Frost crisped the ploughed field as Dewfang trotted over the iron-hard furrows. The fox’s breath misted the air as he yawned, pads crunching through the broken corn stubble. Snow still shackled the north-facing heights of Dartmoor, but in the sheltered stream runnels snowdrops peeked shyly from dead bracken, and purple crocuses flaunted their crowns to greet the first splash of sun. Spiders’ silk veiled the hawthorns in silver, and the hedgerow glittered crimson with rowanberries. Dewfang paused to taste the breeze with his nose, enticing scents of coney and fieldmouse cramming his senses. Woodcocks tumbled from the leafless trees before him and rattled away eastwards, but Thornbeak the buzzard was ready. Mewing to her distant mate she corkscrewed into a swift dive and hit the flock from behind, seizing the slowest straggler and scattering the rest in panicked disarray. Breakfast swinging from her talons, Thornbeak windsurfed over the scarlet-coated riders gathered outside the White Hart and settled into a skeletal ash to butcher the hen.
John eyed his visitors coldly. True, he was sure to take a handsome profit from beer and kidney pie at lunchtime, but their swaggering presence needled him. These pale-breeched men and women braying to each other in light nasal accents, slouching against the bar in their crimson livery, littering the carpark with their fag-ends, their dogshit … He mashed the dishcloth into a soapy tankard, fuming.
His daughter curled bare arms around his waist. ‘They here for the fox, Dad?’
‘Aye, Kate. These duffers ain’t got no chance ’gainst Old Red.’ He ruffled her blonde curls as she scowled at the loitering riders. Many winter nights she’d roused him from sleep and eagerly pulled him to a frosty window, her eyes shining as a tawny shadow trotted across the rear porch, its sleek chestnut pelt glowing under golden lamplight. The fox’s mystery enchanted her; it was born to freedom, its kingdom the wild beauty of the open moor. This whole pagan bloodsport of running it down with dogs repelled him. Disgusted him.
He clenched his jaw as both the Huntsman and Master of Foxhounds waddled up to the bar, heavy paunches straining as they discussed the merits of prized dogs. Even their hunt jargon sounded snooty as hell — ‘half a score of hounds’, ‘a dem fine nose’, ‘caught him by the brush’ — like it was a jolly harmless game. Damn them. Damn them all.
‘Why’re you huntin’ him?’ Kate interrupted, pouting up at them. ‘Old Red asn’t hurt nobody! Why’re you after him?’
The huntsman smiled indulgently down at her. ‘Because he’s a pest, young lady. Pests kill chickens and pigs — you want a dirty thief stealing all your bacon and eggs?’
Kate’s eyes glistened with furious tears. ‘But it idn’t right! He’s got cubs, he’s gotta hunt something!’
‘And we have to hunt him.’ The huntsman patted her head — John was almost tempted to ram his fist into that smirking face.
‘She’s got a point,’ he growled. ‘Ain’t right to make them cubs orphans.’
The master’s lip curled. ‘Easy now, sir. We only ever kill dog foxes. Not the bitches.’
More quaint slaughterhouse smalltalk, the barman thought. Seething, he nodded.
The huntsman slapped down his drained tankard. ‘Remember, God gave us dominion over all the birds and beasts.’
John rolled his eyes. ‘With respect, mister, this ’ere’s Devon — not the Holy Land.’
The master bristled. ‘Says so in the Bible.’
Kate buried her face in her hands and sobbed. John shepherded his daughter away, shaking his head. ‘Also says there’s a Garden of Eden someplace. No Moors of Eden, just a Garden full o’ God’s creatures.’ The two hunters had now turned their backs and resumed chatting; he knelt down to dry Kate’s tears. ‘Well, we’ve got a garden.’ He took her hand and smiled. ‘An’ I reckon God likes foxes in it. Sound good, kid?’
Kate giggled wetly and hugged him. Felix dozed before the fireplace, his marmalade paws twitching as he chased mice through his dreams.
Outside, the horses champed and stamped, their flanks steaming as their scarlet-coated riders chatted to the beaters in rust-brown tweed. The pack of foxhounds swarmed around the Master, grunting and snuffling for attention as he fussed over Campion, greatest hound of Ivybridge kennels. The tan-spotted dog had bolted a huge breakfast of beef porridge, and eagerly licked his nicotine-stained fingers. Eastward, a dark curtain of rain shrouded Haytor, and the reek of wet swedes drifted over from Ashford Farm.
