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The Old Log-Shanty. — Nobody at Home. — Rummaging for Supper. —
The Hay Shake-Downs. — A Nocturnal Scare and Scrimmage. — A Wild-cat Hunt.
THIS was good news indeed. “I don’t believe there’s anybody there, though,” remarked Wash to me as we gathered up the trout into the buckets. “There’s no smoke, anyway; looks all silent and deserted like.”
Wash ran ahead with the guns: the rest of us followed with the buckets, etc. A trudge of fifteen minutes brought us out into an opening a little back from the river, — a stumpy clearing of eight or ten acres. Seven or eight large conical hay-stacks loomed amidst the stubs and stumps; and on the side next the river, there was a fair-sized log and pole shanty. The whole establishment had a very rough, rude look, as all man’s first encroachments on Nature are apt to have. Huge smutty logs lay about, — the carcasses of the fallen forest monarchs.
Twilight was deepening. We hurried on toward the shanty. As Wash had hinted, there was no smoke. The proprietor was evidently absent. The door — three planks cleated together — was closed, and fastened with a prodigious button, — a foot long, certainly. Wash knocked with the rifle-butt. There was no response: we had not expected any. Raed then turned the button; and, after a cautious glance, we walked in. The interior had a very smoky odor; and immediately quite a scrabbling and scuffling began overhead, where a sort of chamber or loft had been made by laying loose rails across the log-beams. There was a trap-door hole up through this floor, where a ladder had probably been used in the place of stairs.
“Nothing but rats,” said Raed. “There’s no body here.”
A stone fire-place and chimney occupied one end of the shanty. Across the other there ex tended a table, or shelf, made of half a large basswood log split in the middle, with the split side up. A quantity of old knots and birch-bark lay on one side. Wash threw some of these into the fireplace, and, striking a match, soon had the hovel lighted. On the other side there were two barrels, one very damp and mouldy. This we found to be half full of brine, in which there were floating several pieces of meat, beef, Wash thought. The other was about a third full of “Indian meal.” On it there was set a box of salt. Several other boxes were ranged along the shelf, or table. A kettle, a spider, and a very dissipated-looking old coffee-pot, hung on pegs driven into crevices between the logs. This latter utensil set us to searching; and, hurrah! in one of the boxes we unearthed about a pint of coffee in the bean, and not yet roasted.
On going out to pick up more wood for fire, Wade discovered, off a little to the left, a small patch of potatoes and turnips. He came racing in greatly elated. We all went out to investigate. There was, perhaps, a quarter of an acre of them. The turnips, at this season, were not much larger than one’s fist, and the potatoes about the size of English walnuts. The tops were very dark green and rank. Wash pulled up half a dozen hills. Raed brought out a bucket, and we dug out enough for a stew.
“Guess we can make ourselves comfortable,” said Wade. “Wonder what the old chap who owns this ranch would say, though, if he could see us.”
I mentioned that it was the custom all through the wild lands for every one to make himself at home, and take whatever he could find at any of the “clearings,” whether the owner was at home or not. Raed said he should think, that, considering the labor it took to bring supplies up here, whoever used them ought to pay for them at a fair price.
“And I move,” he continued, “that we keep an account of what we use, and leave enough money to make the proprietor, whoever he is, whole.”
This seemed but fair.
We then fell to work to prepare supper.
Our bill of fare that night consisted of fried trout, boiled potatoes, turnips, corn-cake, and coffee. For the coffee we had neither cream nor sugar: had to take it raw, or, as Wash expressed it, bald-headed.
It was nearly nine o’clock before supper was ready, and it must have been ten by the time it was over.
“Now the question is,” said Raed after we had cast out the fragments of the feast, “where does this man bunk? where’s his sleeping apparatus?”
There were a few wisps of hay on the side where the wood was.
“Possibly he lay on a shake-down of hay,” said I.
“Well, if he can, we can!” exclaimed Wash. “But let’s have a good soft one. There’s hay enough in the stacks.”
All four of us sallied out; and, making for the nearest stack, each pulled out what he could lug, and went back to the shanty. It made a prodigious heap, come to get it inside; and was soft as a feather-bed. Several times during the evening we had heard the rats up in the loft. As often as they would scramble, Ding-bat would look up and growl. Once they even made the dirt and dust fall down into our eyes. It seemed odd, too, that rats should exist so far from civilization; but we did not give the matter much thought.
