Harry Settle, head keeper of the Blackamoor shoot in North Yorkshire, could not dispel a nagging sense of unease as he looked out over the sea of purple heather. He was always a bit edgy on the Glorious Twelfth, the first day of the shooting season, being naturally concerned, as any field commander would be, that operations should run smoothly. And a grouse shoot is, for all intents and purposes, a highly organized military campaign. The small army of beaters were his infantry, the line of guns concealed in their stone shooting butts his artillery. This year, however, he had something else to worry about.
There had been rumors of a protest by a group of anti-blood sport fanatics, supposedly concerned about cruelty to animals or some such rubbish but dedicated in reality to destroying a way of life they knew nothing about. At least that's the way the old gamekeeper saw it. Last year a gang of them had terrorized a party of Americans on Ilkley Moor and had threatened to strike again this season. He had taken precautions, of course, but young Mr. Dinsdale had made it clear that he would hold him personally responsible should there be any trouble. So far, however, the shoot had gone off without a hitch, with a tally of twenty-six brace of grouse for the three morning drives. A respectable bag for a small shoot like Blackamoor, Settle reckoned with a feeling of pride. And at seventy-five quid a brace from his paying guests, Mr. Dinsdale should be pleased.
His employer had been in typical form at lunch, drinking more wine than he could hold and regaling his guests with off-color stories. It always made Settle cringe with embarrassment. However--in keeping with the occasion--it was a glorious summer day, and as he'd sat outside the shooting cabin, eating his sandwiches with the rest of the help, he'd overheard several complimentary remarks from the guests inside about his wife's veal-and-ham pie. It was the part of the day he enjoyed the most: chatting with his colleagues about which gun shot well or otherwise, the hen harrier someone saw during the drive, livestock prices, or some local scandal. And there was never a shortage of scandal, it seemed, when it came to Miss Felicity Jamieson, young Mr. Dinsdale's attractive stepsister. Settle had long ago abandoned his halfhearted attempts--made largely out of a sense of loyalty to old Mr. Dinsdale--to defend her honor. Today at lunch, the latest gossip about Miss Jamieson's exploits with a young farmer from Ro
sedale had been particularly vivid, to the point where even his underkeeper, Mick Curtis, had looked uncomfortable.
After the guests had finished their port and smoked their cigars, Settle had driven the guns in the Land Rover to another part of the moor for the afternoon's shooting, while his assistant transported the beaters by truck to the starting point of the drive. And now, as his eyes searched the familiar landscape for anything out of place, Settle experienced a thrill of anticipation as he always did just before the start of a drive, a feeling that had not diminished after more than forty years as a gamekeeper. He saw that the beaters were in position--ten men, fifty yards apart, visible on the skyline nearly half a mile away. He frowned. He had hoped to recruit a few more lads from the local farms, but he had trouble enough finding anyone that would come to work for the paltry few pounds that Mr. Dinsdale offered. Without the promise of unlimited free beer at the end of the day, he doubted he would have got more than half a dozen volunteers this year. How different it had been in the old days, when shooting was
a way of life in the dale and keepering a respected profession. Scores of keepers had once been employed in the North York Moors; now there was just a handful like himself to carry on the tradition, members of a dying breed.
His assistant, Mick, was a case in point. The lad sometimes seemed more concerned with the size of his tips than doing a good job. And even more worrisome, he seemed to get on particularly well with young Mr. Dinsdale, to the point where Settle sometimes felt the need to look over his shoulder.
He turned to see if the guns were ready. As usual, Mr. Dinsdale had his head up above the cut-heather blocks that were set atop the low stone walls of his shooting butt. He was swinging the muzzle of his shotgun from side to side in an unsafe manner, muttering something to himself. Or maybe, Settle thought, he's talking to his father. He could picture old Mr. Dinsdale slumped in his wheelchair at the back of the butt, staring vacantly into space. They wheeled him out every August for the opening shoot and then wheeled him back to the big house, not to be seen again for another year. The keeper shook his head. It was sad really. The old squire used to love his shooting, and despite being "new" money, he had been a generous and gracious master. Not like his bloody offspring--Settle had to make an effort to restrain himself. After all, there was no point in complaining; he wasn't getting any younger, and he had a wife and his future security to worry about.
