Story copyright 2008 Alice Breider.
Illustrations copyright 2008 Colin DuBois.
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
RUTHIE WOODCHUCK WAS HUNGRY! She felt she hadn't eaten for ages. It was the first mild day of spring, and Ruthie sat in the doorway of her underground house yawning and stretching. She looked down at herself and wondered why her fur coat was so rumpled and full of bits of straw and leaves. She patted her stomach. Hadn't it been much fatter? She scratched herself, trying to remember.
Ruthie was usually a very tidy woodchuck who took good care of her coarse brown coat. Each day she groomed herself, licking and smoothing her fur. But now she looked scrawny and motheaten as well as rumpled.
As Ruthie sat scratching herself in the spring sunshine, she heard a rustling sound behind her. She turned quickly to see her friend Steven Rabbit hopping toward her.
"Ruthie, is that you?" cried Steven. He stopped beside her and sat down on his fluffy puff of a tail. "What happened to you?" he asked. "Are you all right?"
"Of course I'm all right," said Ruthie crossly. She really was very hungry. "Why shouldn't I be?"
Steven cocked his head. He looked Ruthie up and down and said finally, "Well, I haven't seen you since just before the first big snowfall, and back then you were just huge."
She glared at him. "Thanks a lot, Steven."
He tried again. "I mean you looked good and ready for hibernating. And now. . ." His voice trailed off.
"Aha!" Ruthie thought, "that's why I'm so hungry and why I look so . . . so messy. I've been hibernating."
But Steven was her friend, and she knew she shouldn't have snapped at him. "I'm sorry, Steven," she said. "How did the winter treat you?"
"Oooh, it was bad," he said, "with lots of snow and really cold. Aren't you glad you slept away the winter in your underground house?"
"Well, yes," Ruthie admitted, "hibernating is probably better than wallowing around in the snow trying to keep warm and find something to eat."
And suddenly her memory came back. She remembered last fall and their teacher at the Woodland School, Miz Shirley Badger, spending one whole day teaching her pupils about winter. None of the young animals had yet experienced winter, and Miz Shirley Badger's talk about snow and cold did not mean much to them.
But they were obedient small creatures. And after listening to Miz Shirley Badger, Ruthie had spent several days tucking lots of leaves and straw way, way down in her underground house. She also stuffed herself--with clover and all kinds of seeds and fruit. (Miz Shirley Badger had taught them all how to gather their own food.) So each day, Ruthie grew fatter and fatter.
And then came the first snowfall. It wasn't much, only an inch or two, but Ruthie hated it. Her paws were cold, and she couldn't help leaving tracks in the snow for some big hungry animal to find. And maybe find her at the other end of the tracks.
And so, as Miz Shirley Badger had instructed her, Ruthie went to bed for the winter. She waddled to the end of her deep underground house. She lay down on the soft layers of leaves and straw she had tucked there earlier. Ruthie yawned and shut her eyes. And that was all she remembered of winter. As she slipped into a deep, deep sleep she barely breathed, and slowly throughout the long weeks of winter, her fat had melted away.
"Yes," she told Steven, "it was good to sleep away the winter. But now I must find something to eat because I am sooo hungry. Miz Shirley Badger said I would be living off my fat while I slept." She looked down at herself. "I guess I don't have any fat left. Just a big appetite."
"I know where there's a patch of fresh green clover," said Steven, "the first of the spring, and it's very tender and juicy. I nibbled some."
Ruthie smiled at Steven. "You're a really good friend," she said. "Is there enough for two? Even if one of them is a very hungry and cranky woodchuck?"
Steven grinned back at her. "Sure," he said, "let's go." And he hopped away.
Ruthie went after him, shedding bits of leaves and straw as she ran to keep up. Grooming her fur coat could wait until later.
"There it is," called Steven. And indeed there it was--a patch of fresh green clover, growing low to the ground for it was very early spring. One could almost miss it, unless one was on the lookout for something tasty to eat.
