TWO ENEMIES OF THE BEAVERS

By Lillian M. Gask

Father Beaver had left his family to its own devices for some time; he had been exploring the winding river, and diving under waterfalls in sheer delight at his own strength. He was full grown now, and fond as he was of his little wife and children, the roaming instinct was strong. The morning he rejoined them he was in great form.

"What have you been doing with yourself?" inquired Mother Beaver, eyeing him suspiciously, when she had told him all her news. The glossy fur at the back of his neck bore marks of recent bites, and there was an ugly tear in one of his ears.

Father Beaver looked at the sky.

"There is a lovely maple tree not far from here," he said, as if he had not heard her question. "I girdled it on my way back just now, and you'll find plenty of syrup oozing from it if you go there to-morrow."

The young Beavers sniffed eagerly, but Mother Beaver was not to be put off.

"You have met the Otter," she cried, her eyes growing very big, "and you've been fighting."

Father Beaver chuckled. "Last summer," he said, turning to Phil, "I was only two years old, and that Otter punished me so severely that but for Mother Beaver there, who came to my rescue in the nick of time, I should have been done for. But now—well, he will never trouble me again!"

Phil looked at him with a new reverence. The Otter, he knew, was a fierce foe to Beavers, with whom he disputed the lordship of the river; that Father Beaver should have conquered him single handed filled him with awe.

"Let us hear all about it!" cried Mother Beaver, coming quite close to him. But he brushed her aside good-humouredly, and spoke of other things.

"The Night Wind says that the frosts will come early this fall," he remarked, "and we are well into the summer now. There is a fine plantation of willows on the river-bank, only waiting for us to fell them. We will get to work at once. I shall be downright glad to begin."

"So shall we all," said Mother Beaver heartily. "Holiday-making is well enough for a while, but if we did not use our teeth on something harder than soft bark and lily roots, they would soon grow dull."

"Yours are as bright as the gleam of the moon on the water, my love," said Father Beaver with a glance of admiration; and Mother Beaver gave him an affectionate push, which was as near to a hug as she could go.

When they reached the group of trees that Father Beaver had planned to attack first, other Beavers belonging to the colony were already at work. These nodded kindly to Phil, but were too much absorbed in what they were at to take much notice of him. Mother Beaver was deputed to see what he could do, while the young Beavers were given a first lesson by their proud father.

Choosing a stout young sapling very close to the bank, Mother Beaver gnawed round it with her sharp, chisel-like teeth, taking care to bite most deeply on the side nearest the water, so that it might fall towards the stream and be quickly floated. In a very few moments it toppled over, cut clean through, and Mother Beaver looked round for another.

"We'll try that big one over there," she cried, with an approving glance at her young ones, who were hard at work on some slender willows. Phil hesitated and flushed, for he did not know how to begin. Mother Beaver touched him pityingly with her small forepaw.

"I forgot your teeth were so small and weak, my dear. It's not your fault, so you need not be ashamed. When I have felled the tree, you shall drag it down to the bank. That will be a great help, and leave us free for felling."

The tree took much longer to fell than the sapling had done, for the trunk was nearly as thick as a man's body. Phil was immensely interested to see how Mother Beaver set about her task; he had guessed from the first that she was remarkably clever, but now he was quite sure of it.

First of all she made a deep cut through the bark which circled the trunk as far from the ground as she could conveniently reach. Some three or four inches lower she cut a second ring, and then, slowly and surely, dug out the wood from between, splinter by splinter, with those sharp teeth of hers.

The day wore on, and still she worked. Father Beaver offered to help her; each time he came she sent him back. It was growing dusk; Phil saw that now the trunk of the tree between the cuts went in like a lady's waist. Each time that Mother Beaver drew out a splinter this "waist" became more slender still; a very little further, and the tree would have been cut right through, but Mother Beaver knew when to stop.

