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WOOD-CHUCKS IN THE CLOVER ADDISON'S STRATAGEM
Creameries with ice-chests were as yet unheard of in the rural counties of Maine in 1866. At the old farm, all of the dairy milk was set in pans on the clean, cool cellar bottom. As the warm mornings of midsummer drew on, Gram was usually up by five o'clock, attending to her cream and butter; and about this time, as we issued drowsily forth, in response to the Old Squire's early rap, we were repeatedly startled at hearing a sudden eldritch exclamation which was half scream, at the foot of the bulkhead stairs.
"What's the matter down there, Ruth?" the Old Squire would exclaim.
"Dear me, I've stepped on that hateful toad again!" Gram would reply. "It's always under foot there! Do, Ellen, you get the tongs and carry that toad off again. Carry him away out to the foot of the garden, below the currant bushes. I don't see how he is forever getting back to the foot of those stairs! It gives me such a start, to put my foot on him!"
And Gram would have to sit down for a time, to fan herself and to recover her composure.
"Well, Ruth, I should think it would give the toad a start, too," the Old Squire would comment, dryly.
Meantime Ellen or Addison would proceed to capture the toad a fine, big brown chunk of a toad and exile him to the garden. Once Ellen carried him, wriggling in the tongs, around to the back side of the west barn. Ad, too, carried him out into the orchard one night. But by the next day, or the day following, toady would be back at the foot of the bulkhead stairs again. There is no doubt that it was the same toad, and he certainly must have possessed a good sense of locality. We could not for some time imagine how he obtained entrance to the cellar, for he returned to his favorite cool spot on days when the outer bulkhead door was closed. Addison at length decided that he must have got in by way of the cellar drain, on the back side of the house.
It was contrary to all the homely traditions at the farm to kill or maltreat a toad. Not less than seven times was that toad carefully carried away into the garden, or down the lane.
At last Gram's patience was exhausted. Her ire rose. "I'll see if you come back into my cellar again, old fellow," she exclaimed, before breakfast one morning after the recusant batrachian had been transported the night before. This time the old lady seized the tongs herself, and marched out into the yard, holding toady with no gentle pinch on his rotund body.
"Ellen, you bring me a quart of that brine out of the beef barrel," she called back to the kitchen.
Then having put the toad down in the cart road leading out into the fields, she dashed him with brine, and as he hopped away pursued him with further douches.
It is not likely that the brine injured the reptile very much, but for some reason it never came back.
For a long time thereafter the Old Squire was accustomed to touch up Gram's conscience now and then, by making sly allusion to her hard-heartedness and cruelty in "pickling toads." The Old Squire, too, had his bucolic enemies as well as Gram.
Wheet-wh-wh-wh-wh-wheedle! was a note we now began to hear daily about the stone walls and in the fields of new clover.
"Oh, those wood-chucks!" the old gentleman would exclaim. "They are making shocking work over in that new piece. Boys, I'll give you five cents a head for every wood-chuck you will kill off."
Amidst the now rapidly blossoming red clover we could see the fresh earth of numbers of their burrows, and almost every day a new one would be espied beside a rock or stone heap. June is the happy month for wood-chucks, in New England; they riot in the farmer's clover, and tunnel the soft hillsides with their holes. June is the month, too, when mother wood-chuck is leading out her four or five chubby little chucks, teaching them the fear of dogs and man, which constitutes the wisdom of a wood-chuck's life, and giving them their first lesson in that shrill, yet guttural note peculiar to wood-chuckdom, which country boys call "whistling."
It is remarkable how many wood-chucks will not only get a living, but wax fat on an old farm where the farmer himself has difficulty in making year's ends meet. Addison estimated that at one time there were seventy wood-chucks on the Old Squire's homestead, all prosperous and laying by something, metaphorically speaking, for a rainy day.
Despite all the evil that is said of the wood-chuck, too, he does in reality a much smaller amount of damage to man than one would imagine from the outcry against him. Occasionally, it is true, a chuck will begin nibbling at early pease, or beans, and do real, measurable harm, but the injury which he inflicts on the farmer in the hay-fields is generally much exaggerated. In the "south field" that year, there were two acres of red clover, where not less than seven or eight wood-chucks dug new holes and threw out mounds of yellow earth, which in some places crushed down the crop. Then, too, in feeding and running about, they trampled on plats of the thick clover, particularly where it had "lodged" from its own rank growth. There were, in all, five or six square rods of the grass which it was not deemed worth while to attempt to mow at all, and the loss of which was due in part, but not wholly, to the wood-chucks. The hired men scolded about it, and Gramp himself, who had a farmer's natural aversion to wood-chucks, fretted over it. We boys, too, magnified the damage and discussed ingenious plans for exterminating them. But after all, I do not believe that we really got two hundred weight of hay less in the field, in consequence of wood-chucks; and certainly the clover as it stood was not worth sixty cents a hundred. A dollar and twenty cents would probably have made good the entire loss; and I suspect that one-half of the damage from trampling on the clover was done by us boys, in pursuit of the chucks, rather than by the chucks themselves. At least, I still remember running through the grass in a very reckless manner on several occasions.
