Julia and the Fox

Julia and the Fox [Short Fiction]

 

Julia and the Fox

“I’m telling ya Jethro! This trap’s got potential. Spent damn near a fortune on this special poison from that creepy witch Mel. She assured me that it’s a pure-grade opiate poison… same stuff that the Chinks brought inta town with ‘em when they were working on the railroad –’cept it’s tweaked a bit for our purposes.” Looking up from his crudely drawn map, Cliff noticed Jethro solemnly nod his head and scan the trees as if he anticipated ambush. “It’s not much further along the creek here.” Smiling, Cliff added, “I set the trap up right under this tree that looks like a lady’s backside.” Cliff caught Jethro rolling his eyes as the two young boys continued their arduous trek through the mud. “Jeth, make sure yer gun’s loaded and ready. Reckon I won’t have time to unsling and load my rifle if we trapped us a cranky grizzly.”

The boys continued inching along the creek until Cliff slammed his dirty palm into Jethro’s torn jacket. “Wait!” Cliff hissed. “You smell that?” Cliff inquired without expecting an answer. Crouching, he stuck his finger deep into a wet puddle and swirled it in the mud. Examining his muddy finger, Cliff inhaled the aroma and proceeded to stick his finger into his mouth –immediately taking it out and spitting out a dollop of mud and saliva. “Shit… that’s what that is… probably deer shit, but could be ‘coon shit too. Quick Jeth, the trap is just on the other side of this hill. I betcha my first chest hair that I got me a nice buck or a coon. Be ready on that trigger, the poison’s non-lethal.” Cliff and Jethro sprinted up to the top of the hill kicking down stones and leaves. Cresting the hill and holding their hats against the morning sun, the boys squinted to see the distant trap. Cliff watched Jethro survey the valley below, pistol cocked, fingers itching. Jethro edged down the hill jumping from boulder to upturned tree branch with the grace of a hare as Cliff, with a little less patience and finesse, ran down the hill shouting swears and cries of disbelief.

“Ahhh what’n the Hell!” Cliff shouted as he slid on his overalls three feet before the trap entombing his knees in two cold muddy trenches.  “No! No! Nooo!”  Jethro approached. A bold smile adorned his face as he stood over his friend’s shoulder studying the snare trap. “There’s Goddamn blood on here… And…” Cliff dragged his finger along the jagged edge of the trap, then, licking his finger, spat with disgust. “Poison’s still on there… but not as strong. We definitely got something. But where the fuck, it is I don’t know. Look, there’s a tuft of hair here in the mud. Looks like it’s red, but Hell, it could’ve been white for all I know, caked in mud.”

Having calmed down, Cliff picked himself up, scraped off the excess mud from his overalls and looked to Jethro whose rare smile still decorated his rough face. “I reckon we had better be heading home. We’re already gonna be late for lunch. Don’t want to make my Granz angry.” Cliff looked to his friend for acknowledgment and in finding Jethro beaming brighter than the noonday sun, he blushed and retorted: “Hey, just because you ain’t blood don’t mean you’d escape the switch, so don’t give me none of that bootlicking crap. And by the way: I haven’t lost this bet yet so don’t be jumping on any scissors when we get in.”

*****

Cliff and Jethro approached the quaint cabin just past noon. It was unseasonably hot for a fall day, and as such, the two boys were drenched in sweat by the time they climbed the rickety porch steps. Attempting to sneak in through the back, they undid their boots and started tiptoeing inside when they heard Cliff’s grandmother yell: “Clifford! Don’t you bring your dirty boots and clothes in here and muddle up the house after I just spent all morning cleaning! Not to mention that Ms. Peggy’ll be here this evening for lessons with Julia. Your chow’ll be here when you tidy up. Now git!” Cliff turned to Jethro who suppressed a grin with his dirty hand.

“Yes’um Granz.” Pausing, Cliff continued, “Wash basin’s only big enough for one set of overalls… Reckon you’d better head on back to the creek to wash yours.” Cliff’s smile budded as Jethro –deflated– retreated into the woods once again. Stripping down to his drawers, and leaning his rifle against the banister, Cliff began washing his muddy overalls in the washbasin on the porch.  He sloshed the water around and spun the water in circles creating a whirlpool.

“Clifford!” yelled the grandmother from within the house, making Cliff jump. “You’d best be washing those clothes and not just splashing water!”