"Oh, boy," cried Ruthie. She crouched down and began to nibble and chew. Her nose twitched with pleasure.
"Beat you to the middle," said Steven, reminding Ruthie of the game they had played last fall. Each would chomp away toward the center of a clover patch. When they reached the middle, they would bump noses and laugh. And go off to find another patch of clover and begin another game.
Ruthie was too busy nibbling to speak, but her eyes sparkled and she nodded at Steven.
When they had eaten the clover patch down to its roots, the two of them sat back and sighed. "That helped a lot," said Ruthie. "Thanks, Steven."
"By the way," Steven said, "Miz Shirley Badger wants us to come see her."
Miz Badger, their teacher at the Woodland School, was in charge of the youngest animals. Her pupils included Ruthie and Steven, Michael Beaver, Jeremy Squirrel, and Kathy Possum. The young animals loved and respected Miz Badger, especially after she had saved them last fall from the mean old coyote. The coyote too had lots of respect for Miz Badger's sharp claws and had never again tried to catch one of the little animals for his dinner.
"Oh, good," cried Ruthie, "does this mean school is going to start again? Have you seen any of the others? I wonder what we'll be doing. Can we go right now?" Her questions came tumbling out, and Ruthie forgot that she had planned to clean up her messy fur coat.
"Sure," said Steven, "we're meeting in the clearing." And off they went, Steven loping ahead and Ruthie scuttling after him.
Kathy Possum, Jeremy Squirrel & Michael Beaver
THEY FOUND THE OTHER YOUNG ANIMALS sitting in front of Miz Shirley Badger. Michael Beaver was there and Jeremy Squirrel and little Kathy Possum. Tall, erect, and rather stern-looking, Miz Badger looked at each of her pupils in turn.
"Good morning," she said, "and welcome back to the Woodland School."
"Good morning, Miz Badger," said all the young animals together.
"First, please tell us how you spent the winter. You go first, Michael," said Miz Badger.
Michael Beaver looked down at his front paws. He said, "It's a good thing I had worked hard on my house." He gazed up at Miz Badger. "I had built a good thick dam with tree saplings and mud and rocks, but with all the ice on the pond, it was hard to get out for food. My food pocket of tree limbs on the bank of the pond came in handy, and I didn't have to go far. But the food is almost gone now." He added, "And I'm hungry."
Miz Badger nodded approvingly. "Very good, Michael. Yes, I'm sure you're hungry, and we'll attend to that shortly. But first, let's hear from Jeremy about how he spent the winter."
Jeremy Squirrel ran his paws along his big fluffy tail. "I wrapped my tail around me to keep out the cold," he said. "Even though I was snug in a hole in the old oak tree, the wind was fierce sometimes." He continued, "I did get out once in awhile, but the nuts I had buried were mostly impossible to get at. So I'm hungry too."
"Yes," said Miz Badger. "And you, Steven?"
"Oh, I made out all right," said Steven Rabbit. "I gnawed bark from shrubs and bushes, and now that the clover is growing . . . Gosh, it tastes good!" He couldn't help it, he just had to hop up and down once or twice.
Kathy Possum raised her paw. "Miz Badger," she said, "Grandma Possum and I found a place where we were able to get food all winter." Kathy turned around to look at her tail. "But I did get frostbitten," she added.
The other animals looked at her. Sure enough, they could see that her bare tail was shorter than it had been, and the tips of her small black ears looked sort of ragged.
Miz Badger considered. "Where is this place, Kathy?" asked Miz Badger. "Is there enough food left for all of us?"
"Oh, yes, Miz Badger, lots!" said Kathy.
"What about it, class," said Miz Badger, "shall we follow Kathy?"
"Oh, yes, Miz Badger," they shouted, Ruthie loudest of all, "we're so hungry."
As they hurried away from the clearing, Miz Badger questioned Kathy about the food they were going to look for. But as always, she was alert for trouble. Trouble usually came in the form of a big, hungry animal looking for a small animal for dinner.
