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If my little brother Travis hadn't been so crazy about animals, the War of the Squirrels never would have happened. You're probably wondering what on earth I'm talking about, but if you sit down for a minute, I'll tell you everything, even those parts that are best not talked about. Yep, I'll tell you the whole stinking, underhanded mess. I doubt that anyone else will.
It all started because Travis never met an animal he didn't want to adopt on sight. The trouble was, many of the animals he wanted to adopt had no interest at all in being adopted. Some of them got quite upset about it. In fact, some of them got downright violent about it, but that didn't always stop him from dragging them home. The only thing that ever really stopped him was the sight of blood or guts or suchlike. (He had a touchy stomach and was prone to fainting.) Anyway, to understand what happened, we have to look back to springtime, the season when baby animals are born. They're born in spring so that by the time winter comes, they'll be big enough and tough enough to survive the cold and the lack of food. Spring was also the season when Travis was most likely to bring some kind of animal — any kind of animal — home.
We had a few barn cats who had kittens in the straw every spring, to Travis's delight, and they kept him busy for a while. Then there was Idabelle the Inside Cat. She was the only one allowed inside; she lived in the kitchen and kept down the mice. Idabelle was also the only cat who'd never had kittens. That spring she grew fat from her steady diet of mice. At least that's what we all thought.
Then one night she started pacing and yowling and, to our surprise, crawled behind the stove and gave birth not to a litter of kittens but to one very large kitten. Nobody had ever seen a kitten like this before. He was easily the size of two regular kittens. We called him Thud because he was such a bruiser. (I know you think this story is about squirrels, and it is. Trust me, I'm getting there.)
Our cook, Viola, who loved Idabelle, also doted on Thud. Travis did too, naturally. The only one not thrilled about him was Mother, who hadn't counted on two cats living in the house. She had a hatred of fleas but was willing to put up with the baby for a while. There was no resisting Thud, he was that adorable. Idabelle happily nursed him in her basket by the stove, although they were soon overflowing the sides.
"Humph," said Viola. "Looks like we need a bigger basket."
She found an old laundry basket, lined it with a towel, and moved Idabelle and Thud into it. And that should have been all there was to tell.
But no. The story was really just beginning.CHAPTER 2
Viola and I were enjoying a glass of lemonade in the kitchen, admiring Idabelle and Thud, when Travis burst in from the back porch. He was holding to his chest a small bundle wrapped in a bandanna. Uh-oh. I knew what that meant. So did Viola.
She eyed him suspiciously. "What you got there? It better not be no live thing."
Travis turned his best sunny smile on her, saying, "Don't worry, it won't take up much room. And we don't even have to feed it. Idabelle will. I hope."
He pulled back the flap of cloth. There on his palm lay a newborn squirrel, tiny, helpless, and cute as can be. (It turns out that baby squirrels can give kittens a real run for the money in the cuteness race.)
"Aww," I said. I couldn't help myself. Even the flinty Viola softened when she saw it. "Where'd you find it?" I asked.
"It was on the ground, I swear."
I squinted at him. "You didn't pull it out of the nest?"
"Never. I wouldn't do something like that."
Well, that was a big fat lie if ever I'd heard one. "Ha! I know you, Travis Tate, and that's exactly the kind of thing you'd do. Don't deny it."
"That's true," said Viola, nodding. "The boy would do that."
Travis flushed. "Well, okay, maybe I've done that once or twice before, but not this time, I swear!"
The squirrel coughed feebly.
"It was lying flat on the ground. It was going to die if I just left it there."
The poor thing struggled to lift its head and fell back on my brother's palm, exhausted from the effort. I'd seen many pitiful things in my life, but this was pretty near the top of the list.
"Are you going to get up and feed it during the night?" I said. "Something that size probably needs to eat every hour or so."
"And don't look at me," I said, "because I'm not doing it."
His smile grew bigger. "I thought Idabelle would do it."
We all turned and looked at Idabelle nursing Thud in the basket. They were both purring loudly. Thud pawed at his mother's fur, "making muffins," as we called it.
I looked at the squirrel and said, "You're going to ..."
"I think it'll work, don't you?"
Viola muttered, "Sure, if she don't eat it first."
Travis took the tiny, limp figure and placed it up against Idabelle's warm furry belly next to Thud. She looked at it in what I can only describe as surprise. Then she carefully sniffed it from head to tail. We all held our breath while she decided whether the newcomer was dinner or not. Then she started licking the baby vigorously, and we all sighed in relief. The squirrel started to nurse, and from that moment on, Idabelle treated it exactly the way she treated Thud. As family.
"I've been thinking about what we should call him," Travis said. "How about Fluffy?"
"What?" I said. "That doesn't suit him at all."
"Sure it does. He's going to have a nice fluffy tail when he grows up."
"Fluffy is a cat's name," I said.
"Well, look, Callie," he said, gesturing at the basket, "Idabelle already thinks he's a cat, so that makes him sort of a cat. An honorary cat. Which means we can call him Fluffy."
