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When The Truce Of The Wild Is Done





BY day it was still high summer in the woods, with slumbrous heat at
noon, and the murmur of insects under the thick foliage. But to the
initiated sense there was a difference. A tang in the forest scents
told the nostrils that autumn had arrived. A crispness in the feel of
the air, elusive but persistent, hinted of approaching frost. The
still warmth was haunted, every now and then, by a passing ghost of
chill. Here and there the pale green of the birches was thinly webbed
with gold. Here and there a maple hung out amid its rich verdure a
branch prematurely turned, glowing like a banner of aerial rose. Along
the edges of the little wild meadows which bordered the loitering
brooks the first thin blooms of the asters began to show, like a veil
of blown smoke. In open patches, on the hillsides the goldenrod burned
orange and the fireweed spread its washes of violet pink. Somewhere
in the top of a tall poplar, crowning the summit of a glaring white
bluff, a locust twanged incessantly its strident string. Mysteriously,
imperceptibly, without sound and without warning, the change had
come.

Hardly longer ago than yesterday, the wild creatures had been unwary
and confident, showing themselves everywhere. The partridge coveys had
whirred up noisily in full view of the passing woodsman, and craned
their necks to watch him from the near-by branches. On every shallow
mere and tranquil river-reach the flocks of wild ducks had fed boldly,
suffering canoe or punt to come within easy gunshot. In the heavy
grass of the wild meadows, or among the long, washing sedges of the
lakeside, the red deer had pastured openly in the broad daylight, with
tramplings and splashings, and had lifted large bright eyes of
unterrified curiosity if a boat or canoe happened by. The security of
that great truce, which men called "close season" had rested sweetly
on the forest.

Then suddenly, when the sunrise was pink on the mists, a gunshot had
sent the echoes clamouring across the still lake waters, and a flock
of ducks, flapping up and fleeing with frightened cries, had left one
of its members sprawling motionless among the flattened sedge, a heap
of bright feathers spattered with blood. Later in the morning a rifle
had cracked sharply on the hillside, and a little puff of white smoke
had blown across the dark front of the fir groves. The truce had come
to an end.

All summer long men had kept the truce with strictness, and the
hunter's fierce instinct, curbed alike by law and foresight, had
slumbered. But now the young coveys were full-fledged and strong of
wing, well able to care for themselves. The young ducks were full
grown, and no longer needed their mother's guardianship and teaching.
The young deer were learning to shift for themselves, and finding, to
their wonder and indignation, that their mothers grew day by day more
indifferent to them, more inclined to wander off in search of new
interests. The time had come when the young of the wilderness stood no
longer in need of protection. Then the hand of the law was lifted.

Instantly in the hearts of men the hunter's fever flamed up, and, with
eager eyes, they went forth to kill. Where they had yesterday walked
openly, hardly heeding the wild creatures about them, they now crept
stealthily, following the trails, or lying in ambush, waiting for the
unsuspicious flock to wing past. And when they found that the game,
yesterday so abundant and unwatchful, had to-day almost wholly
disappeared, they were indignant, and wished that they had anticipated
the season by a few hours.

As a matter of fact, the time of the ending of the truce was not the
same for all the wild creatures which had profited by its protection
through the spring and summer. Certain of the tribes, according to the
law's provisions, were secure for some weeks longer yet. But this they
never seemed to realize. As far as they could observe, when the truce
was broken for one it was broken for all, and all took alarm together.
In some unexplained way, perhaps by the mere transmission of a general
fear, word went around that the time had come for invisibility and
craft. All at once, therefore, as it seemed to men, the wilderness had
become empty.

Down a green, rough wood-road, leading from the Settlement to one of
the wild meadows by the river, came a young man in homespun carrying a
long, old-fashioned, muzzle-loading duck-gun. Two days before this he
had seen a fine buck, with antlers perfect and new-shining from the
velvet, feeding on the edge of this meadow. The young woodsman had
his gun loaded with buckshot. He wanted both venison and a pair of
horns; and, knowing the fancy of the deer for certain favourite
pastures, he had great hopes of finding the buck somewhere about the
place where he had last seen him. With flexible "larrigans" of oiled
cowhide on his feet, the hunter moved noiselessly and swiftly as a
panther, his keen pale-blue eyes peering from side to side through the
shadowy undergrowth. Not three steps aside from the path, moveless as
a stone and invisible among the spotted weeds and twigs, a crafty old
cock-partridge stood with head erect and unwinking eyes and watched
the dangerous intruder stride by.

