Lone Clearing

CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS July 15 1927

Lone Clearing

CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS July 15 1927

Lone Clearing

Herewith the originator of the animal story returns to his first love

CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS

SPRING came late that year to the upper Ottanoonsis but it came then with a rush of penitential ardor, and the valley throbbed into life. All about the rock-strewn acres of Lone Clearing the sparse and weedy grass was dotted with blue violets. Along the skirts of the fields, where the zig-zag remnants of snake-fence sagged into final decay amid a tangle of elder bush and last year’s mullein stalks, the greening hillocks were silvered with a lace-work of pale wind-flowers and fragile ‘Painted Ladies’, with here and there the ethereal whitestar of the trilliums, pencilled thinly in carmine, seeming to float above them.

Behind the old fence lines, a long array of white-birch saplings, filmed over, now, with a green so thinly intense that it thrilled like a fine-drawn violin note, screened off the clearing from the sombre, black-green deeps of the spruce forest beyond. Leaves unfolded almost visibly. Sap pulsed upward in stem, branch, twig, bush and blade. The earliest palpitant blooms held up their hearts for the pollen borne to them by breeze and bee. The unclouded sunlight flooded down, drenched down, stirring every root and seed to wake. It was life, life and the joyous urge of life, everywhere, wide flung.

Yet for all this life and light and lavish beauty Lone Clearing still justified its name. It looked utter desolation. Bleakly set in the very centre of its lean, boulderdotted acres, naked of shade or shelter, stood a gray logcabin, roof fallen in, broken door hanging from its hinges, shattered windows staring darkly like eye-sockets of a skull. A few yards to the right of the vacant door the ruins of an ancient, slab-built cow-shed had collapsed amid a jungle of dead weed-stalks. Some fifty paces to the front, a clear spring, ice-cool, bubbled up through silver sand into a tiny, moss-rimmed pool, and ran tinkling off down the slight slope, its channel traced by two lines of earlier intenser green.

Between two gray boulders close beside the spring stood a long-faced, dingy-fleeced white ewe licking and caressing a new-born lamb. From time to time she lifted her head and stared about her with anxious, frightened eyes; from time to time she gave utterance toan appealing bleat—but timorously, and in an undertone, as if afraid to call for help, lest not help but some unknown menace should reply.

The ewe was a stranger to Lone Clearing, a stranger to solitude and the perils of the wild. One of a little flock of five imported the previous autumn from the Government Farm in the south of the Province, she had spent the winter in the safe shelter of a sheep-pen in the settlement at Quan-davic Forks, in the fertile lower valley eight or ten miles away. In the spring the little flock, all strange to the backwoods, had been turned out into a southward-facing upland pasture to browse on the sweet young grass as it sprouted up among the hillocks and charred stumps. There, in the dusk of early nightfall, a lean black bear, hungry from her winter’s sleep, had broken through the rude snake-fence and fallen upon the huddled flock, slaughtering two of them and scattering the other three in panic flight. Of these three the longfaced ewe, separated from the others, had plunged madly through the gap in the fence and dashed off through the forest. Blinded by her terror, and with absolutely no sense of direction in her sophisticated instincts, she had raced on tremblingly through the horrifying dark, stumbling over windfalls, dragging through mud holes, tearing her way through dense thickets which plucked hideously at her thick fleece, till with dawn she had come out among the young white-birches which surrounded Lone Clearing. When her wild eyes fell on the cabin at its centre her heart had leapt with relief. It stood for man, for all she knew of peace and security and comfort. She had rushed forward bleating with joy. She had thrust her eager head in through the doorway. But the emptiness, the desolation, startled her, though she knew not why. She drew back, and gazed about her. Then once more she essayed to enter. But this time her sensitive nostrils caught a strange, threatening scent; for a wilderness habitation, long for-

saken by man, becomes a center of attraction to the wild kindreds. The bears had been there. She caught again that dreadful scent which had appalled her the night before. With a shudder she turned away from the empty cabin—though she could see it was quite empty—and wandered over to the spring-pool, where she drank feverishly. And there, between the two whitey-gray boulders, her lamb had presently been born.

It was her first lamb, and the young mother, already racked by her terrible experiences of the night, was now distracted by fresh terrors for this helpless and precious little being now dependent upon her for its life. She stared toward the dark masses of the forest beyond the fringe of birches. But from those mysterious depths what could she expect but peril? She turned her piteous gaze again upon the deserted cabin, and shivered at the memory of the menacing scent which haunted it. Then suddenly, an unwonted courage came to her, a mystic valor thrilled through her veins, and with a savage stamping of her delicate fore-hooves she wheeled to face the vague threat of that open doorway. Had any ravening monster emerged from it to attack her little one, she would have m t the attack with desperate mother fury.

