Raggylug, the Story of a Cottontail Rabbit
Raggylug, or Rag, was the name of a young cottontail rabbit. Ho got this name because he had a torn and ragged ear, the result of his first adventure. He lived with his mother in Mr. Olifant's swamp, where I became acquainted with them and learned their life and ways. Perhaps, when you read this story, you will think that I have made the animals too much like human beings. But those who have lived near them and studied their ways and their minds will not think so. Of course, rabbits cannot speak as we do, but they have a system of sounds, signs, scents and movements, by means of which they understand each other. In this story I translate from the rabbit language into the English language, and I do not say anything that they did not say.
The swamp grass concealed the nest where Raggylug lay. When his mother had to go away, she covered him with some of this grass and, as always, she told him, in Rabbit language, to "lay low", that is, not to move or make a sound. For some time he lay still and, with his bright eyes, looked at that part of the little green world that was straight above him. Then a blue jay and a squirrel began to quarrel, and soon the bush under which Rag lay became the centre of their fight, A little yellow bird caught a blue butterfly over Raggylug's nose, and a black and red ladybug walked across the nest and over Rag's face, — yet he did not move.
After a while he heard a strange movement among the leaves of a bush near him. It was a strange sound, and although he heard something move this way and that way, and although the sound came nearer and nearer, there was no sound of feet. Rag was only three weeks old, and he was curious to see what it was that moved without feet. The strange noise continued, first to the right, then to the left, and then back. Raggylug raised his fat little body on his short legs, lifted his little round head above the nest and peeped out into the woods. The sound stopped as soon as he moved. He saw nothing, so he took one step forward and looked about him. At once a big black snake seized him by the ear. "Mammy," he screamed in terror. He was helpless in the grasp of the cruel snake.
But Raggy's mother heard the cry, and she came flying through the woods to save her baby. The mother's love filled her with the courage of a hero. Hop, she jumped over that terrible snake. Then — whack, she struck him with her sharp hind claws as she passed. The snake hissed with pain and anger. Mammy leaped again and again and struck harder and harder, until the snake let go Raggy's ear and tried to bite the old rabbit. He got only a mouthful of fur each time, but mammy's blows tore his skin in many places. The snake prepared himself for another attack. Now little Raggylug quickly ran into the bush. He was terribly frightened, but not hurt, except that his left ear was torn by the teeth of the snake. That was his first adventure. Molly — that was the name of Rag's mother — did not want to fight any more when she saw that her little one was safe. So she ran as fast as she could into the woods, with Rag close behind her. Soon they were safe in the swamp.
All round old Olifant's swamp there were large fields. Crossing these fields, there were the tracks of a bad fox that lived too near the swamp where Molly and Rag lived. Rag and his mother had no neighbours, and their nearest relations were dead. The swamp was their home, — they had no other home. Molly was a good little mother and gave her son a careful upbringing. Rag never forgot the first lesson she taught him, and he never forgot his adventure with the snake. After that he always did as she told him.
The second lesson he learned was "freeze", and he learned it as soon as he could run. "Freezing" means to do nothing, to turn into a statue. When an enemy is near, a cottontail will immediately stop all movement, because the creatures of the wood are of the same colour as the things in the wood, and no one can see them until they move. Thus the rabbit has some time in which he can prepare for attack or for escape. All animals learn this trick of "freezing", but not one of them could do it better than Molly Cottontail. Rag's mother taught him this trick. When Molly ran through the woods, Rag ran hard to keep up with her. And when she suddenly stopped and "froze", he did the same.
The best lesson of all that Rag learned from his mother was the secret of the Brierbush. "The Brierbush," she said, "is your best friend." And this is the story of the Brierbush:
"Long ago the Roses grew on bushes that had no thorns. But the squirrels and mice, the cattle and other animals knocked the roses off with their horns, or with their long tails, or with their sharp hoofs. So the Brierbush armed itself with thorns to protect the roses, and declared war on all creatures that climbed trees, or had horns, or hoofs, or long tails. The only friend the Brierbush had was Molly Cottontail, who could not climb, had no horns or hoofs, and hardly any tail at all. So when a rabbit is in danger, he runs to the nearest Brierbush, and knows that it is ready to defend him with a million sharp daggers."
