Tousled scraps of cloud tumbled untidily through the brooding, chalky light. A brisk wind whisked through town as cool air descended on the land like dead aspen leaves in heavy snow. Corot sat watching the light fall on his familiar prairie. He found it hard to think about leaving everything dear to him.
In his mind, knowing where things were and how they looked made friends of them. Even bits of brush seeming no different from other bits revealed unique features that distinguished them. The same was true of the rocks by the creek, mostly gray but some flecked with brown and showing streaks of green never in identical patterns. He wondered why he found it so reassuring and thought that it might have something to do with familiarity breeding community. He knew that recognizing their individuality gave him a sense of being a part of them and leaving would feel like he was abandoning much more than his town.
Hieronymus saw the sadness in his friend’s face. “Looks like you haven’t figured things out any better than I have,” he told him by way of greeting. “Where does that leave us?”
Corot couldn’t resist a little self-mockery. “Between a rock and a wet place,” he said, smiling. “Or right where we were. You tell me.”
Hieronymus grew grave. “We need to decide if we should leave or stay put. And if we decide to leave, we also must decide where to go.”
“It’s a choice we’ll all have to consider. When we’ve told every resident of the colony, each can choose what to do. And if all, or even most, decide to leave, won’t so ungainly a group be at greater peril?”
Hieronymus’s tail twitched. “Sure. But we still have to leave the decision to those whose welfare is at stake. Let’s call a meeting.”
The next day, all adult members of the colony crowded around the entrance to the main burrow. They murmured and shrugged, wondering what was going on. Hieronymus looked around, smiled slightly at Corot, and took a deep breath. “Friends, I know you are all wondering why I called you here today, and I don’t want to keep you wondering, so I will be frank. Corot and I have seen people measuring the land we live in. On the other side of the people trail, they have those things they sit in and move over the ground on. We even saw one of those things they use to dig big holes. You all know what this may mean: more people burrows on top of ours.”
A collective gasp escaped the assembly, followed by a deep silence. Hieronymus looked out toward the hills. “Listen, by the time we know for certain, it may be too late to relocate. Moving is never easy and harder when we don’t know—can’t know—what lies beyond our borders. What we do know, of course, is that a people town exists to the east and more people towns are to the south.”
He paused to let his next sentence take form in his mind. “Each of you needs to decide for yourself what to do. Those of you with pups that haven’t opened their eyes yet have the hardest choice, or maybe no real choice. Those who leave will surely face dangers. Those who stay may face destruction.”
The air was instantly abuzz. Friends rubbed noses and chirped comforting words. Others shook their heads and moaned or sat dazed, unable to move or speak.
Hieronymus was dismayed, but hardly surprised at the impact of his announcement. He tried to refocus the group’s attention. “Do any of you have questions?”
“Will those who leave go west or north?” Pericles shouted.
“We aren’t made for mountains, especially not in the cold time. North.”
More sighs and chatter. Then Isobel asked, “Who will lead?”
Hieronymus looked at the others with wide eyes. “I don’t know. Does one of you want to?” His question was met with silence all around. He took another deep breath. “I guess I’ll have to,” he muttered in a barely audible voice. “If you want to join me, please be ready by sunset tomorrow. I know it’s quick, but we’ve no time to lose. We don’t know how long it will take to find a suitable spot for a new town. Now, we all have lots to think about, so let’s adjourn.”
As he watched the group disperse, Hieronymus hoped he had made the right decision. He stood at the burrow a long time, gazing north into the distance.
Any fears Hieronymus and Corot had about too large a group wanting to leave were quickly put to rest. Most members of the colony chose to stay, betting that any new people burrows would not begin until after the coming cold time. Abandoning the town any sooner would be unnecessary, and even foolhardy.
The group that assembled the next evening was small. Hieronymus smiled at his fellow journeyers as they appeared at the mouth of the main burrow. Ludwig always sought adventure. Annapurna didn’t want to be awakened in the middle of even partial hibernation by a people ground cruncher demolishing her burrow. Solomon was a born optimist and equated change with improvement. Meshach wondered aloud what kinds of birds inhabited distant places and speculated on the fun he’d have learning their calls.
