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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter32)

2006-09-08 19:38

  CHAPTER XXXII The Antler-Bound Bucks

  IN THE man-world, November is the month of gloom, despair, and many suicides. In the wild world, November is the Mad Moon. Many and diverse the madnesses of the time, but none more insane than the rut of the white-tailed deer. Like some disease it appears, first in the swollen necks of the antler-bearers, and then in the feverish habits of all. Long and obstinate combats between the bucks now, characterize the time; neglecting even to eat, they spend their days and nights in rushing about and seeking to kill.

  Their horns, growing steadily since spring, are now of full size, sharp, heavy, and cleaned of the velvet; in perfection. For what? Has Nature made them to pierce, wound, and destroy? Strange as it may seem, these weapons of offence are used for little but defence; less as spears than as bucklers they serve the deer in battles with its kind. And the long, hard combats are little more than wrestling and pushing bouts; almost never do they end fatally. When a mortal thrust is given, it is rarely a gaping wound, but a sudden springing and locking of the antlers, whereby the two deer are bound together, inextricably, hopelessly, and so suffer death by starvation. The records of deer killed by their rivals and left on the duel-ground are few; very few and far between. The records of those killed by interlocking are numbered by the scores.

  There were hundreds of deer in this country that Rolf and Quonab claimed. Half of them were bucks, and at least half of these engaged in combat some times or many times a day, all through November; that is to say, probably a thousand duels were fought that month within ten miles of the cabin. It was not surprising that Rolf should witness some of them, and hear many more in the distance.

  They were living in the cabin now, and during the still, frosty nights, when he took a last look at the stars, before turning in, Rolf formed the habit of listening intently for the voices of the gloom. Sometimes it was the "hoo-hoo" of the horned-owl, once or twice it was the long, smooth howl of the wolf; but many times it was the rattle of antlers that told of two bucks far up in the hardwoods, trying out the all-important question, "Which is the better buck?"

  One morning he heard still an occasional rattle at the same place as the night before. He set out alone, after breakfast, and coming cautiously near, peered into a little, open space to see two bucks with heads joined, slowly, feebly pushing this way and that. Their tongues were out; they seemed almost exhausted, and the trampled snow for an acre about plainly showed that they had been fighting for hours; that indeed these were the ones he had heard in the night. Still they were evenly matched, and the green light in their eyes told of the ferocious spirit in each of these gentle-looking deer.

  Rolf had no difficulty in walking quite near. If they saw him, they gave slight heed to the testimony of their eyes, for the unenergetic struggle went on until, again pausing for breath, they separated, raised their heads a little, sniffed, then trotted away from the dreaded enemy so near. Fifty yards off, they turned, shook their horns, seemed in doubt whether to run away, join battle again, or attack the man. Fortunately the first was their choice, and Rolf returned to the cabin.

  Quonab listened to his account, then said: "You might have been killed. Every buck is crazy now. Often they attack man. My father's brother was killed by a Mad Moon buck. They found only his body, torn to rags. He had got a little way up a tree, but the buck had pinned him. There were the marks, and in the snow they could see how he held on to the deer's horns and was dragged about till his strength gave out. He had no gun. The buck went off. That was all they knew. I would rather trust a bear than a deer."

  The Indian's words were few, but they drew a picture all too realistic. The next time Rolf heard the far sound of a deer fight, it brought back the horror of that hopeless fight in the snow, and gave him a new and different feel- ing for the antler-bearer of the changing mood.

  It was two weeks after this, when he was coming in from a trip alone on part of the line, when his ear caught some strange sounds in the woods ahead; deep, sonorous, semi-human they were. Strange and weird wood-notes in winter are nearly sure to be those of a raven or a jay; if deep, they are likely to come from a raven.

  "Quok, quok, ha, ha, ha-hreww, hrrr, hooop, hooop," the diabolic noises came, and Rolf, coming gently forward, caught a glimpse of sable pinions swooping through the lower pines.

  "Ho, ho, ho yah - hew - w - w - w" came the demon laughter of the death birds, and Rolf soon glimpsed a dozen of them in the branches, hopping or sometimes flying to the ground. One alighted on a brown bump. Then the bump began to move a little. The raven was pecking away, but again the brown bump heaved and the raven leaped to a near perch. "Wah —— wah —— wah - wo - hoo —— yow - wow —— rrrrrr-rrrr-rrrr" —— and the other ravens joined in.

