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The Burgess Animal Book for Children by  Thornton W. Burgess


 

 

TWO UNLIKE LITTLE COUSINS

[129] WHITEFOOT the Wood Mouse is one of the smallest of the little people who live in the Green Forest. Being so small he is one of the most timid. You see, by day and by night sharp eyes are watching for Whitefoot and he knows it. Never one single instant, while he is outside where sharp eyes of hungry enemies may see him, does he forget that they are watching for him. To forget even for one little minute might mean—well, it might mean the end of little Whitefoot, but a dinner for some one with a liking for tender Mouse.

So Whitefoot the Wood Mouse rarely ventures more than a few feet from a hiding place and safety. At the tiniest sound he starts nervously and often darts back into hiding without waiting to find out if there really is any danger. If he waited to make sure he might wait too long, and it is better to be safe than sorry. If you and I had as many real frights in a year, not to mention false frights, [130] as Whitefoot has in a day, we would, I suspect, lose our minds. Certainly we would be the most unhappy people in all the Great World.


[Illustration]

One of the prettiest members of the Mouse family.

But Whitefoot isn't unhappy. Not a bit of it. He is a very happy little fellow. There is a great deal of wisdom in that pretty little head of his. There is more real sense in it than in some very big heads. When some of his neighbors make fun of him for being so very, very timid he doesn't try to pretend that he isn't afraid. He doesn't get angry. He simply says:

"Of course I'm timid, very timid indeed. I'm afraid of almost everything. I would be foolish not to be. It is because I am afraid that I am alive and happy right now. I hope I shall never be less timid than I am now, for it would mean that sooner or later I would fail to run in time and would be gobbled up. It isn't cowardly to be timid when there is danger all around. Nor is it bravery to take a foolish and needless risk. So I seldom go far from home. It isn't safe for me, and I know it."

This being the way Whitefoot looked at matters, you can guess how he felt when Chatterer the Red Squirrel caught sight of him and gave him Old Mother Nature's message.

"Hi there, Mr. Fraidy!" shouted Chatterer, as he caught sight of Whitefoot darting under [131] a log. "Hi there! I've got a message for you!"

Slowly, cautiously, Whitefoot poked his head out from beneath the old log and looked up at Chatterer. "What kind of a message?" he demanded suspiciously.

"A message you'll do well to heed. It is from Old Mother Nature," replied Chatterer.

"A message from Old Mother Nature!" cried Whitefoot, and came out a bit more from beneath the old log.

"That's what I said, a message from Old Mother Nature, and if you will take my advice you will heed it," retorted Chatterer. "She says you are to come to school with the rest of us at sun-up to-morrow morning."

Then Chatterer explained about the school and where it was held each morning and what a lot he and his friends had already learned there. Whitefoot listened with something very like dismay in his heart. That place where school was held was a long way off. That is, it was a long way for him, though to Peter Rabbit or Jumper the Hare it wouldn't have seemed long at all. It meant that he would have to leave all his hiding places and the thought made him shiver.

But Old Mother Nature had sent for him and not once did he even think of disobeying. "Did [132] you say that school begins at sun-up?" he asked, and when Chatterer nodded Whitefoot sighed. It was a sigh of relief. "I'm glad of that," said he. "I can travel in the night, which will be much safer. I'll be there. That is, I will if I am not caught on the way."

Meanwhile over on the Green Meadows Peter Rabbit was looking for Danny Meadow Mouse. Danny's home was not far from the dear Old Briar-patch, and he and Peter were and still are very good friends. So Peter knew just about where to look for Danny and it didn't take him long to find him.

"Hello, Peter! You look as if you have something very important on your mind," was the greeting of Danny Meadow Mouse as Peter came hurrying up.

"I have," said Peter. "It is a message for you. Old Mother Nature says for you to be on hand at sun-up to-morrow when school opens over in the Green Forest. Of course you will be there."

"Of course," replied Danny in the most matter-of-fact tone. "Of course. If Old Mother Nature really sent me that message—"

"She really did," interrupted Peter.

