The White-Slashed Bull

Charles G. D. Roberts December 1 1907

The White-Slashed Bull

Charles G. D. Roberts December 1 1907

The White-Slashed Bull

Charles G. D. Roberts

in Saturday Evening Post

HER back crushed beneath the massive weight of a “deadfall,” the mother moose lay slowly sobbing her life out on the sweet spring air. The villainous log, weighted cunningly with rocks, had caught her just above the withers, bearing her forward so that her forelegs were doubled under her, and her neck outstretched so that she could not lift her muzzle from the wet moss. Though her eyes were already glazing, and her nostrils full of a’ blown and blood-streaked froth, from time to time she would struggle desperately to raise her head, for she yearned to lick the sprawling, wobbling legs of the ungainly calf which stood close beside her, bewildered because she would not rise and suckle him.

The dying animal lay in the middle of the trail, which was an old, halfobliterated logger’s road, running straight east into the glow of the spring sunrise. The young birches and poplars, filmed with the first of the green, crowded close upon the trail, with here and there, a roseblooming maple, here and there, a sombre, black-green hemlock, towering over the thick second growth. The early air was fresh, but soft ; fragrant with the breath of opening buds. Faint mists streamed up into the sunlight along the mossy line of the trail, and the only sounds breaking the silence of the wilderness were the sweetly plaintive calls of two rain-birds, answering each other slowly over the treetops, Everything in the scene— the tenderness of the color and the air, the responses of the mating birds, the hope and the expectancy of all the waking world—seemed piteously at variance with the anguish of the stricken mother and her young, down there in the solitude of the trail.

Presently, in the undegrowth beside the trail, a few paces beyond the deadfall, a twig snapped sharply. Admonished by that experience of a

thousand ancestral generations which is instinct, the calf lifted his big, awkward ears apprehensively, and with a shiver drew closer to his mother’s crushed body. A moment later a gaunt black bear thrust his head and shoulders forth from the undergrowth, and surveyed the scene with savage, but shrewd, little eyes. He was hungry, and to his palate no other delicacy the spring wilderness could ever afford was equal to a young moose calf. But the situation gave him pause. The mother moose was evidently in a trap; and the bear was wary of all traps. He sank back into the undergrowth, and crept noiselessly nearer to reconnoitre. In his suspicious eyes even a calf might be dangerous to tamper with, under such unusual conditions as these. As he vanished the calf shuddered violently, and tried to climb upon his mother’s mangled body.

In a few seconds the bear’s head appeared again, close by the base of the deadfall. With crafty nose he sniffed at the great timber which held the moose cow down. The calf was now almost within reach of the deadly sweep of his paw ; but the mansmell was strong on the deadfall, and the bear was still suspicious. While he hesitated, from behind a bend in the trail came a sound of footsteps. The bear knew the sound. A man was coming. Yes, certainly there was some trick about it. With a grunt of indignant disgust he shrank back again into the thicket and fled stealthily from so dangerous a neighborhood, Hungry as he was, he had no wish to try conclitsions with man.

The woodsman came striding down the trail hurriedly, rounded the turn and stopped abruptly. He understood at a glance the evil work of the game poachers. With indignant pity, he stepped forward and drew a merciful knife across the throat of the suffering beast. The. calf shrank away and

stood staring at him anxiously, wavering between terror and trust.

For a moment or two the man hesitated. Of one thing he was certain : the poachers who had set the deadfall must not profit by their success. Moreover, fresh moose-meat would not be unappreciated in his backwoods cabin. He turned and retraced his steps at a run, fearing lest some hungry spring marauders should arrive in his absence. And the calf, more than ever terrified by his mother’s unresponsiveness, stared after him uneasily as he vanished.

