Authors: Jack Hastie
It was cold midday; One-eye was asleep; Barook was asleep. No friendly nose came to nuzzle Fraser. Only the cold. And the ground heaved and turned under him like a wild horse bucking its rider. Then he heard the voices; nasty angry little high pitched voices, quarrelling amongst themselves.
Then he saw the weasels.
Fraser had met weasels; little furry, snake-like killers with long claws like a small badger's and eye teeth like little daggers. He'd often seen their heads and bright eyes pop out of hedgerows inquisitively and he had often exchanged “What moves?” with them.
He knew they were active, intelligent little animals, curious about everything and courageous beyond the bounds of common sense. He had heard how they would kill rabbits several times larger than themselves, face up to cats and even dogs and fight furiously even when gripped by the unrelenting talons of Kievarr the kestrel or Nephesh.
He rather admired them for their courage and their cunning, but he knew also that they were the most ruthless killers in the woods, quite without fear when the bloodlust was on them, so that much bigger animals like One-eye and Barook preferred to give them a wide berth.
Today there were three of them, quarrelling and snarling in their high, harsh voices and Fraser noticed flecks of foam at their mouths. He tried to stand, but fell back onto his knees.
Weasels usually disappeared very quickly when confronted by humans so that he had never exchanged more than a greeting with any he had met before. But these three made no attempt to run.
“Look what we've got here,” said the foremost, nervously licking his lips.
“Fancy some blood?” snapped a second.
“Easy now boys, what moves?” Fraser called, on hands and knees but still looming over the little animals.
“What moves, he asks,” sneered the first weasel. “He thinks he can talk like us. We move, cub. And we'll soon move you. When we move everybody moves.
“We are the weasels, the weasels!”
The other two took up the chant, “The weasels, the weasels.”
Fraser saw their shifty eyes, long claws and slavering jaws and got ready to take the bites that he knew must come on the padded leather of his jacket for he realised that if these dripping teeth so much as scratched his skin he would be in danger of the same madness that Jim's dad was perhaps even now living through.
And then from nowhere came a streak of red fur, a swift snapping of jaws and two of the weasels were tossed, skulls cracked like egg shells, over One-eye's shoulder. The third, totally fearless in his madness, leaped and sank his teeth in the fox's muzzle. Another shake and bite and the demented beast was dead.
But blood spurted through the red fur from tiny pinpricks on the fox's face. One-eye knew that his long warrior's life was near its end and his history of narrow escapes was over, for it was part of the ancient wisdom of the foxes that a bite on the face from a rabid animal is almost always fatal.
“One-eye!” screamed Fraser.
The fox shook himself and rubbed a paw over his nose as though to wipe away the poison.
“It's nothing. I have come away alive after real bites from dogs. How should a jag like this hurt me?”
But his ears were flattened against his head and the droop of his tail told Fraser that he knew better.
“I will go away till the wound has healed,” he added and with a quick turn disappeared into the bushes.
Fraser called, “One-eye! Come back! Men can cure this.”
But the dry bushes and rustling leaves were, for once, quite silent. Then from across the burn came a last call, then a crash and a rustle and the wood was still again.
All animals fear “The Red Dragon” as they call fire.
It can outrun the swiftest runner; its smoke can outfly all but the greatest of birds. Only those who live in water can easily escape its roar and chase. It is hatched out of the smallest of eggs and yet, if properly fed, it can grow taller than the tallest tree.
When Donald Douglas strode off in pursuit of whatever it was he had shot he left behind, unnoticed, a fledgling fire that could scarcely crawl. But it soon found wings and, riding easily in a light east wind off the moor, began to spread through the wood, downstream from Kwarutta's pool.
Like a roaring curtain it advanced, crackling the dry leaves and twisted fibres of the undergrowth. Before it fled a small army of mice and voles and squirrels wakened from their light winter sleep. Those who could, took to the water and swam downstream to where Sebek, the pike, waited to welcome them in his pool at the foot of the wood. Above, a cloud of rooks and pigeons and starlings rose and fled from the suffocating smoke. Douglas turned back. The thing he had shot was well away, or perhaps had gone to cover somewhere, in which case it was probably already dead.
