“Cunning foxes, sensible hounds, and sweet-tempered horses are among the sparkling conversationalists in this charming series.”—The New York Times Book Review
Spring is peeking through the frost in Virginia, and though the hunting season is coming to a close, the foxes seem determined to put the members of the Jefferson Hunt Club through their paces. Sister and her friends are enjoying some of the best chases they’ve had all season when the fun is cut short by the theft of Crawford Howard’s treasured Sir Alfred Munnings painting of a woman in hunting attire riding sidesaddle. When another painting goes missing five days later—also a Munnings, also of a woman hunting sidesaddle—Sister Jane knows it’s no coincidence. Someone is stealing paintings of foxhunters from foxhunters. But why?
Perhaps it’s a form of protest against their sport. For the hunt club isn’t just under attack from the thief. Mysterious signs have started to appear outside their homes, decrying their way of life. stop foxhunting: a cruel sport reads one that appears outside Crawford’s house, not long after his painting goes missing. no hounds barking shows up on the telephone pole outside Sister’s driveway. Annoying, but relatively harmless.
Then Delores Buckingham, retired now but once a formidable foxhunter, is strangled to death after her own Munnings sidesaddle painting is stolen. Now Sister’s not just up against a thief and a few obnoxious signs—she’s on the hunt for a killer.
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February 6, 2020 Thursday
Wind carries messages. As Jane Arnold, “Sister,” flew across a large pasture sleeping under a light snow, the message hitting her face was a dramatic change in the weather. Jefferson Hunt started the day at ten in the morning under relatively balmy skies for early February. The temperature hung at a decent 42°F.
Clods of earth, the grass brown mixed in with it and a smattering of snow, flew off Keepsake’s hooves, her marvelously balanced horse. Hounds screamed up ahead. They’d been running at top speed for twenty minutes.
Sister passed low bushes festooned with stoplight red berries, took a sagging coop at the end of Beveridge Hundred, an estate from the late eighteenth century, and kept flying. These are the runs one dreams about on a torrid July day pitching hay. Tears filled her eyes from the speed. Up ahead she could see the scarlet coat of her young huntsman, Wesley Blackford, “Weevil.” In front of him like a football team racing downfield to attack the offense waiting for the kicked-off ball, those tri-color American hounds ran, sang, stretched flat out.
While she kept her pride to herself, she loved those hounds, hounds whose bloodlines she had known for over forty years. Her late husband’s uncle had known and bred them for forty years before that.
The wind licked her face with a cold hard tongue. A storm would follow, but when? She couldn’t turn back. Nor was she going to twist her head around while galloping to check the northwestern sky. She was heading due south.
Out of the corner of her right eye she saw her dearest friend, Betty Franklin, on the outside of the pack on the right. Betty had the good fortune to be running on a decent farm road. The other whipper-in, Tootie Harris, in her early twenties, no farm road but still pasture, kept apace. The women wore black, the old attire for a lady hunting. As this was America in the twenty-first century they were entitled to scarlet but both passed. Sexism wasn’t an issue for either of them and given that men hardly ever get the chance to be the peacocks that women can be, they wore their black or deepest navy, an especially attractive color.
Keepsake’s ears, forward, flicked a moment. Sister slowed just a bit, rating him, for she trusted him with her life, as does anyone astride a horse.
She faced another coop, this one newer and no sag. Over they went, hitting the slick earth on the other side. Keepsake, a Thoroughbred/quarter horse cross, was so handy he could turn on a dime and give you a nickel’s change. He slid slightly, pulling his hind legs up under him. Sister reminded herself to give him an apple cut to fit a peppermint inside, his favorite treat and one she made for him.
Keepsake’s ears flicked again. As they approached the woods, a trail running through the middle of it, out lumbered an unamused black bear—a large, unamused black bear.
“Jesus H. Christ on a raft,” Sister cursed under her breath.
The bear, irritated, for the hound music was not music he liked, stopped, stood up on his hind legs.
Keepsake swerved to the left, making a large detour. The bear looked at them and then decided to be the center of attention for the large field, perhaps twenty yards behind Sister, the forward part of First Flight now beheld the bear. Horses spooked, people hit the ground as their horses abandoned them to their fate.
Pleased with himself, the large fellow, at least four hundred pounds, dropped down to all fours to saunter back into the woods.
As master of this hunt and field master, Sister was in charge of the field, forty-four strong today. She might have stopped but she felt cleanup was the obligation of whoever was riding tail. Today it was her joint master, Walter Lungrun, M.D. She would stick close to hounds. The pace was too good.
