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Title: Swamp Cat
Author: Kjelgaard, Jim, 1910-1959
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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SWAMP CAT



_Books by_ Jim Kjelgaard

  BIG RED
  REBEL SIEGE
  FOREST PATROL
  BUCKSKIN BRIGADE
  CHIP, THE DAM BUILDER
  FIRE HUNTER
  IRISH RED
  KALAK OF THE ICE
  A NOSE FOR TROUBLE
  SNOW DOG
  TRAILING TROUBLE
  WILD TREK
  THE EXPLORATIONS OF PERE MARQUETTE
  THE SPELL OF THE WHITE STURGEON
  OUTLAW RED
  THE COMING OF THE MORMONS
  CRACKER BARREL TROUBLE SHOOTER
  THE LOST WAGON
  LION HOUND
  TRADING JEFF AND HIS DOG
  DESERT DOG
  HAUNT FOX
  THE OKLAHOMA LAND RUN
  DOUBLE CHALLENGE
  SWAMP CAT



  SWAMP CAT

  By Jim Kjelgaard

  _Illustrated by_ Edward Shenton

  DODD, MEAD & COMPANY

  NEW YORK



  © 1957 by Jim Kjelgaard
  All rights reserved

  No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in
  writing from the publisher

  Thirteenth Printing


  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 57-10167

  Printed in the United States of America
  by The Cornwall Press, Inc., Cornwall, N. Y.



  _To Polly Goodwin_



  CONTENTS


   1. EXILED                     1

   2. ANDY                      15

   3. THE FIRST PLANTING        29

   4. FEATHERED DEATH           45

   5. PARTNERS                  59

   6. FROSTY PROWLS             73

   7. THE SECOND PLANTING       87

   8. MAROONED                 103

   9. INTRUDER                 119

  10. ANDY HUNTS               133

  11. THE WAR OF THE OWLS      149

  12. DEEP SAND                163



The characters and situations in this book are wholly fictional and
imaginative: they do not portray and are not intended to portray any
actual persons or parties.



  SWAMP CAT



  1

  EXILED


The sound came to Frosty as a mere vibration that hummed about the fine
hairs in his inner ears and set his whiskers to tingling. About to leap
from the shelf on which he crouched and resume the boisterous play with
his two brothers, he remained where he was and strained for a repetition
of the noise. He knew only that it was. Before he could continue
playing, he must know what it was.

On the chaff-littered floor of the shed in which they lived, Frosty's
brothers engaged in a mock war. They slapped and bit each other, but
their claws were sheathed and needle-sharp baby teeth did not penetrate
the skin. Breaking, they raced pell-mell across the shed. So nearly
alike that no casual observer could have seen any difference between the
pair, one gray kitten stretched full-length behind a little heap of
chaff and waited in this cunning ambush for the other to venture near.

They too would have stopped playing if they had been aware of the
noise, but only Frosty knew it because only his senses were keen enough
to detect it. However, more than just superior powers of perception set
him apart from the kittens on the floor.

The mother of the three, beloved pet of the household, was a
medium-sized gray cat that had never done much of anything except doze
in the sunshine in summer, lie beside the stove in winter, rub against
the legs of the various members of the family when she was pleased, sulk
when she was not, and somewhat indifferently carry on various affairs
which no cat ever considers the business of any human. Their father was
a huge black-and-white old tom. A confirmed wanderer and unregenerate
adventurer, he bore as many battle scars as any soldier ever carried.
Smart and crafty, he had never offered allegiance to anything save his
own wanderlust and he feared nothing.

From point of lineage or breeding, neither the gray mother nor the
black-and-white old tom were distinguished by anything special. Products
of generations of cats that had been allowed to wander where they would
and breed as they pleased, in local parlance, they were just common
cats.

It was a misnomer, though, because there is no such thing as a common
cat. Perhaps because they were a little nearer the source of things, the
ancient peoples who brought cats from the wilderness to their firesides
understood this perfectly. They knew that cats are proud. They applauded
their intelligence, warmed to their complex characters, marveled at
their temperaments and tried eagerly to fathom that unfathomable
mystery, so that they might understand why cats were as they were.
Failing, they accepted their failure with wisdom.

They could not understand cats any more than they could understand why
gold glittered or precious jewels sparkled, but they did not have to
know why a flawless diamond or ruby came about in order to appreciate
it. They bowed to perfection and they acknowledged the perfection of
cats by making them their equals, or even their superiors. Cats had
first choice at their own tables, and whole villages walked in the
funeral procession when a cat died. They made cats the companions of
kings, and it was death to the commoner who hurt or even touched one.
They put cats in their temples and worshipped them; many a figure which
meant a god to these ancient peoples wore the head of a cat on the body
of a man.

Some part of what had impressed these ancients was evident in Frosty as
he lay on the shelf and waited for the sound to repeat itself, so he
could identify it. Though he gave his entire being to the task at hand,
his was not the strained tension of a dog that concentrates completely
on just one thing. Rather than fret toward the source of the sound, it
was as though Frosty had opened an invisible door which not only could
but must let the source become one with him.

Blood brother to the two kittens on the floor, Frosty was a third bigger
than they. But the lithe slimness of his mother had tempered the blocky
proportions of his father, so that he combined size with strength and
fluid grace. His basic fur was jet black, but single white hairs were so
scattered through it that he looked as though he were sprinkled with
hoarfrost. His eyes were remarkable, and somehow seemed to reflect the
accumulated wisdom of all cats since the first.

A split second after the first tremor, the noise came again, a tiny bit
louder, and thereafter resolved itself into a pattern of rhythmic
noises. A horse was coming, and because the tremors strengthened with
each step it took. Frosty knew that it was coming toward the shed.

Finally becoming aware of the sound, the gray kittens stopped playing
until they too could identify it. Frosty's eyes sparkled mischievously.
He had been born with a quivering bump of curiosity that stopped
throbbing only when it was satisfied, and it was satisfied only when
Frosty knew at all times exactly what lay about him. His nose was
relatively dull, but his eyes and ears verged on the marvelous, so he
interpreted the world keenly through sight and hearing. But once he was
sure, as he was now sure that he heard a horse, he need concern himself
no longer because, from this point on, that part of his brain which
worked automatically would take over and tell him what the horse was
doing.

Imps of mischief continued to dance in Frosty's eyes. Having just
detected the sound, his brothers must now identify it. Trying to do so
was occupying all their attention and there would never be a better
chance to take them off guard. Frosty launched himself from the shelf.

It was a kitten's leap, propelled by a kitten's muscles, but there was
still something breath-taking, almost unreal, about it. No blind jump,
every nerve and muscle in Frosty's body was at all times under perfect
control. He landed exactly where he had planned on landing, astride his
two brothers, and the three kittens tumbled over and over on the floor.

Even while he parried paw or fangs, or inflicted playful blows of his
own, that part of his brain which had taken over for Frosty kept him
informed of the horse's progress. There was no need to stop playing and
give the horse undivided attention. Horses, in a cat's opinion, were
big, clumsy and uninteresting. The horse stopped near the house to
which the shed belonged and a man whose voice Frosty did not recognize
called,

"Halloo the house!"

The door opened and the mistress of the place answered, "Hello, Luke.
Just a minute."

When the house door opened, at once the two gray kittens broke off
playing and padded to the shed's door. They stood before it, voicing
little mews of anticipation and so eager that their heads alternately
raised and dipped, then turned, as though on swivels. Their tails were
straight and pink tongues flicked out.

Though he did not hide his interest, Frosty stayed well back from the
shed door. He knew as well as his two brothers did that the saucers of
milk and occasional pile of table scraps upon which all three kittens
fed came from the house and that the woman always brought them. But
Frosty possessed in full a quality which his brothers had only in part.

Frosty's heritage, in great measure, came from his renegade father.
Incapable of fearing anything, he was sufficient unto himself and he'd
known that from the first day he'd opened his eyes and looked around the
shed. There was not and never would be a situation with which he could
not cope or a foe from whom he would run in panic. His self-confidence
was almost as vast as his curiosity. He would stand alone, or with
kindred spirits. Never would he place himself at the mercy of, or pay
homage to, one who was not kindred.

He liked the woman. She was unfailingly kind and gentle. She knew
exactly how to pet him and she--a small point--brought his food. But he
would not, as the gray kittens did, unbend so far as to meet her at the
door. She was not his superior.

The woman spoke again and there was a little question in her voice. "Mr.
Harris isn't here now, Luke, but I suppose it's all right for you to
take them?"

"It's all right, Miz Harris." The man's voice was curiously flat and
toneless. "I tol' the Mister I'd get 'em today."

"Well--" The woman still doubted. "How much did he promise you?"

"Two dollars, Miz Harris."

"All right. I'll pay you. They're in here."

She pulled the shed door open and Frosty looked out to see his mistress
standing beside a lean hillman, dressed in sun-faded blue trousers that,
somehow, were kept from falling down by frayed galluses draped over a
torn shirt. The man's hair needed cutting and ragged sideburns strayed
down either cheek, to meet beneath his chin. His face was hatchet like,
its distinguishing characteristic being a pair of pale blue eyes. He
held the reins of a skittish-looking brown horse that wore a good
saddle.

Frosty stayed where he was, instinctively flattening himself so that he
lay a little nearer the floor. Tails erect, eyes happy, pleased purrs
filling the shed, the two gray kittens arched against their mistress'
feet. She knelt and took one in either hand.

"Oh, the dears! I hate to see them go!"

"Kind o' hard," the man said, "to keep so many cats in town."

"It's impossible," she sighed. "Can you wait a while? It lacks an hour
to their feeding time, but maybe I should feed them before they go?"

"Now don't you fret," he reassured her. "In two hours I'll have 'em up
at my place, an' anybody in the hills'll tell you Luke Trull's critters
don't starve. They'll eat plenty."

"I hope so. How are you going to carry them?"

"If you'll just hold Queenie--"

He handed the horse's reins to her, took a gunny sack from beneath his
shirt, plopped the two surprised gray kittens into it and advanced on
Frosty. Unafraid, but always willing to temper valor with discretion,
Frosty waited until he was near enough to swoop, then darted into a
cracked piece of tile pipe that lay in the shed. Luke Trull said,

"This'n ain't friendly."

"No," Mrs. Harris admitted, "he isn't like the others."

"Makes no diffe'nce. We can use him, an' his wildness might pay off up
in the hills."

Frosty readied himself. The three-foot length of tile was not merely the
best but almost the only hiding place in the shed. If he was found out
here, he'd have no choice except fighting. Luke Trull's hand crept like
an unwieldy snake into the hollow tile and Frosty struck with unsheathed
claws. The man gritted,

"Why, ya leetle--!"

"What's wrong?" the woman asked anxiously.

"The leetle--! He bit me!"

"Please be gentle!"

The hand came nearer and its steel-strong fingers enfolded Frosty. The
black kitten raked until his paws were secured and then scissored with
needle-sharp baby teeth. Spitting and snarling, he was pulled out of the
tile and dropped into the gunny sack, along with his brothers. He made
another mad lunge at Luke Trull but succeeded only in entangling his
claws in the sacking. Furious, but unable to do anything about it at
once, Frosty subsided.

The man held up his scratched hand. "The leetle--!"

The woman said, "I'm sorry!"

"Makes no mind," Luke Trull said. "I'll stop down to the drugstore an'
git aught to put on it."

"I'll pay for it. Will two dollars extra be all right?"

"If ye've a mind, Miz Harris."

"You--you won't hurt the kittens?"

"Oh no, Miz Harris! 'Course not! Why would I hurt 'em when I told the
Mister I'd take 'em?"

"Here's your money."

"Thankee."

Luke Trull tied the mouth of the gunny sack, slung it over the saddle
horn, and swung expertly into the saddle. The horse broke into a fast
walk and the gunny sack bobbed back and forth in cadence with the
horse's movements. Paws spread, claws extended, Frosty steadied himself
by holding onto the sacking. One of the gray kittens whimpered
plaintively. Rigid with uncertainty, the second merely stared. Frosty
paid his brothers not the slightest attention.

He could smell nothing, see nothing except dim light that filtered
through the gunny sack's coarse weave, and he heard little but the
measured clomp-clomp of the horse's hooves. Since he could know nothing
whatever of what lay about him, or what might happen next, he couldn't
possibly plan any intelligent course of action or know how to cope with
the next problem that arose. He must be ready for anything and he was.

Though he knew no fear, his nerves were taut as a blown-up balloon. From
the tip of his nose to the end of his tail, no tiny part of him was even
slightly relaxed. Just so, provision is made for all cats that find
themselves in serious and uncertain situations. Frosty, and to a lesser
extent the gray kittens, were ready to fly in any direction or to do
instantly whatever the next second, the next minute, the next hour, or
any elapsed time, might have them do.

They did not bob around as puppies would have because each had all four
claws firmly fixed in the sacking and, in a very real way, even while
they were together, they remained apart. Though on occasion several cats
will cooperate to do what one alone cannot do, theirs is not the pack
instinct of dogs and wolves. Intelligent enough to work with others when
the situation demands it, they are too highly individualized to look to
any one leader and too smart ever completely to trust their own fate to
anything except themselves.

The gray kitten that had mewed before, called a second time. It was not
a cry of fear, but one of appeal. Until now, the kitten's world had
consisted of the shed, of daytime forays into the yard, of all the food
it could eat and of unfailingly gentle treatment at the hands of human
beings. The desperate kitten wanted only to be back in the familiar
world from which it had been so rudely torn.

Far more intelligent and advanced than either of the gray kittens,
Frosty gave himself wholly to facing things as they were, with no vain
lamentations for what had been. Still able to smell only the dusty sack,
to see little and to hear only the horse's hoofbeats, he kept every
sense alert. Thus he knew when they left the road and started climbing a
mountain path. The little dust bombs that had been exploding under the
horse's feet no longer floated upwards. Metal-shod hooves rang on rocks
and boulders and the air was cleaner.

Frosty sensed only the physical change, welcome because the dust was
less oppressive. Being a cat, he knew nothing of the town's social life,
as it was conducted by humans, and if he had known, he wouldn't have
cared. But town life had a definite bearing on why he and his brothers
were here.

The town owed its existence to the fact that it was the logical place to
establish a railroad yard. Its inhabitants consisted of those who worked
for the railroad and various business and professional people who had
gathered to serve them. The first scheduled train had run over the
new-laid rails just twenty-eight years ago, and, with few exceptions,
everybody in the town who was past thirty had come from somewhere else.
Those who'd stayed had established the town's oldest and most-respected
families, and such traditions as there were centered about them and the
history they'd seen in the making.

It was a colorful story, for though there hadn't been any town, there
had been people here long before the steel rails crept this way. They
were the Trulls, the Casmans, the Haroldsons, the Gates, and others.
According to popular report, in which there was probably more than a
little truth, these natives of the region lived back in the hills
because no place that smacked even faintly of civilization would have
them and, before the coming of the railroad and the building of the
town, they did just about as they pleased. A choice story, one the
town's newspaper reprinted at least once a year, concerned the
twenty-five-year-long feud that the Trulls and Casmans had carried on
with the Gates.

Occasionally, some of the hill people had come into town, worked on the
railroad long enough to get money for some purpose or other and gone
again. They hadn't wanted steady jobs and they still didn't.

Now the town's relations with the hill dwellers were somewhat curious.
The railroad had brought law with it and the hill people had had to
conform, but they had never conformed completely. Periodically, the game
warden found a Trull, Casman, or some other hillman, with game or fish
taken out of season. Two years ago, federal officers, searching for
illicit stills, had combed the whole area thoroughly. They had uncovered
no bootlegging operations but that, as every townsman knew, was only
because the hill dwellers had been too clever for them.

Legend and fact mingled indiscriminately to influence the town's view of
the hill people. It was commonly believed that, once a hill man promised
to do something, the deed was as good as done. It was also believed
that, back in their own wild country, the hill dwellers were still a law
unto themselves. Many were the darkly whispered tales of violence, even
murder, and pagan rites. But most of these stories were born in some
town-dweller's imagination.

However, there was fact, and Andy Gates furnished the outstanding
example. Andy was the last resident survivor of the Gates clan. Three
years ago, looking fourteen but claiming he was sixteen, Andy had come
into town and obtained a job on the night shift in the roundhouse. Days
he had enrolled in the town's high school, where he not only completed a
four-year course in three but graduated as salutatorian. Then, though he
might have continued to work for the railroad, with every prospect of
some day having a very good job, Andy had gone back to the hills.

So fact and romance tinted each other, and when Mrs. Harris handed the
three kittens over to Luke Trull, she hadn't the least idea that he
would do anything but exactly as he had promised and give them a fine
home. She didn't know anything about his home and had only a vague idea
of where he lived. However, who could doubt that surplus kittens, for
which there was no room in town, would be very well off in the hills? It
never occurred to her, it never occurred to anyone outside the hills,
that Luke was a man of the meanest order. With an inborn aversion to
work, he liked money and he constantly schemed and planned to get some.
His scratched hand, an injury not even worth noticing, he had quickly
recognized as an opportunity to extort two dollars more from Mrs.
Harris. He had never had the slightest intention of buying any
antiseptic from the drugstore and now, as his horse climbed the mountain
path, he looked for a good place to rid himself of the kittens. They'd
be nothing except a burden at Luke's place and he did not want them.

At the same time, he must be very careful. Those fools from town were
always coming into the hills for one reason or another, and, of course,
everybody in the town knew everybody else. If he were seen discarding
the kittens, he'd get no more surplus kittens or pups either and thus a
handy source of income would dry up.

Luke swung in the saddle to look behind him and saw nobody. There didn't
seem to be anybody ahead, either, but Luke's were the senses and
instincts of a hillman. He could not see around the next bend, but there
might be somebody there who could see him. Luke rode on. He rounded the
bend and silently commended himself for his own caution.

Swinging down a long, straight stretch toward him came young Andy Gates.
Although of anything except a poetical turn of mind, Luke thought, as he
always did when he saw Andy at a distance, of a birch sapling that has
shot far into the air without developing a trunk that is capable of
supporting it. There was nothing complimentary in the comparison; slim
and tall saplings might topple with the first storm. But the description
was apt. Six feet two, Andy's body had not yet filled out in proportion
to his height. He had straight, jet-black hair and a smile that always
seemed in bud on his mouth but never quite bloomed. Unless one looked
squarely into his black eyes--and Luke never did because Andy's eyes
made him uncomfortable--the over-all impression he gave was one of
extreme gentleness. With his long legs, he covered the ground like a
coursing greyhound. He was now, Luke guessed, on his way into town to
buy some needed supplies. They met and Luke said,

"Hi, Andy."

Andy touched a hand to his forehead in salute. "Hello, Luke."

Then they passed and each continued his separate way. A puzzled smile
parted Luke's thin lips.

Young Gates was a queer one. Smart enough, if book learning passed for
smartness; he had gone to town and got himself a schooling. Then, and
only he knew why, he had come back to the ancestral Gates holdings in
Dog Tooth Valley. What he, or for that matter anyone else, wanted there
was a mystery. There was some five hundred acres, all paid for and with
a clear title. But there was not enough plow land to provide even a
small family with enough vegetables for its own use. Here and there was
a small patch of scrub timber, and almost all the rest was swamp land.

When they'd needed that above all else, Dog Tooth Valley had provided a
safe haven for the once-numerous Gates men. They knew the only safe
paths across their endless swamps and, to this day, nobody else did. But
the feud was long since ended. Though it had been neither as prolonged
nor as bitter as the town liked to remember it and there had been a lot
more hand to hand slugging than there ever had been combat with deadly
weapons, the law had ended it and a new day had come to the hills. It
was a better day, too. Who but a fool would try to get what he wanted
with a gun when it was much easier and safer to think his way through to
it?

Turning to steal a covert glance behind him, Luke saw that Andy had
disappeared. The man whirled his horse to the side of the trail, lifted
the bag of kittens from his saddle horn and threw the still-tied sack
into a copse of brush.



  2

  ANDY


The spring sun, which rose at half-past five, was just climbing into the
sky when Andy Gates got out of bed. He entered the compact kitchen of
his little house, started a wood fire in the range, put a pot of coffee
over an open lid hole and, while waiting for this to start percolating,
walked to the front of his place and looked over his domain.

The house was built on a rocky knoll, one of the few places in Dog Tooth
Valley that was not given over to swamp land. Enough topsoil clung to
the elevation to support a small garden. Surrounding the garden was a
tightly woven picket fence, and, even as Andy watched, a trim doe from
out of the swamp nosed hopefully at the pickets. Andy smiled with his
eyes; the doe could not get into his garden. Beyond, were three small
sheds. In one Andy kept the dozen chickens that supplied him with eggs
and an occasional table fowl; the other two were a fur shed and a place
for storing provisions. All the rest was swamp land.

The scene had been familiar since Andy's babyhood, but, even though it
was old, somehow it was always new.

Directly in front of the house was a watery slough, around and in which
cattails, lily pads and other swamp vegetation grew in lush profusion.
Just beyond the slough was a cluster of dead trees that thrust skeleton
branches and twigs forlornly and forever skyward. The dead trees were
one of the swamp's many mysteries. Why they'd grown in the first place,
Andy did not know. Nor could he understand why they did not fall down,
as other dead trees did, sooner or later. He thought that they took out
of the swamp some mineral content that toughened and hardened them.
They'd been there since he could remember. Beyond the trees, marked here
and there by other dead trees and an occasional knoll upon which grew a
little patch of live ones, the swamp stretched clear to the foot of some
low hills that rose in the distance. Andy picked out the paths across
it; the sloughs and ponds wherein lurked pickerel, perch and bass; the
game trails; and the places where, in bygone days, men of the Gates clan
had hidden from their enemies.

He turned soberly back to the stove, put a slab of butter in a skillet,
melted it and broke four eggs into it. He toasted bread on top of the
stove and sat down to eat his breakfast.

The Gates family had long since scattered far and wide. When the
railroad brought the law with it, they could no longer raid the Trulls
and Casmans and retreat to the safety of their swamp. Safety was about
all the swamp did offer; no hungry family had yet found a way to take a
livelihood from it. Andy poured himself a second cup of coffee.

One by one, the Gates men had taken their belongings and their families
from the hills. But there'd been the inevitable one who couldn't leave.
Foolish, the rest had called Jared, Andy's father, but Jared hadn't
cared. Only his son could understand that some roots went too deep to be
torn out. Jared might have left the swamp, but he wouldn't have been
happy elsewhere. This was perfectly plain to Andy because he wouldn't
either. He'd striven to finish four years of high school in three
largely because he was lonesome for the swamp and he'd gone to school
for a specific purpose.

Jared, resting these past four years in the family plot on Fiddler's
Knob, had been contented just to accept the swamp. He'd hunted a little,
fished a little, trapped a little and worked by the day for whomever saw
fit to give him a job. Andy wanted to make the swamp produce something
worthwhile and he'd spent hours in the school library, seeking a way.

Farming, in the accepted sense, was not even to be considered. The swamp
would grow no commercial crop. There was little likelihood that it
contained valuable minerals, either, but, by sheer chance, Andy had run
across an account of the great swamps of Louisiana and the muskrats that
abounded there. In this, he hoped, he had his answer.

There were fur bearers in the swamp; mink, otter, raccoon and an
occasional fox or coyote. Strangely enough, there were no muskrats, but
Andy thought this was explained by the fact that all the swamp's outlets
were subterranean. There was no surface connection with any stream or
river, and any muskrat that tried to get into the swamp would have a
long and perilous journey overland. However, he knew that there was a
vast abundance of the aquatic plants on which muskrats fed, and muskrats
did very well in northern climates, too. They were found well into
Canada.

If Andy could establish muskrats in his swamp, let them multiply and
harvest the surplus, he might very well earn more than just a
livelihood. At any rate, the experiment was worth trying and, after
corresponding with various animal dealers and breeders, he had succeeded
in buying six pairs of muskrats. If everything went according to
schedule, they'd arrive on the one o'clock train.

Andy washed his breakfast dishes, tidied up the house and went outside.
Hoisting a white tail over her back, the hopeful doe fled into the
swamp. Andy walked toward his garden and was halted by a whirring
rattle. A thick-bodied rattlesnake wriggled hastily out of his way and
he let it go. Rattlesnakes were one commodity that the swamp did produce
in abundance, and they'd killed all three of the dogs Andy had tried to
keep. After that, he had stopped keeping them. There was little point in
getting another dog when it was certain to run afoul of a snake and he
didn't really miss the companionship. Though he lived alone, he was
never lonely. Nobody could be if he loved and understood the swamp.

Opening the gate, Andy looked at his garden, saw that it had not been
molested and sighed relievedly. Deer could not get through the fence,
but raccoons had a fancy for tender young vegetables, too, and they
could get over it. Perhaps the rattlesnake, dangerous only to the unwary
and the small creatures upon which it lived, was acting as a sort of
guardian. It would be a good idea to let it stay where it was. Catching
up a hoe, Andy cultivated his young plants.

Two hours later, he laid the tool aside, returned to the house, took up
a casting rod with a silver spoon on the leader and stepped down to the
slough. He cast expertly, laying his spoon just off the fringe of lily
pads that grew on the far side of the slough. He let the spoon sink a
little ways, began the retrieve, and there was a succession of little
ripples as a good bass followed it clear across the slough. Andy cast
again and again. On his fourth cast, the bass struck. He fought it
across the slough and lifted it out of the water. Thus he had his
dinner. After he'd cooked and eaten it, he started down the trail
leading into town.

Passing Luke Trull, he was happy to salute him briefly and hurry on. The
feud was long since just a memory, but even if it had never been, Andy
would not have liked Luke Trull. He was a coarse and often cruel man,
and better left alone. Given to violent rages, he was, nevertheless,
usually able to avoid trouble.

Andy strode into the town, returned the greetings of friends he met
there, made his way to the express office and waited for Johnny Linger,
the agent, to look up. An old friend from Andy's railroading days,
Johnny's greeting was explosive,

"Hi, Andy!"

"Hello, Johnny. Is there anything for me?"

"Six somethings." Johnny indicated six small wooden crates at one side
of the room. "I was hoping you'd drop by. What are they, Andy?"

"Muskrats." Andy peered between the slats of one crate at two
brown-furred animals about as big as cottontail rabbits. "Six mated
pairs."

Johnny asked whimsically, "What are you going to do with 'em, Andy?"

"See if they like my swamp. I forgot my pack board, Johnny. Will you
loan me one?"

"Sure thing."

"Would you mind letting me pick them up after dark?"

"Any time you say. You'd just as soon keep it private, huh?"

