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THE INFERNAL BEAST, Part One

Short story By: Philip Roberts
Horror



The black wolf (a hero werewolf) finds himself up against an evil fire elemental-like creature intent upon burning to death Victoria's populace.


Submitted:Feb 14, 2011    Reads: 39    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


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PART ONE:

Stanley Ashmore was panting, on the brink of exhaustion, when finally he reached the outskirts of Westmoreland. His heart pounded in his ears, loud enough to deafen him to the sounds of his pursuer. But Stan knew he was still being followed, knew that the pursuer would never give up until he was dead.

In his youth Stan had been considered quite an athlete, at least by the standards of an Australian country town. But for the last thirty-five years he had been slowly going to fat, sitting behind a teller's window at the State Bank in BeauLarkin. So Stan was now in no condition for running.

Yet running was just what he had been doing, seemingly for hours. Running through the dense forest of wattles, pines, and eerie, grey-white ghost gums, all the way from Mount Abergowrie on the northern edge of Glen Hartwell, to the outskirts of Westmoreland, nearly five kilometres away.

"A ghost town," said Stan between panting breaths, looking out at the narrow streets of decaying, weatherboard houses. Westmoreland had been deserted en masse in the late 1970s when a plague had decimated the town and its neighbour Wilhelmina.

Stan hesitated for a moment, catching his breath, and then decided that perhaps a ghost town was as fitting a place as any to hide...Considering what was chasing him.

"Can't...go...much further...anyway," wheezed Stan as he stumbled out of the forest and started down the pot-holed bitumen road.

Westmoreland is nothing more than twenty or so single-fronted weatherboard houses, a bank, and a general store lined up along Cockerall Road (which is paved), and Phillomena and Harvey Streets (which are both mere dirt tracks).

Stan stopped at the corner of Cockerall Road and Phillomena Street and looked down the dirt track for a moment. 'Bitumen burns, dirt doesn't!' he thought, wondering if it would be safer to head down the dirt path. But then, realising that his pursuer could take the fire along the dirt road, Stan continued up along Cockerall Road, looking first left, then right as he ran.

The neglected houses looked like wooden faces, sneering at Stan for his feeble efforts to escape the monster that followed him. The glass-fronted West Pac bank, on the corner of Cockerall and Harvey, seemed friendlier after his years as a bank teller. But as he started toward it, he realised that the large plate-glass window front provided no protection against his pursuer. So, reluctantly he forced himself to head toward one of the sneering-faced weatherboard houses.

After a quick check of the doors and windows, he managed to gain entrance through a broken rear window. Then, after a few seconds rest to allow his panting breath to return to something like normal, and his eyes to adjust to the darkness, he set out to make the house secure.

It took Stan more than half an hour to cover all the doors and windows with dust-laden chairs and the backs of cupboards. But finally he was satisfied that he was as safe as it was possible to be from his pursuer.

He dusted off an armchair as best he could, and then settled down to wait for the monster to give up the chase. It was already growing dark outside, so he decided that he would have to stay in the house until morning, before it would be safe to set off for Glen Hartwell again.

Stan had almost fallen asleep in the armchair, when he heard the sound of crackling wood. 'Fire!' he thought. He sat up straight, for a moment thinking that he was at the Hart sheep station. But then, remembering where he was and why, the crackling took on a far more ominous meaning.

He sat listening for a moment, before determining that the crackling was emanating from the wall to his right. He went across to listen with an ear against the wall, feeling round the wood panelling with his hands, until locating a "hot spot" where the wood was warm to the touch.

After a few moments' investigation, he discovered that the hot spot was confined to an area about two hundred and twenty centimetres in height, by approximately eighty centimetres in width.

By the time Stan had confirmed its dimensions, the spot had become too hot to touch, although the wall only centimetres away was still cool to the touch.

The wood panelling began to smoulder, then billow with swirls of thick, grey smoke, and then slowly burn.

Stan stood spellbound, paralysed with terror as the burning area slowly lost its rectangular shape and began to take on the rough outline of a human being.

Although unable to turn and run, Stan had started to back deeper into the darkened room by the time the flames finally broke right through the wood panelling to reveal his pursuer: a gigantic creature resembling a man, but a man who seemed to live in the heart of a small ocean of swirling flames.

Red, blue, yellow fire danced along the creature's body, flickering out like an aura of flames as the man-beast smiled evilly. Stepping through the hole it had burnt into the wall, the infernal beast began slowly advancing toward its quarry.

