Hoof and Claw
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But happy as he was in the main, Blue Fox was not without his cares. Two enemies he had, so strong and cunning that the menace of them was never very far from his consciousness. The wolf, his master in strength, though not in craft, was always ready to hunt him with a bitter combination of hunger and of hate. And the wolverine, cunning beyond all the other kindreds of the wild, and of a sullen ferocity which few would dare to cross, was forever on the search for the stored supplies of the foxes.
The wolverine, solitary and morose, slow of movement, and defiant even toward the Polar storm, prowled in all weathers. One day chance led him upon one of Blue Fox's storage cellars. The snow had been recently pawed away, and the wolverine, quick to take the hint, began instantly to dig. It was astonishingly easy work. His short, powerful forepaws made the dry turf and light earth fly, and speedily he came to the store of frozen lemmings. But before he had quite glutted his great appetite, he was interrupted.
Though the storm was raging over the outer world, to Blue Fox in his burrow had come a monition of evil. He had whisked out to inspect his stores. He found the wolverine head downward in his choicest cellar.
Hot as was his rage, it did not burn up his discretion. This was a peril to be dealt with drastically. He knew that, if the robber was merely driven off, he would return and haunt the purlieus of the colony, and end by finding and rifling every storehouse in the neighborhood.
Blue Fox stole back and roused the occupants of the nearest burrows. In two minutes a dozen angry foxes were out and creeping through the storm. In vengeful silence they fell upon the thief as he feasted carelessly; and in spite of the savage fight he put up, they tore him literally to pieces.
The danger of the wolves was more terrible and more daunting. All through the first half of the winter there had been no sign of a wolf in the neighborhood, the trail of the wandering caribou having lured them far to the eastward. Then it chanced, when Blue Fox was chasing a hare over the snow, beneath the green, rose, and violet dancing flames of the aurora, that a thin, quavering howl came to his ears. He stopped short. He lost all interest in the hare. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw a grayish patch moving swiftly under the shifting radiance. It was on his trail, that patch of death. He lengthened himself out, belly to earth, and sped for the burrows. And the dancing lights, shifting from color to color as they clustered and hurtled across the arch of sky, seemed to stoop in cold laughter over his lonely and desperate flight.
Blue Fox could run fast, but his best speed was slow in comparison with that of his gaunt and long-limbed foes. He knew that, had the race before him been a long one, it could have but one result. A glance over his shoulder, as he ran, showed him that the gray shapes were overhauling him; and, knowing that the distance to his burrow was not long, he felt that he had a chance.A sporting chance, however small, was enough for his courageous spirit, and he raced on with good heart at a pace which soon stretched his lungs near to bursting. But he spared breath for a sharp yelp of warning, which carried far in the stillness and signaled to his fellows the peril that approached.
As the wolves came up, the fugitive could hear the strong, relentless padding of their feet, and then, half a minute later, the measured hiss of their breathing, the occasional hard click of their fangs. But he did not look back. His ears gave him all the information he required, and he could not afford to risk the loss of the slenderest fraction of a second. As he reached the nearest burrow – it was not his own – it seemed as if the dreadful sounds were already overwhelming him. He dived into the burrow, and jaws of steel clashed at his tail as he vanished.
With a chorus of snarls, the disappointed pack brought up abruptly, checking themselves back upon their haunches. The leaders fell to digging at the burrow, while others scattered off to try the same experiment at the other burrows of the colony. But Blue Fox, breathless and triumphant, only showed his teeth derisively. He knew that no wolf-claws could make any impression on the hard-frozen earth surrounding the inner portals of the colony. The wolves discovered by chance one of the supply cellars, and quarreled for a moment over the dozen or so of tit-bits which it contained. And then, realizing that it was no use hanging about in the expectation that any fox would come out to be eaten, the wise old pack-leader swung the pack into ranks and swept them off to hunt other quarry. When the thudding rhythm of their footsteps died into silence, the foxes all came out and sat under the dancing lights, and stared after the terrible receding shapes with a calm and supercilious scorn.
The White Wolf
On the night when he was born, in the smoke-smelling wigwam beside the lone Michikamaw, there had come a strange, long howling of the wind amid the cleft granite heights which overhung the water. At the sound the fainting girl on the pile of deerskins opened eyes which grew suddenly wild and dark. She listened intently for a moment, and then groped for the little form which had been laid at her breast.
"That is his name," she muttered. "He shall be called Wind-in-the-Night."
