Charles Roberts.

Hoof and Claw



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But Nature is apt to deal remorselessly with the unprepared. And the Gray Visitor, not being at home with his surroundings, had neglected to prepare for the return of the dead mother's mate. Busy at his feasting, he failed to notice at first the flapping of heavy wings. When he did notice it he looked up sharply, his beak dripping, his round, pallid face dappled with blood. The tall cock-heron was just settling upon the edge of the platform. His head was drawn back between his shoulders, behind the long yellow lance of his bill, and his eyes, hard as jewels, met those of the murderer without any expression of rage or fear or hate. They were as unchanging as the gemmed eyes of an idol.

The Gray Visitor sprang into the air, in order to give battle on more advantageous terms. But this time he sprang a little too slowly. The heron's head darted downward at him, as if spearing a frog. The stroke caught him full in the wing-elbow, splitting it and totally disabling him for flight. With a hiss of fury, he pounced at his stilt-legged antagonist, striking out frantically with his terrific, clutching talons. But his trailing wing jerked him sideways, so that he utterly missed his aim and sprawled at the heron's feet. Before he could recover himself, the avenger struck again with the full drive of his powerful neck, and the stroke went home. The Gray Visitor dropped in a heap, with the javelin bill clean through his throat. His round yellow eyes opened and shut several times, and his beak snapped like a pair of castanets. Then he lay quite still, while the heron, standing at full height on the edge of the outraged nest, stabbed repeatedly and with slow deliberation at the unresisting mass of shadowy feathers.

The Runners of the High Peaks

Motionless upon his knife-edged pinnacle, the great brown ram stood poised, his gray, uplifted muzzle out-thrust toward the sunrise as if he would sniff in its rose-red glories as they flamed across the ice peaks of the jagged horizon. The enormous corrugated spirals of his horns lay back over his neck and shoulders as he stood, and his arrogant eyes of black and gold appeared half-shut as they searched the jumble of peaks, ravines, and lake-dotted valleys outspread in still confusion beneath him. The silence in his ears was absolute, save for the occasional throb of thunder from a waterfall leaping out into the light of dawn a thousand feet below, and heard only when some wandering eddy of air pulsed upward from the depths. There was no enemy to be descried, either in the still shadowed valleys or on the brightening slopes and steeps; but the stately watcher kept his station, immovable, staring as if physically hypnotized by the immensity of the vision that filled his eyes. Then at last a white-headed eagle, passing low overhead, yelped at him defiantly. He paid no attention to the challenge, but the harsh, thin cry seemed to break his trance. He dropped his head and glanced down at the narrow table-like ledge just below his pinnacle, where another ram, smaller and less splendidly horned than himself, with six little spike-horned ewes, cropped the short sweet grasses which grew in the clefts of the rock.

Far down in the shadow beneath the wild ram's peak a white tent glimmered beside the misty coils of the stream which threaded the valley.

It was quite too far off to give the ram any concern. Even his sagacious and penetrating vision could barely make out that a man had stepped forth from under the tent-flap and now stood motionless beside it. His confidence would have gone to pieces in uncomprehended terror had he known that the man, with a pair of powerful glams to his eyes, was studying him minutely, and could see him as clearly as if he were not more than a couple of hundred yards away.

Pete Allen was prospecting. Smitten with the wanderlust, he had struck clear across the continent from the spruce woods and rich river meadows of New Brunswick to the gigantic mountain chaos of the Rockies in British Columbia. In New Brunswick he had been a hunter and guide. Now he had forsaken the trails of moose and bear and caribou to seek the elusive "color" in the sands of the mountain streams, or the unobtrusive outcrop of the quartz that carries gold. But the old instincts were still strong in him. He felt the lure of a splendid and unknown quarry. He coveted the magnificent head of that calm watcher on the peak; and, having heard that the wild mountain ram of the Rockies was an extraordinarily difficult quarry to bring down, he itched to try his old eastern woodcraft in this new chase and win the prize unaided. He had two Indians with him as carriers, but he was determined that they should have no part in this hunting. After he had well studied, through his glasses, the lay of the ridges and ravines about the peak where the ram was standing, he re?ntered the tent for his rifle. He stuffed some cold meat and hard tack into his pockets, told his Indians they need not expect him back before night, and started up the course of a small stream which seemed to come from the shoulder of the mountain. As soon as he plunged into the thickets he lost sight of the watcher on the peak; but he had laid his course, and he pushed on confidently, working around the mountain so that he might come upon the quarry with the sun at his back. When, after an hour's hard work, pushing through matted thickets and crossing jagged gullies, he came out upon a knoll which commanded a view of the peak, he saw that the great ram had disappeared. But this did not trouble him, as he felt sure he would pick up the trail in course of time.

