FICTION

Dead-fall

KENNETH GILBERT June 1 1935
FICTION

Dead-fall

KENNETH GILBERT June 1 1935

Dead-fall

KENNETH GILBERT

OLD ITSWOOT, the she-grizzly, stopped pacing suddenly and lifted her head as though listening. She had heard nothing, and there was no sound in the ice-walled cavern where she had wintered save the petulant mewling of her tiny cub; and yet from the world outside had come a summons as unmistakable as though a Thing had spoken to her in the language of her kind. It was The Call, and it said that no longer need she remain prisoner in this cell where she had spent so many months.

For a day and a night the warm chinook wind lrom the Pacific had been stroking the implacable faces of the Canadian Cassiars. until the bitter harshness of winter went out of them, and they wept snow-water and silt so that the lowland rivers became the color of cream-laced coffee, and the muttering of the cascades deepened to an ominous thunder. Already spring had come to the bottom-lands, and the snow had retreated to sunless thickets, while on southern slopes the soil was broken by the first tiny upshoots of new grass. Within a week the high meadows would be splashed with the violent purples and yellows of deer-tongue lilies, and the hog-backs w'hite with alpine flowers that were each like a pale star. Tasting the freshet water, which told of deep flow over gravel bars that might be dry a month hence, the vanguard of the salmon horde was on its way upstream to the far spawning grounds; and its coming would draw many meat eaters to the riverbanks. Life was quickening again in the North. The Call came more clearly to Itswoot.

She lowered her broad head to nuzzle the cub. Many cubs she had mothered in her time—usually twins, and she never bore young two years in succession—but this one seemed to be the most amazingly beautiful baby of all. True, he was incredibly small to be offspring of such a gigantic beast, for he was scarcely larger than a brush rabbit; but he bore sign which old Itswoot recognized as the mark of future greatness. His silken coat was unnaturally pale, lightening even more on his forehead. Some day he would be a “blaze-face” grizzly of fame as wide as the hills, a king of his kind. The mother heart of Itswoot melted at sight of him. With a lick of her rough tongue, she bestowed an impulsive caress which knocked him off his unsteady legs and made him squeal helplessly until she grunted soft encouragement for him to take nourishment.

When he was quiet and satisfied, she resumed her pacing. The Call was coming stronger now. She padded to the cave entrance and stared out through the single opening which gave ventilation. The rock chamber chosen as a den the previous fall was lined with two inches of ice congealed from her moist breath. She sniffed at the opening, drawing into her lungs the tangy zest of the air; then lifted a mighty paw. smashed the frozen barrier, and stepped out into raw morning.

AGAIN SHE drank deeply of the freshness that sent 1tingly waves of delight through her body, until the cub missed her and came whimpering over the broken shell-ice at the mouth of the cavern. But she was not aware ol him. for the heady draughts of spring made her giddy. Thoughts crowded in her brain. There was much to be done. Instinct bestirred itself.

Slowly she w addled dow n the slope, the cub tagging along with much complaining, for the rocks were cruel to his tender pads. Itswoot’s feet were better protected. While she had dozed through the winter her broad soles had thickened with a stiff outer covering, which would be cast off for softer cushions suitable for the stealthy stalk of game or keeping foothold upon slippengranite. Despite the

hibernation she appeared fat, and her win coat was thick and lustrous. But within a few days she would become gaunt and her pelt would be patchy from rubbing against trees to ease the itching of shedding hair. For the moment, however, she was prime. Even her claws, usually worn short by much digging, had grown long and sharp.

Always she broke her winter fasts with water, and she led the cub to a brawling stream in the valley. There she drank and drank until she became barrel-shaped. Blaze, the cub, tasted the stuff, but found it cold and insipid; not at all like the ration his mother supplied. He followed her again as she moved along a hog-back, her head lowered, nose exploring the ground.

Marmots whistled at sight of her. and dived into sanctuary beneath rocks. In the riffles of the river a fewsalmon could be seen. From a muskeg swamp came the heavy scent of moose. There w'as meat to be had for the taking, but Itswoot wanted none of it now'.

Instead, she stuffed herself with soap-berries, wax-berries and a queer variety of herbs including the torridly pungent root of the jack-in-the-pulpit. By and by. when she was filled to repletion, she sought out the tangle of a saskatoon thicket, and composed herself for a long w'ait.

