THE WAINSCOTT WOODS
Most weasels have to devote nearly all their waking hours to hunting—but not in Wainscott. In Wainscott, weasels are blessed with free time. During the winter these lucky creatures take a lot of long naps. Once the weather warms up, they dance.
Wainscott used to be about the sleepiest spot on the South Fork of Long Island. A few farms, some woods, and the beach—that was it. But thanks to what human beings call “development,” the farms have been shrinking, their fields gobbled up by summer houses. The woods have shrunk, too, for the same reason. Still, the Wainscott woods haven’t disappeared completely. And tucked away in the middle of the scrub oaks there remains a fine old stand of pines. These pines are forever shedding their needles, and the needles make the ground an excellent dance floor: slick as can be, perfect for sliding and gliding.
Since dancing is ridiculous without music, the weasels’ dance season didn’t usually start till May, when the songbirds fly in from the south. But one year the warm weather and the birds arrived a month early. So the weasels were able to have their First Spring Cotillion in April.
After a winter without dancing, the first cotillion
was always an irresistible event, and this year, as usual, weasels from the newer Wainscott families arrived under the pines early, before four o’clock. They squealed happily along with the birds, pounding the needles with their paws. Weasels from the older families arrived later and stood around talking quietly among themselves. But even they couldn’t keep their eyes from shining and their tails from twitching.
Of all the weasels under the pines on that warm April afternoon, the noisiest and most rambunctious were probably the five Whitebelly brothers. The Whitebellys were strapping young weasels with blazing white underbellies. The oldest, and strappingest, was Zeke. Zeke was the best dancer, too. In fact, he tended to be a bit of a showoff. If there was a lull in the music, for example, he would do a back flip. But he could twirl a pretty young weasel till her head spun.
The two weasels Zeke had most enjoyed twirling last season were both, it so happened, at the First Spring Cotillion. This was nice, in a way, but in another way it made Zeke’s life complicated. Dancing with Sally Spots was fun, but while he was out on the needles with her it was hard not to notice the scowl on Mary Lou Silverface’s pale, pretty face. And as soon as he switched to Mary Lou, Sally crossed her forepaws and marched away.
After a while Zeke excused himself from Mary Lou and joined his brothers at the edge of the needles. “Benny
boy,” he said. “Be a pal and ask Sally to dance, will you?”
“Sure thing, Zeke” said Ben, the secondoldest Whitebelly. “Where is she?”
“I think she’s over behind—”
Behind the big stump, Zeke was about to say, but his jaw had dropped. Seated on a root of the stump were the Blackishes, one of the grandest weasel couples in Wainscott. Standing beside them was a young weasel with radiant black fur, miraculously closeset, sparkly eyes, and a bluejay feather tucked behind one ear.
“Who’s she?” Zeke asked, gaping.
“Search me,” said Ben.
Zeke turned to his brother Bill.
“Search me,” Bill said.
“Search us, too,” said the two youngest Whitebellys, who were twins.
Just then Mary Lou drifted over. “Zeeeeke,” she whined. “I thought we were dancing.”
Zeke didn’t seem to hear her.
“Hey, Zeke,” Ben said, elbowing him. “Mary Lou’s talking to you.”
“Mary Lou’s talking to you.”
But by then Mary Lou had seen what Zeke was gawking at. She turned and stomped off.
“Jeez,” Zeke said. “Go ask her to dance, will you, Ben?”
“But you just told me to ask Sally.”
“Oh, yeah. Billy, you go ask Mary Lou. Okay?”
“Anything you say, Zeke,” said Bill.
“How about us?” chimed the twins.
“You boys keep your tails crossed for me,” Zeke said.
The Blackishes had been in Wainscott far longer than the Whitebellys, but this didn’t keep Zeke from sauntering straight over to them. “Hiya, Mr. and Mrs. Blackish,” he said. “Great cotillion weather, huh?”