"I'd just as soon," Andy agreed. "Nobody will know I have them if I take
them in after dark."

       *     *     *     *     *

A moment before the sack landed in the brush, all three kittens turned
so that the entire trio landed on their feet. This was not an
instinctive move but a planned one that was possible because a cat
thinks so swiftly. They would not have been hurt if they'd been thrown
on rocks.

As it was, the yielding branches of the brush broke their fall, so that
they came to earth almost gently. Wild-eyed, panting, the two gray
kittens stretched full-length and waited tensely. As tense as his
brothers, Frosty was not satisfied merely to wait. A true son of the
black-and-white tom, he had inherited all that old warrior's character,
courage and spirit.

Before he did anything else, to the best of his ability, Frosty
determined what lay about them.

Normally he depended on his ears, his eyes, and to a lesser extent, his
nose. Now his eyes were almost useless, but the sun shone brightly and
some light penetrated the sack. Just overhead, a leafy branch was moving
in the gentle wind, and when the branch moved, its shadow shifted across
the sack. Frosty studied it intently, trying to determine exactly what
it was and why it should be. Unable to do so, after the shadow had moved
back and forth a dozen times, he did satisfy himself that it was
harmless. He then gave himself over to the use of his ears and nose.

Faintly in the distance, he still heard the measured hoofbeats of Luke
Trull's horse. The animal was going farther away and therefore he need
not concern himself with it, but indelibly graven on Frosty's mind was
the image of Luke Trull himself. The man was a deadly enemy and had
proven himself such. He must never be considered as anything else, but
enemies could harm or be harmed only when they were near and Luke Trull
was gone with his horse. There were more immediate problems.

For a short space the only sounds were the horse's hoofbeats, the
sighing of the gentle breeze and the kittens' panting. Then a mottled
thrush that had been startled into hasty flight when the hurled sack
came his way, cocked his head in the chokecherry tree to which he had
flown. The sack seemed harmless. At any rate, it did not pursue.
Curious, the thrush flew back to the copse, tilted on a twig and gave
voice to a few questioning notes.

Frosty heard and interpreted correctly. He had seen birds and even
stalked them, when he and his brothers played outside the shed. He was
not particularly concerned about the thrush. It was unlikely to offer a
battle; all the birds he'd ever seen had avoided him. Frosty started
suddenly.

Winging in solitary flight over the mountain, a jet-black crow voiced
its raucous song. Frosty heard and marveled. Never before had such a
sound crossed his ears and he waited to hear it again. When the crow did
not repeat its call, Frosty sank back. But he knew no peace. His
curiosity, aroused and unsatisfied, tormented him and would continue to
do so until he heard another crow call and identified the source of a
sound so intriguing.

The sun burned hotly and the gray kitten that had mewed before, cried
again. The weakest of the three, the kitten was suffering far more than
his brothers. Frosty looked once toward his protesting brother and
turned his head away. He too was hungry and thirsty, but it was not in
him to cry. He poked experimentally at a tiny hole in the gunny sack.
Unable to thrust his paw through, he turned his attention elsewhere. He
was too smart to waste time trying the obviously impossible. When he
laid plans, they would succeed.

The only scents that reached his nostrils were those of sun-warmed
foliage and earth and the heavy, rank odor of a rotting log that lay
nearby. The weakening gray kitten mewed again and Frosty twisted
uncomfortably. It was long past feeding time and hunger was an ache. But
thirst was becoming a torture.

The fine hairs in Frosty's inner ears quivered like stretched wires and
he turned his head toward the rotting log. The sound that originated
there was so faint and wispy that only a very sensitive ear could have
detected it. A chipmunk ran up the log, saw the sack, stopped, sat up
for a better view, squeaked in frenzied alarm and turned to flash back
along the log. He dived into its hollow interior.

The weakening gray kitten twisted, laid his ears back, snarled and
sprang upon and slashed viciously at his gray brother. The attacked
kitten slashed back. Exhausted by its own tremendous effort, the feeble
kitten sank down apathetically and closed its eyes. In a grim way, it
was the luckiest of the three, for it would be the first to die.

Frosty unsheathed and sheathed his claws. He looked meaningfully at the
second gray kitten, which flattened its ears and spat at him. Frosty
turned around to face his brother.

The sun went down and when it did a chill fell on the mountain. But it
brought no relief from raging thirst, though hunger was forgotten. The
weakest kitten, past caring what happened, stretched limply. Its eyes
were closed and it gasped for breath. But Frosty and the other gray
kitten were still strong.

Far across the mountain, his every need and want attended to, Luke Trull
slept soddenly in his comfortable bed.

Frosty strained. Something was walking nearby.

It walked on paws so soft and stealthy that the sound came to Frosty's
ears almost like the ghost of a noise. It was less than half real, but
it was there. Frosty turned to face it, knowing that, as always, he must
be ready for anything. Nearby, there was a short sigh as something
expelled its breath.

The gray kitten laid his ears back and snarled. Frosty caught the scent
of whatever came and at once was aware of two things. The approaching
creature was alien to him but he was immediately hostile to it. Somewhat
like a dog, whatever came was not a dog. But it was wild and big, and it
meant no good. Frosty bristled.

He could have no way of knowing that the creature, now smelling closely
at the sack, was a prowling coyote. A big and crafty old male, the
coyote had acquired his craft the hard way. Four years ago, he had left
his right front paw in a steel trap, and ever since he had avoided
everything which he did not know.

He knew all about helpless kittens and pups in gunny sacks. Over the
years, Luke Trull had carried dozens from the town to a promised "good
home" in the hills. It was one of the more paradoxical aspects of
town-hill relationships that nobody had ever challenged him or stopped
to think about it. The most superficial reasoning would have
demonstrated that, if Luke had really taken home all the kittens and
pups he had promised to take there, he couldn't possibly have room for
anything else.

Luke's method of disposing of surplus kittens and pups was manna to the
coyote. And, in a way, the coyote's very presence was a blessing to the
helpless animals. The coyote killed cleanly, never needing more than one
snap of his jaws, and such a death was much easier than waiting for
thirst and hunger to do their work. Strong pups and kittens often lived
a surprisingly long time.

Having satisfied himself that this was exactly what he had thought it
would be, the coyote pinned the sack down with his front paws and went
to work with his teeth. He had done this so many times that he was a
past master at it and his technique was admirable. Rip a hole in the
sack, pull out the trapped kittens or pups, snap once and enjoy an easy
meal.

The coyote was neither in a hurry nor particularly concerned. This
formula he himself had perfected. Never yet had a sacked kitten or pup
escaped him or hurt him even slightly.

He pulled out the half-dead gray kitten, killed it and laid it aside.
The second gray kitten fought, but not very long or very hard. Then,
suddenly, what the coyote knew as an old story took on a new and
astonishing twist.

Instead of waiting to be pulled out of the sack, Frosty sprang out.
Straight to the coyote's head he went, all four paws raking, while baby
teeth found a mark. He could work no serious damage, but fighting on his
side was a powerful ally whose presence Frosty did not even suspect.

The coyote had opened numerous sacks and each time everything had
happened in exactly the same way. Deciding to his own satisfaction that
they'd always continue to fall into the same pattern, he had prepared
himself for nothing else. Frosty's vicious attack startled him, so that
he leaped suddenly backwards. When he did, Frosty relinquished his hold
and sprang away. But he did not do so aimlessly.

The coyote's backward leap brought him near the end of the rotting log
and Frosty's night-piercing eyes found the hollow there. His feline
brain, able to execute a plan the instant it was conceived, did the
rest. The end of Frosty's tail disappeared into the hollow a half-inch
ahead of the coyote's snapping jaws. Though the hollow was scarcely big
enough to admit his small body, Frosty managed to turn around in it.

Three feet away, the coyote bent his head to peer into the hollow and
his disappointed panting sounded in jerky sequence. Growling a warning,
Frosty took no further action. This was as simple and precise as a
mathematical formula. The coyote could kill him. The coyote wanted to
kill him. But the kitten was in the hollow log and the coyote was not.
If the coyote could get in, he'd be here. All these indisputable
elements added up to the fact that, at least temporarily, Frosty was
safe.

He crouched watchfully, not afraid of the coyote but not foolish enough
to engage in a battle that he did not have to fight. He was no match for
the creature, he knew it, and since there didn't seem to be anything he
could do right now, he did nothing.

After a moment, the coyote went away. No fool, he was perfectly aware of
the fact that he might growl and scratch at the hole all night and still
not reach the black kitten. He paused long enough to eat the two gray
kittens and padded away on silent paws.

Frosty stayed where he was for another twenty minutes. When he finally
moved, he went only to the entrance of the hollow and lingered there for
five minutes more. He thought the coyote had gone but he wanted to be
sure, and only when he was sure did he drop out of the hollow onto the
ground.

He went into a half-crouch, tail curled against his flank and tense
muscles ready to carry him wherever circumstance indicated he should go.
This was a wholly unfamiliar world, one in which he'd have to feel every
inch of his way. The least wrong move could bring disaster. Finally,
eyes and ears alert, he moved softly as a shadow.

Frosty paused beside the limp gunny sack. He touched it with an extended
nose, then glided cautiously around it. There was nothing to indicate
that the sack was dangerous, but it had trapped him once and might
again. Save for scent that still lingered on the sack, there was nothing
whatever to indicate that the two gray kittens had ever been.

Knowing that he must do something, but with no clear idea of what that
might be or where he should go, Frosty started into the night. He halted
suddenly, warned more by deep-seated instinct than anything he could see
or hear, and stood quietly under a bush. A moment later, he saw a big
bird, a cruising great horned owl, pass overhead. Frosty stayed where he
was for ten minutes. He knew only that he must be cautious. He could not
know that the owl was hunting, and that a tender young kitten would be
as acceptable as anything else.

A half-hour later, Frosty came to a streamlet, one of many that pursued
their winding courses across the mountain, tumbled down it and finally
poured their waters into a river. He crouched full-length and lapped
water with a dainty pink tongue. . . . The kitten licked his chops,
waited a bit, then drank again.

His thirst satisfied, he attended to every cat's implicit duty. Sitting
down, he washed himself thoroughly with his tongue and used his front
paws to groom that part of his fur which his tongue would not reach.

He licked his chops once more, smoothed his whiskers and wandered on. He
struck at and missed a mouse that rustled the grass in front of him and
watched, wide-eyed with wonder, when a rabbit bounded away. He missed
another mouse and fluffed his fur and spat when a hunting fox rippled
past.

Dawn found him in a grassy meadow. Little tendrils of moisture curled
upward from dew-wet grass and a thin blanket of mist overhung the
meadow. When something moved sluggishly in front of him, Frosty sprang
to pin it down. His prize was a fat grasshopper, too torpid with morning
cold to move swiftly. The kitten's tail lashed back and forth. He looked
intently at this, the first catch he had ever made. Then he ate it and
found it good.

Casting back and forth across the meadow, Frosty caught and ate
grasshoppers until his stomach would hold no more.



  3

  THE FIRST PLANTING


Strapped on a pack board borrowed from the express agent, the six crates
were neither a heavy nor a clumsy burden. Each box was divided by a
partition, with a muskrat at either end. Andy had specified that they be
shipped in such a fashion because he wanted to be sure of mated pairs
and he also wanted to be certain of forestalling domestic arguments
among his charges. It was entirely possible that a male and female
muskrat, regardless of how long they'd been mated, might start
exercising their formidable cutting teeth on each other if put together
in the same small crate. Now and again, there came a scraping of claws
as one of the muskrats, unbalanced by a twist or turn, slid across the
wooden floor of its prison.

As he carried his new acquisitions up the dark mountain, Andy pondered.

Muskrats, his research had taught him, are almost entirely aquatic
creatures, though occasionally they make overland journeys. Their food
consists of aquatic plants, tender roots and bulbs, and they are very
fond of fresh-water mussels. They construct houses of mud mixed with
plant stalks or dig burrows in the bank. The entrance to either type of
dwelling is always under water. They store food but remain active under
the ice all winter long.

Very prolific, they produce from two to five litters a year, with from
four to as many as a dozen young in each litter. There is a reason for
this. Muskrats, like rabbits, are the prey of numerous things that walk,
crawl or fly. They counterbalance heavy casualties with large and
frequent families. Some naturalists claim that, by the end of the first
summer, the earliest young born will rear families of their own. Others
declare that no young breed until the spring following their birth.

Because this was at best an uncertain experiment and Andy could have no
idea as to how it would work out, he had chosen six mated pairs. His
plan was to release them in six different parts of the swamp and see
where they flourished best. After he had a better idea of what he was
doing, he could buy more breeding stock--but there was still one great
worry.

These muskrats had been reared in a large pond where, insofar as they
had had to find their own food, build their own houses and dig their own
burrows and tunnels, conditions were approximately the same as would
have been encountered in the wilderness. However, it was a fenced pond
and a carefully patrolled one. There had been no predators to keep them
alert, whereas the swamp was filled with sudden death in many forms.
Would pen-raised muskrats be able to survive the unfamiliar perils?

Andy carried his captives into the house, unbuckled the straps that
held their pens on his shoulders and eased them gently to the floor. He
then separated the crates so that there was space between them. The
animals emitted an offensive odor, but this was only because they had
been in the tiny boxes so long. They'd cleanse themselves after they had
room in which to do it. Unless they are sick, few animals will tolerate
uncleanliness.

Andy grimaced. It was less than an alluring prospect to have the
muskrats in his house all night, and, other things being equal, they'd
be perfectly all right on the porch. But the battle had already started.
If they were left outside, a prowling mink might well happen along and
put an end to all twelve. It was wiser to endure the odor overnight and
keep his charges safe.

Andy slept well, nevertheless. He was up and had breakfasted with the
first hint of dawn. Kicking off his slippers, he pulled rubber boots
over his trousers. The sun was just rising when, with five crates of
muskrats back on the pack board--the sixth he intended to release in the
watery slough directly in front of his house--he started out.

His step was light and his heart happy, as it always was when he went
into the swamp. It was to Andy what his mountains are to the born
mountaineer; his rolling prairie to the confirmed plainsman; his
sun-scorched hills and forbidding acres of cactus to the desert lover.
The swamp was grim and Andy knew it. But it was also beautiful and he
saw its beauty. As no other place could ever be, it was home.

He wended his way around the watery slough. Swamp grasses, each one of
which bore myriad seeds as delicate as fairy dust, brushed against him
as he walked. Beneath his feet, the earth trembled. There were firm
areas in the swamp, rocky places and high knolls where the green trees
grew. But much of that which was not given over to surface water was a
huge, floating island, undermined by water. In numerous places, it was
possible to stand on grass, punch a hole through to the water below,
lower a baited hook and pull out a wriggling perch.

Andy walked swiftly and confidently, for he knew exactly where he was
going. When he came to a long slough that varied between a foot and five
feet in depth, he plunged unhesitatingly in and waded across without a
thought for the death that lurked on either side. This was Dead Man's
Slough. Across the center, where Andy had walked, extended a solid path
which at no point was more than twenty inches wide. To step off that was
to step into bottomless quicksand.

According to legend, an armed party of Trulls and Casmans, in close
pursuit of Bije Gates, had turned back at Dead Man's Slough. Leading,
Arvin Casman had stepped off the path and disappeared before his friends
could help him. His bones were still in the quicksand. Andy didn't know
and he didn't much care whether this tale was true. The feud was long
over, a thing of the past, and sleeping dogs were better left alone. But
it was a foregone conclusion that, if Arvin Casman or anyone else had
stepped into Dead Man's Slough, his bones were still there.

At the far side of the slough, Andy turned left along its weed-lined
shore, lowered his load to the ground, gently unfastened the wire that
fastened one of the partitions shut and opened the door. A cautious
brown nose was thrust forth and immediately withdrawn. The muskrat in
the partition crouched nervously. Now and again there came the sound of
a scraping paw.

Puzzled, Andy frowned. Then suddenly he understood.

He had assumed that, after their long imprisonment in the tiny cages,
the animals would be wild for freedom. However, they had been uprooted
from safe and comfortable homes, endured a long and nerve-wracking
journey, seen sights and heard sounds that must have been terrifying,
and, through all this, they had stayed safe in their cages. It was small
wonder that they were reluctant to leave. Andy tilted the box and
spilled both its occupants into the water.

They went down, came up gasping and, for a short space, swam in a
frenzied, meaningless fashion. Then their sudden fright passed. The
nightmare was behind them. They were back in the water and muskrats are
born for water. They began to enjoy themselves.

For the sheer luxury of so doing, they dived. Though they must have come
within a hair's breadth of the bottom, they were such expert swimmers
that they dislodged not even one fleck of mud. Forty feet away, they
surfaced and played with each other for a moment. Somewhat clumsy on
land, but incredibly graceful in the water, they swam around and around
in the slough and regarded Andy with beady little black eyes.

Andy worried, for this was what he had feared most. Animals acquainted
with danger would never expose themselves so recklessly. He threw
pebbles at them, but though they dived when the pebbles splashed near,
they surfaced again almost at once. Finally they swam to the weed-grown
bank and began to eat ravenously.

Andy left them and went on. Throwing pebbles at this freshly liberated
pair all day long, or all week long, would teach them nothing except how
to dodge pebbles. If they were to survive in the swamp, they'd have to
do so through their own instincts and intelligence, plus, probably, a
great deal of luck.

Andy released his remaining pairs of muskrats at scattered points and
returned the way he had come, to pick up the empty crates. Without so
much as a glance for him, four of the five pairs he had freed were
calmly eating the tender young shoots of marsh weeds or digging in the
mud for bulbs. The remaining pair, the second he had liberated, dived
hastily beneath an overhanging bank and refused to show themselves
again. Andy began to have hopes. Perhaps it would not take the animals
as long as he had thought it would to learn caution. Or maybe this pair
was just naturally cautious. If they were, and remained that way, they
stood a good chance of surviving.

Reaching home, Andy took his sixth and final pair of muskrats down to
the watery slough in front of his house. He had deliberately saved them
until last because he wanted to study at some length just how they
reacted when released and just what they did.

Andy carried the crate to the water's edge, opened the door and jumped
just in time. The first five pairs had huddled in their crates until
spilled out, but these two had both ideas of their own and a grudge
against the human race. As soon as the crate was opened, the two rushed
Andy. Bristled, clicking their teeth, they pursued him for five yards.
Then, as though discussing the situation between themselves, they
clicked their teeth at each other and, in no hurry at all, turned back
to the slough.

Andy grinned his appreciation. Together, the two muskrats weighed
perhaps five pounds. He weighed a hundred and seventy. But they hadn't
hesitated to charge him when they thought circumstances warranted it;
there was nothing wrong with their courage. Andy watched them closely.

Still unhurried, and obviously with no intention of hurrying, the pair
waddled back to the crate and inspected it thoroughly. Then they went
into the water and their delight knew no bounds. They dived. Surfacing,
they swam about for the sheer joy of swimming, then dived again. For a
few minutes they occupied themselves eating swamp growth. Then they
submerged beneath an embankment and a cloud of mud stained the water.
Evidently this pair intended to lose no time in setting up housekeeping;
the cloud of mud could mean only that they were excavating a burrow. The
underwater entrance would lead upward into the bank.

One of the pair--it was hard to distinguish between them but Andy
thought it was the male--came up for a hasty look around and promptly
dived again. Muddy water continued to flow out from beneath the bank.
Andy went to his house for a bite of lunch and when he returned to the
slough the muskrats were still submerged. He grinned smugly. Obviously
this particular pair of muskrats needed a den in a hurry and there could
be only one reason for such a rush. A family was already on its way.

There was motion on the opposite side of the slough and a lithe brown
mink appeared in the rushes there. It stood still, one paw raised like a
pointing dog's and serpent-like head extended. After a moment, it
slithered back into the rushes and disappeared. Andy frowned.

Mink are savage creatures, and now this one knew of the muskrats'
presence. It had made no effort to investigate closely, either because
it had just fed and wasn't hungry or because it had other game in mind.
But it might have marked the muskrats as a possible future dinner and
mink were almost the only predator able to follow a muskrat into its
den.

Though they preferred peace, muskrats could fight savagely and they had
the courage to fight. If there were easier game available, a mink might
very well choose it rather than risk a battle. But a hunger-driven mink
would never reckon the odds and unless it was very lucky, no muskrat
could defeat or escape from one.

This presented a serious problem. Furs provided an important part of
Andy's income. If he trapped the mink now, instead of waiting for cold
weather to bring prime furs, he'd get nothing for it. But if the mink
started killing his muskrats, he'd have to trap it. Mink were one of the
many things he'd have to watch closely.

Late in the afternoon, Andy started back into the swamp to see how his
charges were doing.

The pair he'd left in Dead Man's Slough were busy making themselves a
house. When Andy approached, they swam cautiously to a clump of reeds
and lurked near them. Studying him with watchful eyes, they swam in
little circles. When he made a sudden move, they dived. Satisfied, Andy
went on. These two were at least beginning to suspect that all callers
wouldn't necessarily be friendly.

The second pair, the naturally cautious ones, were not in sight when
Andy approached the slough where he'd left them. But dimly beneath the
water he saw the entrance to a den. No doubt the muskrats were in it.

Andy came to the third slough just in time to see a clean-limbed gray
fox, a muskrat dangling limply from his jaws, trotting away from it.
Andy muttered under his breath. He hadn't brought a gun because, though
he'd known that predators might be raiding his muskrats, he hadn't
expected to catch any in the act. But from now on he must always be
armed and definitely he would have to eliminate this particular fox.
Having learned that it could catch muskrats, it might hunt them
constantly and conceivably could catch all twelve.

Returning to his house, Andy took two fox traps and a bottle of fox
scent from his storage room. Slipping the bottle into his pocket and
taking the traps in one hand and his repeating .22 rifle in the other,
he went back to the slough. He tied a flat stone to the pan of each
trap, waded into the slough and set the traps so that only the stone
protruded above water. Then he cut two willow withes and dipped one end
of each into his bottle of fox scent. Eighteen inches from his traps, he
thrust them into the mud until only the scented ends protruded. It was
an old and effective trapper's trick, based on a fox's dislike of
getting wet. Excited by the tantalizing scent and wanting to get close
to it, the fox would use the stone on the trap pan as an effective means
of so doing and, of course, spring the trap.

Twilight fell, and, in the gathering gloom of early evening, Andy
hurried to the next slough. He halted in his tracks and muttered
angrily. On a patch of smooth grass, five feet from the water's edge,
lay the gnawed head and naked, scaley tail of a muskrat. There was no
track or sign to show what had caught it, but clinging to a nearby reed,
Andy found a cottony puff of fur from a bobcat. He muttered again.

It was too dark to go to the house for more traps, but it would be well
to have some waiting here. The killer, probably a bobcat, knew of the
other muskrat and would return to get it.

Andy trotted toward the next and last slough and found both muskrats
swimming placidly. A split second later, a great horned owl dipped out
of the sky, plucked one of the swimming animals from the water and
floated away with its victim in its talons.

It happened so suddenly and so unexpectedly that Andy needed a moment to
realize it had happened at all. It was like watching a peaceful scene in
which a bomb is suddenly exploded. Uncannily silent wings giving not the
slightest hint of his approach, the owl was not there, then he was, then
he was gone. So perfectly timed and executed was the maneuver that it
was carried through from start to finish without the owl's ruffling a
single feather or missing one beat of his wings. It was a master feat by
a master craftsman.

Leveling his rifle, sighting as best he could in the uncertain light,
Andy snapped a shot after the fleeing owl. He shot a second time, a
third, and watched the bird fly out of sight. When he lowered the rifle,
there was dread in his heart.

He had hoped that, in time, his muskrats would come to know and learn to
avoid land prowlers, such as foxes and bobcats. But there was not and
couldn't possibly be any defense against raiding great horned owls. The
wariest muskrat would never hear them coming and, nine times out of ten,
would never see them. They were destruction itself, death in its most
efficient form. A very few of them, hunting the swamp regularly, could
make it impossible ever to raise muskrats there.

Andy made up his mind. No believer in the unnecessary destruction of
anything at all, he must defend that which was his. The only possible
course lay in keeping the swamp as free of great horned owls as he
could.

Somewhat dejectedly, he made his way back to the house. Turning his
swamp into a muskrat farm had seemed like a grand dream, but maybe it
could never be anything except a dream. He had expected to lose some,
but the first day was not yet ended and he'd lost a quarter of all the
muskrats liberated. If casualties kept up at this rate, he'd have none
left in another three days.

The next morning, carrying more traps and armed with his .22, he went
back into the swamp. Passing Dead Man's Slough, he sighed in relief to
discover that the two muskrats he had left there were safe. The second
pair, the cautious ones, were not in sight but a partly finished house
was evidence that they were still in the slough. Why they wanted a house
when they already had a den was puzzling, but Andy supposed they had
their own reasons.

Approaching the third slough, the one from which the fox had taken the
muskrat, Andy halted and stood quietly.

A leaning log angled from the bank into the slough, and the surviving
muskrat sat on it, shucking a fresh-water mussel. It bit through the
tough mechanism that clamped the shell, scooped out and ate the tender
flesh within, let the shell fall into the water and dived for another
mussel.

The gray fox that had caught the first muskrat had come back for the
second one. He was lying motionless on the bank. As soon as the muskrat
dived, the fox rose, paced forward and, a split second before the
muskrat's head broke water, went into another crouch.

Slowly, making no swift move that would call attention to himself, Andy
raised and sighted his rifle. But he did not shoot because he was
interested.

The fox, evidently a young one that had not yet learned that it pays to
look in all directions all the time, was so intent on the muskrat that
it paid no attention to anything else. The muskrat climbed out on the
log, ate his mussel and dived for another one. The fox rose, paced
forward, and threw himself down again.

Crouching, he seemed a part of the grass and Andy could not help
admiring both his plan and the way he was putting it into effect. He
continued to hold his fire because here was a chance to learn exactly
how foxes catch muskrats and such knowledge might very well be useful.
The muskrat reappeared, climbed on the log . . . and the fox leaped.

He should have pinned his quarry, but something warned the muskrat and
the fox was still in the air when it rolled off the log and dived.
Struggling wildly, the fox splashed water with his front paws and fought
desperately to get back onto the bank. He could not.

The bottom of this slough was stony for the most part, but just off the
bank from which the fox had leaped was more quicksand and the animal was
hopelessly enmeshed in it. He made a mighty effort to hold his nose out
of water and Andy's shot caught him in the head just before he went
down. It was by far the kindest thing to do.

