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Meph, the Pet Skunk
By Jean Craighead George, John George
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1952 E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
All rights reserved.
The thunderheads turned purple over the south mountains. The lights went on in the red stone post office in Mount Holly as the clouds darkened along Mountain Creek and rumbled down to the Yellow Breeches. Here they broke with a flash and a roar and the farms of the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania were dark with rain.
The May storm pummeled the newly plowed fields. In muddy sheets, the water slipped off the knolls and dug gullies into the slopes.
Seed Lites stood at the deep-set window in the parlor of his old stone farmhouse and watched the orange water pour down the lane and through the barnyard. The big three-foot culvert was overflowing again and spilling water over the road and down the gully to the creek. Seed sighed in despair. He turned his back on the storm and walked slowly through the spacious hallway to the kitchen. His wife, Molly, and their son, Sycamore Will, were reading the papers at the kitchen table.
"There goes the corn," Seed said wearily. "We'll have to resow those upper fields, Sycamore. Storm's carried most of the seed down the gullies."
Sycamore Will ran his fingers through his straight yellow hair and looked up at his father. As he stretched and stood up he unfolded into a large boy.
He sensed his father was worried and replied in the same tired tones his father had used.
"The lower wheat field's under water, too." He couldn't resist adding with a grin, "and one of Mercer's picnic benches is sitting in it—right side up, too."
"At least we're getting something from the storm," Seed answered without smiling. Sycamore Will knew his father was worried, but then, he was always worried about the farm. Sometimes he worried because the corn crop was poor, or the chickens took too much grain for the number of eggs they laid, or the cut hay was ruined by the rain. It was always something. Now it was the heavy storm washing out the freshly planted corn. It seemed to Sycamore Will a boy couldn't enjoy a ripsnorting flood without being reminded that there was more work to be done.
Sycamore Will liked their farm in the valley. He liked the Yellow Breeches Creek, the wood lots, and the big south mountains that were only two miles away; but he and Sam Toy, who lived on the other side of the iron bridge, had promised each other never to grow up and become farmers. They would drive one of the railroad trains that whistled along the valley or trap bears in the mountains. They had even discussed being real bums and riding the rails all over the country; or being outlaws in the hills of Arizona. Whatever they would be, they would not be farmers, and spend all their lives working hard and worrying about crops.
Sycamore Will stood at the kitchen window watching the rain. His father spoke:
"You'd better get out to the barn and milk the cows."
"Aw, I was just going down to see the creek. Can't they wait a little longer?"
"You know they can't," his father insisted. Sycamore pulled on his boots and waterproof slicker and went out the kitchen door. His mother looked up from her reading and glanced in the direction her son had gone.
"You ought to let him have a little more fun, Seed," she said quietly. Seed dropped his head into his hands and answered:
"There's no fun in farming. Why should he get the idea there is?"
"But, he's only a boy, Seed. Seems to me he has the work of a man to do." Molly Lites stacked the newspapers and carried them over to the big wood stove. She stuffed them into the fire chamber, chipped off some kindling with a skillful turn of the ax, and started the stove for supper.
"Just seems to me as if he had the work of a man to do. That's all," she repeated and walked to the summer kitchen to get potatoes for dinner.
Seed rose and went to join his boy in the barn. He found Sycamore still standing on the porch. His tall wiry body looked young and strong in the storm. His brown face with the wide pleasant mouth shone from under his rain hat with the firmness of a polished horse chestnut. The straight yellow hair still stuck out from his head as it had so many years ago, when Seed's father had first looked at him and called him "Sycamore." He had said the fuzzy yellow head looked just like last summer's sycamore ball. He's a nice boy, Seed thought, but he's getting ideas, and a boy has to be kept in line.
"Sycamore," he shouted. Sycamore Will looked away from the roaring creek that was now completely over the swamp and moving up the sloping meadow to the house.
"Boy!" he said and whistled through his teeth as he turned to obey his father. "Soon as the rain's over, me and Sam will have to build a raft and pole around in everybody's meadows."
He followed his father across the road to the barn, stepping in the thick yellow mud and splashing the water that was bubbling and churning as it moved toward the creek.
To the right of Mercer's picnic bench where the flood waters were creeping up the wooded fence line, a mother skunk peered anxiously from her den. She touched the water with her forepaw as if to be sure it was really so close. As she did, it began to seep slowly down the tunnel. As the water flowed in, she turned and followed it. At the lowest point in the tunnel, the muddy flood water collected in a rising pool.
