THE WATER-RAT PLAYS HIDE-AND-SEEK WITH THE OWL

ONCE, not so very long ago, a family of field-mice lived in the
middle of a big wood. There was Mr. Brownie, the father-mouse, and
Mrs. Brownie, the mother mouse, and their two children, a boy-mouse
and a girl-mouse, whose names were Fuzz and Buzz.

In the summer, and in the spring and autumn too, field-mice have a
very nice time indeed; but in the winter, when the ground is frozen,
and the nuts and acorns and berries are gone from the trees and
bushes, their life is not quite so happy. And then, if the
father-mouse has not laid in a good store of food they have not
enough to eat, and are often very hungry until the spring comes
round again.

But this Mr. Brownie was a very careful mouse, and during the autumn
he always got such a large store of nuts and acorns, that when the
winter came it found their larder nice and full.

But one windy day in the month of October, when he was hard at work
digging up a big grass-root to carry home for the winter, a sad
thing happened to him. A heavy branch was blown down from a tree
close by, and it hit one of poor Mr. Brownie’s front paws and broke
it.

Fuzz and Buzz, who were having a merry game with the yellow leaves
that were being tossed about by the wind, ran up to him looking very
much frightened indeed, and then Fuzz went off as fast as he could
to tell his mother that his father had been hurt.

[Illustration]

Of course Mrs. Brownie came at once, and as one or two of her
neighbours ran after her to see where she was going in such a hurry,
they helped to carry poor Mr. Brownie home to his cosy nest.

And it was a great many days before he was able to leave it again,
for his paw took a long time to get well.

And when at last he limped on three paws to the door of his little
house and looked out into the wood, autumn had gone and winter had
come. And such a cold winter, too! Every blade of grass was covered
with white frost, and every leaf had a pretty white edge to it.

Mr. Brownie gave a big shiver as he glanced round him, and then he
said to his wife:

“My dear, I hope while I have been ill you have not forgotten to
fill our larder. It was nearly empty when I was last in it.”

“But, my dear,” Mrs. Brownie cried, “I have forgotten to fill it.
Besides, I have been so busy nursing you that I have not had time to
think of anything else. And I don’t believe that there is a single
nut or one grass-root left in it.”

“Then, my dear,” said Mr. Brownie sadly, “we shall starve this
winter, for it is too late now to find any acorns or anything else.
The squirrels and the birds have taken them all.”

Fuzz and Buzz looked very unhappy when they heard what their father
and mother were saying, and Fuzz said to his sister:

“How sad it will be to be always hungry!”

And the two young mice, and their father and mother as well, looked
still more unhappy as the days went by and the nuts and acorns in
their larder grew fewer and fewer. But though Mr. Brownie could only
limp about on three legs, he was not idle during those days. Mrs.
Brownie was so very fat that she could not walk far without sitting
down to rest, so she stayed at home, but Mr. Brownie, with Fuzz and
Buzz trotting one on each side of him, went about the wood looking
everywhere for nuts or acorns. But they could not find any. Mr.
Brownie was a very proud mouse, so he would not beg from his
neighbours; but they soon heard that he had very few nuts and
acorns, and without waiting to be asked they gave him as much food
as they could spare from their own larders. But that was not very
much. The summer had been a wet and a very short one, and none of
the mice who lived in that wood had been able to collect a very big
store of food. So what they could give to the Brownie family would
not be nearly enough to last them until the spring came, and the sun
thawed the ground and made it soft again so that they could scratch
into the earth and dig up roots.

“Oh, dear, dear!” sighed Mrs. Brownie. “Why didn’t we take my
sister’s advice and go and live as she does in a barn, where there
is always plenty of good oats and corn to be picked up?”

“Because,” said Mr. Brownie, “there are too many cats and dogs
living near barns to make them at all safe places for honest
field-mice like ourselves. But you never know when you are well off,
Mrs. Brownie.”

“Well, at any rate,” Mrs. Brownie remarked, “we couldn’t be worse
off than we are just now. For what is to become of us all without
any food this winter, I am sure I don’t know.” And then poor Mrs.
Brownie put her front paws up to her face and began to cry.

“Mother! Father!” Fuzz said suddenly in an eager little squeak. “Why
shouldn’t Buzz and I go down to the barn where my aunt lives and
bring back as much corn as ever we can carry’?”

But no sooner had he said that than Mrs. Brownie stopped crying, and
told her son in a very severe voice indeed not to talk nonsense; and
Mr. Brownie said that if he let them go he was sure that they would
never come back again, for some big dog or cat would be sure to kill
and eat them.

“Well, you see, Father,” said Fuzz, “if we don’t go we shall die
just the same, for there are only three acorns and one nut, which is
a bad one, left in the larder.”

