EYES of the WILDERNESS
A tale of the woods and their lure for a man of the city who was not quite sure of himself
CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS
IN THE woods, woods ancient and untamed, there is always the chance that interesting things may happen. Jim Peters knew nothing of the woods but what he had learned from books. That learning, however, was by no means inconsiderable. And he had gathered that, from oldest time, men had regarded the deep forest as a place where almost anything might happen, and not unusually did. The wilderness had called him. He locked his city desk, and went north.
ONCE out of sight of the clearing and immersed in the dewy, green-and-brown seclusion of the trail, Peters slowed his pace. He flattered himself that he was walking noiselessly, his ears not yet being attuned to the subtleties of the forest silence. His eyes, wide with expectancy, searched the woods on either hand as he went, hoping to catch glimpses of the furtive life of which his nature books had told him. He scrutinized the dark-green soaring spires of the spruce and fir, the gold-green shimmering depths of the silver-stemmed birches, the mysterious forest aisles carpeted with redbrown fir needles and cones, the colored tangle of bushes fringing the trail, flickered over by tiny paperblue and big black-and-yellow butterflies. And he was disappointed to find it all so empty of life—except, of course, for the bright insects to which he was indifferent, and for a vivid little black-and-white woodpecker with a crimson head, which seemed equally indifferent to him as it ran zigzagging up and down a tall, scarred pinetrunk, prying into the crevices of the bark with its efficient beak. It was animals, the furry kindred of the wild that he wanted to see. And of all such this wilderness of sun and shadow seemed to him quite lamentably empty.
Little he dreamed how really populous was that seeming solitude. Little he guessed what sharp observation he was under at every stride of his heavy-stepping, uninitiated feet.
From every direction, above, below, around him, anxious eyes, timorous eyes, curious or scornful or malevolent eyes—but none that were indifferent, for this blundering, heavy wayfarer with the flaring red kerchief at his neck was Man, the eternal and irresistible enemy. Moreover, he was so obviously a stranger, an alien to the wilds. They could perceive it in his gait, his enquiring manner, his eager yet unseeing eyes. And being a stranger he was therefore incalculable, and particularly required watching. There was no sure knowing what he might do, or what his purpose was in this invasion of their haunts.
The reason why Peters never suspected that he was under this vigilant surveillance was that every one of his unseen watchers had stiffened into rigid stillness at the first sign of his approach. Thus motionless as stick or stone, they faded so completely into their surroundings, blended so perfectly, in form and color, with the mottled shine and shadow, that even the most informed and expert of woodsmen could seldom have detected them unless they were startled into betraying themselves by some unguarded movement. Peters never guessed that his glance had passed carelessly over the wee, pointed, whiskered noses of many woodmice as they peered at him apprehensively from their holes among the tree roots, and over several brown rabbits which had sat up to stare with bulging eyes at the bright thing around his neck. He was unaware that he had gazed straight into supercilious eyes of a big red fox, crouching alert on a couch of red-brown fir needles beside a rotting stump. Least of all did he suspect that one of a cluster of black and gray stumps, in a gloomy hollow to the left of the trail, was a bear, sitting erect upon its haunches and eyeing his red handkerchief with childlike curiosity. He would have felt distinctly worried had he known that the bear, after his passing, had dropped on all fours and was following him, noiselessly as a shadow and secretly as thought, possessed with the desire to find out what the stranger was up to in these woods. The great beast had no unfriendly purpose, merely, indeed, a pardonable thirst for information. But had Peters realized that he was being trailed by a perfectly capable black bear, his interest in wild life and nature study might have been forgotten for the moment. A bear, after all,
remains a bear, however harmless may be his intentions.
TT WAS not till he was coming within half a mile of his destination that Peters had any evidence of the liveliness surrounding him. He was in a stretch of the trail which unrolled straight before him for perhaps a couple of hundred yards. Suddenly a great hawk appeared out of nowhere and dropped like a plummet in the very middle of the trail, not fifty paces ahead. Peter’s untrained eye had not detected anything on the trail, but the hawk had. It flapped heavily into the air with a young partridge in its talons. The foolish victim had been so intent on the approach of Peters that it had not noticed the peril from the sky. Peters was so thrilled at seeing something happen—just the sort of thing he had read about—that he forgot to sympathize adequately with the partridge.
