Read CHAPTER X - “BADGY” of The Biography of a Prairie Girl , free online book, by Eleanor Gates, on ReadCentral.com.

IT was the little girl who discovered that the badgers were encroaching upon the big wheat-field that stretched westward, across the prairie, from the farm-house to the sandy bank of the Vermillion.  In bringing the cattle home from the meadows one night, along the cow-path that bordered the northern end of the grain, she allowed several to stray aside into the field, which was now faintly green with its new sprouting.  And as she headed them out, riding her pony at full gallop, she saw a fine shorthorn suddenly pitch forward with a bellow and fall.  She checked her horse and waited for the animal to rise again.  But it could not-it had snapped a fore ankle in a freshly dug badger hole.

The shorthorn was a favorite and, as befitted her good blood, carried across her dewlap the string of silver sleigh-bells that in wintertime tinkled before the pung.  So the news of her injury was received with sorrow at the farm-house; and when, later in the evening, the little girl’s big brothers went down to the field to put the heifer out of her misery, they vowed that the last feeble jingle of her bells should be the death-knell of the badgers.

They found that the burrowing host, driven out of their former homes either by an unlooked-for seepage or the advent of a stronger animal, had been attracted to the field because the harrow had so recently broken and softened the fallow, and had dug so rapidly since the planting of a few weeks before, that the north end, perforated every three or four feet, would be utterly useless, that year at least, for either the harvester or the plow.  Each family had dug two tunnels that slanted toward each other and met at the nest.  And since the tunnels of one family often crossed those of another, the ground was treacherously unstable.  The outlying, unplowed land also bore, mile upon mile, marks of the ravages of an army of badgers; but the north end of the wheat-field was the concentration camp.

The badgers had thrived in their new home, for on one side was a grassy rise where the eggs and young of the plover and prairie-chicken could be found; and, on the other, a gully led down to the sloughs that yielded succulent roots and crawling things.  The little girl’s big brothers saw that the animals were so abundant that shot, traps, or poison would not avail-only a thorough drowning-out would rid the grain-land of the pest.

The attack was planned for the following day.  It would be timely, since four feet beneath the surface were the newly born, half-blind litters that could be wiped out by a flood.  Some of the old badgers would, undoubtedly, escape the deluge and get past the dogs, but they would be driven away to hunt other ground for their tunneling.

The next afternoon, when the farm wagon, creaking under its load of water-barrels and attended by the dogs, was driven down to the badger holes in the field, the little girl went along.  Drownings-out were exciting affairs, for the badgers always gave the pack a fine tussle before they were despatched; and she was allowed to attend them if she would promise to remain on the high seat of the wagon, out of harm’s way.

When the team had been brought to a standstill on the cow-path, she watched the preparations for the drowning from her perch.

Two holes were found that slanted toward each other.  One big brother, armed with two or three buckets of water, stationed himself at the hole nearer the wagon; and another, similarly armed, guarded the farther hole.  The pack divided itself, half remaining at each outlet, and barked itself hoarse with anticipation.

At last all was in readiness, and, at a word, the water was poured-bucketful after bucketful-down the tunnels.  Then a big brother sprang to the horses’ heads to prevent their running when the fight began, another jumped into the wagon to refill the pails and hand them down, and the dogs, leaping excitedly, closed about the holes.  The little girl watched breathlessly and clung fast to the seat.

For a moment there was no sign of anything.  Suddenly from the nearer hole bounded a female, the refuse of her nest clinging to her dripping hair.  Whirling and biting furiously on all sides, she growled in fear and rage as she defied the pack.  There was a quick, fierce fight that was carried a rod before it ended; then, amid a din of yelping, the badger met a speedy death.

The little girl climbed down from the wagon, and ran to the hole out of which the badger had come.  From her seat she had spied a small, gray bit of fur in the debris lying about it, and guessed what it was.  She reached the hole none too soon; for the dogs, having been drawn off their prey, were coming back, whining and limping and licking their chops.  She caught up the little, half-drowned thing and climbed hastily into the wagon again, as the pack, scenting it, pursued her and leaped against the wheels.

The baby badger came very near to going the way of superfluous kittens when the little girl’s big brothers saw what she had, and was saved only through her pleading.  She begged to keep and tame him, and promised to thwart any desire of his to burrow indiscriminately about the house and garden.  So she was finally permitted to take him home, snugly wound up in her apron, and revive him with warm milk.

