Young Ruffie Lion sets out to find his kidnapped mother in Almost Africa.
| Did you ever try to see that fuzzy something moving alongside your head, way back where you can almost see it? No matter how quickly you turn, there's nothing. There is a land out there, almost seen but not quite, where things are the same as in front of you, but only almost.
You think you might be hearing someone talking softly, you're almost sure. The only one present is your goldfish, and he's ignoring you. You can almost make out what that something is saying, almost.
In that almost place, there are plants and animals that are almost like the ones you know, but only almost.
There are important differences in Almost Land. For one thing, the animals are much smarter in many ways. They talk among themselves and some can even talk to humans. It's the same thing here, but only almost. Do you sometimes get the feeling that your cat is trying to talk to you and you can almost understand, well ... almost?
Maybe you would be a tad smarter if you were in Almost Land? And that place is almost there, out of the corner of your eye ... almost.
For example, take the family of Lena and Larry Lion, in Almost Africa....
"Put down that book and get your butt back to town," Lena growled at her husband as she checked out the refrigerator. "We're about out'a Joe, an you gotta go shopping."
"Grwww," Larry replied, putting a stray human finger bone in his copy of "Pleasing your Mate" before closing and laying it down on a coffee table. The king of the jungle slowly rose to all four legs. Reaching back to scratch his butt with one paw, he replied, "Darn, but that Joe was good, though. Especially the liver. Pickled liver makes me feel nice all over."
A week before, Joseph M'tomba, the town drunk, had been slow getting under cover when Larry Lion came to town to shop. The lion had been looking for food to feed his family. Faster in lifting his elbow than his feet, poor Joe ended up dining with the lion family.
At that moment, the last member of the family, a six-month-old cub named Ruffie, was a little distance away playing "Tarzan" in the bushes. Although he tried, he couldn't swing on any of the branches. He tried jumping, but they would either break or bend down to the ground. Tarzan never had that problem. But, then, Tarzan did have opposable thumbs.
Hearing a growl from his daddy, Ruffie stopped, panting, to see him plodding off into the distance.
Suddenly, there was loud banging, booming, and blamming, as his daddy fell down on the ground. Mama Lena ran out of the house and over to Ruffie.
"Your Daddy's hurt," she told Ruffie. "Now, no matter what happens, you stay out of the way. Don't you dare to leave these bushes. You hear me?"
Ruffie nodded, watching humans surrounding his father. He was very frightened, seeing his mama running at the humans, screaming curses as she ran.
She knocked three humans down before they captured her, putting her in a cage and hauling them both away.
Although the humans walked around and jnside their home, stealing the television and microwave, Ruffie obeyed his mama and stayed hidden in the bushes. He did almost come out to fight when one of the humans stole his favorite Oscar Rat novels.
Ruffie stayed in the bushes while the humans left, then all night, shivering alone from both fear and loneliness. Just as he became hungry enough to sneak back home, the hyenas came. His fear returned as he heard them laughing and plundering the rest of their valuables. He was a big guy for his age, but knew he couldn't fight off all those thieves by himself. Not even the real Tarzan could do that.
The next morning, after a restless night in the shrubbery, kept awake by fear, cold, and because he was used to his own bed in his own room, Ruffie finally went back to what had formerly been a nice comfortable house. First, though, he lay in the bushes for a few more hours to make sure they had all gone.
He found his home torn up. Bits of food were scattered all over the kitchen and even the couch torn up in the living room. Hyenas aren't very neat, especially with other people's property. His own room was missing his bed with his comic book collection torn and scattered around the room, hyena pee all over everything.
Tears came to Ruffie's eyes as he entered his parents' room. He could still smell his mama, even over the stink of hyena poop. Ruffie sniffed his mama's torn nightgown, then lay alone in the corner, crying for her to return.
"I gotta find Mama," he cried, wiping his snout. "I just gotta."
Ruffie woke up later, hungry and sad. He looked around his mama's room. It seemed strange, with clothing thrown around and dresser drawers emptied onto the floor, somehow not familiar anymore, as though it ... it ... it was someone else's house.
He padded downstairs, hearing his claws clicking on the stairs. Ruffie normally made a game of it, clicking away like a tap-dancer to Elvis Presley tunes in his head. Today ... well, they were only partially unsheathed claws, making sounds that would make his mother angry because fingernails scratched the wooden steps. And he didn't care.
