Louis Untermeyer, Chip: My Life and Times, 1933
TO MY CHILDREN MY GRANDCHILDREN
MY FIRST MEMORY IN CAPTIVITY
MY FIRST MEMORY
THE first time I left the home of my childhood was the last. I never returned to it.
I was was five weeks old at the time, or even a bit younger. I remember very little of my first feel of the Outside World except that I could scarcely breathe. It was a sunny day; but, after the leaf-lined warmth of my home under the maple tree, the air seemed cold. I shivered, too frightened to look anywhere except at the tip of my mother)s tail. I followed this--the one thing I could depend on--so closely that I could feel the fine hair brushing my nose.
My mother's tail had a language of its own; it could say things quicker and more quietly than her whisper. When her tail waved gently I knew all was well; when it stiffened like a small stick I "froze" and watched for the next signal; when it switched suddenly I knew that the order was leap-and-run. But I also knew that, no matter what happened, I was never to leave the tip of the tail more than a whisker's length away.
This morning we did not go far. The way was easy, down a twiggy path, across a broad flat road, and around a building so huge that it shut out the sky. Later I learned this was The Barn. But that first day it excited me not only because of its size, but because of its smells. The smells were many and confusing; every moment new ones came out, chasing the old ones away; smells ran from every nook and corner. They were all strange to me; but, somehow, I knew they were the smells of large animals. They, too, spoke a language--and a loud one--but it was a language I could not understand.
In another minute I had forgotten them. My mother had stopped, and her tail told me I should follow her example. Her tail said she was enjoying herself and I watched to see what she was doing. She sat, resting on her haunches, nibbling something white. Then I noticed other pieces on the ground. They looked like small white stones, but were soft to the touch. I picked up one and it almost crumbled. I put a bit of it on my tongue. It was delicious. It was like nothing I had ever tasted, so sweet, so rich, so delicate. You, my dear grandchildren, have seen a little of the world and know it was bread, and you know what it may cost to get it. But, at that time, I knew nothing except that I wanted to go on eating it forever. I had three pieces, five, six,--I don't know how many. The taste was so inviting, the crumbs slid down so easily, that I forgot to put some in my jaw-pouches--which, as you know, is the first Law of Eating. I was much too happy, and much too busy to think of Food-Reserves. I only wanted to eat, and eat, and eat.
Suddenly everything went wrong. I heard my mother squeak wildly and at the same time her tail flashed "Leap-and-run!" She flew by me so quickly I almost lost sight of her. A second later I saw her tail whisk between two stones and I sprang after it. But I was too late. Something horrible and warm fell on me. It tightened about me. Everything went black.
So this is Death, I thought. This is the Thing they never spoke of. This is the invisible Thing--Around-the-Corner that comes without a word and goes without a sound. I knew nothing about it except that now it was happening and it was the End. I struggled for a minute. I bit the darkness. I clawed blindly. Then the blackness tightened, my head swam, my heart leaped, sticking fast in my throat, the last hope went out.
But it was not the End.
When I woke it was sunlight again; the smells were gone; and I found myself in a small but golden house.
I MUST try to tell you about my golden house. It will be hard for you to imagine it, for no chipmonk ever lived in such a curious place.
The house was really one great room with gold bars instead of walls. It belonged to some Monsters, or Savages, but everything about it was perfect. The gold bars were set close enough to keep out invaders and wide enough apart to let in plenty of air and sunlight. Elegantly polished they were, and it was a pleasure to run up and down the firm sides. The floor was strewn with glittering bits of stones, unlike any common pebbles you have ever seen. They had been broken into the smallest fragments, so that walking on them was like walking on sand, and they shone like the pearls and crystals you hear of in fairy tales. Spokes of fine white wood were placed between the bars--smooth wide perches for leaping and resting. At one end of the room was a large cup of milky china full of mixed grain and millett seeds, at the other end was a jar of clear water. The golden bars went up to a great height, ending in a point. And the whole room was hung on a chain from an enormous hook.
All this I noticed at first glance. The next thing I did was to look for a door. I found it just above the crystal floor, a half-concealed gate of gold. But it was locked from the outside. Then I realized I was a prisoner.
It was then I was aware of a new Smell and heard unknown Voices. The First Voice said, "But what's a chipmonk doing in a cage?" "Well," replied the Second Voice, with a kind of laughing rumble, "the cage has been unused ever since we lost the canary. And nothing is lonelier than an empty house."
"But," went on the First Voice, "why a chipmonk?"
"Why not?" answered the Second. "'Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage.' Besides, he'll be as safe here as anywhere. In a few weeks, he'll be happier than he ever was in his own home. It's my intention to bring him up on bird-seed. By the end of the summer he'll sing scales better than the canary."
I repeat the sentences just as I heard them. But, at the time, they sounded like nonsense to me. Nonsense or not, I resolved to make the best of my lot. I tried the perches. I ran up and down the golden bars. I hung, head downwards, from the ceiling. I raced my shadow around the room. After I had tired myself out, I decided to rest. But the floor, though lovely to look at, was too hard to lie on. Then I discovered that They had put some Darkening Stuff outside the bars. Later on, I learned it was called The Newspaper and in it They found everything They knew or needed. But at the time I knew only I could reach it and that it came off easily. I tore large pieces from it; working with my teeth and nails, I shredded it fine. Soon I had quite a heap piled in one corner. I dug myself in. It made an excellent bed. I never slept better.
MY LIFE AMONG THE SAVAGES
IT WAS quite a shock to me to find that I had landed among Savages. As the weeks went by I came to know the Two Voices well; I learned to tell one from the other before They spoke; I even came to enjoy Their childish tricks. But I never completely trusted Them. I never could tell what They might do or (horrible thought!) what They might eat. I soon discovered that, though They were pleasant enough and sometimes kind to each other, They devoured other animals just like cannibals or birds of prey.
They were savage, too, not only in what They ate but in the way They ate it. They seized everything in front of Them and bolted it right down, without keeping a thing in Their jaw-pouches. They seemed to have no Laws--not even the Law of Food-Reserves. Smells were no guide to Them. They were half blind; They could not see without strong light. Often I watched Them stumbling, helpless in the dark, where any chipmonk would have been sure and swift.
