From the Cover
Set in the small village of Beckham, nestled in the English countryside where fox hunting has been a way of life for hundreds of years, a rare black fox is spotted shortly before the opening of the hunt season. The Beckhamshire County Hunt Club seizes on the opportunity to exploit a long history of superstitious legends concerning black foxes in order to promote the hunt and raise money for a sport that a growing number regard as cruel. The sinister stories about black foxes quickly spread through the village and surrounding countryside. As the stories grow increasingly frightening so too does the desire to hunt down and kill the now infamous ‘black fox of Beckham’. No ordinary fox, Arabella, as she is called, embraces the guidance given to her by her father as a kit before he was killed by hunters. “What makes you different also makes you powerful.” Arabella then brings together two additional kindred spirits; the fourteen-year-old autistic daughter of the Secretary of the Hunt and a Roma Gypsy widow accused of being a witch whom the black fox serves. The three who proudly brand themselves the Peculiars take on ‘big fox hunting’ with surprising results.
THE BLACK FOX OF BECKHAM is a tale for young adult readers about winning at any cost, superstition, prejudice and a touch of magic. But, ultimately it is a tale of redemption, strength and the magic of friendship.
I have included the prologue to THE BLACK FOX OF BECKHAM here. Hope you enjoy it!
The distant rumble of thunder woke Arabella from her mid-morning nap. She yawned and stretched lazily, gradually becoming conscious the sound that awakened her wasn’t thunder at all, but something altogether unfamiliar. Indeed, the sound grew louder and more menacing, even as she struggled to interpret its meaning.
“Concentrate. Concentrate,” she told herself, squeezing shut her eyes, trying to gauge whether the growing cacophony signaled danger. She dared not peek outside since her father demanded that she remain hidden inside where he assured her she would be safe. But this didn’t feel safe at all. The thunderous noise grew louder still, causing the ground itself to tremble, shaking loose clods of dirt that dropped on her from the roof of her hiding place.
“What is it?” she screamed in the darkened den as still another strange and terrifying sound like that of a crying animal rose above the chaos engulfing her.
Now howling, yelping, barking. Her mind raced. Coyotes? No. Hounds. Many hounds! Too many to imagine. She lifted her head toward the sound. Clearly they are getting closer. Listening very carefully, she heard the furless ones shouting to one another outside the den. Hunters! she thought. But she had only heard stories about hunters and was uncertain exactly what to believe. Was it true they really used their hounds to kill foxes? She didn’t know, but this was not safe, she told herself. Her breathing quickened, and she rapidly surveyed the den from one end to the other, looking for a safer place to retreat. The barking and howling grew more frenzied, the deafening noise roared in her ears and again shook the ground as if the entire forest were collapsing all around her. Inching deeper into the darkened den than she had ever ventured before, she remembered talk of an escape tunnel, but had never been permitted to explore it.
“Arabella!” Her name! Someone, something had called her name.
“Who is it?” she cried out, scanning the dimly lit tunnel but seeing no one. With the sounds from outside growing still closer, she had no choice but to move further into the darkness ahead of her. Once again, the urgent voice from somewhere deep in the tunnel called her name.
“Arabella!” Now louder, “Arabella! Follow me!” From the darkness of the tunnel there emerged the figure of a pear-shaped badger hurrying toward her.
“Arabella. There you are!” Out of breath, the badger spoke haltingly. “I’m sorry, Arabella, my name is Benton,” the badger yelled above the noise. “I am…eh…a friend of your parents…. Now, please…. Eh…just do as I say and…eh, yes, I know it is all very confusing but please…just…eh…yes…just follow me!” Arabella remembered her parents speaking of the reclusive and portly badger called Benton, although she had never seen him before. Her parents told her he lived nearby, and they enjoyed a symbiotic, if guarded, relationship with him. He cleaned up the scraps left in the den after the family ate. “No time to waste, Arabella. So please! You must follow me NOW!” Benton raised his voice impatiently.
“I can’t!” She could barely hear her own voice above the roaring clamor. “I told my father I would stay and wait for them to return.”
“Your father…” he yelled. Hesitating, he leaned in close to her, his mouth twisted into a painful grimace. “Your parents are not coming home. They are not returning!”
Benton looked at her sympathetically, unsure she grasped the meaning of what he just told her. “Arabella, they are not returning home!”
