Andrew Lang.

The red book of animal stories online

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bour's threshold. They have no idea of self-control,
and any sudden noise occurring when they are feeding
gives rise to a perfect babel of cries and screams. A
vizcacha has a great variety of notes, and can make



110 THE HOMES OF THE VIZCACHAS

himself heard at a great distance. He also has a very
odd trick of stopping in the middle of his dinner to utter
loud shrieks, and at night he never seems to stop talk-
ing, as dwellers on the pampas know too well.

Vizcachas are hardy little creatures, who can do
without water as long as they can get green food. But
in dry summers, when nothing is to be had but withered
grass or dry thistle-stalks, they are forced to drink when
they can. They are very busy and energetic, and when
once their house is ready, time seems to hang heavy on
their hands at least, that is perhaps the reason why they
are so careful to leave nothing lying about, but drag
every kind of refuse to the mouth of the burrow and
pile it up in a mass. This trick is so well known, that,
in the pampas, when any article is missing, it is at once
looked for in a vizcachera, just as we should search a
magpie's nest, and it is on record that a man's watch was
once discovered there. The little animals show a sense
of fun, too, which must make them amusing to watch,
especially in their dealings with dogs. Except when
they are feeding, when anything upsets them, the
appearance of a dog produces no effect on the nerves of
a vizcacha. He will continue sitting quietly on his
mound till the dog gets near, when he retreats quietly into
his burrow. The dog never can resist the sight of a viz-
cacha, and never learns that it is impossible to catch one,
so this game goes on for ever, to the great enjoyment of
the vizcacha.

The birds and beasts and insects who profit by the
work of the vizcachas and make their homes on the
mounds are on the friendliest terms with them, and,
indeed, the foxes take a base advantage of the friendliness
of the little creatures. They come into the vizcacha
dwellings, and stay there till a ' wing ' is given up to
them. The good-natured and easy-going vizcachas,
however, do not resent this, and may even be seen taking
the air with their guests on summer evenings. All goes



well till the young ones are able to leave their cells,
when the foxes throw off their masks and seize them for
dinner, even fighting the old ones first.

For a long while, the vizcachas, being of no use to
mankind, were let quite alone, but of late they have grown
so very numerous, and the land has been thrown so much
more into cultivation, that it has become necessary to
destroy them. Efforts have been made to stop up some
of their burrows, but. their friends learn in some wonder-
ful way of the danger of their comrades, and will come
even from great distances to dig them out. Their
wonderful powers of endurance enable them to stand
a long siege, and they can live without food for as
long as fourteen days. If they are allowed to die a
natural death in their own inner chamber, the dead
vizcacha is left to lie in state, for a few T days, after which
he is carried out by his relatives, and placed solemnly
on the side of the mound.



112



GUANACOS: LIVING AND DYING



WHEN the Spaniards under Pizarro conquered the great
country of Peru, about the year 1520, they found much
value set upon the race of Llamas, of which four kinds
existed in Peru, all of them highly prized for one thing
or another.

The llama itself, which is the largest of the four, is
chiefly used as a beast of burden, though it can only carry
about a hundred pounds weight at a time, and is able
to travel no more than sixteen miles a day, or about as
much as an ordinary soldier's march. If an extra pound is
put on, the llama simply declines to move ; and if its
driver tries to give it a blow, he will receive something
very unpleasant in his face, as visitors to Zoological
Gardens know very well ! A hundred pounds does not
seem a great load for such a large beast, but there are
many qualities about a llama which cause him to be
employed, rather than many another stronger animal.

First he is there, and in great numbers, so that he is
to be had for the asking. Then he is easily managed ;
never wants water for weeks or months together, and
lives on any poor kind of grass (especially a sort called
ychu) that he can pick up on the sides of the rocky
Andes or Cordilleras. His wool is so thick and clinging,
that it is very seldom necessary to tie on the load, which
sticks on of itself ; a pointed claw enables the llama to
walk safely over slippery places, even over ice, much
better than any shoes would do, and finally, if no other
food is to be had, his flesh is quite tolerable.



