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Secret of the Woods(Chapter7)

2006-09-08 20:08

  Chapter VII Following the Deer pic

  I was camping one summer on a little lake——Deer Pond, the natives called it——a few miles back from a quiet summer resort on the Maine coast. Summer hotels and mackerel fishing and noisy excursions had lost their semblance to a charm; so I made a little tent, hired a canoe, and moved back into the woods.

  It was better here. The days, were still and long, and the nights full of peace. The air was good, for nothing but the wild creatures breathed it, and the firs had touched it with their fragrance. The faraway surge of the sea came up faintly till the spruces answered it, and both sounds went gossiping over the hills together. On all sides were the woods, which, on the north especially, stretched away over a broken country beyond my farthest explorations.

  Over against my tenting place a colony of herons had their nests in some dark hemlocks. They were interesting as a camp of gypsies, some going off in straggling bands to the coast at daybreak, others frogging in the streams, and a few solitary, patient, philosophical ones joining me daily in following the gentle art of Izaak Walton. And then, when the sunset came and the deep red glowed just behind the hemlocks, and the gypsy bands came home, I would see their sentinels posted here and there among the hemlock tips——still, dark, graceful silhouettes etched in sepia against the gorgeous after-glow——and hear the mothers croaking their ungainly babies to sleep in the tree tops.

  Down at one end of the pond a brood of young black ducks were learning their daily lessons in hiding; at the other end a noisy kingfisher, an honest blue heron, and a thieving mink shared the pools and watched each other as rival fishermen. Hares by night, and squirrels by day, and wood mice at all seasons played round my tent, or came shyly to taste my bounty. A pair of big owls lived and hunted in a swamp hard by, who hooted dismally before the storms came, and sometimes swept within the circle of my fire at night. Every morning a raccoon stopped at a little pool in the brook above my tent, to wash his food carefully ere taking it home. So there was plenty to do and plenty to learn, and the days passed all too swiftly.

  I had been told by the village hunters that there were no deer; that they had vanished long since, hounded and crusted and chevied out of season, till life was not worth the living. So it was with a start of surprise and a thrill of new interest that I came upon the tracks of a large buck and two smaller deer on the shore one morning. I was following them eagerly when I ran plump upon Old Wally, the cunningest hunter and trapper in the whole region.

  "Sho! Mister, what yer follerin?"

  "Why, these deer tracks," I said simply.

  Wally gave me a look, of great pity.

  "Guess you're green——one o' them city fellers, ain't ye, Mister? Them ere's sheep tracks——my sheep. Wandered off int' th' woods a spell ago, and I hain't seen the tarnal critters since. Came up here lookin' for um this mornin'."

  I glanced at Wally's fish basket, and thought of the nibbled lily pads; but I said nothing. Wally was a great hunter, albeit jealous; apt to think of all the game in the woods as being sent by Providence to help him get a lazy living; and I knew little about deer at that time. So I took him to camp, fed him, and sent him away.

  "Kinder keep a lookout for my sheep, will ye, Mister, down 't this end o' the pond?" he said, pointing away from the deer tracks. "If ye see ary one, send out word, and I'll come and fetch 'im.——Needn't foller the tracks though; they wander like all possessed this time o' year," he added earnestly as he went away.

  That afternoon I went over to a little pond, a mile distant from my camp, and deeper in the woods. The shore was well cut up with numerous deer tracks, and among the lily pads everywhere were signs of recent feeding. There was a man's track here too, which came cautiously out from a thick point of woods, and spied about on the shore, and went back again more cautiously than before. I took the measure of it back to camp, and found that it corresponded perfectly with the boot tracks of Old Wally. There were a few deer here, undoubtedly, which he was watching jealously for his own benefit in the fall hunting.

