Pausing at the back entrance mound of his sister’s burrow, Hieronymus let the sun warm his face. He pressed his paws together and looked at the many entrance mounds around him, then at the looming burrows of the people town to the east, and then up at the pale blue sky. A soft wind ambled across the prairie, carrying with it the sweet aroma of honeysuckle.
He wasn’t quite sure what to say to Esmerelda. Stealing food was a serious offense, especially when it was from the emergency stash in the communal burrow. Little Left took its rules around provisions with utmost seriousness. Esmerelda would have to appear before the colony council and they would decide her punishment. Hieronymus didn’t know whether to scold or comfort her, but he felt he had to say something. Withdrawal in the face of stress had always struck him as unbecoming.
He thought again that if only their parents had been more nurturing, Esmerelda might have turned out differently. Maybe they both would have. Born only minutes apart, they were as unalike as two prairie dogs could be.
In reaction to their parents’ neglect, Esmerelda developed a “me versus them” mentality. If she came across another pup who had collected a pile of pebbles, she thought it natural to pilfer a few for her own. When she was “it” during hide and seek, she always left one eye open to see which way the other pups had run. If hiding, she liked to crowd into another pup’s good spot. “Let’s just share this,” she would suggest with feigned camaraderie. “There’s room for both of us.” Then she always made sure the other pup was more exposed, and so more likely to be found.
Hieronymus, meanwhile, embraced what should have been his parents’ responsibility. Taking care of and protecting Esmerelda seemed as natural to him as playing and eating. Once, when he saw two older pups pushing and teasing his sister, he tore into one of them with a fury almost unseen among prairie dogs, biting one of the bullies in the flank, drawing blood and a shriek of pain. As he whirled to meet another attack, the other young boar backed away.
“Come on, Cortez,” the bully said with bruised bravado, grabbing his injured companion. “We can come back and give this creep a licking later.”
Hieronymus remembered how his sister, her face bright with surprise, had stared at him with unabashed admiration.
“Esmerelda,” Hieronymus called and peered down into the burrow. No answer. He barked again, louder.
A sleepy voice floated up from the dark tunnel. “I’ll be right there, brother.” Moments later Esmerelda peeked out of the entrance and yawned. “Good morning, Hieronymus.” She climbed out and brushed the dirt carefully from her golden coat. She had always been proud of her unique coloring and slim body that set her apart from the other sows in Little Left. She took pains to keep it that way. Her emerald eyes glittered in the sunlight. “Now I wonder why you’re here.”
“Look, Esmerelda, it’s not really my business and certainly not my problem.” Hieronymus worried the dirt around the burrow with a back paw. “If you don’t want to talk about it, okay. I don’t want to lecture you—”
Hieronymus gave her a grave look. “Have you at least thought about what to say to the council?”
“What’s there to say? I was hungry and too tired to go out for a nibble. I contribute to the emergency food supply, so why can’t I have a tidbit to snack on?”
Hieronymus shook his head.
“What? It’s not theft, just taking what is rightfully mine,” she said defensively. “I planned to replenish the supply later.”
“You know how far that tack will get you. The council will ask you what would happen if everyone ‘borrowed’ from the supply whenever they were hungry and didn’t feel like looking for a snack outside.”
“I’ll think of something,” she said as she turned back toward her burrow. “Thank you for coming by,” she tossed over her shoulder, “but if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to go back to sleep now.”
Tired from his work in the puppery, dismayed at having had to intervene in a foolish dispute, and frustrated by Esmerelda’s obstinacy, Hieronymus groaned as he strolled grumpily back to his burrow, reproaching himself at every step for having tried to reason with his sister. “Why did I think I could convince her to behave any differently than she always has just because she got caught and would have to answer to the council?” he said to no one in particular.