The Miracle at Nuthanger Farm

(back to writing)

The wind whistled through the windbreak, low and soft. The trees moved slowly against each other. The sun shone over the horizon, glancing off the treetops and coloring the fields gold. At the leading edge of the wood, a stand of birch trees cast a long shadow over the fields. The birch gradually gave way to pine and oak toward the far side of the windbreak, and a stream trickled out from under the canopy along the rows of corn and barley and wheat.

Closer to the farm, beads of dew sparkled on the grass and the occasional goldenrod or dogwood or patch of mountain laurel. It was early yet for flowers, but spring had arrived and the weather was unusually accommodating. Below the heather, hidden from the watchful eyes of the wood and the windbreak and the lone cloud skidding across the sky, gopher holes dotted the ground. The holes drifted across the hollow, huddled close together at the stream, and then wandered up toward the farmhouse where they congregated just inside the fence surrounding the garden. There they hid under the cabbage leaves and behind the carrots and beets and the lopsided bulges of the squash plants.

Near the farmhouse, in the shade of a patch of sweet corn, a ladybug picked her way across the soil. She stopped at the edge of a gopher hole, hesitated, and stretched her eyes up high. She had just caught sight of the other side when a massive, furry body popped out of the hole in front of her. She watched the gopher rub his paws together as he surveyed the garden, eyes darting down the rows of vegetables and past the rusted links of the fence to the fields below. His ears pointed down as the ladybug dislodged a twig and he turned toward her, whiskers twitching. He smiled, and as he looked up toward the farmhouse, he fell back into the hole as if struck by a tremendous blow.

Jasper woke to the sound of another gopher screaming. Generally, gophers do not make sounds loud enough to hear more than a meter away. A gopher only screams when it is in serious pain or distress, and the sound is enough to chill the blood of any animals who hear it. Jasper’s burrow was next to the entrance of the den’s main run, so he was closest to the sound. His head jerked up and he dashed out of his burrow, instinct driving his legs and propelling him away before he knew he was awake. The screaming stopped abruptly and Jasper came to a halt near the end of the run. His heart pounded in his chest. He listened intently, ears up and forward, but heard nothing except the intermittent movements of the earthworms. He forced himself to turn around and head back up the run toward the source of the sound.

A large, heavyset gopher lay on his side near the entrance of the run. He was panting heavily, and began kicking in the dirt when he caught sight of Jasper.

“Jasper…the sun…it’s falling!…right outside…almost hit me…have to get away…”

The run began to fill with gophers. Timber’s screaming and Jasper’s dash past the burrows had awakened most of the den. A muted chattering echoed up and down the run until one of them, a female with white-tipped paws, approached Jasper.

“What’s going on? What’s happened to Timber?” she asked anxiously.

Jasper glanced back at her. “I don’t rightfully know, Hyacinth. Poor chap. I heard him screaming and I ran out of my burrow, and when I found him, he was lying here kicking. He tried to tell me something about the sun falling, or some such nonsense.”

Hyacinth looked past him at Timber’s body on the floor. “Oh, I do hope he’s alright. He doesn’t look hurt, but he’s not moving much, is he?”

“No, I don’t believe he is,” said Jasper. “Come on, let’s see if we can wake him.”

Jasper and Hyacinth bent down and nudged at his body gently with their noses. He didn’t respond, and Hyacinth was moving to again him harder when Jasper cuffed him lightly across the face.

“Timber! Wake up, Timber!”

Timber opened his eyes and stared blankly up at the tunnel roof. After a moment he realized that Jasper and Hyacinth were bending over him. He scrambled to his feet and looked from one to the other, eyes unfocused.

“Jasper! The sun is falling! It’s a miracle, I tell you, I saw it right outside the den. Lord Ashan must have fallen from the sky!”

The sun is personified as a god and creator by many woodland animals, including gophers. It is said that Ashan runs across the sky every day, chasing the moon away in a celestial display of might. But at night, when he rests, the moon escapes and rejoins the stars in the sky, and Ashan must return to the hunt.

“Timber, what are you babbling about?” Jasper was incredulous. “How could the sun possibly fall out of the sky?”

“I know it sounds dreadfully unbelievable, but it did. I saw it!”

“Well, maybe it’s just bright out today. It is getting on into spring, you know. Let’s go and have a look for ourselves, shall we?”

Jasper started up the tunnel toward the entrance and Timber stopped him with a paw on his chest. “No, you mustn’t! It’s right outside this hole. Ashante, it must be the end of the world and Ashan himself is coming down into the den for us all!”

