It had been a long time since Grapple and Wilma Magpie had seen an Airstream camping trailer. They danced on the pine branch watching what looked like a big mirror roll off Highway 26 and into the parking area that overlooked the Deschutes River.
Grapple chattered, “Look at that! Wish I could snag one of those for my hoard. For sure, I’d have the biggest collection in all Seekseequa … or… and maybe in all Jefferson County… I’d be the talk of the prairie… wouldn’t I?”
Wilma laughed, “Sure! That’d be news, all right. A story with legs: ‘Read all about it! Grapple Magpie hauls gigantic mirror into his stash.’”
“It’d beat Arnie Magpie’s hoarding collection, for sure,” Grapple bragged. “… It’d make his pile of puny junk look like a wilted hay stack.”
“Yeah. You ought to challenge him,” Wilma said. “If you did, you’d likely beat him… You ought to do it… challenge him to a hoarding contest. That would make my greatest scoop in a long time… a spectacle even.”
“See if I don’t… I will… I’ll challenge him… challenge that cocky braggart to a hoarding duel… You’ll see… I’ll do it. One month from today… first sight of the new moon we’ll… we’ll see who has the biggest hoard.
“Well sure… with that piece o’ plunder… one that big, you’d win any hoarding contest, anywhere, alright,” Wilma conceded and asked, “How you going to do it?, I ask. “Easy,” you say? Just pick it up and fly away.”
“OK… well… but even without the mirror I’ll challenge Arnie and beat him too.”
Grapple Magpie looking for treasure; photo by Larry Rea
Grapple Magpie looking for treasure; photo by Larry Rea
“Okay… okay, you’re on… I’ll broadcast your challenge all over the countryside, The Great Hoarding Competition, Grapple Magpie challenges Arnie Magpie to a hoarding duel.” She paused to give Grapple a moment to reconsider, then, continued, “But, if I make it a big news story, you won’t be able to get out of it. You sure you want to take a chance on being a loser in front of everybody?”
“You bet I’m sure!” Grapple said between his teeth. “I’d give a lot to show that overstuffed bird in front of Delilah… in front of the whole community.”
“Maybe we could live in it,” Wilma said ignoring Grapple’s hot words and indicating the camper.
“Oh… well,” Grapple said turning his attention to the prize before them. “I can at least have a look.” He hopped into the air and flitted toward the camper. But when a side door of the camper opened and two little bigs popped out, he abruptly changed course and returned to the branch.
The boy big quickly picked up a rock and dashed to the guardrail. The girl big skipped around the picnic table, kicking up dust. The boy big threw his rock toward the river hoping it would reach the pooled water and make a splash. He like watching ripples radiate from the entry kaploosh. He followed the rock’s decent with a pair of binoculars that hung from his neck. The rock didn’t make it to the river. It hit an outcropping, bounced its way down the canyon wall and came to rest in a clump of sage at the water’s edge.
The magpies watched an older big emerge from the front of the silver tube and make his way to the picnic table. He sat down on the bench, anchored his elbows on the rough table surface, took out a newspaper, and began reading.
Another big came out of the side door carrying a basket and jug.
“Look at the bird doo!” the lady big said brushing dried bird poop off the table with a paper towel. “There’s liable to be germs.” She flung a sheet into the air over the table. A portion of it settled on the man’s newspaper causing him to growl. He wrestled the tablecloth into place under his arms and returned to reading his newspaper. The woman fished stuff out of the basket and arranged it on the table for the family’s noon meal.
“Oh boy… if they get distracted, maybe we can grab some food,” Wilma said.
“Maybe… at least a pile of crumbs when they leave,” Grapple opined.
The boy big continued tossing rocks over the cliff. The girl big picked flowers growing at the base of a guardrail post. She carried them to the feast table and stuffed them in cracks between the boards where the table cloth didn’t cover.
“Pretty, but watch out for bugs, ” the lady big said, putting plastic table service in place.
“Monkey flower,” the man big said, snatching a potato chip from the bag.
“Doesn’t look like a monkey to me,” the girl big said giggling and plunking herself down on the bench beside him.
“Monkey flower,” the man big repeated with clipped finality. He grabbed another chip, tossed it into his mouth and returned to his newspaper.
Grapple nervously scooted to and fro on the branch. “You keep an eye on the food,” he said, “I’m going to have a look at my image. It’s been a long time…” He hopped into the air and flew away toward the far side of the camper out of sight of the bigs.
“No fair,” Wilma said darting from her perch. She sped past her brother, who didn’t anticipate her determination to beat him. Wilma got to the looking wall first. Grapple joined her. They dashed back and forth alongside the Airstream attempting to get a clear view of their images in the shiny surface.
“Something’s not right,” Wilma said.
The siblings could see themselves, but not clearly… their image showed milky and vague in the semi-polished surface. Disappointed, the pair returned to the pine branch and waited for an opportunity to steal food and trinkets from the travelers.
The boy big threw a final rock over the bank. He didn’t wait for it to hit, but joined the others at the table. He plunked the binoculars on the table next to his plate as he sat down. He grabbed a handful of potato chips and began chomping them down. Several chips fell from his hand onto the ground near his feet.
“Dare you to snatch one of those chips,” Grapple said motioning toward the table.
“Dare birds go first. Last time I got swatted by an angry big… became the lead story in the Magpie Mag for a week. No, you go first.”
“Watch this,” Grapple said launching himself on the mission. He darted toward an abandoned chip prepared to snatch it up and away to the safety of the pine branch. He almost had it, when the boy’s foot crunched it beneath his heel. Grapple pulled up at the last second… getting momentarily tangled in the girl’s hair.
The girl big swatted her hair and screamed, “He’s attacking me!” She kept swatting at her head until the bird was gone. “Did you see that?” She asked smoothing her hair.
“Oh… No!” said the lady big alarmed. “Wash you hands quick! Avian flu!” she warned handing the girl big a Handy-wipe.
“It was in my hair, not on my hands,” the girl protested.
“Well, don’t touch it,” the lady ordered.
“Oh, Mom,” the girl mouthed.
“Cool,” the boy big laughed. “Looks almost like a baby penguin,” he said watching the black and white bird land on the pine tree.
“It’s a magpie,” the man big said authoritatively. “They’re scavengers.”
“Well, they can just keep their dirty beaks shut…” the lady big offered, “they’re gossiping blabbermouths.”
“The magpie’s on that pine with another one,” the boy big said, pointing and lifting his field glasses for a closer look. “Kinda like Gotham City… news reporters… they report stuff… even when there’s no stuff to report.”
“Yeah,” the man big chuckled. “Magpies… before you know it, the ‘tangled hair’ story will be the news of the day all over the desert.”
“You almost got trapped,” Wilma said, when Grapple had finally quit fidgeting on the pine branch.
“Yeah, tangled almost… whew… her feathers stink… smells like lilac… whew.”
“ ‘Almost tangled,’ that’s the tag-line I can use… or ‘tangled almost,’” Wilma said emphasizing ‘tangled.’
“ ‘Trapped almost’ is stronger… more danger. ‘Almost trapped!’” Grappled quipped putting an editorial nail in the story’s headline.
“Yeah, I like that… ‘Trapped almost’,” Wilma said settling the matter.
