Flames and black smoke covered the upper slopes of the mountain over Fishhook , the fire engine had been there since the evening before and this morning most of the men had gone up the track carrying sacks and axes and shovels . Where else would three boys go, on a Saturday morning, breakfast bolted down and pocket money already spent? Not that there was any prospect of actually participating, but all the action made the area interesting, especially from the house on the far side of the valley, where the flames were visible , way taller than the ant sized men moving around in front of them. Only as they got closer, the flames were lost from view behind the houses and trees on the lower slopes, and firstly ash and black burnt bits of grass and leaves, then hot and sometimes glowing bits, began to drift down on everything. They were beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea , with the roar and noise of the flames growing louder as they got closer, when the wind dropped away suddenly and the noise of the fire seemed to change. There was an outburst of shouting from the distant men up there, thin with distance, and then the wind switched around just like that and began to blow from behind them. The men were cheering and yelling now, something had happened and they werent there yet! Wanting to be a part of this adventure, The Great Fire, they hurried up the track past the last houses
The fire engine was parked where a big rock blocked it from going any further uphill, and on any other day would have rated a good close inspection, unattended as it was, but not now. They hurried past on the footpath through scrub and tall grass, the air humming with insects disturbed by the fire and birds darting around with full beaks.
A great brown mottled mantis came whizzing along and landed on Phil’s right shoulder, turning its head on the thin neck and waving it’s barbed front legs in an agitated way. He called to his brothers “ Hey look here, he’s trying to talk to me.”
“What’s he saying then, telling you there’s a fire and lots of smoke ?”joked Paul , and they all laughed.
“Probably, though now he’s just waving his one leg and pointing it thataway, off to the right a bit, which is the direction he came from .Maybe he wants us to rescue his eggs. Maybe he’s a she that is , and wants us to save her eggs. “ answered Phil.
So of course, since they had heard somewhere that mantises were thought by the Bushmen, the San, to be messengers from their version of God, they kept a close watch on the grass and bushes on their right as they climbed the winding path. About a hundred yards further up , the mantis took to flight again, and flew into a clump of tall spindly wild geraniums. The boys followed, and were startled by a great brown shape that erupted into visibility as they neared, an antelope that took off headlong , crashing away across the slope. “ Wow that’s an eland.” said Paul, “Must have been driven down from the Game Reserve by the fire. Where’s that mantis though? It landed somewhere in here, lets see, maybe it does have eggs here or something.”
They fossicked around among the strong-scented plants for a bit, and Paul was just getting impatient and starting to move on, when Phil saw a flick of movement, the mantis spreading it’s yellow and orange underwings as it sat on something that looked like a rock, until you looked closely. “Hey here’s a baby buck, the mantis is sitting on it, come see. “ They stood silently and watched as the animal struggled to stand up, and stood wobbling for a few seconds before collapsing again with a sprawl of impossibly long legs. “ We should leave it here, then the mother will come back and it’ll be ok. “ said Paul. Since this seemed like the best thing to do, they started back towards the nearby path, waiting quietly as two men came crashing and stumbling past downhill, one with his arm all red and burnt, and the other one helping him. “ You boys shouldn’t be here, it’s dangerous” called the burnt man
“ I’m coming back in a bit, as soon as I get Joe to the nurse.” said the other “You better be gone by the time I come back.”
They looked at one another and shrugged. Just because that guy got himself burnt didn’t mean they would too. Right at that moment the wind changed again, coming down the slope at them, carrying choking black smoke and a rain of burning debris into the surrounding bush. Several minor fires started up where flaming leaves landed in dry grass and in a few seconds their feelings of security and eagerness to see more action changed to unease and some apprehension. “ She won’t come back if it starts to burn here.” said Paul “Let’s carry that baby down the hill a bit , where the fire won’t get it .”
They duly went and picked the little animal up , Paul crouched down and they draped it over his shoulder with it’s legs dangling front and back, He said that was a “Fireman’s Lift.” His younger brothers were impressed, as they had not known there was a special way to carry animals when you rescued them from a fire. They would hacve done it all wrong without their eldest brother.
