Short Story: The Hunter

By Mavis Thorpe Clark

Published in The Holy Name Monthly, 1 July 1959.

Screened by the boulder, Joe watched the fox come nearer.

There was still a greyness about the early morning that was in keeping with his own grey head and the white-flecked stubble on his chin. Now and again, to ease his straining eyes, he looked across the hills that curled below, to crest again in the range five miles distant.

Joe had been born here - on Booliba – late son of the last of the old-time shepherds. It was his prayer that the Boss would let him die here.

The fox - he had taken the place of the dingo in this district - came cautiously down the slope, making use of the clumps of bracken and wind-twisted gum saplings. He was full grown with a good coat and brush. His ears were pricked now for the whistle that had lured him this close.

It was just a cheap tin whistle that Joe used, but he was able to produce as piteous a squeal as that of any rabbit caught in a trap. He watched the fox stop and hid nostrils dilate.

Joe's head was still fuddled. But, as he brought his gun to his shoulder, he was sober enough to force himself to think only of the dead lambs. Without that picture of the lambs he couldn't shoot the fox.

He lurched a little as he hunched over his gun, and a pebble rattled downward. The fox wheeled, and Joe fired, at the same instant. He heard the scream of pain. He sighted again. Pulled the trigger. There was only a dull click. The shot that had wounded the fox had been the last bullet.

Joe stood quite still. He couldn't believe his own carelessness. A fox-hunter with one bullet, and no further ammunition.

Then he picked up his old felt, its crown weathered into a board-hard dome, and trod heavily downwards. In his ears was the cry of the fox heading, in its hurt, for its lair. He knew he would have to find that fox and put an end to its pain.

Beyond the next hill, in the valley, lay Booliba homestead.

He was shutting the store-room door after refilling his ammunition pouch, when the Boss - tall, stooping a little, his hat almost as shapeless as Joe's - and a city friend came from the stables. They were leading their horses. Kempy, the son of a dalmatian mother and kelpie father, was jumping at the horses. The dog belonged to the Boss's daughter who lived mostly in town.

"So you're on your feet again!" The Boss's blue eyes were hard. As he rolled his cigarette, he didn't offer Joe the makings. That told Joe how angry he was. "Three 
days this time, Joe - that's too long for a spree. Mailman's due today - pack up and go with him. I've had enough. Lost ten lambs yesterday. A crack shot is not much use if he can't keep sober."

Joe watched the Boss cup his fingers around the match.

He knew he meant what he said.

"I don't want to see you again, Joe. If you're not gone by the time we get back from the South Paddock, I'll dock your keep out of what's owing to you. After this last carousel, that'll leave you with precisely nothing."

Standing there, Kempy taking a rush at him now and again, Joe watched the Boss and his friend go down the track at the side of the old homestead. It wouldn't help to tell the Boss that, though he'd been out at dawn, he'd been too muzzy to look to his ammunition.

His head was still too big. His tongue furred and nasty-tasting. It was always the same - he never missed out on the effects of a hang-over. But never before had a hang-over caused him to send an animal wounded to Its hideout. Never before had it hindered the accuracy of that crack shot.

It would never happen again.

He could hear the Boss's voice, and an occasional comment by the other, as they headed for the creek crossing.

He thought they were possibly talking about him. He knew the Boss called him a "character." The Boss didn't always wait until he was out of earshot to go into detail. The Boss said he was a character because he was a contradiction. He was the best shot in twenty miles … and 
he hated to hurt any living thing. The only time he ever shot a duck was when he was camping out in the Back Paddock and ran short of food. The only time he ever 
took fish out of the creek was for the same reason.

Joe had seen men smile at this point of the story.

The Boss would be telling, too, of how he had returned to Booliba a year ago, after a life of wandering. When he had left, as a young man, he had 'dreamed of making a fortune and some day buying Booliba for his own. It 
had been a fantastic dream. He'd never managed to own anything of value. He'd travelled the country, as shearer, farm-hand, fox-hunter, pub-rouseabout, with spells between times in the city. Once, a long time ago, there had been a girl. But nothing had come of it. That had helped, he supposed, to make him a "character."

It had been this time last year that he had come back; almost winter, and almost this time of the morning. He had been trudging over the hills all night to keep warm. He'd been down to a minimum of clothing - trousers, ragged singlet, khaki drill coat. There were no buttons on the coat, only a safety-pin. Around his neck he'd knotted an old woollen scarf that a woman had given him on the road. It had helped to cover some of his bare chest.

Though Booliba wasn't a town, it was a name on the map. It dated back to the time when the squatter's station had been fifty square miles. It had been whittled down over the years, but it was still the centre for the mailman. The map, too, showed no other name for twenty miles.

That was why Joe had been glad to return, even though the Boss was a new owner. It was to be a refuge against 
himself.

But it was no good. The mailman was too obliging. Twice the Boss had warned him. Now, he'd told him to go.

Booliba.... This was where he wanted to die. At the bend of the creek were his parents' graves, side by side. These folding hills were like a blanket to him, wrapping 
him from an outside world where he had found no place. And he was getting old. Sixty-three if he was a day. He had reckoned that when he was old enough to get the pension, the Boss would just let him drowse away here.

Instead, in less than an hour, the mailman would arrive. The Boss had been generous about his keep. He couldn't afford to lose that generosity. The world was harsh to one with an empty pocket.

