A bloodred cardinal sparkled against the snow-covered ground. He’d dropped from his perch to snatch a few bits of millet still visible by the red chokeberry shrubs scattered at the edge of the field. The snow base, six inches, obscured most of the seeds that the flaming bird liked to eat, but light winds kept a few delicacies dropping, including some still-succulent chokeberry seeds.
Low gunmetal gray clouds, dense as fog in some spots, hung over the fresh white snow. In the center of this lovely thirty-acre hayfield on Orchard Hill Farm stood a lone sentinel, a 130-foot sugar maple. Surrounding the hayfield were forests of hardwoods and pine.
Two whitetail deer bolted over the three-board fence. Deer season ran from mid-November to January 2 in this part of Virginia. Those benighted humans who had yet to reach their legal bag limit might be found squatting in the snow on this December 27, a cold Saturday.
Bolting across the field in the direction opposite the deer came two sleek foxhounds. At first the cardinal, now joined by his mate, did not notice the hounds. The millet was too tasty. But when the birds heard the ruckus, they raised their crests and fluttered up to the oak branches as the hounds sped by.
Before the birds could drop back to their feast, four more hounds raced past, snow whirling up behind their paws like iridescent confetti.
In the distance, a hunting horn blew three long blasts, the signal for hounds to return.
Jane Arnold, Master of Foxhounds for the Jefferson Hunt Club, checked her advance just inside the forest at the westernmost border of the hayfield. The snowfall increased, huge flakes sticking to the horse’s coat for a moment, to her eyelashes. She felt the cool, moist pat of flakes on her red cheeks. As she exhaled, a stream of breath also came from her mount, a lovely bold thoroughbred, Rickyroo.
Behind her, steam rising from their mounts’ hindquarters and flanks, were fifty-four riders. Ahead was the huntsman, Shaker Crown, a wiry man in his middle forties, again lifting the hunting horn to his lips. The bulk of the pack, twenty couple—hounds are always counted in twos or couples—obediently awaited their next order.
Sister cast her bright eyes over the treetops. Chickadees, wrens, and one woodpecker peered down at her. No foxes had just charged through here. Different birds had different responses to a predator like a fox. These creatures would have been disturbed, moved about. Crows, ravens, and starlings, on the other hand, would have lifted up in a flock and screamed bloody murder. They loathed being disturbed and despised foxes to the marrow of their light bones.
On Sister’s left, a lone figure remained poised at the fence line. If Shaker moved forward, then the whipper-in, Betty Franklin, would take the old tiger trap jump and keep well to the left. Betty, a wise hunter, knew not to press on too far ahead. The splinter of the pack, which had broken now, veered to the right, and the second whipper-in, Sybil Hawkes, was already in pursuit well away across the hayfield.
Whether Sybil could turn the three couple of hounds troubled Sister. A pack should stay together—easier said than done. Sister blamed herself for this incident. It takes years and years, decades really, to build a level pack of hounds. She had included too many first-year entry—the hound equivalent of a first grader—in to- day’s hunt.
First-year entry sat in the kennels for Christmas Hunt, which had been last Saturday. Christmas Hunt, the third of the High Holy Days of hunting, overflows with people and excitement. Both she and her huntsman, whom Sister adored, felt the Christmas Hunt would have been too much for the youngsters. Today she should have taken only one couple, not the four included in this pack. Shaker had mentioned this to her, but she had waved him off, saying that the field wouldn’t be that large today, as many riders would still be recuperating from the rigors of Christmas. There had been over one hundred people for Christmas Hunt, but she had half that today, still a good number of folks.
The hounds loved hunting in the snow. For the young entry this was their first big snow, and they just couldn’t contain themselves.
She sat on Rickyroo who sensed her irritation. Sister felt a perfect ass. She’d hunted all her life, and, at seventy-two, it was a full life. How could she now be so damned stupid?
Luckily, most people behind her knew little about the art of foxhunting, and it was an art not a science. They loved the pageantry, the danger, the running and jumping, its music. A few even loved the hounds themselves. Out of that field of fifty-four people, perhaps eight or nine really understood foxhunting. And that was fine by Sister. As long as people respected nature, pro- tected the environment, and paid homage to the fox—a genius wrapped in fur—she was happy. Foxhunting was like baseball: a person needn’t know the difference between a sinker and a slider when it crossed home plate in order to enjoy the game. So long as people knew the basics and behaved themselves on horseback, she was pleased. She knew better than to expect anyone to behave when off a horse.
