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Black Dog Stories, 2

Great Hand

by S. J. McKenzie

Once there were some fishermen from Oban who decided to go and see Great Hand.

“Let us go and see if he’s still down there, the old devil,” they said, for they had been drinking a while.

So they got into their boat and went across the strait to the beach at Port Donain. By the time they got there it was darker, and they were sobering up, so the eldest one said, “I am thinking it might be better to go and have another drink and forget this adventure until another time.”

But the other two said, “No, we can stay in the cave mouth and have a fire there. He won’t come out to bother us if we don’t go far inside.”

So they made a fire in the entrance to Uamh Na Nighinn, which means “The Cave of the Young Woman.” They were not afraid of the girl’s spirit, of course, because no-one really believed in that part of the story any more, but even so they listened out to see if they could hear her singing on the rocks below.

“I can’t hear anything for all this wind,” said the youngest.

There were tales about this Great Hand and his cave, too. Years ago, some fishermen had seen two blue lights in the mouth of the cave one night, and afterwards they had gone to the Piper of Oban to see if he knew anything about it. “It is sure to be that young girl returned to haunt us again about the wreck,” said he.

At that time, folk still believed the headland to be haunted by the mourning ghost of a yellow-haired girl whose lover had died in a shipwreck. “I will go and speak with her in the morning,” said the Piper, “and let’s see if I cannot send her soul back home again so we can all have a bit of peace.”

Now the Piper was a brave fellow, and knew about such things. He said he would go into the cave with a favourite dog of his, playing his pipes all the while, so the men outside could hear him and know he was safe. But after he had been down there a few moments, his playing stopped all of a sudden, and he never came out, and when they found his dog afterwards, every hair had been torn from its body. So no-one went in the cave for a while after that.

“I heard the same story about a piper in Edinburgh,” said McInnes, the youngest of the three sailors that sat in the cave, as they talked over what they knew.

“No you did not,” said Cameron, who was inclined to bully the younger man. “That dog in Edinburgh had some hair left behind on his ears. Anyway, I was told that the dog here on Mull had his eyes taken out as well. Taken right from their holes, they were. He must have smelled his way out.”

The next one to go into the cave was a rich fellow from Glasgow, called Millar, but his story was long and the lads disagreed about parts of it. He had come in spring, and some men from Oban had sailed him across to Port Donain, and made him pay them a whole pound for it, claiming they were too scared to go near for less.

He said he was all made out to visit the Underworld, with a staff made when the moon was full, sprigs of rowan and witch hazel in his vest, and even with a Bible in his pocket for good measure.

“He was well prepared indeed!” Cameron chuckled at the superstitions of the city folk.

“Had he not two companions with him?” said McInnes, recalling a similar tale.

“No, he was alone,” said MacFarland, the eldest. “That’s why no-one can be sure of his story.”

According to him, Millar had gone down for miles, until salty water began to leak in from the roof, and he wondered if he was underneath the sea, or if he had already crossed into the Underworld. After a while longer, the rain became like blue mist all around him and a small rainbow appeared round his torch.

The cave was so large and echoed so greatly that it sounded as though there were dozens of others in the cave with him, all walking in step. For a moment he imagined himself to be marching with a host of soldiers, but then the mist cleared up and he saw that he was alone, and it had simply been the echoes of his own steps about him.

“And that’s when he saw the creature!” said Cameron.

“No, that’s when he fell over. The wind blew his torch out and he fell over in the dark and hit his head,” said McFarland.

“Well, how could there be wind down there?” asked McInnes sensibly.

“I heard that the tunnel goes all the way from the cave to Oban, under the Firth. He must have been on our side, nearby some hole that let the wind in.”

“What about the treasure?” said Cameron.

“Well, I am getting to that.”

When Millar woke up he saw a red light in the distance and as he got closer it turned out to be a fire. He was glad to warm himself, but then he noticed bones on the floor, as though some dread creature lived there. And then he saw an old sea-chest, and a bugle horn hanging from the ceiling.

