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Title: Striped Coat, the Skunk
Author: Lippincott, Joseph Wharton
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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[Illustration: Standing once more in front of the stone pile he shook
himself until his fur stood out all over him, that fur for which any
dealer would give a big price]



                              STRIPED COAT
                               THE SKUNK


                                   by
                       Joseph Wharton Lippincott
                    _Author of_ “Bun, a Wild Rabbit”
                    “Red Ben, the Fox of Oak Ridge”
                          and “Gray Squirrel”

                         [Illustration: Skunk]

                       Illustrated by the author

                          THE PENN PUBLISHING
                          COMPANY PHILADELPHIA
                                MCMXXII

                               COPYRIGHT
                                1922 BY
                                THE PENN
                               PUBLISHING
                                COMPANY

                [Illustration: Striped Coat, the Skunk]

                        Striped Coat, the Skunk

MADE IN U. S. A.



                              INTRODUCTION


Lest I be misunderstood in calling this wonderful little animal man’s
best friend among the furry creatures of the wood, let me at the outset
draw attention to the fact that, far from putting a bounty on its
destruction as some people might think desirable, many states have laws
protecting it, as much for its usefulness to the farmers as for the
value of its very beautiful fur.

The large black and white striped skunks we or our pet dogs often
encounter, sometimes to our disaster, belong only in North America. Our
friend Striped Coat was one of these. In the southern and western states
lives also a little cousin of his—the spotted skunk—whose fur though
attractive is not so valuable; but neither he nor the broad-striped
skunk of Central and South America enter the pages of this story, for
Striped Coat lived his life farther north than the range of either.

All of the skunk family still seem to be considered unpleasant and
almost unmentionable creatures merely because of their ability to throw
in self-defence a liquid, in the form of a spray, possessing anything
but the fragrance of roses. Admitting that the odor is indescribably
awful and that to get it on one’s clothing is anything but a reason for
joy, it may still be claimed that the skunk himself is by no means a
“smelly” animal and that his recourse to this means of defending his
life is quite permissible as proved by our own methods of warfare.

In the ocean the otherwise defenceless little squid, when attacked,
throws out a dark liquid which spreads in the water and either blinds
its pursuer momentarily or so confuses his vision that the active squid
has time to escape. It is the same thing in the case of the skunk. Let a
fierce dog rush at him, and when a show of his little teeth and a brave
stand have failed to save the poor fellow, deny him if you can the right
to use as a last resort this stinging, pungent musk which, properly
aimed at the eyes of his big enemy will have just enough effect to allow
him a safe and bloodless retreat.

I do not doubt that there are many skunks who have never had occasion to
pollute the air in this way. Several have lived for years in drains
around my country home, and because my dogs are tied at night, have only
twice made their presence known by throwing musk—once when one of their
number was run over by an automobile and once when some kind of a fight
occurred among the animals feeding together at night around the garbage
barrel.

That they have done me great service in killing rats, field mice,
beetles and grubs, is only too evident. On all sides are small holes in
the earth and otherwise unobtrusive signs of their diligence in my
behalf. They are my friends and I am theirs. To me no other pretty
creature of the woods is more interesting.

In the past the skunk has been badly treated by authors. It was so easy
to take a humorous but barbed fling at the poor wood pussy! But that day
is past, for facts will out and our debt of gratitude is too great
longer to be ignored. If my own words in tracing a part of the life
history of Striped Coat, prove at all illuminating, I shall be happy. I
have come across several skunks of his peculiar marking; one of them,
partly tamed, is shown in the illustrations; but the story itself is
largely fictional though following throughout the habits and true
characteristics of these wild little friends of man. Belonging as they
do to the elusive weasel tribe and being largely nocturnal in their
habits, to chronicle all the actual happenings in the natural, wild life
of one of them would seem an impossible task.

Including this little creature in my wild animal series is somewhat
contrary to the advice of my publishers who naturally believe in “best
sellers” rather than in “best smellers,” but I have a fond hope that
Striped Coat will win his way with readers to a place beside Bun, Red
Ben, Gray Squirrel and those to follow. I might add that a young skunk
readily becomes a very tame, unusually interesting and beautiful pet, a
safe one however only if accidents are provided against by “disarming,”
that is, by the removal of the two scent sacs.

                                                                J. W. L.

Bethayres, Pa.



                           TABLE OF CONTENTS


  CHAPTER                                                           PAGE
  I. The Wood Pussy’s Journey                                         13
  II. Strong Medicine                                                 24
  III. Under the Brush Pile                                           34
  IV. Every Animal Must Eat                                           45
  V. The Burning Woods                                                56
  VI. Good Hunting                                                    65
  VII. Strange Happenings                                             75
  VIII. The Mystery Solved                                            85
  IX. Fifty Dollars on His Head                                       97
  X. Captured at Last                                                107
  XI. The Winter Sleep                                               117
  XII. The Spring Awakening                                          125
  XIII. Raising a Family                                             133
  XIV. Master of the Woods                                           144



                         LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


  Standing once more in front of the stone pile he shook himself
          until his fur stood out all over him, that fur for which
          any dealer would give a big price               _Frontispiece_
                                                             FACING PAGE
  Striped Coat’s foot-prints; front and hind foot (Pen and Ink)       26
  The wood pussy examined it very carefully                           28
  The mouse ... had left in the nest her whole family of five
          young ones                                                  51
  Several times she looked out and wandered about uneasily            64
  Where he had been a moment before, now stood the big bird, its
          eyes glaring, wings ready for another dash and strike       72
  He approached with caution                                          89
  In much the same way as a young hawk before it acquires its full
          plumage                                                    104
  Under the persimmon and wild apple trees he picked up ripe
          fruit, often shaken down by Possum                         119
  The friendliness of this beautiful and entirely free creature of
          the woods delighted many a visitor                         122
  Side by side they neared the entrance                              132
  The three tugging, biting, squealing and pulling each other this
          way and that until they burst from under the barn and
          had it out on the flat ground                              141
  Skunk Tracks (Pen and Ink)                                         148
  “That big black skunk of yours was the one that did the trick”     149



                        Striped Coat, the Skunk



                               CHAPTER I
                        THE WOOD PUSSY’S JOURNEY


The full moon was shining over the narrow waters of Goose Creek. Here
and there, its light slipped between the seemingly endless branches of
the cedars, pines and oaks, and lay in silvery patches on the sand along
the banks and on the carpet of dead leaves which extended from either
side of the stream on and on, into the big silent woods. Wherever the
light could not pierce the foliage, there were black shadows in streaks
and squares and checker board patterns—black on white, white on
black—just two colors all through the quiet woods.

But presently one of these patterns seemed to move. The keen round eyes
of Screech Owl who was perching on a dead limb overhead, soon made out
the form of an animal, about the size of a small cat, moving quietly
along the woods path; but even Screech Owl had to look very hard, for
this little animal was all black and white itself and therefore like a
part of the woods carpet.

Along the path it ambled until another animal about the same size but
gray in color appeared from the opposite direction. Then the little
black and white one slowed down to a walk until the other, a ’possum,
had passed, but it might have been noted that it was the ’possum which
moved out of the path. When, a little further on, a larger animal, Gray
Fox, came trotting through the shadows and not seeing the black and
white one, nearly bumped into it, the haste with which Gray Fox leaped
aside to make the way clear was almost comical. Since both Possum and
Gray Fox felt such respect for the little black and white animal it was
very evident that there was something most important or formidable about
it.

This same feeling was even shared by two big does who with their young
fawns close at heel were walking to the creek to drink. With snorts of
surprise and of warning to their tender charges, they stood in the path
for an instant, at bay, the young ones peeping with wide spread ears
from behind their flanks. But the black and white animal, acknowledging
the right of every woods mother to protect her young, stopped just long
enough to allow the deer to see who it was and gracefully to step out of
the way. Then on it ambled.

Two old coons shuffled out of the path without any hesitation, so did
the mate of Gray Fox—all feared to come to close quarters with a full
grown wood pussy; but a mother mink who was hungry and in a bad temper
anyway, halted directly in the center of the wood pussy’s trail and
curled back her lips in an evil snarl which showed every tooth in her
head.

The skunk, taken by surprise, slowed down to a walk, her long fur
bristling just a little and her bright, beady little eyes and sharp nose
trying their best to search out some reason for this menace. She had
often passed the slim-bodied mink at a distance, and knew her well as
one of the woods creatures that belonged in that part of the wood.
Surely the mink recognized her.

With bushy tail raised well over her back and every muscle ready to meet
an attack the skunk sidled cautiously forward. She was not afraid, but
she was good natured and hated a fuss. Nearer she came, then suddenly
stamped a front foot so fiercely and with such a show of anger that the
mink instinctively drew back. Past her then grandly sailed the skunk in
the very center of the path, all fluffed up like a ship under full sail.
If she saw the furious gleam in the mink’s eyes she did not show it, but
went on about her business as unconcernedly as before.

It was to be sure, the custom among the little wild things not to
interfere with anyone in the woods unless he was a playmate or unless he
looked good to eat. The little gnawing tribe of grass and nut eaters,
the mice, the squirrels, the rabbits and their kind nearly always looked
like a good meal to meat eaters such as the fox, skunk, mink, owl,
’possum, ’coon and cat. Therefore the little nut and grass eaters always
had to be careful to keep entirely out of the way of the killers;
otherwise they were seen no more. But a mink would not care to eat an
old skunk unless starvation stared him in the face, nor would he go
outside of the mink family in search of a playmate.

These, however, were strange, exciting days for the woods folk. It was
spring time and nearly all of them were hunting mates or, like the
mother mink, taking care of families of hungry little ones. Only the
wood pussy seemed all alone and unhurried as she travelled steadily
through the moonlight.

Before very long, the path she followed ended in a fenced clearing. This
was new to her, so she proceeded cautiously, with many stops to test the
night air through her keen nose. Strange things had happened since she
had been there before. Trees had been cut down and dragged into heaps; a
house and a barn had been built; and worst of all for the wood pussy,
the hollow stump for which she had headed so confidently all this time,
was uprooted and gone from its old place. Now she too grew worried and
ran this way and that hunting for this cozy, safe den which, during the
Spring before, had been her home.

Well she remembered where it had stood, among beds of sweet fern and
blackberry bushes, now all plowed under or, if their ends did stick up
from the furrows, reeking with the smell of man and of his constant
companion the dog.

