Riley was anxious to tell Ma all about our adventure, and I had to corral him before he went in the house.
“You got to leave out all the talk about boners and such. Drainin’ lizards, too.”
He rolled his eyes at me.
“No, I mean it,” I said. “You say any of that stuff and you won’t be sleeping over here any more. Heck, she might even decide to start taking me to church!”
That got him calmed down. Not the church part so much, but the other. He really liked it at our house. What I told Ma about him liking her better than his own ma was true. He felt loved at our house, and being kicked out would be terrible for him.
“How about you let me tell it?” I asked. “You can jump in with details if you want, but make sure they have nothing at all to do with sex. Our sex I mean. Okay?”
“Yeah,” he said, but I can read him like a book, and he had a mischievous grin when he said it. I gave him my hard look, and then we went inside.
Ma about had a heart attack when I told her how we almost got killed and Mr. Condon showed up in the nick of time to save us. I saw Riley and could read his mind. He wanted to jump in and let her know we were still alive because he needed to take a piss, thinking that somehow added something to the story, but I talked over him, and he never did get that out.
Ma immediately called Mr. Condon to invite him over for dinner and poured out her thanks over the phone. He told her he’d had plans for the evening but could easily do what he’d been going to do the following night, and because home-cooked meals were something he so rarely got, he’d be delighted to come.
Then she called Pa, told him what had happened, that Riley and Mr. Condon would be there for dinner and told him to buy some filets mignons and some charcoal for the grill and a better bottle of wine than usual. I thought telling him Riley would be there for dinner was unnecessary. When wasn’t he?
This time around, she served cocktails for the adults after hugging Mr. Condon and kissing him on the cheek while thanking him over and over. He blushed. I guess he wasn’t used to a woman climbing all over him like that and being praised up one wall and down the other. Then she asked him how he wanted his steak. He took his like me ’n Riley did, medium rare, which made it easy because Ma and Pa ate them that way, too. Ma had made twice-baked potatoes and asparagus and baked another pie. Rhubarb this time. If you’ve never had rhubarb pie, or even if you have, it can be a little tart. But not Ma’s. She uses extra sugar, and man, is it good.
They drank that entire bottle of wine, and after having drinks beforehand, they were all loosey-goosey after dinner. We all went into the living room and sat, and Mr. Condon eventually ended up asking me ’n Riley something.
“I know you boys know how to keep a secret. I’ve got one that’s pretty important. One that involves that wall. I’m not going to tell you tonight, but maybe soon. In the meantime, I’ve had an idea, and it’s a pretty fair one. How’d you like to go to work for me? Both of you. I told you what I’m doing. Thing is, you probably know the land around here much better than I can find out by looking at a topographical map. So I’d like you to show me around.”
He paused to take a sip of the coffee he and Ma and Pa were drinking, then said, “What we can do is go out in the day, if that’s okay with your moms. We won’t see any foxes, but I can find likely places where they might be.”
“Why won’t we see any if they’re there,” I asked.
“Good question, Travis, and here’s your answer: swift foxes are basically nocturnal. I’ve been going out some nights to look for activity, but daytime is better for looking for tracks and scat.”
I turned to Riley. “That means they’re active at night rather ’n during the day, and he’s lookin’ for poop,” I explained.
He gave me a dirty look and said, “I knew that!”
“I bet,” I murmured under my breath but then shut up so Mr. Condon could continue.
“What I want to find are natural habitats for them, places where they can have some safety from predators and a good supply of food and water. If I can find a place like that and any sign of them, then I’ll go out there after dark and just sit still, see if I can spot one.”
“Can we go with you then, too?” Riley asked, his sense of adventure tweaked at the prospect.
Mr. Condon glanced at my parents. Ma nodded. “Sure, if you get your ma’s permission. Travis has his.”
“I’ll get it,” Riley said, and I knew he would. His ma didn’t care where he was as long as it wasn’t underfoot in her house.
