The Black Fox
A dramatic reminder that gain ill-gotten is often the first link in a chain of tragedy
PICKING up his oval pads with dainty deliberation, he came out of a clump of tangled cedar, triangular ears erect, white-tipped brush extended stiff. Through a white world of silence he passed like a dream, and crossing thin spaces in the woods, the winter sunlight struck the glossy black of his coat, converting it to sleek, shining ebony that rippled into living waves with every pulsation of the wild body beneath.
In all the frozen north he was the most precious beast that frequented these shining drifts, and he moved as though he knew it.
Traversing a wind-whipped ridge, he gained the edge of a gully where the burdened spruce grew thick. Squatting here, with only his mask visible, he waited till there sounded a faint squeak. At that he worked forward, advancing by imperceptible gradations, and crouched low behind a fallen log five feet from his quarry.
Two white-furred rabbits sat on their haunches, nibbling young alder shoots, their prodigious ears cocked straight. Save for the large, mild, pink eyes, their winter coats would have masked them completely. The alders grew just beside the runway, and close by was the thick and tangled undergrowth, one leap into which would carry the rabbits to safety.
The black fox licked a pointed nose with a scarlet tongue, transferred his full weight to his muscular haunches, and flung himself through the air, not directly at the nearest rabbit, but a shade on the thicket side. He landed exactly as he aimed, and sank his teeth into warm flesh.
Food was plentiful that winter, and today the fox had already fed. He wrinkled his mask, sent his teeth deeper, and hea'd the soft crack of a backbone. At that he dropped the rabbit, thrust his crinkling nose between his pads, and watched the pink eyes begin to glaze. Presently he tossed the limp thing vertically, caught it, shook it, played with it in an abandonment of savage cruelty. Then, the mood passing, he picked it up and set off down a gleaming lane among the cedars.
He had covered three hundred yards when there came a flurry of dry snow, a vicious snap, and two steel hoops, studded with metallic fangs, clashed rigidly on his quivering foreleg. He leaped high, the rabbit flying from his jaws, and was snatched back by a light steel chain that led under the snow to the nearest tree. A frenzy of pain and fear overtook him, and he tore, snarling, at his own prisoned sinews. The black fox had gone mad.
Red Paul, the only russet-haired breed in the Lac Seul country, leaned a little forward as he walked, his
massive legs moving like reciprocating pistons, while the dull crunch of trampled snow sounded under his swinging shoes. He breathed deeply, and from his ice-bound mustache a jet of frosty vapor projected itself with regular exhalations like the exhaust of a working engine. On his shoulders were pack and rifle, but his mittened hands were empty.
As he walked he cursed, for that winter luck was against him. A few mink, three stone martens, a cross fox in poor condition, and a fisher that was not fashionable—this represented his take in three rounds of traps set on a forty-mile length. And it had cost their value to live.
On this last round he had taken nothing. Poison bait was shunned, fresh bait stolen, and the deadly spring left untouched. He fell into a savage contrast of himself with his next neighbor, Gheezis, the Rising Sun, whose wilderness circuit touched his own. Gheezis, a middleaged Ojibway, was a master trapper, moving like the wild things he pursued, reasoning like the light-footed beasts he caught. But for Paul, after years in the woods, there still remained many lessons to be learned.
This truth was working venomously, when he noted the winding depression of week-old tracks that told him he had reached the territory of Gheezis. Between brown trunks, snow-plastered on one side, it wound southward. His own course was to the east, but today he felt compelled to know how Gheezis was doing, and followed the tracks for a mile, wondering whether he would encounter the man who made them. Much better not, since he was off his own ground.
Twenty minutes later, he stood, round-eyed, over a writhing black fox. The beast had nearly bitten through its own foreleg, and shrank to the chain length, quivering, choking with pain and fury.
Now there be three cardinal laws of the north, and
in virtue of these men lead what lives they live beneath the Northern Lights. To break them, any of them, is to court the penalty that the North inflicts on her outcasts; and it is written that to be outcast there is verily a living death.
