"All right," he said resentfully. "I know what that means, of course. The Beavers have been setting you against me, just as I thought. They had better look out, for I have only been waiting until they grew a bit fatter. That 'Father Beaver' of yours will make me a remarkably good supper. Give him my love if you happen to see him."
He leapt as he spoke from the upper branch of one tree to the lower branch of another, a distance of some twenty feet, and disappeared.
A low chuckle came from the ground close by, and Phil was delighted to see a small brown Rabbit, exactly like those that had played in the woods at home, sitting up on his hind legs. He was shaking with laughter, and his comical little nose was wrinkled up until it nearly met his eyes.
"Good for you!" he cried. "That Wolverene is a terror--I know him well. He would question and cross-question you about the Beavers until you were nearly addled, and then he would persuade them that you had been telling tales. Mischievous creatures such as he are best left alone, even if you are sure they cannot harm you. He is as much hated by Sable and Marten hunters as he is by all of us, for he has such a wonderful sense of smell that he scents out the stores of provisions they hide in case of need, and wastes all that he does not eat. He makes their traps useless, too--but that isn't to save the Sables, but because he wants the bait. The only creatures that can get the better of him are the Grizzlies; when they come down from the mountains they make a meal of him."
Not until the Rabbit had talked himself out of breath had Phil a chance of asking him the shortest way back to the river.
"Won't you let us give you a shake-down for the night?" he said by way of answer. "Our burrow is large enough to take you in, and I could tell you many stories of these woods."
"I'll come some other time, if you don't mind," said Phil. "I should like to find the Beavers now, and put them on their guard."
"Quite so!" agreed the Rabbit. "I shouldn't be surprised if that old rascal paid them a visit to-night. He'll guess their whereabouts from the trees they have cut down, and will try to punish you through them."
Phil hurried back as quickly as his legs could carry him, not even stopping to look at the splendid Birds that fluttered amongst the vines. A gorgeous Butterfly, spotted with crimson and purple, offered his services as a guide, but it was almost dusk before Phil reached the little colony of Beavers.
They were still working away, as busily as ever. Although he had only been gone a few hours, they had done wonders; more than half of the group of trees they had chosen were already down, for they had "worked together, and worked with a will," as Mother Beaver had said.
Phil's news was received with much concern, and Father Beaver hastily summoned a conference. All Beavers under a year old were at once dismissed from work, and commanded to wait by the entrances to the tunnels beneath the banks, so that in case of surprise they might be under cover, and Phil was posted as sentinel while the elder Beavers finished felling the trees they had already begun.
This done, they decided to leave them where they were for the present, and to make for the other side of the river.
Father Beaver was the last to cross; as he dived from the bank there was a stealthy tread among the rushes, and the gleaming eyes of the Wolverene followed him through the water. But for Phil's warning there would have been at least one Beaver less that night.
It was some days before the busy little animals began their work again, for they knew that the Wolverene might still be on the watch for them, and have crossed the river himself. So they "lay very low," as Father Beaver put it, keeping to the thick undergrowth of the brushwood, or playing hide-and-seek with their young ones in the deeply tunnelled banks. Phil soon found that though each tunnel had a separate entrance, they all led to the same spot, within easy reach of the winter houses. He was never tired of admiring these, but Father Beaver brushed his praise aside, so far as they were concerned.
"Come and look at our dam," he said. "It's a very fine one, though perhaps I ought not to say so." The dam stretched quite two-thirds across the river, and was curved, somewhat in the shape of a half crescent.
"That is because the current here is very rapid," explained the Beaver, "and an arch is stronger than a straight line, as your own bridge builders know. If the current were gentle, our dam would be straight, and this would give us much less trouble. But a rapid current is very useful, for if we have to go any distance for our building materials, it brings them quickly down to us, without any special effort on our part."
"So that was why we carried all the trees that you had felled quite close to the river bank?"
"Exactly. When we are ready to build we shall push all those into the current, and some of us will be waiting by our dam to stop them as they float past. See how the branches of the willow are sprouting!"
They had reached the dam by this time; it seemed to Phil like a thick hedgerow on a solid bank, for not only were the willow branches in full leaf, but the poplars and birches, used to repair it from time to time, had taken root also.
"If the snow on the mountains melts too rapidly, and flows down to the river in torrents, the water behind our dam is still quite calm, and our houses, built in its shelter, are undisturbed. We must always have a deep body of water in which to build our lodges; so when we take a fancy to some small river or creek in which the water is likely to be drained off at any time, Nature teaches us to build our dam right across the river, in order that we may prevent this."
