Story copyright 2009 Alice Breider.
Illustrations copyright 2009 Colin DuBois.
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Epilogue
Miz Shirley Badger
MICHAEL BEAVER WAS PRACTICING. He swam back and forth in the brook, listening for Miz Shirley Badger's signal. Birds tossed their songs into the afternoon, and above him, dragonflies hovered and danced, their transparent wings glinting in the sun. They were curious about him, but Michael paid no attention to them; he was concentrating.
At last Miz Badger called, "Now." And Michael raised his broad, flat tail above the water and quickly brought it down, SLAP! The dragonflies took fright and flew away. The birds fell silent.
Michael swam toward Miz Badger who was standing on the bank. "That was very good," she said. "I think that will do. Come and join us now."
Miz Shirley Badger, teacher of the young animals at the Woodland School, turned to her other pupils. They stood in a group far back at the edge of the forest bordering the brook. "Could you all hear Michael's danger warning?" she called.
"Oh, yes," said Ruthie Woodchuck, the first pupil to answer. Jeremy Squirrel, Steven Rabbit, and Kathy Possum agreed. "This last time was really loud," said Steven.
Michael hauled himself out of the water and shook himself. His brown fur coat settled itself into its usual sleek lines. He looked up at Miz Badger, his front paws crossed on his chest.
"Very good, Michael," Miz Badger repeated. "All of us heard the slap of your tail."
"My tail is tired," said Michael. "I must have slapped it on the water six times."
Ruthie Woodchuck giggled softly.
But Miz Badger was going on as if she hadn't heard Ruthie's giggle, "Tomorrow we'll continue our lesson on danger signaling." She looked over at Ruthie. "And we'll begin with you."
Steven Rabbit nudged Ruthie and whispered, "You'd better practice your whistle tonight."
Oh, no, Ruthie thought. Steven's right; I'd better practice. I know I can do it, but can I do it loud enough? she asked herself.
"Class dismissed," said Miz Badger. "We'll meet in the clearing as usual tomorrow."
Jeremy Squirrel, Kathy Possum, Steven Rabbit, and Ruthie Woodchuck set off together toward the old oak tree from where they would go their separate ways.
Michael slid back into the brook and began to swim toward his house and the dam he was building. He wasn't too tired to gnaw down one or two tree saplings to add to the dam, he thought. Yes, his tail was tired, but his teeth weren't. He turned in the water and swam to the bank.
It was early summer and the sun was setting later and later. It was not quite dusk as Michael examined the young trees set back a little way from the bank where he was constructing the dam. Already he had gnawed down many of the saplings and dragged them to the dam. Even though the dam was far from finished, it had created a pool of deeper water behind it. Michael's round house, or lodge, of rock, mud, and tree limbs rose out of this pool.
Michael clicked his front teeth together once or twice and set to work. He preferred working at night; there were fewer interruptions. But as he gnawed, he remembered to be alert for danger, as Miz Badger had taught.
Ruthie Woodchuck & Kathy Possum
Steven Rabbit & Jeremy Squirrel
NEXT DAY, MIZ BADGER'S PUPILS STOOD FACING HER. "Pick your hiding spots first, but don't go to them until you hear Ruthie's whistle."
Steven, Jeremy, Kathy, and Michael moved away. Ruthie stood beside Miz Badger, trembling just a little. Her mouth was dry, and she cleared her throat. Oh, yes, she had practiced last night with Steven coaching her. "Louder," he had said, until she thought she would scream. But danger signals were so important, and she just had to do it right. Her life and those of her friends depended on hearing danger signals loud enough and in time for them to hide from whatever big hungry animal was looking for dinner.
"Now," said Miz Badger.
Ruthie stood up on her hind legs, took a deep breath, and whistled. Just as she had practiced with Steven, it was loud and clear. The other animals scattered: Steven and Kathy dived into pickery berry bushes, Jeremy scampered up a tree, and Michael dived into the brook.
"Again," said Miz Badger.
And Ruthie stood tall and whistled once more. She dropped back on all fours and looked up at Miz Badger.
"That was EXCELLENT!" said Miz Badger. "A very satisfactory woodchuck whistle. I think the others could hear you very well. What about it?" Miz Badger called to them.
From deep in the berry bushes, Steven and Kathy cried, "Yes!" Jeremy headed down the tree, meeting Michael coming out of the water. "Yes!" they shouted.
