FICTION

King of the Muskeg

Time had dethroned old Mowitch, King of the Kalkeetna, but his last and greatest battle was a wilderness epic

KENNETH GILBERT October 1 1944
FICTION

King of the Muskeg

Time had dethroned old Mowitch, King of the Kalkeetna, but his last and greatest battle was a wilderness epic

KENNETH GILBERT October 1 1944

King of the Muskeg

KENNETH GILBERT

THE love moon of the moose clan had nearly waned, and the sharp bite of the wind foretold the coming of deep winter Snows when the

struggle for life against famine and furred enemies would begin in earnest. But for old Mowitch, who had haunted the muskeg swamps of the Kalkeetna for all the years that there were points on his broad antlers, the coming of winter foretold a crisis of greater significance than the ordinary struggle for existence. His kingship of the scattered moose bands which roamed the Kalkeetna hills had been successfully challenged by younger, strong bulls, and he foresaw himself being compelled to spend the months of snapping frost alone as a pariah, an outcast, an easy prey for the packs of gaunt wolves.

Instinct long ago had taught him that in numbers there is strength. As head of a band which would “yard” in the tamarack fastnesses, where there would be many eyes and noses to detect thestealthy approach of foes, the chances of survival were better, particularly if the cows and calves had the wisdom of the old monarch to guide them. But alone he would surely perish, and perhaps the band which he had successfully shepherded through the previous winter, and now

ruled by a truculent but foolish young bull who was no match for the craft of wolves, would perish likewise, one by one.

That is why old Mowitch, curved muzzle uplifted and the tingly north wind stroking the bristly ruff of coarse hair about his neck and shoulders and the bell-like pendant from his throat, stood in silence at the edge of the swamp, listening with intentness, for the veering breeze had carried a sound which electrified him.

Even as he waited he heard it again, faint and with an unmusical roughness, “Oo-oah! oo-oah! ah-h-hh!” The eyes of the giant rolled, and in the moonlight glowed with sudden opalescence as he turned his head. It was the forlorn cry of a cow moose, a wanderer such as he, lonely and seeking company, likewise aware of the approaching winter and the need for joining others of her kind for protection against the foes who could travel over the frozen drifts with ease when the strong cold came. Mowitch was about to answer reassuringly that he was coming to her side when he heard another bull reply.

The strange bull was off to the left, farther from the cow than was Mowitch. At sound of the other’s

answer, rough and challenging to all other bulls, but at the same time cajoling to the lonely cow, the eyes of Mowitch flamed in sudden hatred. The coarse hair over his foreshoulders lifted threateningly, and he pawed at the earth with a heavy forehoof. Then he raised his muzzle and blared defiance at the unknown bull.

Almost instantly he was answered derisively, and Mowitch shook his heavy antlers in impotent anger. Once more he roared so that the echoes went booming through the swamps; then he set off on a swift trot for the place where he knew the cow was waiting. This, he realized, probably was his last opportunity to take charge of a band and “yard” up in a swamp, guarding his charges safely through the winter, for if he won victory now other cows and calves as well as immature bulls would accept his leadership. His days of being an outcast would be ended. Hope flamed up in him as he went plowing his way through the brush, directly to the spot where he knew the cow would be waiting Nearing the point at last he stopped, for years of experience had ripened him in the ways of his enemies, some of whom were men.

The cow had not sounded her call again; perhaps

she was waiting coyly there for the appearance of her suitor. Yet Mowitch knew, too, that men could make moose sounds by means of birchbark horns, and he wanted to be certain that this call was genuine. So he hesitated—and in that moment the red gods of the wilderness scorned him.

For he heard the eager, questioning bawl of the other bull, who knew little or nothing of the wiles of human hünters. The younger bull had plunged recklessly ahead, and now the cow answered him. Perhaps she had already made up her mind that a mate who was as cautious as Mowitch was not to her liking. Once more the unseen bull called to her reassuringly, and once more she answered. The impatience of Mowitch, as he realized that he had been a laggard, broke bounds. Now he brushed caution aside and went on, yet realizing that it was probably too late. As he smashed through the last saskatoon thicket and came out at the edge of a natural clearing beside a muskeg pool, he sensed what he had lost.

