Black Dog.

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Mark knew he had drunk far too much alcohol to ride the motor cycle safely, and the only sensible thing was to leave it on the car park of the Red Lion pub. At twenty years of age and a member of the pub team for Sunday soccer, the four-mile walk across the moor, even on such a cold autumn night, was of little concern. At a brisk pace, it should take no more than forty-five minutes to reach home, and the moon gave light enough to see his way.

It really had been a waste of time attending the combined birthday and Halloween party. He had been excited at the prospect by the knowledge that a certain ‘young lady’—the term must be used loosely in describing her—would be there, and was now fair game for the testosterone driven males of the area having recently dumped her latest of many boyfriends.

Her name was Sarah, and she with parents had moved into the area from London two years earlier. She had shoulder length hair of honey blond and a figure that oozed sexuality like the juices from an over-ripe peach. The wicked gleam in her green eyes seemed a challenge to every man on whom she looked, to take her to bed, and the majority had obliged at least once. Her Halloween costume of short red miniskirt, cut-off white tank top and tattered fishnet stockings made her look more like a whore than a witch even though adorned with the traditional tall, pointed black hat.

The birthday celebrations were for the twins, Jonathon and Timothy who, like Mark, also lived in the tiny hamlet of Teinhead. The village comprised a dozen cottages and a small chapel, but no pub of its own. The Red Lion at Shelton-on-Tein on the edge of Bodmin moor was the nearest tavern where a ‘working man’ could get a drink after a long day. True to form, Sarah had flirted with several unattached male partygoers, before finally settling on making the night a birthday to remember for the two brothers.

Once it was clear where her interest resided, Mark set about the more serious mission of drowning his dream in alcohol. When he left the Red Lion three hours later, the party was still in progress, although the bar had closed. Unlike some parts of England, the police were fairly lenient with licensing laws as long as no one caused trouble.

He had been walking for about fifteen minutes, after which time he was almost sober. Well at least his head had stopped spinning, and he could now walk in a straight line without fear of stumbling into the ditch beside the road. The lights from the village were far behind, but the waxing, gibbous moon, almost three quarter full, provided sufficient light to see a fair distance across the open moor. Eddies of vaporous mist reflected the pallid silver light in the dips and vales visible from the high ground over which the road passed.

Almost midnight of All Hallows Eve on this lonely stretch of road would be a perfect place for him to imagine seeing ghost or spectre haunting the silent scene. The idea amused him and might be likely if he had an imagination that would stretch to the supernatural. He chuckled thinking it was more likely that he would scare any witch or phantom he encountered. For the fancy dress party, his costume had been minimal; torn dishevelled jeans, ripped shirt daubed with red paint to imitate blood, and a little grease paint to produce deep shadows around his blue eyes on an unnaturally ashen complexion. Far more people now seemed to imitate the likeness of members of the un-dead, vampires and zombies, rather than the more traditional witches and warlocks at Halloween parties. Such was the influence of so many macabre films and TV shows.

The only likelihood of traffic on the road at this time of night would be the revellers Jonathon and Timothy, the celebrating twins, and their cousin, Matthew, returning home. They too would obviously be paralytic, and his one concern was to give them enough room so as not to run him down. The road was barely wide enough for two cars to pass, but there was plenty of room if he stood on the grass verge. He would certainly have enough warning of their approach. Matthew’s beat up Ford made enough noise that he would have plenty of time to get out of the way.

The road in front of him descended through an ‘S’ curve into a dip through a small copse of trees. There was another sharp ‘S’ bend toward the other end of the grove before it climbed back on to the open moor. He knew the copse well, having spent many evenings listening to the owls in the branches of the oaks. A date the previous June with Alice, a girl he met at work, had ended here in romantic moonlight. The first haunting mournful screech had really freaked her that she refused ever to see him again. Tonight there seemed to be no owls. He would normally expect to hear them from some distance on a still evening such as this.