“I don’t understand.” She knew his look signaled something was very wrong. Still, she didn’t understand nor could she make sense of it with the distraction of the noise outside the den.
“Arabella, I am doing for your father what he asked me to do. Now please, please, PLEASE! Follow me!”
Benton turned and waded still further into the tunnel. Again, the haunting sound of an animal’s cry and the barking and yelping and thunderous noise of a thousand hooves pounding the earth above the den began to recede as they ran. Huffing and puffing, she kept her eyes on Benton’s ample bum heaving one way, then the other as he lumbered forward. “Are you with me, Arabella?” Benton hollered over his shoulder as he ran.
“I’m here, right behind you! What is that terrible noise?”
“It’s the fox hunt, I’m afraid,” he shouted. “The horn calls the hounds to attention. They are onto a fox. I can’t be certain if it’s you they’re after. But I’ll explain it all. Just stay with me.” When he came to a sudden halt, Benton rose up on his hind legs and seemed to be strategically placing then pushing the top of his head against various places along the roof of the den. “I think it’s right about here,” he mumbled, as Arabella watched.
Suddenly the hounds sounded like they were right above them. They must have discovered the entrance to the den; they wildly barked and yowled, filling the interior of the tunnel with their horrific sounds and sowing panic in Arabella. Then the horn sounded once again.
“Here we go!” Benton announced, punching his head through the roof, dropping tufts of grass and soil into the den onto Arabella. A shaft of daylight shone inside the tunnel where Arabella waited.
“Oh! What is this?” Arabella looked up into the daylight. “I never knew this was here.”
“I know. I live at this end of the den. We…your parents and I…well, we had an arrangement. I helped keep your place clean, and we shared the den. It worked. This,” he extended his paw toward the newly opened hole, “is an escape exit for exactly this sort of thing.”
“You live here?” she asked incredulously.
“Um…well, yes, I did. I mean I do,” he said somewhat defensively. “But that is neither here nor there at this point. Now out we go.” They climbed from the den out onto a grassy patch that sat much farther inside the tree line. In the distance Arabella saw the horses and their riders milling about close to the entrance to the den, but their sense of urgency seemed diminished. Several of the red jackets yelled something to the dogs, and they all turned and began chasing after the horses and red jackets.
“They’re leaving?” Arabella asked Benton.
“Yes,” he answered. “They’re much less interested in hunting down a badger. Likely my scent mixed with yours confused them.” From where they stood, they saw two of the red jackets dismount at the entrance to the den and stomp around the edges of the entrance, causing it to collapse. “Ugh! They always do that!” he said, exasperated. “They collapse the entrance to make sure no fox can hide here.” He sighed. “They have done it countless times, and now I can see I’ll be spending the next day opening it back up.” Arabella looked beyond the trees at the familiar rolling hills and pastures.
“What’s happening, Benton? I don’t understand what’s going on.” Arabella looked at him, pleading. “Please, Benton, tell me.”
Benton took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He’s an odd-looking creature, Arabella thought as she appraised him in the light. Quite portly indeed, as her parents had claimed, his fur consisted of a mix of tans, browns and various shades of black with solid black stockings on all four legs. His face was quite unique and unlike the rest of his body, which was mostly white with a longish snout capped by a black nose. Two very striking black stripes ran on each side of his muzzle, from its tip right across his eyes and up to his ears which stood like tiny half-moons on top of his head. The stripes along his head suggested to Arabella that he might be some sort of skunk, but she knew better than to ask such a question.
“Sit down, Arabella. What I have to tell you will be difficult for you to hear. Your father and, I believe, your mother too, are both…eh…well…gone…victims of the fox hunt. The hounds, you know…you heard them barking and making such a fuss…and the furless ones called humans in their red jackets and black hats on horses…giant beasts they are…and just like the hounds will chase a fox until they can run no more and find no place to hide. It’s merciless, Arabella. Oh dear! I’m so…I’m so very sorry.” He agonized over how he might offer greater comfort but didn’t know what to do or what he could possibly say that would help.
Arabella said nothing. She hung her head, overwhelmed by sadness. Benton watched for a moment and opened his mouth to speak when Arabella interrupted.
“My brothers left days ago, and my father wanted me to remain because he wanted to speak to me about something he said is extremely important. That’s why he told me to wait for their return. I waited for them just as he asked me to. Now you say he is not coming back?” She closed her eyes and wept, a cry of grief that sounded like some poor creature caught in a hunter’s trap.