Puzzled, Blaze strove to draw' her attention, but she gave him no heed. Itsw'oot w'as a sick bear. Nor did she quit the place for three days, and when she did her sleek fatness was gone. She was lanky, but there was a quicker surety in her actions, and her small eyes w'ere bright with hunger. After that fearful purge, she w'anted meat and wanted it promptly.

A hundred yards away she heard a whistler voice warning. As she started toward him. he vanished into his burrow. She sniffed loudly at the hole, from w'hich his muffled shrilling still filtered, then began digging.

She moved dirt and rock almost with the speed of a small steam shovel, tearing out clods of clay with great forepaws, and scuffing aside boulders weighing two or three hundred pounds. At last the whistler, quaking wfith fear, realized that death w'as upon him. and he summoned courage for a wild dash to freedom. But. as he shot past her, old itswoot’s left paw fell heavily upon him. and then she fed on flesh, even though it w'as but a few mouthfuls.

An hour later she ferreted out the body of a yearling mountain sheep at the edge of a snowfield high up. This meat was still fresh, preserved in the icy avalanche which had carried the animal to death from the steeps above. Thereafter, she went fishing; and Blaze stood on shore and marvelled as she worked the shallow's, sometimes holding a salmon under one paw while she killed it with her teeth, or scooping another from the water with a mighty swipe that sent the fish flapping on the bank. But Blaze found that the scales and fins of the catch w'ere too stout fare for his w'eak jaws.

She showed him how to catch mice, and Blaze was inordinately proud w'hen he struck one of the dodging rodents, just as his mother did. He gripped it with needle-

teeth. and growled fiercely at his parent when she came near. But the lesson most important of all she had no chance to impart to him until he had learned many other things, and even then it did not sink home at once.

They were following a low ridge in the Northern night, which in these months was no more than dusk, when Itsw'oot stopped short and wheeled abruptly, head lifted as she tasted the air wfith twfitching nostrils. Down wind had come a scent which even Blaze caught, and which was unaccountably disquieting. His mother rumbled warning of gravest danger; and. with shaggy hackles lifted, she turned and led the way swiftly in the direction whence they had come.

"DLAZE WONDERED what manner of creature it was;

nor could he understand why his big mother, who seemingly feared nothing, was so disturbed. The cub would have lingered in sheer curiosity, hoping to puzzle out the meaning of it, but Itswoot, with a slap of her huge paw, sent him scurrying ahead of her in panic. For a year now she had carried in her body two bullets from the rifle of Fallon, the half-breed trapper, who had caught her robbing his grub cache. True, she had put him up a tree and held him there for hours while he cursed her in a mixture of Tahltan and broken English; but when her rage had cooled somewhat and the pain of her w'ounds had driven her to seek a mud wallow, she was convinced that man was really a dangerous foe—the only one she need fear—even though he cravenly refused to remain on the ground and fight when his fire-spitting stick became silent. He knew well that Itswoot. with her worn claws and tremendous bulk, could not climb trees like a black bear. Here was a cunning and intelligence and a resourcefulness greater than her own. even though she was now strong with the power of mother love. If man could hurt her so grievously, he could destroy her cub. She muttered uneasily, and kept shuffling along sí) rapidly that Blaze at last sat down and squalled protest.

There was instinctive foreboding in that whiff she had caught of the half-breed, but even then she did not suspect to what extent the evil forest gods made medicine. For, it chanced that F'allon’s way led across the ridge, and as he saw the fresh bear tracks in the soft earth, a determination slowly forming in his mind, suddenly crystallized.

The trapping season was past, fur was no longer prime, and Fallon had leisure on his hands. He had not forgotten that Itswoot had nearly killed him when his ancient repeater had jammed on a swelled cartridge. Likewise he believed that she had stolen beaver from his traps the preceding spring. Atop of all was a constant nerve-racking sense of insecurity which he always felt when moving through the tall grass and willow thickets along the streams. There was the possibility that he would meet the she-grizzly face to face when he was at a disadvantage, and the Indian blood in his veins gave him a cowardly streak which was a heritage from redskin ancestors who had no guns, but who slunk

through the forest armed only with bows and arrows, in constant dread of the great beasts who roamed everywhere and stood in no fear of man. Fallon was skilful, and he could have hunted her down and shot her from cover, but there was an element of danger about such procedure. He knew of a better way.

Therefore, he trailed the pair until he learned something of their habits and range. Then, beside a brushy stream along which Itswoot had trodden a path as she moved from one fishing-riflle to another, he set about building a deadfall.

