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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter44)

2006-09-08 19:47

  CHAPTER XLIV The Lost Bundle of Furs

  There had been a significant cessation of robbery on their trap line after the inconclusive visit to the enemy's camp. But a new and extreme exasperation arose in the month of March, when the alternation of thaw and frost had covered the snow with a hard crust that rendered snowshoes unnecessary and made it easy to run anywhere and leave no track.

  They had gathered up a fisher and some martens before they reached the beaver pond. They had no beaver traps now, but it was interesting to call and see how many of the beavers were left, and what they were doing.

  Bubbling springs on the bank of the pond had made open water at several places, now that the winter frost was weakening. Out of these the beavers often came, as was plainly seen in the tracks, so the trappers approached them carefully.

  They were scrutinizing one of them from behind a log, Quonab with ready gun, Rolf holding the unwilling Skookum, when the familiar broad, flat head appeared. A large beaver swam around the hole, sniffed and looked, then silently climbed the bank, evidently making for a certain aspen tree that he had already been cutting. He was in easy range, and the gunner was about to fire when Rolf pressed his arm and pointed. Here, wandering through the wood, came a large lynx. It had not seen or smelt any of the living creatures ahead, as yet, but speedily sighted the beaver now working away to cut down his tree.

  As a pelt, the beaver was worth more than the lynx, but the naturalist is strong in most hunters, and they watched to see what would happen.

  The lynx seemed to sink into the ground, and was lost to sight as soon as he knew of a possible prey ahead. And now he began his stalk. The hunters sighted him once as he crossed a level opening in the snow. He seemed less than four inches high as he crawled. Logs, ridges, trees, or twigs, afforded ample concealment, till his whiskers appeared in a thicket within fifteen feet of the beaver.

  All this was painfully exciting to Skookum, who, though he could not see, could get some thrilling whiffs, and he strained forward to improve his opportunities. The sound of this slight struggle caught the beaver's ear. It stopped work, wheeled, and made for the water hole. The lynx sprang from his ambush, seized the beaver by the back, and held on; but the beaver was double the lynx's weight, the bank was steep and slippery, the struggling animals kept rolling down hill, nearer and nearer the hole. Then, on the very edge, the beaver gave a great plunge, and splashed into the water with the lynx clinging to its back. At once they disappeared, and the hunters rushed to the place, expecting them to float up and be an easy prey; but they did not float. At length it was clear that the pair had gone under the ice, for in water the beaver was master.

  After five minutes it was certain that the lynx must be dead. Quonab cut a sapling and made a grappler. He poked this way and that way under the ice, until at length he felt something soft. With the hatchet they cut a hole over the place and then dragged out the body of the lynx. The beaver, of course, escaped and was probably little the worse.

  While Quonab skinned the catch, Rolf prowled around the pond and soon came running back to tell of a remarkable happening.

  At another open hole a beaver had come out, wandered twenty yards to a mound which he had castorized, then passed several hard wood trees to find a large poplar or aspen, the favourite food tree. This he had begun to fell with considerable skill, but for some strange reason, perhaps because alone, he had made a miscalculation, and when the tree came crashing down, it had fallen across his back, killed him, and pinned him to the ground.

  It was an easy matter for the hunters to remove the log and secure his pelt, so they left the beaver pond, richer than they had expected.

  Next night, when they reached their half-way shanty, they had the best haul they had taken on this line since the memorable day wben they got six beavers.

  The morning dawned clear and bright. As they breakfasted, they noticed an extraordinary gathering of ravens far away to the north, beyond any country they had visited. At least twenty or thirty of the birds were sailing in great circles high above a certain place, uttering a deep, sonorous croak, from time to time. Occasionally one of the ravens would dive down out of sight.

  "Why do they fly above that way?"

  "That is to let other ravens know there is food here. Their eyes are very good. They can see the signal ten miles away, so all come to the place. My father told me that you can gather all the ravens for twenty miles by leaving a carcass so they can see it and signal each other. "

  "Seems as if we should look into that. Maybe another panther," was Rolf's remark.

  The Indian nodded; so leaving the bundle of furs in a safe place with the snowshoes, that they carried on a chance, they set out over the hard crust. It was two or three miles to the ravens' gathering, and, as before, it proved to be over a cedar brake where was a deer yard.

  Skookum knew all about it. He rushed into the woods, filled with the joy of martial glory. But speedily came running out again as hard as he could, yelling "yow, yow, yowl" for help, while swiftly following, behind him were a couple of gray wolves. Quonab waited till they were within forty yards; then, seeing the men, the wolves slowed up and veered; Quonab fired; one of the wolves gave a little, doglike yelp. Then they leaped into the bushes and were lost to view.

  A careful study of the snow showed one or two triffing traces of blood. In the deer yard they found at least a dozen carcasses of deer killed by the wolves, but none very recent. They saw but few deer and nothing more of the wolves, for the crust had made all the country easy, and both kinds fled before the hunters.

  Exploring a lower level of willow country in hopes of finding beaver delayed them, and it was afternoon when they returned to the half-way shanty, to find everything as they left it, except that their Pack of furs had totally disappeared.

  Of course, the hard crust gave no sign of track. Their first thought was of the old enemy, but, seeking far and near for evidence, they found pieces of an ermine skin, and a quarter mile farther, the rest of it, then, at another place, fragments of a muskrat's skin. Those made it look like the work of the trapper's enemy, the wolverine, which, though rare, was surely found in these hills. Yes! there was a wolverine scratch mark, and here another piece of the rat skin. It was very clear who was the thief.

  "He tore up the cheapest ones of the lot anyway," said Rolf.

  Then the trappers stared at each other significantly —— only the cheap ones destroyed; why should a wolverine show such discrimination? There was no positive sign of wolverine; in fact, the icy snow gave no sign of anything. There was little doubt that the tom furs and the scratch marks were there to mislead; that this was the work of a human robber, almost certainly Hoag.

  He had doubtless seen them leave in the morning, and it was equally sure, since he had had hours of start, he would now be far away.

  "Ugh! Give him few days to think he safe, then I follow and settle all," and this time the Indian clearly meant to end the matter.

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