Thus run these laws. Thou shalt feed the hungry, friend or enemy, however scant thy store. Sacred is the food of another, unless thou thyself face death from starvation: then thou mayest eat, but make record thereof and repay. The woman and the traps of another are to him alone. Touch them not.
Red Paul knew these laws, as do all who tramp the wilderness; but never had he seen such a skin as this, and the snarling black treasure blinded him with greed. He hesitated, listening to the sough of wind that breathed icily through the cedars from the bleak shores of Lac Seul and the far subarctics. Then he lifted the short-handled, one pound axe that hung behind his hip, struck once witji the flat of it, then set his foot over the heart and pressed. The black fox became a glossy heap, its mangled foreleg staining the crystalline white of the snow with a spot of scarlet.
HOURS later, another figure pursued the winding trail. Came Gheezis, ghostlike and without sound, an incarnate spirit of the north, dark eyes roving and charged with woodland wisdom, sloping shoulders burdened. Never had he done better than during this winter, and his thoughts travelled southward to the woman he would find at Savanne when the ice went out and he made trade with the Hudson’s Bay.
He had been walking since sunrise, and with but one more trap to visit was now a short two miles from the conical teepee where a pencil of grey smoke from the crossed lodgepoles would mark his winter camp. He knew where Paul’s shack was built, but thought not at all of him, only of fur and the woman at Savanne. He was smiling beneath the copper mask of his face, when suddenly he started and stared.
The soul of Gheezis welled up with hatred while his inscrutable gaze photographically registered the scene. The whole story lay bare. He spoke not a word, nor did he do anything in a hurry, but finished by putting a few long, silky hairs in a twist of birchbark, and the bark in his tobacco bag. Gaining his own camp, he ate methodically, because one did not face Red Paul on an empty belly. Then he stuck his skinning knife into its caribou sheath, jammed his feet into his shoes, and started across country.
A high moon, clear of cloud, laid purple shadows athwart the driven snow, and across these he tramped, tall, gaunt, grim, primitive, relentless, a creature of the woods, animated by that which is old as time and strong as death.
He hit Paul’s trail exactly where he meant to, half a mile from the shack, and pushed stolidly on. As he expected, the cabin was dark. He went in, and, oddly loath to kill a man in his sleep, lit the lamp, his 1
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between his teeth. No sound from Paul, who lay, tensely awake beneath his blankets, eyes half-closed, lips lifted. Gheezis’ lean hand tightened on the haft of the knife. He advanced, stepping like a cat.
“My black fox! You steal him—I come for him.”
In reply, an explosion, deafening, earsplitting in so confined a space. The shack was a swirl of acrid smoke, the knife clattered down, and Gheezis stood, tottering, his hand at his throat. He coughed—choked—staggered. Clutching blindly at the door frame, his tall body loomed in a mirage of lamplight, smoke and moonlight. Then he pitched backward, and the rest was silence.
D ED PAUL, fully dressed, took a long, shaky breath, and slid to the floor. Better this than go in fear of his life for the rest of the winter. And he had an excellent case. Gheezis, with a drawn knife entering his shack at night! He looked at Gheezis, and the hair crawled on his head. The right hand had been shot through, and lay extended, staining the snow with a spot of scarlet.
The strength oozed out of Paul’s bones, and by morning he knew that he must go quickly, because if he continued to trap in this country, Gheezis would take the trail with him, spring his traps, and sit leering across the camp fire at night. So when a white flurry had dulled the staring features, he heaped more snow packed his kit—with particular care for the black fox—and turned, a fugitive, toward the south.
Fear pursued him, therefore he travelled fast. Nor was he alone. Gheezis came too, an emancipated Gheezis, denizen of the now haunted forest, gliding from tree to tree, menacing and forever present. When night fell, and the cedars stood blue-black under a naked moon, something floated from the nearest thicket, a small, ebony shape at its heels, to take its place across the fire. It did not speak, nor did the phantom fox give one single bark, but when Paul pulled the blankets over his head, as he did before the fire went out, he knew that this was their camp—not his.
