Secret of the Woods
William J. Long
Part 3 out of 3
This was the lesson that the great woods whispered sadly when a
few idle March days found me gliding on snowshoes over the old
familiar ground. Wild geese had honked an invitation from the
South Shore; but one can never study a wild goose; the only
satisfaction is to see him swing in on broad wings over the
decoys--one glorious moment ere the gun speaks and the dog jumps
and everything is spoiled. So I left gun and rifle behind, and
went off to the woods of happy memories to see how my deer were
The wonder of the snow was gone; there was left only its cold
bitterness and a vague sense that it ought no longer to cumber
the ground, but would better go away as soon as possible and
spare the wood folk any more suffering. The litter of a score of
storms covered its soiled rough surface; every shred of bark had
left its dark stain where the decaying sap had melted and spread
in the midday sun. The hard crust, which made such excellent
running for my snowshoes, seemed bitterly cruel when I thought of
the starving wild things and of the abundance of food on the
brown earth, just four feet below their hungry bills and noses.
The winter bad been unusually severe. Reports had come to me from
the North Woods of deep snows, and of deer dying of starvation
and cold in their yards. I confess that I was anxious as I
hurried along. Now that the hunt was over and the deer had won,
they belonged to me more than ever more even than if the stuffed
head of the buck looked down on my hall, instead of resting
proudly over his own strong shoulders. My snowshoes clicked a
rapid march through the sad gray woods, while the March wind
thrummed an accompaniment high up among the bare branches, and
the ground-spruce nodded briskly, beating time with their green
tips, as if glad of any sound or music that would break the chill
silence until the birds came back.
Here and there the snow told stories; gay stories, tragic
stories, sad, wandering, patient stories of the little
woods-people, which the frost had hardened into crust, as if
Nature would keep their memorials forever, like the records on
the sunhardened bricks of Babylon. But would the deer live? Would
the big buck's cunning provide a yard large enough for wide
wandering, with plenty of browse along the paths to carry his
flock safely through the winter's hunger? That was a story,
waiting somewhere ahead, which made me hurry away from the
foot-written records that otherwise would have kept me busy for
Crossbills called welcome to me, high overhead. Nothing can
starve them out. A red squirrel rushed headlong out of his hollow
tree at the first click of my snowshoes. Nothing can check his
curiosity or his scolding except his wife, whom he likes, and the
weasel, whom he is mortally afraid of. Chickadees followed me
shyly with their blandishments--tsic-a-deeee? with that gentle
up-slide of questioning. "Is the spring really coming? Are--are
you a harbinger?"
But the snowshoes clicked on, away from the sweet blarney,
Leaving behind the little flatterers who were honestly glad to
see me in the woods again, and who would fain have delayed me.
Other questions, stern ones, were calling ahead. Would the cur
dogs find the yard and exterminate the innocents? Would Old
Wally--but no; Wally had the "rheumatiz," and was out of the
running. Ill-wind blew the deer good that time; else he would
long ago have run them down on snowshoes and cut their throats,
as if they were indeed his "tarnal sheep" that had run wild in
At the southern end of a great hardwood ridge I found the first
path of their yard. It was half filled with snow, unused since
the last two storms. A glance on either side, where everything
eatable within reach of a deer's neck had long ago been cropped
close, showed plainly why the path was abandoned. I followed it a
short distance before running into another path, and another,
then into a great tangle of deer ways spreading out crisscross
over the eastern and southern slopes of the ridge.
In some of the paths were fresh deer tracks and the signs of
recent feeding. My heart jumped at sight of one great hoof mark.
I had measured and studied it too often to fail to recognize its
owner. There was browse here still, to be had for the cropping. I
began to be hopeful for my little flock, and to feel a higher
regard for their leader, who could plan a yard, it seemed, as
well as a flight, and who could not be deceived by early
abundance into outlining a small yard, forgetting the late snows
and the spring hunger.
I was stooping to examine the more recent signs, when a sharp
snort made me raise my head quickly. In the path before me stood
a doe, all a-quiver, her feet still braced from the suddenness
with which she had stopped at sight of an unknown object blocking
the path ahead. Behind her two other deer checked themselves and
stood like statues, unable to see, but obeying their leader
All three were frightened and excited, not simply curious, as
they would have been had they found me in their path
unexpectedly. The widespread nostrils and heaving sides showed
that they had been running hard. Those in the rear (I could see
them over the top of the scrub spruce, behind which I crouched in
the path) said in every muscle: "Go on! No matter what it is, the
danger behind is worse. Go on, go on!" Insistence was in the air.
The doe felt it and bounded aside. The crust had softened in the
sun, and she plunged through it when she struck, cr-r-runch,
cr-r-runch, up to her sides at every jump. The others followed,
just swinging their heads for a look and a sniff at me, springing
from hole to hole in the snow, and making but a single track. A
dozen jumps and they struck another path and turned into it,
running as before down the ridge. In the swift glimpses they gave
me I noticed with satisfaction that, though thin and a bit ragged
in appearance, they were by no means starved. The veteran leader
had provided well for his little family.
