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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter28)

2006-09-08 19:36

  CHAPTER XXVIII Alone in the Wilderness

  Rolf began the day by giving Skookum a bath as hot as he could stand it, and later his soup. For the first he whined feebly and for the second faintly wagged his tail; but clearly he was on the mend.

  Now the chinking and moss-plugging of the new cabin required all attention. That took a day and looked like the biggest job on hand, but Rolf had been thinking hard about the winter. In Connecticut the wiser settlers used to bank their houses for the cold weather; in the Adiron- dacks he knew it was far, far colder, and he soon decided to bank the two shanties as deeply as possible with earth. A good spade made of white oak, with its edge hardened by roasting it brown, was his first necessity, and after two days of digging he had the cabin with its annex buried up to "the eyes" in fresh, clean earth.

  A stock of new, dry wood for wet weather helped to show how much too small the cabin was; and now the heavier work was done, and Rolf had plenty of time to think.

  Which of us that has been left alone in the wilderness does not remember the sensations of the first day! The feeling of self-dependency, not unmixed with unrestraint; the ending of civilized thought; the total reversion to the primitive; the nearness of the wood-folk; a sense of intimacy; a recurrent feeling of awe at the silent inexorability of all around; and a sweet pervading sense of mastery in the very freedom. These were among the feelings that swept in waves through Rolf, and when the first night came, he found such comfort —— yes, he had to confess it —— in the company of the helpless little dog whose bed was by his own.

  But these were sensations that come not often; in the four days and nights that he was alone they lost all force.

  The hunter proverb about "strange beasts when you have no gun" was amply illustrated now that Quonab had gone with their only firearm. The second night before turning in (he slept in the shanty now), he was taking a last look at the stars, when a large, dark form glided among the tree trunks between him and the shimmering lake; stopped, gazed at him, then silently disappeared along the shore. No wonder that he kept the shanty door closed that night, and next morning when he studied the sandy ridges he read plainly that his night visitor had been not a lynx or a fox, but a prowling cougar or panther.

  On the third morning as he went forth in the still early dawn he heard a snort, and looking toward the spruce woods, was amazed to see towering up, statuesque, almost grotesque, with its mulish ears and antediluvian horns, a large bull moose.

  Rolf was no coward, but the sight of that monster so close to him set his scalp a-prickling. He felt so helpless without any firearms. He stepped into the cabin, took down his bow and arrows, then gave a contemptuous "Humph; all right for partridge and squirrels, but give me a rifle for the woods!" He went out again; there was the moose standing as before. The lad rushed toward it a few steps, shouting; it stared unmoved. But Rolf was moved, and he retreated to the cabin. Then remembering the potency of fire he started a blaze on the hearth. The thick smoke curled up on the still air, hung low, made swishes through the grove, until a faint air current took a wreath of it to the moose. The great nostrils drank in a draught that conveyed terror to the creature's soul, and wheeling it started at its best pace to the distant swamp, to be seen no more.

  Five times, during these four days, did deer come by and behave as though they knew perfectly well that this young human was harmless, entirely without the power of the far-killing mystery.

  How intensely Rolf wished for a gun. How vividly came back the scene in the trader's store, —— when last month he had been offered a beautiful rifle for twenty-five dollars, to be paid for in fur next spring, and savagely he blamed himself for not realizing what a chance it was. Then and there he made resolve to be the owner of a gun as soon as another chance came, and to make that chance come right soon.

  One little victory he had in that time. The creature that had torn open the venison bag was still around the camp; that was plain by the further damage on the bag hung in the storehouse, the walls of which were not chinked. Mindful of Quonab's remark, he set two marten traps, one on the roof, near the hole that had been used as entry; the other on a log along which the creature must climb to reach the meat. The method of setting is simple; a hollow is made, large enough to receive the trap as it lies open; on the pan of the trap some grass is laid smoothly; on each side of the trap a piece of prickly brush is placed, so that in leaping over these the creature will land on the lurking snare. The chain was made fast to a small log.

  Although so seldom seen there is no doubt that the marten comes out chiefly by day. That night the trap remained unsprung; next morning as Rolf went at silent dawn to bring water from the lake, he noticed a long, dark line that proved to be ducks. As he sat gazing he heard a sound in the tree beyond the cabin. It was like the scratching of a squirrel climbing about. Then he saw the creature, a large, dark squirrel, it seemed. It darted up this tree and down that, over logs and under brush, with the lightning speed of a lightning squirrel, and from time to time it stopped still as a bump while it gazed at some far and suspicious object. Up one trunk it went like a brown flash, and a moment later, out, cackling from its top, flew two partridges. Down to the ground, sinuous, graceful, incessantly active flashed the marten. Along a log it raced in undulating leaps; in the middle it stopped as though frozen, to gaze intently into a bed of sedge; with three billowy bounds its sleek form reached the sedge, flashed in and out again with a mouse in its snarling jaws; a side leap now, and another squeaker was squeakless, and another. The three were slain, then thrown aside, as the brown terror scanned a flight of ducks passing over. Into a thicket of willow it disap- peared and out again like an eel going through the mud, then up a tall stub where woodpecker holes were to be seen. Into the largest it went so quickly Rolf could scarcely see how it entered, and out in a few seconds bearing a flying squirrel whose skull it had crushed. Dropping the squirrel it leaped after it, and pounced again on the quivering form with a fearsome growl; then shook it savagely, tore it apart, cast it aside. Over the ground it now undulated, its shining yellow breast like a target of gold. Again it stopped. Now in pose like a pointer, exquisitely graceful, but oh, so wicked! Then the snaky neck swung the cobra head in the breeze and the brown one sniffed and sniffed, advanced a few steps, tried the wind and the ground. Still farther and the concentrated interest showed in its outstretched neck and quivering tail. Bounding into a thicket it went, when out of the other side there leaped a snowshoe rabbit, away and away for dear life. Jump, jump, jump; twelve feet at every stride, and faster than the eye could follow, with the marten close behind. What a race it was, and how they twinkled through the brush! The rabbit is, indeed, faster, but courage counts for much, and his was low; but luck and his good stars urged him round to the deer trail crossing of the stream; once there he could not turn. There was only one course. He sprang into the open river and swam for his life. And the marten - why should it go in? It hated the water; it was not hungry; it was out for sport, and water sport is not to its liking. It braced its sinewy legs and halted at the very brink, while bunny crossed to the safe woods.

  Back now came Wahpestan, the brown death, over the logs like a winged snake, skimming the ground like a sinister shadow, and heading for the cabin as the cabin's owner watched. Passing the body of the squirrel it paused to rend it again, then diving into the brush came out so far away and so soon that the watcher supposed at first that this was another marten. Up the shanty corner it flashed, hardly appearing to climb, swung that yellow throat and dark-brown muzzle for a second, then made toward the entry.

  Rolf sat with staring eyes as the beautiful demon, elegantly spurning the roof sods, went at easy, measured bounds toward the open chink —— toward its doom. One, two, three —— clearing the prickly cedar bush, its forefeet fell on the hidden trap; clutch, a savage shriek, a flashing, —— a struggle baffling the eyes to follow, and the master of the squirrels was himself under mastery.

  Rolf rushed forward now. The little demon in the trap was frothing with rage and hate; it ground the iron with its teeth; it shrieked at the human foeman coming.

  The scene must end, the quicker the better, and even as the marten itself had served the flying squirrel and the mice, and as Quonab served the mink, so Rolf served the marten and the woods was still.

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