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Title: Neighbors Unknown
Author: Roberts, Charles G. D., Sir
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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                         THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
         NEW YORK • BOSTON • CHICAGO • ATLANTA • SAN FRANCISCO
                        MACMILLAN & CO., Limited
                 LONDON • BOMBAY • CALCUTTA • MELBOURNE
                   THE MACMILLAN CO. OF CANADA, Ltd.
                                TORONTO



                           Neighbors Unknown


                                   BY
                         CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS
   AUTHOR OF “KINGS IN EXILE,” “THE BACKWOODSMEN,” “THE HOUSE IN THE
                              WATER,” ETC.


                                New York
                         THE MACMILLAN COMPANY
                                  1911
                         _All rights reserved_

                       Copyright, 1909 and 1910,
                   By THE CURTIS PUBLISHING COMPANY,
                                  and
           By THE ASSOCIATED SUNDAY MAGAZINES, INCORPORATED.
                            Copyright, 1911,
                       By THE MACMILLAN COMPANY.
           Set up and electrotyped. Published January, 1911.


                             Norwood Press
                 J. S. Cushing Co.—Berwick & Smith Co.
                         Norwood, Mass., U.S.A.


                                   To
                                PATRICIA



                                CONTENTS


                                                                     PAGE
  On the Roof of the World                                              1
  Black Swamp                                                          15
  The Isle of Birds                                                    33
  The Antlers of the Caribou                                           51
  The Sentry of the Sedge-Flats                                        67
  A Tree-top Aeronaut                                                  85
  The Theft                                                           103
  The Tunnel Runners                                                  127
  A Torpedo in Feathers                                               151
  How a Cat played Robinson Crusoe                                    173
  Little Bull of the Barrens                                          193
  The Tiger of the Sea                                                211
  Gray Lynx’s Last Hunting                                            235
  Mothers of the North                                                253



                         ON THE ROOF OF THE WORLD


It seemed to be the very roof of the world, all naked to the outer cold,
this flat vast of solitude, dimly outspread beneath the Arctic night. A
line of little hills, mere knobs and hummocks, insignificant under the
bitter starlight, served to emphasize the immeasurable and shelterless
flatness of the surrounding expanse. Somewhere beneath the unfeatured
levels the sea ended and the land began, but over all lay the monotony of
ridged ice and icy, wind-scourged snow. The wind, which for weeks without
a pause had torn screaming across the nakedness, had now dropped into
calm; and with the calm there seemed to come in the unspeakable cold of
space.

Suddenly a sharp noise, beginning in the dimness far to the left of the
Little Hills, ran snapping past them and died off abruptly in the
distance to the right. It was the ice, thickened under that terrific
cold, breaking in order to readjust itself to the new pressure. There was
a moment of strange muttering and grinding. Then, again, the stillness.

Yet, even here on the roof of the world, which seemed as if all the winds
of eternity had swept it bare, there was life, life that clutched and
clung savagely. Away to the right of the Little Hills, something moved,
prowling slowly among the long ridges of the ice. It was a gaunt, white,
slouching, startling shape, some seven or eight feet in length, and
nearly four in height, with heavy shoulders, and a narrow, flat-browed
head that hung low and swayed menacingly from side to side as it went.
Had the light been anything more than the wide glimmer of stars, it would
have shown that this lonely, prowling shape of white had a black-tipped
muzzle, black edges to the long slit of its jaws, and little, cruel eyes
with lids outlined in black. From time to time the prowler raised his
head, sniffed with dilating nostrils, and questioned with strained ears
the deathly silence. It was a polar bear, an old male, too restless and
morose to content himself with sleeping away the terrible polar winter in
a snow-blanketed hole.

From somewhere far off to seaward came across the stillness a light
sound, the breaking of thin ice, the tinkle of splashings frozen as they
fell. The great white bear understood that sound. He had been waiting for
it. The seals were breaking their way up into their air-holes to
breathe—those curious holes which form here and there in the ice-fields
over moving water, as if the ocean itself had need of keeping in touch
with upper air for its immeasurable breathing. At a great pace, but
noiselessly as a drifting wraith of snow, the bear went towards the
sound. Then suddenly he dropped flat and seemed to vanish. In reality he
was crawling, crawling steadily towards the place of the air-holes. But
so smooth was his movement, so furtive, and so fitted to every
irregularity of the icy surface, that if the eye once lost him it might
strive in vain to pick him up again.

Nearer, nearer he crept, till at last, lying motionless with his lean
muzzle just over the crest of the ice-ridge, he could make out the dark
shapes of the seals, vague as shadows, emerging for a few moments to
sprawl upon the edge of the ice. Every few seconds one would slip into
the water again, while another would awkwardly scramble forth. In that
phenomenal cold it was necessary for them to take heed to the air-holes,
lest these should get sealed up and leave them to drown helplessly under
the leagues of solid ice-field. These breathing-spells in the upper air,
out here on the world’s roof, were their moments of greatest peril. Close
to the edge of the hole they sprawled; and always one or another kept
anxious watch, scanning with mild, bright eyes the menacing solitude,
wherein they seemed the only things alive.

About this time, from one of a group of tiny, snow-covered mounds huddled
along the base of the Little Hills, emerged a man. He crawled forth on
all fours from the tunnel of his doorway, and stood up and peered about
him. His squat figure was clothed and hooded in furs. His little,
twinkling eyes, after clearing themselves from the smoke and smart of the
thick air within the igloo, could see further through the gloom than even
the eyes of the bear. He noted the fall of the wind, the savage intensity
of the cold, and his eyes brightened with hope. He had no fear of the
cold, but he feared the hunger which was threatening the lonely village.
During the long rage of the wind, the supply of food in his igloo had run
low. He welcomed a cold which would close up most of the seals’
breathing-holes, and force more numerous visitors to the few holes that
they could keep open. For some moments he stood motionless, peering and
listening as the bear had done. Suddenly he too caught that far-off light
crashing of brittle ice. On the instant he turned and crawled hastily
back into the hut.

A moment later he reappeared, carrying two weapons, besides the long
knife stuck in his girdle. One of these was an old Hudson Bay Company’s
musket. The other was a spear of spliced bone, with a steel head securely
lashed to it. Powder and ball for the musket were much too precious to be
expended, except in some emergency wherein the spear might fail. Without
waiting for a repetition of the sounds, he started off at once unerringly
in the direction whence they had come. He knew that air-hole; he could
find it in the delusive gloom without the aid of landmark. For some way
he went erect and in haste, though as soundlessly as the bear. Then,
throwing himself flat, he followed exactly the bear’s tactics, till, at
last, peering cautiously over a jagged ice-ridge, he, too, could make out
the quarry watchfully coming and going about the brink of the air-hole.

From this point onward the man’s movements were so slow as to be almost
imperceptible. But for his thick covering of furs, his skin tough as
leather and reeking with oil, he would have been frozen in the midst of
his journey. But the still excitement of the hunt was pumping the blood
hotly through his veins. He was now within gunshot, but in that dim light
his shooting would be uncertain. He preferred to worm his way nearer, and
then trust to his more accustomed weapon, the spear, which he could drive
half-way through the tough bulk of a walrus.

At last there remained between him and the seals but one low ridge and
then a space of level floe. This was the critical point. If he could
writhe his body over the crest and down the other side, he would be
within safe spear-shot. He would spring to his feet and throw before the
nimblest seal could gain the water. He lay absolutely still, summoning
wits, nerves, and muscles alike to serve his will with their best. His
eyes burned deep in his head, like smouldering coals.

Just at this moment a ghostly light waved broadly across the solitude. It
paled, withdrew, wavered back and forth as shaken from a curtain in the
heavens, then steadied ephemerally into an arch of glowing silver, which
threw the light of a dozen moons. There were three seals out upon the ice
at that moment, and they all lifted their eyes simultaneously to greet
the illumination. The man irresistibly looked up; but in the same
instant, remembering the hunger in the igloo, he cowered back again out
of sight, trembling lest some of the seals might have caught a glimpse of
his head above the ridge. Some dozen rods away, at the other side of the
air-hole, the great white bear also raised his eyes towards that
mysterious light, troubled at heart because he knew it was going to
hamper his hunting.

For perhaps two minutes the seals were motionless, profiting by the
sudden brightness to scrutinize the expanse of ice and snow in every
direction. Then, quite satisfied that no danger was near, they resumed
their sportive plungings while the instantly frozen waters crackled
crisply about them. For all their vigilance, they had failed to detect,
on the one side, a narrow, black-tipped muzzle lying flat in a cleft of
the ice-ridge, or, on the other side, a bunch of grayish fur, nearly the
color of the grayish-mottled ice, which covered the head of the man from
the igloo beside the Little Hills.

And now, while neither the man nor the bear, each utterly unconscious of
the other, dared to stir, in a flash the still silver radiance of the
aurora broke up and flamed into a riot of dancing color. Parallel rays
like the pipes of a Titanic organ, reaching almost from the horizon to
the zenith, hurtled madly from side to side, now elongating, now
shortening abruptly, now seeming to clash against one another, but always
in an ordered madness of right lines. Unearthly green, palpitating into
rose, and thinnest sapphire, and flame-color, and ineffably tender
violet, the dance of these cohorts of the magnetic rays went on, across
the stupendous arc of sky, till the man, afraid of freezing in his
unnatural stillness, shrank back down the ridge, and began twisting his
body, noiselessly but violently, to set his blood in motion; and the
bear, trusting to the confusion of shifting lights, slipped himself over
the ridge and into a convenient crevice. Under the full but bewildering
glare of that celestial illumination, he had gained a good ten feet upon
his human rival. The man’s eyes reappeared just then at the crest of his
ridge. Their piercing glance lingered, as if with suspicion, upon the
crevice wherein the bear had flattened himself. Was there something
unduly solid in that purple shadow in the crevice? No, a trick of the
witch lights, surely. The piercing eyes returned to their eager watching
of the seals.

Precious as was his ammunition, and indifferent as was his shooting with
the old, big bore, Hudson Bay musket, the man was beginning to think he
would have to stake his chances on the gun. But, suddenly, as if at a
handsweep of the Infinite, the great lights vanished.

For a few seconds, by the violence of the contrast, it seemed as if thick
darkness had fallen upon the world.

In those few seconds, noiseless and swift as a panther, the man had run
over the ridge to within a dozen paces of the seals, and paused with
spear uplifted, waiting till his eyes should once more be able to see in
the starlight glimmer. As he stood thus waiting, every sense, nerve, and
muscle on the last strain of expectancy and readiness, he heard, or
seemed to feel as much as to hear, the rush of some great bulk through
the gloom. Then came a scramble, a heavy splash, a second splash, a
terrible scuffling noise, and a hoarse, barking scream. The man
remembered that before the light went out there had been three seals on
the ice. Two he had heard escape. What had befallen the third? Fiercely,
like a beast being robbed of its prey, he sprang forward a couple of
paces. Then he stopped, for he could not yet see clearly enough to
distinguish what was before him. His blood pounded through his veins. The
cold of Eternity was flowing in upon him, here on the naked roof of the
world, but he had no feeling or fear of it. All he felt was the presence
of his foe, there before him, close before him, in the dark.

Then, once more, the light flooded back,—the wide-flung silver
radiance,—as suddenly and mysteriously as it had vanished.

Close beside the air-hole, half crouching upon the body of the slain
seal, with one great paw uplifted, and bloody jaws open in defiance,
stood the bear, glaring at the man.

Without an instant’s hesitation the man hurled his spear. It flew true.
But in that same second the bear lifted his paw to ward off the blow. He
was not quite quick enough, but almost. The blade struck, but not where
it was aimed. It bit deep, but not to the life. With a growl of rage, the
bear tore it loose and charged upon the man.

The antagonists were not more than twenty paces apart, and now a glory of
colored lights, green, red, and golden, went dancing madly over them,
with a whispering, rustling sound as of stiff silk crumpled in vast
folds. The man’s eyes were keen and steady. In a flash both hands were
out of his great fur mittens, which were tied by thongs to his sleeves.
The heavy musket leaped to his shoulder, and his eye ran coolly along the
barrel. There was a thunderous roar as of a little cannon. A dense cloud
of smoke sprang into the air just before the muzzle of the gun.

Through the smoke a towering shape, with wide jaws and battering paws,
hurled itself. The man leaped to one side, but not quite far enough. One
great paw, striking blindly, smote him down; and, as he fell, the huge
bulk fell half upon him, only to roll over the next instant and lie
huddled and motionless upon the ice.

The man picked himself up, shook himself; and a look of half-dazed
triumph went across his swarthy face as he pulled on his mittens. Then he
smiled broadly, patted approvingly the old Hudson Bay musket, turned on
his heels, and sent a long, summoning cry across the ice towards the
igloos at the foot of the Little Hills.



                              BLACK SWAMP


The brook, which had rattled down so gayly, with many a laughing rapid
and clattering white cascade, from the sunlit granite terraces of Lost
Mountain, fell silent and hung back as it drew near the swamp. Wheeling
in slow, deep, purple-dark eddies, it loitered for some hundred yards or
so between dim overhanging ranks of alder, then sank reluctantly beneath
an arch of mossed cedar-roots, and was lost in the heavy gloom.

Within the swamp the huge and ancient trunks of cedar and tamarack
crowded in a sort of desperate confusion. Of great girth at the base,
some towered straight up, seeking to get their tops out into the
sunlight, under those sparse patches of far-off, indifferent sky. Others
slanted ponderously, and laid upon their neighbors the responsibility of
supporting their burden of massive branches. Yet others, undermined in
youth by some treachery of the slough, lay prone above the water-holes
for a portion of their length, and then turned skyward, ineffectually, as
if too late awakened from their sluggish dreams. The roots of the trees
were half uncovered—immense, coiled, uncouth, dull-colored shapes, like
monsters struggling up from the teeming primeval slime.

In truth, there was a suggestion of something monstrous in all that the
eye could see in Black Swamp. The heavy, indeterminate masses of dark
mud, or patches of black water, lying deep between and under the
contortions of the roots; the thick, gray rags of dead cedar-bark; the
rotting stumps, some uprooted and half engulfed in the inert morass; the
overpowering windless shadow, which lay thick as if no sound had ever
jarred it; above all, the gigantic tangle of trunks and roots, stagnantly
motionless, with the strained stillness that is not of peace, but of a
nightmare. From a branch of one of the sullen trunks hung a globe of
lightest-gray papery substance, with a round hole in the bottom of it. In
and out of this hole moved two venomous streams of black-and-white
hornets.

Suddenly it seemed as if the spirit of the monstrous solitude had taken
substance, and was moving among the inert shapes of root and trunk. A
massive fur-clad beast, dull black in color, with high, humped haunches
and heavy, shapeless limbs, its hind feet grotesquely semi-human in
outline, its head swinging low on a long, clumsy neck, came picking its
way with a loose-jointed gait over the jumble of roots. With little,
twinkling, deep-set eyes it peered beneath each root, investigated each
crevice in the ancient bark, looking for grubs and beetles, which its
great paws captured with amazing though awkward-looking dexterity. For so
huge a beast as the great black bear, which could pull down an ox, to
busy himself in the hunting of grubs and beetles, seemed one of the
whimsicalities of Nature, who pursues her ends indifferently through
mammoth or microbe.

Near the tree of the hornets the bear found a half-rotten stump. Sniffing
at it with instructed nose, he decided that it held grubs. Clutching at
it with his long, hooked claws, he tore away one side of it, revealing a
mellow-brown, crumbly interior channelled by wood-grubs in every
direction. Those which were in view on the erect portion of the stump he
first picked out delicately and devoured with satisfaction. Then he
turned his attention to the big slab which he had ripped away, and which
lay on a hummock of firm ground at his feet.

But the bear was not the only connoisseur of grubs in Black Swamp. Some
dozen inches before his nose a particularly fat maggot was squirming in
the shallow remnant of its chamber, dismayed at its sudden exposure to
the air. The bear was just on the point of picking it up, when it was
pounced upon by one of the great black-and-white hornets, as a hawk might
pounce on a rabbit. Pricked with the tip of the hornet’s sting, the fat
grub lashed itself out in one convulsive squirm, and then lay still.
Straddling over it, the hornet rolled it together cleverly, then,
plunging her mandibles into its soft body, proceeded to drain its juices.

For some moments the bear had watched this performance with curious
interest, his little eyes twinkling wickedly. Now he had had enough of
the show. Stretching out one mighty paw, he laid it down deliberately on
the hornet and her prey. For a moment he left it there, as if his act had
been one of considered punishment. Then, withdrawing the paw, he eyed the
flattened insect, and proceeded to swallow her and her victim together.

But the hornet was not quite dead, for the rotten wood was soft and full
of unevenness; and this insect, with its burnished black body barred with
creamy white, was no mere peppery little “yellow-jacket” wasp, but the
great hornet of the woods, whose sting can pierce the hide of the moose.
No sooner had the bear picked up the dangerous morsel than he spat it out
again with a _woof_ of surprise, and ground it into nothingness with an
angry sweep of his paw. Then he fell to shaking his head, clawing
awkwardly at his mouth, and whining a fretful protest at the sting.
Lumbering down to a swamp-hole close by, he plunged his muzzle again and
again into the chill black mud. After a brief period of this treatment,
he returned to the stump and went on with his banquet of grubs, stopping
every now and then to shake his head and grumble deep in his throat. When
another big hornet, catching sight of the feast, pounced upon a grub, he
smashed her and ground her up instantly, without caring how many tasty
morsels were annihilated in the process.

When the stump had been quite torn to pieces, and every maggot extracted
from it, the bear moved on to the tree of the hornets. He did not notice
the nest, for he did not take the trouble to look up. If he had done so,
being in a rage against the venomous tribe, he might, perhaps, have had
the rashness to climb the tree and declare a doubtful war. As it was, he
noted only that between two great roots, which sprang out like buttresses
from the base of the trunk, there was a space of dry earth, covered with
the minute elastic needles of the tamarack. Here he threw himself down
with a grunt, and fell to rubbing his face with his thick forepaws.

But he was restless, the old bear—either because the grubs had not
satisfied his hunger, or because the sting of the hornet still rankled in
his jaw. Almost immediately he got up upon his haunches, and stared all
about, sniffing, with his nose in the air. The monstrous confusion of
roots and trunks, monotonously repeating itself as far as he could see
through the shadow, appeared to offer him nothing worth his attention.
But presently he lurched forward, as if he had made up his mind what to
do. Shambling grotesquely, but picking his way above the slime as
delicately as a cat, he kept on for perhaps a hundred yards. Perhaps his
nostrils had caught, across the stagnant air, the tang of running water.
It was running water that he came to, for the brook, though often foiled,
often diverted, often turned back upon itself, and almost lost, had
succeeded in saving for itself a clean channel through the water-holes
and chaos of the swamp.

Just at this point the brook ran through a dark but living pool, brown
but transparent, with here and there a gleam of elusive light, as in the
eyes of some dark-eyed women. To this pool, and others like it strung
here and there through the swamp, had gathered many fish,—trout, suckers,
and chub,—fleeing the too direct rays of the high midsummer sun.

Lumbering down the sticky bank, the bear squatted himself on his haunches
close to the edge of the water, and stared at it fixedly. After a time
his eyes began to discern the fish which thronged in its deep centre.
Having assured himself that the fish were there, he lay down on his
stomach, in a hunched, shapeless position, with his face close to the
water and one paw uplifted. It looked like a difficult position to hold,
but the bear held it, motionless as one of the great roots, and quite as
inert-looking, till by and by some of the fish, which had been frightened
away by his coming, swam slowly back to the weedy edges to feed. These
fish were suckers, weed-eaters, thick-bodied and sluggish in movement,
very different from the swift, ravening trout. A spark flashed into the
deep of the bear’s eyes as he saw them coming, but not so much as the
edge of a nostril quivered. A big sucker with a snout that overhung, and
opened and shut greedily, came nosing the mud close up under his face.
With a lightning scoop the waiting paw descended, and the fish, amid a
noisy splashing, was hurled out upon the bank, half stunned. Before it
could recover itself enough to flop, the bear was upon it. Picking it up
between his jaws, he carried it lazily back to that dry couch he had
found beneath the tree of the hornets, there to be eaten at his leisure.

While the bear, ponderous and sullen, was mumbling over his meal in that
uncouth solitude, there came, moving briskly down the brook’s margin, a
gay little figure that seemed an embodied protest against all the dark
and enormous formlessness of the swamp. It was as if the world of
sunlight, and swift motion, and bright vitality, and completed form, had
sent in its herald to challenge the inertness of the gloom.

The tripping little figure was about the size of a fox, and with the
long, pointed, inquisitive muzzle of a fox. Its abundant fur was of a
cloudy, irregular yellowish-gray, darkening at the tips, and shading to
almost black along the back. Its tail was long, light, and vividly barred
with black. Its dainty, fine-clawed, hand-like feet were bright black.
But the most striking thing about it was its face, which was very light
gray, with a large black patch around each eye like an exaggerated pair
of spectacles. The eyes themselves were extraordinarily large, dark, and
lustrous, and glowed with a startling, almost impish intelligence.

The raccoon was not given, as a rule, to daytime prowlings, his
preference being for moonlight rather than sunlight. Nor, usually, was he
given to haunting the sinister recesses of Black Swamp. But he was a
wanderer, and capricious as all vagabonds; and he had somehow discovered
that there were crawfish in the brook where it flowed through the swamp.
He was an ardent fisherman, deft and unerring with his hand-like claws.
But to-day his fishing was unsuccessful, for never a crawfish was so
considerate as to come his way. He saw the suckers and trout gathered at
the mid-deeps of the pools, but he was too impatient, or not really
hungry enough, to wait for them to come near shore. While he was watching
beside the big pool wherein the bear had recently fished with such
success, a wood-mouse unwarily came out of its hole, just at his feet,
and was captured before it had time to see its peril. This prize
contented the raccoon. Having killed his victim instantly with a cheerful
nip behind the ears, he sat by the pool’s edge and proceeded to souse the
morsel vigorously up and down in the water before eating it. Not until it
was washed almost to a rag did he seem to think it clean enough to eat,
and then, after all his trouble, he nibbled hardly the half of it,
flinging the remnant into the water with the air of a wasteful child who
has never known what it feels like to go hungry.

From the edge of the brook the raccoon ran up the bank. After a pause he
turned aimlessly into the still turmoil of the trunks and roots. Every
fallen trunk, every long tentacle of a root that he came to, he would
mount it and run along it to the end in whatever direction it led. As the
luck of the wild would have it, this erratic progress brought him
presently to one of the great buttressing roots of the tree of the
hornets. He mounted it, of course, followed it nearly to the base of the
trunk, and stopped abruptly at the sight of the bear.

The bear, who had but recently finished his meal of fish, was lying half
asleep on the dry tamarack needles between the roots. He had well eaten,
but the sting in his mouth still fretted him, and his mood was ugly. His
great head was moving sullenly, ponderously, from side to side. Ominous
and dark and ill-shapen, he looked strangely like a portion of the swamp
come alive. The raccoon scrutinized him with eyes of bright, mischievous
disdain. The bear, looking up, caught sight of him, and aimed a
treacherous blow at him with his tremendous, armed forepaw. Light as a
feather, the raccoon avoided him. It was as if the very wind of the blow
had swept him from the place of danger. The bear grunted at his failure,
and fell to licking his paw. The raccoon, who had slipped around the
tree, mounted another root, and gazed at his rude assailant impishly.
Then, glancing upwards, his liquid eyes detected the pendent gray globe
of the hornets’ nest, pale in the gloom.

The raccoon knew that inside every hornets’ nest or wasps’ nest at this
time of the year was a mass of peculiarly succulent larvæ and immature
insects. If this gray globe had been a wasps’ nest, he might, perhaps,
have attacked it at once, his long hair, thick skin, and skill in
protecting his eyes, enabling him to brave, without too great cost, the
stings of the ordinary “yellow-jacket.” But he noted well the formidable
insects which hummed about this nest; he knew the powers of the
black-and-white hornet. Having stared at the nest for several minutes, he
seemed to come to some decision. Thereupon he tripped off delicately over
the tree-roots to the brook, to resume his hunt for crawfish.

It was by this time getting far along in the afternoon. As the gloom
deepened at the approach of twilight, the bear went to sleep. The
darkness fell thicker and thicker, till his breathing bulk could no
longer be distinguished from the trunk beside it. Then, from narrow
openings in the far-off tree-tops, fell here and there a ray of white
moonlight, glassy clear, but delusive. Under the touch of these scant
rays, every shrouded mystery of the swamp took on a sort of malignant
life.

About this time the raccoon came back. In that phantom illumination, more
treacherous than the dark, his wide eyes, nearly all pupil, saw as
clearly as in the daylight. They gleamed elvishly as they took note of
the sleeping bear. Then they glanced upward toward the hornets’ nest,
where it hung just crossed by one chill white pencil of a moon ray.
Softly their owner ran up the tree, his delicate claws almost inaudible
as they clutched the roughness of the bark.

At the base of the slim branch—hardly more than a twig, but alive and
tough—which held the nest of the hornets, the raccoon stopped. He wanted
the contents of that nest. But he did not want to test the prowess of its
guardians, which were now, as he well knew, all within, too heavy with
sleep to fly, but as competent as ever to sting. After some moments of
deliberation, he bit the twig through and let the nest fall. Then he
scrambled hastily down the tree, as if eager to see what would happen.

His purpose, perhaps, in dropping the nest was simply a wanton impulse to
destroy what he desired but could not have. Perhaps he thought the nest
would roll into a shallow pool at the other side of the tree, and so
drown its occupants, after which he might rifle it at his own
convenience. Or, possibly, he calculated that that would happen which
presently did. The nest fell, not into the water, but between the
upcurled forepaws, and very close to the nose, of the slumbering bear.

The bear, awakened and startled by its light fall, growled and bit
angrily at the intruding nest. At the same time, with an instinctive
clutch, he ripped it open, not realizing just what it was. The next
instant he knew. With a _woof_ of rage, he tried to crush it and all its
envenomed populace within it. But he was too late. The great hornets were
already swarming over him, crawling, burrowing deep into the fur about
his face and neck and belly. Furiously they plunged and replunged their
long, flame-like stings. His eyes and muzzle crawled with the fiery
torment. Clawing, striking, snapping, grunting, whimpering, he rolled
over and over in desperate effort to rid himself of the all-pervasive
attack. But the foes he crushed had already left behind their poison in
his veins. For a few moments his monstrous contortions went on, while in
a glassy patch of white light, on the trunk above, clung the raccoon,
gazing down upon him with liquid, elvish eyes. At length, quite beside
himself with the torment, he reared upon his hind-quarters, battling in
the air. Then he lunged forward, and went scrambling headlong over the
slippery black jumble of roots.

The great beast’s first impulse, one may guess, was simply that of
flight, of mad effort to escape from foes whom he could not cope with.
Having no heed of his direction, the blind guidance of trunk and root led
him around in a rough circle, till he came almost back to the tree of his
fate. Between him and the tree, however, lay a spacious patch of morass,
fairly firm on the surface, but underneath, a slough of viscous mud. His
eyes almost closed by the stings, the bear plunged straight forward into
this morass. His first instinct was to struggle frantically back, but as
he fell, his nose had dipped into the mud. The chill of it was like a
balm to his tortured nostrils and lips. This, indeed, was what he wanted.
He wallowed straight ahead, plunging his face deep into the icy slime.
The drench of it soothed the scorching of his stung belly. The anguish of
his eyelids was assuaged. Again and again, buried now to his shoulders,
he thrust his face into the ooze. Then, with the salving of his torment,
his senses seemed to return. He tried to wallow back to firm ground.

The swamp, as we have seen, was in all things monstrous. It was monstrous
now to its offspring and victim, in warning him too late. The patch of
morass was of great depth, and the bear was sucked under so swiftly that,
even as he turned to escape, he sank to the neck. His huge forepaws beat
and clawed at the stiffer surface, breaking it down into the liquid ooze
beneath. Presently they also were engulfed. Only his head remained above
the mud. His gaping muzzle, strained straight upward, emitted hideous
gasps and groans. A beam of moonlight lay across the scene, still and
malignant, and the raccoon watched from the tree with an untriumphant
curiosity. When at last that terrible and despairing head had vanished,
and nothing remained but a long convulsion of the mud, the raccoon came
daintily down from his post of observation, and examined the remains of
the hornets’ nest. It was crushed and pounded quite too flat to be of any
further interest to him, so, after a disdainful wrinkling of his fine
black nose, he tripped away to seek again the world to which he
belonged—the world of free airs, and dancing leaves, and clamoring
waters, and bright, swift, various life, and yellow moonlight over the
fields of corn.



                           THE ISLE OF BIRDS


Far out of the track of ships, in the most desolate stretch of the North
Atlantic, walled round with ceaseless thunder of the surf and wailed
about continually by innumerable sea-birds, the islet thrust up its bleak
rocks beneath a pale, unfriendly sky.

It was almost all rock, this little island—gray pinnacles of rock, ledges
upon ledges of rock, and one high, sunrise-facing cliff of rock, seamed
with transverse crevices and shelves. Only on the gentler southward slope
was the rock-frame of the island a little hidden. Here had gathered a few
acres of mean, sandy soil, dotted sparsely with tufts of harsh grass
which struggled into greenness at the bidding of a bitter and
fog-blighted June.

But this remote, sterile isle, shunned even by the whalers because of the
treachery of its environing reefs and tides, was by no means lifeless.
Indeed, it was thronged, packed, clamorous, screaming with life. It was a
very paradise of the nesting sea-birds. Every meagre foot of it, rock and
sand, was preempted and occupied by the myriad battalions of puffin,
skua, auk, and saddle-back. The incessant clamor of their voices, harsh
and shrill, overrode even the trampling of the surf.

