The Fighting Pioneer
An alien in a perilous country, Sturdy-fins never knew when he was beaten
THE old man came down from the cabin, got into his battered skiff and pushed off to row across the narrow stretch where the shores of Goat Lake converged to form the outlet channel leading to the falls. The shadows of the Pacific Coast maples behind the beaches ahead were stretching across the water like cool fingers and already the conifers cloaking the west side of the valley held a suggestion of the purple haze which sunset releases. Among the uneven lines of peaks flanking the pass to the north the -June sun was streaking the fields of snow with bold brush strokes of gold and ’ rose. The old man was going to the flat rock to see if the lone black bass had found a mate.
Three years before, a small shipment of young black bass had been brought across the mountains and released in Goat Lake, to which, as to all waters of the northern
Pacific slope, they were foreign. But the experiment had failed, cannibal fish had soon devoured nearly all the underwater pioneers and now at their first breeding season the old man feared that only one remained. The coarse fish and the few big Dolly Vardens had defeated the attempt to establish a colony of the hardy eastern fighters. As far as he knew, only one bass had reached maturity, and in his skiff he had drifted over all the likely places, peering into the clear water, hoping and yet despairing of discovering other survivors.
As he approached the stretch of gravel bottom near the flat rock, he heard a wallowing splash and circles spread, lazily undulating the spired reflection of a cottonwood, where the heavy fish had broken water. That, he knew, was the big Dolly \ arden which for years at this season had lurked near the rock to gorge on smaller fish. More than any other enemy, more even than the strangeness of surroundings and of forage, this great fish of prey had been responsible for the defeat of the colony of bass, and because it was crafty and well fed it had outwitted him in all his attempts to capture it.
The man rested on his oars and let the boat drift over the patch of gravel near the rock. Shifting his position on
the thwart and shading the surface with his old felt hat, he watched the bottom until he saw below him the circular nest of clean pebbles. A faint whirl of disturbed silt showed him where the solitary guardian had sprung to action when the shadow of the boat floated over his domain. While he watched, the sturdy fish appeared, darted across the nest and cruised truculently about it, ready to defend it against even so gigantic an invader.
As he took up the oars, the splash of the feeding Dolly V’arden again broke the quiet which overlay the muffled, drumming thunder of the fallí. HTL.tïï'
“Wish’t I’d got rid a’you,” the old man said aloud. Several times, during the first days the young bass were in the lake, he had seen the great char ranging the shallows like a wolf hot on the trail of helpless prey, and since then it must have devoured others in places and at times when only underwater eyes could mark the slaughter.
As the skiff moved up the shore the old man thought of the lake as it might have been had sufficient bass survived. There were places here which resembled the favorite haunts of small mouth black bass he had known in the East more than forty years ago. They might have thrived had not the odds against them been so overwhelming.
He rowed half-way up the lake, crossed it and came down the shallows along the eastern side. Often he stood and searched the bottom, hoping he might discover a second nest and perhaps a pair of bass, but though he surprised many a phlegmatic sucker and coarse, ungainly squawfish, he saw no sign of the Eastern thoroughbreds.
The shadows were being dissolved into the growing indistinctness of the dusk and in the pass the colors of the afterglow were fading from the slopes of snow when he returned to the landing stage before the shake-roofed cabin. For a week now the male bass had been unmated and surely if there were even one female in the lake he would have found her.
He thought of the solitary pioneer over there near the flat rock. Undaunted by adversity he had built his nest and now though it could never be used he guarded it unceasingly. During his life in the solitudes the old man had seen many a losing fight with adversity and now, vaguely, inarticulately he knew that the harsh law of these cathedral valleys would overwhelm another gallant living thing.
He moored his skiff and went slowly up the trail to the cabin squatting below the dark wall of the brooding firs.
ON A stretch of gravel bottom where an Eastern river curved indolently across lush meadowlands Sturdy fins, the future warrior of Goat Lake, was born.
