The black wolf had been travelling at a steady pace for the last hour or so and was about a kilometre outside Westmoreland when he heard the distant crackling, which he recognised as a bushfire.
The wolf stopped, puzzled by the sound. He knew the fires were not in that area. 'Surely I can't have got myself that turned about?' he thought. Ernie had lived in the region all his life and had the bushman's exceptional sense of direction; as the black wolf his senses were greatly heightened, so there should be even less chance of him getting lost in the dark.
The black wolf stood still for a few moments, listening to the sound, before being forced to concede that it definitely was fire crackling. 'But out this way?' he thought, starting forward to investigate.
After a few minutes he came to an area where a bushfire had burnt clearly as recently as the previous day. He trampled through the black, charcoal forest, which looked like a bizarre negative of a white Christmas scene. Black trees stood in a forest blanketed in a black "snow" of burnt leaves and pine needles.
'Nothing could possibly still be alive out here!' he thought. Remembering that Georgina Hart's brother, Stanley Ashmore, had been reported lost in the forest, Ernie hoped Stan had not wandered out that way and got caught in the passing fire.
The charcoal carpet of the forest floor crunched beneath the black wolf's paws as he walked along. At first cool, the forest floor gradually began to warm up the deeper he journeyed into the dead forest.
He began to feel slightly nauseous from the burnt meat aroma of the blackened animal carcases -- mainly opossums and native cats, but also an occasional wombat or wallaby. He stopped for a moment to look in horror at a great red kangaroo, which had paused beside a tall blue gum tree. Kangaroo and tree alike had been engulfed by the passing flames. Baked crisp, cracked and pitted by the fire, the animal looked like a giant mound of charcoal, which had been expertly carven into the shape of a kangaroo.
Tearing his eyes away from the roo, the wolf continued deeper into the ebony forest, until realising that he would have to turn back or risk being asphyxiated by the rising smoke, or seriously burnt by the smouldering ash and leaves which he was forced to side-step around.
He stopped for a moment, took one last look at the charcoal forest, then turned to leave...When out of the corner of an eye he caught a flicker of yellow away in the distance. Hearing the crackling of wood up ahead, he thought, 'The bushfire!' But the tiny flicker seemed much too small to be an entire fire front.
For a few moments he peered ahead, trying to make out the outline of the object flickering away in the distance. Finally he conceded defeat and, at the risk of getting the pads of his paws scorched, started forward, having to leapfrog from side to side to avoid the hottest patches as he proceeded toward the more recently scorched section of the forest.
Eventually he reached the area where the flickering light had been, but there was now no sign of it. He looked forward for a moment in case the light had travelled further away. Then, with a sigh of frustration, the black wolf turned to retrace his steps and came face to face with the infernal beast.
Like Bear Ross earlier, the black wolf's first thought was that the creature was a gigantically tall, heavyset man, standing in the centre of a mountain of fire. Except that now there was no fire, apart from the small sea of flames, which swirled and eddied around the creature.
When the beast breathed a small stream of grey smoke snorted out of its nostrils, and a thin tongue of fire played from between its partly opened lips, which seemed to sneer at the black wolf. The creature opened its mouth wide, and breathed out heavily, expelling a long tongue of flame toward Ernie. Although the flames fell well short, he instinctively jumped backward in fright, landed on a mound of hot ash. And with a yelp of pain he jumped forward again.
Grinning idiotically the infernal beast started slowly toward the black wolf.
Careful not to tread on the hot ash again, Ernie backed away, matching the infernal beast step for step, determined not to allow the distance between them to decrease to less than three or four metres. But Ernie had only taken a few steps backward before realising there was no advantage to going that way, since it would take him toward wherever the latest bushfire was currently burning.
Instead he feinted to the creature's left, then as it lurched that way, rocketed past on its right. Although he felt his fur scorched slightly as he went by, Ernie managed to get past the infernal beast before it realised he had outsmarted it.
As the black wolf disappeared into the blackened forest, the infernal beast let out a shrill shriek of rage, which made Ernie's eardrums quiver, as it started through the forest after him.
* * *
It was after one a.m. by the time Bear Ross finally left the Hart station, clutching a large, black-and-white photograph of Stan Ashmore. Bear almost dropped his car keys from fatigue as he slipped in behind the steering wheel of his Fairlane to start toward Harpertown, thirty kilometres beyond Glen Hartwell.