Within the crowded little domain each tribe had its territory. The
puffins—or “sea-parrots,” as some of the sailor folk call them, because
of their huge hooked beaks—occupied the sandy slope, where they had their
nests in deep burrows for protection against the robber skuas and
saddle-backs. The auks had a corner of the cliff-face, where along every
ledge they sat straight up in prim, close array like so many dwarf
penguins, each couple occupied with its precious solitary egg. The rest
of the cliff-face was monopolized by the screaming hosts of the
saddle-backs, those great, marauding, black-backed gulls, whose yelps and
wild _ka-ka-ka-kaings_ made most of the deafening tumult in which the
rocks were wrapt. As for the skuas, or “men-o’-war,” less numerous than
the other inhabitants of the island, they occupied the lower ledges and
the rock-crevices around the base of the puffins’ field. These were the
situations which they preferred. If they had preferred the territory of
the puffins or the auks, or even of the big bullying saddle-backs which
were nearly twice their size, they would have taken it. But they neither
desired nor knew how to dig burrows like the droll little puffins; and
they valued their precious eggs too highly to want to risk them on the
narrow, exposed shelves of the cliff-face, where there was no room to
make a proper nest. They took the places they wanted, but as these were
not the places which the other tribes wanted, there was no one to feel
aggrieved. Saddle-back, auk, and puffin—each tribe thought it had the
pick of the island territory, and felt altogether satisfied with itself.

Now, the weakest of these tribes was the tribe of the puffins. But one
great strength they had, which fully made up for their deficiency in size
and power. They knew how to burrow deep holes for their nests, wherein
their eggs and nestlings were safe from the skuas and the saddle-backs.
Every available inch of soil on the island was tunnelled with these
burrows, like a rabbit-warren. At the bottom of each burrow was either
one big, solitary egg, or a strange-looking youngster with enormous head
and beak and an insatiable appetite for fish. At this season, late June,
most of the puffins had hatched out their eggs. At the doorway of almost
every burrow, therefore, was to be seen one of the parents on guard,
while the other was away fishing to supply the insatiable demands of the
chick. In dense ranks, sitting erect like auks or penguins, the seriously
grotesque little birds sentinelled their homes, maintaining a
business-like quiet in strange contrast to the ear-splitting volubility
of their neighbors.

At the extreme left of the territory of the puffins, where the rocks
broke abruptly, a tiny cleft-full of earth made room for just one nest.
The pair of puffins who had their burrow here were comparatively
isolated, being some eight or ten feet apart from the crowded ranks of
their kin. Their one big egg had been safely hatched. The ridiculous
chick, all gaping beak and naked belly, the one object of their
passionate solicitude, was thriving and hungry according to the finest
traditions of infant puffinhood. The father, at this moment, was on guard
at the mouth of the burrow, sitting solemnly erect on his webbed feet,
the backs of his legs, and his stiff, short tail; while the mother was
away fishing beyond the white turmoil of the surf.

Surely the most curious figure of all the sea-birds was his. For the
body, it was not so far out of the ordinary,—about the size of a big and
sturdy cockatoo,—white below and blackish-brown above, sides of the face
white, and a dingy white collar on the neck; the webbed feet of a duck;
the stiff, short tail of a penguin; very short, strong wings; and a round
head. But the beak was like a gaudy caricature. Curved from base to tip
like a parrot’s, it was as long and high as the head which it seemed to
overweigh, and adorned apparently aimlessly with exaggerated horny
ridges. Over each eye was a little wart-like horn, and at each corner of
the beak, where it joined the skin of the face, a vivid red, wrinkled
excrescence, in shape a sort of rosette, of skinny flesh. Serviceable, to
be sure, this beak was obviously, whether for burrowing, fighting, or
catching fish; but it could be imagined as performing all these offices
equally well without its monstrous eccentricities of adornment.

Everywhere in front of the cliff-face, over the ledges, above the white
shuddering of the surf, and far out over the smooth leaden-gray rollers,
the air was full of whirling and beating wings. These were the wings of
the giant gulls and the skuas. The puffins did no more flying than was
necessary—swift and straight from their nests out to the fishing-grounds,
and back with their prey to the nests. Above their little domain,
therefore, the honeycombed south-sloping field, there were no soaring or
whirling wings, save for three or four pirate skuas, on the watch for a
chance of robbery.

It was these marauders that the waiting puffin by his nest door, on the
outskirts of the colony, had most dread of. He was a wise old bird, of
several seasons’ experience and many a successful battle; and he knew
that the light-darting skua, though not much more than half the size of
that bully of the cliffs, the saddle-back, was much more dangerous than
the latter because so much more courageous. An impatient croak from the
hungry nestling in the burrow made him poke his big beak inside and utter
a low, chuckling admonition. When he withdrew his head and looked up, he
fluttered the feathers on his neck and opened his beak angrily. A large
skua, of a rusty, mottled black all over, with long tail and long,
hawk-like wings, was circling above him, staring down at him with savage
eyes.

Just a moment or two before this the hen puffin, fishing out at sea, had
marked a plump herring about a foot below the surface of a transparent,
glassy roller. Diving into the water with a violent splash, she had
pursued the fish in his own element, swimming at an altogether miraculous
speed. To gain this speed she used not only her strong, webbed feet, but
also her short, sturdy wings. Darting through the water in this fashion,
just below the surface, she was an amazing figure, some fantastic link,
as it were, between bird and fish. The herring was overtaken, and
clutched securely in the vice of the great parrot beak. Then, with much
desperate flapping and splashing, she burst forth and rose into the air,
heading homeward, straight as a bullet, with her prize.

Flying close to the surface of the sea, she passed through the high-flung
spray of the surf. At this moment some premonition of her coming drew her
mate’s eyes, and he caught sight of her, just mounting above the ledges.
Following his look, the skua, whirling above his head, caught sight of
her also, and marked the prey she carried in her beak. With one
magnificent effortless thrust of his long pinions, he swooped to
intercept her.

The puffin, her great beak and the prize it clutched looking much too big
for her swiftly beating wings to upbear, was coming up over the ledges at
a humming pace, when she saw the dark robber descending upon her. She
swerved, and so escaped the full force of the blow; but she felt herself
enveloped in a whirlwind of wings and beaten down almost to the ground.
At the same time a long, straight, powerful beak, with the tip hooked
like a vulture’s, snapped loudly at the side of her head, grasping at the
fish she carried. Bewildered and terrified as she was, she was at the
same time full of fighting obstinacy. Hanging doggedly to her prize, she
recovered her wing balance, and rocketed on toward her burrow.

Her mate, meanwhile, had seen the attack. One grotesque little bob of
indecision, then he had launched himself down the slope to her succor. He
was not in time to interfere in the first encounter, but as he came
slanting down like a well-aimed missile, the robber was just about to
swoop again. The indignant puffin volleyed into him from the rear,
turning him almost end over end. For an instant his wings flopped
frantically, and he almost came down upon the rocks. By the time he had
recovered himself his assailant had struck the water and was swimming
comfortably on a great gray swell beyond the surf; while the female, with
the herring gripped still in her absurd beak, was just diving
triumphantly into her burrow to feed the ravenous and complaining chick.

The skua was disgusted. Had he been what he in some ways so much
resembled, namely, a goshawk or falcon, with a hawk’s deadly talons, the
encounter would have had a very different result. But his handsome black
feet were armed with nothing more formidable than webs for swimming. His
only weapons were his hook-tipped beak and his long, powerful, buffeting
wings. Backed, however, by his pluck and his audacity, which were worthy
of a better occupation, these weapons were usually sufficient, and he was
not used to being balked as these two serious little householders had
balked him. With a vicious yelp, he went swooping low along the sentinel
ranks of the puffins, followed by a snapping of indignant beaks which
crackled along the lines as he went—a curious, dry sound, audible through
the deep roar of the surf and the high-pitched clamor of bird-cries. Here
and there a buffet of his wing, as it dipped suddenly, would knock over
one of the grotesque but dauntless doorkeepers, who would pick himself
up, ruffle his feathers, and waddle back to his post with outraged
solemnity.

But revenge for his recent discomfiture was not the only or the chief
reason for this raid of the pirate skua over the domain of the citizen
puffins. What he wanted above all was food—whether fish, or eggs, or
nestlings, it was all the same to him. A fairly competent fisherman
himself—though not, of course, in the same class with the puffins,
because of their power of swimming under water—he nevertheless preferred
to make others do his fishing for him, and to take toll of their honest
gains by force. A hardy and fearless highwayman, there was satisfaction
for him in the robbery itself. As he flew thus close, and with the air of
set purpose, above the puffin burrows, a few desultory saddle-backs who
were circling just above dipped lower to see what was going to happen. In
case of a scrimmage of any sort, there was always the possibility of a
chance to snatch something.

As the skua skimmed along, just ahead of him came a puffin, volleying
upward from the sea with a particularly fine fish in his beak. The lucky
fisherman shot straight to his hole. But, by the finest hairbreadth, the
robber got there before him. There was a wild mix-up of wings. The puffin
was knocked clean over on his back, losing the fish, which fell just
before the next burrow. Like a flash the proprietor of that next burrow
bobbed his head forward and snatched at the unexpected windfall. He
caught it by the tail, and turned to plunge into the burrow with it. But
in that same instant the long beak of the skua caught it by the head. For
a second or so the two tugged savagely at the prize, with a vast flapping
and squawking. Then the outraged owner, recovering himself, floundered
up, fixed his beak in the exposed belly of the fish, and began to pull
and jerk like an angry terrier.

Feathers and sand flew into the air as the triangular tug-of-war went on.
But frantic as was the turmoil of scuffling and flapping, the near-by
ranks of puffins paid no attention to it whatever, except to turn their
great beaks, all at the same angle, and stare solemnly, like so many
fantastic maskers. The gulls overhead, however, gathered down with
excited cries, seeking a chance to take part in the scuffle.

But before they could get their greedy beaks into it, it had come to an
end. The fish was torn apart. The puffin who had grabbed the tail fell
backwards with it, ruffled but triumphant, into his burrow; the original
owner was left with just so much as his beak could hold—fortunately no
mean mouthful; while the too-successful marauder, bearing by far the
largest share of the prize, beat vigorously aloft through the screaming
gulls, who would have tried to rob him had they dared. Rising strongly
above them, he headed for the flat ledge, a little inland, where he and
his dusky mate had made their nest.

Meanwhile, on the neighboring cliff-face, had just occurred one of those
incidents which were forever stirring up excitement among the colonies of
the auks and the saddle-backs. It began in the usual way. Each pair of
auks, it must be remembered, has but one egg, which is laid, with no
pretence of a nest, on the bare narrow ledge. As these eggs lie side by
side along the rock, just far enough apart for the parents to brood them,
and as they all look amazingly alike, sometimes the owners themselves get
mixed up as to the identity of their speckled property. In this instance,
two mothers, on a crowded shelf some forty feet above the sea, claimed
the same egg, and both insisted on brooding it at the same time. With
curious, strident grumblings, deep in their throats, they struggled over
it. Their mates, chancing both to return from their fishing at this
moment, joined vigorously in the discussion. The egg was promptly rolled
off the ledge and smashed on the rocks below. But in the excitement its
absence was not noticed. Meanwhile the combatants were making things most
uncomfortable for their nearest neighbors, so these presently were
dragged into the fight. The unfortunate eggs began dropping over the
ledge. Instantly the great saddle-backs, from the noisy colony higher up
the cliff, swept down to gather in the juicy harvest. They loved eggs,
whether fresh or half brooded. Screaming joyously, they thronged the air
just below the scene of the quarrel, which still went on with zest. Some
of the tumbling eggs were stabbed cleverly and sucked in mid-air as they
fell, while others were devoured or sucked up, according to the stage of
development of their contents, on the rocks below. So long did the
foolish auks continue their quarrel, so unusual was the rain of eggs, so
wild was the screaming of the delighted banqueters below the ledge, that
presently a number of the brooding saddle-backs—those who should have
stayed by their charges to guard them, whatever their consorts might be
doing—were seduced from their too tame responsibilities. Standing up in
their dizzy nests,—most of which held either two or three muddy-colored
eggs, scrawled with markings of dull maroon,—they stretched their fierce
yellow beaks over the brink and peered down with predacious eyes. For
many of them the temptation was not to be resisted. With hoarse cries
they launched themselves downward, and joined deliriously in the
scramble.

About level with the crest of the cliff, some half dozen of the dusky
skuas were sailing leisurely. They saw their chance. There was nothing in
the world more to their taste than eggs—and particularly the big, rich
eggs of the great saddle-back gulls. Down they swooped upon the unguarded
nests; and in a moment, plunging their long beaks through the shells,
they were feasting greedily. All around them sat the other gulls, by the
hundred—faithful ones who had resisted temptation and stuck to their
nests. These screamed angrily, but made no attempt to interfere. “Let
each look out for his own” was frankly their policy. Before any of the
delinquent brooders came back, the skuas had cleared out every unguarded
nest, and sailed off with derisive cries.

And so it came about that an unwonted number of saddle-backs, freed from
domestic ties until they should be ready to lay new clutches of eggs, but
very savage and vindictive for all their release, now came flapping
inland over the island on the lookout for any possible chance to avenge
themselves.

At this moment the great skua who had robbed the puffin of its fish came
in sight of his nest. At his approach the female, who had grown
impatient, arose from her handsome, greenish-brown, mottled eggs, sprang
into the air, and sailed off toward the sea. For just about ten or a
dozen seconds the precious eggs were left exposed, while the male swept
down to them on a long, swift glide. But in those brief seconds fate
struck. With an exultant yelp a huge saddle-back dropped out of the sky,
directly upon the nest, and plunged his beak into one of the eggs. The
egg was not far from hatching. He dragged forth the naked chick and
swallowed it ravenously. Before he could turn to another egg, the skua
had fallen upon him, hurling him clear of the nest, and tearing at him
with desperate beak.

Now, the great gull, fully two feet and a half in length from the tip of
his punishing yellow beak to the tip of his tail, was not far from twice
the size of his fearless and furious assailant. Moreover, having just had
his own nest destroyed, he was in a fighting mood. Ordinarily, being a
thorough bully, he would have cowered and fled before the skua’s swift
rage, but now he turned and struck back savagely. More nimble than he,
the skua evaded the blow, and caught him by the neck. And promptly the
two became entangled into a flapping, tearing jumble of beaks and
feathers.

It was close beside the nest that the struggle went on; but meanwhile the
two remaining eggs were lying uncovered to the eyes of prowlers. They did
not lie there long. Two more big saddle-backs straightway pounced upon
them, crushing them flat in the scuffle. Engrossed though he was, the
skua saw them. He was only a shameless robber, but his mettle was of a
temper of the finest, and he knew not fear. Tearing himself free from his
heavy foe, he pounced frantically upon these new assailants of his home.
Startled, they hesitated whether to fight or flee. Then, seeing the odds
so far in their favor, they turned to fight. The first saddle-back
joining them, they presently succeeded in pulling the skua down. Then
against their great weight and overpowering wings, his courage availed
him little. Smothered, beaten, trodden upon, he disappeared from sight
beneath the yelping turmoil. The odds had been too great for him. In half
a minute the battle was over and his dark body, with the throat
completely torn out, lay unresisting beneath the broad, pink,
heavy-webbed feet of his conquerors.

Suddenly, as if at a signal, all three saddle-backs lifted their heads
and stared about them. They marked their victim’s mate winging upward
toward them from the sea, swiftly, as if a prescience of evil had
summoned her. They saw two other skuas sailing down from the cliff-top,
as if to demand their business in skua territory. They had no stomach to
face that demand; they had no heart for a fight on anything approaching
fair terms. Flapping heavily into the air, they flew off in haste to lose
themselves in the myriads of their screaming fellows. The female skua,
returning, hovered low; but she did not alight. In silence, her head
thrust downwards, she circled and circled endlessly on dark wings above
the scattered ruins of her nest, the bedraggled and tattered body of her
slain mate. And the stiff ranks of the puffins, like fantastic toy birds
carved in wood and painted, stared down upon her solemnly from the slopes
near by.



                       THE ANTLERS OF THE CARIBOU


  When the frost is on the barrens,
  And the popple-leaves are thinned,
  And the caribou are drifting
  Down the wind,——

So writes one who knows all about how autumn comes to the Tobique
barrens, and who claims to know as much as most men about the caribou.
But the caribou do not always drift, by any means. They are rather an
incalculable folk, these caribou,—and even in their name one notes their
inclination to be contrary; for the herds which frequent the high, watery
barrens of northern New Brunswick are not, as one might suppose, the
“caribou of the barren grounds,” but the larger and warier “woodland
caribou.” The faithful observer of the manners and customs of this tribe
may spend much time one year in learning what he will be constrained to
unlearn with humility the next.

The lonely lake, smooth as a mirror between its flat, desolate shores,
spread pink, amber, and gold toward the cloudless pink and orange sky,
where the sun had just sunk below the wooded horizon. All the way up the
lake, on one side, the shore was an unbroken stretch of treeless barren.
On the other side the low, dark, serried ranks of the fir forest advanced
almost to the water’s edge, their tops like embattled spear-points
against the colored sky. From this shore a spit of sand jutted straight
out into the lake. On its extremity, his magnificent bulk and lofty head
black against the pellucid orange glow, stood a giant bull-moose,
motionless as if modelled in bronze. His huge muzzle was thrust straight
out before him, as if he was about to roar a challenge. His wide,
palmated antlers were laid back over his shoulders.

Far down the lake a solitary huntsman lay beside a dying camp-fire, and
gazed at the splendid silhouette. A faint puff of the aromatic
wood-smoke, breathing across his nostrils at that moment, bit the picture
into his memory so ineffaceably, that never after could he sniff the
smell of wood-smoke on evening air without the desolate splendor of that
spacious and shining scene leaping into his brain. But he was a hunter,
and the great bull was his quarry. Where he lay he was invisible against
the dark background of tree and brush. Presently he reached for his rifle
and for a trumpet-like roll of birch bark which lay close by. Noiselessly
as a snake he crawled to the shelter of a thicket of young firs. Then he
arose to his feet and slipped into the forest.

At the same instant the moose, as if some warning of his unseen foe had
been flashed into his consciousness, turned and strode off, without a
sound, into the woods.

Soon the tiny camp-fire had died to a few white ashes, and the half-dark
of a cloudless night had fallen—still, and chill, and faintly sweet with
damp, tonic scents of spruce, bayberry, and bracken. There was that in
the air which spoke of frost before morning. It wanted nearly an hour of
moonrise. The wide, vague world of the night, that seemed so empty, so
unstirring, grew populous with unseen, furtive life—life hunting and
hunted; loving, fearing, trembling; enjoying or avenging. But there was
no sound, except now and then the inexplicable rustle of a dead leaf, or
an elvish gurgle of water from somewhere in the shadows along shore.

At last the hunter, threading his way through the forest as noiselessly
as the craftiest of the prowling kindreds, arrived in the heart of a
covert of young fir-trees, from beneath whose sweeping branches he could
command a near and clear view of the sand-spit. Disappointed he was, but
not surprised, to find that the great moose-bull had disappeared. Seating
himself with his back to a small tree, his rifle and the birch-bark
trumpet, or “moose call,” across his knees, he settled down to wait—to
wait with that exhaustless patience, that alert yet immobile vigilance,
which are, perhaps, hardest to acquire of all the essentials of
woodcraft. In the stillness the wood-mice came out and resumed their
play, with fairy-thin squeaks and almost inaudible patterings and
rustlings over the dry carpet of the fir needles.

At last, above the flat, black horizon beyond the lower end of the lake,
came the first pale glow of moonrise. At sight of it the hunter lifted
the birch-bark horn to his lips and breathed through it a deep, bleating
call, grotesque and wild, yet carrying an indescribable appeal, as if it
were the voice of all the longing of the wilderness. Twice he sounded the
uncouth call. Then he waited, listening, thrilled with exquisite
expectancy.

He knew that, when one called a moose, one never knew what might come. It
might, of course, be the expected bull, his lofty, antlered head
thrusting out over the dark screen of the bushes, while his burning eyes
stared about in search of the mate to whose longing call he had hastened.
In that case he might perhaps feel vaguely that he had been deceived, and
fall back soundlessly into the darkness; or, taking it into his head that
another bull had forestalled him, he might burst out into the open,
shaking his antlers, thrashing the bushes, and roaring savage challenge.
But, on the other hand, it might not be a bull at all that would come to
the lying summons. It might be an ungainly moose-cow, mad with jealousy
and frantically resolved to trample her rival beneath her knife-edged
hoofs. Or it might be something dangerously different. It might be a
bear, a powerful old male, who had learned to spring upon a cow-moose and
break her neck with one stroke of his armed paw. In such a contingency
there was apt to be excitement; for when a bear undertakes to stalk a
cow-moose, he gives no notice of his intentions. The first warning, then,
of his approach, would be his final savage rush upon the utterer of the
lying call. For such a contingency the hunter held his rifle always
ready.

But, on the other hand, there might well be nothing at all—no answer, all
through the long, cold, moon-silvered night, summon the birch horn never
so craftily.

And this was what the hunter thought had been so far the result of his
calling. Had he chanced to look over his shoulder, he might have known
better. He might have seen the shadows take substance, condensing into a
gigantic and solid bulk just behind the little tree against which he
leaned his back. He might have seen the spread of vast and shadowy
antlers, the long, sullen head, and drooping muzzle, the little eyes, in
which, as they detected him in his ambush, a sudden flame of rage was
quenched by the timely wisdom of fear. But the giant shape dissolved back
into shadow, and the hunter never knew that he himself had been stalked
and considered.

After a long silence, the birch-bark horn again sent forth its appeal.
Loud and long it called; then it murmured a series of caressingly
desirous notes, impatient and importunate. When it stopped, from the
thick dark just below the sand-spit came a light snapping of twigs and
brushing of branches, which seemed to be moving toward the open point.
The hunter was puzzled; for a moose-bull, coming in answer to the call,
would either come with a defiant rush, and make a much louder noise, or
he would come secretively and make no noise whatever. With pounding
pulses he leaned forward to see what would emerge upon the sand-spit.

To his surprise, it was no moose, but a small gray caribou cow, looking
almost white in the level rays of the now half-risen moon. She was
followed by another cow, larger and darker than the first, and then by a
fine caribou bull. Softly, alluringly, the hunter sounded his call again,
but not one of the caribou paid any attention to it whatever. To the bull
of the caribou it mattered not what lovelorn cow-moose should voice her
hoarse appeals to the moon. He and his followers were on their own
affairs intent.

He was a noble specimen of his kind, as to stature, with a very light
grayish head, neck, and shoulders, showing white in contrast to the dull
brown of the rest of his coat. But his antlers, though large, were
unevenly developed, so obviously imperfect that the hunter, who wanted
heads, not hides or meat, hesitated to shoot. He chose rather to bide his
time, and hope for a more perfect specimen, the law of New Brunswick
allowing him only one.

For several minutes the bull stood staring across the lake, as though
half minded to swim it, and his two cows—antlered like himself, though
much less imposingly—watched him with dutiful attention. Whatever his
purpose, however, it was never declared; for suddenly there came a new
and more impetuous crashing among the undergrowth, and the eyes of the
little herd turned to see what was approaching. An instant later a second
bull, about the size of the first, but very much darker in coloring,
broke furiously through the bushes. He rushed about half-way down the
sand-spit, then stopped, snorting and blowing defiance.

The new-comer had a magnificent set of antlers, but the hunter forgot to
shoot.

The white bull, surprised by the unexpected challenge, stood for an
instant staring stupidly, waving his great ears. Then all at once the hot
blood of arrogant possession and jealous mastery seemed to rush to his
head. Thrusting aside the two cows, who stood huddled in his path, with a
furious booing grunt, he lurched forward to meet the challenger.

With lowered heads, noses between their knees, and the branching spikes
of their antlers presented straight to the front, they came together with
a shock and a snort. The hard horn clashed with the dry resonance of
seasoned wood. Being of about equal size, both withstood the shock. Both
staggered; but, recovering themselves instantly, they stood pushing with
all the strength of their straining, heaving bodies, their hoofs digging
deep into the sand.

Then, on a sudden, as if the same idea had at the same instant flashed
into both their seething brains, they disengaged and jumped backward,
like wary fencers.

For several tense seconds they stood eying each other, antlers down,
while the big-eyed cows, with ears slowly waving, looked on placidly, and
the moon, now full risen, flooded the whole scene with lavish radiance.
The only concern of the cows was that the best bull should win, with
proved mastery compelling their allegiance.

Suddenly the new-comer, the dark bull, as if to get around his
adversary’s guard, feinted to the right, and then lunged straight
forward. But the white bull was too experienced to be caught by such a
well-worn ruse. He met the attack fairly. Again the antlers clashed.
Again those monstrous pantings and savage gruntings arose on the
stillness, as the matched antagonists heaved and pushed, their hind legs
straddled awkwardly and their hoofs ploughing the sand.

At length the white bull put one of his hind feet in a hole. Giving way
for a second, he was forced backwards almost to the water’s edge. With a
furious effort, however, he recovered himself, and even, by some special
good fortune or momentary slackness of his adversary, regained his lost
ground. Both paused for breath. The fight hung exactly in the balance.

To judge from his antlers, the white bull was the older, and therefore,
one may suppose, the craftier duellist. It occurred to him now, perhaps,
that against a foe so nearly his equal in strength he must seek some
advantage in strategy. He made a sudden movement to disengage his antlers
and jump aside. To the trained eyes of the hunter, watching from the
thicket, the intention was obvious. But it failed curiously. At the very
instant of the effort to disengage, the dark bull had surged forward with
violence. Not meeting the resistance expected, he was taken by surprise
and stumbled to his knees. The white bull, quick to feel his advantage,
instantly changed his purpose and surged forward with all his force. For
a moment the dark bull seemed to crumple up as his rival’s heaving
shoulders towered above him.

Now, this was the white bull’s chance. It was for him to roll his enemy
over, disengage, rip the dark bull’s unfortunate flank, and tread him
down into the sand. But he did nothing of the sort. He himself staggered
forward with the fall of his adversary. Then he drew back again, but
slowly. With the motion his adversary regained his feet. Once more the
two stood, armed front to front, grunting, straining, sweating, heaving,
but neither giving ground an inch.

“Locked!” said the hunter, under his breath.

That, indeed, was the fact. The two pairs of antlers were interlaced. But
the sinister truth was not yet realized by the combatants themselves,
because, when either tried to back free, so as to renew the attack more
advantageously, it seemed to him quite natural that the other should
furiously follow him up. In the confused struggle that now followed, they
more than once pivoted completely around; and the two cows, perceiving
something unusual in the combat, drew off with a disapproving air to the
extremity of the sand-spit. Little by little the white bull appeared to
be getting a shade the better of the duel; for at length, regaining his
first position, he began forcing his rival steadily, though slowly, back
toward the woods. Then all at once, during a pause for breath, both at
the same moment awoke to knowledge of the plight they had got themselves
into. Both had sought to back away at the same instant. In the next they
were tugging frantically to break apart.

But struggle as they might their efforts were utterly in vain. The tough,
strong horn of their new antlers was ever so slightly elastic. It had
yielded, under the impact of their last charge, just far enough for a
perfect locking. But in the opposite direction there was no yielding.
They were inextricably and inexorably fixed together, and in a horrid
attitude, in which it was impossible to feed, or even to straighten up
their bowed necks.

In the agonized pulling match which now began, the white bull had the
best of it. He had slightly the advantage in weight. Little by little he
dragged his grunting rival out along the sand-spit, till the two cows,
almost crowded off, bounced past with indignant snorts and vanished down
the shore. A moment more, and he had backed off the sand into a couple of
feet of water.

The shock of the plunge seemed to startle the white bull into new rage.
He laid the blame of it upon his foe. As if with all his strength
renewed, he recovered himself, and thrust the dark bull backward with
such tempestuous force that the latter had all he could do to keep his
footing. Presently he felt himself at the edge of the woods, his hind
feet in a tangle of bushes instead of on the sand. Then, exhausted and
cowed, his legs gave way, and he sank back upon his haunches. Frantic
with despair, he struggled to butt and strike with his fettered prongs,
and in this futile struggle he fell over on his side. The white bull, his
paroxysm of new vigor come suddenly to an end, was dragged down with him,
and the two lay with heaving flanks, panting noisily.

The hunter had laid down his roll of birch bark. He was just about to
step forth from his ambush and mercifully end the matter with his knife.
But there came a brusque intervention. He had not been the only spectator
of the strange combat.

Out from the thickets at the lower edge of the point came plunging an
enormous black bear. With one huge paw uplifted, he fell upon the
exhausted duellists. One blow smashed the neck of the white bull. Turning
to the other, who glared up at him with rolling, hopeless eyes, he fell
to biting at him with slow, luxurious cruelty.

In that instant the hunter’s rifle blazed from the thicket. The bear,
shot through the spine with an explosive bullet, dropped in a sprawling
heap across the bent forelegs of his victim. Stepping forth into the
moonlight, the hunter drew his knife with precision across the throat of
the wounded bull.

Straightening himself up, he stared for a few moments at the three great
lifeless carcasses on the sand. Then he let his glance sweep out over the
glassy waters and level, desolate shores. How strange was the sudden
silence, the still white peace of the moonlight, after all that madness
and tumult and rage which had just been so abruptly stilled! A curious
revulsion of feeling all at once blotted out his triumph, and there came
over him a sense of repugnance to the bulk of so much death. Stepping
around it, he sat down with his back to it all, on a stranded log, and
proceeded to fill his pipe.



                     THE SENTRY OF THE SEDGE-FLATS


Pale, shimmering green, and soaked in sun, the miles of sedge-flats lay
outspread from the edges of the slow bright water to the foot of the far,
dark-wooded, purple hills. Winding through the quiet green levels came a
tranquil little stream. Where its sleepy current joined the great parent
river, a narrow tongue of bare sand jutted out into the golden-glowing
water. At the extreme tip of the sand-spit towered, sentry-like, a
long-legged gray-blue bird, as motionless as if he had been transplanted
thither from the panel of a Japanese screen.

The flat narrow head of the great heron, with its long, javelin-like,
yellow beak and two slender black crest-feathers, was drawn far back by a
curious undulation of the immensely long neck, till it rested between the
humped blue wing-shoulders. From the lower part of the neck hung a fine
fringe of vaporous rusty-gray plumes, which lightly veiled the
chestnut-colored breast. The bird might have seemed asleep, like the
drowsy expanses of green sedge, silver-blue water, and opalescent
turquoise sky, but for its eyes. Those eyes, round, unwinking, of a hard,
glassy gold with intense black pupils, were unmistakably and savagely
wide awake.

