Before he had gone two miles, he came out upon an open country of fields, and pastures, and farmyards, and little thickets. Straight on he galloped, through the gardens and the farmyards as well as the open fields. In the pastures the cattle, roused by the glare in the sky, stamped and snorted at him as he passed, and now and then a man's voice yelled at him angrily as his long form tore through flowerbeds or trellised vines. He had no idea of avoiding the farmhouses, for he had at first no fear of men; but at length an alert farmer got a long shot at him with a fowling-piece, and two or three small leaden pellets caught him in the hind quarters. They did not go deep enough to do him serious harm, but they hurt enough to teach him that men were dangerous. Thereupon he swerved from the uncompromising straight line of his flight, and made for the waste places. When the light of the fire had quite died out behind him, the first of the dawn was creeping up the sky; and by this time he had come to a barren region of low thickets, ragged woods, and rocks thrusting up through a meagre, whitish soil.
Till the sun was some hours high Lone Wolf pressed on, his terror of the fire now lost in a sense of delighted freedom. By this time he was growing hungry, and for an instant the impulse seized him to turn back and seek his master. But no, that way lay the scorching of the flames. Instead of turning, he ran on all the faster. Suddenly a rabbit bounded up, almost beneath his nose. Hitherto he had never tasted living prey, but with a sure instinct he sprang after the rabbit. To his fierce disappointment, however, the nimble little beast was so inconsiderate as to take refuge in a dense bramble thicket which he could not penetrate. His muzzle, smarting and tender from the fire, could not endure the harsh prickles, so after prowling about the thicket for a half-hour in the wistful hope that the rabbit might come out, he resumed his journey. He had no idea, of course, where he wanted to go, but he felt that there must be a place somewhere where there were plenty of rabbits and no bramble thickets.
Late in the afternoon he came upon the fringes of a settlement, which he skirted with caution. In a remote pasture field, among rough hillocks and gnarled, fire-scarred stumps, he ran suddenly into a flock of sheep. For a moment he was puzzled at the sight, but the prompt flight of the startled animals suggested pursuit. In a moment he had borne down the hindermost. To reach for its throat was a sure instinct, and he feasted, with a growing zest of savagery, upon the hot flesh. Before he realized it, he was dragging the substantial remnant of his meal to a place of hiding under an overhanging rock. Then, well content with himself, he crept into a dark thicket and slept for several hours.
When he awoke, a new-risen moon was shining, with something in her light which half bewildered him, half stung him to uncomprehended desires. Skulking to the crest of a naked knoll, he saw the landscape spread out all around him, with the few twinkling lights of the straggling village below the slopes of the pasture. But not for lights, or for villages, or for men was his concern. Sitting up very straight on his gaunt haunches, he stretched his muzzle toward the taunting moon, and began to sound that long, dreadful gathering cry of his race.
It was an unknown or a long-forgotten voice in those neighborhoods, but none who heard it needed to have it explained. In half a minute every dog in the settlement was howling, barking, or yelping, in rage or fear. To Lone Wolf all this clamor was as nothing. He paid no more attention to it than as if it had been the twittering of sparrows. Then doors opened, and lights flashed as men came out to see what was the matter. Clearly visible, silhouetted against the low moon, Lone Wolf kept up his sinister chant to the unseen. But presently, out of the corner of his eye, he noted half a dozen men approaching up the pasture, with the noisy dogs at their heels. Men! That was different! Could it be that they wanted him? All at once he experienced a qualm of conscience, so to speak, about the sheep he had killed. It occurred to him that if sheep belonged to men, there might be trouble ahead. Abruptly he stopped his serenading of the moon, slipped over the crest of the knoll, and made off at a long, tireless gallop which before morning had put leagues between himself and the angry villagers.
After this he gave a wide berth to settlements; and having made his first kill, he suddenly found himself an accomplished hunter. It was as if long-buried memories had sprung all at once to life,—memories, indeed, not of his own but of his ancestors',—and he knew, all at once, how to stalk the shy wild rabbits, to run down and kill the red deer. The country through which he journeyed was well stocked with game, and he fed abundantly as he went, with no more effort than just enough to give zest to his freedom. In this fashion he kept on for many days, working ever northward just because the wild lands stretched in that direction; and at last he came upon the skirts of a cone-shaped mountain, ragged with ancient forest, rising solitary and supreme out of a measureless expanse of wooded plain. From a jutting shoulder of rock his keen eyes noted but one straggling settlement, groups of scattered clearings, wide apart on the skirts of the great hill. They were too far off to mar the vast seclusion of the height; and Lone Wolf, finding a cave in the rocks that seemed exactly designed for his retreat, went no farther. He felt that he had come into his own domain.
The settlers around the skirts of Lost Mountain were puzzled and indignant. For six weeks their indignation had been growing, and the mystery seemed no nearer a solution. Something was slaughtering their sheep—something that knew its business and slaughtered with dreadful efficiency. Several honest dogs fell under suspicion, not because there was anything whatever against their reputations, but simply because they had the misfortune to be big enough and strong enough to kill a sheep if they wanted to, and the brooding backwoods mind, when troubled, will go far on the flimsiest evidence.
Of all the wrathful settlers the most furious was Brace Timmins. Not only had he lost in those six weeks six sheep, but now his dog, a splendid animal, half deerhound and half collie, had been shot on suspicion by a neighbor, on no better grounds, apparently, than his long legs and long killing jaws. Still the slaughtering of the flocks went on with undiminished vigor. And a few days later Brace Timmins avenged his favorite by publicly thrashing his too hasty neighbor in front of the cross-roads store. The neighbor, pounded into exemplary penitence, apologized, and as far as the murdered dog was concerned, the score was wiped clean. But the problem of the sheep killing was no nearer solution. If not Brace Timmins' dog, as every one made prudent haste to acknowledge, then whose dog was it? The life of every dog in the settlement, if bigger than a wood-chuck, hung by a thread, which might, it seemed, at any moment turn into a halter. Brace Timmins loved dogs; and not wishing that others should suffer the unjust fate which had overtaken his own, he set his whole woodcraft to the discovery of the true culprit.