Ozymandias, an adolescent with a dark tipped tail, also opted to leave. He had the unique talent of being able to climb trees. This astounding skill led other members of the colony to suspect a squirrel had sired him. When he was young, his mother had lost her life defending her only pup against a rattlesnake that had slipped into their burrow. Neighboring prairie dogs had taken over, feeding and looking out for the youngster until he could fend for himself. Almost full-grown but still full of youthful enthusiasm and impatience, the orphan would require strict supervision.
Next to him stood a dowdy single sow. She had a fondness for long and unusual words and complex locutions. Because of this habit, her friends called her Sesqui and had called her by that name for so long that they—and even she—had forgotten her given name.
Hieronymus grimaced when he saw his sister. Having her along would make his job more difficult. One uncooperative prairie dog might be the undoing of the others. He was sure Esmerelda reckoned she could avoid the extra shift in the puppery by hitting the road. Yet somehow he was happy to keep her close, no matter what her reason or how sour her attitude. She ambled up and looked at the others nervously. Her decision to join the group caused a stir.
Sesqui confided her misgivings to Hieronymus in a whisper. “The presence of a prairie dog of such parasitic proclivities, immune as she is to peer pressure, may plague the progress of our proposed purpose.”
“Indeed, she may prove to be a pain,” Hieronymus answered. “But we can’t choose for her, Sesqui. Maybe things will work out.”
Annapurna made no effort to keep her sentiments private. “Look,” she told Hieronymus within earshot of others, “I know she’s your sister, but cooperation is imperative on this journey. You know very well how much cooperation we can expect from Esmerelda.”
Solomon heard Annapurna’s comment and went to Esmerelda, who was chewing on an alfalfa stalk some distance from the others. “What sacred mission brings you to my side this time, Solomon?” she asked with withering indifference.
“To tell you I’m pleased you’ve chosen to join those of us leaving Little Left and to suggest you make known what I hope is your intention to cooperate with the others on a dangerous journey.”
“Just as I thought,” Esmerelda replied with a smirk. “At least a few of the others consider me a liability. Well, friend, know that I will prove myself the Queen of Cooperation. Sorry to hear they’re so foolish as to think I’d do anything to put them—or myself—at any unnecessary risk. Care for a bit of root?”
“Thank you but I had some wild spinach with Isobel a short time ago. And I think I should relay your message to Hieronymus as soon as possible. He may have something to say about it.”
“Of course. My brother, always the leader, always the wise one. Having grown up with him, it’s hard for me to think of him that way. Somehow he doesn’t seem suited for the role.”
Solomon took a step closer to Esmerelda so that his nose almost touched hers. “Please keep your opinion to yourself. Anything that undermines the confidence others have in him will endanger us all. Besides, if he sticks his neck out for you—”
Before Solomon could finish his sentence, Esmerelda turned away from him and distanced herself from the group even more.
“This is all of us then,” Hieronymus said and looked at each of his friends in turn. “We face a difficult journey and must stick together and look out for each other. We’re a team and I hope the beginnings of a new flourishing colony. Are you all ready?”
The others looked around at each other, nodding, and the rest of the colony crowded around them, touching noses and offering last bites of sweet prairie grass to fortify the travelers for the tough road ahead. Then, as they made for the north end of the town, a lone sow stepped out of her burrow, calling for them to wait.
“A new colony needs a storyteller, doesn’t it?” said Isobel as she caught up.
Hieronymus nodded. “It sure does, Isobel. Welcome to our jolly band.”
With that, the group left the town, many of them not quite as jolly as Hieronymus had suggested, for they all knew they were facing an unknown that almost surely included danger along the way.
With Hieronymus in the lead, they trotted to the west end of town and turned north at the creek. The group walked fast and stuck close to the water, weaving their way through willows, reeds, and bushes in single file. After an hour of travel, Hieronymus decided to have a look at what lay beyond what they could see amidst the thick growth.