"How do you start building the dam?" asked Phil.
"If we are going to build a straight one, we guide two of the largest trees that we have felled to the spot we have chosen, placing them side by side, and leaving a space between. If some of their branches make them lie too high for our purpose, we nibble these off, working under water quite easily, and coming up every few minutes to breathe. (No--not more often than that, I assure you. Nature has arranged this for us, so that we can more easily escape our enemies.) These branches we place vertically in front of the big logs, adding other branches and small trees in the same way. Most of our wood, however, we lay crosswise, and almost horizontally. The spaces in between are filled with mud and stones, which we mix together to form a kind of cement. We bring the mud in tiny handfuls, holding it under our throats by means of our forepaws, and often making as many as a thousand journeys backward and forward from the bank before we have enough. We always build by night, you know, and for a long time no man could say just how we worked. Perhaps the Night Wind told in the end."
"How do you manage when you want your dam to be curved, as this one is?" asked Phil.
"Then we use smaller logs in the same way, shaping the dam as we work. You would not believe the strength of ours, unless you saw how it stood the shock of the floating ice as it came pounding against it at the end of the winter. Our houses we build in much the same way, but more roughly."
"I think they're wonderful," said Phil respectfully, and Father Beaver, trying not to look too pleased, moved his flat tail and cried "Tut, tut!"
"The Night Wind told me a wonderful story the other day--that some eight or nine years ago an Englishman took some Social Beavers to a beautiful valley in his park in England, setting them free by the banks of a stream, where the trees grew thickly down to the very edge of the water, just as they do here. These Beavers, she says, set to work at once to build a dam across the stream, making a deep wide pool six times as large as the original brook, and six times as deep at the lower end."
"I wonder if it is true?" mused Phil
"I believe anything that the Night Wind tells me," said Father Beaver, thoughtfully. "She talks to us often when the sun goes down; sometimes she is merry, and sometimes sad, but always what she says is true. She brings the scent of the hunters in time to warn us that they are on our track; she knows when the frosts are coming, and when it is safe for us to leave our winter houses and take to the woods. For Nature often sends us messages through her.
Of what are you thinking? Eh?"
Phil's thoughts had been wandering, and the Beaver's sharp eyes had found him out.
"I was thinking about that Otter," he said, truthfully. "I want to know how an Otter looks."
"Oh! That just depends where you happen to be when you see him. If you are on land, he seems to be a slender animal some three feet or so in length, covered with close brown fur, and with a broad and flattened head, and a thick, tapering tail; if you see him in the water, diving after the fish on which he feeds, he looks like a flash of lightning! For the water clings to the long shining hairs which lie over his close coat, and he glides through the stream so quickly that your eye can scarcely follow him. He is a brave creature; he will fight to the death when he is attacked--and a brave enemy should be honoured, even in death."
"How did you kill him, Father Beaver? Do tell me--I have been wanting to know all day."
"_I_ didn't kill him at all, my son," Father Beaver replied serenely. "He had fastened on me with his sharp teeth before I knew that he was near, and I was doing my best to get free of him when another Otter, a rival of his, seized him from behind and dragged him off to fight him on his own account. I retired to a safe distance and watched the battle. It lasted until one was killed outright and the other mortally wounded. They will never trouble our waters more."
"Oh," said Phil. He was rather disappointed that the Beaver had not killed his enemy in single combat; Father Beaver seemed quite satisfied, however.
"There are so many of her creatures that Nature wishes you to make friends with," he went on as he took another admiring look at his dam, "that I don't suppose you will be allowed to stay with us much longer. But before you leave this part of the country, you must certainly pay a visit to the Ondatras, or Musk Rats. We don't care for them as neighbours, for they are apt to make holes in our dams, but they are quite well-meaning and intelligent. They build much as we do, though their work is not so lasting. And because they are gentle and very timid, Nature made them, you'll see, the colour of mud, so that when they are curled up and at rest on the bank of a stream, they are often mistaken for; small mounds of earth. There is a colony of Ondatras in a shallow creek some miles away. You will see them at their best at night, for they are sleepy during the day time."
All the time he had been speaking, Father Beaver had been looking up and down the banks for traces of the Wolverene. The Birds called "Good-night" to each other from the glowing maples; the crimson lights of the sunset fell over the river, and the new moon hung her shining crescent on the top of a giant fir.
"I think all's safe," said Father Beaver; and the work of tree-felling began again.
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.