A DEN IN THE ROCKS

By Lillian M. Gask

The sun, like some mighty king in a fairy tale with a great gold crown, and flowing robes of pearl and rose colour, had long since risen above the mountain. A mist of heat hung over the valley, and the giant fir trees at the edge of the wood were like sentinels guarding a wonderland.

Down one of these, from which the bark had been completely stripped, came a singular animal with rough hair, and a short tail thickly set with quills. On seeing Phil, who had just left the home of the Squirrels, he rapped his tail smartly against a tree, almost dropping to the ground with fright. He recovered his balance just in time.

"I suppose you are that child of Nature's," he remarked, gruffly, "I am the Urson, the only Porcupine you'll find in North America, and I eat bark because I like it. Why do I take it from the top of the tree first? Because I prefer to work my way down. Why haven't I more quills if I am a Porcupine? If you use your eyes, you'll see that I am studded all over with them, though my hair is so thick and long that they are not particularly noticeable. How fond you are of questions! Is there anything more you want to know? I'm just going home."

"Couldn't you stay a little while, Mr. Urson? You look so—so interesting, and I should like to talk to you!"

The Urson showed his orange teeth in a sudden smile, and rubbed himself against Phil's arm as al friendly cat might have done. In spite of his crop of thick dark hair he was rather prickly, and Phil hoped that he would not want to sit on his lap.

"You're a bright little fellow," declared the Urson; "I can't think why they called you 'stupid.' Did you put out your quills and fight them?"

"No,—o," Phil acknowledged reluctantly. "I—I—ran away."

"Bad thing to do as a rule, though it hasn't turned out badly for you. When you go back, you must stand up to the boys if they tease you, and show them you have some spirit. Don't get in a temper, you know; but hold your own."

Phil thought it was all very well for a Porcupine full of quills to talk so bravely; for a small boy it was quite different.

"Not at all," said the Urson, as if he had spoken his thoughts aloud. "They would leave you alone if you did not let them see you were so frightened. I am nervous myself, but I can keep a dog twice my own size at bay; if he comes too near I turn my; back and give him a taste of my tail, and a mouthful of quills into the bargain."

"Ah, but I haven't a tail, you see!" said Phil, and the Urson remarked that as that was the case he must learn to do without. Yawning at intervals, he told Phil how his great-great-grandfather ("a most distinguished inhabitant of this forest") had defended himself single-handed against the attack of an American Indian, coming off victorious in the fight, though leaving half his tail quills in the native's hands.

"And he used them to decorate his squaw's front hair!" said the Urson with disgust. The very thought of it made him so angry that he erected all his own quills until he was as completely protected as a knight in armour.

In a moment or two his anger subsided. "Would you like to see my home?" he asked, mindful of the fact that he, in common with all the other creatures of the wood, had been told by Nature to be kind to Phil. He did not seem too pleased when Phil said "Yes," for he was a most devoted father, and had heard before now of a human being taking a liking to a young Porcupine, and carrying him off to tame and bring up as his own. He grunted to himself under his breath as he went along, but Phil thought this was just his way.

The Urson's den was some distance off, in the midst of a cluster of rocks that had fallen to the valley from the mountain side. To reach it they had to cross the wood, and the Urson's progress was almost a royal one, for all the small wood things moved away at his approach. He walked deliberately, as if the woods belonged to him, and made no effort to subdue the rustling of his quills through the long grass. A hungry-looking Weasel with malicious eyes glared at him furtively, but came no nearer; he had "tried conclusions" with an Urson once, and would not venture again. A sharp-nosed Fox licked his longing lips and turned his head aside, while further on a greyish-brown animal huddled upon the lower branch of a spreading tree stretched out a savage paw, and drew it back. Those slender quills were painful things when they pierced the tender places between one's claws, and no delicious morsel behind the spears could make up for a swollen mouth that would be sore and smarting for days—so sore that its owner, unable to eat, might die from sheer starvation. So the Porcupine passed under the tree in safety, dawdling on purpose as he caught sight of the crouching figure above him.

"That's 'Peeshoo'—the Lynx," he laughed as they moved on. "She would make a grab at me if she dared, but she's afraid. You would not think to look at her, would you, that a blow from a stick would kill her at once? Yet so it is. That is because she is a coward at heart, for all her fierceness."

A snarl of rage from "Peeshoo" told Phil that she had overheard.

"She always snarls when I move out of her reach, though she dare not touch me," said the Urson, making himself into a bristling ball of defiance as he heard the sound. "I do that to remind her what she would have to face," he explained to Phil. "There's nothing like letting one's enemies see that one is ready for them. 'Don't attack, but always be ready to defend yourself; this is my motto, and a good one it is."

