Charles Roberts.

Hoof and Claw



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John Hatch's chief occupation, during the winter months, was the chopping and hauling of cord wood for the settlements. On a certain day he was enjoying himself greatly in the felling of a huge birch. The crisp, still air was like wine in his veins. The axe was keen, and under the bite of its rhythmic strokes the big white chips flew off keenly. Sitting on the wood sled at a safe distance, Jeff watched the chopping with alert interest, while the old sorrel dreamed with drooping head and steamed in the dry frost. The tree, cut nearly through, was just beginning to lean, just tottering to its fall, when once more John Hatch was conscious of that hated crawling in the skin of his cheeks, the lifting of the hairs on his neck. With a savage curse, he wheeled about, swinging up his axe. With a soft, swishing, crackling roar, down came the tree. It fell true, as he had chopped it, so he did not have to spring out of its path or even to glance at it. But, as it fell, it crashed heavily upon a dead branch in a neighboring tree. The dead branch flew hurtling through the air and smote John Hatch violently on the back of the head. He dropped like a log and lay quite still in the chip-strewn snow.

There was a clatter of chains and harness, as the old sorrel, sniffing the enemy, started at a gallop for home. Jeff, seeing that his master was down, sprang to his side, whining, and fell to licking frantically at his unconscious face. Getting no response, he suddenly remembered the taint in the air, which was already making his back bristle. Bestriding Hatch's body, he turned his head with a savage snarl. He could not see the enemy, but he smelled them all too clearly. With ears laid flat to the skull, lips curled up from his long white teeth, and half-open eyes flaming green, he glared at the spruce thicket whence that menacing scent came to his nostrils. With the responsibility for his master's care thus suddenly thrust upon him, his fear of lynxes vanished.

The noise of the old sorrel's flight died away down the white wood road, and for several minutes nothing stirred. The lynxes had long practiced patience, and, for all their hate, they were prudent. They could not make out at first why their enemy, who was always so vehemently active, should now be lying so still there in the snow. But wild animals are usually quick to realize it when an enemy or a quarry has been disabled. They presently concluded that here at last was the opportunity which they had been waiting for. For the dog they had nothing but scorn. They had mauled and beaten him once before. They had grown accustomed to his frank terror of them. Now he did not enter into their calculations.

One from each side of the spruce thicket, they crept stealthily forth, crouching low, their ears laid back, their round, pale eyes glaring boldly from their round, gray, cruel faces. Their big padded paws went lightly over the snow. Very gradually they crept up, half expecting that John Hatch might spring to his feet any moment and rush at them with a roar.

They had no great fear of his roars, however, having never known much hurt to come of them.

And all the time Jeff was tugging madly at John Hatch's arm, adjuring him to wake and meet the peril.

Apparently satisfied at length that there was no trap laid for them in John Hatch's quiescence, the two lynxes ran forward swiftly and sprang at his neck. To their surprise, they were met by Jeff's teeth. With that lightning side-snap which he had inherited from his collie ancestors, the dog managed to slash both his opponents severely in the space of half a second. In a blaze of fury, they fell upon him, both at once. A yellow tangle of claws and teeth and legs and fur surged and bounced upon John Hatch's body.

John Hatch slowly came to. The pandemonium of snarls and screeches that filled his ears bewildered him. He thought he was having a nightmare. His legs were held down, it seemed, by battling mountains. With a mighty effort he sat up. Then in a flash his wits came back to him. He saw Jeff with one lynx down, slashing at its throat, while the other clung upon his back and ripped him with its claws.

Bouncing to his feet, he clutched this latter combatant with both hands by the scruff of the neck, whirled it around his head and dashed it, yowling wildly, against a tree. Then he turned his attention to the other, which, though at a terrific disadvantage, was still raking Jeff murderously with its hinder claws.

Hatch grabbed up his axe. But he could find no chance to strike, lest he should injure the dog. At last, in desperation at seeing how Jeff was getting punished by those raking claws, he dropped the axe again and seized the beast by the hind legs. Dragging it out from under the astonished Jeff, he swung it several times about his head, and then launched it sprawling and screeching, high through the air. As it landed he was upon it again, this time with the axe, and a straight short-arm blow ended the matter. The other lynx, which was recovering from its contact with the tree, saw that its mate was slain, and sped off among the trees, just escaping the axe which Hatch hurled after it.

