A Drama of the Flaming Forest
CHARLES G. D. ROBERTS
THE chill, grey-silver light of the first of dawn, glassy clear but illusive, was stealthily feeling its way down the silent, interminable corridors of the forest. Within the dark heart of a dense hemlock thicket a darker shadow began to take shape, a shadow huge and ungainly like some monster of the early world. It seemed to be nuzzling something at its feet. Presently it lifted a long-muzzled and massive head, as if to greet the invading glimmer, and sniffed the air with wide, wet nostrils, and searched the shadows with suspicious eyes.
During the night the great cow moose had given birth to her long-legged, sprawling calf; and now, as its mother for a moment stopped licking it, it struggled to its feet and leaned against her shakily, with legs spread wide apart and big ears sagging. When it had steadied itself the mother gently shifted her position to bring its muzzle against her swollen udder, guiding it with her caressing, prehensile lips and coaxing it to nurse.
As the light increased a pair of chickadees awoke from their slumber in the branches overhead and began running up and down the trunk of the ancient hemlock beneath which the moose was standing. Their sharp bills jabbed diligently into the inteistices of the ragged bark, in search of torpid beetles and wood lice; and their fine-drawn, cheery cries of “tsic-a-dee-dee-dee” rang startlingly sharp on the moveless air. Then a Canada jay, in his dapper garb of slate-blue, tan and black, came fluttering down from the high and swaying perch whereon he had slept safe from night-prowling marten or weasel.
He alighted on a rotting stump within half a dozen feet of the great moose. She snorted at him indignantly for daring to come so near her precious offspring. He stared back at her, unabashed, with his bold, bright eyes, then flirted his tail impertinently, hopped to the ground, and began rummaging briskly among the twigs and dead leaves for something to stay his eager and undisci iminating appetite. Suddenly, however, he stopped short and stood listening intently, his sleek black head cocked to one Bide. The great cow, who was watching him, stiffened her ears and listened intently too. What was it he heard which her keen heai ing could not catch? Nothing, it seemed to her, but the silence. Except for the thin, sweet conversation of the two chickadees, the woods all about were portentously still. And this was the hour of waking, when the air should have been a-«tir with small, furtive, comfortable sounds.
She waved her long ears this way and that, and distended her sensitive nostrils anxiously, but could detect no hint of danger. Then the jay, with a businesslike directness quite unlike his usual derisive nonchalance, darted up to the very topmost tip of the hemlock as if to take an observation. Straightway he uttered a harsh squawk, and flew off to the southward as if the matter of his breakfast had ceased to be of any importance. The two chickadees fell silent, stopped hunting beetles, and seemed to consider the import of that warning. Then they went flickering off in the same direction. If the wise and audacious jay was getting out, there was very surely some good reason for it.
The great moose stirred uneasily. That harsh cry of the jay had spoken to her no less imperatively than to the chickadees—though to neither had it said anything more definite than “Clear out!” But this, for the moment, she could not do. Her calf was not yet strong enough on his legs to travel. She was puzzled as to what the threat might be. She knew only that it came from the northward for the jay and the chickadees had fled south. She noticed that there were no rabbits about, no squirrels. She had sniffed no pungent scent of fox or weasel. Evidently some alarm had gone abroad hours before; but she, although through long experience wise in all forest wisdom, had been too pre-occupied with the pangs of her approaching motherhood to notice it. She could only wait, with nerves quivering and every sense alert, and nurse her calf to strength for speedy flight.
At last, the low sunrise over the distant Manoonsis ridges, and a flooding of pinkish radiance into the
silvery greyness of the thicket. Everything, on a sudden, stood out with edges and colors sharply defined. Then with the rising light came a slow wind out of the Northwest, sighing furtively through the branches. In spite of the direction from which it came its breath was warmish and faintly acrid. At the very first touch of it the moose stiffened and her heart gave a leap of panic. This was the very worst she could have feared. It was Fire !
