Charles Roberts.

Hoof and Claw



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Pete Allen fell sprawling some eight or ten feet down the slope, losing hold of his rifle in the effort to stop himself. To his anxious indignation he saw the rifle strike a branch and bounce perversely a dozen feet away. He scrambled for it furiously; but, before he could quite get his grip upon it, it slipped through the branches and dropped another dozen feet or so. At the same time, with something more near cold terror than he had ever before experienced, he saw the dark bulk of the grizzly wallowing down upon him, huge as a mountain. Staggered for a few seconds by the shock of the bullet, the beast had hesitated and turned around on his tracks, biting at the wound. Then, on three legs, and grunting with rage, he had launched himself upon his adversary.

In the course of the next three seconds, as he struggled toward his gun, Pete Allen thought of a thousand things, mostly unimportant. But at the back of his brain was the cool conviction that this was the time when he was going to pass in his checks. Those brute paws would smash him before he could reach his rifle. But he was wrong, for again the whimsical Fates interfered, perceiving a chance for such a trick as they had probably never played before.

The great brown ram, his eyes nearly starting from his head, came leaping madly up the narrow incline, his flock at his heels, blind with fright. In the glade below one of the flock had just been pounced upon by a puma, and another puma had sprung out at them, but missed his kill. The ram saw the bear straight in his path, plunging across it. There was no time to change his direction, and in his panic the peril in front was nothing to compare with the peril behind. Had the bear been a mastodon or a megatherium it would have been all the same to the panic-stricken ram. With the madness of utter terror he lowered his mighty head and charged this dark mass that barred his flight.

The bear, blazing with vengeance, had no eyes in that moment for sheep. Suddenly something like a falling boulder crashed into his ribs, catching him with his forefeet off the ground and almost rolling him over. The breath belched out of his astonished lungs with a loud, coughing grunt, and the ram went over him, spurning him with sharp hoofs. The next moment the whole flock was passing over him, a bewildering bombardment of small, keen, battering hoofs and woolly bodies. Recovering from his amazement, he struck out with his unwounded forepaw, caught the last unhappy ewe as she went over him, and hurled her carcass, mangled and quivering, far down the slope. Then, a little dazed, but undeterred from his vengeance, he glared about him for his original antagonist.

Interesting and, indeed, unparalleled as the intervention of the brown ram had been, Pete Allen had not taken time to observe it with the minute care which so novel an incident was entitled to. He had been busy getting his gun. Now he had it he did not hurry. With this shot he was taking no chances.

Just as the bear caught sight of him, and started at him open-mouthed, he fired, and the animal sprawled forward, a huge furry heap, with a ball through the base of his brain.

Back in New Brunswick Pete Allen had had the name of being a cool hand in a corner. In that land of tried woodsmen and daring stream-drivers he would not have gained that name without deserving it. Even as the grizzly was in the act of falling forward Allen raised his rifle again. He covered accurately the form of the brown ram leaping up the slope a hundred yards away. There was his trophy, the splendid horns which he had striven so hard to win, within his grasp at last. But something seemed to tug suddenly at his arm – or was it at his heart? Pete Allen had always prided himself on playing fair, in the spirit as well as in the letter. He dropped his rifle with a growl of vexation.

"It'd be a dirty trick to put a ball into yeh," he muttered, "seein' what a hell of a hole you've just pulled me out of!"

The Pool

The current that went circling through its depths, keeping them always crystal pure and sweet, was so leisurely that the clear brown mirror of the surface was never broken, unless by some slow-wandering foam-cluster eddied in from the frothy little falls outside, or by the dropping of a leaf, or by the sluggish rise of a trout to some unwary skimming fly.

To the fish that dwelt in it the pool was an abiding place of perfection. It was deep; but the entrance to it was narrow and shoal, just spacious enough for the slow interchange of waters with the vivifying outer current. At the same time this entrance was so set that innumerable choice morsels, fly and beetle, grub and berry, having been battered down over the falls, were then persuasively swept into it. It was darkly overhung by great-limbed water-ash and maple; but when the sun was some two or three hours past noon its downpour reached and flooded the surface and made very wholesome basking. The bottom, moreover, offered a judicious variety of attraction. For some way in from the entrance it was of a clean bright sand, more or less broken with stones. While the inner portion, right up to the perpendicular banks and the jutting tree-roots, was floored with silted mud, fruitful in the small, ephemeral water-growths of herb and insect.