For cloudless weeks the strengthening sun had been tempering the water and in the mellow light coming down through the dimpling surface the under-water vegetation had grown quickly until by June the scars of freshet time were overgrown and in the warm shallows Sturdy-fins and the others of his brood could feed abundantly. This was the nursery to which their male •paréïit'.had convoyed them. For a week he had watched over them constantly, poising close by when they rose from the nest in daytime, herding them down at evening to seek thé shelter of the stones, until, his close vigil ended, he had left them in the shallows and gone to midriver to break his lengthy fast. Had he come upon any of his offspring after he began to feed he would not have hesitated to devour them. But among the trails and clearings between the islands of water plants they were safe, except for the flashing swoop of the kingfisher which many times each day swept overhead with staccato bursts of angry sound, and for the few cunning larger fisli that ranged the shallows under cover of the dark.
Of the brood only a few weaklings were to be devoured there. One forenoon while Sturdy-fins and the others ate ravenously where a wisp of current brought food to them down a channel between the matted watercress, a crouching figure came stealthily along the bank. It paused, stooped lower, crept upon them and a fine dip-net descended to whisk them through the air and into a waiting bucket.
In the small hatchery nearby they were reared until they were two inches long and then the order came that the experimental shipment for the mountain lake three thousand miles away was to go forward. Sturdy-fins and many of his brood were loaded into tanks and placed upon a train. Day and night skilled attendants watched them until at last they were taken from the express car, placed in smaller cans and borne by packhorses up the winding pony trail from the settlement to where Goat Lake dreamed between its mountains. Two hours later they were free.
In eager twos and threes the hardier ones left the huddled school beside the mouths of the submerged cans and advanced into the unknown, skirmishing out across the shallows in a fan-shaped line. As the rim of shadow from the westward mountains crept up the eastern sidehills the school at the releasing place dwindled and disappeared while the young adventurers scouted farther into these strange feeding grounds. Prompted by some restless instinct a few ranged northward avoiding the deep water, pushing valiantly on toward the shoals at the head of the lake a mile away.
But Sturdy-fins and the rest were content to explore the shallows at the lower end. Here was water different than in their birth-place near Lake Erie; there the river brought the strong tang of limestone from its scourged upper reaches, and here the wastage from the summer snows which fed the lake was flat and tasteless; the water plants, all things they fed upon, were unlike those on that distant river not one of them would ever swim again. But because they came of a hardy breed, they were not daunted by the strangeness of it all. Stout of heart and quick of body they went forward into waters no black bass had ever seen before.
Though Sturdy-fins, the strongest swimmer of them all, held a place in the vanguard of exploration, he did not push ahead with the rashness which brought disaster to many of his comrades. He possessed an instinctive wariness which served him well during those first encounters with a host of cunning foes.
Unhampered by the schooling instinct, he did not seek to join the groups of other bass, but swam forward alone, keeping well up from the broken driftwood littering the bottom, avoiding the forests of water parsnip and tule jungles, rounding each turn poised for flight or for pursuit of quarry.
The sun had left the water and freed it of the swaying, disconcerting shadows. The surface was placid, unsmirched by even the gentlest breath of air, when passing above the grotesque tentacles of an upturned alder stump, he saw a school of new-hatched squawfish straight ahead.
Sinuous, flabby things they were, and as their dark, large-headed bodies moved in a sluggish cloud, he charged, confident of prey. He came upon them from behind, driving through them, snatching them into his strong jaws and when he had slashed his way through the panicstricken school he swung sharply about and charged a second time. They would not scatter and it would be easy for him to herd them up and down the shallows and feast on them until darkness interceded and wrapped the harried survivors in its protecting cloak. It was to make war on these coarse creatures, unfit for food or sport, that the aggressive Eastern fish had been brought to these mountain waters, and Sturdy-fins, fighter and pioneer, had launched the first assault.
His first rush had driven in the stragglers and when he turned to strike again the front ranks turned inward and made the disorder greater. He shot through them a second time, baffling them by the abruptness of his charge. Forgotten now was his former wariness and in his lust for slaughter all his senses were intent upon the cloud of helpless fry.