A few moments later, rounding a sharp turn in the trail, he came upon a red squirrel, sitting up on a stump, its feathery tail over its back, impetuously biting flakes off a pine cone. The squirrel gave him one look, then set up a shrill chirr-r-r-r of virulent disapproval, dropped the cone, and raced upa tree. From the swaying tip of a high branch it chattered down a stream of abuse, proclaiming to all the forest dwellers that a most objectionable stranger had come among them. As if a spell had been broken by this clamorous invective, a bush close by rustled suddenly, and Peters caught sight of a rabbit which went bounding off among the fir trunks. He watched its flight with interest, and was startled to see a small, snaky-brown form dart upward in the fugitive’s path, snap fangs upon its throat, and pull it down. A short, sharp screech from the victim, a conclusive thrashing of its hind legs, then stillness. To Peters this seemed, somehow, distinctly reprehensible. “Weasel,” he muttered, and plunged in among the trees to investigate. The weasel never stirred from its red feasting till he was almost upon it. Then it lifted its narrow, pointed muzzle, beaded with blood, curled back its lips in a soundless snarl, glared at Peters with a hate which gave him a queer little chill, and very slowly withdrew.
“Like to get his teeth into my throat, if he dared, the little devil,” muttered Peters, poking at the limp body curiously with his foot. Then he pushed his way back to the trail, glancing back over his shoulder once or twice as if he half expected the weasel to follow him and spring upon his neck. Never had he dreamed of such concentrated malignity as he had felt in the tiny killer’s stare.
The vituperative squirrel had by this time forgotten all about him. But a few minutes later he was discovered by a bluejay. That inquisitive bird, perching on a branch high ovei the trail, looked him over searchingly with dark, impudent eyes, and decided against him. Thereafter it flitted before him from tree to tree at a discreet distance, all the way to the water, screaming and squawking to inform the world that there was a suspicious character on the trail. Peters felt somewhat flattered by this attention, even though it was obviously not a compliment.
Y\7HERE the old tote-road came out upon the Tin Kettle below the ruins of the dam, there was an ancient clearing, now largely overgrown with scattering bush. Between the bushes and the water’s edge a slope of sand and gravel glowed pinkish gold in the clear morning sun. The air was filled with the pleasant clamor of a rapid which foamed through the confusion of rocks and timbers separating the upper and lower pool. At sight of these alluring pools, practically virgin water, Peters felt his pulses tingle. Hurriedly he spliced his rod. Feverishly he tied on his cast and flies—a “brown hackle” and a “Montreal.” And the bear, safe hiding in a spruce thicket not a hundred yards away, watched him with perplexity and cocked its ears uneasily at the sudden shrill rattle of the reel.
Tense with excitement, Peters made an experimental cast out across the pool. The flies fell short, and alighted beside a slowly whirling cluster of foam in the amberpurple shadow of a projecting timber. He drew back to cast again, but ere the tail fly left the water there came a heavy swirl just beneath it, it was sucked down— and the fish was hooked. The reel sang, the light rod bent, and the taut line went cutting its way out across the sparkling pool.
Peters was now as steady and cool as if he had been trout-fishing all his life. Limited as had been his experience, he had the instinct for the game. He kept just the right pressure on his quarry’s fierce rushes. He reeled in swiftly, he checked cautiously, he yielded line discreetly when he had to. He took more time, to be sure, in playing the fish than was absolutely necessary, partly because he was so afraid of losing it, and partly because he so loved the thrill when the line ran out and the reel set up its magic song. At last, however, there was no more fight left in his quarry. Unresisting it was reeled in close to his feet—he was up to his knees in the water—and with a dext swoop of his landing net he had the prize secure. Proudly he waded ashore with a gleaming, pink-bellied, vermilion-spotted trout which would fairly tip the scales at a pound. Peters, of course, estimated it at about two pounds. It was his first trout of any consequence. It was a dream come true.
Having quieted his captive’s struggles by a sharp blow on the back of its neck with the handle of his sheath-knife, he deposited it lovingly on some fresh grass in the bottom of his fishing backet.
And now ensued for Peters what he could justly call “one crowded hour of glorious life.” In the course of that hour, fishing over first the lower and then the upper pool, he landed a round dozen of handsome fish, though none quite so big as his first capture. But after that the fish stopped rising. Either they had lost their appetites or the pools were cleaned out. Hiding his well-filled basket under a bush for coolness, Peters moved on upstream, whipping the tails of the rapids and the small dark pools under the bank. Half an hour of this yielded him only three more trout which he strung on a bit of cord, and an adventurous silver chub which he threw back uninjured into the stream. Taking the chub as a hint that he was not to be too greedy, he reeled in his line, coiled the gut leader with its flies around the crown of his hat, and turned his steps lazily back toward the dam.
