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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter25)

2006-09-08 19:35

  CHAPTER XXV The Otter Slide pic

  It was late now and the hunters camped in the high cool woods. Skookum whined in his sleep so loudly as to waken them once or twice. Near dawn they heard the howling of wolves and the curiously similar hooting of a horned owl. There is, indeed, almost no differece between the short opening howl of a she-wolf and the long hoot of the owl. As he listened, half awake, Rolf heard a whirr of wings which stopped overhead, then a familiar chuckle. He sat up and saw Skookum sadly lift his misshapen head to gaze at a row of black-breasted grouse partridge on a branch above, but the poor doggie was feeling too sick to take any active interest. They were not ruffed grouse, but a kindred kind, new to Rolf. As he gazed at the perchers, he saw Quonab rise gently, go to nearest willow and cut a long slender rod at least two feet long; on the top of this he made a short noose of cord. Then he went cautiously under the watching grouse, the spruce partridges, and reaching up slipped the noose over the neck of the first one; a sharp jerk then tightened noose, and brought the grouse tumbling out of the tree while its companions merely clucked their puzzlement, made no effort to escape.

  A short, sharp blow put the captive out of pain. The rod was reached again and a second, the lowest always, was jerked down, and the trick repeated till three grouse were secured. Then only did it dawn on the others that they were in a most perilous neighbourhood, so they took flight.

  Rolf sat up in amazement. Quonab dropped the three birds by the fire and set about preparing breakfast.

  "These are fool hens," he explained. "You can mostly get them this way; sure, if you have a dog to help, but ruffed grouse is no such fool."

  Rolf dressed the birds and as usual threw the entrails Skookum. Poor little dog! he was, indeed, a sorry sight. He looked sadly out of his bulging eyes, feebly moved swollen jaws, but did not touch the food he once would have pounced on. He did not eat because he could not open his mouth.

  At camp the trappers made a log trap and continued the line with blazes and deadfalls, until, after a mile, they came to a broad tamarack swamp, and, skirting its edge, found a small, outflowing stream that brought them to an eastward-facing hollow. Everywhere there were signs game, but they were not prepared for the scene that opened as they cautiously pushed through the thickets into a high, hardwood bush. A deer rose out of the grass and stared curiously at them; then another and another until nearly a dozen were in sight; still farther many others appeared; to the left were more, and movements told of yet others to the right. Then their white flags went up and all loped gently away on the slope that rose to the north. There may have been twenty or thirty deer in sight, but the general effect of all their white tails, bobbing away, was that the woods were full of deer. They seemed to be there by the hundreds and the joy of seeing so many beautiful live things was helped in the hunters by the feeling that this was their own hunting-ground. They had, indeed, reached the land of plenty.

  The stream increased as they marched; many springs and some important rivulets joined on. They found some old beaver signs but none new; and they left their deadfalls every quarter mile or less.

  The stream began to descend more quickly until it was in a long, narrow valley with steep clay sides and many pools. Here they saw again and again the tracks and signs of otter and coming quietly round a turn that opened a new reach they heard a deep splash, then another and another.

  The hunters' first thought was to tie up Skookum, but a glance showed that this was unnecessary. They softly dropped the packs and the sick dog lay meekly down beside them. Then they crept forward with hunter caution, favoured by an easterly breeze. Their first thought was of beaver, but they had seen no recent sign, nor was there anything that looked like a beaver pond. The measured splash, splash, splash —— was not so far ahead. It might be a bear snatching fish, or —— no, that was too unpleasant —— a man baling out a canoe. Still the slow splash, splash, went on at intervals, not quite regular.

  Now it seemed but thirty yards ahead and in the creek.

  With the utmost care they crawled to the edge of the clay and opposite they saw a sight but rarely glimpsed by man. Here were six otters; two evidently full-grown, and four seeming young of the pair, engaged in a most hilarious and human game of tobogganing down a steep clay hill to plump into a deep part at its foot.

  Plump went the largest, presumably the father; down he went, to reappear at the edge, scramble out and up an easy slope to the top of the twenty-foot bank. Splash, splash, splash, came three of the young ones; splash, splash, the mother and one of the cubs almost together.

  "Scoot" went the big male again, and the wet furslopping and rubbing on the long clay chute made it greasier and slipperier every time.

  Splash, plump, splash —— splash, plump, splash, went the otter family gleefully, running up the bank again, eager each to be first, it seemed, and to do the chute the oftenest.

  The gambolling grace, the obvious good humour, the animal hilarity of it all, was absorbingly amusing. The trappers gazed with pleasure that showed how near akin are naturalist and hunter. Of course, they had some covetous thought connected with those glossy hides, but this was September still, and even otter were not yet prime. Shoot, plump, splash, went the happy crew with apparently unabated joy and hilarity. The slide improved with use and the otters seemed tireless; when all at once a loud but muffled yelp was heard and Skookum, forgetting all caution, came leaping down the bank to take a hand.

  With a succession of shrill, birdy chirps the old otters warned their young. Plump, plump, plump, all shot into the pool, but to reappear, swimming with heads out, for they were but slightly alarmed. This was too much for Quonob; he levelled his flintlock; snap, bang, it went, pointed at the old male, but he dived at the snap and escaped. Down the bank now rushed the hunters, joined by Skookum, to attack the otters in the pool, for it was small and shallow; unless a burrow led from it, they were trapped.

  But the otters realized the peril. All six dashed out of the pool, down the open, gravelly stream the old ones uttering loud chirps that rang like screams. Under the fallen logs and brush they glided, dodging beneath roots and over banks, pursued by the hunters, each armed with a club and by Skookum not armed at all.

  The otters seemed to know where they were going and distanced all but the dog. Forgetting his own condition Skookum had almost overtaken one of the otter cubs when the mother wheeled about and, hissing and snarling, charged. Skookum was lucky to get off with a slight nip, for the otter is a dangerous fighter. But the unlucky dog was sent howling back to the two packs that he never should have left.

  The hunters now found an open stretch of woods through which Quonab could run ahead and intercept the otters as they bounded on down the stream bed, pursued by Rolf, who vainly tried to deal a blow with his club. In a few seconds the family party was up to Quonab, trapped it seemed, but there is no more desperate assailant than an otter fighting for its young. So far from being cowed the two old ones made a simultaneous, furious rush at the Indian. Wholly taken by surprise, he missed with his club, and sprang aside to escape their jaws. The family dashed around then past him, and, urged by the continuous chirps of the mother, they plunged under a succession of log jams and into a willow swamp that spread out into an ancient beaver lake and were swallowed up in the silent wilderness.

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