Charles Roberts.

Hoof and Claw



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To Woof a human habitation stood for friendliness and food and shelter. He approached, therefore, without hesitation.

There was no sign of life about the place, except for the smoke rising liberally from the stove-pipe chimney. The door was shut, but Woof knew that doors frequently opened if one scratched at them and whined persuasively. He tried it, then stopped to listen for an answer. The answer came – a heavy, comfortable snore from within the cabin. It was mid-morning, and the camp cook, having got his work done up, was sleeping in his bunk the while the dinner was boiling.

Woof scratched and whined again. Then, growing impatient, he reared himself on his haunches in order to scratch with both paws at once. His luck favored him, for he happened to scratch on the latch. It lifted, the door swung open suddenly, and he half fell across the threshold. He had not intended so abrupt an entrance, and he paused, peering with diffidence and hope into the homely gloom.

The snoring had stopped suddenly. At the rear of the cabin Woof made out a large, round, startled face, fringed with scanty red whiskers and a mop of red hair, staring at him from over the edge of an upper bunk. Woof had hoped to find Jabe Smith there. But this was a stranger, so he suppressed his impulse to rush in and wallow delightedly before the bunk. Instead of that, he came only half-way over the threshold, and stood there making those violent contortions which he believed to be wagging his tail.

To a cool observer of even the most limited intelligence it would have been clear that these contortions were intended to be conciliatory. But the cook of Conroy's Camp was taken by surprise, and he was not a cool observer – in fact, he was frightened. A gun was leaning against the wall below the bunk. A large, hairy hand stole forth, reached down and clutched the gun.

Woof wagged his haunches more coaxingly than ever, and took another hopeful step forward. Up went the gun. There was a blue-white spurt, and the report clashed deafeningly within the narrow quarters.

The cook was a poor shot at any time, and at this moment he was at a special disadvantage. The bullet went close over the top of Woof's head and sang waspishly across the clearing. Woof turned and looked over his shoulder to see what the man had fired at. If anything was hit, he wanted to go and get it and fetch it for the man, as Jabe and Jinny had taught him to do. But he could see no result of the shot. He whined deprecatingly and ventured all the way into the cabin.

The cook felt desperately for another cartridge. There was none to be found. He remembered that they were all in the chest by the door. He crouched back in the bunk, making himself as small as possible, and hoping that a certain hunk of bacon on the bench by the stove might divert the terrible stranger's attention and give him a chance to make a bolt for the door.

But Woof had not forgotten either the good example of Jinny or the discipline of Mrs.

Jabe's broom. Far be it from him to help himself without leave. But he was very hungry. Something must be done to win the favor of the strangely unresponsive round-faced man in the bunk. Looking about him anxiously, he espied a pair of greasy cowhide "larrigans" lying on the floor near the door. Picking one up in his mouth, after the manner of his retriever foster-mother, he carried it over and laid it down, as a humble offering, beside the bunk.

Now, the cook, though he had been undeniably frightened, was by no means a fool. This touching gift of one of his own larrigans opened his eyes and his heart. Such a bear, he was assured, could harbor no evil intentions. He sat up in his bunk.

"Hullo!" said he. "What ye doin' here, sonny? What d'ye want o' me, anyhow?"

The huge black beast wagged his hindquarters frantically and wallowed on the floor in his fawning delight at the sound of a human voice.

"Seems to think he's a kind of a dawg," muttered the cook thoughtfully. And then the light of certain remembered rumors broke upon his memory.

"I'll be jiggered," said he, "ef 'tain't that there tame b'ar Jabe Smith, over to East Fork, used to have afore he was burnt out!"

Climbing confidently from the bunk, he proceeded to pour a generous portion of molasses over the contents of the scrap pail, because he knew that bears had a sweet tooth. When the choppers and drivers came trooping in for dinner, they were somewhat taken aback to find a huge bear sleeping beside the stove. As the dangerous-looking slumberer seemed to be in the way – none of the men caring to sit too close to him – to their amazement the cook smacked the mighty hindquarters with the flat of his hand, and bundled him unceremoniously into a corner. "'Pears to think he's some kind of a dawg," explained the cook, "so I let him come along in for company. He'll fetch yer larrigans an' socks an' things fer ye. An' it makes the camp a sight homier, havin' somethin' like a cat or a dawg about."

