Hoof and Claw
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As Wind-in-the-Night lifted his head the white wolf stopped howling, dropped his nose, and stared earnestly into the man's eyes. Hurriedly but carefully, the man thrust some dry sticks into the embers and fanned them into flame. Then he stood up. He knew that the white wolf's howling had awakened him and saved him from being frozen to death.
"Thank you, white brother," he said simply, with firm confidence that the mystical beast could understand human speech in the tongue of the Nasquapees.
The great wolf cocked his ears at the sound, and gazed at the man inquiringly for a second or two. Then he arose slowly and sauntered off into the forest.
Wind-in-the-Night knew that the peril had passed. He heaped wood on the fire with what was, for an Indian, lavish recklessness. When he was well warmed he went and dragged up the tree which he had felled, then he cooked himself a liberal meal – a strong stew of pemmican and flour – and, having eaten it, felt mightily refreshed. Having no more inclination for sleep, he resumed his journey, resolving to snatch at the midday halt what sleep he should find himself needing.
Now, it had chanced, some days earlier than this, that in one of the lodges by the Michikamaw a child had fallen sick. There was bitter famine in the lodges, but that was plainly not what ailed the little one. None of the wise men of the tribe could diagnose the sickness, and the child was near to death. Then an old brave, the child's uncle, who had been much about the posts of the Hudson Bay Company, which are scattered over Labrador, said that the white man's medicine was a magic to cure all disease, and that, if the little one could but come to one of the posts, his life would surely be saved. The old brave was himself hungering for an excuse to get away to the warmth which was to be found in the dwellings of the white man, and he said that he would take the little one out to North West River to be healed. And the mother, dry-eyed, but with despair at her heart, had let him go. It was only a chance, but it seemed the only chance; and she greatly feared to meet the child's father if it should die in his absence.
Wind-in-the-Night had made good going, and was eating up the long miles of his journey. At noon, in a deep trough dug with his snowshoes in the snow, and with a good fire at his feet, he had slept soundly for two hours. In that pure and tonic air but little sleep was needed. That night there was no more sign of wolves, and he felt assured that his strange protector had led them off to other hunting.
The trail from the Natashquouan was leading him almost due north. Late in the afternoon of the fourth day of his journey, he crossed the fresh trail of a wolf-pack running east. He thought little of it, but, from the habit of the trained hunter and trapper, he gave it a searching scrutiny as he went. Then he stopped short. He had marked another trail underlying that of the wolf-pack.
It was the trail of a man on snowshoes, drawing a loaded sledge and traveling eastward.
Wind-in-the-Night concluded at once, from his direction, that the traveler came from the lodges on the Michikamaw.It must be one of his own people. He examined the tracks minutely, and presently made out that the traveler was going unsteadily, with an occasional stumble, as if from weariness or weakness. And the wolf-pack was hunting him.
The trails being fresh, it was plain that the hunt could not be far ahead. Acting on the first impulse of his courageous spirit, Wind-in-the-Night started instantly in pursuit, hunting the hunters. Then came the memory of his errand, the thought of the woman and the boy in the wigwam of birch bark, hungry and needing him; and he stopped, half-turning to go back.
For some seconds he stood there in an agony of irresolution, his heart dragging him both ways. If he went to the help of the hunted man, he might, more than probably, himself be pulled down and devoured by the ravening pack. He must think of his own first, and save his life for them. Then he thought of his fellow-tribesman, worn out with flight, making his last fight alone in the silence and the snow. His wife and boy, at least, were sheltered and with their people about them, and would not be left utterly to starve so long as there was a shred of meat to be shared in the tribe. He tried to turn back to them, but the picture of the spent and stumbling fugitive was too much for him. He snatched up his rifle, a repeating Winchester, from the toboggan, and with a groan raced onward in the trail of the wolves.
It was not yet sunset, and he felt reasonably assured that the pack would not dare to close in upon their prey before dusk began to fall, so he continued to drag his loaded toboggan along, knowing that, if he should leave it behind him, its precious cargo would fall a prey to the lynxes and the foxes. He calculated to overtake the chase at any moment. As he ran, sweating in his harness in spite of the intense cold, he studied the trail of the wolves, and saw that the pack was not a large one – perhaps not much beyond a score in number. If the fugitive should prove to have any fight left in him, they two would stand back to back and perhaps be able to pull the desperate venture through.
