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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter63)

2006-09-08 19:57

  CHAPTER LXIII Rolf Meets a Canuck

  The winter might have been considered eventful, had not so many of the events been repetitions of former experience. But there were several that by their newness deserve a place on these pages, as they did in Rolf's memory.

  One of them happened soon after the first sharp frost. It had been an autumn of little rain, so that many ponds had dried up, with the result that hundreds of muskrats were forced out to seek more habitable quarters. The first time Rolf saw one of these stranded mariners on its overland journey, he gave heedless chase. At first it made awkward haste to escape; then a second muskrat was discovered just ahead, and a third. This added to Rolf's interest. In a few bounds he was among them, but it was to get a surprise. Finding themselves overtaken, the muskrats turned in desperation and attacked the common enemy with courage and fury. Rolf leaped over the first, but the second sprang, caught him by the slack of the trouser leg, and hung on. The third flung itself on his foot and drove its sharp teeth through the moccasin. Quickly the first rallied and sprang on his other leg with all the force of its puny paws, and powerful jaws.

  Meanwhile Quonab was laughing aloud and holding back Skookum, who, breathing fire and slaughter, was mad to be in the fight.

  "Ho! a good fight! good musquas! Ho, Skookum, you must not always take care of him, or he will not learn to go alone.

  "Ugh, good!" as the third muskrat gripped Rolf by the calf.

  There could be but one finish, and that not long delayed. A well-placed kick on one, the second swung by the tail, the third crushed under his heel, and the affair ended. Rolf had three muskrats and five cuts. Quonab had much joy and Skookum a sense of lost opportunity.

  "This we should paint on the wigwam," said Quonab. "Three great warriors attacked one Sagamore. They were very brave, but he was Nibowaka and very strong; he struck them down as the Thunderbird, Hurakan, strikes the dead pines the fire has left on the hilltop against the sky. Now shall you eat their hearts, for they were brave. My father told me a fighting muskrat's heart is great medicine; for he seeks peace while it is possible, then he turns and fights without fear."

  A few days later, they sighted a fox. In order to have a joke on Skookum, they put him on its track, and away he went, letting off his joy-whoops at every jump. The men sat down to wait, knowing full well that after an hour Skookum would come back with a long tongue and an air of depression. But they were favoured with an unexpected view of the chase. It showed a fox bounding over the snow, and not twenty yards behind was their energetic four-legged colleague.

  And, still more unexpected, the fox was overtaken in the next thicket, shaken to limpness, and dragged to be dropped at Quonab's feet. This glorious victory by Skookum was less surprising, when a closer examination showed that the fox had been in a bad way. Through some sad, sudden indiscretion, he had tackled a porcupine and paid the penalty. His mouth, jaws and face, neck and legs, were bristling with quills. He was sick and emaciated. He could not have lasted many days longer, and Skookum's summary lynching was a blessing in disguise.

  The trappers' usual routine was varied by a more important happening. One day of deep snow in January, when they were running the northern line on Racquet River, they camped for the night at their shelter cabin, and were somewhat surprised at dusk to hear a loud challenge from Skookum replied to by a human voice, and a short man with black whiskers appeared. He raised one hand in token of friendliness and was invited to come in.

  He was a French Canadian from La Colle Mills. He had trapped here for some years. The almost certainty of war between Canada and the States had kept his usual companions away. So he had trapped alone, always a dangerous business, and had gathered a lot of good fur, but had fallen on the ice and hurt himself inwardly, so that he had no strength. He could tramp out on snowshoes, but could not carry his pack of furs. He had long known that he had neighbours on the south; the camp fire smoke proved that, and he had come now to offer all his furs for sale.

  Quonab shook his head, but Rolf said, "We'll come over and see them."

  A two-hours' tramp in the morning brought them to the Frenchman's cabin. He opened out his furs; several otter, many sable, some lynx, over thirty beaver —— the whole lot for two hundred dollars. At Lyons Falls they were worth double that.

  Rolf saw a chance for a bargain. He whispered, "We can double our money on it, Quonab. What do ye say?"

  The reply was simply, "Ugh! you are Nibowaka."

  "We'll take your offer, if we can fix it up about payment, for I have no money with me and barely two hundred dollars at the cabin."

  "You half tabac and grosairs? "

  "Yes, plenty."

  "You can go 'get 'em ? Si?"

  Rolf paused, looked down, then straight at the Frenchman.

  "Will you trust me to take half the fur now; when I come back with the pay I can get the rest."

  The Frenchman looked puzzled, then, "By Gar you look de good look. I let um go. I tink you pretty good fellow, parbleu!"

  So Rolf marched away with half the furs and four days later he was back and paid the pale-faced but happy Frenchman the one hundred and fifty dollars he had received from Van Cortlandt, with other bills making one hundred and ninety-five dollars and with groceries and tobacco enough to satisfy the trapper. The Frenchman proved a most amiable character. He and Rolf took to each other greatly, and when they shook hands at parting, it was in the hope of an early and happier meeting.

  Francois la Colle turned bravely for the ninety-mile tramp over the snow to his home, while Rolf went south with the furs that were to prove a most profitable investment, shaping his life in several ways, and indirectly indeed of saving it on one occasion.

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