  Rolf had no weapons but his bow, his pocket knife, and a hatchet. He took the latter in his hand and walked gently forward; the hollow-voiced ravens "haw - hawed," then flew to safe perches where they chuckled like ghouls over some extra-ghoulish joke.

  The lad, coming closer, witnessed a scene that stirred him with mingled horror and pity. A great, strong buck —— once strong, at least —— was standing, staggering, kneeling there; sometimes on his hind legs, spasmodically heaving and tugging at a long gray form on the ground, the body of another buck, his rival, dead now, with a broken neck, as it proved, but bearing big, strong antlers with which the antlers of the living buck were interlocked as though riveted with iron, bolted with clamps of steel. With all his strength, the living buck could barely move his head, dragging his adversary's body with him. The snow marks showed that at first he had been able to haul the carcass many yards; had nibbled a little at shoots and twigs; but that was when he was stronger, was long before. How long? For days, at least, perhaps a week, that wretched buck was dying hopelessly a death that would not come. His gaunt sides, his parched and lolling tongue, less than a foot from the snow and yet beyond reach, the filmy eye, whose opaque veil of death was illumined again with a faint fire of fighting green as the new foe came. The ravens had picked the eyes out of the dead buck and eaten a hole in its back. They had even begun on the living buck, but he had been able to use one front foot to defend his eyes; still his plight could scarce have been more dreadful. It made the most pitiful spectacle Rolf had ever seen in wild life; yes, in all his life. He was full of compassion for the poor brute. He forgot it as a thing to be hunted for food; thought of it only as a harmless, beautiful creature in dire and horrible straits; a fellow-being in distress; and he at once set about being its helper. With hatchet in hand he came gently in front, and selecting an exposed part at the base of the dead buck's antler he gave a sharp blow with the hatchet. The effect on the living buck was surprising. He was roused to vigorous action that showed him far from death as yet. He plunged, then pulled backward, carrying with him the carcass and the would-be rescuer. Then Rolf remembered the Indian's words: "You can make strong medicine with your mouth." He spoke to the deer, gently, softly. Then came nearer, and tapped o'n the horn he wished to cut; softly speaking and tapping he increased his force, until at last he was permitted to chop seriously at that prison bar. It took many blows, for the antler stuff is very thick and strong at this time, but the horn was loose at last. Rolf gave it a twist and the strong buck was free. Free for what?

  Oh, tell it not among the folk who have been the wild deer's friend! Hide it from all who blindly believe that gratitude must always follow good-will! With unexpected energy, with pent-up fury, with hellish purpose, the ingrate sprang on his deliverer, aiming a blow as deadly as was in his power.

  Wholly taken by surprise, Rolf barely had time to seize the murderer's horns and ward them off his vitals. The buck made a furious lunge. Oh! what foul fiend was it gave him then such force? —— and Rolf went down. Clinging for dear life to those wicked, shameful horns, he yelled as he never yelled before: "Quonab, Quonabi help me, oh, help me!" But he was pinned at once, the fierce brute above him pressing on his chest, striving to bring its horns to bear; his only salvation had been that their wide spread gave his body room between. But the weight on his chest was crushing out his force, his life; he had no breath to call again. How the ravens chuckled, and "haw-hawed" in the tree!

  The buck's eyes gleamed again with the emerald light of murderous hate, and he jerked his strong neck this way and that with the power of madness. It could not last for long. The boy's strength was going fast; the beast was crushing in his chest.

  "Oh, God, help me!" he gasped, as the antlered fiend began again struggling for the freedom of those murderous horns. The brute was almost free, when the ravens rose with loud croaks, and out of the woods dashed another to join the fight. A smaller deer? No; what? Rolf knew not, nor how, but in a moment there was a savage growl and Skookum had the murderer by the hind leg. Worrying and tearing he had not the strength to throw the deer, but his teeth were sharp, his heart was in his work, and when he transferred his fierce attack to parts more tender still, the buck, already spent, reared, wheeled, and fell. Before he could recover Skookum pounced upon him by the nose and hung on like a vice. The buck could swing his great neck a little, and drag the dog, but he could not shake him off. Rolf saw the chance, rose to his tottering legs, seized his hatchet, stunned the fierce brute with a blow. Then finding on the snow his missing knife he gave the hunter stroke that spilled the red life-blood and sank on the ground to know no more till Quonab stood beside him.

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