What's the plot in detail?
In search of the missing farmer and settlement leader Tom Walter, plague survivor Charles Vaughan is despatched to an unspecified part of the Derbyshire peak, alone and on horseback. Savagely attacked by wild dogs, he is rescued by another solitary rider the cynical and sceptical Richard Fenton. Sharing a meal, the differences between the two men's views of the new world become sharply apparent Fenton is convinced that the human race is doomed, and is content to amuse himself watching humanity's impossible predicament unravel. Charles Vaughan is determined that a new web of social and economic relationships between individuals and communities can still emerge from the ruins of the old world. Fenton relishes his isolation and detachment; Charles longs for a greater sense of community and connection amongst Britain's scattered survivors.
Repelling a second attack by a pack of dogs, Fenton reveals to an astonished Charles the presence of rabies in the district. Having been bitten by one of the dogs in the first attack, Charles fears the worst. Fenton explains that for a bite to be fatal, the teeth need not even break the skin contact with the saliva of an infected animal is sufficient. The confidence of these new packs of wild urban dogs, now roaming the countryside is growing. Fenton recalls that a dog recently jumped at him to seize the meat from his mouth before he shot it dead. A chastened Charles learns that the incubation period is anything from a few days to more than a year.
As they prepare to go their separate ways, Fenton reveals two more facts to the astonished Vaughan. Firstly, that he has been keeping records, since the onset of The Death, of all the survivors he has encountered, documenting their ambitions and aspirations and recording the "routes taken and routes proposed" by them. Charles is fascinated by the existence of what he takes to be the social record of "half a nation" vital information for any project which aims to foster greater co-operation and trade between settlements. Secondly, Fenton reveals that he has met with Charles' friend and colleague Greg Preston recently returned from an expedition to Norway, where he hoped to restart factory machine lines and reconnect power supplies. Greg, who had visited the area in search of coal supplies, has yet to return home, and Charles (and Greg's partner Jenny) are desperate for news of him. Charles is now determined to read Fenton's notebooks, and to learn from Fenton all he can about Greg's intentions.
Resting for the night at Fenton's half-way house, Charles and he clash once again about the likely future of the remnants of the human race. For Fenton, the prognosis is reassuringly bleak. He delights that Charles finds his pessimism so corrosive of his own hopes. Later, Charles is woken by the fevered mutterings of Fenton, who has been taken ill in the night. He urges Charles to keep his distance while he sweats the fever out. From a nearby river waterfall, Charles collects water to soothe and help revive Fenton, but the worsening patient shuns Charles' encouragement to drink. In a moment of clarity, Fenton realises that his repulsion from water could mean that the infection from which he is now suffering is rabies. As Charles prepares to leave, in search of help, Fenton now in the throes of delirium bursts from the house, before collapsing again, overwhelmed by the fever. Charles, now all but certain that Fenton is doomed by rabies, drags Fenton back indoors, and ties the unconscious figure to the bed. Desperate to find Fenton's house, and the notes kept there, Charles is forced to accept that Fenton is now too ill to travel or to provide him directions. Aware of the risks involved, but hopeful that the lure of the cache of automatic rifles kept at Fenton's home might be enough to entice others to help, Charles sets off on horseback to find Fenton's neighbours.
He comes across two men, Jim and Sanders, working on roof-top repairs to a nearby farm building. Initially, they are suspicious and reluctant to help, but when they learn of the sick man's identity, they agree to go with Charles explaining that local settlers always look after their kin-folk (if not by implication strangers and outsiders) when they find themselves in trouble. That mutual bond is more important to them, Jim says, than the inducement of free and better rifles.
Arriving back at the half-way house, the trio find that Fenton has freed himself from his bonds. Discovered, hiding in another room, Fenton is now in the manic, frothing, and extremely dangerous, phase of the illness. There is now no question at all: Fenton has rabies. As Fenton lunges at the three men, they flee to the safety of the riverside. Fetching more water, they return to the house to trap Fenton whose fate is now sealed. After a terrifying confrontation Fenton is shot dead by Sanders and Jim. There is nothing vengeful or gleeful in their actions. This is a pragmatic, hard-head response to a serious health threat and one that puts Fenton, for whom they can do nothing, out of his undignified misery.
