The Watchers of the Trails
A Book of Animal Life
THE WATCHERS OF THE TRAIL A BOOK OF ANIMAL LIFE by
CHARLES G D ROBERTS
"The Kindred of the Wild," "The Heart of the Ancient Wood," "Barbara Ladd," "The Forge in the Forest," "Poems," etc.
With many Illustrations by
CHARLES LIVINGSTON BULL
A. WESSELS COMPANY MDCCCCVI NEW YORK
Copyright, 1904, by The S. S. McClure Co.
Copyright, 1904, by Perry Mason Company
Copyright, 1903, 1904, by Robert Howard Russell
Copyright, 1903, by The Metropolitan Magazine Company
Copyright, 1903, by The Success Company
Copyright, 1902, 1903, by The Outing Publishing Company
Copyright, 1902, by Frank Leslie Publishing House
Copyright, 1904, by L. C. Page & Company (INCORPORATED) All rights reserved
Published, June, 1904
Colonial Press Electrotyped and Printed by C. H. Simonds & Co. Boston, Mass., U. S. A.
To My Fellow of the Wild Ernest Thompson Seton
In the preface to a former volume I have endeavoured to trace the development of the modern animal story and have indicated what appeared to me to be its tendency and scope. It seems unnecessary to add anything here but a few words of more personal application.
[Footnote 1: "The Kindred of the Wild."]
The stories of which this volume is made up are avowedly fiction. They are, at the same time, true, in that the material of which they are moulded consists of facts,—facts as precise as painstaking observation and anxious regard for truth can make them. Certain of the stories, of course, are true literally. Literal truth may be attained by stories which treat of a single incident, or of action so restricted as to lie within the scope of a single observation. When, on the other hand, a story follows the career of a wild creature of the wood or air or water through wide intervals of time and space, it is obvious that the truth of that story must be of a different kind. The complete picture which such a story presents is built up from observation necessarily detached and scattered; so that the utmost it can achieve as a whole is consistency with truth. If a writer has, by temperament, any sympathetic understanding of the wild kindreds; if he has any intimate knowledge of their habits, with any sensitiveness to the infinite variation of their personalities; and if he has chanced to live much among them during the impressionable periods of his life, and so become saturated in their atmosphere and their environment;—then he may hope to make his most elaborate piece of animal biography not less true to nature than his transcript of an isolated fact. The present writer, having spent most of his boyhood on the fringes of the forest, with few interests save those which the forest afforded, may claim to have had the intimacies of the wilderness as it were thrust upon him. The earliest enthusiasms which he can recollect are connected with some of the furred or feathered kindred; and the first thrills strong enough to leave a lasting mark on his memory are those with which he used to follow—furtive, apprehensive, expectant, breathlessly watchful—the lure of an unknown trail.
There is one more point which may seem to claim a word. A very distinguished author—to whom all contemporary writers on nature are indebted, and from whom it is only with the utmost diffidence that I venture to dissent at all—has gently called me to account on the charge of ascribing to my animals human motives and the mental processes of man. The fact is, however, that this fault is one which I have been at particular pains to guard against. The psychological processes of the animals are so simple, so obvious, in comparison with those of man, their actions flow so directly from their springs of impulse, that it is, as a rule, an easy matter to infer the motives which are at any one moment impelling them. In my desire to avoid alike the melodramatic, the visionary, and the sentimental, I have studied to keep well within the limits of safe inference. Where I may have seemed to state too confidently the motives underlying the special action of this or that animal, it will usually be found that the action itself is very fully presented; and it will, I think, be further found that the motive which I have here assumed affords the most reasonable, if not the only reasonable, explanation of that action.
C. G. D. R.
New York, April, 1904.
Contents of the Book
Prefatory Note vii
The Freedom of the Black-faced Ram 3
The Master of Golden Pool 25
The Return to the Trails 45
The Little Wolf of the Pool 65
The Little Wolf of the Air 73
The Alien of the Wild 83
The Silver Frost 111
By the Winter Tide 121
The Rivals of Ringwaak 131
The Decoy 155
The Laugh in the Dark 173
The Kings of the Intervale 185
The Kill 197
The Little People of the Sycamore 211
Horns and Antlers 237
In the Deep of the Grass 247
When the Moon Is over the Corn 257
The Truce 267
The Keeper of the Water-Gate 291
When the Moose Cow Calls 311
The Passing of the Black Whelps 323
The Homeward Trail 351
The Watchers of the Trails
The Freedom of the Black-faced Ram
On the top of Ringwaak Hill the black-faced ram stood motionless, looking off with mild, yellow eyes across the wooded level, across the scattered farmsteads of the settlement, and across the bright, retreating spirals of the distant river, to that streak of scarlet light on the horizon which indicated the beginning of sunrise. A few paces below him, half-hidden by a gray stump, a green juniper bush, and a mossy brown hillock, lay a white ewe with a lamb at her side. The ewe's jaws moved leisurely, as she chewed her cud and gazed up with comfortable confidence at the sturdy figure of the ram silhouetted against the brightening sky.
This sunrise was the breaking of the black-faced ram's first day in the wilderness. Never before had he stood on an open hilltop and watched the light spread magically over a wide, wild landscape. Up to the morning of the previous day, his three years of life had been passed in protected, green-hedged valley pastures, amid tilled fields and well-stocked barns, beside a lilied water. This rugged, lonely, wide-visioned world into which fortune had so unexpectedly projected him filled him with wonder. Yet he felt strangely at ease therein. The hedged pastures had never quite suited him; but here, at length, in the great spaces, he felt at home. The fact was that, alike in character and in outward appearance, he was a reversion to far-off ancestors. He was the product of a freak of heredity.
In the fat-soiled valley-lands, some fifteen miles back of Ringwaak Hill, the farmers had a heavy, long-wooled, hornless strain of sheep, mainly of the Leicester breed, which had been crossed, years back, by an imported Scotch ram of one of the horned, courageous, upland, black-faced varieties. The effect of this hardy cross had apparently all been bred out, save for an added stamina in the resulting stock, which was uniformly white and hornless. When, therefore, a lamb was born with a black face and blackish-gray legs, it was cherished as a curiosity; and when, in time, it developed a splendid pair of horns, it became the handsomest ram in all the valley, and a source of great pride to its owner. But when black-faced lambs began to grow common in the hornless and immaculate flocks, the feelings of the valley folks changed, and word went around that the strain of the white-faced must be kept pure. Then it was decreed that the great horned ram should no longer sire the flocks, but be hurried to the doom of his kind and go to the shambles.
Just at this time, however, a young farmer from the backwoods settlement over behind Ringwaak chanced to visit the valley. The sheep of his settlement were not only hornless, but small and light-wooled as well, and the splendid, horned ram took his fancy. Here was a chance to improve his breed. He bought the ram for what he was worth to the butcher, and proudly led him away, over the hills and through the great woods, toward the settlement on the other side of Ringwaak.
The backwoodsman knew right well that a flock of sheep may be driven, but that a single sheep must be led; so he held his new possession securely by a piece of stout rope about ten feet long. For an hour or two the ram followed with an exemplary docility quite foreign to his independent spirit. He was subdued by the novelty of his surroundings,—the hillocky, sloping pastures, and the shadowy solemnity of the forest. Moreover, he perceived, in his dim way, a kind of mastery in this heavy-booted, homespun-clad, tobacco-chewing, grave-eyed man from the backwoods, and for a long time he felt none of his usual pugnacity. But by and by the craving for freedom began to stir in his breast, and the blood of his hill-roving ancestors thrilled toward the wild pastures. The glances which, from time to time, he cast upon the backwoodsman at the other end of the rope became wary, calculating, and hostile. This stalwart form, striding before him, was the one barrier between himself and freedom. Freedom was a thing of which he knew, indeed, nothing,—a thing which, to most of his kind, would have seemed terrifying rather than alluring. But to him, with that inherited wildness stirring in his blood, it seemed the thing to be craved before all else.
Presently they came to a little cold spring, bubbling up beside the road and tinkling over the steep bank. The road at this point ran along a hillside, and the slope below the road was clothed with blueberry and other dense shrubs. The backwoodsman was hot and thirsty. Flinging aside his battered hat, he dropped down on his hands and knees beside the spring and touched his lips to the water.
In this position, still holding the rope in a firm grasp, he had his back to the ram. Moreover, he no longer looked either formidable or commanding. The ram saw his chance. A curious change came over his mild, yellow eyes. They remained yellow, indeed, but became cold, sinister, and almost cruel in their expression.
The backwoodsman, as he drank, held a tight grip on the rope. The ram settled back slightly, till the rope was almost taut. Then he launched himself forward. His movement was straight and swift, as if he had been propelled by a gigantic spring. His massive, broad-horned forehead struck the stooping man with terrific force.
With a grunt of pain and amazement, the man shot sprawling over the bank, and landed, half-stunned, in a clump of blueberry bushes. Dazed and furious, he picked himself up, passed a heavy hand across his scratched, smarting face, and turned to see the ram disappearing among the thickets above the road. His disappointment so overcame his wrath that he forgot to exercise his vigorous backwoods vocabulary, and resumed his homeward way with his head full of plans for the recapture of his prize.
