The beginning of my novel, ‘Jaguar! The Black Angel’ free. Enjoy!
She lay in the cover of the gorse breaks on a sparse western hillside, her nose breathing in the rank scent of sheep urine. The droppings on the pasture in front of her were fresh. The breeze blew a flutter of wispy fleece across the meadow grass. The odours were familiar, nothing to excite her. The lowering sun showered its rays over the flock which held her interest. They were unaware of her presence and she lay upwind of her quarry with the patience and intense focus of a seasoned predator. She was waiting for darkness, night being her true arena. Her hunger was almost tangible and the scent drifting up the hill made her drool, her pink tongue sweeping across ivory teeth. For three days, since her last putrid meal of road-kill venison, she had laid close during daylight eluding her enemy. By night she had skulked and crept, searching out a fresh hunting ground. Lying here now a different, though memorable, scent made her huge heart race. It was blood. Placental blood. Every nerve in her lithe torso tingled. Her muscles tensed as she drank in the rich perfume. A blackbird disturbed her concentration, shrieking its alarm call as it dived across the gorse bushes. She knew this call and shrank back, deeper into cover. Her mind burned with hatred as she watched a man pass among the flock. Her eyes bored in on the beast that accompanied him and she snarled to herself in quiet rage. This was her enemy. This was the species that, more than man himself, gave her cause for fear. It had cunning, eyesight and nose almost equal to her own. She slid back, deeper into the gorse, unperturbed by the barbs that ripped at her sleek, black coat. Now was not the time. Her time to feed would come later. As she watched, an unfamiliar trilling sound came from the man. At the same time, his beast stopped short and looked determinedly in her direction. Its nose cast the air in puzzlement and it started toward her. It stopped suddenly. Its ears dropped and its tail curled between its legs as it ran back, subserviently, to sit beside the man, who leant on a long stick. She glared from her vantage point as the man walked away. His beast yapped around his ankles, making feints toward her but always returning to the man. He shook the stick at his animal and she watched them as they disappeared over the brow of the opposite hill.
Billy Morgan moved purposely among the flock, checking the ewes. Old Billy had been farming sheep on these hills for half a century, just as his father and grandfather had before him. The years hadn’t yet jaded his pleasure at watching his spring lambs. Two of the ewes had birthed this afternoon, out here on the meadow. The lambs were fine and had already found their unsteady legs. The ewes looked in good fettle, too. He cast his dog about to find the placentas. Best be sure there were no still-borns. Spike, his aging border collie, marked one then started to lick it and Billy chased him off threatening to cuff the dog with his thumb-stick. “Gertcha … ya daffy cur!” he growled. “That’ll make ya sick”. He checked the placenta and left it where it lay. Experience told him that he could expect another half dozen of the ewes to drop their lambs tonight. As he walked on, his mobile phone trilled in his pocket. He fumbled to retrieve it, cursing. “Bleddy new fangled thing. Was a time when a man could walk a meadow in peace!” He pressed the receive button. “Morgan!” he muttered. “Billy … it’s Del. You well, old fella?” Billy smiled. “Hiya Del. I’m very well … and less of the ‘old’ if you please!” Del laughed “Fair call! Billy, there’s no moon tonight so I’ll be lamping the meadows up on Black Hill tonight if it’s ok? I need some rabbits for the freezer”. The farmer enjoyed an extra pair of eyes about during the lambing. “ No problem, Del … but mark you, my ewes are lambing so keep your distance. Don’t want that gun-lamp of yours spooking my girls! What gun are you shooting?” Billy didn’t want shotguns fretting the ewes. “Just the air-rifle, Billy. It’ll be nice and quiet, I promise!” Dels silenced airgun was whisper quiet. “Sure, that’s fine Del” said Billy, then thoughtfully, “If you see any foxes give them a fright. There are placenta’s on the hill. They’re welcome to them but I don’t want ‘em hanging about!” Del grinned. “Course I will, Billy … take care, my man”. The phone went dead. Billy tucked the mobile back in his pocket and noticed Spike, ears erect, sniffing the wind. Stupid cur. The dog started toward a gorse thicket about four hundred yards uphill. His hackles were up. He knew when his dog was spooked but the old collie was getting senile. A bloody pheasant would spook him now! There was work to do. “Get here, boy!” he snarled and the dog returned, tail down, and sat by his side, still watching the gorse. “We haven’t got time for your games” Billy told the dog but as they walked away, the dog mewled around his legs, nearly tripping him. Billy waved his stick at Spike and got him to heel. Glancing back at the gorse breaks, Billy thought “Bloody old hill fox in there, I bet”. That was why he’d left out the placenta’s. Old Billy had lost few lambs over the years to a hungry fox. A trick his old man had taught him. “Leave out those old packed lunches for Charlie and he’ll leave your young lambs alone, son!”
