by Max Elliot Anderson -
Buford Brown Bear awakened with a stabbing pain in his stomach. Oh, he wasn’t sick. It’s nothing like that. But Buford knew this day would not likely end well, at least not for him. And every year he expected the same thing to happen.
Buford had several friends who lived in the woods near him. Eddie was a bushy-tailed squirrel who happened to be the fastest climber Buford had ever seen. Eddie could race up the side of a tree before most of his other friends even thought about it.
One of his other friends, Chip, bragged about being the fastest runner in the forest. In fact, if that chipmunk were to take off running across a field, none of his friends could ever catch him. Certainly Buford couldn’t. Buford was about the slowest animal in the entire wooded area they called home.
But it was Randy who jumped the highest. Once he told Buford to clamp a twig between his teeth. Randy hopped back a few yards, turned around, and ran like a bullet toward Buford. The poor bear closed his eyes and hoped for the best. His other friends had to tell him that Randy leaped into the air soaring so high, he snatched that twig right out of Buford’s mouth.
So, before Buford bounded off to find his breakfast, he rubbed his tummy. It wasn’t because he was hungry, although he was. No, he felt that sharp pain again. Finally, he knew he couldn’t avoid facing his friends much longer. He threw off his covers, rolled out of his four-post bed, slapped his flat feet on the cold, dirt floor, and stood up to face the day.
Buford lived alone in a small cave formed where three big boulders had come together long before Buford was born. A round one sat on the left, another round one sat to the right, and a flat rock gave Buford his roof. These boulders stuck out of a small hill, which formed the back of his den. Fallen trees and other brush covered the front. In fact, if anyone were out hiking and walked right past Buford’s den, they’d never know it was there. He had the inside fixed up with cupboards, a table, and of course, that large four- post bed, because Buford was a big boy.
Before going outside, he stuck his head out to make sure no one saw where he came from. In the distance he heard Eddie and the others playing. Buford quickly slipped out the door and walked toward those sounds.
“Think you might win today?” a voice asked, followed by a grunt and a snort.
Buford turned to see Henry Hog chewing on something. He just shook his head.
“How come?” the pig asked.
Buford looked down at his feet. “Because I’m just about the slowest animal around.”
“Are not,” the pig answered.
Henry stopped chewing and walked toward him. “Lots of them are slower.”
“Oh, yeah? Name one.”
Henry thought and thought, and he thought some more. Then he said, “I guess you’re right, you are the slowest.”
“See,” Buford said. He walked away with his head hanging down. I’m so slow, I could never win the contest, he thought.
In the distance he noticed Ralph had walked out and stood in the middle of the path. Ralph loved to give Buford a hard time about his slowness. And since Buford knew he’d already seen him coming, there wasn’t much he could do besides walk right up to him, which he did.
“This gonna be your year, big guy?” the raccoon teased.
“I don’t see why it should be any different than all the other times,” Buford answered.
Ralph stood a little straighter. “Well, if I were in the contest, I’d probably beat you. That’s all I gotta say.”
Buford took a deep breath and then let out a big bellowing blast of air. The cold morning temperature turned his breath into gray steam. “Good, then that means I don’t have to stand here and listen to you anymore.”
He walked into the grass on one side of Ralph and then back onto the path after he’d passed that troublemaker. Soon he arrived where his friends played a game in an open meadow. Now, along with that stabbing pain in his stomach, he also felt a lump forming in his throat. His chest tightened just at the thought of what was going to happen today, making it difficult to breathe. “Hi guys,” he said with a squeak in his otherwise big bear voice.
His friends stopped what they were doing and turned to see who had made such a funny sound. Buford covered his mouth.
“This could be the big day,” Eddie said. “I’m ready to climb to the tippy top of the tallest tree in the forest so I can win.”
“And I’ve been practicing my jumping,” Randy said. “Watch.” He dashed a few steps away and leaped high into the air. Buford shook his head.
“I think I’m faster this year than ever before,” Chip added. Then he darted off, raced around a large, oak tree, scurried back and slid to a stop in the dirt right in front of Buford’s big bear feet.
“You’re fast all right,” Buford said. He turned to Randy. “And you sure can jump.” Then he looked over to Eddie. “And I could never climb like you do.” Then he looked down and shook his head. “Don’t even know why I even bother.”
Buford and his friends spent the whole day playing around the rocks, trees, and hills. By this time in the season, not only was it cold enough for Buford and all his friends to see their breath, every leaf in the forest had already fallen to the ground, forming a soft, brown carpet for these friends to walk on. Nearby, the small creek running through this part of the trees already had its first thin coating of ice. But one thing hadn’t happened yet. So far, it hadn’t snowed; not even one tiny flake.
Buford wiped his nose and sniffed. “Wish it had,” he nearly whispered.
“Had what?” Eddie asked.
Buford shook his head. “Nothin’. I was just thinkin’, that’s all.”
Randy’s nose twitched. “About what?”
In a quiet voice he said, “You know.”
Chip smiled and winked. “Maybe it’ll be your turn this time.”
Buford sniffed again. “Doubt it.”
Right at that moment, something happened so high in the sky that neither Buford nor his friends had any idea what was about to take place.