The ram, meanwhile, trailing the length of rope behind him, was galloping madly through the woods. He was intoxicated with his freedom. These rough, wild, lonely places seemed to him his home. With all his love for the wilderness, the instinct which had led him to it was altogether faulty and incomplete. It supplied him with none of the needful forest lore. He had no idea of caution. He had no inkling of fear. He had no conception of the enemies that might lurk in thicket or hollow. He went crashing ahead as if the green world belonged to him, and cared not who might hear the brave sound of his going. Now and then he stepped on the rope, and stumbled; but that was a small matter.
Through dark strips of forest, over rocky, tangled spaces, across slopes of burnt barren, his progress was always upward, until, having traversed several swampy vales and shadowy ravines, toward evening he came out upon the empty summit of Ringwaak. On the topmost hillock he took his stand proudly, his massive head and broad, curled horns in splendid relief against the amber sky.
As he stood, surveying his new realm, a low bleat came to him from a sheltered hollow close by, and, looking down, he saw a small white ewe with a new-born lamb nursing under her flank. Here was his new realm peopled at once. Here were followers of his own kind. He stepped briskly down from his hillock and graciously accepted the homage of the ewe, who snuggled up against him as if afraid at the loneliness and the coming on of night. All night he slept beside the mother and her young, in the sheltered hollow, and kept no watch because he feared no foe. But the ewe kept watch, knowing well what perils might steal upon them in the dark.
As it chanced, however, no midnight prowler visited the summit of Ringwaak Hill, and the first of dawn found the great ram again at his post of observation. It is possible that he had another motive besides his interest in his new, wonderful world. He may have expected the woodsman to follow and attempt his recapture, and resolved not to be taken unawares. Whatever his motive, he kept his post till the sun was high above the horizon, and the dew-wet woods gleamed as if sown with jewels. Then he came down and began to feed with the ewe, cropping the short, thin grass with quick bites and finding it far more sweet than the heavy growths of his old pasture.
Late in the morning, when pasturing was over for the time, the ram and the little ewe lay down in the shade of a steep rock, comfortably chewing their cud, while the lamb slept at its mother's side. The ram, deeply contented, did not observe two gray-brown, stealthy forms creeping along the slope, from bush to rock, and from stump to hillock. But the ewe, ever on the watch, presently caught sight of them, and sprang to her feet with a snort of terror. She knew well enough what a lynx was. Yet for all her terror she had no thought of flight. Her lamb was too young to flee, and she would stay by it in face of any fate.
The ram got up more slowly, turned his head, and eyed the stealthy strangers with grave curiosity. Curiosity, however, changed into hostility as he saw by the ewe's perturbation that the strangers were foes; and a sinister glitter came into the great gold eyes which shone so brilliantly from his black face.
Seeing themselves discovered, the two lynxes threw aside their cunning and rushed ravenously upon what they counted easy prey. They knew something of the timorous hearts of sheep, and had little expectation of resistance. But being, first of all, hungry rather than angry, they preferred what seemed easiest to get. It was upon the lamb and the ewe that they sprang, ignoring the ram contemptuously.
One thing which they had not reckoned with, however, was the temper of the ewe. Before one fierce claw could reach her lamb, she had butted the assailant so fiercely in the flank that he forgot his purpose and turned with a snarl of rage to rend her. Meanwhile the other lynx, springing for her neck, had experienced the unexpected. He had been met by the lightning charge of the ram, fair in the ribs, and hurled sprawling into a brittle, pointed tangle of dead limbs sticking up from the trunk of a fallen tree.
Having delivered this most effective blow, the ram stepped back a pace or two, mincing on his slender feet, and prepared to repeat it. The lynx was struggling frantically among the branches, which stuck into him and tore his fine fur. Just in time to escape the second assault he got free,—but free not for fight but for flight. One tremendous, wildly contorted leap landed him on the other side of the dead tree; and, thoroughly cowed, he scurried away down the hillside.
The ram at once turned his attention to the ewe and her antagonist. But the second lynx, who had not found his task so simple as he had expected it to be, had no stomach left for one more difficult. The ewe was bleeding about the head, and would, of course, if she had been left to fight it out, have been worsted in a very short time. But the enemy had felt the weight of her blows upon his ribs, and had learned his lesson. For just a fraction of a second he turned, and defied the ram with a screeching snarl. But when that horned, black, battering head pitched forward at him he bounded aside like a furry gray ball and clambered to the top of the rock. Here he crouched for some moments, snarling viciously, his tufted ears set back against his neck, and his stump of a tail twitching with rage, while the ram minced to and fro beneath him, stamping defiance with his dainty hoofs. All at once the big cat doubled upon itself, slipped down the other side of the rock, and went gliding away through the stumps and hillocks like a gray shadow; and the ram, perhaps to conceal his elation, fell to grazing as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The ewe, on the other hand, seeing the danger so well past, took no thought of her torn face, but set herself to comfort and reassure the trembling lamb.
After this, through the slow, bright hours while the sun swung hotly over Ringwaak, the ram and his little family were undisturbed. An eagle, wheeling, wheeling, wheeling in the depths of the blue, looked down and noted the lamb. But he had no thought of attacking so well guarded a prey. The eagle had a wider outlook than others of the wild kindred, and he knew from of old many matters which the lynxes of Ringwaak had never learned till that day.
There were other visitors that came and glanced at the little family during the quiet content of their cud-chewing. A weasel ran restlessly over a hillock and peered down upon them with hard, bright eyes. The big ram, with his black face and huge, curling horns, was a novel phenomenon, and the weasel disappeared behind the hillock, only to appear again much nearer, around a clump of weeds. His curiosity was mingled with malicious contempt, till the ram chanced to rise and shake his head. Then the weasel saw the rope that wriggled from the ram's neck. Was it some new and terrible kind of snake? The weasel respected snakes when they were large and active; so he forgot his curiosity and slipped away from the dangerous neighbourhood.
The alarm of the weasel, however, was nothing to that of the wood-mice. While the ram was lying down they came out of their secret holes and played about securely, seeming to realize that the big animal's presence was a safeguard to them. But when he moved, and they saw the rope trail sinuously behind him through the scanty grass, they were almost paralyzed with panic. Such a snake as that would require all the wood-mice on Ringwaak to assuage his appetite. They fairly fell backward into their burrows, where they crouched quivering in the darkest recesses, not daring to show their noses again for hours.
Neither weasel nor wood-mice, nor the chickadees which came to eye him saucily, seemed to the big ram worth a moment's attention. But when a porcupine, his quills rattling and bristling till he looked as big around as a half-bushel basket, strolled aimlessly by, the ram was interested and rose to his feet. The little, deep-set eyes of the porcupine passed over him with supremest indifference, and their owner began to gnaw at the bark of a hemlock sapling which grew at one side of the rock. To this gnawing he devoted his whole attention, with an eagerness that would have led one to think he was hungry,—as, indeed, he was, not having had a full meal for nearly half an hour. The porcupine, of all nature's children, is the best provided for, having the food he loves lying about him at all seasons. Yet he is for ever eating, as if famine were in ambush for him just over the next hillock.
Seeing the high indifference of this small, bristling stranger, the ram stepped up and was just about to sniff at him inquiringly. Had he done so, the result would have been disastrous. He would have got a slap in the face from the porcupine's active and armed tail; and his face would have straightway been transformed into a sort of anguished pincushion, stuck full of piercing, finely barbed quills. He would have paid dear for his ignorance of woodcraft,—perhaps with the loss of an eye, or even with starvation from a quill working through into his gullet. But fortunately for him the ewe understood the peculiarities of porcupines. Just in time she noted his danger, and rudely butted him aside. He turned upon her in a fume of amazed indignation; but in some way she made him understand that the porcupine was above all law, and not to be trifled with even by the lords of the wilderness. Very sulkily he lay down again, and the porcupine went on chiselling hemlock bark, serenely unconscious of the anger in the inscrutable yellow eyes that watched him from the ram's black face.
When the shadows grew long and luminous, toward evening, the ram, following some unexplained instinct, again mounted the topmost point of Ringwaak, and stood like a statue gazing over the vast, warm-coloured solitude of his new domain. His yellow eyes were placid with a great content. A little below him, the white lamb wobbling on weak legs at her side, the ewe pastured confidently, secure in the proved prowess of her protector. As the sun dropped below the far-off western rim of the forest, it seemed as if one wide wave of lucent rose-violet on a sudden flooded the world. Everything on Ringwaak—the ram's white fleece, the gray, bleached stumps, the brown hillocks, the green hollows and juniper clumps and poplar saplings—took on a palpitating aerial stain. Here and there in the distance the coils of the river gleamed clear gold; and overhead, in the hollow amber-and-lilac arch of sky, the high-wandering night-hawks swooped with the sweet twang of smitten strings.
Down at the foot of the northern slope of Ringwaak lay a dense cedar swamp. Presently, out from the green fringe of the cedars, a bear thrust his head and cast a crafty glance about the open. Seeing the ram on the hilltop and the ewe with her lamb feeding near by, he sank back noiselessly into the cover of the cedars, and stole around toward the darkening eastern slope, where a succession of shrubby copses ran nearly to the top of the hill.
The bear was rank, rusty-coated, old, and hungry; and he loved sheep. He was an adept in stalking this sweet-fleshed, timorous quarry, and breaking its neck with a well-directed blow as it dashed past him in a panic. Emerging from the swamp, he crept up the hill, taking cunning advantage of every bush, stump, and boulder. For all his awkward looking bulk, he moved as lightly as a cat, making himself small, and twisting and flattening and effacing himself; and never a twig was allowed to snap, or a stone to clatter, under his broad, unerring feet.