At the thought, he had to stop, grabbing the railing with one paw and wiping his eyes with the other. He'd suddenly realized his mother wasn't there to punish him any more.
A growl from his tummy reminded the youngster that he'd better find something to eat, and then begin a quest to find his parents. Ruffie had little hope for his daddy. Being a lion, he had already seen plenty of death in his few short months. And the way Daddy had fallen showed Ruffie that he probably wasn't gonna get up again.
"But I'll find Mama," he growled out loud, to himself. "You just see if I don't."
The young lion searched the remains of his kitchen, looking for something to eat for breakfast. All the remaining Joe had been eaten by the hyenas, but he found a spilled pile of "Klibbles and Bites" breakfast cereal. There was plenty of milk, since hyenas didn't like health foods, so he fixed himself a big bowl of cereal.
Feeling a little better, Ruffie set out into the vast Almost African plains, seeking his mama.
At the top of a small hill, he turned around for a last look at his childhood home before leaving it, and his childhood, behind. With misty eyes, the lion cub stepped off the slope and padded resolutely down the other side.
Being young and inexperienced, Ruffie hadn't thought to bring anything with him but his own fur. For days and endless nights he wandered toward the sunset. By day, the sun beat down on his shaggy head, while cold Almost African winds froze him at night.
Ruffie was thirsty most of the time while living on roots and bugs. Which was how he had his first emergency.
Hungry and thirsty, Ruffie saw a line of trees. Desperately seeking shade, he lost any caution he might have had as he hurried toward them. Pausing inside the tree-line, he could see, dimly and through thick bushes, a flowing stream in the distance.
Ruffie ran down a slope and right into very thick berry bushes. At first, it was easy going, but soon became harder as vines and thorns slowed him down. He was finally forced to stop, less than four-feet from the other side. His fur was caught in tough thorny bushes while his legs were tangled in vines. The poor lion couldn't move an inch, yet was only a few feet from life-giving water.
"Grrrrrrowwwwllll," he cried, but growling did no good. It didn't scare the vines one whit. Not even half a whit. Almost African berry bushes were selfish and weren't afraid of lions, not at all. They held on tightly. He struggled until he was too tired to fight anymore, and hung limply, only one paw on the ground. Eventually, the small lion, tired from his ordeal, ate all the berries he could reach and dozed off into a restless slumber.
"That's a funny way to sleep."
Ruffie shook his weary head, eyes opening to find he was only inches from a pair of large orbs, looking back at him. It was a deer, a young one. Ruffie had never met a deer, though he had seen a picture in one of his mama's cookbooks.
"Isn't that uncomfortable? Or are you one of those wood mites my mother warned me about?" the deer asked.
"Get me out of here, please," Ruffie begged. In his condition, even a lion would beg.
"Ha. So you can eat me, I suppose? Mother warned me about you mites. You can stay there for all I care."
"I'm not a mite. I'm a lion ... and I won't eat you. I promise."
"You're a mite. Mites grow on trees and bushes. And you're supposed to give me three wishes when I find you." The deer looked around, then shook her head. "And you don't look like a lion to me."
"Well, I am a lion."
"Prove it. Do something a lion does."
"Like what? I'm not an adult. I don't know what lions do."
"They growl real scary. Can you do that? I don't think wood mites can growl very good at all."
Ruffie took a deep breath and growled one of the worst curses he'd ever heard his Daddy roar. It shook treetops and knocked the deer back three feet.
"Well, I guess you are a lion, but lions still eat deer. I better get a drink and leave. Maybe I can bring you some water? Where's your canteen?"
"I don't have one."
"Well, you can have a drink from mine, but don't bite me, okay?"
"Yes ... I mean no, I won't bite you."
Ruffie waited until the deer -- when she turned to go to the stream he could see it was a female--drank and filled her canteen with water, bringing it back to him. He wished she'd hurry, since he was very thirsty.
The doe came back and held the canteen to his lips, pouring it past sharp teeth. Then she sat down next to the confining bushes and dipped her head to eat tender grass at the edge.
"Come on, see if you can get me loose. I promise I won't eat you," Ruffie begged.
She shook her head, smiling as she swallowed.
"Lions eat deer, my Mama says. And I'm not stupid."
"My name's Ruffie. I don't think I know you well enough to call you dear," he said, trying to get on her good side.
"Oh, I forgot. My name's Doris, Doris Deerovika. My grandfather came all the way down from Almost Russia when he was a kid."
