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Where Winter Holds no Terrors by Zoe Meyer

 

In a small reed-girt pool near the source of a forest stream which emptied into the Little Vermilion not far from the Hermit's cabin, stood a rough dome of grass roots, lily stems, mud and sticks. Standing at a bend in the stream, it resembled a mass of driftwood deposited by the freshet, yet it was the snug home of a fat old muskrat.

The roof of the lodge sloped somewhat toward the south, thus permitting the sun's warmth to penetrate the one loose place in the mass, the muskrat's ventilating shaft. In a snug room about a foot down from the roof of the dome, and well above the water line, he had made his bed of leaves and grass, where he could sleep snugly even when the winter gales shrieked overhead and the snow drifted deep.

The muskrat, as is usual with his tribe, had two entrances to his lodge, one a tortuous passage opening under water and leading inward about a foot, then slanting upward five or six feet, the other leading to the open air, its exit cleverly concealed by a tussock of coarse grass. Here he lived a life of ease and also of adventure, feasting on sweet-flag root, rushes and lily stems, of which there was always an abundance close at hand, and taking his exercise in the water or in his many runways in the long grass bordering the stream. The muskrat had adopted the modern slogan of “Safety First” and had, in addition to his lodge, made a burrow in the bank not far away, a retreat in time of trouble.

One warm summer day the muskrat emerged from the lower entrance to his lodge. Swimming lazily across the little pool, he paused under the shade of a mass of overhanging roots where it was safe to thrust out his nose for a breath of air. Though the air of the wilderness was warm and oppressive, the water of the stream was pleasantly cooled by a number of springs. The sun shining down upon it served only to intensify the green of overhanging grass and leaves, so that the muskrat seemed to be basking in a dim green world. Gnats hovered in a thick swarm in the sunlight close above the calm surface, and a group of birches, leaning over to look at their reflection, trailed their tender green branches in the clear mirror. Occasional flecks of foam from the falls above drifted by, or a leaf fell softly, floating like a fairy boat on a sea of glass.

Lured by the peacefulness of the scene the muskrat ventured forth into the sunlight to comb his fur, about which he was extremely fastidious. He had just begun his toilet when a shadow drifted between him and the sun. Without looking upward, he plunged back into the pool, carrying with him a number of tiny bubbles of air which gleamed like silver amid his thick fur. Under the shadow of the root he lay quiet for some time, having no means of knowing that the shadow had been but that of a summer cloud drifting by overhead.

As the muskrat lay quiet, something dropped with a light plash upon the surface of the pool and, looking up, he beheld the flutter of bright wings as a butterfly struggled with the strange element into which it had so suddenly dropped. The next moment there was a swirl of water as a vigorous young trout rose to the surface, and the butterfly disappeared.

The pool was now quiet and, as a muskrat's memory is short, he once more decided to take an airing. At a place where a little sandy beach sloped to the water he climbed out and, seating himself, began a leisurely toilet. With his claws he combed out his fur until it was dry and fluffy and shone with a silky luster where the warm sun touched it. Then he began on his face and ears, rubbing them with both paws in a comical manner. Suddenly, however, his toilet was interrupted in a way which all but put a period to the muskrat's story.

[Illustration: The hawk dropped like a thunderbolt and caught him in its talons.]

He had just finished washing his face when, without warning, there came a sweep of great wings just over his head. The muskrat dodged and turned to the pool, but he was too late. The hawk dropped like a thunderbolt, caught him in its talons and rose swiftly into the air far above the quiet pool. For a moment the big muskrat was stunned with the force and suddenness of the attack; very soon, however, his wits returned, and he squirmed sharply until the hawk had difficulty in holding his prize.

A thoughtful Providence, in fashioning the muskrat tribe, has clothed them in a skin which seems several times too large, a fact that is often the means of saving their lives. The claws of the hawk had caught only in the flabby, loose flesh, and with a sudden twist the big muskrat pulled himself loose from the cruel grasp just as they passed over a woodland stream. Fortunately for the rat, his captor was flying low and before the hawk could again secure its prey the muskrat had fallen into the stream. He sank like lead to the bottom and hid under an overhanging bank. As for the hawk, with a scream of baffled rage it flew away, knowing it would be useless to wait for the quarry to reappear.