Before he had made any great progress, however, on this trail, a new thing happened, and suspicion was lifted from the heads of all the dogs. Joe Anderson's dog, a powerful beast, part sheep-dog and part Newfoundland, with a far-off streak of bull, and the champion fighter of the settlements, was found dead in the middle of Anderson's sheep pasture, his whole throat fairly ripped out. He had died in defence of his charges, and it was plainly no dog's jaws that had done such mangling. What dog indeed could have mastered Anderson's "Dan"?
"It's a bear, gone mad on mutton," pronounced certain of the wise ones, idling at the cross-roads store. "Ye see as how he hain't et the dawg, noways, but jest bit him to teach him not to go interferin' as regards sheep."
"Ye're all off," contradicted Timmins, with authority. "A bear'd hev' tore him an' batted him an' mauled him more'n he'd hev' bit him. A bear thinks more o' usin' his fore paws than what he does his jaws, if he gits into any kind of an onpleasantness. No, boys, our unknown friend up yonder's a wolf, take my word for it."
Joe Anderson snorted, and spat accurately out through the door.
"A wolf!" he sneered. "Go chase yerself, Brace Timmins. I'd like to see any wolf as could 'a' done up my Dan that way!"
"Well, keep yer hair on, Joe," retorted Timmins, easily. "I'm a-goin' after him, an' I'll show him to you in a day or two, as like as not!"
"I reckon, Joe," interposed the storekeeper, leaning forward across the counter, "as how there be other breeds of wolf besides the sneakin' little gray varmint of the East here, what's been cleaned out of these parts fifty year ago. If Brace is right,—an' I reckon he be,—then it must sure be one of them big timber wolves we read about, what the Lord's took it into His head to plank down here in our safe old woods to make us set up an' take notice. You better watch out, Brace. If ye don't git the brute first lick, he'll git you!"
"I'll watch out!" drawled Timmins, confidently; and selecting a strong, steel trap-chain from a box beside the counter, he sauntered off to put his plans in execution.
These plans were simple enough. He knew that he had a wide-ranging adversary to deal with. But he himself was a wide ranger, and acquainted with every cleft and crevice of Lost Mountain. He would find the great wolf's lair, and set his traps accordingly, one in the runway, to be avoided if the wolf was as clever as he ought to be, and a couple of others a little aside to really do the work. Of course, he would carry his rifle, in case of need, but he wanted to take his enemy alive.
For several arduous but exciting days Timmins searched in vain alike the dark cedar swamps and the high, broken spurs of the mountain. Then, one windless afternoon, when the forest scents came rising to him on the clear air, far up the steep he found a climbing trail between gray, shelving ledges. Stealthy as a lynx he followed, expecting at the next turn to come upon the lair of the enemy. It was a just expectation, but as luck would have it, that next turn, which would have led him straight to his goal, lay around a shoulder of rock whose foundations had been loosened by the rains. With a kind of long growl, rending and sickening, the rock gave way, and sank beneath Timmins' feet.
Moved by the alert and unerring instinct of the woodsman, Timmins leaped into the air. Both high and wide he sprang, and so escaped being engulfed in the mass which he had dislodged. On the top of the ruin he fell, but he fell far and hard; and for some fifteen or twenty minutes after that fall he lay very still, while the dust and debris settled into silence under the quiet flooding of the sun.
At last he opened his eyes. For a moment he made no effort to move, but lay wondering where he was. A weight was on his legs, and glancing downward, he saw that he was half covered with earth and rubbish. Then he remembered. Was he badly hurt? He was half afraid, now, to make the effort to move, lest he should find himself incapable of it. Still, he felt no serious pain. His head ached, to be sure; and he saw that his left hand was bleeding from a gash at the base of the thumb. That hand still clutched one of the heavy traps which he had been carrying, and it was plainly the trap that had cut him, as if in a frantic effort to escape. But where was his rifle? Cautiously turning his head, he peered around for it, but in vain, for during the fall it had flown far aside into the thickets. As he stared solicitously, all at once his dazed and sluggish senses sprang to life again with a scorching throb, which left a chill behind it. There, not ten paces away, sitting up on its haunches and eying him contemplatively, was a gigantic wolf, much bigger, it seemed to him, than any wolf had any right to be.
Timmins' first instinct was to spring to his feet, with a yell that would give the dreadful stranger to understand that he was a fellow it would not be well to tamper with. But his woodcraft stayed him. He was not by any means sure that he could spring to his feet. Still less was he sure that such an action would properly impress the great wolf, who, for the moment at least, seemed not actively hostile. Stillness, absolute immobility, was the trump-card to be always played in the wilderness when in doubt. So Timmins kept quite still, looking inquiringly at Lone Wolf. And Lone Wolf looked inquiringly at him.
For several minutes this waiting game went on. Then, with easy nonchalance, Lone Wolf lifted one huge hind paw and vigorously scratched his ear. This very simple action was a profound relief to Timmins.
"Sartain," he thought, "the crittur must be in an easy mood, or he'd never think to scratch his ear like that. Or mebbe he thinks I'm so well buried I kin wait, like an old bone!"
Just then Lone Wolf got up, stretched himself, yawned prodigiously, came a couple of steps nearer, and sat down again, with his head cocked to one side, and a polite air of asking, "Do I intrude?"
"Sartain sure, I'll never ketch him in a better humor!" thought Timmins. "I'll try the human voice on him."
"Git to H—— out of that!" he commanded in a sharp voice.
Lone Wolf cocked his head to the other side interrogatively. He had been spoken to by Toomey in that voice of authority, but the words were new to him. He felt that he was expected to do something, but he knew not what. He liked the voice—it was something like Toomey's. He liked the smell of Timmins' homespun shirt—it, too, was something like Toomey's. He became suddenly anxious to please this stranger. But what was wanted of him? He half arose to his feet, and glanced around to see if, perchance, the inexplicable order had been addressed to some one else. As he turned, Timmins saw, half hidden in the heavy fur of the neck, a stout leather collar.
