Photo by Christopher Allen
The fox had been hungry six days.
He was not quite starving, but a fox could only live on corn kernels, summer squash, and grass for so long. He needed meat.
Someone at the Gregory farm had finally discovered the hole he’d dug under the chicken coop, with just enough room for a fox to wiggle inside and swipe a few eggs, or the occasional chicken. He found the perimeter newly encased in barbed wire, and he never had learned how to pick the lock on the main door.
“This,” he thought, “requires a plan.”
He used to get most of his meals from town, where humans threw away more than enough food to keep his tawny belly sated. Raccoons had closed that avenue for everyone by knocking over trash cans and spilling their contents. The fox understood people enough to know they would coexist only with those they didn’t notice. “Ring-tailed fools,” he muttered, reflecting on the troves of garbage the townspeople now kept inside at night.
Since then, he’d relied on the lone farm on the edge of town, a much longer trip from his den in the woods. The sun had come and gone dozens of times since then, and he’d done well for himself with the chickens. In that time, the farmer had taken the spring lambs to town, harvested his summer crops, and was now removing most of the corn from his fields.
Usually, the farm attracted its share of small rodents that could have tided the fox over, but an exterminator had been around. The fox cursed his effectiveness, and that of the scarecrows. Crow wasn’t chicken, but it would do in a pinch.
“I could use a bit of mutton,” he said to himself as he eyed the full sheep paddock. The challenge, of course, was the sheep all had a size advantage on him; even if he took one down, he’d struggle to get it through the fence. The border collie who guarded the sheep presented another problem. In these months of farm visits, the fox had always found the dog an attentive and intimidating presence.
After one more attempt to get to the chicken coop, the fox formed his plan. Once dusk fell and he confirmed the farmer was in for the night, he scampered to the wide paddock and hopped atop the surrounding fence.
As he expected, the dog rushed at him almost instantly, growling and barking. The fox quickly leapt to the highest fencepost, and flicked his tail just out of the jumping collie’s reach. While the sheep pressed together, he counted more than four dozen full-grown ungulates, any one of whom could feed him for weeks.
First, he had to contend with the dog. “My dear fellow,” he began, in the most charming voice he could manage. “I promise that I am as afraid as you wish me to be. I have no intention of killing any of your charges. I just want to talk to them.”
“Then why don’t you get out of here?” the dog growled. “You jump in this pen, and I’ll rip you apart.”
“Understood, understood.” The fox placed his paws up in a show of surrender, though the dog still jumped and snapped at him. He raised his voice and called to the sheep, over the dog’s barking, “As for you, I simply want a word. Call off your dog, and I promise to stay right here on this post.”
“Why should we believe you?” asked one of the smaller ewes.
“None of you can fit through the fence, can you?” Their silence admitted agreement. “I couldn’t drag one of you through if I tried, and even if I did jump in, the dog would make short work of me. Agreed?”
A few of the sheep nodded.
“Then please ask your canine friend to quiet down and move out of the way.”
The fox could tell the sheep remained wary, but two went over and spoke to the border collie. The dog stopped barking, but still glared. The fox motioned with his paw a few times until the dog backed up, never breaking eye contact.
“Now, the rest of you, gather round. I have a business proposition for you.”
“What could you have that we need?” asked the ram closest to the fence.
“Not what I have, but what I can offer. Your freedom from this farm.”
“Why, so you can eat us?” another sheep answered.
“I am an honest fox,” he said. “You’re right that I could use a good meal of mutton, and that is what I hope to gain from our arrangement—”
“What did I tell you?” the dog yelled. “He’s just another predator wanting to eat you. You’re safe right where you are.”
Here, the fox looked around him, making a show of checking that the farmer wasn’t coming. “Safe? Where you are? You don’t believe that, do you?”
“The dog keeps the wolves away, and the fence protects us,” one sheep said.
“And who keeps you safe from the farmer?” The fox knew he had the baited the hook properly. He decided not to mention that he’d never seen a wolf anywhere near the farm, or even in the woods.
The sheep talked over one another, and over the dog’s attempts to butt in. “The farmer takes care of us.” “Why do we need to be safe from the farmer?” “What are you talking about?”
“The farmer only takes care of you until it’s time to eat you. All of you. Where do you think he took your spring lambs?”
“To the farm in town,” several yelled back at once. That exchange quieted the dog, whose face fell.
“He took them to town, but not to any farm,” the fox said, hanging his head. “All of them were slaughtered for meat.”
Some of the sheep protested, but the dog’s face was their confirmation.
“Wild predators like myself, we hunt the old and the sick, and kill only what we need to live. The monsters who keep you in this pen kill your children before they even have a chance at life. And what’s worse, they don’t even eat them all. If nobody purchases the corpse in time, they just throw it away without a thought, a complete waste of a life. You’re afraid of me, but you allow this?”
The border collie had ceased staring at the fox, which allowed him to hop from the post onto the top slat of the fence as the sheep drew closer.
“Now, I admitted I want to eat one of you. But I’ll only take one, where that farmer will eat all of you. Some of you soon, some of you after you give him another group of babies for him to kill. He would rather eat eight babies for the same meat I’d get from just one sheep. It’s up to all of you to choose whether that happens from now on.”
“You can stay here and have this dog guard you until the farmer comes to kill you. Or I can let you out of this pen and take you to the woods. There’s plenty of food, and far more room than you have here. I’ll make sure no wolf comes, and all I ask is that after every twenty or so moons, you give me one of your number. You make your selection however you want, you take care of it, and just deliver the results to me.”
Two rams cornered the border collie to keep him at bay while the other sheep conversed. The fox deliberately sat too far to eavesdrop, certain in the outcome.
Once the sheep agreed to his terms, the fox ran along the fence to the paddock door, and pushed the sliding lock until it sprang open. The flock streamed out the open door, save the two rams who kept the dog from following. When the rest were free, they exited and helped push the door back in place, so the fox could lock the dog alone for the night.
Mimicking as best he could the dog’s herding technique, the fox kept his word and brought all the sheep to the woods, arriving just as dawn was breaking in the west. “As you can see, you have all the space and food you need. I am going to repair to my den, but you will need to keep your end of our bargain before the sun sets again.”
When the fox emerged from his den the next evening, he found a dead ewe the others had left a few yards away. He feasted for days, sleeping every night with a full belly and a relaxed mind.
As the seasons changed, the fox’s plan continued to keep him well fed. He never asked the other sheep how they chose which of their number to bring him, or how they were killed. He never asked those questions as the sun came and went dozens of times, the next spring’s lambs were left to grow into sheep, and the flock provided him fresh mutton from time to time. He never had to return to the Gregory farm, or felt the need to risk his neck for the taste of chicken.
“Sometimes, I worry I’ve become a lazy fox,” he thought to himself, “but I’ve never been any but an honest one.”
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than two dozen publications including the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, The Saturday Evening Post, and So It Goes by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. He is also the author of non-fiction books including Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections (Zest Books, 2016), Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries“(Zest Books, 2015), and The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, The New Republic, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler, and dozens of other local, national. and international publications.