JOURNEY FROM LITTLE LEFT
A Difficult Day
The rumble of passing cattle echoed through the puppery and the ceiling began to crumble. Within seconds, dirt engulfed the five tiny, pink sleeping infants. Isobel, the sow on duty, threw herself over the pups to shield them. As suddenly as it had begun, the clomping stopped and the dirt shower ended. Choking from the dirt shower, Isobel hurried to clear the blanket of brown earth from the coughing babies. To her horror, she saw one wasn’t breathing. She blew into his mouth and gently squeezed his fragile rib cage until his lungs issued a feeble cough.
“Thank you, my little Lazarus,” Isobel said as she closed her eyes in relief. “And thank you gracious prairie spirits.” She continued to blow and squeeze until the pup stopped gasping and began to breathe rhythmically. Then she barked for help. The puppery needed hasty repair, lest the cattle tromp back by the same route and cause irreparable damage.
Soon Hieronymus appeared at the puppery entrance. One look at the damage told him he would need help. He called for nonurgent aid with a low chirp. Moments later, Zophar trundled into the puppery as quickly as his colossal heft would allow and glanced around.
“We’ll need to wet and compress the soil to keep more dirt from falling, but we also need to find a piece of wood to act as a pillar,” Zophar instructed, drawing “compress” and “pillar” out to make sure Hieronymus got the point.
Hieronymus hurried down to the creek on the western border of the colony, contemplating how lucky Little Left was to have Zophar. He was always eager to help and always seemed to know what was needed. Hieronymus quickly gathered the water in his mouth and tucked several sticks under a foreleg. He wasn’t sure if the sticks would meet Zophar’s requirements, but decided that Zophar could decide that for himself.
Zophar looked at the sticks skeptically. He picked up one and held it upright. “Too short,” he proclaimed as he tossed it aside and grabbed another. “This one will fit, but the bend will increase over time until it snaps or falls out of place.” He squinted at the remaining sticks and selected a birch branch. “This may work,” he said.
Zophar tried to fit the stick between the floor and ceiling of the chamber, taking less care to avoid stepping on the babies than Isobel would have liked. “Oops, a tad too long,” he said. He gnawed off the excess quickly and fit the stick into place. “Perfecto. Now if you’ll just dribble that mouthful of water onto the fallen dirt here, Hieronymus, we can push it back into place.”
Together they picked up wet dirt and plastered it to the top of the chamber. When they finished, Hieronymus touched a paw to Zophar’s shoulder. “We’re fortunate you came so quickly. You’ve done the colony and especially the parents of these pups a great service.”
“Think nothing of it. I’m happy to have helped,” Zophar said as he backed his bulk slowly out of the puppery. “Call on me anytime. Usually those cattle skirt our town. I have no idea why they chose a route right over us today. Damn beasts had better not do it again. Maybe if we dig big holes for them to stumble on, it will discourage them. Of course, if one breaks a leg, or even just twists an ankle, people will be over here in no time pouring poison down our entrance mounds.”
Hieronymus and Isobel exchanged knowing smiles, both glad that Zophar’s expertise at maintenance balanced his pedantic streak. Hieronymus followed him out of the puppery.
Outside, the sounds of an argument reverberated through the town like furious static. As far as Hieronymus could tell, it was coming from two of the boars on sentinel duty. He hurried to investigate.
Ludwig and Lucretius were wrangling over which of them should stand lookout from the central post. The slight rise of the post in the otherwise flat expanse the colony occupied provided the best vantage point for spotting approaching danger, whether from the sky—hawks and the occasional eagle—or on the ground—badgers, foxes, and coyotes. The other post sat on the western border of the town, and it was from here an attack by land was more likely to come. Hieronymus sighed as he approached the sentinels. He didn’t welcome the task of adjudicating peevish disputes, but no other colony member was willing to do it.
Ludwig, the tallest prairie dog in the colony, was especially effective as a lookout. Sitting upright, he could see farther than the others, and his sharp chirps carried well beyond the colony boundaries. If an adolescent strayed toward danger, Ludwig’s call was more likely to reach him than any other sentinel’s. Hieronymus touched noses with him and turned to Lucretius, who was so busy arguing he ignored him. Although no match physically for Ludwig, what Lucretius lacked in length and vocal range he made up for with devotion to duty.
“But I can see farther and be heard halfway to the next town!” Ludwig argued as he crossed his forelegs over his chest and scowled with an imperious downward curve of his mouth. “Any question about whose turn it is to patrol the high spot should be resolved in my favor.”
The fur rose on Lucretius’s back and his paws trembled. “Nonsense,” he barked. “If anything, you should let those of us who don’t have your natural advantage take the higher spot.”
Hieronymus watched the boars until they exhausted their voices and fell to silent staring. “Obviously, you’ve both given serious thought to this matter.” They turned to him, ready to listen. “I commend you for your mental prowess. But please tell me, has it occurred to either of you rational animals to draw rocks?”
Ludwig hung his head and kicked at the dirt while Lucretius flicked his tail from side to side. Neither spoke. Hieronymus picked up a pebble and put his paws behind his back. Then he held out both his fists. “Okay, you know the game. Which paw holds the pebble? We’ll do it until one of you guesses correctly and the other does not. That way, neither of you can claim the contest was unfair because only the other boar got first guess. Ready?”
Ludwig mustered a weak smile. “You take the high spot today, Lucretius. I’ll cover it next time.”
Hieronymus tossed the pebble aside. “Thank you, my friends. “Now, Lucretius, remember to pay special attention toward the south there. We’ve had fox sightings that way of late.”
Lucretius stood up taller and nodded.
“There you are,” a voice called. Hieronymus, caught off guard, swiveled. Solomon had a smooth, quiet way about him, walking as if on oiled haunches. He held up a paw.
“What is it?” Hieronymus asked. He was impatient now to get something to eat, perhaps a bit of bouncy beet or erect knotweed.
“It’s your sister. She’s in trouble,” Solomon replied and looked behind himself. “I thought you should know.”
“What now?” Hieronymus said with uncharacteristic gruffness. The day was pushing the limit of his patience.
“Esmerelda got caught sneaking food from the emergency stash. She’ll have to go before the council.”
Unsurprised, Hieronymus thanked the boar and, making his good-byes, went to find his sister.