About this time it chanced that the backwoodsman, who had been out nearly all day hunting for his lost prize, approached the edge of the forest at the other side of Ringwaak,—and saw the figure of the ram against the sky. Then, seeing also the ewe with the lamb beside her, he knew that the game was his.
Below the top of the hill there was not a scrap of cover for a distance of perhaps twenty paces. The bear crept to the very last bush, the ram being occupied with the world at a distance, and the ewe busy at her pasturing. Behind the bush—a thick, spreading juniper—the bear crouched motionless for some seconds, his little red eyes aglow, and his jaws beginning to slaver with eagerness. Then selecting the unconscious ewe, because he knew she was not likely to desert the lamb, he rushed upon his intended victim.
The ewe, as it chanced, was about thirty-five or forty feet distant from the enemy, as he lunged out, black and appalling, from behind the juniper. At the same time the ram was not more than twenty or twenty-five feet distant, straight above the lamb, in a direction at right angles to the path of the bear. The ewe looked up with a startled bleat, wheeled, sprang nimbly before the lamb, and faced her doom dauntlessly, with lowered head.
The ram's mild gaze changed in a flash to one of cold, yellow savagery at the sight of the great black beast invading his kingdom. Down went his conquering head. For just a fraction of a second his sturdy body sagged back, as if he were about to sit down. This, so to speak, was the bending of the bow. Then he launched himself straight down the slope, all his strength, his weight, and the force of gravity combining to drive home that mighty stroke.
The bear had never, in all his experience with sheep, encountered one whose resistance was worth taking into account. The defiance of the ewe was less than nothing to him. But as he saw, from the corner of his eye, the huge bulk plunging down upon him, he hesitated, and half turned, with great paw upraised for a finishing blow.
He turned not quite in time, however, and his defence was not quite strenuous enough for the emergency. He struck like lightning, as a bear always can, but just before the stroke could find its mark the ram's armed forehead crashed into his ribs. The blow, catching him as it did, was irresistible. His claws tore off a patch of wool and skin, and ploughed red furrows across the ram's shoulder,—but the next instant he was sprawling, his breath jarred from his lungs, against a stump some ten feet down the slope.
As the bear struggled to his feet, furious but half-daunted with amazement, the ram danced backward a pace or two on his nimble feet, as if showing off, and then delivered his second charge. The bewildered bear was again caught unready, irresolute as to whether he should fight or flee; and again he was knocked headlong, a yard or two further down the slope. His was not the dauntless spirit that most of his kindred would have shown in such a case, and he would willingly have made his escape at once if he had seen his way quite clear to do so. But at this moment, while he hesitated, he heard a man's voice shouting loudly, and saw the tall backwoodsman running toward him up the hill. This sight turned his alarm into a blind panic. His feet seemed to acquire wings as he tore madly away among the thickets. When he was hidden by the leafage, his path could still be followed by the crashing of dry branches and the clattering of loosened stones.
The woodsman had seen the whole incident, and was wild with enthusiasm over the prowess of his prize. Bears had been the most dreaded scourge of the settlement sheep-farmers, but now, as he proudly said to himself, he had a ram that could "lick a b'ar silly!" He bore no grudge on account of his discomfiture that morning beside the spring, but rather thought of it with appreciation as a further evidence of his favourite's cunning and prowess; and he foresaw, with a chuckle, that there were painful surprises in store for the bears of the Ringwaak range. He had made a wise purchase indeed when he saved that splendid beast from the butcher.
Hearing the man's voice, the ram had halted in dismay just when he was about to charge the bear a third time. He had no mind to go again into captivity. But, on the other hand, for all his lordliness of spirit, he felt that the man was his master. At first he lowered his head threateningly, as if about to attack; but when the backwoodsman shouted at him there was an authority in those tones which he could not withstand, and he sullenly drew aside. With a good-natured laugh, the man picked the lamb up in his arms, whereupon the mother stepped timidly to his side, evidently having no fear. The man rubbed her nose kindly, and stroked her ears, and gave her something from his pocket which she ate greedily; and, as the ram looked on, the anger gradually faded out from his yellow eyes. At length the man turned and walked slowly down the hill, carrying the lamb. The ewe followed, crowding as close to him as she could, and stumbling as she went because her eyes were fixed upon her little one.
The ram hesitated. He looked at the hillside, the woods, and the sky beginning to grow chill with the onrush of twilight. Then he looked at the retreating figures. Suddenly he saw his world growing empty and desolate. With an anxious bleat he trotted after the ewe, and took his docile place a few feet behind the man's heels. The man glanced over his shoulders, and a smile of pleasure softened his rugged face. In a few moments the little procession disappeared in the woods, moving toward the settlement, and Ringwaak Hill was left solitary in the dusk, with the lonely notes of the night-hawks twanging over it.
The Master of Golden Pool
One shore of the pool was a spacious sweeping curve of the sward, dotted with clumps of blue flag-flowers. From the green fringes of this shore the bottom sloped away softly over a sand so deep and glowing in its hue of orange-yellow as to give the pool the rich name by which it was known for miles up and down the hurrying Clearwater. The other shore was a high, overhanging bank, from whose top drooped a varied leafage of birch, ash, poplar, and hemlock. Under this bank the water was deep and dark, a translucent black with trembling streaks and glints of amber. Fifty yards up-stream a low fall roared musically; but before reaching the fresh tranquillity of the pool, the current bore no signs of its disturbance save a few softly whirling foam clusters. Light airs, perfumed with birch and balsam and warm scents of the sun-steeped sward, drew over the pool from time to time, wrinkling and clouding its glassy surface. Birds flew over it, catching the small flies to whom its sheen was a ceaseless lure. And huge dragon-flies, with long, iridescent bodies and great jewelled, sinister eyes, danced and darted above it.
The cool black depths under the bank retained their coolness through the fiercest heats of summer, because just here the brook was joined by the waters of an icy spring stealing down through a crevice of the rocks; and here in the deepest recess, exacting toll of all the varied life that passed his domain, the master of Golden Pool made his home.
For several years the great trout had held his post in the pool, defying every lure of the crafty fisherman. The Clearwater was a protected stream, being leased to a rich fishing club; and the master of the pool was therefore secure against the treacherous assaults of net or dynamite. Many times each season fishermen would come and pit their skill against his cunning; but never a fly could tempt him, never a silvery, trolled minnow or whirling spoon deceive him to the fatal rush. At some new lure he would rise lazily once in awhile, revealing his bulk to the ambitious angler,—but never to take hold. Contemptuously he would flout the cheat with his broad flukes, and go down again with a grand swirl to his lair under the rock.
It was only to the outside world—to the dragon-fly, and the bird, and the chattering red squirrel in the overhanging hemlock—that the deep water under the bank looked black. To the trout in his lair, looking upward toward the sunlight, the whole pool had a golden glow. His favourite position was a narrow place between two stones, where he lay with head up-stream and belly about two inches from the sandy bottom, gently fanning the water with his party-coloured fins, and opening and closing his rosy gill-fringes as he breathed. In length he was something over twenty inches, with a thick, deep body tapering finely to the powerful tail. Like all the trout of the Clearwater, he was silver-bellied with a light pink flush, the yellow and brown markings on his sides light in tone, and his spots of the most high, intense vermilion. His great lower jaw was thrust forward in a way that gave a kind of bulldog ferocity to his expression.
The sky of the big trout's world was the flat surface of Golden Pool. From the unknown place beyond that sky there came to his eyes but moving shadows, arrangements of light and dark. He could not see out and through into the air unobstructedly, as one looks forth from a window into the world. Most of these moving shadows he understood very well. When broad and vague, they did not, as a rule, greatly interest him; but when they got small, and sharply black, he knew they might at any instant break through with a splash and become real, coloured things, probably good to eat. A certain slim little shadow was always of interest to him unless he was feeling gorged. Experience had taught him that when it actually touched the shining surface above, and lay there sprawling helplessly with wet wings, it would prove to be a May fly, which he liked. Having no rivals to get ahead of him, there was no need of haste. He would sail up with dignity, open his great jaws, and take in the tiny morsel.
Sometimes the moving shadows were large and of a slower motion, and these, if they chanced to break through, would prove to be bright-coloured moths or butterflies, or glittering beetles, or fat black and yellow bumblebees, or lean black and yellow wasps. If he was hungry, all these things were good for food, and his bony, many-toothed mouth cared nothing for stings. Sometimes when he was not at all hungry, but merely playful, he would rise with a rush at anything breaking the sheen of his roof, slap it with his tail, then seize it between his hard lips and carry it down with him, only to drop it a moment later as a child might drop a toy. Once in awhile, either in hunger or in sport, he would rise swiftly at the claws or wing-tips of a dipping swallow; but he never managed to catch the nimble bird. Had he, by any chance, succeeded, he would probably have found the feathers no obstacle to his enjoyment of the novel fare.
At times it was not a shadow, but a splash, that would attract his attention to the shining roof of his world. A grasshopper would fall in, and kick grotesquely till he rose to end its troubles. Or a misguided frog, pursued perhaps by some enemy on land, would dive in and swim by with long, webbed toes. At this sight the master of the pool would dart from his lair like a bolt from a catapult. Frogs were much to his taste. And once in a long time even a wood-mouse, hard pressed and panic-stricken, would leap in to swim across to the meadow shore. The first time this occurred the trout had risen slowly, and followed below the swimmer till assured that there was no peril concealed in the tempting phenomenon. After that, however, he always went at such prey with a ferocious rush, hurling himself half out of water in his eagerness.
