Read Hunter's Moon Online

Authors: John Townsend

Hunter's Moon

BOOK: Hunter's Moon
2.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Somewhere behind him a twig snapped. Neil looked round. Nothing stirred. His heart raced. Was the creature behind him in the shadows?

He reached down to pick up a stick. Just as he moved he saw a shape on the track. His heart missed a beat. The stick rose in his hand.

Neil was scared – but he didn’t know why. Not at first. The dark had never bothered him … until now.

As the trees reached up around him and the wind stirred the bare twigs, he sensed something was there. Something alive. It wasn’t far away and it was watching him.

The beam from his torch swept across the
darkness and seeped into the woods. The deep blackness inside soaked up the light. He could see nothing, but he knew something was moving. Dead leaves crunched. Something was there. An icy shiver ran down the back of Neil’s neck.

He went back to the pile of timber and took a box of matches from his pocket. He would feel safer once the bonfire was burning. A warm glow of orange light might melt the fear. The matchbox shook in his clumsy fingers.

As he bent down to strike a match, he heard scraping behind him. The match snapped and the spark died. His heart pounded and his dry throat tightened. His fingers fumbled for another match – anything to kill the choking darkness.

Neil felt so stupid. He knew every inch of those woods. He’d lit bonfires after dark
many times. It was his job to burn the dead wood when all was quiet. He was used to being alone. That’s what he liked about being a gamekeeper. He loved the woods and being out in all weathers. He loved the quiet when no one was about. But now he knew he wasn’t alone.

The eyes blinked. They flashed tiny sparks of light as flames licked the paper and curled round the dry twigs. The pile of branches was soon alight; hissing, crackling and sparking in the darkness. As the breeze fanned the flames, the whole pile was a blaze of dancing light. Smoke rolled upwards into orange branches and roosting pheasants.

Neil hurled dead leaves into the flames and watched them flare. He turned to peer into the wood – just as the eyes hid behind a tree. Thick smoke swirled into the night
and drifted across the moon.

An owl screeched above him and flapped away into the blackness. He turned suddenly – sure the eyes were following his every move. Sure the deep growl was just a few steps away. He spun round in the mud, stumbled and ran in a spray of matches.

The fire fizzed and spat in a final flurry. It soon shrank to a small, red puddle of light before dying once and for all, when feet kicked smoking embers into the damp grass. The same feet that prowled each night through silent woods. And the same eyes … staring upwards – always upwards – to greet the Hunter’s Moon.

Neil had always wanted to work in the countryside. He’d helped his uncle most weekends at one of the shoots nearby. They paid him to be a beater but he had soon shown real skills for looking after the young birds. He had a sharp eye for any danger to the chicks. If buzzards were nearby or if a fox was in the woods, he knew straight
away. If a stoat or mink got through the fence, Neil was there like a shot. Nothing escaped his eyes and ears.

Jeff Barnard, the head gamekeeper, was keen to give Neil a job. Jeff was one of those wise old country men who’d worked on the land all his life. He, too, used his eyes and never missed a trick as to what was going on. He was full of old sayings that made Neil laugh.

‘You mark my words, lad,’ Jeff would say, ‘I can tell just what the weather’s up to. They always get it wrong on TV. Not me. I use these.’ He’d tap his ears and eyes. He was always right, too.

‘See the water on the tip of that elder leaf? Tomorrow will be a fine day.’

Dew in the night, next day will be bright. Grey mist at dawn, the day will be warm.

It was a fine summer day when Jeff said, ‘No sunbathing this afternoon if I were you, Neil my lad.’

Neil laughed.

‘Fat chance – with all those fence posts to put in. Look at that bright blue sky. This hot weather’s set to last, Jeff!’

Jeff shook his head and brushed the wasps from his can of beer.

‘Robin knows best. Look at him chirping down on that log. He sang a different tune in that tree last week. When he comes down here, that’s a sure sign of rain.’