That season Rag also learned to know the land around the swamp. He learned this lesson so well that he could go all around the swamp by two different ways and still be near his friend the Brierbush all the time. Soon after that Mr. Olifant brought a new kind of thorn and planted it in long lines everywhere. It was so strong and sharp that none of the wild animals could break it down. But Molly Cottontail was not afraid of it, because it was only a new kind of Brierbush, and she lived in peace with her son under the new thorns. The name of this terrible new thorn was the barbed-wire fence.
Molly had no other children, so Rag received all her care. He was very quick and bright as well as strong and he got on very well. All the season she taught him the tricks of the trail, what to eat and drink and what not to touch. He sat close by her side in the field or the thicket, and did what she did. Thus he learned to comb his ears with his claws and to wash his fur, and to pick the burs out of his fur and feet. He learned also that only the dewdrops from the Brier-bushes were good for a rabbit to drink, as water which has touched the earth usually had some poison in it.
As soon as Rag was big enough to go out alone, his mother taught him the signal code. Rabbits have a system of thumps by means of which they send messages to each other. Along the ground sound carries far, and since rabbits have very good hearing, they can hear a thump two hundred yards away. One thump means "look out" or "freeze". A slow thump, thump means "come". A fast thump, thump means "danger", and a very fast thump, thump, thump means "run for your life."
At another time, when the weather was fine, Rag began to learn a new lesson. Molly gave the thump signal for "come". Rag ran to the place where he thought she was, but could not find her. He thumped, but got no reply. He looked for her and found the scent of her feet. He followed this strange-trail that the animals know so well and man does not know at all, and found her among the Brierbushes. This was his first lesson of how to follow a trail. She taught him the signs by which to know all his enemies, and how to escape from his enemies. Hawks, owls, foxes, dogs, cats and other animals, and also men, all look for and follow their victims in different ways. Molly taught Rag how to fight or run away from each and all of them. However, he always remembered that the Brierbush was the best place in which to hide when he had to run away from an enemy.
His mother also taught him how to know the approach of an enemy. He learned to depend first on himself and his mother, and then on the blue jay. "The blue jay," she said, "is a thief and a mischief-maker, but he cannot harm us because we have the Brierbush, and because his enemies are our enemies. So pay attention to his warnings. He often tells lies, but you can believe him when he brings bad news."
The barbed-wire fence was the next thing he began to study. "It's a fine game for those who can do it," said Molly.
When a man is hunting, and his dogs are trying to catch you, keep just one hop ahead of them. Then load them straight into the barbed-wire fence, while you turn aside and escape. The dog or fox that is chasing you runs against the barbed wire, which tears his skin and wounds or kills him at once. Rag learned that there were many dangers in the trick of "hole-up", which means: "hide in a hole in the ground when an enemy is chasing you." It is sale when a man, a dog, a fox or a large bird is chasing you, but it means death if the enemy is a small animal like the skunk or the weasel. Near the swamp there were only two holes in the ground. One was in the south end of the swamp, where the sun shone J)rightly, and where, on fine days, the rabbits took their sunbaths. The other was in the roots of a pine tree close by. One day a dog killed the owner of this hole, and Molly Cottontail moved into it an hour later. But Molly did not remain there. She and Rag did not go near these holes, for they did not want to leave a trail that the enemy could follow. They used them only when they were in great danger. There was also another hole in an old tree. This hole was open at both ends, so that they could go in at one end and out of the other. The old weasel that lived there was killed one dark night when he tried to steal a hen. Thus Molly and Rag had another place where they could hide when in danger.
It was a bright day in August. The sun shone over the dirty water of the swamp. A little brown sparrow sat on a bush "near the swamp and chirped. The eyes of the little bird could not see the beauty of the scene, but she saw what, perhaps, we could not see, — that two of the bumps under some big leaves on the ground were living creatures with fur and with noses that moved up and down when they breathed.
It was Molly and Rag, who came here for a quiet rest. But they were not here long, when suddenly they heard the warning note of the blue jay. Molly looked around her, and there, across the swamp, was Olifant's big black and white dog.
"Now," said Molly, "lie still, while I go and meet that fool." And she dashed across the dog's path. "Bow-ow-ow," barked the dog. But Molly kept just a little ahead of him and led him straight into the Brierbush, where a million daggers cut and tore him. When the dog came out of the Brierbush, Molly again dashed off and the dog followed. This time she led him to the barbed-wire fence. The dog howled with pain and ran home. When Molly returned, she found Rag standing on his hind legs and trying to see the sport. She was so angry that she struck him with her hind foot and knocked him over in the mud.