Jeff was lying down in the snow, licking his outrageous wounds, and content to leave the finishing of the affair in his master's hands.

"I was mistaken in yeh, Jeff," said John Hatch, "an' I apologize handsome. Ye're sure some dawg. I reckon there'll be no more shadders come sneakin' along our trail after this, an' thanks to you!"

The Fisher in the Chutes

He was plainly a duck. The most casual and uninitiated of observers would have said so at a glance. Yet not the most stupidly casual could have taken him for any ordinary duck. He was too imposing in appearance, too gorgeous in apparel, too bold and vigilant in demeanor to be so misunderstood. Moreover, he was not in the situation or the surroundings which one is wont to associate with ducks.

In fact, after the fashion of a cormorant or a kingfisher, he was perched motionless on a big dead stub of a branch. This branch was thrust out very obligingly in just the place where this most singular of ducks would have desired it if it had been consulted in the matter. It directly overhung a transparent amber-brown chute of unbroken water in the midst of the loud turmoil of North Fork Rapids. The strange-mannered duck had no proper talons wherewith to grasp his perch, but his strong-clawed webs held him steadily, none the less, as he peered downward into the clear rush of the torrent.

The duck was a handsome male of the red-breasted merganser family, and the absorbing interest of his life was fish. It was not in the quiet pools and long, deep reaches of dark water that he loved to seek his prey, but rather to snatch it from the grasp of the loud chutes and the roaring rips. Here, where the North Fork stream fell into the Ottanoonsis, was a resort exactly to his liking. And most of the fish – trout, salmon, grilse or parr – which journeyed up and down either the Fork or the parent river chose to pass through that sluice of swift but unbroken flow immediately beneath the overhanging branch on which he perched.

For all the splendor of his plumage, the merganser was not conspicuous where he sat. All about him was a tumult of bright and broken color, scattered in broad splashes. The rapids were foam-white, or golden-ruddy, or deep, shining green-brown under the sharp and patchy sunlight, and they were sown thickly with wet black rocks, here and there glinting with purple. The merganser had a crested head of iridescent green-black, a broad collar of lustrous white, black back, black-and-white wings, white belly, sides finely pencilled in black and white, and a breast of rich chestnut red, streaked with black. His feet were red, his long narrow beak, with its saw-toothed edges and sharp hooked tip, was bright red. In every line and hue he was unmistakably an aristocrat among ducks, and an arrogant one at that.

His fierce red eyes, staring down fixedly into the flowing amber of the current, marked piercingly every fish that passed up and down. Most of them were much too big, not for his appetite, but for his powers. His beak, with its keen-toothed edges, was a formidable weapon, by means of which he could doubtless have captured, disabled, and dragged to shore even a fish of a pound or so in weight. But here he was at a terrible disadvantage as compared with the owls, hawks, and eagles. He had no rending claws. Had he taken such a prize, he could not have profited by it, having no means of tearing it to pieces. He had no use for fish too big to be swallowed whole; so he was obliged to watch greedily and savagely the great salmon, the grilse, and the larger trout, as they darted through the sliding glow beneath his perch.

But suddenly, straight and swift as a diving cormorant, he shot down into the torrent and disappeared beneath the surface. A watcher directly overhead, escaping the baffling reflections, might have seen him swimming, head outstretched, mastering the tremendous rush of the stream with mighty strokes, fairly out-speeding the fish in their own element. Near the limit of the clear water he overtook and seized the quarry which he had marked – a trout not far from seven inches in length. The saw-toothed edges of his beak gripped it securely, and he rose with it to the surface just where the chute was breaking into a smother of trampled foam.

With a furious flapping of wings, he lifted himself almost clear of the flood, and beat along the tossed surface, dragging tail and feet for perhaps a dozen yards before he could get into full flight. Once fairly a-wing, however, he wheeled and made back hurriedly for his perch. Here he proceeded to swallow his prize head first. It was a long, difficult, choking process, for the fish was one of the stoutest he had ever attempted. But a little choking was of small consequence in view of his heroic appetite, and, after many an undignified paroxysm, he accomplished the task. It might have seemed that a trout of this size was a fairly substantial meal. But such was his keenness that, even while the wide flukes of his engorged victim were still sticking out at the corners of his beak, his fierce red eyes were once more peering downward into the torrent in search of fresh prey.