For half an hour nothing happened. The early chill passed from the air, a comforting warmth glowed down the trail, the two rain-birds kept whistling to each other their long, persuasive, melancholy call, and the calf stood motionless, waiting, with the patience of the wild, for he knew not what. Then there came a clanking of chains, a trampling of heavy feet, and around the turn appeared the man again, with a pair of big brown horses harnessed to a dragsled. The calf backed away as the man approached, and watched with dull wonder as the great log was rolled aside and his mother’s limp, crushed form was hoisted laboriously upon the sled. This accomplished, the man turned and came to him gently, with hand outstretched. To run away would have been to run away from the shelter of his mother’s presence; so, with a snort of apprehension, he submitted to being stroked and rubbed about the ears, and neck and throat. The sensation was curiously comforting, and suddenly his fear vanished. With his long, mobile muzzle he began to tug appealingly at a convenient fold of the man’s woolen sleeve. Smiling complacently at this sign of confidence, the man left him, and started the team at a slow walk up the trail. With a hoarse bleat of alarm, thinking he was about to be deserted, the calf followed after the sled, his long legs wobbling awkwardly.

From the first moment that she set eyes upon him, shambling awkwardly into the yard at her husband’s heels,

Jabe Smith’s wife was inhospitable toward the ungainly youngling of the wild. She declared that he would take all the milk. And he did. For the next two months she was, unable to make butter, and her opinions on the subject were expressed without reserve. But Jabe was inflexible, in his taciturn, backwoods way, and the calf, till he was old enough to pasture, got all the milk he wanted. He grew and throve so astonishingly that Jabe began to wonder if there was not some mistake in the scheme of things, making cow’s milk the proper nutriment for moose calves. By autumn the youngster was so big and sleek that he might almost have passed for a yearling.

Jabe Smith, lumberman, pioneer and guide, loved all animals, even those which in the fierce joy of the hunt he loved to kill. The young moose bull, however, was his peculiar favorite—partly, perhaps, because of Mrs. Smith’s relentless hostility to it. And the ungainly youngster repaid his love with a devotion that promised to become embarrassing. All around the farm he was forever at his heels, like a dog; and if, by any chance, he became separated from his idol, he would make for him in a straight line, regardless of currant bushes, bean rows, cabbage patches or clotheslines. This strenuous directness did not further endear him to Mrs. Smith. That good lady used to lie awake at night, angrily devising schemes for getting rid of the “ugly brute.” These schemes of vengeance were such a safety-valve to her injured feelings that she would at last make up her mind to contend herself with “takin’ it out on the hide o’ the critter” next day, with a sound hickory stick. When next day came, however, and she went out to milk, the youngster would shamble up to greet her with such amiable trust in his eyes that her wrath would be, for the moment, disarmed, and her fell purpose would fritter out in a futile “Scat, you brute !” Then she would condone her weakness by thinking of what she would do to the animal “some day.” That “some day,” as luck would

have it, came rather sooner than she expected. From the first, the little moose had evinced a determination to take up his abode in the kitchen, in his dread of being separated from Jabe. Being a just man, Jabe had conceded at once that his wife should have the choosing of her kitchen guests ; and to avoid complications, he had rigged up a hinged bar across the kitchen doorway, so that the door could safely stand open. When the little bull was not at Jabe’s heels, and did not know where to find him, his favorite attitude was standing in front of the kitchen door, his long nose thrust in as far as the bar would permit, his long ears waving hopefully, his eyes intent on the mysterious operations of Mrs. Jabe’s housework. Though she would not have acknowledged it for worlds, even to her inmost heart, the good woman took much satisfaction out of that awkward, patient presence in the doorway. When things went wrong with her, in that perverse way so trying to the careful housewife, she could ease her feelings wonderfully by expressing them without reserve to the young moose, who never looked amused or attempted to answer back.

But one day, as it chanced, her feelings claimed a more violent easement—and got it. She was scrubbing the kitchen floor. Just in the doorway stood the scrubbing-pail, full of dirty suds. On a chair close by stood a dish of eggs. The moose calf was nowhere in sight, and the bar was down. Tired and hot, she got up from her aching knees and went over to the stove to see if the pot was boiling, ready to make fresh suds.