There had been unusually little snow in the woods that winter, and now a sudden and warm spring had brought a too scanty rainfall. All the brooks and little rivers were running low in their channels, the undergrowth everywhere was parched, the “slashings” left by the lumbermen were like tinder, the very mosses covering the muskegs were dry enough to keep alive a creeping, hidden spark. Somewhere, perhaps from a dropped match or the red coal shaken from a pipe, perhaps from a camp fire too carelessly extinguished, the spark had been started. And presently a flock of sharp little flames was scattering through the brush, darting and licking hungrily wherever they found provender to their taste. The spot where it all began was remote from the fire patrols, so in brief space the red monster had grown full size, and eager flames were racing to the tops of the nearest fir trees.
For a couple of days there had been but little wind and that little out of the Southeast, so the smoke of the burning had been swept off over the high barrens to the North where, among granite boulders and lean blueberry scrub, the flames found little to feed on. But they spread and waxed mighty in the timber to either side of their starting point, and they worked slowly but inexorably backward against that southeast breeze. The moment the wind swung round, however, they turned and pounced with a roar upon the fat prey of spruce and pine and slashings, and went raging furiously toward the South. As if to reinforce that dreadful onslaught, the wind rose steadily.
With the first breath of that menacing scent in her nostrils, the great moose knew just what peril confronted her. She knew that almost directly south of her lay the waters of a long and winding lake so wide that no fire could overleap it. She knew also of a locky island, about half a mile off shore, with little vegetation on it that would burn. Had her calf been even a day older, able to travel fast and far, all would have been well. Moose are born swimmers, and on that island was secure sanctuary. But now—her heart was torn with terror and uncertainty.
HOLDING her impatience sternly in check, she waited till the calf had nursed all it would. Then she moved slowly off, picking the easiest way through the thicket. The calf stood staring after her, waving its long ears stupidly, till the idea dawned upon it that it was being deserted. With a harsh little bleat of fear and appeal, it went stumbling in pursuit of that dark, withdrawing foim. The mother paused to let him overtake her, nuzzled it encouragingly, and moved on again. The calf waited till she had gone a dozen yards or so, expecting her to return to him. Then with another bleating cry, this time more of protest than alarm, again he stumbled after her. And now, his long legs beginning to feel rather more as if they belonged to him, he moved less unsteadily. The mother, looking solicitously over her shoulder, was somewhat reassured, and kept on her slow way till the calf stopped and bleated again, begging her to come back.
This, she knew, would not do at all. Yet she must not discourage or overtire him. She waited, and called softly; and presently, seeing that she would not return, he staggered forward eagerly, snuggled against her shaggy flank, and fell to nursing again. This was all to the good, as it would mean more strength for him; so, though the wind was by now coming ominously warm through the branches and with an ever increasing pungency which she too well understood, she curbed her desperate eagerness and encouraged him to nurse all he would. At best it would be his last chance until the grim Fates of the wilderness should have decided for or against them.
After this invigorating halt the calf gained strength suddenly. He went shambling along at his mother’s heels quite steadily and contentedly. Instead of pushing
her way directly south toward the water—as there was dire need to do, and as she would have done, taking all obstacles in her stride, had she been alone—the wise cow headed eastward for several hundred yards, in order to gain a stretch of more open and even ground which would afford the calf easier going.
But when she came out from the heavy timber and looked northward she gave a snort of terror, wheeled south, and involuntarily sprang forward in a wild race for the lake. In a few seconds, however, she stopped, turned, and stared at the calf stumbling frantically far behind. Her heart pounding madly, she strode back to him, fumbled him repentantly with her lips, and then, keeping him close at her side, resumed her jouiney toward the lake at such a deliberate pace as she thought he would be able to maintain. Her moment’s panic was conquered. But from time to time, as they went, she would glance back over her shoulder at the dreadful scene behind them. To the calf it meant nothing, and he never looked back. But in a dim way he sensed his mother’s fear. He shambled onward gamely, watching
his steps, and seeming to gain in surefootedness at every stride. It counted heavily now that his mother’s last mating, on the lake shore under the round October moon, had been with a great bull worthy of her strength and stamina.
