Hoof and Claw
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Presently he stooped down and stroked the huddle of shining fur. Blind babies though they were, the youngsters knew the touch for an alien one, the unknown smell for the smell of an enemy. Their tails and the ruffs of their necks bristled instantly, and, with a feeble spitting, they turned and clawed savagely at the intruding hand. The little claws drew blood, and John Hatch withdrew his hand with a laugh that had a touch of admiration in it.
"Gosh, but ye're spunky little devils!" he muttered. "But ye ain't a-goin' to grow up to use them claws on my sheep nur my dawg, an' don't ye fergit it!" For a moment he thought of wringing their necks, as the simplest way of getting the matter off his hands. But his kindly disposition shrank from the barbarity of the process; and, after all, to his mind they were kittens of a kind, and therefore entitled to a more gracious form of taking off. For all their spitting and clawing, he picked them up by the scruffs of their necks, stuffed two of them into his capacious pockets, carried the other two in his fist, and made his way hastily down the mountain, keeping a watchful eye over his shoulder, lest the mother-lynx should happen back from her hunting and attempt a rescue. He made his way to a little well-like pool, a sort of pocket of black water in a cleft of the granite, which he had passed and noted curiously on his upward climb. Into this icy oblivion he dropped the baby lynxes in a bunch, with a stone tied to them, as he was wont to do with the superfluous kittens at home. "Good riddance to that rubbish!" he muttered, as he strode on down the mountain.
But, underestimating the strength of these wild kittens, he had tied the string carelessly. In their drowning struggles, the string had come undone, and the victims, freed from the stone, had risen to the surface. But by this time they were too weak for any effectual effort at escape, and in their blindness they could not find the shore. Two, by chance, drifted upon a lip of rock, where they sprawled half-awash and were presently dead of the chill. The other two sank again into the black depths.
Their puny struggles had not long been stilled – five minutes, perhaps, or ten – when the mother-lynx arrived at the edge of the pool. Returning to her den and finding her little ones gone, the footprints and the trail of the woodsman had told her the story. Crouching flat, with ears back and teeth bared to the sockets, she had glared about her with terrible eyes, as if thinking that the ravisher might yet be within reach. Then, after one long, agonized sniff at the spot where her young had lain, she had sped away noiselessly down the steep, running with nose to the blatant trail and wild eyes peering ahead through the tangle of the brush.
At the edge of the pool she stopped. Though Hatch's trail went on, she saw at once, from his halt at the edge, that something had happened here. In a moment or two her piercing eyes detected those two little limp bodies lying awash on the lip of granite at the other side of the pool.
Eagerly she called to them, with a harsh but poignant mew, and in two prodigious leaps she was leaning over them.With tender, mothering lips she lifted them from the water by their necks, curled herself about them for warmth, and fell to licking them passionately with soft murmurs of caress. She did not notice, apparently, the absence of the other two, or perhaps her sense of numbers was defective, and she could not count. However that may be, she devoted herself with concentrated fervor for some minutes to the two limp and bedraggled little forms striving passionately to stir them back to life. Then, as if realizing on the sudden that they were dead, she almost spurned them from her, sprang to her feet with a long yowl, and ran around the pool till she again picked up John Hatch's trail.
It was about four in the afternoon when John Hatch crossed the last of the half-bare slopes, with their scant growth of poplar and sapling birch, which fringed the foot of Old Sugar Loaf, and plunged into the dark spruce woods which separated him from his lonely farm on the banks of Burnt Brook. His trail was now an easy one, an old and moss-grown "tote-road" of the lumbermen. It was some ten or a dozen years since this region had been lumbered over, and by this time the young timber which had then been left, as below the legal diameter for cutting, had grown to the full and stately stature of the spruce. The great trees, however, had not yet had time to kill out the bushy undergrowth which had sprung up luxuriantly in the wake of the choppers, and consequently the forest on either side of the trail was a dense riot of jungle to the height of six or eight feet.
John Hatch knew that the mother-lynx, had he caught her at home, would have put up a valiant fight in defense of her babies. He thought that she might even have attacked him in the open if she had come up with him while he had the kittens on him. He despised all lynxes as cordially as he hated them; but he knew that a mother, of almost any breed, may do desperate things for her young. Having his axe with him, however, and the nicest of woodsman's skill in using it, he had had no misgivings at any moment, and, now that the kittens were at the bottom of the pool, he dismissed the whole matter from his mind. There remained of it nothing at all but a dim satisfaction that four dangerous enemies to his sheep had been thus easily disposed of.
