The River Lord
Presenting Towagh the Trout, Mishi the Cougar, and Mokwa the Bear, in a breath-taking wilderness drama
IN THE deep pool which he had taken for his own, Towagh, the big rainbow trout, stirred restlessly in the freshening current. It was spring, and melting mountain snow and the teeming rains had brought the river into freshet. All the way from its glacier-fed source the stream was booming and plunging, roistering its way through canyons that tried in vain to quell it, rousing all living things by its vibrant challenge.
Towagh, king of the Active River trout runs, whose name in the Chinook jargon means “shining,” felt the challenge. For several days he had moved restlessly about the royal pool, often making short wild dashes up or down stream, his keen nostrils piqued by the rousing scent of melting snows.
There was special reason for this. The wavering light and shadow through the depths of his pool brought a glow from Towagh’s spotted flanks that was not all from the sunlight. Even in the depths the big trout’s iridescent length seemed suffused with a rosy glow. He was in what anglers call “the bloom of the trout,” every bodily and sensory function in a state of superconditioning which made it very difficult for Towagh to contain himself.
Towagh was not going to try to contain himself any longer. He was about to migrate, a momentous matter for one who did not even change his mind once in three years and his habits never. But it had suddenly come over Towagh that he had lived in this pool pretty much alone for heaven and himself knew how long, and that he had better go and be a salmon for a while.
His close relatives, the salmon, were crow'ding the river now in a mad race to their spawning beds and some of that fever had entered Towagh’s blood, was drawing him irresistibly in their wake. He started that very morning, forging upstream against the everchilling, ever-thrilling current from the mountains. Few trout dared leave the shelter of the rocks while the chinooks were running, but Towagh was the heavyweight veteran of all the trout along the river, and by the same token the oldest and wiliest, for trout do not reach great size along Active River without phenomenal craft and luck.
He had had his adventures. Many an angler had matched craft with him and lost, and once, four years before, he had even been hooked. But in his fight for freedom he had snagged the line beneath a bridge and finally broken away. From that time on his caution combined with growing craft to tantalize many a fisherman into sleepless vexation.
Towagh did not travel all the time, like the salmon, but in short erratic spurts. Often his fierce red cousins beset him savagely, but among the weedy shallows he could always elude them with ease, and the chinook were too intent on passage to harry him far. Once an otter dogged his trail for several hours, tracking him t hrough water as easily as a hound might track on land.
His journey lasted two days and nights. At the end of that time he knew he had reached his goal, a certain deep pool on the Little Vermilion, a tributary of the Active that came boiling down from Firetop Mountain. Towagh couldn’t know it, of course, but it was here he had been born. But no rainbow trout of Towagh’s size and beauty could hope to hide his bloom beneath a bushel for long, and very quickly the sort of
events which ever followed the river lord began to transpire.
Four fishermen saw and coveted Towagh during his first week on the Vermilion. Mishi, the cougar, who had long looked upon the Vermilion as his own special hunting range, was quite naturally the first to see him. There w'as nothing in the air, in the forest or the streams thereof that Mishi’s pale gooseberry eyes did not see. He was under certain conditions a fisherman of sorts, when by careful stalking he could make his catch with one light ning swift scoop of his paw into the water he loathed. It was thus he stalked the big rainbow that first afternoon, but his cunning only resulted in dousing him to the shoulders in the icy stream. Towagh had seen him a full minute before he leaped.
Mishi went bounding away from the stream as if fearful lest some watching eye had seen his discomfiture. But he did not forget Towagh. Thereafter, four or five times a day he prowled the banks of the stream, watching for a chance to surprise the big trout in one of his basking places.
If was thus that Mishi came to a clash with his one rival for hunting supremacy along the river, a fullgrown black bear, a morose outcast of his own kind, who had become almost wholly carnivorous in his habits. The bear, like many of his breed in late prime, had discovered that fishing, stalking rabbits and pulling down an occasional deer by patience and cunning gave him an abundance of food far stronger and more staying than any diet of grubs, mast and berries. By turning predator, however, he encroached directly upon the cougar’s domain.
For a year this bitter blood feud had existed between the two. It was not in the nature of either rival to bring the issue to direct combat, but at every evidence either found of the other’s hunting, the hate between them grew. When by chance their trails crossed they turned aside through a mutual and wholesome respect for one another’s prowess. On this day, however, all such inhibitions were swept aside when Mishi found the bear fishing for Towagh in his own sly fashion in the deep pool.