To the Northwest, by this time, the sky was filled with a writhing, tumbling curtain of smoke; its thin, yellowish upper fringe driven before the wind in long streamers which seemed to be reaching out hungrily in pursuit of the fugitives. Its lower portions, seen through the black-green of the intervening tree tops, was a boiling turmoil of sooty brown with tongues of red
flame stabbing upward through it. The smoke that now came, filtered to a bluish haze, through the thick foliage of the spruces was so hot and pungent that the panting nostrils of the fugitives balked at breathing it, and their smarting eyes ran streams.
Coming at length to a little spring-fed pool from which an ice-cold rivulet gurgled off through damp mosses of a living green, the cow knelt and plunged her whole huge head into the water and drank greedily. She tried to get the calf to do likewise, but could not make him understand. She shook her dripping head over his smarting eyes and parched muzzle. And they pushed on again with a fresh burst of speed, the calf seeming to have gained new strength through that momentary halt and the cooling drops in his nostrils.
A big red fox came darting from the underbrush in a great hurry. Evidently he had been sleeping off a heavy meal in some deep covert, and had failed, like the mothering moose, to catch the warning which had flashed through the forest during the night. At sight of the apparently unhasting pair, ambling along as if they scorned the devouring death behind them, he checked his flight and trotted on beside them - at a respectful distance—for several minutes. Foxlike, he was inclined to consider his personal dignity when under observation. He would show these haughty beasts that he, too, was not unduly excited. But both the moose ignored him utterly.
THEN suddenly came a series of fiercer and hotter gusts which steadied into a gale; and the smoke thickened. The far-off mutter of the conflagration swelled into a roar punctuated with the crash of heavy branches falling. A crimson brand came hurtling through
the air and fell into a dead fir bush not fifty yards behind. The bush burst into hissing yellow flame. The fox threw dignity to the winds and flashed on ahead at top speed, his magnificent ruddy brush fluffed out indignantly and seeming to float him along in his effortless flight. As he vanished the cow thought wistfully how soon he would reach the comparative safety of the lake, still a long way off.
The shortest way to the water led due south, but the wind, and the fire, were coming from somewhat west of north; so there was the danger that they might be cut off. But that had to be risked. Suddenly the mother
saw’ a tuft of dead grass just ahead of them wink into pale flame, flare up, and die. A wind-blown scrap of lighted bark had dropped in it. Away off to her right and fairly abreast of her, she saw' the lofty top of a half dead pine transform itself into a nest of writhing scarlet snakas. Two or three more live bits of bark and gummy twig fell about them. One landed on che calf’s back and bit through the short dry hair. He jumped and gave a startled bleat. She brushed it off with her wet muzzle, and desperately urged him on to greater speed. If he should fail now it was the end for both of them. And ever the smoke grew more suffocating, the pursuing roar grew louder, the heat grew more ominously intense.
Then through a lift in the smoke she saw the waters of the lake gleaming ahead, whipped to an angry blue under the off-shore wdnd—and not more than a couple of hundred yards away.
But those last two hundred yards! The roar, the crashing of branches, the scorching heat, the little spurts of flame that shot up around and before their feet as sparks fired the tufts of short dead grass—all these had now struck panic to the non-understanding brain of the calf, and from time to time he bleated hoarsely and crowded against his mother’s flank. But lie still ran gamely, though stumbling now' and again over some unevenness in the ground which his half-blinded eyes failed to perceive. Terrified lest he should fall—and not get up again—the mother kept nuzzling his neck and mumbling her encouragements.
Then the lake opened wide before them, darkened by the smoke-clouds volleying low above it.
The shore at this point w'as low and muddy, the water shallow and fringed with rushes. Straight into it the mother dashed, with a huge splashing, till she was belly
deep. Then she lay down in the blessed coolness, wallowing and gulping and snorting. The calf fell, from sheer exhaustion and fright, beside her—which was just what she wanted him to do. The sharp cold and the shock revived him instantly and he struggled to his feet, spluttering and gasping but refreshed.