He felt a desire to sing, for the company of a voice, even his own to combat the loneliness he was beginning to feel. Not much of a vocalist, his repertoire was limited to older records from the seventies and eighties. He began with:

“Wear a tall hat like the druids from the old days, Wear a tall hat and a tattooed gown; Ride a white swan like the people from the Beltane, Wear your hair long babe you can’t go wrong.”

He had no guilt that the song was inspired by his memory of Sarah, even if her attire did not quite follow the tattooed gown.

Swirls of thickening mist drifting around the first trees seemed to add a quaver to his voice, which only enhanced the solitude. He abandoned the performance as his walking pace took him down into the glade and the first corner. The silence now was broken only by the soft rustle of branches in the almost still air. His feet scuffed through damp fallen leaves at the side of the road, which seemed to deaden the sound of his footsteps.

The sudden growl of a large animal came as such a shock he froze in mid stride. The sound had come from the trees to his left. He held his breath waiting to hear it repeated. There should be no animals in present day England to make such a sound. His eyes probed into the misty shadows, and for the first time he wished he had brought a flashlight. He could see nothing.

Convincing himself it must have been imagination, he took a step forward when an even more terrifying sound, the baying howl of a large dog came from deeper among the trees. Hunting dogs, hounds. He recognised the sound of the animals that accompanied the annual deer hunt on the moor. Was it one of them that had growled? Or was the growl from the quarry they were hunting?

He had a sensation that the temperature was falling. The leather motor cycle jacket over the Halloween costume should have been adequate protection, but still he shivered. Motionless, his eyes were fixed on the darkness between the trees.

There! Something moved. A shadow, no different from other shadows, and yet he thought… would have sworn it moved in the mist. He tried to convince himself it was only a tendril of vapour, constraining his imagination, and yet…then it stepped into the moonlight almost as if it were appearing through a veil.

It? There were three of them. Dogs. Huge black dogs with flattened heads. drooping ears and heavy jowls that hung with thick saliva. Having grown up in a countryside community, he was used to big dogs. Every house in the village had at least one. These appeared to be similar to Mastiffs, one of the largest English breeds, but even a Mastiff was not as large and heavy as the creatures confronting him. Almost the size of a small donkey, they had huge eyes that glinted in the moonlight. Eyes that glinted—red. As if trying to calm him, his thoughts became almost logical, that if there was only the pale glow of moonlight, nothing should reflect in their eyes as a ruddy light.

The three beasts stood shoulder to shoulder across the road, challenging him to flee like a rabbit. He knew it would have been the most futile option he could muster, and probably the last. However, if they were trained hunting dogs, they should respond to authoritative command.

“Good doggy…” He could have kicked himself. It sounded so pathetic; a church mouse would have had more conviction. Facing them, he swallowed hard and tried again. “Er, good dog. Sit…”

The words had no effect. As he tried to sidle across the road and around them, the nearest hound moved just enough to cut off his escape route. It curled its lips back to show its canine fangs. The upper pair, pointing downward, was almost as large as a man’s thumbs. The growl that rumbled in its throat was even more menacing than the one that halted his progress on the road. Yellow drool dripped from its teeth, and even from the distance of six feet away, Mark noticed the rancid fetid smell of the beast. His nerve failed as he took three steps backward. An equally menacing snarl came from behind. The shock almost caused his knees to buckle under his weight as he turned. How had not one but two of the creatures come up behind in utter silence.

“Good dog…” he tried again, but only seeming to provoke them further as more growls came from barrel chests. His own panted breath floated in a cloud before his eyes. That’s odd! The thought struck like a bullet. Not one of the black dogs showed any sign of steam coming from mouth or nostrils.

There was further movement in the shadows beneath the trees. Mark almost collapsed with relief—a figure on a horse. It could only be the owner of the pack coming to call them off. As they came into the moonlight, he gathered courage to call out to the huntsman. But the words died in his throat. Reality seemed to swim in a haze around him. The horse was thin, so undernourished it was little more than bones, almost a skeleton wrapped in a pale yellowy grey skin. Water dripped from its mane and tale, and there seemed to be weed or some kind of vegetation twisted into the plaits.