The fish inhabiting the delectable pool were all big ones, except for a few scattered young fry which dwelt precariously in the extremest shallows where the big ones could not come at them. And the fish were of just two kinds, the trout and the suckers. The suckers, lazy, pig-like, inoffensive beings, congregated over the stretch of mud, from whose fat surface their small, round, defenseless, downward-opening mouths sucked up their sustenance incessantly. Their bulk, and the power of their sinewy tails, alone protected them from the trout, whose wide, rapacious jaws and insatiable appetite were effective in keeping the size of all the pool-dwellers up to standard.

The trout, as a rule, had none of the reposefulness of the suckers. They ranged restlessly, now over the mud reaches, now over the sand and rocks, wherever quarry, large or small, might perhaps be encountered. Frequently one or another would flash out through the narrow exit, to hunt and test its strength in the bright turmoil of the rapids. And from time to time one would return lazily, perhaps with the tail of a smaller relation sticking out of its mouth, and settle down under the bank to digest its heavy meal.

To the pair of great fish-hawks, whose huge, untidy nest, like a cart-load of sticks and rubbish, filled the top of a tall dead pine-tree half a mile above the falls, the pool was a ceaseless aggravation. In the continual flight up and downstream their keen eyes were wont to search the pool enviously. But the big fish swimming so calmly in its depths were safe from them, because it was so overhung that they were unable to swoop down upon it with any effective speed. In the clear open they could drop like a wedge of steel, and flick up a darting trout from the very lip of the fall. But the pool they could reach only by a deliberate, flapping approach which gave even the drowsiest basker ample time to seek refuge in the safe depths.

But there was one wild fisherman whom the pool suited exactly. A big half-submerged root, jutting out for about three feet directly over that section of the pool where the suckers congregated, afforded the great lynx just the post of vantage which he loved. Here he would lie in wait for an hour at a time, patient and immobile as the root on which he crouched. His round, black, savage moon-face, with its pale eyes bright and hard, its stiff whiskers, and its tufted ears, would be held down so close to the glassy surface that the confused reflections of the overhanging branches were unable to interfere with his vision, and he could see with perfect clearness every detail of the transparent depths. He would stare with endless craving at the massive suckers which lay placidly mouthing the mud; but nothing could ever bring them near the surface, so he knew nothing of them but that they were fat and looked very desirable.

But it was the trout that chiefly concerned him. They had none of the fat placidity of the suckers. One or another of them, with his gold and silver and vermilion glinting up through the pellucid gloom, would be forever on the move, quartering the bottom for caddis and beetle, and now and then sailing up toward the surface to investigate some floating atom that may chance to be a fly. Sometimes it was a fly, or a moth, or a caterpillar or some edible berry. And sometimes, too, the slow circling of the current in the pool would bring it close to that still watcher on the root before it caught the eye of the feeding fish. Then the sinews of the watcher would grow rigid, his claws protrude from their sheaths, a little green flame flicker spectrally in his eyes. As the trout came slanting up on scarlet fin, shouldered the surface apart, and sucked down the morsel, out from the root above him would flash a wide-taloned paw, unerring, inescapable, scooping him from his element, and in half a second he would be flopping convulsively among the wintergreen leaves, far up the bank. In the next half of that fatal second the lynx would be upon him with an exultant pounce, holding down his slippery struggles with both forepaws, and biting through the back of his massive neck.

The lynx being so silent and discreet a fisherman, his fishing never disturbed the pool at all, or cast any shadow of doubt upon its reputation as a haven of security and repose. The victim simply vanished, without any fuss. Of the other dwellers in the pool not one knew how he had vanished; not one cared; not one was troubled with apprehension.

One hot morning as the great cat lay on the root, staring down into the depths with his fierce moon eyes, he was disappointed to observe that on this particular day even the trout were too indolent to stir. The heat seemed to have taken away their appetites. As motionless and indifferent as the suckers themselves, they hung on softly fanning fins, and took no notice when even the most tempting morsels traversed the glassy surface. They did not mingle with the suckers, but poised themselves superciliously a foot or so above them, or lurked singly under the shelter of the scattered rocks on the bottom. In vain did fly or moth, or the most seductive squirmer of a fat grub, come circling slowly over the surface above them. They would not so much as cock a scornful eye up at it. They were not feeding. And when a trout won't feed he just won't, and there's an end of it. Though just when the pangs of appetite may come back upon him with a rush no fisherman can say with certainty. It is such uncertainty that has taught fishermen the virtues of patience and hope. It has also taught them unveracity, by giving them abundant time for the weaving of tales wherewith to amuse the credulous.

