By the time John MacNeil was eighteen he had grown used to silence. The hours he had spent on the hill, often alone, in all weather, had taken care of that. But there was something about the silence this morning that unsettled him. Made him feel as if the world was slowing, would soon stop spinning altogether.
Unfamiliar snow drifted among the pines, piling up along the top of the tumbledown dyke, draping the bushes and dead bracken. The cart rumbled and swayed, its cargo of snow-coated logs shifting this way and that.
But it was not the snowfall that was troubling him, rare though it was these days. There was something else in the air. Hector could feel it too, plodding between the traces of the cart. He snorted and steam issued from his nostrils.
As they approached the top of the brae the old grey garron halted and shook his head. John could feel Hectorís weight settle, his hooves rooting stubbornly to earth.
He gave the reins a flick, muttered a few words of encouragement. But Hector would not budge. With a sigh, John dismounted and walked forward to grasp the bridle, to turn pony and cart for home. But Hector stiffened, ears suddenly pricked. John stood still. At first he could hear nothing but Hectorís breathing. Then came a distant thud-thudding, faint but insistent.
He waited, blinking snowflakes from his eyelashes, listening intently. He knew how to listen, the silence had taught him that. Now the sound was coming closer. He turned Hector towards the trees, the cart creaking and shuddering as it left the track. But the ground was firm here, in among the spacious pines. In a short while they were sheltered by the tall trees, their outlines blurred by the snow, as good as invisible. He rested his hand on Hectorís steaming, muscular neck, feeling the coarse damp coat beneath his palm.
ĎOkay mon. Weíll just wait up here a minute. See whatís what.í
A tremor ran down Hectorís flanks. He snorted again, flaring his nostrils. John stroked him and murmured reassurance.
The thudding reached a crescendo and something huge sidled overhead, almost clipping the treetops. John pulled Hectorís head close to his chest and blew on his quivering muzzle. The helicopter slipped down the brae to land in the field at the bottom, whipping up a maelstrom of snow around it.
He waited till Hector was calm again, then made his way forward to the top of the slope, where he paused in the shelter of a tree. He reached into his coat pocket for a pair of small binoculars. Pulling his coat around him, he lay down in the snow at the foot of the tree and brought them up to his eyes.
At the far edge of the field a number of grey stone buildings clustered the roadside. Beyond ran the river. This was Blackriggs, a hamlet that had grown up around what was once a farm of that name. Today the farmhouse was an hotel that had done brisk business until the troubles started and the tourists stopped coming. Now only the public bar remained open for the locals. Across the yard from the hotel, the main farm steading had been converted into a small general store with a forecourt where coupons could be exchanged for fuel, when there was any to be had. Several of the outlying buildings had been turned into apartments and on the opposite side of the road was a row of four farm cottages that backed onto the riverbank. Beyond and slightly apart, as if tolerated but not welcomed by the older buildings, a pair of modern single-storey houses stood on their own small plots. The whole place was cradled by woodland. In the snowy dimness, the trees seemed dark and oppressive.
He kept the binoculars trained on the helicopter as it began to disgorge soldiers. Its fuselage was dented and shabby, and one skid was bent. Something had leaked a rust-coloured smear across its insignia, the diagonal white cross and blue background of the Saltire. The soldiers loitered just out of range of the down-draught, clouds of fine snow swirling around their legs. They wore their green battle fatigues casually, handled their weapons with a certain nonchalance. John squinted, frowned, and adjusted the binoculars. In closer focus some of the men looked swarthy and foreign.
A large sergeant was the last to emerge, barking orders as his feet hit the ground. With his solid build and florid complexion, there was nothing foreign-seeming about him. The men straightened up and started sauntering towards the buildings. A figure appeared in the doorway of one of the cottages, looked out then withdrew. The snow was easing now. Two soldiers moved ahead to position themselves where the trees met the road beyond the farm buildings. Two more made their way in the opposite direction and stationed themselves on the far side of the bungalows. Both exits were sealed now.