Andy was surprised and pleased when the day passed and he lost no more
muskrats. He was mystified when a whole week went by with no further
losses. Then the answer occurred to him. Muskrats, like everything else,
produce their quota of fools, and two of the three that had died the
first day probably belonged in that category. The third, the one taken
by the great horned owl, had been just plain unlucky.

Andy caught a young bobcat, picked up his traps . . . and in three days
lost the two muskrats in Dead Man's Slough and the one whose mate had
been killed by the bobcat! There were neither tracks nor any other sign
to identify the raider, but on one of the high knobs Andy found him.

It was another great horned owl that sat quietly in a gnarled oak, with
his tufted ears silhouetted against the sky and his eyes closed against
the sun's glare. Andy's shot caught him squarely, and he flapped his
wings just once as he toppled from the perch.

Leaving him where he fell, Andy went ruefully home. It was very evident
that muskrat farming was somewhat less than the ideal way to get rich
quick. Of his original stock of twelve, he had exactly six left. They
were the pair in front of his house, the cautious pair, and two singles.
Not too much could be expected from them, and Andy thought of his lean
bank balance. To buy more muskrats for predators to kill fell short of
wise investment.

Dejectedly Andy went to the slough in front of his house and sat with
his arms clasping his knees. The male muskrat came up to stare haughtily
at him and Andy stared defiantly back.

"All right!" he invited. "Go ahead and look!"

The muskrat--Andy had whimsically named the pair Four-Leaf and
Clover--made a lazy circle and turned to fix unblinking eyes on the boy.
Andy grimaced. At no time had he exerted the slightest effort to make
pets of any of his charges because it was better to have them wild. But
Four-Leaf and Clover, living so near and visited so frequently, were on
familiar terms with him. He had an uncomfortable feeling that they were
not on equal terms. Four-Leaf and Clover considered themselves vastly
superior to any mere human being!

"If you don't wipe that sneer off your face," Andy threatened, "I'll
turn you into a genuine muskrat-hide glove!"

He picked up a pebble and was about to plunk it into the water near
Four-Leaf when Clover's head broke water. Behind her, in formation so
precise that they seemed to have drilled for it, came an even dozen
small copies of herself. Andy dropped the pebble and a broad smile
lighted his face.

"Glory be! Darned if we'uns haven't got ourselves some babies!"

His dejection melted like mist before the rising sun. Happily he pulled
on his boots and went into the swamp. He'd lost half his original stock
and still had six more muskrats than he'd started with. Reaching the
slough where the cautious pair lived, Andy crouched quietly in the grass
beside it.

A half hour later, they appeared with ten babies, and when Andy passed
the sloughs inhabited by lone muskrats whose mates had been killed, he
was amazed to find each of them with eight young. Obviously, both
females had survived.

Jubilantly, Andy threw his hat into the air, and when he reached home he
went carefully over his plans for the future. If he forgot about the new
rifle he had intended to give himself for Christmas and made his old
clothes last a while longer, he could buy twenty more mated pairs. The
next morning he walked into town and mailed his order.

       *     *     *     *     *

A week later, while patrolling the swamp to inspect his various colonies
of muskrats, Andy saw a great horned owl flying low over the grass with
what appeared to be a black muskrat in its talons. Suddenly the victim
twisted about to attack its captor.

When they came nearer, Andy saw, to his vast astonishment, that the
supposed muskrat was a black kitten!



  4

  FEATHERED DEATH


His stomach filled with grasshoppers, Frosty went to one of several
large pine stumps that were spotted here and there about the meadow and
crawled beneath an out-jutting root, from the under side of which the
earth had crumbled away. He lay perfectly still and went to sleep.

Aside from Luke Trull and the coyote, he knew nothing of the enemies he
might find in these wild uplands. However, there were sure to be some,
and certainly he would be much harder to find beneath the root than he
would if he merely lay down on some grassy bed. But he was incapable of
sodden slumber.

A part of him that never slept was aware of wind rippling the grass; the
furtive rustlings and scrapings of a family of mice that dwelt in a tiny
burrow beneath the same root; the chattering of a blue jay that, having
nothing to scold, was scolding anyhow. Frosty eased into wakefulness.

He knew the wind and he knew the mice, but not the jay and he must know
it. Without seeming to move, he edged far enough around the root so he
could see the bird. It was perched on another stump, flitting its wings,
flicking its tail, ducking its head and scolding. Frosty studied it for
a second, and by the time he went back to sleep it was assured that, for
as long as he lived, he would associate the sound with the beautiful
bird that made it and the bird with the sound. He had learned something
else. Never again, if he heard a blue jay screech, would he have to
waken and look for it.

He thought of the shed from which Luke Trull had taken him, but not with
any feeling of nostalgia or homesickness because the shed belonged to
yesterday. That was there and he was here, and even if he wished to do
so, he would be unable to find it again. Nor, aside from the fact that
he wanted to stay in or very near the meadow, did he have any plans.

A rover by nature, he must not rove until conditions were much more
auspicious than they were right now. What he knew about the hills
consisted largely of the fact that he did not know them at all. But if
he stayed near the meadow, he was certain of finding plenty of fat
grasshoppers to eat any time he was hungry. It was a common sense
decision.

When five deer came slowly into the meadow, Frosty's built-in ear
antenna immediately picked up the thudding of their hooves and a moment
later he heard their noisy chewing as they ate grass. He stayed where he
was, lacking the slightest idea as to what manner of creature had come
into the meadow now but determined to find out. They were feeding toward
his stump.

Twenty minutes later, they were directly in front of it and, as before,
Frosty eased just far enough out so he could see them. They were big
animals, but obviously they intended no harm. When the shuffling hooves
of one disturbed a meadow mouse that leaped in wild panic toward the
stump, Frosty had only to move aside in order to catch it. He pinned the
mouse with his paws, ended its tiny struggle with his teeth and gazed
defiantly at the deer.

They swung their heads toward him, jaws moving in graceless discord as
they continued to chew the grass with which they had filled them. Then
they lowered their heads to crop more grass.

Frosty lay down to eat his prize, liking the taste of hot flesh in his
mouth and the salty tang of fresh-caught prey. He ate all except the
hairless tail, and the mouse whetted his appetite for more. Slipping out
from beneath his root, he looked about for the deer.

Still cropping gustily, they were feeding toward the forest on the far
side of the meadow. Frosty minced after them. They had driven one mouse
from its covert; the chances were that they would drive more. Frosty
edged up to a sleek doe that suddenly wheeled and pounded down on him.

Just in time, he saved himself by slipping behind a boulder. . . . When
he could no longer hear the plunging doe, he peered over it. She had
resumed feeding. More watchful now, Frosty slunk toward the deer. They
saw him but paid no attention. Evidently they did not mind his trailing
them. They did not want him on the place where they were feeding now or
where they might feed a moment from now.

Another mouse panicked. Frosty caught and ate it. By the time he had a
third mouse, his appetite was satisfied. In addition, he had learned a
priceless lesson; large grazing beasts are apt to disturb small
creatures that dwell in the grass. The deer, having grazed their fill,
drifted to beds in the shady forest. Frosty curled up in a sunny spot
and let this new world come to him.

When two more crows winged lazily over the meadow, cawing as they flew,
he knew it as the same sound he had heard while a prisoner in the sack
and satisfied his curiosity on that score. He was alert to every furtive
rustling, every note in the multi-toned song the breeze sang, every
motion in the grass and every flutter of every leaf on a grove of nearby
sycamores.

The creatures that lived in the meadow were small ones; various insects;
moles and mice; cottontail rabbits and harmless snakes. Frosty
identified each in turn and after he'd done so, he stored each away in
his brain. Having met and known anything at all, it was his forever.
He'd never forget it and never fail to know it should he meet it again.
But there was much that he did not know and the unknown roused his
instant curiosity. When he saw a flicker of motion over near the
sycamores, he concentrated his whole attention on it.

He did not know that he'd seen one of two gray squirrels that had chosen
to abide for a couple of days in the sycamores, or that all he'd seen
was a glimpse of its tail as it climbed a tree. It was strange and he
could not rest until it was familiar. Frosty began to stalk the
sycamores, and the stalk saved his life.

He saw nothing and heard nothing, but the same coyote that had ripped
the sack open was suddenly upon him. Knowing of the gray squirrels, and
hoping to catch one or the other on the ground, the coyote had been
stalking the sycamores, too. Finding Frosty, the creature had accepted
him instead.

Not stopping to see what threatened, but reacting instantly, Frosty
sprang for a sycamore trunk and drew himself up less than two inches
ahead of the coyote's snapping jaws. He climbed to the sycamore's crotch
and turned to look down. Tongue lolling like a dog's, the coyote looked
anxiously up and whined his disappointment. Then, realizing he'd get
nothing among the sycamores, he turned away to hunt some rabbits with
whose thicket he was acquainted.

Frosty remained in the sycamore's crotch. Though he had considered
himself very alert, he'd had no slight inkling of the coyote's presence
until it was almost too late. Concentrating on the gray squirrel, he had
given little thought to the fact that something might be stalking him.
Never again must he be so lax--but he had learned.

Had he been beneath the root, very probably the coyote might have dug
him out. But, as had just been proven, the coyote was unable to climb
trees. It followed, therefore, that a tree would be a much safer place
in which to rest. Frosty cleaned his fur, and when one of the gray
squirrels appeared in the higher branches of the same tree, he looked at
it with challenging interest. But the squirrel fled in panic-stricken
terror when it saw the kitten.

Frosty stayed in his perch until just before nightfall, then descended
to hunt again. But the grasshoppers, that had been so easy to catch when
numbed by early morning cold, were amazingly agile now. The kitten
stalked one that was crawling up a blade of grass. Escaping from between
his clutching claws, the insect spread bright-colored wings and flew
away. Frosty marked it down, but when he went to the place where it had
descended, it was not there. Alighting, the grasshopper had crawled
along the ground. Presently, four feet to one side, it spread gaudy
wings and took flight once more.

Again Frosty marked it down and again failed to find it. Crawling
beneath a dead weed that matched its drab color exactly, the grasshopper
was remaining perfectly still.

An hour's hard hunting brought the black kitten one grasshopper, a vast
frustration and a mounting hunger. Then twilight crept stealthily over
the hills and the grasshoppers settled down in various places where they
would pass the hours of darkness. Because they did not move at all and
were almost perfectly camouflaged when holding still, and because it was
dark, Frosty could not see them.

He pounced eagerly when a mouse rustled in front of him. But since he
did not know how to hunt mice--the only ones he'd caught were those that
fled in terror from the feeding deer--he missed. He ambled
disconsolately down to the cold little stream that wandered through the
meadow.

He was hungry and growing hungrier, but he had not forgotten the earlier
lesson of the day when, because he'd given all his attention to the gray
squirrel in the sycamores, the coyote had almost caught him. Though he
was principally interested in getting anything at all to eat, he did not
neglect that which lay about him. When he came near the stream, he knew
that something else was already there. He stalked cautiously forward
until he could see what it was.

A mink crouched on the stream bank, busily eating a fourteen-inch trout
that it had surprised in the shallows. Sure of its own powers, fearing
nothing, the mink gave no attention to anything save the meal it had
caught. Finished, it licked its chops and turned to stare at the tall
grass in which Frosty lay.

The mink knew and had known since the kitten came that Frosty was there,
for its nose had told it. A bloody little creature, ordinarily it might
have amused itself by killing the kitten. But a full belly can make even
a mink feel good, and after a moment, it turned to travel downstream.

Frosty stole forward to find the trout's tail, head and fins. The
epicurean mink had chosen only the choice portions and left this carrion
for any scavenger that might come. But it was good and it dulled
Frosty's hunger. His meal ended, he washed up, then and went back into
the meadow.

No longer hungry and thus no longer finding it necessary to devote his
attention to finding food, the kitten could concentrate on the other
creatures that had come into the meadow. He sat on a hillock to watch a
fox hunt mice.

It was a big, sleek dog fox, with a mate and cubs back in a hillside
den, and it made not the slightest effort to stalk its quarry. Instead,
it walked openly, head up and ears alert. When it heard a mouse in a
grass-thatched runway, the fox reared, to come stiffly down with both
front paws. Five times it reared, and five times it pinned the mouse it
wanted and extricated it from the grass beneath which it was pinned.

Suddenly the fox smelled Frosty and whirled. It came trotting, its
attitude more one of aroused curiosity than hostility. The kitten was
something new, and before the fox took any further action, it wanted to
know exactly what this strange creature was. Its head curving gracefully
toward Frosty, it stopped four feet away.

Trapped and knowing it, the kitten made ready to fight. He laid his ears
back and framed a snarl on his jaws. The growl that rumbled from his
chest was the most ferocious of which he was capable. Looking more
amused than cautious, the fox extended an exploring paw. Frosty struck
and missed. He was no match for this veteran of the wilderness. The fox
circled and the kitten turned with him.

After a short space, seemingly well-entertained, the fox padded away.
No wanton killer, it was a good hunter and, in this time of plenty, it
could take its choice of mice, fat rabbits, or plump grouse. Any one of
them was preferable to this snarling kitten, though had it been lean
hunting, or had the fox been hungry enough, Frosty would have died right
there.

The black kitten tried to hunt mice as he had seen the fox catch them,
but, though he could hear them scurrying along their runways, his timing
was poor and his knowledge scant. One needed the skill that only
experience brought to succeed at this sort of hunting. Frosty leaped a
dozen times without pinning even one mouse.

When the five deer came back into the meadow, he trotted eagerly toward
them. Though they had no war with mice, the deer never cared where they
walked. Their hooves penetrated grass-roofed runways and now and then
plowed into a nest. Whenever they did, the mice suffered a panic that
momentarily robbed them of reason or of any desire save to escape
destruction.

The feeding deer disturbed two that Frosty caught and ate. With the
first light of morning, hunger satisfied, he returned to his sycamore
and climbed to the familiar crotch. Impatiently he lay down. He was fed
and tired, and he wanted to sleep, but the cold morning wind ruffled his
fur and made comfortable sleep impossible.

Any other animal would have accepted conditions as they were and slept
anyhow. Frosty was a cat, and cats never accept second best if they can
get the best.

Frosty climbed out on one of the sycamore's massive limbs until the
slender branches in which the limb terminated swayed beneath his weight.
That made him afraid of falling, so he turned and went back. But he was
still disinclined to accept a bed where the cold wind could chill him
if there were a possibility of something better. He tried a second limb,
a third, then went up the trunk and found exactly what he sought.

A big limb, growing out of the trunk, had rotted and fallen. In falling,
it had left a cavity that had been enlarged by a pair of pileated
woodpeckers which had nested in it over a period of years. Blowing
leaves had sifted in and partly filled the hollow, and the cold wind
seethed harmlessly past. Frosty found it a warm, dry and safe bed. Since
the opening was barely big enough to admit him, he could defend it
against anything else that tried to enter.

More than once, in the days that followed, it was necessary for him to
fill his belly with grasshoppers only for the simple reason that he
could catch nothing else. He learned to see them in the grass, and to
gauge his strike so he could catch them before they were able to take to
the air. He became an expert hunter of grasshoppers, and the precise
training this afforded helped him in other ways.

The mice in their grass-thatched runways could never be seen. They must
be heard, and since the strike was always blind, it had to be exact. A
fraction of an inch one way or the other and the mouse escaped. Frosty
learned to strike so expertly that almost never did his victim elude
him. Only when he was feeling lazy or had a run of bad luck did he
depend on the browsing deer to flush his mice for him.

As he lived, so did he learn. Stealthy footsteps foretold some slinking
beast of prey. But so did the sudden chatter of an excited bird, a
madly-scooting rabbit, or the deer when they stopped eating and became
alert. Frosty taught himself to read such signs, and by them he always
knew when the coyote or some other dangerous creature was aprowl. He
acquired a vast confidence in his own ability to meet and overcome any
dangers that threatened.

Hunting mice in the meadow one night, he came face to face with a bobcat
that was similarly engaged. The bobcat snarled and leaped at him, and
had he turned to run, Frosty would have been overtaken and killed.
Instead of running, he stood his ground and spat back. The bobcat,
pretending vast interest in a clump of grass near the kitten, scraped
the grass with contemptuous feet and stalked away.

Frosty extended his range from the meadow into the woods, and each
journey became a bit longer and a bit more daring. He not only lived but
lived well, and his first great triumph was achieved some six weeks
after he came to the meadow.

Every afternoon, when the sun was hot and high, a mother grouse led her
five bobtailed young to some abandoned ant hills beside the forest. The
birds burrowed luxuriously in the gritty earth, working it into their
feathers and using their wings and beaks to throw it over their backs.
The sand and grit acted as a cleansing bath.

Occasionally other predators visited the meadow in the afternoon, but
the grouse came so quietly that these passers-by never knew of them.
Frosty, who hunted the meadow almost every afternoon, knew all about
them. But after stalking his stealthiest, only to have the mother grouse
sound a warning and the whole brood take wing in his very face, he gave
himself over to studying them. They were very difficult to stalk because
the grass around the ant hills was short and he could be seen. But after
two weeks, he thought he saw a way.

This afternoon, a full hour before the grouse family was due to come out
of the woods, Frosty was lying motionless behind one of the ant hills.
His eyes were unblinking and even the tip of his tail did not twitch. To
all appearances, he was a dead thing.

He heard the grouse coming; they were announced by the tiny sounds of
their own feet and the mother's querulous clucking as she warned her
young to take every care. Frosty remained motionless until two of the
young grouse mounted the very ant hill behind which he lay. Then,
without seeming to move at all and certainly without visible effort, he
was up and over. While the other grouse took thundering wing, he
fastened his claws in one and pulled it down.

That gave him an inflated idea of his own prowess, and the next
afternoon he was again hiding in the ant hills, waiting for the grouse.
They did not come. The young were silly and inexperienced but the mother
was no fool. She would never be deceived by the same ruse twice in
succession. However, catching just one grouse gave Frosty so much
confidence that he increased his field vastly, and as he did, he learned
still more.

Because enemies could be anywhere, it was at all times necessary to be
sharply alert. But Frosty had already discovered that the things besides
himself which could climb trees were disinclined to be hostile, and,
once in the forest, he was never very far from a convenient tree. He
changed his sleeping place from the sycamore's hollow trunk to the
hollow limb of a massive oak in the forest.

He also did more of his hunting in the forest. The place teemed with
young rabbits and grouse, many of which were adventurous, incautious,
downright silly, or a combination of all three. His kills consisted
almost exclusively of these easy-to-catch creatures but, in catching the
young and foolish, he was laying the groundwork that would later enable
him to bring down the wise and experienced.

Frosty's move into the forest brought increased skill in hunting, but it
also brought disaster.

He was prowling one morning when he heard, smelled and then saw a coyote
coming. Deliberately, Frosty showed himself. This was a game he had
learned to play, gauging exactly every move the coyote made. When his
antagonist rushed, Frosty waited until the last possible second before
scrambling up the slender trunk of a black birch. He halted just beyond
reach of his enemy's strongest leap and looked down contemptuously.

Suddenly he was wrenched from the tree and suspended in mid air. He did
not know what had happened, for he had seen and heard nothing, but he
did know that he must not submit meekly to anything at all. He tried to
twist himself and rise to attack whatever held him. Now he saw that it
was a great bird.

Frosty had been plucked from his perch by a great horned owl, but he was
lucky. Three days ago, in a foray against Ira Casman's chickens, the owl
had been repelled by a shotgun in the hands of Ira's brother. Too fine
to kill, the number ten shot had only wounded and weakened him. He had
since missed every strike at everything and now, famished, he had caught
the first creature he could that might be edible. However, instead of
being deeply imbedded, his claws were hooked only through the loose skin
on Frosty's back.

The owl winged toward a pine stub, alighted on a branch and turned to
kill his captive so he could eat it. But the second he found a purchase
for his feet, Frosty attacked furiously. He sank his teeth through
feathers into flesh, even while he raked with his claws. Always before,
such of the owl's victims as had lived until they were landed in a tree
were terrified and shivering, easy prey. He had bargained for no such
fury as this.

He took wing again, and this time his course led across the swamp. On
the other side was a ledge of rock. Even a cat, dropped from any
considerable height onto it, would not be likely to move again.

Frosty knew only that he was helpless, and the knowledge redoubled his
anger. He twisted and turned, doing his best to fling himself into any
position from which he could claw or bite his captor. Without knowing
what it was or what it meant, he heard Andy Gates's shot.

He did know that the owl went suddenly limp and that they plummeted
toward the swamp. Strikingly, Frosty was momentarily stunned. He tried
dazedly to get up and run away when something else seized him.

He turned to attack this new enemy.



  5

  PARTNERS


Twisting himself almost double, Frosty sank his teeth into the fleshy
part of Andy's hand and raked with all four paws. Blood welled from the
scratches and cuts and dripped onto the dead owl. But instead of
flinging the kitten from him, Andy encircled Frosty's neck with his
right thumb and forefinger, rendered his front paws ineffective by
slipping his other three fingers behind them, grabbed his rear paws with
his left hand and stretched him out. He murmured,

"If you aren't the little spitfire!"

Unable to do anything else, Frosty could only glare. The smile that
always lingered in Andy's eyes almost flashed to his lips. His face
softened. He spoke soothingly,

"You might as well stop it. You'd have a real rough time clawing me all
to bits."

Frosty snarled and Andy grinned. He'd never had a cat or thought of
getting one, but besides his fighting heart, there was something about
Frosty to which he warmed. Without thinking that he too had defied
conventional living, Andy recognized something akin to himself. He said
firmly,

"You're going to get some help whether you want it or not."

Holding Frosty so that he could neither scratch nor bite, Andy carried
him back to the house, pushed the door open with his knee and wondered.
The kitten must be hurt because nothing withstood the strike of a great
horned owl without getting hurt. In spite of the fact that he did not
appear to be seriously injured, he probably would bear watching for a
few days. Andy thought speculatively of one of the cages in which the
muskrats had been shipped. He'd be able to watch the spunky little
fellow closely if he put him in one.

For no apparent reason, he suddenly remembered when he had lived in
town, working on the railroad nights and going to school days. There had
always been a feeling of too little room and too much confinement. He
looked again at Frosty . . . and put him down on the floor.

"Guess we won't lock you up."

Frosty scooted beneath the stove and again Andy's smile threatened to
blossom. Running, the kitten looked oddly like a strip of black velvet
upon which frost crystals sparkle. It was then that Andy gave him his
name.

"Okeh, Frosty. If that's what you like, that's what you can have."

He stooped to peer beneath the stove and was warned away with a rumbling
growl, so he straightened. After he had satisfied himself that the
kitten was all right, Frosty would be free to go his own way. There
never had been and never would be any prisoners in the swamp.

Going outside, careful to latch the door behind him lest it blow open
and let Frosty escape, Andy caught up a discarded tin can and took a
spade from his shed. He turned the rich muck at the swamp's edge,
dropped the fat worms he uncovered into the can, then went back to the
house for a willow pole with a line, hook and cork bobber attached.
Carrying the pole and can of worms, he made his way to the watery slough
in front of his house.

While their dozen children sported in the slough, Four-Leaf and Clover
dug succulent bulbs in the mud on the opposite bank. None paid any
attention to Andy. This colony, protected by the nearness of the house
and seeming to know it, was not nearly as wary as those that lived in
more remote sections of the swamp. Even the great horned owls had not
attacked them. Andy strung a wriggling worm on his hook and was about to
cast it when,

"Howdy."

Andy turned to face Luke Trull, who had stolen upon him unseen and
unheard. Still wearing his sun-faded trousers and torn shirt, still
needing a haircut and shave, his eyes were fixed on the muskrats in the
slough. Andy's heart sank. He'd feared the native swamp predators. But
not even the great horned owls could work the same fearful damage as
Luke Trull, should he decide to come raiding. Andy said coldly,

"Hi, Luke."

"I heerd tell," the other smirked, "'bout somethin' new in the swamp."

"Who told you?"

"News gits 'round."

"There is something new. But it belongs to me and so does the swamp.
Both are to be left alone."

"Oh sure. Sure 'nough. I aim to leave 'em alone. They's mushrats, ain't
they?"

"That's right. They're muskrats."

"Wu'th a heap of money, ain't they?"

"Not a 'heap.' Maybe a couple of dollars or so for a good prime pelt."

"Could be a heap given a man ketches enough of 'em. How many you got all
told?"

"Not enough to start trapping."

"The hills is full of talk 'bout how you've turned your no-count swamp
into a mushrat farm. They's talk 'bout how you aim to get rich off
mushrat pelts."

"Nobody's going to get rich. And anybody who traps any muskrats before I
give the word, or without my permission, will be in trouble."

"Oh, sure. Sure 'nough. But I've already said I don't aim to bother 'em
none."

Andy said shortly, "That's a good idea. I'll be seeing you, Luke."

"Yep. I'll be 'round."

The lean hillman drifted away as silently as he had come and Andy cast
his baited hook. But his thoughts were troubled ones.

He had hoped to keep his muskrat ranch a secret, but he should have
known the impossibility of that. Only he knew all the safe paths through
the swamp, but Luke Trull, the Haroldsons and the Casmans knew some of
them. Frequently they came to fish in some favored slough or other.
Somebody must have seen a colony of muskrats--perhaps they'd stumbled
across Four-Leaf and Clover and their family--and it hadn't been hard to
piece the rest of the story together. Probably Johnny Linger, the
express agent, hadn't talked to any hillman. But Johnny had friends in
town to whom he might have talked, his friends had friends, and by the
time enough people knew the story, it could easily get back to the hill
dwellers.

Andy was so absorbed with this new problem that he was entirely unaware
of the fact that his cork bobber had disappeared. He yanked the pole,
missed his strike and strung another worm on the stripped hook. He might
post his swamp against trespassers. Not that trespass signs had ever
kept a single Casman, Haroldson--or especially a Trull--from going where
he wished to go but at the very least they'd be evidence that he had
acted in his own behalf. But trespass signs or not, there was going to
be trouble in plenty if human predators started raiding his muskrats and
trouble was always better avoided.

He missed another nibble and began to concentrate on his fishing. Very
possibly he was killing his ogres before he met them. But when Luke
Trull saw a possibility of earning money without working for it--?

The bobber disappeared again. Andy struck in time, lifted a flapping
jumbo perch out of the slough, put it on a stringer, rebaited and cast
his line. There was little sport in catching the perch with such heavy
tackle, but they were delicious eating and the slough swarmed with them.
Andy fished until he had six.