So me ’n Riley made plans to be at Mr. Condon’s house for breakfast the following morning. He said it might be best to leave early before the sun was too hot. I said early was good, and asked, “What, 9:30 or so?”
He laughed. “I forgot for a moment you were 11. OK, whenever you get up, come on over, I’ll feed you two, and then we’ll head out.”
Me ’n Riley had trouble falling asleep that night, excited to go exploring with Mr. Condon the next day but also reliving what had happened at the park. When we were talking about that, some of the fear came back, and Riley scooched over next to me. Then he said, “I saw you were comin’ back when you’d gotten away. You were comin’ back for me.”
“I’d never leave you in trouble. You know that. I never have, and I never will.”
“I know,” he said, then draped his arm over my chest, and it happened to slip a little lower and then, after a while, neither one of us had any more problem falling asleep.
I wondered what kind of breakfast Mr. Condon would have for us. He didn’t cook; he’d told us that. I’d been surprised he’d offered, but all evening he’d been real friendly with us. I had a strange idea: what if we’d thought he wasn’t that friendly because Riley thought he was raising killer dogs, and I thought he could have been the molester? Maybe he’d been friendly all along and we just had ignored it? I reviewed the times we’d been with him and got a little embarrassed. He’d been fine. We’d been the problem.
So maybe inviting us to breakfast was just to get to know us better. I guess that was part of it, but I found out the real reason when we got there.
Me ’n Riley got up early and were over at his house by 10, Riley yawning. I’d had to poke him some to wake him up. When Riley sleeps, he sleeps!
Mr. Condon welcomed us and invited us into his kitchen. It was very plain. All the decorations and little homey touches Mrs. Henderson had used to make the place, well, homey, were gone, and it was just cupboards, a sink, a stove and a refrigerator. The cupboards had glass in the doors, and I didn’t see anything inside them—no plates or glasses or cans of stuff. I guessed he ate out a lot.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. There’d been no furniture in the living room, either. It came to me that that was why he hadn’t let us in when we brought him the cookies. He hadn’t had boxes and wrapping paper all over. He’d had nothing at all, and that would have looked funny to us. Well, at least to me ’n Riley.
There was a small table in the middle of the kitchen with four chairs around it. On the table was a box of donuts. I figured that was our breakfast. And let me say right now, that was a pretty darn good breakfast. Me ’n Riley loved donuts, but for some reason, Ma said they weren’t any good for us and never bought them. This was a real treat!
Mr. Condon smiled when he saw my happiness. “Thought you might like them. Sit down and dig in.”
I opened the box and it had all kinds—and a whole baker’s dozen, too. There were glazed and jelly and cake donuts with colored sprinkles and chocolate-covered ones and apple fritters and glazed twists and ones that had been dipped in chocolate and chopped nuts and ones with maple glaze and even more.
Me ’n Riley each grabbed one and started munching. Riley loves jelly donuts, and that’s what he went for. While we had our mouths full, that’s when Mr. Condon asked if milk was alright, that he didn’t think we’d want orange juice with donuts so he’d bought a quart of milk. I couldn’t talk so just nodded. He got the milk out of the refrigerator, and I noticed that was about the only thing in there.
He had some plastic plates and cups on the counter along with a package of napkins, and he gave us each one of them. He had a thermos and an empty cup, and he sat down next to us with it and poured himself a cup of coffee. He watched us scarf donuts for a few minutes, just sipping his coffee, then started talking.
“Boys, I need to tell you something before we get started. I need to know if you can keep a secret—a big, important secret for me. If it gets out, what I’m going to tell you, I could lose my job, and my job is about all I have. I used to have a partner, a man, but don’t any longer. Oh, by the way, that wasn’t the secret I need you to keep but would just as soon you didn’t spread it around, this being Mississippi and all.”
Riley was quick on the uptake. “You mean you’re gay?”
“Yep. All my life. I probably should ask: are you two okay with that?”
“It’s cool,” Riley said. “I guess I am, too, and think Travis might be. We fool around together.”
I glared at him, but he was looking at Mr. Condon and ignored me.
