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Authors: Tom McCaughren

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BOOK: Run with the Wind
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Having left the rabbits back at the earth for the others, the two resumed their hunting. This time they tried the fields alongside the plantation, but it soon became obvious that
the activities of the stoat had driven most other wild life into cover.

Half a dozen magpies swooped on them as they made their way across the fields. They ignored them. The magpies, recognising natural enemies and never lacking courage in the presence of either dog or fox, swooped again. The two foxes continued on their way as if the magpies were no more than midges flitting around their ears. The magpies came in again, closer this time. The foxes turned and sprang at them. Black Tip caught one and the others retreated to the safety of a nearby ash tree. Black Tip smiled, and Skulking Dog guessed what he was thinking. As Old Sage Brush would say, courage was no substitute for cunning. The magpie tasted good — not as good as a chicken or a pheasant, remarked Skulking Dog, but enjoyable nevertheless.

Rising to survey the hillside below them, they could see a farmer glancing at the sky and turning his collar up against the wind. It had been a difficult year for farmers everywhere. Late frosts and continuing snow had brought heavy lambing losses, and they had been slow to sow their wheat. More snow was also the last thing they wanted.

Black Tip turned to go when a movement down at the farmhouse caught his eye. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘it’s a fox.’

‘But what is it doing there in broad daylight?’ wondered Skulking Dog. He thought of the narrow escape he himself had had at the chicken farm shortly after leaving Beech Paw,
and added: ‘It’s asking for trouble.’

Black Tip nodded, and Skulking Dog continued: ‘It looks like … but it couldn’t be …’

Black Tip sprang forward, his body trembling. He too had sensed something familiar in the movement of the fox down at the farmhouse. It was Vickey.

pair of dark brown eyes, sharper even than those of a fox watched Vickey enter the farmyard. They saw her approach the body of a stoat lying on the cement floor of an open barn. Unaware that she was being watched, she sniffed the stoat and turned it over with a nudge of her nose. She didn’t see or hear the ghostly white form that swooped on her, until its razor-sharp talons gave her a swift clout on the side of the head. She screamed in a mixture of pain and surprise, and turned her head to see the barn owl come to roost on a rafter.

Unknown to Vickey, she had come upon the object of a bizarre game often played by the owl and two other occupants
of this farmyard. The man and woman who lived there had no children, and the light of their lives was a long-haired, black and tan tom-cat and a small brown and white terrier. They lavished on them all the care and attention they would have lavished on children, if they had had any. They fed them choice pieces of meat, and encouraged them to sleep in wicker baskets in the warm kitchen. As a result, the cat had grown to an enormous size and the terrier had become round and fat. Because they got all the food they wanted in the house, they didn’t have to hunt, but they did. In fact, hunting was their favourite game. It occupied most of their days, and they had become very good at it. They were renowned in the district for the fact that they could better that fearless little hunter, the stoat, although no one knew how. They also hunted small birds and mice, and whether the hapless victim they brought back to the farmyard was a dead stoat or a half-dead bird, they would spend hours playing with it. It was a game the old hen owl always watched, for when the other two finally tired of it she would swoop on their victim and carry it off. Thus she objected to Vickey’s interference, and when she landed on the rafter she screeched a warning to her two friends.

Black Tip and Skulking Dog, who had come as close to the farmyard as they dared, had seen the owl attacking Vickey, but were powerless to do anything. They also saw the great shaggy tom-cat and the terrier dashing out of the
house and chasing her. However, it was only a short chase. These two were well aware that a fox could easily out-run them. Moreover, as the owl knew from experience, they still hadn’t finished with the stoat, and now that something else had shown an interest in it, they felt like resuming their game.

Relieved that Vickey had got away, Black Tip and Skulking Dog watched the cat and dog returning to the body of the stoat. Round and round it the little terrier hopped, barking loudly as if he expected it to spring at him, until suddenly the cat leapt in and seized it by the throat. A few shakes, and it was the terrier’s turn again. All the time, the owl watched and waited. Her turn would come later.