Billy and Spike wandered back toward the farmhouse, a two mile trek over rolling hills. On the knoll that overlooked the old house, Billy stopped (as he had every evening for the past three years) by the grave of his wife, Ruth. He crouched down and the dog laid next to him on the turf, its head in its paws. An onlooker would have said it was hard tell whose eyes looked more doleful, man or dog. “Well old girl!” Billy addressed the gravestone. “Them lambs are popping. Reckon you’d have loved the season as usual. Good birthing weather.” He glanced skyward. “But I expect you can see that.” He looked guiltily down at the farmhouse. “The cottage is a mess, old girl. Reckon you’d be kicking my arse if you were here. I’ll get it clean someday soon, promise.” He looked at the ground, then back at the stone. “It’s a struggle without you, my old beauty. Sleep well, my Ruth.” Billy patted the dog and stood to walk on. He stared up at the conifer plantation over on Telegraph Hill. They’d found Ruth up there. Old Billy hadn’t been able to bring himself to venture up there for the past three years. As he looked at the wood, the memories came flooding back and tears welled in his wrinkled eyes. He’d come home at dusk on a dry, arid autumn evening to an empty house. Not like Ruth. For forty years she had always been there, busying in the kitchen, getting her old man’s supper together. Billy knew she’d planned to go out “birding” that day. She loved the birds. Always scribbling in that old notebook of hers. Billy had checked around the cottage. No notebook … and them tatty old binoculars were gone too. By the time the sun had set, Billy had been worried and started phoning around. By midnight, half the village was up in the hills searching for her. It was young Del Williams who found her. Canny lad, that Del. He’d called at the cottage when everyone was gathered there and asked for some old clothing of Ruth’s. Del had that scraggy young lurcher of his with him. Billy had given him a boot sock out of the laundry basket. That had worried Billy. Ruth always washed out after lunch. Religious about it, she was. So Billy knew she’s been out since morning. Anyhow, the police had held Billy back at the farm. Best wait there for news, they’d said, though Billy had argued that no-one knew his land like him. It was dawn before the news came. Young Del and his dog had found Ruth up in the plantation. It was a rum do. Heart attack, they said. Billy couldn’t understand it. He’d thought she was as fit as a flea. Sure, the old girls hips got a bit rheumy at times, but she walked miles every day. Then, in the days after they found her he started to hear the whispers and rumour. Can’t hide it in a community like this. Doc Jones had been called up to the wood by the police. They say when they found Ruth’s body she’d been dead eighteen hours. In rigor, she looked terrified. Her tights were ripped and her tweed skirt torn. The eyeglasses were still round her neck and she still had that notebook in her hand. The coroners office said she seemed to have been running. Her last notes had said ‘found feathers scattering. Pheasants. Probably two. Large predator. Billy reckoned she’d spotted a buzzard. She loved them big old hawks. Probably chased through the trees to watch it. Daft old girl! Fancy killing yourself over a bloody hawk! As he walked up to the cottage door he remembered, too, the fuss around the village back then. Speculation of some nutcase or flasher loose in the woods. The coroner had confirmed Ruth hadn’t been touched by anyone. “Bloody idiots!” he muttered to himself, as he let Spike and himself into the disaster zone that was the kitchen.
