Prairie Dogs by Marykelly
If it hadn't been for Jake's prediction, the trip out West would have been even harder than it actually was. Luke and Adam leaned against the big wooden wheel of their covered wagon. Everything their family owned was packed and piled inside making the canvas cover bulge a little.
"Tell us again what it's like out West, Jake," they pleaded.
Jake sat on the other side of the fire and shadows from the flames made his old, worn face even uglier. He always looked grumpy, but he wasn't, and when he smiled his face went from ugly to pleasant. It would never be handsome. Before he began to answer the boys he put his tin cup down. It clanked against a rock like a giant snapping his fingers. Jake had their full attention.
"I'll be honest with you," he began. "In a few weeks we're all gonna wish we had stayed put right here. Your backs will ache from sitting on that wagon from sunrise to sunset. Your hands will get blistered and sore from holding the reins and pushing the wagon through muddy ruts. We'll cross rivers that want to swallow us up and mountains that stand tall and mean, daring us to make wagon tracks across their backs. The sun will beat down heavy and hot all day, then we'll shiver in the chilly air all night."
Jake watched the two silent faces across the fire from him go from excited to worried. "I'll make a prediction," he said.
"What?" shouted the boys.
"When you think your folks made a big mistake and should have stayed in Boston, we're gonna find something that will make you glad you came, something that will make you laugh, something that will ease the trip."
"What?" they shouted again.
"Prairie dogs," Jake said with a chuckle.
"Prairie dogs," they echoed.
"Prairie dogs are the funniest, smartest little critters in the West. Most folks don't know anything about them, but folks could sure learn a lot from them," said Jake and he agreed with himself by nodding his head up and down.
"Tell us about them," pleaded Luke and Adam as they settled back against the wheel to listen.
Jake leaned forward and the firelight lit up his face as he began his story about prairie dogs. He seemed to glow as he talked.
"A prairie dog town is a sight to behold. It stretches across the plains for hundreds of miles and prairie dogs keep the grass as neat and trim as the lawns in front of the fancy houses back in Boston. Thousands of prairie dogs live in burrows underground, and they run their towns better than most people run theirs.
We only see the tops of the burrows, but underground there is a whole prairie dog world. Each prairie dog family has its own burrow where a male and one or two females live with a few youngsters and some babies. The male chases away strangers but welcomes friends and neighbors into his burrow to sit awhile and visit. The young pups play tag around the mounds and wrestle in the grass just like you two used to do.
When they get hungry, the prairie dog family wanders over to the grazing area. They hold stems and pieces of grass in their front paws, sit up on their haunches, and nibble away at their meal. The whole town shares the grazing area without fussing or fighting. The mothers bring back grass for the babies who are too young to leave the burrow.
When the young prairie dogs get big enough to fend for themselves the parents move out of the burrow. They go to the outskirts of town where they find an abandoned burrow or they dig a new burrow. Sometimes their neighbors help them dig. That way the town grows in a neat, orderly way and the burrows never get overcrowded."
"That's like us moving West. Isn't it?" asked Adam.
"In a way it is," answered Jake, and he went on with his story.
"Prairie dogs are affectionate little things. You'll see them nuzzling and kissing each other. They sit on their mounds in the evening, sometimes with a paw across another dog's shoulder, like folks sitting on their porches watching the sun go down. Then they disappear into their burrows for the night."
Jake pulled a stick out from the edge of the fire.
"I'll show you what their burrows look like," he said, as he began drawing in the dirt with the stick.
"Above ground is a hard packed mound of dirt. The prairie dogs can peek out of their burrows when there is danger around, without showing themselves very much. The main tunnel into the borrow goes down on a steep slant for eight or ten feet, then it turns slightly up and can go as much as eighty feet under the ground. Just below the entrance to the burrow is a listening post dug into the side of the main tunnel so the prairie dogs can listen for coyotes, owls, snakes, or ferrets.
Where the main tunnel ends and the long passages begin there is another room, like the joint of your elbow, that stays dry when heavy rains flood the burrow. The dogs have an air pocket there that keeps them from drowning when the tunnel fills up with water. At the very end of the long passage is a room lined with soft grass for the babies and for sleeping. So underneath the mounds the prairie dogs have a clever, cozy town for themselves."
"They must get awfully tired of digging," said Luke.
"We should thank them for their digging," replied Jake. It helps the soil stay rich and fertile. As they dig their burrows they bring soil up to the surface where it breaks down into food for plants. The tunnels they dig help bring air underground to all the small living things burried deep in the earth. Prairie dogs help the soil so the grass keeps growing on the prairie."
"Do you think we can catch some prairie dogs and bring them with us?" asked Adam. "Pa promised us a dog when we set up our farm."
Jake threw his stick back into the fire and started to laugh.
"What's so funny about that?" Luke demanded.
"There's one thing about prairie dogs I didn't tell you," Jake said mysteriously.
"What?" they demanded.
"They're not dogs," he said and burst out laughing.
"Have you been teasing us?" Adam asked hotly.
"No," answered Jake. "You'll see the prairie dogs. They'll pop up from their burrows and look right at you. They look so silly popping up out of the ground, they'll make you laugh, but they are not dogs. They are really squirrels."
"Squirrels!" shouted the boys.
"People call them prairie dogs because they sound like dogs. They bark to warn each other of danger. They sound like dogs but they are really squirrels.
Now you two better skidaddle off to bed. Tomorrow's the beginning of a long, hard trip. Remember what I said. When you get trail weary and your heads are drooping start watching for the prairie dogs. They'll pop out of the ground and they'll make you laugh.
When we get to the farm and this journey is over, you'll tell yourselves that Jake's prediction was right. The prairie dogs were the best part of the trip. They gave us a big laugh when we needed it most."
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