This is what the old men told me when I was a boy:—
Once the animals challenged the birds to play a great ball-game, and the birds accepted. The leaders set the day, and chose a ball-ground in a smooth, green meadow near a river. When the time arrived, all the animals and birds met together to start for the ball-ground.
The captain of the animals was the Bear, who was so big and strong that he could pull down any one who got in his way. All along the road he kept growling and tossing up great logs and catching them again, in order to show how fierce and strong he was. And he boasted loudly of what dreadful things he would do to the birds when the game should begin.
The Terrapin was there, too, not the small one we have now, but the Great and Original Terrapin. His shell was so hard that the weightiest blows could not hurt him, and he kept rising up on his hind legs and dropping heavily to the ground. And at the same time he bragged how he would crush any bird that might try to take the ball from him.
Then came the Deer, who was so swift that he could outrun any animal. Altogether it was a fine company!
Over their heads flew the birds, hundreds of them. Their captain was the Eagle. And the Hawk was present also, swift and strong for flight, and the Swallow, the Martin, the Robin, and the Wren were there. But all of them were a little afraid of the animals, because they were so much larger than the birds.
When they reached the ball-ground they had a great dance, after which the birds flew up into the trees, and the animals rested on the grass. And while they were waiting for the signal to begin the game, two little creatures, not much bigger than Field Mice, began to climb the tree in which was the birds' captain, the Eagle.
When they reached the bough on which the Eagle was perched, they stood before him humbly, and begged to be allowed to join the game.
The captain looked at them closely, and seeing that each had four feet, asked why they did not go to the animals. The little creatures explained sadly that they had spoken to the Bear, but because they were so small, all the animals had made fun of them and driven them away.
Then the birds' captain was sorry for them, and agreed to let them join the game.
But how were they to play when they had no wings? The Eagle, the Hawk, and the other chief birds consulted together, and decided to make some wings for the little fellows.
One of the birds fetched the drum that had been used for the dance, and they cut off the drumhead, which was made of Groundhog-skin. From this they made a pair of leathery wings and stretched them with cane splints. They fastened the wings to the fore legs of one of the little creatures. And he became the Bat.
Then the Eagle threw the ball and told him to catch it. And the Bat dodged and circled around in the air, never letting the ball fall to the ground. The birds soon saw that he would be one of their best players.
Now, they wished to make wings for the other little fellow, but all the leather had been used for the Bat. So two of the largest birds, with their beaks, took hold of the little one's fur on either side, and they pulled and pulled, until they stretched his skin between his fore and hind legs. And he became the Flying Squirrel.
To see how well he could play, the birds' captain tossed the ball, and the Flying Squirrel sprang off the tree, caught it in his teeth, and carried it through the air to the next tree. So the birds knew he would be a fine player.
Now, all the animals and the birds were ready, and the signal was given for the game to begin. As soon as the ball was tossed, the Flying Squirrel caught it up, and carried it into a tree. From there he threw it to the birds, who kept it in the air for a long time, until by accident it fell to the Earth.
Immediately the Bear rushed for the ball, but the Martin darted after it, and seizing it fast, threw it to the Bat, who was flying near the ground. And the Bat, by his dodging and doubling, kept the ball out of the way of even the Deer, until at last he sent it spinning between the poles.
And so the birds won the game. But the Bear and the Terrapin, who had boasted of what great things they would do, never got a chance even to touch the ball.
The Martin received as a reward a gourd in which to build his nest. And ever since that day the Flying Squirrel and the Bat have been friends with the birds.