Leaving the stoat hunters to their grisly game, Black Tip and Skulking Dog joined Vickey and took her back to the safety of the earth up in the plantation. None of them rebuked her for what she had done, and she offered no explanation for her strange behaviour. There was no need. They all knew the reason. The cubbing mood was coming upon her, and she was not really to blame. They also realised it was more important than ever now that they should move on to Beech Paw, a point Old Sage Brush was quick to make when Vickey had gone below ground.

‘Do you think the stoat hunters will come looking for us?’ asked Hop-along.

‘They might,’ said the old fox. ‘Or they might just come
across us when they’re after stoats. Either way, it’s an added danger.’

‘We have nothing to fear from a cat,’ said Fang.

‘But the cat is very big and hunts with a fun dog,’ Skulking Dog reminded him. ‘They could be a danger to some of us.’

‘And the small fun dogs are the worst,’ Sinnéad pointed out. ‘They can follow us into the earth.’

‘Sinnéad’s right,’ announced Old Sage Brush. ‘We can’t run the risk of being trapped. We’ll have to make a move. But how are we going to get past the fun dogs?’

If the old fox was expecting some of them to come up with the answer, he didn’t get it, so he suggested that they apply their minds to it as a matter of urgency, and despatched Fang and Hop-along to get more food. Black Tip could keep an eye on Vickey, and Skulking Dog would give them the extra protection they might now need.

Always conscious of the rather distinctive tracks he left and his inability to run very fast, Hop-along was quick to notice that he and Fang didn’t leave any track on the thick carpet of needles that covered the ground beneath the trees. This he found very comforting, and told Fang so. They paused to examine the cones that were scattered everywhere. Fang held one of the longer spruce cones between his front paws and gnawed it with his long teeth, while Hop-along tried to crack one of the smaller larch cones. They were dry and brittle, and both soon came to the conclusion that there was
no food in them.

Even though they had gone in the opposite direction from where Black Tip and Skulking Dog had hunted, they found little sign of wild-life in the plantation, so they too decided to extend their search to the open fields. There their efforts were rewarded with the capture of a cock pheasant.

As they trotted back up along the dry bank towards the earth, they came across another badger set. Hop-along was carrying the pheasant, and Fang decided to see if the set had been abandoned by badgers and perhaps occupied by rabbits. Hop-along dropped the pheasant and waited. Suddenly there were grunts and squeals from somewhere in the set, and a few moments later he was startled to see Fang sailing through the air and landing at his feet. The set was occupied all right, but by badgers which neither liked the smell nor the living habits of foxes. They weren’t going to share their home with any fox, be it Fang or anyone else.

With only his pride injured, Fang gathered himself up and departed from the scene as quickly as possible. Realising what had happened, Hop-along picked up the pheasant and followed him.

When they arrived back at the earth, they were concerned to hear that Vickey had somehow managed to slip away again. This time she appeared to have gone in the direction of Beech Paw, and Black Tip had gone after her. Knowing the great danger both of them faced, Old Sage Brush sent
Fang to help them.

The urge to get home to Beech Paw for her cubbing time had driven Vickey to the point of desperation. Throwing caution to the wind, she had followed her instinct blindly. It is doubtful if she even considered that she or her unborn cubs might be in danger. All she knew was that she must get back, and somehow nothing else seemed to matter.

Foxes give off a much stronger scent as they approach cubbing time, and Black Tip had no difficulty following her. It was obvious where she was heading, and why. Normally, he knew, she would be preparing a nursery for her cubs at this time, and as he raced through the trees after her, he now realised that they had let her down by not getting her back to Beech Paw as promised. He just hoped he would find her before the fun dogs.

Coming to the edge of the evergreens, Black Tip heard a great commotion, and fearing he was too late, cautiously approached the place where the noise was coming from. It was a curious mixture of sound that puzzled him, He recognised the barking of a fox and a small dog, and thought of the ones that ran with the Alsatian. But there were other noises which he didn’t recognise, and which didn’t fit his fears.