"I thought Ruthie might need to work more on her whistle today," said Miz Badger, "but she did so well that we can move on to Jeremy and Steven instead."
Ruthie beamed and twitched her whiskers. Praise from Miz Badger didn't come her way very often. She waddled over to stand next to Steven. "I really appreciate your coaching me last night," she whispered to him. "For once I could do something right." She added, "Are you ready to do your signal?"
"Sure," said Steven, "my back feet and legs are strong. And I've been practicing too. Just wait and see."
"Jeremy," Miz Badger was saying, "if you'll climb up the tree again, I'll give you the signal. And you others, go once again to your hiding places, but not into them until you hear Jeremy."
Up in the tree, Jeremy waited.
"Now," called Miz Badger.
Twitching his tail rapidly up and down, Jeremy began a furious chattering. He fairly danced on the tree limb as he chrrrrrrred, his entire body in motion. Birds flew out of the tree, squawking.
"Oh, we hear that," called Kathy and Steven and Ruthie from the pickery berry bushes where they had dived once more. "I heard it too," shouted Michael Beaver.
What a performance! Miz Badger exclaimed to herself. "My goodness, Jeremy," she said, "you'll have the whole forest in an uproar! I think once is enough!"
"Whew," puffed Jeremy, as he joined the group returning from their hiding places.
"Now, Steven, are you ready?" asked Miz Badger. "I don't think the rest of you need to hide. Just back off a way."
Steven crouched, waiting for Miz Badger's signal. "Now," she said, and Steven immediately began a rhythmic thumping with his back legs and feet. The ground trembled as he thumped, and Kathy Possum put her paws to her ears. Jeremy, Ruthie, and Michael stood with their mouths open. Wow! Kathy whispered.
Miz Badger held up a paw and there was silence. "Well," she said finally, "you have all done wonderfully well. I am extremely proud of you." She paused and looked at each animal in turn. "I know you will now be ready to hide if you hear a danger signal from one of the others. Don't delay, hide at once." She thought for a moment as the young animals stared at her expectantly. "We will meet one last time tomorrow, for I have taught you all you need to know--how to find food, how to hide from predators, how to signal danger and what to do when you hear such a signal."
"Oh," said Kathy Possum suddenly, "remember the mean old coyote?" Ruthie added quickly, "And that smelly Big Millie, the Cross-Eyed Bear!" The others nodded, remembering how Miz Badger had saved them from danger.
Miz Badger looked round at her pupils as they sat quietly once again. "Tomorrow you will graduate from the Woodland School."
Oh, my. This was not what they had expected to hear. Each one wondered silently, am I truly ready to be on my own?
As if she knew what they were thinking, Miz Badger said again, "You have all done well, and you ARE ready to be on your own. I will see you tomorrow."
The young animals turned in a group and wandered away together. No one spoke; they were busy with their own thoughts.
Mother Duck and her Ducklings
THE LITTLE GROUP STOPPED AT THE OLD OAK TREE. "Say," said Michael Beaver, "why don't you all come with me and take a look at the dam I'm building." The rest of them looked at each other. Why not? Somehow they were reluctant to take leave of the others, and this was something they could still do as a group.
"Okay," said Jeremy, speaking for the rest of them.
Michael led the way, followed by the others. On land he waddled, but in the water he was graceful as could be, pushing himself with his powerful back legs and steering himself with his broad, flat tail. Now he plunged into the brook, and, as the others watched, he glided toward the pool created behind the dam he was building.
A mother duck and several half-grown ducklings glanced at him. Mother was teaching the ducklings to dive in the pool for food. Two of the ducklings were bottom-up in the pool, peering around underwater for tasty plant roots. They all had grown used to this sleek, furry animal dragging saplings and tree limbs through the water to add to his dam, and they paid little attention to him.
Michael's four friends admired the dam and Michael's lodge which rose high above the water. "I'm enlarging my house," said Michael, "because eventually I'll need more room for a family."
"If you ever get around to it," said Jeremy, snickering. "You'll be building that dam for years. But the construction is very solid, I think," he added. "You've got mud and rocks as part of it, too," he observed.
"Isn't it awfully hard work?" asked Ruthie Woodchuck.
