Number Thirty



By: Kevin Dunse

The winter light waned quickly, and the full moon began to show its true colors as the freshly fallen snow turned blue in its glare. In near silence, I slipped through the woods with a confident swagger, sliding under logs and through brush with a grace that could be challenged by no other beast. I was a Manitoban gray fox, one of the last of my rare kind. It was the night of the first snow, and from the many years past I knew what this night would bring. They called my kind the sungila, and we were hated fiercely.

I prepared myself for the night of first snow by distancing myself from man. My relationship with man was one of exchange. In my age of many moons, I had begun to rely on man, stealing from him the food on which I lived. For this, man hated me, and on the night of the first snow he would run me to the ends of the earth.

As I crawled through undergrowth that was home to the rabbits I had hunted in my youth, I turned my eyes to the sky. The moon had reached full height, casting its glow across the snowy expanse. I stopped to lick the frozen clumps from between my toes, and then I heard it.

The horn sounded like the bugle of a bull elk. Following it were the bellows of the foxhounds that had tracked me in so many years past. I had traveled a seemingly long distance, but I knew that the well-conditioned foxhounds would be upon me in moments. I began to vary my trail. Moving up and down logs, across creeks, and even up and down trees. I ran until I could run no longer. I moved for many miles, until my elderly body could move no longer. I had free range, as my kind were few and far between, and I had no contenders. I moved until I could no  longer, and I knew it would not be far enough. At this, I coiled into a hollowed log and awaited my fate.

I listened as the hounds bellowed away into the night, defeating every obstacle I had thrown at them. They crossed the creek with a vigor that could only be had in an animal, a true beast. I was not safe, and I knew it. With age had gone my endurance, and with my gluttony I had grown lazy. I was foolish to allow such things to overcome me. I backed deeper into the hollowed log as the hounds moved closer and closer. My breaths grew sharper and the log felt as though it were constricting around me. The hounds drew closer and closer yet, and I knew that my life would be drawing to a close within mere moments. I panicked. I couldn’t sit. I had to run.

I slithered out of the hollowed log and peered across the flat expanse. I heard the bellows of the hounds and within seconds I could see them, ears flopping and noses held tightly to the ground. I spun in the opposite direction and moved up the hill towards the largest oak tree in the land that I had roamed as a young dog. I stopped at the base of the tree and saw that one hound had spotted me and was closing the ground quickly. I looked up the trunk, and pulled the last trick that I had up my sleeve; one that few Manitoban foxhounds had seen in many years.

I reached the first scraggly limb of the oak tree and peered down to the hound that had treed me. I could see its dark brown face staring up at me, split by a strip of white. I feared its endless bellows would shake me out of the tree. I looked the beast in the eyes and knew that this was the face of death. I no longer had the agility to move through the trees and had cornered myself. All that I could do was sit and wait. Wait for the slower hounds. Wait for the man that inevitably followed. Wait for death.

 

I stood leaning on the bed of my truck, smoking the last cigarette that I had in my pack. For the ninth year in a row, I found myself at the old Vandervelden farm. For many years, a fox had tormented the native family’s stock, and for years I had failed to kill the beast. I knew that this year my luck would change. I had always lost the fox in the most strange of ways. He did things that foxes should not be able to do. He was a spirit of the wilderness, a beast that’s cunning was challenged by no other animal I had ever encountered. With that thought, I threw down my cigarette and stomped it into the dirt. I looked up to see that the moon was high in the sky, and I lowered the tailgate of my truck. I unlatched the large dog box contained within the bed and let my trio of American foxhounds jump down onto the frozen ground. Within no time, they had struck a track. I reached into the back seat of my truck and carried on a tradition that my father had taught me when I starting fox hunting many years ago as a child; blowing the horn. I blew a hearty blow and sounded the beginning of the hunt. I then watched the dogs as they ran into the moonlight. Certain of their direction, I crawled back into my truck and started off to get ahead of them.