“Timber, really! I dare say you’ve got us all quite worked up. There must be a perfectly reasonable explanation for this.”

“Jasper, let him alone,” Hyacinth said. “He must have taken quite a fright, he’s shaking so much. Let’s go on up the slack run and look from there.”

Jasper looked at Timber, half expecting to hear that the sun was lying in ambush at the slack hole also. But Timber only nodded, sniffling, and the three of them padded off down the tunnel.

As with most animals who live underground, gophers always dig one or two tunnels a distance away from the den proper. These slack holes are concealed by roots or rocks or long grasses, and they are invaluable for escaping from predators and other possible dangers. A smart badger – a gopher’s worst nightmare – will systematically cave in a cluster of gopher holes, one by one, and then squeeze into the last hole to feast on the inhabitants trapped inside. A den with a slack run is safe from this fate, since the weasel or badger will invariably miss the slack hole and the den can escape through it unharmed. “Better a ruined tunnel than a well-fed badger,” as the old saying goes.

They reached the end of the slack run and stopped just short of the hole. Jasper and Hyacinth turned to Timber and he shrunk back into the tunnel, whimpering. Jasper shrugged and stuck his head out of the hole. He sniffed the air, listened to the sounds of the waving corn and the bluejays high up in the windbreak, and then crept outside. He looked up and squinted at the sun, brilliant and low in the sky. Jasper turned back to the hole and called out to Timber and Hyacinth.

“I’m afraid I don’t see anything out of the ordinary, Timber. The sun is as high as it always is. Come out and have a look.”

Hyacinth pulled herself out of the hole and Timber followed, placing his paws gingerly. He looked over toward the main run and immediately froze. His fur bushed out and his ears lay flat as he rubbed his front paws together. She followed his gaze to the main entrance and saw a bright orange flag on a wooden stake, driven into the ground next to the hole. As they looked around they saw a number of flags, each on a wooden stake and next to a gopher hole. They wrinkled their noses at the distinct smell of man. Even across the garden, the sulfur smell of paint and creosote was strong in the air.

“Oh, Jasper, I’m sorry I started screaming,” Timber said immediately. “I haven’t a clue what those orange things are, but I was silly to think the sun was falling. It was just so big and bright, I couldn’t think straight. It was all I could see.”

Jasper smiled. “Think nothing of it. I’m glad we checked. If there’s anything besides badgers and weasels that scares you, Timber, I’m sure I don’t want to meet it.”

“But what are those orange things?” Hyacinth asked. “They’re a good deal larger than the little posts the farmer puts in the ground when he plants. And with that color, I don’t blame Timber one bit. I’d have thought the sun was falling too.”

“I’ve never seen them before,” Jasper said. “They don’t look dangerous. But all the same, let’s not disturb them. They could carry the white blindness, for all we know.” Jasper looked at the ground for a moment, scratched behind his ear pensively, then continued. “Let’s go back and ask the others not to go up the main holes at all. I know they’ll put up an awful row, but it would be wise to wait a few days and see what happens. The farmer may well take them back, after all.”

Timber and Hyacinth nodded in agreement and scampered back into the slack run, tails flashing behind them. Jasper hesitated a moment, crouching on his hind legs and peering intently at the bits of orange plastic. They waved slowly in the breeze, but they refused to reveal their secret and he, too, scampered down into the slack run. Overhead, a hawk made lazy circles as it watched the gophers disappear underground. Much higher, a thin white contrail chased a jet as it streaked across the mid-morning sky. A white-tailed finch, catching a glimpse of color in the garden, flew closer to take a look. But all that it found was an orange flag fluttering in the wind, next to a gopher hole, with sharp lines that cut across its surface to spell out the words:

WARNING: PESTICIDE SITE, 6TH APRIL.

The next morning, Jasper woke to an insistent prodding and a distant voice in his ear. “Jasper! Jasper, wake up! Wake up, Jasper!” He opened his eyes and saw Hyacinth and Timber in his burrow. They looked agitated, and beyond them he could see the dark shapes of gophers moving in the main run. The run had the usual bow shape, dipping down into the clay subsoil and then back up to level off just below the wiry roots of the carrots. Almost all of the den’s burrows opened out into the main run. Most were large enough to sleep four gophers, snug and secure on floors of packed earth. Periodically, other runs branched off from the main run and followed the same bow shape up to holes at the surface.

“What is it? What’s happened?” Jasper asked, worried. “Are you both well? Has someone been hurt?”

