When the uneasy animal's back was towards him, Crimmins called again, a short, soft call. The cow jumped around as if she had been struck, and the stiff hair along her neck stood up with jealous rage. But there was no rival anywhere in sight, and she stood completely mystified, shaking her ungainly head, peering into the dark undergrowth, and snorting tempestuously as if challenging the invisible rival to appear. Then suddenly her angry ridge of hair sank down, she seemed to shrink together upon herself, and with a convulsive bound she sprang away from the dark undergrowth, landing with a splash in the shallow water along shore. At the same instant the black branches were burst apart, and a huge bear, forepaws upraised and jaws wide open, launched himself forth into the open.
Disappointed at missing his first spring, the bear rushed furiously upon his intended victim, but the cow, for all her apparent awkwardness, was as agile as a deer. Barely eluding his rush, she went shambling up the shore at a terrific pace, plunged into the woods, and vanished. The bear checked himself at the water's edge, and turned, holding his nose high in the air, as if disdaining to acknowledge that he had been foiled.
Crimmins hesitatingly raised his rifle. Should he bag this bear, or should he wait and sound his call again a little later, in the hope of yet summoning the great bull? As he hesitated, and the burly black shape in the moonlight also stood hesitating, the thickets rustled and parted almost beneath him, and the mysterious bull strode forth with his head held high.
He had come in answer to what he thought was the summons of his mate; but when he saw the bear, his rage broke all bounds. He doubtless concluded that the bear had driven his mate away. With a bawling roar he thundered down upon the intruder.
The bear, as we have seen, was in no mood to give way. His small eyes glowed suddenly red with vengeful fury, as he wheeled and gathered himself, half crouching upon his haunches, to meet the tremendous attack. In this attitude all his vast strength was perfectly poised, ready for use in any direction. The moose, had he been attacking a rival of his own kind, would have charged with antlers down, but against all other enemies the weapons he relied upon were his gigantic hoofs, edged like chisels. As he reached his sullenly waiting antagonist he reared on his hind-legs, towering like a black rock about to fall and crush whatever was in its path. Like pile-drivers his fore-hoofs struck downwards, one closely following the other.
The bear swung aside as lightly as a weasel, and eluded, but only by a hair's breadth, that destructive stroke. As he wheeled he delivered a terrific, swinging blow, with his armed forepaw, upon his assailant's shoulder.
The blow was a fair one. Any ordinary moose bull would have gone down beneath it, with his shoulder-joint shattered to splinters. But this great bull merely staggered, and stood for a second in amazement. Then he whipped about and darted upon the bear with a sort of hoarse scream, his eyes flashing with a veritable madness. He neither reared to strike, nor lowered his antlers to gore, but seemed intent upon tearing the foe with his teeth, as a mad horse might. At the sight of such resistless fury Crimmins involuntarily tightened his grip on his branch and muttered: "That ain't no moose! It's a—" But before he could finish his comparison, astonishment stopped him. The bear, unable with all his strength and weight to withstand the shock of that straight and incredibly swift charge, had been rolled over and over down the gentle slope of the beach. At the same moment the moose, blinded by his rage and unable to check himself, had tripped over a log that lay hidden in the bushes, and fallen headlong on his nose.
Utterly cowed by the overwhelming completeness of this overthrow, the bear was on his feet again before his conqueror, and scurrying to refuge like a frightened rat. He made for the nearest tree, and that nearest tree, to Crimmins's dismay, was Crimmins's. The startled guide swung himself hastily to a higher branch which stretched well out over the water.
Before the great bull could recover his footing, the fugitive had gained a good start. But desperately swift though he was, the doom that thundered behind him was swifter, and caught him just as he was scrambling into the tree. Those implacable antlers ploughed his hind-quarters remorselessly, till he squealed with pain and terror. His convulsive scrambling raised him, the next instant, beyond reach of that punishment; but immediately the great bull reared, and struck him again and again with his terrible hoofs, almost crushing the victim's maimed haunches. The bear bawled again, but maintained his clutch of desperation, and finally drew himself up to a safe height, where he crouched on a branch, whimpering pitifully, while the victor raged below.
At this moment the bear caught sight of Crimmins eying him steadily. To the cowed beast this was a new peril menacing him. With a frightened glance he crawled out on another branch, as far as it could be trusted to support his weight. And there he clung, huddled and shivering like a beaten puppy, looking from the man to the moose, from the moose to the man, as if he feared they might both jump at him together.
But the sympathies of Crimmins were now entirely with the unfortunate bear, his fellow-prisoner, and he looked down at the arrogant tyrant below with a sincere desire to humble his pride with a rifle-bullet. But he was too far-seeing a guide for that. He contented himself with climbing a little lower till he attracted the giant's attention to himself, and then dropping half a handful of tobacco, dry and powdery, into those snorting red nostrils.
It was done with nice precision, just as the giant drew in his breath. He got the fullest benefit of the pungent dose; and such trivial matters as bears and men were instantly forgotten in the paroxysms which seized him. His roaring sneezes seemed as if they would rend his mighty bulk asunder. He fairly stood upon his head, burrowing his muzzle into the moist leafage, as he strove to purge the exasperating torment from his nostrils. Crimmins laughed till he nearly fell out of the tree, while the bear forgot to whimper as he stared in terrified bewilderment. At last the moose stuck his muzzle up in the air and began backing blindly over stones and bushes, as if trying to get away from his own nose. Plump into four or five feet of icy water he backed. The shock seemed to give him an idea. He plunged his head under, and fell to wallowing and snorting and raising such a prodigious disturbance that all the lake shores rang with it. Then he bounced out upon the beach again, and dashed off through the woods as if a million hornets were at his ears.
Weak with laughter, Crimmins climbed down out of his refuge, waved an amiable farewell to the stupefied bear, and resumed the trail for the Nipisiguit.
For the next two years the fame of the great moose kept growing, adding to itself various wonders and extravagances till it assumed almost the dimensions of a myth. Sportsmen came from all over the world in the hope of bagging those unparalleled antlers. They shot moose, caribou, deer, and bear, and went away disappointed only in one regard. But at last they began to swear that the giant was a mere fiction of the New Brunswick guides, designed to lure the hunters. The guides, therefore, began to think it was time to make good and show their proofs. Even Uncle Adam was coming around to this view, when suddenly word came from the Crown Land Department at Fredericton that the renowned moose must not be allowed to fall to any rifle. A special permit had been issued for his capture and shipment out of the country, that he might be the ornament of a famous Zoological Park and a lively proclamation of what the New Brunswick forests could produce.
The idea of taking the King of Saugamauk alive seemed amusing to the guides, and to Crimmins particularly. But Uncle Adam, whose colossal frame and giant strength seemed to put him peculiarly in sympathy with the great moose bull, declared that it could and should be done, for he would do it. Upon this, scepticism vanished, even from the smile of Charley Crimmins, who voiced the general sentiment when he said,—
"Uncle Adam ain't the man to bite off any more than he can chew!"
But Uncle Adam was in no hurry. He had such a respect for his adversary that he would not risk losing a single point in the approaching contest. He waited till the mating season and the hunting season were long past, and the great bull's pride and temper somewhat cooled. He waited, moreover, for the day to come—along towards midwinter—when those titanic antlers should loosen at their roots, and fall off at the touch of the first light branch that might brush against them. This, the wise old woodsman knew, would be the hour of the King's least arrogance. Then, too, the northern snows would be lying deep and soft and encumbering, over all the upland slopes whereon the moose loved to browse.
Along toward mid-February word came to Uncle Adam that the Monarch had "yarded up," as the phrase goes, on the southerly slope of Old Saugamauk, with three cows and their calves of the previous spring under his protection. This meant that, when the snow had grown too deep to permit the little herd to roam at will, he had chosen a sheltered area where the birch, poplar, and cherry, his favorite forage, were abundant, and there had trodden out a maze of deep paths which led to all the choicest browsing, and centred about a cluster of ancient firs so thick as to afford covert from the fiercest storms. The news was what the wise old woodsman had been waiting for. With three of his men, a pair of horses, a logging-sled, axes, and an unlimited supply of rope, he went to capture the King.
It was a clear, still morning, so cold that the great trees snapped sharply under the grip of the bitter frost. The men went on snowshoes, leaving the teams hitched in a thicket on the edge of a logging road some three or four hundred yards from the "moose-yard." The sun glittered keenly on the long white alleys which led this way and that at random through the forest. The snow, undisturbed and accumulating for months, was heaped in strange shapes over hidden bushes, stumps, and rocks. The tread of the snowshoes made a furtive crunching sound as it rhythmically broke the crisp surface.
Far off through the stillness the great moose, lying with the rest of the herd in their shadowy covert, caught the ominous sound. He lurched to his feet and stood listening, while the herd watched him anxiously, awaiting his verdict as to whether that strange sound meant peril or no.
For reasons which we have seen, the giant bull knew little of man, and that little not of a nature to command any great respect. Nevertheless, at this season of the year, his blood cool, his august front shorn of its ornament and defence, he was seized with an incomprehensible apprehension. After all, as he felt vaguely, there was an unknown menace about man; and his ear told him that there were several approaching. A few months earlier he would have stamped his huge hoofs, thrashed the bushes with his colossal antlers, and stormed forth to chastise the intruders. But now, he sniffed the sharp air, snorted uneasily, drooped his big ears, and led a rapid but dignified retreat down one of the deep alleys of his maze.
This was exactly what Uncle Adam had looked for. His object was to force the herd out of the maze of alleys, wherein they could move swiftly, and drive them floundering through the deep, soft snow, which would wear them out before they could go half a mile. Spreading his men so widely that they commanded all trails by which the fugitives might return, he followed up the flight at a run. And he accompanied the pursuit with a riot of shouts and yells and laughter, designed to shake his quarry's heart with the fear of the unusual. Wise in all woodcraft, Uncle Adam knew that one of the most daunting of all sounds, to the creatures of the wild, was that of human laughter, so inexplicable and seemingly so idle.