Over the tops of the sedges, fluttering and zigzagging waywardly, came a
big butterfly, its gorgeous red-brown wings pencilled with strange
hieroglyphs in black and purple. It danced out a little way over the
water; and then, as if suddenly terrified by the shining peril beneath,
came wavering back toward shore. A stone’s throw up the channel of the
little stream lay a patch of vivid green, the leaves of the arrow-weed,
with its delicate, pallid blooms dreaming in the still air above them.
The butterfly saw these blossoms, or perhaps smelt them, and fluttered in
their direction to see if those pure chalices held honey. But on his way
he noted the moveless figure of the heron, conspicuous above the ranks of
the sedge. Perhaps he took the curious shape for a post or a stump. In
any case, it seemed to offer an alluring place of rest, where he might
pause for a moment and flaunt his glowing wings in the sun before dancing
onward to the honey-blossoms. He flickered nearer. To him those unwinking
jewels of eyes had no menace. He hovered an instant about two feet above
them. In that instant, like a flash of light, the long, pale neck and
straight yellow beak shot out; and the butterfly was caught neatly.
Twisting his head shoreward, without shifting his feet, the heron struck
the glowing velvet wings of the insect sharply on the sand. Then, having
swallowed the morsel leisurely, he drew his head down again between his
shoulders, and resumed his moveless waiting.

The next matter of interest to come within the vision of those
inscrutable eyes was a dragon-fly chase. Hurtling low over the
sedge-tops, and flashing in the sunlight like a lace-pin of rubies, came
a small rose-colored dragon-fly, fleeing for its life before a monster of
its species which blazed in emerald and amethyst. The chase could have
but one ending, for the giant had the speed as well as the voracious
hunger. The glistening films of his wings rustled crisply as he overtook
the shining fugitive and caught its slender body in his jaws. The silver
wings of the victim vibrated wildly. The chase came to a hovering pause
just before that immobile shape on the point of the sand-spit. Again the
long yellow beak darted forth. And the radiant flies, captive and captor
together, disappeared.

But such flimsy fare as even the biggest of butterflies and dragon-flies
was not contenting to the sharp appetite of the heron. He took one
stiff-legged stride forward, and stood in about six inches of water. Here
he settled himself in a somewhat altered position, his back more
awkwardly hunched, his head held lower, and his dagger of a bill pointing
downward. His wicked golden eyes were not indifferent to the
possibilities of the air above him, but they were now concerning
themselves more particularly with the water which flowed about his feet.

If any one stands at the brink of a quiet summer stream, and keeps still
enough, and watches intently enough, however deserted the landscape may
appear, he will see life in many furtive forms go by. The great blue
heron kept still enough. The water at this point went softly over a shoal
half sand, half mud, and in the faint movement of the clear amber-brown
current the sunlight wove a shimmering network on the bottom. Across this
darted a shadow. The heron’s beak shot downward with an almost inaudible
splash, transfixing the shadow, and emerged with a glittering green and
silver perch, perhaps five inches in length. The quivering body of the
fish had its knife-edged gills wide open, and every spine of its
formidable, armed fins threateningly erect. But the triumphant fisherman
strode ashore with it and proceeded to hammer it into unconsciousness on
the hard sand. Then he swallowed it head first, thus effectually
disarming every weapon of fin and gill-cover. The progress of this
substantial mouthful could be traced clearly down the bird’s slim length
of gullet, accompanied as it was by several seconds of contortions so
violent that they made the round yellow eyes wink gravely. As soon as the
morsel was fairly down the bird stretched its neck to its full length,
with a curious hitch of the base as if to assure himself the process was
completed. Then he resumed his post of watching. He had no more than
taken his place than a huge black tadpole wriggled by over the
gold-meshed bottom. It was speared and swallowed in an eye-wink. Soft,
slippery, and spineless, it made but a moment’s incident.

A little after, on the smooth surface of the smaller stream, some fifty
feet up-channel, a tiny ripple appeared. Swiftly it drew near. It was
pointed, and with a long fine curve of oily ripple trailing back from it
on either side, like the outline of a comet’s tail. As it approached, in
the apex of the parabola could be seen a minute black nose, with two
bright, dark little eyes just behind it. It was a small water-rat,
voyaging adventurously out from its narrow inland haunts among the
lilies.

The great heron eyed its approach. To the swimmer, no doubt, the
blue-gray, immobile shape at the extremity of the sand-spit looked like
some weather-beaten post, placed there by man for his inexplicable
convenience in regard to hitching boats. But presently, something strange
in the shape of the post seemed to strike the little voyager’s attention.
He stopped. Perhaps he saw the menacing glitter of that yellow, unwinking
stare. After a moment of wavering irresolution, he changed his course,
swam straight across channel, scrambled out upon the wet mud of the
farther shore, and vanished among the pale root-stalks of the sedge. The
heron was savage with disappointment; but no slightest movement betrayed
his anger, save that the pinkish film of the lower lid blinked up once,
as it were with a snap, over each implacable eye. His time would
come—which faith is that which supports all those who know how to wait.
He peered upstream for the coming of another and less wary water-rat.

Instead of the expected ripple, however, he now caught sight of a shadow
which flickered across the surface of the water and in an instant had
vanished over the pale sea of the grass-tops. He looked up. In the blue
above hung poised, his journeying flight just at that moment arrested, a
wide-winged duck-hawk, boldest marauder of the air. The heron threw his
head far back, till his beak pointed straight skyward. At the same time
he half lifted his strong wings, poising himself to deliver a thrust with
all the strength that was in him. On the instant the hawk dropped like a
wedge of steel out of the sky, his rigid, half-closed pinions hissing
with the speed of his descent. The heron never flinched. But within ten
feet of him the hawk, having no mind to impale himself on that waiting
spear-point, opened his wings, swerved upward, and went past with a harsh
hum of wing-feathers. Wheeling again, almost instantly, he swooped back
to the attack, buffeting the air just above the heron’s head, but taking
care not to come within range of the deadly beak. The heron refused to be
drawn from his position of effective defence, and made no movement except
to keep the point of his lance ever toward the foe. And presently the
hawk, seeing the futility of his assaults, winged off sullenly to hunt
for some unwary duck or gosling.

As he went the heron stretched himself to his full gaunt height and
stared after him in triumph. Then, turning his head slowly, he scanned
the whole expanse of windless grass and sunlit water. One sight fixed his
attention. Far up the windings of the lesser stream he marked a man in a
boat. The man was not rowing, but sitting in the stern and propelling the
boat noiselessly with an Indian paddle. From time to time he halted and
examined the shore minutely. Once in a while, after such an examination,
he would get out, kneel down, and be occupied for several minutes among
the weeds of the shallows along the stream’s edge. He was looking at the
musquash holes in the bank, and setting traps before those which showed
signs of present occupancy. The heron watched the process, unstirring as
a dead stump, till he thought the man was coming too near. Then,
spreading a vast, dark pair of wings, he rose indignantly and flapped
heavily away up river, trailing his length of black legs just over the
sedge-tops.

Not far above the mouth of the stream the man set the last of his
musquash traps. Then he paddled back leisurely by the way he had come,
his dingy yellow straw hat appearing to sail close over the grass as the
boat followed the windings of the stream. When the yellow hat had at
length been swallowed up in the violet haze along the base of the
uplands, the great blue heron reappeared, winging low along the river
shore. Arriving at the sand-spit he dropped his feet to the shallow
water, closed his wings, and settled abruptly into a rigid pose of
watching, with his neck outstretched and his head held high in the air.

The most searching scrutiny revealed nothing in all the tranquil summer
landscape to disturb him. Nevertheless, he seemed to have lost conceit of
his sentry post on the tip of the sand-spit. Instead of settling down to
watch for what might come to him, he decided to go and look for what he
wanted. With long, ungainly, precise, but absolutely noiseless strides,
he took his slow way up along the shore of the little river, walking on
the narrow margin of mud between the grass-roots and the water. As he
went his long neck undulated sinuously at each stride, his head was held
low, and his eyes glared under every drooping leaf. The river margin,
both in the water and out of it, was populous with insect life and the
darting bill took toll of it at every step. But the most important game
was frogs. There were plenty of them, small, greenish ochre fellows, who
sat on the lily leaves and stared with foolish goggle-eyes till that
stalking blue doom was almost upon them. Then they would dive
head-foremost into the water, quick almost as the fleeting of a shadow.
But quicker still was the stroke of the yellow beak—and the captive,
pounded into limpness, would vanish down his captor’s insatiable throat.
This was better hunting than he had had upon the sand-spit, and he
followed it up with great satisfaction. He even had the triumph of
capturing a small water-rat, which had darted out of the grass-roots just
as he came by. The little beast was tenacious of life, and had to be well
hammered on the mud before it would consent to lie still enough to be
swallowed comfortably. This pleasant task, however, was presently
accomplished; and the great bird, as he stretched his head upward to give
his neck that final hitch which drove the big mouthful home, took a
careless step backward into the shallow water. There was a small sinister
sound, and something closed relentlessly on his leg. He had stepped into
a steel trap.

Stung by the sharp pain, astounded by the strangeness of the attack, and
panic-stricken, as all wild creatures are by the sudden forfeit of their
freedom, the great bird lost all his dignified self-possession. First he
nearly broke his beak with mad jabs at the inexplicable horror that had
clutched him. Then, with a hoarse squawk of terror, he went quite wild.
His huge wings flapped frantically, beating down the sedges and the
blossoms of the arrow-weed, as he struggled to wrench himself free. He
did succeed in lifting the trap above water; but it was securely
anchored, and after a minute or two of insane, convulsive effort, it
dragged him down again. Again and again he lifted it; again and yet again
it dragged him down inexorably. And so the blind battle went on, with
splashing of water and heavy buffeting of wings, till at last the bird
fell back utterly beaten. In the last bout the trap had turned and got
itself wedged in a slanting position, so that it was impossible for the
captive to hold himself upright. He lay sprawling on his thighs, one wing
outspread over the mud and leaves, the other on the water. His deadly
beak was half open, from exhaustion. Only his indomitable eyes, still
round, gold-and-black, glittering like gems, showed no sign of his
weakness or his fear.

For a long time he lay there motionless, half numbed by the sense of
defeat and by that gnawing anguish in his leg. Unheeded, the gleaming
dragon-flies hurtled and darted, flashed and poised quivering, just above
his head. Unheeded, the yellow butterflies, and the pale blue
butterflies, alighted near him on the blooms of the arrow-weed. A big
green bull-frog swam up and clambered out upon the mud close before
him—to catch sight at once of that bright, terrible eye and fall back
into the water almost paralyzed with fright; but still he made no
movement. His world had fallen about him, and there was nothing for him
to do but wait and see what would happen next—what shape his doom would
take.

Meanwhile, down along the margin mud, still hidden from view by a bend of
the stream, another stealthy hunter was approaching. The big brown mink,
who lived far upstream in a muskrat hole whose occupants he had cornered
and devoured, was out on one of his foraging expeditions. Nothing in the
shape of flesh, fish, or insect came amiss to him; but having ever the
blood-lust in his ferocious veins, so that he loved to slaughter even
when his appetite was well sated, he preferred, of course, big
game—something that could struggle, and suffer, and give him the sense of
killing. A nesting duck or plover, for example, or a family of
musquash—that was something worth while. On this day he had caught
nothing but insects and a few dull frogs. He was savage for red blood.

Very short in the legs, but extraordinarily long in the body, lithe,
snake-like in his swift darting movements, every inch of him a bundle of
tough elastic muscles, with a sharp triangular head and incredibly
malevolent eyes, the mink was a figure to be dreaded by creatures many
times his size. As he came round the bend of the stream, and saw the
great blue bird lying at the water’s edge with wings outstretched, the
picture of helplessness, his eyes glowed suddenly like live coals blown
upon. He ran forward without an instant’s hesitation, and made as if to
spring straight at the captive’s throat.

This move, however, was but a feint; for the big mink, though his
knowledge of herons was by no means complete, knew nevertheless that the
heron’s beak was a weapon to beware of. He swerved suddenly, sprang
lightly to one side, and tried to close in from the rear. But he didn’t
know the flexibility of the heron’s neck. The lightning rapidity of his
attack almost carried it through; but not quite. He was met by a darting
stroke of the great yellow beak, which hurled him backward and ploughed a
deep red furrow across his shoulder. Before he could recover himself the
bird’s neck was coiled again like a set spring, the javelin beak poised
for another blow.

Most of the wild creatures would have been discouraged by such a
reception, and slunk away to look for easier hunting. But not so the
mink. His fighting blood now well up, for him it was a battle to the
death. But for all his rage he did not lose his cunning. Making as if to
run away, he doubled upon himself with incredible swiftness and flew at
his adversary’s neck. Quick as he was, however, he could not be so quick
as that miracle of speed, which the eye can scarcely follow, the heron’s
thrust. The blow caught him this time on the flank, but slantingly,
leaving a terrible gash, and at the same time a lucky buffet from the
elbow of one great wing dashed him into the water. With this success the
heron strove to rise to his feet—a position from which he could have
fought to greater advantage. But the lay of the trap pulled him down
again irresistibly. As he sank back the mink clambered out upon the shore
and crouched straight in front of him, just a little beyond the reach of
his stroke.

The mink was now a picture of battle fury, every muscle quivering, blood
pulsing from his gashes, his white teeth showing in a soundless snarl,
his eyes seeming to throb with crimson fire. The heron, on the other
hand, seemed absolutely composed. His head, immobile, alert, in perfect
readiness, was drawn back between his shoulders. His eyes were as wide,
and fixed, and clear, and glassily staring, as the jewelled eyes of an
idol.

For some seconds the mink crouched, as if trying to stare his adversary
out of countenance. Then he launched himself straight at the bird’s back.
The movement had all the impetuosity of a genuine attack, but with
marvellous control it was checked on the instant. It had been enough,
however, to draw the heron’s counterstroke, which fell just short of its
object. With the bird’s recovery the mink shot in to close quarters. He
received a second blow, which laid open the side of his face, but it was
a short stroke, with not enough force behind it to repulse him. Ignoring
it, he closed, fixed his teeth in the bird’s neck, and flung his lithe
length over the back, where it would be out of reach of the buffeting
wings.

The battle was over; for the mink’s teeth were long and strong. They cut
deep, straight into the life; and, undisturbed by the windy flopping of
the great, helpless wings, the victor lay drinking the life-blood which
he craved. A black whirling shadow sailed over the scene, but it passed a
little behind the mink’s tail and was not noticed. It paused, seeming to
hover over a patch of lily leaves. A moment more, and it vanished. There
was a hiss; and the great duck-hawk, the same one whom the heron had
driven off earlier in the day, dropped out of the zenith. The mink had
just time to raise his snarling and dripping muzzle in angry surprise
when the hawk’s talons closed upon him. One set fastened upon his throat,
cutting straight through windpipe and jugular; the other set gripped and
pierced his tender loins. The next moment he was jerked from the body of
his prey, and carried—head, legs, and tail limply hanging—away far over
the green wastes of the sedge to the great hawk’s eyrie, in the heart of
the cedar-swamp beyond the purple uplands.

Some ten minutes later a splendid butterfly, all glowing orange and
maroon, came and settled on the back of the dead heron, and waved its
radiant wings in the tranquil light.



                          A TREE-TOP AERONAUT


Although in the open clearings it was full noon—the noon of early
September, hot and blue and golden—here in the lofty aisles of the forest
it was all cold twilight. Such light as glimmered down through the
thick-leaved tree-tops was of a mellow shadowy brown and a translucent
green, changing from the one tone to the other mysteriously as the eye
shifted its backgrounds. One tall trunk, long ago shattered and broken
off just below the crown by a stroke of lightning, stood pointing bleakly
toward a round opening in the leafy roof, reaching upward a
thin-foliaged, half-dead, gnarled and twisted arm.

In the outer shell and coarse strong bark of the stricken tree life
lingered tenaciously, but its heart was fallen to decay. Near the base of
the arm a round hole gave entrance, through the shell of live wood, to a
chamber in the hollow heart. The chamber had yet another entrance,
beneath a knot, higher up on the opposite side of the trunk. Through
these two holes filtered a dim warm light, just strong enough to show a
huddle of small, ruddy-brown, furry shapes sleeping snugly at the bottom
of the chamber.

The forest was as still and soundless as a dream, under the spell of the
noonday heat. But presently the silence was broken by the approach of
heavy footsteps, now crackling as they crunched the dry twigs, now
muffled and dull as they sank into beds of deep moss. They were plainly
human footsteps, for no other creature but man would move so crudely and
heedlessly through the forest quiet. Every one of the wild kindred, from
the bear down to the wood-mouse, would move with a furtive wariness,
desiring always to see without being seen, either intent upon some
hunting or solicitous to avoid some hunter.

Down a shadowy corridor of soaring trunks came into view two figures—a
tall heavy-shouldered lumberman, carrying an axe, and a slim boy with a
light rifle in his hand. It was the lumberman, booted and long-striding,
who made all the noise. The boy, in moccasins, stepped lightly as an
Indian, his eager blue eyes searching every nook and stump and branch as
he went, hoping at every step to surprise some secret of the furtive
wood-folk.

Near the foot of the blasted tree he stopped, looking up.

“I wonder what lives in that hole up there, Jabe?” he said.

The lumberman peered upward critically.

“Jiminy, ef that ain’t a likely-lookin’ squir’l tree!” he answered.

“Squirrel tree!” echoed the boy. “As if every tree wasn’t a squirrel
tree, wherever there’s a squirrel ’round!”

“Aye, but there’s squir’ls an’ squir’ls! You’ll see!” retorted the
woodsman; and, swinging his axe, he brought the back of it down upon the
trunk in three or four sounding strokes.

Straightway a dark little shape, appearing in the hole beneath the
branch, launched itself into the air. It looked like a leap of
desperation, as there was no tree within reach of any ordinary
quadruped’s leap. Yet the daring little shape was plainly that of a
quadruped, not of a bird. It was followed instantly, in lightning
succession, by six or seven others equally daring; and all went sailing
away, in different directions, across the mysteriously shadowed air. They
sailed on long downward slants, with legs spread wide apart and connected
on each side by furry membrane, so that they looked like some kind of
grotesque, oblong toy umbrellas broken loose in a breeze. The boy stared
after them with an exclamation of wonder and delight, trying to keep his
eye on them all at once; but in a moment they had disappeared, gaining
the shelter of other trees, and effacing themselves from view as if by
enchantment.

All but one. As the flying squirrels came aeroplaning from their rudely
assaulted citadel, the woodsman had dropped his axe, snatched up a bit of
stick about a foot long, and hurled it after one of the gliding figures.
Your woodsman is an unerring shot with the hurled axe, the pike-pole, or
the billet of wood; but up there, in the deceitful transparency of shadow
and glimmer, the little aeronaut was sailing with an elusive speed. The
whirling missile almost missed its mark. It just caught the outspread
furry tail, which was serving as a rudder and balancer to that
adventurous flight. The tail, tough and flexible, gave way and took no
injury. But the tiny aeroplanist, his balance rudely destroyed, plunged
headlong to the ground.

“Oh-h-h!” exclaimed the boy, with long-drawn commiseration. But, his
curiosity too strong for his pity, he raced forward with the woodsman to
capture and examine their prize.

There was no prize to be found. Both had seen the flier come to earth.
Both had marked, with expert eyes, the exact point of his fall. But there
was nothing to be seen but a softly disappearing dent in the cushion of
moss.

“Well, I’ll be—jiggered!” said the woodsman, fingering his stubbled chin
and scrutinizing the nearest tree-trunks with narrowed eyes.

“Serves us right!” said the boy. “I’m glad he’s got away. I thought you’d
killed him, Jabe!”

“Reckon I just _blowed_ him over,” responded the woodsman. “But now ye
know where they hang out, ye kin ketch one alive in a cage-trap, if ye
want to git to know somethin’ of his manners an’ customs—eh, what? When
ye’ve _killed_ one of these wild critters, after all, to my mind he ain’t
no more interestin’ than a lady’s fur boa.”

As the two man creatures disappeared down the confusing vistas of the
forest, the soft dark eyes of the flying-squirrel, disproportionately
large and prominent, with a vagueness of depth which made them seem all
pupil, stared after them mildly from the refuge of a high crotched
branch. Unhurt, even unbewildered by his dizzy plunge, he had bounced
aside with a motion too swift for his enemies’ eyes to follow, and placed
a tree-trunk between himself and peril. Darting up the trunk like a
fleeting brown streak, he had been safely hidden before his enemies
reached the tree.

In his high retreat, the flying-squirrel did not crouch as a red squirrel
would have done, but lay stretched and spread out as if flattened by
violence upon the bark. His color, of an obscure warm brown, faintly
smudged with a darker tone, blended so perfectly with the hue of the bark
that, if the eye once looked away, it could with difficulty detect him
again. A member of a little-known branch of the flying-squirrel
family,—the flying-squirrel of Eastern Canada,—he was nearly a foot in
length, some two inches longer than the common flying-squirrel, from whom
he differed also very sharply in color, his retiring brown and gray being
in marked contrast to the buff and drab and pure white of his lesser but
more famous cousin. Buff and white would have been so conspicuous a
livery in the brown Canadian forests that his ancestors would never have
survived to produce him had they not managed to change that livery in
time to baffle their foes.

The flying-squirrel, unlike the impudent and irrepressible red squirrel,
had a great capacity for patience, as well as for prudence. Moreover, he
had no great liking for activity as long as the sun was up, his enormous
eyes adapting him for the dim life of the night. For some minutes after
the sound of footsteps had died away in the distance, he lay unstirring
on his branch, his ears alert to the tiniest forest whisper, his nostrils
quivering as they interrogated every subtlest forest scent. All at once
his wide eyes grew even wider, and a sort of spasm of apprehension
flitted across their liquid depths. What was that faint, dry, rustling
sound—the mere ghost of a whisper—on the bark of the trunk behind him?
Nervously he turned his head. There was nothing in sight, but the ghostly
sound continued, so slight, so thin, that even his fine ear could hardly
be sure of its reality.

The little watcher remained moveless as a knot on the bark. The creeping
whisper softly mounted the tree. Then at last a flat, brownish-black,
vicious head came into view around the trunk, and arrested itself,
swaying softly, just over the base of the branch. It was the head of a
large black snake.

The snake’s eyes, dull yet deadly, met those of the squirrel and held
them. For a moment the black head was rigid. Then it began to sway again,
with a slow hypnotizing motion. The eyes—shallow, opaque, venomous—seemed
to draw closer together as they concentrated their energy upon the mildly
glowing orbs of their intended victim. At last the waving head began to
draw near, the black body undulating stealthily into view behind it.
Nearer, nearer it came, the flat hard eyes never shifting, till it seemed
that one lightning lunge would have enabled it to fix its fangs in the
fascinated victim’s neck. But at this moment the little aeronaut whisked
half round, flirted his broad fluff of a tail straight out behind him,
and sailed quietly from his perch on a long gradual swoop, which brought
him back to the base of the tree from which he had originally started.
The hypnotizing experiment of the black snake had been, in this instance,
an unqualified failure. Angry and disappointed, the snake withdrew to
hunt mice or other easier game. The flying-squirrel ran cheerfully up the
tree, slipped back into the hole, and curled himself up complacently to
sleep away the rest of the daylight. Of his companions, two had already
stealthily returned, and the others crept in soon afterwards quite
unruffled.

That night moonrise came to the forest close on the vanishing trail of
the sunset. A long white ray, flooding in through the tree-tops, lit up
the hole beneath the branch of the blasted trunk. Without haste the
flying-squirrels came one after another to their high doorway and
launched themselves upon the still air. One might have thought that their
first purpose would have been to forage for a meal; but, instead of that,
they seemed like children just let out of school, bent on nothing so much
as relieving their pent-up spirits. Probably they were not hungry. It was
the season of abundance, and they had, perhaps, ample store of green nuts
and tender young pine-cones within their hollow tree. In any case, they
knew the forest was full of good provender for them, the forest-floor
covered with berries for when they should choose to descend and gather
them. There was no hurry. It was good to amuse themselves in their high
and dim-lit world.

Their favorite game seemed to be to criss-cross each other, as it were,
in their long gliding flights, which, beginning near the top of one tree
would end generally near the foot of another, as far away as the impetus
of their start and their descent would allow. Thence they would dart
nimbly to the top again, sometimes with a restrained _chirr_ of mirth, to
repeat the gay adventure. Sometimes, when their descent was steep, they
would rise again toward the end of it, by altering, probably, the angle
of their membranes or side-planes. As they flashed spectrally past each
other, touched suddenly by some white finger of moonlight, their play was
like an aerial game of tag. But they never actually “tagged” each other.
Most likely they took good care to avoid any approach to contact in mid
flight, which might have meant a fall to the dangerous forest-floor, the
haunt of prowling foxes, skunks, and weasels.

But though their chief dread seemed to be of the far dark ground and its
perils, there were perils, too, for the little aeronauts even in their
leafy heights. In the midst of their leaping, gliding, and sailing, there
came a hollow cry across the tree-tops. It was a melancholy sound but
full of menace—a _whoo-hoo-hoo-oo-oo_—repeated at long, uncertain,
nerve-racking intervals. It sounded remote enough from the hollow tree,
but at its first note the game of the furry aeroplanists came to a stop.
One would have said that there were no such things as flying-squirrels in
the Quah-Davic woods.

After some fifteen or twenty minutes of sepulchral summons and answer,
the calling of the owls ceased. In perhaps fifteen minutes more, the
flying-squirrels seemed to make up their minds that the danger had
removed to some other part of the forest. Then, at first timorously, but
soon with all their former merriment and zest, the tree-top aeronauts
resumed their game.

The game was at its height. Down a long aisle of the forest the high moon
poured a flood of unobstructed light. Athwart this lane of brilliance the
flying-squirrels went passing and repassing. On a sudden, as one of them
was sailing gayly across, it was as if a fragment of black cloud fell
upon him noiselessly out of the whiteness, blotting him out. Somewhere in
the cloud burned two terrible round eyes, and beneath it reached forth
two sets of rending talons. The life of the gay little glider was
clutched out of him with a strangled scream, and the cloudy shape, its
eyes blazing coldly, drifted away into the shadows with its prey.

The game came to a full stop—for that night at the least. As luck would
have it, the squirrel who had been through the adventures of the
morning—the encounter with Jabe Smith’s missile and the interview with
that would-be mesmerizer, the black snake—had been sailing just below his
unhappy playmate at the moment of the great wood-owl’s swoop. He had seen
the whole tragedy, and it made him distrustful of aeroplaning for the
moment. He decided to emulate his cousin the red squirrel, and trust to
running and climbing, to the solid trunks and branches, rather than to
the treacheries of the air. After hiding in a crotch till his
palpitations had somewhat calmed down, he descended the tree in a
cautious search for food. He had had his fill of nuts and cones; he
wanted juicier fare. He went on all the way down to earth, his appetite
set on the ripening partridge-berries.

Now, as it chanced, the boy had taken to heart that suggestion of the
lumberman’s in regard to the cage-trap. His appetite for knowledge of all
the wild creatures of the woods was insatiable. He was eager to know the
flying-squirrels more intimately than he could know them from the plates
and text of his natural history books. His idea was to catch one, keep it
a while, win its confidence, study it, and then give it back its freedom
before it had time to forget how to take care of itself among the perils
of freedom. That very afternoon, therefore, he had returned to the
“squirr’l tree,” carrying a spacious trap-cage of strong wire—a cage of
two chambers, in which he had already kept with success both red
squirrels and ground squirrels. The second or inner chamber was the
regulation revolving wire cylinder, designed to give the little captive
such strenuous exercise as it might crave, and to divert its thoughts
from its captivity. The door was a wide trap, opening upwards and
outwards, and shutting with a powerful spring at the least touch upon the
trigger within. Beyond the trigger the boy had fixed a varied bait,
cunningly calculated to the vagaries of the squirrel appetite. There were
sweet nut-kernels securely tied down, a fragrant piece of apple, a bit of
green corn-ear, and a crisp morsel of bacon rind.

The boy had no means of knowing whether the flying-squirrel was like his
red cousin or not in the matter of a taste for meat. But he felt sure
that some one or another of these scented dainties would prove too much
for the prudence of anything that called itself a squirrel. Near the
great trunk of the blasted tree he found another giant, half fallen, its
top still upheld by the embrace of its stout-armed neighbors. The long
gradual incline he rightly judged to be a favorite pathway of the
flying-squirrels as they raced upwards from their excursions to the
forest floor. So, upon the slope of the trunk, some six or seven feet
above the earth, he fixed his trap securely, and left it to show what it
could do.

For a long time, however, it did nothing. It was a new strange thing on
the familiar path, and all the little people of the wild avoided it. Till
near the first gray of dawn not a flying-squirrel had dared approach its
neighborhood.

The forest powers seem to have sometimes a mischievous trick of selecting
some particular one of their children for special trial, of following up
that one for days with a kind of persecution. So it came about that the
same adventurous little aeronant who had fallen foul of both Jabe Smith
and the black snake, and had so narrowly escaped the pounce of the brown
owl, had the misfortune to be sighted, as he was feasting on the
partridge-berries not far from the sloping tree, by a weasel which had
had bad luck in his night’s hunting.

Sinuous as a snake and swifter, his cruel eyes glowing like points of
live flame, the long yellow form of the weasel darted forward. With a
faint squeak of terror the squirrel sprang for the sloping trunk, his own
hope being to get high enough to launch himself into the air. But the
flying-squirrel is less nimble on his feet than the red or the gray. He
was much slower than the weasel. He gained the sloping trunk, indeed, but
the foe was almost at his heels. It looked as if the doom of the wild was
upon him. By a frantic effort, however, he evaded for a second the
weasel’s rush. Desperately he raced up the well-known trail. He came to
the cage. There was no time to go over it or to go around it. He hurled
himself straight in and brought up with a shock against the wires of the
partition. At the same instant there was a loud click behind him. The
door snapped down tight. And the weasel, unable to check himself, bumped
his nose against the wires with a violence that brought the blood and
stirred his hunting lust to a madness of fury.