Wade put on a few knots to keep the fire alive. Raed pushed the door into place, and fastened it with a piece of board set slant-wise. There were no windows to close; nothing in the shape of windows, save a hole about a foot square on one side, up five or six feet from the ground. As soon as the door was shut, Ding-bat began to whine to get out: he didn’t seem to like inside. Wade got up and let him out, to lodge outside the door. We then lay down in the hay, and, tired as we had become, were soon asleep. Along in the night (pretty late, for the fire had gone out), something waked me, — something moving in the hay at my feet. I felt a pulling, as of nails hooking into my stocking. (I had taken off my boots.) Still half asleep, I had a vague idea that it was the dog. The rustling continued. Presently I was aware of a sharp prick through my trousers. That roused me disagreeably; and, still thinking it was Ding-bat, I gave a sleepy kick that hit something. Instantly there was a spit and a snarl. Jumping up on my elbow, I saw two pale bright spots, that glowed like match-streaks in the darkness. Horrors! how such a thing will startle a fellow! I knew it was some sort of a cat, and thought it was just on the point of jumping at me. The moment that popped into my head, I leaped to get away; and making a sort of tumble and roll over Wash and Wade, who were in the middle, came down wallop on Raed, who lay on the farther side. Up jumped Raed with an ejaculation. Wash and Wade began to scramble too.
“Whist-s-s-sh!” I whispered. “Hold on!”
“What is it?” exclaimed Raed.
“What’s up?” from Wash.
“What’s the matter?” from Wade.
“Hold on! keep quiet!” I kept saying. “There’s some sort of a creature — some kind of a cat — in here, — in the shanty here.”
“Where’s the guns?” demanded Raed.
“I set ‘em both right up here by our heads,” muttered Wash, fumbling. “Here’s one of them. Where’bouts is he?”
“On the side next to the table-shelf,” said I; “under it, I guess. There! don’t you hear him?” as a slight rustling came to our ears. “There! don’t you see his eyes shine?”
“I’ll fix him!” muttered Wash.
We heard the lock click as he cocked the gun. Then came a deafening explosion, with a great flash of light that lit up the shanty, showing an animal rather larger than Ding-bat, with its back drawn up and head askew under the table. A sharp snarl followed the report. We jumped to our feet. I heard the creature go scratching over the barrels, knocking off the salt-box. Then it seemed to jump up toward the trap-door hole in the loft floor; at least, we heard the rails rattle up there: but it fell back into the hay at our feet. We all kicked frantically. Wash struck with the gun. Raed, having got hold of the other gun, cocked it, and, hearing a scrabbling over the boxes on the table-shelf, fired slam-bang. We caught another glimpse of the beast trying to run up the side of the shanty, and the next moment heard its claws scratch as it jumped and went through the hole into the loft.
“Strike a match!” cried Wash. “Light a roll of that bark!”
Wade had the matches, and, after some scraping, got one to burn, and with it lighted a coil of bark. The shanty was full of powder-smoke: we could scarcely see across it. Ding-bat was barking like mad outside, trying to get in. Raed let him in, and pushed the door to again.
“I don’t think the creature will come down of his own accord,” said he, keeping a wary eye to the trap-door hole. “Where’s the powder and shot and the cartridges? — Get out, you noisy cur!” (to Ding-bat.) — “Load quick, now! We’ll pop him through the cracks!”
The kettle with the ammunition was found, and the guns were hastily recharged.
“How the brute got in here is more than I can cipher,” said Wash, capping the rifle. “He couldn’t possibly have got in through that little hole,” — pointing to the window aperture.
“Of course not,” said Raed. “He was up in the loft; been up there all night.”
“That’s what we took for rats, then,” said Wash.
“I expect so,” replied Raed with a queer look. “When we got all quiet and asleep, he came down to see if we were fit for eating.”
“It looks so.”
“The dickens!” exclaimed Wash. “Wouldn’t have caught me going to sleep if I had mistrusted what was up there, you bet! Been glaring down at us ever since we came; all the time we were getting supper — and eating it. Wonder he hadn’t dropped on to some of us!”