As the poor wood pussy looked about, a new fear swept through her. It
was growing light in the East; soon the shadows would be gone and she
would be caught without a den far from the woodchuck burrow from which,
early in the night, she had made this journey with such assurance.

She turned back, slowly retracing her steps to the edge of the wood
where stood the rows of brush piles. Here she began to hunt for a
temporary hiding place. The brush piles had not been there long enough
to have settled into tight, safe retreats; but one of them had a base of
logs under which the wood pussy found a narrow hole. Into this she
pushed her way only to be startled by the sudden scampering of some
animal which had already made this a home.

It was Bun, the woods rabbit. He was big, but his teeth and mouth were
shaped for gnawing soft grass and bark, not fighting, so he made way
very quickly for the skunk and waited outside until she should leave.
But this she did not do, so after a while he grew impatient and peeped
inside only to find her curled up in his bed of leaves fast asleep.

Bun angrily thumped his hind feet against the earth and complained a bit
to himself, but finally had to go away and find another bed. He knew of
several, for he was used to this kind of treatment on the part of the
powerful meat eaters and was always ready for a quick change,
inconvenient though it sometimes seemed.

Through the day, while the sun shone warmly on the wood pile and the
little birds hopped about it, there was no sign of the weary wood pussy.
Once she looked out to see whether it was safe yet to make the trip back
to the woodchuck’s burrow, but finding the sun high overhead returned to
Bun’s nest. Several times she moved uneasily and pulled more leaves
about her for bedding. But she did not leave the woodpile that day nor
the night following, and when in the morning the birds awoke with the
dawn and chirruped among the twigs, there were five wood pussies instead
of one, in Bun’s old nest, four of them hairless, blind babies only a
few hours old, over whom the old wood pussy was already keeping
faithful, tireless guard.



                               CHAPTER II
                            STRONG MEDICINE


And so it happened that Farmer Ben Slown had a family of skunks as
neighbors. Some people might have been happy about it, but not he. It
was well for the family that they were hidden under the wood pile so
securely that he did not even suspect they were there; for Farmer Slown
had never learned to live on friendly terms with the little woodsfolk.

He shot the crows and blackbirds because he thought they spent most of
their time eating his crops. He set traps for the rabbits and the
woodchucks because they nibbled his vegetables. The squirrels, in his
opinion, lived only to carry away his corn, and the foxes, skunks, hawks
and other meat eaters were supposed to be always on the lookout for his
chickens. Altogether he made himself have a hard time with his wild
neighbors.

He had moved into the woods and started his present farm because he
wished to be far away from every human being, in a place where he could
do pretty much what he pleased with everything he saw. But even Farmer
Slown could not regulate the actions of the wild furry folk, nor know
how many pairs of bright little eyes watched the lights of his house at
night from field and thicket and high tree top.

No roads led into the big woods, but the farmer had a flat bottomed boat
in which he could pole up and down Goose Creek. Then, too, there was the
woods path along the stream, worn smooth by deer and by countless little
padded feet. So Ben Slown was able to reach the village when he wanted
to, which was not often.

[Illustration: Striped Coat’s foot-prints; front and hind foot.]

When finally his new neighbor, the wood pussy, slipped from underneath
the brush pile, she was not very happy. Out in the field, however, she
could hear the hum of night flying beetles and the chirping of other
insects, so in that direction she wandered. Beside clods of earth and
under rubbish she poked her nose, cleverly digging out bugs wherever
they had hidden themselves and finding, now and then, small grubs and
worms of different kinds. No matter how small or how big, if she could
get a hold of them that was the end of their happy days of feeding on
the Farmer’s crops.

But it was too early in the year for many insects to have collected in a
freshly cleared field, so when she had searched most of the ground, the
wood pussy’s hunger was nearly as great as ever. There remained indeed
the yard around the house and barn, and into this apparently deserted
place the little mother’s hunger now led her.

She crept around the dog house and listened for a moment to the farmer’s
old black and white hound wheezing in his sleep and grunting every time
a flea bit him particularly hard. There were dry bones lying about the
entrance but these she was too shy to take.

Next came the barn, a more interesting building, from which issued the
strong scent of horses, poultry and the Farmer’s milk goat. The wood
pussy examined it very carefully, sniffing through the cracks, straining
to reach the open windows and finally getting underneath the floor by
way of a loose board at the rear. She saw at once that this was a good
hiding place, except for its nearness to things she did not understand
and so could not help fearing.

[Illustration: The wood pussy examined it very carefully]

But food was the important thing now, so next she crept around the house
and hungrily picked up scraps thrown from the kitchen door, potato
peelings for the most part, with one foot of a hen and two fish
skeletons as tid bits. An old ’possum was there too, munching away in
sour silence and cracking bones with his strong jaws.

These two were not, however, long to enjoy their humble meal. Suddenly
Possum looked up and shuffled towards the wood. The skunk, knowing he
had discovered something wrong, also straightened up. She then saw
sneaking around the house the black and white hound who had either
smelled or heard the two feasters and was coming around to investigate.

Her short legs would not make much speed, but she did her best to reach
the hole under the barn. This however served only to bring on the hound
full tilt to head her off. Being a noisy fellow he fairly bellowed with
joy when he caught up and had her almost in his jaws.

But just in time she turned on him and threw up so quickly her dangerous
looking, fluffy tail that he checked himself and began to dance around
her in a circle, looking for a better chance to rush in without in any
way getting hurt himself. The noise was quite enough to bring Farmer
Slown’s tousled head out of the window.

“What’s going on around here!” he thundered. In the dark he could not
see what kind of creature the dog had found, but wanted it killed
anyway. “Sic ’em, you!” he encouraged, “sic ’em!” But the hound was a
big coward at heart and only danced about all the more.

The Farmer grew angry at once.

“Just you wait!” he muttered, and vanished from the window only to
appear at the door, clad in his blue night shirt and armed with a gun.

“Now, go for him!” he called and ran out to help the dog.

That was enough encouragement for the hound. Just as his master came up,
he excitedly threw himself on the wood pussy, but not before that quick
little animal had twisted herself around and given him a terrible musk
bath square in the eyes and mouth. She could not run fast, her claws
were not made for scratching, nor her teeth for fighting, but she had
instead this weapon of defense which was enough to stop any hound.

With a yowl of pain the surprised dog threw himself on the ground and
tried to rub the smarting stuff from his half blinded eyes. He wildly
rolled and rubbed and finally in desperate fear and pain rushed to
Farmer Slown and bounded against him again and again regardless of the
man’s frantic efforts to keep him away.

The dog, the man, the yard and indeed the whole farm were wrapped in a
cloud of horrible odor. But the little wood pussy, unhurt and untouched
by the musk, was nowhere to be seen. She had vanished in the confusion
and soon was nursing the hungry young ones safe under the brush pile.

That night, the little watchers about the clearing could have seen an
angry looking figure in a blue night shirt striding down the path to the
waters of Goose Creek. A big bar of soap and a towel went along too,
also a strong smell, suggestive of fumes from a burning gum shoe
factory. Also there was some fiery language about fool dogs, wood
pussies in general and a certain one especially. Oh, it was a great
night on Goose Creek!



                              CHAPTER III
                          UNDER THE BRUSH PILE


The next day found the farm still rich with the bitter odor of musk. The
Farmer’s brisk scrubbing in the waters of Goose Creek removed the worst
of the scent from his own limbs, but plenty remained to keep him
reminded of the night’s experience. So he and his hound went about with
sore noses hating themselves and brooding over the mean treatment they
thought they had received. Each vowed vengeance in his own way, but
neither felt especially anxious to again meet the little wood pussy face
to face. There was enough perfume around the farm already. It was all
very well to get an occasional whiff of an odor so interestingly awful,
but to have it follow them about everywhere and almost live with them,
was quite another affair.

On the second day, however, a strong breeze carried away much of the
objectionable smell and Farmer Slown breathed easier. He even plucked up
enough courage to hunt around his field and in the neighboring thickets
for the wood pussy’s den, which he was shrewd enough to guess was
nearby.

The brush piles quickly caught his eye. He poked around the first one,
then moved to the next and finally reached the very one under which
slept the baby skunks and their mother. This one looked more promising
than the others, so the Farmer got down on his hands and knees and
cautiously—oh, exceedingly carefully—peered under the logs.

Inside, the mother, hearing the heavy footsteps and the cracking of the
brush, stood up in readiness to defend the little ones with her musk and
with her own life if necessary. She made no sound, the young ones
absorbing her fear, also keeping very still, waiting, as if knowing that
terrible danger was near.

And Farmer Slown looked and listened and sniffed but could discover
nothing. He was not entirely satisfied, however, and so took the risk of
moving closer. He was well within the wood pussy’s fatal aim, but still
did not know it. Then he poked his red face so close to the ground that
a low briar pricked his nose. With an exclamation he drew back only to
find that another had caught his ear and become partly wound around his
neck.

At once his quick temper broke loose. Tearing himself free he kicked
about him to destroy the offending bushes, and failing in this, strode
away. Thus the meddlesome Farmer was saved from a much worse dose of
musk than he received the first time. But more trouble was brewing; the
man had made up his mind that the brush heaps were bad things to have
near his fields, he had decided to burn them. That day, however, he did
not have time, and on the next it rained, so the wood pussies lived on;
and every day the little ones grew bigger and stronger.

But while Farmer Slown did not find the little family, the nest was not
hidden from the prying eyes and keen noses of the woodsfolk. Gray Fox,
trotting by on the first night, had at once caught the faint scent of
the baby skunks and turned to investigate. He had, however, found the
mother on guard and so that time had passed on.

Another who found the place was the mother mink with whom the wood pussy
had already had trouble. As usual Mink was hungry; she had four little
ones of her own in a burrow under a cedar whose roots dipped into Goose
Creek. Therefore she sneaked under the woodpile and might have carried
off one or all of the baby skunks if their mother had not returned
suddenly and sprung upon her.

Mink, knowing herself in the wrong, backed off snarling, then flashed
out of the woodpile and away. Both she and Gray Fox, however, remembered
that here was something young, helpless and good to eat. Sometime when
they came in that direction the mother might not be near and then—but
somehow the wise faithful mother seemed to know their designs and to try
always to be on guard.

However this was a very unprotected place for the little skunks and none
felt it more than the mother. After Farmer Slown’s visit she became too
uneasy to stay there any longer and thought only of making a move all
the way back to the woodchuck’s deep burrow which had been her safe home
all winter. Indeed, no sooner had night come again than she seized the
nearest young one in her teeth and started out with it.