But, though They were only partly civilized, I learned to like Them, even to love Their awkward ways. They had a habit of going about on Their hind-legs all day long--in fact, I never saw any of Them (except the very smallest) walk on all fours. This was very clever of Them, especially since They had no tail to act as a balance. And Their haunches were so weak that none of the Humans--for that was the name of the tribe--ever ran up a tree or sprang from branch to branch.
But it was just these things that made Them so appealing. Though They were giants in size, They were almost helpless in spite of Their strength. And, on the whole, They were good-hearted. They seemed to take an immense pleasure in watching my morning and evening exercises, laughing with delight whenever I turned a pinwheel or swung myself clear across the sides of my room. And though I am sure They envied me, They were never unpleasant about it. They did all They could to amuse me. They would repeat rhymes that had no sense but a nice sound to them; They gave me a china tub which I used for a wash-basin and drinking-trough; They made funny clucking noises which, I am sure, They imagined were chipmonk-talk.
But they were most amusing when it came to feeding me. They brought me the queerest things to eat: corn, sunflower seeds, green peas, grasshoppers, beans, beets, bananas, bits of boiled potatoes. Some of these proved to be better than they looked; some I did not even touch.
I remember the day They brought me two queer-shaped things and stood about waiting. They acted as if They had done me a great favor and Their expression told me I ought to leap with joy. I was puzzled. The two objects were light and wrinkled; they were woody to the touch; they had no particular smell and my tongue could find no flavor in them. I let them lie. Then one of the Humans broke the objects and I could see that what I had examined was only the shell. Four hard little ovals fell out and these I rolled around. I had a good time playing with them, but it never occurred to me that they were meant to be food. Somehow, tossing one in the air, it broke; picking it up in my teeth I tasted something strange and exciting. It was a flavor I had never known and one I will never forget. It tasted of distant places where the sun is warmer than here, where life is lazier and everything grows richer. It tasted of oil and honey and content. But its name was Peanuts. Soon I learned to shell the things by myself and the happiest memories of my captivity are the afternoons of the Peanut Festival when the Humans came and stood about in wonder.
By the end of that summer I had become what They call "tame." I drank milk like the silliest of puppies; I came to the door whenever They called; I sat in the palm of Their hands and nibbled strawberries.
"See," said the Voice that rumbled. "Didn't I tell you? He's almost one of us. He wouldn't leave if we asked him to. He has forgotten he ever was wild."
It was plain that They thought so. At the time, I thought so too.
FOR months, I thought of nothing except playing and eating. Then one day a little wind blew into the room and changed everything. I cannot explain it, but suddenly I felt grown-up and, at the same moment, I felt unhappy. The wind brought news of falling leaves and acorns ripening and seed pods packed with sweetness and hundreds of chipmonks making carnival. Every day the wind carried messages from the Great Outdoors, and every day I grew more restless.
My food lost its flavor. The milk was flat; the bread was pasty-thick; even the Peanuts seemed too oily. I wanted something with a sharper and wilder taste. My golden house was nothing but a jail. My days were hateful and my nights were nightmares. I thought of nothing but escape.
I pushed against the door, but it was stuck tighter than ever. I tried to squeeze through the bars, but if ever I could have done it, I could not do it now. I had grown too fast and too fat. I thought of a dozen plans, but not one would work. Then I tried fasting.
A week later I heard the Two Humans speaking together and I knew They were talking about me.
"Have you noticed," said the First Voice, "how thin he is getting? I think he is unhappy."
"Nonsense," replied the Second. "He's acting true to form. He imagines he's a canary and is beginning to molt. They always look sad when they do that."
"It's you who are talking nonsense," said the First. "I have watched him for a week now and he isn't eating. He even left his bit of banana untouched. Twice yesterday I saw him try to work his little body through the bars."
"I'll admit he's not as frisky as usual," rumbled the Second. "And his appetite isn't what it used to be. I guess he's growing too large to enjoy himself. Maybe it's old age. Or maybe it is just a toothache."
"Maybe it's something else," went on the First. And then in a softer tone, "If he can't help himself some one else ought to--and maybe I will."
That night the call from the Outside World was stronger than ever. I could not sleep. Although I knew it was hopeless, I tried the bars for the hundredth time. But they would not budge a hair. I never thought of trying the door until I noticed that it seemed to hang queerly. Then I saw that, for the first time, it was not locked. I pushed against it; it yielded an inch. I pushed harder; the door opened further ... further ... The door was wide open.
It was black dark now, but I needed no light. I leaped from my prison and fell on a great flat, polished surface. It was covered with china things and, getting to my feet, I threw one over. It made a great clatter and I was afraid They would come, find me, and clap me back into prison. I leaped again from object to object until I found a vast floor.
I now saw that I had escaped from my former prison to a larger one. This was Their Cage. This, too, had sides and ceiling, bars and door. A slice of moonlight had come into the room and my heart beat quicker when I saw Their door was open, too. I didn't waste a moment. I never looked back at the home of my captivity. I slipped through the huge door into the Outside World. I was free!
I GO NATIVE
AT FIRST I took no care of myself. I kept no count of the days. I was so happy to be free that I ran about with no thought for the future. I explored the highest trees; I poked my nose into anything that looked like a hole; I chased other chipmonks and was chased by them. I did what I pleased; I ate what I liked; I slept anywhere and any time. I let myself go.
Other animals seemed to be busy at something or other. But I paid no heed to them. They were working, poor things. But I was living-really living for the first time. I discovered the choke-cherry and sucked the bright juice till I grew tipsy. I feasted on the fruit of the wild honeysuckle till I could eat no more. I played so hard that I played myself out.
As the days went on, I saw less and less of other chipmonks. Finally they stopped playing and ignored me altogether. This bothered me. One morning I cornered one of the tribe and asked him what it all meant.
"Where have you been," he replied, "that you have to ask? Don't you know the Law of Fall-Gathering-and-Hoarding? If you were a true chipmonk you wouldn't wait to be told!"
His tone as well as his words worried me. I was ashamed to ask any more questions. And yet I did not know what to do. Something deep down in me told me I ought to know, told me I ought to be burrowing and building. But how to go about it? How to begin?
One evening I noticed a small red plum which no one had touched, so juicy that it was about to burst. I ran toward it. Just as I reached it, another chipmonk sprang out of the dusk. Both of us tried to take it. We fought for possession. I saw I was the stronger, but the other was stubborn and did not yield. I changed my tactics. I let go of the fruit and jumped at my opponent, biting just behind the ear. The squeal that came startled me. It was the cry of a girl chipmonk.
