I originally wrote this story as a 6th grade English lit project— my first attempt at being a “writer”, way back when-circa 1967. This version is a rewrite of that story I wrote last year, for my book of short stories. Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate it, Happy Holidays to all others.
The Fox-A Christmas Story
The boy was asleep. He was dreaming of a summer day, warm and sunny, being spent with his dad and swimming at Randall Pond at the little poly-ethylene covered hut they called a camp. While the boy swam, his father was fishing off the other side of the little peninsula that jutted out in front of the camp.
The father began to holler, “I got one on, Jack. Stay on that side of the peninsula so you don’t get caught up in the line.”
Just as his father was reeling the fish onto the shore, loud noises reverberated through the boys head, popping the dream bubble, and he came awake with a start. The boy rubbed his eyes as he listened for the source of the noise that woke him up.
It was the chickens squawking. A lower thrum of collective clucking punctuated by high pitched squawks. Something, or somebody, was in the hen house, causing the laying hens to have a fit. He piled out of bed, dressing quickly in the cold, and clattered down over the stairs where he met his grandfather in the kitchen heading towards the shed for his heavy jacket, and then to investigate the noise. The boy followed after his grandfather and pulled on his heavy mackinaw and wool stocking hat and mittens as they headed out the shed door and ran to the hen house. It was a week before Christmas, but winter weather had infested Maine early this year. The wind was howling, making the tree limbs dance and the recent snow of the last two days’ storm lash at their faces. It was midnight, very dark, but the pristine white of the snow illuminated the ground bushes, and the path to the hen house was easy to see.
When they reached the hen house and turned the corner, to the door side of the building, facing away from the farmhouse and towards the woods, some forty feet away, on the other side of the pasture, a bolt of neon orange/red flew out of the coop, dragging a hen in its mouth, leaving a trail of scarlet red blood in the snow.
The grandfather uttered a profanity, then looked down at the boy and said, “That damn fox is going to be back. These hens are an easy meal. We need to figure out how she is getting in.” He instructed the boy to run back to the house and grab his large flashlight from the shed and return with it so they could inspect. The boy nodded and scooted back to the warmth of the shed, grabbed his grandfather’s flashlight from the shelves on one wall, beside the coat hooks, and went back out into the cold darkness. He didn’t turn the light on as he could easily see his grandfather standing there looking off towards the woods, wondering if the fox was still nearby. His grandfather patted a thanks on the boy’s shoulder as he took the flashlight and spotlighted the door and wall of the hen house. Playing the beam over the building and the ground in front of it, they noticed the blood trail led underneath the building. The fox had found access through the floor somehow. The grandfather twisted the 6” by 3” piece of pine board that swiveled on a spike nailed into the wall, that acted as a door latch, and entered the hen house. The hens started clucking and squawking again as he played the light over the floor. The floor was covered in feathers and chicken waste, mixed with water and grain spillage, that formed a 6′ crust that even in the cold smelled so badly of ammonia that it always made Jack take a deep breath and hold it when he entered the coop. The spotlight showed a hole in the corner of the floor, under the three shelves that acted as roosts, made out of 6” pine boards supported by home-made wooden braces, that ran the length of the back wall of the coop. Jack always thought of them as bunk beds for the chickens. The hole was cut to allow the chickens to leave the confines of the coop and strut around outside in the chicken-wire open air pen. The pen was 10′ by 15′, and the 8′ high wire fencing was attached to both ends of the coop, then out to posts driven into the ground every 6′. The grandfather played the light around the coop and determined there was no other way into the coop except the door itself, which had been closed and secured by the wooden slat. He then went outside the coop and played the light along the pen, where he found the spot where the fox had entered, then exited with the hen in her mouth. There, they saw, was a place where the wire fencing had pulled away from where it was attached to the side of the coop near the ground. A hole, more of a flap, of 12 inches, with a trail of blood leading out into the pasture, towards the woods beyond. The grandfather muttered,
“We should have paid more attention and fixed this when we gathered eggs.”
Jack knew this was his fault. After all, it was he who gathered the eggs every afternoon when he got home from school.
“I’m sorry Pupa, I wasn’t paying attention.”
The grandfather kicked snow until it was piled above the open flap of fence, sealing off the hole, and said, “It’s not just your fault, Jack, I come feed the hens every morning. I should have noticed too.”
He went on, “I’ll fix this in the morning after you go to school, once you and I come back from the woods.”
Jack looked at his grandfather “The woods?” He didn’t understand.
The grandfather patted Jack on the shoulder and said, “Let’s get in where it’s warm and I’ll explain.”
They trudged to the farmhouse and entered into the shed, removing their jackets, hats and mittens, hanging them on the pegs on the wall next to the shelves. The grandfather set the flashlight on the shelves and opened the door leading into the kitchen. He sat at the kitchen table and beckoned Jack to join him in the chair opposite him. As Jack sat down the grandfather explained,
“Jack, that fox has found herself a place to feed, and to feed her young. We must stop that. We cannot have her terrorizing the hens and picking them off one at a time. As it is, it will likely take a week or more for the hens to settle down enough to produce eggs again, and we can’t afford to lose anymore hens. You understand how important those eggs are to this family, don’t you?”
