With checkered wings flapping hard against the warm evening wind, the anxious loon sailed hurriedly across the partly cloudy sky. Her target? A small pond sitting deep within the coastal woodland, far away from the gossipers and rumormongers of the great Refuge.
Most days, the pond had few visitors of the feathered variety. In fact, at the moment, only a gangly old wood stork occupied the quiet waters. But that’s exactly what the loon was hoping for. Relieved to find the stork fishing alone, she took a deep breath and dove straight for the small brackish pool, speeding through the thick, humid air as fast as she could. Which was not fast enough for the loon, for she possessed the most extraordinary of news—news that would make her insides burst wide open if she didn’t share it soon with someone.
To the casual onlooker a loon’s landing atop the water is quite the sight. With wings outstretched, the black-headed bird with bright red eyes begins to drift downward the moment her target is spotted. She heads straight toward the pond’s surface until her webbed feet touches the watery plane.
It looks as though she is only wanting to dip her toes in the water as she remains upright and lets her feet skim along the surface for a brief second. One might even wonder if she is readying to take off again. But then the loon gracefully falls forward, ending the whole thing with a rather gentle belly flop. Lastly, the loon uses her momentum to glide along on her belly toward her final destination, which in this instance, was the aforementioned wood stork. The one patiently hunting for his dinner at the far end of the shallow pool.
“They’re here, Leggs! They’re here!”
Despite the loon’s yodeling, a most abrasive cry that instantly shattered the peaceful quiet, the stork refused to look up. He continued to search the waters below as he replied calmly, “Who’s here, Topps? Watcha so excited about, girl?”
Topps slowed to a stop just shy of her white-feathered friend whose scaly grey head and black eyes made him look much older than he really was. “The Solkreat! That’s who!” she announced.
Eyes still fixed on the water, Leggs remained unaffected by the loon’s dramatic response. “Oh, yeah? And where’d you see ‘em?”
“They’re in the ‘Fuge, Leggs!”
Using his long, thick bill, Leggs stabbed at a passing minnow. The tiny fish swam off unharmed. Leggs stood upright and glanced over at the loon. “Well, of course you did, Topps. There’s lots of Solkreat in the ‘Fuge.”
“Yeah, but up pas’ the Sea Swamp—’long by the Hollow?”
Though commonplace in much of the great Refuge, the mysterious two-legged Solkreat were rarely seen out near the Hollow. The information gave Leggs pause. He took a deep breath—and a moment to consider the source—before eventually answering, “So, you saw some Solkreat, huh? Well, I’d think a traveler like you would’ve seen lots of the Big Animal ’round.”
“Oh, I have, Leggs! I have!” replied Topps. The instant she finished speaking she stretched out her wings and ruffled her checkered feathers. But with no intent to fly away, the loon promptly folded her feathered extensions into her side once more and added, “But I’ve never seen one with a strange shiny thing around its neck.”
Leggs kept his long, skinny neck bent and eyes fixed firmly on the shallow bottom. “Shiny, huh?” he muttered.
The stork had spoken mostly to himself and as if he were pondering some great truth, but the words floated upward, and as they reached the ears of a certain loon, a dramatic nodding followed.
“It was flat on one end, you know?” said Topps, certain her friend remained interested in her news. “But the other end…well, it was different. It was kind of round, and it looked like…like—”
“Like what?” mumbled Leggs, his eyes, neck, and beak all remaining stuck in a fishing position.
“Like a wheelie!”
This time Leggs froze at Topps’ exclamation—but only for a second. Before Topps could say another word, the gangly old wood stork spread his long white wings that outstretched showed a black underside, flapped them feverishly, and took flight. He only hoped it wasn’t too late. The Glade must be warned.
The stork, however, was not the only creature concerned about delivering the loon’s urgent news. Neither he nor the loon ever noticed the slithering eavesdropper as it quietly swam off through the nearby reeds. It too must relay the curious report: the magic hogseye had at long last returned to the Refuge.
