THE SQUIRREL'S STORY
By Lillian M. Gask
That very same evening Phil made his way to the home of the Musk
Rats, or Ondatras. As he neared the creek the Beaver had pointed
out to him, he saw a number of animals the size of big rats, with
tails that were almost as long as their bodies, swimming hither and
thither, and leaving trails of silver behind them. Others stood
motionless upon the bank; so still were they that it was only their
sparkling eyes that showed they were alive, until with a sudden
plunge, they dived after their companions, striking their long
tails smartly on the water as the Beavers did, and reappearing from
beneath the broad green leaves of the water lilies on the other
Phil watched them silently for a time. They were like school boys,
he thought, and he wondered what game they were playing. Sometimes
a Musk Rat would lie quite flat on the surface of the stream, as if
he were a floating leaf from some giant tree; in a moment he would
be all life again, and, darting after his playmates, would race
them round the creek.
"I think it would be very nice to be a Musk Rat," said Phil aloud,
moving a little nearer the bank. In a second the creek was
empty—not a single Ondatra was to be seen. Phil felt so
disappointed that he was almost inclined to cry.
The water still rippled in the moonlight; all was still.
Presently a small brown head peeped out of a hole in the bank. Phil
did not stir; he was afraid to breathe lest he might frighten the
little thing away.
"Who is it?" cried a timid voice.
"A friend!" said Phil. And more small heads peeped at him
"I am the Lady Ondatra," she cried, "and you are indeed most
welcome. Will you join in our sports? The water is very smooth
to-night, and as warm as milk."
Phil was nothing both. He was the same size now as they were, and
could dive with the best of them; it was delightful to float on the
surface of the water and watch the clouds chasing each other over
the deep blue vault of the sky. The cry of the Night Owl came
dreamily from the woods; a prowling Puma roared hungrily to his
mate, but the pond of the Musk Rats was a happy playground, and
they the merriest of comrades.
The hours flew by and the moonlight faded; the tips of the far off
mountains were tinged with pink, and a Bird in the distance raised
his morning song.
"It is time to go!" cried the Lady Ondatra to Phil; "come with me;
I will show you my nest."
Phil found that it was exactly as the Beaver had told him, and that
he could follow the Lady Ondatra quite easily through the winding
tunnels, or branched canals, which had their entrances under the
water. The one through which the Ondatra led him sloped upward
gradually for quite a long distance; it ended in a wide chamber in
which there were three other openings. The centre of it was nearly
filled by a luxurious couch of water-lily leaves and sedges, where,
curled up snugly and fast asleep, four baby Ondatras lay with their
faces hidden. They were like little Beavers, Phil thought, and just
about the size of full-grown mice.
Their mother spoke in a hushed whisper lest she should disturb
"I'm glad that you think we are pleasant creatures," She said. "We
do harm to no one, and live on roots and leaves, perfectly happy if
we are but let alone. We dread the fall—it is then that the
hunters most often come, though sometimes they visit us in the
spring. Ah me!"
"Are they after you, too?" cried Phil compassionately. "You are so
small that I shouldn't have thought your skins would be much good
"Our fur, which is used in making hats, is highly esteemed," said
the Lady Ondatra stiffly, "and our flesh, though musky, of such
excellent flavour that the natives prefer us to Wild Duck."
Phil guessed that she was hurt, and did his best to soothe her by
admiring her babies. No mother could have resisted this.
"Tell me all about the hunters—that is, if you don't mind," he
said with diffidence, when they had quite made friends.
The Lady Ondatra did not mind. She seemed to take a fearful joy in
describing the perils she had escaped, though she knew quite well
that when the summer was over she might have to go through them all
"Sometimes they take us in traps," she said, "which they arrange so
that in our struggles for freedom we are jerked into the water and
drowned, for we cannot live without air for any length of time. The
nature of our abode depends entirely upon the soil, and we do not
always build. The Ondatras who make their homes altogether in
burrows, they capture by stopping up all their air holes except
one, and seizing them when they come up to breathe. When we live in
marshy places we build winter houses, just as the Beavers do,
though ours are not so strong, and less than three feet high above
the surface of the swamp. When the ice freezes over them we make
breathing holes in it, and protect these from the frost by a
covering of mud. If the frost is so hard that our holes cannot be
kept open, we die from suffocation."
"But you are safe from the hunters in your winter houses?"
The slender tail of the Lady Ondatra quivered as she drew closer to
"There were five of us last fall," she said, "and we lived in a
snug little house on the marsh. Our beds were beautiful—so soft
and dry—and we had all the food that we should need. We had
settled ourselves for a happy winter when a long cruel spear
crashed through our roof and wounded three of us. The walls of our
house were rudely torn away, and I and my mate only escaped because
the hunter lost his balance and stumbled into the mud. Fortunately,
our summer tunnels were not yet blocked with snow and so cut off
from us, or even then we could not have escaped him."
The baby Ondatras stirred uneasily in their sleep as if they were
dreaming of dangers to come, and their mother patted them gently.