But it was not only to his translucent sky that the master of the pool looked for his meat. A large part of it came down upon the current of the brook. Bugs, grubs, and worms, of land and water, some dead, others disabled or bewildered by their passage through the falls, contributed to his feasting. Above all, there were the smaller fish who were so reckless or uninformed as to try to pass through Golden Pool. They might be chub, or suckers, or red-fin; they might be—and more often were—kith and kin of his own. It was all the same to the big trout, who knew as well as any gourmet that trout were royal fare. His wide jaws and capacious gullet were big enough to accommodate a cousin a full third of his own size, if swallowed properly, head first. His speed was so great that any smaller fish which he pursued was doomed, unless fortunate enough to be within instant reach of shoal water. Of course, it must not be imagined that the great trout was able to keep his domain quite inviolate. When he was full fed, or sulking, then the finny wanderers passed up and down freely,—always, however, giving wide berth to the lair under the bank. In the bright shallows over against the other shore, the scurrying shoals of pin-fish played safely in the sun. Once in a long while a fish would pass, up or down, so big that the master of the pool was willing to let him go unchallenged. And sometimes a muskrat, swimming with powerful strokes of his hind legs, his tiny forepaws gathered childishly under his chin, would take his way over the pool to the meadow of the blue flag-flowers. The master of the pool would turn up a fierce eye, and watch the swimmer's progress breaking the golden surface into long, parabolic ripples; but he was too wise to court a trial of the muskrat's long, chisel-like teeth.
There were two occasions, never to be effaced from his sluggish memory, on which the master of the pool had been temporarily routed from his mastership and driven in a panic from his domain. Of these the less important had seemed to him by far the more appalling.
Once, on a summer noonday, when the pool was all of a quiver with golden light, and he lay with slow-waving fins close to the coldest up-gushing of the spring which cooled his lair, the shining roof of his realm had been shattered and upheaved with a tremendous splash. A long, whitish body, many times his own length, had plunged in and dived almost to the bottom. This creature swam with wide-sprawling limbs, like a frog, beating the water, and leaping, and uttering strange sounds; and the disturbance of its antics was a very cataclysm to the utmost corners of the pool. The trout had not stayed to investigate the horrifying phenomenon, but had darted madly down-stream for half a mile, through fall and eddy, rapid and shallow, to pause at last, with throbbing sides and panting gills, in a little black pool behind a tree root. Not till hours after the man had finished his bath, and put on his clothes, and strode away whistling up the shore, did the big trout venture back to his stronghold. He found it already occupied by a smaller trout, whom he fell upon and devoured, to the assuaging of his appetite and the salving of his wounded dignity. But for days he was tremulously watchful, and ready to dart away if any unusually large shadow passed over his amber ceiling. He was expecting a return of the great, white, sprawling visitor.
His second experience was one which he remembered with cunning wariness rather than with actual terror. Yet this had been a real peril, one of the gravest with which he could be confronted in the guarded precincts of Golden Pool. One day he saw a little lithe black body swimming rapidly at the surface, its head above the water. It was about ten feet away from his lair, and headed up-stream. The strange creature swam with legs, like a muskrat, instead of with fins like a fish, but it was longer and slenderer than a muskrat; and something in its sinister shape and motion, or else some stirring of an inherited instinct, filled the big trout with apprehension as he looked. Suddenly the stranger's head dipped under the surface, and the stranger's eyes sought him out, far down in his yellow gloom. That narrow-nosed, triangular head with its pointed fangs, those bright, cruel, undeceivable eyes, smote the trout with instant alarm. Here was an enemy to be avoided. The mink had dived at once, going through the water with the swiftness and precision of a fish. Few trout could have escaped. But the master of the pool, as we have seen, was no ordinary trout. The promptness of his cunning had got him under way in time. The power of his broad and muscular tail shot him forth from his lair just before the mink got there. And before the baffled enemy could change his direction, the trout was many feet away, heading up for the broken water of the rapids. The mink followed vindictively, but in the foamy stretch below the falls he lost all track of the fugitive. Angry and disappointed he scrambled ashore, and, finding a dead sucker beside his runway, seized it savagely. As he did so, there was a smart click, and the jaws of a steel trap, snapping upon his throat, rid the wilderness of one of its most bloodthirsty and implacable marauders. A half-hour later the master of the pool was back in his lair, waving his delicate, gay-coloured fins over the yellow sand, and lazily swallowing a large crayfish. One claw of the crayfish projected beyond his black jaw; and, being thus comfortably occupied, he turned an indifferent eye upon the frightened swimming of a small green frog, which had just then fallen in and disturbed the sheen of his amber roof.
Very early one morning, when all his world was of a silvery gray, and over the glassy pallor of his roof thin gleams of pink were mingled with ghostly, swirling mist-shadows, a strange fly touched the surface, directly above him. It had a slender, scarlet, curving body, with long hairs of yellow and black about its neck, and brown and white wings. It fell upon the water with the daintiest possible splash, just enough to catch his attention. Being utterly unlike anything he had ever seen before, it aroused his interest, and he slanted slowly upward. A moment later a second fly touched the water, a light gray, mottled thing, with a yellow body, and pink and green hairs fringing its neck. This, too, was strange to him. He rolled a foot higher, not with any immediate idea of trying them, but under his usual vague impulse to investigate everything pertaining to his pool. Just then the mist-swirls lifted slightly, and the light grew stronger, and against the smooth surface he detected a fine, almost invisible, thread leading from the head of each fly. With a derisive flirt of his tail he sank back to the bottom of his lair. Right well he knew the significance of that fine thread.
The strange flies skipped lightly over the surface of the pool, in a manner that to most trout would have seemed very alluring. They moved away toward a phenomenon which he just now noticed for the first time, a pair of dark, pillar-like objects standing where the water was about two feet deep, over toward the further shore. These dark objects moved a little, gently. Then the strange flies disappeared. A moment later they dropped again, and went through the same performance. This was repeated several times, the big trout watching with interest mingled with contempt. There was no peril for him in such gauds.
Presently the flies disappeared for good. A few minutes later two others came in their place,—one a tiny, white, moth-like thing, the other a big, bristling bunch of crimson hairs. The latter stirred, far back in his dull memory, an association of pain and fear, and he backed deeper into his watery den. It was a red hackle; and in his early days, when he was about eight inches long and frequented the tail of a shallow, foamy rapid, he had had experience of its sharp allurements. The little moth he ignored, but he kept an eye on the red hackle as it trailed and danced hither and thither across the pool. Once, near the other side, he saw a misguided fingerling dart from under a stone in the shallow water and seize the gay morsel. The fingerling rose, with a jerk, from the water, and was no more seen. It vanished into the unknown air; and the master of the pool quailed as he marked its fate. After this, the pair of dark, pillar-like objects moved away to the shore, no longer careful, but making a huge, splashing noise. No more strange flies appeared; and the gold light of full day stole down to the depths of the pool. Soon, flies which the master well knew, with no fine threads attached to them, began to speck the surface over him, and he fed, in his lazy way, without misgiving.
The big trout had good reason for his dread of the angler's lure. His experience with the red hackle had given him the wisdom which had enabled him to live through all the perils of a well-known trout-stream and grow to his present fame and stature. Behind that red hackle which hooked him in his youth had been a good rod, a crafty head, and a skilful wrist. His hour had sounded then and there, but for a fortunate flaw in the tackle. The leader had parted just at the drop, and the terrified trout (he had taken the tail fly) had darted away frantically through the rapids with three feet of fine gut trailing from his jaw. For several weeks he trailed that hampering thread, and carried that red hackle in the cartilage of his upper jaw; and he had time to get very familiar with them. He grew thin and slab-sided under the fret of it before he succeeded, by much nosing in gravel and sand, in wearing away the cartilage and rubbing his jaw clear of the encumbrance. From that day forward he had scrutinized all unfamiliar baits or lures to see if they carried any threadlike attachment.
When any individual of the wild kindreds, furred, feathered, or finned, achieves the distinction of baffling man's efforts to undo him, his doom may be considered sealed. There is no beast, bird, or fish so crafty or so powerful but some one man can worst him, and will take the trouble to do it if the game seems to be worth while. Some lure would doubtless have been found, some scheme devised for the hiding of the line, whereby the big trout's cunning would have been made foolishness. Some swimming frog, some terrified, hurrying mouse, or some great night-moth flopping down upon the dim water of a moonless night, would have lulled his suspicions and concealed the inescapable barb; and the master of the pool would have gone to swell the record of an ingenious conqueror. He would have been stuffed, and mounted, and hung upon the walls of the club-house, down at the mouth of the Clearwater. But it pleased the secret and inscrutable deities of the woods that the end of the lordly trout should come in another fashion.
It is an unusual thing, an unfortunate and pitiful thing, when death comes to the wild kindred by the long-drawn, tragic way of overripeness. When the powers begin to fail, the powers which enabled them to conquer, or to flee from, or to outwit their innumerable foes,—then life becomes a miserable thing for them. But that is not for long. Fate meets them in the forest trails or the flowing water-paths; and they have grown too dull to see, too heavy to flee, too indifferent to contend. So they are spared the anguish of slow, uncomprehending decrepitude.