The lynx, as a fisherman, was both hopeful and patient. But this morning his patience was being sorely tried; for he was hungrier than usual, and his hunger was particularly bent on fish. His ridiculous stump of a tail, which was quite hidden from the sight of the pool-dwellers, began to twitch angrily. He was almost on the point of giving up, and stealing away to hunt rabbits, when from the corner of his eye he caught sight of something which made his ruff bristle and every hair stand up in jealous wrath. An intruder, a stranger, a rival whose skill as a fisherman made his own attempts seem nothing worth, had arrived at the entrance of the pool and was peering down into it with keen eyes.

The lynx moved, for the first time in a half hour. He turned his head full round, and fixed his green, implacable stare upon the intruder.

The new arrival had come by way of the river, and, from his bearing, the pool was evidently new to him. His long, sinuous, dark body lay crouched in the middle of the entrance, hinder half in the water and head and shoulders out of it. Sleek and glistening, with his low-set supple form, heavy-jawed and almost dog-like face, inconspicuous ears, dark eyes, and long, powerful tail, he presented the sharpest possible contrast in type to the great, shadowy, moon-eyed cat, though in actual weight and bulk the two were not greatly dissimilar.

But it was not at the silent watcher on the tree-root across the pool that the other was looking. He was peering down, with exultant eyes, into the peopled depths. Hunting had been bad, and he was hungry. A moment more and he plunged downward with a heavy swirl, but smoothly, as if oiled. The eyes of the lynx followed, with savage intentness, his swift and fishlike dartings beneath the water.

The drowsing pool-dwellers awoke and scattered in a panic, even the dull suckers displaying a miraculous agility. But it was not the coarse-fleshed suckers that this discriminating fisherman was after.

As the frantic fugitives dashed this way and that, weaving strange patterns over the bottom, and half forgetful, in their terror, of the narrow way out to safety, the otter slashed at such as came in his way, biting through their backbones, so that they presently rolled to the surface, belly upward. But it was the biggest trout of the pool that he wanted.

And one great fish there was who was fatally supreme. His supremacy had been fatal to many smaller fish before. Now it was fatal to himself. Him the otter chose out for his prize. Feeling himself so chosen, he flashed frantically from side to side, and up and down, ever missing the exit – or cleverly headed off from it – but also, for some minutes, evading the inexorable pursuit. The otter, though a four-footed land-dweller, was really more swift and agile in the water than any trout; but over and over again he was balked or delayed by other maddened fugitives getting in his way, or tempting him to delay for a slashing bite.

Through all the lashed turmoil the lynx never stirred, save to follow with his hard, bright stare the lightning evolutions of the flight and the pursuit. At last the doomed trout flashed up beneath the point of the root, and doubled just at the surface. In that fraction of a second when he seemed to pause for the turn, down swept the furry paw; and the trout was hurled far up the bank. From the spot at which the trout had so surprisingly vanished up shot the head of the otter. For one instant the otter's dark and furious eyes blazed into the pale eyes of the lynx, at a distance of not more than a dozen or eighteen inches. Then the lynx was gone up the bank at a bound, to pin down and finish off the victim.

Now, there were plenty more trout in the pool to be caught, and three dead or dying fish floating there to be picked up. But this fact to the otter was of no account whatever. He had been robbed of his kill. His prize had been impudently snatched from his teeth. There was room in his soul for no emotion but the rage of the avenger. He scrambled out on to the root and glided noiselessly up the bank.

From the point of view of the lynx, on the other hand, it was he who had all the grievance. The pool was his own private pre?mption, long held without a challenge. The otter was an insolent trespasser. As a rule, two wild beasts of different species, if so nearly matched that the event of a combat might be doubtful, will avoid each other discreetly. The plain uncertainty is apt to daunt them both. They do not understand each other's methods of fighting. And each has too much at stake. But here, in each case, was a question of the honor of the wilds. It was a great quarrel which neither would shirk. Having killed the writhing fish, the lynx turned sharp about, crouched with one paw on the prize, and eyed the approaching otter warily.

