St. Nicholas/Volume 40/Number 4/Babes of the Wild

St. Nicholas, Volume 40, Number 4
Babes of the Wild: The Adventures of Young Grumpy by Charles George Douglas Roberts




Uncle Andy tapped his pipe on the log beside him to knock out the ashes, and proceeded thoughtfully to fill it up again. The Babe seated himself on the grass, 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.

“There was Young Grumpy, now, 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 it was rather lucky to be born there,—except for weasels, of course.”

“Why not for weasels?” demanded the Babe.

“Well now, you ought to know that yourself,” replied Uncle Andy, impatient at being interrupted. “The weasels are such merciless killers themselves, that both Mr. Anderson and the Boy always made a point of putting them out of the way whenever they got a chance.”

“I should think so!” agreed the Babe, severely, resolving to devote his future to the extermination of weasels.

“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 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 two or three minutes—which seemed to the dog much longer—the old woodchuck decided to let go. You see, he did n’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 up on 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 chest, 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.

“But to return to Young Grumpy. While he was yet very young, his sleepy mother, who had seen him and his brothers and sisters eating grass very comfortably, decided that they were big enough to look out for themselves. Then she turned them all out of the burrow. When they came presently scurrying back again, hoping it was all an unhappy joke, she nipped them most unfeelingly. Their father snored. There was no help in that quarter. They scuttled dejectedly forth again.

“Outside, in the short pasture-grass and scattered ox-eyed daisies, they looked at each other suspiciously; and each felt that, somehow, it was the other fellow’s fault. Aggrieved and miserable, they went rambling off, each his own way, to face alone what fate might have in store for him. And Young Grumpy, looking up from a melancholy but consoling feast which he was making on a mushroom, found himself alone in the world.

“He did n’t care a fig. You see, he was so grumpy.

“For a week or more, he wandered about the pasture, sleeping under stumps and in mossy hollows, and fortunately escaping, by reason of his light rusty-gray color, the eyes of passing hawks. At last, chance, or his nose for good living, led him down to the clover meadow adjoining Anderson’s barn-yard.

“It was here that his adventures may be said to have begun.

“Just as he was happily filling himself with clover, a white dog, with short-cropped ears standing up stiffly, came by and stopped to look at him with bright, interested eyes. Young Grumpy, though the stranger was big enough to take him in two mouthfuls, felt not frightened, but annoyed. He gave a chuckling squeak of defiance, and rushed straight at the dog.

“Now this was the Boy’s bull-terrier, Major, and he had been severely trained to let small, helpless creatures alone. He had got it into his head that all such creatures were the Boy’s property, and so to be guarded and respected. He was afraid lest he might hurt this cross little animal and get into trouble with the Boy. So he kept jumping out of the way, stiff-leggedly, as if very much amused, and at the same time, he kept barking, as if to call the Boy to come and see. Young Grumpy, feeling very big, followed him up with short, threatening rushes, till he found himself just at the open gate leading into the farm-yard.

“Parading solemnly before the gate was a tall, gray gander with only one eye. That one eye, extra keen and fierce, caught sight of Young Grumpy, and probably mistook him for an immense rat, thief of eggs, and murderer of goslings. With a harsh hiss and neck outstretched till it was like a snake, the great bird darted at him.

“Young Grumpy hesitated. After the manner of his kind, he sat up on his haunches to hesitate. The gander seemed to him very queer, and perhaps dangerous.

“At this critical moment, the white dog interfered. In his eyes Young Grumpy belonged to the Boy, and was, therefore, valuable property. He ran at the gander. The gander, recognizing


his authority, withdrew, haughty and protesting. Young Grumpy followed with a triumphant rush—and, of course, took all the credit to himself.

“This led him into the farm-yard. Here he promptly forgot both the dog and the gander. It was such a strange place, and full of such strange smells. He was about to turn back into the more familiar clover, when, as luck would have it, he stumbled upon a half-eaten carrot which had been dropped by one of the horses. How good it smelled! And then, how good it tasted! Oh, no! the place where such things were to be found was not a place for him to leave in a hurry!

“As he was feasting greedily on the carrot, the Boy appeared, with the white dog at his heels. He did not look nearly so terrible as the gander. So, angry at being disturbed, and thinking he had come for the carrot, Young Grumpy ran at him at once.

“But the Boy did not run away. Surprised at his courage, Young Grumpy stopped short, at a distance of two or three feet from the Boy’s stout shoes, sat up on his haunches with his little. skinny, black hands over his chest, and began to gurgle and squeak harsh threats. The boy laughed, and stretched out a hand to touch him. Young Grumpy snapped so savagely, however, that the Boy snatched back his hand and stood observing him with amused interest, waving off the white dog, lest the latter should interrupt. Young Grumpy went on blustering with his muffled squeaks for perhaps a minute. Then, seeing that the Boy was neither going to run away nor fight, he dropped on all fours indifferently, and returned to his carrot.

“There was nothing pleased the Boy better than seeing the harmless wild creatures get familiar about the place. He went now and fetched a saucer of milk from the dairy, and set it down beside Young Grumpy, who scolded at him, but refused to budge an inch. The yellow cat—an amiable soul, too well fed to hunt even mice with any enthusiasm—followed the Boy, with an interested eye on the saucer. At sight of Young Grumpy, her back went up, her tail grew big as a bottle, and she spat disapprovingly. As the stranger paid her no attention, however, she sidled cautiously up to the milk, and began to lap it.