He sat down, scaled his catch, ran his knife along each side of their
backbones, and removed the tasty fillets. The offal, which ordinarily he
would have thrown away, he laid on a saucer-sized lily pad and took to
the house with him. Still beneath the stove, Frosty greeted him with a
bubbling growl. Andy wrapped four of the fish heads in a piece of
discarded newspaper and put them in his icebox. The remainder, along
with the offal, he placed on a saucer and thrust beneath the stove. He
remembered to put a dish of water beside the saucer.

Andy prepared a batch of biscuits, fried his own fish, ate lunch and
washed the dishes. The untouched fish heads remained where he had placed
them, and when he stooped to peer beneath the stove, Frosty glared back
balefully. A little worried that the kitten might be hurt worse than he
appeared to be, Andy closed and latched the door and took the trail to
town. Uneasy feelings stirred within him.

The town, he had long ago decided to his own satisfaction, had little
real touch with the hills. To the townspeople, the hillmen were a
strange breed, like lions in a zoo, and as such they could always
furnish entertainment. Regardless of the work, hopes and dreams it had
taken to put them there, few townsmen could be expected to take
seriously a swamp with muskrats in it. Stealing goods from a town store
would be a criminal offense and provoke righteous indignation. Stealing
muskrats from his swamp would be just another example of what the
hillmen were always doing to each other and provoke, at the very most, a
sympathetic chuckle.

Even as he walked resolutely ahead, Andy thought that he would have to
stand alone. Nevertheless, he still felt he must try to enlist aid. An
ounce of prevention was definitely worth at least a pound of cure, and
though nothing had happened as yet, now was the time to take steps in
his own defense. But what could he do and who would listen?

Reaching town, Andy turned aside to the State Police substation. The
harassed-appearing trooper in charge put aside the report upon which he
was working and looked up questioningly.

"My name's Gates," Andy introduced himself. "Andy Gates. I want to post
my land against trespassers."

"Well--has someone tried to stop you?"

"No," Andy admitted, "but suppose I post it and someone trespasses?
What's the penalty?"

The trooper traced a meaningless doodle with his pen. "That depends a
lot on circumstances. Few judges or justices are inclined to be harsh
with a person who merely walks on another's property, even if it is
posted."

"Suppose they steal?"

"That's entirely different. What have they stolen?"

"Nothing yet."

"Well," the trooper's voice was edged with sarcasm, "what do you think
they might steal?"

"Muskrats."

"Muskrats?" Puzzled wrinkles furrowed the trooper's brow. "Do you have
some?"

"Yes."

"Are they penned?"

"No, they're running loose in my swamp."

"Then how can you claim they're yours?"

"I bought and paid for them and the swamp's private property."

"Well," the trooper shrugged, "when somebody starts stealing them, you
come see us."

Andy turned dejectedly away. If it were a hoard of gold or jewels in his
swamp, the trooper would have understood instantly and taken the proper
steps to protect it. The boy grinned wryly. Doubtless the trooper
thought he was a harmless crackpot and was even now congratulating
himself on being rid of him so easily.

Andy went to see the official whom he had planned to consult from the
first. Joe Wilson, the district game warden, was old and would give way
to a younger man soon, but he was wise in the ways of the hills and he
knew the hillmen as few townspeople did. Andy came to his house, knocked
and was admitted by Lois, the pleasant-faced daughter who kept house for
Joe.

"Why hello, Andy. Goodness! It's been a while since we've seen you. Do
come in."

"Is your dad home, Lois?"

"In his study. Go right in."

There was a pang in her voice, for there had been a time when no
daylight hours, and frequently few night hours, would have found Joe
Wilson behind his desk. Now, when he went into the hills at all, it was
only to those places which could be reached by car. Lean as a weasel,
the way he had spent his life was written in his seamed face and wise
eyes. Storms and sun and wind had marked his face, age and experience
had implanted the wisdom in his eyes. He swung on his worn swivel chair
to face Andy.

"Hi, young feller."

"Hi, Joe." Andy shook the warden's extended hand. "You're looking
great."

"I may be good for a few days yet. What's on your mind?"

"I need your advice."

"So?"

"I've stocked my swamp with muskrats and--"

Andy told of the six pairs of muskrats he had planted in his swamp. He
spoke of their misadventures with the fox and bobcat and of raiding
great horned owls. But in spite of losses, the survivors had produced
thirty-eight young. They had not only adjusted themselves to the swamp
but had learned how to protect their babies. Naturally, there would be
some losses among the young, but, as far as Andy knew, there hadn't yet
been any. He had ordered twenty more mated pairs, which were due next
week. He knew he'd lose some, perhaps half or even more, but some would
survive and multiply. Next spring, when muskrat pelts were at their
best, he'd harvest a few, if conditions so warranted. If not enough
muskrats survived the winter, he'd let them go another season or more.
He hoped that, over the years, he might build up enough of a muskrat
population so that harvesting the surplus every year would be
profitable. However, he had no illusions of great wealth.

When he was finished, Joe Wilson tamped a blackened pipe full of
tobacco, lighted it and puffed soberly for a moment. Then he turned to
Andy.

"Seems to me you're doing all right by yourself. Why do you need my
advice?"

"Luke Trull has found out about it."

"Oh, gosh!"

Andy said dryly, "I know what you mean."

"You leatherhead! Why didn't you take them in at night and plant them
back in the swamp? You know places there that nobody else can reach."

"I did take them in at night, but I wanted to keep one pair under close
observation, so I released them in the slough in front of my house.
Somebody saw them, or somebody, fishing back in the swamp, stumbled
across another colony. Then too, I think Johnny Linger talked. They
came, of course, through his station."

"Johnny wouldn't talk."

"Not to Luke Trull," Andy conceded. "But he has friends in town. They
have friends, and the news got around. What can I do?"

"Have you been to the State Police?"

"Yes. They told me to wait until somebody starts poaching, then come to
them and they'd see what they could do about it."

"They can't do anything," Joe Wilson said quietly. "They'd have to catch
Luke in the act, and knowing him as I do, they can't. I know that he's
been violating game laws ever since he was old enough to shoot a gun or
cast a line, but I myself have been able to catch him only once in
fifteen years. You're in for trouble, Andy."

"I know it. Will posting the swamp help?"

"Will a trespass sign keep Luke Trull out of any place he wants to go
into?"

"No."

"Nor will anything else. He's mean as a mink and crafty as a shot-stung
mallard. He'll find a way to get into your back sloughs and eddys; a
shallow-draft boat light enough to carry will take him there. He won't
be stopped as long as he scents money in the offing."

Andy said grimly, "I could meet him, explain that he was to stay out of
the swamp and back it up with fists."

"Do that and you're in trouble," Joe Wilson pointed out. "Luke wouldn't
fight back. But he would gallop that horse of his all the way into town
and swear out an assault warrant. It'd be you, not Luke, whom the State
Police would bring in."

"If he was caught with muskrat pelts, wouldn't it be proof that he stole
them from me?"

Joe Wilson shrugged. "There's two hundred miles of streams and fifty
different ponds back in those hills, and the trapping season is open to
anyone with a license. Luke could, and would, say he took his pelts
elsewhere."

"There are no muskrats anywhere except in my swamp."

"Do you know every pond and every foot of stream?"

"Of course not."

"Then how would you expect to convince a judge or justice? One muskrat
pelt looks exactly like another; there's nothing special to mark yours."

"Isn't there anything I can do?"

"Yes there is, Andy. Has it occurred to you that your muskrat ranch will
either have to be something pretty decent or else not worth bothering
with?"

"What do you mean?"

The warden shrugged. "Just this. Considering the price of muskrats,
you'll have to have plenty of 'em to make the thing pay off. Their pelts
are at the best in late winter and early spring. To make it worthwhile,
you'll have to have a great many and you won't be able to handle 'em all
anyhow. Now Ira and Jud Casman are decent enough people. So are Old Man
Haroldson and his sons. Take them into your confidence. Ask them to lay
off until you have a trapping stock, and promise that, when and if you
get one, they can help you reap your harvest. You won't be able to do it
all, anyhow. They'll understand and I'm sure they'll cooperate."

"They won't be able to keep Luke off my neck."

"Nobody," said Joe Wilson, "ever kept Luke off anybody's neck, once he
has decided to land on it. Do you know what I'd do?"

"What?"

"Hope he falls in a quicksand slough, if he comes for your muskrats!"
the warden said grimly. "Failing that, you'll just have to meet any
situation as it arises. I wish you luck."

"Thanks," Andy murmured. "It looks as though I'll need it. Well, I'll be
getting back."

"Stay and have a bite with us."

"I'd like to but I left a kitten that thinks he's a tiger under my
kitchen stove. I'd better get back and make sure he hasn't clawed the
house to bits. He looked as though he'd like to do just that."

The sun was sinking when Andy arrived home. A rattlesnake, sluggishly
digesting a chipmunk it had caught, rattled a desultory warning without
moving out of his way. The hopeful doe, again sniffing at the garden
pickets, looked resentfully at Andy and bounced off. Four-Leaf, Clover
and their brood of young were sporting in the watery slough. The setting
sun cast long shadows of the dead trees across the swamp and the
chickens were clucking sleepily. A balmy breeze ruffled the swamp grass.
It was another summer night, exactly like summer nights had been for
ages past and would be for ages to come.

Andy sighed and went into his house. He was discouraged and tired. For
once, the swamp struck no responsive chord and the fact that he had come
home failed to move him. He knelt to peer beneath the stove.

The fish had been eaten, but Frosty was still far under there and his
warning growl rumbled. Andy got wearily to his feet. Obviously the
kitten was not seriously injured and just as obviously any sort of
enclosure, even a whole house, was far too much of a prison for his
feline spirit. Too listless to have much appetite, Andy fixed himself a
sandwich, washed it down with a glass of water, took the other fish
heads from his icebox and put them on the porch.

Before he went to bed, he opened the door and propped it with a chunk of
fire wood. He was attracted to Frosty and would like to keep him. But
there would be no prisoners here; the kitten could have his freedom, if
that was what he wanted.

Andy lay awake while the night wasted. Then sheer exhaustion made itself
felt. He fell into deep slumber and did not rouse again until the sun
was an hour high.

He sat up in bed to see Frosty settled in the still open doorway,
washing his face with his front paws. Andy's dejection of yesterday
melted away. He smiled.

"Well! So you decided to stay, after all!"

Frosty glanced at him and continued to wash his face.



  6

  FROSTY PROWLS


Having his freedom, Frosty accepted it. Partly because the boy had set
him free, he also accepted Andy. But there was another and very
compelling reason why he had chosen to come back into the house, rather
than escape into the swamp or the surrounding wilderness.

Perfectly capable of making his own way, entirely self-sufficient, he
recognized no superior and would bow to no inferior. But he liked Andy
and, in spite of the fact that he could do very well all by himself, he
would not choose a lonely life, providing he could ally himself with an
equal. If this fellow had kept him prisoner for a little while, he had
also set him free and he had offered no real hurt. Frosty had recognized
in Andy the same needs and urgencies that were so powerful within
himself. They were traveling similar paths and it was well that they go
together.

But it must be on a basis of strict equality, and because he was
currently busy washing his face, Frosty continued to do so after Andy
spoke to him. The young man's smile remained.

"Independent little devil, aren't you?"

His cleanup finished, Frosty sat down with his tail curled behind him
and stared at the youth with unreadable feline eyes. Not until Andy
swung out of bed and started across the floor did the kitten move. Then
he went to meet his new partner, and arched his back and purred when
Andy stooped to pet him. Thus, with a caress and a purr, their bargain
was signed and sealed and both understood its terms.

While Andy prepared his breakfast, Frosty walked back out the open door
and composed himself in the warming sun. He was not hungry, the fish
heads and offal had been more than an adequate meal. While seeming to
sleep, he inspected this new domain over which he had just become
co-ruler.

Sporting in the slough, Four-Leaf and Clover and their family attracted
his slight interest. They did not seem to be dangerous. They were
creatures of the water, and, aside from its convenience when he was
thirsty, Frosty had a violent aversion to water in all its forms. If he
were hungry and happened to find a young muskrat on land, he might very
well catch and kill one. Under no circumstances would he molest
creatures in their sloughs and ponds.

While his eyes remained on the muskrat family, his ears were attuned to
every sound. The various birdcalls he knew and because he did, he
dismissed them as of little consequence. But when he heard the doe, that
had gone to rest in some tall swamp grass, reach back to scratch an
itching flank with a moist muzzle, he became instantly alert. He did not
know the sound and he must know it.

Rising, Frosty slipped from the porch into the yard. He had marked the
doe, but though she remained the primary center of interest, he did not
concentrate on her to the exclusion of all else. His first days in the
hills had taught him that he could afford to neglect nothing on the
ground and his recent grim experience with the owl was proof enough that
he must also and at all times be aware of everything in the air. Because
he was alert, Frosty saw the rattlesnake Andy had encountered last night
before it saw him.

Still sluggish, digestion not yet complete, the snake had crawled to the
lee of a boulder for the greater protection it offered against the
night's chill. It coiled there, fearing little and scarcely interested
in anything that happened.

Frosty soft-pawed a bit nearer. The snake was interesting and he had
never before seen its like. Now was a good time to gauge its
potentialities and discover for himself what manner of creature it might
be. Guided by innate caution, the kitten halted three feet away and
stared fixedly. Becoming alert, the snake rattled a warning.

Frosty listened, and having heard the sound, it was his. Watching the
kitten with beady eyes, the snake ceased rattling. Frosty arched his
back. He still did not know what manner of creature this might be, but
whatever it was, he did not like it. Intending to discover for himself
exactly what the snake could do, he remained cautious.

His feint, when he made it, was swift as only a cat's can be. His leap
carried him to within fifteen inches of the forty-five inch snake and he
nearly met disaster. The striking fangs came within a breath of brushing
his fur! Having found out everything he wanted to know, Frosty withdrew.

The snake would strike and its swiftness equaled his own, but the
kitten's anger increased. He had been challenged in his own territory.
He would accept that challenge, but not blindly. A born warrior, he was
also a born strategist.

The snake, rattling continuously now, undulated its thick body into
coils. But though its strike was lightning fast, otherwise it was a
comparatively sluggish thing. Frosty feinted again.

He knew to the exact hundredth of an inch the length of his last feint
and this one he deliberately shortened. The snake struck, its
venom-filled fangs falling just short, and Frosty became master of the
situation. Knowing precisely how far the snake could strike, he feinted
in rapid succession and each time teased the snake into hitting at him.

Finally, recognizing an _impasse_ and rattling a warning as it did so,
the snake started crawling away. Frosty leaped. He landed exactly where
he had intended to land, just behind the head, where the snake's thick
body tapered to a thin neck, and he bit even as he landed. His teeth met
and almost in the same motion he leaped away.

For an interested moment he watched the quivering snake, now stretched
full length. There were no death throes and no writhing coils, for
Frosty had done exactly as he had planned to do and severed the spine.
The reptile had died instantly. Forgetting the snake, Frosty padded on
toward the doe.

Nearing her, he went into a stalk so stealthy and so silent that he
crouched in the grass less than three feet away before she was aware of
his presence. Her ears flicked forward and she opened alarmed eyes.
Recognizing no threat, she relaxed and again scratched her flank with
her muzzle. Satisfied because he had traced the source of this sound,
the kitten retraced, almost step for step, the path he had taken coming
into the grass and he was at the edge of the clearing when Andy emerged
from the house.

Frosty did not show himself. Despite his liking for his human companion,
he would not rush to meet him, as a dog might have, unless he felt like
it, and right now he did not feel that way. Setting out to explore this
new land, he wanted to do it in his own time and way and, for the
present, he cared for no company.

Waiting until Andy was out of sight, he skirted the swamp and stopped to
look closely at the muskrats, which were still swimming about in the
slough. The parent animals moved farther out and eleven of their young
followed. The twelfth, whose bump of curiosity was bigger than his
portion of good sense, raised in the water for a better look at this
fascinating creature, then swam eagerly toward him. Head extended,
nostrils quivering, eyes bright, he climbed out on the bank.

The kitten stared back haughtily. Bigger than the baby muskrat, he still
was not hungry enough to hunt. Besides, obviously the muskrats were
lesser creatures. Frosty considered them as belonging in almost the same
category as the rabbits that almost always ran. He went around the
slough and into the swamp.

The tall grass waved over his head, so that he could see only that which
lay directly about him. Nor could he smell very much because the
over-all dank odor of the swamp drowned slighter scents. A mink or fox
would have detected them and sought out their sources, if they were
interested enough to do so. A cat could not, but Frosty's matchless ears
took the place of both eyes and nose. He heard the flutter of a bird's
wing, marked it down and deliberated. Having fed, he'd still accept a
choice tidbit should one come his way. He stalked the bird and found it
in a patch of grass.

It was a sora. Coming here to feed on seeds, it had entangled one foot
in a slim strip of wire-tough swamp grass and, in struggling to free
itself, had succeeded only in tangling the other foot. Almost exhausted,
it was able to do little save flutter its wings.

Frosty pounced upon the bird, killed it and ate as much as he wanted.
His belly filled, he sought a warm place and curled up to rest. But he
was careful to choose a napping place roofed with interlaced tops of
swamp grass. There were enemies in the air, but it stood to reason that
they could not catch him if they were unable to see him.

In spite of the fact that he was hidden, at no time did he sleep so
soundly that he was oblivious to what went on and again his ears served
him. Something that splashed in a nearby slough had to be a leaping
fish; swimming muskrats seldom splashed or did anything else to attract
attention to themselves. From far off came a loud noise; one of the dead
swamp trees had finally toppled.

Frosty alerted himself only when he heard a sound he did not know. It
was not loud but neither was it especially muted, as though some small
creature that did not care whether or not it was seen moved through the
swamp. At length it arose near the remains of the sora. Silent as a
shadow, Frosty stalked forward. Even before he reached what was left of
the bird, he heard something eating.

He looked through an aperture in the grass to see a creature
approximately the size of a large cat, contentedly feasting on the
remains of the sora. It was lustrous-black, except for a V-shaped patch
of white on its head that became two white stripes which ran to the base
of its tail. This silky tail was heavily furred, the feet were short and
stubby. Frosty stared with vast curiosity.

Suddenly, and almost without visible motion, he flattened himself where
he was and held perfectly still. A day-cruising great horned owl, which
Frosty had seen at all only because he was wholly alert, floated in to
seize the feeding animal. The owl winged low over the swamp with his
prey.

Frosty sneezed and raced violently away, for suddenly the air was
nauseous with stink so thick that a knife might almost have cut it.
Obviously the owl didn't mind at all, but to Frosty it was a repulsive
odor. However, he had learned something else; no matter where they were
encountered or what they were doing, skunks were better left alone.
After running a hundred yards, Frosty continued at a fast walk. The air
still reeked and he wanted to get away from the stench. As soon as he
had gone far enough so that there was only faint evidence of the
unfortunate skunk's fate, he resumed prowling.

The swamp interested him greatly and he wanted to learn as much as
possible about it. Because exploration was currently more fascinating
than fighting, he detoured around another rattlesnake and continued on
his way. He mounted a little rise that was literally honeycombed with
the burrows of striped gophers and stopped to watch.

Flitting from their burrows, the gophers were feasting upon a veritable
inundation of grasshoppers that had come among them. Moving like an
animated streak, one of them would pounce upon a grasshopper and at once
dodge back to its burrow or into the shelter of some huckleberry brush
that grew upon the knoll. The wise little animals never exposed
themselves for more than a few seconds at a time, for they knew too well
the many perils that threatened.

As Frosty watched the gophers, disaster struck them.

Another rattlesnake, lying like a strip of carelessly discarded velvet
upon the little rise, struck a gopher when it paused nearby to snatch up
a grasshopper. Forgetting his grasshopper, the stricken animal bounced
toward his burrow. But he no longer moved like a streak. The injected
venom made itself felt almost at once, and instead of ducking into his
refuge, the gopher crawled down it.

After a moment, in no hurry at all and following his quarry by the scent
it left on the ground, the snake moved sluggishly on the gopher's trail,
finally disappearing down the burrow which the stricken creature had
entered.

Frosty circled the little rise and went on. He was far too well-fed even
to think of hunting the gophers, but the colony was something to
remember when he should be hungry. Any rodent at all was not only
acceptable but desirable food.

Coming to a slough, Frosty slunk like a wraith along its edge and sank
down to watch a baby muskrat. Visible only from the bank upon which the
kitten crouched, hidden from every other direction by a curl of
overhanging grass, the youngster was busily engaged in digging succulent
bulbs from the mud on the bank's far side. Thus Frosty learned what even
Andy had not yet discovered.

This baby belonged to the cautious pair that knew so well how to protect
themselves, and evidently he had inherited his parents' caution. Already
anticipating another litter, the parents were separating themselves from
the first one. The muskrats were doing exactly as Andy had hoped they'd
do and spreading out.

Little interested, Frosty resumed his travels and found himself on a
point of land that jutted into the slough. He paused, looking at the six
feet of water that lay before him. He could not jump it and he would
never swim unless forced to do so, therefore he did the only thing he
could do and retraced his steps. Continuing around the slough, he came
to a blanket of tangled weeds that covered it and crossed on them.
Anything heavier, or even heavier-footed, would have fallen through.
Frosty not only proceeded in perfect safety but knew he was safe.

He came to a little stream, one of the few clear-running streams in the
swamp, and watched a mother mallard and her brood of seven swim happily
there. Frosty did not molest them. No wanton killer, he would hunt only
when he wanted to eat. But the mallard family was something else to
remember should he be hungry and in their vicinity.

When night fell, he was still in the swamp and entirely unconcerned
about it. This was, perhaps, even a little more to his liking for he was
a little more a creature of night than day.

Frosty halted suddenly. He was in an area which, being heavily browsed
by swamp deer, had comparatively short grass. Deer moved about, chewing
noisily and now and then blowing to clear their nostrils of a bit of
dust. But there was something more and the kitten strained to discover
its identity.

He saw the deer more clearly than a human being would have but not as
clearly as he himself would have seen them by day. Though his night
vision was good, he had no magic lens that pierced the darkness and made
everything easily visible. Besides the deer and the chewed-down grass,
he could see nothing. He could hear only the deer moving, chewing,
blowing, and the soft murmur of the wind that never seemed to cease. He
still knew that danger threatened.

The knowledge came to him, probably, through a very faint sound that
tickled his built-in ear antennae, without identifying itself and
without even seeming like an audible noise. Had he had any clear idea of
what he faced now, he would have known what to do about it. Lacking any
idea whatsoever, he could only be careful.

He turned away from the sound and went back into tall grass. Once there,
where he was at least partially shielded from great horned owls, he
broke into a fast run. But it was not a panicky run. He had set out to
elude something which he realized existed, and that was all he knew
about it. No instinct could possibly help him and blind flight could
lead to nothing but trouble. In a situation such as this, his only hope
lay in relying on planned intelligence.

Frosty halted after running three hundred yards and turned to face the
direction from which he had come. He had scurried into a part of the
swamp which he had not yet visited. This was an error, and almost
instantly he knew it was an error. Every tree, clump of brush and the
various kinds of grass through which he had already prowled were clearly
mapped in his brain. He should have gone back there because, in the
event of an emergency, he would have known exactly what lay around him
and precisely how he might take advantage of the terrain. But it was too
late to turn now.

He could hear nothing save the wind, a group of barred owls talking to
each other in some of the dead trees, and suddenly, far off, the death
shriek of a rabbit upon which a mink had pounced. He still knew there
was danger, and that it was on his trail. He ran on.

Suddenly he came to a slough, a thirty-foot-wide stretch of water whose
surface eerily reflected the dim light that filtered from stars. Six
feet out, a group of dead trees reared skeleton trunks and rattled their
bare bones of branches. Frosty turned again.

He was not trapped, for he could run in either direction along the
slough's bank, but that would be blind running and he did not know where
it might lead him. Now was the time for planning, and before he did
anything else, he wanted to know from exactly what he fled. Suddenly he
did know.

It was another coyote, for presently he heard it, and it was on his
trail. He could not know that it was a young beast which, catching the
scent of a cat and eager to renew the age-old cat and dog fight, had
flung itself pell-mell along that scent. Frosty made ready to fight.

He saw the coyote emerge from the grass and run headlong at him.
Crouching, prepared to spring, his nerve broke suddenly. Turning, he
leaped blindly for the trunk of the nearest tree, missed by eighteen
inches, fell into the slough and went under.

Surfacing, he knew only seething fury. Water was the most distasteful of
all places to him. Being forced ignominiously to fall into it roused all
his warrior blood, but even now he did not attack blindly.

Striking for the bank, he saw the eager coyote waiting for him and
marked its position exactly. When his paws found a footing, he sprang at
once and his body arched into the air. Again he went to the head,
scraping with all four paws, even while he sliced with his teeth. The
startled coyote--a veteran would have known exactly what to do--stood
for one brief second. Then it gave a startled yelp, unseated its
attacker with a fling of its head and streaked away.

Frosty waited long enough to assure himself that his enemy was not
coming back. Once he was positive of that, he meticulously groomed his
wet fur and started toward the house.



  7

  THE SECOND PLANTING


Visiting the game warden, Joe Wilson, and listening to his old friend's
sage advice had started Andy on a whole fresh train of thought and
furnished new ideas. He sat at the table in his little house and devoted
himself to serious thinking.

Muskrat pelts were fairly valuable in the fall, as soon as the weather
turned cold enough to make them so. But they were far and away at their
best, and brought the highest prices, if taken in late winter or early
spring. In order to realize the maximum profit from his venture--and
even to think about anything else would be silly--the entire crop of
pelts would have to be harvested in a comparatively short time. This
posed a problem which, until now, Andy had not even considered.

Nor had he thought of sharing with his neighbors, he admitted honestly.
He now saw this as a near necessity, aside from being a kindly gesture.

Though everything looked favorable, as yet he could not possibly know
whether his plan to turn the swamp into one big muskrat ranch would end
in success or failure. But he did know that there could be no
intermediate point. Muskrat pelts, which, depending on the fur market,
might bring a little more or a little less than two dollars each--and
probably would average that--were not so valuable that a few, or even a
few dozen, would be worthwhile. He had to take a great many. But if he
restricted himself to the best part of the trapping season--even though
he worked as many hours as possible seven days a week during that
time--how many pelts would one man, working alone, be able to handle?
Without knowing the limit, he was sure that there had to be one.