I followed their back track up the ridge for perhaps half a mile,
when another track made me turn aside. Two days before, a single
deer had been driven out of the yard at a point where three paths
met. She had been running down the ridge when something in front
met her and drove her headlong out of her course. The soft edges
of the path were cut and torn by suspicious claw marks.
I followed her flight anxiously, finding here and there, where
the snow had been softest, dog tracks big and little. The deer
was tired from long running, apparently; the deep holes in the
snow, where she had broken through the crust, were not half the
regular distance apart. A little way from the path I found her,
cold and stiff, her throat horribly torn by the pack which had
run her to death. Her hind feet were still doubled under her,
just as she had landed from her last despairing jump, when the
tired muscles could do no more, and she sank down without a
struggle to let the dogs do their cruel work.
I had barely read all this, and had not yet finished measuring
the largest tracks to see if it were her old enemy that, as dogs
frequently do, had gathered a pirate band about him and led them
forth to the slaughter of the innocents, when a far-away cry came
stealing down through the gray woods. Hark! the eager yelp of
curs and the leading hoot of a hound. I whipped out my knife to
cut a club, and was off for the sounds on a galloping run, which
is the swiftest possible gait on snowshoes.
There were no deer paths here; for the hardwood browse, upon
which deer depend for food, grew mostly on the other sides of the
ridge. That the chase should turn this way, out of the yard's
limits showed the dogs' cunning, and that they were not new at
their evil business. They had divided their forces again, as they
had undoubtedly done when hunting the poor doe whose body I had
just found. Part of the pack hunted down the ridge in full cry,
while the rest lay in wait to spring at the flying game as it
came on and drive it out of the paths into the deep snow, where
it would speedily be at their mercy. At the thought I gripped the
club hard, promising to stop that kind of hunting for good, if
only I could get half a chance.
Presently, above the scrape of my snowshoes, I heard the deer
coming, cr-r-runch! cr-r-runch! the heavy plunges growing shorter
and fainter, while behind the sounds an eager, whining trail-cry
grew into a fierce howl of canine exultation. Something was
telling me to hurry, hurry; that the big buck I had so often
hunted was in my power at last, and that, if I would square
accounts, I must beat the dogs, though they were nearer to him
now than I. The excitement of a new kind of hunt, a hunt to save,
not to kill, was tingling all over me when I circled a dense
thicket of firs with a rush, and there he lay, up to his
shoulders in the snow before me.
He had taken his last jump. The splendid strength which had
carried him so far was spent now to the last ounce. He lay
resting easily in the snow, his head outstretched on the crust
before him, awaiting the tragedy that had followed him for years,
by lake and clearing and winter yard, and that burst out behind
him now with a cry to make one's nerves shudder. The glory of his
antlers was gone; he had dropped them months before; but the
mighty shoulders and sinewy neck and perfect head showed how
well, how grandly he had deserved my hunting.
He threw up his head as I burst out upon him from an utterly
unexpected quarter--the very thing that I had so often tried to
do, in vain, in the old glorious days. "Hast thou found me, O
mine enemy? Well, here am I." That is what his eyes, great, sad,
accusing eyes, were saying as he laid his head down on the snow
again, quiet as an Indian at the torture, too proud to struggle
where nothing was to be gained but pity or derision.
A strange, uncanny silence had settled over the woods. Wolves
cease their cry in the last swift burst of speed that will bring
the game in sight. Then the dogs broke out of the cover behind
him with a fiercer howl that was too much for even his nerves to
stand. Nothing on earth could have met such a death unmoved. No
ears, however trained, could hear that fierce cry for blood
without turning to meet it face to face. With a mighty effort the
buck. whirled in the snow and gathered himself for the tragedy.
Far ahead of the pack came a small, swift bulldog that, with no
nose of his own for hunting, had followed the pirate leader for
mere love of killing. As he jumped for the throat, the buck, with
his last strength, reared on his hind legs, so as to get his fore
feet clear of the snow, and plunged down again with a hard, swift
sabre-cut of his right hoof. It caught the dog on the neck as he
rose on the spring, and ripped him from ear to tail. Deer and dog
came down together. Then the buck rose swiftly for his last blow,
and the knife-edged hoofs shot down like lightning; one straight,
hard drive with the crushing force of a ten-ton hammer behind
it--and his first enemy was out of the hunt forever. Before he
had time to gather himself again the big yellow brindle, with the
hound's blood showing in nose and ears,--Old Wally's dog,--leaped
into sight. His whining trail-cry changed to a fierce growl as he
sprang for the buck's nose.
I had waited for just this moment in hiding, and jumped to meet
it. The club came down between the two heads; and there was no
reserve this time in the muscles that swung it. It caught the
brute fair on the head, where the nose begins to come up into the
skull,--and he too had harried his last deer.
