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The Camp among the Firs. — A Goose-Egg. — The Reports. — An Awful Screeching. —
Standing Guard. — A Fresh Alarm. — A Night of Broken Naps. — Was it a Catamount? — Wash discourses on Big Cats.
DURING the afternoon we descended to the basin of another small pond, — a very wild, woody sheet of water, set in a forest of firs, with a line of crags running along the eastern side. It was sunset before we came out upon the sandy shore. We began to look about for a place to camp at once. A smart breeze was blowing down from the west, raising quite a “sea.” As this was not a comfortable place either to build a fire or spend the night, we followed along to the eastward, where the first of the craggy rocks showed over the firs, which were here low and shrubby. Finding a spot where the fir-thicket would keep off the wind, Raed started a fire against the trunk of a decayed pine, which had some time fallen down the crag; while I began to dress a very fat gray squirrel which Wash had shot about an hour before. Wade, meanwhile, was picking up dry wood and pine-knots for the fire, and Wash had gone down to the shore to fish for pond-trout. Presently he came back. It was too windy for the fish to bite. He reported some “big tracks with claws to ‘em” in the sand on the shore; but as big tracks had got to be “dog cheap” with us, as Raed expressed it, we paid little attention to this announcement. I supposed they were those of a “fisher” or a “lucivee,” that would not molest us so long as we let him alone. Nor did Wash seem to give the matter a second thought.
We fried the goose-egg (grandmother had put in one goose-egg) with the squirrel rolled in meal. The egg itself had a rather oily taste, which Raed particularly abhorred; but the squirrel was nice. For dessert we had blueberries, gathered during the afternoon. Our water was poor. We were not able to find a spring, and had to drink pond-water, which was rather warm at that season. It was clear, however, and not unpleasant to the taste, save in its warmth. After supper we prepared our “shake-down” of fir-boughs, clipping them off with a hatchet.
Then came the reports — from the note-books.
Wash described a very pretty brown-and-white wood-mouse he had seen burrowing under the leaves, such as hunters call a “moose-mouse.”
Wade informed us, that, by the aneroid, the ridge we had crossed in coming over to the pond- shore was twenty-one hundred and fifty feet above the sea.
Raed had observed a long windrow of stones and gravel such as geologists call a “horseback.” He explained that these curious ridges are thought to have been formed by the action of ice-fields and glaciers many ages ago, when the continent was covered with ice as the northern parts of Green land now are.
At the foot of one of the ledges we had crossed I had picked up a large crystal of black tourmaline. It was four or five inches in length, and nearly three in diameter, — a nine-sided prism, weighing from two to three pounds. I left it lying on one of the large rocks near the pond-shore. It was too heavy to carry in my pocket.
“Is the mineral tourmaline always black?” asked Wade.
Wash said he had seen both a red and a green crystal at the Natural-History Rooms at Boston. Raed remarked that he had read of blue crystals of tourmaline being used to polarize light: and, on turning to my note-book, I read that there are black, green, blue, red, and brown tourmalines; furthermore, that the word tourmaline is from tournamal (ash-drawers), — a name given by the natives of Ceylon, because these stones, when laid among hot ashes, would gather the ashes about them. The tourmalines of Ceylon are green. Green and blue tourmalines are also brought from Brazil.
Wade asked Raed what was meant by polarizing light. Raed replied that he would repeat the definition he had read in Grove’s “Essays on Light.” It was this: “When light is reflected from the surface of water, glass, and many other media, it undergoes a change which disables it from being similarly reflected in a direction at right angles to that at which it has been originally reflected. Light so affected is said to be polarized.”
Wash laughed, and asked Raed how he had man aged to remember all that.
Raed replied that it had taxed him severely, and that he had been obliged to repeat it a dozen times before he had fixed it.
The mosquitoes began to buzz and bite. I got out the netting. Wade cut the sticks from a clump of small spotted maples standing near; and we got up the “bar” over our sapin, fastening the edges down at the bottom with small stones. Raed was fixing the fire, putting on the knots Wade had collected, and kindling another blaze by carrying brands off a few rods on the other side of our camp. Very few wild animals will come inside of a ring of fires, even after the blaze has gone out and the brands are smouldering. They do not like the odor of the smoke.
