Bannertail, Who Hopped Like a Kangaroo
T HE August moon rose while Bannertail waited in one of the doorways of his home under a mesquite tree. He had lived in this home for a long time—ever since one summer night more than a year ago.
That was an exciting night: Bannertail was making his first visit to this part of the valley. He had wandered over from another place in the desert and was having a good time hopping here and there while he looked about. Then a hungry desert fox suddenly chased him, and Bannertail hurried into the first hole he found. He stayed there, hidden and quiet, until the fox became tired of waiting and trotted away.
The hole into which Bannertail rushed when the fox startled him was a long tunnel, or hallway, in a strange house. Soon after the desert fox left, Bannertail began to go slowly through this house. It had a mound of sand, almost four feet high, for its upper part. Under the mound were many halls that led down into rooms deep in the ground. Bannertail met no other little animals as he went along these sloping tunnels. No one had been living in the house for many weeks. Some of the walls had crumbled and the place was not very tidy.
Still, Bannertail liked the empty, tumble-down house where he had found safety in a time of danger. He cleared out some of the rubbish that was in the way. Then he dug a place the right size to use for a bedroom. There were too many doorways opening outside to please him, so he plugged all but six of them with sand. Some of the rooms were good for storerooms. In these he began to put piles of food on the floor.
That August evening when the moon came up, Bannertail was thinking about grass seeds, good to eat, that were ripe enough to carry to his storerooms. When seeds were ready to harvest, he worked part of every pleasant night.
He was a bit timid as he came out to the roof of his mound house into the moonlight. He had never quite forgotten that there were foxes in his desert world. So he paused for a few moments to look with his big eyes and to listen with his round-rimmed ears.
Bannertail's body, sand-colored and white, was nearly as large as a rat's; but he was much prettier and daintier than a rat. His nose was pointed like that of a mouse and his whiskers were slender and sensitive. His long furry tail ended with a fluffy white tuft. While he waited outside his door, Bannertail sat on his big, strong hind legs, bracing himself with his tail which was stretched out behind him. His front feet did not touch the ground. They were very tiny, and he held them tucked up under his chin except when he needed to use them for hands.
This little creature really was a relative of rats, of mice, and of squirrels, but he did not act like these relatives when he traveled. If you could have seen him that night when he started off for his load of grass seeds, you would have laughed. He went with kangaroo jumps, hopping on his hind legs. At first he took rather short, slow hops and looked carefully about as he went. But soon he quickened his pace and was leaping three feet at each jump; and his tail stuck out in the air, with its tuft of white fur making a flag, or banner, behind him.
You can easily understand why little animals of this sort have been given rather queer names. They are neither rats nor kangaroos; but they are called "kangaroo rats," because they look a bit like rats and travel like kangaroos. Some people call them "bannertails," a quite good name for them, too.
As Bannertail went across the desert sand, he followed a narrow path, or road. He had made it himself, by hopping that way many times. It ran straight from his home to some grama grass whose tops were filled with yellow seeds. When he came to the grass, Bannertail stopped and filled his pockets with the seedy tips.
Bannertail's pockets were two fur-lined pouches, one on each side of his face. When they were full, he looked as if he had the mumps!
When his pouches could not hold another grass seed, he hopped back along his path and dodged through one of his doorways into a long tunnel. The tunnel was dark, but he moved quickly, going round corners and through more doorways. Perhaps his long whiskers were a help to him and kept him from bumping his nose. As soon as he reached a storeroom, he emptied his pouches by pushing against them with two jerks of his front paws, or hands. Then he hopped a way for another load.
While he worked, Bannertail listened. Though the desert seemed peaceful, there were creatures living there who would like a kangaroo rat for supper. Once an owl flew overhead—and Bannertail kept so very quiet that the hungry bird never guessed he was not just a part of the sand. Far away a fox barked—and Bannertail stopped gathering grain till he knew that the fox was not coming toward him. While he waited, he made a thumping sound by hitting his heels against the ground.
Bannertail had a habit of thumping like that when he was alarmed and nervous and ready to run away. It may be that the other kangaroo rats, who were gathering seeds near by, heard the noise of his heels or felt the jar of the ground. Perhaps Bannertail's thumps seemed like a danger signal to them. Some of the other kangaroo rats began to thump on the ground in the same way. Had they been warned by Bannertail's nervous heels? Or had they, too, heard the distant fox barking?