"No! No, don't!" pleaded Stan as the grinning creature stepped up to wrap its long arms around Stan to crush him in a powerful bear hug. A bear hug, which would have killed Stan, if only the flames had not killed him first.

The infernal beast held Stan in its embrace of death until he had burnt to a black husk, which crumbled and fell to the floor. Then turning the creature walked back across to the panelled wall and squeezed out through its own outline burnt clean through the wall of the house.

* * *

It was late February 1983 and Victoria and South Australia had recently been scorched by the Ash Wednesday bushfires, which killed seventy-two people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of prime forestland. Although the worst of the fires were over by the twenty-fourth of February, a few fires still burnt around the outskirts of Daley and Glen Hartwell, in the south eastern Victorian countryside.

It was everything that Donald Esk, the recently appointed chief of the Greater Daley Fire Department, could do to prevent the fires from reaching right into the heart of the townships themselves.

"How the Hell am I supposed to combat a major bushfire disaster, with only three fully trained fire-fighters and a dozen or so unpaid volunteers?" grumbled Esk. He was taking a quick break only a few hundred metres from the towering wall of flames, which threatened to completely raze the foliage atop Mount Abergowrie on the northern outskirts of Glen Hartwell.

"They managed to put out the fires at Macedon and Cockatoo with virtually no paid fire-fighters at all, only volunteers," replied Sergeant Danny Ross. A tall, powerfully built, barrel-chested man, Ross was known affectionately as "Bear" by his close friends and colleagues in the Glen Hartwell Police Force.

"Yes, but with the loss of over thirty lives," pointed out Esk, a tall, thin yet muscular man, who usually looked at least ten years younger than his age of forty-five. But after the last fortnight of battling bushfires he now looked and felt closer to sixty. "So far I've been lucky, with only two major burn victims, and no fatalities. But sooner or later my luck will run out...Unless somehow we manage to put out these last three fires quickly."

"It should be only another day or two now, surely?" said Bear, stretching to alleviate a nagging crick in the small of his back. "It seems like we've been making pretty good headway over the last couple of days...?"

"We've been making headway, then losing ground again every couple of days, in cycles, over the last two weeks," corrected Esk. "If the cycle continues, things should start getting worse again sometime today, or early tomorrow."

"Oh don't even say it," Bear said, throwing Esk a pleading look. Although a strong, energetic man by nature, after working fourteen hours a day for more than two weeks fighting fires, Bear had started to become painfully aware of his own human frailty. His body ached from head to toe, and he longed for the day when he could return to normal police duties. Like Esk, Bear still had not fully settled into his job, still was not one hundred percent confident of his ability to handle the responsibility. He only hoped that his failings would not cost someone their life or health before the last of the bushfires were out.

"For the life of me I don't know how these damn fires keep starting," said Esk, as he and Bear started back toward the fire front. "It seems as though the moment one fire is doused another starts up. Often so far apart they can't possibly be directly related to each other."

"Arsonists?" asked Bear. He was surprised at the idea since rural people usually have a much healthier respect for other peoples' property than do their city dwelling cousins.

"Out here?" asked Esk, thinking the same thing as Bear. "Not likely...And this isn't exactly a tourist area, so we can't blame them either."

Esk placed his pack on his back, and then said, "Frankly it doesn't make any sense."

Nodding his head in agreement, Bear put on his backpack, checked that it was still more than half full, then set off back to the fire front.

As he fought the fire, Bear Ross had to keep looking round for Donald Esk and the other men, who were strung out around the fire front at roughly ten-metre intervals. Although they appeared to have this current fire virtually under control, he knew it only needed a sudden gust of wind to reverse the direction of the moving wall of flames, for it to surround the men and cut them off, as had happened when eleven volunteer fire-fighters had been killed in Cockatoo not long ago.

On his right he spotted Brian Horne and half expected to see Ernie Singleton near him. The two young men had been good friends all of their lives, but over the last few months they had become almost inseparable.

Although at twenty-five he was a few years older than the other two, Bear, Brian, and Ernie had become a regular trio since Bear's arrival at Glen Hartwell five months ago. So now it seemed strange that Ernie was nowhere in sight. Until Bear remembered that for the last couple of weeks Ernie had been suffering from severe stomach cramps, which naturally kept him from the fire front.

