There was nothing left for Moslay to go home to, he realized as he stepped into his lot. The dog houses had been smashed in and only barely stood upright, the old chicken coop had received that final blow Moslay expected a good storm to cause, and then there was his home. If anything of sentimental value was left inside, Moslay could think of a few choice articles, then it would stay inside. There wasn’t even enough room for a rat to wriggle in under the rubble and skulk out with a piece of cheese. Slowly, he made his way up to the porch, the only part that was still somewhat intact. Moslay shook his head, knowing that any chance of carrying on was well passed done now. He could no sooner finance a new home for himself, then he could hunt down that fox for everything trapped inside. Thinking of all those things buried deep beneath the debris, Moslay was given to a new worry.
Ams should have been there, somewhere even if it were hiding in the back lot under the foundation for the shed. He called out for the old dog a time or two but got nothing in response, then Moslay remembered when he had last seen the hound. If he started digging, pulling away pieces of the roof and interior walls that sat where his sitting-room once was, he thought he might find Ams. Then again, his thoughts returned to when the poor boy was just a pup and how long ago those days had been. Had the dog survived even until the walls fell in, it was not likely his old bones could have taken that manner of abuse. And just as damning was the fact that Moslay could be certain of what had caused the destruction. If Ams had summoned up all the courage left in that tired old body of his, he still probably would have ended up dead. Moslay found the butt of his rifle sticking out of the debris, which he took up as gently as could be. It wasn’t in too bad of shape; it could likely still fire the last few shells that were loaded in it. And as Moslay caught a distinctively canine yowl on the autumn breeze, he decided those rounds were not about to be put to waste.
Pounding on Winifred’s door, hard enough that he nearly could have broken it down, Moslay called for the old woman. She was somewhat quicker about reacting then, opening up to him after only a minute or two. Nonetheless, Winifred looked at Moslay with a tiresome expression as though the man was there to do nothing but bore her. He shoved his way inside, not hiding the fact he had come armed this time. Moslay didn’t point the barrel at Winifred, he wasn’t fond of her, but there was no cause for that as of yet. His eyes darted wildly about the half-dilapidated home before his mind clicked back on, and Moslay realized the old woman was humming out something or other at his backside.
“Where is the damned fox, Winnie?!” he growled, not half-concerned for whatever it was that the woman had to say.
She clicked her dry old tongue at him, “You’ll leave my precious child alone, I told you he isn’t the slightest bit dangerous.”
“No, not the slightest bit. That’s why my hounds are dead, my home is gone, and I spent the night in the woods. Now out with it!” Moslay hollered as the woman made her way around him, leaving him in the entryway while she made for the rocking chair.
Winifred sighed, “You just won’t take no for an answer, will you? Is it so hard to believe that a fox is anything but crafty and sly and troublesome?”
“I don’t believe nothin’ until I see things for myself, but that animal...” Moslay trailed off as he saw a flash of fur pass by the far wall.
In the absence of his reply, Winifred had begun going on about how Moslay was simple-minded and incapable of understanding her point of view. Then as he cleared the thought of the fox from his mind for a moment, Moslay began his retort. His words were cut off as abruptly as they had come out to cut in on what Winifred was saying. The wall giving way as the snout widened the open gash wasn’t quite as tremendous a sound as it could have been were the home not so rundown yet the snap of jaws was more than booming. In an almost imperceivable motion, as the old woman turned round, the fox snatched her up in his muzzle. Blood gushed and poured down the sides of its neck as bones crackled like a midsummer’s bonfire. Two bites was all it took for the hideous thing to fully secure the woman in his mouth, Moslay felt too stunned to move.
He had seen what looked to be four eyes on the creature when the moonlight struck it before the owl came. Now, Moslay saw six enormous luminescent eyes in rows of three, the forehead was marked with a final even greater gem of silver, while smaller eyes dotted the face like freckles. Not only was it a monstrosity of eyes, but from what Moslay could see, it formed a special set of jaws. It looked as though two full sets sat in its muzzle that had become curved and harden at the lip’s peak almost in the way of a beak. And then there were the many quills and feathers that hung off the beast in waves that made it a nightmarish visage, unlike anything Moslay could have ever dreamt. The sight was so dreadful, so fear-inducing, and so dooming of his fate that Moslay almost neglected the shotgun.
He hardly had to take aim in that shanty of a home the late Winifred once inhabited, the fox was now so large and where it could go so limited. With reflexes double that of what Moslay had, the fox began darted behind one of the half-ruined walls. Through a crack in that divider, Moslay could see the creature tip its face upward to swallow down what it had so hastily shoveled into its muzzle. Using that same rift, Moslay took aim and fired one of his three shells into the fox’s exposed chest. It stumbled back, its muzzle opened wide, revealing a partially chewed lower half. Not giving the monster a chance to recover, Moslay pumped the next shell in and blasted away at the upper portion of the skull. He had aimed for the ear and likely enough came only a few inches lower than the desired mark, Moslay didn’t need to check to know he had struck home. The demoniac cry of the fox was so intense and terrible that the man fled the shack as quick as could be, unable to stomach the sound for more than a moment.