He caught the sharp stink of smoke and stopped. Then he heard the crackling and saw the face of the fire advancing upon him.
For a moment he thought he was trapped and the sweat broke out on his forehead. Then, realising that the wind was weak and the fire was moving slowly, he turned away from its path and began a long detour which would take him back to Kilrasken.
“That'll burn the devils out,” he chuckled.
Lower down the wood and much further away, Fraser, on hands and knees, also picked up the faint smell of fire â but he had other things to think of â the grinning jaws of the weasels; One-eye bounding off after his last kill. Meanwhile, under his knees and below the palms of his hands the ground heaved and turned as if it was alive and was trying to throw him off balance.
But then came wisps of charred grass and little specs of ash floating on the light wind; and later the sound of crackling.
Slowly it dawned on Fraser that the wood was burning and that he lay in the path of the fire. He struggled to his feet â and fell. He gritted his teeth and turned on hands and knees to face the slow crawl along the bucking trail to the edge of the wood and safety. But all the time he crawled he seemed to be swamped by the heaving of the ground like a small boat in a heavy sea. The flecks of ash were falling more thickly now and the smoke was beginning to sting his eyes, but still his head would not clear and the ground would not stay still under his feet to let him get away. What was the use? What if the soft smoke came and soothed him to sleep? The ground heaved less violently when he didn't try to move, so that it rocked him into a pleasant kind of dream, with no weasels and One-eye there beside him.
Fraser jerked awake as a wet, blunt nose rooted into his face and a gruff voice he recognised at once grunted in his ear.
“Boy with our tongue! This is no time for sleep.”
Barook the badger, alerted by the smell of smoke filtering down into his earth, had scrambled to the surface and was making off to safety at a surprising speed when he saw the boy.
“I can't move, Barook,” gasped Fraser.
“You must move,” snapped the badger and he nudged the boy again. “Up now, on four legs like we do.” It was not so long since Barook had fathered a litter and the instinct to push reluctant cubs out into the world to fend for themselves was still strong.
Fraser tried again and made a little distance down the trail.
“Keep moving,” growled the badger. “The Dragon is behind us. Can you not feel his breath?”
Fraser could. The roar of the fire was loud now and the heat was falling in waves as the wind shifted direction.
He struggled on, sometimes crawling on hands and knees, sometimes standing up and steadying himself with his hands on the trunks of trees or clutching armfuls of rhododendron bush. Whenever he stumbled, there was Barook to grunt a hoarse encouragement, “Keep moving. The Dragon is behind us.”
But by now more persuasive than anything the badger could say was the roaring of the fire as it shrivelled the undergrowth and licked hungrily around the trunks of the biggest trees. And the heat! Fraser's hands were sticky with sweat and salty rivulets ran down his forehead and stung his eyes.
Then there was the wall; he was over it; he rolled in the short, crisp grass of the field; and then he slept because he knew he was safe.
He didn't hear or feel as the fire blazed its way through the wood over Sebek's pool till it stopped, baffled, at the edge of the wetlands where even after a hard dry October there were still pools and puddles and soft spongy places. There it danced and raged and shook its claws at the loch beyond, until gradually, like an exhausted giant, it collapsed grumbling on the heaps of filthy black ash with which it had smothered the dens and nests and burrows of the people of the wood.
Fraser wakened, shivering in the evening chill, with the sound of barking in his ears.
Then the wet lick of a dog's tongue and he opened his eyes to see Sandy, covered in dirt, standing over him.
Sandy talked! What a tale he had to tell â of the stinging lash of the tame lightning; of being chased by the Red Dragon; of getting lost and not being able to track his way back home because of the fire; of how he had wandered round in the wetlands â like all labradors he loved water â and he had found Fraser and he was delighted to see him, but his leg was sore.