This young one was not like the others. To begin with he was stouter.
Then, too, instead of having a black and white back like his brothers
and sisters he was pure black all over except where two narrow white
stripes came from the top of his head down either side of his neck. This
little fellow was also peculiar in his habits. Nearly all night, while
the others nervously crawled about, he lay happily on his back or flat
on his stomach resting. But no sooner would the mother return to feed
them than he would hear or smell her and spring up so quickly that he
would be eating with furious energy before the others knew quite what
was happening. And so he got much food and rest and grew very fast. All
over his body the fur was beginning to show. It was short, thick and
soft.

Now the mother, in her anxious state had started on an impossible task.
The woodchuck’s burrow was much too far away to be reached in a night by
a mother skunk with four youngsters that had to be carried one at a
time. She had gone scarcely fifty yards with this one when her jaws and
neck became very tired from lugging the fat, furry little fellow. He was
slippery as well as heavy. Laying him down in the path, she rested, and
at that moment caught a glimpse of Mink galloping through the woods
towards the brush pile.

The wood pussy looked after this ruthless enemy and started to follow,
forgetting the baby at her feet until by luck she tripped over him.
Instantly picking him up by the neck she hurried back towards the nest.
She was not as swift as Mink, but fear for the other young ones spurred
her on until it seemed as if the youngster in her mouth would nearly be
torn to pieces by the bushes they sped through, or choked by her tight
hold.

Suddenly the brush pile was directly in front of them, and the mother
slowed up as if afraid to face the sight she might find. In the next
instant, however, she had rushed underneath, every hair on end, every
nerve keyed for battle. But Mink was not there, she had returned in
time!

A noise at the entrance caught her ear. She whirled around only to find
that the young one she had dropped there in coming in, had gotten back
some of his breath and was crawling shakily to the nest. Quickly picking
him up she placed him among the others and then sprawled herself over
them, panting, almost exhausted but ready for Mink.

And Mink came, smelled about outside, found to her surprise that the
mother was again on guard and hastily bounded away to other hunting
grounds. But for an hour or more the wood pussy stayed there resting and
assuring herself through the feel of all those moving little bodies
underneath her, that all were really safe. She had wisely given up the
idea of moving them to the woodchuck burrow. When, later on hunger drove
her forth, she chose another direction, and did not go further than the
edge of the field where big, buzzing bugs were laying eggs in the grass,
and where lizards often hid for the night.



                               CHAPTER IV
                         EVERY ANIMAL MUST EAT


Farmer Slown was plowing the corner of the field nearest Goose Creek. It
was not far from the wood-pussies’ den, so the clank of the plow chains
and the loud commands of “gid up,” “whoa there,” kept the skunk family
from their usual morning sleep. Then, too, the black and white hound
amused himself by sniffing about until he discovered the hiding place of
Bun, the woods rabbit, whom he chased for a long time with much crashing
of brush and excited baying. Bun led the stupid hound to all the most
prickly briar patches and then hid in a hollow log. The hound was too
big to follow him there and so, after growling and gnawing at the
entrance until his mouth was sore, gave up the chase and slunk away to
rest and lick his scratches.

Then lunch time arrived and the Farmer unhooked the two horses from the
plow and tied them to the fence, where they could munch corn he spread
for them on some sacking. He then walked across the field to the farm
yard to milk the goat and prepare his own meal.

No sooner had he gone from sight than Jim Crow came flying from the
woods for a look around. His sharp eyes at once saw the corn, but he
said nothing and turned back to the woods to wait until the horses had
moved away. At the same time however Red Squirrel, running about in the
pines along the edge of the field, had also made a discovery of the
corn. He looked all around to make sure he was the only one who had seen
this food treasure, then sneaked to a nearby limb impatiently to watch
for a chance to get a part of it.

But Gray Squirrel too had noticed the grain, and so also had a keen
nosed deer mouse and a meadow mouse who lived in a round nest of grass
hidden in a tangle of weeds beside the very posts to which the horses
were tethered. So also had some black birds and a pair of starlings, and
a blue jay and almost countless other creatures always on the watch for
food.

Therefore when the afternoon plowing was over and the horses had been
led back to the barn, birds began to arrive as if by magic to gather the
scattered kernels. First appeared a mother quail with ten young ones not
much larger than bumble bees following her as chicks follow a mother
hen. She picked up a few of the smaller grains, then scurried away as
big Jim Crow swooped down. He was followed by the starlings. Suddenly
Red Squirrel sounded his rattle from the wood. Up flew Jim and the
starlings in alarm only to see the little red fellow dash along the top
of the fence, seize a big kernel and then rush back with it to a safe
retreat. And so the feeding continued, with interruptions, until night
came and only the mice and flying squirrels were left to hunt the very
few kernels which remained. Although the horses had been careless with
their feed, there had been no waste—the woods people had seen to that.

And soon from the brush pile, slipped the mother wood pussy. She had
heard sounds of the feasting and now caught the scent left by some of
the little creatures. She walked forward sniffing. Suddenly, up a fence
post close by, ran Flying Squirrel. Out of reach of the hungry wood
pussy, he squeaked shrilly and scolded. But the mother skunk was paying
no attention, she had caught the fresh scent of the meadow mouse which
lived in the grass nest beside the post.

The mouse had been eating a grain of corn when Flying Squirrel’s sudden
alarm signal had sent her scurrying down her tunnel under the dead grass
and leaves. Now, seeing no enemy, she was cautiously coming back to find
the grain. Soon she was again gnawing away at it with a rasping noise
which, slight as it was, caught the ear of the wood pussy and led her
right to the spot.

The next thing the busy mouse saw was a pointed black and white head and
two black paws directly above her. Without wasting breath for even a
squeak of fear, she dashed headlong into her tunnel. The wood pussy
could not open the tunnel quickly enough with her paws to catch up and
so the mouse escaped that time.

[Illustration: The mouse had left in the nest her whole family of five
young ones]

But the skunk was a better mouser than any cat. With her strong claws
she dug along the tunnels and runways, chasing the mouse from place to
place until at last she came to the nest of grass. Her nose told her
that the mouse was inside. Now was her chance! Poking her sharp head
into the round entrance to keep the mouse from bolting out and past her,
she dug into the mass of woven grasses with her front paws. Soon out
came a mass of soft lining material made of shredded bark and tender dry
grass blades, but no fat mouse. The little creature had wisely made a
back door with a special safety tunnel leading into the underground
burrow of a mole. Down this she had dodged. Even the wood pussy could
not follow her there.

However the mouse, thinking only of saving herself had left in the nest
her whole family of five young ones. Their eyes were still tight shut
and their bodies hairless. If left undisturbed, however, they would soon
have grown up and been running about like the mother making tunnels in
the grass far and wide, to the disgust of Farmer Slown. So the wood
pussy did the Farmer a good turn, though to her it was only a matter of
easing her empty, aching stomach with a meal and providing food for her
young ones.

Next day the mother mouse began to build another snug nest in a
different place, in which in less than three weeks she was raising
another family.

Under the wood pile, the young wood pussies were more lively than ever.
It was four weeks since they were born, and their eyes were open; also
their tender legs were growing strong enough to support their little
furry bodies.

The fat black one with the white stripes on his head and neck—the one
who had had such a rough journey with the mother the night she tried to
move the family to the woodchuck’s burrow, was still the largest. He lay
now on his back as usual, apparently fast asleep. It did not seem to
matter to him how many times the others climbed over him or stepped on
his face. But with the first step of the mother in the entrance, he was
on his feet and waddling towards her with hungry little mouth open. She
liked the little fellow and rarely disappointed him. And it was he who a
year later became known as “Striped Coat” from one end of Goose Creek to
the other—yes, and even further, for fame travels fast in the woods.

At five weeks of age he was like a little black ball of fur with a
handle to it, which was his tail. His teeth were strong by that time and
he often helped the others strip the feathers off some tough old
blackbird or crow which the Farmer had shot in the field and left there,
and which the mother had dragged under the brushpile for a feast. No
matter how dead the bird, he would always pounce upon it as if it might
escape, then pull and worry at its feathers and finally seize it by the
head and try to drag it to a corner, away from the others.

This always caused a big rumpus. The others would seize the bird and try
to pull it in the other direction. All four tugging together on one end
could drag Striped Coat all about the place, and they always did this.
But while it was going on, Striped Coat was as busy as a bee chewing on
the bird’s neck and swallowing just as much as he could get into his
mouth at a time, until he was as solidly stuffed as a plum pudding. No
wonder he slept soundly all day sprawled on his stomach, or with all
four feet up in the air. Life under the brush pile was a happy one.



                               CHAPTER V
                           THE BURNING WOODS


One fine day the Mother uncurled herself and sat up in the nest to sniff
the air. The young ones awoke one by one, and sniffed too, that is, all
except Striped Coat whose four black paws still pointed at the sky as he
lay on his back sleeping off the effects of his last stuffing. There was
a smell of smoke. Farmer Slown, true to his threat, was burning the
brush piles.

Soon the smoke drifted past in masses, driven by a brisk breeze blowing
towards Goose Creek. There was a crackling and snapping noise, with now
and then a roar when the flames leaped high. Even the sun lost its
brilliancy and could only glow dully like a red hot ball in the smoke.

The mother wood pussy walked about uneasily, looking out at the smoke
from each peep hole in the brush pile. Some of the woods folk were
running by in a stupid panicky way, looking this way and that, and often
turning back when they should have gone only forward. Bun, the woods
rabbit, actually came into the den and crouched there a moment before
rushing on. Possum, his long mouth open and dripping saliva, shuffled in
a moment later. Ignoring the skunks he curled up on a log and watched in
sour silence.

Mice and little sharp nosed shrews were hopping about like big
grasshoppers with apparently no idea of the right direction. At first
the Farmer had chased these with his rake. Now, however, the smoke was
too thick, the fire had spread far beyond his control and was
threatening to sweep the whole wood. The Farmer’s one idea was to stop
the flames before they reached his buildings. He worked frantically,
digging and raking, stamping and beating until the fire in a great wave
had swept with the wind all the way to Goose Creek and there had been
checked by the water.

Meanwhile its fiery breath reached one brush pile after another, licking
them up and sweeping on. The mother wood pussy waited as long as she
dared, then panicky from the roar, the stifling smoke and the heat, she
seized one of the young ones and tried to carry it out. It was heavy and
slippery, she lost her hold and blinded by the smoke could not find it.
Returning she seized first one, then another and then in her excitement
tried to carry two out together. This failed. But her efforts and fear
aroused the young ones, they understood that they had to flee from their
home. So when the mother was forced by the smoke to move out, the young
ones trooped after her on their own legs, making a long line of black
and white stripes as each followed the tail of the one ahead.