At this moment the young bull, who had been searching in vain all over the farm for Jabe, came up to the door with a silent, shambling rush. The bar was down, surely, then, Jabe was inside! Overjoyed at the opportunity he lurched his long legs over the threshold. Instantly his great, loose hoofs slid on the slippery floor, and he came down sprawling, striking the pail of dirty suds as he fell. With a seething souse the slops went abroad, all over the floor.

At the same time the bouncing pail struck the chair, turned it over, and sent the dish of eggs crashing in every direction.

For one second Mrs. Jabe stared rigidly at the mess of eggs, suds and broken china, and the startled calf struggling to his feet. Then, with a hysterical scream, she turned, snatched the boiling pot from the stove, and hurled it blindly at the author of all the mischief.

Happily for the blunderer, Mrs. Jabe’s rage was so unbridled that she really tried to hit the object of it. Therefore, she missed. The pot went crashing through the leg of a table and shivered to atoms against the log wall, contributing its full share to the discouraging mess on the floor. But, as it whirled past, a great wedge of the boiling water leaped out over the rim, flew off at a tangent, and caught the floundering calf full in the side, in a long flare down from the tip of the left shoulder. The scalding fluid seemed to cling in the short, fine hair almost like an oil. With a loud bleat of pain the calf shot to his feet and went galloping around the yard. Mrs. Jabe rushed to the door, and stared at him wide-eyed. In a moment her senses came back to her, and she realized what a hideous thing she had done. Next she remembered Jabe—and what he would think of it !

Then, indeed, her conscience awoke in earnest, and a wholesome dread enlivened her remorse. Forgetting altogether the state of her kitchen, she rushed through the slop to the flourbarrel. Flour, she had always heard, was the thing for burns and scalds. The pesky calf should be treated right, if it took the whole barrel. Scooping up an extravagant dishpanful of the white, powdery stuff, and recklessly spilling a lot of it to add to the mixture on the floor, she rushed out into the yard to apply her treatment, and, if possible, poultice her conscience.

The young moose, anguished and bewildered, had at last taken refuge in the darkest corner of the stable. As Mrs. Jabe approached with her pan of flour he stood staring and shaking,

but made no effort to avoid her, which touched the over-impetuous dame to a fresh pang of penitence. She did not know that the stupid youngster had quite failed to associate her in any way with his suffering. It was the pot—the big, black thing which had so inexplicably come bounding at him—that he blamed. From Mrs. Jabe’s hands he expected some kind of consolation.

In the gloom of the stall Mrs. Jabe could not see the extent of the calf’s injury. “Mebbe the water wasn’t quite bilin’!” she murmured hopefully, coaxing and dragging the youngster forth into the light. The hope, however, proved vain as brief. In a long streak down behind the shoulder the hair was already slipping off.

“Sarved ye right!” she grumbled remorsefully, as with gentle fingers she began sifting the flour up and down over the wound. The light stuff-seemed to soothe the anguish for the moment, and the sufferer stood quite still till the scald was thoroughly covered with a tenacious white cake. Then a fresh and fiercer pang seized the wound. With a bleat he tore himself away, and rushed off, tail in air, across the stump-pasture and into the woods.

“Mebbe he won’t come back, and then Jabe won’t never need to know!” soliloquized Mrs. Jabe, returning to clean up her kitchen.

The sufferer returned, however, early in the afternoon, and was in his customary attitude before the door when Jabe, a little later, came back also. The long white slash down his favorite’s side caught the woodsman’s eye at once. He looked at it critically, touched the flour with tentative finger-tips, then turned on his wife a look of poignant interrogation. But Mrs. Jabe was ready for him. Her nerve had recovered. The fact that her victim showed no fear of her had gradually reassured her. What Jabe didn’t know would never hurt him, she mused.

“Yes, yer pesky brat come stumblin’ into the kitchen when the bar was down, a-lookin’ for ye. An’ he upset the bilin’ water I was goin’ to

scrub with, an’ broke the pot. An’ I’ve got to have a new pot right off, Jabe Smith—mind that!”

