The trouble begins at Custis Hall, an exclusive girls’ school in Virginia that has gloried in its good name for nearly two hundred years. At first, the outcry is a mere tempest in a silver teapot–a small group of students protesting the school’s exhibit of antique household objects crafted by slaves–and headmistress Charlotte Norton quells the ruckus easily. But when one of the two hanging corpses ornamenting the students’ Halloween dance turns out to be real–the body of the school’s talented fund-raiser, in fact–Charlotte and the entire community are stunned. Everyone liked Al Perez, or so it seemed, yet his murder was particularly unpleasant.
Even “Sister” Jane Arnold, master of the Jefferson Hunt Club, beloved by man and beast, is at a loss, although she knows better than anyone where the bodies are buried in this community of land-grant families and new-money settlers. Aided and abetted by foxes and owls, cats and hounds, Sister picks up a scent that leads her in a most unwelcome direction: straight to the heart of the foxhunting crowd. The chase is on, not only for foxes but also for a deadly human predator.
No one has created a fictional paradise more delightful than the rolling hills of Rita Mae Brown’s Virginia countryside, or has more charmingly captured the rituals of the hunt. No one understands human and animal nature more deeply. The Hunt Ball combines a rounded, welcoming world with an edge of unforgettable white-knuckled menace.
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A shining silver shroud covered the lowlands along Broad Creek, deep and swift-running. The notes of the huntsman's horn, muffled, made his direction difficult to determine. Three young women, students at prestigious Custis Hall, followed the creek bed that bordered a cut hayfield. A gnarled tree, bending toward the clear water as if to bathe its branches, startled them.
"Looks like a giant witch," Valentina Smith blurted out.
They stopped to listen for hounds and the horn. Smooth gray stones jutted out of the creek, the water swirling and splashing around.
"Can you hear anything?" Felicity Porter, slender, serious, inquired.
"If we move away from the creek, we'll hear better." Valentina, as senior class president, was accustomed to taking charge.
Anne "Tootie" Harris, one of the best students at Custis Hall, was just as accustomed to resisting Valentina's assumed authority. "We'll get even more lost. Broad Creek runs south. It divides the Prescott land from Sister Jane's land. If we keep going we'll eventually reach the big old hog's back jump in the fence line. If we turn right at that jump we'll find the farm road back to the kennels."
Angry that she hadn't paid attention at the jump to where the rest of the riders disappeared into the fog, and now angry that she hadn't paid attention to the flow of Broad Creek, Valentina growled, "Well, shit, Tootie, we could go into menopause before we reach the hog's back jump!"
"One dollar, potty mouth." Felicity held out her hand with grim satisfaction.
"Felicity, how can you think of the kitty at a time like this? We could be lost for days. Why, we could die of thirst and--"
"Val, we're next to Broad Creek," Tootie deadpanned.
"You two are ganging up on me." Val tossed her head; her blonde ponytail, in a snood for riding, swayed slightly.
"No, we're not." Felicity rarely ran off the rails, her focus intense. "The deal when we started hunting with Jefferson Hunt was that each time one of us swore, one dollar to the kitty. I'm the bank."
Valentina fished in her tweed jacket. "You'll probably end up being a banker, F. I can see it now when you make your first million. You'll count the money, put it in a vault, and not even smile." She did, however, hand over her dollar.
Felicity leaned over to reach for the dollar, their horses side by side. She folded it in half, neatly sticking it in her inside jacket pocket. Felicity knew she wasn't quick-witted. No point in firing back at Valentina.
With Felicity and Valentina it was the tortoise and the hare. With Tootie and Valentina it was the hawk and the hare, two swift-moving creatures with opposing points of view.
"Come on, I'll get us back to the kennels," Tootie promised.
In the far distance the hounds sang, voices ranging from soprano to basso profundo, from tenor to darkest alto. The heavy moisture in the air accounted for the variation in clarity. The girls would hear the hounds moving toward them, then it would sound as though the hounds were turning.
"Coach will tear us a new one." Valentina did not reply to Tootie's suggestion, speaking about the coach's wrath instead.
"Coach? What about Mrs. Norton?" Felicity thought the headmistress's disapproval would be more severe than Bunny Taliaferro's, the riding coach, although Bunny naturally leaned toward censure.
"Wonder if they know we're not with the field? I mean, it's possible they're still in the fog, too. Sister Jane would get really upset if she thought we were in trouble." Valentina inhaled deeply. "If they don't know, let's swear never to tell."
"The Three Musketeers." Tootie half-smiled.
"All for one and one for all." Valentina beamed.
"But you always manage to be first among equals, Val. It's not exactly all for one and one for all. It's all for Valentina and then maybe Val for all," Tootie said, shooting a barb.
"Tootie, you can really be the African queen when you're in a mood. You know?" Valentina raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah, right." Tootie, an exceptionally beautiful green-eyed African American, shrugged it off.
"Will you two get over yourselves? If we don't find our way back, we're in deep doo-doo. If we do find the field, we're still in deep doo-doo but maybe not as deep."
"Felicity, say shit and be done with it." Val took out some of her discomfort on her sober classmate.
