Pekan, the Black Killer
Even the most bloodthirsty rascal of the forest welcomes the Great Truce
ALEC HOLMES was out on his raft when he noticed a disturbance among the fish hawks. Those fish hawks were among Alec’s best friends, for every Spring they nested on the stump of the blasted pine, the huge unwieldy bundle of sticks serving as a landmark from every point of the lake. He loved them for their cheery good nature, and at sunrise they would fly past his cabin as he emerged, with their cry of greeting. It seemed almost that they recognized in him a fellow of their craft, for Alec lived chiefly by his fishing. Not that he sold the fish he caught, 0 no! There was no one within twenty miles to buy them. He ate them, and for the past five years he had practicallysubsisted on a fish diet, washing just enough gold from the creek to supply his other simple needs.
Anyway, there was something wrong with those fish hawks this morning, for shading his eyes from the glittering waters, Alec could make out that they were flying up and down, up and down, immediately over their eerie. The pine stump was about half a mile off, though in the clear northern atmosphere it looked hardly fifty yards. So Alec began to pole his way towards it, and lucky for the fish hawks he did not delay. From one hundred yards he could see the downy young bobbing about in an agitated manner, calling to their parents wheeling above.
At first Alec could see nothing to account for it all. Then he made out a dark object on a crooked limb immediately under the nest, and evidently the beast whatever it was, was tearing away at the floor of the structure, for sticks and dust were showering down. Too wise, evidently, boldly to mount the platform, it was striving to purloin the contents of the nest through the floor!
Alec shouted and smote the water with his pole, whereupon the animal desisted and lowered its head to look at him. He had thought at first that it was an otter, but now he saw that it was morç of the marten family —seemingly a large, dark marten, with something strangely cat-like about it. Alec did not know what it was, but from the fierce intensity of its gaze and from its general build, he knew it must be one killer of the Wild.
At his timely arrival the ospreys had reduced their hubbub a little, as though they knew that he had come to lend a friendly hand. Alec wanted a close look at the strange beast, so he poled slowly up. The marauder remained absolutely still till the raft actually bumped the sandy bar eight feet from the tree. Thereupon it pricked
its ears, there was a suggestion of a dagger array of pearly fangs, and without haste the animal began to descend—head downwards. Alec had his pole ready, for he could not tell whether the creature meant coming closer or going away, and as it lightly tapped the ground, he aimed a terrific blow at it.
By all the ordinary laws of force that blow should have pulverized the marten’s spine, but by the time it fell, that gentleman was fully five feet away. A single silken bound had carried it far out of the danger zone, and Alec heard a hissing snarl which for spite and venom surpassed anything he had ever heard. The big marten took one leap toward him, then vanished into the tumbled disorder of logs which strewed the shore at either side of the point.
Alec looked up at the ospreys and grunted. “Half
marten, half wolverine, with quite a dash of cat,” said he aloud. “He ain’t a marten—too big. He ain’t a wolverine, wrong color. Hanged if I know what he is, but, anyway, I don’t like him.”
That, however, was not destined to be the last Alec
was to see of the unknown beast. He pushed off and went back to his cabin for his gun and a number four trap. Then, returning to the pine, he set the trap at the root by way of protection for the ospreys. This done, he returned to his fishing, but fully a mile away he muttered another grunt and muttered—“No, I don’t like yon feller.”
Alec was a keen naturalist at heart, and he spent most of that day wondering what the strange beast could be. He had never seen the like of it before, and men who live alone do not like the unknown. He was not afraid of it— goodness, no, but somehow as he lay in his bunk that
night he kept on hearing, over and over again, that snarl of such peculiarly vicious venom. When next Joe Long came by, Alec would ask him. Joe would know anyway, and Joe must be about due back from his fishing grounds.
Alec possessed an antiquated telescope with which he was able to see wonders. During the following days he took it on his raft—also the shot gun. A day or two later a wild screaming from the ospreys again caused him to look long and carefully in their direction. They were circling at some height over their nest, and since it might be the black marten Alec began to pole quietly in that direction, hoping he would see the animal fall fcul of his trap. In a few minutes he saw something emerge from the barricade of logs, and go sliding along into the next barricade. “Only a fox,” muttered Alec, almost in tones of disgust, but as he restored his telescope it suddenly occurred to him that the fox had acted in a rather strange manner. Probably it was hunting something, but—!
Just at that moment Alec saw a second creature emerge from the precise cranny at which the fox had appeared, and go sliding over to the place the fox had made for. It was gone in a moment, but that moment was long enough for Alec to determine that it was long and dark, and extraordinarily agile. No, that fox was not hunting—he was hunted, and of all creatures in the woods Reynard is singularly well able to guard his own interests. It is no mean hunter which tackles Rufus.
His interest now properly roused, Alec hastened over to the pile of logs, and as he drew near he heard sounds issuing from within— sounds of hissing snarls, and the bump-bumpbump of struggling bodies in among the tree trunks. Once a log rolled, and he saw a movement of fur in the gloom under it; then, silent in his cowhide moccasins, he landed, gun in hand, peering this way and that for a glimpse of the combatants. The snarling had now ceased, but the bumping went on. So Alec, very much on his guard, stole still nearer. Suddenly there was absolute silence—then immediately under his feet he heard again that vicious, hissing snarl.