Jacked nodded his head and asked the grandfather, “What are we gonna do in the woods, Pupa?”
“We are going to be up at dawn, and we are going to track that fox in the fresh snow. That blood trail will help, but we must do this at first daylight before the trail is covered by new snow. You should get to bed and get as much rest as you can, I’ll call you when it is time to go, and you can take the 30-30 I gave you for your birthday with you.”
Jack smiled. He was excited about taking his new gun with him. Except for a little target practice, he hadn’t had a chance to use it since he was given the gun as a birthday present by his grandparents. His grandfather had traded with a neighboring farmer for the gun. The cost was two hens and a ewe from their flock of sheep. It was a stiff price, but his grandfather said it was important that Jack have a gun to hunt with and to help protect the farm animals from vermin. After all he was now 11 years old. It was time for him to learn how to hunt and how to use a gun.
They got up from the table and wished each other a good night, the grandfather walked through the front room, used as the living room, into the downstairs bedroom he shared with Jack’s grandmother. Jack crept upstairs to his bedroom, trying to be quiet so as to not wake his mother, sleeping in the other upstairs bedroom. He used the bathroom at the head of the stairs and then went into his room and undressed and climbed under the covers. The bed was cold and it would take a couple of minutes for the blankets to capture his body heat and be warm under the covers. As he lay there warming up and drifting off, he thought of his father.
His father had been called off to war. He was in Vietnam, and Jack and his family waited anxiously every day for the mailman to come to see if there was a letter from him. They would usually receive a letter from his father twice a week, the letters describing how this country he was forced to be in was so very different from Maine. The people were nice, he said, but he had a hard time understanding their language. He was sure looking forward to coming home and being on the farm with his family. Jack missed his father more than he could express, and prayed that he would be home soon, safe and sound, every night before he fell asleep.
Just as Jack was nodding off he started to dream about a fox. The fox was beautiful. Her coat was almost iridescent in different shades of orange and red, with black outlines around her eyes and muzzle, with a snow white tip to her tail. Her liquid brown eyes expressed intelligence and she seemed to be smiling as she easily loped through the foot and half of snow. Leaping over blow downs and nimbly side stepping tree trunks as she made her way through the forest, she was a magnificent creature.It seemed only moments had passed when Jack slowly pulled himself out of his dream at the sound of his grandfather beckoning him to get dressed. He opened his eyes to see his grandfather standing over his bed, and sat up.
“I’ll be right down Pupa.”
He scrambled out of bed, used the bathroom quickly, and then dressed for a trip into the woods beyond the pasture. Wearing long johns, wool socks, woolen pants, and a heavy sweater his mother had knitted him over his flannel shirt, he went down the stairs to the kitchen. His grandfather was sitting in a kitchen chair, oiling both Jack’s 30-30, and his own double barreled 12 gauge shotgun. He looked up and asked, “Ready to go, son?”
They went out into the shed and geared up with their boots, coats, hats and gloves. His grandfather grabbed a set of binoculars from the cabinet which held the guns and ammo at the far end of the shed. He passed Jack ten 30-30 shells, and then handed him his 30-30. He pocketed ten double ought buckshot 12-gauge shells and grabbed his shot gun, nodded at the door leading outside and said,
As they trudged towards the barn to climb through the fence into the pasture that led to the woods, Jack looked east to see a hint of pink on the horizon, signifying that day was breaking, and he also noticed a multitude of stars still glittering above. It was going to be a clear and sunny day. As he and his grandfather trudged across the pasture, looking for the blood trail of the hen, and the footprints of the fox, his grandfather was talking in a very soft voice,
“Jack, we will need to be very quiet. This fresh snow will help us move without noise, and should help us follow the trail easily. When we find the fox’s den, hopefully we can catch her when she comes out. When I tell you, I want you to load your gun with five shells, and make sure you keep it on safety until you are ready to shoot. Ok, son?”
“Ok, Pupa,” Jack whispered.
A shiver of cold and of excitement wiggled up his spine. Jack mimicked his grandfather, moving cautiously, quietly, his eyes shifting back and forth, taking everything in. His ears were straining to hear any noise or movement, his breathing shallow, and he sniffed the air, hoping to catch any scent wafting in the cold dry morning air. Before they reached the other side of the pasture, about 15 yards before the wood line, they found the fox’s trail. His grandfather smiled and nodded towards the woods. They walked very slowly, watching for any movement as they climbed through the fence and stepped into the woods.They followed the trail for another quarter mile as it meandered through the woods, stepping around thickets and trees, ducking under low hanging branches, and side stepping rocks sticking up out of the snow.
His grandfather stopped, leaned into Jack and whispered,
“See that outcropping of rocks on that knoll up ahead?”
Jack nodded as he looked at the pile of rocks with what appeared to be a hole or entry way inside the pile. His grandfather whispered,
“I think that is her den, and my guess is, she may be out hunting this morning, looking for food for her young. If we are lucky, we will catch her coming back. I am going to sneak over to the left and hide among those trees. If she comes from that direction or from the east, I will take her. You hide in this clump of firs and if she comes from this direction, or from the south, you take her. Load your gun, leave it on safety until you are ready to shoot. You will have only one shot at her. Make it count.”
