Better Off, Part 1

The second (and last…for now) of the Bean Creek Chronicles, which was written for my nephew on his first Christmas. I’m doing this one in two parts because it’s a bit on the long side. Enjoy!

One especially slow, sleepy day in high summer, the sun shone so brightly that even the buzzing of the bees sounded sluggish, and all the neighbors along Bean Creek could be found sitting in the shade, sipping lemonade, or drowsily dozing in the sun.

All, that is, except one.

Sammy Bushytail was busy picking berries. Ignoring the sun beating on his back, he quickly filled his basket with the plump, juicy fruit. Then he scurried home to spread the berries on a blanket in the sun. As his little paws flew, his mind drifted far away, dreaming of crisp berry cobbler and crunchy toast with sticky jam. He was so wrapped up in his delicious daydreams that he was on his third trip home with a full fruit basket before Reggie got his attention.

Reggie Snuffles was relaxing in the shade of Wallow Cove, occasionally rolling over with a satisfying squish in the sticky mud. He wasn’t surprised at all to see his best friend Sammy concentrating so hard on work.

“Whatcha doin,’ Sammy?” he asked, scratching his snout comfortably on a nearby stump.

“Berry drying day,” said Sammy shortly, shifting the bulging basket and steadily plodding on.

“Want some help?” offered Reggie, glancing at the steep hill and his friend’s already tired face.

That stopped Sammy suddenly. It was a tempting offer, but…Reggie was not known to be a very careful worker, even if he was Sammy’s best friend. What if he bungled with the basket and spoiled all Sammy’s work? He eyed the hill, looming large in the sunlight.

“I suppose,” he accepted slowly, stealing a shuddering glance at Reggie’s muddy sides.

Reggie sidled forward and accepted the basket Sammy was reluctantly unstrapping.

“Just be careful, okay?”

Reggie started toward the hill slowly, then began trotting faster and faster…determined to be really helpful, even in the hot sun.

Sammy watched him carefully. Just as he reached the top with a bump and a jolt, a bunch of berries bounced out of the basket. Reggie didn’t notice, but Sammy sprinted up the hill to recover his loss. He caught up with Reggie at home just as he was dumping the sweet fruit onto the blanket.

“No, no, no, no!” shouted Sammy in horror.

Startled, Reggie dropped the basket.

“You’ll smash them like that! Look, give me the basket. You’ll ruin the berries. See how many you lost on the way! Thanks for your help, but you don’t know how to do this. I’m better off on my own.”

Reggie stared at Sammy in shock. “Sorry…I just wanted to help. You don’t…” He started to say something else, but swallowed it, turned and trudged sadly back to Wallow Cove.

Summer slowly fell away into autumn, and Sammy could be seen every day, always busy gathering roots and berries or grinding acorn flour from the remains of last year’s crop and always alone.

Then, one crisp, clear day, the neighbors along Bean Creek all got up before the sun. It was Acorn Harvesting Day! The last day before the frost was always the best day for acorns, and after the frost it would be too late. With so much to do in one day, everyone got involved. Mr. and Mrs. Flitter and their five children were flying toward the woods, with even baby Fiona flapping sleepily behind. Those who had no children to help them banded together to bring in the harvest.

Reggie was just locking his door when he heard his friends, Francesca and Wally and Joshua coming up the lane.

Joshua, as always, was leaping ahead, and landed with a thud right next to Reggie.
“Ready to go, Reggie?” he asked with typical enthusiasm.

“Yes,” said Reggie, smiling. It was impossible not to smile at Joshua, no matter how early in the morning it was.

“Shouldn’t we stop by to see if Sammy will join us?” asked Francesca, having arrived more sedately with Wally.

Reggie looked doubtful. He hadn’t seen much of Sammy lately, except at a distance. But after a minute, his loyalty won out.
“Yeah…let’s go see if he’s there.”

The friendly little group trudged off to Sammy’s tree. They knocked and knocked, but he didn’t answer. Just when the turned to the gate to leave, they saw Sammy headed home with a load of acorns.

“You were up early, Sammy!” said Wally.

“No time to waste,” replied Sammy briefly.

“Wanna work with us today?” asked Reggie. “It’s always faster with more people.”

