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The Fight At The Wallow





I

FAR to the northeast of Ringwaak Hill, just beyond that deep,
far-rimmed lake which begets the torrent of the Ottanoonsis, rise the
bluff twin summits of Old Walquitch, presiding over an unbroken and
almost untrodden wilderness. Some way up the southeasterly flank of
the loftier and more butting of the twin peaks ran a vast, open shelf,
or terrace, a kind of barren, whose swampy but austere soil bore no
growth but wiry bush. The green tips of this bushy growth were a
favoured "browse" of the caribou, who, though no lovers of the
heights, would often wander up from their shaggy and austere plains in
quest of this aromatic forage. But this lofty mountainside barren had
yet another attraction for the caribou. Close at its edge, just where
a granite buttress fell away steeply toward the lake, a tiny, almost
imperceptible spring, stained with iron and pungent with salt,
trickled out from among the roots of a dense, low thicket. Past the
bare spot made by these oozings, and round behind the thicket, led a
dim trail, worn by the feet of caribou, moose, bear, deer, and other
stealthy wayfarers. And to this spring, when the moon of the falling
leaves brought in the season of love and war, the caribou bulls were
wont to come, delighting to form their wallow in the pungent, salty
mud.

The bald twin peaks of Old Walquitch were ghostly white in the
flood of the full moon, just risen, and swimming like a globe of
witch's fire over the far, dark, wooded horizon. But the bushy
shelf and the spring by the thicket, were still in shadow. Along the
trail to the spring, moving noiselessly, yet with a confident
dignity, came a paler shadow, the shape of a huge, gray-white
caribou bull with wide-spreading antlers.

At the edge of the spring the bull stopped and began sniffing the
sharp-scented mud. Apparently he found no sign of a rival having
passed that way before him, or of a cow having kept tryst there.
Lifting his splendid head he stared all about him in the shadow, and
up at the bare, illuminated fronts of the twin peaks.


WASTES."]

As the light spread down the mountain to the edge of the shelf, and
the moon rose into his view, he "belled" harshly several times across
the dark wastes outspread below him.

Receiving no answer to his defiance, the great bull turned his
attention again to the ooze around the spring. After sniffing it all
over he fell to furrowing it excitedly with the two lowermost
branches of his antlers,--short, broad, palmated projections thrust
out low over his forehead, and called by woodsmen "the ploughs." Every
few seconds he would toss his head fiercely, like an ordinary bull,
and throw the ooze over his shoulders. Then he pawed the cool,
strong-smelling stuff to what he seemed to consider a fitting
consistency, sniffed it over again, and raised his head to "bell"
a fresh challenge across the spacious solitudes. Receiving no answer,
he snorted in disgust, flung himself down on the trampled ooze,
and began to wallow with a sort of slow and intense vehemence,
grunting massively from time to time with volcanic emotion.

The wallow was now in the full flood of the moonlight. In that
mysterious illumination the caribou, encased in shining ooze, took on
the grotesque and enormous aspect of some monster of the prediluvian
slimes. Suddenly his wallowing stopped, and his antlers, dripping mud,
were lifted erect. For a few moments he was motionless as a rock,
listening. He had caught the snapping of a twig, in the trail below
the edge of the shelf. The sound was repeated; and he understood.
Blowing smartly, as if to clear the mud from about his nostrils, he
lurched to his feet, stalked forth from the wallow, and stood staring
arrogantly along the trail by which he had come. The next moment
another pair of antlers appeared; and then another bull, tall but
lean, and with long, spiky, narrow horns, mounted over the edge of the
shelf, and halted to eye the apparition before him.

The newcomer was of a darker hue than the lord of the wallow, and of
much slimmer build,--altogether less formidable in appearance. But he
looked very fit and fearless as, after a moment's supercilious survey
of his rival's ooze-dripping form, he came mincing forward to the
attack. The two, probably, had never seen each other before; but in
rutting season all caribou bulls are enemies at sight.

The white bull--no longer white now, but black and silver in the
moonlight--stood for some seconds quite motionless, his head low, his
broad and massive antlers thrust forward, his feet planted firmly and
apart. Ominous in his stillness, he waited till his light-stepping and
debonair adversary was within twenty feet of him. Then, with an
explosive blowing through his nostrils, he launched himself forward to
the attack.

Following the customary tactics of his kind, the second bull lowered
his antlers to receive the charge. But in the last fraction of a
breath before the crash, he changed his mind. Leaping aside with a
lightning alertness more like the action of a red buck than that of a
caribou, he just evaded the shock. At the same time two of the spiky
prongs of one antler ripped a long gash down his opponent's flank.

Amazed at this departure from the usual caribou tactics, and smarting
with the anguish of that punishing stroke, the white bull whirled in
his tracks, and charged again, blind with fury. The slim stranger had
already turned, and awaited him again, with lowered antlers in
readiness, close by the edge of the wallow. This time he seemed
determined to meet the shock squarely according to the rules of the
game--which apparently demand that the prowess of a caribou bull shall
be determined by his pushing power. But again he avoided, leaping
aside as if on springs; and again his sharp prongs furrowed his
enemy's flank. With a grunt of rage the latter plunged on into the
wallow, where he slipped forward upon his knees.