Merely setting enough traps and moving them whenever a sufficient number
of muskrats had been taken from any one portion of the swamp would,
within itself, be no small task. In fact, though most of it could be
done before trapping started, just patrolling the swamp and deciding how
many pelts might safely be taken, and still leave an adequate foundation
breeding stock, would be a big job. Then there would be skinning the
catch, making stretching boards and stretching the pelts. All of this
not only had to be done, but it must be well done. A poorly cleansed or
badly stretched pelt was not worth nearly as much as one cared for
expertly.

It would be to his benefit--and theirs, too--if he accepted Joe Wilson's
advice and asked the Casman brothers and Old Man Haroldson and his sons
whether they cared to participate. Since Andy was furnishing the swamp,
all the initial investment and all the basic work, it would be feasible
and acceptable to work something out on a share basis. It would,
naturally, be useless to ask Luke Trull to cooperate with anybody in
anything. Andy caught up a stub of pencil and a scratch pad and began to
figure.

He had planted twelve muskrats, of which he had six, two pairs and two
lone females, left. They had produced thirty-eight young, and though
Andy could not be sure--he had found the remains of two baby muskrats
without identifying what had killed them--he thought that at least
thirty remained. He intended to plant twenty more mated pairs, and
judging from past experience, he could expect to lose half of them. If
the rest, and supposing ten females survived, propagated in proportion
to the first planting, there would be somewhat more than ninety young.
If each adult female produced at least one more litter--

Andy threw his pencil down and stared across the table. So many factors
entered into the picture that there was about as much possibility of
accurately forecasting how much increase there would be as there was of
knowing definitely which cow in a herd would switch its tail to the left
first. If he could keep furred and feathered predators down and Luke
Trull out, and if he were lucky, there might be anywhere between 150 and
200 muskrats in the swamp with the coming of spring. That would not be
nearly enough to start reaping a harvest of pelts. It wouldn't even be
an adequate breeding stock, and perhaps there would not be enough
muskrats to start trapping the following spring. But by the third year,
always assuming that luck was on his side, the venture should show at
least a modest return.

At any rate, he would see Ira and Jud Casman and Old Man Haroldson and
his five strapping sons in the near future. He would explain what he
was doing and what he hoped to do and he would point out that, if he had
their co-operation, which he thought he'd get, nobody would become rich
but there would be something for all who cared to join in. Coming in the
spring, when other work was slack, such funds would be welcome. Luke
Trull was and would have to remain Andy's problem.

Rising, the boy walked to the window and peered into the darkness. He
hadn't seen the frost-coated kitten since early morning, and in addition
to anxiety, he felt an unaccountable sense of disappointment. Somewhat
irritably, he tried to shrug it away. Why should he have sensed a
powerful bond between the kitten and himself? And why was he forever
getting ideas and fancies which no one else seemed ever to entertain?
Obviously the kitten, at best a half-wild thing, had gone back into the
wilderness out of which it had come. That was its privilege.

Andy resumed his seat at the table and again took up his pencil and
scratch pad. A second time he started calculating as to exactly what was
going to happen, and a second time he gave it up as useless. He'd
thought everything was carefully planned and well executed, but all the
books he had read and all the information at his disposal, while
definitely valuable, could at the very best only help guide him. No book
ever written could tell him exactly what muskrats would do in his swamp,
for the simple reason that there had never before been any muskrats
there. Though he would certainly apply what he already knew, experience
alone could teach him the rest. Andy started suddenly.

He listened, sure he'd heard the cry of a cat, but when the sound was
not repeated he decided he had heard only the wind whining around a
corner of his house. Two minutes later, and there was no mistake this
time, he heard the cry again. He walked to the door, opened it, and
Frosty padded in.

As meticulously clean as though he had done nothing all day long except
groom himself, tail erect and eyes friendly, but at the same time
managing to preserve his own great dignity, he came straight to Andy and
arched against his legs. But when Andy stooped to pick him up, the
frost-coated kitten dodged aside. He retreated about four feet, sat down
on the floor with his tail curled around his legs and regarded Andy with
grave eyes.

Understanding, Andy grinned. Some cats might love to be fondled and
cuddled, but obviously Frosty was not one of them. He was a partner, not
a possession, and his were a partner's rights. The boy's grin widened.
Again, as he had this morning, he saw something about this proud kitten
that fitted exactly his own ideas. Independent, intelligent and
spirited, Frosty knew what he wanted and what he did not want, and
certainly he wanted no condescension or patronizing. Andy spoke to him.

"I don't know where you've been all day, Frosty, but wherever it was,
you should be hungry now. How about some grub?"

He himself had dined on chicken, and he took a leg from the cold remains
that were stored in his icebox. Cutting the meat away from the bone, he
laid it on a clean saucer and placed the saucer on the floor. After a
moment's grave deliberation, Frosty padded forward and ate daintily. He
cleaned his face and whiskers and came over to settle himself near
Andy's chair. The closed door and the fact that he was shut in were of
little importance, for he had satisfied himself that the door would be
opened again.

Purring, he gave himself over to slumber as sound as he would ever enjoy
after Andy had reached down to stroke him gently. He would never be
satisfied always to stay in the house; he had large ideas which called
for ample space in which to execute them. But again he had found a
refuge. As long as he was in the house, he need not be constantly alert,
for no danger threatened here.

Andy picked up a magazine devoted to furs and fur raising and thumbed
through it, but his mind was not on the printed pages. When encroaching
civilization forced them to change their way of life, the Gates clan had
scattered. But two of the Gates clan, Andy and his father, had been
unable to leave the swamp. It was a home to which they were bound by
unbreakable ties--but it was also a way of life that nobody else would
have chosen and nobody at all understood. Even to the hillmen, far
closer to it than any town dweller could possibly be, anyone who elected
deliberately to live in the swamp was throwing his life away.

Andy could not live elsewhere, but he knew suddenly that his life had
taken a turn for the better. He not only had a companion, but one that
had chosen of its own free will to join him. In addition, although Andy
had no way of knowing where Frosty had been, it went without saying that
he must have been prowling somewhere, and his new partner was evidently
not only able to cope with but to triumph over the rigors and challenges
that such a life offered. Andy needed to know no more.

After a while he rose, undressed, gave himself a sponge bath with warm
water from the stove's reservoir, put on his pajamas and went to bed.
He lay wakeful in the darkness, and when something jumped on the bed he
put out a hand to touch Frosty. He smiled contentedly and went to sleep.

       *     *     *     *     *

Andy was up with the dawn, and as he built a fire in the kitchen stove
he started pondering a new problem that faced him. His own way of life
had for so long been so well worked out that it had fallen into a
routine pattern. In summer, since he had only an icebox and visited the
town infrequently, he never bought fresh meat which he himself would be
unable to use before it spoiled. He depended on staples, ham and bacon,
a very few canned meats, eggs, fish from the swamp, an occasional
chicken and vegetables from his garden. After hunting season opened and
icy weather set in, he froze the game he shot and occasionally he
purchased from or traded with the Casman brothers or one of the
Haroldsons for a side of pork. Having Frosty meant that he must make
provision for him, but it was not an urgent matter and it could be taken
care of when he went into town. Possibly he would buy some cans of
commercial cat food to supplement what he already had to offer.

Andy breakfasted on eggs, opened a can of milk for Frosty and washed the
dishes. Frosty slipped out with him and composed himself on the porch
when his companion left the house. Andy gave him a farewell pat and set
his face toward the Casman brothers' farm.

Ira and Jud, bachelors, lived two miles back in the hills. The various
abandoned farms Andy passed on his way to them were sufficient evidence
that, in their own way, the Casman brothers were as hard as the granite
boulders that reared humped gray backs out of their fields and
pastures. The Gateses had not been the only ones to leave the hills.
Many of the Casmans and Haroldsons, and all the Trulls excepting Luke,
had gone, too. Ira and Jud, like Old Man Haroldson and his sons, had not
only managed to hang on but even did quite well. They never had more
than modest sums of money, but they never knew want either, and they
were happy with the life they led.

Andy passed the one-room, one-teacher country school which he had
attended and which was now kept open solely for the numerous offspring
of Old Man Haroldson's sons. He swung up a hill, descended the other
side and saw the Casman farm.

The house and outbuildings were well back from the dirt road. Five
cattle and about sixty sheep grazed in a pasture and the fields were
green with various crops. Andy swung up the lane toward the house and
the Casmans' big, friendly dog--there were far fewer rattlesnakes away
from the swamp--bounded forward. He barked a happy welcome and Andy
stooped to pet him. Straightening, he saw Jud Casman standing in the
doorway.

Jud was lean as a greyhound, tough as an oak knot, suspicious and
approximately as talkative as a wary buck. There was no certain way to
determine his age. He had taken an active part in the Trull-Casman-Gates
feud, but, like Andy, he knew that belonged to the past. He murmured,

"Mawnin', Andy."

"Good morning, Jud."

"You et?"

"I've had breakfast, Jud. I've come to talk with you and to ask
something from you and Ira."

"Ira's afield. Call him in if'n you like."

"That isn't necessary. You can tell him. I'm trying to do something in
my swamp. Now--"

Andy described his project. He spoke of the muskrats he had already
liberated, and of the increase in them. He told of the twenty pairs that
were due in a few days. If the plan worked, Andy said, it would work
very well--so well, in fact, that he would need help. Therefore, he
would share with any hillman who cared to join him. He himself must
retain complete control and he would say how many muskrats might be
taken from any one section of the swamp. It would be the trapper's job
to take the muskrats, pelt them and stretch the pelts. For so doing, he
would receive half the value of such pelts as he handled and Andy would
do the marketing.

Jud listened in attentive silence. When Andy was finished, he spoke.
"What you want of Ira'n me?"

"A chance," Andy said frankly, "and nothing more. The best way I can
figure it, there won't even be an adequate breeding stock next spring.
There can't possibly be any trapping; maybe there can't even be any the
following spring. But we should be able to start the spring following
that. All I want from you, or anyone, is to leave the muskrats alone
until the time is right."

"Me'n Ira got no call to pester 'em."

"Thanks, Jud."

"M-_mm_. You're gittin' twenty mo' these mushrats?"

"Forty. Twenty mated pairs."

"Quite a passel to tote."

"I'll make three trips."

"You needn't," Jud declared. "Come get our Tom horse. He packs good
an' just turn him loose when you're done. He'll come home."

       *     *     *     *     *

Andy led Tom, the Casman brothers' gentle brown pack horse, off the road
and down the trail to his house. The halter rope was slack. Tom knew he
had a job and was entirely willing to do it. Sure-footed as a goat, he
threaded his way among the boulders in his path and matched his pace to
Andy's. Since it was unnecessary to watch the horse, Andy gave himself
to reflection.

There was a change in his relations with the Casman brothers and Old Man
Haroldson and his sons. Nobody had mentioned it and it could not be
seen, but it could be felt. His reception by each of the Haroldsons had
been approximately the same as that which the Casmans had accorded him.
None had been loquacious, but all had listened and all had promised to
leave Andy's muskrats alone until he himself gave the word. Through that
simple understanding, the change was worked.

Formerly considered at least queer, if not an outright crackpot, he had
now advanced to being respected. Nobody except himself had thought his
swamp anything except a worthless marsh. He had not only seen
possibilities there but was in the process of developing them. Time
might very well prove that it was they, not he, who had been
short-sighted.

When he arrived at his house, Andy tied Tom to the porch railing.
Frosty, napping in the sun, glided silkily over, regarded the horse with
haughty and the muskrats with haughtier disdain, then sat down to watch
the proceedings. Unstrapping the ropes that bound the crates to Tom's
pack saddle, Andy lifted them to the ground, one by one. When they were
all unloaded, he untied Tom, looped the lead rope through his bridle so
it wouldn't drag and patted him on the rump. The horse started
cheerfully up the trail toward his home.

These muskrats were designed for the most inaccessible ponds and sloughs
in the swamp and it was too late even to think of taking them in today.
Two at a time, one under each arm, Andy carried the crates inside. He
stepped back to look at them with pleased satisfaction.

An almost visible sneer on his face, Frosty paraded up and down the row
of crates, looked intently at the occupants of each and turned loftily
away. Andy laughed.

"I take it you don't think they're your social equals?"

Disdaining to glance again at the crated muskrats, Frosty curled up in
his favorite place near Andy's chair. He lost himself in his own
meditations and the young man gave him an affectionate glance. The
further this partnership progressed, the better he liked it.

Andy was up and had breakfasted before daylight. He let Frosty out and
then gave his attention to the muskrats. Twenty crates meant four loads
of five crates each. That many was by no means a heavy pack, but it was
as much as could be carried comfortably through the swamp. Besides, Andy
had in mind four different sections of the swamp where he wanted to
plant these animals. Strapping five crates to his pack board, he went
outside.

Always before, as soon as he was let out of the house, Frosty had gone
about his own affairs of the day and usually Andy had not seen him again
until after nightfall. This morning he was surprised to find the kitten
still waiting, and even more astonished when Frosty fell in beside him.
Andy raised puzzled brows.

"What are you aiming to do here, fella?"

Tail high, eyes friendly, Frosty stayed beside him. Andy grinned
good-naturedly. Dogs were supposed to accompany their masters wherever
they went, but nobody expected a cat to do so. However, this one had
evidently made up his mind to go along and he was welcome. Maybe, Andy
thought whimsically, he wants to see for himself what is going to happen
to the muskrats.

Andy made his way toward the north end of the swamp, a wild and tangled
place, with not too many sloughs and ponds but more trees and brush than
any other part of the whole area. It was also the most dangerous part of
the swamp because safe trails were few. The boy worked his way through a
tangle of brush and came to a slough.

He stopped. Frosty halted beside him and Andy looked speculatively at
his companion. So far, the kitten had shown not the slightest desire to
let himself be handled or to permit any undue familiarity. But when Andy
stooped and picked him up, Frosty settled contentedly in his arms. Safe
on the other side of the slough, of his own accord he jumped down.

Andy grinned in appreciation. While respecting his own self, Frosty had
no objection to hitchhiking when that was in order. He'd known very well
that Andy could carry him securely across the slough. Again on the
ground, he paced contentedly beside his partner.

He sat on the bank and watched solemnly when Andy released the first
pair of muskrats in a weed-grown pond. Confused at first, the liberated
animals quickly gave way to the usual wild delight and for the next few
moments devoted themselves to sporting in the slough. Then, swimming to
the bank, they began to satisfy their hunger. Aside from keeping a wary
eye on Andy, they made no attempt to hide and offered not the slightest
indication that they knew danger might lurk here.

Andy went on. Previous experience had taught him that, with rare
exceptions, pen-raised muskrats--and probably most other pen-raised
creatures--would react in just this fashion. Never having known danger,
they could not possibly understand that it existed. But they would learn
if they escaped the first few perils that threatened, and though some
would surely die, some would live.

Making his way to the next slough, where once more Frosty watched
gravely, Andy released another pair of muskrats. He liberated a third
pair, and was about to free a fourth when he discovered that the kitten
was no longer beside him. Andy swung to look for his companion.

Thirty yards away, Frosty had leaped to the top of a moss-covered
boulder and flattened himself on it. His tail was straight behind him,
and he was so still that not even a hair rippled. His attitude was one
of watchful alertness.

The short hairs on the back of Andy's neck rippled and he had a
presentiment of danger. At once he dismissed it. There were plenty of
dangers in the swamp, but he knew all of them and understood how to cope
with them. Still, Frosty had heard or sensed something of which he
remained unaware. Andy started toward him. He had covered less than half
the distance when the kitten slipped from the boulder, melted into the
brush, and disappeared.

A second time, Andy had a premonition of danger and a second time he
forced it from his mind. Certainly, Frosty knew something he did not
know. However, it was not only possible but highly probable that the
kitten might be greatly alarmed by something which would not trouble him
at all. Andy strained to hear a rattlesnake or to see evidence of a
coyote, bobcat, great horned owl, or anything else that might have
frightened Frosty.

He could neither see nor hear anything at all, and anxiety for the
kitten rose within him. He was not greatly concerned about whatever had
caused his partner to flee. Frosty had lived in the wilderness a long
while and the very fact that he had lived was evidence that he knew how
to stay alive. But as far as Andy knew, the only ways out of this
section of the swamp led across sloughs and he was certain that, of his
own accord, Frosty would not cross water. Therefore, unless he could be
found, he was marooned here.

Andy hurried to liberate his two remaining pairs of muskrats, then
hastened back to the boulder upon which Frosty had crouched. He called,

"Frosty."

There was no response and the boy's anxiety mounted. He'd lived with his
partner long enough to assure himself that the quality which he had
first seen in Frosty was indeed a part of him. The kitten was not only
capable of deciding for himself and acting as he felt best, but once he
had made up his mind to do a certain thing, he would do it and nothing
whatever would swerve him. Even though he heard his friend calling, he
would respond only if he was satisfied that that was the proper thing to
do. Andy began methodically to cast back and forth.

An hour and a half later, he gave up the search as hopeless. No human
could find a cat that did not want to be found, and the day was wasting.
The boy hurried hopefully back to the slough over which he had carried
Frosty. But the frost-coated kitten was not waiting for him. Andy
deliberated.

He should turn back and resume the hunt for his partner. Sooner or
later, no matter where he hid or what his reason for hiding was, when
that reason no longer existed, Frosty would show himself. At the same
time, and aside from their practical value, he had an obligation to the
remaining muskrats. They'd been imprisoned in the little crates for as
long as anything should be, and it was only right and just to release
them. Andy made up his mind.

Hurrying back to the house, he strapped five more crates on the pack
board and took them into the swamp. He did not stop for lunch because he
wanted to finish as soon as possible and go look for Frosty. He took a
third load and went back for the last one.

These he carried to a remote but relatively open section of the swamp.
There were few trees and little brush here, but swamp grass grew tall
and the ponds and sloughs were choked with succulent aquatic growth that
would enable his released captives to live richly. He freed four pairs
and was about to liberate a fifth when he straightened.

Again, and for no apparent reason, he felt a strong sense of danger. The
short hairs on his neck resumed prickling. Something was indeed in the
swamp, but it was not stalking Frosty. It was on his trail.

Andy whirled suddenly to see Luke Trull, who had been peering cautiously
over the swamp grass, throw himself down in it.



  8

  MAROONED


Acting as though he had seen nothing, Andy put his remaining cage of
muskrats beside the slough that was to be their future home. He knelt,
opened the cage, spilled the muskrats into the slough and watched them
swim bewilderedly about. Casually, for Luke Trull was crafty as any fox
that had ever padded through the swamp, he strapped the empty crate on
his pack board and slipped into the shoulder straps.

He turned as if intending to retrace exactly the path he had followed.
The swamp grass was tall and dense. A man who wanted to crawl away would
do so if his suspicions were aroused and have every chance of hiding
successfully. When the path had brought him as near as possible to the
place where he had seen Luke Trull duck into the grass, Andy shucked the
pack board from his shoulder and ran as swiftly as possible toward the
spot. A moment later, he looked down on the hillman.

Luke was on his hands and knees. His head turned so he could see over
his shoulder, and the eyes that met Andy's were as cold as those of any
hunting great horned owl or bobcat. But his lips framed an appeasing
smile and his voice was amiable,

"Hi, Andy."

Andy stood still, for the moment unable to speak. Fierce, hot anger
mingled with almost complete discouragement. Even though he had taken
the Casmans and the Haroldsons into his confidence, it had still been a
grave mistake to bring the muskrats in by day, for Luke Trull had seen
and Luke had known. The boy licked dry lips.

When he had left the house this morning, it had never occurred to him
that he might be followed and therefore he had been off guard. Of course
he shouldn't have been, but it was too late to think of that now. Since
he had failed to be alert, any hillman who cared to do so, while
remaining unobserved himself, could have followed him wherever he went.

Andy knew now why Frosty had hidden. Luke must have been on his trail
from the very first. He himself had not only shown the fellow the safe
paths into the swamp, but Luke knew where everyone of these twenty pairs
of muskrats were planted. It went without saying that he would know how
to find them again, and probably he would be able to find the others.
Andy bit off his words and spat them at the crouching man,

"I told you to stay out of my swamp!"

"Why now, you never told me nothin' like that."

"What are you doing here?"

"Lookin'."

"Get up, Luke!"

"Now, Andy, mought's well be neighborly. You give leave to Ira'n Jud
Casman an' all the Haroldsons to help ya trap mushrats. All I come out
for was to see why ya fo'got to ask me?"

It was a flimsy excuse. Luke knew well enough where Andy lived, and if
he had wanted to ask him anything at all, he might easily have come to
his house. Any farfetched chance that he might actually have followed
Andy into the swamp to ask about anything at all was refuted by the fact
that he had been hiding in the grass. Andy's voice was dangerously
low-pitched,

"Get up, Luke!"

"Not afore ya cool a mite."

Andy reached down, grasped the other's coat collar, jerked him erect and
spun him around. When he swung, the blow started at the tips of his toes
and traveled through his clenched fist. He connected squarely, and Luke
Trull sat down suddenly in the grass.

Supporting himself with both arms, he looked intently at Andy. His eyes
remained cold and the smile was gone. Andy spoke quietly,

"Get out! Don't come back!"

Without a word, Luke Trull rose and shuffled away. Andy had a sudden
cold feeling. Luke Trull was no more ethical than a rattlesnake, and he
was far more dangerous. Andy knew that the man would come again, but he
would not be caught again. Nor would he ever forget this. One way or
another, he would have his revenge, and if he confined his vengeance to
wiping out the muskrat colonies, Andy would be lucky.

The boy's courage returned. He had known when he planned his muskrat
ranch that it would be no easy task and that he would have to fight for
it, so fight he would.

Andy picked up his pack board and in what remained of the day went back
to the place where Frosty had disappeared. He searched carefully but he
could not find the kitten, and when he returned to the house, Frosty was
not there. The boy dawdled over a skimpy supper and went dispiritedly to
bed.

Rising at daybreak, Andy hurried eagerly to the door and called, but his
frost-coated partner did not respond. Pondering the advisability of
going again to look for him, he decided that it would be a waste of
time. He'd already covered that whole section very thoroughly without
finding a trace of the kitten. Frosty would be found when and if he was
ready.

Andy was on the point of going into the swamp to check on the muskrats
he had planted yesterday, but he caught up a hoe instead and went to his
garden. Sadly neglected for too long, weeds were crowding vegetables.
Andy hoed his way down the aisles in his onion patch. Putting the hoe
aside, he knelt to pull the weeds that were growing among the onions.

Hearing a car on the road, he merely glanced up briefly, then resumed
his weeding. He expected no visitors, certainly none who might drive a
car.

Suddenly a crisp voice asked, "Is your name Gates?"

Andy turned, startled, and rose to confront a young man who wore a State
Policeman's uniform. Reserved and doing his best to uphold both the
dignity and the authority of his position, nevertheless the young
trooper could not completely hide a sparkle in his eye and a humorous
twist to his mouth. Andy said,

"I'm Gates."

"Andrew Gates?"

"That's right."

"I have a warrant for your arrest."

Andy gave way to astonishment. "A what?"

"Do you want me to read it to you?"

"What's it about?"

"An assault warrant sworn out by a man named Trull. Let's see," the
trooper glanced at the warrant, "Luke Trull."

Andy clenched his jaws. Joe Wilson, who had said that Luke would not
fight back, but would go to the State Police if Andy hit him, had known
exactly what he was talking about.

The trooper looked steadily at Andy. "Well?"

"That's right."

"You assaulted this Trull character?"

"Yes."

"And you admit it?"

"I admit it."

The trooper turned quizzical. "Why?"

"I found him in my swamp."

"Is the swamp posted?"

"No."

"Did he threaten you?"

"No."

"Yours was a wilful attack?"

"Yes."

"Have you nothing to say in your own defense?"

Andy answered wearily, "It would take too long. You'd have to know Luke
Trull."

The trooper, who never should have done so and never would have done so
had he been more experienced, grinned. "I'll have to take you in."

"Okeh. I'll just let my chickens out to forage."

Side by side, a somehow awkward silence between them, they walked to the
chicken pen and then on to the trooper's parked car. The officer made a
U-turn and started toward town. He asked suddenly,

"What do you want in that swamp?"

"Quite a few things."

"This Trull--seems to me I've seen his name on our records--what's he
want there?"

"Something that belongs to me."

"Did he steal from you?"

"No."

"I don't get it."

"He's going to steal. I planted muskrats in the swamp. He followed me to
find out where they are."

The trooper said thoughtfully, "Oh!"

For five minutes they drove in silence. The officer broke it with, "I
can take you before Justice Benton, one of the best."

Andy said, "Okeh."

"One of the best," the trooper emphasized. "Have you ever been arrested
before?"

"No!"

"Then you can't know court procedure," the policeman said. "Now Benton
is a great jurist. He's really wasting himself in a small town. He
spends most of his time studying the decisions of various high courts,
including the Supreme Court, and deciding what he might have done were
he to rule on the same point of law. He shouldn't be handling minor
cases and he knows it, and it irritates him if one takes up his time. He
always wants to lay it on with a heavy hand when that happens, and he
could send you to jail. On the other hand, when a defendant's
reasonable and admits his guilt, Benton's usually inclined to go light.
Now you've already told me you're guilty and I'll have to testify as to
that. Do you understand?"

Andy grinned his appreciation. The trooper, in the only way he possibly
could, was telling him how to get off lightly. Andy said,

"I understand."

An hour later, he faced Judge Benton, a stern-faced little man who had a
disconcerting habit of peering over instead of through his glasses. The
trooper recited the charges. Justice Benton glanced briefly at the
papers pertaining to the case and turned to Andy,

"How does the defendant plead?"

"Guilty," Andy murmured.

"Young man," Justice Benton said sternly, "in flouting the laws of this
great state, you have set yourself above the whole people whose duly
elected representatives formulate those laws. However, you are youthful
and the court is not unaware of the fact that youth is too often
prompted by passion and inexperience. So the maximum sentence shall not
be imposed. At the same time, you receive fair warning that henceforth
you are to keep the peace with this plaintiff whom you have so
grievously wronged. Nor must your present breach of the law go
unpunished. In lieu of fine, this court sentences you to--"

Justice Benton paused dramatically, then finished,

"Ten days in jail."

       *     *     *     *     *

Whimsically deciding that Frosty wanted to accompany him into the swamp
so he could see for himself what happened to the muskrats, Andy would
never be aware of the fact that a chance shot had hit the mark. The
kitten was curious about the muskrats' fate, but above and beyond that,
he wanted something else. In electing to become Andy's partner, he had
chosen much better than he knew. Self-sufficient and willing to
surrender none of his independence, the partnership had been affected by
a circumstance over which he had not the slightest control. Liking Andy
and wanting a strong ally of his caliber, Frosty had come to love his
partner.

