Chapter Three

The rain had finally let up on Monday, which was a blessing. The youngsters were a pawfull when getting ready for school at the best of times. Throw in a search for umbrellas and raincoats and at least a half dozen would be late for the large bus that took them into town. As it was, the chores that had to be done before they left sometimes had the older ones rushing.

The warren was rather quiet, in the afternoon, and Pop-pop decided that a quick stroll around the yard and the sheds was in order. The doctor had given him the long face a while back, and told him he needed to exercise more. He did have to admit that stretching out the old sinews did feel good. His minor aches and pains seemed to disappear with a good walk and some fresh air. Sure, he wouldn't be doing any of the old routines from his youth out in the shed, but he felt spry enough.

As he was strolling, he heard the sound of axes thumping into wood out behind the barn used for splitting and storing the supply for the multiple hearths in the burrow. Central heating and cooling had been installed octades ago, but every now and then, as the season changed from winter to spring and summer to autumn, it was still easier and cozier to light a couple of logs in the sitting room fireplaces. The one in his rooms was a favorite place to settle in with a good book, or to talk about the ever expanding Hopps holdings with Stephen and Bella.

Rounding a corner, he saw a few of the older lads and does splitting the seasoned logs into stove sized pieces for the cords that were stacked under cover in the barn itself. One of the girls was heaving the ax with a practiced paw, the sharp edge cleaving the log into two in one stroke. A thin young buck grabbed one of the halves and placed it on the block as she raised the tool again, and brought it down. There was never a break in the rhythm as they worked together. The thuds were even and constant. The buck would put a fresh log in place after clearing away what had been chopped.

All of the bunnies in the chopping yard were working hard, but they all had smiles on their muzzles. Physical work was becoming an outmoded concept in a lot of places, but the Hopps farm was not one of them. His father, Stu, had always said that good, honest labor was important to keep the body and mind clean and ready for what might be asked of them. Besides, nothing beat the feeling of accomplishment with a task completed. This group talked while they did what some considered an awful chore. There was some good-natured competition and mutual encouragement going on as well.

Off to one side, up against the barn wall, there was an old log face with a faded target painted on it. This was where the real competition took place, as bunnies for generations had thrown axes and hatchets in a bid to hit the small red circle in the center most often. Pop-pop himself had been a reigning champion, as a boy. The old log face was deeply gouged, and he could remember a lot of those tosses.

Just then, Bella Hopps came around the other corner of the building, and shouted that it was time for a rest and some tea. One of the bucks stepped up to the line of rocks that was the standing point for challenges. He grasped his ax in both hands, cocked an eye at the target and threw. With a deep thud, the head buried itself in the second ring out from the bulls-eye. His sister, who had been working so well with the skinny young buck, took her ax and stepped to the line. She coolly looked at her target, and breathed in and out slowly for a moment. Squaring herself to the block, she raised the ax above her head, and with both eyes fixed on the coin sized red dot, swung. The handle quivered and the blade was deeply embedded directly in the center.

With that, the group cheered and trouped in for tea, after carefully putting their tools away. They would come back later and stack the split logs.

When they were gone, Pop-pop walked into the shed. He had been careful not to be seen outside, not wanting to interrupt the youngsters having fun at work. He picked out a hatchet from the large selection on the pegs. He went outside and took his stance on the line. He felt the weight in his right paw. It was comfortable, the grip was well worn in just that proper way. Like the doe, he considered his aim carefully breathing slowly and evenly. Both eyes bored into the target. He could almost see the concentric growth rings. On his last inhale, he raised the hatchet over his shoulder.

XX

The train ride to Swinedon had taken the best part of three hours, time which passed pleasantly enough. Bertie had a pack of cards in his pack, and so the three new friends whiled away the time with hands of gin rummy. Bailey had pulled out some of the edibles he had taken from the pantry the previous night, and shared them around. After his long night, he decided that a nap was in order, so he curled up on the rear facing seat of their compartment and drifted off to the sounds of the wheels on the rails and conversation going on around him.

It was testament to his fatigue that he slept through every single stop and whistle until the train reached the station in Swinedon. Len gently shook his left shoulder, and the young buck shrugged down the blanket that he had never noticed being thrown over him.