“Looks as if he didn’t care to attack us,” said Raed; “but we will attack him now with a vengeance. Let’s go to work right, though. Wade. you get another roll 6f that bark ready to light. Now hold up the torch, so we can see what we’re about. Kit, you take that old fish-pole over the shelf, and poke up through the rails with it: make him stir, so we can tell where he is. Wash and I will stand ready to shoot.”
I began prodding up through the cracks, first in one corner, then in another. Presently there was a sudden ha-pih, a leap, and a rattle, as the creature went to the other side; and, on running the pole up near where he seemed to have stopped, it was snapped at, and nearly wrenched out of my hands. Raed instantly pushed the muzzle of the rifle up through the rails, and fired. The beast yawled, and went skurrying round the loft, making a tremendous racket, and growling all the while.
“Confound it!” muttered Raed. “Never touched him! That’s the third shot too!”
“Stick the torch on the end of the fish-pole,” cried Wash, “and run it up through the trap-door hole, so we can see into the loft!”
Wade fastened the closely-curling bark to the pole, and I thrust it up through the aperture. The instant the torch rose through the hole, the creature spit, and began to yawl afresh. I then commenced to wave it; when, with a perfect string of spits, the cat jumped (to get down past it, I think), hit against the pole, knocking off the torch, and down came torch and cat together into the hay! Wash had held the gun ready, and fired the instant the creature leaped. Tell you, reader, there was a scrambling then! We all paid on with what we had, — guns and pole, whackety-whack.
“Take him, Ding-bat!”
Fairly frantic, the creature whirled, and jumped blindly at Raed, who poked it headlong wth the point of the rifle. We all struck again; but the agile brute was up in a second, and went like a dart at Wade, who had the hatchet. He gave a desperate lick; but what with the hay tangled round his feet, and the beast striking plump against his stomach, over he went, rolling and kicking. Raed jumped to the rescue, and, grabbing the cat by the hind-legs, slat him off. Ding-bat sprang upon him. They clinched. We heard claws rip. The Chinaman burst out ti-yi-ing piteously. Wade, who had regained his legs, pulled the dog away by the tail; and the rest of us aimed our best strokes at the varmint. But another little circumstance had forced itself upon our attention. The torch had fallen into the hay, which caught like tinder. The whole floor was blazing. Fierce gusts of hot air and smoke flew in our faces.
“Out of this!” yelled Wash. “Open the door, Kit! We shall smother!”
I tore open the door. We all dived out into the fresh air; Ding-bat ahead, howling like a wolf. The cat made a plunge to get out with us; but Raed slammed the door too quick.
“Look out for the window-hole!” he shouted. “Don’t let him crawl out!”
We ran round, and saw the creature’s head and paws in the hole. He was trying to wriggle out through it. Such a screech as the brute gave when we rushed up to strike him! Wash got a fair clip at him with the shot-gun; Wade threw the hatchet tomahawk-fashion; and I gave a sweeping cut with the pole. But, despite these draw backs, the beast wriggled through, and, giving a long leap and a scoot, got past us.
“After him, take him, Ding-bat!” shouted Wade.
“No use!” exclaimed Raed. “Let him rip! We must put out the fire.”
Pushing open the door, a stifling gush of smoke flew out. The blaze had mostly subsided. As soon as the shanty had cleared somewhat, we entered it. The buckets and blankets had got another scorching; and, worse still, a spark had got down on to the mosquito-net, folded up in the bottom of one of the buckets, and burned through half a dozen thicknesses of it. It took Raed all the next evening to mend it. The powder was in the same bucket. In the hurry of loading, Wash had left the flask unstopped. It is a wonder it had not blown up. Very lucky, we thought.
Low in the east, a pale, dim belt had begun to show.
“Daybreak,” said Raed.
It was half-past three. The shanty was rather too smoky and smutty to go to bed in again.
“Let’s build a fire and have some coffee,” proposed Wash. “I’m dry. These cat-scrapes will knock the bottom clean out of my nervous system yet. Some of that bald-headed coffee, I say, strong as lye.”
“Yes; and some of that beef boiled, with potatoes and turnips,” said Raed; “in short, a ‘boiled dish.’”
“And some fried trout,” added Wade.
We got our coffee ready in half an hour; but it was not till long after sunrise that the beef and vegetables were done enough to eat.