A confirmed prowler, he would continue to prowl and to go his own way
whenever that seemed expedient. But he went gladly back to the house and
eagerly looked forward to meeting Andy when he arrived. There were even
times when he voluntarily cut his prowling short to have his partner's
company. He also went into the swamp partly because Andy was going
there.

He became aware that they were being followed shortly after Andy planted
the third pair of muskrats, but at first all he knew was that something
trailed him. Uneasy backward glances and growing nervousness were lost
on his friend, who was intent on getting his work done. This was wholly
understandable, for it never occurred to Frosty that Andy was
responsible for him, any more than he was obligated to watch out for his
partner. Never for an instant questioning that he was well able to take
care of himself, he never doubted that his partner could do likewise.
Finally, able to bear the tension no longer, Frosty had to find out for
himself just who was trailing them.

His ears had already informed him that it was a man. No fox, bobcat,
coyote, or anything else that belonged to the wild, had ever walked so
heavily or so clumsily. Blowing against him, the wind brought no
identifying scent to his nose. Frosty sprang to the boulder's top
because it was a vantage point from which, while he still used his ears,
he could use his eyes to better advantage.

He had one fleeting glimpse of their pursuer just after Andy turned. Two
hundred yards behind them, to the side instead of directly on their
tail, Luke Trull saw Andy turn and dropped behind a boulder. Frosty
unsheathed and sheathed his claws while his tail twitched angrily.

He knew this man as an enemy much more deadly than any other he had ever
faced. Even the great horned owl that had seized him had worked less
injury than Luke Trull. Vividly Frosty remembered the ride, tortured
hours in the sack before the coyote came to release him, and the
hardships after that. But there was something more. The various
creatures that would have killed and eaten Frosty had merely been
pursuing life in the only way they could live it. Luke Trull had
belittled him and struck at his pride. But he was powerful, and though
Frosty did not fear him, it was prudent to avoid a battle. He slipped
from the boulder, drifted into thick brush and waited.

When Andy came back and called, Frosty remained in hiding. This was his
affair and he expected no other living thing ever to fight in his
behalf, but neither could he be guided by any judgment save his own. At
the same time, he realized that, obviously, Andy was not afraid of Luke
Trull, and his respect for his partner increased. But he would not show
himself as long as Luke was near.

Andy's search brought him very near, but Frosty remained perfectly
still. His was the patience of a cat. Few other animals could wait so
long or so uncomplainingly for exactly the right moment, be so sure of
that moment when it arrived, and act accordingly. But one mistake was
one too many, and he had no intention of making any more. Finally, Andy
went back in the direction from which they had come. After an interval,
Luke Trull rose to follow him.

Frosty stayed in hiding. He had no idea as to what was happening here,
or why his partner and Luke Trull should be together in the swamp, and
he did not give a thought to possible danger for Andy. Frosty had
accepted him as a partner largely because he was strong.

Frosty moved only when he was sure both had gone.

He wanted to go back to the house and wait for Andy there, but he did
not return directly to the slough over which Andy had carried him. Only
when forced to do so would he enter water, and he knew perfectly well
that he could not cross the slough. He must find his own trail.

Because he was in thick brush, he made no effort to hide but he did
remain wholly alert. Slowing when he emerged from the brush into a grove
of trees, he saw water sparkling. He went cautiously forward.

He looked out on a relatively quiet section of the same slough, and as
he gazed, a big bass broke water and splashed back in. A log floated
against the bank on the other side, and a sora teetered on it. In a
little eddy given over to lily pads, a heron balanced on one leg and
waited with poised bill for an unwary fish to venture near. Frosty slunk
back into the brush and slipped into another grove of trees.

Suddenly he halted in his tracks.

High in one of the trees, a tamarack, he had seen something move. Little
more than a flicker, it was enough to make him aware of an alien
presence. Flattening himself, he held perfectly still and searched.
Presently he saw clearly the thing that had moved. It was another great
horned owl. Twenty feet from the ground, it perched close to the trunk
of the gloomy tamarack and enjoyed a nap. Frosty remained where he was.

Experience had taught him what these great birds could do, and again he
wanted to escape notice because, if it came to a battle, he was not sure
he would win it. The great owls were strong and unbelievably ferocious,
and a motion might bring this one down upon him. Never taking his eyes
from it, Frosty decided exactly what he would do if the owl swooped at
him. If possible, he would get back into the brush.

He heard Andy come back to resume the search, but again he dared not
move. His friend went away.

Twilight draped its gray mantle over the swamp, and finally the owl took
wing. Frosty still did not move, for the owl merely soared gracefully
over the slough, dipped to pluck a swimming muskrat from the water and
winged into a dead tree to devour its prey. Frosty slunk away.

In the tamarack, the owl had been an unknown factor. It might be hungry
and it might not. Now it was known. Having the muskrat, it would eat.
After eating, it would not be hungry. Therefore, the chances of its
hunting anything else in the near future were small. Frosty resumed his
search for a way out of the swamp.

A while later, he knew that there was none. He was on a little island
which he could not possibly leave unless he wanted to swim, and he would
not swim. Hungry, Frosty gave himself over to finding something to eat.
He prowled back through the brush without discovering anything, and when
hunger emboldened him, he stalked among the trees. He struck at and
missed a rabbit that promptly jumped into and swam across the slough.

The small island had never supported much life anyway, and the owl had
been living on it and hunting every night for almost two weeks. Many of
the island's furred inhabitants had already fallen to it, and whatever
had escaped knew it was here. The mice and gophers that remained
ventured from their burrows only when necessity forced them to do so.

Hearing a bird stir, Frosty marked the tree in which it roosted and made
his way there. He climbed and was ten feet from the ground when the bird
took wing and rattled off into the darkness. Frosty descended the tree.
He took a stance before a mouse's burrow and waited. But the mouse did
not emerge.

Dawn was breaking and Frosty was still hungry when he went back to look
for the owl. He found it still in the dead tree. He settled down to
watch, for once again the owl was an unknown factor. It had fed last
night, but it might be in the mood to feed again and the kitten was of
no mind to serve as its next dinner. If he knew where his enemy was, he
would also know what it was doing. He watched the owl all day.

Again, with the coming of dusk, the owl winged out to get another
muskrat. Little interested in the muskrats' fate and unable to catch one
himself because none climbed out on the island, Frosty could not know
that the owl had found a bonanza here. Its plan was to remain, with
little need to exert itself, until it had caught every one of the ten
muskrats Andy had planted. Then it would seek another hunting ground.

Knowing that once more it was safe to prowl, for the owl would not hunt
until it was again hungry, Frosty knew also that he must have something
to quiet his own raging hunger. But if he hunted frantically or hastily,
he would frighten his prey instead of catching it. Returning to the
mouse's den he had watched last night, he settled himself down to wait.
. . . Two hours later, the mouse poked a cautious nose out, then came
all the way from its burrow. Frosty pounced and pinned his prey.

The mouse was a mere tidbit, but it eased the sharpest hunger pangs.
Frosty sought another burrow. He caught nothing, and again with dawn he
sought out the owl. It had gone back to the tamarack and was almost
hidden by the tree's foliage. Following its customary routine, it went
forth at dusk to catch another muskrat, then winged into the dead tree.

In the hope that the owl might have dropped some part of its meal,
Frosty nosed beneath the tamarack. He found only furry pellets; such
parts as the owl hadn't eaten were cached in the tamarack's upper
branches and Frosty did not dare climb the tree because the dead stub in
which the owl perched was too near. Desperately, the kitten sought out
another mouse's burrow, but when he found one, he shed his desperation
and gave way to patience. He caught and ate the mouse.

Seeking another burrow, he was thwarted when the gentle wind that always
murmured over the swamp became a stiff breeze. He could not possibly
hold still, for the wind ruffled his fur and the mouse knew he waited.

Frosty prowled after daybreak. He knew he was taking a chance, but it
was not a great one, for so far the owl had hunted only at twilight.
When a crow cawed, the kitten swung at once toward the sound. The crow
was across the slough and thus out of reach, but perhaps it would come
nearer and it offered the only present chance to get food.

Coming out on that quiet part of the slough where he had seen the log,
Frosty discovered that last night's stiff wind had moved it. Now,
instead of lying against the bank, it angled out into the water, with
its nearer end only two feet away and its farther against the opposite
bank. Seeing opportunity, Frosty seized it.

He sprang, landed on the log, ran swiftly across and leaped into tall
swamp grass on the other side. Crossing the log had been a very
dangerous moment for he was completely exposed while doing so. Now he
was safe, and since peril was behind him, it could be forgotten. Frosty
resumed stalking the crow.

He found it beside a branch of the slough, pecking at a small dead fish
that had washed up there and calling at intervals. Frosty slunk through
some tall grass and came to a place where foliage grew only in scattered
places. He stopped to study the situation.

When the crow lowered its head to peck at the fish, he glided swiftly
forward and hid behind a tuft of grass. He waited quietly when the bird
looked around and glided to another tuft when it resumed feeding.
Suddenly the crow saw him.

With a startled squawk, it beat frantically into the air, struggled to
gain altitude and cawed derisively after it had done so. Frosty ran
forward to get what was left of the little fish and the crow jeered at
him again.

Winging over the kitten, presently the crow saw the owl in the dead tree
and its raucous insults became a sharp, clear call. Another crow
answered, and another. The owl was their enemy by night, when it came on
silent wings to pluck sleeping crows from their roosts, but they were
its masters by day.

The flock gathered and advanced to the attack. Diving on the owl, they
pecked with sharp beaks and beat with their wings. At first the owl
fought back, but they were too many and too swift. Followed by the
screaming crows, he winged across the swamp. The pursuit and the noise
attending it died in the distance.

Lacking the faintest notion that, however indirectly, he had saved this
colony of muskrats for Andy, Frosty finished his fish and went to hunt
gophers.



  9

  INTRUDER


Safely off the island, Frosty's main concern was something to eat. He
set his course for the little knoll upon which he had discovered the
gopher colony.

While remaining aware of everything about him, he walked more openly
than he ever had before and far more confidently. Bigger than average
from birth, he was fulfilling his early promise of becoming an unusually
large cat. Traces of the kitten remained, but his stride was almost that
of an adult and great muscles were already prominent in his neck, front
quarters and shoulders. The life he'd been forced to lead had developed
them and, in advance of full maturity, had made him tough as rawhide.
But though he had inherited his father's size, he also had his mother's
grace and balanced proportions. Frosty was big without being even
slightly awkward.

He walked more freely because, with increasing size and experience,
there had come an increasing awareness of his own powers. Having killed
a rattlesnake and put a coyote to flight, he had discovered for himself
that the best defense is often a determined offense. So when he saw a
gray fox padding toward him, instead of running or hiding, he prepared
to fight, if that were necessary.

The fox was an old and wise veteran that had been born in a corner of
the swamp, had hunted in it since he'd been old enough to hunt, and that
knew its every corner. He had a mate and cubs that had left their
hillside den a couple of weeks ago, and last night he'd gone hunting
with his family. But the cubs were still clumsy hunters who frightened
more game than they caught, and the two baby muskrats that the old fox
had finally snatched had been just enough to satisfy them. Hunting for
herself, the fox's mate had had several mice and a woodcock.

The dog fox had eaten nothing. Now, while his lazy family rested in a
thicket, he was out to find a meal for himself.

He walked openly, depending on his nose to guide him to food, because he
knew and did not fear the swamp. Since attaining full growth, the only
natural enemies that had ever challenged him were occasional coyotes,
and if the fox did not choose to run from them, or fight, he could
always climb a tree. Andy Gates was the only human being who ever
penetrated very deeply into the swamp, and Andy was confined to certain
paths and trails which the fox did not have to travel. However, his nose
had already told him that Andy was not in the swamp today.

The muskrats were new to the swamp. Yet, to the experienced fox, they
were an old story. Among any young animals, there were always a certain
number of unwise or incautious. They seldom lasted long, but after
catching the pair of youngsters, the fox had wasted no time hunting
more because all the others had stayed out of reach in the water.

He was on his way to a rabbit colony of which he knew when Frosty's
scent crossed his nostrils. He stopped at once, knowing it for an alien
scent; then followed his nose toward it. Six feet away, he stopped
again.

Frosty's jaws framed a snarl, and a warning growl rumbled in his chest.
Every hair on his body was fluffed, making him seem twice his actual
size. His tail was stiffly erect and fluffed, too, and his muscles were
ready to carry him into battle. For a moment the fox regarded him
closely, then circled and trotted on. The fox was wise enough to know
that Frosty did not merely look dangerous. He was dangerous.

Frosty resumed his own course toward the gopher colony. He remembered it
to the last detail, and he had not forgotten the rattlesnake that lived
there. The snake was still present, but it had recently fed and was
sluggish. Frosty settled himself in front of a gopher's den.

He held perfectly still, eyes fixed on the burrow's mouth, and
presently, deep in the earth, he heard a gopher moving. He remained
quiet until the little rodent emerged from its den, then pounced. He
caught his prey, devoured it and made a half-hearted pass at the snake.
But he did not continue the battle because he was anxious to see Andy,
and, now that he had eaten, he could go find his partner. Frosty made
his way toward the house.

He knew before he emerged from the swamp that Andy was not there. Though
the kitten lacked a keen sense of smell, wood smoke had a pungent odor
that lingered for a long time, and there had been no recent fire in the
stove. Frosty came out of the swamp to see the persistent doe, that had
not yet given up hope of getting into the garden, resting beside it. A
crow sat on the house's ridgepole and croaked raucous insults to the
four winds. Scurrying across the porch, a striped chipmunk dived into a
crevice. Frosty marked him down; the gopher had not filled his stomach.

As soon as he climbed onto the porch, he knew that the house had been
unoccupied for several days. It had a cold and deserted air, like a
frame from which the picture had been removed, and the odors that seeped
under the door were cold ones. Frosty cried his loneliness, but he did
not question his friend's absence. He reserved for himself the right to
go prowling and to stay for as long as it suited him. It naturally
followed that Andy had the same privilege, and sooner or later he would
come back.

Frosty settled beside the crevice in which the chipmunk had disappeared.
He caught the furry little animal, ate it, and his hunger was satisfied.
Curling up in his favorite place, he settled himself for a nap. All
about were familiar things, and even while he napped, his ears brought
him their story. He heard the doe rise and begin to crop grass, birds
crying in the swamp, the murmur of the wind, muskrats swimming in the
slough, and he awakened to none of it because it was familiar. But an
hour later, when he heard a man walking, he glided silently under the
porch and waited there. He'd heard those footsteps before, and he knew
who was coming.

Five minutes later, Luke Trull passed the house and went into the swamp.
Frosty watched with anger in his eyes, knowing only that once again he
had been near his deadliest enemy. He couldn't possibly know that Luke
wouldn't have dared let himself be seen going into the swamp, or even
past the house, had Andy been home. Nor could Frosty understand, as Luke
did, that Andy was in jail and would not be back for several days.

Luke disappeared in the tall swamp grass. He knew where Andy had planted
his twenty pairs of muskrats and the safe trails to them, for Andy
himself had inadvertently pointed them out. Luke did not know how many
other colonies there were or their locations, but there would never be a
safer time to look for them. He had his own plans, and he had already
decided how and when he intended to strike. All he had to find out was
where.

Evening shadows were long when hunger forced Frosty from the house. He
left reluctantly, for he was very lonesome and ached for Andy's
presence, but he must have food. The kitten stalked down to the slough
in which Four-Leaf and Clover were making their home. Only two of the
young remained, and they had built themselves a very clumsy house at the
slough's far end. The others--partly spurred by a natural wanderlust of
youth and partly driven by irritable parents that were expecting new
babies and had no time for the old--had gone into the swamp.

Frosty flattened himself, and again anger flared in his eyes. Luke Trull
came back out of the swamp and took himself off toward the road. Waiting
until the hated man was out of hearing, Frosty went on.

He stalked a red-winged blackbird that was swaying on a reed,
sprang--and lashed his tail in anger when the bird escaped him. He
glared after the bird as it flew, knowing that he should have made a
kill and not understanding why he had not. He leaped at a mouse that was
moving through its grass-thatched tunnel and missed by a fraction of an
inch. Twenty minutes later, he missed a strike at a woodcock that
whistled away in front of him.

Chagrined by these failures, Frosty went deeper into the swamp. His
hunger grew, but so did his bad luck. For some reason, everything in
the swamp seemed to be not only unusually alert but extraordinarily
agile. Frosty missed five more strikes at mice and three at various
birds. Casting back and forth, he sought for new quarry.

Black night found him deep in the swamp and still hungry. Hearing fresh
game, he broke into a swift run. But again his luck was bad.

He'd heard a young muskrat, one of the sons of Four-Leaf and Clover,
swimming up a thin finger of water that led over a little knob and into
a slough. The kitten reached the knob a split second after the youngster
jumped into the slough and swam away. Twitching an angry tail and
glaring, Frosty watched the little drama that unfolded before him.

Another young muskrat, a daughter of the cautious pair, was already in
the slough. The two met, looked awkwardly at each other, swam in
circles, then climbed out on a half-submerged log and became better
acquainted. Finally, side by side, they dived beneath an overhanging
bank and began to enlarge a burrow that the little female had already
started. They were simply two lonely, lost youngsters who, for the
present, were happy just to have each other's company. But if both
lived, next year there would be another muskrat colony.

Frosty stalked and missed a rabbit, and made a wild spring at a grouse
that was roosting in the lower branches of a tamarack. When the grouse
rattled off in the darkness, he spat. Then he regained his self-control.
Irritated by repeated failures, he had been striking furiously but
wildly, and that was no way to hunt. He must follow a careful plan.

When he heard deer grazing, he trotted toward them. They were a little
herd of two does with three fawns that browsed together. A short
distance from them a huge buck, a craggy-horned old patriarch of the
swamp, kept to himself, but from time to time cast possessive glances at
the does. Still farther away, where he could flee into the swamp if the
bigger one chased him, a smaller buck grazed nervously. The big buck and
the small one had spent a companionable winter, spring and part of the
summer in a secluded thicket. Now, though the rutting season was still
weeks away, both were becoming interested in the does and jealousy had
come between them.

The big buck raised his head, shook his antlers and stamped a
threatening hoof when Frosty came near. The kitten looked haughtily at
him. He'd known deer for a long while, and he could elude any charge
they made. He waited patiently near the does and fawns, and when they
disturbed a mouse that leaped in panic-stricken haste from them, he
caught and ate it. Trotting to overtake the grazing deer, he caught the
next mouse they disturbed and the one after that. His hunger satisfied,
he cleaned himself thoroughly and started back toward the house. Thus,
the first hunting trick he had ever learned again proved valuable.

The house was still cold, and the odors seeping under the door were
stale ones. Again, Frosty cried his loneliness. Then he settled himself
on the porch to wait and hope for Andy's return.

For the following three days, Luke Trull went into the swamp every
morning and stayed until evening. His trespassing enraged the kitten,
not because the man trespassed but because he was an enemy who came
near. If Frosty had known how, he would have worked some harm on Luke.
But he did not know how. It would be the sheerest folly to attack a man
unless every advantage was on his own side, so he hid when Luke
passed and again when the hillman emerged from the swamp.

Then Luke appeared no more. Frosty's concerns narrowed to keeping his
belly filled and waiting anxiously for Andy's return.

       *     *     *     *     *

Andy, serving his ten days in the town jail with nothing whatever to do,
had ample time to think. And the more he thought, the more evident it
became that he had walked squarely into a cunning trap. It was none of
the young Trooper's doing. That embarrassed youngster had visited Andy
and explained that, usually, in such cases, Justice Benton levied a
small fine and a big lecture. Benton himself might be pardoned partly on
the grounds of his own ignorance and partly because of a social system
which, for political expediency, gave a man of his caliber wide and
flexible authority.

Luke Trull, and Luke alone, had set the trap, baited it, lured his
victim--and sprung his trap when the time was ripe. Andy figured out to
his own satisfaction exactly why things could have turned out no other
way.

A townsman, brought before Justice Benton on a minor assault charge,
probably would have been let off with a fine and a lecture. But in the
town's opinion, which meant majority opinion, there was a vast
difference between town and hill dwellers. The former were commonly
supposed to be law-abiding. The latter were not only generally
considered lawless, but they were also a different breed of people who
merited different treatment. A townsman could understand the law. A
hillman could better understand jail, and that was a state of affairs
which Luke Trull comprehended to perfection.

Aside from being aware that there was a very good chance of Andy's
serving a jail sentence, Luke had also known that he would be ordered to
keep the peace. If he appeared again on an assault charge, his sentence
might very well be six months instead of ten days.

Lying on his bunk and staring at the ceiling, Andy conceded that he had
been stupid as a fox cub just learning to hunt. It was, he decided, not
only possible but probable that Luke, knowing the boy would resort to
violence, had exposed himself deliberately. It was another tribute to
his cunning that he had not let himself be seen until after he
discovered where Andy put the last of his twenty pairs of muskrats.

Andy grinned ruefully and thought of Joe Wilson. He should have listened
to the game warden, but he hadn't listened and here he was. However,
there were still some puzzling aspects to the situation.

If Andy's fondest hopes were realized, and there were 200 muskrats in
the swamp by spring, they would still represent no fortune. It was hard
to believe that even Luke Trull would go to this much trouble for what
the reward might be. On the other hand, Luke knew definitely only that
Andy had planted at least the 20 pairs and some before that. He did not
know how many had been previously planted, and he might think there were
a great many more than actually had been liberated. Andy narrowed his
eyes.

Luke, nobody's fool, would not trap furs in the summer because they were
worthless then, and he was not one to exert himself for nothing. So,
except for those that fell to natural predators, the muskrats were safe
during Andy's sojourn in jail. But Luke could and probably would take
advantage of Andy's absence to explore the swamp and locate as many
other colonies as possible.

The jail's outer door opened. The waiter from a cafe across the street
brought Andy's supper and handed it through the cell bars. Ordinarily
aloof, tonight the fellow was talkative.

"Here you are, Bud."

Andy said, "Thanks."

"What are you in for?" the waiter asked.

"I murdered my grandmother."

The waiter grinned. "They say you guys from the hills do take pot shots
at each other."

"We have to have some entertainment."

"How many more days you got?"

"After tomorrow, I'll no longer be a guest here."

"They say," the waiter pursued his interrogation, "that you and another
guy fought over some muskrats?"

"For once," Andy agreed, "rumor got something right."

"Really?"

"Really."

"And you're in jail on account of some muskrats?"

"That's right."

The waiter continued, "I've heard that it's as much as a man's life is
worth to go into those hills alone at night."

"Oh, don't talk like a fool!" Andy snapped.

"I was just being civil," the waiter retorted sulkily.

The man left and Andy was alone with his dinner and his thoughts. He
nibbled listlessly at the food. The waiter exemplified the town's
attitude; hillmen would fight over anything, even worthless muskrats in
a worthless swamp. In their opinion, it was a small thing, and not a
project upon which a man hoped to build a career and a life.

Out of the dim past, ghosts came to haunt Andy. He saw again the men of
the Gates clan, the older men who had asked neither favors nor
assistance from anyone. They had settled their own problems in their
own way or died trying, and if they died, no survivor had ever looked to
the law for redress.

Andy forced the ghosts from his mind. Their ways had suited their times,
but there were different times. Nobody could be his own law, and taking
the law into one's own hands could lead only to disaster. Besides, the
boy thought, he must not borrow trouble. Luke Trull had not yet raided
his muskrats, and at least as much as anything else, his own
hot-headedness was responsible for his present predicament. Andy went to
sleep.

       *     *     *     *     *

The next morning, two hours after breakfast, a State Policeman came to
unlock the cell. It was not the young trooper but an older, hardened man
who looked at Andy with no more personal interest than a scientist
wastes on a specimen.

"Okeh." The trooper nodded toward the door. "You can go."

Andy walked through the open door, and from the cafe across the street
two men stared curiously at him. He turned away, his face burning, and
walked swiftly out of town. He had a sudden, vast need for the swamp and
the things that were of the swamp. Somehow he felt that, when he was
once again where he belonged, this would seem just another bad dream. He
hurried along into the hills and when he came to the path leading to his
place, half ran down it.

He was still a hundred yards from the house when Frosty came running
happily to greet him. Andy stooped to caress his partner, and the kitten
arched against his legs and purred. Side by side, they walked to the
house.

Entering, Andy took his .22 from its rack, then the two partners went
contentedly into the swamp.



  10

  ANDY HUNTS


A north wind, whistling across the swamp, launched a savage attack
against Andy's house, broke in half and snarled fiercely around either
side. Bearing a scattering of snowflakes, the wind whipped away the thin
plume of smoke that curled from the chimney and whirled dry leaves
across the yard. A little flock of sparrows that had gone to roost under
the eaves fluffed their feathers, huddled close together for warmth and
twittered sleepily of the lenient weather that had been. The doe that
had tried all summer to get into Andy's garden walked through the open
gate and happily crunched cabbage stalks from which the heads had been
cut.

The doe raised her head. Chewing lustily, she stared into the
wind-stirred night. Her ears flicked forward and her eyes were big with
interest. Something was coming, but it was nothing to fear. A moment
later, a buck came out of the swamp.

It was the smaller of the two bucks Frosty had seen when he waited for
the deer to frighten mice toward him. There was a bloody welt along his
flank and he limped slightly with his right front leg. When the right
time came, he had fought the old patriarch for the two does and had been
defeated by the bigger, stronger buck. But there was no denying the
season or the forces that drove him.

The doe came out of the garden, and the pair halted, ten feet apart.
Then, with mincing little steps, they closed the distance between them.
The buck arched his swollen neck, shook his antlers and pawed the
ground. Stepping high, like a parade horse, he danced clear around the
doe and nudged her gently. The doe brushed his flank with her black
muzzle and, after five minutes, they went into the hills together. The
big buck, who would not be averse to adding another wife to his harem,
waited in the swamp.

High over the swamp, a V-line of wild geese let themselves be tumbled
along by the wind. At a signal from their leader, they banked, glided
into the swamp and settled in the center of a pond. With morning, when
they could see any enemies that might be lurking on the bank, they would
go to feed.

Three young muskrats, a male and two females, that had been busy cutting
reeds and taking them into a roomy burrow, dived in panicky haste when
the geese alighted. After a while, screening themselves beneath some
frozen rushes that overhung the bank, they came up to see what was
happening. When the geese did not make any hostile moves, they resumed
cutting and storing reeds.

In the middle branches of a tamarack that had shed its needles, a great
horned owl ripped at a muskrat which it had plucked from a slough's
surface. Another owl, on the way to hunt, floated silently past.