\ AEANWHILE the bear, which from its hiding in the -*-*-*thicket had watched Peters fishing with an interest speedily turned to covetousness, had come at last to the conclusion that the lucky fisherman was safely out of the way. He was certainly out of sight and hearing, and had departed with an air of purpose which had seemed to promise a considerable period of absence. After long hesitation and much sniffing of the gentle breeze which breathed from the direction in which Peters had disappeared, the bear emerged cautiously from the thicket and slouched noiselessly down to the water’s edge. He stared intently up stream. No sign of Peters. Then he sniffed about hungrily, hoping the fisherman might have left some titbit behind him. And presently following up the scent, he discovered that full basket hidden under the bush.
At first he eyed the basket with deep suspicion. There was a strong man-smell about it. It might be a trap. But the trout smell that came from it was the more potent. After some deliberation he turned the basket over with his paw, and jumped back as if it might bite him. The cover flapped open, and out slipped three or four fat trout.
With a little whimper of delight he grasped his good fortune and fell greedily to the feast. There was nothing, not even honey or blueberries, that he relished so much as a meal of fresh trout.
As he feasted, grunting and slobbering in his eagerness, an eagle which had been circling high in the blue, dropped down to investigate and perched on the top of a tall grey rampike just below the pool. The eagle, too, loved trout. She hoped the bear might leave some. As she noted the rate at which they were being devoured she stretched downward her lean white head and yelped a protest. The bear, who knew —and despised—eagles, went on eating all the faster. He would leave nothing for the presumptuous bird.
From a distance, over the tree tops, Peters caught sight of the eagle on its lofty perch. Outside the zoo he had never seen an eagle before. .Greatly interested, he began to walk as stealthily as possible, keeping well under cover, in the hope of getting a good close-up view of the splendid bird, its snowy head and neck gleaming in the sun, before it should take alarm and fly away.
Not being yet a real woodsman, it never occurred to him to wonder what the eagle was so concerned about there down below, or why it yelped from time to time so impatiently.
In order to keep hidden he made a wide circuit of the clearing and came upon it from the lower side. The eagle, its hard, fierce eyes fixed upon the feasting bear, did not see him. His own eyes, fixed upon the eagle, he did not see the bear—till he rounded a thicket, and found himself face to face with that preoccupied animal not twenty paces away.
Peters stopped in his tracks, distinctly startled. The bear looked up, also distinctly startled, and dropped a half-eaten trout from his jaws. During long seconds the man and the beast stood motionless, eyeing each other. The eagle stopped yelping, and vjatched to see what would happen next.
Peters did some swift thinking. He recalled much that he had read about the black bear, and assured himself that he was in no danger. Nevertheless he felt anxious. But having within him the makings of a woodsman, he did not betray his anxiety. He stood quite still and stared at the bear calmly, making no sign of either advance or retreat.
The bear, it is to be presumed, also did some swift thinking. It remembered, with a belated sense of guilt, that it had been poaching on the man’s kill—and was caught at it. It remembered that man was very dangerous. It glanced aside, and saw that its way of retreat was open—that it was not in any way cornered. It carefully refrained from even glancing at what remained of the trout. Slowly and with dignity it turned, and slouched away down stream.
“You’d better take the rest of this fish with you,” said Peters, hurling the mangled remnant after the abashed, retreating animal. At the sound of his voice the eagle flapped heavily away from its perch. Peters stepped forward and examined the basket. All his captures were gone, except the first and finest. He added his small string from the upper waters. Then, standing his rod securely in a bush, he moved back to the edge of the wood and sat down in the shade to eat his lunch.
“It’s sure been some morning,” he muttered to himself with deep content.
It was now about noon. The air was hot and still. From the long grass on the opposite shore a few heatloving locusts shrilled their dry summer song. Having devoured his clumsy sandwiches and smoked a comfortable pipe, Peters felt overwhelmingly drowsy. He had been up unwontedly early that morning. Telling himself it would be no use casting a fly at this hour, when there was not a cloud in the blue or a ripple on the pools, he stretched himself luxuriously on the elastic turf close to the trunk of the spreading maple which shaded him, and went to sleep, his coat folded under his head for a pillow.
He slept till well on in the afternoon. Along toward two o’clock the bear, having forgotten both its alarm and its sense of guilt, stole back noiselessly through the trees to see if the fisherman had gone. Curiosity still pricked it; and moreover, it remembered that half-eaten fish which had been hurled after it. Peering through the underbrush it marked Peters sleeping under the maple with the fishing basket close beside his head.
