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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter47)

2006-09-08 19:48

  CHAPTER XLVII Rolf's Lesson in Trailing

  The return journey was hard paddling against strong waters, but otherwise uneventful. Once over any trail is enough to fix it in the memory of a woodman. They made no mistakes and their loads were light, so the portages were scarcely any loss of time, and in two days they were back at Hoag's cabin.

  Of this they took possession. First, they gathered all things of value, and that was little since the furs and bedding were gone, but there were a few traps and some dishes. The stuff was made in two packs; now it was an overland journey, so the canoe was hidden in a cedar thicket, a quarter of a mile inland. The two were about to shoulder the packs, Quonab was lighting his pipe for a start, when Rolf said:

  "Say, Quonab! that fellow we saw at the Falls claimed to be Hoag's partner. He may come on here and make trouble if we don't head him off. Let's burn her," and he nodded toward the shanty.

  "Ugh!" was the reply.

  They gathered some dry brush and a lot of birch bark, piled them up against the wall inside, and threw plenty of firewood on this. With flint and steel Quonab made the vital spark, the birch bark sputtered, the dry, resinous logs were easily set ablaze, and soon great volumes of smoke rolled from the door, the window, and the chimney; and Skookum, standing afar, barked pleasantly aloud.

  The hunters shouldered their packs and began the long, upward slope. In an hour they had reached a high, rocky ridge. Here they stopped to rest, and, far below them, marked with grim joy a twisted, leaning column of thick black smoke.

  That night they camped in the woods and next day rejoiced to be back again at their own cabin, their own lake, their home.

  Several times during the march they had seen fresh deer tracks, and now that the need of meat was felt, Rolf proposed a deer hunt.

  Many deer die every winter; some are winter-killed; many are devoured by beasts of prey, or killed by hunters; their numbers are at low ebb in April, so that now one could not count on finding a deer by roaming at random. It was a case for trailing.

  Any one can track a deer in the snow. It is not very hard to follow a deer in soft ground, when there are no other deer about. But it is very hard to take one deer trail and follow it over rocky ground and dead leaves, never losing it or changing off, when there are hundreds of deer tracks running in all directions.

  Rolf's eyes were better than Quonab's, but experience counts for as much as eyes, and Quonab was leading. They picked out a big buck track that was fresh —— no good hunter kills a doe at this season. They knew it for a buck, because of its size and the roundness of the toes.

  Before long, Rolf said: "See, Quonab, I want to learn this business; let me do the trailing, and you set me right if I get off the line."

  Within a hundred yards, Quonab gave a grunt and shook his head. Rolf looked surprised, for he was on a good, fresh track.

  Quonab said but one word, "Doe."

  Yes, a closer view showed the tracks to be a little narrower, a little closer together, and a little sharper than those he began with.

  Back went Rolf to the last marks that he was sure of, and plainly read where the buck had turned aside. For a time, things went along smoothly, Quonab and Skookum following Rolf. The last was getting very familiar with that stub hoof on the left foot. At length they came to the "fumet" or "sign"; it was all in one pile. That meant the deer had stood, so was unalarmed; and warm; that meant but a few minutes ahead. Now, they must use every precaution for this was the crux of the hunt. Of this much only they were sure —— the deer was within range now, and to get him they must see him before he saw them.

  Skookum was leashed. Rolf was allowed to get well ahead, and crawling cautiously, a step at a time, he went, setting down his moccasined foot only after he had tried and selected a place. Once or twice he threw into the air a tuft of dry grass to make sure that the wind was right, and by slow degrees he reached the edge of a little opening.

  Across this he peered long, without entering it. Then he made a sweep with his hand and pointed, to let Quonab know the buck had gone across and he himself must go around. But he lingered still and with his eyes swept the near woods. Then, dim gray among the gray twigs, he saw a slight movement, so slight it might have been made by the tail of a tomtit. But it fixed his attention, and out of this gray haze he slowly made out the outline of a deer's head, antlers, and neck. A hundred yards away, but "take a chance when it comes" is hunter wisdom. Rolf glanced at the sight, took steady aim, fired, and down went the buck behind a log. Skookum whined and leaped high in his eagerness to see. Rolf restrained his impatience to rush forward, at once reloaded, then all three went quickly to the place. Before they were within fifty yards, the deer leaped up and bounded off. At seventy-five yards, it stood for a moment to gaze. Rolf fired again; again the buck fell down, but jumped to its feet and bounded away.

  They went to the two places, but found no blood. Utterly puzzled, they gave it up for the day, as already the shades of night were on the woods, and in spite of Skookum's voluble offer to solve and settle everything, they returned to the cabin.

  "What do you make of it, Quonab?'

  The Indian shook his head, then: "Maybe touched his head and stunned him, first shot; second, wah! I not know."

  "I know this," said Rolf. "I touched him and I mean to get him in the morning."

  True to this resolve, he was there again at dawn, but examined the place in vain for a sign of blood. The red rarely shows up much on leaves, grass, or dust; but there are two kinds of places that the hunter can rely on as telltales —— stones and logs. Rolf followed the deer track, now very dim, till at a bare place he found a speck of blood on a pebble. Here the trail joined onto a deer path, with so many tracks that it was hard to say which was the right one. But Rolf passed quickly along to a log that crossed the runway, and on that log he found a drop of dried-up blood that told him what he wished to know.

  Now he had a straight run of a quarter of a mile, and from time to time he saw a peculiar scratching mark that puzzled him. Once he found a speck of blood at one of these scratches but no other evidence that the buck was touched.

  A wounded deer is pretty sure to work down hill, and Quonab, leaving Skookum with Rolf, climbed a lookout that might show whither the deer was heading.

  After another half mile, the deer path forked; there were buck trails on both, and Rolf could not pick out the one he wanted. He went a few yards along each, studying the many marks, but was unable to tell which was that of the wounded buck.

  Now Skookum took a share in it. He had always been forbidden to run deer and knew it was a contraband amusement, but he put his nose to that branch of the trail that ran down hill, followed it for a few yards, then looked at Rolf, as much as to say: "You poor nose-blind creature; don't you know a fresh deer track when you smell it? Here it is; this is where he went."

  Rolf stared, then said, "I believe he means it"; and followed the lower trail. Very soon he came to another scrape, and, just beyond it, found the new, velvet-covered antler of a buck, raw and bloody, and splintered at the base.

  From this on, the task was easier, as there were no other tracks, and this was pointing steadily down hill.

  Soon Quonab came striding along. He had not seen the buck, but a couple of jays and a raven were gathered in a thicket far down by the stream. The hunters quit the trail and made for that place. As they drew near, they found the track again, and again saw those curious scrapes.

  Every hunter knows that the bluejay dashing about a thicket means that hidden there is game of some kind, probably deer. Very, very slowly and silently they entered that copse. But nothing appeared until there was a rush in the thickest part and up leaped the buck. This was too much for Skookum. He shot forward like a wolf, fastened on one hind leg, and the buck went crashing head over heels. Before it could rise, another shot ended its troubles. And now a careful study shed the light desired. Rolf's first shot had hit the antler near the base, breaking it, except for the skin on one side, and had stunned the buck. The second shot had broken a hind leg. The scratching places he had made were efforts to regain the use of this limb, and at one of them the deer had fallen and parted the rag of skin by which the antler hung.

  It was Rolf's first important trailing on the ground; it showed how possible it was, and how quickly he was learning the hardest of all the feats of woodcraft.

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