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The Shrew by Nicholas Gordon
The Shrew tells of one country man's struggle to protect his livelihood and the traditions that he grew up with against a rising tide of terror and destruction. When Victor Drew the gamekeeper at the Brockleston shoot receives a threatening letter from what appears to be a group of animal rights activists he becomes concerned for the security of his job and the continuation of sporting activities on the estate. He knows that Richard Mowbray, Lord Hugo Brockleston's land agent, has no loyalty to the long-standing traditions of the estate. Mowbray would gladly replace the shoot with any more profitable enterprises to fund his absentee employer's extravagant lifestyle in the Bahamas, thus protecting his own post in the bargain. Victor cannot imagine the size of the storm that is just over the horizon or the strength of the forces stacked against him and the shoot.
The post gave little resistance to the machinery and it was soon tossed onto the trailer. As Victor walked back towards where the post had been the carpet of leaves suddenly collapsed and there was a dull earthy thud as an area of ground about two yards across fell into the earth, exposing a hole about seven feet deep. He stepped back in surprise, considering himself lucky that he had not gone into this chasm himself with about three tonnes of tractor on top of him. He shuddered at the thought. He tentatively approached the edge of the hole; the rain was now forming muddy pools in its depths and small rivulets of soil mixed with rainwater were running down the sides. The whole was too deep to venture into without fear of not getting out again unaided. He slowly walked around its sides, wary of further collapses, and tested to see if the earth around it was solid enough to support his weight. The ground held firm, in total contrast to the sudden movement he had witnessed only minutes earlier. Curiosity getting the better of him, Victor found a longer length of rope in the trailer and tied one end to the tractor’s hitch bar and then roughly measured enough length to reach the bottom of the hole before tying this end around his own waist. As the gamekeeper lowered himself over the edge of the newly formed pit a sweet earthy smell met him. It was neither pleasant nor unpleasant but strangely familiar although he could not think where from. He half slid, half fell down the unstable side of the hole, landing awkwardly on the soft damp soil at the bottom. At least it was firm enough and he had not continued through its surface to some new depth. He had not realised how much the light had faded and the pit now seemed dark and gloomy as he looked back up the rope to his promise of security. The earth beneath him was barely visible as he felt around with his fingertips in the gloom. He felt something hard beneath his hand and brushed the surface away, exposing something that was lighter coloured than its surroundings. He reached down to pick it up with both hands and felt some resistance. He tugged at the object which then suddenly released with a cracking sound like that of a small dry branch breaking in the wind. He recoiled in shock as he brought the object up from the darkness and his brain registered what it was. It was the bones of a human forearm; the radius and ulna were clearly visible and the jangling bones of the hand followed at the end furthest from him, like some macabre rattling costume jewellery, the dried sinews still keeping the old bones together despite their centuries underground. He threw the nightmare back into the darkness and scrambled back up the rope in his blind panic, his feet bringing down showers of earth from the sides of the pit as he ascended, imagining every lighter patch of earth to be a skull staring back at him outraged at his audacious intrusion into its lost world of silence. He crawled out and away from the edge of the hole, almost expecting something to reach out from it and haul him back in. As he stood desperately trying to undo the rope from his waist the familiar surroundings of the wood started to calm his nerves and he laughed to himself quietly. So the old tales were true, he thought to himself. He collected up the last remaining bits of debris and hitched the trailer up. It was by now completely dark and the tractor’s lights left a lot to be desired; there was just one dull headlamp working and the trailer had no lights at all. He decided to drive across the fields to the cottage instead of risking it on the roads. The tractor and trailer could stay behind the cottage for the night. As he travelled across the dark landscape with only the drone of the old diesel engine and the sound of the rain for company his thoughts returned to his ongoing problems. The strange occurrence he had just endured might be of some use to him if he was to exploit it properly, he thought.