"I could learn to hate you." Valentina fetched another crinkled dollar, fuming as Tootie hid a smile behind her gloved hand.
"Thank you." This time Felicity snatched the money.
Hounds sounded as if they were swinging toward them; the notes on the horn played one long note followed by a series of doubled and even tripled notes, one long note, and the process was repeated.
"All on," Tootie remarked.
Bunny Taliaferro drummed the basics of foxhunting into those students she selected as proficient enough to ride hard over big fences and uneven ground. The show-ring riders who panicked outside of a flat ring where they counted strides could never join the chosen few. This caused tensions because often the show-ring girls looked much prettier on a horse. Unfortunately, flying down a steep hill usually meant they popped off their horses like toast. The sound of "ooff" and "ohh" punctuated the hoofbeats on those occasions.
Valentina, Tootie, and Felicity performed well in the show ring--they'd made the school team--but they excelled over terrain, so had earned the privilege to hunt. Each girl could handle sudden situations calling for split-second decisions, and each girl could usually keep a horse between her legs even when the footing was slick as an eel. What Bunny prized most about them was they were bold, keen, go-forward girls.
"All on and heading our way." Felicity recognized the horn call, straining to make sure her ears weren't playing tricks on her.
"Christ, they'll all see us!" Valentina worried more about saving face than getting chewed out.
"Christ isn't swearing."
"Christ isn't swearing. You are." Felicity in a rare moment of dry humor held out her hand.
"Not fair." Valentina bit her lip.
"Oh, pay up. You've got more money than God anyway," Tootie half-laughed.
"Sure," Valentina said sarcastically.
All of the girls came from wealthy families, but Valentina received the largest allowance and was the envy of the other students. To her credit she was generous.
She forked over the dollar bill.
"Look, they really are coming this way. Let's slip back into the mists. We can bring up the rear right after they cross Broad Creek," Tootie suggested.
"Fox could turn." Felicity considered the gamble.
"Yes, but if he doesn't, the crossing is up past the trees. We'll hear them. If they turn, we'll keep going until we find the hog's back and then head toward Sister Jane's."
The kennels were at Sister Jane's farm, Roughneck Farm. Jane Arnold had been master of the Jefferson Hunt Club for over thirty years. Her late husband had also been a master.
"Vote." Felicity thought this would short-circuit Valentina's protest since Valentina hated agreeing readily with Tootie.
"You don't have to vote." Valentina turned toward Tootie, mist rising a bit, swirling around the beautiful girl. "It's a good plan."
"I can't believe you said that," Tootie giggled. "F., we'd better remember this day."
They would, but for quite different reasons.
They backtracked fifty yards from the creek crossing.
"Why?" Felicity asked.
"Because the other horses will smell ours," Tootie sensibly replied. "Go on back a little more."
"Tootie, we'll lose them again." Valentina was more worried about Bunny and Mrs. Norton, the headmistress, than she cared to admit.
"No, we won't. Let me be in front this time."
Tootie rode tail during the entire hunt, which is one of the reasons they got lost. Felicity, in front, didn't have the best sense of direction. When the whole field jumped a black coop in the fog, they landed into a woods, ground covered with pine needles. Those needles soaked up the sound of hoofbeats. By the time Tootie got over the fence, Felicity had turned left instead of right with the others. It was too late to catch them. For ten minutes they couldn't hear a thing, not the horses, not the hounds, not the horn. So Tootie led them south along Broad Creek since she could hear the water.
Neither Valentina nor Felicity argued, since both knew Tootie was a homing pigeon.
They quietly waited.
A splash sent the ears of all three horses forward. The humans heard it, too.
Comet reached their side of the bank, shook, then sauntered toward them.
"You three are as useless as tits on a boar hog," the male gray fox insulted them.
"Tally ho," Felicity whispered as though the other two couldn't see the fox sitting right in front of them.
Tootie glared at her. One should not speak when the fox was close or when hounds were close. The correct response would be to take off your cap, point in the direction in which the fox would be traveling, and point your horse's head in that direction also.
"Tally human." Comet flicked his tail, tilted his head. He could gauge the sound of the hounds far more accurately than the three girls before him. "Well, chums, think I'll motor on. You look ridiculous sitting here in the middle of the covert, you know."
"He barked at us!" Valentina was thrilled.
"I've never been that close to a fox." Felicity was awed and a little scared to look the quarry square in the eye.
The beautiful music of hounds in full cry came closer. The girls stopped talking, almost holding their breath.
Moneybags, Valentina's big boy, started the chortle that leads to a whinny. She leaned over, pressing her fingers along his neck, which he liked.
"Money, shut up."
He did just as the head hound, a large tricolor, Dragon, vaulted off the far bank into the water. Trident, Diana, and Dreamboat followed closely behind the lead hound.
Within a minute, the girls heard the larger splashing sound of Showboat, the huntsman's horse, fording the creek, deep, thanks to recent steady, heavy rains.
Another four minutes elapsed before Keepsake, Sister Jane's hardy nine-year-old Thoroughbred/quarter horse cross, managed the waters. After that the cacophony of splashing hooves and grunts from riders, faces wet from the horses in front of them, filled the air.