I can't describe how I felt. Something in me was sorry and yet something wanted to boast of its strength. I did not know what to say or do. Then I noticed she was not hurt. Queerly enough, she did not even act displeased. She told me without words that she would be happy to share the fruit.
During our meal I learned that she had watched me for some time, had come to like me, and, though she wouldn't say why, admired me.
"But," she went on, "you don't know what you are doing. You are wasting your strength as well as your time. I can't make you out." Then I told her the story of my life, how I had been caught and kept in captivity.
"That's it," she said, nodding her head. "You've been tamed. You've forgotten our ways. What you need is a helper--some one to answer the questions you are afraid to ask and teach you what you want to know. You need some one to care for--and to care for you."
"You are wise," I said.
"And you are strong," she whispered.
And that, my dear grandchildren, was how I met your grandmother.
OUR HOME IN THE WOOD
THOUGH I am old now, I still dream about our young life together. I suppose I must have worked hard, but I do not remember the hardships. Your grandmother taught me the right way to burrow and I learned quickly. We found an opening almost hidden by the knees of a giant maple, and soon our first tunnel was dug. At the end of the tunnel, protected by a network of roots, we built our house. We brought leaves to line it and soft balsam needles to make our bed. This work was more fun than any play and my wife was cleverer than the wisest of monkeys.
One of the things she taught me was the Law of Concealing. I had already learned the Law of Hoarding which, as you know, is to put things away for the winter. But soon our house could hold nothing more--yet more was needed.
"It will be a long winter," said my wife. "And before it is half over our reserves will be used up. Until the chilling frosts come, we must have an outside larder. And we must keep it concealed."
We used the elms and maples for our store-house. First we would go into the apple trees, running along until we found the right sort of apple. It had to be not too large and not too small; not too green and not too red. If it were too hard, it would be sour; if it were soft, it would be sweet enough but would not keep. When we found the kind we were after, we would bite it close to the stem. The apple would fall to the ground and one of us would fasten on it.
Sometimes we were so hungry that we would eat half of it at once; sometimes we would sample only a bit to make sure it was the proper sort. But always we would take what was left and hide it. The elms and maples were our favorite trees because they were tallest and the leaves were thickest. There, in the crotch of a branch or spiked on a pointed twig, the apples were safe. For more than a month we feasted on them.
I think we expected to stay in our first home forever. But one evening, late in the fall, we received a rude shock. My wife had sent me ahead to bring in a few extra seeds from the apple-cores. As I entered the hole I noticed a strange smell. It was not only a new smell, but an unfriendly one. It told me some one was in our home and, whatever it was, it meant trouble.
The next instant the smell took shape and I knew my nose had not deceived me. It was a weasel. In the dark, he seemed even larger than he was; but even in full daylight I would have been no match for him. He was three times my size, with blood-red eyes and the wickedest set of teeth I had ever seen. He was not like us, a lover of nuts and berries; he was a horrible creature, tearing flesh and drinking the blood of harmless things.
Luckily, I was still at the entrance, which was really the hall of our house. Had I gone all the way in, the weasel would have had my heart's blood in less time than you can say Christopher Cricket. As it was, he jumped at my throat. Quicker than a cat's wink, I leaped to one side. But I was not out of the weasel's grasp, for his teeth came down on my left hind-leg. I shook myself fiercely, tried to sink my jaw in his back, but I was too small to reach it. His teeth cut deeper and the pain was terrific. This time, I thought, it really is the End.
At that moment I heard a noise I had always hated; but this once I welcomed it. It was the bark of a dog, the one animal which the weasel fears. I felt the cruel jaw tremble. Then, as the bark came closer, the weasel shuddered all over; his teeth unclosed, and he ran back to hide in the hole.
When my wife came up, I told her about the invader who had made himself at home in our house. I even mentioned trying to get him out, no matter what it cost. But she would not hear of it. My leg was bleeding badly and every bone in my body was shaken loose.
"Don't be foolhardy," she pleaded. "You've lost no little fur. It's a blessing you didn't lose your life!" As usual, she was right.
HARD WINTER COMES
WE WASTED no hours grieving over what couldn't be helped. Your grandmother licked my wounds and comforted me, of course, but we had work ahead. There was still time to build another shelter before the ground froze. We used every minute.
The new home was inside a loosely built stone wall, far safer than the old one. Small rocks were laid so closely on top of the larger ones, the tunnels were so narrow and curved that nothing larger than chipmonks could get in--and even we had to squeeze to do it. Soon we had our retreat lined with sweet-smelling birch-bark and with strips from the rustic furniture the Humans had left. We sealed up the cracks with wet leaves and moss. In the end, we were thankful to the weasel for making us exchange our first place for a finer and more comfortable one.
Once more we went gathering and hoarding. This time there was not such a variety of things. But the woods still showed the green kernels inside the maple-wings and the pine trees were loaded with cones. So we were not worried. I learned to nip the cones from the highest pines until there was quite a heap. Then I would bring them to an old stump. Nothing disturbed us, and there the two of us would sit, cracking the cones, picking away the woody part, until we had collected hundreds of the juicy centers.
Even then, we had to keep working until we had enough. I had heard a great deal about the coming storms, but I was not Prepared for the first snow. The dull skies let themselves down overnight and, next morning, every sharp corner had become smooth and all the colors had turned white. It was a different world than the world I knew. It was a more dangerous world because you left your tracks with every step you took. It was a hungrier world, for food was much harder to find. And it was cruel with cold.
I will never forget the third night of the storm. The snow had stopped falling, but the earth was colder than ever, The flowing streams were frozen fast; the North Wind poked his stiff fingers under our covers, under our very fur; the air was ice. And that day our first babies were born.
Your poor grandmother was ill with cold and worry. Something had to be done and done quickly. But what? Then I remembered the Big House in which the Humans lived. There, even on the coldest nights, They kept warm. Help was there--even if I had to help myself.
It did not take me long to get in. There was a mouse-run under the foundation and a small opening where the wall was joined to the floor. I wriggled through and searched the place. I could find nothing I wanted until I reached an upper room. Here stood one of the nests They call Bed. Luckily it was empty; luckier still, the covering was spread out. It was the cover They call a Comforter--and a comfort it was to me.
