As the three friends reached the rendezvous site where they were to meet the woodrat, Scruffy wandered off in search of another snack. “I sure hope Plumpkin’s alright,” said Thutter, staying close to the old mole, who’d already begun digging for another snack
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be fine,” said Patch. “That rat’s a tough animal.”
Thutter stared at the mole for a moment and then said, softly, “I’m really sorry, Patch.”
“For leaving you down in that hole by yourself.”
“Oh, that wasn’t your fault, Thutter. I guess we, uh… I just didn’t stay close enough, that’s all.”
Thutter smiled and then started rooting around for a snack as well. A moment later, however, he found his thoughts returning to the topic they’d discussed earlier. “I’ve been thinking, Patch. You know, about the Code and the Code-Maker?”
Patch grunted a little to indicate he was listening, but he didn’t look up.
Thutter continued. “No one’s really ever told me much about it, or him, I guess. All I really know is that the Code was a big deal a long time ago, and that folks just made it up to keep critters from leaving the Glade.”
“Hmmm.…” The sound was all Patch offered as his nose remained buried in the soil at Thutter’s feet.
“So, is it true? Is that why they made it up?”
Lifting his dirt-covered nose out of the soil, Patch pulled on something with his claws. “Well, first of all, Thutter,” he said, successfully unearthing a grub worm. “The Code was not ‘made up.’ It was really given to the Glade-dwellers to keep them safe and alive.”
“But when?” asked Thutter as Patch slurped down his find.
“A long, long time ago,” said Patch, “—back when the Solkreat used to walk along Boggy Creek near the river.”
“You mean the Solkreat once lived near the Glade?”
“Yes, but they didn’t really live there. They kind of just roamed the area.” As it was, Patch wasn’t sure how to explain something that even he couldn’t quite understand. But he would certainly try. “You see, a long time ago, the Solkreat were—”
“Let’s go! Gotta move! Now!” Plumpkin’s voice startled the two friends who turned to find the woodrat stepping out of the bushes behind them, breathless and pale.
Neither insectivore asked questions, something they’d learned back in the Glade. When Plumpkin spoke, you acted. The friends turned and followed the harried rat. Having heard Plumpkin’s voice as well, Scruffy also fell in behind the others, and for a time, the foursome traveled silently and speedily through the Salt Marsh.
For the most part, it was a pace that suited three of the little adventurers just fine, but the fourth needed a breather rather soon. “I’m sorry,” said Patch, gasping for air. “I just have to rest a moment.” The mole’s need for a respite was hardly surprising, for everyone knows that moles were designed to travel underground—and not for long distances.
“Alright but make it quick.” Scruffy never looked back in Patch’s direction. “The levee can’t be much further. We gotta keep movin’,” he added.
As Patch rested, Plumpkin decided to explore the next section of trail—but he wouldn’t do it alone. Scruffy followed right behind him. “So, what happened back there?” asked the mouse, once he and the woodrat were out of earshot of the others.
The rat said nothing as he continued along the path.
“Hey!” This time as the mouse spoke, he stuck his tiny nose in front of the much bigger rodent in an attempt to cut him off. It didn’t work. Plumpkin kept moving, forcing Scruffy to step back out of his way.
Keeping pace now, the mouse tried again. “You look like you just saw death. What happened?”
“I…” Plumpkin started but stopped. Then, after a deep breath, he continued, “I just got away, that’s all.”
“What do ya mean ‘got away’? Obviously, but how?” Scruffy refused to give up. “Something happened back there. I can see it in your face.”
“Let it be, Scruffy. Nothing happened!” The rat’s voice remained emotionless and his eyes straight ahead.
“Not until you tell me,” continued Scruffy. “What’d you see? Did you kill it? Did you run away from it? What happened? And why are you acting so strange?”
Plumpkin stopped in his tracks. Then, after another deep breath, he turned toward the irritating rodent and announced, “It’s dead!”