Since there was no Kodak plant within a hundred kilometres of the area, the general store operator in Harpertown, Bob Montgomery, helped out by doing developing and printing for the locals. For a small regular fee he also did priority printing for Bear and the other local police.
* * *
Although the feint had given Ernie a twenty-metre head start on the infernal beast, he was not able to increase the gap between them. Hearing the crackling of flames as it followed, Ernie sensed that the creature would never give up the chase until he began to tire and it finally caught him.
The black wolf was galloping along through the blackened forest, making pinpoint turns to avoid high speed collisions with the charred conifers and gum trees, when suddenly the ground disappeared from underfoot and he went rolling along his side, down a steep incline.
Quickly climbing to his feet, the wolf bounded forward and almost ran straight into the waters of the Yannan River. Although the current was not very strong and in human form he could easily have swum across, he was held back by an inner terror that the werewolf legend (as he had read it in books in his teens) might be right. More than one book had said, "The werewolf as an impure creature, cannot cross the pure surface of flowing water!"
So, as the infernal beast started down the steep bank toward him, Ernie pivoted and raced along the bank, heading in the direction of Merridale. However, the Dale was still a few kilometres downstream. He had started to tire and began to doubt whether he could continue to outrun his pursuer for much longer.
Sensing that the race was almost over the infernal beast let out another shrill screech. This time from expectation. It raised its arms, spread its fingers wide, aiming them at the fleeing wolf, then by a concentrated effort of will, managed to make long streams of flames shoot from its fingertips, using its hands like flame-throwers. The yellow-white flames fell well short of the black wolf, but the gap between them had now closed to less than ten metres.
* * *
It was nearly two o'clock by the time Bear returned to Glen Hartwell, clutching a dozen glossy, black-and-white copies of Stan Ashmore's photo, making a mental note to return the original to Georgina Hart that day. He remembered her tearful request for him to be careful with the photograph, which was the only large picture she had of her brother. "Please, please don't lose it," she had pleaded, "if...if you don't find Stan alive...that's the only real keepsake I have of him."
Parking the Fairlane in Boothy Street, Bear walked up to the apartment block where he lived and entered flat number seven. In the past he had been embarrassed by the smallness of the two room flat, but now as he stepped into the main room (lounge room-bedroom-kitchen) his only thought was to grab an hour or two of desperately needed sleep before starting the search for Stan Ashmore and helping Donald Esk with the fire fighting. As he collapsed on top of the small, wire-frame bed to the right of the door, too exhausted even to change into his night clothes, he thought, 'But what am I complaining about? Don gets it worse than me. I'm only at the fire zone twelve or thirteen hours a day, he hasn't been away from there in more than a week, having to grab a stray hour of sleep on a mattress in the fire command tent.'
He had little time to ponder his own situation, or that of Don Esk, however, since his head had hardly hit the pillow before he was sound asleep, snoring like one of Ernie's sheepdogs.
* * *
Again and again the streams of fire whooshed from the fingertips of the infernal beast, landing ever nearer and nearer to Ernie, until at last he could feel the heat of the flames over the oppressive heat of the summer night. He knew that in only seconds the streams of fire would make contact and leave him charred crisp like the kangaroo.
Shrilling its pleasure again, the infernal beast held off sending out its flames, choosing instead to make a leap for the wolf, which was now only a metre or so ahead of it. As its fiery arms began to descend to give the black wolf its embrace of death, Ernie knew he had no choice now. Propping, he weaved out of the infernal beast's grasp, then turned and leapt straight into the waters of the Yannan River.
As he leapt, the black wolf fully expected to be hideously disfigured by the pure waters burning him like acid, or else repelled by the water, possibly to be thrown back up into the arms of the shrilling infernal beast. Instead, to his pleasant surprise he surfaced almost midway across the river. 'Well, that's one werewolf legend I've managed to explode!' thought Ernie. He started to dog paddle across to the opposite bank, with the sounds of the infernal beast ringing in his ears, as it shrilled its rage at being cheated of its intended victim.
Again and again the creature shrilled its disappointment, as it raced along the bank of the river, keeping pace with Ernie, looking for a bridge to cross to reach him. But there was no solid bridge across the river for at least twenty kilometres in either direction. In between there were a number of shallows where a car could drive across, or an animal, or man in waders, could wade across. But the infernal beast's natural habitat was fire; even the shallowest water was enough to douse its fire and kill it.
