Hoof and Claw
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In the doorway the bear paused, eyeing suspiciously the tiny blue spurt of the struggling match. After a second or two, however, he came forward with a savage rush, furious at having been so long balked. The girl slipped around the stove. And just as the bear reached the place where she had been standing, the spruce tips sparked sharply and flared up in his face. With a loud woo-oof of indignation and alarm, he recoiled, turned tail, scurried out into the road, and disappeared.
In a couple of minutes the cabin was full of sparks and smoky light. The girl ran to the door and peered out. Her heart sank once more. There was the bear, a few paces up the road, calmly sitting on his haunches, waiting. He had seen camp fires before, and he was waiting for this one to die down.
Sissy Bembridge knew that it would die down at once, and then – well, her last card would have been played. She wrung her hands, but in the new self-possession which had come to her, she could not believe that the end had really arrived. It was unbelievable that within some half a dozen minutes she should become a lifeless, hideous, shapeless thing beneath those mangling claws. No, there must be – there was – something to do, if she could only think of it.
And then it came to her.
At first thought the idea was so audacious, so startling, so fantastic, that she shrank from it as absurd. But on second thoughts she convinced herself not only that it was the one thing to be done, but also that it was practical and would almost certainly prove effective. But there was not a moment to be lost.
Snatching up one of the fragments of stove-pipe, she used the edge as a shovel, and carried a portion of the blazing stuff to the open doorway. Here she deliberately set fire to the dry woodwork, nursing with hand and breath the tiny uplicking flames. She fed them with a few more scraps of spruce scraped up from another bunk, till she saw that they would surely catch. Then, with her stove-pipe shovel, she started another fire in the further corner of the camp, and yet another in the uppermost bunk. When satisfied that all were fairly going, she retrieved her stocking from the broken latch, reclothed her naked foot and set her bundle safely outside. Then she looked at the bear, still sitting on his haunches a little way up the road, and she laughed at him. At last she had him worsted. She darted in through the doorway – now blazing cheerfully all up one side – and dragged forth the heavy bench, that she might have something dry to sit on while she watched the approaching conflagration.
Her calculation – and she knew it was a sound one – was that the cabin, a solid structure of logs, would burn vigorously the whole night through, and terrify the bear to final flight. If it should by any chance die down before full daylight, she would be able to build a circle of small fires with the burning remnants. And she felt sure that in daylight her enemy would not dare to renew the attack.
In another ten minutes the roof was ablaze, and soon the flames were shooting up riotously.The woods were lighted redly for hundreds of yards around, the pools in the road were like polished copper, and the bear was nowhere to be seen. Sissy dragged her bench and bundle still further away, and sat philosophically warming her wet feet. The reaction from her terror, and her sense of triumph, made her so excited that fatigue and anxiety were all forgotten. She grew warm and comfortable, and finally, opening her bundle, she got out a package of neglected sandwiches and made a contented meal.
As she was shaking the crumbs from her lap, she heard voices and pounding, splashing hoofs from up the trail. She sprang to her feet. Three lumbermen came riding into the circle of light, and drew rein before her in astonishment. "Sissy – Bembridge —you!" cried the foremost, springing from his saddleless mount.
The girl ran to him. "Oh, Mike," she exclaimed, crying and laughing all at the same time, and clutching him by the arm, "I had to do it! The bear nigh got me! Take me to mother, quick. I'm that tired."
A Basket of Fish
Fresh and tender, the light of the mild spring afternoon caressed the little abandoned clearing in the wilderness. At the back of the clearing, beneath a solitary white birch tree just bursting into green, stood a squatter's log cabin, long deserted, its door and window gone, its roof of poles and bark half fallen in. Past the foot of the clearing, with dancing sparkle and a crisp, musical clamor, ran a shallow stream some dozen yards in width, its clear waters amber-tawny from the far-off cedar-swamps in which it took its rise. Along one side came the deeply rutted backwoods road, skirting the clearing and making its precarious way across the stream by a rude bridge not lightly to be ventured after dark. Over all the face of the lonely backwoods world was washed the high, thin green of the New Brunswick May-time, under a sky of crystal cobalt dotted with dense white fleeces.
