23. The Devil in the Forest

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When the last of the Field Rabbit issues were settled, it was past tea and an hour until dinner. I had just enough time to squeeze in a visit to Carter, the gamekeeper, to see about the poaching.  

The sun was low, edging the new leaves with sunlight as I walked down the wide, beaten-earth path to his cabin. A gentle breeze, still a bit cool, swayed the branches further up in the trees and I breathed in the sweet, musty smell of the forest awaking to a new spring. 

I knew the less-wooded areas of the estate forest intimately, as I used to jog my pony along the paths that criss-crossed them pretending I was Joan of Arc or a medieval princess searching for Merlin in the Tree. 

The thickly forested areas, however, were still blank spots on my mental map and with good reason. Father had done a excellent job of etching indelibly into my mind  the scene of a little Olivia with a gunshot wound to the stomach laying dead on the forest floor next to her cruelly indifferent, grazing pony.

After that, I had cheerfully left those areas to the animals and the Carters. I had no wish to be confused with a bear or a stag and laid low. 

Desmond Carter was there, smoking a pipe on the bench that fronted the small, rough-log cabin. He was comparatively young, in his late 30s, with broad-shoulders and a light-brown beard. He looked the spitting image of old John Carter, who had been the gamekeeper when I was a child. Father had made sure to get Des and his brother Billy an exemption from military service before scampering off to India, claiming we couldn't do without our Carters as short-staffed as we were. 

"Miss Altringham! I'll show you what I've found." He rose to his feet and picked up a canvas bag which he strapped to his back. "About a ten-minute walk north-west."

I hesitated and looked down at my buckled shoes. I had not foreseen that I'd be asked to trek through the forest and they were utterly inappropriate. 

"Is that completely necessary?"

"It is. Unfortunately."

A few minutes later, I was trailing behind him in Wellingtons stuffed with rags and paper to make them fit. Carter was not a man of many words, but he was not as much of a taciturn recluse as his father had been. He informed me of what animals he'd made note of and that the most common birds seemed to have made it through the winter well. We'd have a dearth of rabbits and pheasants for the stew pot he assured me. 

That was always reassuring to hear. 

"How is Montgomery holding up? He gave us quite a fright the other night."

Carter said nothing as he bent back branches for us to pass and told me to mind my step when the ground became uneven or overly soggy. We turned off the main path and moved along a thin, barely-visible trail that I hadn't known existed. 

I was about to change the subject and ask after his family when he suddenly spoke. 

"That'd be the reason you need to see this."

"What, Montgomery?"

Silence again. I was hard pressed to see the connection between Montgomery and villagers poaching in my forest, but as we walked in silence I began to grow increasingly uneasy and the hairs on the back of my neck began to rise. What was so important that I had to see it? What new problems were about the rise on the horizon? 

"Here." 

Carter suddenly crouched down and pointed to a flat space on the ground. I didn't see anything but earth, some pebbles and twigs and a few dried leaves left over from autumn. "See how big it is?" he said.

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