Before he had gone half a mile, Wind-in-the-Night saw the trail of the pack divide and seek the coverts on either side of the track of the lonely snowshoer. That track grew more and more irresolute and uneven, and he knew that the fugitive could not be far ahead. He pictured him even now turning wearily at bay, his back to some rock or steep hillock, his loaded sledge uptilted before him as a barricade, and the wolves crowding the thickets on either side, waiting for the moment to rush in upon him.
He pushed on furiously, expecting this picture to greet his eyes at every turn of the trail. But still it delayed, and the tension of his suspense grew almost unbearable. The dusk began to gather among the white-shrouded fir thickets. Why did not the fugitive stop and make ready some defense? Then he rounded a corner, and there, fifty paces ahead of him, was what he was looking for.
But there was a difference in the picture. There were the wolves, no longer in hiding, but stalking forth from the thickets. There was the upthrust of rock. There was the man, at bay, with his back to it. But the loaded sledge was not before him as a barrier. Instead of that, it was thrust behind him, as something precious to be guarded with his life. The tall figure, at first bent with fatigue, straightened itself up defiantly, lifted a musket, and fired at a bunch of wolves just springing from the woods on his left. Flinging down the weapon – an old muzzle-loader, which there was no time to recharge – he reached back to the sledge for his axe.
At that moment Wind-in-the-Night recognized the old brave's face. With a gasp, he twisted himself clear of his harness and sprang forward. In the same instant the wolves closed in.
In the front of the attack was a great white beast, so swift in his leap that the man had no time to swing up his weapon in defense.
A hoarse cry, whether of grief or horror, burst from the lips of Wind-in-the-Night as the mystic white shape of his protector sprang at the old brave's throat. But he did not hesitate. He whipped up his rifle and fired, and the white wolf dropped sprawling over the front of the sledge.
In a sort of frenzy at the sacrilege of which, in his own eyes, he had just been guilty, Wind-in-the-Night fired shot after shot, dropping a wolf to every bullet. But the fate of their great leader seemed to have abashed the whole pack; and before half a dozen shots were fired they had slunk off, stricken with panic.
Without a glance at the man whom he had saved, Wind-in-the-Night stalked forward and flung himself down upon the body of the white wolf, imploring it to pardon what he had done. As he poured out his guttural pleading, a feeble child's voice came to his ears, and he lifted his head with a sudden tightening at his heart.
"I thought you would come pretty quick, father," said the small voice tremblingly, "for I'd been calling you ever so long."
A little face, meager and burning-eyed, was gazing at him trustfully from among the furs in the sledge. Wind-in-the-Night forgot the slain wolf. He bent over the sledge and clutched the frail figure to his breast, too amazed to ask any questions. He shook in every nerve to think how nearly he had refused to come to that unheard call.
The old brave was starting to light a fire.
"The boy was very sick," said he calmly, unjarred by the dreadful ordeal which he had just passed through. "I was taking him to North West River to be cured by the white man's medicine. But already he recovers, so we will go back to the Michikamaw with the food."
"Good," said Wind-in-the-Night. He stood up and stared long at the body of the great beast whom he had slain.
"We will take him with us," he said at last, "and give him the burial of a chief. It would be ill work if we should leave him to be eaten by foxes."
Up a Tree
McLaggan stopped short in the middle of the trail and peered sharply into the thick undergrowth on his right. At odd moments during the past half-hour he had experienced a fleeting sensation of being followed; but, absorbed in his own thoughts, he had paid no attention to it. Now, however, he was on the sudden quite convinced of it. Yet he could have sworn he had heard nothing, seen nothing, smelt nothing, to justify the conviction. For nearly half a mile the trail stretched away behind him between the giant trunks and fringing bush-growth – narrow, perfectly straight, completely shadowed from sun and sky, but visible all the way in that curiously transparent, glassy gloom of the under-forest world. There was nothing behind him on the trail – at least, within a half-mile of him. And the Presence of which he had been warned was very near. As is so often the case with the men who dwell in the great silences, he was conscious at times of possessing something like a sixth sense – a kind of inexplicable and erratic power of perception which frequently neglected to exercise itself when most needed, but which, when it did consent to work, was never guilty of giving a false alarm. Peering with trained eyes, wise in all woodcraft, through the tangle of the undergrowth, he waited absolutely motionless for several minutes. A little black-and-white woodpecker, which had been watching him, ran nimbly up the mast of a giant pine. Nothing else stirred, and there was no other living creature to be discerned. Yet McLaggan knew his intuition had not fooled him. He knew now to a certainty that he was being observed and trailed. He pondered on the fact for a little, and then, muttering to himself, "It's a painter, sure!" he resumed his journey.