At other times the great bull would merely have been enraged at this blatant clamor and taken it as a challenge. But now he retreated to the farthest corner of his maze. From this point there were but two paths of return, and along both the uproar was closing in upon him. Over the edge of the snow—which was almost breast-high to him, and deep enough to bury the calves, hopelessly deep, indeed, for any of the herd but himself to venture through—he gave a wistful look towards the depths of the cedar swamps in the valley, where he believed he could baffle all pursuers. Then his courage—but without his autumnal fighting rage—came back to him. His herd was his care. He crowded the cows and calves between himself and the snow, and turned to face his pursuers as they came running and shouting through the trees.
When Uncle Adam saw that the King was going to live up to his kingly reputation and fight rather than be driven off into the deep snow, he led the advance more cautiously till his forces were within twenty-five or thirty paces of the huddling herd. Here he paused, for the guardian of the herd was beginning to stamp ominously with his great, clacking hoofs, and the reddening light in his eyes showed that he might charge at any instant.
He did not charge, however, because his attention was diverted by the strange action of the men, who had stopped their shouting and begun to chop trees. It amazed him to see the flashing axes bite savagely into the great trunks and send the white chips flying. The whole herd watched with wide eyes, curious and apprehensive; till suddenly a tree toppled, swept the hard blue sky, and came down with a crashing roar across one of the runways. The cows and calves bounded wildly, clear out into the snow. But the King, though his eyes dilated with amazement, stood his ground and grunted angrily.
A moment more and another tree, huge-limbed and dense, came down across the other runway. Two more followed, and the herd was cut off from its retreat. The giant bull, of course, with his vast stride and colossal strength, could have smashed his way through and over the barrier; but the others, to regain the safe mazes of the "yard," would have had to make a detour through the engulfing snow.
Though the King was now fairly cornered, Uncle Adam was puzzled to know what to do next. In his hesitation, he felled some more trees, dropping the last one so close that the herd was obliged to crowd back to avoid being struck by the falling top. This, at last, was too much for the King, who had never before known what it was to be crowded. While his followers plunged away in terror, burying themselves helplessly before they had gone a dozen yards, he bawled with fury and charged upon his tormentors.
Though the snow, as we have seen, came up to his chest, the giant's strength and swiftness were such that the woodsmen were taken by surprise, and Uncle Adam, who was in front, was almost caught. In spite of his bulk, he turned and sprang away with the agility of a wildcat; but if his snowshoes had turned and hindered him for one half second, he would have been struck down and trodden to a jelly in the smother of snow. Seeing the imminence of his peril, the other woodsmen threw up their rifles; but Uncle Adam, though extremely busy for the moment, saw them out of the corner of his eye as he ran, and angrily ordered them not to shoot. He knew what he was about, and felt quite sure of himself, though the enemy was snorting at his very heels.
For perhaps thirty or forty yards the bull was able to keep up this almost incredible pace. Then the inexorable pull of the snow began to tell, even upon such thews as his, and his pace slackened. But his rage showed no sign of cooling. So, being very accommodating, Uncle Adam slackened his own pace correspondingly, that his pursuer might not be discouraged. And the chase went on. But it went slower, and slower, and slower, till at last it stopped with Uncle Adam still just about six feet in the lead, and the great moose still blind-mad, but too exhausted to go one foot farther. Then Uncle Adam chuckled softly and called for the ropes. There was kicking, of course, and furious lunging and wild snorting, but the woodsmen were skilful and patient, and the King of Old Saugamauk was conquered. In a little while he lay upon his side, trussed up as securely and helplessly as a papoose in its birch-bark carrying-cradle. There was nothing left of his kingship but to snort regal defiance, to which his captors offered not the slightest retort. In his bonds he was carried off to the settlements, on the big logging-sled, drawn by the patient horses whom he scorned.
After this ignominy, for days the King was submissive, with the sullen numbness of despair. Life for him became a succession of stunning shocks and roaring change. He would be put into strange box-prisons, which would straightway begin to rush terribly through the world with a voice of thunder. Through the cracks in the box he would watch trees and fields and hills race by in madness of flight. He would be taken out of the box, and murmuring crowds would gape at him till the black mane along his neck would begin to rise in something of his old anger. Then some one would drive the crowd away, and he would slip back into his stupor. He did not know which he hated most,—the roaring boxes, the fleeing landscapes, or the staring crowds. At last he came to a loud region where there were no trees, but only what seemed to him vast, towering, naked rocks, red, gray, yellow, brown, full of holes from which issued men in swarms. These terrible rocks ran in endless rows, and through them he came at last to a wide field, thinly scattered with trees. There was no seclusion in it, no deep, dark, shadowy hemlock covert to lie down in; but it was green, and it was spacious, and it was more or less quiet. So when he was turned loose in it, he was almost glad. He lifted his head, with a spark of the old arrogance returning to his eyes. And through dilating nostrils he drank the free air till his vast lungs thrilled with almost forgotten life.
The men who had brought him to the park—this bleak barren he would have called it, had he had the faculty of thinking in terms of human speech, this range more fitted for the frugal caribou than for a ranger of the deep forests like himself—these men stood watching him curiously after they had loosed him from his bonds. For a few minutes he forgot all about them. Then his eyes fell on them, and a heat crept slowly into his veins as he looked. Slowly he began to resume his kingship. His eyes changed curiously, and a light, fiery and fearless, flamed in their depths. His mane began to bristle.
"It's time for us to get out of this. That fellow's beginning to remember he has some old scores to settle up!" remarked the Director coolly to the head-keeper and his assistants; and they all stepped backwards, with a casual air, towards the big gate, which stood ajar to receive them. Just as they reached it, the old fire and fury surged back into the exile's veins, but heated seven fold by the ignominies which he had undergone. With a hoarse and bawling roar, such as had never before been heard in those guarded precincts, he launched himself upon his gaolers. But they nimbly slipped through the gate and dropped the massive bars into their sockets.
They were just in time. The next instant the King had hurled himself with all his weight upon the barrier. The sturdy ironwork and the panels on either side of the posts clanged, groaned, and even yielded a fraction of an inch beneath the shock. But in the rebound they thrust their assailant backward with startling violence. Bewildered, he glared at the obstacle, which looked so slender, yet was so strong to balk him of his vengeance. Then, jarred and aching, he withdrew haughtily to explore his new domain. The Director, gazing after him, nodded with supreme satisfaction.
"Those fellows up in New Brunswick told no lies!" said he.
"He certainly is a peach!" assented the head-keeper heartily. "When he grows his new antlers, I reckon we will have to enlarge the park."
The great exile found his new range interesting to explore, and began to forget his indignation. Privacy it had not, for the trees at this season were all leafless, and there were no dense fir or spruce thickets into which he could withdraw, to look forth unseen upon this alien landscape. But there were certain rough boulders behind which he could lurk. And there were films of ice, and wraiths of thin snow in the hollows, the chill touch of which helped him to feel more or less at home. In the distance he caught sight of a range of those high, square rocks wherein the men dwelt; and hating them deeply, he turned and pressed on in the opposite direction over a gentle rise and across a little valley; till suddenly, among the trees, he came upon a curious barrier of meshed stuff, something like a gigantic cobweb. Through the meshes he could distinctly see the country beyond, and it seemed to be just the country he desired, more wooded and inviting than what he had traversed. Confidently he pushed upon the woven obstacle; but to his amazement it did not give way before him. He eyed it resentfully. How absurd that so frail a thing should venture to forbid him passage! He thrust upon it again, more brusquely, to be just as brusquely denied. The hot blood blazed to his head, and he dashed himself upon it with all his strength. The impenetrable but elastic netting yielded for a space, then sprang back with an impetuosity that flung him clear off his feet. He fell with a loud grunt, lay for a moment dismayed, then got up and eyed his incomprehensible adversary with a blank stare. He was learning so many strange lessons that it was difficult to assimilate them all at once.
The following morning, when he was feasting on a pile of the willow and poplar forage which he loved, and which had appeared as if by magic close beside the mysterious barrier, he saw some men, perhaps a hundred yards away, throw open a section of the barrier. Forgetting to be angry at their intrusion on his range, he watched them curiously. A moment more, and a little herd of his own kind, apparently quite indifferent to the men, followed them into the range. He was not surprised at their appearance, for his nose had already told him there were moose about. But he was surprised to see them on friendly terms with man.
There were several cows in the herd, with a couple of awkward yearlings; and the King, much gratified, ambled forward with huge strides to meet them and take them under his gracious protection. But a moment later two fine young bulls came into his view, following the rest of the herd at a more dignified pace. The King stopped, lowered his mighty front, laid back his ears like an angry stallion, and grunted a hoarse warning. The stiff black hair along his neck slowly arose and stood straight up.
The two young bulls stared in stupid astonishment at this tremendous apparition. It was not the fighting season, so they had no jealousy, and felt nothing but a cold indifference toward the stranger. But as he came striding down the field his attitude was so menacing, his stature so formidable, that they could not but realize there was trouble brewing. It was contrary to all traditions that they should take the trouble to fight in midwinter, when they had no antlers and their blood was sluggish. Nevertheless, they could not brook to be so affronted, as it were, in their own citadel.
Their eyes began to gleam angrily, and they advanced, shaking their heads, to meet the insolent stranger. The keepers, surprised, drew together close by the gate; while one of them left hurriedly and ran towards a building which stood a little way off among the trees.
As the King swept down upon the herd, bigger and blacker than any bull they had ever seen before, the cows shrank away and stood staring placidly. They were well fed, and for the time indifferent to all else in their sheltered world. Still, a fight is a fight, and if there was going to be one, they were ready enough to look on.
