We spent the next couple of weeks looking for foxes. Days were spent looking for traces of them, and every now and then we’d go out at night, too, to places we thought were extra-promising. Mr. Condon had night-vision gear. He only had a pair for himself but said he’d share if we ever found a fox at night. We didn’t find any foxes in all that time, but we sure were getting our exercise.
And we were learning some zoology, too. Really. Mr. Condon talked about what he was looking for, and we learned all about swift foxes, like how big their litters were (2 to 6 pups), their usual lifespan both in the wild and in captivity (five and fifteen years), their gestation period (two months)—I had to look that ‘gestation’ word up; I was getting embarrassed asking him what all the words he used meant—how long the moms took to wean their pups (one and a half months), when the pups were sent off on their own (six months), what their range was and where they weren’t found, the normal relationship between a male and a female—just all kinds of stuff. We looked for scat and holes where they could make a den. We learned that foxes are diggers, and that while some people tried to make pets out of them, the foxes were still foxes inside a house and enjoyed digging so much that they dug up couches and chairs and rugs. They also pooped and peed on things to show possession. That was who they were, and if you wanted one as a pet, you had to accept those behaviors.
Mr. Condon wasn’t much for keeping exotic animals for pets—and especially foxes. He said they learned to adapt and live as pets if they were taken young, but a person had to be really patient and forgiving if he wanted one, and the animals were meant to be wild creatures, and it was best, in his opinion, to let them be just that.
Me ’n Riley showed him all around our countryside. One day when the humidity was really bad, he asked if we wouldn’t be happier doing kid stuff like going swimming or fishing or something. We were sitting in a narrow strip of woods near a small creek that Mr. Condon said looked a perfect spot for foxes, but we’d found no trace of any.
“Riley loves to go fishin’,” I said, and Riley nodded. “But we can always do that, and hangin’ with you is somethin’ we may never be able to do again. This is fun.”
“When nothin’s biting, it can be borin’, too,” Riley piped up. “And talkin’ about fishin’, you ’member that last time, out at Foster’s Pond? We got so many catfish, I almost couldn’t eat them all. We should do that again, ’n hey, invite Mr. Condon to dinner, too. Travis’ ma makes the best catfish fry-up you’ve ever had!”
I suddenly sat up straight. Riley had jogged my memory. And Foster’s Pond was a place we’d never taken Mr. Condon. There were many places we’d missed so far. There were more rivers and ponds and creeks and woods and grassy fields and woods around here than there was time to visit them all.
“Uh, Mr. Condon. I’ve just remembered somethin’.” I went on to tell him about my worm digging and being spooked by the feelings I got in those woods, and how I’d thought I’d seen an animal that was about cat-sized but then couldn’t find it.
Mr. Condon got excited. Foster’s Pond wasn’t the easiest place to get to. Perhaps that was why it tended to have some really good-sized fish in it. It took awhile to drive to as near it as we could get his truck, and then we had to walk across a large field to get to the pond.
I showed him into the woods and pointed to where I’d seen the animal by a fallen tree, and Mr. Condon told us to be very quiet, and then he made a large circle through the woods, me ’n Riley on his heels being just as quiet as he was. We ended up on the other side of the fallen tree, still a distance away. It was an old hickory and had been down a long time by the looks of it. Mr. Condon held up his hand so we’d stay where we were and crept forward, moving very slowly. He got about five feet from the hickory, then paced back and forth, studying it. Eventually, he came back to us, put his finger to his lips, and we made our way back out of the woods without speaking.
He led us over to the pond, where he said, “You guys go that way along the bank, I’ll go this way, and see if you can spot any fox tracks in the soft mud. And be very quiet.”
He’d already shown us a picture of fox tracks, so we knew what to look for. We did as he’d asked, and not too far down, we spotted some! Riley was about to shout at Mr. Condon to come look, but I stopped him and said to go get him; I’d stay right with the tracks so we wouldn't have to search for them again.
When Mr. Condon saw them, he broke out into a huge smile. Then he pointed at the truck, and we make our way back across the field to it. About half-way back, a long distance from the pond, he gripped us each by a shoulder and said, “Boys, you’ve done it! This deserves a celebration. Why don’t we go out tonight to celebrate? Do you think your parents would come with us? We could go to a restaurant in Gatlinburg. There’s a good restaurant there I’ve eaten at several times. And what about your mom, Riley? She’s invited, too.”
Riley scowled. He and his ma had really been at war lately. Just the thought of her joining a celebration raised his hackles. “No, sir, she won’t be joining us,” he said, and his tone of voice left no room for argument.
“Okay, but the rest of us will go, I hope. This is great. It isn’t definitive; fox tracks look pretty much the same, except these are very small. However, they could be from a young fox of another species. But I don’t think so. I think this is what we’re looking for, and it jibes with Travis’s story. Plus, I saw a hole, I think, hidden almost under that old hickory tree. Tonight we’ll celebrate, and tomorrow night, we’ll go check it out. Foxes come out to feed around dusk. We’ll be there.”
