FEBRUARY (The Chase)

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Mistletoe pokes her muzzle into winter's brown leaf litter sniffing for acorns. Even before she snuffles up her first snack, along comes Cocklebur.

Cocklebur has followed Mistletoe all the way from the den. Now he's hanging on the Sugar Maple's trunk but he's not glancing from side to side looking for danger. In fact, he doesn't even seem interested in chasing our squirrel from the acorn-finding place, which is exactly what he usually does. No, Cocklebur simply hangs on the trunk, gazing at Mistletoe as if she had three heads!

Mistletoe doesn't understand. In Peace Hill's squirrel community, Cocklebur is a higher-ranked squirrel than she, for in the past whenever there's been a tail- flicking, growling, and foot-stomping spat, he's always been the winner. It's only natural that right now Cocklebur should chase Mistletoe from the good eating place. Therefore, what's he doing just hanging there looking all goggly-eyed?

For almost a minute Cocklebur stays there with that funny look on his face, sniffing the cold air. Then he bounds onto the ground and, like a cat sneaking up on a mouse, begins slinking toward Mistletoe.

Our squirrel doesn't at all understand what's happening. However, she does know that she's hungry, and that Cocklebur isn't really threatening her, so she just keeps foraging for acorns. And all the while Cocklebur creeps toward her, slowly and deliberately, curiously flicking his tail in short, nervous jerks...

When he gets close, Mistletoe doesn't stop feeding. She doesn't know what to make of all this. Maybe if she just ignores him...

But before Mistletoe can forget the crazy-acting Cocklebur, he's sneaked around behind her, gingerly poked his nose beneath her tail, and taken a nice deep whiff!

Outraged and confused, huffily Mistletoe scrambles into the Privet hedge.

At a leisurely pace, his tail slowly and curiously waving in the air, Cocklebur follows her. Something in his expression says that he'd like nothing more in the whole wide world than to take at least one more whiff...

Though Cocklebur doesn't see where Mistletoe has escaped to, he smells her trail. In fact, Mistletoe's odor is something of which Cocklebur simply cannot get enough. Fairly nonchalantly now he follows our squirrel's scent to a rock where seconds earlier Mistletoe had paused. He touches his nose there, and inhales. As Mistletoe's soul-pleasing, feminine odor blossoms all through his slightly dizzy head a shudder-causing thrill flushes through his body. Catching a glimpse of Mistletoe climbing high into the Elm tree, Cocklebur begins moving toward the tree's trunk, grandly waving his high-held tail.

From the far side of the feeding station the young, low-ranked male squirrel called Hawthorn notices that a little chase is shaping up so he decides to join it. When Cocklebur clambers up the elm's trunk, Hawthorn tags along behind him. Hawthorn also seems to consider this just a half-hearted chase, not anything serious, just a chase after a female.

Several times the two male squirrels catch Mistletoe but each time when they try to sniff beneath her tail she angrily rushes away. Sometimes after her escapes the males pause to sniff the tree bark upon which she has sat.

******

Cocklebur, Hawthorn, Loblolly, Buckeye, Blacklocust and the old squirrel called Ginkgo... By noon all these male squirrels are pursuing Mistletoe and the pace of the chase has changed. Now they come after her as if they mean to catch her!

Moreover, Mistletoe herself now experiences feelings she's never known. Something new is cooking inside her -- something she can't understand, and something she isn't sure how to handle.

On the one hand, never has she been more upset with her fellow squirrels. On the other, somehow this crazy chase is kind of nice...

And, those males...! One time this morning Hawthorn found a spot on a Black Oak's limb where earlier Mistletoe had rested and more than just sniff the spot he actually gnawed at the crumbly bark, seeming to get drunk as Mistletoe's odor blossomed throughout his head!

Blacklocust hadn't behaved much better. During one hotheaded moment when he was leaping from one branch to another he'd misjudged the distance and tumbled twenty-five feet into a Forsythia bush. He became so upset that in anger he'd bitten the Forsythia's innocent branches. Then he'd raged across the lawn noisily expressing a buzzy complaint.

"Aaarghhhh!"...is more or less what Mistletoe says when she discovers herself cornered in the crotch of a White Ash tree. She really wants to rest now but those pesky males just won't let her! And now Cocklebur, Hawthorn and the others are coming closer and closer...