McLaggan was not nervous, although for this journey he had left his rifle behind him in camp, and he was aware that a panther, if it meant mischief, was not an adversary to be scorned. But, skilled as he was in all the lore of the wilderness folk, he knew that no panther, unless with some bitter wrong to avenge, would willingly seek a quarrel with a man. That powerful and crafty cat, not from cowardice but from sagacity, recognized man for its master, and was wont to give him a wide berth whenever possible. Another thing that McLaggan knew was that the panther has occasionally a strange taste for following a man in secret, with excessive caution but remarkable persistence, as if to study him and perhaps find out the causes of his supremacy.
But McLaggan's knowledge of the wild creatures went even further than an acquaintance with their special habits and characteristics. He knew that it was impossible for man to know them thoroughly, because there was always the incalculable element of individuality to make allowance for – an element that delights in confounding the dogmatic assertions of the naturalists. He was sure that the chances were a hundred to one against this unseen pursuer daring to make an attack upon him or even contemplating such a piece of rashness. But, on the other hand, he recognized that remote hundred-and-first chance. He adjusted the straps of his heavy pack – the cause of his leaving his rifle behind – so that he could rid himself of it on the instant, if necessary, and he carried loose a very effective weapon, the new axe which he had just bought at the Settlement. It was a light, hickory-handled, general-utility axe, such as any expert backwoodsman knows how to use with swift and deadly effect, whether as a hand-to-hand weapon or as a missile. He was not nervous, as we have seen, but he was annoyed that he, the old trailer of many beasts, should thus be trailed in his turn, from whatever motive. He kept an indignantly watchful eye on all the coverts he passed, and he scrutinized suspiciously every considerable bough that stretched across the trail. He had bethought him that the panther's favorite method of attack was to drop upon his quarry's neck from above; and, in spite of himself, the little hairs on the back of his own neck crawled at the idea.
The trail running in from the Settlement to McLaggan's camp among the foothills was a matter of some fifteen miles, and uphill all the way. But in that bracing autumn air, amid those crisp shadows flecked with October's gold, McLaggan was little conscious of the weight of his pack, and his corded muscles felt no fatigue. Under the influence of that unseen and unwelcome companionship behind the veil of the leafage, he quickened his pace gradually, growing ever more and more eager to reach his rifle and take vengeance for the troubling of his journey.
Suddenly, from far ahead, the silence was broken by the high, resonant bugling of a bull elk. It was a poignantly musical sound, but full of menace and defiance, and it carried a long way on that still, resilient air. Again McLaggan regretted his rifle, for the virile fulness of that bugling suggested an unusually fine bull and a splendid pair of antlers. McLaggan wanted meat, to be dried for his winter larder, and he wanted the antlers, for a really good elk head was by this time become a thing of price. It was a possession which enthusiastic members of the Brotherhood of the Elks were always ready to pay well for.
The bugling was several times repeated at brief intervals, and then it was answered defiantly from far on the left. The sonorous challenges answered each other abruptly and approached each other swiftly. McLaggan still further hastened his pace. His gray eyes, under their shaggy brows, blazed with excitement. He forgot all about his unseen, stealthy pursuer. His sixth sense stopped working. He thought only of being in time to see the duel between the two bull elks, the battle for the lordship of the herd of indifferent cows.
To his impatience, it seemed no time at all ere the rival buglings came together and ceased. Then his straining ears caught – very faintly and elusively, as the imperceptible airs of the forest drew this way and that – the dry clash of opposing antlers. It was evident that the battle was nearer at hand than he had imagined. He broke into a noiseless trot, hoping yet to be in time.
Presently he was so near that he could catch, amid the clash of antlers, occasional great windy snortings and explosive, groaning grunts. All at once these noises of battle stopped, changed, passed into a confused scuffling mixed with groans, and then into a wild crashing of flight and pursuit. The fight was over, but McLaggan perceived with a thrill that the flight was coming his way.
Half a minute later the fugitive broke out into the trail and came dashing down it, wild-eyed, nostrils blowing bloody foam and flanks streaming crimson. McLaggan stepped politely aside to let him pass, and he passed unheeding. He had no eyes even for the arch-foe man in this moment of his defeat and humiliation.