I knew from my experience with this fox that it always seemed to cross one dug road in the same spot just a few hundred yards over the ridge of a hill. I reached the spot in a timely manner to ensure that the animal wouldn’t get too far ahead of the hounds. I stopped one hundred and fifty yards away from where the fox was sure to cross and exited my truck. I first stopped to listen, and I confirmed that the hounds were headed my way. I then took a moment to remove my gun from the back of the truck. I admired it after getting it into the moon’s glow. It was a bolt action 12-gauge, engraved with The Original Marlin Goose Gun along the barrel. In the bluing near the inscribed lettering were twenty-nine crude tallies. Each mark represented a red fox that had fallen dead to a shot from the unusual weapon. The two round magazine slid into the well smoothly, and I locked a No. 4 buckshot shell into the chamber. I then removed the magazine and placed in a third and final shell before returning the magazine to the gun.

I put the firearm on safe and crept down the road to the spot where the fox crossed every year without fail, a lack of tracks in the fresh snow reassured me that the mysterious animal had not yet crossed the road. I sat down, leaning against a tree nearly perfectly on the path the fox would take. Soon, I thought. For now, it’s a waiting game.

I bursted awake in the snow. The waiting game had taken too long, and I had nodded off to sleep. Large flakes of snow fell silently in the brightening morning sky. I stood and brushed them from myself and my gun. It was then that I first heard the hounds, sounding like ringing bells in the otherwise silent and peaceful night. They didn’t move towards me, staying in the same place. I began to move to look for tracks, but I quickly realized that it would be useless in the fresh snowfall and set off into the wilderness after my dogs.

 

The slower dogs soon caught up, yet there was little that they could do to reach me—and little that I could do to escape them. They attempted to rocket themselves up the tree at me to no avail, sounding their awful howls across the land. I knew man to be a slow and clumsy creature, but he was one who’s firestick could deal great harm to all wild things. The snow began to fall again, soon in larger and larger flakes until the blizzard was nearly obscuring all vision. The violent winds drew cold and blew the flakes sideways, until the forest was hardly visible from my perch high in the tree. In the violent weather, I quickly drew tired of life. My bones ached deeply and I was wrapped in a veil formed by the freezing air as it coiled around me. I finally began to wish for the hunter to come as the hours of night passed into hours of morning.

 

I trudged through the deep snow to find out why the dogs had stopped. I was sure that my opportunity was wasted again, bringing the hunt for this animal into the tenth year. I wanted nothing more than to take this animal's pelt to the taxidermist. I went about 300 yards into the woods before spying my dogs leaping up a tree, sounding into the night.

My initial thought was that they had treed a bobcat. It had happened once before, and it had sprung from the tree as I approached. This beast did not leap. As I approached the base of the tree, it did not take me long to spot a pair of eyes peering back down at me. It stood as I raised my gun, and I saw the canine outline. I placed the bead over the area of the lungs and squeezed the trigger.

 

I laid in my tree as I watched him approach. His long firestick rested in his arms as he walked. He came up just underneath me as I stood in my final act of defiance. I heard a click come from his firestick just moments before it let out a roar and licked flames in my direction. I dropped and held tightly to the branch in my last thoughts of life. I felt the warmth of the blood leaking down my sides as I kicked myself off of the branch subconsciously. The fall felt strange, as I never hit the ground. My last memory was being caught around the throat by the strong grip of the jaws of an american foxhound. The last memory of my kind. The Manitoban gray fox.

 

I rushed over to my hound and pried my prize from his jaws. As I pulled it above their heads, I was incredibly surprised to see a gray fox, not the usual red. It was an animal like I had never seen before, unmatched in beauty. The blood stained his mottled coat and frothed from his mouth. I returned to the truck as the sun began to crest the horizon and returned the dogs to their box. I laid the fox onto the tailgate of the truck and admired it. It was an old dog, with aged cuts and teeth worn to nearly flat. He was covered in a thick layer of fat and crippled. The fact that I had finally killed the Vandervelden fox had settled in. I laid him gently in the bed of the truck and closed the tailgate. Before crawling back into the cab, I took my hunting knife and sliced the thirtieth notch into the bluing of my gun. I put the key into the ignition of the old Ford and it grumbled to life. Putting it into drive, I began to reflect. It would be daylight by the time I hit town, and I was exhausted, but I drove for lack of choice. My hands that had been numbed by snow and wind began to thaw. I decided that my first stop in town would be for food, and then I’d be off to taxidermist. As I pulled off the dirt road towards town, I realized that I had almost forgot to show Old Mr. Vandervelden.

 

 

Kevin is a 15-year-old from Wisconsin.