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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter62)

2006-09-08 19:57

  CHAPTER LXII The Grebes and the Singing Mouse

  Quonab puzzled long over the amazing fact that young Van Cortlandt had evident high standing "in his own tribe." "He must be a wise counsellor, for I know he cannot fight and is a fool at hunting," was the ultimate decision.

  They had a final interview with the governor and his son before they left. Rolf received for himself and his partner the promised one hundred and fifty dollars, and the hearty thanks of all in the governor's home. Next, each was presented with a handsome hunting knife, not unlike the one young Van had carried, but smaller. Quonab received his with "Ho —— then, after a pause, "He pull out, maybe, when I need him." —— "Ho! good!" he exclaimed, as the keen blade appeared.

  "Now, Rolf," said the lawyer, "I want to come back next year and bring three companions, and we will pay you at the same rate per month for each. What do you say?"

  "Glad to have you again," said Rolf: "we'll come for you on August fifteenth; but remember you should bring your guitar and your spectacles."

  "One word," said the governor, "do you know the canoe route through Champlain to Canada? "

  "Quonab does."

  "Could you undertake to render scout service in that region?"

  The Indian nodded.

  "In case of war, we may need you both, so keep your ears open."

  And once more the canoe made for the north, with Quonab in the stern and Skookum in the bow.

  In less than a week they were home, and none too soon; for already the trees were bare, and they had to break the ice on the river before they ended their trip.

  Rolf had gathered many ideas the last two-months. He did not propose to continue all his life as a trapper. He wanted to see New York. He wanted to plan for the future. He needed money for his plans. He and Quonab had been running a hundred miles of traps, but some men run more than that single handed. They must get out two new lines at once, before the frost came. One of these they laid up the Hudson, above Eagle's Nest; the other northerly on Blue Mountain, toward Racquet River. Doing this was hard work, and when they came again to their cabin the robins had gone from the bleak and leafless woods; the grouse were making long night flights; the hollows had tracks of racing deer; there was a sense of omen, a length of gloom, for the Mad Moon was afloat in the shimmering sky; its wan light ghasted all the hills.

  Next day the lake was covered with thin, glare ice; on the glassy surface near the shore were two ducks floundering. The men went as near as they could, and Quonab said, " No, not duck, but Shingebis, divers.

  They cannot rise except from water. In the night the new ice looks like water; they come down and cannot rise. I have often seen it." Two days after, a harder frost came on. The ice was safe for a dog; the divers or grebes were still on its surface. So they sent Skookum. He soon returned with two beautiful grebes, whose shining, white breast feathers are as much prized as some furs.

  Quonab grunted as he held them up. "Ugh, it is often so in this Mad Moon. My father said it is because of Kaluskap's dancing."

  "I don't remember that one."

  "Yes, long ago. Kaluskap felt lazy. He wanted to eat, but did not wish to hunt, so he called the bluejay and said: 'Tell all the woods that to-morrow night Kaluskap gives a new dance and teaches a new song,' and he told the hoot owl to do the same, so one kept it up all day —— 'Kaluskap teaches a new dance to-morrow night,' and the other kept it up all night: 'Kaluskap teaches a new song at next council.'

  "Thus it came about that all the woods and waters sent their folk to the dance.

  "Then Kaluskap took his song-drum and said: 'When I drum and sing you must dance in a circle the same way as the sun, close your eyes tightly, and each one shout his war whoop, as I cry "new songs"!'

  "So all began, with Kaluskap drumming in the middle, singing:

  "'New songs from the south, brothers, Close your eyes tightly, brothers, Dance and learn a new song.

  "As they danced around, he picked out the fattest, and, reaching out one hand, seized them and twisted their necks, shouting out, 'More war-cries, more poise! that's it; now you are learning!'

  "At length Shingebis the diver began to have his doubts and he cautiously opened one eye, saw the trick, and shouted: 'Fly, brothers, fly! Kaluskap is killing us !'

  "Then all was confusion. Every one tried to escape, and Kaluskap, in revenge, tried to kill the Shingebis. But the diver ran for the water and, just as he reached the edge, Kaluskap gave him a kick behind that sent him half a mile, but it knocked off all his tail feathers and twisted his shape so that ever since his legs have stuck out where his tail was, and he cannot rise from the land or the ice. I know it is so, for my father, Cos Cob, told me it was true, and we ourselves have seen it. It is ever so. To go against Kaluskap brings much evil to brood over."

  A few nights later, as they sat by their fire in the cabin, a curious squeaking was heard behind the logs. They had often heard it before, but never so much as now. Skookum turned his head on one side, set his ears at forward cock. Presently, from a hole 'twixt logs and chimney, there appeared a small, white breasted mouse.

