St. Nicholas/Volume 40/Number 5/Babes of the Wild
THE LITTLE FURRY ONES THAT SLIDE DOWNHILL
THIRD STORY OF THE SERIES ENTITLED “BABES OF THE WILD”
BY CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS
While they were yet some hundred yards from the stream, suddenly there came to their ears, unmistakably, though muffled by the surrounding trees, the sound of a brisk splash, as if something had fallen into the water. Uncle Andy stopped short in his tracks, motionless as a setter marking his bird. The Babe stopped likewise, faithfully imitating him. A couple of seconds later came another splash, as heavy as the first; and then, in quick succession, two lighter ones.
For a moment or two, the Babe kept silence, though bursting with curiosity. Then he whispered tensely, “What ’s that?”
“Otter,” replied Uncle Andy, in a murmur soft as the wind in the sedge-tops.
“Why?” continued the Babe, meaning to say, “But what on earth are they doing?” and trusting that Uncle Andy would appreciate the fact that he asked his question in a single word.
“Sliding downhill,” muttered Uncle Andy, without turning his head. Then, holding up his hand as a sign that there were to be no more questions asked, he crept forward noiselessly; and the Babe followed at his heels.
The sounds continued, growing louder and louder, till the two adventurers must have been within thirty or forty yards of the stream. Suddenly, there came one great splash, heavy and prolonged, as if all the sliders had come down close together. Then silence. Uncle Andy crouched motionless for several minutes, as if he had been turned into a stump. Then he straightened himself, and turned around with an air of disappointment.
“Gone!” he muttered. “Cleared out! They must have heard us or smelled us.”
“Oh!” exclaimed the Babe, in a voice of deep concern, although, as a matter-of-fact, he was immensely relieved, the strain of the prolonged tension and preternatural stillness having begun to make him feel that he must make a noise or burst.
Two minutes later, they came out on the banks of the stream.
The stream at this point was, perhaps, twenty-five feet in width, deep, dark, and almost without current. The hither bank was low and grassy, with a fallen trunk slanting out into the water. But the shore opposite was some twelve or fifteen feet high, very steep and quite naked, having been cut out by the floods from a ridge of clay. Down the middle of this incline a narrow track had been worn so smooth that it gleamed in the sun almost like ice.
“What do they do it for?” demanded the Babe, having, perhaps, a vague idea that all the motives of the wild creatures were, or ought to be, purely for some useful purpose.
Uncle Andy turned upon him a withering look; and he shifted his feet uneasily.
“What do you slide downhill for?” inquired Uncle Andy.
“Oh,” said the Babe, hastily, “I see!”
“I suppose now,’ went on Uncle Andy, presently, when his pipe was drawing well, “you know quite a lot about otter!”
‘Nothing at all but what Bill ’s told me,” answered the Babe.
“Forget it!” said Uncle Andy, and went on smoking. Presently he remarked: “This otter family appears to have been having a pretty good time!”
“Great!” said the Babe.
“Well,” continued Uncle Andy, “there was once another otter family, away up on the Little North Fork of the Ottanoonsis, that used to have just such good times, till, at last, they struck a streak of bad luck.
“I ‘ll tell you how it was,” he continued, after pressing down the tobacco in his pipe. “The two Little Furry Ones were born in a dry, warm, roomy den in the bank, under the roots of a birch that slanted out over the stream. The front door was deep under water. But as the old otters had few enemies to dread, being both brave and powerful, they had also a back entrance on dry land, hidden by a thicket of fir bushes. The two furry “pups” were at first as sprawling and helpless as new-born kittens, though, of course, a good deal bigger than any kittens that you have ever seen, And being so helpless, their father and mother never left them alone. One always stayed with them while the other went off to hunt trout or muskrat.”
“Why, what could get at them in there ?” interrupted the Babe.
“You see,” explained Uncle Andy, graciously, “either a fox or a weasel might come in by the back door,—if they were hungry enough to take the risk. Or what was much more likely, that slim, black, murderous robber, the mink, might come swimming in by the front entrance, pop his head above the water, see the youngsters alone, and be at their throats in a twinkling. The old otters were not running any risks like that.
“Well, when the Little Furry Ones were about the size of five-month kittens, they were as handsome a pair of youngsters as you are ever likely to set eyes upon. Their fur, rich, and soft, and dark, was the finest ever seen. Like their parents, they had bodies shaped for going through the water at tremendous speed, built like a bulldog’s for strength, and like an eel’s for suppleness.