Alas for the right of possession when it runs counter to the right of might! The two young bulls were at home and in the right, and their courage was sound. But when that black whirlwind from the fastnesses of Old Saugamauk fell upon them, it seemed that they had no more rights at all.
Side by side they confronted the onrushing doom. At the moment of impact, they reared and struck savagely with their sharp hoofs. But the gigantic stranger troubled himself with no such details. He merely fell upon them, like a blind but raging force, irresistible as a falling hillside and almost as disastrous. They both went down before him like calves, and rolled over and over, stunned and sprawling.
The completeness of this victory, establishing his supremacy beyond cavil, should have satisfied the King, especially as this was not the mating season and there could be no question of rivalry. But his heart was bursting with injury, and his thirst for vengeance was raging to be glutted. As the vanquished bulls struggled to recover their feet, he bounded upon the nearest and trod him down again mercilessly. The other, meanwhile, fled for his life, stricken with shameless terror; and the exile, leaving his victim, went thundering in pursuit, determined that both should be annihilated. It was a terrifying sight, the black giant, mane erect, neck out-thrust, mouth open, eyes glaring with implacable fury, sweeping down upon the fugitive with his terrific strides.
But just then, when another stride would have sufficed, a strange thing happened! A flying noose settled over the pursuer's head, tightened, jerked his neck aside, and threw him with a violence that knocked the wind clean out of his raging body. While his vast lungs sobbed and gasped to recover the vital air, other nooses whipped about his legs; and before he could recover himself even enough to struggle, he was once more trussed up as he had been by Uncle Adam amid the snows of Saugamauk.
In this ignominious position, his heart bursting with shame and impotence, he was left lying while his two battered victims were lassoed and led away. Since it was plain that the King would not suffer them to live in his kingdom, even as humble subjects, they were to be removed to some more modest domain; for the King, whether he deserved it or not, was to have the best reserved for him.
It was little kingly he felt, the fettered giant, as he lay there panting on his side. The cows came up and gazed at him with a kind of placid scorn, till his furious snortings and the undaunted rage that flamed in his eyes made them draw back apprehensively. Then, the men who had overthrown him returned. They dragged him unceremoniously up to the gate, slipped his bonds, and discreetly put themselves on the other side of the barrier before he could get to his feet. With a grunt he wheeled and faced them with such hate in his eyes that they thought he would once more hurl himself upon the bars. But he had learned his lesson. For a few moments he stood quivering. Then, as if recognizing at last a mastery too absolute even for him to challenge, he shook himself violently, turned away, and stalked off to join the herd.
That evening, about sundown, it turned colder. Clouds gathered heavily, and there was the sense of coming snow in the air. A great wind, rising fitfully, drew down out of the north. Seeing no covert to his liking, the King led his little herd to the top of a naked knoll, where he could look about and choose a shelter. But that great wind out of the north, thrilling in his nostrils, got into his heart and made him forget what he had come for. Out across the alien gloom he stared, across the huddled, unknown masses of the dark, till he thought he saw the bald summit of Old Saugamauk rising out of its forests, till he thought he heard the wind roar in the spruce tops, the dead branches clash and crack. The cows, for a time, huddled close to his massive flanks, expecting some new thing from his vast strength. Then, as the storm gathered, they remembered the shelter which man had provided for them, and the abundant forage it contained. One after the other they turned and filed away slowly down the slopes, through the dim trees, towards the corner where they knew a gate would stand open for them, and then a door into a warm-smelling shed. The King, lost in his dream, did not notice their going. But suddenly, feeling himself alone, he started and looked about. The last of the yearlings, at its mother's heels, was just vanishing through the windy gloom. He hesitated, started to follow, then stopped abruptly. Let them go! They would return to him probably. Turning back to his station on the knoll, he stood with his head held high, his nostrils drinking the cold, while the winter night closed in upon him, and the wind out of his own north rushed and roared solemnly in his face.
THE GRAY MASTER
THE GRAY MASTER
Why he was so much bigger, more powerful, and more implacably savage than the other members of the gray, spectral pack, which had appeared suddenly from the north to terrorize their lone and scattered clearings, the settlers of the lower Quah-Davic Valley could not guess. Those who were of French descent among them, and full of the old Acadian superstitions, explained it simply enough by saying he was a loup-garou, or "wer-wolf," and resigned themselves to the impossibility of contending against a creature of such supernatural malignity and power. But their fellows of English speech, having no such tradition to fall back upon, were mystified and indignant. The ordinary gray, or "cloudy," wolf of the East they knew, though he was so rare south of Labrador that few of them had ever seen one. They dismissed them all, indifferently, as "varmin." But this unaccountable gray ravager was bigger than any two such wolves, fiercer and more dauntless than any ten. Though the pack he led numbered no more than half a dozen, he made it respected and dreaded through all the wild leagues of the Quah-Davic. To make things worse, this long-flanked, long-jawed marauder was no less cunning than fierce. When the settlers, seeking vengeance for sheep, pigs, and cattle slaughtered by his pack, went forth to hunt him with dogs and guns, it seemed that there was never a wolf in the country. Nevertheless, either that same night or the next, it was long odds that one or more of those same dogs who had been officious in the hunt would disappear. As for traps and poisoned meat, they proved equally futile. They were always visited, to be sure, by the pack, at some unexpected and indeterminable moment, but treated always with a contumelious scorn which was doubtless all that such clumsy tactics merited. Meanwhile the ravages went on, and the children were kept close housed at night, and cool-eyed old woodsmen went armed and vigilant along the lonely roads. The French habitant crossed himself, and the Saxon cursed his luck; and no one solved the mystery.
Yet, after all, as Arthur Kane, the young schoolmaster at Burnt Brook Cross-Roads, began dimly to surmise, the solution was quite simple. A lucky gold-miner, returning from the Klondike, had brought with him not only gold and an appetite, but also a lank, implacable, tameless whelp from the packs that haunt the sweeps of northern timber. The whelp had gnawed his way to freedom. He had found, fought, thrashed, and finally adopted, a little pack of his small, Eastern kin. He had thriven, and grown to the strength and stature that were his rightful heritage. And "the Gray Master of the Quah-Davic," as Kane had dubbed him, was no loup-garou, no outcast human soul incarcerate in wolf form, but simply a great Alaskan timber-wolf.
But this, when all is said, is quite enough. A wolf that can break the back of a full-grown collie at one snap of his jaws, and gallop off with the carcass as if it were a chipmunk, is about as undesirable a neighbor, in the night woods, as any loup-garou ever devised by the habitant's excitable imagination.
All up and down the Quah-Davic Valley the dark spruce woods were full of game,—moose, deer, hares, and wild birds innumerable,—with roving caribou herds on the wide barren beyond the hill-ridge. Nevertheless, the great gray wolf would not spare the possessions of the settlers. His pack haunted the fringes of the settlements with a needless tenacity which seemed to hold a challenge in it, a direct and insolent defiance. And the feeling of resentment throughout the Valley was on the point of crystallizing into a concerted campaign of vengeance which would have left even so cunning a strategist as the Gray Master no choice but to flee or fall, when something took place which quite changed the course of public sentiment. Folk so disagreed about it that all concerted action became impossible, and each one was left to deal with the elusive adversary in his own way.
This was what happened.
In a cabin about three miles from the nearest neighbor lived the Widow Baisley, alone with her son Paddy, a lad under ten years old, and little for his age. One midwinter night she was taken desperately ill, and Paddy, reckless of the terrors of the midnight solitudes, ran wildly to get help. The moon was high and full, and the lifeless backwoods road was a narrow, bright, white thread between the silent black masses of the spruce forest. Now and then, as he remembered afterwards, his ear caught a sound of light feet following him in the dark beyond the roadside. But his plucky little heart was too full of panic grief about his mother to have any room for fear as to himself. Only the excited amazement of his neighbors, over the fact that he had made the journey in safety, opened his eyes to the hideous peril he had come through. Willing helpers hurried back with him to his mother's bedside. And on the way one of them, a keen huntsman who had more than once pitted his woodcraft in vain against that of the Gray Master, had the curiosity to step off the road and examine the snow under the thick spruces. Perhaps imagination misled him, when he thought he caught a glimpse of savage eyes, points of green flame, fading off into the black depths. But there could be no doubt as to the fresh tracks he found in the snow. There they were,—the footprints of the pack, like those of so many big dogs,—and among them the huge trail of the great, far-striding leader. All the way, almost from his threshold, these sinister steps had paralleled those of the hurrying child. Close to the edge of the darkness they ran,—close, within the distance of one swift leap,—yet never any closer!
Why had the great gray wolf, who faced and pulled down the bull moose, and from whose voice the biggest dogs in the settlements ran like whipped curs—why had he and his stealthy pack spared this easy prey? It was inexplicable, though many had theories good enough to be laughed to scorn by those who had none. The habitants, of course, had all their superstitions confirmed, and with a certain respect and refinement of horror added: Here was a loup-garou so crafty as to spare, on occasion! He must be conciliated, at all costs. They would hunt him no more, his motives being so inexplicable. Let him take a few sheep, or a steer, now and then, and remember that they, at least, were not troubling him. As for the English-speaking settlers, their enmity cooled down to the point where they could no longer get together any concentrated bitterness. It was only a big rascal of a wolf, anyway, scared to touch a white man's child, and certainly nothing for a lot of grown men to organize about. Some of the women jumped to the conclusion that a certain delicacy of sentiment had governed the wolves in their strange forbearance, while others honestly believed that the pack had been specially sent by Providence to guard the child through the forest on his sacred errand. But all, whatever their views, agreed in flouting the young schoolteacher's uninteresting suggestion that perhaps the wolves had not happened, at the moment, to be hungry.