Before the ruined cabin stood a light wagon, its wheels and polished body bespattered with mud. In the open back of the wagon, thrust well under the seat to be in the shade, lay a large wicker fishing-basket, with a tuft of grass sticking out through the square hole in the cover. Some ten or a dozen paces distant, tethered beneath the birch tree, a sorrel horse munched the last remnants of a bundle of hay, and whisked his long tail industriously to keep off the flies.
From behind a corner of the ruined cabin peered craftily a red fox. He eyed the wagon, he eyed the horse beneath the birch tree, he scrutinized the whole clearing, the road, and the open stretch of the stream. Then his narrowed, searching gaze returned to the wagon and to the fat basket in the back of the wagon. At length he stepped forth mincingly into full view, trotted up, and sniffed inquisitively. As if in doubt, he raised himself on his hind legs, with his fore-paws on the tire of the nearest wheel, and took a long, satisfying sniff. Yes, undoubtedly there were fish in the basket, fresh fish – trout, in fact.
He wanted those fish exceedingly. It seemed easy enough to get them. He shifted his fore-paws to the back of the wagon, and studied the situation. Why should he not climb up and help himself? The sorrel horse, catching a whiff of his pungent scent, looked around at him suddenly and snorted. But what did he care for the disapproval of the sorrel horse? All horses, submissive and enslaved, he held in profoundest scorn. He would have those trout, whether the horse liked it or not. And, anyhow, he saw that the horse was tethered to the tree. He settled himself back upon his haunches to spring into the wagon.
Then a new idea flashed into his cunning red head. No one who valued fresh-caught trout at their full worth would leave them thus unguarded unless for a sinister purpose. They were surely left there as a trap. The fox wrinkled his nose with mingled regret and disdain. He knew something of traps. He had once been nipped. He was not to be caught again, not he. What fools these men were, after all! His satisfaction at having seen through their schemes almost compensated him for the loss of the expected meal. He drew back, sat down on his tail, and eyed the wagon minutely for a while. Then he trotted away into the forest again to hunt wood-mice.
But it was just here that the red prowler's cunning overreached itself. The basket in the wagon was full of trout, and there was no trap to be feared. He might have feasted to his heart's content, and incurred no penalty more serious than the disapproval of the tethered horse, had he not been quite so amazingly clever. For even among the wild kindreds the prize is not always to him of nimble wit.
The trout were there in the basket simply because the fishing had been so good. The two fishermen who had driven out from town, in the gray of dawn, over those fifteen miles of bad backwoods road, had fished the stream upward from the bridge throughout the morning. At this season the trout – fine, vivid fish, of good pan size – were lying in the open, dancing runs and about the tails of the rapids; and they were rising freely to almost any bright fly, though with a preference for a red hackle. Toward noon the fishermen had returned to the clearing to lunch beneath the birch tree and to feed and water the horse. They had emptied all their catch into one basket, stowed the basket under the wagon seat, then started off again to fish the finer reaches of the stream, with its wide pools and long, sunlit rapids, below the bridge. Good fishermen, but not expert woodsmen, they had no idea that, here in the solitude, they ran any risk of being robbed of their morning's spoils.
* * * * * *
Soon after the departure of the over-crafty fox, a backwoods tramp came by, with a ragged little bundle slung from the stick on his shoulder. His eyes lighted up at sight of the unguarded wagon from town, and he understood the situation at a glance. In the front of the wagon, by the dash-board, he found a lunch-basket, still half full, as the fishermen had provided themselves for another substantial meal. He hurriedly devoured about half the contents of the lunch-basket, transferred the rest to his dirty bundle, and with huge satisfaction lighted a half-burned cigar which one of the fishermen had left lying on a log. Next he investigated the fishing-basket. Half a dozen of the finest fish he took out and strung upon a forked twig. This he did not regard as stealing, but merely as the exaction of a small and reasonable tribute from a Society which had of late neglected to feed him any too well. Puffing his cigar butt in high good humor, he went over and made friends with the horse, feeding it with a few handfuls of fresh grass. Then, with the string of fish dangling beside his bundle and flapping against it as he walked, he resumed his solitary journey, picked his way over the dilapidated bridge, and vanished into the fir forest beyond. The horse, feeling rather lonely, neighed after him as he disappeared.
An abandoned clearing or a deserted log cabin, something to which man has set his hand and then withdrawn it, seems always a place of peculiar fascination to the creatures of the wilderness. They have some sense, perhaps, of having regained a lost dominion. Or possibly they think, from these his leavings, to learn something significant of man's mysterious over-lordship. In any case, the attraction seldom fails.