“Well, I figured that last part from what you said at the park yesterday—the fooling around at least. You’re a little young to be sure you’ll be gay when you’re older. But you’ve given me one good reason to trust you—because you’re trusting me not to tell your parents or anyone about that fooling around. And, of course, I won’t. And just so you won’t think I’m trying to blackmail you into keeping my secret, I won’t tell even if you do tell mine. Okay?”
Riley nodded, but I couldn’t do that. “I can’t promise to keep your secret ’til I know what the secret is,” I said, hoping that wouldn't upset Mr. Condon.
It didn’t. He smiled instead of frowning and said, “That’s very smart of you, Travis. Okay, I’d better get talking or you’ll have finished those donuts and be asking what’s for lunch.”
He sat back in his chair. “What my contract says is I’m to discover if swift foxes have migrated into Mississippi. I came here to Lewisville because this would be a perfect place for them. It has some wide grasslands and plenty of ponds and lakes, rivers and creeks. That’s the sort of habitat they like. They eat crustaceans and amphibians as well as grubs, grasses, small mammals, berries, nuts, insects—a whole variety of foods. But there’s more to my assignment. If I find swift foxes, I’m to collect a specimen and send it to a lab they’ve specified, where it’s to be examined: its stomach contents to determine if it’s hunting anything that will have a negative effect on agriculture products or animal life in the state, to see if it’s diseased in any way, if it carries any bacteria that could be harmful, or if it carries any viruses or infestations. They want to determine if having these animals here could be expected to affect native populations.”
“But—” I started to speak, and he stopped me, apparently seeing in my face what I meant to say.
“Yes, Travis, it will have to be killed to do all that. I won’t do that; I don’t kill wild animals. But I’ll capture it and send it live to the laboratory. That’s why I carry the taser, besides it being personal protection when I’m out by myself. I stun the animal with it, then cage it. I don’t like it, either, that later it has to be destroyed, but if I don’t do this, someone else will, and that’ll be even worse.”
“Why?” I asked.
He said, “I can’t help myself,” and reached for the apple fritter. He broke a piece off and nibbled on it, then sipped some coffee before looking up at me and answering.
“Because, to catch one of these, it almost has to be a female. And it almost has to be in its den with pups. The male will hear me coming, and I’ll never see him. His ears are much better than my silent walk, and if I try to build a blind to hide in, he’ll probably see that and move on. And he regularly moves around all the time, so I can’t set a trap for him, which I wouldn't do anyway. No, the way to find a fox and capture it is to find a mother, either a nursing one or one who’s weaning her pups. That’s what others in this business do and what I have to do as well.”
By the frown on his face, I could see that didn’t make him happy.
“Well, the rules are, when you do this, you take the mother and leave the cubs to fend for themselves. And I won’t do that unless they’re already weaned. At this time of the year, that’s possible, but it’s much more likely any we’d find wouldn’t be ready to be on their own yet. However, that doesn’t matter to the agency I work for. The regulations are to take the mother and leave the pups. They somehow think this is more humane. I don’t. So this is my big secret. I disobey the rules. I capture the mother and take the pups, too.”
“So you keep them together until the babies are weaned?” I asked.
“No,” he said, and looked sad. “I would if that would work, but in captivity a wild fox will stop nursing and usually kill the pups. So I separate them and care for the pups myself until they’re old enough and capable of surviving in the wild. And the part I said earlier about it being worse if I didn’t do this? Well, someone else would take my place, and he’d most likely leave the pups to fend for themselves, and they’d just die.
“So that’s it. My secret is that I care for the pups, and it’s against government policy. Can you keep it to yourselves, not tell anyone I’m doing that?”
Riley almost beat me to saying it, but not quite, and we spoke together. “Yes, sir.” Riley stopped then and grinned at me, but I continued, saying, “No way would we tell!”