All this and a lot more Sandy related as he poured out his adventures to Fraser â but the boy heard only barking.
He struggled to his feet and found, to his surprise, that the ground stayed still under him. He could see that the dog was limping and that there was blood on his leg. It meant life or death to Sandy, and possibly to Fraser, for him to know if the wound had come from the bite of a rabid animal, but, just when he needed his gift of tongues most, it had deserted him.
He saw also the look of puzzlement and disappointment in the big brown eyes when he didn't answer the dog in his own tongue.
He did the next best thing.
“Come on Sandy,” he said in human speech. And together, sick boy and wounded dog, they limped across the fields to the houses of Dunadd.
The consultant turned to Fraser's mum and dad as they sat round his bed. “He's back to normal. It's something we call âSpontaneous Remission'. That just means that his condition has improved of its own accord. We don't know why, and of course he could deteriorate again at any time. Fraser will always have to be very careful and take his medicine regularly. Meanwhile, there's no reason why he shouldn't get out and about â get a lot of fresh air â and come and see me again in a fortnight.”
Fraser's first visit was to Rona to see how Sandy was. The labrador demonstrated this for himself as he bounded up excitedly, though he still seemed puzzled that Fraser only talked to him in human speech.
“You can never really tell what's going on in humans' minds,” thought the dog.
Rona explained, “No, it wasn't a bite. He had three shot gun pellets in his left hind leg. He was lucky just to be winged by the shot. He's OK.”
“Was it Jim's dad that shot him?”
Rona shrugged, “Nobody saw it. It could have been anybody.”
“Dirty rat. I hope he dies.”
“Fraser, he's sick. He may be dying. It's like Jet and the weasels; its not their fault.”
“Then he's the one who should be shot â like Jet was.”
“But he might get better. The other cats are all right. They've been allowed back to the farm and there's been no other cases reported. The inspector's cancelled the âInfected Area Order,' so that means he thinks there's no other animals left with rabies. It looks like the fire killed off all the sick animals.”
“How did it all start anyway?”
“Cathy says there haven't been any cases in Britain for years, so she thinks somebody must have smuggled a sick animal in from abroad â you know they're all supposed to go into quarantine for six months to make sure they're all right, unless they have a special pet passport.”
“I suppose we'll never really know.”
“Main thing is the bad dream's over.” Rona fondled Sandy's ears.
The next day Jim's mum phoned the cottage.
“How's Fraser ? Heard he was a lot better. Would he like to spend a few days at the farm?”
Fraser's mum was doubtful. “Are you sure it will be all right? How's Donald?”
Mrs Douglas let herself go. “We've just had news from the hospital that he's clear. We're so relieved. He's been lucky. He didn't contract the â thing â the illness.” She couldn't bring herself to pronounce the dreaded word ârabies'.
“He thought he was going to die, you know. He started acting so strangely that I wondered if, maybe, he
got it. But it was just the worry, or maybe just a very mild dose.”
The possibility that she and her young son might have lived under the same roof as a man who was rabid and murderous, even if only for a few days until those awful, painful injections had overcome the poison, was too terrible for her to think about.
“Anyway he's his old self again.”
And so he was. The cats were back in the barn and Misty and Tess were off on the moors, bringing down the last of the sheep for the winter.
“Thought the Old Man was going to snuff it,” confided Jim as if he had known all along about rabies and the danger his dad had been in. “Was worried it might get into the beasts (he meant the cattle and sheep) and they'd all have to be slaughtered. Cost a lot of money, that would. Mind you, I know what started it.”
“What?” asked Fraser.
“Mind yon funny dog? That started it.”
“Where did it come from?”
Jim was deflated. He hadn't thought as far as that.
“Oh somewhere. Glasgow, maybe.”
On his way back to the cottage Fraser saw Klamath flying overhead on a visit to one of his favourite pools on the moor and he remembered what the bird had told him about an animal being thrown into the water from that strange white ship in the loch.
“Not a ghost ship after all,” he said to himself. “More a ship of the plague.”