She lay on her back in a natural clearing, deep amongst the gorse bushes, playing like a huge sable kitten. The scent of dog and man had long since receded. She amused herself in the twilight pawing at the moths and gnats fluttering and buzzing around her. Constantly, her nose checked the air. Suddenly a trigger assailed her olfactory senses again. Blood. Young blood. She rolled onto her belly and drew in the air. Her demeanour changed, instantly. Her tongue lolled and her lips drew up around her huge incisors as she started out to feed. It was instinctive, not forced. Yet despite her ravishing hunger she had long ago learned that patience brings reward. She edged forward on her belly, beneath the vicious tines of the gorse bushes, oblivious to the scratches and gouges, into the open. She lay studiously, until night threw its cloak upon the landscape before her. Eventually she stood and started the stalk. It was true night now yet her eyes, genetically tuned across eons of evolution, picked up every miniscule movement around her. As her adrenalin kicked in, on this black and moonless night, her senses accelerated. The flicker of a midge or moth, the flash of distant white rabbit scut, the fuss of the wren disturbed from its nest. She was conscious, yet dismissive, of all. Her ears scanned like miniature radar dishes. Her nostrils and whiskers twitched, drinking in information. She liked what she could sense. The intelligence in the breeze spoke of opportunity only a predator would appreciate. Her defence mechanisms were in “green” status. No threats detected. Her attack mechanisms were moving from “amber” to “red”. A buck rabbit crossed her path twenty yards ahead and stopped to browse. She watched it in disdain. This had been her staple diet for so, so long. This was an easy kill but tonight, a mere morsel to be overlooked. She had scent of a much more satiating meal. The rabbit loped on, unaware of how lucky it had been. Her nose picked up the blood scent again … and more. Urinary and faecal odour. Her ears tuned in to heavy breathing, pain, distress. She tracked slowly through the drawn veil of darkness to its source. The first of the flock came into view but she padded stolidly on. At her approach, the white beasts milled about. Some stopped and looked into the darkness, sensing her but still not seeing. She moved among them and a few bolted, acknowledging her threat. She ignored them all, focussing on her target, following her nose. Her yellow eyes drew a bead on a huddled form within the flock and for the first time she broke into a canter. The ewe was still licking and pulling, that maternal instinct, trying to get her new-born lamb onto its feet, as she sprinted in and struck. The lamb still lay on its side on the grass. Just five minutes into its life, its existence was torn away with one swift clamp of vice-like incisors through the temporal lobes on its fragile skull. The ewe, exhausted from the birth, lay nearby. As she ragged the lamb, preparing for a feast, she sensed the vulnerability of the mother, squealing, struggling in blind panic to regain her feet. She turned on the ewe and pounced, tearing out its throat. In a frenzy, she lifted the body high then threw it down, delivering the same bite to the head suffered by its offspring. The rest of the flock had fled, bleating, terrified. She drank in the pheromones of blind fear. Her huge paws turned the lamb inside out and she gorged swiftly, leaving nothing but the fleece in the meadow. A mere appetiser. Turning her attention to the ewe, she prepared to drag the corpse away before sensing another temptation, another kill. She was drawn toward a laboured squealing further up the meadow. She stole up to the helpless ewe, heaving on the floor with its lamb only half-birthed. A premature birth, brought on by pure panic. She looked momentarily at the pathetic sight and in a moment of pure blood-lust, she tore into the beast. Her savagery came from some dark primeval place, deep within her. She terrorised the flock, picking out the lambs, for an hour. She could not possibly know what she had just started.
