Morsels of Chance
Char and man fight it out with the wilderness as and judge
IN SEPTEMBER, the small alders had made a leafy tunnel over the creek, out of whose mouth the foamspeckled water had coiled provocatively into the lake. But, now, the lake was frozen and, in contrast to the monotonous white of winter, the water had blackened to a heavy tongue which licked with futile persistence the tinkling edges of the ice. The bare alders were weighed down by snow, oppressed by it; like frost-rimed skeletons of summer’s forgotten rearguard, they sprawled where winter had slain them.
Off the creek mouth, below the dull ceiling of the ice, the big char lay close against a sunken log. Except for the slow sweeps of her broad tail and the movements of her white-lined fins, she would have seemed a part of the darkness. She was avid for prey, and, as she watched, her jaws opened and snapped in a grim gesture of impatience. Winter had imposed its partial truce between hunter and hunted of that underwater world, but, because of her overwhelming hunger, she had scorned it.
Out of the greater gloom of mid-lake, a slight shadow moved close against the ice. Behind it, swimming slowly, came a second, then a third. The old fish saw their slender shapes as they passed above her. Cunning as a cougar creeping to launch itself upon a fawn, she edged from her lair and rose like a drifting bar of shadow to come upon them from behind. There was a sinister certainty in her caution as she slowly shortened the distance between herself and the three young trout. From years of such stalking, she knew she was concealed by the black lake bottom, while, to her, the trout were silhouetted against the wintry sunlight which filtered through the snow and ice, and as she rose unseen by them her jaws spread and shut with the eagerness that tempted her to rashness. Her keen hooked teeth would crunch into one of those fat bodies and her weeks of famine would be over.
When she was two yards from them, her eagerness betrayed. That quick movement of her jaws had lifted her bony gill covers and spread the yellowwhite skin of her throat, so that a shaft of pale light had thrown back a warning glint. A quick flirt of his tail, a twisted rush, and the leading trout spread his signal of alarm.
His first movement told the char she had been seen and with sharp thrust of her tail she drove herself at them. Her mouth was spread, the membrane of her fins taut with her mad desire for food, her gaunt body undulated as she put all the strength famine had left her into the rush. But, as she came up, the three trout doubled, dodged and shot away with flippant ease and her head struck the ice and sent her slithering, belly up, along its smooth surface. When she righted herself the three young trout had disappeared.
She cruised close to the ice, sweeping her tail in sullen anger at her defeat.
Then, slowly, she went down and swung about, to parallel the log and watch for other food.
Never, from the year of her maturity until the previous fall, had she missed such easy prey. At other times, she had surged upward true as an arrow, maimed her quarry with the first powerful crunch, spat it out, caught it end on and gulped it down. For eight years, she had been the lurking menace at the mouth of Alder Creek. On summer evenings, she had come from the mellow shadow of her hiding place into the schools of small fish that cut and poised among the swirling eddies. For eight autumns, she had moved up the creek and spawned with others of her breed, then come down the creek to feed prodigiously and fatten before the relentless advance of winter.
For months, she had brooded beside her log, occasionally rushing out to seize some smaller fish, but lying inactive for day after day until the first promptings of
returning spring quickened her desire to feed. But, now, she was fourteen years old, her eyes were dimming, her body lean; once her movements had been lusty and unerring, now they were uncertain, sinuous like those of a snake. For many years, she had taken heavy toll from
generations of smaller fish, but in a few weeks or months there would cease to be a shadowy menace at the mouth of Alder Creek, the lurking place would be empty and smaller fish could pass it unharmed.
The darkness under the ice paled slightly as the sun and its attendant sun-dogs swung to its zenith above the southern rim. It shone weakly on the tangled alders and laid their shadows in a crazy pattern of loops and curves upon the snow. Its unreal light, coming through the high haze of the gathering Northland storm, was reddish-grev
and baleful, but, for the char, it outlined objects between the log and the tongue of open water, giving a limited perspective to what had been a drab, impenetrable wall.