At first the otter came on with a steady rush, as if disdaining all fence and all precaution. At a distance of half-a-dozen feet, however, he paused, as if that pale, menacing stare of his crouching adversary had disconcerted him. He met it fairly, however, and steadily, and it was plain that he was in no way daunted. A moment more and he began to creep slowly forward, very slowly, inch by inch.

To the lynx, with his more fiery but less tenacious temperament, this very deliberate and long-drawn-out approach was more trying than a savage rush would have been. His courage was sound, but his nerves were jumpy. He opened his jaws wide and hissed harshly, and followed this demonstration by a strident yowl. Neither of these appearing to impress the creeping foe, he felt it impossible to keep still any longer. With a sudden bounce he shot into the air, to come down, as he calculated, square on the otter's back. But when he came down the otter's back was no longer where he had expected it to be. It had been discreetly removed. The next instant the otter's teeth snapped at his throat, but missed hold by a hair's breadth. For some seconds the two gnashed snarling in each other's faces; then, as if by common consent, they sprang apart, and began a slow, wary circling, each impressed with a sense of the other's prowess. That moment's clash of snarling jaw on jaw had seemed to let in a flash of understanding upon their hot hearts.

As they circled, each sparring for a chance to catch the other at a disadvantage, the dead trout lay gleaming and bleeding on the turf between them. Presently the otter made a little rush in, as if to seize it. But at this the lynx pounced in also, with a startling growl. The otter shrank back a little. The lynx checked his spring. In another moment the two were once more circling and sparring for vantage as before.

The longer the otter studied that gray, prowling, shadowy shape, with the wide eyes, the powerful hunched hind-quarters, the long and ripping claws, the less certain he felt of his ability to handle it, the more surely did his fighting lust cool down. He began to think of his other prizes in the pool, to be gathered without an effort; and, but for his pride, he would willingly have withdrawn from the doubtful venture which now involved him. But he was of dogged temper, and he showed no outward sign of his irresolution. The lynx, on the other hand, being less obstinate and of more variable mood, began to think of rabbits and such like easy enterprises. The more he studied that low, sinewy, dark figure with its keen teeth and punishing jaw, the less he liked it, and the more indifferent he grew to the attractions of trout as a diet. The radius of his menacing prowl grew gradually wider. In response the otter discreetly drew back a few feet. The lynx paused, and glanced up into a tree, as if suddenly interested in the flittings of a black-and-white woodpecker. The otter sniffed inquiringly at the ground, as if discovering a new scent there. The trout seemed to be forgotten. It lay glistening in a patch of sun; and a large blue-bottle alighted upon it.

Half a minute later the lynx strolled away, very deliberately. At the edge of a bush some thirty or forty paces distant he sat down on his tail, and looked around with elaborate carelessness to see what his rival was going to do. At the slightest provocation he was ready to return and fight the matter out. But the otter was no longer provocative. He swung about, glided back to the pool, slid into it, and snatched up one of the fish which he had already slain. Dragging it out upon the further bank, he fell to his meal with relish, in full view of his late antagonist. Thereupon the lynx came prowling back. He put his paw on the prize, and glared across the water with a defiant growl. There was no response, his rival being apparently too busy to heed him. He snatched up the fish in his teeth, and growled again. Still no reply from the otter. Then, with his stub tail stiff in the air, and stepping haughtily, he marched off into the silent green shades to make his meal.

The Shadows and John Hatch

When John Hatch found the lynx kittens in their shallow den on the bright and windy shoulder of Old Sugar Loaf, he stood for some minutes looking down upon them with a whimsical mixture of compassion and hostility. In his eyes all lynxes were vermin of the worst kind. They had killed three of his sheep. An old male had clawed his dog so severely that the dog had lost its nerve and all value as a hunting partner. They were great destroyers of the young deer, the grouse, and the hares, and so interfered with the supply of John Hatch's larder. In a word, they were his enemies, and therefore, according to his code, to be destroyed without compunction. But these were the first kittens of the hated breed that Hatch had ever seen. Unlike the full-grown lynx, whose fur is of a tawny, shadowy gray, these youngsters had sleek, brilliant coats adorned with stripes like a tiger's. They were so young that their eyes were not yet open, and they lay huddled cosily and trustingly together, in their bed of brown leaves, like so many exaggerated kittens of the hearthside tabby. But this was no extenuation of their crime, in John Hatch's eyes. It pleaded for them not at all, for he had his established custom in dealing with superfluous kittens.



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