by Peter Hunter
To many collectors, the event of an acquisition ranks in importance to the piece itself - my old air guns invoke memories - times, places and people situations which held a special place in his memory.
'Too expensive...' he liked the gun, but not unfortunately, the asking price.
The old gypsy smiled - dark eyes betraying knowledge of things I'd yet to learn - perhaps a wisdom learned from situations I'd yet to experience. I had bought from him years before and was flattered he remembered me.
Around us pulsed the excitement of the Great Dorset Steam Fair - two square miles so exotic and stimulating it defies my descriptive ability. Thousands of visitors wondering at the exhibits - old vehicles from farms and the military - equipment ranging from plows to thrashing machines - horse drawn implement to the original tractors, little more than motorized steam engines - a comprehensive history of our farming and forestry heritage.
The piece de resistance of course were the steam engines - starting with the ones that were not self-propelled but had to be towed into place by a team of horses - pairs of engines designed to pull a plow between them, backwards and forward across a field. There were engines for threshing and other agricultural work - to the huge, colorful showman's enginesthat generated the electricity to propel fairground rides.
'What's your best price?' I asked - knowing, each year he drove his rusty van hundreds of miles from Londonderry, to set his stall on these rolling downlands.
'Wait,' he ordered, 'I've something else to show you.'
He disappeared into his tent, leaving me amongst hundreds of collectables, holding a weapon in which I was interested - a rare Daisy, with bulls-eye logo, screw-in pellet tube, and a trigger guard under lever - an air gun copy of the famous Winchester 73 of cowboy fame. Its condition was not great, but it worked and I wanted it for my collection - desperately.
The dealer reappeared, clutching an early Britannia, the best example I had ever seen. Its shape and heft reminded me of a Sharps buffalo rifle, particularly alongside the Daisy copy of a Winchester 73.
A deal was made, more in his favour than mine - then he spat on his palm before shaking hands with me - after hiding both guns in the back of my jeep - I returned to the unique attractions of the steam fair for a quick farewell look around and a well -earned tankard of cider.
With the daylight yielding longingly to the Wessex night, slowly dimming first into pink then purple - the carnival glory of the great event blossomed - marquees booming live music, food and drink from around the world, and as a centre-piece, the largest fun-fair in the country, an amalgam of several smaller ones, colouring the darkening sky.
The high-light were several rows of great working steam traction engines, just seventy or so from the hundreds attending - belching steam and sparks, a heaving burnished bulk with brass and painted in vivid colours. Their steamy voices - a pounding that synchronised with my heart beat as they generated live electricity into old-time fairground rides. Hissing, thumping, vibration - shining metal and swirling vapour - more fantasy than reality - but at the fag end of the twentieth century.
Eventually, reluctantly, senses saturated but still craving more, I reluctantly left this atmospheric place slowly driving homewards - over the high downs to the north. The night was lonely, and, more from superstition than reason, I propped the Britannia against the front passenger seat like some west trekking pioneer of old - occasionally touching it superstitiously for comfort.
I took the single-track road through Cranbourne Chase, nine hundred feet above sea level, by the tiny airfield at Compton Abbas. Above, a fat moon penetrated a thin halo of cloud, lighting a layer of mist in the steep valleys below.
Involuntarily I shivered - despite the warm night.
Trembling again - wary of the unexpected - maybe a deer or badger on the road, once more I stroked the smooth steel of the rifle.
Swerving violently, I almost overturned the jeep - inches from a collision. Eyes - twin mirrors reflecting in my light beams - whiskers shining like wet spider webs in morning sunlight - its curved teeth holding a large rabbit - the creature's body was four feet long, dark in colour. It was almost certainly a melanistic jaguar or leopard.
As it vaulted the hedge, I had a close-up of a great cat's tail.
It had only been a few seconds but it seemed like ages - such was the picture that since stayed in my mind. Adrenalin surging I continued my journey - the vivid event churning in y brain.
I returned next morning, looking for tracks, but the only ones were the skid marks made by my tires. Beside the road was a dried up pit, holding young trees and a rabbit warren. The animal had come from there.
Whenever I touch the Daisy or the Britannia rifles, I remember that night following their purchase - and the great cat on that lonely road across the high downs.
I hope it is still up there somewhere.
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