Up on the high ledge below the peak the spring grass was sweet, but there was little of it. The mountain sheep, cropping hungrily with their short, eager bites, soon exhausted their high pasturage. They lifted their heads discontentedly, whereupon the old ram, whose supercilious eyes nevertheless missed little of what concerned him, stepped mincingly down from his pinnacle. Between the edged summit and the ledge where his flock pastured was an all but perpendicular drop of smooth-faced rock. Smooth as it looked, however, his dainty and discriminating hoofs were able to find some unevennesses upon it, for he took it in two effortless leaps, and landed among his followers with a shake of his splendid horns. Then he led the way down the naked steep, now flooded with the level radiance of the three-fourths risen sun, toward the fresh spring pasturage along the upper limits of the timber-belt.

He took no pains to choose an easy path, this light-foot runner of the a?rial peaks. Along dizzy ledges that looked no more than a track for lizards or a clinging place for swallows, he led the way without pause or hesitation, the flock in single file at his heels. From ledge to ledge he dropped, over hair-raising deeps of transparent air, with a precision and ease that made it seem as if his sturdy frame was as imponderable as the air itself. He ploughed down chutes and funnels of loose stone, the d?bris of the rock walls above. He sprang carelessly over crevices whose bottoms were lost in blackness, till at last the young-leaved birch and the somber pointed fir lay just below him, skirted by the steep ribands and intersected by the narrow glens of greening turf.

At this point the wise old ram began to go warily. In this remote corner of the Rockies the hunter's rifle was as yet practically unknown. On the ultimate heights, therefore, where none could follow him but the eagles and the falcons, he had no enemies to keep watch against. For the eagles he had small concern, except just at lambing-time, and even then each ewe mother, with her short, spiky horns and nimble, razor-edged hoofs, was quick and able to protect her own little one. But down here, along the edge of the timber, were the dreaded enemies – the wolves, the mountain lions, the black bears, and the grizzlies. The temptation of the new grass was one not to be resisted, but the price of it was an unsleeping watchfulness of eye and ear and wits.

The uppermost fringe of grass, where it thinned away into the broken rock, was scanty and stunted; but here the great horned leader elected to do his own pasturing, while the younger ram stood guard. The spot was a safe one, being several hundred yards from the timber, and bounded along its upper edge by a broken steep, which offered no obstacle whatever to these light-footed peak-runners, but was all but impassable, except at a crawl, to the most agile of their foes. If the gaunt gray timber wolf should come darting, belly to earth, from the woods, for all his swiftness the flock would be bounding lightly far up the steep, as if lifted on a sudden wind, before he could come anywhere within reach of them.

When he had quite satisfied his own hunger, and with lifted nostrils sniffed suspiciously every air that drew upward from the woods, the old ram led his flock further down into one of those steep glens where the grass was more abundant. Or, rather, instead of leading them, he shepherded them before him, keeping them all under his eye, and himself guarding the rear, while the oldest and wariest of the ewes, prick-eared and all a-quiver with suspicion, led the way, questioning every bush and every shadow. But there was no hint of danger anywhere to be discerned; and presently the flock was pasturing greedily on such sweet herbage as they had not tasted since the previous year, while on a hummock near the bottom of the glade, at the post of danger, the ram kept watch, turning his head continually.

But enthusiasm over young pasturage may make even a mountain sheep absent-minded. From time to time the flock straggled. Straightway it would close up again, drawing away from the thickets. Then, in a minute or two more, it would open out fan-wise, as each impatient feeder followed up some vein of especially luscious herbage. Just at the point where the slope of grass was intersected by another and narrower glade, almost at right angles to the first, a heedless young ewe had branched off a score or so of paces to one side, up the cross-glade. Lifting her head suddenly, she realized her isolation, and started to rejoin her fellows.

