We got the pups home alright. Mr. Condon checked them out. I was surprised they didn’t seem to mind being handled, but perhaps that was because of how young they were and how they were used to being taken care of. He said they looked to be in perfect health and were both males.
Foxes are burrowing animals, but we hadn’t had any idea how to dig a den for them, and had assumed if we found some pups, they wouldn’t know how to, either. So what we’d done earlier that afternoon was to get a large shoebox and cut a round hole in one end, put some grasses in it for bedding, dig a hole in the backyard, lay the box in it, attach a piece of car radiator hose to the box that would be plenty wide enough for pups to crawl through, then cover it with dirt, leaving the outside end of the hose uncovered.
When we had the pups in the backyard, we dropped the last of the woodchuck into the box through the hose, then set the pups on the ground next to the hose. They got a whiff of that ’chuck and down the hose they went. We waited and watched for a few minutes, and then they were out again.
It was still night, and they evidently were used to being out at night. They romped around the yard as though they hadn’t a care in the world, investigating. Much of the time, possibly because they’d eaten enough for the time being, was spent pouncing on each other, rolling around, chasing tails, and thoroughly checking out the creek. They drank greedily from it, walked through the tiny woods, then trotted back to the creek and inspected the entire thing, even wading in it before scurrying back to where we were standing, watching them. They sniffed our shoes, then the one I’d carried back crawled up on my jeans leg. It looked to me like he wanted to be picked up, so I did. I petted him, and he curled up in my hands again.
“What are you going to name him?” Riley asked.
“Hey, they’re not pets, you know,” said Mr. Condon, trying to sound grouchy, but he couldn’t help but smile, seeing how cute they were and how tame they were with us.
“I know, but we have to give them names so we can talk about them as individuals,” Riley argued. “I’m going to name mine Ralph.”
“Ralph!” I snorted. “Why Ralph?”
“Because it begins with an R and has five letters. What are you going to call yours?”
He didn’t have to say, ‘just like Riley’; it was obvious. I thought for a second and said, “Tinker.”
“Hah!” Riley laughed. He liked that I’d used his naming device.
“Just remember, you two. They’re wild, we want them to stay wild, and we need to put them back where we found them when they’re ready, which won’t be all that long from now. They usually stay with their mom four to six months after weaning, and these look to me like they’re almost that far along. They’ll be ready for independence in a very few weeks. We just have to see that they’re feeding themselves first and getting by without their mom. She had to show them how to hunt and probably has already done some of that, but these two will have to learn the rest by themselves. We’ll keep plenty of live food here running around loose, and I’m sure they can discover ways to catch it. Foxes are quite smart.”
I didn’t want to put Tinker back down. He was too cute and it made me feel too good holding him. He trusted me, and that made me proud. But I knew he’d survive better if he didn’t bond too tightly with me, and so, reluctantly, I set him back down near the hose. He gave me a look, then went back into his den. Ralph followed him in.
“See,” I said to Riley. “Tinker’s the leader.”
“Only because you set him down first. Ralph likes me better’n Tinker likes you.”
That started another argument, and Mr. Condon told us it was time to go home.
We spent as much of the next few days as we could with the foxes. They came out of their den during the day when we showed up; I think they recognized our voices. Maybe it was because we always brought them a treat. Mr. Condon said to stop doing that, that he didn’t want them running up to people expecting to be fed. So we stopped doing that. But they still came out to greet us. We had to stop petting them and picking them up, too. Even knowing it was best for them, it was still frustrating. I wanted so much to hold Tinker! He’d cuddle with me when I did. I think now I understood about the pain of loving something and letting it go.
But when we didn’t interact with them and just watched, they got tired of us and went about being foxes. They played with each other a lot, but when they got hungry they began finding the crickets. We got some white mice from the pet store in Gatlinburg, and they learned to chase and catch those, too. Sometimes Mr. Condon would leave a dead squirrel or possum for them to find, which they were very good at.
Mr. Condon had put both tadpoles and minnows in the creek, which he’d made by installing a basin at one end of the property and a pump at the bottom that recirculated the water to the top end of the yard where it spilled out to keep the creek flowing to the small pond and then out the other side back to the basin. The foxes soon learned how to stand in it and go fishing. Little by little, they were growing into independent foxes.
It was a week and a half later. School started the next day, something Riley seemed to be dreading, though he never said that, but if I could read anyone, he was the one. I got over to Mr. Condon’s house a little later than usual because Ma had me cleaning the basement. Okay, maybe I’d sassed her a bit. It isn’t always easy being eleven and keeping a cool head when you aren’t in the mood to be told what to do.
She hadn’t let Riley help, either, so he was already there with the foxes.
Mr. Condon was there, too. He wasn’t always. He’d given us a key to the gate in the front of the wall so we could get in when he wasn’t around. When I got there, he came out to talk to us.
“Boys, it’s about time to set those guys loose. You might not even have noticed it since you’re here every day and aren’t picking them up now, but they’re almost twice as large as when we found them. But that’s not the whole reason. We have to let them go now because I found where they’ve been digging at the wall. That means they could easily get out, and if they get out around here, they’d never survive. An adult might, but not them. So we have to let them go. I think it should be tonight.”