Both pursuer and pursued recovered themselves in a second. It was well
that the boy, an exact, methodical soul, had lashed the cage securely to
the trunk, otherwise the mad assaults of the weasel would have torn it
loose and dashed it to the ground. He was all over it and around it every
moment, flinging himself viciously this way and that in the effort to
catch his quarry against the wires. And the quaking squirrel at the same
time dashed himself frantically from side to side, keeping ever as much
space as possible between himself and those relentless blood-seeking
jaws. He had not the wit or the coolness to crouch in the centre of the
cage, where he might securely have chattered derision at his foe. He had
not yet, perhaps, even arrived at the truth that his prison was his
citadel, his tower of safety. But at length, as luck would have it, in
one of his desperate bounds, he shot himself clean through the round
opening into the second chamber, and, before he knew it, he was racing at
a breathless pace in the vain effort to climb the wall of the spinning
cylinder.

For a moment or two the weasel was nonplussed. He stopped short and
stared at these amazing tactics of his victim, his thin lips wrinkled
back from his pointed jaw and muzzle in a sort of soundless snarl. Then,
apparently coming to the conclusion that such a farce had gone on long
enough, he sprang with all his strength upon the top of the cylinder, in
the direction in which it was spinning. It was a great mistake. The
cylinder did not stop. It spun on and shot him off indignantly,
head-first, into space, and brought him with a stupefying thud upon the
roots of the nearest tree. Very sore and disconcerted, he picked himself
up, gave one look at the spinning mystery, and slunk off behind the tree,
in a humbleness of spirit such as few of his irrepressible tribe have
ever known.

All but paralyzed by exhaustion and by the utter extremity of his fear,
the flying-squirrel stopped racing with his wheel. With all four
hand-like paws, and even with his teeth, he clung to the wires, till
presently his weight brought it to a standstill. Then he crept through
the exit and crouched, trembling and panting, on the floor of the outer
chamber. Here, soon after sun-up, the boy, who was an early riser, found
him. He was puzzled, was the boy, over that smear of blood on the cage
door; but, finding no clew to the events of the night, he was obliged to
lay the matter away among the many insoluble enigmas wherewith the
ancient wood so continually and so mockingly provokes the invader of its
intimacies.



                               THE THEFT


From their cave in the cleft of Red Rock, where the half-uprooted
pine-trees swung out across the ravine, the two panthers came padding
noiselessly down the steep trail. In the abrupt descent their massive
shoulders and haunches worked conspicuously under the tawny and supple
hide, in a loose-jointed way that belied their enormous strength. Where
the trail came out upon a patch of grassy level, starred with blossoms,
beside the tumbling mountain stream, they parted company—the female
turning off across the tangled and rocky slopes, while the male went on
down to hunt in the heavy timber of the valley-bottom. Game was scarce
that spring, and the hunt kept them both busy. They had no misgivings
about leaving their two blind sprawling cubs to doze on their bed of dry
grass in the dark inner corner of the cave. They knew very well that in
all their range, for a radius of forty or fifty miles about the humped
and massive hog-back of Red Rock, there was no beast so bold as to
trespass on the panther’s lair.

It was, perhaps, a half hour later that a man came in sight, a half-breed
squatter, moving stealthily up the farther bank of the stream. His dark
figure appeared and disappeared, slipping from rock to tree, from tree to
wild-vine thicket, as he picked his way furtively along the steep and
obstructed slope. Not a twig cracked under his moccasined steps, so
carefully did he go, though the soft roar of the stream would have
covered any such light sound from all ears but the initiated and
discriminating ones of the forest kindreds. His small watchful eyes took
note of the grassy level on the other side of the stream, and, with a
sure leap to a rock in mid channel, he came across. He arrived just a few
feet below the spot where the female panther had taken her departure,
digging in her broad pads heavily in the take-off of her leap. The
grasses, trodden down in the heavy footprints, were still slowly lifting
their heads. At sight of this trail, so startlingly fresh, the man
crouched instantly back into the fringing bush, half lifting his rifle,
and peering with vigilant eyes into the heart of every covert. He
expected to see the beast’s eyes palely glaring at him from some near
ambush.

In a few minutes, however, he satisfied himself that the panther had gone
on. Emerging from the bushes, he knelt down and examined the footprints
minutely. Yes, the trail was older than he had at first imagined, by a
good half hour. Some of the trodden grass had perfectly recovered itself,
and a crushed brown beetle was already surrounded by ants. He arose with
a grim smile, and traced the trail back across the grass-patch till it
mingled with the confusion of footprints, going and coming, which led up
the mountains. In this confusion he overlooked the traces of the other
panther, so he was led to the conclusion that only one of the pair had
gone out. If this was the path to the lair, as he inferred both from the
number of the tracks and the fitness of the country, then he must expect
to find one of the pair at home. His crafty and deep-set eyes flamed at
the thought, for he was a great hunter and a dead shot with his heavy
Winchester.

For days the half-breed had been searching for the trail and the den of
the panther pair. His object was the cubs, who, as he knew, would be
still tiny and manageable at this season. A good panther skin was well
worth the effort of the chase, but a man in the settlements, who was
collecting wild animals for a circus, had offered him one hundred and
fifty dollars for a pair of healthy cubs. The half-breed’s idea was to
get the cubs as young as possible, and bring them up by bottle in his
cabin till they should be big enough for delivery to the collector.

Before starting up the steep and difficult trail, the man examined his
rifle. A panther at home, protecting her young, was not a foe with whom
he could take risks. She commanded the tribute of his utmost precaution.

A careful survey of the slope before him convinced his practised eye that
the den must be somewhere in that high cleft, where the broken faces of
the red sandstone glowed brightly through dark patches and veils of
clinging firs. He marked the great half-fallen pine-tree, with its top
swung out from the rock face, and its branches curling upward. Somewhere
not far from that, he concluded, would he come upon the object of his
search.

Difficult as was the ascending trail, now slippery with wet moss, now
obstructed with thick low branches which offered no obstacle to the
panthers, but were seriously baffling to the man, he climbed swiftly and
noiselessly. His lithe feet, in their flexible moose-hide moccasins, took
firm hold of the irregularities of the trail, and he glided over or under
the opposing branches with as little rustling as a black snake might have
made. Every few moments he stiffened himself to the rigidity of a stump,
and listened like a startled doe as he interrogated every rock and tree
within reach of his eyes. Ready to match his trained senses against those
of any of the wilderness kin, he felt confident of seeing or hearing any
creature by which he might be seen or heard. Mounting thus warily, in
some twenty minutes or thereabouts he came out upon a narrow shelf of
rock beneath the downward swing of the old pine-tree.

Cautiously he peered about him, looking for some indication of the cave.
This, as he told himself, was just the place for it. It could not be very
far away. Then suddenly he shut himself down upon his heels, as if with a
snap, and thrust upward the muzzle of his Winchester. Lifting his eyes,
he had seen the black entrance of the cave almost on a level with the top
of his head. A little chill ran down his spine as he realized that for
those few seconds his scalp had perhaps been at the mercy of the
occupant.

Why had the beast not struck?

The man took off his old cap, stuck it on the muzzle of his gun, and,
raising it cautiously, wagged it from side to side. This move eliciting
no demonstration from within the cave, he scratched noisily on the rock.
Having repeated this challenge several times without response, he felt
sure that both panthers must be away from home.

Nevertheless, he was not going to let himself be over-confident. He was
too sagacious and instructed a woodsman to think that the wild creatures
would always act the same way under the same circumstances. It was not
impossible that the occupant of the cave was just waiting to see. Drawing
back some six or eight feet, the man wriggled slantingly up the slope of
rock, with the muzzle of his Winchester just ahead of him, till his face
came level with the entrance. Every muscle of his body was strung taut
for an instantaneous recoil, in case he should see before him two palely
flaming eyes, afloat, as it were, upon the darkness of the interior.

But no; at first he could see nothing but the darkness itself. Then, as
his eyes adapted themselves to the gloom, he made out the inmost recesses
of the cave, and realized that, except for a vague little heap in one
corner, the cave was empty. In that case, there was not a single moment
to be lost. With one piercing backward glance down the trail, he slipped
into the cave, snatched up the two kittens, regardless of their savage
spitting and clawing, and thrust them into an empty potato-sack which he
had brought with him for the purpose. Hurriedly twisting a cord about the
neck of the sack, he wiped his bleeding hands upon his sleeve with a
grin, slung the sack over his left shoulder, and hurried away. Having
captured the prize, he was quite willing to avoid, if possible, any
immediate reckoning with the old panthers.

Till he reached the grass-patch by the stream he took no pains to go
silently, but made all possible haste, crashing through the branches and
sending a shower of small stones clattering down the ravine. The angry
and indomitable kittens in the bag on his back kept growling and
spitting, and trying to dig their sharp claws into him, but his buckskin
shirt was tough, and he paid no attention to their protest. At the edge
of the torrent, however, he adopted new tactics. Leaping to the rock in
mid channel, he crossed, and then, with great difficulty, clambered along
close by the water’s edge, well within the splash and the spray. When he
had made a couple of hundred yards in this way, he came to a small
tributary brook, up which he waded for some eighty or a hundred feet.
Then, leaving the brook, he crept stealthily up the bank, through the
underbrush, and so back to the valley he had just left, at a point some
little distance farther downstream. Thence he ran straight on down the
valley at a long easy trot, keeping always, as far as possible, under
cover, and swerving from time to time this way or that in order to avoid
treading on dry underbrush. His progress, however, was quite audible, for
at this point in the venture he was sacrificing secrecy to speed. He had
fifteen or sixteen miles to go, his cabin being on the farther slope of
the great spur called Broken Ridge, and he knew that he could not feel
absolutely sure as to the outcome of the enterprise until he should have
the little captives secure within his cabin.

As he threaded his way through the heavy timber of the valley bottom, a
good six or seven miles from the den in Red Rock, he began to feel more
at ease. Here among the great trunks there was less undergrowth to
obscure his view, less danger of the panthers being able to steal up upon
him and take him unawares. He slackened his pace somewhat, drawing deep
breaths into his leathern lungs. But he relaxed no precaution, running
noiselessly now over the soft carpet of the forest, and flitting from
tree-trunk to tree-trunk as if an enemy were at his very heels. At last,
quitting the valley, he started on a long diagonal up the near slope of
Broken Ridge Spur.

The face of the country now suddenly changed. Years before, a forest-fire
had traversed this slope of the ridge, cutting a clean swathe straight
along it.

The man’s ascending trail thus led him across a space of open, a space of
undergrowth hardly knee-deep, dotted with a few tall “rampikes,” or
fire-stripped tree-trunks, bleached by the rains and inexpressibly
desolate. Haying here no cover, the man ran his best, and finally, having
crossed the open, he dropped down in a dense thicket to rest, breathing
hard from that last spurt.

In the secure concealment of the thicket he laid aside the complaining
burden from his back, stood his rifle in a bush, let out his belt a
couple of holes, and stooped to stretch himself on the moss for a quick
rest. As he did so, he cast a prudent eye along his back trail. Instantly
he stiffened, snatched up his gun again, sank on one knee, and insinuated
the muzzle carefully between the screening branches. A huge panther had
just shown himself, rising into view for an instant, and at once sinking
back into the leafage.

At this disappearance the man grew uneasy. Was the beast still trailing
him, belly to earth, through the low undergrowth? Or had it swerved aside
to try and get ahead of him, to ambuscade him by and by from some rock or
low-hung branch. Or, on the other hand, had it given up the pursuit
rather than face the perils of the open? The man was annoyed at the
uncertainty. Raising himself to his full height in order to command a
better view of the trail, but at the same time keeping well hidden, he
stood hesitating, doubtful whether to hurry on as fast as possible or to
wait a while in this safe ambush in the hope of getting a shot at his
pursuer.

                            * * * * * * * *

Back to the cleft in Red Rock, beneath the down-swung pine, came the
female panther. She had been lucky. She had made a quick kill, and
satisfied her hunger, and now she was hurrying back to nurse her cubs.

Just before the door of the cave she caught the scent of the man. The fur
arose angrily along her neck and backbone, and she entered in anxious
haste. Instantly she came out again, whining and glancing this way and
that as if bewildered. Then she plunged in again, sniffed at the place
where the kittens had lain, sniffed at the spots where the man’s feet had
stepped, and darted out once more upon the ledge. But her appearance was
very different now. Her eyes blazed, her long and powerful tail lashed
furiously, and her fangs were bared to the gums in anguished rage.
Lifting her head high, she gave vent to a long scream of summons,
piercing and strident. The cry reached her mate, and brought him leaping
in hot haste from his ambush beside a spring pool where he was waiting
for the appearance of some thirsty deer. But it did not reach the ears of
the running man, who was at that moment threading a dense coppice far
down the valley. Having sent out her call across the wide silence, she
waited for no response, but darted down the trail. The tracks of the
despoiler were plain to follow, and her nose told her that they were a
good half hour old. She followed them down to the water’s edge, out on to
the rock and across the torrent. Then she lost them.

When her mate arrived, crouching prudently behind a thick fir-bush, to
reconnoitre before he sprang out into the grass, she was bounding
frantically from one side of the stream to the other, her enormously
thick tail upstretched stiffly, as a sort of rudder, through the course
of each prodigious leap. For a moment or two the pair put their heads
together, and the mother, apparently, succeeded in conveying the
situation to her mate in some singularly laconic speech. Almost at once,
as it seemed, their plans were completed. The two started downstream, one
along each bank. A couple of minutes more, and the man’s trail was picked
up by the female. A low cry notified the male, and he instantly sprang
across and joined her.

It seems probable, from the female’s future actions, that the two
bereaved animals had now a fairly right idea of what had happened. The
absence of blood, or sign of disturbance in the den or on the trail,
conveyed to them the impression that their little ones had been carried
off alive, because, to a wild creature, death is naturally associated
with blood. It is possible, moreover, that there was nothing so very
strange to them in the fact that the man should wish to carry off their
cubs alive. What was so precious to themselves might very well be
precious to others also. Mother birds, and mother quadrupeds as well,
have been known, not infrequently, to steal each other’s young. If, then,
the panthers imagined that their kidnapped little ones were still alive,
the furious quest on which they now set forth had a double
object—vengeance and rescue.

They ran one behind the other, the female leading, and they went as
noiselessly as blown feathers, for all their bulk. From time to time,
being but short-winded runners, and accustomed rather to brief and
violent than to long-continued effort, they would pause for breath,
sniffing at the trail as it grew rapidly fresher, and seeming to take
counsel together. Their pursuit at length grew more stealthy, as they
approached the further side of the timbered valley, and realized that
their enemy could not now be very far ahead.

The two panthers knew all that it concerned them to know about the man,
except his object in robbing them of their little ones. They had often
watched him, followed him, studied him, when he little guessed their
scrutiny. They knew where he lived, in the cabin with one door and one
window, at the back of the stumpy clearing on the side of Broken Ridge.
They knew his wife, the straight, swarthy, hard-featured woman, who wore
always some bright scarlet thing around her neck and on her head. They
knew his black-and-white cow, with the bell at her neck, which made
sounds they did not like. They knew his yoke of raw-boned red steers,
which ploughed among the stumps for him in the spring, and hauled logs
for him, laboriously, in the winter. They knew the disquieting brilliance
which would shine from his window or his open door in nights when all the
forest was in darkness. Above all, they knew of his incomprehensible
power of killing at a distance, viewlessly. On account of this terrible
power, they had tried to avoid giving him offence. They had refrained
from hunting his cow or his steers; they had even respected his foolish,
cackling chickens, being resolved in no way to risk drawing down his
vengeance upon them. Now, however, it was different.

As the two grim avengers followed the trail, like fleeting shadows, a red
doe stepped leisurely into their path before she caught sight of them.
For one instant she stood like a stone, petrified with terror. In the
next, she had vanished over the nearest bushes with such a leap as she
had never before achieved. The female might have sprung upon her neck
almost without effort. But she never even raised a paw against this easy
quarry; it was a higher hunting that now engrossed her.

When at length the two running beasts came to the edge of the open ground
on the slopes of Broken Ridge, they hesitated. The female, though the
more deadly in the persistence of her hate, was at the same time the more
sagacious. First of all, she wanted to recover her cubs. No mere
vengeance could be so important to her as that. She shrank back into
deeper cover, and started off to one side to skirt the dangerous open.
But noticing that her mate was not following her, she stopped and looked
back at him inquiringly.

The male, more impetuous and more bent upon mere revenge, showed himself
for a moment beyond the fringe of the woods. In that one moment, though
it was impossible that he should have detected the man in his hiding
across the open, he nevertheless seemed to receive some impression from
the man’s challenging eyes. He felt that his enemy was there, in that
dense clump of young firs. Instantly he dropped upon his belly in the
undergrowth, flattening himself to an amazingly inconspicuous figure.
Then he began creeping, slowly and with infinite stealth, out across the
space of peril, beneath the full, revealing glare of the sun. The female
gave vent to a low whimper, trying to call him back. Failing in that, she
stood and watched him anxiously.

She could just see his tawny back moving through the light green leafage
of the scrub. He was crawling more swiftly now. He had covered nearly
half the distance. All at once there came a spurt of flame from the fir
thicket, and a sharp cracking report. In the next instant she saw her
mate rise straight into the air on his hind legs, clawing savagely. Then
he seemed to fall together and tumble over backwards.

She knew very well what had happened. This was the power of the man. She
knew her mate was dead. A further sullen heat was added to her hate, but
it did not make her reckless. She ran away down the slope, skirted the
open at a safe distance, and closed in once more upon the man’s trail a
good mile farther on. She had got ahead of the fugitive, for even now she
heard the faint thud-thud of his loping feet. She hid herself far up a
tree, some thirty feet from the trail, and waited.

As the man came up, she eyed him with a mingling of mad hatred and
anxious question. She saw the bundle on his back writhe violently, and
she caught a little growling complaint which came from it. That settled
her policy. Had she thought that the cubs were dead, she might have
dropped upon the man from her post of vantage. But the cubs were alive.
For their sakes she would take no risks with the man.

When he had passed on, she followed at a safe distance. The strange
procession crossed the ridge. It neared the clearing and the cabin. At
this point the panther heard, some little way back from the trail, the
tonk-tonk of a cow-bell. There was no need of following the man so very
closely for the moment. She swerved aside, ran straight, like a cat going
for milk, through the thickets, and, with a burst of intolerable fury,
sprang upon the cow’s neck. There was not even a struggle, for the
animal’s neck was broken before it had time to know what was happening.
The desperate mother tore her victim, but ate none of it. Then she
hurried on toward the cabin. At least she had tasted some beginnings of
vengeance.

As she reached the edge of the clearing, and came in sight of the cabin,
the man was just entering the door, with the precious bundle in his
hands. She saw the door close behind him. At this she whimpered uneasily,
and started around to skirt the clearing and come upon the cabin from the
rear.

As she went, she caught sight of the two red steers, feeding in the
pasture field close by the fence. She crept up, eying them, but too
sagacious to reveal herself in the open. As luck would have it, one of
the steers at this moment came up close to the fence, to scratch his hide
on the knots. With a snarl the panther struck at him through the rails,
and drew a long ragged gash down his flank. Snorting with pain and
terror, the steer turned and raced for home, tail in air; and his
comrade, taking the alarm, bellowed nervously and followed him.

A few minutes later the man came out of his cabin, followed by his wife.
The steers were at the barn door—a place they usually avoided at this
season. One of them was shivering and bleeding. The man examined the
wound, and understood. Turning to the woman, he said,—

“That there’s the _mother’s_ work. We must hunt her down an’ settle her
to-morrer, or she’ll clean out the farm.”

Letting the frightened steers into the barn, he waited anxiously for the
_tonk-atonk_ of the black-and-white cow coming home to be milked. When
she did not come, that, too, he understood only too well, and his wide
mouth set itself grimly. It looked as if those were going to be an
expensive pair of cubs.

After dark, late, the mother stole close up to the cabin. Everything was
shut up tight—barn, shed, and house alike. At the door-sill she listened
long and intently, like a cat at a mouse-hole. Her fine ear made out the
heavy breathings of the man and the woman within. It also at length
distinguished some faint little growlings and gruntings, such as the cubs
only uttered when they were well fed. She prowled around the house all
night, the pale flame of her savage and anxious eyes glowing upon it from
every direction. Then, at the edge of dawn, she stole away, but not far,
to a hiding-place whence she could command a view of the cabin-door. It
was within that door that her cubs had vanished.

The sun was not a half hour high when the man set forth, and the woman
with him, to hunt down the dangerous adversary whom they had challenged.
The woman, who carried a rifle of the same pattern as the man’s, was
almost as sure a shot as he. The continued absence of the cow, the wound
on the red steer’s flank, the defiant network of tracks all about the
cabin, showed clearly enough that the fight was now to the death. The man
and woman knew there would be no security for them as long as the mother
panther remained alive. Therefore they were in haste to settle the
matter. They picked out a distinct trail and followed it. It led them
straight to the body of the slain cow, which the slayer had visited twice
in the course of the night, just to satisfy her thirst for vengeance.

But at the moment when the two indignant hunters were examining the
carcass of the cow, the panther was at their cabin-door, listening. She
had seen the man and woman hurry away. Now she could hear quite
distinctly the little complainings of her young. She pushed against the
heavy door till it creaked, but there was no entrance for her by that
way. Close by was the window. Standing up on her hind legs, she stared
in. At last she managed to make out the two cubs, lying in a corner in a
box of rags and straw. The sight scattered all her caution to the winds.
Scrambling up to the window-sill, she dashed her head and shoulders
through the glass. That the jagged fragments cut her mouth and muzzle
severely, she never heeded at all. Forcing her whole body through, her
powerful haunches caught the window-frame, and carried it with them to
the floor. Writhing herself free of this encumbrance, she darted to the
box of rags, snatched up one of the cubs by the loose skin of its neck,
sprang through the window with it, and bore it off into a growth of tall
rank grass behind the barn. Returning at once to the cabin, she rescued
the other cub in the same way, and brought it triumphantly to its brother
in the long grass.

About this time she heard the man and the woman coming back. Instead of
trying to get away, she coiled herself flat in the grass and began to
suckle the cubs to keep them quiet. Her hiding-place was the most secure
that she could have found within miles of the cabin, the man having never
any occasion to go behind the barn—as she had seen by the absence of
tracks—and the rank growth furnishing a very complete concealment. Crafty
woodsman though the man was held to be, it never entered his mind that so
shy a beast as the panther would take covert thus within the very
stronghold of the foe. At sight of the shattered window he fell into a
rage, and when he found the cubs gone, he exhausted ingenuity in
consigning to every torment the man who had tempted him into speculating
in panther cubs. Storming noisily, he hunted everywhere, except behind
the barn. For a time his wife sat composedly on the wood-pile, and
cheered him with pointed backwoods sarcasms. At last, however, the two
went away over the ridge, to recover the skin of the other panther before
it should be spoiled by foxes. During their absence the mother got both
cubs safely carried off to a hollow tree some five miles farther along
the ridge. That night, while the man and the woman slept, with boards
nailed over their window, she bore them far away from the perilous
neighborhood. By difficult paths, and across two turbulent streams, she
removed them into the recesses of the neighboring county, a barren and
difficult region, where the wanderings of the man were little likely to
lead him.



                           THE TUNNEL RUNNERS


The deep copper-red channel of the little tidal river wound inland
through the wide yellowish levels of the salt marsh. Along each side of
the channel, between the waving fringes of the grass and the line of
usual high tide, ran a margin of pale yellowish-brown sand-flats, baked
and seamed with sun cracks, scurfed with wavy deposits of salt, and
spotted with meagre tufts of sea-green samphire, goose-tongue, and
sea-rosemary. Just at the edge of the grass-fringe an old post,
weather-beaten and time-eaten, stood up a solitary sentinel over the
waste, reminder of a time when this point of the river had been a little
haven for fishing-boats—a haven long since filled up by the caprice of
the inexorable silt.

Some forty or fifty paces straight back from the mouldering post, a low
spur of upland, darkly wooded with spruce and fir, jutted out into the
yellow-green sea of grass. Off to the left, some hundred yards or so
away, ran a line of round-topped dike, with a few stiff mullein stalks
fringing its crest. Beyond the dike, and long ago reclaimed by it from
the sea, lay basking in the sun the vast expanses of sweet-grass meadow,
blue-green with timothy, clover, and vetch, and hummed over by
innumerable golden-belted bumblebees. Through this sweet meadow wound the
slow curves of a placid and brimming fresh-water stream, joining itself
at last to the parent river through an _abat-d’eaux_ in the dike, whose
sunken valves protected it completely from the fluctuation of the tides.

The dividing line between the tall, waving, yellow salt grass and the
naked mud-flat was as sharp as if cut by a diker’s spade, and it was
fringed by a close brown tangle of grass-roots, which seemed to feel
outward over the baked mud and then curl back upon themselves in
apprehension. Close to the foot of the mouldering post, where this fringe
half encircled it, appeared suddenly a pointed brownish head, with tiny
ears and a pair of little, bright, bead-like eyes set very close
together. The head was thrust cautiously forth from the mouth of a narrow
tunnel under the grass-roots. The sharp, overhung muzzle, with nostrils
dilating and quivering, interrogated the perilous outer air; the bead
eyes searched the sky, the grass-fringe, the baking open of the flat.
There was no danger in sight; but just in front, some five or six feet
distant, a gaudy caterpillar on some bold venture bent was making his
slow way across the scurfed mud, from one goose-tongue tuft to another.

The pointed head shot swiftly forth from the tunnel, followed by a
ruddy-brown body—straight out across the bright naked space, and back
again, like a darting shuttle, into the hole, and the too rashly
adventuring caterpillar had disappeared.

A little way back from the edge of the flats a mottled brown marsh-hawk
was flying hither and thither. His wings were shorter and broader than
those of most members of his swift marauding race, and he flew flapping
almost like a crow, instead of gliding, skimming, and soaring, after the
manner of his more aristocratic kindred. He flew close above the swaying
grass-tops, his head thrust downward, and his hard, unwinking eyes peered
fiercely down between the ranked coarse stems of the “broad-leaf” grass.
He quartered the meadow section by section, closely and methodically as a
well-handled setter. Once he dropped straight downward into the grass
abruptly, as if he had been shot; and when, an instant later, he arose
again, with a great buffeting of the grass-tops, he was clutching some
tiny gray object in his talons. Had one been near enough to see, it would
have proved, probably, to be a young shrew. Whatever it was, it was too
small to be worth carrying off to his high perch on the dead pine-tree
beyond the ridge of the uplands. He flew with it to the open crest of the
dike close by, where he devoured it in savage gulps. Then, having wiped
his beak on the hard sod, he dropped off the dike and resumed his
assiduous quartering of the salt grass.

About this time the little brown, pointed head with the bead eyes
reappeared in the mouth of the tunnel by the foot of the post. Everything
seemed safe. The samphire and the goose-tongue tufts, palely glimmering
in the sun, were full of salt-loving, heat-loving insects. Warily the
ruddy-brown body behind the pointed head slipped forth from the tunnel,
and darted to the nearest tuft, where it began nosing sharply and
snapping up small game.

The marsh-mouse was a sturdy figure, about six inches in length, with a
dull chestnut-brown back sprinkled with black hairs shading downwards
through warm gray to a delicate fawn-colored belly. Its shoulders and
short forelegs were heavily moulded, showing the digger of tunnels, and
its forepaws moved with the swift precise facility of hands. The tiny
ears were set flat and tight to the head, and the broad-based skull over
the triangular muzzle gave an impression of pugnacious courage, very
unlike that of the wood-mouse or the house-mouse. This expression was
more than justified by the fact, for the marsh-mouse, confident in his
punishing little jaws and distrustful of his agility, had a dangerous
propensity to stay and fight when he ought to be running away. It was a
propensity which, owing to the abundance of his enemies, would have led
speedily to the extermination of his race but for the amazing and
unremitting fecundity which dwelt in his blood.

For all his courage, however, there were some foes which he had no
inclination to meet and face—even he, one of the biggest and strongest of
his kind. As he glanced aside from his nosing in the samphire tufts, he
caught sight of a broad black splotch of shadow sweeping up the baked
surface of the flat at terrific speed.

He did not look up; he had no need to. Only too well he knew what was
casting that sinister shadow. Though agility was not supposed to be his
strong point, his movement, as he shot across the open from the samphire
tuft to the mouth of his tunnel, was almost too quick to follow. He
gained the root-fringed door just in time. As his frantic, cringing hind
quarters disappeared into the hole, the great talons of the pouncing hawk
plunged into the root-fringe, closing and clutching so savagely that the
mouth of the tunnel was obliterated. Grass-roots, however, were not what
those rending talons wanted, and the great hawk, rising angrily, flapped
off to the other side of the dike.

Within the tunnel the brown mouse ran on desperately, as if he felt those
fatal talons still reaching after him. The tunnel was not quite in
darkness, for here and there a gleam of light came filtering through the
roots which formed its roof, and here and there a round opening gave
access to the yellow-green world among the big stiff grass-stalks. The
floor was smooth from the feet and teeth of countless other marsh-mice,
water-voles, and marsh-shrews. To right and left went branching off
innumerable side-tunnels and galleries, an apparently inextricable maze.
But the brown mouse raced straight on, back from the waterside, deep into
the heart of the marsh, anxious only to put himself as far as possible
from the scene of his horrid adventure.

Running thus suddenly, he bumped hard into a little wayfarer who was
journeying in the opposite direction. The tunnel was so narrow that only
by the use of a certain circumspection and consideration could two
travellers pass each other comfortably. Now the stranger was a
mole-shrew, much smaller than the brown mouse, but of a temper as
unpleasant as that of a mad buffalo. That the mouse should come butting
into him in that rude fashion was an indignity not to be tolerated.
Gnashing his long, chisel-like teeth, he grappled blindly, and rent the
brown mouse’s ear to ribbons. But this was a mistake on his part, a
distinct error of judgment. The brown mouse was no slim timorous
barn-mouse or field-mouse, no slow and clumsy mole. He was a fighter and
with strength to back his pugnacity. He caught the angry shrew by the
neck, bit him mercilessly, shook him limp, trod him under foot, and raced
on. Not until he reached his snug nest in the burrow at the foot of the
dike did he quite regain his equanimity.

