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Let Them Be Free

Crash! The garbage can toppled over. The young raccoon who had been nosing about inside it leaped to the ground as it fell. He stood quiet for a moment, staring up at the darkened farmhouse. Suddenly a light went on, and a window flew open. A voice yelled out, "Hey! Get out of there."

The raccoon snatched up a half-eaten corn cob and scampered off toward the woods. No one followed him. After a little while, the raccoon stopped by a fence post to catch his breath. It was his first trip to the farmhouse, and he was not sure how dangerous it was. Could he risk a trip back to pick up more of those juicy scraps?

He pricked up his ears and sniffed the air. There were animals nearby. He smelled a strange spell and heard a sleepy snort and a shuffling. One of the horses in the barn was stirring.

The young raccoon was curious. He ducked under the fence rail and trotted across the yard toward the barn. The smell was stronger now. He walked slowly around the barn, sniffing at the cracks in the walls. Suddenly he noticed the latch on the barn door.

The raccoon had never seen a latch before, but when he stretched upward he could just reach it with his nimble fingers. He began to play with the latch, pushing one part and pulling another. Suddenly the door swung open. Inside, the raccoon saw four horses, staring at him from their stalls.

The raccoon called softly to them, but they shrank back in their stalls, rolling their eyes and nickering worriedly. The raccoon sat down in a patch of moonlight at the entrance to the barn. "Come out into the beautiful moonlight," he wanted to tell them. But they did not understand. They were quiet now, but they just stared back at him. They did not try to leave their stalls.

Finally the raccoon turned and left the barn. He trotted over to the fence to pick up his corn cob and carried it down to the stream to wash it thoroughly before eating it. While he washed, and then while he ate the corn, he thought about the horses. Why shouldn't they be free as he was? He thought about them while he caught a crayfish and a frog in the edge of the stream and ate them. He thought about them as the sun was rising and he curled up in his den in a hollow tree. He dozed fitfully through the day, dreaming about the horses in the barn. And he woke that afternoon, while the sun was still high in the sky.

The raccoon shook himself sleepily, then headed up through the woods toward the farm. At the edge of the woods he peered out toward the fence. The horses were out of the barn now. But they still were not free! They were locked inside the fence.

The raccoon moved closer. Soon he spotted a gate in the fence, with a latch just like the one on the barn door. It took only a moment to open it. The horses moved closer and looked at him curiously. The gate swung wide. But they did not try to leave the corral.

The raccoon trotted a few steps away and then turned to call to them. One of the horses stepped timidly out through the gate. The others followed. The raccoon scampered about happily. The horses were free!

For an hour the horses nibbled at the grass outside the fence. They went down to the stream from time to time to take a drink. But then the farmer discovered the open gate. "Dancer!" he called. "Whitey! Trotter! Velvet!" The raccoon watched in amazement as the horses turned and trotted into the corral. The farmer locked the gate and led them into the barn.

That night, when the farmer was asleep, the raccoon crept up to the fence and unlatched the gate. He unlatched the barn door, too. But the horses did not stir. The next morning the farmer shook his head as be locked the gate again.

That afternoon the raccoon unlatched the gate again, but again the horses did not stray far. They did not seem to want to be free!

Day after day and night after night the same thing happened. After a few days, the farmer was determined to find out who was opening the gate. One afternoon he hid behind the barn to watch. And he saw the raccoon open the latch. That night he set a trap by the barn, baited with some tasty leftovers from dinner.

The raccoon soon spotted the box and smelled the tempting food inside. He walked in to investigate it, and a door suddenly slammed shut behind him. Soon the farmer came to check the trap. He put the raccoon into a big wire cage and snapped a heavy padlock shut on the latch.

Days went by. The raccoon barely touched the food the farmer's son put out for him, and he grew thinner and thinner. He watched constantly for a chance to escape, but the chance never came. He would never be free again.

The farmer's son watched the raccoon sadly. He tried again and again to make friends with it, but the raccoon did not trust him. "Poor thing," he thought. "How would I feel locked up in a cage like that?"

One night, after his parents were asleep, he crept down to the barn and lifted the ring of keys off the hook. In a moment the padlock was off and the door of the cage was open. The boy watched as the raccoon slipped like a shadow into the night. Then he snapped the lock back on the empty cage and crept quietly back to bed.







©1973, 2013 The Silversteins