Charles Roberts.

Hoof and Claw

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The path of migration – the old path, known to the ancestors of this host for many generations – now led for many days along the right bank of a wide and turbulent but usually shallow river. The flat roar of the yellow flood upon its reefs and sand banks, mixed with the bellowings and tramplings of the host to form a thunder which could be heard in the far-off foothills, transmuted there to a murmur like the sea.

There came now a day of intense and heavy heat, with something in the air which made the whole host uneasy. They stopped pasturing, and the older bulls and cows sniffed the dead air as if they detected some strange menace upon it. Toward the middle of the afternoon a mysterious haze, of a lovely rosy saffron hue, appeared in the southeast beyond the river. It spread up the hot, turquoise-blue sky with a terrifying rapidity, blotting out the empty plain as it approached. Soon all the eyes of the host were turned upon it. Suddenly, at the heart of the rosy haze, a gigantic yellow-black column took shape, broad at the base and spreading wide at the summit, till it lost itself in a swooping canopy of blackish cloud. It drew near at frightful speed, spinning as it came, and licking up the surface of the plain beneath.

Brown Bull, whose herd was just now in the front rank of the host, stood motionless for some seconds, till he had judged the exact direction of the spinning column. Then, with a wild bellow, he lunged forward at a gallop, apparently to meet the oncoming doom. His herd charged close at his heels, none questioning his leadership, and the whole host followed, heads down, blind with panic.

Two or three minutes more, and the sky overhead was darkened. An appalling hum, as of giant wires, drowned the thunder of the galloping host. The hum shrilled to a monstrous and rending screech, and the spinning column swept across the river, wiping it up to the bottom of the channel as it passed. Brown Bull's herd felt a sickening emptiness in their lungs, and then a wind which almost lifted them from their feet; and their knees failed them in their terror. But their leader had calculated cunningly, and they were well past the track of doom. The cyclone caught the hinder section of the host diagonally, whirled it into the air like so many brown leaves, and bore it onward to be strewn in hideous fragments over the plain behind. Immediately the sky cleared. There was no more wind, but a chilly, throbbing breath. The yelling of the cyclone sank away, and the river could be heard once more brawling over its reefs and bars. A full third of the host had been blotted from existence. The survivors, still trembling, remembered that they were hungry, and fell to cropping the gritty and littered grass.

On the following day the shrunken host forded the river, which at this point turned sharply westward across the path of the migration. The river had risen suddenly owing to a cloudburst further up its course, and many of the weaklings and youngsters of the host were swept away in the passage.

But Brown Bull's herd, well guarded and disciplined, got over without loss; and for the next few days, there being no peril in sight, its wary captain suffered it to lead the march.

And now they came into a green and fertile and well-watered land, where it would have been comforting to linger and recover their strength. But here, once more, the white man came against them.

At the first signs of these most dreaded foes, Brown Bull had discreetly edged his herd back a little way into the host, so that it no longer formed the vanguard. The white men killed savagely and insatiably all along both flanks, as if not the need of hides and meat, but the sheer lust of killing possessed them. One hunter, whose pony had stepped into a badger-hole and fallen with him, was gored and trampled by a wounded bull. This fired his comrades to a more implacable savagery. They noticed that the host was a scanty one compared with the countless myriads of preceding years. "Them redskins up north have been robbing us!" they shouted, with fine logic. Then they remembered that the migrating herds were anxiously awaited by other tribes of Indians further south, who largely depended upon the bison for their living. An inspiration seized them. "Let's fix the red varmints! If we jest wipe these 'ere buffalo clean out, right now, the redskins'll starve, an' this country'll be well quit o' them!"

But strive as they might to carry out this humane intention, for all their slaughter on the flanks, the solid nucleus of the host remained unshaken, and kept drifting steadily southward. It began to look as if, in spite of Fate, a mighty remnant would yet make good its way into the broken country, dangerous with hostile Indians, whither the white hunters would hesitate to pursue. It was decided, therefore, to check the southward march of the host by splitting it up into sections and scattering it to this side and that, thus depriving it of the united migrant impulse, and leaving its destruction to be completed at more leisure.

These men knew the bison and his deep-rooted habits. In knots of three and four they stationed themselves, on their ponies, directly in the path of the advancing host.

On the flanks they attracted small attention. But directly in front, the sight of them aroused the leaders of the march to fury. They pawed the ground, snorted noisily, and then charged with their massive heads low down. And the whole host, with sudden rising rage, charged with them. It looked as if those little knots of waiting men and ponies must be annihilated.

