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Secret of the Woods(Chapter9)

2006-09-08 20:08

  Chapter IX Winter Trails

  The snow had come, and with it a Christmas holiday. For weeks I had looked longingly out of college windows as the first tracking-snows came sifting down, my thoughts turning from books and the problems of human wisdom to the winter woods, with their wide white pages written all over by the feet of wild things. Then the sun would shine again, and I knew that the records were washed clean, and the hard-packed leaves as innocent of footmarks as the beach where plover feed when a great wave has chased them away. On the twentieth a change came. Outside the snow fell heavily, two days and a night; inside, books were packed away, professors said Merry Christmas, and students were scattering, like a bevy of flushed quail, to all points of the compass for the holidays. The afternoon of the twenty-first found me again in my room under the eaves of the old farmhouse.

  Before dark I had taken a wide run over the hills and through the woods to the place of my summer camp. How wonderful it all was! The great woods were covered deep with their pure white mantle; not a fleck, not a track soiled its even whiteness; for the last soft flakes were lingering in the air, and fox and grouse and hare and lucivee were still keeping the storm truce, hidden deep in their coverts. Every fir and spruce and hemlock had gone to building fairy grottoes as the snow packed their lower branches, under which all sorts of wonders and beauties might be hidden, to say nothing of the wild things for whom Nature had been building innumerable tents of white and green as they slept. The silence was absolute, the forest's unconscious tribute to the Wonder Worker. Even the trout brook, running black as night among its white-capped boulders and delicate arches of frost and fern work, between massive banks of feathery white and green, had stopped its idle chatter and tinkled a low bell under the ice, as if only the Angelus could express the wonder of the world.

  As I came back softly in the twilight a movement in an evergreen ahead caught my eye, and I stopped for one of the rare sights of the woods,——a partridge going to sleep in a warm room of his own making. He looked all about among the trees most carefully, listened, kwit-kwitted in a low voice to himself, then, with a sudden plunge, swooped downward head-first into the snow. I stole to the spot where he had disappeared, noted the direction of his tunnel, and fell forward with arms outstretched, thinking perhaps to catch him under me and examine his feet to see how his natural snowshoes (Nature's winter gift to every grouse) were developing, before letting him go again. But the grouse was an old bird, not to be caught napping, who had thought on the possibilities of being followed ere he made his plunge. He had ploughed under the snow for a couple of feet, then swerved sharply to the left and made a little chamber for himself just under some snow-packed spruce tips, with a foot of snow for a blanket over him. When I fell forward, disturbing his rest most rudely ere he had time to wink the snow out of his eyes, he burst out with a great whirr and sputter between my left hand and my head, scattering snow all over me, and thundered off through the startled woods, flicking a branch here and there with his wings, and shaking down a great white shower as he rushed away for deeper solitudes. There, no doubt, he went to sleep in the evergreens, congratulating himself on his escape and preferring to take his chances with the owl, rather than with some other ground-prowler that might come nosing into his hole before the light snow had time to fill it up effectually behind him.

  Next morning I was early afield, heading for a ridge where I thought the deer of the neighborhood might congregate with the intention of yarding for the winter. At the foot of a wild little natural meadow, made centuries ago by the beavers, I found the trail of two deer which had been helping themselves to some hay that had been cut and stacked there the previous summer. My big buck was not with them; so I left the trail in peace to push through a belt of woods and across a pond to an old road that led for a mile or two towards the ridge I was seeking.

  Early as I was, the wood folk were ahead of me. Their tracks were everywhere, eager, hungry tracks, that poked their noses into every possible hiding place of food or game, showing how the two-days' fast had whetted their appetites and set them to running keenly the moment the last flakes were down and the storm truce ended.

  A suspicious-looking clump of evergreens, where something had brushed the snow rudely from the feathery tips, stopped me as I hurried down the old road. Under the evergreens was a hole in the snow, and at the bottom of the hole hard inverted cups made by deer's feet. I followed on to another hole in the snow (it could scarcely be called a trail) and then to another, and another, some twelve or fifteen feet apart, leading in swift bounds to some big timber. There the curious track separated into three deer trails, one of which might well be that of a ten-point buck. Here was luck,——luck to find my quarry so early on the first day out, and better luck that, during my long absence, the cunning animal had kept himself and his consort clear of Old Wally and his devices.