“Stay hidden here while I see what lies ahead,” he told the others.
As he maneuvered cautiously up the wide creek bank, he caught a whiff of something quite unlike anything he’d ever smelled. He moved slowly in its direction and soon found himself at the edge of a square field full of round plants, most of which were about half the height of a prairie dog sitting on its haunches. They glowed a pale green in the moonlight and he plucked a leaf from one. He nibbled it a bit cautiously. It was neither sweet like berries nor bitter like roots, neither tough like pine needles nor mushy like the flat grainy pieces of food people leave behind. The texture reminded him of a large green leaf he once found in a hiker’s discarded lunch sack, something tasty enough to eat but not so tasty as to leave him craving more.
He hurried back to tell his companions about his discovery. All except Isobel were eager to taste the plant. She feared it could be some kind of trap, or even poisonous.
“No sweat,” said Solomon. “I’ll stay here with Isobel if one of you will bring me a piece of the plant so I can taste it too.”
Esmerelda scowled at him. “Aren’t you the chivalrous one, ready to serve and protect the sows.”
Hieronymus frowned at his sister. “There’s no call for that kind of talk, Esmerelda.” Then to Solomon, “I’ll bring you a leaf.”
Left alone, Isobel and Solomon weren’t sure what to say. After an awkward minute of silence, Isobel spoke up. “Thank you for staying here with me. If something dreadful befalls our friends, I won’t have to return alone to Little Left.”
“Aw, I’m sure they’ll be fine. But if calamity did strike, would you really want to go back rather than continue on with me?”
“Gosh, I’ve never considered what I’d do if something horrible happened to us and I was one of only two survivors.”
“Me either, but I think starting another colony would be important.”
“I guess so . . . if possible, of course. It would depend on . . . well, you know.”
Solomon smiled. “Let’s assume we all make it safely to a place where we can build new burrows. What do you think you’ll miss most about Little Left?”
“Pups. No matter how nice a spot we find, it won’t feel like home until we have pups around. Why, we won’t even be a real colony until we have at least a second generation.”
Fixing Isobel in his steady gaze, Solomon paused as though to reflect. Then he replied in a near whisper, “Really?”
In the patch of leafy plants Hieronymus had found, each prairie dog took a turn standing lookout while the others tasted the strange round plants. When all had eaten their fill, they started back to where they had left Isobel and Solomon. Once there, Hieronymus presented Solomon with a leaf he’d brought back, as promised.
As they regrouped, Ludwig had an idea. “Won’t it be better to cross the creek instead of staying on this side? If we cross, we can get farther from the people whose plants those may be. Wouldn’t that be a good idea?”
Hieronymus gazed across the creek. “We’ll stick to this side and the thick cover for now. We can cross later if we have to.”
Ludwig opened his mouth and then thought better of it. It was clear to all who dictated tactics.
Ozymandias looked at Hieronymus and smiled, acknowledging his leadership, then leaned toward him and whispered, “When I get older I want to be like you.”
“Then let’s both hope the prairie spirits make me worthy of your wish,” Hieronymus said as he returned the youngster’s smile.
Corot in the Creek
Hieronymus led them north, always keeping the creek near. When clouds pushed in front of the moon, they traveled close to the water to make better time. When gaps in the cloud cover left the moon visible, they wove their way through the willows with a deep silence, not knowing what lay ahead.
By the time the first faint glimmer of dawn unfolded on the horizon, Hieronymus saw that all but Ludwig and Ozymandias were struggling to keep pace. “Let’s rest as soon as we can find a safe place.”
“I wonder when will that be,” Esmerelda sneered. Sweat and dirt disheveled her normally well-groomed coat. “When the willows sprout ripe fruit and shelled almonds fall from the sky?”