The rider was dressed in black, a hunting jacket hanging from his shoulders as if from the back of a chair. His clothes too dripped with moisture. He wore no hat, yet thin strands of white hair hung over his pate. But his face! White, ashen, more pallid than Mark’s own grease paint disguise. Like the horse, it was little more than skin covering bone, with eyes. As with the dogs, they seemed to glow with red ethereal light. They held Mark’s stare with a fixation to burn his soul. For what seemed an age, they glared into him, studying him as if to pass judgement over the worth of his existence.

At last, the rider looked down to one gnarled hand that held a large open book. He seemed to consider information written on the pages before closing and dropping it into a flap on the saddle. From his pocket, he took a pale hunting horn, which he held against his mouth, little more than a lipless gash across his jaw and from which protruded several yellow teeth. The wailing cry he produced on the horn trembled on the night air. He turned the horse around, and the five dogs followed him in placid obedience back into the mist. In moments, the dark shadows beneath the trees swallowed their presence from view.

As if released, Mark’s legs gave way, and the hard surface of the road came up to meet him. It was probably no more than a few minutes until the awareness came that he was sitting in the middle of a damp road. He got up and shuffled into the bank, shocked to feel his limbs were quivering like jelly. There was a warm wet patch in the front of his jeans. At some point, and without realising, he had lost muscular control of his bladder. Bent almost double he breathed deeply as his sports training program had taught him. He was still some way from full recovery of the terror when he heard the sound of the approaching car engine.

He moved completely off the road, remembering the inevitable drunken state in which the driver would be. He waited, hopeful after the terror of the previous minutes that they might see him and offer him a lift. The glow of the headlights was visible long before the vehicle dropped into the dip to the first of the bends. The vehicle was travelling fast, taking the curve so wide as to pass him almost on the far side of the road. For a moment, the headlights shone fully on him. The driver hit the brakes, and tyres shrieked in protest at the abuse. The car came to a stop just before the second curve of the ‘S’ about twenty yards beyond where he stood.

Mark felt a sense of relief as he ran toward the vehicle. He was still a few yards behind when the rear passenger door opened. The interior lit up as the courtesy light came on showing the five occupants staring back at him. Blonde hair and white tank top hung out of the doorway, Sarah’s bare arm resting on the door handle.

“Hey! Marky,” she called. “Twick or tweat?” The high-pitched squeal of her voice and her drunken state seemed to slur pronunciation of the ‘R’s out of existence.

Still breathless, he was unable to answer. Timothy was sat next to her, and he leaned across so his head almost rested on the back of her shoulder. “Treat! Treat! You should have said treat you moron…” His hands were round her slim waist and resting on the bare flesh of her stomach. He slid them up under the tank top, lifting it to expose her breasts.

Sarah fell backwards on top of him, with a fit of shrieks and giggles. The engine roared as the car leapt away, the wheels spinning a shower of gravel over Mark left standing on the road. The door still unfastened swung closed with the momentum of the vehicle as the driver raced the engine through the lower gears. The red taillights disappeared into the film of mist around the next bend.

Nothing for it, but to carry on walking and hope there was no repetition of seeing the dogs.

He had travelled no more than a few steps before he again heard the screech of tires on tarmac, but from the direction in which he was heading. This time there was no peaceful conclusion. The squeal seemed to continue for an interminably long time before ending in horrific bang and grinding screech of tearing metal. The squeal of tyres was replaced by the baying of hounds, not one animal, but the sound of an entire pack. The noise was more of a high-pitched yelping than the baying he heard earlier, the sound made by the pack as they closed in on helpless prey.

The feeling of fear experienced earlier again swept over him. He wanted to turn and run. Two miles, it would take little more than ten minutes back to the Red Lion. He could do so under the pretext of seeking help for the victims of the accident that he was convinced had just occurred. There was no need for him to look, to see the inevitable. He dithered; scared to go forward, but with a need to know, to be certain that he was only imagining the horrors of those hounds. Then he heard the scream. A female scream of terror. His sense of chivalry swayed him. Whatever lay around the bend in the road, at least, this time he would not be alone.

