They awoke to a glorious dawn. With a breakfast of scrambled hummingbird eggs, toasted melba cracker generously spread with acorn butter, and hot cocoa with marshmallows under their belts, they were ready to get underway.
“Why don’t I take the first shift?” Benjamin suggested. He climbed behind the wheel and they set off for the lighthouse.
They had traveled along the water’s edge a short distance when Bertie cried out, “Hey, what’s going on up ahead?”
“Looks like a couple of gulls circling over something washed up on the beach.”
“Maybe it’s a dead fish,” observed Bertie when they had come closer. “I’ll check it out with the binoculars.” Withdrawing them from the glove compartment and putting them to his eyes, he exclaimed, “Those aren’t gulls! They’re hawks!”
“Let’s have a closer look,” said Benjamin, accelerating in their direction.
“Be careful,” warned Bertie. “They’re bigger than Mooncusser. We’d be in serious trouble if they flipped us over”.
“That’d be an upsetting experience,” Benjamin shot back, “but I’m willing to take my chances if you are.”
“I’m in,” Bertie replied, continuing to focus on the hawks, “but I’m not sure it’s a fish. Looks more like a piece of driftwood… and there’s something moving near it.”
“Could it be one of those bass we threw back yesterday?”
“No! It’s more like a…Omigosh! It’s a small animal. It’s fastened to that driftwood with a length of string and fighting off the hawks with a stick. We’ve got to help.”
“Got a plan?”
“Simple. When we get close,” said Bertie, “I’ll grab my slingshot, jump out and start firing at those hawks. You take your knife and see if you can cut it free. We’ll need our best teamwork to pull this caper off.”
Before they had come to a full stop, Bertie was leaping from the wagon, his slingshot in his right paw and ammo bag hanging from his waist. He was firing as he hit the beach, his left paw going from ammo bag to shot pouch with a dexterity that was all but a blur. A number of his balls struck home, sending feathers flying and his targets swooping away, squawking in pain.
Benjamin jumped from the driver’s seat without turning off the engine. Knife in one paw, he grabbed a fishing rod from its holder on the rear bumper and scrambled up onto the piece of driftwood. Jabbing the rod at the diving hawks, he began to saw away at the line.
Again and again the birds dove and wheeled away, their angry cries filling the air. They circled, calling down threats and insults and scolding fiercely at the thought they might lose an easy meal.
“Get out of here, you busybodies,” one screeched. “That’s our lunch.”
“And you’ll be dessert, if you don’t beat it,” threatened its mate as she dove at Benjamin’s head. At the last possible second he thrust his rod tip upward, nicking the hawk’s breast so that it veered away in a flurry of feathers.
“How do you like them apples!” he called after the retreating raptor and raised his rod in triumph, “There’s more waiting for you.”
So intent on their work were the two mice that they had not seen what kind of an animal they were trying to rescue. In a momentary lull in the action, Benjamin glanced down. To his astonishment he saw it was a white mouse dressed in a strange and colorful outfit. She was sprawled on a splintered piece of door. The long stick with which she had been defending herself lay beside her on the sand.
A NARROW ESCAPE
“Hurry, Benjie,” hollered Bertie, “I’m low on ammo. We’ll be in real trouble when I run out.”
“Just a few more seconds.”
Before the sentence was out of his mouth, the final strand of the string parted with a snap. He grabbed her by the forearm and lifted her to her feet.
“Can you walk?” he asked urgently. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“I…I think so,” was the weak response. “Thank you so much. I thought I was done for.”
“Thank us when we’re out of this mess,” he shot back and, opening Mooncusser’s back door, urged, “Quick! Hop in!”
Aware that they might lose their meal, the maddened hawks pressed their attack, coming so close to Mooncusser that their talons scraped her roof.
“My ammo’s almost gone,” Bertie yelled, “and when it’s gone, we’ll be goners.”
Benjamin thrust the rod back into its holder, dashed around to the driver’s door and hopped in.