“But though the Little Furry Ones were thus just built for swimming, they were actually afraid of the water. They hked to see their father or mother dive smoothly down tnto the clear, golden-brown stream that filled their front door, and out into that patch of yellow sunlight shimmering on the weedy bottom, but when invited to follow, they drew back into a corner and pretended to be busy.
“One fine morning, however, they were led out by the back door and introduced to the outside world. How huge and strange it looked to them! For a few minutes, they stole about, poking their noses into everything, and jumping back, startled, at the strange smells they encountered. Then, beginning to feel more at home, they fell to romping on the sunny bank, close to the water. Presently their father slipped gracefully over the bank, and began darting this way and that, and sometimes throwing himself half-way out of the water. The Little Furry Ones stopped playing to watch him. But when he called to them coaxingly to come in and try it, they turned away their heads and pretended to think it was n't worth looking at after all.
“Then, all at once, they got a great surprise. Their mother slyly slipped her nose under them, and threw them, one after the other, far out into the chilly water.”
“Ow!" exclaimed the Babe, with a little gasp of sympathy.
Uncle Andy chuckled. “That ‘s just the way they felt,” said he. “When they came to the top again, they found, to their great surprise, that they could swim. Feeling most indignant and injured, they struck out straight for shore. But there, between them and good, dry ground, swam their mother, and would not let them land. They did not see how mothers could be so heartless. But there was no help for it; so they swam out again very haughtily, and joined their father in midstream. Before they knew it, they were enjoying themselves immensely.
“And now life became much more exciting for them. Tor a while, it was harder to keep them out of the water than it had been to get them into it. They had their first lessons in fishing. And though they were too clumsy at first to catch even a slow, mud-grubbing sucker, they found the attempt most interesting. And soon their parents began to take them on long trips up- and down-stream. You see, their housekeeping being so simple, they never minded leaving the house to look after itself for a couple of days.
“Then, one day, they came to a clay bank, something like that across yonder. The old ones had been there before, but not for some time. When they had slid down twice with their fur all dripping, the track became smooth as oil. You may depend upon it, the youngsters did not need any coaxing to learn that game!
“Taking it all together, it was a pretty jolly life, I can tell yon, there in the sweet-smelling, shadowy woods. Then, one day, as quick as falling off a log, everything was changed.
“A hunter from the city came that way. He had a good eye, a repeating rifle, and no imagination whatever. He shot instantly. “The father otter came down the slide, but he came down in a crumpled heap. The mother might have escaped, but, just for one second, she hesitated, glancing around to see 1f her babies were out of danger. That second was enough for the smart shot across the water. She dropped. The little ones, horrified by the spiteful noise, shrank away into the thick bushes and lay very still, waiting for their mother to come and tell them the danger was past.”
“And she could never come any more,” murmured the Babe, sadly.
“Well, she did n't!" snorted Uncle Andy, the discourager of sentiment. “They never stirred for an hour or more,’ he went on. “Then, at last, they stole out and began hunting everywhere for those lost parents. All about the slide they hunted, among the bushes at the top, in the water and the rushes at the bottom; but they found nothing. For the smart shot had come in his canoe, and carried off his victims.
“‘HE SAW THAT THE CHILDREN OF THE OTTER HAD GROWN TOO BIC FOR HIM.’”
“All day long, the two Little Furry Ones continued their search. But you would never have known them for the same creatures which had started out that morning. Then they had gone boldly and merrily, fearing no enemies. Now they stole along timidly, sniffing this way and that, and never showing their noses outside a thicket without first taking observations. For life was now a very different matter with them. They were all the time running into trails of mink, or weasel, or wildcat ; and it seemed to them that the world had suddenly become extraordinarily full of foxes.
“It was astonishing how quickly the news got around that the old otters were gone. That evening, when the two unhappy youngsters stole back to the den, they found mink tracks almost at their very door. The hair bristled on their necks with fear and anger. But they dived into their empty cave, and, after whimpering lonesomely awhile, curled themselves up close together and went to sleep. It had been a strange and dreadful day.
“Suddenly something woke them up; and they were instantly wide-awake. In a second, they had uncurled themselves from the ball in which they slept, and, crouching side by side, they were glaring savagely up the narrow passage that led to their back door.
“There they saw a pair of cruel eyes, small and flaming, and set very close together, which seemed to float slowly down toward them.
“The Little Furry Ones knew what it was. Of course they were a little frightened. But most of all they were in a rage at such an impudent intrusion. A vicious growl came from between their long, white teeth. And those creeping eyes halted. For half a minute, motionless, they studied the defiant youngsters. Then, very slowly, they withdrew, and presently disappeared. For the weasel, though the most courageous of assassins, is no fool. He saw that the children of the otter had grown too big for him.
