Main Contents & Search



Sarah Orne Jewett

     Joe and Nelly Abbot were brother and sister, and they were very fond of each other. There was nobody else to be fond of except their father and mother, and Andrew, the man who helped to do the farm-work. There were no people living near them, and the farm was a long distance from the village, so the children hardly ever went there except on pleasant Sundays and once in a great while on week-days. But they were not lonely, for Nelly liked to do the same things that Joe did; and if their mother wanted some apples sliced for drying, or some rags sewed together for the carpet she was making, Joe could help Nelly as handily as she could help him drop potatoes in the spring or pick them up in the fall. By and by Nelly's work will be nearly all in-doors and Joe's nearly all out-of-doors, but now it is very pleasant for them to work and play together.

     One day they were going through "the big field," when their father shouted to them from the other side. It was nearly supper-time, and they were sorry to be stopped, for they were hurrying. But they turned and went across toward Mr. Abbot, Joe saying on the way, --

     "It's no matter; we shouldn't have had time enough, any way. We can go after supper just as well."

     "Where are you going?" asked their father.

     "We have finished our new squirrel-trap, and we were going over to set it in the oak-growth," said Joe.

     "Since you've another fever for trapping, I'll tell you what I wish you would do. Do you see this?" and his father pointed with his foot to a place where some animal had been burrowing.

     "Woodchucks?" asked the children.

     "Yes," said Mr Abbot. "And if you will catch some of them it will be worth while. They're getting too thick, and they do a good deal of damage in the clover; and I saw they had been at work among the early peas, besides. There are three or four burrows on this slope. I'll pay you ten cents for every one you catch. You bring the dog and a spade and you can dig them out, if you have patience; or you can set a steel-trap. I should think you might be about tired of the squirrel business by this time."

     Joe eagerly asked if there wouldn't be time that night. But his father said they had better wait until next day, as it looked like a thunder-shower. Then they went back to the house together. Andrew was splitting kindling-wood by the shed-door, and the children left their father and went to have a talk with him. They thought a great deal of Andrew. Joe climbed up to a beam on the inside of the shed, where there was a shelf, and took down a trap.

     "What are you after now?" asked Andrew.

     "Woodchucks," said Joe, proudly. "Father wants them attended to right off. They're doing lots of mischief down in the field, he says. We were going over to the oaks to set that new squirrel-trap, but father wanted to see us about this, and then he said there was going to be a shower, and so we aren't going to bother about the squirrels to-night. The trap might get water-soaked, so it wouldn't go, and I don't want it spoiled. We are going to hunt up all the things we shall want in the morning. Where's Tiger?"

     "Out under the wagon, gnawing a bone," said Andrew. "Are you sure you won't be afraid of the woodchucks? They're pretty cross and they bite dreadfully; so you had better be careful how you handle them, if you should happen to see one."

     "You needn't laugh at us," said Nelly. "You thought that we should be afraid of that big turtle down in the brook; but we brought him home, didn't we? Do you think we had better set traps for the woodchucks or dig them out?"

     "Digging is as good a way as any," said Andrew, chopping with all his might at a knotty pine stick. "They're shy of traps, and you don't often meet one out walking. You have to go to their houses for them. Sometimes they dig ever so far into the ground. They most always choose the side of a hill, and you can see paths where they walk. Sometimes in the fall I've seen their tracks in the field worn as smooth as the path out to the well there. You can try digging, anyway; though I shouldn't go further than a dozen feet into the side of the hill. Maybe you will find a nest with some young ones in it. You take Tiger and a couple of stout sticks, and he'll pull them out, and you can knock them on the back of the head and kill them."

     "Oh, but we mean to tame them!" said Nelly. "We can, can't we?"

     "Not much," said Andrew. "You will get more bitten fingers than the woodchucks will get good manners."

     Then they went in to supper, and the children had a great deal to say about their plans.

     "I remember when I was a little girl," said Mrs. Abbot, "that I was down in the clearing with my grandfather, and we came to some places where the ground was burrowed up, and I asked him what did it. 'Woo'chicks,' says he. He always spoke very quick and short, grandfather did, and I thought he said 'witches.' So I told him: 'Why, there aren't any. Mother said so.' You see I had been reading some stories about the witches in Salem. 'I guess I know,' says grandfather. 'No woo'chicks! Why, what made the burrows then?' 'But they don't live in burrows, any way,' said I. 'They lived in houses, like other folks, and they all died a good while ago. They hung 'em, you see.' I thought grandfather was wandering in his mind. He used to be sometimes, he got to be so old. He turned round to me and said, as cross as could be, 'Now what are you a-talking about?' 'Witches,' said I. 'Well, I told you that was a woodchuck's hole,' said grandfather, speaking slow; 'and don't you try to be too knowing, mind ye!'

     "I remember I did feel dreadfully ashamed," said Mrs. Abbot.

