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Loch na h'Iolaire

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Loch na h-Iolaire

Captain Keith Windham elected to spend the third morning of his captivity sitting reading on a little bench, on the close-cropped plot of grass that ran from the house of Ardroy down to Loch na h-Iolaire. There was a slight breeze playing among the birches and the pines at the shore, enough to drive away those damned Highland midges; and he was really glad to rest his ankle, which, though it had begun to heal from the injury it had sustained on the day of his capture, had suffered more than he had realised in yesterday's ridiculous adventure at the hands of Mr. Cameron's foster-relatives.

It could not be denied that the fact that some of these relatives had been busy in the stable-yard at the back of the house since soon after dawn, had some influence on Keith's decision to take up his present position in front of it. Why subject himself to Lachlan MacMartin's scowl if he did not need to? So, with his borrowed novel in his hand, he had whiled away an hour or two here in peace and quiet, only dimly aware of the stir of activity around the long, low house fifty yards or so away, though the voices of its inhabitants reached him from time to time; Miss Cameron's firm, decisive tones; Miss Grant, calling out for her betrothed, and Mr. Cameron himself, whose voice reached Keith now from the yard, now from the stables, and once from the path leading up to the pass they had traversed days before. The young laird seemed to be everywhere at once, and, disturbingly, he had apparently taken up residence in Keith's thoughts too.

Annoyed, Keith applied himself once more to Joseph Andrews, but was really glad a few moments later to find that he had company. This took the form of a young, rough-coated pup with an astonishing length of leg, which seemed to regard his mere presence as an invitation to play. Uttering a sharp yelp, the animal (a stag-hound, was it, or a deer-hound? if the size of its feet were anything to judge by, it would grow big enough to bring down any number of those beasts) brought him a gift of a large pine-cone, laid it at his feet, and waited, with bright eyes and wagging tail, for him to carry out his plain duty.

'Well, sir, what would you have me do?' And when the creature, irritated by his obtuseness, barked several more times, Keith relented and, picking up the pine-cone, hurled it as far away as he could. The pup was on its way before the cone had even hit the ground, caught it on its first bounce, tore back to Keith, and dropped it once more at his feet. Glad of the distraction, Keith threw it several more times, each time in a different direction - towards the house, beyond the birches (where the puppy hunted for it for a few minutes among the purple heather, before emerging triumphant) or towards the lake. Keith found himself smiling, transported back for the moment to rare carefree games with his young half-brother and his step-father's hounds. 'What shall I call you? Flash, perhaps!' Flash had been his favourite of all the foxhounds. Flash's mother and litter-mates were not in evidence; he had escaped their company to go adventuring on his own, perhaps, and seemed content with his new friend. But Keith's latest throw brought disaster, for there was a double splash, the first one faint, as the pine-cone dropped into the water, and the second more substantial, followed by a series of sharp yelps.
'Flash, what have you done?' But it was plain enough. Keith sighed, picked up his staff, levered himself to his feet, and hobbled down to the lake-shore beneath the birches. There the water, normally so calm, disturbed only by ripples and the circles made by rising fish, was threshed into a small maelstrom by Flash's attempt to climb back up the bank, which though low was at this point rather steep.

'Here; to me, sir!' And Keith held out his hand, and Flash redoubled his efforts to clamber back up, but could not do so.

Keith hesitated but a moment before stripping off his uniform coat, and placing the heel of his staff in the water, felt about for a firm footing. He could not stand by and watch an animal in distress, and there was a real danger that the puppy would become exhausted and drown. So he stepped down carefully onto his injured ankle, and brought the other foot down rather hastily to join it; and, when steady once more, was able to turn his attention to Flash, who was now floundering towards him with glad cries.

'Steady, sir, or you'll have me over too!' Really, that would be the final straw, compounding his progressive loss of dignity over the last few days. Flash, cowed, quieted at once, and Keith bent and scooped an arm around him, getting soaked in the process, and heaved him up; egad, he was heavy! But he was on the bank now, and barked joyfully a time or two, before shaking himself, showering Keith with drops of water in the process.

'Ungrateful hound!' muttered Keith, and gazed ruefully at the crumbling bank; how would he get himself up there again? He prodded uncertainly at it with his staff.

'Captain Windham!' And through the birch-trees a little way along the shore, alerted by the barking, perhaps, came his captor; tall and strong, he would have Keith out of the water in a moment. The Englishman sighed just a little, and resigned himself to his fate. 'You rescue a Highlander, Captain; 'tis to be hoped that the Elector does not hear of this!' Mr. Cameron's lips were twitching, just a little; yes, he was laughing at him.

'I do not propose to make a habit of it, Mr. Cameron, so I trust King George will not learn of it.' Almost up to his knees in water, his breeches and waistcoat soaked, and with chilly water seeping in through his boots, Keith was in no mood for pleasantries. 'Perhaps you would be good enough to assist me?' And he raised his eyebrows, implying that he was not quite sure of the answer.

'Of course, Captain Windham,' replied Mr. Cameron, with grave courtesy, but still with the suspicion of a laugh in his voice. He extended his hand, and Keith taking it founded himself hauled by main force up the bank. His injured foot came down rather heavily, and he flinched and stumbled just a little, and Mr. Cameron caught him by the arm and steadied him, while the puppy frisked around them.

'Your pardon, sir, I had forgotten your injury and was a little clumsy.' Now those very blue eyes were regarding him with some concern.

'It is nothing, Mr. Cameron, I assure you,' replied Keith, would-be offhandedly, though the pain had been rather sharp; 'and 'tis entirely my own fault; if I had not thrown the pine-cone for young Flash to fetch, he would not have fallen into the lake.'

'I will escort you to the house, nevertheless,' responded his rescuer, 'and instruct Marsali to give you fresh clothes.' And he picked up Keith's scarlet coat, and mindful of his dignity, did not actually take his arm, but walked slowly along beside him. 'You call him Flash, then?' he enquired, with an air of one making conversation, as they made their way under the birch-trees.

'Why, yes, it seemed a very suitable name for him.' That animal was now alternately ranging ahead of them, and returning almost to their feet, pausing to utter excited yaps now and then, as if to reproach their slowness.

'You are a scholar of the Gaelic, I think, Captain Windham! We call him "Luath", which means much the same thing.'

'Not a word of the Gaelic do I know, though that is one translation I will not forget.' And as Luath stopped in front of them to shake himself once more, he added bitterly, 'Though perhaps Splash would be a better name for him?'

'I cannot imagine why we did not think of that!' said Mr. Cameron gravely, though with a lurking smile; and the two of them continued out onto the lawn together with the author of this unusual accord prancing self-importantly ahead.