Alec did not await further developments, but pressed both triggers. Later he wondered how he missed his own feet. He thought he heard something slide away, but he had stepped clear of the log heap, and it was a minute or two before he returned. Pulling away two or three logs he came immediately on the body of the fox, which evidently had not put up any fight at all. Not that Alec had shot it—he had shot nothing! But that fox was bitten vitally in about half a dozen different places.
Anyway, the big marten was gone, and Alec also went, though not before he had reiterated his previous sentiment—“I don’t like yon feller!”
rT'HEREAFTER things went peacefully for quite a long time, but one thing Alec noticed was that the old porcupine, which since winter had been his close neighbor, was gone. The loss was not a very grievous one, but Alec wondered where it had gone, since no wild creature he knew will touch porcupine, unless the stern alternative be porcupine or starvation. Even Mooween, the mighty, the big cushion-footed black-bear, who appear cd one
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every six days to scavenge for fish along the shore—even Mooween shrinks from the touch of those deadly barbed quills. Death by starvation is preferable to death by porcupine, and all the wild creatures know it. So Alec, who felt sure that it was the big black marten which had taken his porky, had the scant satisfaction of feeling that dire retribution would follow the repast. Anyway he was not sorry the old nuisance was gone, for it had become rather to own the place, and if the unknown beast had killed it, it had done a thing which the law forbade any human to do—unless that human were starving since for such the foolish porky is preserved.
Meantime the family affairs of the fish-hawks were progressing favorably, for the downy young were standing up in the nest and flapping their feathered wings, and one day a birchbark canoe, in which sat a single Indian, came like a russet leaf across the lake. Alec sauntered to his door and raised his hand in the customary salute, which the Indian acknowledged. Then swiftly and silently he drew his canoe alongside the stage and landed. The man was Joe Long.
Joe Long was head of his tribe, and though a thoughtful government had seen fit to bestow upon him a university education, he had returned to the life of his people. Without a word he and Alec solemnly ate their fried fish and flapjacks, and not till their pipes were empty did Alec tell, in as few words as possible, about the big marten.
Again they refilled their pipes and smoked in silence.
“Pekan,” said Joe, eventually, knocking out the ash.
“What’s he?” queried Alec.
“Fisher,” replied Joe.
“Hurl” grunted Joe. “I never seen him fish.”
Joe gravely shook his head to signify that the fisher does not fish. “Half marten half wolverine, all devil,” said he. “Hell’s full of Pékans! He’ll shift your game if you don’t shift him. Deer—fur, he’ll move everything.
Alec thought. He was just deciding that porcupine was really neither deer nor fur. “Porkies?” he queried.
Again Joe nodded. “He’s dead nuts on Porky,” he stated, going on to explain, that the quills of the porcupine do not harm the fisher. Nature made him that way. He may get himself chock-a-block with barbed needles, but they all work out at the tail-end of his back, and the fisher does not mind. So it seemed to Alec that far from having discovered a new animal, he had discovered one which was uncommonly well known as about the most extraordinarily blessed of the world’s undesirables.
NOT long after, something happened which drove all thoughts of the pekan out of Alec’s mind, for there occurred a series of those terrific electrical storms which are the terror of the northern summer. Where it rained, the downpour was tremendous, but it rained only I here and there, while everywhere was the lightning and the raging gales which flattened the dead timber like fields of corn.
In such vast lands, Nature moves I quickly, and Alec, looking from his window in the half light of midday, on the third day of bombardment, saw a thing which made him stagger. It seemed that a sheet of fire fell with an ear-splitting crash upon the cedar swamp. It was I blue and red and angry, a light he would have seen had his eyes been closed beneath his blankets, and the vicious fury I of it seemed for a few seconds to paralyze his senses. When he looked again, the cedar swamp was on fire, and he saw that
a raging gale was tearing across it, though here, ninety yards away, it was deadly still. There was a roar overhead, then again absolute stillness. The fire was short-lived, for there came a sudden deluge of rain, a cloudburst, which lasted only a minute. And as Alec watched it sweeping across the lake, the sun shone out upon his cabin.
That evening, a smiling, sunny, mighthave-been-Aprii evening, Alec saw a herd of deer assembled fearlessly at his landing stage. Even when he went out they were not afraid, but presently they launched themselves and swam off to the south-east corner of the lake. Alec knew then that the great truce was upon the woods, and that evening he saw herd after herd of deer swimming the lake, all heading for the southeast corner. Also the air was full of wild fowl, and all were heading south. The terror of the woods, the inexorable fire fiend, was on the rampage.