“Lovely,” said Mrs. Blackish. “And to think it’s only April!”
“I don’t like it,” Mr. Blackish grumbled. “This heat keeps up and the woods’ll be a tinderbox by July.” Mr. Blackish didn’t much like this Whitebelly, either. The brash young weasel hadn’t so much as tipped his cap to him and his wife.
“Hi,” Zeke said, smiling at the gorgeous stranger. “Zeke Whitebelly.”
“My niece, Wendy Blackish,” Mrs. Blackish said. “She’s down from the North Fork for the season.”
Zeke’s eyes lit up. He was still young enough for a season to seem like forever. “Great feather, Wendy,” he said. “Are they big up there?”
“Actually, I just found it this morning,” Wendy confessed, her snout blushing a little.
“How do you like Wainscott?” Zeke asked.
“Oh, I love it!” she said. “The sea breezes, the eggs, all the free time . . . it’s heaven!”
“You don’t have free time and eggs up there on the North Fork?”
They certainly didn’t—any more than they had weasels as handsome and muscular as this Zeke. “We don’t have a Double B,” Wendy explained, trying not to stare at Zeke’s fine white belly.
“So, you like our eggs,” Zeke said with a grin. “Me and my brothers do Double B duty all the time.”
The Double B was famous even up on the North Fork. It was a remarkable tunnel that ran the quarter mile from the edge of the Wainscott woods to the chicken coop on the McGees’ farm.
“Is it dark inside?” Wendy asked.
“You bet,” Zeke said. “It’s black as a crow in there.”
“It must be hard work, rolling eggs.”
“Mm,” Zeke said, flexing his muscles.
“And the farmer never misses them?”
“We’ve got a system. We go at dawn, before Mrs. McGee comes to collect the eggs, and we never touch a feather on the chickens—yummy as they look. There’s zillions of them, and they lay eggs like it’s going out of style, but we never take more than a few dozen—just enough to feed us.”
“Hm,” Wendy said. “Does the Wainscott weasel’s son roll eggs, too?”
“The Wainscott weasel’s son.”
“What do you mean?” Zeke said, frowning. “We’re all Wainscott weasels around here.”
“She means Bagley Brown,” Mrs. Blackish said.
“Up on the North Fork he’s just called the Wainscott weasel,” Wendy explained. “He’s the only one anybody’s heard of. I’ve been here a whole week and I still haven’t seen his son yet.”
“Young Bagley doesn’t socialize much,” Mrs. Blackish said.
Mr. Blackish humphed. “I told you I’d introduce you as soon as our paths cross, Wendy. I knew his father well.”
Mr. Blackish always held his head high, but as he spoke of his acquaintance with Bagley Brown his nose rose a notch higher. Bagley Brown was the greatest name in all weaseldom—revered far and wide. It was he who was responsible for the wondrous Double B. In fact, Double B stood for Bagley Brown. The great weasel was now dead. Or so weasels said. His body had never actually been found, and some believed he’d simply gone off in search of new challenges. In either case, his legend burned as brilliantly as ever, and since the moment of her arrival in Wainscott, Wendy had been dying to catch a glimpse of his son, Bagley Brown Jr. In fact, Bagley Jr. was the reason she’d stuck the feather behind her ear. She’d assumed he would be at the cotillion. But so far there was no sign of him.
“Bagley rolls eggs sometimes,” Zeke told her. “But not as much as me. And he dances like an old groundhog.”
“How would you know?” Mr. Blackish said.
“You’ve got to see well to dance,” Zeke said. “?’Specially if you throw in flips. But Bagley always has to wear that stupid eye patch of his, to set himself apart.”
“Doesn’t he have a bad eye?” Wendy asked.
“Nah. He only started wearing it after his father died.”
“It’s a mark of mourning,” Mr. Blackish said. “And even if it is a bit of an affectation, it’s hardly for the likes of you to question it.”