“Come on, Cuz,” he hollered. This bus is leaving!”
Bertie’s last shot struck a diving hawk full in the breast. It veered away, narrowly missing him with its out-stretched talons. “Good thing you left her running,” he gasped as he clambered into the passenger seat.
“Yeah, I figured we’d have to make a quick getaway,” Benjamin responded.
He slammed the gearshift into reverse and, rocking dangerously from side to side, the wagon shot backward down the beach. Once clear of the splintered piece of door, he spun the steering wheel, shifted into first gear and floored the accelerator. Engine racing and its rear wheels spinning wildly, Mooncusser lurched forward and sped away up the beach.
“What now?” Bertie hollered. “If one of those hawks flies into us, he’ll flip us over, for sure.”
“Not if he can’t hit us,” Benjamin shot back, spinning the steering wheel back and forth so that the speeding wagon swerved wildly as it sped across the beach. One of the hawks swooped low over the sand, heading directly at them. A split second before the certain collision, Benjamin yanked the steering wheel hard to the right. Mooncusser veered sharply, rocking violently up on two wheels and the hawk swept past only inches from the driver’s side window.
“Nice piece of driving, Benjie,” Bertie replied, and, clinging to the careening wagon’s doorpost, turned to their passenger, “Ok back there?”
“I’m ok,” was the weak reply.
“Wow. It doesn’t get any closer than that!” Benjamin cried. “If we stay out on the beach, Cuz, it’s only a matter of time before they get us!”
“Our only chance is the sandcastle!” Bertie shouted. “If we can get inside, they won’t be able to touch us.”
“You’re a genius, Cuz! But, what about those weasels?”
“Let’s cross that bridge when we’ve crossed the bridge. We’re not very far away.” Bertie yelled. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
As they raced over the sand, weaving wildly and often careening up on two wheels, Benjamin skillfully evaded the relentless attacks by the hawks.
“We’re close,” Bertie shouted as they neared their goal, “but the entrance is on the far side!”
“Hold on tight!” Benjamin shouted and swung Mooncusser in a wide half-circle. He swerved to avoid a diving hawk, shot across the bridge and through the castle entrance. Slamming on the brakes, he slumped over the steering wheel. The others sat motionless in the near-dark of the cavernous interior. The noise of the engine subsided to a purr.
“Whew!” Benjamin gasped. “It doesn’t get any closer than that. We could’ve been hawk hamburger,” and flicked off the ignition switch. There followed a resounding silence, save for the ticking of the cooling engine and his muttered “Good girl”, as he gave the dashboard a fond caress.
“Looks as though those weasels have vacated the premises,” said Bertie, pointing at the heavy door, which hung askew on one hinge. “Now that the dust is settling, why don’t we make the introductions?”
“Good idea,” said his cousin. Turning around, he stuck out a paw, “I’m your driver, Benjamin, and Sureshot here is my cousin, Bertie.”
“The pleasure is all mine, lads,” she responded in a strange accent. “I go by Maddelaine the Magnificent, but you can call me ‘Maddie’.
“There’s got to be a good story behind that highfalutin’ title, Maddie,” declared Benjamin.
“Well, I’d be delighted to tell you, but first, I want to thank you for saving my life.”
“Aw shucks, ma’am,” he replied, imitating a gallant cowboy, “them kinda rescues is everyday stuff fer us wranglers. But we’re sure hankerin’ t’ hear yer yarn.”
Well, you may find it hard to believe,” she began, “but this damsel in distress is the leader of a troupe of British circus mice.”
“A circus!” Benjamin exclaimed. “Are you a clown?”
“Hardly, Benjamin,” she retorted with a scornful look. “My world-renowned troupe of high-wire performers and trapeze artists is known as ‘Madeleine And Her Magnificent Flying Mice’. We were sailing to New York aboard the SS Musatania to join our circus on a tour of North America.”
“Wow!” I love circuses,” he replied. “But, how did you end up here on the beach?”