I am keenly aware that to write anything in defense of the wood-chuck will prove unpopular with farmers and farmers' boys. Still, I venture to ask whether we are not, perhaps, a little too much inclined to deem the earth and everything that grows out of it our own particular property. The wood-chuck is undoubtedly an older resident on this continent than men, certainly a far older resident than white men, who came here less than three hundred years ago. Moreover, he is a quiet, inoffensive resident, never becomes a pauper, never gets intoxicated, nor creates any disturbance, minds his own business, and only "whistles" when astonished or suddenly attacked by man and his dogs. May it not be possible that he is honestly entitled to a few stalks of clover which grow in the country which he and his ancestors had inhabited for centuries before white men knew there was any such place as America?
The writer now owns a farm in Maine, or at least holds a deed of it, given him, for a consideration, by another man who in turn had bought it of a previous incumbent who had seized it from the Indians, wood-chucks, hares, foxes and other original proprietors, without, as I hear, making them any return whatever; who, in fact, ejected them without ceremony. For some years whenever the wood-chucks ate anything that grew on the land, particularly if it were anything which I had sown or planted, I attacked them with guns, traps and dogs and killed them when I could.
But one day it occurred to me that perhaps my deed did not fairly authorize me to behave in just that way towards them, and that I was playing the rτle of a small, but very cruel, self-conceited tyrant over a conquered species whose blood cried out against me from the ground. I ceased my persecutions and massacres. Twenty or thirty wood-chucks now live on the premises with me, unmolested, for the most part. They take about what they want and dig a hole whenever they want a new one. They are really very peaceable neighbors, and it is rarely that we have a difference of opinion in the matter of garden truck, for I still draw the line at early pease and beans in the garden.
It is, indeed, quite surprising how little they take, or destroy. I do not believe that in all that time they have done me damages which any two fair-minded referees would allow me five dollars for. I am sure I spent more than that for ammunition, to say nothing of time, traps, dog-food, etc., during the year or two that I was playing the despot and trying to exterminate them. Now that I have rid my mind of the barbarous propensity to kill them, I really enjoy seeing them sitting up by their holes, or peeping at me over the heads of clover.
But a boy naturally likes to use his trap and his gun, especially on any animal, or bird, which his seniors represent to him as an outlaw. When the Old Squire set a bounty of five cents upon wood-chuck scalps, the desire to go on the war-path against the proscribed rodents at once took possession of us. A number of rusty fox-traps and mink-traps were brought forth from the wagon-house chamber, to be set at the entrances of the wood-chucks' holes. We covered the trenchers of the traps carefully over with loose dirt and attached the chain to stakes, driven into the ground a little to one side of the hole. In this way five chucks were trapped in the south field during the week.
Halstead and I were in partnership trapping them, but Addison preferred to rely on the gun. It is next to impossible to kill a wood-chuck with shot so quickly that he will not, after being hit, succeed in running into his hole, and thus defeat the evidence that he is a dead wood-chuck. Addison, however, hit upon a stratagem for shooting them at short range. He could imitate their peculiar "whistle" quite cleverly, and having observed that when one wood-chuck whistles, all the others within hearing are apt to exhibit some little curiosity as to what is going on, he turned the circumstance to account. Going cautiously to a burrow, he would crouch down, and placing the muzzle of the gun so as to shoot into the hole, "whistle," as if some neighboring chuck had come along to prospect the premises. In almost every instance, when there was a chuck in the hole, it would immediately come up in sight, probably to greet, or repel its visitor. The instant it appeared, Addison would fire and nearly always kill the animal; for although often he could not secure it, he would carefully close up the hole with stones and earth, and if, after three days, the chuck did not dig out past the obstruction, he laid claim to the bounty. A roster, which he kept in notches on the garden gate, showed that he had shot fourteen wood-chucks.
I remember that Theodora had something to say several times about our cruelty to the poor creatures; but we justified it on account of the damage which the wood-chucks were alleged to do to the grain, grass and beans.
"Oh, Doad would let the wood-chucks eat up everything we plant!" Halse would say, sarcastically. "'Let them have it,' she would say. 'Don't hurt the poor little things!' That's just like girls. They don't have to plant and hoe, so they are very merciful and tender-hearted. But if they had to plough and work and plant and sow and hoe in the hot sun all day, to raise a crop, they'd sing a different tune when the plaguey wood-chucks came around and ate it up!"