On the third day, he saw a figure breaking trail across a frozen lake for a toiling dog train; and from the man’s walk knew him to be Jacques Piteau, a trader. When they met, Jacques looked at him hard.
“Hola! Where you go* . . . got any fur?”
“Some,” said Red Paul. “Mink, a few marten, a fisher and a black fox.”
Jacques’ eyes bulged a little. “Black fox she’s scarce dis year. Lemme see him.”
The slayer of Gheezis turned back to the shelter of the shore, and opened his sack. The other man gave a low whistle.
“She’s wan fine skin, dat fox. I geeve you feefty dollar.”
Paul, feeling better, laughed at him. “So long—nothing doing. I’m for Savanne. That skin’s worth a hundred and fifty.”
The trader knew it was, but had no intention of paying the price. He sent a crafty glance.
“Well . . . no . . . not dat much, but I make heem a hundred. We camp here tonight. I have somedings more dan money. Hooch, hey!”
Paul licked his lips. He had drunk nothing for three months, and present forgetfulness lay in a bottle. So he nodded, and set about cutting brush for their beds. That night Gheezis did not appear to the fuddled brain, and at sunrise Jacques harnessed his dogs.
“Bien, here’s de money—hundred an’ seventy-five for de lot. An’ here’s two bottles more. She has a bite, dat stuff ; eh, mon vieux?”
'T'HE whimper of the straining team died out in the north, and Paul laughed confusedly because Jacques had announced that he also expected to buy fur from Gheezis. So with a bottle sticking out of each pocket, the fugitive from Gheezis hit the trail for Savanne. He walked drunkenly for some time, but, it seemed, could not get any nearer the other end of the lake. Then he found himself peering at his own tracks. That frightened him, so he emptied the second bottle.
The poisoned draught brought forgetfulness and a sense of vast emancipation. Now he wanted to sleep. Something whispered that this was against the rules, but he must and would sleep. To perdition with Gheezis and the black fox! Let them sit and freeze. Cursing his own legs, he lurched toward a clump of spruce crowning the nearest point. He reached it, and felt the springy branches on his face. He put out a numb hand, lacerating his skin.
Beside a deep soft drift he stood and swayed. It looked warm, so he shouldered into it as would a bear, and shut his eyes. A smJl mountain slid down in a fleecy smother. Presently ame a divine drowsiness, and he lay quite invisible save for bloody projecting fingers that stained the snow with a spot of scarlet.
Weeks after that, the homeward journey of Jacques Piteau brought him to the teepee of Gheezis, which he found fireless and tightly sealed. Greatly fearing what might lie within, he entered, discovering a goodly store of fur, but no hunter. And there were inches of snow inside. Thereupon he followed what looked like the most recent track, and this led him ;o the shack of Red Paul. What awaited him there made him flog his dogs into the trail for Savanne.
But the breed had never reached !
I Savanne, nor was there any word of him; ! and when with the first open water the j men of the law took canoe to investigate,
I there was no sign left to tell which way he I had passed. A priest put a tamarack cross over the grave of Gheezis, the j pagan; but who could guesa that in a ! spruce clump crowning a long, low point I the ivory-beaked ravens had had their j way with Paul?
JACQUES sant the black fox to the great fur sale in Montreal, where it ! fetched him two hundred and fifty dollars.
‘ From Montreal it went to a German curer 1 in New Jersey. This man, exclaiming at i its beauty, lavished all his skill on it, and ! stitched another and perfectly matched pad to the shortened foreleg. Presently ; it reappeared in New York in the window i of a famous furrier, thrown with careless 1 art across a low chair upholstered in red : satin.
It lay with superb lustre like a casual I gesture, suddenly arrested. In the I triangular mask were set small eyes, wicked and very bright, that looked out on passing thousands as though the spirit of the black fox took resentful note of this strange, new world. When dusk fell, brilliant electrics struck into its silky sheen, so that the hide seemed to stir, while through its ripples pulsated the wild, quick life that ended under the heel of Red Paul. It was opulent, insolent, unforgettable. It roused envy, admiration, greed. And at night it was hung with other furry treasures in a great chamber where frosted pipes recreated the icy breath of Lac Seul.