"Come on," Tootie said as loudly as she dared.
The three crept forward just as the noise seemed finished. Crawford Howard suddenly crossed, though. He'd fallen behind. He was startled to see the three young women riding out of the mists, as was his horse, Czpaka, who shied, unseating Crawford right in the middle of Broad Creek.
"Oh, shit," Valentina said low.
"One dollar." Felicity truly was single-minded.
"Not now, F. We've got to get him up, apologize, and get with the field before we lose them again." Tootie hopped off Iota, her horse, handing the reins to Valentina.
"Mr. Howard, this is my fault. I am so sorry." She waded into the creek, cold water spilling over her boots down into her socks.
Swiftly, she grabbed Czpaka's reins, still over his head. Czpaka considered charging out and leaving Crawford. A warm-blood, big-bodied fellow, he wasn't overfond of his owner.
"Whoa," Tootie firmly said.
"Oh, bother. I hope he freezes his ass." The horse did stand still, though.
"Then he'll kick yours," called out Parson, Felicity's horse.
"I can dump him anytime I want," Czpaka bragged. "The only reason I let him sit up there like a damned tick is I like following the hounds and being with all you guys."
Tootie led Czpaka out. He stepped up on the bank. Crawford sloshed out. While he could be pompous on occasion he did see the humor of his situation. Besides, foxhunters had to expect the occasional opportunity to show off their breaststroke.
The mist rose slowly, the sun higher in the sky now on this brisk October day. But one could still only see fifty feet. Tootie looked for a place where Crawford could stand to mount his big horse. The huge knees of the gnarly tree wouldn't do. They'd be slippery, adding insult to injury.
"Val, you hold Czpaka while I give Mr. Howard a leg up."
Valentina, at six feet one inch, one inch taller than Sister Jane, was stronger than Tootie, who stood at five feet four inches. "You hold. I'll give him the leg up." She handed Iota to Felicity and Moneybags, too.
"Girls, I'll be fine," he demurred.
"Well, your boots are wet and the soles will be pretty slippery, sir. It's only cubbing. No reason to risk an injury before the season really starts." Tootie's judgment belied her years. She'd always been that way, even as a little thing.
"Good thinking." He reached up to grasp Czpaka's mane with his left hand, resting his right on the pommel of his Hermes saddle with knee roll. He bent his left leg as Val cupped her hands under it, lifting him as he pushed off with his right leg.
The tall blonde was grateful he pushed off. Some people, like sacks of potatoes, just stand there and you have to lift all of them up. Hernia time.
Tootie held the right stirrup iron to steady the saddle, releasing her hand and the reins once Crawford was secure.
Both young women gracefully mounted up, except that water spilled from Tootie's right boot when she swung her leg high and over.
Hounds, screaming, were moving on at speed.
"Let's put the pedal to the metal." He clapped his leg on Czpaka, who shot off like a cannonball.
Moneybags, Iota, and Parson gleefully followed.
Within a few minutes they came up behind the field of twenty-five. As it was a Thursday hunt, the number of riders was smaller than on a Saturday. The mists kept lifting like a slippery veil.
Marty, Crawford's wife, turned to see her wet husband as they galloped along. She said nothing because hounds were speaking, but then, even if at a check, she would have remained silent.
In some ways, the checks separated the sheep from the goats for foxhunters. It was a far better test of one's foxhunting etiquette than taking a whopping big fence in style. Though one had to admit, the latter was far more exciting.
They thundered on. Water spritzed off Crawford's coat, his cap, and Czpaka's sleek coat.
They checked hard. Hounds bolted up toward a thick overgrown hillock. By now the riders could see, as the mists hung above their heads.
Sister waited for a moment. She didn't want to crowd hounds or her huntsman, Shaker Crown. As field master she kept the riders together, tried to keep hounds in sight yet stay out of the way.
Shaker hopped off Showboat as Dr. Walter Lungrun, the joint master, trotted up to hold the horse's reins.
Down low in the hayfield they'd just ridden across stood Betty Franklin, longtime honorary whipper-in. An old apple orchard was on the left by the deeply sunken farm road leading up to Hangman's Ridge.
Although she couldn't be seen, Sybil Bancroft, waiting in there, caught her breath after the hard run.
She, too, was an honorary whipper-in, which meant she wasn't paid for the tremendous time and effort she put into Jefferson Hunt.
Both paid and unpaid staff routinely perform heroic duties. Even if paid for it, no one enters hunt service without a grand passion for the game. You can't handle it otherwise. It's much too tough for modern people accustomed to the cocoon of physical comfort.
Comet had a den on the other side of Soldier Road, a two-lane paved ribbon, east-west, two and a half miles from this spot as the crow flies. As it was, St. Just, the king of the crows, was circling. He hated foxes and wanted to make sure he knew where Comet was.
Shaker took a few steps upward but couldn't get through the pricker bushes and old still-blooming pink tea roses. The remains of a stone foundation could be glimpsed through the overgrowth.
was: simple, true, and to the bone.