THE PLAYFUL MUSKRATS
NE warm day in winter, when some of the pussy-willows made
a mistake and began to grow because they thought spring
had come, a party of Muskrats were visiting in the
marsh beside the pond. All around them were their
winter houses, built of mud and coarse grasses. These
homes looked like heaps of dried rushes, unless one
went close to them. If one did that, he could plainly
see what they were; and if one happened to be a
Muskrat, and could dive and go into them through their
watery doorways, he would find under the queer roof of
each, a warm, dry room in which to pass the cold days.
"Fine weather!" said every Muskrat to his neighbor.
"Couldn't sleep all of
 such a day as this." They spoke in that way, you know,
because they usually sleep in the daytime and are awake
"We wish it would always be warm weather," said the
"What's the use of winter?"
"Hard to tell," answered one Muskrat, who had lived in
the marsh longer than the rest. "Hard to tell: I know
it always gives me a good appetite, though." Then all
the Muskrats laughed. They were a jolly, good-natured
company, and easy to get along with. The other pond
people liked them much better than they did their
neighbors, the Minks. The Wild Ducks who nested in the
sedges, were quite willing that the young Muskrats
should play with their children, and the Mud Hens were
not afraid of them. Mud Hens cannot bear Minks. They
say that when a Mud Chicken is missing from the nest,
there is quite sure to be a Mink somewhere near with a
 and down around the corners of his mouth.
Perhaps if the Wild Ducks and the Mud Hens were raising
their families in the winter time it might be
different, for then the Muskrats get hungry enough to
eat almost anything. In spring and summer, when they
can find fresh grasses and young rushes, or a few
parsnips, carrots, and turnips from the farmers'
fields, other animals are quite safe. In the winter
they live mostly on roots.
"Fine day!" screamed the Gulls, as they swept through
the air. "Pity the Frogs don't come out to enjoy it!"
"Yes, great pity," chuckled the old Muskrat. "How glad
you would be to see them!" He smiled all around his
little mouth and showed his gnawing teeth. He knew
that the Frogs were better off asleep in the mud at the
bottom of the pond, than they would be sitting in the
sunshine with a few hungry
 Gulls above them. The Turtles were sleeping all
winter, too, in the banks of the pond. The Eels were
lying at the bottom, stupid and drowsy, and somewhere
the Water-Adders were hidden away, dreaming of spring.
Of all the birds who lived by the water, only the Gulls
were there, and they were not popular. It is true that
they helped keep the pond sweet and clean, and picked
up and carried away many things which made the shore
untidy, still, they were rude, and talked too loudly,
and wore their feathers in such a way that they looked
like fine large birds, when really they were lean and
skinny and small. The other pond people said that was
just like them, always pretending to be more than they
Fifteen young Muskrats, all brothers and sisters, and
all born the summer before, started off to look at the
old home where they were children together. That
 is to say, they were not all there at once, but there
were five born early in the season; and when they were
old enough to look out for themselves, five more came
to live in the old nest; and when these were old enough
to leave the nest, another five were born.
It doesn't mean so much to Muskrats to be brothers and
sisters as it does to some people, still they
remembered that they were related, and they played more
with each other than with those young Muskrats who were
only their cousins or friends. Their mother was very
proud of them, and loved to watch them running round on
their short legs, and to hear them slap their long,
scaly tails on the water when they dove. They had
short, downy fur, almost black on the back, soft gray
underneath, and a reddish brown everywhere else. There
was very little fur on their tails or on their feet,
and those parts were black.
 These fifteen children had been fairly well brought up,
but you can see that their mother had many cares; so it
is not strange if they sometimes behaved badly. In
some other families, where there were only nine or ten
babies all the season, they had been brought up more
strictly. Like all young Muskrats, they were full of
fun, and there were few pleasanter sights than to see
them frolicking on a warm moonlight evening, when they
looked like brown balls rolling and bounding around on
the shore or plunging into the water. If they had all
been exactly the same age, it would have been even
pleasanter, for the oldest five would put on airs and
call the others "the children"; and the next five would
call the youngest five "babies"; although they were all
well grown. There was no chance for the youngest five
to call other Muskrats "babies," so when they were warm
and well fed and good-natured they laughed
 and said, "Who cares?" When they were cold and hungry,
they slapped their tails on the ground or on the water
and said, "Don't you think you're smart!"
When they got to talking so and their mother heard it,
she would say, "Now, children!" in such a way that they
had to stop. Their father sometimes slapped them with
his tail. Teasing is not so very bad, you know,
although it is dreadfully silly, but when people begin
by teasing they sometimes get to saying things in
earnest—even really hateful, mean things. And that was
what made the Muskrat father and mother stop it
whenever they could.
Now the whole fifteen crowded around the old summer
home, and some of them went in one way, and some of
them went in another, for every Muskrat's summer house
has several burrows leading to it. When they reached
the old nest at the end, all of them tried to get in at
 and they pushed each other around with their broad
little heads, scrambled and clutched and held on with
their strong little feet. Five of them said,
our turn first.
We're the oldest." And five more
it's our turn next anyway, 'cause
next oldest." The others said, "You might give up to
us, because we're the youngest."
They pushed and scrambled some more, and one of the
youngest children said to one of the oldest, "Well, I
don't care. I'm just as big as you are" (which was
so). And the older one answered back,
"Well, you're not
so good-looking" (which was also true).
Then part of the brothers and sisters took sides with
one, and part took sides with the other. What had been
a lovely frolic became an unpleasant, disgraceful
quarrel, and they said such things as these:
I'd make such a fuss!"
 "Who's making any more fuss than you,
I'd like to
"Oh, yes. You're big enough, but you're just as
homely as you can be. So there!"
"Quit poking me!"
"You slapped your tail on my back!"
"I'm going to tell on you fellows!"
"I dare you to!"
"Won't you catch it though!"
And many more things which were even worse. Think of
it. Fifteen young Muskrats who really loved each
other, talking like that because they couldn't decide
whether the oldest or the youngest or the
half-way-between brothers and sisters should go first
into the old nest. And it didn't matter a bit who was
oldest or who was youngest, and it never would have
happened had it not been for their dreadful habit of
Just as they had become very hot and angry, they heard
their mother's voice
 say, "Now, children!" but they were too much excited to
mind, and they did not stop until their father came and
slapped them with his tail. Then they kept still and
listened to their mother. She told them that they
should leave the place at once, and not one of them
should even set foot in the old nest. "Suppose
somebody had gotten hurt," she said. This made the
young Muskrats look very sober, for they knew that the
Muskrat who is hurt in winter never gets well.
After she had let them think about this for a while,
she said, "I shall punish you all for this." Then
there was no quarrel among her children to see who
should have the first turn—not at all.
One young Muskrat said, "Aren't you going to let us
play any more?"
"Yes," said she. "I shall let you play all the rest of
the day, but I shall choose the games. The oldest five
will play 'Mud Turtles in winter,' the next five
 will play 'Frogs in winter,' and the youngest five will
play 'Snakes in winter.' The way to play these games
is to lie perfectly still in some dark place and not
say a word."
The young Muskrats looked at each other sorrowfully.
They thought it sounded very much the same as being
sent to bed for being naughty. They did not dare say
anything, for they knew that, although their mother was
gentle, as Muskrats are most of the time, she could be
very severe. So they went away quietly to play what
she had told them they must. But it was not much fun
to play those games when all the others were having a
fine time in the sunshine.
There were nine of the young Muskrats who did not tease
any after that. Even the other six were more careful.