As it chanced, however, even this very rational explanation of Kane's was far from the truth. The truth was that the great wolf had profited by his period of captivity in the hands of a masterful man. Into his fine sagacity had penetrated the conception—hazy, perhaps, but none the less effective—that man's vengeance would be irresistible and inescapable if once fairly aroused. This conception he had enforced upon the pack. It was enough. For, of course, even to the most elementary intelligence among the hunting, fighting kindreds of the wild, it was patent that the surest way to arouse man's vengeance would be to attack man's young. The intelligence lying behind the wide-arched skull of the Gray Master was equal to more intricate and less obvious conclusions than that.
Among all the scattered inhabitants of the Quah-Davic Valley there was no one who devoted quite so much attention to the wonderful gray wolf as did the young school-teacher. His life at the Burnt Brook Cross-Roads, his labors at the little Burnt Brook School, were neither so exacting nor so exciting but that he had time on his hands. His preferred expedients for spending that time were hunting, and studying the life of the wild kindreds. He was a good shot with both rifle and camera, and would serve himself with one weapon or the other as the mood seized him. When life, or his dinner, went ill with him, or he found himself fretting hopelessly for the metropolitan excitement of the little college city where he had been educated, he would choose his rifle. And so wide-reaching, so mysterious, are the ties which enmesh all created beings, that it would seem to even matters up and relieve his feelings wonderfully just to kill something, if only a rabbit or a weasel.
But at other times he preferred the camera.
Naturally Kane was interested in the mysterious gray wolf more than in all the other prowlers of the Quah-Davic put together. He was quite unreasonably glad when the plans for a concerted campaign against the marauder so suddenly fell through. That so individual a beast should have its career cut short by an angry settler's bullet, to avenge a few ordinary pigs or sheep, was a thing he could hardly contemplate with patience. To scatter the pack would be to rob the Quah-Davic solitudes of half their romance. He determined to devote himself to a study of the great wolf's personality and characteristics, and to foil, as far as this could be done without making himself unpopular, such plots as might be laid for the beast's undoing.
Recognizing, however, that this friendly interest might not be reciprocated, Kane chose his rifle rather than his camera as a weapon, on those stinging, blue-white nights when he went forth to seek knowledge of the gray wolf's ways. His rifle was a well-tried repeating Winchester, and he carried a light, short-handled axe in his belt besides the regulation knife; so he had no serious misgivings as he trod the crackling, moonlit snow beneath the moose-hide webbing of his snowshoes. But not being utterly foolhardy, he kept to the open stretches of meadow, or river-bed, or snow-buried lake, rather than in the close shadows of the forest.
But now, when he was so expectant, the wolf-pack seemed to find business elsewhere. For nights not a howl had been heard, not a fresh track found, within miles of Burnt Brook Cross-Roads. Then, remembering that a watched pot takes long to boil, Kane took fishing-lines and bait, and went up the wide, white brook-bed to the deep lake in the hills, whence it launches its shallow flood towards the Quah-Davic. He took with him also for companionship, since this time he was not wolf-hunting, a neighbor's dog that was forever after him—a useless, yellow lump of mongrel dog-flesh, but friendly and silent. After building a hasty shelter of spruce boughs some distance out from shore in the flooding light, he chopped holes through the ice and fell to fishing for the big lake trout that inhabited those deep waters. He had luck. And soon, absorbed in the new excitement, he had forgotten all about the great gray wolf.
It was late, for Kane had slept the early part of the night, waiting for moonrise before starting on his expedition. The air was tingling with windless cold, and ghostly white with the light of a crooked, waning moon. Suddenly, without a sound, the dog crept close against Kane's legs. Kane felt him tremble. Looking up sharply, his eyes fell on a tall, gray form, sitting erect on the tip of a naked point, not a hundred yards away, and staring, not at him, but at the moon.
In spite of himself, Kane felt a pricking in his cheeks, a creeping of the skin under his hair. The apparition was so sudden, and, above all, the cool ignoring of his presence was so disconcerting. Moreover, through that half-sinister light, his long muzzle upstretched towards the moon, and raised as he was a little above the level on which Kane was standing, the wolf looked unnaturally and impossibly tall. Kane had never heard of a wolf acting in this cool, self-possessed, arrogantly confident fashion, and his mind reverted obstinately to the outworn superstitions of his habitants friends. But, after all, it was this wolf, not an ordinary brush-fence wolf, that he was so anxious to study; and the unexpected was just what he had most reason to expect! He was getting what he came for.
Kane knew that the way to study the wild creatures was to keep still and make no noise. So be stiffened into instant immobility, and regretted that he had brought the dog with him. But he need not have worried about the dog, for that intelligent animal showed no desire to attract the Gray Master's notice. He was crouched behind Kane's legs, and motionless except for his shuddering.
For several minutes no one stirred—nothing stirred in all that frozen world. Then, feeling the cold begin to creep in upon him in the stillness, Kane had to lift his thick-gloved hands to chafe his ears. He did it cautiously, but the caution was superfluous. The great wolf apparently had no objection to his moving as much as he liked. Once, indeed, those green, lambent eyes flamed over him, but casually, in making a swift circuit of the shores of the lake and the black fringe of the firs; but for all the interest which their owner vouchsafed him, Kane might as well have been a juniper bush.
Knowing very well, however, that this elaborate indifference could not be other than feigned, Kane was patient, determined to find out what the game was. At the same time, he could not help the strain beginning to tell on him. Where was the rest of the pack? From time to time he glanced searchingly over his shoulder towards the all-concealing fir woods.
At last, as if considering himself utterly alone, the great wolf opened his jaws, stretched back his neck, and began howling his shrill, terrible serenade to the moon. As soon as he paused, came far-off nervous barkings and yelpings from dogs who hated and trembled in the scattered clearings. But no wolf-howl made reply. The pack, for all the sign they gave, might have vanished off the earth. And Kane wondered what strong command from their leader could have kept them silent when all their ancient instincts bade them answer.
As if well satisfied with his music, the great wolf continued to beseech the moon so persistently that at last Kane lost patience. He wanted more variety in the programme. Muttering, "I'll see if I can't rattle your fine composure a bit, my friend!" he raised his rifle and sent a bullet whining over the wolf's head. The wolf cocked his ears slightly and looked about carelessly, as if to say, "What's that?" then coolly resumed his serenade.
Nettled by such ostentatious nonchalance, Kane drove another bullet into the snow within a few inches of the wolf's forefeet. This proved more effective. The great beast looked down at the place where the ball had struck, sniffed at it curiously, got up on all fours, and turned and stared steadily at Kane for perhaps half a minute. Kane braced himself for a possible onslaught. But it never came. Whirling lightly, the Gray Master turned his back on the disturber of his song, and trotted away slowly, without once looking back. He did not make directly for the cover, but kept in full view and easy gunshot for several hundred yards. Then he disappeared into the blackness of the spruce woods. Thereupon the yellow mongrel, emerging from his shelter behind Kane's legs, pranced about on the snow before him with every sign of admiration and relief.
But Kane was too puzzled to be altogether relieved. It was not according to the books for any wolf, great or small, to conduct himself in this supercilious fashion. Looking back along the white bed of the brook, the path by which he must return, he saw that the sinking of the moon would very soon involve it in thick shadow. This was not as he wished it. He had had enough of fishing. Gathering up his now frozen prizes, and strapping the bag that contained them over his shoulder, so as to leave both hands free, he set out for home at the long, deliberate, yet rapid lope of the experienced snowshoer; and the yellow dog, confidence in his companion's prowess now thoroughly established, trotted on heedlessly three or four paces ahead.
Already the shadow of the woods lay halfway across the bed of the brook, but down the middle of the strip of brightness, still some five or six paces in breadth, Kane swung steadily. As he went, he kept a sharp eye on the shadowed edge of his path. He had gone perhaps a mile, when all at once he felt a tingling at the roots of his hair, which seemed to tell him he was being watched from the darkness. Peer as he would, however, he could catch no hint of moving forms; strain his ears as he might, he could hear no whisper of following feet. Moreover, he trusted to the keener senses, keener instincts, of the dog, to give him warning of any furtive approach; and the dog was obviously at ease.
He was just beginning to execrate himself for letting his nerves get too much on edge, when suddenly out from the black branches just ahead shot a long, spectral shape and fell upon the dog. There was one choked yelp—and the dog and the terrible shape vanished together, back into the blackness.
It was all so instantaneous that before Kane could get his rifle up they were gone. Startled and furious, he fired at random, three times, into cover. Then he steadied himself, remembering that the number of cartridges in his chamber was not unlimited. Seeing to it that his axe and knife were both loose for instant action, he stopped and replenished his Winchester. Then he hurried on as fast as he could without betraying haste.
As he went, he was soon vividly conscious that the wolves—not the Gray Master alone, but the whole pack also—were keeping pace with him through the soundless dark beyond the rim of the spruces. But not a hint of their grim companioning could he see or hear. He felt it merely in the creeping of his skin, the elemental stirring of the hair at the back of his neck. From moment to moment he expected the swift attack, the battle for his life. But he was keyed up to it. It was not fear that made his nerves tingle, but the tense, trembling excitement of the situation. Even against these strange, hidden forces of the forest, his spirit felt sure of victory. He felt as if his rifle would go up and speak, almost of itself, unerringly at the first instant of attack, even before the adversary broke into view. But through all the drawn-out length of those last three miles his hidden adversaries gave no sign, save that once a dead branch, concealed under the snow, snapped sharply. His rifle was at his shoulder, it seemed to him, almost before the sound reached his ear. But nothing came of it. Then a panic-mad rabbit, stretched straight out in flight, darted across the fast narrowing brightness of his path. But nothing followed. And at last, after what seemed to him hours, he came out upon the open pastures overlooking Burnt Brook Settlement. Here he ran on a little way; and then, because the strain had been great, he sat down suddenly upon a convenient stump and burst into a peal of laughter which must have puzzled the wolves beyond measure.
