Hoof and Claw
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"I hope the painter'll git ye, after all!" he cried, with a bunch of expletives too virile for the cold exposure of the printed page.
In reply, the bull made another earnest effort to reach him. Then, once more disappointed, he returned to the pack to see what further satisfaction he could get out of it.
Finding that there was no resistance left in the beans, the sugar, or the bag of flour, he went after the little scarlet tin of pepper which had been thrown some distance and lay under a neighboring tree. He slashed it open with a stroke of the hoof, then jabbed it with a prong of his antlers and flung it into the air. It fell on his shoulders, emptying most of its contents into the long hair on the ridge of his neck. Startled at this attack, he jumped around sharply, and was just in the middle of pounding the impertinent thing viciously under foot, when, to his annoyance, he began to sneeze. It was such sneezing as he had never experienced before. He spread his legs wide and devoted himself to it with all his energies.
This was too much for McLaggan's wrath. He forgot it in an ecstasy of delight. He was just on the point of explosion, when he saw something which made him check himself with a choked expletive.
The panther was creeping out upon a great branch almost over the sneezing bull's head. The next moment it dropped from the branch and fastened teeth and claws in the bull's neck.
The bull was just in the middle of a terrific paroxysm, but the cruel shock of this assault brought him to. With a grunt he bounded into the air, coming down upon all four feet again, stiff-legged like a bucking horse, as if thinking the jar might shake his assailant off. Failing in this, he sprang violently sideways, and at the same time, being a beast of resource, he struck back with the prongs of his antlers by jerking his muzzle sharply upward.
In the meantime the panther was clawing and biting savagely, and seemed likely to maintain his hold in spite of the clever tactics of his adversary. But just at this point the pepper in the bull's mane began to take irresistible effect, both in eyes and nostrils. The amazed panther let out a screech of protest which ended in a convulsive sneeze. In the midst of this convulsion, the bull side-stepped again with distressing energy, and the panther, half-blinded and wholly bewildered, was thrown to the ground. The maneuver was almost equally disastrous to McLaggan, who, rocking with laughter, all but fell out of his tree.
The moment he had shaken himself clear, the bull, undaunted, whirled and struck like lightning with his formidable fore-hoofs. With equal alertness the panther succeeded in eluding the stroke. He doubled lithely aside and sprang again, seeking to recover his former advantage. But, being half-blinded, he fell short and only got a grip with his front claws. As he struggled savagely to make good his hold against the plunging and the thrashing antlers of his antagonist, once more the pepper in his nostrils began to work with power.In spite of his passionate refusal of the gigantic titillation, his head went up in the air, his spine straightened itself out, his jaws and his claws opened, and the huge sneeze ripped stridently from his lungs. It ended in a screech of rage and disappointment as he found himself once more rolling on the ground, striking out blindly with futile claws.
As he recovered himself, he warily bounced aside, lightly as a loosed spring. But he was not quite quick enough. One of those battering hoofs that were playing for him so nimbly caught him on the haunch. It caught him aslant, or it would have shattered the great joint beyond hope of recovery. But it was enough for his catship. With a scream, he darted off beneath a low-branched thicket, ran lamely up another tree, and crept away from the place of his discomfiture by the path of the interlacing branches. He wanted no elk-meat which tasted like that.
The victor stood glaring after him for half a minute, snorting and shaking his triumphant antlers. Then he came and glared up at McLaggan, as much as to say: "Did you see that? That's the way I'd fix you, too, if only you'd come down here and stand up to me!"
As for his cruel wounds on flank and neck, he seemed quite unaware of them. But he was evidently a little tired, for he made no further attempts to reach McLaggan's refuge.
"You're sure some punkins!" declared McLaggan admiringly, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. "Who'd ever 'a' thought any bull elk could lick a painter that quick?"
Scorning to be conciliated by compliment, the bull turned away to see if there was any further damage he could inflict on McLaggan's belongings.
Ah, yes, to be sure, there was the bright, unsullied tin of molasses just where he had hurled it. He pranced over and slashed at it, in spite of McLaggan's appeals, and opened a generous gash, through which the amber-brown stickiness came bulging forth phlegmatically. The bull eyed this phenomenon, and then, scornful of what he could not understand, prodded the can with an eviscerating antler. He prodded it so hard that not only one prong but a tiny projecting fork also went clean through the tin. Then he threw up his head sharply, expecting to toss the wreck into the air.