Creeping towards a clearing in the trees, it all soon became clear to him. There, on a humpy piece of ground that was
riddled with rabbit holes, were the stoat hunters. The great shaggy tom-cat was hissing and pawing savagely at one particular hole, and the terrier was running around, sticking his dead down other holes and scratching and barking madly. It soon became apparent to Black Tip that this time their quarry wasn’t a stoat. Now and then, he could see the face of a fox, soiled and bloody, eyes wide and terrified, snapping at its tormentors, while in the trees above, the barn owl shuffled and screamed as she watched another game.

Somehow, Black Tip knew, they had cornered Vickey. She had taken refuge in the largest burrow, and he wondered why they didn’t go into some of the smaller burrows and flush her out. Either they were too fat, he thought, or they just wanted to tease and torment her. In any event, they had her cornered, and he wondered how he could get her out. Perhaps if he ran close by they would follow him. He found himself doing so even as he was thinking about it, but it was no use. The dog and cat hesitated barely a moment to look at him before continuing with their deadly game of cat and mouse with Vickey.

So worried was Black Tip with Vickey’s plight, he could hardly think. He knew from what he had seen down in the farmyard that the cat and the little fun dog were experts at this game. Few animals could catch a stoat and most preferred not to risk an encounter with one if it could be avoided. These two, however, seemed to enjoy it, and now they had
cornered the fox who had dared deprive them of their fun. The fox would do until another stoat came along, and Black Tip knew there was no chance of that, unless … He thought of the little stoat he had seen farther down the plantation while out hunting with Skulking Dog, and wondered if he might somehow be able to use it.

Not quite knowing what he was going to do, Black Tip turned and ran as fast as he could back into the evergreens. A jumble of thoughts flashed through his mind as he streaked through the trees. Where would he find the stoat? And what could he do with it if he did find it? Could he kill it and take it back to the cat and the dog? He had never killed a stoat before, although he had heard of some foxes that could do it. He had always been told they were ferocious fighters for all their size and were not to be tangled with. But what else could he do? He pressed on.

The bank where the stoat had been hunting for rabbits was now deserted. Quickly Black Tip searched the field on the other side of it. No sign of it there either. He scouted around under the trees, and near a pile of logs discovered the stoat face to face with a rat. There was a blur of sinuous bodies, and the rat lay dead, bitten in the back of the neck. Sensing it was being watched, the stoat stood up on his hind legs and looked around, only to duck from the ghostly white shape of the barn owl that had followed Black Tip and silently swooped down over a familiar enemy.

The stoat was annoyed. It didn’t like being watched, and it knew the owl would seize the rat if she could. The owl had now perched on a nearby branch, and the stoat made as if to pursue her, but quickly returned to the rat and placed its forepaws on it. The owl screeched and swooped again. The stoat leaped towards her, but missed and received a sharp clout on its head for its trouble. Now it really was angry, and as the owl landed on the branch of another tree, it streaked up the trunk with the speed of a squirrel, determined to get her.

Black Tip knew that the stoat still hadn’t seen him, and in that instant he saw his chance. He raced forward, picked up the rat, and made off as fast as he could go. Glancing back, he could see the stoat bounding after him in hot pursuit. It wasn’t going to let him get away with it this time.

Approaching the rabbit warren, Black Tip could tell by the barking and hissing that Vickey was still trapped. He saw the owl gliding ahead of him and perching on a branch at the edge of the plantation. The stoat, he knew, wasn’t far behind. He paused. He didn’t want the owl to get to the rat first. At the last moment, he dropped it and ran. The stoat was on it in an instant. The owl uttered a harsh scream, and the cat and the terrier stopped what they were doing and looked over. Seeing the stoat, they immediately raced towards it.

It was at that moment that Black Tip found Fang beside him, and together they rushed in to get Vickey out. Smeared
with blood and stricken with terror, she was a pitiful sight, but the instinct of survival gave her the strength to run. Black Tip and Fang took off after her, and as Black Tip looked back, he could see the cat and the terrier engaging in their favourite game. The terrier was hopping around the stoat like a mongoose around a snake, barking and snapping, while the tom-cat crouched, ready to spring, and the owl watched and waited.

BOOK: Run with the Wind
10.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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