It was a cumbersome, boxlike affair, perhaps ten feet square and made of freshly-cut spruce logs. One side was tilted upward and held in place by a notched stick connected to the trigger inside the structure. The roof was weighted with stones. Fallon knew that if the trigger was touched, the thing would crash down with force enough to smash life from the biggest bear. He had, in fact, used such a device many times in trapping black bear, but never a grizzly. He screened it with brush so that it would not be conspicuous, baited it with a large chunk of fresh salmon, and went back to his cabin to wait.

The job had taken him two days, but he was content. It would not fail. Once Itswoot was dead, he could capture the cub and perhaps sell it to a buyer down-river, for there was always a demand for a young grizzly in the many zoological parks. The cub should bring as much as the pelt of a cross-fox.

* I TIIS MEDICINE the forest gods brewed for the downfall of old Itsw'oot. And yet the unseen rulers of the wilderness may be whimsical and prankish at times. Unknown to himself, Fallon had given gauge to an immutable force of nature which he may have sensed vaguely but could never understand—the law of destiny.

The memory of Itswoot was not a constant thing, and when she saw nothing more of the man, nor winded him. she forgot him temporarily. There was much to be done before the short Northern summer drewr to a close; many things she must teach her son if he was to survive as nature had intended, and some day claim his rightful heritage as a true monarch of the hills. She might even have suspected the

truth; that Blaze was her last cub, that she was too old to have another. So she threw about him a mantle of protection as befitted the most precious thing on earth. Never could old Itswoot quite get over the fact that she was mother to a “blaze-face” grizzly, aristocrat of his kind.

But it was a joyous life that the two of them led, roaming indolently through the tall squaw-grass, wading streams, or dozing for long hours in the cool depths of the buckbrush. Food was plentiful, and Itswoot was blissfully happy. Wild creatures respected her vast bulk and strength, and gave her room, knowing that she would be quick to arouse while with a cub. Once a giant bull moose, a scarred veteran who feared nothing when the madness of the fall love-moon was upon him, but who sulked alone now while he slowly grew a new set of antlers, having cast off his royal spread on the snows of March, nearly stepped on Blaze while making his way to a water-hole.

The bull snorted hatred as the strong grizzly scent filled his nostrils and, with flattened ears and reddened eyes, seemed on the verge of trampling the cub under heavy forefeet. But Blaze squealed at sight of the tall beast standing almost over him. and his cry was instantly answered by Itswoot near by. At her vengeful roar, the moose wheeled and lumbered away in terror, while the raging Itswoot hurled anathema after him.

The lesson stuck with Blaze. He understood that all he need do when in distress was to summon his mother, who was all-powerful and against whom nothing could prevail. Whether this conviction gave him added courage, or whether he was already feeling the arrogance of such a king as he would become. Blaze grew more daring. With a mother like Itswoot, nothing could happen to him. Man he had never seen, and the warning she had tried to convey when they winded Fallon, was forgotten by the cub. Time after time Itswoot was compelled to discipline him for rambling away on some whimsical juvenile exploration, but Blaze was headstrong and heedless.

Thus it was one day when Itswoot was slumbering in the depths of a windfall near one of the many streams which the pair frequented. Blaze, restless and consumed with vast curiosity concerning things in the woods which were still a

mystery to him. wandered farther than usual. Nosing his way along the trail, a puff of wind brought to him the smell of fish.

He was instantly interested, for he was hungry. Salmon were scarce, now that the “run” was over, and Itswoot seldom caught one. Blaze knew all about fish and their toothsome excellence. Unerringly he followed the scent up-wind, and saw that it came from what appeared to lie a brushcovered cave.

I íe hesitated now, a little fearful that some strange creature might be within. Yet his eyes and nose gave no warning of another’s presence. His small jaws slavered as the fish smell came stronger. His mother was near; one squeal and she would appear, roaring. Boldly, then. Blaze moved closer, determined that he was going to eat fish. At the edge of the deadfall he paused, but his eyes located the chunk of salmon on the trigger, he went forward eagerly.

Y\7TTH HIS knowledge of wild creatures as a back-

* * ground. Fallon’s study of Itswoot and her cub revealed their simple story all too plainly. In covering their range, he observed, they would appear at certain points with almost clocklike regularity. Therefore, on the second day after Fallon had finished the deadfall, he knew that it was time for him to pay it a visit.