"Come away," she cried quickly to Phil; "at the next gust of wind that tree will fall, and only foolish creatures run knowingly into danger. I should be crushed beneath it if I drew out another splinter. Some of our family have already met their deaths that way; they were too impulsive, and did not stop to think."

The Night Wind came singing through the forest, and the branches of the big tree quivered; with a low groan it crashed to earth, and Phil found that it took all his new strength to drag the heavy mass down to the bank.

"I s'pose you'll all take a rest now," he said persuasively, for he was longing to hear about Father Beaver's encounter with the Otter, and thought that he would not mind trying some of that maple syrup himself. But the Beavers were only just getting into their work, as they told him gaily, though he, of course, might take a nap.

They were still at it when he awoke next morning.

"We shall go on until not a tree on this spot is left standing,"
Mother Beaver declared, cheerfully; and he quite believed her.

By the afternoon his arms began to ache, and the Beavers had found him so useful that one of the elders of the colony had remarked that he should have nothing to say against it if he wished to stay with them altogether. Phil thought this very kind of him; but, much as he liked the Beavers, there were many other animals that he wanted to meet. Perhaps Mother Beaver guessed something of this, for she told him pleasantly to go off to the woods.

"You'll work all the better to-morrow," she said; and Father Beaver flapped his tail by way of dismissal.

As neither she nor their father would hear of the young Beavers taking a holiday too, Phil wandered off by himself into the depths of the forest, where the beautiful golden sunlight, which had much ado to force its way through the thick leaves, was making long ladders on the moss. Some small red berries, quite sweet and tasting like strawberry cream, drew him further and further in; a Squirrel threw him a nut and turned aside, as if too lazy to play, and a drowsy Bee mistook his yellow head for honey, much to her own dismay. Phil felt uncommonly drowsy himself, in spite of his long night's rest, and was thinking of taking forty winks when a gentle rustle in the branches made him look up quickly. It was the Wolverene.

For a moment Phil thought that he must be mistaken; surely that benign looking animal, so very like his own brown bear, could not be the Beaver's voracious enemy? He was patting the boughs as a playful kitten might have done, and rolling himself over with surprising ease. His small brown eyes gazed at Phil good-naturedly, as if to read his thoughts.

"I don't look such a desperate character, do I?" he asked complacently. "My wife—I must really introduce you to her—thinks I am quite a fine fellow, and my two young sons adore me. I'll take you home to supper, and you shall see them. They are barely ten days old."

Phil was very curious to see the young Wolverenes, but somehow he did not think it would be fair to the Beavers to be on such friendly terms with an animal that ate them. So he thanked him most politely and said he must be going on.

The Wolverene left off his playful patting of the branches and showed his teeth in an ugly smile.

"All right," he said resentfully. "I know what that means, of course. The Beavers have been setting you against me, just as I thought. They had better look out, for I have only been waiting until they grew a bit fatter. That 'Father Beaver' of yours will make me a remarkably good supper. Give him my love if you happen to see him."

He leapt as he spoke from the upper branch of one tree to the lower branch of another, a distance of some twenty feet, and disappeared. A low chuckle came from the ground close by, and Phil was delighted to see a small brown Rabbit, exactly like those that had played in the woods at home, sitting up on his hind legs. He was shaking with laughter, and his comical little nose was wrinkled up until it nearly met his eyes.

"Good for you!" he cried. "That Wolverene is a terror—I know him well. He would question and cross-question you about the Beavers until you were nearly addled, and then he would persuade them that you had been telling tales. Mischievous creatures such as he are best left alone, even if you are sure they cannot harm you. He is as much hated by Sable and Marten hunters as he is by all of us, for he has such a wonderful sense of smell that he scents out the stores of provisions they hide in case of need, and wastes all that he does not eat. He makes their traps useless, too—but that isn't to save the Sables, but because he wants the bait. The only creatures that can get the better of him are the Grizzlies; when they come down from the mountains they make a meal of him."