“Scalded himself pretty bad !” remarked Jabe. “Poor little beggar!” “I done the best I know’d how fer him!” said his wife with an injured air. “Wasted most a quart o’ good flour on his worthless hide ! Wish’t he’d broke his neck ’stead of the only pot I got that’s big enough to bile the pig’s feed in !”

“Well, you dont jest about right, I reckon, Mandy, * replied Jabe, ashamed of his suspicions. “I’ll go in to the Cross Roads an’ git ye a new pot to-morrer, an’ some tar for the scald. The tar’ll be better’n flour, an’ keep the flies off.”

“I s’pose some men ain’t got nothin’ better to do than be doctorin’ up a fool moose calf!” assented Mrs. Jabe promptly, wth a snort of censorious resignation.

Whether because the flour and the tar had virtues, or because the clean flesh of the wild kindreds makes all haste to purge itself of ills, it was not long before the scald was perfectly healed. But the reminder of it remained ineffaceable—a long, white slash down across the brown hide of the young bull, from the tip of the left fore-shoulder.

Throughout the winter the young moose contentedly occupied the cowstable, with the two cows and the yoke of red oxen. He throve on the fare Jabe provided for him—good meadow hay with armfuls of “browse” cut from the birch, poplar and cherry thickets. Jabe trained him to haul a pung, finding him slower to learn than a horse, but making up for his dullness by his docility. He had to be driven with a snaffle, refusing absolutely to admit a bit between his teeth; and, with the best goodwill in the world, he could never be taught to allow for the pung or sled to which he was harnessed. If left alone for a moment he would walk over fences with it, or through the most tangled thickets, if thereby seemed the most direct way to reach Jabe; and once, when Jabe, vain-gloriously and at great speed drove him in to the Cross

Roads, he smashed the vehicle to kindling wood in the amiable determination to follow his master into the Cross Roads store. On this occasion also he made himself respected, but unpopular, by killing, with one lightning stroke of a great forehoof, a huge mongrel mastiff belonging to the store-keeper. The mastiff had sprung out at him wantonly, resenting his peculiar appearance. But the store-keeper had been so aggrieved that Jabe had felt constrained to mollify him with a five-dollar bill. He decided, therefore, that his favorite’s value was a luxury, rather than a utility; and the young bull was put no more to the practices of a horse. Jabe had driven a bull moose in harness, and all the settlement could swear to it. The glory was all his.

By early summer the young bull was a tremendous, long-legged, highshouldered beast, so big, so awkward, so friendly, and so sure of everybody’s good-will that everybody but Jabe was terribly afraid of him. He had no conception of the purposes of a fence; and he could not be taught that a garden was not meant for him to lie down in. As the summer advanced, and the young bull’s stature, with it, Jabe Smith began to realize that his favorite was an expensive and sometimes embarrassing luxury. Nevertheless, when September brought budding spikes of horns and a strange new restlessness to the stalwart youngster, and the first full moon of October lured him one night away from the farm on a quest which he could but blindly follow, Jabe was inconsolable.

“He ain’t no more’n a calf yet, big as he is!” fretted Jabe. • “He’ll be gittin’ himself shot, the fool. Or mebbe some old bull’ll be after givin’ him a lickin’ fer interferin’, and he’ll come home to us !”

To which his wife retorted with calm superiority: “You’re a bigger fool’n even I took ye fer, Jabe Smith.”

But the young bull did not come back that winter, nor the following summer, nor the next year, nor the next. Neither did any Indian or hunter or lumberman have anything

to report as to a bull moose of great stature, with a long white slash down his side. Either his quest had carried him far to other and alien ranges, or iome fatal mischance of the wild had overtaken his inexperience. The latter was Jabe’s belief, and he concluded that his ungainly favorite had too soon taken the long trail for the Red Men’s land of ghosts.