"Well, yes," admitted Michael, "but I have to keep gnawing saplings and tree limbs--otherwise my front teeth grow too fast."
Ruthie and Kathy Possum stepped over to the bank of the pool and dabbled their paws. Neither was fond of water, but they enjoyed making little splashes.
Steven Rabbit had continued to inspect the dam with interest. "What's that thing?" he asked suddenly. He had been looking at the top of the dam when he saw a piece of it begin to move. Slowly, very slowly, it crawled to the edge of the dam.
"Oh! How ugly!" exclaimed Ruthie. She and Kathy stepped back quickly from the edge of the pool. "Michael, what is it?"
The thing was big and oval-shaped, with moss-covered ridges all over it. A long neck stuck out of it with a huge beaked head at one end. A ridged tail stuck out of the other end. Four large, stout legs with claws brought the thing closer and closer to the edge of the dam.
"Oh, no!" cried Michael, "it's a snapping turtle and it's going after the ducklings." His tail slapped the water. Mother duck began quickly to herd her ducklings toward the bank. Little legs paddled furiously as mother quacked, "Hurry, hurry!" The two who had been bottom-up trailed behind their mother, trying frantically to keep up.
And now the snapping turtle had slipped from the dam's edge. It was in the water after the ducklings. Paddling swiftly with his back paws, Michael seized a tree limb from his dam. Holding it in his front paws as he swam after the turtle, he was soon alongside it. The thing never looked at him, so intent was it on that last duckling. Dinner, it was thinking. Michael jabbed at the turtle with the tree limb. That caught its attention and it turned its fierce, ugly head toward him.
On the bank, Jeremy was chattering and twitching his tail up and down so fast that it was just a blur. Ruthie was squealing, and Steven was thumping the ground with all his might. Kathy Possum was almost toppling over with fright.
And far away, Miz Badger on her way home heard the commotion and smiled to herself. Her pupils were practicing danger signals, she thought.
But at the brook, the danger was real. "Oh, Michael, be careful," whispered Kathy Possum, as the creature turned toward Michael. And then, just when its great horned beak opened to attack Michael, he jammed the tree limb into the beak. CRUNCH! The beak came down on the limb, almost severing it in half. But the limb held. The beak could neither close nor open; it was stuck fast in the limb. Its small, mean eyes glared at Michael. What was it thinking? Certainly there was rage gleaming in those eyes . . .
Michael swam away quickly, looking for the mother duck and the ducklings. They were all on the bank crouching under a bush, the ducklings huddled under their mother's wings. They were safe. The danger to them was over.
Farther down the bank, Michael's friends were cheering. He hauled himself up to join them, and fell flat on the ground, panting. They gathered around him, all talking at once. "Are you hurt?" they asked. As the only animal large enough, Ruthie tried to help him to his feet. "I'm all right," said Michael, getting up on all fours and shaking himself. Water droplets flew everywhere, and his friends backed away.
As one, they turned to gaze at the pool. The creature was swimming in circles, its beak still stuck in the tree limb, and its mean eyes still glittering with anger. Kathy Possum shuddered and looked away. "Horrible," she said, and Steven patted her shoulder.
"Could have got you, Michael," said Jeremy. "Could have bitten off your leg with that beak."
They were all quiet then, thinking of what could have happened to Michael.
NEXT DAY IN THE WOODLAND SCHOOL CLEARING, Miz Badger stood with her arms folded. Her pupils seemed unusually fidgety, and she waited patiently for them to settle down. At last, she asked, "What is it? What's the matter? Will one of you speak for the rest?"
Four of them wanted to speak at once. Miz Badger held up a firm paw. Michael was the most sensible of her pupils, but Michael shook his head when she nodded at him. "What about you, Steven?" she asked.
"It's about Michael," Steven began. "Yes, yes!" the others shouted. And Steven told the story of how Michael saved the mother duck and her family from the ugly snapping turtle. "Really, REALLY ugly!" was Ruthie's interruption. "I couldn't look," said Kathy. "Michael could've had a leg bitten off," said Jeremy, "or worse." But Michael just sat, staring at the ground. Finally, Steven ended the story with, "And the last we saw of that thing it was just paddling around in a circle with its beak stuck in the tree limb."
Miz Badger listened in silence, her brow furrowed in concentration. Finally, she said, "Michael, look at me." Michael raised his head and gazed up at Miz Badger. "That was a very brave action," she said quietly. "You were not in danger yourself, but you risked your life to save the duck family."