The flankers, three to a side, stood in a line thirty yards apart on either end and forward of the line of butts, white flags at the ready. As the drive progressed they would move away from the butts towards the ends of the advancing line of beaters, thus containing the grouse in a trapezoidal enclosure, the line of beaters and the row of butts representing the long and short sides, respectively. As the grouse flew, the flankers would wave their flags strategically to startle the birds and funnel them towards the waiting guns.
Everything appeared to be in order. One last glance behind the butts to make sure that the two pickers-up and their dogs were well concealed in depressions amongst the heather. He turned once more to the front and checked his watch. It was two forty-five precisely, the appointed time to begin the fourth drive of the day. With great solemnity, he raised his horn to his lips and sounded the call to start the drive.
As the line of beaters moved slowly across the moor towards them, Settle began to grow anxious. The beaters had already covered several hundred yards but had not put up a single bird. He could hear the faint sound of flapping plastic as they swept their homemade flags back and forth. Suddenly there was a great commotion--a raucous cackling and clatter of wings. A dozen grouse had got up and were heading straight for the butts.
About two hundred yards out, half of them veered off to the right through the gap between the outermost flanker and the line of beaters, skimming over the heather like reddish brown cruise missiles. Settle cursed silently. The remaining birds flew directly over Mr. Dinsdale's shooting butt. Dinsdale rose up and fired, missing cleanly. He then turned and fired his remaining barrel at the retreating grouse. One of the birds appeared to wobble slightly then sailed on stiff wings for a hundred yards before going down. The pickers-up poked their heads above the heather to mark the location of the bird. "Bloody hell!" the old gamekeeper muttered. With shooting like that he'd be the laughingstock of his mates at the pub. A gamekeeper toiled on the moors--burning the old heather to promote new growth, poisoning competing bracken, spreading grit for the birds, and shooting foxes--for one reason only: to raise more grouse so that more could be shot. Every bird missed was a bird wasted, just like pouring a pint of the
best Yorkshire bitter down the drain. And in the end, the head keeper was held to accounts.
The beaters were only about a hundred and fifty yards out now and getting within range of the guns. Settle was about to blow his horn--to signal, for reasons of safety, that the guns must now only shoot behind them--when all hell broke loose.
A large covey of grouse erupted with whirring wings from the heather, uttering their characteristic go-beck-beck-beck, as if they realized, too late, what was in store for them. The guns rose as one and started firing. In a few seconds a dozen birds were down, several of them beating death tattoos on the heather with their wings.
Harry Settle's attention, however, was elsewhere. He stared straight ahead, transfixed. Strange elflike figures were materializing on the moor before his very eyes. A longhaired sprite ran towards him, screaming something unintelligible. "Gawd Almighty," Settle whispered. Then he leapt to his feet, shouting amidst the fusillade, "Hold your bloody fire! Stop shooting!"
There was considerable confusion amongst the guns at first, but as the message was shouted down the line of butts, the shotgun blasts became sporadic, then, a few seconds later, ceased entirely. Several of the beaters had begun to run towards the butts. With a garbled scream, one of them stumbled and inexplicably vanished. Settle watched in numb disbelief. The longhaired creature--he realized now that it was a young woman--had stopped ten yards from him and produced a camera. She was snapping pictures of a wounded grouse that lay twitching spasmodically in a patch of dead bracken. She looked up at him. "Murderer," she said.
There were about half a dozen of them, another woman and three scruffy young men waving their arms and shouting at the guns. A fourth man, who appeared to be directing the operation, was recording the proceedings with a video camera.
Suddenly, something caught Settle's attention--one of the beaters, Jack Long, the son of a local farmer, was closing in fast on the group of protesters. Uttering a bloodcurdling cry perfected on the rugby pitch, he tackled the man with the video camera from behind, sending him and his equipment crashing to the ground. The other interlopers then piled onto Jack, just as the rest of the beaters arrived to join the melee. A wild scrum ensued with boots flying and bodies grappling in the heather. The dogs of the pickers-up strained at their leashes and barked excitedly. One of the women screamed as someone pulled her off the pile by her hair. There was derisive cheering from the butts. Utterly disgusted, Settle pointed his gun in the air and fired first one barrel then the other. The reports echoed across the moor like recriminating claps of thunder.