Just about this time there came a succession of heavy southwest gales,
which piled up the water into the funnel-like head of the bay, dammed
back the rivers, and brought a series of high tides. Tides as high were
quite unseasonable, and caught the swarming little tunnel runners of the
salt marsh unprepared. As the first flood came lapping up over the
sun-baked flats, covering the samphire tufts, setting all awash the
root-fringes of the grass, and sliding noiselessly into the tunnels,
there was a wild scurrying, and a faint elusive clamor of squeaks came
murmuring thinly up through the grass. Myriads of brown-and-orange
grasshoppers, beetles black and green and blue and red, with here and
there a sleek grub, here and there a furry caterpillar, began to climb
the long, stiff grass-stalks. The battalions of the mice and voles and
shrews, popping up indignantly through the skylight of the tunnels, swept
unanimously toward the barrier of the dike. Every one of them knew quite
well that to the sweet meadows beyond the dike the peril of the tide
could not pursue them.

The big brown marsh-mouse, as it chanced, was asleep at the bottom of his
burrow. Stealing up between the grass-stems, a chill douche slipped in
upon him. Startled and choking, he darted up the steep slope of his
gallery, and out into the wet turmoil. He was an expert swimmer, but he
liked to choose his own time for the exercise of his skill. This was not
one of the times. For one second he sat up upon his sturdy little
haunches, squeaking angrily and surveying the excitement. Then, shaking
his fur free of the few drops of water which clung to it in tiny
globules, he joined the scurrying migrant throngs which were swarming
through the dike.

Along the dike-top the migrants were running the gantlet with death. With
the first invasion of the tide across the flats, all the marsh-hawks of
the neighborhood—some four or five—had gathered to the hunt, knowing well
just what the flood would do for them. Also many crows had come. At
intervals along the crest of the dike stood the hawks, with wings half
spread, screaming excitedly, clutching at their victims and devouring
them with unlordly haste. Two, already gorged, were flapping away heavily
toward the forest-clad inland ridges, carrying limp trophies in their
talons. As for the crows, there were perhaps two score of them, all
cawing noisily, flying low along the crest of the dike, and alighting
from time to time to stab savagely with their dagger-like beaks.

The big brown marsh-mouse, wise with experience and many escapes, took
this all in as he mounted the slope of the dike. Marking a hawk just
above him, he doubled nimbly back, jumping over half a dozen blindly
blundering fugitives. Some ten feet farther along he again ascended. As
he came over the crest, in a mob of shrews and smaller mice, he saw a
glossy crow just dropping upon him. The eyes of the crow, impish and
malevolent, were fixed, not upon him, but upon a small shrew close at his
side. Imagining himself, however, the object of attack, the brown mouse
fell into a rage. Darting upward, he fixed his long teeth in the black
marauder’s thigh, just above the leg joint, and pulled him down into the
scurrying stream of rodents. With a squeak of rage and alarm, the crow
struck out savagely. His murderous beak stabbed this way and that in the
crowd, laying out more than one soft-bodied victim, while his strong
black wings beat others into confusion and panic. But in the throng
swarming over the dike at that point were many more of the marsh-mice and
the shrews, all savage in temper. They leaped upon the crow, ran over and
bore down the buffeting wings, and tore vengefully at the hard iridescent
armor of close-laid feathers which shielded their foe from any fatal
wounds. In spite of this disadvantage, they were wearing him out by sheer
fury and weight of numbers, when the other crows came darkly to his
assistance. In a moment he was liberated, and the dike-top strewn with
gashed furry bodies. Bleeding and bedraggled, his eyes blazing with
wrath, he sprang into the air and flapped away to the uplands to recover
his composure in the seclusion of some dense pine-top. The brown
marsh-mouse, the cause of his discomfiture, darted out from under his
wing as he arose, and slipped over the edge of the dike with no worse
injury than a red gash across the haunches. Having scored such a triumph
over so redoubtable an enemy as the crow, he was not troubled by his
wound; but discretion led him to plunge instantly into the deep green
shelter of the grass.

Here in the sweet meadow, where the timothy and clover stood much closer
than did the coarse stalks of the “broad-leaf” in the salt meadow, the
runways of the mice were not, as a rule, underground. They were made by
gnawing off the stems close to the firm surface of the sod. The stems on
each side, tending to be pressed together, formed a perfect roof to the
narrow tunnels, which pierced the grass in every direction and formed a
seemingly insoluble labyrinth. The brown mouse, however, knew his way
very well through the soft green light, flecked with specks and streaks
of pollen-dusty sunshine. The tunnels were swarming with travellers; but
beyond nipping them on the haunches now and then, to make them get out of
his way or move faster, he paid no attention to them. At last he came to
the edge of the stream, and to a burrow beneath the roots of a wild-rose
thicket which fringed the water.

This burrow the brown mouse had once inhabited. He felt it was his. Just
now it was occupied by an irritable little mole-shrew; but the brown
mouse, strong in the sense of ownership, proceeded to take possession.
The outraged shrew put up a bitter fight, but in vain. With squeaks and
blood the eviction was accomplished, and the brown mouse established
himself complacently in the burrow.

After a few days the southwest gales blew themselves out, the tides drew
back within their ordinary summer bounds, and most of the refugees
returned to their old haunts among the “broad-leaf.” But the brown mouse
elected to remain in his burrow beside the rose-thicket. His taste had
turned to the clover and timothy stalks, and the meadow was alive with
brown crickets and toothsome, big, green grasshoppers. Moreover, in the
heat of late July, he loved to swim in the bland waters of the stream,
keeping close along shore, under the shadow of the long grass and the
overhanging roses, and avoiding the dense patches of weed which might
give shelter to the darting pickerel. His burrow was roomy and gave
accommodation to a silken-furred brown mate, who set herself without
delay to the duty of replenishing the diminished population of the
marsh-mice.

In spite of foraging hawks, foxes, weasels, and minks, in spite of
calamities, swift and frequent, overtaking this, that, and another of the
innumerable kindred of the mice, the summer hours passed benignly over
the burrow by the rose-thicket. Then, one sultry scented morning, there
came a change. The deep quiet of the meadow went to pieces in blatant
clamor. Loud-voiced men and snorting, trampling, clanking horses came to
the edge of the grass, and with them two strange scarlet machines which
clattered as they moved.

One of these scarlet monsters, dragged by its horses, swerved off toward
the farther side of the meadow. The other started straight down through
the deep grass along the edge of the stream. Into the grass, belly-deep,
the big horses plunged, breasting it like the sea. Instantly the scarlet
machine, which was ridden by a man, set up a new cry. It was a harsh,
strident, terrifying cry, as if a million twanging locusts had found one
voice. Before it, to the amazed horror of all the furry, scurrying
grass-dwellers, the grass went down flat in long ranks. The peril of the
floods was as nothing to this loud uncomprehended peril. Marsh-mice,
water-voles, shrews, with here and there a foraging musk-rat, here and
there a murderous and ravaging weasel, all fled frantically before it. A
few, a very few, fled too late. These never knew what happened to them,
for great darting knives, dancing unseen through the grass close to the
earth, caught them and slew them.

The high cry of the deadly scarlet thing, however, gave warning fair and
sufficient. As the big brown marsh-mouse heard it approaching, he dived
straight to the bottom of his burrow and lay there trembling. His
companion, on the other hand, holding different views as to the proper
place of safety, darted from the burrow, wriggled through the thorny
stems of the rose-thicket, and plunged into the water, where she hid
herself close under the opposite bank. The noise and the darting knives
glided almost over the mouth of the burrow, and the thumping heart of the
brown mouse almost burst itself with terror. But they passed. Slowly they
marched away. And when they had grown comparatively faint, far down at
the foot of the meadow, beside the dike, the brown mouse, recovering
himself, dared to peep forth. He was astonished to see a long breadth of
grass lying prostrate, with bewildered bumblebees and grasshoppers
striving to extricate themselves from the ruins. Having a valiant heart
and a quick eye for opportunity, he sprang out of his hole and began
pouncing on the confused and helpless insects. This, for a few minutes,
was a profitable game, and a safe one, too, for the strident noise, with
the presence of the men and horses, had driven hawks and crows to a
discreet distance. But presently the cry of the scarlet thing, which had
turned at the dike and was moving straight up the middle of the meadow,
began to grow loud again, and the brown mouse whisked back into his
burrow.

All through the time of the haying the meadow-folk lived in a turmoil of
alarm and change. At first, under the heavy prostrate ranks of the slain
grass, they ran bewildered but secure, for their foes could not easily
detect them. For another day they were comparatively safe under the long
scented lines of the dying “windrows,” full of grasshoppers and wilted
clover-heads. When the windrows were tossed together into innumerable
pointed hay-cocks, they crowded beneath the ephemeral shelter, to be
rudely bared next day to the blinding sun as the cocks were pitched into
the rumbling hay-carts. It was a day of horrors, this, to the meadow
kindreds, for a yellow Irish terrier, following the hay-makers, would run
with wild yelpings under the lifted cocks, and slay the little people by
the hundred. But as for the brown mouse, all this time he and his
temporary mate dwelt secure, keeping to their burrow and to the barren
but safe tunnels which they had driven amid the roots of the
rose-thicket.

When the hay was gone—part of it carted away to upland barns, part built
cunningly into high conical stacks—the meadow-dwellers found that they
had fallen on evil times. The naked meadow, all bare close stubble, open
to the eyes of hawk and crow by day, and of the still more deadly owl by
night, had become their worst foe. Some drew back to the fringes of the
uplands. Some colonized along the winding edges of the stream. Some
returned across the dike to the salt meadow, where the broad-leaf grass
was not yet ripe for mowing; while the remnant huddled precariously under
the bases of the stacks, an easy prey for every foraging weasel. In a
little while, however, the short thick herbage of the aftermath thrust
its head above the stubble. Then new tunnels were run, and life for the
scurrying and squeaking meadow-folk once more began to offer its normal
attractions. It was now more perilously insecure, however, for the herds
of cattle turned to pasture on the aftermath kept it eaten down; and the
shrewd crows learned that their beaks could pierce the fragile and
too-open roofs of the tunnels.

At last the snow came, the deep snow and the hard cold, enemy to almost
all the other kindred of the wild, but friendly to the mouse-folk. The
snow, some two feet deep all over the meadows, over the dikes, and to the
eating edges of the tides, gave them a perfect shelter, and was exactly
suited to the driving of their tunnels. Food was abundant, because they
could subsist very well on the nutritious root-stalks of the grass. And
none of their enemies could get at them except when they chose to seek
the upper air. In the daytime they kept to the glimmering blue light of
the tunnels, but at night they would slip forth and play about the firm
surface of the snow. It was then that they suffered, for though the hawks
were gone, and the crows asleep, the icy winter night was alive with
owls; and foxes, weasels, and minks would come prowling hungrily down
from the uplands. The owls were the worst peril by far—marsh-owls,
barn-owls, the darting little Acadian owls, swift as the sparrow-hawk;
and now and then the terror of the winter wilds, the giant snowy owl of
the North, driven down by storm and famine from his bleak Arctic wastes.
The revels of the mouse-folk over their dim-lit playgrounds were varied
with incessant tragedy. But the memories of the little people,
fortunately, were short. Their perilous diversions went on unchecked,
while their furry battalions thinned amazingly.

But through all these dangers the brown marsh-mouse went his way secure.
He kept every exit of his tunnels perfectly hidden among the thorny tips
of the wild rose-bushes, which stood up some five or six inches above the
top of the snow. The successive families which were born and grew up in
his safe burrow passed out into the maze, to be merged in the precarious
and passing legions. His first mate disappeared mysteriously, and as he
had no facilities for pressing an inquiry among the hawks or weasels, he
never knew the details of her disappearance. Her place was speedily
filled in the burrow. But to the brown mouse himself nothing happened. He
confined his nightly revels beneath the moon to the region of the
rose-thickets, and so eluded effectually the eyes and claws of the owls.

It was along toward the end of winter, however, when the brown mouse met
with his most dangerous adventure. Shunning, as he did so craftily, the
games on the open snow, he was wont to amuse himself—and incidentally
seek variations in his diet—beneath the ice of his threshold stream. An
expert swimmer and diver, almost as swift as his cousin the musk-rat or
his hereditary enemy the mink, he would swim long distances under the
water, finding fresh bits of lily-root, tiny clams, water-snails,
half-torpid beetles, and many kinds of larvæ. As the stream had been high
at the time of freezing, and had afterwards shrunken in its channel,
letting the ice down with it, there were many air-chambers along the
brink, between ice-roof and water surface; and slanting downward to the
nearest of these he had dug himself a tunnel from the roots of his
thicket. Even here, to be sure, there were perils for him. There was one
big mink which loved to hunt along these secret and dim-lit air-chambers,
taking long swims beneath the ice. But he was an autocrat, and kept all
rival minks away from his range; so the wise brown mouse knew that as
long as he kept a sharp enough lookout against that foe, he was secure in
the air-chambers. Then, in the stream itself, there was always the peril
of the great pike, which had its lair at the bottom of the deep pool down
by the _abat-d’eaux_. The brown mouse had seen him but once—a long,
straight, gray-green, shadowy shape in the distance—but that one sight
gave him counsels of caution. He never forgot, when in the water, to keep
watch for that great darting shadow.

One day, when the brown mouse had swum far downstream, and was hurrying
back home, he was alarmed by loud sounds on the surface of the ice, a
little below his back door. Some one with an axe was chopping a hole in
the ice. The brown mouse swam away downstream again as fast as he could,
and the jarring noise of the axe-strokes, carried by the ice and by the
water, seemed to follow him with terrifying concussions. Hiding himself
in a remote air-chamber, he waited for the noises to cease. Then, with
mingled trepidation and caution, he swam upstream again.

As he neared home, he saw a round beam of light pouring downward to the
stream’s bed through a hole in the ice. In the midst of this light there
hung, moving softly to the slow current, a big lump of fat pork. The
brown mouse did not know it was pork, but he knew at once it was
something very good to eat. Very cautiously he swam up to investigate it.
There seemed to be no reason why he should not nibble it. In fact, he was
just going to nibble it, when, just a few feet farther upstream, those
terrifying sounds began again. The brown mouse took them as a warning,
and fled back downstream in a panic.

In a few minutes the noise stopped, and the courage of the brown mouse
returned. As he swam once more homeward, firmly resolved that he would
taste that delectable mystery on his way, a chill in his spine made him
remember the great pike, and look back.

There _was_ the great pike, a long dreadful shadow, gliding up behind
him.

The brown mouse, as we have said, was a wonderful swimmer. He swam now as
he had never swum before—a brown streak cleaving the dim-lit current; and
as he went tiny water-bubbles, formed by the air pressed out from under
his fur, flew up till they broke against the ice. But, with all his
speed, the great pike swam faster, and was slowly overtaking him. Just as
he passed that strange dangling lump of pork, he realized that this was a
race which he could not win. The entrance to his burrow was still too
distant. But he remembered a tiny air-chamber under the bank close by. It
had no exit. It was so small that he might not find room there to haul
himself clear out of the water, beyond reach of his enemy’s jaws, but he
had no choice, and in frantic suffocating desperation he dashed for it.

Even as he turned, however, the sense of doom descended upon him. Was he
not already too late? The long awful shape of the great fish was close
upon him. With a convulsive effort that almost burst his heart, he gained
the air-chamber, scrambled half-way out of the water, and then, in that
cramped space, turned at bay, game to the last gasp.

To his amazement, the great pike was not at his tail. Instead, he was
still some three or four feet away, out there just in the descending beam
of light from the hole in the ice. The mysterious lump of pork had
disappeared, but the gasping brown mouse did not notice that. His
attention was engrossed in the amazing and terrifying performances of the
pike. The long gray-green body was darting this way and that, in and out
of the beam of light, but never any great space out of it. The great jaws
shook savagely from side to side, and then the mouse saw that from
between them a slender gleaming cord extended upward through the hole. A
moment more, and the pike sprang straight up, with a heavy swirl of the
water, and vanished above the ice.

It was incomprehensible; and there was something altogether appalling
about it. The brown mouse shivered. For several minutes he crouched there
quite still, more utterly panic-stricken than he had ever been before in
all his precarious little life. At last, with hesitation, he worked his
way up along the bank, beneath the ice, to his own tunnel, and scurried
in all haste to hide himself in the deepest corner of his burrow. And
never thereafter could he comprehend why nothing more was seen, or heard,
or rumored of the great pike.



                         A TORPEDO IN FEATHERS


The blue kingfisher, flying over the still surface of the lake, and
peering downward curiously as he flew, saw into its depths as if they had
been clear glass. What he hoped to see was some small fish—chub, or
shiner, or yellow perch, or trout, basking incautiously near the surface.
What he saw was a sinister dark shape, elongated but massive, darting in
a straight line through the transparent amber, some three or four feet
below the surface. Knowing well enough what that meant—no fish so foolish
as to linger in such dread neighborhood—the kingfisher flew on
indignantly, with a loud clattering laugh like a rattle. He would do his
fishing, according to his usual custom, in the shallower waters along
shore, where the great black loon was less at home.

Darting straight ahead for an amazing distance, like a well-aimed
torpedo, the loon came to a point where the lake-bottom slanted upward
swiftly toward a bushy islet, over a floor of yellow sand that glowed in
the sun. Here he just failed to transfix, with his powerful dagger of a
bill, a big lake trout that hung, lazily waving its scarlet fins, beside
a rock. The trout’s golden-rimmed eyes detected the peril in time—just in
time—and with a desperate screw-like thrust of his powerful tail, he shot
aside and plunged into the shadowy deeps. The heavy swirl of his going
disturbed an eight-inch chub, which chanced at the moment to be groping
for larvæ in a muddy pocket beneath the rock. Incautiously it sailed
forth to see what was happening. Before it had time to see anything, fate
struck it. Caught in the vice of two iron mandibles, it was carried
quivering to the surface.

All power of escape crushed out of it by that saw-toothed grip, the
victim might safely have been dropped and devoured at leisure. But the
great loon was too hungry for leisure. Moreover, he was an expert and he
took no risks. With a jerk he threw the fish into the air, caught it as
it fell head first, and gulped it down. For a moment or two he floated
motionless, his small, fierce and peculiarly piercing eyes warily
scrutinizing the lake in all directions. Then, lifting his black head,
which gleamed in the sun with green, purple, and sapphire iridescence, he
gave vent to a strange wild cry like a peal of bitter laughter. The cry
echoed hollowly from the desolate shores of the lake. A moment or two
later it was answered, in the same hollow and disconcerting tones, and
from behind the islet his mate came swimming to meet him.

For a few minutes the two great birds swam slowly around each other,
uttering several times their weird cry. As they floated at their ease,
unalarmed, they sat high in the water, showing something of the clean
pearly whiteness of their breasts and under parts. Their sturdy, trimly
modelled bodies were about three feet in length, from the tips of their
straight and formidable green beaks to the ends of their short stiff
tails. Their heads, as we have seen, were of an intense and iridescent
black, their necks encircled by collars of black and white, their backs,
shoulders, and wings dull black, with white spots and bars. Their feet,
very large, broadly webbed, and set extraordinarily far back, almost like
those of a penguin, glimmered black as they fanned back and forth in the
clear amber water.

Suddenly some movement among the bushes along the near shore, perhaps two
hundred yards away, caught their watchful eyes. In an instant, by some
mysterious process, they had sunk their bodies completely below the
surface, leaving only their snaky heads and necks exposed to view. This
peculiar submerged position they held, it seemed, without difficulty. But
whatever it was that alarmed them, it was not repeated; and after perhaps
five minutes of cautious watchfulness, they slowly emerged and floated on
the surface. Presently the female swam back again behind the islet,
laboriously scrambled out upon the shore, waddled to her nest, and
settled herself once more to the task of brooding her two big gray-green,
brown-blotched eggs. It was the first week in June, and the eggs were
near hatching.

The pair of loons were restless and annoyed. Their lake, set in a lonely
valley, which was drained by a branch of the Upper Quah-Davic, had seemed
to them the perfection of solitude and remoteness. For three years now
they had been coming to it every spring with the first of the northern
flight. But this spring their solitude had been invaded. A pioneer, a
squatter, with a buxom wife and several noisy children, had come and
built a cabin on the shore of the lake. To be sure, the lake was large
enough to overlook and forget such a small invasion, but for the loons it
was a great matter. That cabin, those voices, and laughter, and
axe-strokes, and sometimes gun-shots, though almost a mile away from
their nesting-place, were a detestable and unpardonable intrusion.

The loon was just about to resume his fishing—a business which, on
account of his phenomenal appetite, took up most of his time—when once
more a movement in the bushes caught his vigilant eye. At the same
instant a flash of white fire jetted through the leafy screen, a vicious
report rang out, and a shower of shot cut the water into spurting streaks
all about him. But he was not there. Inconceivably swift, he had dived at
the flash itself. The lead that would have riddled him struck the empty
swirl where he had vanished. A lanky youth with a gun stepped out from
behind the bushes, stared in sulky disappointment, and presently strolled
off down the shore to look for less elusive game.

The shattered calm of the lake surface had time to rebuild itself before
the loon reappeared. A hundred yards away from the spot where he had
dived, his head thrust itself above the water, a tiny black speck on the
silvery sheen. It disappeared again instantly. When it once more came to
the surface, it was so far out from shore that its owner felt safe. After
a few moments devoted to inspection of the hunter’s retreating form, the
loon arose completely and sent a long derisive peal of his wild laughter
echoing down the lake. The lanky youth turned and shook his fist at him,
as if threatening to settle the score at a later day.

The loon had come by this time to a part of the lake where the depth was
not more than six or seven feet, and the bottom was of rich firm mud,
covered with rank growths. Here and there a solitary lily-plant, a stray
from the creamy-blossomed, nectar-breathing colony over in the near-by
cove, lifted to the surface its long pipe-like stems and flat sliding
disks of leaves. It was a favorite resort, this, of almost every kind of
fish that inhabited the lake, except, of course, of the minnows and other
little fry, who would have been promptly made to serve as food for their
bigger kinsmen had they ventured into so fatal a neighborhood.

Floating tranquilly, the loon caught sight of the silvery sides of a fat
chub, balancing just above the bottom, beside one of the slender pipes of
lily-stalk. The fish was lazily opening and closing its crimson gills,
indifferent and with a well-fed air. It hung at a depth of perhaps six
feet, and at a distance of perhaps sixteen or twenty. So smoothly as
scarcely to leave a swirl on the surface, the loon dived straight down,
then darted for the fish at a terrific pace. His powerful feet, folding
up and opening out at each lightning-swift stroke, propelled him like a
torpedo just shot from tube, and tiny bubbles, formed by the air caught
under his feathers, flicked upward along his course.

The chub caught sight of this shape of doom rushing upon him through the
golden tremor of the water. He shot off in a panic, seeking some deep
crevice or some weed-thicket dense enough to hide him. But the loon was
almost at his tail. There was no crevice to be found, and the weed
thickets were too sparse and open to conceal him. This way and that he
darted, doubling and twisting frantically around every stalk or stone.
But in spite of his bulk, the loon followed each turn with the agility of
an eel. The loosed silt boiled up in wreaths behind his violent passage,
and the weeds swayed in the wake of the thrusting webs. In less than a
minute the chase—the turmoil of which drove every other fish, large or
small, in terror from the feeding-ground—came suddenly to an end. Rising
abruptly with the fish gripped in his great beak, the loon burst out upon
the surface, sending shoreward a succession of circling ripples. Without
ceremony he gulped his meal. Then, swimming rather low in the water, and
with head thrust out before him, he hurried to his nesting-place on the
islet, as if he thought he had been too long away from his domestic
duties.

The spot on the islet where the loons had their nest was almost
unconcealed. It was in a grassy cup within four or five feet of the
water’s edge, and sheltered only by a thin screen of bushes on the
landward side. Toward the sky it was quite open. There had seemed to be
little need of concealment before the intruder, man, came to the lake.
The islet was too far from the main shore to be in danger from the visits
of foxes or bears, fishers or raccoons. And as for the sky—well, the loon
had little fear of anything that flew. Because of this lack of
apprehension from skyward, even his coloring was not very protective, his
glossy black, barred and mottled with pure white, being fairly
conspicuous against the grays, and greens, and browns which surrounded
the nest. Neither he nor his mate had any particular objection to being
seen by any marauder of the air. Even the murderous goshawk, or the
smaller but even more fearless duck-hawk, would know better than to swoop
down upon the uplifted dagger of a nesting loon. And as for the eagle,
though doubtless strong enough to master such an antagonist in the end,
he is wise enough to know that the loon’s punishing beak and bulldog
courage in defence of the nest would make the victory an expensive and
painful one.

But there was one enemy besides man whom the loons had cause to fear,
even on their secluded islet. They hated the mink with a well-founded
hate. He could easily swim out to discover and rob their nest; and if he
should find it for a moment unguarded, his agility would enable him to
keep well clear of their avenging wrath. On the nest neither male nor
female feared to meet the mink’s attack, their lithe necks and unerring
quickness of thrust being sufficient defence even against so formidable a
robber. But their movements on land—an awkward, flopping series of
waddles—were so slow that, in the case of a mink arriving, the precious
eggs would be safe only while actually covered. A big mink had been seen
that very morning, prowling down the opposite shore, and both birds were
uneasy. They seemed now to be taking counsel upon that or some other
equally important matter.

For the next few days, however, the life of the loons was tranquil, with
good fishing to content their appetites and no untoward event to make
them anxious. Then came a day when the patient mother on her nest could
not conceal her happiness and her excitement, when the male, forgetful of
meals, stood for hours at a time in interested expectancy beside the
nest. The strong chicks within the eggs were beginning to stir and chip
the shell. It was not the day that the big mink should have chosen for
his expedition to the islet.

For several weeks the mink had been on the point of swimming out to
explore that little patch of rocks and grass and bushes, sentinelled by
one dark fir-tree. Such a secluded spot, out of reach of most forest
prowlers, might well afford something special in the way of good hunting.
Hitherto one thing or another had always diverted him from his purpose,
and he had gone off on another trail. But to-day nothing intervened. His
long, lithe, black body curving like a snake’s, he ran down the bank,
lifted his triangular vicious-looking head for a survey of the lake, and
plunged into the water with a low splash.

Now, the vision of the mink, though sharp enough at close quarters, has
nothing like the power and penetration of the loon’s. The mink could see
the islet, the rocks, the bushes, the sentinel fir-tree, but he could not
make out the figure of the loon standing beside the nest. The loon, on
the other hand, could see him with absolute distinctness, as if not more
than fifty feet away.

As has been already noted, the day was not well chosen for the mink’s
trip to the islet. The loon stiffened himself with anger, and his round
bright eyes hardened implacably. The mother settled down closer over the
stirring eggs, and turned her head to stare malevolently at the long
pointed trail which the swimmer’s head was drawing on the lake surface.
Her mate stood for some seconds as motionless as a charred stump. Then,
slipping noiselessly down the bank, he glided into the water and dived
from sight.

The lake was deep at this point, the main channel of the stream—upon
which the lake was threaded like a great oval bead on a slender
string—running between the islet and the mainland. The loon plunged
nearly to the bottom, that he might run no risk of being detected by the
enemy. More than ever like a torpedo, as he pierced the brown depths, he
darted forward to the attack. Two or three great lake trout, seeing the
approach of the black rushing shape, made way in terror and hid in the
deepest weed-patch they could find. But the loon was not thinking of
fish. The most tempting tit-bit in the lake at that moment might have
brushed against his feathers with impunity.

At last, still far ahead of him, he saw the enemy’s approach. As he
looked upward through the water, the under surface was like a radiant but
half transparent mirror, on which the tiniest floating object, even a fly
or a wild-cherry petal, stood out with amazing distinctness. The dark
body of the swimming mink was large and black and menacing against its
setting of silver, and the ripples spread away from his chin, ever
widening, till they faded on the shore behind him. The loon kept straight
on till the mink was almost above him, then he turned and shot upward.

Thinking, doubtless, of some wild duck’s nest, well filled with large
green eggs, which he would devour at his ease after sucking the blood of
the brooding mother, the mink swam on steadily toward the islet. The worn
gray rocks and fringing grass grew nearer, and the details began to
separate themselves to his fierce little eyes. Presently he made out the
black shape of the female loon sitting on her nest and eying him. That
promised something interesting. The blood leaped in his veins, and he
raced forward at redoubled speed, for the mink goes into his frays with a
rampant blood-lust that makes him always formidable, even to creatures of
twice his weight.

It was just at this moment that his alert senses took note of a strange
vague heaving in the water beneath him, a sort of dull and broad
vibration. Swiftly he ducked his head, to see if the whole lake-bottom
was rising up at him. But he had no time to see anything. It was as if a
red-hot iron was jabbed straight upward through the tender back part of
his throat, and a swarm of stars exploded in his brain. Then he knew
nothing more. The loon’s steel-like bill had pierced to and penetrated
the base of the skull, and with one convulsive kick, the robber’s body
straightened itself out upon the water. Shaking his head like an angry
terrier, he wrenched his bill free and hurried back to reassure his mate,
leaving the body of the mink to sink languidly to the bottom. Here, among
the weeds, it was presently discovered by the eels and crawfish, faithful
scavengers, who saw to it that there should be nothing left to pollute
the sweet lake-waters.

On the following day the two awkward, dingy-hued, downy chicks were
hatched, and thenceforth the parents were kept busy supplying their
extremely healthy appetites. The havoc wrought among the finny hordes—the
trout and “togue”[1] and chub, the red-fins, shiners, and minnows—was
enormous. The loon chicks, enterprising and industrious, speedily learned
to help their parents by hunting the small fry in the sunlit shallows
along shore.

