'When the sheep and cattle lie dead on the moor,
murdered in the ink-black night
Do not stray into cavern or over dark tor,
for The Grim sets forth in the fading light.
The Princetown Book - 1860
DARTMOOR NATIONAL PARK – PRESENT DAY
Ms. Smith was a fit lady in her mid-forties. Her clothes were immaculate (in Vogue business chic today, rather than Armani Couture).
She loved driving up to the moors, where she could unwind and shed the day’s load of clients’ demands regarding their architecture projects, as she exercised her lowchen, Patch, through the heather on the shortcut grass tourist paths of Haytor.
There were no people to spoil her silence; Patch was her only companion. It was fantastic in the autumn, when the tourists had left. In the summer she chose other, less frequented routes and she drank in the solitude.
The small dog’s lead made an impromptu belt around her waist, the metal clasp knocked reassuringly against her thigh as she walked.
She paused to look out over the landscape,
taking her eyes off the view for a moment to check, briefly, that this year’s Mercedes stood alone and unblemished in the distance, in the roadside parking bay she always used.
As she enjoyed the view, her small dog investigated a rabbit track.
Patch suddenly became alert. He stared out into the darkness.
Ms. Smith noticed his tension.
‘Patch, what’s up boy?’
Patch kept staring into the darkness. He growled softly. It was an unfamiliar sound from the good natured pet.
He looked uncertain, then loped back to her side and stuck close to her heel, very nervous.
‘What’s out there?’
She peered into the blackness, and shone her torch against the grass and taller heathers.
Patch whined and looked up at Ms. Smith. She checked the silky night. There was nothing there. Was he jumping at ghosts? She told herself not to be silly. But he was so close now he was getting under her feet.
The usually confident young dog was very definitely upset by something he was sensing. His nervousness was infectious. She scanned the darkness as she walked, looking for whatever had disquieted him. Not a fox. Maybe a badger? Were they dangerous to people? She increased her pace.
A near silent swish of grass to the left …
… Her torch revealed nothing but moorland.
Patch whined again. She looked at him. He was definitely scared – and he didn’t take his eyes off whatever it was out there. But each time she shone her torch where he was looking, there was nothing to see but darkness, heather, shadows, and grass.
Ms. Smith increased her pace again, sure that they were being followed by … something.
She had scoffed at the unbelievable stories of a big cat roaming the moors when she had overheard them years ago in her local coffee shop, but now they tickled at her memory. There had never been any evidence! She told herself they were just stories, unsubstantiated rumour. But… Were they just stories?
It must be a badger. Patch had her jumping at ghosts. She was being silly.
Her car was still a long way off.
She tried to keep her fear under control.
Patch nearly tripped her. She caught herself, but felt the torch slip from her grasp and fall. It hit the ground and darkness triumphed, briefly, as its beam died.
She grabbed the torch and shook it as she started to jog, one eye on the path and the rest of her attention on getting the darned torch to work. The torch sputtered back into life, illuminating her face. Thank God! She felt movement in the air beside her, turned her face towards it. Her relief turned to terror. The night itself seemed to be attacking: she had a brief, shadowy glimpse of eyes and fangs.
‘N–!’ her scream was cut off short.
Patch fled whimpering. The noise of ripping flesh and crunching bone faded in the distance as Patch ran flat out. He didn’t know where he was, or where he was going. He just needed to get away.
A battered old Land Rover, with a National Parks’ Warden emblem on the side, cruised along under the grey morning sky. The back was filled with wire, fence posts, wood, tools and assorted useful rubbish.
Mabel Cooper, a naturally pretty thirty-four year old tomboy, drove expertly along the narrow twisting roads on her way to the first job of her day. Fixing that fence would likely take her most of the morning, she was looking forward to the workout.
The rising sun promised to burn off most of the cloud cover before lunch. It was going to be a lovely warm autumn day.
Against the sunshine, the colours of her National Park Warden sweatshirt brought out the hazel in her eyes. She tapped her fingers and hummed along to the tune on the radio.
Mabel noticed Patch on the moor ahead and slowed the vehicle. Her happy mood changed instantly to one of concern and anger.
It was unusual to find lone pets on the moor. He – or she! – was probably either lost or abandoned. Perhaps the owner got sick while walking, but pets didn’t usually leave them alone if that were the case, and there was no obvious sign of another human being up here.
Mabel had to stop for the dog anyway, but decided to check around for any sign of the owner at the same time. And if the owner was not there she’d need to trace them, check they were okay – and most importantly – find out whether they had a good reason for leaving a vulnerable animal up here by itself without food, shelter or protection.
Patch, bedraggled, cold, afraid and alone, sat amongst the heather shivering. Mabel pulled up the Land Rover, and jumped out to tend to the small hound. He, she noted by the shoulders, had an attractive white body with tawny patches on his shoulders, flanks, and a jaunty one over his left ear. Most likely a show dog. He appeared to be in good condition, well looked after. Mabel felt a tug of concern for the owner.