"Right you are!" agreed the boss. "But what was that noise we heard, along about an hour back? Did you shoot anything?"

"Oh, that was jest a little misunderstandin', before him an' me got acquainted," explained the cook, with a trace of embarrassment. "We made it up all right."

The Trail of the Vanishing Herds

Once again, but sluggishly, as if oppressed by apprehensions which they could not understand, the humped and lion-fronted herds of the bison began to gather for the immemorial southward drift. Harassed of late years by new and terrible enemies, their herds had been so thinned and scattered that even to the heavy brains of the fiercer old bulls a vague idea of caution was beginning to penetrate. Hitherto it had been the wont of the colossal hordes to deal with their adversaries in a very direct and simple fashion – to charge and thunder down upon them, to roll over them in an irresistible flood of angry hooves, and trample them out of existence. Against the ancient enemies this straightforward method of warfare had been efficacious enough, and the herds had multiplied till the plains were black with their marching myriads. But against the new foe – the white man, with his guns and his cunning, his cool courage and his insatiable greed – it had been a destructive failure. The mightier their myriads, the more irresistible the invitation to this relentless slaughterer; and they had melted before him. At last a new instinct had begun to stir in their crude intelligences, an instinct to scatter, to shun the old, well-worn trails of migration, to seek pasturage in the remoter valleys and by small streams where the white man's foot had not yet trespassed. But as yet it was no more than the suggestion of an instinct, too feeble and fumbling to sway the obstinate hordes. It had come to birth too late. Here and there a little troop – perhaps half a dozen cows under the lordship of some shaggy bull more alert and supple-witted than his fellows – resisted the summons to assemble, and slipped off among the wooded glades. But the rest, uneasy, yet uncomprehending, obeyed the ancestral impulse and gathered till the northern plains were black with them.

Then the great march began, the fateful southward drift.

The horde of the giant migrants was not a homogeneous mass, as it would have seemed to one viewing it from a distance and a height. It was made up of innumerable small herds, from a dozen to thirty or forty bison in each. Each of these little groups hung together tenaciously, under the dominance of two or three old bulls, and kept at a certain distance, narrow but appreciable, from the herds immediately neighboring it. But all the herds drifted southward together in full accord, now journeying, now halting, now moving again, as if organized and ordered by some one central and inflexible control. Rival bulls roared their challenges, pawed the earth, fought savage duels with their battering fronts and short, ripping horns, as they went; but always onward they pressed, the south with its sun-steeped pastures drawing them, the north with its menace of storm driving them before it. And the sound of their bellowings and their tramplings rose in a heavy thunder above their march, till the wide plain seemed to rock with it.

Countless as was their array, however, they seemed dimly conscious, with a sort of vague, communal, unindividual sort of perception, that their numbers and their power were as nothing in comparison with the migrations of preceding autumns. The arrogance of irresistible might had passed from them. They went sullenly, as if under a cloud of dark expectation. And the separate herds hung closer to their neighbors than had hitherto been the custom in the horde, as if seeking reassurance against an unknown threat.

All around the far-flung outskirts of the host ran, skulking and dodging, its accustomed, hereditary foes – the little slim, yellow-gray coyotes and the gaunt timber wolves. The coyotes, dangerous only to the dying or to very young calves separated from their mothers, were practically ignored, save for an occasional angry rush on the part of some nervous cow; and, trusting to their amazing speed, they frequently ran far in among the herds, in the hope of spotting some sick animal and keeping it in view till the host should pass on and leave it to its fate. The great gray timber wolves, however, were honored with more attention. Powerful enough alone to pull down a yearling calf, they were always watched with savage and apprehensive eyes by the cows, and forced to keep their distance. The stragglers, old and young, were their prey, or sometimes a wounded bull, worsted in battle and driven from his herd, and weak from loss of blood. In twos and threes they prowled, silent and grimly watchful, hanging on the flanks of the host or picking their way in its vast, betrampled, desolated trail.