“They’re going to be here all day,” Grapple said, “Let’s hit ‘rotten stump’ and grab some bugs… come back here when they’re gone.”
“Okay,” Wilma said following her brother into a nearby thicket of juniper.
A few yards over and down the edge of the cliff lived Upton Packrat and his mate, Lorinda. Not knowing what the rocks were that went whizzing past their hideout, they had hidden behind a bundle of goat hair in one corner of their cave. They had never before seen anything like this.
Between rock whistles, Lorinda scooted to the cave opening in an attempt to find out what was happening. Another rock sizzled past. Lorinda scooted back to the goat hair. Upton’s glimpse of another falling rock sent a shiver down his spine.
Then, a large rock hit the packrat’s veranda breaking a portion of it loose and sending the rock and the veranda piece plunging down the cliff.
“It’s the end of the world!” Upton shouted scampering further into the cave and behind a wall of midden.
“Not the world, but part of our veranda is gone,” Lorinda responded, calmly peeking out to see what was causing the avalanche. Clear sky was all she could see. She didn’t want to expose herself to another missile, so she eased back into the recesses of the den.
For a moment no more rocks fell. The pair waited. It was quiet except for the muted sound of bigs talking to one another.
“It’s just more bigs using the table,” Lorinda said. “Means there may be crumbs.”
“And maybe a shine or two,” Upton said joining Lorinda at the cave entrance.
The packrats heard the bigs’ rolling home move off the gravel onto the blacktop and away north along the Deschutes River toward Warm Springs.
“Let’s see what they left,” Upton said easing his way along the narrow path to grass and the level ground.
Packrats have excellent smell so it didn’t take long for Upton to find the crushed potato chips. Lorinda joined him. The two downed the food remnants and scooted away looking for more. Upton found six kernels of corn and a green bean. He ate the bean and three pieces of the corn. He quickly scooped up the other three kernels and carried them to the den. He placed them on a shelf and returned to the table to look for more treasure.
“Wow, look,” Lorinda said, displaying a gold hairclip she’d found in the grass beneath the picnic table.
“Can you see yourself?” Upton asked sidling up beside her.
“No, I can’t see myself, but I see colors… red set in gold is good… the shape… oval stone… the brightness in the sun. Look at that… catches the eye, don’t you think?”
“That ought to put us ahead of Beverly and Rodney Packrat,” Upton gloated.
ing his stash by swiping stuff from other magpies… No one likes him.”
“It’s clear you don’t… So, what’s your idea?”
“He brags all the time… makes me sick… and he’s got his eye on Delilah Magpie. I want to show him up for the stupid magpie he is,” Grapple said stepping away from the mirror to examine a tiny figure of a big he spotted protruding from ball of wool buried in the amberat.
“A stupid braggart… yeah, I know what you mean… Rodney Packrat is like that… Won’t shut up about all his stuff… be good to shut him up, too… what’s your plan?”
“My idea… my plan… I goaded Arnie into the hoarding challenge… You know… to see who has the biggest stash. He’s so cocky and vain he couldn’t help himself… he took me up on it.”
“You sound pretty confident yourself… How do you know you can beat him?”
Grapple paused. He turned to face Upton, swallowed hard and said, “You loan me your stuff for the challenge and I’ll cream him…”
“Loan you my stuff? That would be cheating, wouldn’t it?”
“Not if you give it to me,” Grapple reasoned. “How about it… give it to me?”
“Give it to you?” Upton said wondering if he’d heard right. After mulling Grapple’s suggestion he continued, “I don’t know… If I give it to you, then it’s not mine…”
“Technically… but…” Grapple hedged. “I’ll give it all back… after…”
“How do I know you’ll give it back?”
“Oh” Grapple said surprised that the packrat would question his trustworthiness. “I promise.”
“Tell you what,” Upton began, “I give my plunder to you so you can stick it to… what’s his name… Arnie?”
“Mag, yeah. Arnie Mag.”
“And,” Upton continued, “when that’s done, you can give me back my stuff and your stuff so I can make Rodney Packrat look foolish.”
“Oh” Grapple said not anticipating the Upton’s offer. “How would I know you’d give it back?”
“I promise,” Upton said.
“Oh, I see.” Grapple paused to let the implications fully sink in. “We have to trust one another.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Upton asked satisfied he’d struck a deal.
“OK… It’s a deal,” Grapple said emphatically. “Maybe we’re onto something big here…. That’d be a good story for the Magpie Mag. Give Wilma half a chance and she’ll broadcast the challenge all over Jefferson County. That slap-beaked Arnie won’t be able to ignore it.”
“Rodney too… rats will love it. A bunch of magpies and wood rats flitting around flapping their jaws and beaks… carrying plunder… some of the stuff is bound to drop… give us rats a chance to collect residue.”
Wilma Magpie and Lorinda Packrat emerged from the grass just as Grapple and Upton were finding their way out of Upton’s den and into the shade of the picnic table.
“Did you get a scoop?” Grapple asked lightheartedly?
“Yeah, conditions in and around Seekseequa are dire…” She paused for effect after joining Grapple under the table. “Expert authorities warn that the worst hard times lie ahead… just around the corner…” Wilma mouthed with newscaster intonations accompanied by a knowing tilt of the head, all matching the seriousness of coming events.
“I’m listening,” Upton said anticipating a depressing emotional hit.
“The latest…” Wilma dangled another pause then, continued, “… just ten minutes ago, Captain Ant and Will Troup, who were leading an army of six legged packers hauling loads of seeds to winter storage caches, called my attention to the prevailing weather conditions… lack of moisture is alarming… stunting this year’s grass and weed crop… says ultra dry conditions mean disaster.”
“Yeah, same ol’ same ol’,” Grapple said, “Upton and I have another scoop you can claim.” He paused to make sure Wilma was paying attention. “Noise it abroad that Grapple Magpie is in process of collecting award winning piles of plunder. Announce that he is challenging Arnie Magpie to a duel… seeing who is Seekseequa Hoarding Champion. Do that and the magpie communities will go crazy. Your ratings will skyrocket… to record breaking heights.”
“Don’t forget the pack rats,” Upton protested. “ ‘Upton and Rodney Wood rat duel each other to the ground.’ Wood rat challenge will draw audience, too… won’t it?” Upton asked uncertainly.
“I don’t know,” Grapple hedged. “Wood rats? Not much of a story there… is there?”
“I beg your pardon,” Lorinda snapped, joining the fray, “‘specie-ism’, that’s where your attitude leads… specie-ism at its worst… that’s what it is.”
“Didn’t mean to offend,” Grapple soothed, “but… magpies do have a higher profile than packrats… wouldn’t you agree?”
“All the more reason why there should be preferential treatment in coverage,” Lorinda returned, “… a quota system of some sort, wouldn’t you say?”
“Look, arguing about it won’t get us anywhere,” Wilma interjected. “Grap, I see you are serious about challenging Arnie Mag to a hoarding contest. Good.” She turned to Lorinda and said, “I’ll see to it that the packrat competitions get their share of coverage in the Magpie Mag.”
“Yeah, and how about the Packrat Rag?” Grapple sneered. “How will that pathetic Rag treat my story?”
“Not fair to compare,” Lorinda protested, “The Rag has smaller circulation… and it’s underground… not fair to compare.”