"We're here, Bailey. Better get yourself straightened out a bit before we get out." The porcupine pawed him a comb.

With a yawn, Bailey took the comb and stretched before working it through his fur. He was still shedding his tawny winter coat, the shorter, darker fur coming in beneath. His mother used to say that he was two bunnies at the extreme ends of the year. For his part, he didn't really see it, when looking in the mirror while grooming himself. A couple of the does he knew from school, one of the Swards in particular, had told him the same thing though. Virgil had once teased him when Abigail had commented on it at the Finding Festival a couple of weeks back. She had batted her eyelashes at him and offered a little grooming time as the night had been winding down and young bucks and does had begun pairing off. He rather liked Abbie, and had gone off with her to his favorite shed. They had run their claws and teeth through each others fur, exchanging shy kisses, but that was the extent of any intimacy.

Pulling the bundle together, Bailey and his companions disembarked from the train and looked about the platform. A large deer stag in the uniform of an army Sergeant was waiting next to a sign indicating where the army enlistees were to gather for transport to the base on the edge of the city itself. At the other stops along the way, another twenty-four or so animals had joined the group from Bunnyburrow. Most appeared to be perhaps twenty years old. They were queued up into two ranks, and marched to a large truck that was waiting at the end of the platform.

Leonard was once again sitting a little apart from the other males on the bench in the back of the vehicle, keeping his spines to himself. Bailey shifted a little closer, not being too worried, since the stout shirt and coat seemed more than able to contain the barbs.

"So where about does your family live? Are they right here in the city?"

"Actually, they live just outside, a short way from the training camp. My uncle said that once we were done at the enlistment offices, I was to call him out at the house and either he or one of the family would pick me up." The porcupine looked out over the tailgate. "If we're lucky, maybe we could hitch a ride on one of these and save him the trip."

"You sure they won't mind you inviting me to stay? I don't want to put them out. Times are hard enough with the war and all." Bailey had always been self reliant, for the most part. Even in a large family, everyone had to pull their weight. Especially on a farm. From the time a kit could hold a tool or dish cloth, he or she was put to work, mostly to keep them out of trouble. The household was divided into work sections and set to tasks by the number, rotating from the gardens, to the laundry and kitchen. At breakfast each morning, Bonnie would rise from her place at the head table and call out the work schedule in her loudest, clearest voice.

"I'm sure it won't be a problem. My older cousins moved out of the house long ago. At worst we might have to trade off using an old camp cot in the room."

"All the same, I'll ask around about jobs when we're here in town. I'm pretty useful with my paws."

The truck pulled onto the base. As it drove to the main building, animals in uniforms were running well beaten paths, calling out cadence and being bellowed at by their drill instructors. At tables outside of Quonset huts, others were disassembling rifles and putting them back together while being timed. At a tower near the assembly area, young males jumped and rolled with complete packs on their backs, preparing for possibly being dropped behind enemy lines from gliders or troop planes.

When the truck came to a stop, Leonard and Bertie, who were sitting at the tailgate, pulled the pins and dropped it. Without being told, they hopped down and lined up, with Bailey right alongside them. The majority of the mammals automatically followed their example. Others milled around and generally got in the way.

The Sergeant clambered down from the cab and took note of what was going on.

"All right, lads, get it together." He waited until everyone had settled in. "In that door. Grab a clipboard and pen and fill out the forms. When you're done, I'll collect them and we'll get you all processed."

They climbed the steps and went through the large double doors. The forms had the standard list of questions about age, place of birth and occupation. There was a list of common ailments and conditions that might prevent an animal from serving. Having always been healthy, Bailey barely glanced at them. He hesitated before listing his age, but decided that honesty was probably his best bet, given the birth certificate in his pocket. If they decided not to take him, he would just go to another office and claim he had lost it, saying that he was twenty. Being tall and rather muscular for his age, he might just pull it off.