"I swear!" he muttered, "if tain't a tame wolf what's got away!" With that he sat up; and pulling his legs, without any very serious hurt, from their covering of earth and sticks he got stiffly to his feet. For a moment the bright landscape reeled and swam before him, and he had a vague sense of having been hammered all over his body. Then he steadied himself. He saw that the wolf was watching him with the expression of a diffident but friendly dog who would like to make acquaintance. As he stood puzzling his wits, he remembered having read about the great fire which had recently done such damage to Sillaby and Hopkins' Circus, and he concluded that the stranger was one of the fugitives from that disaster.
"Come here, sir! Come here, big wolf!" said he, holding out a confident hand.
"Wolf"—that was a familiar sound to Lone Wolf's ears! it was at least a part of his name! And the command was one he well understood. Wagging his tail gravely, he came at once, and thrust his great head under Timmins' hand for a caress. He had enjoyed his liberty, to be sure, but he was beginning to find it lonely.
Timmins understood animals. His voice, as he talked to the redoubtable brute beside him, was full of kindness, but at the same time vibrant with authority. His touch was gentle, but very firm and unhesitating. Both touch and voice conveyed very clearly to Lone Wolf's disciplined instinct the impression that this man, like Toomey, was a being who had to be obeyed, whose mastery was inevitable and beyond the reach of question. When Timmins told him to lie down, he did so at once, and stayed there obediently while Timmins gathered himself together, shook the dirt out of his hair and boots, recovered his cap, wiped his bleeding hand with leaves, and hunted up his scattered traps and rifle. At last Timmins took two bedraggled but massive pork sandwiches, wrapped in newspaper, from his pocket, and offered one to his strange associate. Lone Wolf was not hungry, being full of perfectly good mutton, but being too polite to refuse, he gulped down the sandwich. Timmins took out the steel chain, snapped it on to Lone Wolf's collar, said, "Come on!" and started homeward. And Lone Wolf, trained to a short leash, followed close at his heels.
Timmins' breast swelled with exultation. What was the loss of one dog and half a dozen no-account sheep to the possession of this magnificent captive and the prestige of such a naked-handed capture? He easily inferred, of course, that his triumph must be due, in part at least, to some resemblance to the wolf's former master, whose dominance had plainly been supreme. His only anxiety was as to how the great wolf might conduct himself toward Settlement Society in general. Assuredly nothing could be more lamb-like than the animal's present demeanor, but Timmins remembered the fate of Joe Anderson's powerful dog, and had his doubts. He examined Lone Wolf's collar, and congratulated himself that both collar and chain were strong.
It was getting well along in the afternoon when Timmins and Lone Wolf emerged from the thick woods into the stumpy pastures and rough burnt lands that spread back irregularly from the outlying farms. And here, while crossing a wide pasture known as Smith's Lots, an amazing thing befell. Of course Timmins was not particularly surprised, because his backwoods philosophizing had long ago led him to the conclusion that when things get started happening, they have a way of keeping it up. Days, weeks, months, glide by without event enough to ripple the most sensitive memory. Then the whimsical Fates do something different, find it interesting, and proceed to do something else. So, though Timmins had been accustomed all his life to managing bulls, good-tempered and bad-tempered alike, and had never had the ugliest of them presume to turn upon him, he was not astonished now by the apparition of Smith's bull, a wide-horned, carrot-red, white-faced Hereford, charging down upon him in thunderous fury from behind a poplar thicket. In a flash he remembered that the bull, which was notoriously murderous in temper, had been turned out into that pasture to act as guardian to Smith's flocks. There was not a tree near big enough for refuge. There was not a stick big enough for a weapon. And he could not bring himself to shoot so valuable a beast as this fine thoroughbred. "Shucks!" he muttered in deep disgust. "I might 'a' knowed it!" Dropping Lone Wolf's chain, he ran forward, waving his arms and shouting angrily. But that red onrushing bulk was quite too dull-witted to understand that it ought to obey. It was in the mood to charge an avalanche. Deeply humiliated, Timmins hopped aside, and reluctantly ran for the woods, trusting to elude his pursuer by timely dodging.
Hitherto Lone Wolf had left all cattle severely alone, having got it somehow into his head that they were more peculiarly under man's protection than the sheep. Now, however, he saw his duty, and duty is often a very well-developed concept in the brain of dog and wolf. His ears flattened, his eyes narrowed to flaming green slits, his lips wrinkled back till his long white fangs were clean bared, and without a sound he hurled himself upon the red bull's flank. Looking back over his shoulder, Timmins saw it all. It was as if all his life Lone Wolf had been killing bulls, so unerring was that terrible chopping snap at the great beast's throat. Far forward, just behind the bull's jaws, the slashing fangs caught. And Timmins was astounded to see the bull, checked in mid-rush, plunge staggering forward upon his knees. From this position he abruptly rolled over upon his side, thrown by his own impetus combined with a dexterous twist of his opponent's body. Then Lone Wolf bounded backward, and stood expectant, ready to repeat the attack if necessary. But it was not necessary. Slowly the great red bull arose to his feet, and stared about him stupidly, the blood gushing from his throat. Then he swayed and collapsed. And Lone Wolf, wagging his tail like a dog, went back to Timmins' side for congratulations.
The woodsman gazed ruefully at his slain foe. Then he patted his defender's head, recovered the chain with a secure grip, and said slowly:—
"I reckon, partner, ye did yer dooty as ye seen it, an' mebbe I'm beholden to ye fer a hul' skin, fer that there crittur was sartinly amazin' ugly an' spry on his pins. But ye're goin' to be a responsibility some. Ye ain't no suckin' lamb to hev aroun' the house, I'm thinkin'."