After this, though well aware that the Gray Master's inexplicable forbearance had saved him a battle which, for all his confidence, might quite conceivably have gone against him, Kane's interest in the mysterious beast was uncompromisingly hostile. He was bitter on account of the dog. He felt that the great wolf had put a dishonor upon him; and for a few days he was no longer the impartial student of natural history, but the keen, primitive hunter with the blood-lust hot in his veins. Then this mood passed, or, rather, underwent a change. He decided that the Gray Master was, indeed, too individual a beast to be just snuffed out, but, at the same time, far too dangerous to be left at liberty.
And now all the thought and effort that could be spared from his daily duties at the Cross-Roads were bent to the problem of capturing the great wolf alive. He would be doing a service to the whole Quah-Davic Valley. And he would have the pleasure of presenting the splendid captive to his college town, at that time greatly interested in the modest beginnings of a zoological garden which its citizens were striving to inaugurate. It thrilled his fancy to imagine a tin placard on the front of a cage in the little park, bearing the inscription—
CANIS OCCIDENTALIS. EASTERN NORTH AMERICA. PRESENTED BY ARTHUR KANE, ESQ.
After a few weeks of assiduous trapping, however, Kane felt bound to acknowledge that this modest ambition of his seemed remote from fulfilment. Every kind of trap he could think of, that would take a beast alive, he tried in every kind of way. And having run the whole insidious gamut, he would turn patiently to run it all over again. Of course, the result was inevitable, for no beast, not even such a one as the Gray Master, is a match, in the long run, for a man who is in earnest. Yet Kane's triumph, when it blazed upon his startled eyes at last, was indirect. In avoiding, and at the same time uncovering and making mock of, Kane's traps, the great wolf put his foot into another, a powerful bear-trap, which a cunning old trapper had hidden near by, without bait. The trap was secured to a tree by a stout chain—and rage, strain, tear as he might, the Gray Master found himself snared. In his silent fury he would probably have gnawed off the captive foot, for the sake of freedom. But before he came to that, Kane arrived and occupied his attention fully.
Kane's disappointment, at finding the splendid prize in another trap than his own, was but momentary. He knew his successful rival would readily part with his claims, for due consideration. But he was puzzled as to what should be done in the immediate emergency. He wanted to go back home for help, for ropes, straps, and a muzzle with which he had provided himself; but he was afraid lest, in his absence, the trapper might arrive and shoot the captive, for the sake of the pelt and the bounty. In his uncertainty he waited, hoping that the trapper might come soon; and by way of practice for the serious enterprise that would come later, as well as to direct the prisoner's mind a little from his painful predicament, Kane began trying to lasso him with a coil of heavy cord which he carried.
His efforts in this direction were not altogether successful, but the still fury which they aroused in the great wolf's breast doubtless obscured the mordant anguish in his foot. One terrific leap at his enemy, resulting in an ignominious overthrow as the chain stopped him in mid-air, had convinced the subtle beast of the vanity of such tactics. Crouching back, he eyed his adversary in silence, with eyes whose hatred seemed to excoriate. But whenever the running noose at the end of the cord came coiling swiftly at his head, with one lightning snap of his long teeth he would sever it as with a knife. By the time Kane had grown tired of this diversion the cord was so full of knots that no noose would any longer run.
But at this point the old trapper came slouching up on his snowshoes, a twinkle of elation in his shrewd, frosty, blue eyes.
"I reckon we'll show the varmint now as how he ain't no loup-garou!" he remarked, lightly swinging his axe.
But Kane hastily intervened.
"Please don't kill him, Dave!" he begged. "I want him, bad! What'll you take for him?"
"Just as he stands?" demanded the old trapper, with a chuckle. "I ain't a-goin' to deliver the goods to yer door, ye know!"
"No," laughed Kane, "just as he stands, right here!"
"Well, seein' as it's you, I don't want no more'n what his pelt'ld fetch, an' the bounty on his nose," answered the trapper.
"All right," said Kane. "You wait here a bit, will you, an' keep him amused so's he won't gnaw his paw off; an' I'll run back to the Cross-Roads and get some rope and things I guess I'll be needing."
When he got back with rope, straps, a big mastiff-muzzle, and a toboggan, he found Dave in a very bad humor, and calling the watchful, silent, crouching beast hard names. In his efforts to amuse himself by stirring that imperturbable and sinister quiet into action, he had come just within the range of the Gray Master's spring. Swift as that spring was, that of the alert backwoodsman was just swift enough to elude it—in part. Dave's own hide had escaped, but his heavy jacket of homespun had had the back ripped clean out of it.
But now, for all his matchless strength, courage, and craft, the Gray Master's game was played out. The fickle Fates of the wild had pronounced against him. He could not parry two flying nooses at once. And presently, having been choked for a few moments into unconsciousness, he awoke to find himself bound so that he could not move a leg, and his mighty jaws imprisoned in a strange cage of straps and steel. He was tied upon the toboggan, and being dragged swiftly through the forest—that free forest of which he had so long felt himself master—at the heels of his two conquerors. His only poor consolation was that the hideous, crunching thing had been removed from his bleeding paw, which, however, anguished cruelly for the soothing of his tongue.
During the strenuous and dangerous weeks while Kane was gaoler to his dreaded captive, his respect for the grim beast's tameless spirit by no means diminished; but he had no shadow of misgiving as to the future to which he destined his victim. He felt that in sending the incomparable wolf to the gardens, where he would be well cared for, and at the same time an educative influence, he was being both just and kind. And it was with feelings of unmixed delight that he received a formal resolution of gratitude from the zoological society for his valued and in some respects unique donation.
It was about a year and a half later that Kane had occasion to revisit the city of his Alma Mater. As soon as possible he hurried to inspect the little gardens, which had already marched so far towards success as to be familiarly styled "The Zoo." There were two or three paddocks of deer, of different North American species—for the society was inclined to specialize on the wild kindreds of native origin. There were moose, caribou, a couple of bears, raccoons, foxes, porcupines, two splendid pumas, a rather flea-bitten and toothless tiger, and the Gray Master, solitary in his cage!
A sure instinct led Kane straight to that cage, which immediately adjoined the big double cage of the pumas. As he approached, he caught sight of a tall, gray shape pacing, pacing, pacing, pacing to and fro behind the bars with a sort of measured restlessness that spoke an immeasurable monotony. When he reached the front of the cage, Kane saw that the great wolf's eyes were noting nothing of what was about him, but dim with some far-off vision. As he marked the look in them, and thought of what they must be remembering and aching for, his heart began to smite him. He felt his first pang of self-reproach, for having doomed to ignominious exile and imprisonment this splendid creature who had deserved, at least, to die free. As he mused over this point, half angrily, the Gray Master suddenly paused, and his thin nostrils wrinkled. Perhaps there still clung about Kane's clothes some scent of the spruce woods, some pungent breath of the cedar swamps. He turned and looked Kane straight in the eyes.
There was unmistakable recognition in that deep stare. There was also, to Kane's sensitive imagination, a tameless hate and an unspeakable but dauntless despair. Convicted in his own mind of a gross and merciless misunderstanding of his wild kindreds, whom he professed to know so well, he glanced up and saw the painted placard staring down at him, exactly as he had anticipated——
CANIS OCCIDENTALIS. EASTERN NORTH AMERICA. PRESENTED BY ARTHUR KANE, ESQ.
The sight sickened him. He had a foolish impulse to tear it down and to abase himself with a plea for pardon before the silent beast behind the bars. But when he looked again, the Gray Master had turned away, and was once more, with indrawn, far-off vision in his eyes, pacing, pacing, pacing to and fro. Kane felt overwhelmed with the intolerable weariness of it, as if it had been going on, just like that, ever since he had pronounced this doom upon his vanquished adversary, and as if it would go on like that forever. In vain by coaxing word, by sharp, sudden whistle, by imitations of owl, loon, and deer calls, which brought all the boys in the place admiringly about him, did he strive to catch again the attention of the captive. But not once more, even for the fleeting fraction of a second, would the Gray Master turn his eyes. And presently, angry and self-reproachful, Kane turned on his heel and went home, pursued by the enthusiasm of the small boys.
After this, Kane went nearly every day to the little "Zoo"; but never again did he win the smallest hint of notice from the Gray Master. And ever that tireless pacing smote him with bitterest self-reproach. Half unconsciously he made it a sort of penance to go and watch his victim, till at last he found himself indulging in sentimental, idiotic notions of trying to ransom the prisoner. Realizing that any such attempt would make him supremely ridiculous, and that such a dangerous and powerful creature could not be set free anywhere, he consoled himself with a resolve that never again would he take captive any of the freedom-loving, tameless kindreds of the wilderness. He would kill them and have cleanly done with it, or leave them alone.
One morning, thinking to break the spell of that eternal, hopeless pacing by catching the Gray Master at his meals, Kane went up to the gardens very early, before any of the usual visitors had arrived. He found that the animals had already been fed. The cages were being cleaned. He congratulated himself on his opportune arrival, for this would give him a new insight into the ways of the beasts with their keepers.
The head-keeper, as it chanced, was a man of long experience with wild animals, in one of the chief zoological parks of the country. Long familiarity, however, had given him that most dangerous gift, contempt. And he had lost his position through that fault most unforgivable in an animal keeper, drunkenness. Owing to this fact, the inexperienced authorities of this little "Zoo" had been able to obtain his services at a comparatively moderate wage—and were congratulating themselves on the possession of a treasure.
On this particular morning, Biddell was not by any means himself. He was cleaning the cage of the two pumas, and making at the same time desperate efforts to keep his faculties clear and avoid betraying his condition. The two big cats seemed to observe nothing peculiar in his manner, and obeyed him, sulkily, as usual; but Kane noticed that the great wolf, though pacing up and down according to his custom, had his eyes on the man in the next cage, instead of upon his own secret visions. Biddell had driven the two pumas back through the door which led from the open cage to the room which served them for a den, and closed the door on them. Then, having finished his duties there, he unfastened the strong door between this cage and that of the Gray Master, and stepped through, leaving the door slightly ajar.
