A gale of autumn colored leaves blew down the lane as Moslay came to the end of his lot. He had done his best in cleaning up, not as though Winifred was likely to care. He patted down his coat, making sure he wasn’t going out entirely unarmed. Moslay would have loved to take the hounds, at least Ams, but that was asking too much. If the fox leapt out of the bushes, Moslay would be very much outgunned, but this late in the day, it wasn’t terribly likely for a bold act like that. He had seen enough of that sly devil to know it wasn’t daring enough to go after a person, at least in the day. It hadn’t stopped the no-good vermin from snatching up the fattest of the forest hares or attacking any of the young stags. Moslay admitted once more to himself that he should have dealt with this issue a while ago when the Gardens were still dense with prey.
It had only been a cub in spring, Moslay hadn’t thought much of the little thing darting about his lot. He had been so scrawny then that even Perc had done little more than growl at the fox even when it came muzzle to muzzle with him. Despite the kit’s harmless nature, Moslay chased the rascal off after a couple of days. It wasn’t that he was worried that Perc and Ams might tear the little thing to shreds but for all that annoying squeaking and squawking it had done. The fox had been worse for Moslay’s napping than the songbirds had been or the owl was at night. He figured after running off the pest, it would either sink or swim in the Gardens like anything else. Moslay could have kicked himself for being so nieve.
Winifred had taken the kit in and fed it better than any of Moslay’s hounds ever ate unless he had a little too much to drink, or the hunt was exceptionally bountiful. And after the old woman had plumped the kit up enough to have grown the size of nearly a man, it had turned on the critters that were otherwise at peace in the wood. Long-eared hares were pounced on, fawns pouched, and anything else that capered on four legs, or sometimes two, were fodder for him. Even the mice, so minuscule in size and hardly a morsel for the kit, were victim to his wrath. Moslay was pretty sure that the Fox didn’t even kill the rodents for food, but for fun. It wasn’t long before the Gardens were mostly depleted, and Moslay was made to set traps and keep a vigilant eye out for any game he could. That only made things between him and Winifred’s pet worse.
Traps with sharp teeth and snares were a new thing to the fox, yet after a few times of encountering them, it seemed to learn how to avoid them with ease. The vile pup had become so skilled with some that he had learned to safely set off some of the traps without gaining a scrape. This was particularly damning to Moslay as he knew he was just feeding the fox now. A sprite would float home from where the traps were set, sending Moslay looking for one of the Garden’s carnivores, such as a bush ape or tri-gau bear, only to discover an empty trap. His many ventures into the woods while the fox prowled about had no doubt helped the kit in tracking down his enemy. Another hunter in the forest was competition to the hungry pup, and traps were a danger for it. He wanted Moslay out. And once the fox had figured out where Moslay lived, it was only a matter of applying pressure.
Moslay knocked on old Winifred’s front door, though he very well could have reached inside and undone any latch through the holes in that rotting wood. Yet, not only did he consider himself a gentleman, Moslay could swear there were eyes on him. It wasn’t until he had stepped in the old witch’s yard that he felt those hidden gazes lock on him. That reassured, the fox was lurking somewhere, yet in broad daylight, it likely wouldn’t strike. All the same, Moslay dug one callused hand in his coat, gripping the heavy five-round iron with his fingers. There was not a thought in his head, insisting that it would come into use against the woman, but her pet was another story. After a few more minutes, the door was opened to Moslay, though he could have assumed that was only on account of the wind if not for Winifred’s beckoning.
The woman’s house could hardly have passed as a livable dwelling to any but such a withered old gourd as Winifred. Creeping plants had crawled their way in from trellises and began dominating the living spaces. Great toadstools and fungus that could accommodate a human’s full weight were springing up where easy-chairs should have sat. Her old rocking chair was relatively untouched, but likely as it was the only furniture to be seen. Hung all throughout the hovel was a collection; jewelry, bottles, gourds, preserved flowers, and bones. There was a desk and table visible from the entry from which even Moslay wouldn’t venture far from. They were a clustered mess of tinctures and other foaming bottles of who could say. Then, shifting as a well-camouflaged stag coming into a lit clearing, Winifred made herself seen. The pumpkin-faced old woman with her wiry hair and wrinkled features stared up at Moslay from her hunched stand, a wide grin plastering her mug with an evil look.
“Afternoon, Miss Winifred. Pardon my unexpected visit, but I came to have a word or two with you about that wild animal you seem to have taken in some time back,” Moslay attempted his most sincere delivery. He even kept a look of cautiousness to his way, turning his wide-brimmed hat by the edge in his hands as a sort of nervous habit.
With that poisonous little smile, the crooked woman spoke words of true lies, “Why, mister Moslay, I don’t believe I have the slightest idea what you mean. Wild animal, you say? Wild animals belong in the forest, deary; no one would ever mistake one for a pet. Even if my eyes aren’t the best anymore.”
“The fox Winifred. I knows you got that fox in here or outback or maybe in a shed, but I’m talkin’ about that fox. Now I ain’t going to go on and on about what I think about the boy, but I’m goin’ to say my peace. He’s been comin’ down to my lot, raising all heaps of trouble with the dogs like he did when he was no taller than my good boots. I don’t want none of that trouble, and I don’t want to trouble you with a bloodied hide. So I’m askin’ you kindly, as a neighbor, to keep that thing from my lot, and if you can, keep it out of the woods. I been havin’ to set up traps with how sparse the games been gettin’. Say, you wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would ya?” Moslay asked, still affecting a personable demeanor but showing he wouldn’t mince words.
Winifred’s puckered grin didn’t fade or even change in light of this new information, “Oh, mister Moslay he’s a harmless sort. If you don’t mind him, he won’t mind you. Maybe keep your dogs’ leashes a bit shorter for the time being, and he’ll move on. Pups will be pups even if their kits, I think you ought to know as much as any. I remember that spotty one came and chased off that owl I was helping not too long ago. It’s just a passing phase, no harm, no worry.”
Moslay’s temper quickly turned, and any calm he had was burnt away, “Now you listen here, if I see that orange tail bobbin’ anywhere in my lot or even near it, I’m going to have his tail and be lucky if that’s all. That thing’s been picking the woods clean, and I ain’t have half as much stored up for the winter as I should. How your gettin’ along is beyond me, but that ain’t my concern. He’s a menace.”
“He’s a fine young boy and none of your concern, and if you think to harm my sweet child, you’ll live to regret it, mister Moslay,” Winifred hissed through the unmoving mask, carved with a smile.
For a moment, Moslay nearly lost his cool and struck at the old thing before his eyes caught a glimpse of orange fur moving about in the backyard, “I’m sure of it. You listen to what I said, cause I am doing you a favor. Though I’d much rather do us all the favor of getting rid of that slinking little sidewinder.”
Moslay left Winifred’s then, not willing himself to look back as the door shut nearly on him, and a rustling sound came from behind the house. He could hear Winifred’s voice softly humming out words, to who and why Moslay wouldn’t concern himself with. Keeping his hand wrapped tight on the grip of his revolver, Moslay made his way down the trail. Brittle leafs scraped together when they were crunched beneath his feet, and the scent of maple and rot danced on the breeze. It was days like this that felt to be in an eternal twilight as the world would soon turn to the dead season that Moslay thought he should leave the countryside. There was the city, filled with people whom he hated but all the advantages of community he otherwise didn’t have in the outskirts. And then there was the Gardens, only miles inward from his home sat the land that would never turn from its early autumn season. No, he thought, he would not allow some fox to run him out of his home, the place he had fought so hard to take for himself in this world.