“No, no one…no one’s been hurt,” Hyacinth said quickly, tripping over her own words. “It’s…I don’t know. Please, just come see for yourself. And hurry!”

Jasper scrambled to his feet. The strange orange flags had weighed on his mind for most of the previous day, and he pictured gophers sick from the white blindness or attacked by a badger or worse. He followed Timber and Hyacinth out into the main run toward the entrance, and almost bumped into them when they stopped after a few steps.

“What? What is it?” Jasper craned his neck and widened his eyes, trying to see past them and out of the tunnel. He sniffed the air once, twice, three times, but found nothing out of the ordinary. Only cabbages and sweet peas and the faint smell of one of the white sticks the farmer always burned in his mouth. He must have dropped one of them in the garden. He usually stepped on them after he dropped them, but sometimes he forgot and then the smell was stronger, dry and acrid and not unlike the stink of a forest fire.

Hyacinth turned to look at him, then turned back to the entrance. She ducked her head into the wall and covered her nose and mouth with her paws. Timber, crouched against the other wall, began to shake.

“Well, I don’t smell anything dangerous. I suppose it can’t hurt to have a look.” Jasper started up the tunnel, ears pointed and tail unmoving. He trained his eyes on the mouth of the hole and the blue sky beyond. As he moved closer to the hole, the smell of burning white stick grew stronger. By the time Jasper could see leaves outside, the stench was overpowering. It stung his nose and burned his eyes, and it tasted like fire. The hole was only a few steps away, but he couldn’t bear to go on. He turned tail and fled down the tunnel, rubbing furiously at his nose and mouth.

“By Ashan’s paws, that stings!” Jasper stopped to look at Hyacinth and Timber, still cowering against the tunnel walls. “Why is the air bad? Is the garden on fire?”

Hyacinth looked at him mournfully. “I don’t know. I’m afraid we couldn’t make it outside either. We’re all scared half to death, and some of the others are worried we won’t be able to eat.”

“Well, I for one plan on eating today.” Jasper cocked his head to the left and sniffed the air. After a moment he turned back and said, “It doesn’t seem to be coming down in the tunnels, at any rate. Still, I should like to know what it is.”

Timber looked up, shaken. “Isn’t it obvious? Ashan is coming after all! I ought to have known those orange things yesterday were a warning, but now he’s here! Ashan is falling!” He choked off the last few words and collapsed against the wall.

“Well, I never have heard such nonsense,” Jasper said, surprised at Timber’s hysterics. “The sun wasn’t falling yesterday, mind you! There’s surely a rational explanation for this as well.”

Timber refused to be swayed. “How could there be a rational explanation? I say it must be a miracle. The only smell I know like it is fire. And I could never face that smell, I could never go above ground to see for myself. Who but Ashan could be powerful enough to call lightning from the sky and set a whole forest ablaze?”

“Well, we don’t know that this is a fire. We haven’t seen it yet. It could be something else entirely.” Jasper’s voice took on a hint of doubt. He hesitated, then growled and scuffled his hind legs in the dirt.

“The slack run is a good ways away,” Hyacinth said. “Why don’t we look round from there? I don’t think any of us would care to try this hole again.”

Jasper nodded and they headed off toward the slack run, Timber sniffling and trailing behind. They slowed down as they approached the hole, noses in the air as they placed each paw after the last. There was no trace of the burning smell that had invaded the main hole. Hyacinth turned to grin at Jasper and Timber.

“See? We must have slipped out from under it. Let’s go have a look around, shall we?” Before either of them could stop her, she darted through the hole and disappeared.

“Hyacinth, wait!” Jasper cried, startled.

After a moment, Hyacinth’s head popped back into view. “Well, what are you slowpokes waiting for? Last one out has to eat prickly-pears for lunch!”

Jasper cursed under his breath and climbed out of the hole. Timber followed him, sniffing the air cautiously. They stood on their hind legs for a few minutes, rubbing their paws together as they looked back toward the main run. Apart from the flags marking the various holes, they saw nothing unusual. Hyacinth stretched up and craned her neck, trying to see over the rows of cabbages and squash, and then dropped down again.

“Wait,” she said, “I think I see something.” She dropped onto her front paws and ran over to the fence, then froze. Her eyes were locked on the back of the garden and the dirt drive. “Ashante, would you look at that?”

Jasper and Timber ran over and crouched down beside her. Their eyes followed hers down the furrows.