THE first time that he saw the world he viewed it from a subterranean standpoint, his birthplace being a round, soft, warm pocket far below the level of the growing wheat.  True, his horizon was somewhat limited, since the pocket was of small dimensions.  Nevertheless, it was wide to him; and he spent several days in surveying the top and sides of his home with his weak, little, blinking eyes before he ventured to crawl about.  Then it was necessary for his mother to lift him from his cozy bed in the midst of his brothers and sisters and give him a sharp pinch on the neck with her teeth to make him start.

The pocket was reached by a tunnel that had been well begun and then abandoned by an industrious but timid pocket-gopher.  This timidity and industry had been taken advantage of when the badgers began their colonization of the wheat-field, and the pocket and a second tunnel completed; so that the result was a comfortable residence and, finally, an ideal nursery.  But in all probability he and his brothers and sisters did not realize how cozily Providence had placed them until that dreadful day.

It was when they were having their regular romp with their mother that the first indication of trouble came.  His father, who had been sitting at the mouth of the tunnel gossiping with a neighboring fox, rushed down wildly to the little family, and fairly fell over them in an effort to escape by the second tunnel beyond.  The fierce barking of the dogs was heard.  Then the great flood of water swept down upon them from both tunnels, lifting them all in a struggling, suffocating mass to the top of the pocket.

His mother, the instinct of self-preservation overcoming her parental love, started madly for a tunnel, and, in swimming against the floating ruins of her nest, pushed him before her up the opening and into the full light of day.  There, blinded by the sunlight and exhausted, he lost consciousness, and lay unnoticed, partly hidden beneath the feathers and grass that had made his bed, until the little girl saw him.

HE rewarded her for his first meal by turning on his back with his legs in the air and grunting contentedly.  He was of a grizzled gray color, soft, fat, clumsy, short of limb and thick of tail, and displayed, in spite of his few weeks, a remarkably fine set of claws on his fore feet.  These he alternately thrust out and drew in, as she petted him, and curled up his long, black-and-white nose.  The little girl thought him the nicest pet she had ever had, and soon fell a willing slave to his wheedling grunts.

He was christened “Badgy,” and spent the first month of his new life in a warmly padded soap-box in the farm-house kitchen.  But by the end of that time he had outgrown the box, and, the weather being warmer, was given the empty potato-bin in the cellar.  When he was big enough to run about, he spent his days out of doors.  Early in the morning he was called from the bin by the little girl, who opened the cellar doors and watched him come awkwardly up the steps, ambitiously advancing two at a time and generally falling back one.  After his breakfast of meat and bread and milk he enjoyed a frolic, which consisted of a long run in a circle about the little girl, while he grunted for joy and lack of breath.  When he was completely worn out with play, he rolled over on his back and had a sleep in the sun.

Badgy learned to love the little girl; and it was found, after he had lived in the potato-bin for a while, that she was the only person he would follow or meet amicably; all others were saluted with a snarl and a lifting of the grizzled hair.  So the household came to look upon him in the light of a worthy supplanter of the Indian dogs as a protector for her.  He accompanied her everywhere over the prairie, keeping close to her bare feet and grunting good-naturedly at every swaying step.  If they met a stranger, he sprang before her, his hair on end, his teeth showing, his claws working back and forth angrily.  When a Sioux came near, he went into a perfect fit of rage; and not an Indian ever dared lay hands upon him.

It was this hatred for redskins that one night saved the herd from a stampede.  Badgy had been playing about the sitting-room with the little girl, and trying his sharp claws on the new rag carpet, when he suddenly began to rush madly here and there, snapping his teeth furiously.  A big brother grasped the musket that stood behind the door, thinking that he had gone mad.  But the little girl knew the signs, and, shielding him, begged them to go out and look for the Indians she felt certain were near.  Sure enough, beyond the tall cottonwoods that formed the wind-break to the north of the house were the figures of a dozen mounted men, silhouetted against the sky.  They were moving cautiously in the direction of the wire cattle-pen; but as a big brother challenged them with a halloo and followed it with a musket shot, they wheeled and dashed away.  The last glimpse of their ponies showed them apparently riderless; which proved to the little girl’s big brothers that the marauders were from the reservation to the west.

The summer was at its full and the wheat-fields of the Vermillion River Valley were all but ready for the harvester before Badgy began to feel a yearning for his own kind and the freedom of the open prairie.  Then he often deserted his little mistress when they were walking about in the afternoon, or sneaked away after his morning nap in the sun.  The first time he disappeared she mourned disconsolately for him all day.  But late in the afternoon, as she sat looking across the grain, waiting for him hopelessly, she forgot her loss in watching a most curious thing happening in the wheat.  Away out in the broad, quiet field there was a small, agitated spot, as if a tiny whirlwind were tossing the heads about.  The commotion was coming nearer and nearer every moment.  Now it was a quarter of a mile away-now it was only a few rods-now it was almost on the edge.  The little girl scrambled to her feet, half inclined to run, when out of the tall stalks rolled Badgy, growling at every step and wagging his tired head from side to side!