To these remarks, which he judged from their tone to be approving, Lone Wolf wagged assent, and the homeward journey was continued. Timmins went with his head down, buried in thought. All at once, coming to a convenient log, he seated himself, and made Lone Wolf lie down at his feet. Then he took out the remaining sandwich,—which he himself, still shaken from his fall, had no desire to eat,—and contemplatively, in small fragments, he fed it to the wolf's great blood-stained jaws. At last he spoke, with the finality of one whose mind is quite made up.
"Partner," said he, "there ain't no help for it. Bill Smith's a-goin' to hold me responsible for the killin' o' that there crittur o' his'n, an' that means a pretty penny, it bein' a thoroughbred, an' imported at that. He ain't never a-goin' to believe but what I let you loose on to him a purpose, jest to save my hide! Shucks! Moreover, ye may's well realize y'ain't popular 'round these parts; an' first thing, when I wasn't lookin', somebody'd be a-puttin' somethin' onhealthy into yer vittles, partner! We've kind o' took to each other, you an' me; an' I reckon we'd git on together fine, me always havin' me own way, of course. But there ain't no help fer it. Ye're too hefty a proposition, by long odds, fer a community like Lost Mountain Settlement. I'm a-goin' to write right off to Sillaby an' Hopkins, an' let them have ye back, partner. An' I reckon the price they'll pay'll be enough to let me square myself with Bill Smith."
And thus it came about that, within a couple of weeks, Lone Wolf and Toomey were once more entertaining delighted audiences, while the settlement of Lost Mountain, with Timmins' prestige established beyond assault, relapsed into its uneventful quiet.
THE BEAR'S FACE
THE BEAR'S FACE
"There ain't no denying but what you give us a great show, Job," said the barkeeper, with that air of patronage which befits the man who presides over and autocratically controls the varied activities of a saloon in a Canadian lumber town.
"It is a good show!" assented Job Toomey, modestly. He leaned up against the bar in orthodox fashion, just as if his order had been "whiskey fer mine!" but being a really great animal trainer, whose eye must be always clear and his nerve always steady as a rock, his glass contained nothing stronger than milk and Vichy.
Fifteen years before, Job Toomey had gone away with a little travelling menagerie because he loved wild animals. He had come back famous, and the town of Grantham Mills, metropolis of his native county, was proud of him. He was head of the menagerie of the Sillaby and Hopkins' Circus, and trainer of one of the finest troupes of performing beasts in all America. It was a great thing for Grantham Mills to have had a visit from the Sillaby and Hopkins' Circus on its way from one important centre to another. There had been two great performances, afternoon and evening. And now, after the last performance, some of Toomey's old-time acquaintances were making things pleasant for him in the bar of the Continental.
"I don't see how ye do it, Job!" said Sanderson, an old river-man who had formerly trapped and hunted with Toomey. "I mind ye was always kind o' slick an' understandin' with the wild critters; but the way them lions an' painters an' bears an' wolves jest folly yer eye an' yer nod, willin' as so many poodle dogs, beats me. They seem to like it, too."
"They do," said Toomey. "Secret of it is, I like them; so by an' by they learn to like me well enough, an' try to please me. I make it worth their while, too. Also, they know I'll stand no fooling. Fear an' love, rightly mixed, boys—plenty of love, an' jest enough fear to keep it from spilin'—that's a mixture'll carry a man far—leastways with animals!"
The barkeeper smiled, and was about to say the obvious thing, but he was interrupted by a long, lean-jawed, leather-faced man, captain of one of the river tugs, whose eyes had grown sharp as gimlets with looking out for snags and sandbanks.
"The finest beast in the whole menagerie, that big grizzly," said he, spitting accurately into a spacious box of sawdust, "I noticed as how ye didn't have him in your performance, Mr. Toomey. Now, I kind o' thought as how I'd like to see you put him through his stunts."
Toomey was silent for a moment. Then, with a certain reserve in his voice, he answered—
"Oh, he ain't exactly strong on stunts."
The leather-faced captain grinned quizzically.
"Which does he go shy on, Mr. Toomey, the love or the fear?" he asked.
"Both," said Toomey, shortly. Then his stern face relaxed, and he laughed good-humoredly. "Fact is, I think we'll have to be sellin' that there grizzly to some zoological park. He's kind of bad fer my prestige."
"How's that, Job?" asked Sanderson, expectant of a story.
"Well," replied Toomey, "to tell you the truth, boys,—an' I only say it because I'm here at home, among friends,—it's me that's afraid of him! An' he knows it. He's the only beast that's ever been able to make me feel fear—the real, deep-down fear. An' I've never been able to git quit of that ugly notion. I go an' stand in front o' his cage; an' he jest puts that great face of his up agin the bars an' stares at me. An' I look straight into his eyes, an' remember what has passed between us, an' I feel afraid still. Yes, it wouldn't be much use me tryin' to train that bear, boys, an' I'm free to acknowledge it to you all."
"Tell us about it, Job!" suggested the barkeeper, settling his large frame precariously on the top of a small, high stool.
An urgent chorus of approval came from all about the bar. Toomey took out his watch and considered.
"We start away at 5.40 A.M.," said he. "An' I must make out to get a wink o' sleep. But I reckon I've got time enough. As you'll see, however, before I git through, the drinks are on me, so name yer pison, boys. Meanwhile, you'll excuse me if I don't join you this time. A man kin hold jest about so much Vichy an' milk, an' I've got my load aboard.
"It was kind of this way," he continued, when the barkeeper had performed his functions. "You see, for nigh ten years after I left Grantham Mills, I'd stuck closer'n a burr to my business, till I began to feel I knew 'most all there was to know about trainin' animals. Men do git that kind of a fool feelin' sometimes about lots of things harder than animal-trainin'. Well, nothin' would do me but I should go back to my old business of trappin' the beasts, only with one big difference. I wanted to go in fer takin' them alive, so as to sell them to menageries an' all that sort of thing. An' it was no pipe dream, fer I done well at it from the first. But that's not here nor there. I was gittin' tired of it, after a lot o' travellin' an' some lively kind of scrapes; so I made up my mind to finish up with a grizzly, an' then git back to trainin', which was what I was cut out fer, after all.