Biddell was armed, of course, with a heavy-pronged fork, but he carried it carelessly as he went about his work, as if he had long since taught the sombre wolf to keep at a distance. But to-day the wolf acted curiously. He backed away in silence, as usual, but eyed the man fixedly with a look which, as it seemed to Kane, showed anything rather than fear. The stiff hair rose slightly along his neck and massive shoulders. Kane could not help congratulating himself that he was not in the keeper's place. But he felt sure everything was all right, as Biddell was supposed to know his business.
When Biddell came to the place where the wolf was standing, the latter made way reluctantly, still backing, and staring with that sinister fixity which Kane found so impressive. He wondered if Biddell noticed. He was just on the point of speaking to him about it, through the bars, when he chanced to glance aside to the cage of the pumas. Biddell, in his foggy state of mind, had forgotten to close an inner door connecting the two rooms in the rear. The pumas had quietly passed through, and emerged again into their cage by the farther entrance. Catching sight of the door into the wolf's cage standing ajar, they had crept up to it; and now, with one great noiseless paw, the leader of the two was softly pushing it open.
Kane gave an inarticulate yell of warning. No words were needed to translate that warning to the keeper, who was sobered completely as he flashed round and saw what was happening. With a sharp command he rushed to drive the pumas back and close the gate. But one was already through, and the other blocked the way.
At this tense instant, while Kane glanced swiftly aside to see if any help were in sight, the Gray Master launched himself across the cage. Kane could not see distinctly, so swiftly did it happen, whether the man or the intruding puma was the object of that mad rush. But in the next second the man was down, on his face, with the silent wolf and the screeching puma locked in a death grapple on top of him.
Horrified, and yelling for help, Kane tore at the bars, but there was no way of getting in, the door being locked. He saw that the wolf had secured a hold upon the puma's throat, but that the great cat's claws were doing deadly work. Then the second puma pounced, with a screech, upon the Gray Master's back, bearing him down.
At this moment Biddell rolled out from under the raving, writhing heap, and staggered to his feet, bleeding, but apparently uninjured. With his fork and his booted foot he threw himself upon the combatants furiously, striving to separate them. After what seemed to Kane an age he succeeded in forcing off the second puma and driving it through the gate, which he shut. Then he returned to the fight.
But he had little more to do now, for the fight was over. Though no wolf is supposed to be a fair match for a puma, the Gray Master, with his enormous strength and subtle craft, might perhaps have held his own against his first antagonist alone. But against the two he was powerless. The puma, badly torn, now crouched snarling upon his unresisting body. Biddell forced the victor off and drove him into a corner, where he lay lashing his sides with heavy, twitching tail.
The keeper was sober enough now. One long look at the great wolf's body satisfied him it was all over. He turned and saw Kane's white face pressed against the bars. With a short laugh he shook himself, to make sure he was all sound, then pushed the body of the Gray Master gently with his foot. Yet there was respect, not disrespect, in the gesture.
"I wouldn't have had that happen for a thousand dollars, Mr. Kane!" said he in a voice of keen regret. "That was a great beast, an' we'll never get another wolf to match him."
Kane was on the point of saying that it would not have happened but for certain circumstances which it was unnecessary for him to specify. He realized, however, that he was glad it had happened, glad the long pacing, pacing, pacing was at an end, glad the load of his self-reproach was lifted off. So he said something quite different.
"Well, Biddell, he's free! And maybe, when all's said, that was just what he was after!"
Then he turned and strode hurriedly away, more content in his heart than he had felt for days.
To Jim Horner it seemed as if the great, white-headed eagle was in some way the uttered word of the mountain and the lake—of the lofty, solitary, granite-crested peak, and of the deep, solitary water at its base. As his canoe raced down the last mad rapid, and seemed to snatch breath again as it floated out upon the still water of the lake, Jim would rest his paddle across the gunwales and look upward expectantly. First his keen, far-sighted, gray eyes would sweep the blue arc of sky, in search of the slow circling of wide, motionless wings. Then, if the blue was empty of this far shape, his glance would range at once to a dead pine standing sole on a naked and splintered shoulder of the mountain which he knew as "Old Baldy." There he was almost sure to see the great bird sitting, motionless and majestic, staring at the sun. Floating idly and smoking, resting after his long battle with the rapids, he would watch, till the immensity and the solitude would creep in upon his spirit and oppress him. Then, at last, a shrill yelp, far off and faint, but sinister, would come from the pine-top; and the eagle, launching himself on open wings from his perch, would either wheel upward into the blue, or flap away over the serried fir-tops to some ravine in the cliffs that hid his nest.
One day, when Jim came down the river and stopped, as usual, to look for the great bird, he scanned in vain both sky and cliff-side. At last he gave up the search and paddled on down the lake with a sense of loss. Something had vanished from the splendor of the solitude. But presently he heard, close overhead, the beat and whistle of vast wings, and looking up, he saw the eagle passing above him, flying so low that he could catch the hard, unwinking, tameless stare of its black and golden eyes as they looked down upon him with a sort of inscrutable challenge. He noted also a peculiarity which he had never seen in any other eagle. This one had a streak of almost black feathers immediately over its left eye, giving it a heavy and sinister eyebrow. The bird carried in the clutch of its talons a big, glistening lake trout, probably snatched from the fish-hawk; and Jim was able to take note of the very set of its pinion-feathers as the wind hummed in their tense webs. Flying with a massive power quite unlike the ease of his soaring, the eagle mounted gradually up the steep, passed the rocky shoulder with its watch-tower pine, and disappeared over the edge of a ledge which looked to Horner like a mere scratch across the face of the mountain.
"There's where his nest is, sure!" muttered Horner to himself. And remembering that cold challenge in the bird's yellow stare, he suddenly decided that he wanted to see an eagle's nest. He had plenty of time. He was in no particular hurry to get back to the settlement and the gossip of the cross-roads store. He turned his canoe to land, lifted her out and hid her in the bushes, and struck back straight for the face of "Old Baldy."
The lower slope was difficult to climb, a tangle of tumbled boulders and fallen trunks, mantled in the soundless gloom of the fir-forest. Skilled woodsman though he was, Horner's progress was so slow, and the windless heat became so oppressive to his impatience, that he was beginning to think of giving up the idle venture, when suddenly he came face to face with a perpendicular and impassable wall of cliff. This curt arrest to his progress was just what was needed to stiffen his wavering resolution. He understood the defiance which his ready fancy had found in the stare of the eagle. Well, he had accepted the challenge. He would not be baffled by a rock. If he could not climb over it, he would go round it; but he would find the nest.
With an obstinate look in his eyes, Horner began to work his way along the foot of the cliff towards the right. Taking advantage of every inch of ascent that he could gain, he at last found, to his satisfaction, that he had made sufficient height to clear the gloom of the woods. As he looked out over their tops, a light breeze cooled his wet forehead, and he pressed on with fresh vigor. Presently the slope grew a trifle easier, the foothold surer, and he mounted more rapidly. The steely lake, and the rough-ridged, black-green sea of the fir-tops began to unroll below him. At last he rounded an elbow of the steep, and there before him, upthrust perhaps a hundred feet above his head, stood the outlying shoulder of rock, crowned with its dead pine, on which he was accustomed to see the eagle sitting. Even as he looked, motionless, there came a rushing of great wings; and suddenly there was the eagle himself, erect on his high perch, and staring, as it seemed to Horner, straight into the sun.
When Horner resumed his climbing, the great bird turned his head and gazed down upon him with an ironic fixity which betrayed neither dread nor wonder. Concluding that the nest would be lying somewhere within view of its owner's watch-tower, Horner now turned his efforts towards reaching the dead pine. With infinite difficulty, and with a few bruises to arm and leg, he managed to cross the jagged crevice which partly separated the jutting rock-pier from the main face of the cliff. Then, laboriously and doggedly, he dragged himself up the splintered slope, still being forced around to the right, till there fell away below him a gulf into which it was not good for the nervous to look. Feeling that a fate very different from that of Lot's wife might be his if he should let himself look back too indiscreetly, he kept his eyes upon the lofty goal and pressed on upwards with a haste that now grew a trifle feverish. It began to seem to him that the irony of the eagle's changeless stare might perhaps not be unjustified.
Not till Horner had conquered the steep and, panting but elated, gained the very foot of the pine, did the eagle stir. Then, spreading his wings with a slow disdain, as if not dread but aversion to this unbidden visitor bade him go, he launched himself on a long, splendid sweep over the gulf, and then mounted on a spacious spiral to his inaccessible outlook in the blue. Leaning against the bleached and scarred trunk of the pine, Horner watched this majestic departure for some minutes, recovering his breath and drinking deep the cool and vibrant air. Then he turned and scanned the face of the mountain.
There it lay, in full view—the nest which he had climbed so far to find. It was not more than a hundred yards away. Yet, at first sight, it seemed hopelessly out of reach. The chasm separating the ledge on which it clung from the outlying rock of the pine was not more than twenty feet across; but its bottom was apparently somewhere in the roots of the mountain. There was no way of passing it at this point. But Horner had a faith that there was a way to be found over or around every obstacle in the world, if only one kept on looking for it resolutely enough. To keep on looking for a path to the eagle's nest, he struggled forward, around the outer slope of the buttress, down a ragged incline, and across a narrow and dizzy "saddle-back," which brought him presently upon another angle of the steep, facing southeast. Clinging with his toes and one hand, while he wiped his dripping forehead with his sleeve, he looked up—and saw the whole height of the mountain, unbroken and daunting, stretched skyward above him.
But to Horner the solemn sight was not daunting in the least.
