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From The Teeth Of The Tide





HITHERTO, ever since he had been old enough to leave the den, the
mother bear had been leading her fat black cub inland, among the
tumbled rocks and tangled spruce and pine, teaching him to dig for
tender roots and nose out grubs and beetles from the rotting stumps.
To-day, feeling the need of saltier fare, she led him in the opposite
direction, down through a cleft in the cliffs, and out across the
great, red, glistening mud-flats left bare by the ebb of the terrific
Fundy tides.

From the secure warmth of his den the cub had heard, faint and far
off, the waves thundering along the bases of the cliffs, when the tide
was high and the great winds drew heavily in from sea. The sound had
always made him afraid; and to-day, though there was no wind, and the
tide was so far out that it made no noise but a soft whisper, silken
and persuasive, he held back with babyish timidity, till his mother
brought him to his senses with an unceremonious cuff on the side of
the head. With a squall of grieved surprise he picked himself up,
shaking his head as if he had a bee in his ear, and then made haste to
follow obediently, close at his mother's huge black heels.

From the break in the cliffs, where the bears came down, ran a ledge
of shelving rocks on a long, gradual slant across the flats toward the
edge of low water. The tide was nearing the last of the ebb; and now,
the slope of the shore being very gradual, and the difference between
high and low water in these turbulent channels something between forty
and fifty feet, the lapsing fringes of the ebb, yellow-tawny with
silt, were a good three-quarters of a mile away from the foot of the
cliffs. The vast spaces between were smooth, oily, copper-red mud,
shining and treacherous in the sun with the narrow black outcrop of
the ledge drawn across on so gentle a slant that before it reached the
water it was running almost on a parallel with the shoreline.

Along the rocky ledge the old bear led the way, pausing to nose at a
patch of seaweed here and there or to glance shrewdly into the shallow
pools among the rocks. The cub obediently followed her example,
though doubtless with no idea of what he might hope to find. But the
upper stretches of the ledge, near high-water mark, offered nothing to
reward their quest, having been dry for several hours, and long ago
thoroughly gone over by earlier foragers. So the bears pushed on down
toward the lower stretches, where the ledges were still wet, and the
long, black-green weed-masses still dripping, and where the
limpet-covered protuberances of rock still oozed and sparkled. With
her iron-hard claws the mother bear scraped off a quantity of these
limpets, and crushed them between her jaws with relish, swallowing the
salty juices. The cub tried clumsily to imitate her, but the limpets
defied his too tender claws, so he ran to his mother, thrust her great
head aside, and greedily licked up a share of her scrapings. The sea
flavour tickled his palate, but the rough, hard shells exasperated
him. They hurt his gums, so that he merely rolled them over in his
mouth, sucked at them a few moments, then spat them out indignantly.
His mother thereupon forsook the unsatisfactory limpets, and went
prowling on toward the water's edge in search of more satisfying
fare. As they left the limpets, a gaunt figure in gray homespuns,
carrying a rifle, appeared on the crest of the cliffs above, caught
sight of them, and hurriedly took cover behind an overhanging pine.

The young woodsman's first impulse was to try a long shot at the
hulking black shape so conspicuous out on the ledge, against the
bright water. He wanted a bearskin, even if the fur was not just then
in prime condition. But more particularly he wanted the cub, to tame
and play with if it should prove amenable, and to sell, ultimately,
for a good amount, to some travelling show. On consideration, he
decided to lie in wait among the rocks till the rising tide should
drive the bears back to the upland. He exchanged his steel-nosed
cartridges for the more deadly mushroom-tipped, filled his pipe, and
lay back comfortably against the pine trunk, to watch, through the
thin green frondage, the foraging of his intended prey.

The farther they went down the long slant of the ledge, the more
interested the bears became. Here the crows and gulls had not had time
to capture all the prizes. There were savoury blue-shelled mussels
clinging under the tips of the rocks; plump, spiral whelks between
the oozy tresses of the seaweed; orange starfish and bristly
sea-urchins in the shallow pools. All these dainties had shells that
the cub's young teeth could easily crush, and they yielded meaty
morsels that made beetles and grubs seem very meagre fare. Moreover,
in the salty bitter of this sea-fruit there was something marvelously
stimulating to the appetite. From pool to pool the old bear wandered
on, lured ever by richer prizes just ahead; and the cub, stuffed till
his little stomach was like a black furry ball, no longer frisked and
tumbled, but waddled along beside her with eyes of shining expectancy.
As long as he was not too full to walk, he was not too full to eat
such delicacies as these. The fascinating quest led them on and on
till at last they found themselves at the water's edge.

By this time they had travelled a long way from the cleft in the
cliffs by which they had come down from the uplands. A good half-mile
of shining mud separated them, in a direct line, from the cliff base.
And the woodsman on the height, as he watched them, muttered to
himself: "Ef that old b'ar don't look out, the tide's a-goin' to ketch
her afore she knows what she's about! Most wish I'd 'a' socked it to
her afore she'd got so fur out--Jiminy! She's seed her mistake now!
The tide's turned."