"Well, I wanted a grizzly; an' it wasn't long before I found one. We were campin' among the foothills of the upper end of the Sierra Nevada range, in northern California. It was a good prospectin' ground fer grizzly, an' we found lots o' signs. I wanted one not too big fer convenience, an' not so old as to be too set in his ways an' too proud to larn. I had three good men with me, an' we scattered ourselves over a big bit o' ground, lookin' fer a likely trail. When I stumbled on to that chap in the cage yonder, what Captain Bird admires so, I knew right off he wasn't what I was after. But the queer thing was that he didn't seem to feel that way about me. He was after me before I had time to think of anything jest suitable to the occasion."
"Where in thunder was yer gun?" demanded the river-man.
"That was jest the trouble!" answered Toomey. "Ye see, I'd stood the gun agin a tree, in a dry place, while I stepped over a bit o' boggy ground, intendin' to lay down an' drink out of a leetle spring. Well, the bear was handier to that gun than I was. When he come fer me, I tell ye I didn't go back fer the gun. I ran straight up the hill, an' him too close at my heels fer convenience. Then I remembered that a grizzly don't run his best when he goes up hill on a slant, so on the slant I went. It worked, I reckon, fer though I couldn't say I gained on him much, it was soothin' to observe that he didn't seem to gain on me.
"Fer maybe well on to three hundred yards it was a fine race, and I was beginnin' to wonder if the bear was gittin' as near winded as I was, when slap, I come right out on the crest of the ridge, which jest ahead o' me jutted out in a sort of elbow. What there was on the other side I couldn't see, and couldn't take time to inquire. I jest had to chance it, hopin' it might be somethin' less than a thousand foot drop. I ran straight to the edge, and jest managed to throw myself flat on my face an' clutch at the grasses like mad to keep from pitchin' clean out into space. It was a drop, all right,—two hundred foot or more o' sheer cliff.
"An' the bear was not thirty yards behind me.
"I looked at the bear, as I laid there clutchin' the grass-roots. Then I looked down over the edge. I didn't feel frightened exactly, so fur; didn't know enough, maybe, to be frightened of any animal. But jest at this point I was mighty anxious. You'll believe, then, it was kind o' good to me to see, right below, maybe twenty foot down, a little pocket of a ledge full o' grass an' blossomin' weeds. There was no time to calculate. I could let myself drop, an' maybe, if I had luck, I could stop where I fell, in the pocket, instead of bouncin' out an' down, to be smashed into flinders. Or, on the other hand, I could stay where I was, an' be ripped into leetle frayed ravellin's by the bear; an' that would be in about three seconds, at the rate he was comin'. Well, I let myself over the edge till I jest hung by the fingers, an' then dropped, smooth as I could, down the rock face, kind of clutchin' at every leetle knob as I went to check the fall. I lit true in the pocket, an' I lit pretty hard, as ye might know, but not hard enough to knock the wits out o' me, the grass an' weeds bein' fairly soft. An' clawin' out desperate with both hands, I caught, an' stayed put. Some dirt an' stones come down, kind o' smart, on my head, an' when they'd stopped I looked up. There was the bear, his big head stuck down, with one ugly paw hangin' over beside it, starin' at me. I was so tickled at havin' fooled him, I didn't think o' the hole I was in, but sez to him, saucy as you please, 'Thou art so near, an' yet so far.' At this he give a grunt, which might have meant anything, an' disappeared.
"'Ye know enough to know when you're euchred,' says I. An' then I turned to considerin' the place I was in, an' how I was to git out of it.
"To git out of it, indeed! The more I considered, the more I wondered how I'd ever managed to stay in it. It wasn't bigger than three foot by two, or two an' a half, maybe, in width, out from the cliff-face. On my left, as I sat with my back agin the cliff, a wall o' rock ran out straight, closin' off the pocket to that side clean an' sharp, though with a leetle kind of a roughness, so to speak—nothin' more than a roughness—which I calculated might do, on a pinch, fer me to hang on to if I wanted to try to climb round to the other side. I didn't want to jest yet, bein' still shaky from the drop, which, as things turned out, was just as well for me.
"To my right a bit of a ledge, maybe six or eight inches wide, ran off along the cliff-face for a matter of ten or a dozen feet, then slanted up, an' widened out agin to another little pocket, or shelf like, of bare rock, about level with the top o' my head. From this shelf a narrow crack, not more than two or three inches wide, kind o' zigzagged away till it reached the top o' the cliff, perhaps forty foot off. It wasn't much, but it looked like somethin' I could git a good finger-hold into, if only I could work my way along to that leetle shelf. I was figurin' hard on this, an' had about made up my mind to try it, an' was reachin' out, in fact, to start, when I stopped sudden.
"A good, healthy-lookin' rattler, his diamond-pattern back bright in the sun, come out of the crevice an' stopped on the shelf to take a look at the weather.
"It struck me right off that he was on his way down to this pocket o' mine, which was maybe his favorite country residence. I didn't like one bit the idee o' his comin' an' findin' me there, when I'd never been invited. I felt right bad about it, you bet; and I'd have got away if I could. But not bein' able to, there was nothin' fer me to do but try an' make myself onpleasant. I grabbed up a handful o' dirt an' threw it at the rattler. It scattered all 'round him, of course, an' some of it hit him. Whereupon he coiled himself like a flash, with head an' tail both lifted, an' rattled indignantly. There was nothin' big enough to do him any damage with, an' I was mighty oneasy lest he might insist on comin' home to see who his impident caller was. But I kept on flingin' dirt as long as there was any handy, while he kept on rattlin', madder an' madder. Then I stopped, to think what I'd better do next. I was jest startin' to take off my boot, to hit him with as he come along the narrow ledge, when suddenly he uncoiled an' slipped back into the crevice.
