On a hill above the valley there was a wood.
In the wood there was a huge tree.
Under the tree there was a hole.
In the hole lived Mr Fox and Mrs Fox and their four Small Foxes.
Every evening as soon as it got dark, Mr Fox would say to Mrs Fox, ‘Well, my darling, what shall it be this time? A plump chicken from Boggis? A duck or a goose from Bunce? Or a nice turkey from Bean?’ And when Mrs Fox had told him what she wanted, Mr Fox would creep down into the valley in the darkness of the night and help himself.
Boggis and Bunce and Bean knew very well what was going on, and it made them wild with rage. They were not men who liked to give anything away. Less still did they like anything to be stolen from them. So every night each of them would take his shotgun and hide in a dark place somewhere on his own farm, hoping to catch the robber.
But Mr Fox was too clever for them. He always approached a farm with the wind blowing in his face, and this meant that if any man were lurking in the shadows ahead, the wind would carry the smell of that man to Mr Fox’s nose from far away. Thus, if Mr Boggis was hiding behind his Chicken House Number One, Mr Fox would smell him out from fifty yards off and quickly change direction, heading for Chicken House Number Four at the other end of the farm.
‘Dang and blast that lousy beast!’ cried Boggis.
‘I’d like to rip his guts out!’ said Bunce.
‘He must be killed!’ cried Bean.
‘But how?’ said Boggis. ‘How on earth can we catch the blighter?’
Bean picked his nose delicately with a long finger. ‘I have a plan,’ he said.
‘You’ve never had a decent plan yet,’ said Bunce.
‘Shut up and listen,’ said Bean. ‘Tomorrow night we will all hide just outside the hole where the fox lives. We will wait there until he comes out. Then… Bang! Bang-bang-bang.’
‘Very clever,’ said Bunce. ‘But first we shall have to find the hole.’
‘My dear Bunce, I’ve already found it,’ said the crafty Bean. ‘It’s up in the wood on the hill. It’s under a huge tree…’
‘Well, my darling,’ said Mr Fox. ‘What shall it be tonight?’
‘I think we’ll have duck tonight,’ said Mrs Fox. ‘Bring us two fat ducks, if you please. One for you and me, and one for the children.’
‘Ducks it shall be!’ said Mr Fox. ‘Bunce’s best!’
‘Now do be careful,’ said Mrs Fox.
‘My darling,’ said Mr Fox, ‘I can smell those goons a mile away. I can even smell one from the other. Boggis gives off a filthy stink of rotten chicken-skins. Bunce reeks of goose-livers, and as for Bean, the fumes of apple cider hang around him like poisonous gases.’
‘Yes, but just don’t get careless,’ said Mrs Fox. ‘You know they’ll be waiting for you, all three of them.’
‘Don’t you worry about me,’ said Mr Fox. ‘I’ll see you later.’
But Mr Fox would not have been quite so cocky had he known exactly where the three farmers were waiting at that moment. They were just outside the entrance to the hole, each one crouching behind a tree with his gun loaded. And what is more, they had chosen their positions very carefully, making sure that the wind was not blowing from them towards the fox’s hole. In fact, it was blowing in the opposite direction. There was no chance of them being ‘smelled out’.
Mr Fox crept up the dark tunnel to the mouth of his hole. He poked his long handsome face out into the night air and sniffed once.
He moved an inch or two forward and stopped.
He sniffed again. He was always especially careful when coming out from his hole.
He inched forward a little more. The front half of his body was now in the open.
His black nose twitched from side to side, sniffing and sniffing for the scent of danger. He found none, and he was just about to go trotting forward into the wood when he heard or thought he heard a tiny noise, a soft rustling sound, as though someone had moved a foot ever so gently through a patch of dry leaves.
Mr Fox flattened his body against the ground and lay very still, his ears pricked. He waited a long time, but he heard nothing more.
‘It must have been a field-mouse,’ he told himself, ‘or some other small animal.’
He crept a little further out of the hole… then further still. He was almost right out in the open now. He took a last careful look around. The wood was murky and very still. Somewhere in the sky the moon was shining.
Just then, his sharp night-eyes caught a glint of something bright behind a tree not far away. It was a small silver speck of moonlight shining on a polished surface. Mr Fox lay still, watching it. What on earth was it? Now it was moving. It was coming up and up… Great heavens! It was the barrel of a gun! Quick as a whip, Mr Fox jumped back into his hole and at that same instant the entire wood seemed to explode around him. Bang-bang! Bang-bang! Bang-bang!
The smoke from the three guns floated upward in the night air. Boggis and Bunce and Bean came out from behind their trees and walked towards the hole.
‘Did we get him?’ said Bean.
