‘Come on dopey, first one’s only a few yards.’ Tom said, moving off through the bushes.
Ed had done all right at school once he’ stopped hanging around with Tom and actually done some work. His teachers hadn’t suggested college because they’d had him marked down the same path as Tom, but now he’d got his results, good results, he was thinking about going this year. He’d put an application in and had one offer and needed to talk to someone about a couple of others he was waiting for. The idea was to make some cash this year but so far there’d been nothing. And here he was again with Tom.
He nearly bumped into him as Tom stopped.
‘Here we go.’ He stooped and pulled aside a branch. The snare had looped neatly round the rabbit’s neck and the animal was as dead as it was going to be. Tom unpegged the wire and pulled it out from the rabbit’s flesh. He coiled the wire and peg and pocketed them, giving the animal to Ed who stuffed it in the haversack.
‘Next one’s about five yards over.’ Tom whispered.
They turned their back on the run and stepped under and round the undergrowth to where Tom had laid the next snare. There was no rabbit. The loop of wire was still set open and there was no sign of disturbance. Tom shrugged. ‘Bugger. I thought that we’d maybe get them all sprung today.’ He stood up. Never mind, leave it, we can come up tomorrow and check that one.’
‘”We.” Already apparently in Tom’s mind they were working together again. Ed wasn’t so sure. He had a route out if he was sensible. College. A job in a town or city. Money, independence. Not being a country boy on the edge of existence. Not being a sidekick to a chancer like Tom. Wondering again why Tom’s family was weird and what would happen when the luck ran out.
They checked another three snares on this side of the path, one empty, one with another clean kill and one with the animal still kicking a little as the noose hadn’t broken the neck or throttled it in the time since it had run into the trap. Tom slipped a short lead cosh from his pocket and smacked the animal sharply on the back of the neck which stopped the wriggling.
‘He’ll be a tough old bugger to eat. Give that one to my Dad I reckon.’ Tom laughed.
‘Why tough or why give it my Dad?’
‘Both I suppose.’
‘They don’t die quick, they get real knotty. All that struggling. Quick kill before they realise what’s happening, they’re all relaxed see. Nice eating. Dad don’t mind, but Carslake’s customers is choosy. I start giving him tough old buggers like this he’ll drop the price or stop taking ’em altogether.’ Tom grinned. ‘Customer care boy.’
Ed took the animal and looked at it. ‘You’ll know which is which?’
‘Yeah. Look.’ Tom flipped its neck over. ‘See. Big bit of fur rubbed off this side where it was struggling.’ He lifted the head. ‘And that mark where I whacked him.’
Ed put it in the sack with the others.
‘How many more Tom?’
‘Another five. Round the other side of the warren.’ He pointed to a patch of thick briars just down the hill. ‘That’s it. Hundreds of the little beggars in there. Not far to the fields in the bottom of the valley. I’d get more trapping that side but you don’t know who’s watching from the wood on the other hill.’
Ed nodded and they moved off around the thicket and uphill back towards the track.
They finished emptying the snares. Four of the five had been good clean kills and one untouched. Tom was setting another snare on a new run when they heard a crashing through the undergrowth somewhere down by the briar thicket.
The two of them looked up and then at each other.
‘What’s that Tom?’
‘It’ll be that bloody buck. It’s getting late and he’ll be off to browse in Chucker’s fields.’
‘Yeah, come on. Set one where you are. You’re more or less standing on a run there.’
Ed caught the wire and peg that Tom threw at him. He crouched down and looked for the tunnel through the undergrowth. He’d tight pegged the wire round a good strong trunk of a bush and was just setting it open at the right height for a rabbit head when the crashing sound cam louder and presumably nearer. Ed half crawled to where Tom was finishing his last snare.
‘Come on Tom. Let’s go.’
‘What’s the matter? Afraid of the spooky deer?’
‘I don’t know Tom, but it’s getting late and I don’t want…’
There was a whistle and both lads dropped down to the ground. They looked at each other. ‘That’s not a fucking buck Tom.’
The other noises got louder and they heard panting. A dog was quartering the wood.
They backed under a blackthorn bush, Ed biting his lip as the thorns scratched his legs.
The dog’s panting got louder and the whistling more strident. Then a man’s voice cut the air.
‘Max! Max, come! Come!’
The dog went away.
‘What is it? A walker?’ Ed whispered.
‘Keeper with a new dog?’
‘It’s bound to find us.’
Tom raised his head a little looking downhill to where the noises were coming from.
‘Move uphill Ed, slow and low like. He can’t have seen us.’
‘What about the dog?
‘Don’t sound too bright if he’s making that noise to get him to come back does he? Come on boy, move!’
The two started to half crawl, half stumble up the hill keeping as low and as quiet as they could while they made their way back towards the path.
They almost stumbled onto it through a stand of hazel that someone had coppiced years ago, now left to straggle. Tom stopped, and froze, still, barely, in the cover of the trees.
‘Bugger’s come up the lane and onto the side path. Standing up there now.’
‘Who is it?’ Ed asked.
‘Dunno. No shotgun, not Chucker or his keeper.’
‘What’s he doing?’
‘Just standing there.’
‘Waiting for the dog?’
Tom was like stone, unmoving, eyes fixed and his voice was the sound of a leaf falling. Ed could tell it as there but he wasn’t sure how he could hear it. It was almost as if he could feel Tom’s thoughts in his head rather than through his ears.