A Trader and a Handsome Fellow
"WAY down in the Sunny South," began Old Mother Nature, "lives a member of the Rat family who, though not nearly so bad as Robber, is none too good and so isn't thought well of at all. He is Little Robber the Cotton Rat, and though small for a Rat, being only a trifle larger than Striped Chipmunk, looks the little savage that he is. He has short legs and is rather thick-bodied, and appears much like an overgrown Meadow Mouse with a long tail. The latter is not bare like Robber's, but the hair on it is very short and thin. In color he is yellowish-brown and whitish underneath. His fur is longer and coarser than that of other native Rats.
"He lives in old fields, along ditches and hedges, and in similar places where there is plenty of cover in which he can hide from his enemies. He burrows in the ground and usually has his nest of dry grass there, though often in summer it is on the surface of the ground. He does not live in and around the homes of men, like the Brown Rat, but he causes a great deal of damage by stealing grain in the shock. He eats all kinds of grain, many seeds, and meat when he can get it. He is very destructive to eggs and young of ground-nesting birds. He has a bad temper and will fight savagely. Mr. and Mrs. Cotton Rat raise several large families in a year. Foxes, Owls and Hawks are their chief enemies.
"But there are other members of the Rat family far more interesting and quite worth knowing. One of these is Trader the Wood Rat, in some parts of the Far West called the Pack Rat. Among the mountains he is called the Mountain Rat. Wherever found, his habits are much the same and make him one of the most interesting of all the little people who wear fur.
"Next to Jerry Muskrat he is the largest native Rat, that is, of the Rats which belong in this country. He is about two thirds as big as Robber the Brown Rat, but though he is of the same general shape, so that you would know at once that he is related to Robber, he is in all other ways wholly unlike that outcast. His fur is thick and soft, almost as soft as that of a Squirrel. His fairly long tail is covered with hair. Indeed, some members of his branch of the family have tails almost as bushy as a Squirrel's. His coat is soft gray and a yellowish-brown above, and underneath pure white or light buff. His feet are white. He has rounded ears and big black eyes with none of the ugliness in them that you always see in the eyes of Robber. And he has long whiskers and plenty of them."
"But why is he called Trader?" asked Peter Rabbit a bit impatiently.
"Patience, Peter, patience. I'm coming to that," chided Old Mother Nature. "He is Trader because his greatest delight is in trading. He is a born trader if ever there was one. He doesn't steal as other members of his family but trades. He puts something back in place of whatever he takes. It may be little sticks or chips or pebbles or anything else that is handy but it is something to replace what he has taken. You see, he is very honest. If Trader finds something belonging to some one else that he wants he takes it, but he tries to pay for it.
"Next to trading he delights in collecting. His home is a regular museum. He delights in anything bright and shiny. When he can get into the camps of men he will take anything he can move. But being honest, he tries to leave something in return. All sorts of queer things are found in his home—buckles cut from saddles, spoons, knives, forks, even money he has taken from the pockets of sleeping campers. Whenever any small object is missed from a camp, the first place visited in search of it is the home of Trader. In the mountains he sometimes makes piles of little pebbles just for the fun of collecting them.
"He is found all over the West, from the mountains to the deserts, in thick forests and on sandy wastes. He is also found in parts of the East and in the Sunny South. He is a great climber and is perfectly at home in trees or among rocks. He eats seeds, grain, many kinds of nuts, leaves and other parts of plants. In the colder sections he lays up stores for winter."
"What kind of a home does he have?" asked Happy Jack.
"His home usually is a very remarkable affair," replied Old Mother Nature. "It depends largely on where he is. When he is living in rocky country, he makes it amongst the rocks. In some places he burrows in the ground. But more often it is on the surface of the ground—a huge pile of sticks and thorns in the very middle of which is his snug, soft nest. The sticks and thorns are to protect it from enemies. When he lives down where cactus grow, those queer plants with long sharp spines, he uses these, and there are few enemies who will try to pull one of these houses apart to get at him.