THREE young cows stood there by the gleaming, moonlit water, and farther off was a pair of calves. Here was a band needing only a leader. The heart of Mowitch pounded at sight of the sleek, hornless cows. He blared greetings, but at that moment he saw that there was more to this docile band than had first appeared. Half-screened by a willow thicket was a tall-shouldered bull with a formidable rack of horns, and at sound of Mowitch’s bawl the other moved jealously forward.

This was the thing which Mowitch had expected, hence he was not surprised. Echoing the throaty challenge of the younger bull he wheeled in the direction of his rival, shaking his head threateningly. The temper of the other gave way abruptly. Lowering his rack he charged.

But Mowitch was a seasoned battler who bore many scars of other engagements in years past, and he knew what to do. Deftly he stepped aside, intending to drive his ponderous, palmated horns into the side of the other as the latter flashed past. But at that instant the wilderness gods betrayed old Mowitch. As he avoided the rush of the younger bull he stepped unwittingly into a muskeg pocket and went down, almost chest-deep. The young bull, his muscular reactions quick to seize the advantage, threw his body half around and struck. There was a hollow thud as old Mowitch took the impact of a thousand pounds of bone and sinew full on the ribs. He went flat, legs sprawled grotesquely, belly exposed. Only the fact that the young bull was thrown off-balance at the moment saved Mowitch from being ripped open.

Both battlers recovered, but the younger bull was quicker. Now he knew he had his foe half-whipped, and he was determined to press home the victory. Mowitch straightened, but only in time to meet the other’s second lunge. Insecure as his footing was, Mowitch had no time to counter with an attack of his own. Indeed he could not set himself as the furious thrust of the young bull overtook him. Mowitch went back on his haunches as with a slithering clatter the antlers of the two great beasts came together. Back and still back, while the young bull put all his strength into the effort. It seemed that Mowitch would be driven into the muskeg, but the other had to lessen the pressure while he recovered his own footing. Desperate now, and with death confronting him, Mowitch summoned his muscles for the effort to break free. He did so just as his enemy drew back slightly for another thrust.

Mowitch was whipped, and he knew it. The cows and even the calves stared at him curiously, as though unwilling to believe that a gladiator of his size could be humiliated so thoroughly. The fight had gone out of him. Pain from the cracked ribs seared his side. He knew he would be helpless if he choose once more to face the onslaught of the victory-mad bull. He managed to heave his ponderous body clear of the muskeg and, as his foe drove in, evade the charge. Then, while the other was recovering, Mowitch turned and fled.

Triumphantly his rival blared scorn after him, but Mowitch did not pause to answer. He knew when he’d had enough. He knew, too, that the cows were aware of his predifcament and were watching his flight with the loathing which they would bestow upon a loser, and especially a coward. But it made no difference to Mowitch. The red gods had played him false, and all that he sought now was to get away. He went crashing through the brush in mad flight until he no longer heard the blasts of his victorious foe. Nor did he stop until miles had separated him from the spot. In the depths of a thicket he turned and faced the direction he had come. But there was no pursuit, and presently uneasiness died out of him. Once more he had a feeling of loneliness and frustration.

Yet he had not acted the coward. Instinct drove him to preserve his own life, and he knew, with the odds against him as they had been, if he hadn’t fled when he did he would have died. He believed he could master the younger bull if given a chance, but first he had to collect his wits and strength. As he stood there the wind increased its moaning note and the stars were blotted out by heavy clouds. With dawn came the first whirling, stinging flakes of the blizzard.

THERE was no returning now to the spot where he had left the band. Probably the victor had already led them away to some sheltered swamp to wait out the storm.

He may have realized that luck had been on his side when he worsted the giant Mowitch, and if that was the case he would not risk battle again if he could help it. Yet Mowitch, after that first defeat, would have gone back if it had not been for the blizzard. As it was now it would be impossible to find the herd. Impatiently, then, he stood under the screen trees while the snow deepened about him. It was four days later that the blizzard broke,

Time had dethroned old Mowitch, King of the Kalkeetna, but his last and greatest battle was a wilderness epic

for this was the first freak storm of the winter. In the bitter cold which followed the love moon died. Now there remained the matter of finding sanctuary where Mowitch could spend the winter.