"Either it was very hot, or I'd been a bit more anxious than I'd realized, for I felt my forehead wet with sweat; I drew my sleeve across it, all the time keeping my eyes glued on the spot where the rattler'd disappeared. Jest then, seemed to me, I felt a breath on the back o' my neck. A kind o' cold chill crinkled down my backbone, an' I turned my face 'round sharp.
"Will you believe it, boys? I was nigh jumpin' straight off that there ledge, right into the landscape an' eternity! There, starin' 'round the wall o' rock, not one inch more than a foot away from mine, was the face o' the bear.
"Well, I was scared. There's no gittin' round that fact. There was something so onnatural about that big, wicked face hangin' there over that awful height, an' starin' so close into mine. I jest naturally scrooged away as fur as I could git, an' hung on tight to the rock so's not to go over. An' then my face wasn't more'n two feet away, do the best I could; an' that was the time I found what it felt like to be right down scared. I believe if that face had come much closer, I'd have bit at it, that minute, like a rat in a hole.
"For maybe thirty seconds we jest stared. Then, I kind o' got a holt of myself, an' cursed myself good fer bein' such a fool; an' my blood got to runnin' agin. I fell to studyin' how the bear could have got there; an' pretty soon I reckoned it out as how there must be a big ledge runnin' down the cliff face, jest the other side o' the wall o' the pocket. An' I hugged myself to think I hadn't managed to climb 'round on to that ledge jest before the bear arrived. I got this all figgered out, an' it took some time. But still that face, hangin' out there over the height, kept starin' at me; an' I never saw a wickeder look than it had on to it, steady an' unwinkin' as a nightmare. It is curious how long a beast kin look at one without winkin'. At last, it got on to my nerves so I jest couldn't stand it; an' snatching a bunch of weeds (I'd already flung away all the loose dirt, flingin' it at the rattler), I whipped 'em across them devilish leetle eyes as hard as I could. It was a kind of a child's trick, or a woman's, but it worked all right, fer it made the eyes blink. That proved they were real eyes, an' I felt easier. After all, it was only a bear; an' he couldn't git any closer than he was. But that was a mite too close, an' I wished he'd move. An' jest then, not to be gittin' too easy in my mind, I remembered the rattler.
"Another cold chill down my backbone! I looked 'round right smart. But the rattler wasn't anywhere in sight. That, however, put me in mind of what I'd been goin' to do to him. A boot wasn't much of a weapon agin a bear, but it was the only thing handy, so I reckoned I'd have to make it do. I yanked it off, took it by the toe, an' let that wicked face have the heel of it as hard as I could. I hadn't any room to swing, so I couldn't hit very hard. But a bear's nose is tender, on the tip; an' it was jest there, of course, I took care to land. There was a big snort, kind o' surprised like, an' the face disappeared.
"I felt a sight better.
"Fer maybe five minutes nothin' else happened. I sat there figgerin' how I was goin' to git out o' that hole; an' my figgerin' wasn't anyways satisfactory. I knew the bear was a stayer, all right. There'd be no such a thing as tryin' to crawl 'round that shoulder o' rock till I was blame sure he wasn't on t'other side; an' how I was goin' to find that out was more than I could git at. There was no such a thing as climbin' up. There was no such a thing as climbin' down. An' as fer that leetle ledge an' crevice leadin' off to the right,—well, boys, when there's a rattler layin' low fer ye in a crevice, ye're goin' to keep clear o' that crevice. It wanted a good three hours of sundown, an' I knew my chaps wouldn't be missin' me before night. When I didn't turn up for dinner, of course they'd begin to suspicion somethin', because they knew I was takin' things rather easy an' not followin' up any long trails. It looked like I was there fer the night; an' I didn't like it, I tell you. There wasn't room to lay down, and if I fell asleep settin' up, like as not I'd roll off the ledge. There was nothing fer it but to set up a whoop an' a yell every once in a while, in hopes that one or other of the boys might be cruisin' 'round near enough to hear me. So I yelled some half a dozen times, stoppin' between each yell to listen. Gittin' no answer, at last I decided to save my throat a bit an try agin after a spell o' restin' an' worryin'. Jest then I turned my head; an' I forgot, right off, to worry about fallin' off the ledge. There, pokin' his ugly head out o' the crevice, was the rattler. I chucked a bunch o' weeds at him, an' he drew back in agin. But the thing that jarred me now was, how would I keep him off when it got too dark fer me to see him. He'd be slippin' home quiet like, thinkin' maybe I was gone, an' mad when he found I wasn't, fer, ye see, he hadn't no means of knowin' that I couldn't go up the rock jest as easy as I come down. I feared there was goin' to be trouble after dark. An' while I was figgerin' on that till the sweat come out on my forehead, I turned agin, an' there agin was the bear's face starin' round the rock not more'n a foot away.
"You'll understand how my nerves was on the jumps, when I tell you, boys, that I was scared an' startled all over again, like the first time I'd seen it. With a yell, I fetched a swipe at it with my boot; but it was gone, like a shadow, before I hit it; an' the boot flew out o' my hand an' went over the cliff, an' me pretty nigh after it. I jest caught myself, an' hung on, kind o' shaky, fer a minute. Next thing, I heard a great scratchin' at the other side o' the rock, as if the brute was tryin' to git a better toehold an' work some new dodge on me. Then the face appeared agin, an' maybe, though perhaps that was jest my excited imagination, it was some two or three inches closer this time.