“I am, Granz!” Cliff whined. With a renewed, fear-driven vigor and extra elbow grease, Cliff scrubbed the muddy stains from his overalls. Spotting something in the water, Cliff fished with his finger and hooked a tuft of red hair. Puzzled, he yelled out to the house: “Julia! Did you go and wash one of your dolls in the basin again? There’s red hair in the water.”

After a moment’s pause, a small girl emerged from the house looking nervous. Cliff had yet to realize that the girl had walked out, but she stood there watching. Clutched tightly to her chest was a book decorated with mythological beings and heroes. Smoothing her simple tan dress, she asked “What Cliff?”

Looking up from his chore, red in the face, Cliff yelled: “Girl! Ain’t you got ears that hear and a brain that thinks? I asked you if you gone and washed your doll in the water. You know you ain’t allowed to do that ‘cause the hair clogs up the washboard.”

“Ohh…yeah sorry. I forgot. Won’t happen again Cliff. I promise,” Julia responded as she ran back inside. Cliff heard her door close shut.

“What in the Hell was the point in sending her to that school if she ain’t learned nothing? ‘Cept maybe how ta be a Yankee,” Cliff huffed to himself as he finished washing his overalls and hung them on the clothesline. He spotted Jethro walking back up to the farmhouse in his underwear and Cliff waved him over. The two boys entered into the house –much to Granz’ dismay– in their drawers. “Thanks for the chow Granz, looks delightful.” Cliff said as they sat down at the worn table. Jethro nodded his head in approval when the grandmother entered the kitchen decked to the nines. Her dress, decorated with sunflowers, struggled to hold in her massive girth. A parasol that might have been big enough to shade her face alone, twirled in between her pudgy fingers.

“I’m off to a wedding outta town. Won’t be back until the morn. Clifford, you take care of your sister now! And Jethro, you take care of Clifford. You might not be family, but I’ll put a hurtin on you if Clifford gets inta trouble. And boys…” the grandmother continued as she looked them over condescendingly, “get some clothes on… don’t y’all know what time of the year it is?”

The boys, busy cooling the hellish slurry with their breath, both nodded and waved her out. A carriage was waiting in front of the house. The boys chuckled as Cliff’s grandmother squeezed onto the carriage. Without paying attention, Cliff, feeling for his spoon on the table, knocked his hand against the piping hot bowl of gravy which bathed his hand in a wave of hellish slurry. Cliff released a shriek of pain. Jethro lunged across the room to grab the tin that housed the bandage roll and the antiseptic cream but he turned back to Cliff motioning an empty tin.

“Julia! Where’s the antiseptic and bandages!”

“One moment please,” came Julia’s quiet response.

“No problem, I’m not in pain over here…” Cliff sat clutching his burnt palm to his bare chest.

*****

Julia opened and closed her door, running to give Jethro the bandages and cream. Turning back, Julia froze in the middle of the hallway when Cliff inquired, “What’re you doing in there with the bandages and such anyway?”

A bead of sweat inched down her forehead. Two small hands gripped her dress, wrinkling the soft cotton. Her knuckles, white from tension. “I was just…ummm…fixin’ up my doll. You see, it got hurt from the washboard.” Julia inched along the dark hallway to her room, fearful of further interrogation. She eased the door shut and leaned against it letting out a small sigh of relief.

*****

Cliff winced as Jethro applied the cream to, and wrapped the bandage around his hand. Cliff noticed a deep red stain at the torn edge of the bandage and looking to his sister’s room. He rose, face reddening.

“What the Hell is that demon up to?” Cliff whispered softly as he beckoned Jethro to follow him. They inched along the creaky floorboards in the hallway. Nailed to her door were cut out pictures from the book she’d been attached to and a photograph of their family from many years ago. In the photograph, their father was a prim statue in his uniform and their mother was blurred –probably moving to stop young Cliff from picking up something off the ground while still coddling baby Julia in one arm.

Cliff barged into Julia’s room and his mouth dropped. There, sprawled out on Julia’s bed was a limp fox.

*****

Julia jumped at the sudden entrance of her brother and Jethro. With a gasp, she picked up the fox and clutched it to her chest. “What’re…what’re you doing in here?” she panted.