This heightening of light and shadow increased her restlessness; she nosed away from the log, turned, passed above it and moved slowly along the sloping bottom toward the creek mouth. As she swam, she searched the littered silt for signs of bullheads, sticklebacks, dace, any of the clumsy swimmers that in seasons past had been her easy victims. Once, a yard to her left, a fat bullhead shifted warily to hide its tapering body and wide head close against a slab of sunken bark. She could have caught it readily but she passed on, unseeing.
Ahead, something lay in a small open space. Her tail twisted sideways, her lower fins spread as she slowed to watch it. While she drifted forward, she saw it was a sucker, its tapering snout pressed against the yielding bottom, its fan-like pectorals spread to steady it. Her tail swung quickly, her thin body drove forward as she came upon it from behind. Her teeth closed on the rounded back of her drowsing victim. It writhed, rolling her partly over as she clamped its soft body in her jaws.
Their sweeping tails stirred billowing clouds of mud, too dense for the feeble light to penetrate, so that they fought behind a screen where all was hidden except the occasional glimmer of their underparts. But, in a moment, the big sucker wrenched free, lurched out of the silt cloud and blundered away over the bottom.
Instantly the char appeared. She circled confusedly then seeing her escaping victim, she raced after him. The sucker doubled and her efforts to follow it were so awkward that before she righted herself it had scurried out of sight. She cruised back toward the silt cloud, then away from the creek mouth into the indistinctness of the lake. In a few minutes she returned defeated to her lair. Even the slow suckers could outswim her, for nature’s dispassionate law which formerly had favored had turned against her now.
OUT on the lake, a mile north of the mouth of Alder Creek, a black spot moved. At that distance it seemed a trifling thing, a mere speck on the unused canvas of white, framed between the heavy sky and the sides of the mountains flanking the lake. The spot was a man mushing southward.
He came slowdy on, the upturned toes of his snowshoes sinking and rising steadily, his muffled body swaying to his gait, his shoulders hunched to support the slight weight of his pack. The sun still peered weakly through the thickening sky but its light was aloof, as if those qualities in it which encourage growAh—encourage life itself'—had been sifted out by that leaden screen of storm haze. Even the hulk of his shadow following at his snowshoe heels, came on like an unwilling prisoner whose every motion was an ineffectual effort to jerk free and flee to the dimness of the evergreens along the shore where it could cower and hide its shapeless face before the threatening light.
The man was starving. He had dallied too long to prospect the northern creeks, held there by the fickle promise of a fortune which in the end had mocked him. The blight of famine was on the Northland for the young grouse had been unable to survive the cold rains of the previous hatching time, and it was the fatal seventh year when the dearth of rabbits comes. He had used the last of his provisions before he left the creeks, and for sixteen days, as he mushed southward, he had sighted no meat. At night, the wolves and coyotes launched their hunger cries at an austere sky, more articulate than he in their protest against the fate which stalked them all.
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When he was abreast of Alder Creek, the solitary musher stopped to look at the black tongue of water, then turned inshore, leaving the ice and weaving his trail into the pattern of the alder clumps until he reached the fringe of evergreens which, with their shapely burdens of snow, seemed coldly to welcome him. He dumped his pack where drooping boughs had formed a shelter. This was a good place for a fire.
Though he had stopped, he retained the sensation of travelling. His tired muscles, the worn mechanisms of his body, were slow to accustom themselves to the change. He knew he was standing and yet his nerves insisted that he was going forward step after step, step after step, as he had been doing almost incessantly for days since he left the sources of the creeks back yonder behind the farther range of mountains. His body seemed to be going away from him, as if the great dissolution against which he had been struggling had suddenly and quietly overtaken him. He even could feel the slight pressure of the air against his face, his chest and thighs; those icy fingers which as, he tramped, had been always trying to topple him backwards to the snow. His arm fumbled out and touched the trunk of the cedar beneath which he stood. The feel of the rough bark reassured him, focussed his senses. His gaze fell on his trail through the alders, jumped along it to the lake.
Yes, out there was where he had turned. What had he come here for? A fire? It must have been a fire. Twisting his feet from the lashings, he picked up one of his shoes and started to scoop away the snow.
When he had bared the frozen mat of cedar twigs and moss, he took his axe and stepped close to the tree trunk to cut one of the dry boughs close above his head. If the axe slipped it would end things. He would not let it slip, Like an inexpert chess player pondering the simplest moves, he gauged distances, shifted his moccasined feet, tried to anticipate his slightest movement and its effect. The simple task of cutting a limb had become a difficult problem demanding intense concentration.