The old squaw, her husband's mother, who was attending upon her, shook her head.
"Hush, my daughter!" she said soothingly. "That is not the wind. That is the old white wolf howling on the mountain. Let us call him White Wolf, since he is of the totem of the wolf. And perhaps the old white wanderer, who disdains to hunt with the pack, will befriend him and bring him good fortune."
"His name is Wind in-the-Night," said the young mother, in a voice suddenly loud and piercing. Then she turned her head toward the wall of the wigwam wearily, and, with a sharp sigh, her spirit passed from her lips, hurrying out over the black spruce ridges and barren hills to seek the happy hunting grounds of her fathers.
The old woman snatched up the child, lest the mother's spirit in passing should lure it away with her.
"Yes," she cried hastily, hiding the little one in a fold of her blanket and glancing over her shoulder, "his name is Wind-in-the-Night."
It would never have done – as the father afterward agreed – to gainsay the child's mother at that moment of supreme authority, but the old woman had her misgivings; for she believed it was the white wolf, not the wind, who had spoken in that hour, and she trembled lest the child should come under his ban.
As the years passed, however, it began to appear that the old squaw's fears were groundless. Among the lodges beside the bleak Michikamaw the child grew up without misadventure; and when he was big enough to begin his boyish hunting and to follow the trails among the dark spruce forests, it began to be rumored that he was in some special favor with the wolf folk. It was said – and, though he could not be persuaded to talk of it, he was never known to deny it – that the old white wolf, whose howling was like the wind in the mountain clefts, had been seen again and again following the boy, not obtrusively, but at a little distance and with an air of watching over him. Certain it was that the boy was without fear to go alone in the forest, and went always as if with a sense of being safeguarded by some unseen influence. Moreover, whenever the wind howled in the night, or the voice of the solitary wolf came quavering down, like the wind, from the granite heights, the boy would be seized with a restlessness and a craving to go forth into the darkness. This impulse was quelled sternly by his father until the lad was old enough and wise enough to restrain it of his own accord; but it was not held, among the tribe, to be any unaccountable or dreadful thing that the boy should be thus compassed about with mystery, for this was the tribe of the Nasquapees, the "Wizards," who were all mystics and credited with secret powers.
As Wind-in-the-Night grew to manhood, the white wolf grew less and less conspicuous in his affairs, till he came to be little more than a tradition. But at any time of crisis there was sure to be some suggestion of him, some reminder, whether in a far-off windy howl that might be wolf or might be wind, or else in a gaunt, white shadow flitting half-seen across the youth's trail. Whether, as all the tribe took for granted, it was always the same wolf, a magic beast forever young and vigorous, or whether the grim warder who had presided over the child's birth had bequeathed his mysterious office to a descendant like himself, is a point that need not be decided. Suffice to say that when, at the age of eighteen, Wind-in-the-Night underwent his initiation into the status of full manhood, a great white wolf played an unbidden but not unlooked-for part in it. When, during that long and solitary fasting on the hilltop, the young man's fainting eyes saw visions of awe and unknown portent, and strange, phantasmal shapes of beast and bird came floating up about him with eyes of menace, always at the last moment would come that pallid, prowling warder and drive the ghosts away.
* * * * * *
It was a bad winter. In the gray fishing village at the mouth of the Natashquouan came word to Wind-in-the-Night that certain of the scattered bands of his tribe in the interior were near to starving. He had been now some six months absent from home, guiding a party of prospectors, and his heart was troubled with desire for the little, lonely cluster of lodges on the shore of the Michikamaw. He thought of his own spacious wigwam of birch bark, with the crossed poles projecting above the roof. With a pang of solicitude, he thought of the comely and kindly young squaw, his wife, and of that straight-limbed, copper-colored little five-year-old, his son, whose dark eyes danced like the sunlight on the ripples, and who would always run laughing to meet him and clutch him by the knees so sturdily.
Wind-in-the-Night wondered if they were hungry. Was it possible that there could be fear and famine in that far-off wigwam deep in the snows, while he, here under the white man's roof, was warm and well fed? With smoldering eyes and no explanations, he resigned his profitable post and started inland, on his snowshoes, with a toboggan load of pemmican and flour. The men of the village, pipe in hand, and weary-eyed with their winter inactivity, looked after him from their doorways and shook their heads.
"He'll never make the Michikamaw with that there load," muttered one.