Not until the Rabbit had talked himself out of breath had Phil a chance of asking him the shortest way back to the river.

"Won't you let us give you a shake-down for the night?" he said by way of answer. "Our burrow is large enough to take you in, and I could tell you many stories of these woods."

"I'll come some other time, if you don't mind," said Phil. "I should like to find the Beavers now, and put them on their guard."

"Quite so!" agreed the Rabbit. "I shouldn't be surprised if that old rascal paid them a visit to-night. He'll guess their whereabouts from the trees they have cut down, and will try to punish you through them."

Phil hurried back as quickly as his legs could carry him, not even stopping to look at the splendid Birds that fluttered amongst the vines. A gorgeous Butterfly, spotted with crimson and purple, offered his services as a guide, but it was almost dusk before Phil reached the little colony of Beavers.

They were still working away, as busily as ever. Although he had only been gone a few hours, they had done wonders; more than half of the group of trees they had chosen were already down, for they had "worked together, and worked with a will," as Mother Beaver had said.

Phil's news was received with much concern, and Father Beaver hastily summoned a conference. All Beavers under a year old were at once dismissed from work, and commanded to wait by the entrances to the tunnels beneath the banks, so that in case of surprise they might be under cover, and Phil was posted as sentinel while the elder Beavers finished felling the trees they had already begun. This done, they decided to leave them where they were for the present, and to make for the other side of the river.

Father Beaver was the last to cross; as he dived from the bank there was a stealthy tread among the rushes, and the gleaming eyes of the Wolverene followed him through the water. But for Phil's warning there would have been at least one Beaver less that night.

It was some days before the busy little animals began their work again, for they knew that the Wolverene might still be on the watch for them, and have crossed the river himself. So they "lay very low," as Father Beaver put it, keeping to the thick undergrowth of the brushwood, or playing hide-and-seek with their young ones in the deeply tunnelled banks. Phil soon found that though each tunnel had a separate entrance, they all led to the same spot, within easy reach of the winter houses. He was never tired of admiring these, but Father Beaver brushed his praise aside, so far as they were concerned.

"Come and look at our dam," he said. "It's a very fine one, though perhaps I ought not to say so." The dam stretched quite two-thirds across the river, and was curved, somewhat in the shape of a half crescent.

"That is because the current here is very rapid," explained the Beaver, "and an arch is stronger than a straight line, as your own bridge builders know. If the current were gentle, our dam would be straight, and this would give us much less trouble. But a rapid current is very useful, for if we have to go any distance for our building materials, it brings them quickly down to us, without any special effort on our part."

"So that was why we carried all the trees that you had felled quite close to the river bank?"

"Exactly. When we are ready to build we shall push all those into the current, and some of us will be waiting by our dam to stop them as they float past. See how the branches of the willow are sprouting!"

They had reached the dam by this time; it seemed to Phil like a thick hedgerow on a solid bank, for not only were the willow branches in full leaf, but the poplars and birches, used to repair it from time to time, had taken root also.

"If the snow on the mountains melts too rapidly, and flows down to the river in torrents, the water behind our dam is still quite calm, and our houses, built in its shelter, are undisturbed. We must always have a deep body of water in which to build our lodges; so when we take a fancy to some small river or creek in which the water is likely to be drained off at any time, Nature teaches us to build our dam right across the river, in order that we may prevent this."

"How do you start building the dam?" asked Phil.

"If we are going to build a straight one, we guide two of the largest trees that we have felled to the spot we have chosen, placing them side by side, and leaving a space between. If some of their branches make them lie too high for our purpose, we nibble these off, working under water quite easily, and coming up every few minutes to breathe. (No—not more often than that, I assure you. Nature has arranged this for us, so that we can more easily escape our enemies.) These branches we place vertically in front of the big logs, adding other branches and small trees in the same way. Most of our wood, however, we lay crosswise, and almost horizontally. The spaces in between are filled with mud and stones, which we mix together to form a kind of cement. We bring the mud in tiny handfuls, holding it under our throats by means of our forepaws, and often making as many as a thousand journeys backward and forward from the bank before we have enough. We always build by night, you know, and for a long time no man could say just how we worked. Perhaps the Night Wind told in the end."