One day, when they were eating some clover in the field near them, a hawk flew down and tried to catch them. Molly and Rag ran along one of their old paths into the Brierbush, where the hawk could not follow. Along this path grew some creepers. Molly, with one eye on the hawk, began at once to cut the creepers off. Rag watched her, then ran ahead and cut off some more creepers that lay across the path.
"That's right," said Molly, "always keep the paths clear. You will need them often. Not wide but clear. But if you cut everything that looks like a creeper, some day you will fall into a trap."
"A what?" asked Rag, as he scratched his right ear with his left hind foot.
"A trap," said Molly, "is something that looks like a creeper, but it doesn't grow, and it's worse than all the hawks in the world."
"I don't believe it could catch me," replied Rag, and he rose on his hind legs and rubbed his chin high up on the bark of a smooth tree. When a rabbit does this, it means that he is not a baby any longer and that soon he will be a grownup Cottontail. His mother watched him and knew that too.
There is magic in running water. Who does not know it and feel it? The thirsty traveler in the desert will not drink until he finds a stream of running, living water, and then he drinks gladly.
There is magic in running water. A wild creature of the wood is flying from an enemy that is following it. Every trick it knows it has already tried. It feels that death is near. Then it sees a stream of running water and dashes into it and so is safe.
There is magic in running water. The dogs come to the spot where a little animal has disappeared a minute ago. It is hiding somewhere near the stream, and the dogs lose the trail because there is no trail in running water. And this was one of the great secrets that Raggylug learned from his mother: "After the Brierbush, the Water is your friend."
One hot night in August, Molly led Rag through the woods. He followed the white cotton ball at the end of her tail as she ran ahead. She stopped at the edge of a pond. There was a log in the middle of the pond, and on the log sat a fat frog, singing his song. "Follow me," said Molly, and "flop" she went into the water and swam to the log in the middle of the pond. Rag hesitated for a moment, but then followed his mother. He made the same movements as on land, and found that he could swim. When he reached the log and sat beside his mother, he felt very proud of himself. After that, in warm black nights, when they heard the voice of the old fox near the swamp, Molly listened for the song of the frog, which said, "Come, come, if you are in danger, come!" And she was ready at any moment to run with Rag to the pond.
This was really the best thing that Rag learned from his mother.
No wild animal dies of old age. Its life has, sooner or later, a tragic end. It is only a question of how long it can escape from or conquer its enemies. The Cottontails had enemies on every side. Every day they escaped from dogs, foxes, cats, snakes, hawks or owls and others, who were all ready to kill them. They had hundreds of adventures, and at least once a day they had to fly for their lives and save themselves by their legs or their brains.
Once a hunter, with his dog, caught Rag alive. But Rag was lucky and escaped the next day. More than once he had to run into the water and swim so as to get away from a cat. Many times hawks and owls chased him, but for each kind of danger he had a different trick, and each time got away. The older and wiser he grew, the less he used his legs to get away from an enemy, and the more he used his brains.
Now there was a "young dog by the name of Ranger. For training, his master put him on the trail of one of the Cottontails. Rag liked a bit of danger. When he saw the dog, he said to his mother, "Oh, mother, here comes the dog again. I must have some fun with him to-day."
"You are too bold, Raggy, my son," she replied. "But, mother, it is such fun to make that fool dog run, and it's good training for me. If I am in danger, I'll thump, then you can come and help me."
Then he ran off and the dog after him. He always got rid of the dog by some clever trick, or he thumped to his mother, who came at once. In this way Rag learned all the tricks of the wood. For example, he knew that his scent was much stronger near the ground or when he was warm. If he was not on the ground for half an hour, the trail became weaker. So, when he got tired of the chase, and the dog Ranger was behind him, he ran to the Brierbush where the dog could not follow him. Then he left the Brierbushes and ran straight to the woods. There he began to zigzag, and left a trail so crooked that the dog, when he found the trail at last, (fid not know in which direction to go. Then Rag went back on his old trail and followed it for some time. Then lie leaped aside again and ran until he came to a high log. He ran to the end of the log and "froze".
Ranger lost much time in the Brierbushes, and the scent was weak when he found the trail. Once he passed under the log where Rag sat very still and "froze". Then the dog came again and sniffed the log. But Ranger did not see him and ran away. So Rag won a victory that day.