“And who’s responsible for it being a pathetic, underground rag?” Grapple prodded.
“Alright…alright!” Wilma said, “I’ll see what I can do with head pusher at the PR Rag.” She turned to Upton and Grapple and said, “You two get your junks in a row… and I’ll see that the coverage is fair… Now, who is going first?”
“It will have to be me,” Grapple said. “Wilma has been plastering my feud with Arnie all over Seekseequa for days and the new moon will be here before you know it. It’s logical… I go first.”
“I don’t know…” Upton hesitated settling to his belly. Playing second chair to a mouthy magpie wasn’t his idea of how cooperation ought to work among the Deschutes animal communities. But, if neither party would compromise, nothing would get done, “OK, OK” he said throwing up his paws in resignation.
“Good, let’s get at it,” Grapple said hopping off the table and fluttering toward the packrat’s den.
“Hold it” Upton said stopping Grapple in his tracks. “If we move it now… Arnie and other magpies will see where it came from. They’ll know it’s mine and you’ll be labeled a cheater and lose the challenge. Let’s wait until dark… don’t you think?”
“Good thinking, Up,” Grapple cheered.
“Remember,” Lorinda said, “we packrats are ambi-day-night-turnal. Whimpering magpies hit their nests as soon and the sun drops below the horizon.”
“Yeah, you’re right…” Grapple agreed. “Yeah, we’ll wait for dark… we can move the stuff during the night.” He laughed a satisfying laugh. “Arnie and his magpie friends will be sleeping. They won’t have a clue.”
“Good!” Wilma offered. “I won’t have to wait until dark. I’ll get started chattering the news all over Seekseequa. You can count on it. In two days the Great Challenge will be the talk of Seekseequa.”
“Wow,” Lorinda said admiringly. “That’s bright.”
“Wait a minute. It won’t work.”
“What won’t work?” Lorinda puzzled.
“I’m a magpie,” Grapple explained, “Wilma and I will be asleep when it gets dark…”
“That’s OK” Upton said having thought about it. “I’ll get my buddy rats to help me make the move… in the night, when both you and Arnie are asleep.”
“You’re getting smooth, Up,” Lorinda said admiring her mate. “And speaking of sleep, Upton and I are long overdue for our straw beds.”
Upton joined her and they were gone.
Wilma could hardly wait to announce the Grapple’s challenge. She fluttered into the air to begin an afternoon pie-cast. She began filling Seekseequa air-currents and surrounding terrain with news of the Great Hoarding Challenge.
Grapple, contemplating his actions, winged his way to the top of the juniper. He was certain the arrogant Arnie Magpie would pick up the gauntlet. He was excited that he’d set in motion plans to take care of the obnoxious rival once and for all. He chuckled with knowing that even before Arnie learned of the challenge, Grapple’s team was already on the move.
That evening under cover of darkness when quietness had settled over the warm hills above Madras, Upton Packrat and his friends began carrying Upton’s plunder to the staging area in Dry Hollow. Grapple’s good friends Conley Magpie and Chester Packrat agreed to marshal a cadre of guards to keep watch on Grapple’s stash… magpies by day and packrats by night.
Everyone was certain that Arnie’s inflated ego and reputation as the ultimate hoarder had forced him to automatically accept Grapple’s gutsy challenge.
The news had reached Arnie, just as he was returning to his nest with a knot of hair he’d scrapped from the back of a preoccupied goat.
“Grapple’s nothing but a blowhard… He’s a lightweight… a helpless puff of feathery goose-down,” Arnie yelled to Peggy Magpie who had brought the news before perching on a sizable limb above Arnie’s hangout.
“He’s cute but he’s crazy to challenge you, Arnie,” Peggy said. With that she fluttered off in search of some booty of her own.
All day long the next day, Wilma broadcast news of the coming event. She drafted headlines, bylines and sidebars she thought would demand attention. She followed those with persuasive appeals to ignite sure-fire action… “EVERYONE IS COMING.”
“Deadly Shootout at Dry Hollow in just 4 days… Get hilltop tickets at Darrel Ferret’s Den.”
“Don’t miss Magpie Madness! In Dry Hollow… day after the day after the day after tomorrow.”
“The world will end in just 4 sun downs… At Dry Hollow, a short distance from Luna Butte. Everyone you know is going to be there. You won’t want to miss it.”
Once Naggie Magpie got the word from Wilma, she began pestering everyone in sight about Grapple’s challenge. With Wilma and Naggie chattering it wasn’t long before sensationalism gripped the minds and hearts of coyotes, possums, hawks, ferrets, mice, rats, birds of every size and description and every other wild creature that called the Seekseequa Desert home
Gary Crow volunteered to see if he could locate Rusty Eagle. The Seekseequa birds wanted the famous eagle to judge the contest. His reputation for impartiality was legendary. The crow found the big bird grappling a fish from the Deschutes just north of Mecca. Rusty agreed to serve as a judge on the condition that Wise Owl and Turk Vulture agreed to serve as well.
“All you have to do is count each contestant’s plunder,” Gary reasoned.
“Need more than one pair of eyes,” Rusty said. “Three pair of eyes head off squabbling and prevent challenges days later.”
“Counting loot seems straight forward,” Gary said, scratching his head. “But you’ve got a point… those magpies can get contentiously vocal. You want to ask Wise and Turk?”
“I’m on it,” Rusty returned eying an egret standing in the shallow water stalking a school of minnows.
“Good… in four nights we’ll see you at Dry Hollow just at sunset,” Gary said.
“Just at sunset?” Rusty quizzed.
“You know the overlap time… before birds have to head for their roosts and the nocturnals are making their way out of their dens to begin their nightly routines… that happens just at sunset… doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, better than sunrise. I’ll see you in then,” the big bird declared, then, returned to picking at the fish carcass.
Gary headed back to Seekseequa.
During the three days before the big event, Grapple made sure Arnie’s crew saw him leisurely carrying pathetic pieces of plunder from his nest to the staging area. He thought if Arnie Magpie and his minions concluded that he wasn’t very serious about the contest, the boisterous braggart would be less inclined to keep beating the sagebrush searching for a last remnant of glitzy plunder to add to his stash.
Grapple had worked tirelessly to increase his pile of shiny objects, knowing that bright eye-catching stuff would carry more weight with the judges than pinecone nuts, tufts of wool or chunks of cow dung… And, Upton had loan-given most of his glittering hoard to Grapple… And, just yesterday Grapple had snatched a diamond-studded watch from a young big who had carelessly left it on the table at the Highway 26 overlook… And, Jester Packrat had chipped in his snow globe.
‘That’ll cinch it,’ Grapple said to himself. Yes, Grapple felt that he was ready to smother that egotistical stuffed-craw Arnie Magpie with a humiliating, ignominious defeat.
Wilma reported to Grapple that Patti Packrat heard from Wanda Magpie, who got it from Ruth Packrat, who had heard a rumor that Arnie was indeed scratching everywhere he could think of for one more… one last load of treasure.
More disturbing was a sidebar rumor running through the gossip mill that Delilah Magpie had helped Arnie move his plunder into his hideout stash fifty yards up the south bank of Dry Hollow.
Grapple didn’t believe it. He’d asked Delilah to help him… but she declined saying she wanted to remain impartial.