Somewhere behind them, Miz Badger could hear a muffled crashing sound, but it seemed to come from deep in the forest. She had an idea what, or who, it might be, so she kept her ears perked, even as she and Kathy talked. Above them, a hawk made lazy circles in the sky. Miz Badger saw him drop lower to look over her group of little animals, but she knew she could deal with him if he decided to attack. She said nothing to her pupils, but kept a wary eye on him. Soon he sailed away out of sight.
Kathy led them beside a brook which was rushing along freely, now that the winter ice had melted. Finally, she stopped by an apple tree. "See," she said, "there are soft apples on the ground. They're mushy, but they taste good. Grandma Possum and I dug them out from under the snow. We ate a lot of them."
Miz Badger turned with her arms out as her pupils rushed forward eagerly. "Wait, wait," she cried. She cocked an ear, listening to the crashing sound which seemed to be coming closer. "Gather round me," she said, and as they came to her, she turned and pointed behind her. "Do you hear that noise?"
"I do," said Ruthie. "What is it?"
"I'm not sure, but just in case, let's all keep together. No running out ahead of the group. Kathy, are we close to the food?"
"Yes," said Kathy, and pointed.
There, alongside the brook, just beyond the apple tree, was a garden. Or what was left of a garden that had been snow-covered all winter.
The garden was edged on two sides by leafless pickery berry bushes, but inside the hedge formed by the bushes . . . Oh, boy! The little animals gazed hungrily. The garden looked sad and forlorn, but they saw stalks of brussels sprouts, leaning toward the ground and still covered with small green balls. There were pumpkins, sunken in spots, but still orange. Some carrot tops waved limply. Poles stuck in the ground were covered with the dry leaves of bean vines, but here and there bean pods dangled among the leaves. A cabbage or two had split open. The outer leaves were black, but crisp green and white showed in the middle. The vegetables plus the mushy apples looked like a banquet to the small hungry animals.
Ruthie was the first to dart forward. She went straight to the carrot tops and began to dig. Beneath the drooping tops were carrots and Ruthie's strong claws dug up one after another. She chewed so fast that bits of carrot flew out from each side of her mouth.
Michael Beaver studied the garden thoughtfully. Finally he moved into the tangle of brussels sprouts stalks. "Would you like these little green balls?" he asked Steven Rabbit. "I'll eat the stalks and you can have these."
"Great," cried Steven, and hopped over to join Michael. Together they set to work--Michael chomping the tough, fibrous stalks, and Steven biting quickly through one round sprout after another.
Jeremy Squirrel examined the bean pods dangling among the dried leaves. He pulled one pod from a dead vine and gnawed it open with his sharp front teeth. "These beans taste almost like nuts," he shouted, looking up and reaching for more pods.
Kathy Possum tried the pumpkin. The flesh inside the skin was soft and stringy, and soon Kathy was draped in ribbons of orange pumpkin as she munched happily.
Big Millie the Cross-Eyed Bear
Miz Shirley Badger
AND OFF TO ONE SIDE, MIZ BADGER STOOD watching and listening. Her pupils were messy eaters, she thought as she looked at them, but no wonder. Winter had been cold and snowy, and they were very hungry. I might try a bit of cabbage, she thought to herself, but just then her sharp ears caught a thumping sound, not far off. And her twitching nose picked up from a passing breeze a smell she recognized. Not a nice smell. A very BAD smell, in fact. "Ugh, I know who THAT is," she said to herself as she wheeled to look back at the forest. Danger was on its way, lumbering toward them.
Miz Badger clapped her paws together sharply and called out, "Quickly, quickly, you must all hide. Remember last fall how you learned to escape danger. You must do so, NOW!"
Heads jerked up, food dropped from paws and mouths. They asked no questions, they just moved.
Michael Beaver ran to the rushing stream and plunged in. The brook carried him along as he paddled furiously to keep from being swept away. He landed against a large boulder and huddled behind it. Jeremy Squirrel leapt to the apple tree, climbing quickly to a tall branch where he sat, his tail twitching. Steven Rabbit dived into the pickery berry bush hedge and crouched, keeping his ears back. Trailing shreds of pumpkin, Kathy Possum went after him and they huddled together in the thicket peering out fearfully.
