Wilderness Ripple

KENNETH GILBERT January 1 1937

Wilderness Ripple

KENNETH GILBERT January 1 1937

Wilderness Ripple

The story of Scarface, the grizzly, and Pym, the shrew—Plotted by Nature, the grim comedian

KENNETH GILBERT

WHEN OLD Scarface, overlord of the Bogachiel country because he was the biggest grizzly and therefore the biggest carnivore in all that wild land, tried to smash the life out of Pym, tiniest of mammals, it seemed an inconsequential thing. But the pygmy shrew, half the size of a mouse, escaped, and thereby the act of the morose bear unleashed forces which, if he could have foreseen them, would have sent him hurrying from the place, shaking with fear.

For nature finds humor in the grotesque, and her favorite jest is the law of cause and effect. A pebble tossed into a pool may create a wave which washes out the last supporting sand of an undermined bank, thereby causing a slide which changes the course of a river, spreading destruction and perhaps death along a great valley. A single spark may grow into a conflagration covering half a province and wiping out millions of feet of valuable timber. A tree falls —and carries with it other trees. Because a burrowing muskrat wants a roomier home, he may puncture the face of an earth-dam and cause a flood resulting in great damage and loss of life.

So nature laughs again at her ancient and tragic joke of the ripple of life, wherein effect is out of all proportion to primary cause. The crushing impact of the grizzly’s heavy paw merely made the ground vibrate for a few inches thereabout; so much for cause. Yet the effect thereof was like a snowball starting down a mountainside, gathering bulk with every turn until it becomes a roaring avalanche. Scarface weighed close to a thousand pounds; the pygmy shrew, full fed, might have tipped the scale at an ounce. Greatest and smallest of animals in the primitive Bogachiel. Grim nature smiled.

They had named the grizzly because of an old wound which streaked his forehead, and men respected him warily by reason of a deserved reputation for ferocity. At the moment the thing began, Scarface was tearing at a rotted stump which held a nest of wood-ants, whose acrid pungency he loved, when he saw a little creature dart out of a crevice in the wood and vanish under a piece of bark lying on the ground. Like lightning the bear struck, thinking that he had disturbed a mouse; but when he raked apart the fragments of broken bark he found a gopher-hole beneath, down which Pym had dodged. Grunting his disappointment, for he was inordinately fond of mice, old Scarface resumed warfare on the ants’ nest.

Far underground, moving with calm confidence, went the pygmy shrew. Despite his extraordinarily small size he was all courage, a truculent little savage accustomed to eating his weight in flesh thrice every day. His miniature jaws were set with needlelike fighting fangs, and he asked no odds of other wilderness creatures several times his weight. A slaty-hued assassin whose eyes were like cold jet, he moved along the tunnel with twitching nostrils, eager for food, for he was ever hungry. He was nature’s ripple, set in motion by the petulant, ill-timed blow of a great grizzly thousands of times his size and at whose angry roar the wood folk trembled in terror and took to cover. Pym was im¡x)rtant only by reason of consequences, yet how important . . .

AS HE ROUNDED a turn in the erratic ramblings of ■ the shaft, his abrupt appearance created sudden consternation.

In a pocket off the tunnel was the gopher’s home, and from here another tunnel led away in a backdoor exit, to be used .in time of distress. There were four of the tiny kits cuddled snugly in the nest, each of them larger than Pym, but his redoubtable nature was not one to hesitate in the face of odds when he was famished as now. His faint odor,

distasteful like that of all carnivores, suddenly filled the place, and the baby gophers aroused in alarm. Without preliminary he struck at the nearest kit, a vengeful little flash of grey, deadly in silence.

Yet hardly had his teeth fastened in the throat-hold, and before their keen ix>ints could penetrate and do damage, the tunnel echoed to a muffled shrilling. The mother gopher, reaching home by the backdoor entrance, had arrived unexpectedly, and her rodent teeth, snapping like chisels, just missed Pym’s incredibly small body.

Instantly he let go his hold, and fled. He was full of wisdom, this least of the wild folk, and he had no intention of battling a creature probably twenty times his weight.

So quickly that the eye could scarcely follow his movements, he flashed down the tunnel, hotly pursued by the indignant mother gopher. Out into the open he went, and she ran hot at his heels, disregarding natural caution in her determination to revenge the violation of her home. This was a serious thing, for the rule of claw and fang in the wilderness permits of no indifference. As the mother gopher emerged from her tunnel, death stooped at her suddenly from the air.