I never worked so fast. I made a small hole, widened it, dug inside. Then, with every tooth and all four feet, I began to pull out the soft stuff. White and fluffy it was, light and warm. I crammed all of it I could into my pouches. When they ached and would hold no more, I scurried back to the stone wall. Nothing stopped me, not a creature was abroad. Nothing ventured out of its hole on a night when the ground was frosty rock and the stars were splinters of ice. But my blood was up; I was warm with work and excitement. Six times I returned to that Comforter; six times I ran through the freezing dark with my load.
It was dawn when I stuffed the last pouchful into the corner of our nest. I was shivering, bone-heavy and tooth-tired. But I was happy. The cold could not reach us now. The North Wind stamped, roared and blew on his fingers, but it made no difference to us. Your grandmother and her babies lay warm. They slept in a white world on the whitest of wool. Then I slept, too.
THE rest of the cold season passed easily. Even in the thick of winter there would come a week of warm days; the snow would melt leaving little pools of sweet water, showing patches of early grass. There would be things to nibble and just enough snow-crust to bear us without breaking through. The children grew quickly and it was not long before we had them out for their first scamper.
We began to see other creatures again. Deer would bound over our wall, their tails flapping like short white flags. The red fox that lived behind the brush-pile would come out on clear nights and yap at the moon just as if he were a dog. Once in a while, we would meet the slow-moving porcupine, very proud of his new white quills which were his weapons for attack and his armor for defense. We even saw a hawk swooping low for field-mice that came out to sun themselves or hoping to find some young and careless chipmonk.
But we were always on the look-out, even when winter vanished and buds and birds told us it would be a rich spring. New things were everywhere to taste--crisp bulbs an inch or two under the earth, young- shoots just starting above the ground. There was no need to hoard now. Even the children learned what to eat and what to throw away, and soon they were off on errands of their own.
We played games, too--games that would help the children in time of trouble. There was the fun of curling up till you looked like a stone, or spreading yourself on a branch like a brown leaf while the others looked for you. We never tired of this hide-and-seek. There was the sport of "freezing," standing upright like a piece of wood and not moving a whisker. The chipmonk who stood the longest won; if any one saw him flick the smallest hair, the others would jump after him and tease him with mocking cries.
But the game we enjoyed most was the game of Escape. All of us joined in it and this was the way it was played: Five or six of us would make a large circle and each select a hiding-place. One of us would be chosen to "escape" and would have to get past the others without being caught. Your grandmother was the cleverest at this. Time and again she fooled us by slinking through the grasses or leaping noiselessly over the place where the rest of us were hiding.
I say we enjoyed playing this game more than any other. Yet I never played it again after that year. Even now the thought of it hurts, for it was because of this game I lost your grandmother.
It was an afternoon in early July--one of those days when the smell of things ripening sharpens the air and twitches your nose. We had eaten and played, played and rested, rested and eaten. It was time for bed. But the children were still keen for play. "One game more," they begged. "Just one more game!"
It was the Same of Escape. Dusk was beginning; and when the children chose your grandmother, I knew we would not play much longer, for it would not take her more than two minutes to win. We formed our circle, fixed ourselves ready to spring, and waited for the signal.
As usual, your grandmother got through the circle without one of us spying her. But she did not come back.
We searched for her everywhere. We "chipped" and we called. When she did not appear, we cried our loudest, careless whether our enemies heard us or not, Twilight had set in; shadows were thickening; every time a leaf turned we thought we saw her move. But there was no trace of her anywhere.
It was not until dark that I found her. A sliver of broken moon gave me just enough light to see her little head. Then I saw she could not move. She was caught in a Trap.
I did not know what to do. First I tried pulling her paws; then I tried to open the jaws of the thing that held her. But it was no use. The Trap had a death-grip upon her; the iron teeth were biting her flesh.
I ran 'round and 'round. I licked her feet. I wanted to give her some hope of help. I tried to say something cheerful. But the words would not come.
It was she who spoke. "Don't worry," she said. "Everything will be all right. I will get out, somehow. If I don't, the children will need you more than ever. We have done our best. Don't worry about me." I suppose I said something then, but I don't remember what. Her voice had become fainter and her head was drooping. Strength, I thought, she must have strength. If I can do nothing else, I can bring her food. I knew where some of last year's nuts were hidden and I hurried off.
"Don't worry," I, too, said just before I went. "We'll find a way. And I'll be back soon."
I was not gone a minute. When I returned, the Trap had been taken away. Of your grandmother there was not a trace. I knew then what had happened. Sick at heart, I stopped looking for her.
I BECOME A CRIMINAL
SOMETHING happened when your grandmother was taken away--something seemed to go out of the world. I lost all interest in hiding and hoarding; I played no more games; I forgot the children. I grew wilder than I had ever been. Instead of skittering through the hushes or skimming along the wall, I ran out in the open, careless whether or not I was seen. I grew more and more foolhardy; I neglected everything. Twice a hawk pounced at my head, and once his claws scratched my shoulder. I became the most reckless creature in the woods.
It was while I was in this mood that I met one of our cousins. This was the large Red Squirrel who lived in the tall oak tree. He had never paid any attention to me before. But now I saw him wherever I went, and I could tell he was watching me out of the corner of his eye. One morning he found me sitting gloomily at harvest time.
"What are you doing these days?" he inquired in an offhand manner.
"Nothing in particular," I replied, as if I did not care--which was the truth since it was just the way I felt. He spoke quickly.
"Why don't you join us, then?" said Red Squirrel. "You'll be sure of a good living and--other things. I can see you are fond of excitement and not afraid to take a risk now and then. You're a likely looking chippie, and such a spry scrambler ought to be at home among us.
"And who do you mean by 'us'?" I asked.
"Oh," he answered, "just a few of our tribe who are fond of gay times. Just a small company of diggers and climbers who like play better than work. In fact, playing is the way we get our living." It sounded attractive. Besides, I did not know what else to do. I wanted comrades now and I did not care what kind they were.
So I became a criminal.
My companions were a mixed lot--two or three gophers, an old rat who lived in the darkest corner of the barn, but mostly squirrels and chipmonks. The gophers were the strongest and the hungriest.
