Beaver vs. panther vs. wolverine, with man against them all
ABARRED owl hooted. From the marshy reaches down river came the hoarse braying croak of bullfrogs—that rolling, carrying bass tone that was the night tocsin of the river woods. A bloodhungry mink slipped like a flowing ribbon over the damp rotting leaves on the stream bank, suddenly flicked to one side with a speed that almost made his trailing hindquarters snap like a whip. There was a panicky, muted scream of terror and a rabbit struggled for a brief instant; then a quick convulsive shudder—and the little killer feasted.
Old Tejón, the beaver, paid but scant attention to these things. He was accustomed to the life of the river woods, its noises, its tragedies—and its joys. Besides, both mink and rabbit, though living in his world, were removed from it a whole dimension by reason of their lightning speed and his slowness. He was taking time off just now to ruminate a bit as he sat on his newly constnicted dam in the middle of the stream, watching the approach of dusk. He aided his ruminating process at times by sitting up very straight and rubbing his powerful handlike forepaws together in a washing motion, a characteristic of his that lent him a solemn and ludicrous look. His silhouette against the swirling water was like that of a portly field marshal with an overcoat on.
And field marshal he was and more, in the populous colony of beavers who were building their winter lodge and storage pool just below the shan-) bend of the stream. Tejón was a highly respected woodland citizen. He was old. even for one of his rather long-lived breed, extraordinary in size, chief of his colony and sire of fully three-quarters of its population. His cunning and wisdom were as remarkable as his size, for animals do not reach ripe age or leadership in the wild without good cause. Neither do they fall into useless decrepitude with the years. They become stronger and wiser and more powerful in proportion. That is the way Nature intended things, and that is the way it was with Tejón.
As he sat there very straight, braced by his hind legs and the broad flat paddle of his tail, his beady eyes searched the wall of the forest on either bank and noted every stirring of leaf or ripple. This was the hour of all the day Tejón usually loved best; time when the forest began to change from day to night shift, when the first owls took flight on velvet wings, and the river fish leaped clear of the water and fell back again in playful ecstasy. Time, too, when the ever-busy beaver folk organized for their systematic labors ot the night. Their work went on sporadically by day as well, but throughout the dark hours, as was their ancient custom, their labor was unceasing.
TONIGHT, however, in spite of the peace and quiet that apparently brooded over the river, Tejón was vaguely disturbed. For him the air was somehow charged with vague threat and mystery. There was never a time, in fact, when at least one knotty problem did not confront the old beaver chief. The colony was new here. Five weeks before, men. dogs and trajas had driven them out of their ancestral family lodge, thirty miles down river, that had been occupied by Tejón’s ancestors for generations before him. After the loss of four of their number, the family had migrated upstream. The fact that every animal carried 200 potential dollars in the fur on his back made life near the habitat of man untenable.
Already by their valor and their fighting teeth they had won armed truce with most of their resident enemies in this new region. A full-grown member of the clan feared neither fox, lynx, bobcat nor otter in fang to fang encounter. By great industry they had already dammed the stream, preparatory to building their big winter lodge in the broad jxaol formed just above the spillway. It was to be an imposing domicile fully twenty feet across the base, large enough to house the entire colony. But it was not nearly complete, and old Tejón was worried. So much to be accomplished, and so brief the time in which to do it !
It was he, as chief engineer and strategist of the colony, whose wise head planned and directed all construction work, who supervised the cutting of young trees for food wood and showed the young beavers how to anchor the ends of the branches into the mud at the bottom of the storage pool so that their tender bark might be accessible after the ice had formed inches thick over the stream. Also it was he who bore all responsibility, who stood guard at all times and who flung himself into the breach when danger threatened.
Already it was October, and by certain signs he recognized, cold weather was imminent. If the lodge were not completed and a plentiful supply of food wood laid in before the stream froze over, the colony would face'a winter of starvation, for beaver never venture into the open in winter time. By hurrying the labor and working overtime the task might still be completed in time. However, a few days before, the beavers had become aware of the existence of an enemy in the vicinity more to be feared even than man. Tejón felt sometí fing of the nearness of that enemy tonight. He could neither hear nor smell him, yet the nerves which connected with his sense of smell and hearing, sublimated by twenty years of wilderness strife, twanged subtle warning, and instead of chattering and thumping out directions to his crew of ready workers, the old beaver became rigid as one of the snags that stuck up out of the dam top.