It had grown very dark: only a few stars peeped through the broken cloud-masses that were drifting across the moonless sky. The red flickering of the flaming knots gleamed on the dark firs, where here and there a drop of balsam glittered like a diamond; while the rocky crag, a few yards away, seemed to shudder in the unsteady light. We were tired out, and, creeping under the bar, spread the blankets over us, talked drowsily for a few minutes, and fell asleep: at least I did; though I indistinctly recollect Wade’s rousing up to let in Ding-bat, who had been racing about, but now came back and whined for shelter from the all- tormenting mosquitoes. We had slept two hours, I presume, when something — a terrible shriek it seemed — awoke me. The first I knew, I was springing up under the blankets. We were all scrambling up together, and bumping against each other. Ding-bat was barking like a mad fury. In the hubbub we upset the bar completely, and brushing it aside, jumped out in a perfect panic, all exclaiming, “What’s that?”
“For Heaven’s sake, what was that?”
Ding-bat was making every thing resound. I never heard such a din from a dog. He barked and growled and howled all at once.
Wash grabbed the rifle, and cocked it. Raed was trying to fumble out the shot-gun from among the fir-boughs, where he had laid it beside him. I caught up the hatchet from the log, where I had stuck it. Wade stood trying to listen, and bidding Ding-bat “Get out! Hark! Shut up your noise!”
It was not till he caught him by the throat, however, and fairly choked him off, that the China man would hold his tongue.
Then we listened. The wind had gone down: every thing was silent as a November night. The fire had burned low; the blaze had gone out: only the red glow shone up. Blackness hovered over it.
“What did you hear? — what did you think you heard?” demanded Raed.
“Why, a mighty screech!” exclaimed Wash. “Wasn’t that what you all heard?”
We had all heard something which fell under that description; but what it was, or from what ,direction it had come, was not so clear. The dog kept facing toward the crag. He was so excited, too, that he quivered like a lamb’s tail; and his eyes showed green as old brass. Wade had to keep kicking him to make him be still.
“It might have been nothing but a wild-cat,” said I. “They will often screech out pretty loud. Ding-bat never saw one, you know.”
But Wash did not believe a wild-cat ever had made such a cry as it seemed that had been. He declared that it had made his blood run cold. I presume he had been less soundly asleep than the rest of us.
“Let’s start up the fire,” said Raed.
Wade had prepared an armful of dry splinters for kindling up in the morning. He threw them upon the coals, and pushed up the brands. A brisk, crackling blaze sprang up, so bright as to quite dazzle our eyes, distended in the previous darkness. The instant the fire blazed up, there came another screech, — a perfect scream! It made the nerves thrill like a death-shriek; and it had a certain sudden awfulness and nearness to it that made us jump prodigiously. The rifle in Wash’s hands went off, snap — BANG! It had been cocked; and when he startled so sharply, his finger pressed back the trigger. It made a great flash of light; which was immediately followed by a scratching sound from the crag, as of claws on the rocks. Raed fancied he got a glimpse of some animal, and instantly discharged the shot-gun after it, the report of which awoke a thunderous echo all along the crags, and from the distant mountain-side to the northward. We thought we heard a growl; though Ding-bat was barking and growling so, it was hard telling one growl from another. Wash seized a brand, and threw it high up the side of the crag. It lodged among the rocks, and blazed up again; but nothing stirred. Whatever beast had been there, it had gone away at the report of the rifle. But we threw several more brands up the crag, and off among the firs on the other side, to frighten off any lurking prowler that might have his eye on us.
On looking at the watches, we found that it was a few minutes past twelve only.
“We can’t afford to lose our sleep,” said Raed: “but I think one of us had better stand guard; or we will take turns at it, — an hour apiece. I’ll watch an hour, and then call Kit; and, when his hour is up, he can call one of the other boys.”
We reloaded the guns, mended the fire, both of the fires, — and set up the bar again. There was nothing to do further but creep inside of it, and get under the blankets. Raed took the rifle, and, seating himself on a stone near the fire, began his vigils, admonishing us inside to go to sleep, and make the most of our time.