We lived, as I suppose you have guessed, by robbing. Each one had his particular job and each did it in his own way. The rat's specialty was gnawing through wood and dragging things off that were too heavy for the rest of us. The gophers kept their noses close to the ground; they could carry more than any of us in their large cheek-pouches and were fine undercover workers. They were a great help, too, in time of trouble, for their forefeet could dig deeper than a mole's. The chipmonks were used to get objects out of tight places and to run along small twigs where heavier animals would have fallen.
But we never did a thing without our orders. We were only tools; Red Squirrel was the brain that used us. He was a master-mind, if ever there was one. None of the bandit-beasts you've ever heard of could compare to Red--for that is what the members of his band called him. He was fierce and he was fearless. Whatever he did, he did quickly. He looked and he leaped all in one motion.
I remember the day Red was attacked by a stoat. A stoat is rarely seen in this part of the world, so, most likely, you don't know what sort of creature it is. The stoat is one of the weasel family, but the wicked weasel is kind compared to him. Thin, cruel face; nose like a pointed stone; teeth like the sharpest of traps; and legs that carry him quick as a trout's flash--that's the stoat. He is not exactly nice.
Well, that day there were just three of us: Red, Red's young son--his name was Triptoe--and myself. Red was teaching us what to do in case we were attacked from behind, when suddenly a slithery sound came from behind him! It was scarcely a sound--more like the whisper of grass when a snake slides through it--but Red had heard. There was no branch within jumping distance, only a rocky ledge. Red was quick, but the stoat was quicker. He leaped at Red, leaped low--but not quite low enough. Red, guessing what would happen, had flattened himself out. Red's next move was to jump toward the ledge, but here the stoat was ahead of him. Knowing he could not get to the wall and knowing, also, he could not outrun the stoat, it looked as if Red was cornered. But Red had a trick or two left.
"Run, you young ones!" he shouted to us. "I'll manage this fellow!" And, with a sound I can't describe, Red sprang straight at his foe. The ferocious animal was not used to such treatment it was always he who did the attacking!--and he showed he was startled. But the noise Red made--a kind of horrible scolding and screaming and threatening all without taking breath--finished the stoat. Frightened to his back-teeth and feeling sure he had tackled the wrong animal, the stoat wasted no further time, but flew off as though he had wings.
Then there was the day we had the great battle with the robins....
THE BLUE EGG ROBBERY
IT WAS an early morning in early June. Our plans were laid. It was to be a raiding party to get robins' eggs, and we knew where there were several nests full. Red Squirrel led the way. He had decided that many of us would draw too much attention. So, again, we were just three: Red Squirrel, his son Triptoe, and myself.
Red had picked out a misty moisty morning because the rain had made the ground soft. Red knew the he-robins would be away pecking the loose earth for worms, and he knew that the she-robins would join them for a few minutes at a time. Red would wait for those few minutes. Then, at the signal, we would run up the tree and seize as many eggs as we could get. In this way, we gathered quite a lot before the robins noticed us. After that, the motherbirds sat tight and wouldn't budge from their nests.
But Red was prepared for this. The day was young and we were still greedy for eggs. So we tried another scheme.
Not quietly this time, but making as much noise as possible, Red ran up the tree and along the bough that held a large nest. As soon as the mother-robin saw him coming near, she made a dash at him. Red immediately ran away. The mother-robin, pleased as could be, settled back on her nest.
"It takes the she-bird to get the better of these robbers," she seemed to be saying. "I'll have something to tell Mr. Robin when he gets home."
This, of course, was all part of Red's plan. A few minutes later, Red ran chattering toward the nest, and again the mother-robin chased him off--this time pursuing him several feet along the branch.
A third time Red ran at the nest. This time the mother-robin was so angry that she flew at Red and drove him down the whole length of the bough.
This is just what we had been waiting for. Triptoe and I had been hiding in a bough above--in a leaf-cluster over the nest--and, while the mother-robin was chasing Red, down we dropped. True to his name, Triptoe tripped on the twig which supported the nest, but I landed in the very middle. Quick as a grasshopper, I jumped out of the nest with a clear green-blue egg in my mouth.
But I was not to get away without a struggle. Somehow, the mother-robin had seen me, and back she flew, calling out to her husband. It was a loud cry for help and before I could get to the trunk of the tree, the he-robin was flying at me. In another moment, he was joined by two more robins, and I saw it was to be a fight to the finish.
Unable to get to the trunk of the tree, I dropped to the next branch. The robins flew at me again, fiercer than before, screaming and pecking at my head. They were afraid that I would drop the egg and even more afraid that I would get away
"Go for his eyes!" shrieked the mother-bird. "Blind the robber! Go for his eyes!"
"Dash at his feet!" screamed the largest of the new arrivals. "Make him fall on the rocks! Go for his feet!"
For a moment it looked as if I were done for. But Red came to the rescue.
"Hold on one more minute!" he cried from the ground. "And hold on to that egg!"
Then, pretending to be going for the nest again, Red ran up the tree. For the little time it takes to draw a quick breath, the robins forgot me and attacked Red.
That breathing-space was enough. I jumped into a branch thick with leaves, dropped into a thicker one, and in less time than I am telling it, I was down the trunk of the tree.
When the robins turned to look for me, I was gone. I was among the rocks and there Red joined me.
Triptoe had been sent home for being so clumsy and making me almost lose my life. Red and I sat together, cracking the shell and licking up the treat inside. The robins saw us, scolded and threatened. But we sat safe in a crack between the stones where they could never reach us. These were, I learned, the stones which the Humans call the Foundation of Their Home.
It just happened that the Humans had watched our fight with the robins, but I had been too busy to notice Them. Now, however, I could hear Them talking.
"It's a shame!" said the First Voice. "It's a horrid shame! To rob a lovely nest--and then sit there calmly eating a robin's blue egg! And I used to be so fond of the little chipmonks!"
"Oh, well," said the Second Voice, "what can you expect! They are only animals, you know. All animals are heartless." And both of Them went in to Their breakfast of bacon and eggs.
WHAT HAPPENED TO RED
THOSE were exciting days we had under Red's leadership. I know now that we were disorderly, cruel and reckless, and did many things that I should have been ashamed of. But at the time we never stopped to think--I might say we never stopped for anything.