Immediately, the two men turn accusingly to Charles. Sanders questions him tersely: did he know that Fenton was rabid or not? Why did he tie him up otherwise? How long has his been with Fenton? Is he too infected? Forced to show the bitemark on his arm, Charles attempts to brush off the injury as an old one but Jim and Sanders are not prepared to believe him. A renewed outburst of rabies in the district would threaten the lives and livelihoods of all those living locally, and Charles is an unknown stranger, who might be a carrier of the deadly disease. If Charles is allowed to live and go free, they reason, then Fenton will have suffered and died for nothing. Sanders insists that it is better, and more humane, for Charles to die at their hands than to succumb to the agony of the illness. At least this way, he'll "feel nothing".
As they prepare to 'put him down', Charles lunges at Jim, knocking him to the ground, and springs for his horse in the hope of escape. Sanders fires off a shot as Charles flees, appearing to hit him. As the two men mount up and set off in pursuit, a desperate chase ensues across the barren wintry countryside.
Winged by Sanders' bullet, Charles gambles on a deception. Dismounting on a high frozen pathway, Charles urges his horse to gallop on riderless, while he slips and slides headlong into cover at the foot of the snowy ravine. Sanders and Jim are not fooled, and immediately give chase on foot. Hiding behind a stone outcrop, Charles is able to evade them. Now a hunted man, Charles is alone, without supplies or the prospect of rescue, in an icy and unforgiving landscape far from home and nursing a gunshot wound. His one chance of survival is to get himself away from the area as fast as he can, find food and shelter, and tend to his injuries. The first priority is transport.
Coming across an inhabited riverside farm house, Charles spots an unattended racing bike. As he checks it over, its owner Phil approaches. Hoping to distract him by chatting about his enthusiasm for cycling, Charles mounts the bike and pedals off, before the bike's owner (unaware of Charles' 'wanted' status) realises his intentions. Charles' good fortune is short-lived, as his new bike develops a puncture and has to be abandoned tossed over a hedge to hide its location from his hunters.
Charles finds temporary sanctuary in a farm outhouse. Exhausted and wounded, Charles slides to the floor and slips into unconsciousness. Coming round he sees the figure of a young girl standing in front of him, watching. As gently as he can, he asks the girl if she knows the whereabouts of Fenton's house. Without a word, the girl runs off in the direction of the farmhouse to raise the alarm. Dragging himself to his feet, Charles bursts out of the far door, onto a pathway leading to a footbridge over the river.
As the toll on his health worsens, Charles is forced to treat his wound himself as best he can. As he staggers all but falling around a collapsing dry-stone wall, he finds seclusion and shelter in a small barn. With no alternative, Charles uses a heated knife to dig out the bullet fragments and clean the wound flinching from the intense pain as he does.
Back on foot, and hiding amongst some hillside trees, Charles eavesdrops as Sanders and Jim (joined by the bicycle's owner) pass by on the roadside below. He learns that the house they are next to is Fenton's own. With Sanders certain that the residence is empty, they continue their search. They plan to return later, to remove the rifles in Fenton's armoury. Carefully, Charles slips from his hiding place and approaches Fenton's door. Checking through the house, Charles grabs some bread from the pantry and searches the bookshelves for Fenton's records. Finding the notebook, Charles begins to read finding the section on Fenton's meeting with Greg. Aware of the importance of the records, Charles pockets the notebook, and sets off once more.
Working his way along the riverbank to a small road bridge, Charles again hears the sound of an approaching dog pack. As they near him, Charles rushes to the side of the bridge, wading thigh-deep into the icy waters, and sheltering beneath the bridge. As the dogs reach the water's edge, Charles retrieves a knife from his pocket and prepares to defend himself. The dogs, put off by the cold of the water, hesitate then, as the crack of a gunshot rends the air they flee, barking and yelping. On top of the bridge stand the figures of Sanders, Jim and Phil, rifles at the ready. Unaware that Charles is hiding beneath their feet, they plan their next search pattern and move on. Once the coast is clear, Charles wades to the far bank and pulls himself up onto dry land.