“The sound of her lapping caught Young Grumpy’s attention. It was an alluring sound. Leaving the remains of his carrot, he came boldly up to the saucer The yellow cat flattened back her ears, growled, and stood her ground till he was within a foot of her. Then, with an angry pf-f-f, she turned tail and fled. The stranger was so calmly sure of himself that she concluded he must be some new kind of skunk—and her respect for all skunks was something tremendous.

“Having finished the milk and the carrot, Young Grumpy felt a pressing need of sleep. Turning his back on the Boy and the dog, as if they were not worth noticing, he ambled off along the garden fence, looking for a convenient hole. The one-eyed gander, who had been watching him with deep disfavor from the distance, seeing that he was now no longer under the protection of the white dog, came stalking up from the other end of the yard to have it out with him—thief of eggs and murderer of goslings, as the wrathful bird mistook him to be! But Young Grumpy, having found a cool-looking hole under the fence, had whisked into it and vanished.

“As matters stood now, Young Grumpy felt himself quite master of the situation. His heartless mother was forgotten. Farm-yard, clover-field, and cool, green garden were all his. Had he not routed all presumptuous enemies but the Boy?—and the latter seemed very harmless.

“It was not till after several days of garden life that, lured by the memory of the carrot, he again visited the barn-yard. At first it seemed to be quite deserted—and there was no sign of a carrot anywhere. Then he caught sight of the yellow cat, and scurried toward her, thinking perhaps it was her fault there were no carrots. She fluffed her tail, gave a yowl of indignation, and scurried into the barn. Neither the white dog, nor the Boy, nor the one-eyed gander, was anywhere in sight. Young Grumpy decided that it was a poor place, the barn-yard, after all.

“He was on the point of turning back to the green abundance of the garden; but, at this point, the one-eyed gander came stalking up from the goose-pond. He was lonely and bad-tempered. Young Grumpy looked at the big, gray bird, and recalled the little unpleasantness of their previous encounter.

“‘Oh, ho!’ said he to himself (1f woodchucks ever do talk to themselves), ‘I ‘ll just give that ugly chap beans, as I did the other day.’ And he went scurrying across the yard to see about it.

“To his immense surprise, the gander at first paid him no attention whatever. You see, he was on the side of the gander’s blind eye.

“Now Young Grumpy was so puzzled by this indifference that, instead of rushing right in and biting the haughty bird, he sat up on his haunches at a distance of some five or six feet, and began to squeak his defiance. The gander turned his head, and stared for about three seconds. Then he opened his long, yellow bill, gave vent to a hiss like the blowing off of an escape pipe, stuck out his snaky neck close to the ground, lifted his wide gray-and-white wings, and charged.

“Before Young Grumpy had time even to wonder if he had been imprudent or not, the hard elbow of one of those wings caught him a blow on the ear, and knocked him head over heels. At the same time, it swept him to one side; and the gander rushed on, straight over the spot where he had been sitting.

“Young Grumpy picked himself up, startled and shaken. The thing had been so unexpected! He would have rather liked to run away. But he was too angry and too obstinate. He just sat up on his haunches again, intending to make another and more successful attack as soon as his head stopped buzzing.

“The gander, meanwhile, was surprised also. He could not understand how his enemy had got out of the way so quickly. He stared around, and then, turning his one eye skyward, as if he thought Young Grumpy might have gone that way, he trumpeted a loud honka-honka-honk-kah.

“For some reason, this strange cry broke Young Grumpy’s nerve. He scuttled for his hole, his jet black heels kicking up the straws behind him. As soon as he began to run, of course the gander saw him, and swept after him with a ferocious hiss. But Young Grumpy had got the start. He dived into his hole just as the gander brought up against the fence.

“Now the moment he found himself inside his burrow, all Young Grumpy’s courage returned. He wheeled and stuck his head out again, as much as to say, ‘Now come on if you dare!’

“The gander came on, promptly,—so promptly, in fact, that the lightning stroke of his heavy bill knocked Young Grumpy far back into the hole again.

“In a great rage, the gander darted his head into the hole. Chattering with indignation, Young Grumpy set his long teeth into that intruding bill, and tried to pull it farther in. The gander, much taken aback at this turn of affairs tried to pull it out again. For perhaps half a minute, it was a very good tug of war. Then the superior weight and strength of the great bird, with all the advantage of his beating wings, suddenly triumphed, and Young Grumpy, too pig-headed to let go his hold, was jerked forth once more into the open.

“The next moment, another blow from one of those mighty wing-elbows all but stunned him,


and his grip relaxed. He made a groping rush for the burrow; but in that same instant, the gander’s great bill seized him by the back of the neck and lifted him high into the air.

“This was very near being the end of Young Grumpy, for the one-eyed gander would now have bitten and banged and hammered at him till he was as dead as a last year’s June-bug. But, happily, the Boy and the white dog came running up in the nick of time. The gander dropped his victim and stalked off haughtily. And poor Young Grumpy, after turning twice around in a confused way, crawled back into his hole.

“The white dog opened his mouth from ear to ear, and looked up at the Boy with an unmistakable grin. The Boy, half laughing, half sympathetic, went and peered into the hole.

“I guess you ’d better keep out of Old Wall-Eye’s way after this!” said he.

“And Young Grumpy did. Whenever the one-eyed gander was in the yard, then Young Grumpy would scurry and scuttle away to the garden.”