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Authors: Tom McCaughren

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Skulking Dog was thinking hard. He had yet to show Old Sage Brush that he had learned to use his cunning, but think as he would, he couldn’t imagine how he might release the fox.

‘There’s a big house not far from here,’ said Running Fox, ‘and it has no fun dogs. We can hide there until we decide what to do.’ He smiled, and added: ‘In the morning I’ll introduce you to some other foxes there.’

‘Vixens?’ asked Skulking Dog hopefully.

Running Fox smiled again. ‘You’ll be the best judge of that, and if they are you can have one — if you can catch it!’

Skulking Dog was intrigued, but he didn’t inquire further about it. He knew Running Fox was teasing him a little bit, and that he wasn’t going to learn anything more about it until they were at the big house.

They were going to a house that used to be the mansion of a wealthy estate owner. The estate had long since been divided among local farmers, and the house itself was being used by the Government as an energy research centre. When the oil-producing countries of the Middle East had pushed up their prices, several projects had been undertaken to explore the possibilities of alternative sources of energy. Windmills had sprung up in various parts of the country and some scientists were concentrating their efforts on solar energy. It was for this purpose that research workers had moved into the big house. Dogs and cats they considered a nuisance and a waste of time, a fact that local wildlife, like Running Fox, soon came to appreciate.

A short time later, Running Fox and Skulking Dog stole among the outhouses, and after feeding on some of the many mice that had over-run the place, they settled down in the comfort of a burst bale of straw.

‘In the morning,’ whispered Running Fox, ‘I’ll show you the other foxes I was telling you about.’

Shortly after dawn, Running Fox took Skulking Dog into the lawns of the old mansion. A weed called winter heliotrope had encircled the lawns with a carpet of broad green leaves. Its flowers had now keeled over, as if the winter had proved too much for them, but their unique fragrance, which once had brought them from Italy to the gardens of Europe’s wealthy, still left a scent of almonds in the air.

Nice though this was, Skulking Dog snorted to expel it from his nostrils, for something else had stopped him in his tracks, something he couldn’t smell and couldn’t comprehend … indeed he was stunned by what suddenly confronted him — rows and rows of grotesque-looking foxes, each one eyeing him from the centre of a warped silvery screen.

Skulking Dog, of course, hadn’t the faintest notion what these strange objects were. In fact, they were rows of gigantic aluminium mirrors, originally intended to reflect the sun and concentrate its rays so that its energy could be collected and stored. But the great mirrors had warped and, abandoned by the researchers, they now stood idle, reflecting only distorted images of the lawns and everything in them.

Frightened, Skulking Dog drew back. Running Fox grinned. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘These foxes won’t harm you.’

‘Who are they?’ whispered Skulking Dog.

‘Follow me,’ said Running Fox, who was obviously enjoying himself very much. ‘And don’t get excited, whatever you do.’

Slowly they advanced towards the large mirrors, and as they did so, Skulking Dog saw the other foxes also advance and become huge and menacing.

Skulking Dog, needless to say, had often seen his own reflection in water. But he always felt on top of that situation, and anyway, it would disappear whenever he bit the water. However, when he bared his fangs and snapped at these foxes, they snapped back with even bigger fangs.

‘Take it easy,’ hissed Running Fox. ‘It’s only ourselves.’

Skulking Dog moved his head to one side, and so did some of the foxes in the mirrors opposite.

‘Now, look at the others,’ said Running Fox. ‘That’s me.’

‘But you’re all sorts of shapes.’

‘And so are you,’ laughed Running Fox. ‘That’s what those things do to you.’

‘Come on,’ said Skulking Dog. ‘We’re wasting our time. Let’s see what we can do to help this other fox.’

As they crossed the fields on the way back to the trapper’s house, Skulking Dog stopped.

‘Wait a minute,’ he said. ‘Maybe we haven’t been wasting our time. I’ve got an idea.’

The idea appealed to Running Fox and while he went on to the trapper’s house to wait in the hope that he might be able to get a message to the fox in the shed, Skulking Dog returned to the badger set and told the others of his plan.

‘If it doesn’t work,’ said Hop-along, who was always worried
about anything that depended on having to run, ‘then you’ll all be killed.’

‘At least,’ said Black Tip, ‘you’ll have Running Fox to show the way.’

‘And don’t forget,’ said Fang, ‘Skulking Dog has experience of this sort of thing.’

‘Still, you must take great care,’ warned Vickey.

‘Vickey’s right,’ said She-la. ‘It would be a pity to come all this way just to end up as food for the howling dogs.’

There were clearly great dangers in the plan. At the same time Old Sage Brush didn’t want to disappoint Skulking Dog. It was a good idea, and Skulking Dog undoubtedly had the courage to carry it through.