They were out of the wood soon and in the valley. The entrance that led to the Urson's den was so narrow that he had to make his quills lie very flat in order to creep through, but Phil, as it always happened, was just the right size. He was speedily introduced to Mrs. Urson and to "my small son."

The baby Porcupine was in reality anything but "small"; Phil found out afterwards that of all wild things he was the largest in proportion to the size of his parents. A big furry bundle of silky brown, his quills not yet having pushed their way through his thick hair, Phil thought him very comfortable to nurse, and Mrs. Urson was as pleased with his admiration of her offspring as the Lady Ondatra had been. His father, however, was inclined to be testy.

"He's just an ordinary young Porcupine," he said; "no more, no less. Don't put nonsense into his head, please—his mother is ready enough to do that."

Feeling rather uncomfortable on her account, Phil turned to Mrs. Porcupine, who did not seem in the least disturbed by her lord's reproaches.

"He wants a little change of air, poor dear," she said to Phil in a confidential whisper. "I expect he'll be leaving me soon—I know the signs."

The Urson caught her whisper, and his sharp little face grew sad.

"We've been very good friends," he said, looking round at her wistfully, "and it's a nice child; but there's something beyond these woods which is calling—calling. I don't think that I can stay much longer."

His mate moved close to him and touched his, nose with hers.

"You'll come back when the summer is over," she said, "and you will find us here."

"Shall I?" returned the Urson, doubtfully, more to himself than her. They had forgotten Phil, who was rather in the way. He was glad when the Mother Porcupine came back to the present, and asked him to try some fine spruce bark.

"I wish I could give you buckwheat," she remarked, "for it might be more to your taste. You're not hungry? That's very strange. We always are—when we're awake!" She finished her sentence with a wide yawn, and Phil took this as a hint that she wanted to go to sleep—which was indeed the case. He refused her kind offer of a bed for the day, and the Urson then insisted upon showing him a short cut through the wood. On the way he grew quite talkative.

"That's a Bee-tree," he said, as they passed a big maple with a hollow trunk. "The Bees may thank me that the Bears have not robbed them of their wealth long before now. That crooked branch, just half-way up, is a favourite resting-place of mine, and I allow no trespassing. If a Bear appears and begins to climb with the idea of scooping out honey from the entrance some feet higher, I go to meet him; Bears have tender noses, and don't care for quills. So they growl a bit and go down more quickly than they came up … I wouldn't part with my quills for the strongest teeth in the world."

"Your own teeth seem a very good size," said Phil, taking a look at them.

"They're not so bad," said the Urson, modestly. "But I use them chiefly for stripping bark from the trees. As weapons of defence they would not serve me, for if I tried to bite I should expose my throat and nose, which are the unprotected parts of my body. If ever you see me asleep, you will notice that I hide my head between my forepaws; never expose your weak spot, you know!"

They had come to an open space, and the sun shone down upon them with glowing ardour; the Urson thought of his cool dark den, and hastily wished Phil "good-bye."

"There's 'Peeshoo' again," he said. "Have a chat with her if you like, but don't tell her where I live, or about my son. He's too young to show fight yet. Good day to you."

He walked off in that precise, deliberate way of his, but Phil was not to be left alone. The Lynx that he had caught sight of on the branch of the tree some time ago had been awaiting her opportunity, and came running towards him with a series of noiseless bounds. Her back was arched, and her feet outspread; she was not unlike a long-bodied and heavily-built cat, Phil thought, though her peculiar erect ears, tipped by an upright tuft of coarse black bristles, proclaimed her at once as the Lynx of North America, of which the Beavers had already told him. Her powerful feet were furnished with large white claws, almost hidden in her thick fur; her face was round, and her eyes as sharp and piercing as those of all her kind. She reached Phil's side as silently as if she were shod with velvet, and greeted him as if she had not seen him before.

"Come and sit by me, you lonely little fellow," she purred. "No—you needn't be frightened. ('I wasn't,' said Phil.) The only creatures that are afraid of me are the Hares and Foxes, and if I didn't eat them they would soon overrun the whole place; I do it out of kindness, you know."

She had seated herself on the ground as she was speaking, and made a soft and comfortable heap of fur. But Phil, though he, too, felt sleepy in the warm sunshine, was both to do as she suggested and use her back as a cushion.

"I've been very unjustly blamed," she began in a plaintive voice, when she had asked him what colour he thought her eyes, and whether he considered her fur becoming. "Settlers say that I am in the habit of dropping from trees on to the backs of Deer, and tearing their throats. They must mistake the Puma for me,—isn't it too bad?"