  When I ran to examine the back trail more carefully, I found that the deer had passed the night in a dense thicket of evergreen, on a hilltop overlooking the road. They had come down the hill, picking their way among the stumps of a burned clearing, stepping carefully in each other's tracks so as to make but a single trail. At the road they had leaped clear across from one thicket to another, leaving never a trace on the bare even whiteness. One might have passed along the road a score of times without noticing that game had crossed. There was no doubt now that these were deer that had been often hunted, and that had learned their cunning from long experience.

  I followed them rapidly till they began feeding in a little valley, then with much caution, stealing from tree to thicket, giving scant attention to the trail, but searching the woods ahead; for the last "sign" showed that I was now but a few minutes behind the deer. There they were at last, two graceful forms gliding like gray shadows among the snow-laden branches. But in vain I searched for a lordly head with wide rough antlers sweeping proudly over the brow; my buck was not there. Scarcely had I made the discovery when there was a whistle and a plunge up on the hill on my left, and I had one swift glimpse of him, a splendid creature, as he bounded away.

  By way of general precaution, or else led by some strange sixth sense of danger, he had left his companions feeding and mounted the hill, where he could look back on his own track. There he had been watching me for half an hour, till I approached too near, when he sounded the alarm and was off. I read it all from the trail a few moments later.

  It was of no use to follow him, for he ran straight down wind. The two others had gone quartering off at right angles to his course, obeying his signal promptly, but having as yet no idea of what danger followed them. When alarmed in this way, deer never run far before halting to sniff and listen. Then, if not disturbed, they run off again, circling back and down wind so as to catch from a distance the scent of anything that follows on their trail.

  I sat still where I was for a good hour, watching the chickadees and red squirrels that found me speedily, and refusing to move for all the peekings and whistlings of a jay that would fain satisfy his curiosity as to whether I meant harm to the deer, or were just benumbed by the cold and incapable of further mischief. When I went on I left some scattered bits of meat from my lunch to keep him busy in case the deer were near; but there was no need of the precaution. The two had learned the leader's lesson of caution well, and ran for a mile, with many haltings and circlings, before they began to feed again. Even then they moved along at a good pace as they fed, till a mile farther on, when, as I had forelayed, the buck came down from a hill to join them, and all three moved off toward the big ridge, feeding as they went.

  Then began a long chase, a chase which for the deer meant a straightaway game, and for me a series of wide circles——never following the trail directly, but approaching it at intervals from leeward, hoping to circle ahead of the deer and stalk them at last from an unexpected quarter.

  Once, when I looked down from a bare hilltop into a valley where the trail ran, I had a most interesting glimpse of the big buck doing the same thing from a hill farther on too far away for a shot, but near enough to see plainly through my field glass. The deer were farther ahead than I supposed. They had made a run for it, intending to rest after first putting a good space between them and anything that might follow. Now they were undoubtedly lying down in some far-away thicket, their minds at rest, but their four feet doubled under them for a jump at short notice. Trust your nose, but keep your feet under you——that is deer wisdom on going to sleep. Meanwhile, to take no chances, the wary old leader had circled back, to wind the trail and watch it awhile from a distance before joining them in their rest.

  He stood stock-still in his hiding, so still that one might have passed close by without noticing him. But his head was above the low evergreens; eyes, ears, and nose were busy giving him perfect report of everything that passed in the woods.

  I started to stalk him promptly, creeping up the hill behind him, chuckling to myself at the rare sport of catching a wild thing at his own game. But before I sighted him again he grew uneasy (the snow tells everything), trotted down hill to the trail, and put his nose into it here and there to be sure it was not polluted. Then——another of his endless devices to make the noonday siesta full of contentment——he followed the back track a little way, stepping carefully in his own footprints; branched off on the other side of the trail, and so circled swiftly back to join his little flock, leaving behind him a sad puzzle of disputing tracks for any novice that might follow him.

