Home  

A White Day And A Red Fox

From "In The Catskills" (1910)

The day was indeed white, as white as three feet of snow and a cloudless St. Valentine's sun could make it. The eye could not look forth without blinking, or veiling itself with tears. The patch of plowed ground on the top of the hill, where the wind had blown the snow away, was as welcome to it as water to a parched tongue. It was the one refreshing oasis in this desert of dazzling light. I sat down upon it to let the eye bathe and revel in it. It took away the smart like a poultice. For so gentle and on the whole so beneficent an element, the snow asserts itself very proudly. It takes the world quickly and entirely to itself. It makes no concessions or compromises, but rules despotically. It baffles and bewilders the eye, and it returns the sun glare for glare. Its coming in our winter climate is the hand of mercy to the earth and to everything in its bosom, but it is a barrier and an embargo to everything that moves above.

We toiled up the long steep hill, where only an occasional mullein-stalk or other tall weed stood above the snow. Near the top the hill was girded with a bank of snow that blotted out the stone wall and every vestige of the earth beneath. These hills wear this belt till May, and sometimes the plow pauses bedside them. From the top of the ridge an immense landscape in immaculate white stretches before us. Miles upon miles of farms, smoothed and padded by the stainless element, hang upon the sides of the mountains, or repose across the long sloping hills. The fences or stone walls show like half-obliterated black lines. I turn my back to the sun, or shade my eyes with my hand. Every object or movement in the landscape is sharply revealed; one could see a fox half a league. The farmer foddering his cattle, or drawing manure afield, or leading his horse to water; the pedestrian crossing the hill below; the children wending their way toward the distant schoolhouse,-the eye cannot help but note them: they are black specks upon square miles of luminous white. What a multitude of sins this unstinted charity of the snow covers! How it flatters the ground! Yonder sterile field might be a garden, and you would never suspect that that gentle slope with its pretty dimples and curves was not the smoothest of meadows, yet it is paved with rocks and stone.

The Downlook From A High Hillside

But what is that black speck creeping across that cleared field near the top of the mountain at the head of the valley, three quarters of a mile away? It is like a fly moving across an illuminated surface. A distant mellow bay floats to us, and we know it is the hound. He picked up the trail of the fox half an hour since, where he had crossed the ridge early in the morning, and now he has routed him and Reynard is steering for the Big Mountain. We press on and attain the shoulder of the range, where we strike a trail two or three day old of some former hunters, which leads us into the woods along the side of the mountain. We are on the first plateau before the summit; the snow partly supports us, but when it gives way and we sound it with our legs, we find it up to our hips. Here we enter a white world indeed. It is like some conjurer's trick. The very trees have turned to snow. The smallest branch is like a cluster of great white antlers. The eye is bewildered by the soft fleecy labyrinth before it. On the lower ranges the forests were entirely bare, but now we perceive the summit of every mountain about us runs up into a kind of arctic region where the trees are loaded with snow. The beginning of this colder zone is sharply marked all around the horizon; the line runs as level as the shore line of a lake or sea; indeed, a warmer aerial sea fills all the valleys, submerging the lower peaks, and making white islands of all the higher ones. The branches bend with the rime. The winds have not shaken it down.

 
It adheres to them like a growth. On examination I find the branches coated with ice, from which shoot slender spikes and needles that penetrate and hold the cord of snow. It is a new kind of foliage wrought by the frost and the clouds, and it obscures the sky, and fills the vistas of the woods nearly as much as the myriad leaves of summer. The sun blazes, the sky is without a cloud or a film, yet we walk in a soft white shade. A gentle breeze was blowing on the open crest of the mountain, but one could carry a lighted candle through these snow-curtained and snow-canopied chambers. How shall we see the fox if the hound drives him through this white obscurity? But we listen in vain for the voice of the dog and press on. Hares tracks were numerous. Their great soft pads had left their imprint everywhere, sometimes showing a clear leap of ten feet. They had regular circuits which we crossed at intervals. The woods were well suited to them, low and dense, and, as we saw, liable at times to wear a livery whiter than their own.

The mice, too, how thick their tracks were, that of the white-footed mouse being most abundant; but occasionally there was a much finer track, with strides or leaps scarcely more than an inch apart. This is perhaps the little shrew-mouse of the woods, the body not more than an inch and a half long, the smallest mole or mouse kind known to me. Once, while encamping in the woods, one of these tiny shrews got into an empty pail standing in camp, and died before morning, either from the cold, or in despair of ever getting out of the pail.