A Cooper’s hawk, his sleek, airstreamed body mottled and barred, had been wheeling in short circles two hundred feet above the spot, hoping to discover an unwary rabbit or a venturesome grouse, and when he saw the striped back of the mother gopher darting through the brush in pursuit of Pym, he struck instantly. There was an ominous, whistling sound as his wings closed and he shot earthward. The gopher heard the warning and gave up all thoughts of revenge on the pygmy shrew. With a sharp chirr of alarm she darted under a log that was screened by a rank growth of devil-club, and the hawk’s talons clutched space a bare two inches behind her.

Immediately the hawk swung skyward with a ke-ee-eee! of disappointment, and resumed his hunting. He was unaware, however, that his movements had been marked.

A quarter of a'mile distant a slenderbodied animal in brown fur with an orange belly, regarded the hawk with interest. There is no keener brain in the wilderness than that of a pine marten, and the activities of the hawk were vastly interesting. From long experience the marten, larger than a mink but belonging to the same bloodthirsty weasel clan of inuslelidae had noted that whenever a hawk struck, game was to be found.

Soundlessly, the snaky-bodied destroyer began looping its way through the brush.

The marten would resume where the hawk had left off, and no thicket was too dense nor burrow too deep for it to

penetrate. As it moved along with its queer, rubbery gait, there was a businesslike manner about it that appeared deadly efficient. Arrived at the spot where it had seen the hawk dip, the marten paused and peered about with its mild face as though hopelessly puzzled. But no wilderness dweller which knew the habits of the big wood weasel would be deceived for a moment. The marten had not discovered the whereabouts of the gopher, but it had discovered better game.

O QUATTED in a near-by thicket, cowed by the presence ^ of the circling hawk, was a fat grouse. Ás the marten appeared, the grouse knew a mighty impulse to go thundering off through the trees, yet to do so would invite instant disaster from the swift-winged freebooter of the skies who still lurked aloft and bent a vitreous-hard eye on earth. The grouse hesitated for a moment, and was lost. Like the thrust of a brown lance the marten leaped; there was a frantic battering of wings on earth, and then the killer lifted its snarling mask, mild no longer, and stared around truculently. But, two seconds later it spat vengefully like a cat, and sprang for the safety of screening brush.

Nor was the fact that the big grizzly still grubbed away at the stump a few feet distant the thing which had startled the marten. At the fluttering of the grouse’s wings, a larger bird came from nowhere, and hovered over the spot. Broad pinions fanned the air noiselessly, while yellowish cat-eyes searched the thicket, marked the triumphant marten and struck. Although it was early for his customary night hunting, the great homed owl who haunted that stretch of uplands along the Bogachiel, was ravenous as usual. If he had not been desperately hungry, he would not have made the grievous error he did. For, instead of seizing the helpless grouse, his hooklike talons locked themselves through the skin of the marten’s back.

Instantly the owl realized its mistake, for it knew well that the marten was no hapless rabbit, incapable of defense. With a terrifying hiss and snapping of beak the owl sought to get clear, but the sinuous body of the marten twisted, and bared fangs went instinctively for the vulnerable spot beneath the bird’s left wing, where a great artery runs close to the surface in all the feathered clan.

Nevertheless, the broad pinions of the owl stroked so mightily that attacker and attacked were lifted from the ground. Slowly they climbed through the trees, the owl trying to shake off the brown horror slashing so savagely at it. But this was impossible and, high in air, the end came.

There was a sudden bright gush which stained the fluffy grey body; then, like a falling leaf, the great bird began whirling earthward with outspread wings, faster and faster, until it struck heavily on a log and lay there motionless.

Nor did the marten stir, save convulsively. The gyrations of the dying owl had torn the killer loose, and when it fell from a height of perhaps three hundred feet, it likewise struck the log, breaking its body across a stubby limb. Old Scarface, busy with his digging, looked up sharply as he heard the impacts near by, but the sounds meant nothing to him. He continued ripping apart the rotted stump, which now swarmed with tiny black warriors.

Nor did the occurrence mean a thing to little Pym, the initial cause of it all. Unaware that he had brought about the deaths of two wilderness killers, in addition to the harmless grouse, he kept on with his own minute affairs. Having been driven from the seclusion of the stump—he had even forgotten old Scarface and the grizzly’s heavy paw—he could find no sanctuary even in the gopher den, so he went foraging afield, for he was weak with famine, not having eaten for nearly three hours. Presently he was working along the edge of a shelving bank which overhung

a spring-fed pool. All at once, at a familiar scent, he turned and entered a hole not much larger than his own body. As he did so, there was an ominous hissing, and suddenly a flat head, with a licking, fork-shaped tongue, lashed at him in the darkness.