Half a dozen paces down the shore a naked shoulder of granite, almost overhanging, rose some thirty or forty feet from near the water’s edge. Here was temporary shelter from the direct thrust of the heat and
from the falling brands. To this refuge the wise mother now led the way, knowing that the calf must nurse and rest a few minutes for the long swim to the island.
Huddled close to the foot of the rock were a number of rabbits, a score or more, and a half-grown black bear to whom the terror-stricken rabbits paid no attention whatever although at any other time they would have recognized him as one of their most dangerous enemies. They grudgingly made room for the great cow lest they be trodden upon, then crowded close for the coolness that was shaken from her dripping hide. The moose paid no heed to the rabbits; though careful not to tread on them. But the bear was another matter— on account of her calf. She started an angry rush at him, and with a whimper of frightened protest he shrank away beyond the shelter of the rock. The heat soon drove him back again, squealing piteously. And now’ the cow let him stay. He was quite evidently as harmless as the rabbits. Finding himself thus tolerated, he stopped whimpering, and seemed to derive a certain comfort from the apparent, confidence and self-possession of the tall cow.
The calf, meanwhile, in his ignorance quickly recovering from his terror, was nursing greedily. But the smoke was thickening and the heat growing more unbearable even behind the shield of the rock; and blazing or red hot brands were now and then dropping w'ell out in the lake. The cow could wait no longer. She cut short the calf’s nursing and led the way swiftly down into the water, keeping the calf close at her side. Straight for that low line of the island, dimly seen under the smoke, she headed resolutely. A few yards off shore the bottom dropped suddenly, and the calf went under. He came to the surface again at once, with a frightened bawl, kicked out wildly to try and find foothold—and found
himself swimming. A yard or two more and the cow also was in deep water. Refreshed by the sudden icy plunge, and with the healing coolness in their eyes and nostrils, the two swam onward side by side at good speed toward that refuge which, now that their heads were so low in the water, was almost cut off from view by the frothing waves.
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The little bear, who had watched their going anxiously till they were almost out of sight, now summoned up his courage, splashed frantically into the water, and swam after them. He had no idea where he was going, his none too keen eyes not discerning the distant island, but he trusted the great cow, and he could not endure to be left behind with the doomed and hopeless rabbits.
' i TIE wind being straight off shore, the •*calf at first found swimming easy and pleasant; less laborious for him, indeed, than running and stumbling over uneven ground. But the farther out he got the rougher grew the water. The short, jumping waves began to confuse and frighten him. From time to time his head would be buried for a moment. He would come up choking and gasping. His mother watched him with terrible anxiety. While they were still between two and three hundred yards from the nearest point of the island she saw that he was beginning to weaken through the difficulty with his breathing. He was wasting strength in trying to hold his head above the slapping waves.
She slackened her pace, but this did not greatly mend matters, for he kept on beating the water in the struggle to lift his head higher. Presently she tried to get him on her back, by thrusting her submerged hindquarters beneath him. But this effort was a flat failure. It only confused him, because his long, kicking legs were in the way, and he seemed to think she was trying to shove them from under him. Then she tried another plan. She thrust her long head under his neck and lifted it well above the water so that he was able to breathe more freely. Finding this a relief, he tried frantically to climb upon her shoulders. This was a vain effort, of course, but it kept pushing the cow’s head under so that she had to struggle for her own breathing. Being a mighty swimmer, she fought onward desperately. But her progress, thus handicapped, was pitifully slow.
And now the island was hardly a hundred yards ahead. As the waves lifted her she gazed at it with strained, staring eyes. Then the struggles of the calf, now fairly on her neck, would force her head under again, so deeply that she would come up half strangled. She would snatch a deep breath and plough onward, her corded muscles surging indomitably. The young bear, which hitherto had been swimming easily a few yards in her wake, now, suddenly sighting the island, dashed past in a triumphant burst of speed and in a few minutes was clambering out upon the rocky shore. He was puzzled that the two moose should be so slow. The despairing cow had not even seen him as he forged by. Her every faculty was absorbed in the battle for her calf’s life and her own. And it was the calf’s baby ignorance that was threatening to make all her struggles vain.