By two o’clock the storm had already begun. Neil was amazed. Even though he knew a lot about nature, he still had plenty to learn from Jeff.

Neil was upset when Jeff had to stay off work with a bad back after a fall. Jeff had
been making a footbridge over the stream when one of the supports had given way. He fell badly and took hours to crawl up the bank and reach help.

While Jeff was away, Neil took on all the jobs. He worked all hours, often after dark. That’s when he first felt uneasy. Autumn was always a busy time, with plenty of cutting back to do.

‘Clearing and burning, my lad. Just keep clearing and burning,’ were Jeff’s orders. But Neil could do with Jeff being there. Not just to work on a new pheasant pen. For the first time in his life, Neil felt scared in the woods.

What were those weird scratch marks at the base of an oak tree? Deep grooves, like claw marks. And why were there splashes of blood in one of the bird feeders? But there was something else – something in the air.
There was a strong smell. It was near the broken footbridge. The bridge where Jeff had fallen. Neil sensed fear here. Fear of eyes somewhere in the shadows.

The girl came like a ghost through the morning mist. She drifted along the footpath at the edge of the wood. The watery sunlight trickled through the trees and splashed her face. Neil looked up from raking leaves and was startled by her. She looked stunning in a swirl of dappled light and October mist.

‘Hi!’ she called. For a moment he was speechless.

‘Lost your tongue?’ She smiled. Her dark eyes sparkled under a sweep of shining black hair. Neil stared for some seconds, first at her face, then slowly down to her muddy jeans and trainers. She read his mind.

‘I slipped. It’s very wet.’

‘Are you lost?’ he asked. It seemed a daft thing to say. He wished he hadn’t. She certainly didn’t seem lost.

‘No. Not at all. I remember you.’ She smiled again. What a lovely smile, he thought. But who was she? He’d never have forgotten a face like hers. Nor a figure like hers.

‘Really?’ he said, resting his elbow on the handle of the rake.

‘Yeah. You were in the year below me at
school. My friend fancied you.’ Neil felt himself blush. He still had no idea who she was.

‘Tanya,’ she smiled, reading his mind. ‘Are there badgers round here?’

‘Why do you ask?’ He didn’t mean to snap at her, but he was on his guard now. People who asked about badgers were not to be trusted. Not since a few setts were dug up last month, with all the animals taken off for brutal sport.

‘My project.’ She waved a pencil. It was only then he saw the sketch-pad under her arm. ‘I’m an art student. Wildlife is my thing at the moment. I’d love to see a baby badger.’

‘It’s not all you might see.’ Neil spoke without thinking. The fears of the last few nights were getting to him. But her mind had gone elsewhere.

‘And what did you have in mind?’ She beamed a cheeky grin as she winked and wagged the pencil at him.

‘Oh, nothing,’ he said, trying to laugh it off. He felt himself blush again.

She had moved closer and her dark eyes stared into his.

‘Do you mean the beast? They’re all talking about it at college. They say there’s a panther on the loose somewhere round here. Dark and deadly – like me!’ She gave a playful snarl and clawed the air.

Neil had heard the rumours. They’d been going round for years. But for the first time he felt something strange was prowling these woods. He was sure that strong smell by the bridge was from a big cat, marking out its hunting ground. It was like the strong ammonia he’d smelt at the zoo. He was sure the noises in the wood the other
night were from a large animal. Then there were the claw marks … He knew a big cat on the prowl could kill someone.

‘You look dead serious all of a sudden,’ she said. ‘You look far better when you smile. Cute, even. I see what my friend meant now. I could fancy you myself. I’m always on the lookout for a sexy guy in wellies!’

She gave a squeal of laughter and threw her head back. Neil laughed too, as she snorted with one hand hiding her mouth and the other brushing hair from her eyes.

Their giggles died and an awkward silence fell, as a sudden gunshot ripped right past them with a terrifying crack, and she screamed.