One of them shone a flashlight on the hole, and there on the ground, in the circle of light, half in and half out of the hole, lay the poor tattered bloodstained remains of… a fox’s tail. Bean picked it up. ‘We got the tail but we missed the fox,’ he said, tossing the thing away.
‘Dang and blast!’ said Boggis. ‘We shot too late. We should have let fly the moment he poked his head out.’
‘He won’t be poking it out again in a hurry,’ Bunce said.
Bean pulled a flask from his pocket and took a swig of cider. Then he said, ‘It’ll take three days at least before he gets hungry enough to come out again. I’m not sitting around here waiting for that. Let’s dig him out.’
‘Ah,’ said Boggis. ‘Now you’re talking sense. We can dig him out in a couple of hours. We know he’s there.’
‘I reckon there’s a whole family of them down that hole,’ Bunce said.
‘Then we’ll have the lot,’ said Bean. ‘Get the shovels!’
Down the hole, Mrs Fox was tenderly licking the stump of Mr Fox’s tail to stop the bleeding. ‘It was the finest tail for miles around,’ she said between licks.
‘It hurts,’ said Mr Fox.
‘I know it does, sweetheart. But it’ll soon get better.’
‘And it will soon grow again, Dad,’ said one of the Small Foxes.
‘It will never grow again,’ said Mr Fox. ‘I shall be tail-less for the rest of my life.’ He looked very glum.
There was no food for the foxes that night, and soon the children dozed off. Then Mrs Fox dozed off. But Mr Fox couldn’t sleep because of the pain in the stump of his tail. ‘Well,’ he thought, ‘I suppose I’m lucky to be alive at all. And now they’ve found our hole, we’re going to have to move out as soon as possible. We’ll never get any peace if we… What was that?’ He turned his head sharply and listened. The noise he heard now was the most frightening noise a fox can ever hear – the scrape-scrape-scraping of shovels digging into the soil.
‘Wake up!’ he shouted. ‘They’re digging us out!’
Mrs Fox was wide awake in one second. She sat up, quivering all over. ‘Are you sure that’s it?’ she whispered.
‘I’m positive! Listen!’
‘They’ll kill my children!’ cried Mrs Fox.
‘Never!’ said Mr Fox.
‘But darling, they will!’ sobbed Mrs Fox. ‘You know they will!’
Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch went the shovels above their heads. Small stones and bits of earth began falling from the roof of the tunnel.
‘How will they kill us, Mummy?’ asked one of the Small Foxes. His round black eyes were huge with fright. ‘Will there be dogs?’ he said.
Mrs Fox began to cry. She gathered her four children close to her and held them tight.
Suddenly there was an especially loud crunch above their heads and the sharp end of a shovel came right through the ceiling. The sight of this awful thing seemed to have an electric effect upon Mr Fox. He jumped up and shouted, ‘I’ve got it! Come on! There’s not a moment to lose! Why didn’t I think of it before!’
‘Think of what, Dad?’
‘A fox can dig quicker than a man!’ shouted Mr Fox, beginning to dig. ‘Nobody in the world can dig as quick as a fox!’
The soil began to fly out furiously behind Mr Fox as he started to dig for dear life with his front feet. Mrs Fox ran forward to help him. So did the four children.
‘Go downwards!’ ordered Mr Fox. ‘We’ve got to go deep! As deep as we possibly can!’
The tunnel began to grow longer and longer. It sloped steeply downward. Deeper and deeper below the surface of the ground it went. The mother and the father and all four of the children were digging together. Their front legs were moving so fast you couldn’t see them. And gradually the scrunching and scraping of the shovels became fainter and fainter.
After about an hour, Mr Fox stopped digging. ‘Hold it!’ he said. They all stopped. They turned and looked back up the long tunnel they had just dug. All was quiet. ‘Phew!’ said Mr Fox. ‘I think we’ve done it! They’ll never get as deep as this. Well done, everyone!’
They all sat down, panting for breath. And Mrs Fox said to her children, ‘I should like you to know that if it wasn’t for your father we should all be dead by now. Your father is a fantastic fox.’
Mr Fox looked at his wife and she smiled. He loved her more than ever when she said things like that.
The Terrible Tractors
As the sun rose the next morning, Boggis and Bunce and Bean were still digging. They had dug a hole so deep you could have put a house into it. But they had not yet come to the end of the foxes’ tunnel. They were all very tired and cross.
‘Dang and blast!’ said Boggis. ‘Whose rotten idea was this?’
‘Bean’s idea,’ said Bunce.