Looking back to Donald Esk for a moment, Bear nodded to the fire chief, and then took a few tentative steps forward into the forest, ever wary of the hot ash and burning pine needles underfoot.

Unable to stand the direct heat of the flames, the fire-fighters were forced to spray chemical foam onto the inferno from metres away, then allow each reclaimed portion of blackened forest to cool down before they could advance toward the retreating wall of flames. A hard and exhausting process, which had Bear longing for another break after less than half an hour. He paused to catch his breath and had started to turn round to look for Esk again, when he saw the eyes.

Bright yellow eyes, looking out at him from deep within the burning forest...A good twenty metres ahead of where he stood.

Thinking at first that it was a kangaroo or a farm animal, Bear began slowly to advance, heading deeper into the fire zone than he normally would have dared. He was a dozen metres further into the forest than Don Esk or the other fire-fighters, when, to his horror, Bear could clearly make out the figure of a man, standing in the middle of a mountain of flames which flickered and rippled all around his body.

'My God! The poor bastard's on fire!' thought Bear as he started to race forward, trying to ignore the searing heat which threatened to set him alight, despite his "fire proof" suit. Of course, nothing is really fire proof. Even a brick would burn if you threw it into the sun; however, the suits were made of heat resistant polymers invented by NASA's Jet-Propulsion Laboratories for use by American astronauts.

Yet even so, Bear was still a few metres away from the burning man when the heat of the bushfire became unbearable, forcing him to back out of the fire.

Silently Bear pleaded with the man, gesturing for him to try to walk forward the last few metres toward him. But to the police sergeant's distress, the man just stood his ground.

Stood his ground and grinned idiotically.

Even more shocking than his grin, though, was the fact that the man actually seemed to be enjoying the heat of the flames that engulfed him. As he grinned a small tongue of red flames shot out through his parted lips and light wisps of grey smoke puffed from his nostrils.

Then, as the man began to copy his gesture, began beckoning for the sergeant to walk forward into the burning forest, Bear Ross found himself half-believing that he was standing face to face with the Devil. Although a good Catholic all his life, Bear had never quite been able to believe in the physical existence of Heaven and Hell. That is, until now!

Now he fully believed in the existence of the Devil. A smiling, beckoning Devil, who was trying to will Bear forward to his doom. Without being aware that he was doing so, Bear began to walk forward toward the outstretched hand. Although his flesh registered the fact that he had gone too deep into the forest for safety, all that his eyes could see was that irresistible, beckoning hand.

He would have walked straight into the wall of fire, if not for Donald Esk and Brian Horne pulling him back to safety.

"Are you crazy, Bear?" demanded Esk, more from fear for the safety of his friend, than from anger, after they had wrestled the big man away from the danger zone.

"The Devil!" said Bear stupidly, immediately wondering whether Don was right, whether he really was crazy. 'Could I have really seen it?' he thought.

"The Devil?" asked Donald Esk, wondering if he had heard correctly.

Wisely, Bear chose not to respond to Esk's query. Instead he allowed himself to be led away from the fire front for a short rest, before insisting, despite the concern of the others that he was all right to return to fire fighting.

* * *

Bear Ross arrived at the Singleton sheep station shortly after 9:30 p.m. As he parked his sky-blue Ford Fairlane near the chain-link fence, which ringed the farmhouse yard, he glanced at the aquamarine HR Holden Premier parked near the woodpile and knew that Brian Horne was already inside.

He found Ernie Singleton lying half-propped up on the sofa in the living room, obviously in a fair amount of pain, with Brian sitting in one of the three brown leather armchairs, which ringed the room.

Over the last five months or so the nightly get-togethers had become a regular institution with the three men. Sometimes in the Fosters Lager Bar at Bateman's Hotel in Glen Hartwell, sometimes at Ernie's, or Brian's parents' orchard. But rarely at Bear's apartment in Boothy Street, Glen Hartwell, since the tiny flat would barely hold three people.

Originally Bear and Ernie had started the routine, having met through dating two sisters, Gloria and Holly Ulverstone. The two couples had been almost inseparable for a couple of months, until slowly Holly and Ernie had started to drift apart. After Holly introduced Ernie to her cousin, Rowena Frankland, Rowena and Ernie had become a hot item and Holly had taken up with Brian, so the nightly get-togethers had started to include Brian. Now all three men were firm friends. Whenever they weren't taking the three women out, they would have a quiet evening together drinking beer, talking, and occasionally watching television. Although being in a mountainous area meant that TV reception was poor and they could only pick up three stations.