GU AN AC OS: LIVING AND DYING 113

The llama varies in colour, but is generally of a sort
of white. His neck and legs are long. Fond of
company, when his pride is not touched he is easily
led, and it was no uncommon thing for the Spaniards,
when they first entered the country, to meet whole




SPANIARDS MEETING A CARAVAN OF LLAMAS

caravans of llamas laden with silver ingots from the
mines of Potosi, travelling under the charge of a single
native. Indeed, it has been reckoned that fully 300,000
llamas were employed in this service.

But though the wool of the llama was sometimes
used for rough kinds of cloth, it was not nearly so highly

B I



Ill GUANACOS: LIVING AND DYING

valued as that of the smaller variety of the breed, called
the vicuna, whose hair was woven into the finest
material, reserved especially for the Peruvian nobles.
The vicunas are little beasts, with soft feet and excellent
appetites, and when the grass on the higher mountains
withers in the summer heat, they come down in search of
the pasture on the moist plains. In every herd there are
generally fifteen or sixteen females to one male, but he
is very careful of his charges, and when they are on
the march always brings up the rear. The little ones
are strong and swift, even from the moment of their
birth ; but when the males are quite grown up the
mothers all join together to expel them from the flock,
and the young creatures then form a club of their own,
from which, in their turn, the females are excluded.

The laws of hunting in Peru were very strict, and the
peasants were strictly forbidden to break them. Once a
year the Government arranged a chase on a large scale,
which lasted a whole week, and was shared in by all
the men of the district ; but great care was taken that
the hunt should only be held in the same place every
fourth year. Each man had his appointed place and
brought with him a pole and spear, and a weapon called a
bolas, made of two balls joined by a string. This was
whirled round the head and let fly at the animal, and so
skilful were the Peruvians in its use, that the creature
was generally killed at the first blow.

As the hunt went on, the circle of men was drawn
closer and closer, till at the end, nothing was left alive
but the valuable vicunas and their cousins the guanacos,
who were always held sacred. Then a great shearing
took place sometimes as many as forty thousand of
these llamas remained to be sheared and the wool was
stored in the royal magazine till the different kinds
could be sorted and separated. When this was done,
the finer sorts were reserved for the nobles, and the
rest given to the common people, who had a right to



GU AN AC OS: LIVING AND DYING 115

all the flesh of the dead animals. The skins fell to the
priests.

The guanaco, which is smaller than the llama, and
larger than the vicuna, wanders over the whole of South
America, and is to be met with on peaks of the Andes
more than twenty thousand feet high, as well as in the
bare lands of southern Patagonia, where he is most
numerous. He is about four feet high from the shoulder,
and seven or eight feet in length, and his wool is of a
pale reddish colour and very thick. It is shortest and
reddest on the top, and is exactly suited to the cold
bare places where the guanaco loves to roam. Like the
llamas, they are generally to be found several together,
but they are very cautious, and never attempt to eat the
smallest meal without placing a scout to give warning
of the approach of an enemy. If one is seen or smelt
for the scent of the guanaco is extraordinarily keen,
the scout utters a peculiar penetrating cry, something
like the bell of a deer, and the flock instantly make off
to a place of safety. But if the enemy to be dreaded is
a puma, his scent is sharper and his feet swifter than
those of a guanaco, and many are the bodies found lying
on the pampas, with dislocated necks.

Like many shy people, guanacos are very curious, and,
as has happened before now, their curiosity often ends
in their undoing. Sometimes a band will unite to ex-
plore some special district, and when they have dis-
covered what they are looking for, they will wheel
round as cleverly as a troop of soldiers, and return
whence they came in a straight line. They are all
good swimmers, and of very accommodating habits ; if
no grass is to be had, they can go without for a sur-
prising length of time, and if fresh water cannot be got,
they content themselves with salt. They are lively and
excitable, and may be seen giving vent to their feelings
just as human beings do, by making strange noises, and
jumping about.



116 GUANACOS: LIVING AND DYING

Guanacos are very rarely seen by themselves, but
may be met with in flocks varying from five hundred
down to six. They are easily tamed, but, unlike most
other animals, become more ready to defend themselves
in their tame than in their wild state. They will even
learn to attack man, and to strike out in a peculiar way
with both knees from behind.

