R'ER RABBIT is a funny fellow. No wonder that Uncle Remus makes him the hero of so many adventures! Uncle Remus had watched him, no doubt, on some moonlight night when he gathered his boon companions together for a frolic. In the heart of the woods it was, in a little opening where the moonlight came streaming in through the pines, making soft gray shadows for hide-and-seek, and where no prowling fox ever dreamed of looking.
With most of us, I fear, the acquaintance with Bunny is too limited for us to appreciate his frolicsome ways and his happy, fun-loving disposition. The tame things which we sometimes see about country yards are often stupid, like a playful kitten spoiled by too much handling; and the flying glimpse we sometimes get of a bundle of brown fur, scurrying helter-skelter through and over the huckleberry bushes, generally leaves us staring in astonishment at the swaying leaves where it disappeared, and wondering curiously what it was all about. It was only a brown rabbit that you almost stepped upon in your autumn walk through the woods.
Look under the crimson sumach yonder, there in the bit of brown grass, with the purple asters hanging over, and you will find his form, where he has been sitting all the morning and where he watched you all the way up the hill. But you need not follow; you will not find him again. He never runs straight; the swaying leaves there where he disappeared mark the beginning of his turn, whether to right or left you will never know. Now he has come around his circle and is near you again—watching you this minute, out of his bit of brown grass. As you move slowly away in the direction he took, peering here and there among the bushes, Bunny behind you sits up straight in his old form again, with his little paws held very prim, his long ears pointed after you, and his deep brown eyes shining like the waters of a hidden spring among the asters. And he chuckles to himself, and thinks how he fooled you that time, sure.
To see Br'er Rabbit at his best, that is, at his own playful comical self, one must turn hunter, and learn how to sit still, and be patient. Only you must not hunt in the usual way; not by day, for then Bunny is stowed away in his form on the sunny slope of a southern hillside, where one's eyes will never find him; not with gun and dog, for then the keen interest and quick sympathy needed to appreciate any phase of animal life gives place to the coarser excitement of the hunt; and not by going about after Bunny, for your heavy footsteps and the rustle of leaves will only send him scurrying away into safer solitudes. Find where he loves to meet with his fellows, in quiet little openings in the woods. There is no mistaking his playground when once you have found it. Go there by moonlight and, sitting still in the shadow, let your game find you, or pass by without suspicion; for this is the best way to hunt, whether one is after game or only a better knowledge of the ways of bird and beast.
The very best spot I ever found for watching Bunny's ways was on the shore of a lonely lake in the heart of a New Brunswick forest. I hardly think that he was any different there, for I have seen some of his pranks repeated within sight of a busy New England town; but he was certainly more natural. He had never seen a man before, and he was as curious about it as a blue jay. No dog's voice had ever wakened the echoes within fifty miles; but every sound of the wilderness he seemed to know a thousand times better than I. The snapping of the smallest stick under the stealthy tread of fox or wildcat would send him scurrying out of sight in wild alarm; yet I watched a dozen of them at play one night when a frightened moose went crashing through the underbrush and plunged into the lake near by, and they did not seem to mind it in the least.
The spot referred to was the only camping ground on the lake; so Simmo, my Indian guide, assured me; and he knew very well. I discovered afterward that it was the only cleared bit of land for miles around; and this the rabbits knew very well. Right in the midst of their best playground I pitched my tent, while Simmo built his lean-to near by, in another little opening. We were tired that night, after a long day's paddle in the sunshine on the river. The after-supper chat before the camp fire—generally the most delightful bit of the whole day, and prolonged as far as possible—was short and sleepy; and we left the lonely woods to the bats and owls and creeping things, and turned in for the night.
I was just asleep when I was startled by a loud thump twice repeated, as if a man stamped on the ground, or, as I thought at the time, just like the thump a bear gives an old log with his paw, to see if it is hollow and contains any insects. I was wide awake in a moment, sitting up straight to listen. A few minutes passed by in intense stillness; then, thump! thump! thump! just outside the tent among the ferns.
I crept slowly out; but beyond a slight rustle as my head appeared outside the tent I heard nothing, though I waited several minutes and searched about among the underbrush. But no sooner was I back in the tent and quiet than there it was again, and repeated three or four times, now here, now there, within the next ten minutes. I crept out again, with no better success than before.
This time, however, I would find out about that mysterious noise before going back. It isn't so pleasant to go to sleep until one knows what things are prowling about, especially things that make a noise like that. A new moon was shining down into the little clearing, giving hardly enough light to make out the outlines of the great evergreens. Down among the ferns things were all black and uniform. For ten minutes I stood there in the shadow of a big spruce and waited. Then the silence was broken by a sudden heavy thump in the bushes just behind me. I was startled, and wheeled on the instant; as I did so, some small animal scurried away into the underbrush.