As he pondered on what to do, the old fox thought of the days when he had been able to lie and watch small flies creeping into the flowers of wild arum, there to be trapped until they could carry away the pollen. And so he expressed his approval in one of his quaint sayings.

‘If a flower can catch a fly,’ he told Skulking Dog, ‘who is to say what the fox, with his cunning and speed, cannot do to the howling dogs?’

It was some time next morning when Running Fox came to tell Skulking Dog that the riders were gathering for the fox hunt, and he felt they should be on their way if they were to get into position in time. He had succeeded in getting a message to the fox in the shed when the trapper had gone
out with his dogs to take in his choking hedge-traps.

The night’s frost had given way to a day of blue sky and fluffy white clouds, and the two foxes could feel the growing warmth of the sun on their backs as they raced across the fields. It wasn’t long before the howling of the hounds and the call of the hunting horn could be heard coming across the countryside. It told them that the trapper had released his prisoner and that the hounds had picked up its scent. Immediately they split up so that they could put their plan into action.

As the pink-coated riders swept across the fields after the hounds, it might have occurred to them that the fox they were chasing was doing a strange thing. It was running straight into the wind and leaving a strong scent for the hounds to follow In fact, although they may not have known it, the hounds were now following two foxes. Running Fox had joined the one that had been released and was showing it the way to the old mansion.

Meanwhile, Skulking Dog had taken up a position near the mansion. The blood-curdling cry of the hounds and the incessant call of the horn were coming closer and closer. If Old Sage Brush had prayed for the success of his plan for the little brown hen, it was nothing to the fervent hopes of Skulking Dog now. What if his idea wouldn’t work? Their very lives depended on it! Even as these fears were flooding into his mind, Running Fox streaked across the lawns, closely
followed by a vixen. Skulking Dog joined them and together they darted under a low boxwood hedge and headed for the back of the mansion.

Hot on their heels, the hounds jumped over the boxwood hedge. But as they did so, they came face to face with the biggest and most fearsome creatures they had ever seen. They were tall, thin, fat, short, long and distorted in many other gruesome ways. Of course, the hounds had never got such a full and frightening view of themselves before, and for them this was the end of the hunt. With woeful howls, they turned tail and fled, bounding away between the horses and riders who had stopped in amazement in the low field at the edge of the lawns. Then, another strange thing happened.

In their flight across the lawns, the three foxes had accidentally bumped against the bottom of one of the reflectors, and now as it rocked to and fro, it flashed the sunlight onto the horses in the field below. First it dazzled one horse, then another, as they churned around in confusion. Startled, several of them reared up and threw their riders to the ground before galloping off across the fields at great speed.

In a wood on the other side of the mansion, Skulking Dog met the vixen he and Running Fox had just rescued. She was a pretty fox with an attractive little white spot on the centre of her forehead.

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘My name’s Sinnéad.’

At gloomglow that evening, Running Fox led his visitors
to the edge of his territory, and handed them over to the guidance of the great running fox in the sky. They wanted him to join them, but he seemed happy enough to stay where he was. And so, taking Sinnéad with them, they returned to Beech Paw.

I
n the brambles at the bottom of the quarry, a chaffinch gave a familiar whee and launched into a short song. In the den opposite, the foxes were happy too. All were delighted with the rescue of Sinnéad, and none more so than Old Sage Brush.

It was an emotional reunion between the old fox and his daughter. He had given her up for dead back at the sand pit, and now he was overcome. In his mind's eye he could still see her, a young cub snapping at the jabbing stick in an angry effort to protect her father's face. He would never see her as the mature vixen she now was, but it comforted him to think that at least he had seen her when she was young. As they rubbed cheeks affectionately, he could tell that she had grown into a fine fox, and although he couldn't see it,
he could just imagine the attractive little white spot in the middle of her forehead.

Sinnéad was equally overjoyed. She also thought her father had died at the hands of the men with the jabbing sticks and the snapping fun dogs. Her joy was tinged with sadness to see him old and blind. However, this soon gave way to a feeling of pride when she learned he was leading the others, and heard them speak of how much they owed to his great wisdom and cunning.

‘But how did you survive?' Vickey asked her.

‘Yes, how did you escape the men at the sand pit?' asked Skulking Dog. The others could see that he was greatly taken by the new vixen, and was showing more than a little interest in her.

Sinnéad looked at Skulking Dog with wide, soft eyes that showed she regarded him as nothing short of heroic for the way he had planned and carried out her rescue. ‘Unfortunately,' she told him, ‘I had no one like you to come to my aid. I was only a cub then.'