FOR A SPACE he sat with ears erect, searching the forest shadows in vain.
Now and then he lifted his blunt flattened head for a space, and slowly turned it from side to side as he made of his body and its five senses a radio receiver such as animals had and used effectively thousands of years before the mechanical radio was ever dreamed of.
The silence attendant upon bad news fell over the river.
The barred owl cut short his quavering call in the middle.
The frog chorus was stilled to a few watery gargles. Some stealthy panic was spreading through the woods as a ripple spreads far and wide on the surface of a pond, and Tejón, stiffening his flat trowel-like tail, thumped out a sharp code warning to his scattered band.
More minutes passed in bated silence, then beneath the drooping boughs of the firs two terrifying forms could
be seen approaching down twin aisles of the woods. They were nearly abreast and coming almost at a nan. The larger one, slightly in the lead, was attired in a brown mackinaw, rabbit-skin cap, and heavy trousers thrust into the tops of high moccasins. The other, a half-seen, half-guessed shadow amid the thickets was a tawny young panther of startling proportions, and he was patently dogging the man’s trail with a savage and silent purposefulness. He was taking advantage of every tree-trunk, bush and shadow like the innate coward he was, but the glare in his yellow eyes which never left the man gave warning that the one part desperate courage might at any moment override the other nine parts of cowardice that made up the beast’s character, and hurl him forward in a death charge. Quite obviously the situation hung at an ugly balance. The man’s eyes never left the cat as he hurried along; his pace, neither a walk nor a run, just missed being obvious flight.
As the pair emerged from the denser gloom of the spruce into the sparse timber that lined the river bank, the panther, suddenly timorous at the abrupt thinning of the timber, fell momentarily behind. The man, seeing his opportunity, sped down the stream bank at a run, and as chance would have it came out of the thickets at the spot where old Tejón still sat upright on his dam. In that critical moment it is doubtful if he saw the old beaver at all. He took note of the dam, however, for he sprang out along the top of it and with a frightening shout plunged into the broad pool the beavers had constructed above the spillway. The shout was because, just at the last, the panther had come bounding down the bank in a lethal charge at sight of the quarry escaping. The terrifying human sound, however, combined with the noisy splash and the nervousness that always seized the big cat away from cover, completely shattered his purpose, and, whirling in his tracks, he sped back to the shelter of the woods.
IT WAS this queer tableau that began a three-sided warfare between Whisperfoot, the panther who included the upper reaches of the Swiftwater in his regular range: old Tejón, the beaver chief; and young Andy Cameron, son of Tom Cameron, famed hunter and trapper and the pioneer settler of the region. Andy Cameron had never seen either Whisperfoot or the beavers before that afternoon. Old Tejón had never seen Andy before, but he had seen the panther several times; in fact, it was Whisperfoot who was the beavers’ special enemy in their new home. As for Whisperfoot. that master hunter, who rivalled the very stealing of the afternoon shadows in silence and craft, had been aware of the beavers since the day of their arrival here, and many and many a time he had stalked and spied upon Andy Cameron in his comings and goings. He knew Andy’s habits and the exact location of the Cameron cabin four miles down the river. The only intimation Andy had had of a panther being in the vicinity was certain big round tracks he
had come upon now and then in the winter snow or in the soft loam of the stream bank.
In winter time, now that, he had turned sixteen, Andy helped his father work his double trap line that ran for fifteen miles on both sides of the river. During the summer father and son fashioned rustic furniture out of the twisted growths of laurel and rhododendron that grew profusely in almost a'l the valleys of the region. The Camerons found as ready a market for their furniture in the near-by
in his cunning wicked soul that Andy was both young and unarmed; perhaps he could feel and smell the youngster’s sudden dread, for, despite the fact that he was forest Ixirn and bred, the sight of the killer sent an unmistakable chill up Andy’s spine. Then, too. there was the sheer surprise of the thing and the fact that in these fall days Whisperfoot was always a bit in his cups, so to speak, from many and many a blood-drink on the summer fawn crop, and hence subject to the weirdest reactions. For your panther
towns as they did for their winter fur catch. Earlier that afternoon Andy had gone tramping through the hills in search of more likely material for their workshop. He took no rifle with him, for furs were not yet prime nor were deer in season, and he never killed wantonly. Thought of any harm that might come to him never entered Andy’s head. But there are certain occasions when, despite their ancestral awe of man, the wolves, the bear, the panther and even the lynx with his slight endowment of courage, experience a queer reversal of their natures which brings forgetfulness of fear. Sometimes it is hunger or pain or the scent or sight of fear in a human, and sometimes, as in the case of Whisjxirfoot, it arises from a combination of startled surprise blended with a freakish impulse to play which quickly engenders a lust to kill.