Often, after that, he did not come home until late at night, when she would hear him snarling and scratching at the cellar doors, and creep out to let him in.  Her big brothers at last warned her that there would come a day when Badgy would go, never to return.  So she fitted a collar to his neck and led him when she went out, and kept him tied the rest of the time.  This restriction wore upon him and he grew noticeably thin.

One morning, after having been carefully locked in the cellar the night before, he did not respond to the little girl’s call from the doors.  She went down to the bin, half fearing to find him dead.  He was not there.  She ran about the cellar looking for him.  He was nowhere to be found.  She returned to the bin to search there again.  As she looked in, she caught sight of a great heap of dirt in one corner.  She jumped over the side and ran to it, divining at once what it meant.  Sure enough, beyond the heap was a hole, freshly dug, that led upward-and out!

The little girl sat back on the heap of dirt and pathetically viewed the hole.  It was not that he would not come back-she knew that he would.  But he had made her break her promise that there was to be no burrowing.  She resolved to say nothing about the hole, however; and, after closing it completely with a stone, started off on the prairie in search of him, his chain in her hand.

When she came back late, she found him in the bin and gave him a good scolding.  He answered it with angry grunts, and to punish him she locked him up supperless.  But it was probably no hardship, for he was an adept in foraging for frogs and water-snakes.

He was in his place next morning, and came scrambling to the cellar doors when she opened them.  But the following morning he did not answer her call, and she discovered, on going into the bin, that there was a second big heap of dirt near the first.  She plugged the hole, resolving, as before, to keep his misdeeds a secret.

For six weeks this alternate digging and plugging went on.  Sometimes Badgy burrowed himself out in one night, sometimes he would not succeed in reaching the top by the time the little girl called him.  And since he emerged under cover of the vacant coal-shed and kitchen that were built against the house as a lean-to, his depredations were not discovered by any of the other members of the family.  Once, indeed, he was nearly caught, for he came out directly in front of the kitchen door.  But judicious trampling by the little girl soon reduced the soft pile of dirt he had left at the opening to hard ground again.

One day the little girl’s mother found that a spool of thread dropped on the north side of the room rolled to the south side.  She pointed out the phenomenon to the little girl’s big brothers.  They declared that the south foundation must be giving way.  An investigation from the outside led them into the shed, where they found the ground perforated with countless holes.  Then they went into the cellar to examine further.  There the phenomenon was explained and the culprit brought to light.  Badgy had undermined the house!

The little girl waited in the garden for him that night, and answered his grunt of friendly recognition by cuffing him soundly on the ear.  Then, relenting, she took him in her arms and wept over him.  Inside, she knew, they were plotting to kill him.  They had declared that he should not live another day.  And, as she sobbed, her mind was searching out a plan to save him.  Where could she hide him?

She sat with him held close in her lap for a while, watching his enemies within.  Then she started on a long detour, with the new haystack as her destination.  He kept close to her heels, snarling wearily.  A few days before she had made a cave in the stack, which stood between the barn and the chicken-house.  The cave was on the side nearest the coop, and she decided to conceal him in it and fasten him there by his chain.  When she had found a stake-pin and a large stone, she led him in and drove the pin its full length to make sure that he should not get away.  Then she went back to the house to secure his pardon from the family council gathered about the supper table.

She found it a hard task.  Her big brothers urged Badgy’s total uselessness as well as his growing love to burrow, forgetting how bravely he had always stood between his mistress and any real or fancied danger.  The little girl cried bitterly as she begged for his life, and vainly offered the entire contents of her tin bank, now carefully hoarded for two years, to help repair the damage he had done.  She was finally put to bed in an uncontrollable fit of grief.

When she was gone, the memory of her tear-stained face melted her brothers’ wrath.  They even laughed heartily over Badgy’s disastrous industry; and at last, relenting, they decided that he should live, provided he could be kept out of further mischief.  The little girl heard the good news early in the morning and was overjoyed.  She declared that Badgy should be good for the rest of his days, and she spent the afternoon fixing up the new quarters in the cave.