Hieronymus shot her a dagger look. “Now listen, I know you’re tired but—”
“Esmerelda has a point,” Corot interrupted, stretching from haunches to head and stifling a yawn. “We don’t know how far we’ll have to go to find a safe spot or even which direction. Maybe we can fashion one for ourselves right here. Feel here, the ground around the creek is still soft from the early rains. We can dig out a depression and cover it with those reeds and sticks. By the time the sun is high in the sky we’ll have had enough rest to carry on.”
Hieronymus surveyed the ground with a frown. Solomon ran a paw over his forehead and opened his mouth as if to speak, but Corot nudged his shoulder and he stayed quiet.
Hieronymus nodded. “Good idea. Let’s get to work. Half of you go with Corot to gather sticks. The rest stay here and dig with me.”
“Now you’re talking,” Solomon said as he began to dig at the black earth with his back paws. “At least we know how to do this, don’t we?” he joked, and the others laughed wearily as they joined him.
Twenty minutes later they had dug a shallow hole in the creek bank. Hieronymus worried it wasn’t deep enough, even covered with sticks and reeds, to afford much protection, but it was the best they could do. When the last of them had piled in and pulled the last stick over the opening, they nestled against one another like newborns in a puppery and fell asleep as only exhausted animals can.
Everyone except Hieronymus, that is. He lay sandwiched between two of his companions, wondering what he had gotten himself into. He knew he’d done the right thing in telling the others about the people measuring the land and what it might mean for all of them. But he hadn’t planned on becoming the leader of pilgrims and having to make decisions that would affect others’ lives. And he knew that some of those decisions might be life or death ones. It didn’t feel right for them to dump so much responsibility on him. Oh, it was flattering, perhaps, but not fair at all. Why couldn’t Solomon or Corot have taken the leadership role? Both were smart and serious. Why him? But he knew the answer, and as its impact seeped into his consciousness the way rain makes its way to the roots of weeds, he drifted into uneasy sleep.
The sun’s hot breath beat down on their dugout. Hieronymus had been dreaming of a giant town that spanned as far as the eye could see. He smiled as he awoke, savoring the warmth and the proximity of nine other furry bodies before he realized where he was. With a groan, he lifted his head and saw Corot crammed between Esmerelda and Isobel. With a flick of his head Hieronymus signaled his friend to join him in rousing the others.
“Let’s go, friends,” he said.
They pushed back the sticks and scrambled out of the hole. The others took the cue and followed in short order. Only Esmerelda, now stretched out luxuriously, kept her eyes closed.
“Aren’t you coming with us?” Corot asked.
“I need to sleep a little longer,” she mumbled, turning over and hiding her head with her paws.
Sesqui put her paws on her hips and peered down into the dugout. “Extend your somnambulism for such duration as you elect, Esmerelda. You can search for us at your leisure and with your customary diligence because we’re nigh upon absenting ourselves from this unpropitious position.”
“Exactly so!” Annapurna exclaimed.
Esmerelda snorted in derision but pulled herself out of the dugout as the others turned to leave.
Soon the creek began to bend to the east, toward farmland and people. To continue on their northward course they’d have to cross and then leave the water behind. Hieronymus kept an eye out for a suitable place to get across. At a wide, shallow section of the water he saw a series of rocks, none more than a prairie dog length apart, extending from the near side of the creek to a partially washed up branch on the other. He led the group across, each of them springing easily from rock to rock and finishing with a bound over the branch to dry land.
All but Corot, who, bringing up the rear, had stopped to watch a muskrat grooming herself by the creek. In his rush to catch up, he didn’t notice the natural bridge his friends had made use of and none of them had noticed his absence. By the time he saw them on the other side of the creek and they saw he was not with them, he was well beyond the point where the bridge forged the creek. Worse, the creek had narrowed and the water was now both deeper and moving faster.
Corot scanned the creek and saw a spot where it widened enough to make its sides shallow. He waded in and started across. He had gone only a few feet when the sandy bottom gave way to a declivity and his back paws started to tread water. Although weak, the current carried him along for several seconds until he bumped against a pointed rock. Jarred by the impact, he still managed to scramble onto the temporary sanctuary.