AS THE morning passed toward noon, the lamb ^ gained strength to stagger to its feet and fall to nursing, and for a little while the young mother’s fears were forgotten in her ecstasy of tenderness. Then her anxieties were revived by the sudden appearance of a big snowshoe-rabbit, which came hopping around one of the boulders and sat up on its hind quarters in astonishment at sight of these strange visitors to Lone Clearing. The rabbit, to be sure, did not look very formidable, but the young mother was taking no risks with the unknown. She stepped daintily over the lamb and charged, with a snort of indignation, upon the long-eared intruder, which fled away across the field in prodigious leaps, probably thinking the big, white, fuzzy animal was a new kind of bear.

Presently, a large black-and-vellow butterfly settled on the top of the boulder, waving its painted vans luxuriously in the sun. The ewe eyed it suspiciously for some moments, then decided that it was harmless, and forgot about it. Then, with a sudden hiss of wings, a sparrow-hawk darted down upon the butterfly and bore it off. There was something menacing, deadly, in that low sound, in the swift doom of the harmless insect; and the ewe gave a startled snort. But the fierce little hawk was gone before she could give further evidence of her disapproval.

Sometime later, when the lamb was sleeping against

its mother's feet, a big red fox came sauntering noiseless^ down to the edge of the pool, thinking of frogs. A stray air brought the scent of sheep to his nostrils, a strange scent here at Lone Clearing, and he whirled about in surprise. At sight of the lamb his eyes narrowed, his long white teeth bared themselves, and he instinctively crouched for a rush and a pounce. But the attitude of the ewe gave him pause. Her head was lowered. She was stamping defiantly with her sharp little hooves. There was a savage gleam in her big yellow eyes.

He halted, sat up on his haunches, cocked his head on one side, and reflected. Being an experienced and sagacious beast, he reconsidered his first impulse. Mothers, he knew, were sometimes dangerous. This one looked particularly so. Moreover he was not very hungry; and rabbits, which had no dangerous mothers to be considered, were plentiful, and as toothsome, on the whole, as lambs. The ewe snorted valiantly. The affair, he thought, was not worth investigating, at least for the moment. But he registered in his foreseeing mind the fact that there was a young lamb at Lone Clearing, and that the mother, in a day or two, might grow less vigilant. He flicked his fine red brush about and moved away at a leisurely trot across the field to disappear in the undergrowth among the birches.

The ewe watched his departure with growing assurance; for he had certainly looked formidable. She began to feel drowsy as the sun beat down into her nook between the boulders, but, of course, she could not allow herself the luxury of a sleep. There was no knowing what new peril might confront her at any moment, in this land of unknown terror? ; and besides, she had to keep standing up, in order -hat her body might give her little one shade from the noonday heat.

As the whimsical fates of the wilderness would have it, that same day the long desolation of Lone Clearing was broken by yet another visitor. A certain big shaggy-haired dog, of about the pale tan colour of withered grass, and answering to the name of Peter, had recently been transplanted from his old home on a farm below Quan-davic Mouth to a new, raw7 lumbering village many miles to the north.

His own wishes had not been consulted in the matter. His master, in failing health, had been forced to give up the farm and move out to the Pacific coast. And he had sold Peter, who was a valuable animal of the ‘Old English Sheep Dogbreed, to the boss of the mills at the new settlement. Big, amiable, odd-looking, with a keen intelligence shining from his dark eyes behind the mop of whitey-brown hair which over-shadowed

them, Peter had been warmly welcomed in his new home, and, like the kindly gentleman that he was, had accepted the attentions of his new friends with affable acquiescence. But, being somewhat set in his ways, he had not accepted the new situation. He was, by long generations of breeding, a farm dog, and he did not like the loud turmoil and confusion of the mills. He took a week to consider, and to get his bearings, and

then, guided by a sure instinct, he slipped away one night through the forest, over the hills, and headed due South for his old home, his old associations.

He gained the little lake wdiich formed the source of the Ottanoonsis, and followed down the stream, through the wilderness of the high plateau. Versed in woods lore he had no difficulty in supplying his appetite, for the rabbits were abundant that spring. Striking an old wood-road he had come to a squatter’s cabin, where he had halted to pay a friendly visit. He had been well fed, and both the squatter and his wife had fallen in love with, his friendliness and sought to keep him with them by chaining him up with a piece of clothes’ line. This well meant breach of hospitality he had politely permitted, indeed; but that same night he had gnawed through the ropes and continued his journey unruffled.