Wilma didn’t help with the moving either… She spent her waking hours honing her chatter and making sure every animal living in the desert knew about the Great Hoarding Competition… the magpie showdown soon to take place in Dry Hollow.
The night before the event, under cover of darkness, Upton and his friends hauled the last of the packrat’s hoard into place… well, at least, that which could easily be extracted from the cemented midden in Upton’s den (two forks, a sterling silver spoon and a plastic baby bottle).
And finally, near the picnic table, Grapple found a shiny chromium lug nut that had fallen from a big’s 18-wheeler.
“That should do it,” Grapple said dropping the glitzy nut on top of his plunder next to the snow globe. “Now, it’s time for everyone to get some sleep,” he said to his friends. “Please go home and rest.”
Grapple’s moving crew didn’t argue. They headed for home. Grapple and Conley lingered for a while admiring Grapple’s mountain of wealth. Across the canyon Grapple could see shadowy figures of Arnie’s pit crew milling around the outlaw’s camouflaged plunder. One of the figures looked somewhat like a lady magpie.
“Never mind,” Grapple said to Conley, who agreed to guard the site himself until the packrats could take over.
It was dark and long past bedtime, when Grapple hopped and fluttered his way home. He settled into his nest. It took him a while to fall asleep… the excitement of the contest and nagging feeling that he had forgotten something troubled his mind. He fell asleep thinking what a wonderful thing it would be to have Delilah standing by his side tomorrow when Rusty announced him as the winner of the Great Hoarding Competition.
Grapple woke early the next morning, the day of the Great Hoarding Competition. Though he hadn’t slept very well, anticipation of a great victory upped his heart rate. At the guardrail overlooking Dry Hollow, Grapple met with Upton and the others who had worked all night until sunrise, the cutoff time, getting loot into place. He thanked them all in a grand way, and congratulated them for keeping Arnie and his friends from knowing what the gang of magpies and packrats had done.
As far as Grapple could tell, Arnie hadn’t thought to work through the night. He felt pretty smug with himself, outsmarting Arnie and his minions. Today was the day he would humiliate Arnie in front of the beautiful Delilah and she would take his wing and they would saunter together into Eldorado… or some similar idyllic paradise.
Upton, Lorinda and the rest wished Grapple success and headed off to the their dens to sleep. They promised Grapple they would be back to Dry Hollow at dusk, when Rusty Eagle was to announce the winner.
The day of the event Arnie and Grapple were allowed to arrange and admire their goods but they were not allowed to add anything. Field mice monitor volunteers were everywhere making sure neither contestant, nor their helpers, cheated.
Grapple was tempted. “Hey Con,” he said producing a small chunk of quartz. “I’m going to sneak onto my pile.”
“Not a good idea,” Conley cautioned him. “You’d risk forfeiting with a second class rock?”
“A slight of wing… “ Grapple said revealing the rock beneath his wind. “The judges would never know.”
“They’d find out… you’re being watched…” Conley said gesturing to a pack of mice huddled nearby. “Give me the glass. I’ll hang onto it for you.”
Grapple reluctantly let Conley take the quartz.
When the sun was at its zenith, Rusty Eagle, Wise Owl and Turk Vulture began their judging. Once the count began Arnie and Grapple were not to go near their hoards. The monitoring mice were everywhere keeping beady eyes on the contestants.
Grapple set out to find Delilah. He wanted to invite her to perch with him in a twisted juniper growing not far from the announcement boulder, which sat on the canyon floor equidistant between the contestants’ stashes.
“You sure you want to be distracted by Delilah?” Conley Magpie asked concerned for his friend.
“You bet… you kidding… she’s the apex… don’t you think?”
“She’s desirable, alright,” Conley conceded. “She’s highest…?” Conley paused, “Who’s up there with her, maybe?”
“Nobody… just Delilah… Well, Jean maybe. She’s a looker.”
“Let’s ask her,” Conley encouraged.
“You can ask her, if you want…” Grapple opined. “The four of us would have a hollow-side perch on the juniper… right?”
“I meant you. I already asked Leslie Magpie…”
“Oh, you and Leslie… that’s good… It’s Delilah for me.”
“Okay… but what if she says, no?”
“Well, no… she wouldn’t say no.”
”She didn’t help you move your stuff, did she?”
“Wanted to stay objective, she said, that’s all.”
“This time too… maybe she’ll want to stay neutral this time, too. You thought of that?”
“Yeah, we’ll see,” Grapple said, leading Conley toward his stash. He wanted to keep his treasure in view. His pile was big and seeing it made him feel big.
Wilma Magpie was nervous for her brother. Nevertheless, she couldn’t resist a big story. She fluttered here and there all morning interviewing the inhabitants of the Seekseequa territory.
She found Bork and Jerret Ferret lounging in the shade of a clump of sagebrush.
“You ferrets are quite the collectors yourselves,” Wilma began, “How come you’re not competing?”
Bork laughed, “Are you kidding? Challenge the magpies?”
“Not a chance,” Jerret chuckled.
“Who are you backing today?” she asked.
“It’ll be a contest!” Bork answered.
“And…?” Wilma quizzed.
“ Grap’s your brother… has to be him, wouldn’t it?” Jerret said.
“Can I quote you this afternoon on the Magpie Mag?” Wilma asked.
“Hard up for news, I’d say… wanting to know what ferrets think about who’ll win a hoarding contest,” Bork said.
“It’s big…” Wilma protested. “Everyone has invested a lot of emotional energy in the game… the outcome is likely to have a lasting impact on the Seekseequa community,”
“If you say so,” Jerret said. “Sounds to me like you’re a hungry news anchor. But, go ahead, it’ll be a kick to be a talking head on your show.”
“This afternoon, then,” Wilma said. “More interviews,” she said taking to the air.
Jerret and Bork smiled at one another and lay back down in the shade.
Conley and Grapple spotted Delilah flitting into a Dragon Wormwood not far from the juniper they intended perch on for Rusty’s big announcement.
“Hey, Conley… Let me talk to her by myself… OK?” Grapple asked.
“Sure you want to…” Conley stopped. “Aren’t you hungry? I’m famished. Let’s scout Luna Butte for some bugs.”
“It’s Delilah, man… I gotta ask her… You go ahead.”
Conley could see by the look on Grapples face that there was no use trying to distract him. “I’ll see you at dusk.” He flitted into the air and off toward the mountain.
Grapple made sure Delilah was still in the bush. He took a deep breath and winged his way to the sage and settled on a branch near the top. Delilah was pecking at bugs marching up and down a stem.
“Wow, you startled me!” said the beautiful Delilah.
“… Didn’t mean to,” Grapple said apologetically and before he could lose his nerve, he asked, “You want to sit with me in the juniper tree?” He stuttered, “I… I mean… when Rusty makes the announcement?”
“O… well,” Delilah stuttered, “I don’t think so.”
Surprised at Delilah’s directness he nearly fell off his branch. He swallowed hard. It’s true that earlier she’d explained why she couldn’t help him move his plunder… She wanted to be neutral, she’d said. But now that everything was in place there was no reason for her not to join him.
“T, t, t, the judges are deciding,” Grapple stuttered. “The results can’t be changed now.”
“I’m trying to be neutral,” Delilah said weakly. “I hope you find luck,” she said and took off.