They met in a queer fashion. Andy was sitting under a low balsam on the crest of a rocky ridge after a steep climb, when Whisperfoot came gliding up the opposite windward side of the ridge along an old deer trail. Because of the breeze that w’as singing a romping song through the pine needles, neither had any warning of the other’s nearness until the round head of the panther suddenly appeared over the rim scarce twenty feet away.
Now it happened that Whisperfoot knew nothing of man through actual contact. For years the great cat had been acknowledged overlord of the sparsely settled region about the Swiftwater, his business entirely with the deer herds. Man existed to him merely as an occasional odor of hereditary abhorrence, an unseen presence vaguely threatening, whose works, redolent of his touch, w'ere to be found here and there in the forest.
Who can say what promptings stirred in the panther’s wholly catlike and always hysterical brain when Andy’s figure loomed so suddenly before his eyes? Perhaps he sensed
hungry is a considerable catastrophe, though your panther full-fed is sometimes a mere fireside tabby. It may have been any or all of these things, added unto the growing dusk, that stilled the big cat’s natural panic at sight of a human and shot him forward in a lightning pounce that bowled the astonished boy over. Whisperfoot leaped back and sprang in again, all in the same instant, to stand over him for a moment or two, mauling him with padded claws, but apparently without any lethal intent.
FILLED with dread at the memory of the tales he had heard of a panther’s cruelty when once it was inspired to attack a human, Andy was for a space too stunned to use his voice. When he found it finally, the effect was magical. Whisperfoot melted instantly into the shadows of the firs, where he crouched, fixing Andy with his pale gooseberry eyes. Andy yelled again and sought to use the power of his eyes to further intimidate the brute, but the fabled control of wild beasts by this means seemed to have little effect. He knew by the angry twitching of the ropelike tail that the panther was working himself up for another leap. The latter had discovered how really weak and defenseless were these two-legged creatures he had hitherto held in such distrust, and his spurt of kittenish play was swept away by a feeling of power and ferocity.
Slowly he began creeping nearer, his gaunt body hugging the ground, no playfulness about it now. Yelling again to dismay the beast for a few moments, Andy started down the slope, heading instinctively toward the river. Like a shadow, Whisperfoot crept serpentwise through the brush in his wake, momentarily more intrigued with the situation and his own growing sense of jx>wer. For minutes thereafter only Andy’s eyes and voice and the ancient feline tendency for indirection formed the narrow margin between life and death.
They had reached the river bank before Whisperfoot made up his featherweight mind, only to be baffled once more as the boy, with a piercing yell, plunged into the water. Of all the things a cat detests, cold water ranks first. Horrified by the splashing and the hated human voice, the panther turned and fled into the woods as if fearful lest the forest in general might witness his discomfiture. Andy, standing up in the freezing water that almost took the breath from his body, shook his fist at the killer as he disappeared.
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“Ye confounded tarnation critter!” he chattered, at a loss for adequate words to express his wrath and relief. “You’ll pay for this with a bullet through your hide. I’ll track you down if it takes all winter.”
Then he took note of his surroundings for the first time, and neither the cold nor the very real danger he had just escaped could make him oblivious to the good fortune he had stumbled on from a trapper’s standpoint.
For years, as he knew, not a beaver had been seen about the upper reaches cf the Swiftwater. But here was proof that a new colony, and a big one, had settled here in the past month. From the size of the unfinished lodge, Andy could get a fair estimate of the strength of the colony. In spite cf the chill that was rattling the teeth in his head, he lingered for a time to study the dam and lodge site and lay plans for the setting of traps when fur was prime. Almost, he forgot his score against Whisperfoot in the new zeal.
TO TEJON, the appearance of Andy Cameron on the stream bank that afternoon was like a final sentence of doom. His two greatest enemies, the only ones he really dreaded, had found him out in his new habitat—man, from whose traps, guns and dogs he had fled as a last resort; and Whisperfoot, the panther, the largest cat in the North American forests and the beavers’ most persistent four-footed enemy. Tejón knew from experience what to expect. More traps and guns, and in between times a stealthy canvassing on the part of Whisperfoot. who would be certain to take time off from his deer-slaying to make life for the busy colony untenable.