To his surprise, it refused to be tossed. It just clung where it was, and began to pour its contents down in a sticky, deliberate stream all over his head and ears and face. He shook his antlers indignantly, and the can thereupon threw wider its suave coils of richness, till they laced his neck and his gashed flank. Finding that the insignificant but obstinate thing would not let go, he lowered his antlers and struck at it indignantly with one of his hinder hoofs. When this attempt proved futile, he fell to rooting and prodding the ground, till the stickiness had gathered a copious tribute of leaves and twigs and dirt. This process not accomplishing his purpose, he lifted his head and glanced about him with a worried air, his faith in his own prowess apparently for the first time shaken.
McLaggan shrieked. He flung both arms and legs about his branch to keep from falling, and clung there, gurgling.
At the strange sound of his laughter, the bull returned beneath the branch and gazed up at him, no longer, as it seemed to McLaggan, insolently, but reproachfully.
"Go 'way, durn ye, or ye'll be the death o' me yet!" gasped McLaggan.
Once more the bull's eyes blazed, and again he shook his antlers in defiance. But, as he did so, the can, now quite empty and resonant, gave forth a hollow clatter. The fire faded from the bull's eyes, and he jumped aside nervously. The can clattered again, still in the same place. The bull jumped yet again and shook his head more violently. The can gave voice more clamorously. At that the courage of the valiant fighter, whom neither rival bull nor panther nor man himself could daunt, melted to skim milk. He broke into panic flight through the bushes, and the hollow protestings of the can kept time to the madness of his going.
McLaggan, with aching ribs, climbed down from his refuge and stood surveying the wreckage of his supplies. There was nothing left worth picking up, except his axe.
"I'm obleeged to ye for leavin' me the axe," said he. "But ye might 'a' took it, an' welcome. The show was worth the price!"
The Eyes in the Bush
Low over the wide, pallid, almost unruffled expanse of tide a great ghost-gray bird came flapping shoreward heavily. The shore, drowsing under the June sun, was as flat and seemingly as limitless as the sea, except to the right, where the unfenced levels of the grass foamed golden-green along the fringe of the wooded hills. Between the waveless pallor of the water and the windless warm glow of the grass was drawn a narrow riband of copper red – the smooth mud flats left naked by the tide. Just at the edge of the grass the bleached ribs of an ancient fishing-smack, borne thither years ago in some tempestuous conspiracy of wind and tide, stood up nakedly from the dry red mud, and seemed to beg the leaning grass to cover them. Upon one of these gray ribs the great gray bird alighted, balancing himself unsteadily for a moment, as if in the last stage of exhaustion, and then settling to an immobility that seemed to make him a portion of the wreck itself.
For the better part of an hour the Gray Visitor never stirred, never ruffled a feather – not even when a gorgeous black-and-red butterfly alighted, with softly fanning wings, within a foot of him; not even when a desperate mouse, chased by a weasel, squeaked loudly in the grass-roots behind him. The bees and flies kept up a soft hum, the very voice of sleep, among the clover blossoms scattered through the grass, and the hot scents of the wild parsnip steamed up over the levels like an unseen incense. The still air quivered, glassy clear. Along the other side of the strip of red began a soft, frothy hiss, as the first of the flood-tide came seething back across the flats. A heavy black-and-yellow bumble bee, with a loud, inquiring boom, swung in headlong circles over the wreck, more than once almost brushing the feathers of the motionless stranger. A sudden flock of sand-pipers puffed down along the shore, alighted, piping mellowly, on the mud just beyond the wreck, and flickered gray and white as they bobbed their stiff little tails up and down in their feeding.
But the great gray owl never moved a feather. For an hour he sat there with fast-shut eyes in the broad blaze of the sunshine, while life crept slowly back along his indomitable but exhausted nerves. An estray from the Polar North, he had been blown far out to sea in a hurricane. Taking refuge on a small iceberg, he had been carried south till the berg, suddenly disintegrating, had forced him to dare the long landward flight. The last of his strength had barely sufficed him to gain the shore and the refuge of this perch upon the ribs of the ancient wreck.
At last he opened his immense round yellow eyes – discs of flaming yellow glass with the pupils contracted to mere pinheads in the glare of the unshadowed light. Revolving his round, catlike head very slowly upon his shoulders, as if it were moved by clockwork, he surveyed his strange surroundings. The conspicuousness of his perch and the intensity of the sunlight were distasteful to him. Lifting his wide wings, he hopped down into the interior of the wreck, which was half-filled with mud and d?bris. Here, though the side-planking was all fallen away so that prying eyes could see through and through the ribs in every direction, there was yet a sort of seclusion, with some shadow to ease his dazzled eyes.