For a long time the muskrat lay trembling in the darkness, with only the tip of his nose above water. Then he swam warily to the edge of the shadow and looked about. The stream was one that he had, at infrequent intervals, visited before. As it held none of the attractions of the home pool, he had always returned to his original haunts, relieved when the journey by land was safely accomplished. Now he waited until sure that his enemy had gone; then he climbed warily from the water, crouching among the grass roots or under fallen logs at the least hint of danger, but traveling as straight as if guided by a compass to his own stream. There he slid happily into the water and entered his waiting home, glad to rest and recover from his fright.

One day, not long after his adventure with the hawk, the big muskrat sat in his favorite retreat under the birch roots, just below a spot where a cold spring bubbled from the sand of the stream bed. He kept under water as much as possible, only coming up to renew his supply of air. While he idly watched the placid surface above, a gaudy fly dropped lightly upon the water and lay still. As on that other day when the butterfly had met its fate, a big trout rose at once to the lure.

The fly disappeared but, instead of swimming away, the trout began what seemed to the muskrat a series of exceedingly queer antics. He made a rush downstream near the surface, shaking his head from side to side, while the muskrat could see a long, thin line trailing behind him. Then the fish leaped several times into the air, the sunlight flashing upon the bright carmine spots on his olive-green sides. Next he tried sulking on the bottom of the pool, jiggling from side to side, only to rise gradually to the surface. A net dipped for a moment into the water and the trout vanished as if spirited away. The muskrat watched with bulging eyes but the trout did not again return to the pool.

After a time the muskrat bestirred himself and crossed the pool to a spot near his own front door. But instead of entering it, he rose toward the surface, having decided to take a brief journey in one of his many runways. A surprise was in store for the big rat, however, a surprise which drove all thoughts of a journey from his mind.

As he approached the surface, he looked up and found himself staring directly into a pair of pale, savage eyes set in a round face, surmounted by a pair of tasseled ears. The lynx lay upon a half submerged log, its face close to the surface of the water, in order that the reflections might not interfere with its vision of the clear depths. As the muskrat came near the surface, a great paw armed with long, keen claws was thrust into the water, but the lynx was a moment too late. With a suddenness which caused him to turn a backward somersault, the big muskrat arrested his upward motion and dived for his subterranean doorway. He did not pause in his swift flight until the long passage was traversed and he crouched, shaken and panting, in the darkest corner of his house. Nor did he venture forth again that day.

One day he had a narrow escape from a huge snapping turtle which entered the pool on a foraging expedition. At the time, the muskrat was dozing in his favorite retreat, all unconscious of the invader until he felt his right hind foot taken in a vise-like grip which made him squeak with pain. He twisted about until he could look at his ugly captor, at sight of whom his heart sank. Pull as he would, he could not loosen his foot from the cruel jaws. All would have been over with him had not the Hermit at that moment chanced upon the pool and, seeing his plight, come to the rescue. The muskrat entered his den with a bleeding foot but a thankful heart.

It must not be supposed, however, that the muskrat's life was one continual round of sudden dangers and narrow escapes. For weeks at a time no enemy visited the quiet pool, and he played about and fed, occasionally with other muskrats who had their homes in the same stream. They are sociable folk, as a rule, and like to live in colonies. The big muskrat, however, kept much to himself, leading his own life, independent of the colony.

The drowsy summer days passed and with a swirl of snowflakes the Frost King descended upon the world. The muskrat's playground was roofed over with ice, blue as steel, and the wilderness lay under a glistening white mantle. For the fat old muskrat, however, the winter held no terrors. He slept for long hours, curled up snug and warm in his soft, dry bed, while the wind howled and the snow drifted but a foot above his head. Many of the wilderness creatures began to feel the pinch of hunger but not the big rat. Just outside the subterranean entrance to his abode grew plenty of sweet-flag and succulent lily stems and roots, his for the taking.

The whole pool was his playground, the season which brought distress to so many creatures proving a blessing to him. The snapping turtle had burrowed into the ground for the winter; the hawk had vanished; and minks, those deadly enemies of the dwellers of the pool, were seldom seen. The muskrat had nothing to fear. The water under the thick ice was comfortably warm and, as it fell below its summer level, it left an air space of several inches along the bank. There the muskrat could travel long distances or seat himself comfortably and look out upon the wintry world from which he was so well protected.