Grapple watched her go. A huge lump welled up in his throat. It had not occurred to him that Delilah wouldn’t be proud of him. He was sure she would want to be with him at his great moment of victory… but now she wouldn’t be. He dropped to the ground and steadied himself against the sagebrush trunk.
His thoughts were interrupted by a flurry of wings taking to the air from the judging station in Dry Hollow. It was Rusty Eagle, Wise Owl and Turk Vulture. Evidently, they had concluded their calculations. The winner had been chosen. The three judges flew away toward Jackson Butte. Of course, they would return at dusk when the winner was to be announced.
“Neutral!” Grapple snarled. “You won’t stay neutral when the winner is announced,” he shouted hoping she might hear. “Then, maybe, it’ll be too late.”
Grapple flapped into the air and headed for Luna Butte in hopes of finding Conley or someone who might understand his pain.
Wilma and her Magpie Mag colleagues had done a good job of selling the Great Hoarding Competition as a must-see event for everyone.
By late afternoon, animals and birds from all over Jefferson County began gathering in Dry Hollow
Opossums claimed spots near the podium. Soon shrews joined them and then ferrets, coyotes, moles, thrushes, wrens, chickadees, swallows, larks, ravens, crows, flycatchers, wood-pewee, woodpeckers, sapsuckers, hummingbirds, owls, coots, turkeys, kestrels, hawks, grosbeaks, goldfinches, siskins, orioles, cowbirds, blackbirds, meadowlarks, buntings, towhees, tanagers, warblers, robins, bluebirds, nuthatches, swallows, jays, shrikes, kingbirds, flycatchers, flickers, swifts, common poor-wills, nighthawks, doves, quail, geese, pheasants, chukers, falcons, eagles, harriers, blue herons… Well, every bird that lived in and around Seekseequa Junction had found his or her way into Dry Hollow.
Dry Hollow was carpeted with birds… you couldn’t see the ground anywhere. Sounds of great excitement flooded the valley. Of course, the birds and other creatures could all speak animal, so the different volumes, tones and pitches of their voices filled the canyon with a cacophonous symphony.
Hoards of animals and birds had begun the torturous wait for the great announcement.
Meanwhile, north of the staging area on Highway 26, the silver Airstream crawled the steep incline hugging the yellow center stripe. The big-family was on its way home to Madras after a four-day visit with family in Warm Springs.
The camper crested the hill.
“Hey dad! Look at that!” the girl big shouted pointing to the bird-filled valley on their right.
They all laughed.
“Looks like a lake of birds,” the boy big said.
“What is it, do you think?” the girl big asked.
“Never seen anything like it,” the lady big said, “Have you, Earl?”
“No,” the man big answered, nosing the suburban off the highway and onto a pullout lane.
By the time they came to a standstill, the boy big had reached for the binoculars and was scanning the scene below.
What does it look like?” the man big asked.
“Looks like… just a bunch of birds… wow, birds of every kind. Take a look,” the boy big said handing the glasses to his dad.
The man big got out of the car, steadied elbows on the car’s roof and peered through the binoculars.
“Sally Wind ought to be here… do a story in the Pioneer,” the lady big said.
“No, KTVZ needs to send a crew out… no one’s going to believe it,” the boy big said.
“Lila, take a picture,” the man big said through the open window, “No telling how long the birds will stay like that. Unbelievable.”
Lila grabbed the camera, got out of the vehicle, raised the Canon, and began shooting.
“Maybe they’re having an election… top birds are giving political speeches,” the boy big laughed.
“Whoever gets elected ought to go to Washington… they’d do a better job than the birds running government, now,” the man big chuckled.
“I’ll bet one of them has my hair barrette,” the girl big scolded.
“Let’s hike down… maybe they’ve found a treasure, or something,” the boy big said stepping over the guardrail.
“You’ll frighten them away,” the lady big said lowering the camera.
“I don’t see anything… couple piles of trash is all,” the man“Not likely,” a voice said.
Upton jumped and headed for his den.
Lorinda crept toward the metal trash bin. Behind it she came face to face with Jester Packrat.
“Jest… it’s you. You scared us,” Lorinda said, “Didn’t know anyone else was here.”
“I’m pretty crafty,” Jester laughed. “Look what I stole from the Airstream.” Between his front paws he hugged a round globe filled with fluid with white flecks floating in it.
“And brave… crafty and brave… you went into the camper?”
“Yeah, they left the door open… packrats can’t resist an open door, right?”
“They scared us…” Lorinda said, “throwing rocks over the edge… almost wrecked our den. We waited for them to leave.”
By now Upton had joined Lorinda and Jester.
“Hey, Up…” Jester said greeting his friend, “If you’re going to beat Bev and Rod in the hoarding contest, you’re going to need a lot of stuff. They’re champions.”
“I know it. It’ll take a load of mother-load to catch ‘em,” Upton conceded.
“And there’s Judy and Puck… they can’t be far behind you either,” Jester added.
“Wish we could get into that trash bin,” Lorinda said scampering to the receptacle near a juniper tree.
“Used to be able to… long time ago…” Upton said, climbing up the side of the container and sniffing at the heavy lid. “Rats… there’s a haul in there, alright… if we could only get to it.”
“Well, you can’t, so… it’s wishful thinking to hope you can,” Jester said. “The only loot for you, now, is here on the ground or in the weeds.”
“We’ve found all there is,” Upton replied.
“Tell you what,” Jester said, “I’m not interested in the competition, Up. You can have this ball, if you want.”
“That’s about as generous as it gets,” Upton said. “Wait here.” He dashed off toward his den.
“Let’s check the roadside weeds,” Jester said, when Upton returned. “Sometimes stuff falls off big’s wagons… come on, let’s go.”
The others followed Jester along the road and into a patch of tall weeds and out of sight.
“ ‘Airstream visits at wayside lookout!’ That’s a story,” Wilma said. “I’ll broadcast it on tonight’s edition of Magpie Mag.”
“You tell Pippy Magpie about it and you’ll have told the world,” Grapple said waddling along the bark of a downed pine
“Tell Pippy… No way! I want credit for the scoop, don’t I?” Wilma said pecking at tiny agate she’d found in a pile of gravel alongside the road.
“Oh boy, can I have it?” Grapple asked holding out a claw.
“You going to hang on to another rock? Where you going to put it?” Wilma asked handing Grapple the nugget.
“You kidding? Look at that texture. It’ll go into my gem collection or I may give it to Delilah Magpie.”
“Hey… isn’t she Arnie Magpie’s lady friend?”
“He thinks she is… but I think she’s not… I’m taking her,” Grapple boasted.
“Wow… you sure? Arnie’s a hunk.”
“A hunk o’ dung,” Grapple snapped, “That’s what Arnie is.”
“Oh, jealousy… that’s dramatic. ‘Grapple Magpie goes into a jealous rage’… That would make a story with legs… for the Magpie Mag.”
“You that hard up for news?” Grapple asked admiring the stone.
“You keep finding stuff to hoard and we’ll have to find another place to live,” Wilma said ignoring Grapple’s jab and half kidding.
“You seen Arnie Mag’s collection of this and that?” Grapple asked knowing she had. “…mostly junk… but more of it, then…” His voice trailed off.
“You are jealous,” Wilma accused.