"Is that a long way? I never been to school yet."
"Or you're just stupid. Of course it's a long way from Almost Africa. Daddy says he started off with legs eight-feet tall, and they were worn down to only two-feet by the time he got here. Yes, a long, long way."
"I'm on a long trip too. Humans captured my Mama and I have to find her."
"It sounds like a long quest. Humans are everywhere in the world, places deer and lions can't go. They'd eat both of us. Well, now don't take me wrong ... Ruffie, but they've probably already eaten your mama. I hear they do that sometimes." She grinned, still chewing, and added, "And it doesn't look like you're going to go anywhere, stuck like you are."
"I'm hungry too," he said, watching her eat a clump of berries.
"Which is why I'm not letting you loose. Not till I get a long way from here."
"If you get a long way from here, how will you get me loose?"
"Oh. I'm a smart deer, I'll think of something. I can tie one end of a vine to that bush right there, and carry the other end with me, then jerk it when I get way over there." She pointed a hoof into the distance.
"If you try that, you'll have to get real close to tie it and maybe I can bite you." He make a fake growl.
They sat in silence, both trying to figure out what to do. Doris didn't really want to leave him like that, and Ruffie didn't really want to bite her. His parents had always done the hunting, not him, and he didn't know if he could bite a friend, much less eat her.
"I wish I could go on a quest, like you," Doris finally broke the silence, a plan forming in her young mind, "but a deer, alone on the veldt, wouldn't stand a chance. The first lio ... tiger that saw me would eat me." She hung her head. "Mama says before long though, I'll have to leave home. That I'm getting big enough to go my own way and get married. I don't want to get married. There's no adventure in getting married and having my own children."
"Then why not go with me? We could both look for my Mama, and I wouldn't eat you. Not at all. We're friends, and friends don't eat friends."
She raised her head and looked carefully at Ruffie, who in turn made sure he kept his mouth shut. Finally, Doris made up her mind. She reached delicately over to him, nibbling on and pulling bushes and vines aside, careful to stay away from his sharp teeth. It took a while and made her gums sore, but she loosened the vines enough so he could get out, leaving a lot of fur on the brambles and bushes.
Well, as hungry as he was, she did smell sweet and delicious to Ruffie, but he remembered his promise. A little later, while running ahead, Doris found a dead possum, which Ruffie was very glad to eat, though he wished he had his ketchup with him. The food eased his mind, as well as his stomach. He wasn't about to tell Doris about the deer his father had once caught. And, after all, "As king of the jungle, a lion always has to keep his promises," his mother had told him often. Ruffie sat on the grass, possum bones lying around him, and cried at her memory.
Days later, while pushing their way through somewhat familiar berry bushes, a stern voice came down from on high.
"When are you guys gonna leave my berries alone," it said. "You already ate half'a them."
The two weary travelers looked up to see a raven glaring down from a tree limb.
"We did?" Doris asked, almost sheepishly.
"Of course you did. Don't you even remember, stupid animals? I swear, you guys can be so darned stupid." The raven sneered.
"We're on a quest," she called up to the raven, "to find Ruffie's mother."
"You won't find her that way, walking in circles," the raven said, laughing, "unless she's walking in circles too?"
"Oh, yeah?" Doris looked around. The area did look familiar.
"I suppose you could do better?" Ruffie asked.
"Who couldn't? Nobody could do worse." The raven laughed harder, her cackling bouncing off the trees.
"Then why don't you help us?" Doris asked.
"Why should I? It's fun watching you screw up. You guys always screw up, you know? You're not as smart as us guys."
"If you're that smart, which way should we go?" from Ruffie, getting his fur worked up with anger.
"Depends on where you want to go, idiots."
"I dunno," Ruffie had to admit. "Where the humans are, I guess. I gotta find my Mama. The humans have her."
"Pick any direction, they're everywhere," the bird said, ruffling her feathers, "everywhere at all."
"Well, have you seen any in, say, the past week?" Doris asked, "or are you too blind to have noticed."
"Blind! Blind? Me? I see everything. I fly so high I can sit on the moon and rest on my way to fly around the sun. That's how much I see." The raven blustered while jumping around on the limb. "I fly so high I can peck holes in the heavens, holes that you call stars."
"Yeah, yeah, but did you see any humans a week ago?" Doris demanded.