One strange fact has been discovered about the
guanacos which is not as yet known of any other crea-
tures. When, by some curious and unexplained instinct,
they feel that they have received their death wound, or
been stricken with their last illness, they leave their
fellows, and make straight for one of their dying places,
perhaps hundreds of miles away. Some of these dying
places have been seen by travellers, in South Pata-
gonia, where they are most frequent, usually near rivers,
in the midst of low trees, and thick scrub. Why the
stricken beast should take the long and often difficult
journey, instead of creeping away like other creatures
into the nearest hole or thicket to die, we do not know.
It may be an inherited longing for a spot which was
originally a place of shelter, or it may be that they are
pushed by invisible hands to the grassy refuge that is
whitened by their father's bones. What becomes of all
the dead animals ? Does anybody know ? Of the spar-
rows, the monkeys, the hares ? A ' dead donkey ' is
such a rare sight that it has turned into a proverb.
But what about the rest ?



117



IN THE AMERICAN DESERT

CHILDREN who are lucky enough to have read Captain
Mayne Eeid's charming tales, will remember all sorts of
exciting stories of animals ; but as so many of the old
books have fallen out of fashion, we will give a couple of
adventures taken from the ' Desert Home,' and no child
who has once looked at these will be content without
getting hold of the original volume.

The ' Home ' was in the great American desert, which
spreads over a large tract of country in the west of
Texas and the east of New Mexico, nearly to the foot of
the Eocky Mountains. People who live in such places
must expect strange sights and sounds, and the battle of
the snakes, which the settlers one day witnessed, was
the sort of thing one might see at any moment.

Kobert Eolfe, his wife and family had gone out West,
to find a place where they might build a cabin, and live
a happy and peaceable life. All sorts of things had to be
thought of before a suitable spot was fixed on, but at last
a log cabin was put up, and everyone began to hope that,
by the time the winter came, the house would be snug
and comfortable.

One day they all started for one of the salt springs
which are to be found in such numbers through this
region, and took a huge kettle with them, to boil down
the salt before they carried it home. They had just
finished dinner, and were sitting over the fire, when they
heard a blue -jay screaming from a tree near by, and



118 IN THE AMERICAN DESERT

from the tone of her voice they knew quite well that an
enemy must be at hand.

At first nothing was to be seen that would explain the
bird's alarm, but on glancing from the trees to the ground,
they saw a thin yellow body moving noiselessly through
the grass. Every now and then it stopped, raised its
head, and touched the dry leaves with its tongue, and in
so doing it stretched itself out, showing its full length,
which was over six feet. At the end of its tail was a
loose row of horny substances, which made a horrid
sound when shaken, and gave the creature its name of
' rattle-snake.'

Now, of course, no snake in the world could catch a
bird if the bird chose to fly away, and the rattle-snake
least of all, as it cannot climb trees. But snakes, as
everybody knows, have a deadly power of fascination,
and the people who were looking on were anxious to see
whether the blue- jay would be able to resist the charm,
or whether she would fall a victim to his spell.

By this time the snake had reached the foot of a big
magnolia, and after sniffing all round the tree, coiled
itself up in a great yellow heap, close to the stem, paying
no heed to the foolish blue-jay, who had done her best to
bring about her own death by the silly noise she was
making. However, seeing at last that the snake was pay-
ing no attention to her, but only getting ready for a nap,
the bird plucked up courage, and flew away to its nest.

A moment after, the rattle-snake made a slight move-
ment, which proved he was not asleep after all. "What
was he waiting for ? A squirrel most likely, for squirrels
are the dinner which rattle-snakes like the best. Yes,
sure enough, high up in the tree there was a hole, and
along the grass was a tiny trail leading straight to the
magnolia, and from certain marks on the bark, it was
quite plain that the squirrels came and went that way.
Now it was close to this trail that the snake had taken up
his station.



IN THE AMERICAN DESERT 119

They all sat with their eyes fixed on the hole, out of
which a little head came peeping. It did not see the
snake, but it did see the settlers, and did not seem to
like the look of them, for there it was, and there it
clearly meant to stay. Suddenly the dead leaves of the
wood began to rustle violently, and out dashed another
squirrel at its topmost speed, making for its home in the
tree. Twenty feet behind a long yellow pine-weasel was
in full chase.