But the loon family were not the only ardent fishermen on those waters.
The new-comers, the man family, they too liked fish, and had no mean
skill in catching them. In fact, their methods were stupidly and
slaughterously destructive, well calculated to quite draw out the lake in
two or three seasons. They set a big purse-seine right across the
channel, and, worst of all, they dragged the deep dark pools, wherein,
now that the waters were growing warmer under the mid-June sun, the
biggest trout and “togue” were wont to gather for coolness. Their own
thought was to get their larder well stocked with salted fish against the
coming winter. Future winters might look out for themselves.

For some time the great loon, though more enterprising and wide-ranging
than his prudent mate, had kept careful distance from the nets and
net-stakes, as from all the other visible manifestations of man. But at
last he grew accustomed to the tall immovable stakes in the channel which
supported the purse-seine. He concluded that they were harmless, or even
impotent, and decided to investigate them.

As he approached, the dim meshes of the net, shimmering vaguely in the
bright water, excited his suspicions. He sheered off warily and swam
around the seine at a prudent distance. At last he found the opening.
There seemed to be no danger anywhere in sight, so, after some
hesitation, he sailed in. The ordered curving rows of the stakes, the top
line of the net, beaded with a few floats, here and there rising above
the water—it was all very curious, but it did not seem in any way
hostile. He eyed it scornfully. For what was neither dangerous nor useful
he had a highly practical contempt. Having satisfied his curiosity, and
allayed a certain uneasiness with which he had always regarded the great
set-net, he turned to swim out again. But at this moment he chanced to
look down.

The sight that met his eyes was one to stir the blood of any fisherman.
He was just over the “purse”—that fatal chamber whence so few who enter
it ever find the exit. The narrow space was crowded with every kind of
fish that frequented the lake, except for the slim eels and the small fry
who could swim through the meshes. It was the chance of a loon’s
lifetime. Flashing downward, he darted this way and that ecstatically
among the frantic prisoners, transfixing half a dozen in succession, to
make sure of them, before he seized a big trout for his immediate meal.
Gripping the victim savagely in his bill, he slanted toward the surface,
and plunged into a slack bight of the net.

Luckily for him, he was within a foot of the air before he struck the
deceitful meshes. Carried on by the impetus of his rush, he bore the net
upward with him, and emerged into the full sun. In the shock of his
surprise he dropped the fish, and at the same time gulped his lungs full
of fresh air. For perhaps half a minute, he thrust and flapped and tore
furiously, expecting to break through the elusive obstacle, which yielded
so freely that he could get no hold upon it, yet always thrust him back
with a suave but inexorable persistence. At length, realizing himself
foiled in this direction, he sank downward like a stone, thinking to back
out of the struggle and rise somewhere else. But, to his horror, the
bight of the net came down with him, refusing to be left. In his
struggles he had completely enmeshed himself.

And now, probably for the very first time in a not uneventful life, the
great loon lost his head. He began to fight blindly, overwhelmed by panic
terror. Plunging, kicking, beating with half-fettered wings, striking
with his beak in a semi-paralyzed fashion because he had not room to
stretch his neck to its full length, he was soon utterly exhausted.
Moreover, he was more than half drowned. At last, a dimness coming over
the golden amber light, he gave up in despair. With a feeble despairing
stroke of his webbed feet, he strove to get back to the surface. Happily
for him, the net in this direction was not relentless. It yielded without
too much resistance, and the hopelessly entangled prisoner came to the
top. Lying there in the meshes, he could at least draw breath.

When, a little later in the day, he saw a boat approaching up the lake
with two of the dreaded man creatures in it, he gave one final mighty
struggle, which lashed the water into foam and sent the imprisoned fish
into fresh paroxysms; and then, with the stoicism which some of the wild
creatures can display in the moment of supreme and hopeless peril, he lay
quite still, eying the foe defiantly.

One of the beings in the boat was that lanky youth whose attempt to shoot
the loon had been such a conspicuous failure. The other was the lanky
youth’s father, the pioneer himself. At the sight of the trussed-up
captive, the youth shouted exultantly—

“It’s that durn loon what’s eatin’ all the fish in the lake! I’ll fix his
fishin’!” and, lifting his oar from the thole-pins, he raised it to
strike the helpless bird.

“Don’t be sich a _durn_ fool, Zeb!” interrupted the father. “Ye’ll get
more money for that bird alive, down to Fredericton, than all the fish in
the net’s worth. A loon like that ain’t common. He’s a beauty!”

The youth dropped his oar and leaned over to snatch up the prize. But he
jumped back with alacrity as his father snapped: “_Look out!_”

“What for?” he demanded, rather sheepishly.

“Why,” replied the older man, “he’ll stick you like a pig with that knife
beak of his’n, if ye don’t look sharp! Reach me yer jacket. We’ll wrap up
his head till we kin get him clear o’ the net.”

The youth obeyed. Helplessly swathed in the heavy homespun jacket, whose
strong man smell enraged and daunted him, the great bird was disentangled
from the net and lifted into the boat. Laughingly the father passed the
bundle along the gunwale to his son.

But swathing a powerful bird in a jacket is a more or less inexact
undertaking, as many have found in experimenting with wounded hawks and
eagles. By some lucky wriggle the loon got his head free. Instantly, with
all the force of his powerful neck-muscles, he drove his beak half-way
through the fleshy part of his old enemy’s arm. With a startled yell the
lad dropped him. He bounded from the gunwale and rolled into the water.
The man snatched at him and caught a flopping sleeve of the jacket. The
jacket promptly and neatly unrolled, and the loon, diving deep, was out
of sight in an eye-wink, leaving his would-be jailers to express
themselves according to their mood. When he came to the surface for
breath, he was a hundred yards away, and on the other side of the boat,
and as he thrust little more than his beak and nostrils above water, he
was not detected.

A few minutes more, and he was laughing derisively from the other side of
the islet, swimming in safety with his mate and his two energetic chicks.
Nevertheless, for all his triumph and the discomfiture of his foes, the
grim experience had put him out of conceit with the lake. That same
night, when the white moon rode high over the jagged spruce ridges, a
hollow globe of enchantment, he led his little family straight up the
river, mile after mile, till they reached another lake. It was a small
lake, shut in by brooding hills, with iron shores, and few fish in its
inhospitable waters, but it was remote from man and his works. So here
the outraged bird was content to establish himself till the hour should
return for migrants to fly south.



                    HOW A CAT PLAYED ROBINSON CRUSOE


The island was a mere sandbank off the low flat coast. Not a tree broke
its bleak levels, not even a shrub. But the long, sparse, gritty stalks
of the marsh-grass clothed it everywhere above tide-mark, and a tiny
rivulet of sweet water, flowing from a spring at its centre, drew a
riband of inland herbage and tenderer green across the harsh and sombre
yellow-gray of the grass. One would not have chosen the island as an
alluring place to set one’s habitation, yet at its seaward end, where the
changing tides were never still, stood a spacious, one-storied,
wide-verandahed cottage, with a low shed behind it. The one virtue that
this lone plot of sea-rejected sand could boast was coolness. When the
neighbor mainland would be sweltering, day and night alike, under a
breathless heat, out here on the island there was always a cool wind
blowing. Therefore a wise city dweller had appropriated the sea waif, and
built his summer home thereon, where the tonic airs might bring back the
rose to the pale cheeks of his children.

The family came to the island toward the end of June. In the first week
of September they went away, leaving every door and window of house and
shed securely shuttered, bolted or barred, against the winter’s storms. A
roomy boat, rowed by two fishermen, carried them across the half mile of
racing tides that separated them from the mainland. The elders of the
household were not sorry to get back to the distractions of the world of
men, after two months of the companionship of wind and sun and waves and
waving grass-tops. But the children went with tear-stained faces. They
were leaving behind them their household pet, the invariable comrade of
their migrations, a handsome moon-faced cat, striped like a tiger. The
animal had disappeared two days before, vanishing mysteriously from the
naked face of the island. The only reasonable explanation seemed to be
that she had been snapped up by a passing eagle.

The cat, meanwhile, was fast prisoner at the other end of the island,
hidden beneath a broken barrel and some hundredweight of drifted sand.

The old barrel, with the staves battered out on one side in some past
encounter with the tides, had stood half buried on the crest of a
sand-ridge raised by the long prevailing wind. Under its lee the cat had
found a sheltered hollow, full of sun, where she had been wont to lie
curled up for hours at a time, basking and sleeping. Meanwhile, the sand
had been steadily piling itself higher and higher behind the unstable
barrier. At last, it had piled too high, and suddenly, before a stronger
gust, the barrel had come toppling over beneath a mass of sand, burying
the sleeping cat out of sight and light; but at the same time the sound
half of the barrel had formed a safe roof to her prison, and she was
neither crushed nor smothered. When the children, in their anxious search
all over the island, came upon the mound of fine white sand, they gave it
but one careless look. They could not hear the faint cries that came at
intervals from the close darkness within. So they went away sorrowfully,
little dreaming that their friend was imprisoned almost beneath their
feet.

For three days the prisoner kept up her intermittent appeals for help. On
the third day the wind changed, and presently blew up a gale. In a few
hours it had uncovered the barrel. At one corner a tiny spot of light
appeared. Eagerly the cat stuck her paw through the hole. When she
withdrew it again, the hole was considerably enlarged. She took the hint,
and fell to scratching. At first her efforts were rather aimless; but
presently, whether by good luck or quick sagacity, she learned to make
her scratching more effective. The opening rapidly enlarged, and she
squeezed her way out.

The wind was tearing madly across the island, filled with flying sand.
The seas hurled themselves trampling up the beach, with the uproar of a
bombardment. The scourged grasses lay pallid, bowed flat in long
quivering ranks. Over the turmoil the sun stared down from a deep
unclouded blue. The cat, when she first met the full force of the gale,
was fairly blown off her feet. As soon as she could recover herself, she
crouched low and darted into the grass for shelter. But there was little
shelter there, the long stalks being held down almost level as if by an
implacable hand. Through their lashed lines, however, she sped straight
before the gale, making for the cottage at the other end of the island,
where she would find, as she fondly imagined, not only food and shelter,
but loving comfort to make her forget her terrors.

Unutterably still and desolate in the bright sunshine, and under the
howling of the wind, the house frightened her. She could not understand
the tight-closed shutters, the blind unresponding doors that would no
longer open to her anxious appeal. The wind swept her savagely across the
naked veranda. Climbing with difficulty to the dining-room window-sill,
where so often she had been let in, she clung there a few moments and
yowled heart-brokenly. Then, in a sudden panic, she jumped down and ran
to the shed. That, too, was closed. She had never seen the shed doors
closed, and could not understand it. Cautiously she crept around the
foundations, but those had been honestly and efficiently constructed.
There was no such thing as getting in that way. On every side it was
nothing but a dead face, dead and forbidding, that the old familiar house
confronted her with.

The cat had always been so coddled and pampered by the children that she
had had no need to forage for herself; but, fortunately for her now, she
had learned to hunt the marsh-mice and grass-sparrows for amusement. So
now, being ravenous from her long fast under the sand, she slunk
mournfully away from the deserted house, and crept along, under the lee
of a sand-ridge, to a little grassy hollow which she knew. Here the gale
caught only the tops of the grasses, bending but not prostrating them;
and here in the warmth and comparative calm, the furry little marsh-folk,
mice and shrews, were going about their business undisturbed. The cat,
quick and stealthy, soon caught one, and eased the ferocity of her
hunger. She caught several. And then, making her way back to the house,
she spent hours in heart-sick prowling, around it and around, sniffing
and peering, yowling piteously on threshold and window-sill, and every
now and then being blown ignominiously across the smooth naked expanse of
the veranda floor. At last, hopelessly discouraged, she curled herself up
out of the wind, beneath the children’s window, and went to sleep.

On the following day the gale died down, and the salt-grass once more
lifted its tops, full of flitting birds and small brown-and-yellow autumn
butterflies, under the golden September sun. Desolate though the island
was, it swarmed, nevertheless, with the minute busy life of the
grass-stems and the sand-flats. Mice, crickets, sand-hoppers—the cat had
no need to go hungry or unoccupied. She went all over house and shed
again, from foundation to roof and chimney-top, yowling from time to time
in a great hollow, melancholy voice that might have been heard all across
the island had there been any one to hear, and again, from time to time,
meowing in small piteous tones no bigger than a kitten’s. For hours at a
time when hunger did not drive her to the hunt, she would sit expectant
on the window-ledge, or before the door, or on the veranda steps, hoping
that at any instant door or window might open, and dear familiar voices
call her in. When she did go hunting, she hunted with peculiar ferocity,
as if to avenge herself for some great but dimly apprehended wrong.

In spite of her loneliness and grief, the life of the island prisoner
during the next two or three weeks was by no means one of hardship.
Besides her abundant food of birds and mice, she quickly learned to catch
tiny fish in the mouth of the rivulet, where salt water and fresh water
met. It was an exciting game, and she became expert at dashing the gray
tour-cod and blue-and-silver sand-lance far up the slope with a sweep of
her armed paw. But when the equinoctial storms roared down upon the
island, with furious rain and low black clouds torn to shreds, then life
became more difficult for her. Game all took to cover, where it was hard
to find—vanishing mysteriously. It was hard to get around in the drenched
and lashing grass, and, moreover, she loathed wet. Most of the time she
went hungry, sitting sullen and desolate under the lee of the house,
glaring out defiantly at the rush and battling tumult of the waves.

The storm lasted nearly ten days before it blew itself clean out. On the
eighth day the abandoned wreck of a small Nova Scotia schooner drove
ashore, battered out of all likeness to a ship. But, hulk as it was, it
had passengers of a sort. A horde of bedraggled rats got through the surf
and scurried into the hiding of the grass-roots. They promptly made
themselves at home, burrowing under the grass and beneath old half-buried
timbers, and carrying panic into the ranks of the mice and shrews. When
the storm was over, the cat had a decided surprise in her first long
hunting expedition. Something had rustled the grass heavily, and she
trailed it, expecting a particularly large fat marsh-mouse. When she
pounced and alighted upon an immense old ship’s rat, many-voyaged and
many-battled, she got badly bitten. Such an experience had never before
fallen to her lot. At first she felt so injured that she was on the point
of backing out and running away. Then her latent pugnacity awoke, and the
fire of far-off ancestors. She flung herself into the fight with a rage
that took no accounting of the wounds she got, and the struggle was soon
over. Hungry though she was, she dragged the slain rat all the way to the
house, and laid it proudly on the veranda floor before the door, as if
displaying it to the eyes of her vanished friends. For a few moments she
stood over it, waiting hopefully. Perhaps she had a wistful idea that so
splendid an offering might melt the hearts of the absent ones and
persuade them to come back. Nothing happened, however, so she sadly
dragged the prize down the steps again to her accustomed lair in the
sand, and ate it up all but the tail. Her wounds, faithfully licked, soon
healed themselves in that clean and tonic air, and after that, having
learned how to handle such big game, she no more got bitten.

During the first full moon after her abandonment, the first week in
October, the island was visited by still weather, with sharp night
frosts. The cat discovered then that it was most exciting to hunt by
night and do her sleeping in the daytime. It was a natural reversion to
the instincts of her ancestors, but it came to her as a discovery. She
found that now, under the strange whiteness of the moon, all her game was
astir, except the birds. And the birds had all fled to the mainland
during the storm, gathering for the southward flight. The blanched
grasses, she found, were now everywhere a-rustle, and everywhere vague,
spectral, little shapes went darting, with thin squeaks, across the
ghostly white sands. Also, she made the aquaintance of a new bird, which
she regarded at first uneasily, and then with vengeful wrath. This was
the brown marsh-owl, which came over from the mainland to do some autumn
mouse-hunting. There were two pairs of these big, downy-winged,
round-eyed, voracious hunters, and they did not know there was a cat on
the island.

The cat, spying one of them as it swooped soundlessly hither and thither
over the silvered grass-tops, crouched with flattened ears. With its wide
spread of wing it looked bigger than herself, and the great round face,
with hooked beak and wild staring eyes, appeared extremely formidable.
However, she was no coward, and presently, though not without reasonable
caution, she went about her hunting. Suddenly the owl caught a partial
glimpse of her in the grass, probably of her ears or head. He swooped,
and at the same instant she sprang upward to meet the assault, spitting
and growling harshly, and striking with unsheathed claws. With a frantic
flapping of his great wings, the owl checked himself and drew back into
the air, just escaping the clutch of those indignant claws. But after
that the marsh-owls were careful to give her a wide berth. They realized
that the black-striped animal, with the quick spring and the clutching
claws, was not to be interfered with. They perceived that she was some
relation of that dangerous prowler, the lynx. But if they were disturbed
by the presence on the island of so dangerous a rival as the cat, they
were amply compensated by the coming of the rats, who afforded them fine
hunting of a kind which they had never before experienced. In spite of
all this hunting, however, the furry life of the marsh-grass was so
teeming, so inexhaustible, that the depredations of cat, rats, and owls
were powerless to make more than a passing impression upon it. So the
hunting and the merrymaking went on side by side under the indifferent
moon, and the untouched swarms whom Fate passed by were as indifferent as
the moon herself to the mysterious disappearances of their fellows.

As winter drew on, with bursts of sharp cold and changing winds that
forced her to be continually changing her refuge, the cat grew more and
more unhappy. She felt her homelessness keenly. Nowhere on the whole
island could she find a nook where she might feel secure from both wind
and rain. As for the old barrel, the first cause of her misfortunes,
there was no help in that. The winds had long ago turned it completely
over, open to the sky, then drifted it full of sand and reburied it. And
in any case the cat would have been afraid to go near it again; she had
no short memory. So it came about that she alone, of all the island
dwellers, had no shelter to turn to when the real winter arrived, with
snows that smothered the grass-tops out of sight, and frosts that lined
the shore with grinding ice-cakes. The rats had their holes under the
buried fragments of wreckage; the mice and shrews had their deep warm
tunnels; the owls had nests in hollow trees far away in the forests of
the mainland. But the cat, shivering and frightened, could do nothing but
crouch against the blind walls of the unrelenting house, and let the snow
whirl itself and pile itself about her.

And now, in her misery, she found her food cut off. The mice ran secure
in their hidden runways, where the grass-roots on either side of them
gave them easy and abundant provender. The rats, too, were out of sight,
digging burrows themselves in the soft snow, in the hope of intercepting
some of the tunnels of the mice, and now and then snapping up an unwary
passer-by. The ice-fringe, crumbling and heaving under the ruthless tide,
put an end to her fishing. She would have tried to capture one of the
formidable owls, in her hunger, but the owls no longer came to the
island. They would return, no doubt, later in the season, when the snow
had hardened, and the mice had begun to come out and play on the surface,
but for the present they were following an easier chase in the deeps of
the upland forest.

When the snow had stopped falling, and the sun came out again, there fell
such keen cold as the cat had never felt before. Starving as she was, she
could not sleep, but kept ceaselessly on the prowl. This was fortunate
for her, for had she gone to sleep, without any more shelter than the
side of the house, she would never have wakened again. In her
restlessness she wandered to the farther side of the island, where, in a
somewhat sheltered and sunny recess of the shore, facing the mainland,
she found a patch of bare sand, free of ice-cakes and just uncovered by
the tide. Opening upon this recess were the tiny entrances to several of
the mouse-tunnels.

Close beside one of these holes, in the snow, the cat crouched,
quiveringly intent. For ten minutes or more she waited, never so much as
twitching a whisker. At last a mouse thrust out its little pointed head.
Not daring to give it time to change its mind or take alarm, she pounced.
The mouse, glimpsing the doom ere it fell, doubled back upon itself in
the narrow runway. Hardly realizing what she did, in her desperation the
cat plunged head and shoulders into the snow, reaching blindly after the
vanished prize. By great good luck she clutched it and held it.

It was her first meal in four bitter days.

Now she had learned a lesson. Naturally clever, and her wits sharpened by
her fierce necessities, she had grasped the idea that it was possible to
follow her prey a little way into the snow. She had not realized that the
snow was so penetrable. She had quite obliterated the door of this
particular runway, but she went on and crouched beside another. Here she
had to wait a long time before an adventurous mouse came to peer out. But
this time she showed that she had grasped her lesson effectively. It was
straight at the side of the entrance that she pounced, where instinct
told her that the body of the mouse would be. One outstretched paw thus
cut off the quarry’s retreat. Her tactics were completely successful, and
as her head went plunging into the fluffy whiteness, she felt the prize
between her paws.

Her hunger now fairly appeased, she found herself immensely excited over
this new fashion of hunting. Often before had she waited at mouse-holes,
but never had she found it possible to break down the walls and invade
the holes themselves. It was a thrilling idea. As she crept toward
another hole, a mouse scurried swiftly up the sand and darted into it.
The cat, too late to catch him before he disappeared, tried to follow
him. Scratching clumsily but hopefully, she succeeded in penetrating the
full length of her body into the snow. Of course she found no sign of the
fugitive, which was by this time racing in safety down some dim
transverse tunnel. Her eyes, mouth, whiskers, and fur full of the powdery
white particles, she backed out, much disappointed. But in that moment
she had realized that it was much warmer in there beneath the snow than
out in the stinging air. It was a second and vitally important lesson.
And though she was probably unconscious of having learned it, she
instinctively put the new lore into practice a little while later. Having
succeeded in catching yet another mouse, for which her appetite made no
immediate demand, she carried it back to the house and laid it down in
tribute on the veranda steps, while she meowed and stared hopefully at
the desolate snow-draped door. Getting no response, she carried the dead
mouse down with her to the hollow behind the drift, which had been caused
by the bulging front of the bay-window on the end of the house. Here she
curled herself up forlornly, thinking to have a wink of sleep.

But the still cold was too searching. She looked at the sloping wall of
snow beside her, and cautiously thrust her paw into it. It was very soft
and light; it seemed to offer practically no resistance. She pawed away
in an awkward fashion till she had scooped out a sort of tiny cave.
Gently she pushed herself into it, pressing back the snow on every side,
till she had room to turn around. Then turn around she did several times,
as so many dogs do in getting their beds arranged to their liking. In
this process she not only packed down the snow beneath her, but she
rounded out for herself a snug chamber with a comparatively narrow
doorway. From this snowy retreat she gazed forth with a solemn air of
possession, then went to sleep with a sense of comfort, of “homeyness,”
such as she had never before felt since the disappearance of her friends.

Having thus conquered her environment, and won herself the freedom of the
winter wild, her life, though strenuous, was no longer one of any
terrible hardship. With patience at the mouse-holes, she could catch
enough to eat, and in her snowy den she slept warm and secure. In a
little while, when a crust had formed over the surface, the mice took to
coming out at night and holding revels on the snow. Then the owls, too,
came back, and the cat, having tried to catch one, got sharply bitten and
clawed before she realized the propriety of letting it go. After this
experience she decided that owls, on the whole, were meant to be let
alone. But, for all that, she found it fine hunting out there on the
bleak, unfenced, white reaches of the snow.

Thus mistress of the situation, she found the winter slipping by without
further serious trials. Only once, toward the end of January, did Fate
send her a bad quarter of an hour. On the heels of a peculiarly bitter
cold snap, a huge white owl from the Arctic barrens came one night to the
island. The cat, taking observations from the corner of the veranda,
caught sight of him. One look was enough to assure her that this was a
very different kind of visitor from the brown marsh-owls. She slipped
inconspicuously down into her burrow, and until the great white owl went
away some twenty-four hours later, she kept herself discreetly out of
sight.

When spring came back to the island, with the nightly shrill chorus of
fluting frogs in the shallow sedgy pools, and the young grass alive with
nesting birds, the prisoner’s life became almost luxurious in its easy
abundance. But now she was once more homeless, since her snug den had
vanished with the snow. This did not matter much to her now, however, for
the weather grew warmer and more tranquil day by day, and, moreover, she
herself, in being forced back upon long latent instincts, had learned the
heedless vagrancy of the wild. Nevertheless, with all her capacity for
learning and adapting herself, she had not forgotten anything. So when,
one day in June, a crowded boat came over from the mainland, and
children’s voices, clamoring across the grass-tops, broke the desolate
silence of the island, the cat heard, and sprang up out of her sleep on
the veranda steps. For one second she stood listening intently. Then,
almost as a dog would have done, and as few of her supercilious tribe
ever condescend to do, she went racing across to the landing-place, to be
snatched up into the arms of four happy children at once, and to have her
fine fur ruffled to a state which it would cost her an hour’s assiduous
toilet to put in order.



                       LITTLE BULL OF THE BARRENS


Through the thick drive of the snowflakes—small, hard, bitter flakes,
borne on the long wind of the terrible Coppermine barrens—the man and the
beast stood staring at each other, motionless. In the beast’s eyes was a
heavy wonder, mixed with curiosity and dread. Never before had he seen
any being like this erect slim shape, veiled and vague and dark in the
whirling drift. He felt it to be dangerous, but he was loath to tear
himself away from the scrutiny of it.

The man, on the other hand, had neither wonder, curiosity, nor dread in
his gaze. He knew that the black and massive apparition before him was a
musk-ox. His first impulse had been to snatch up his rifle and shoot,
before the beast could fade off into the white confusion of the storm.
But his practised eye had told him that the animal was an old bull. His
necessity was not fierce enough to drive him to the eating of such
flesh—tough and reeking to nausea with musk. He wanted a young cow whose
meat would be tender and sweet as caribou. He was content to wait,
knowing that the herd must be near, and would not leave these
feeding-grounds unless frightened. At this season the black bull, there
staring at him heavily through the drift, would not be solitary.

The man was a trapper, who was making his way down the river to the
Hudson Bay Company’s post at the mouth. Through failure of the caribou to
come his way according to their custom, his supplies had run short, and
he was seeking the post in good time before the pinch of hunger should
fix itself upon him. But he had had bad luck. The failure of the caribou
had hit others besides himself. The wolves had suffered by it. Perhaps,
in their shrewd and savage spirits, they had blamed the man for the
absence of their accustomed quarry. Some weeks before his start they had
craftily picked off his dogs—a reasonable and satisfying retaliation. And
now the man was hauling the sledge himself.

In a moment’s lift of the storm, the man had noted a little valley, a
depression in the vast wind-swept level of the barrens, lying but a
couple of stone’s-throws aside from the banks of the river which was his
guide. He knew that there he would find a dense growth of the stunted
firs which spring up wherever they can find shelter from the wind. There
he knew he would find dry stuff in plenty for his fire. There he would
take covert till the storm should go down and suffer him to trail the
musk-ox herd. After eying the black bull steadily for some minutes, he
softly turned away, and without haste made for the valley of the little
firs, dragging the laden sledge behind him.

The black bull snorted thickly and took several steps forward. The
strange figure fading silently away through the drift evidently feared
him. A fleeing foe was surely to be followed. But that long dark shape
crawling at the stranger’s heels—_that_ looked formidable and very
mysterious. The beast stopped, shook his head, snorted again more loudly,
and drew back those few paces which he had advanced. Perhaps it was just
as well not to be too bold in interrogating the unknown. After a few
moments of hesitation he wheeled aside, lifted his massive and shaggy
head, sniffed the air, listened intently, and withdrew to rejoin the
little herd, which was lying down and contentedly chewing the cud, all
indifferent to the drive of the polar storm.

The black bull of the barrens, as he stood and eyed contemplatively the
resting herd, showed small in stature but extraordinarily massive in
build. A scant six feet in length from muzzle to root of tail, and not
much over three feet high at the shoulder, he was modelled, nevertheless,
on lines that for power a mammoth might have envied. His square frame was
clothed with long blackish hair reaching almost to the fetlocks. His
ponderous head, maned and shaggy, was armed with short crescent horns,
keen-tipped and serviceable for battle. And he carried it swung low,
muzzle in and front well forward, always ready for defence against the
enemies of the herd.

The herd numbered some dozen or fifteen cows, armed and powerful like
their mates, several younger bulls, and perhaps a dozen yearling or
two-year-old calves. At one moment, as the fierce drift slackened, they
would all be more or less visible—shrouded, dark forms with contemplative
eyes, peacefully ruminating. A moment more and they would vanish, as the
snow again closed down about them.

It was the old bull alone who seemed to be thoroughly on the alert.
Hither and thither, with a certain slow vigilance, he moved through the
herd. All at once he lifted his head sharply and questioned the air with
dilating nostrils, while his eyes gleamed with anger and anxiety. The
next instant he stamped his foot and gave a loud abrupt call, half bleat,
half bellow.

Plainly it was a signal well understood. In a second the whole herd was
on its feet. In another, with lightning precision, it had formed itself
into a compact circle, using the watchful leader as the basic point of
its formation. The calves, butted unceremoniously into the centre,
hustled one upon the other, with uplifted muzzles over each other’s
shoulders and mild eyes staring with startled fright. The outer rim of
the circle became a fringe of sullen lowering foreheads, angry eyes and
keen horns jutting formidably from snow-powdered manes of dark hair.

Not a member of the musk-ox herd, to the youngest calf, but knew very
well against what enemy the old bull had so suddenly marshalled them into
fighting phalanx. For some moments, however—long, tense, vigilant
moments—nothing appeared. Then at last, through the driving flakes, they
caught sight of several gaunt, leaping forms, gray and shadowy, which
swept down upon them in silence out of the storm.

With terrible suddenness and speed they came, these leaping forms, as if
they would hurl themselves blindly upon the massed herd. But the line of
lowered horns never flinched or wavered, and with a short snarl from
their leader the wolves swerved, just in time to escape a savage thrust
from the old bull. They swerved, strung out into line, and went loping
round the circle, their narrowed, greenish, merciless eyes glaring into
the obstinate ones of the musk-oxen. Again and again they circled the
rampart of horns, again and again they drew off and swept up furiously to
the assault, hoping to find some weak point in the defences—some timorous
young cow who would shrink and swerve at their assault and open a breach
in the line. But there was no cow in that herd afflicted with any such
suicidal folly. The snow-spotted, lowering line of heads waited unshaken,
and presently the wolves—there were seven of them—bunched together a few
paces from the circle and seemed to consider. Two of them sat down upon
their haunches with their tongues hanging out, and eyed the rampart of
horned fronts evilly, while the others stood with their heads together,
or prowled restlessly back and forth. They might, indeed, with the vast
leaping power of their long legs and muscular haunches, have sprung clear
over the line of defence, and gained in two seconds the helpless calves
in the centre; but they knew what that would mean. The herd would turn in
upon them in a blind, uncalculating fury and trample them underfoot. For
the moment, therefore, they hung wavering in irresolution, looking for a
sign from the leader of the pack.