At that same instant a lean, gray shape shot noiselessly from the underbrush straight in her path, and leaped at her with wide jaws. With a bleat of terror she sprang back up the cross-glade; and then, frantic at the prospect of being cut off from the flock, she wheeled again and tried to dodge past her assailant. The wolf, understanding her tactics, and absolutely sure that she could not escape him, headed her off without too violently exerting himself. He knew that here, away from her steeps and pinnacles, she was no match for him in speed, and he knew, too, that once she saw herself deserted by the flock her powers would fail her in sheer panic. For a few seconds he almost played with her. Then, getting her fairly cornered in a bend of the thickets, he sprang savagely for her throat.

Behind him, meanwhile, the flock went bounding by, headed for their high refuge. Last came the great ram, snorting with wrath and fear. Just as he was passing he saw that final rush of the wolf. He saw the young ewe penned in her corner. He heard her shrill, despairing bleat. The look of fear faded from his yellow eyes, leaving the rage only. It was not his wont to pit himself against the mighty timber wolf, because he had no morbid taste for suicide, but this young ewe was a favorite. Just as the gnashing jaws were about to snap upon the victim's neck something not unlike the stroke of a pile-driver caught the wolf fairly on the crupper. Aided by his own spring, it lifted him clean over the struggling ewe's back, doubled him together, and dashed him with stunning effect against a tree. Slowly he picked himself up, to see his quarry and the great ram just vanishing up the glade, far beyond any such pursuit as he was at the moment equal to. With a shamefaced air he glanced about him. There, across the glade, stood a tawny puma, eyeing his discomfiture through narrowed lids. This was too much. Tucking his tail between his legs, he slunk off into the underbrush.

Having gained what he considered a safe height among the rocks, the ram halted his followers upon a jutting buttress, where they stood huddled about him, and stared down resentfully upon the grassy glades. Such was their confidence in their lord, and in their own powers of flight, that they were none of them particularly frightened, except the young ewe who had had such a narrow escape. She, trembling and with panting sides, crowded close against her rescuer, who, for his part, kept scrutinizing the edges of the timber to see if the enemy were going to follow up the attack. He saw no more of that enemy, but he caught a glimpse of the tawny form of the puma gliding into a tree. Thereupon he decided that this part of the mountain was no place for his flock.

He turned and made off straight up the steep, till he had put a good mile between himself and the point of danger. Then, dropping into a ravine till their course was quite hidden from all hostile eyes in the timber, he led the way around the mountainside for several miles. On a high ledge, secure from any unseen approach, the flock rested for an hour or two, chewing the cud in peace in the vast silence of the bare and sun-bathed peaks. When once more they descended to the timber belt and its seductive pasturage there were three or four miles of tangled ridge and ravine between them and the scene of their morning's adventure.

In the meantime, Pete Allen, weary with climbing, sore with disappointment, tormented with as many flies as his own New Brunswick backwoods would have let loose upon him at the worst of the season, was beginning to wonder if the hunt of the mountain sheep was as simple an affair as he had fancied it. After climbing all the morning he had failed to gain another glimpse of the great brown ram. At last, however, about noon, he came upon their trail, leading down to the grass. With a long breath of relief, he stopped, drank at a bubbling icy spring, ate his cold bacon and crackers, and smoked a pipe. The trail was none too fresh, so he knew there was nothing to be gained by rash haste. After his pipe, he followed the trail down to the glades. His trained eyes soon told him what had happened. The encounter with the wolf was an open page to him. Having satisfied himself that there was nothing of interest left in that patch of timber – though all the while the puma was eyeing him with curious interest from a great branch not far overhead – he took up the trail of the flock's flight, and started once more up the mountain. Sweating heavily, and angrily brushing the flies from his eyes and nose and ears, he managed to distinguish the trail for a couple of miles along the difficult ravines, but at last, at the root of a precipice which, in his eastern judgment, was quite impassable to anything without wings, he lost it irretrievably.

Arguing that the flock must sooner or later return to their pasturage, he picked his way on a long diagonal down the mountainside, traversed a succession of grass patches, which showed never a trace of hoof print, and at length found himself in a bewildering maze of low, abrupt ridges, dense thickets, and narrow strips of green glade.

From all that Allen had been able to gather as to the habits of mountain sheep he concluded that this was about the last place in the world where he would be likely to find them. He began, after long self-restraint, to curse softly under his breath, as he glared about him for the most practical exit from the maze. All at once his face changed. The anger faded out from his shrewd light-blue eyes. There was the trail of the flock leading straight down the steepest and most uninviting of the glens. It was a fresh trail, too – so absolutely fresh that some of the trodden blades were still lifting their heads slowly from the hoof prints.

