Two Little Savages
By Ernest Thompson Seton
Public Domain Books
HOW TO SEE THE WOODFOLK
The days went merrily now, beginning each morning with a hunting of the Woodchuck. The boys were on terms of friendship with the woods that contrasted strongly with the feelings of that first night.
This was the thought in Sam’s mind when he one day remarked, “Say, Yan, do you remember the night I slep’ with the axe an’ you with the hatchet?”
The Indians had learned to meet and conquer all the petty annoyances of camp life, and so forgot them. Their daily routine was simplified. Their acquaintance with woodfolk and wood-ways had grown so fast that now they were truly at home. The ringing ’Kow–Kow–Kow_" in the tree-tops was no longer a mere wandering voice, but the summer song of the Black-billed Cuckoo. The loud, rattling, birdy whistle in the low trees during dull weather Yan had traced to the Tree-frog.
The long-drawn ’Pee–re-e-e-e” of hot afternoons was the call of the Wood-peewee, and a vast number of mysterious squeaks and warbles had been traced home to the ever-bright and mischievous Blue Jay.
The nesting season was now over, as well as the song season; the birds, therefore, were less to be seen, but the drying of the streams had concentrated much life in the swimming-pond. The fence had been arranged so that the cattle could reach one end of it to drink, but the lower parts were safe from their clumsy feet, and wild life of many kinds were there in abundance.
The Muskrats were to be seen every evening in the calm pool, and fish in great numbers were in the deeper parts. Though they were small, the boys found them so numerous and so ready to bite that fishing was great sport, and more than one good meal they had from that pond. There were things of interest discovered daily. In a neighbour’s field Sam had found another Woodchuck with a “price on his head.” Rabbits began to come about the camp at night, especially when the moon was bright, and frequently of late they had heard a querulous, yelping bark that Caleb said was made by a Fox “probably that old rascal that lives in Callahan’s woods.”
The gray Cat in the log was always interesting. The boys went very regularly to watch from a distance, but for good reasons did not go near. First, they did not wish to scare her; second, they knew that if they went too close she would not hesitate to attack them.
One of the important lessons that Yan learned was this. In the woods the silent watcher sees the most. The great difficulty in watching was how to pass the time, and the solution was to sit and sketch. Reading would have done had books been at hand, but not so well as sketching, because then the eyes are fixed on the book instead of the woods, and the turning of the white pages is apt to alarm the shy woodfolk.
Thus Yan put in many hours making drawings of things about the edge of the pond.
As he sat one day in stillness a Minnow leaped from the water and caught a Fly. Almost immediately a Kingfisher that had been shooting past stopped in air, hovered, and darting downward, came up with a Minnow in his beak, flew to a branch to swallow its prey, but no sooner got there when a Chicken-hawk flashed out of a thick tree, struck the Kingfisher with both feet and bore him downward to the bank–in a moment would have killed him, but a long, brown creature rushed from a hole in the bank and sprang on the struggling pair, to change the scene in a twinkling. The three stragglers separated, the Hawk to the left, the Kingfisher to the right, the Minnow flopped back into the pool, and the Mink was left on the shore with a mouthful of feathers and looking very foolish. As it stood shaking the down from its nose another animal came gliding down through the shrubbery to the shore–the old gray Cat. The Mink wrinkled up his nose, showed two rows of sharp teeth and snarled in a furious manner, but backed off under a lot of roots. The Cat laid down her ears; the fur on her back and tail stood up; she crouched a little, her eyes blazing and the end of her tail twitching, and she answered the snarling of the Mink with a low growl. The Mink was evidently threatening “sudden death” to the Cat, and Pussy evidently was not much impressed. The Mink retreated farther under the roots till nothing but the green glowing of his eyes was to be seen, and the Cat, coming forward, walked calmly by his hiding-place and went about her business. The snarling under the root died away, and as soon as his enemy was gone the Mink dived into the water and was lost to view.