"It's the wolves'll be gittin' the load an' him too!" growled another.
Another spat tobacco juice into the snow in a sort of resigned derision. Then all closed their doors tight against the deathly cold, huddled up to their stoves, and dreamed grumblingly of spring. The solitary figure bending to the straps of his toboggan never looked back. His thoughts were all on the distant wigwam of birch bark and the woman and child within it, who might be hungry.
Once across the bleak ridge which overlooked the settlement, Wind-in-the-Night was swallowed up in the untamed, untouched Labrador wilderness – everywhere a confusion of low hills, bowl-like valleys, and spruce forests up-thrusting their dark, pointed tops above the enormous overlay of the snow. Wind-in-the-Night swung on with a long, loping, bent-kneed, straight-footed stride, his immense, racquet-like snowshoes settling into the snow at each step with a curious muffled sigh that had small resemblance to any other sound on earth.
He chose his path unhesitatingly, picking up his landmarks without conscious effort among hill-tops and valleys and ravines which to the uninitiated eye must have all looked alike. Just before noon he halted, lit a fire, made himself a kettle of tea after the comforting fashion he had learned from the white men, and chewed a rocky morsel of pemmican without taking time to cook it. Then he pushed on eagerly.
The shadows began to fall early in that latitude; and as they began to fall, Wind-in-the-Night began glancing from time to time over his shoulder. He did it half-unconsciously, so absorbed was he in his thoughts. At last he caught himself at it, as it were, and for a moment wondered what he did it for. The next instant, with a little tingling at the nape of his neck – just where, on a dog or a moose, the hair stiffens at such moments – he understood.
He felt that he was being followed.
His path was the open, snow-sheeted channel of a little river, with the fir woods crowding down to its brink on either side. Wind-in-the-Night halted and peered into the thickets with eyes trained and penetrating, but he could distinguish nothing. He listened, but there was not a sound in all that lifeless world, save a ghostly settling of the snow somewhere behind him. He sniffed the air, but his nostrils could detect no taint upon it. He pushed on again, and immediately he felt in his spine, in his hair, that the depths of the forest, to right and to left, were full of moving life.
Then he knew that he was being trailed by many wolves.
It was the thought of the woman and the boy, hungry in their wigwam on the Michikamaw, that made his heart sink. He knew that for the moment he was safe, but, when the night came, it would be another matter. He was not afraid physically, for his muscles and his nerves stretched to the thought of the great fight he would make before the gray beasts should pull him down. But that the food, the succor he was bringing, should never reach the wigwam – this thought turned his heart cold. He increased his pace, hoping to find a spot where he might encamp to advantage and fortify himself for the night.
In that broken country of wide-sown boulders and fantastic outcrop, Wind-in-the-Night had reason to hope for a post of better advantage than the open trail. And after a half-mile's further traveling, while yet there was daylight enough to discourage the wolves from showing themselves, he found it. About halfway up a sparsely wooded hillside to his right he marked a steep-faced boulder, at the foot of which he resolved to make his stand.
On his way up the slope he passed a small dead fir tree and a stunted birch, both of which he hastily chopped down and flung across his toboggan for firewood. Arriving at the rock, he thrust the loaded toboggan close against its foot, and then, at a distance of about ten feet before it, he hastened to start his fire. It was a little fire, a true Indian's fire, economical of fuel; for there was no more wood in sight except green spruce, which made but poor and precarious burning unless with plenty of dry stuff to urge it on. He thought for a moment of venturing some little way into the woods in search of fuel; but, even as he was weighing the chances of it, the dusk gathered, and the wolves began to show themselves along the skirts of the timber. Some prowled forth and slipped back again at once into the gloom, while others came out and stood eyeing him steadily.
But more fuel, of some sort, Wind-in-the-Night knew he must have. About halfway between the rock and the skirts of the close growth stood a single small spruce. He knew that its sappy wood would burn with difficulty, but it would do to make the rest of the fuel last longer – possibly, with the most parsimonious care, even till sunrise. Stirring his fire to a brisker blaze – at which, for a moment or two, the wolves drew back into their covert – he strode forth and felled the spruce in half a dozen skilful strokes. Then he dragged it back toward the rock.
To the watchers in the shadow, however, this looked like a retreat. Their hesitation vanished. As if at a signal, they shot from covert and launched themselves, a torrent of shadowy, flame-eyed, leaping shapes, upon the man. He, catching sight of the dreadful onslaught over his shoulder, dropped the tree he was dragging, and sprang desperately for the doubtful shelter of his fire.