Accepting Ernie's offer of a cold can of Fosters lager, Bear collapsed into one of the other two chairs. "Phew," said Bear wiping one arm across his brow, "what a bastard of a summer this has been."

"It must be unbearable near the fire front?" asked Ernie.

"It's unbearable anywhere," said Bear popping the tab of the can to have a long swig. "But near the fire you'd just about swear the air itself was on fire it's so stinking hot. Those fireproof suits don't exactly help either, they stop you from getting burnt, but they don't help keep you cool...."

After a few minutes' gossip about the fire upon Mount Abergowrie, Bear finally summoned up the courage to tell the other two men of his encounter on the Mountainside.

"The Devil?" asked Brian, incredulous, after Bear had finished his tale.

"I swear it, Bry, that's exactly what it looked like: the Devil standing in the burning forest, beckoning me forward toward him."

Seeing the look of disbelief in Brian's eyes, Bear insisted, "I know it sounds crazy, but I swear that's what I saw!"

"You said yourself the heat was unbearable out there," reminded Brian, "maybe you suffered some kind of heat-stroke or something...?"

"I'm not the kind to have hallucinations!" protested Bear. Although he knew that there is no specific kind of person that hallucinated -- under extremes of stress or heat even the most levelheaded people can see visions. 'I guess that is the most likely explanation?' thought Bear reluctantly. 'More logical than believing the Devil really was standing in the fire calling me forward to my death!'

"What do you think, Ern?" asked Brian; realising Ernie had not expressed an opinion on the matter so far.

Both men looked toward Ernie: Brian hoping he would agree Bear must have suffered from heat prostration; Bear hoping Ernie would concede at least the possibility of the Devil's existence -- after all they were both practising Catholics, and their religion preached the physical reality of Satan.

Up until a fortnight ago Ernie's life had been relatively uneventful, apart from the farming accident, which had killed his father, Gregory, in the last week in July 1980. Ernie had been holidaying interstate at the Wrest Point Casino in Hobart, when he heard of his father's death. Hideously mutilated, having been run over after falling from the farm's tractor, Gregory Singleton's funeral had been a closed-coffin service, so Ernie's last memory of his father was from almost a month before his death.

Feeling cheated of his last look at his father; Ernie had blamed himself for being away at the time of the accident. Although it was the first time in his life he had been further than Glen Hartwell (except while going into BeauLarkin, sixty kilometres beyond the Glen, as a child to do his first two years of schooling, before the Glen Hartwell Primary School had opened in February 1971).

Ernie's answer to the guilt he felt had been to turn to the land and work like a demon, hardly leaving the farm for more than a year after his father's death. He might never have left the station again, if not for his mother, Victoria, deciding to move to a small cabin which the Singletons owned a few kilometres outside LePage -- the next town on the way to Glen Hartwell. The move was made because Vikkie decided she had to get away from the scene of her husband's death. She had grown to hate the sheep station for having killed him. But a positive effect was that it shocked Ernie out of his ennui. After finding there was nothing he could do to change his mother's mind, he had agreed to help her move, help fix up the long-neglected cabin, and stop in every few days to see that she was all right.

Gradually Ernie had started to come out of his shell again and almost two years after his father's death started dating again. He soon met Rowena Frankland whom he was now on the point of proposing to. Although he had never fully got over the hurt and guilt from his father's death he had got over the worst of it and for the last six months his life had gradually been getting better and better. Until ten days ago when he had started to suffer from crippling aches in his stomach and in his bone joints.

Ernie had been poked, prodded and subjected to every kind of torture known to modern medicine, without his doctor getting any nearer to localising what was causing the pangs that wracked his body despite the strongest painkillers that she could legally give him. "It could be a delayed reaction to the death of your father," she guessed, having no real clue what the cause was. So reluctantly she allowed Ernie to be taken home.

For the last three days Ernie had been lying around the farmhouse (while Brian Horne called around every day to take care of the most urgent tasks around the sheep station) sitting, standing, lying down in a vain effort to find a best position to alleviate his aches and pains. Until the previous night, when he had stumbled from the farmhouse, in a desperate hope that the night air might work some kind of "miracle fresh-air cure". And to his amazement, as soon as he stepped out onto the back porch, he had felt a loosening of the tight knot in his stomach and a slight easing of the aching in his joints.