I was sitting behind the blind we’d built, keeping entirely still. The creepiness of the woods, which increased as the light faded, was invading my body. I’d hear noises but couldn’t look behind me because I’d been told not to move as it would make noise. As hard as that was for me, it had to be worse for Riley. He was almost never completely still. He was now, though. Mr. Condon kept one hand on his shoulder, and even a twitch from Riley resulted in a light squeeze, a gentle reminder.
The night was almost cool. Maybe it was the woods or the nearby pond or just my mood, but I shivered.
We’d spent part of the afternoon constructing the blind. Mr. Condon had bought a light wooden frame, four feet by six feet, then drilled a bunch of holes in both six-foot sides. He’d strung nylon thread through them while he had me ’n Riley collecting fallen leaves and picking some live ones. When we had a bushel basket full, we began attaching them to the threads. We didn’t cover the frame entirely, leaving plenty of space to see through it. Mr. Condon said that seeing it from a distance with no light behind us, we’d be invisible as long as we wore dark clothing, put black greasepaint on our faces and hands and, most importantly, didn’t move. He’d looked at Riley when he said that.
We’d carried the blind into the woods an hour before dusk. Then came the hard part: laying still behind it for over an hour and then probably more. Mr. Condon had told us to go take a leak before we lay down because we’d have a long wait. We both did, feeling excited.
That had been three hours ago. Even though we were laying low behind the blind on blankets we’d brought so we’d make no noise if we fidgeted a bit, that was hard for two boys.
We were in the woods, and day had passed into twilight and into dusk before becoming fully dark, the woods feeling spookier and spookier to me as the light dimmed. Even the moon coming up with its bright, silver glow didn’t keep the rustling noises I could hear from stirring my imagination, which turned them into things that most certainly were creeping up on me. But I couldn’t turn to look back to reassure myself.
I was getting really anxious when Mr. Condon, who was laying between me ’n Riley and looking at the tree with night-vision glasses moved his hand to my shoulder and squeezed like he was doing to Riley. I refocused on where he’d said the hole into the den was, and sure enough, something was moving.
As I watched in the dim light from the moon filtering through the
leaves of the trees overhead—Mr. Condon having forgotten all about that sharing-his-glasses business—I could see something emerging from the hole. First there was a small, grayish muzzle, followed by a fawn colored body, followed by a long, bushy tail with a black end on it. The creature was thin and small; it really was the size of a cat—and not a large one.
It was alert, looking around sniffing the air. It seemed to look at the blind two or three times before shuffling off toward the pond. I could imagine any animal that was nursing pups would be thirsty when it came out at night.
We watched in silence, not moving at all, as she made her way to the edge of the woods, then stopped and looked around before trotting out, and we lost sight of her.
Mr. Condon whispered to us. “Let’s go. We’ve seen what we came for. That’s a swift fox. Now we know for sure! Let’s leave now and make plans for tomorrow. We need to go back into the woods and make our way back to the truck through the woods a ways so she doesn’t know we were here. Quietly, now!”
We snuck back deeper into the woods, which wasn’t nearly as scary as laying down in them and not being able to move. We walked deeper about 100 yards, then turned in the direction of the truck and walked till we were out of them.
When we could talk again, Riley said, “Shouldn’t we have stayed to see if she had pups? What if she did and they came out? We could have seen them.”
“That isn’t what she does,” Mr. Condon explained. “She nurses them just before leaving. With full bellies, they fall asleep and she feels safe in leaving them.”
“How are we going to catch her and check for pups?” I asked.
“We’ll go home and talk about that. We should do it tomorrow night. Boys, you’ve saved me lots and lots of time and made this project a success. And I’ll need your help in the next phase.”
I grinned at Riley. He still wanted us to help. I never felt like this before, like I was needed. I did chores, but Ma could have done those if I weren’t around. I helped Pa at the store, but I wasn’t really needed there. But Mr. Condon needed me ’n Riley. He’d just said so.
We talked it over, the three of us, over pastries the next morning. I wasn’t sure the breakfasts Mr. Condon fed us were as healthy as Ma’s, but man, did they taste good. This time he’d bought beignets, cream puffs, éclairs, cinnamon rolls with sugar icing and blueberry turnovers. There was too much there to eat, even for me ’n Riley! Drat! I did manage a little of everything and a lot of some. I loved the éclairs! Riley took to the beignets and ended up with a powdered-sugar mustache. Mr. Condon had gone to Gatlinburg to get the stuff at a pastry shop there. He got up a lot earlier than me ’n Riley did.
We sat around his kitchen table, talking about how we were going to capture the swift fox, and how we’d then get to the pups, if there were some. Mr. Condon thought that if there was a female fox, there was probably a male around somewhere, too, and that if that was the case, at this time of year she probably had a litter. He said that not always, but often a mating pair would stick together. If that was the case here, there were probably babies. He said they’d either be nursing or being weaned or already weaned, and that we wouldn’t know till we saw them.