  So the interesting chase went on all day, skill against keener cunning, instinct against finer instinct, through the white wonder of the winter woods, till, late in the afternoon, it swung back towards the starting point. The deer had undoubtedly intended to begin their yard that day on the ridge I had selected; for at noon I crossed the trail of the two from the haystack, heading as if by mutual understanding in that direction. But the big buck, feeling that he was followed, cunningly led his charge away from the spot, so as to give no hint of the proposed winter quarters to the enemy that was after him. Just as the long shadows were stretching across all the valleys from hill to hill, and the sun vanished into the last gray bank of clouds on the horizon, my deer recrossed the old road, leaping it, as in the morning, so as to leave no telltale track, and climbed the hill to the dense thicket where they had passed the previous night.

  Here was my last chance, and I studied it deliberately. The deer were there, safe within the evergreens, I had no doubt, using their eyes for the open hillside in front and their noses for the woods behind. It was useless to attempt stalking from any direction, for the cover was so thick that a fox could hardly creep through without alarming ears far less sensitive than a deer's. Skill had failed; their cunning was too much for me. I must now try an appeal to curiosity.

  I crept up the hill flat on my face, keeping stump or scrub spruce always between me and the thicket on the hilltop. The wind was in my favor; I had only their eyes to consider. Somewhere, just within the shadow, at least one pair were sweeping the back track keenly; so I kept well away from it, creeping slowly up till I rested behind a great burned stump within forty yards of my game. There I fastened a red bandanna handkerchief to a stick and waved it slowly above the stump.

  Almost instantly there was a snort and a rustle of bushes in the thicket above me. Peeking out I saw the evergreens moving nervously; a doe's head appeared, her ears set forward, her eyes glistening. I waved the handkerchief more erratically. My rifle lay across the stump's roots, pointing straight at her; but she was not the game I was hunting. Some more waving and dancing of the bright color, some more nervous twitchings and rustlings in the evergreens, then a whistle and a rush; the doe disappeared; the movement ceased; the thicket was silent as the winter woods behind me.

  "They are just inside," I thought, "pawing the snow to get their courage up to come and see." So the handkerchief danced on——one, two, five minutes passed in silence; then something made me turn round. There in plain sight behind me, just this side the fringe of evergreen that lined the old road, stood my three deer in a row——the big buck on the right——like three beautiful statues, their ears all forward, their eyes fixed with intensest curiosity on the man lying at full length in the snow with the queer red flag above his head.

  My first motion broke up the pretty tableau. Before I could reach for my rifle the deer whirled and vanished like three winks, leaving the heavy evergreen tips nodding and blinking behind them in a shower of snow.

  Tired as I was, I took a last run to see from the trail how it all happened. The deer had been standing just within the thicket as I approached. All three had seen the handkerchief; the tracks showed that they had pawed the snow and moved about nervously. When the leader whistled they had bounded straightaway down the steep on the other side. But the farms lay in that direction, so they had skirted the base of the hill, keeping within the fringe of woods and heading back for their morning trail, till the red flag caught their eye again, and strong curiosity had halted them for another look.

  Thus the long hunt ended at twilight within sight of the spot where it began in the gray morning stillness. With marvelous cunning the deer circled into their old tracks and followed them till night turned them aside into a thicket. This I discovered at daylight next morning.

  That day a change came; first a south wind, then in succession a thaw, a mist, a rain turning to snow, a cold wind and a bitter frost. Next day when I entered the woods a brittle crust made silent traveling impossible, and over the rocks and bare places was a sheet of ice covered thinly with snow.

  I was out all day, less in hope of finding deer than of watching the wild things; but at noon, as I sat eating my lunch, I heard a rapid running, crunch, crunch, crunch, on the ridge above me. I stole up, quietly as I could, to find the fresh trails of my three deer. They were running from fright evidently, and were very tired, as the short irregular jumps showed. Once, where the two leaders cleared a fallen log, the third deer had fallen heavily; and all three trails showed blood stains where the crust had cut into their legs.