With a whisper of thanks Phil said good-bye, and crept through the
branching passages up to the earth again.
Early as it was, the Squirrels were already chattering to
themselves as they scampered amongst the trees. A little black
fellow, with a bushy tail that spread itself out like a beautiful
feathery fan for some six or eight inches at the tip, dropped
lightly down in front of Phil. His ebony fur was as fine as
thistle-down; Phil was not surprised to hear that his name was
"When are you coming to pay us a visit?" the little creature
asked in jealous tones. "I have a fair, green nest in the fork of a
top-most branch, and a lovely wife and three young babies, with
skins as soft as silk."
"I couldn't climb high enough!" Phil said regretfully. He had been
"a regular duffer" at climbing at school, and the bigger boys had
often dragged him up a fairly tall tree and left him there,
clinging helplessly to the boughs, until they were tired of jeering
at him. He shivered now as he thought of it; then squared his
shoulders. His grey eyes flashed; he would not say "I can't" again.
"I'll do it somehow!" he cried. The Black Squirrel ran off to give
notice of his visit, and Phil fixed, his whole mind upon climbing
"Press your knees against it, and use your hands," whispered a
voice in his ear. "That's right,—now swing yourself round and take
hold of the branch above you. So! You're getting on famously. Well
Phil knew that it was Nature who spoke to him, and he felt so proud
of her praises that he almost forgot the Squirrels. But three small
heads, and a larger one, which belonged to a very proud mother,
peeped over the nest to welcome him, and Feathertail waited beside
it. Phil laughed to think of his doubts as to whether the branch
would bear him; slender as it was it barely stirred beneath his
The baby Squirrels were charming little things; he sat in the nest
with them, and laughed with glee as the Wind rocked it to and fro,
while Feathertail told him how it was only this spring that he had
come to these woods.
"Their mother and I used to live in those heights you see in the
distance there, under that rosy cloud. But the Grey Squirrels came,
and drove us out—we couldn't stand the noise they made, and their
rough ways frightened us. So Nature told us about this wood, and
here we feel quite safe."
"So do I," said Phil, stroking the prettiest baby Squirrel gently.
"What a jolly little chap this is. I wish I could take him home
with me when I go back—I s'pose I'll have to go back some day," he
finished with a sigh.
The mother Squirrel fluffed out her fur in wild alarm, and
Feathertail darted forward ready to protect his family.
"How could you suggest such a thing?" he asked indignantly, when
Phil had managed to convince him that he meant no harm. "It is bad
enough for an ordinary Squirrel to be taken away from his forest
home and shut in a small cramped prison, but for us it means almost
certain death, for we cannot stand captivity…. A cousin of
mine—'twas the Wind that told me—was caught by some travellers
and put in a tiny cage where she had scarcely room to turn. Of
course she died, and they 'couldn't think why'! I wonder if they
knew how cruel they were?"
His bright little eyes were clouded with grief, and it was not
until he had raced to the top of a neighbouring tree and back again
that he felt better. Even then he looked uneasy when Phil fondled
his babies; as to the mother Squirrel, since that unfortunate
remark of his, she had been clearly anxious to get rid of him.
"We will go to the stream," said Feathertail, when he saw that her
anxiety was getting too much for her. Phil longed to ask if the
baby Squirrels might come as well, but wisely refrained. He was
sorry to leave that cosy nest on the waving branch; next time he
came, he thought, he would be careful what he said.
The stream to which Feathertail led him was bordered by drooping
ferns; it was so clear that it might have been a lady's mirror but
for the tiny wavelets rippling from side to side.
"Don't you hear it singing as it trickles over the stone?" asked
Feathertail. "It is the same song that the Wind sings, only more
low and sweet…. Listen!"
Phil could hear nothing but the rustling of the leaves about them,
and the soft flow of the sparkling water; but perhaps his ears were
not so keen.
The Black Squirrel sat on the edge of the bank, and dipping his
nose well under the surface of the stream, drank deeply and long.
Then he placed himself jauntily on his hind feet, and washed his
face with his forepaws, splashing them in the stream from time to
time as if he thoroughly enjoyed it.
"We are the only Black Squirrels in the world," he said with
melancholy pleasure. "We find our homes in the woods and heights of
North America, and even here we are becoming more rare, for the Red
and Grey Squirrels drive us from our haunts, and hunters trap us
for our fur."
A cry from the bushes—the indignant protest of a Scarlet Tanager,
that had been robbed by his mate of a fine fat insect—made
Feathertail dart away. Phil waited in vain for his return.
"He has gone for good—that was quite enough to frighten him,"
remarked a little clucking voice that reminded Phil of the cry of a
fluffy yellow chicken; and the daintiest little Squirrel he had yet
seen whisked out from the brushwood and sat beside him. It was the
Hackee, or Chipping Squirrel, and many a time Phil had seen him
running in and out among the bushes; for the Hackee lives on the
Now that he saw him closely, Phil noticed the beauty of the seven
stripes that ran across his brownish-grey and orange fur. Five of
these were jet-black, and two were white, tinged with flecks of
yellow; the fur on his throat and underneath him was the colour of
pure snow, and his forehead flamed with brilliant orange. He seemed
on the best of terms with himself and all the world, and his small
black eyes were full of fun and humour.