Two feet below, against a slab of water-logged fir bark, a mottled body shifted position craftily. A wide, flat head and two stiff pectoral fins braced against the dark bottom and then a bluntly tapering body scurried out to lie again as moveless as the bark itself. The front fins jerked once more, the tail lashed out and the bullhead rose with vicious speed.
Sturdy-fins was turning to plunge again into the host of fry when he saw his enemy close upon his flank. A wild flip shot him aside and the bullhead’s snapping jaws came short. Unadapted for quick manoeuvering it floundered as it tried to throw itself upon the stocky, broad-flanked fish but Sturdy-fins dodged up then down, cleared the dark snout by a scant inch and sped away. Sulkily the stalker of the littered bottom glided defeated to his lair.
Close below the dull ceiling which dusk was laying on the surface, Sturdy-fins sped to gain less dangerous water close to shore. As he neared it he came upon a small leech wavering like a blood-red pennant as it labored toward the weeds and in one short rush he caught it, threw it aside, then bolted it greedily, his gill covers straining to force down the heavy morsel.
Triumphantly he moved on and saw a fresh water shrimp mounting a stalk with fumbling legs. The thing resembled the young crayfish of his home river and he went confidently closer.
Suddenly the weed jungle swayed tempestuously and
'T'HE following spring, -*■ when the dwellers in Goat Lake came from the
a vortex caught him broadside, turned him over, drew him toward the weeds and at the same instant a grey-green head came at him from the ambush and the jaw of a full-grown squawfish spread to close on him and crush him between the tooth-like bones set within its throat. By this quick spreading of its mouth the squawfish had created the whirl of water which would suck its prey inside the smooth membrane of its toothless jaws. Sturdyfins, staggering, chanced to stab the yellow skin below the jaw with his erect dorsal spines and the big fish, flinching, lost its brief instant of opportunity. It rammed forward but, like the bullhead, it was too sluggish to overtake the agile, dodging bass. In and out among the weed clumps Sturdy-fins sped away.
He was in deeper water now, the bottom was pitching sharply into the vague depths of the lake floor when he sighted two other bass ahead of him. They separated and joined erratically as they foraged the warm strata just below the surface. One had turned to worry a drowned grey moth, and Sturdy-fins, covetous of the titbit, was speeding forward when below the moth he saw a warning glint of white as the big Dolly Varden, careening upward, exposed its underside to the failing light. The bass beside the moth was seized and the great tail sent boiling eddies to the surface to mark the place where the young adventurer had perished.
This was not the first bass to be devoured by the great cannibal who ruled these mountain waters, since it had moved out from the flat rock to feed that evening. While the tree shadows still stretched over the lake he had prowled along the edge of shoal. He was the overlord of that under-water kingdom, his lair the safe reach beside the flat rock, his hunting grounds the edge of shallow and the outlet channel. He held for himself the most abundant feeding grounds, exacted heavy toll on all the lesser fish, and in the months which were to follow he became the arch enemy of the young strangers from the East that had been brought there to menace his undisputed rule. More than any other living thing in Goat Lake he depleted their too-scanty numbers. Even had they all survived none would have attained his length and weight, and yet in years to come he was to be challenged by one of them whose courage and tenacity of purpose were greater than his own.
Sturdy-fins hastened to the shallows and sought a place where he could not be ambushed by lurkers in the weeds or driftwood tangles of the bottom. There he lay while all shapes were merged into the unpatterned blanket of the night. The evening feeding time was over, in mid-lake a pair of loons laughed cruelly and below the surface hunters and hunted lay with slowlymoving fins to await the return of light.
depths to seek their summer haunts, of the scores of black bass that had cruised the lower end of the lake the previous summer, only three remained. The few, who on the day of their release had gone directly up the lake, had either perished or had found haunts which suited them, for none returned to join the survivors.
