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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter12)

2006-09-08 19:31

  CHAPTER XII Hunting the Woodchucks

  Cornmeal and potatoes, with tea and apples, three times a day, are apt to lose their charm. Even fish did not entirely satisfy the craving for flesh meat. So Quonab and Rolf set out one morning on a regular hunt for food. The days of big game were over on the Asamuk, but there were still many small kinds and none more abundant than the woodchuck, hated of farmers. Not without reason. Each woodchuck hole in the field was a menace to the horses' legs. Tradition, at least, said that horses' legs and riders' necks had been broken by the steed setting foot in one of these dangerous pitfalls: besides which, each chuck den was the hub centre of an area of desolation whenever located, as mostly it was, in the cultivated fields. Undoubtedly the damage was greatly exaggerated, but the farmers generally agreed that the woodchuck was a pest.

  Whatever resentment the tiller of the soil might feel against the Indian's hunting quail on his land, he always welcomed him as a killer of woodchucks.

  And the Indian looked on this animal as fair game and most excellent eating.

  Rolf watched eagerly when Quonab, taking his bow and arrows, said they were going out for a meat hunt. Although there were several fields with woodchucks resident, they passed cautiously from one to another, scanning the green expanse for the dark-brown spots that meant woodchucks out foraging. At length they found one, with a large and two small moving brown things among the clover. The large one stood up on its hind legs from time to time, ever alert for danger. It was a broad, open field, without cover; but close to the cleared place in which, doubtless, was the den, there was a ridge that Quonab judged would help him to approach.

  Rolf was instructed to stay in hiding and make some Indian signs that the hunter could follow when he should lose sight of the prey. First, "Come on" (beckoning); and, second, "Stop," (hand raised, palm forward); "All right" (hand drawn across level and waist high); forefinger moved forward, level, then curved straight down, meant "gone in hole." But Rolf was not to sign anything or move, unless Quonab asked him by making the question sign (that is waving his hand with palm forward and spread fingers).

  Quonab went back into the woods, then behind the stone walls to get around to the side next the ridge, and crawling so flat on his breast in the clover that, although it was but a foot high, he was quite invisible to any one not placed much above him.

  In this way he came to the little ridge back of the woodchuck den, quite unknown to its occupants. But now he was in a difficulty. He could not see any of them.

  They were certainly beyond range of his bow, and it was difficult to make them seek the den without their rushing into it. But he was equal to the occasion. He raised one hand and made the query sign, and watching Rolf he got answer, "All well; they are there." (A level sweep of the flat hand and a finger pointing steadily.) Then he waited a few seconds and made exactly the same sign, getting the same answer.

  He knew that the movement of the distant man would catch the eye of the old woodchuck; she would sit up high to see what it was, and when it came a second time she would, without being exactly alarmed, move toward the den and call the young ones to follow.

  The hunter had not long to wait. He heard her shrill, warning whistle, then the big chuck trotted and waddled into sight, stopping occasionally to nibble or look around. Close behind her were the two fat cubs. Arrived near the den their confidence was restored, and again they began to feed, the young ones close to the den. Then Quonab put a blunt bird dart in his bow and laid two others ready. Rising as little as possible, he drew the bow. 'Tsip! the blunt arrow hit the young chuck on the nose and turned him over. The other jumped in surprise and stood up. So did the mother. 'Tsip! another bolt and the second chuck was kicking. But the old one dashed like a flash into the underground safety of her den. Quonab knew that she had seen nothing of him and would likely come forth very soon. He waited for some time; then the gray-brown muzzle of the fat old clover-stealer came partly to view; but it was not enough for a shot, and she seemed to have no idea of coming farther. The Indian waited what seemed like a long time, then played an ancient trick. He began to whistle a soft, low air. Whether the chuck thinks it is another woodchuck calling, or merely a pleasant sound, is not known, but she soon did as her kind always does, came out of the hole slowly and ever higher, till she was half out and sitting up, peering about.

  This was Quonab's chance. He now drew a barbed hunting arrow to the head and aimed it behind her shoulders. 'Tsip! and the chuck was transfixed by a shaft that ended her life a minute later, and immediately pre- vented that instinctive scramble into the hole, by which so many chucks elude the hunter, even when mortally wounded.

  Now Quonab stood up without further concealment, and beckoned to Rolf, who came running. Three fat woodchucks meant abundance of the finest fresh meat for a week; and those who have not tried it have no idea what a delicacy is a young, fat, clover-fed woodchuck, pan-roasted, with potatoes, and served at a blazing campfire to a hunter who is young, strong, and exceedingly hungry.

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