“There, there, my dear.” Benton awkwardly patted Arabella’s head. Sputtering, he added, “But…but wait, now please wait. There is more! I do know that your father wanted me to convey a special message to you. Before the start of the hunt season he asked that I share with you anything that might happen to him or your mother.” She sniffed and looked up at Benton, her eyes welled with tears.
Benton thought he was not very good at this sort of thing and wished Arabella did not look so distraught and hurt by it all. He felt so utterly helpless. So, steeling himself, he had to get on with the business of transmitting to Arabella her father’s message.
“Arabella, please listen to what I am going to tell you. I know how difficult this is but you must hear what I am going to say.” Arabella sniffed again and took a deep breath and stood tall before Benton, looking him directly in the eyes. Benton studied Arabella a moment, admiring her beauty. A black fox! Her brothers and mother were red foxes and her father gray, but Arabella’s lush fur was a shimmering solid black except for some sparsely scattered gleaming silver lines in her coat directly above her piercing yellow cat-like eyes. At the very tip of her jet-black tail was a dab of white, as if it had been dipped in a bucket of paint.
“You are different, Arabella. Unlike your brothers and mother, you are a black fox. Your father’s mother—your grandmother—was a black fox. A black fox is rare, possessing far more than beauty but gifts of a unique quality which will become known to you over time. You will grow into them, so to speak. And for this reason, as odd as it may seem, you will be both treasured and despised.” Benton appeared to consider what he just said, then added, “It is odd, indeed, that often what makes us different becomes the reason we are disliked.”
Uneasy with Benton’s words, she shook her head distressed, “Wait! Why are you saying these things to me?”
“Hush and listen to me,” Benton directed. “Your father wanted me to tell you this. What makes you different as a black fox is a gift that will also make you powerful, Arabella.”
“I don’t understand, Benton. Powerful? Can you explain to me what he meant?” she asked, confused.
“I…well…” Benton laughed nervously. “I don’t know. I…I…I…eh…I just don’t know. But he told me to be sure I told you. And those are eh…his eh…his exact words. ‘In your difference is where you will discover the gift that is yours as the black fox.’ That’s it. That’s exactly what he asked me to tell you.”
“But that’s different from what you first told me, Benton!” Arabella said impatiently.
“It is? Hmm. Let’s see now. Eh…You have power…or is it you have a gift as a black fox when you embrace your difference.” He spoke very slowly, avoiding eye contact with Arabella. Then he looked up as if he might find the right words there and started mumbling, “Black foxes are gifted when they are…no, no, no, that isn’t it.” Finally, he shrugged and brought his eyes to meet Arabella’s, looking embarrassed and suitably apologetic. “I’m not sure,” he confessed, dropping his gaze.
“I can see that. It’s all right, Benton. You used the words difference, power, gift, and black fox, so it’s a starting point and I will remember them. What else did my parents tell you?” Arabella asked, anticipating more.
“Well, let me think about that for a moment.” He frowned as he searched his memory. Then, looking up, he wore a warm smile suggesting he found what he had misplaced. “Ah, yes! They told me they loved you very much and that you would go and find your way.”
Arabella returned Benton’s smile, then spoke softly but resolutely. “Yes. I guess I will. There is nothing for me here…nothing except sorrow, and so, yes, I’ll go. That’s what foxes do at a certain age. We go. But, I don’t know where to go, Benton. Where should I go?” she asked, confused.
“Just go. The places we are supposed to be often tell us.”
“Really?” Again, she looked bewildered and wondered if he made that up.
Benton nodded. “Please be safe, Arabella. The fox hunt is very popular with the furless ones called humans. You know the sounds of the hunt, and all you need to know is to get away as fast as you can. If you see them, they are certain to have your scent. Then it may well be too late.” Benton reached out and patted her paw with his own. “Goodbye, Arabella.”
“Goodbye, Benton.” Arabella walked into the woods disoriented and adrift, repeating the words “difference, power, gift, black fox” wondering what her father wanted her to know. All
she really knew was her parents were gone and she had no one and no idea what laid ahead. She didn’t know which direction to follow so she just walked and trusted Benton’s counsel that when she arrived where she was supposed to be, she would know.