The Sergeant collected the completed forms and instructed everyone to take one of the hundred or so chairs in the large hall. There were already a number of males there already, having come in on earlier trains. One by one they were called by name and followed the doctors into examination cubicles separated by screens. When he heard the shout of "Hopps, Bailey" from down the row, he jumped to his feet and followed the young nurse and doctor into the cubicle, stripping down as ordered. The nurse, a rather pretty ewe, took his blood pressure. She rather looked like he suspected Dawn would in a few years. The doctor, an older badger with thick glasses listened carefully to his lungs and heart.

Declaring Bailey fully fit to serve, the doctor stamped his papers and handed them to him.

"Hold onto this copy and bring it with you when you get called up. See the serial number? That's you. Memorize it. Anybody asks who you are from now on, that's what you tell them, son." He was shown out by the nurse, who then called for the next mammal.

Bailey looked at the papers. Next to his name were the numbers 1121-599. He pocketed the documents and flung his bundle on his back. Bertie was already waiting by the doors and waved him over.

"Len just got called in for the poke and prod. I'm sure he'll be done in just a couple minutes. Doc's gonna have fun getting the stethoscope on his back to listen to his lungs." Just then there was a bit of yelp from a booth about halfway down the line. The buck and gopher just looked at each other. Standing joke was that, if nothing else, porcupines were always defensively armed. A skunk in a lab coat walked out shaking his paw. It wasn't actively bleeding or anything, and he looked more startled than upset. He shook it off and returned to his job.

"As long as I've got a few minutes, I think I'll see if I can find a local that might know of any place that might be willing to hire me for a short bit." Bailey wandered around the room for a time, but most of the animals were recruits that had been brought in by rail. The few locals were sympathetic to his situation, but were busy working and didn't really know if anyplace in particular was hiring. As Leonard was leaving his exam room (repeatedly apologizing to the doctor) Bailey gave up his search and rejoined him and Bertie. An MP at the door told them that there would be a truck leaving for the train station soon and they could go home until they got their orders.

"Are you taking the train back to Bunnyburrow, Bertie?"

"Yes. I promised my folks that I would be home this evening or tomorrow, depending on the train schedule."

"If I gave you a letter, could you possibly run it out to the farm for me? I really need to apologize to my Mum and Dad for running out on them like I did." He felt like a bit of a coward for not telling them face to face what he had planned to do. He just couldn't take seeing his mother break down, or the look on his father's face, knowing that this time he might not get his son back, as he had Virgil.

"You give it to me, and I'll see they get it."

Bailey borrowed a clip board and pen from the front desk.

Dear Mom and Dad,

I'm sorry that I ran off like I did. This war has gotten too big, and it isn't going to end soon. I don't even want to imagine what would happen to the family if the Axis made it across the channel and I didn't do something. I've found a place to stay here near the training camp. I'll write again as soon as I'm settled.

I know that by now you'll be asking questions down at the Home Guard office in town. Don't worry. I'll be okay. I am a Hopps after all.

Tell the family I love them, and that I'm doing this to keep them safe.

Your loving son,

Bailey

He folded the page tightly and gave it to the gopher.

"When the call comes up, we'll meet you here."

"Count on it." Bertie shook paws with his new friends and went out to find the mentioned truck.

"Well, I suppose we should go into town and see if we can't find a telephone to call my Uncle." Leonard said.

The pair walked out of the main gate, after showing the guard their papers. A number of males dressed in uniforms were going out for an evening in the pubs scattered in the neighborhood nearby. A few were loudly talking about how females just loved a mammal in uniform, and sometimes even more so out of it. They laughed at the crude joke. Bailey and Len just looked at each other and shook their heads. These had to be townies or big city males. Bailey had always been taught that he represented his family when he was out and about, and he had better darned well remember that. He knew that if he had behaved like those soldiers, his father would have had him out in the wood barn and blistered him below the tail. At sixteen, he still wasn't too old to have manners beaten into him.

It was a simple matter to find a payphone in a small pub just a block away from the camp. It was already crowded, despite it only being three in the afternoon. Len had to shout slightly to be heard above the din of soldiers singing and the clinking of pint mugs. He hung up the receiver and they both went back out onto the street.

"My uncle is still out at work in the lumber yard." The young male pulled his pack of gnaw sticks from his breast pocket and again offered one to Bailey. "My aunt said she would send somebody over in the small truck to get us."