Yet I don't want you to believe we spent all our time in wrongdoing. We had our games and our long feasts. And there were hot, idle days when we lay in the sun and watched the poor Human pushing a great clacking machine, for the grass always grew too fast for Him. And there were jokes, too, for Red loved fun almost as much as if he were a chipmonk himself.
I remember the adventure with the snake as if it had happened only an hour ago. He was not a poisonous snake, nor even a terribly large one. But he was large enough; and he could look as fierce as a rattler when his tongue darted out of his mouth like small red lightning. He never made a sound when he passed except a kind of sigh. There goes "Sigh" we used to say when we heard or saw him; so we started to call him Si the Snake.
We were not friends with Si, but we were not enemies either. He had his ways and we had ours, and those ways never seemed to cross. Did I say never? That shows how old I'm getting, for it was because of Si that so many changes happened. But let me tell you about the adventure.
Red and I were alone one late afternoon, half-asleep after a meal of ripe pin-cherries. We didn't notice Si until I felt a sharp pain in my left front paw. I don't know to this day whether he had bitten me in play or because he was really hungry and could find nothing else. But I didn't stop to ask. I dug into Si's scaly ribs with my other three feet and the next second he slithered off.
Red was furious. "The low sneak!" he cried. "Does he think you're a frog or a field-mouse! We'll teach him, the snake-in-the-grass !" Two days later, we crept up on Si when he was too busy to notice it. He had a frog by the throat and was shaking him from side to side. Si was hungry, and the only reason he took the time to do the shaking was because he could not possibly swallow the frog alive.
"We'll teach him his lesson, now!" whispered Red. And Red jumped at Si's head, while I seized his tail between my teeth. It was funny to see what happened. Si opened his jaws with pain and surprise, and, of course, the frog didn't need to be told what to do. He didn't even stop to thank us. The snake tried everything to get free of Red and myself. He shook himself almost out of his skin; he doubled up; he twisted in and out until I thought he had tied himself in a bow-knot. Then--partly because we were tired, partly because Si was so slippery--we let him go.
But we had not heard the last of it.
"Look out for Si," Red advised me. "Snakes never forget, and they never forgive. Hell try and play a trick on us yet. Wait and see."
I did not have long to wait. And I was only too sorry to see that Red was right. The Humans had taken our greatest enemy into Their Home. It was a great gray cat. All cats are terrible, but this cat would have terrified all other terrors. She was wild and she was wily. She could strike in her sleep. She was a snake and a stoat and a weasel all in one. No wonder we kept far away from the house of the Humans.
You can imagine, then, how surprised we were when we saw Si sliding himself across the road and wriggle right up to the porch where the cat lay asleep. We were even more surprised when Si lifted his head and--of all things!--hissed right in the face of the sleeping terror. In half a wink the cat was awake and up and flying at Si. But the snake was quicker. As if he had been expecting this, Si shot across the road, the cat after him. Si seemed to be aiming straight for his hole. But what had made him do this foolish and dangerous thing? The next moment I understood and disappeared into the cracked wall. Red realized it, too, but he realized it too late. The snake made a sharp turn toward where we were watching and led the cat toward us! With all his speed Red doubled about.
In less than a second, the cat left her snake-hunt and leaped high in the air. By great luck I had escaped into the wall. Down there I could not see what was happening to Red. But from the sounds I heard, I could imagine everything, and I knew the snake had had his revenge.
Later, when I poked my head out, I saw the cat, fatter than ever, with a very oily expression on her face. She was licking her lips. ...
I ducked back into my hole.
THE RIVAL LEADERS
FOR several days we crawled about, scared and silent. We did not dare do anything by ourselves; we were even afraid to mention Red's name. But soon we saw that we could not go on like this and that we would have to choose another leader.
The squirrels, of course, wanted Triptoe to be the chief. First, they argued, he was a squirrel, and squirrels had always been the best of forest-robbers. Second, he was the son of Red and ought to take his father's place. Third, he had always been ready for any risk, no matter how great.
The chipmonks had other ideas. First, they said, the chipmonks had done all the dangerous work and, therefore, the new chief ought to be a chipmonk. Second, Triptoe might be the son of Red, but he did not act like it--in fact, Red himself knew how clumsy Triptoe was when he gave him his name. Third, Triptoe had always done the least amount of work and always wanted the largest share of the spoils.
The gophers were on our side and the old rat agreed with us, too. But the squirrels would not give in. They argued and argued, growing angrier and angrier. Then they began calling names, and soon we were fighting as if we had been enemies instead of companions.
Well, to make a long tale short, the alliance was broken. We separated. The squirrels elected Triptoe their leader, and the gophers and chipmonks chose me. It was understood that we would keep out of each other's way and never even talk to each other, if we could help it.
Of course, I was pleased. It was an honor to lead my trusty followers, and I made up my mind they would not be sorry. The first thing I did showed them they had not made a mistake in selecting me.
We had, as you can imagine, all sorts of birds in our woods. Yet never paid any attention to them except during the egg-laying time and then only to steal the eggs. But I had watched one of the birds very carefully. He was quite a large fellow and very handsome with black-and-white wings, yellow breast and a bright red cap. He went around inspecting the trees, tapping, tapping, wherever he found a hole to his liking.
"Oh, he's just a wood-pecker," they said. "He feeds on worms and little insects that live under the bark. That's nothing for us. No use watching him!"
But I knew better. I knew that he was not only a seeker of wood but a sucker of sap. So I kept a sharp eye on the trees that the sapsucker seemed to like the best. As soon as he left one, I climbed it, and examined the place where he had been working. My guess had been right!
For weeks we enjoyed ourselves as never before. Unseen by the sap-sucker, we followed him around the sugar-maples and took our part of the sweet syrup still oozing from the holes. The gophers and the chipmonks rolled around with delight, and the old rat's tongue hung out of his mouth when we gave him his share. No leader could have been more popular than I. Every evening they gave three cheers for me, and every morning they licked my paws and smoothed my whiskers.
But my greatest act was getting rid of the cat. And this I did in the strangest but the simplest way. Do you remember my telling you about the time Red and I punished the snake? And do you remember what the snake was about to eat when we attacked him? Well, one day I went over to the Fond where the frog lived and called him.
"I am honored," he said in his softest croak, sticking his head out of the water-lily leaves.