On the outermost edge of the right or western wing of the bellowing host went a compact little herd, which hung together with marked obstinacy. It consisted of a dozen cows with their calves and yearlings, and two adult bulls, one of which, the younger and less heavily maned, kept diffidently at the rear and seemed to occupy the busy but subordinate post of a sort of staff-sergeant. The other was an immense bull, with splendid leonine front and with a watchful, suspicious look in his eyes which contrasted sharply with the sullen stare of his fellows. He had the wisdom learned in many eventful migrations, and he captained his herd imperiously, being sure, in the main, as to what was best for them. But of just one thing he seemed somewhat unsure. He appeared irresolute as to the southward march or else as to the companionship of the host. By hanging upon the skirts of it, he held himself ready to detach his little herd from its company and make off among the foothills in case of need. At the same time, by thus keeping on the outskirts of the host he secured for his little knot of satellites the freshest and sweetest pasturage.

However disquieting the brown bull's apprehensions, they were too vague to let him know what it was he feared. For the accustomed perils of the march he entertained just so much dread as befitted a sagacious leader – no more. The skulking coyotes he disdained to notice. They might skulk or dart about like lean shadows, as near the herd as the jealous cows would permit, and he would never trouble to shake the polished scimitars of his horns at them. The great gray wolves he scorned; but, with perhaps a dim prevision of the day when he should be old and feeble, and driven out from the herd, he could not ignore them. He chased them off angrily if they ventured within the range of his attention. But against an enemy whom he had learned to respect, the Indian hunters, he kept an untiring watch, and the few white hunters, who had already so thinned the bison host, he remembered with a fear which was mingled with vengeful resentment. Nevertheless, even his well-grounded fear of those human foes was not enough to account for his almost panicky forebodings. These enemies, as he had known them, struck always on the flanks of the host; and he had tactics to elude even the dreadful thunder and spurted lightning of their guns. His fear was of he knew not what and therefore it ground remorselessly upon his nerves.

For the present, however, there were none of these human enemies near, and the host rolled on southward, with its bellowings and its tramplings, unmolested. Neither Indians nor white men approached this stage of the migration. The autumn days were sunny, beneath a sky bathed in dream. The autumn nights were crisp with tonic frost, and in the pink freshness of the dawn a wide-flung mist arose from the countless puffing nostrils and the frost-rimed, streaming manes. Pasturage was abundant, the tempers of the great bulls were bold and pugnacious, and nothing seemed less likely than that any disaster could menace so mighty and invincible a host. Yet Brown Bull was uneasy. From time to time he would lift his red-rimmed nostrils, sniff the air in every direction, and scan the summits of the foothills far on the right, as if the unknown peril which he apprehended was likely to come from that direction.

As day by day passed on without event, the diffused anxiety of the host quite died away. But Brown Bull, with his wider sagacity or more sensitive intuition, seemed to grow only the more apprehensive and the more vigilant. His temper did not improve under the strain, and his little troop of followers was herded with a severity which must have taxed, for the moment, their faith in its beneficence.

The host lived, fought, fed, as it went, halting only for sleep and the hours of rest. In this inexorable southward drift the right flank passed one morning over a steep little knoll, the crest of which chanced to be occupied by Brown Bull and his herd just at the moment when the moving ranks came to a halt for the forenoon siesta. It was such a post of vantage as Brown Bull loved. He stood there sniffing with wide, wet nostrils, and searching the horizon for danger. The search was vain, as ever; but just behind him, and closer in toward the main body of the host, he saw something that made his stretched nerves thrill with anger. An old bull had just been driven out from a neighboring herd, deposed from his lordship and hideously gored by a younger and stronger rival. Staggering from his wounds, and overwhelmed with a sudden terror of isolation, he tried to edge his way into the herd next behind him. He was ejected mercilessly. From herd to herd he staggered, met always by a circle of lowered horns and angry eyes, and so went stumbling back to that lonely doom which, without concern, he had seen meted out to so many of his fellows, but had never thought of as possible to himself. This pitiful sight, of course, was nothing to Brown Bull. It hardly even caught his eye, still less his interest. Had he been capable of formulating his indifferent thoughts upon the matter, they would have taken some such form as: "Serve him right for being licked!" But when at last the wounded outcast was set upon by four big timber wolves and pulled, bellowing, to his knees, that was another affair. Brown Bull could not tolerate the sight of the gray wolves triumphing. With a roar of rage he charged down the knoll. His herd, astonished but obedient, lowered their massive heads and charged at his heels. The wolves snarled venomously, forsook their prize, and vanished. Brown Bull led the charge straight on and over the body of the dying outcast, trampling it into dreadful shapelessness. Then, halting abruptly, he looked about him in surprise. The wolves were gone. His rage passed from him. He led his followers tranquilly back to their place on the knoll, to the accompaniment of puzzled snortings from the neighbor herds.

