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 side.

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 questioningly.

"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 them.

"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 to them!"

"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 again.

"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 her babies.

"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 "Feathertail."

"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 that tree.

"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 done!"

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 weight.

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 ground.

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 to Phil.

"No."

"I thought he wouldn't. He doesn't keep such stores as we do. Come with me."

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 wants.

"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 offence.

"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 death.

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 thankless task."

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, silent Stoat.

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.