Sammy looked uncomfortable. He had missed his friends very much…but on the other hand, there was no way to work together without showing them his secret hiding place, and he hated to let anyone in there. Besides, he told himself, more people will just mean more time goofing off. I don’t have time for that.

“Thank you,” he finally forced out, “but I already have a good start. I’m better off on my own today.”

The friends were a little surprised, but they all nodded and, bidding Sammy good-bye, hurried off to get to work.

Later that evening, when they had stuffed everyone’s pantries with perfect acorns, the band of friends sat outside, laughing, chatting, and watching the giant sun melt away into tomorrow.

But Sammy, whose secret hole was much larger, was scurrying back and forth to the forest late into the night. His little lantern could be seen bobbing along long after the moon had risen.

Autumn was quickly covered by winter, and no sooner had all the harvest been brought in than the snow fell thick on the houses along Bean Creek. One especially chilly day, the neighbors went outside and found the creek completely icy solid. The children all squealed with delight, and everyone bundled into scarves and hats and coats and gloves, and then scurried to the creek to slip and slide on the ice

Meanwhile, Sammy was snug in his little tree house. He cradled a cup of warm cocoa and planned his day. Hadn’t he just noticed a tiny patch of winterberries poking through the snow under the old cedars? He would mix up some fresh nut bread and while it was rising, he would just nip up there and gather some. They would make a lovely tea once they had been properly crushed. With the prospect of warm nut bread and winterberry tea for his afternoon snack, he sprang up to start, but had only gotten as far as tying on his baker’s apron when the front door-bell rang.

Reggie, wrapped in a ridiculous brown coat and wearing fuzzy orange ear muffs, was grinning with glee.
“Come skate with us, Sammy! The ice is perfect!”

Sammy smiled at his funny-looking friend. He looked so happy. It was awfully tempting, the shining sun, the shimmering ice, the shouting people. But then he remembered the winterberries. Playing now would mean someone else might pick them first.

“Thanks, but I’m busy today,” Sammy replied. “I’ve got a lot of baking to do.”

“Oh, come on, come play now,” begged Reggie. “We haven’t seen very much of you lately. And after we’ve skated we’ll all come help you with your work.”

“Oh, no, I don’t think so,” said Sammy, with a wise nod, thinking that there weren’t very many berries if they were divided up. “Too many cooks only spoil all the baking. I’m better off on my own.”

So Reggie returned to the friends at the creek side, and Sammy turned back to his nut bread.

As soon as he had carefully covered the dish of dough with a towel, Sammy slipped on his overcoat and scurried outside with his basket. He quickly found the patch of winterberries and set to work digging them out of the snow. It was very cold, and soon his paws felt numb. But he worked quickly and had soon collected all the berries. Just as he turned to leave, however, he noticed another patch a little further into the cedar woods.
He glanced at his basket. There was still room. So he moved on. Halfway through digging up the second patch, he was shivering uncontrollably, but he was so busy with his work that he didn’t even notice. The second patch was much bigger, and when he finally finished, the sun had moved well past midday. Time to be getting home.

Sammy started to pick up his basket, but it wouldn’t budge. “That’s funny,” he said to himself. “I didn’t think it was that full!” Then he realized that he couldn’t feel his paws at all! His whiskers were crusted with snow and his ears ached from the biting wind. Clumsily clutching his basket he staggered toward home, his frozen feet stumbling over the icy path. After what seemed like a fortnight, he opened his front door with a sigh and collapsed onto a chair by the stove.

But he had been gone so long the fire had gone out, so after a moment’s rest, Sammy dragged himself up to rebuild the fire. As the fire crackled to life, Sammy could feel the life seeping back into his paws.

“Better put the bread on,” he said to himself, with a sneeze.
But by the time he had the bread neatly rolled into buttered pans, he had sneezed seven times and could feel his head beginning to ache.

“I’ll just lay down for a minute while the bread bakes,” he thought, as sneeze number eight shook his body.

So he climbed into bed and fell quickly to sleep, tossing and turning he began to burn with fever. He didn’t wake up until late in the evening. A smell of burning was filling the house. Still hot with his fever he crawled to the kitchen. “My bread is ruined,” he groaned as he lifted it out and turned off the oven. But he had no strength to clean up the mess. Slowly he creeped back to bed and collapsed in a heap.

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