While bear and cub had their noses and paws busy in a little dry pool,
on a sudden a long, shallow, muddy-crested wave had come hissing up
over their feet and filled the pool to the brim with its yellow flood.
Lifting her head sharply, the old bear glanced at the far-off cliffs,
and at the mounting tide. Instantly realizing the peril, she started
back at a slow, lumbering amble up the long, long path by which they
had come; and the cub started too at a brave gallop--not behind her,
for he was too much afraid of the hissing yellow wave, but close at
her side, between her sheltering form and the shore. He felt that she
could in some way ward off or subdue the cold and terrifying monster.

For perhaps two minutes the cub struggled on gamely, although, owing
to the fact that at this point their path was almost parallel with the
water, the fugitives made no perceptible gain, and the rising wave was
on their heels every instant. Then the greedy feeding produced its
effect. The little fellow's wind gave out completely. With a whimper
of pain and fright he dropped back upon his haunches and waited for
his mother to save him.

The old bear turned, bounced back, and cuffed him so bruskly that he
found breath enough to utter a loud squall and go stumbling forward
for another score of yards. Then he gave out, and sank upon his
too-distended stomach, whimpering piteously.

This time the mother seemed to perceive that his case was serious, and
her anxious wrath subsided. She licked him assiduously for a few
seconds, whining encouragement, till at last he got upon his feet
again, trembling. The yellow flood was now lapping on the ledge all
about them. But a rod or two farther on the rocks bulged up a couple
of feet above the surrounding slope. Thrusting the exhausted youngster
ahead of her with nose and paws, the old bear gained this point of
temporary vantage; and then, worried and frightened, sat down upon her
haunches and stared all around her, as if trying to decide what should
be done. The cub lay flat, with legs outstretched and mouth wide open,
panting.

The tide, meanwhile, was mounting so swiftly that in a few moments the
rise of rocks had become almost an island. The ledge was covered
before them as well as behind, and the only way still open lay
straight over the glistening mud. The old bear looked at it, and
whined, knowing its treacheries. And the woodsman, watching with eager
interest from the cliffs, muttered:

"Take to it, ye old bug-eater! Ther' ain't nawthin' else left fer ye
to do'!"

This was apparently the conclusion of the old bear herself; for now,
after licking and nuzzling the cub for a few seconds till he stood up,
she stepped boldly off the rock and started out over the coppery
flats. The cub, having apparently recovered his wind, followed
briskly--probably much heartened by the fact that his progress was in
a direction away from the alarming waves.

There was desperate need of haste, for when they left the rocky lift
the tide was already slipping around upon the flats beyond it.
Nevertheless, the old bear moved with deliberation. She could not
hurry the cub; and she had to choose her path. By some instinct, or
else by some peculiar keenness of observation, she seemed to detect
the "honey-pots," or deep pockets of slime, that lay concealed beneath
the uniformly shining surface of the mud; for here she would make an
aimless detour, losing many precious seconds, and there she would
side-step suddenly, for several paces, and shift her course to a new
parallel. Outside the "honey-pots," the mud was soft and tenacious to
a depth varying from a few inches to a couple of feet, but with a hard
clay foundation beneath the slime. Through this clinging red ooze the
old bear, with her huge strength, made her way without difficulty; but
the cub, in a few moments, began to find himself terribly hampered.
His fur collected the mud. His little paws sank easily, but at each
step it grew harder to withdraw them. At last, chancing to stagger
aside from his mother's spacious tracks, he sank to his belly in the
rim of a "honey-pot."

Panic-stricken, he floundered vainly, his nose high in the air and his
eyes shut tight, while his mother, unconscious of what had happened,
ploughed doggedly onward. Presently he opened his eyes. His mother was
now perhaps ten or a dozen feet ahead, apparently deserting him. Right
behind, lapping up to his very tail, was the crawling wave. A
heart-broken bawl burst from his throat.

At that cry the old bear came dashing back, red mud half-way up her
flanks and plastered all over her shaggy chest. Taking in the
situation at a glance, she seized the cub by the nape of the neck with
her teeth, and tried to drag him free. But he squealed so lamentably
that she realized that the hide would yield before the mud would. The
attempt had taken time, however; and the tide was now well up in the
fur of his back. Thrusting her paw down beneath his haunches, she tore
him clear with a mighty wrench and a loud sucking of the baffled mud.
That stroke sent him head over heels some ten feet nearer safety. By
the time he had picked himself up, pawing fretfully at the mud that
bedaubed his face and half blinded him, his mother was close behind
him, nosing him along and lifting him forward skilfully with her fore
paws.

The slope of the flats was now so gradual as to be almost imperceptible;
and the tide, therefore, seemed to be racing in with fiercer haste, as
if in wrath at being so long balked of its prey. Engrossed in her
efforts to push the cub forward, the mother now lost some of her fine
discrimination in regard to "honey-pots." She pushed the cub straight
into one; but jerked him back unceremoniously before the mud had time
to get any grip upon him. Pausing for a moment to scrutinize the
oozy expanse, she thrust the little animal furiously along to the left,
searching for a safe passage. Before she could find one, however, the
tide was upon them, their feet splashing in the thin yellow wavelets.