* * *
Bear managed to get a little over two and a half hours sleep before his alarm clock went off, waking him to set out for the nearest fire front.
Walking around the edge of the small clearing in which a temporary base camp had been set up, perhaps two hundred metres from the fire zone, Bear located Mel Forbes easily enough by his snowy white, crew-cut hair. Like Bear, Mel was a big man, over 200 centimetres in height and 110 kilos in weight, but at forty-eight, he was almost twice Bear's age. Although as Sergeant of Merridale's two-man police force Mel was of equal rank with Bear, by virtue of a technicality of Victorian law Bear was Mel's superior (although he did not receive a cent extra salary): by Victorian law, when two or more country towns are policed by officers of the same rank, the officer in charge of the largest town is senior to the others. Since Merridale, LePage, Lenoak, and Harpertown are all small country towns, each with a population under seven hundred, while Glen Hartwell is a large country town with a population of nearly two thousand, Bear Ross was the superior Mel and the sergeants of the other local towns. When Bear first moved to Glen Hartwell he had found it a little overwhelming to have a number of other sergeants under his command. It was a big step up from senior constable to unofficial senior sergeant (the position of senior sergeant officially does not exist in Victoria, since making it official would mean the Police Department having to pay senior sergeants more). Even more so because of the age difference between himself and Mel. Bear had expected the older man to take offence at having a man half his age promoted over him. But to his pleasant surprise Mel turned out to be a "gentle giant" of a man, an easy going type who was one of the first to regard Bear as a friend, when most of the other locals were actively treating Bear like a leper for usurping Terry Blewett's place as sergeant of the Glen. A thirty-year police officer, Mel probably would have had to have retired from the police force years ago, if he were in Sydney or Melbourne, but in a small country town where it was near impossible to get good police sergeants to stay long, Mel had been allowed to stay on until he felt like retiring. To date he never had, although periodically he hinted of a desire to do so soon, although Jim Kane had told Bear the first time they met, "Don't let that gruff exterior fool you, the police force is Mel's second great love in life, after his wife Darlene. They'll have to drag him out by the heels kicking and screaming when he reaches sixty-five!"
After quickly explaining about Stan Ashmore's disappearance, Bear handed one of the black-and-white photographs to Mel saying, "We'll all have to try to keep a bit of an eye out for him...Although God alone knows how we're supposed to make a proper search for him, while fighting the fires as well."
"Maybe we can assign Terry and Andrew to have a bit of a look round for him," suggested Mel without much enthusiasm. He knew that if they were to have any real chance of finding Stan alive they really needed to launch a full-scale search.
"I suppose that's all we can do for now," agreed Bear, "although I might give Jim and Con a ring to see if they can spare a little time over the next couple of days. If we don't find him by then, he's not going to be found alive..."
"In this blasted heat he's not really likely to be alive even now, after two days in the bush," pointed out Mel, voicing Bear's own fears. "It might pay you to activate the women as well," he said, referring to three pro rata policewomen the Glen only took on payroll when they needed extra police. "Though I don't know how keen they'll be on doing a little bushwalking in this heat."
The two policemen talked for a moment longer, before Bear went to distribute photographs of Stan to Terry Blewett and Mel's constable, Andrew Braidwood. He was not looking forward to seeing Terry, who had acted surly around Bear since his arrival in Glen Hartwell in October 1982. Terry made no secret of the fact that he thought he should have got the sergeant's position in Glen Hartwell after the retirement of Lawrie Grimes in June the previous year.
That done, he went to report to Donald Esk, the local fire chief.
"Where do you want me, Don?" asked Bear, walking across to where Esk was checking his fire fighting equipment. Unlike Bear who had stopped work at nine o'clock the night before and had not reported again until nearly 6:30, Donald Esk had worked right through the night, only stopping for ten minute rest breaks every two or three hours, so he looked even more hagged than he had the previous night.
"Well, not here, that's for sure," replied Esk, looking up from his equipment, "this fire is nearly out. We're leaving a skeleton crew of three or four here to do a little mopping up. The rest are packing up to move on to the next most urgent fire."
"Then we're down to just two fires now?" asked Bear hopefully.
"Afraid not," said Esk. He started to pack his gear onto one of the ancient fire engines, which stood nearby, one of two twenty-year old vehicles, which his predecessor, Gary Reynolds, had spent a decade unsuccessfully trying to convince the state government to upgrade. "Still three; we've just had a report of a new fire, on the opposite side of the forest."