"There isn't anything for me to do but obey," finished Danny. Then his face became very sober. "That is a long way for me to go, Peter," [133] said he. "I wouldn't take such a long journey for anything or for anybody else. Old Mother Nature knows, and if she sent for me she must be sure I can make the trip safely. What time did you say I must be there?"

"At sun-up," replied Peter. "Shall I call for you on my way there?"

Danny shook his head. Then he began to laugh. "What are you laughing at?" demanded Peter.

"At the very idea of me with my short legs trying to keep up with you," replied Danny. "I wish you would sit up and take a good look all around to make sure that Old Man Coyote and Reddy Fox and Redtail the Hawk and Black Pussy, that pesky Cat from Farmer Brown's, are nowhere about."

Peter obligingly sat up and looked this way and looked that way and looked the other way. No one of whom he or Danny Meadow Mouse need be afraid was to be seen. He said as much, then asked, "Why did you want to know, Danny?"

"Because I am going to start at once," replied Danny.

"Start for where?" asked Peter, looking much puzzled.

"Start for school of course," replied Danny rather shortly.

[134] "But school doesn't begin until sun-up to-morrow," protested Peter.

"Which is just the reason I am going to start now," retorted Danny. "If I should put off starting until the last minute I might not get there at all. I would have to hurry, and it is difficult to hurry and watch for danger at the same time. I've noticed that people who put things off to the last minute and then have to hurry are quite apt to rush headlong into trouble. The way is clear now, so I am going to start. I can take my time and keep a proper watch for danger. I'll see you over there in the morning, Peter."

Danny turned and disappeared in one of his private little paths through the tall grass. Peter noticed that he was headed towards the Green Forest.

When Peter and the others arrived for school the next morning they found Whitefoot the Wood Mouse and Danny Meadow Mouse waiting with Old Mother Nature. Safe in her presence, they seemed to have lost much of their usual timidity. Whitefoot was sitting on the end of a log and Danny was on the ground just beneath him.

"I want all the rest of you to look well at these two little cousins and notice how unlike two cousins can be," said Old Mother Nature. "White- [135] foot , who is quite as often called Deer Mouse as Wood Mouse, is one of the prettiest of the entire Mouse family. I suspect he is called Deer Mouse because the upper part of his coat is such a beautiful fawn color. Notice that the upper side of his long slim tail is of the same color, while the under side is white, as is the whole under part of Whitefoot. Also those dainty feet are white, hence his name. See what big, soft black eyes he has, and notice that those delicate ears are of good size.

"His tail is covered with short fine hairs, instead of being naked as is the tail of Nibbler the House mouse, of whom I will tell you later. Whitefoot loves the Green Forest, but out in parts of the Far West where there is no Green Forest he lives on the brushy plains. He is a good climber and quite at home in the trees. There he seems almost like a tiny Squirrel. Tell us, Whitefoot, where you make your home and what you eat."

"My home just now," replied Whitefoot, "is in a certain hollow in a certain dead limb of a certain tree. I suspect that a member of the Woodpecker family made that hollow, but no one was living there when I found it. Mrs. Whitefoot and I have made a soft, warm nest there and wouldn't trade homes with any one. We have had our home in a hollow log on the ground, in [136] an old stump, in a hole we dug in the ground under a rock, and in an old nest of some bird. That was in a tall bush. We roofed that nest over and made a little round doorway on the under side. Once we raised a family in a box in a dark corner of Farmer Brown's sugar camp.

"I eat all sorts of things—seeds, nuts, insects and meat when I can get it. I store up food for winter, as all wise and thrifty people do."

"I suppose that means that you do not sleep as Johnny Chuck does in winter," remarked Peter Rabbit.

"I should say not!" exclaimed Whitefoot. "I like winter. It is fun to run about on the snow. Haven't you ever seen my tracks, Peter?"

"I have, lots of times," spoke up Jumper the Hare. "Also I've seen you skipping about after dark. I guess you don't care much for sunlight."