These two animals had a second meeting, as Yan had the luck to witness from his watching-place. He had heard the “plop” of a deft plunge, and looked in time only to see the spreading rings near the shore. Then the water was ruffled far up in the pond. A brown spot showed and was gone. A second appeared, to vanish as the first had done. Later, a Muskrat crawled out on the shore, waddled along for twenty feet, then, plunging in, swam below, came up at the other bank, and crawled under a lot of overhanging roots. A minute later the Mink appeared, his hair all plastered close till he looked like a four-legged Snake. He landed where the Muskrat had come out, followed the trail so that it was lost, then galloped up and down the shore, plunged in, swam across, and beat about the other shore. At last he struck the trail and followed. Under the root there were sounds of a struggle, the snarling of the mink, and in two or three minutes he appeared dragging out the body of the Muskrat. He sucked its blood and was eating the brains when again the gray Cat came prowling up the edge of the pond and, not ten feet off, stood face to face with the Mink, as she had done before.
The Water Weasel saw his enemy but made no attempt to escape from her. He stood with forepaws on his victim and snarling a warning and defiance to the Cat. Pussy, after glaring for a few seconds, leaped lightly to the high bank, passed above the Mink, then farther on leaped down, and resumed her journey up the shore.
Why should the Mink fear the Cat the first time, and the Cat the Mink the second? Yan believed that ordinarily the Cat could “lick," but that now the Mink had right on his side; he was defending his property, and the Cat, knowing that, avoided a quarrel; whereas the same Cat would have faced a thousand Mink in defense of her Kittens.
These two scenes did not happen the same day, but are told together because Yan always told them together afterward to show that the animals understand something of right and wrong.
But later Yan had another experience with the Muskrats. He and Sam were smoothing out the lower album for the night, when a long stream of water came briskly down the middle of the creek bed, which had been dry for more than a week.
“Hallo,” said Woodpecker, “where’s that from?”
“A leak in the dam,” said Little Beaver, with fear in his voice.
The boys ran up to the dam and learned that the guess was right. The water had found an escape round the end of the dam, and a close examination showed that it had been made by a burrowing Muskrat.
It was no little job to get it tightly closed up. But the spade was handy, and a close-driven row of stakes with plenty of stiff clay packed behind not only stopped the leak but gave a guarantee that in future that corner at least would be safe.
When Caleb heard of the Muskrat mischief he said:
“Now ye know why the Beavers are always so dead sore on the Muskrats. They know the Rats are liable to spoil their dams any time, so they kill them whenever they get the chance.”
Little Beaver rarely watched an hour without seeing something of interest in the swamp. The other warriors had not the patience to wait so long and they were not able to make a pastime of sketching.
Yan made several hiding-places where he found that living things were most likely to be seen. Just below the dam was a little pool where various Crawfish and thread-like Eels abounding proved very attractive to Kingfisher and Crow, while little Tip-ups or Teetering Snipe would wiggle their latter end on the level dam, or late in the day the never-failing Muskrat would crawl out on a flat stone and sit like a fur cap. The caņon part of the creek was another successful hiding-place, but the very best was at the upper end of the pond, for the simple reason that it gave a view of more different kinds of land. First the water with Muskrats and occasionally a Mink, next the little marsh, always there, but greatly increased now by the back-up of the water. Here one or two Field-mice and a pair of Sora Rails were at home. Close at hand was the thick woods, where Partridges and Black Squirrels were sometimes seen.
Yan was here one day sketching the trunk of a Hemlock to pass the watching time, but also because he had learned to love that old tree. He never sketched because he loved sketching; he did not; the motive always was love of the thing he was drawing.
A Black-and-white Creeper had crawled like a Lizard over all the trunks in sight. A Downy Woodpecker had digged a worm out of a log by labour that most birds would have thought ill-paid by a dozen such worms. A Chipmunk had come nearer and nearer till it had actually run over his foot and then scurried away chattering in dismay at its own rashness; finally, a preposterous little Cock Chickadee sang “_Spring soon–spring soon,” as though any one were interested in the gratuitous and unconvincing fib, when a brown, furry form hopped noiselessly from the green leaves by the pond, skipped over a narrow bay without wetting its feet, paused once or twice, then in the middle of the open glade it sat up in plain view–a Rabbit. It sat so long and so still that Yan first made a sketch that took three of four minutes, then got out his watch and timed it for three minutes longer before it moved in the least. Then it fed for some time, and Yan tried to make a list of the things it ate and the things it shunned, but could not do so with certainty.