Mice stayed deep in their burrows and stirred only when it was
necessary to gather seeds to eat. Gophers did not move at all, and
rattlesnakes had long since sought winter dens in which the frost could
not touch them. As though knowing it was well to eat as much as possible
while there was still plenty to be had, a rabbit stuffed itself. A lithe
mink that had just swum a slough pointed its snake-like head at the
rabbit, stalked, pounced and made a kill.

In the house, Andy slept snugly and soundly beneath warm quilts. Frosty
was curled beside him. . . . So the night passed.

Andy awakened when the first gray light of an autumn morning was just
beginning to play with the black windows. His hand stole to Frosty, who
pushed a furry head against it and licked his partner's palm with a
raspy tongue. For a few extra minutes, Andy listened to the snarling
wind and enjoyed the comfort of his bed. He had a sense of well-being
which the bitter weather to be served only to intensify.

Sometimes alone and sometimes with Frosty--and always carrying his .22,
the shells for which were inexpensive--he had been in the swamp every
day. More muskrats had been lost and that he knew, but on the whole,
they had done better than he thought they could. Prowling every slough
and every arm of every slough that he was able to reach and carefully
watching every pond, he had found sixty-one different colonies. Each
contained at least a pair, for the older muskrats that had lost their
mates had traveled until they had found others. Some adults had taken
young mates, and some of the older males had fought savagely for theirs.
There were colonies which Andy knew definitely contained at least three
muskrats, and there was one with five.

In addition, and despite the fact that he had searched as thoroughly as
he could, there was a distinct possibility that he had not located every
colony. Some of the sloughs had so many arms and branches that they
were practically water systems within themselves, and some of the
branches were hidden by foliage. With luck, there should be at least 200
muskrats by spring, and that was one reason why the north wind sang such
a beautiful song.

Andy had shot another great horned owl. He had caught another fox and a
bobcat, which he knew were raiding his muskrats, and this in a time of
plenty, when anything with more than mediocre hunting skill could fill
its belly. Now the migratory birds were going or had already gone. Soon
mice would be moving beneath snow, rather than grass tunnels. That left
little except grouse, which were very wise and very hard to catch;
sparrows, chickadees and the few other birds that stayed throughout the
winter; and rabbits.

However, predators did not migrate. The hungry season, which would bring
fierce competition for available food, was just around the corner. But
ice-locked ponds and sloughs would protect the muskrats from almost
everything. If Andy could see his charges through the next four to six
weeks, he should be able to bring most of them safely through the
winter. Of course, there was always a possibility of bitter cold that
would freeze shallow ponds and sloughs to the bottom. If any water did
freeze in such a fashion, muskrats trapped there would starve, merely
because they had to be able to move about in order to get food. But most
of the colonies were in water deep enough to be safe, regardless of what
the weather brought, and only about one winter in ten was very severe.

Andy had a sobering thought. No ice would deter Luke Trull, the
deadliest predator of all! Andy had expected the fellow to strike before
this. Though far from their best, soon pelts would be good enough to
command a fair price. However, Luke had not come and Andy hoped he would
not.

Frosty rose, stretched, leaped lightly to the floor and delivered
himself of a querulous call. Andy grinned and sat up in bed.

"Time to be moving, huh?"

He swung out of bed, padded across the floor, lifted the stove lid,
stirred the gray ashes with his lid lifter and dropped dry kindling on
hot coals. Fire nibbled anxiously at the kindling, then took a big bite
and flame crackled. Andy dressed. He lifted the lid again to add some
chunks of wood and looked out the window.

The wind still blew hard; but after spitting out just enough snow to
dust everything, rolling black clouds had closed their mouths tightly.
The thermometer outside the window registered exactly one degree above
freezing. Andy cut slices from a slab of bacon and laid them in a
skillet. His eyes were questioning and he strained to listen. This first
real touch of winter should have brought more than just a north wind;
wild geese should have blown in, too. But he could not hear them
calling.

Frosty looked expectantly at his partner, voiced an imperious command
and walked to the door. Andy let him out. Frosty had had no breakfast,
but that was nothing to worry about. No longer a kitten but a great cat,
he was well able to take care of himself and Andy had long since
discovered that, though he made no distinction between young and old, or
male and female, he did not kill wantonly. He did take what he wanted to
satisfy his hunger, but so did everything else. Andy broke eggs into the
skillet and laid two slices of bread on the stove to toast.

He was always busy, but during the next six weeks he'd be doubly so.
With waterfowl season open, small game season about to open, and deer
hunting to follow that, the time had arrived both to enjoy sport and to
fill his winter larder. Andy hurried through breakfast and the morning's
housework, took a double-barreled twelve gauge shotgun from the gun
rack, pulled his boots on and donned a wool jacket. He thrust half a
dozen number two shells into his pocket and went into the swamp.

He walked fast, paying little attention to the noise he made and making
no special effort to conceal himself. Geese were the wariest of game,
and only by accident would a flock alight on any accessible pond or
slough. They preferred hidden places, deep in the swamp, and long
experience had taught Andy where to find waters which the geese liked
best.

The boy halted to watch a couple of young muskrats that were frantically
cutting reeds to store for winter use. He shook his head in wonder.
These animals were the offspring of some muskrats he had liberated.
They'd never faced a winter in the swamp; they hadn't even lived through
a winter, but they still knew enough to cut and store food. How did they
know? Andy couldn't explain it, nor could anyone else. Instinct,
perhaps, was responsible for part, but Andy had never accepted the
theory that instinct is responsible for all a wild creature's actions.
If this were true, the muskrats he had planted should have known by
instinct that there would be predators about. They'd had to learn, but
in learning, they had passed some knowledge on to their offspring. The
young were more wary than their parents had been. Maybe, Andy thought,
only the fittest of the adults he'd planted had survived. They'd lived
because they were smarter or stronger, or perhaps both. It followed that
most of the offspring of such parents would be smart and strong too,
and thus it became a process of natural selection.

He went on and came to a long, wide slough in which the five muskrats
lived. Relatively shallow, the slough had a quicksand bottom, and,
according to legend, the bones of two men lay somewhere in its depths.
They were a Gates and a Trull who had met here, started a hand-to-hand
battle and tumbled into the water. In this instance, legend probably was
strictly fancy, with no basis in fact. The slough was not deep, but a
good swimmer who knew what he was doing might have every chance of
crossing it safely. Andy frowned.

On the far side of the slough was a high knob. A scattering of brush and
scrub aspen grew there, and almost at the very edge of the slough was a
huge sycamore with gnarled branches and a hollow trunk. A well-marked
path led out of the water into the hollow.

Andy's frown deepened. Muskrats had made the path, and if they intended
to live in the hollow sycamore, they risked a very precarious situation.
Predators could reach them there, but, above and beyond that danger,
they'd be locked out of the slough when it froze. Then, even if they did
not fall to some fanged or taloned prowler, they'd starve. Muskrats
could not live on hard-frozen vegetation.

Andy went around the slough, broke his shotgun and extracted the shells,
then leaned his weapon against an aspen. He knelt beside the sycamore,
but when he sought to support himself with his left hand, he slipped and
his arm sank to the elbow in mud. Scrambling hastily to pull himself
back, he grimaced at the muddy sleeve, cleaned it as best he could with
a handful of rushes and removed his jacket to wring the water out. It
was not yet cold enough to make it necessary to start a fire so he might
dry out the jacket.

The next time he knelt, he braced his left hand against the sycamore
before he peered into the gloomy interior. When his eyes became adjusted
to the darkness, he saw a burrow at the far end. Satisfied, he rose. The
muskrats were not naturally lazy creatures that had chosen to live in
the sycamore, rather than dig their own den. They were merely using the
hollow as a partial shelter for a surface den, and doubtless there was
another exit that led directly into the water. Andy searched until he
found it, under an overhanging bank.

He caught up his shotgun, reloaded and continued into the swamp. A
hundred yards farther on, a young deer, a spring-born fawn, looked
steadily at him, twitched long ears, stamped a nervous hoof, then
hoisted a white tail and bounded into the swamp. It was followed by two
more fawns, which, in turn, were trailed by a pair of adult does. Andy
stood perfectly still. At this season, a buck should be with the does
and he wanted to locate the buck.

After a moment, he saw what he was looking for. Off in the swamp grass
was the barest ripple of motion, a phantom thing that at first seemed
not even to exist. It was the craggy-horned old patriarch, the same
beast that Frosty had seen and that, later, had driven his smaller rival
away. Too smart to show himself in any open space, the old buck was
sneaking, almost unseen, through grass that was tall enough to cover his
back. But he had forgotten about his antlers, and now and again they
showed. Andy watched closely until the old buck was out of sight.

Every year, if for nothing except for winter meat, a buck was a
necessity and this was far and away the biggest in the swamp. But he was
also by far the wisest. Andy had hunted him for the past three seasons
and had managed only a couple of snap shots at him. The old buck
refused to be driven from the swamp, and he was acquainted with every
inch of that. He never panicked, seldom made an unwise move, and he knew
all about hunters with firearms.

Andy bent his head against the wind and walked on. Four weeks would
bring another deer season and he intended to spend at least the first
half of it matching wits with the old patriarch. If he couldn't get him,
he'd take a smaller buck. He looked again at the rolling black clouds.

He had heard no geese nor had he seen any, but it was goose weather and
they should be down. Nearing the slough where he hoped to find them,
Andy crouched so that his head was below the tops of the swamp grass. He
knew the game he sought. Not even the old buck was warier or harder to
approach. When the boy saw the tops of some tamaracks that flanked the
slough, he held the shotgun in his right hand and crawled. He advanced
with almost painful slowness. A suspicious sound could warn geese as
swiftly as an enemy in sight. The last twenty yards Andy wriggled on his
stomach. He looked through a fringe of swamp grass at the slough.

More than twenty geese swam on it, but the sentry they'd posted had
become suspicious and had alerted the others. Positive that the geese
had not seen him, and until now equally certain that they had not heard
him, Andy grinned his appreciation. He must have made some sound which
possibly nothing except a wild goose could have detected, but his stalk
was successful. Well within range, all he had to do was stand up and get
two of the flock when they took to the air. Then his glance strayed
across the slough and he muttered under his breath.

One on a lower branch and one on an upper, two great horned owls sat in
the same tamarack. Andy muttered again. Within easy range of wild
geese, he might have at least two. But choosing them meant letting the
owls go, and if he did, he might very well pay for his choice with a
dozen or more muskrats. Andy sighed.

He leveled his shotgun, sighted on the topmost owl and squeezed the
trigger. Almost before the booming report died, he got the second owl
with the other barrel. In a frantic haste, he ejected the two empty
shells and slipped fresh ones in, but with a great flapping of wings,
the geese were already airborne. Andy sighed again and watched them go.
He still might shoot, but he could no longer be certain of a kill and it
was far better to let the geese escape than to wound one.

Andy turned dejectedly away from the slough. His swamp was not on one of
the great flyways, down or up which, according to the season, waterfowl
stream. Only the strays alighted here, and some seasons they were very
few. The boy shrugged and walked on. The two geese he had hoped to get
would have provided his Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners--and several
more besides. But the great horned owls were far too dangerous to be
tolerated. Andy longed for the freeze--up that would make his muskrats
safe.

       *     *     *     *     *

The next day, on a different slough, Andy bagged two mallards out of a
flock that beat hastily into the air before him, and the day after that
he got two more. He plucked and dressed the ducks, wrapped each
separately in flour sacking and hung it in his shed to freeze. These
were the last of the waterfowl. If more came, he missed them.

The weather, never very cold or very warm, dropped to a few degrees
below freezing every night and climbed a few degrees above it every day.
There were some more snow flurries and brittle shell ice formed on the
edges of some ponds and sloughs. But, except in places that were
shadowed all day long, both snow and ice melted under the noon sun. Andy
made ready for the trapping and small game season.

An hour before dawn on opening day, he had breakfasted. He let Frosty
out, and with the shotgun under his arm, started off.

His way led him into the hills, rather than the swamp, for this morning
he intended to set fox traps and there were more foxes in the hills.
Black night was just shading into gray dawn when he threaded his path
among a copse of scrub oak toward a huge stump that had supported a
great pine but that was now a melancholy, moss- and lichen-covered
relic. Andy pawed aside some dead leaves that seemed to have blown into
the stump and revealed his fox traps.

Along with a packsack, leather trapping gloves, a roll of canvas, a
bottle of scent, trap stakes and even the hatchet used to drive the
stakes, they had been in the stump all summer and no trace of human
scent could possibly cling to them. Before doing anything else, Andy
slipped his hands into the gloves. Being careful to touch them with
nothing except the gloves, he put eight traps, eight stakes, the roll of
canvas, the hatchet and the bottle of scent into the packsack and
shouldered it. The hills were cut with numerous tote roads over which,
at one time, wagons loaded with timber had traveled. Though some were
brush-grown, most such roads remained open enough so that foxes en route
from one place to another traveled them. Approaching such a road, Andy
stopped.

He unrolled his strip of canvas, walking on it as he did so. When he
came to the middle of the road, he knelt to study the ground carefully.
After he was sure he had memorized every tiny detail, he used the
hatchet's blade to scoop a hole just big enough to hide a set trap. The
surplus earth he scattered to either side. He started a stake through
the trap ring and kept pounding until the top of the stake was level
with its surroundings. Then he replaced every leaf and every blade of
grass exactly as it had been.

Andy took the bottle of scent from his pack, uncorked it and grimaced.
The scent was a nauseous substance, composed of exactly measured
portions of thoroughly rotted fish; the castor, or scent glands, of
beaver; oil of asafetida and oil of wintergreen. Its odor would shame
the most formidable skunk, but foxes found it irresistible! Andy put one
drop on his set trap and, rolling up his canvas as he did so, walked
backwards. In like manner, he set seven more fox traps.

He hurried back toward the house, for he wanted to spend the afternoon
in his swamp, but when a fat rabbit with a flashing white tail scooted
before him, he shot it. He collected four more rabbits, the bag limit
for one day. However, the possession limit was ten and rabbits were
plentiful. If he froze these five and four more, he would still have one
under the possession limit and, whenever he felt so inclined, he would
be entitled to shoot a rabbit for his dinner. Andy skinned and dressed
his rabbits and hung them in the shed. After a hurried lunch, he
exchanged his packs for boots and went into the swamp with mink traps.

After reading sign in the few snows that had lingered after sunup, he
had determined that there were sixteen mink in the swamp. If he took
ten, there would still be enough to perform the necessary functions of
such predators, such as catching sick rabbits that would otherwise
spread disease and restocking the swamp next year.

Andy waded a winding little watercourse. He knew mink as inquisitive
creatures that will investigate and, if possible, squeeze into every
crack and crevice along their line of travel. On this knowledge he had
based his plan for trapping mink without catching any muskrats, which
also might travel the waterways. He set his traps at places which mink
would investigate but muskrats were likely to avoid, and he baited each
with a tiny bit of scent from the scent glands of mink trapped last
year. On the way home, he shot two grouse and added them to his
collection in the shed.

Thereafter, while the weather became neither very cold nor unduly warm,
Andy went into the hills every morning and into the swamp every
afternoon. He added lustrous fox pelts to his cache in the fur shed,
took the ten mink he wanted to catch in eight days and worried because
the winter freeze was late. However, neither Luke Trull nor any
extraordinary wave of natural predators had as yet attacked the muskrat
colonies.

The night before deer season opened, Andy took his 30-30 from its rack
and looked through the spotless bore. He put the rifle to his shoulder,
squinted over the sights, and in imagination he was actually sighting on
the great swamp buck.

The next morning, he set out on what he was sure would be the hardest
hunt of his life.

       *     *     *     *     *

At first Frosty was puzzled by and resentful of the strange madness that
had suddenly come over his partner. He had gone once with Andy into the
swamp and once into the hills, and each time his companion had used his
shotgun. Though Frosty did not mind the snap of a .22, the blast of this
great weapon was a tremendous shock to feline nerves. After the first
discharge, he'd hoped that Andy would never fire the shotgun again.
After the second, he decided definitely that he would not be around if
it were shot off any more. Thereafter, when Andy carried the shotgun,
and he carried it every day, Frosty took himself elsewhere.

Angry at first, feline philosophy came to Frosty's aid. It was decidedly
a madness--anyone who would make such a noise had to be insane--but
sooner or later Andy would regain his senses and they could take up
their companionship where it had been broken off. Frosty roamed the
swamp, going where he wished and doing as he pleased, for he was very
sure of himself and his own powers now.

The night before deer season opened, he fed heartily on a rabbit, slept
in a hollow log . . . and resumed prowling. Just before daylight, he came
upon the big buck.

The fawns had long since been driven away to shift for themselves and
one of the does had gone of her own free will. When the patriarch
approached the remaining doe, she slashed viciously at him with a front
hoof and ran a few steps. The second time he came near, she slashed
again and disappeared in the swamp grass. Still in the grip of the
rutting season's urge, the angry buck scraped the ground with his
antlers.

Frosty watched with interest. He had never met his superior. Except for
Andy, he had never even met his equal, so he understood this enraged
beast. The cat soft-footed to an aspen that grew in front of a ledge of
rocks and gauged the exact distance to a crevice beneath the ledge. Then
he deliberately showed himself. At once the buck charged.

Frosty scrambled up the aspen and looked down contemptuously as the
great creature raked the tree with his antlers, snorted and fell to
scraping the earth with a front hoof. He reared--a move Frosty had
anticipated--and the black cat dug his nose with a single lightning-like
thrust of his paw. Then he leaped out of the tree and, with the buck
pounding behind him, dodged into the crevice.

Snorting and puffing, the buck stamped angrily back and forth. He
stopped and tried to edge an antler into the crevice. When his nose came
near enough, Frosty scratched it again. The buck, all fury, thought only
of reaching and killing this insignificant thing that had dared defy
him.

For a time Frosty amused himself by scratching the patriarch's nose
every time it came within reach. Then he withdrew to the rear of the
crevice and went to sleep. The buck could not reach him, and while the
furious beast stood guard, nothing else would try. Frosty slept
peacefully, wholly at ease.

Daylight had bloomed when he was awakened by footsteps. From their
rhythm and cadence, he knew they were Andy's. The cat waited. He'd be
happy to meet his partner again, providing Andy had left the shotgun
home.

Then came a blast that outdid even the shotgun's and Frosty crouched
very quietly in his crevice. Andy was still mad, the cat decided, for he
was still going about making noises that could not possibly be tolerated
by anything in its right mind. However, the buck had hit the ground very
hard and very suddenly, and now it lay very still. Frosty heard Andy's
amazed,

"I'll be dog-goned! Hunt _this_ buck for three years and then stumble
right over him! Wonder how he got his nose dug that way?"



  11

  THE WAR OF THE OWLS


The next morning, knife in hand, Andy knelt beside his big buck and
expertly skinned out both hindquarters. Frosty, entirely at ease as long
as no rifles or shotguns were about, sat contentedly near and watched
the proceedings with interest. Slitting the tendons, Andy tied a rope
through each, slung the other ends of the ropes over a porch beam and
made ready to hoist the carcass aloft and finish skinning.

Frosty slipped into his favorite hiding place under the porch and did
not come out again. Andy slackened the taut ropes and eased the buck
down onto the floor. Frosty was not precisely a watch dog, but the boy
had learned to tell from the big cat's actions when something was
coming.

A little while later, Jud Casman appeared around a corner of the house.
He was dressed for hunting, but not precisely in the costume which
fashion magazines say the well-dressed hunter should wear. He wore wool
trousers whose legs had been slit so that they might fit over
knee-length rubber boots. It was a good, practical arrangement; snow
and water would run down the trouser legs, rather than inside the boots.
His upper torso was encased in a jacket over which he wore the cut-off
upper half of some red woolen underwear. That, according to Jud, both
enabled other hunters to see him and made the jacket snug enough so that
some loose end wasn't forever catching in the brush. His hat might have
descended to Jud from the first person ever to see the swamp. His rifle
matched the costume.

It was a muzzle-loader of a type generally associated with frontiersmen
and Indian fighters, and it was almost as long as Jud was tall. A single
shot, it had been handed down by Jud's father, who in turn had obtained
it from his father. The bore had been re-reamed and re-rifled so many
times that now it cast a slug approximately the size of a small cannon
ball. A lot of people had laughed at Jud and his rifle, but on his side,
Jud snickered at those who needed a whole handful of cartridges when, as
any child should know, one ball was plenty, if you put it in the right
place. Andy, who had seen Jud pick the heads off squirrels and grouse
and shoot flying geese, knew that Jud killed whatever he shot at. He
left no wounded creature to die in agony.

Jud eyed the big buck and expressed his opinion, "_Hm-m._"

Andy said, "It's the big one."

"Give ya a heap of trouble?"

"I walked right up to him," Andy admitted. "He didn't even run."

"I'll give ya a hand," Jud offered. "Just snug them ropes when I lift."

Jud leaned his rifle against the house. No big man, he lifted the
200-pound buck without visible strain or effort and Andy tightened the
ropes. Saying not another word, Jud picked up his rifle and went into
the swamp.

Andy resumed his work, cutting with the knife point and pulling the
loosened skin down around the carcass. Since this was deer season,
obviously Jud was going into the swamp to get himself a deer. Andy knew
where there were some, but if Jud had wanted advice, he'd have asked for
it. Andy skinned his buck down and severed the head as close to the
scalp as possible.

He grinned. Some years ago, Old Man Haroldson had taken a party deer
hunting and among them they had shot five deer. When it came time to
divide the venison, the hunters, with visions of choice steaks and
roasts, had offered Old Man Haroldson the five necks. He had accepted
with alacrity, and ever since had been gleefully telling how he put one
over on the city-slickers, for the neck was the best part of any deer,
in his opinion. Whether it was or not, Andy thought, there was a lot of
good meat in it.

Frosty came out from beneath the porch and again sat companionably
close. He turned up his nose at a little chunk of venison Andy threw
him. Able to take his choice of the finest viands in the swamp, Frosty
would accept second best only when he could not get first.

Andy looked with regret at the great antlers, a really fine trophy. But
it cost money to have a deer head mounted, and he had no money to spare.
He consoled himself with the thought that the antlers, sawed from the
scalp and nailed over his door, would still look very nice. He split the
carcass and made ready to separate it into the cuts he wanted.

A half-hour later, out in the swamp, Jud's rifle roared like a clap of
thunder. Looking disgusted, Frosty departed to such peace and quiet as
he might find under the porch. Andy glanced toward the swamp. Jud had
shot. Therefore he had his buck.... In another twenty minutes, he
appeared with it.

It was a fair-sized three-year-old. Jud had slit the tendons in the hind
legs, thrust the front ones through, fastened them with pegs, and was
carrying his buck as Andy would have carried a packsack. But, though the
buck probably weighed 140 pounds, Jud was not laboring nor was he the
least bit strained. He paused again beside the porch.

"Got one, huh?" Andy greeted him.

"Yep."

"Nice one, too."

"Nice eatin'," Jud grunted. "I take it you know they's owls in the
swamp, Andy?"

"Owls?"

"Cat owls," Jud said. "I see six. I'd of shot some but I didn't know as
you'd of wanted me to."

"Thanks, Jud."

"Don't mention it," Jud said politely.

He departed with his buck and Andy began to work furiously. "Cat owl"
was a local term for great horned owl, and if Jud had seen six during
the short time he'd been absent, they had not only invaded the swamp in
force but their invasion had occurred since yesterday. Andy nicked his
finger, muttered to himself and continued to work feverishly.

One owl in the swamp was a threat. Six could mean only that game had
already become scarce in other localities, and the owls were gathering
in his swamp to find food. It was true that, in winter, much small game
did seek a refuge in the swamp and, for that very reason, it had more
than its winter-time quota of great horned owls and other predators.
This early in the season, Andy's muskrats must be the very lure that
was attracting them. He had feared just such an invasion, and now he
must fight it.

He wrapped the venison in flour sacking, hung the portions in his shed
and closed the door behind him. Finished, he breathed a sigh of relief,
took his .22 from its rack, filled the magazine, stuck a couple of extra
boxes of cartridges in his pocket and started for the swamp.

Frosty, who shuddered at the sight of a shotgun but did not mind the
.22, came happily to join him. Andy was rational again. They could take
up their partnership where it had been broken off. Tail erect and even
whiskers seeming to quiver with joy, Frosty trotted by Andy's side.

Andy set a direct course for the nearest trees. He searched eagerly,
hoping he would not find what he feared he would, and optimism leaped in
his breast when he saw nothing.

Then an owl, a huge bird with a mighty spread of wings, labored up from
a slough with a muskrat in its talons. Andy leveled his rifle, holding
it steady, even while he tried to conquer the sick feeling in the pit of
his stomach. Compared to some other birds, the owls are not swift fliers
and this one was furthered slowed by the burden it carried. It was
possible to pick it out of the air with a rifle, but Andy held his fire
because, obviously, the owl intended to light in one of the trees. A
sitting shot was not sporting, but there was no question of sport
connected with this and a sitting shot was far more certain.

The owl dipped gracefully toward a tree and Andy followed with the rifle
sights. At exactly the right moment, he squeezed the trigger. The
vicious little rifle spat its leaden death and the owl dropped limply.
He lay tumbled on the ground, talons still imbedded in the muskrat, when
Andy reached him. It was a grip of steel, so powerful that the boy had
to use the point of his knife to disengage each talon separately.

Andy skinned the still-warm muskrat, knowing as he did so that the pelt
would bring less than a good price because the owl's talons had pierced
it. But it was something salvaged.

The next owl was a dodging gray shape that winged erratically over the
swamp grass, more than six hundred feet away. Andy leveled his rifle,
sighted and shot. He shot a second time . . . and a third. On the third
shot, a gray feather detached itself from the bird and floated
gracefully downwards. But the shot also warned the owl. He dipped out of
sight.

Hearing something in the grass that interested him, Frosty went to
investigate. Andy strode grimly toward the next grove of trees. He
scored a clean miss on an owl perched in a tree, then brought down one
in flight. Quickly, he reloaded his little rifle. It was better than the
shotgun for such hunting, partly because shotgun shells were so much
more expensive and partly because the shotgun was limited in range. He
would certainly have killed the owl in the tree had he had the shotgun,
but probably he would have merely wounded the pair he had brought down
and even owls deserved better than that.