She splashed through it and climbed up to a room where two pink and black kits squirmed and cried in a nest of leaves. The mother skunk stood over them for a moment, licked the nose of one, and padded up the tunnel. Behind her the burrow filled quickly with water and closed off that exit. She picked up one kit and placed him in the highest part of the nest, the other she took in her teeth and carried him up the steep tunnel that opened higher on the hill.
The little kit in her mouth was Meph, the skunk. He screeched as the cold rain hit him. He scratched the air with his long front nails and squirmed in misery as his mother skirted the flood waters of the wheat field. At the end of the field his mother crossed through the fence into the hayfield. The wet grasses soaked him. He cried without letup. At times he swung freely from his mother's mouth, at other times the grasses pushed him into her wet chest as she jogged along relentlessly. The cries of the cold and miserable Meph went unanswered. The desperate mother knew what they needed—shelter. A warm dry shelter must be found if the kits were to live. And then she knew where she would find it—the snug dry earth under the summer kitchen. She pushed on directly toward it, then stopped.
The rains had cut a deep gully in the hayfield where the grasses had been grazed back and the hillside trampled bare by the cows. Down it the water boiled in a torrent to the creek. The mother skunk could not cross. She turned and followed it up the hill. As she searched for a crossing, the cold Meph cried less and less. Not because he was more comfortable, but because as the warmth of life left him, he grew numb. Finally he became stiff and quiet with cold.
Meph's silence frightened his mother, and she moved more swiftly. At the top of the hill she crossed at the head of the gully and ran for the farmhouse. Her short legs were not built for speed, but she pushed them to their limit. At the base of the summer kitchen she found an opening in the stone foundation, thrust her head and shoulders through, and dropped Meph.
The last time she had been under the summer kitchen was early in the year, when she was slimmer, before motherhood. Now her tear-shaped body plugged the hole as she tried to climb through to Meph. She clawed and bit at the stones. She twisted on her side and shoved at the air with her hind feet, but her body only wedged tighter. Finally she worked her front legs through the hole, twisted over on her back, brought through one big haunch, then the other, and tumbled onto the quiet Meph.
She stood over the stiff little kit, mouthed him, and licked his nose. She looked for life. To her life was warmth, scent, movement, and sound. She found none of these in the stiffened Meph. She carried him to the base of the chimney and laid him in the warm dust. She licked him dry, but still he did not move. She nibbled at his hind feet nervously. When he did not respond, she left him. At the hole in the wall she paused, torn between finding some stir of life in Meph and getting his brother. Meph slowly opened his mouth, but his mother had made her choice. She was gone.
Plodding through the rain, the mother returned to the den. The lower entrance was completely covered with water. She went down the upper tunnel. It, too, was locked with water and the nest was flooded, but the young kit had scratched his way up the tunnel and lay half-covered with water at the edge of the flood peak. The mother found him there, still and quiet. She grasped him in her teeth as the walls of the tunnel began to slide. The collapse of the den under the weight of the flood was only seconds away. Hurriedly she backed, then wheeled and climbed to safety. Trembling with anxiety she splashed her way through the sodden fields to the dry haven beneath the house.
The little mother dropped the second stiff wet kit beside Meph, quickly shook the water from her body, and gently pressed the two cold babies to her breast. She nipped them behind their heads, she licked them, and then she rested, her warm body over them.
Still the babies were cold. The mother skunk rose and left them lying in the dust. She paced back and forth on the dry earth under the summer kitchen. She was torn between carrying away what seemed to her, her dead babies, or once more trying to revive them. She looked out through the hole in the foundation. The rain still splashed at the base of the shelter, digging little craters in the ground. She turned back. She picked up Meph and carried him around and around in the dry enclosure. Finally she decided to carry the dead kit away. She went to the hole. It was not easy to wiggle out with a kit in her mouth, and as she hesitated, Meph opened his mouth and squeaked.
The mother spun on her hind feet and ran back to the nest. Nervously she mouthed and tongued him, and as she did, she felt the warmth return to his body. His squeaks became stronger and it was not long before the cool mouth closed on her mammae and Meph was drinking her warm milk. While he nursed she turned to the other kit and fought to revive him, too. But Meph's brother had lain in the cold flood waters too long.
It was almost dawn before the mother skunk laid her tired head on the stiff body of the little brother and gave up. She knew it was hopeless.
Before sunrise she carried him out through the hole in the foundation. The rain water still bubbled down the side of the house and over the hill, but the heavy pour had given way to a light drizzle. The dark shadow of the skunk carrying its sad burden melted into the misty shadows. With slow steady steps the little creature went down the hill into the marsh. There in the wet earth she buried her cold baby, then returned up the hill. At the top she paused a moment and looked back. Slowly she lifted her tail, for she was hurt and would defend herself against the enemy that had caused her pain. There was nothing but the rain.