"The opposite side of the forest?" echoed Bear.
"Just beyond Westmoreland."
"Westmoreland, that's a ghost town isn't it?" asked Bear.
"That's right," agreed Esk. "Don't ask me how a fire started all the way out there...But by all reports it's larger than either of the other two, more likely to spread into the surrounding towns, so it gets first priority."
* * *
Ernie returned to the sheep station shortly before dawn and had just climbed in through the open bedroom window when he transformed back to human form. Although dry (the scorching summer sun having dried out the fur of the black wolf long before he reached the farm), Ernie felt wretchedly dirty after his race through the charcoal forest and swim through the Yannan, and managed to have a quick bath before being hit by the now expected famine-like hunger after his night run. He only just had time enough for a very quick soap, rinse, and towel dry before the famine struck, forcing him to race down to the kitchen to finish the last of the groceries brought by Rowena the night before.
In a little over an hour and a half he had consumed all the groceries, however, his hunger still raged in his belly. 'Food! I've gotta get some food!' he thought.
'Don't panic,' he thought as he rummaged through the empty food cupboards above the kitchen sink, 'there are people in Ethiopia far worse off than you!' However, though logic told him this was so, the famine that raged like a fire in his belly told him that no one in the whole world could be hungrier than he was at that moment.
He almost tore the doors off the cupboards in his haste to get at anything edible. However, his sole discoveries were a couple of handfuls of cornflakes at the bottom of a pack (with no milk to go with them), and some slightly mouldy slices of bread which he eagerly wolfed down, along with liberal helpings of warm water from the taps over the sink (which refused to give up cold water due to the outside water tank being overheated by the summer sun).
As the fist of hunger wrenched at his intestines, he searched the kitchen from top to bottom for any skerrick of food, which may have fallen down behind the refrigerator or under cupboards. He was almost on the point of whimpering from frustration, when he picked up the aroma of slightly rancid meat. Unable to detect the source at first, his searching became more feverish as he tossed empty food cartons and saucepans out of his way in his quest for food. Finally, as his hunger came close to bringing him to his knees, he realised that the smell originated from just inside the back door. Looking across expectantly, hoping to see some morsel of meat fallen from the table earlier, all he saw was a large plastic bag. The kitchen tidy where the refuse from previous meals lay, waiting to be taken out to be given to the dogs. Slowly heading across toward the green bag he thought, 'My God, have I reached the point of scavenging through the garbage for rotten food fit only for dogs to eat?' But as his hunger burnt like a fire in his belly, he knew he had indeed reached such levels of desperation.
He had actually grabbed the green plastic bag and started to riffle through the slimy contents, when he was saved from the indignity of eating any of the half rancid contents by the sound of car tyres on the gravel path outside. He hurried across to the kitchen sink to quickly wash his hands for fear of someone seeing what he had been on the brink of doing.
To his relief, he soon heard the voices of Brian Horne and his retarded brother, "Weird" Warren outside the farmhouse.
Warren and Brian arrived back at the Singleton station to find Ernie almost crazed with hunger. Although they had brought back three bags of groceries, which under normal circumstances would have lasted him up to a week, as he started to devour the food in a frenzy, Brian joked, "We'd better race back to the Dale, I don't think these three bags will last him till tea time."
Taking Brian seriously, Warren started to race back to the Premier, closely followed by Tanya and Gordo yapping happily at his heels. He reached the porch before realising Brian was not following.
Seeing a large can of dog food (a rare treat for Gordo and Tanya who normally had to settle for crunchy dog pellets) amid the groceries, Brian grabbed it and said, "We'd better dish this out for the dogs quick smart, or he'll beat them to it."
"Very funny," said Ernie between mouthfuls.
"Well just be sure to take the food out of the cans before eating it," teased Brian. "I know iron is good for your diet, but you don't want to overdo it."
Doing his best to ignore the sarcasm Ernie went on with his gigantic meal, while Brian and Warren went out to do the most urgent farm chores before heading off to help with the fire fighting.
* * *
The bushfire raged on a slight rise less than a kilometre outside Westmoreland. Although the town was deserted, the standing buildings and bitumen road down the centre of the town were possible fuel for the fire and had the potential to fire the flames out of control, making it impossible to keep the bushfire away from the nearby town of Glen Hartwell where two thousand lives could be lost if the town could not be evacuated post-haste. It was on that basis that less than half an hour after the fire-fighters had arrived at the Westmoreland fire zone, Bear Ross had suggested the police officers leave the fire fighting to examine the town, to see if it would be practical to tear down (or blow up) the buildings before the fire had even started in that direction.