The swamp where he had waited out the storm was unsuitable because the forage was poor. In the stillness of that first night after the storm died he heard the weird, savage cry of hunting wolves. Already they were banding together. The thought gave him uneasiness and drove him out toward the east, where he followed along a low ridge before dipping down into another muskeg bottom and a larger swamp.

Ice on the pools had thickened, but he would not trust his weight to it yet. Cunningly he picked his way about these frozen-over traps; nor did he stop until he was deep in the heart of the tamaracks. Here was such a place as he would have chosen if he had been leading his own herd. There was poplar, birch and other deciduous trees on whose bark he could survive, and there were great stands of them. He began laying out his “yard,” a series of trails which fanned out in different directions from one stand to another. When the snow deepened and the wolves came he could have these trails beaten down so that he could move about without being trapped in the drifts. But it was a lonely life, and all the while there rankled in his memory that last scene when he had fled in humiliation and haste.

So cleverly had he chosen his location that, although he heard wolves from afar, the grey killers did not discover him, for they swung along the ridges on either side without catching his scent. For weeks he lived thus, while one blizzard followed another, and the Kalkeetna hills were locked in frost. Yet one still night, with the moon riding high and the frost so sharp that the occasional popping of saplings as ice struck at their marrow was so loud that it sounded like rifleshots, he became aware that his luck had played out at last.

It may havé been the stillness, which carries sound a great distance on a frosty night, which betrayed him. He had been thrashing about in the ice-brittle brush, pushing with his chest against saplings until they bent

over so that he could get at them, nibbling the tender shoots which grew at the tops of the small trees. At times he had heard the wolf cries, but he gave them little attention. They did not threaten him, and he believed himself safe. Then came a wailing cry from the top of the nearest ridge, and it was answered from the ridge behind. Two wolf packs were abroad and were signalling each other. So loudly came the calls that for a long moment he was silent, listening, uneasy for once. But the silence clamped down as heavily as before and, as he was hungry, he resumed his noisy feeding. It was nothing which he heard but which rather was gleaned from the chill air which caused him to swerve suddenly and stare behind him. Ho saw a shadow moving under the brush. Another! Still more that skulked across the open spaces, drawing nearer and nearer. That signal which one wolf pack had given to another had meant that they’d found his hiding place at last; and now they were closing in for the kill.

He knew their tactics well. They would seek to confuse him until a bold wolf could attack from behind, hamstringing him and making him helpless to run or fight. Even as realization came to him the attack began.

A pair of wolves charged threateningly from in front, as though they were going to leap at his throat. He backed swiftly, with lowered horns. But he did not leave the rear unguarded. Just in time he turned his head slightly to mark a wolf sneaking upon him swiftly from behind. Like lightning the great bull wheeled, and a sidesweep of his mighty antlers caught the attacker off-guard. Silently, but writhing in agony, the wolf spun end for end through the air, landing with a crash in a thicket. One of his attackers gone. But Mowitch continued to hack away, still with head lowered, and trying to guard every exposed point. He kept on backing until at last his legs sank deeply into soft snow. He had come to the end of his “yard !”

No further retreat was possible. Now he had to stand and fight. But he knew that if he attempted it the wolves would press in and pull him down. A younger, less experienced battler than Mowitch might have chosen to fight it out that way, but he chose a bolder course. Dropping his head until the great rack of antlers almost brushed the snow, he charged.

SURPRISED, the wolves gave way. But one of them was a little slow in recovering, and the heavy hoofs of the bull pounded life from him. Mowitch raced on, while the silent killers swung in behind. They would chase him to the opposite end of the “yard,” and this time they would be ready if he sought to wheel. But Mowitch did not pause. He went hurrying off into the snow, and kept floundering through it, although the drifts sometimes reached to

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his belly. Panic had seized him, for he was alone and his enemies were numerous. If he had been the head of a herd they could have withstood this attack, but the persistent foe would keep at him until he was pulled down. For a long moment his craft and courage gave way to natural terror.

