The French countryside was a visual delight for the League members; Munchausen, Hawkeye and Chingachook found the views breathtaking. For Alan Breck the panorama lacked freshness as they had become commonplace during his exile after Culloden, a stroll over the Scottish Highlands would have been his pleasure.
The farmer's name was Van Baerle; he assured the hunters that it would not be much further, though they seemed to be enjoying the hike.
A team of leashed Irish wolfhounds entered a clearing the League was passing through, a raggedy servant was holding the leashes. The man who was employing the dogs stepped into view holding a musket; Munchausen recognised him.
"Greetings Squire Thornhill." He said. "Why aren't you with the main group."
The Squire was never with the hunting party, not even at the gathering.
"I have my own ideas about hunting, Baron." He replied. "And I don't need to explain them to someone so ill mannered as you. Now I'll take my dogs this way and you take your dogs another way."
All four were taken by the Squire's offense, yet M demanded restraint. It was tempting to shoot a wolfhound or two in order to teach their owner a lesson but they didn't offer the affront. The four hunters continued following the farmer while Thornhill went in another direction cursing and assaulting his servant.
The journey continued for a little while until the farmer reached the crest of a hill and made a presentation move with his hand.
"Behold." He said. "My plot and recent travel path of The Beast."
Four sets of eyes looked at the indicated area and were dazzled by the spectrum of bright colors; red, yellow, blue, pink, purple and white stood in splendidly plush rows of flowers. Munchausen never asked Van Baerle what his crop was, the answer was clearly tulips. The plot was a stunning effulgence of natural color; this visual feast was alone worth the walk.
Van Baerle explained that he came from a family of intense tulip fanciers; his grandfather Cornelius Van Baerle worked fervently to perfect a black tulip. This plot may see a row or two of black tulips one of these days.
"You have created a rainbow Van Baerle." Said M "I feel if I walked across that, I would be crossing Bifrost, the rainbow bridge to Asgard."
"Actually Baron." Said Van Baerle. "I would appreciate it if you tiptoed."
Due consideration was shown when the League members traveled through the field, without damaging the beautiful flora, but The Beast clearly practiced no such caution, the path he took was made easy to see by the disturbed tulip patches. Chingachook, after a little inspection, verified the tracks as those of their quarry. Secondary tracks on the same path were deduced to be those of three piglets he must have been chasing. Van Baerle told that their was a pig farm nearby and that The Beast must have chased the little critters through his plot. A breach in the fence revealed where the freak wolf made his exit.
A disused plot was the tulip grower's neighbour; the tracks were more clear on this ground, they led to a stack of unbaled straw that was splashed with blood. Only two sets of piglet tracks followed the straw. It was apparent that one porcine infant unwisely sought refuge in the stack, was easily extricated by The Beast and devoured; severed trotters and a curled tail confirmed this observation.
The tracks continued to a pile of large sticks. Van Baerle stated that this pile used to be a crudely constructed shed made up of those sticks held together with rope and throngs. A wet trail of blood led away from the pile to a severed piglet head. One set of porcine tracks remained after this, with those of the wolf following. Everyone could tell what happened; the second piglet squeezed his way through the stick wall for the safety of being inside; only to find that The Beast, with his huge strength and bulk, toppled the shed into the useless pile it is now and dragged the little pig out to his death.
"Well." Said Alan. "This wee piggy has been the main course, the former one was the entree. The wolf must have gone after the third one for dessert."
Further along the trail, the hunters came upon a derelict incinerator constucted solidly of bricks and mortar. Tracks revealed to the Mohican scout that The Beast spent a frustrating time trying to gain entry into this structure or demolishing it like the former. An ash door was open at the bottom; the last piglet tracks ended there. Black wolf hair at the doorway edges told how The Beast furiously tried to stick his head in and seize the occupant, but the opening was too small. Van Baerle reached into the doorway groping along the old incinerator floor and withdrew his arm holding an ash covered living piglet.
"Looks like The Beast is off seeking his dessert elsewhere." Exclaimed Van Baerle.
Munchausen patted the snorting piglet, who was either the smartest or luckiest of the three, and ran his finger under its chin.
"This breed must be not far removed from the wild boar." Said M. "It has a light stubble growing under its chin."
Chingachook reported that the wolf tracks beyond here lead into the woods. Van Baerle said his goodbyes and wished the hunters luck, he will take the piglet back to its sty.
Following the wolf's trail through the forest was simple for the seasoned Mohican tracker, so easy that Hawkeye, Alan and the Baron did not get a moment to rest. A verdant green meadow appeared through the wall of trees, the tracks led into it. Cattle were seen in the distance but the trail brought the hunter's attention to a pond in the meadow's centre. Duck feathers smeared with blood were on the bank; Chingachook circled the pond noting the evidence of a recent happening.