Meanwhile, from farther up the shore, another fugitive from the conflagration was battling his way toward the island. A solitary prospector, one Jed Smith, working in a dry stream bed some miles back from the lake, had been so engrossed in certain alluring prospects that he had paid no heed to the peril till it was close upon him. Delaying only to wrap a chunk of bacon, a package of tea, half-a-dozen “hardtacks” and a handful of cartridges in his waterproof blanket and strap it securely on his back, to thrust his little axe into his belt and his waterproof matchbox, with a fig of tobacco, into his pocket, he had snatched up his rifle and one canoe paddle and dashed away with long, loping strides through the dense woods which lay between his cabin and the lake. He had wanted—how eagerly ! -to take a little bag of flour with him also.
But it was not ready. A minute’s further lingering might well cost him his life. He cursed his stupidity and plunged into the thickets, with an ominous dull roar in his ears and sharp smoke belching at his heels.
His shortest way to the lake was the roughest, the hardest; but he knew that he must take it, through all obstacles. It would lead him to a narrow sandy cove ; where, drawn up on the beach, lay a light but sturdy raft which he had built the1 previous summer for his fishing. It was for this he had brought the paddle. His canoe he had left several miles farther up the lake, around toward the north - where the fire had probably reached it by this time. The raft, if he could win through j to it, was his only chance of escape. It | was no craft for the heavy waters of the open lake, in this wind, but it would carry him to the island.
That desperate rush to the lake was like a nightmare. At first he ran circumspectly enough, holding himself down to such a pace as he thought he could maintain, and avoiding obstacles, and guarding his face with an uplifted arm as he thrust through the deep, thorned tangles of blackberry cane which filled every patch of open glade. The thorns ripped his sleeves to ribbons, gashed his arms, and even pierced his breeches of stout army cord. But as the smoke thickened and the pursuing roar grew louder he increased his pace to the utmost, realizing that his best might well prove to be not good enough. He was strong and lean and swift, but the acrid smoke wa„ soon doing uncomfortable things to his wind. It also confused his eyes, so that once he stumbled and fell headlong over a fallen trunk which he should have cleared at a bound. The paddle and the rifle also delayed him, getting tangled in the branches. At last, with an angry groan, he hurled the rifle from him. After all, it was something he could do without. But the paddle without that it would profit nothing if he did succeed in reaching the water. The pack on his back was so light that it scarcely troubled him, but he would have lost it over and over if it had not been strapped on so securely.
At last, gasping and bleeding, he burst j out upon the shore of the narrow cove, and his heart bounded as he saw the raft. An awful fear had swept over him lest it should have been carried away in the break-up of the ice. Already fragments of light, burning bark were falling about him. A big spark had caught on his shoulder and burned through to his flesh. And but a few yards to his right, close to the shore of the cove, he saw a burst of savage scarlet flower upward from the top of a giant fir.
But he knew that he had won the I dreadful race. Instead of instantly turning to the raft he threw himself flat in the water, and rose up dripping and revived. ¡ He drank; but, parched though he was, he drank sparingly. Then, snatching up a stick of driftwood, he pried the raft off into the water, thrust it out, and surged . furiously on the paddle, urging his sluggish craft toward the narrow outlet of the cove. And as he labored heavily forth into the open lake long tongues of flame, golden and smoky rose, swooped hissing after him, by a handbreadth balked of i their prey.
CLEAR of the cove mouth, he paddled : straight out for a couple of hundred yards, to escape the worst of the heat and smoke. Then he turned to the left and kept on parallel with the shore for some distance before heading on a long slant for the island, lest that tearing wind should sweep him past it and out into mad turmoil beyond. Soon the icy waves were la.rhing over him, the raft wallowed and swung, steering heavily, and he !
longed for his canoe. But his heart thrilled in exultation as he slogged on with straining shoulders and aching wrists; and slowly the island drew near. Already he had marked a low and sedgy bit of shore where he could make landing without damage to the precious raft.
