Despite the incipient thaw, the river was still partly frozen. January had been even colder than usual, the meadows white with snow and held in the grip of successive frosts.
Along the riverbank, the leafless bushes thrust stark branches into the night sky, each glistening wet in the moonlight as its coating of hoar frost gradually dripped away.
The shallow water could be heard gurgling as it ran over the pebble bottom, but the sound, below the remaining ice, was muffled .
The fox came to his familiar drinking spot, at a bend in the river where the current had scored out a small gravel beach. He sniffed the air cautiously. Then, satisfied that he was safe, he took a few steps towards the dark water. Recently he had only able to lick the frost; but now he could drink his fill. And then, a few yards away, he spotted food. It was a dead salmon, one of the many that had journeyed upriver in December from the sea, to spawn and then to die. The fox had had a hard time finding food recently, and this was a gift. The fish was still held loosely by the ice, but with a little effort the fox managed to prise about half the body free. He carried it into a thicket and ate some of it. Dawn was breaking and with it the winter sunshine, which helped to thaw the food a little. His hunger satisfied, the fox scratched some soil over the remains, planning to return for another meal.
There was full daylight now and he quickly made his way back to his earth, to find an unpleasant surprise.
Loose soil and small rocks blocked the entrance. The fox knew what this meant; the earth stoppers had been out in the night, blocking up as many as they could find, to keep the fox population above ground as quarry for the hunt. The bad weather had kept the hounds at home lately, but clearly they and the riders would be out in the morning. He had two choices; the soil was not packed hard and he could dig his way back in; or he could move his home elsewhere. It was no contest really; he knew what would happen if the hunt reached his den and sent the terriers in. He had seen that before and wanted none of it. No, it was better to find a new place when night fell; but first he had to get through the daylight hours, when his one enemy, Man, would be out and about.
The fox was a land animal but today the river was his friend. Today, it would guide him and hide him. He followed the bank path, keeping out of sight as much as he could, until he came to a pollarded willow, leaning precariously over the water. He leapt effortlessly into the tree and looked around. Only just in time, because from his vantage point he soon heard them, then saw them. First the riders, the Master and the huntsman ahead of the rest in their pink coats, the huntsman blowing his horn - the sound intermingled with the baying of the pack. Then he saw the hounds, streaming alongside the leading horses, all bigger than him and many-coloured, in innumerable variations of white mixed with black and tan. Every one, whatever its colour, was spattered with mud from the chase.
It wasn’t safe here. The fox jumped down and ran, but they saw him.
On and on he ran, with the pack getting ever closer and his heart pounding as if to burst. He was tiring, and he knew that in a moment or two they would have him. But then, on the river bank, he came to a disused and dilapidated fishing lodge. He quickly ran right round the building and found a way upwards, where a gap in the felt allowed him to creep into the roof space. It was his only chance, and not much of one, but it might do.
Most of the chasing pack ran on past the old building, though some wandered around the back, sniffing carefully. But the huntsman called them on, and the fox was safe. Or was he? The last of the riders, a young woman on a grey horse, looked up as she passed and caught a glimpse of the fox as he peered out. But she rode on, as if perhaps she wasn’t sure. The fox was puzzled, because he knew, as all animals do, that there had been eye contact and she’d seen him.
The fox spent the next few minutes recovering from his exertions and getting ready to run again, as he knew he must.
The noise of the hounds and riders returned, and he knew they were heading back his way, having lost his scent. He couldn’t stay there. He slipped down to the bank, and then into the icy water. All along the water’s edge were reeds and bulrushes, almost as thick as the vegetation on the land just above. He took up a position amongst the reeds, and waited. They came. All along the bank they ran, quartering back and forth, finding his scent then losing it; then finding it again. The old building interested them more this time, but still they couldn’t make a find.
He waited. The water seemed to be getting colder and colder. He could scarcely feel his feet, though his red coat kept some of the wet out. But he had to stay. After what seemed like hours, the hunt withdrew. Was he safe now? Seemingly so, as the hunters were leaving. But once more, the girl on the grey horse was the last to leave, and this time she waved to the fox as she turned to ride away. She must have seen him.
She was a farmer’s daughter, and knew only too well the havoc that a fox could cause at lambing time, or in a free range poultry flock; she knew they had to be controlled. But she had an admiration for this particular fox, whose courage in running and guile in hiding she had seen that day. And she had another reason. Just before Christmas, at the Hunt Ball, the Master had asked her to dance. Etiquette dictated that if asked, a lady must not decline; but etiquette didn’t say anything about how to respond when, once on the dance floor, his hands were everywhere. Well, she’d get her own back now, once she let it be known that the MFH had missed two opportunities for an easy kill.