"Would you like to do me a favor?" I asked.
"Anything at all," he grunted softly. "Did you not save my life? Whatever I can do will be done. And it will be done at once, no matter how hard it may be."
"Good," I replied. "But it will not be so difficult. All I need is a little of your time and the help of a few of your friends." "A few?" he answered. "I have a lakeful of friends. My own family is over a hundred, not counting the tadpoles. And all of them will do as I say. We frogs have a motto: Sink or swim, do or dive, one for all and all for one! It is a beautiful motto and it has kept many a frog afloat in deep waters. But I am talking too much about myself. What is it I can do for you?"
So I told him what it was I had planned.
The next morning the cat found her favorite sunning-place wet and slimy. Now you know that if there's one thing a cat likes it's a nice dry spot, and if there's anything a cat hates it's a wet one. I knew that cat was angry as could be, for she showed it in every bristling hair. But there was nothing she could do about it and, after some spitting and snarling, she found another spot to sun herself in.
The following morning that place, too, was wet and full of green slime from the lake. The cat looked angry and puzzled at the same time. Once more she looked around for a clean sunny spot. She took longer this time, and it wasn't until she curled herself on the very top of the wall that she seemed satisfied. "Here is one place," she thought, "where the water won't come."
But the frogs were true to their promise; they did their work well. Next morning a whole mess of sticky mud was on top of the wall. So, for six mornings, wherever the cat would go, the water would come too--regular puddles and pools of it--getting worse every day.
At the end of a week, the cat gave up. She could stand it no longer. We had won. The last we saw of her was her back, her tail dragging in the dust, as she slunk off to the next farm two miles away.
We did not miss her.
THE STICK THAT SPOKE
AS SOON as they heard of how I had defeated the cat, the squirrels came over and begged me to be their leader. They had been going hungry while we chipmonks were living off the sweets of the earth, and they were a most unhappy looking lot. They took back all the things they had said, and Triptoe himself admitted he was sorry I hadn't been their leader from the first.
So we were all united again, better friends than ever. We let bygones be bygones and licked each other's fur as the sign of friendship. It made me so happy that I wanted to do something special for the whole band. "We ought to have a real celebration," I said to myself. "If I could only think of something."
Then the idea came.
When I was in captivity, the Humans sometimes brought me large red juicy things as a treat. They called these strawberries and I never had enough of them. They had a taste like nothing else: they were sweet but not too sweet; sharp but not bitter. There was something wild about them yet something tame. Now the day before the squirrels had asked me to be their leader, I had heard the two Humans talking as They sat near the wall.
"Will those strawberries ever be ripe?" said the First Voice.
"Ssh-! Not so loud!" said the Second Voice. "That's my secret. After what the chicks and the children did to them last year, I had to keep the plants out of sight. I've got them tucked away behind the asparagus bed, where no one would think of looking for them."
"That's telling me where they are," said the First Voice, "not how they are."
"Oh, they're all right," said the Second Voice. "They're doing beautifully. In two days you can bring your baskets and fill them to the brim."
In two days! And that was yesterday. I would have to act quickly. I did. I got word to the gophers and they spread the news. We gathered together quieter than a company of falling: leaves. Even the gray old rat came with us. Their eyes popped as I showed the plan The Human was right. No one would have thought of looking behind the bushy asparagus bed--no one but me. But there they were! Row after row of the plants, and every plant heavy with its ripe, red fruit. Not one berry had been picked, not one had spoiled. And there they bulged, resting on the straw that had been laid under them, waiting for us.
We, on our part, did not wait long! We worked so fast, so eagerly and so thoroughly that in one hour there was not one berry left on a single stem. How we feasted! And how clever they said I was! Their jaws were weak with chewing, and they would have given me three cheers but they were too full.
Next morning I could hear the Second Human roaring about the place.
"It's an outrage!" the Voice scolded, louder than a cornfield full of crows. "I'll teach those little devils. They'll be sorry they ever saw a strawberry!" A few minutes later I saw the Human out in the road. But I was not afraid. I remembered the song I used to sing when I was your age.
Five little squirrels
The next one said,
I've forgotten most of it. But, anyway, I was not afraid--not the least bit. All that the Human had was a stick and that didn't worry me.
"Don't be frightened," I chipped to the squirrels and the chipmonks. "He can't throw that thing far enough or straight enough to hurt us. He can't even touch us!"
The words were hardly out of my mouth when the stick spoke. I can't describe the sound exactly, but it was like a sudden bark-only quicker and louder than any dog could make. I was surprised; but I was not frightened.
"That's a queer sort of stick," I thought. "A stick that speaks!"
Before I had finished the thought, a squirrel dropped out of the tree and lay on the ground without moving. Then the stick spoke again, this time like a sharp cracking of dry branches when a deer goes through them. A chipmonk fell, twitched for a moment, and then lay terribly still.
"This is getting serious!" I said to myself. "Maybe I'm not so safe on this stone after all."
Then, before I could stir, the stick spoke for the third time. Thunder was in that stick and lightning flew out of it--hot lightning!
I had been struck. I could feel it in my side, along the legs, worst of all where the tail was joined to my back. The stick-lightning had sent me spinning across the rod. The hurt was too awful. I did not know what to do or where to hide. I could not run.
Something inside me recognized the wall where I lived. It was just a few feet away. I had scarcely strength enough to try one leap for the hole. Luckily, I made it. I fell down the opening, foot over foot, all in a heap. I landed in my nest, chattering with pain and fright. Everything went black.
I have no idea how long I lay there. When I woke, it was a different chipmonk who opened his eyes.
YES, it was a different chipmonk who woke after the sticklightning had struck me, different in every way. I was changed in looks--I could feel the change without seeing it. My legs were thin and weak as dandelion-stems. My once-rounded sides were so fallen in that every rib stood out like dead bones. My well-filled cheek-pouches hung down like the empty bags they were. And my tail--my beautiful tail--! Yes, you have guessed it. The thing that blazed out from the stick had shot it off, leaving nothing but a stub where the long feathery tail used to be. You could hardly call it a stub; it was so short I couldn't even wag it.
But the greatest change was not in my looks. It was in my feelings. Whenever I thought of myself as a bandit, I shuddered. Instead of exciting me, the idea of robbing filled me with horror. I cared to lead no more chases. I hated the taste of eggs. I never wanted to see a strawberry again. I longed for nothing but peace.