“I’ll catch him… you’ll see… and beat him.”
“Delilah and Arnie’s plunder… you are … jealous. Aren’t you?”
“Let’s get back to the hunting grounds,” Grapple said ignoring Wilma’s accusation. He secured the agate and took flight.
Shortly, they arrived back at the roadside rest stop. The tourists were gone. Grapple settled on the vacant picnic table. Wilma settled on the ground beneath the bench where the potato chips had been.
“Hey… the chips are gone!” she complained. “…Who would have taken them?
“Not even a scrap!” Grapple said hopping here and there, eying every surface along the way. “Bet Arnie got ‘um… the greedy hog… the low life.”
“Maybe… but you’ve got to give him credit…”
“I’ll credit him alright. I’ll credit him with a punch in the beak.”
“If it was Arnie who took the chips… you can’t blame him. We would have done the same thing… if we’d gotten here first,” Wilma opined, “Wouldn’t we?”
“We were first!” Grapple growled.
“But we left…” Wilma said. “Don’t you see, Arnie got an opening and he took it?”
“We were first!”
“How could Arnie have known you’d laid claim to the chips? ”
“I was first… he’s a no good, thieving lout.”
“ ‘Arnie Magpie out-plunders Grapple Magpie.’ That’s a great lead-line into an upcoming Magpie’s Mag Show.”
“You mean Magpie’s Nag show.” Grapple laughed
“Very funny,” Wilma snapped. Then needling her brother, she added, “And that handsome hunk Arnie out-courts the sore looser.”
“I was first… I hope he gags on something nasty,” Grapple grumbled.
“Not likely. You know better than anybody Magpies ’ll eat anything,” Wilma quipped.
“The egotistical braggart… how can Delilah even notice him… let alone want to be around him?”
“I told you… he’s a hunk.”
“Hey, here’s a snippet of string,” Grapple said displaying his find and changing the subject.
“What you going to do with a worthless piece of string?”
“Nothing is worthless… string is a binder… holds stuff together… can never get enough string. Hey, who’s that?” Grapple asked hopping back onto the picnic table. He cocked his head toward the pack rats staring at him from behind the guardrail post.
The two magpies hopped to the table end.
“Gosh,” Lorinda Packrat said scooting out from behind the post and moving a few feet toward the table. She stopped. “Aren’t you the anchor-lady?” she asked taking two more mincing steps toward the table.
“You mean news anchor? Yeah… ‘The latest… 24/7’ we like to say at the Magpie Mag. News every half hour, on the hour and when it breaks,” Wilma bragged hopping to the bench near Lorinda.
“And, if it isn’t breaking news, she makes it sound like it’s breaking,” Grapple said with an ironic twist. He hopped onto the ground near Lorinda.
She scampered away a few feet. By now Upton Packrat had joined her… though he was careful to keep Lorinda between him and the magpies.
“Hey, you packrats collect stuff, don’t you?” Grapple asked as if he’d made an important discovery.
“You might say that,” Upton answered with a certain pride. “You should see our midden.”
“I’d like that,” Grapple said hopping toward Upton.
Lorinda stopped him, wringing her paws, “Mercy… not now… I haven’t had time to straighten up.”
“Disorder and mess are immaterial to me,” Grapple gushed. “I’m a bit of a collector myself.”
“Bit of a collector ha. He’s a hopelessly addicted hoarder… wanting to become the champion hoarder in all of Jefferson County… gives me an idea… ‘Seekseequa Hoarding Champion…’ ” Her voice trailed off in thought.
“Yeah, listen to her,” Grapple crowed “Like most reporters, she’s overstating the facts… if not inventing them.”
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” Wilma said hopping up to Lorinda. “Let’s you and I talk.” She coaxed the lady-packrat into a stand of grass not far from the table. “ Let those two junk collectors commiserate.”
“The ladies are talkers, are they not?” Grapple said when they were out of earshot.
“I understand that all magpies are quite wordy,” Upton returned.
“It’s one of our charms, I guess… but what about the midden? I want to see your treasure, can we call it that?” Grapple urged.
“That’s what it is to me,” Upton said proudly edging from the parking area past the guardrail post and down the cliff toward his den.
Upton scuttled into the den. He paused on the veranda and turned to see if Grapple had followed.
Grapple settled on an outcropping of rock near the entrance.
“Don’t stop there,” Upton said scampering further into his home, “the loot’s in inside.”
“I’m coming,” Grapple said hopping into the dark opening. Almost immediately he shouted, “Woo! What’s that smell?”
Upton emitted an apologetic laugh, “It’s the midden.” Gesturing toward the huge ball of plunder occupying a large section of the dwelling, “It’s cemented together with rat urine.”
“Urine!” Grapple shouted and quickly hopped to the entrance to take a deep breath of fresh air. He vacillated. Should he fly away or swallow hard and return to the mysterious ball?
“It’s amberat.” Upton explained.
The word didn’t satisfy Grapple. He paused at the cave entrance deciding what to do.
“Guess I’m used to it…” Upton said. Hoping to coax his new friend closer to take another look at his pride and joy. “Give it a minute or two and you’ll get used to it too…”
Grapple minced his way back into the cave. After a few breaths, inhaling the strange air, he found himself relaxing… even pleased with the unusual scent.
He looked closely at the ingredients of the amberat. Matted in the ball were plant fragments, animal dung, small rocks and other materials the wood rats would find near their home. Grapple was intrigued to find a number of trinkets the rat had collected from tourists, who had visited the rest stop over the years. There were shiny coins, glittering strands of cloth, colorful items made of plastic, leather and a wonderful assortment of precious stones. Sitting near the midden but not yet a part of it, was a round ball filled with liquid. Grapple’s mouth watered…
Finally, Grapple said, “I understand collecting stuff… I do that too, but I’m mystified. Of what use is it cemented together into a smelly, impregnable conglomeration like this?
“I’m not certain… “ Upton said hesitantly. He’d never thought about it. “All I know is, I inherited the urge to collect… from my mom and dad… they inherited it too… from their moms and dads… and as far as I know… moms and dads forever…”
“It does look old,” Grapple said stepping closer.
“Yeah, a year ago George and Thelma Packrat’s midden was raided by a pack of bigs. They spent a long time tearing it apart… laying out the bits on slabs and scratching their heads about what it was… hope they don’t do it to mine.”
“Yeah,” Grapple agreed. “Bigs destroy… they wreck everything they touch. But we magpies get back at them by stealing their trinkets…” Grapple stopped. He hopped closer to another section of the midden. “Hey, you got that from the bigs this morning, didn’t you?” he asked indicating the sparkly hair clip that earlier had fallen from the girl big’s hair.
“”It’s what we do… among other things.” Upton said sheepishly. “We got the chunks of potato chips, too… saw you eying them earlier.”
Grapple jumped back. “Wow, look at that!” he said beholding his reflection in a bit of mirror embedded in the midden, “I see myself… it’s a mirror! Would Wilma love to get her beak on that!”
“Trade you!” Upton said.
“Trade me what?” Grapple asked searching himself for something the rat might want in exchange for the mirror.
“I don’t know… just bet, if you’re a hoarder, you’ll have something I want.”
“Hey, I’ve got an idea.”
“Do you know Arnie Magpie?”