Rag did not know any other rabbit besides his mother. Indeed, he did not even think that there was any other rabbit. He was more and more away from his mother now, and yet he never felt lonely. But one day in December, he saw, behind one of the bushes, the head and ears of a strange rabbit. The stranger looked at Rag in a friendly way and then began to hop toward him. But Rag was furious, because the newcomer was on his path that led into his swamp. He became more furious when the stranger stopped at one of Rag's rubbing trees and began to rub himself against it. Now Rag noticed that the other rabbit was much taller than himself. Rag at once hated him and wanted to kill him. So he hopped into a piece of hard ground, which he struck slowly: "Thump-thump-thump," which in rabbit language means, "Get out of my swamp, or fight." The stranger raised his ears, sat up straight for a few seconds, dropped his forefeet and sent a louder, stronger answer, "Thump-thump-thump," along the ground. So each declared war against the other.
Each stood and watched the other carefully. Then they walked past each other so that they could study each other better. The stranger was a big, heavy rabbit, and he was sure that he could win the battle because he was so big and strong. But he had not Rag's cunning. At last he began the attack and Rag met him with great fury. Each struck out with his hind feet. Poor little Rag was down, and in a moment he felt the big rabbit's teeth on his neck. Rag lost some of his fur before he could get up. Then he threw himself on the stranger, and again the latter knocked him down and bit him. Rag saw that he was weaker than his enemy. And though he was wounded, he jumped up and ran off, followed by the stranger. Rag's legs were good, while the other was so big and heavy that he soon gave up the chase. Poor Rag was safe, but he was tired and his wounds hurt him. From that day Rag lived in terror. He had good training against dogs, owls, men and so on, but what to do when another rabbit ran after him, he did not know.
Poor little Molly was in terror too. She could not help Rag and could only hide. But the big buck soon found her. She tried to run away from him, but she could not run so fast as Rag, and each time the big buck caught her. He did not try to kill her, but he courted her. And because she hated him and tried to get away, he was cruel to her. He knocked her down and tore out mouthfuls of her soft fur. This continued day after day, for he followed her everywhere. However, his real purpose was to kill Rag.
The situation became quite hopeless for Rag. There was no other swamp where he could go to, and he had to be ready to run for his life at any moment. A dozen times a day the big stranger crept up to the place where Rag lay asleep, but each time Rag awoke in time to escape. But what a miserable life it was! The big buck beat and tore his mother every day, but Rag was helpless. The newcomer made himself at home in all Rag's hiding-places, ate Rag's food, used Rag's best paths and tracks, and Rag could do nothing. Ho hated the big rabbit more than any fox or dog.
What will become of him now? He was worn out, and he saw that little Molly had no more strength. Yet the big stranger did not give her and Rag any peace, and did everything he could to kill Rag. One day he even did something that all rabbits think is very dishonest. Rabbits may hate each other, but all good rabbits forget their hatred when a common enemy appears. However, when the buck saw a hawk over the swamp, he tried again and again to drive Rag from his hiding-place so that the hawk could kill Rag. Once or twice the hawk almost caught Rag, but the Brier-bush saved him. The buck stopped this game only when he himself was almost in the claws of the hawk. Rag escaped, but now he made up his mind to leave the swamp the next night with his mother, and look for a new home.
At that moment Rag heard the bark of a dog near the swamp, and at once decided to play a desperate game. He ran out in front of the dog. The dog at once dashed after him. They ran round the swamp three times, until Rag was sure that his mother was safe and that the enemy he hated most, the big buck, was in his own hole. Then he ran into that hole and jumped over the buck, giving him a blow with one hind foot as he passed over his head.
"You fool, I'll kill you yet," cried the buck, and jumped out. But now he was between Rag and the dog. The dog rushed at him, barking furiously. The buck's weight and size were advantages in a fight with rabbits, but now they were of no use to him. He did not know many tricks. "Hole-up" was of no use, because he did not know where the holes were. The Brierbush did its best. The thorns tore the dog's skin, but the dog did not stop and ran after the buck again. Molly and Rag, hiding in the bushes, heard the noise of the struggle when the dog fell upon the buck. Then they heard loud and terrible screams. Rag and Molly knew what that meant, and they shivered. But soon all was over, and Rag was happy that he was again the master of the dear old swamp.
Old Mr. Olifant no doubt had the right to burn up all the thickets of the swamp, and he had the right to destroy the old barbed-wire fence. Still it was a great misfortune for Rag and his mother. The barbed-wire fence protected them when they were in danger. They felt that every part of the swamp was their own, that even Olifant's land belonged to them. Their right to the swamp —the right of long occupation — was the same as that by which many nations hold their land. It is hard to find a better right!