Yet when he recovered his wits it was too late to turn back The killers were trailing him closely, and if he sought to regain the temporary sanctuary of the “yard,” they would close in promptly. So he kept on, hoping that he might find refuge in another swamp. The bulk of him furrowed a deep slot through the snow. The wolves did not burry matters. Probably they figured he would either tire himself out, or get bogged in a spring hole where the mud had never frozen under the drifts. Once they bad him at a disadvantage they would strike quickly. Eight or nine of them were left—great shaggy beasts whose forebears had crossed the ice pack from Siberia -and they followed with patient deadliness, tongues lolling, breath curling about their strong, vhite-fanged jaws, so that in the frosty air they seemed like misty ghosts. They did not come near to Mowitch, because they knew by now that he could turn and strike with appalling abruptness. They were ravenous, and yet they knew they could afford to wait. The prey was almost within their grasp, and before dawn came they’d glut themselves on warm, sustaining flesh.

Mowitch plowed on. The terrific exertion of forcing his great body through the drifts was telling on him, hut he knew better than to stop. A half mile, a mile, and still another mile. Then the going became easier as the snowshallowed on a ridge. He dipped down into the valley beyond, and of a sudden had a feeling of familiarity. This was muskeg country such as he had ranged for years. Ahead was a great swamp. If he reached that he might he able to fend off his attackers until they got disgusted or left him, or he

might be able to whip them if he could make a stand in the tamarack jungle. He speeded up his gait a little, and now the wolves fanned out behind him, as though making certain that he did not turn. They, too, wanted to corner him where the thickets offered cover and where the snow was deep.

Instinct alone told him how to avoid the muskeg pools buried under the drifts, where if he became mired the grey killers would finish him off in a few moments. On and on he went, while the tall tamaracks seemed to reach up as though to screen him. He floundered through the last thicket, and then, miraculously, he found packed snow beneath his feet. He was on a well-beaten trail. He had blundered into another moose “yard!”

The discovery gave him sudden confidence. Whether he would be welcomed here by a strange herd would be doubtful; instinct alone told him that there was security in numbers. He could make a stand and go down fighting, as maybe a younger and more foolish bull would have done. But the grey killers were already snapping at his heels. Already lie had felt several times the sharp pang of teeth as they met through the flesh of his hocks. Expertly the wolves were trying to hamstring him, cut him down. He blundered along the trail, and of a sudden was confronted by an apparition.

Another bull faced him, one nearly as large but obviously younger, for his spread of antlers was not so elaborate. But there was the flame of battle in the young stranger’s eyes. Behind the bull, Mowitch could see other moose. .Several hornless cows and calves. They were staring at him with alert uneasiness, unable to comprehend for the moment what was happening. But Mowitch knew them instantly, even as he did the bull before him. Here was his lost herd. It was this bull who had beaten him by chance when Mowitch had stepped into the muskeg pothole. The young bull blew a blast of defiance and, shaking his head threateningly, advanced. Once before he had beaten the old giant; and there was no doubt in

his mind that he would be able to do it again. j r ^

Mowiteh, on guard suddenly, í^ok a step backward. As he did so he glimpsed something grey, a furry move at his flank, and again came excruciating pain. Other sinister shadows closed in, striking. A wolf leaped for his throat, but Mowiteh shouldered him off and struck once with a massive forefoot. The wolf sprawled on the snow, twitching helplessly, fangs bared. Then the others came in a shifting, feinting cloud that swirled around him.

The young bull, alarmed and puzzled, drew back, protecting his herd which crowded nervously behind him. Things were happening too fast for him to understand. He feared the wolves, but more than that he feared Mowiteh, with a jealous hatred. It seemed to him that the great bull was trying to usurp the kingship of this swamp. He hesitated warily, while the wolves, maddened now by the scent of blood which they had drawn, were ending the battle as quickly as possible. They seemed to sense that Mowiteh was weakening, and experience had told them that once he was dead it would be comparatively easy to finish off the herd, even the young bull among them. Several of their number were already dead, but they were still numerous. They closed in for a quick kill.

But Mowiteh, aware that he could expect no help from the young bull or the docile cows, was willing now to make his stand. Roused by the attack he swung about abruptly. Too late a wolf which had dropped into the slot of snow tried to escape by leaping out of it. The flailing antlers of Mowiteh beat him down, and the punishing forefeet took vengeance. With a sidewise sweep of the same horns Mowiteh hurled another attacker clear over a nearby drift, and the wolf started crawling away, hind legs dragging. A pair of them drove at his throat, but their fangs closed harmlessly through his tough bristles. He caught one on the point of his right antler and tore it cruelly. Just in time the second foe evaded his lunge.