"Much too bad," agreed Phil, though he wondered a little if she were as innocent as she would have him believe. It was only politeness that kept him beside her, for he wanted to play with the Squirrels, who were much more to his liking. He could see one now beckoning to him from a great maple, as if he was very anxious to tell him something that he had heard. With a great effort Phil turned his attention to "Peeshoo"; she was talking of the Wolverene, which he could see that she did not love.

"He was so abominably greedy," she said, "and Wanted our share as well as his own. Quite early this morning he was after one of my Hares; it was a remarkably active little creature, and soon left him in the lurch. He caught a Rabbit or two and a few Birds, and might have been satisfied with those. But no—he wanted something larger, and ventured so near the mountains that a Grizzly Bear, who had strolled down to see what these woods were like, found him nosing about his breakfast, which he had just killed. What he said to the Grizzly I don't know, but it couldn't have pleased him, for with a single blow of his heavy paw the great Bear struck him down. That Wolverene will never try to rob me of my Hares again!"

"Was he quite killed?" Phil asked her anxiously, and "Peeshoo" smiled an ugly smile that showed her teeth and made Phil draw away from her.

"Don't you know yet what the paw of a big Grizzly is, child? It would kill a man, let alone an animal like the Wolverene. I keep out of the way of the Grizzlies myself—I find it wiser, and so will you."

But Phil knew well that even a Grizzly would not harm him, and he had always been fond of Bears. Some day he would go and see them; they were brave creatures, at any rate, and could tell him much that he longed to know.

"Peeshoo" talked on, but he scarcely heard her. So the Wolverene had been killed himself, instead of killing the Beavers, and for the present at least they would be safe. How glad Father Beaver would be, he thought; it was good news this time that he had to tell him, and as soon as he could get rid of "Peeshoo" he would hasten back to the colony. He did not mention the Beavers to her, for he thought it quite possible that she might eat other small animals besides Foxes and Hares; and he was learning to be very careful not to injure his friends.

When "Peeshoo's" hunger grew stronger than her interest in her companion, Phil and she parted company. Phil went straight to the river, and followed its course until he came to the Beavers' dome-shaped houses. Of the Beavers themselves there was no sign.

"I'll explore one of their tunnels," thought Phil. He dived into the river, using his right leg instead of a tail to splash the water as the Beavers did, and soon found a Beaver's hole.

"Anyone at home?" he sang out gaily, as he ran through the tunnel's twists and turns.

"We're here!" cried Mother Beaver from its innermost recesses; and there Phil found her with her young ones, looking most forlorn.

"What is the matter?" he asked, for he had never seen her so distressed. She was shaking all over as she told him, and her voice was broken with sobs.

The night before, it seemed, almost immediately after Phil had left them, the Wolverene had made an unexpected attack. All had seemed safe, and the Beavers had for a moment relaxed their guard. Dropping from the branches of a tree into their very midst, the Wolverene had pounced on a plump young Beaver just then engaged in felling a willow sapling; in spite of his struggles there had been no chance for him, and the Wolverene had eaten him then and there. Not content with this, he had taken his stand upon the river bank, intent on further prey. The young Beavers were trembling still, and even the bravest of their elders were afraid to venture out from their retreat.

When Mother Beaver heard what had happened to the Wolverene in the early morning, she could scarcely contain herself for joy, and Father Beaver, who had sought his family in vain in the winter houses, where many of the colony had taken refuge, would have embraced Phil had he known how. He straightway planned a wonderful new dam that should put the old one to shame; and the number of trees the Beavers felled that night was simply marvellous. Nowhere along the river banks were more contented creatures than they; and many a timid wood thing, unknown to them, shared their thanksgiving that the Wolverene was dead.

Father Beaver was interested to learn from Phil of the Hackees' narrow escape.

"We have all our foes," he said, "and must fight them as best we can, with our wits or our teeth, the weapons Nature has given us. That Stoat you saw will perhaps be trapped this winter; his brownish coat will turn pure white when the snow comes, and he will be called an 'Ermine' instead of a 'Stoat'; and then the hunters will be after him."

"Then the Ermine and the Stoat are the same creature?" cried Phil in amazement.

"The very same," said Father Beaver, "and Ermine fur is more valuable than our own. All sorts of traps will be set for him, for as his coat will be the same colour as the snow, it will be almost impossible for the fur hunters to take him in any other way."

"I wonder why his fur turns white in winter?" Phil said, thoughtfully.

Father Beaver looked thoughtful too. "It is said to keep him much warmer than if it were dark," he remarked: "But I should think that it is so that he may not readily be seen against the snow. Perhaps that is Nature's way of taking care of him. We are all her children. But these are things that neither you nor I can understand."