As times have changed, some First Flight masters will stop when someone bellows, “Rider Down.” However most of the older masters did not. It’s the way they were taught and the way they were going to ride.
Fortunately, Keepsake, a lovely bay, was nimble and smart. But a true Thoroughbred had speed. Fast as Keepsake was, if Sister had been on one of her pure Thoroughbreds she might have nudged a bit closer, for her huntsman was on Kilowatt, a horse of blazing speed. Kilowatt had washed out on the track but not because he wasn’t blindingly fast. He did not feel compelled to run in circles even if they were big circles.
He wasn’t running in circles now. That long, effortless stride, that magical reach from the shoulder backed up by a powerful engine in the rear, made Kilowatt look as though he wasn’t really going that fast.
Weevil, breathing hard as much from excitement as the long run, didn’t bother to blow his horn. Hounds were on. They knew they were on. He’d blown “Gone Away” when everyone hit. Snaking through the woods he emerged on the far side, passing a huge rock outcropping perhaps a story and a half high. All manner of creatures lived in there but the hounds did not veer toward it. Their hunted fox was moving, moving straight. Weevil felt certain this was a gentleman fox who had visited a lady in hopes of wooing her. Fellows will travel for miles to be in the company of a vixen. The vixens can take them or leave them. Those vixens look them over. No sensible girl wants a lazy bum, regardless of species.
Now Sister rode by the rock outcropping, colder there, a deep chill, the water that seeped between the rocks froze ice blue, beautiful despite the cold.
The tall six-foot woman, in her early seventies, long legs, could stick on a horse. Since she kept moving all her life, never indulged in smoking or much drink, she remained in fantastic shape. Good thing. She needed it now.
She knew to the right of the woods, across the road, rested another old estate, a small Virginia farmhouse called Old Dalby. Like many farms and estates in central Virginia things remained in the family, passing through either the male line or the female line but the name of the estate stayed the same.
Coming out of the woods, she slowed to a trot, for hounds lost the scent on a patch of running cedar, a scent killer known to foxes. They know every trick in the book. People who don’t have an acquaintance with them think all those stories about a fox’s superior mind are fanciful. Not if you’re hunting one.
Grateful for the respite, rider and horse stopped to watch the hounds work. High, driven, frantic to pick up the scent, they cast themselves, pushing, pushing, pushing.
The wind, stronger now that they were in the open, moved, as it usually does in this part of the world, from west to east, most often from the northwest down.
Weevil studied the situation. Sister could have told him what to do but as this was his second year hunting the hounds she would not interfere. Nor would his two whippers-in, standing at a distance on the right and the left. If he wanted help he would have asked.
Weevil did not suffer from false pride.
He looked up, watched treetops swaying back in the woods. Taking a deep breath, he asked Kilowatt to walk thirty yards to his right and forward. The woods somewhat shifted the wind but not too much.
“Get ’em up,” he encouraged them.
Aces, a young hound, eagerly followed, as did the others. The other twenty-three couple of hounds, which is to say forty-six hounds, for hounds are always measured in couples and have been since the days of the pharaohs, followed. Cora, a brilliant hound, started feathering, that tail picking up speed like a windshield wiper.
“Got him!” she shouted as she took off.
Within seconds the pack moved off, Weevil behind. Again, the pace was blistering.
The brief wait allowed Sister to check the field. Some had fallen behind. Not all horses were as hunting fit as they might be, and then again, not all horses were fast. A few would finally bring up the rear or fall back to Second Flight, which took small jumps but often used gates, a time-consuming process.
The wind bit now. Glad she wore her white cashmere sweater under her heavy Melton coat, a white stock tie covering the neckline, Sister again moved out.
On and on they rode, the pace faltering then picking up again until hounds reached Bishop’s Court, formerly the only Catholic church in Albermarle County in the early eighteenth century before, as the population grew, the economy finally soared after we had paid our war debt and other Catholic churches cropped up. In those days being Catholic was no advantage, as most of the settlers came from the British Isles where, with the exception of Irish ones, if one was Catholic, they often hid it. Henry VIII and the Dissolution saw to that as well as mass deaths from turning out the monks, nuns, hunting down priests like vermin.
Sister saw the quarry, a healthy large male red fox who sped to the church, ducking into a den he’d dug under it. Hounds reached the spot perhaps four minutes after he’d gone to ground.