Having recovered somewhat from his numbing exhaustion, the Gray Visitor became conscious of the pangs of his famine. He sat motionless as before, but now with all his senses on the alert. His ears – so sensitive that he could hear innumerable and tell-tale sounds where a human ear would have perceived nought but a drowsy silence – caught a chorus of rustlings, squeaks, and rushes, which told him that the neighboring depths of the grass were populous with the mouse folk and their kindred. At one point the grass-fringe came so close to the wreck that its spears were thrusting in between the ribs. The Gray Visitor hopped over to this point, and waited hopefully, like a cat at a frequented mouse-hole.
He had been but a few moments settled in his ambush when a fat, sly-faced water-rat came ambling into the wreck at the other end of the keel, nosing this way and that among the d?bris for sleepy beetles. Keen as were the rat's eyes, they did not notice the ghost-gray erect figure sitting up like a post beside the grass-fringe. The Visitor waited till the rat should come within reach of an unerring pounce. His sinews stiffened themselves in tense readiness. Then something like a brown wedge dropped out of the sky. There was a choked squeal, and the rat lay motionless under the talons of a mottle brown marsh-hawk, which fell instantly to tearing its victim, as if obliged to lunch in a hurry.
The downy wings of the Gray Visitor lifted. His swoop was as soft, soundless and effortless as if he had been but a wisp of feathers blown on a sudden puff of wind. His mighty talons closed on the neck and back of the feasting hawk. There was a moment's convulsive flapping of the mottled brown wings beneath the overshadowing gray ones. Then the stranger set himself voraciously to the first square meal which had come his way for days. When he had finished, there was little left of either the hawk or the water-rat.
The Visitor wiped the black sickle of his beak on a block of driftwood, glared about him, and then rose softly into the air. He wanted a darker and more secluded place than the ribs of the wreck for his siesta. Along the foot of the uplands to the right he marked a patch of swamp, sown with sedgy pools and clumps of dense bushes. Just at its edge towered a group of three immense water-poplars, whose tops he decided would serve him as a post of outlook for his night hunting. For the moment, however, it was close covert which he wanted, where he could escape the glare of the sun and sleep off his great meal. Flying low over the grass-tops, and ignoring the hushed rustle of unseen scurriers beneath, he winnowed down the shore to the swamp and plunged into the heart of the leafiest thicket. A half-rotted stump, close to the ground, offered him an inviting perch, and in half a minute he was the soundest-sleeping gray owl on this side the Arctic Circle.
Some little time after, a fussy red-winged blackbird came bustling into the thicket, perhaps to hunt for drowsy night-moths asleep on the under sides of the twigs. He alighted on a branch about two feet from the Gray Visitor's head, and stared impertinently at the spectral, motionless shape. As he stared, a pair of immense round eyes, brass yellow and terrible, opened wide upon him. For one petrified second he stared straight into them. Then, recovering the use of his wits, he fell backward off his branch with a protesting squeak, and fluttered out from the bush that held such horrors. The Gray Visitor turned his head slowly, to see if there were any more such intruders upon his solitude, then tranquilly went to sleep again.
It was perhaps a half-hour later when a big black mink came poking his pointed nose into the thicket. His malicious eyes, set close together in his cruel, triangular face, detected at once the sleeping form of the Gray Visitor, and glowed deeply as if all at once transformed to drops of garnet. His first impulse was to hurl himself straight upon the slumberer's throat. But, fearless and joyous slaughterer though he was, there was something in this gray shape that made him hesitate. He had never before seen an owl of this ghostly color, or of even half this size. His long, low, sinuous body gliding almost like a snake's, he slipped up to within a couple of feet of the sleeper, and paused irresolute.
To the mink's own ear, keen as it was, his motion was as soundless as a moving shadow. But the ear of the owl is a miracle of sensitiveness. In the deep of his sleep the Gray Visitor heard some warning of danger. Just as the mink was gathering his lithe muscles for a spring, a pair of immense, palely blazing discs opened before his face with a light so sudden, so bright, and so hard that he recoiled in spite of himself.
The Gray Visitor had no need of thought to tell him that the long black creature before him, with the narrow snarling mouth and venomous eyes was dangerous. His instinct worked quicker than thought. His wings spread, and he rose as if lifted by a breath from beneath. Then he dipped instantly and struck downward with his knifelike, clutching talons. In the same moment the mink sprang to meet the attack, lengthening out his elastic body prodigiously and reaching for his adversary's throat.