And so, a day and a half later, Peter came to Lone

Clearing.

With eager interest he trotted up to the open door, listened and glanced about for any sign of human life, then marched boldly in. His nose wrinkled resentfully at the strong smell of bear. He did not like bears. It was plain to him that man had not been there for a long time. The place was distasteful to him; but he explored it thoroughly, nosing in every corner, and unearthing from a pile of rubbish a nest of pink young fieldmice, which he devoured. Then he went out again into the friendly sun light, examined critically the ruins of the shed, trotted over toward the spring for a drink, and discovered the young ewe between the two gray boulders.

The watchful mother had already marked his coming. At first she had been filled with alarm and rage, for this was a huge and powerful beast and looked very dangerous. Then a whiff of his scent had come to her nostrils—the familiar dog scent—associated in her brain with friendly beasts, and with her natural protector, man. To be sure she had never seen a dog in the least resembling this huge and shaggy creature, but among the fourfooted kindreds the sense of smell has, perhaps, a deeper

influence than any of the other senses; and her alarm subsided, though not her suspicious hostility.

When Peter caught sight of her, and started towards her, wagging his tail in delighted surprise, her stamping and snorting warned him most unmistakably to keep his distance. For a moment he was puzzled. Then he saw the new-born lamb, and understood. He had often before observed that mothers, especially when their little ones were extremely new, were queer tempered and amazingly unsociable. He backed away a few steps and lay down, his tail wagging hard, his tongue hanging out, his whole expression radiating benevolence. The ewe ceased her hostile demonstrations, but kept a warning eye upon him none the less. She was ready to tolerate his presence so long as he did not come too near.

AND now Peter found himself with a troublesome problem on his paws. What was this helpless foolish sheep, so obviously a farm dweller, doing here in this place of desolation, this haunt of bears? And with her young lamb, too! It was clear to him that she was lost, and in grave danger. All his sheepguarding ancestors conspired in his brain to tell him that he could not leave her to her fate. And he wanted to get home to his old master. Well, that would have to wait. He’d stay here, and protect the silly things, till the lamb was strong enough to travel, and then, whether the ewe liked it or not, he’d continue his journey driving them before him till he should reach some farm or settlement where he could leave them. Having come to this decision he got up and wandered off a little way to sniff about under the edges of the stones for mousenests. The ewe glanced after him with anxiety. She was determined he should keep his distance; but, decidedly, she did not want him to go away! Lone Clearing had somehow seemed to her less haunted with terrors since the coming of that curious-looking animal that smelled like a dog.

Presently, Peter, having satisfied his appetite more or less, returned to the neighbourhood of the spring, curled himself up on a patch of warm moss in full sight of the ewe, and went to sleep. On a sudden he was awakened by a shrill baa-a-a which was unmistakeably an appeal for help. Bouncing to his feet, he saw the ewe with her back to him, facing the cabin, her head down, her forefeet stamping furiously. The lamb, which she had thrust unceremoniously behind her, was bleating a feeble protest as it steadied itself on sprawling legs. And down from the cabin door came lumbering, with a deadly deliberation which proclaimed him sure of his prey, a gaunt and rusty-looking back bear.

Almost in a bound, Peter gained the side of the valiant ewe. He planted himself two or three paces in front of her, poised stiffly on his toes, the hair lifting along his neck and back till he looked half as big again as his real stature. He growled, not loudly, not demonstratively, but with a significance which was not lost upon the bear. Peter knew well enough that he was not a match for this terrible adversary whom he was so fearlessly defying; but he was singleminded, and knew his duty. He was quite prepared to give his life in defence of this foolish ewe whom fate had put under his charge. At the same time he was a practised and wary fighter, and knew himself more agile on his feet than the bear. And he counted on giving that hated beast such a hectic time as might discourage his appetite.

At sight of this great dog confidently barring his path the bear halted. He was not afraid of any single dog, however big, but in his experience wherever there was a dog there was apt to be a man not far off. And for man he had a very wholesome respect. His cunning little eyes searched the whole clearing anxiously.

Nowhere could he detect any sight, sound or smell suggesting man. With a disdainful woof he came on again briskly, thinking to dash the presumptuous Peter from his path with one sweep of his resistless paw. .

