We started to get to know the foxes on the Chayne. Sometimes our acquaintances lasted longer than others, but two or three individuals started to stand out as being particularly noteworthy characters. To date, “Pale Pete” and “Flashman” are still at large, but the story of John McClane is one that is worth telling.
On our first night lamping on the farm, we saw what we thought was a badger foraging on the track a hundred yards ahead. We ignored it and continued lamping, but before we moved, I couldn’t resist an experiment with my new “foxcalluk”, a little plastic harmonica with a reed tuned to the pitch of a rabbit’s squeal. It had arrived in the post that morning and I wanted to try it on the badger, an animal notoriously ignorant and disinterested in human concerns. At the first peep, it put its head up and two large, bat-like ears were silhouetted against the darkness. It was a fox, and Richard and I were at battle stations within seconds. I turned the torch off and he worked the bolt on the .222. I squeaked again, and with a nod to confirm that Richard was ready, shone back on the spot where it had stood. There was nothing there. We both frowned until I picked up a dull spark just feet from the bonnet of the land rover. He had run in so close that he was less than ten feet away, and in the ensuing confusion, he made a clean getaway.
I laughed at Richard for weeks until the tables were turned against me and it was his turn to mock. In precisely the same spot less than a month later, the fox came in to the sound of a widgeon whistle. He sat in the track just sixty yards away and it was my turn to shoot. We had just bought a blue filter for the lamp, and although it worked perfectly, the light lit up the fox with an eerily silver light. He was huge, and the colour gave him the appearance of a gross and malignant timber wolf. I fluffed the shot out of sheer excitement, and again, he dodged off into the rushes.
A fox so inured to danger had to be related in some way to the indestructible Bruce Willis. He had literally thrown himself into danger twice and both times had come away with not a scratch, so he was christened John McClane after the character from the Die Hard films. His good fortune was having a bad effect on our morale, and mine was such an apocalyptic miss that I swore never to fire another shot with the rifle until I had been avenged. He seemed to be living a charmed existence, but his luck was running out.
Another month later, we met him for the last time. Just a few feet from where we first saw him, a familiar sparkle glinted out from the rushes. Try as we might, we couldn’t call him in. He had learned his lesson, and with a sinking feeling of despair, I unwrapped a Kipling’s mince pie in an attempt to distract myself. McClane dropped off the road and disappeared. As far as I was concerned, the evening had melted into failure, but Richard wasn’t so sure. He carefully lamped a small space of field beneath where we had last seen the elusive wretch, and it wasn’t in vain. John McClane, in all his pompous splendour, was sitting sixty yards away. Richard raised his Ruger 25-06 and drew the whole affair to a satisfactory conclusion. He was the biggest fox that I had ever seen. He had a belly like an American schoolchild and stank like the Devil himself.
I have always had a great deal of affection for foxes. They are wonderful beasts, and hearing a vixen scream on a frosty night in January makes the hairs on my neck stand on end, but I can’t help but think that the Chayne is a better place without John McClane.