"It seems a shame to blow up a local land mark, when it might not even be needed," said Mel as they set out. But he knew that the ghost town was more expendable than Lenoak or Glen Hartwell where many lives could be lost.
It was twenty minutes later when Bear Ross, close to collapsing from fatigue and lack of sleep, heard from Mel Forbes that they had located what they believed to be the body of Stan Ashmore.
"You're not sure?" asked Bear, surprised, knowing Mel was usually faultless in his investigations.
"No ... the body is too severely burnt."
"Burnt? Then his body was found out of town?"
"No, in one of the houses in town," replied Mel. He started down Cockerall Road, toward the house where Andrew Braidwood and Jerry Green were waiting.
"But the fire hasn't entered the town yet," pointed out Bear. When Mel failed to reply, he said, "Then what killed him?"
"You tell me?" said the older man. He pointed to a series of giant footprints burnt deep into the bitumen, from one end of the road to the other.
"Holy Mother of God!" said Bear, instinctively crossing himself as he knelt to examine the nearest footprint. The prints were nearly fifteen centimetres deep, with five toes clearly outlined on each track. It was impossible to imagine how they could have been made by anything other than a pair of burning human feet.
"That's nothing," said Mel. He led Bear across to the weatherboard house where they had found what they believed to be the remains of Stan Ashmore. "Wait until you see this."
"See what...?" asked Bear. A second later he saw the man-shaped hole where the clear outline of the infernal beast had been burnt right through the weatherboards into the house.
"After you," said Mel, waving a hand toward the outline. Then, seeing Bear's puzzled look, "That's how we entered in the first place. He barricaded all the doors and windows before it got him."
"Before what got him?" asked Bear as he stepped through the man-shaped outline and into the room (instinctively ducking as he stepped through the outline, although it was not necessary; despite being more than 200 centimetres tall, the outline easily dwarfed him). He found Jerry Green and Andrew Braidwood kneeling over a large pile of blackened ashes, which vaguely resembled the remains of a man.
Bear had the black-and-white photo of Stan Ashmore folded in a pocket of his clothes, but it was impossible without thorough forensic testing, to make any kind of identification from the mound of ashes on the floor. 'Before what got him?' Bear thought, repeating the question to himself. Remembering the events upon Mount Abergowrie the day before, the eyes peering out of the bushfire at him, the gigantic man enveloped in flames, beckoning him to walk forward to his doom, Bear had a good idea what had killed Stan Ashmore. Looking back at the hole burnt through the wall, man-shaped except for its enormous proportions, Bear thought, 'The Devil got him!' But he knew he couldn't say that in front of Mel or the others. He was unable to take his eyes away from the sight of Andrew Braidwood using a small-headed spade to scoop the human ashes into a thick plastic rubbish bag to be taken to the morgue for proper forensic testing.
* * *
Wilfred Lomax strode through the forest at an even pace, not hurried, intent on distance rather than speed. Beneath his feet crunched pine needles and dry leaves, while away in the distance the bushfires crackled ominously as they reduced the state's precious timber to charcoal. But Wilf was not afraid to be out in the forest, he knew the nearest fire was at least a dozen kilometres away on the opposite side of the forest.
Wilf was aware Eileen would tell him off for taking foolish risks, if she knew he was even this close to the fire front. Although she well knew after sixty years of marriage that he would not be put off his daily constitutional, come rain or shine, since the start of the bushfires some weeks earlier Eileen had been nagging him to put off his walks until the last of the fires were extinguished. 'But still,' thought Wilf, 'what's the point in living, if you can't take a few risks at my age?'
Broomstick thin, with wispy, snowy hair, to anyone who didn't know him, Wilf looked like a frail old man, but in his day he had been a local sporting hero. He had won most of the local running races in the 1920s and 1930s and had just failed to qualify for the Australian team for the controversial 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. He had been robbed of any further hopes of Olympic glory by the cancellation of the 1940 and '44 games. By the time of the London Games in 1952 he had been too old. So Wilf had settled for the mundane life of a factory hand in Megarithe Chemicals, a local glue and plastic manufacturer in Glen Hartwell. However, he had kept in shape, and even now in his mid seventies Wilf walked at least ten kilometres every day (to the consternation and embarrassment of many of the younger locals who were unable to keep up with him).