The squirrel could think of nothing but the enemy
behind, and never heeded any possible danger in front,
yet, if it had only looked that way, it would have seen some-
thing more dreadful even than a pine-weasel. The rattle-
snake had suddenly swelled to twice its natural size ; his
mouth was opened so wide that the lower jaw touched
his throat, and his poisoned fangs were bare. As the
squirrel flashed past him up the stem, the snake ap-
peared to move his head slightly, but so little that it did
not seem even to have touched the squirrel. Yet some-
how, before the squirrel had reached the first branch, it
began to climb more slowly, and in another moment
stopped altogether. It swayed from side to side as if it
had been seized with giddiness, then its claws gave way,
and it fell dead into the jaws of the serpent.

The weasel, who in its headlong chase had very nearly
rushed upon the same fate, stopped at a little distance,
hissing and growling, and evidently half inclined to
fight the snake, but at length it decided that this would
be very unwise, so, with a final snarl, it marched off into
the woods.

When the last hair of the weasel's tail had vanished
round a tree, the snake uncoiled himself, and licked the
body of the squirrel well over, before swallowing it head
foremost.

He was still engaged in this operation when a great
creeper with scarlet flowers, hanging about twenty feet
above the head of the rattle-snake, began to move in a



120

curious way, and out of the wreaths of leaves and blossoms
came a big, black body, as large as a man's arm a boa-
constrictor. It glided down the creeper towards the trunk
of the magnolia, taking the greatest care to do nothing
which could rouse the attention of the rattle-snake, who,
indeed, was wholly occupied in making ready the squirrel
to swallow. He had just taken the head and shoulders
into his mouth, when the boa-constrictor appeared
dangling for a moment by a single loop of his tail ; then
he dropped, and before the lookers-on had time to see
w r hat had happened, both snakes were locked together in
a death struggle.

As to size they were very well matched, but the boa-
constrictor \vas thinner, and far more active. It wound
and unwound itself round the rattle-snake's body, press-
ing it close in its crushing embrace ; and the rattle-snake
was powerless to sting, as it could not get rid of the
squirrel. Curious to say, they never fought face to face,
but the head of the constrictor had seized the bony rattles
of its foe, and with its strong tail was really beating him
to death. It w r as quite plain who was going to win ; the
snake had no weapons now his poisoned fangs were
useless, and soon his struggles grew feebler in the grasp
of his enemy, and he stretched himself out, as dead as
the squirrel.

In places that are the homes of wild animals, not a day
passes without adventures of this kind. One day Mr.
Kolfe and his son Frank went down the valley to coUect
some moss which hung in strips from the branches of
the ' live-oak,' and made soft and comfortable stuffing for
mattresses. They soon discovered what they wanted, and
were very busy about their work, when some black and
yellow orioles began making a terrific hubbub in a grove
of pawpaws close by. Leaving the moss the two men
crept behind a tree, to see what had caused the disturbance.

It was some minutes before they found out, then they



121



saw an extraordinary bundle of heads and legs and tails
coming slowly along towards the grove of pawpaws.
What in the world could it be ? Suddenly the great body
seemed to divide up into a host of little ones, and behold




WATCHING THE COMBAT



there was an old grey, woolly opossum, the size of a
big cat, and her thirteen little white rats of babies !
Opossums are ugly creatures, and this one was no better
than the rest. Her nose was long and sharp, her legs



122 IN THE AMERICAN DESERT

short and fat, and her tail, which was nearly the length
of her whole body, was quite naked. Underneath, she
had a pouch like a kangaroo.

When she had got rid of her thirteen children, the old
opossum stood still and stared straight up into a tall
pawpaw, where the birds were fluttering and screaming
more wildly than ever ; every now and then making a
dive down to the opossum, who took no notice of their
proceedings. The two men followed her eyes, and saw
an oriole's nest, hanging like a pocket from the top twigs
of the tree.

The old opossum saw it too, and uttered a sharp cry
which brought all the little ones running helter-skelter
from their game in the dead leaves. Some tucked them-
selves safely into their mother's pouch, two used her
tail as a rope, and lay comfortably down in her hair,
while others held on by her neck. When seven or
eight had gone to their places, the whole mass began
to climb the pawpaw. At the first branch the heavily
laden animal stopped, and then, holding the kittens one
by one in her mouth, she passed their tails twice round
the branch, and there they hung heads downwards, looking
very funny indeed. When she had disposed of those she
had with her, she went back to the ground for the rest,
till the whole thirteen were suspended from the branch !