With a savage scream that served as a relief valve for his murderous nature, the cougar sprang out of the thickets and landed on the opposite side of the pool, bristling and hissing with fury. Mokwa, as the Indians have named the black bear, was shaken out of his dull complacency by the appearance of this apparition. He backed off and Mishi, taking the movement for faintness of heart, sprang in with a sidewise swipe of an armored paw that was just another name for death. Swift as a boxer, Mokwa bashed back with a squealing bawl of rage.
Thus for a minute the two faced one another, fangs bared and snarling threat for threat. They were two desperately well-matched antagonists, and knew it. Each had felt the other’s power and knew that the result of battle would be death to one or both. Therefore, after a fitting number of challenges to work off their overload of wrath, each backed imperceptibly away and took himself off.
But each left behind him the knowledge of a bitter, lasting hate that would never end so long as both hunted the same district.
Another week passed before a man unwittingly took a hand in this secret conflict of nature. Matt Kennedy, game warden of the upper Vermilion, glimpsed Towagh one day as he passed along the stream and stood for a long time watching the old trout where he basked. Few but a fisherman’s eye could have made him out, so perfectly did his spotted flanks blend with the mottled light and shadow of the pool. Kennedy knew he had never seen a larger or more glorious rainbow, and immediately he was fired with a yearning to capture the beauty.
Stone fly larvae were rising after their winter hibernation in the gravelly stream bed and Towagh was feeding on those that swirled over the riffle into the pool. Kennedy fetched rod and fly box from his cabin. He was a fisherman of parts, and he selected a March brown fly and dropped it with a skilful cast at the pool edge. Towagh rose lazily but made no rush. He took nothing from the surface before inspecting it from many angles. Kennedy made several more casts before Towagh, as if bored with the situation, slipped into the stream and disappeared.
The warden stood for a time mapping out a further campaign against Towagh. The big rainbow was a prize worthy of the subtlest efforts of any angler. There was one sure way of luring him, Kennedy knew, but that was a trick to which no real fisherman ever resorted.
Abruptly his eye was caught by a fresh deep paw mark in the soft loam beside the pool. It was the round-toed print left by the paw of Mishi, the cougar, and Kennedy knew the track well. For several days
he had been tramping the woods on a tireless hunt for Mishi, the biggest cougar the upper Vermilion had ever known. An alarming shortage of deer in the region had turned the eye of the game department on this district. From three to five deer a week were being slaughtered among the hills, Kennedy had learned. Mishi was undoubtedly the chief culprit, but that there was another killer likewise at work the warden was sure. Today, not many hours before, while he had been combing the hills for him, Mishi had passed this way and stopped by the pool. Could he too have been fishing for Towagh?
Next day when Kennedy returned to the stream he found Rashe Howe, a backwoods ne’er-do-well, fishing just above the deep pool. Rashe’s nine-year-old son, a silent, sloe-eyed puck of the woods, peered at Kennedy from behind his father’s jumper. Rashe lived two miles back in the hills. Kennedy had less than no liking at all for the shifty-eyed poacher.
“How do, warden?” Rashe greeted in his muffled, tearing whine. He suffered a perennial growling cold.
“Catching yourself a few salmon?” Kennedy asked. He had a conviction that Rashe must have seen the big rainbow.
“Salmon nothin’. I come down for a mess o’ trout.” “They aren’t supposed to be biting now. Too many salmon crowding the stream.”
“They ain’t, hey?” said Rashe sneeringly. “Mebbe you’d like to know it’s only the limit that’s stopping me now. I fish for ’em, I do. I use my head.”
“You might catch young salmon with a spinner, but not trout,” Kennedy said doggedly. “No trout come out from under the rocks when the chinooks are running.”
“What you call them — mudsuckers?” Rashe snorted, throwing back the flap of a tarpaulin beneath which lay eight or ten rainbow trout. “There they are, an’ I shore didn’t shoot ’em, mister.”
Kennedy’s suspicion was aroused by the fellow’s vehemence. “May be a trick or two I never learned about lifting trout,” he said. He made as if to pass on, then paused. “I was wondering if you could spare one of those small shiners for a fellow’s supper.”