As he sucked in air, Corot saw a flatter rock toward the far side of the creek. It was a gamble, he knew. If he could get to the rock, he could wade the rest of the way over. “If I miss it, there’s no telling where I’ll end up,” he muttered. “But risk it I must.”
With a deep breath, he jumped as far as he could toward the other side and paddled with all his strength. For a moment, he headed straight toward his target, but then the water swerved to circumvent the solid obstacle in its path. As the creek whipped him around the rock, Corot lunged for it and grabbed a rough edge with one paw. Kicking furiously to counteract the force of the current, he pulled himself toward the rock and got his other paw on it. He struggled to shift toward the upstream side where the current became his ally and pushed him against the little island of stone.
Soaked and now shivering, he tugged himself onto it. Ignoring the frantic chirps of his horrified friends, he shook water from his coat, gathered his strength, and sprang toward safety. Hitting the water with a kerplosh, the desperate prairie dog disappeared under it for an instant before emerging and paddling with what might he could muster. His effort brought him to within a few prairie dog lengths of shore. Testing the depth with his hind legs, he felt sand under his paws and between his toes. He pushed against the soft bottom and, seconds later, clambered out of the creek and into the embrace of his relieved companions.
A Canine Encounter
Hieronymus was unsure of the best way to traverse the open spaces that met them as they traveled away from the creek. Staying together made them more visible in flat fields, especially from the sky. A hawk has an easier time spotting ten prairie dogs than one. Yet, sending one individual at a time would slow down the group and leave each individual without help if trouble arose. Both his innate bias toward community and his sense of tactical advantage made him decide to keep the band together.
The group skirted the prairie for a while, keeping to the willows, but soon even the willows gave way to grassy expanses. They paused only briefly to gobble goose grass before pushing on nervously. Mid-afternoon they crossed a people field and were able to snatch the corn meant for chickens. The several hens and one nervous rooster eyed them stonily, but kept quiet.
Ozymandias noticed a few cows licking a big white cube and made a detour to try it. He crept up between two bovines that greeted him with lazy “Heeeyyyss.” He watched their gigantic pink tongues for a moment and then shrugged. Instead of testing the cube, he bit off a piece. No sooner did it touch his tongue than he spat it out with a loud “Yuck!” One cow paused and turned, and Ozymandias swore it was laughing at him under its beatific countenance. “That’s nasty,” he told them, backing away. He shook his head as he hurried to rejoin the group.
His friends had stopped near the far end of the field, where the long grass gave way to open unfenced rolling terrain. “Let’s keep close and move fast,” Hieronymus said. “Ludwig, please keep to the back to make sure no one gets behind, and keep an eye out for danger. Are we ready? Here we go.”
As they started out into the area, Sesqui had a suggestion. “One moment, Hieronymus. The amplitude of this geographical expanse presents a felicitous option for our relocation. Might it not be more advantageous to terminate our hegira at this juncture and commence excavation?”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than a loud report startled the group and a pheasant fell to the ground barely ten feet in front of them. It lifted its head once, let out a weak groan, and lay still.
“Oh!” Isobel said and Solomon pushed her from behind as they all went surging forward, away from the sound. Ludwig looked back and saw two large brown dogs bounding over the lip of a modest depression.
Hieronymus looked at Ludwig with disapproval but quickly realized that the canines had been hidden in the depression. He looked back toward the tall grass but it was too far away. “Okay everyone, listen. Get in a circle. If the canines come at us, stand up and bark as loud as you can!”
The dogs ran toward the fallen pheasant. One reached it just ahead of the other, picked it up in its mouth, and bounded back toward the depression, from where a lone person emerged. Hieronymus held his breath, but then saw that the other canine had spotted them. It ran toward the group and bellowed. They barked in return and the dog skidded to a stop within inches of them, barking even louder than before, as if he were determined to win a shouting match.
Then a shrill whistle and loud, “Kobe, Come!” sent the dog racing back toward its master. It gave a backward glance and scowled, as if to say, “Saved by the whistle, you ugly varmints.”