"I not only saw them, I counted them. One, two, three ... many. I even followed them to the city, where they went into a building there, a big one yet. One that has a lot of you guys inside, making all your idiotic noises." She continued, "Why can't you talk gooder, like us ravens?"
"Can you guide us there?" Ruffie asked.
"Guide you? Do I look like a slave? I'm a free bird, free to ride the aimless breeze...."
"But free to show us, too." Doris turned to Ruffie and said, in a loud whisper, "That bird's a liar. She's too stupid to guide us."
"Stupid? An animal like you calling ME stupid? I'll prove it to you. I'm the smartest bird in the world, much smarter than any land animal. You, a deer, calling ME stupid?"
She stomped along the limb, feathers flying loose in her rage. Settling down to a low mumble, the raven ordered, "follow me if you can," and took off, flying west. Grinning, the other two followed.
"Awwwwwk. Awwwwk. Come on, you slowpokes. What's taking you so long?" the raven, aptly named Ravena, buzzed around their heads as the two, lion and deer, trudged up a high, grass-covered hillside.
They'd been walking for many hours. Ruffie panted heavily as he tried for just a little more effort, just one more step toward the top of a slope illuminated by a setting sun.
Even Doris was stumbling, long front legs almost doubled at the steep incline. Deer were designed for level ground, she thought, eyes on the summit.
Ravena wasn't even winded, drifting back and forth on hidden air currents, only giving an occasional flutter to keep herself elevated.
"Finally," Ruffie said, panting while he stood on top of the slope.
At the sound of a low "Wheeeee," he turned to see Doris coming up beside him.
They stood on a higher plain, looking the same except that the greenery had somehow been stripped. Broken tree branches dotted the area, trampled by someone or something. Bushes, half eaten, littered the landscape. Trees were bent double. It looked like a storm had hit.
"What happened here?" Doris called to their airborne companion, only to get a loud cackle in return.
"How the heck do you think I know?" Ravena replied. "Whatever it was, it happened a long time ago -- like yesterday." She flapped down to stand on a limb next to her companions, "I can't be everywhere at once, you idiots."
"So you don't know everything, is that it?" Doris asked with a snicker.
"I simply wasn't interested. I don't spend all my time watching you guys, you know? I do a lot of deep thinking while I fly."
"Sure you do, like how to find bugs. Ugggh, eating bugs."
"Bugs are good for you. Better that plain old grass. Insects come in many flavors, grass comes in only one -- dirt." Ravena laughed at the thought of eating dirt filtered up a green stem, instead of nice juicy bugs.
"So does grass, you should try it someti--"
"You two cut it out," Ruffie interrupted, "while we decide what to do now."
"Go ahead, of course, ahead. Can't you figure anything out?" Ravena asked. "What would you do without me, anyway."
"Then let's go ahead. We have to find a place to stay tonight," Ruffie said, "Someplace with water and shelter."
"Please, Ravena. I'm tired," Doris pleaded.
"It's about time you asked me nice," Ravena chirped. "I see a place over there, to the right. Come on, and don't try to slow me down."
She flew, straight as an arrow, toward a distant grove of almost apple trees.
When they staggered to the grove, the companions found the trees were at the edge of an abandoned human stone quarry, with solid cliffs on two sides and small piles of sorted and unsorted rocks lying around. Luckily, they had come from one of the other directions, avoiding steep drop-offs.
On the way, Ruffie found a dead hyena, trampled by whatever had decimated the veldt. He would take pleasure in eating one of those animals, the same type that had torn up his home. He was, however, tired of such roadkill. Ruffie knew that sooner or later he would have to learn to kill his own meals -- and didn't like the idea. He'd rather find his Mama and let her do it for him.
As they approached the trees, the two land animals heard a great deal of cursing and hurried to see what was annoying their airborne companion.
"You don't own the place. Wait until my lion gets here and he'll kick your butt," they could hear Ravena cursing. "You better start running if you know what's good for you."
"Duh, yeah? You say, you stupid bird. And I ain't afraid'a no lions. Come on down here an fight. I dares you."
"You better hope I don't. I've licked bigger guys than you. Shoo, shoo, get out of here."
"Uh, make me, huh? You just make me. Can't do it, can't do it, can't - duh - do it, can you?"
When Ruffie and Doris came upon the altercation, they saw Ravena, high on a branch, trading insults with a young rhinoceros. It had its head raised, waving a stubby horn at the bird, one hoof stomping the ground.