The herd fell to feeding at once, as if nothing in the least unusual had happened. But Brown Bull, after cropping the sweet, tufted grass for a few minutes, was seized with one of his pangs of apprehension, and raised his head for a fresh survey of the distance. This time he did not resume his feeding, but stood for several minutes shifting his feet uneasily until he had quite satisfied himself that the ponies which he saw emerging from a cleft in the foothills were not a harmless wild troop, but carried each a red rider. He had reached the Indian country, and his place on the flank of the host, as his craft and experience told him, was no longer a safe one.

For a little, Brown Bull stood irresolute, half inclined to lead his followers away from the host and slip back into the wooded foothills whence they had come. Then, either moved by a remembrance of the harsh winter of the north, or drawn by the pull of the host upon his gregarious heart, he lost the impulse. Instead of forsaking the host, he led his herd down the knoll and insinuated it into a gap in the ranks.

Here Brown Bull was undoubtedly a trespasser. But instead of forcing a combat or, rather, a succession of combats, he contented himself with holding his straitened ground firmly rather than provocatively. His towering bulk and savage, resolute bearing made the nearest bulls unwilling to challenge his intrusion. Little by little the herds yielded way, half unconsciously, seeking merely their own convenience. Little by little, also, Brown Bull continued his crafty encroachments, till at length, after perhaps a couple of hours of maneuvering, he had his charges some four or five hundred yards in from the exposed flank and well placed near the front of the march, where the pasturage was still sweet and untrampled.

The Indians, sweeping up on their mad ponies, rode close to the flank of the host and chose their victims at leisure. Killing for meat and not for sport, they selected only young cows in good condition, and were too sparing of their powder to shoot more than they needed. They clung to the host for some hours, throwing the outer fringe of it into confusion, but attracting little attention from the herds beyond their reach. Once in a while some bull, more fiery than his fellows, would charge with blind, uncalculating valor upon these nimble assailants, only to be at once shot down for his hide. But for the most part, none but those herds actually assailed paid much attention to what was going on. They instinctively crowded away from the flying horsemen, the flames and thunder of the guns. But their numbers and the nearness of their companions seemed to give them a stolid sense of security even when the swift death was almost upon them. As for Brown Bull, all this was just what he had expected and made provision against. The assault came nowhere near his own charges, so he treated it as none of his affair.

The Indians withdrew long before nightfall; but the following day brought others, and for a week or more there was never a day without this harassing attack upon one flank or another of the host, or sometimes upon both flanks at once. Again and again, as the outer ranks dwindled, Brown Bull found himself nearing the danger zone, and discreetly on each occasion he worked his herd in a few hundred yards nearer the center.

Then, for a space of some days, the attacks of the Indians ceased, and the wolves and coyotes came back to dog the trail of the diminished host. But Brown Bull was not unduly elated by this respite. He held his followers to their place near the center of the march, and maintained his firm and apprehensive vigilance untiringly. The days were now hot and cloudless, and so dry that the host seemed literally to drink up every brook or pond it passed, and an irritating dust-cloud overhung the rear of the trampling hoofs.

But these few days of peace were but prelude to harsher trial. From somewhere far to the left came now a band of white hunters, who rode around the host and attacked it on both flanks at once. They killed more heedlessly and brutally than the Indians, for the sake of the hides rather than for meat, each man hurriedly marking his own kill and then dashing on to seek more victims. Each night they camped, and in the cool of the morning overtook the slow-moving host on their tireless mustangs. The trail of stripped red carcasses which they left behind them glutted all the wolves, coyotes, and carrion crows for leagues about, and affronted the wholesome daylight of the plains. This visitation lasted for five or six days, and the terror it created spread inwards to the very heart of the host. Gradually the host quickened its march, leaving itself little time for feeding and only enough rest for the vitally essential process of rumination. At last the white marauders, satiated with slaughter, dropped behind, and immediately the host, now shrunken by nearly a third, slackened its pace and seemed to forget its punishment. Phlegmatic and short of memory, the herds were restored to content by a day of heavy rain, which laid the dust, and freshened their hides, and instilled new sweetness into the coarse plains grasses. But Brown Bull's apprehensions redoubled, and he grew lean with watching.



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