As they leaned on a convenient railing, they chewed at their sticks and listened to the sounds of merriment coming from the pub. There was a sudden crash, and two males in uniform were ushered out by the rather large ox who had been tending the bar. The goat and pig had been arm wrestling on what had looked like a table full of empty mugs. The crash had most likely been the destruction of the glassware. The pair stumbled off together laughing and moved on down to the next pub on that side of the street.

"Promise me that if I ever get that stupid drunk you'll jab me with the longest, sharpest quill you've got?" Bailey stared after the inebriated duo.

"I don't see it happening, mate, but don't worry. I don't drink much myself, so I think we can keep an eye on each other." Len shook his head and followed the buck's gaze. "I think that's a part of the army experience that I'd just as soon take a pass on."

Very shortly, a small truck (relative to the army transport they had been in) pulled up to the curb. A short, young female porcupine in thick glasses was propped up on a pile of large books, and was operating the pedals which had blocks strapped to them. She looked at Bailey curiously.

"Hi, Lenny. Who's your friend with the big ears?"

"Now, Gemma, you know that isn't a polite thing to say. You been spending too much time in the bush with the brothers again?" Leonard opened the door and waved his companion in.

Gemma was perhaps all of three feet tall, with fur that varied in shades of black and grey. Her spines, those not covered by her work shirt and coveralls anyway, were black with white tips. She wore thick glasses, and still seemed to peer as if things were not quite in focus.

The girl grinned. "Maybe, Lenny. Mama says I need to spend more time learning to be a lady, but Pop has been short pawed, what with most of the males going into the service. I've been spending half my time out in the bush lots and the other half trying to keep the paperwork straight in the office." She looked at Bailey, giving him her right paw. "Since Lenny is too busy telling me off... Gemma Crowly."

Bailey took her paw and gave it a firm but gentle squeeze, feeling the callouses of a mammal used to hard work with tools. "Bailey Hopps."

Gemma gave him a wide grin. "Nice grip there. You spend much time with an ax or a saw? Pop really could use an extra paw around the place for a while." Suddenly she wasn't peering quite so much. It seemed that a good pawshake had solidified her opinion of him, and now her eyes were clear behind the lenses of her glasses.

Leonard slammed the door shut and put Bailey's bundle down at his feet, checking first to make sure the floor was relatively free of mud and wood chips. "Looks like you found that job, mate. She might only be fourteen, but Gemma here has been running the business behind her father for a while now. The school just couldn't keep up with her, and then the war started."

Gemma checked the gear lever next to her left knee, then honked the horn twice and stuck her right arm out of the window. She let out the clutch and put pressure on the gas pedal while cranking hard on the wheel. The truck lurched into the street, and she drove out past the guard house of the army camp. The road got rough, and still she managed the bouncing vehicle with skill. All the while she kept up an animated patter of conversation with her passengers. She inquired about her uncle and aunt in Bunnyburrow, and what kind of operation the Hopps family ran.

At last she slowed and, again reaching out of her window, signaled a left turn onto a lane under a sign that read "Swinedon Lumber". She bypassed the office building and a couple of large work areas, and pulled up in front of a midsize wood house on a stone foundation. She let the clutch out one last time and the engine chugged to a stop. They all piled out of the cab and the males followed her up the steps, once Bailey had again shouldered his belongings. She swung the door open and, carefully wiping her feet, and then taking her boots off for good measure, entered the front hallway.

"Mama, I'm back. Lenny brought a friend with him."

An older version of Gemma came from the back of the house. She had obviously been in the kitchen. She was dusting flour off of her hands with the bottom of her apron. She too, wore glasses, though the lenses were not as thick as her daughter's. She peered at Bailey for a mere moment before extending a paw. Her face was lit with a brilliant smile.

"A pleasure to have you here, young male. I'm Leonard's aunt Mildred. What would your name be?"

"Bailey, ma'am. Bailey Hopps."