During January, Mr. Olifant and his sons cut down the rest of the large wood near the pond. And so the kingdom of the Cottontails became smaller on all sides. But Rag and his mother still remained in the swamp, for it was their home, and they did not want to go to a new place. Their daily life, full of the same old dangers, went on as before.
One day the weather was bright and warm. Molly, feeling some pain in her legs, was somewhere among the thickets, looking for herbs for her rheumatism. Rag sat in the sunlight on a bank of the swamp. The smoke from the chimney of Olifant's house looked like a brown cloud against the bright sky. The sounds that came from the house and the smell of food that mixed with the smoke told Rag that the animals were having their dinner of cabbage in the yard. Rag loved cabbage very much. Of course, he could go there later and pick up some bits. But since he was a wise rabbit, ho did the wise thing. He went away to a place where he could not smell the cabbage, and had his supper of pieces of hay which he found on the ground.
The sun set and it began to get dark. When Molly joined him, they prepared to go to bed. But the wind rose and it became colder and colder.
"Isn't it terribly cold! How I wish we had our thickets, where we could creep in and be warm," said Rag.
"This is a good night for the hole in the pine tree," replied Molly, "but perhaps that mink is there that chased us yesterday."
In fact, at that very moment, the mink was in the hollow of a tree close by. So the Cottontails went to the south side of the swamp and there, among the bushes, they lay down for the night, with their noses in different directions so that they could run out different ways if an enemy appeared. The wind blew harder and it became colder, and later it began to snow. It was a bad night for hunting, but that old fox was out. He came to the swamp to find protection from the wind, and there he smelt the Cottontails, who were asleep. He stopped for a moment, and then crept very quietly and carefully to the spot where his nose told him the Cottontails were. The wind made a great noise, so the fox could come quite close before Molly heard him. She touched Rag and he awoke just as the fox sprang toward them. But Rag and his mother always slept with their legs ready for a jump. Molly jumped to one side and ran out into the storm, followed by the fox. Rag rushed away in another direction.
There was only one road for Molly, and that was to the pond. She ran as fast as she could till she reached the pond. The fox was just behind her. She could not turn back, she must go on.
Splash! splash! through the wet reeds she went, and then with a big splash into the deep water. And splash! the fox went close behind her. But it was too much for the fox on such a cold night and in such cold water. He turned back. Molly began to swim to the other side of the pond. There was a strong wind, and the little waves, cold as ice, flowed over her head, and the water was full of snow that was like soft ice. The dark line of the other bank seemed far, far away. And perhaps the fox waited for her there!
The wind and tide were against her, but she swam on with all her strength. After a long time in the cold water, she almost reached the reeds on the other side, when a great mass of snow floated in her way. The wind and the mass of snow .took all her strength away, and she drifted backward.
Again she tried to swim, but slowly — oh, so slowly now. And when at last she reached the reeds on the other side, she could not move her legs, they were so cold. And she was so weak now. Her brave little heart sank, and she did not care any more whether the fox was there or not. She swam on through the reeds very, very slowly. Then the ice formed around her and stopped her altogether. In a little while her cold, weak legs could not move any more, and the soft brown eyes of the little mother Cottontail closed in death.
Now where was Rag all this time? After the first attack of the fox, he ran back to help his mother and met the fox going round the pond to meet Molly. When the fox saw Rag, he rushed after him. But Rag ran off in the direction of the barbed-wire which lay on the ground. He led the fox right into the barbed wire and left him there, struggling and howling with pain. Then Rag went back to the pond, found his mother's trail near the pond, and thumped, but in vain. He. could not find his mother. He never saw her again, and he never knew where she went, for she never woke from her sleep in the ice-arms of her friend the water.
Poor little Molly Cottontail! She was a true heroine — one of many millions of heroines — and heroes — that have lived and done their best in their little world and died. But such heroism as Molly's never dies. She lives in her son Rag, and through him transmits her courage and brains to her race.
And Rag still lives in the swamp. Old Olifant died that .winter, and his sons were not interested in the swamp. They did not finish the work. In a year it was a wilder place than ever before. New trees and thickets grew, and in the masses of barbed wire there were many Cottontail castles that dogs and foxes did not dare to storm. And there to this day lives Rag. He is a big, strong buck now and fears nothing. He has a large family and a pretty brown wife, that he got I do not know where. There, no doubt, he and his children's children will live for many years to come. And there you may see them any sunny evening, if you have learned their signal code, and if you know just how and when to thump the ground.