‘That's all,' sighed Old Sage Brush. ‘Just a cub.'

‘Mother had just been shot,' continued Sinnéad. ‘So she couldn't help me, and father couldn't see where he was running. I tried to follow him, but one of the men dived after me and caught me by the tail. I wriggled and squirmed. It was no use. I couldn't get free.'

‘What did they do then?' asked Hop-along, who always
wondered what would happen to him if he was caught.

‘He held me up by the tail, and all the other men gathered round, and the fun dogs jumped at me and snapped at my head. Somehow I managed to pull my head up and curl around to keep them from biting me, and the men laughed and thought it was great fun. Eventually they put me in a sack, like the ones we see in the potato fields, and carried me off. The fun dogs were still barking and snapping and nipping me.'

‘Poor Sinnéad,' said Old Sage Brush. ‘It must have been very frightening.'

Sinnéad nodded. ‘The worst thing about it was that I couldn't see what was happening. The bag was rough and stuffy, and the smell of man so close to me was almost too much for me.'

‘What happened then?' asked Vickey gently.

‘After being bumped around in the sack for a long time, I was let out into a sort of cage. I think it must have been one of those places man keeps rabbits in. I tried everything to get out of it, but I just couldn't, and after a while I gave up. At least the smell of rabbit was better than the smell of man. Sometimes fun dogs would come along and scratch at the wire with their paws and bark at me. It was very frightening until I realised that if I couldn't get out, they couldn't get in.'

‘What did you do for food?' asked Skulking Dog.

‘Now and then the door was opened a little bit, and food
was thrown in to me. Most of it was man's food, and I didn't like it. A few times I got chicken bones and bits of meat. It was barely enough to keep me alive, and I got very thin. Then one day the man came. I thought at first it was to give me food. However, he reached in to catch me. I snapped as much as I could, but he had something covering his hands and I didn't seem to hurt him. He caught me and put a thing around my neck and led me like a fun dog.'

‘Oh, how horrible!' said She-la. ‘Where did he take you?'

‘He tried to get me to walk like a fun dog, and when I did something that pleased him he would give me a little piece of meat. He became quite good to me really. If a fun dog came along, he would take me up in his arms. Sometimes he would take me into places where there were a lot of men drinking and laughing and talking out loud. He would put me standing in one of the wooden things they sit on, and get me to snap at them, and he would get me to lick the stuff they were drinking. It was awful, and I always fought to get away from it. They seemed to think it was great fun.'

‘Eventually,' continued Sinnéad, ‘the man grew tired of taking me around with him, and I was left in the cage. After that a woman fed me, and some children came to play with me. One day the children took me out and tried to put the thing around my neck, but they weren't as strong as the man and I was too quick for them. So I got away'

‘Good for you,' said Old Sage Brush. ‘But how did man
come to catch you again?'

‘Well, after that I returned to the fields and kept as far away from man as I could. I managed to stay free until recently, when I was crossing the laneway leading to a farm. I got caught in a choking hedge-trap.'

‘You poor thing,' said Vickey.

‘I just don't know what happened,' said Sinnéad. ‘I must have been thinking of something else. I walked straight into it.'

‘How did you get out of it?' asked Black Tip in surprise.

‘I was lucky again,' Sinnéad told them. ‘For some reason it didn't choke me. I was caught in it, but it didn't tighten any more. Yet I couldn't get out of it. No matter how much I twisted and turned, I couldn't break it. I was terrified. I thought I was going to have to lie there and die of hunger. Then a man came along and a great fear came over me. I felt I was going to be killed. In desperation I pretended to be dead. I could feel his eyes on me. I didn't move. I didn't even breathe, and I couldn't believe my luck when he went away. I knew I must get out of that choking trap somehow before anyone else came along. I was really desperate, and I suppose that's how a woman came upon me unexpectedly. I was so busy trying to get that thing off my neck. I looked up and she was standing there looking down at me. I knew she would bring others, and I said this is the end now, I'm going to die. But the great god Vulpes was with me again.
When the men came they didn't harm me. They caught me by the tail, cut the choking hedge-trap off my neck and put me in a sack.'

‘So you ended up right back where you started,' said Fang. ‘What happened after that?'

‘I was kept in the sack and put into something hard and noisy, and moved a great distance. It was very bumpy and after a while I was taken out and given to another man who put me in a shed. You know the rest. I was held there until Running Fox came and told me of Skulking Dog's plan to get me away from the howling dogs. It was only then I realised what they were keeping me in the shed for.'

Sinnéad shivered, and added: ‘I'd never have got away from them on my own — not in strange country.'

‘Of course you would,' said Skulking Dog. ‘You escaped before, didn't you?'