“I’ve seen him… don’t really know him.”
“Just as well, he’s a greedy loser. There’s a knot in my stomach that wants to plaster his beak with mud and packrat urine… I want to teach him in the worst way possible.”
“Wow. You don’t like him, do you?”
“Well, no one does,” Grapple judged, cocking his head to look in the mirror at his good side. “He’s a sick hoarder… been padd big said scanning the scene. “Let’s get home… give pictures to TV and the Pioneer… let them do what they want.”
“Finally get some news worth reading,” the girl big laughed.
The others laughed too.
They climbed back into the vehicle and headed back onto the highway and south toward Madras.
The sun was low in the western sky when Rusty Eagle mounted the stone podium to announce the winner.
A weighty hush fell over the multitude.
Grapple Magpie shook with excited anticipation at Rusty’s words. Wilma perched near him. Whatever the outcome, the results would make a powerful story that would have legs in the Magpie Mag for a long time. Upton, Lorinda and other groups of magpie and packrat friends also were near.
Grapple scanned the crowd for a glimpse of Delilah… too many birds. He couldn’t see Delilah but he could see Arnie Magpie. The braggart was bouncing up and down in a celebratory dance on the shoulders of a ferret… a ferret… Grapple didn’t expect to see a ferret team up with a magpie. It was Gary Ferret. Grapple was surprised. He didn’t know that Arnie and Gary even knew one another.
“Gary Ferret in Arnie’s camp,” Grapple grumbled, “And celebrating… when Rusty announced the winner, they’ll be sucking humble air.”
Jean Magpie edged her way through the crowd toward the podium. She wanted to be near to congratulate the winner. She hoped it would be Grapple.
Rusty’s strong voice broke the silence.
“Greetings friends all. It is a remarkable thing to see so many birds gathered in one spot for the Great Hoarding Competition. You might expect birds at a gathering to celebrate a great social bird cause… but it’s a surprising thing to see so many animals of other species give this quality of attention to a sport. Nevertheless, you are not here for a lecture, but to find out which challenger collected the most and best plunder. I have to say that Wise Owl, Turk Vulture and I had a turkey of a time coming to agreement on the results. We used two criteria from which we judged. We counted… that is Ginny Mouse and her crew counted every item in each pile while Wise, Turk and I assigned quality to exceptional items.
“Grapple Magpie possesses a wonderful group of shiny items that carried exceptional weight…”
A gasp from someone in Arnie’s camp interrupted Rusty’s oration and… a sigh of excitement rose from Grapple.
“And!” shouted Rusty, “Arnie Magpie possesses an equal number of glittering plunder.”
More murmers came from both camps.
“I know,” Rusty continued, “that, when today’s event is over, you may want to gaze at the display of wonders both contestants offered in their respective collections.
“Let’s get on with it!” shouted someone in Arnie’s camp.
“Yeah…” came more complaints.
“Well, then,” Rusty said holding up a silver watch and the snow globe, “this is the mother-lode we found in Grapples camp… We judges determined that they clearly outshine these gaudy balls and this diamond-crested hairpiece we found in Arnie’s stash.” Rusty lifted a gaudy ball up for all to see.
There were more groans and gasps. “Come on, Rusty!” Grapple finally shouted, “Tell ‘em I won and be done with it.”
A section of morning doves gasped at Grapple’s nerve.
Rusty continued, “We also were impressed with a roll of washers Grapple collected…”
Loud shouts came from Grapple’s fans.
“But,” interrupted Rusty, “we were equally admiring of this impressive coil of copper wire Arnie claims.”
Arnie’s crowd erupted with applause.
Rusty quieted the crowd. “Yes, Grapple with your collection of the snow globe, the watch, mirror bits and agates, you are clearly the winner of the quality criterion…”
Pandemonium broke loose in Grapple’s camp. Upton patted Grapple on the back in jubilation. Wilma wrote in her book.
“But Rusty shouted, “Arnie collected 200 more pieces of plunder.
Grapple was stunned. He didn’t want to hear what Rusty was about to say.
“But, as sure as the sun follows rain,” Rusty continued… “200 pieces… Arnie’s number is an amount that, even the quality of your best… Grapple, could not overcome…”
Near bedlam broke out among Arnie’s fans.
“Therefore, the winner of the Great Hoarding Competition is…” Rusty paused for effect before shouting, “Arnie Magpie!”
Pandemonium came in Arnie’s camp this time. The proud magpie was hefted on shoulders and paraded to the podium rock where he received a pinecone cluster, which Turk Vulture hung around Arnie’s neck.
Hoards of birds gathered around Arnie. From his sagebrush perch Grapple took in the scene. There beside Arnie stood Delilah… looking admiringly at him.
“She wasn’t neutral at all!” Grapple said to Upton and Conley, “She’s taken up with that loser.”
“Not today,” Upton managed to say.
“It wasn’t fair… I know it… He cheated some way, I know it,’’ Grapple snarled trying to ease his double pain.
“Just like you… he did get stuff from others,” a voice said quietly.
Grapple turned to see who had spoken. It was Jean Magpie. “What did you say?”
“Arnie’s treasures weren’t all his,” Jean said.
“You mean he stole stuff to win?”
“I don’t know about stealing, I just know he got the tin cans from Millard Mole.”
Grapples beak dropped open. A burning anger ignited in his breast, entered his brain, and exploded. “Arnie cheated!” he called. Then, shouting at the top of his voice and pointing at Arnie, he repeated, “Arnie cheated!”
A collective gasp surged through the multitude… then an eerie hush settled over the sea of birds. They all looked at one another confused. All was quiet.
Rusty returned to the podium rock to speak. He scanned the scene until he spotted Grapple. “What is it you say, Grapple?”
“That’s a serious charge… how did he cheat?”
“The tin cans don’t belong to Arnie… They are Millard Mole’s.” Grapple said, hopping onto the podium and up to Rusty.
Arnie’s friends lowered him to the ground. He hopped to the podium rock, mounted it to confront his accuser.
“You’re a nag-pie liar!” Arnie snarled sticking his beak in Grapple’s face.
“How about it, Millard?” Rusty asked searching the crowd for the mole.
A mole standing near Millard raised a foot and pointed toward the cringing mole, “Here he is!”
“Did Arnie steal the tin cans from you?”
Millard hesitated, wishing he weren’t there.
“Did Arnie steal your tin cans?”
“Not exactly,” Millard answered. “You think I would keep quiet, if he’d stolen them?”
“What then?” Rusty asked.
Millard shifting nervously on his hind legs, “You have to know?”
“Yes, justice requires honesty.”
“I loaned them to him.”
Shouts and gasps of disbelief gushed through the congregation.
Grapple shifted his weight uneasily. He dared not look at Conley, Upton or Lorinda, who stood beside him. They lowered their heads as if doing so would make them invisible.
“Disqualified!” exploded from a segment of the dove family.
“Rules didn’t say,” shouted a ferret.
“Unfair!” shouted a group of pheasants.
“Rules didn’t say,” repeated the ferret. Others joined her.
Waves of disagreement surged through the birds. Sounds of ugly friction echoed through the canyon.
Rusty raised his enormous wings to silence the crowd. An uneasy calm began to settle over the sea of birds. “While the rules didn’t prohibit Arnie from borrowing booty… to swell the size of his plunder… while the rules didn’t say… the tactic of borrowing stuff to win… does seem unfair.”