The tramp had not been long gone, when a new visitor arrived. Up from the fringing bushes along the stream's edge came furtively a little, low, long-bodied beast, in shape much like an exaggerated weasel, but almost black in color. Its head was almost triangular; its eyes, set near together, were bright and cruel. It came half-way across the meadow, then stopped, and eyed for some time the tethered horse and the deserted wagon. Seeing nothing to take alarm at, it made a wide circuit, ran behind the cabin, and reappeared, as the fox had done, at the corner nearest the wagon. From this point of vantage it surveyed the situation anew, a little spark of blood-red fire alternately glowing and fading in its eyes as its keen nostrils caught the scent of the fish.
Satisfied at length that there was no danger within range, the mink glided up to the wagon. The horse it paid no heed to. It circled the wagon a couple of times in a nervous, jerky run, its head darting this way and that, till its nose assured it beyond question that the fish it scented were in the wagon itself. Thereupon – for the mink lacks the fox's hair-splitting astuteness, and does not take long to make up its mind – it clambered nimbly up through one of the wheels and fell straightway upon the fish-basket.
Now, the tramp, courteous in his depredations, had taken thought to refasten the basket. The mink was puzzled. The hole in the top of the basket, though he might have squeezed his head through it, was not large enough to let him reach the fish. He began jerking the basket and pulling it about savagely. The back of the wagon consisted of a hinged flap, and the fishermen had left it hanging down. The basket, dragged this way and that, came presently to the edge, toppled over, and fell heavily to the ground on its bulging side. The fastening came undone, and the cover flopped half open. The mink dropped down beside it, flung himself upon it furiously, and began jerking forth and scattering the contents, tearing mouthfuls out of one fish after another in a paroxysm of greed, as if he feared they were still alive and might get away from him.
The basket emptied and his first rage glutted, the mink now fell to the business of making a serious meal. Selecting a fish to his taste, he ate it at great leisure, leaving the head and the tail upon the grass. Then he picked out a larger one, as if he regarded the first as merely an appetizer.
As he gnawed luxuriously at the silver-and-buff, vermilion-spotted tit-bit, an immense shadow floated between him and the sun. He did not take time to look up and see what it was. It was as if the touch of that shadow had loosed a powerful spring. He simply shot from his place, at such speed that the eye could not distinguish how he did it, and in the minutest fraction of a second was curled within the empty fishing-basket, which still lay on its side, half open. A pair of long, black, sickle-curved talons, surmounted by thickly feathered gray shanks, clutched at the place where he had stood.
Furious at having missed her strike, the great horned owl, that tigress of the air, flapped up again on her soundless, downy wings, and swooped suddenly at the basket, as if trying to turn it over. As her talons clawed at the wickerwork, feeling for a hold, the head of the mink, on its long, snaky neck, darted forth, reached up, and struck its fine white fangs into her thigh.
But the great owl's armor of feathers, though it looked so soft and fluffy, was in fact amazingly resistant. The mink's long teeth reached the flesh and drew blood, but he gained no grip. That steel-muscled thigh was wrenched from his jaws, leaving him with an embarrassing mouthful of down. He jerked his head into cover again, just as the bird made another lightning clutch at him.
For all his rage, the mink kept his wits about him. He knew the owl for one of his most dangerous rivals and adversaries. He knew that he could kill her if once he could reach her throat or get his grip fixed on one of her mighty wings close to the base. But that if kept him prudent. He was too well aware that in an open combat he was more than likely to get his neck or his back into the clutch of those inexorable talons, and that would be the end of him. Discreetly, therefore, he kept himself well within the basket, which was large enough to hold him comfortably. He snarled shrilly through the little square hole in the cover, while his assailant, balked of her prey and furious with the smart of her wound, pounced once more upon the basket and strove to claw an entrance. A chance blow of one of her pounding wings drove the lid – the basket being still on its side – completely to. The sorrel horse under the birch-tree swung round on his tether and rolled his eyes and snorted, deeply scandalized at such goings-on about his familiar wagon.
It was just at this point in the mink's adventure that the fox returned to the clearing. He had had rather poor luck with the wood-mice, and his chaps watered with the memory of those trout in the wagon. Something of an expert in dealing with traps, he made up his mind that he would try to circumvent this one.
