Chapter IV. Gunning by Moonlight

Webb saw the glance from eyes on which were still traces of tears; he also saw his brother's look of sympathy; and with the kindly purpose of creating a diversion to her thoughts he started up, breaking off his discussion with Leonard, and left the room. A moment later he returned from the hall with the double-barrelled gun.

"What now, Webb?" cried Burt, on the qui vive. "You will make Amy think we are attacked by Indians."

"If you are not afraid of the cold, get your gun, and I think I can give you some sport, and, for a wonder, make you useful also," Webb replied. "While you were careering this afternoon I examined the young trees in the nursery, and found that the rabbits were doing no end of mischief. It has been so cold, and the snow is so deep, that the little rascals are gathering near the house. They have gnawed nearly all the bark off the stems of some of the trees, and I doubt whether I can save them. At first I was puzzled by their performances. You know, father, that short nursery row grafted with our seedling apple, the Highland Beauty? Well, I found many of the lower twigs taken off with a sharp, slanting cut, as if they had been severed with a knife, and I imagined that a thrifty neighbor had resolved to share in our monopoly of the new variety, but I soon discovered that the cuttings had been made too much at random to confirm the impression that some one had been gathering scions for grafting. Tracks on the snow, and girdled trees, soon made it evident that rabbits were the depredators. One of the little pests must have climbed into a bushy tree at least eighteen inches from the snow, in order to reach the twigs I found cut."

"A rabbit up a tree!" exclaimed Leonard. "Who ever heard of such a thing?"

"Well, you can see for yourself to-morrow," Webb resumed. "Of course we can't afford to pasture the little fellows on our young trees, and so must feed them until they can be shot or trapped. The latter method will be good fun for you, Alf. This afternoon I placed sweet apples, cabbage-leaves, and turnips around the edge of a little thicket near the trees; and, Burt, you know there is a clump of evergreens near, from whose cover I think we can obtain some good shots. So get your gun, and we'll start even."

At the prospect of sport Burt forgot Amy and everything else, and dashed off.

"Oh, papa, can't I go with them?" pleaded Alf.

"What do you think, Maggie?" Leonard asked his wife, who now entered.

"Well, boys will be boys. If you will let mamma bundle you up--"

"Oh, yes, anything, if I can only go!" cried Alf, trembling with excitement.

"Sister Amy," Webb remarked, a little diffidently, "if you care to see the fun, you can get a good view from the window of your room. I'll load my gun in the hall."

"Can I see you load?" Amy asked, catching some of Alf's strong interest. "It's all so novel to me."

"Certainly. I think you will soon find that you can do pretty much as you please in your new home. You are now among republicans, you know, and we are scarcely conscious of any government."

"But I have already discovered one very strong law in this household," she smilingly asserted, as she stood beside him near the hall-table, on which he had placed his powder-flask and shot-pouch.

"Ah, what is that?" he asked, pouring the powder carefully into the muzzles of the gun.

"The law of kindness, of good-will. Why," she exclaimed, "I expected to be weeks in getting acquainted, but here you are all calling me sister Amy as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It seems so odd," she laughed, "that I am not a bit afraid of you, even with your gun, and yet we have just met, as it were. The way you and your brothers say 'sister Amy' makes the relation seem real. I can scarcely believe that I am the same girl that stepped down at the station this evening, nor can I get over my pleased wonder at the transformation."

"Amy," said the young man, earnestly, "your coming promises so much to us all! You were just the one element lacking in our home. I now see that it was so. I already have the presentiment that you will do more for us than we can for you."

"I ought to do all that the deepest gratitude could prompt. You have never known what it is to be desolate one hour, and to find an ideal home the next."

"I wish it might be an ideal home to you; but don't expect too much. You will find some of us very human."

"Therefore I shall feel the more at home. Papa always spoiled me by letting me have my own way, and I shall often tax your patience. Do you know, I never saw a gun loaded before. There seems to be so much going on here, and I have lived such a quiet life of late. How will you make the thing go off?"

"These little precussion-caps will do the business. It seems to me that I've always been quiet, and perhaps a trifle heavy. I hope you will think it your mission to render me less matter-of-fact. I'm ready now, and here comes Burt with his breech-loader. If you will go to your room now, you can see our shots."

A moment later she stood with Johnnie at her window, both almost holding their breath in expectation as they saw the young men, with Alf following, steal toward a clump of evergreens behind the house.

"Quiet and steady now," Webb cautioned his eager brother; "and, Alf, you step in my tracks, so there may be no noise." Thus they made their way among the pines, and peered cautiously out. "Hold on, Burt," Webb whispered, as the former was bringing his gun to his shoulder; "I want a crack at them as well as yourself. Let's reconnoitre. Yes, there are three or four of the scamps. Let Alf see them. They look so pretty in the moonlight that I've scarcely the heart to disturb, much less to kill them."

"Oh, stop your sentimental nonsense!" muttered Burt, impatiently. "It's confoundedly cold, and they may take fright and disappear."

"Black ingratitude!" Webb exclaimed. "If there isn't one in the apple nursery in spite of all my provision for them! That ends my compunctions. I'll take him, and you that big fellow munching a cabbage-leaf. We'll count three--now, one, two--" The two reports rang out as one, and the watchers at the window saw the flashes, and thrilled at the reverberating echoes.

"It's almost as exciting as if they were shooting Indians, robbers, or giants," cried Johnnie, clapping her hands and jumping up and down.

"Back," said Webb to Alf, who was about to rush forward to secure the game; "we may get another shot."

They waited a few moments in vain, and then succumbed to the cold. To Alf was given the supreme delight of picking up the game that lay on the snow, making with their blood the one bit of color in all the white garden.

"Poor little chaps!" Webb remarked, as he joined the family gathered around Alf and the rabbits in the sitting-room. "It's a pity the world wasn't wide enough for us all."

"What has come over you, Webb?" asked Burt, lifting his eyebrows. "Has there been a hidden spring of sentiment in your nature all these years, which has just struck the surface?"

It was evident that nearly all shared in Webb's mild regret that such a sudden period had been put to life at once so pretty, innocent, and harmful. Alf, however, was conscious of only pure exultation. Your boy is usually a genuine savage, governed solely by the primal instinct of the chase and destruction of wild animals. He stroked the fur, and with eyes of absorbed curiosity examined the mischievous teeth, the long ears, the queer little feet that never get cold, and the places where the lead had entered with the sharp deadly shock that had driven out into the chill night the nameless something which had been the little creature's life. Amy, too, stroked the fur with a pity on her face which made it very sweet to Webb, while tender-hearted Johnnie was exceedingly remorseful, and wished to know whether "the bunnies, if put by the fire, would not come to life before morning." Indeed, there was a general chorus of commiseration, which Burt brought to a prosaic conclusion by saying: "Crocodile tears, every one. You'll all enjoy the pot-pie to-morrow with great gusto. By the way, I'll prop up one of these little fellows at the foot of Ned's crib, and in the morning he'll think that the original 'Br'er Rabbit' has hopped out of Uncle Remus's stories to make him a Christmas visit."