That morning he cleaned and oiled his gun. and sharpened his hunting knife. There was no definite assurance of just what might happen; and Fallon, aware of Itswoot’s tremendous power, to say nothing of her ferocity, now that a cub was trailing her. had declared war. If anything went wrong, he might expect the worst. A grizzly can “carry lead," and hunting one was not to his liking, even though the advantage of craft and cunning lay with him. He was trying to kill her in an unfair manner, and he had a heavvbore black-powder rifle to back him up. But Fallon was only a fair shot, and knew it, and he was uncertain as to his own coolness in a real emergency. Consequently, as he moved down the grizzly trail beside which he had set the trap, he went cautiously, gun at ready, the whites of his eyes showing as he scanned the coverts, his ears attuned to catch the slightest warning.

But he heard nothing, saw nothing to cause alarm. Courage flowed back to him as the deadfall came to view, for he saw that it had not been disturbed. Although disappointed, he reasoned that Itswoot and her cub had been unaccountably delayed, and would be along within a few hours. He felt certain she would not resist the lure of the bait. Meanwhile, he would make certain that no smaller meat-eater, such as a wolverene, had cunningly extracted the fish without releasing the trigger.

In fact as he came up he saw that the ground under the edge of the trap had been scuffed. He wondered if Itswoot had been there and had seen through the ruse. He stooped to peer inside, but the shadow was so deep that he could not make out just what had happened. But he did see that the bait, partly eaten, was lying on the ground. Some prowler, too small to touch off the heavy mechanism, had succeeded in robbing the deadfall.

This called for remedy. Fallon uncocked his gun, laid it down, and crawled under the tilted logs. He retrieved the meat, and was in the act of fastening it more securely to the trigger, when he suddenly became aware that he was not alone.

High in an upper corner of the deadfall clung the grizzly cub. So stealthy had been Fallon’s approach that Blaze

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was not aware of it until he had caught the man’s scent. With retreat cut off, he had scrambled up the logs, hoping to hide until the trapper was gone.

Fallon’s jaws gaped at sight of the cub; then his eyes widened in horror as the significance of the thing dawned on him. Itswoot was near! At this moment she might be watching him. If Fallon had been a white man with steady nerves, he might have quietly backed out until he could get hands on the gun.

But stark terror of the mighty Itswoot made him panicky. He whirled to dive outside, but in his mad haste struck the trigger heavily.

Instantly there was a creaking sound, followed by an earth-quaking impact, as the burdened log walls dropped within two inches of the man’s face. A thousandth of a second later and he would have been flattened by the fearful weight. And yet there was no moment given over to thankfulness for escape from death, for the thud of the deadfall produced results quickly. The jar dislodged Blaze from his precarious hold,

and he fell close to the man. The air vibrated to his thin, nasal wail.

Aghast at the portent of that cry, the man fell upon the cub, trying to get him by the throat, the nose—any way to prevent repetition of that summons. But Blaze snarled and scratched so viciously that he broke loose. Now his squalling could have been heard for half a mile.

Fallon whipped out the knife to silence him, but before he could use it there came an ominous roar which turned his blood to water. Itswoot was coming! There was a crash of brush, and then the deadfall shuddered as her thousand pounds of unleashed fun: struck it. Fallon shrank into the farthest comer, knife-point held in front of him, eyes shining like those of a trapped animal.

Blaze whined frantically as he sought to reach his mother, while she raged and bit savagely at the logs, ripping loose bark and splinters with her strong teeth. Her coughing bellows were cut through by the screeching of the cub. Breathless, sick with fear, Fallon could not move.

BUT AFTER a minute of it, Itswoot calmed as though she realized the futility of this manner of attack. Fallon’s breath sucked inward with a whistling sound of relief. He blessed the fact that he had built those walls so strongly, and weighted them with at least a ton of stone. He was safe !

Still rumbling, however, Itswoot made careful inspection of the place, sniffing deeply at every crack in it. She even climbed on top, and pawed among the rocks, but the construction of it there seemed to baffle her. Presently she descended, made another circuit of the place—then began to dig !

Again terror seized Fallon, for he knew well how fast she could remove dirt. But he still had the knife. As Itswoot’s broad paw appeared under the edge of the log, he drove the blade into her toes; and, with a blood-chilling roar of agony, she withdrew the foot hastily.

Again she tried it, and again he defeated her. At a new place she started another tunnel. Yet he was ready for her. and this time she gave herself up to an appalling burst of fury that spent itself against the unyielding logs.