I gulped. I wasn’t ready! But the thought of Tinker escaping and being run over by a car or having rocks thrown at him by some teenager or caught by a stray dog—well, it was too awful to think about.
I looked at Riley, and he looked like he was going to cry. As much as I loved Tinker, he loved Ralph, and he couldn’t hide his emotions as well as I could. Everything was up front with him.
“You boys okay with that? They’re as much yours as they are mine, but really, they don’t belong to any of us. They belong out where we found them.”
So that’s what we did. We put them in the same carrier we’d carried their mother in when we’d brought her back and then taken her to the lab the next day. They both fit in it, and since they’d slept in a pile together growing up, being stuffed right together like that was no problem for them at all.
We got back to the pond at dusk. For one last time when we opened the carrier, I picked up Tinker and Riley took Ralph. Even though we hadn’t touched them for a couple of weeks, they seemed to like it. I rubbed Tinker’s head as he’d always liked, and he made a funny sort of noise in his throat.
“Okay, set them down,” Mr. Condon said. I had quite a mix of feelings, but I knew it was time, and it was right, so I knelt onto the ground, set Tinker on his feet but didn’t let go yet. Riley set Ralph down, too, and glanced at me. I nodded, and we both released them.
Ralph galloped off, dancing a bit, leaping, bouncing high like he did. Tinker looked up at me, hesitating, and I smiled at him, reached out and rubbed his head again, then said, “Shoo,” and stood up. He hesitated, then took off, looking for Ralph as he did, and, finding him, leaped after him, caught up, and pounced. They rolled over a bit, each nipping and pawing at the other, then Ralph took off towards the woods, with Tinker chasing after him.
I stood next to Riley, wiping my tears away, and for some reason, while sad to see my fox disappear, I was overcome with profound emotions, a feeling of togetherness with Riley just then. I draped my arm around his shoulders. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mr. Condon on his way back to the truck. Me ’n Riley continued to watch the pups as they chased and played, and then Ralph was into the woods, Tinker chasing him in and we lost sight of them.
We stood there awhile, not wanting to move for some reason. Then Riley asked, “Do you think they’ll remember us?”
“Maybe. But we want them to be themselves. To survive in their environment. To live a happy life.”
“But will they stay together?”
“I don’t know, Riley. They’re both males. Males tend to find females when they’re old enough. Mr. Condon said males usually start matin’ with females when they’re one year old.”
Riley didn’t speak for a minute, a long time for him, then said, “We’re males, too, Travis. Will we grow apart like that? I don’t think I could stand it if we did.”
He reached up with his hand to hold mine that dangled across his chest from my arm being around his shoulder. Right then, I felt a bond with him that was so strong, it was almost overpowering. He must have felt something like that, too, because he couldn’t stand my silence. He coaxed me to say something by saying, “Do you think we’ll be together? Always?”
“Why, are you worried?” I asked.
“We’ve been together all summer. We go to middle school tomorrow. We might be in different rooms, not even have classes together. We’ll be separated. Will we ever have, have this again?”
I tightened my arm a little, drawing him closer to me. “Riley, what I hope is that we’ll always be together. You and me. Those two pups are a team, and so are we. They need each other, depend on each other, and so do we. I hope it’ll be like that always. I want that as much as you do.”
Riley squeezed my hand for a moment and whispered, almost like he was speaking to himself, “Me, too, more ’n anythin’,” then stepped away from me and glanced back for a brief moment so I could see the gleam in his eye. “Notice which one of them was out in front? It was Ralph. He was always the leader. Just like me.” And with that, he took off running.
I was right behind him. “The leader,” I yelled, “the one in charge, is the one doin’ the chasing, not the one bein’ chased, not the one runnin’ away. You know that as well as I do, and if you’ve forgotten, you’ll surely remember when I catch you.” Trying to sound menacing and completely failing.
He squealed in fake panic, then delight, running just in front of me, and I was laughing so hard, even though I’m faster than he is, I never could catch him before we reached the truck, where Mr. Condon stood, watching us, a big grin on his face.
I caught up to Riley then and grabbed him and hugged him, and he twisted in my arms so he could hug me back.
Me ’n Riley. Together. As it should always be.
The day Riley had been dreading had arrived. The first day of school. He slept at his house the night we released the foxes, and I met him at the bus stop. He was wearing his new clothes for the first time, just as I was. His hair was combed for the first time since school had closed for the summer, and I thought he looked really fine.
Me ’n Riley sat together with a bunch of other kids we knew. There were older kids on the bus as well, but they ignored us. When we got to school, all us newbies were herded into the auditorium, where the principal introduced himself and the teachers and told us we each would have an older kid as a guide and someone to ask for help about anything. He read off each of our names and we came up front, and he had a bunch of 8th graders there and assigned one of them to each of us.
We were in different homerooms, which I could see Riley didn’t like at all. The 8th grader he got looked like a nerd, but he was friendly enough. I got a girl.