Two other curs had leaped aside with quick instinct the moment
they saw me, and vanished into the thickets, as if conscious of
their evil doing and anxious to avoid detection. But the third, a
large collie,--a dog that, when he does go wrong, becomes the
most cunning and vicious of brutes,--flew straight at my throat
with a snarl like a gray wolf cheated of his killing. I have
faced bear and panther and bull moose when the red danger-light
blazed into their eyes; but never before or since have I seen
such awful fury in a brute's face. It swept over me in an instant
that it was his life or mine; there was no question or
alternative. A lucky cut of the club disabled him, and I finished
the job on the spot, for the good of the deer and the community.
The big buck had not moved, nor tried to, after his last great
effort. Now he only turned his head and lifted it wearily, as if
to get away from the intolerable smell of his dog enemies that
lay dying under his very nose. His great, sorrowful, questioning
eyes were turned on me continually, with a look that only
innocence could possibly meet. No man on earth, I think, could
have looked into them for a full moment and then raised his hand
I approached very quietly, and dragged the dogs away from him,
one by one. His eyes followed me always. His nostrils spread, his
head came up with a start when I flung the first cur aside to
leeward. But he made no motion; only his eyes had a wonderful
light in them when I dragged his last enemy, the one he had
killed himself, from under his very head and threw it after the
others. Then I sat down quietly in the snow, and we were face to
face at last.
He feared me--I could hardly expect otherwise, while a deer has
memory--but he lay perfectly still, his head extended on the
snow, his sides heaving. After a little while he made a few
bounds forward, at right angles to the course he had been
running, with marvelous instinct remembering the nearest point in
the many paths out of which the pack had driven him. But he
stopped and lay quiet at the first sound of my snowshoes behind
him. "The chase law holds. You have caught me; I am yours,"--this
is what his sad eyes were saying. And sitting down quietly near
him again, I tried to reassure him. "You are safe. Take your own
time. No dog shall harm you now."--That is what I tried to make
him feel by the very power of my own feeling, never more strongly
roused than now for any wild creature.
I whistled a little tune softly, which always rouses the wood
folk's curiosity; but as he lay quiet, listening, his ears shot
back and forth nervously at a score of sounds that I could not
hear, as if above the music he caught faint echoes of the last
fearful chase. Then I brought out my lunch and, nibbling a bit
myself, pushed a slice of black bread over the crust towards him
with a long stick.
It was curious and intensely interesting to watch the struggle.
At first he pulled away, as if I would poison him. Then a new
rich odor began to steal up into his hungry nostrils. For weeks
he had not fed full; he had been running hard since daylight, and
was faint and exhausted. And in all his life he had never smelled
anything so good. He turned his head to question me with his
eyes. Slowly his nose came down, searching for the bread. "If he
would only eat!-that is a truce which I would never break," I
kept thinking over and over, and stopped eating in my eagerness
to have him share with me the hunter's crust. His nose touched
it; then through his hunger came the smell of the man--the danger
smell that had followed him day after day in the beautiful
October woods, and over white winter trails when he fled for his
life, and still the man followed. The remembrance was too much.
He raised his head with an effort and bounded away.
I followed slowly, keeping well out to one side of his trail, and
sitting quietly within sight whenever he rested in the snow. Wild
animals soon lose their fear in the presence of man if one avoids
all excitement, even of interest, and is quiet in his motions.
His fear was gone now, but the old wild freedom and the intense
desire for life--a life which he had resigned when I appeared
suddenly before him, and the pack broke out behind--were coming
back with renewed force. His bounds grew longer, firmer, his
stops less frequent, till he broke at last into a deer path and
shook himself, as if to throw off all memory of the experience.
From a thicket of fir a doe, that had been listening in hiding to
the sounds of his coming and to the faint unknown click, which
was the voice of my snowshoes, came out to meet him. Together
they trotted down the path, turning often to look and listen, and
vanished at last, like gray shadows, into the gray stillness of
the March woods.
GLOSSARY OF INDIAN NAMES
Cheokhes, the mink.
Ch'geegee-lokh, the chickadee.
Cheplahgan, the bald eagle.
Chigwooltz, the bullfrog.
Clote Scarpe, a legendary hero, like Hiawatha, of the Northern
Indians. Pronounced variously, Clote Scarpe, Groscap, Gluscap,
Deedeeaskh, the blue jay.
Hukweem, the great northern diver, or loon.
Ismaques, the fish-hawk.
Kagax, the weasel.
Kakagos, the raven.
Keeokuskh, the muskrat.
Keeonekh, the otter.
Killooleet, the white-throated sparrow.
Kookooskoos, the great horned owl.
Koskomenos, the kingfisher.
Kupkawis, the barred owl.
Kwaseekho, the sheldrake.
Lhoks, the panther.
Malsun, the wolf.
Meeko,the red squirrel.
Megaleep, the caribou.
Milicete, the name of an Indian tribe; written also Malicete.
Mitches, the birch partridge, or ruffed grouse.
Moktaques, the hare.
Mooween, the black bear.
Musquash, the muskrat.
Nemox, the fisher.
Pekquam, the fisher.
Seksagadagee, the Canada grouse, or spruce partridge.
Skooktum, the trout.
Tookhees, the wood grouse.
Upweekis, the Canada lynx.
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