“The youngsters were a good deal set up, of course; but there was no more thought of sleep for them. For a long time, they lay motionless by the edge of their watery front door, which now seemed to them safer than the back entrance. Their sensitive noses questioned anxiously every scent that drew in to them from the still woods outside. How long the night seemed! But at length the first glimmer of dawn, striking on the misty water, came struggling up into the den. They turned gladly to greet it.“At that very moment, the mink, whose tracks they had observed the night before, came swimming in. He had an old grudge to settle. His
“‘WHEN THE FIGHTERS REACHED THE SURFACE, LASHING AND SPLASHING.’” slim, black form was plainly visible as it arose through the graying water. As he popped his nose above the surface, he found himself confronted by two sturdy heads, which snarled in his face and snapped at him fearlessly. He was surprised and pained. He had expected to find those two youngsters half frightened to death, and surely not half so big. In fact, here at home and guarding their own threshold, they looked to him twice as big as they really were. He discreet'y withdrew. This sudden diffidence was fortunate for the two Little Furry Ones. For the mink, let me tell you, would have been a tough proposition for them to tackle.
“This back-down of their most dreaded enemy made the youngsters feel almost bigger than was good for them. But they did not lose their heads. They waited a few minutes to give the mink time to get good and far away, then they dived forth into the misty pool. It was full of fish They caught all they could eat.
“The next day, feeling more confident, they set out on a little expedition. In the course of the morning, they killed a big muskrat. after a sharp fight.
“Early in the afternoon, they came once more to the fateful slide. At the sight of it, as they came upon it suddenly, their fur bristled, and they crouched flat, glaring and snarling. Then they stole forward, and once more examined the whole place minutely. At last, finding nothing to alarm them, in an absent-minded way one went down the slide, splashing into the cool, brown water. The other followed at once. And in a minute more, they were both hard at it, having the time of their lives, weasels. foxes, minks, and vanished parents alike forgotten.”
“Oh!” protested the Babe, in a shocked voice.
“Let me tell you,” retorted Uncle Andy, “if the wild creatures had not pretty short memories for some things, they ’d have a mighty unhappy time of it. So don’t blame them.
“Well, they had been forgetting their troubles in this way for some little time, when, just as one of them came down the slide—it was the female—she was grabbed and pulled under. It was that same old mink. Darting up through the shadowy water, he had snapped viciously at the careless little player’s throat.
“But she was spry, that youngster, I can tell you. She had felt that darting terror even before she could see it, and had twisted aside like an eel. So, instead of catching her by the throat, as he had planned, the mink only got her by the leg. It was a merciless grip; but, instead of squealing—which she could not have done anyhow, being already under water—the Little Furry One just sank her own sharp teeth into the back of her enemy’s neck, and held on for dear life. It was exactly the right thing to do, though she did n't know it. For she had got her grip so far up on the mink’s neck that he could not twist his head around far enough to catch her by the throat. Deep down at the bottom of the pool, where the bent arrows of the sunlight quivered among the waving water-weeds, the two rolled over and over each other; and the mink was most annoyed to find how strong the youngster was, and how set in her ways. Moreover, he had been under water longer than she had, and was beginning to want a breath of fresh air. He gave a kick with his powerful hind legs; and as the Little Furry One had no objection, up they went.
“Now the other youngster had not been able, just at first, to make out what was happening. He thought his sister had gone down to the bottom for fun. But when he saw her coming up locked in that deadly struggle with their old enemy, his heart swelled with fury. He sprang clear out into the deep water. When the fighters reached the surface, lashing and splashing, the mink had no more than time to catch a single breath before he found another adversary on his back, and was borne down again inexorably to the bottom.
“Just at this moment, a perfectly new idea flashed across the mink’s mind; and it startled him. For the first time in his life, he thought he was a fool. There was no time like the present for digesting this new idea. Seeing a big root sticking out of the bank, close to the bottom, with a tremendous effort he clawed himself under it, and so scraped off his antagonists. Shooting out on the other side, he darted away like an eel through the water-grass, and hurried up-stream to a certain hollow log he knew, where he might lick his wounds and think over his new idea.
“The Little Furry Ones glared after him for a few moments. Then they crawled out upon the bank, lay down in the sunny grass, and began to wash their faces complaisantly with their paws, apparently quite forgetting that they had just come out of the water.”