About this time he caught sight of the moose and her calf, swimming toward the same goal. He glanced at them systematically. They too had fought their way out of the jaws of the red hell behind him. Presently he saw the little bear go swimming past them at a pace which left them speedily far in the rear. This puzzled him, for he felt sure that a moose could swim as fast as any bear unless it were the half amphibious white monster of the Arctics. Then, looking more closely, he saw that the pair were in trouble. He saw that the mother was drowning herself in a desperate effort to support the exhausted calf. This would never do! And that pesky bear was making shore without any trouble at all! He had always had a friendly feeling for the moose, anyway, above all the other creatures of the wild, and never would shoot one unless absolutely in need of red meat. He put fresh vigor into his strokes, and pushed over toward that piteous struggle.
As he ranged alongside them, the cow stared up at him with despairing eyes. Bracing his knees firmly between the timbers of his plunging craft, with his left hand he reached far over, grabbed the calf by the scruff of its neck, and dragged its shoulders and long forelegs on to the raft. Holding those legs securely under his left knee, he paddled hard for the island. The calf struggled feebly for a moment or two, then relaxed with a sudden sense of security, feeling something more substantial beneath him than that elusive neck of his mother upon which he had been trying to climb.
The cow, relieved of her burden, rose higher in the water, greedily filled her tortured lungs, then grunted with anger and alarm as she saw her precious offspring apparently being snatched from her. In three or four strokes she overtook the raft and tried to board it. The man pushed her aside several times, with quick thrusts of his paddle; and presently she i seemed to realize that he was a friend, an ally, (’aiming down at once, she swam along close beside the raft, now and then nuzzling at the calf’s flank to assure herself of his safety.
A few strenuous minutes more and the beach was gained. The raft grounded heavily in a surf-tossed tangle of dead reeds. The man sprang to his feet, releasing his prisoner, hastily splashed ashore, and clambered to the top of a steep rock. He felt by no means sure that the cow' fully appreciated what he had done for her, and he was taking no risks with the temper of a worried mother. The cow, however, heeded him not at all. She nosed the calf all over as he struggled sturdily to his feet among the pursuing surf. Then she led him above the reach of the waves, shook herself mightily, and stood for him to nursewhich was the first thing he thought of.
Seated on top of the rock, and drying himself in that hot, smoke-laden wind, Jed Smith grinned defiantly at the flames which now raged and roared all along the opposite shore.
“We’re well out of that, old girl,’’ he remarked to the moose some twenty feet below' him.
The great animal, startled at the sound of his voice, wagged her ears and looked up at him, then unconcernedly resumed her attentions to the calf.
“Guess she don’t hear no grudge agin me, anyhow,” muttered the man, as he fished out his pipe and tobacco from his wet pocket. The pipe he dried with a wisp of dead grass; and the sodden outer layers of the fig of blackjack he spread carefully on the rock, with a stone to keep them secure, to dry in that parching wind. He w’ould have a smoke and a rest
before setting out to examine the island which would be his prison for some days at best. Unless heavy rains should come, it would he a week at least before he would be able to pick his wray through the smoldering ruins of the forest.
The island was something over a quarter of a mile in length, and perhaps about two hundred yards at its widest. An irregular, rocky ridge formed its backbone. It carried a sparse grow'th of deciduous shrubs; wythwood and viburnum, huckleberry and blueberry, at this season just budding and too full of sap to catch fire from the half extinct brands that occasionally reached it. This applied also to a few clumps of young birch and poplar that grew in the hollows. But an ancient spruce, mossy and resinous, towering solitary at the farther end of the ridge, had intercepted a sailing curl of lighted hark and now was blazing like a giant torch. Here and there a tuft of dry grass would flare up and fade. But the island, as a whole, was fireproof. Satisfied on this point, Jed picked up his pack and his paddle, crossed over the ridge to the outer shore, where he would be sheltered from the scorching wind and to some degree from the smoke, and proceeded to make camp under an overhanging rock by simply unfolding his pack and standing the paddle and the axe in a bush beside it. Forthwith the spot became a home. Between two stones he built a little woodsman’s fire, and with a pronged stick began to toast himself a thick slice of bacon. He would have relished a mug of strong tea, but in his haste he had forgotten to bring a tin to make it in.