"It's Mildred, dear. Though it is nice to see some manners for a change. Those army males in town are deplorable. I worry every time I have to send young Gemma in for something." She took the paw that Bailey had given her in return and pulled him into a warm hug. "If our Leonard took a liking to you, I'm sure you'll be just fine here with us for what time you have."

"Gemma's already offered him some work, Aunt Mildred." Len stepped forward and hugged his aunt tightly. "He was hoping you wouldn't mind boarding him for a while, until our orders to report in come through. I guess you already had that in mind."

"You wouldn't have brought him with you otherwise. The Crowly family has never turned a good mammal away, and we aren't going to start now. Gemma, you just show the nice bunny up to your brother James' room. Leonard, you'll be in Bill's room at the back. We put your trunk in there when it came in a couple days ago." With that settled, the female turned and went back to the kitchen. "When you're done with that, Gemma, go out to the yard and find your father. Supper will be ready in less than half an hour!", she shouted from down the hall.

The three went up a narrow set of stairs and Gemma guided Bailey to the left and a door at the end of the hall. She opened the door a bit wider and he put his bundle of blankets down on the bed. The room was not terribly large, with space for a bed against one wall, and a bureau next to the window with a wash basin and pitcher on it's top. There was a small mirror on the door. The blackout shade had been pushed aside and the window opened to allow a breeze to flow through to the hall. At night, a transom window above the door would allow a cross breeze while still letting the door be closed for privacy.

"My room is just on the other side of that wall.", Gemma said, pointing at the bed. "You need anything at all, you just knock twice." She winked at Bailey from behind her lenses.

Bailey blushed to the tips of his ears.

Leonard cleared his throat from the doorway. "Don't let her get to you, friend. She's been a flirt since she turned twelve and discovered that males don't have cooties." He stared at his young cousin. "Now, don't you pester the good male to death. Your mother will rap you sharp with that switch of hers!"

"Oh, Lenny, I'm just teasing a little. Besides, he's cute. And for your information, I gnawed that switch to a nubbin years ago." She scampered past Len, who playfully swatted her just above her tail. With a giggle, she was off down the stairs and putting her boots back on.

Mildred introduced Bailey to her husband, Sherman, when he came in the back door for supper. He was tall, for his species, and had hard muscles that made his clothing look rather tight. When the bunny offered his paw, he took it and squeezed, hard. Bailey just squeezed with an equal pressure and a smile on his muzzle.

"Yup, he'll do." He looked to his wife. "You know, with the lads moved out, it would be nice to keep this one. Respectful, polite and a grip like iron." He pulled his fingers apart in exaggerated slowness.

Gemma, who was washing up at the sink grinned at her father. "Told ya so, Pop. Too bad the army already has their claim on him."

Bailey was shown to a seat at the table. Leonard made a bit of a show of taking the seat next to him, glancing at his cousin. She pretended to pout for a moment, but then that irrepressible smile returned. Mildred brought a small bowl of steamed broccoli to the table and sat down on Bailey's left.

"The lad gave me some greens and turnips he had brought with him. They will be a nice addition to the supper table tomorrow night." Mildred dumped a bit more rice on his plate when he was about to pass the dish on. "Now you eat up. Sherman is going to work you hard tomorrow. You'll need all the fuel you can get. Besides, once the army gets hold of you, heaven knows when you'll see another decent meal."

Bailey reassured her that he and Leonard would be fed more than adequately when they reported to the base. After all, the army was buying up Hopps family produce almost as fast as it could be pulled from the soil. They were getting only the best.

Sherman had replied that only the senior officers would be likely to get anything fresh. Back in his father's day, during the Great War, lowly infantry were lucky if they got tinned food. Everything else, he'd been told repeatedly, was dried and had the taste of wood chips. Nutritionally adequate, but absolutely no flavor.

There was some discussion about the economy of the war, while Bailey and Gemma were clearing the table. (It was habit for the bunny to help as soon as everyone was finished eating back in the warren. Mildred had mildly protested, but sat down when he insisted.) The Crowly's had been supplying materials to the war effort, and been getting reasonable compensation, slightly above what market value had been before the war. The Hopps farm had been in a similar position for over a year. The raise in prices was offset by the difficulty of increased production with fewer paws. The regulations were quite strict as well, making the job more difficult.

