Archie stood well behind the line of guns and saw everything. Every bird, every shot and every miss. His tremendous inbuilt capacity for observation was in operation, he was confident that any birds he saw hit the ground could be found by his team. Today his team was Willow, a black lab, utterly devoted to Archie, and Spark, his father’s chocolate cocker bitch. He placed a fond hand on Willow’s head and scratched behind her ears. She wriggled a little with the pleasure of his touch but stayed utterly focused on the birds falling all around. Spark, as usual was giving out an almost inaudible keening noise. It was a fault which Magnus had never bothered to correct and hearing it now caused Archie to think of his father. Missing since the previous summer, presumed dead, lost at sea when their motor yacht had run into trouble.
The estate had plodded on without him, the capable head keeper George Urquhart stepping up to the plate to take on extra duties and Uncle Edward taking over day-to-day estate management and shoot captaincy. But still, it was strange not to feel Magnus’s larger than life presence. The place felt as if it were waiting for him, paused almost. Archie thought, as he always did on formal shoot days, that once it was under his control he would stop driven shooting on the estate and concentrate on guests having to hunt properly, to walk, work dogs and carry what they shot. It just seemed fairer to him. But in the mean time… Archie snapped back. The horn had been blown and guns were being sleeved, backs were being slapped. A slightly tubby man with a pink face and a very new looking set of tweeds was stomping towards him. He hailed Archie before he was properly in hearing distance.
“Boy, I say, boy, come here.” He was motioning frantically. Archie called the dogs to heel and set off towards the gentleman. “I’ve got at least ten birds down from that drive, now you see you pick them all, one of them might be a runner.”
“Of course sir, it’s what I’m here for.” Archie knew the man had only shot five birds and three of those had been strong runners but it didn’t seem worth the trouble of arguing. The man stumped away to the waiting gun trailer and was whisked off to the next drive. With maximum efficiency Archie and the other pickers-up completed their task and moved to take up positions behind the guns for the ‘High Firs’ drive. It was a beast of a drive, steeply downhill from scrub and over a row of huge Douglas Firs. Archie had seen some top shots humbled by this drive and he was a little dubious of the choice given that this team were not the most experienced. He was slightly disappointed to see that again he was behind the pink-faced man. The horn blew and soon the calm tap-taping of the beaters could be heard through the trees. There were no shouts; it was something George would not tolerate. ‘The birds know you’re there as soon as you step off the trailer’ he would say ‘there’s no need to yell, it’s not a ruddy football match’. Any transgressors would soon feel the edge of his fearsome wrath.
Birds began to appear, in ones and twos, nicely spread along the line but as always concentrating around pegs three, four and five. Mr Pink Face was on four, the plum spot. Archie decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, hoping that he would have his eye in by now. Bird after bird streamed over the fir trees, many of them straight to peg four. For almost every bird there would be bang, bang, followed by a vile curse word. The odd easy bird fell but Archie watched as the man’s pink face got even pinker and then moved up a shade to red. He was clearly getting cross and Archie knew that it wouldn’t do the man’s accuracy any favours. He needed help and Archie wondered if he should perhaps go forward and offer some. More cursing rose from the peg and Archie decided that it wouldn’t be very wise to intervene at this stage.
The guns were all busy and coping with the drive in much better style than he had anticipated: apart from Mr Pink Face, the horn couldn’t come too quickly for him. Archie watched as a final bouquet presented themselves beautifully over the guns and the beaters began to appear through the trees. The horn went and the guns relaxed. All except Mr Pink Face. He was steaming. Archie was just about to go and point the man out to Uncle Edward when hail came across the field.
“You boy, I’ve at least a dozen down there, see that you pick them all.” The man turned and stomped off towards the trailer where a table had been set with a spread of Mrs Urquhart’s substantial canapes, Thermoses of coffee and oxtail soup laced with sherry. The pick up happened rather quickly behind Archie’s section and he was able to slip up to the table and help himself to a sausage plait. The now familiar voice rose from the crowd. “I say, that boy just helped himself to the gun’s food. I’ll not stand for that, it’s simply not good enough, he should be picking up my birds.” Uncle Edward gave Archie a look which said ‘don’t mess with this one, he’s nasty’. Archie gave him a small smile in return and exited the scene. He was in place before the start of the final drive of the morning. Moor’s Edge was the signature Strathnuin drive. As the name suggested, it took in the boundaries of the grouse moor and was liable to show pheasants, partridges and the odd grouse, for that reason it was never shot after the 10th of December. Archie took the opportunity to lie back in the heather and relax. There was still a bit of rare warmth in the early November sun and he was on the point of dropping off when he heard the guns approaching.