The old man had walked almost from Merridale to Glen Hartwell, when he heard a sound like fire crackling ahead of him. He stopped, puzzled by the sound, knowing the fires were not in that area. 'Could I have got myself that turned about in the bush?' he wondered. But after more than sixty years walking the forest from Glen Hartwell, all the way to Harpertown and back, and in the other direction, past Pettiwood, as far as Briarwood, two-thirds of the way to Willamby, both by day and by night, it seemed unlikely that he would get lost now.
The old man stood still for a few moments, listening to the sound, before conceding to himself that it most definitely did sound like fire crackling. 'But out here?' he thought in surprise, starting forward to investigate.
Seeing a large man standing in the forest by himself, Wilf started to call out to ask if he was all right. He stopped in astonishment as the "man" held his hands before him like the Frankenstein monster in an old movie and yellow flames whooshed out in front of him as though his hands were flame-throwers, to ignite a large blue gum. Although the forest was dry from the recent drought, Wilf was astonished to see how readily the tree took to flames, becoming a raging inferno before his eyes. It was only as the "man" turned to aim toward a tall ghost gum half a dozen metres to his right that Wilf saw that he was swathed in a sea of swirling flames and realised this creature was responsible for the bushfires which had ravished South Australia and Victoria over the last six weeks.
Although common sense told Wilf that he should flee before the infernal beast spotted him, the old man was entranced by the sight of the creature using its hands like flame-throwers to ignite first one tree then another, slowly turning away from Wilf in a clockwise motion.
Held spellbound from fascination more than fear, Wilf watched in awe as the creature completed its slow circle until finally it was facing directly toward him. For a second the creature stepped backward startled as though it had been observed in some secret act; then recovering, as Wilf finally came to his senses and turned to flee, the creature sent out one last burst of yellow flames which drowned the old man in a deluge of fire, making him scream as his flesh ignited and began burning furiously.
Wisps of grey smoke snorted from the nostrils of the infernal beast as it watched in satisfaction while Wilfred Lomax was consumed by its flames, which burnt the old man to cinders in only seconds.
* * *
The sky-blue Ford Fairlane was still a couple of hundred metres from the farmhouse, when Georgina Hart stepped out into the yard and started across to the gate to await the arrival of Bear Ross and Petra Drysdale (one of the Glen's three pro rata policewomen). As they pulled up by the woodpile outside the farmhouse yard, Georgina burst into tears, expecting the worst seeing the long faces of the two police officers.
Looking across at Petra as she opened the door on her side, Bear thought, 'So much for my hopes of breaking it to her gently!' He was grateful they had stopped off to collect Gina Foley (the chief co-ordinator of the Glen Hartwell and Daley Community Hospital) before starting out for Merridale.
As they climbed from the police car Georgina became hysterical, screaming, "No! No! He can't be dead! He can't be dead!" over and over. Petra and Bear led her into the farmhouse with Gina following behind, already preparing a sedative to inject into the operatically large woman to quieten her down.
"So he's dead then?" said Sam Hart casually as they passed him on the back porch, obviously not the least upset at the news. Then as his wife continued to bawl hysterically, "Can't you shut her up a bit?"
Shocked by Sam's indifference to the death of his brother-in-law and noting fresh bruises on Georgina's pudgy face, it was all Bear could do to stop himself from lashing out at Hart, wanting to make him feel some of the pain that he enjoyed passing on to his wife. But realising that it would only hurt Georgina more than Sam, Bear forced himself to control his anger as they pushed past Hart to enter the farmhouse.
Instead of following them into the house, Hart started out into the back yard saying, "Well I'd better be getting back to the farm. I'll leave you to see she's all right."
"For God's sake she's your wife, don't you care what she's going through?" demanded Bear, wondering even as he spoke why he was wasting his breath.
"Course I care," said Sam unconvincingly, "but I've got the farm to look after. It won't run itself you know. Anyway, you can look after her better than I can, you're trained for that kind of thing."
'You don't need training to care for someone!' thought Bear. But as Gina started to remove Georgina's blouse to give her an injection, he realised he had no time to waste arguing with Hart. 'Besides it'd be a waste of effort,' he thought, 'I'd get further arguing with a brick wall, and the wall would probably have more compassion than that heartless bastard!'