For a moment I was puzzled. Then it flashed upon me that I was camped upon the rabbits' playground. With the thought came a strong suspicion that Bunny was fooling me.
Going back to the fire, I raked the coals together and threw on some fresh fuel. Next I fastened a large piece of birch bark on two split sticks behind the fireplace; then I sat down on an old log to wait. The rude reflector did very well as the fire burned up. Out in front the fern tops were dimly lighted to the edge of the clearing. As I watched, a dark form shot suddenly above the ferns and dropped back again. Three heavy thumps followed; then the form shot up and down once more. This time there was no mistake. In the firelight I saw plainly the dangle of Br'er Rabbit's long legs, and the flap of his big ears, and the quick flash of his dark eyes in the reflected light,—got an instantaneous photograph of him, as it were, at the top of his comical jump.
I sat there nearly an hour before the why and the how of the little joker's actions became quite clear. This is what happens in such a case. Bunny comes down from the ridge for his nightly frolic in the little clearing. While still in the ferns the big white object, standing motionless in the middle of his playground, catches his attention; and very much surprised, and very much frightened, but still very curious, he crouches down close to wait and listen. But the strange thing does not move nor see him. To get a better view he leaps up high above the ferns two or three times. Still the big thing remains quite still and harmless. "Now," thinks Bunny, "I'll frighten him, and find out what he is." Leaping high, he strikes the ground sharply two or three times with his padded hind foot; then jumps up quickly again to see the effect of his scare. Once he succeeded very well, when he crept up close behind me, so close that he didn't have to spring up to see the effect. I fancy him chuckling to himself as he scurried off after my sudden start.
That was the first time that I ever heard Bunny's challenge. It impressed me at the time as one of his most curious pranks; the sound was so big and heavy for such a little fellow. Since then I have heard it frequently; and now sometimes when I stand at night in the forest and hear a sudden heavy thump in the underbrush, as if a big moose were striking the ground and shaking his antlers at me, it doesn't startle me in the least. It is only Br'er Rabbit trying to frighten me.
The next night Bunny played us another trick. Before Simmo went to sleep he always took off his blue overalls and put them under his head for a pillow. That was only one of Simmo's queer ways. While he was asleep the rabbits came into his little commoosie, dragged the overalls out from under his head, and nibbled them full of holes. Not content with this, they played with them all night; pulled them around the clearing, as threads here and there plainly showed; then dragged them away into the underbrush and left them.
Simmo's wrath when he at last found the precious garments was comical to behold; when he wore them with their new polka-dot pattern, it was still more comical. Why the rabbits did it I could never quite make out. The overalls were very dirty, very much stained with everything from a clean trout to tobacco crumbs; and, as there was nothing about them for a rabbit to eat, we concluded that it was just one of Br'er Rabbit's pranks. That night Simmo, to avenge his overalls, set a deadfall supported by a piece of cord, which he had soaked in molasses and salt. Which meant that Bunny would nibble the cord for the salt that was in it, and bring the log down hard on his own back. So I had to spring it, while Simmo slept, to save the little fellow's life and learn more about him.
Up on the ridge above our tent was a third tiny clearing, where some trappers had once made their winter camp. It was there that I watched the rabbits one moonlight night from my seat on an old log, just within the shadow at the edge of the opening. The first arrival came in with a rush. There was a sudden scurry behind me, and over the log he came with a flying leap that landed him on the smooth bit of ground in the middle, where he whirled around and around with grotesque jumps, like a kitten after its tail. Only Br'er Rabbit's tail was too short for him ever to catch it; he seemed rather to be trying to get a good look at it. Then he went off helter-skelter in a headlong rush through the ferns. Before I knew what had become of him, over the log he came again in a marvelous jump, and went tearing around the clearing like a circus horse, varying his performance now by a high leap, now by two or three awkward hops on his hind legs, like a dancing bear. It was immensely entertaining.
The third time around he discovered me in the midst of one of his antics. He was so surprised that he fell down. In a second he was up again, sitting up very straight on his haunches just in front of me, paws crossed, ears erect, eyes shining in fear and curiosity. "Who are you?" he was saying, as plainly as ever rabbit said it. Without moving a muscle I tried to tell him, and also that he need not be afraid. Perhaps he began to understand, for he turned his head on one side, just as a dog does when you talk to him. But he wasn't quite satisfied. "I'll try my scare on him," he thought; and thump! thump! thump! sounded his padded hind foot on the soft ground. It almost made me start again, it sounded so big in the dead stillness. This last test quite convinced him that I was harmless, and, after a moment's watching, away he went in some astonishing jumps into the forest.
