“Where is everyone?”
Thutter’s question was certainly a logical one. The small tidepool known as the Eddy had always been one of the most popular feeding spots in the small habitat. To find it empty of critters at this time of night was indeed surprising.
“I don’t know,” said Plumpkin, “Maybe no one’s hungry right now.”
“Well, more for us, right?” joked Thutter as he followed the rat down toward the water. He tried to make light of the eerie quiet but deep down his stomach began to knot.
“Just hurry up and find something,” barked Scruffy, “we haven’t got all day.”
The mouse had agreed to stop at the Eddy, which was located in the Glade’s northeastern corner, where Foggy Creek meets Boggy Creek, only because it was on the way to the Crossing, the one place a glade-dweller could cross over into the Salt Marsh. As it was, each of the critters found their fill without issue. The stop at the Eddy would be quick and uneventful.
Well, so it seemed, anyway, Reader.
The four travelers had just climbed back up the bank and started around the bend that marks the beginning of Boggy Creek Trail when a curious voice echoed in their ears. “Hi ya, Thutter.”
Thutter didn’t need to turn around to know who was speaking. He’d recognize Minniebelle Magee’s voice anywhere. After all, she’d been the object of his affection for as long as anyone could remember.
The shrew’s heart pounded as he turned around. “Hi ya, Belle,” he said, upon finding the soft brown eyes of the velvety, ginger-coated shrew.
Now, Reader, while most of Minniebelle’s friends called her “Belle” with one syllable, Thutter had always pronounced it with two syllables: “bel-ly”. He had tried to call her the single-syllable version once, but Belle would have nothing to do with it. She liked Thutter’s special name for her, as it made her feel, well, special.
Before Thutter could say another word, a snout was pushing hard against his shoulder. “C’mon, kid, we gotta keep moving.” Scruffy couldn’t risk Thutter talking. If the kid slipped, then word of their “adventure” would surely get back to his family—and the mouse’s plans would be ruined.
Not wanting to upset his friend, Thutter turned and followed after the mouse without saying another word to Belle. Soon, the adventuresome boys were disappearing around the bend, leaving Belle and her friends none the wiser about their intention to leave the Glade.
Thought Thutter’s little body moved on down the trail, his little mind remained on Belle. It took only a moment, and he was wishing he had stayed behind and talked with her. His regrets, however, were soon interrupted. A loud grunting sound echoed from across the creek. Startled, the tiny shrew suddenly heard his father’s voice from days gone by echoing in his head. “Never go past the Eddy, son. Boggy Creek Trail is dangerous. The feri hide out along the creek banks. You don’t even see ‘em—or hear ‘em! Then, just like that, they’ve got ya!”
Thutter shuddered at the memory, and for second or two, gave real thought to saying he was ready to turn back. But then another memory flashed. Something from last night. Maybe a dream. He couldn’t be sure. He’d heard a voice. “You’ll be going on a journey soon,” it said, “a special journey, a journey that will change your life forever.”
The shrew had no idea where the voice had come from. In fact, he hadn’t even remembered hearing it until now, which is precisely when he wondered if this was the journey in question. In any case, the nearer he got to the Crossing, the more anxious he felt. Maybe if I’m talking, I can’t think about things, he thought, and in the next moment, he was glancing back at the mole, who was humming softly to himself as he ambled along a few steps behind the shrew. “Hey, Patch? Can I ask you something?”
The mole nodded, saying, “Sure, Thutter, what’s up?”
Thutter walked slower, allowing Patch to catch up to him. Once the two were side by side, he continued, “Um, uh…are you, uh—”
Before Thutter could finish, Plumpkin appeared from just up the path. He spoke with authority as he neared. “Get down and stay quiet.”
The two insectivores complied immediately. Together, they rushed over to a nearby shrub with large leaves. Neither knew just why they were hiding, but the swaying of the tall grass on the other side of the narrow dirt trail gave something of a hint.
By the time the red forked tongue appeared the reason was obvious.
It was the first time Thutter had ever seen such a thing, and yet even before he spied the pasty-white lips, jet-black head, or bright yellow eyes of the scaly slitherer, he knew what Plumpkin had seen coming.
The shrew stiffened, his lungs and throat tightening. He struggled to breathe.
Unfortunately, the snake noticed. Having found the weakest link among the four little critters, the beast locked eyes with the tiny shrew and started towards him.
The thin forked tongue arrived first. The instant it touched Thutter’s furry little body, he slammed his eyes shut. A shiver ran down his spine as it slid up and then back down, tasting and feeling. Thutter said nothing aloud, but with every heartbeat, he begged for a quick and painless end.
The first time it sounded rather distant. The second, or third time, he wasn’t sure which, the voice sounded much closer. Someone was calling his name.
The young shrew wanted to. He really did. But the threat of seeing that head—those eyes. He couldn’t do it. Keeping his eyes shut, he held his breath.
“Go ahead, Thutter, it’s okay!”
Again, someone called his name. The voice was different, though. This time he recognized it. “Thutter! Look! He’s gone!”
By the time the shrew opened his eyes, the last of the snake’s pointed tail was disappearing into the tall reeds that sat along the creek. The tiny shrew had avoided becoming the snake’s prey, but just how, he had no idea. In the next instant, however, he thought for certain he had escaped death by one predator only to become food for another.
The loud, stabbing screech nearly stopped Thutter’s heart. He barely saw the massive bird. It all happened so fast. The feathered hunter appeared in the sky one second. Then, diving toward the creek, it disappeared among the reeds the next. None of the critters moved, and in a flash the eagle reemerged. It was not alone, however. Flailing helplessly between the bird’s razor-sharp talons, the long, thick serpent that they had just encountered struggled to free itself.
With the adventurers all looking on, the eagle threw his head back, thrust his body forward, and released its grip. The snake flew through the air, landing on the far side of the creek. The eagle let out another loud screech before turning and flying off into the darkness.
Stunned and speechless, the four travelers remained completely still for another moment or two, each trying to process the absurd scene they had witnessed. Eventually, Plumpkin felt something brush by him. He glanced to his right. There, on the ground next to him, lay Thutter. It took the rat only a second to discern what had happened. “I guess it’s safe to say that our little friend has never seen one of them before.” Whether Plumpkin was referring to the snake or the eagle, it didn’t matter. The shrew had passed out from seeing enough. Patch responded immediately. Bending down, he rubbed his whiskers against his friend’s little face. Soon, Thutter stirred. As the old mole helped the young shrew to his feet, he hoped that the latter had experienced an awakening, a change of mind.
Thutter regained his wits quickly. He sat up, shook his coat, freeing it of dirt, and looked around. Then, glancing at Scruffy, he said, “Well, c’mon…let’s go! We better get a move on if we’re gonna get back by sunup.”
Patch could hardly believe it. He thought for sure that Thutter would be ready to turn and head back home. As the tiny insectivore started along the trail once more, however—the trail leading to the Crossing—the mole’s wishful thinking quickly faded.