     The farmer laughed heartily. "I shouldn't wonder if Nelly here knows more about woodchucks than witches. I hope she does at any rate. I remember when I was a boy," he went on, "that I had five woodchucks at one time -- kept them in a box. It was when we lived at the Corners. One day a boy who lived out on a farm came to school telling great stories about his, and how tame they were, and nothing would do but I must have some too. I could hardly wait until Saturday afternoon to go up to his place and see them. I traded for two or three and I dug out two myself. I remember two or three of the boys and I went into what we used to call 'the river field,' and we found some of their holes along on the side of a hill. We dug away at one for a few minutes, and then nothing would do but we must try another hole. Some of the boys said that sometimes they had two ways in. I've thought of that woodchuck's hole a good many times since, Andrew. People think they find a shorter way, and go and dig at the other end. It's a great sight better to start in the right place and keep at it; and, if there's anything to find, you're more likely to come to it. People like to try new ways.

     "The boy I was speaking of first let me have three woodchucks, and I picked up some things round the house to give him. There was an old English arithmetic, that had belonged to my grandmother, and a grammar, seems to me, and the stock of an old flint-lock pistol, -- the barrel had burst, but you could snap it loud and sometimes it would strike fire. I know I felt bad about the pistol afterward and wanted to buy it back. I gave him some nails and considerable of a lump of loaf sugar besides. He bragged about that trade, and I heard of it. He thought it was smart to take me in, but I never forgot it. I was a good deal younger than he. I guess he didn't get much learning out of the books. The grammar I forget about, but the arithmetic was about as old as the Ten Commandments, and everything was reckoned for pounds, shillings, and pence."

     Mrs. Abbot laughed.

     "I think it would be hard telling who did get the best of that bargain," said she.

     "Tell us about your woodchucks, father," said Nelly.

     "I brought them home snarling in a box, and then I had them in a big tin squirrel-cage, and kept them out in the garden. They used to eat bread, or most anything. They like insects, too. I know I used to give them those great June beetles that fly round the room summer evenings after the lamp is lighted. One night I made a little fire under some willow-trees, and I should think I picked up nearly a pint. They live about willows, those June bugs do. My woodchucks lived well, I can tell you. One of them was the largest I ever saw. The end of them was that one morning I went out to see them, and they were all gone. It most broke my heart. Father was walking round the yard, and he looked surprised, and asked a lot of questions, and said he guessed they gnawed out in the night. I knew better than that, and I said I knew the boy who let 'em out, and I'd fix him. But Father said, laughing, 'Oh, I wouldn't bother. They gnawed out, most likely. Poor wild things! I hated to see them shut up. Here's a quarter for you.' I felt some better then; but I don't know that anything ever made me feel worse than losing those woodchucks. I shouldn't wonder if father let 'em out himself. He never could bear to see anything in a cage. He was a sailor, your grandfather was, and used to be gone at sea months at a time; and when he came home he used to say there was nothing in all foreign parts looked so pleasant to him as when he saw the green grass growing in the fields at home; and if he happened to be at home in spring-time, when the leaves were coming out, he would be so pleased with them, and sit out-doors in the sun, looking round, most all day. He always said he worked hard enough aboard ship to make up for being lazy ashore."

     Joe and Nelly could hardly wait to eat their breakfast and do their work next morning, and then they marched off down the field. It was very early and the dew was heavy on the clover-heads. Down on the low land, at the other side of the field, the clover and buttercups and white-weed were in full bloom, and some places were clear yellow or white or red, and in others the colors were mixed together. The bees were already busy, and there were dozens of birds in the air, and every now and then Joe and Nelly started a ground sparrow from its nest, or a bobolink fluttered up out of the grass as they went along, singing its best, for it was such a pleasant June morning. There were a great many yellow-birds out, too, and they flew along close to the ground, as fast as they could go, dipping sometimes so that it seemed as if they would catch their feet in the clover, and then going higher for a few minutes. They were in a great hurry, those yellow-birds.

     The children had brought the steel-trap and a stake for it, a spade and hoe, and a hatchet to cut the turf with, for Joe was hardly tall enough to push the heavy spade through the thick net-work of grass-roots. They each had a stick to knock the woodchucks over with, and a big tin pail; for Andrew had told them that you could drown them out sometimes, like field-mice. Tiger trotted alongside, with an air of great responsibility. He was getting old and lazy; still, when anything happened which excited him, he forgot his age and his weight and was very efficient. Joe and Nelly went to the little knoll where they had seen the burrows the day before, and, laying down their weapons, looked for the most promising hole. "Andrew says they are most always asleep, except when they come out to eat," said Nelly.

     They chose a hole where there were fresh tracks pointing inward and began to dig. Nelly chopped the turf with her hatchet and Joe pulled away the loose dirt with the hoe, sometimes using the spade for a while. Soon Tiger came up and smelt the woodchuck, and began to bark and jump about, and that made the children hopeful; but after they had dug up five or six feet the burrow began to go deeper and they had harder work. They came to a place where they found some fresh clover-heads and one or two June bugs, and Nelly said, joyfully: "Here's the old fellow's pantry. Now it can't be much further." When suddenly Tiger made a plunge and poked his head into the hole, pulling the dirt out with his paws. All at once he yelped and backed, and the children saw that a creature about as large as a rabbit had its teeth in poor Tiger's nose and was scratching him furiously.