Del decided to work along the warrens on the western side of the hill, playing the breeze. Despite his twenty-eight years, he was a seasoned lamper. He’d first seen this land after dark when he was just thirteen, accompanying his father. He’d hold the lurchers in their slips while Dad played the light. His father had been a dog man … couldn’t abide guns. Nevertheless, Del had learned a lot from his old man. Tonight, he knew exactly where to start his hunt. It was two hours after sunset and the rabbits would be venturing far out from cover by now. He crept silently up, close to the crown of the hill. He needed to get between the downhill feeders and their warrens. He settled beside the bushes and checked his kit again. Torch in his pocket, ready. Spare torch in his bag. Pellet magazines too, skinning knife, hygiene wipes, disposable gloves and mobile phone, turned to silent. The lamp mounted on top of his riflescope was attached to a 6 volt battery pack in his gamebag via a coiled cable. The switch was mounted, using a Velcro pad, to his rifle stock. The process was simple. Mount the gun ready to shoot, flick on the lamp, a quick scan for the reflection of rabbit eyes frozen by the beam, gauge distance in a micro-second, then lamp off. Lamp back on, engage quarry in the scope, shoot, mark the spot, lamp off. The air rifle was so silent, he could progress across the meadows for hours, picking off rabbits in this manner. At least … until the battery ran out on his lamp. He moved off, ready to start. With the breeze tickling at his unshaven face, he turned on the beam and scanned out a hundred yards down the gentle slope. Nothing. Lamp off. Strange! This warren was usually brimming with rabbits? He moved around the hilltop, about a hundred paces. Beam on again, scan … nothing. He played the feeble beam higher, out to the edges of the field. Down near the far corner, against the dry-stone wall, a couple of dozen pairs of moon-like retinas were reflected back at him. They milled about, disturbed by the light, but the sheep were still silent. Del sensed they were spooked. He played the beam back up around the hill, expecting to see the stare of a fox. Nothing. Del turned off the beam. Daft to waste battery power. He walked slowly down toward where he’d seen the sheep huddled and fumbled for the torch in his pocket. Then his boot squelched beneath him and he slid forward. Steadying himself, Del pulled the torch out and shone it at his feet. “Oh Jesus!” he muttered. He was standing in a gory pile of foetal sac and entrails. He moved the beam around and barely recognised the carcass two yards in front of him as a lamb. It was torn apart, butchered. Partly through instinct and partly through (he would admit to himself later) fear, he cycled the magazine of the rifle. The airgun would be useless, even against a fox. He shone the gun lamp, more powerful than the tiny torch, out further and scanned around. Whisps of loose fleece danced in the beam, fluttering on the breeze. Twenty yards further down he saw a white and red bundle. He moved reluctantly toward a ewe, keeping the lamp on now. As he stood over her and looked at the carnage, he struggled not to retch. Her head lay three feet away. Her stomach had been slashed open and her guts strewn over the grass. The lamb lay half in the ewe, half out … and like its mother, had been decapitated. Del cast the beam about again. No sign of the head. Del had been hunting rabbit, deer and fox for years. He’d never seen the like of this and a cold grip of fear crept over him. The lamp was still on. He played it around, 360 degrees. He could see nothing but carnage and the rest of the terrified, silent flock against the wall.
On the far side of the hill, she gorged. Conscious of the scent of man way back on her killing ground , brought to her on the wind, she crunched at bone and tore at sinew. As she ate, she could smell the fear emanating from her foe … even from here. Even the flicker of light systematically breaking the night sky couldn’t interrupt her feast. It wasn’t getting any nearer. Satiated, she lay for a while. Sleep was not an option … there were too many threats around. After a while, she dragged the remains of the ewe back into the gorse and, using her huge paws, dug a shallow grave. She rolled the body into the hole and made a half-hearted attempt at covering it.