"What is it?" Kathy whispered. "I'm scared."
"I don't know," Steven whispered back. "I'm scared too. Keep down." And they flattened themselves against the ground.
Only Ruthie Woodchuck continued to chew carrots. So intent was she on filling her empty stomach that she hadn't heard Miz Badger's warning through her noisy crunching.
Miz Badger strode toward the edge of the forest. She hoped her pupils were in hiding as they had been taught. She didn't see that behind her Ruthie was not in hiding, that she was still eating.
And then, suddenly, the danger was there! And it was huge and black and smelly. Big Millie, the Cross-Eyed Bear stomped noisily out of the forest, her immense head moving ponderously from side to side, her mouth open showing enormous yellow teeth. She was followed by two small versions of herself, Big Millie's twin cubs.
Two days earlier, Big Millie had awakened to spring. Like Ruthie Woodchuck, she had slept away the winter, hibernating in her snug den. Her cubs had been born while she slept. With the smell of spring in her snout-like nose, Big Millie craved food. The cubs were hungry as well, mewling and whining at her heels.
So Big Millie had taken the cubs to a nearby garbage dump, a favorite eating spot of hers. She introduced the cubs to moldy pizza, rotten potato peelings, and other stinky leftovers. Big Millie and the cubs had burrowed deep into the piles of garbage, looking for more, more, more, until finally, mother and cubs sat back and looked at one another.
"Time for dessert," said Big Millie at last, thinking of mushy apples, and she set off through the forest, followed by the twins. Their fur coats were decorated with bits of garbage giving off the bad smell which Miz Shirley Badger had detected on the breeze.
Smashing her way through the forest underbrush, Big Millie growled and snorted to herself. Always bad-tempered, her mood was improved only slightly by the meal she had eaten at the dump. Other forest animals scurried away when they heard Big Millie coming. It was common knowledge that Big Millie would eat anything she could catch.
And suddenly, there she was at the apple tree. Miz Shirley Badger took one quick breath and strode forward, snarling a warning. Big Millie swung her head, her small, mean eyes glaring at Miz Badger.
"Scoot," Big Millie said to the twins, "climb the tree." One on each side of the trunk, obediently the cubs clambered up the apple tree. Nobody argued with Big Millie.
Jeremy Squirrel watched them coming up and quickly leapt from branch to branch to the very top of the tree. Shutting his eyes, he clung there trembling.
Michael Beaver peeped around the boulder he was hiding behind. He saw Big Millie rear up on her hind legs and he ducked back behind the boulder.
Flat on the ground inside the pickery berry bushes, Steven Rabbit and Kathy Possum listened, their hearts pounding.
And finally, finally, Ruthie Woodchuck looked up. She gasped, dropping a carrot. It was a dreadful monster! And the monster had seen her. Oh, oh, oh! It was trying to slap Miz Shirley Badger out of its path and come after her. She froze, terrified.
Big Millie growled and snuffled, waving her paws threateningly. She took a lumbering step forward. Even with her crossed eyes she had spotted Ruthie Woodchuck. Garbage was all very well for a quick meal, but fresh small animal was even better.
Ruthie suddenly found her voice and shrieked. It was then that Miz Badger realized that Ruthie was not hiding, that she was in terrible danger.
Fearlessly, Miz Badger lunged. Like a boxer landing punches, one, two, she slashed at Big Millie's exposed belly with her long, sharp claws. Again and again, she struck while Big Millie swayed above her. Big Millie dropped to all fours. Miz Badger lunged again and her claws raked Big Millie across her ugly snout of a nose.
Big Millie was not used to being attacked. Usually she did the attacking. Briefly she considered teaching Miz Shirley Badger a thing or two. . .but there were the cubs to think of. She backed away, growling at them to follow her. The cubs slid backward down the tree and ran to Big Milie.