Scruffy gasped. “You killed it?”
“I didn’t say that,” replied the rat as he turned and started moving again. “I said it was dead.”
“What do you mean?” asked Scruffy, now following on the rat’s heels. “How is it dead if you didn’t kill it? I mean, something doesn’t make sense, unless—” Scruffy stopped. The weighty thought pulled his head down to his chest until he was staring hard at the ground beneath him as he walked. “Unless something else killed it,” he muttered, mostly to himself, though Plumpkin heard him loud and clear.
For another moment, the two rodents ambled along in silence, each doing his best to digest what he knew. Then, suddenly remembering that they had left Patch and Thutter by themselves somewhere, Scruffy spoke up. “I’m gonna go find the others.”
The mouse could still hear the rat’s voice in his head as he turned and headed back down the trail. Eventually, however, he heard something else, a familiar voice, and some words that would take his mind off the dead raccoon. The voice had come from just around the bend in a trail. Scruffy stopped and listened.
“So, you’re saying that the Code is really a gift?”
Not letting the mole answer the shrew’s question, Scruffy appeared from behind some tall grass and interjected, “Time to go! We’ve still got a lot of ground to cover.”
Patch eyed Scruffy. The interruption from the mouse felt too well-timed to the old mole, but now wasn’t the time to say something. With Thutter having already turned to follow after the the mouse, Patch trudged after him.
Now as the adventurers headed for the levee, they soon took up a different order of travel. Plumpkin took the lead, and Patch brought up the rear, which meant Thutter and Scruffy moved between them.
“So, how’s Plumpkin? Is he okay?” asked Thutter as he walked alongside the mouse.
“He’s alright,” said Scruffy, “but he must’ve had quite an experience with that ’coon.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he wouldn’t talk too much about it, so I don’t really know what happened, but he said—” Scruffy paused, fully aware that what he said next wouldn’t be well received. “He said the coon’s dead.”
“D-Dead?” Then, somewhat under his breath, the shrew uttered what Scruffy had said and what Patch had repeated, “It’s not like anyone’s gonna die or anything.”
Ignoring Thutter’s mutterings, the mouse gave a quick glance over his shoulder. The slower mole had fallen a few steps back. It would be safe to ask Thutter some questions out of Patch’s hearing. “So, uh, what have you and Patch been talking about?” asked the mouse so that only the shrew could hear him.
“Oh, Patch was just telling me about some things that he knows. That’s all.”
“Why do you listen to that old mole?” snapped Scruffy.
“I don’t know,” said Thutter. “I guess ’cause he’s real smart—and he’s a good friend.” Then, after a brief pause, he asked, “Why, Scruff? Don’t you think so?”
Thutter had asked a genuine question. He could scarcely imagine the mouse thinking any differently of the kindly old mole than he did. Scruffy, however, decided not to answer. Instead, he’d ask a question of his own. “So, what’s he know, anyway?”
“He knows a lot about the Code and the—”
“Listen, Thutter,” interrupted Scruffy, “the Code is just a bunch of gobbledygook that some miserable creatures cooked up to keep their young from leavin’ the Glade.”
“But, don’t you ever wonder if it’s real? I mean, what if there really is a Code-Maker?”
“Nonsense, Thutter, there’s no such thing. Patch is just feeding you a bunch of myths and fantasies. Old fashioned ideas is all.”
Just then, Plumpkin appeared from around the bend. “The levee’s just up ahead. But I don’t like the look of things. Too quiet. Nothin’s out.”
Scruffy nodded. He and Thutter kept walking, but with Plumpkin nearby, neither said another word about Patch, the Code, or the fanciful ideas of the old mole. This, of course, left Thutter more troubled than ever. His two closest friends were telling him two very different things, and he wasn’t sure what to believe.
As for Patch, he hadn’t heard everything, but with the wind blowing in his direction, he’d heard enough of his friends’ curious chat to know that the battle for the young shrew’s allegiance was on.