Reaching into his game-bag Del pulled out his mobile phone and punched a speed-dial. The number rang for an eternity then went to answer-phone. He whispered a short message. “Cally, I’m up on Black Hill. You need to get up here, fast. Something’s ripped up some of Morgans sheep!” Cally West was the village Bobby. Del squatted nervously against a dry-stone wall, trying to absorb the gravity of what he had just seen. He felt the vibration of his silenced phone in his hand and hit the answer button. “Del, my man! You are disturbing a man in his drink! This had better be good!”. Del could hear the background buzz of the busy pub. Del described what he had found. “Del, I’ve had too many beers. I’m not coming up there chasing foxes tonight, boy. Call Morgan. He can bring out his shotgun” Cally laughed. “Cally … I don’t want Morgan to see this. This is carnage. This isn’t fox work. I’m too fuckin’ scared to move, man. Get some of the boys and get up here. Please. Now!” There was a pause, then “Del … you sound serious boy?” ventured Cally. “I’ll get one of the lads here to drive me up there. Sit tight until we get there”. Del Williams didn’t know whether to feel relief or embarrassment. Waiting here in total darkness (to conserve his lamp batteries) and enveloped by the smell of blood, paunch and sheep piss … he had never felt so vulnerable in his life. Something primeval had happened here and he knew it. Ten minutes later he stood up, waving his arms as a vehicle raced up the track onto the hillside, lights shining. The 4×4 had to be Bobby Dale’s Mitsubishi Shogun. No-one else in the area had such an array of spot-lamps over the cab. All of them ablaze. As the Shogun pulled up, Bobby killed all but the sidelights and Cally, with Bobby, emerged from the cab. “So … what’s the problem, Del?” asked Cally. “Over there” Del pointed ten yards out, away from the motors. Bobby jumped into the back of the Shogun and played a spotlight onto the meadow. “Bleddddyyy hell!” gasped Cally. They stood silently for a moment then Bobby jumped from the pick-up and went in to look closer. “Hill foxes?” ventured Cally. He wasn’t a hunting man, but he’d been in these hills long enough to know the answer. “No way” came the response. Bobby Dale was one of the most experienced fox callers and shooters in the country. “Cally … look at this.” He summoned the policeman to examine the lambs head. “The mothers head is over there” Del pointed further out beyond the beam. Bobby retrieved it and threw it down next to the lambs head. Bobby Dale turned over the two crushed heads. He opened his huge hand across each, gauging the size. He rolled them again. His eyes met Cally’s, and they exchanged look of mutual acknowledgement. “It’s back, Cally. For sure. Look at the puncture marks! Now will you believe me?” Cally’s shoulders dropped and he nodded with resignation. “What’s back, Bobby? What did this?” asked Del, looked in frustration at both men. “There isn’t a lamb left alive in this field. What did this?” Bobby answered glumly. “These are big-cat bites, Del. We’ve got ourselves a puma or a panther”.
Before she could finish her housekeeping, the barrage of sound … man sound … assailed her ears. Abandoning her chore, she crept up to the lip of the hill and watched the flurry of activity below. What she saw disturbed her. Five years of evading man had taught her the standing beasts demeanour. She was in danger … again. Under the dark belly of a western night sky, she sloped away. Usually there were places, secret places, where she could retire. Tonight though, her survival instinct told her that she needed to keep moving. Backwards, from whence she came? Forwards, to she knew not where? Something buried within her psyche informed the latter. For five years she had roamed these Welsh hills, often disturbed, often tracked but always undiscovered. As she padded past the half-buried ewe, she stopped to sniff at her dead quarry. Her black, crimson- spattered lips curled over her ivory teeth and her awesome jaws opened in a wide but silent roar. Not for the first time in her harried existence, she followed the predators intuition to know when it has become the prey …and she took flight.
“Oh shit!” said Cally and pointed way down the valley. A lit-up tractor was trundling towards the hill. “Christ … I wanted to spare him this” Del commented. They all shuffled uneasily as the tractor approached. Billy Morgan jumped out, bristling with rage and Bobby moved toward him, holding out his arms. “Pray tell me?” Billy shouted, “Why half a village stands on my hill at this time of night?” Bobby tried to calm him. “We’ve had a bit of an incident, Billy” he reasoned. “Young Del here called us up to help”. Morgan just looked more confused. He looked around under the spotlights and saw a fleece, then another … and the heads. He threw off Bobby’s arms and ran forward. Bobby, Cally and Del tried to stop him but he walked into the bloodbath. He threw out his arms and screamed. “No! Please God, no!” From behind, with the beams on his back, he looked like a man crucified. He dropped to his knees among the shredded fleece and entrails, sobbing like a child. Broken. Cally knelt beside him, trying to comfort him.