Dewfang had caught the taint of man as he crested Hound Tor, running down through the furze. As he slithered through bracken the spicy tang of vixen flooded his nose and pulled him to the root tangle of a fallen oak choked in moss.
Golden eyes gleamed from the darkness. A tawny vixen padded out of her earth, fangs bared as two cubs huddled behind her.
‘Quick!’ Dewfang urged. ‘The hunt’s coming, hounds too. We’ve gotta go. Now!’
‘Rat scat!’ she sneered. ‘The hound that can force me out of my home ain’t been born yet.’
‘There’s an empty badger sett down in Bluebell Wood. The hunters never ride there.’
She glared down her muzzle at him. ‘And what if the hounds sniff us out over there instead of here?’
‘I’ll foil the scent. C’mon!’ He grabbed a cub by the scruff of the neck and darted outside.
The foxes hurried downhill and snaked through the furze clumps. The clamour of the hounds rolled off the hills behind them. Down among the shelter of a larch thicket the vixen lowered her wriggling young.
‘Now what?’ she panted.
‘Go up through the trees and I’ll follow you,’ Dewfang told her. ‘Follow the badger path as far as the water, then around the bend downstream – it’s under an old willow. Wait there and keep ’em quiet.’
The vixen bared her fangs. ‘Her name’s Rosemere. And he’s Ashpaw. I’m Fernsmoke.’
Dewfang rolled his eyes. ‘Never mind all that, now – let’s go!’
Fernsmoke ran on, Dewfang close behind her dragging his own brush. Back in the woods the hounds were calling again. They splashed across the shallow ford and halted on the far bank. Dewfang lowered his cargo onto Fernsmoke’s back. Ashpaw clung on tight, whimpering.
‘Now run for it!’ Dewfang cried. ‘Run!’
He sat down and grinned after the fleeing vixen and her cubs until they disappeared around the riverbend. Splashing across the stream he doubled back and dragged his brush through the undergrowth, laying a false trail among the skeletal hazels until he reached a gnarled hornbeam. Pausing to dribble scats on the roots he quickened his stride and burst out into sunshine. The clamour redoubled behind him; the lead babblers had taken his bait and were now hunting his line through the trees. He laughed a defiant bark that drifted downwind to lift Campion’s hackles.
Fancy a runaround, you arse-sniffing mudbrains? I’m right here – come get me!
A pheasant whirred up from the scrub before him and clattered away, its gobbling alarm echoing over the open moor. In the valley below the beaters waved at the huntsman and pointed ahead. Lancer was crying wolf among the trees but Campion gleaned out Dewfang’s scent and bayed. Above the renewed clamour of the pack the horn wailed the Gone Away, higher and more piercing than a vixen’s bell-like screech. A wedge of hounds poured uphill, the riders spurring their horses on.
‘Seen him yet?’ the huntsman roared.
‘Up there, sir!’ panted the master. Against the pale horizon Dewfang was visible amid a scribble of thorns.
The huntsman grinned. ‘We’re in for a dem good run. Leu-in, boys! Leu-in … wind ’im!’
The music of the hounds drifted down to the White Hart, where John closed his eyes as Kate clung to his leg, whimpering. Not Old Red, he prayed. Not today, God. Please. Not him.
Sunlight exploded in Dewfang’s face. He raced over the hilltop down towards the road through furze and hawthorns, his breath rattling in loud gasps. A jay swooped low overhead, scolding him with its harsh chatter. On tussocky heathland he was far slower and weaker than the hounds, their long strides eating up the distance behind their hunted quarry. A train hooted from Moretonhampstead, and gazing eastwards across the treetops Dewfang glimpsed white steam rising.
The pack thundered over the skyline at full cry, panting heavily as they quested below Adley Wood. The Chagford-Lustleigh road was thronged with Galloways and Dewfang ran among them, zigzagging amid stocky legs as they snorted and shied away from him. He streaked up the lane as a drover yelled after him.
