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When The Blueberries Are Ripe





THE steep, rounded, rock-scarred face of Bald Mountain, for all its
naked grimness, looked very cheerful in the last of the warm-coloured
sunset. There were no trees; but every little hollow, every tiny
plateau, every bit of slope that was not too steep for clinging roots
to find hold, was clothed with a mat of blueberry bushes. The berries,
of an opaque violet-blue tone (much more vivid and higher in key than
the same berries can show when picked and brought to market) were so
large and so thickly crowded as to almost hide the leaves. They gave
the austere steeps of "Old Baldy" the effect of having been dyed with
a wash of cobalt.

Far below, where the lonely wilderness valley was already forsaken
by the sun, a flock of ducks could be seen, with long, outstretched
necks rigid and short wings swiftly beating, lined out over a
breadth of wild meadow. Above the lake which washed the foot of
the mountain,--high above the water, but below the line of shadow
creeping up the mountain's face,--a single fish-hawk circled
slowly, waiting for the twilight coolness to bring the big trout to
the surface to feed. The smooth water glimmered pallidly, and here
and there a spreading, circular ripple showed that the hungry fish
were beginning to rise.

Up in the flood of the sunset, the blueberries basked and glowed, some
looking like gems, some like blossoms, according to the fall of the
light. Around the shoulder of the mountain toward the east, where the
direct rays of the sun could not reach, the light was yet abundant,
but cool and tender,--and here the vivid berries were beginning to
lose their colour, as a curved moon, just rising over the far, ragged
rim of the forest, touched them with phantom silver. Everywhere
jutting rocks and sharp crevices broke the soft mantle of the
blueberry thickets; and on the southerly slope, where sunset and
moonrise mingled with intricate shadows, everything looked ghostlike
and unreal. On the utmost summit of the mountain a rounded peak of
white granite, smoothed by ages of storm, shone like a beacon.



The only berry-pickers that came to these high slopes of Bald Mountain
were the wild kindreds, furred and feathered. Of them all, none were
more enthusiastic and assiduous than the bears; and just now, climbing
up eagerly from the darkening woods below, came an old she-bear with
two half-grown cubs. They came up by easy paths, zigzagging past
boulder and crevice, through the ghostly, noiseless contention of
sunlight and moonlight. Now their moving shadows lay one way, now the
other; and now their shadows were suddenly wiped out, as the two
lights for a moment held an even balance. At length having reached a
little plateau where the berries were particularly large and
close-clustered, the old bear stopped, and they fell joyously to their
feeding.

On these open heights there were no enemies to keep watch against, and
there was no reason to be wary or silent. The bears fed noisily,
therefore, stripping the plump fruit cleverly by the pawful, and
munching with little, greedy grunts of delight. There was no other
food quite so to their taste as these berries, unless, perhaps, a
well-filled honey-comb. And this was their season for eating, eating,
eating, all the time, in order to lay up abundant fat against the long
severity of winter.

As the bushes about them were stripped of the best fruit, the shaggy
feasters moved around the shoulder of the mountain from the gold of
the sun into the silver of the moon. Soon the sunset had faded, and
the moon had it all her own way except for a broad expanse of
sea-green sky in the west, deepening through violet to a narrow streak
of copper on the horizon. By this time the shadows, especially on the
eastern slope, were very sharp and black, and the open spaces very
white and radiant, with a strange transparency borrowed from that
high, pure atmosphere.

It chanced that the little hollow on which the bears were just now
revelling,--a hollow where the blueberries were unbelievably large and
abundant--was bounded on its upper side, toward the steep, by a narrow
and deep crevice. At one end of the cleft, from a rocky and shallow
roothold, a gnarled birch grew slantingly. From its unusual situation,
and from the fact that the bushes grew thick to its very edge, this
crevice constituted nothing less than a most insidious trap.

One of the cubs, born with the instinct of caution, kept far away from
the dangerous brink without having more than half realized that there
was any danger there whatever. The other cub was one of those
blundering fellows, to be found among the wild kindreds no less than
among the kindreds of men, who only get caution hammered into them by
experience. He saw a narrow break, indeed, between the berry patch and
the bare steep above,--but what was a little crevice in a position
like this, where it could not amount to anything? Had it been on the
other side of the hollow, he would have feared a precipice, and would
have been on his guard. But, as it was, he never gave the matter a
second thought, because it did not look dangerous! He found the best
berries growing very near the edge of the crevice; and in his
satisfaction he turned his back to the height and settled himself
solidly upon his haunches to enjoy them. As he did so the bushes gave
way behind him, he pitched abruptly backwards, and vanished with a
squeal of terror into the narrow cleft of darkness.