She grabbed some bailer twine from the back, and headed over to the dog.
‘Here boy! – Here doggie!’
Patch looked at her, forlorn, lost. She had nearly reached him.
‘Good boy. Good dog.’
Patch waged his tail and hesitantly came to her. He sniffed her outstretched hand.
‘Good boy. There’s a good boy.’
Patch licked her hand, obviously grateful for the company.
Mabel got down on her knees and took some trouble to make friends with him. Then she ruffled the fur around his neck. But she couldn’t find a name tag.
She looked around. There was no sign of the owner. She checked his pads, he’d been running over some rough terrain, but had no obvious injuries. She gently teased a few snagged sprigs of gorse and heather from his coat.
‘What are you doing out here? ’Ey? Where’s your Mummy, or your Daddy? ’Ey? Come on. You come along with me.’
Mabel looped the bailer twine though his collar and took him back to the Land Rover, talking as they went: ‘Did someone dump you here?’ At the back of her mind the thought, people can be right bastards, mixed with a thread of concern over where his owner might be.
She put Patch on the passenger seat and closed the door shutting him in, then got in on the driver’s side next to him. She dragged her lunchbox out of the foot well, dismantled her beef & mayo sandwich, ate the gherkins, and fed the rest to Patch. He was hungry.
‘You can come to work with me for now, then we’ll try and find you a place to stay. ’Ey?’
She stroked his head. He curled up, lay his head on his paws, and looked at her mournfully. Mabel started the engine.
As she drove, the sun came out as promised.
The miles passed rapidly. The scenery quickly changed from open moor to sheltered moorland valleys.
The hillside was covered with woodland, which was separated from the road by an acre strip of field.
The shoulder-height, earth-filled, solid granite cavity walls on either side of the road were effectively hidden by deceptively soft-looking banks of grass and weeds, which clung to each on a shallow bank of earth. Trimmed bushes of either hawthorn, or gorse – occasionally beech, but everywhere brambles topped these attractive, but ultimately tourist unfriendly, scenic hedges. They were perfect for keeping livestock under control.
The earth-core stone hedges flanked each side of the asphalt. The lower side of the road was all fields, where the terrain opened up into “twenty four seven” farming community.
Mabel pulled up on the designated parking strip next to a gate. A sign beside the gate proudly indicated a well-used footpath and walking trail. At the far side of the field the trail disappeared into the thick woodland.
She looked across to her small companion. She sensed he was worried about his owner, but she wouldn’t be able to start that hunt until she got back to base at the office in a few hours’ time.
‘I have to work,’ she said. ‘Got to keep the tourists safe, can’t let ’em see nature “red in tooth and claw”. You want to help?’
Mabel got out and grabbed a bag of tools from the back.
Patch lay his head back down on the seat and whined.
‘Your choice, mate. See you later.’
She shut the Land Rover door with her foot, shouldering the tool bag. She fetched a fence post from the back, slung it over her other shoulder and started towards the woodland.
On the uphill side of the forested path, sheep fencing separated the tourists, mature pines, and tamed land from young trees, and wild grazing. A bit along the way, one of the fence posts had been snapped through and the wire was down.
Sheep footprints peppered the gap; wool snagged on barbed wire showed where the beasts had forced their way through by weight of numbers.
Mabel set about detaching the barbed wire and sheep netting from the broken post. A claw hammer was the perfect tool to lever out the U-pins.
The new fence post lay where the old one had been; the wire and netting securely attached to the top half of it. Mabel set about digging the old fence stump out of the ground.
Mabel heeled in soil around the new post, bedding it in firmly. But as she worked, she became uneasy, it felt as though someone was watching her. As she finished the last round of bedding-in, she heard leaves rustle behind her. She looked up quickly.
There was nothing there.
Mabel went back to work.
A blackbird gave an alarm call and flew off. There was another rustle from off to the side. She paused, then casually stooped and picked up the claw hammer. She kept up the appearance of working, as if she was inspecting her tools, but actually she waited ...
She shook herself and reached for the new U-pins, about to secure the sheep netting to the bottom half of the post.
A silent footfall.
She whirled: teeth and blood-matted hair leaped at her from the side!
Mabel screamed and fell backwards as she tried to avoid the attack. She brought the hammer up to strike, but the animal just hung jiggling in mid-air.
It was a dead Cambridge lamb. The corpse was lowered slightly to reveal a chortling ageless, wily moors-man with weathered skin. He looked to be in his late fifties, but Mabel thought he was older; probably just shy of seventy. This uncommon rake with a quirky, dark sense of humour had introduced himself when she first moved here – and at first she hadn’t known what to make of him. He was possibly an ex-poacher, now unofficial gamekeeper for the local population. He knew everyone and every inch of the moor, and she rapidly came to look on him as both a mentor and trusted friend.
His name was Shane and he was wearing, as usual, camouflage poachers’ greens. His suppressed chuckles became full-bellied laughter.