With the threat gone, Hieronymus turned his attention from the retreating dog and back to the group. “Hasten on, now,” he said. “We need a place that provides more shelter before we can dig a burrow for the night.”
“Let’s hustle.” Hieronymus’s tail twitched nervously as he looked around. Ludwig’s sharp eyes had proved no defense against an enemy that came out of nowhere. They crossed the rest of the open area with uncommon haste and arrived at the bottom of a bushy slope dotted with scrub oak and sage.
A green pelt of trees intruded into the slanted land like the paws of a giant bear asleep on just the other side of the horizon. Without hesitation, Hieronymus led them upward. The slope got steeper but their pace did not slacken.
Sesqui was the first to falter. “This uncommon velocity has left me quite void of breath,” she gasped and flopped against the stump of a fir tree. “Can we please moderate our tempo until such time as my alacrity is restored?”
Everyone but Ozymandias and Ludwig did as Sesqui had done. Hieronymus, ready to indulge the need of the weakest member, knew he was obliging the group by granting a rest.
Esmerelda sat and tried without success to groom her coat. “Pray tell, brother, what do you have planned for tomorrow—and who knows how many days after that?” Esmerelda asked with an air of scorn. “I didn’t leave Little Left for the life of a nomad.”
Meshach and Annapurna set about digging. By the time the sun was piercing the evergreens, throwing slivers of dancing yellow light between branches, they had dug a tunnel ten prairie dog lengths into the forest floor.
“Let’s make a side room, too, and angle it up in case of rain,” Meshach advised.
Tired as she was, Annapurna agreed. Everyone knew the threat heavy rain posed to all burrowing animals. Entire warrens had drowned underground in torrential storms.
Esmerelda, Solomon, and Isobel gathered pine needles and other bits of foliage to provide emergency sustenance in case they had to stay underground longer than overnight. Esmerelda held a handful of shooting star up to her nose and was about to put it in her mouth when she saw Solomon staring at her in amused disbelief. Scowling, she added the bloom to the community pile.
Sesqui, Ozymandias, and Ludwig pushed dirt just above and to the sides of the burrow entrance to divert running water and stop mud from blocking an escape. Nothing about the day foretold a downpour. At most, there might be a brief, late summer thundershower, and in a journey filled with risk, this was a gamble they felt they could take.
Hieronymus asked Corot to see if a more permanent place of settlement was visible from the top of the hill and said he would scout what might lie ahead to the north. “If something awful befalls me,” he said solemnly, “may the prairie spirits give you all good guidance and safe passage.”
“Do the prairie spirits rule here in the hills?” Corot asked.
“I sure hope so,” said Hieronymus with a wink and set off through the trees. He picked his way among the firs and spruce, over rocks and under nettles, ferns and scrub oak. As he passed a pinion pine, he inhaled the nutty smell but did not pause to grab nuts. A short time later, he came across a crude, wriggly trail, probably used by people and deer alike. He decided it would be easier to follow it than scramble through the woods and set his paws upon it.
Soon the trail took a sharp left around a tomato shaped rock, ending abruptly at the rim of a vertical granite cliff. Hieronymus peered over the edge and saw a wide river flowing at its base, banked on the far side by evergreens and aspen, birch trees and cottonwoods. A tributary snaked away from the river and emptied into a small pond that itself flowed back into the river. In the middle of the pond, Hieronymus saw a pile of sticks that could only be a beaver lodge. Well beyond the trees that lined the far shore lay a rolling green meadow stretching as far as he could see.
He watched the sun play over the great green expanse until it fell to shadow. The meadow seemed illuminated from within by millions of glimmering lights. “I think that’s where we want to settle,” he told himself. “Now if we can just find a way down there.” He started back to tell the others the wonder that awaited them.
Gray Jay and Chipmunk
Corot reached the top of the hill, only to find he was not really at the top. Instead, he was faced with a shallow, sandy saddle that served as a bridge to yet a higher point. He crossed the saddle, stopping to munch some juniper needles, and resumed his uphill hike.