We spent the day in Gatlinburg with Ma. She said we needed new clothes for school, which would begin in a little over a week. She called Riley’s ma and told her Riley needed clothes, too, and she’d send him over there to get some money, and then he could come to Gatlinburg with us when we went shopping. I didn’t hear what Riley’s ma said, but I heard Ma’s voice get really stern, and then after she hung up, she told Riley to ride his bike over there and get the $60 that had been promised and to make sure he got all of it. His ma had agreed, and if she reneged, Ma was going to call her again. That’s what Ma said. I had to go look up ‘reneged’, which was hard to find because I wasn’t spelling it right. I’d already looked up ‘perspicacious’, but Riley had never asked. He probably didn’t want to look like he didn’t know the word.
I got some new jeans, a couple of new tee shirts, and a new pair of sneakers. That was a lot, but I needed them. I realized how short my old jeans had gotten. The new ones were the same size in the waist, but longer. It didn’t feel like I was growing taller, but I guess I was. Riley needed a longer pair, too. Maybe that was why I hadn’t noticed. He was growing ’bout the same rate I was.
We couldn’t fool around in the dressing room trying the jeans on. Ma came in there with us.
Early that night we were back by the pond near the woods. Mr. Condon wanted us in position before the female came out for the night. Riley ’n me each had a blanket, and he had us lay down on the edge of the water, about fifty yards away from where the fox would probably walk out of the woods before coming down to the water, which was how she’d left the den the night before, walking in a straight line from her den to the pond. Riley was fifty yards south of there, and I was the same distance to the north so there was a full, football-field length between us.
The night before, the fox hadn’t come out till it was completely dark, and we expected it would be the same tonight. Both me ’n Riley were in position at dusk. It was boring, just laying there, being still, but it was part of an adventure, so we did it.
Just before it was really dark, I saw her. She came out of the woods, looked around, then made her way to the pond and began drinking. She only did that for a few seconds, then suddenly leaped to the side and stuck her head in the pond, and I saw a small frog in her mouth, which with no fuss or bother she ate. Then she started drinking again.
This was our cue. Mr. Condon had said she’d probably drink, stop to look around, then drink some more. The second time her head was down and eyes focused on the water, we were to stand up. Just that and no more.
I did it. I stood up. Way, way off in the distance, there was just enough moonlight reflecting off the water for me to make out Riley doing the same thing.
The fox saw us. Both. She looked first at me and then at him, stared for a second or two before she turned and trotted back into the woods, not running, but not wasting any time, either.
Now it was Mr. Condon’s turn. Riley ’n me were there to spook her enough so she’d return to the safety of her den. His job was to move into position when she’d left the woods for her drink so he could intercept her on her return.
He told us that swift foxes often had several dens in the area where they lived because they needed them for protection more than other foxes. Not only that, with a nursing den, they often dug several openings to it so they could escape if necessary. If that was the case here, he was afraid she could go to one of those rather than her usual one, but he thought if she wasn’t really spooked, just a bit cautious, she’d return to her main entry hole. That was why he had me ’n Riley just stand and then not move.
We knew he’d either have caught her within a minute of when she reentered the woods or he wouldn’t have, so we didn’t wait very long before starting back, walking along the edge of the pond till we met up, and then going into the woods, heading for the den.
We arrived and found Mr. Condon with the fox. He’d tased it, then put it in the carrier he’d brought with him. Now we had to find out about the pups, if any.
“She has some,” Mr. Condon said, speaking in a whisper. “I know because I can tell she’s been nursing recently. Not lately, though. She’s dry, meaning she’s already weaned the pups, and they may be old enough to be out of the den, but she left them behind so she could scout out the area for predators before letting them out. They should be just inside the den or could have retreated when they heard us out here. But they may not be afraid of humans yet. Let’s see.”
He took a ziplock bag from his backpack and opened it. “Aged woodchuck,” he whispered, grinning. “Swift foxes are foragers and scavengers. They love to find dead mammals. This might well entice them out of the den.”
He laid bits of meat at the entrance of the den hole, then more pieces every few feet towards where we were behind the blind. Then we waited—and not for long. We saw a muzzle, then another, and then two of the cutest animals I’d ever seen emerged. They were the size of kittens, and they grabbed the bits of woodchuck and then followed their noses to the other scraps Mr. Condon had scattered, leading them right to our blind. When they were close and focused only on eating, he simply reached out and picked each one up.
“Take some meat in your hands and I’ll give you each one. The pups should be fine with you if you feed them the ’chuck.”
I took some of the smelly meat out of the bag. It was greasy and stank. Then I reached out, and he gave me a fox pup. I held it against my chest with one hand and held out my other to him with the meat in it.
He didn’t reach out and grab it. Instead, he seemed perfectly comfortable just resting his two front paws on my hand and nibbling the large piece of meat while I held it in my fingers. I looked over at Riley and saw he was doing just as I was. I didn’t know about him, but I felt like I was in heaven just then, maybe the happiest I’d ever been.
We made our way back to the truck. When we’d run out of food, the pups seemed to have run out of energy, too, and mine looked up at my face, then simply curled up in my hands and went to sleep. I guess he was used to trusting whoever fed him and accustomed to taking a nap afterward, as well.
“Put him inside your shirt,” Mr. Condon suggested, and I did. I pulled out the bottom of my tee shirt and put the pup against my stomach, then tucked the shirt back into my jeans. I’m not sure the pup even woke up.