When the limb was safely down, he raised the axe to chop it. Carefully noting the position of his feet, checking up all other details, he let the blows fall until the limb was split and cut in lengths.
From his canvas pack, he took a ball of shredded birch bark and some splinters of pitch pine. He squatted on the ground he had bared, took off his toque, dried his fingers on his tousled hair, then got out the sulphur matches. He broke one off, struck it on the block of others and watched while the colorless flame sputtered into yellow. In a moment, the bark and pitch pine were blazing strongly and he laid on the lengths of coarser wood.
The flames were reassuring. It gave him confidence to know he still retained the power to make a fire. It was wonderful, fortifying, to realize that neither those mountains nor the heavy sky, nor the wolves that wailed at night, nothing but himself in all those hundreds of desolate miles, was able to make a fire. He, alone, could drive back the insistent cold. As he looked at the miracle he had worked, the compressing circle of mountains, cold, wolves, hunger, widened and he stood separate and apart from them, commanded his identity in the heart of this solitude that kept on trying to dissolve him.
He brought a blackened tin pail from the pack, waded through the soft snow to the creek mouth, filled the pail and placed it on the fire. It was like coming home to wade through all that snow and see the living fire. For sixteen days—it was sixteen days, wasn’t it?-—he had had nothing but hot water and the flying squirrel he had shot four days ago.
His hand went into the pack again and brought out a roll of cotton cloth. That was the sack which once had held his flour. When it was empty he had boiled it to recover the flour dust which had caked upon the cloth. Cautiously, he started to open the roll.
Inside, were the two remaining shreds of the squirrel. One dropped into the bank of snow and on the instant panic spurted through him. He compelled his fingers to go carefully as he felt for it. He recovered it immediately and pressed the scrap of frozen flesh tight in his palm. It must not drop like that again.
What had he planned to do with those two scraps? He had come here to do something with them. Not to eat them; he must not let himself do that. For the moment, he could not remember. Fumbblingly, he tried to back-track his trail of thought.
Eight days travel to the settlements— the storm would slow him up — two scraps of meat—his weakness— no food. I he whole world, everything he saw or touched or thought, was so out of proportion. Like greasy bubbles some swelled, son e shrank, some snapped and were lost—ping like that. His senses were always tricking him. When he was mushing down the lake, the sun-dogs seemed nearer than the shore; one of his arms was numb and bloated, so big it kept teetering him to one side, trying to help the cold fingers of the air to send him sprawling.
He had seen this open water and the cowering alders and he had come here to do something definite. In summer, this would be a nice green place with rippling water and trout would rise in the rippling water. Trout? Ah, that was it. He had been looking for a likely place to fish through the ice, then, when he found it, another of those bubbles had snapped and he had forgotten why he came.
But now he remembered. For days, he had been tricked like this. As soon as he had thought a thing out, and stopped concentrating on it, it snapped out of reach and he had to torture himself with thought again.
From the pocket of his mackinaw jumper, he brought out a small tin tobacco box. In the box were his one fishhook, a hank of twine and some sinkers. He had the two scraps for bait. A fisha tenpounder, say—would take him to the settlements. A pound of meat every day until he got home.
Get up and go and try for a fish, that was what he had to do now. How much less trouble just to mush on and on, letting his brain stay dull, not having to prod it to the effort of thought. But he must be alert now; no false moves here, everything depended on being sharp and watchful. He put the box and the meat in his pocket, slipped his feet into the snowshoes, picked up the axe. Too bad to leave so good a fire. He wanted to sit beside it and not have to think about fish or anything else.
“Dam’ fool —crazy dam’ fool,” he muttered. “Your last chance, dam’ crazy old fool.” Unsteadily, he went out through the crooked alders, making for the ice beyond the outside edge of open water.
"PHE old char lay close against her log ■*The sucker she had tried to kill had not come back, the three young trout roved elsewhere, and the bullhead she had failed to see had wedged itself under the slab of bark. In the dim waters at the mouth of Alder Creek, no living thing, except the famished char, lay between the bottom and the ice.
