A DROLL FOX-TRAP

By C. A. Stephens

When I was a boy I lived in one of those rustic neighborhoods on the outskirts of the great "Maine woods." Foxes were plenty, for about all those sunny pioneer clearings birch-partridges breed by thousands, as also field-mice and squirrels, making plenty of game for Reynard.

There were red foxes, "cross-grays," and "silver-grays;" even black foxes were reported. These animals were the pests of the farm-yards, and made havoc with the geese, cats, turkeys, and chickens. In the fall of the year, particularly after the frosts, the clearings were overrun by them night and morning. Their sharp, cur-like barks used often to rouse us, and of a dark evening we would hear them out in the fields, "mousing" around the stone-heaps, making a queer, squeaking sound like a mouse, to call the real mice out of their grass nests inside the stone-heaps. This, indeed, is a favorite trick of Reynard.

At the time of my story, my friend Tom Edwards (ten years of age) and myself were in the turkey business, equal partners. We owned a flock of thirty-one turkeys. These roosted by night in a large butternut tree in front of Tom's house—in the very top of it, and by day they wandered about the edges of the clearings in quest of beech-nuts, which were very plentiful that fall.

All went well till the last week in October, when, on taking the census one morning, a turkey was found to be missing; the thirty-one had become thirty since nightfall the previous evening. It was the first one we had lost.

We proceeded to look for traces. Our suspicions were divided. Tom thought it was "the Twombly boys," nefarious Sam in particular. I thought it might have been an owl. But under the tree, in the soft dirt, where the potatoes had recently been dug, we found fox-tracks, and two or three ominous little wads of feathers, with one long tail feather adrift. Thereupon we concluded that the turkey had accidentally fallen down out of the butternut—had a fit, perhaps—and that its flutterings had attracted the attention of some passing fox, which had, forthwith, taken it in charge. It was, as we regarded it, one of those unfortunate occurrences which no care on our part could have well foreseen, and a casualty such as turkey-raisers are unavoidably heirs to, and we bore our loss with resignation. We were glad to remember that turkeys did not often fall off their roosts.

This theory received something of a check when our flock counted only twenty-nine the next morning. There were more fox-tracks, and a great many more feathers under the tree. This put a new and altogether ugly aspect on the matter. No algebra was needed to figure the outcome of the turkey business at this rate, together with our prospective profits, in the light of this new fact. It was clear that something must be done, and at once, too, or ruin would swallow up the poultry firm.

Rightly or wrongly, we attributed the mischief to a certain "silver-gray" that had several times been seen in the neighborhood that autumn.

It would take far too much space to relate in detail the plans we laid and put in execution to catch that fox during the next two weeks. I recollect that we set three traps for him to no purpose, and that we borrowed a fox-hound to hunt him with, but merely succeeded in running him to the burrow in a neighboring rocky hill-side, whence we found it quite impossible to dislodge the wily fellow.

Meanwhile the fox (or foxes) had succeeded in getting two more of the turkeys.

Heroes, it is said, are born of great crises. This dilemma of ours developed Tom's genius.

"I'll have that fox," he said, when the traps failed; and when the hound proved of no avail he still said: "I'll have him yet."

"But how?" I asked. Tom said he would show me. He brought a two-bushel basket and went out into the fields. In the stone-heaps, and beside the old logs and stumps, there were dozens of deserted mouse-nests, each a wad of fine dry grass as large as a quart box. These were gathered up, and filled the great basket.

"There," said he, triumphantly, "don't them smell mousey?"

They did, certainly; they savored as strongly of mice as Tom's question of bad grammar.

"And don't foxes catch mice?" demanded Tom, confidently.

"Yes, but I don't see how that's going to catch the fox," I said.

"Well, look here, then, I'll show ye," said he. "Play you's the fox; and play 't was night, and you was prowling around the fields. Go off now out there by that stump."