“Good!” he said. “I didn’t think so. I spoke to your town cop, that Lodge fellow, when I came. Showed him my credentials and all. Sometimes town cops are a little suspicious of strangers, and so I often do that. I asked about my neighbors, and he told me that you, Travis, and you, Riley, as long as you’re with Travis, were as good people as anyone who lived here, and that you, Travis, love dogs more than about anything. I figured if I needed helpers, you two would be just right.”
I blushed. Riley didn’t, but he soaked up the praise. He loved hearing good things about himself because in his life at home he’d mostly heard bad.
“So you’re okay with what we’re going to do?”
I nodded. I hated the idea of taking a mother away from her babies, but if it was going to be done anyway, one way or another, this seemed best, and I had no problem being part of it if that included saving the babies. And, too, I realized I was warming up to Mr. Condon for real now. Before, he’d just been another adult, and I was always cautious with adults. But now, him saying he had a secret and being worried about it but then trusting us with it, and the secret being that he was trying to save baby animals—well, I had a much better feeling about him now.
Riley was looking around, seeing how bare everything looked in that kitchen, and when Mr. Condon had paused to eat a bit more of his fritter, he asked a pretty thoughtful question. “Mr. Condon, if you’re only here long enough to capture a fox or determine you can’t find any trace of one, why did you buy this house? Why not just stay at a motel? Or at least just rent a place?”
Mr. Condon looked at me and laughed. “Why didn’t you think of that, Travis?” he asked, and I blushed again. Did he know I thought of myself as the smart one? He seemed to have figured that out. Mr. Condon’s eyes were twinkling when he said it, and I knew he was teasing me and not being mean. Still, I wasn’t sure what to say.
So I said nothing, and Mr. Condon turned to Riley. “Very perspicacious, Riley.” When he saw the confused look on Riley’s face, he said, “You can ask Travis what it means,” which made me be able to raise my head again. I thought I might have known the definition—or at least had a good guess at the word—and if Riley didn’t ask before I had time to get to a dictionary, I definitely would.
“See, the thing is,” Mr. Condon said, talking to Riley, “if I’m going to try to save some fox pups, some really little ones, I have to put them in an environment where they can learn to be foxes, not house pets. And for that, they have to be outside. Now, how could I do that without anyone finding out I had them?”
I got it! I shouted out, “The wall!”
“Congratulations, Travis. You want to see?”
Of course we did, and I could see Mr. Condon wanted to show us. He got up, and we walked to the back door of the house, a door I’d been through several times when the Hendersons lived here.
“Welcome to Condon’s Habitat,” he said, and opened the door.
We stepped through and, wow! I stopped, amazed. He’d turned that backyard into, well, I guess a habitat was the best name for it. That backyard now had a creek running through it, young trees planted in a bunch to look like a woods, a small pond, some fallen trees, long grasses growing, and then he said, “Shhhhh,” and I listened, and I heard crickets chirping and frogs belching! He’d made this into a foxes’ paradise!
“I plan to bring the pups here if I can find them. I couldn’t do that at a motel, or any house I was just renting. I had to buy a place. And spend some money on this, but I’m a loner and never have been in love with spending money on things I didn’t need, so I had enough to do this. Why not? I’ll sell the house when I get my next contract, or, if one doesn’t come, I might just stay here and retire. I kind of like the neighbors living behind me.” He chuckled, and I think I blushed again. For sure, I liked him now.
We got busy after that. We got in his truck and drove around, me picking a place, then Riley, and back and forth. There were lots and lots of rivers and ponds and lakes and woods to look at. We spent the whole day at it, and Mr. Condon made lots of notes and marked up a map so he’d know how to get back to the places we’d visited. He said this might take him a long time, but he didn’t mind. He also said he enjoyed our company and listening to how me ’n Riley squabbled all the time. Hard to imagine! It drove Pa crazy.
He bought us lunch at the diner in town and had us home in time for dinner. I asked him if he was going out that night, and he said no, he was exhausted. He looked it, too. Anyone spending most of the day in the summer Mississippi heat and humidity is going to get like that. Even I was tired!
He said he’d have breakfast for us again next morning, and I said we’d be there.