"I lit out at it with my fist, not havin' my other boot handy. But Lord, a bear kin dodge the sharpest boxer. That face jest wasn't there, before I could hit it. Then, five seconds more, an' it was back agin starin' at me. I wouldn't give it the satisfaction o' tryin' to swipe it agin, so I jest kept still, pretendin' to ignore it; an' in a minute or two it disappeared. But then, a minute or two more an' it was back agin. An' so it went on, disappearin', comin' back, goin' away, comin' back, an' always jest when I wasn't expectin' it, an' always sudden an' quick as a shadow, till that kind o' got on to my nerves too, an' I wished he'd stay one way or t'other, so as I could know what I was up against. At last, settlin' down as small as I could, I made up my mind I jest wouldn't look that way at all, face or no face, but give all my attention to watchin' for the rattler, an' yellin' fer the boys. Judgin' by the sun,—which went mighty slow that day,—I kept that game up for an hour or more; an' then, as the rattler didn't come any more than the boys, I got tired of it, an' looked 'round for the bear's face. Well, that time it wasn't there. But in place of it was a big brown paw, reachin' round the edge of the rock all by itself, an' clawin' quietly within about a foot o' my ear. That was all the farthest it would reach, however, so I tried jest to keep my mind off it. In a minute or two it disappeared; an' then back come the face.
"I didn't like it. I preferred the paw. But then, it kept the situation from gittin' monotonous.
"I suppose it was about this time the bear remembered somethin' that wanted seein' to down the valley. The face disappeared once more, and this time it didn't come back. After I hadn't seen it fer a half-hour, I began to think maybe it had really gone away; but I knew how foxy a bear could be, an' thought jest as like as not he was waitin', patient as a cat, on the other side o' the rock fer me to look round so's he could git a swipe at me that would jest wipe my face clean off. I didn't try to look round. But I kept yellin' every little while; an' all at once a voice answered right over my head. I tell you it sounded good, if 'twasn't much of a voice. It was Steevens, my packer, lookin' down at me.
"'Hello, what in h—— are ye doin' down there, Job?' he demanded.
"'Waiting fer you to git a rope an' hoist me up!' says I. 'But look out fer the bear!'
"'Bear nothin'!' says he.
"'Chuck an eye down the other side,' says I.
"He disappeared, but came right back. 'Bear nothin',' says he agin, havin' no originality.
"'Well, he was there, 'an' he stayed all the afternoon,' says I.
"'Reckon he must 'a' heard ye was an animal trainer, an' got skeered!' says Steevens. But I wasn't jokin' jest then.
"'You cut fer camp, an' bring a rope, an' git me out o' this, quick, d'ye hear?' says I. 'There's a rattler lives here, an' he's comin' back presently, an' I don't want to meet him. Slide!'
"Well, boys, that's all. That bear wasn't jest what I'd wanted; but feelin' ugly about him, I decided to take him an' break him in. We trailed him, an' after a lot o' trouble we trapped him. He was a sight more trouble after we'd got him, I tell you. But afterwards, when I set myself to tryin' to train him, why, I might jest as well have tried to train an earthquake. Do you suppose that grizzly was goin' to be afraid o' me? He'd seen me afraid o' him, all right. He'd seen it in my eyes! An' what's more, I couldn't forgit it; but when I'd look at him I'd feel, every time, the nightmare o' that great wicked face hangin' there over the cliff, close to mine. So, he don't perform. What'll ye take, boys? It's hot milk, this time, fer mine."
THE DUEL ON THE TRAIL
THE DUEL ON THE TRAIL
White and soft over the wide, sloping upland lay the snow, marked across with the zigzag gray lines of the fences, and spotted here and there with little clumps of woods or patches of bushy pasture. The sky above was white as the earth below, being mantled with snow-laden cloud not yet ready to spill its feathery burden on the world. One little farm-house, far down the valley, served but to emphasize the spacious emptiness of the silent winter landscape.
Out from one of the snow-streaked thickets jumped a white rabbit, its long ears waving nervously, and paused for a second to look back with a frightened air. It had realized that some enemy was on its trail, but what that enemy was, it did not know. After this moment of perilous hesitation, it went leaping forward across the open, leaving a vivid track in the soft surface snow. The little animal's discreet alarm, however, was dangerously corrupted by its curiosity; and at the lower edge of the field, before going through a snake fence and entering another thicket, it stopped, stood up as erect as possible on its strong hind quarters, and again looked back. As it did so, the unknown enemy again revealed himself, just emerging, a slender and sinister black shape, from the upper thicket. A quiver of fear passed over the rabbit's nerves. Its curiosity all effaced, it went through the fence with an elongated leap and plunged into the bushes in a panic. Here it doubled upon itself twice in a short circle, trusting by this well-worn device to confuse the unswerving pursuer. Then, breaking out upon the lower side of the thicket, it resumed its headlong flight across the fields.
Meanwhile the enemy, a large mink, was following on the trail with the dogged persistence of a sleuth-hound. Sure of his methods, he did not pause to see what the quarry was doing, but kept his eyes and nose occupied with the fresh tracks. His speed was not less than that of the rabbit, and his endurance was vastly greater. Being very long in the body, and extremely short in the legs, he ran in a most peculiar fashion, arching his lithe back almost like a measuring-worm and straightening out like a steel spring suddenly released. These sinuous bounds were grotesque enough in appearance, but singularly effective. The trail they made, overlapping that of the rabbit, but quite distinct from it, varied according to the depth of the surface snow. Where the snow lay thin, just deep enough to receive an imprint, the mink's small feet left a series of delicate, innocent-looking marks, much less formidable in appearance than those of the pad-footed fugitive. But where the loose snow had gathered deeper the mink's long body and sinewy tail from time to time stamped themselves unmistakably.
When the mink reached the second thicket, his keen and experienced craft penetrated at once the poor ruses of the fugitive. Cutting across the circlings of the trail, he picked it up again with implacable precision, making almost a straight line through the underbrush. When he emerged again into the open, the rabbit was in full view ahead.
The next strip of woodland in the fugitive's path was narrow and dense. Below it, in a patch of hillocky pasture ground, sloping to a pond of steel-bright ice, a red fox was diligently hunting. He ran hither and thither, furtive, but seemingly erratic, poking his nose into half-covered moss-tufts and under the roots of dead stumps, looking for mice or shrews. He found a couple of the latter, but these were small satisfaction to his vigorous winter appetite. Presently he paused, lifted his narrow, cunning nose toward the woods, and appeared to ponder the advisability of going on a rabbit hunt. His fine, tawny, ample brush of a tail gently swept the light snow behind him as he stood undecided.
