H OLIDAY HILL was white with snow. The light from the full moon was so bright that there were dark blue shadows under the tamarack trees.
These trees were growing on a boggy part of the hill. In summer, tufts of fine leaves were like lovely short green tassels on their branches. Near them stood many soppy little green sedge hummocks. Tree trunks that had fallen there were covered with velvety green moss.
But that shining winter night the tamarack grove was not green. The open brown cones on their branches showed that they were related to pine and spruce and fir and other cone-bearing trees. But, unlike other members of the Pine Family, the tamaracks were not evergreens. Their leaves had turned yellow in the fall and had dropped to the ground, where they now lay deep under the snow which covered also the sedgy tussocks and the mossy logs.
The ground was white with snow
If you had tried to walk up the hill you would have found yourself knee-deep in the soft snow, for there was no hard crust to walk on. That is, you would have been wading unless you had put on snowshoes.
The white rabbit who came out of the tamarack grove wore snowshoes on his hind feet. Of course he had not strapped them on as a person does. His snowshoes grew where he needed them.
His hind feet were large at all times of the year. And in winter his long spreading toes were covered with especially thick hair which formed a broad pad on each hind foot. With feet of this sort he could go easily over the snow even when it was soft instead of crusty.
It was important for the white rabbit, or Little Snowshoes as we may call him, to be able to travel on the snow. How else was he to find food in winter?
He had not put away a harvest of cones as Chickaree, the squirrel, had done. He had not stuffed his skin with fat, in preparation for a long foodless sleep after the manner of Wejack, the woodchuck, or Sir Talis, the serpent. When he was hungry he must go in search of something to eat.
It may seem to you like a cheerless and chilly errand to go out at night, no matter how cold the weather, to get your own food and eat it alone on a frozen hillside.
But Little Snowshoes did not mind. He liked his evening picnics all by himself. It was only a few hops from the tamarack grove to a growth of young birches and poplars.
There had once been large trees of these kinds on ground that was not so wet as that where the tamaracks stood. The old trees had been cut and the new ones were more like bushes growing in thick clumps.
The white rabbit was glad to wander through those bushes. He felt at home among them. It was easy to hide there. And he could always find plenty of his favorite food.
For Little Snowshoes was fond of birch and poplar bark. His teeth were just the right sort to use for paring it off the stems. Of course a stem could not grow if its bark was cut off. In some places this might have been a serious matter. But Little Snowshoes did not worry about that. Neither did anyone else. Indeed, Uncle David, down at Holiday Farm, said that the rabbit helped keep the birches from growing large enough to shade the blueberries too much.
As there were always plenty of smaller birches and poplars growing in the summer to take the places of those that had been chewed, Little Snowshoes had good bark to eat each winter. When there was only a little snow on the ground, the white rabbit ate the bark on the lower part of the stems. When the snow was deep, he went out on his snowshoes and peeled the bark from the higher places.
Little Snowshoes in his winter furs
Being white, Little Snowshoes did not show much on the snow. He usually stayed in sheltered places during the day and rested. If he saw a dog or a fox, or if he heard any sound that worried him, he kept as motionless as a hump of snow. That was an excellent way for a white creature to hide. Evening and night and very early morning were the times he chose for his rambles and his picnic luncheons.
If you find the tracks of such a rabbit along the margin of some low swamp trees or on a boggy hillside, you can tell what kind of animal made them by their shape. You can know they are made by a snowshoe rabbit because the prints of his hind feet are so very large.
Of course the marks of his big feet will be ahead of those of his small front feet.
If you wish to know how he gets them that way, perhaps you can find the reason by watching a rabbit when he hops!
The cold season passed quietly and pleasantly enough for the solitary white rabbit. One night when it was nearly spring, Little Snowshoes heard a noise near his camping ground, a muffled thump-thump-thump which sounded almost like the beating of a queer drum. It came through the air in dull booms. It made the ground tremble slightly.
To Little Snowshoes that sound was a challenge. A stranger rabbit had entered his yard and was knocking to announce his arrival. Little Snowshoes answered him. He used his strong hind legs as drumsticks. He let the ground under him serve as a drum. When he pounded there was a dull, rapid thump-thump-thump that sounded through the air and quivered through the ground.
Then Little Snowshoes went to meet his uninvited guest. He did not feel neighborly toward him. He could not speak in words. He could not say: "Go away! You are not welcome here." But, in a manner known to rabbits, he made himself understood. The newcomer was disappointed. But he hopped away.
The next night another rabbit came and pounded upon the ground near Little Snowshoes. He, too, departed without being invited to a picnic meal.
But one night in early March a rabbit came who felt no fear of Little Snowshoes. She heard him drumming and liked his tune. She was timid in many ways, but the thump of a rabbit's feet was pleasant for her to hear.
Little Snowshoes and Wabasso in winter furs
One name of this rabbit was Wabasso. You may have read, in another book, how
the rabbit, the Wabasso,
Sat upright to look and listen.
That is what this Wabasso did when she heard Little Snowshoes drum. Then she went, calmly enough, into his camping ground and stayed there. Little Snowshoes did not try to frighten her away. He liked her and she became Mrs. Wabasso Snowshoes.
If you had met these two rabbits near the tamaracks some moonlight night in April, they would have stood quite still. Do you think you could have seen them, white as snow, against the dark ground? Not at all. These rabbits were not white in April. They were brown. They had molted their thick winter coats and grown their summer furs. Their hind feet were still large and their toes were long and spreading; but their broad hairy snowshoe-like pads were gone for the summer.
Little Snowshoes in summer furs
So you see the reason why rabbits like Little Snowshoes and Wabasso are called "varying hares."
Later that spring Wabasso made a nest in a sheltered place under a heap of old birch branches. She brought some straw and dry brown leaves for the outside of the nest. She lined the hollow with downy fur which she pulled from her breast.
In this soft nest her five little sons and daughters were born. But they did not stay there long. Their mother gave them plenty of milk to drink. So they grew very fast and were soon able to hop here and there and find tender juicy plants to eat.
During the day the baby rabbits rested. By the time night came they were wide awake and ready for picnics and frolics. They were sociable youngsters and jolly playmates. They drummed on the ground with their hind feet, but their thumps were only in fun. They had a game of leaping over one another which they seemed to enjoy like a merry joke.
The young rabbits were brown that summer and early fall. But, by the time the ground was covered with snow, they were wearing white winter furs. They had on their warm coats and their broad snowshoes when they hopped in the moonlight on Christmas Eve and feasted on delicious birch bark.