The sun had all but disappeared over the vast woodland known as the Refuge, which meant it was time for the day-walkers to return to their dens and for the night-walkers to finally venture out of theirs. This was no less true for the would-be hero in our story, Reader, a young least shrew named Thutter McClutter. After quietly pushing away the soft leafy bedding of the underground nest he shared with his family, Thutter dropped a paw onto the burrow floor.
“Where ya goin’?”
The tiny, unexpected voice startled the young shrew. “None of your business, Nutter!” he snapped.
The youngest of the current shrew brood, which consisted of only two, Nutter sat up and rubbed her tired eyes. “Can I come with?”
“Come with? What d’ya mean?”
“Well, you’re goin’ out in the Glade, aren’t ya?”
Thutter scanned the dark corners of the earthy den. He doubted they were alone. “You know you can’t leave the nest without Mama,” he finally replied.
Nutter’s chin dropped. “Thath not fair!” she said. “I never geth to go anywhere!”
Deciding that a reply would take way too much effort, Thutter turned to make his getaway up through the small hole that led to the Glade. A few steps, however, was all he would manage as a second voice echoed off the dirt walls and immediately stopped the young shrew in his tracks. “So, where ya headin’ in such a hurry?”
Thutter stared into the darkness of the burrow’s far end. “I-I don’t know yet, Mama,” he said, trying hard to see his mother in the blackness that filled the earthy nest. She was there somewhere, her velvety auburn coat blending with the shadows.
“Now, child, I know that the Glade’s a pretty safe place, but I want to know where I can find you.”
“Yes, Mama. I’ll holler down before we head out. I promise.”
The last word had barely escaped Thutter’s lips when he turned and scampered over to the dirt hole in the ceiling. It was the only entrance to the McClutter nest from above, but, perhaps more importantly, the exit was Thutter’s only path to the Glade and his waiting friends.
Speaking of friends, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that young Thutter McClutter had only two of those these days. The first was a proud little rodent named Scruffy. Thutter met the sandy-haired beach mouse, whose black-tipped ears and tail made him stand out a bit among his kind, during the dark hours of a terrible storm. The two had huddled together under the shelter of a palmetto bush for quite some time throughout that stormy night, becoming fast friends in the process.
The shrew’s other friend, an intelligent and thoughtful mole named Patch, who got his name from a small spot of white hair on his otherwise grey head, was a fellow insectivore. It was Scruffy who actually introduced Patch to Thutter, but nowadays the three furry critters enjoyed each other’s company equally. Most every night Patch and Scruffy made their way over to the cozy Knoll-of-the-Glade, home of the McClutters, to meet up with Thutter. This night would be no exception.
Scruffy poked his head through a small opening in the hollowed-out log, which sat just above the McClutter hole. “Hey, Thutter, you in there?” he called.
The mouse heard no response, but a moment later, he spied a tiny, cone-shaped nose and a pair of glass-button eyes. They were peering out at him from a most inconspicuous breach in the log’s bottom. “There you are. It’s about time,” he said upon recognizing his friend.
“Sorry, Scruff,” said Thutter as he made his way out of the well-concealed hole. “You know my mother. She won’t let me out until it’s completely dark.”
Scruffy said nothing as he backed out of the log. Thutter, meanwhile, shook his cinnamon coat, freeing it of the moist dirt that he’d gathered on his way up, and followed his friend. Once outside, he spied the only other critter that called him friend these days. “Hi ya, Patch!”
“Good evening, Thutter.”
The shrew loved the old mole’s slow, Southern drawl, and the smile on his face said as much. Before either one could say anything more, however, Scruffy spoke up. “Hey, listen, I hear there’s a crowd gatherin’ over at the Dunes. Seems somethin’ big has happened in the ’Fuge.”
The mouse didn’t wait for a reply. Turning on his heels, he headed straight for the trail that led down to the creek and over to the Dunes. Thutter looked at his other friend. “Well, looks like we’re heading out. What do ya say, Patch? You comin’?”
The old mole shook his head and smiled. “I’m a comin’, Tut-Tut. I’m a comin’.”
And with that, Thutter and his two best friends headed off into the night without telling a single soul where they were headed.