All at once he crouched flat upon the snow, quivering with excitement, like a puppy about to jump at a wind-blown leaf. He had seen the rabbit emerging from the woods. Absolutely motionless he lay, so still that, in spite of his warm coloring, he might have been taken for a fragment of dead wood. And as he watched, tense with anticipation, he saw the rabbit run into a long, hollow log, which lay half-veiled in a cluster of dead weeds. Instantly he darted forward, ran at top speed, and crouched before the lower end of the log, where he knew the rabbit must come out.
Within a dozen seconds the mink arrived, and followed the fugitive straight into his ineffectual retreat. Such narrow quarters were just what the mink loved. The next instant the rabbit shot forth—to be caught in mid-air by the waiting fox, and die before it had time to realize in what shape doom had come upon it.
All unconscious that he was trespassing upon another's hunt, the fox, with a skilful jerk of his head, flung the limp and sprawling victim across his shoulder, holding it by one leg, and started away down the slope toward his lair on the other side of the pond.
As the mink's long body darted out from the hollow log he stopped short, crouched flat upon the snow with twitching tail, and stared at the triumphant intruder with eyes that suddenly blazed red. The trespass was no less an insult than an injury; and many of the wild kindreds show themselves possessed of a nice sensitiveness on the point of their personal dignity. For an animal of the mink's size the fox was an overwhelmingly powerful antagonist, to be avoided with care under all ordinary circumstances. But to the disappointed hunter, his blood hot from the long, exciting chase, this present circumstance seemed by no means ordinary. Noiseless as a shadow, and swift and stealthy as a snake, he sped after the leisurely fox, and with one snap bit through the great tendon of his right hind leg, permanently laming him.
As the pang went through him, and the maimed leg gave way beneath his weight, the fox dropped his burden and turned savagely upon his unexpected assailant. The mink, however, had sprung away, and lay crouched in readiness on the snow, eying his enemy malignantly. With a fierce snap of his long, punishing jaws the fox rushed upon him. But—the mink was not there. With a movement so quick as fairly to elude the sight, he was now crouching several yards away, watchful, vindictive, menacing. The fox made two more short rushes, in vain; then he, too, crouched, considering the situation, and glaring at his slender black antagonist. The mink's small eyes were lit with a smouldering, ruddy glow, sinister and implacable; while rage and pain had cast over the eyes of the fox a peculiar green opalescence.
For perhaps half a minute the two lay motionless, though quivering with the intensity of restraint and expectation. Then, with lightning suddenness, the fox repeated his dangerous rush. But again the mink was not there. As composed as if he had never moved a hair, he was lying about three yards to one side, glaring with that same immutable hate.
At this the fox seemed to realize that it was no use trying to catch so elusive a foe. The realization came to him slowly—and slowly, sullenly, he arose and turned away, ignoring the prize which he could not carry off. With an awkward limp, he started across the ice, seeming to scorn his small but troublesome antagonist.
Having thus recovered the spoils, and succeeded in scoring his point over so mighty an adversary, the mink might have been expected to let the matter rest and quietly reap the profit of his triumph. But all the vindictiveness of his ferocious and implacable tribe was now aroused. Vengeance, not victory, was his craving. When the fox had gone about a dozen feet, all at once the place where the mink had been crouching was empty. Almost in the same instant, as it seemed, the fox was again, and mercilessly, bitten through the leg.
This time, although the fox had seemed to be ignoring the foe, he turned like a flash to meet the assault. Again, however, he was just too late. His mad rush, the snapping of his long jaws, availed him nothing. The mink crouched, eying him, ever just beyond his reach. A gleam of something very close to fear came into his furious eyes as he turned again to continue his reluctant retreat.
Again, and again, and yet again, the mink repeated his elusive attack, each time inflicting a deep and disastrous wound, and each time successfully escaping the counter-assault. The trail of the fox was now streaked and flecked with scarlet, and both his hind legs dragged heavily. He reached the edge of the smooth ice and turned at bay. The mink drew back, cautious for all his hate. Then the fox started across the steel-gray glair, picking his steps that he might have a firm foothold.
A few seconds later the mink once more delivered his thrust. Feinting towards the enemy's right, he swerved with that snake-like celerity of his, and bit deep into the tender upper edge of the fox's thigh, where it plays over the groin.
It was a cunning and deadly stroke. But in recovering from it, to dart away again to safe distance, his feet slipped, ever so little, on the shining surface of the ice. The delay was only for the minutest fraction of a second. But in that minutest fraction lay the fox's opportunity. His wheel and spring were this time not too late. His jaws closed about the mink's slim backbone and crunched it to fragments. The lean, black shape straightened out with a sharp convulsion and lay still on the ice.
Though fully aware of the efficacy and finality of that bite, the fox set his teeth, again and again, with curious deliberation of movement, into the limp and unresisting form. Then, with his tongue hanging a little from his bloody jaws, he lifted his head and stared, with a curious, wavering, anxiously doubtful look, over the white familiar fields. The world, somehow, looked strange and blurry to him. He turned, leaving the dead mink on the ice, and painfully retraced his deeply crimsoned trail. Just ahead was the opening in the log, the way to that privacy which he desperately craved. The code of all the aristocrats of the wild kindred, subtly binding even in that supreme hour, forbade that he should consent to yield himself to death in the garish publicity of the open. With the last of his strength he crawled into the log, till just the bushy tip of his tail protruded to betray him. There he lay down with one paw over his nose, and sank into the long sleep. For an hour the frost bit hard upon the fields, stiffening to stone the bodies but now so hot with eager life. Then the snow came thick and silent, filling the emptiness with a moving blur, and buried away all witness of the fight.
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