“What’s an affectation, Uncle?” Wendy asked.
“Oh, it means . . . putting on airs a bit. Heaven knows, he deserves to be set apart—out of respect for his father. And as far as dancing goes, I suspect he just doesn’t care for it.”
“But all young weasels like to dance,” Zeke said.
“What do you mean?” said Wendy. “I’ve never danced in my life.”
She shook her head. “This is the first dance I’ve ever been to.”
“Then it’s about time you got out on the needles,” Zeke said, extending a paw.
Wendy felt a pleasant whir of excitement. “But I don’t know how,” she said.
“I’ll show you. Anyhow, all weasels can dance. It’s in
“Well . . . is it all right?”
Mr. Blackish looked less than thrilled at the idea of his niece dancing with an upstart weasel who didn’t even tip his cap. But Mrs. Blackish smiled and said, “Go ahead, dear.” So Zeke led Wendy out onto the dance floor.
At that moment the beat was quick. A couple of catbirds were really going at it up in the pines. But, as Zeke said, all weasels can dance, and in no time Wendy was whirling around as if she’d been doing it all her life. Mary Lou Silverface, who was dancing with Zeke’s brother Bill, shot her a pitchdark look, as did Sally Spots, who was dancing with Ben. But Wendy didn’t notice. She was too busy trying not to stare at Zeke’s handsome belly. When he suddenly did a back flip, her heart did one, too.
But after a while she began to feel a little flushed. “Thank you, Zeke,” she said, stopping.
Zeke looked around. Mr. and Mrs. Blackish were no longer by the stump. “You’re a real natural, Wendy,” he said, leading her back there.
“I was ghastly,” she said happily. “But it is fun.”
“Isn’t it the best? We’ve got to do it again soon.”
“Well . . . my aunt said something about a tea dance at the Tantails’ on Sunday. Are you going to that?”
The Tantails were very exclusive and hadn’t asked the Whitebellys. Normally Zeke wouldn’t have minded a bit—at exclusive parties weasels always talked more than they danced—but just now he minded a lot. “I wasn’t invited,” he muttered.
Wendy gulped, afraid she’d been tactless. “Oh,” she said. “Wait here a minute, will you?”
“Sure,” Zeke said agreeably.
Wendy searched for her aunt and uncle behind the big stump, but all she found there was a rabbit, who turned his cottontail and fled. Wendy climbed the stump. From on top of it, she spotted her aunt and uncle chatting with a pair of elderly weasels on the other side of the dance floor. She climbed back down and walked over to them.
The way her uncle sniffed at the sight of her made her suspect she’d worked up a musky odor on the dance floor. She would have to take a quick bath in the brook.
After being introduced to the elderly couple, she drew her aunt aside. “Don’t you have an extra invitation to that tea dance on Sunday, Aunt?”
Mrs. Blackish laughed softly. “I suppose you have someone in mind?”
“Well . . .”
“It’s at home. Just inside the front entrance.” She smiled. “He is quite a dancer, dear.”
Wendy had always been quick on her paws, and it took her only a couple of minutes to get back to the Blackishes’ lovely old den. The invitation was just inside, as her aunt had said. It was a scrap of paper stamped with Mrs. Tantail’s left front pawprint in aged wineberry juice. Holding a corner of it between her teeth, Wendy hurried off to the brook for a quick bath.
In spite of the warm weather, the oak trees weren’t fully leafed out yet, so she kept to the underbrush in case a hawk was circling overhead. As she popped out of some brambles, she bumped right into another weasel.
“I’m so sorry!” she said, the invitation falling from her mouth.
“Is there a fox on your tail?” said the other, stepping between her and the brambles to protect her.
“Oh, no, I was just . . . just . . .”
Her voice died away. The stranger had turned from the brambles to her.
“Are you all right, miss?”
Wendy was not all right. She felt decidedly faint. The weasel standing before her had sleek brown fur and a patch over one eye.