Had the newcomer been a little more resourceful he might now have
taken his adversary at a terrible disadvantage, and won an easy
victory. But he hesitated, being too much enamoured of his own method
of fighting; and in the moment of hesitation opportunity passed him
by. The white bull, recovering himself with suddenly awakened agility,
was on his feet and on guard again in an instant.

These two disastrous experiences, however, had added wariness and
wisdom to the great bull's fighting rage. His wound, his momentary
discomfiture, had opened his arrogant eyes to the fact that his
antagonist was a dangerous one. He stood vigilant and considering for
a few seconds, no longer with his feet planted massively for a
resistless rush, but balanced, and all his forces gathered well in
hand; while his elusive foe stepped lightly and tauntingly from side
to side before him, threateningly.

When the white bull made up his mind to attack again, instead of
charging madly to swab his foe off the earth, he moved forward at a
brisk stride, ready to check himself on the instant and block the
enemy's side stroke. Within a couple of yards of his opponent he
stopped short. The latter stood motionless, antlers lowered as before,
apparently quite willing to lock horns. But the white bull would not
be lured into a rush. Fiercely impatient he stamped the ground with a
broad, clacking forehoof.

Just at this moment, as if in response to the challenge of the hoof,
the stranger charged like lightning. But almost in the same motion he
swerved aside, seeking again to catch his adversary on the flank.
Swift and cunning as he was, however, the white bull was this time all
readiness. He whirled, head down. With a sharp, dry crash the two sets
of antlers came together, and locked.

That this should have happened was the irremediable mistake of the
slim stranger. In that close encounter, fury against fury, force
against force fairly pitted, his speed and his agility counted for
nothing. For a few seconds, indeed, in sheer desperation he succeeded
in withstanding his heavier and more powerful foe. With hind feet
braced far back, haunches strained, flank heaving and quivering, the
two held steady, staccato grunts and snorts attesting the ferocity of
their efforts. Then the hind foot of the younger bull slipped a
little. With a convulsive wrench he recovered his footing; and again
the struggle hung at poise. But it was only for a few moments.
Suddenly, as if he had felt his opportunity approach, the white bull
threw all his strength into a mightier thrust. The legs of his
adversary seemed to crumple up like paper beneath him.

This would have been the end of the young bull's battlings and
wooings; but as his good luck would have it, it was at the very edge
of the shelf that he collapsed. Disengaging his victorious antlers,
the conqueror thrust viciously and evisceratingly at the victim's
exposed flank. The latter was just struggling to rise, with precarious
foothold on the loose-turfed brink of the steep. As he writhed away
wildly from the goring points, the bushes and turf crumbled away, and
he fell backwards, rolling and crashing till he brought up, battered
but whole, in a sturdy thicket of young firs. Regaining his feet he
slunk off hurriedly into the dark of the woods. And the victor,
standing on the brink in the white glare of the moonlight, "belled"
his triumph hoarsely across the solemn spaces of the night.


II

A sound of footfalls, hesitating but apparently making no attempt at
concealment, came from the bend of the trail beyond the wallow; and
the great white bull wheeled savagely to see what was approaching. As
he glared, however, the angry ridge of hair cresting his neck sank
amiably. A young cow, attracted by his calls and the noise of the
battle, was coming around the thicket.

At the edge of the thicket, not a dozen paces from the black ooze-bed
of the wallow, the cow paused coyly, as if doubtful of her welcome.
She murmured in her throat, a sort of rough allurement which seemed to
the white bull's ears extraordinarily enticing. He answered, very
softly, and stepped forward a pace or two, inviting rather than
pursuing. Reassured, the young cow advanced confidently and eagerly to
meet him.

At this moment, out from the heart of the thicket plunged a towering
black form, with wide, snarling jaw's agleam in the moonlight. It
seemed to launch itself through the air, as if from a height. One
great, taloned paw struck the young cow full on the neck, a crashing
blow, shattering the vertebrae through all their armour of muscle.
With a groan the stricken cow sank down, her outstretched muzzle
smothered in the ooze of the wallow; and the monstrous bulk of the
bear fell upon her, tearing the warm flesh hungrily.

In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the most hot-headed and
powerful bull of the caribou will shrink from trying conclusions with
a full grown black bear. The duel, as a rule, is too cruelly
one-sided. The bear, on the other hand, knows that a courageous bull
is no easy victim; and the monster ambuscaded in the thicket had been
waiting for one or both of the rivals to be disabled before making his
attack. The approach of the young cow had been an unexpected favour of
the Powers that order the wilderness; and in clutching his opportunity
he had scornfully and absolutely put the white bull out of the
reckoning.