The tragic part was that it was too late now for the beavers to leave had they decided to. The work started must go on. The new dam across the stream needed continual strengthening against the sinister inroads of the water. The lodge was not yet completed, and very soon the colony must venture back into the forest to cut foodwood to store in their underwater feedbeds. If their enemies remained in the vicinity until ice formed over the river, this would be impossible. The worries and problems of Tejón were many.
Whisperfoot, like the old beaver, was a character with a reputation that ran before him. He was top tyrant over all the wild hunters of that region. All beasts broke trail for him when he hunted; none dared face him. He was a terror, a nightmare, even to his own kind and his own offspring. One had only to see his long lithe body to know why even the moose and the bull elk fled at the panther smell on the breeze. He measured almost nine feet from the tip of his ropey tail to the end of his whiskers. His jaws were studded with long dog fangs, and each
of Iris powerful forepaws was armed with sabre claws that could break the neck of an ox in a full-armed blow.
As if perversely aware of the beavers’ predicament, Whisperfoot. after his brush with Andy Cameron, had elected to remain in the vicinity of the dam, and for days thereafter the colony lived in constant fear of the tawny slayer. Often they saw his sinuous shadow moving in ghostly silence amid the underbrush; and sometimes at night the acute ears of Tejon’s band could detect the almost inaudible sounds of the murderer prowling with silent tread and “privy paw” upon the stream bank, or they heard hack among the hills the kill-cry of the great cat, that fiendish scream of blood lust that served as a relief valve for the wild brute passions in the killer’s heart. Never were the beavers free from his sudden attack; never did they dare go far from the safety of deep water, for if caught back in the timber in their search for tender saplings they would be all but helpless.
But the game went not always to the cat. Brawn and rending power he had to burn, but he was not overlong on brain, and superior intelligence wins in the wild almost as often as among men. Many a time Whisperfoot strove to take the beaver citadel unaware, and at such times his stalking was a thing to talk about, for selfeffacement with him was a finished science. Nevertheless Tejón was always forewarned by several saving moments before the enemy was advertised in the fir shadows by the lambent glow of his gooseberry eyes. Finally, seeing that all his marvellous stealth had been bootless, Whisperfoot would take recourse to the ancient game of his kind—fixing the old beaver with the basilisk glare that often hypnotized his smaller subjects, held them rooted to the spot till they could conveniently be killed. But old Tejón was wary.
TNCH BY INCH Whisperfoot would steal A forward like flowing water, fatuously believing his game liad worked. And old Tejón would foster his self-conceit by continuing to sit movelessly on his dam, apparently looking off across the pool and quite unaware that the enemy had crept almost within spring. And then—a sudden rush, a curving streak of yellow fury, and Whisperfoot would strike the top of the dam with a sawing snarl of triumph. But his great claws would rip through nothing but mud and wood. The place where Tejón had sat would be empty; and when Whisperfoot, swearing softly and wickedly beneath his whiskers, would look back from the forest edge, the old beaver would be sitting upright on the dam once more as if nothing had happened.
Then Andy Cameron had entered the game. Since lie had first discovered the beaver colony, Andy’s trapper’s zeal had waxed keener and keener. However, furs
would not be prime for two months yet, and for fear of frightening the beaver away lie had not gone near the dam. But each day lie had studied the colony from a secret lookout through his father’s powerful telescope, filled with curiosity in regard to the secrets of these cleverest of all animal artisans, anxious, too, lest some other hunter should discover the colony.
Andy always carried his rifle with him now, and wherever he went he was on the lookout for Whisperfoot, not only because c;f his grudge against the big cat but because of the panther’s continual persecution of the beaver. Andy knew the ways of beaver and was well aware of the critical state of affairs in Tejon’s colony. Though he did not actually think of it in that light, in keeping Whisperfoot on the move those late fall days he was paying off his debt to the beavers, for his coming upon the beaver pool the day the panther had followed him had played a pivotal part in saving his life.
Very quickly he had learned that he was dealing with no ordinary panther. Though Whisperfoot wrote the record of his passing in red throughout the countryside, he himself remained but a spook and a rumor.