She observed Shaker. Every sense that man possessed was working overtime, as were hers. She drew in a cold draught of air, hoping for a hint of information. She listened intently and could hear, a third of a mile off, the three couple of hounds speaking for all they were worth. Perhaps they hit a fresh line of scent. In this snow, the scent would have to be fresh, just laid from the fox’s paws. The rest of the pack watched Shaker. If scent were burning, surely Cora or Diana, Dasher or Ardent would have told them. But then the youngsters had broken off back in the woods. Had the pack missed the line? With an anchor hound like the four-year-old Diana, now in her third season, this was unlikely. Young though she was, this particular hound was following in the paw prints of one of the greatest anchor hounds Sister had ever known, Archie, gone to his reward and remembered with love every single day.
Odd how talent appears in certain hounds, horses, and humans. Diana definitely had it. She now faced the sound of the splinter group, stern level, head lifted, nose in the air. Something was up.
Behind Sister, Dr. Walter Lungrun gratefully caught his breath. The run up to this point had been longer than he realized, and he needed a break. Wealthy Crawford Howard, convivial as well as scheming, passed his flask around. It was accepted with broad smiles from friend and foe alike. Crawford subscribed to the policy that a man should keep his friends close and his enemies closer still. His wife, Marty, an attractive and intelligent woman, also passed around her flask. Crawford’s potion was a mixture of blended scotch, Cointreau, a dash of bitters, with a few drops of fresh lemon juice. Liberally consumed, it hit like a sledgehammer.
Tedi and Edward Bancroft, impeccably turned out and true foxhunters, both in their seventh decade, listened keenly. Their daughter, Sybil, in her midforties, was the second whipper-in. She had her work cut out for her. They knew she was a bold rider, so they had no worries there. But Sybil, in her second year as an honorary whipper-in (as opposed to a professional) fretted over every mistake. Sybil’s parents and two sons would buoy her up after each hunt since she was terribly hard on herself.
Betty Franklin loved whipping-in, but she knew there were moments when Great God Almighty couldn’t control a hound with a notion. She was considerably more relaxed about her duties than Sybil.
Also passing around handblown glass flasks, silver caps engraved with their initials, were Henry Xavier (called Xavier or X), Clay Berry, and Ronnie Haslip—men in their middle forties. These high-spirited fellows had been childhood friends of Ray Arnold Jr. Sister’s son, born in 1960, had been killed in 1974 in a harvesting accident. The boys had been close, the Four Musketeers.
Sister had watched her son’s best friends grow up, graduate from college. Two had married, all succeeded in business. They were very dear to her.
After about five minutes, Shaker tapped his hat with his horn, leaned down, and spoke encouragingly to Cora, his strike hound. She rose up on her hind legs to get closer to this man she worshipped. Then he said, “Come long,” and his pack obediently followed as he rode out of the forest, taking the second tiger trap jump as Betty Franklin took the first. If the pack and the huntsman were a clock, the strike hound being at twelve, Betty stayed at ten o’clock, Sybil at two, the huntsman at six.
Sister, thirty yards behind Shaker, sailed over the tiger trap. Most of the other riders easily followed, but a few horses balked at the sight of the upright logs, leaning together just like a trap. The snow didn’t help the nervous; resting along the crevices, it created an obstacle that appeared new and different.
As riders passed the sugar maple, Cora began waving her stern. The other hounds became interested.
Dragon, a hotheaded but talented third-year hound and the brother to Diana, bellowed, “It’s her! It’s her!”
The thick odor of a vixen lifted off the snow.
Cora, older, and steady even though she was the strike hound, paused a moment. “Yes, it is a vixen, but something’s not quite right.”
Diana, her older brother, Dasher, and Asa and Ardent also paused. At nine, the oldest hound in the pack, Delia, mother of the D litters, usually brought up the rear. While her youthful speed had diminished, her knowledge was invaluable. Delia, too, put her nose to the snow.
The other hounds looked at her, even her brash son, Dragon. “It’s a vixen all right, but it is extremely peculiar,” Delia advised.
“Well, maybe she ate something strange,” Dragon impatiently spoke. “Our job is to chase foxes, and it doesn’t matter if they’re peculiar or not. I say we give this field another run for their money.”
Cora lifted her head to again look at Shaker. “Well, it is a vixen and whatever is wrong with line, I guess we’ll find out.”
With the hounds opening, their vibrant voices filled the air with a music as lush to the ear of a foxhunter as the Brandenburg Concertos are to a musician.
No matter how many times she heard her pack in full cry, it always made the hair stand up on the back of Sister’s neck.
They glided across the hayfield, soared over the stone jumps on the other side, plunged into the woods as they headed for a deep creek that fed the apple orchards for which Orchard Hill was known.
The cardinal once again left off the millet and flew back up into the oak tree.
“Bother,” he grumbled to his mate.
“Maybe they’ll turn up more seed,” his shrewd helpmate answered.
The hounds, running close together, passed under the oak, followed by Shaker, then Sister and the field.
They ran flat out for twenty minutes, everyone sweating despite the cold. The baying of the pack now joined the baying of the splinter group.
Copyright © 2003 by Rita Mae Brown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.