Better Off, Part 2

If you missed the first part, it’s here.

For two days Sammy lay burning with fever.  Once or twice he woke up and thought, “I need a doctor.”  But he was too sick to get out of bed, even to make a hot cup of tea.

On the night of the second day, Francesca was walking by Wallow Cove, when she met Reggie coming out of his burrow towards her.  He was frowning with worry.

“Francesca, have you seen Sammy lately?” he asked.

“No,” said she, “but that’s not unusual.”

“I know,” replied Reggie, “but there is no smoke coming up from his chimney.  And there hasn’t been since the day of the ice skating.  I’m afraid something’s wrong.”

Together they hurried down to Sammy’s door and rang the bell.  There was no reply.  They rang again, and Reggie knocked loudly.  But still no one answered.

“Should we try to go in?” asked Francesca.

Reggie paused.  Sammy had not wanted company lately, but then…he had never let his fire go out before.

“Let’s try,” he said finally.

They tried the handle and found the door open.  Cautiously creeping inside, they heard a strange sound.  Following it into the bedroom, they found Sammy tossing and turning as he slept.

“He’s sick!” cried Reggie, springing to the bedside.  “Run get Doctor Greatpaws before it’s too late.”

Francesca ran off, and Reggie started to work.  He covered up Sammy and built up the fire.  He brought a cool cloth for his forehead and boiled water for tea.  He was just bringing in an extra blanket, when Doctor Greatpaws the bear hurried into the room.  Francesca and Reggie waited anxiously in the kitchen for nearly an hour, and finally the kind Doctor came out with good news.

”You found him in time,” he announced with a grave smile.  “He will recover, but will need lots of care.”

“I’ll stay with him,” promised Reggie.  “Just tell me what to do.”

So for two long weeks, Reggie stayed with Sammy, nursing him and feeding him, and reading him stories.  Francesca and Wally and Joshua all stopped by to bring special treats and play games by the fire.

On the fourth day of Reggie’s stay, Sammy was able to sit up in bed.  While drinking his tea, he remembered the winterberries.  Where had he left the basket?

“Reggie,” he asked, “did you find a basket of winterberries?”

“No,” replied Reggie.

“I was out picking them the day I got sick.  Maybe I left the basket outside.”

“I’ll go look,” said Reggie, springing up instantly.  In a moment he was back with the basket of still-frozen berries.   “Would you like me to make you some winterberry tea?”

Sammy looked doubtful.  “Are you sure you know how to crush them right?  Maybe you should just bring them in here and I’ll…No.”  He stopped himself.  “Thank you.  I think we will be better off if you do it.”

And Reggie did.

Maybe he could have steeped the berries a little longer, but Francesca and Joshua dropped in bursting with neighborhood news; and looking around at his chattering friends over the rim of his mug, Sammy thought it was the best cup of tea he had tasted in all his life.

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.

The Valley of Magical Lights

Note: I wrote this story for my niece for her first Christmas. That was…gulp…over eight years ago. Something brought it to mind recently, and I thought I’d share it with you all. This was the first story in the Bean Creek Chronicles. It was illustrated by my mother, so if it’s a bit lacking in description, it’s because you’re missing the pictures. I’d love to pass them along, but I don’t have them. Eight years ago was before my scanner. 😦 The idea was to write one for each child in the family. It worked great for my niece and nephew. Then I had my own kids! Needless to say, those other stories never got written. Maybe now I’ll have the inspiration to finish off the Chronicles. In any case, I hope you enjoy these first two installments.

As was their habit on a fine spring morning, Wally Warthopper and Francesca Nibbles sat in front of their holes on the banks of Bean Creek having tea and cookies. Francesca loved to be out and about, and Wally enjoyed nothing better than soaking in the sunshine.

Just as they started on their second cup of tea, the entire Bouncylegs family came hopping down the path towards the forest. Mr. and Mrs. Bouncylegs had thirteen children, so they made quite a parade!

“Where are you going?” asked Wally.