Buoyed up by his sudden good health, Ernie had climbed over the metre-high, chain-link fence that ringed the farmhouse yard, then stumbled, walked, then galloped past the dog yard a hundred metres behind the farmhouse, where nearly fifty Kelpies, Barb-Kelpies, Border Collies, and other farm dogs were chained up, using halved 200-litre drums as their kennels.

As he ran past the dogs yapped and wagged their tails in delight, having not seen their master for the past ten days (during which time they had been fed by Brian Horne and his retarded brother "Weird" Warren). However, Ernie was too excited by his newfound mobility to stop to play with the dogs. Without hesitation he ran past the dog yard, heading for the three-hundred hectare sheep yard beyond, then for the forest further on.

The further he ran the faster he ran, until he ran right out of his clothes, loping along as effortlessly as the best of his farm dogs. He ran through the sweet-smelling forest of blue, red, grey, and ghost gums for many kilometres. Then developing a great thirst, he headed toward the shallow bank of the Yannan River to drink.

A wide, deep waterway near Glen Hartwell, on the outskirts of LePage (where Ernie had stopped) the Yannan tapered out until it was barely half a dozen metres wide and less than a metre deep. Still it was deep enough to cast a reflexion and show Ernie the image of a large black wolf staring up at him. At first, terrified, Ernie thought that a live wolf was under the water looking up at him, then realising it wouldn't be able to stare unblinkingly underwater, he relaxed a little thinking, 'It's the carcase of a drowned wolf!' He heaved a sigh of relief at the notion, though as an animal-lover he felt a pang of sorrow that a living creature had drowned. Then as Ernie stepped back a pace the image of the wolf moved slightly and he realised it must be the reflexion of a live wolf standing directly behind him.

Almost falling into the river from fright, Ernie swung around, expecting to see the black wolf only centimetres behind him.

To his astonishment, there was no sign of the wolf. 'Where the Hell did it get to?' he wondered, looking all around. After a moment he saw a clear line of five-toed paw prints in the thick carpet of pine needles covering the forest floor, leading from a grove of blue gums to the Yannan. He gazed at the spoors for a moment, thinking, 'Do wolves have five toes on each paw? Or four, like most other canines?'

He continued to scan the shadowy forest for a while, vainly looking for the wolf, before turning back toward the river....

And immediately saw the reflexion of the black wolf gazing up at him again.

This time he spun around quickly, expecting to catch some sign of the wolf fleeing back to the grove of gum trees. But again he caught no sight of the fleeing creature. 'The damn thing can sure run!' he thought, with a mixture of fear and admiration for the creature.

He spent a couple of minutes scanning the forest, following the path of the five-toed prints, in the hope that they would lead him to the wolf's hiding place.

It was only as he noticed that the wolf spoors did not double back toward the forest at all, that he also realised that they were the only footprints on the forest floor. His own feet had left no tracks.

'But that's impossible!' thought Ernie, his brow wrinkling in puzzlement. But then the obvious struck him. 'My god! The wolf spoors are my tracks! That's the only possible explanation!'

Looking back toward the shallow water of the Yannan he saw the reflexion of the black wolf again, saw the puzzled look in the large, very human, blue eyes and knew that it was his own reflexion: he was the black wolf!

'My God! How can it be true?' wondered Ernie. Although no great aficionado of werewolf literature, he had read enough stories to know that supposedly a werewolf has to be bitten by another werewolf or wolf before coming down with the taint.

Though shocked by the revelation of what he had become, Ernie realised that the run through the forest in wolf form had somehow cleaned out his system, forcing out most of the cramps and pains that had wracked his body for the past fortnight. Vaguely he wondered whether they could have been caused by some weird kind of molecular change necessary before it was possible for his body to alter from man to wolf.

Whatever the answer though, when finally he returned to the farmhouse and to human form, he discovered that most of his aches were gone. Replaced by a hunger so overwhelming that it bordered on a famine and had forced him to spend most of that day on a non-stop eating binge to quell the hunger and get his strength back up. To the point where he had emptied the refrigerator and would have to go into Merridale tomorrow, cramps or no cramps, if Rowena didn't bring some groceries tonight.

So now, lying on the sofa, with his two friends waiting to hear his opinion, Ernie didn't know what to tell them. 'My God, what can I say?' he wondered. 'Up until last night I would have agreed with Brian...But now...I mean is the Devil standing in the middle of a forest fire any more preposterous than the fact that I am a werewolf?' But, of course, he could hardly say that to Bear and Brian, afraid to tell them of his condition in case they thought him crazy. 'Brian obviously thinks poor Bear is loony after his tale, what would he think of me if I told them mine?'