THE fury of the great bull appalled even the blood-crazed wolves. They had believed that he would be comparatively easy prey, but each time they closed in the effort had taken toll among them. Three or four were left now, and some skulked in the coverts. But they seemed to be taking silent counsel of whether their try was worth while. Flanks and chest bloodied, old Mowiteh stood his ground, watching them, trying to guess their next manner of attack. When it did come, their skill was such that they nearly caught him unawares.

From a snow-laden thicket a pair of wolves sprang suddenly for his throat. But they did not intend to get within reach of his antlers or terrible forefeet; all they wanted was to draw his attention. For as they did so a grey beast flashed in from behind. With head swerved so that his jaws were horizontal, the wolf struck at the tendons which ran down the back of the bull’s legs. Once they were cut, Mowiteh would drop and the killers could finish him at ease. But by chance Mowiteh did the very thing which he was not expected to do. He dropped his hindquarters, even as he raised his forefeet to fend off the feinting attack from in front. The wolf that had hoped to hamstring him missed by inches. Mowiteh wheeled suddenly, and the wolf was trapped within the slot of the beaten trail. The bull merely flattened him by a lurch of the powerful hindquarters. Blinded by being half-buried in snowr, the wolf tried to leap clear.

But Mowiteh struck with that flailing, uplifting blow of his antlers. The wolf, torn half in two, was literally lifted out of the snow and flung into the brush.

The next instant the other attackers were gone like grey ghosts, swiftly and silently. The battle was over.

The giant heaved himself to forefeet and stared about him. But no more foes threatened. And yet in front of him was the young bull, the herdmaster, still regarding the antics of his powerful enemy with puzzled bewilderment. He had seen the fight with the wolves, but had discovered no way by which he could enter it. He was better content to protect the herd behind him. Now the fight was over, but the truculent Mowiteh was not finished.

Immediately in front of him he saw the rival who, by lucky chance, had humiliated and disgraced him only a few weeks before. In a dread crisis the young bull had failed in responsibility toward his herd. He had hung back while Mowiteh had done the fighting. The cows and calves must have sensed this, too, in the telepathic fashion which all wild creatures possess. For they shifted and milled uneasily, and pulled back from where they had gathered behind him. Apparently no word was passed, yet each of the band understood the situation as though it had been painstakingly explained.

The young bull understood it, too, as he saw his prestige waning. He blew a challenging blast and waved his antlers in threatening fashion. But Mowiteh, the wounds of battle fresh and raw on his great frame, did not waste time with such preliminaries. He merely dropped his head and advanced.

For a long moment the young bull held his ground. But the threat of the gladiator who had virtually wiped out a wolf pack was too much to be ignored. At sight of the oncoming rival, who had vanquished foes before which any one bull, however strong, must quail, the leader gave way. In a sudden rush of terror he wheeled and went charging through the herd.

They gave ground for him willingly and understandingly. Whimsically they had changed their allegiance. The giant Mowiteh would be their recognized king hereafter. The bull who had been the leader was already forgotten, ignored. The weaker members of the herd crowded forward, anxious to show that they had been willing to acknowledge the prowess of Mowiteh from the beginning.

Back among the scornful calves and young cows the deposed bull sulked as Mowiteh regained his heritage.

+ + +

Fishy

A professor at London University, recently speaking on the subject of the reform of English spelling suggested that‘fish’should be spelled‘ghoti’. This, he went on to explain quite seriously, was justified by pointing out that according to ordinary pronunciation ‘gh’ was the sound of ‘f’ as in ‘rough’, ‘o’ in ‘women’ sounded as ‘i’, and ‘ti’ in ‘nation’ was the same as the ‘sh’ in fish. Nobody quite knew the answer to this, until someone wrote to The Times and related that a foreigner, after complaining to two English professors of the capricious values of the English alphabet, asked them what ‘ghoti’ spelled. One, naturally, said it spelled ‘fish’. But the other observed that ‘ghoti’ was not a word at all, because all the letters were silent—‘gh’ as in ‘though’, the ‘o’ as in ‘journey* and the ‘t’ as in ‘castle’. — World Review.