Sturdy-fins, lustiest and most knowing of the three, led the short migration shoreward, and because the flat rock and its surroundings resembled reaches of his Eastern river, he instinctively chose it for his own. There on sunny afternoons the breeze caressed the rock with purling wavelets and in its lee a few yellow water lilies spread canopies beneath which he could drowse. The drift of the current was toward the outlet channel a hundred yards along the sweeping curve of shore, and the jutting rock ledge narrowed the broad shallows to a passage through which traveling fish must go. Here was choice hunting and though the char resented his invasion, Sturdy-fins persisted. Many times the spotted body of the big fish charged but each time the doughty poacher got away unscathed. The other two, following the
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example of Sturdy-fins, remained close by and raided the preserves of the sullen monarch. And then one evening in July the char had its revenge.
Until mid-day the air had been sultry, then black clouds had billowed over the crest of the range and released a pelting rain which pebbled the surface with transient bubbles and beat down a host of flying things that in the calm of evening lay bedraggled and unable to rise. Here was a rare variety of fare and the trio ranged close below the surface, snatching down the soft bodies, foraging with ease. Below them in the gloom the spotted monarch prowled.
A limp-winged honey bee struggled spasmodically, ruffling a disc of surface yith its futile vibrations. The three young bass converged upon the prize.
Unseen beneath them a long shadow drifted upward. Tail and white-edged fins seemed hardly to move until when it had halved the distance it rushed upon them. They scattered, but the hooked teeth crunched across the belly of the nearest bass and it was borne down, maimed, to be eaten in the vague depths while Sturdy-fins and the other survivor fled for the shelter of the lily pads.
All summer the ceaseless war went on. When the char pressed the fight the two retreated only to appear again in the disputed water near the rock. No squawfish nor bullhead in the lake dare attack them now and few days passed in which they did not kill some of the smaller among their former enemies. Only the largest
were immune from sudden, fierce attack, and then in August an osprey rocketing from the sky left Sturdy-fins to wage the fight alone.
In the fall while the grasses cloaking the banks of his far-off home drooped motionless and heavy with seed in the haze of Indian summer days, out here the rains began.* The great firs and cedars, rising tier on tier like giants in an amphitheatre, were twined with scarves of rising mist. The water did not freeze in winter and for many days the surface was stippled with the steady rain.
The winters here were strange to Sturdy-fins. Some breeds of fish would have been oppressed and killed by the unfamiliarity of it all, but brave adventurer that he was, he battled on alone. He was a warrior who gave no quarter and who expected none.
He stayed always at the lower end of the lake and after the osprey’s swift descent he saw no other bass. Mountains, hundreds of miles of forest and water separated him from the country of his birth. He was an outpost in a hostile land.
In the spring of his maturity, when the dogwood blossoms flecked the darker mass of conifers, he came up from his winter retreat, ate mightily and by June was in prime condition. Then, prompted by the mating urge, he began to make a nest.
He chose a site midway between the rock and the outlet channel where the water flowed slowly across a gravel
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patch. As his father had done in that Eastern stream, he turned the small stones, moved them in the nest to suit his fancy, fanned them clean with pulsating beats of his fins and slower sweeps of his tail.
He was an exacting builder. Several times when the nest seemed finished he altered its precise arrangement, shifting some of the larger stones, tugging to dislodge a tuft of weed root, fanning cut the last vestiges of silt.
One morning a sucker, longer than himself, came idling along the bottom toward him and directly he saw it, Sturdy-fins left his work and rose threateningly. The sucker was unconscious of its danger as it stopped to press its tapering snout against the silt. A stocky form flashed through the screen of water its burrowings had raised, dealt it a staggering blow on its rounded side and raked it with sharp teeth which sought a hold on tail or fins. Galvanized with fright the intruder scurried off and the bass swam grandly back to the nest he was determined to defend.
When the nest was arranged to suit his fancy, Sturdy-fins went in search of a mate. Each day he coursed the waters along the lake end with which he was familiar and when his search failed his cruises became more erratic, his quickreturns to the nest more savage. Each evening he swam back to hover there, each dawn he renewed his quest. Sometimes as he skirted the shallows he would turn inshore, circle and dodge among the weed beds and sunken logs only to leave them and go on and on, tireless and persevering.