Me ’n Riley had a couple of classes together—and even gym. That was good because in the locker room, we were given lockers and then had some free time to kill, and an older kid, probably in 7th grade by the looks of him, came up to Riley, who was quite a bit smaller than he was, and said, “We’re going to have fun messing with a shrimp like you all year.”
Riley wasn’t going to put up with that at all, and his feisty gear kicked in. Either that, or he remembered the principal’s remarks about how any fights in school would result in the participants being expelled and so figured the kid wouldn’t follow through with his challenge. Riley moved closer so he was right in the kid’s face and said, “Yeah? You and what army?”
The kid looked surprised, and then said, “Me ‘n Billy here.” A redhead stepped up. He was the same size as the other kid and had a cocky grin on his face. He reached out to push Riley, and, anticipating, I was there. I slapped his hand away before it made contact, slapped it hard. I looked at both of them and remembered what Officer Lodge had told me about there being a time and place for snitching. So I stood up a little taller and said, “We were just told there’d be no bullying at this school. Guess maybe I’d better go ask the principal why you ’n old Billy here never got that message.”
Evidently that rule was enforced because the kid suddenly looked, well, looked scared, and both he ’n Billy backed way off.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” I said, and me ‘n Riley walked away.
That was the only incident like that we had. The bus ride took about forty minutes, and we spent it talking to all the other kids. I decided going to that school wasn’t going to be all that bad. Riley had relaxed, too.
I’d like to say we went out and visited our foxes often, but we didn’t. We did go out a couple of times but didn’t see them. We did see a pair of tracks, fox tracks, in the bank of the pond. I decided Ralph and Tinker were still together. I wanted them to be, so why not just believe it?
Mr. Simmons’ trial came up, and we had to testify. That was really something. I told Riley to just tell the truth and not make anything up or exaggerate when he was on the stand, and he just grinned at me as he was walking up there; he loved being in the spotlight. I was nervous when I was called but got through it okay. Riley was bigger than life up there and acted like he spoke in court all the time. Luckily, he didn’t say anything about our boners. Mr. Simmons got convicted, and I think it was me ’n Riley’s testimony, along with Johnpaul’s and Tommy’s, that did it. The judge threw the book at him, saying that him being a teacher and all made what he’d done even worse.
Mr. Condon got another contract and told us he was leaving. He had the wall torn down, then put the house up for sale. We waved to him as he drove off the final time. He’d become a good friend and both me ’n Riley were sorry to see him go. Sorry we wouldn’t be getting any more of those breakfasts of his, either.
The biggest change was with Riley. He came home from school one day in the spring of our first year in middle school to find his mother and sister gone and a note saying since he liked me so much, maybe he could go live with me. That was all. Of course, while the court was figuring out what to do with him because he didn’t have any relatives he knew about and because it was a small town without any child services in place, Ma stepped in and said he’d stay with us until a permanent arrangement was made. Well, maybe the court lost his paperwork, or maybe someone said something to them, but Riley’s case never did come up, and he lived with us from then on.
How long? I guess you’ll have to use your imagination for that. We’re both sixteen now, and he’s still here with Ma and Pa and me. Still a pain half the time, arguing and fussing over all sorts of nothing, but I can’t do much about that other than keep on feuding back at him and setting him straight even thought he’s grown bigger than I have. Not much, but some.
He has a separate bedroom from mine. Ma set that up real quick when he came. She thought she was being clever, I guess. It didn’t work. Riley had his own room, but from his first night there, he came into my room to sleep at night, just like always. When Ma frowned at us the next morning, Riley wrinkled his forehead at her and said, “What? We always sleep together?” And we always did. She just accepted it, finally, muttering something about not fighting city hall. See what I mean about adults not making much sense most of the time?
So we’re still together, just like I hope our foxes are. We still look out for each other, though now that we’re older, we don’t need to do that so much any more. We’re in high school now, and Riley’s grown into his looks more than he was back then. The girls all look at him more ’n they do at me. But that might be because he’s put on a lot of muscle and is more outgoing than I am. Doesn’t make a smidgeon of difference, however. Neither of us thought much of girls when we were eleven, and we don’t now, even if we’re both real studs now.
Okay, what’s the point in writing all this and then shying away from the truth at the end? Or maybe I’m just being defensive. I guess I need to admit it: Riley is better looking than me.
I’m still smarter, though.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
My undying gratitude to my editorial staff for their great work, and for putting up with me. Andrew, Colin, Rob, Jerry, John and Linc: the words ‘thank you’ don’t seem enough payment for your efforts. Please know that your work is sincerely appreciated.
And of course, thanks to Mike for hosting the wonderful writing he has encouraged, massaged and wooed onto his magnificent site. And to, our readers, who’ve been supporting my writing specifically and the site emotionally and financially; without that support, AD could not remain a source of the kind of literature you want to read. Please keep those contributions coming so the site can continue to operate.
A quick word about the story you’ve just read. While it is fiction, the information about swift foxes is basically genuine accept where a boost from fictional events was needed. These are amazing animals. An Olympic sprinter runs at about 20 miles an hour for the 100 m dash. These foxes, tiny as they are, can run twice that fast.
Thanks for the kind support you’ve given me. It’s appreciated more than you can imagine.