Though Jabe Smith was primarily a lumberman and backwoods farmer, he was also a hunter’s guide, so expert that his services in this direction were not to be obtained without very special inducement. At “calling” moose he was acknowledged to have no rival. When he laid his grimlyhumorous lips to the long tube of birch-bark, which is the “caller’s” instrument of illusion, there would come from it a strange sound, great and grotesque, harsh yet appealing, rude yet subtle, and mysterious as if the uncomprehended wilderness had itself found voice. Old hunters, wise in all woodcraft, had been deceived by the sound—and much more easily the impetuous bull, waiting, highantlered and eager, for the love-call of his mate to summon him down to the shores of the still and moon-tranced lake.

When a certain Famous Hunter, whose heart took pride in horns and heads and hides—the trophies won by his unerring rifle in all four corners of earth—found his way at last to the tumbled wilderness that lies about the headwaters of the Quah Davie, it was naturally one of the great New Brunswick moose that he was after. Nothing but the noblest antlers that New Brunswick forests bred could seem to him worthy of a place on those walls of his, whence the surly front of a musk-ox of the Barren Grounds glared stolid defiance to the snarl of an Orinoco jaguar, and the black, colossal head of a Kadiak bear was eyed derisively by the monstrous and malignant mask of a two-horned rhinoceros. With such a quest upon him, the Famous Hunter came, and naturally sought the guidance of Jabe Smith, whom he lured from the tamer distractions of a “timber cruise” by

double pay and the pledge of an extravagant bonus if the quest should be successful.

The lake, lying low between its wooded hills, was like a glimmering mirror in the misty October twilight when Jabe and the Famous Hunter crept stealthily down to it. In a dense covert beside the water’s edge they hid themselves. Beside them stretched the open ribbon of a narrow water-meadow, through which a slim brook, tinkling faintly over its pebbles, slipped out into the stillness. Just beyond the mouth of the brook a low, bare spit of sand jutted forth darkly upon the pale surface of the lake.

It was not until the moon appeared, a red ominous segment of a disk—over the black and rugged ridge of the hills across the lake, that Jabe began to call. Three times he set the hollow birchbark to his mouth, and sent the hoarse, appealing summons echoing over the water. And the man crouching invisible in the thick shadow beside him, felt a thrill in his nerves, a prickling in his cheeks, at that mysterious cry, which seemed to him to have something almost of menace in its lure. Even so, he thought, might Pan have summoned his followers, shaggy and dangerous, yet half divine, to some symbolic revel.

The call evoked no answer of any kind. Jabe waited till the moon, still red and distorted, had risen almost clear of the ridge. Then he called again, and yet again, and again waited. From straight across the strangelyshadowed water came a sudden sharp crashing of underbrush, as if someone had fallen to beating the bushes furiously with sticks.

“ That’s him ! ” whispered Jabe. “ An’ he’s a big one, sure ! ”

The words were not yet out of his mouth when there arose a most startling commotion in the thicket close behind them, and both men swung around like lightning, jerking up their rifles. At the same instant came an elusive whiff of pungency on the chill.

“Pooh! only a bear!” muttered Jabe, as the commotion retreated in haste.

“Why, he was close upojn usl” remarked the visitor. “I could have poked him with my gun ! Had he any special business with us, do you suppose ?”

“Took me for a cow moose, an’ was jest a-goin’ to swipe me!” answered Jabe, rather elated at the compliment which the bear had paid to his counterfeit.

The Famous Hunter drew a breath of profound satisfaction.

“I’ll be hanged,” he whispered, “if your amiable New Brunswick backwoods can’t git up a thrill quite worthy of the African jungle!”