His restlessness increased with each day’s failure; more and more he concentrated on the hundred yards cf channel leading to the falls. Here the water flowed easily between reed-walled banks until, constricted by two buttresses of rock, it quickened, snarled among the stones which gashed ft, then fell in a torn curtain to the ledges forty feet below.
One morning he came perilously close to the bottle-neck above the falls, then, warned by the treacherous clutch of the current, fought free and swam into the safe reaches of the channel. But an hour later he came down again.
This second time he went fairly into the rapid and when he tried to move upstream the slipping water sucked him close to the brink of the falls so that he had to struggle desperately to regain every inch separating him from the safety he had so rashly left. For a steelhead trout or other streamline fish it would have been a mighty effort, but for him, with his deep, blunt body, it seemed impossible. His tail drove against the water, his fins worked furiously and yet he hung there barely holding his own. He was unable to move ahead, and behind him be could feel the booming vibration of the fall?.
For a full minute he held his position and then as the tireless current bested him the fatal backward drift began. Failure to keep his head in to the very eye of the fast water would instantly have turned him broadside and he would have been swept over the brink. Now that he was drifting backward inch by inch he had less steering way and only his agile fins kept him from being quickly overpowered.
A bar of sunlight slanted through an opening in the thatch of cedar boughs above and lay where the torn surface bent downward on the brink. At first there had been six inches between the sunlight and the thrusting tail, now there were but two—and now the tail had crossed the line.
Where the water lashed the uneven face of rock that walled it in were tossing eddies, and cautiously, still striving to prevent the backward drift, Sturdyfins edged toward them. His dorsal fin was midway in the bar of sunlight as he sidled, but rallying mightily, he worked across, then as he came nearer, shot ahead and gained the last of those scant shelters.
F or ten minutes he poised there, steadying
himself against the lifting surge and fall of the water, then darted to the next, rested and swung to midstream to take refuge behind a slab of rock. Ten minutes later he forged out of the bottle-neck of rapids into safety.
Most fish, even the steelhead trout or cohoe salmon, would have rested in the slack water of the channel after such a battle, but Sturdy-fins, though less suited than they for such a struggle, did not even pause. His nest must be kept from molestation even though it would be useless if he could not find a mate to share it. In his home river more than one of his forbears had died to repel invaders from their nests and Sturdyriins was worthy of the best traditions of his fighting stock.
He cleared the channel and moved quickly westward toward his stretch of gravel bottom. Over a sunken log that sloped from the shallows into the dimness of the lake, past the slender stalks of tule clusters he sped, then coming sharply around a hummock of roots, he sighted his nest. Wavelets rolled twisting ribbons of light and shadow over the familiar bottom and there he saw, moving insolently above it, the long body of the char.
In the creed of the small mouth black bass, odds are never reckoned at a time like this. His resentment at his days of futile searching, the enmity against the bullying overlord that had grown during months and years, united in a great wave of anger, filled him with a passion to destroy this smooth-skinned, spotted fish that had opposed him for so long.
The Dolly Varden wras three times the weight of Sturdy-fins, but had he been ten times his size, the angry bass would not have flinched. Hard and fast he drove straight at the unprotected flank, in an assault so vicious and unexpected that before the Dolly Varden could twist aside it was struck a glancing blow. It churned about, then lunged.
But before that manoeuvre was com! pleted the audacious bass had closed again and this time his aim was perfect. One of the fan-like pectoral fins, edged with white, was rammed into his open j mouth and his strong jaws closed upon it. \ In its frenzy the char rolled completely over, scraping the bass against the bott! tom but failing to break that bulldog grip. Incapable of balance it tried to swim, only to be snubbed short by the lashing body it must tow. Billowing clouds of silt were kicked up so that the unevenly matched opponents fought in semi-darkness.
The Dolly Varden lurched suddenly upright, lashed out fiercely against the bottom with its spread tail and rose in a twisting sweep, then head and tail almost meeting, it straightened so abruptly that the clenched teeth of the bass tore off the membrane and the fin was shaken free.