"Gee!" he exclaimed, grinning with satisfaction. "I hev circumvented that there cervice, sure's death!"
Of the world below he had now a view that was almost overpoweringly unrestricted; but of the mountain, and his scene of operations, he could see only the stretch directly above him. A little calculation convinced him, however, that all he had to do was to keep straight on up for perhaps a hundred and fifty feet, then, as soon as the slope would permit, work around to his left, and descend upon the nest from above. Incidentally, he made up his mind that his return journey should be made by another face of the mountain—any other, rather than that by which he had rashly elected to come.
It seemed to Horner like a mile, that last hundred and fifty feet; but at last he calculated that he had gained enough in height. At the same time he felt the slope grow easier. Making his way towards the left, he came upon a narrow ledge, along which he could move easily side-wise, by clinging to the rock. Presently it widened to a path by which he could walk almost at ease, with the wide, wild solitude, dark green laced with silver watercourses, spread like a stupendous amphitheatre far below him. It was the wilderness which he knew so well in detail, yet had never before seen as a whole; and the sight, for a few moments, held him in a kind of awed surprise. When, at last, he tore his gaze free from the majestic spectacle, there, some ten or twelve yards below his feet, he saw the object of his quest.
It was nothing much to boast of in the way of architecture, this nest of the Kings of the Air—a mere cart-load of sticks and bark and coarse grass, apparently tumbled at haphazard upon the narrow ledge. But in fact its foundations were so skilfully wedged into the crevices of the rock, its structure was so cunningly interwoven, that the fiercest winds which scourged that lofty seat were powerless against it. It was a secure throne, no matter what tempests might rage around it.
Sitting half erect on the nest were two eaglets, almost full grown, and so nearly full feathered that Horner wondered why they did not take wing at his approach. He did not know that the period of helplessness with these younglings of royal birth lasted even after they looked as big and well able to take care of themselves as their parents. It was a surprise to him, also, to see that they were quite unlike their parents in color, being black all over from head to tail, instead of a rich brown with snow-white head, neck, and tail. As he stared, he slowly realized that the mystery of the rare "black eagle" was explained. He had seen one once, flying heavily just above the tree-tops, and imagined it a discovery of his own. But now he reached the just conclusion that it had been merely a youngster in its first plumage.
As he stared, the two young birds returned his gaze with interest, watching him with steady, yellow, undaunted eyes from under their flat, fierce brows; with high-shouldered wings half raised, they appeared quite ready to resent any familiarity which the strange intruder might be contemplating.
Horner lay face downward on his ledge, and studied the perpendicular rock below him for a way to reach the next. He had no very definite idea what he wanted to do when he got there; possibly, if the undertaking seemed feasible, he might carry off one of the royal brood and amuse himself with trying to domesticate it. But, at any rate, he hoped to add something, by a closer inspection, to his rather inadequate knowledge of eagles.
And this hope, indeed, as he learned the next moment, was not unjustified. Cautiously he was lowering himself over the edge, feeling for the scanty and elusive foothold, when all at once the air was filled with a rush of mighty wings, which seemed about to overwhelm him. A rigid wing-tip buffeted him so sharply that he lost his hold on the ledge. With a yell of consternation, which caused his assailant to veer off, startled, he fell backwards, and plunged down straight upon the nest.
It was the nest only that saved him from instant death. Tough and elastic, it broke his fall; but at the same time its elasticity threw him off, and on the rebound he went rolling and bumping on down the steep slopes below the ledge, with the screaming of the eagles in his ears, and a sickening sense in his heart that the sunlit world tumbling and turning somersaults before his blurred sight was his last view of life. Then, to his dim surprise, he was brought up with a thump; and clutching desperately at a bush which scraped his face, he lay still. At the same moment a flapping mass of feathers and fierce claws landed on top of him, but only to scramble off again as swiftly as possible with a hoarse squawk. He had struck one of the young eagles in his fall, hurled it from the nest, and brought it down with him to this lower ledge which had given him so timely a refuge.
For several minutes, perhaps, he lay clutching the bush desperately and staring straight upwards. There he saw both parent eagles whirling excitedly, screaming, and staring down at him; and then the edge of the nest, somewhat dilapidated by his strange assault, overhanging the ledge about thirty feet above. At length his wits came back to him, and he cautiously turned his head to see if he was in danger of falling if he should relax his hold on the bush. He was in bewildering pain, which seemed distributed all over him; but in spite of it he laughed aloud, to find that the bush, to which he hung so desperately, was in a little hollow on a spacious platform, from which he could not have fallen by any chance. At that strange, uncomprehended sound of human laughter the eagles ceased their screaming for a few moments and wheeled farther aloof.
With great difficulty and anguish Horner raised himself to a sitting position and tried to find out how seriously he was hurt. One leg was quite helpless. He felt it all over, and came to the conclusion that it was not actually broken; but for all the uses of a leg, for the present at least, it might as well have been putty, except for the fact that it pained him abominably. His left arm and shoulder, too, seemed to be little more than useless encumbrances, and he wondered how so many bruises and sprains could find place on one human body of no more than average size. However, having assured himself, with infinite relief, that there were no bones broken, he set his teeth grimly and looked about to take account of the situation.
The ledge on which he had found refuge was apparently an isolated one, about fifty or sixty feet in length, and vanishing into the face of the sheer cliff at either end. It had a width of perhaps twenty-five feet; and its surface, fairly level, held some soil in its rocky hollows. Two or three dark-green seedling firs, a slim young silver birch, a patch or two of wind-beaten grass, and some clumps of harebells, azure as the clear sky overhead, softened the bareness of this tiny, high-flung terrace. In one spot, at the back, a spread of intense green and a handbreadth of moisture on the rock showed where a tiny spring oozed from a crevice to keep this lonely oasis in the granite alive and fresh.
At the farthest edge of the shelf, and eying him with savage dread, sat the young eagle which had fallen with him. Horner noticed, with a kind of sympathy, that even the bird, for all his wings, had not come out of the affair without some damage; for one of its black wings was not held up so snugly as the other. He hoped it was not broken. As he mused vaguely upon this unimportant question, his pain so exhausted him that he sank back and lay once more staring up at the eagles, who were still wheeling excitedly over the nest. In an exhaustion that was partly sleep and partly coma, his eyes closed. When he opened them again, the sun was hours lower and far advanced towards the west, so that the ledge was in shadow. His head was now perfectly clear; and his first thought was of getting himself back to the canoe. With excruciating effort he dragged himself to the edge of the terrace and looked down. The descent, at this point, was all but perpendicular for perhaps a hundred feet. In full possession of his powers, he would find it difficult enough. In his present state he saw clearly that he might just as well throw himself over as attempt it.
Not yet disheartened, however, he dragged himself slowly towards the other end of the terrace, where the young eagle sat watching him. As he approached, the bird lifted his wings, as if about to launch himself over and dare the element which he had not yet learned to master. But one wing drooped as if injured, and he knew the attempt would be fatal. Opening his beak angrily, he hopped away to the other end of the terrace. But Horner was paying no heed to birds at that moment. He was staring down the steep, and realizing that this ledge which had proved his refuge was now his prison, and not unlikely to become also his tomb.
Sinking back against a rock, and grinding his teeth with pain, he strove to concentrate his attention upon the problem that confronted him. Was he to die of thirst and hunger on this high solitude before he could recover sufficiently to climb down? The thought stirred all his dogged determination. He would keep alive, and that was all there was about it. He would get well, and then the climbing down would be no great matter. This point settled, he dismissed it from his consideration and turned his thoughts to ways and means. After all, there was that little thread of a spring trickling from the rock! He would have enough to drink. And as for food—how much worse it would have been had the ledge been a bare piece of rock! Here he had some grass, and the roots of the herbs and bushes. A man could keep himself alive on such things if he had will enough. And, as a last resource, there was the young eagle! This idea, however, was anything but attractive to him; and it was with eyes of good-will rather than of appetite that he glanced at his fellow-prisoner sitting motionless at the other extremity of the ledge.
"It'ld be hard lines, pardner, ef I should hev to eat you, after all!" he muttered, with a twisted kind of grin. "We're both of us in a hole, sure enough, an' I'll play fair as long as I kin!"
As he mused, a great shadow passed over his head, and looking up, he saw one of the eagles hovering low above the ledge. It was the male, his old acquaintance, staring down at him from under that strange, black brow. He carried a large fish in his talons, and was plainly anxious to feed his captive young, but not quite ready to approach this mysterious man-creature who had been able to invade his eyrie as if with wings. Horner lay as still as a stone, watching through half-closed lids. The young eagle, seeing food so near, opened its beak wide and croaked eagerly; while the mother bird, larger but wilder and less resolute than her mate, circled aloof with sharp cries of warning. At last, unable any longer to resist the appeals of his hungry youngster, the great bird swooped down over him, dropped the fish fairly into his clutches, and slanted away with a hurried flapping which betrayed his nervousness.
As the youngster fell ravenously upon his meal, tearing it and gulping the fragments, Horner drew a deep breath.
"There's where I come in, pardner," he explained. "When I kin git up an appetite for that sort of vittles, I'll go shares with you, ef y'ain't got no objection!"
Having conceived this idea, Horner was seized with a fear that the captive might presently gain the power of flight and get away. This was a thought under which he could not lie still. In his pocket he always carried a bunch of stout salmon-twine and a bit of copper rabbit-wire, apt to be needed in a hundred forest emergencies. He resolved to catch the young eagle and tether it securely to a bush.
His first impulse was to set about this enterprise at once. With excruciating effort he managed to pull off his heavy woollen hunting-shirt, intending to use it as the toreador uses his mantle, to entangle the dangerous weapons of his adversary. Then he dragged himself across to the other end of the ledge and attempted to corner the captive. For this he was not quite quick enough, however. With a flop and a squawk the bird eluded him, and he realized that he had better postpone the undertaking till the morrow. Crawling back to his hollow by the bush, he sank down, utterly exhausted. Not till the sharp chill which comes with sunset warned him of its necessity, was he able to grapple with the long, painful problem of getting his shirt on again.