  When the next still, misty night came, it found me afloat on the lonely little pond with a dark lantern fastened to an upright stick just in front of me in the canoe. In the shadow of the shores all was black as Egypt; but out in the middle the outlines of the pond could be followed vaguely by the heavy cloud of woods against the lighter sky. The stillness was intense; every slightest sound,——the creak of a bough or the ripple of a passing musquash, the plunk of a water drop into the lake or the snap of a rotten twig, broken by the weight of clinging mist,——came to the strained ear with startling suddenness. Then, as I waited and sifted the night sounds, a dainty plop, plop, plop! sent the canoe gliding like a shadow toward the shore whence the sounds had come.

  When the lantern opened noiselessly, sending a broad beam of gray, full of shadows and misty lights, through the even blackness of the night, the deer stood revealed——a beautiful creature, shrinking back into the forest's shadow, yet ever drawn forward by the sudden wonder of the light.

  She turned her head towards me, and her eyes blazed like great colored lights in the lantern's reflection. They fascinated me; I could see nothing but those great glowing spots, blazing and scintillating with a kind of intense fear and wonder out of the darkness. She turned away, unable to endure the glory any longer; then released from the fascination of her eyes, I saw her hurrying along the shore, a graceful living shadow among the shadows, rubbing her head among the bushes as if to brush away from her eyes the charm that dazzled them.

  I followed a little way, watching every move, till she turned again, and for a longer time stared steadfastly at the light. It was harder this time to break away from its power. She came nearer two or three times, halting between dainty steps to stare and wonder, while her eyes blazed into mine. Then, as she faltered irresolutely, I reached forward and closed the lantern, leaving lake and woods in deeper darkness than before. At the sudden release I heard her plunge out of the water; but a moment later she was moving nervously among the trees, trying to stamp herself up to the courage point of coming back to investigate. And when I flashed my lantern at the spot she threw aside caution and came hurriedly down the bank again.

  Later that night I heard other footsteps in the pond, and opened my lantern upon three deer, a doe, a fawn and a large buck, feeding at short intervals among the lily pads. The buck was wild; after one look he plunged into the woods, whistling danger to his companions. But the fawn heeded nothing, knew nothing for the moment save the fascination of the wonderful glare out there in the darkness. Had I not shut off the light, I think he would have climbed into the canoe in his intense wonder.

  I saw the little fellow again,,in a curious way, a few nights later. A wild storm was raging over the woods. Under its lash the great trees writhed and groaned; and the "voices"——that strange phenomenon of the forest and rapids——were calling wildly through the roar of the storm and the rush of rain on innumerable leaves. I had gone out on the old wood road, to lose myself for a little while in the intense darkness and uproar, and to feel again the wild thrill of the elements. But the night was too dark, the storm too fierce. Every few moments I would blunder against a tree, which told me I was off the road; and to lose the road meant to wander all night in the storm-swept woods. So I went back for my lantern, with which I again started down the old cart path, a little circle of wavering, jumping shadows about me, the one gray spot in the midst of universal darkness.

  I had gone but a few hundred yards when there was a rush——it was not the wind or the rain——in a thicket on my right. Something jumped into the circle of light. Two bright spots burned out of the darkness, then two more; and with strange bleats a deer came close to me with her fawn. I stood stockstill, with a thrill in my spine that was not altogether of the elements, while the deer moved uneasily back and forth. The doe wavered between fear and fascination; but the fawn knew no fear, or perhaps he knew only the great fear of the uproar around him; for he came close beside me, rested his nose an instant against the light, then thrust his head between my arm and body, so as to shield his eyes, and pressed close against my side, shivering with cold and fear, pleading dumbly for my protection against the pitiless storm.

  I refrained from touching the little thing, for no wild creature likes to be handled, while his mother called in vain from the leafy darkness. When I turned to go he followed me close, still trying to thrust his face under my arm; and I had to close the light with a sharp click before he bounded away down the road, where one who knew better than I how to take care of a frightened innocent was, no doubt, waiting to receive him.