Far off, hopelessly out of range, Andy saw two owls in the hollow
sycamore that overlooked the slough where the five muskrats lived. He
stooped to crawl. When he was within rifle shot, he raised cautiously
above the swamp grass--to see the sycamore empty. He muttered to
himself. He did not think that he had frightened the owls, for they were
incredibly bold. Doubtless they'd gone off to hunt, and almost surely
they were hunting muskrats.

Rising, Andy walked to the hollow sycamore and cradled the rifle in the
crook of his arm while he leaned against it. Five minutes later, a
muskrat emerged from an underwater burrow, surfaced and swam in little
circles. Only his head and back broke water. He regarded Andy with beady
little eyes. Although less than ten feet away, the muskrat considered
himself safe because he was in the water.

The owl came so silently and so eerily that, somehow, it seemed to have
materialized out of thin air. Gliding over the slough, it took the
swimming muskrat in both claws and never missed a wing beat as it flew
on. Andy gasped. He leveled the rifle and shot five times, but the
gathering dusk made his aim uncertain and again he missed. Andy's brain
reeled.

Naturally ferocious, the raiding owls were ten times as fierce and ten
times as dangerous as they ever were otherwise because they were also
desperately hungry. This one must have seen Andy, but the presence of an
armed man had not prevented it from taking a muskrat that was not even a
pebble's toss away.

Andy glared at the darkening sky, as though his fierce will to hold back
the night and let him continue hunting owls would somehow grant time for
so long. But approaching night would not be stopped, and he could do
nothing before another morning. However, the owls could and would hunt.
All night long the muskrats in the swamp would be at their mercy--and
they had no mercy!

Andy trailed tiredly back to his house. He found Frosty on the porch,
let him in and nibbled at a supper for which he had neither taste nor
desire. Unless something came to his aid, he was ruined and he knew it.
One man alone could not turn back the tide of owls. Given one more
week, they would take every muskrat from every slough.

Back in the swamp with daylight the next morning, Andy shot two owls
almost before night's curtain lifted. Hunting, he got three more and
missed four. Then, shortly before noon, the wind began to scream. Just
before dusk, it lulled, and that night Andy looked happily at his
frosted windows. He had to go outside to read the thermometer, but he'd
have walked five miles to discover that it was twelve degrees below
zero.

The following morning, every pond and every slough wore a safe armor of
ice.

       *     *     *     *     *

It was an extraordinary winter. Neither mild nor severe, it skipped the
usual January thaw completely and lingered on almost as it had started.
Except for the one severe cold snap that froze the swamp, the
temperature dropped to zero or below only on a few scattered days.
However, on two days alone did it climb into the fifties. Most of the
time it lingered at a few degrees below or a few above the freezing
point.

The customary snows did not fall. The deepest, only about three inches,
came shortly before the temperature reached the fifties and much of it
melted then. Otherwise, there were only dustings of snow. Thus, though
there was tracking most of the time, snowshoes were never needed.

For Andy it was a wonderful, peaceful time, which was further
distinguished by being The Winter of the Big Bonanza.

Few of the town dwellers were so old-fashioned as to have coal furnaces.
Strictly in tune with modern trends, they used oil or gas. But the ways
of the forefathers are not that easily forsaken, and, though the town
dwellers also considered this strictly in keeping with progress, a
great many of them wanted fireplaces. They served no practical purpose
because their houses were always warm enough anyhow. But the fireplaces
did fill a spiritual need, and having them, the townsmen wanted fuel to
burn in them. Naturally, nobody with a fireplace would consider burning
anything except wood.

A fuel-dealer in town had given the Casman brothers an order for 300
cords of fireplace wood, to be picked up at the Casman farm and paid for
at six dollars a cord. Even though the same dealer was selling it in
town for twelve dollars a cord, it was still a good deal. Jud and Ira,
remembering that Andy had invited them to participate in his muskrat
ranch on a share basis, invited him to do the same with their wood.
Three men were needed for supplying the wood. The Casmans had several
acres of yellow birch which they wanted to clear for additional pasture
anyhow, also the horses to haul the poles and the machinery for sawing
them. The Casmans were to keep one third of the payment. They would
split the remaining two thirds three ways with Andy.

Andy accepted happily, for he had already taken as many mink and fox
pelts as he could safely take and leave enough for re-stocking. His
trappings throughout the rest of the winter would have been confined to
taking bobcats and weasels, upon both of which there was a bounty, and
he'd have been lucky to earn one hundred dollars. Since his muskrats
were safe beneath the ice, a routine patrol sufficed for the swamp. He
could do that on Sunday. Anyway, he liked to cut wood.

For the first week, armed with razor-sharp axes that were kept that way
by frequent honing, the three of them attacked the grove of yellow
birch. Then, while Ira and Andy set up the gasoline-powered buzz saw,
Ira used his own horses to drag the wood in to them. When they had
enough to keep them busy for a while, he felled and trimmed more trees
alone. Except for Sundays, which the Casmans always observed, even
though they did not do it in church, the trio worked hard every day from
dawn to dusk. As a result, wood piled up fast.

One afternoon, Andy glanced at the sun, calculated that they could work
at least one more hour and picked up one end of a birch pole, while Ira
took the other. Co-ordinating their actions perfectly, for they had been
working together a long while, they swung it into the cradle. Ira had
taken the saw end, and Andy was just as happy. The whirling saw, kept as
sharp as the axes, could scream its way through a twelve-inch tree in a
couple of clock ticks--and through a man's hand in considerably less
time! But Ira, who had been handling the business end of a buzz saw ever
since he'd been old enough to work, had yet to receive his first nick.

The pair finished the log, took another, and at exactly the right time
Jud came in from the wood lot. The three of them worked to arrange the
tumbled pile of wood in neat cords, eight feet long by four feet high,
and so well did they know what they were doing that, by the time they
were finished, it lacked only a few minutes of being too dark to work
any more.

Ira solemnly regarded the results of their day's labor. "Twenty mo'
cords to go," he announced. "We finish early nex' week."

"Jest in time," Jud said. "Breakup's comin', an' them town folk won't
want wood then."

"How do you know the breakup's coming?" Andy challenged him.

"My rheumatiz changed."

"Twon't be much of a breakup," Ira murmured. "Ain't enough snow fo'
that. I mistrust 'twill be a puny season' fo' crops, less'n we get a
heap o' spring rains."

"There'll be water in the swamp," Andy said.

"Allus some theah," Ira conceded. "How's yo' mushrats doin', Andy?"

Andy hid his instinctive smile. He'd been working with the Casmans all
winter, and this was the first time either had asked about his muskrats.
In the hills, a man's business was strictly his own.

"I figure the owls cleaned out five colonies," Andy said, "and probably
got an animal or two from others. But since I've been able to walk on
the ice, I've found seven colonies that I hadn't even known about.
They're on little bits of slough arms that I couldn't even reach
before."

"Any owls theah now?"

"About the usual winter's supply. I haven't been shooting any since the
freeze-up because they can't do any great damage. No sense in shooting
anything at all for the sake of killing."

"Tha's right," Jud agreed. "But won't they raise the dickens when the
breakup comes?"

"Not too much," Andy said. "Birds will be coming back and everything
else will move more. The owls will scatter. Well, see you Monday."

"Shuah thing," Jud said gravely.

"Shuah thing," Ira echoed.

Andy walked homeward and Frosty met him. For the first week, the big cat
had accompanied his partner to the wood lot and happily explored new
country while trees were felled. But, though Frosty did not mind the
thudding of axes, he disliked the screeching buzz saw even more
cordially than blasting rifles and shotguns. He was happy to stay near
Andy nights and to accompany him on Sunday patrols into the swamp.

They went together the next day, walking safely on ice and frozen earth.
The five colonies that had been ravished--and Andy was sure that owls
had raided them--were easy to locate. The tops of all muskrat houses
protruded above the ice that locked them in, but these five had fallen
into disrepair and the winds were scattering them. All the rest of the
houses were firm and sound.

The next week, Andy finished his job with the Casmans and, just as Jud
had predicted, the breakup followed. It was no violent change but a soft
and gentle thing. One day the temperature climbed to near-summer heights
and remained there for three days. It wiped out the snow and presently
it took the ice, too. Because there had been little snow and not much
spring run-off, except for the thaw, there was almost no change in the
swamp.

Andy resumed his daily patrols. The owls were still present and, as Andy
discovered when one plucked a rabbit from under his very nose, still
ravenous. But muskrats that had been ice-bound for weeks were frantic
for a taste of fresh food. They swarmed out of dens and houses to dig in
the mud for anything succulent. Their very eagerness made them careless.
Andy shot a bobcat with a muskrat in its mouth, found where a great
horned owl had taken one, and a fox another. But there was no great wave
of predators immediately.

Another week elapsed before he knew definitely that something was
seriously wrong. The sign left by digging muskrats was easy to see, and
after a week, in eight separate colonies, there was not only no fresh
sign but the houses were falling into disrepair. Andy redoubled his
efforts, going into the swamp with daylight and staying until dark. This
predator was a complete mystery. It left neither tracks nor sign, and
the only evidence that it had struck at all was another colony that no
longer contained muskrats. Andy, who had thought he knew everything
there was to know about the swamp, gave up.

He did not understand this, but Joe Wilson might be able to give him
some good advice, for Joe was very wise. An hour before dark, Andy
climbed the path leading to the road and struck out toward town. He had
walked no more than half a mile when he saw a horseman coming toward
him.

It was Luke Trull, whose eyes were cold and whose smile was colder. He
passed without speaking, but for a full two minutes Andy stood rooted.
Then he turned slowly back toward his house. The Trull-Gates feud, with
Luke and himself as sole participants, was about to be renewed, for, in
addition to his usual disreputable clothing, Luke wore a muskrat-skin
hat!



  12

  DEEP SAND


Ten minutes after Andy left, Frosty went into the swamp. He had his full
growth now, and his twelve pounds were distributed perfectly over a
near-perfect frame. Lithe muscles were under exact control of a brain
that, naturally fast, had been further sharpened by the dangers to which
he had been exposed. Because he was very sure of himself and what he
could do, Frosty disdained to hide from even the great horned owls,
unless he felt like it. He would fight anything anywhere, if fighting
seemed the wisest course. But he would hide, if hiding best served the
ends he wanted to achieve. He was never guided by anything save his own
intelligence, and he met each situation according to circumstances.

Not especially hungry, tonight he was in the mood to accept a tempting
tidbit should one come his way. Most of all, he wanted to wander and
explore, for his feline curiosity never had been and never would be
satisfied. No matter how many times he went into the swamp, he always
found something new or some new aspect to something old. And he had
prowled the swamp so much that, though the rabbit or muskrat that lived
its whole life in one comparatively small area might know that area
better than he, Frosty grasped the over-all picture more completely than
anything else.

He knew the favorite grazing grounds, sleeping places and playgrounds of
the deer. Every muskrat colony--and Frosty knew of two which even Andy
had not yet found--he had visited time after time and he was aware of
the exact number of muskrats in each. He was acquainted with every mink,
fox, bobcat, raccoon and coyote in the swamp, and he could go directly
to their home dens or the place where each individual preferred to hunt.
He knew the trees or copses of trees which the great horned owls
preferred, and where the grouse were inclined to roost. Frosty was
familiar with those places where rabbits and mice were most abundant. He
had trod every safe trail and visited most of the hiding places.

Knowing all this, the swamp still fascinated him because it was never
static. There was always change, and, next to his partnership with Andy,
keeping aware and abreast of those changes was the most important
business in Frosty's life.

The first night Luke Trull entered the swamp, Frosty had known of his
presence a half-hour later. Luke's trespassing angered him greatly, and
he still would harm the man if he could find a way to do so. He had not
discovered the way, and it was far from prudent to attack even a hated
man unless there was every chance of winning the fight. Because he did
want to discover what Luke was about, Frosty followed him until he knew
his exact schedule.

He habitually came just a few minutes after gray twilight shaded into
deep night. Invariably he entered the swamp by wading a shallow,
hard-bottomed slough four hundred yards from Andy's house. His equipment
was always the same, five number one traps that he carried in his left
hand and a club clutched in his right. An empty packsack hung loosely
over his shoulders and there was a knife at his belt.

He knew the safe trails so well that he needed no light to guide
himself, but he carried a small flashlight to carry on his affairs, once
he was within the swamp--and his affairs concerned the muskrat colonies.
Though he did not understand it, Frosty had watched what he did there.

When Luke approached a colony, the muskrats were sure to be digging for
bulbs in the bank. They always fled when he came, but they seldom went
farther than the center of the pond or slough in which they lived. Luke
used his flashlight to see where they had been digging. Then, depending
on what he saw, he set one or more traps. The traps were strung on
flexible wires, slipped through the ring in the chain. Wooden pegs
prevented their sliding off. Luke cast one end of his wire into the
slough or pond, tied the other to any convenient root, tree or shrub,
set his traps and went to another colony.

Sometimes the muskrats came back as soon as Luke left. Sometimes they
were cautious for an hour or more. But they always came and they were
always trapped. When they were, they dived frantically into the water
which, hitherto, had provided a safe refuge. The trap chain, sliding
along the wire, was invariably stopped by the wooden peg. Since no
muskrat in trouble would ever think of turning toward land, they
continued their efforts to get into the water until they drowned.

Coming back, Luke picked up the drowned muskrats, placed them in the
packsack, took his traps and was out of the swamp well before daylight.
He had never taken more than five muskrats on any one night. But neither
had he taken any less, and he had visited the swamp for seven
consecutive nights.

Frosty expected him again tonight, but he was not particularly worried
about the man's possible appearance because he could take care of
himself. In the dark, he could always get out of any human's way. They
never even seemed to know that he was around.

The big cat faced into the brisk north wind. Spring, showing her face
briefly, had only wanted to tantalize the winter-weary. The wind was as
cold as it had been most winter nights and there were a few snowflakes,
but not enough to whiten the ground and retain tracks. Undaunted by the
cold wind, that could ruffle but not penetrate his thick fur, Frosty
gave his attention to a sound that was borne to his ears.

The noise was made by a roosting bird that fluttered its wings as it
changed position. It was not a bird that had been in the swamp last
night. A venturesome robin, impatient to be away from the south and back
at the all-important business of building a nest and rearing a family,
had taken a chance on the weather. Now, huddling miserably on a naked
aspen, it was probably wishing it hadn't. Searching in vain for warmth,
the robin shifted again.

Grown a bit hungry, Frosty stalked the tree. He advanced so artfully
that few things would have taken fright, so it was not Frosty's presence
that launched the robin from its perch. It was the cold wind. The robin
fluttered off into the darkness, to see if there might not be a warmer
roost.

Always angry when a victim eluded him, Frosty stood with one forepaw
uplifted and lashed his tail. Even though experience had taught him that
there would be nights when all luck leaned on the side of whatever he
hunted, stalking and missing always stung. He hunted to kill, he was
satisfied with nothing else, and missing the robin seemed to intensify
his hunger.

Frosty abandoned exploring in favor of determined hunting. He headed for
a thicket in which several rabbits had wintered and crouched quietly
beside a runway. He was hungry and growing hungrier, but he was also
patient. He'd stay here for hours, if necessary, and sooner or later a
rabbit would come along the runway. But he'd waited only minutes when
one hopped toward him. Tense and ready to spring, the black cat did not
move.

The rabbit was almost within springing distance when a great horned owl
swooped to catch it. Frosty spat his anger and leaped to attack, but the
owl was airborne and he fell short by inches. There came the sounds of
thumping feet as the other rabbits, finally aware of an enemy in their
midst, told each other about it and sought the safety of burrows.

Frosty lashed his tail and glared. Sooner or later, the rabbits would
come out again. He would get one if he waited, but he was too hungry to
wait. He set his course toward the high knob upon which the hollow
sycamore grew. There were a few rabbits in the scrub there. Frosty laid
his ambush, waited, made a kill and started to eat.

Almost as soon as he began his meal, he stopped eating. His ears
informed him that Luke Trull was coming. Unwilling to abandon his
hard-won dinner, Frosty held perfectly still. Luke set his traps, went
on, and Frosty finished eating. He washed himself thoroughly and felt a
little sleepy.

He'd have a nap before prowling any more, and since he was going to
rest, he might as well do it out of the wind. The hollow sycamore, in
which he'd slept several times, offered shelter. Frosty padded to the
hollow and entered.

He halted abruptly when one of Luke's muskrat traps snapped on his paw,
but he did not panic. Frosty touched the trap with his nose and he tried
to take a bite from it. The steel was hard and unyielding; if he
continued to bite it, he'd do nothing except shatter his jaws. Therefore
he would not bite. This was a time for planning.

The pain, severe enough for anything at all, was ten times as
excruciating to a cat's complex nervous system. Frosty still refused to
panic. He could not fight this thing, so he must outwit it. He looked at
the water and shuddered, then he heard Luke coming back.

Dragging the trap with him, Frosty crawled into the sycamore. He
crouched, and mounting fury served to counteract pain. Luke reached the
knob. His light flashed once and went out. Frosty stayed quiet, hoping
to escape detection by so doing.

But if Luke came near him, he would fight as hard and as viciously as he
could.

       *     *     *     *     *

Andy walked slowly back to his house because there was no need to hurry.
Whatever he did from this point on--and he intended to do much--would be
carried out in black night, and it still lacked a couple of hours until
darkness. As he walked, Andy saw almost everything in a clear light.

He should have known, and he blamed himself for not knowing, that the
mysterious predator could be none other than Luke Trull. He had been
lulled into a false sense of security by Luke's failure to come raiding
all autumn and all winter. But he should also have known that, when he
came, Luke would strike at that time when muskrats were most valuable.
He was nobody's fool, and naturally he would do his poaching at night.

All this was so unbelievably simple that anyone should have figured it
out. Andy had not, but since he finally knew, the problem was far more
complex than it appeared on the surface.

He might, he supposed, go to the State Police and say that he had seen
Luke Trull wearing a muskrat-skin hat. The police would look at him, and
each other, then they would consult their copy of the State Game Laws
and point out that muskrat season was open to anyone who had a trapping
license and it would be open for two weeks more. No doubt they would
remember that he had had previous trouble with Luke, and even on the
far-fetched possibility that they took him seriously, no State Trooper
would stumble around anyone's swamp at night simply because the swamp's
owner had seen someone wearing a muskrat-skin hat.

There was only one way. Turn time backwards for thirty years, and once
again a Gates and a Trull would settle their differences in their own
way. But Andy knew that he must stop short of killing. Murder, any way
one considered it, was murder, and the law had no bearing on the fact
that Andy did not want another's blood on his hands. But he looked
forward with savage joy to fighting. He would find Luke, beat a
confession out of him, and take him to the Police himself. There were a
number of reliable witnesses who knew that Andy had bought the muskrats
with which the swamp was stocked. If he found Luke poaching, nothing
else should be necessary.

At the same time, Andy felt the need for caution.

Luke was a clever person, a cunning schemer who weighed every action
and made it count. Why, when he saw Andy coming, had he not taken off
his hat and hidden it? Was it his way of jeering? Letting the hat speak
for him, had he announced to Andy that he, Luke Trull, was stealing
muskrats and there was nothing Andy could do about it? Or did he want a
meeting in the swamp? If so, why? Luke, always willing to do anything at
any time as long as it would turn a dollar for himself, seldom got into
trouble. He knew the penalty for murder. It was inconceivable that he
would come anywhere near risking that penalty. Neither would he fight.
But why had he not hidden the hat?

Andy walked on. Luke's reasons for doing or not doing anything no longer
made a difference. Andy had to stop him or surrender to him, and he
would not surrender. He thought again of his own lack, not exactly of
foresight, but failure to act on foresight. Luke had done exactly as
Andy had thought he'd do, and explored the swamp thoroughly while Andy
languished in jail. Anybody who knew the trails could go into the swamp
as easily by night as by day, and the muskrats had never been hurt by
any human being. Therefore, they did not fear humans. They'd be easy to
trap.

Reaching his house, Andy calmly and methodically unlaced his shoes, took
them off, and pulled on rubber boots. He donned a wool jacket, a wool
cap that came over his ears, and looked thoughtfully at the gun rack.
Andy turned away from it. There must be no killing, and in any fight,
passion was apt to overcome good sense. What he had to do, he'd do with
his fists.

When darkness was complete, Andy went into the swamp.

His plan was simple. Knowing every colony that still contained muskrats,
he would visit each. If Luke were in the swamp tonight, they'd meet.
With only a brief glance at Four-Leaf and Clover, since they were so
near the house Luke would know better than to bother them, Andy went on
to Dead Man's Slough. He swerved to investigate some colonies in another
part of the swamp and swung back. Three hours later, a half-hour before
midnight, he thought he saw a light.

Andy stopped in his tracks and fixed intent eyes on the place at which
he thought the light had originated. For a second he turned his eyes
away, then glanced back. There was no light now and perhaps there never
had been any. His imagination could be playing tricks, but Andy turned
away from the course he'd set himself and went directly towards the high
knob upon which the hollow sycamore grew. He thought he'd seen the light
there, and there were still muskrats in that slough.

Nearing the high knob, he stopped to look and listen. But the north
wind, still carrying a few snowflakes on its screaming wings, drowned
all other noises and there was little light. Very cautiously, Andy
continued to advance. He climbed the knob and leaned against a small
aspen.

There was a sudden, jarring pain in his head and a galaxy of bright
lights danced before his eyes. He staggered, tried to hold himself up by
gripping the aspen, and for a second he succeeded. Presently he was
aware of pain.

Andy opened bewildered eyes. The last he remembered, he had been holding
onto an aspen and looking about. Now he lay prone, hands and feet bound
with wire, and a flashlight was shining in his face. Somebody said
something he could not hear and he closed his eyes. Then he heard,

"I thought ye'd come, Gates."

Andy reopened his eyes to see Luke Trull, still wearing his
disreputable clothing and the muskrat-skin hat, looking down at him.
Andy shivered. There was about Luke the same lethal coldness that there
is about a rattlesnake just before it strikes. Luke spoke again,

"Ye hit me, Gates."

"Let me loose, you fool!"

Luke grinned mirthlessly, and in the faint light his eyes seemed to
glow. He said,

"I wanted ye to know what was goin' to happen. Tha's why I din' do it
afore."

"Didn't do what?"

"Put ye in the slough."

"They'll get you for it, Luke."

Luke's grin widened. "Ye know better'n that. Ye know well's I do that
more'n one man lies in these deep sand sloughs, my own pappy 'mongst
'em, an' a Gates put him thar. Ye allus mess 'round this swamp, an'
what'll folks think when ye jest don't come out?"

"You're putting your head in a noose!"

"No I hain't, Gates. No I hain't. An' ye did hit me. Nobody hits Luke
Trull an'," he chuckled, "I thought ye'd be in the swamp after ye saw my
hat. How do you like it, Gates? Made it myself with two pelts f'om your
swamp."

"You're talking like an idiot!"

"Idiot? I got thirty fi' o' your mushrats so far an' fo' here," he
indicated the packsack. "Now I see that I got me 'nother in the hollow
tree. I'll let ye see me pull it out an' kill it, Gates, afore I roll ye
in the slough an' let ye sink in the deep sand."

He walked toward and bent near the hollow sycamore while Andy made a
mighty effort to loose his bonds. He strained, felt the flexible wire
give, and knew that he could free himself. If he could only do it in
time . . .

He saw Luke pull at the taut wire and heard a spitting snarl. Fury
incarnate, Frosty came out of the hollow and sprang straight to Luke's
head. He clawed and scratched while he continued to spit.

Luke stood up, waved his hands like windmill blades, lost his footing,
and tumbled backwards into the slough. Andy gasped, continuing to strain
at the wire that bound him, even while he remained unable to take his
eyes from the drama being enacted before his eyes. The slough was
quicksand, and as far as Andy knew, it was bottomless. But a good
swimmer, even a fully clothed one, who knew what he was doing could
cross it safely. Andy sighed in relief.

Luke was a good swimmer, and obviously he both realized his danger and
knew what he was doing. Only the muskrat-skin hat, leaving a trailing
V-curl behind it, broke water as he dog-paddled very slowly and very
cautiously. He would make it all right.

The thing that came did so with uncanny silence. A great horned owl that
had not been there a second before was there now, hovering over what
could be nothing except a swimming muskrat. It struck, and rose with
Luke's hat in its talons. Then it was gone.

Andy struggled frantically to free himself, but each second was an hour
long and each minute a day. Finally working bleeding hands from the
wire, he loosed his legs and rose. The slough was empty, with not even a
ripple to show that anything had ever been on it. After two minutes,
Andy turned toward Frosty, who growled warningly but let his partner
depress the trap spring and free his paw.

Frosty fell to cleaning himself. With a prayer in his heart, again Andy
searched the slough. But all he saw was a pair of swimming muskrats. At
least two had survived, just as two must have survived in other sloughs.
The muskrats paid no attention to death, for their function was life.
They would build houses, dig dens, and eventually they would overspread
the swamp.

The muskrats dived and only bubbles rose.



  JIM KJELGAARD

was born in New York City. Happily enough, he was still in the
pre-school age when his father decided to move the family to the
Pennsylvania mountains. There young Jim grew up among some of the best
hunting and fishing in the United States. He says: "If I had pursued my
scholastic duties as diligently as I did deer, trout, grouse, squirrels,
etc., I might have had better report cards!"

Jim Kjelgaard has worked at various jobs--trapper, teamster, guide,
surveyor, factory worker and laborer. When he was in the late twenties
he decided to become a full-time writer. He has succeeded in his wish.
He has published several hundred short stories and articles and quite a
few books for young people.

His hobbies are hunting, fishing, dogs, and questing for new stories. He
tells us: "Story hunts have led me from the Atlantic to the Pacific and
from the Arctic Circle to Mexico City. Stories, like gold, are where you
find them. You may discover one three thousand miles from home or, as in
_The Spell of the White Sturgeon_, right on your own door step." And he
adds: "I am married to a very beautiful girl and have a teen-age
daughter. Both of them order me around in a shameful fashion, but I can
still boss the dog! We live in Phoenix, Arizona."


  =Transcriber's Notes:=
  hyphenation, spelling and grammar have been preserved as in
    the original
  Page 78, scents A mink ==> scents. A mink
  Page 79, the sora Silent ==> the sora. Silent
  Page 80/81, "carelessly dis carded" changed to "carelessly discarded"
  Page 95, needn't,' Jud" ==> needn't," Jud
  Page 96, proceedings Unstrapping ==> proceedings. Unstrapping
  Page 128, the law A hillman ==> the law. A hillman
  Page 144, pacs ==> packs
  Page 164, that are better ==> that area better
  Page 167, particulary ==> particularly
  Page 169, The plan, severe ==> The pain, severe





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