You ache for the chase. Then you chase, and that chase is everything.
Then you just forget the chase.
On the western slopes there are those radiant days in mid-winter, but the nights which follow are glacial, without a wisp of cloud to hold in a little of the day’s expended warmth. Frost sheets paddocks gnawed to the root, glues itself to dead thistles to form stiff, ragged sentinels of nothing. Dam surfaces freeze hard at the edges, clover is a brittle crust; not a bird or an insect punctures that mighty still. The only movement is vague steam wafting from the breath and hides of motionless cattle.
The sky is an eruption of stars, as only western skies in dry winters can be.
It’s that kind of night, and soundless.
In the distance, a throaty mechanical noise. Irregular flickers become a steady flare.
Into the scene lurches a big utility with high side rails on its open back. Two figures in bulky coats sway from the rails as the vehicle advances then stops in mid-paddock. A mad crown of spotlights over the cabin is still unlit. Soon it will blaze.
The men clamber down from the back as the doors in front open.
The spotlighters are here.
“Tony, you might want to show the boy how to use the bolt and safety. He’s used to a semi-auto, an old Ruger I keep hidden away.”
“Will do, Brian.”
“Dad, can I get on the back with you two?”
“Not this time. Tony’s going to show you how to use the gun he’s lending you. It’s a .22 so it won’t kick, but it can kill. Just make sure you keep your safety catch on. Tony will show you how. Do you mind showing him?”
The tall man in an army greatcoat and Balmain beanie had been speaking to his son and a much shorter man, who was bundled in an old dressing gown and wore a leather hat over a balaclava. The boy had no coat as he was a passenger in the cabin.
The tall man then walked round to the driver, who was still in his seat.
“What do you think? About here?’
“Yeah, Brian, about here. There’s been a heap of scats around this paddock. Long fox turds full of insects and god-knows. They must be hungry since the rabbits thinned out. The fences are a long way off, so it shouldn’t be able to beat us through the wire. But they’re smart, foxes. No guarantee we’ll get him.”
“Yeah, they’re smart. Look, thanks again, Warren, for letting us spot on your place. It’s getting harder and harder these days. I wanted the boy to experience a real night’s spotting.”
“No worries, Brian. I’m happy to be rid of the foxes. Keep the boy inside till he finds his legs. We’ll try to give him a shot at something. You two hop back up and we’ll get the lights going. We’re in a frost pool here. There’s just a tiny bit of air current coming down the paddock, so we’ll drive against it. With luck, the fox will get sucked in by the lights before he smells us.”
Brian heaved himself deliberately on to the back of the truck. Tony, always preferring to follow his towering friend, swung his small frame upward by grasping the rail.
“You stand to the driver side, Tony.”
The truck moved off with a steady growl, kept a low speed. Then the lights blazed, and the paddock before them lit up like an artificial stage, all its scenery stiff and glistening.
As the motor warmed, steam rose from the bonnet. The spotlights made their own steam. There was no need to focus a beam, since there were so many, drenching the landscape with light in a broad cone. For some time they advanced, then the truck slowed a little.
The boy put his hand uncertainly out of the window, no doubt prompted by the driver, and pointed. Brian tapped softly on the top of the cabin by way of reply. The boy withdrew his hand smoothly. He was learning.
Right at the end of the light, a red glimmer was visible. It moved, but very slightly. The truck kept advancing. The red got sharper, separated into two glimmers.
“Shhh. Dunno, Tony. Yeah, I reckon. Stay quiet. Shoot just after me.”
“Will do.” This in a bare whisper.
Brian fired. The red points floated a little but continued transfixed by the approaching beam. Tony fired. There was a puff of dirt near where the eyes were. Then the eyes were gone.
“Did I hit him?”
“Dunno. He might have gone to ground.”
The eyes appeared again, disappeared again. The truck was much closer. Any closer and…
A red fox, in rich winter coat, leapt high then rushed sideways from them.
The truck lurched about and the chase began.
The fox ran a weaving line. The expert driver kept it in his beam as the truck roared, sometimes bouncing dangerously as it hit a bull tussock or a mound in the paddock.
A shot from Brian. The fox weaved wider, faster and almost left the beam. The driver picked him up again. A shot from Tony.
The fox seemed to fly high then come to ground. For a moment he was out of sight, but as the truck drew near they could see him lying motionless. Now the truck slowed…
The fox leapt to its feet and was gone, in a new direction. The driver screamed:
“The fence. It’s headed for the bloody fenceline.”
The fox was well in front now as the truck was still finding speed. Tony let off one careful shot.
The fox fell, with a showy somersault.
“It must be hit for real.”
“Dunno. Watch it. Just watch it.”
The truck was now at the spot where the fox had tumbled. It was not there, but a trail of blood led in one direction. As the truck wheeled about, they could seen the fox dragging its belly pathetically.
The truck stopped. Driver and passenger got out, both with flashlights in their hands.
Tony jumped down, panting. Brian followed more deliberately.
All four advanced on the bleeding fox, which was almost immobile.
“Dad, that’s the coolest thing. Can I finish him off with my…”
At that moment, the fox sprang – somehow it sprang! – and was racing away.
The men swivelled about in confusion, as the torches tried to follow the animal’s final rush.
Brian fired. Tony fired.
With all the distraction, the truck’s batteries had died. Warren had to trudge back to his farmhouse to fetch another vehicle. He was gone a long time.
The sun was just below their frozen, unreal world. The sky was still starred but turning lead-grey, outlines were emerging. Frost was heavy on everything, might as well be snow.
Tony had built a fire with some old branches and dried cowpads, and was crouched over it. He half turned to speak, but then turned back to stare at the flames.
Brian sat without the slightest movement, away from the fire.
Before him lay his son, covered in his father’s greatcoat. In the new light, Brian could see how a dark blob had soaked through the dense felt over his son’s chest, expanding like a monstrous black flower. The rest of the boy was crusted in frost.
It was like always. They had forgotten the chase.