But not so the victor! The most splendid specimen of a bull elk that McLaggan's eyes had ever rested upon, he stopped short in his pursuit at sight of the gray, erect figure standing there motionless beside the trail. McLaggan expected him to turn and flee back to his cows and hasten to shepherd them away from danger. But the great beast, now in the hour of his triumph and his most arrogant ferocity, had far other intention. He stood staring at McLaggan for several seconds, but McLaggan saw that there was nothing like fear in that insolent and flaming regard. The bull stamped sharply on the sod with one knife-edged fore-hoof; and McLaggan, knowing what that meant, glanced around discreetly for the easiest tree to climb. He was now furious at the lack of his rifle, and vowed never again to go without it.
Fortunately for McLaggan, the great bull was no mere blind and brutal ruffian of a fighter. Like all his aristocratic breed, he had a certain punctilio to observe in such affairs. He had first to stamp his challenge several times, snort vehemently, and advance his antlers in fair warning. Then he came on, at first daintily and mincingly, and only after that formal preliminary did he break into his furious rush.
But already McLaggan had swung himself into the tree, just out of reach, leaving his pack at the foot.
For a little McLaggan was engrossed in wondering if he really was quite out of reach, so vigorous were the rearings and thrustings of his enemy, so agile the high strokes of those fine, destructive hoofs. Then out of the tail of his eye he caught sight of several elk cows – the herd stealing warily down the trail to see how it was faring with their victorious lord. They halted, noses in air and ears pricked forward anxiously, wondering at their lord's strange antics under the tree. Then, all together, they wheeled about sharply, as if worked on a single spring, and fled off in enormous bounds over and through the thickets. McLaggan stared after them in surprise, wondering at their abrupt flight. A moment later it was explained to him, as he saw the tawny head and shoulders of an immense panther emerge for just the fraction of a second into the trail.
McLaggan was gratified at this confirmation of his woodcraft, but he was now a little anxious as to what was going to happen next. He realized that in traveling without his rifle he had fairly coaxed the unexpected to happen; and it seemed to him that this particular panther was not going to play by the accepted rules of the game, or he would never have been so audacious as to reveal himself even for that instant in the open trail. He looked down upon his magnificent adversary raging below him, and felt a generous impulse to give him warning of the peril lurking in the undergrowth. As between the elk and the panther, his sympathies were all with the elk, in spite of that misguided beast's extremely inconvenient hostility.
"Instead of stretchin' yer fool neck that way, tryin' to get at me," he expostulated, leaning from his branch, "ye'd a sight better be keepin' yer eyes peeled fer yer own hide. There's a durn big painter hidin' somewheres in them bushes yonder, an' while ye're a-claw-in' after me – which ain't no use at all – he'll be getting his claws inter you, first thing ye know!"
But it was plain that the bull did not understand English, or, at least, McLaggan's primitive variation on English. He seemed to grow more pugnacious than ever at the sound of these mild exhortations. He made the most extravagant efforts to reach McLaggan's refuge with horn or hoof. Convincing himself at last that this was impossible, he glared about him wrathfully till his eyes fell on McLaggan's pack lying near by.
Appearing to regard it as part of McLaggan, he fell upon it triumphantly. His edged hoofs slashed it and smashed it, his pronged antlers ripped it wide open, and in a dozen seconds he had sent the contents flying in every direction. The contents were miscellaneous, as McLaggan had been in to the Settlement for the purpose of replenishing his stores. They included, among other items, a two-gallon tin of molasses, a little tin of pepper enveloped in a flaring scarlet label, a white cotton bag of flour, a paper bag of beans, and another of sugar. The beans and the sugar went all abroad at the first attack, the big and the little tin rolled away, and the bull devoted his attention for a moment to the bag of flour. He ripped it wide open with his antlers, then blew into it scornfully so that the flour puffed up into his face. Having accomplished all this with such surprising ease, he seemed to think he might now succeed in getting at McLaggan himself. He came under the branch once more and glared upwards through what looked like a pair of white goggles, so thickly were his eye-sockets rimmed with flour. He snorted fresh defiance through wide red nostrils nicely fringed with white.
McLaggan was now too angry to appreciate the extraordinary appearance of his foe. At the scattering of his precious supplies, his sympathies had gone over completely to the panther. He spat down upon his adversary in impotent indignation.
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