But when that dark, awful torrent of rolling manes, wild eyes, keen horns, and shattering hoofs drew close upon the waiting groups of men, these lifted their guns and fired, one after the other, straight in the faces of the nearest bulls.

The result was instantaneous, as usual. Whether, as in most cases, the leaders fell, or, as in other instances, they escaped, the rolling torrent split and parted at once to either side as if the flame and roar from the muzzles of the guns had been so many shoulders of rock. Once divided, and panic-stricken by finding their foes at the heart of their array, the herds went to pieces hopelessly, and were easily driven off toward all points of the compass.

But in one instance – just one – the plan of the slaughterers did not work out quite as anticipated.

Three of the hunters had taken station exactly opposite the center of the host. Brown Bull and his herd were immediately behind the front rank at this point. When the great charge was met by the roar and the spirting flames, the leading bull went down, and the front rank split, as a matter of course, to pass on either side of this terrifying obstacle. But Brown Bull seemed to feel that here and now, straight before him, was the unknown peril which had been shaking his heart throughout the whole long march. In this moment his heart was no more shaken, and the tradition of his ancestors, which bade him follow his leaders like a sheep, was torn up by the roots. He did not swerve, but swept down straight upon the astonished knot of horsemen; his trusting herd came with him; and all behind, as usual, followed blindly.

The three white men turned to flee before the torrent of death. But Brown Bull caught the leader's pony in the flank, ripped it and bore it down, passing straight on over the bodies, which, in a dozen seconds, were hardly to be distinguished from the earth to which they had so suddenly and so awfully been rendered back. Of the other two, one made good his escape, because his pony had taken alarm more quickly than its master and turned in time. The third was overtaken because a cow which he had wounded stumbled in his way, and he and his pony went out along with her beneath the hoofs of Brown Bull's herd.

Brown Bull gave no heed to his triumph, if, indeed, he realized it at all.

What he realized was that the apprehended doom had fallen upon the host, and the host was no more. He kept on with his long, lumbering gallop, till he had his herd well clear of all the struggling remnants of the host, which he saw running aimlessly this way and that, the slaughterers hanging to them like wolves. The sight did not interest him, but, as it covered the whole plain behind him, he could not escape it if he looked back. Forward the way was clear. Far forward and to the right, he saw woods and ridgy uplands, and purple-blue beyond the uplands a range of ragged hills. Thither he led his herd, allowing them not a moment to rest or pasture so long as the shambles of the plain remained in view. But that night, the tiny, lonely remnant of the vanished myriads of their kin, they fed and slept securely in a well-grassed glade among the hills.

A Master of Supply

Unlike his reserved and supercilious red cousin of kindlier latitudes, Blue Fox was no lover of solitude; and seeing that the only solitude he knew was the immeasurable desolation of the Arctic barrens, this was not strange. The loneliness of these unending and unbroken plains, rolled out flat beneath the low-hung sky to a horizon of white haze, might have weighed down even so dauntless a spirit as his had he not taken care to fortify himself against it. This he did, very sagaciously, by cultivating the companionship of his kind. His snug burrow beneath the stunted bush-growth of the plains was surrounded by the burrows of perhaps a score of his race.

During the brief but brilliant Arctic summer, which flared across the lonely wastes with a fervor which strove to compensate for the weary duration of its absence, the life of Blue Fox was not arduous. But during the long, sunless winters, with their wild snows, their yelling gales, their interminable night, and their sudden descents of still, intense frost, so bitter that it seemed as if the incalculable cold of outer space were invading this undefended outpost of the world, then Blue Fox and his fellows would have had a sorry time of it but for two considerations. They had their cheer of association in the snug burrows deep beneath the covering of the snows; and they had their food supplies, laid by with wise forethought in the season when food was abundant.

Therefore, when the old bear, grown too restless and savage to hibernate, had often to roam the darkness hungry, and when the wolf-pack was forced to range the frozen leagues for hardly meat enough to keep their gaunt flanks from falling in, the provident foxes had little to fear from either cold or famine.

The burrow of Blue Fox was dug in a patch of dry, sandy soil that formed a sort of island half a dozen acres broad in the vast surrounding sea of the swampy tundra. The island was not high enough or defined enough to be called a knoll. To the eye it was nothing more than an almost imperceptible bulge in the enormous monotony of the levels. But its elevation was enough to secure it good drainage and a growth of more varied herb and bush than that of the moss-covered tundra, with here and there a little open space of turf and real grass which afforded its tenants room to bask deliciously in the glow of the precipitate summer.