Another quarter mile brought him to a patch of bristlecone pines, in the midst of which stood a sandstone promontory. On his initial attempt to ascend the steep sandstone, he slid backward and scraped his paws before plopping against the ground. Pondering the obstacle, he decided on another approach. Instead of trying to go straight up the red rock, he angled across the rock until he reached a slight indentation that afforded something to grab onto while he switched direction to angle back the other way.
About halfway up, his back foot slipped and he started to slide again. He pawed furiously at the rock to create enough friction to arrest the slide and regain his stance. Shaken by the near tumble, he continued methodically until he reached the top and could look west. His heart sank. Splayed out in front of him were more hills, each one higher than the one before, their rims catching bands of light from the already setting sun until they disappeared into mountains, some with patches of snow in their deepest creases.
Corot stood still and gazed at the sky, trying to identify the spot where the pale beige of the horizon warmed to dull orange. He noticed how the gray clouds turned purple against the sunset but took on a pinkish hue higher up where the sky was still blue. The bristlecone pines loomed in the shadows. He wondered what it would be like to be as old as they were, these grandfathers of the earth. He traced each convoluted twist of trunk and limb and imagined the wind and weather that must have caused it. What the creek does in an instant, these trees do over hundreds of cold times, he thought, and they endure in a world where to endure is to prevail. He wished he could rest here and watch the shadows take over the land until nothing remained but vague shapes in the darkness, but knew that he had to get back. He turned and ran down the rock hoping Hieronymus’s exploration north had found a better path.
As he started back across the saddle, he caught sight of a bird circling above him. “Oh prairie or hill spirits, let it not be a hawk,” he whispered and ran as fast as his weary legs allowed toward the trees on the other side. The bird made a wide arc and came to a gliding stop right in front of him. It was a gray jay, also called a camp robber. He opened his beak and out fell a large, hard shell. The jay nudged it toward Corot.
“What do you want?” Corot asked.
“Rake?” The jay brought his folded wings up in an awkward shrug.
“Rake!” The jay picked up the nut and flung it against the ground.
“Oh, you want me to break the shell so you can eat the nut?”
“Yawp.” The jay moved his head rapidly up and down.
Corot picked up the nut and felt around it with his teeth for the optimal angle. Then, with a single chomp, he split the shell in half. He plucked out both halves of a walnut and handed them to the jay. “A privilege to serve you, friend,” he said with a flourish.
The bird downed half the nut and took flight, the other clutched in the toes of one foot. As he rose into the darkening sky, he waved his free foot toward Corot in a gesture of gratitude.
Corot watched the jay disappear into the dimming light. Darkness comes more quickly in the hills than on the prairie and Corot had not considered the difficulty of finding his way in unfamiliar surroundings. Though he had noted a few landmarks on his way up—a stump from which columbines grew, a fallen tree whose desiccated roots formed an intricate pattern of interwoven lines—he now saw neither. He remembered a flat red rock on which a chipmunk had been perched and how the little critter looked at him with his head cocked, as if to ask, “Are you an oversized pika or mini-marmot?” What rocks he now passed all looked much the same, and on none sat a chipmunk.
He came to an unwelcome realization: he was lost.
Hieronymus returned as the last glimmers of daylight left the camp and immediately sought out Corot, but he was still gone. As the darkness descended, Hieronymus reluctantly climbed down into the improvised burrow with the others. He could tell they were all worried about Corot and knew he needed to allay their fears.
“You’ve done a fine job with the burrow,” he said into the darkness. “I’ll stay close to the opening, where I can hear Corot when he shows up. If he’s not back by morning, we’ll decide what to do next. Isobel, we’ll listen to a story from you another night. We will need all the strength we can muster tomorrow.”
The others murmured agreement and he listened, looking up toward where he could just make out the moon rising over the trees, until he could hear their measured breathing and knew they were all asleep. Only then did Hieronymus allow himself to whisper pleas to the prairie spirits for Corot’s safekeeping.
