Pete Muskrat Sculpts a Woodpile

FOR a ceremony that turned out to be purely sentimental, I wended to Kennebago Lake earlier this fall, meaning to close the Maine trout season once more in the company of my longtime angling crony, Joe. It was a lovely day when I left the seacoast with flyrod and bed-bag, waving farewell to wifey dear. But purely sentimental, because when I got to Kennebago Lake I found Joe siting in the molted Morris chair on the verandah of his camp contemplating a rising wind. That kind of wind, off the West Kennebago Range, promises a weather pattern known to Kennebago folks as ``a three-day blow.'' So we didn't even set up our rods, but retired inside camp to enjoy the comfort of the Franklin stove and listen to the wind playing Yankee Doodle in yonder mountain ash. Thus the 1990 inland season came to an inactive end.

Since Joe's radio has long been dormant, we couldn't listen to the baseball game, and beyond Cow Pond there is neither law nor television. We were reduced to tackling the lobsters I had fetched, supported by goodies from my garden and the IGA, and then we had to wash the dishes. Joe remarked that the stick he was trying to add to the fire was just a mite too long for the Franklin stove, and he said, ``Did you ever hear what happened to Skinny Belcher the time he caught Pete Muskrat with a poached moose?''

I replied that I had not, but unfortunately expected to, and Joe said, ``Skinny was game warden over at Ten-Mile on the west side of the East Branch, and being a bachelor he lived alone at the state camp there.''

I said, ``I think I remember him - didn't he keep a tame bear that he hitched to a sled?''

``No,'' said Joe. ``That was Doopy Dunbar down at Lobster Lake.''

``Then I guess I never knew Skinny.''

``Prolly not - Skinny pursued policies unpopular with the commissioner, and he didn't last long. They reassigned him to South Berwick, and rather than go there he resigned from the force. But he had some good points. Skinny was all right, but...''

``What about the Indian?''

``What Indian?''

``Pete Muskrat, that attracted Skinny's attention by an off-season moose.''

``Oh, him! Well, Skinny caught him red-handed in Blue Pokum Bog dressing out a bull moose in the middle of August. So he and this Indian sat on a dead-fall log to talk things over, and Skinny put it this way. He said, `Now, Pete, you been caught fair and square, and you know you're guilty just as well as I do. But if I take you down to Farmington to court, it'll cost you $200-$300 which you don't have, so you'll wind up in the county pokey until spring. And on top of that I'll get a lot of cheap flak about picking on a poor Indian.'''

Joe said, ``So Pete nods his head, and Skinny says, `I'll tell you what I'm going to do. Back at camp I've got five cords of firewood that need sawing, splitting, and stacking in the shed. If you'll take care of it, that will be your punishment. I won't have to take you in, and you won't get a court record, and how about it?

``So Pete agrees. Every few days he'd come out of the woods in the morning. Skinny would make him a big breakfast, and Pete would work at the woodpile for a couple of hours. Then he'd go back in the woods. It took quite a while for Pete to make a dent in the woodpile, and Skinny would laugh to himself at the way Pete was getting free breakfasts. But in time the pile was all stacked in the shed. Skinny knew the whole deal was irregular, but he felt it was a good way to handle a thing like that. He'd noticed that Pete was putting on weight, so he'd cut his breakfasts down to half a plate of baked beans and four slices of toast.''

Joe continued. ``So when the last stick was stacked,'' he said, ``Skinny said, `There, now - I think we handled your moose just about right, don't you think?' Pete nodded. And Skinny said, `Much better than hounding you into court and getting fined.' Pete nodded. So Skinny says, `Shall we shake on it?'

``And they shook. Then Pete went into the woods.''

``Quite a yarn,'' I said.

Joe said, ``Eyah. And then Skinny found that every stick of wood in his shed was two inches too long for the firebox in his stove.''

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