“What is it, I wonder?” Hyacinth asked. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was dangerous, what with all the racket it’s making.”

“I don’t know,” Jasper replied. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It seems like a car, except it’s a good deal smaller and doesn’t have those round black paws. But it rather looks like it’s made from the same sort of stuff, and it breathes smoke just like the farmer’s car does.” The word Jasper used for ‘car’ corresponds roughly to ‘man-smoke-animal,’ which is used to refer to all vehicles with internal combustion engines.

“But the farmer’s car doesn’t breathe smoke like this. Look at it! It’s much thicker, and it’s so dark. I wonder if the poor thing has a fire in its stomach, and it has to keep coughing the stuff up so it doesn’t get sick.”

Jasper looked at her incredulously. “Why, you can’t mean that! Surely it couldn’t have a fire in its stomach. Could it?” Hyacinth had a wild imagination, but she was still one of the smartest gophers in the den. When the farmer’s dog, Rowsby, chewed through his rope, Hyacinth had been the one who saved them. While the rest of the den sat trembling in the burrows, and Rowsby was snuffling and pawing at the thick scent of gopher, Hyacinth had slipped out another hole. She had raced down the rows of vegetables and out into the fields through a gap in the fence. Rowsby, overjoyed that he had flushed out a gopher, took up the chase and bounded across the garden and through the gap. Hyacinth immediately took stock of her surroundings and angled across the plain toward the den in the hollow, Rowsby nipping at her heels. She ran past the den and onto an old spruce tree with drooping branches and uncovered roots. She had led the dog in and out of the gaps in the roots until the trailing end of the rope was hopelessly tangled. Rowsby had been trapped there until the farmer came to untie him the next morning.

Hyacinth squinted at the machine and the smoke billowing out of it. “Yes, you’re right. Most likely not. The car breathed smoke like that a few summers ago, and the farmer spent all day bent over its mouth doing man things. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a car’s tongue, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was injured and he was licking its wounds for it. Maybe this thing is injured too.”

The side door of the farmhouse opened with a bang and three men walked out into the drive. They talked in loud voices, and they were burning white sticks in their mouths. They stopped at the machine, pointing and poking at it. One of them reached an arm into it, fumbled around, and pulled out a cracked rubber gasket. They pointed and argued for a minute, and then looked out into the garden at the orange flags. One of the men spotted the three gophers on the far edge of the garden, and he pointed at them and argued with the other two some more. After a while, a scrawny black dog ran outside, barking excitedly. Jasper bared his teeth and stamped and the three gophers bolted into the slack hole.

“That’s Rowsby,” Hyacinth said, once they were safely inside. “I hope they don’t let him off his rope again.”

Jasper looked at her askance. “Do you think they would?”

“No, I doubt it. It’s been a summer since he got into the garden last. I wonder if he knows what that strange car thing is.” Hyacinth turned her head sideways and rubbed her paw over her face, thinking. “I’d wager he does, at that. I think I’m going to go have a chat with our friend Rowsby.”

She darted out of the run, tail flashing behind her. Jasper and Timber stared at each other, dumbfounded. After a few minutes, they heard Rowsby start barking again, and a moment later Hyacinth flew into the hole. She was breathing hard, and she pressed herself flat against the floor of the tunnel. Jasper crouched down and sniffed at her fur, checking for wounds but finding none.

“What – what did you just do?” he asked.

“I talked to Rowsby, just like I said I would.” Hyacinth had caught her breath, and she pulled herself upright and grinned at Jasper and Timber. “But I didn’t find out what the strange car was. When he saw me, he jumped up and pushed his paws against the fence and started barking at me something awful. He had forgotten about the gap, which was what I was hoping for. Dimwitted beasts, dogs. He was carrying on about how he was going to try to catch me just like he had tried to catch the cats he had seen in town, where they went to get the car thing. An ‘air pump,’ he called it, if that makes any sense. Then he started yapping about chasing me like he had chased the gophers he saw at the airfield the other day, but I had had my fill. I ran over to the edge there and ducked behind the squash plants to get back so the bugger wouldn’t follow me.”

“Hyacinth, you rogue!” Jasper said. “Splendid…although I do wish you had explained it to us first. But no matter. You say the dog called it an ‘air pump’?”

“Those were his words exactly. I’ll be the first to admit I make neither paw nor tail of it.”

Jasper shrugged and glanced over at Timber, who looked utterly confused by the exchange. Jasper grinned at him and bent down to nuzzle his stomach.