Lunging forward at last with sudden amazing speed, he struck. But Peter was not there. He had sprung aside, mockingly, and stood poised again, several paces away, efficient, menacing, undismayed. With a grunt of rage the bear wheeled on his haunches, gathered himself, and hurled himself after this despised but exasperating opponent.

And at this very moment something utterly disconcerting happened to him. The ewe, beside herself with excitement, for an instant reverted through the ages to her battling, prehistoric ancestry. She charged like a fighting ram. Her massive, bony front, with all her solid weight and youthful vigor behind it, struck the bear squarely between the haunches with the force of a catapult, just as his own spring lifted him from the ground. Just at that sensitive spot it was an agonizing blow. It further propelled him on his way, of course, but it threw him off his balance, so that he came down hard with his nose on the turf, right at Peter’s feet. And at the same instant Peter’s long, punishing fangs slashed deep across his face and muzzle, blinding one eye.

Had Peter been of the bulldog strain he would have set his teeth and held on, the bear would have had time to recover his wits, and the fight could have had but one

ending. But, fortunately, the bull dog’s tradition was not Peter’s. His tactics were those of the collie and the wolf, to slash and get away and come again. He leapt back, and so far forgot himself in his delight at the bear’s momentary discomfiture as to utter a loud bark of exultation. This was a nice fight, after all.

But the bear was thoroughly rattled. The unexpected had happened so quickly that his native tenacity had not found time to assert itself. That inexplicable assault upon his rear, and the excruciating pain of it, diverted his attention from Peter. He whipped around to discover his new assailant. But he could see none. The ewe, having delivered her stroke, had raced back in a hurry to her bleating lamb. Here was a mystery; and the bear, like all the wild creatures, dreaded a mystery. It must have been man that had struck him. Only man could strike invisibly. Man might be anywhere, and unseen. Moreover that one joyous bark of the dog’s, so assured in its confidence, suggested the approach of man. His heart turned to water; and he fled away like a frightened rabbit to seek the dark coverts of the forest. Peter, surprised but delighted at this easy triumph, ran capering after him, barking wildly but taking good care not to catch him and bring him to bay. All he wanted was to see him safely off the premises. At the edge of the clearing he stopped, kicked up the dirt vigorously with his hind paws to show his scorn, and trotted back demurely to the ewe—for whom he had conceived a certain respect. The ewe received him with a snort and a stamp, warning him to keep his distance. And the bear, growing more and more panicky as he fled, scurried on to hide himself in the black tamarack swamp beyond the ridge.

^\N the following day the lamb had grown so strong ^ on its legs that the mother led it out with her while she pastured about the clearing; though she kept always near the spring and her two sheltering boulders, and carefully avoided the forbidding cabin. Then, on the morning of the next day, Peter decided that the lamb was strong enough to travel. He was thoroughly bored with the young .mother’s unresponsive company, and he wanted to be getting on.

He now adopted a totally different attitude toward the touchy ewe. He trotted up to her with a businesslike air barking authoritatively. The ewe was puzzled and annoyed. She stamped and snorted, but Peter did not seem to notice. She made a couple of doubtful rushes at him, from which he merely stepped aside as if if he did not notice them, and he continued that authoritative barking until she felt that she simply must obey it. It seemed to insist that she could go away, and that she should go in a certain direction; and at last she went, puzzled and rather indignant, with the lamb close at her side.

Down a little, grassy lane, scored by almost obliterated cart tracks, she moved slowly, while Peter walked behind her, not too close. When she paused irresolutely, Peter gave a short, sharp decisive bark, and she moved on again. Obedience to man, and to the dog as man’s representative in the shepherding of the flocks, was in her blood. She began to feel a certain satisfaction, a certain shifting of responsibility, in obeying. And presently she emerged from the bush land into a rough, deep-rutted, stony road, running along beside the river. Here she paused again, not knowing whether “to turn to the right or to the left. But Peter knew. He slipped past her on the left, and headed her along to the right, down stream.

Peter was in a hurry, but he showed no impatience. His breed understood sheep, and young lambs. When the ewe showed a disposition to linger and crop the short sweet grasses that grew between the ruts, or when the lamb seemed tired or wanted to nurse, he stopped and waited, lying down and gently wagging his tail. About noon, coming to a spot where a dense old hemlock cast a pleasant shade, the ewe lay down, with the lamb against her flank, and fell into a dose. And Peter lay down too in that cool shade, with his long red tongue hanging out. But he did not sleep. He knew that all sorts of perils might lurk in the dense thickets which lined the unused road.

