Thirty More Famous Stories Retold - James Baldwin

Webster and the Woodchuck

Daniel Webster

On a farm among the hills of New Hampshire there once lived a little boy whose name was Daniel Webster. He was a tiny fellow for one of his age. His hair was jet black, and his eyes were so dark and wonderful that nobody who once saw them could ever forget them.

He was not strong enough to help much on the farm; and so he spent much of his time in playing in the woods and fields. Unlike many farmers' boys, he had a very gentle heart. He loved the trees and flowers and the harmless wild creatures that made their homes among them.

But he did not play all the time. Long before he was old enough to go to school, he learned to read; and he read so well that everybody liked to hear him and never grew tired of listening. The neighbors, when driving past his father's house, would stop their horses and call for Dannie Webster to come out and read to them.

At that time there were no children's books such as you have now. Indeed, there were but very few books of any kind in the homes of the New Hampshire farmers. But Daniel read such books as he could get; and he read them over and over again till he knew all that was in them. In this way he learned a great deal of the Bible so well that he could repeat verse after verse without making a mistake; and these verses he remembered as long as he lived.

Daniel's father was not only a farmer, but he was a judge in the county court. He had a great love for the law, and he hoped that Daniel when he became a man would be a lawyer.

It happened one summer that a woodchuck made its burrow in the side of a hill near Mr. Webster's house. On warm, dark nights it would come down into the garden and eat the tender leaves of the cabbages and other plants that were growing there. Nobody knew how much harm it might do in the end.

Daniel and his elder brother Ezekiel made up their minds to catch the little thief. They tried this thing and that, but for a long time he was too cunning for them. Then they built a strong trap where the woodchuck would be sure to walk into it; and the next morning, there he was.

"We have him at last!" cried Ezekiel. "Now, Mr. Woodchuck, you've done mischief enough, and I'm going to kill you."

But Daniel pitied the little animal. "No, don't hurt him," he said. "Let us carry him over the hills, far into the woods, and let him go."

Ezekiel, however, would not agree to this. His heart was not so tender as his little brother's. He was bent on killing the woodchuck, and laughed at the thought of letting it go.

"Let us ask father about it," said Daniel.

"All right," said Ezekiel; "I know what the judge will decide."

They carried the trap, with the woodchuck in it, to their father, and asked what they should do.

"Well, boys," said Mr. Webster, "we will settle the question in this way. We will hold a court right here. I will be the judge, and you shall be the lawyers: You shall each plead your case, for or against the prisoner, and I will decide what his punishment shall be."

Ezekiel, as the prosecutor, made the first speech. He told about the mischief that had been done. He showed that all woodchucks are bad and cannot be trusted. He spoke of the time and labor that had been spent in trying to catch the thief, and declared that if they should now set him free he would be a worse thief than before.

"A woodchuck's skin," he said, "may perhaps be sold for ten cents. Small as that sum is, it will go a little way toward paying for the cabbage he has eaten. But, if we set him free, how shall we ever recover even a penny of what we have lost? Clearly, he is of more value dead than alive, and therefore he ought to be put out of the way at once."

Ezekiel's speech was a good one, and it pleased the judge very much. What he said was true and to the point, and it would be hard for Daniel to make any answer to it.

Daniel began by pleading for the poor animal's life. He looked up into the judge's face, and said:—

"God made the woodchuck. He made him to live in the bright sunlight and the pure air. He made him to enjoy the free fields and the green woods. The woodchuck has a right to his life, for God gave it to him.

"God gives us our food. He gives us all that we have. And shall we refuse to share a little of it with this poor dumb creature who has as much right to God's gifts as we have?

"The woodchuck is not a fierce animal like the wolf or the fox. He lives in quiet and peace. A hole in the side of a hill, and a little food, is all he wants. He has harmed nothing but a few plants, which he ate to keep himself alive. He has a right to life, to food, to liberty; and we have no right to say he shall not have them.

"Look at his soft, pleading eyes. See him tremble with fear. He cannot speak for himself, and this is the only way in which he can plead for the life that is so sweet to him. Shall we be so cruel as to kill him? Shall we be so selfish as to take from him the life that God gave him?"

The judge's eyes were filled with tears as he listened. His heart was stirred. He felt that God had given him a son whose name would some day be known to the world.

He did not wait for Daniel to finish his speech. He sprang to his feet, and as he wiped the tear from his eyes, he cried out, "Ezekiel, let the woodchuck go!"