thank you,” said Queen as they transitioned to their new table to the left of the hall. “I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable and affronted.”
“Not a very safe environment, I feel,” said Tom.
“Don’t mind my tide,” sighed Wether. “They are good critters. They just don’t understand many, many things.”
“Why do you herd with them?” asked Queen, becoming overly sympathetic in her eyes. Tom reached his paws out to pat Wether’s free hoof.
“You can tell us,” he said.
Wether tightened his grip on his bottle, forcing his shoulders to hunch. “They’re family, of course. We don’t agree on much, if anything,” he said.
“And you’re still a shrine goer?” Tom asked.
Wether looked down at his drink for a moment. He then quickly lifted his head to greet the eyes of the Cats. “I am,” he said straightly.
The Cats shook their heads lightly. “And… and they accept you?” inquired Queen. “The shrine can be so harsh.”
“Dogmatists,” hissed Tom, showing his fangs. This forced Wether to sit back into his seat, retreating from the comforting paws of the Cats.
“It’s not always like that!” he said. “They just don’t know me that well.” He paused, and the Cats leaned in, waiting for a scathing remark. “In general, yes, they accept me. It’s all misunderstanding,” Wether said.
“Doesn’t seem likely to me,” said Tom coldly as he took a sip of ale. He shuddered as the drink fell into his system. “Not a mature drink,” he said.
“I agree,” said Queen. “I think a different vessel would better aerate the flavours, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Indeed, yes,” said Tom. “And perhaps aged in sequoia wood?”
“Wholly agree.” They clinked glasses of the drink they did not approve of. Wether watched on, a meek smile was on him.
Before he could mutter another word in defense of his shrine and of his tide, a bell began to ring from somewhere in the ceiling. The ringing, done without any distinguishable rhythm, grew louder, attracting the attention of all in the hall. Then, from a small crevice in the stone and wood rafters, appeared a black, black bird. In his beak he carried a small bell which rang with surprising force. The fowl flew down and found his perch near the bar, built only for him by Peccary.
“Good evening, Mr Crow,” welcomed Peccary. Crow, the Newsbird, said nothing as he put down the bell near Peccary. He stood tall on his perch, shaking out the ruffles in his black feathers from the flight.
“Oh my, a news update!” said Nanny and Doe together. “What is it, Crow?”
He cleared his throat a few times. All in the hall set their eyes on him, waiting for the news he was about to bring. Crow stared straight ahead, making no eye contact with anyone. A few moments passed, and the hall waited silently, save for the heavy breathing of Buffalo.
Crow puffed his chest, then burst into a honed and focused address to his fellow critters:
“Good evening, Village, and welcome to this special breaking report. I am Crow, your newsbird. Tonight, Mayor Cow has announced an official change to the name of our Village. After many town hall discussions, Cow has signed into act for our Village to be now called “The Welcoming Pastures.” The highly-contested name change comes amidst debate and controversy on the allowance of Stray critters settling, roosting, nesting, perching, colonising, inhabiting, so on, and so forth, in our Village.
“Mayor Cow said (Crow now parroted the persona of Mayor Cow): ‘For decades, our home has been the home of many diverse and special critters. It is in our history. I believe we have a special opportunity to become a warm and wonderful place for all, hence why I have signed into act the passing of Proposition I. We are now the Welcoming Pastures.”
The Goats, but not Wether, began to bluster angrily.
“Speaking in dissent of the change, Pig snorted that (Crow now aped Pig) ‘our Village will not be a home to these critters who do not walk, graze, or work like the rest of us.” Pig has promised to challenge the name change with a petition of his own.'”
By this time in Crow’s bulletin, there was a considerably loud stir amongst the Goats and Buffalo. Crow was unnerved by the commotion and continued:
“And now for the weather. Expect sunshine for most of the day tomorrow with a chance of rain in the evening. This rain could extend to the weekend, but there is no real way of telling, our weather critter is a worm, and he always expects rain. And in sports…”
The blustering from the Goats and Buffalo died down in order to hear the news about their local sport team:
“…the Village Club announced that Dzik suffered a cracked hoof in last week’s victory. Dzik will not play in this weekend’s match.”