But it is not so easy going to sleep immediately after such a rouse-up. We lay whispering, and thinking it over. Fully half an hour passed before Wash began to snore; and it was some time after that ere I lost myself. In fact, I had but just got to sleep when Raed waked me to take my turn; and, on looking at the watch, I found that he had let me lie fifteen minutes overtime.
“All quiet,” said he, giving the rifle into my hands. “I think we’ve seen and heard the last of the creature for to-night.”
He crept inside the bar; and I resumed his place on the stone.
He had fixed up the fires before calling me. Within the little circle of our camp a cheerful glow and warmth dispelled the damps of the waning night. It was the one little bright spot, sur rounded by savagery and darkness. The fragrant odor of the pitchy knots filled the place: the very smoke seemed to hover over, as loath to depart into the damp air above. It had, at least, one good effect, — it kept off the sleepless mosquitoes. A great mist was rising from the pond high into the still air. In the dim light it seemed like a cold, gray shadow. I could fancy it to be the wraith of the ancient glacier that had once filled the pond-valley with its huge icy mass, as Raed had argued the previous evening. Off in the forest, to the left, the sharp, high note of a harassed hare broke the stillness, interrupted at frequent intervals. I could fancy the poor little creature dodging and doubling to avoid some great-eyed owl or relent less little marten. Presently the piteous cry burst out afresh, then ceased on a sudden. The struggle was over. The weaker had yielded to the stronger. One tiny life more had escaped like a bubble, to mingle with the vast vital ether that pervades the globe — a life-tide that comes with sun-light and sun-heat, and departs with it.
And if the fierce animal that had broken our rest with its ominous shriek should pounce upon me as the marten had seized the hare, and the wild crags should echo to my death-cry, would not my life go out even as this poor little hare’s had? — a bubble, to mingle with the same vast tide. Should I retain my mind to think, or my soul to feel? or would it mingle with the millions of living beings who have lived and died before, all in one tide, as the brooks and rivers run into the sea? Who can tell?
Curious how such thoughts will sometimes come to one, especially in the quiet and solitude of night and the wilderness, when those strange, instinctive influences which guide the lower animals seem to whisper to us, by mistake perhaps, the secrets which Nature no longer reveals to men.
It was now toward three o’clock. Eastward a pale radiance began to show over the shadowy crag, — not of dawn, but of the late, or rather early, rising moon. I was about to rouse Wash, when a slight rattling, as if a pebble had rolled down the rocks, caused me to turn sharply. It was still too dark to see any thing distinctly; but, where the top of the crag was faintly out lined against the ashy light, I fancied, after looking a moment, that I could discern something moving stealthily along. I instantly cocked the rifle, and brought it to bear. The lock clicked; at which the seeming motion stopped. Still I thought I could make out a dark object; but I was far from certain; and, not liking to startle the boys by firing at what might really be nothing but a rock or a stump, I set down the gun, and, taking up a smouldering brand from the fire, sent it whirling off against the side of the ledges. Ere it struck, I was sensible of a sudden scrambling, instantly followed by another screech, which made my blood tingle. Snatching up the rifle, I took a random aim, and discharged it. Ding-bat howled afresh. The boys were jumping up, and shouting, —
“What is it?”
“Did you see him?”
“Did he come back?”
I told them what I had heard.
“I shouldn’t wonder if the animal has a lair or den somewhere about the crag,” said Raed. “As soon as it gets light, we will hunt him out.”
It was emphatically a night of broken naps. However, Wash took the rifle, and the rest of us crept under the bar again to wait for daylight. It was near sunrise when I next awoke. Wash and Wade were still asleep; but Raed was up, and had our kettle on, boiling a dozen turkey’s eggs. He stood, watch in hand, timing them.
“Seen or heard anything more of our last night’s serenader?” said I, coining out from under the bar.
“Not a whisper,” said Raed. “Guess he vamosed with that last shot you fired at him. Did you hit him, think?”
I thought it rather doubtful, since I was not even sure that I had seen the animal.
“But didn’t those screeches sound scarey,” continued Raed, “coming in the night and so sudden? Declare, it made me feel queerish. As quick as it came morning, though, that all left me. Daylight is mighty brave stuff. But, seriously, what do you suppose that was? Was it a catamount, think?”