Y\7TIILE he was munching with satisfaction on bacon and “hardtack,” down along the shore came the moose, with the calf at her heels, glancing about as if looking for something. When she caught sight of the man she stopped and fell to browsing contentedly on a clump of poplar saplings. Apparently he was what she had been looking for.
“Guess she has decided we’re pals,” muttered Jed. And presently the pair drew nearer, and lay down not more than a dozen paces away from him. Then, a little farther on, appeared the young bear which he had seen swimming ashore. The bear peered shyly around a corner of rock, eyeing first the great moose and then the man; and at last, very diffidently, he emerged into full view and fell
to turning over stones with his paw in search of grubs or beetles. It was evident that he craved company, and that horror of the flames which he had so narrowly escaped had overcome his instinctive fear of man.
Suddenly Jed heard a scrabbling of claws and a frightened squeak from the rock above him, and a red squirrel, alighting just beidde him, scurried around to the other side of his fire and sat up there, chattering and jerking its long tail in great excitement. Jed turned his head and glanced up to see what had scared the little animal. The crafty yellow' mask of a big fox was snarling down upon him. It stared at him superciliously for a moment and then faded away. The fox knew' there were plenty more squirrels to be bunted. The squirrels being good swimmers, the island was now swarming with them; and there being no tall trees i to give them refuge they would be easy j prey. But this particular squirrel, perj ceiving that the man was an efficient j protector, decided to keep close by him, I and presently fell to nibbling at a scrap of biscuit which the man had tossed to it. ;
That night Jed Smith slept heavily beneath the shelter of his rock, while the conflagration raged and crashed along the shore behind the island, the billowing smoke was torn to streamers high over| head, the sky glow'ed crimson to the j zenith, and the lake was lashed to fury ¡ under the tearing gale.
He was aw-akened at daylight by the shrill chattering of the squirrel hardly more than an arm’s length from his head.
It was jerking up and down as if on springs, trying to nerve itself to the venture of darting in and stealing a scrap of biscuit which peeped whitely from under the edge of the blanket. Laughingly he shooed off the little thief, bidding it mind its manners and wait for breakfast. While he was toasting his bacon the moose and her calf strolled past, so close he could have touched them with his toasting fork, and disappeared around a bend of the shore in search of better browsing.
After breakfast he decided to try and catch some trout, to vary his bill of fare and make his bacon go farther. From a water-soaked leather wallet in his pocket he extracted a fishhook, and from another pocket a hank of line; two articles which, in the wilderness, he was never without. Then, sticking his little axe in his belt, he sauntered off down the island looking for a birch sapling that would make a good fishing rod.
Now it chanced, quite naturally, that the man, the moose and her calf, the little bear, the fox, and the many squirrels, were not the only fugitives who had found refuge on the island. From farther down the blazing shore a full-grown bear,
huge and gaunt and hungry, had got away with a scorching which did not improve his temper and had made his landing at the lower end of the island. Men he hated, but also wisely feared. He had once been well peppered with buckshot, and had never forgotten the experience. Having caught sight of Jed Smith, while the latter was drying himself on the rock, he had thereafter taken good care that the man should not catch sight of him: and he had kept to the far end of the island, teasing his mighty appetite with a mouse or two, and torpid beetles, and stringy roots. But he had also, to his great satisfaction, caught sight of the big cow and her calf. He could afford to wait. These restless creatures would wander all over the island. The calf would not be always at its mother’s side. When the chance came he would strike it down with one blow of his paw. He would then have to fight the mother, of course, and he knew that a full grown cow moose was fully a match for the average bear. But he was a monarch of his kind, a victor in many battles, and skilled to ward off the lightning stroke of those slashing and trampling hoofs.
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When the cow and calf got started they kept wandering on, very slowly, stopping now and then for the cow to crop the aromatic twigs of a young birch or the tips of a huckleberry bush or stunted moosewood sapling, till they were come nearly to the end of the island. Then the cow clambered up a steep slope to reach some especially tempting provender. The calf, shirking the climb, lingered lazily below, watching his mother.