Goose honked loudly in disappointment. “No! We don’t stand a chance against Barnyard!”
Crow capped off the news with, “This has been Crow the Newsbird with your evening’s breaking news announcement. Good night, and, remember, crow on about the great things in life.”
The hall offered a round of applause to Crow, who bowed in thanks.
“Thank you, Crow,” said Peccary.
Crow broke out of his news persona and loosened up his posture, which also loosened his cadence and output of speech. “Yeah, not at all, mate, just doing me job,” he said with a croak in his voice. “I’m done for the evening. Hand me a shot, would ya?”
Peccary poured Crow a thimble of his favourite whiskey. Crow sloshed back the drink. “Thanks,” he said. He flipped Peccary a coin. After taking his bell in his mouth, he flew up through the ceiling and out of sight, the clattering of the bell fading away as he flew down the mountain.
When the bell had dissipated, Billy bleated, “That does it! Our Village, and our way of life, is over! That good-for-nothing Cow thinks she’s so smart. She has ruined our village!”
“Here, here!” chanted Buck, hitting back a sip of beer.
“The Strays just don’t fit in,” added Nanny. “They are different in every way.”
“Can’t put them to work when we cannot communicate with them!” snorted Buffalo, shaking his head.
Billy nodded emphatically. “That’s right!”
“I find that preposterous!” shouted Goose, looking his most stern of the night. “There are plenty of young critters meandering around these parts. Certainly, they are in need of work?”
“Working with books and pencils don’t get their hooves dirty or tired,” said Buffalo. “Too lazy; they just don’t want to.”
“Hey! I was a quite good at holding hammers for Peccary, Sr.!” rebutted Goose.
Doe sipped her wine and shook her head. “It’s just not right. They can’t live with us; they can’t be like us.”
The Cats patiently waited their turn to speak. “What makes you think they must be like us?” asked Tom. “I, for one, enjoy this name change for our village. It’s forward-looking.”
“Enlightened,” added Queen. “Unlike our traditions.”
“Our traditions are what built this great village!” said Nanny. “Traditions have values, something lacking in our world today.”
“I concur,” said Doe.
“Narrow- and small-minded, we say of these traditions,” Tom hissed. “Every critter has what is right for them, what is good for them, not what is good for some old rules.”
Doe gasped, “Well, I now I see why you are in heat all the time!” Doe’s accusation stunned the hall into silence for a few moments.
Queen collected confidence in her body and spoke up. “We are free-minded, and we are loving and caring for all.” The fur on her back spiked, and her fangs showed. “You’re stiff-necked!”
“Feral!” Doe returned. As the tension between the Goats and the Cats grew, Goose and Buffalo watched on, waiting to intervene if needed. Peccary carried on with his business of cleaning mugs and pouring himself a new ale.
“Okay, stop!” called Wether, getting up from his seat to stand in between the bickering groups. “Both of you, stop!”
“Wether, come on, lad,” said Buck, beckoning for his kin to sit down back with them.
“I’m sorry, Buck,” Wether said as he shook his head. “Let me set the record straight here.” He took a sip of beer before continuing, “Tide, the Cats are good critters. They help the Strays with feed and cloths. Doesn’t our shrine say to help the roaming and the vagrant?” He waited for a response, and only received humbled nods from his kin. “That’s right. And, Cats, my tide are good critters, too. You know full well they clean the village watering holes every week!” The Cats, too, nodded humbly.
Wether stood in the centre of the hall, and all eyes were on him. They waited for him to continue. Wether stood, his eyes darting hither and to as he, perhaps, was searching for something more to say. Nothing came to mind, prompting him to raise his bottle in the air. “To the village,” he said shortly, and took another sip.
“To the village,” everyone murmured, and likewise sipped their drinks. Wether still stood, paralysed by indecision of where to return his hindquarters. Attention was ceased paid to him before he decided to sit with the Cats.