But to the master of Golden Pool Fate came while he was yet master unchallenged, and balked the hopes of many crafty fishermen. It came in a manner not unworthy of the great trout's dignity and fame, giving him over to swell no adversary's triumph, betraying him to no contemptible foe.
One crisp autumn morning, when leaves were falling all over the surface of the pool, and insects were few, and a fresh tang in the water was making him active and hungry, the big trout was swimming hither and thither about his domain instead of lying lazily in his deep lair. He chanced to be over in the shallows near the grassy shore, when he saw, at the upper end of the pool, a long, dark body slip noiselessly into the water. It was not unlike the mink in form, but several times larger. It swam with a swift movement of its forefeet, while its hind legs, stretched out behind with the tail, twisted powerfully, like a big sculling oar. Its method, indeed, combined the advantages of that of the quadruped and that of the fish. The trout saw at once that here was a foe to be dreaded, and he lay quite still against a stone, trusting to escape the bright eyes of the stranger.
But the stranger, as it happened, was hunting, and the stranger was an otter. The big trout was just such quarry as he sought, and his bright eyes, peering restlessly on every side, left no corner of the pool uninvestigated. They caught sight of the master's silver and vermilion sides, his softly waving, gay-coloured fins.
With a dart like that of the swiftest of fish, the stranger shot across the pool. The trout darted madly toward his lair. The otter was close upon him, missing him by a fin's breadth. Frantic now with terror, the trout shot up-stream toward the broken water. But the otter, driven not only by his forefeet but by that great combined propeller of his hind legs and tail, working like a screw, swam faster. Just at the edge of the broken water he overtook his prey. A set of long, white teeth went through the trout's backbone. There was one convulsive twist, and the gay-coloured fins lay still, the silver and vermilion body hung limp from the captor's jaws.
For many days thereafter, Golden Pool lay empty under its dropping crimson and purple leaves, its slow sailing foam flakes. Then, by twos and threes, small trout strayed in, and found the new region a good place to inhabit. When, in the following spring, the fishermen came back to the Clearwater, they reported the pool swarming with pan-fish, hardly big enough to make it worth while throwing a fly. Then word went up and down the Clearwater that the master of the pool was gone, and the glory of the pool, for that generation of fishermen, went with him.
The Return to the Trails
Down from the rocky den under the bald peak of Sugar Loaf, the old black bear led her cub. Turning her head every moment to see that he was close at her heels, she encouraged him with soft, half-whining, half-grunting sounds, that would have been ridiculous in so huge a beast had they been addressed to anything less obviously a baby than this small, velvet-dark, wondering-eyed cub.
Very carefully the old bear chose her path, and very slowly she moved. But for all her care, she had to stop every minute or two, and sometimes even turn back a few paces, for the cub was continually dropping behind. His big, inquiring ears took in all the vague, small noises of the mountainside, puzzling over them. His sharp little nose went poking in every direction, sniffing the strange new smells, till he would get bewildered, and forget which foot to put forward first. Then he would sit back and whine for his mother.
It was the cub's first adventure, this journey down the world outside his den. Hitherto he had but played about his doorway.
When the little fellow had somewhat recovered from his first bewilderment, the old bear moved more rapidly, leading him toward a swampy, grassy pocket, where she thought there might be roots to dig. The way was steep, winding down between rocks and stunted trees and tangles of thick shrubbery, with here and there a black-green spur of the fir forests thrust up tentatively from the lower slopes. Now and again it led across a naked shoulder of the mountain, revealing, far down, a landscape of dark, wide stretching, bluish woods, with desolate, glimmering lakes strung on a thread of winding river. When these vast spaces of emptiness opened suddenly upon his baby eyes, the cub whimpered and drew closer to his mother. The swimming deeps of air daunted him.
Presently, as the two continued their slow journey, the mother bear's nostrils caught a new savour. She stopped, lifted her snout, and tested the wind discriminatingly. It was a smell she had encountered once before, coming from the door of a lumber camp. Well she remembered the deliciousness of the lump of fat bacon which she had succeeded in purloining while the cook was out getting water. Her thin, red tongue licked her lips at that memory, and, without hesitation, she turned up the side trail whence came the luring scent. The cub had to stir his little legs to keep pace with her, but he felt that something interesting was in the wind, and did his best.
A turn around a thick clump of juniper, and there was the source of the savour. It looked pleasantly familiar to the old bear, that lump of fat bacon. It was stuck on the end of a pointed stick, just under a sort of slanting roof of logs, which, in a way, reminded her of the lumbermen's cabin. The cabin had done her no harm, and she inferred that the structure before her was equally harmless. Nevertheless, the man smell, not quite overpowered by the fragrance of the bacon, lurked about it; and all the works of man she viewed with suspicion. She snatched hastily at the prize, turning to jump away even as she did so.
But the bacon seemed to be fastened to the stick. She gave it an impatient pull,—and it yielded suddenly. At that same instant, while her eyes twinkled with elation, that roof of massive logs came crashing down.
It fell across her back. Weighted as it was with heavy stones, it crushed the life out of her in a second. There was a coughing gasp, cut off abruptly; and the flattened form lay still, the wide-open mouth and protruding tongue jammed down among the mosses. At the crash the cub had jumped back in terror. Then he sat up on his haunches and looked on with anxious bewilderment.
* * * * *
When, early the following morning, the Indian who had set the deadfall came, he found the cub near perishing with cold and fear and hunger. He knew that the little animal would be worth several bearskins, so he warmed it, wrapped it in his jacket, and took it home to his cabin. Fed and sheltered, it turned to its captor as a rescuer, and acquired a perilous faith in the friendliness of man. In fact, it speedily learned to follow the Indian about the cabin, and to fret for him in his absence.
That same autumn the Indian took the cub into Edmundston and sold him for a price that well repaid his pains; and thence, within three or four months, and by as many transfers, the little animal found his way into the possession of a travelling circus. Being good-natured and teachable, and inclined, through his first misunderstanding of the situation which had robbed him of his mother, to regard mankind as universally beneficent, he was selected to become a trick bear. In the course of his training for this honour, he learned that his trainer, at least, was not wholly beneficent, and toward him he developed a cordial bitterness, which grew with his years. But he learned his lessons, nevertheless, and became a star of the ring; and for the manager of the show, who always kept peanuts or gingerbread in pocket for him, he conceived such a warmth of regard as he had hitherto strictly reserved for the Indian.
Valued and well cared for, he grew to a magnificent stature, and up to the middle of his fifth year he never knew what his life was missing. To be sure, it was exasperatingly monotonous, this being rolled about the world in stuffy, swaying cage-cars, and dancing in the ring, and playing foolish tricks with a red-and-white clown, and being stared at by hot, applauding, fluttering tiers of people, who looked exactly the same at every place he came to. His memory of that first walk down the mountain, at his great mother's heels, had been laid to sleep at the back of his curiously occupied brain. He had no understanding of the fierce restlessness, the vague longing, which from time to time, and especially when the autumn frosts began to nip and tingle, would take possession of him, moving him almost to hatred of even his special friends, the manager and the clown.
One vaporous, golden afternoon in early autumn, the circus drew into the little town of Edmundston, at the mouth of the Madawaska River. When the noise of the train stopped, the soft roar of the Little Falls grew audible,—a voice at which all the weary animals pricked their ears, they knew not, most of them, why. But when the cars and cages were run out into the fields, where the tents were to be raised, there drew down from spruce-clad hills a faint fragrance which thrilled the bear's nostrils, and stirred formless longings in his heart, and made his ears deaf to the wild music of the falls. That fragrance, imperceptible to nostrils less sensitive than his, was the breath of his native wilderness, a message from the sombre solitudes of the Squatook. He did not know that the lonely peak of Sugar Loaf was but thirty or forty miles away. He knew only that something, in the air and in his blood, was calling him to his own.
The bear—well-taught, well-mannered, well-content—was not regarded as even remembering freedom, let alone desiring it. His fetters, therefore, were at times little more than nominal, and he was never very closely watched. Just on the edge of evening, when the dusk was creeping up the valley and honey-scents from the fields mixed with the tang of the dark spruce forests, his opportunity came. His trainer had unhitched the chain from his collar and stooped over it to examine some defect in the clasp.
At this instant that surge of impulse which, when it does come, shatters routine and habit to bits, seized the bear. Without premeditation, he dealt the trainer a cuff that knocked him clean over a wagon-pole and broke his arm. Before any of the other attendants could realize what had happened, the bear was beyond the circle of wagons, and half-way across the buckwheat-fields. In ten minutes more he was in the spicy glooms of the spruce-woods.
His years of association with men had given the bear a great confidence in their resources. He was too crafty, therefore, to slacken his efforts just because he had gained the longed-for woods. He pressed on doggedly, at a shambling, loose-jointed, but very effective run, till it was full night and the stars came out sharply in the patches of clear, dark sky above the tree-tops. In the friendly dark he halted to strip the sweet but insipid fruit of an Indian pear, which for a little assuaged his appetite. Then he rushed on,—perhaps aimlessly, as far as conscious purpose was concerned, but, in reality, by a sure instinct, making toward his ancestral steeps of Sugar Loaf.