"Well," said Ernie, "it's hard to believe, of course...But the church does preach the existence of a Devil. And we're told it's a sin not to believe, since not believing in the Devil somehow makes him stronger...."

"Yes, yes, all right," agreed Brian, dismayed by Ernie's unexpected line, not used to having to argue along Theological grounds. "But even if there is a real Devil...And I say 'if!' What would he be doing wasting his time in a dinky little place like Australia starting small time bushfires?"

"Forty-six people have died so far in this small time bushfire, in Victoria alone!" reminded Bear, angered by Brian's sarcasm.

"Even so, that's peanuts to the Devil: after the Black Death, the Great Fire of London, the Flu epidemic of 1920...What's a measly forty-six lives?" demanded Brian, not wanting to offend his friend, but unable to treat the idea of a Devil in the Australian bush with anything except derision.

"There's no need to take that attitude!" insisted Bear starting to get up from his armchair to leave.

"Calm down," placated Ernie, "there's no need to come to loggerheads over it. Either you saw it or you didn't...Personally I'm prepared to consider the idea."

"But how could...?" protested Brian, not wanting to anger Bear, but unable to take the suggestion seriously. He was still trying to think up a suitable rebuttal of Bear's story, when they heard the back door of the sheep station slam.

There was the sound of rustling in the kitchen as Rowena put away some groceries she had brought for Ernie, followed by the sound of high heels in the corridor as Rowena, Holly, and Gloria all strode up toward the living room.

"How's the invalid?" asked Gloria as the three women reached the living room.

"Don't ask," said Ernie, still not one hundred percent recovered.

"Too late, she already did," pointed out Holly with a laugh.

As the women entered together, Ernie marvelled, for the umpteenth time, at how alike they were. Despite the fact that at twenty-five Gloria was five and six years older than Holly and Rowena respectively, they could easily have passed for triplets. All three were tall, lean, and beautiful, with high-boned cheeks, long, honey-blonde hair, and large, wide-set, pale blue eyes.

Afraid the women would laugh at him, if told of his experience in the forest, and not wanting to appear foolish in front of Gloria, Bear turned to Brian and whispered, "Don't say anything...."

"That's okay," whispered Brian, nodding in agreement.

"Don't say what?" demanded Holly overhearing.

"Trust big-ears to hear," said Bear.

"Nothing much," said Brian, I've were just discussing the idea of livening things up later with some wife swapping."

"Ha! Ha!" said Holly, sounding unamused. "None of you are married."

"Actually it was girlfriend swapping to be honest."

"Oh is that right," demanded Holly, pretending to be offended. Racing across the living room she jumped onto Brian's lap, almost sending the armchair toppling over backwards, spilling beer over herself and Brian from the can of Fosters Lager he was holding.

After receiving a peck on the cheek from Rowena and Gloria, Ernie sat up with a groan to allow the two women to sit either side of him on the sofa.

"The dogs seemed a bit skittish as we came in," said Gloria.

Ernie looked across at her, his brow wrinkling in wonder. The station dogs had been pleased to see him the night before when he had left the farmhouse in human form, but had been less pleased when he had returned as the black wolf.

"Well, you know the simple solution to that, don't you," teased Holly, a confirmed cat-lover and dog-hater, "shoot the lot of them and get yourself some cats."

"Cat's are parasites! They eat you out of house and home, then lie around sleeping all day!" insisted Ernie for the umpteenth time, having played this game with Holly many times in the past. "At least farm dogs earn there keep by helping out around the station."

"A few maybe, but no way is this station large enough to have work for the fifty or more dogs you've got tied up in that flea yard out the back."

"In case you haven't noticed, I breed dogs to sell to other sheep or cattle stations. That's why I have more than are needed to work this property."

"In that case it's about time you sold a few...Say forty-nine or fifty! Besides, cats are much more affectionate than dogs."

"Is that right?" demanded Ernie, "we'll just see about that!" He gave three short, sharp whistles, then called, "Tan! Gordo!"

Before the words had finished there came a thundering of footsteps in the hallway outside as the two black Barb-Kelpies, who had been sleeping in the kitchen came racing up the hallway to greet their master.

"Oh my God, it's The Man from Snowy River all over again," said Gloria at the racket, which sounded more like a herd of horses than two dogs racing up the corridor.