In the meantime the man had found his valley hollow and the shelter of
the expected colony of dwarf firs. Here the snow lay soft and undrifted.
In a recess of the fir-thicket he trod it down with his snowshoes, and
made haste to build himself a little fire of dead sticks. Above his head,
above the shrouded fir-tops, above the rim of the hollow, the storm drove
by unabated; but the snowflakes that escaped from the tumult to filter
down into this retreat were too light and fine and dry to interfere with
the fire. In two or three minutes the flames were crackling up clear and
free, with little spittings and fine hissings where the flakes fell at
their thin edges.

Having collected a pile of dry sticks within easy reach, the man
stretched a couple of stitched caribou hides on poles to form a sloping
roof over his head, cooked himself a hasty stew of pemmican and biscuit,
made a hearty meal, and squatted before the fire with his back against
his sledge, to smoke and wait. He knew how to wait, like an Indian, when
there was anything to be gained by it, and his heart, weary of pemmican,
was set on fresh meat.

There was no sign of the storm breaking; there was no use hunting in the
storm. There was nothing to fear, for it was now three weeks since he had
seen sign of the wolves which had eaten his dogs, and he knew that they
had ranged off on the trail of the vanished caribou. There was nothing to
do. He was warm and filled, and free from care. Some hundred miles or so
away there was a post and human companionship, to which he looked forward
with unhurried content. In due time he would arrive there and find it, as
always before, unchanged, like all else in that land of inevitable
recurrence. Meanwhile—this afternoon, perhaps, or to-morrow—he would
shoot a young musk-ox cow. He drew his furs well about him and dozed off
to sleep, knowing that the moment the fire began to get dangerously low
an unfailing instinct would bid him awake to tend it.

While he slept, the storm drove unrelenting over the place of his
retreat, and kept heaping the thin dry snow in fringes and wreaths upon
the shaggy, lowering fronts of the musk-ox phalanx. From time to time, a
massive head would shake off the burden and emerge black and menacing.
And always, with unwavering vigilance, the army of angry eyes and short
sharp horns confronted the group of discontented wolves.

Now, as it chanced, the trapper was wrong in his assumption as to the
wolves. The truth—which would have made a great difference in his
calculations had he known it—was that they had been cautiously trailing
him ever since he left his hut. But they knew something of man, those
wolves, and they feared him. They were not yet quite mad with hunger, so
they had not yet quite plucked up courage to reveal themselves to him,
still less to commit themselves to an open attack. They dreaded his eye,
they dreaded his sharp, authoritative voice. They dreaded the strange,
menacing smell of him. They dreaded his mysterious power of striking
invisibly from very far off. Had they had any choice, they would far
rather have been running down the caribou than trailing this solitary
trapper. But the craving belly is a hard master, and they had no choice
but to hasten wherever it scourged them on. Moreover, they knew along the
trail of the man there were liable to be pickings, for man, a fastidious
feeder, never eats all he kills.

When at last the trail of the man had led them into that of the
musk-oxen, the pack had been glad. So much the more, therefore, their
disappointed rage, when they found the herd ready for their attack, and
too strong, in point of numbers and experienced leadership, to be
stampeded. Seeing the prey so near, with each moment of their
discomfiture their hunger and their fury grew.

Suddenly, without visible sign or warning, it seemed to boil over all at
once. The whole pack sprang together, swift as the snap of a whip, into a
compact mass, and hurled itself straight upon the circle of lowered
horns. The charge looked irresistible. It seemed that the most dauntless
must cringe and shrink before it.

But the point attacked was a strong one in the array. It was held by the
wise old bull. To either side of him the shaggy black heads breathed hard
or snorted loudly, but not a horn wavered. And in the face of this
steadfastness the attack was not driven home. In the very last fraction
of a second the leader swerved; the pack swept swiftly aside, but it was
very close. As the hindmost wolf went by, the old bull lunged forward,
head and shoulders beyond the circle, with a savage twist of his short,
polished horns. There was a startled yelp. He had just managed to catch
his foe a rending prod in the thick of the haunch. The wolf never
paused—he was under the iron discipline of the pack,—but as he ran he
left a scarlet trail along the snow behind him.

To the slow amazement of the herd, their enemies now, in the next
instant, had vanished through the thin whirl of the drift. Heavy heads,
thrust far out from the phalanx, turned to stare after them. There was
nothing to be seen but the endless, sheeted procession of the snow. There
was nothing to be heard but the muffled rush of the wind and their own
snortings and tramplings. For a long time, however, they kept their array
unbroken, fearing a trick on the part of their adversaries. Then at last
the old bull, after sniffing the wind in all directions with uplifted
muzzle, stepped forth from the ranks. Immediately the circle dissolved.
There was a moment of whirling and grunting, of butting at stupid calves
or reorganizing the array, then, at a swift walk, the whole herd moved
off toward the northeast, where they knew of a region of low huddled
hills which would give them the kind of shelter that they loved.

In the meantime the pack, maddened by failure and ravenous from the view
of food denied, had resumed the trail of the man. They were different
beings now from the wary skulkers who had been following him from afar.
Silent and swift, their eyes flaming coldly and their thin lips wrinkled
back from long white fangs, they swept over the brink and down into the
windless hollow of the stunted firs.

The man, sleeping in his furs by the little fire, had a bad dream. With a
struggle and a yell he awoke from it, to find himself half erect, upon
one knee, battling frantically for his life. One great hairy form he had
clutched by the throat with both hands, as its fangs snapped within an
inch of his face, and its huge hot breath daunted him with a sense that
the end of things had come. With a monstrous effort he hurled it off, but
in the same moment he was borne down from behind. It seemed to him that a
wave of furred, fighting bodies, enormous and irresistible, went over
him, blotting out everything, even to the desire of life. He was but half
conscious of the fangs that sank into his flesh, strangely without pain.
He was but half conscious of struggling—the mere instinctive struggle of
his strong muscles, and already condemned as futile by his aloof and
scornful spirit. Then nothing but a knot of great gray wolves, tussling
and snarling over something on the snow.

                            * * * * * * * *

After everything on the sledge had been torn open and investigated, and
scattered over the blood-stained snow, the wolves drew off to a little
distance from the fire, which they hated and dreaded. It was a victory
which would make that pack for the future tenfold more dangerous. They
had dared and vanquished man. But what was one man and a little bag of
dry pemmican to such hunger as theirs? All at once, as if moved
simultaneously by one impulse, they gathered, sped up out of the firs
into the wind, and swept away through the storm on the trail of the
musk-ox herd.

The herd, though travelling fast, had not gone far. On a sudden, as if at
a premonition of peril, the old bull halted with a loud snort. Neither
smell nor sound of his enemies had reached him, but he took alarm, and
gave the signal to form phalanx for defence, at the same time galloping
around the flank of the herd to close up and strengthen the rear. The
evolution was prompt and swift. But before it was quite accomplished, up
from the white obscurity of the storm, in silence, came the leaping
wolves.

Straight into the gap in the rear of the herd they hurled themselves,
slashing on every side with the aim of spreading a panic. A young bull,
just in the act of whirling furiously to confront the attack, was caught
full on the flank, and went down coughing, his throat torn clean out. A
young cow, with one wolf snapping at her side, but failing to gain a
vital spot, and another on her back, biting for her neck through the
matted mane, went mad with terror, and charged straight in among the
calves at the centre of the herd, making a way for the whole pack.

In a second several of the calves, bawling frantically, were pulled down.
The wolves, mad with blood and their late triumph over the man, were in a
riot of slaughter. The herd was cleft and rent asunder to the heart. The
victory seemed overwhelming.

But there was one thing which the pack had _not_ reckoned with—the
indomitable pluck and generalship of the old bull. Blindly confident in
their leader, the herd hung together stolidly, instead of disintegrating.
The front ranks turned inward upon the bloody convulsion of the centre.
At the same time the old bull, followed by a couple of raging cows in
quest of their young calves, came plunging in behind the pack and fell
upon its rear like battering rams. In a moment the flanks closed in
behind them, and the completed circle, instead of flying to pieces, began
ponderously to constrict.

As the wolves realized what was happening, the two hindermost whirled
about, just in time to leap savagely at the old bull’s neck, one on each
side. But they had no room to act effectively, no chance to choose their
hold. As he charged with head down and the full impetus of his bulk,
their fangs gashed him to the shoulder, but slantingly, so that the
wounds were not deep. In his rage he never felt them. The next moment his
two assailants were borne down, gored and trampled, by the frantic cows,
while he lurched onward into the hideous _mêlée_ at the centre. A second
more, and the churning, snorting mass became wedged almost solid.
Snapping silently at whatever was in reach, the wolves were overborne,
trodden down with the dead or dying calves. The leader of the pack, with
two of the more astute of his followers, succeeded in dragging himself
forth upon the packed shoulders of his adversaries, ran over the heaving
sea of backs, and raced away through the storm, gored and streaming. Soon
there was no sign of a wolf anywhere to be seen. But still the packed
herd went on with its trampling and churning, sullenly resolute to make
an end of the matter, till even the sturdy unwounded calves were in
danger of being downed, and the weaker ones perished miserably. At last,
in some way, the old bull managed to make his orders understood. The
milling slackened, the pressure relaxed. Ponderously he shouldered his
way out, and started off once more toward the northeast. Instantly the
herd followed, lumbering at his heels. A few, badly wounded, limped and
staggered in the rear, and three cows, their eyes rolling wildly,
remained standing over certain shapeless masses that lay trodden into the
red snow. For some minutes they stood there, mooing disconsolately; then,
one after the other, they shook their shaggy heads and galloped away in
pursuit of the herd, appalled at the solitude and the sight of so much
death.



                          THE TIGER OF THE SEA


Through the broad, indolent, green-purple swells, ruffled and crisped
along their tops by a mild breeze, the cow-orca went wallowing
contentedly, her calf swimming close at her side. From time to time it
rubbed against her, as if apprehensive in face of the vast and perilous
spaces of the ocean, and seeking covert behind her short powerful
flipper. And from time to time, being one of the most devoted and
assiduous of all the mothers of the wild, she would gather it caressingly
to her side with that great flipper, or, whirling half around, touch it
inquiringly with her enormous rounded snout.

She was a good nineteen or twenty feet in length, the great orca—or
“killer whale,” as she would have been dubbed by any sailor or fisherman
who might have chanced to cast eyes upon her. She would have been
recognized at once, from all the other members of her whale-and-porpoise
tribe, by the immense dorsal fin, not far from five feet high, rising
erect from the broad and massive black curve of her back, by the two
conspicuous white streaks on her black flank, and by the sharply defined
line of her cream-white belly as she rolled lazily on the slope of a
swell. All these were danger signals, which the knowing would have taken
care to heed.

Little cause for apprehension had the calf of the orca, as long as it
kept near its mother. For this most swift and savage of all the cetaceans
feared nothing that swam, except her giant cousin, the cachalot or
sperm-whale. Though but twenty feet long, she would attack and kill,
through the sheer ferocity of her fury, the great whalebone or “right”
whale, of fully four times her length and many times her bulk. Man she
might have feared, had she ever learned his power; but, being poor in
blubber, her tribe had never tempted man to so difficult and perilous a
hunting. There were sharks, to be sure, that might equal or surpass her
in size, but none to even approach her in savagery, speed, or cunning. It
was in care-free content, therefore, that she lazed onward through the
bland, untroubled sea, heedless alike of the surf on the yellow cliffs to
her right, and of the empty spaces of ocean to her left. Such attention
as she could spare from the baby charms of her calf was given to
searching the transparent deeps below her, where lurked the big squid and
sluggish, bottom-feeding fish on which she habitually preyed.

Suddenly, with no sound but a vast sucking gurgle as the waters closed
above her, she dived. Far down in the obscurity she had caught sight of a
pallid, sprawling form. It was an octopus, which had been so ill-advised
as to leave its customary home among the rocks of the bottom and seek new
feeding-grounds. Before it had time even to attempt escape, the great
jaws of the “killer” engulfed it. For one moment its eight long tentacles
writhed desperately, clutching at its captor’s lips. Then they vanished,
sucked in and swallowed at a gulp. Thereupon the orca sailed leisurely
back to the sunlit surface, met on her way up by her anxious calf, which
had not been quite quick enough to follow its mother’s lightning descent.
She had not been two minutes absent, and never for an instant out of
sight, but the youngster’s instinct warned it well that the mild blue
element in which it dwelt was full of dangers.

The octopus, though a large one, had been but a mouthful for the great
killer, a stimulus, merely, to her vast appetite. She journeyed now with
a keener eye upon the depths. Presently the deep blue-green of the water
began to change to a lighter, beryl hue, where a line of making reef came
up to within some thirty feet of the surface, and caught the sun. Here,
basking, lay a broad, flat, bat-like creature, with wing-fins a dozen
feet across, and a long whip-like tail. Its cold moveless eyes, staring
upward, caught sight of the killer’s body, slowly cleaving the surface.
With an almost imperceptible movement of the black wings, it slid from
the reef and plunged for refuge in the depths.

But the giant ray had not been quick or stealthy enough to evade its
enemy’s eye. Again the orca dived, this time without heed of silence, and
so swiftly that her broad flukes, rising straight into the air, came down
upon the water with a report that resounded all the way in to shore. Her
descent was straight as a plummet. The ray, seeing it, was seized with
panic. It darted to one side, and shot upward again, at a terrific pace,
on a magnificent sweeping curve. With the force of that uprush it hurled
its whole black, shuddering bulk clear into the air, where it turned, and
for one instant hung flapping darkly, as if the very madness of its
terror had driven it to the conquest of a new element. To the nervous
calf it was a prodigy of horror, blotting out the sun. But this violent
excursion into the air was of only a second or two’s duration, and futile
as it was brief. As the flat black wings came down again, with an
enormous splash, the pursuing orca arose almost beneath them, seized
them, and dragged them under. There was no fight, the ray being powerless
against its mighty adversary—only a moment’s blind, frantic struggle in
the foaming swirls, and then a spreading stain of red on the green sea.

This, now, was a fully sufficing meal, even for such an appetite as the
orca’s; and many neglected fragments of it went spreading and sinking
away to feed the innumerable scavenging crabs that lurked in the weeds
and hollows of the sunken reef. The orca, for the next half hour or so,
remained where she was, rolling contentedly in the bright water above the
reef, nursing and caressing her calf, and digesting her meal. Then she
slowly continued her journey, but slanting in toward shore till she was
not more than half a mile from the chain of precipitous islets and broken
promontories which fringed this dangerous coast.

It was now full noon, and the unclouded sunlight, striking almost
straight downward upon the surface of the sea, revealed the bottom at an
amazing depth. Poised about half-way down the glimmering transparency, a
large squid, or cuttle-fish, was swimming at leisure. His narrow,
tapering body was about six feet in length, and perhaps twelve or
fourteen inches in diameter at the broadest part, which was the head.
From this formless head, seeming to sprout from it as leaf-stalks from a
carrot, grew a bunch of tentacles, ten in number, and of about the same
length as the body. Body and tentacles alike were of a pallid, dirty
yellow-gray, with brownish spots—a color that made its wearer almost
invisible in that sun-penetrated sea. The progress of the squid was
backward; and he achieved it, not by moving his tentacles, but by sucking
a volume of water into a great muscular sac beneath the tentacles and
forcibly expelling it again. It looked as if he were breathing water and
using it to blow himself along.

The orca was by no means hungry so soon after the feast which she had
made on the giant ray, but the succulent morsel of the squid was a
temptation not to be resisted. Tipping smoothly, her huge but finely
modelled black-and-white form shot straight downward through the
shimmering flood. But before she could reach him, the squid looked up and
saw her. On the instant his ten loose tentacles tightened to a rigid
bundle which offered no obstruction to his progress; his pale sides
contracted with a mighty convulsion, expelling a volume of water which
shot him along with the speed of a torpedo from its tube; and at the same
time, from a gland within the propulsion sac, he squirted forth a jet of
inky fluid which spread at once into a great cloud of black, veiling his
flight. Behind that concealment he changed his direction, and fled
downward toward a deep crevice in the rocky bottom, where he knew that
the jaws of his enemy would not be able to reach him.

The orca, undeterred, plunged straight onward into the inky cloud. But
once well within that gloom she lost all track of her intended prey. She
also, for the moment, lost herself. This way and that she darted,
snapping her vast jaws ravenously, but in vain. They closed on nothing
but the empty and tainted water. At last, and quite unexpectedly, she
emerged from the blackness into the transparent green, and, glancing
upward, saw a sight which caused her to hurl herself madly to the surface
with a Titanic sweep of her great flanks. That furious stroke made the
depths boil like the thrust of a liner’s propellers.

The calf, having started to follow its mother into the depths, had been
frightened by that inky cloud into which it had seen her vanish.
Returning in a flurry to the surface, it was swimming around aimlessly
and anxiously, when it caught the eye of a wandering shark.

The shark, knowing very well what it was, looked around for the mother.
He had no desire to be uncivil to a mother orca; but there was no mother
in sight. He did not understand it; but he was ragingly hungry, and such
an opportunity was quite irresistible. He rose at the calf with a rush,
and turned over on his side, exposing his livid-white belly, to seize the
prize. The calf, appalled at the black, triangular, many-toothed cavern
which gaped so suddenly before it, writhed away just in time, and began
swimming in a big circle around the spot where its mother had dived.

Again the shark rushed; but he had to turn on his side to bring his
curious underset jaws into play, and the calf of the orca had already the
nimbleness of its tribe. Again the attack failed. Before he could repeat
it, he caught sight of the mother shooting up from the green depths.
Though he was some twenty-five feet in length—a good five feet longer
than the orca—he turned and fled for his life.

One glance assured the mother that her little one was unhurt. Then she
darted after the aggressor at a pace which made his flight quite futile.
He had not gone fifty yards when she was upon him, open-jawed. Hurling
himself convulsively aside, he just succeeded in evading that first
resistless charge. With the courage of desperation he twisted himself
about, turned half over, glided beneath his adversary’s belly, and caught
at her with his triangular jaws. But she had already swerved, and he
failed to get a fair hold. He did, indeed, rend out a mass of hide and
blubber, but he reached no vital point, and the raging killer hardly felt
the wound. Whirling with a violence that sent the foam and spray spurting
into the air, she caught the base of the shark’s tail between her immense
jaws.

As far as anything like a fight was concerned, this was the end of it.
For several minutes the gigantic struggle went on, dashing the discolored
water yards high; but it was all on one side, as the orca shook and
crushed and tore the life out of her beaten opponent. At last she drew
off, leaving a mangled mass to sink slowly into the depths. Then, having
snuggled the excited calf under her fin, and given him to nurse, she swam
slowly inland toward the deep channel which here ran between the islands
and the shore, where she thought she might find some more of those
succulent squid to compensate her for the one which had so
inconsiderately evaded her approaches.

The breeze, which hitherto had been little but a succession of
cat’s-paws, now settled into a steady draft, though not strong enough to
do more than darken the surface of the sea to a heavy purple. Running
free before it, up along the coast, between the cliffs and the islands,
came a small cat-boat, its one sail sparkling white in the clear
sunshine.

The tiny craft contained two passengers—the man at the helm, smoking a
big brier pipe, and a silky brown retriever curled up at the foot of the
mast. It was a stern coast and a dangerous water for such a cockle-shell
to traverse; but the man was a good amateur navigator of small craft, and
he knew that, between the port which he had left, some fifteen miles back
down the coast, and the harbor which he was making for, a dozen miles to
the north, there were plenty of refuges wherein he could take shelter in
case a sudden storm should blow up out of the east. These waters were
unfamiliar to him, but he had a good chart; and this was his special
delight—the coasting of unknown shores, with no companionship but that of
his faithful and accommodating dog, who always agreed with him as to the
most interesting places to visit.

But though Gardner was an expert yachtsman, with an eye wise to all signs
of the weather, and an instinct that could feel the pulse of the wind
through tiller or taut sheet, he knew something less of natural history
than was desirable for one who made his playground on the peopled seas.
His notions of all the whale tribe and their varying characters were
based on what he had read of the great timorous whalebone whale, and what
he had seen of the merry and harmless porpoise. When, therefore, he
caught sight of the arched black back and formidable head of the orca,
lazily ploughing the swells, it never occurred to him that now was the
time for discretion. Had he been an _habitué_ of these waters, he would
have turned his prow promptly in another direction, lest the orca should
think he wanted to intrude upon her privacy. As it was, however, he
sailed nearer, to see what manner of fish or beast it might be, this
black-and-white creature that treated his approach with such
indifference.

Passing at a distance of eighty or a hundred yards, Gardner was seized
with a fool idea. This was a good chance for a shot. The unknown beast
would form an interesting trophy. He did not stop to consider what he
should do with it if he bagged it. He did not stop to consider that with
his light rifle he could not hope to do more than inflict a painful wound
through the layers of blubber which would protect the vitals of this
sea-monster. He did not know, either, that a dead whale sinks to the
bottom, and that therefore the most successful shot could bring him no
reward. It was enough that the instinct to kill something was upon him.
He flung a knee over the tiller to keep his course steady, snatched up
the rifle, and fired at a spot just behind the orca’s big
flipper—somewhere about where he judged the heart would lie. As he did
so, the dog, realizing that there was some excitement afoot, sprang up,
put his forepaws on the gunwale, and barked furiously at the strange
black shape there rolling in the swell.

To Gardner’s astonishment, the monster itself made no immediate response
to the shot, but instantly, just under its flank, there began a wild
commotion. Something there fell to threshing the water frantically, and
the monster, swinging about, gazed at that something with great and
anxious concern. She stroked it with her flipper, as if trying to calm
it; and then Gardner saw that it was the young of the monster that he had
struck. At this he felt full of remorse. Had he seen the calf, he would
not have fired at either parent or little one. He was not wantonly cruel,
but only thoughtless. For a few seconds he stared irresolutely. Then,
judging from its actions that the calf had received a mortal wound, he
decided that he ought to put it out of its misery. Taking very careful
aim, he fired again. The report echoed sharply from the cliff-face of an
island not a hundred feet away.

Gardner had made a good shot this time. Before the echoes of the report
had died out, the calf lay still, and then very slowly began to sink.
There was stillness for a few seconds, broken only by the excited barking
of the brown retriever. The orca swam slowly half around the body of her
young, and apparently assured herself that it was dead. Then she turned
her small eyes upon the boat. It was only for an instant, but in that
instant Gardner realized that he had made a hideous mistake.
Instinctively he headed the boat for the rocky islet.

As he jammed the tiller over, at the same time hurriedly freeing his
sheet, he saw the water boil about the orca’s black form. She was a good
hundred feet away, but so appalling was her rush that she seemed to be
upon him in the same instant. With a yelp the dog sprang far up into the
bow. As the boat was at that moment broadside on to the terrific attack,
Gardner kept his seat, and fired another desperate shot full in the face
of the oncoming doom. He might as well have fired a pea-shooter.

The gun dropped to his feet. In the same moment it was as if an express
train had struck the boat. She was lifted bodily from the water, and all
one side crushed in, while Gardner felt himself hurled clean over the
boom. As he came down, he heard a yelp from the brown retriever.

In order to escape entanglement in the sail, which slapped sousing over
on top of him, Gardner dived, and came up some fifteen feet beyond. To
this dive, and to the momentary concealment afforded by the sail, he
doubtless owed his life. He was a crack swimmer, and instantly started
for the island at sprinting speed, doing the “crawl” stroke, with head
most of the time under water. The orca at first did not observe his
escape. The unhappy dog, by his barking, had caught her eye, and him she
had seized and crushed the instant he was thrown into the water. Then,
turning her fury upon the wreck of the boat, she had torn it and smashed
it to kindling-wood, seizing it in her huge jaws and shaking it as a
terrier shakes a rat. This done, she had turned toward the island, and
her deadly eyes had fallen upon the form of the swimming man as he cleft
his way shoreward.

Her rush was like the rush of a torpedo; but Gardner was already laying
his frantic hands upon the ledge. The ledge—a shelf not a dozen inches in
width—was just awash. He felt that it was no refuge. But at about his own
height above him was a niche in the rock, whimsically gouged out as if to
hold a statue. With desperate agility he drew himself up into the tiny
retreat, whipping up his legs behind him, and shrinking as flat as
possible into the niche. At the same moment he was deluged with foam and
spray, as with a dull crash the body of his pursuer struck the rock just
below his feet.

Gardner shuddered, and struggled gaspingly to catch back his breath into
his laboring lungs. He had swum many races, but never one like that.
Turning cautiously, and keeping himself still flattened like a limpet to
the back of the niche, he stared down, trembling lest the avenger should
essay another such mad leap, and with better effect.

But the orca did not seem disposed to try it again. The shock of her
impact had been terrific, and must have more or less driven the breath
from her body. She was now swimming slowly to and fro before the rock, a
grim and dreadful jailer. Gardner looked down into her cold little eyes,
and shivered at the intelligent and implacable hate that flamed in them.

When he found himself sufficiently recovered to consider his situation,
he was forced to acknowledge it a rather desperate one. Reaching outward
and upward as far as he could, his hands found no protuberance of the
rock by the aid of which he might hope to climb out of his niche and so
make his way to the top of the cliff. He had no way of judging how long
his vengeful jailer might remain on duty; but from the magnitude of the
wrong he had done her, the business-like method of her patrol, and the
effective fury which she had shown in her attack, he had little reason to
hope that she would soon tire of her office. In those teeming seas, as he
knew, she could find plenty to eat without forsaking her post. But if
those seas were teeming with sea-life, he reflected ruefully that they
were at the same time rather barren of ships. The coasting schooners were
apt to give that part of the coast a wide berth, owing to its sunken
reefs and awkward currents. His island, to be sure, was little more than
half a mile from shore—an easy enough swim for him under ordinary
circumstances. But, even with his jailer out of the way, he had no relish
for running the gantlet of the giant sharks which haunted the island
channels. Exposed as he was to the full glare of the sun—the rock around
him was uncomfortably hot beneath his hands,—he wondered how long it
would be before heat and thirst would so overcome him that his legs would
crumple under his weight, and he would topple forward into the jaws of
his waiting foe. On this point, however, he was presently somewhat
reassured, as he noted that the sun would very soon pass over the
shoulder of the cliff and leave him in the shade. As far as the heat was
concerned, he would be fairly secure until the next morning. But then, if
the weather should continue fine, how would he endure the long
intolerable blaze of the forenoon, before the sun should again go over
the cliff? He began to pray for storm and shrouded skies. But here he
stopped himself, realizing his dilemma. If storm should come, it was
likely at that season to come out of the southeast; and in such event the
first rising seas would lick him from his perch. He decided hastily that
it was best to make his prayer a general one, and hazard no dangerous
suggestions to Providence.

Fumbling instinctively in his pocket, he drew forth his soaked and
sopping tobacco-pouch and a box of wet matches. The latter included some
wax vestas, and he had a dim hope that these, if carefully dried and
properly coaxed, might perhaps be induced to light. He spread them out,
with the tobacco, on the hot rock between his feet. He had lost his pipe
in the catastrophe, but he had letters in his pocket, and with these,
when dried, he planned to roll cigarettes. The enterprise gave him
something to do, helping him to pass the weary afternoon. But in the end
he found that none of the matches would afford him so much as a sputter.
Angrily he threw their futile remnants into the sea.

Night fell suddenly, as always in those latitudes, and the moonlight
enchanted the long swells to the smoothness of glass. All night the orca
swam backward and forward before the rock, till the changeless monotony
of her movements began to hypnotize her prisoner, and he turned his eyes
to the cliff-face to escape its influence. He was in deadly fear of
dropping to sleep in his weariness, and falling out of the niche. His
legs were giving way beneath him, and there was not room in the niche for
him to sit down, or even to crouch with any comfort. At last, in
desperation, he decided to take the risk of letting his legs hang over
the edge, where his enemy could reach them if she should dare another of
her wild leaps into the air. The moment he seated himself in this
position she swam nearer and eyed him with unutterable malignancy. But
she did not attempt to repeat her flying rush. It was plain to Gardner
that she had no relish for such another violent concussion with the rock.

At last the interminable night wore itself away. The moon had long
disappeared over the cliff, when the velvet purple of the sky began to
thin and chill, the stars to pale and fade. Then the measureless splendor
of an unclouded tropic dawn broke over the sea, and the shining plane of
the waters seemed to tilt downward to meet the sun. Gardner gathered all
his weary strength to face the fiery ordeal that he felt to be before
him.

The better to fortify himself against it, he took off his light coat,
and, by the aid of some pieces of cord which he found in his pockets, he
lowered the garment and drenched it well in the sea. The orca darted in
to see what he was doing, but he drew up the dripping coat before she
could seize it. He felt that this idea was nothing less than an
inspiration, for, by keeping his head and body well drenched, he would be
able to endure almost any heat, and might at the same time, by
absorption, hope to ward off for a time the extreme torments of his
thirst.

As the relenting Fates decreed, however, his trial was presently to be
ended. Along about nine o’clock in the morning, from somewhere behind the
island came throbbing on the still air a harsh, staccato
_chug_—_chug_—_chug_—_chug_, which was to Gardner’s ears the divinest of
melodies. In an instant he had stripped his light shirt over his head and
was holding it in eager hands. A moment more, and a powerful forty-foot
motor-launch came into view. She was about a hundred and fifty yards
away, and making a lot of racket. But Gardner, yelling wildly and
flapping his shirt in the air, succeeded in catching her attention. She
turned in toward the rock; but in the next instant the noise of the motor
stopped, and she swerved off again. The pilot had caught sight of
Gardner’s jailer.

There were three men in the launch. One of them hailed the prisoner.

“What’s up?” he demanded concisely.

“I shot that brute’s calf yesterday,” answered Gardner, “and she smashed
up my boat and chased me up here on to this rock.”

There was silence for a moment on the launch. Then the captain answered.

“Any fellow that’s looking for trouble can generally find it by starting
in to fool with a ‘killer,’” said he.