Not for the first time, she broke away east. Something primitive had always drawn her towards the horizon where the start of the day began, even though she was a creature born to hunt when the sun set in the west. Her progress from the west coast had been slow. A creature needs to feed. Familiarity and habit are the key to feeding well. The predator forced to move must find new food sources. New food sources mean exploration, therefore risk of exposure. Tonight was no different except for the fact that she was sated. Her priority was safety, gaining distance from her pursuers. Her lethargy, trying to travel while glutted, nearly caused her downfall when she stepped onto a metalled road near a blind bend. The dazzling eyes and thunderous roar of a leviathan prompted her leap into the ferns and the roll down the adjacent hillside which left her winded and shocked. She heard the screech of the monster as it snaked to keep its traction and she heard the grinding screams as it, too, rolled into the gorge further along the road. The night sky erupted with sparks and orange flame. The squealing of hogs and the subsequent sweet scent of burning meat could have attracted her to look closer but soon the air was alive with the two-tone cacophony of alarms and the flashing of colours that she knew, for her, could only mean trouble. She lay in the ferns licking her bruises, until, hours later the activity of all the two-legs ceased.
Next morning, Del was up at the crack of dawn. He loaded up his motor, whistled up his lurcher, Mush and headed back to Billy’s farm. He found the old boy and Spike up on the hill already. Billy was digging a trench to bury the carcasses so Del waded in to help him. As they worked, Billy told him about Spikes demeanour the previous afternoon. “Bleddy tried to tell me, he did” rued Billy, stroking the old collie. “Take my advice, son … always listen to your dog. They have a canny way of seeing without seeing, if you get my drift”. They put the last turfs over the makeshift grave and sat together on the hillside. “Watch these holes for a night or two, Del” said Billy. “If it wuz foxes that did this, they’ll be back to dig out”. He stood and leant on his spade. “But if it wuzn’t foxes … if it was a cat, like Bobby thinks … they won’t dare come near”. Del thought for a while. “What do you think it was, Billy?” he ventured. “Been thinking about it all night” sighed the old farmer. “Been talk about a big-cat hereabouts for years … not that I’ve seen it … but ole’ Spike here has sensed it, I’m sure”. He sat back down and stared across to Telegraph Hill. “You and Mush found my Ruth up there, Del” he said. “Thought about that all night, lad. What if it was that feckin’ cat that scared my Ruth to death, boy?” The question sent a shiver down Del’s spine as he recalled finding old Ruth’s body that day.
Del had been just twenty five years old when the call went out to search for Ruth. He’d gone to the farmhouse with Mush and met with the other villagers and the police. Ruth had loved his lurcher pup and always fussed him when Del called around with a shot rabbit or two. He’d asked for a sock to give the dog something to scent and had volunteered for the Telegraph Hill search. Close to midnight, with just the dog and an LED torch, he’d followed a track which he knew Ruth favoured. It led up to a buzzards nesting tree on the crown of the hill. As he’d moved uphill, Del had been conscious of the silence. Nothing was moving, nothing flushed under the beam. Not a rabbit nor fox. No chirping crickets, no bats hawking, no owls calling. The lurcher, half way up the hill, had put his nose down and started to work furiously up the track. So much so that Del had struggled to keep up with him. Then, near the top, the lurcher had stopped dead, bristling. Mush had made to track back but Del had halted him and shoved the sock under his muzzle again. Reluctantly, the dog had forged on … but now off the beaten track. Del had followed him through deer runs in the bracken and gorse, the barbs catching at his trousers and the lurchers coat. Again, Mush had stopped. He had started whining, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. Del played the fierce beam ahead into a clearing between the gorse thickets … and there she lay. Del had run to her, hoping she was alive but when he played the light on Ruth’s face he knew she wasn’t. The mask of fear on her face, frozen in death, had alarmed him. As he fumbled in his pocket for his mobile, the lurcher was sniffing around the clearing. Mush had stopped, one paw marking the air frantically and then done something Del had never known him do before. He rose on his back legs, his front legs pawing the air like some overgrown meerkat … and started howling like a wolf. Del had called him down and played the light on his mobile phone. He dialled the farmhouse. He barely had a signal but when someone answered he simply said “It’s Del … I’m on Telegraph Hill. I’ve found her ………”