And what Fuzz said was so very true that in the end he had his way,
and before the Brownie family went to bed that night it was settled
that the very next morning he and Buzz should start for the barn
where their aunt lived.

Miss Patty Grey-Fur was the name of their aunt, and once, about two
summers ago, she had come out to the wood on a visit to the
Brownies. She had not stayed very long, for she said she found the
country a very dull place. She had seemed a nice, gentle old
lady-mouse, and Fuzz and Buzz were sure that she would be kind to
them and give them as much corn as they wanted.

So early the next morning, after having said good-bye to their
father and mother, Fuzz and Buzz set out on their travels.

It would take them quite two days to reach the barn; but they could
not lose their way, for all they had to do was to follow the stream
that ran through the wood until it brought them out into the big
river on the bank of which the barn stood.

It was such a fine frosty morning, that although Fuzz and Buzz had
only had two bites each at an acorn they were very merry; and as
they ran in and out over the dry leaves that lay on the ground, they
talked gaily of the great heap of oats and corn that they meant to
bring back with them. How they were going to carry it they did not
stop to think, for, as Fuzz, who was a very wise young mouse, said,
the first thing they had to do was to get to the barn.

The sound of the running water led them straight to the stream,
which flowed through the wood very quickly, and was quite deep
enough to drown both of them if they had fallen into it. After they
had run beside the stream for some time Buzz began to get rather
tired.

“Oh, wouldn’t it be nice,” she said, “if we had a boat, Fuzz, and
could be carried down the stream in it!”

“That’s a very good idea of yours,” Fuzz cried at once; “let’s look
for a nice piece of bark, and then we will put it in the stream and
float on it.”

Buzz was just a little bit frightened when she found what Fuzz was
going to do, and she said she was sure they would be drowned; but
Fuzz told her not to be silly, and said that as long as he was with
her no harm should come to her. Then he set to work to look for a
piece of bark which should do for a raft. He soon found one, and,
helped by Buzz, he pulled it to the edge of the water and let it
fall into the stream. Then before it had time to float away he took
hold of one of Buzz’s little front paws, and together they jumped on
to their raft.

“Oh, oh!” squeaked Buzz in a great fright, for their weight had made
the wood sink about a quarter of an inch below the water, and that
was quite enough to wet their little feet, and their legs too. And
the water was so cold! But in a minute their raft came up again, the
water ran off it, and it floated merrily away down the stream. Buzz
was then no longer afraid of being drowned; and after they had dried
their paws and curled their tails round them to keep them warm, she
said that it was much nicer to sail down the stream than to walk
along its banks. And Fuzz said the same.

THE raft was quite big enough for them to sit side by side, but of
course there was not very much room for them to move about. They
were quite content, however, to sit quite still, and to watch the
banks slipping past them.

Several times they had narrow escapes from being drowned, for as
they had no means of guiding their little raft they had to go
wherever the stream took them, and once it bumped them right up
against a big stone that rose out of the water. This made the raft
tilt to one side so much, that if Fuzz and Buzz had not held tightly
to one another they would have slid off into the water. But before
either of them had time to feel frightened, they were carried safely
past the big stone and were floating down the stream again.

As the morning went on, Fuzz and Buzz began to get very hungry. So
when the raft floated to one side of the stream and got caught by
some tall reeds which grew at the edge, Fuzz and Buzz made up their
minds to land, and go into the wood and see if they could find
something to eat.

Leaving their raft among the reeds, they climbed up the banks and
went into the wood. And as just in that part of it some fine
beech-trees were growing, Fuzz and Buzz, to their great delight,
found several beech-nuts lying underneath the leaves. They sat down
and ate a good dinner, and then, taking the rest of the beech-nuts
with them, they went back to their raft and were soon sailing down
the stream again.

[Illustration]

Winter afternoons are very short, and not long after Fuzz and Buzz
had had their dinner the sun began to turn into a great red ball,
and to sink behind the trees.

“But we need not stop even when it does get dark,” said Buzz, “for
we can float along in the night just as well as in the day, and
perhaps in the morning we shall find ourselves at Aunt Patty’s
barn.”

“Not you!” said a hoarse voice so close to them that Fuzz and Buzz
gave a little start, and then, looking down into the stream, they
saw that a big water-rat was swimming along beside their raft.

“What did you say, please?” Fuzz asked politely.

“I said that if you went on floating after dark you would never get
to wherever you are going,” said the water-rat; “for in the hollow
tree at the edge of the wood a big owl lives, and if he sees you he
will have you for his supper, as sure as I am swimming here. Two
such tender, fat young field-mice as you are don’t come his way
every night, and would be a rare treat for him.”

But as neither Fuzz nor Buzz wished to be a rare treat for anybody,
at least not in that way, they looked at one another, and a cold
shiver ran down their backs. Fuzz was the first to feel brave again,
or at least to pretend that he felt brave, and he said to the
water-rat:

“But owls never come out in the daytime, they only fly about at
night.”