"Aaarghhh!"she screams again.

With a wild look in her eyes, Mistletoe gapes wide her mouth and snarls. Seeing her sharp teeth, finally the fellows understand that this lady is not simply playing hard-to-get. They decide to kill some time loitering among the tree's branches. Maybe later Mistletoe will cool down. Maybe later she'll let them come closer.

With the males orbiting around her, Mistletoe's conflicting feelings confuse her more and more. However, once she's rested, something inside her tells her to move on, and so she does.

Up one of the elm's branches she bounds, all the males chasing after her. Cocklebur happens to be nearest the branch she climbs so from the beginning he takes the lead. In a couple of minutes -- maybe because Mistletoe is deciding she doesn't want to escape -- Cocklebur catches up with her. Quickly mounting our squirrel from behind, he climbs atop her. Placing his front paws around her ribs just beyond her hips, he squeezes...

However, before they can mate, the old male called Ginkgo arrives. This big fellow with a face scared from many fights lays back his ears, gapes wide his toothy mouth and rushes at Cocklebur, driving him off Mistletoe's back.

Cocklebur makes no effort to defend his right to mate with Mistletoe. He simply slinks away before Ginkgo becomes more angry. Cocklebur is a high-ranked squirrel here on Peace Hill, but old Ginkgo is even higher...

Unfortunately for old Ginkgo, however, before he can mount his lady-love she bounds away and the whole chase must begin again!

The chase, the jockeying for position and the end-of-chase shuffle, with Ginkgo always replacing Cocklebur, and then Mistletoe rushing away.... all this is repeated time and time again. By mid-afternoon they're all dog-tired and the males are more than a little frustrated, so for a whole twenty minutes they call a truce and rest in the upper limbs of an oak tree. However, when Mistletoe decides to move on, all the males once again rush after her.

Blacklocust is the first to abandon the chase. He's the group's lowest-ranking male and during today's chase he's seldom even come close to catching our squirrel. Soon Hawthorn and Loblolly also give up. Then only Cocklebur and Ginkgo are left.

No matter how many times Cocklebur is the one to catch Mistletoe, old Ginkgo never lets him mate. Therefore, finally Cocklebur gives up, too. Maybe on another day he'll have better luck. Maybe other females will smell as good as Mistletoe... And maybe when that happens, this ugly-faced Ginkgo won't be around...

Now inside Mistletoe the thing that for a long time has brewed comes to a boil. Now she knows beyond all doubt that of all the males who have chased her today the one who must mate with her is Ginkgo. At the end of the last chase, Ginkgo mounts her, and somehow it seems right. She does not move away.

On this day in the third week of February, Mistletoe becomes pregnant. In forty-four days she will bear her first set of young.

******

There... Maybe five yards from the Black Walnut's trunk and toward the house... Yes, here's the old stump... About a yard behind it... Mistletoe pokes her muzzle beneath a leaf, sniffs deeply but only smells moist, chilly earth. She wedges her entire head between a matted-together clump of leaves and soil. Finding nothing, she rears onto her haunches, looks in every direction for danger, then sniffs beneath a leaf, but finds nothing, nothing, nothing...

Finally beneath a decaying, brown Sycamore leaf she detects the faint odor of a buried walnut. She sniffs a little to the left... Now to the right... Yes! Beneath this leaf a walnut is buried!

Working with hard, sharp claws and her mouth, Mistletoe rips through layers of brown tree leaves, decaying wood and dirt until the old walnut, cold and wet, rides securely between her front teeth. Hurrying up the Black Walnut's trunk, she perches six feet high where two big limbs join to form a crotch, a good spot from which she can watch for danger all around as she works.

Of course, a walnut's shell is very hard. However, when Mistletoe was young, for many hours she played with walnut shells, biting them, gnawing on them, learning the shells' fracture zones, the weak spots, and how to chisel and crack them with her teeth. Therefore, now Mistletoe is a walnut-opening expert. Now, just by feeling a walnut's weight in her paws she knows whether it's empty or holds a tasty kernel.

And it's a good thing that Mistletoe knows these things, and that last fall she buried her caches of nuts, for now she needs a lot of energy to share with the babies growing inside her.

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