So Fluffy it was.CHAPTER 3
Mother swept through the kitchen, her long skirt swishing. She glanced once at Idabelle and walked briskly out to the back porch. Where she stopped, turned, came back inside, and pointed at the basket. She spoke very slowly: "What. Is. That. Thing."
I looked around for Travis, who was, naturally, nowhere to be seen. Some-times he would cling to you worse than a sticker burr, but when you really needed him, he was gone.
I said, "Well, um, I really think you should ask Travis about that, uh, 'thing.'"
"Travis is not here. Therefore, I cannot ask him about it. Yet you, Calpurnia, stand right before me. And that is why I am asking you." She tapped her foot the way she did when her patience was running out. The more irritated she grew, the faster she tapped.
I knew that signal well, probably better than any of her other children.
"When were you going to tell me? Or were you all just hoping I wouldn't notice it?"
"Uh, that's Fluffy. It's a ... well, it's a baby squirrel."
"Yes, I can see that." Her foot tapped faster.
"Travis found it on the ground. He brought it home hoping that Idabelle would take to it, and look!" I gestured toward the basket like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Fluffy and Idabelle and Thud lay tangled together in a ball of complete, furry happiness. "It worked! Isn't motherhood grand?"
Mother narrowed her eyes at me, and I could tell she wasn't finding motherhood so grand at this very minute. "This will never do. Fetch Travis right away. We can't raise a wild animal in the kitchen."
I found Travis in his room and told him what had happened. "We can't just throw Fluffy out," he said. "He'd die out there on his own. And Idabelle's heart would be broken."
"Then you better go downstairs and convince Mother. She's really peeved this time."
Travis had a long history of bringing home wild animals, but in the past he'd usually hide them away in the barn. Let's see, there'd been a couple of skunks, an owl, a porcupine, countless cats and dogs and rabbits, you name it. Sometimes he got away with it, and sometimes he didn't. Clearly this was one of those "didn't" times.
I followed him downstairs and hid in the hallway while he went into the parlor to argue his case.
"I have noticed," said Mother in a frosty tone, "that there seems to be a wild animal living in our kitchen."
"Well, Mother," said Travis slowly, "he's not exactly what you'd call 'wild.' He's already pretty tame, if you ask me. He lets me pet him and everything."
"That's not what I mean, and you know it."
"Yes, Mother, sorry. His name is Fluffy, and I found him on the ground. You can see he's just a baby. If we keep him a little longer, he'll have a fighting chance. And he doesn't cost anything. And he's no trouble, really. Callie and I don't even have to get up in the night to feed him."
What? Wait. Why was he dragging my name into this? For once, I was entirely blameless. I almost shouted, "Fluffy is not my fault!" But then I figured it was better to keep my mouthshut and not draw attention to myself. Mother disapproved of eavesdropping, although I don't know why. I myself have always found it to be a perfectly good way of gathering information.
There was a pause while Fluffy's fate hung in the balance. Then Travis pulled out his secret weapon: He started pleading with her. When the boy put his heart and soul into defending an animal, few could resist him. His soft heart and sunny smile were real forces to be reckoned with. My brother loved all animals and was convinced that the rest of the world did — or should — too. I almost felt sorry for Mother. She sighed, and I knew he'd won her over. At least for a while.CHAPTER 4
"Ah," said Granddaddy, looking at Fluffy, "I see we have a house-guest from the family Sciuridae. The name comes from the Latin word sciuris, meaning a tail that throws a shadow. It is a type of rodent, which means its front teeth will grow several inches per year and will keep growing its whole life. You'll need to give it a small piece of wood to gnaw on to keep the teeth from getting too long. One of my men had a pet squirrel during the War. It perched on his shoulder and chewed bits of bark while we marched, and slept in a pocket he had sewn inside his shirt. He called it Johnny Reb."
"Really? I'd been thinking Fluffy was the only one."
"They are not uncommon as pets, just as long as you get them at a very young age, like this one here."
We stared down at Fluffy. He looked right at home.
"What happened to Johnny Reb?"
"One sunrise we came under surprise attack by the Yankees. It got frightened by gunfire and ran to the top of a very tall tree. There was no time to coax it down. We had to retreat and leave it behind."
"You mean it was just ... gone?"
"I regret that we never saw it again. It was quite a charming little animal."
I thought of Johnny Reb's owner. But then, could you really own a wild creature? Maybe owner wasn't the right word. Maybe friend was the right word. He must have been brokenhearted. So many hearts were broken in the War.
"Well," Granddaddy said after a moment, "shall we be off?"
"Yessir." We went out the back door and decided to head upriver for a change. As we walked along the deer path next to the river, Granddaddy talked about the order Rodentia. This includes rats and mice, chipmunks, guinea pigs, woodchucks, beavers, and porcupine. They all spend their whole lives gnawing away.