Sinnéad smiled. She knew he was just being generous. How lucky, she thought, not only to have got away, but to have met such a fine, strong fox as Skulking Dog.

As a fox that had suffered much at the hands of man, Sinnéad was intrigued to learn that the others hoped to find the secret of survival.

‘It's difficult to believe that such a thing is possible,' she said, wide-eyed with wonder.

‘Some of the foxes who came to Beech Paw refused to believe it,' said Vickey. ‘But Sage Brush is a very wise old
fox now, and we believe what he says. We're tired of being hunted and killed.'

‘Have you ever wondered why man hates us so much?' asked She-la. ‘Surely his chickens can't mean that much to him.'

‘We just don't know,' said Vickey. ‘But do you realise that apart from yourself, Sinnéad, Running Fox was the first of our kind we met after we left Beech Paw?'

‘I know,' said Sinnéad. ‘There seems to be very few of us left. I had no mate at all last season, and no cubs.'

‘That's why we've asked Old Sage Brush to help us,' said She-la. ‘We feel that if we don't find the secret of survival, there'll be no more foxes left. Oh I do hope we find it, and that we aren't just chasing our tails.'

‘We'll find it,' said Vickey firmly. ‘We must find it. And when we do, we'll make Beech Paw a place where we can live without having to run all the time, where the hedgerows and the meadows hold no fear for us, where we can lie in the grass and watch our cubs grow, knowing they'll live to enjoy freedom in the fields.'

‘That would be nice,' reflected Sinnéad. She looked at Skulking Dog who was discussing the weather with the other dog foxes, and Vickey and She-la could see without being told, that she had decided to take him as her mate.

‘Yes,' she smiled, ‘that would be nice.' Pausing for a moment, she got up and announced: ‘That settles it then. My
cubs must also know how to survive.'

Having found her father and a mate she could be proud of, Sinnéad had more reason than any of them to want to learn the secret of survival. And now she had a dream. This little vixen, who had twice escaped from man, dreamt of the day when man would not be able to capture her again.

Somehow, spring and the new growth it would bring, seemed so long in coming, but it was coming. A small flower that had now made its appearance in the quarry told them so. The bright yellow star of the lesser celandine, rising above its heart-shaped, dark green leaves, seemed an appropriate messenger of spring to these creatures who followed the stars.

Unknown to Old Sage Brush and his group, the time of the choking hedge-traps was past for the moment. There was no demand for their coats, now that the breeding season had taken the lustre from their fur, and the trappers had put away their snares. Thus, as they set out from Beech Paw once more, they found it a welcome change to be able to follow the fox paths through the hedgerows without fear of being choked to death.

However, for the first time Vickey was worried. ‘It's Old Sage Brush and Hop-along,' she told the others. ‘I think all this travelling is too much for them. She-la, you're Hop-along's mate. What do you think?'

‘Well, to tell you the truth, Hop-along's not used to so much travelling. He hasn't said anything to me about it, but I think his foreleg is beginning to pain him.'

‘Old Sage Brush is slowing down too,' said Vickey.

‘He's fairly frail,' Sinnéad reminded them, ‘and his legs aren't as strong as they used to be.'

Black Tip nodded. He knew in his heart they were right.

‘We're lucky no fun dogs have picked up our trail,' said Fang. ‘If they did, I don't know what we'd do. We wouldn't be able to out-run them.'

‘And we leave a strong scent,' said Skulking Dog. ‘I know, I've been bringing up the rear.'

‘What do you think we should do Vickey?' asked Black Tip. ‘Return to Beech Paw?'

‘If we could just rest up for a little while. The only thing is Old Sage Brush won't admit that he needs a rest.'

‘The same with Hop-along,' said She-la.

‘Then we must be cunning,' said Black Tip. ‘Hasn't Old Sage Brush taught us that we should be?'

‘What do you have in mind?' asked Fang.

‘Vickey,' said Black Tip, ‘you must tell Old Sage Brush that Hop-along's foreleg is paining him, and he needs a rest. And She-la, you must tell Hop-along that Old Sage Brush is tired, and that he needs a rest.'

The others smiled. Old Sage Brush couldn't have come up with a better idea himself. That way, both Old Sage Brush
and Hop-along would be able to regain their strength and retain their pride by feeling they were helping one another.

Shortly after that their travels brought them to a small wooded valley. Its steep sides were cloaked in a tangle of bushes and undergrowth, a river flowed along the bottom of it, and between the river and one slope was a pheasant farm. What better place, they thought, to let Old Sage Brush and Hop-along rest. The cover was good, there was food in the undergrowth, and a prospect of pheasant if they were lucky.

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