Frigid February air has settled into the bones of the Blue Ridge Mountains, making for a slow foxhunting season, though “Sister” Jane Arnold’s enthusiasm is not so easily deterred. With the winter chill come tweed coats, blazing fireplaces—and perhaps another to share the warmth with, as the bold hunting scarlets worn by the men in Sister Jane’s hunting club make the hearts of women flutter—until someone’s stops entirely.
Harry Dunbar, a member of the Jefferson Hunt club with a penchant for antique furniture, is found with his skull cracked at the bottom of the stairs to a local store. There are no telltale signs of foul play—save for the priceless (and stolen) Erté fox ring in his pocket. Sister and her hounds set out to uncover the truth: was this simply an accident—a case of bad luck—or something much more sinister?
Steeped in the deep traditions of Virginia horse country and featuring a colorful cast of characters both two- and four-legged, Scarlet Fever is another spirited mystery from Rita Mae Brown.
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February 21, 2019 Thursday
A flash of scarlet caught Sister Jane’s eye then disappeared as a gust of wind blew snow off the trees below. The day, cold, tormented those who thought spring should be around the corner. The calendar cited spring as starting March 20 with the equinox, but the weather gods did not seem to be planning warmth anytime soon.
The winter of 2018-2019 burst pipes, ran up electric bills, sent country people to dwindling firewood piles. Jane Arnold, Sister, master of the Jefferson Hunt, could deal with most of the troubles. It was cold hands and icy feet that she hated.
Another gust of wind sent swirls of snow as trees bent low. Far ahead she again saw Wesley Blackford’s scarlet coat as he rode alongside the glittering hard-running creek, ice clinging to the bank sides.
She couldn’t see her hounds. Nor could she see the whippers-in, those outriders assisting the huntsman. Sitting on a rise above the creek she peered into the forest, much of it conifers. Behind her stood a small field of riders desperately wishing to drop down out of the wind. Hearing Wesley, nicknamed Weevil, horn to lips, blow hounds forward she turned Lafayette toward the path down. He, too, was eager to move off the rise in the land. As the two carefully picked their way over the frozen ground covered with three inches of snow, more snow slid down Sister’s neck from bending tree limbs. Lafayette reached level ground then stopped, snorted. His ears swept forward.
Those behind the master also stopped, wishing she’d move on because some of them still battled the wind. Right in front of Lafayette and his human cargo sauntered Target, a red fox, dazzling in his luxurious winter coat. Looking neither to the left nor the right, he crossed in front of the master, walked to a downed tree trunk secure across the creek, roots upended at the near end. Hopping up, he picked his way over, alighting on the other side.
Now what? No point bellowing “Tally-ho.” One should normally count to twenty to give the fox a sporting chance. This arrogant fellow didn’t need a sporting chance. Target had them all beat and he knew it. He kept a den on Sister’s farm, under the log cabin dependency. Also, chances were that with the wind a “tally-ho” would be swept away. Still, Sister had to do something so she walked into the blue spruces, firs, and high pines. The space between the trees meant everyone, about fifteen people on this inhospitable day, could fit in. Turning Lafayette’s head toward the creek, she waited and counted. If she didn’t hear hounds after reaching one hundred she’d move on in the direction she saw Weevil.
“One, two.” More snow down her neck.
On she counted as the small field huddled, shoulders up to their ears. A few people wore earmuffs but she couldn’t do that. She wouldn’t hear her hounds and would most likely mislead everyone.
“Fifty-one, fifty-two.” She grasped a heat pack in her coat pocket while keeping her left hand outside, freezing, because she held her crop in that hand.
As she was right-handed, she mused to herself, perhaps she could afford to lose her left.
Trident shot in front of her without speaking. A young hound, a bit of a kleptomaniac, fast, he stopped suddenly and put his nose to the ground as his sister, Tinsel, caught up. Now the entire pack, twelve couples today, twenty-four hounds, for hounds are always counted in couples, milled around the tree roots.
Diana, a hound of remarkable intelligence, a true leader, opened while the others puzzled. “It’s him.”