Last of all came the smallest and in front of him came Striped Coat with
every hair of his body on end and his tail straight up in the danger
signal. Through the smoke they wandered towards the field, then along
the fence, away from the path of the roaring flames.

It was a queer little company. Each stumbling along as best he could,
bristling up whenever strange objects like roots or stumps loomed
suddenly out of the smoke, sneezing and choking when the tricky wind
blew the fire towards them. Well it was that each had showy white
stripes which those behind could plainly see and follow, just as men in
the dark follow a lantern. For in that way the mother was able to lead
them the whole length of the fence and then around the corner to the
edge of Farmer Slown’s barn where, as if she had been aiming for it all
the time, the mother found the hole under the floor and slipped in.
After her solemnly trooped the little ones.

And it was a strange thing that between them and the fire, their enemy,
the Farmer, was working for all he was worth to save his home and at the
same time to do what would also save their lives. He did not know that a
skunk family was under his precious barn, but he had found out for
himself that a fire in the woods was a terribly dangerous thing.

When, thanks to the help of Goose Creek, the Farmer had put out the last
flame, he was nearly exhausted and in much worse condition than most of
the little woods folk he had tried to destroy. To be sure many of them
were homeless, but they could find or make new homes. Indeed, when that
night the mother wood pussy slipped from under the barn and wandered
across the field to the stretch of burned woods beyond, she found the
mice already in new holes along the edge of the field and Possum
carrying, in a bundle held by his tail, a lot of straw for a new bed he
was making in a hollow oak.

Where the brush piles had stood, and beyond, all the way to the creek,
every living thing was blackened and dying. Trees thirty feet high were
scorched. The ground was almost bare. Many years would go by before the
forest could cover the ugly scars.

Wandering about in an uncertain, awed way were several meat eaters
besides the wood pussy. Gray Fox and his mate were slipping from shadow
to shadow examining everything, a mother coon and her three young ones
passed along the edge of the creek, and overhead Screech Owl and several
of his kind were talking it all over in gentle crooning voices.

The wood pussy could find no trace of her old home, the brush pile. It
was gone. So after a little while she left the gloomy place.

Near the field she picked up a small toad and a yellow and brown garter
snake, both killed by the fire. These and a number of wild strawberries
were food enough, and she was too tired to hunt more. Back then to
Farmer Slown’s barn she wandered. It was not quite the kind of a place
she would have selected for a den, but there seemed no other to which to
take the young ones. Stealthily she circled the farm yard and slipped
into the hole. It was smelly and damp and cold under the barn floor, but
what she thought of most was whether it was safe. Several times she
looked out and wandered about uneasily, each time returning to the young
ones to lick and mother them. They seemed utterly tired out; so she
began gathering together leaves for a bed in the farthest corner; she
had decided to stay.

[Illustration: Several times she looked out and wandered about uneasily]



                               CHAPTER VI
                              GOOD HUNTING


Farmer Slown owned six chickens. One of them was a white pullet which,
having not yet made a nest, spent much time in going about hunting a
good place and in telling the others about her difficulties. The morning
after the skunk family took up residence under the barn she was still
wandering around cackling and complaining.

“Cawk cawk cawk caw-w-w-w-k,” she muttered as she strolled around the
corner of the barn. Striped Coat, lying as usual on his back, turned
over quickly and looked about. “Cawk cawk cawk caw-w-w-w-k,” again
muttered the pullet. The little skunk slipped away from the others and
peeped out of the hole at the strange white bird strolling about so
close to him.

He was fascinated. Often he had seen and eaten crows, but here was a
white one which his little nose told him would be especially good
eating. Whenever the pullet passed the hole, he moved to the side where
he could get the best view, but peeped so timidly that she did not see
him.

Suddenly she got the idea that in some litter under the edge of the
barn, would be a good place for her nest. She looked about, scratched
around a little and then settled down to form the nest around her in a
comfortable fit. Striped Coat never took his eyes off this white “crow,”
and when with a joyful cackle the pullet sprang up and raced to the
other fowls to announce that she had laid an egg, Striped Coat’s
excitement knew no bounds. Forgetting all natural caution he galloped
out to have a look at the nest.

Sure enough, the white crow had forgotten something when she left so
hurriedly. He pounced on the egg, tried to kill it and finding it a very
strange hard object, sat down in the nest to study out how it could be
eaten. But the egg was too large for his small mouth and he was still
rolling it about when the mother came out to see what he was up to.

With one bite she took the shell off one end, then sucked the contents.
Striped Coat, the discoverer, hustled around her eagerly, but got only
the drippings and what was left on the edges of the shell. Nevertheless
the mother’s respect for him increased. He was, in her mind, already a
successful hunter. So when that night she came out for her own regular
hunt she let Striped Coat come too.

It was dark and damp, just the weather beloved by the night prowlers.
The smell of the flowering shrubs and of countless things in the woods,
lay heavy in the air. The little skunk, trailing after his mother’s
guiding white stripes, picked his way as fast as he could behind her,
but without missing a look at anything especially interesting along the
way. When she stopped to sniff at a mouse burrow or to dig under a stump
for a sleeping lizard, or to examine an ant nest for young ones and
eggs, he was always where he would miss nothing of the fun.

He tried this once too often however, for the mother finally discovered
the underground nest of a swarm of yellow jackets and began to dig it up
in spite of the great consternation of the inhabitants. They tumbled out
in masses and stung everything in sight including Striped Coat whose
hair was not yet long enough to protect him all over his body. He rushed
about and rolled but was so fat that the stinging could not hurt him
badly.

Although the yellow jackets had not yet made a very big nest, what paper
combs there were seemed almost choked with the amount of young brood
they carried—tasty morsels for an insect loving animal like a wood
pussy, and well worth a little digging and an occasional sting where the
full grown little fighters were able to get under the fur.

After that feast the mother seemed content to let Striped Coat do a
little hunting for himself while she moved about slowly, occasionally
finding a berry, or an unwary beetle on the surface of the ground. And
Striped Coat made good use of his opportunity, in tasting many kinds of
plants and roots and in learning where the night crawling earth worms
could be found and caught before they pulled their long bodies back into
their burrows.

All too soon, the mother grew uneasy about the coming of day and started
back. Striped Coat followed but this time found difficulty in keeping
up; there were no stops now, the mother thought only of getting back to
the barn. So the little skunk, work his short legs as he would, kept
dropping behind. Added to this strain was the presence of a big bird,
Great Horned Owl, who flew silently from tree to tree, at a little
distance from them but always nearly abreast of their course. There was
something so stealthy about his watchful waiting that Striped Coat grew
afraid.

On and on went the mother with the galloping motion used so much by the
skunks, and Striped Coat still toddled along and kept her in sight while
also watching the big owl. Then some bushes loomed ahead and the little
skunk found himself suddenly alone. A shadow seemed to pass over him; he
dodged into the bushes like a flash and escaped the talons of Great
Horned Owl by a mere inch. Indeed, where he had been a moment before,
now stood the big bird, its eyes glaring, wings ready for another dash
and strike.

Striped Coat cowered back against what seemed a solid wall of stems, and
the owl noting his fear, started into the bushes after him; but suddenly
things changed; with a stamp of his foot the little fellow sidled
forward, every hair on end, his tail straight over his back. The owl
hesitated; he was facing more of a proposition than he had bargained
for. The little skunk looked young and defenseless, but it acted very
grown up. The owl knew what an old wood pussy could do.

[Illustration: Where he had been a moment before, now stood the big
bird, its eyes glaring, wings ready for another dash and strike]

Snapping his hooked beak, the big bird backed away and with a final
glare, took wing as silently as he had come. A minute later his “Hu hu,
huua hu,” sounded nearby as he called to locate his mate, then further,
and finally so far away it was like a faint echo in the distance. Then
Striped Coat came out and continued his journey, and it might have been
noticed that now he walked along with a kind of self confident dignity,
every hair still on end. More than ever he looked like a little fur
ball, but not the kind with which it is safe to play.

Sniffing along his mother’s trail, he very quickly came in sight of the
hole under the barn, but before going in he took a look at the nest of
his friend the white crow, then, all puffed up, with furry tail still
proudly held up like a flag, he marched in to join the others.



                              CHAPTER VII
                           STRANGE HAPPENINGS


A furious thunder storm was sweeping down Goose Creek; hailstones nearly
the size of marbles bounded from limb to limb or cut through the tender
leaves on their way to earth. Such things sometimes happened in the last
days of June, but rarely were they followed by a wind as cold as that
which in the night swept through the pines around the barn of Farmer
Slown. It whistled in the holes and cracks and made the wood pussies’
new home drafty and uncomfortable.

So the mother very wisely went out in search of warmer covering for
their nest and after digging into leaf piles and finding them
disagreeably wet, turned her attention to hunting strips of bark on the
dry sides of dead trees. This search brought her to Farmer Slown’s
fence, the posts of which she carefully examined until, within the yard,
very near the barn, she found just what she wanted. But it was not bark,
it was the Farmer’s blue cotton night shirt which, following the storm,
he had hung on the fence to dry and had forgotten to bring in with the
rest of his wash.

The mother reached up to feel it, then taking a firm hold with her
teeth, pulled and swung it about until her weight brought it down on top
of her. This surprised her mightily, and being entangled in its folds
she nearly gave it a better musk bath than it had had on the eventful
evening when the Farmer came out of his bed to the aid of his cowardly
hound. With her under it the night shirt performed some strange antics;
then suddenly it released her and fell in such a helpless heap that
excited as she was she realized it was after all not a living enemy
which had leaped upon her. Instantly calming down, she dragged it under
the barn where some chewing and tearing on the part of the whole family
soon made it into very good bedding, though Farmer Slown might not have
thought so. Indeed, he was in one of his rages all the next day while
hunting for it in vain from one end of his field to the other.

But comfortable as the blue night shirt proved to be, the mother was not
quite satisfied with her bed, and so on the following night went out in
search of something else warm. She looked first to see if by any chance
there might be another night shirt growing on the fence, but was very
satisfied at finding instead two pairs of socks and an undershirt which
the Farmer, still following his usual habit, had unwisely hung out on
this makeshift clothesline.