Rashe scowled with displeasure. “Well, if a warden
can’t grabble hisself a fish outen the stream, reckon I can furnish him one. Here—Fll give ye one ready cleaned fer eatin’,” he added with undue vigor.
“No call for that.” Kennedy stooped quickly and picked up a small trout by the tail. “This one will do nicely, and thank you.”
A few hundred yards upstream Kennedy took out his knife and slit open the belly of the trout. Out popped four red berrylike salmon eggs the size of currants.
“So that’s how he strong-armed ’em. Salmon eggs and gang hooks. The thieving old pirate. And he calls himself a fisherman!”
There was a law against salmon-egg bait. No real sportsman ever stooped to using it, but there were many like Rashe Howe who did, and Rashe was an extremely wily customer, hard to pin down in court. Kennedy would have done nothing about the matter had it not been for thought of Towagh. No trout could keep from taking salmon-egg bait. One of the cult of born anglers, he could not stand by and see a poacher hijack by a trick the most glorious rainbow he had ever seen. He’d turn Rashe Howe in before he’d allow that.
He headed back downstream, but when he reached the pool Rashe and his son had gone, taking fish and gear with them. Doubtless the old rogue had suspected what Kennedy would do.
Matt prowled the stream bank until he was sure that Towagh hadn’t come to harm. Again he made cast after adroit cast with his best flies, to no avail. Once the big trout rose lazily for a closer look, but sank smugly into the depths again. He was hog-fat and not at all hungry, for salmon eggs as well as larvae flowed along the stream bed. There were lures that Kennedy might have resorted to, but his pride as a fisherman forbade sharp tactics. He would outwit Towagh with fly and rod or not at all.
In his comings and goings for the next two weeks Kennedy kept tab on Towagh and on the doings of Rashe Howe. The poacher likewise watched all of Kennedy’s movements. Unknown to them, Mishi, the cougar, master of woodcraft, watched them both as well as the movements of his enemy the bear. Only old
Mokwa went about his business with no concern about the other three. All four of them fished lor Towagh periodically and after their fashion.
Kennedy continued to trail the cougar steadily and conscientiously. He likewise set artful traps for the killer, without tangible result. But there were results nonetheless. This constant trailing was having a disastrous result on Mishi’s nerves and temper. The continual proximity of man filled his wicked heart with terror. Time and again he was cheated of a possible kill by the nearness of the man. A careful patient stalk beside a spring would be frustrated by the approach of the warden, so that a kill became harder and harder to make. And Mokwa, who had fed for the most part on Mishi’s abandoned kills, suffered too. Each became more savage day by day, and filled with a growing uneasiness.
Not even a glimpse was vouchsafed Kennedy of the big cat whose fresh pad marks he continually saw along the river bank. But one day he sighted Mokwa feeding on the remains of a kill and guessed correctly that the old bear, soured by age and circumstance, had turned carnivorous. But as he viewed the black rogue along his rifle sights, he hesitated. He had always liked and respected the law-abiding tribe of bears. Slow and clumsy stalker that he was, Mokwa’s killing among the deer would be negligible. What he might kill otherwise was not in Kennedy’s province as game custodian. The warden therefore lowered his weapon, and afterward he never ceased to be thankful for his tolerance.
It was in early June that Rashe Howe went on one of his periodic jags and indirectly hastened the culmination of events. When Rashe took himself into town he passed out of circulation for a fortnight at least. Since the death of his wife a year before, his small son, Sharpe, had had Continued on page 30
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to bear the misery attendant upon these sprees. The boy had long since learned to cook and shift for himself during his father’s absences. But on this particular occasion there was little food in the cabin.
During the first four days of the bacchic black-out Sharpe lived on meal and beans and a rabbit he had shot with his .22 rifle. By the sixth day there was no food left in the cabin. That afternoon Sharpe took his rod and went down trail toward the river with the idea of catching a salmon for his supper. Presently, as the boy threaded the dusky shadows beneath the evergreens, an unpleasant sensation began to steal over him that he was not alone that malignant eyes were watching his every move. Sharpe thought nothing of it at first; he had
never had cause to fear any of the forest dwellers. But the feeling persisted until finally he stopped in his tracks and peered into the blue-black shadows of the spruce on either side.