He felt in his heart, however, that he was too late, that he would never reach the fire. Well, he would not die pulled down like a fleeing doe from behind. He faced about and swung up his axe, his lean, dark jaw set grimly.
The hordes of his assailants were within a dozen paces of him, when suddenly they stopped, thrusting out their forefeet with violence and going back upon their haunches with low snarls. An immense white wolf had sprung in between the hordes and their quarry, and stood there rigid, confronting his fellows with bared fangs, flattened ears, and every hair erect along his back. His authority seemed to be unquestionable, for not a wolf ventured to pass him. Reluctantly, sullenly, they drew back to within a few paces of the edge of the wood; and there they halted, some crouching, some sitting, some moving restlessly to and fro, and all eyeing their inexorable chief expectantly, as if looking for him to withdraw his inhibition at any moment and let them at their prey.
Wind-in-the-Night gave one long look at his strange protector, then calmly turned and strode back to his fire. Calmly he proceeded to chop his wood into small billets, for the more frugal use. Then he moved the fire closer in toward the foot of the rock, in order that a smaller blaze might suffice to warm him through the night. Seating himself with his back to the loaded toboggan, he prepared his supper. His appetite craved a thick, hot soup of pemmican, but he had a feeling that the enticing smell of such a meal on the icy air might make the wolves forget their deference to his protector. He contented himself with a sticky and unpalatable gruel made by stirring a couple of handfuls of flour into the boiling tea, and he felt a reasonable confidence that the smell of such fare would prove no irresistible temptation to wolfish nostrils. The thought occurred to him that perhaps he ought, in courtesy, to throw a chunk of pemmican to his protector, who was now pacing slowly and methodically to and fro before him like a sentinel, with eyes fixed ever on those waiting hordes. But to Wind-in-the-Night the great white beast was no mortal wolf, and he feared to affront him by the offer of white man's food.
The brief meal done, Wind-in-the-Night lighted his pipe and smoked stolidly, crouching over the small fire. In spite of the terrific cold, he was warm enough here, with the rock close at his back, the snow banked up at either side, and his blankets about him. From time to time he fed the fire frugally, and calculated that at this rate he could make his fuel last the whole night through. But sleep was not to be thought of. His small, unflinching eyes looked out across the meager flames, through the thin reek of the smoke, and met calmly the scores of cruel, narrowed eyes glaring upon him grimly from the edges of the timber. But the eyes of the tireless sentinel he did not meet, for they were kept always turned away from him. How long, he wondered, would the sentinel remain tireless? Or how long would those ravening watchers remain obedient to the authority that denied their hunger relief? No, decidedly he must not sleep.
Smoking endlessly, feeding the little fire and crouching over it, thinking of the wigwam on the lone white shore of the Michikamaw, and watching ever that dread half-circle of hungry eyes, and the gaunt, tirelessly patrolling shape of his white sentinel, he began to see strange visions. The waiting wolves vanished. In their place, emerging like mists from the forest and taking form in the firelight, came the spirits of the totems of his ancestors – white bears and black with eyes of men, eagles that walked stridingly, gray lynxes with a stare that seemed to pierce him through the bone, and towering black moose bulls with the storm-drift whirling in their antlers. They filled him with awe and wonder, but he had no fear of them, for he knew that he had done no trespass against the traditions. Then, without surprise, he saw his white guardian, the living presentment of his own totem, grow at once to the stature of a caribou, and come and sit down opposite him just across the fire, and look meaningly into his eyes. Wind-in-the-Night strove desperately to interpret that grave meaning. As his brain groped after it, suddenly a long, thin howling filled his ears, whether the voice of the wind or the voice of a wolf he could not tell.
The sound grew louder, louder, more penetrating and insistent, and then he came out of his vision with a start. He lifted his head, which had fallen on his breast. A late and aged moon hung distorted just over the line of the treetops before him. He was deadly cold, and the fire had burned down to a little heap of red embers. The dreadful waiting hordes had all vanished from the skirts of the timber, whirling off, doubtless, on the trail of some unprohibited quarry. Only the white sentinel remained, and he had shrunk back to his former stature, which was beyond that of his fellows, indeed, but not altogether incredible. He was sitting on his haunches just the other side of the dying fire. His long muzzle was lifted straight in the air, and he was howling to the decrepit moon.
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