A broken soap-box, tossed overboard from some ship, came washing up,
and stranded just before them. With a whimper of delight, as if he
thought the box a safe refuge, the cub scrambled upon it; but his
mother ruthlessly tumbled him off and hustled him onward, floundering
and splashing.

"Ye'll hev to swim fer it, Old Woman!" growled the now excited watcher
behind the pine-tree on the cliff.

As the creeping flood by this time overspread the ooze for a couple of
yards ahead of them, the mother could no longer discriminate as to
what lay beneath it. She could do nothing now but dash ahead blindly.
Catching up the cub between her jaws, in a grip that made him squeal,
she launched herself straight toward shore, hardly daring to let her
feet rest an instant where they touched. Fortune favoured her in this
rush. She got ahead of the tide. She gained upon it, perhaps twice her
body's length. Then she paused, to drop the cub. But the pause was
fatal. She began to sink instantly. She had come upon a "honey-pot" of
stiffer consistency than the rest, which had sustained her while she
was in swift motion, but now, in return for that support, clutched her
in a grip the more inexorable. With all her huge strength she strained
to wrench herself clear. But in vain. She had no purchase. There was
nothing to put forth her strength upon. In her terror and despair she
squealed aloud, with her snout high in air as if appealing to the
blank, blue, empty sky. The cub, terror-stricken, strove to clamber
upon her back.

That harsh cry of hers, however, was but the outburst of one moment's
weakness. The next moment the indomitable old bear was striving
silently and systematically to release herself. She would wrench one
great fore arm clear, lift it high, and feel about for a solid
foundation beneath the ooze. Failing in this, she would yield that paw
to the enemy again, tear the other loose, and feel about for a
foothold in another direction. At the same time she drew out her body
to its full length, and lay flat, so that she might gain as much
support as possible by distributing her weight. Because of this
sagacity, and because the mire at this point had more substance than
in most of the other "honey-pots," she made a good fight, and almost,
but not quite, held her own. By the time the tide had once more
overtaken her she had sunk but a little way, and was still far from
giving up the unequal struggle.

Yet for all the great beast's strength, and valour, and devotion,
there could have been but one end to that brave battle, and mother and
cub would have disappeared, in a few minutes more, under the stealthy,
whispering onrush of the flood, had not the whimsical Providence--or
Hazard--of the Wild come curiously to their aid. Among the jetsam of
those restless Fundy tides almost anything that will float may appear,
from a matchbox to a barn. What appeared just now was a big spruce
log, escaped from the boom on some river emptying into the bay. It
came softly wallowing in, lipped by the little waves, and passed close
by the nose of the old bear, where she struggled with the water up to
her shoulders.



Quick as thought she flashed up a heavy paw, caught the log by one
end, and pulled the butt under her chest. The purchase thus gained
enabled her to free the other paw--and in a few seconds more the
weight of the fore part of her body was on the end of the log, forcing
it down to the mud. Greedy as that mud was, it was yet incapable of
engulfing a full-grown spruce timber quickly enough to defeat the
bear's purpose. Stretching far forward on the submerged log, she
strained her muscles to their utmost, and slowly drew her hind
quarters free from the deadly grip that held them. Then, seizing in
her jaws the cub, which was swimming and whimpering beside her, she
carefully felt her way farther along the log, and sat down upon it to
rest, clutching the youngster closely in one great fore arm.

Not till the tide had risen nearly to her neck did the mother move
again. She was recovering her strength. Utterly daunted by the peril
of the "honey-pots," she chose rather to trust the tide itself. At
last, catching the cub again by the back of the neck, she swam for the
shore. The tide was now within a couple of hundred yards from the
bases of the cliffs, and lapping upon solid, sun-baked clay. The
strong flood helping her, she swam fast, though laboriously by reason
of the burden in her teeth. Soon her hinder feet struck ground--but
she was afraid to trust it, and nervously drew them up beneath her. A
few moments more and she felt undeniably firm footing; whereupon she
plunged forward with a rush, and never paused, even to drop the
squirming cub, till she was above high-water mark.

When, at last, she set the little beast down, she was in such a hurry
to get away from the shore and back into the secure green woods that
she would not trust him to follow her, as usual, but drove him on
ahead, as fast as he could move, toward the cleft in the cliffs. As
they turned up the rugged trail her haste relaxed, and she went more
slowly, but still driving the cub ahead of her, that she might be
quite sure that the "honey-pots" would not reach up and clutch at him
again.

As the muddy, weary, bedraggled, pathetic-looking pair passed within
tempting range of the pine-tree on the cliff-top, the woodsman
instinctively threw forward his rifle. But the next moment he dropped
it, with a slight flush, and gave a quick glance around him as if he
feared that unseen eyes might have taken note of the gesture.

"Hell!" he muttered, "I'd 'a' been no better'n a murderer, 'f I'd
'a' gone an' plugged the Old Girl now!"





Next: The Fight At The Wallow

Previous: The Return Of The Moose



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