Asa, an older hound, amended this. “Him, but fading.”
Pickens leapt up onto the large trunk but hopped off, as he couldn’t keep his balance.
Parker carefully stood on the trunk, succeeding where his brother failed. “He’s crossed. Here are his tracks. There’s a bit of scent left.”
“We’ve got to go with what we have.” Diana, not fooling around with the tree trunk, jumped into the icy creek, not deep, crossed to the other side, where the scent was a little better. “Come on, move your asses!”
The entire pack quickly assembled on the other side of the creek bank, moving with determination.
Sister marveled at their logical powers as well as that fantastic determination so typical of the American foxhound, a hound bred for Mid-Atlantic conditions, conditions designed to make even a saint cuss.
She heard hoofbeats; Weevil came up behind his hounds. She stepped out of the woods, took off her cap, and pointed in the direction the fox had moved in. No need to speak. All it would do would bring up the hounds’ heads.
The handsome young man nodded to his master, asked his horse to step into the water, which the fine animal did without a minute’s hesitation, crossed, and reached the other side just as the entire pack opened, a sound of exquisite beauty and excitement even to people who didn’t hunt. Perhaps it is the sound of our history calling to us.
Sister followed her huntsman and made it across as Betty Franklin, her best friend and a whipper-in, blasted across the creek. The master stood still, for the whipper-in had right-of-way. Betty hadn’t gotten out of position so much as she couldn’t find a decent creek crossing. While they all knew this territory, the rains made some crossings treacherous, the silt piling up below. She touched her hat with her crop, a thank-you to the master’s quick thinking, and charged off.
The field, well trained, now followed.
Sister, up ahead, negotiated a small drift then shot out of it back onto what she hoped was the old farm road. One couldn’t see what was underneath the snow and it was easy to slide off the road. Her hope was to look where it was the flattest.
Hounds roared, sang, shook the treetops, bending low as they were.
The riders in the field, most of them experienced foxhunters, for novices often forsook hunting when the weather turned ugly, felt their pulse pounding. The old hands knew the scent had to be red hot.
Scent sticks in a frost or disappears in very cold conditions. The mercury needs to nudge a few degrees above freezing for it to lift and then scent can turn favorable. But today was not a favorable day so hounds had closed with their fox and the scent was hot, fresh for a brief time before the cold ruined it.
Hounds, with their tremendous olfactory powers, could pick up what a human could not, no matter what the conditions. Hounds followed scent but they didn’t understand it. In truth no one did. Xenophon, born in 430 BC, the great Athenian major general, observed it but no one from that time until today truly understood it. Perhaps Artemis did but she wasn’t telling.
Lafayette lived for these runs. He and Sister had been a team for eleven years. Both were advanced in years. Didn’t mean a thing. He had his Absorbine Jr. rubdowns after a hunt and she had her Motrin. That was their only concession to the years.
Clever, in his teens, Lafayette had an uncanny instinct for negotiating deceptive ground. His hind end slipped a little, he quickly brought up his back legs. Sister stayed in the tack. On they ran. She burst into a meadow, saw the pack at the other end of it, Weevil right behind and Betty to the right. She had no idea where Tootie, the other whipper-in, was but she didn’t worry. Staff work was excellent, plus they liked one another.
Diana and Dasher, her littermate, hung a few steps behind two youngsters, Audrey and Aero, who exhibited blinding speed with the recklessness of youth. Of course, they overran the line.
“Stop, you idiots! Get back here.” Diana turned in midair, heading west where the sun had not hit the hills, which meant it was going to be even colder.
Betty, in her mid-fifties, an old hand, saw the youngsters overrun the line, not because she could smell scent but she trusted Diana. If Diana or Dasher or any of the older hounds turned, then it meant the fox had.
No doubt about it. Riding Outlaw, a solid fellow, Betty reached the outside of the two overexcited youngsters, urging them to turn but not really rating them. No point in scolding. They had figured out something was amiss and were hurrying back to the pack.
Like humans, hounds learn by doing and observing.