“Absolute shambles.” Archie heard an instantly recognisable voice ‘I shall be expecting a full refund, damn poor show, shan’t be coming here again’. Archie heard another of the guns pointing out that since Mr Pink Face was the guest of a member of the roving syndicate the day hadn’t actually cost him anything and as everyone else was having a good day, then perhaps he should keep quiet. Archie couldn’t suppress a small smile. The drive started with a quick flush of grouse from the moor and in typical style Mr Pink Face did not manage a single bird. Then a trickle of partridges started to pass over the guns, followed by pheasants looking big and lumbering after the smaller partridges.
Mr Pink Face had a dozen shots without ruffling a feather. The horn sounded for the end of the drive as a few late flushed birds flew over the line of guns. One man raised his hat to them but others were busy fastening their guns into leather and canvas slips. One still had his gun in his hands. Pink Face. A bird, lower and slower than the others flew right towards him. Pink Face raised his gun, fired and the bird tumbled from the sky. Archie watched in horror as the Short Eared Owl hit the ground in a shower of soft feathers.
The chatter of the other guns had ceased as the shot crashed out and gasps of incredulity has issued from the team as the owl had fallen.
“How about that then boys?” shouted Pink Face, “one less, what. Doing your job for you eh keeper?” he aimed the sentence at George Urquhart. As one man, George and Uncle Edward turned and walked towards the man. The man was still grinning as they reached him.
“Sir” said Uncle Edward in measured tones “I have to ask you to pack up your gear, get in your car and leave immediately. You are not welcome on Strathnuin again and I shall make sure you never receive an invitation to any other estates I know.
“You can’t do that, I shall sue, yes, I shall sue, my brother is a barrister you know”.
“In that case sir, I should ask him if he is prepared to act as your defence in case of a prosecution for killing a protected species”.
“Pah! Everyone knows you landowners and your henchmen” he nodded towards a glowering George “kill everything with a hooked beak.”
“Sir, we are proudly committed to preserving all protected species on this estate and our staff are under no illusion that if any of them commit wildlife crime then their job and home are forfeit, now please leave.”
“You haven’t heard the last of this Hunter, oh no”. Pink Face turned and stomped off towards his car. Archie watched for a moment as the man who had invited Pink Face as his guest came over and started to apologise profusely to Uncle Edward and George then turned to find the owl. He kept the dogs close and saw Willow stiffen as she picked up the scent but didn’t want to send her in in case the owl was still alive and sank her talons into the dog’s muzzle. He sat the dogs and took a few steps forward, scanning the ground ahead as he went. There, on its back, surround by a few soft feathers was the owl, very much alive and rather angry. It hissed at Archie as he approached. A pair of incredibly yellow eyes stared at him, both frightened and defiant. Archie’s heart went out to the bird.
Archie slipped off his jacket and gently dropped it over the owl. He scooped it up and carried it carefully over to George.
“What shall I do with it?” he asked “it doesn’t seem to be badly hurt”.
“Pop it in one of the dog transport boxes and give it a bit of pheasant breast, we’ll see how it looks later.”
George stumped off to have a bite of lunch and Archie took the owl back to the yard, set a log in one of the dog boxes for it to sit on and bundled it out of the jacket and into the box. He took a pheasant from the game cart and with his pocket knife sliced a good chunk of breast meat off and pushed it through one of the ventilation holes.
After Mrs Urquhart’s solid lunch the guns reassembled for the final two drives of the day. They were executed perfectly by the keepers and beaters. The team of guns, one man lighter than the morning, were driven happily back to Strathnuin house, presented with a brace of pheasants each and given a high tea complete with smoked salmon sandwiches and scones with clotted cream. Archie stood with his uncle Edward and George the keeper to say goodbye to the guest guns. The gun who had invited Pink Face apologised deeply again and pressed a fifty pound note into Archie’s hand. Archie pocketed it quickly lest Uncle Edward confiscate it – his rule was family tips to charity.