The crevice was perhaps twelve feet deep, and from five to eight in
width all the way to the bottom. The bottom held a layer of earth and
dead leaves, which served to ease the cub's fall; but when he landed
the wind was so bumped out of him that for a minute or two he could
not utter a sound. As soon as he recovered his voice, however, he
began to squeal and whine piteously for his mother.

The old bear, at the sound of his cry as he fell, had rushed so
hastily to his aid that she barely escaped falling in after him.
Checking herself just in time, by digging all her mighty claws into
the roots of the blueberries, she crouched at the brink, thrust her
head as far over as she could, and peered down with anxious cries. But
when the cub's voice came back to her from the darkness she knew he
was not killed, and she also knew that he was very near,--and her
whinings changed at once to a guttural murmur that must have been
intended for encouragement. The other cub, meanwhile, had come
lumbering up with ears wisely cocked, taken a very hasty and careful
glance over the edge, and returned to his blueberries with an air of
disapproval. It was as if he said he always knew that blundering
brother of his would get himself into trouble.

For some minutes the old bear crouched where she was, straining her
eyes to make out the form of her little one. Becoming accustomed to
the gloom at last, she could discern him. She could see that he was
moving about, and standing on his hind legs, and striving valiantly to
claw his way up the perpendicular surface of smooth rock. She began to
reach downwards first one big forepaw and then the other, testing the
rock beneath her for some ledge or crack that might give her foothold
by which to climb down to his aid. Finding none, she again set up her
uneasy whining, and moved slowly along the brink, trying every inch of
the way for some place rough enough to give her strong claws a chance
to take hold. In the full, unclouded light of the white moon she was a
pathetic figure, bending and crouching and straining, and reaching
down longingly, then stopping to listen to the complaints of pain and
terror that came up out of the dark.

At last she came to the end of the crevice where grew the solitary
birch tree,--the frightened captive following exactly below her and
stretching up toward her against the rock. At this point, close beside
the tree, some roots and tough turf overhung the edge, and the old
bear's paws detected a roughness on the face of the rock just below.
This was enough for her brave and devoted heart. She turned around and
let her hind quarters carefully over the brink, intending to climb
down backwards as bears do. But beyond the first unevenness there was
absolutely nothing that her claws could take hold of. Her great body
was half way over, when she felt herself on the point of falling.
Making a sudden startled effort to recover herself, she clutched
desperately at the trunk of the birch tree with one arm, at the roots
of the berry-bushes with the other,--and just managed to regain the
level.

For herself, this mighty effort was just enough. But for the
birch-tree it was just too much. The shallow earth by which it held
gave way; and the next moment, with a clatter of loosened stones and a
swish of leafy branches, it crashed majestically down into the
crevice, closing one end of it with a mass of boughs and foliage, and
once more frightening the imprisoned cub almost out of his senses.

At the first sound of this cataclysm, at the first rattle of loose
earth about his ears, the cub had bounced madly to the other end of
the crevice, where he crouched, whimpering. The old bear, too, was
daunted for some seconds; but then, seeing that the cub was not hurt,
she was quick to perceive the advantage of the accident. Standing at
the upturned roots of the tree, she called eagerly and encouragingly
to the cub, pointing out the path of escape thus offered to him. For
some minutes he was too terrified to approach. At last she set her own
weight on the trunk, testing it, and prepared to climb down and lead
him out. At this, however, the youngster's nerve revived. With a
joyful and understanding squeal, he rushed forward, sprawled and
clawed his way over the tangle of branches, gained the firm
trunk,--and presently found himself again beside his mother among the
pleasant, moonlit berry-bushes. Here he was fondled and nosed and
licked and nursed by the delighted mother, till his bruised little
body forgot its hurts and his shaken little heart its fears. His
cautious brother, too, came up with a wise look and sniffed at him
patronizingly; but went away again with his nose in the air, as if to
say that here was much fuss being made over a very small matter.





Next: The Glutton Of The Great Snow

Previous: The White-slashed Bull



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