Mother West Wind 'Why' Stories by Thornton W. Burgess
III. Why Unc' Billy Possum Plays Dead
One thing puzzled Peter Rabbit and Johnny Chuck and Striped Chipmunk a great deal after they had come to know Unc' Billy Possum and his funny ways. They had talked it over and wondered and wondered about it, and tried to understand it, and even had asked Unc' Billy about it. Unc' Billy had just grinned and said that they would have to ask his mammy. Of course they couldn't do that, and Unc' Billy knew they couldn't, for Unc' Billy's mammy had died long before he even thought of coming up from Ol' Virginny to the Green Forest and the Green Meadows where they lived. He said it just to tease them, and when he said it, he chuckled until they chuckled too, just as if it really were the best kind of a joke.
Now you know it always is the thing that you try and try to find out and can't find out that you most want to find out. It was just so with Peter Rabbit and Johnny Chuck and Striped Chipmunk. The more they talked about it, the more they wanted to know. Why was it that Unc' Billy Possum played dead instead of trying to run away when he was surprised by his enemies? They always tried to run away. So did everybody else of their acquaintance excepting Unc' Billy Possum.
"There must be a reason" said Peter gravely, as he pulled thoughtfully at one of his long ears.
"Of course there is a reason," asserted Johnny Chuck, chewing the end of a blade of grass.
"There's a reason for everything," added Striped Chipmunk, combing out the hair of his funny little tail.
"Then of course Grandfather Frog knows it," said Peter.
"Of course! Why didn't we think of him before?" exclaimed the others.
"I'll beat you to the Smiling Pool!" shouted Peter.
Of course he did, for his legs are long and made for running, but Striped Chipmunk was not far behind. Johnny Chuck took his time, for he knew that he could not keep up with the others. Besides he was so fat that to run made him puff and blow. Grandfather Frog sat just as usual on his big green lily-pad, and he grinned when he saw who his visitors were, for he guessed right away what they had come for.
"Chug-a-rum! What is it you want to know now?" he demanded, before Peter could fairly get his breath.
"If you please, Grandfather Frog, we want to know why it is that Unc' Billy Possum plays dead," replied Peter as politely as he knew how.
Grandfather Frog chuckled. "Just to fool people, stupid!" said he.
"Of course we know that," replied Striped Chipmunk, "but what we want to know is how he ever found out that he could fool people that way, and how he knows that he will fool them."
"I suspect that his mammy taught him," said Grandfather Frog, with another chuckle way down deep in his throat.
"But who taught his mammy?" persisted Striped Chipmunk.
Grandfather Frog snapped at a foolish green fly, and when it was safely tucked away inside his white and yellow waistcoat, he turned once more to his three little visitors, and there was a twinkle in his big, goggly eyes.
"I see," said he, "that you will have a story, and I suppose that the sooner I tell it to you, the sooner you will leave me in peace. Unc' Billy Possum's grandfather a thousand times removed was--"
"Was this way back in the days when the world was young?" interrupted Peter.
Grandfather Frog scowled at Peter. "If I have any more interruptions, there will be no story to-day" said he severely.
Peter looked ashamed and promised that he would hold his tongue right between his teeth until Grandfather Frog was through. Grandfather Frog cleared his throat and began again.
"Unc' Billy Possum's grandfather a thousand times removed was very much as Unc' Billy is now, only he was a little more spry and knew better than to stuff himself so full that he couldn't run. He was always very sly, and he played a great many tricks on his neighbors, and sometimes he got them into trouble. But when he did, he always managed to keep out of their way until they had forgotten all about their anger.
"One morning the very imp of mischief seemed to get into old Mr. Possum's head. Yes, Sir, it certainly did seem that way. And when you see Mischief trotting along the Lone Little Path, if you look sharp enough, you'll see Trouble following at his heels like a shadow. I never knew it to fail. It's just as sure as a stomach-ache is to follow overeating."
Just here Grandfather Frog paused and looked very hard at Peter Rabbit. But Peter pretended not to notice, and after slowly winking one of his big, goggly eyes at Johnny Chuck, Grandfather Frog continued:
"Anyway, as I said before, the imp of mischief seemed to be in old Mr. Possum's head that morning, for he began to play tricks on his neighbors as soon as they were out of bed. He hid Old King Bear's breakfast, while the latter had his head turned, and then pretended that he had just come along. He was very polite and offered to help Old King Bear hunt for his lost breakfast. Then, whenever Old King Bear came near the place where it was hidden, old Mr. Possum would hide it somewhere else. Old King Bear was hungry, and he worked himself up into a terrible rage, for he was in a hurry for his breakfast. Old Mr. Possum was very sympathetic and seemed to be doing his very best to find the lost meal. At last Old King Bear turned his head suddenly and caught sight of old Mr. Possum hiding that breakfast in a new place. My, my, but his temper did boil over! It certainly did. And if he could have laid hands on old Mr. Possum that minute, it surely would have been the end of him.
