He whelped when the younger male bit his back leg. The attack knocked him sideways and he tumbled down the hill ending up in a pile of sand. Above him, the younger fox guarded the den entrance. When he started toward it the younger one bared his teeth.
He was now homeless and he walked away with a limp. A railroad track that cut through the woods made an easy path through the snow and he followed it. After a few minutes, he stopped to lick his wound. The sting made him yelp, but he knew he had to keep going. An injured animal in the woods was easy prey for other predators especially at night. With limited vision and hearing the last few years he relied on smell to find mice and rabbits to live.
He sniffed the air and knew more snow was coming and he couldn’t survive the winter without a home. He was too old. The urge to survive drove him forward, but his bushy tail dragged on the ground.
He knew fear. He knew loneliness, but he didn’t know how to give up. He kept going forward until a scent reached him. Human. He scrunched low to the ground and listened with intensity. At one time he could hear a small bird chirping from miles away, now he struggled to pick up a footstep before it was in striking distance. After a few minutes, he continued on until the scent got stronger. It was recent. In front of him a discarded trap.
A memory made his stomach ache and he threw up. Not too long ago, his mate was caught in a trap. She tried to bite her leg off to escape. Blood covered her fur. He tried everything to help her, but it was useless. Instead, he watched as she slowly faded away. From behind a bush he saw a human take her lifeless body away. Her bushy tail dragged on the snow leaving a red line of blood behind it.
It started to sleet. After making a wide circle around the trap he reached a stopped train at a place where the tracks split. It seemed safe. Nobody moved near it and his legs ached. He crossed the track to get inside an open compartment when a loud roar approached. He jumped for the open door, but fell short and tumbled onto the track. Pain seared through his leg. The train grew larger and he couldn’t move in time. It was too late. At the last second, a stick shoved him off the track just as the engine sped by with a roar. When he looked up, he saw a human holding a cane.
The human saved him, but fear still gripped him. The man could be a trapper.
“Come here.” The man turned away, but he stood in place, his fur glistened from the sleet and he shivered. His leg throbbed, but he managed to walk a few steps. The man sat in the empty railroad car.
“Come in here.” The man then coughed for a long time.
He tried to walk away, but he fell down. It all hit him at once. The bad leg, his old age, starvation, danger, bad vision and hearing, missing teeth, his dead mate in the trap. He couldn’t go on. He collapsed in the snow and closed his eyes. It was the end. Darkness.
The dream of running free with his mate made his legs quiver until the sound of voices made him growl. He struggled to get up, but a heavy blanket was on top of him. The cane lay next to him. The man wasn’t far away. His body was covered with a white frost. There was no blanket on him.
A car approached. He licked the man’s face, but the coldness stung his tongue. Frozen. The man stayed still. Lifeless. Why did he sacrifice himself?
His leg improved as he walked down the track. The approaching cars meant danger and he walked faster.
“Look, a fox.” Someone yelled.
“Hey Chloe. The homeless guy must have saved it.” When he looked back he saw someone putting the blanket over the man.
Snow started covering him and he saw lights approaching. It roared like the train that almost hit him. He jumped off the track and tumbled down an embankment. The noise made him go farther away and he saw a hill. A familiar scent made him stop.
Paw prints covered the snow here and he shivered. He was weak. Another fight would be the end. A head popped out of a den entrance.
He stood his ground and watched as a fox approached him. Female. She bared her teeth, but he saw some were missing. How could she hunt? He did the same, but neither one gave ground. She shook her head then turned and walked into the den. Before he could move she looked back. It was a signal. He walked forward and went into the den. Warmth filled him and he curled up in a ball. She stayed close by and did the same. He knew joy. He wasn’t alone.
Two hikers followed the railroad tracks through the woods. One of them looked down all the time.
“Chloe, what are you looking for?”
“During the winter, a homeless man saved a fox from the cold. The fox came this way. It was alone. I kept looking for it, but never found it. It looked so alone.”
“Maybe it’s okay.”
“I just hope it wasn’t alone.” She feared it dying alone in the cold.
“Look, a path.” She followed it and climbed a small hill. A small opening looked like a den. Inside she saw two foxes curled up together.
Lifeless. She kneeled down and wiped her eyes.
“Chloe, are you okay?”
She stood up.
“Is it the fox?’
She shined a flashlight into the den. A few pieces of fabric from a blanket stuck to one of them.
“I’m sorry.” He grasped her hand.
“At least he wasn’t alone.” They walked away together holding hands.
William Falo writes flash fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Soft Cartel, Newfound, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Fictive Dreams, and others.