Through the night he got some broken sleep, though the hardness of his bed aggravated every hurt he had suffered. On the edge of dawn he saw the male eagle come again—this time more confidently and deliberately—to feed the captive. After he was gone, Horner tried to move, but found himself now, from the night's chill and the austerity of his bed, altogether helpless. Not till the sun was high enough to warm him through and through, and not till he had manipulated his legs and arms assiduously for more than an hour, did his body feel as if it could ever again be of any service to him. Then he once more got off his shirt and addressed himself to the catching of the indignant bird whom he had elected to be his preserver.
Though the anguish caused by every movement was no less intense than it had been the afternoon before, he was stronger now and more in possession of his faculties. Before starting the chase, he cut a strip from his shirt to wind around the leg of the young eagle, in order that he might be able to tether it tightly without cutting the flesh. The bird had suddenly become most precious to him!
Very warily he made his approaches, sidling down the ledge so as to give his quarry the least possible room for escape. As he drew near, the bird turned and faced him, with its one uninjured wing lifted menacingly and its formidable beak wide open. Holding the heavy shirt ready to throw, Horner crept up cautiously, so intent now upon the game that the anguish in the leg which he dragged stiffly behind him was almost forgotten. The young bird, meanwhile, waited, motionless and vigilant, its savage eyes hard as glass.
At last a faint quiver and shrinking in the bird's form, an involuntary contracting of the feathers, gave warning to Horner's experienced eye that it was about to spring aside. On the instant he flung the shirt, keeping hold of it by the sleeve. By a singular piece of luck, upon which he had not counted at all, it opened as he threw it, and settled right over the bird's neck and disabled wing, blinding and baffling it completely. With a muffled squawk it bounced into the air, both talons outspread and clawing madly; but in a second Horner had it by the other wing, pulling it down, and rolling himself over upon it so as to smother those dangerous claws. He felt them sink once into his injured leg, but that was already anguishing so vehemently that a little more or less did not matter. In a few moments he had his captive bundled up with helplessness, and was dragging it to a sturdy bush near the middle of the terrace. Here, without much further trouble, he wrapped one of its legs with the strip of flannel from his shirt, twisted on a hand-length of wire, and then tethered it safely with a couple of yards of his doubled and twisted cord.
Just as he had accomplished this to his satisfaction, and was about to undo the imprisoning shirt, it flashed across his mind that it was lucky the old eagles had not been on hand to interfere. He glanced upward—and saw the dark form dropping like a thunderbolt out of the blue. He had just time to fling himself over on his back, lifting his arm to shield his face, and his foot to receive the attack, when the hiss of that lightning descent filled his ears. Involuntarily he half closed his eyes. But no shock came, except a great buffet of air on his face. Not quite daring to grapple with that ready defence, the eagle had opened its wings when within a few feet of the ledge, and swerved upward again, where it hung hovering and screaming. Horner saw that it was the female, and shook his fist at her in defiance. Had it been his old acquaintance and challenger, the male, he felt sure that he would not have got off so easily.
Puzzled and alarmed, the mother now perched herself beside the other eaglet, on the edge of the nest. Then, keeping a careful eye upon her, lest she should return to the attack, Horner dexterously unrolled the shirt, and drew back just in time to avoid a vicious slash from the talons of his indignant prisoner. The latter, after some violent tugging and flopping at his tether and fierce biting at the wire, suddenly seemed to conclude that such futile efforts were undignified. He settled himself like a rock and stared unwinkingly at his captor.
It was perhaps an hour after this, when the sun had grown hot, and Horner, having slaked his thirst at the spring in the rock, had tried rather ineffectually to satisfy his hunger on grass roots, that the male eagle reappeared, winging heavily from the farthest end of the lake. From his talons dangled a limp form, which Horner presently made out to be a duck.
"Good!" he muttered to himself. "I always did like fowl better'n fish."
When the eagle arrived, he seemed to notice something different in the situation, for he wheeled slowly overhead for some minutes, uttering sharp yelps of interrogation. But the appeals of the youngster at last brought him down, and he delivered up the prize. The moment he was gone, Horner crept up to where the youngster was already tearing the warm body to pieces. Angry and hungry, the bird made a show of fighting for his rights; but his late experience with his invincible conqueror had daunted him. Suddenly he hopped away, the full length of his tether; and Horner picked up the mangled victim. But his appetite was gone by this time; he was not yet equal to a diet of raw flesh. Tossing the prize back to its rightful owner, he withdrew painfully to grub for some more grass roots.
After this the eagle came regularly every three or four hours with food for the prisoner. Sometimes it was a fish—trout, or brown sucker, or silvery chub—sometimes a duck or a grouse, sometimes a rabbit or a muskrat. Always it was the male, with that grim black streak across the side of his white face, who came. Always Horner made a point of taking the prize at once from the angry youngster, and then throwing it back to him, unable to stomach the idea of the raw flesh. At last, on the afternoon of the third day of his imprisonment, he suddenly found that it was not the raw flesh, but the grass roots, which he loathed. While examining a fine lake-trout, he remembered that he had read of raw fish being excellent food under the right conditions. This was surely one of those right conditions. Picking somewhat fastidiously, he nevertheless managed to make so good a meal off that big trout that there was little but head and tail to toss back to his captor.
"Never mind, pardner!" he said seriously. "I'll divide fair nex' time. But you know you've been havin' more'n your share lately."
But the bird was so outraged that for a long time he would not look at these remnants, and only consented to devour them, at last, when Horner was not looking.
After this Horner found it easy enough to partake of his prisoner's meals, whether they were of fish, flesh, or fowl; and with the ice-cold water from the little spring, and an occasional mouthful of leaves and roots, he fared well enough to make progress towards recovery. The male eagle grew so accustomed to his presence that he would alight beside the prisoner, and threatened Horner with that old, cold stare of challenge, and frequently Horner had to drive him off in order to save his share of the feast from the rapacity of the eaglet. But as for the female, she remained incurably suspicious and protesting. From the upper ledge, where she devoted her care to the other nestling, she would yelp down her threats and execrations, but she never ventured any nearer approach.
For a whole week the naked hours of day and dark had rolled over the peak before Horner began to think himself well enough to try the descent. His arm and shoulder were almost well, but his leg, in spite of ceaseless rubbing and applications of moist earth, remained practically helpless. He could not bear his weight on it for a second. His first attempt at lowering himself showed him that he must not be in too great haste. It was nearly a week more before he could feel assured, after experiments at scaling the steep above him, that he was fit to face the terrible steep below. Then he thought of the eaglet, his unwilling and outraged preserver! After a sharp struggle, of which both his arms and legs bore the marks for months, he caught the bird once more and examined the injured wing. It was not broken; and he saw that its owner would be able to fly all right in time, perhaps as soon as his more fortunate brother in the nest above. Satisfied on this point, he loosed all the bonds and jumped back to avoid the indomitable youngster's retort of beak and claws. Unamazed by his sudden freedom, the young eagle flopped angrily away to the farther end of the ledge; and Horner, having resumed his useful shirt, started to climb down the mountain, whose ascent he had so heedlessly adventured nearly two weeks before. As he lowered himself over the dizzy brink, he glanced up, to see the male eagle circling slowly above him, gazing down at him with the old challenge in his unwinking, golden eyes.
"I reckon you win!" said Horner, waving the imperturbable bird a grave salutation. "But you're a gentleman, an' I thank you fer your kind hospitality."
It was still early morning when Horner started to descend the mountain. It was dusk when he reached the lake and flung himself down, prostrated with fatigue and pain and strain of nerve, beside his canoe. From moment to moment, through spells of reeling faintness and spasmodic exhaustion, the silent gulfs of space had clutched at him, as if the powers of the solitude and the peak had but spared him so long to crush him inexorably in the end. At last, more through the sheer indomitableness of the human spirit than anything else, he had won. But never afterwards could he think of that awful descent without a sinking of the heart. For three days more he made his camp by the lake, recovering strength and nerve before resuming his journey down the wild river to the settlements. And many times a day his salutations would be waved upward to that great, snowy-headed, indifferent bird, wheeling in the far blue, or gazing at the sun from his high-set watch-tower of the pine.
Two or three years later, it fell in Horner's way to visit a great city, many hundreds of miles from the gray peak of "Old Baldy." He was in charge of an exhibit of canoes, snowshoes, and other typical products of his forest-loving countrymen. In his first morning of leisure, his feet turned almost instinctively to the wooded gardens wherein the city kept strange captives, untamed exiles of the wilderness, irreconcilable aliens of fur and hide and feather, for the crowds to gape at through their iron bars.
He wandered aimlessly past some grotesque, goatish-looking deer which did not interest him, and came suddenly upon a paddock containing a bull moose, two cows, and a yearling calf. The calf looked ungainly and quite content with his surroundings. The cows were faded and moth-eaten, but well fed. He had no concern for them at all. But the bull, a splendid, black-shouldered, heavy-muffled fellow, with the new antlers just beginning to knob out from his massive forehead, appealed to him strongly. The splendid, sullen-looking beast stood among his family, but towered over and seemed unconscious of them. His long, sensitive muzzle was held high to catch a breeze which drew coolly down from the north, and his half-shut eyes, in Horner's fancy, saw not the wires of his fence, but the cool, black-green fir thickets of the north, the gray rampikes of the windy barrens, the broad lily leaves afloat in the sheltered cove, the wide, low-shored lake water gleaming rose-red in the sunset.
"It's a shame," growled Horner, "to keep a critter like that shut up in a seven-by-nine chicken-pen!" And he moved on, feeling as if he were himself a prisoner, and suddenly homesick for a smell of the spruce woods.