“Well done, Mr Wether,” said Goose, sincerely, after a long break of silence, “you managed to put us on level terms. Yes, it’s true! We all have quirks and queer constitutions about us. This is certain. And this is what makes our village superb! What a bore it would be if we all thunk and lived in the same manner?”
“Right!” sang the Cats.
Goose rose and swaggered, drink in wing, over to where Wether had spoken.
“Look at you, you buzzed buzzard,” joked Buffalo, mustering only a light chuckle from Peccary.
“Sure, sure, Mr Buffalo,” returned Goose as he arrived to the impromptu speaking place, “not every critter has such girth in body and blood as you do. Hear me now, all. Our village is great! It always was, and it always will be!”
Buffalo exhaled a boisterous sigh while looking down at his mug. The force of his exhale blew across the hall, and all turned to look at the disgruntled beast.
“I will say this respectfully, Goose,” said Buffalo. Someone from the Goats table whispered, “that’s new,” but it did not detract Buffalo.
“Yes, my friend?” asked Goose.
Buffalo took a long guzzle from the mug, nearly emptying it. “You speak from a place of comfort. The things that you do are not affected by the changes in our village, and these are changes that were not set forth by the critters who toil here. Now, I rightly regard all critters who give me respect. I will return to you respect if you act like any good critter should. But, I will not work longer, work harder, and work for less gold in order for critters to mill about.”
“Be straight with it, Buffalo,” entered Billy. “We are tired of accommodating for Strays who don’t contribute!”
Buffalo nodded lightly, accepting Billy’s blunt words. “Yes. They must come here ready to plough, ready to forage, ready to do something.”
“And be able to communicate with us!” bleated Buck.
“And respect their mates,” cooed Nanny.
The Cats, together, leaped onto their table. “A little diversity never hurt anybody!” shot Queen. “What’s good for one, is good for them; and what’s good for me is good for me!”
“Apostrophise, Queenie!” encouraged Tom.
“We are all just looking for love and support,” she continued, waxed bold. “Why can’t our spoiled critters offer their goods for everyone?” She turned her attention to Billy, Buck, and Buffalo. “Overindulgent! You keep everything for yourselves! Why can’t you share more? Why do you keep it all to yourselves?”
Tom reeled back his encouraging posture. “Okay, Queenie, that’s enough.
“Did no one listen to what I had to say?” said Wether, his voice and presence lost in the ruckus.
“I was forced to help supply for your studies,” Buffalo barked at the Cats, “and look what we got in return: two spoiled critters mocking our traditions, mocking our village, and mocking our beers!”
Suddenly, louder than any yelling previously, there was a bang at the front of the hall. Turning to look, all in the hall saw a set of horns pierced through the wall near the door. One of the Kids entered, huffing for air and panicked while the owner of the horns tried to wriggle himself free.
“Ah, Kids!” cried the father Billy, “it’s about time you can join us! The night was just getting fun.”
Goose honked loudly, “There you are!”
Buffalo looked to Goose. “Now, you’re clearly drunk.”
“Every one, you must come quick back down to the village!” cried the Kid, a young female. “Something awful has happened!”
Now free, the Kid who rammed his head into the wall stood in the doorway, also panicked but smarting from his careless charge into the hall. “There’s been a terrible accident at the mill!” he announced.
Buffalo shot to his hooves. His force and strength ripped the stone table from the ground below. “What has happened to my mill?” he howled.
“Just come, quick! It’s something awful!”
“Come on, Goose,” Buffalo said as he stampeded through the hall. He snatched Goose, struggling to stand on his own webbed feet, by the neck and carried him away.
The Goats followed closely behind while the Cats scattered out of the way of the charging animals. “You see,” cried Doe, “the Strays! They’ve done it again!”
The Kids shook their heads. “No, it ain’t one of them! It was Ram! He’s gone hysterical!”
“Cousin Ram?” cried Buck.
“He’s taken a sharpened stick and… and… he just went mad!” wailed the Kids.
“Not again!” whined Tom. Curious, the Cats slowly followed the pack after finishing off their ales. Wether was the last to exit, as he was influenced by the beckoning call of Tom.