His conscience drove him forward, against his sense of reason. It was stupid. He knew it was stupid. Every sense of logic told him it was stupid. The screams did not stop. He was running, yet every painful gasp for breath tried to convince him to reconsider. At moments, he felt he was running through thick mud as the thoughts crowded into his mind like panic-stricken bees defending their hive. The rubber soles of his boots made little noise on the damp road, and nothing to compete with the sounds from ahead. Rounding the bend, the scene of carnage a hundred yards in front could have come from a nightmare. The white Ford Granada aimed diagonally across the road had its bonnet crumpled against the trunk of a large tree. The car must have hit with some force to cause the trunk to tilt at such a perilous angle to the vertical. It was impossible to tell if all of the swirling fog was mist or if some was smoke from the car. Much of it eddied around the figure on the pale horse stood in the centre of the road a few yards beyond the wreck.

Both rear doors of the car were open. The one on the left was the closer to Mark as he stopped aghast at the sight in front of him. Two large black shadowy forms were dragging something from the vehicle. Something almost human, that shrieked with pain and terror. One of the beasts held Sarah by an arm, while the other gripped a leg. They dragged her bodily into the road. As she sprawled onto the tarmac, a third hound sprang from inside the vehicle to crouch over her. Its salivating jaws snapping at her face and neck. With a bloodied free hand, she tried to beat it away as her piercing screams intensified.

Mark could think of no justification why the others, even in a drunken stupor, were allowing such atrocities to happen to the girl. Without any form of weapon, his thoughts were now in mindless turmoil. It is difficult to comprehend the chivalrous aspect of a man’s nature under such extreme circumstances. He had never considered himself the ‘hero’ type, other than in his dreams, but now, his actions came without thought. Almost forgetting his experiences of a short while before, he ran at the hounds, screaming and waving his arms like a dervish, only in the hope that by making enough noise and himself as large as possible he might scare them away.

He had covered less than half the distance before something hit him in the back. Something with the force of a car. He did not see it, heard nothing, but the blow sent him crashing into bushes and undergrowth at the side of the road. The breath pounded from his lungs in the fall, he passed into merciful unconsciousness. He never felt the jaws at the back, or the huge canine teeth tearing into each side of his neck.

The accident went undiscovered for a further five hours. The driver of a milk tanker on his way to the farms at Teinhead was first on the scene. With no cell phone, and the tail of the car blocking the road, he had no option other than to head back toward the Red Lion, and a public phone box. The police and ambulances duly arrived, but far too late to be of any use. The verdict at the inquest was death by misadventure, caused by the driver of the car being five times over the legal limit for alcohol consumption. Witnesses had seen Mark leaving the Red Lion on foot, and the coroner surmised that the car travelling at excessive speed had struck him. The driver of the car had lost control with the result that it skidded sixty yards diagonally across the road and into an oak tree.

Of the four occupants of the car, three had died instantly. The driver was thrown forward against the steering wheel. It had collapsed under the momentum of his weight, and he was impaled on the sharp edge of the broken wheel. Death was almost certain to be instantaneous.

The passenger in the front beside the driver, Jonathon was thrown head first through the window and against the trunk of the tree. The skull was so badly shattered that death was almost certainly immediate upon impact.

Of the passengers in the rear of the car, Timothy was thrown forward and upward into the roof of the car, which broke his neck, death, again, instantaneous.

The girl sat beside him was Sarah. At the moment of impact with the pedestrian, the door must have burst open spilling her face first into the road. Her foot trapped under the front seat, she had been dragged on her face and stomach for the full sixty yards until the vehicle struck the tree. Death from internal and external injuries would have been slow and painful.

* * *

The late afternoon sunshine cast an orange glow through the window and into the bar of the Red Lion, where three people sat around one table in the corner.

“Wow. Y’know, that’s some story,” said the man sitting nearest to the wall, “don’t you agree Norma?” His accent suggested he was from one of the southern states of North America. Without giving the woman sat facing him chance to reply he continued, “And when did this take place?”