Ruffie growled his most horrifying growl, which, seeing as it showed a bit of fearful whining, wasn't really much, as he ran over to the would-be combatants.
Doris, more sensible, trotted up, to stay a good bite farther away.
"Hey. Stop it," Doris yelled. "What's going on here?"
"This big idiot says he'll eat me. ME. He thinks he can kick MY butt, the big oaf," Ravena tried to explain.
"Can you shut up this bumblebee?" the rhino asked, staring at his adversary. "It annoys me."
"Bumblebee? You bumbling idiot. I'll show you a bumblebee," Ravena replied, "I'll come down there and--"
"Please, please, Ravena. He doesn't mean it. Do you? What is your name?"
"Duh, let me think ... Homer. Yes, Homer. That's what they call me."
"Is it all right with you if we spend the night here, Homer?" Doris asked, humbly, "We promise not to make a mess, and we'll leave first thing in the morning?"
"Duh, I guess so, since you ask so nice, Miss Deer. I don't mind nice people keeping me company." He looked down at the ground, seemingly depressed. "'Sides, it ain't my home, anyways." The rhino shook his head, sadly. "I'm lost. My herd came through here yesterday. I -- I -- I stopped to eat a snack and fell asleep. Wh -- When I woke up, they was gone ... gone without me." Homer rubbed his eyes against the tree, shaking it and leaving a wet spot -- which started Ravena into another spate of cursing.
Doris couldn't help it. She felt safer with the large Homer around, that and a raven that could warn them of trouble. To a deer, it was instinctive to distrust a lion. Even a kindly-acting one like Ruffie.
"What're you thinking about?" Ruffie asked, as though reading her mind.
"Uh, uh, how nice it is here ... with such pleasant companions," she replied, feeling a little ashamed of her thoughts.
"Don't you want to go back to your herd?" he asked, lying down beside her. "It's still not too late. Maybe Ravena would guide you?"
"I don't think so, Ruffie. Back there, I'm nothing but another doe. I wouldn't have any adventures except when lio.... When meat-eaters attacked. Even then, we can usually outrun them.
"Then, some big guys would bump heads to fight over me, as though I'd be impressed. Having a harder head than the next fellow is no criteria in being a better husband.
"And then, and then the one with the hardest skull would take me, put me in a herd with a lot of other does, and make me into a baby factory. Some future."
"But you'd have more security with the herd," he reminded her.
"Oh, yeah, until I get too old to run fast. Then a lio ... tiger or something will eat me. I'd rather have some adventures while I can. Maybe," she said, thrusting a hoof out at a steep angle, "I could learn some of that karate stuff I read about in a human magazine? All I can do now is throw a few stones."
Ruffie was young and naive, but not stupid. He caught the lapses in speech.
"Don't worry, Doris. I'd never eat you. You're a friend, and I don't ever eat friends." He patted her with a sheathed paw.
"Not even if you were starving and we were on a desert island togeth--"
"Will you two idiots shut up so a bird can catch a few winks," came from the tree above them.
Doris and Ruffie shut up, moving close together for warmth. They knew they would have a long day of walking coming up in the morning.
It was morning, Ruffie saw as he woke alone. He'd been woken by a steady "thump," "thump," "thumping," from somewhere beyond the trees. Rising and stretching, the young lion padded over that way.
He saw Homer with Ravena sitting on his shoulder, both watching Doris throwing stones at a bush halfway up one cliff. Even as Ruffie watched, Doris dipped her head like a metronome, picking up a rock in her mouth and launching it at the bush. Every one seemed to hit the target, knocking leaves and branches from the suffering vegetation.
When she was finished, Homer grunted and Ravena cheered. Ruffie only stood there, unbelieving.
Doris turned and grinned.
"I can do it with sticks, too," she told them. Seeing Ruffie, she trotted over, seemingly proud of her performance.
"Where did you learn to do that?" Ruffie asked. "I never saw anyone throw like that before."
"Well," Doris told him, with a shake of her head, "a gal's gotta protect herself." She looked around. "Actually, I was raised around a lot of rocks and found I was good at throwing them. Since I couldn't find anyone to teach me karate, I practiced and practiced until I got better with stones. I figured that if some ... tiger ... attacked me, I could at least make it hard for him to eat me if I knocked out his teeth."
Ruffie waited until she turned back to Homer, before shuddering.