Something came over him and he was taken with an overwhelming desire to blow on the horn for all he was worth, and as he did, there was a terrible noise all around him, and then out of the chest came Great Hand, wielding a huge iron mace that was red with rust and blood.

Great Hand was large enough to fit upon the arm of a man twenty feet tall, but Millar could not see the rest of the creature; all he could hear was ragged breathing. The giant hand reared up out of the chest and threw the mace full at him, and he caught a glimpse then of what it must be guarding: gold, stacked inside the chest, from top to bottom.

There were plates, and goblets and other finery, but so frightened of the giant hand was Millar that even such a rich hoard could not tempt him. He dodged the missile narrowly, and ran from the cave as fast as could be. When he told his story in Oban, he said he would never again seek the underworld.

“Never mind him. That was treasure from the wreck, sure to be!” said Cameron, who had drunk more than the rest. “And if his story is right, the thing can be no more than four times the size of your hand or mine, and that is no bigger than a dog. The Glasgow man just had no stomach for a fight, that’s all. I say we go down there tonight and take it right from him!”

But the other two said it was better to wait until they had clear heads, and so they sat and talked by the fire a while more, and then eventually they all dropped off to sleep.

* * *

Young McInnes lay down to sleep wondering idly why Millar had blown on the old horn, and what a strange tale it all was. “But I’m sure men have seen and done stranger things after a knock on the head,” he thought. Then he grew warmer by the fire, and his thoughts became less clear, and he found himself dreaming of something else entirely.

He dreamed that he was standing on the deck of a ship, a fine old merchantman that flew the banner of Cromwell. His gaze was on the seashore near a place he knew well: Castle Duart, just a few miles round the headland from the cave in which his sleeping body lay. In his own day, the castle was in ruins, but in the dream it stood proud and complete.

He saw also on the foreshore that a crowd of people had gathered and many were jumping about and waving their arms, although for a moment he did not know why. And among them was a girl he knew well, with yellow hair, who called out to him with a piteous cry and waved at him to come ashore.

Then he brought his gaze around and saw that a most fearful black storm was coming from the north and that great rolling waves were driving the boat back towards the rocky headland. All about him were soldiers running this way and that, and sailors were struggling to get the ship around so that they might sail it safely to the harbour. But at once there was a terrible splintering crash as the belly of the little ship raked across some rocks below the churning water, and he knew they were going down.

The Speedwell — for that was the ship’s name — foundered quickly as its lower deck filled with water. One longboat had already been sent ashore for supplies the night before, and the other was badly damaged, and took on water faster than it could be bailed.

The desperate crew were now throwing empty barrels into the water and then themselves in after, and he saw that if he stood still, he would soon be the only one on deck. The ship began to lurch even more violently than before, and the screams he had heard from men trapped below were quickly silenced.

And then he saw the captain, who had been nowhere in sight before, hauling an old sea-chest out from a space below the quarterdeck, and making to throw it over into the side of the ship.

“What on earth are you about, Captain?” he heard himself call out, and he ran over to where the older man was trying to heave the chest into the remaining long-boat. “You’ll not float in that!” The Captain turned, with a fearful look on his face, for he had not seen the lone soldier still standing there.

“Out of the way, boy, or you’ll drown all the faster,” the Captain screamed at him through the rising wind, and continued to heave the chest over the side. Young McInnes called out again, “Stop this at once, sir, and let us save ourselves. Let the chest go to the bottom!”

The Captain turned, drew his weapon, and came at the young soldier. “The hoard is MINE! You’ll not have it from me! I found it! No-one else!” And with each word he stabbed and lunged until McInnes was driven back, away from the chest, and forced to draw his own weapon. But then the ship gave a terrible heave, just as McInnes slashed wildly at the Captain to defend himself, and as the Captain lurched forward, the young soldier sliced the other man’s hand clean off his arm.