After supper he remembered the clothes and went out to bring them in,
but, feel about as much as he liked, he could not find them, they were
gone, absolutely and completely. Then he grew really peeved and, using
some harsh language, commenced a ferocious march around the yard, armed
with a lantern and a stick. At length, still completely mystified, he
sat down on his doorstep to think the thing out.

“Last night it was the night shirt,” he muttered. “Tonight it’s socks
and an undershirt! What on earth can be doing all this dirty work? It
can’t very well be the wind blowing them away. It couldn’t be an eagle;
nor a tramp way out here; it can’t be the goat—no, the goat would do it
all right, but she’s safely tied. Bugs couldn’t have eaten them. Pshaw!
I can’t see what did take them, but one thing I am sure of and that is
that they didn’t walk off by themselves!” With that he slapped a
mosquito on his neck and went inside the house.

A few minutes later, however, he strode out like one to whom has
suddenly come a great idea. In his hand were two socks which he
proceeded to nail to the fence with the feet hanging down as naturally
as before.

“Now, you spook you, get those if you can!” he said encouragingly.
Returning then to the house he put out the lights and posted himself at
an open window with shot gun at his elbow and a pocket full of spare
cartridges. As he looked at the bait on the fence opposite he chuckled
grimly and acknowledged himself very clever indeed.

But if the weird creature, whatever it was, had earlier been eager for
his clothes it certainly was so no longer. Hours passed and still the
Farmer sat there with eye glued on the two socks hanging in the
moonlight. Behind them the woods came in close and black, throwing long
shadows which moved from time to time under the influence of the night
wind. There was a gentle rustle of countless leaves, the hooting of
distant owls, the call of Great Blue Heron and the patter of flying
squirrels as they leaped onto his roof from the nearest tall tree. There
was also the endless hum of the insect army, increased now and then by
the rasping of a locust in a limb close by; but nothing of an unusual
nature.

Suddenly the Farmer rubbed his eyes and leaned forward, then rubbed them
again; one sock was gone! Yes, there was no doubt about it! He had seen
nothing, heard nothing strange, yet there in the moving black and white
shadows hung only one lone sock. It seemed so impossible that he just
sat there with mouth open.

A few minutes later, however, he reached stealthily for his gun with a
hand that trembled oddly. His eyes had a queer bulge and chills were
running up his spine and into the roots of his stiff hair. The other
sock was gone!

Carefully closing the window, Farmer Slown tiptoed about the house,
noiselessly barring doors and even propping things against them. For the
first time in his life he had seen something uncanny, had felt that the
great woods contained something more cunning, perhaps more powerful,
than he. He shivered while listening suspiciously. And at this
unfortunate moment, the black and white hound took the notion to feel
lonely and to howl at the moon. It was the lonesomest, most woebegone
sound imaginable. Perhaps it could not be said that the Farmer ran up
the dark stairs, rather might it be said that he flew. Behind the locked
door of his room he felt better, but still the weird loneliness of the
dark woods came through from the window. With a jerk he pulled down the
shade, then jumped into bed, clothes and all.

If he felt shivery that night, at least the wood pussies did not. The
mother was now entirely satisfied with their nest, for it was truly a
wonderful one. She had found the last two socks somewhat harder to tear
down than the others, but had managed to get them by pulling the ends
through the fence one at a time and then straining back with all her
strength until the wool stretched on the nail and gave way with such
suddenness as to roll her over. This stretching and sudden jerk was what
caused each sock to vanish through the fence so quickly that the Farmer
could not see it go. The moving shadows did the rest. Into them the
black wood pussy with her long white stripes fitted in as naturally as
if a part of them.



                              CHAPTER VIII
                           THE MYSTERY SOLVED


Farmer Slown arose early, milked the goat with nervous speed,
breakfasted on one less egg than usual and started for the village in
his flat-bottomed boat. His principal errand there was the buying of two
huge steel traps guaranteed to hold anything up to a grizzly bear in
size. These two traps having long been on exhibit in a hardware store
window as curiosities to draw a crowd and to help advertise the store’s
wares, their purchase by the Farmer very naturally aroused the curiosity
of the shopkeeper and of several village loungers who happened to be
witnesses of the sale.

Questions soon drew from the Farmer enough details of the strange doings
on Goose Creek to make a very good story. He was buying the huge traps
to catch some uncanny creature which visited his farm at night and
carried off whole clothes lines. That was enough for the village
gossips. They enlarged the story at each telling until it became a
regular fairy tale, with the villain a creature nearly as high as the
trees, marching about in the woods terrorizing the inhabitants.

So sure did the gossips become of the truth of the story, that they even
made Farmer Slown wonder whether it might not be true. He stayed all day
in the village repeating his version of it to all the newcomers and so
thoroughly enjoying being a hero that he let his own imagination work a
little to make the story better. He even described the dreadful creature
as he thought it ought to look. Needless to say it did not resemble a
little wood pussy.

One of those who took great interest in the affair was the Editor of the
little local paper. He saw a great opportunity and made the most of it
in a special afternoon edition with the story under black headlines and
illustrated with sketches of a creature as large as a house and
resembling a cross between a camel and an elephant.

The little paper circulated far and wide and was quoted by papers
elsewhere until the story in its exaggerated form, was being discussed
in the biggest cities. The general conclusion seemed to be that someone
had gone loony or else that a prehistoric mammal had been hiding in the
Pine Barrens all these years and had now suddenly been discovered.

In a week Goose Creek was a famous place. Newspapers sent photographers
there who poled up and down the stream taking pictures of places wild
enough to be the den of the monster and of any holes in the mud which
might be taken for its foot prints. And Farmer Slown was still the great
hero whom everyone had to visit and listen to and sympathize with.

[Illustration: He approached with caution]

Meanwhile the wood pussies, cause of all the excitement, could not
understand what had happened to make the place so noisy and unsafe for
them. There were strange people and strange dogs in the woods, there
were shouts and gunshots and new odors. The mother, always nervous,
hunted for a new den and finally moved the family to a deserted
woodchuck burrow under a holly tree in the middle of the burned section
of the wood, not very far from where the brush pile had once stood.

But Striped Coat did not like the change. The other young ones were
quarrelsome and the new quarters were crowded. Also he missed his white
crow. So after one day in the burrow he made a trip all by himself back
to the barn, looking more than ever like a fur ball as, all fluffed up
with excitement, he marched along the field.

Nor had his white crow disappointed him. He approached with caution and
in her nest found a fine egg, with a shell thin enough for him to crack.
Its luscious contents were both food and drink. Afterwards he wandered
under the barn and remodelled the bed to suit his own needs. The remains
of the blue night shirt he draped around the top, the socks he stuffed
underneath. By morning he was curled up in the middle of the comfortable
mass, fast asleep.

That day a city cousin of the Farmer, a Mrs. Simpkins, arrived by boat
to get first hand details of the strange affairs which had so suddenly
made the family famous. She brought as companion her son, an overgrown
boy named Oswald who, having read a good many books, thought himself
pretty smart, and perhaps he was. At any rate, while his mother was
talking to the Farmer in the parlor, Oswald nosed about the farm.

He managed to escape disaster, except for one bee sting and a good
butting from the goat, until by mere chance he wandered back of the barn
and caught sight of the hole leading underneath it. Here was mystery! In
true detective fashion he examined the opening and found two large
hairs, one black the other white.

“A cat!” said the bright Oswald. “Maybe it has kittens under here. I’ll
have a look.” Getting down on his stomach he wormed his way under the
barn until, his eyes becoming used to the darkness, he could see all
about. Everything was bare except in one corner. Oswald elbowed his way
in that direction. Yes, he had certainly found the kittens, for here was
a bed for them, all nicely made with rags!

“Pussy, pussy,” called Oswald. He did not want to surprise an angry cat.
“Pussy, pussy.” And then to his joy there stood up in the middle of the
nest not a big mother cat but a fluffy black kitten with white stripes
on its head and neck.

Oswald’s heart gave a thump of delight. Here was just the pet for him.
He would catch it and take it home. Of course his cousin the Farmer
wouldn’t mind, since it was he who had found it. But he must not let it
get away! Craftily advancing an arm under cover of many “pussy,
pussies,” he felt the right moment had come. Around went his hand in a
sudden wild grab.

“Yow-w-w-w-w!” howled Oswald as the little “kitten” gave him a musk bath
precisely where it would do the most good—“Yow-w-w-w-w!”

He could not see and he could not breathe, so he made up for it in yells
which even reached his mother in the Farmer’s parlor. She had just been
telling her cousin what a wonderful boy her Oswald was.

“Yes,” she went on, “he isn’t like other boys at all. He is never idle,
he is always finding out things for himself or doing something splendid!
Ah! What’s that! I think I hear him calling. He always does that when
he’s found something wonderful!”

So Mrs. Simpkins and the Farmer went out of the house to see what Oswald
had found. They heard him all right, but they could not find him.

“Yow-w-w-w-w!” howled Oswald more wild with fury because his fond Mamma
had not at once come to his rescue. “Yow-w-w-w-w!!!”

“Sounds as if he were under the barn!” exclaimed the Farmer at last. He
walked around to the back and there found a foot sticking out of the
hole. Dodging a kick, he seized the foot and began to pull, Mrs.
Simpkins, now much alarmed, pulling also until between them they nearly
pulled Oswald in two.

“We’ve got him!” gurgled Mrs. Simpkins as more body appeared and the
sound of the yells grew louder. “Oh, what an awful smell!”

“I say so, too!” agreed the Farmer heartily. “Let’s poke him back.”

But just then the whole of Oswald came out and his mother clasped him to
her in utter disregard of consequences.

“My son,” cried Mrs. Simpkins tragically, “what has happened!”

“A kitty!” cried Oswald, “a little black kitty with a white striped
coat.” Then, seeing the Farmer’s convulsed face, his tears drowned all
else.

“Well, well, it’s all right,” crooned his mother, “but what’s that
you’ve got in your hand?” The Farmer looked too and all at once his face
grew very red. Tightly clutched in Oswald’s hand was all that was left
of the blue night shirt.

A few hours later Mrs. Simpkins, waiting with her son for a train at the
village station, was being interviewed by an appreciative reporter.

“Yes,” she was saying. “It was all my Oswald. He isn’t like other boys.
He is always finding out things for himself. He went under the barn all
alone and discovered the lost clothes. Isn’t he wonderful?”

The reporter’s eye swept appraisingly over the blushing Oswald.

“Well, yes,” he admitted reluctantly, “he certainly is; but, doesn’t he
smell awful!”