But what the mink did not know was his undoing. He did not know that the deep covering on the Gray Visitor's throat and breast – firm, close-lying feathers and a lavish padding of down – was an armor too thick and resistant for even his keen teeth. He got a choking mouthful of feathers. He even achieved to scratch the skin beneath and draw blood. Then his savage jaws stretched wide in a choking screech as the steel talons closed inexorably on his throat and his slim loins, and the fiery light in his brain went out in a flame of indignation, amazed that it in turn should suffer the fate which it had so continually and so implacably inflicted.
The Gray Visitor was already hungry again by this time, for an owl's digestion is astonishingly swift. He made a good meal, therefore, upon the flesh of the mink, though that flesh is so tough, so stringy, and so rank that few other flesh-eaters will deign to touch it unless in the extremity of famine. Then he went to sleep again, for he had long arrears to make up, and the hot glow of afternoon was still heavy on the reaches of sea and grass.
But just after sunset, when the glow had faded, and the first thin wave of lilac and amber came washing coolly over the wide landscape, and the blossoms gave out new scents at the touch of the dew, and the night-hawks twanged in the pale green upper heaven, then the Gray Visitor awoke to eager activity. He floated upward from out his covert like a ghost from a pool, circled over it twice, and flew off to those high and lonely treetops which he had marked in the earlier part of the day.
In the nearest tree, not far from the top, was what looked like an immense accumulation of dead sticks. To the Gray Visitor, coming from a region so far north that there were no tall treetops, this dark mass had no significance. In his world of the Arctic barrens nothing of the nature of a nest would ever be built in such an exposed position, where the first icy hurricane screaming down from the Pole would rip it to shreds. Therefore it never occurred to him that the clumsy platform of dead sticks was the nest of a pair of blue herons. In fact, he had no idea that any such creature as a blue heron existed. He flew noiselessly to the very top of the tree and perched there some ten or a dozen feet above the dusky platform of sticks.
All the wide, glimmering twilight world beneath him was very still and quiet. Nothing seemed astir but the two or three night-hawks swooping and twanging high up in the hollow heaven, and he had no thought of hunting any such elusive quarry as the night-hawks. With a view to startling some wary hiders into activity, he opened his beak and gave utterance to an unearthly screeching hoot. As he did so, there was a sharp movement on the platform of sticks, and a keen, defiant eye looked up at him. He discerned instantly that the platform of sticks was a nest, and that an immense bird, with an astonishingly long head and bill, was sitting upon it.
In his own desolate north the great gray owl knew that no creature on wings could rival him. He was the undisputed tyrant of the Polar air, even the dashing, white chocolate-mottled hawk-owl flying precipitately before him. It never occurred to him that this straight-billed nester could be in any way dangerous. He dropped down upon her quite casually, as upon a sure and easy victim.
But, before he was within striking distance, the narrow head of the heron was drawn far back between her shoulders, and the long straight javelin of her bill presented its point directly toward the attack.
The Gray Visitor noted what a weapon confronted him, and paused warily. In the next instant the snaky neck of the heron uncoiled itself and the javelin bill darted up at him like lightning. It was a false stroke on the heron's part, for her assailant was not quite within reach. But the Gray Visitor took note of the deadly possibilities of that darting bill, and promptly sailed a little further out of its range.
But he was only warned, not daunted. For several minutes he circled slowly just above the nest, now approaching, now retiring, while he pondered the unaccustomed problem. And all the time the heron, her head drawn back between her hunched shoulders, watched his flight unwinkingly, and kept her menacing point at guard. On the flexible coil of her neck her head pivoted perfectly, and from whichever quarter the enemy approached, there was that fiery yellow point always confronting him, waiting to dart upward and meet him full in the breast.
Suddenly he swooped again. Up came that darting stroke to meet him. But he did not meet it. Swerving craftily, he caught the stroke in his wing feathers and smothered it, buffeting it down. With a harsh quah-ah of despair, the heron strove to regain her position for another stroke. But already her adversary had his clutch upon her throat. A moment more and the long neck straightened out, and the narrow head hung limply over the edge of the nest. The eggs, crushed in the struggle, oozed slowly down through the loose foundations of the platform, and the great gray owl began to tear greedily at the most lavish banquet his hunting had ever won him.
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