Suddenly he saw the ewe, whom he had imagined fast asleep, bounce to her feet as if stung, stand over her lamb, and stare up anxiously at the dark branches over her head. Her keen ears had caught a sound of claws rasping on rough bark. In a flash Peter was at her side, staring up also. He found himself looking straight into the pale, malevolent glare of a big gray lynx, which was crouched flat along a branch just above the sleeping lamb. The great cat's tufted ears were laid back along its skull. Its stub of a tail was twitching and jerking expectantly. It had been on the very point of dropping upon the lamb, when Peter's arrival spoiled its plans. It spat viciously, and dug its claws into the bark as if about to spring. But it had no stomach to try conclusions with a dog like Peter, and its attitude of challenge was mere bluff. It had learned that a dog could not climb trees.

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Lone Clearing

Continued from page 18

As for Peter, he on his part knew something of lynxes. A lynx at bay he would have treated with the respect due its savagery, its swiftness of action, and its eviscerating claws. But this lynx in the tree, with its way of retreat open, was nothing to him but a great over-grown cat, and to be treated accordingly. He broke into a torrent of uproarious barking, and danced about as if he would spring into the tree. His loud demonstrations seemed to daunt the lynx, and after enduring it for a few moments it turned with a harsh snarl, bounded back into the tree, and raced away, leaping from branch to branch. Peter stopped barking and listened till the sounds of its flight faded out. Then he urged the ew-e—-now grown quite submissive—once more forwTard upon their journey.

Along toward the end of the afternoon the travellers came to a little farm— a neat cabin with barn and shed, the farmyard opening directly upon the roadside. In the centre of the farmyard stood a boxed-in well with a wateringtrough beside it. A big man with a pipe in his mouth, and carrying two tin buckets, was just approaching the well. Peter surveyed the scene and decided that his responsibilities here came to an end. He steered his charges into the yard, drove them straight toward the man, and stopped, wagging his tail expectantly. But the ewe, who was thirsty, kept on to the watering trough.

The big man took the pipe from his mouth, sat down the tin bucket and considered his visitors.

“I guess,” he drawded, “you’re Dave Arnold’s dawg, what he sold to Steve Perkins over to Long Lake Mills. An’ you've hiked it all the ways back here lookin’ fer yer master. An’ you’ve picked up thi3 yere lost ‘yo’ an’ her lamb on the way, an’ brung ’em along. I’ve always heerd tell you was a wonder with the sheep. An’ now I take it ye’re handin’ ’em over to me to take keer of, eh?”

Peter jumped about and gave a joyous yelp. It seemed to him that this big man with the clear and kindly gray eyes understoo d him exactly.

“Mandy!” shouted the man, turning his head. And a comely young woman, with her sleeves rolled up, came to the kitchen door.

“Here’s poor old Dave Arnold’s dawg, what he sold to Steve Perkins way over to Long Lake Mills, come back here lookin’ ferhis master. An’ he’s brung us a strayed ‘yo’ an’ her lamb. Reckon that’s good luck, eh, lass? I’ll go put the ‘yo’ in the pen, so’s she won’t stray agin. You take the dawg in an’ give him a good supper. He’s a great dawg. I’ve heerd tell he answers to the name of Peter.” He patted Peter on the head and gently pulled his ears. “Peter, you go in along of Mandy an’ get some supper.” And Peter went happily, feeling that he had come among folk of his own kind.

That same night, however, he continued his journey, seeking his master. But when he reached his old home farm he found it in the hands of strangers, and everything changed. New horses, new cows, even new ducks and chickens in the yard. New things in the kitchen. Nothing the same but the old, badtempered, yellow cat, which he had never liked. The new owner of the farm made a great fuss over him, to be sure; but he was puzzled and desolate, and could not help regarding them as interlopers. He left them after a couple of days, and went to every house in the settlement, looking for Dave Arnold. At last the universal thought of all he came in contact with in some way conveyed to his consciousness the idea that Dave Arnold had gone very far away and that he would never see his old master again. Thereupon his lonely heart turned longingly toward the memory of the big man with the gray eyes who had understood him so promptly, and the comely young woman with rolled-up sleeves who had so intelligently fed him with just what he liked best to eat. And on the following evening he was back with them again. Again, as it happened curiously enough, the big man, with the pipe in his mouth, was just coming down to the well, with the two tin buckets.

“Hi Mandy!” he shouted, “what did I tell ya? Here’s Peter back again!”

The comely young woman came out from her kitchen laughing, and hugged

“I reckon he’ll stay with us now,” said she. “I feel it in my bones.”

And as that was just the way Peter himself felt about it; he stayed.