But, first of all, I wanted a drink. My throat felt like dust baked in the sun. I crawled to the stream and lapped up the cooling water. I began to feel better. The coolness slid into the furthest parts of me, and a little of my old strength flowed back with the water.
"Things are bad," I said to myself, "but they could be worse. I have lost a great deal. But, as my poor wife used to say, I still have my life, although I came close to losing that, too."
I decided to go back to the old way, the way I lived before I before I came a robber. I would look up some of the chipmonks I used to know and be one of them again. But soon I saw that was easier thought than done. The hard-working members of my tribe would have nothing to do with me. Whenever I came near, they looked somewhere else or scurried to some far-off spot. I don't know to this day whether they were afraid of me or ashamed of me. They knew all about my wicked life and that would have been enough to keep them away. Besides, I must have looked worse to them than I was. My fur was ragged and dirty, my claws were too long, my eyes had a fierce gleam. They did not know that most of this was caused by hunger and sickness and being so ill that I could not take care of myself. They only knew enough to keep away from me.
Now I was in a bad way. I had given up the wrong kind of living, but I could not get back to the right one. I would not hunt with Triptoe's crowd, and my own people would not hunt with me. During this time I scarcely lived. Sick for friends and half starved for food, I somehow dragged myself from one day to the next. I was the loneliest chipmonk in the world.
One day, when I had given up all hope of being taken back by my tribe, I had a curious shock. I saw a chipmonk sitting on a stone and she did not run away from me. I was surprised. I was still more surprised when I came closer, for that chipmonk looked just like your grandmother. Seeing that chiPmonk and thinking of my poor wife, I began to tremble.
Then the other chipmonk spoke.
"What is it?" she said, in the softest voice. "Why do you shake like that? And why do you look at me so queerly as if I were something strange?"
"You are something strange," I replied. "Strange in many ways. For one thing, you do not run away from me as all the others do. For another thing, your voice seems to come a long way. But you are most strange because you remind me of some one who was once dear to me."
"Why should I run away?" she asked. "You look poor and shabby and your eyes are queer. You are really much stranger than I; you seem more frightened than frightening. I can tell you are kind at heart and longing for companions. I could guess more, but I know nothing about you."
So I told her my story. I told her everything. I began at the beginning and related all that had happened from the time I was captured to the day the lightning-stick almost killed me. I told her about my good and bad hours, how I had robbed, and how I had lost my wife, and why I had lived the way I did.
Then she laughed.
"You poor thing," she murmured. "No wonder I remind you of your wife. Look again, you silly old sufferer. Look closer. I am your wife!"
If I did not believe my eyes before, now I could not trust my ears. What I had heard startled me to my smallest hair. I tried to sit bolt upright, but I could not; my haunches felt weak as young twigs. When I looked at her again I could see, though she was still smiling, she had begun to tremble. Then a strange quiver ran through my body. I tried to stop it, but it grew in spite of me. Soon I was twitching all over as if I were being shaken by a weasel. My jaws hung down; I could not move my tongue; I must have looked as stupid as I felt.
"My w-w-wife?" I stammered.
"Yes, foolish one," she answered. "Your wife. Let me tell you about it."
I WAS so excited at seeing my dear one again that, at first, I did not hear what she was saying. But soon I was listening to every word of her story with stiff and pointed ears.
"Just after you went to bring me a bit of food," she said, "a great noise shook the ground. I knew what it meant. It was made by the thundering feet of a Monster--it may well have been the same Human Savage who had captured you. I made myself as small as possible; I shrank down into my bones; I Attend my fur close to the bottom of the Trap. It was quite dark and I did not breathe, hoping that the feet would pass by. But it was no use. The feet came straight to the Trap and the Monster stooped down. He picked up Trap and all, and before I could tell what he was doing I was thrown into a great rough hole. Then the hole closed about me.
"I knew enough to know I was being carried off in a bag; but for a while I was too sick with fear and hunger to know anything more. Then, although the smallest bones in my body were being jarred, I began to think. I thought of you and the children; I thought of the games we played, of our happy hunting and the good life we had lived together. The more I thought of it, the more I made up my mind it must not end this way. There were better things for me to do, I told myself, than to be taken away from those who needed me. Monster or no Monster, I would get the better of him yet. I hadn't been born a she-chipmonk for nothing!
"All this time the bag was bouncing me around, but I kept my wits about me. In the back of my head a plan was forming itself. It must have been hours later when I felt the bag being lowered, and the next moment it was opened. Now, said I to myself, the time has come to act--but to act wisely. I must be quick but I must be careful. So when the Trap was taken out and put on the ground, I pretended to be dead. I let my body hang as loose as though there were no life left in it.
"Seeing this, the Monster grew careless. He handled the trap clumsily and took me up in his great hot hands. This was what I had hoped for. Suddenly I came to life. I twisted about and bit his finger with all the force I had. Every inch of my strength was in that bite. I could feel the four front teeth meet each other and I could hear the scream of pain as the Monster dropped me.
"'You little rattlesnake!' he yelled.
"But I did not wait to hear any more. I leaped and ran as if ten cats were after me and I had twenty feet. I ran all night, stopping only to drink the heavy dew that was falling and swallow a few green grass-hearts. I can't tell you how long I searched, how many wrong trails I wandered, all the things I had to suffer--I don't want to think of them now. After many days I found myself in our own part of the woods and there I knew my way. The children, thank goodness, were safe and I will always be grateful that we had left plenty of food-reserves in the secret cubbyhole under the roots." Then this brave creature went on to tell me what she did after she came home again: how, after rescuing herself, she rescued all the little ones and put the house in order by herself. She told of her great sorrow about me and how she had to be father as well as mother to the youngsters. I learned how she had taken care of every little thing until the children grew up and moved into holes of their own.
"And all the time," she said, half laughing, half crying, "I thought you were a lost chipmonk."
"And all the time," said I, "I thought you were dead!"
"But that's all past," she ended. "The main thing is that we are together once more. You'll be a different chipmonk when your hair is washed and you have proper food and a proper home. Didn't I say the first time we met that you needed some one to take care of you?"
As usual she was right.
And so I came to my own again.
Hear us, Friend and Feeder,
Take our prayer and praises,
We will always learn to