All night he travelled; and in the steely chill of dawn he came out upon a spacious lake. The night had been windless, and now, in the first of the coming light, the water was smooth like blue-black oil under innumerable writhing wisps and streamers of mist. A keen smell, raw but sweet, rose from the wet shores, the wet spruce and fir woods, and the fringe of a deep cedar swamp near by. The tired animal sniffed it with an uncomprehending delight. He did not recognize it, yet it made him feel at home. It seemed a part of what he wanted.
Being thirsty as well as hungry, he pushed through the bushes,—not noiselessly, as a wild bear moves, but with crashing and tramplings, as if there were no need of secrecy in the wilds,—and lurched down to the gravelly brink. Here, as luck would have it, he found a big, dead sucker lying half-awash, which made him a meal. Then, when sharp streaks of orange along the eastern horizon were beginning to shed a mystic colour over the lake, he drew back into the woods and curled himself up for sleep behind the trunk of a big hemlock.
When the sun was about an hour high he awoke, and made haste to continue his journey. Along the lake shore he went, to the outlet; then down the clear, rushing Squatook; and in the afternoon he came out upon a smaller lake, over which stood sentinel a lofty, beetling mountain. At the foot of the mountain, almost seeming to duplicate it in miniature, a steep island of rock rose sharply from the water.
The bear halted on the shore, sniffed wistfully, and looked up at the lonely mountain. Dim memories, or emotions too dim to be classed as memories, began to stir in the recesses of his brain. He hurried around the lake and began to climb the steeps. The lonely mountain was old Sugar Loaf. The exile had come home.
It was his feet, rather than his head, perhaps, that knew the way so well. Upward he toiled, through swamps and fir woods, over blueberry barrens and ranges of granite boulders, till, looking down, he saw the eagle flying far below him. He saw a vast, empty forest land, beaded with shining lakes,—and a picture, long covered up in his brain, came back to him. These were the great spaces that so long ago had terrified the little cub creeping at his mother's heels. He knew now where his den was,—just behind that whitish gray rock with the juniper shrub over it. He ran eagerly to resume possession.
It was now, for the first time, that he found the wilderness less empty than he had imagined it. Another bear was in possession of the den,—and in no mood to be disturbed.
He flung himself upon the intruder with a savage roar. The next moment the two, clutched in a madly clawing embrace, went crashing through a fringe of bushes and rolled together down a twenty-foot slope of bald rock. They landed in a crevice full of roots, with a violence that half-stunned them and threw them apart. As they picked themselves up, it was plain that the exile had had the best of the tussle. His rich black fur, to be sure, was somewhat torn and bloody, but he showed no other signs of battle; while his antagonist breathed heavily and held one paw clear of the ground.
The exile was quite fearless, and quite ready to fight for what he wanted, if necessary. But he was not conscious of any particular ill-will toward his assailant. What he wanted was possession of that den. Now, instead of taking advantage of his adversary's partly disabled condition, he clambered with undignified haste up the steep rock and plunged into the cave. It was certainly much smaller than he had imagined it, but it was, nevertheless, much to his taste. He turned around in it two or three times, as if to adjust it to himself, then squatted on his haunches in the entrance and looked out complacently over the airy deeps. The dispossessed bear stood for a few minutes irresolute, his small eyes red with wrath. For a moment or two he hesitated, trying to work himself up to the attack. Then discretion came to his rescue. Grumbling deep in his throat, he turned and limped away, to seek new quarters on the other side of the mountain.
Now began for the returned exile two or three months of just such a life as he had longed for. The keen and tonic winds that blew around the peak of Sugar Loaf filled his veins with vigour. Through his lack of education in the lore of the wilderness, his diet was less varied than it might have been; but this was the fat of the year, and he fared well enough. When the late berries and fruits were all gone there were sweet tubers and starchy roots to be grubbed up along the meadow levels by the water. Instinct, and a spirit of investigation, soon taught him to find the beetles and grubs that lurked under stones or in rotting logs,—and in the course of such a search he one day discovered that ants were good to eat. But the small animals with which a wild bear is prone to vary his diet were all absent from his bill of fare. Rabbits, woodchucks, chipmunks, wood-mice, they all kept out of his sight. His ignorance of the law of silence, the universal law of the wild, deprived him of many toothsome morsels. As for the many kinds of fungus which grew upon the mountain, he knew not which were edible and which poisonous. After an experiment with one pleasant-smelling red-skinned specimen, which gave him excruciating cramps, he left the whole race of fungi severely alone.
For perhaps a month he had the solitudes to himself, except for the big, scornful-looking eagle which always spent a portion of every day sitting on the top of a blasted pine about a hundred feet above the den. But, at length, one crisp morning, when he was down by the lakeside fishing, he found a mate. A young she-bear came out of the bushes, looked at him, then turned as if to run away,—but didn't. The exile stopped fishing, and waited civilly to see if the newcomer wanted to fight. Evidently she had no such desire.
The exile took a few steps up the beach,—which action seemed to terrify the newcomer almost into flight. Seeing this, he sat down on his haunches amiably, and waited to see what she would do. What she did, after much hesitation and delay and half-retreat, was to come up to his side and sniff trustfully but wonderingly at the great iron-studded leather collar on his neck. After that the two soon reached an understanding; and for the next six weeks or so they spent most of their time together.
Under his mate's instruction, or else by force of her example, the big bear made some progress in woodcraft, and gained some inklings of the lesson of silence. He learned, also, to distinguish between the wholesome and the poisonous fungi. He learned the sweets of a bee-tree, and how a bear must go to work to attain them. Moving through the shadows more quietly, he now had glimpses of rabbits and chipmunks, and even caught sight of a wood-mouse whisking into his hole under a root. But before he had acquired the cunning to capture any of these shy kindreds, his mate wandered away, on her own affairs intent; and he found himself once more alone. Frosts by this time were binding swale and pool. Ice was forming far out from the edges of the lake. The first snows had fallen and the great snows were threatening. And the little she-bear was getting ready to creep into a hole and curl up for her winter's sleep. She no longer wanted company,—not even the company of this splendid, black comrade, whose collar had so filled her with admiration.
When, at length, the winter of the north had fairly settled down upon the Squatooks, the exile's ribs were well encased in fat. But that fortunate condition was not to last long. When the giant winds, laden with snow and Arctic cold, thundered and shrieked about the peak of Sugar Loaf, and in the loud darkness strange shapes of drift rode down the blast, he slept snugly enough in the narrow depths of his den. But the essential winter lore of his kind he had not learned. He had not learned to sleep away the time of storm and famine. As for instinct, it failed him altogether in this emergency. During his five years of life with the circus, he had had no chance to gratify his winter drowsiness, and gradually the power to hibernate had passed away from him. The loss was irremediable. By this one deprivation his contact with man had ruined him for the life of nature.
When man has snatched away from Nature one of her wild children, Nature, merciless in her resentments, is apt to say, "Keep him! He is none of mine!" And if the alien, his heart aching for his own, insists upon returning, Nature turns a face of stone against him.
Unskilled in hunting as he was, and unable to sleep, the bear was soon driven to extremes. At rare intervals he succeeded in capturing a rabbit. Once or twice, after a fierce frost had followed a wet sleet storm, he had climbed trees and found dead birds frozen to their perches. But most of the time he had nothing but starvation rations of wood-ants and buds. In the course of a few weeks he was lean as a heron, and his collar hung loose in his fur. He was growing to hate the icy and glittering desolation,—and, as he had once longed for an untried freedom, now he longed for the companionship of men.
He was now wandering far afield in his daily quest for food, sometimes not returning for three or four days at a time. Once, on an excursion over into the Madawaska Valley, he came upon a deadfall temptingly baited with pork. He rushed forward ravenously to snatch the bait,—but just in time that scent called up an ancient memory. The horror and the shock of that far-off day when such a trap had crushed his mother's life out, came back upon him. It was not the scene, exactly, that came back, but rather the memory of an anguish. Obscure as it was, it had power to master his appetite and drive him to another foraging-ground. Thenceforth he foraged no more in the Madawaska Valley.
In such a desolate fashion the exile dragged through the frozen weeks, till February came in with deeper snows and fiercer frosts. At this time hunger and loneliness drove him far over to the valley of the Toledi; and here, one still and biting day, he came upon a human trail.
Delightedly he sniffed at the familiar scent, which to him, as pleasant memories of food and companionship welled up in his heart, represented nothing but kindliness. His little disagreements with his trainer were forgotten. He remembered only his unfailing friends, the manager and the clown. The trail was a broad and mixed one,—the trail of oxen, and of men with larriganed feet. It led toward a camp of lumbermen, near the river. Joyously and confidently the exile followed it. Soon he heard men's voices, and the familiar clank of chains. Then a biting breeze drew through the forest,—biting, but sweet to the bear's nostrils. It carried a savour of richness from the cook's steaming boilers. It was dinner-hour at the camp.
For the second time in his life, the bear felt that he had come home. Captive, indeed, he had been among men,—but a captive always highly valued and heedfully cared for. He never for a moment doubted that these men-creatures, who had always wanted him, would want him now. They would chain him up, of course,—for fear he would change his mind and leave them again. But they would feed him,—all he could eat; and stare at him; and admire him. Then he would dance for them, and do foolish things with a gun, and perhaps stand on his head. Whereupon they would applaud, and laugh, and feed him with peanuts and gingerbread. His famished jaws dripped at the thought.