“Fancy a walk, Billy?” he muttered now, his mind fixing back on the present. He whistled Mush from the back of his motor. Together, the two men and their dogs walked up towards the gorse breaks on the peak of the hill. As they meandered upward, both dogs took up a trail. The old collie immediately seemed nervous and came back to Billy, nosing his knees and hand, trying to send a message. Mush, the lurcher, ploughed on looking back constantly to check his master was following. Del picked up speed, leaving Billy to follow. The dog nosed into the gorse feverishly, Del in pursuit. It took just minutes for Mush to find the half buried sheep. Del waited for Billy to catch up. The lurcher scented about the shallow grave then pitched out again following a trail. As they broke into the open on the eastern side of the peak, the lurcher stood on his back legs, pawing eastward … and let out an ungodly howl. “You were right, Billy” muttered Del. “He’s only ever done that once before. The night we found Ruth. The creature has moved east”. The old farmer leant on his thumb-stick, twisting it angrily in his hands. “Make me a promise, Del” he snarled. “Go on?” said Del. “Promise me you’ll find that bastard … and shoot it?”. Del thought for a moment. “I will, Billy … I promise. But first I need a sacrificial lamb”. Billy scowled at him. “Ain’t no lambs left, Del”. Del apologised. “I know Billy … an old ewe or a tup will do. Won’t matter. I need to test something, fast!” Together, they wandered down the hillside and Del picked out his bait. They walked the old sheep down to Dels Nissan. The younger man pulled his Browning rifle from the security cabinet in the rear, snapped in the magazine and they walked the passive beast out into a meadow. Billy turned his back, flinching at the shot … which echoed around the valley. Together they loaded the dead ewe into the back of the motor and Del covered her torso with a blanket. “I need you to keep everyone off the hill for a couple of days, Billy” Del said. “I’ll be back up here over the next few nights”. He beckoned Mush up into the rear seat, away from the temptation of fresh mutton, and drove off. Del turned on the local radio and when the hourly news bulletin came on heard a report of a livestock lorry, full of pigs, that had mysteriously left the road and plunged into a gorge, catching fire. The driver and all the pigs had burned to death before the emergency services could get to them. The reporter said that police suspected the driver had tried to avoid a deer in the road. Del pondered on the report. “Old Billy wasn’t the only one to lose his stock last night then?” he thought. “Glad I’m not a bloody farmer!”
She had crept back on her own trail, drawn by the absolute confirmation of food that the airborne scent carried on the westerly breeze. Her road east had always proved difficult. Too many roads, too many machines and she had stopped once at a deep chasm flowing with white water. The lush woods here had appealed to her need for concealment and she had laid indolently among the ferns overlooking the gorge last night. Something stirred in her memory, prompted by her genes. High rocks, deep rushing water, verdant foliage, the buzz of insects, the soaring overhead of a raptor. This was what she sought … nearly, not quite, something was missing. She lay snoozing, her huge stomach protesting at the lack of food for two days. Her nostrils quivered and that distant scent assailed her senses. Sheep guts. Blood. Tripe. A visceral delight. Half dreamy, she licked her lips. She sat up . The scent was real. Inviting. Carried on the warm zephyr. Her hunger defied her rationale and the cat determined to feed that night. She stretched her spine and shook her huge head, sending a shower of slobber into the bracken. Her nose led her slowly back to where she’d started. A cautious daytime journey over track and past farm. All the time, the smell of fresh, gutted mutton drew her back. Before dusk, she was back in the gorse patch, back on her hill, back where she knew how to feed. Yet, something was wrong. She prowled the hill before dusk, nervously, edgy. She had found her food but was suspicious and wary of its taking. She walked within ten yards of the dead ewe, snarling, pawing the sandy earth. She could smell two-legs, but then she always could near sheep. Its guts spilled out, hanging down, dripping blood and juices. Bluebottle flies swarmed around the putrefying feast. So why didn’t she seize on the offering? Why was she dis-orientated by the meal? It was because the ewe had been hung six feet from the floor, draped between the forks of a stunted rowan sapling. She had never taken her food from such a height before. Something stirred within her, something even more feral than ever before. It felt intrinsically right but seriously wrong. She backed away into the cover of the gorse, to a spot where she could lie and stare at the food which hung so temptingly near, yet which she sensed was smothered in threat and danger. Above her, gunmetal grey clouds were rolling up against the backdrop of an amber sunset. She could feel the moisture building in the atmosphere. The storm was building, not just above her domain but also in her heart and in her head. She crept away, resisting the free feast.
