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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter40)

2006-09-08 19:41

  CHAPTER XL The Rarest of Pelts

  They saw that silver fox three or four times during the winter, and once found that he had had the audacity to jump from a high snowdrift onto the storehouse and thence to the cabin roof, where he had feasted on some white rabbits kept there for deadfall baits. But all attempts to trap or shoot him were vain, and their acquaintance might have ended as it began, but for an accident.

  It proved a winter of much snow. Heavy snow is the worst misfortune that can befall the wood folk in fur. It hides their food beyond reach, and it checks their movements so they can neither travel far in search of provender nor run fast to escape their enemies. Deep snow then means fetters, starvation, and death. There are two ways of meeting the problem: stilts and snowshoes. The second is far the better. The caribou, and the moose have stilts; the rabbit, the panther, and the lynx wear snowshoes. When there are three or four feet of soft snow, the lynx is king of all small beasts, and little in fear of the large ones. Man on his snowshoes has most wild four-foots at his mercy.

  Skookum, without either means of meeting the trouble was left much alone in the shanty. Apparently, it was on one of these occasions that the silver fox had driven him nearly frantic by eating rabbits on the roof above him.

  The exasperating robbery of their trap line had gone on irregularly all winter, but the thief was clever enough or lucky enough to elude them.

  They were returning to the cabin after a three days' round, when they saw, far out on the white expanse of the lake, two animals, alternately running and fighting. "Skookum and the fox," was the first thought that came, but on entering the cabin Skookum greeted them in person.

  Quonab gazed intently at the two running specks and said: "One has no tail. I think it is a peeshoo (lynx) and a fox."

  Rolf was making dinner. From time to time he glanced over the lake and saw the two specks, usually running. After dinner was over, he said, "Let's sneak 'round and see if we can get a shot."

  So, putting on their snowshoes and keeping out of sight, they skimmed over the deer crossing and through the woods, till at a point near the fighters, and there they saw something that recalled at once the day of Skookum's humiliation.

  A hundred yards away on the open snow was a huge lynx and their old friend, the black and shining silver fox, face to face; the fox desperate, showing his rows of beautiful teeth, but sinking belly deep in the snow as he strove to escape. Already he was badly wounded. In any case he was at the mercy of the lynx who, in spite of his greater weight, had such broad and perfect snowshoes that he skimmed on the surface, while the fox's small feet sank deep. The lynx was far from fresh, and still stood in some awe of those rows of teeth that snapped like traps when he came too near. He was minded, of course, to kill his black rival, but not to be hurt in doing so. Again and again there was in some sort a closing fight, the wearied fox plunging breathlessly through the treacherous, relentless snow. If he could only get back to cover, he might find a corner to protect his rear and have some fighting chance for life. But wherever he turned that huge cat faced him, doubly armed, and equipped as a fox can never be for the snow.

  No one could watch that plucky fight without feeling his sympathies go out to the beautiful silver fox. Rolf, at least, was for helping him to escape, when the final onset came. In another dash for the woods the fox plunged out of sight in a drift made soft by sedge sticking through, and before he could recover, the lynx's jaws closed on the back of his neck and the relentless claws had pierced his vitals.

  The justification of killing is self-preservation, and in this case the proof would have been the lynx making a meal of the fox. Did he do so? Not at all. He shook his fur, licked his chest and paws in a self-congratulatory way, then giving a final tug at the body, walked calmly over the snow along the shore.

  Quonab put the back of his hand to his mouth and made a loud squeaking, much like a rabbit caught in a snare. The lynx stopped, wheeled, and came trotting straight toward the promising music. Unsuspectingly he came within twenty yards of the trappers. The flint-lock banged and the lynx was kicking in the snow.

  The beautiful silver fox skin was very little injured and proved of value almost to double their catch so far; while the lynx skin was as good as another marten.

  They now had opportunity of studying the tracks and learned that the fox had been hunting rabbits in a thicket when he was set on by the lynx. At first he had run around in the bushes and saved himself from serious injury, for the snow was partly packed by the rabbits. After perhaps an hour of this, he had wearied and sought to save himself by abandoning the lynx's territory, so had struck across the open lake. But here the snow was too soft to bear him at all, and the lynx could still skim over. So it proved a fatal error. He was strong and brave. He fought at least another hour here before the much stronger, heavier lynx had done him to death. There was no justification. It was a clear case of tyrannical murder, but in this case vengeance was swift and justice came sooner than its wont.

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