Suddenly, without knowing why, John Hatch stopped in his stride, gripped his axe instinctively, and glanced over his shoulder. The skin of his cheeks, beneath the grizzled stubble, crept curiously. He felt that he was being followed. But there was nothing on the trail behind him, which was clear and straight to his view for a good two hundred yards back. He peered deep into the undergrowth, first on one side, then on the other. No living thing was to be seen, except a little black-and-white woodpecker, which slipped behind a hemlock trunk and peered around at him with bright, inquiring eyes.
"Guess I've got the creeps," growled Hatch, with certain unprintable expletives, which seemed to indicate annoyance and surprise. Whirling angrily on his heel, he resumed his long, loose-kneed woodsman's stride.
But he could not get rid of that sensation of being followed. For a long time he resolutely ignored it. There was nothing in the woods that he had need to fear. He knew there was no wild beast, not even the biggest bear between Old Sugar Loaf and the Miramichi, that would be so rash as to seek a quarrel with him. As for the mother-lynx, she had passed out of his mind, so ingrained and deep was his scorn of all such "varmin." But presently the insistence of that unseen presence on his trail became too strong for him, and, with a curse, he turned his head. There was nothing there. He bounded into the wood on the left of the track, parting the undergrowth furiously with both arms outstretched before his face. To his eyes, still full of the sunlight, the brown-green gloom was almost blackness, for the moment. But he seemed to see, or imagined he saw, a flitting shadow – whether darker or lighter than its surroundings he could not have told – fade into the obscurity around it.
Hatch swore softly and turned back into the homeward trail. "It's nawthin' but that lynx!" he muttered. "An' I'm a fool, an' no mistake!"
The mystery thus satisfactorily solved, he swung on contentedly for the next mile or so. Then once more that uncanny impression of being trailed began to tingle in his cheeks and stir the roots of the hair on his neck. He laughed impatiently, and gave no further heed to it. But, in spite of himself, a peculiar picture began to burn itself into his consciousness. He realized a pair of round, pale, baleful eyes, piercing with pain and vengeful fury, fixed upon him as they floated along, close to the ground, in the midst of a gliding shape of shadow. Knowing well that the beast would never dare to spring upon him, he spat upon the ground in irritated contempt. At the same time he was nettled at its presumption in thus dogging his trail. He could see no object in it. The futile menace of it angered him keenly.
"I'll bring my gun along next time I'm over to Sugar Loaf," he murmured, "an' I'll put a ball through her guts if she don't keep off my trail!"
His vexation was not mollified by the fact that, when he came out from the spruce woods into the open pastures of his clearing, and saw his farmyard below him basking in the sun, he felt a distinct sense of relief. This was an indignity that he could never have dreamed of. That a lynx should be able to cause him a moment's apprehension! It was inconceivable. Yet – he was glad of the open. He resolved to get out all his traps and snares at once, and settle scores with the beast without delay.
That night, however, he dismissed the idea of traps from his mind as making too much of the matter. As he sat by his kitchen fire, smoking comfortably, his chores all done up, the battle-scarred dog asleep beside his chair, and forgiving tabby curled up on his knee, and the twang of night-hawks in a clear sky coming in through the open window with the fresh smell of the dew, he chuckled at his own folly.
"I sure did have the creeps," he explained to the cat, which opened one eye at him and shut it again noncommittally. "But I ain't a-goin' to have 'em ag'in. No, sir-ee!"
But the scarred dog, a lean black-and-tan mongrel, with some collie strain revealed in his feathering and in his long, narrow jaw, stirred uneasily in his sleep and whimpered.
John Hatch had two cows and a yoke of red steers. At this kindly time of year they all stayed out at pasture, day and night, with the sheep, in the upper burnt lot – a ragged field of hillocks and short, sweet grass, and fire-blackened stumps slowly rotting. Along the left of the field the dark spruce woods came down close to the zigzag snake fence of split rails which bounded Hatch's clearing. At this point were the pasture bars, which served the purpose of a gate; and here, about sundown, the two cows stood lowing softly, waiting for Hatch to come with his tin milk pails and ease their heavy udders of the day's burden.
On the evening following Hatch's trip up Old Sugar Loaf, he was a little later than usual at his milking, and the pasture was all afloat in violet dusk as he dropped the two upper bars at one end and swung his long legs over with a clatter of his two tin pails. He picked up his three-legged stool, hitched himself under the flank of the nearest cow, gripped a pail between his knees, and in a moment began the soft, frothy thunder of the two white streams pulsating down alternately into the tin under the rhythmic persuasion of his skilled fingers. The dog, who was not persona grata to the cows, because he had at times to rebuke them for trespassing on the oat field or the turnip patch, sat up on his haunches at the other side of the fence and watched the milking indifferently.