Gemma, who was doing a lot of the book keeping, said that there were rumors of price gouging by some of the less scrupulous of the competition, and full price being demanded for inferior quality. She said this with a deep scowl on her face. For a moment she looked like a female twice her age. Her thick glasses gave her the appearance of a school teacher disapproving of a young animal's behavior. Swinedon Lumber would never stoop so low, she vowed. Her father looked at her with an air of bemused fondness.

"She sometimes forgets that she doesn't own the company... yet."

The family and their guest listened to the wireless for a while, and Gemma insisted that Bailey show her what kind of dance steps were popular in Bunnyburrow. A lot of the ones she knew were imports from the city of Zootopia, or had been taught to her by her parents. Bailey had obliged by teaching her a box step waltz that was peculiar to bunnies, and some of the faster step dances, though he insisted he was no match for his older brother Virgil or brother-in-law Edward Sward.

As it was getting late, the blackout shades were checked and everyone retired to their rooms. Bailey lay awake long into the night despite his exhaustion, having only had that nap on the train. The sheer enormity of what he had done was starting to hit him again. Now though, he had added images in his waking nightmares. Mildred and Gemma were being leered at by slavering predators as they were stripped and their quills forcibly yanked from their backs. The spines were being used to make nibs for pens, as Len and Sherman were forced to make wooden grips from what had been their own supply of wood, and being lashed with real leather whips if they didn't perform as expected.

At some point, the young male finally dropped into a restless sleep. He was awakened by somebody shaking him lightly and whispering his name. He rolled over and realized he must have been hitting the wall in his sleep. Gemma was wrapped in a flannel robe and was peering down at him, all tangled in his blanket.

"Bailey, are you alright. I heard you thumping on the wall, and you kept muttering names. Who are Belle and Dawn?"

It took a moment for Bailey to remember where he was and who was resting a paw on his arm. "I'm sorry I woke you, Gemma. I... heard some things I probably shouldn't have a couple days ago. Belle is my little sister and Dawn is my sister Judy's adopted daughter." Somehow, the nightmares spilled out of him.

The young female sat on the edge of the narrow single bed and just listened. She reached and held his paw when he explained Dawn's circumstances before coming into the Hopps clan, and her fear as both of her new parents were flying. With a comforting noise, she brushed the fur back on his forehead, and told him to go back to sleep, that he was doing what was needed to keep his nightmares from becoming reality. In his feverish exhaustion, he did go back to sleep. He took her belief in his actions with him, and had no further nightmares.

Rather than go back to her own room, Gemma knocked lightly on her cousin's door. Fortunately, Leonard was a light sleeper. In short order, she told him about Bailey's fears and nightmares. She was worried that he might get hurt trying too hard when training started. Len promised he would keep a close eye on his friend. He'd known that the young female had taken a liking to the bunny. Somehow, he had an ability to make animals like and care about him. It was a reflection of his own warmth and sincerity. It was a Hopps family trait, from the early colonial days of Bunnyburrow to the present.

Despite the blackout shade, Bailey was up with the dawn. Generations of farming will breed that into an animal. Apparently his hosts were no strangers to early morning, as, on getting out of the bed, he found the pitcher on the dresser had been recently filled with warm water so that he could wash up. He did just that, and then brushed out his fur. He took the basin and pitcher down the stairs with him, and into the kitchen, where Mildred was just putting the finishing touches on breakfast.

"Good morning, young male. Just dump that basin into the barrel by the door back there, and come sit." He did as he was told and soon enough he was joined by the rest of the Crowly family. Gemma was actually wearing a skirt that came down just below her knees that morning, and a white blouse with short sleeves. She would be working in the front office, now that there was an extra set of paws to help out in the wood lots. The way she was fussing with the skirt, she didn't seem too happy about the change.

After a very filling breakfast of oatmeal with a smattering of blueberries, Sherman led Bailey out to where the crew that would be going out into the wood lots met. They seemed a rather dour group, mostly older males that had not been acceptable for military purposes, but still able bodied. Fortunately, most seemed to be experienced with forestry. Among them were a few of the "land girls", young females between sixteen and twenty-two that had taken up as lumber-jills when the workforce had been halved by the war effort. The males seemed to be rather condescending to them. In Bailey's experience from the farm, he knew that it was quite probable that they might well be as good at the job or better than some of the grumblers.