The echo rolled out over the hills and hung in the air. Crows sprang from the trees and the sky filled with their startled cries. A figure stood on the bank, his breath steaming as he laughed.

‘I bet that woke you both up, eh?’

‘You fool!’ Tanya shouted back, her face screwed up with rage.

‘My little joke to keep you on your toes.’

The grinning figure walked towards them.

Neil shouted at him, too. ‘What do you think you’re doing? You could have hit someone, firing like that.’

‘Cool it, mate. I know what I’m doing. I was aiming for that tree, and that’s just what I hit. Bullseye.’

Tanya turned on him, still angry. ‘How did you know I was here? Did you follow me?’

‘Just keeping my eye on you, Tanya,’ he said. ‘After all, the beast could be after you.’

It was Joe Linsey from the kennels.

‘I see you’re having a little chat with my woman. Keep your hands off. We wouldn’t like to fall out, would we? Remember me from school?’

Neil couldn’t forget. People used to leave Joe alone. He would stand in the corner of the yard and preach, often with a crowd round him. He used to say he was some sort of prophet. Most people just said he was mad.

‘How could I forget you?’ Neil said. ‘Still crazy, I see.’

Tanya smiled again. ‘You’re dead right. I can’t think what I see in him. I must have a weakness for sexy wellies!’ She roared laughing again.

Joe looked Neil in the eye. ‘Have you seen this big cat thing? The panther on the loose. The sign of the beast is always with us.’

Tanya rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, here he goes. Preaching again. I tell you, he’s a nutter. He’ll start quoting the Bible now.’

Joe ignored her. ‘Joel chapter one, verse
six. “It has the teeth of a lion and the fangs of a lioness.”’

Tanya reached for his hand. ‘He’s mad but he’s good with the hounds, aren’t you, love?’

‘They know I’m boss.’ He stroked the barrel of his gun. Neil couldn’t understand what Tanya saw in Joe.

‘He lets me sketch the hounds. I’m going to the hunt on Saturday. I want to paint a fox.’ Tanya said, as if she’d read his mind.

Joe snorted. ‘You’ll need to use a lot of red when they rip it apart. We don’t bother about the law round here. The ban on fox hunting hasn’t reached us!’

Tanya could see Neil had taken a dislike to Joe. ‘You could come and join us, Neil,’ she said. ‘We meet at The Nelson Inn at eleven o’clock. It’s the first hunt of the season.’

Joe sneered. ‘He’ll be working. He’s got to keep these woods safe from them that trespass. It must be tricky on his own, without his boss. And a tad lonely. When do you get time off?’

Neil didn’t like his questions. Why did he want to know?

High above the tree-tops across the river, the crows swarmed like angry flies. Joe’s eyes scanned the sky.

‘Ah, there it is. Our friend. On wings like eagles.’

A large bird rose above the hills, soaring on the air currents. It circled with outstretched wings as the crows scattered.

‘You could sketch that buzzard. That’s if Neil lets you get close.’

Neil said nothing. He knew Joe was testing him. It was no buzzard. This bird was different, with a forked tail. Neil loved
to watch it wheel above the woods, calling to its mate. But it was a rare sight. And Neil alone knew the exact tree where they nested.

The local pair of red kites brought bird watchers from far and wide. But that wasn’t all. They brought others, looking for ways to make easy money. Some would pay thousands for eggs, chicks or even a dead adult to stuff in a glass case. Neil knew some hunters were ruthless. He watched Joe’s gaze follow the now-tiny dot far above them. He knew it was time to be on his guard, particularly against anyone with a gun.

Later that evening Neil saw how right he’d been. Earth and bracken littered the track. Another badger sett had been dug up. It was ripped apart and all the young badgers had gone. Not far away, one of the
pheasant pens was damaged. Feathers lay scattered in the mud, blowing in flurries in the evening breeze across the blood-stained grass.

BOOK: Hunter's Moon
2.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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