                               CHAPTER IX
                       FIFTY DOLLARS ON HIS HEAD


Farmer Slown was sitting on his doorstep reading another special edition
of the village paper. Opposite him stood a stranger watching with
amusement the changing expression on the Farmer’s red face.

“That’s the line I referred to,” he interrupted the other man. “See,
right here!” He pointed to a paragraph. The Farmer began to read it
aloud.

“And so,” he read, “the great monster of the woods, the prehistoric
mammal, turned out to be nothing more than a little skunk. The boy who
made the discovery described it as jet black all over except for white
stripes on its head and neck. Could a more ridiculous ending possibly
be—”

“That’s enough,” said the man, “did you notice it said jet black except
for white on its head and neck? Well I’ve come to buy that skunk. What
do you want for him alive?”

“But he got away, vanished before we came back from the house after
scrubbing the boy.”

“That’s all the better; might have got hurt otherwise, eh? He will stay
around here somewhere. Now what I want you to do is to set some traps
until you catch him. I’ve brought the traps. They’re made like boxes,
plenty of room inside. What do you say?”

“Catch a live skunk!” the Farmer exclaimed suspiciously. “Not I, do it
yourself.” Then the thought came to him that perhaps the man really
would be fool enough to pay money for a skunk. “How much will you give
for him,” he asked.

“Twenty-five dollars,” was the prompt reply. The Farmer could scarcely
conceal a gasp of surprise. Why, his goat wasn’t worth that much! His
eyes narrowed;

“Not enough,” he answered craftily.

“Thirty-five, then.”

“Not enough,” croaked the Farmer again experimentally. The man regarded
him doubtfully.

“Well,” he said at length, “fifty is my limit. But he’s got to be unhurt
and well, do you understand?” The Farmer stood up.

“All right,” he agreed, “I’ll catch him for you. Let’s see your traps.
I’ve had two of mine set for several nights but haven’t caught
anything.”

“What do you use for bait?”

“Socks,” grunted the Farmer shamefacedly. “He seemed to like them.” The
man held back a smile, gave some instructions and then turned to his
boat for the trip back to the village. He owned a farm on which he
raised skunks in pens much as a poultryman raised chickens except that
it was the fur of the skunks which was marketable. The more black fur
there was on a skin, the more valuable it was, therefore an almost
entirely black skunk like Striped Coat was worth a good sum to the farm.

While Striped Coat was thus being sold alive, he was safely sleeping
with his family in the holly tree burrow to which he had run after
discovery by the boy. A less sensible skunk might have remained and been
killed but Striped Coat was not one of that kind.

It was on the third night after this, that he and the others came across
the first of Farmer Slown’s new traps. The family had just come from
Goose Creek, for now that it was time for them to take care of
themselves in the world, the mother’s milk had failed them and they
needed water as well as food.

Wandering along a path made by old Muskrat in his search for grass
roots, they caught the scent of a freshly killed chicken and found that
it came from a long box which had an opening at one end. The mother,
nervous as usual, looked at this with such suspicion that the others
held back too, although much interested in the smell of this kind of
food.

They kept wandering around the box sniffing, until all at once the runt
of the family, a pretty black and white little fellow, could resist it
no longer and slipped in. They crowded about the entrance when—bang—down
came a board with a clatter, nearly smashing a nose or two and
completely shutting the entrance.

Those on the outside sprang back, but the runt was caught and could only
add to their alarm by frantic scratching on the hard wood inside. That
was lesson enough for Striped Coat; he knew now that a box with a hole
was something dangerous even if it contained good food.

In that way the family lost the runt. Soon afterwards quarreling divided
the remainder, the mother and Striped Coat staying together and still
living in the holly tree burrow. Sometimes they all met at night in
their hunting, but these meetings grew less frequent until Striped Coat
and the mother seemed to have the woods around Farmer Slown’s entirely
to themselves.

It was to be sure the time of plenty. Every rain brought out many kinds
of edible toadstools in the woods, blackberries hung heavily from their
stems, grasshoppers and crickets had grown big and fat, white grubs
swarmed under the grass roots around the Farmer’s field. Also there were
great green tomato worms, turtles, frogs, toads and little snakes, nests
of yellow jackets, bees and other insects. Mice too were plentiful and
unwary.

So Striped Coat grew amazingly just as did all the other young woods
folk. At first he grew long and lanky, with short patchy fur and spindly
tail, in much the same way as a young hawk before it acquires its full
plumage; later he filled out, his fur becoming thick and glossy. By the
end of August he was as large as his mother and still growing. He was
wise enough not to be lured into the Farmer’s traps and, like his mother
he now had the right of way over the other woods animals, being indeed
treated with all the dignity of a full grown skunk.

[Illustration: In much the same way as a young hawk before it acquires
its full plumage]

More men than the Farmer were after him however, for the news had spread
that he was worth fifty dollars, and that sum, walking around as it
were, loose and unclaimed in the woods, was a decided lure to everyone.
Ever since the great mystery of Farmer Slown’s lost clothes had been
cleared up by the boy’s description of Striped Coat, he had become a
marked individual, spoken of, oddly enough, as Striped Coat, the black
skunk. Whenever the word skunk was mentioned, people soon switched the
conversation to him.

The question to be solved was, where did he have his den. With that
discovered, the matter of trapping or digging him out would be a simple
one. The old trappers of the neighborhood said little but waited
patiently for the coming of late autumn, when the leaves would no longer
be on the bushes. And every day brought this danger time just that much
nearer.



                               CHAPTER X
                            CAPTURED AT LAST


It was in September that Striped Coat made an important discovery;
travelling further up Goose Creek than usual, he came across a log
cabin, not the kind ordinarily built by summer visitors on a good stream
for canoeing, but one which seemed a part of the woods itself.

Instead of being wary about approaching it, Striped Coat found it
actually luring him. Coming closer, he found at one end an open door
leading into a room lighted only by the dull glow from an open
fire-place in front of which stood cozy chairs and a table, objects
which to him seemed to offer good cover under which to hide if
necessary.

For some moments he stood on the threshold, lured by the smell of food
and by the interesting look of the place, but undecided whether it was
safe to venture where man had evidently recently been. Finally,
encouraged by the absolute quiet, he stepped in, warily, but without any
fear, for real fear such as many animals showed, was something which he
did not seem ever to have. Wandering silently about the room, his
nostrils dulled by the smoke, he came directly in front of a man lolling
comfortably in one of the chairs. The effect was almost electrical. The
man’s eyes grew suddenly round and bulging and he turned a complete
backward somersault, landing on his feet and then diving through the
open window.

“Help!” he yelled when outside. “Mr. Henry, come quick!”

Striped Coat, who had fluffed up in readiness for anything, moved for
the door, just as another man sprang in and slammed it behind him. The
man stood absolutely motionless with his back against the door looking
at Striped Coat who had stopped with tail over his back and every hair
on end waiting for the slightest further move of this new enemy. It was
a critical moment. The man won; Striped Coat would not attack, his
weapon was for defense, and the man did not move even a finger.

So Striped Coat sidled to the other end of the room to find another
outlet. He did not hurry, he was on his dignity and knew he was being
watched. Looking up at the open window, which was out of his reach, he
was just in time to see the top of the first man’s head duck out of
sight. Mike had come back to watch, but knew a skunk when he saw one and
was taking no chances.

There was no other opening. Striped Coat was trapped at last.

Mr. Henry, the man at the door moved quietly to a chair and sat down.

“Mike,” he called, “did you ever see a skunk like that? It’s the black
one they’re all after. Isn’t he a daisy!” The top of Mike’s head and one
eye appeared warily over the window sill.

“He’s all of that,” he answered, “the biggest, prettiest skunk I ever
saw! And he nearly had me, too!” Mr. Henry laughed, then picked a piece
of fish from one of the plates on the table, and laid it on the floor in
front of him. Soon Striped Coat in circling the room again, came across
this and ate it just to show he was not afraid. When he came around
again, he found another piece in the same place and ate that. It was
good fish! Every time he came to that spot he found a piece, laid there
by Mr. Henry, whom he presently began to watch with more interest than
he would show an enemy. When this man moved at all, it was so slowly
that Striped Coat could not take offense.

Presently the man stood up, very quietly moved to the corner of the room
and pulled a huge wood box the distance of a foot from the wall; behind
this, in the corner, he spread some clothes and an armful of cotton
waste. Striped Coat could go in and out of this cozy nest from either
side of the box; it therefore had none of the looks of a trap. After a
little while he tried it, then tried it again and finally settled down
for a rest in this new bed.

“Well, I never!” came from the awe-struck Mike. Mr. Henry then arranged
some bedding on one of the sofas and suggested that Mike also prepare
for a sleep; but that worthy preferred the boat. The last thing was to
place some more fish and a bowl of water on the floor and to open the
door leading out to the woods; after that Mr. Henry went comfortably to
sleep on the couch.

Striped Coat, too, actually took a nap, the warmth being pleasant and
the stillness reassuring. Before the glow of the fire had entirely died,
however, he walked out and looked all around the room; finding the door
open he moved out, then returned and ate the fish; soon afterwards he
was again in the woods but with no unfriendly feeling towards the Henry
cabin. Near the Creek he came across a likely den under a stump, and
being loggy with all the food he had eaten, slipped in there for the
day.

This proved a serious blunder, for a picnic party came up the creek in
canoes and chose that precise spot for luncheon. One of the men sat on
the stump and amused himself by poking sticks into the hollow underneath
it, finding to his surprise that something inside resented this and
replied with distinctly audible stamps of its feet. Proudly announcing
this discovery, he poked more thoroughly while the others stood about
and excitedly encouraged him.

Suddenly there was a scuffle and out sprang Striped Coat, at the same
time giving the young man the full benefit of the musk bath. Amid the
confusion of shrieks from the women and yells from the men he slipped
into the bushes and ran as he had never run before. After him came a
yelling crowd, gathering up sticks and trying to head him off.

And still Striped Coat ran, dodging and threatening his pursuers when
they came too close, but ever getting nearer to the Henry cabin. At the
open doorway stood Mr. Henry, a pipe in his mouth; he did not move a
muscle as the wood pussy crossed the little clearing, eyed him
inquiringly and then slipped by and into his nest behind the woodbox,
with all his old dignity suddenly returned.

Outside the cabin a howl of joy went up from the pursuers.

“We’ve got him now!” they shouted. But Mr. Henry still quietly smoked in
the doorway and eyed them composedly.