Just about this time, in the clear blue overhead, a green-winged teal was beating his way above the treetops, making for the stream with the fear of death at his heart. A mighty flier, his short, muscular wings drove him through the air at a speed not much less than ninety or a hundred miles an hour. But behind him, overtaking him inexorably, came the shape that stood for doom itself in the eyes of all his tribe – the dreadful blue falcon, or duck-hawk. The teal knew that his only chance of escape from this long-winged pursuer was to reach the water, plunge beneath it, and swim for some hiding-place under the fringing weeds.

The teal's wings, throbbing with a swift, short vibration, whistled shrilly in the still air, so that a prowling wildcat by the waterside heard the sound even above the dull roar of the rapids, and glared upward alertly. The long wings of the hawk, bent sharply at the elbows, worked more slowly, but with a nervous, terrific thrust which urged him through the air like a projectile. For all its appalling speed, the sound of his flight was nothing more than a strong pulsating hiss.

Close ahead of him now the teal saw refuge – the flashing line of the rapids. But the hawk was already close upon him. In despair he hurled himself downward too soon. The pursuer also shot downward and struck. But the lofty top of a water ash, just missed by the short wings of the fugitive, forced the long pinion of the hawk to swerve a little, so that he partly missed his stroke. Instead of clutching the victim's neck and holding it securely, he dealt merely a glancing blow upon the back behind the wings. It was enough, however, and the unhappy teal was hurled earthward, flapping through the tips of the branches. The great hawk followed hurriedly, to retrieve his prey from the ground.

As it chanced, however, the victim came down with a thud almost beneath the whiskered nose of the wildcat. A pounce, and the great cat had her paw upon it, and crouched snarling up at the hawk. In a fury the hawk swooped and struck downward. But wisdom came to him just in time, and he did not strike home. His swoop became a demonstration merely, an expression of his rage at having his prey thus snatched from his beak. With one short, shrill cry of anger, he swerved off and sailed upward over the river. The cat growled softly, picked up the prize in her jaws and trotted into the bushes to devour it.

The spot where all this happened was perhaps a hundred yards below that dead tree upon whose outthrust naked branch the splendid merganser drake was making his meal. In fact, he had just finished it – the last of the trout's tail had just vanished with a spasm down his strained gullet – when the baffled hawk caught sight of him and swooped. Happily for him, he on his part caught sight of the hawk, and dropped like lead into the torrent. The hawk alighted on the dead branch, and sat upright, motionless, as if surprised. The change was so sudden that it almost seemed as if the duck had been metamorphosed into a hawk on the instant, by the stroke of an invisible enchanter's wand.

The fisher of the chutes, meanwhile, was swimming straight downstream for the broken water. Like his unfortunate little cousin, the teal, he, too, had felt the fear of death smitten into his heart, and was heading desperately for the refuge of some dark overhanging bank, deep-fringed with weeds, where the dreadful eye of the hawk should not discern him.

The hawk sat upon the branch and watched his quarry swimming beneath the surface. At last the swimmer came to the broken water and plunged into it. Almost instantly he was forced to the top. With only head and wings above the mad smother, he flapped onward frantically, beating down the foam about him. Straightway the hawk glided from his perch and darted after him.

The drake sank again instantly. But at this point in the rapids it was impossible for him to stay down. As long as his body was completely submerged, it was at the mercy of the twisting and tortured currents, which rolled him over and over, in spite of his swimming craft. He would have been drowned, the breath battered clean out of him, in half a minute more, had he maintained the hopelessly unequal struggle. Once more he half emerged, filled his gasping lungs, and pounded onward desperately, half flying and half swimming. It was a mongrel method of progression, in which he was singularly expert.

Immediately over his outstretched gleaming head flew the hawk. But this frequenter of the heights of air, for all his savage valor, was troubled at the leaping waves and the tossing foam of these mad rapids. He did not understand them. They seemed to jump up at him, and he dare not let his sweeping wing-tips touch them, lest they should seize and drag him down. As he flew, his down-reaching, clutching talons were not half a yard above the fugitive's head. Where the waves for an instant sank, they came closer, – but not quite within grasping reach. The marauder from the upper air was waiting till his quarry should reach less turbulent waters.