On the whole, we were not much the worse for our tussle. Wade had a small rent in the front of his coat, supposed to have been made by the creature’s claws when he was upset in the hay. Ding-bat was the only one that had suffered flesh- wounds. The poor Chinaman had a long rake across one side of his corpus, looking as if made by all four of the animal’s nails at one dig. There had swollen up ridges as big as one’s little finger where each claw had torn through his bare hide. By way of consoling him, we gave him all the boiled beef (a part of which turned out to be pork) and potato he could eat. After that he was as good as new, and presently ran sniffing off on the trail of the cat.
“Yes, hunt him out!” cried Wade. “Find him, and pin him!”
The dog ran off, and we began to get out our fish-hooks and lines to go to the river for more trout. By and by we heard the Chinaman barking out in the woods, — barking as if fixed at one spot. All at once, he broke out into a ti-yi. Then the barking was resumed.
“Got something treed or holed, I guess,” said Wash.
“Maybe the big cat,” remarked Wade.
“That’s so,” said Raed. “Who knows but we may get him yet.”
The guns were charged in considerable haste, and we hurried out toward the barking. Hearing us coming, Ding-bat ran back to meet us, greatly excited. He had a bleeding scratch on his nose, and looked as if he had been weeping. Following the dog, we came to a large fallen maple, the but-end of which showed a black hollow running up toward the top. Into this the dog dived, so that his tail only was in sight, and began barking again.
“Inside the log,” said Wash.
Wade seized hold of the dog’s tail, and pulled him out. Wash then looked cautiously in.
“Pretty dark up in there,” he remarked. “But seems to me I can see eyes. Kit, you go knock on the outside of the log with the hatchet-back, about a dozen feet from the end here. Raed and I will stand ready to shoot if he starts. Wade can keep Ding-bat off.”
I pounded on the trunk; but the creature would not budge.
“Hack through the outside,” suggested Wade, who stood holding the Chinaman by the nape of the neck. “Hack a hole. He will get when he sees the blade of the hatchet coming through.”
“Yes, cut in right over where he seems to be,” said Raed.
The log was a mere old shell. After a few minutes hacking, the hatchet went through. There was a sudden scratch.
“He’s going out!” shouted Wade.
The next instant the beast emerged in a cloud of dirt and dust.
Bang went both guns! The creature uttered a wild yawl, — a series of them, — and flew round and round in a most wonderful manner: now bounding three or four feet from the ground; now whirling and rolling over and over, tearing up the dry leaves; then, tumbling between a stone and an old stump, it lay convulsed and throbbing.
“Do put the brute out of its agony!” exclaimed Wash. “Kit, give him a coup de grace; do!”
A smart blow from the hatchet-head, and our nocturnal disturber was at rest. Ding-bat rushed up, but merely sniffed; then went back a step, barked once, and gave a look at our faces, as much as to say, “His job’s done. No occasion for my services.”
“It would be interesting to know just what a dog’s ideas of death are as expressed in that wistful look and bark,” said Raed thoughtfully, patting the Chinaman.
“I suspect they are rather indistinct,” laughed Wade.
“I’m not sure he doesn’t know as much about it as I do,” replied Raed, still patting the dog’s head.
“Better drop a subject you know so little about, then,” said Wash, “and come back to the subject before us,” — pointing to the carcass of the cat. “Can any of you tell what sort of a beast that is? It is not a Canada lynx, you see; no tassels on its ears; fur not so good; mottled differently: nor is it so large as the one we killed last week, nor yet so heavy (raising the body by one leg) by a dozen pounds certain. What do you call it, Kit? I’m a little stuck on it.”
I thought it was a common wild-cat.
“Wild-cat?” said Wash. “That’s the Bay lynx. Well, I guess you’re right” (taking out his memoranda-book). “Felis rufous, — color reddish-gray; irregularly marked; under surface of body yellowish-white; chin and throat dull white; from point of nose to roots of tail thirty-two inches; length of tail six inches, weight about twenty- three pounds.”
“Yes: that tallies with this.”Taking up the dead Felis rufous, we went back to the shanty, where we hung up the carcass on a wooden hook just outside the door. Then, after a “swig” of cold coffee, we went off to the river to fish for dinner.