At length, the Mohican tracker explained that a lone duck was shaking its feathers dry when it noticed The Beast sneaking up on it. Shocked and terrified, the aquatic bird began to run, or at least waddle fast around the pond's perimeter, the wolf in hot pursuit. The safety of flight was desperately attempted but the duck was weighted down, probably by pregnancy, and needed time to get clear of her pursuer's reach. The duck completed several laps of the pond before the inevitable happened, it was caught by The Beast here, Chingachook pointed at the bloodied feathers, and promptly devoured.
"So, after two courses of piglet, The Beast had duck for dessert." Said Alan.
Beyond the meadow was more forest, the trail continued through it until the hunters came upon a medieval ruin. The long neglected structure was made of sandstone with the occasional wooden partition, and rusted iron metalwork; meaning creaking gates, torn away bars and a loose portcullis leaning against the wall. Weeds, ivy and lichen covered virtually the entire premises. Slabs of sandstone lying around and the state of the walls were testament to several aborted attempts at demolition over the centuries. Hanging plant pots appeared to be the only use people had made of the place.
This my friends." Explained the Baron. "Is an old Knight's Templar fortress. It was abandoned several hundred years ago when the order was terminated."
"The wolf is here." Said Chingachook, readying his musket.
Munchausen told everyone to be silent and alert, then began his climb to the ruin's heights where he could spot The Beast's location. All could see he was trying to reach the top of two high wall arches whose narrow apex would provide a bird's eye view of the area. It would be an awkward climb as he had his musket strapped to his back and two sword scabbards dangling from his belt. He had however removed the pistol from his belt and handed it to Hawkeye.
Much of the fortress ground floor was missing. What used to be a basement was just another level for ground activity, it was easily accessible with a short drop, several grass covered stairwells linked the two levels. There was virtually nothing left of the second storey floor nor the roof; a single ramp reached the former but that ended at a large open window.
There were several nook and crannies where The Beast could be slumbering or lying in wait. Hawkeye noticed Chingachook was intensely tight in his vigilance, as if he expected a wolf to jump out of nowhere. A rustling in a large bush by the main entrance had the Mohican turn around fast and fire his musket, a large rabbit dropped dead. Alan wanted to laugh but a hideous growl filled the ruin. The Beast was coming.
With his shot spent, Chingachook climbed up onto the upper ramp to reload. Hawkeye figured the wolf's path of approach and aimed his musket down a ruin hall. A huge black shape darted across the line of fire, predicting the appearance, Hawkeye shifted his aim a little to the right to compensate for the target's speed and fired his musket only to see the shot that would've hit, be blocked by a hanging pot plant, which shattered.
"Alan. You have to take the shot." Roared Hawkeye.
Alan remained focused on the hall, though he had the only ready shot, he knew his aim was perfect and that wolf would be dead when it appears in the hall again. The old wooden partition to their right suddenly shattered; bits of paling and splinters burst into the hunters' faces. The Jacobite and the frontiersman were blinded for an instant by the debris, a savage growl told them The Beast had flanked them, broke through the partition and was now only five feet away.
Alan cleared his vision to see a monstrous, red eyed, black wolf pounce at him; hurrying to point his firearm, he was too late; huge jaws clamped on the tartan sash sinking teeth into his shoulder. The pain was shocking, Alan's musket jerked upward and fired into thin air before it was dropped. Hawkeye recovered his senses to see The Beast bring the Scot down on his back then, while running, drag the screaming victim towards the woods. Drawing the Baron's pistol, the trapper aimed the weapon he was not used to using and fired, hitting the furry monster in the rear.
The Beast jerked, losing its hold on Alan; it could've finished the Jacobite off right then and there, but the red eyes were focused on Hawkeye, who bolted to find quick refuge. A lone sandstone block was the first hasty choice for safety but it was only five feet high; Hawkeye got on top then realised the giant lupine could easily jump up and get him. When The Beast made its move, the frontiersman tactfully jumped to a neighbouring sandstone block, buying himself seconds to look for a better refuge, and saw one but the wolf was between him and it.
Hawkeye discarded his items, got off the sandstone block and ran towards The Beast head on. A few feet from collision the rugged trapper leaned forward, placed his hands on the ground and with great strength and momentum did a somersault up and over the charging wolf. The Beast actually lowered its carriage to meet the strange move that put its prey's head near the ground. Propelled in a reckless spin, Hawkeye's weight landed firmly on the lupine's wounded hind, making it a yelping mass of pain and confusion. Leftover momentum from the somersault had the frontiersman alight the hindquarters and land neatly on his feet.