The mantis came along too, sitting comfortably on Philip’s shoulder , with quick side trips over to the baby eland every few minutes. On one of these check-up visits Cliffy noticed something that looked like a little wasp’s nest stuck to the hair under the buck’s neck, almost invisible in the hollow where the neck and chest merged.. “ Here’s the mantises babies too” he cried “see here, that’s why it was so worried. “
They stopped for a bit and examined this for a few moments while Paul rested, then Phil picked up the load and they set off again. Soon they reached a smoke free area just uphill from the first houses and stopped again a few yards off the path and out of sight , in case that man came back. Here they noticed a single bump in the middle of the baby’s forehead “That must be it’s horn “ said Cliff.
“There should be two horns.” said Paul, “all animals have two horns, if they have horns.”
“ Unicorns dont , they have one horn .”said Phil, thats what their name means, uni means one and I suppose corn means horn. “
“ So why don’t they just call them one horns, then ? asked Cliff
“ Same reason lots of things have several names” said Paul “ Men are guys and fellows too, and buck are also antelopes , so this is a baby buck and an eland and a unicorn.”
Nobody felt like arguing, it was quite hot and everyone had itchy eyes and throats from the smoke. “His mother won’t find him here, the fire is coming down the mountain and it’ll burn where we found him, so what are we going to do with him?We could take him home, and ask mum if we can keep him.” said Phil. “ Unicorns are special, more special than dogs and cats, and mum did say maybe we should get a dog soon, so she probably won’t mind.” This seemed like a reasonable assumption to all three, so they set off home through the quiet Saturday morning streets, carrying the baby unicorn in the Firemans Lift and the mantis anyhow she chose to ride.
About half way home, the baby began to struggle and bleat, so they stopped again and sat in the shade of someone’s tall wooden fence, “ Maybe we aren’t doing this right.” said Paul “When they catch a Unicorn they have to have a Maiden, and then it’s tame and does whatever they want. “ Well of course this sounded like important technical information , so they decided that probably baby sister Judy qualified as a Maiden, and could actually help with a project for a change, instead of being an annoyance, as all kid sisters tended to be. Cliff was volunteered to go home and bring her, and some orange squash and perhaps some apples, and not to get lost on the way, while the elder two waited.
The mantis seemed to approve of this arrangement, nodding her head up and down vigorously in time with the movement of Phil’s head when he asked her opinion “ That’s a good idea , right mantis ?Cliff should go and fetch her and we will guard you guys here. “
The clincher came when Cliffy objected loudly “ Hey no fair, it’s just moving it’s head because you are. “ and the mantis turned to look at him and spread her wings and waved her front legs threateningly. He shut up right away then, not realising that his loud voice could have produced the same reaction without any understanding of his meaning.
When the two youngest arrived, they all sat and drank orange squash and Judy was introduced to the Unicorn, which didn’t seem particularly impressed by her, but allowed her to stroke his nose and feel his horn-bump.He didn’t seem interested in the orange squash and just sniffed the apple they offered, so they decided he probably only wanted milk.Naturally Judy couldn’t carry him, so she walked behind where he could see her when they set off again, with his front legs dangling down the carrier’s back.
Soon after they got to the main road, a grey Morris Minor pulled up and the driver , a tanned man with a black beard, asked “ Where are you going with that eland?” So they explained about the fire on the mountain and the mother running off and the one horn, but didn’t mention the mantis until she flew over and perched on the car’s steering wheel. Then they showed him the egg case , and he listened solemnly to the whole story before saying “ So do you live on a farm then, where an animal like this can live ? Because you know it will grow quite big and it will need space , just like a cow or a horse. You won’t be able to keep him in a small garden. Why don’t you all climb in and I’ll give you a lift home and take this little guy to my farm.”
Riding in a car wasn’t something they did every day, so that was pretty good, and they got home in a few minutes and ran in all talking at once to tell mum all about it. She came out and looked in the open window at the young animal on the back seat and said “ Well , Mr. umm “ and hesitated “ Thorn ,” he said,” pleased to meet you ma’am “
“ Well Mr.Thorn” she said “ if you could take care of this little fellow I’m sure that would be best. Thank you for helping , and I hope they weren’t too much trouble, they do get into all kinds of things, but they mean well, you know. “
That was that, he drove off with the baby in the back seat and the children went into the house and then back outside to rinse off the worst of the black dust from the fire with the hose before washing their hands and faces for lunch.