Moslay hadn’t sprinted as fast as he did, leaving Winifred’s since he was still a young man or even a boy some fifty years in the past. He was surprised those tired old legs, shaky and weak in the knees, could even keep going that hard for such a distance. Coming up on his lot, he kept on his way, following the path around the corner where the hills rose. As he rushed between the two rises, a shadow blanketed the road for all of a heartbeat. It didn’t stop him as much as it gave Moslay reason to react as he should have back in the house. Flinging the latter half of the gun into his open hand, Moslay discharged the spent shell casing and pumped in the final live round. If anything came into his path, fox or bear or otherwise, Moslay was going to run through it with a fiery burst leading the way.
Several minutes passed before Moslay could feel how winded he was, just how out of shape he was becoming with the years. Yet, the Haludram bridge sat not far in the distance, promising contact with at least some life beyond the forest and the Gardens. There was no certainty that he would be home free once getting over the bridge, but Moslay felt that any danger would pass once other folks were about. Plus, Moslay knew the Dinn family on the other side of the river; they were decent folk and wouldn’t likely turn him away. That was good; he needed someone who would help him out whether they believed his story or not. Thinking it over, Moslay considered telling them some lie to keep the questioning to a minimum. He only needed a night’s rest and help on his way to Haludram proper. From there, it was a matter of what Moslay could manage from owed debts and favors. The way things were going, Moslay thought he would need to cash in on almost everything owed to him.
The hollow ring of his footsteps on the bridge were almost a comfort to Moslay as his sprint fell away to a half-hearted jog. However, as livened by the sight of possible salvation Moslay may have become, he had to surrender slightly to his body’s limits. That weakness, the momentary slowing of his pace quickly, was turned regrettable. As his steps slowed and stride shortened, Moslay could hear another pair of footfalls on the ancient, worn wood bridge. Swiveling on a heel, he brought the gun up before his eyes could make contact with that hideous collection orbs. Blood, a dense, almost tar-like mossy substance, marred half of the fox’s face but not so much as the wicked and sinister grin on its muzzle.
The fox did not charge at Moslay or even seem to move at a hurried trot. He had the man right where he wanted him. Moslay continued to back away, minding some of the lamer planks he stepped on as he did so. Still, the hungry eyes searched him over, moving closer and closer despite Mosley’s own steps. He considered diving into the river, to die by drowning instead of at the jaws of this beast, but that wouldn’t be proper. Despite his fear, Moslay knew he had to warn the Dinn family if nothing else, but then there was that one slug in the gun. The shotgun was getting worn down, the house collapsing on it had done it no favors, but it could manage this last shell. It was clear the fox was nearly immune to bullets; the two that had gone in it didn’t seem to slow it much. Then there was the prospect of a warning shot for the folks up the way, but that wasn’t quite direct enough. The boards, those weaker ones the fox was fast approaching, might give way with one good blast but were he wrong, Moslay would feel the agony of his mistake. Finally, casting his eyes up to the sky, asking the world itself what he should do, Moslay got his answer.
Far above the creaky boards of the bridge hung the old Haludram church bell from when the town was a collection of houses on the riverside. It had been left there to commemorate those old days however remained as a means to signal important days and events to those in the forest. Just as well, it was rung when necessary ships docked and brought down rare supplies from far off. The boards holding it were old, the chain rusted and in need of repair or, more importantly, removal. Had any of those who worked spells come along, they could mend the damages for a fee, but the Haludram mayor wasn’t likely to pay them. It was his loss and Moslay’s fortune as he brought the sights up to that rusted length high above. All he could hope was that his shot would be true, and everything would come out as planned.
Flames erupted from the barrel, the gun exploding with force as the shell was propelled upwards, and the device itself destroyed. Moslay fell on his back, gripping all the aching parts of his body as shrapnel dug deep into his face and arms and chest. He was brought out of his agony as the bell rang out with intense vibrations, giving him confidence that he had failed in hitting his mark. Moslay knew he had only struck the bell, which meant it was all in vain. Yet as the fox moved in on his wounded prey, the old man’s wish came true. The chain had given way, and the momentum the bell took in falling had caused it to ring wildly. It plummeted down to the worn-down boards in the middle of the bridge, taking with it the supports that had kept it high above. A shrieking yowl shot through Moslay consciousness, causing him to flit open bloodied eyes for a moment to see the fox slink away from the rift opened in the bridge. There was no way through, and the middle point of the bridge was now wide open, rushing water sounding from beneath. As the fox cried out in fury, Moslay laughed, tossing his head down to the boards as his world grew dark.