“To see the Shining Valley,” answered Mr. Bouncylegs.

“This is the day of the magical lights,” added Sally Bouncylegs happily.

“It’s all the way on the other side of the forest,” said Georgie, the tiniest grasshopper. He looked a little scared.

“We have to hurry, or we’ll miss the lights,” scolded Mrs. Bouncylegs, shooing Georgie along with the others.

Wally and Francesca looked at each other. Magical lights!

“That sounds wonderful!” exclaimed Francesca.

Wally just croaked his agreement.

“We should go see them,” she added, jumping up to get her coat and hat.

But Wally didn’t want to leave his comfortable spot on the bank. He thought about how far it must be to the other side of the forest and how much nicer it was to sit still and soak in the sun. “It sounds so far,” he said doubtfully, “and it looks like it might rain.”

But Francesca was tired of being inside after the long winter. And the lights sounded so exciting! She decided to go anyway.

Francesca was traipsing along happily, when a big, fat raindrop hit the top of her head. She hadn’t even noticed the big clouds that had rolled in. Soon it was pouring and she was soaked through. She tried to hide under a leaf, but the water still trickled down her neck. She was wet and cold and miserable. Just then, a giant splash almost knocked Francesca off her feet. She wiped the water from her eyes and saw a mischievous young jackrabbit right in the middle of an enormous puddle. He was dripping water, but didn’t seem to mind it.

“Whatcha doing under there? All the puddles are out here,” asked the jackrabbit with a grin. Francesca didn’t know what to say.

“My name’s Joshua,” said the enthusiastic stranger, thumping again with his back foot and making another huge splash.

“I-I-I’m Francesca,” she stuttered with cold.

“My mama always said the best way to keep warm in a spring rain was to keep hopping right through it,” said Joshua. “Watch this.” And he leaped from his puddle into another nearby puddle, causing a small tidal wave.

Francesca smiled in spite of herself.

“Well…come on,” yelled Joshua, leaping this way and that.

Francesca crept cautiously from under her leaf and stepped lightly in the edge of the nearest puddle.

“No, not like that!” corrected Joshua. “Right in the middle.”

Francesca took a big, deep, long breath…and jumped. SPLASH! She giggled. Joshua was right! This was fun! Pretty soon, she and Joshua were splishing and sploshing their way down the path. Francesca wasn’t cold at all any more. In fact, she almost felt a little disappointed she suddenly felt the sun again. The rain was gone and they were approaching the edge of the forest.

As soon as Francesca could catch her breath, she explained to Joshua about the Shining Valley. He was thrilled at the thought of a whole valley of magical lights, so he quickly agreed to come with her.

Meanwhile, Wally went inside when it started to rain. He built a fire in the fireplace and sat close, toasting marshmallows. He peered out at the nasty rain and was very, very glad that he had stayed at home where everything was warm and dry.

Francesca and Joshua waltzed down the forest path for a ways, enjoying the gentle breeze and the forest noises. They were just beginning to feel dry again and wonder where they could find some lunch, when Joshua stopped short. “Listen,” he hissed, darting a glance at the sky. This time Francesca heard the noise, too. It was a loud, high screeching. A hawk!

Joshua and Francesca dashed together as fast as they could to the base of a nearby tree. Joshua was shaking. Francesca looked every which way for a hole to hide in. Just as the hawk swooped low, she saw an opening! Pushing Joshua ahead of her, she scrambled into the little hole under a root. They could still hear the hawk circling outside. Francesca was so scared that she began to wish she hadn’t come into the forest at all.

The hawk swept by again and again, but at long last the dreadful shrieking started to fade as he moved on, scouring the forest for something else to eat. Francesca looked around her for the first time. The floor of the hole was covered with great big walnuts! It was the perfect lunch. Francesca gnawed open the shells and shared the nuts with Joshua. After they had both eaten, they felt brave enough to leave the little hole and continue on their adventure.

