Once upon a time there was a boy who lived with his father at the edge of a great wood. The boy had bright red hair and everyone called him Little Red. His father, who also had red hair, was called Big Red.
One day Big Red said to Little Red, “You are old enough to go into the forest alone, and I need you to do an important errand for me.” He took a basket, covered by a cloth, and said, “Carry this basket to your grandfather who lives in the middle of the wood. Take care you do not get distracted, for the wood is a wild place. Most of all, you must not lose the basket, nor tell anyone what’s inside.”
“What is in the basket, Father?” asked Little Red.
Big Red leaned over and whispered into Little Red’s ear. The boy’s face became serious and grave. He looked up at his father. “I promise, Father. You can count on me.”
The boy set out on the trail early the next morning, knowing that it would be quite a long walk to his grandfather’s house. As he went, he thought he could hear footsteps behind him, but when he looked no one was there. Then, as he rounded a corner, out from behind a tree stepped a very beautiful fox.
“Hello, little one,” said the vixen. “Where are you off to on this lovely day?”
“I’m going to my grandfather’s house to give him this basket.”
“That is a big basket for such a small boy. What’s inside?”
“I–I cannot say.”
The vixen cocked her head and pouted. “Why not?” she asked. “I won’t tell anyone. It can be our secret.”
The boy started walking again, but the fox followed close behind.
“Is it bread and wine?” she asked.
Little Red didn’t answer.
“Is it ham and cheese?”
Little Red didn’t answer.
“Is it blueberries and cream?”
Little Red didn’t answer, but he did say, “Having you trotting behind is making me uncomfortable.”
“I am only protecting you from the wild things of the woods,” she said. “You never know when you might meet a wolf or a bear or . . . a rat?”
The pair stopped walking, for a large, black rat sat in the center of the path, blinking her bright black eyes.
“Hello, little boy,” said the rat. “What do you have in that basket?”
“This is my little boy,” said the fox. “Go and find your own little boy. And besides, there is no use asking him. He won’t tell.”
“I’m not interested in little boys,” said the rat to the fox. Then she turned to Little Red and asked, “Could there, by chance, be a baby girl in that basket?”
The fox swiveled her ears toward the boy in interest. “Is there?” she inquired, batting her eyes. “I’m very good with babies.”
“Definitely not,” said Little Red.
With that, the rat scampered into the weeds.
“Nosy rat,” muttered the fox.
The boy gripped the basket a little tighter and walked a little faster. Everyone in the woods was after his basket! It was not light, however, and the farther the boy went, the heavier the basket seemed.
“Ah, you are getting tired. Let me help,” said the fox, and she reached for the basket.
But Little Red held it to his chest. “I’m sorry, Ms. Fox, but it is my basket and only I can carry it. Besides, I’m not tired.” Even though he actually was.
They continued to walk through the forest.
“Oh, look at those flowers off in the distance. Come with me and gather them for your grandpa.”
“No,” said Little Red who kept on walking.
“You must be thirsty. Why don’t you come with me to my den for some tea? Then, once you are refreshed, you can continue on your journey.”
“No,” said Little Red who kept on walking.
“Ouch!” cried the fox, falling down and holding up a limp foot. “I think I’ve twisted my paw. Can you help me?”
But Little Red knew she was pretending and he kept on walking. The fox became angry and she bounded ahead of the boy and blocked the path.
“You shall go no further until you show me what is inside of that basket,” she demanded.
“I will not,” said Little Red.
The vixen stepped menacingly toward him, baring her teeth and backing him up against a tree.
Little Red was very frightened. Surely she would eat him up, whether he showed her what was in the basket or not. If he could only hold her off until he got to his grandfather’s house.
“What lovely, big eyes you have,” said the boy. “I’m certain you could see me from a mile away.”
“Indeed,” said the fox narrowing her eyes.
“And what large, soft pointed ears you have! You could probably hear me breathing from the other side of the forest.”
“That is for certain,” said the fox, twitching her ears.
“And what an amazingly strong jaw you have. It could easily crush my fragile, little bones.”
“Yes!” snarled the fox, showing her teeth.
“And how patient you must be.”
“Yes, for you are a hunter, and hunters are the most patient of all the animals.”
The fox took a step back. “Most definitely I am,” she said, sitting down primly and wrapping her bushy tail around her legs.
“I am just a small little boy. I cannot run from you, nor can I hide. I also cannot show you what is in my basket. But if you are patient, when we get to my grandfather’s house, he will tell you.”
The vixen laughed. “I am a fox, and I know when someone is playing a trick on me.”
“This is no trick!” said the boy earnestly. “I’m telling the truth. You would be very interested, I think, in what he would tell you. Besides, what I have in my basket, my grandfather has many, many more!”
“Is your grandfather very old?”
“Very old. And feeble.”
The fox decided that she could be patient, especially if there was more of what was in the basket.
“Please, dear fox. Just walk with me a little further through the woods, and protect me from wild bears and wolves like you said, and when we get to my grandfather’s house your curiosity will be satisfied and he’ll give you a bellyful.”
Then it is food! she thought, licking her chops.
The fox was content to walk with the boy and before long they came to the grandfather’s house in the wood. Little Red knocked on the old man’s door.
“Who is it?”
“It is me, Little Red!”
“Who is that with you, Little Red?”
“Oh, just a friend I found in the forest.”
An old man with a bushy red beard opened the door and the fox looked up. Her eyes grew wide and her tail flicked nervously. She glanced around, noticing for the first time the animal hides stretched out on the door, the racks of guns over the mantle and the large fox-skin rug spread out before the hearth.
“Old Red!” she gasped.
“Well hello, little fox,” said the man. “What a lovely coat you have. Would you like to come inside my cottage?”
“Your grandfather is Old Red!” exclaimed the fox.
“Yes, he is,” smiled Little Red. “The greatest hunter in the forest!”
And with that, the fox bounded away and disappeared into the woods.
“It is too bad she couldn’t stay for tea,” said Old Red with a grin. “Oh, well. Let’s see what your father made for me.”
Little Red put the basket on the table and took off the cover revealing a dozen newly fashioned crossbow bolts.
“You are a good boy, Little Red. I was running low. Say,” he said, taking his crossbow down from its place on the wall. “Would like to join me on a fox hunt?”
Little Red smiled.