Working his way south amid the weakening light, the nimble man crunched through old snow. To his left lay a windswept field of wheat stubble and, to his right, a fence shadowed by a line of empty cottonwoods. Over his shoulder, he toted a pump shotgun while his gray eyes searched, intent, not looking for a goose for the pot but with luck a pelt to sell. Trailing in his wake was a small boy. A light snow fell.
Through the barbed wire, around the cottonwoods, below and across an open field was a small herd. The cattle stood together near an ice-choked river, where it would be another long night until the sound of the tractor foretold the morning hay. Though winter was a reality, a pair of thick-tailed foxes danced amongst the herd. The male darted back and forth, nose low, and when this brought no response from her, he leapt into the air, twirling and swirling in concert with the wind and snow. She joined him, and the mated pair courted while the cold silent cattle watched.
The man also watched. He had spotted the foxes an hour ago as he bent at the river, chopping a hole in the shore ice with a dull axe so his cattle could drink. The rancher respected the winter ice; a man could slip and go under but the herd must have water. A cow without water to digest its feed soon dies. To the rancher, the cattle meant livelihood—food and shelter for his growing family—so he tended them with great care.
Standing in the hush chill of a sheltering tree, the father pondered, “The distance through the cottonwoods to the cattle is too great for the pump gun, but a fox pelt pays bills. How can I get closer?” He looked down at his son, wondering if the boy was still warm and asked in a soft low voice, “Can you see the foxes?” Blue eyes sparkling, the child looked up and nodded. The wind and the snow spun. The cattle stood mute. The foxes danced.
The father with the labor-torn hands stooped low and pulled his son’s collar up to guard the boy’s cheeks. “Backtrack along the fence, at the gate, slither between the slats then follow the tractor path past the cattle to the riverbank. Be careful,” the father said. Eager, the son nodded his understanding and rushed off north along the fence. The father watched his son push through the snow and out of sight then peered again through the cottonwoods to mark the location of the happy dancers.
His plan would have the foxes spot the boy and run for safety in the opposite direction. This was a well-known escape habit of foxes and a means to their undoing. The hunter hoped to be in their path, he hoped for shooting luck, and he hoped the fading light would hold.
As the son approached the cattle, the red foxes noticed the human figure and ran. The cattle watched. The son stopped and listened, waiting. Time ticked but nothing, no thunder booming from winter-bitter metal. Just as his feet became numb, fighting the urge to run for the house, the boy’s father materialized.
“Are you all right, Son?” the father asked.
“My feet are cold, Dad,” the son said.
In one smooth motion, the father lifted his son into the crook of his arm and hurried home. As he strode, the moisture from his breath formed white frost on the bill of his leather cap. Neither spoke until after the gate.
“What happened, Dad? Did I do something wrong?”
“No, Son. You did fine. I’m proud of you.”
“How did they get away?”
“They didn’t, Son. I just couldn’t.”
Up the hill from the gate, past the barn, was the old stone house. Already the two could see a glow radiating from the kitchen, and both knew there would be a crackling fire to warm small cold toes. Safe and secure, the son nestled deep against his father, now wishing to remain there forever. At the door, the father and the son peered through a frosted window and into the cozy kitchen.
“I can’t wait to tell Mom about the foxes,” said the son.
“She will be happy to hear your story,” said the father.