The gun slipped a little in the crook of his arm. He remembered the wounded fox. He remembered, too, the Boss had said ten lambs....

That was a lot for a fox to get in one night. He thought of those early newly-dropped lambs, cuddly as a child's toy, and the bleating mother. She'd whimper for days. He hated to hear it.

But, that didn't justify the fox's suffering because he, Joe, had been too bemused to shoot straight. With a sigh he turned to face the hill behind the wool-shed. He'd been on the road before with an empty pocket....

He did up the top button of his grey crimean shirt. It was warm flannel. If he got down to that torn singlet stage again, he wouldn't last long. He was older now. Needed warmth and food more. And he needed these hills. No wife, no child, what else was there for him.

As he passed the white-washed wool-shed, he called to Kempy. The dog came bounding. Joe never hunted his foxes with a dog. But this time he had to pick up and follow a set trail.

For a time, they followed the creek, with hills sweeping in on them. On the high slopes and summits were untidy rock formations, washed smooth with the centuries. There were caves on those summits, the haunts of bats. Joe wondered if the fox's lair was up there.

Then he came at last to the boulder from behind which he had fired the shot. Then the first sign of blood. It was a dried patch now, but enough to make Kempy caper wildly as he sniffed. It was then that Joe slipped the collar and lead over his neck. He didn't want the dog to get there first.

The trail left the creek now and went up the hill in front. It was good grazing for three-parts of the climb until the vermin-proof fence was reached. Kempy went straight up, and Joe found his heart beginning to pump hard. Fortunately, the long grass was not dry enough to be slippery. But he fell getting over the fence because Kempy pulled so hard and he was lucky, he knew, that the gun didn't go off. Up, up they went. Despite his wound the fox was taking the nearest rather than the easiest way home.

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Through the bracken, some of it should high, stumbling into holes and over rotted logs. Every fresh spot of blood gave Kempy added zest. His tongue was lolling out because he was half-closing his windpipe with straining against the collar.

Right over the top and then, the drop almost sheer here, they began to zig-zag down. Just for a second, Joe was able to hold the dog long enough to take one look at the enclosed valley. The sun broke through and glinted for that moment on the still creek so far below as to look like a satin thread. Seventy feet gums, pencil straight, reached for the sky. No sheep or cattle grazed in this steep fastness. It was a perfect lair for a fox. Below a flock of white cockatoos wheeled in space, raucous notes peeling heavenwards. Above a flight of black and white ibis flew in orderly formation.

This was the country Joe loved.

Then Kempy would be held no longer. Sure-footed, he followed the fox's trail downwards. He was getting more excited with every step. He hated the pull on the leash, unaware that the wrist around which it was fastened was already raw.

Once or twice, Joe thought that he must surely cut him loose. Then he thought of the fox, cowering in his lair, perhaps with his belly still dripping. He would be weak. There had been a lot of blood on the track. If it had been a man he would have died before reaching the first summit. But the fox might linger for days, dying from hunger and thirst as well as pain. It was a thought Joe couldn't live 
with.

Down, down. The ledge was so narrow that Joe knew fear. It was a long way to hurtle like the stones they dislodged. Bracken and an occasional wind-distorted wattle were the only handholds. Some of the bracken was dead and pulled away as he clutched. Twice, he nearly over-balanced. The fright left him with a sickly quiver.

Down, down.... How strong the dog was. Joe spoke curtly to him to ease up, to remember that he was an old man. But Kempy only growled because the scent was stronger and newer as the fox's pace had lessened with the hurt and loss of blood.

Then they were at the bottom and Kempy had splashed through the creek, Joe floundering after. There, under a ledge of rock that ran back into a shallow cave was the fox's hide-out. It was dry and sheltered and the fox's eyes shone out at them with hatred. But he didn't run because he couldn't run any further.

When Kempy would have barked with joy for the end of the chase, Joe cursed him into silence. He knelt so that his weight was on the leash, though the loop was still round his wrist. Then he sighted his gun. This time it was a true shot. The fox's pain was over.

But as the reverberations hurtled back from the rock wall, Kempsy leapt with fright and the ricochet of that second unintended bullet caught Joe unawares. Before his eyes dimmed, he managed to pull the dog's leash from his wrist.

The fact that he had neither asked for his wages nor taken his few belongings made the Boss set up a search for him. But it was twenty-four hours before Kempy's 
tiredness after his ramble took on any significance. Then they used him for a guide. And when he led them up over the hill and began to take them down the dangerous slope on the other side, they almost turned back because they knew Kempy - with his mixed parentage - was unreliable and they wondered if he was making a fool of them.

Joe was conscious enough to know he had been found and to welcome the comfort of the improvised stretcher.

They talked - the Boss and his visitor - as they followed the creek back. It was the longer way, not direct like the fox's, but easier for men.

"Doesn't look as though you'll be 
chucking him off Booliba for a week or two yet," said the visitor.

"Doesn't look as though I'll be chucking him off ever," said the Boss. "Risked his life coming down that slope with Kempy. Doesn't use a dog as a rule, you know. Must have been determined to show me he'd get the fox after what I said - funny old bloke."

The swaying stretcher was soothing, and Joe was glad that the Boss didn't know why he'd have to follow the trail over the hill. It would have been a sure-fire point for a smile in the Boss's story. 
Anyway, during his convalescence would be a good time to tell him that, when the time came, he'd like to be buried at the bend of the creek.