The bear’s jaws slavered with desire and memory at sight of the delectable basket, but it dared not approach any nearer. Even asleep, Man was dangerous. At last, after a half hour or so of moveless watching and vain hoping, it wearied of the futile game and slipped away in disgust. It saw, to be sure, the mangled fish gleaming on the pebbles by the water’s edge, but would not venture forth into the open to retrieve it, for fear the Man might wake up and be disagreeable about it. A little later a wildcat, attracted by the smell of the fish-basket, came furtively aroOnd the tree to investigate. At this moment Peters, who had been sleeping on his back, uttered a choking snore and rolled over on his side. The wildcat jumped about ten feet, and fled back into the coverts all fluffed up with outraged indignation. She had almost stepped on the sleeper’s sprawling legs.
The shadows were beginning to lengthen down the beach when Peters was awakened by a scratching sound near his head. He sat up suddenly, just in time to see a small, dark, snaky form gliding off into the bushes. The basket, whose cover he had fastened securely, had been pulled over on its side. “Must have been a mink after my fish, the beggar!” he muttered, rubbing his eyes and. getting stiffly to his feet. He unrolled the cast from his hat, bent on new flies, and sauntered down to the pool to resume his fishing, determined that, bears to the contrary notwithstanding, he would not go home to Brine’s Clearing that night without a full basket.
AFTER having landed several good fish from the pools at the dam, Peters started down stream, and met with better luck than in the up-stream waters. Absorbed in his sport, it was close upon sunset before he turned to make his way back to the dam. His basket was full. But on reaching the dam he halted for just one more cast. As dusk was now gathering he changed his “brown hackle” and “Montreal” for a silvery “Miller” and a white-winged “Parmachine Belle.” Almost before the “Belle” had touched the water it was seized by a huge fish which cost him a long and anxious struggle to land. It so dwarfed his prize capture of the morning that he hardly dared to estimate its weight, as proudly he strung it to his belt. The fish were now rising all over both pools, and he was tempted to go on fishing. But he remembered the three miles tramp before him, and realized that it would presently be dark. It was a straight trail. He could not get lost. But darkness and solitude in the unfamiliar forest— there was something in the thought which damped his enthusiasm. He reeled in his line, hurriedly coiled his cast and disjointed his rod, and started briskly down the homeward trail.
For the first mile or more he strode onward noisily through the twilight, hardly glancing to right or left, his interest in studying the wilderness quite lost in his impulse to get home as soon as possible. Then, as the shadows deepened into night, and a large star came into view above the narrow canyon of glimmering darkness into which the old toteroad had resolved itself, he began instinctively to move with a certain furtiveness, and to listen and to peer. The forest had become so different, so mysterious. Accustoming themselves to the gloom, his eyes grew keener, and could detect the bushes on either side of the trail. In spite of himself he stepped softly. He assured himself that he was not apprehensive, but only expectant, that this lonely trail through the darkness was a part of his initiation.
Nevertheless, when he caught sight of a something, a small, formless, darker shadow—moving slowly toward him up the middle of the trail, he was startled and stopped in his tracks. Then, making out that whatever it was, it could not be much bigger than an Aberdeen terrier, h'e laughed to himself and went on quietly to meet it. A moment more and the moving shadow caught sight of him and stopped. At the same time it seemed suddenly to increase to double its former size. This strange phenomenon was accompanied by a faint, dry rustling sound, like wind in straw. And at that sound Peters understood. “Why, a porcupine, of course!” he thought, remembering his books.
Having erected the formidable defense of its needle-pointed quills, the porcupine resumed its leisurely advance. Peters reflected that this meant no hostility on the animal’s part, but merely a sturdy independence of spirit with which he had no desire to take issue. He stepped aside politely to make way for the dauntless wayfarer. And the porcupine hardly deigned to glance at him as it ambled lazily past. _
"XTOT many minutes later another leisurely and shadowy shape emerged from the bushes not a dozen paces ahead, and seemed to be sniffing for something right in the middle of the trail. “Another porcupine?” wondered Peters, slackening his pace. It looked smaller, however, and its movements were different. But it seemed equally unconcerned. Suddenly it looked up from its nosing in the turf and turned its gaze upon the approaching stranger. At the same time it slowly lifted a long, fluffy tail into the air; and Peters detected a couple of broad pale stripes down its flank. Involuntarily he shrank backward a pace or two. Inexpert in wood lore though he was, there was no mistaking those white stripes, there was no misunderstanding the danger signal of that arching tail. He drew back yet another pace or two, deprecatingly, in order that the skunk might feel fully assured of his good intentions.
