Etta Langdon sat cradling her baby at a table on the back porch. In the distance, truck tires crunched atop gravel to a slow halt, and, after a few minutes, the driver’s side door groaned open and slammed shut. Reed had come home from his construction job. Etta grinned, wide and impish, then picked up a baby bottle with her free hand and tested its temperature by drops on her arm. When it felt lukewarm, she moved the nipple toward her little daughter’s mouth and delighted in the infant’s voracious appetite.
The summer’s sweltering dog days offered little relief; but the porch sat underneath a bevy of shade trees, and a welcomed late afternoon breeze hushed through, stirring her long tresses. The unseen force caressed her, chilled her sweat-pierced tank top, and revived her senses. She caught her breath, closed her eyes, and moved her smiling face toward the breeze with a giddiness of youth. She winked one eye open and searched the back door. Her husband stood watching her in the doorway, then opened a circular snuff can and took a pinch under the gum. He raised his head and his mesmerized eyes focused on her.
“You needn’t even thank,” she said, raising an eyebrow.
“What?” he asked rhetorically and chuckled.
He rummaged through the garbage can outside until he found an old pop bottle – the perfect spit cup. The brim kept it all contained. He strolled toward Etta, hugged her close, and breathed in her sweet, country hair. He gently touched the baby’s cheek and his eyes sparkled, evincing a welcomed sight after a long, tired, hot day. He sat across from them at the table, brought the bottle to his lips, puckered, and spit.
After the baby was well-fed and satisfied, Etta reached inside her tank top, dug into her bra, and pulled out a spent shotgun shell. She flung it on the table, looked at her husband, and said,
“What’s ‘iss?” he asked.
“What’s it look like?” she answered with a question.
“I know what it is. What’s it for?” he asked.
She tilted her head back, closed her eyes, smiled, and said,
“Fox ain’t gonna be botherin’ our chickens no more.”
For over a month, a lone fox had terrorized their hens and drove away two roosters. No matter how early Etta rose in the morning to gather eggs, she found the critter had snatched each one. And three days ago, she discovered blood, bones, and feathers scattered just inside the coop. She declared war after that. War, absolute. Early that morning, after Reed left for work, Etta bundled Suzie Lee in a blanket and secured the baby across her chest in a sling. She grabbed a loaded shotgun, strapped it behind her shoulder, and picked up a bucket of slop.
Once they were within eyesight of the coop, Etta sat Suzie Lee snugly against a stump, took the bucket and quietly placed it in the coop, then sat and waited from a distance. The fox was curious at first. The scrawny beast sniffed and jerked back several times. It walked furtively around the bucket, or sat like a cat on its haunches. When the fox deemed the situation safe, it dunked its head into the bucket, and Etta took care of business.
Reed’s eyebrows furrowed and his countenance greyed.
“Told you I’d take care of it,” he said, stoically.
She wiped the baby’s mouth, turned, placed a cloth diaper over her shoulder, plopped the infant across, and patted until the burp.
“Couldn’t wait,” she said, her moody blue eyes glistening like a seasoned mountain vixen. “That li’l red devil was takin’ our eggs. Plus, he’s done caught and killed some of ‘em. Even the dittlers. Food’s hard to come by these days – and everyday, truth be told.”
She turned her daughter around to face her. The infant’s sluggish eyes and listless grin revealed a full, satisfied belly. Etta held the teeny hands and the baby’s fingers grasped onto her thumbs. She tugged her to a sitting position and talked the way mothers are wont to do around babies.
“Me and Suzie Lee went, didn’t we?” The baby grinned and her mother continued. “Yes, we did . . . we went out and took care o’ that mean ole fox. And you waddn’t even scared. Ain’t choo, my precious li’l thang?” She gave Suzie Lee nose kisses and the baby cackled.
Reed gawked at her, sat up, slammed his palm on the table, and asked in a high-pitch,
“You took the baby?”
The baby startled and prepared for a squall. Etta positioned Suzie Lee across her knees and patted her bottom, which seemed to settle the situation.
“A course I took the baby,” she answered cooly. “A girl’s gotta learn sometime how to outfox a fox. They’re crafty little devils. Suzie Lee’s just started early. Learnin’ these mountain ways, I mean.”
Reed hung his head a little and repeated,
“Told you I’d take care of it.”
“Well . . .” Etta’s words trailed. “I do know how to take care of me and her, you know.”
She looked down at Suzie Lee, then at Reed, and a saccharin smile spread across her face. He met her eyes and his own eyes widened. He shook his head, rose from the chair, and walked into the house. Etta looked deadpan and curled her lip as he left. She picked up the shell casing and put her pinky finger in the hollowness. Her eyes turned to Suzie Lee’s sweet face and the baby had the same expression, the same curled lip, delighting her mother. Etta turned her head and cupped her ear. Inside, water ran in the sink and the dishes clanged; the tea kettle sputtered a hoarse static; and the smell of cooking oil on cast iron infused the air.
** Featured Image by Free-Photos on Pixabay