We thought Addison's stratagem a very bright one. That he could "whistle" the chuck out of his hole, and fetch him up to the very muzzle of the gun, was considered remarkably clever. But an incident which occurred a few days later rendered it forever unpopular.
Catherine Edwards had come over to go raspberrying, and Theodora, Ellen and Wealthy set off with her after school for the south field. They had to go around the clover piece, and as they passed it, Kate espied a wood-chuck, which, when it heard them, instead of disappearing in its burrow hard by, ran around in so peculiar a manner that they all stopped to watch it.
"It's crazy," cried Catherine; and at first they were afraid the animal would attack them; it ran to and fro in what seemed an aimless sort of manner. At length, they concluded that it had lost its hole and was trying to find it. They saw that its head was bare of hair in front, and presently decided that the poor creature was blind, for its eyes appeared to be gone, or covered over with an incrustation.
The explanation of its singular appearance and behavior then suddenly occurred to Ellen. "I know!" she cried. "It's one of those wood-chucks that Ad has shot in the face and eyes, as they peep out of their holes when he 'whistles' to them!"
"Oh, the poor, abused thing!" exclaimed Catherine. "I never heard of anything so hatefully cruel!"
The wood-chuck, although so dreadfully wounded and with its eyes destroyed by the powder, had yet, after several days, mustered sufficient strength to come out and feed. But it was totally blind, and once having lost its course, could not find the way back to its burrow, but dashed about in terror amidst the clover. Finally it took refuge beneath some of the lodged grass beside a stone; and meantime those sympathetic girls held an indignation meeting. Their pity for the poor creature knew no bounds, and Ellen was despatched to call us boys to the spot, that the full enormity of our act might be exhibited before our eyes.
We were just finishing hoeing the corn, the second time, that afternoon, and had only a few rows more. With an air of one who has a mission and a duty to perform, Ellen approached where we were at work and said, "We want you to come down to the south field this minute!"
"What for?" asked Addison.
"A good reason," replied Ellen, with an accent of suppressed scorn. "Kate and Doad sent me."
"What is it?" persisted Addison.
"Some of your fine works," said Ellen. "And you just come straight along and see it."
"We won't go unless you tell," replied Halse.
"Oh, you won't!" exclaimed Ellen severely. "Great wood-chuck hunters you are!" At the word wood-chuck we began to feel interested, and at length so far obeyed Ellen's iterated summons as to follow after her to the south field.
"Well, what's wanted?" demanded Addison, addressing himself to Theodora, as we drew near.
"I want you to see just what a cruel boy you are!" she replied. "There's one of the wood-chucks that you pretend to shoot so cutely. Go look at him, right under the clover there by that stone. Look at his poor little eyes all burned out, you cruel fellow!"
Not a little dumbfounded by this blast of indignation, thus suddenly let loose upon us, we drew near and examined the crouching chuck. It was really a rueful spectacle, the disabled and trembling creature trying in vain to see where its enemies were gathered about it.
"I didn't think you were such a cruel boy!" exclaimed Catherine, sarcastically. "Alf Batchelder might do such a thing. He is hateful enough always. But I didn't think it of you."
"Well, I shot at him," exclaimed Addison. "I thought I had killed him, you know."
"Oh yes, you did think, did you!" cried Catherine. "How would you like to have some one come along to your door or your chamber window, and speak to you to come out; and then when you stepped to the door to see what was wanted, to have them fire powder in your face and burn your eyes out! How would you like that?"
"I don't think I would like it," replied Addison, laughing.
"Now I wouldn't laugh," said Theodora, whose feelings, indeed, had been wrought upon to the point of tears as she watched the blinded creature. "You ought not to have such a hard heart. I didn't think you had, once," she added reproachfully.
"Oh, he is just like all the rest of the boys," exclaimed Kate. "No, he isn't," said Theodora, wiping her eyes.
"They are all alike," persisted Kate. "Always killing and torturing something."
"And all the girls are little saints," mimicked Halse.
"Oh, I'm not speaking to you!" cried Kate. "You're the Alf Batchelder sort. But I'm ashamed of Addison, to treat any creature in that way!"
In short, those girls read us a dreadful lecture; they berated us hot and heavy. If we attempted to reply and defend ourselves, they only lashed us the harder.
"Well, well," said Addison at length, picking up a club. "I'll put the creature out of its misery, so that at least it will not be caught and worried by dogs."
"You sha'n't! You sha'n't kill the poor thing!" cried Ellen; and then finding that Addison was about to do so, they all turned and ran away, without looking back.
Halstead was inclined to make light of the matter, and ridiculed the girls, but Addison did not say much about it. I think he felt conscience-smitten, and I never knew him to attempt to shoot a wood-chuck in that way afterwards.