“The skunk,” he said, at last, “is in my house. It is safe with me.”

“But that’s the black skunk! That’s old Striped Coat!” shouted one. They
stood about arguing until another of their number called disgustedly.
“Ah! can’t you see? He wants all the reward for himself. Come on back.”
Then they trooped away, vowing all kinds of vengeance; but Mr. Henry
still smoked.

He was however thinking very hard. Unless he did exactly the right thing
he saw very clearly that this splendid little animal of the woods would
sooner or latter be killed or captured. The news of where it had last
been seen would spread only too quickly. Presently he called in the
reluctant Mike and helped him make a hole in one corner of the cabin
floor to serve as a safer retreat for Striped Coat who by using it could
go under the cabin itself.

And Striped Coat seemed to understand, for all that night he could be
heard digging under the floor to make the place even more cozy and safe.



                               CHAPTER XI
                            THE WINTER SLEEP


Mr. Henry had taken such a liking to Striped Coat that he wanted to make
sure the wild wood pussy would like the cabin well enough to make it a
permanent home. With this in mind he built an underground drain leading
under it to a pile of stones nearby. Safety was even more important than
comfort in the matter of a den, and through this back door Striped Coat
could feel able to go or come when he chose. The stone pile hid the
entrance and allowed no animal larger than he, to enter through its
cracks.

It was a fine arrangement and Striped Coat liked it. He built a big nest
of dry grass, leaves and cotton waste under the cabin and slept there
instead of in his corner back of the wood box, but at night he often
came out of the hole in the floor and walked around the room while Mr.
Henry was eating supper, showing friendliness but in a dignified,
distant way. After eating a few scraps he would go back to the hole,
then out through the drain to the stone pile around which he would walk
for a time scenting the air and making very sure all was well before
leaving for the woods.

[Illustration: Under the persimmon and wild apple trees he picked up
ripe fruit, often shaken down by Possum]

He was growing bigger and finer every day. By the time the frosts of
October had turned the leaves red, sweetened the acorns and numbed the
big insects so that they were more easily caught, his winter coat of fur
to keep him warm in the coming icy weather, was almost at its full
prime, long, almost like velvet in softness, and black as coal, yet so
glossy that it fairly glittered in the sunlight. On his head and neck
stood out the pretty white markings which had given him his name.

His hunts in the woods now were wonderful picnics. In the grassy spots
he could find big, full grown grasshoppers and crickets, as well as
luscious white grubs which dry weather had brought up within an inch or
two of the surface of the ground. Around the grape-vine tangles, and
under the persimmon and wild apple trees he picked up ripe fruit often
shaken down by Possum, and under the white oaks, acorns almost as sweet
as chestnuts, while many other plants, bushes, vines and trees bore
edible things which he liked, such as tubers, berries or seeds. He found
many mice too in their nests of grass, and more yellow jacket and bumble
bee combs than he could eat. No wonder therefore that he was able to
store up a lot of surplus food in the form of fat, to help him live
through the coming winter when bad weather might keep him from finding
more food for weeks at a time.

It is well that Autumn is a time of plenty, for in the North it enables
the animals and even some birds which do not migrate to the warm South,
to gather much more food than they need at the moment. When the cold
winds blow and the ground is frozen it is badly needed. Red Squirrel hid
nuts in forks of limbs and in hollows and crevices, Grey Squirrel buried
a supply in good safe places, Ground Hackie made a granary for himself
underground, the foxes buried things like dead mice, pieces of rabbit,
frogs, snakes, fish and even apples, but creatures like Bear, Woodchuck,
Possum, Coon and Striped Coat just stored, in layers of rich fat around
their body, enough nourishment to carry them through the hard months,
until warm, pleasant days came. Those that were not wise enough to
gather a supply in some form, had a terrible time and often died before
spring.

As Mr. Henry kept open house at the cabin every Sunday, it was usual for
at least one canoe party of his family and friends to come for luncheon
and a walk around the interesting woods. But more interesting to them
than anything else was an occasional glimpse of Striped Coat, who though
usually sleeping in the day time was waked up by the new voices and
often induced to come out for a dainty piece of meat or fish. The
friendliness of this beautiful and entirely free creature of the woods
delighted many a visitor.

When really cold weather set in, Mr. Henry prepared to leave the cabin
until Spring, so he anxiously watched Striped Coat in the hope that
before leaving time came, the wood pussy would hibernate, that is to
say, go to sleep for the winter in the safe, warm nest. His fat would
feed him while he slept, for without exercise he would not need much
nourishment. The woods were well sprinkled with traps and a snow for
tracking might come at any time and help Farmer Slown or other woodsman
to locate his den and set the traps more dangerously unless he was
guarded.

[Illustration: The friendliness of this beautiful and entirely free
creature of the woods delighted many a visitor]

At length a very cold day came and Striped Coat could be heard
remodeling his nest and digging energetically. Mr. Henry watched for him
and was surprised once or twice to see the head of an entirely strange
wood pussy thrust out of the hole in the floor as it looked around. What
it was hunting for, was soon shown by Striped Coat who presently came
out and began dragging at the rug as if to carry it away with him.

“Ah! so that’s it,” thought the watcher, “you have brought in a friend
to stay with you and need more covers to make him comfortable. Well, you
shall have them!” And as often as Striped Coat came up, he was handed a
ball of cotton waste. Soon he appeared no more and all was quiet except
for the sighing of the north wind outside. Striped Coat had gone
comfortably to sleep, and with him, as in the days when he was little,
was his mother.



                              CHAPTER XII
                          THE SPRING AWAKENING


December and January passed without Striped Coat waking up for more than
an occasional peep at the woods whenever the warm south wind was
blowing; but the last days of February found him uneasy and on the watch
for good weather; then there came a gentle warm rain which brought a new
scent into the woods—the scent of Spring.

Striped Coat caught it and was lured out as soon as darkness came; his
mother followed eagerly. They were both anxious to get food but also
interested in looking around and hunting up the old places which they
had frequented in the summer. The mother travelled to the deserted
woodchuck burrow under the holly tree, and finding it pleasantly dry and
homelike, rearranged the nest and slept there instead of returning to
the cabin.

Striped Coat however went further; he made a great circle through the
woods which carried him far beyond Farmer Slown’s field to a sandy hill
where, because the ground was dryer and warmer than below, many animals
had their winter dens and where therefore it was not as lonely as nearer
the Creek. Here he found the trails of Possum and of Coon and even of
Gray Fox, but of none of his own kind. Wherever he went he saw others of
the woods folk, all hungry, all in a hurry and none interested in him.

That day he spent in a hollow log far in the pines. It was an
uncomfortable place, so he left it early on the following night and
restlessly resumed his trip through the dripping, scented woods, on and
on with scarcely a stop for rest. The long sleep had left him lonely, he
knew that somewhere were companions, and he would keep on going until he
found them.

Nearly all of the food of the last year had already been gathered by the
woods creatures and the new year’s food had not begun to grow, but here
and there he picked up something to stave off hunger—a half awakened
insect or two, a dead shrew, scattered acorns and some grass bulbs. Here
and there, too, he found good dens and spent more than one day in
comfortably sleeping in them, only to start out again at dusk.

His seemed now almost a hopeless task, due to the success of trappers
and especially to Farmer Slown’s relentless work against the wood
pussies; yet still he searched.

At length his circle brought him back to the Goose Creek country where
he knew the trails and felt a longing once more to sleep safely in his
home under the cabin. For ten nights he had been travelling, and now
disheartened, footsore and thin, he was back where he started, after
finding the world a lonely place. But here would at least be his mother,
or was she too gone now and he left, the last of the wood pussies on
Goose Creek?

Ahead loomed the cabin. Striped Coat, dragging himself gloomily through
the bushes scarcely looked at it until, near the stone pile, he caught
on a breath of wind an unfamiliar scent—very faint, very elusive but at
the same time unmistakably telling him that a strange wood pussy had
been there.

In an instant it reawakened his interest in life and made of him a
different looking creature. Again he was alert, quick footed, eager.
Again his wonderful fur fluffed up, until his body looked like a perfect
muff.

Cautiously, he entered the drain, following the elusive scent which led
under the cabin and showed that in his absence the other wood pussy had
actually slept in his cozy nest. Now the den was empty, he had come back
too late.

Striped Coat moved about, noting all the places where the other had
walked also. Little changes had been made here and there—a burrow
started, some earth moved away from the nest and the nest itself made
smaller as if to fit around a smaller body. Presently he came again to
the drain and started out, determined to go in search of this other,
where he did not know.

And then he noticed the scent more strongly, and coming out of the stone
pile found it stronger still, as if the other had been there only a
moment before. Searching this way and that he picked up the trail and
followed it into the woods. Had the other come back to the cabin and,
finding the rightful owner in possession tried to escape unobserved? But
how escape Striped Coat, whose nose was as keen as a knife blade was
sharp; Striped Coat, the fame of whose fur had travelled over a whole
country and who yet lived; Striped Coat who could travel a whole night
without growing tired; Striped Coat who was lonely!

And did the other really wish very much to escape? Was not she too
lonely? If not, why should she have gone so slowly into the woods as to
be scarcely out of sight of the cabin when Striped Coat came rushing
along her trail. Pretty little wood pussy! Was not she as thrilled as he
at this meeting and timidly anxious to make friends?

And yet she pretended with all her might that she did not care the least
bit about him and wanted to continue her lonely way, and only when
Striped Coat seemed on the point of turning back would she look around
and hesitate and lead him on again. And somehow it happened that instead
of going further into the big woods, they made a circle which brought
them back to the cabin. Side by side they neared the entrance, and just
as the sun lit up the sky in the East they vanished that way into the
stone pile, and Striped Coat had found a companion.

[Illustration: Side by side they neared the entrance]



                              CHAPTER XIII
                            RAISING A FAMILY


When the early pink and white flowers of the trailing arbutus brightened
the ground in many parts of the slowly awakening woods, Mr. Henry
returned to the cabin. It was there that he found it possible to do his
best work, for he was a writer, who needed the quiet and solitude of a
place like this. Nothing really unpleasant ever seemed to happen there,
and interesting things were always cropping up. For instance there was
Striped Coat! And now Striped Coat had a mate!

But the other little wood pussy did not like the noise of footsteps on
the floor over her head. They frightened her. So after two days of
nervous watchfulness, she could bear it no longer and slipped out under
cover of the twilight, picking her way into the woods until she reached
an uprooted pine under whose trunk a large woodchuck had dug a burrow.
This old fellow had only recently awakened from his winter sleep and was
at that moment in his snug nest, dreaming no doubt of the time when the
woods would again be full of eatable green things.