"Gee!" muttered Allen. "Seems I don't know's much about these here critters as I thought I did!" And he slipped noiselessly back into the cover of a thicket.

His problem now was to keep the trail in sight while himself remaining under cover. It was the hardest piece of tracking he had ever tackled. The cover was dense, the slope steep and tormentedly broken. He had to be noiseless as a mink, because he knew by hearsay that the ears of the mountain ram were almost as keen as an owl's. And he had to keep himself perfectly out of sight, which forced him to take the most difficult part of the underbrush for his path. But, for all this, he was no longer angry; he no longer heeded the flies or the heat, and when the sweat streamed down into his eyes he merely wiped them cheerfully on his sleeve. He felt sure now of winning the longed-for trophy of that magnificent head, and of winning it, moreover, by his own unaided woodcraft. Presently, through an opening in the leafy screen, he caught a glimpse of a tranquilly pasturing ewe, not much more than two hundred yards away. She moved slowly across his narrow line of vision and vanished. Keyed now to the highest pitch of anticipation, with every faculty concentrated on his purpose, he worked his silent way onward, expecting momently to gain a view of the great ram.

But there was an element in the situation which, had he known it, would have interfered with Allen's concentration of purpose. He was not the only hunter of mountain sheep in that particular corner of the mountains.

A shaggy and sly old "silver-tip," as it chanced, had had his eye for some time on that flock. He loved mutton, and he knew it was very hard to get, especially for a bear. He was making his approaches, therefore, with a stealthy craft surpassing that of Pete Allen himself. So it came about quite naturally that he saw Allen first. Thereupon he took every precaution that Allen should not see him.

In this remote district the grizzlies had not yet learned the vital lesson that man is by far the most formidable of all the animals. Yet a rumor had come to him, somehow, that the insignificant creature was not to be trifled with. There was something masterful in his bearing – as the grizzly had observed from safe ambush on several occasions – which suggested unknown powers, and hitherto the old silver-tip, being well fed and having no special grudge against man, had refrained from courting a quarrel. Now, however, he was angry. This was his own game which the man was stalking. This was a trespass upon his own preserves – a point in regard to which the grizzly is apt to be sensitive. His first impulse was to rush upon the intruder at once. Then a mixture of prudence and curiosity held him back, or, rather, delayed his purpose. He changed his course, and began to stalk Pete Allen even as Pete Allen was stalking the sheep. And high overhead, in the unclouded blue, a soaring eagle, catching brief glimpses of the drama through the openings in the leafage, gazed down upon it with unwinking, scornful eyes.

Huge and apparently clumsy as was the bulk of the bear, he nevertheless made his way through the tangle as soundlessly as the man, and more swiftly. He drew gradually nearer, and, as he approached, he began to forget the other game in a savage interest in this new and dangerous quarry. He was not directly behind the man, but now drawing nearly abreast of him, on the other side of the narrow steep of grass. He was just beginning, indeed, to stiffen his sinews instinctively for the final rush which should avenge the intrusion upon his range, when he saw the man stop abruptly and raise something that looked like a long brown stick to his shoulder. At this sight the bear stopped also, his wrath not being yet quite hot enough to consume his curiosity.

Pete Allen at last had caught a clear view of the great brown ram standing at guard not a hundred yards away. It was a beautiful, easy shot, the target isolated and framed in green. He raised his rifle steadily, bracing himself with knees and feet in a precarious position. Before he could draw a bead, however, to his amazement he saw the ram bound into the air and vanish from his narrow field of vision. Puzzled, he lowered the rifle from his shoulder. As he did so that unknown and quite incalculable sense which seems to have its seat in the fine hairs on the back of one's neck and in the skin of the cheeks commanded him to turn his head. He was just in time to see the giant form of the grizzly burst from the underbrush and come lunging across the strip of open.

Confronted by such an emergency the New Brunswicker fired on the instant, and, being quite sure of himself and the bear above him, he took a difficult shot. He aimed at the middle of the beast's throat, trusting to sever the spinal column, for he had heard that a shot straight through the heart often fails to stop the rush of a grizzly.

There was nothing the matter with Pete Allen's shooting or with his nerve. But at the very fraction of a second when his finger started to pull the trigger the whimsical Fates of the wilderness took a hand in the game. They undermined Pete Allen's footing. As he fired he fell, and the long, soft-nosed, deadly bullet, instead of piercing the grizzly's spine, merely smashed through his right shoulder.



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