Hot and melting as the Arctic summer might be, it could never reach with its ardent fingers the foundations of eternal frost which underlay all that land at a depth of a very few feet. So Blue Fox dug his burrow not too deep, but rather on a gentle slant, and formed his chamber at a depth of not much more than two feet below the roots of the bushes. Abundantly lined with fine, dry grasses, which he and his family kept scrupulously clean, it was always warm and dry and sweet.

It was an afternoon in the first of the summer, one of those long, unclouded, glowing, warm afternoons of the Arctic, when the young shoots of herb and bush seem to lengthen visibly under the eye of the watcher, and the flower-buds open impetuously as if in haste for the caresses of the eager moths and flies. For the moment the vast expanses of the barren were not lonely. The nesting juncos and snow-buntings twittered cheerfully among the busy growths. The mating ducks clamored harshly along the bright coils of the sluggish stream which wound its way through the marshes. On an islet in the middle of a reedy mere, some half-mile to the east, a pair of great white trumpeter swans had their nest, scornful of concealment. A mile or more off to the west a herd of caribou browsed the young green shoots of the tundra growth, moving slowly northward. The windless air was faintly musical with the hum of insects and with the occasional squeaks and scurryings of unseen lemming mice in their secret roadways under the dense green sphagnum. Blue Fox sat up, not far from the entrance to his tunnel, blinking lazily in the glow and watching the play of his fuzzy cubs and their slim, young, blue-gray mother in and out their doorway. Scattered here and there over their naked little domain he saw the families of his kindred, similarly care-free and content with life.

But care-free as he was, Blue Fox never forgot that the price of freedom from care was eternal vigilance. Between his eyes and the pallid horizon he detected a wide-winged bird swinging low over the marshes. He knew at once what it was that with slow-moving, deliberate wings came up, nevertheless, so swiftly. It was no goose, or brant, or fish-loving merganser, or inland wandering saddleback gull that flew in such a fashion. He gave a shrill yelp of warning, answered at once from all over the colony; and at once the playing cubs whisked into their burrows or drew close to their mothers, and sat up to stare with bright, suspicious eyes at the strong-winged flier.

Blue Fox himself, like most of his full-grown fellows, never stirred. But his eyes never swerved for a second from the approach of that ominous, winnowing shape. It was a great Arctic hawk-owl, white mottled with chocolate; and it seemed to be hunting in a leisurely fashion, as if well fed and seeking excitement rather than a meal. It came straight on toward the colony of the foxes, flying lower and lower, till Blue Fox began to gather his steel-like muscles to be ready for a spring at its throat if it should come within reach. It passed straight over his head, its terrible hooked beak half open, its wide, implacable eyes, jewel-bright and hard as glass, glaring downward with still menace. But, with all its courage, it did not dare attack any one of the calmly watchful foxes. It made a sweeping half-circuit of the colony, and then sailed on toward the mere of the white swans. Just at the edge of the mere it dropped suddenly into a patch of reeds, to flap up again, a second later, with a limp form trailing from its talons – the form of a luckless mother-duck surprised in brooding her eggs. A great hubbub of startled and screaming water-fowl pursued the marauder; but the swans from their islet, as the foxes from their colony, looked on with silent indifference.

Blue Fox, basking in the sun, was by and by seized with a restlessness, a sense of some duty left undone. He was not hungry, for the wastes were just now so alive with nesting birds and swarming lemmings, and their fat little cousins, the lemming mice, that his hunting was a swift and easy matter. He did not even have to help his mate, occupied though she was, in a leisurely way, with the care of her cubs. But across his mind came an insistent memory of the long and bitter Arctic night, when the world would seem to snap under the deadly intensity of the cold, and there would be no birds but a few ptarmigan in the snow, and the fat lemmings would be safe beneath the frozen roofs of their tunnels, and his cleverest hunting would hardly serve him to keep the keen edge off his hunger. In the first sweet indolence of spring he had put far from him the remembrance of the famine season. But now it was borne in upon him that he must make provision against it. Shaking off his nonchalance, he got up, stretched himself elaborately, and trotted down briskly into the tundra.