He drifted in and out of sleep. When awake he chided himself for putting Corot at risk. Was the mission necessary? Was Corot, so prone to distractions of sight and smell, the best one to send? How long should the group wait in this unsafe place for him, not knowing if he were dead or alive? Should they search for him? What risks would they incur if they did? How many search parties? The more parties, the more area they could cover, but the fewer in each party. Should they call to him and alert predators to their presence? Sleep afforded him no refuge. When the rattling in his brain subsided and he nodded off, it was to the agony of bad dreams.
In one, Hieronymus had an overwhelming sensation that part of him was missing, but he could not tell which part. He felt to see if a paw was gone. No, they were all there. He touched his ears, felt them, and found his tail was still attached, too. He considered that something might be missing inside him. He felt his belly for a hollow spot but discovered none. His heart continued to pump and his breathing was normal. What could it be? Something was missing, nothing was more certain. He awoke in terror.
As the colorless dark of night bled into pearly gray, the gay clamor of morning birds filled the forest air. Hieronymus half crawled, half stumbled out of the temporary sanctuary. He looked up to see grackles bouncing from one branch to another on a lodgepole pine, as though dancing to greet the day. At the base of the pine a pair of swallows pirouetted gleefully, picking red berries from a stand of kinnikinnick. A few feet from where Hieronymus stood in his semi-stupor, a blackbird was salvaging some of the provisions Esmerelda, Solomon, and Isobel had dropped on the way to the burrow.
Instinctively, Hieronymus looked around for signs of danger, but he could see no more than a few yards in any direction through the trees. He thought of summoning Ozymandias to climb a tree for a better look and then realized that the foliage of other trees would block any view. He decided to let Ozymandias and the rest sleep on, for he was in no mood or mind to direct them.
He took a few cautious steps to the side of the burrow. Again acting on instinct, he emitted three low-pitched chirps that meant, “Are you near?” The bustling of the grackles was the only reply. He decided to grab a few berries from the kinnikinnick and was starting toward it when he heard a rustling in the underbrush. Whatever drowsiness still clung to him evaporated in an instant and he bolted back into the burrow.
Native fear grappled for a moment with a sense of responsibility, impulse versus learned code of conduct. He peered over the lip of the burrow and saw not a coyote, badger, or ferret, but a chipmunk. It returned his gaze with a wide smile.
“It’s cool, come on out,” said the chipmunk.
From the thicket stepped Corot.
Hieronymus could not have covered the short space between them faster were he fleeing a mountain lion. “Oh Corot, Corot, I feared we would never see you again!” he cried and thrust his nose against his friend’s.
“You might not have except for the kindness of this chipmunk,” Corot admitted. “His name is Rainer. He saw me going up the hill yesterday and followed me out of curiosity. When it got dark and he knew I was lost, he invited me to spend the night with him and his mate in a little cave not too far from here. They fed me a feast: almonds and peanuts, berries and biscuits, most of which they get from a people picnic site on the hill beyond this one. During dinner, some neighboring chipmunks came by, so Rainer asked if either had seen a group of animals that looked like me, too big for a pika, too small for a marmot. One had seen you foraging, but we all agreed it was too dangerous to go at night because of owls and coyotes. Rainer said he’d show me the way at the first sign of dawn. We stayed up late talking. Rainer woke me this morning and delivered me to you.”
Rainer smiled. “I knew he was my kind of rodent when he broke a nut open for a jay,” he chimed in a voice that tinkled. “The irony is we often compete with the birds for what food people leave behind in the woods. The jays rely on quickness. A crow will snatch a piece of bread right out of our paws. It’s a reminder to us not to rely on what people provide to sustain ourselves. Chipmunks that do don’t survive hibernation. So when a bird beats me to a piece of people food, I’m both angry and grateful.”
Hieronymus nodded. “I feel the same way. Would you like to come and meet the others? They should be getting up soon.”
“Of course,” replied Rainer. He and Corot followed Hieronymus, and soon the sleepy but excited group surrounded them. Isobel took particular interest in the chipmunk and they spent the morning trading stories.