He told me how rats had been un- fairly blamed for spreading the Black Plague around the world hundreds of years ago and that it was actually the germs in the fleas on the rats that spread it. But, of course, this was long before there were microscopes and long before anybody knew about germs. People could only see the rats, and since the plague seemed to go where the rats went, they had to be causing it. Right?
But not so. This was another case of what Granddaddy called "jumping to the wrong conclusion based on faulty information." He said that there was a lot of that about. You had to be smart, and careful, to guard against it.
"Keep in mind, Calpurnia, that there is no point in gathering information unless you are certain it is correct information."
"Yessir." I pulled my Scientific Notebook and a stub of pencil out of my pinafore pocket and wrote this down.
We passed several adult squirrels on the way, chattering and scolding us from the safety of the trees. I wondered if one of them might be Fluffy's mother. How on earth could you tell? They all look alike, at least to the human eye. But then, maybe we humans all look alike to squirrels. Hmm, an interesting thought, that maybe a squirrel couldn't tell the difference between me and my grandfather with his long white beard.
We sat for a while, ate our sandwiches, and wandered on. We were about a mile from home when we heard it: a heavy crashing sound up ahead.
Granddaddy stopped in his tracks. He turned to me and said in a low voice: "Get off the path. Hide behind a tree. Now."
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I could tell from the urgency in his voice that it was important. I quickly did as he told me, and we stepped behind the nearest oak, which wasn't quite large enough to completely hide us both. I was about to ask him what was going on when he signaled with his finger to his lips to stay quiet. The crashing noise grew louder. Was it a bobcat? No, no, a bobcat would not be any threat to us; we wouldn't have to hide. And this thing — whatever it was — was making too much noise to be a bobcat. Was it a black bear? It was loud enough, and there were still a few of them around. In that case, we might be in real trouble. I cast about for a weapon of some sort. I myself had nothing except a notebook and a dull pencil. I wanted to ask Granddaddy if he had a knife in his satchel, but he'd told me to be quiet.
It was coming closer. Now we could hear an ugly grunting and squealing.
Out of the bush burst a hairy, black monster, running at full speed along the path. It was about the size of a half-grown bull, but it was not a bull. It was a hideous beast I'd heard of but never seen. A wild pig. A feral hog. Big enough to throw a man to the ground, with fierce curling tusks sharp enough to slash him open. Strong, smart, and fast. Oh, and famous for its bad temper.
I looked sideways at Granddaddy with wide eyes. Were we going to have to climb the tree? Were we going to have to fight it with rocks and sticks? He motioned me to be still.
The hog slowed to a trot and turned to look in our direction with mean, little piggy eyes. It sniffed the air with its bristly snout. It seemed to be making up its mind about something. Then out of the brush ran four smaller pigs, her offspring. Oh no! The most dangerous of animals, a mother with her babies. She'd fight to the death to save them from harm. She grunted at us from deep in her chest. Could she see us? If she was like an ordinary pig, her sense of smell was much stronger than her eyesight. She snuffled and sniffed.
Every instinct in me screamed that I should run or hide or pick up a rock or do something. But Granddaddy stood as still as a statue. So I did the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life: I stood like a statue beside him.
I told myself, Don't move, Calpurnia. Don't you run. Don't you climb. Don't you move, don't you dare.
It felt like an eternity, but it must have been only a couple of seconds before we heard the most wonderful sound in the world: the baying and yelping of our neighbor's hound dog, Matilda, coming down the trail.
The mother hog screamed in rage and took off, her babies right behind her. A moment later they were gone from sight. You'd never have known they'd even been there.
Granddaddy and I stepped out from our hiding place.
"That — that was a close one," I stammered.
"It was indeed," said Granddaddy.
My legs were trembling and I wished they'd stop. Granddaddy didn't look ruffled at all. (I guess when you've fought the Comanche and Yankees both, there isn't much left that can shake you.)
But the excitement wasn't over yet, because right then Matilda came crashing down the trail, barking and slobbering, her long ears flapping. We were mighty glad to see her, but she was too excited to stop and give us her usual friendly greeting. I jumped at her and tried to grab her collar, but she was moving so fast that she got clean away from me and kept on running.
"I sure hope she doesn't catch up to them," I said in a shaky voice. "Or if she does, I hope she's smart enough to keep out of range." A mother hog that size could tear apart a lone dog. It would take a whole pack of dogs to bring her down.
"I certainly hope so. Let us head back. I think that's enough excitement for one day." He held out his hand, and I took it. His hand was so big, it completely enclosed mine. My legs slowly stopped trembling. We walked all the way home like that.
That night my father announced at dinner that one of the neighbor's dogs had chased a feral hog.
"Oh!" I said without thinking. "That must —"
Granddaddy cleared his throat. He shook his head the tiniest bit in warning, and I clamped my mouth shut.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Squirrelly Situation"
Copyright © 2019 Jacqueline Kelly.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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