"How do you manage when you want your dam to be curved, as this one is?" asked Phil.

"Then we use smaller logs in the same way, shaping the dam as we work. You would not believe the strength of ours, unless you saw how it stood the shock of the floating ice as it came pounding against it at the end of the winter. Our houses we build in much the same way, but more roughly."

"I think they're wonderful," said Phil respectfully, and Father Beaver, trying not to look too pleased, moved his flat tail and cried "Tut, tut!"

"The Night Wind told me a wonderful story the other day—that some eight or nine years ago an Englishman took some Social Beavers to a beautiful valley in his park in England, setting them free by the banks of a stream, where the trees grew thickly down to the very edge of the water, just as they do here. These Beavers, she says, set to work at once to build a dam across the stream, making a deep wide pool six times as large as the original brook, and six times as deep at the lower end."

"I wonder if it is true?" mused Phil

"I believe anything that the Night Wind tells me," said Father Beaver, thoughtfully. "She talks to us often when the sun goes down; sometimes she is merry, and sometimes sad, but always what she says is true. She brings the scent of the hunters in time to warn us that they are on our track; she knows when the frosts are coming, and when it is safe for us to leave our winter houses and take to the woods. For Nature often sends us messages through her. Of what are you thinking? Eh?"

Phil's thoughts had been wandering, and the Beaver's sharp eyes had found him out.

"I was thinking about that Otter," he said, truthfully. "I want to know how an Otter looks."

"Oh! That just depends where you happen to be when you see him. If you are on land, he seems to be a slender animal some three feet or so in length, covered with close brown fur, and with a broad and flattened head, and a thick, tapering tail; if you see him in the water, diving after the fish on which he feeds, he looks like a flash of lightning! For the water clings to the long shining hairs which lie over his close coat, and he glides through the stream so quickly that your eye can scarcely follow him. He is a brave creature; he will fight to the death when he is attacked—and a brave enemy should be honoured, even in death."

"How did you kill him, Father Beaver? Do tell me—I have been wanting to know all day."

"I didn't kill him at all, my son," Father Beaver replied serenely. "He had fastened on me with his sharp teeth before I knew that he was near, and I was doing my best to get free of him when another Otter, a rival of his, seized him from behind and dragged him off to fight him on his own account. I retired to a safe distance and watched the battle. It lasted until one was killed outright and the other mortally wounded. They will never trouble our waters more."

"Oh," said Phil. He was rather disappointed that the Beaver had not killed his enemy in single combat; Father Beaver seemed quite satisfied, however.

"There are so many of her creatures that Nature wishes you to make friends with," he went on as he took another admiring look at his dam, "that I don't suppose you will be allowed to stay with us much longer. But before you leave this part of the country, you must certainly pay a visit to the Ondatras, or Musk Rats. We don't care for them as neighbours, for they are apt to make holes in our dams, but they are quite well-meaning and intelligent. They build much as we do, though their work is not so lasting. And because they are gentle and very timid, Nature made them, you'll see, the colour of mud, so that when they are curled up and at rest on the bank of a stream, they are often mistaken for; small mounds of earth. There is a colony of Ondatras in a shallow creek some miles away. You will see them at their best at night, for they are sleepy during the day time."

All the time he had been speaking, Father Beaver had been looking up and down the banks for traces of the Wolverene. The Birds called "Good-night" to each other from the glowing maples; the crimson lights of the sunset fell over the river, and the new moon hung her shining crescent on the top of a giant fir.

"I think all's safe," said Father Beaver; and the work of tree-felling began again.