"Hold her still," said Gina. She pinched Georgina's right arm to raise a blood vessel and injected a strong sedative into her to put her to sleep.
As the drug started to take effect and Georgina became drowsy, Gina said, "We'd better get her up to bed before she goes under." She knew that although Georgina, like many big women, wasn't really as big as she appeared, at more than a hundred kilos, she would be a handful even for Bear after she passed out.
* * *
That evening at a little after 11:00 p.m., Ernie was sitting in the living room brooding, when he heard a long shrill whistling shriek out back. A moment later it was followed by the hysterical whining of a dog in great agony.
He raced outside to investigate.
Inside the dog yard he saw the red-plumed figure of the infernal beast waving its arms around wildly, sending out whooshing bursts of fire toward the cringing station dogs. At its feet lay the charred carcases of Tanya and three other station dogs. Ernie had already started into the dog yard when he felt his head start to swim and fell to his knees. At first he thought it was an attack of the aches and cramps which had wracked his body for weeks and feared that he would be at the mercy of the infernal beast, unable to defend himself as he writhed beneath the crippling pains. But then realising that he was about to shape shift into the black wolf, he hurriedly stripped out of his clothes so he wouldn't be trapped in them in wolf form.
At first the infernal beast didn't pay much attention to the large wolf, mistaking it for just another of the cringing, whining station dogs. But as Ernie galloped almost within reach of the flames that it whooshed out, a memory was dredged up from the depths of its feeble brain. The creature remembered its race through the forest in pursuit of the large, black wolf and how the wolf had outsmarted the creature by leaping into the waters of the Yannan River to escape.
The black wolf waited until the monster was almost upon him, before turning tail to lope toward the back of the sheep station, heading toward the forest. He effortlessly leapt the metre-high fences separating one paddock from another, and then started into the forest itself, looking back from time to time to make certain the infernal beast was still following.
Heading toward Westmoreland, Ernie knew he would have to pace himself more skilfully than he had the last time he had been chased by the creature. He would have to run smarter, not faster, if he intended to stay out of the infernal beast's clutches all the way to the ghost town. Whereas the last time he had been running from blind terror, today he had a plan. At last he knew how to destroy the infernal beast (he hoped!) as long as he could keep ahead of the flames shot out toward him by the monster as they thundered through the forest.
From time to time the infernal beast let out its shrill screech or unleashed a burst of flames from its hands, but the black wolf knew those things were intended more to frighten him than harm him. But today he was not frightened, he was only angry at the senseless murder of the Barb-Kelpie bitch Tanya and the other station dogs. Angry and determined to stop the infernal beast before it took any more lives!
* * *
A little before 11:30 p.m. Bear and a few of the others stopped to take a short break from the fire fighting. They had made excellent progress with the Westmoreland fire (to the relief of the local sheep and cattle station owners) and hoped to have the fire doused by midnight or 1:00 a.m. at the latest.
They had set up a rest tent a few hundred metres away from the fire front, from which Helen Horne, Rowena and Samantha Frankland, Gloria and Holly Ulverstone, and one or two other locals were serving food and drinks to the fire-fighters.
Holly was serving coffee to Donald Esk and Bear, when into the clearing raced a large black wolf. Almost twice the size of a black Barb-Kelpie, the wolf stopped by the open flap of the tent, as though wanting the people inside to see him.
"My God!" cried Holly. The first to see the wolf, she pointed back over Bear's shoulder toward it.
They turned to see what she was pointing at and Bear said, "Relax, he's probably just fleeing from the bushfire."
He got up to investigate, and as he approached the wolf began wagging its tail.
"See, he just wants to be friends."
"He was probably attracted by the smell of food," suggested Gloria. She handed Bear a large slab of iced jaffa cake and he waved it around in front of himself, trying to entice the wolf to come forward for it.
He almost got close enough to touch the wolf, when it suddenly turned tail and fled a few metres across the clearing.
"Here boy!" called Bear, holding up the jaffa cake and whistling as though the wolf were an ordinary dog.
"It's a shame Ernie isn't here," said Helen Horne, not noticing the pained look in Rowena's eyes at the mention of Ernie's name. "With his talent for handling dogs, it'd probably be eating out of his hands by now."
Half a dozen people left the tent and joined in the attempt to capture the wolf. But although still wagging its tail, the black wolf had no intention of allowing itself to be caught.