At one point, around a small sugar maple, the mice-tracks are unusually thick. It is doubtless their granary ; they have beech-nuts stored there, I'll warrant. There are two entrances to the cavity of the tree,-one at the base, and one seven or eight feet up. At the upper one, which is only just the size of a mouse, a squirrel has been trying to break in. He has cut and chiseled the solid wood to the depth of nearly an inch, and his chips strew the snow all about. He knows what is in there, and the mice know that he knows; hence their apparent consternation. They have rushed wildly about over the snow, and, I doubt not, have given the piratical red squirrel a piece of their minds. A few yards away the mice have a hole down into the snow, which perhaps leads to some snug den under the ground. Hither they may have been slyly removing their stores while the squirrel was at work with his back turned. Once more night and he will effect an entrance: what a good joke upon him if he finds the cavity empty! These native mice are very provident, and, I imagine, have to take many precautions to prevent their winter stores being plundered by the squirrels, who live, as it were, from hand to mouth.

We see several fresh fox-tracks, and wish for the hound, but there are no tidings of him. After half an hour's floundering and cautiously picking our way through the woods, we emerge into a cleared field that stretches up from the valley below, and just laps over the back of the mountain. It is a broad belt of white that drops down and down till it joins other fields that sweep along the base of the mountain, a mile away. To the east, through a deep defile in the mountains, a landscape in an adjoining county lifts itself up, like a bank of white and gray clouds.

When the experienced fox-hunter comes out upon such an eminence as this, he always scrutinizes the fields closely that lie beneath him, and it many times happens that his sharp eye detects Reynard asleep upon a rock or a stone wall, in which case, if he be armed with a rifle and his dog be not near, the poor creature never wakens from his slumber. The fox nearly always takes his nap in the open fields, along the sides of the ridges, or under the mountain, where he can look down upon the busy farms beneath and hear their many sounds, the barking of dogs, the lowing of cattle, the cackling of hens, the voices of men and boys, or the sound of travel upon the highway. It is on that side, too, that he keeps the sharpest lookout, and the appearance of the hunter above and behind him is always a surprise.

We pause here, and, with alert ears turned toward the Big Mountain in front of us, listen for the dog. But not a sound is heard. A flock of snow buntings pass high above us, uttering their contented twitter, and their white forms seen against the intense blue give the impression of large snowflakes drifting across the sky. I hear a purple finch, too, and the feeble lisp of the redpoll. A shrike (the first I have seen this season) finds occasion to come this way also. He alights on the tip of a dry limb, and from his perch can see into the valley on both sides of the mountain. He is prowling about for chickadees, no doubt, a troop of which I saw coming through the wood. When pursued by the shrike, the chickadee has been seen to take refuge in a squirrel-hole in a tree. Hark! Is that the hound, or doth expectation mock the eager ear? With open mouths and bated breaths we listen. Yes, it is old "Singer;" he is bringing the fox over the top of the range toward Butt End, the Ultima Thule of the hunters tramps in this section. In a moment or two the dog is lost to hearing again. We wait for his second turn; then for his third.

"He is playing about the summit," says my companion.

"Let us go there," say I, and we are off.

More dense snow-hung woods beyond the clearing where we begin our ascent of the Big Mountain,-a chief that carries the range up several hundred feet higher than the part we have thus far traversed. We are occasionally to our hips in the snow, but for the most part the older stratum, a foot or so down, bears us; up and up we go into the dim, muffled solitudes, our hats and coats powdered like millers'. A half-hour's heavy tramping brings us to the broad, level summit, and to where the fox and hound have crossed and recrossed many times. As we are walking along discussing the matter, we suddenly hear the dog coming straight on to us. The woods are so choked with snow that we do not hear him till he breaks up from the mountain within a hundred yards of us.

"We have turned the fox!" we both exclaim, much put out.

Sure enough, we have. The dog appears in sight, is puzzled a moment, then turns sharply to the left, and is lost to eye and to ear as quickly as if he had plunged into a cave. The woods are, indeed, a kind of cave,-a cave of alabaster, with the sun shining upon it. We take up positions and wait. These old hunters know exactly where to stand.

"If the fox comes back," said my companion, "he will cross up there or down here," indicating two points not twenty rods asunder.