From the direction of the shore, faint crunching sounds came down. The char sank closer against the slime-covered log while the sounds advanced slowly. A few bubbles broke from their prison of silt and wavered upward like a string of unshapely pearls. The dull vibrations slowed uncertainly and stopped.
An axe bit into the ice with a muffled clink, testing it, and then the steps drew nearer, crunching and lifting until they
were directly above the hiding place at the log. The big fish went lower, confident in the security of shadow.
The footfalls went no farther. After weeks of opposition, chance was favoring the man, bringing him to the hungry fish. There were sounds of scraping as a snowshoe made a bare spot; the sharp blows of the axe on the sounding board of ice vibrated the unlighted water. Three times, the chopping ceased, while the chips of ice were pawed from the jagged hole. Then a pale cone of light widened quickly, reached down and dispelled the shadow.
The char moved quickly to the farther side of the log. There was a brief silénce, broken only by the shuffling of feet. The baited line came down until the sinker rested on the bottom, then was drawn up a little and the scrap of meat hung twirling slowly.
But the fish in the gloom on the farther side of the log was too low to see the bait. The sinker swayed gently and seeing it she rose boldly and crossed the log to stop with her nose six inches from it. The line started to jig invitingly and though the lead seemed lifeless she snapped it only to expel it on the instant it was jerked upward. She retreated hurriedly.
But the desire outweighed her wariness, and she came toward it again. In this barren place, any moving thing had a strong allure. As she came up she saw the meat turning slowly as it drew tight the line below the sinker.
All her caution vanished. She cut sharply toward it and her nostrils told her it was flesh. Remembering the sudden movement of the line, she swam away, starting a wide circle but quickly cutting inward toward the bait again. She came menacingly as if to startle it but it did not move. She swung about and took it savagely.
A vicious jerk turned her half over but it did not tear the meat from between her clamped jaws. She staggered, righted herself and started downward, challenging the power overhead, and as she made off, the hook tore out of the meat and flipped harmlessly past her cheek. When she felt the resistance stop she spat the prize out, caught it and swallowed.
The line was pulled above the ice and the man huddled beside the hole bent over to grasp the empty hook. A supreme and surging hope had come to him, stimulating him, banishing the listlessness against which he had always to fight. For a brief moment anticipation had fed and strengthened him, cleared the haze from his mind, showed him deliverance complete and inevitable. But with the sag on the line it all had ebbed and left him weaker for that one glimpse of hope. This was just another stone on that pyramid of misfortunes that had reared itself to crush him out.
As he stared at the bare hook, he tried to readjust his thoughts. He had failed this time, but he still had his hook and one piece of priceless bait and he was certain there was a hungry fish down there. He had one more card to play; but only one, and if he lost—
The wind was rising and a vagrant gust snatched snow dust from the pile he had made, twisted it into a ghostly spiral then let it collapse on the bare ice. If he lost, he would go down like that and be absorbed into the desolation which was claiming everything.
He took the other piece of bait from his pocket to fix it to the hook. There must be no fumbling now, he told himself, and turned from the hole in case it should drop there.
He no longer had to make himself anticipate and puzzle over possibilities. All the scattered morsels of chance were lumped. If he caught this fish with this one piece of bait he might live, if not—
The stark simplicity of impending events unnerved him. He talked to the chilled fingers fumbling with his bait and hook warned and cajoled them to perform their vital task. When it had been done,
he turned and lowered the line through the hole.
The taste of food had made the old char bold. She was cruising impatiently near the bottom and when she saw the bait sinking she rose and took it, turned and angled swiftly downward. The line was slack and she was over the log before it came taut. A jerk tore hook and bait from her mouth and as they slid over the side of the sunken log the hook fastened itself into the tenacious wood. A pause—a stronger tug—the line parted.
ABOVE were broken sounds of movement, then the crunch of snowshoes moved off, became fainter, were lost in silence. The old char came warily back to strip the harmless hook. In years gone by she had brought disaster to many living things that came to Alder Creek. But soon there would be no more danger at the creek mouth, for the two scraps of meat could not sustain her long.
Down the lake a black spot moved, trudging unsteadily toward the blizzard which would swoop when darkness came.