For the introduction and chapter one, click here.
For chapter seven, click here.
For the first hundred paces beyond Littledon, two young boys and a barking dog raced up and down the cluster of men as they strode along. Then, the men shooed the boys back to town, and the dog ran after them.
And then, the stillness of the countryside was in deep contrast to the noisy blessing the town had given them upon leaving. All that met their ears was the squelch of mud under boot and the soft racket of weapons and gear rattling upon leather vests and strong legs. This silence gave each man his chance to begin to wonder about whether this mission would have near as much ease as the last in taking down so tough a wolf as Vincent had sworn to.
Each man had fear and each man dealt with it in his own way. Mr. Lawson, for instance, knew with utter certainty that this was a dangerous mission, if ever there was one in his life. And yet, he knew it had to be done, and thereupon he would stake his greatest efforts toward it, come what may.
The farmer, Mr. Finch, was apprehensive about a mere bite, as some of the sadder stories told of men going rabid and losing their senses after suffering the mildest of bites. He clenched his teeth and counted his steps, keeping toward the middle of the pack.
Mr. Hopkins looked as a barrel full of leather, carrying his massive club as though it were light as a candle. He was a stonemason and could carry a hundred pound stone in each hand and do it with ease. His only tickling of fear was that his club had too great a sweep, and would therefore be useless if all these other men were near enough to be in the way. His feet thudded onward pressing deep into the mud.
Young Mr. Warwick kept his eyes on Vincent Conn who was carrying his new sword out front, striding with a long gait that seemed to have no fatigue from the five mile run he’d earlier undertaken. Mr. Warwick noticed that Vincent seemed to have no fear at all, or if he did, that he had it so mastered as to genuinely look the part of warrior.
And the fact that Vincent Conn was the youngest man of the hunt was not lost on Mr. Warwick. For Mr. Warwick, called the younger to identify him from his father, still had several years on Vincent Conn.
And to have no fear whatever! Mr. Warwick thought to himself. After watching a hare butchered in a single snap of fangs!
He felt his own fear mastering him too greatly to enjoy comparison to this fearless youth.
After quite a time of swift walking, the party came to a hill which Vincent said was that which he’d lighted. He pointed out tall grasses within which he’d hidden, and then pointed further out into the marsh, where the wolf had been and where the hare had been no more.
Though every man combed his eyes over every detail of the fen, they could see no indication of predator or even more potential prey. Only two of the ten had poor vision, so it was decided that the party would make careful trek down to the place of the sighting.
Once there, they found some of what might have been tracks, although the marshy grass was too lumpy by nature for good tracks to form. Pockets of muddy bilge spotted every few feet, and three of the men already had one or two muddy ankles as a result of careless stepping.
Mr. Lawson could locate no tracks except a few prints that looked like pheasant, flown off sometime earlier in the morning. And as one who had hunted on numerous occasions with his greyhound, Rosie, Mr. Lawson found it disagreeable that Vincent could follow a path that, to the bakers own eyes, simply was not there.
Vincent Conn had been educating himself, however, and went to work to see if any hint of a trail could be divined. He scoured this way and that, commanding the other men to stay where they were, lest the last clue be erased by those careless, muddy boots.
And he did locate a tentative trail. It looked a lot like prints from wolf paws to him and several of the other men concurred with his discovery. Of course, those several were not hunters by nature and couldn’t tell a canine print from the mark of a walnut’s fall. Mr. Lawson, who was not only adept at tracking but had years of it built up, was not able to identify the pattern gleaned out of the grasses by Vincent. Nonetheless, he had no idea about which way the wolf might have taken his kill, and so bid Vincent to lead them to the end of the trail.
Tense as they all were, it came as a relief to the party to observe that the path Vincent followed did not make for Littledon, but kept abreast of it, staying about the same distance away. Vincent took great care and time identifying the tracks, as they were of a most difficult nature to perceive.
Impatience would have bothered the men, though none were impatient to have a giant wolf bound out of the woods at them. Able to see nothing of the prints, they tended to keep watch on the surrounding hills and gullies and bushes. It would not do for their prey to have doubled back and become predator again, all because every man kept his gaze to the terrain.
Presently however, the tracks led into a stream that was a fetid bog, about twenty spans wide. The tracks went in, Vincent made testimony, and they must come out on the other side. He searched up and down the grasses beside the swampy waters, and then ventured across, muddying his boots and pants near up to his thighs.
But if the wolf crossed in similar fashion, no print could be found, and not even a spattering of mud pinned down where he emerged.
“Wolves are cunning types,” admitted Mr. Longfield.
“Might he have gone upstream or downstream a ways to get his scent covered over by the mud?” asked Mr. Merritt.
Vincent replied, “He very well might have, but we’re without notion whether t’was upstream or down.”
“He’d not stay in the stream long, I lay to it,” Mr. Cartwright said in his mild way.
“How’s that?” asked Mr. Lawson.
“Well, he’d’ve wanted to gobble down that hare,” replied Mr. Cartwright. “We saw not a bit of fur or foot all this way. Not like a wolf to carry long somethin’ what only a snack in his mind.”
“Might not a wolf so large have eaten the entire animal?” asked Mr. Conn.
His son answered with his new knowledge, “It wouldn’t be the way o’ wolves, da. He’d give it a good rip, clean out all behind the ribs, and then leave what’s left.”
“He’d not want to muddy it though,” Mr. Lawson mused. “I must say, this is perplexing.”
The party searched upstream and down for another two hours. Only muddy tracks left by a treble of deer were identified, and with sundown coming on, it was agreed to call the hunt off and hope the beast had returned to the hinterlands.
Mr. Finch untied a bundle of torches he’d brought along in a sack and distributed the four among the group. Back on the path and lighted by the torches, the hunters made their dejected tramp back to Littledon.