The insectivores’ sudden disappearance had gone completely unnoticed by Plumpkin and Scruffy, each of whom had other things on their minds. For Plumpkin, that was food. For Scruffy, it was the reason the foursome had set out on this little adventure in the first place.
“Say, Plumpkin, what’s the closest you ever got to one?”
“One what?” asked the woodrat, pulling at a small root in search of some mouth-watering fungi.
“You know, a Solkreat!”
“Oh, ’bout as close as you are to me, I guess.”
“Wow! Really?” The instant the words came out of Scruffy’s mouth he regretted it as they made him sound inexperienced and naive. “I mean … oh, is that right? That close, huh?” he added, changing his tone.
Plumpkin eyed the mouse as he chewed on a mushroom stem he’d uncovered. “Yeah, that close.”
“So, would you want to get that close again?”
“I don’t know. It depends. What do have in mind?”
“I mean, if you had another chance, would you want to touch one?”
“Touch one? Why?”
The rat chuckled. “What are you talkin’ ’bout, mousey?” The look on Plumpkin’s face said it all. Scruffy needed to be careful, or else he’d lose any credibility he had with the woodrat.
“Power—magic,” continued the mouse.
Plumpkin found himself intrigued. Rumors of the Solkreat’s special abilities were widespread among the creatures of the Refuge. However, he’d have to wait to hear more. In that moment, a pale and breathless Thutter appeared out of nowhere and began babbling like the frightened child that he was. “C-c-coon! P-P-Patch! Gone!”
“Okay, deep breath, kid. Deep breath!” His experience showing, Plumpkin stepped in closer to the shrew and spoke calmly. “Now, tell us. Where’s Patch?”
The tiny, winded critter took another breath and tried again. “Den! Got out! Patch! Coon! Hole! Ran! Gone!”
The instant Thutter finished playing what appeared to be a solitary game of word association, he dropped his head and broke into uncontrollable sobs. Fortunately, he had uttered just enough. Plumpkin got the message. “So, just where is this hole?” pressed the woodrat.
“There!” said the shrew, turning and nodding toward a thicket of dense, marshy grass.
“You must’ve stumbled across an old muskrat’s den,” concluded Plumpkin. “Coons love a good, fat muskie now and then. That’s probably what he thought he smelled.”
Scruffy struggled to make sense of the shrew’s story. “So, how’d you get out if there’s a ’coon in the hole?”
Still crying, Thutter tried to talk. “Back, sniff, door, sniff, sniff hole,” he managed. “Thought Patch, sniff, behind me, sniff, sniff. Kept going, sniff. He didn’t sniff, sniff.” Again, the tears came, and again Thutter’s head dropped. Plumpkin already had a plan. “Alright, here’s what we do,” he said, ignoring the shrew’s guilt-ridden grief. “I’ll get the ’coon’s attention while you two sneak around those big weeds
over there to the back side of the burrow. Then, on my signal, you guys will jump down the hole, find Patch, and meet me up ahead on the trail.”
Scruffy and Thutter both nodded and then raced off to find the burrow’s “other” hole. Plumpkin, meanwhile, scurried off toward the main entrance, where he expected to find the large, masked predator still lurking.
Sure enough, Plumpkin spied the raccoon immediately. But instead of confronting it, he moved in quietly and stayed hidden behind a large palmetto bush. It was just as he had hoped. The scavenger with the bushy, ringed tail remained focused on probing the earthen hole with his razor-sharp claws, giving the woodrat the opportunity to catch the creature off guard.
Plumpkin waited for a moment, giving the others time to move into position. Then, gathering his courage, he bared his teeth and charged straight for the ‘coon. The loud yelp was all that Scruffy needed to hear. He jumped down the hole and began calling for his friend. “Patch! Where are you?” he cried. “C’mon, let’s go!”
The anxious rodent raced through the pitch-black maze. He turned this way and then that and then this way again. The search took little time, but it was thorough, for the den was not that big. Nevertheless, the mouse found no sign of the mole. There could be no doubt: Patch was gone.