Now, the hole into which Pym had turned, led to the den of a small watersnake which was accustomed to rest there between feedings on larvae and trout-fry in the pool. The snake was not venomous but a savage lighter nevertheless, and he had no objection to dining on mice whenever he could. Little Pym looked like an immature mouse, and the snake struck with confidence. Never was more grievous error made.

For the pygmy shrew evaded the ojxmed jaws deftly, and fastened its puncturing teeth to the snake’s throat, hanging on with bulldog tenacity. Immediately the snake writhed horribly, lashing about in its death agony. But there was no dislodging its grim little attacker, and when the thing was ended, little Pym staggered from the den, surfeited with feeding, leaving behind him evidence that even snakes many times his size were not proof against his skill and courage. It was a half hour later when, hungry again, his nose located accurately a nest of voles, biggest of meadow mice, in a grassy clump beside the stream, and not far from where old Scarface labored with the ant-covered stump. Before that happened, however, the consequences of little Pym’s escape from the bear took a new twist entirely, for the force of a ripple of nature is not expended at once. There were dire things to come.

rTTIE ever-watchful hawk, marking the body of the dead marten, stooped again and alighted on the log. It eyed the bear a few feet distant, but decided that the huge plantigrade was too occupied to notice. The marten was not exactly a tempting morsel, but the hawk was hungry and

none too particular in any event. Therefore, it hopped awkwardly along the log and fell to.

So occupied with its feeding did it become that it never noticed a reddish shadow which moved from one thicket to another, stealthily coming closer. A fox had been patiently following old Scarface all day, having learned by experience that the bear often supplied a meal for hunters less skilled than himself. Sometimes Scarface killed elk, in which case there was always enough meat left over for those who came after he had retired to the deeper woods to sleep off the effects of his gluttony. His robbery

of the ant nest did not seem to promise much for the fox, but the latter was never without hojx\ When the hawk began tearing apart the marten, whose fall, along with that of the owl, had already been noted by the fox, the bird of prey sea It'd its own doom.

Too late, it saw movement close at hand; its wings beat gustily as it tried to leap upward. But the spring of the fox was accurate, and strong jaws crushed life from the feathered marauder. Well satisfied, and intending to return soon for the marten and the owl, the fox turned away in the direction of its den, where its mate and little ones waited. But its eagerness was its undoing, for in an incautious way it bounded over a log and squarely into a coyote trap which old Trem Farney had set the previous winter and had never taken up. Gripped securely, it was discovered and dispatched by the man when he chanced by there a few minutes later. The fox pelt was worthless at this season, but old Trem Farney regarded all such creatures as “varmints.”

And the reason that the man came along was that he, too. had been watching the antics of the hawk. From the door of the Farney cabin a quarter of a mile distant, the old man had marked the bird’s sudden volplane as it struck at the gopher. He had seen it rise swiftly, then strike again, as it came down to feed on the marten.

Trem Farney had particular hatred of that hawk, who had proved to be a consistent chicken-thief. A similar feud existed with Scarface, who had once put the man up a tree and kept him there until dawn. Likewise, Farney suspected that Scarface was responsible for the disappearance of a calf pastured with its mother in the stump lot. Farney had found the mother next morning, near death from wounds received in defense of her young. “Bear,” decided Trem, and vowed the account would not be squared until he had the grizzly’s hide jx;gged on the side of the barn. Try as he would, however, the old man could never again come up with the grizzly, who was cunning as well as dangerous.

So it was with no thought of encountering Scarface that Trem Farney got out the ancient single-barrelled shotgun, a muzzle-loader, and started for the woods where he had seen the hawk make its last strike, else he would have taken his rifle. Farney believed the hawk had made a kill, and it was his hope to get near enough for a wing shot with the muzzle-loader. When he found the fox in the trap, he merely killed it with a stick, realizing that a gunshot would undoubtedly alarm the hawk. The man had no way of knowing that the dead bird which he found beside the trapped fox was the one which he sought. That lack of knowledge probably saved his life a few minutes later.

"DOR, AS HE crossed the creek and warily approached the spot where the hawk had vanished and where he now expected to see it reappear, he was suddenly confronted by the terrifying figure of old Scarface. There was reason for Trem Farney to be glad that he had not wasted the single shot in the ancient gun.

Under other circumstances Scarface might have been willing to retreat; but it seemed that the man had been stalking him, had him cornered. The huge bear was more ill-tempered than usual, for the ant nest had provided little sustenance for a beast of his vitality. He saw his enemy close at hand, and, roaring defiance and willingness to do battle, he flung himself at the man. With a startled gasp, Trem Farney threw up the gun and fired.

At that short range the weapon blazed almost in the grizzly’s face. A portion of the bird-shot charge struck him in the throat, inflicting a grievous wound, while scattering pellets blinded him. But his instinct told him the direction of the man even though he could not see him, and he scarcely hesitated in his charge.