The sudden silence left in the hall put Peccary at ease. He was undeterred by the deafening silence that followed the deafening commotion moments before. Carrying about his business, he cleaned the empty mugs and glasses, arranged the seats to their positions. Then, while whistling a old tune his father had taught him, he took a hammer from beneath the bar and went over to mend the upended table by Buffalo. Experience as a bar owner, and experience with patrons like Buffalo, who left his satchel behind, allowed him to reset the Old Town Hall to its original, quaint, bucolic state.
Peccary returned to his post, and poured himself another ale. The pot-bellied bovine knew how to pace his drinking, and though he constantly had a drink at his side, his actions or character never wavered far from a sober position.
He sighed pleasantly. “Ah, nice. Nice ale,” he said.
That was when I decided to appear. I calmly flew down to his position in the bar and, knowing that I am the smallest of all critters, made my presence known to Peccary.
My presence was noticed by Peccary. “Hello, Mr Fly.”
“Hi, Mr Peccary,” I said.
“Would you like something to drink?”
I thought for a moment. “Sure, why not,” I said. “The usual.” Peccary poured a Blonde Mane into a thimble, just enough to do me in for the night.
“Cheers,” I said when the drink was set carefully before me. I raised a feeler of mine in the air. “To the village,” I said.
“And, to all in the village, domesticated and strayed.”
“Proost.” We had sips, before Peccary continued, “So, how long were you hanging up there?”
“Before Buffalo had entered,” I said. “I had the inclination to come down earlier, but the chatter kept me away. I just can’t handle it much, you know?”
“Yeah, sure,” Peccary said. He then sighed, a rare sort of breath for him. “You know, I’ve never seen the village like this. Never seen it so bitter and so torn apart.”
“Neither I,” I said. “You can really see someone’s true fur when the going gets tough.” Peccary only nodded. He was beginning to look troubled. “Something bothering you?”
It took him a few moments to say, “No.” He took a sip, looked as if he wanted to say something, but backed down and took another sip.
“Don’t stress yourself, Peccary,” I said.
Peccary was stirring even more in his place, and the little guy was beginning to sweat.
“Now, come on!” I urged. “What’s bugging you? You can tell me, I’m your friend, you know?”
Peccary took in a large sup of ale before uttering, “I’m a Stray, too.” I stood still, a complete surprise to my antennae. My friend continued, “many don’t know this, but my father never became a rightful critter of these parts. I was born in our homeland, I too never earned rightful roosting privileges here.”
“Well, let’s go to Mayor Cow,” I said. “This can be changed, no?”
“I don’t think so,” Peccary squealed. “When everyone finds out, they’ll come for me, too.”
“That’s nonsense,” I buzzed. “Everyone loves you, Peccary. And, you heard it yourself, you’ve got Goose and those strange Cats to be there for you.”
Peccary shook his head sadly. “I’m a stray.” There was a knock from beneath the floor, a noise from a location I never heard before. It startled Peccary, and then he became skittish.
“What was that?” I asked. “What’s going on, Peccary?”
The knocking continued, and it grew louder. Then the floor boards began to budge before suddenly an entire patch of them flipped open. And from beneath the floor, from the darkness of a cold, wet hole beneath the hall, came out critters. They were critters with legs, skin, fur, scales, and eyes I had never seen before.
“Safe?” one of them asked timidly. “Now it is safe? We can come out?”
“No, no!” said Peccary with a panic. “Please, just stay a little longer.”
It became obvious that Peccary was trying to hide something from us, but the secret was out. I was shocked, and not because of what he was doing, but because he had done it so well. “You’ve been stowing Strays away here this entire time?”
“They had no where else to go,” Peccary said. “Our villagers scare them off everywhere, they don’t let them nest anywhere.”
“Peccary,” I started, wanting to continue with words of honest awe and respect, but Peccary interrupted me with a wail:
“If this village finds out I’m a stray, I’m ruined!”
The front door slammed back open again. It was Buffalo, heaving heavily. He looked down at Peccary.