The sight that met his shrewd eyes, as he emerged warily from the cover of the fir woods, amazed him. He halted to take it in thoroughly. He saw the basket lying on the ground, and the angry owl clawing at it. The fish he did not see. He concluded that they were still in the basket, and that the owl was trying to get at them. This particular kind of owl, as he knew, was a most formidable antagonist; but with his substantial weight and his long, punishing jaws, he felt himself much more than a match for her. His eyes flamed green with indignation as he watched her trying to steal the prize which he had already marked down for his own. He darted forward on tip-toe – noiselessly, as he thought – and made a long leap at the flapping, dusky wings.
But the ears of an owl are a very miracle of sensitiveness. They can catch the squeak of a mouse at a distance which, for ordinary ears, would make the sharp clucking of a chipmunk inaudible. To the bird on the basket the coming of those velvet footsteps were like the scamper of a frightened sheep. She sprang into the air without an effort, hung for a moment to glare down upon the fox with her hard, round, moon-pale eyes, and then sailed off without a sound, having no mind to try conclusions with the long-jawed red stranger.
The fox was surprised to find the trout lying scattered about the grass, some of them bitten and mangled. What, then, was in the basket? What was the great owl trying to get at, when the precious fish were all spread out before her? Curiosity dominating his hunger, he stepped up to the basket and sniffed at the hole in the lid. Instantly there was a shrill, vicious snarl from within, and a wide-open, triangular mouth, set with white teeth, darted at his nose. He drew back hastily and sat down on his tail, ears cocked and head tilted to one side, to consider.
It puzzled him greatly that there should be a mink in the basket. Tip-toeing cautiously around it, he saw that the lid was slightly open, so that the mink could come out if he wished. But the fox did not want him to come out. What the fox wanted was fish, not a fight with an adversary who would give him a lot of trouble. By all means, let the mink stay in there.
Keeping a sharp watch on the lid of the basket, the fox backed away cautiously several feet, lay down, and fell to devouring the trout. But never for an instant did he take his eyes off that slightly moving lid. He lay with his feet gathered under him, every muscle ready for action, expecting each moment to find himself involved in a desperate battle for the prize he was enjoying. He could not imagine a fiery-tempered personage like the mink tamely submitting to the rape of his banquet. He felt sure that in the next second or two a snaky black shape, all teeth and springs and venom, would dart from the basket and be at his throat. He was ready for it, but he was not hankering after it.
Meanwhile, there behind the basket lid, the mink was raging irresolutely. It galled him to the marrow to watch his big, arrogant, bush-tailed rival complacently gulping down those fine fat trout. But – well, he had himself already eaten one of the trout and a good part of another. His hunger was blunted. He could rage within reason, and his reason admonished him to keep out of this fight if it could be managed. He knew the whipcord muscle underlying that soft red fur, the deadly grip of those long, narrow jaws. There is no peace counsellor like a contented belly. So he snarled softly to himself and waited.
The fox, having swallowed as much as he could hold, stood up, stretched himself, and licked his chaps. The look which he kept upon the basket was no less vigilant than before, but there was now a tinge of scorn in it. There were still some trout left, but he wanted to get away. He snatched up the two biggest fish in his jaws and trotted off with them to the woods, glancing back over his shoulder as he went.
Before he had gained the cover of the fir trees, the mink glided forth, planted his forepaws on the remaining fish, and stood staring after him in an attitude of challenge. Had the fox returned, the mink would now have fought. But the fox had no thought of returning. There was nothing to fight about. He had got what he wanted. He had no rooted objection to the mink having what was left. He trotted away nonchalantly toward his burrow under the roots of an old birch tree on the hill.
The mink stuffed himself till he could not get another mouthful down. There were still a couple of trout untouched. He eyed them regretfully, but he had not the fox's wit or providence to carry them off and hide them for future use. He left them, therefore, with a collection of neatly severed heads and tails, to mock the fishermen when they should return at sunset. He was feeling very drowsy. At a deliberate pace, quite unlike his usual eager and darting movements, he made off down the clearing toward the water. Beneath the bank was an old musquash hole which he was well acquainted with. Only the other day, indeed, he had cleared out its inhabitants, devouring their litter of young. He crawled into the hole, curled up on the soft, dead grass of the devastated nest, and cosily went to sleep.
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