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An essay by Dallas Lore Sharp

The Hunting Of The Woodchuck

Title:     The Hunting Of The Woodchuck
Author: Dallas Lore Sharp [More Titles by Sharp]

... the chylde may Rue that ys vn-born, it wos the mor pitte.

There was murder in my heart. The woodchuck knew it. He never had had a thought before, but he had one now. It came hard and heavily, yet it arrived in time; and it was not a slow thought for a woodchuck, either--just a trifle better, indeed, than my own.

This was the first time I had caught the woodchuck away from his hole. He had left his old burrow in the huckleberry hillside, and dug a new hole under one of my young peach-trees. I had made no objection to his huckleberry hole. He used to come down the hillside and waddle into the orchard in broad day, free to do and go as he pleased; but not since he began to dig under the peach-tree.

I discovered this new hole when it was only a foot deep, and promptly filled it with stones. The next morning the stones were out and the cavity two feet deeper. I filled it up again, driving a large squarish piece of rock into the mouth, tight, certainly stopping all further work, as I thought.

There are woodchucks that you can discourage and there are those that you can't. Three days later the piece of rock and the stones were piled about the butt of the tree and covered with fresh earth, while the hole ran in out of sight, with the woodchuck, apparently, at the bottom of it.

I had tried shutting him out, now I would try shutting him in. It was cruel--it would have been to anything but a woodchuck; I was ashamed of myself for doing it, and went back the following day, really hoping to find the burrow open.

Never again would I worry over an imprisoned woodchuck; but then I should never again try to destroy a woodchuck by walling up his hole, any more than Br'er Fox would try to punish the rabbit by slinging him a second time into the brier-patch.

The burrow was wide open. I had stuffed and rammed the rocks into it, and buried deep in its mouth the body of another woodchuck that my neighbor's dog had killed. All was cleared away. The deceased relative was gone--where and how I know not; the stones were scattered on the farther side of the tree, and the passage neatly swept of all loose sand and pebbles.

Clearly the woodchuck had come to stay. I meant that he should move. I could get him into a steel trap, for his wits are not abiding; they come only on occasion. Woodchuck lives too much in the ground and too constantly beside his own door to grow very wise. He can always be trapped. So can any one's enemy. You can always murder. But no gentleman strikes from behind. I hate the steel trap. I have set my last one. They would be bitter peaches on that tree if they cost the woodchuck what I have seen more than one woodchuck suffer in the horrible jaws of such a trap.

But is it not perfectly legitimate and gentlemanly to shoot such a woodchuck to save one's peaches? Certainly. So I got the gun and waited--and waited--and waited. Did you ever wait with a gun until a woodchuck came out of his hole? I never did. A woodchuck has just sense enough to go into his hole--and stay in.

There were too many woodchucks about and my days were too precious for me to spend any considerable part of my summer watching with a gun for this one. Besides, I have been known to fire and miss a woodchuck, anyway.

So I gave up the gun. It was while thinking what I could do next that I came down the row of young peach-trees and spied the woodchuck out in the orchard, fifty yards away from his hole. He spied me at the same instant, and rose upon his haunches.

At last we were face to face. The time had come. It would be a fight to the finish; and a fair fight, too, for all that I had about me in the way of weapons was a pair of heavy, knee-high hunting-boots, that I had put on against the dew of the early morning. All my thought and energy, all my hope, centered immediately in those boots.

The woodchuck kept his thoughts in his head. Into his heels he put what speed he had; and little as that was, it counted, pieced out with the head-work.

Back in my college days I ran a two-mile race--the greatest race of the day, the judges said--and just at the tape lost two gold medals and the glory of a new intercollegiate record because I didn't use my head. Two of us out of twenty finished, and we finished together, the other fellow twisting and falling forward, breaking the string with his side, while I, pace for pace with him--didn't think.

For a moment the woodchuck and I stood motionless, he studying the situation. I was at the very mouth of his burrow. It was coming to sure death for him to attempt to get in. Yet it was sure death if he did not get in, for I should run him down.

Had you been that woodchuck, gentle reader, I wonder if you would have taken account of the thick-strewn stones behind you, the dense tangle of dewberry-vines off on your left, the heavy boots of your enemy and his unthinking rage?

I was vastly mistaken in that woodchuck. A blanker, flabbier face never looked into mine. Only the sudden appearance of death could have brought the trace of intelligence across it that I caught as the creature dropped on all fours and began to wabble straight away from me over the area of rough, loose stones.

With a jump and a yell I was after him, making five yards to his one. He tumbled along the best he could, and, to my great surprise, directly away from his hole. It was steep downhill. I should land upon him in half a dozen bounds more.

On we went, reckless of the uneven ground, momentum increasing with every jump, until, accurately calculating his speed and the changing distance between us, I rose with a mighty leap, sailed into the air and came down--just an inch too far ahead--on a round stone, turned my ankle, and went sprawling over the woodchuck in a heap.

The woodchuck spilled himself from under me, slid short about, and tumbled off for home by way of the dewberry-patch.

He had made a good start before I was righted and again in motion. Now it was steep, very steep, uphill--which did not seem to matter much to the woodchuck, but made a great difference to me. Then, too, I had counted on a simple, straightaway dash, and had not saved myself for this lap and climbing home-stretch.

Still I was gaining,--more slowly this time,--with chances yet good of overtaking him short of the hole, when, in the thick of the dewberry-vines, I tripped, lunged forward three or four stumbling strides, and saw the woodchuck turn sharp to the right in a bee-line for his burrow.

I wheeled, jumped, cut after him, caught him on the toe of my boot, and lifting him, plopped him smoothly, softly into his hole.

It was gently done. And so beautifully! The whole feat had something of the poetic accuracy of an astronomical calculation. And the perfectly lovely dive I helped him make home!

I sat down upon his mound of earth to get myself together and to enjoy it all. What a woodchuck! Perhaps he never could do the trick again; but, then, he won't need to. All the murder was gone from my heart. He had beaten the boots. He had beaten them so neatly, so absolutely, that simple decency compelled me then and there to turn over that Crawford peach-tree, root and stem, to the woodchuck, his heirs and assigns forever.

By way of celebration he has thrown out nearly a cart-load of sand from somewhere beneath the tree, deepening and enlarging his home. My Swedish neighbor, viewing the hole recently, exclaimed: "Dose vuudshuck, I t'ink him kill dem dree!" Perhaps so. As yet, however, the tree grows on without a sign of hurt.

But suppose the tree does die? Well, there is no certainty of its bearing good fruit. There was once a peddler of trees, a pious man and a Quaker, who made a mistake, selling the wrong tree. Besides, there are other trees in the orchard; and, if necessary, I can buy peaches.

Yes, but what if other woodchucks should seek other roof-trees in the peach row? They won't. There are no fashions, no such emulations, out-of-doors. Because one woodchuck moves from huckleberries to a peach-tree is no sign that all the woodchucks on the hillside are going to forsake the huckleberries with him. Only humans are silly enough for that.

If the woodchucks should come, all of them, it would be extremely interesting--an event worth many peaches.

[The end]
Dallas Lore Sharp's essay: The Hunting Of The Woodchuck