They dropped down to the side of the field out of sight of prying eyes in the almshouses, into the shade of high old hedgerows. A shallow depression lay between the hedges forming a dark, green lane that ran up the hill by the side of Chucker’s 30 acre and on into Dumbar’s wood. Tom kept up a good pace in the warm Spring air and Ed was sweating by the time they got to the top of the rise.
‘Right, we can slow down now.’ Tom said, his voice quiet.
‘What we doing Tom?’ Ed asked in a whisper.
Tom stopped and crouched by the side of the lane.
‘Right, we’re going to go down the other side of the hill in the wood. There’s a few runs I put snares on last night. Need to check ’em.’
‘Snares? Shit we’re going to be in big trouble if we get caught. That what the bag’s for?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Tommy, what do you want rabbits for?’
‘Dad likes them, nice with a mustard sauce’ He laughed. ‘And old Carslake the butcher takes them for a few quid each.’
Ed considered this news.
‘People still buy rabbit then?’
‘Lots of farmed rabbit about.’ Tom nodded to the woods, ‘But these beauties? Wild, natural, sustainable, organic, all that old bollocks. Sell for a premium to the right type.’
‘Weekend Barbour brigade. Hippies who aren’t Vegan yet. Knit your own yoghurt types.’
‘Must be mad.’
‘Keeps me in fags. Now are you coming or not?’
Ed looked back down the hill and then at the gap in the bushes leading to the wood, then at Tom. They’d had good fun with the fishing and the money had come in handy. He wondered if Tom might cut him in on some now. He was always skint these days. Be in big debt if he went to Uni.
‘All right, go on then.’
‘Good lad, let’s get on.’
The two of them rose and crossed the lane, disappearing into the deeper shadows beneath the canopy.
‘Bit creepy Dumbar’s, never liked it.’ Ed confided.
‘Dunno, feels funny. Lots of kids at school said so an’ all. Loads of bad stories about it.’
‘That’s why I like it.’ Tom said.’ All them daft stories keeps folk away. Lots of things in here you don’t get other places with people crashing about scaring ’em off.’ He stopped, and as if to prove his point a fallow deer buck walked across the path ahead of them. It stopped, half in, half out of the shadows for a moment, sniffed the air and walked on, unconcerned, to disappear in the undergrowth.
‘He’s kept his antlers late.’ Tom said ‘April? Should be shed by now.’
‘Big beggar wasn’t he? Ed said.
‘He was. Maybe he’s come to have you?’ Tom said, making a scary face and raising his hands in claw like manner.
‘Sod off Tommy. Let’s find these rabbits.’
Tom let his hands fall to his sides. He nodded down the track to where the buck had crossed the path. ‘Follow the big lad then’
They moved off down the trail to where the sun dappled the bushes and the path, and turned off to the left into the shadows of the undergrowth. There was a crash of something moving hard through the bushes and Tom pointed as the white patch and black horseshoe shape of the buck’s rump disappeared into the woods’ gloomy interior.
‘Should be lying up, daft animal.’
‘Forget him Tom, let’s find these rabbits.’ Ed said
‘Bit odd though isn’t it?’
‘Bloody big buck wandering about bold as brass in the day, still got his antlers this time of year. Weird.’
‘You’re not scaring me Tom. It’s just a deer.’
Tom was about to say something else but stopped and moved off.
‘Come on then.’
They descended into the deepening gloom of the trees. There was no more noise from the buck, and no birdsong broke the silence. Tom and Ed moved through the undergrowth as softly as shadows. Tom had said no-one came here, but they both knew game birds lay up in these woods. There was no game shooting this time of year and the rearing pens were on the other side of the valley, but Chucker’s gamekeeper could be planning out drives and seeing what was what anywhere on the land. Both listened for the sound of movement and their eyes swept the depths of the wood for a sign of the keeper. They carried on in this fashion, cautiously following the path across and down the hillside for a few minutes. Careful, silent progress. Then Tom held up his hand and pointed at a small ‘V’ carved into an Ash trunk.
‘Down this way.’ He whispered and slid off the track to the left.
Ed could see the animal run emerge onto the path as he followed Tom.
‘Why didn’t you trap it at the end?’
Tom stopped and looked at Ed. ‘And have Chucker or one of his boys see it? Don’t be daft Ed. I thought you was a country boy.’
Ed nodded. Tom always made him feel like this. Never quite as smart, quite as sharp, quite as at ease with the wilder end of life as Tom. Tom hadn’t been phased at all by the police calling about the fish. Never bothered about the teachers on his back. Never directly rude but always challenging. Always one better behind the back of anyone in authority. Hadn’t got him a job though. Hadn’t got him out of the village. Hadn’t got him the exams to go to Uni. He was smart in other ways; ways teachers and coppers didn’t approve of. Ed wasn’t sure he did any more. There was something attractive about Tom’s wildness but it scared Ed at the same time. Tom was like the buck, part of the same natural system, but unusual, larger than life, belonging to a disappearing world. Whereas Ed wanted to get out of Dumbar’s wood and away from the buck whose antlers should be long gone.