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The Further Adventures of Ringtail, The Raccoon by Zoe Meyer

 

Late one summer afternoon a hush lay over the wilderness. The air was so still that even the poplar leaves, which move at the slightest breath, hung motionless. The swamp steamed in the heat, and even in the more open forest the air was sultry and oppressive. Birds and wild creatures waited panting for the relief of darkness, seeming to move more silently and furtively than usual. The sun sank behind a bank of angry-looking clouds, but even after dusk had shrouded the trails there was only slight relief from the heat.

Ringtail climbed from the home tree to which he had returned in the spring, and set out for the swamp, eager for a meal of frogs and fish in spite of the strange, oppressive feeling in the air. About midnight, while he was still abroad, the storm broke and swept over the wilderness, leaving its path strewn with a tangled mass of brush and fallen trees. Fortunate it was for Ringtail that he was not at home, for the great beech crashed to the earth, where it lay upon the forest floor, the entrance to the raccoon's house buried from sight. Thus Ringtail found it when he returned from his fishing, having safely weathered the storm under a ledge of rock.

His comfortable home was gone, but Ringtail was not one to complain. The next night found him abroad in search of a new dwelling, moving being no trouble at all for him. In the course of his wanderings he came to the rail fence which protected the clearing of the Hermit. Standing with his front feet on the lower rail, Ringtail surveyed the house and the cleared ground flooded with moonlight. A dark object at the top of a tall pole caught his attention and he decided to investigate.

Ringtail was a skillful climber and he soon stood on a stout platform at the top of the pole. Before him was a rude, though inviting-looking cabin of sticks; but, alas for poor Ringtail's hopes, the doorway was much too small for him to enter. He poked in his inquisitive, pointed nose, thereby causing a great commotion among the sparrows who had made the place their home. Aroused by their noisy chirping, the Hermit appeared in his doorway and in the moonlight discovered the dark bulk before his birdhouse.

Wondering what it could be, he approached noiselessly and turned his flashlight upon the visitor. The light revealed a pair of bright little eyes set in a comical, black-masked face peering down at him over the edge of the platform.

“Old Ringtail, as sure as I am standing here, and by the looks of things, trying his best to roost in my birdhouse!” The Hermit chuckled as he looked up into the eyes of the animal, who did not seem at all alarmed.

After the two had gazed sociably at each other for a few moments the Hermit bade Ringtail a cheery good-night and withdrew to his own cabin, calling to Pal, who had been arousing the echoes with his excited barking. The next morning Ringtail had disappeared, but, deciding that the raccoon would make a far more interesting neighbor than a colony of noisy sparrows, the Hermit tore out the nests and enlarged the doorway enough to permit the animal to enter. Then he awaited developments, trusting to the raccoon's curiosity to bring him back.

He was not disappointed. The following night Ringtail again visited the birdhouse. To his joy he discovered that it could now be entered, even though the doorway was a tight fit. The sparrows, who, in spite of the destruction of their nests, had returned to the cabin to roost, he evicted without a qualm of conscience. The first streaks of dawn found him curled up snugly, sound asleep in his new home.

From that time on, the big raccoon made himself very much at home about the clearing. At night he investigated everything on the place and nearly drove Pal to a frenzy until the dog's master gave him to understand that the raccoon was to be one of the family. Pal was surprised and disgusted, but from that time on he tried to ignore his old enemy. This was not an easy matter. Ringtail, who had grown extremely bold with the protection accorded him, seemed to take delight in making Pal's life miserable. He would tag the dog around the clearing until Pal, in desperation, would turn upon him with a savage growl. Then his tormentor would take to a tree, or his pole, or even the roof of the cabin, there to wait until the dog's anger had cooled.

Ringtail had, also, another habit which annoyed Pal greatly. In the shade just outside the cabin door was the dog's drinking-pan which the Hermit always kept filled with fresh water from the spring. This pan the raccoon always used for washing his food. Poor Pal, coming up hot and thirsty, was sure to find it full of leaves, twigs and earth. He bore this affront for some time but at last his patience was exhausted. There-after he did his drinking at the spring, approaching it always by a round-about way lest the raccoon discover it and pollute its clear water. The Hermit watched the two animals with amusement, but he did not interfere. Gradually the feud was forgotten. Indeed, before many weeks had passed, the two had become firm friends, though Ringtail still delighted in teasing the dog.

In a surprisingly short space of time, too, the raccoon came to trust the Hermit, even to the point of entering the cabin and eating from his hand. This friendliness, however, led to trouble, as the man soon discovered. Ringtail's curiosity was never satisfied and the cabin furnished a rich field for exploration. Shining objects of all kinds seemed to hold a fascination for him. One day when the Hermit missed his watch, and found it eventually in the raccoon's house, he decided that it was time to put a curb upon that animal's explorations.

