The Foxhunter's Guide to Life & Love
The Foxhunter's Guide to Life & Love
Fluttering Flutter Valves
Shelagh arrived in May. She moved into the small tenant house behind our huntsman's residence in the Montfair kennel complex.
She wasted no time getting into the job. Within a week she could identify every hound-eighty-plus of them-and knew a point or two about each one's personality and hunting style. She was an indispensible help at the spring hound shows. She blended into the kennel work routine seamlessly with Crispie and Patti Vestor, his significant other and co-worker in the hunt's employ. When we started walking out hounds for summer exercise, she showed no lack of energy regardless of the early hours or rising heat.
On horseback she was the ultimate Irish rider: calm, fearless, perfectly balanced, effortlessly athletic.
She needed to learn the lay of the land before hunting started in September. That required many hours of riding through our territory, becoming familiar with the trails and obstacles, where hounds and staff are allowed to go and what areas must be avoided, where the best spots are to get a fox up, and how our local quarry is likely to run.
I was only too happy to serve as her guide for many for those rides. It wasn't, I told myself, that I was looking for the chance to be alone with her in remote parts of the countryside. I was just meeting my obligation as a master of the hunt. And Crispie and Patti were busy with their other duties. Yeah, right.
It all remained very polite and professional, both of us mindful of the employer/employee relationship, despite what was going through my head most of the time I was around her.
Then the old truck broke down.
The club provides the huntsman with a relatively new truck for hauling horses and hounds as well as for personal use. For the kennelman/second whip, however, we offer an ancient farm truck, barely road-worthy, patched together with duct tape and fencing wire. It got Shelagh where she needed to go for the first couple of months, until one day in July when it sputtered, coughed, blew a blast of foul black smoke from its rusted tailpipe, and slipped into a coma.
My phone rang.
"Sorry t'bother ya, Master, but I'm afraid the old truck has given up the ghost."
"Are you stranded somewhere?"
"No, I'm at the kennels. I was plannin' to go into town on some errands and she won't start. Seems to be completely dead, she is. I asked Crispie to have a look at it, but he said I should call you."
I knew Crispie would be no help. He's a magician with hounds and horses, but anything mechanical leaves him baffled and useless. Patti is slightly better-she was a nurse before taking up with a professional huntsman-but she's no match for that old truck. My farm manager, Voytek Nutchenko, can fix or build anything. Unfortunately, he and his wife Natasha, my housekeeper (and the true force that keeps Montfair running smoothly) had flown back to their native Poland for a family funeral.
"Well," I said, "I've managed to sweet-talk old Bertha into going a few more miles a time or two in the past. But she was only middle-aged then. Can't promise anything now that she's in her twilight years. I'll be right over, see what I can do."
I arrived to find old Bertha with her hood up, as if saying "Ahhh" to receive a giant tongue depressor. The air was tainted with an acrid scent that smelled like gas and oil had been ignited and then doused with used cat litter. I feared the old truck had finally expelled the fatal fart. But I was ready to roll up my sleeves and give it my best shot.
Shelagh stood to the side, looking helpless. She was dressed for running errands in town on a steamy July afternoon: polo shirt, khaki shorts, sneakers. Bare-headed, her locks were pulled back and secured in a thick, jaunty ponytail. It was the first time I'd seen her in anything other than jeans or riding breeches. Like all horse people, her