"How did you fail to notice?" said the elder karabash dog. He turned to the other two members of his pack. They stood over the flesh-stripped corpse of a sheep, one of the flock they had sworn to guard.
"Two jackals led me on a chase," explained the youngest. His tan coat was smooth and unblemished. The mask of fur around his snout was dark with no flecks of grey. "I fought them. They kept laughing at me. Then they ran off."
"There was a third," said the other. His skin and fur were thick and brindled. "When I brought my flock to join my brother's, I heard the growl of a jackal. I crossed the hill. At the top, I smelled blood. When I glanced down, I saw the reason."
"Why did the jackal growl?"
"It was facing down a cheetah. You know how cowardly they are. The cheetah had stolen bites. When confronted, it fled. Afterwards, the jackal tried to drag off the rest of the body. I fought him and won."
"Well done." The elder hated to see any predator collect the spoils of their hunt. Even if the body had been torn apart, as this one had, every degree of success needed to be met with discouragement. Otherwise, predators would descend in droves upon the flock. He could foresee that the next few days would be difficult enough. The jackals and cheetahs would suspect weakness.
Karabash dogs often battled wolves, jackals, and bears. It was what they lived for. They protected livestock and took pride in their successes. They travelled with the herds, contended with wild hunters, and showed no fear, not even of the bears. The elder had lost his mate to such a fight although together with her, he had succeeded in driving the bear away.
He contemplated her greatness for a moment. She had been mother to these two although he did not feel they were the best of her litters. But then, they had been deprived of her presence, especially the youngest one. She had been a force for calmness and for determination. She had sought to protect her pups and her flocks like no other. There had been no one like her in his life before and there would never be again.
"Some predators can be clever," he told the youngest. He didn't want to discourage this one by being overly critical. "In time, you'll learn."
"They are stupid," the lad snarled. "They are low born, all of them."
The three split up for a while and patrolled the edges of the flock. Like other karabash dogs, they did not guide herds. The rams and the ewes did the leading from place to place. They made decisions in a fashion known only to them. These sheep, who smelled damp from the recent rain and liked the higher ground today, had decided not to move any farther. The dogs protected them and nothing more.
In the late afternoon, the elder climbed a hill and surveyed the joined flocks. He thought about his former mate. She had loved this spot. Once, he glimpsed something as it passed through distant trees. A spotted pattern, it might have been a cheetah. The sight angered him. He had respect for all of his foes except those. The cheetahs never defended their kill, no matter how hard won it was. They never defended anything. They were the opposite of his mate.
"I've seen those low-life cheetahs again." The youngest came up the slope behind him.
"Yes, I know."
"They are the stupidest of all."
The strong one came last up the slope. He still reeked of his fight, his bloody triumph.
"No," he whispered. "The cheetahs are wise in their way."
"How can you say that?"
"I have observed them." His confident stride took him past the others to a sheer rock ledge. His gaze swept over the sheep below, then beyond. "I know where they meet by the Kangal stream at the bottom of the next hill. I can't catch them of course, but I watch them."
"And what do you see?"
"Something I never expected." He shook his head, at a loss to describe it. "Come. It's a few minutes away."
The brindled mastiff led the group to the lopsided, low hill that bordered the water. Trees lined the banks. Behind the trees, to the southwest, lay a clearing of tall grass. It was the sort of hollow in which cheetahs preferred to roam.
The elder dog liked his vantage point. He could see the sheep, although they were not as close as he usually preferred, and he could see a lone cheetah. It could see him, too. Its gaze swept up to where the three dogs lie. Nevertheless, the lowly predator strode forward into the clearing. By the edge nearest the water, it lay down. There, it waited as the dogs did. Another cheetah arrived, this one from the north. Then another came.
"We are observed," said the last of the cheetahs. She gazed up at the dogs.
"They are welcome," said the leader. He raised his voice. "Karabash dogs, today we are contemplating the impermanence of all things as represented by our departed grandmother, 'Runs Like the Kangal Stream.'"
"Where is she?" called the elder before he could think.
"She drove away a bear to protect her cubs. So here we are, alive. But she died of her wounds. So here we are, trying to achieve a level of wisdom without her."
The youngest karabash dog snorted. The elder turned and barked at him. Startled, the other dog drew back.
After a moment, the elder mastiff made his decision. He ventured downslope.
"I believe we shall sit in the back, guru of the cheetahs."
The cheetah closed his eyes and waited for the elder dog.
He allowed himself respect and curiosity for this enemy, especially for his enemy's grandmother. He might have liked to meet her. He felt a presence by his side. It was his brindle-coated son. The fellow stayed silent. But he carried, still, the lingering scent of bloody victory. He had calmness, focus, and certainty of purpose. It occurred to the elder that his brindle-coated son had been right. He hadn't wavered in his determination about the cheetahs. In that, he was like his mother.
The youngest caught up to them both.
"How can you tolerate this?" he growled. "How can you sit so near? They are lowest of the low. They have no souls. You've said before that we have nothing in common with them."
"We have one thing. It is more than I thought. Don't let your prejudice blind you." He interposed his body between the young one and the cheetahs. He lay down in the manner of the guru. "And don't worry about their souls. Sit still now and pay attention to your own."