"I don't," replied Whitefoot. "I sleep most of the time during the day, and work and play at night. I feel safer then. But on dull days I often come out. It is the bright sunlight I don't like. That is one reason I stick to the Green Forest. I don't see how Cousin Danny stands it out there on the Green Meadows. Now I guess it is his turn."

Every one looked at Danny Meadow Mouse. In appearance he was as unlike Whitefoot as it [137] was possible to be and still be a Mouse. There was nothing pretty or graceful about Danny. He wasn't dainty at all. His body was rather stout, looking stouter than it really was because his fur was quite long. His head was blunt, and he seemed to have no neck at all, though of course he did have one. His eyes were small, like little black beads. His ears were almost hidden in his hair. His legs were short and his tail was quite short, as if it had been cut off when half grown. No, those two cousins didn't look a bit alike. Danny felt most uncomfortable as the others compared him with pretty Whitefoot. He knew he was homely, but never before had he felt it quite so keenly. Old Mother Nature saw and understood.


[Illustration]

He kills young trees by gnawing off the bark under the snow.

"It isn't how we look, but what we are and what we do and how we fit into our particular places in life that count," said she. "Now, Danny is a homely little fellow, but I know, and I know that he knows that he is just fitted for the life he lives, and he lives it more successfully for being just as he is.

"Danny is a lover of the fields and meadows where there is little else but grass in which to hide. Everything about him is just suited for living there. Isn't that so, Danny?"

"Yes'm, I guess so," replied Danny. "Some- [138] times my tail does seem dreadfully short to look well."

Everybody laughed, even Danny himself. Then he remembered how once Reddy Fox had so nearly caught him that one of Reddy's black paws had touched the tip of his tail. Had that tail been any longer Reddy would have caught him by it. Danny's face cleared and he hastened to declare, "After all, my tail suits me just as it is."

"Wisely spoken, Danny," said Old Mother Nature. "Now it is your turn to tell how you live and what you eat and anything else of interest about yourself."

"I guess there isn't much interesting about me," began Danny modestly. "I'm just one of the plain, common little folks. I guess everybody knows me so well there is nothing for me to tell."

"Some of them may know all about you, but I don't," declared Jumper the Hare. "I never go out on the Green Meadows where you live. How do you get about in all that tall grass?"

"Oh, that's easy enough," replied Danny. "I cut little paths in all directions."

"Just the way I do in the dear Old Briar-patch," interrupted Peter Rabbit.

"I keep those little paths clear and clean so that there never is anything in my way to trip [139] me up when I have to run for safety," continued Danny. "When the grass gets tall those little paths are almost like little tunnels. The time I dread most is when Farmer Brown cuts the grass for hay. I not only have to watch out for that dreadful mowing machine, but when the hay has been taken away the grass is so short that it is hard work for me to keep out of sight.

"I sometimes dig a short burrow and at the end of it make a nice nest of dry grass. Sometimes in summer Mrs. Danny and I make our nest on the surface of the ground in a hollow or in a clump of tall grass, especially if the ground is low and wet. We have several good-sized families in a year. All Meadow Mice believe in large families, and that is probably why there are more Meadow Mice than any other Mice in the country. I forgot to say that I am also called Field Mouse."

"And it is because there are so many of your family and they require so much to eat that you do a great deal of damage to grass and other crops," spoke up Old Mother Nature. "You see," she explained to the others, "Danny eats grass, clover, bulbs, roots, seeds and garden vegetables. He also eats some insects. He sometimes puts away a few seeds for the winter, but depends chiefly on finding enough to eat, for he is active all winter. He tunnels about under the snow in search of [140] food. When other food is hard to find he eats bark, and then he sometimes does great damage in young orchards. He gnaws the bark from young fruit trees all the way around as high as he can reach, and of course this kills the trees. He is worse than Peter Rabbit.

"Danny didn't mention that he is a good swimmer and not at all afraid of the water. No one has more enemies than he, and the fact that he is alive and here at school this morning is due to his everlasting watchfulness. This will do for to-day. To-morrow we will take up others of the Mouse family."


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