A scream tore through the tiny wood and echoed over the golden stubble and rich brown ploughland. Indignant rooks flapped cawing from their gleaning and several horses baulked at the nearby fence, unseating a couple of stout Hunt followers who had chosen the easier line through the swale.
Peter was the only one to respond to the horror in that voice, mostly because he had been watching the crisp blond and her great red gelding all afternoon. He was following the hunt on foot, able to keep up with the hounds by taking short cuts where the horses couldnt and getting in some really hard training while enjoying the sheer spectacle . He had ridden Marjorie’s horse earlier in the day, while she nursed a migraine headache , much to her mothers displeasure, and then after lunch she had got some colour back in her cheeks and decided she was able to ride again. Pete wasnt too sure exactly what a migraine was or if it might come back and cause her to fall or start throwing up or something, but he wanted to help if he could. Though this stop was probably just a bathroom break, that scream was definitely not just minor fright at some equally scared critter or thorn scratch.
He turned into the tangled brambles of the copse, called “ Can I help? “ and stood a moment listening; there was a sort of low rumbling noise, not a growl, but something definitely animal, and the sound of someone breathing in jerky gasps.
The red horse was tied to the low branch of an oak, sweating and rolling his eyes in terror, so his rider had to be here. Standing by the horse he looked into the shadows, where something was moving, something flicking back and forth over the top of a grey deadfall. Black and orange striped it swung from side to side , long and sinuous , a snake ? No it was furry, an animal tail ! What was it , here in the soft English farmland of the Home Counties ?
He stepped forward as if edging along a narrow ledge over a precipice, every nerve twitching. Unbelievable, improbable, a fantasy, there was a solid black and orange striped tiger lying at ease, casually holding the girl down with one paw , licking her face and purring in a vibrant lower register. She looked right at him and made shooing motions with her hands . “Get out , go, go “ she hissed ; was this a pet then, some kind of game perhaps ?
Then he noticed that this was serious, it was licking the blood pouring from great gashes on her cheek. What to do ? Call for help? Get the Master to call off the foxhounds and use them to drive off this surreal beast ? No time even to try something like that , she’d be meat in minutes unless he did something. Now.
He pulled out his pocket knife , opened its 3 inch blade and grabbed the tail, yelling ”Let her go ! “ He hauled on that tail like a bargee at the locks, long and hard, digging his heels into the leaf mould and leaning back. The great animal jumped in startlement and hauled against him, scrabbling paws sending rotten sticks and beechmast flying, while the girl rolled free and scrambled away. He held on with his left hand and chopped blindly with the knife, landing a lucky blow between two vertebrae that lopped off two feet of the tail. With an undignified yowl the great cat shot away , leaving a very surprised victor shaking with his bloody trophy clenched in a frozen grip.
From the sunlit field a womans voice called “ Marjorie , where are you ? Are you alright?”
“Here, mum, I’m here, oh God look out, theres a tiger in here, stay there, I’m coming out. ”
she replied as she stumbled hastily away.
Peter followed her , untying her horse and hanging onto the reins as they surged out into the open meadow, suddenly aswarm with horses , hysterical dogs and shouting red faced and red jacketed men. “ What the bloody hell is going on here? Bloody vermin attacking riders ! Yes yes I saw the damn thing going to cover over there in Tompkins Wood; Come on girl , lets go find you a doctor , theres a couple out today. You, boy, stay with the creature, watch where it goes, theres a couple of my hounds broke scent to follow it , Captain and Belle, wasted on vermin , see if you can bring them back “ the Huntmaster stormed through the situation in his usual style and was gone again.
“ Look after Big Red for my daughter will you ? I think you’ll need a horse for this . Be careful now . “ They were gone before he knew it, so holding the reins firmly he set off for Tompkins Wood , towards the excited music of Belle hot on a scent underscored by Captains deeper baying .
The afternoon was dimming to a clear twilight, shadows forming striped patterns everywhere by the time he could calm Big Red enough to mount. From the saddle everything seemed more manageable, the shadows less threatening, and the horse seemed to sense his increased confidence . He cut off a good solid branch and strippped the twigs so that he had something better than a pocket knife to fend off any ambush.
The moon loomed huge on the horizon , casting a colder light before the hounds song changed; the tiger was moving. They broke from the woods at a run about 200 yards away, at the far end of the meadow. Heads up, they were following close on something when he caught up to them at a stone field wall. He clipped the long leather leashes to their collars and they went through the gate hounds ahead and horse behind , pulling in opposite directions . For a timeless while that was the pattern, the pulls opposed in spirit and direction as they followed a ghost through the dim fields. When Red began to sweat and wrestle it was time to stop while the dogs raged, then move again when the horse calmed and the dogs became anxious. Seemingly the beast would travel only ten minutes at a stretch before pausing and defying the dogs for a while, so the journey became a long series of runs and pauses, Peter and the horse both very wary of getting too close and the dogs reckless in their desire to close with their enemy. Eventually the endless trail came to a high steel mesh fence across a grassy slope, mixed animal noises from within, this had to be a zoo; of course , home for the tiger, they didnt know they had an escape artist in residence.
Turning along the fence line, Pete rode slowly uphill, following the unleashed hounds, running free again now that the quarry had surely gone into its den , back into its zoo home. This particular enclosure housed wolves , the half-dozen scruffy looking animals on the inside restlessly appearing out of the shadows to sniff and stare and then fading out of sight again as they showed their unease. The hounds had been quiet for a while, trotting on the dirt track along the fenceline with their heads low and their tongues hanging loosely , ready for kibble and kennel. Suddenly reverberating growls broke the calm , sending ice right through him and tensing every muscle in a spasmodic reaction as the horse reared in panic and the hounds broke into a storm of noise again. By the time horse and rider had sorted themselves out again the noise had died down to a high pitched whimpering from Belle who crouched shivering and bloody under a hawthorn bush. No sign of Captain or the tiger, so he gently lifted Belle up and held her in front of the saddle as he rode . Her left foreleg was broken and she had deep score marks on her muzzle and chest as if from a single casual swipe of a very large paw.
On the far side of the enclosed rectangle of the zoo they came to a road leading to the main gates through a sleeping village. Only one house showed a light, easier to speak to someone already awake , so he pounded on that door.
Which I opened with some trepidation, disturbed in the middle of my fourth re-write of the opening chapter of my Book of the Mole . Needless to say I found Petes story fascinating and somewhat disturbing, after all who wants to hear that the great cats next door prowl the night at will ? I fed the boy and the horse ginger snaps and lawn grass ( Pete only chewed a few stems , to check the quality he said ) and cat food for the hound. He told his story between gulps of sweet tea while we waited for the horse- box to arrive, and of course I asked him if he’ d mind if I wrote of his adventures , with some name changing of course, and as it turned out, some years delay .
Henry Chesterfield, the Keeper of Carnivores, arrived within the hour and went to check his charges immediately. He left somewhat sceptical, but came back very anxious to ensure no one talked to any newspapers before he could tighten up his tiger security. He had found Captain half eaten in front of the concrete den, apparently no impediment to climbing the twenty foot fence or leaping the wide moat. Roger the aging Bengal tiger had only half his tail, so it was pretty easy to identify the wanderer, though not really reassuring , as he was perhaps the least athletic and tamest of all the tigers there. He was zoo born and had been hand reared by Henry years before when he first started his career at Whippleside Zoo. Mrs. Jones and her daughter Marjorie came to visit me and thank me for taking care of the horse and so on, and of course they got VIP treatment at the zoo. The poor girls face and shoulder were stitched up but looked as if she would carry some nasty looking scars back to Rhodia when they went home.