Time after time Andy had come across the fresh trail of the big cat. And once, following the tracks of a fat buck he had sighted on a ridge, he came upon the freshly killed carcass of the quarry and beside it tlie round, mocking pad-marks of Whisperfoot the killer. Andy had followed the panther’s trail for weary miles, only to lose it at last in the rocky uplands.
Sometimes the boy discovered that he himself had been hunted in turn. His back trail would show where Whisperfoot, intrigued by the persistent following of the human he had once had in his power, had craftily circled and trailed the hunter in turn with a finished woodcraft that Andy could never hope to emulate. The boy resorted to traps and poison, but though his settings were investigated, all were avoided with a diabolical cunning. Andy saw that only the blindest chance would ever throw the big cat into his path, unless he got a pack of dogs from the settlement, but that was a thing neither he nor his father had ever tolerated.
NOVEMBER came in, very cold, colder than any winter Andy had remembered. All in a day the tang of autumn changed to icy sleet-laden winds from tlie north. The Camerons for a time were wholly occupied laying out their winter trap lines. Old Tejón and his band, by working overtime in those last vital days, had managed to complete their lodge and fill their storage pool with saplings before the first freeze. In the next few days the river became tightly locked under a sheet of ice nearly two inches thick. Tlie round dome of mud, brush and sticks that formed tlie roof of the beaver lodge froze into a solid icy mass hard as iron, a perfect protection from enemies and the fiercest cold and storm. This seemed proved conclusively when the beavers heard their enemy, Whisperfoot, prowling about on the ice above them, heard his big claws rasping on the frozen roof of the lodge in a vain attempt to tear his way into their snug retreat. Warm and secure beneath tlie protecting ice, the life of the beavers now ran on as tranquilly as on a summer’s day. Apparently the labors and worries of Tejón and his band were over.
But Fate or Nature or whatever power it is that tests the fibres and sharpens the wits of the worthy, had still other trials ahead for the long-persecuted clan. One day Andy Cameron appeared at the dam and chopped a hole in the river ice. While he worked with his axe the beavers, not knowing what might be threatening them, put in a terrible half hour. For in midwinter the very life of a beaver colony depends upon tlie safety of their dam. A break in the dam, even a small leak, might prove fatal, for with the ice solid over the river tlie beavers are unable to get out and repair the damage, and once the water in their storage pool goes down their precious supply of food-wood becomes frozen into a solid mass on the bottom.
Presently they saw Andy Cameron through the opening in the ice. They saw ¡him plant a pair of traps close beside the dam and finally leave. But old Tejón who had Jong been trap-wise, kept the younger members of the clan away from the spot. Later that day, however, one cf the younger beavers, passing near the spot, was caught in a cleverly concealed snare that none had seen in the water. He died within a few minutes and a new terror demoralized the ranks of the colony.
Next day Andy came and took away the victim, leaving other artful sets on the opposite side of the pool. Tejón decreed that that portion of the pool be strictly avoided, but he knew that it would be only a matter of time before some of the band would forget and meet death in the waiting snares.
Then for a fortnight the colony was left in comparative peace. The reason was that both the Camerons and Whisperfoot were intensely occupied with other matters concerning a newcomer on their range, a rival whose appearance was a tribulation to every ether living creature in the region. A wandering and surly-tempered wolverine, driven southward by the cold and famine of this unprecedented winter in search of better hunting, had decided to tarry on the Swiftwater. And as all hunters know, where a wolverine makes his habitat things unsavoryare prone to happen.
The Wolverine, or Injun Devil, as he is dubbed by trappers, is undoubtedly the most thoroughly hated beast t,hat prowls. He is the footpad cf the forest, murderer cf even his own cousins. The Northern Indians claim he is a fiend with a lifelong feud against man and all below; certainly nothing parallels his blind bloodlust and genius for trouble making.
True to his infamous reputation, drastic things fcllcwed swiftly in the footsteps of the newcomer. The fact that he was poaching upon the preserves cf others meant nothing to the wolverine. In all such matters he was a law unto himself. Few he knew could face him in open combat, and in cunning none at all.
IT WAS Whisperfoot who first contacted him. They met in a dramatic manner over the carcass cf a young dee which the wolverine had just killed. Whisperfoot himself should have “done business” with that doe. having been stalking it at the time and on his own range. But there was the interloper crouched open-mouthed and terrible cn the reddened carcass, and quite ready to deal with Whisperfoct, expecting him in fact, having been cognizant cf his approach for some minutes.