The pack rounded the bend and scattered the herd. Cattle stumbled up the verge and lumbered off, bellowing and tossing their shaggy heads as drovers tried to corral them in vain. The huntsman swore and reined in his steed, laying about with his whip. ‘Leu-in, boys! Back, damn you! Leu-in!’
Marshal nipped at a bullock’s heels then yelped as the whip slashed across his back. Blanked by a swirl of mud, shit and trampled grass the hounds milled about until Campion nosed out Dewfang’s fresh line and howled. The rest of the pack gave tongue in a fierce clamour and swarmed up the muddy lane.
Dewfang’s lips peeled back in a grin of exhaustion. Squeezing through the hedge brambles had spiked his ear and snagged at his pelt. He crossed the field downhill towards the allotment gardens behind Moretonhampstead Station. The hounds were now less than a field behind him and still gaining, plunging on as their jubilant clamour echoed for miles.
As he tore through the allotments and chicken runs the 12.45 for Newton Abbot was readying to leave. The noise muffled the hounds’ clamour, but he could still hear the dogs as he trotted along the track and sprang up onto the engine’s running board.
Shovelling coal into the boiler’s furnace, the stoker never noticed the chestnut streak that crept past his bent back and trotted along the footplate. Dewfang clapped down onto the buffer beam and oozed out scats in a shudder of excitement. The metal shelf shook as the train moved off. Steam swirled around the fox and he huddled close to the boiler, ears flattened and his brush twitching. The acrid stench of oil, metal and tar plugged his nose, cancelling out his stink. Pistons thudded below him like a stuttering rumble of thunder. Then the countryside was sliding by as the train gathered speed with gasps of steam. A farmhouse flew at him and vanished. Branches blurred past, slicing the sky. The engine hooted and steamed under the bridge by Wray Brook Farm. Blackness and noise blotted out Dewfang’s world, then he burst into sunlight once more.
The postman and his son rushed across to the parapet and watched the train steam away. ‘You saw ’im, didn ya, boy?’ grinned the postman. ‘I idn goin’ mad! You seen ’im?’
‘On the side o’ the bliddy engine!’ his son whooped. ‘Old Red’s riding the southbound train from Moreton! ’E’s magic!’ He punched the air and cheered.
Far behind hounds milled aimlessly over Platform Two. The tantalising whiff of fox had suddenly ended in a churning maelstrom of confusing new smells — the heavy reek of engine oil, hot metal, burnt coal and steam clogged their senses. Even Campion was baffled. He whined and sniffed Dewfang’s lingering trail back into the railway gardens. A man in blue overalls yelled at him and Campion sat down to scratch, driving his hind foot into his jowl. Crestfallen, Lancer slumped onto his belly and wailed. He hadn’t caught anything today, wouldn’t get any juicy scraps off his master’s plate later, have his head stroked or called “Good Boy”. It wasn’t fair!
Thundering hard through the cabbages on a horse lathered with froth, the huntsman glared after the fading trail of steam. That crafty bugger! Old Red had eluded him once more; outwitted for now the seventh time in three seasons. He wheeled his horse around and stormed back along the lane, leaving in his wake forty miserable dogs and a long procession of sweaty, grim-faced riders.
The train idled at Lustleigh. Dewfang hopped down unseen and gazed back along the sunlit track. A long three-mile walk home lay before him, but he wasn’t worried. By the time he reached his old haunts by sundown the hounds would be long gone. He trotted down the track, following the warm rail at a leisurely pace as rowdy jackdaws skirmished overhead. No hurry. He smelled rabbits on the wind. He had all the time in the world.
John picked up a brass tankard and began polishing it, smiling at the lament of inconsolable hounds gathered outside. The riders slouched about glumly, staring at their boots: their quarry had slipped through their fingers. Another hunt with nothing to show for it.
In the corner the master listlessly nudged peas across his gravy-smeared plate. The door banged open as the huntsman trudged inside, twisting his riding crop and grumbling. At the counter the postman winked at John and smirked into his ginger beer.
John hid his grin behind a muffled cough. ‘Afternoon, gents. Good hunting, eh?’
