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.
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.