Whisperfoct came up bristling and flaming with horrible threats in a manner calculated to drive any beast, particularly a beast hardly a third his size, quite mad; but the wolverine stirred not a hair or an inch under that high-powered glare. No dramatics cf bluff or defiance there, no sign of the blink that betrays fear. Instead there lived and almost spoke in his green-shadowed eyes a sense of confidence beyond expression, and it was Whisperfoot who took himself off, leaving the stranger to the feast. The panther could undoubtedly have vanquished the interloper, but certain it was that the price he would pay would be terrible.
Following this auspicious beginning, the wolverine left nothing undone by way of extending his power on the new range. That same afternoon he came upon the Cameron’s trap line and immediately set himself to devising means by which the life of the trappers would be made intolerable. Traps, to such as he, were playthings, not a menace, and his chief purpose in life seemed to be in making a mock of them.
That night he covered the entire fifteen miles the Camerons had laid out, and he left his trademark in the iniquities he perpetrated along the way. Trap after trap he carefully placed, dug out of the snow, sprung and robbed of its bait or catch. All furs he found he ruined or defiled, and he vented his mean nature on the traps themselves by leaving them hopelessly entangled in the thickets or carrying them bodily off and burying them past finding.
“Wolverine,” muttered Tom Cameron, when father and son made their rounds of the line next day. “No wonder I didn’t sleep last night. We’ve got to catch this customer or the fur we take this year won’t be worth the work.”
For a week thereafter the Camerons put in full time planting traps and snares for the undoing of the wolverine, who now stood for their special and composite enemy. Both were finished woodsmen and they put art and zest into their work, and in between times they trailed the interloper for long hours. But a wolverine is one of the few beasts that can detect poison and smell steel as other beasts would smell blood, so all their labors came to naught. Never a sight of the marauder did they catch, though the saturnalia of destruction along their trap line continued and daily they found the imprint of the wolverine’s flat hairy soles mingled insolently with their own.
For two weeks the game of wits continued, each day bringing increasing evidence of the wolverine’s uncanny sagacity. It had become literally a feud between the two men and the little quadruped for the hunting rights cf the region, and during the duel Whisperfoot and the beavers were entirely forgotten. The contest came to an end in a strange way and through no doing of the men.
Prowling one early morning along the river after a night of deviltry on the Camerons’ trap line, the wolverine came to a dead stop beside the round, snow-covered roof of old Tejón’s lodge. Perhaps he was familiar with beaver lodges, or quite conceivably his amazing nose had given him some rumor of the beavers beneath the ice. At any rate he sat down, sniffed, then set to work on the dome of the lodge with a set of jaws and claws that had no equal in all the forest world. At first the beavers took little heed of the rasping and gnawing that came to them in their snug sleeping quarters. No doubt they thought it was Whisperfoot trying his foolish strength on their ice roof again, after a poor night’s hunting. At any rate they saw no need for worn'.
The courage and determination of a wolverine, however, begin where that of the cat tribe leaves off. With a strength and patience that seemed not of earth, the grim squat beast tore and wrenched at the dome of ice and mud that bound the lodge roof together. Two hours passed and still he gnawed and clawed, the muscles of his iron forelegs swelling as he tore away the frozen mud and branches with a total disregard of pain. Any other beast would have desisted long ago, but the wolverine labored with a fury that stained the ice and snow with crimson from his gashed paws and gums.
BY NOW old Tejón was apprised of the identity of the enemy without. Once before in his long and stressful life he had contacted the wolverine of the North, and he knew that this that faced him now was not just another trial but a key ordeal, the real challenge of his right and the right of his harassed clan to live and carry on. Here was the arch-enemy of all the lesser wild folk, the most dreaded foe the forest had to offer.
But the trepidation of Tejón was shortlived. for when it became apparent that the marauder would presently break through the roof, there welled up in the old beaver a rage beyond all thought or prudence, the outraged fury of the protector and householder. Dispersing his band, the old chief took his stand in a narrow passageway just below the spot where the invader would break through, in his usually mild little eyes the emberlike glow of one who protects his castle against the world. A break in the lodge roof was almost as great a catastrophe as a break in the dam, for if it were not repaired at once the lodge and pool would clog with ice.