We stood so that each commanded one of the runways indicated. How light it was, though the sun was hidden! Every branch and twig beamed in the sun like a lamp. A downy woodpecker below me kept us a great fuss and clatter,-all for my benefit, I suspected. All about me were great, soft mounds, where the rocks lay buried. It was a cemetery of drift boulders. There! that is the hound. Does his voice come across the valley from the spur off against us, or is it on our side down under the mountain? After an interval, just as I am thinking the dog is going away from us along the opposite range, his voice comes up astonishingly near. A mass of snow falls from a branch, and makes one start; but it is not fox. Then through the white vista below me I catch a glimpse of something red or yellow, yellowish red or reddish yellow; it emerges from the lower ground, and, with an easy, jaunty air, draws near. I am ready and just in the mood to make a good shot. The fox stops just out of range and listens for the hound. He looks as bright as an autumn leaf upon the spotless surface. Then he starts on, but he is not coming to me, he is going to the other man. Oh, foolish fox, you are going straight into the jaws of death! My comrade stands just there beside that tree. I would gladly have given Reynard the wink, or signaled to him, if I could. It did seem a pity to shoot him, now he was out of my reach. I cringe for him, when crack goes the gun! The fox squalls, picks himself up, and plunges over the brink of the mountain. The hunter has not missed him aim, out the oil in his gun, he says, has weakened the strength of his powder. The hound, hearing the report, comes like a whirlwind and is off in hot pursuit. Both fox and dog now bleed,-the dog at his heels, the fox from his wounds.

The Fox-Hunter And His Hound

In a few minutes there came up from under the mountain that long, peculiar bark which the hound always makes when he has run the fox in, or when something new and extraordinary has happened. In this instance he said plainly enough, "The race is up, the coward has taken to his hole, ho-o-o-le." Plunging down in the direction of the sound, the snow literally to our waists, we were soon at the spot, a great ledge thatched over with three or four feet of snow. The dog was alternately licking his heels and whining and berating the fox. The opening into which the latter had fled was partially closed, and, as I scraped out and cleared away the snow, I thought of the familiar saying, that so far as the sun shines in, the snow will blow in. The fox, I suspect, has always his house of refuge, or knows at once where to flee to if hard pressed. This place proved to be a large vertical seam in the rock, into which the dog, on a little encouragement from his master, made his way. I thrust my head into the ledge's mouth, and in the dim light watched the dog. He progressed slowly and cautiously till only his bleeding heels were visible. Here some obstacle impeded him a few moments, when he entirely disappeared and was presently face to face with the fox and engaged in mortal combat with him. It is fierce encounter there beneath the rocks, the fox silent, the dog very vociferous. But after a time the superior weight and strength of the latter prevails and the fox is brought to light nearly dead. Reynard winks and eyes me suspiciously, as I stroke his head and praise his heroic defense; but the hunter quickly and mercifully puts an end to his fast-ebbing life. His canine teeth seem unusually large and formidable, and the dog bears the marks of them in many deep gashes upon his face and nose. His pelt is quickly stripped off, revealing his lean, sinewy form.

 
The fox was not as poor in flesh as I expected to see him, though I'll warrant he had tasted very little food for days, perhaps for weeks. How his great activity and endurance can be kept up, on the spare die he must of necessity be confined to, is a mystery. Snow, snow everywhere, for weeks and for months, and intense cold, and no henroost accessible, and no carcass of sheep or pig in the neighborhood! The hunter, tramping miles and leagues through his haunts, rarely sees any sign of his having caught anything. Rarely, though, in the course of many winters, he may have seen evidence of his having surprised a rabbit or partridge in the woods. He no doubt at this season lives largely upon the memory (or the fat) of the many good dinners he had in the plentiful summer and fall.

As we crossed the mountain on our return, we saw at one point blood-stains upon the snow, and, as the fox-tracks were very thick on and about it, we concluded that a couple of males had had an encounter there, and a pretty sharp one. Reynard goes-a-wooing in February, and it is to be presumed that, like other dogs, he is a jealous lover. A crow had alighted and examined the blood-stains, and now, if he will look a little farther along, upon a flat rock he will find the flesh he was looking for. Our hound's nose was so blunted now, speaking without metaphor, that he would not look at another trail, but hurried home to rest upon his laurels.


Other John Burroughs Sites:


Home
Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery