E-text prepared by Al Haines
CHILDREN OF THE WILD
CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS
Author of "Kings in Exile," "The Feet of the Furtive," etc.
New York The MacMillan Company
I. THE LITTLE FURRY ONES THAT SLIDE DOWN HILL
II. THE BLACK IMPS OF PINE-TOP
III. YOUNG GRUMPY AND THE ONE-EYED GANDER
IV. LITTLE SWORD AND THE INKMAKER
V. ROCKED IN THE CRADLE OF THE DEEP
VI. TEDDY BEAR'S BEE TREE
VII. THE SNOWHOUSE BABY
VIII. LITTLE SILK WING
IX. A LITTLE ALIEN IN THE WILDERNESS
X. WHAT HE SAW WHEN HE KEPT STILL
XI. THE LITTLE VILLAGER AND HIS UNFRIENDLY GUESTS
XII. THE BABY AND THE BEAR
XIII. THE LITTLE SLY ONE
XIV. THE DARING OF STRIPES TERROR-TAIL
XV. DAGGER BILL AND THE WATER BABIES
THE LITTLE FURRY ONES THAT SLIDE DOWN HILL
In the brown, balsam-smelling log cabin on the shores of Silverwater, loveliest and loneliest of wilderness lakes, the Babe's great thirst for information seemed in a fair way to be satisfied. Young as he was, and city-born, the lure of the wild had nevertheless already caught him, and the information that he thirsted for so insatiably was all about the furred or finned or feathered kindreds of the wild. And here by Silverwater, alone with his Uncle Andy and big Bill Pringle, the guide, his natural talent for asking questions was not so firmly discouraged as it was at home.
But even thus early in this adventurous career, this fascinating and never-ending quest of knowledge, the Babe found himself confronted by a most difficult problem. He had to choose between authorities. He had to select between information and information. He had to differentiate for himself between what Bill told him and what his Uncle Andy told him. He was a serious-minded child, who had already passed through that most painful period of doubt as to Santa Claus and the Fairies, and had not yet reached the period of certainty about everything. He was capable of both belief and doubt. So, naturally, he had his difficulties.
Bill certainly knew an astonishing lot about the creatures of the wild. But also, like all guides who are worth their salt, he knew an astonishing lot of things that weren't so. He had imagination, or he would never have done for a guide. When he knew—which was not often—that he did not know a thing, he could put two and two together and make it yield the most extraordinary results. He felt it one of his first duties to be interesting. And above all, he felt it his duty to be infallible. No one could be expected to have implicit faith in a guide who was not infallible. He never acknowledged insufficient information about anything whatever that pertained to the woods and waters. Also he had a very poor opinion of what others might profess to know. He felt convinced that so long as he refrained from any too lively contributions to the science of animal life, no one would be able to discredit him. But he was conscientious in his deductions. He would never have permitted himself to say that blue herons wore gum boots in wading, just because he had happened to find an old gum boot among the reeds by the outlet of the lake, where the herons did most of their fishing. He remembered that that gum boot was one of a pair which had been thrown away by a former visitor to Silverwater.
Uncle Andy, on the other hand, knew that there was an astonishing lot he didn't know about animals, and he didn't hesitate to say so. He was a reformed sportsman, who, after spending a great part of his life in happily killing things all over the earth, had come to the quaint conclusion that most of them were more interesting alive than dead, especially to themselves. He found a kindred spirit in the Babe, whose education, along the lines of maiming cats and sparrows with sling shot or air gun, had been absolutely neglected.
Uncle Andy was wont to say that there was only one man in all the world who knew all about all the animals—and that he was not Andrew Barton, Esq. At this, Bill would smile proudly. At first this modesty on Uncle Andy's part was a disappointment to the Babe. But it ended in giving him confidence in whatever Uncle Andy told him; especially after he came to realize that when Uncle Andy spoke of the only man in the world who knew all about animals, he did not mean Bill.
But though the whole field of animal lore was one of absorbing interest to the Babe, from the day when he was so fortunate as to witness a mother fish-hawk teaching her rather unwilling and unventuresome young ones to fly, it was his fellow babes of the wild that he was most anxious to hear about. In this department of woods lore, Bill was so deeply ignorant that, not caring to lean too heavily on his imagination, lest it should break and stick into him, he used to avoid it quite obstinately. He would say—"Them youngsters is all alike, anyhow, an' it ain't worth while to waste no time a-studyin' 'em!" So here Uncle Andy had the field all to himself. Whenever he undertook to enlighten the Babe on any such subject, Bill would go off somewhere and scornfully chop down trees.
* * * * * *
Silverwater was fed by many brooks from the deep-wooded surrounding hills. Toward one of these, on a certain golden afternoon, Uncle Andy and the Babe were betaking themselves along the shadowy trail, where the green-brown moss was soft under foot and their careful steps made no noise. When they spoke it was in quiet undertones; for the spirit of the woods was on the Babe, and he knew that by keeping very quiet there was always the chance of surprising some fascinating mystery.
The two were going fishing—for Uncle Andy, with a finely human inconsistency, was an enthusiastic fisherman, and the stream toward which they were making their way was one of deep pools and cool "stillwaters" where the biggest fish were wont to lie during the hot weather. Uncle Andy had a prejudice against those good people who were always sternly consistent, and he was determined that he would never allow himself to become a crank; so he went on enthusiastically killing fish with the same zest that he had once brought to the hunting of beast and bird.
While they were yet several hundred yards from the stream, suddenly there came to their ears, unmistakable though muffled by the intervening trees, the sound of a brisk splash, as if something had fallen into the water. Uncle Andy stopped short in his tracks, motionless as a setter marking his bird. The Babe stopped likewise, faithfully imitating him. A couple of seconds later came another splash, as heavy as the first; and then, in quick succession, two lighter ones.
For a moment or two the Babe kept silence, though bursting with curiosity. Then he whispered tensely—"What's that?"
"Otter," replied Uncle Andy, in a murmur as soft as the wind in the sedge-tops.
"Why?" continued the Babe, meaning to say—"But what on earth are they doing?" and trusting that Uncle Andy would appreciate the self-restraint of the monosyllable.
"Sliding down hill," muttered Uncle Andy, without turning his head. Then, holding up his hand as a sign that there were to be no more questions asked, he crept forward noiselessly; and the Babe followed at his heels.
After two or three minutes the sounds were repeated in the same succession as before—first two heavy splashes, and then two lighter ones. Unable to ask questions, the Babe was obliged to think for himself.
He had only a vague idea what otters were like, but he knew a good deal about sliding down hill. He pictured to himself a high, rough bank leading down to the water; but as not even Bill's daring imagination would have represented the gamesome beasts as employing toboggans or hand-sleds, he thought it must be rather bumpy and uncomfortable work coasting over the roots and rocks on one's own unprotected anatomy.
The sounds continued, growing louder and louder, till the two adventurers must have been within thirty or forty feet of the stream; and they were creeping as noiselessly as a shadow slips over the grass, in the hope of catching the merrymakers at their game. But suddenly there came one great splash, heavy and prolonged, as if all the sliders had come down close together. And then silence. Uncle Andy crouched motionless for several minutes, as if he had been turned into a stump. Then he straightened himself up with a disappointed air.
"Gone!" he muttered. "Cleared out! They've heard us or smelt us!"
"Oh!" exclaimed the Babe in a voice of deep concern; though, as a matter of fact, he was immensely relieved, the strain of the prolonged tension and preternatural stillness having begun to make him feel that he must make a noise or burst.
Two minutes later they came out on the banks of the stream.
The stream at this point was perhaps twenty-five feet in width, deep, dark, and almost without current. Only by noting the bend of the long watergrasses could one tell which way it ran. The hither bank was low and grassy, with a fallen trunk slanting out into the water. But the shore opposite was some twelve or fifteen feet high, very steep, and quite naked, having been cut by the floods from a ridge of clay. Down the middle of this incline a narrow track had been worn so smooth that it gleamed in the sun almost like ice.
As he stared across the water a dozen questions crowded to the Babe's lips. But he realized in time that the answers to them were fairly obvious to himself, and he heroically choked them back. Had he not that very morning been rebuked by his uncle for asking too many of what he called "footy" questions? But one burst forth now, in spite of himself.
"What do they do it for?" he demanded—having perhaps a vague idea that all the motives of the wild creatures were, or ought to be, purely utilitarian.
Uncle Andy turned upon him a withering look; and he shifted his feet uneasily, convicted of another "footy" question.
"What do you slide down hill for?" inquired Uncle Andy sarcastically.
"Oh!" said the Babe hastily. "I see. And now are we going to catch some fish?"
But Uncle Andy had stood his rod in a bush and sat down on the fallen tree; and now he was getting out his old black pipe.
"Well now," he answered presently, "I don't think it would be much use trying. What do you think?"
"Of course not," answered the Babe. "Otter have scared 'em all away."
"You really are doing very well," said Uncle Andy, "if you did ask that one fool question. When we were creeping up on the otter, to try and get a look at them while they were playing, you did very well indeed. You stepped as light as a cat, and that's not easy mind, I tell you, when one's not trained to it. You didn't even breathe too hard—and I know you must have been just bursting with excitement. You've got the makings of a first-rate woodsman in you, if you take pains."
The Babe's small chest swelled with pride; for commendation from Uncle Andy was a scarce article. He too sat down on the fallen trunk and began digging at the bark with his knife to hide his exultation.
"I suppose now," went on Uncle Andy presently, when his pipe was drawing well, "you know quite a lot about otter."
"Nothing at all but what Bill's told me," answered the Babe with fine diplomacy.
"Forget it!" said Uncle Andy; and went on smoking in thoughtful silence. Presently he remarked—"This otter family appears to have been having a pretty good time!"
"Great!" said the Babe laconically.
"Well," continued Uncle Andy, regarding him with approval, "there was once another otter family, away up on the Little North Fork of the Ottanoonsis, that used to have such good times till at last they struck a streak of bad luck."
"Did you know them?" asked the Babe.
"Well, not as you might say intimately," answered Uncle Andy, with a far-away look in his grey eyes. "You see, they had no way of knowing how nice I was, so they never admitted me into their family circle. But I knew a lot more about them than they ever guessed, I can tell you. When the flies weren't too bad I used to lie by the hour behind a thick bush, never stirring a finger, and watch them."
"My, but how tired you must have got!" interrupted the Babe feelingly.
"I don't have to twiddle my fingers, and scratch my head, and jump up and down every two minutes and a half," said Uncle Andy rather severely. "But, as I was going to say, they also got used to seeing me sitting on the bank, quiet and harmless, till they no longer felt so shy of me as they did of Jim Cringle, my guide. They knew Jim was an enemy, and they gave him a wide berth always. But they seemed to think I wasn't of much account."
"Oh!" protested the Babe politely. It did not seem to him quite right that Uncle Andy should be regarded lightly, even by an otter.
"Well, you know, I wasn't of much account. I was neither dangerous, like Jim Cringle, nor good to eat, like a muskrat or a pickerel. So I don't appear any more in this yarn. If you find yourself wondering how I came to know about some of the things I'm going to tell you, just make believe I got it from the chickadee, who is the most confidential little chap in the world, or from the whisky-Jack, who makes a point, as you may have observed, of knowing everybody else's business."
"Or from Jim Cringle?" inquired the Babe demurely.
But Uncle Andy only frowned. He always discouraged the Babe's attempts at raillery.
"The two Little Furry Ones," he continued, after pressing down the tobacco in his pipe, "were born in a dry, warm, roomy den in the bank, under the roots of an old birch that slanted out over the water. The front door was deep under water. But as the old otters had few enemies to dread, being both brave and powerful, they had also a back entrance on dry land, hidden by a thicket of fir bushes. The two furry 'pups' were at first as sprawling and helpless as newborn kittens, though of course a good deal bigger than any kittens you have ever seen. And being so helpless, their father and mother never left them alone. One always stayed with them while the other went away to hunt trout or muskrat."
"Why, what could get at them in there?" interrupted the Babe.
"You see," explained Uncle Andy graciously, "either a fox or a weasel might come in by the back door—if they were hungry enough to take the risk. Or what was much more likely, that slim, black, murderous robber, the mink, might come swimming in by the front entrance, pop his narrow, cruel head above the water, see the youngsters alone, and be at their throats in a twinkling. The old otters, who were very devoted parents, were not running any risks like that, I can tell you."
"I guess not!" agreed the Babe, wagging his head wisely.
"Well," went on Uncle Andy, "just because those level-headed old otters were always ready for it, nothing happened. You'd better make a note of that. If you are always ready for trouble when the other fellow makes it, he will be pretty shy about beginning. That's why the foxes and the weasels and the minks never came around.
"When the Little Furry Ones were about the size of five months' kittens they were as handsome a pair of youngsters as you are ever likely to set eyes upon. Their fur, rich and soft and dark, was the finest ever seen. Like their parents, they had bodies shaped for going through the water at a tremendous speed—built like a bulldog's for strength, and like an eel's for suppleness."
"Not slimy!" protested the Babe, who had hated eels whole-heartedly ever since the day when he had tried to take one off the hook.
"Of course not!" answered Uncle Andy impatiently. "As I was going to say, they were shaped a good deal like those seals you've seen in the Zoo, only that instead of flippers they had regulation legs and feet, and also a tail. It was a tail worth having, too, and not merely intended for ornament. It was very thick at the base and tapering, something like a lizard's, and so powerful that one twist of it could drive its owner through the water like a screw."
"Wish I could swim that way!" murmured the Babe, trying to do the movement, as he imagined it, with his legs.
"But though the Little Furry Ones were just built for swimming," continued Uncle Andy, graciously overlooking the interruption, "they were actually afraid of it. They liked to see their father or their mother dive smoothly down into the clear, goldy-brown water of their front door, and out into that patch of yellow sunlight shimmering on the weedy bottom. But when invited to follow, they drew back into the corner and pretended to be terribly busy.
"One fine morning, however, to their great delight they were led out by the back door, under the bush, and introduced to the outside world. How huge and strange it looked to them! For a few minutes they stole about on their absurdly short, sturdy legs, poking their noses into everything, and jumping back startled at the strange smells they encountered; while their parents, lying down nearby, watched them lazily. At last, beginning to feel more at home in this big, airy world, they fell to romping with each other on the sunny bank, close beside the water. Presently their parents got up and came over beside them. The father slipped gracefully in, and began diving, darting this way and that, and throwing himself half-way out of the water. It was most interesting, I can tell you, and the two little Furry Ones stopped their play, at the very edge of the bank, to watch him. But when he called to them coaxingly to come in with him and try it, they turned away their heads and pretended to think it wasn't worth looking at after all. They would rather look at the trees and the sky, and kept staring up at them as if perfectly fascinated. And while they were staring upwards in this superior way, they got a great surprise. Their mother slily slipped her nose under them and threw them, one after the other, far out into the water."
"Ow!" exclaimed the Babe with a little gasp of sympathy. He himself felt the shock of that sudden, chill plunge.
Uncle Andy chuckled.
"That's just the way they felt," said he. "When they came to the top again they found, to their surprise, that they could swim; and feeling most indignant and injured they struck out straight for shore. But there, between them and the good dry ground, swam their mother, and would not let them land. They did not see how mothers could be so heartless. But there was no help for it; so they swam out again very haughtily and joined their father in mid-stream. And before they knew it they were enjoying themselves immensely.
"And now life became much more interesting to them. For a bit it was harder to keep them out of the water than it had been to get them into it. They had their first lessons in fishing. And though they were too clumsy at first to catch even a slow, mud-grubbing sucker, they found the attempt most interesting. The stream just opposite their home was deep and quiet, but a little way below, the current ran strong; and once, having ridden down it gaily for a couple of hundred yards, they found themselves unable to swim back against it. At first they battled bravely and were most surprised to find themselves making so little progress. Then they grew tired; and then frightened, and they were just being carried off down stream by this strange, soft, irresistible force when their mother arrived. The current was nothing to her. She took them on her back, and shot off up stream again with them. After that they would ride on her back, or on their father's whenever they got tired. And their parents began to take them on long trips up and down stream. You see, their housekeeping being so simple, they didn't mind going away even for a couple of days at a time, and leaving the house to look after itself."
"I don't think I'd like to be wet like that all the time, even in summer," remarked the Babe, shaking his head thoughtfully.
"Oh, they weren't that. They used to go ashore and, in spite of their ridiculously short legs, make most respectably long journeys through the woods to some other stream, pretending, I suppose, that the fish over there had a different flavor. Sometimes, too, when they came upon a patch of smooth, mossy ground, they would have a wild romp, as if they had just been let out of school—a sort of game of tag, in which the father and mother played just as hard as the youngsters. Or they would have a regular tug of war, pulling on opposite ends of a stick, till the moss was all torn up as if a little cyclone had loafed along that way. Then one day they came to a clay bank, something like that one across yonder. The old ones had been there before, but not for some time, and the clay had got all dry and hard. But the father and mother knew very well how to fix that. When they had slid down a couple of times with their fur all dripping the track was smooth as oil. As for the youngsters, you may depend upon it they did not need any coaxing or persuasion to make them believe that was a good game."
"I should think not!" murmured the Babe, looking longingly over the stream to where the wet slide glistened in the sun, and wishing that he might try it without any regard whatever to the seat of his little trousers.
"Taking it all together it was a pretty jolly life, I can tell you, there in the sweet-smelling, shadowy woods and sunny waters. Then one day all at once, as quick as falling off a log, everything was changed."
Uncle Andy paused to relight his pipe. After a few seconds the Babe's impatience got the better of him; and before he could stop himself he blurted out "Why?" The moment he had spoken he knew it was a fool question to ask, and he flushed. But to his grateful relief Uncle did not seem to hear.
"A hunter from the city came that way. He had a good eye, a repeating rifle, and no imagination whatever. With the luck that sometimes comes to those fellows, he was sitting under a tree near the bank, staring across at the otter-slide (which did not mean anything whatever or suggest anything to him, but was merely a strip of bare clay), when the otter family came to slide. The father started down. It was most interesting—so the stranger under the tree, who was as spry as a sparrowhawk, shot instantly; and the otter came down in a crumpled heap. The mother might have escaped; but for just one second she hesitated, glancing round to see if her little ones were out of danger. That second was enough for the smart shot across the water. She dropped. It was good shooting, of course. The two little ones, horrified by the spiteful noise, and quite unable to understand what had happened, shrank away into some thick bushes and lay very still, waiting for their mother to come and tell them the danger was past."
"And she could never come!" murmured the Babe thoughtfully.
"Well, she didn't," snorted Uncle Andy, the discourager of sentiment. Fairly reeking with sentiment himself, at heart, he disliked all manifestation of it in himself or others. He liked it left to the imagination. "They never stirred for an hour or more," he went on. "Then at last they stole out and began looking everywhere for those lost parents. All about the slide they hunted—among the bushes at the top, in the water and the rushes at the bottom—but they found nothing. For the man had come in his canoe and carried off his victims.
"All day long the two Little Furry Ones continued their search. But you would not have known them for the same creatures as those which had started out that morning. Then they had played carelessly and gone boldly, thinking not of enemies and fearing none. Now they crept noiselessly, sniffing this way and that, and never showing their noses outside a thicket without first taking observations. For life was now a very different matter with them. Never in all their lives before had they come across so many hostile and threatening smells as they encountered this one afternoon. But then, to be sure, they had never looked for them before. They were all the time running into trails of mink, or weasel, or wildcat; and it seemed to them as if the world had suddenly become quite full of foxes. They were painfully surprised, for they had never thought there were so many disagreeable creatures in the world. You see, being so young and inexperienced, it never occurred to them that one fox or one weasel could make quite a lot of trails. So they kept having palpitations every other minute.
"It was just as well, however, that they got such an exaggerated idea of the numbers of their enemies. For it was astonishing how quickly the news got around that the old otters were dead. Toward sunset that evening, when the two lonely youngsters, puzzled and miserable, stole back to their old den under the bank, they found that a mink had dared to kill a big trout in their own pool. There were the remains, and the presumptuous intruder's tracks, almost at their very door. They were indignant, and the thick hair bristled on their necks. But, realizing suddenly how hungry they were, they did not scorn to eat the stranger's leavings. Then they dived into their den; and after sniffing about and whimpering lonesomely for a while, they curled themselves up close together and went to sleep. It had been a strange and dreadful day.
"As you may imagine, these two youngsters had never yet been trained to the useful habit of sleeping with one ear open. They had left that to their parents. But to-night, even while they slept most soundly, something within them seemed to keep watch. Whatever it was, suddenly it woke them. And instantly they were tremendously wide awake. Before they knew why they did it, they were uncurled from the ball in which they slept and, crouching side by side, glaring savagely up the narrow passage that led to their back door.
"There they saw a pair of cruel eyes, small and flaming, and set very close together, which seemed to float slowly down towards them."
Here Uncle Andy was so inconsiderate as to pause, as if he wanted to think. The Babe could not hold himself in.
"Was it a snake?" he demanded breathlessly.
"There you go again, interrupting," growled Uncle Andy, most unfairly. "And who ever heard of a snake's eyes flaming? But the Little Furry Ones knew what it was at once; and the hair stood straight up on their necks. Of course they were frightened a little. But most of all were they in a rage at such an impudent intrusion. There was no sign of fear, I can tell you, in the low growl which came from between their long, white, snarling teeth. And those stealthy eyes halted. For half a minute, motionless, they studied the crouching and defiant youngsters, evidently surprised to see how big and strong they had grown. Then, very slowly and with dignity, they withdrew and presently disappeared. For the weasel, though perhaps the most fearless assassin that prowls the woods, is no fool. And he saw that the otter children had grown too big for him to handle.
"The youngsters were a good deal set up, of course, by this unexpectedly easy rebuff of so venomous an enemy; but there was no more thought of sleep for them. It made them terribly anxious, the idea of anything stealing in on them that way, by the back door. For a long time they lay there motionless, their wide eyes staring into the dark, their ears straining to every faint, mysterious sound, their sensitive noses questioning every scent that came breathing in to them from the still night forest. At last they heard a stealthy footfall outside the back door. It was as light—oh, lighter than a falling leaf. But they heard it. If you and I had such ears as that, maybe we could hear the grasses growing."
"That would be fun," muttered the Babe.
"And then," continued Uncle Andy, "they smelt a faint, musky scent. I don't think it would be fun if we had such noses as that. We'd smell so many smells we did not want to. Eh? And I tell you, the youngsters did not want to smell that smell. It was a fox. They couldn't fight a fox. Not yet. With their hearts in their throats they backed softly down to the front door, and waited, ready to slip into the water.
"But fortunately the fox was cunning, and proud of it. He had heard a rumor that the old otters were dead. But he was much too cunning to believe all he heard. It would be just like them, he thought, to pretend they were dead, so that he might come in and get caught. Assuredly there was a good, strong, live otter smell coming up out of that hole. He poked his nose down and gave a very loud sniff, then cocked his ear sharply and listened. Nothing stirred. Had it been only the little ones, down there all by themselves, he thought, they would have been frightened enough to jump. So, it was plainly a trap. Waving his great bushy tail complaisantly, he tiptoed off to hunt rabbits, pleased with the notion that somebody else was going to get taken in.
"The youngsters stayed where they were, close beside the water. The first glimmer of dawn, striking on the misty surface of the pool outside, struggled up into the den. The youngsters turned to greet it, with the thought, perhaps, that it was time to go fishing. Just at this moment the mink, who had been looking for the remnants of his trout where he had left them on the bank (he was a fool, of course, ever to have left them there), came diving into the deep front door of the den to avenge himself on the unprotected little ones. His slim black form was visible as it rose through the greying water. As the pointed head popped above the surface, it was confronted by two grinning heads which snarled savagely in its face and snapped at it in fearless defiance. The mink was surprised and pained. He had expected to find those two youngsters huddled together and already half frightened to death just at being alone. He had not expected to find them half so big. In fact, there at home, and guarding their own domain, they looked to him much bigger than they really were. A very small man, you know, may look about seven feet high when he stands in his own door and tells you to keep out. Eh, what? Well, the mink suddenly felt sort of bashful about intruding. He discreetly withdrew, without thinking to make inquiry about the fish. And his sudden diffidence was very fortunate for the two Little Furry Ones. For the mink, let me tell you, would have been a tough proposition for them to tackle.
"This sudden departure of the terrible mink made the two youngsters feel almost bigger than was good for them. But the otter, fortunately, is born cautious, no matter how courageous he may be. So the youngsters were not spoiled by their good luck. They waited a few minutes, to give the mink a chance to get good and far away. Then they dived forth into the misty pool. Never before had they seen one quarter so many fish in it. They breakfasted very well on a couple of plump, silvery chub—though they would have preferred trout, of course—and then, just for sport, began killing as many as they could, only swallowing a bite out of each, from the thick, flaky meat behind the head. They were young, you see—though not more foolish than lots of sportsmen we hear about. In a very few minutes, of course, every fish that could get away had got away as far as possible from that deadly pool. And then the two reckless fishermen crawled ashore and began a tug of war with a stick. They could just not help playing, you see, any more than kittens or puppies could; though they were still lonely and anxious. And in their play they kept very close to the water's edge, in case the fox should happen along to inquire after their parents.
"The fox did not turn up. But after some time they caught sight of a great, dark bird winnowing his way slowly above the tree tops. Just to be on the safe side, they got into the water so quickly that one of them, to save time, threw himself in backwards. They did not know that it was only a fishhawk, an amiable soul, quite indifferent to such delicacies as young otters. Another thing they did not know was that if the fishhawk had wanted them, he could have caught them more comfortably in the water than on shore.
"When the great bird was well out of sight they started off down stream, partly to have another look for their lost parents, partly because they had nothing better to do. But they did not go very far that day, or have any more very exciting adventures. They spent most of their time in the water, where they had no foe to watch out for except the mink. And, as the fish had now learned to beware of them, they had enough to do in satisfying their lively appetites. That night they slept in the den, lying close to the water's edge, lest the fox should come. And they had no visitors.
"The next day they were feeling more confident, more sure of themselves. So they set out on a longer expedition. In the course of the morning they killed a big muskrat, after a sharp fight, and felt terribly proud of themselves. They got bitten, of course, and had their fur all mussed up, so it meant a long, elaborate toilet in the warm grass by the water's edge. And it was not till early in the afternoon that they came once more to the fateful slide where their parents had so mysteriously vanished.
"At the sight of it, as they came upon it suddenly around a bend of the stream, their fur bristled and they crouched flat, glancing angrily this way and that. Then they stole forward, and once more explored the whole place minutely. At last, finding nothing to alarm them, in an absent-minded way one of the two went down the slide, splash into the cool brown water. The other followed at once. The temptation was simply not to be resisted, you know. And in a minute more they were both hard at it, having the time of their lives—hawks, foxes, minks, and vanished parents alike forgotten."
"Oh!" protested the Babe in a shocked voice.
"You may say 'Oh!'" retorted Uncle Andy, "but let me tell you, if the wild creatures hadn't pretty short memories, they would have a very unhappy time.
"Well, they had been enjoying themselves and forgetting their troubles for some little time, when, just as it came down the slide, one of them was grabbed and pulled under. The mink had arrived and decided to settle accounts with the youngsters. He had probably been thinking it over, and come to the conclusion that they were getting too bumptious. Darting up through the water, he had snapped savagely at the careless player's throat.
"But the latter—it was the female, and spry, I can tell you—had felt that darting terror even before she had time to see it, and twisted aside like an eel. So instead of catching her by the throat, as he had so amiably intended, the mink only got her leg, up close by the shoulder. It was a deep and merciless grip; but instead of squealing—which she could not have done anyhow, being already under water—the Little Furry One just sank her sharp white teeth into the back of her enemy's neck, and held on for dear life. It was exactly the right thing to do, though she did not know it. For she had got her grip so high up on the mink's neck that he could not twist his head around far enough to catch her by the throat. Deep down at the bottom of the pool the two rolled over and over each other; and the mink was most annoyed to find how strong the youngster was, and how set in her ways. Moreover, he had been under water longer than she had, and was beginning to feel he'd like a breath of fresh air. He gave a kick with his powerful hind legs, and, as the Little Furry One had no objection, up they came.
"Now, the other youngster had not been able, just at first, to make out what was happening. He thought his sister had gone down to the bottom for fun. But when he saw her coming up, locked in that deadly struggle with their old enemy, his heart swelled with fury. He sprang clear out into the deep water when the struggling pair reached the surface, lashing and splashing, and the mink had only bare time to snatch a single breath of air before he found another adversary on his back, and was borne down inexorably to the bottom.
"Just about this time a perfectly new idea flashed across the mink's mind, and it startled him. For the first time in his life he thought that perhaps he was a fool. Young otters seemed to be so much older than he had imagined them, so much more unreasonable and bad-tempered, and to have so many teeth. It was a question, he decided—while he was being mauled around among the water weeds—that would bear some thinking over. He wanted to think about it right away. There was no time like the present for digesting these new ideas. Seeing a big root sticking out of the bank, close to the bottom, with a tremendous effort he clawed himself under it and scraped off his antagonists. Shooting out on the other side, he darted off like an eel through the water grass, and hurried away up stream to a certain hollow log he knew, where he might lick his bites and meditate undisturbed. The two Little Furry Ones stared after him for a moment, then crawled out upon the bank and lay down in the sunny grass."
Uncle Andy got up with an air of decision. "Let's go catch some fish," he said. "They ought to be beginning to rise about now, over by Spring Brook."
"But what became of the two Little Furry Ones after that?" demanded the Babe, refusing to stir.
"Well, now," protested Uncle Andy in an injured voice, "you know I ain't like Bill and some other folk. I don't know everything. But I've every reason to believe that, with any kind of otter luck, they lived to grow up and have families of their own—and taught every one of them, you may be sure, to slide down hill. As likely as not, that very slide over yonder belongs to one of their families. Now come along and don't ask any more questions."
THE BLACK IMPS OF PINE-TOP
"I think I'd like to be a bird," murmured the Babe, wistfully gazing up at the dark green, feathery top of the great pine, certain of whose branches were tossing and waving excitedly against the blue, although there was not a breath of wind to ruffle the expanse of Silverwater. "I think I'd like it—rather." He added the qualification as a prudent after-thought, lest Uncle Andy should think him foolish.
"In summer!" suggested Uncle Andy, following the Babe's eyes toward the agitated pine-top.
"Of course in summer!" corrected the Babe hastily. "It must be awful to be a bird in winter!" And he shuddered.
"You'd better not say 'of course' in that confident way," said Uncle Andy rather severely. "You know so many of the birds go away south in the winter; and they manage to have a pretty jolly time of it, I should think."
For a moment the Babe looked abashed. Then his face brightened.
"But then, it is summer, for them, isn't it?" said he sweetly.
Uncle Andy gave him a suspicious look, to see if he realized the success of his retort. "Had me there!" he thought to himself. But the Babe's face betrayed no sign of triumph, nothing but that eager appetite for information of which Uncle Andy so highly approved.
"So it depends on what kind of a bird, eh, what?" said he, deftly turning the point. Then he scratched a sputtering sulphur match on the long-suffering leg of his trousers.
"Yes," said the Babe, with more decision now. "I'd like to be a crow."
Uncle Andy smoked meditatively for several minutes before replying, till the Babe began to grow less confident as to the wisdom of his choice. But as he gazed up at those green pine-tops, so clear against the blue, all astir with black wings and gay, excited ca-ings, he took courage again. Certainly those crows, at least, were enjoying themselves immensely.
And he had always had a longing to be able to play in the tops of the trees.
"Well," said Uncle Andy at last, "perhaps you're not so very far off, this time. If I couldn't be an eagle, or a hawk, or a wild goose, or one of those big-horned owls that we hear every night, or a humming-bird, then I'd rather be a crow than most. A crow has got enemies, of course, but then he's got brains, so that he knows how to make a fool of most of his enemies. And he certainly does manage to get a lot of fun out of life, taking it all in all, except when the owl comes gliding around his roosting places in the black nights, or an extra bitter midwinter frost catches him after a rainy thaw."
He paused and drew hard on his pipe, with that far-away look in his eyes which the Babe had learned to regard as the forerunner to a story. There were some interesting questions to ask, of course; but though bursting with curiosity as to why anyone should find it better to be a wild goose, or even a hummingbird, than a crow, the Babe sternly repressed himself. He would ask those questions by and by, that he promised himself. But he had learned that to speak inopportunely was sometimes to make Uncle Andy change his mind and shut up like an oyster. He was determined that he would not open his mouth till the story should be well under way, till his uncle should be himself too much interested to be willing to stop. And then, to his horror, just as he was recording this sagacious resolution in his mind, he heard himself demanding:
"But why after a rainy thaw?"
It was out before he could choke it back. There was nothing for him to do but stick to it and gaze at his uncle with disarming innocence. Uncle Andy turned upon him a glance of slow contumely.
"If you were going to be caught out in a blizzard, would you rather be in dry clothes or in wet ones?" he inquired.
The Babe smiled apologetically and resumed his study of the agitated pine-tops, whence, from time to time, a crow, or two or three, would burst forth for a brief, whirling flight, as if to show how it was done. Then other flights were made, which seemed to the Babe extremely brief and hesitating, as if the flyers were nervous when they found themselves out clear of the branches and suspended on their own wings over the empty deeps of air. Presently there was a sudden tumultuous outburst of ca-ing, the branches shook, and a whole flock, perhaps two score or more, swarmed into the air. After a few moments of clamorous confusion they all flew off in the direction of the muddy flats at the lower end of the lake. The pine-tops subsided into stillness. But an occasional hoarse croak or muttered guttural showed that a few of their occupants had been left at home. The Babe wondered what it had all been about, but he succeeded in holding his tongue.
In a moment or two this heroic self-restraint had its reward.
"Trying to show some of the youngsters how to fly, and jeering at the timid ones and the stupid ones!" explained Uncle Andy.
"Oh!" said the Babe, with a long, appreciative inflection.
Uncle Andy paused, leaving an opening for more questions. But the Babe refused to be drawn, so presently, with a comprehending grin, he went on:
"It's rather a small affair for crows, you know, this colony of theirs here on Silverwater. I suppose they've been crowded out from the places they really prefer, along the skirts of the settlements on the other side of the Ridge. They would rather live always somewhere near the farms and the cleared fields. Not that they have any special affection for man. Far from it. They dislike him, and distrust him, and seem to think him a good deal of a fool, too. His so-called 'scarecrows' are a great joke to them, and have been known at times to afford some fine materials for the lining of their nests. But they find him so useful in many really important ways that they establish their colonies in his neighborhood whenever they possibly can."
Here Uncle Andy made another long pause. He looked at the Babe suspiciously.
"Is anything the matter?" he demanded.
"No, thank you, Uncle Andy," replied the Babe politely.
"But you haven't asked a single question for at least seven minutes," said Uncle Andy.
"I was too busy listening to you," explained the Babe. "But there's one I'd like to ask, if it's all the same to you."
"Well, fire away," said his uncle.
"Why did they all fly away like that, as if they had just remembered something awfully important? And why would you rather be a little tiny humming-bird than a crow? And why did it take the whole flock that way to teach the young ones to fly? And—and why are they afraid, when they are born to fly? And why do they make fun of the stupid ones? And why would you like to be a wild goose? And, and—"
"Stop! stop!" cried Uncle Andy. "I didn't know you had a Gatling about you when I told you to fire away. You wait and shoot those questions at Bill, just like that, to-night."
"Well, but why—"
"No, you must not interrupt," insisted Uncle Andy.
"But you asked me! I was just as quiet—"
"I didn't know what I was doing!" said his uncle. "And I can't possibly answer all those questions. Why, I could never begin to remember half of them."
"I can," interposed the Babe.
"Oh, you needn't mind," said Uncle Andy, hastily. "But perhaps, if you listen with great care, you may find answers to some of them in what I am going to tell you. Of course, I don't promise, for I don't know what you asked me. But maybe you'll hear something that will throw some light on the subject."
"Thank you very much," said the Babe.
"There were only two young ones in the nest," said Uncle Andy, in his sometimes irrelevant way, which seemed deliberately designed to make the Babe ask questions. "The nest was a big, untidy structure of sticks and dead branches; but it was strongly woven for all its untidiness, because it had to stand against the great winds sweeping down over the Ridge. Inside it was very nicely and softly lined with dry grass, and some horse-hair, and a piece of yellow silk from the lining of what had once been a ruffle or something like that that women wear. The nest was in a tall pine, which stood at one end of a grove of ancient fir trees overlooking a slope of pasture and an old white farmhouse with a big garden behind it. Nearly all the trees had crows' nests in their tops, but in most of the other nests there were three or four young crows."
As Uncle Andy paused again at this point the Babe, who was always polite, felt that he was really expected to ask a question here. If he did not, it might look as if he were not taking an interest. He would rather ask too many questions than run the risk of seeming inappreciative.
"Why were there only two young ones in the nest in the pine tree?" he inquired.
It was very hard to know sometimes just what would please Uncle Andy, and what wouldn't. But this time it was quite all right.
"Now, that's a proper, sensible question," said he. "I was just coming to that. You see, there ought to have been four youngsters in that nest, too, for there had been four greeny-blue, brown-spotted eggs to start with. But even crows have their troubles. And the pair that owned this particular nest were a somewhat original and erratic couple. When the mother had laid her last egg and was getting ready to sit, she decided to take an airing before settling down to work. Though her mate was not at hand to guard the nest, she flew off down to the farm to see if there was anything new going on among those foolish men, or perhaps to catch a mouse among the cornstalks."
"Do crows eat mice?" demanded the Babe in astonishment.
"Of course they do," answered Uncle Andy impatiently. "Everybody that eats meat at all eats mice, except us human beings. And in some parts of the world we, too, eat them, dipped in honey."
"Oh—h—h!" shuddered the Babe.
"Well, as I was going to say when you interrupted me, no sooner was she well out of the way than a red squirrel, who had been watching from the nearest fir tree, saw his chance. It was a rare one. Nobody liked eggs better than he did, or got fewer of them. Like a flash he was over from the fir branches into the pine ones, and up and into the nest.
"His sharp teeth went into the nearest egg, and he drank its contents greedily—and cleverly, let me tell you, for it's not so easy to manage without getting it all over your fur. He was just going to begin on another when there was a sharp hiss of wings just above him and a loud ca-ah of alarm. The father bird was back and swooping down upon him. He threw himself clear of the nest, fell to a lower branch, and raced out to its tip to spring into his fir tree. At this moment the furious father struck him, knocking him clean off into the air.
"The air was now full of black wings and angry cries, as the crows from neighboring nests flocked to the help of their fellow citizen. But the little red robber was brave and kept his head. Spreading his legs wide and flat, he made a sort of parachute of himself, and, instead of falling like a stone, he glided down to another branch. Those beating wings and terrible jabbing beaks were all about him, but they got in each other's way. And he was a wonder at dodging, I can tell you, now that he was among the bigger branches, and, though he got several nasty thrusts, which covered his fine coat with blood, he gained his hole, halfway down the tree, and whisked into it safely.
"Into this narrow retreat, of course, none of the crows dared to follow him, knowing that they would there be at the mercy of his teeth. But they gathered in fierce excitement about the entrance, scolding the audacious thief at the top of their voices, and threatening him with every kind of vengeance when he should dare to come out. And from time to time one or another of the boldest would alight on the very edge of the hole, cock his head, and peer in, to bounce away again instantly with a startled squawk as the squirrel would jump up at him, chattering with rage.
"In the midst of all this excitement the careless mother came hurrying back. She had heard the row, of course. One could hear it all over the parish. Unobserved, she flew straight to the nest. Her big, dark, cunning eyes blazed for an instant, but she knew it was all her fault, and she thought it best to make no fuss. Hastily she dropped the empty shell over the side of the nest, and then took her place dutifully on the three remaining eggs. In a few minutes the rest of the crows got tired of scolding the squirrel in his hole and came ca-ing back to the pine tree to talk the matter over. When her mate, all in a fume, hopped onto the edge of the nest, the mother looked up at him with eyes of cold inquiry, as much as to say: 'Well, I'd like to know what all this fuss is about. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, acting that way about a wretched squirrel!' Of course, she may not have said all that. But she certainly gave all the other crows the impression that there was nothing wrong about her nest, and that they had better go and look after their own. Thereupon they all said sarcastic things to their fellow citizen and left him indignantly. He, poor fellow, found it impossible to explain or justify himself, because his mate was sitting on the eggs; so he flew off in a huff to try and find a sparrow's nest to rob. When he came back he had taken pains to forget just how many eggs there had ever been in the nest.
"Oh, yes, I know there were still three. Well, three or four days later a boy came up from the farmhouse and climbed the pine tree, He was not the kind of a boy that robs birds' nests, but he was making a collection. He wanted just one crow's egg, and he had a theory that birds cannot count. He liked crows—in fact, on that farm no one was ever allowed to shoot crows or any other birds except the murderous duck hawk, and he felt that the crows owed him one egg, anyhow, in return for the protection they enjoyed on his father's property.
"Now, you must not think he chose the pine tree because it was the easiest to climb," went on Uncle Andy hurriedly, seeing in the Babe's eyes that this point had to be cleared up at once. "In fact, it was the hardest to climb. Any one of the fir trees would have been easier, and they all had crows' nests in them. But the boy knew that he could not climb any of them without getting his clothes all over balsam, which would mean a lot of inconvenient explanations with his mother. So he went up the pine tree, of course, and spared his mother's feelings.
"The crows displayed no sense of gratitude whatever. He might have eggs, of course, that boy, but not their eggs! They flapped around him savagely, and made so much noise in his ears that he could not hear himself think. But he kept his big straw hat pulled down well over his eyes, and paid no attention whatever to the indignant birds. And because he was so quiet and positive about it, not one of them quite dared to actually touch him. The mother bird hopped off the nest sullenly just as he was about to put his hand on her. He took one egg, put it in his pocket, examined the nest with interest, and climbed down again. Just as he was nearing the ground he broke the egg. This, of course, made him feel not only sticky but somewhat embarrassed. He saw that he might have some difficulty in explaining that pocket to his mother. Even a great deal of balsam would have been better than that egg. But he comforted himself with the thought that he would never have been able to blow it, anyhow, on account of its being so advanced.
"And that's why there were only two young crows in that particular nest.
"But they were an altogether unusual pair, these two. In the first place, receiving all the food and all the attention that were usually divided among four or five, they had grown and feathered extraordinarily fast, till now they were ready for flight, while their fellows in the neighboring nests were still ragged and 'quilly' looking. In the second place, they had inherited from their eccentric parents an altogether surprising amount of originality. Their feathers were beautifully firm and black and glossy, their beaks sharp and polished; and in their full, dark, intelligent eyes there was an impishness that even a crow might regard as especially impish."
"What's impish?" demanded the Babe.
"Goodness me! Don't you know what impish is?" exclaimed Uncle Andy. He thought a moment, and then, finding it a little difficult to explain, he added with convenient severity:
"If you will listen, you'll find out, perhaps."
"Well, the two grew so fast that, before their parents realized at all what precocious youngsters they were, they had climbed out upon the edge of the nest and begun to stretch their fine wings. With hoarse expostulations their father tried to persuade them back. But their mother, who was not so conservative, chuckled her approval and flew off to hunt young mice for them. Thus encouraged, they ignored their father's prudent counsels, and hopped out, with elated squawks, upon the branch. Whereupon the father, somewhat huffed, flew up to the very topmost branch of the tree and perched there, swaying in the breeze, and trying to forget his family cares. From this high post of observation he presently caught sight of an eagle, winging his way up from the swamp at the lower end of the valley. With a sharp signal cry for volunteers, he dashed off in pursuit. He was joined by two other crows who happened to be at leisure; and the three, quickly overtaking the majestic voyager, began to load him with impertinence and abuse. With their comparatively short but very broad wings the crows could dodge so nimbly in the air that if was quite impossible for their great enemy to catch them. He made no attempt to do so. Indignantly he changed the direction of his flight, and began to soar, climbing gradually into the blue in splendid, sweeping circles; while the crows, croaking mockery and triumph, kept flapping above him and below, darting at his eyes, and dashing with open beaks at the shining whiteness of his crown. They dared not come near enough to actually touch him, but they succeeded in making themselves most unpleasant. The eagle glared at them steadily with his fierce, black-and-yellow eyes, but otherwise seemed to pay them no attention whatever. Only he kept mounting higher and higher, till at last his impish tormentors—impish, I said—dared follow him no farther. They came fluttering down hurriedly to more congenial levels, and flew back to the grove to boast of their 'great victory.'"
"My, but that eagle must have felt awfully ashamed!" exclaimed the Babe.
"The next day," continued Uncle Andy, without noticing the interruption, "the two old crows began to think it would soon be time to teach this independent pair of youngsters to fly. And they thought, too, that they'd be able to manage it all by themselves, without any help or advice from the rest of the flock. While they were thinking about it, in the next tree, for they were not a great pair to stay at home, you know, one of the youngsters, the female, gave an impatient squawk, spread her wings, and fell off her branch. She thought it was flying, you know, but at first she just fell, flapping her wings wildly. In two seconds, however, she seemed to get the hang of it, more or less. With a violent effort, she rose, gained the next tree, alighted, panting, beside her parents and looked at them with a superior air, as if she thought that they could never have accomplished such a thing at her age. That was perhaps true, of course, but it was not for her to think so."
"Huh! I should think not, indeed!" agreed the Babe severely.
"Well," continued Uncle Andy, now quite absorbed in his narrative, "the other youngster, not to be outdone, went hopping up in great excitement from branch to branch, till he was some ten feet above the rest of the family. Then, launching himself boldly, he went fluttering down to them with no difficulty at all. He was less impetuous and more sagacious than his sister.
"After this the parents continued to feed their independent offspring for a number of days, just because they had been accustomed to feed their nestling for a certain length of time, till at last the youngsters started off to forage on their own account, and the family, as a family, broke up. From habit, however, or from good will, the youngsters kept coming back to roost on the branches beside the nest, and remained on the most friendly, though easy-going, relations with their father and mother.
"In every crow flock, large or small, there seems to be some kind of discipline, some kind of obedience to the wise old leaders of the flock. But the two black imps of Pine-Top were apparently, for the time at least, exempted from it. They did about as they liked and were a nuisance to everybody but their two selves, whom they admired immensely. Being too young for the old crows to take seriously, their pranks were tolerated, or they would soon have been pecked and beaten into better manners. Too big and too grown-up for the young crows—whom they visited in their nests and tormented till driven away by the indignant parents—they had no associates but each other. So they followed their own whims; and the flock was philosophically indifferent as to what might happen to them.
"You must not think, however, that they did not learn anything, these two. They were sharp. They listened to what was being said around them, and the crows, you know, are the greatest talkers ever; so they soon knew the difference between a man with a gun and a man without one. They knew that an owl in the daytime is not the same thing as an owl at night. They gathered that a scarecrow is not as dangerous as it looks. And many other things that a crow needs to know and believe they condescended to learn, because learning came easy to them. But common caution they did not learn, because it did not seem to them either interesting or necessary. So it was often just luck that got them out of scrapes, though they always thought it was their own cleverness.
"It was just lucky, of course, that day when they went exploring in the patch of dark woods down in the valley, that the big brown owl did not get one or the other of them. He was asleep on a big dead branch as brown as himself, and looking so like a part of it that they were just going to alight, either upon him or within reach of his deadly clutch, when a red squirrel saw them and shrieked at them. Two great, round, glaring orange eyes opened upon them from that brown prong of the branch, so suddenly that they gave two startled squawks and nearly fell to the ground. How the red squirrel tittered, hating both the owl and the crows. But the imps, when they got over their start, were furious. Flying over the owl's head, they kept screaming at the top of their voices something which probably meant 'an owl! an owl! an owl!'; and immediately every other crow within hearing took up the cry, till in two minutes half the flock were gathered in the patch of woods. They swarmed screaming about the owl's head, striking at him with their sharp beaks and strong black wings, but always too wary to come quite within his reach. The great night prowler knew that in the daylight he could not catch them—that, indeed, if he did succeed in catching one in his claws the others would throw caution to the winds and all be down upon him at once. He sat there, straight and stiff, for a while, snapping his terrible beak and hissing at them like an angry cat. Till at last, realizing that there was no more chance of a peaceful sleep for him there, he spread his huge, downy wings and sailed off smoothly to seek some more secluded neighborhood. The whole flock pursued him, with their tormenting and abuse, for perhaps a couple of miles; and then, at some signal from their leaders, dropped the chase suddenly and turned their attention to what looked like a sort of game of tag, in a wide, open pasture where no enemy could steal upon them unawares. The imps felt themselves great heroes, but if it had not been for that red squirrel, the owl, sleepy though he was, would certainly have got one of them."
The Babe wanted to ask whether the squirrel had warned them out of friendliness or just out of dislike to the owl, but before he could frame his question quite satisfactorily, or get out anything more than a hasty "But why—?" Uncle Andy had gone on with an emphasis which discouraged interruption.
"It was lucky for them, too, that no guns were fired on the big farm below the grove—the crows were there believed to earn the corn they stole by the grubs and cutworms and mice they killed. That was very lucky for the two imps, for they were forever hanging about the farmyard and the big locust trees that ran along the foot of the garden. The farmer himself and his hired hands paid no attention to them, but the boy, the one who had prevented there being three imps instead of two, he was tremendously interested. At first they were shy of him, because, perhaps, they felt him watching them out of the corners of his keen blue eyes. But at last they decided he was no more dangerous than the rest, and made sarcastic remarks about him in a language which he couldn't understand.
"There was always food to be picked up around the farmyard when the men were absent in the fields, the womenfolk busy in the kitchen, and the boy somewhere out of sight. And it was food doubly sweet because it had to be stolen from the fussy hens or the ridiculous ducks or the stupid, complacent pigeons. Then there was always something interesting to be done. It was fun to bully the pigeons and to give sly, savage jabs to the half-grown chicks. It was delightful to steal the bright tops of tin tomato cans—they thought they were stealing them, of course, because they could not imagine such fascinating things being thrown away, even by those fool men—to snatch them hurriedly, fly off with them to the tall green pine-top, and hide them in their old nest till they got it looking quite like a rubbish dump, and good pasture for a goat. And most of all, perhaps, was it fun to tease the lazy old kitchen cat, till her tail would get as big as a bottle brush with helpless indignation."
"The cat?" exclaimed the Babe. "Why, weren't they afraid of her?"
"Wait and see!" remarked Uncle Andy simply, with no apologies whatever to the Prime Minister. "Well, as I was about to say, their method was simple and effective. They would wait till they found the cat lying along the narrow top of the rail fence, sunning herself. It was her favorite place, though it can hardly have been comfortable, it was so narrow. The He imp would alight on the rail, about ten feet in front of her, and pretend to be very sick, squawking feebly and drooping his black wings with a struggling flutter, as if it was all he could do to keep his perch. The cat, her narrow eyes opening very wide, would start to creep up to him. The She imp would then alight on the rail behind her and nip her sharply by the tail, and go hopping clumsily off down the rail. The cat would wheel with an angry pfiff-ff, and start after this new quarry. Whereupon the He imp would again nip her tail. This would be repeated several times before the cat would realize that she was being made a fool of. Then she would bounce down from the fence and race off to the kitchen in a towering rage, and the impudent youngsters would fly up into the nearest tree top and ca about it delightedly.
"Then there was the scarecrow, in the middle of the big strawberry patch down at the foot of the huge garden. It did not scare these two young rascals, not in the least. It was an excellently made scarecrow, and did strike terror to the heart of many of the smaller birds. But its hat was packed with straw, and the imps found it was a pleasant game pulling the straws out through a couple of holes in the crown, and strewing them over the strawberry bed. Incidentally, they liked strawberries, and ate a good many of them as sauce to their ordinary diet of grubs and mice and chicken feed. And it was this weakness of theirs for strawberries that led to their misunderstanding with the Boy, and then with the big rat that lived under the tool shed.