The first cow was milked and had wandered off to feed, and Hatch was almost through with the second, when through the bars he saw the dog get up quickly and go trotting off homeward with an air of having been kicked. Mildly wondering, he muttered to himself: "Got more whims 'n a mare colt, that Jeff!"
A moment later the cow snorted and gave a jump which would have upset a less wary milker than John Hatch. She ran away down the field, tossing her horns, to join her companion and the steers. And Hatch was left sitting there with the pail between his legs, staring fixedly into the dark woods. For the fraction of a second he half fancied that a shadow flitted across them. Then he knew it was an illusion of his eyes, straining suddenly in that illusive light.
Very angry – too angry to find expression in even the most unparliamentary of speech – he rose to his feet, set the pail of milk beside its fellow, grabbed the sturdy milking-stool by one leg, vaulted the fence, and plunged into the woods. It was not a particularly handy weapon, the stool, but John Hatch was not a particularly prudent man. If there was anything there in the woods, prying on his steps and frightening his "critters," he wanted to come to grips with it at once.
But there was nothing there, as far as he could see. Once more the fine hairs crept and tingled up and down the back of his neck. He stalked indignantly back to the fence, vaulted it, flung down the milking-stool, grabbed up the milk pails so roughly that the contents slopped over on to his homespun breeches, and set off for home. Not once did he allow himself to look back, though, to his impatient wrath, he felt sure all the way down the lane that malevolent eyes were watching him through the fence.
On the following day John Hatch spent most of the time in the woods with his gun, hunting the coverts for miles about the clearing. He hunted stealthily now, as noiseless and furtive as any of the wild kindred themselves. He saw nothing more formidable than a couple of indifferent skunks and a surly old porcupine which rattled its quills at him. He wanted to shoot the skunks as "varmin," inimical to his chickens; but he refrained, lest he should give the alarm to the unknown enemy whom he was hunting. He searched assiduously for anything like a hostile trail; but there had been no rain lately, and the ground was hard, and the dead-brown spruce needles formed a carpet which took little impression from wary paws, and he gained no clue whatever. He turned homeward, somewhat relieved, toward milking time. But, before he reached the edge of the woods, once more came that warning and uncanny creep at the roots of his hair.
In a flash of fury he wheeled and fired into the thickets just behind him. He could have sworn that a gray shadow flitted away behind the gray trunks. But his most minute search could discover no trail save here and there a light disturbance of the spruce needles. It was easy for him to infer, however, with his instinct and his woodcraft, that these disturbances were due to the great, softly padded paws of a lynx.
He bared his teeth in scorn, and on the following day he fairly sowed that section of the forest with snares and traps. Within a week he had taken a weasel, three woodchucks, half a dozen skunks, and thirteen rabbits. Then, feeling that the game was carried on under a surveillance which he could neither locate nor evade, he suddenly quitted it, and fell back upon an attitude of contemptuous indifference. But he cleared away all the undergrowth in the woods within fifty yards of the pasture bars, because he would not have the cows scared at milking.
As long as Hatch kept out of the woods, or the very immediate neighborhood of them, he was quite untroubled by the sense of the haunting shadow and the unseen, watching eyes. For a time now he did keep out of them, being fully occupied with his tasks in the little farm. Then came a day when he found that he wanted poles. The best poles, as he knew, grew on the shores of a little lake some miles away, near the foot of Sugar Loaf. But he thought he would make shift to do with the very inferior poles which grew along the edge of the wild meadow at the other side of the farm. At first he persuaded himself that his object in this was merely to save time. Then he realized that he was shrinking from the journey through the woods. Flushing with shame, he consigned his folly and all lynxes to the place of eternal torment, hitched his old sorrel mare to the drag, and set out after those superior poles which grew below Sugar Loaf. But he took his gun along with him, which had not been hitherto by any means his invariable custom.
On the way out there occurred nothing unusual. The green summer woods seemed once more to John Hatch the old, friendly woods, with neither menace nor mystery to his rather unimaginative spirit. He whistled gaily over his chopping, while the old sorrel pastured comfortably in a patch of wild meadow by the lake, troubled by nothing but the flies, whose attention kept her long tail ceaselessly busy. Well along in the afternoon he started homeward with a light heart, as many trimmed poles on his drag as the sorrel could comfortably haul.