When they had waved the last of the guns off down the drive the three of them went back to the kennels where the owl waited in the dog box. To their amazement the owl was standing in the box looking at them questioningly. With a pair of leather gloves on, George reached into the box and grabbed the owl expertly, keeping its wings folded and holding onto its feet to be sure no further damage befell it. The owl was almost unnaturally calm as it was brought from the box.
“Archie, I’ll hold it while you part the feathers and look for any pellet holes” said George and Archie began to probe through the soft feathers, marvelling at the colours and patterns. By the time he had covered the left wing, the body and the legs Archie was beginning to doubt that it had been hit at all. It was only when the they examined the right wing that they saw it. One clean pellet hole through the wing web. There was little blood as the area is poorly served with blood vessels.
“Bingo!” said Archie “look, there. Must have been the shock that brought it down”.
“Okay Archie, spray it with some of that antiseptic” George indicated a small plastic spray bottle of F10 on a shelf. Archie drenched the wound with the liquid and then went over the bird again just to be sure. It seemed fine, even if it was rather docile, almost as if it were drugged. They set it back in the box and left it in a quiet corner of the kennels complex.
Albert Nugent was sitting happily in the soft cream coloured leather of his new Range Rover. He could see the huge expanse of the deep black bonnet stretched out in front of him. The powerful headlight cut through the twilight with disdain and Nugent was happy with his lot. He had shown those damn yokels a thing or two. He’d only take up shooting the season before but felt he had assimilated all the knowledge he needed and could probably run any shoot better than the current owners. In fact, now he had sold his company he could probably afford to do just that. He would buy an estate he thought, a big one. He would employ people who worked to his agenda and only his agenda, he would have them wipe everything that might eat any of his pheasants off the face of the earth. Oh yes, he would be good. As he dreamed his grandiose dreams he was distracted by an itching sensation on the back of his neck. He reached behind him to scratch. He felt goose bumps. A he touched them, they became tender and almost hard.
Nugent shook his head and and decided to put the radio on. A discussion programme was playing, it was about the climate crisis and man’s role in it. He spent an enjoyable twenty minutes yelling at the panel that climate change was just scare mongering by Guardian reading lefties. Until he felt his finger tips itching. He inspected them as he drove. They looked normal. As he watched however, a tiny point of something hard emerged from the tip of his left index finger. He stared. The enormous noise of a huge trucks’ air horns brought him back and he only just missed the truck. The big car had wandered right over the white line and he had not noticed.
He looked down at his finger again. The hard protrusions were growing visibly now, and expanding, stiff shafts with soft edges, white and brown. Sitting became uncomfortable, like there was an odd shaped cushion behind him. His shoes were becoming more and more uncomfortable. He reached down and tugged at the laces as best he could with his strange new fingers. He looked at them again. No, this was not possible, he thought, someone will be liable for this, he’d get his solicitor on to it first thing in the morning. Oh but his feet were no so painful. He felt the stitching of his expensive brogues start to pop and his toes pop out, they felt enormous and it was hard to manipulate the pedals. He looked at his hands, still hands but now covered in beautiful soft feathers. And his eyes, oh how he could see! His thoughts did not last long, he was suddenly overcome by tremendous hunger, all he could think about was food. He was so hungry.
It was another few minuted before he saw the vole scurry across the road. Without thought he slammed his long talon hard on the accelerator and steered towards it as it entered the tree line on the side of the road.
Archie decided to have one last look at the owl before he settled down for the evening. He shrugged on a Puffa jacket and walked down towards the dark estate yard. It was one of those rare perfectly still nights with the stars above him forming a canopy of beauty. As he entered the kennel block and switched the light on he could see something was wrong. The door to the transport box was lying on the floor of the open corridor and he could clearly see that there was no owl inside.
It could only be that George had decided to let the owl go earlier, the door had come off the box and he had not picked it up as he had the owl in his hands.
Archie felt a little miffed as he would have liked to be there. As he emerged out into the yard again a security light came on around the side of one of the buildings. Not too late, he thought and set off towards the light. He was on the verge of calling out but decided against it, not wanting to frighten the owl. Archie rounded the corner of the building and looked. It took him a few moments to reconcile the scene. There was no George, in fact, no one at all. Just a very smug looking owl sitting on a fence post and tucking into a fine, fat vole.