Approaching the edge of the open, the young hunter kept himself
carefully hidden behind the fringing leafage and looked forth upon the
little meadow. No creature being in sight, he cut straight across the
grass to the water's edge, and scanned the muddy margin for
foot-prints. These he presently found in abundance, along between
grass and sedge. Most of the marks were old; but others were so fresh
that he knew the buck must have been there and departed within the
last ten minutes. Into some deep hoof-prints the water was still
oozing, while from others the trodden stems of sedge were slowly
struggling upright.

A smile of keen satisfaction passed over the young woodsman's face at
these signs. He prided himself on his skill in trailing, and the
primeval predatory elation thrilled his nerves. At a swift but easy
lope he took up that clear trail, and followed it back through the
grass toward the woods. It entered the woods not ten paces from the
point where the hunter himself had emerged, ran parallel with the old
wood-road for a dozen yards, and came to a plain halt in the heart of
a dense thicket of hemlock. From the thicket it went off in great
leaps in a direction at right angles to the path. There was not a
breath of wind stirring, to carry a scent. So the hunter realized that
his intended victim had been watching him from the thicket, and that
it was now a case of craft against craft. He tightened his belt for a
long chase, and set his lean jaws doggedly as he resumed the trail.

The buck, who was wise with the wisdom of experience, and apprised by
the echoes of the first gunshot of the fact that the truce was over,
had indeed been watching the hunter very sagaciously. The moment he
was satisfied that it was his trail the hunter was following, he had
set out at top speed, anxious to get as far as possible from so
dangerous a neighbourhood. At first his fear grew with his flight, so
that his great, soft eyes stared wildly and his nostrils dilated as he
went bounding over all obstacles. Then little by little the triumphant
exercise of his powers, and a realization of how far his speed
surpassed that of his pursuer, reassured him somewhat. He decided to
rest, and find out what his foe was doing. He doubled back parallel
with his own trail for about fifty yards, then lay down in a thicket
to watch the enemy go by.

In an incredibly short time he did go by, at that long, steady swing
which ate up the distance so amazingly. As soon as he was well past,
the buck sprang up and was off again at full speed, his heart once
more thumping with terror.

This time, however, instead of running straight ahead, he made a wide,
sweeping curve, tending back toward the river and the lakes. As
before, only somewhat sooner, his alarm subsided and his confidence,
along with his curiosity, returned. He repeated his former manoeuvre
of doubling back a little way upon his trail, then again lay down to
wait for the passing of his foe.

When the hunter came to that first abrupt turn of the trail he
realized that it was a cunning and experienced buck with which he had
to deal. He smiled confidently, however, feeling sure of his own
skill, and ran at full speed to the point where the animal had lain
down to watch him pass. From this point he followed the trail just far
enough to catch its curve. Then he left it and ran in a straight line
shrewdly calculated to form the chord to his quarry's section of a
circle. His plan was to intercept and pick up the trail again about
three quarters of a mile further on. In nine cases out of ten his
calculation would have worked out as he wished; but in this case he
had not made allowance for this particular buck's individuality. While
he imagined his quarry to be yet far ahead, he ran past a leafy clump
of mingled Indian pear and thick spruce seedlings. Half a minute later
he heard a crash of underbrush behind him. As he turned he caught a
tantalizing glimpse of tawny haunches vanishing through the green, and
he knew that once again he had been outplayed.

This time the wise buck was distinctly more terrified than before. The
appearance of his enemy at this unexpected point, so speedily, and not
upon the trail, struck a panic to his heart. Plainly, this was no
common foe, to be evaded by familiar stratagems. His curiosity and his
confidence disappeared completely.



The buck set off in a straight line for the river, now perhaps a
half-mile distant. Reaching it, he turned down the shore, running in
the shallow water to cover his scent. It never occurred to him that
his enemy was trailing him by sight, not by scent; so he followed the
same tactics he would have employed had the pursuer been a wolf or a
dog. A hundred yards further on he rounded a sharp bend of the stream.
Here he took to deep water, swam swiftly to the opposite shore, and
vanished into the thick woods.

Two or three minutes later the man came out upon the river's edge. The
direction his quarry had taken was plainly visible by the splashes of
water on the rocks, and he smiled grimly at the precaution which the
animal had taken to cover his secret. But when he reached the point
where the buck had taken to deep water the smile faded. He stopped,
leaning on his gun and staring across the river, and a baffled look
came over his face. Realizing, after a few moments, that he was beaten
in this game, he drew out his charge of buckshot, reloaded his gun
with small duckshot, and hid himself in a waterside covert of young
willows, in the hope that a flock of mallard or teal might presently
come by.





Next: The Window In The Shack

Previous: The Glutton Of The Great Snow



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