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A Twist in the Tail


Jack Windsor

Fred and I left the house soon after lunch on that Spring afternoon. Looking back I suppose I should have sensed something was about to disturb our normal routine, but it is so easy to be wise after the event isn't it.

On that particular day there was a rain storm about an hour earlier and now the sun was beating down, creating a bright and sparkling world. The old stale smells were washed away to leave a cleanliness that was stimulating.

I had Fred since I first left home and still remember my mother saying that owning him was not enough. I also was responsible, she said, for his welfare, and for seeing he has sufficient exercise. He was, fortunately, never reluctant to exert himself and ever ready to go for a walk when I called him.

Indeed, we went for frequent long walks and always enjoyed them. But the Sunday afternoon walk was special to both of us, and Springtime Sundays were the best of all.

Before long we were passing the last of the houses in the village. Their gardens looked as if a local artist tried to draw attention to himself with bold brush strokes of vivid red and yellow. The flowers themselves seemed to reflect the brightness of the sunshine that day. Then down the road we went, man and dog together, as we had done a thousand and more times before.

I looked with affection at my companion at the other end of the lead. Fred was not a pedigree of course, but that did nothing to detract from his qualities, and nobody could have wished for a more loyal friend. The only fault I could find in him was his habit of going off on his own whenever he felt like it. At first I had been worried, half afraid that he would not return. As the years progressed, however, I came to realise that Fred was a law unto himself. Now as age began to catch up with him his solo excursions were becoming less frequent, and he was more content to remain at home.

After ten minutes walking we reached the outskirts of the forest, and soon left the hard road for the grassy paths. I could feel the warmth of the Spring sunshine through my coat. It had been a long cold winter and consequently the Spring started late, but now that it had arrived it was as welcome to us as the return of a beloved friend who had stayed away too long.

The dog lead was unclipped, leaving Fred to choose his own individual route through the trees. We learned long ago that the interests of a man and a dog in the forest are not always the same, and so we were happy to make our separate ways, meeting every now and again with all the enthusiasm of a grand re-union.

Everything about the forest that day seemed to shout the message of the new season, so that each of the senses was aroused. As far as the eye could see the ground was carpeted in bluebells, their slightly pungent perfume embracing us as we walked through them. Above our heads the trees were showing off their new Spring clothes that rustled at the gentle touch of the breeze as it drifted through the forest like a benevolent wraith. Wherever I looked, the birds, resplendent in their breeding plumage, were filling the air with song.

Then away in the distance I noticed a stealthy movement through the trees. I froze in mid-step and focused my eyes on the spot which caught my attention. For a moment I could see nothing, but I continued looking, sure in my mind that something was there. I waited patiently for a minute or more watching for that
telltale movement.

Then quite suddenly, there they were: a herd of fallow deer, their camouflage blending perfectly into the trees and undergrowth. They must have heard me making a slight noise for they were looking in my direction. The herd was too far away to be able to see me if I remained still and luckily, the breeze was blowing my scent away from them. After a few minutes they seemed to decide there was no danger and continued with their browsing. I looked around to see if Fred was watching them also, but there was no sign of him.

Cautiously I moved closer to the deer, pausing whenever they looked in my direction, until I was only about twenty metres from them. Then I heard a noise way to my right; a tearing crashing noise that sounded as if a tree had been felled. I glanced quickly in the direction I thought it came from, but saw nothing changed.

There was a brief silence from the birds; then the forest was as it had been a few minutes before. When I looked back, the fallow deer were gone. Their ability to melt into their surroundings fascinated me, and I remained motionless, staring into the depths of the forest until my eyes, tired of the strain, became so blurred I had to look away.

It had been some time since I had seen Fred. Then he was meandering through the trees and carrying a short stick he picked up earlier; but now he was nowhere to be seen. It was unusual for him to be away so long, so I called to him. There was no reply! I called again, and as the sound of my voice died away, I paused to listen for his answer. Still no response.

I sensed rather than knew something might be wrong, but at that stage I felt a slight annoyance rather than worry. Fred was typical of his breed; short sighted and slightly slow witted. He could never have made a good rabbiter. He had no sense of direction and his hearing was so poor he missed much of what was going on. Increasing age had done nothing to improve the performance of his senses. I was not particularly surprised that he had wandered away, but even so we usually kept in touch during our walks through the forest.