The creature that surprised Bannertail most that night was a coyote. He came so silently that the kangaroo rat, busy with his harvesting, did not notice him until the wolf was very close. Then Bannertail jumped straight up into the air, leaving the coyote right under him, snapping at the ground where Bannertail had been a moment before. More quickly than the coyote could look up, Bannertail was on his way. After taking a few jumps five or six feet long, he came to a burrow near a cholla cactus. He did not try to go home—that was too far away. He escaped by darting into this near burrow, which was so deep and long that no coyote could dig him out. Bannertail hid there until long after the wolf left that part of the desert; but after a while he recovered from his fright and went home.
One fall night, when Bannertail's storerooms were nearly full, he left his home to play. His leaps were as long as those he had once taken to escape the coyote, but this time he was jumping with joy. He came to a bare, dusty spot under a mesquite tree and began to hop up and down there as if he were trying to reach a leaf that dangled from the tip of a low branch.
While Bannertail played, neighbors joined him. In a few minutes there were six happy kangaroo rats near the mesquite tree. One hopped round and round in circles on the sand, another jumped back and forth over tall grass tops, while the others took long running leaps. They frolicked together like the best of friends.
Suddenly, Bannertail left his comrades. He felt hungry and hopped to a place where he had once found some extra good seeds. He seemed to know just where to go, but when he got there he took little hops among the desert plants and smelled of different seed tips, seeking those he liked best. While he was hunting, three neighbors came. They hopped and sniffed, too, often coming close to Bannertail. For about five minutes he did not object to their company; but after he found the seeds he wanted most, he stopped being friendly. He began to pack the favorite food into his pouches; and every time another kangaroo rat hopped too near, Bannertail jumped over him and kicked. His neighbor had to dodge very quickly to avoid being hit by Bannertail's heels.
One night, on returning to his home after such an evening of fun and feasting, Bannertail found something that made him angry. It was the track of Buff, going into Bannertail's door. Buff was a kangaroo rat but not of the same kind as Bannertail. He was much smaller and lighter colored. He lived not far away under an ocotilla. (An ocotilla is a spiny desert shrub with very tall, slender, upright stems and splendid scarlet flowers. Another name for it is "candlewood.") Buff's house had plenty of long halls, but it was not very large and had no big rooms to fill with seeds. He gathered some food for himself; but when he wanted a lot to eat, he went where he could get it most easily—to the pantries of his bigger and busier relatives. Just then he was in one of Bannertail's storerooms stuffing his pouches as full as he could while the owner of the house was away.
When Bannertail came home, Buff suddenly found himself in trouble. Two powerful feet hit his back and he was pushed out of the room in a way that made him know he was an unwelcome guest. He dodged into a tunnel, dropping the seeds from his pouches as he went. Bannertail followed him, kicking him several times before he reached the door. It was a very scared and sore little Buff who hurried out of the house and hopped down one of the roads that led from Bannertail's home.
For many weeks before Buff's visit, the weather had been dry and the sky had been sunny by day and starry by night. Then, a few days after that event, the sky became dull and cloudy. The first of the rain fell in a fine misty drizzle. A little later came flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder, while the rain poured down in what is called a "cloudburst." The storm filled the great dry arroyo, or gully, with a muddy river and sent a sheet-flood over one place where Bannertail liked to gather seeds. Fortunately for him, the water did no real damage to his house, for it did not flood his tunnels and soak his storerooms.
Bannertail stayed indoors during the rainy day and all through the cool wet night that followed. He slept most of the next day, which was cool and drizzly. At sunset he went to the door, looked out, and returned to his comfortable, dry tunnels. The damp sand did not interest him. He did not even care to go to a puddle for a drink of water.
Rainy weather kept Bannertail in his house; but cold nights did not bother him. Even when a chilly wind came from the north, freezing some of the prickly-pear joints, Bannertail went out as usual. When he did not wish to gather seeds, he played, hopping up and down by himself until his neighbors came to join him in some jumping game.
One night in the midst of a frolic, Bannertail saw something strange. It was a tin can dropped by people who had been having a picnic on the desert. He stopped jumping and turned his back to the shining object and kicked. Spat, spat! went the grains of sand as they hit the tin. Bannertail looked to see what would happen. Would the queer thing run away? When he found that nothing happened, he came closer and kicked more sand at the can. Still the can paid no attention to him, so he kicked again. After that he put his head near enough to sniff at the tin. Deciding that it was not good enough to eat, he hopped lazily away.
As he hopped, he found some bits of bread left by the picnickers. He kicked sand on them. As they did not run away or turn to fight him, he nibbled one piece and found that it had a pleasant taste. He tucked the other pieces into his pouches and carried them home. It was time to go to bed for the day, in his nest far down at the end of a long winding tunnel. But first he would put the bread into a storeroom. It would be very good to eat for his luncheon when he was hungry.