For perhaps half a minute the tall human and the insignificant little animal stood motionless, peering at each other through the gloom. It is possible that the skunk could see Peters much more clearly than Peters could see the skunk. And apparently what it saw was in Peters’ favor. Slowly its tail dropped back to its normal attitude—a sure signal of reassurance. Then it turned away and went trotting down the trail with calm deliberation. Peters, following diffidently, let the distance widen between them, till at length the skunk turned off into the underbrush. A few moments later, as he passed the spot where it had disappeared, he heard a sudden brief scuffling and thrashing, and decided that the little striped hunter had made a kill.
By this time Peters began to notice a change in the gloom which surrounded him. The narrow strip of sky above the trail grew paler. A dim suggestion of light seemed to. filter through the tree tops and even diffuse itself obscurely down among the undergrowth. He concluded that far out beyond the Ottanoonsis Valley the moon was climbing clear of the ridges. He pictured the wide-silvered scene, and it made him feel uncomfortably cut off from his kind here in this cenyon of shadows. In this mysterious glimmer he could see more objects now, but he saw them more confusedly. The bushes, the near-by tree trunks seemed to shift and change shape as he stared at him. Presently he jumped, as a faint fanning of wide wings swept close above his head, and the ghostly breath of them gave him a prickling sensation in his cheeks and the back of his neck. A huge bird winnowed soundlessly into view before him, rose, and vanished among the jagged tree tops. “Big horned owl,” he told himself. “Thought maybe my head was a rabbit or something.” Half a minute later a suddpn Hooh-hooh-oo-oo wailed hollowly through the darkness.
Realizing that the peculiar light—if that could be called light, which was little more than an elusive grey translucency—was playing tricks with his eyes, Peters now tried to avoid peering so closely at every bush or stump he passed. Suddenly, however, he was convinced that a large stump on the left of the trail, some twelve or fifteen feet ahead of him, did actually move. He stopped short, and his heart pounded annoyingly. Was it stump? Or was it a bear? He peered intently. Nonsense—of course it was a stump. Moreover, he told himself that no bear would be standing up there so conspicuously to await his approach. A hear would take care to be well hidden in the underbrush. Very slowly he advanced. Seeing that unquestionably it was a stump, he was indignant to catch himself drawing a deep breath of relief.
But even when he had come close abreast of it he found, to his gratification, that its irregular, weather-beaten top did display some crude resemblance to a beast’s head. So his nervousness had not been altogether unjustified! He reached out firmly and laid a hand on the deceiving form, and pulled away a chunk of rotten wood, and laughed softly, and felt satisfied with himself.
AND now he realized that he was ravenously hungry. He must surely be nearing his journey’s end. Eagerly he pressed forward. Several rabbits hopped across his path. A shadowy shape, taller, slenderer than the porcupine came trotting up the trail, caught sight of him, turned sharply, and whisked off into the underbrush. “A fox,” he decided, no longer more than half interested. Then, perhaps twenty paces ahead, close beside the trail, his eyes were caught in spite of themselves by another big stump which had certainly seemed to move.
This time he knew better than to be fooled by the deceitful half light. He knew it was only a stump. He laughed to himself at the illusion. It was a very large stump. And when he had come within five or six paces of it, it dropped upon all fours with a protesting woof, lumbered very deliberately across the trail, and pushed its way into the bushes with an air of reluctance as if by no means unduly impressed by the man’s approach.
This was so utterly unexpected that Peters’ heart once more jumped into his throat. He was startled into indignation. Resisting the impulse to halt he pressed on—but not quite so quickly! He felt that the bear—and it was a very big one—was lurking close behind the screen of bushes, perhaps near enough to reach forth a paw and swipe him as he passed.
“Scat, you brute!” he ordered sharply. “Clear out. Beat it!”
Hearing sounds which convinced him that his order was being obeyed—though in no great haste—he moved on very slowly past the danger spot, glancing warily over his shoulder as he did so. Safely past, he had to resist the temptation to hasten his steps. He had an uncomfortable feeling that the bear wa3 keeping pace with him, noiselessly there under cover of the darkness. To convince the beast—as well as himself—that he didn’t care a hoot for any bear, he paused to light his pipe, using several matches at once that the flare should make a proper impression.
A few minutes later the welcome tonka-tonk-tonk of a cowbell greeted his ear; and then he came out upon the edge of the clearing. A cheerful light was shining from the window of the cabin.
“I guess,” muttered Peters, “I’ll try an’ get home before dark tomorrow. There seems to be something kind of queer about the woods at night.”