I called once more. Even the birds paused to listen, but silence was the only answer we received. Now my concern pushed away all other thoughts and I actively began to search for Fred. Turning back the way I had come I looked for signs of him, stopping every now and again to shout and listen.

The silence of the forest bred a fear that some disaster had occurred, and frightening images began to force themselves upon my brain. I could almost see an illegal gin trap, with its rusting jaws clamped upon his leg. Or maybe he wandered into some area made marshy by recent rain, and been unable to get out. I shook my head to clear away the unpleasant thoughts and to concentrate upon the search.

Once after I called I heard some people laughing and chattering nearby, but my concern lay with finding Fred. It may be difficult for an outsider to understand how strong the bond between a man and dog can be. Our bond had been created through many years of loyalty, trust and understanding. At that moment I was overwhelmed by the feeling that Fred was in need of my help; but first I had to find him!

After a short while I reached the part of the forest where I had last seen him. Then I struck off in the direction I thought he had been taking. I do not know how long I searched, for time was meaningless. All I was aware of was the desperate need to discover what happened to Fred. Every now and again I stopped to call and listen for an answer, but the reply never came. The noise I made disturbed the wild inhabitants of the forest and I began to wish that they could speak my language and tell me what had occurred.

Once my shouting unsettled a pair of muntjac deer foraging nearby. Startled, they flashed across the path in front of me and in a second were lost to view. Usually, I would have been excited by the sight of these shy creatures, but I hardly noticed them.

I began to lose hope, and could feel the nagging pressure of a thought drumming through my brain that I might be too late. I was not even certain I was in the right part of the forest. Then my attention was caught by a movement almost at my feet. I looked down, just in time to see the lissom brown body of a female weasel disappearing into the grass. For an instant my gaze followed the exciting, inquisitive creature until she vanished.

Close to the spot where she had been, I saw a stick that looked much like the one Fred had been holding. I examined it carefully. Now I was sure he had passed this way, and I continued the search with renewed hope and courage.

I knew it could not be long since he had been there, and so would not be far away. But the anxiety caused by the absence of any reply to my calls made the hair rise on the back of my neck. I had an overwhelming feeling he was somewhere nearby and that something was seriously wrong. Then, as I was passing a mighty and ancient copper beech tree, I saw him!

For a moment, panic engulfed me as I took in the scene before me. A large and twisted branch of the beech tree had split from the trunk and fallen to the ground, pinning Fred beneath it. Now I knew what caused that ominous crashing noise earlier. Fred's eyes were closed and he lay motionless with his legs firmly under the massive bough.

I could see the gentle movement of his body rising and falling as he breathed. In desperation I tugged with all my power at the branch, trying to shift the weight from Fred, but there was no movement. I felt both my strength and my courage beginning to fade. Frantically, I tried to revive him, without success.

Then I remembered the people I heard earlier, and ran as fast as I could towards the place where they had been. I cared not that the undergrowth was snatching at my legs and coat. I just had to find those people. Again I heard them talking and ran in their direction, shouting at the top of my voice, until they came into view. They were staring in my direction, wondering what the commotion was about.

There was a man and a woman. I called out to them, hardly pausing for breath, telling them what happened to Fred. I begged for their help, and without waiting for an answer, started on my way back. I looked behind; they seemed to be ignoring me. Again and again I shouted to them, until, at last they began moving in my direction.

I headed back towards the fallen branch, checking every now and again that the couple were following me. I sped on, crashing through the grass and brambles, ignoring the paths. It seemed further than before and for a fleeting moment I thought I might be going the wrong way. Doubt gave way to relief, however, as once again I saw the giant beech tree with its newly formed scar where the branch had previously grown.

Fred had not moved. The man stood looking down at him and exclaimed, "Why its old Fred!" At the sound of his name, Fred's eyes flickered and then slowly opened.

The woman smiled and said, "You've had an accident Fred; but your faithful dog led us to you." I lay on the ground close to Fred, my master, as he patted me. Then I knew everything would be all right.

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