"When he is alarmed or disturbed, he has a funny habit of drumming on the ground with his hind feet in much the same way that Peter Rabbit and Jumper the Hare thump, only he does it rapidly. Sometimes he builds his house in a tree. When he finds a cabin in the woods he at once takes possession, carrying in a great mass of sticks and trash. He is chiefly active at night, and a very busy fellow he is, trading and collecting. He has none of the mean disposition of Robber the Brown Rat. Mrs. Trader has two to five babies at a time and raises several families in a year. As I said before, Trader is one of the most interesting little people I know of, and he does very, very funny things.
"Now we come to the handsomest member of the family, Longfoot the Kangaroo Rat, so called because of his long hind legs and tail and the way in which he sits up and jumps. Really he is not a member of the Rat branch of the family, but closely related to the Pocket Mice. You see, he has pockets in his cheeks."
"Like mine?" asked Striped Chipmunk quickly.
"No, they are on the outside instead of the inside of his cheeks. Yours are inside."
"I think mine must be a lot handier," asserted Striped Chipmunk, nodding his head in a very decided way.
"Longfoot seems to think his are quite satisfactory," replied Old Mother Nature. "He really is handsome, but he isn't a bit vain and is very gentle. He never tries to bite when caught and taken in a man's hand."
"But you haven't told us how big he is or what he looks like," protested impatient Peter.
"When he sits up or jumps he looks like a tiny Kangaroo. But that doesn't mean anything to you, and you are no wiser than before, for you never have seen a Kangaroo," replied Old Mother Nature. "In the first place he is about the size of Striped Chipmunk. That is, his body is about the size of Striped Chipmunk's; but his tail is longer than his head and body together."
"My, it must be some tail!" exclaimed Peter Rabbit admiringly.
Old Mother Nature smiled. "It is," said she. "You would like that tail, Peter. His front legs are short and the feet small, but his hind legs are long and the feet big. Of course you have seen Nimbleheels the Jumping Mouse, Peter."
Peter nodded. "Of course," he replied. "My how that fellow can jump!"
"Well, Longfoot is built on the same plan as Nimbleheels and for the same purpose," continued Old Mother Nature. "He is a jumper."
"Then I know what that long tail is for," cried Peter. "It is to keep him balanced when he is in the air so that he can jump straight."
"Right again, Peter," laughed Old Mother Nature. "That is just what it is for. Without it, he never would know where he was going to land when he jumped. As I told you, he is a handsome little fellow. His fur is very soft and silky. Above, it is a pretty yellowish-brown, but underneath it is pure white. His cheeks are brown, he is white around the ears, and a white stripe crosses his hips and keeps right on along the sides of his tail. The upper and under parts of his tail are almost or quite black, and the tail ends in a tuft of long hair which is pure white. His feet are also white. His head is rather large for his size, and long. He has a long nose. Longfoot has a number of cousins, some of them much smaller than he, but they all look very much alike."
"Where do they live?" asked Johnny Chuck, for Johnny had been unable to stay away from school another day.
"In the dry, sandy parts of the Southwest, places so dry that it seldom rains, and water is to be found only long distances apart," replied Old Mother Nature.
"Then how does Longfoot get water to drink?" demanded Chatterer the Red Squirrel.
"He gets along without drinking," replied Old Mother Nature. "Such moisture as he needs he gets from his food. He eats seeds, leaves of certain plants and tender young plants just coming up. He burrows in the ground and throws up large mounds of earth. These have several entrances. One of these is the main entrance, and during the day this is often kept closed with earth. Under the mound he has little tunnels in all directions, a snug little bedroom and storerooms for food. He is very industrious and dearly loves to dig.
"Longfoot likes to visit his relatives sometimes, and where there are several families living near together, little paths lead from mound to mound. He comes out mostly at night, probably because he feels it to be safer then. Then, too, in that hot country it is cooler at night. The dusk of early evening is his favorite playtime. If Longfoot has a quarrel with one of his relatives they fight, hopping about each other, watching for a chance to leap and kick with those long, strong hind feet. Longfoot sometimes drums with his hind feet after the manner of Trader the Wood Rat.
"Now I think this will do for this morning. If any of you should meet Whitefoot the Wood Mouse, tell him to come to school to-morrow morning. And you might tell Danny Meadow Mouse to come also, Peter. That is, of course, if you little folks want school to continue."
"We do!" cried Peter Rabbit and Jumper the Hare and Happy Jack Squirrel and Chatterer the Red Squirrel and Striped Chipmunk and Johnny Chuck as one.