Michael said, "I didn't think, I just acted. But when I got back into my house, I just sat for a long time and shook. It was awful. I kept seeing that big, ugly beak coming at me." He fell silent and stared once more at the ground.
By then his friends had gathered around him, patting him and whispering how proud of him they were.
Miz Badger clapped her paws. "I had a graduation speech ready to give, but I don't think you need to hear it. You pupils grew up suddenly yesterday, especially Michael, and I am very proud of all of you. You are no longer my pupils; you are ready to go out and make your own way now." She held out her long, furry arms and the young animals crowded around her for a comforting hug before they left her.
QUIETLY, SUMMER WAS COMING TO AN END. Already the trees looked dusty and tired. Dusk came earlier these days, and the crickets had begun chirping as night fell. Fireflies no longer dotted the long grass of the meadow in the evening, turning their lighted tails on and off. The birds which would be migrating gathered in tree tops, twittering loudly as they argued about the best route to take south. High overhead, geese parents were teaching their young ones to fly in V-formation. The young geese appeared to be slow learners. Autumn would find them flying in close precision, but now they straggled this way and that across the sky as their parents honked furiously.
But on that afternoon in late summer it was very quiet in the Woodland School clearing. Miz Shirley Badger paced round and round, considering lesson plans for the fall term of the Woodland School. Word had gone out through the forest and meadow that a new class for the youngest animals was about to begin. She wondered who her new pupils would be.
Rustlings and whispers made her turn sharply. And as she gazed, out from behind a tall tree came a parade. Steven Rabbit led the way, followed by Kathy Possum. Jeremy Squirrel was there, and Michael Beaver waddled beside him. Last of all came Ruthie Woodchuck, also waddling slowly for she had again spent the summer eating and eating and eating.
The little group surrounded Miz Badger. She clapped her paws, astonished. A big smile spread across her normally stern face. "My, how you all have grown!" she cried.
Steven hopped forward. With him was a small, shy version of himself. "I'd like you to meet my daughter, Pixie," he said, and pushed the little one forward. "This is Miz Shirley Badger," he said to her. "She will be your teacher."
"How do you do, Pixie," said Miz Badger, stooping low. "I'm very pleased that your daddy has brought you."
Kathy Possum stepped forward. My goodness! thought Miz Badger, Kathy is twice as big as the last time I saw her!
Kathy turned her head and three small heads peeked out from the fur on her back. "Miz Badger, these are my daughters, Holly, Molly, and Dolly. I brought them to meet you." Well, thought Miz Badger, no wonder Kathy appeared much larger; she was carrying her daughters snuggled into her fur.
It was Jeremy Squirrel's turn. He led two small squirrels up to Miz Badger. "I'd like you to meet my sons, Alex and Owen." The two young squirrels looked up, their paws crossed on their chests. Miz Badger towered above them and they ducked their heads shyly. She stooped to pat each one on the shoulder. "You look just like your daddy when I met him for the first time," she said. And Jeremy smiled proudly.
Ruthie Woodchuck waddled forward. "Hello, Miz Badger," she said. "I've been so busy eating and eating, I didn't have time to meet any other woodchucks. So I don't have any children to bring." She giggled. "But no big hungry animal found me either, thanks to the lessons I learned from you." She looked around at her friends. "Michael, you don't have any little beaver kits with you?"
Michael bobbed his head. "No," he said, "maybe next year. I was awfully busy this summer. Working on the dam, you know. I took time off to come with the others. Didn't want to miss this gathering."
Miz Badger surveyed the group gathered around her. "This is a wonderful reunion, and I am so pleased to meet your children. I hope they will be as willing to learn as you all were. The lessons might have been difficult--gathering your own food, finding hiding places, practicing your danger signals, AND being alert for danger at all times . . ."
Ruthie looked closely at Miz Badger. Could it be? Was that a tear running down her furry face? She waddled over to look up at Miz Badger and blurted out, "We were so afraid of you at first, but we know now you worked us hard for our own good. And the proof that we learned your lessons is that WE'RE ALL HERE!" she cried triumphantly. "We love you, Miz Badger!"
"And I love you, Ruthie--and all the rest of you," said Miz Badger, and she gathered them close for one last long hug.