Boggis and Bunce both stared at Bean. Bean took another swig of cider, then put the flask back into his pocket without offering it to the others. ‘Listen,’ he said angrily, ‘I want that fox! I’m going to get that fox! I’m not giving in till I’ve strung him up over my front porch, dead as a dumpling!’
‘We can’t get him by digging, that’s for sure,’ said the fat Boggis. ‘I’ve had enough of digging.’
Bunce, the little pot-bellied dwarf, looked up at Bean and said, ‘Have you got any more stupid ideas, then?’
‘What?’ said Bean. ‘I can’t hear you.’ Bean never took a bath. He never even washed. As a result, his earholes were clogged with all kinds of muck and wax and bits of chewing-gum and dead flies and stuff like that. This made him deaf. ‘Speak louder,’ he said to Bunce, and Bunce shouted back, ‘Got any more stupid ideas?’
Bean rubbed the back of his neck with a dirty finger. He had a boil coming there and it itched. ‘What we need on this job,’ he said, ‘is machines… mechanical shovels. We’ll have him out in five minutes with mechanical shovels.’
This was a pretty good idea and the other two had to admit it.
‘All right then,’ Bean said, taking charge. ‘Boggis, you stay here and see the fox doesn’t escape. Bunce and I will go and fetch our machinery. If he tries to get out, shoot him quick.’
The long, thin Bean walked away. The tiny Bunce trotted after him. The fat Boggis stayed where he was with his gun pointing at the fox-hole.
Soon, two enormous caterpillar tractors with mechanical shovels on their front ends came clanking into the wood. Bean was driving one, Bunce the other. The machines were both black. They were murderous, brutal-looking monsters.
‘Here we go, then!’ shouted Bean.
‘Death to the fox!’ shouted Bunce.
The machines went to work, biting huge mouthfuls of soil out of the hill. The big tree under which Mr Fox had dug his hole in the first place was toppled like a matchstick. On all sides, rocks were sent flying and trees were falling and the noise was deafening.
Down in the tunnel the foxes crouched, listening to the terrible clanging and banging overhead.
‘What’s happening, Dad?’ cried the Small Foxes. ‘What are they doing?’
Mr Fox didn’t know what was happening or what they were doing.
‘It’s an earthquake!’ cried Mrs Fox.
‘Look!’ said one of the Small Foxes. ‘Our tunnel’s got shorter! I can see daylight!’
They all looked round, and yes, the mouth of the tunnel was only a few feet away from them now, and in the circle of daylight beyond they could see the two huge black tractors almost on top of them.
‘Tractors!’ shouted Mr Fox. ‘And mechanical shovels! Dig for your lives! Dig, dig, dig!’
Now there began a desperate race, the machines against the foxes. In the beginning, the hill looked like this:
After about an hour, as the machines bit away more and more soil from the hilltop, it looked like this:
Sometimes the foxes would gain a little ground and the clanking noises would grow fainter and Mr Fox would say, ‘We’re going to make it! I’m sure we are!’ But then a few moments later, the machines would come back at them and the crunch of the mighty shovels would get louder and louder. Once the foxes actually saw the sharp metal edge of one of the shovels as it scraped up the earth just behind them.
‘Keep going, my darlings!’ panted Mr Fox. ‘Don’t give up!’
‘Keep going!’ the fat Boggis shouted to Bunce and Bean. ‘We’ll get him any moment now!’
‘Have you caught sight of him yet?’ Bean called back.
‘Not yet,’ shouted Boggis. ‘But I think you’re close!’
‘I’ll pick him up with my bucket!’ shouted Bunce. ‘I’ll chop him to pieces!’
But by lunchtime the machines were still at it. And so were the poor foxes. The hill now looked like this:
The farmers didn’t stop for lunch; they were too keen to finish the job.
‘Hey there, Mr Fox!’ yelled Bunce, leaning out of his tractor. ‘We’re coming to get you now!’
‘You’ve had your last chicken!’ yelled Boggis. ‘You’ll never come prowling around my farm again!’
A sort of madness had taken hold of the three men. The tall skinny Bean and dwarfish pot-bellied Bunce were driving their machines like maniacs, racing the motors and making the shovels dig at a terrific speed. The fat Boggis was hopping about like a dervish and shouting, ‘Faster! Faster!’
By five o’clock in the afternoon this is what had happened to the hill:
The hole the machines had dug was like the crater of a volcano. It was such an extraordinary sight that crowds of people came rushing out from the surrounding villages to have a look. They stood on the edge of the crater and stared down at Boggis and Bunce and Bean.
‘Hey there, Boggis! What’s going on?’
‘We’re after a fox!’
‘You must be mad!’
The people jeered and laughed. But this only made the three farmers more furious and more obstinate and more determined than ever not to give up until they had caught the fox.