Meanwhile, Wally was settling into his favorite chair with an enormous plate of sandwiches and a big glass of milk. He sighed with contentment as he ate six ham and cheese and four tuna fish sandwiches. “Nothing beats a good lunch,” he said to himself. Then he picked up Fritz the Flycatcher and started to read. Having already read the book several times, he quickly dozed off.

Francesca and Joshua marched along for what seemed like ages. Dusk was just settling in, and they still couldn’t see the end of the forest. Francesca knew that the Shining Valley was right where the forest ended. But they kept walking and walking and walking…and walking. Joshua’s hops were getting a little shorter each time, and Francesca looked sadly down at her aching feet. When she looked up, she groaned. In front of them was a huge hill, looming up out of the dark like a giant.

She stopped. Joshua stopped, too. They were so tired. “How are we ever going to make it all the way up?” groaned Joshua . For a long moment, neither one moved.

“We can’t forget the magical lights,” sighed Francesca at last. “They’ll be worth it. I know they will.”

There was nothing more to say. With a big effort, they both started to climb. Joshua went first and Francesca followed, trying to ignore the bits of gravel that bit into her sore feet. They toiled up, slowly making progress until they were stopped short by a big boulder that had fallen on the path. Francesca wanted to cry. They had come so far! But Joshua wasn’t giving up. He was digging rapidly at one edge of the boulder. Francesca flopped down to wait. In a few minutes, Joshua cried excitedly, “I’m through!”. He had carved out a little tunnel. It was a tight squeeze, but when Francesca emerged, huffing and puffing, from the other side, she saw that the trees had disappeared. Just ahead was the top of the hill. They had made it through the forest. With a loud “Yippee!” she and Joshua surged to the top and began to slip and slide down the other side of the hill.

Meanwhile, Wally woke up from his nap with a stomach ache. Too many sandwiches! He swallowed a big spoonful of medicine with a grimace. The shadows outside his door were starting to get long, so he lit a lamp. He looked outside and thought how glad he was that he was not out in all that blackness. He shut the door on the gloom, pulled the armchair near to the fire and put on a big pot of soup for dinner.

With a giant giggle, Francesca and Joshua landed in a heap at the bottom of the hill. They untangled their arms and legs and ears and tails and sat up to look around. It was so dark, they couldn’t see anything! Francesca stretched out her arm and bumped into Joshua’s head.

“Ouch!” he yelped.

“What are we going to do now?” asked Francesca. “We must be near the Shining Valley, but I can’t even see a speck of light.”

She started to feel a little scared again. Joshua huddled close. It was just too dark to move, and they couldn’t think of what to do next.

Meanwhile, Wally finished off his soup with a big slurp. He felt warm and sleepy. He climbed into his big, soft bed and pulled the covers up around his ears. He felt a little lonely after being by himself all day. “I wish Francesca was here to tell me a story before bed,” he thought to himself, and with a sigh, he slowly drifted off to sleep.

Francesca and Joshua felt very cold. Francesca was just about to suggest that they try to clamber back up the hill and go home, when Joshua whispered, “Did you see that?” Off in the distance, they saw a little flickering light.

In a minute, it was joined by another light, and then another. Before Francesca could say anything, the whole air was full of little lights, dipping and swirling around each other. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. The combined glow from the lights lit up the whole valley. Francesca and Joshua had been in the Shining Valley all along! And under a clump of pines in the middle of the cavorting lights was the Bouncylegs family, standing with a group of other creatures laughing and pointing.

Francesca and Joshua went to join the group, and everyone gazed and gazed at the beautiful flickering lights. They glided and gamboled as if they were dancing. After a moment, Francesca gasped. They were dancing! And all the creatures looking on joined hands and began to dance along with them, whirling and twirling among the sparkling lights. It was one of the happiest moments of Francesca’s life. “I wish Wally could be here to enjoy this, too,” she thought to herself. But just then, Joshua went leaping by with little Georgie Bouncylegs on his back. Francesca laughed at his antics and, joining hands with Sally, skipped off to join the fun.