With Ravena guiding them, the four traveled for several more days, skirting any humans the raven happened to see. They did, however, come upon more and more signs of humanity, such as small roads and cultivated fields.
Homer, Doris, and Ravena enjoyed a wealth of food, as did Ruffie from roadkill along the roads, as well as sharing bugs with Ravena. He had never hunted for himself and didn't want to make Doris nervous by starting the practice. So Ruffie had to keep his distance from rabbits and small game. It wasn't hard, since the game felt the same about him.
"There it is, up ahead," Ravena told them one afternoon. "I don't see any of those stupid humans, either," she chattered at them. "Hurry up, you stupes. I told you I could do it, yes I did. I told you." The raven stopped a moment to flutter her feathers. "Hurry up. Let's go ... slowpokes."
She tried to peck Homer on the butt, which only made the rhino angry, him trying to swat her with his tail.
When the raven flew toward Doris, the deer picked up a rock and mumbled around it, "Don't you dare. I'm a lady."
In minutes, they came to a long low building made of concrete blocks. One large door in back was open wide.
"I'll look inside," Ruffie told the others. "You wait here. I don't smell Mama, though. But there are, or were, a lot of frightened people here. I can smell the fear."
Ruffie tried to look brave as he slowly padded up an incline toward the open doorway. He had no way to know that it was a human loading ramp. At the top, the lion cub had to stand on his back legs to see over a wall where trucks backed up for loading, and into the building.
The inside was a large open space, a cluster of large cages along one wall and racks of smaller ones along another. In the rear were small doorways and a few interior windows to smaller rooms. Nobody seemed to be around, at least that he could see.
Ruffie scrambled up and into the building, back legs scratching for toeholds in the concrete. Once inside, he crept along a wall, watching for signs of people or humans. On the way around the large cages, a dozen of them, he looked in to see they were all dirty, as though they'd been occupied. Things like magazines, dirty sheets, and cigarette butts were lying around inside.
In front of the tenth cage, he smelled his mother. The door was open, so he padded inside, sniffing as he went. In one corner he saw and smelled his mother's droppings. He was elated because she had been inside, but saddened because she wasn't still there. There was no sign of his father. Well, Ruffie sighed. He didn't really expect it. He thought his father was dead.
After circling the room, and finding nobody, he called to Ravena, who was waiting at the entrance.
"Might as well get everyone inside," Ruffie growled. "At least we can spend the night here."
As Ravena left, Ruffie lay down next to his mother's droppings, tears coming to his eyes as he wondered what he could do next. He had to find her, Ruffie thought, even though he had no idea where. She could be anywhere by then. Ruffie sniffled, trying to hold in his grief.
"Did you find her? You didn't, did you?" Doris said, trotting up to the silent lion. "Awwww, that's too bad. We can't give up. She must be somewhere around here. I'll look." She trotted away to inspect the offices.
Homer had trouble squeezing inside past the entrance, but finally made it, with the loud encouragement of a cursing raven. Whenever he felt like giving up, Ravena would swear at him and pull his ear or peck his butt. It was less painful for the rhinoceros to keep trying, than to give up. With skinned knees, he finally made his way inside.
One of the smaller rooms was a real find, since it contained large sacks of food, some that even big cats could eat. Whoever owned the place must have been feeding a lot of different kinds of people, Doris thought, munching on yummy grain. There were also a couple of troughs still full of water. A little stagnant, but still drinkable.
"Duh, let's stay awhile, huh?" Homer asked. "An, maybe an rest up, uh? We's gonna find your mama, Ruffie. Don't worry you none 'bout that."
Ruffie felt better in the morning, after a nice sleep on a straw pad he'd found -- actually a human mattress -- a full stomach, and a little time. He still, however, had no idea where to search. It seemed like a dead-end to the saddened lion cub.
As on that earlier morning, Ruffie woke to the sound of thumping. Doris had been pleased to find a large cache of human kitchen knives, all stacked neatly in a box with the lid loose. She was in one of the smaller rooms, throwing knives at a rough circle Homer drew on one of the warehouse walls, a good forty or fifty feet away and through the small doorway.
Ravena cheered the doe as she made circles and squares of blades, sunk into a plywood inner wall.
Now, those things are worse than stones, Ruffie thought. They could really hurt a guy.
"Bet you can't hit this wooden crate, Doris?" Ravena called, flying above the object. Ravena could see that, from Doris' angle through the small doorway, it would be a difficult shot.