Jack nodded his understanding and stepped into a tripod of firs that screened him from view, but allowed him to see the rock pile and see to the south through the semi-dense woods. He loaded the 30-30 with five shots, making sure to click on the safety, and watched while his grandfather sneaked to the north and hid amongst another stand of firs, looking east towards the fox’s den. Jack stood perfectly still as he had been taught. He tried to breathe through his nose so to limit the amount of vapor he produced. His eyes intently searched the woods beyond, looking for movement.
It seemed like hours but was probably only ten minutes when THERE!…there was a flash of orange, coming at Jack from the south. Jack held his breath and watched as his heart started to pound in his chest. He was trying not to move a muscle. In another 20 seconds he saw the fox. She was heading at a meandering pace, her nose first to the ground, then her nose would go up into the air, smelling, trying to catch a scent on the slight wind blowing towards the north, which served to cover their scents. She seemed to be wary, but unaware of Jack and his grandfather. He knew his grandfather was watching the fox too, but the fox was coming from the south, meaning it was Jack’s shot. The fox kept coming and now was within 30 yards of Jack. He slowly raised the rifle to his shoulder, carefully, soundlessly, clicking off the safety, and sited the fox down the barrel using just the tip of the metal site at the end of the barrel. The fox stopped, holding one front paw off the ground as she looked to the east inquisitively.
She was as beautiful as the fox in his dreams.
His grandfather’s words were hammering in his mind’s ear, “You will have only one shot at her. Make it count.”
Jack took a slow breath and held it. Slowly and steadily he squeezed the trigger. The gun roared and bucked against his shoulder. The fox dropped in her tracks, kicked once and lay still. Jack’s shot was true.
He took a long shaky breath, and clicked the gun’s safety back on as he lowered it. Stepping out of the stand of firs, he started walking to the fox. He saw his grandfather coming from the north, walking to meet him where the fox lay in the snow, a scarlet red stain in the snow near her neck. Then, they were standing over the fox, looking down at her. Jack turned away from his grandfather so he wouldn’t see the tears running down Jack’s cheeks. His grandfather put his arm around the boy, led him to a blow down, brushed the snow away, leaned his and Jack’s guns against the tree, and sat down beside him.
Jack snuffled, wiped his face and said to his grandfather, “What a damn baby huh Pupa?”
“No, Jack. You just did what a man has to do. Like your Daddy over there in ‘Nam, sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do for the good of the family.”
Jack nodded, “Yeah, I guess so. Can I bury her, Pupa? She was so beautiful, she deserves that from me.”
His grandfather pulled the boy a little tighter to him, “You know Jack, she was beautiful, that pelt will bring at least $35. That’s money this family could use, but you shot her, it’s your decision.”
The grandfather stood, and said, “I’m gonna take the guns and head back to the house. I’ll leave you here to decide what you’re gonna do. Don’t take too long, Jack. You shouldn’t miss school.”
Jack waited ten minutes until his grandfather had crossed over the fence and was almost across the pasture, when he stood up and tied the length of bailing twine he had in his coat pocket around the neck of the fox and began the journey back to the barn, where the fox would need to be skinned out and her pelt would be nailed and stretched to the barn wall to dry. His grandfather was right, the family could use the money, and his father was doing his duty over there in Vietnam, Jack needed to do his duty, too.
When he got back to the barn, his grandfather was milking one of the four milking cows the family had, and told Jack, “Tell ya what Jack, it’s already past 6:30, and your school bus will be picking you up in less than 45 minutes. You don’t have much time to get ready. I’ll skin out that fox for you today, and you can help me stretch out the pelt after school, OK?”
All day at school Jack couldn’t get the fox off his mind. He didn’t feel any pride in what he had done, but he did realize why it was necessary. He was glad when the final bell rang and he was able to escape to the school bus for the ride home. When he got off the bus, he went past the shed door, directly to the barn, where he found his grandfather had skinned out the fox and disposed of the body. He was waiting for Jack to help nail and stretch the hide to the barn wall so it could dry properly. He said,
“Jack, you need to change out of your school clothes before we do this. If you don’t, your mother and grandmother will be tanning both our hides.”
Jack smiled. He knew that was true. So, he climbed the steps into the shed and stepped inside. As he was taking off his coat he heard a whimper. Puzzled, he looked around until he found the source of the noise. In a cardboard box, against the back wall of the shed, was a little red furry creature that he was delighted to discover to be an Irish Setter puppy. His heart soared as he picked the pup up, noticing that it was a boy, and nuzzled it. The pup was nipping at his nose and lapping him over and over as he squirmed and wiggled in Jack’s arms. The pup could not be more than eight weeks old he was so little. Jack was thrilled. His grandfather somehow appeared behind him and put his hand on Jack’s shoulder,
“It’s a few days early, Jack, but Merry Christmas, What you gonna name your dog, son?”
Jack looked at his grandfather with a smile from ear to ear and responded with one word.