Ruthie found her legs under her at last and scuttled for safety to the pickery berry bush hedge. She puffed and panted as she crouched down beside Steven and Kathy. "Awful," she gasped, "just awful. . ." And that was all she had breath for.
Up in the treetop, Jeremy opened his eyes and looked down. There was the monster, muttering and growling and licking her sore nose, but backing away into the forest, her cubs stumbling along beside her. "Whew," said Jeremy, watching from his perch.
Miz Badger too was puffing and panting. She looked around for her pupils and found them all safe, even the heedless Ruthie Woodchuck. Well, thank goodness for that. Miz Badger looked at her paws. Nasty bits of garbage had stuck to the claws so she went to the brook and rinsed them. Then she helped Michael Beaver clamber over the boulder onto dry ground.
Michael shook himself briskly and water droplets flew everywhere. "What was that great big monster?" he asked Miz Badger, and shook himself again. His fur settled into its normally sleek lines.
"All right, pupils," called Miz Badger, beckoning to Michael to follow her, "you may come out now. We'll discuss what just happened here."
Jeremy Squirrel leapt nimbly down the apple tree, branch by branch. Steven Rabbit and Kathy Possum crawled from beneath the pickery berry bush hedge. And, last of all, very slowly, Ruthie Woodchuck pushed her way out of the hedge, leaving tufts of her fur coat stuck on the pickers. "Ouch, ouch," she said, as she joined the others who sat quietly looking up at Miz Shirley Badger.
"That monster," said Miz Badger, "was Big Millie, the Cross-Eyed Bear. And you are right to be afraid of her. She is a predator who will eat anything, including small animals."
Ruthie Woodchuck shivered. She had had a narrow escape from that enormous monster.
Miz Badger continued, "I'm proud of you. Last fall, you learned how to hide from danger, and you did very well today."
Four of the little animals looked at each other. Ruthie Woodchuck fidgeted. She had not done well at hiding until it was almost too late.
"The lesson for today, class, is that you must be always alert to danger. It can come noisily, like Big Millie, or slowly and silently, like the mean old coyote, last fall."
Again, the animals looked at each other. They were remembering how Miz Badger had saved them from the mean old coyote.
"If you sense danger at any time, you must hide," said Miz Badger. "It is better to hide half a dozen times for nothing than to fail to hide just once," she paused, "and be caught." She looked sternly at Ruthie Woodchuck, who dropped her eyes as a big tear rolled down her furry face.
"And you must always have a hiding place in mind, no matter where you are," Miz Badger went on, "so that you can get to it quickly when you sense danger."
THE SUN WAS SINKING TOWARD THE HORIZON as Miz Badger led the way back to the clearing. "That's all for today," she said to her pupils. "We'll meet here tomorrow. Class dismissed."
Ruthie was relieved that Miz Badger had not kept her after class to "discuss" her failure to hide promptly. Perhaps Miz Badger felt she had learned her lesson. Ruthie felt sure she had. From now on, she would keep her ears open for suspicious noises and her nose alert for dangerous smells. And she would stay near the door of her underground home for awhile. She hurried to catch up with the other animals.
They were calling, "See you tomorrow," as they each went their separate ways. "'Bye, Ruthie," they said, and she replied meekly, "'Bye." They had given her a sidelong glance or two, but no one had laughed or made cutting remarks. They really were a nice bunch of classmates, she thought. Kathy Possum had even patted her shoulder.
Ruthie had reached her underground burrow. She sank down beside the door and sighed deeply. Looking down at her tattered fur coat, she sighed again and set to work grooming herself.
"Ouch," she said, as she pulled pickery bits from her fur, "ouch." This job was going to take awhile, but at least she was no longer so hungry. The fright she had experienced, along with the carrots she had eaten, had helped drive away hunger.
She raised her head and looked around her. She cocked an ear and sniffed the air, alert for danger. She felt safe now, at the door of her home, but she had learned her lesson. She resolved in the future to be the most watchful of all her classmates. Yes, she had learned her lesson.