It was well into the day when Gemma pulled up in the same small truck that she had driven to Swinedon the day before. She was bringing the crew a lunch with thermoses of hot tea. The workers were putting down their tools and wandering over to the truck as Bailey was lopping branches from a felled tree. He looked up when Gemma called to him and waved, a basket in her left paw.

As she was walking toward him, there was a rustle in the loose debris, and an adder started to quickly slither from its hiding space. Gemma only saw it as it was coiling to strike at her foot. Suddenly, Bailey was staring into the eye of the serpent, or rather, at its neck. Focusing his sight on it, he took a deep breath and raised his hatchet. As he flung the tool, he let the breath out, almost as if blowing it where he wanted it. The sharp blade thudded into the ground, severing the reptiles head from its body. It was all over before anyone other than the bunny and the young porcupine could register what had happened.

Sherman ran to his daughters side, prepared to beat the buck to death for almost killing her. As he approached, she pointed at her feet, and he saw the black snake. He dropped to his knees.

"How?"

"I saw her in danger. I just... did it. I've been throwing axes and hatchets since I could hold one. It's a practice we have in my family. My dad and uncles taught me. I'll teach my kids. I never realized just how important it would be." Bailey was still looking at the hatchet buried in the soil.

Supper that night was rather awkward. Gemma kept giving him looks, and little sighs would escape her lips. Leonard, who had been told the tale repeatedly, with so many embellishments that Bailey had needed to correct her several times, just shrugged.

"She'll get over it, son." Mildred had told him while they were making tea. "It's just a mild case of hero worship. She misses her older brothers, since they moved out of the house. You're the first unrelated male close to her own age she's spent time with since leaving school."

"It's just embarrassing."

"You did what you knew needed to be done. That's why you enlisted. You will be doing things that are hard, dangerous and... not pleasant. It says a lot about how you were raised and who you are." She turned him to look into his eyes, having to crane her neck a bit. "It's all well and good that you aren't a bragger. Just know that doing what you have to do as well as you can is important."

That night, while he slept, Bailey again dreamed of his loved ones in danger. This time though, he had a weapon in his hand. Every axis predator that made a move against the intended victims was coolly and cleanly dispatched. He mourned the death of a fellow animal, but celebrated the lives that would not be taken by mammals turned into monsters.

XX

With a slow, steady exhale, Pop-pop brought his arm forward. At just the right point in its arc, he released the sharp hatchet. It tumbled once in the air and embedded itself with a very satisfactory thump. Directly in the center, where the doe had put her ax head. He watched with deeply focused vision for a moment.

He walked to the log face and tugged the tool from the wood. "Another snake dead."

From behind him he heard a soft clapping. The young doe from earlier had come out to retrieve her hat, which she had left behind when going in for tea. "Great throw, Pop-pop. It's easy to see why Dad always compares his throws to yours."

"You are a good throw yourself there, young lady. It's like my father told me, hard work and clear thinking are everything. You never know when you will need the skill and the calm mind to use it." Once again he saw the adder from his younger days, poised to strike at a young female. "Remember that, and you will do well in life."

Notes

Just a couple of notes.

I've been writing along casually, and forgot that this story is set in a universe where the "people" are using base eight math. (Like most animated figures, they have eight digits on their paws, for the most part.) This would mean the the numbering sequence goes like this: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. From there you go straight to: 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 15, 16, 17 and 20. Don't worry, it's just like base ten... if you're missing two fingers. (See "New Math" by Tom Leher on YouTube)

I've made a few blunders, referring to the age of eight-teen, and the like, while still mentioning octades, in place of decades. In future, I will try to remember to write in base eight. (Just wait until we get into military time in that base. You think I'm confusing things NOW!)

Bailey's ability with an ax and/or hatchet comes from EscherVox "Heart of the Dream." It's an excellent story. And maybe we can convince Selaxes to repost his "Sounds of the Heart".