Another wave of pandemonium rocketed through community of birds.
Rusty huddled for a few moments with Wise Owl and Turk Vulture. Then, he flapped into the air and cocked his mighty talon quieting the birds.
Then, he settled to the ground and spoke, “It is the judgment of the contest committee that the championship trophy should now go to Grapple.”
Tom Harrier and his lieutenant bird-at-arms moved into action quelling the crowd.
Grapple moved onto rock waiting for the bird-at-arms to remove the pine medallion from Arnie and place it on him.
Then, a tiny voice penetrated the interval, “Grapple borrowed stuff too,” the voice said.
“What?” cried Rusty. “Who says?”
Grapple looked open beaked at his packrat friend. His face flushed with anger.
“I did,” Lorinda Packrat said softly. “I didn’t want to say, but I can’t help it, deception is wrong,”
“You’re saying that Grapple borrowed plunder to try to win?” Rusty asked.
“I don’t want to say it, but have to… yes, part of Grapple’s loot belongs to Upton and me.”
Arnie grabbed the medallion and returned it to his neck.
Grapple shouted, “Not right… What she’s saying is not right… Upton gave me the stuff. I didn’t borrow it.”
Rusty sighed thinking, ‘this is an unruly bunch of birds… how are we going to sort this out?’ He swallowed hard and asked, “Upton, does the stuff belong to Grapple?”
Upton gingerly stepped forward and weakly said, “I did give it to him…”
“There you see,” Grapple interrupted.
“But,” Upton continued sheepishly, “He has to give it back.”
Grapple’s heart sank. He gave Upton a dirty look. Then, grasping at a strand of hay for a way out, impulsively said, “The rules didn’t say.”
A stunned silence came over the multitude. Everyone looked at Grapple.
“Ah,” Rusty broke the silence. So, we are back to that.”
“Yea, the rules didn’t say,” Grapple repeated weakly.
“Well,” Rusty murmured then shouted. “Looks like we have a couple of magpies who tried to trick one another, a couple of deceivers… who played loose with the truth.”
Shouts of “Strip them both!” and “No contest!” erupted from the audience.
Rusty waved a huge wing quieting the protests. He huddled with Wise and Turk. When all was quiet he looked into the crowd and shouted, “Since there were no rules preventing borrowing, and since both contestants borrowed, looks like we are back where we started…” he paused before saying, “and though neither contestant displayed admirable qualities for our young birds. Yet, for the sake of closure, we declare Arnie Magpie the tarnished winner!”
Wild yelling erupted from Arnie’s camp once again. And again his friends lifted him into the air and began to serpentine their way through the sea of birds. Grapple and his friends were pushed aside as the celebrants surged past the podium and on into the jubilant crowd.
Grapple was stunned. His world began to swirl about him… For a moment he was afraid he had lost his mind and was sure he was about to faint.
To add to his humiliation, Arnie’s friends had lifted Delilah onto shoulders next to Arnie. Obviously she was his magpie. The pair was being carried through the crowd like conquering heroes. Embarrassment smacked Grapple in the face. He wanted to hide, but he couldn’t escape grinning teeth and storms of joyous laughter. Then his red embarrassment gave way to anger. The center of his being turned white hot with blinding jealously mixed with resentment and hate. He felt like he would explode. For a moment he sank low to the ground to steady himself. Then, he thought that he must escape the glaring eyes of painful defeat… to get away from Arnie’s ribald celebration.
He pushed his way through the mob to his stash of plunder. A group of Grapple’s friends, Upton, Lorinda and a few other loyal packrats were already lifting loads of Grapple/Packrat plunder onto their backs getting ready to move the plunder back to their den.
Grapple approached carrying his “quality” items: the glittering barrette, the snow globe and the watch. Grapple was so preoccupied with his selfish humiliation that he failed to be concerned about what his friends were feeling.
Lorinda Packrat saw him coming. She didn’t want to face him. She was ashamed of Upton’s and her part in the deception. Nevertheless, the event was over. She secured her load and moved away toward Highway 26 overlook and home. She chattered happily with her neighbor, Grace Packrat.
“It’s his fault,” Grapple heard Grace say.
“No hide off our snouts,” Lorinda said lightly.
Upton glanced at Grapple and lowered his head. He didn’t say anything. Instead he gripped his load tighter and moved quickly away toward home.
Grapple picked up a beak full of lamb’s wool added it to his bundle and turned to begin the lonely trek home.
Grapple hadn’t taken more than five steps, when Wilma, Jean and Conley Magpie approached.
“Hey, Grap… that was quite a show,” Wilma called as she approached her dejected brother. “It’ll be a legs-lasting story for the Magpie Mag.”
Grapple was stunned that his sister of all people would compound his humiliation by making it into a “legs-lasting” story. His knees turned to aloe-jelly. He sank to his belly. “You wouldn’t…” Grapple wheezed unable to say more.
“Hey, come on buddy,” Conley said, “You did great!”
“Yeah sure,” Grapple snapped gaining strength, “You all let me make a fool out of myself… in front of the whole world… in front of that sniveling, no good loser…”
“Well, the sniveling, no good loser is not a loser this time,” Conley said needling his friend a bit.
“How could you?” Grapple repeated looking at Wilma.
“Grap… if you are a fool, it’s because you think you’re a fool. We don’t!” Jean Magpie.
“Yeah,” Conley added, “What’s so heavy about what happened?”
“What are you thinking…?” Grapple groaned, “It’s the Great Hoarding Competition… that’s heavy… You made it big by blabbing it all over the known world.”
“So?” Wilma said. “You know how news stories go… end of the world today and out of mind tomorrow when a coyote raids a hen house or some other attention demanding whisper hits the circuit.”
“But in front of Delilah… she saw it all. Now she’ll know I’m a loser,” Grapple whimpered.
“Grap… She already knew it,” Jean offered.
“But who isn’t a loser in some way? It’s the way of the world, isn’t it?” Jean asked. “Conley’s not perfect… he’s got his flaws… Wilma is a loser, she’s got her flaws…” Jean paused… with a laugh said, “of course, I don’t.”
Grapple smiled at Jean’s wit.
“There you see… the world doesn’t have to remain black because that loser Arnie Magpie cheated you out of a fleeting moment of glory,” Wilma encouraged.
“Yeah, come on Grap… let’s get your junk back to your hoarding cave,” Conley said picking up a load of plunder. “We’ve got to think about Upton’s upcoming challenge, don’t we? Don’t want him to make the same mistake.”
“No more slippery rules…” Jean said thoughtfully. “Just being yourself, telling the truth, is enough.”
“Yeah… guess you’re right,” Grapple said.
The four magpies began making their way toward the highway.
“I don’t think you are a loser,” Jean said as they approached the blacktop.
“Really?” Grapple said really noticing Jean’s gorgeous features for the first time.
“ Look at that,” Conley said pointing to the TV broadcasting truck pulling away from its parking space by the side of Highway 26.
“It’s a news rig,” Wilma said, “They were getting a great story for their evening broadcast, wouldn’t you say, Grapple?”
They all laughed, even Grapple
Illustration by: Chris Sheets
This story is available on Kindle at Amazon.com