  I gave up everything else but fishing after that, and took to watching the deer; but there was little to be learned in the summer woods. Once I came upon the big buck lying down in a thicket. I was following his track, trying to learn the Indian trick of sign-trailing, when he shot up in front of me like Jack-in-a-box, and was gone before I knew what it meant. From the impressions in the moss, I concluded that he slept with all four feet under him, ready to shoot up at an instant's notice, with power enough in his spring to clear any obstacle near him. And then I thought of the way a cow gets up, first one end, then the other, rising from the fore knees at last with puff and grunt and clacking of joints; and I took my first lesson in wholesome respect for the creature whom I already considered mine by right of discovery, and whose splendid head I saw, in anticipation, adorning the hall of my house——to the utter discomfiture of Old Wally.

  At another time I crept up to an old road beyond the little deer pond, where three deer, a mother with her fawn, and a young spike-buck, were playing. They kept running up and down, leaping over the trees that lay across the road with marvelous ease and grace——that is, the two larger deer. The little fellow followed awkwardly; but he had the spring in him, and was learning rapidly to gather himself for the rise, and lift his hind feet at the top of his jump, and come down with all fours together, instead of sprawling clumsily, as a horse does.

  I saw the perfection of it a few days later. I was sitting before my tent door at twilight, watching the herons, when there was a shot and a sudden crash over on their side. In a moment the big buck plunged out of the woods and went leaping in swift bounds along the shore, head high, antlers back, the mighty muscles driving him up and onward as if invisible wings were bearing him. A dozen great trees were fallen across his path, one of which, as I afterwards measured, lay a clear eight feet above the sand. But he never hesitated nor broke his splendid stride. He would rush at a tree; rise light and swift till above it, where he turned as if on a pivot, with head thrown back to the wind, actually resting an instant in air at the very top of his jump; then shoot downward, not falling but driven still by the impulse of his great muscles. When he struck, all four feet were close together; and almost quicker than the eye could follow he was in the air again, sweeping along the water's edge, or rising like a bird over the next obstacle.

  Just below me was a stream, with muddy shores on both sides. I looked to see if he would stog himself there or turn aside; but he knew the place better than I, and that just under the soft mud the sand lay firm and, sure. He struck the muddy place only twice, once on either side the fifteen-foot stream, sending out a light shower of mud in all directions; then, because the banks on my side were steep, he leaped for the cover of the woods and was gone.

  I thought I had seen the last of him, when I heard him coming, bump! bump! bump! the swift blows of his hoofs sounding all together on the forest floor. So he flashed by, between me and my tent door, barely swerved aside for my fire, and gave me another beautiful run down the old road, rising and falling light as thistle-down, with the old trees arching over him and brushing his antlers as he rocketed along.

  The last branch had hardly swished behind him when, across the pond, the underbrush parted cautiously and Old Wally appeared, trailing a long gun. He had followed scarcely a dozen of the buck's jumps when he looked back and saw me watching him from beside a great maple.

  "Just a-follerin one o' my tarnal sheep. Strayed off day 'fore yesterday. Hain't seen 'im, hev ye?" he bawled across.

  "Just went along; ten or twelve points on his horns. And say, Wally——"

  The old sinner, who was glancing about furtively to see if the white sand showed any blood stains,——looked up quickly at the changed tone.

  "You let those sheep of yours alone till the first of October; then I'll help you round 'em up. Just now they're worth forty dollars apiece to the state. I'll see that the warden collects it, too, if you shoot another."

  "Sho! Mister, I ain't a-shootin' no deer. Hain't seen a deer round here in ten year or more. I just took a crack at a pa'tridge 'at kwitted at me, top o' a stump"——

  But as he vanished among the hemlocks, trailing his old gun, I knew that he understood the threat. To make the matter sure I drove the deer out of the pond that night, giving them the first of a series of rude lessons in caution, until the falling leaves should make them wild enough to take care of themselves.

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