“Our ship went down in a violent hurricane.”
“Holey Simoli! What happened?”
“Well, last month the rest of the circus departed aboard the Queen Minerva from London. My colleagues and I were delayed by a series of private performances. We departed from Liverpool on the Musatania perhaps two weeks ago. We had been sailing along quite comfortably when suddenly we encountered a tremendous storm and heavy seas. I believe we’d have weathered the gale, but an enormous wave appeared out of nowhere and overwhelmed the ship. She sank in a matter of minutes.”
“That must have been terrifying,” exclaimed Bertie.
“Beyond terrifying, Bertie. I’ve never seen the likes of that bedlam that ensued as the ship went down—everyone running about with no idea what to do. It was far more frightening than the Great Hartford Circus Tent Fire of ’44. Just awful!.” She gave a shudder at the recollection. “Fortunately for me, even as that beautiful ship began to plunge to the ocean floor, the storm swept on past as swiftly as it had come, leaving behind a scene of desolation.”
“It must have been a rogue wave,” Bertie commented. “Those storm-driven monsters can appear without warning and roll away just as…”
“Pardon me, Maddie,” Benjamin cut in. “Why don’t we change the subject to something a bit lighter—like lunch. You must be starved. You look as thin as a spaghetti stick.”
“I’d welcome almost anything edible. I haven’t eaten in I don’t know how many days.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right snack wagon,” he replied. “We have plenty to eat.” \
He jumped out, dropped the wagon’s tailgate and began rummaging about in the back. Soon he returned with a blanket and Mrs. Fieldmouse’s basket. “Let’s see what we’ve got in here to restore a nearly-drowned mouse.”
He spread the blanket on the ground and laid on it the basket’s contents, describing each item in the manner of a restaurant waiter. ”My name is Benjamin, and I’ll be your server this afternoon. On our menu we have Mrs. Fieldmouse’s famous poppy petal and suet sandwiches, or her famous Ritz cracker-crumble peanut butter pie. You might enjoy these delicious cheddar cheese nibbles,” he offered the jar with a flourish, “or perhaps you’d like to try one of her superb sunflower seed honey cakes. For a beverage, you can choose between her superb dandelion juice, or her honeysuckle ginger nectar or, my favorite, a can of Holey Cola. At your service, ma’am.”
Gracious,” declared Maddie as she eyed the fare set before her, “It all sounds so good. I’ll have a bit of each if it’s not too much of a bother. The sight of all this scrumptious food makes me realize how absolutely famished I am.”
“My guess is you’ll want to give your full attention to this spread and continue your story after lunch.”
“How perfectly wonderful, Benjamin! You two are lifesavers—in more ways than one!” cried Maddie as she eyed the spread. “Everything looks beyond delicious.”
And eat she did, as though she had never seen food.
A TALE OF SURVIVAL
Gorged at last, she lay back on the blanket with a long sigh of contentment, followed by a gentle, ladylike belch. After a suitable pause, Bertie urged her to continue her tale.
“Oh, of course. Forgive me. Where was I?”
“You and the Musatania were in serious trouble.”
“Yes, of course. Well, when I realized that she was going to sink, I looked about the deck and spotted a small section of a door that had been smashed to pieces by frantic passengers. There was a metal ring bolted to it. I thought, ‘If I tie myself to that ring, I’ll have a chance of surviving on my own life raft.’
“And survive you did,” Benjamin replied. “More details, please.”
“No sooner had I fastened myself to that ring with a short length of string than the ship began to slide beneath the waves. I leaped overboard with my “raft” and began to float away. What an awful noise she made as she broke to pieces! The splintering of the deck; the groan of twisting steel; the bellow of the ship’s distress horn; the screams of panicked passengers and crew; the cries for help from those wretched mice who had been swept overboard—such chaos I never again hope to experience!” Her eyes glazed over as she relived the horrendous experience.
After a moment Bertie asked gently, “Then what, Maddie?”