Suddenly out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a monstrous black form rushing upon him. He gave a bawl of terror. The cow slid down the slope like an avalanche, saw the peril, and hurled the calf out of the way, bowling him clean off his feet. In the same instant she whirled about nimbly as a dancer. In the same instant, also, the bear was upon her; but, unable to check himself, he was too close to strike with the full force of his armed paw. As she was in the act of swinging away from it his claws merely raked her shoulder, damaging little more than hair and hide. As she completed her swing she struck at him like lightning, a short blow which caught him on the ribs and made him grunt angrily. Then she danced back out of reach, away from the calf.
SAVAGELY the bear lunged after her, but again she was too nimble for him; and before he could strike she was beyond reach of the stroke. And in a few seconds she had drawn him some twenty or thirty paces away from the calf. Then, seeing her game, he stopped, and half swung about, as if to charge back upon the trembling youngster. The cow was deceived by this feint. Frantically she plunged forward, rearing, and striking with her great knife-edged hoofs. Those strokes were like the strokes of a piledriver; but the bear was ready for them. Rising to his full height, he fended them with his massive forearms, like a skilled boxer, and with a terrific side sweep he threw her off her balance. Before she could recover herself he was on her flank, rending and tearing with his long claws and striving to pull her down, while his fangs, fixed in the tough hide of her humped shoulders, baffled her maddest efforts to wrench herself free.
Jed Smith, meanwhile, from a near-by point on the ridge where he had paused to
cut his fishing rod, had seen that first rash of the bear upon the calf. Cursing the loss of his rifle, he jerked the light axe from his belt and went racing down the rugged slope. He felt as if tho.se moose belonged to him. If he could get there in time he knew that he and that valiant cow together were more than a match for any black bear that ever lived.
Just as the cow was sinking to her knees under the irresistible, crushing drag of her mighty antagonist, Jed Smith arrived. Neither of the straining beasts had seen him. Swinging high his little axe, he brought the bright blade down with all his force, splitting the bear’s skull clean to the throat. Then he sprang aside several paces, wiped his weapon on the moss, and stood watching with grim satisfaction; while without a sound the huge black bulk slumped down in a sprawling heap.
Thus suddenly freed, the cow was on her feet again in a flash. She whirled about, ready to renew the battle, though her flank was streaming with blood and her knees trembling. For a second or two, as if dazed, she stared down at the ! motionless form of her foe. Then, with a squeal of fury, she reared to her full height and brought her forehoofs down upon it with all her weight behind them. For the next few minutes she slashed and pounded and trampled blindly, till she was bathed in blood to the knees, and till what had been a bear was but a shapeless mass of dark fur and crimson mangled flesh. At last, convinced that her adversary was effectually defeated, ; she hurried over to the calf, nosing him to make sure he was unhurt.
“You think you done it all yourself, old girl,” muttered Jed, “but if I hadn’t got here in time you were a goner.” And he strode off grinning to find himself that fishing-pool.
That same night the wind fell, and rain came down in torrents. All night Jed Smith sat with his back against the rock, drenched, but smoking philosophically. In the morning the smoke that rose from the blackened forest—which still glowed ! red in spots—was mingled with white ' clouds of steam. Jed allowed himself one “hardtack,” then strapped on his pack, picked up his paddle, and headed for the raft. It was still raining heavily, but he felt that he would be no worse off on the raft than here, and it would be well to push along while the lake was calm. But first he cut himself a strong pole, with which to thrust his raft through the shallow waters along shore at a much better pace than he could hope to make with the paddle.
Just as he was shoving off the squirrel arrived. It came with a scamper and a wild leap, landed close beside him, and sat up, chattering and flirting its tail, on the forward end of the raft. It was not going to be left behind on that dangerous island. It had found Jed Smith very useful, and likely to be more so. It would journey with him till they should reach some favored spot afar from fires and bears, where the fir trees would grow thick and green, and tall enough to be a refuge from the fiercest foxes.