But this bull was the exceptional one, the one that confounds
generalizations, and confirms the final supremacy of the unexpected.
He was altogether fearless, indifferent to odds, and just now flushed
with overwhelming victory. Moreover, he was aflame with mating ardour;
and the mate of his desire had just been brutally struck down before
his eyes. For a moment or two he stood bewildered, not daunted, but
amazed by the terrific apparition and the appalling event. Then a mad
fire raged through all his veins, his great muscles swelled, the stiff
hair on his neck and shoulders stood straight up, his eyes went
crimson--and without a sound he charged across the wallow.

When the bulls of the caribou kin fight each other, the weapons of
their sole dependence are their antlers. But when they fight alien
enemies they are wont to hold their heads high and strike with the
battering, knife-edged weapons of their fore-hoofs. The bear, crouched
upon his quivering prey, was too absorbed and too scornful to look for
any assault. The bull was upon him, therefore, before he had time to
guard his exposed flank. From the corner of his eye, he saw a big
glistening shape which reared suddenly above him, and, clever boxer
that he was, he threw up a ponderous forearm to parry the blow. But he
was too late. With all the force of some seven hundred pounds of
rage, avenging rage, behind him, these great hoofs, with their cutting
edges, came down upon his side, smashing in several ribs, and gashing
a wide wound down into his loins. The shock was so terrific that his
own counter stroke, usually so swift and unerring, went wild
altogether, and he was sent rolling clear of the body of his prey.

Instantly upon delivering his stroke, the white bull had pranced
lightly aside, knowing well enough the swift and deadly effectiveness
of a bear's paw. But he struck yet again, almost, it seemed, in the
same breath, and just as the bear was struggling up upon his haunches.
Frantically, out of his astonishment, fury, and pain, the bear
attempted to guard. He succeeded, indeed, in warding off those deadly
hoofs from his flank; but he caught an almost disabling blow on the
point of the left shoulder, putting his left forearm out of business.
With a squawling grunt he swung about upon his haunches, bringing his
right toward the enemy, and sat up, savagely but anxiously defensive.

Sore wounded though he was, the bear was not yet beaten. One fair
buffet of his right paw, could he but land it in the proper place,--on
nose, or neck, or leg--might yet give him the victory, and let him
crawl off to nurse his hurts in some dense covert, leaving his broken
foe to die in the wallow. But the white bull, though he had underrated
his former antagonist, was in no danger of misprizing this one. He was
now as wary as he had, in the previous case, been rash. Moreover, he
had had a dreadful object lesson in the power of the bear's paw. The
body of the cow before him kept him from forgetting.

Stepping restlessly from side to side, threatening now with hoof and
now with antlers, he seemed each instant upon the point of a fresh
attack; and the bear, with swaying muzzle and blazing, shifting eyes,
kept following his every motion. Again and again he gathered his
muscles for a fresh charge--but each time he checked himself with a
realization that the body of the slain cow was exactly in his way,
hampering his avoidance of a counter-stroke.

After some minutes of this feinting, the caribou stood still,
deliberating some new move. Instantly the bear, also, became
motionless as a stone. The sudden peace was like a shock of
enchantment, a violent sorcery, and over it the blue-white, flooding
shine of the moonlight seemed to take on some sinister significance.
The seconds lengthened out as a nightmare, till at last the stupendous
stillness was broken by the wild clamour of a loon, far down on the
lake. As the distant cry shrilled up the mountainside, the white bull
stirred, shook his antlers, and blew loudly through his nostril. It
was a note of challenge--but in it the bear divined a growing
hesitancy. Perhaps, after all, this fight, which had gone so sorely
against him, might not have to be fought out! He dropped, whirled
about so quietly one could hardly follow the motion--and in a flash
was up again on his haunches, right paw uplifted, eyes blazing
vigilant defiance. But he had retreated several feet in that swift
manoeuvre! His move was a confusion of defeat--but his attitude was a
warning that he was dangerous in defeat. The bull followed, but only
for a couple of steps, which brought him so that he bestrode the body
of the cow. Here he halted, still threatening; and again the two
confronted each other motionlessly.

This time, however, the spell was broken by the bear himself. Suddenly
he repeated his former manoeuvre; and again turned to face his
adversary. But the bull did not follow. Without a movement he stood,
as if content with his victory. And after a few moments the bear, as
if realizing that the fight was over, flung himself aside from the
trail and went limping off painfully through the bushes, keeping a
watchful eye over his shoulder till he vanished into a bunch of dense
spruce against the mountainside.



The white bull eyed his going proudly. Then he looked down at the torn
and lifeless body between his feet. He had not really taken note of it
before. Now he bent his head and sniffed at it with wondering
interrogation. The spreading blood, still warm, smote his nostrils;
and all at once, it seemed, death and the fear of death were borne in
upon his arrogant heart. He tossed his head, snorting wildly, flung
himself clear of the uncomprehended, dreadful thing upon the ground,
bounded over the wallow as if it, too, had grown terrifying, and fled
away up the trail through the merciless, unconcealing moonlight, till
he reached the end of the open shelf and a black wood hid his sudden
fear of the unknown.





Next: Sonny And The Kid

Previous: From The Teeth Of The Tide



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