The cries of the cub had changed to a piteous moaning. He knew that she was trying to free him, but he likewise knew that she was helpless. For that matter, Itswoot also appeared to accept the fact that she was beaten. She lay close to the walls, licking her wounded paws: and sometimes she put her nose to a crack and made a queer sound as though she was trying to comfort and assure her cub. She was breathing heavily, perhaps more from her gusty rage than from exertion. And yet it was plain that she had not given up; nor would she do so as long as Blaze remained a prisoner.

But Fallon was not reassured by her quiet. He knew that she would remain here, if necessary, until both he and the cub were dead. He foresaw an end more slow and horrible than he could have conceived of his own accord. Thirst would kill him before hunger. After that, Itswoot would get inside, but it would be too late to save her cub. And yet she would maintain her vigil to the last.

If she would only get hungry and wander off for a time, he could dig out. That would be the only way he could escape, for the trap was too solidly built.

The apparent resignation of his mother at last broke the nerve of the cub. It seemed to him that she had forgotten him, and that she might abandon him to his fate with this dread enemy. He set up a sudden bawling, and began scratching at the logs.

The appeal was too great for old Itswoot to ignore. Perhaps she had been turning the problem over in her wise old brain, and gathering fresh strength while she rested. For she stood up on hind feet with a guttural bellow as of determination. Fallon, clutching the knite, awaited the thing which he knew was going to happen. This time she would not fail! The knife was a puny weapon which she would ignore.

As she reared, Itswoot caught one of the comer logs between her great forelegs which, at the shoulder, were as thick as the man’s waist. Never before had she fully tested her unbelievable strength. Of a sudden she became lumpy, distorted, out of shape as muscles which she had never invoked to their fullest, swelled and taut-

ened and the upper half of the boxlike deadfall lifted.

Higher and higher, while her lips wrinkled from the effort, and her head came through the opening. Fallon screamed at sight of her slavering jaws and bared fangs, her bloodshot eyes fixed on him with grim promise. Still the logs rose. The man-built thing which, seemingly, only dynamite could have tom apart, was giving way to the miraculous power of mother love; the same power, no matter how exemplified, that has tenaciously kept life on earth since the first weird dawn. The gibbering Fallon knew that something more than sheer strength possessed her, and he quailed in the presence of it.

BUT IT WAS the cub who unwittingly came to Fallon’s rescue when doom was upon the man. Blaze saw the opening his mother had created, and scrambled through it. Once outside, he resumed his squealing, to draw her attention to the amazing fact that he was free once more. He stood on hind feet, pawing at her, trying to tell her what had happened.

It was too much for Itswoot to resist; the mother hunger in her overcame all else. Abruptly she withdrew her head, released the logs, and they fell jarringly. Greater than desire for retribution was anxiety to know that all was well with her cub.

Carefully she explored him with her nose, to make certain that he was not injured. Fallon was forgotten utterly. She licked the cub’s face with vast tenderness, and made queer sounds of endearment.

And then presently the two of them moved slowly upstream, holding to the well-worn trail, Itswoot leading, the cub tagging happily at her heels. It mattered not that at every step she took there was a blood-stained imprint in the soft forest mold. Such wounds as Fallon had inflicted with his knife were trivial to one with the vitality that she possessed; minor pain, blotted out by the realization that her lastborn cub was with her again, and unharmed. His destiny would be fulfilled.

Not once did she look back while the still trembling half-breed set about extricating himself, grateful for his life, although with a jump nervousness that would remain with him as a curse for years to come. Nor would the finest fur-catch that he could hope to make, induce him to stay longer in this region. There were trapping grounds that would be safer than this, for he might meet old Itswoot again some day, and he could never rest again while that possibility existed. The pagan deities of his Tahltan forebears had been merciful in his hour of ordeal; they might not be so next time.

A mile upstream, led the way toward a knife-edged ridge which ran upward to the great slopes. The snow line had withdrawn to the heights in the long hours of sunlight, and the lush green of vegetation was pressing upward behind it. Many wilderness folk had kept pace with it. Forage would be good in the higher mountain parks until the first blizzard came. Itswoot and Blaze should thrive. Besides, the cub must know even the heights of the domain which would one day be his kingdom.

As they paused to rest briefly atop the ridge, the pair of them stood silhouetted against the blue-grey, soft summer sky, great mother, and tiny son, the exalted of this rugged land. Presently they moved on toward the security of the peaceful peaks.