"But old Mr. Possum was mighty spry, and he went off through the Green Forest laughing fit to kill himself. Pretty soon he met Mr. Panther. He was very polite to Mr. Panther. He told him that he had just come from a call on Old King Bear, and hinted that Old King Bear was then enjoying a feast and that there might be enough for Mr. Panther, if he hurried up there at once.
"Now, Mr. Panther was hungry, for he had found nothing for his breakfast that morning. So he thanked old Mr. Possum and hurried away to find Old King Bear and share in the good things old Mr. Possum had told about.
"Old Mr. Possum himself hurried on, chuckling as he thought of the way Mr. Panther was likely to be received, with Old King Bear in such a temper. Pretty soon along came Mr. Lynx. Old Mr. Possum told him the same story he had told Mr. Panther, and Mr. Lynx went bounding off in a terrible hurry, for fear that he would not be in time to share in that good breakfast. It was such a good joke that old Mr. Possum tried it on Mr. Wolf and Mr. Fisher and Mr. Fox. In fact, he hunted up every one he could think of and sent them to call on Old King Bear, and without really telling them so, he made each one think that he would get a share in that breakfast."
"Now, there wasn't any more breakfast than Old King Bear wanted himself, and by the time Mr. Panther arrived, there wasn't so much as a crumb left. Then, one after another, the others came dropping in, each licking his chops, and all very polite to Old King Bear. At first he didn't know what to make of it, but pretty soon Mr. Fox delicately hinted that they had come in response to the invitation sent by Mr. Possum, and that as they were all very hungry, they would like to know when the feast would be ready. Right away Old King Bear knew that old Mr. Possum had been up to some of his tricks, and he told his visitors that they were the victims of a practical joke.
"My, my, my, how angry everybody grew! With Old King Bear at their head, they started out to hunt for old Mr. Possum. When he saw them coming, he realized that what he had thought was a joke had become no longer a laughing matter for him. He was too frightened to run, so he scrambled up a tree. He quite forgot that Mr. Panther and Mr. Lynx could climb just as fast as he. Up the tree after him they scrambled, and he crept as far out as he could get on one of the branches. Mr. Panther didn't dare go out there, so he just shook the branch. He shook and shook and shook and shook, and the first thing old Mr. Possum knew, he was flying through the air down to where the others were all ready to pounce on him.
"Old Mr. Possum was frightened almost to death. He shut his eyes, and then he landed with a thump that knocked all the wind from his body. When he got his breath again, he still kept his eyes closed, for he couldn't bear the thought of looking at the cruel teeth and claws of Old King Bear and the others. Presently, while he was wondering why they didn't jump on him and tear him to pieces, Old King Bear spoke:
"'I guess Mr. Possum won't play any more jokes, Mr. Panther,' said he. 'You just knocked the life out of him when you shook him off that branch.'
"Mr. Panther came over and sniffed at Mr. Possum and turned him over with one paw. All the time Mr. Possum lay just as if he were dead, because he was too frightened to move. 'I didn't mean to kill him,' said Mr. Panther. 'We certainly will miss him. What will we do with him?'
"'Leave him here as a warning to others,' growled Old King Bear.
"Each in turn came up and sniffed of Mr. Possum, and then they all went about their business. He waited long enough to make sure that they were out of sight, and then took the shortest way home. When he got there and thought it all over, he thought that the best joke of all was the way he had made everybody think that he was dead. And then a bright idea struck him: he would try the same trick whenever he was caught. So the next time he got in trouble, instead of running away, he tried playing dead. It was such a success that he taught his children how to do it, and they taught their children, and so on down to Unc' Billy, whom you know. Unc' Billy says it is a lot easier than running away, and safer, too. Besides, it is always such a joke. Now, don't bother me any more, for I want to take a nap," concluded Grandfather Frog.
"Thank you!" cried Peter Rabbit and Johnny Chuck and Striped Chipmunk, and started off to hunt up Unc' Billy Possum.