Down into the water fell the Captain’s hand, and down fell the old chest after it, full of all the gold he had dug up from a mound of earth many years before. McInnes and his dying Captain staggered about on the heaving deck for a moment more before the ship slid swiftly into the cold water.

* * *

McFarland woke later that evening to find that the fire had burned down low and that the wind from the sea was chilling him to the bone. He threw a handful of twigs onto the fire, and as it flared he saw that both of his friends were gone, and he was quite alone in the mouth of the cave.

“Blast that Cameron to hell, and his dreams of treasure with him,” he said, thinking the man had talked young McInnes into going after the fabled gold. He sat there shivering for a few moments wondering what to do, and then began to make himself a torch from the fire to explore the back of the cave. But then he looked up and saw, to his horror, that the stories were all true.

A great grisly hand, with nails like talons, was feeling about slowly and quietly through the back of the cave like a deformed spider, and making its way towards the fire as though it were searching for something. This was the creature they had come to find, and now he saw what a dangerous adventure was upon him, for the thing was much larger than they had assumed — it was almost the size of a grown man.

There was blood dripping from its talons, and he thought he knew then what had become of his two friends. In anger he surged forward towards it and caught it a savage blow with a burning branch from the fire. Embers flew all about and a roar went up, and then he heard its ragged breathing, just as Millar had said, although still there was no sign of the whole creature.

It scrabbled towards him, and tried to grab him, which he knew would spell his death, and so he ducked and dodged in the cave and landed more blows on it. After a few minutes of this desperate and terrible fight, his torch was extinguished, and he knew that it was in vain, for the blows he landed seemed to have no effect, other than to redouble its resolve to grab him and crush his life out.

All at once he turned and ran from the cave into the darkness, stumbling about on the rocky slope down to the beach. He fled headlong and dared not look behind, but as he ran he thought he heard the creature’s breath after him. It was still dark when he reached the boat on the beach, although the faintest traces of morning light were sneaking across the horizon. With a great effort he managed to drag the rowboat into the breakers and leap aboard, straining with all his might to row out alone into the deeper water.

It was only then that he turned to face the shore, and saw that something was still following him, but it was not the grisly hand. Two blue lights were floating out from the shore towards him across the water.

He could not tell then if they belonged to a swimming creature, or were merely an apparition that followed him over the waves, but they terrified him and he rowed all the harder.

Then came the worst of all the fearful things he faced that night: as the wind dropped, he could hear a sound coming across the water from the place where the lights floated, faint but unmistakable: a young girl was calling out to him as he rowed away. The words were not clear, but the cry was filled with tears and complaint, high-pitched and desolate. Then the wind came again and the sound was lost.

“The girl!” He stopped rowing just long enough to cross himself. “In God’s name, this is a terrible, cursed place.” With that, he strained away against the swell of the forming breakers and made it out into the strait. As hard as he rowed, the ghost kept pace with him, but fortunately he could no longer hear her calls, and he saw the lights were growing dimmer. Gradually as it grew lighter, the fear in him lessened, and finally as the sun rose he could see them no more.

Then the prow of his boat bumped up against something and he turned and saw a barrel, and riding on it was McInnes, half-drowned.

* * *

It was a few days later when some other men went back to Uamh na Nighinn, to see if they could find Cameron, who had never come out of it. The cave, they said, went back only a short way into the hill, and there was certainly no sign of a strange creature there. Cameron was given up for lost. They said he had probably drowned.

When McInnes had recovered, he and McFarland told each other their stories. Said McInnes when they were done: “Perhaps that girl saved you, by putting the fear in you so you would row all the faster.”

“Aye, perhaps,” said McFarland, “but I do not think it was to me that she was calling. She was swimming out to reach you, I believe.” And McInnes nodded, and both of them could only wonder at how he had come to be floating out there on an old barrel, which afterwards, they could not locate.

And the two of them did not speak of it again for many years, except to agree never to go near the cave on the beach at Port Donain, ever again. And they were both long-lived and prosperous after that.

Copyright © 2011 by S. J. McKenzie

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