A moment later his heart gave a violent surge. Framed in a tangle of windfall he saw a round malign head with two ochre-green eyes that fixed him with a cruel intensity. It was a panther, and a big one of its kind, and it had been dogging the boy’s footsteps since he had left the cabin.
Sharpe had never before seen a cougar, but it needed no experience to tell him the danger in which he stood. Mishi, for it was he, had seen the boy many a time before. Unknown to any he had often shadowed him as he and his father followed the forest; trails, and there had been times when he crept dost* and watched the boy alone at his play in the cabin clearing, his eyes grown basilisk with blood lust, his ropelike tail twitching at its tip with
a fierce anticipation. A grown man filled his wicked heart with fear, but children always fascinated him. So did women. For in each he sensed possible prey if ever he could make the one part frenzied courage prevail over the nine parts sheer cowardice that made up his savage nature. No other forest creature has such a proclivity for sensing those who are defenseless or in ill plight in the wild.
HIS breath catching in his throat, Sharpe turned and hurried down trail. A glance flung behind him from time to time showed that the cougar still followed. Twice the boy made out the long tawny body gliding serpentlike through the thickets. Sharpe hurried, almost running, hoping to outdistance the beast. But emboldened by the sight of the boy in evident flight, Mishi began closing the distance between, his tail lashing, fangs bared as his determination grew.
Banishing the last of his caution Sharpe ran now toward the river with frank abandon and with all the strength he had in him. The cougar, fascinated like all his kind by the ancient game of chasing a desperate quarry, covered the ground in long undulating bounds. The natural indirection of all cats plus Mishi’s sheer cruel pleasure in the chase was all that delayed the fatal issue.
Meanwhile Towagh had likewise been having a desperate time. From his advent in the district his chief enemy had been old Mokwa, the black bear. Unskilled though he was as a fisherman, Mokwa more than made up for it in persistence. Long ago he had achieved a paasion for rainbow trout, and never a day passed but that he tried for Towagh in the deep pool.
On this afternoon a new idea occurred to Mokwa. Wading into the stream he tried fishing from the river side of the pool. Towagh rushed downstream to escape, but there was the bear’s bulk completely blocking the pool’s outlet. Sensing his advantage Mokwa squatted and began craftily fishing the pool with swift scoops of his fore paws. Cornered, Towagh darted back and forth in desperation until at last one set of those curved claws hooked him by a lucky stroke. The paw swept upward and Towagh shot through the air in a silvery arc to land flapping frantically on the bank. In a trice one of the bear’s paws pinned him down. Mokwa’s jaws were fairly slavering for the luscious meal in store, but in the very instant he was about to crunch through the big trout’s spine something happened.
Minus his hat and fishing rod, his breath coming in sobbing gasps from his desperate flight, Sharpe Howe came racing around a turn in the river trail, almost colliding with old Mokwa.
Startled, the bear reared on his hind Ugs with a snarl of anger, thinking himelf attacked. At sight of this second orute, it seemed to the frenzied boy that all the beasts of the woods were suddenly converging upon him. With -obbing cry he dodged aside like a Carried rabbit, turning along the upstream trail which led, he knew, to the cabin of Matt Kennedy.
A moment later, instead of being struck down as he ran, a veritable miracle transpired.
I rom behind him there suddenly rose an inferno of snarls, bawls and threshing bodies. For Mishi, stretched out in a sort of flowing crawl, had been only a few rods behind the boy on the trail. The cougar’s pursuit by now had covered nearly half a mile, a trying distance for one of his fidgety, shortwinded race. Minute by minute the ig cat s blood hunger had been mountmg, while his high-tension nervous
system was literally snapping with savage anticipation of the kill. Glimpsing the bear uprisen, as if attacking the boy, Mishi took it for a direct attempt to rob him of his prey—the most unforgivable sin in all the wild. In the dull brain of old Mokwa both boy and cougar were somehow trying to rob him of his hard-caught fish. Rage and hate gripped both beasts; therefore the frenzy with which Mishi sprang at the bear was only equalled by Mokwa’s slow and deadly determination to annihilate the cat.