Within the camp one of the hands, glancing from the window, saw him just as he came in view. In an instant every man was looking out. The boldness of the animal stirred up a great excitement. His terrible leanness was noticed. He was coming straight for the door,—evidently savage, insane with hunger! And such a big fellow, too!
Men seized their axes. The boss snatched down his big-bore Snider rifle, slipped in a cartridge, and coolly threw open the cabin door. He was a tall, ruddy-faced, wide-mouthed man, much like the kindly manager of the show. At sight of him, standing there in the door, the bear was overjoyed, and broke into a shuffling run.
Seeing what seemed to them such reckless ferocity, the lumbermen cried out in amazement, and shouted hoarse warnings to the boss. But the boss was a man of nerve. Raising his rifle to the shoulder, he stepped right out clear of the door. He was a dead shot, and very proud of the fact. When the bear was within thirty paces of him, he fired.
The massive bullet sped true; and the exile fell forward on his snout without a gasp, shot through the brain.
The men gathered about the body, praising the shot, praising the prize, praising the reckless audacity which had led the beast to rush upon his doom. Then in the long, loose fur that clothed his bones they found the heavy collar. At that they all wondered. The boss examined it minutely, and stood pondering; and the frank pride upon his face gradually died into regret.
"I swan, boys," said he, presently, "if that ain't the b'ar that run away from the circus las' fall! I heard tell he was reckoned always kind!"
The Little Wolf of the Pool
The bottom of the pool (it was too small to be called a pond) was muddy, with here and there a thicket of rushes or arrow-weed stems. Down upon the windless surface streamed the noon sun warmly. Under its light the bottom was flecked with shadows of many patterns,—circular, heart-shaped, spear-shaped, netted, and barred. There were other shadows that were no more than ghosts of shadows, cast by faint, diaphanous films of scum which scarcely achieved to blur the clear downpour of radiance, but were nevertheless perceived and appreciated by many of the delicate larval creatures which made a large part of the life of the pool.
For all its surface tranquillity and its shining summer peace, the pool was thronged with life. Beneath the surface, among the weeds and stalks, the gleams and shadows, there was little of tranquillity or peace. Almost all the many-formed and strange-shaped inhabitants of the pool were hunting or being hunted, preying or being preyed upon,—from the goggle-eyed, green-throated bullfrog under the willow root, down to the swarming animalculae which it required a microscope to see. Small crawling things everywhere dotted the mud or tried to hide under the sticks and stones. Curled fresh-water snails moved up and down the stems of the lilies. Shining little black water-bugs scurried swiftly in all directions. In sheltered places near the surface, under the leaves, wriggled the slim gray larvae of the mosquitoes. And hither and thither, in flickering shoals, darted myriads of baby minnows, from half an inch to an inch and a half in length.
In a patch of vivid sunshine, about six inches from a tangle of arrow-weed stems, a black tadpole lay basking. Light to him meant not only growth, but life. Whenever, with the slow wheeling of the sun, the shadow of a lily leaf moved over him, he wriggled impatiently aside, and settled down again on the brightest part of the mud. Most of the time he seemed to be asleep; but in reality he was keeping that incessant sharp lookout which, for the pool-dwellers, was the price of survival.
Swimming slowly up toward the other side of the arrow-weed stems, came a fantastic-looking creature, something more than an inch and a half in length. It had a long, tapering, ringed and armoured body, ending in a spine; a thick, armoured thorax, with six legs attached; and a large head, the back of which was almost covered by two big, dully staring globes of eyes. The whole front of its head—part of the eyes, and all the face—was covered by a smooth, cleft, shieldlike mask, reaching well down under the breast, and giving the creature an expression both mysterious and terrible. On its back, folded close and obviously useless, were rigidly encased attempts at wings.
The little monster swam slowly by the motion of its long and strong legs, thrusting out two short, hornlike antennae over the top of its mask. It seemed to be eyeing a snail-shell on a stem above, and waiting for the snail's soft body to emerge from the citadel; when on a sudden, through the stems, it caught sight of the basking tadpole. Instantly it became motionless, and sank, like a waterlogged twig, to the level of the mud. It crept around, effacing itself against the brown and greenish roots, till it was just opposite the quarry. Then it sprang, propelling itself not only by its legs, but by the violent ejection of a little stream of water from the powerful breathing-valves near its tail.
The tadpole, as we have seen, was not asleep. With a convulsive wriggle of its tail it darted away in a panic. It was itself no mean swimmer, but it could not escape the darting terror that pursued. When the masked form was almost within reach of its victim, the mask dropped down and shot straight out, working on a sort of elbow-shaped lever, and at the same time revealed at its extremity a pair of powerful mandibles. These mandibles snapped firm hold of the victim at the base of its wriggling tail. The elbow-shaped lever drew back, till the squirming prize was held close against its captor's face. Then with swift jets from the turbine arrangement of its abdominal gills, the strange monster darted back to a retreat among the weed stems, where it could devour its prey in seclusion.
Under those inexorable jaws the tadpole soon disappeared and for a few minutes the monster rested, working its mandibles to and fro and rubbing them with its front legs before folding back that inscrutable mask over its savage face. Presently a plump minnow, more than an inch long, with a black stripe along its bronze and silver sides, swam down close by the arrow-weed stems. The big eyes of the monster never moved. But, suddenly, out shot the mask once more, revealing the face of doom behind it; and those hooked mandibles fixed themselves in the belly of the minnow. Inexorable as was the grip, it nevertheless for the moment left unimpeded the swimming powers of the victim; and he was a strong swimmer. With lashing tail and beating fins, he dragged his captor out from among the weed stems. For a few seconds there was a vehement struggle. Then the minnow was borne down upon the mud, out in the broad sheen where, a little before, the tadpole had been basking. Clutching ferociously with its six long legs, the conqueror crawled over the prey and bit its backbone in two.
Swift, strong, insatiably ravenous, immeasurably fierce, the larva of the dragon-fly (for such the little monster was) had fair title to be called the wolf of the pool. Its appearance alone was enough to daunt all rivals. Even the great black carnivorous water-beetle, with all its strength and fighting equipment, was careful to give wide berth to that dreadful, quick-darting mask. Had these little wolves been as numerous as they were rapacious, there would soon have been left no life at all in the pool but theirs and that of the frogs. Between these there would have been a long and doubtful struggle, the frogs hunting the larvae among the weed stems, and the larvae devouring the tadpoles on their basking-grounds.
It chanced that the particular larva whose proceedings we have noted was just on the eve of that change which should transport it to the world of air. After eating the minnow it somehow failed to recover its appetite, and remained, all the rest of the day and through the night, clinging to one of the weed stems. Next morning, when the sun was warm on the pool, it crawled slowly up, up, up, till it came out into a new element, and the untried air fanned it dry. Its great round eyes, formerly dull and opaque, had now grown transparent, and were gleaming like live jewels, an indescribable blend of emerald, sapphire, and amethyst. Presently its armour, now for the first time drying in the sun, split apart down the back, and a slender form, adorned with two pairs of crumpled, wet wings, struggled three-quarters of its length from the shell. For a short time it clung motionless, gathering strength. Then, bracing its legs firmly on the edges of the shell, it lifted its tail quite clear, and crawled up the weed a perfect dragon-fly, forgetful of that grim husk it was leaving behind. A few minutes later, the good sun having dried its wings, it went darting and hurtling over the pool, a gemlike, opalescent shining thing, reflected gloriously in the polished mirror beneath.
The Little Wolf of the Air
The pool lay shimmering and basking in the flood of the June sun. On three sides, east, west, and north, the willows and birches gathered close about it, their light leafage hanging motionless in the clear, still heat. On the south side it lay open toward the thick-grassed meadows, where bees and flies of innumerable species flickered lazily over the pale crimson clover-blooms. From the clover-blooms and the vetch-blooms, the wheel-rayed daisies, and the tall umbels of the wild parsnip, strange perfumes kept distilling in the heat and pulsing in across the pool on breaths of air too soft to ruffle its surface.
Above this unruffled surface the air was full of dancing life. Gnats hung in little, whirling nebulae; mosquitoes, wasplike flies, and whirring, shard-winged beetles, passed and repassed each other in intricate lines of flight; and, here and there, lucently flashing on long, transparent, veined wings, darted the dragon-flies in their gemlike mail. Their movements were so swift, powerful, and light that it was difficult, in spite of their size and radiant colour, to detect the business that kept the dragon-flies so incessantly and tirelessly in action. Sometimes two or three would hurtle out for a brief expedition over the blossoming meadow. Often one would alight for a moment on a leaf or twig in the sun, and lie there gleaming, its two pairs of wings flatly outspread in a way that showed every delicate interlacing of the nerves. Then it would rise again into the air with a bold, vehement spring; and when ever it began its flight, or whenever it abruptly changed the direction of its flight, its wings would make a dry, sharp, rustling sound.