It could not be said therefore that he was overjoyed when he heard
scratching at his front door and caught the scent of the wood pussy as
she descended towards him. Knowing from experience that to steal a
burrow like this was a great temptation to the meat eaters who needed
dens for themselves, he at once began to make unpleasant remarks in
woodchuck language and to threaten with his teeth, the longest of which
being arranged like a rat’s in the front of his mouth, could give a
fearful bite.

But the wood pussy had come there because she already knew that this
burrow was just the right size for her, a smaller woodchuck’s home would
not have been comfortable. Moreover an old woodchuck’s den was usually
well hidden and made with plenty of protection against rain and dampness
as well as with a second entrance for escape in case of danger. It would
not be an easy matter to drive out the old fighter who was quite as
large as herself, but her need was urgent and this burrow suited her
exactly.

Showing her teeth and threatening with the musk bath made no difference
however to this woodchuck, indeed he worked himself into such a rage
that he even drove her back inch by inch until he had her almost at the
entrance again. This fighting spirit however proved his undoing, for
suddenly he was attacked from the rear and with a force which there was
no resisting. Striped Coat had followed the trail of his companion and,
finding her fighting in the burrow, had run in too and tried to push
past in order to help. The burrow being much too narrow for this, he had
then rushed out of that entrance and in at the back door so quickly that
he was able to surprise the old chuck before he could return to his
usual fighting position in a corner with back protected.

Now, there was nothing for him to do but get out of his burrow as
quickly as he could and go somewhere else where he might hope to have a
little peace before being found again and driven out by some den hunter.
It sounded like a hard life, but Ground Hog’s claws and feet were so
powerful that in soft earth he could dig a fairly good den in a day. He
was lucky this time, for had it been a fox instead of a wood pussy, he
would surely have been eaten.

And so with Striped Coat still living under the cabin, his mate got a
fine den all to herself, which came in handy a few weeks later when six
little ones arrived, three of them like the mother and three with the
dark body and the markings of Striped Coat, their father, already
showing in their skin. Healthy little things they were too, with plenty
of appetite which their mother was usually able to supply, for almost
her only thought now was of these helpless, hairless little youngsters.

She had carried into the den and stored away conveniently, several half
eaten mice, lizards and little snakes which, for a day or two, made it
unnecessary for her to do much hunting, but on the fourth day she felt
very hungry and wandered all the way to Farmer Slown’s field.

Striped Coat, coming across her trail, followed her there and arrived at
almost the same moment, so together they explored the edge of the field
for beetles and at length reached the barn under which Striped Coat
slipped, as in the old days; but now things were changed, there were
vile odors and diggings of rats on all sides.

Even as they entered, a huge male rat ran past them and sulkily entered
a burrow. Striped Coat turned towards him, but not as quickly as his
mate who dashed after the flying tail. She was still ravenously hungry
and here was meat.

The rat however was now in his narrow den, feeling quite safe enough to
turn and chatter furiously at his pursuers who accepted his challenge by
beginning to dig. The burrow ran close to the surface of the ground, so
they made the dirt fairly fly and took short cuts by skipping over some
sections. This was the kind of work they were built for and the
eagerness of his mate had now thoroughly aroused Striped Coat.

From one hole to another they chased the clever rat until it seemed as
if at any moment they would have him cornered and force him to fight,
but he knew what he was about and kept one thing in reserve, a dash to
Farmer Slown’s own house, under which he had a hole leading into the
kitchen. He reckoned however without the experienced wisdom of Striped
Coat.

[Illustration: The three tugging, biting, squealing and pulling each
other this way and that until they burst from under the barn and had it
out on the flat ground]

When what seemed to him the right moment had come, the rat poked his
battle scarred gray nose out of the hidden hole, saw that the way seemed
clear and made a rush, but Striped Coat had been waiting for just this
move and made a rush too. He and the rat bumped into each other amid
furious squeals, and the rat was thrown off his feet. In that moment the
other wood pussy reached him and landed on top with both front paws and
all her weight, but without so much as knocking the breath out of the
powerful, big fellow who rolled over and would have escaped had not
Striped Coat caught him suddenly by the skin on the back of his head.

Then the fight became furious. The three tugging, biting, squealing and
pulling each other this way and that until they burst from under the
barn and had it out on the flat ground directly in front of the Farmer’s
house. Here the moon shone on the battle and helped the mother wood
pussy to see her chance to get the death grip on the rat’s thick neck
and finish him.

They did not hear a window open over their heads nor see the Farmer’s
face appear; in the heat of the fighting they had forgotten all else.
But now Striped Coat, who still had his grip on the rat’s head, began to
drag him under the fence and then to the bushes and then to a dark
thicket where they seemed safe.

Striped Coat lay down to lick a badly bitten paw and to free his
wonderful fur from dirt, which he did by carefully shaking, scratching
and much work with his mouth. But his mate began at the left hind leg of
the rat and ate as long as she could find anything tender enough to
chew. It was not as tasty a meal as she would have liked, but it all
went to keep her strong and so to help the six little ones to get all
the milk they needed.



                              CHAPTER XIV
                          MASTER OF THE WOODS


It was early morning. Under the cabin, Striped Coat was in his big bed
curled up asleep but twitching occasionally as he dreamed of battles
with old warrior rats. In the woodchuck’s burrow under the uprooted
pine, Striped Coat’s mate was giving all the little “striped coats”
their morning bath, using her wet tongue as the wash rag. And in the old
den under the holly tree Striped Coat’s mother was doing much the same
with four little ones which made up her new family; pretty youngsters,
but all showing signs of having as much white as black in their
markings, when they grew up.

Over their heads the woods was now a mass of green. Birds were singing,
bees were buzzing around numberless flowers, far and wide there was the
hum of the insect army now come again to feed on the plant life. How
this army would spread and grow and ravage the land, if birds by day
were not constantly after it on the ground, in the trees and in the air,
and if at night its ranks were not attacked by the active little shrews,
the swift flying bat, and the wood pussies, not to mention other
woodsfolk like the fox, the mole, old Possum and even Screech Owl, who
all helped! In the water the fish did their part. Yes, everything must
eat to live.

And the farmers were cultivating their crops and raising chickens and
other live stock, for man too must eat; and they were fighting
everywhere the insects and the other vermin which would like to take all
these things for themselves. One of these farmers was Ben Slown of Goose
Creek. Upon him on this beautiful morning Mr. Henry made a call.

It was not very formal; the Farmer sat on his cultivator in the field
and Mr. Henry leaned against the fence nearby.

“Well, how’s life at the cabin?” asked the Farmer.

“Very interesting. The wild creatures are growing tame again. They are
around or in my cabin most of the day and night; it’s on account of them
that I came to see you; I wondered whether you and I, working together,
couldn’t stop the trapping that’s going on around here. Woods animals
that do a lot of good are being killed off; there are the skunks for
example, only a few old ones are left. Can’t we save them? What do you
say?” Mr. Henry spoke seriously and the Farmer listened equally so. Once
he looked up rather sharply, as if wondering how much the other man
suspected the part he had taken in trapping during the autumn and
winter, but he did not interrupt.

“I’ve been thinking about those skunks, Mr. Henry,” he replied. “I know
you kept a watchful eye over the black one last autumn and I’m kind of
glad of it now. All last year I saw their tracks over my field. I
calculated they’d eat every vegetable and ear of corn I raised, and yet
somehow I never had a better crop anywhere. I’ll admit it. No cutworms,
no grubs, none of those big brown beetles, even no mice to speak of.

[Illustration: Skunk tracks.]

“I didn’t know just what was doing the good work until I—that is, the
trappers—caught off the skunks last autumn. I can tell you that after
that the mice and rats nearly ate me up. Well, I still hadn’t studied it
out when the other night I saw the queerest thing ever! Two skunks
killing a sewer rat almost on my doorstep, and it an old fellow half as
big as one of them. Such squealing you never heard, I guess! That big
black skunk of yours was the one that did the trick; he wouldn’t let go,
the other one just helped finish things. I tell you it was a real
fight!” Farmer Slown chuckled at the recollection.

[Illustration: “That big black skunk of yours was the one that did the
trick”]

“That rat,” he continued, “had done a heap of damage already, gnawing
and digging and carrying off little chickens; and neither I nor that dog
of mine could ever get a hold of him. I have a feeling that the skunks
take an egg whenever it’s left lying around, but they never come into my
hen house like that rat.

“I’m a farmer and haven’t time to fool with wild animals the way you
can, but I like to have people like you around to buy things I raise and
I have a change of feeling about those skunks. I’m all for them since
that rat business. Yes sir! And what’s more you needn’t worry about
traps any longer.” Having said which Farmer Slown stood up to resume
work as if the matter were now ended.

Mr. Henry, however, jumped the fence to give his hand a hearty shake.

“I hope we’ll be neighbors a long time!” he cried. As he strode back
through the woods, the Farmer looked after him for a moment or two.

“It’s funny,” he said. “Who would have thought I would ever find that
neighbors and skunks were any good!”

That night Striped Coat took a long trip. He wandered far below the
Farmer’s field and then to the sandy hill in the pines and lastly along
the bank of Goose Creek. He met Mink and Coon and old Possum, Gray Fox,
Brown Weasel, Bun and the deer from Cranberry Swamp. All looked at him
and then gave him the path. Yes, there were many animals, but after all
this was his range and he was master of them all.

Standing once more in front of the stone pile he shook himself until his
fur stood out all over him, that fur for which any dealer would give a
big price. Some day his children, and perhaps later his children’s
children, with black fur like his, would wander at night through the
woods of Goose Creek chasing the elusive mice and beetles; but he was
the first of the new order, he was Striped Coat, the Black Skunk!

As he stood there, a pale light spread over the sky, the protecting
black shadows grew fainter. He knew that he, a creature of the night,
must now bid farewell for a while to all the outside world. Reluctantly,
he bowed his head and entered the low arch of the stone pile. Slowly his
body moved out of sight, then the long tail until not even the tip
remained in view.


                                THE END



                          Transcriber’s Notes


--Copyright notice provided as in the original—this e-text is public
  domain in the country of publication.

--In the text versions, delimited italics text in _underscores_ (the
  HTML version reproduces the font form of the printed book.)

--Silently corrected palpable typos; left non-standard spellings and
  dialect unchanged.





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