“What in the Hell are you doing with that…what is that a fox? Is it dead? Why ain’t it moving at all?” Cliff asked with a thin veil of frustration covering his concern.

“This ain’t just a fox… This here is Achilles. Hero of Olympu–” Julia began, but Cliff interrupted her with a slight slap to the face. She rubbed her cheek with her hand, tears welling in her eyes.

IT ain’t no hero from your filthy text. IT is a dirty, wild animal… and you should know better… Granz’ll skin you when she gets home.” Cliff ran his hands through his hair and wiped his brow with his dirty forearm. Looking up, Cliff asked, “God, why didn’t you protect this girl from taint?” He massaged his temples and looked to Jethro who shook his head. “Jeth, gimme yer Smith N’ Wesson. It’s probably got rabies or something… That’s gotta be why it ain’t moving.”

“No! Uhmm, I mean, it ain’t frothing at the mouth or nothing and it’s got no bite marks either, just a little cut that I bandaged up…see.” She peeled back the wrap and pointed out the small cut on the fox’s leg. Cliff and Jethro moved in to examine the cut. Cliff rubbed the cut with his finger, and stuck his finger under his nose.

“You little devil!” He said grabbing her cheeks between his hand. “I know this smell. That’s my opiate poison. Lucky monster musta scraped his leg up against my snare.” Cliff motioned for Jethro to smell the wound, and he nodded in confirmation.

“That’s probably just the antiseptic you’re smelling. I did rub a lot of it on the cut… wanted Achilles to feel better, ya know?”

“You bring that mongrel out inta the kitchen. I know how to tell for sure.”

Julia relented, picked up the limp animal, and joined the two boys in the long march down the hallway. She set the limp fox down on the floor and Cliff returned from the porch after putting on his overalls again. Jethro sat rocking in a frail chair, dissecting his pistol, and pretending to be engrossed. “What I got here,” Cliff began, “are two eucalyptus leaves. See, when I bought this poison from that crazy witch, she gave me a few of these leaves… just in case. And I know this smell. It’s strong as Hell. This’ll wake the beast up if the thing truly is asleep ’cause of the poison. If it don’t wake up, Jeth over there’s gunna take it out back and shoot it before it starts foaming and biting. Got it?” Jethro perked his head at his mention.

“Yea…” Julia resigned. Cliff stuffed one leaf into each of the fox’s nostrils. At that moment, the fox opened its eyes and its breathing became more pronounced. “Oh thank Heavens!” Julia shouted. She grabbed the dazed fox and began dancing with it in the kitchen. Cliff, boiling in his overalls, took a deep breath, grabbed Julia by the shoulders, and forced her to stop dancing.

“You best be praying to the Heavens to accept your penance ‘cause you sinned me girl. That fox is mine, my hunt, my poison, and it’ll be my dinner. You stole it.” Cliff puffed out his chest as he confiscated the fox and held it out of Julia’s reach as she jumped to grab it.

“You mean I rescued it!” Julia panted as she lunged for the fox. “I’m practically Gaia herself. I felt the pain of poor Achilles and I fixed him up.” Cliff looked dumbfounded at Jethro who looked equally as puzzled.

“Julia… I don’t know if Granz has talked to you yet, but you ain’t a guy.” Turning to Jethro, Cliff continued, “ahh… you know what, this is just too much. This behavior has got to be coming from that stupid school she’s been going to and that stupid northerner teacher who’s been feeding her lies.”

“You don’t get it at all!” Julia began poking her finger in Cliff’s chest. “Gaia (not Guy-a) is the Greek Goddess of the Earth. She was the mother of the Titans, Grandmother of the Olympian Gods like Zeus and Poseidon. And you…you are the Cyclops; you only see things through one eye.  Just ‘cause I’m aware of ideas other than the Bible don’t make me a sinner because guess what…I’m as much a Christian as you. So don’t give me none of that Satanic crap. You’re the one who’s got a dirtier tongue than sailors with nothing to drink but rum.”

Having calmed a little, Julia continued. “I wish Mom was here. She was the only one who truly knew reason in this family. She didn’t rush off to fight a pointless war and she certainly wouldn’t be giving me a hard time trying to take care of a sick animal. Yeah that’s right… I called this little crusade Pa’s been on pointless. And you’re as stupid if you are bent on joining him. Maybe I should go live with Ms. Peggy so you can run off and kill fellow Americans!” Julia sprang up and snatched the fox that Cliff had placed back on the ground during the verbal assault. Julia stormed off the porch and continued marching down the lawn finally sitting and laying the fidgety fox down on an adjacent stump.

