The .54 Caliber Fox Squirrel

Fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) are very common here in the New River Valley. They're big beasts, usually twice the size of the grey squirrel (Sciurus canadensis) and come in several different colors. Some of them are buff-and-black, and some can be a deep orange-red, like the hair color called "henna." There's a local variant that has a white nose, so prominent you can see one moving in the trees as much as 100 yards away, and watch the nose apparently bob around in space because the rest of the squirrel is invisible.

Fox squirrels usually go about 2 pounds plus, but I have seen one that weighed 5 pounds—that's not an estimate, I weighed that one, and his dressed, skinned, de-headed carcass was 2.5 pounds! Fox squirrels co-exist with grey squirrels in our woods, at least on Spruce Run Mountain, and they seem to prefer high altitudes and having running water nearby. An experienced squirrel hunter can tell what kind of squirrel is in the tree above him even when the trees are in leaf because the fox squirrel isn't nearly so fidgety and jumpy as his grey cousin. He moves more deliberately, stays closer to the main trunk of the tree, and usually on a branch a fox squirrel's tail hangs down instead of curling up the way a grey squirrel's does. In Virginia they're legal game west of the Blue Ridge mountains.

A couple of years ago my life and that of one of these creatures intersected. His ultimate fate really is too lamentable to laugh about, yet it's amusing enough in its way, as a true tale of how sometimes the prey can turn the tables, even posthumously, on the predator. It came about because I was bored, and he pushed his luck too far: and in the end it turned out to be an exercise in retribution and perhaps in futility. Fox squirrels are handsome animals, but they aren't smartest creatures God ever made. But then, neither are humans.

I'd been out on Spruce Run Mountain on a deer stand which happened to be located in a place where I often hunt both types of tree squirrels. I'd been there all morning, yet not a single deer had I seen. My butt was sore, and so was I, because it had been a long season and as of that date I hadn't tagged a deer at all. I was wondering how much longer it was worth staying still when a huge brute of a fox squirrel, easily 3 pounds on the hoof, came crashing through the leaves behind me as I pondered whether I was ever going to even lay eyes on Bambi or one of his relatives.

A bored hunter, an incautious squirrel, and a big gun (I was using my .54 Thompson/Center New Englander) make a dangerous combination. Normally I can resist such temptations, but not this time. He'd startled me more than usual by stomping in the leaves just as I was beginning to drift into that semi-dazed state all bored hunters get into on days when nothing is happening. The noise brought me back to full alert with a jolt. Half a second after hearing him thrashing the leaf litter I knew it wasn't a deer, because the pattern of sound was different; then I turned to see just what it was, and lo, there was that raccoon-sized rodent, entirely oblivious to my presence, broadside to me 10 yards off.

"OK," I thought, "no deer, well that's fine, a big fat squirrel is legal today. I'll 'bark' him."

When you 'bark' a squirrel you don't actually try to hit him: you shoot into the branch or log under him, flipping him through the air and killing him with the impact of the splintering wood. Legend has it that this was the way economical frontiersmen in 18th-Century Virginia collected squirrels, so as to save the hide, and also the lead bullet, which could be dug out of the log for re-use.

Well, that was my plan, but I'd forgotten some basic ballistic facts, among them that a bullet rises to meet the line of sight. At 10 yards my New Englander apparently shoots a wee tad high; instead of hitting the log under him a la Davy Crockett, I hit him full in the left rear ham with a big round lead ball moving at almost muzzle velocity, say about 1600 feet per second.

The bullet didn't make that big an entry wound, but the off side was all exit wound: the entire right rear quarter panel was simply gone, vanished in a puff of pink mist. Needless to say, Mr. Squirrel was stone dead, never even having had a clue that he'd been shot. I gutted the remaining three-quarters of squirrel (an easy job, I just reached inside the hole and out came everything) stuffed him in my game pocket, and reloaded. To no avail, as it turned out, since no deer showed up.

At home I skinned him and cleaned him, and put the carcass in the refrigerator for a few days, my usual practice. Thus began the process by which he reached from beyond the grave and exacted his revenge.

The following weekend my wife left to spend a week in Ohio with her family leaving me to "batch it" with the dogs. This was not entirely an unwelcome break from our three-decades-long marital bliss (for her as well as me, I'm sure) because when I'm not being closely supervised I tend to revert to bachelor ways. That includes taking a nap whenever I damn well feel like one, eating whatever I like whenever I want to, right out of the pot, and generally doing things that She Who Must be Obeyed prohibits when she's around. A couple of days after she'd left, I thought it would be nice to have a squirrel pot pie, so I took Mr. Squirrel's remains out of the refrigerator and set them to simmering in a pot on the stove.

I used to think the phrase "absent-minded professor" was a joke, but that was before I found that's exactly what I am. Later in the evening, after playing with the dogs in the yard, I decided it was time for a nap, and zonked out on the spare bed in the basement. About 6:00 AM I awoke to hear a very, very faint beep-beep-beep, but I couldn't figure out what it was. It certainly wasn't an alarm clock; and it dawned on me it was the smoke alarm on the main floor of the house. The sound was faint because the stairwell door leading up was closed.

I ran upstairs, and sure enough it was the smoke alarm, because the entire house was filled with stinking smoke. I mean FILLED with smoke, totally filled, top to bottom, including closets, bathrooms, hallways, every cubic inch of a fair-sized home on two floors. A dense pall of smoke so heavy I couldn't see the ceiling in the living room. In the hours since I'd forgotten that squirrel on the stove, the pot had boiled dry and then got hotter and hotter and finally he'd simply burst into flame and essentially was...cremated. Literally: all I found in the pot was a few ashes and a half-inch long bit of charred bone. That was all that was left of nearly 2 pounds of fox squirrel carcass, except for the 8000 cubic feet of dense, gagging smoke that had been permeating everything in the house for hours. I once worked in a building next to an incinerator where carcasses were burnt, and this was the same ghastly smell: a heavy, acrid stench that has no counterpart. It's the smell of a fatal fire or a crematorium.

I opened every window and turned on the whole-house fan, cleared out the smoke, and kept things that way for two days. This was totally pointless, of course. My wife has a nose that would put a bloodhound to shame, and would have known what happened if I'd sprayed the entire house and contents with Chanel #5, let alone Lysol Room Deodorizer. When she returned, there was still a distinct odor of incinerated rodent in and on everything, and she was...well, she was very, very, seriously pissed off, let's say. I am in fact still reminded about that squirrel from time to time as a sort of memento mori, and also as proof that she can't leave me alone for even a single second without my getting into trouble. It took weeks of airing out and a complete shampooing of the rugs and the padded furniture of the living room and family room to get most of the smell out of the house. Susan claimed to smell it for months afterwards "...every time I opened a closet."

So Mr. Squirrel had his revenge after all, even in death. I have been cured of the mindset that allowed me to wantonly slay squirrels just because I'm bored and they're handy. But... if I do succumb again, I will remember to aim low at close range with that New Englander.