"That strawberry patch was one of the things that the Boy took a particular interest in. When he saw that the imps also took such an interest in it, eating the berries instead of the grubs, he began to get annoyed. From his window, which overlooked the garden, he had seen what liberties the imps took with the scarecrow, so he realized there was no help for him in scarecrows. But something must be done, that he vowed, and done at once, or his strawberries were going to be mighty scarce. He didn't want to do any real harm to even such a troublesome pair of birds as the imps, but he was determined to give them a lesson that might teach them some respect, not only for strawberry patches, but even for scarecrows.
"On the crown of the scarecrow's old hat, which he had observed to be a favorite perch of the imps, he arranged a noose of light cord. From the noose he ran the cord down the scarecrow's single leg (scarecrows, you know, have usually only one leg), across to the hedge, along the hedge to the house, and up and into his room. He fixed it so it ran without a hitch. He was very proud of it altogether. Much pleased with himself, he got a book and a couple of apples, and seated himself at his window to wait for his chance.
"As it happened, however, the imps were just then away in the meadow, hunting mice. For a whole hour the Boy saw no sign of them. Then, being called away to go on an errand into the village, he tied the end of the cord to his bedpost, and left it with a word of advice to do what it could in his absence.
"Well, it did! For a mere bit of string, all by itself, it didn't do badly. First the old brown rat, with his fierce little eyes and pointed, whiskered nose, came out from under the toolhouse and began exploring the strawberry patch. He didn't think much of strawberries in themselves, but he was apt to find fat grubs and beetles and sleepy June bugs under the clustering leaves. He came upon the string, stretched taut. He was just about to bite it through and try to carry it off to his nest when it occurred to him it might be a trap. He turned away discreetly, and snapped up a plump June bug.
"Then the imps came sailing along. The He imp, with a loud ca-ah, perched in the top of a locust and reconnoitred the situation. The She imp alighted on the head of the scarecrow, cocked her head to one side, and peered down upon the rat with a wicked and insulting eye. 'Cr-r-r-r,' she said sarcastically. But, as the rat paid no attention to her, she hopped up and down on her toes, half-lifting her wings in the effort to attract his eye. She hated to be ignored. But still the rat ignored her, though he saw her perfectly well and would have loved to eat her. At last, in her excitement, she caught sight of the cord running over the edge of the scarecrow's hat. Snatching it up in her beak, she gave it an energetic and inquiring tug. She learned something interesting about it at once. It grabbed her by one leg.
"Startled into a panic, as all wild things are at the least suggestion of restraint, she squawked and flapped into the air. The noose tightened rebukingly and pulled her up short.
"For one astounded moment she settled back onto the scarecrow's head, frightened into stillness. Then she tweaked savagely at the cord on her leg, but, of course, could do nothing with it. As far as knots were concerned, her education had been utterly neglected. At last she sprang once more into the air, determined to have nothing more to do with the treacherous scarecrow who had stuck that thing on her leg.
"Of course, she didn't fly far—just about six feet—and she was again brought up with a jerk. And now she went quite wild. Squawking and flapping and whirling round and round, she made an amazing exhibition of herself. Her brother, in the top of the locust, stared down upon her in astonished disapproval. And the brown rat, interested at last, came creeping stealthily to the scarecrow's foot and looked up at her performance with cruel, glinting eyes.
"Now, as you may well imagine, this performance was something which even the imp, strong as she was, could not keep up very long. In about a minute she had to stop and take breath. She was going to alight on the ground, when she remembered the rat. Yes, there he was. So she had to take refuge once more on the hated and treacherous scarecrow. But no sooner had she done so, alighting with open beak and half-spread, quivering wings, than the rat came darting up the leg of the scarecrow's ragged trousers and pounced at her. She just escaped, and that was all, leaping into the air with a squawk of terror and flapping there violently at the end of those six feet of free cord.
"It was a horrifying position for her, let me tell you—"
"I guess so!" muttered the Babe in spite of himself, wagging his head sympathetically. He did not like rats.
"She was too frightened to save her strength, of course, and so kept flapping with all her might, as if she thought to fly away with scarecrow and all. The rat, however, was impatient. He clutched at the cord with his handlike claws and began trying to pull the imp down to him. At first he couldn't make much out of it, but as the imp weakened with her frantic efforts the cord began to shorten. Just about now the He imp, who had come down from the locust top and fluttered over the scene in pained curiosity, realized what was happening. He was game, all right, however bumptious and self-satisfied. He set up a tremendous ca-a-a-ing, as a signal for all the crows within hearing to come to the rescue, and then made a sudden, savage side swoop at the foe.
"Taken thoroughly by surprise, the rat was toppled from his unsteady perch and fell among the strawberries. His head ringing from the stroke of that sturdy black wing, his plump flank smarting and bleeding from a fierce jab of that pointed beak of the imp's, he squeaked with rage and clambered up again to the battle. Mr. Rat, you know, is no coward and no quitter.
"And now he was more dangerous, because he was ready. He sat warily on his haunches, squeaking angrily, and turning his sharp head from side to side as he followed every swoop and rush of the He imp, snapping so dangerously that the latter did not dare come quite close enough to deliver another really effective blow. At the same time, being very clever indeed, the rat kept tugging, tugging, tugging at the cord. And the She imp, being quite gone out of her mind with the terror of that clutch on her leg, kept flapping crazily at the end of the cord instead of turning to, like a sensible crow, and helping her brother in the fight.
"As she grew weaker and weaker in her struggles, the cunning rat drew her lower and lower, till at last she seemed fairly within his reach. He lifted himself on his hindquarters to snap his long teeth into her thigh and spring to the ground with her, where he would have her completely at his mercy. But as he rose the He imp, at sight of his sister's deadly peril, lost all sense of caution, and struck again with all his strength of beak and wing. And once more the rat, fairly bursting with rage, was swept to the ground.
"He was back to the attack again in a moment, and now more dangerous than ever. And at the same time the She imp, utterly worn out at last by her panic terror and her foolish violence, sank shuddering down upon her perch. Her brother struck the rat again frantically when the latter was halfway up the scarecrow's leg, but this time failed to dislodge him. And it looked as if the poor She imp would never again steal a strawberry or worry a pigeon. But at this moment the Boy appeared in the garden. He came running up noiselessly, anxious to see all that was happening. But the rat heard him. The rat had no use for the Boy whatever. He knew that the whole human race was his enemy. He dropped from the scarecrow's trouser leg and scurried off to his hole beneath the toolhouse. The Boy, his face a mixture of amusement and concern, picked up the captive without noticing her feeble pecks, undid the noose from her leg, and carried her over the hedge to rest and recover herself.
"'Now,' said he, 'you little imp of Satan, maybe you'll not come stealing any more of my strawberries or pulling any more straw out of my poor scarecrow's head!'
"And she never did!" concluded Uncle Andy, rising and stretching his legs. "Those two were not reformed, you may be sure. But they kept clear, after that, of the Boy's strawberry patch, and of all scarecrows. It's time we were getting back to camp for supper, or Bill will be feeling sour."
"But you haven't told me," protested the Babe, who had a most tenacious memory, "why those crows all flew away out of the pine-top so suddenly, as if they had just remembered something. And you haven't told me why you'd rather be a humming-bird than a crow. And you haven't—"
But Uncle Andy stopped him.
"If you think I'm going to tell you all I know," said he, "you're mistaken. If I did, you'd know as much as I do, and it wouldn't be any fun. Some day you'll be glad I've left something for you to find out for yourself."
YOUNG GRUMPY AND THE ONE-EYED GANDER
"My gracious! What's that?" cried the Babe, and nearly jumped out of his boots. A gray thing had come right at him, with an ugly, scurrying rush. The bushes and bracken being thick, he had not got a very clear view of it—and he did not stop to try for a better one. In two seconds he was back at Uncle Andy's side, where the latter sat smoking on his favorite log by the water.
The Babe's eyes were very wide. He looked a bit startled.
"It ran straight at me!" he declared. "What could it have been?"
"A bear, I suppose!" said Uncle Andy sarcastically.
"Of course not," answered the Babe in an injured voice. "If it had been a bear, I'd have been frightened."
"Oh!" said Uncle Andy. "I see. Well, what was it like? Seems to me you didn't take much time to look at it, even if you weren't frightened."
"I did look," protested the Babe, glancing again, a little nervously, at the bushes. "It was like—like a tre-mendous big fat guinea pig, with a fat tail and all kind of rusty gray."
"Now, that's not at all bad, considering you were in something of a hurry," said Uncle Andy approvingly. "That's really a very good description of a woodchuck. No one could possibly mistake it for a lobster or a lion."
"Of course, I couldn't see it very plain," added the Babe hastily, wondering if Uncle Andy was laughing at him. "But why did it run at me that way?"
"You see," said Uncle Andy seriously, repenting of his mockery, "the woodchuck is a queer, bad-tempered chap, with more pluck than sense sometimes. Once in a while he would run at anything that was new and strange to him, no matter how big it was, just to see if he couldn't frighten it."
