Sniffing, sniffing. Wet noses pushing against leaves, uprooting dirt, following a trail that no eye could possibly understand. It took plenty of effort for the dogs to catapult themselves through the brush, but they were far too excited to notice the nicks and cuts forming along their muddied pelts. Two humans trailed along behind, eyes trained on the ground to keep from falling, ears trained on the dogs to keep from losing their charge. They'd left the horses a ways back, when the branches began snagging at their tailcoats.
"All of this for a little fox?" asked the youngest, picking a bramble from his pants.
"A fox. A coyote. Perhaps even a wolf," replied the eldest. Even without looking, he could sense his younger counterpart stiffen.
"Are you sure we should go alone? I mean, there are plenty of men just a mile or so back." His voice was surprisingly steady.
The eldest stifled a smile. The young man had never crossed a wolf. He wasn't aware that a beast with such a reputation still bowed to the will of a steady bullet.
"No, we'll be just fine. Besides, we can't lose the dogs."
As if responding to the word, the high yips and howls began to dissipate, fanning out in all directions. The younger looked to his partner.
"Hush," hissed the older man, holding out his hand. Dogs didn't separate so easily.
They climbed through the brush, using the barrels of their guns to feel their way through, and emerged into a small clearing. They held up their hands, blocking out the bright sun that pierced through a gap in the trees overhead. A lone dog was circling, circling, its nose pressed to the ground in complete concentration. Upon seeing them, it raised its head, tongue lolling out from its wide jaws in a smiling greeting.
The yipping had all but stopped. Rustling sounded from all directions as the dogs paced and circled, searching for the lost scent.
The older man sighed deeply in frustration.
"Twenty hounds and they can't even track a single fox," he said gruffly, scratching the back of his head. Well, they'd come this far. Might as well wait. He put his knee to the ground, resting. His son copied him, rubbing his hands against the autumn cold.
The older man looked around, eyes running from tree to tree. The single hound flopped down on the dry leaves beside them, panting heavily. There was no danger here, but he couldn't help but feel antsy. Usually a fox was tracked to its burrow, where the hounds would dig until help arrived. Coyotes grew tired, and were often torn apart by the hounds. Even wolves, if they didn't run the dogs to exhaustion, were eventually cornered, allowing for capture. Raccoons often fled to the trees, but a coon would never have posed such a long chase. No, this creature was something foreign to him.
He looked over to find his son somewhat less bothered. The boy was absent-mindedly scratching the ground with a stray twig, listless eyes roaming the clearing, yet seeing nothing. He smiled, immediately identifying the expression. Perhaps the boy was thinking of the pretty dame who had come to see them off this morning. Perhaps he was thinking of grand things, like how the party would greet them after a successful hunt. Or perhaps he was musing over the horse he had left behind. A brazen young stallion that had been given to him only weeks before. He could tell, at the time, how crestfallen the boy was at having to dismount.
"What's on your mind?" he asked, startling his son.
"Why, the hunt, of course," he replied, but the faint blush that colored his cheeks revealed his lie. So it was the girl, after all. She was a pretty thing. The same age his wife had been at their first meeting, and just as radiant. They'd been on the hunt for hours. The pangs of hunger were beginning to wear at his resolve.
Heaving another sigh, as if in disappointment, he climbed to his feet, brushing his pants clean of debris.
"I suppose we'd best go, if we're to return before the sun sets."
Even lovely women only waited so long for their knights to return.
The younger man nodded eagerly, climbing to his feet, and they began the long trek home together, whistling for the frenetic dogs to give up their chase.
The last dog made its way back through the clearing, giving a single glance backward at the strange scent, which was spread wide across the clearing and far into the surrounding brush. Whatever resided here had lived in this place a long, long time, and the old and new scents crossed and mixed in confusing patterns. The dog snorted hard, ridding itself of the scent, and took off in a trot after its mates.