Where I grew up (Pine Village, Indiana), the black loam of the flat farmland stretched to the horizon’s cobalt line encircling the viewer. The dome of the sky cupped the life below. Few trees interrupted the view of clouds, of sunrises, of sunsets. Toward the back of our farm, nearly a mile long, a hedge had managed to hold on in a fencerow. Buffeted by the blizzards of winter and the winds of early spring, the Osage orange trees looked splintered and forlorn, their spiky limbs reaching down as if to grab the earth to keep from being blown away. For many years, a family of foxes lived among the hedge apples.
A Fox in Winter
Engraving by Henry Wolf (1852–1916)
In Harper’s New Monthly Magazine
When disking the earth, I occasionally glimpsed a red fox skipping home, its fluffy tail, almost as big as its body, flying behind and its dark legs flashing like a gentleman’s tall boots during Great Britain’s Regency Era. The white of its cheeks and chin only emphasized the fox’s slight grin, amused at its own cleverness, probably. In moments, the fox vanished amid the tangle of weeds wrapped around the trunks of the venerable Osage orange trees.
Once on an ominous night in the spring, I shook Spot’s leash, and he came running to go for a walk beyond the fenced yard. Spot was my family’s fox terrier, and a much admired dog was he! When he enjoyed an activity, he more than enjoyed it: he loved it! … and he adored going for a walk!
Spot and I set out toward the north past the security of the house, barn, and outbuildings. We took the well-beaten path that the tractors took beside the fields. The wind came in long exhalations that could be heard far off before it could be felt. The air was chilled but not frozen, as it had been in the recent winter. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw small gray clouds scudding overhead. They appeared to be so low that I could touch them, but such was merely an illusion.
Now and then, Spot tugged on the leash, and I quickened my pace to keep up with him. He was having the time of his life, turning his head from side to side, sampling the smorgasbord of smells low to the ground. After a time, we reached the back of the farm. Spot wanted to explore the hedgerow, so I followed him as he trotted toward the gnarled trees.
Suddenly, we heard a growl. “Fox,” I immediately thought. Instinctively, I grabbed Spot around his belly and lifted him to my chest. As the moon broke from behind clouds, I saw the ghostly white of the fox’s face staring in our direction. I backed slowly away. The fox began taking slow steps toward us. Just then, I heard a yipping and yelping that could only be from kits. Sure enough, four pups came tumbling out of the weeds to prance around the legs of their mother!
I kept backing up until I was in the center of the freshly plowed field. Keeping my balance was tricky, as the clods were tilted wherever the plowshares had left them. Growling continually, the mother fox had followed us to a distance of perhaps thirty feet from her den. Abruptly, she whipped around and ran back among the trees, her cubs leaping and tumbling about her in what they perhaps perceived as a game.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Walking back to the house, I traversed a considerable distance before I thought it was safe to put Spot back on the ground. I complimented him because he had refrained from barking throughout the entire encounter with the fox family. I suppose that my hugging him tightly to my body had persuaded him that we were in a potentially dangerous situation, and his instincts likely convinced him that he was better off to remain silent. I think that, had he barked, he might have incited the fox somehow, and I was glad that he had kept his mouth shut.