The business that so occupied these winged and flashing gems, these darting iridescences, was in truth the universal business of hunting. But there were few indeed among all the kindred of earth, air, and water whose hunting was so savage and so ravenous as that of these slender and spiritlike beings. With appetites insatiable, ferocity implacable, strength and courage prodigious for their stature, to call them the little wolves of the air is perhaps to wrong the ravening gray pack whose howlings strike terror down the corridors of the winter forest. Mosquitoes and gnats they hunted every moment, devouring them in such countless numbers as to merit the gratitude of every creature that calls the mosquito its foe. But every summer fly, also, was acceptable prey to these indomitable hunters, every velvet-bodied moth, every painted butterfly. And even the envenomed wasp, whose weapon no insect can withstand, was not safe. If the dragon-fly could catch her engrossed in some small slaughter of her own, and, pouncing upon her from above, grip the back of her armed abdomen in his great grinding jaws, her sting could do nothing but dart out vainly like a dark, licking flame; and she would prove as good a meal as the most unresisting bluebottle or horse-fly.
Down to the pool, through the luxurious shadows of the birches, came a man, and stretched himself against a leaning trunk by the waterside. At his approach, all the business of life and death and mating in his immediate neighbourhood came to a halt, and most of the winged kindred, except the mosquitoes, drew away from him. The mosquitoes, to whom he had become, so to speak, in a measure acclimatized, attacked him with less enthusiasm than they would have displayed in the case of a stranger, and failed to cause him serious annoyance. He fixed himself in a position that was thoroughly comfortable, and then lay quite still.
The man's face was under the shadow of the birch-tree, but his body lay out in the full sun, and the front of his soft white summer shirt made a patch of sharp light against the surrounding tones of brown and green. When it had for a time remained quite still, the patch of whiteness attracted attention, and various insects alighted upon it to investigate. Presently the man noticed a very large steel-blue dragon-fly on rustling wings balancing in the air a few feet in front of him. At this moment, from a branch overhead, a hungry shrike dashed down. The dragon-fly saw the peril just in time; and, instead of fleeing desperately across the pool, to be almost inevitably overtaken by the strong-winged bird, it dashed forward and perched for refuge on a fold of the dazzling white shirt. The foiled shrike, with an angry and astonished twitter, flew off to a tree across the pool.
For perhaps a minute the great fly stood with moveless, wide-spread wings, scintillating aerial hues as if its body was compacted of a million microscopic prisms. The transparent tissue of its wings was filled with a finer and more elusive iridescence. The great rounded, globose, overlapping jaws, half as big as the creature's whole head, kept opening and shutting, as if to polish their edges. The other half of its head was quite occupied by two bulging, brilliant spheres of eyes, which seemed to hold in their transparent yet curiously impenetrable depths a shifting light of emerald and violet. These inscrutable and enormous eyes—each one nearly as great in circumference as the creature's body—rolled themselves in a steady stare at the man's face, till he felt the skin of his cheeks creep at their sinister beauty. It seemed to him as if a spirit hostile and evil had threatened him from beneath those shining eyes; and he was amused to experience, for all his interest, a sense of half-relief when the four beautiful wings hurtled crisply and the creature darted away.
It would seem, however, that the fold of white shirt had found favour in those mysteriously gleaming eyes; for a minute or two later the same fly returned to the same spot. The man recognized not only its unusual size and its splendour of colour, but a broken notch on one of its wing films, the mark of the tip of a bird's beak. This time the dragon-fly came not as a fugitive from fate, but as a triumphant dispenser of fate to others. It carried between its jaws the body of a small green grasshopper, which it had already partly eaten.
Fixing the enigmatic radiance of its eyes upon the man's face, the dragon-fly calmly continued its meal, using the second joints of its front pair of legs to help manipulate the rather awkward morsel. Its great round jaws crushed their prey resistlessly, while the inner mouth sucked up the juices so cleanly and instantaneously that the repast left no smallest stain upon the man's spotless shirt. When the feast was over there remained nothing of the victim but a compact, perfectly rounded, glistening green ball, the size of a pea, made up of the well-chewed shell-like parts of the grasshopper's body. It reminded the man of the round "castings" of fur or feathers which an owl ejects after its undiscriminating banquet. Having rolled the little green ball several times between its jaws, to make sure there was no particle of nourishment left therein, the dragon-fly coolly dropped it into a crease in the shirt-bosom, and rustled away.
It chanced that this particular and conspicuous individual of the little wolves of the air was a female. A half-hour later, when the man had almost grown tired of his watching, he again caught sight of the great fly. This time she alighted on a half-submerged log, one end of which lay on shore by the man's feet, while the other end was afloat in deep water, where it could rise and fall with every change in the level of the pool. Quivering and gleaming with all her subtle fires, the dragon-fly stood motionless on the log for a few seconds. Then she backed down close to the water's edge, thrust her long, slender abdomen a good inch into the water, and curled it under her as if she were trying to sting the hidden surface of the log. In reality, as the man at once understood, she was busy laying eggs,—eggs that should presently develop into those masked and terrible larvae of hers, the little wolves of the pool. She laid the eggs in a row under the log, where there was no danger of the water receding from them. She moved along the log daintily, step by step, and her wings fluttered over the task.
The man had taken out his watch as soon as he saw what she was about, in order that he might time the egg-laying process. But he was not destined to discover what he wanted to know. The dragon-fly had been at her business for perhaps two minutes, when the man saw a large frog rise to the surface just below her. He liked all dragon-flies,—and for this one in particular he had developed a personal interest. Suddenly and violently he jumped to his feet, hoping to chase her away from the approaching doom. But he was just too late. As he jumped, the big frog sprang, and a long, darting, cleft tongue clutched the busy fly, dragging her down. The frog disappeared with his prize,—to come to the surface again at the edge of a lily-pad, a few feet off, and blink his goggle-eyes in satisfaction. He had avenged (though about that he cared as little as he knew) the lives of a thousand tadpoles.
The Alien of the Wild
A full day's tramp back from the settlement, on the edge of a water-meadow beside the lonely Quah-Davic, stood the old woodsman's cabin. Beside it he had built a snug log-barn, stored with hay from the wild meadow. The hay he had made that August, being smitten with a desire for some touch of the civilization to which as a whole he could not reconcile himself. Then, with a still enthusiasm, he had built his barn, chinking its crevices scrupulously with moss and mud. He had resolved to have a cow. The dream that gave new zest to all his waking hours was the fashioning of a little farm in this sunny, sheltered space about his cabin. He had grown somewhat weary of living by trap and snare and gun, hunting down the wild creatures whom he had come to regard, through lapse of the long, solitary years by the Quah-Davic, as in some sense comrade and kin to him.
It was late autumn, and the asters fading out like smoke along the river edges, when the barn was finished and the hay safe stored therein. Then the old woodsman journeyed out to the settlement to buy his cow. He found one exactly to his whimsical liking,—a small, dark red, long-horned scrub, with a look in her big, liquid eyes that made him feel she would know how to take care of herself in the perilous wilds. He equipped her with the most sonorous and far-sounding bell he could find in all the settlement. Then proudly he led her away to her new domain in the wilderness.
When the long-horned little cow had been salted and foddered in the new barn, and when her liquid eyes had taken in the surroundings of the sunny little meadow and cabin by the lonely Quah-Davic, she was well enough content, and the mellow tunk-a-tonk, tank tonk of her bell was sounded never out of ear-shot from the cabin. The meadow and the nearest fringes of the woods were range enough for her. Of the perils that might lurk in the further depths she had a wary apprehension. And the old woodsman, busy grubbing out a narrow cellar under his cabin, was happy in his purchase. The tunk-a-tonk of the mellow bell was sweetest music in his ears as he worked.
Now it chanced that that autumn was one of unusual drought. In the channel of the Quah-Davic rocks appeared which the old woodsman had never seen before. The leaves fell early, before half their wonted gamut of colour was run through. They wore a livery of pallid tones—rusty-reds, cloudy light violets, grayish thin golds, ethereal russets—under a dry, pale sky. The only solid, substantial colouring was that of the enduring hemlocks and the sombre, serried firs. Then there came a mistiness in the air, making the noonday sun red and unradiant And the woodsman knew that there were forest fires somewhere up the wind.
A little anxious, he studied the signs minutely, and concluded that, the wind being light, the fires were too far distant to endanger the Quah-Davic region. Thereupon he decided to make a hurried trip to the settlement for a sack of middlings and other supplies, planning to return by night, making the round trip within the twenty-four hours in order that the little red cow should not miss more than one milking.
On the afternoon of the woodsman's going, however, the wind freshened into a gale, and the fires which had been eating leisurely way through the forest were blown into sudden fury. That same evening a hurricane of flame swept down upon the lonely cabin and the little wild meadow, cutting a mile-wide swath through the woods, jumping the Quah-Davic, and roaring on to the north. It was days before the woodsman could get back along the smoking, smouldering trail, through black, fallen trunks and dead roots which still held the persistent fire in their hearts. Of cabin and barn, of course, there was nothing left at all, save the half-dug cellar and the half-crumbled chimney. Sick at heart and very lonely, he returned to the settlement, and took up his new abode on a half-reclaimed farm on the outskirts, just where the tilth and the wilderness held each other at bay.
The red cow, meanwhile, being shrewd and alert, had escaped the conflagration. She had taken alarm early, having seen a fire in the woods once before and conceived an appreciation of its powers. Instead of flying straight before it, and being inevitably overtaken, she ran at once to the river and galloped madly down the shallow margin. Before the flames were actually upon her, she was beyond the zone of their fury. But she felt the withering blast of them, and their appalling roar was in her ears. With starting eyes and wide, palpitating nostrils, she ran on and on, and stopped only when she sank exhausted in a rude cove. There she lay with panting sides and watched far behind her the wide red arc of terror drawn across the sky.