“St!” admonished Jabe. “He’s a-comin’. An’ mad, too! Thinks that racket was another bull, gittin’ ahead of ’im. Don’t ye breathe now, no more !” And raising the long bark, he called through it again, this time more softly, more enticingly, but always with that indescribable wildness, shyness and roughness rasping strangely through the note. The hurried approach of the bull could be followed clearly around the head of the lake. It , stopped, and Jabe called again. In a minute or two there came a brief, explosive, grunting reply—this time from a point much nearer. The great bull had stopped his crashing progress and was slipping his vast, impetuous bulk through the underbrush as noiselessly as a weasel. The stillness was so perfect after that one echoing response that the Famous Hunter turned a look of interrogation upon Jabe’s shadowy face. The latter breathed almost inaudibly: “He’s a-comin’. He’s nigh here !” And the hunter clutched his rifle with that fine, final thrill of unparalleled anticipation.

The moon was now well up, clear of the treetops and the discoloring mists, hanging round and honey-yellow over the hump of the ridge. The magic of the night deepened swiftly. The sandspit and the little watermeadow stood forth unshadowed in the spectral glare. Far out in the shine of the lake a fish jumped, splashing sharply. Then a twig snapped in the dense growth beyond the water-meadow. Jabe

furtively lifted the bark, and mumbled in it caressingly. The next moment —so suddenly and silently that it seemed as if he had taken instant shape in the moonlight—appeared a gigantic moose, standing in the meadow, his head held high, his nostrils sniffing arrogant inquiry. The broadly-palmated antlers crowning his mighty head were of a spread and symmetry such as Jabe had never even imagined.

Almost imperceptibly the Hunter raised his rifle—a slender shadow moving in paler shadows. The great bull, gazing about expectantly for the mate who had called, stood superb and indomitable, ghost-gray in the moonlight, a mark no tyro could miss. A cherry branch intervened, obscuring the fore-sight of the Hunter's rifle. The Hunter shifted his position furtively. His crooked finger was just about to tighten on the trigger. At this moment, when the very night hung stiller as if with a sense of crisis, the giant bull turned, exposing his left flank to the full glare of the moonlight. Something gleamed silver down his side, as if it were a shining belt thrown across his shoulder.

With a sort of hiss from between his teeth Jabe shot out his long arm and knocked up the barrel of the rifle. In the same instant the Hunter's finger had closed on the trigger. The report rang out, shattering the night; the ball whined away high over the treetops, and the great bull, ^ springing at one bound far back into the thickets, vanished like an hallucination.

Jabe stood forth into the open, his gaunt face working with suppressed excitement. The Hunter followed, speechless for a moment between amazement, wrath and disappointment. At last he found voice, and quite forgot his wonted courtesy.

“D-—n you!” he stammered. “What do you mean by that ? What in -”

But Jabe, suddenly calm, turned and eyed him with a steadying gaze.

“Quit all that, now !” he retorted crisply. “I knowed jest what I was doin’ ! I knowed that bull when he were a leetle, awkward staggerer. I brung him up on a bottle; an’ I loved him. He skun out four years ago. I’d most ruther 'ave seen you shot than that ther’ bull, I tell ye!”

The Famous Hunter looked sour; but he was beginning to understand the situation and his anger died down. As he considered, Jabe, too, began to see the other side of the situation.

“I’m right sorry to disapp’int ye so!” he went on apologetically. “We’ll hev to call off this deal atween you an’ me, I reckon. An’ there ain’t goin' to be no more shooting over this range, if I kin help it—an’ I guess I kin !—till I kin git that ther' whiteslashed bull drove away back over on to the Upsal Gultch, where the hunters won’t fall foul of him ! But I’ll git ye another guide, jest as good as me, or better, what ain’t got no particular friends runnin’ loose in the woods to bother ’im. An' I'll send ye 'way down on to the Sevogle, where ther’s as big heads to be shot as ever have been. I can’t do more.”

“Yes, you can!” declared the Famous Hunter, who had quite recovered his self-possession.

“What is it?” asked Jabe doubtfully.

“You can pardon me for losing my temper and swearing at you !” answered the Famous Hunter, holding out his hand. “I’m glad I didn’t knock over your magnificent friend. It’s good for the breed that he got off. But you’ll have to find me something peculiarly special now, down on that Sevogle.”