     Nelly and Joe both jumped and went off a little way, while Tiger howled and shook his head, and the woodchuck squealed and held on gallantly. Once they separated for a moment, but the woodchuck flew at Tiger again, and then Joe took the club he had brought and killed him with two good blows. Tiger ran away yelping, but soon came back; and when he found his enemy was dead he barked triumphantly, wagged his tail, and proceeded to shake the creature until nothing was left but a forlorn bunch of brown fur, torn and bloody and covered with dirt. He marched off with this down the field.

     "You're brave enough, now the woodchuck is dead!" said Nelly. "You didn't feel so grand when he had hold of you by the nose!"

     Nelly proposed that they should dig down a little deeper and see what kind of a place the woodchuck had for its nest; and they were much surprised to hear a noise after they had cleared away the dirt a little, and soon found there was another occupant.

     "I wish we could get him alive," said Joe.

     Nelly pushed the spade down at the mouth of the hole, and they had the prisoner safe. Tiger had disappeared and did not come back, though they called him loud and long.

     "If we could only get him into the pail," said Nelly, "we could hold him down with the spade."

     "Of course," said Joe. "How you do think of things!" And they put the pail down and poked the hoe handle in at the burrow, and out jumped Mr. Woodchuck in great wrath. He must have been very stupid, or he might have pushed his way out through the soft earth at either side, but instead of this he went into the trap that was ready, and the children knew by the thud and the scratching that they had him safe, and turned the pail at once bottom upward. What a racket the creature made!

     "This won't do," said Joe. "He can burrow right down into the loose dirt if he only thinks of it." So they slipped the spade under, and righted the pail carefully. Joe held the spade down while Nelly ran over to the other side of the field where there were some ends of boards lying on the ground. She remembered that her father had been mending the fence, and one of these pieces covered the pail and they tied it down with some strong twine which Joe had in his pocket, and started for home feeling grand enough. Mr. Abbot was surprised when they told him how successful they had been; and Joe overheard him tell Andrew that he had supposed they would be scared to death if they happened to see one, so he felt as if he had shown much courage, and he and Nelly pocketed their ten cents apiece with great pride. They put the woodchuck in an old squirrel-cage and left him under the hay-cart where Mr. Abbot went with them to see him. He sat up and chittered angrily and bit at the bars as if he didn't like them at all. Andrew came up just then and crouched down to take a look with the rest.

     "They're very strong for such little animals," said he. "Their jaws are as strong as a turtle's; I wouldn't like to have that fellow bite me. I used to see them down in Maryland when I was in winter-quarters there in war-time; they call them marmots, and they do a good deal of damage in summer, for they get into gardens and eat cabbages and lettuce and such things. A fellow in my company bought one of an old woman and kept it in his tent. It was as tame as a kitten at first, and she said she fed it on bread and milk, but we used to give it most anything. It was always clever with me, and I used to play with it, and push it round any way, but once it bit right through a fellow's boot. It had a light chain, a couple o' yards long, and used to sleep about all the time. They say that a woodchuck sleeps right through the winter like a bear, but this one was caught when he was very young, the woman said."

     The children tried to dig out more but were unsuccessful, though they caught one in the steel-trap. Andrew skinned it for them, and nailed the skin on the side of the barn to dry. They meant to tan it with alum and borax, but nobody thought to buy any at the Corners until it was too late. So the skin is there yet, very much dried up. As for the live one in the squirrel-cage, he grew crosser and crosser, and when one day a big dog got him out of the cage somehow and shook him to death in half a minute, nobody was sorry, although the children talked a good deal about it, and always hated the butcher's dog afterward. Mr. Abbot had made a good bargain for his calf, and he only laughed when he heard of the woodchuck's death, and would not scold the butcher or his dog at all.

     Nelly said, mournfully: "Poor thing, we hated him because he was a woodchuck and he couldn't help that; he was made so. I'm glad I'm a girl, aren't you, Joe?"

     "I'm glad I'm a boy," said Joe, proudly.


"Woodchucks" first appeared in The Independent (27:25-6) on 6 September 1875, and was collected in Play Days, from which this text is taken. If you find errors or items needing annotation please contact the site manager.
     [ Back ]

the witches in Salem:  The outbreak of "witchcraft" in Salem, Massachusetts took place in 1692.
     [ Back ]

loaf sugar: refined sugar, usually made into a cone shape.
     [ Back ]

the Ten Commandments:  See Exodus 20.
     [ Back ]

pounds, shillings, and pence:  The United States adopted a currency system based on the dollar in 1792.  Various currencies preceded this, including the British system of pounds, shillings, and pence.
     [ Back ]

white-weed: "Name in N. America for the Ox-eye Daisy (Chrysanthemum Leucanthemum)." (Source: Oxford English Dictionary.)
     [ Back ]

yellow-birds: American goldfinch (Research, Allison Easton).
     [ Back ]

war-time: The American Civil War, 1861-1865.
     [ Back ]

Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.

Main Contents & Search