If the house had ever been painted it had been decades ago, and a handwritten index card duct-taped to the door read, "Owner armed and dangerous. Nothing inside worth dying for," and another read, "If you have a cold, the flu, or any other plague, go visit a Yankees fan and leave me alone"; but we knew our knocks would be greeted by the gnarled, aged, yet handsome face of its only tenant, Wade Martin.
My son and I were heartily welcomed into Wade's home, which also served as his trophy case featuring Boone and Crockett cited grizzly bears, Kodiak brown bear, and Dall ram. We took seats at the kitchen table while Wade added more wood to the kitchen stove and then served us tea.
It was a cold December day and our visit had two purposes: one, to cut a Christmas tree from among the remnants of Wade's recently defunct Christmas tree farm, and the other, to ask Wade for permission to set a couple raccoon and fox traps on his property.
Wade had provided Christmas trees to my family ever since Grandpa McConnell and Wade became neighbors back in the 1950s. Their two farms abutted. Grandpa McConnell raised horses and operated a riding stable, and Wade raised Christmas trees and operated his own personal hunting and trapping preserve. Wade took a lot of things seriously—baseball, guns, politics, card games--but nothing more seriously than hunting, fishing, and trapping.
To the already mentioned big game trophies in the house, add moose, elk, caribou, mule deer, white-tail deer, bighorn ram, stone ram, desert ram, pronghorn, and black bear. Throw in wolverine, red fox, gray fox, coyote, gray wolf and you have an incomplete list of mounts and pelts that Wade had collected during the sixty years or so from the mid-1930s to the 1990s. In his eighties, he gave up big game hunting and focused mostly on small game and fishing. Pheasant hunting with his Brittany spaniels was a lifelong passion.
As we zipped up our jackets, pulled on our gloves to go outside and select the family Christmas tree, Wade said he had something he needed to tend to on top of the hill. That was where the Christmas trees grew, so we headed out together.
Wade's favorite bird dog, Reb, a long-lived obedient Brittany spaniel, had died the week before. For more than fifty years Wade had buried his dogs in a grove of pines at the top of the hill. We were forbidden to select a Christmas tree from that grove. To Wade it was sacred ground, as important to him as any cemetery in the land. We walked together into the grove and Wade pulled a grapefruit sized sandstone rock from his bulky jacket's pocket and set it on the fresh grave. "Reb" was chiseled onto the stone. Other stones in the grove read, "Stock," "King," "Rook," and "Jake." One stone looked out of place. It was similar to the others in size and shape, but it had no name inscribed. I asked Wade about it.
Looking down at my son, he said, "Now there's a story that will interest a budding trapper."
The story ran something like this: Over the years Wade had stocked his farm with game birds--pheasants, quail, chukars, and grouse--which he hunted with his dogs. And during those years he waged an ongoing battle against the resident foxes that also hunted and killed the stocked birds. One fall, while hunting rabbits, Wade had seen at the far end of his hay field a brightly colored red fox. This fox was peculiar in that its pelt was a redder red than any other fox Wade had ever seen. Not blonde-red or orange like so many red foxes, but red like red ink. Wade had seen him several times and seen his tracks in the snow often, usually leading to or from a fresh rabbit, grouse, or pheasant kill. He saw the same fox again the next year, again during hunting season and again at too long a distance to shoot. Then the next summer a fox had dug under his wire pen to kill and haul off several hatchling pheasants. Snagged on the bottom edge of the chicken wire was a wad of bright red fur.
Despite reinforcing the fence and burying the bottom edge one foot down in the dirt, the next summer the fox again dug down and hauled off several young pheasants.
"I hated that son of a b . . . gun," Wade said, adjusting his wording to my son’s twelve-year-old ears.
The next spring Wade located the den where the fox had a brood of kits. He decided not to trap or kill the fox just then because its young would likely starve, and no real outdoorsman would allow that. But the following winter Wade redoubled his trapping efforts and caught three young foxes and a mature female, but not the wily old sire. He did, however, miss a fox that managed to escape from a number one-and-a-half long-spring, but who left behind two claws from a hind foot.
The next summer something even more remarkable happened at his pheasant pen. One morning following a rainy night, Wade rounded the barn to feed the poults and found several of the birds walking loose outside the pen. The door was wide open. Wade used a hinged hasp and a wooden pin to secure the pen's door, and he was sure he had closed the door and pinned the hasp the day before. When he looked closely at the ground around the door, in the mud he found the distinct paw print of a fox who was missing two claws from its right hind foot. The wooden pin was lying unceremoniously in the mud atop the prints. Pheasant feathers were blowing in the wind. The red devil had struck again.
In the wild, red foxes are expected to live five or six years. Wade had already been dueling with this one for six years, so odds were that he wouldn't have to worry about it many more years. But the duel continued. Traps were flipped over, dug up, and the bait gone. One time Wade trapped a skunk, but all the evidence he had of the catch was a skunk's forepaw, a few tufts of black fur, a lot of stink, and fox tracks heading toward a crabapple thicket at the edge of the stream. "That son of a b . . . gun stole my skunk. A skunk, of all the stinking vile meals."
Wade kept trapping, catching the occasional fox, lots of raccoons, weasels, mink, and the ever-annoying possums, but not his main target. For the next few years he would see the misshapen paw print in the mud or snow. His traps would be flipped and bait would be stolen. Evidence that the red devil was killing stocked pheasants and quail was easy to find, most of it in the crabapple thicket down by the stream. The road to the farm followed the stream, and coming and going in his truck, Wade would peer into the thicket looking for evidence that his stocked birds were thriving there. Occasionally he would spot a covey of quail moving among the brambles and crabapples. Sometimes a grouse would flush and sail over the road toward the pines. But Wade also kept a vigil for his old nemesis, whom he knew roamed these haunts.
Twelve years after he had first seen the bright red fox, Wade drove slowly down the road toward his farm. It was a frigid December day following a night that left tufts of snow on the brown goldenrod and a fluffy dusting on the tops of the tall grass. As was his habit, he studied the thicket. The leaves had fallen and his view extended to the few big beech trees that lined the stream amidst the underbrush. There he spied a spot of red. He stopped for a better look. Was it blood from a fresh animal kill? He reached for his binoculars, but he had taken them inside the house for cleaning. Craning his neck, he couldn't make out exactly what the red spot was, but since it wasn't moving, he concluded the red must be blood from one of Nature's struggles.
But curiosity pulled Wade from the truck. Quietly he closed the door and stepped from the road into the woods. He moved closer for a better look. It was a sleeping fox. His fox! Curled up and sleeping on a fallen beech trunk bridging the half-frozen stream. Wade took a few steps closer, but still the animal didn't waken. It was then that he saw the snow from last night lying atop the red fur. Wade's old nemesis had died there peacefully atop that log.
Wade reached out to pet the gaudy red fur, which was as thick and prime as a feisty young fox. He picked up the frozen carcass and found its right hind leg was missing two claws. The old fellow had, like Wade, grown gray around the muzzle. Like Wade, the fox was long in the tooth, a few of which were chipped, but the eyes were peacefully closed and the lips were slightly curled into an amused smile. Wade felt a warm tear streak down his cold cheek.
"That's when I decided this fox deserved a resting place in hallowed ground among my favorite animals. That's his stone over there. I couldn't think of a name for him. Aw, hell, he doesn't need a name. His wild, untamed life was as good a name as Nature can offer."