“It screamed just as I’ve heard say catamounts do,” said I. “Still it may have been a ‘lucivee’ (lynx). A lynx will often screech prodigiously.”
“But there are catamounts or panthers in these forest-lands; aren’t there?” asked Raed.
“That’s what they say; though I never saw nor heard one. Lumber-men and trappers tell of hearing them, and of meeting with them. Two years ago an old fellow was killed by something which people thought was a catamount, near Umbagog Lake. He was up there trapping mar tens. Went out to visit his traps one morning, and failed to come back. The boy he had with him waited till after noon, and then started out to look for him. He found him about a mile from their camp, dead, and, frightfully torn and bitten. From the scratches and marks on a tree near, it was presumed to be a panther.”
“Glad you didn’t tell that story last night!” exclaimed Wash, who had just crept from under the bar. “The caterwauling we had was bad enough without that.”
“If there are catamounts in the wild lands of this State,” continued Raed, “would they not be as likely to be met with here as any where?”
“I don’t see why not,” said Wash. “This is a wild region enough, I should think.”
“What do you think?” said Raed, turning to me.
I thought that there was nothing improbable in a panther’s being met with hereabouts; though I could not help mistrusting that this might have been merely a lynx.
After boiling the eggs. Raed next proceeded to make the “hasty-pudding,” which had come to be a standard dish with us. This done, we waked Wade, bidding him “come to breakfast.” The eggs (three apiece) we ate from the shell, with salt, using our knives to dig them out. The pudding we flavored with maple-sugar, breaking up several of the hard cakes to strew over it. But, jack-knives proving rather sharp for pudding, we each of us made a spoon (a shovel Wash called it) out of the dry pine of the old log, which answered our purpose exactly.
Breakfast over, we set out, as Raed had suggested, to examine the crag, armed with rifle, shot-gun, and hatchet. Going round through the firs, we climbed up to the top of the ridge at a place where the ascent was not so steep and rocky, keeping a sharp lookout all the while. But nothing was now to be seen nor heard of the panther. On walking along the crest, however, opposite our camp, Wade espied the gnawed head and skull of some creature, — a fox as it turned out, — lying among the rocks ten or fifteen feet below; and, climbing down to it, we found a sort of sheltered cranny under one of the projecting rocks, where there were dry leaves, and the bones of many small animals, particularly those of the hare. Besides the fox’s head, there was also the skull of another animal, which we presumed to be a raccoon. A strong odor of carrion pervaded the entire place. It was plain, as Raed had surmised, that the beast had had its lair here; possibly an old female with her whelps.
“Guess we shouldn’t have camped and gone to sleep down there quite so nonchalantly if we had known there was a panther living under that rock,” said Wash.
“The animal (whatever it was) was probably away when we came,” remarked Raed, “and, coming back along in the night, saw our fire, and began to screech.”
This seemed the most likely explanation.
“I’ve got a question for you, Mr. Naturalist,” said Wade as we clambered down to our fire. “You speak of this animal as the catamount, panther, and cougar: which is the correct name?”
“Either name is correct,” replied Wash. “The name ‘panther’ is to be preferred, however, — panther, or North-American tiger. ‘Catamount’ (mountain-cat) is more of a local name, confined to a particular locality, you know. The same is true of the French name ‘cougar.’ The same animal is sometimes called the ‘puma.’ That is the Peruvian name”
“Then these are all names of the same creature?” said Wade.
“Yes; all one beast,” said Wash; “and the scientific name is, let me see” (referring to his note-book), — “the scientific name is Felis concolor. Felis means cat, you know.”
“What does concolor mean?” asked Wade.
“Well, that means many colors together, — gray”
“Can you explain to me the difference between the panther and the jaguar?” asked Raed.
“Yes, sir. The jaguar is the Fells onca of naturalists. It differs from the Felis concolor in size, color, and habitat.”
“What do you mean by habitat?” inquired Wade.
“The place or geographical locality where an animal lives. As I was saying, the jaguar is not found north of Texas. It is larger than our North-American panther, and its color is brownish-yellow, mottled with dark rays, or stripes; while our northern animal is gray.