Before the light went, Alec dug a hole in the sand and buried all that he had to bury, which was not very much. Then he worked till midnight felling the trees on the north-west side of his clearing, so that his cabin stood on a naked point. Before daybreak he was wakened by a roaring wind and the smell of smoke. Here an electrical discharge, there two dead trees sawing together in the gale, or a mere spark in the muskeg, a relic of a passing woodsman’s fire, were responsible for the many little fires which, whipped up by the gale, were now linking hands to sweep across the country in one gigantic horseshoe.
Alec went out, and scuttling his canoe, took to the raft. Not for the first, but perhaps for the last time, he stood face to face with all the inconceivable fury of Nature, for his frontier instincts told him that forest fire was coming, this time in no half measure. It was dark with a vague, unearthly transparency, and overhead rolled a billowing undulation, the smoke of fires yet far off. One could see movement everywhere — everything seemed to be moving, yet withal there was no definite outline. It was like a moving picture out of focus.
On his raft Alec had nothing but his gun and his blankets, though under the raft, below water mark, were his fish lines, by which he could live. He made for the south-east corner, the outlying arm of the lake, and there, twenty feet from shore, he made fast the raft—anchored it. Then he soaked the blankets and sat, awaiting the show. If he could, he would lie flat on the raft when the worst came. If that were impossible, he would drop over the edge and just hang on, for he could touch bottom.
Coming down wind Alec could hear a mighty roar, as of a million rumbling wheels, and in the intermittent sepia glow about him he beheld strange things. A squirrel hopped on to his raft beside him, looked at him, then hid under the blanket he had thrown across the logs. Overhead sounded a shrill, familiar scream, and Alec bethought himself of his fish-hawks, and wondered how they would fare, when he remembered that three days ago he had seen the young, flying strongly, with their parents. Quite near at hand he could hear the barking of deer, which went on ceaselessly, and once the deeper guttural note of a cow moose, doubtless nosing her calf ahead of her to the friendly water. Then a woodhare mounted the raft, and it looked such a wretched travesty of its race as it sat wild-eyed at the extreme corner, that Alec laughed aloud at it.
But he did not laugh long, for the unearthly rumble of wheels drew rapidly nearer. Then came a faintly crimson glow, wan and death-like, which lit the
air, yet made nothing visible. There was a roar overhead, ana Alec saw a sheet of fire descending on the wings of the hurricane—a vast sheet of living flame, which alighted about him, swirling in gigantic tongues across the water and licking hungrily through the tree tops. In an instant, it seemed, the whole country on every side was alight, and the noise ! \v hat a thunderous roar!
In that moment Alec knew that he would never live upon the raft. Nothing could live more than ten inches above the surface, and Aiec dropped overboard, on the down-wind side, shielding his faceirom the barrage of flying sparks. He felt squirrels and other things climbing about his shoulders and once or twice, wnen the visibility momentarily improved, he became aware that his raft was alive with refugees. Therefore, being a kindly man, he cast water over them with his right hand every time a lull occurred.
But the main fire was not yet here, and when it came with its attendant gale, it swept earth and heaven before it. it piled the lake in a chaos of confusion into the south-east corner, and Alec felt his old raft trailing her anchor. It took all his strength to hang on, now humping his bony knees on the bottom, now hoisted high out of the depths, fighting the time for life and air. His very hair was scorched, every breath was boiling mercury, his eyes were like balls of fire burning into his skull, and on every side of him was a very picture of what hell, as he had pictured it in his childhood, must be like.
For a time every moment was an agony, but that stage ceased. He passea into merciful obliviousness as to the passing of time, or the measure of his own sufferings. Either he lived or he went under. That was in the lap of the gods, and he no longer cared. So one hour, two hours, three hours passed, and finally Alec, as a quite disinterested spectator, realized that the fire had passed—that the surrounding forest was burnt out. His raft, by that time, was piled up on the shore. He himself lay full length in about one foot of water. He could live on shore now, so wearily, red-eyed, he rose to his knees, his hands on his raft, and looked at it, beholding a spectacle which to him at that moment seemed ordinary, though later it came to him as so unreal, so like a scene from ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ that at times he wondered whether his eyes had fooled him.
There were 'many creatures on that raft—most of them squirrels, flattened out, wet, and wild-eyed, but in the centre of them all, half under a coil of wet blanket, was a creature larger than the rest. As Alec rose, it sat up and looked at him, but there was no malice in that look. On the other hand it was fearless, trusting, full of the brotherhood of a common lot; then the creature began to lick its coat, every pose it took full of grace and beauty. Alec, because he was weary, sat at the edge of the raft and watched. He saw it perform its toilet from end to end within arm’s reach of him, then, not a yard from the first he saw a second creature lying, licking its paws, which were bleeding, as though it had travelled far and fast. By now the squirrels were moving, scuttling here and there, and so the man rubbed his eyes and looked at his clothing, and none of them paid heed to the neighbor at his elbow.
“Well,” said Alec, at last, “I guess we can live on shore now.” And as he rose, the pekan and the fox rose with him, looked into each other’s eyes not a yard apart, and went their respective ways.
Alec gripped his gun, but he did not use it. He, if any man living, had witnessed the Great Truce, and it was not for him, the highest of earthly things, to break it.