With an agility astonishing in one of his years, Trem Farney leaped aside just as the bear lumbered by. The man wheeled to run, but the bear, turning instantly, smelled him out and came on as before. Again Farney barely dodged as the bulky body thundered by.

For the moment now the bear was puzzled in its efforts to locate the man, and Farney, not daring to run for fear of attracting the beast’s attention, worked swiftly trying to reload. But Scarface heard him and, bellowing with pain and rage, charged again. Farney had time only to ram the powder home before the grizzly was almost atop him. Miraculously, the man evaded the slapping forepaws.

But now Farney almost stumbled over the log where the owl and marten lay dead. There was no time or inclination to ponder ujxm the reasons why they should be there; quick-wittedly enough, he saw an opportunity to distract the bear’s attention. Snatching up the fluffy body of the owl, he hurled it straight at the slavering mouth of the infuriated beast.

The scheme worked. Instantly Scarface fell upon the bird, ripping it to pieces, while Farney worked swiftly reloading the gun. Then, as though aware it had been tricked, the grizzly flung the owl aside and once more lumbered straight at his human foe.

This time, however, Farney was ready for him. To the credit of the man, too, it must be said that he stood his ground. With a handful of birdshot pounded on top of the

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powcîér, he raised the old gun and let go.

The overloaded gun sent Farney staggering backward until he fell, but the birdshot, compacted like a single leaden ball at that range, tore through the muscled neck of the grizzly, so that his blood-chilling bawl died to a gurgle as he plunged fiat and lay there, while life drained from him in a red gush. In falling, however, Trem Farney struck his head on a stone, and he saw the world go black.

WHEN HE regained consciousness at last, it was with awareness that he had been lying there a long while, for he was chilled, his muscles were stiff and, high above the night-shrouded forest, a moon that was like a red disc in the hazy sky shed weak light over the spot. Trem Farney’s thoughts went back instantly to the battle with the grizzly, and for some moments he did not stir, as he tried to collect his wits. Yet the woods were very still, and he turned his head until he made out a huge form, black in the gloom, lying but a few feet distant. Then he knew that luck had been with him, for if that last shot had failed there would have been no awakening for him.

But presently he thought he saw movement in that sombre bulk so near, and his heart thumped in his throat. At the same time he heard an infinitely high-pitched shrilling, barely audible to human ears. It was like an elfin piping in the deep woods; such music as might be heard if fairies danced in moonlit glades. It was as utterly unlike the spine-tingling roar of the grizzly as could be imagined, yet the beast seemed to be making the queer sound. With curiosity overcoming fear, old Trem Farney shakily sat up, and stared hard as he tried to fathom the mystery.

He saw two tiny creatures darting about in mad, harmless play, and he grunted in relief. “Mice,” he grunted as he staggered to his feet.

But it was not mice he saw; it was little Pym and his new-found mate, squeaking happily to themselves as they ran here and there in aimless fashion, dodging one another, rearing on haunches as they threatened each other in mock ferocity. Mice was certainly a misnomer, for

certainly no mouse, however large, has the courage of a shrew. In fact, Pym himself was back from the wars, having spread devastation through the nest of voles he had discovered before that terrifying battle which old Trem Farney had waged with the giant Scarface. The turmoil of that strife had been forgotten in new joy; little Pym had found his true mate, and they were making high revelry in the glade while the full moon shone redly in the sky and the dank mists hung tenaciously in trees along the creek. In the madness of their love they did not notice the weary old man who presently gathered up his gun and moved off toward his cabin, still shaken by the ordeal he had undergone. They were concerned solely with the joy of having met each other, least of all wild folk, smallest of mammals. For them the world was a tremendous place, full of strange adventures. But this was life as they had always known it.

Nor did little Pym himself realize that he had been one of nature’s jests, a ripple in

the wilderness, set in motion by inscrutable fate. In his minute mentality it was utterly impossible for him to comprehend that he had been directly responsible for an orgy of death and destruction as had been spread about this spot. He could not understand the profound workings of The Plan which governs these things. He ivas merely the tiniest animal on earth, and as such was constantly compelled to fend his way through life with creatures bigger than himself.

It would have been incredible to him to learn that he had brought about the downfall of deadly foes like the hawk, the owl, the marten, the fox and, lastly, the awesome Scarface. All he knew was that even the grizzly was no longer to be dreaded.

In fact, he was so convinced of this that when his mate playfully sought to hide from him, little Pym confidently leaped over the huge paw which had once sought to crush life from him but missed, thereby starting a wave of consequence that had not only engulfed wily killers of the wilderness but the greatest and most feared of all.