Bear was still trying to capture the black wolf, when from the other end of the clearing he heard a high-pitched shriek. He ran across to investigate, as from the fire front lurched the figure of the infernal beast.
"Oh my God!" cried Donald Esk, seeing the flaming creature and mistaking it for a man. "The poor bastard's on fire."
Bear retreated toward the other side of the clearing at the approach of the infernal beast, expecting the others to follow suite. But as Esk and the other fire fighters raced toward it, he realised they thought the monster was a human being.
"Look out, it's the Devil!" he called. But only Holly heard and looked toward the big man in astonishment, wondering if she had heard correctly.
Seven men and women quickly surrounded the infernal beast. They raised the nozzles of their backpacks toward it, and began covering the creature from head to foot in fire-retarding foam.
As the white foam coated it, dousing its life-giving fire, the infernal beast began to screech shrilly, from pain and fear. Twisting and turning every which way in agony, it tried to shoot out its lethal flames at the fire fighters; however, its powers had deserted it under the death-giving foam. So it attempted to lash out at the people with its large arms, but it was already too weak from the loss of its flames to be able to harm them as they covered every square centimetre of its giant body in a mountain of foam.
"Do you think he's dead?" asked one of the fire fighters as the creature fell in a heap on the thick carpet of pine needles.
"Poor bastard, he hasn't got a chance," said Esk. He shook his head ruefully.
At the opposite end of the clearing, the black wolf stood watching the proceedings with a broad toothy grin on his canine face, savouring the death of the infernal beast for a few moments. Then he turned and raced into the forest, heading back toward the Singleton sheep station on the outskirts of Merridale.
* * *
The period immediately afterwards was a time of regrets and confusion. Early that morning Jerry Green was greeted at the morgue in Baltimore Drive, Glen Hartwell, with the corpse of the infernal beast.
Its flames doused, the infernal beast looked more like a gargoyle than a man. Although basically human in shape, it was a bright orangey colour, with just a hint of devil's horns on its forehead and smooth, rubbery skin. "But rubber which doesn't melt in fire," explained Don Esk as they dumped the carcase onto a metal table in the operating theatre near the back of the small morgue.
After an unsuccessful attempt to perform an autopsy on the creature, Jerry had the carcase packed in ice and sent it off to the East Melbourne laboratories of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), in the hope the government lab might be able to determine what the infernal beast really was. However, he heard nothing more from them until six months later when he rang through to Melbourne. At first the CSIRO research director pretended to know nothing about any such mysterious carcase. But finally he admitted that they had received it, but didn't have any idea what the creature was.
Despite his assurances that he would keep Jerry informed of any new developments, the man never rang back, and the CSIRO switchboard refused to put Jerry through when he tried to ring him again.
Bear Ross was just as confused as Jerry Green. He had thought the creature was the supernatural devil and therefore invincible against natural weapons, until seeing it killed by fire extinguishers. 'But surely you can't kill the Devil with foam-throwers?' he thought. He never found out the solution to his dilemma. But after the death of the creature the two remaining bushfires, which had been burning out of control for weeks, both went out in a matter of hours. And Glen Hartwell and the surrounding towns became strangely immune to fire after that, even avoiding the minor brush fires which all forests have every summer, making the fire department almost redundant (although they were still needed to fight occasional industrial fires in the manufacturing section of Glen Hartwell) for more than fifteen years. Up until the time of the "Black Monday" holocaust, which burnt out of control for more than a year from October 1999 to February 2001, destroying fifty percent of Victoria's forestland and taking more than a quarter of a million lives.
* * *
After leading the infernal beast to the Westmoreland fire front (aware that his strategy could have backfired costing the lives of the fire-fighters), Ernie had returned to his sheep station to bury the carcases of Tanya and the other station dogs killed by the infernal beast.
As he lowered the corpse of the Barb-Kelpie bitch into the ground, Gordo began to whine mournfully. Gordo and Tanya had been mates for five years and now the large black dog was lost without his bitch.
Hurting from the sheepdog's grief, Ernie thought of his own possible loss. His own uncertain future with, or without Rowena Frankland, because of his werewolf taint. A few weeks earlier he had bought a small diamond engagement ring, ready to give to Rowena. Now the ring lay abandoned in its box at the back of a drawer of his dressing cabinet, possibly never to be given to her.
© Copyright 2011
Philip Roberts, Melbourne, Australia