A noisy Flicker came out and alighted close by on a dried branch. The Rabbit, or really a Northern Hare, “froze"–that is, became perfectly still for a moment–but the Flicker marks were easy to read and had long ago been learned as the uniform of a friend, so the Rabbit resumed his meal, and when the Flicker flew again he paid no heed. A Crow passed over, and yet another. “No; no danger from them.” A Red-shouldered Hawk wailed in the woods; the Rabbit heard that and every other sound, but the Red-shoulder is not dangerous, and he knew it. A large Hawk with red tail circled silently over the glade, and the Rabbit froze on the instant. That same red tail was the mark of a dreaded foe. How well Bunny had learned to know them all!
A bunch of clover tempted him to a full repast, after which he hopped into a tussock in the midst of the glade and there turned himself into a moss-bump, his legs swallowed up in his fur, and his ears laid over his back like a pair of empty gloves or a couple of rounded shingles; his nose-wabblings reduced in number, and he seemed to be sleeping in the last warm rays of the sun. Yan was very anxious to see whether his eyes were open or not; he had been told that Rabbits sleep with open eyes, but at this distance he could not be sure. He had no field-glass and Guy was not at hand, so the point remained in doubt.
The last sun-blots had gone from the trail and the pond was all shadowed by the trees on the western side. A Robin began its evening hymn on a tall tree, where it could see the red sun going down, and a Veery was trilling his weary, weary, weary in the Elder thicket along the brook, when another, a larger animal, loomed up in the distant trail and glided silently toward Yan. Its head was low and he could not make out what it was. As it stood there for a few seconds Yan wet his finger in his mouth and held it up. A slight coolness on the side next the coming creature told Yan that the breeze was from it to him and would not betray him. It came on, seeming to grow larger, turned a little to one side, and then Yan saw plainly by the sharp nose and ears and the bushy tail that it was nothing less than a Fox, probably the one that often barked near camp at night.
It was trotting away at an angle, knowing nothing of the watching boy nor of the crouching Rabbit, when Yan, merely to get a better look at the cunning one, put the back of his hand to his mouth and by sucking made a slight Mouse-like squeak, sweetest music, potent spellbinder, to a hungry Fox, and he turned like a flash. For a moment he stood, head erect, full of poise and force in curb; a second squeak–he came slowly back toward the sound and in so doing passed between Yan and the Rabbit. He had crossed its old trail without feeling much interest, but now the breeze brought its body scent. Instantly the Fox gave up the Mouse hunt–no hunter goes after Mice when big game is at hand–and began an elaborate and beautiful stalk of the Rabbit–the Rabbit that he had not seen. But his nose was his best guide. He cautiously zigzagged up the wind, picking his steps with the greatest care, and pointing with his nose like a Pointer Dog. Each step was bringing him nearer to Bunny as it slept or seemed asleep in the tussock. Yan wondered whether he ought not to shout out and end the stalk before the Rabbit was caught, but as a naturalist he was eager to see the whole thing out and learn how the Fox would make the capture. The red-furred gentleman was now within fifteen feet of the tussock and still the gray one moved not. Now he was within twelve feet–and no move; ten feet–and Bunny seemed in tranquil sleep; eight feet–and now the Fox for the first time seemed to actually see his victim. Yan had hard work to keep from shouting a warning; six feet–and now the Fox was plainly preparing for a final spring.
“Is it right to let him?” and Yan’s heart beat with excitement.
The Fox brought his feet well under him, tried the footing till it was perfect, gathered all his force, then with silent, vicious energy sprung straight for the sleeper. Sleeping? Oh, no! Not at all. Bunny was playing his own game. The moment the Fox leaped, he leaped with equal vigour the opposite way and out under his enemy, so Reynard landed on the empty bunch of grass. Again he sprang, but the Rabbit had rebounded like a ball in the other direction, and continued this bewildering succession of marvellous erratic hops. The Fox in vain tried to keep up, for these wonderful side jumps are the Rabbit’s strength and the Fox’s weakness; and Bunny went zigzag–hop–skip– into the thicket and was gone before the Fox could get his heavier body under speed at all.
Had the Rabbit bounded out as soon as he saw the Fox coming he might have betrayed himself unnecessarily; had he gone straight away when the Fox leaped for him he might have been caught in three or four leaps, for the enemy was under full speed, but by biding his time he had courted no danger, and when it did come he had played the only possible offset, and “lives in the greenwood still.”
The Fox had to seek his supper somewhere else, and Yan went to camp happy in having learned another of the secrets of the woods.