Mishi gained first advantage by an India-rubber spring which landed him on the neck and shoulders of his foe— 200 lb. of death armed with four sets of sabre claws. The cougar’s tactics were swift, bloody and terrible during those first few seconds, for he knew he had not the power and endurance of his rival. He must kill swiftly, otherwise he would be downed and outmatched in a close-up fight. So he did his evil best to tear his opponent to ribbons with his terrible rowelling hind claws, at the same time cutting in with his long dog fangs toward the arteries in Mokwa’s neck.
The bear, staggering under the weight of his deathly rider, flung himself over on his back and rolled. When the fighters came upright again, Mokwa gained his desired hold — his enemy’s body between his great crushing forearms, thus putting the battle on an equal basis. But Mishi had now buried his fangs in the side of the bear’s throat. For minutes then they threshed and tore at each other’s vitals with raking hind claws. Here the cougar wrought the most terrible havoc, but Mokwa’s great strength was brought to bear on Mishi’s lithe body, never slackening, squeezing tighter and tighter till the cat felt his very ribs cracking under the pressure. His efforts grew weaker, until finally he released his throat hold with a yowl of pain, his first savage fury turning into something like dementia. He fought now to free himself, battering his forepaws against his enemy’s face. That was the unwisest move of all, for Mokwa’s powerful jaws closed on one foreleg and locked.
Mishi uttered a fiendish scream of agony — forced out of him by the inability of all felines to endure pain. From that moment on the tawny beast’s tactics were minus all reason, while Mokwa, though desperately wounded, fought with a deadly calculation. Never for an instant did his demoralizing grip on the cougar’s leg relax. As the moments passed the prolonged pain turned Mishi’s first mad fighting fury into sheer insanity.
At the end of four minutes, the cougar’s writhing body suddenly weakened and collapsed. His struggles flagged and he would have broken free and bolted had he been able. But real fury had come to the surface in Mokwa’s tolerant slowgoing nature for perhaps the first time in his life, sweeping him to the exclusion of all else. He continued to crush and rend with all his great strength that his work of destruction might be complete.
Meantime Sharpe Howe had sped on upstream toward the cabin of Matt Kennedy, but within half a mile he had met the warden coming along the trail. Half incredulous, Kennedy stood listening to the boy’s sobbing hysterical story. Abruptly then he took Sharpe by the hand and together they hurried down trail, in Kennedy’s blood a fierce hope mounting at the possibility in store if the boy’s wild tele were true. They arrived on the scene just in time to see the end of the grim struggle.
Quickly Kennedy dropped from sight amid the undergrowth, pulling the boy
j down beside him. His lean face was taut and glowing at his great good fortune. Before him was the deer slayer j he had trailed so long, within easy range of his rifle
Kennedy had it in mind to bring the killer down as soon as the whirl of battle permitted, but the moments passed and the warden’s rifle did not speak. Something of an outdoors mystic was warden Kennedy, and it became plain to him that an old feud, a vengeance of nature, perhaps, was being settled here for good and all. A mighty killer was Mishi, but he had met his match and more in Mokwa, the black bear, and the manner of it made a wilderness drama such as Kennedy had never before witnessed.
For minutes after the cougar had ceased to struggle, old Mokwa reared above him, one furry arm descending again and again with a strangely human gesture and with the battering force of a pile driver. The first blow rid the Vermilion country of Mishi for all time; but the bear, unheeding, contin! ued to bash the body of his enemy with a fury that left nothing to chance.
From the first all Kennedy’s sympathy had been with the bear. Still breathing hard from the excitement
of the battle, the warden stood up as Mokwa, satisfied at last that victory was his, drew off to doctor his own grievous wounds with a flicking red tongue. And just there Matt Kennedy saw something else.
All during the course of the fight, old Towagh, the partial cause of it all, had lain flapping miserably on the stream bank. Twice he had been trampled and pinned down by the feet of the fighters. Now, as Kennedy’s eye fell on him, his desperate flappings carried him slithering down the bank to the very edge of the water that had lured him with its tantalizing smell. One final struggle and the little stream that had mothered him was once more laving his bleeding flanks and tortured gills.
The old river lord did not linger in the deep pool. Reviving almost instantly he headed out for midstream, angling into the solid sweep of the waters amid their green-flanked boulders. Kennedy saw him leap once above the mad current that welcomed him home, then head downstream in a wild race with the foam-flecked current—back to the safe runs from which he had come. Kennedy knew he would not return, but he was glad.