Full of wonder and curiosity, I retired to the stump. Tom, meantime, turned out the mass of nests, and with it completely covered himself. The pile now resembled an enormous mouse-nest, or rather a small hay-cock. Pretty soon I heard a low, high-keyed, squeaking noise, accompanied by a slight rustle inside the nest. Evidently there were mice in it; and, feeling my character as fox at stake, I at once trotted forward, then crept up, and, as the rustling and squeaking continued, made a pounce into the grass—as I had heard it said that foxes did when mousing. Instantly two spry brown hands from out the nest clutched me with a most vengeful grip. As a fox, I struggled tremendously. But Tom overcame me forthwith, choked me nearly black in the face, then, in dumb show, knocked my head with a stone.

"D'ye see, now!" he demanded.

I saw.

"But a fox would bite you," I objected.

"Let him bite," said Tom. "I'll resk him when once I get these two bread-hooks on him. And he can't smell me through the mouse-nests either."

That night we set ourselves to put the stratagem in operation. With the dusk we stole out into the field where the stone-heaps were, and where we had oftenest heard foxes bark. Selecting a nook in the edge of a clump of raspberry briars which grew about a great pine-stump, Tom lay down, and I covered him up completely with the contents of the big basket. He then practiced squeaking and rustling several times to be sure that all was in good trim. His squeaks were perfect successes—made by sucking the air sharply betwixt his teeth.

"Now be off," said Tom, "and don't come poking around, nor get in sight, till you hear me holler."

Thus exhorted, I went into the barn and established myself at a crack on the back side, which looked out upon the field where Tom was ambushed.

Tom, meanwhile, as he afterward told me, waited till it had grown dark, then began squeaking and rustling at intervals, to draw the attention of the fox when first he should come out into the clearing, for foxes have ears so wonderfully acute, that they are able to hear a mouse squeak twenty rods away, it is said.

An hour passed. Tom must have grown pretty tired of squeaking. It was a moonless evening, though not very dark. I could see objects at a little distance through the crack, but could not see so far as the stump. It got rather dull, watching there; and being amidst nice cozy straw, I presently went to sleep, quite unintentionally. I must have slept some time, though it seemed to me but a very few minutes.

What woke me was a noise—a sharp suppressed yelp. It took me a moment to understand where I was, and why I was there. A sound of scuffling and tumbling on the ground at some distance assisted my wandering wits, and I rushed out of the barn and ran toward the field. As I ran, two or three dull whacks came to my ear.

"Got him, Tom?" I shouted, rushing up.

Tom was holding and squeezing one of his hands with the other and shaking it violently. He said not a word, and left me to poke about and stumble on the limp warm carcass of a large fox that lay near.

"Bite ye?" I exclaimed, after satisfying myself that the fox was dead.

"Some," said Tom; and that was all I could get from him that night.

We took the fox to the house and lighted a candle. It was the "silver-gray."

Tom washed his bite in cold water and went to bed. Next morning he was in a sorry and a very sore plight. His left hand was bitten through the palm, and badly swollen. There was also a deep bite in the fleshy part of his right arm, just below the elbow, several minor nips in his left leg above the knee, and a ragged "grab" in the chin. These numerous bites, however, were followed by no serious ill effects.

The next day, Tom told me that the fox had suddenly plunged into the grass, that he had caught hold of one of its hind legs, and that they had rolled over and over in the grass together. He owned to me that when the fox bit him on the chin, he let go of the brute, and would have given up the fight, but that the fox had then actually attacked him. "Upon that," said Tom, "I just determined to have it out with him."

Considering the fact that a fox is a very active, sharp-biting animal, and that this was an unusually large male, I have always thought Tom got off very well. I do not think that he ever cared to make a fox-trap of himself again, however.

We sold the fox-skin in the village, and received thirteen dollars for it, whereas a common red fox-skin is worth no more than three dollars.

How, or by what wiles that fox got the turkeys out of the high butternut, is a secret—one that perished with him. It would seem that he must either have climbed the tree, or else have practiced sorcery to make the turkey come down.