The huntsman tore off his cap, dashed it on the floor with a curse and stomped outside. The master scowled into his pint pot. Already two drinks in and only getting worse. Kate sat at the foot of the stairs, hugging her knees in excitement. John caught her eye and gave a discreet thumbs-up. Kate rocked back and forth, grinning from ear to ear.
The master pushed away his plate and sprawled back in his chair, dejected. ‘Thanks for lunch,’ he finally muttered, and lurched unsteadily to his feet.
‘My pleasure, guv.’ John cleared his throat. ‘Now, let’s see here … accounting for lunch, then yer three beers, not to mention cleanin’ up the awful mess yer hounds made o’ my yard an’ the mud you fellas brought inside stamping about …’ He held out an expectant hand. ‘That’ll be nine shillings an’ six, please – no, don’t get yer cheque-book out, mate. Cash only. Cheers!’
Fernsmoke crouched deep in the dusty sett, her infants curled around her. Suddenly a shadow darkened the tunnel mouth, and claws scrabbled the earth. Closer. Closer … The cubs shrank together, whimpering. Fernsmoke bared her teeth, hackled raised.
A low bark of reassurance drifted down the tunnel. Dewfang crawled out of the gloom and grinned as the cubs eagerly danced around him, yipping with joy. ‘We’re safe,’ he rumbled.
Fernsmoke nuzzled against him. ‘Where’re the dogs?’
‘Out chasing moonbeams,’ Dewfang smirked. ‘They’re long gone. Need any cub-sitting help from a raggedy old fleabag?’
Fernsmoke hung her head. ‘Why bother with me?’ she sighed. ‘I’m such an arrogant fool.’
‘Heyyy, shh.’ Dewfang licked her brow. ‘None o’ that. You’re still here, aint’cha? You’re still breathin’. Better a live fool than a brave corpse. Suckle the cubs an’ rest. I’ll keep watch.’ He settled down with a relieved growl, facing the entrance.
Fernsmoke drove her muzzle into his flank. ‘You seem real pleased with yourself.’
Dewfang cracked an eye open and grinned. ‘Ya think? Well, we did beat the hunt – doesn’t happen every day.’
Fernsmoke nudged her cubs forward. ‘Remember your manners. Thank our brave friend who kept you safe.’
Rosemere wobbled forward to lick Dewfang’s snout. ‘Fank you,’ she mumbled shyly. ‘My name’s—’
‘Rosemere.’ Dewfang brushed noses with her; his whiskers tickled her cheek as she rolled over, giggling. ‘Your mum told me. Pleased to meet you, missie!’
‘… Dad! … Dad! Wake up!’
John blinked awake, squinted at the clock and frowned up into Kate’s eager face. ‘… Blimey, luv. ’S half-eleven! Wuzz goin’ on?’
‘C’mon, Dad! Quick!’ Stifling a yawn John let himself be tugged out of bed and downstairs into the gloomy kitchen. Out in the frost-rimmed yard lay a metal saucer full of cat food. Kate pulled him to the porch window, eyes shining. ‘Look, Dad … look!’
John peered into the darkness, then smiled as a fox slunk out of the shadows, followed by a silky-furred vixen. They raised their snouts to sniff the freezing air then trotted to the food bowl, munching away. Felix stalked to the window, sniffed disdainfully as he saw his dinner gobbled up, and minced away upstairs to sulk.
‘He’s magic, that foxie,’ Kate cooed. ‘He can do anything. Got himself a real queen. Her’s a beauty!’
A scuffle from the darkness, a muffled squeak. Old Red glared into the darkness and barked sternly.
Out rolled two brawling cubs, yapping and wriggling as they gnawed each other’s tails.
‘Ooh look!’ Kate squealed, her eyes sparkling with excitement. ‘He’s got new cubs an’ they’s lovely!’ They watched breathlessly as the cubs tussled and pounced on each other with playful growls, the dog fox and vixen gazing on in fond pride. Once the bowl had been licked clean, the two adults scooped up their troublemakers and vanished into the night with a gleam of russet fur.
‘They’ll never catch Old Red,’ Kate sighed happily. ‘Never. He’s a proper hero, idn’t he, Dad? He’s magic.’
Her father knelt beside her, hugging her as she giggled with joy. ‘And he’s won.’
© 2021 | Tom Burton