For the first few nights Badgy was chained in order to wean him from the old to the new home, his chain being made so short that he could not dig far into the ground under the stack.  This wore upon him so that he grew cross, thinner than ever before, and generally disheveled.  The little girl saw that another week of such confinement would all but kill him; while if he were shut up in the cave unchained he would undermine the stack.  She feared, however, to give him his entire freedom; so she set to work to puzzle out a scheme that would solve the problem.

At last she hit upon an idea that seemed practicable.  She would tie up his fore feet so that he could not dig!  Then he could go unchained in the cave, with only the door of it-the top of a big dry-goods box-to restrict his movements.  Aided by her mother’s scissors, some twine, and a piece of grain sacking, she put the idea into instant execution.

Badgy did not like the innovation at all.  He squirmed about so when the little girl was tying up his feet that she made slow progress.  And when she was done, he tried vainly to pull off his new stockings with his sharp teeth, grunting his disapproval at every tug.  He worked himself into a perfect fury as he bit and tore, and finally rolled clumsily to the back of the cave, where he lay growling angrily.

Pleased with her success, the little girl left him.  But she had failed to reckon with Badgy’s nature, and her plan was doomed.

It was now early autumn,-the time when Nature tells the badgers that they must provide themselves with a winter retreat,-and Badgy could no more have kept from burrowing than he could have resisted eating a frog.  So when the dark came on, he went to work, close to the door of the cave, burrowing with might and main, his long nose loosening the dirt for his fore feet to remove.  He worked so fast that it was only a few minutes before his claws came though his stockings.  Then he redoubled his efforts, and dug on, and on, and on.

Early in the morning, after having burrowed down for a time, then along a level, and, finally, on an upward slant, as instinct directed him to do, he came through the crust of the earth.  He climbed out of his burrow and sat upon his haunches at its mouth to rest a moment.  As he did so, he heard a sound above him and looked up to see what had caused it.  Over his head were several perches on which sat a number of sleepy fowls.  He was in the chicken-house!

He grunted in surprise, and at the sound one of the chickens uttered a long, low, warning note that awakened the others.  As they moved on their perches, Badgy eyed them, twisting his head from side to side.  The loose dirt clinging to his snout and breast fell off with his heavy breathing, and his stockings hung ragged and soiled about his front legs.

Suddenly there was another and a louder cry of danger from a chicken, following a slight noise near the door of the coop.  Badgy looked that way to see what was coming, and through a hole in the sod wall made out the evil face of a mink, peering in.  It came closer, and there were more cries from the chickens overhead, for they had recognized the approach of their mortal enemy.  In a moment his long, shining body had come through the hole, and he had paused, crouching, to reconnoiter before making a spring.

Badgy watched him, his nose curling angrily, his claws working back and forth.  Then, as the mink crept stealthily forward, measuring the distance to a pullet on a lower perch, the badger ambled toward him, snarling furiously, his teeth snapping and his eyes glowing red with hatred.

The fight was a fierce one, and the cries of the two animals as they twisted and bit aroused the whole barn-yard.  The chickens set up a bedlam of noise, flying about from perch to perch and knocking one another off in their fright.  But Badgy and the mink fought on, writhing in each other’s hold, the mink striving to get a death-grip on Badgy’s throat, while he tried as hard to rend the mink’s body with his teeth and claws.

Suddenly, in the midst of the struggle, the door of the coop was thrown open and a man’s figure appeared.  The animals ceased fighting instantly, and the mink, letting go his hold, disappeared down the hole that Badgy had dug.  But Badgy, surprised at the intrusion, only stared at the newcomer, and grunted a cross greeting as the light of a lantern was flashed upon him, sitting there crumpled and bloody.

NEXT morning, when the little girl went out to the haystack, she could not find Badgy.  Instead, as she pulled aside the door that closed the entrance to the cave, a strange animal shot out and away before she could catch a glimpse of it.  This puzzled her; when she went into the cave she found a great heap of dirt that troubled her still more.  She saw that in spite of his stockings, Badgy had dug himself out.  She hunted for the hole that she knew would tell her where he had come through to the surface again, but she could not find it.

She began to run here and there, calling him.  There was no answering grunt.  She thought of the potato-bin, and flew to the cellar to see if he had not returned to his old home, but he was not there.

That night he did not return, nor the next day, nor the next.  No one could tell her where he had gone.  For he had disappeared as completely as if the earth in which he had loved to dig had swallowed him up.

Whenever she spoke of him in the house among the family, there was an exchange of glances between her mother and the eldest brother.  But she never saw it,-and it was just as well that she did not.