“I’ve thought since that I had made a mistake,” said Gardner dryly. “But
that was yesterday morning, and I’m pretty near all in. Come and take me
off.”

There was a brief consultation on the launch. The orca, meanwhile,
continued her patrol before the rock, as if such things as forty-foot
motor-boats were not worth noticing.

“You’ll have to hang on a bit longer,” shouted the captain, “while we run
back to port and get a whale gun. We’ve got a heavy rifle here, but it’s
not safe to tackle her with that, for, if we didn’t fix her first shot,
she’d make matchwood of this launch in about ten seconds. We’ll be back
inside of an hour, so don’t fret.”

“Thanks!” said Gardner; and, sweeping off in a wide curve, the launch
disappeared behind the island.

It seemed to the imprisoned man a terribly long hour, and he had occasion
to bless the cool dripping jacket before he again heard the
_chug_—_chug_—_chug_—_chug_ of the motor clamoring behind his prison.
This time, as soon as it came in sight, it bore straight down upon the
orca. In its bow, as it slid gracefully dipping over the smooth swell,
Gardner remarked a strange gun, a sort of short big-bore rifle on a
swivel. The orca now took note of the fact that the launch was heading
straight for her. She paused in her tireless patrolling, and eyed it
defiantly, hesitating as to whether she should attack it or not.

The launch reversed propellers till her progress came to a stop, while
her captain sighted the weapon in her bow. There was a mighty report. The
monster flung herself half-way out of the water, and fell back with a
gigantic splash. For a moment she rushed madly around in a half circle,
then crashed headlong into the cliff, gave one violent shudder, and
slowly sank to a fringing reef about two fathoms down.

“Have you plenty of water right up to your ledge?” demanded the captain,
as the launch drew slowly in.

“Plenty,” said Gardner, swinging down stiffly from his niche and standing
ready to crawl aboard.



                        GRAY LYNX’S LAST HUNTING


Gray Lynx went ahead. His mate, almost as large as he, and even more
savage in her lightning ferocity, was at the same time more shy of
approaching the habitations of man. Full of suspicions, but driven by the
pangs of midwinter famine, she followed at a little distance, while Gray
Lynx, stealthily, crouching close to the snow, led the way across the
open to the low, snow-muffled outbuildings of the lonely wilderness farm.

He was a strange, sinister figure, this great Canadian lynx, a kind of
gigantic, rough-haired cat with the big, broad, disproportionate pads of
a half-grown Newfoundland pup, and hind legs and haunches grotesquely
over-developed as if in imitation of a jack-rabbit. His moon face,
stiffly-whiskered, and with a sort of turned-back ruff beneath the blunt,
strong jaws, was indescribably wild and savage, lit as it was by a pair
of round, unwinking, palely luminous eyes, and surrounded by sharp ears
fantastically tufted. In color he was all of a shadowy, light gray,
faintly toned on back and flanks with a brownish yellow. His grotesque
but extraordinarily powerful hindquarters were finished off with a
straight stub of a tail, perhaps three inches or four in length. He
might, in fact, have looked like a caricature, but for the appearance of
power and speed and deadly efficiency which he conveyed, the suggestion
of menace in every movement.

Under the necessity of the Hungry Month, the big lynx had visited this
clearing once before, prowling as near as he dared, in the first shadows
of late afternoon. He had seen in the yard a couple of cows—which were
too big to interest him. What was more to his purpose, he had seen some
huddling sheep. Then a draft of icy air blowing from the direction of the
house had borne to his nostrils the dreaded scent of man, and he had
slunk off hurriedly to his coverts. But those sheep! The smell of them,
the remembered relish of a lamb which he had once devoured in the
thickets, stung his appetite to madness. Like most of the wild creatures,
he had learned, either from instinct or experience, that man was less to
be dreaded by night than by day. So, well after nightfall, he had
returned to the farm, bringing his ravenous mate with him.

At one side of the yard, startlingly bright in the light of the low moon,
stood the settler’s house; at the other side, two low, connected barns,
with a shed running half-way to the house. The long, black shadows of the
buildings stretched nearly across the open space, between the farmstead
and the woods. The snow was hard packed and frozen, covered with an inch
of recent and lighter snowfall, which the winds would presently come and
sweep away into the fence-corners. Through the space of shadow Gray Lynx
crept like a denser shadow, till he reached the corner of the nearest
barn. Here he crouched, making himself as small as possible, while he
took a long sniff at one of the cracks in the warped, ill-seasoned,
hemlock boarding. Then he turned his head and looked at his mate, who was
crouching some ten paces to the rear. As if this was a signal that all
was as it should be, she ran lightly forward and crouched again beside
him.

From within, besides that warm, distracting, woolly smell, came
comfortable rustlings of dry hay, and sounds of chewing, and safe
contented breathings. It was obvious that the sheep were in there. Gray
Lynx’s eyes, piercing and impatient, searched the blank wall before him.
There was no entrance from that side. Furtively he led the way round the
corner, his mate still keeping a prudent distance. At the edge of the
moonlit yard he hesitated. Still there was no opening. Keeping carefully
in the shadow, he prowled around to the other corner of the building, but
with no better luck. Then, growing more bold, he ventured into the light
and crept down the front of the barn, flattening himself to the snow as
he went; his mate, distrustful still, and now growing angry as she began
to feel that she had been fooled, peered around the corner and watched
him.

Gray Lynx was furious. He had expected to see those sheep still huddled
in the yard. Finding that they were inside the barn, he then expected to
get in among them by the same way they themselves had entered. Where such
fools as sheep could, surely he could go. He knew nothing of doors that
closed and opened, so he was puzzled. He drew back and stared up at the
roof. Assuredly, the sheep must have got in by way of the roof. He could
see no opening up there, however, so he went prowling around the other
barn and the shed as well, finding everything shut up tightly against the
biting cold. Then he came again to his mate, who was now awaiting him,
tail and whiskers twitching with ill-humor, in the shadow behind the
first barn.

But Gray Lynx was not yet ready to acknowledge defeat. The roof of the
shed was lower than that of the barns. With a tremendous leap he gained
it, but only to fall back ignominiously beneath a mass of snow which his
claws had disengaged. At the next attempt, however, he got a grip with
his front paws upon the roof itself, and so drew himself up, but not
without a sharp noise of scraping and clawing. The sudden sound disturbed
the hens, roosting inside immediately below the roof, and they set up a
shrill cackling of alarm.

Gray Lynx stopped, held himself rigid, and listened with all his ears.
Chickens would do him almost as well as sheep—if only he could come at
them! He clawed savagely at the roof, but it was new and strong, and he
speedily found that there was nothing to be hoped for by that method of
procedure. Frantic with baffled eagerness, he ran along the shed and
sprang with a magnificent bound to the roof of the barn. At the thud of
his landing the cattle stirred and snorted uneasily, and the two horses
whinnied with anxious interrogation.

At this instant a window in the farmhouse flew up with a clatter. Gray
Lynx turned his flat, cruel face sharply toward the sound. He saw a jet
of flame spurt from the window; a crashing thunder shocked his ears, and
something hummed viciously close above his head. Fortunately for him, the
light of the moon is a deceptive light to shoot by. He left no chance,
however, for the settler to try a second shot. With one wild leap he
cleared the roof and alighted on the snow behind the barn. He saw his
mate already fleeing, and he followed in long, panic-stricken bounds.

Well within the shelter of the woods, Gray Lynx found his mate awaiting
him. She stood with her head turned back over her shoulder, eying him
dangerously. What she conveyed to him by that look is not with any
certainty to be recorded; but it seemed to be unpleasant in its drift,
for Gray Lynx turned aside, in a casual way, and pretended to sniff
interestedly at the day-old trail of a rabbit. It was difficult, however,
to assume an interest for any length of time in anything so hopelessly
uninteresting. After a few seconds he wandered off stealthily, in search
of some fresher trail. His mate, though hot with scorn and
disappointment, ranged along within a few leaps of him. In such a famine
season it was to the interest of both that they should hunt together, so
far as their morose and distrustful natures made it possible.

The stillness of death itself lay on the forest. The very air seemed
brittle under the intense cold. The glare of the unclouded moon was
glassy, hard, implacable. It seemed to devitalize even the strong,
stealthy forms of the gliding lynxes, to change them into a pair of
drifting ghosts, which turned their heads from side to side as they went,
and flashed from their eyes a pale, blasting fire.

But Gray Lynx had a very unghostly hunger—as had also his mate. Suddenly
his unerring eyes detected, under a spreading hemlock, a spot where the
snow had been disturbed. To a less keen vision it would have been
nothing, but to Gray Lynx it was a clear, unmistakable indication.
Swerving sharply from his trail, he pounced upon the little roughness in
the snow, and began digging furiously with his forepaws. In a moment he
was half buried, for the snow, here in the shelter of the trees, lay
softer than in the wind-beaten fields. Sniffing his way by his
well-instructed nose, he followed a deep trail which led in toward the
trunk of the hemlock. His mate, meanwhile, drew near and watched
enviously. A moment more and his head emerged amid a swirl of fluttering
wings and flying snow. In his jaws he held a big cock-grouse. The unhappy
bird had buried himself in the snow for the night, that he might sleep
more warmly than on his roost among the branches. For a second more his
strong wings flapped spasmodically, then Gray Lynx crunched the life out
of him and fell to his meal.

The ill-humored female crept nearer, crouching with a conciliatory air.
But Gray Lynx was not of a gallant or chivalrous tribe, and a single
cock-grouse is not half a meal for a starving lynx. With a strident snarl
he thrust out one great paw in warning. The female stopped, licked her
lips hungrily, then turned like lightning and ran up a neighboring
fir-tree. Her ears had caught the sound of a startled twitter which had
answered Gray Lynx’s snarl. There were snow-buntings resting in that
tree. Her iron claws, however, clutching at the bark, announced her
coming, and for all her speed the birds escaped her, hopping up with
terrified outcry to the topmost slender branches, where she could not go.
Smarting with disappointment, she descended the tree, and continued her
prowl at a distance of some twenty paces from her selfish partner, who
had by this time finished up the grouse.

For perhaps half an hour nothing more happened, and the temper of Gray
Lynx’s mate grew momently more dangerous. It was bad enough to be so
hungry as she was, but to be first led into a trap by Gray Lynx and then
to see him make a meal before her eyes, this was hardly to be borne. All
at once she gave a great leap to one side, turning in the air as she
sprang, and came down, with forepaws outstretched and claws wide spread,
just at the edge of a snow-draped bush. Out of the corner of her eye she
had seen a wood-mouse. With her miraculous speed of action, as of a
mighty spring unloosed, she had caught the tiny victim just as it was
vanishing under the refuge. It made but one mouthful, to be sure, but it
was quite as good as a snow-bunting would have been. She licked her
chops, gave Gray Lynx a sidelong look, and crept on.

Slowly the moon rolled up the vitreous sky, shortening the shadows of
tree and stump. The forest was more open here, having been recently gone
over by the lumbermen. Dense thickets, single trees, ranks of stumps,
aisles and colonnades of tall second growth, not yet quite heavy enough
for the woodsman’s axe, succeeded each other in bewildering confusion. By
and by, from a hemlock stump just ahead but hidden by some bushes, came a
crisp sound of gnawing. Both lynxes crouched flat, their absurd tails
twitching. Then, separating so that one should go to each side of the
clump of bushes, they crept upon the heedless gnawer. As they came in
sight of him, they stopped. It was a big porcupine, fat, warmly clad, and
indifferent alike to foe and frost.

Full well the lynxes knew that this was no quarry for their hunting. But
they could not help dallying with the temptation. They stole nearer,
their mouths watering. The porcupine went on gnawing the dry hemlock; but
when the lynxes were come within a few feet of him, he stopped, put his
nose between his forepaws, and erected his needle-pointed quills, till
there was nothing of him to be seen but this threatening array. The
lynxes crouched flat, and eyed him longingly. At last the female, her
hunger getting the better of her discretion, stole closer and reached out
a prying nose, as if hoping to find some weak point in the scornful
rodent’s defences. Gray Lynx snarled a warning; but in that same instant
the porcupine’s tail—a massive member covered with tiniest needles—jerked
sharply and just brushed the intruding muzzle. With a spitting yowl, the
lynx jumped backward, two or three slender quills sticking in her nose
like pins in a cushion. Paw and rub and wallow as she might, she could
not get them out, for their barbed edges held inexorably. All she could
do was break them, and go on, with the points rankling like wasp-stings
in her tender muzzle. From time to time she would plunge her face in the
snow, to allay the torment. And her temper was by no means improved.

All this, however, troubled Gray Lynx not at all. To be sure, the mishap
to his mate had cooled his longing for porcupine meat, and he had resumed
his quest of safe hunting. But concern for the female’s sufferings never
entered into his savage heart. She was of importance to him only if they
should find some big game—a strayed sheep or a doe, for instance—which
they could bring down more surely and more quickly by acting in
combination. There was none of that close and firm intimacy which so
often appears to exist between the male and female wolf.

In traversing an alley of big spruce stumps, the two came close together,
though they continued to pay each other not the slightest attention. A
light, dull _pad-pad_ struck their ears, and both crouched flat. In the
next instant a white rabbit shot past them, almost brushing their noses.
His great, simple eyes starting from his head with terror, he went by at
such a pace that there was no time to strike him down, though the female,
who was the farthest from him, made a futile swipe at him with one paw.
It was clear that something deadly must be following the rabbit, to cause
him such blind panic. Whatever it might be, the lynxes had no fear of it.
They wanted it. And they waited for it.

And the next moment it came.

It came running soundlessly, nose up on the hot scent, a slim, low,
long-bodied, sinuous white beast, with a sharp-pointed head and eyes like
two drops of liquid fire. As it shot past him, Gray Lynx made a stroke at
it and missed. But in the next fraction of a second the female had
pounced. She caught the weasel, with both paws, in mid-leap. Indomitable,
it writhed up and fixed its long, fine teeth in her nose. Then her fangs
closed about its slender loins, and the fierce life was crunched out of
it. With the blood streaming from her nose—which eased, however, for a
moment the galling ache of the porcupine barbs—she fell to her meat,
growling harshly over it. Gray Lynx, perhaps persuading himself that he
had helped at the hunting of this quarry, demanded a share, and seized
one of the weasel’s hind legs in his teeth. But with a snarl the female
struck at him, clawing viciously the side of his head. He was in no
anxiety to force matters with so redoubtable an adversary, so, spitting
indignantly, he drew off and sat down on his haunches to watch the feast.

The feast was brief. For, though the weasel was a fairly large one, it
was by no means so large as the lynx’s hunger. Still, when she had
finished, and passed her great paw over her face and licked her chest
clean of blood, she might have felt fairly comfortable but for that
inexorable anguish in her nose.

Not long after this another rabbit bounded forth from a thicket just
ahead, and darted straight between them. Both sprang at it,
simultaneously, but each balked the other; and the rabbit, stretched out
into a tense, white line of flying fur, shot unscathed from under their
claws. Gray Lynx, as it chanced, had been the nearest to the quarry.
Choosing to think that he would have made a kill had his mate’s
interference not thwarted him, he gave vent to his wrath in a buffet,
which caught her on the flank and sent her rolling over on the snow.
Recovering herself, she faced him for a moment or two with eyes that
flamed green, half minded to fly at his throat. Then, thinking better of
it, she turned away and fell to nosing a mouse trail.

The trail was none too fresh, but neither was it hopelessly stale. She
chose to follow it. Thereupon Gray Lynx, hopeful of something worth
while, stole nearer to see what she might be trailing.

Now, it chanced that in this particular neighborhood a trapper had been
busy. A morsel of frozen fish lay upon the snow. Both prowlers saw it at
the same time, and pounced for it. But it was Gray Lynx who reached it
first, and he bolted it in one mouthful, while his mate snarled with
rage. Sniffing about for other possible fragments, he stepped to one
side. There was a muffled click beneath the surface of the snow.
Straightway Gray Lynx, doubling himself like a full-drawn bow, and
ripping out a screech of panic, sprang into the air, with a steel trap
hanging to his left forepaw.

The trap was attached by a chain to a solid wooden balk, too heavy for
Gray Lynx to drag. Biting savagely at the strange horror which had
clutched him, yowling and spitting, and rolling head over heels, he lost
his wits entirely in the madness of his efforts to escape. For a moment
the female shrank back, with flattened ears and narrowed eyes, frightened
and bewildered. Then, seeming to imagine that there was some treachery to
herself in this dreadful and inexplicable performance, she drew nearer,
with a menacing growl. The next instant, as if quite beside herself at
the sight of such contortions, she gave vent to a mad screech and flung
herself at Gray Lynx’s throat.

In a moment the two became, as it were, one ball of clinging, tearing,
screeching fur and claws. They rolled over and over in the snow, the
heavy trap striking them both impartially, the chain now entangling them,
now flying loose with a sharp jangle. Blood spattered in every direction,
amid spurts of snow and flecks of torn fur. But Gray Lynx, hampered by
trap and chain, and weakened alike by terror of the unknown and horror at
the incomprehensible fury of his mate, was overmatched from the first. In
a few minutes the tense ball seemed to loosen. The maniacal uproar ceased
to affront the night, diminishing to a panting growl. Gray Lynx’s body
straightened out. The female continued to worry it for a few moments.
Then, as if suddenly coming to her senses, she stopped, drew off, eyed
the mangled and twitching form, and slunk away into the nearest bushes.
Here she crouched, as if in terror, and peered out fascinated. At last
the shape of what had once been her mate lay quite still. Then, after a
little, she crept away, hid herself in a remote thicket, and fell to
licking her scars and cleansing her fur. And the outstretched body of
Gray Lynx, with cruel eyes half open and staring blankly, stiffened
little by little in the still, implacable frost.



                          MOTHERS OF THE NORTH


It was in the first full, ardent rush of the Arctic spring.

Thrilling to the heat of the long, long days of unobstructed sun, beneath
the southward-facing walls of the glaciers, the thin soil, clothing the
eternal ice, burst into green and flowering life. In the sunward valleys
brooks awoke, with a sudden filming of grass along their borders, a
sudden passionate unfolding of star-like blooms, white, yellow, and blue.
As if summoned from sleep by the impetuous blossoms, eager to be
fertilized, came the small northern butterflies in swarms, with little
wasp-like flies and beetles innumerable. Along the inaccessible ledges of
the cliffs the auks and gulls, in crowded ranks, screamed and quarrelled
over their untidy nests, or filled the air with wings as they flocked out
over the gray-green, tranquil sea. The world of the north was trying to
forget for a little the implacable savagery, the deathly cold and dark,
of its winter’s torment.

The great, unwieldy, grunting walruses felt it, too, and responded to
it—this ardor of the lonely Arctic spring, astray in the wastes. On the
ledges of a rocky islet, just off shore, the members of a little herd
were sunning themselves. There were two old bulls and four cows with
their sprawling lumps of calves. All were in a good humor with each
other, lying with heads or foreflippers flung amicably across each
other’s grotesque bodies, and grunting, groaning, grumbling in various
tones of content as the pungent sunlight tickled their coarse hides. All
seemed without a care beneath the sky, except one of the old bulls. He,
being on watch, held his great tusked and bewhiskered head high above his
wallowing fellows, and kept eyes, ears, and nose alert for the approach
of any peril. One of the unshapely, helpless-looking calves, with its
mother, lay in a hollow of the rock, perhaps twenty feet back from the
water’s edge—a snug spot, sheltered from all winds of north and east. The
rest of the herd were grouped so close to the water’s edge that from time
to time a lazy, leaden-green swell would come lipping up and splash them.
The cubs had a tendency to flounder away out of reach of these chill
douches; but their mothers were very resolute about keeping them close to
the water.

Presently the little group was enlarged by one. Another old bull, who had
been foraging at the sea-bottom, grubbing up clams, star-fish, and
oysters with his tusks, and crushing them in the massive mill of his
grinders, suddenly shot his ferocious-looking head above the surface. For
all his gross bulk, in the water he moved with almost the speed and grace
of a seal. In a second he was at the rock’s edge. Hooking his immense
tusks over it, he drew himself up by the force of his mighty neck, flung
forward a broad flipper, dragged himself out of the water, and flopped
down among his fellows with an explosive grunt of satisfaction.

They were not, it must be confessed, a very attractive company, these
uncouth sea-cattle. The adults were from ten to eleven feet in length,
round and swollen-looking as hogsheads, quite lacking the adornment of
tails, and in color of a dirty yellow-brown. Sparse bristles, scattered
over their hides in rusty patches, gave them a disreputable, moth-eaten
look. Their short but powerful flippers were ludicrously splayed. They
had the upper half of the head small, flat-skulled, and earless; while
the lower half, or muzzle, was enormously developed to support the
massive, downward-growing tusks, twelve to fifteen inches in length. This
grotesque enlargement of the lower jaw was further emphasized by the
bristling growth of long stiff whiskers which decorated it, giving the
wearer an air of blustering irascibility. As for the calves, their podgy
little forms had the same over-blown look as those of their parents, but
their clean young hides were not so wrinkled, nor were they anywhere
disfigured by lumps and scars. They were without tusks, of course, but
the huge development of their muzzles, in preparation for the sprouting
of the tusks, gave them a truculent air that was ludicrously belied by
the mildness of their baby eyes. They rolled and snuggled against the
mountainous flanks of their mothers, who watched them with vigilant
devotion. The calf which lay farthest inland, apart from the rest, was in
some pain, and whimpering. That morning it had got a nasty prod in the
shoulder from the horn of a passing narwhal, and the anxious mother was
trying to comfort it, gathering it clumsily but tenderly against her side
and coaxing it to nurse. The rest of the herd, for the moment, was
utterly content with life; but the troubled mother was too much engrossed
with her little one’s complaints to notice how caressing was the spring
sun.

Meanwhile, not far away, was another mother who, in spite of the spring,
was equally ill-content. Down to the shore of the mainland, behind the
island, came prowling a lean white bear with a cub close at her heels.
The narrow bay between island and mainland was full of huge ice-cakes
swung in by an eddy of the tides. Many of these wave-eaten and muddied
floes were piled up on the shore along tide-mark, and as their worn edges
softened under the downpour of the sun, they crumbled and fell with small
glassy crashes. Hither and thither among them stole the fierce-eyed
mother, hoping to find some dead fish or other edible drift of the sea.
She had had bad hunting of late—the shoals of the salmon had been
inexplicably delaying their appearance on the coast—and she was feeling
the pangs of famine. To be sure, she was filling her stomach, after a
fashion, with the young shoots of rushes and other green stuff, but this
was not the diet which Nature had framed her for. And in her lack of
right nourishment she was pouring her very life itself into her breasts,
in the effort to feed her little one. He, too, was suffering, so scanty
was the supply of mother’s milk. Even now, as the great bear stopped to
nose a mass of seaweed, the cub crowded under her flank and began to
nurse, whimpering with disappointment at the too thin stream he drew. Her
fierce eyes filmed, and she turned her head far round in order to lick
him tenderly.

The stranded ice-floes yielded nothing that a bear could eat, and she was
ranging on down the shore, disconsolately, when all at once a waft of air
drew in from seaward. It came direct from the island, and it brought the
scent of walrus. She lifted her long, black-edged muzzle and sniffed
sharply, then stood as rigid as one of the ice-cakes, and searchingly
scrutinized the island. The cub, either imitating his mother or obeying
some understood signal, stood moveless also. One of the earliest lessons
learned by the youngsters of the wild is to keep still.

There was not a walrus in sight, but the bear’s nostrils could not
deceive her. She knew the huge sea-beasts were there, on the other side
of the island, and she knew they would be very much at ease on such a day
as this, basking in the sun. Walruses were not the quarry she would have
chosen. The great bulls, courageous and hot-tempered, the powerful cows,
dauntless as herself in defence of their young—she knew them for
antagonists to be avoided whenever possible. But just now she had no
choice. Her cub was not getting food enough. To her there was nothing
else in the world so important as that small, troublesome, droll-eyed,
hungry cub.

Keeping herself now well out of sight behind the ice-floes, with the cub
close at her heels, she stole down to the edge of the retreating tide.
The bay was too crowded with slowly-moving floes to be quite as safe for
the cub as she would have had it, but she could not leave him behind. She
kept him close at her side as she swam. He was a good swimmer, diving
fearlessly when she dived, his little black nose cutting the gray-green
water bravely and swiftly. In everything he imitated her stealth, her
speed, her vigilance, for he knew there was big game in this hunting.

The island was a ridge of some elevation, shelving down by ledges to the
sea. The white bear knew better than to climb the ridge and try to steal
down upon the walruses. She was well aware that they would be keenly on
the watch against any approach from the landward side. From that
direction came all they feared. When she arrived at the island, she swam
along, close under shelter of the shore, till she reached the extremity.
Then, behind the shelter of a stranded floe, she drew herself out, at the
same time flattening herself to the rock till she seemed a part of it.
Every movement the cub copied assiduously. But when she rose upon her
haunches, and laid her narrow head in a cleft of the ice-floe to peer
over, he kept himself in the background and watched her with his head
cocked anxiously to one side.

The walruses were in full view, not fifty yards away. For all the pangs
of her hunger, the mother bear never stirred, but remained for long
minutes watching them, studying the approaches, while the scent of them
came on the light breeze to her nostrils. She saw that the herd itself
was inaccessible, being well guarded and close to the water. If she
should try to rush them, they would escape at the first alarm; or if she
should succeed in catching one of the cubs in the water, she would be
overwhelmed in a moment—caught by those mighty tusks, dragged to the
bottom, drowned and crushed shapeless. But with gleaming eyes she noted
the cow and calf lying further up the slope. Here was her chance—a
dangerous one enough, but still a chance. She dropped down at last to all
fours, crouched flat, and began worming her way upward among the rocks,
making a covert of the smallest hummock or projection. The cub still
followed her.

It was miraculous how small the great white beast managed to make herself
as she slowly crept up upon her quarry. Her movements were as noiseless
as a cat’s. They had need to be, indeed, for the hearing of the walrus is
keen. There was not a sound upon the air but the heavy breathings and
gruntings of the herd, and the occasional light tinkle and crash of
crumbling ice.

At a distance of not more than twenty paces from the prey, the old bear
stopped and gave a quick backward glance at her cub. Instantly the latter
stopped also, and crouched warily behind a rock. Then his mother crept on
alone. She knew that he was quite agile enough to avoid the floundering
rush of any walrus, but with him she would take no risks.

Suddenly, as if some premonition of peril had smitten her, the mother
walrus lifted her head and stared about her anxiously. There was no
danger in sight, but she had grown uneasy. She lowered her head against
her calf’s plump flank, and started to push him down the slope toward the
rest of the herd.

Not a dozen feet away, an enormous form, white and terrible, arose as if
by magic out of the bare rocks. A bellow of warning came from the
vigilant old bull down below. But in the same instant that white mass
fell upon the cringing calf, and smashed its neck before it knew what was
happening.

With a roar the mother walrus reared herself and launched her huge bulk
straight forward upon the enemy. She was swift in her attack—amazingly
so—but the white bear was swifter. With astonishing strength and
deftness, even in the moment of delivering that fatal blow, she had
pushed the body of her prey aside, several feet up the slope. At the same
time, bending her long back like a bow, she succeeded in evading the full
force of the mother’s assault, which otherwise would have pinned her down
and crushed her. She caught, however, upon one haunch, a glancing blow
from those descending tusks, which came down like pile-drivers; and a
long red mark leaped into view upon her white fur. The next moment she
had dragged the prey beyond reach of the frantic mother’s next plunging
charge.

The rocky slope was now in an uproar. The other cows had instantly rolled
their startled young into the sea, and were tumbling in after them with
terrific splashing. The three bulls, grunting furiously, were floundering
in great loose plunges up the slope, eager to get into the fray. The
bereaved mother was gasping and snorting with her prodigious efforts, as
she hurled herself in huge sprawling lunges after the slayer of her
young. So agile was she proving herself, indeed, that the bear had enough
to do in keeping out of her reach, while half lifting, half dragging the
prize up the incline.

At last the body of the calf caught in a crevice, and the bear had to
pause to wrench it free. It was for a moment only, but that moment came
very near being her last. She felt, rather than saw, the impending mass
of the cow as it reared itself above her. Like a spring suddenly loosed,
she bounded aside, and those two straight tusks came down, just where she
had stood, with the force of a ton of bone and muscle behind them.

Wheeling in a flash to follow up her assault, the desperate cow reared
again. But this time she was caught at a disadvantage. Her far more
intelligent adversary had slipped around behind her, and now, as she
reared, struck her a tremendous buffet on the side of the neck. Caught
off her balance, the cow rolled down the slope, turning clean over before
she could recover her footing. The three bulls, in the midst of their
floundering charge up the hill, checked themselves for a moment to see
how she had fared. And in that moment the bear succeeded in dragging her
prize up a steep where the walruses could not hope to follow. A few yards
more, and she had gained a spacious ledge some twenty feet above the
raging walruses. A second or two later, in answer to her summons, the cub
joined her there, scrambling nimbly over the rocks at a safe distance
from the foe.

Realizing now that the marauder had quite escaped their vengeance, the
three bulls at length turned away, and went floundering and snorting back
to the sea. The mother, however, inconsolable in her rage and grief, kept
rearing herself against the face of the rock, clawing at it impotently
with her great flippers, and striking it with her tusks till it seemed as
if they must give way beneath the blows. Again and again she fell back,
only to renew her futile and pathetic efforts the moment she could
recover her breath. And from time to time the old bear, nursing the cub,
would glance down upon her with placid unconcern. At last, coming in some
sort to her senses, the unhappy cow turned away and crawled heavily, with
a slow jerky motion, down the slope. Slowly, and with a mighty splash,
she launched herself into the sea, and swam off to join the rest of the
herd a mile out from shore.



                                 Notes


[1]The “togue” is a peculiar gray lake trout, of northern New Brunswick,
    which grows to a great size, and is caught with bait or a spoon.


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                          Transcriber’s Notes


--Retained publisher information from the printed copy (the electronic
  edition is in the public domain in the country of publication).

--Corrected some obvious typos.

--Relocated the frontispiece illustration to the associated page.

--In the text versions only, text in italics is delimited by
  _underscores_.





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