It was a house-to-house search, that much was soon clear. He could not hear a great deal because the helicoptere canít hear muicy because the helicopterHe had its engines still running, the idling rotors now spinning a thin drift of snow across the open ground. But he could see soldiers starting to bang on doors, being met by anxious faces, shouldering their way inside. The sergeant stood in the centre of the road, rifle under arm, directing operations it seemed.
Whatever they were looking for, they didnít seem to be finding it. The casualness was starting to turn to frustration. Front doors were slammed, garden gates kicked open. One man stopped to piss behind a hedge in full view of the cottage he had just left. The sergeant shouted at him and eventually he moved on, zipping himself up as he went. Another lingered in the doorway of the general store. Eyeing up the check-out lass, no doubt. An elderly man with a small dog walked out of one of the apartments. At once a soldier ran towards him, weapon levelled. The old fellow dropped the dog-lead, fluttering his hands in alarm as he was prodded back indoors at rifle-point. The dog scampered off.
Now two soldiers were walking up the road from the bungalows, a tall older man and a burly younger man with corporalís stripes and a swagger. They had a woman between them, half dragging her. The sergeant sauntered over and appeared to start questioning her. She shook her head vehemently. The burly young corporal struck her in the face. Her head dropped. The sergeant repeated his question. The corporal raised his fist to strike her again, and for a moment John sensed something familiar about the movement, the threatening posture. But before he could focus on the young manís face, the hotel door was flung open and a grey-haired woman emerged. The hotel-keeperís wife. She strode towards them, her indignation plain to see. She stopped in front of the group and started to remonstrate with the sergeant.
He listened for a while, then raised his hand and spoke. Whatever he said to her, it made her throw her fingertips to her mouth in dismay. The sergeant summoned two more soldiers and indicated that they should remove her. But the hotel-keeperís wife turned with dignity and started to walk away. The soldiers followed her and grabbed her by the arms. She struggled to turn, to voice her outrage to the sergeant. But then something caused all eyes to be raised to the top floor of the hotel. The sergeant barked a command and one of the soldiers raised his weapon and fired a burst. Glass exploded from an upper window. Splinters of wood and masonry flew in all directions. Twisted half round between her escorts, the hotel-keeperís wife stopped struggling and stared. Following her gaze John realised that it was Gordonís room the soldier had fired into. Gordon, her half-witted son, Johnís former schoolmate. Now bottlewasher, occasional porter, sometimes even, God help the customers, relief barman.
At a further command from the sergeant three more soldiers sprinted across the yard and burst into the hotel.
For several moments all went quiet. John chafed his frozen fingers, stiff and cramped from gripping the binoculars. As the blood flowed back his hands began to tremble. He steadied himself and raised the glasses again as two of the soldiers re-appeared from the hotel, dragging with them a struggling figure. They pushed him to the ground in front of the sergeant. He raised himself to his knees and looked up in confusion.
Now the third soldier emerged from the hotel and joined the group. Half a head shorter than the sergeant, he wore a thick moustache and his dark hair escaped untidily from beneath his beret. He began speaking to the sergeant, who listened then shook his head. The man with the moustache persisted, waving his hands. Again the sergeant shook his head, more emphatically. The man with the moustache turned on his heel with a furious gesture. Started to walk away. Then spun round, raised his weapon and fired a single shot into Gordonís stomach. He fell forward, mouth gaping in agony. Restrained by their guards, the two women looked on in horror.
For a moment the sergeant stood in stunned silence. Then another door opened at the far end of the steading. A figure appeared, glanced at the soldiers and began to run towards them, waving his arms and shouting. The hotel-keeper. His wife came out of her trance, shook her head and opened her mouth to warn him. But he paid no heed. The soldier with the moustache swung round and trained his rifle on the running figure. The sergeant also recovered himself. He turned, gesturing to the man with the moustache to hold his fire, and shouted at the hotelkeeper, who ran on. The sergeant started to shout again. The man with the moustache jerked his head in contempt and fired. The rifle kicked twice in his hands.
The running man staggered and pitched headlong down.
Released by her guards, his wife sank to her knees in the snow.
From The Witness © James Jauncey 2007