A final wrench and a shower of snow, and the black macabre mask of the wolverine peered down from above. Tejón met the lurching attack of the robber with a churring snarl. Had they met in the open, the battle would have ended in a throat-hold and swift j victoryfor the wolverine, but backed as he j was into the narrow passageway the big ' beaver held his own for a space. His big chisel-like teeth, though lacking the deadliness of the fangs of a carnivore, were almost as powerful as those of the wolverine from many years of wood-gnawing, and his short neck was padded with muscle. And so for minutes the conflict hung at an exact balance.
At this juncture, the forest gods, as if chuckling grimly over the possibilities entailed, saw (it to lead Whisperfoot across the fresh trail the wolverine had left. Since the day he had been so thoroughly bluffed by the interloper, the panther had stewed with renewed fury each time he crossed the wolverine’s trail. The fact that that trail led straight toward the beaver lodge this morning lent a prod to his fury, sent him slinking along the fresh trail. Too long had the newcomer been poaching on his preserves. but the innate cowardice of the panther had hitherto kept him from trying conclusions with the robber.
But this morning conditions seemed just to his liking. From the edge of the river woods he saw the black arched back of the wolverine just showing within the big hole he had torn in the heaver lodge, and suddenly there rose up in him a fury that gave him almost the courage of his inches. For months he had looked upon the beavers as his legitimate quarry. But, of course, the fact that the wolverine’s back was turned largely decided what ensued. A swift sure pounce from the rear, a crunch of long dog fangs in the victim’s spine—that was Whisperfoot’s size and style. Black lips writhing back from his fangs in a silent snarl, he stole softly upon the robber from behind, gathering his steely muscles into quivering knots beneath him.
That was a beautiful stalk, one of the most finished Whisperfoot had ever made, a marvel of precision; and so, too, was the final spring that drove his fangs into the base of the enemy’s neck. That pounce would have broken the neck of deer, wolf or coyote A wolverine, however, though only three and a half feet long, is tough as forged iron, the strongest beast for its size, in point of fact, in all the world. Taken though he was at such a woeful disadvantage, Nature had provided the wolverine for just such emergencies. Somehow he had turned loosely within his own skin—which was incredibly heavy and loose as an overcoat—and in a trice fastened himself like some giant leech on the panther’s neck.
Followed a battle royal such as those j woods were not likely to see again in many a ! day. They spun and threshed about with wrenching heaving muscles, cruel fangs and
talons drinking blood. And the combined voice of them lifted up —it was the voice of a bad dream, no less—drove the silence of the winter woods afar, caused rabbits to palpitate in their forms a quarter of a mile away. What the wolverine lacked in size and bulk he made up for in being the greatest master of in-fighting the American continent has ever known. After the first moment, in fact, the panther fought more to free himself of the other’s ill-omened weight than to slay. But either way he slew—himself and the enemy—tearing open his own throat as he tore the other loose with maddened claws.
Each was a master killer in his own especial way, and each brought all his lethal best to bear in that great fight. But the best part of it all was that each was overripe for death and neither kept the other waiting. In short, a forest justice, infinitely patient, had caught up with two murderers.
AND Y CAMERON, out shortly after 4*dawn to see if his traps had yet scored against the wolverine, was attracted from afar by the sounds of the battle. Leaving the trap line, he hurried toward the spot on silent snowshoes, all his hunter’s instinct on the qui vive as he realized that the sounds came from the vicinity of the beaver lodge. He arrived breathless on the river bank in time to see the end of a battle such as perhaps no other hunter had ever witnessed. Shorn of volition by the far-flung chance that had set these two enemies of his at each other’s throats, Andy stood watching the battle through to its bloody end.
At last the battlers broke apart, the panther in a final violent effort to save his life, the wolverine for the very good reason that he was dead, literally torn and shredded to pieces by the rowelling of Whisperfoot’s terrible hind claws. Flis grim jaws, however, locking in death, exacted the penalty, for the panther, though free, could scarcely drag himself away from the spot. Andy ended his suffering with a merciful bullet, but neither his pelt nor that of the wolverine was worth the skinning.
Still palpitating from the effects of the battle, Andy approached old Tejón’s lodge. From within came sounds of great activity as the entire beaver colony rallied to save the lodge from the inroads of cold and storm. Already they had blocked the gaping hole in the roof with mud, sticks and ice. A smile came to Andy’s face as he listened. All fall the colony had put up a gallant fight, and indirectly they had helped bring low his enemies. In his admiration, Andy elected that the band should go free of snares and traps from that time on.