It was indeed a changed world upon which he looked one wintry morning. The depths of the pool were as calm as a summer day, but above the ice the bare branches of the birch trees were lashed by a cutting wind straight from the ice fields of the north. Snow covered the forest floor. Now and then a rabbit, looking like an animated snowball in its white winter coat, drifted past the muskrat's hiding-place, but most of the wilderness folk had denned up, waiting for the storm to pass.

The muskrat now bestirred himself and began a leisurely journey downstream, stopping when an unusually succulent root showed itself above the oozy bed. He had traveled far, lured by tempting food always just ahead. Suddenly his heart seemed to stand still and he gazed down stream with bulging eyes. Coming swiftly toward him, swimming with a sinuous ease which struck terror to the muskrat's heart, was a long, brown animal whose keen eyes seemed to bore into every nook and corner of the stream. The one enemy had arrived.

The muskrat knew that he could never hope to reach his home ahead of the bloodthirsty mink. Glancing wildly about, he discovered a small haven under the bank, a doubtful hiding place, but his one chance of escape. Squeezing his big body into the cavity as best he could, he waited with wildly beating heart.

It was indeed fortunate for him that the mink was intent upon other game, or his hiding-place would have been quickly detected. The mink was in pursuit of a big trout and had no eyes for other inhabitants of the stream. He forged swiftly ahead in the wake of the fleeing trout and soon passed from sight, though the muskrat remained for some time in his retreat, afraid to venture forth. As the animal did not return, he at last slid out and turned upstream, keeping near the shore, ready to dart into hiding at the least sign of danger. He reached home without mishap, and drew a breath of relief as he settled for a nap on his warm dry bed.

About a week later the big muskrat was again feeding some distance down stream. His fright was forgotten and he was happy as could be, digging in the oozy stream bed for flag roots, raising his head occasionally, his face and whiskers covered with soft mud through which his eyes shone comically as he contentedly chewed a juicy root. Having eaten his fill he climbed out into an air space where the water had receded and the ice made a thick protection over his head, and proceeded to make his toilet.

His fur was soon as clean and dainty as if it had never come into contact with the soil. He was thinking of returning home, when a number of small trout darted past him in a frenzied manner and vanished upstream. The muskrat gave one look, then he, too, took to the water, swimming with long powerful strokes, fear seeming to lend him power. The mink steadily gained upon him, and when the muskrat at length reached his subterranean entrance his enemy was close behind.

Now the mink, though a powerful swimmer, cannot hold his breath long under water and, at the time he sighted the muskrat, he was feeling the need of replenishing his supply of air. Knowing, however, that he would never be able to overtake his game if he paused now, he forged steadily ahead, his lungs feeling as if they would burst. As the muskrat darted into his passage, the mink was close behind, his bloodthirsty jaws not a yard from the feet of the pursued. There the mink hesitated a moment. He had entered many of these tortuous, subterranean passages and knew that if it were very long, he would not be able to hold his breath to the end and would perish in its darkness. Moreover, the muskrat would have the advantage of being on familiar ground.

Meanwhile the big rat had reached his den, where he quickly refilled his lungs, and having more courage than most of his tribe, turned, prepared for defense. He did not have long to wait. The mink had wisely risen to the surface to replenish his air supply and now, with fresh vigor, he hastened to the attack, his mouth watering at thought of the meal ahead. He had reckoned without the strength and courage of his adversary, however. The muskrat charged suddenly upon him while he was still in the submerged part of the passage, the force of the onslaught knocking the breath out of him. Before he could recover, the muskrat was upon him.

There, in the darkness under the water, was fought a terrible battle which lasted until even the muskrat was laboring for breath and the mink could stand the strain no longer. He gulped and his lungs instantly filled with water.

The fight was over. The muskrat, torn and bleeding, reeled back to his lodge to refill his aching lungs. Then, having carried out the body of his enemy, he proceeded to lick his many wounds and make a long and thorough toilet. This done, he curled up into a furry ball and went to sleep, well content at having rid the stream of so relentless an enemy.

 
 
 

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