Later, Charles is walking unsteadily along a snow-lined row of trees. Frail and fatigued, he tumbles to the floor. As he lies prone and spent, laughter is heard. Looking up, Charles sees the figure of Ron, laughing and jumping around excitedly, poking at him with a stick. "Bad doggie", he mocks, childlike, "Have you been fighting?". Suddenly agitated, Ron declares that he must "tell Ellen", and runs off in the direction of some farm buildings, as succumbing to the cold Charles passes out.
Awaking with a start, Charles discovers himself lying on the floor of a barn. Ellen the farmer who has saved him from a frozen death offers him food in a bowl on the floor. As he moves, Charles discovers that he has been chained up it seems clear that Ellen is aware that a possible rabies carrier in 'on the loose' in the area. As Charles eats, he tries to dismiss her questions about the dog bite he has suffered. Ellen presses him, obviously knowledgeable about the risks of rabies, and assures him that his chances of avoiding infection are extremely good particularly as the dog bit through a thick coat and other clothing that would almost certainly have prevented the contact of the deadly saliva with the skin. The precaution of restraining Charles now seems unnecessary. At the sound of approaching horses, Ellen urges Charles to hide.
As Ellen joins Ron outside the barn, Sanders and the others approach. Sanders asks again if either of them have seen their quarry. Ellen encourages the apparently backward Ron to confirm that they have seen no-one. Ron seems happy to oblige yet as Sanders warns him that this stranger could be carrying a deadly disease, Ron expression changes. He seems far less certain about keeping Ellen's secret.
A few days later, Charles, visibly stronger than before, is preparing to leave Ellen's farm on horseback. Grateful and moved by her kindness, Charles pledges to return. As he is about to leave, Ron approaches, leading the three hunters who have not relented in their pursuit in the days that followed. Ron has revealed Charles' whereabouts.
Desperately, Charles flees at full gallop, as the riders close in. As Sanders passes Ellen, her cry that Charles is not a carrier goes unheeded.
Across the wintry hillsides the chase unfolds. Charles urges his mount to jump a low dry-stone wall in their path. The horse lands awkwardly on the far side and Charles is thrown from the saddle, landing hard on his back on the frozen earth. He crawls to the safety of the wall, and with their attention focused on the horse ahead the three pursuers leap over him, unaware.
Summoning the last vestiges of strength, Charles crawls and stumbles away on foot. Pulling himself down a bankside, he can scarcely believe his eyes, when he looks up to see the billowing smoke and steam of a train engine. As the drivers load coal from the trackside, Charles makes his way down the chain of wagons, and as the train lurches off again pulls himself up into an empty wagon. As the train gathers speed, Charles again passes out his reserves spent.
Arriving at a rail station, the driver and his mate spot their unconscious and injured passenger.
Several days later, Charles his arm held in a loose sling emerges from the station cottage, thanking his hosts for all their help. Once again Charles has been nursed back to health in the care of strangers. Charles joins the driver on the platform. He obviously knows that there is more to Charles' misfortune than the "fall from a horse" that he has admitted, but Charles has convinced the station community of his trustworthiness. Excited at the work that the settlement has already done to open up train track and get locomotives running again, Charles encourages the driver to "get a national network going". The driver reveals that Charles is the second survivor to make such a suggestion an earlier visitor, Greg Preston, had urged them to take up the same project. Charles is relieved, impressed and heartened by the news that Greg had pledged to return. The train will carry Charles south, out of the area and away from danger. As the engine pulls away, Charles reflects on his lucky escape, and on the role that rail might play in his future plans: "Steam saved me. Steam for survival!" he muses. As the locomotive gains speed, Charles sounds two blasts on the whistle laughing as he revels in the return of steam power.
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