Ringtail developed another habit which came to be very annoying to the Hermit. On warm summer nights the man slept in a hammock swung between two trees in front of his cabin. Ringtail, returning from his nocturnal hunting, would run along the low branch of one of these trees until he stood directly above the sleeper. Then he would let go and fall with a thud, sometimes into the springy hammock, but more often upon the man.

Nothing that the Hermit could do would break Ringtail of this playful habit. At length he was compelled to move his hammock, swinging it between a corner of the cabin and a small spruce having no long, horizontal branches. Here for a time he slept in peace, until Ringtail discovered that he could take a few steps on the rope and so get into the hammock, where he would sleep contentedly until morning. At least this was better than having the raccoon's weight descend upon him without warning, and the Hermit permitted him to remain. Sometimes he even used Ringtail for a pillow, a liberty which the animal never resented.

As has been mentioned, Ringtail was extremely fond of bright objects. A bit of glass or tin glittering in the light would draw him irresistibly. And one night this attraction led him into serious trouble. At dawn Ringtail was still absent, and as the morning passed and he did not return, the Hermit grew uneasy. Pal, too, seemed to miss his playmate. He wandered aimlessly about and at last disappeared into the forest.

Late in the afternoon Pal returned and signified by his actions that his master was needed in the forest. Remembering the plight in which Dave Lansing had found himself, the Hermit carried his axe with him into the wilderness. Pal ran on ahead but his eager barking enabled his master to follow. Coming to a mossy spot under a big pine, he beheld a sight which moved him to pity.

Long before, a trap had been set under the tree and forgotten. It was covered from sight and badly rusted save for one spot, where a moonbeam had made a dazzling point of light in the darkness. Lured by its gleam Ringtail had stopped to investigate and his foot had been caught fast in the trap.

For hours he had torn at the thing which held him so tightly, until, bleeding and exhausted and almost dead with thirst, he had crouched down among the leaves in despair. Thus Pal had found him and, unable to do anything for his playfellow, had brought his master, confident that to him all things were possible. When the Hermit came upon them, Pal was licking the face of the big raccoon who seemed much comforted by the dog's presence.

The Hermit, with his axe, soon freed Ringtail. As the latter limped painfully, he carried him in his arms to the cabin, Pal frisking joyfully about them. Ringtail had the best of attention and in a few days was as lively as ever, his spirits undampened by his harrowing experience. He worried Pal continually, but the dog bore it all with a look of mingled resignation and pleasure which was comical to see.

About this time a new trick which the big raccoon had developed became very annoying to poor Pal. When presented by his master with an unusually fine bone, the dog would sneak off back of the cabin, look suspiciously around and then quickly bury his prize, concealing all traces of its location. Almost invariably, however, a pair of bright eyes set in a masked face would be watching from some place of concealment and the dog would no sooner turn his back than the mischievous Ringtail would dig up the treasure. Pal generally discovered him in time to save the bone and the friendship appeared not to suffer in the least.

Once Pal, in his turn, owed his life to his friend. At dusk the two wandered together into the borders of the wilderness. While Ringtail was catching mice, Pal went on by himself. Early that spring a lynx had taken up its abode in a rocky cave not far from the Hermit's clearing, and several times had watched hungrily as Pal trotted through the forest. Pal had always been accompanied by the Hermit and, though the lynx could see no gun, it was suspicious of mankind and dared not attack. Now, however, it found the dog alone and unprotected.

Without a sound the beast crouched and leaped. As it sprang, however, a sound deflected its attention and the leap fell short, the long claws raking cruelly across the dog's unprotected back, but causing no fatal injury. Pal uttered a howl of terror and pain and, before the big cat could launch itself again, a raging whirlwind of claws and teeth descended upon its back.

Ringtail, at his hunting not far away, had heard the agonized cry of his playmate and the sound had filled him with rage. Now, perched upon the back of the astonished lynx, he bit and tore, holding his place in spite of the animal's frantic efforts to dislodge him. At length, cowed and exhausted and with bleeding flanks, the lynx was glad to escape to its den. From that time on it showed no interest in either dog or raccoon.

Late summer came, with a full moon flooding the world with its silvery radiance. The nights were almost as bright as the days and seemed to hold a witchery which ran like fire in the veins of the forest folk. Ringtail slept in his log house the greater part of the day but was seldom to be found about the clearing at night. He was round, full-fed, and jolly.

[Illustration: Ringtail had heard the agonized cry of his playmate.]