Julia plumped down in the grass ripping up green blades while she calmed down from her outburst.  The fox sat with his face buried in his tail on top of the tree stump. “I’m sorry Cliff was so mean to you. I think he blames me for his not being allowed to go with Pa into the army and he’s taking it out on you ‘cause we’re friends. But I’ve come to a decision. I’ll go live with Ms. Peggy down the road… She’s always seemed to me like she is the long-lost-fourth Gorgon sister, but she offered her home to me when Pa left two years ago. That…and I haven’t been turned to stone yet even after two years of school and a few-too-many up-close-and-personal stare downs.

“I don’t want to, but if that can make Cliff happy, I’ll go live with Ms. Peggy for a few years,” Julia continued. “You know…he really does take care of me, Achilles.” The fox shot Julia a glare that seemed to question her sanity. “He might be dumber than a jug of shine, but I’m sure that deep down there is kindness.” Noticing the leaves still wedged in the fox’s nose, Julia said, “Here, let me take those out.” She plucked the two leaves from its nostrils and then started untying the bandage on its leg noticing with astonishment how far the wound had healed. What began as a deep cut was already scabbed over and looked to be scarring. The fox blinked, and glanced back towards the house. It then looked back at Julia and the two locked eyes.

*****

Cliff stood in the kitchen looking out at his sister and the fox. After a minute of silence, he looked to Jethro, who in turn, looked up from his gun inspection. Cliff’s breathing intensified. He bit down on his lip, hard enough to break the skin.

“Goddamn it Jethro! Look at what that damned northern propaganda has done to my sister. It’s turned her inta a Yankee bitch. A heathen! I knew Pa shouldn’t ta sent her to that school. They teach ‘em nothing but lies. That Ms. Peggy is a carpetbagging-northerner here to take our girls and make ‘em into abolitionist-whores. Ain’t no place for reading as far as Julia… or any other girl is concerned unless it’s the Bible. Now she’s chasing some fantasy that a rabid animal is her friend… and a hero at that… Goddamn it, I’ll kill that mongrel of an animal myself.” Rushing outside, Cliff grabbed the rifle that leaned against the porch railing. He tore a cartridge on his teeth and watched as the powder trickled into the barrel of the rifle. He jammed the powder down and loaded the lead slug. Cliff cocked the hammer back and leveled his rifle at the fox that was resting on a tree stump next to Julia. Jethro grimaced.

A calm breeze rippled across the grass. A crow screeched as it perched on top of the house, observing the standoff. Cliff focused on the fox at the end of his sights. He saw the beast perk its dark auburn head up, test the air, and glare back at him. The fox leaned over and nuzzled Julia whose back was toward the house and the boys. Cliff shifted his rifle to the left, pinning his bead on his sister’s back. In a lucid moment, he said to Jethro: “Jeth… we would have our chance to join up with the army… to fight the Yanks. She’s the reason we aren’t with my Pa right now. We could tell ’em all that she was playing with it… the thing went off on her. We was out scouting in the woods, but we heard the shot and rushed back. Too late… She’s dead as a doornail when we came in.”

Jethro gripped Cliff’s shoulder, nails digging into his soft skin. Wiping his own teary eyes, Cliff looked up to his friend’s eyes, receiving the quiet brunt of a stern lashing. “Don’t look at me that way Jeth… she’s corrupted.” Cliff pleaded as he slapped Jethro’s hand away. “I love you Julia. But by God, may He have mercy on your little demonic soul.” Cliff re-adjusted and leveled the rifle.

*****

“You’ve got a long life ahead of you Achilles. But you better be careful not to get caught in any other traps. I might not be there to save ya should it happen again.” The fox licked her cheek. “Goodbye my friend. I’ll remember you always.”

Julia stood up and looked towards the house. She spotted Cliff and Jethro standing together, Cliff’s rifle was leveled at her and the fox. He was whispering to Jethro. Julia instinctively glanced down at the fox and screamed: “No! Run, Achilles!”

Bang!

 

———

PC: Pixabay user Unsplash

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