With refuge now close, Hawkeye raced to it, the wolf's hot breath at his heels. The rusty old grid that was once a portcullis, was leaning diagonally against the perimeter wall; the fleeing trapper bound up it to the top; The Beast could not follow or reach him: as it snarled and threatened a thrown tomahawk hit it in the snout. Chingachook was now priority prey.
He had done what he could to save his adoptive son, but the Mohican acted too soon, he had not finished reloading his musket and the savage lupine was now moving on him. Leaving the firearm behind, Chingachook bolted up the ramp to the second storey, the wolf in aggravated pursuit.
Baron Munchausen had reached the top of the grand arches and the top bricks barely gave him room for half a foot; he had observed the engagements down below and hurried to balance himself atop the wall and take aim at the monster closing in on Chingachook. By the time M had achieved balance, The Beast was on the Mohican, who had reached the dead end upper platform; with an agile twist of his body he dodged the oncoming snapping jaws and with a swift knife slash to the foreleg, hamstrung the lupine fury.
Pressing its feet into the floor to halt its dodged momentum, the wolf yelped in pain as its wounded foreleg was too hurt to function as such, the failed footwork caused The Beast to roll helplessly to the edge of the large open window with no sill. Chingachook wasted no time, a strong lateral swing of his large axe like weapon into the tough wolf hide, knocked the black furred monster over the edge; a diminishing yelp and a thud followed.
M wanted to applaud the aging trapper, but his balance was too tenuous; anyway it was clear to both hunters that the fall was not high enough, The Beast was not dead and despite many injuries, was still quite active and running into the basement. Any wide adjustments to Munchausen's aim could not be done without losing balance, he needed to get his feet on the ground.
A confident grin was on the Baron's face while observing the architecture below, he had made a few instant calculations Munchausen strapped his musket to his back, ran down the curve of an arch, jumped aside, landed on top of an unused support column which toppled and fell, the ivy covered wall it collided with held. M, who managed to hang on, casually walked down the columns new diagonal slope to the ground.
His musket ready, the aristocratic soldier and veteran of several wolf hunts began to take aim at The Beast; it noticed him and charged with its usual ferocity. Munchausen thought of his name on the plaque beneath the wolf's trophy head, his fame sparkling again in the European newspapers, there could even be a rousing city wide welcome upon his return to Germany. It was time, Baron Munchausen fired his kill shot at the notorious man-eater.
His lower jaw dropping, M discarded his spent firearm, drew his sabre and shortsword then jumped into the lower level; his survival strategy was based on the wisdom of the third piglet, so the desperate soldier ducked into a low brick alcove.
The Beast approached the alcove then growled and salivated, reaching its head in to seize the trapped aristocrat, it was met with a sabre edge. Hurt by its new cut but not deterred, the wolf looked its prey in the eye and snarled viciously. Munchausen had been through too many adventures and perils to be incapacitated with fear, his defences will not be compromised. The monstrous head darted in for an attack, M's shortsword was thrusted into its neck, the wolf withdrew and growled with pain and ferocious hate. Using the shortsword required care in this circumstance, if the Baron stabbed too far those bestial jowls would take his hand off.
Several more attacks were attempted by the wolf, the German soldier held them all off until Hawkeye and Chingachook with reloaded muskets moved in for another shot at their lupine target. Horse sounds at the far end of the fortress meant the arrival of another hunting party. The Beast, despite its hamstring injury, began a fast retreat into the woods before the two frontiersmen could take aim.
Alan Breck was in great pain, but he managed to roll himself into a ditch and cover it with a nearby loose rusty grate. Stopping to stand over the Jacobite, the wolf snarled and drooled, from above the grill. Coupled with the returning memory of the shark attacking his cage in the Calais dock waters, this horrific ordeal with The Beast of Gevaudan sent him into shock and coma.
Gunshots rang out around the fortress, the horsemen had spotted The Beast and rode their steeds in pursuit of the fleeing wolf. Hawkeye and Chingachook did not get their next shot; as they watched the horses gallop into the woods after their quarry, they checked up on Alan to find him in his ditch, unconscious and bleeding. Munchausen knew first aid; he cleaned and bandaged Alan's wound.
A crude stretcher was made, the injured Scot would have to be carried back to the tents and then put on a wagon to hospital.
The Marquis de Praille was among the hunters on horseback, he would later tell the Baron that despite a gallant chase The Beast eluded them. All in all the hunt had failed.