A few yards further on, the torrent fell seething over a long ledge into a pool of brief quiet. Immediately beyond the lip of the ledge the hawk lifted his wings high over his back and struck downward, so that his talons went deep into the water. But water was all they clutched. The wily drake had plunged with the plunge of the fall itself, and was now darting onward at a safe depth. The hawk followed, his wing-tips now almost brushing the water. The pool was, perhaps, a hundred yards in length. Then the combined flow of the North Fork and the Ottanoonsis broke once more into turbulence, and once more the desperate swimmer was forced to the surface. But, as before, the leaping waves of the rapids were too much for his pursuer, and he was able to flap his way onward in a cloud of foam, while doom hung low above his head, yet hesitated to strike.

The odds, however, were now laid heavily against the fugitive. The hawk, embittered by the loss of his first quarry, had become as dogged in pursuit as a weasel, not to be shaken off or evaded or deceived. The rapids would presently come to an end. Then, in the still water, unless he should chance upon a hiding-place, the drake would soon be forced to come to the top for breath, and those throttling talons would instantly close upon his neck. But the antic forest Fates, wearied of the simple routine of the wilderness, had decreed an altogether novel intervention, and were giggling in their cloaks of ancient moss.

Beside the pool at the foot of the rapids stood a fisherman, casting for trout amid the whirling foam-clusters. He had three flies on his cast, and, because in these waters there was always the chance of hooking a grilse, he was using heavy tackle. His flies, as befitted these amber-brown, tumultuous northern streams, were large and conspicuous – a Parmacheenie Belle for the tail fly, with a Montreal and a Red Hackle for the drops.

Far across the pool, where an eddy sucked sullenly at the froth-patches as they swung by, the fisherman had just had a heavy rise. He had struck too quickly, deceived by the swirl of the current, and missed his fish. He had a lot of line out, and the place was none too free for a long cast; but he was impatient to drop his flies again on the spot where the big fish was feeding.

Just as he made his cast, he saw the fleeing drake and the pursuing hawk come round the bend. He saw the frantic fugitive dive over the ledge and disappear. He saw the great hawk swoop savagely. He tried to check his cast, but it was too late. A remark unsuitable to the printed page exploded upon his lips, and he saw his leader settle deliberately over the long beating wings, the tail-fly coiling about them like a whip-lash.

The last drop-fly, as luck would have it, caught just in the corner of the hawk's angrily open beak, hooking itself firmly. At the sudden sharp sting of it, the great bird turned his head and noticed, for the first time, the fisherman standing on the bank. At the same moment he felt the light restraint of the almost invisible leader upon his wings, where the other two flies had affixed themselves. He shot up into the air, and heard a sharp, disconcerting rattle as the taut line raced from the reel. The drag upon his beak and the light check upon his wings were inexplicable to him, and appalling. Drake, teal, hunger and wrath were all alike forgotten, and he beat upwards with a rush that made the reel fairly screech its indignant protest. For a moment the fisherman, bewildered, tried to play him like a salmon. Then the leader parted from the line. The fisherman reeled in the limp coils, and the worried hawk flew off with the flies.

The drake, unrealizing that the dreadful chase was done, sped onward beneath the surface till he could go without breath no longer. Then he came up among some arrowweeds, lifted his head beneath the shelter of one of the broad-barbed leaves, and floated there quivering. For a good ten minutes he waited, moveless, with the patience of the wild things. Then his terror faded, appetite once more began to invite his attention, and he took note of a minnow flickering slowly over the sun-flecked mud below him. He dived and caught it, came to the surface and swallowed it. Much refreshed, he looked about him. There was no such thing as a hawk in sight. Some way up the shore there was a man at the water's edge, fishing. The drake was suspicious of men, though he did not greatly fear them, as he and his rank-fleshed tribe were not interesting to the hunters. He rose noisily into the air, made a detour over the tree-tops to avoid the fisherman, and flew back to his dead branch overhanging the amber rush of the chutes.



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