“Don’t worry about it, old chap. Men are always doing silly things. I doubt anything will come of it. Come on, let’s go see if any of the others are up for a game of bob-stones, shall we?”

The next morning, Jasper woke once more to Hyacinth’s voice in his ear. “Jasper! Wake up, Jasper!” He rolled over onto his side and sleepily pushed at her with a paw.

“What, Hyacinth…what is it now?” Jasper opened his eyes and shook the night’s sleep out of his fur. “If you’ve roused me because those flags turned blue overnight, and Timber thinks the stream is coming to drown us, I shall be quite upset.”

“No, no, nothing like that,” she said quickly. “But we’re all rather worried. We can’t get outside! Do come quickly, Jasper.”

He jumped to his feet and followed her into the main run. He was suddenly disoriented by the lack of light in the tunnel. His instincts told him it was morning, but his senses told him it had to be night. During the day, sunlight filtered into the tunnel and provided more than enough light for the gophers to see by. Deprived of light, Jasper could barely see Hyacinth’s body in front of him, much less the mouth of the hole. He was forced to rely almost completely on his whiskers and his nose to determine his immediate surroundings.

By the time they reached the hole, Jasper knew what had happened. A hollow object had been put into the mouth of the hole from outside. It was nasty and smooth and smelled of man, and it felt like it was made out of the same material as the garden fence. Jasper wrinkled his nose at the foul odor and turned to Hyacinth, trying not to choke.

“Do you know what it is?”

“I’m not sure,” Hyacinth said, “but it’s rather like something I’ve seen before. I was out with some of the gophers from the den, and we saw a hole in the ground, except it was turned on its side. It was white and smooth like this, and it had wrinkles all the way around and there was a trickle of water coming out its end. One of the others, I believe his name was Boxwood, called it a ‘water tunnel’ and said that men had put it into the ground. For what purpose, I can’t possibly imagine.”

“Are all of the holes plugged like this? Have you checked the slack run?” Jasper tried to fight the panic welling up inside him.

“That was my first thought, too. It’s plugged tight. What shall we do, Jasper?”

Jasper opened his mouth to answer her, but he couldn’t think of a thing to say. The gophers could always dig their way out, but that could take days or even weeks. The strange tunnel-things in the holes had given everyone an awful turn. He felt other gophers crowding into the main run, and he overheard a mother telling her cubs a story to calm them down.

“…once upon a time, a badger and a gopher were friends. They played games in the sand and splashed rainbow sprays at the stream and hid together when it was time to take a bath. But they grew up, like all woodland creatures do. The badger grew claws, and the gopher grew large hind legs. The badger’s family and the gopher’s den made a terrible fuss whenever they played together, so the sand games and the rainbow sprays gradually faded away. Then, one day, the white blindness came. It’s a horrible sickness, worse than a thousand red ants biting your skin, and it spreads faster than a leaf on the wind. The gopher was off to feed in the field, but he heard it anyway. His den-mates screamed, a raw, piercing scream, and kicked their hind legs at gophers long gone. The badger saw the gopher in the grass, crouched low against the wind and shivering, and came over to him. They sat there long into the night, the badger and the gopher, and-“

The mother was interrupted by a sudden, sharp hissing sound. It shook Jasper out of his reverie and he realized that all other sounds of life in the main run had disappeared. Every gopher was frozen, ears pointed toward the hole and the hissing that seemed to grow louder by the second. When faced with danger, a gopher’s instinct is to bolt toward any available cover, which usually means into a nearby forest or underground. However, gophers are almost never confronted with danger in the safety of the den. They all wanted to bolt, and a few gophers stamped on the packed dirt floor, but there was nowhere to run. Jasper felt Timber press up against his flank in the dark.

“Jasper, what’s going on? I don’t like this one bit.”

“I don’t like it either,” said Jasper. The hissing had become almost intolerable when he noticed the air. It tasted funny and stung his mouth, and his throat burned when he breathed. It reminded him of hemlock in the sun after a hot spell, or the stinging nettles he had scratched his nose on a few summers before. Timber shuddered and pressed even harder against his side.

“Jasper, the air – it’s turning the air bad! Ashan in the sky, we’re all done for!”

Jasper had started to reassure him when he felt something brush his leg. He looked down and noticed Hyacinth on the ground, doubled over and kicking furiously. He tried to call out to her, but the breath wouldn’t come and his lungs felt like they were on fire. He heard gophers scrabbling in the dirt and climbing over each other to get away from the poison. Timber slumped against the wall, choking and crying out in pain.