As the first black snout came into view in the doorway, Ernie pointed to where Holly was still sitting on Brian's lap and said, "Say hello to Holly."

Knowing the name from when Holly and Ernie had been dating, the two dogs raced across as instructed. While Gordo began furiously licking at her feet and shoes, Tanya jumped up onto an arm of the chair furiously licking at her face.

"Ugh! Ugh, call them off!" shrieked Holly, desperately trying to cover her face with her hands to ward Tanya off, only to shudder as Tanya furiously lapped at her bare arms. "Call them off!"

"Not until you admit dogs are more affectionate than cats!"

"All right, all right, I admit it!" conceded Holly.

Ernie slapped his thigh and called, "Come on Gordo, Tan." The two dogs dropped away from Holly, to her obvious relief, to race across to Ernie.

After a few minutes, the dogs settled down on the floor, and the three couples paired off: Bear pulled his armchair a little closer to the sofa so he could hold hands with Gloria; Rowena began to snuggle up to Ernie. However, recalling the events of the previous night only too clearly, Ernie began to ease away from Rowena, until he was almost squashing Gloria up against one end of the sofa.

Ernie was pained to see the hurt look in Rowena's eyes as he rejected her advances. He longed to take her into his arms to reassure her of his love for her. But he was afraid to. After only one transformation to the black wolf, he knew almost nothing about the nature of werewolves. But he knew the legends said that werewolves are insane killers who ravage the countryside, killing man and beast alike. Always killing first the ones they loved in human form.

Seeing the sadness in Rowena's beautiful blue eyes, Ernie sensed what she must be thinking and wanted to kiss away her fears...But his own fears held him back. 'As much as I don't want to lose you,' he thought, 'until I know a hell of a lot more about what I really become during my transformations, and how often they take place, I can't allow myself to get too close to you, babe!'

After awhile the tension between Ernie and Rowena began to affect the others and the conversation soon tapered out. Until they were sitting around in silence, waiting for an excuse to get up and leave.

Finally the tension was shattered by the shrilling of the telephone. "I'll get it," offered Holly. Leaping off Brian's lap, she dashed into the corridor.

"It's for you, Bear," she announced when she returned.

"For me?" asked Bear, puzzled. He wondered who could be calling him at Ernie's. 'God, please don't let it be an emergency!' he thought, recalling Donald Esk's concern that if the bushfires around Glen Hartwell continued, sooner or later someone would be killed in the blazes.

After talking on the telephone for nearly ten minutes, Bear returned to announce, "I've got to leave, that was Sam Hart. It seems his brother-in-law, Stan Ashmore, has gone missing, so...."

"So what the Hell does he want you to do about it?" asked Brian. "Since when has Glen Hartwell been large enough to have a missing person's bureau attached to the police force?"

Bear shrugged in resignation, secretly relieved to have an excuse to depart, without anyone being dead. "Since now I guess."

"So how does he expect you to find him anyway?"

"Scout around through the forest on the off chance of locating him, I suppose. If it wasn't for the bushfires I'd organise some kind of major manhunt...But at the moment with whole towns still being threatened by the fires, I can hardly call people off fire duty just to look for one man. So I guess for now it's just me."

"But don't you have to report back to Don tomorrow, to help with the fire fighting?" asked Holly.

"That's right, at five-thirty sharp," agreed Bear. Looking round at the clock on the side table, he saw that it was nearly eleven-thirty. He yawned into one hand then said, "Still that gives me six hours to find Stan, before I report back to Don Esk."

"But what are you supposed to do for sleep?" demanded Gloria.

"Sleep? Sleep?" joked Bear. "I'm sure I've heard that word before somewhere. But I just don't seem to be able to place it?"

"Come on then, you might as well drop me off on your way," said Gloria getting up to go with him. Since Holly and Rowena had both come with her, she handed the keys to her Morris Minor to Rowena; realising Brian would drop Holly home.

Shortly afterwards Brian and Holly also departed.

For a short time after the others left Ernie and Rowena sat at opposite ends of the sofa trying futilely to make small talk, before finally Rowena gave up and announced, "I'd better be leaving now too."

Ernie stood on the porch outside the back door, watching in dismay as Rowena drove away in Gloria's yellow Morris Minor. He sighed his frustration at being unable to explain to Rowena how he really felt about her, and why he was afraid to get too close to her at the moment. He watched until she was out of sight, and then turned back toward the farmhouse, only to be doubled over by a shooting spasm in his belly, like a large hand twisting through his intestines.