A girl walked down the Avenue, very fair and blue-eyed, her hair like yellow corn. She moved with the same light freedom as once moved the black fox, and men observed her as she passed. At the window of the famous furrier she stopped and gazed fixedly. The blue eyes rounded with sudden desire, and there came a little catch in her breath. She could feel the caress of that potent thing about her small, white neck. Presently she gave a contented little laugh, and went in.
The black fox was lifted from the red satin chair, and put in her smooth hands. She stroked it with a sort of ecstasy, and it responded to that vital touch, the velvety hair yielding, sinking, rising, springing, inviting this intimacy, while the glittering eyes communicated their message that they were, girl and fox, each of them untamed.
“How much?” she asked, loath to relinquish it.
She was told the price - eight hundred dollars—also that no finer fur was to be had anywhere, at any time.
“May I use your telephone?”
She went into the booth still carrying the fox, and came out smiling.
“The cheque will be here in two hours: then please deliver at once to this address. I want it for tonight.”
came. She stood at a window of her apartment in a white frock that sheathed her slim body like a glove, the fox close round her naked neck, and watched the myriad, blinking eyes of New York. They signalled to her, as they had for a year past, that New York was at the feet of this daughter of love, j this nymph of desire.
She fell to thinking of men, especially j the last one, for whom she now waited. Of them all, by far the best. She had I learned to love his quiet habits, the calm of his grey eyes, the leonine profile, the
big, strong body. Yet always, in the very hours of joy, she had a lurking fear. He was completely generous, completely kind, but his name, a name known far beyond New York, frightened her. She could not imagine having it for her own; and if he went away it would kill her.
The latch clicked, and he was in the room. She turned swiftly, locked her soft arms around his neck, and lifted her lips.
“It’s lovely and wonderful, Jim! You’re a darling.”
“Glad it’s what you want—it suits you.” His big hand just touched the sleek fur.
The voice was a shade halting, but he had occasional moods that she never quite understood; so she only smiled, waiting for his arms to draw her close. Then she looked up, her face oddly strained.
“What’s the matter, Jim? Don’t you want to go out? I was going to wear this.”
He made a gesture. “Something I wanted to say first; been wanting for the past week. Look here, Dagmar, we’re good pals, you and I.”
She drew back, her heart pausing, fluttering. “Pals !” she breathed.
“Well, aren’t we? Now I wish you’d help me out a bit. I’m going to be married.”
She could not speak, only gazed and gazed, the blue eyes flickering like corpse candles. Her hands, feeling at her throat, found the black fox. It choked her. She tugged at it desperately, and one pad came off. The man gave a queer exclamation.
“Sewn on!” he said vaguely. “Too bad—send it back.”
Her eyes fastened on his and held them. “Married!” she faltered. “You!”
“Be a sport, Dagmar—you always were. This had to come—sometime. I’m going to settle down. Can’t you understand?”
She did understand, but not he, being blind to what he had wakened in her. Play—the ordinary gamut of modern life—was what it had been to him. She ought to know that. But she, with the world reeling about her, could only see that the very passion of her own love had rule'd her out.
“Anything I can do at any time, of course you’ll ...”
He broke of, looking not at her but at the mask of the black fox nestling under her chin. The small, insolent eyes were signalling that the man was making a mess of it, and had better go away, because the fox had something important to communicate.
“Think it over,” he added lamely, “and it won’t seem so solemn.”
There was a stinging silence till the latch clicked again. Now it was the turn of the fox that seemed to coil more closely about the small, white neck. Something must have passed from it to the warm body beneath, for presently the girl had a wild desire to journey to some far country, cold as ice, where there was no more love or passion. Her soul felt tired, and she must escape from these myriad eyes of New York, now winking at her in multitudinous derision. Nor could she await the day when the arms that had held her close, would embrace another. And why not be a sport?
When they found her, one shortened foreleg of the black fox lay across the sheer snow of her breast in a spot of scarlet.