“Where was I? Oh yes, of course. In a matter of minutes the ship was gone and I was afloat on the ocean, tied to that piece of door. Sadly, my companions were nowhere to be seen.”
“Well, miracles do happen,” replied Bertie. “You were sure those hawks were going to finish you. Then we appeared out of the blue.”
“Actually, Bertie, I hadn’t given up,” she smiled wryly, “I was just taking a break.”
“Perhaps your fellow troupe members didn’t give up, either,” Bertie replied. “There’s the chance they survived the sinking and might …”
To change the course of this morose conversation, Benjamin cut in, ““So, there you were, bobbing about the scene of disaster. What did you do next?”
“I persevered. ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way,’ I always say.”
“Of course,” he chuckled, “but… details, please.”
“Although I’m good a swimmer and a well-conditioned acrobat, it took all my strength to drag myself onto that piece of door. It was heartbreaking to watch those surviving mice floundering in the water. The ship had gone down so rapidly there had been no time to launch the lifeboats, and the terrified crew hadn’t distributed life jackets to the passengers. They’d been too busy saving themselves.”
“Those wretched crewmice,” exclaimed Benjamin with disgust. “Rats deserting a sinking ship.”
“Precisely. Well, there I was drifting about among those who hadn’t gone down with the ship. A few survivors managed to grab hold of my raft, but were so exhausted they were unable to haul themselves aboard. One by one they drifted away until I was alone in those turbulent seas.”
“The sole survivor?” asked Benjamin.
“I’m afraid so, Benjie,” she replied, then caught herself. “My goodness, forgive me! I hardly know you, gallant Benjamin. Might I call you ‘Benjie?”
“Sure. That’s what my friends call me.”
“Well, we are friends now,” she stated, “so that’s settled.”
“Skip the love fest, you two,” scolded Bertie. “Go on, Maddie.”
“Time and again waves washed me off,” she went on, “but I managed to haul myself back on my little aft.”
“I guess you didn’t get bored aboard that board,” Benjamin chuckled.
“Good grief, Benjie!” Bertie chided. “You pick the worse times to trot out your pitiful attempts at humor.”
“Don’t be a scold, Bertie,” she held up a paw to silence him. “Comic relief is welcome in almost any situation. Anyway, aware that I was terribly fatigued and might soon lose consciousness, I lashed myself to the door with the string. In spite of my dreadful predicament, I soon fell into an exhausted sleep. When I awoke, who knows how many days later, the seas had subsided; the sun was shining; and I was floating alone under a sparkling blue sky.”
“How long ago was that?”
“I have no notion,” she replied, a distant look in her eye. “I lost count after day two.”
“Well, fortunately for you, the wind’s been onshore for the past week and blew you to Monomoy,” said Bertie. “You must have washed ashore on this morning’s high tide, and,” he paused dramatically, “there you were for the hawks to discover.”
“Well, I was so fortunate that you found me, too,” she grinned, “and in the nick of time.”
“I’ll say,” chuckled Benjamin. “a couple of more minutes and you’d have been acrobat a la mode for that pair.”
“But I didn’t,” she said, “and I have you two brave Mouseketeers to thank.”
“Oh, pshaw,” responded Benjamin, again playing the unassuming cowboy. “T’warn’t nothin’, Miss. We were jes’ a coupla beachcombin’ buckaroos in the right place at the right time. Glad to be of service.”
“Oh, Benjie,” she giggled, “I was in great danger and owe you two my life.”
“Speaking of danger,” Bertie said, “I‘m going to see if our raptor friends are lingering out there.”
He was soon back with the news that the hawks had gone.
“I think it’s safe to move on,” he said. “We’re headed south on a fishing expedition, Maddie. You’re more than welcome to join us.”
“How exciting!” she replied. “I’d love to. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone catch a fish.”
“Well,” said Benjamin, “why don’t we pack up the hamper and hit the highway.”
Which they did.