It had always been the best watermelon in the whole patch. Even when it was a little fellow it was so round and pudgy that Michael noticed it and said to his mother and father, "It looks just like a fat baby, ready to laugh."
"If you like it so well," answered his father, "we'll give it to you. It will be ripe just about on your birthday, and you can have it to eat at your party."
"Oh, thank you, Father," exclaimed the pleased little boy.
After this Michael took special care of the watermelon, and the Nature Spirits and little animal people who were his friends gave it their special care, too. With such loving attention the little round watermelon grew faster than any of the others in the patch, until just a few days before Michael's birthday it seemed in perfect condition.
Meanwhile in the east orchard of the Garden across the highway from Michael's home the little animal people went about in their usual busy fashion. Skirrlcy, the squirrel, could be seen hunting nuts here and there; Grubby, the gopher, looked out the door of his underground home occasionally; Mrs. Plumy, with her two striped kittens, went about searching for a choice tidbit; and the cottontail bunnies were hopping all over the orchard.
In the afternoon, just two days before Michael's birthday, Scuffy, the rabbit, and his grandfather, Lightfoot, along with several other relatives, were gathered in the berry patch discussing a problem of great importance to them. For several days they had been concerned about the nightly visits which one of their new neighbors, Mr. Ringtail Raccoon, made away from the orchard.
"Three nights I saw him leave," said Scuffy, "and Ollie, the owl, said she saw him, too, coming home early in the morning."
"It certainly doesn't look very respectable - staying out all night," said Mrs. Scuffy.
Grandfather Lightfoot adjusted his glasses and said, "Well, my dear, we shouldn't judge too hastily. He might be looking after a sick friend, you know."
"Oh, Grandfather, you are always trying to see the good in everybody, and of course that's right. But I think we should know for sure," replied Mrs. Scuffy.
"Then suppose some of us follow him tonight and find out just where he goes," suggested her practical husband.
"Yes, we can do that," agreed Grandfather. "Scuffy, you and Rusky meet me here tonight when the Moon comes up over the tops of the eucalyptus trees, and we'll see if he 's up to any mischief."
All agreed to this, and that night when the big round Moon shone down on the orchard from above the tops of the tall eucalyptus trees, Grandfather Lightfoot and his two grandsons met in some bushes near the hollow tree where Mr. Raccoon had made his home. Before long their new neighbor stuck his nose out the door, looked cautiously about, and then slipped silently over to the hedge and on to the big gate. The rabbits followed as noiselessly as they could. At the gate Mr. Raccoon stopped to look about him, and then quickly ran down the road and across the highway. There he paused again for a moment, as an automobile came by flashing its big lights. Then he ran down Mesa Drive toward Michael's home.
The rabbits meanwhile had been hopping along a distance behind, wondering where on earth he was going. When they saw him stop at the fence of the watermelon patch they looked at each other uneasily.
"Come on," whispered Grandfather. "We'll soon see what he is up to."
Quietly they peered from the weeds by the side of the road and saw the raccoon busily digging in the earth by the fence.
"What's he doing that for, Grandpa?" asked Rusky.
"Why, he 's digging a hole under the fence so he can get into the patch," replied Grandfather.
"But I don't see how he can eat a watermelon," whispered Rusky.
By this time Mr. Raccoon had finished digging the hole and had slipped into the patch. Not far behind him, cautious and curious, followed the rabbits, easily hiding themselves among the watermelon leaves.
Mr. Raccoon looked sharply around at the watermelons, and then suddenly made a bee line for Michael's round, fat melon. Pushing it to one side with his nose, he began to scratch on the other side. Soon there was a hole down into the sweet, red meat, and the hungry raccoon put in his paws and brought out a luscious mouthful which he devoured with obvious delight.
The rabbits' eyes almost popped out of their heads.
"I wouldn't have believed it," whispered Grandfather.
The three sat quietly for a moment, not knowing just what to do, while Mr. Raccoon went on greedily eating. Grandfather was thinking that not another one of the little animals of the Garden would have bothered anything belonging to Michael's family, for they all loved animals and treated them almost like humans.
Suddenly he said aloud, "That's Michael 's birthday watermelon. This thieving must stop at once."
