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Ruthie Woodchuck

CHAPTER 1.
RUTHIE WOODCHUCK WAKES UP


Steven Rabbit

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.

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