Bracken and the Black Beast by C J Richardson
Daniel stared in amazement at the tiny pink bundles that were suckling on Fern, his father’s hunting dog. Six pups, eyes shut tight while they drank their mother’s life-saving milk. Then he noticed one laying away from the rest, very still, no visible signs of life.
‘This one needs help.’ He looked up at his father.
‘I don’t think there is much hope for this one Daniel,’ he said as he picked it up and turned its lifeless body over in his large hands. ‘This is the runt. I’ll get rid of it on my way out.’
‘No! Please father. Let me try.’ He held his arms out, eyes pleading.
‘Alright, son. But don’t waste too much time on it,’ his father said as he passed it to him. ‘We have enough work to do without you playing nursemaid as well. Come out and help with the log cutting when you’ve finished.’
Daniel held the pup gently and massaged its body and offered it up to Fern’s nipple. He repeated this several times, wiping tiny drops of milk across its lips, but with no success. He looked towards his mother who was preparing vegetables, but she just shrugged. Eventually, he laid it down and stood up to follow his father outside. Pulling his leather jerkin over his grey woollen vest, he took a final look at the dead pup. He thought he saw its nose twitch, and, as he walked back to check, it suddenly sneezed. Daniel dropped to his knees.
‘Good dog. I knew you could make it.’ He cried and offered it up to the teat again. This time it started to lick and then suckle.
‘It might still not make it.’ said his mother. ‘The runt usually gets pushed out by the others. Don’t get too attached Daniel.’
‘I’ll look after it. I’ll make sure it gets a fair share. I will call him Bracken.’ proclaimed Daniel as he held it up. His mother smiled broadly.
‘Well if you’re that determined. He’s got a good chance. Now off you go and help your father.’
Daniel jumped up and ran out to give his father the good news.
Life wasn’t easy for Daniel and his family. They lived in a small cottage at the edge of a great wood. His father, Joseph, had to hunt every day to bring food home. There were dangers in the forest, wolves, wild boar and then there was ‘The Black Beast’. The black beast was a very large bear that lived deep in the forest and had killed several men over the last ten years. Joseph always ensured he had Fern his faithful dog with him whenever he hunted as she always gave him plenty of warning of any danger. Fern had mated last autumn with a lone wolf that had been hanging about the cottage looking for scraps of food and the result of that soon became obvious in Fern’s swollen belly. Now that Fern had given birth to her half-wolf cubs, she would not be able to come with him for quite a while. He would have to rely on small prey near to home. Daniel helped his father as much as he could by collecting and chopping wood, cleaning the animal skins so they could be used for clothing or to cover the wooden beds or the floor. He also fed and milked the goats in the small pen at the side of the cottage. He brought water from the stream and checked his traps for small mammals.
Over the next few weeks, the pups grew and it wasn’t long before his father took them the twenty-five miles to a small town where he sold them to the locals. They fetched a good price because they were part wolf. Bracken had remained small and Daniel was relieved when his father didn’t take him to the market.
‘He won’t fetch very much. Better let him loose in the forest Daniel. He can’t stay with us. We can only just feed ourselves and we don’t need two hunting dogs.’
Daniel pleaded with his father to let Bracken stay but he wouldn’t relent and so, the next day, the four set out together into the forest. Fern and Bracken ran ahead as Daniel dragged his feet behind Joseph.
‘We will take him to where I last heard the wolf pack and leave him there. They may take him in or he may have to prove himself to them.’
‘But he’s so small father. He wouldn’t stand a chance if they attack him.’ wailed Daniel.
‘Then maybe that’s for the best. He wouldn’t be much use to us if he can’t fend off any attacks from wild animals.’
Daniel knew his father was right, but he loved Bracken and couldn’t bear the thought of him getting hurt. They walked on in silence until Fern suddenly started to growl and the hairs on her back stood upright. Bracken’s lip started to curl as he snarled. Joseph and Daniel stopped dead in their tracks and looked warily around for what was making the dogs so nervous.
The ear-splitting roar that followed was louder than anything they had ever heard before and they were rooted to the spot with fear. Both dogs yelped and ran behind the man and boy, cowering and shaking as an enormous black bear rose up on its hind legs, totally blocking the path. He was at least nine feet tall. Within seconds the bear struck Joseph with its huge paw and its claws tore a hole in his arm. As he fell to the floor, Fern charged at the bear snarling and snapping. Bracken followed suit and between them took the bear’s attention while Daniel dragged his father to a nearby tree and leaned him against the trunk. Daniel shook as he loaded his bow and aimed at the bear’s eye. He let the arrow fly but it just fell to the ground. He loaded and fired again. Missed. The bear turned towards them and with a flip of its great paw, threw Fern high into the air. Daniel fired again and hit the bear straight in the eye. It roared with pain and Bracken bit into its leg and hung on with all his strength. The bear tried to shake him off and batted the arrow from his eye but Daniel was already firing the next and hit the bear’s paw. Finally, the bear turned and ran back into the forest with Bracken still hanging on to his leg.
Daniel turned to his father. He was losing a lot of blood. He gathered some moss from the bottom of the tree and pushed it into the wound and wrapped it with a strip of leather from his jerkin.
‘Fern?’ croaked his father, weak from loss of blood.
‘I’m sorry father. She’s dead’ Daniel answered as he helped his father to stand. He looked back into the forest, hoping to see Bracken, but he knew there was no point. They turned for home; he had to get his father back before he collapsed.
With Daniel’s help, Joseph managed to reach home before he lay down and lost consciousness. He was lost in a fever for several days with Daniel’s mother tending to his wounds and Daniel keeping the fire stoked with wood and hunting for small prey to keep them fed. He woke one morning to find his father sat up in bed. He looked very weak but he was smiling.
‘It’s thanks to you, Fern and Bracken I am still alive. I’m sorry you lost your dog, Daniel. He was small but he was very brave.’
That night, when they all went to bed, Daniel thought he heard something prowling outside the cottage. He reached for his knife and a burning branch from the fire and went outside to investigate. He shone the torch around but could see nothing and turned to go back inside. Then he heard the smallest whimper. He looked again and saw something lying on the ground by the edge of the wood. He approached cautiously to find a small animal covered in matted blood and barely breathing. Bending down to look closer he realised it was Bracken. Daniel put the branch down and carefully picked the little dog up and carried him inside.
He warmed some water and gently cleaned the wounds. He drip-fed him some water. Then he lay beside the frail body and held it close all night. It was a long time before he finally fell asleep. A few hours later he woke and felt for Bracken beside him. The dog was gone. Daniel panicked and turned his head sharply to look for him. Bracken was being cradled in his father’s arms and being fed goats milk.
‘Must look after our new hunting dog.’ he said.
Daniel smiled, then lay down and closed his eyes again.