Just then the bark of a dog rang out on the moonlit air. Mr. Raccoon ran like lightning back to the fence and through the hole to the side of the highway. The rabbits followed as fast as they could go.
The next morning bright and early Michael, thinking of his birthday on the morrow, ran out to give his watermelon a loving pat before starting for school. When he reached the patch he could scarcely believe his eyes. There was the big hole left by Mr. Raccoon's greedy paws, and seeds were scattered all over the ground.
"Mother! Father!" called Michael, seeing them come out the back door. "Come here. My birthday watermelon's ruined. There's a hole in it and seeds are scattered all around."
"Are there any tracks?" asked his father, coming up to the fence.
"Yes, there are," answered Michael, bending down to look more closely.
When Michael's father examined the melon and saw the footprints, he said, "It's too bad, son, but a raccoon had a party on your melon."
"But how could he get through the rind?"
"Why," said his father, "the forepaws of a raccoon are almost like human hands and the claws are very sharp. I have seen them do this before, but I haven't seen any here for a long time."
"But you'd better run along to school now, dear," said his mother, "or you'll be late. We'll take the watermelon in and have what's still good for supper," she added, as Michael obediently trudged away.
In the meantime the rabbits had had a meeting in the orchard and decided to call upon Mr. Raccoon and explain what a dreadful thing he had done. Grandfather Lightfoot, with several of his family, hopped over to the tree where Mr. Raccoon lived. They knocked at the door, but no one answered. They knocked again, this time louder.
Finally, Mr. Raccoon, blinking his eyes sleepily, came to the door.
"Mr. Raccoon," said Grandfather Lightfoot, "we have come to have a serious talk with you and explain some matters you don't seem to understand."
Mr. Raccoon looked surprised but said politely, "Very well. Come up on the porch and have seats."
Grandfather cleared his throat a bit nervously, glanced around the circle of relatives, and then spoke to his host.
"We know you're a newcomer to these parts and don't know all of our customs, so we've come to tell you about them. You see, there are some people who are so good to animals that their fields are never bothered by us."
Mr. Raccoon blinked his eyes and looked embarrassed.
"And that watermelon patch you went into last night belongs to one of our very best friends," piped up Scuffy excitedly.
"Yes, Scuffy's right, Mr. Raccoon," went on Grandfather. "We don 't want to hurt your feelings, but that's what we came to see you about. We are very fond of Michael, and that was his watermelon for his birthday party."
Mr. Raccoon looked nervously at his feet. He began to feel very ashamed.
"Oh, I see," he said. "Well, Mr. Rabbit, I like this neighborhood better than any I've ever lived in and I'll be glad to abide by your customs. And I'd like to be one of Michael's friends, too. I've known boys who weren't so good to animals."
Grandfather went over to the raccoon and shook hands with him cordially. "Well, that's just fine then. We'll be glad to have you stay here if you feel that way."
"But what're we going to do about Michael's watermelon?" Scuffy wanted to know.
Just then came a gay voice from the branch of a nearby fig tree.
"I think we Nature Spirits can help you," it said. "We like Michael, too."
The little animals all looked up at the little creature above them with pleased recognition.
"We sure hope you can, Gnomy," replied Scuffy, "but you'll have to hurry. Tomorrow's his birthday, and there 's not another watermelon in the patch ripe enough to eat."
"Oh, we can fix that," said the Nature Spirit. "We'll all get to work and make one of the other melons ripen before morning, and you folks can move it over so Michael will find it right where his was."
And that's exactly what they did!
The next morning Michael was up early. He wandered out and walked dreamily to the watermelon patch, thinking sadly of how his friends would have enjoyed the little fat watermelon. He looked over to the spot where it had been, and there to his amazement lay another fat watermelon! He called excitedly, "Oh, Mother, Father! Come here quick. There's another watermelon just like mine and it's in the same place."
"That I'll have to see," replied his father. But sure enough there it was, and when Michael's father thumped it, it sounded ripe as ripe could be.
"How on earth did it get there?" asked Michael, a broad grin on his face.
"Oh, I suppose some of your little friends put it there," said his father good-naturedly. "Anyway, here it is, and now you can have it for your birthday party."
Michael's father did not know that the "little friends" were hiding among the leaves watching. But that is just what they were doing, and they all smiled knowingly as they watched Michael 's happy face.