Hungry and tired she returned to the warm foundation of the summer kitchen. So long had she worked, and so desperately had she fought the storm that there was little milk in her mammae when she nestled down by the pink and black, three-day-old Meph. He suckled, but was not satisfied; and through the dawn into the morning she listened to the hungry cries of her last kit.CHAPTER 2
Sycamore Will WAS building a fire in the great fireplace in the summer kitchen. The cherries were ripe and his mother was going to make jam in the big copper caldron. He stacked the kindling carefully to make a tepee. Although he always enjoyed building the fires for the house, they were never as much fun as those that he and Sam Toy built along the Yellow Breeches when they were playing outlaws. As he laid the sticks down, he pretended that he and Sam were far in the West hiding out in the hills. Sam was lying between two boulders watching the trail below for the posse, while he, Sycamore, made a smokeless fire for warmth. He could hear Sam turn and say:
"I think they've given up the chase!" No sooner had he spoken than a gun cracked. Sycamore spun on his shoulders, rolled across the floor, and fired an imaginary gun at the caldron. Nonchalantly he got up and blew the smoke from his fancied six-shooter while Sam grunted:
"Not bad, Syc. Ya got six of the varmints sneaking up behind us."
"Sycamore!" Sycamore Will jumped out of his wild West and came back to reality at the sound of his father's voice.
"Sycamore! When you get that fire built, give me a hand with the cultivating!"
Sycamore ran to the door.
"But, Pa, you told me I could meet Sam at the bridge!"
Seed was irritated, for he had promised the boy he could take off a few hours before milking. But the cultivating was not finished and it had to be done. Angry at this situation, but too tired to correct it, he snapped at the boy:
"When I tell you to do a thing, you do it." Seed knew that was not fair, but he was discouraged by the farm. No matter how he seemed to work, the crops were not right. He had begun to doubt his ability as a farmer and this feeling made him drive himself and his son even harder.
Sycamore went back to the hearth and built the fire methodically. The fun was gone.
"I'm going to run so far away they'll never find me again," he half cried to himself. He sat back on his heels and watched the flames dance around the wood. Suddenly he became aware of a dull scratching sound. He looked around the room, but the sound came from under the floor by the far window. He walked out the door and stole down the steps to the vegetable cellar. Along the far wall he heard it again. He moved to the window that opened under the summer kitchen and scraped a hole in the dust. He peered into the semidarkness beneath the kitchen. For many minutes he stared; finally he saw a small dark creature digging in the earth by the foundation, its claws scratching the stones. He cupped his hands around his eyes and recognized it as a baby skunk by the white stripes down his fat sides. His tiny ears barely showed above the soft black head, and his short legs held his stomach just off the ground. He was soft and woolly, and he held his beautiful tail high as he struggled with the wall.
The plumes in it were short, but still long enough to spill over his back. Sycamore was fascinated. He leaned against the dirty wall and pressed his face tighter against the window. The little skunk was irritated at his inability to dig through the stones. He gabbled like a duck, stamped his front paws in anger, and then twisted his tail toward the wall. No spume came. Sycamore laughed aloud.
Meph stopped his work and listened to the unfamiliar voice, then bounced awkwardly into the dark shadow by the chimney. Sycamore's heart was pounding. He wanted the baby skunk. He could not have a dog because it was too costly to feed, but a baby skunk—he would not eat much. He pounded on the window trying to push it open, but it was swollen shut. He banged harder and harder, then ran into the furnace room for the iron poker that hung on the wall. Through the open window of the cellar, he heard his father's voice call sharply:
"Sycamore! Sycamore Will!"
"I'm coming," the boy called through the window. He dropped the iron and ran up the steps into the sunlight. He would come back. He would not tell anyone of the baby skunk. He would come back and get him, just as soon as he finished the cultivating. Sycamore Will ran swiftly toward the lower cornfield. He felt elated and good and excited. Here was a wonderful animal—not a dog that ate and ate, but a baby skunk that wouldn't take much food at all. Maybe it would catch its own food in time. He would read the animal book in the attic and see what the little creature ate. He joined his father at the tractor and hopped into the warmed metal seat. Seed Lites looked at the stunted corn.
"It's another bad crop," he said. "The land's just no good. Just no good for nothin'. Maybe we'll sell the farm, and try something else." Sycamore had heard this before. He shifted into gear, set the throttle, and started down the rows.
Excerpted from Meph, the Pet Skunk by Jean Craighead George, John George. Copyright © 1952 E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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