The journey was uneventful. After a time, indeed, Hatch felt himself once more so completely at home in his familiar wilderness that the tension of his nerves relaxed, and the exasperating experiences of the past weeks were forgotten. He reached a turn of the wood road, where it crested a rise about half a mile from his clearing, and saw his homely cabin, with its farmyard and its fields basking in the low afternoon sunshine, straight before him.
It was a comfortable picture, framed as in a narrow panel by the dark uprights of the spruce on either side of the mossy road. Hatch framed his lips to whistle in his satisfaction at the picture.
But the whistle wavered out in a thin breath, as he felt once more that hated creeping of the skin, that crawling at the back of his neck. He dropped the reins and snatched up his gun from where it lay on top of the load of poles. At the same moment the sedate old sorrel shied violently, almost knocking him over, and then started on a wild gallop down the road, spilling the poles in every direction as she went.
With a crisp oath, Hatch burst through the undergrowth which fringed the road. He fancied that he saw a gray shadow fading off among the gray trunks, and he fired at once.
Hatch was a good shot, and he felt sure that he had scored a hit. In keen exultation he ran forward, expecting to find his enemy stretched on the spruce needles. But there was nothing there. He turned on his heel in deep disgust, and caught sight of another shadowy shape flickering off in another direction. Up went his gun again to the shoulder. But he did not fire, for there was no longer anything to fire at. He lowered his gun and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, feeling even his old lumber-camp vocabulary inadequate.
Outwardly cold, but boiling within, Hatch stalked slowly homeward, ignoring the scattered poles along the way. He felt no more of the presence of the dogging shadows, presumably because they had withdrawn themselves at the sound of the gunshot. Arrived at home, he found the old sorrel, with the empty drag, waiting at the gate to be let in, and Jeff, who always stayed at home to guard the house, wagging his tail interrogatively beside her, puzzled to know why she had come home without her master or her load.
John Hatch looked at the dog musingly.
"Jeff," said he, "if ye warn't so blankety blank blank afeerd o' lynxes, ye'd help me a sight in runnin' them varmin down. But ye ain't got no nerve left. Reckon I'll have to take ye into the woods now an' ag'in, kind of fur discipline, an' help ye to git it back. Ye ain't much account now, Jeff."
And the dog, feeling the reproach in Hatch's quaint speech, dropped his tail and pretended he had business behind the barn.
After this, when Hatch's affairs took him into the woods, Jeff went with him. But he went unhappily, crowding at his master's heels, with head and ears and tail one unanimous protest. To Hatch these expeditions sometimes proved uneventful, for sometimes the hostile shadows seemed to be off somewhere else, and too occupied to follow Hatch's trail. On such occasions Hatch knew that the unseen surveillance was withdrawn, because he had none of those warning "creeps" at the nape of his neck. But to Jeff every covert or thicket within a radius of fifty yards was an ambush for lynxes, and only at his master's heels did he feel secure from their swift and eviscerating claws. When he saw John Hatch stop abruptly, glare about him, and plunge into the underbush, then Jeff would try to get between his legs, an effort not helpful to Hatch's marksmanship or to his temper. And the shadows – for there seemed to John Hatch to be two of them haunting him now – would fade off elusively into the environing and soundless shade.
All through the summer and the autumn this mysterious trailing went on, till Hatch, disgusted by the futility of his attempts to shake it off, assumed indifference and pretended to himself that he rather liked being haunted. He remarked to Jeff – with whom he could allow himself to speak more frankly than to most – that an occasional creepy feeling about the roots of one's hair might be good for the scalp, a preventive of baldness even. But in the depths of his heart he grew more and more uneasy. Such vigilant and untiring vindictiveness on the part of creatures which are wont to shun all human neighborhood with an incorrigible savagery of shyness was unnatural. It seemed to him to suggest a very madness of hate, an obsession which might culminate in some deed of desperation unheard of among lynxes.
When, however, the winter had once settled in with full rigor, Hatch found that he was being shadowed with less and less insistence. He inferred at once that this was because his foes were now forced to spend most of their time in foraging for their own livelihood, and he drew a wry face of self-disgust as he realized the depth of his relief. As the winter advanced, and the cold bit fiercer, and the snow gathered as if to bury the wilderness world away from sight forever, it came at last to seem as if the unknown purpose of the avengers was forgotten. No more, upon his tramps on snowshoes through the muffled woods, did John Hatch feel those admonitory creepings of his flesh, and presently he forgot all about the haunting shadows and their menace.
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