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No. Twenty-seven.

Daybreak came later than usual. Heavy clouds amassed overhead, simulating the scene below; snow had piled upon the land below then piled upon itself until all was covered in white.

“I’m not touching the stuff any longer; my paws are freezing.”

Reginald was in a bit of a mood as he made his way to the back of his home.

Regina took a turn at trying to dig their way out, but everywhere outside of the entrance was wet, white powder. She couldn’t even tell which way to dig or how far. Sighing, she, too, made her way back into the hovel.

One by one, the raccoons had tried to dig their way out of the hovel, but to no avail. Their digging proved fruitless at doing nothing more than shoveling snow into their home. The weight of the snow above collapsed the meager tunnel that had been attempted by each of them. Even Ralph, the seeming expert at anything having to do with the survival and well-being of the nursery, was unable to dig more than a few minutes and make no progress.

As the four raccoons spoke in hushed tones from the back of the hovel about what their next move should be, Cody curled back up to take a nap. During the course of the night, as they warmed one another and attempted to fall asleep, Cody learned more about the owl that had taken to using the pond and its surrounding area as its home and hunting grounds.

The owl had first appeared last winter. The raccoons were uncertain of which direction it had flown in from, but it certainly was quick to craft a nest of sorts, making itself at home.

It preferred to nest in a persimmon tree on the northern end of the shore. Three of the four raccoons found this an odd choice, as the persimmon was far from being the mightiest tree in the forest—something befitting so magnificent a creature as a great horned owl. Only Ralph, in his practicality, recognized why the owl would chose the persimmon.

“The mice like the fruit of the persimmon tree,” he explained. “The pecan tree will only attract a squirrel or two at a time because those guys are super territorial—back me up on this one, Fenswick.”

Fenswick nodded in agreement, really wishing he could sink his teeth into a pecan or even persimmons, dry as they had seemed to him on the rare occasion he had partaken.

“But the mice will keep coming to the persimmon tree,” Ralph went on. “Other rodents and some birds, too. The persimmon tree seemed to have done a good job of hiding this particular owl, because he’s never been run off, and he comes back to that tree every single morning. Heh,” he laughed, “we both seemed to end our evenings around the same time, and at the same place—down at the watering hole.”

While Ralph went on chuckling at his effort at humor, Regina continued on, telling Cody about the owl’s flight and hunting patterns, as well as his other habits. Going off of Ralph’s comment about ending each evening’s hunt for food at the pond, she noted how the owl would both see and acknowledge the presence of the raccoons, almost in either reverence or annoyance at their size at being too big for him to hunt.

“But tonight,” she said, “the owl didn’t do that. I know it saw us—OK, I’m pretty sure it saw us—but it’s like it was intentionally ignoring us. Like we weren’t there. Like it just knew something because…because…oh, heck, I have no idea what goes through the mind of an owl. But it did seem almost mad or disappointed or something at us tonight. Like I said, it knows. It knows something.”

“Of course it does,” chimed in Ralph. “Owls have long been associated with wisdom and knowledge and—”

“And death,” finished Roderick. “We all know what that owl means to the creatures around here. Even us, if we weren’t at our prime, and let’s face it: We are not at our prime just now. We can’t even get out of our home.”

Roderick had barely finished his sentence when a ray of cloud-dulled light broke into the hovel from the front of their home. The four raccoons looked around in surprise and alarm before Cody noticed one of them was missing.

“Ta-da!” exclaimed Fenswick, poking his head into the hovel through hole he had dug. He was greeted with stunned silence.

“How?” asked Reginald. He fumed on, almost in a rage. “How did something so small and and gangly and…and…squirrelly as a…as a squirrel manage to accomplish what I and the rest of this nursery of the most excellent raccoons ever assembled could not?” He paused as Regina put her paw on his neck. Ralph crawled low to the front to investigate what the squirrel had done as he hopped back inside and shook himself, wet with snow. Cody began to lick Fenswick’s fur to warm the rodent, as well as get himself from moisture.

“Because he is so small, Reginald,” Ralph said, poking his head through the small hole. “His anatomy, so different from ours, allowed him to stretch out so long while still digging. His body and constantly twitching tail allowed him to bore this pilot hole through the snow. And now…”

His voice trailed as he poked first his head then then the rest of his body up through the rift in the snowbank that had settled around the rocks serving as the raccoons home. In another minute, he was back inside, again nose first.

“Yes, that does it. I made it to the surface and had a look around.” He as panting, excited rather than exhausted from the bit of exertion. “The rest of you should come up, too.”

“Fenswick?” Reginald said, poking his head first through the snow and then back into the hovel.

“Uh-huh?” said the squirrel, now dried from the care of the cat. Of the four raccoons, Reginald made him the most nervous.

“Thank you. You did what we could not and have improved my opinion of squirrels most certainly,” he finished and then disappeared into the packed snow.

Roderick patted Fenswick’s head before following his best friend up the hold and into the world outside. Ralph gave a sort of “thumbs up” and crawled on up, while Regina just made her way through, figuring her fellow raccoons had said and done enough.

“So, big guy,” Cody said, looking down at the squirrel. “It seems you’re making friends everywhere you go. Good job, Fenswick. Good job.”

Cody looked cautiously at the hole, now greatly enlarged and further compacted by the shuffling of the four raccoons who had blundered their way to the surface, and licked some of the snow. He was horribly thirsty and could not wait to get outside and find some water in liquid form.

Squirrel has done good, the squirrel thought to himself. Wait, no. Not ‘squirrel.’ He stood himself upright and looked around and nodded to himself.

“Fenswick,” he said aloud. His tone was firm and brave. “I, Fenswick the squirrel, has thought of and helped others. I am a good friend.”

Smiling at what he had accomplished over the past few weeks, he clambered up the hole after the raccoons and cat and into what he was certain would be a warm welcome in a cold world.

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