This business done she could now go up the tree with
an easy mind, and very cautiously she made her way
towards the nest, the birds growing more and more
excited the higher she climbed, till their wings almost
touched her nose. When she reached the branch on
which the nest hung, she stopped doubtfully. It was
very thin, and creaked beneath her weight as she moved
along it. Clearly it was too dangerous, so she backed
carefully till she was safe on the trunk, where she paused
to consider what she could do next. All at once the
branch of an oak, that stretched exactly out over the nest,
caught her eye, and turning, she ran swiftly down the



IN THE AMERICAN DESERT



123



stem of the pawpaw, and up the oak. In another moment
she was creeping out on the branch.

When she was right over the nest she curled round
her tail, and let herself go. But it was no use. In vain
she swung herself backwards and forwards, stretching
herself out to her greatest length : the nest was still too




THE MOCCASON SNAKE FASCINATES THE ORIOLES



far away. The eggs she coveted were only a few inches
off, but they were as much beyond her reach as if they
had been miles away. At last, with a snort of disgust,
she swung herself back again, and came down the
oak.

The young ones were soon unhooked from their station
on the pawpaw, and tucked away as before. Then,



124 IN THE AMERICAN DESERT

evidently in a very bad temper, she took her whole cargo
off into the wood.

The birds now changed their note, and after singing a
short song of victory, became quite still. Suddenly the
fluttering and chattering began afresh, and through the
grass came gliding a huge moccason snake. If the birds
had only known, they and their nest were safe enough,
for the moccason cannot climb trees, but it has other
ways of getting at its prey.

The neai^er the snake came the greater grew the noise
of the orioles, though every circle that they made brought
them lower and lower, and closer to the snake. The
moccason watching steadily, saw that the spell of his
fascination had almost worked, for the birds sometimes
actually touched the ground in their flutterings, while
their wings moved more and more slowly. At length
one stood quite still with his mouth open ; but instead of
seizing his prey, the moccason suddenly uncoiled himself
and took flight the way he had come, while the birds,
who had so narrowly escaped death, flew into the
tree.

The reason of the snake's strange conduct was the
sudden appearance of a peccary or wild hog on the out-
skirts of the wood, a creature about as large as a wolf,
with bristles in place of hair, and sharp tusks sticking
out of its mouth. It was closely followed by two young
ones who, instead of being dark grey, were a kind
of red.

The peccary had not seen the snake, and was not
thinking about it, till suddenly she stepped by accident
across its trail. The smell of the moccason was quite
unmistakable, and she ran about with her nose on the
ground, sniffing the scent. At first she made one or
two false starts, for, of course, the snake had left a
double track ; but having settled on the right one, she
started off at full speed.

Meanwhile the snake was hastening as quickly as its



IN THE AMERICAN DESEET 125

natural slowness allowed, towards the shelter of the cliffs,
taking care to keep itself hidden as it went in the long
grass. But the peccary, coming galloping along- with
her nose on the ground, almost tumbled over it before
she was aware, and both parties drew back and pre-
pared for battle. For a minute or tw r o they eyed each
other ; the peccary drew back and then came on with a
sudden rush, ending with a spring high into the air,
which brought her straight on the moccason's back. It
was a most curious form of attack, for no sooner had the
peccary alighted on the back of the snake, with all its
four paws pressed closely together, than it bounded off
again. This was repeated two or three times, and then
she sprang right on the head of the moccason, breaking
its neck on the ground by the pressure of its claws.
Once more the thicket sounded with the cry of victory,
and the peccary, calling to her young ones, who had taken
no part in the battle, ran up to the snake, which she
skinned very neatly with her tusks and teeth, before
eating the flesh for supper.

But she had not very long to enjoy herself with her
family, before she was disturbed. Through the weeds
and jungle which grew up to a short distance of the bare
spot where the combat between the peccary and the
moccason had taken place, came stealing softly a beast


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Online LibraryAndrew LangThe red book of animal stories → online text (page 7 of 22)