  I waited there on the trail to see what was following——to give right of way to any hunter, but with a good stout stick handy, for dealing with dogs, which sometimes ran wild in the woods and harried the deer. For a long quarter-hour the woods were all still; then the jays, which had come whistling up on the trail, flew back screaming and scolding, and a huge yellow mongrel, showing hound's blood in his ears and nose, came slipping, limping, whining over the crust. I waited behind a tree till he was up with me, when I jumped out and caught him a resounding thump on the ribs. As he ran yelping away I fired my rifle over his head, and sent the good club with a vengeance to knock his heels from under him. A fresh outburst of howls inspired me with hope. Perhaps he would remember now to let deer alone for the winter.

  Above the noise of canine lamentation I caught the faint click of snowshoes, and hid again to catch the cur's owner at his contemptible work. But the sound stopped far back on the trail at the sudden uproar.

  Through the trees I caught glimpses of a fur cap and a long gun and the hawk face of Old Wally, peeking, listening, creeping on the trail, and stepping gingerly at last down the valley, ashamed or afraid of being caught at his unlawful hunting. "An ill wind, but it blows me good," I thought, as I took up the trail of the deer, half ashamed myself to take advantage of them when tired by the dog's chasing.

  There was no need of commiseration, however; now that the dog was out of the way they could take care of themselves very well. I found them resting only a short distance ahead; but when I attempted to stalk them from leeward the noise of my approach on the crust sent them off with a rush before I caught even a glimpse of them in their thicket.

  I gave up caution then and there. I was fresh and the deer were tired,——why not run them down and get a fair shot before the sun went down and left the woods too dark to see a rifle sight? I had heard that the Indians used sometimes to try running a deer down afoot in the old days; here was the chance to try a new experience. It was fearfully hard traveling without snowshoes, to be sure; but that seemed only to even-up chances fairly with the deer. At the thought I ran on, giving no heed when the quarry jumped again just ahead of me, but pushing them steadily, mile after mile, till I realized with a thrill that I was gaining rapidly, that their pauses grew more and more frequent, and I had constant glimpses of deer ahead among the trees——never of the big buck, but of the two does, who were struggling desperately to follow their leader as he kept well ahead of them breaking the way. Then realizing, I think, that he was followed by strength rather than by skill or cunning, the noble old fellow tried a last trick, which came near being the end of my hunting altogether.

  The trail turned suddenly to a high open ridge with scattered thickets here and there. As they labored up the slope I had the does in plain sight. On top the snow was light, and they bounded ahead with fresh strength. The trail led straight along the edge of a cliff, beyond which the deer had vanished. They had stopped running here; I noticed with amazement that they had walked with quick short steps across the open. Eager for a sight of the buck I saw only the thin powdering of snow; I forgot the glare ice that covered the rock beneath. The deer's sharp hoofs had clung to the very edge securely. My heedless feet had barely struck the rock when they slipped and I shot over the cliff, thirty feet to the rocks below. Even as I fell and the rifle flew from my grasp, I heard the buck's loud whistle from the thicket where he was watching me, and then the heavy plunge of the deer as they jumped away.

  A great drift at the foot of the cliff saved me. I picked myself up, fearfully bruised but with nothing broken, found my rifle and limped away four miles through the woods to the road, thinking as I went that I was well served for having delivered the deer "from the power of the dog," only to take advantage of their long run to secure a head that my skill had failed to win. I wondered, with an extra twinge in my limp, whether I had saved Old Wally by taking the chase out of his hands unceremoniously. Above all, I wondered——and here I would gladly follow another trail over the same ground——whether the noble beast, grown weary with running, his splendid strength failing for the first time, and his little, long-tended flock ready to give in and have the tragedy over, knew just what he was doing in mincing along the cliff's edge with his heedless enemy close behind. What did he think and feel, looking back from his hiding, and what did his loud whistle mean? But that is always the despair of studying the wild things. When your problem is almost solved, night comes and the trail ends.

  When I could walk again easily vacation was over, the law was on, and the deer were safe.

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