"Did Feathertail offer you any breakfast?" he asked, hopping close
"I thought he wouldn't. He doesn't keep such stores as we do. Come
His movements were so rapid that Phil almost lost sight of him
before he gained the stump of the hollow tree which was, so to
speak, his hall. Out of this hollow led several tunnels, down one
of which the Hackee disappeared. Phil ran after him as quickly as
he could, and with all his haste, admired the way in which his host
had formed his winding gallery. Up and down it led them, through
twists and turns that would have puzzled most Squirrels, let alone
a boy, until they reached a large snug nest made of dry moss and
grasses. It was empty, but still quite warm.
"Those young ones of mine ought to have been up and out more than
an hour ago, lazy little creatures!" chuckled the Hackee. "I tell
their mother that if they are not more independent before the new
brood comes, she will have her hands full."
Diving into another gallery, the Hackee came to a full stop. Phil's
eyes were scarcely yet used to "seeing in the dark," but he saw at
length that they were standing before a heap of nuts, with grain in
plenty, and many acorns; the Hackee had more than provided for his
"We stay in these cosy burrows all through the winter snows," he
said, "and only come out when the warm sunshine tells us that
spring is here. To do this in comfort we work very hard in the fall
to fill our storehouses with nuts and grain. This is only one of
them—we have others in different places. Help yourself, and take
as many nuts as you like," he went on hospitably. "Here—sit in
this corner, and I will crack them for you."
But Phil preferred to crack his own nuts; his teeth, though the
Beavers scorned them, were strong enough for this, he thought. They
tasted like beaked hazel nuts, but where were the beaks? The Hackee
laughed at his bewilderment.
"We carry home nuts in our cheek pouches, four at a time (Why four?
Because five would be one too many, of course!), and we are much
too sensible, as you might have guessed, to hurt ourselves by those
sharp points. We bite them off tidily before we push them into our
mouths with our fore-paws, as you will see if you watch us one day.
It is fine to be a ground Squirrel, and much safer than living in
trees. Down here we are safe from all our enemies—or almost all,"
he added in a whisper. Then his expression changed, and his sharp
ears pointed forward.
"Hark!" he cried.
"Chip-munk-chip-munk!" The call was echoed through the
galleries, and the Hackee's merry eyes were full of anger.
"How dare he come here!" he cried, "and calling me in that familiar
way too! I'll let him know who is master in this burrow!"
The second Hackee came joyously down the passage, heedless of
"Hallo," he cried, looking at Phil, "whom have we got here? That
Nature child? To be sure. I—"
But Hackee the First interrupted him.
"You have no business to come down here uninvited," he said,
fiercely. "I would have you know—"
Before he could finish, the other had flown at him. Their slender
tails—Phil was not at all astonished when he heard afterwards that
these sometimes were snapped across in battle—whirled round like
Catherine wheels; two small furry bodies darted backward and
forward; gleaming white teeth tried to take savage bites at soft
pink noses. It was a wonder that the Hackees found room to turn as
they did in that narrow tunnel.
Phil tried in vain to come between them; they pushed him aside as
if he were a bundle of grass, and in a second were at each other
again. He was afraid that, like the Otters, they would fight to the
But the pugnacious Hackees' rage was spent as suddenly as it had
arisen. While Phil imagined they were only gathering their breath
for another attack, they had both calmed down.
"I've just been showing him round," said Hackee the First, twisting
his tail in Phil's direction.
"Seems a nice boy," said Hackee the Second, feeling Phil's nose
anxiously. "I thought I might have bitten it off just now when you
got in my way," he said to Phil with much relief, finding it was
still there. "Never come between fighting creatures, boy—it's a
Phil was quite sure that if he had been his usual size the Hackee
would not have chucked him under the chin in that off-hand way, but
he did not mind a bit. They were all three sitting before the
storehouse, the best of friends, when both chipping Squirrels
sprang to their feet in terrified accord, standing for a second as
if paralysed with fear. For their keen sense of smell had told them
of the approach of the one enemy they dreaded—the soft-footed,
Now came the use of those twists and turns of the winding passages.
Swift as were the movements of the Stoat, he was on strange ground,
while the Hackees knew every inch of it. His savage eyes looked
like vengeful green fire to Phil, who waited for him in the centre
of the gallery, hoping to bar his way. But the Stoat passed by him
as if he were not there, and Phil listened with dread for the
strangled cry which would mean that one of the Hackees had met his
doom. None came; the Stoat had missed a turn in the winding tunnel,
and the flying Hackees reached the hollow tree in safety. Once
there, it was easy to dive down another burrow and so baffle
pursuit, but they were two very frightened Squirrels when at last
they stopped for breath.