  Its nose and ears shivered a little; its black eyes danced in the firelight. It climbed up to a higher log, scratched its ribs, then rising on its hind legs, uttered one or two squeaks like those they had heard so often, but soon they became louder and continuous:

  "Peg, peo, peo, peo, peo, peo, peo, oo. Tree, tree, tree, tree, trrrrrrr, Turr, turr, turr, tur, tur, Wee, wee, wee, we "——

  The little creature was sitting up high on its hind legs, its belly muscles were working, its mouth was gaping as it poured out its music. For fully half a minute this went on, when Skookum made a dash; but the mouse was quick and it flashed into the safety of its cranny.

  Rolf gazed at Quonab inquiringly.

  "That is Mish-a-boh-quas, the singing mouse. He always comes to tell of war. In a little while there will be fighting." A Lesson in Stalking

  Did you ever see any fighting, Quonab?"

  "Ugh! In Revolution, scouted for General Gates."

  "Judging by the talk, we're liable to be called on before a year. What will you do? "

  "Fight."

  "As soldier?"

  "No! scout."

  "They may not want us."

  "Always want scouts," replied the Indian.

  "It seems to me I ought to start training now."

  "You have been training."

  "How is that?"

  "A scout is everything that an army is, but it's all in one man. An' he don't have to keep step."

  "I see, I see," replied Rolf, and he realized that a scout is merely a trained hunter who is compelled by war to hunt his country's foes instead of the beasts of the woods.

  "See that?" said the Indian, and he pointed to a buck that was nosing for cranberries in the open expanse across the river where it left the lake. "Now, I show you scouting." He glanced at the smoke from the fire, found it right for his plan, and said: "See! I take my bow. No cover, yet I will come close and kill that deer."

  Then began a performance that was new to Rolf, and showed that the Indian had indeed reached the highest pitch of woodcraft. He took his bow and three good arrows, tied a band around his head, and into this stuck a lot of twigs and vines, so that his head looked like a tussock of herbage. Then he left the shanty door, and, concealed by the last bushes on the edge, he reached the open plain. Two hundred yards off was the buck, nosing among the herbage, and, from time to time, raising its superb head and columnar neck to look around. There was no cover but creeping herbage. Rolf suspected that the Indian would decoy the buck by some whistle or challenge, for the thickness of its neck showed the deer to be in fighting humour.

  Flat on his breast the Indian lay. His knees and elbow seemed to develop centipedic power; his head was a mere clump of growing stuff. He snaked his way quietly for twenty-five yards, then came to the open, sloping shore, with the river forty yards wide of level shining ice, all in plain view of the deer; how was this to be covered?

  There is a well-known peculiarity of the white tail that the Indian was counting on; when its head is down grazing, even though not hidden, the deer does not see distant objects; before the head is raised, its tail is raised or shaken. Quonab knew that if he could keep the tail in view, he could avoid being viewed by the head. In a word, only an ill-timed movement or a whiff could betray him.

  The open ice was, of course, a hard test, and the hunter might have failed, but that his long form looked like one of the logs that were lying about half stranded or frozen in the stream.

  Watching ever the alert head and tail, he timed his approach, working hard and moving East when the head was down; but when warned by a tail-jerk he turned to a log nor moved a muscle. Once the ice was crossed, the danger of being seen was less, but of being smelt was greater, for the deer was moving about, and Quonab watched the smoke from the cabin for knowledge of the wind. So he came within fifty yards, and the buck, still sniffing along and eagerly champing the few red cranberries it found above the frozen moss, was working toward a somewhat higher cover. The herbage was now fully eighteen inches high, and Quonab moved a little faster. The buck found a large patch of berries under a tussock and dropped on its knees to pick them out, while Quonab saw the chance and gained ten yards before the tail gave warning. After so long a feeding-spell, the buck took an extra long lookout, and then walked toward the timber, whereby the Indian lost all he had gained. But the browser's eye was drawn by a shining bunch of red, then another; and now the buck swung until there was danger of betrayal by the wind; then down went its head and Quonab retreated ten yards to keep the windward. Once the buck raised its muzzle and sniffed with flaring nostrils, as though its ancient friend had brought a warning. But soon he seemed reassured, for the landscape showed no foe, and nosed back and forth, while Quonab regained the yards he had lost. The buck worked now to the taller cover, and again a tempting bunch of berries under a low, dense bush caused it to kneel for farther under-reaching. Quonab glided swiftly forward, reached the twenty-five-yard limit, rose to one knee, bent the stark cedar bow. Rolf saw the buck bound in air, then make for the wood with great, high leaps; the dash of disappointment was on him, but Quonab stood erect, with right hand raised, and shouted:

  "Ho —— ho."

  He knew that those bounds were unnecessarily high, and before the woods had swallowed up the buck, it fell —— rose —— and fell again, to rise not. The arrow had pierced its heart.

  Then Rolf rushed up with kindled eye and exultant pride to slap his friend on the back, and exclaim:

  "I never thought it possible; the greatest feat in hunting I ever saw; you are a wonder!"

  To which the Indian softly replied, as he smiled:

  "Ho! it was so I got eleven British sentries in the war. They gave me a medal with Washington's head."

  "They did! how is it I never heard of it? Where is it?"

  The Indian's face darkened. "I threw it after the ship that stole my Gamowini."

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