"Would he run at you or Bill that way?" demanded the Babe in a voice of awe at the very thought of such temerity.
"Oh, he has seen lots of men," replied Uncle Andy. "We're nothing new to him. But most likely he had never seen a small boy before, and he did not know what kind of an animal it was. The very fact that he did not know made him angry—he's sometimes so quick-tempered, you know!"
"I'm glad he didn't frighten me—so very much!" murmured the Babe, beginning to forget the exact degree of his alarm.
"I noticed you got out of his way pretty smart!" said Uncle Andy, eyeing him from under shaggy brows. "But perhaps that was just because you were in a hurry to tell me about it!"
"No-o!" answered the Babe, hesitating but truthful. "I thought perhaps he was going to bite my legs, and I didn't want him to."
"That seems reasonable enough," agreed Uncle Andy heartily. "No sensible person wants a fool woodchuck biting his legs."
"But would he really have bitten me?" asked the Babe, beginning to think that perhaps he ought to go back and find the presumptuous little animal and kick him.
"As I think I've already said, you never can tell exactly what a woodchuck is going to do," replied Uncle Andy. "You know that old rhyme about him:
"'How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, If a woodchuck could chuck wood? He'd chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could If a woodchuck could chuck wood.'
"Now that goes to show what uncertainty people have about him. And it's no more than right. For instance, I was traveling through a wild part of New Brunswick once in a big red automobile, when, coming suddenly around a turn, we saw just ahead of us two old woodchucks sitting up on their fat haunches by the side of the road. I was beside the chauffeur, and could see just what happened. How those woodchucks' eyes stuck out! It was not more than three seconds before we were right up to them. Then one of the two, frightened to death, fairly turned a back somersault into the bushes. But the other was a hero. Perhaps he thought he was St. George and the automobile a dragon. Anyhow, he did all a hero could. He jumped straight on to the front wheel and bit wildly at the tire. We stopped so short that we almost went out on our heads—but too late! The wheel had gone clean over him. We felt so sorry that we stopped and dug a hole by the roadside and gave the flattened little hero a very distinguished burial."
"Oh, but he must have been crazy!" exclaimed the Babe, rubbing his leg thoughtfully and congratulating himself that he had not lingered to study the being which had rushed at him in the underbrush.
"Perhaps," said Uncle Andy dryly. "If I remember rightly, that's just what has been said of lots of heroes before now."
He tapped his pipe on the log beside him to knock out the ashes, and proceeded thoughtfully to fill it up again. This second filling the Babe had learned to regard as a very hopeful sign. It usually meant that Uncle Andy was in the vein. Seating himself on the grass directly in front of his uncle, the Babe clasped his arms around his bare little brown, mosquito-bitten knees, and stared upward hopefully with grave, round eyes, as blue as the bluebells nodding beside him.
"Speaking of woodchucks," began Uncle Andy presently, "I've known a lot of them in my time, and I've almost always found them interesting. Like some people we know, they're sometimes most amusing when they are most serious."
"Amusing!" exclaimed the Babe, with a world of meaning in his voice. That was the last word he expected to apply to such a bad-tempered little beast.
But his uncle paid no heed to the interruption.
"There was 'Young Grumpy,' now," he continued musingly. "As sober-minded a woodchuck as ever burrowed a bank. From his earliest days he took life seriously, and never seemed to think it worth his while to play as the other wild youngsters do. Yet in spite of himself he was sometimes quite amusing.
"He had the good fortune to be born in the back pasture of Anderson's Farm. That was where the Boy lived, you know, and where no one was allowed to shoot the crows. Being a place where no one did any more killing than was absolutely necessary, it was rather lucky for any of the Babes of the Wild to be born there—except weasels, of course."
"Why not for weasels?" demanded the Babe.
"Well, now, you might know that without my having to tell you," replied Uncle Andy. "The weasels are such merciless and murderous little killers themselves, killing just for the fun of it when they are already too full to eat what they have killed, that both Mr. Anderson and the Boy had no sympathy for them, and thought them better out of the way. I don't want to be too hard, even on a weasel; but I'm bound to say that most of the wild creatures feel much the same way about that blood-thirsty little pirate."
"I should think so!" agreed the Babe indignantly, resolving to devote his future largely to the extermination of weasels, and hoping thus to win the confidence and gratitude of the kindred of the wild.
"Young Grumpy's home life," continued Uncle Andy, "with his father and mother and four brothers and sisters was not a pampered one. There are few wild parents less given to spoiling their young than a pair of grumbling old woodchucks. The father, who spent most of his time sleeping, rolled up in a ball at the bottom of the burrow, paid them no attention except to nip at them crossly when they tumbled over him. They were always relieved when he went off, three or four times a day, down into the neighboring clover field to make his meals. The little ones did not see what he was good for, anyhow, till one morning, when the black-and-yellow dog from the next farm happened along. The youngsters, with their mother, were basking in the sun just outside the front door. As the dog sprang at them they all fairly fell, head over heels, back into the burrow. The dog, immensely disappointed, set to work frantically to dig them out. He felt sure that young woodchuck would be very good to eat.
"It was then that Old Grumpy showed what he was made of. Thrusting his family rudely aside, he scurried up the burrow to the door, where the dog was making the earth fly at a most alarming rate. Without a moment's hesitation he sank his long, cutting teeth into the rash intruder's nose and held on.
"The dog yelped and choked, and tried to back out of the hole in a hurry. But it was no use. The old woodchuck had a solid grip and was pulling with all his might in the other direction. Panic-stricken and half smothered by the dry earth, the dog dug in his hind claws, bent his back like a bow, and pulled for all he was worth, yelling till you might have thought there were half a dozen dogs in that hole. At last, after perhaps three or four minutes—which seemed to the dog much longer—the old woodchuck decided to leave go. You see, he didn't really want that dog, or even that dog's nose, in the burrow. So he opened his jaws suddenly. At that the dog went right over backward, all four legs in the air, like a wooden dog. But the next instant he was on his feet again, and tearing away like mad down the pasture, ki-yi-ing like a whipped puppy, although he was a grown-up dog and ought to have been ashamed of himself to make such a noise. And never after that, they tell me, could he be persuaded under any circumstances to go within fifteen feet of anything that looked like a woodchuck hole."
"I'm not one bit sorry for him," muttered the Babe in spite of himself. "He had no business there at all."
"The mother of the woodchuck family," went on Uncle Andy, "was not so cross as the father, but she was very careless. She would sit upon her fat haunches in the door of the burrow while the babies were nibbling around outside, pretending to keep an eye on them. But half the time she would be sound asleep, with her head dropped straight down on her stomach, between her little black paws. One day, as she was dozing thus comfortably, a marsh hawk came flapping low overhead, and pounced on one of the youngsters before it had time to more than squeak. At the sound of that despairing squeak, to be sure, she woke up and made a savage rush at the enemy. But the wary bird was already in the air, with the prize drooping from his talons. And the mother could do nothing but sit up and chatter after him abusively as he sailed away to his nest.
"You see, the mother was brave enough, as I said before, but very careless. She was different from the ordinary run of woodchucks, in that she had only three feet. She had lost her left hind paw."
"Was that because she was so careless?" asked the Babe.
Uncle Andy looked at him suspiciously. Like so many other story-tellers, he preferred to make all the jokes himself. He was suspicious of other people's jokes. But the Babe's round, attentive eyes were as innocent as the sky.
"No," said he gravely; "that was something she could not help. It was an accident. It has nothing to do with Young Grumpy, but since you've asked me about it I had better tell you at once and save interruptions.
"You see it was this way. Before she came to live on the Anderson Farm she used to have a burrow over on the other side of the Ridge, where the people went in for a good deal of trapping and snaring. One day someone set a steel trap just in front of her burrow. Of course she put her foot into it at the first chance. It was terrible. You know the grip of those steel jaws, for I've seen you trying to open them. She was game, however—they're always game, these woodchucks. Instead of squealing and hopping about and losing her wits and using up her strength, she just popped back into her hole and dragged the trap in with her as far as it would go. That was not very far, of course, because the man who set it had chained it to a stump outside. But she thought it better, in such a trouble, to be out of range of unsympathetic eyes. There in the hole she tugged and wrenched at the cruel biting thing till even her obstinacy had to acknowledge that it was impossible to pull herself free. Then she tried blocking up the hole behind her, thinking perhaps that the trap, on finding itself thus imprisoned in the burrow, would get frightened and let go its hold. Disappointed in this hope, she decided to adopt heroic measures. With magnificent nerve she calmly set to work and gnawed off the foot which had been so idiotic as to get itself caught. She would have nothing more to do with the fool thing. She just left it there in the trap, with her compliments, for the man—a poor little, crumpled, black-skinned paw, with a fringe of short brownish fur about the wrist, like a fur-lined gauntlet."