Del had only just come off the hill, having hung the bait, when his mobile rang. It was Bobby Dale. “Del, we need to track this beast, before it does it again” he muttered down the phone. “Morgan won’t let me on his land, he says you’re dealing with it? What the hell do you know about big-cats?” Del couldn’t dispute the statement. Bobby Dale knew his cats. He’d hunted leopards and lions in Zimbabwe and Kenya and written about it. Del was worried that Bobby wanted to shoot it to cash in on a media circus but he wouldn’t be stupid enough to call the press in first. He knew well enough that it would attract a posse of glory-hunters. Everyone with a peashooter this side of Cardiff would be blundering around up here and all they’d do is scare the beast away. Del posed his concern to Bobby. “Del, what makes you think I’m not feeling the same about you, boy?” It was a good point. Del admitted to Bobby that he could use the company if he was going try to shoot a big-cat. He explained to Bobby the bait he had set up. Bobby was impressed. “Where did you pick up that tip?” He could sense Dels smile down the phone. “From one of your books!” Del admitted. “What cat do you think it is, Bobby?” he asked. “Jaguar, almost certain. I’ve been tracking this one for a few years now. Never yet seen it though, but I’ve picked up prints and fur here and there.” Del was even more curious. “How could a jaguar survive out there without being spotted, forgive the pun?” Bobby chuckled. “It’s as black as night, Del. Melanistic. It moves and hunts mainly at night”. Del agreed to give Billy Morgan a call to clear them both hunting for it together. “One last thing, Bobby? You said ‘this one’. Have you tracked other cats over here?” Again Bobby chuckled. “Come over to my place tomorrow, before we go up the hill. I need to show you something”.
She lay on her side, one eye shut and the other only half open. Her breathing was laboured, her mind troubled. In her somnolent state she dreamed of both attack and feast. Her wide tongue lolled out, flicking involuntarily as sand-flies touched down on the damp flesh. Every now and then her serpentine tail would make a cursory sweep, for the same reason. Flies. When she awoke it was because her sub-conscious had picked up the intelligence that it was twilight. Feeding time. Her days sleep had been fitful, though the violent storm hadn’t worried her. She was used to sound of nearby shell and mortar fire. The evensong of the diurnal birds were her wake-up call. The blackbirds eulogy to the lowering sun. The nightingales sweet chorus, deep in the brash. She rolled onto her front to scent the air and stretch gently. She pushed forward her forepaws and arched her long spine down, then upward, spreading the vertebrae, releasing the tension. She drew to full height and shook her head and neck, the exercise sending a ripple down her full length, like a drenched hound shaking off water. She lifted her nostrils to draw in the scents of her surroundings and her brain started the complex process of olfactory analysis, filtering out the mundane and the innocuous. She wasn’t interested in the vanilla-like scent of the yellow gorse blooms. The layered scent of the cattle herd mattered not. She was scanning for food sign and for threat. The latter, as she flexed her claws in the loamy soil, was non-existent. Of the former, there was some prospect, a few signals on the breeze. The smell, close by, of rabbit piss. Drifting up the valley the hint of chicken guano. Sheep scent everywhere, of course. She rolled on her back, mock-strafing the reddening sky as if clawing at a canvas. She stood again and walked lazily to the edge of the copse that sheltered her rocky den, then stopped by a familiar tree, next to a familiar tussock of sedge grass. Here, as she had many times, she stopped to defecate. When finished, she scratched at the earth, digging a small hole and using her back paws, pushed her scat into the scrape and covered it. She wandered down to the brook and paused to drink at an overspill pool. She stared at her own reflection and bared her teeth in a self appreciatory grin. After lapping at the cold water she slunk away towards her hunting grounds. She was ravenous
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