"No problem. Get out of the way," Doris whinnied, laughing while setting a knife loose. "Thunk," it went, into an edge of the crate.
"Hey! Cut it out, out there," came a squeaking cry from inside the box.
Ravena fluttered away and Doris trotted from the smaller room, just as a large rat squeezed out of the crate through a hole in the back.
"Isn't it bad enough that you guys invade my building? Do you have to tear it apart. I've been writing the lease up for you, and ain't even done yet."
"Lease! Your building! What you taking about, rat?" Doris asked.
"Duh, yeah, what she said," from Homer.
"Why for your lease, what else? You seem to be moving in, eating my food, playing with my knives. Do you think that's all for free?" the rat blustered, waving a small cigar around in one hand while holding a ballpoint pen in the other. "I'll call the cops."
"Uh, sorry, Mr. Rat," Doris said, trying to placate the rodent. "What do you charge?"
"One pepperoni pizza a day, per occupant," the rat said, "plus a five pizza deposit, refundable in crusts as you leave."
"How did you get to own this human building, Mr. Rat?" Ruffie asked, coming over, sensing a welcome break from his grief.
"Well, when the previous owners were arrested they said I could have it," the rat told them, somewhat proudly. He looked up at Ruffie. He was small for a lion, the rodent knew but those sharp feline teeth were still imposing to a rat.
"Uh, maybe I can give you a break, like a free first night, but you have to be gone by ten a.m. checkout time?" the rat suggested.
"What were they arrested for, Mr. Rat?" Doris asked, gently. "And what happened to all the people in the cages?"
"I'll sell you that information for a--"
"Grrrrrrrrr," Ruffie advanced, baring his teeth.
"... for nothing, nothing at all, only good will to prospective customers," the rat finished, quivering against the crate.
"Well, idiot, or do I sic my lion on you?" Ravena asked, fluttering to stay at one spot in front of the rodent.
"I feel generous. You guys can pay me later, okay?" the rat asked them, looking dubiously at Ruffie, who was towering over him, glaring down with angry eyes. "Can any of you read human?"
"I can," said Doris. "So don't try to screw us."
The others shook their heads or muttered that they couldn't, which brightened up the rat's grin. Being a city rat, of course he could read and write. He figured he could still make a profit out of the country hicks.
"What happened," he told them, "was that the humans here, the previous owners you understand, were running a people smuggling racket. They'd capture people out in the bush and sell them to zoos and for pets."
"And what about my Mama?" Ruffie growled. "I know she was here?"
"There were a couple of lions here a few days ago," the rat admitted. "One was all bandaged up, with two broken legs, and the other one was, I think, a female." He paused. "But they were shipped out in a truck."
"My Mama," Ruffie growled loudly. "Where did they go? Tell me or I'll bite you, hard."
"Duh, yeah, an I'll stomp on you, too," Homer stomped a foot on the concrete floor.
"I think you'd better tell us, rat," Doris said, sweetly, blinking doe eyes at him.
"Uh, I dunno, but they did leave a lot of papers in the office. Maybe I can find out." the fearful rat looked up at eight angry eyes. "Uh, over there, that door. Okay, uh, follow me, okay?" He cautiously slid along the crate, expecting any moment to be stomped or bitten. Clearing the box, the rat slowly ambled, backwards, toward one of the offices, the others keeping pace. Although Mr. Rat would have liked to run, he knew better.
Homer couldn't fit through the door, but the others followed Mr. Rat into the office.
The place was a mess, papers scattered all over. Although the police had taken certain books and records, they hadn't packed every piece of paper and soda bottle.
The nervous rat and Doris Deer began sorting and reading, looking for any indication as to where the lions had been sent.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, two humans were sitting in the office of a small zoo, and talking.
"Now look, Sweetie, you have to do something. The place is not only bankrupt, but in debt to the bank," Mr. Samuels, an accountant, advised his client, Sweetiepie Goodie. "The only reason the bank hasn't foreclosed is that they can't find a buyer yet and don't want to be stuck with a zoo and a bunch of animals to feed." He leafed through official bank paperwork and continued, "Sooner or later, they'll have to do something with it."
"But, what can I do, Mr. Samuels?" the woman asked, slumped down in her chair.
She had, only a month before, inherited the business from her uncle. Now she was not only stuck with a useless property, one deep in debt, but with a dozen formerly wild animals. The only other assets she had were a stock of frozen and dried food for them, that supply going down every day with very little money coming in to replace it.
