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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter16)

2006-09-08 19:32

  CHAPTER XVI Life with the Dutch Settler

  The Indians slept in the luxuriant barn of logs, with blankets, plenty of hay, and a roof. They were more than content, for now, on the edge of the wilderness, they were very close to wild life. Not a day or a night passed without bringing proof of that.

  One end of the barn was portioned off for poultry. In this the working staff of a dozen hens were doing their duty, which, on that first night of the "brown angels' visit," consisted of silent slumber, when all at once the hens and the new hands were aroused by a clamorous cackling, which speedily stopped. It sounded like a hen falling in a bad dream, then regaining her perch to go to sleep again. But next morning the body of one of these highly esteemed branches of the egg-plant was found in the corner, partly devoured. Quonab examined the headless hen, the dust around, and uttered the word, "Mink."

  Rolf said, "Why not skunk?"

  "Skunk could not climb to the perch."

  "Weasel then."

  "Weasel would only suck the blood, and would kill three or four."

  "Coon would carry him away, so would fox or wildcat, and a marten would not come into the building by night."

  There was no question, first, that it was a mink, and, second, that he was hiding about the barn until the hunger pang should send him again to the hen house. Quonab covered the hen's body with two or three large stones so that there was only one approach. In the way of this approach he buried a "number one" trap.

  That night they were aroused again; this time by a frightful screeching, and a sympathetic, inquiring cackle from the fowls.

  Arising, quickly they entered with a lantem. Rolf then saw a sight that gave him a prickling in his hair. The mink, a large male, was caught by one front paw. He was writhing and foaming, tearing, sometimes at the trap, sometimes at the dead hen, and sometimes at his own imprisoned foot, pausing now and then to utter the most ear-piercing shrieks, then falling again in crazy animal fury on the trap, splintering his sharp white teeth, grinding the cruel metal with bruised and bloody jaws, frothing, snarling, raving mad. As his foemen entered he turned on them a hideous visage of inexpressible fear and hate, rage and horror. His eyes glanced back green fire in the lantern light; he strained in renewed efforts to escape; the air was rank with his musky smell. The impotent fury of his struggle made a picture that continued in Rolf's mind. Quonab took a stick and with a single blow put an end to the scene, but never did Rolf forget it, and never afterward was he a willing partner when the trapping was done with those relentless jaws of steel.

  A week later another hen was missing, and the door of the hen house left open. After a careful examination of the dust, inside and out of the building, Quonab said, "Coon." It is very unusual for coons to raid a hen house. Usually it is some individual with abnormal tastes, and once he begins, he is sure to come back. The Indian judged that he might be back the next night, so prepared a trap. A rope was passed from the door latch to a tree; on this rope a weight was hung, so that the door was selfshutting, and to make it self-locking he leaned a long pole against it inside. Now he propped it open with a single platform, so set that the coon must walk on it once he was inside, and so release the door. The trappers thought they would hear in the night when the door closed, but they were sleepy; they knew nothing until next morning. Then they found that the self-shutter had shut, and inside, crouched in one of the nesting boxes, was a tough, old fighting coon. Strange to tell, he had not touched a second hen. As soon as he found himself a prisoner he had experienced a change of heart, and presently his skin was nailed on the end of the barn and his meat was hanging in the larder.

  "Is this a marten," asked little Annette. And when told not, her disappointment elicited the information that old Warren, the storekeeper, had promised her a blue cotton dress for a marten skin.

  "You shall have the first one I catch," said Rolf.

  Life in Van Trumper's was not unpleasant. The mother was going about again in a week. Annette took charge of the baby, as well as of the previous arrivals. Hendrik senior was gradually overcoming his difficulties, thanks to the unexpected help, and a kindly spirit made the hard work not so very hard. The shyness that was at first felt toward the Indians wore off, especially in the case of Rolf, he was found so companionable; and the Dutchman, after puzzling over the combination of brown skin and blue eyes, decided that Rolf was a half-breed.

  August wore on not unpleasantly for the boy, but Quonab was getting decidedly restless. He could work for a week as hard as any white man, but his race had not risen to the dignity of patient, unremitting, life-long toil.

  "How much money have we now, Nibowaka?" was one of the mid-August indications of restlessness. Rolf reckoned up; half a month for Quonab, $15.00; for himself, $10.00; for finding the cows $2.00 —— $27.00 in all. Not enough.

  Three days later Quonab reckoned up again. Next day he said: "We need two months' open water to find a good country and build a shanty." Then did Rolf do the wise thing; he went to fat Hendrik and told him all about it. They wanted to get a canoe and an outfit, and seek for a trapping or hunting ground that would not encroach on those already possessed, for the trapping law is rigid; even the death penalty is not considered too high in certain cases of trespass, provided the injured party is ready to be judge, jury, and executioner. Van Trumper was able to help them not a little in the matter of location —— there was no use trying on the Vermont side, nor anywhere near Lake Champlain, nor near Lake George; neither was it worth while going to the far North, as the Frenchmen came in there, and they were keen hunters, so that Hamilton County was more promising than any other, but it was almost inaccessible, remote from all the great waterways, and of course without roads; its inaccessibility was the reason why it was little known. So far so good; but happy Hendrik was unpleasantly surprised to learn that the new help were for leaving at once. Finally he made this offer: If they would stay till September first, and so leave all in "good shape fer der vinter," he would, besides the wages agreed, give them the canoe, one axe, six mink traps, and a fox trap now hanging in the barn, and carry them in his wagon as far as the Five- mile portage from Lake George to Schroon River, down which they could go to its junction with the upper Hudson, which, followed up through forty miles of rapids and hard portages, would bring them to a swampy river that enters from the southwest, and ten miles up this would bring them to Jesup's Lake, which is two miles wide and twelve miles long. This country abounded with game, but was so hard to enter that after Jesup's death it was deserted.

  There was only one possible answer to such an offer —— they stayed.

  In spare moments Quonab brought the canoe up to the barn, stripped off some weighty patches of bark and canvas and some massive timber thwarts, repaired the ribs, and when dry and gummed, its weight was below one hundred pounds; a saving of at least forty pounds on the soggy thing he crossed the lake in that first day on the farm.

  September came. Early in the morning Quonab went alone to the lakeside; there on a hill top he sat, looking toward the sunrise, and sang a song of the new dawn, beating, not with a tom-tom —— he had none —— but with one stick on another. And when the sunrise possessed the earth he sang again the hunter's song:

  "Father, guide our feet, Lead us to the good hunting."

  Then he danced to the sound, his face skyward, his eyes closed, his feet barely raised, but rythmically moved. So went he three times round to the chant in three sun circles, dancing a sacred measure, as royal David might have done that day when he danced around the Ark of the Covenant on its homeward joumey. His face was illumined, and no man could have seen him then without knowing that this was a true heart's worship of a true God, who is in all things He has made.

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