Judging by the reaction, he had made his point. The combatants disentangled themselves and scrambled to their feet looking embarrassed. Settle shook his head in amazement. A feeling of grudging respect crept over him as he realized how this ragtag group of guerillas had pulled it off. About thirty yards in front of the butts, a number of pits had been dug in the moor. The holes had been covered over with squares of plywood then camouflaged with cut blocks of heather. It was into one of these that the beater had fallen. The protesters had concealed themselves in their foxholes, waiting for the right moment to burst out and confront the guns. Settle looked them over with disgust on his face. "Well, what do you lot 'ave to say for yourselves?"
He heard a sharp voice behind him. "It's a bit late for that, Settle, don't you think?"
He turned and looked into the red face of his employer. "I'm sorry, Mr. Dinsdale, I--" He was interrupted by a commotion behind the butts. Mick Curtis, his assistant, was striding over with another man and four uniformed constables in tow. Settle felt like he'd been kicked in the gut.
"Good work, Curtis," Dinsdale said smartly, ignoring his head keeper. "I can see that I should have put you in charge from the start."
Mick, with an obsequious smirk, caught Settle's eye and said, "Thank you, Mr. Dinsdale."
"Hello, Dickie," said the man accompanying the constables.
"Jim, good to see you," Dinsdale replied heartily. "Shall we get on with it?"
The man smiled. "Always happy to help rid the moors of vermin."
He nodded at the ringleader, a bearded lad with matted dreadlocks, and then spoke to one of the constables. "Leave him with us."
"Yes, Mr. Braughton."
The policemen proceeded to handcuff the other protesters together and then herd them towards a waiting police van. One of the young men insisted on being dragged by his arm, cursing and kicking, over the rough ground. The young woman with the long hair was screaming obscenities.
Dinsdale addressed the assembled members of the shooting party. "I'm afraid there will be no more shooting today, but we'll make it up tomorrow. I suggest we all retire to the shooting box for a drink." He turned to Curtis, once again ignoring Settle. "Mick, see to my father, would you?"
"Yes, Mr. Dinsdale."
"As for you, Settle, I'll deal with you later."
"Yes, sir," the gamekeeper mumbled, cringing with embarrassment.
As the guns and beaters and flankers and pickers-up with their dogs straggled back to the vehicles, Braughton turned to face his captive. "Hello, Stumpy."
The young man glared defiantly at him, saying nothing.
"You've heard of Stumpy Macfarlane, Dickie--the fearless tree-hugger."
"Sod off," Stumpy said.
Without warning, Dinsdale lunged, thrusting the butt end of his gun stock into the protester's solar plexus.
The young man gave an agonized grunt, then fell to the ground, gasping raspingly for air.
"Have a little respect for the inspector, lout," Dinsdale snarled.
Braughton shook his head sadly. "Wandering about on the moors can be hazardous to your health, Stumpy."
Stumpy looked up at Dinsdale, tears streaming from his eyes. "You son of a bitch!" he whispered hoarsely. "You'll pay for this."
"Uttering threats won't help you," Braughton said. "I am placing you under arrest for aggravated trespass and interfering with the lawful activity of others contrary to section sixty-eight of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. What have you got to say for yourself?"
Silence now, except for Stumpy's labored breathing.
"All right, get up and come along quietly--" The policeman felt a hand on his shoulder and heard Dinsdale's voice.
"That would be too easy, Jim. We need to teach the little bastard a lesson."
Braughton looked at Dinsdale. "I don't think that would be wise, Dickie."
Dinsdale smiled. "You needn't be involved. Just leave him to me."
Then he leveled his gun at Stumpy's head and pulled the trigger.
Excerpted from Malice on the Moors by Graham Thomas. Copyright © 1999 by Graham Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Fawcett, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.