"You could sell that lovesick rhinoceros?" Mr. Samuels told her. "Her constant whining is driving your few customers away. And those two new lions your uncle bought. Jeez. One has two legs in splints and can't walk, and the other hides from the customers, crying almost as much as the rhino." He shook his head, continuing, "All that despondent noise drives away any paying customers you're lucky enough to lure in here. People pay money to enjoy themselves, not listen to sad animals crying and moaning. You need friendly ones doing tricks."
"They're all trained to do tricks, all but the new lions," Sweetiepie answered. "The rhino does card tricks and can play poker with the tiger brothers. That always attracts customers."
"Sure she does, but not since her boyfriend died. Now all she does is sit there, crying her eyes out."
"She'll get over it eventually. Just give her a little more time."
"Sure, she'll get over it, but not before the bank sells her to the glue factory. She'll make tons of 'HappyTime Superglue'."
"I can't let them make glue out of the poor little girl."
"Then you better find some new acts, or new training for the old ones. I expect the bank to close you up any day now."
Mr. Samuels, a realist, packed up his briefcase, said goodbye, and left a saddened Sweetiepie to suffer alone.
"Here it is, I think." Mr. Rat, eyes red from hours of reading human documents, had found a recent billing slip mentioning two lions. It was almost new, and probably the lions the others were looking for. "It says two lions were shipped to another city, over three hundred miles from here. To a place called "Goodie's Zoo."
"How do we get there?" Doris asked. That was an awful long way to walk, especially with a rhinoceros slowing them down and in human territory. She knew there was no way they could do it.
"It ain't all that far," Ravena chirped, "as the raven flies."
"Duh, uh, I can make it. You can all sit on me when you gets tired. I'm strong. I can make it. Okay, huh?" from Homer.
"The cops or the humans would stop you." Mr. Rat shook his head. Although he wanted them off his salvaged property, he was smelling a profit. "I can get you there," he told them. "Just let me think." He knew a smart rat could find some way to get them to that zoo, and make money while doing it.
Mr. Rat made a call to the mouse mafia. Unknown to humans, the mouse mafia is a large criminal organization employing hundreds of thousands of meeses, worldwide.
"Hello, Don Meesio? Alfredo Rat here. Look, I got a problem. Maybe you guys can help me out." He explained how he had to get the companions to the faraway zoo. Then listened. "Of course.... Sixty, forty? .... Fifty, fifty...? You got me by the short-hairs. Okay, thirty, seventy, your favor."
Proud of his intelligence and ingenuity, Mr. Rat went out to talk to the others.
"I got it set up," he told them. "A truck with a human driver will be here tomorrow. It'll take you right to the zoo. You'll have to get in one of these cages, though. It won't be locked and the truck'll stop for bathroom breaks."
Mr. Rat had set important interspecies matters into motion. After hanging up, Don Meesio called a human associated with his group and explained. The human, an auto thief named Mr. Sinatro, stole a large truck and arranged for another human to drive down to pick up the companions.
When he was finished, Mr. Sinatro drove over to "Goodie's Zoo" to talk to Sweetiepie Goodie.
"But, Mr. Sinatro, I don't have the money to pay for new animals. I just don't have it."
"I know, Miss Sweetiepie, which is why I came to you. My boss wants to buy part interest in your zoo. He thinks that with the new animals, one even a talented knife-thrower, you can turn it around and make a good profit for both him and you.
"Our organization, 'M&M Industries' is always looking for good investments. And you do want that poor little lion cub to be reunited with his mama, don't you? Would you leave a rhino without a proper home? Alone in the city, he'd only turn to crime and become a hopeless drug addict. Just think how your crying rhino could use a new male for a friend?"
Of course it was an offer Sweetiepie couldn't refuse. She sold part of her business to the mouse mafia's M&M Industries, which brought Ruffie and his companions to the zoo which, in turn became profitable, with everybody living happily ever after.
Once a rifle was designed for Doris, she was in seventh heaven, her shooting exhibitions bringing in thousands of new customers. A side-effect was the many human deer hunters that gave up hunting. It took a much braver hunter to shoot at a deer when it might fire back at him.
Mr. Rat even received enough money to buy his warehouse officially, where he started up his own smuggling business. He now smuggles illegal tobacco into the Almost United States.
By Oscar Rat, the famous and ever-humble rat writer.