A few minutes passed by in quiet waiting before he was back again, this time with two or three companions. I have no doubt that he had been watching me all the time, for I heard his challenge in the brush just behind my log. The fun now began to grow lively. Around and around they went, here, there, everywhere,—the woods seemed full of rabbits, they scurried around so. Every few minutes the number increased, as some new arrival came flying in and gyrated around like a brown fur pinwheel. They leaped over everything in the clearing; they leaped over each other as if playing leap-frog; they vied with each other in the high jump. Sometimes they gathered together in the middle of the open space and crept about close to the ground, in and out and roundabout, like a game of fox and geese. Then they rose on their hind legs and hopped slowly about in all the dignity of a minuet. Right in the midst of the solemn affair some mischievous fellow gave a squeak and a big jump; and away they all went hurry-skurry, for all the world like a lot of boys turned loose for recess. In a minute they were back again, quiet and sedate, and solemn as bullfrogs. Were they chasing and chastising the mischief-maker, or was it only the overflow of abundant spirits, as the top of a kettle blows off when the pressure below becomes resistless?
Many of the rabbits saw me, I am sure, for they sometimes gave a high jump over my foot; and one came close up beside it, and sat up straight with his head on one side, to look me over. Perhaps it was the first comer, for he did not try his scare again. Like most wild creatures, they have very little fear of an object that remains motionless at their first approach and challenge.
Once there was a curious performance over across the clearing. I could not see it very plainly, but it looked very much like a boxing match. A queer sound, put-a-put-a-put-a-put, first drew my attention to it. Two rabbits were at the edge of the ferns, standing up on their hind legs, face to face, and apparently cuffing each other soundly, while they hopped slowly around and around in a circle. I could not see the blows but only the boxing attitude, and hear the sounds as they landed on each other's ribs. The other rabbits did not seem to mind it, as they would have done had it been a fight, but stopped occasionally to watch the two, and then went on with their fun-making. Since then I have read of tame hares that did the same thing, but I have never seen it.
At another time the rabbits were gathered together in the very midst of some quiet fun, when they leaped aside suddenly and disappeared among the ferns as if by magic. The next instant a dark shadow swept across the opening, almost into my face, and wheeled out of sight among the evergreens. It was Kookooskoos, the big brown owl, coursing the woods on his nightly hunt after the very rabbits that were crouched motionless beneath him as he passed. But how did they learn, all at once, of the coming of an enemy whose march is noiseless as the sweep of a shadow? And did they all hide so well that he never suspected that they were about, or did he see the ferns wave as the last one disappeared, but was afraid to come back after seeing me? Perhaps Br'er Rabbit was well repaid that time for his confidence.
They soon came back again, as I think they would not have done had it been a natural opening. Had it been one of Nature's own sunny spots, the owl would have swept back and forth across it; for he knows the rabbits' ways as well as they know his. But hawks and owls avoid a spot like this, that men have cleared. If they cross it once in search of prey, they seldom return. Wherever man camps, he leaves something of himself behind; and the fierce birds and beasts of the woods fear it, and shun it. It is only the innocent things, singing birds, and fun-loving rabbits, and harmless little wood-mice—shy, defenseless creatures all—that take possession of man's abandoned quarters, and enjoy his protection. Bunny knows this, I think; and so there is no other place in the woods that he loves so well as an old camping ground.
The play was soon over; for it is only in the early part of the evening, when Br'er Rabbit first comes out after sitting still in his form all day, that he gives himself up to fun, like a boy out of school. If one may judge, however, from the looks of Simmo's overalls, and from the number of times he woke me by scurrying around my tent, I suspect that he is never too serious and never too busy for a joke. It is a way he has of brightening the more sober times of getting his own living, and keeping a sharp lookout for cats and owls and prowling foxes.
Gradually the playground was deserted, as the rabbits slipped off one by one to hunt their supper. Now and then there was a scamper among the underbrush, and a high jump or two, with which some playful bunny enlivened his search for tender twigs; and at times one, more curious than the rest, came hopping along to sit erect a moment before the old log, and look to see if the strange animal were still there. But soon the old log was vacant too. Out in the swamp a disappointed owl sat on his lonely stub that lightning had blasted, and hooted that he was hungry. The moon looked down into the little clearing with its waving ferns and soft gray shadows, and saw nothing there to suggest that it was the rabbits' nursery.
Down at the camp a new surprise was awaiting me. Br'er Rabbit was under the tent fly, tugging away at the salt bag which I had left there carelessly after curing a bearskin. While he was absorbed in getting it out from under the rubber blanket, I crept up on hands and knees, and stroked him once from ears to tail. He jumped straight up with a startled squeak, whirled in the air, and came down facing me. So we remained for a full moment, our faces scarcely two feet apart, looking into each other's eyes. Then he thumped the earth soundly with his left hind foot, to show that he was not afraid, and scurried under the fly and through the brakes in a half circle to a bush at my heels, where he sat up straight in the shadow to watch me.
But I had seen enough for one night. I left a generous pinch of salt where he could find it easily, and crept in to sleep, leaving him to his own ample devices.