The char, furious as a crazed wolf, confident of victory, rammed at the lighter fish before he had righted himself and seized him full across the back immediately behind the dorsal fin. Sturdyfins’ body lashed and writhed but -the hooked teeth held in his tough skin. The char dived heavily, shot along the bottom ¡and collided head on with a flat stone so that the lighter fish was pinned against it. Sturdy-fins’ straining gills drew in the swirling silt and all but stifled him.
The char’s jaws bore more heavily upon his straining sides. The rear spine of his dorsal fin stabbed through the skin of the Dolly Varden’s cheek but the latter took that trifling punishment and never for an instant lessened its death grip. Twist and turn as he might, Sturdy-fins could not break away. He was cornered, his struggles were becoming less violent and because of the silt choking him he could not continue for long.
A minute passed and, though he did not move, the muscles of his flanks were taut with the steady strain he put upon ; ’them. A sucker, squawfish, any of the coarse fish in the lake, would have gone limp under the terrible constriction, but '
Sturdy-fins, staunch-hearted descendant of a warrior clan, showed no sign of surrender.
His tail, curved against the smooth side of the stone, straightened and, jolting the head of the big fish, tore the needle-pointed dorsal spine from the skin of its cheek and pricked its eye. Involuntarily the char lurched.
That gave Sturdy-fins his chance. Rallying gloriously he broke free, slithered along the side of the stone and was gone.
The char swung upward, shot over the stone to overtake its enemy before it lost him in the maze of weed beds. But it did not know the black bass breed. Instead of fleeing, Sturdy-fins, panting, bruised, his skin bearing a raw welt where the big jaws had held him, went no farther than his nest. There he made his last stand and the Dolly Varden coming over the boulder received the full force of his terrific charge. Once more the jaws of the bass closed on the frayed pectoral fin, crumpling it like a withered leaf, crushing the tough bones close to its base.
Half blinded, unprepared for this second assault, the char cut upward in erratic spirals and floundered on the surface, its thrashing tail beating the water to a froth. But grim as death the smaller fish held fast. The char went into a flurry of rolling, then towing its attacker, dived again. The hold was still unbroken when they struck the bottom.
Once again the char lashed furiously with its tail, kicking itself along the bottom in short jerks, struggling with such violence to right itself that as it renewed its frenzied rolling, bones and membrane could stand the strain no longer and all but the knobby base of the fin came away in the jaws of the bass.
Viciously Sturdy-fin, returned to the assault, but the big fish was beaten. It was crippled, unable to swim except in short rushes and its only thought was to escape. Plunging down the sloping bottom it sought the depths of the lake floor. Down and down they went while the victor struck again and again. Then when they were in the great gloom fifty feet below the surface the conqueror left off the chase and rose toward shore.
A MINK, thin-flanked and with an insatiable litter to feed, had disturbed the fish at the north end of the lake. Many suckers, squawfish and some smaller char had been destroyed by it; other fish were seeking more protected feeding places because of the constant peril of its presence, and with them had come the only survivor of the little band of bass that had gone up the lake shore years before. It was a female, larger than Sturdy-fins, and now heavy with eggs, she passed along the shaded lane below the side of the flat rock.
Sturdy-fins, rising triumphantly from the depths, saw her as he neared his nest. He swept to meet her, swam around her in narrow circles, trying his utmost to entice her to accompany him. Forgotten now was the welt across his back. This was the supreme moment of his hardfought day.
The female affected indifference. She idled shoreward, paused, went on. But in courtship as in battle Sturdy-fins would not admit defeat. He came alongside, nipped her flank tenderly, fhoved off inthe direction of his nest in an invitation for her to follow. He turned back, swam about her, gently trying to guide her to his patch of gravel.
Finally she came. Once more the spires of shadow lay across the water before the evening sun, once more down the valley from the purple hills, dusk seeped to hide the nest and the pair of pioneers who had won their long fight in territory hostile to them. And next day the old prospector as his skiff drifted over the nest, learned that at last Sturdy-fins had found a mate and knew that in years to come the courageous bass would have reinforcements in the war he had waged so long alone.