One night the Hermit fell asleep thinking of Ringtail. As he slept, he dreamed of walking in the forest and of hearing the distant barking of dogs. Louder and louder grew the sound until suddenly he awoke to find that it had not all been a dream. So close at hand as to startle him, he heard a wild clamor in which he could distinguish Pal's excited voice. Leaping from his hammock he quickly rounded the corner of the cabin and beheld a weird sight. A torch borne in the hand of a tall man cast a flickering light over a mêlée of dogs, leaping and barking about the foot of the pole which held Ringtail's snug home. Another but smaller figure stood near, pointing to the spot where, upon the platform before the birdhouse, two shining eyes looked down at the group. Pal was here, there and everywhere, loudly voicing his opinion of the intruders.

The Hermit strode up to the group. “What does this mean?” he asked in a stern voice, of the man who held the torch.

Instead of replying to his question, the man asked, “Is that your coon?”

“No, it isn't my coon, but it is kind enough to be boarding with me at present,” the Hermit replied.

“Well, you'll have to kill him. My name is Graham. I live a mile up the river and this coon has just about ruined my cornfield,” was the truculent answer.

“How do you know it is this one?” the Hermit asked. “There are other raccoons in the woods.”

“How do we know?” The man was growing angry at the delay. “Didn't we just track him here? After he had ruined a choice patch last night, I made up my mind to get him. Sure enough, he came to-night and the dogs brought us here.”

The Hermit's face grew grave and he raised troubled eyes to those of his old friend twinkling down at him. “If this is true,” he said slowly, “of course something will have to be done. I only ask you to make sure first. Will you do what I propose?”

He talked earnestly for a few moments while the farmer listened in silence. Then Mr. Graham said, still unconvinced, “Well, we will try it, but if we find that it is your coon, he will have to be killed.”

The Hermit nodded and, calling their dogs, the strangers departed without their game. The Hermit returned to his hammock and silence once more settled over the clearing. It was long, however, before the man slept. Ringtail, with his mischievous ways and funny masked face, had become a favorite member of his little household. And now disgrace and death were probably to be his portion. With a sinking of the heart the Hermit remembered Ringtail's long absences in the moonlight and his full-fed, happy appearance upon his return.

The following morning, in accordance with his promise to the farmer, the Hermit lured Ringtail to the cabin by means of a cooky. Snapping a chain about his neck he tethered him securely to a young pine before the door. Ringtail ate the cooky, nosed the Hermit's hand for more and then started for home. The chain, however, brought him up with a jerk and he turned such a bewildered look upon the man that the latter's heart almost failed him.

“I'm sorry, old chap, but I promised,” he said. “If you would take just a little corn it would not matter, but I have seen a field ruined by your tribe and I know it cannot be permitted.”

Ringtail tried in every way to gain his freedom but the chain was strong. Pal, too, seemed much bewildered at the sudden curtailing of his playmate's liberty. He stood at attention, looking from the Hermit to his old chum and back again.

“It's no use, Pal. I promised to keep him chained to-night. Then if Mr. Graham's field suffers again, he will know that it was not Ringtail who visited it.” The Hermit patted the dog's head and turned back to the cabin. When he came out some time later, he found Pal and the raccoon asleep side by side.

So Ringtail became a prisoner of war, though, it must be confessed, a very pampered one. During the day he seemed quite contented with his lot, playing with the shining links of his chain or sleeping with his tail over his eyes. But when night came and the moon again flooded the wilderness with its radiance, the raccoon strained at his leash and whimpered like a child, so that the Hermit was forced to harden his heart anew. Meanwhile, he hoped against hope that the jury would not find his pet guilty.

Both the man and the animal spent a restless night. The Hermit rose early and was just preparing his breakfast when he heard a commotion in the clearing. Looking out, he beheld Farmer Graham and his son, guns over their shoulders and two weary dogs at their heels.

“Well, I guess you can keep your coon,” the farmer chuckled, as the Hermit stepped out to greet him. “The thief came again last night and we treed him much nearer home than this.” He patted a bulky bag at his back. “The trails of the two must have crossed the other time. Anyway, we'll give your Ringtail the benefit of the doubt. Sorry to have troubled you.”

“That's all right and I will confess that I am glad Ringtail has not been found guilty. I am just getting breakfast. Come right in and help eat it, won't you?” the Hermit invited, heartily.

The farmer declined, on the plea that breakfast would be waiting at home, and the men parted friends. Ringtail was then released from bondage and given a good breakfast, after which he climbed to his home in the birdhouse and fell asleep, unconscious of his narrow escape from death.

 
 
 

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