“Oh Ashan it hurts…we’re doomed…we need a miracle to save us now…”

Many summers later, when the trees were turning and the chill autumn air came in gusts heavy over the downs, and myriads of dry bay leaves filled the hollows and swooped in a great, ragged flock over the hills; then, underground in the den, with gophers snug in warm burrows and pressed up against walls long since worn smooth, the story of the great earthquake was told. It was said that lightning and thunder appeared out of a cloudless sky. It was said that, in places, the fires of hell burst through the ground and charred clumps of sod rained down from the heavens. It was said that Ashan himself came down to earth and where he set foot, no plant ever grew again. It was said that early one spring morning, when the sun was low and the primroses were beginning to bloom, a miracle had come to pass.

None of the gophers at Nuthanger Farm had actually seen it. The story had been passed on from den to den until it arrived at the farm, over a day’s journey from the location of the miracle at hand. Jasper remembered only the shock they all felt when the ground began to shake. They crouched low in the tunnel, eyes glazed and claws sunk into the dirt. The far-off roar of thunder rang in their ears and resonated throughout the den. Chunks of soil fell from the roots that held up the roof, and bits of rock ricocheted off the walls. Jasper heard the cries of gophers in the smaller burrows who had struck their heads against the ceiling. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man’s white tunnel first crack, and then erupt out of the hole as if pulled by a giant’s hand. He felt the air rush by his face and out of the hole, and he heard the abrupt sounds of dirt crunching where other tunnel-things had been similarly expelled. Yet the gophers stayed where they were, pinned to the ground by the earth’s shuddering.

It stopped after a minute or two. They crouched, motionless, for an interminable time. Finally, Jasper struggled up and, gasping for breath, pushed Timber with a foot.

“Come on,” he said, “get hold of yourself. We have to rouse the others.”

Timber shook his head and slowly rose to his feet. Jasper looked down the main run and saw the rest of the den, some struggling and trying to stand. A few of them, still dizzy from the tremors, stumbled over gophers on the ground and bumped their heads into the walls. He heard a scratching behind him and turned to see Hyacinth pull herself to her feet. Her ears drooped, but she was alert and unharmed.

“It’s a miracle,” Timber cried, “it must be a miracle! Ashan has come down from the heavens and saved us all!”

“Oh, come off it, you big lummox,” Hyacinth said. “It must have been one of the big cars. You know, the kind with six paws on each side.”

“No, it wasn’t!” Timber was adamant. “They may be loud, but you know as well as I do that they can’t shake the earth. Not like that.”

“What about Rowsby,” she tried again, “or the man? We feel it when he walks through the garden, right? Maybe it was just him, stamping on the ground.”

“But the man isn’t that big,” Timber replied, “and besides, I’ve never seen a man stamp like we do. It was a miracle, it had to be. Ashan came down and broke the earth in half to save us!”

“But – but that sort of stuff only happens in legends.” Her voice wavered and she didn’t continue.

Jasper crouched low in the tunnel. Hyacinth was right, he thought to himself. That sort of stuff did only happen in legends. But he couldn’t deny that it had happened to them as well. And if Hyacinth couldn’t puzzle out an explanation, maybe Timber was right. Maybe it was a miracle. He pushed himself against the earth, but he couldn’t escape the uneasy feeling that he was very, very small.

Meanwhile, Hyacinth was still harassing Timber. “Maybe it was just thunder. There’s probably a storm outside. I’d wager we’ll hear raindrops before too long.”

“Ashante, enough!” Jasper interjected, before Timber could respond. “We ought to go see if anyone was hurt. Come on!”

They shook their heads to stop the ringing in their ears and ran back down the main run. Above ground, a stiff breeze had sprung up. The cabbage leaves trembled and shook, and down in the fields, the grasses bent low toward the stream. The wind whistled through the windbreak and danced lightly over the wood, setting the treetops swaying and carrying pine needles down into the copse on the other side. Near the farmhouse, a gust caught a scrap of paper and sent it soaring into the air. The sun flashed on its side, bright white and brilliant, and the letters printed there showed in sharp relief. They said:

FOR PUBLIC NOTICE. THE RAF 32ND BATTALLION WILL CONDUCT BOMBING EXERCISES AT MCCOVEY AIR BASE ON MONDAY, 3RD MARCH, BETWEEN 0700 AND 0800 HOURS. PLEASE OPEN ALL WINDOWS AND SECURE ANY GLASS OR BREAKABLE ITEMS.

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