“Well, of course I know that,” said the rat.

But Fuzz and Buzz, at any rate, did not want to be eaten by the owl
who lived in the hollow tree, and they thanked the water-rat so much
for his advice that he was quite pleased.

“Would you like some of our beech-nuts?” said Buzz.

“No, thank you,” said the water-rat, whose voice, like the voices of
all water-rats, was very gruff and hoarse; “I never eat that sort of
thing. But it is very polite of you to ask me to have some, all the
same.”

Then, swimming sometimes beside them, and sometimes behind them, and
sometimes in front of them, the rat went with them down the stream,
and they told him where they were going and why they had to go.

“No food at all in your larder!” said the rat. “Dear me, that’s bad.
That is the worst of living on nuts and things of that sort. Now, I
catch my food when I want it, and very good food it is too. Bacon
and candle-ends are what I like best, but of course, living in the
country as I do, I don’t very often find any. In the spring, though,
I eat a good many birds’ eggs; and that reminds me that I know of an
empty wren’s nest near the edge of the wood. You might sleep there
to-night, and go on to the barn in the morning. I will come with you
and show it to you.”

Fuzz and Buzz, whose mother had taught them very nice manners,
thanked him again, and the three went down the stream together, and
the rat talked away so fast that none of them saw that it was
growing darker and darker. But soon the low hooting of an owl broke
the silence that had fallen over the wood, and Fuzz and Buzz looked
at one another in a great fright.

“Let’s get into the wood and hide,–quick, quick!” said Buzz.

But the rat, who did not seem to be in the least afraid, laughed at
her.

“Look how high the banks are,” he said. “Long before we could get to
the top of them the owl would swoop down on us. But a little farther
on there are some thick bushes, and if we can get under them before
he sees us, we shall be quite safe.”

But it was doubtful whether they would be able to reach the bushes
in time, for when the owl hooted again, they could hear that he was
very much nearer to them than before.

“Don’t be afraid,” said the rat, who now seemed to be quite enjoying
the adventure. But Fuzz and Buzz, who could neither swim nor dive
like the water-rat, were not able to help being afraid.

Again and again the owl hooted, and each time the cry sounded
nearer.

“Never you mind,” said the rat, as he dived right underneath their
raft and came up on the other side, “he sha’n’t catch you.”

But Fuzz and Buzz did mind, and they thought as they crept close to
each other in a great fright, that it would be sad indeed if the owl
had them for his supper that night.

“He wouldn’t look at you if he thought there was a chance of his
getting me,” said the rat. “You see, I am so much bigger that I
would do for his breakfast next morning as well. Hullo! There he is,
right overhead. Now, you watch, and you will see some fun.”

And the rat suddenly swam about two or three yards in front of the
raft, and made such a loud splashing with his paws and his tail that
the owl could not help seeing him. In a moment he swooped down upon
the water, and Buzz and Fuzz squeaked with terror. For they thought
that their friend must have been caught. But not a bit of it. Just
as the owl made that quick swoop the rat dived beneath the water,
and the owl rose again without having caught him.

[Illustration]

But the owl had heard their squeak, and he said to himself, that if
he could not get a rat for his supper a mouse would do just as well.
So down he flew again, and Fuzz and Buzz thought that their last
moment had come. But when the owl was so close to them that they
could see his sharp beak and his cruel claws quite plainly, their
tails, which were floating in the water, were suddenly pulled, and
they tumbled backwards head over heels into the stream.

Down, down they sank, so deep that the idea came into their heads,
that if they were not going to be eaten they were going to be
drowned. But just as they were gasping and choking for air they rose
to the top of the water again, and then they saw that they were
under some thick bushes, and that the rat, with the end of their
tails in his mouth, was swimming towards the bank.

“Climb on to my back,” said the rat, and though his fur was very wet
and slippery, they did as they were told, and clung tightly round
his neck.

“Wasn’t that fun, eh?” said the rat with a laugh. “I am sure the owl
is as mad as he can be. To lose his supper twice in one night is
enough to make the old bird very angry. It’s fine sport to play
hide-and-seek with an owl, although it _is_ rather dangerous. Well,
here’s the nest that I told you about. And now I must be going home,
or my wife will wonder where I am. Good-bye! I hope you will have a
safe journey, and that you will get as much corn as you want.
Perhaps I may see you on your way back.”

Hidden among the thick prickly branches of a hawthorn hedge not far
from the ground, Fuzz and Buzz saw the empty wren’s nest, and after
thanking the rat for having saved their lives, they climbed into it
and were soon fast asleep.

Next morning they went down to the stream and looked for their raft.
And as, before he went home, the rat had put it where they could
easily find it, they had not to look very long, and were soon
floating down with the stream again.

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