“Lets see now…” The narrator of the story, a local man from his Devonshire accent picked up the half-empty glass of beer from the table. He quaffed half of the drink before continuing. “It would be about twelve years ago come the end of the month.”

“And have these hounds of hell been seen since then?”

“We don’t go out on All Hallows Eve looking for them.” He gave a quiet chuckle, as if to himself. “There is a little more to the story, but this is only legend, not fact.” Norma caught her husband’s attention and rolled her eyes momentarily toward the ceiling. He gave her a faint shake of his head as the storyteller continued.

“During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was a prison on the moor. It was where the sentenced criminals were held before being taken to board the ships at Plymouth and penal transportation to the colonies. The warders kept a pack of hounds in the event of a prisoner trying to escape justice. It was said that the man in charge in the years before it closed was a Lord Justice Tavistock. His enjoyment was in the chase. He had a penchant for deer hunting on these moors. It is said that having become bored with the hunt, he would arrange for certain prisoners to escape so using them as the quarry.

The prison held a mixture of men and women. There was one woman, I believe her name was Sarah Strong. She had been found guilty of adultery with her employer and was to be shipped to America. The story goes that she was an extremely handsome woman, some said she was a witch. She was selected for the hunt because of her good looks.”

He paused for a few moments and picked up the glass. His blue eyes glinted violet in the sunlight as he finished the remaining dregs.

“The story goes that she got as far as that grove of trees before the hounds caught her. Lord Justice Tavistock was riding with the hounds. Some of the beaters heard her scream a curse at him before the dogs tore her to pieces. They said she swore he would never leave the prison, that his soul would be trapped there forever. Of course, the prison was demolished at the end of the nineteenth century to make way for quarrying stone for the new railways they were building at the time.” He leaned back in the chair and stretched.

“I think your English ghost stories are so quaint,” Norma said.

“I agree,” her husband answered while switching off the voice recorder in the centre of the table. “And you don’t mind if we use it for the October issue of our horror magazine?”

“Not at all.” He stood, picking up the empty glass with one hand while the other rubbed the stiffness from the back of his neck. He turned and walked back to the bar, his keen ear catching Norma’s hushed voice.

“You don’t believe the story do you?”

“Why not? Stories about black dogs and hell hounds are not uncommon in England.”

“Well for a start, if they all died, and there were no witnesses to the accident, how did he know one of them saw the black dogs?” She was almost exuberant at having seen the flaw in his tale.

Still rubbing his neck, he smiled, as his fingers ran over the serrated edges of the scars hidden beneath the collar of his coat.

© 2009 Robert A Read. aka Mysteral.

Tales of black dogs as harbingers of death are quite common in England. They have several names, depending on the area from where the story comes. In the southwest, we knew them as the Black Shuck. They are not quite the same as hell hounds, being usually silent while the hounds are often heard baying. The affect is usually the same though; death of that person or someone close to them within a short period of time.

My own experience with a black shuck was when driving through a small village near my home on Salisbury Plain. It was dark, fairly late at night, and street lighting almost non-existent. Approaching the top of a short but steep hill, another car came over the brow toward me. I was momentarily dazzled by its headlamps, but there was nothing on the pavements in front, and driving within the 30mph speed limit I kept going. There was an immediate loud bang and a squeal, so I pulled into the side of the road and stopped. The nearside front wing of the car was bent in so badly it had jammed the front wheel, but looking around to see what I had hit, I could see nothing.

A man walking a German Shepherd dog that I had passed a few moments earlier joined me, and said he had seen a large black dog come out of the hedge beside the road and under the front of my car. We spent quite a long time searching the hedge and banks with torches but found nothing. We had to use metal bars to bend the bodywork and free the wheel before I could drive on. I cannot believe the dog escaped injury.

There is a small police station in the village where I reported the accident that same evening. I needed the address of the owner for my insurance claim, so asked the police officer to let me know if anyone reported an injured animal. No one did, I even returned to the police station a month later to check. I never saw the animal, so it could not have been significant for me. However, I have no idea about the man with the German Shepherd. He did see it…



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