He fell to his knees on the wooden porch, waiting for the pain to abate, knowing that he might be waiting for hours. When at last it did ease, after a few minutes, he found himself trapped inside his clothes, which had suddenly become too large.

With a little difficulty he struggled free and knew he had transformed into the black wolf for the second time.

Once more, in wolf form he discovered his aches and cramps had vanished.

He stood in the shadows for a few moments to let the yellow Morris get well out of sight down Donaldson's Road. Catching a sparkle of amber out of the top of one eye, he looked up and saw the bright orange-white crescent of the moon. He stared at the moon for a moment, wondering why his shape shifting should occur when the moon was in its first quarter. In fiction werewolves always change at the time of the full moon.

Also he wondered why the amber crescent held no great attraction for him? Werewolves are supposed to be entranced by the moon, which exerted an almost hypnotic power over them. But then he supposed that perhaps his indifference was a result of his human half knowing that there is really no such thing as moonlight. 'Moonlight is just sunlight weakly reflected off the moon,' he thought. 'And if full sunlight in daytime has no special hypnotic powers, why should weak sunlight have any at night, just because it is bounced off the surface of the moon?'

A few seconds later he had completely forgotten the orange crescent. He bounded out into the back yard, setting the farm dogs barking as he effortlessly leapt the metre-high, wire-mesh fence and loped away toward the forest a quarter kilometre away.

* * *

Bear Ross quickly dropped Gloria off at her flat in Boothy Street, Glen Hartwell, then made his way back to Merridale to stop in at the Hart Station, where his first two questions were why had they called him and not Mel Forbes, who was in charge of the Merridale police, and how had they traced him to Ernie's.

"I tried to ring Mel or Andrew Braidwood," explained Sam Hart, a tall, thin, weasel-faced man, "but no one answered, so I rang around a few places trying to get them, before trying you. I got you on the eighth try."

"I guess Mel and Andrew would still be fire fighting," suggested Bear. "Either that or home, resting after a hard day at the fire front."

Sam blanched, flushing red from anger, knowing that Bear intended it as a criticism of Sam, who was one of the few locals not helping fight the fires.

"Of course," agreed Sam, "I should have thought of that...I'd be there myself, helping out, if it wasn't for my bad lungs...They'd never stand all that smoke..." He rambled on for a few minutes apologising for not helping fight the fires, before going on to repeat almost word for word what he had already told Bear over the telephone: "My brother-in-law, George's brother, Stan Ashmore, came down from BeauLarkin a few days ago to visit...Anyway he went out bushwalking before lunch yesterday and still hasn't returned yet."

"Before lunch yesterday?" asked Bear. He wondered what chance Stan had of still being alive, and what chance he had of finding him, alive or dead, in the forest after a day and a half. "Why didn't you phone Mel or me before this?"

"Well ... I thought he'd have to be missing for at least a day or two before he'd count as officially missing," replied Sam.

"In Melbourne or Sydney maybe," said Bear, "but in the bush it's important to get a search going as soon as possible...."

"Then you don't think there's much...?" began Georgina Hart. She burst into tears as she realised her brother was probably dead.

"Well ... I wouldn't give up just yet..." said Bear, looking from the spindly thin Sam, to his operatically large wife, angry at himself for not having been more subtle. 'But what's the point in giving her false hope?' he thought, realising that she was right, there was very little chance of her brother still being alive after more than a day and a half. Looking back to Sam, he saw he was smirking and realised there had been no love lost between Sam and his brother-in-law.

"I...I wanted to ring Mel yesterday before tea time," said Georgina between tears, receiving a glare from her husband, confirming Bear's suspicions that Sam had stopped her from reporting Stan missing and had possibly killed him by his actions.

'If only there was some way I could charge you with murder!' thought Bear. But he knew there was no law to cover it. He wondered whether it would be better or worse for Georgina to lose her husband as well as her brother? But seeing her two black eyes, despite the dark glasses she wore and realising she was a bashed wife, he thought. 'Better off! You'd definitely be better off without this bastard!' He made a mental note to question Georgina again later when Sam wasn't around, knowing, however, that there was little chance that she would testify against Sam on a wife bashing charge. And even less chance that with Victoria's biased laws that he could ever get a conviction against Hart.

END OF PART ONE:





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