He picked his way daintily over the wide beds of moist sphagnum, making no more sound as he went than if his feet had been of thistledown. At some distance from the skirts of the colony the moss was full of scurrying and squeaking noises. Presently he crouched and crept forward like a cat. The next instant he pounced with an indescribable speed and lightness, his head and forepaws disappearing into the moss. He had penetrated into one of the screened runways of the little people of the sphagnum. The next moment he lifted his head with a fat lemming dangling from either side of his fine jaws. He laid down the prize and inspected it with satisfaction – a round-bodied creature some six inches long, of a gray color mottled with rusty red, with a mere apology for a tail, and with the toes of its forepaws exaggeratedly developed, for use, perhaps, in constructing its mossy tunnels. For a few seconds Blue Fox pawed his prey playfully, as one of his cubs would have done. Then, bethinking himself of the serious business which he had in hand, he picked it up and trotted off to a dry spot which he knew of, just on the fringe of the island.

Now, of one thing Blue Fox was well aware, it having been borne in upon him by experience – viz., that a kill not soon eaten would speedily spoil in this weather. But he knew something else, which he could only have arrived at by the strictly rational process of putting two and two together – he understood the efficacy of cold storage.

Burrowing down through the light soil, he dug himself a little cellar, the floor of which was the stratum of perpetual frost. Here, in this preservative temperature, he deposited the body of the fat lemming, and covered the place from prying eyes with herbage and bush drawn lightly over it. Hunting easily and when the mood was upon him, he brought three more lemmings to the storehouse that same day. On the next day and the next an Arctic tempest swept over the plain, an icy rain drove level in whipping sheets, the low sky was crowded with hurrying ranks of torn black vapor, and the wise foxes kept to their holes. Then the sun came back to the waste places, and Blue Fox returned to his hunting.

Without in any way pushing himself, without stinting his own repasts or curtailing his hours of indolence or of play, Blue Fox attended to his problem of supply so efficiently that in the course of a couple of weeks he had perhaps two score plump carcasses, lemmings and mice, laid out in this cold storage cellar of his. Then he filled it in right to the top with grass roots, turf, and other dry stuff that would not freeze into armor-plate, covered it over with light soil and bushes, and left it to await the hour of need.

In the course of the summer, Blue Fox, like all his fellows, established a number of these lemming caches, till by the time when the southward bird-flight proclaimed the summer at an end, the question of supply was one to give him no further anxiety. When the days were shrunken to an hour or two of sunlight, and the tundra was frozen to stone, and the winds drove the fine snow before them in blinding drifts, then Blue Fox dismissed his stores from his mind and devoted himself merrily to the hunting of his daily rations. The Arctic hares were still abundant, and not yet overwild from ceaseless harrying; and though the chase of these long-legged and nimble leapers was no facile affair, it was by no means too arduous for the tastes of an enterprising and active forager like Blue Fox.

In the meantime the household of Blue Fox, like all the other households in the little colony, had been substantially reduced in numbers. All the cubs, by this time grown nearly to full stature, if not to full wisdom, had migrated. There was neither room nor supply for them now in the home burrows, and they had not yet arrived at the sense of responsibility and forethought that would lead them to dig burrows for themselves. Gently enough, perhaps, but with a firmness which left no room for argument, the youngsters had all been turned out of doors. There seemed but one thing for them to do – to follow the southward migration of the game; and lightly they had done it. They had a hard winter before them, but with good hunting, and fair luck in dodging the traps and other perils that were bound to dog their inexperienced feet, they would return next spring, ripe with wisdom and experience, dig burrows of their own, and settle down to the responsibilities of Arctic family life.

To Blue Fox, sleeping warm in his dry burrow when he would, and secure in the knowledge of his deep-stored supplies, the gathering menace of the cold brought no terrors. By the time the sun had disappeared altogether, and the often brilliant but always terrible and mysterious Arctic night had settled firmly upon the barrens, game had grown so scarce and shy that even so shrewd a hunter as Blue Fox might often range a whole day without the luck to capture a ptarmigan or a hare. The hare, of course, like the ptarmigan, was at this season snowy-white; and Blue Fox would have had small fortune, indeed, in the chase had he himself remained in summer livery. With the setting in of the snow, he had quickly changed his coat to a like color; and therefore, with his wariness, his unerring nose, and his marvelous lightness of tread, he was sometimes able to surprise the swift hare asleep. In this fashion, too, he would often capture a ptarmigan, pouncing upon it just as the startled bird was spreading its wings for flight. When he failed in either venture – which was often enough the case – he felt himself in no way cast down. He had the excitement of the chase, the satisfaction of stretching his strong, lithe muscles in the race across the hard snow. And then, when the storm clouds were down close upon the levels, and all the world was black, and the great winds from the Pole, bitterer than death, raved southward with their sheeted ghosts of fine drift – then Blue Fox, with his furry mate beside him, lay blinking contentedly in the deep of his burrow, with food and to spare close at hand.

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