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UPWEEKIS THE SHADOW
LONG ‘go, O long time ‘go,” so says Simmo the Indian, Upweekis the lynx came to Clote Scarpe with a complaint. “See,” he said, “you are good to everybody but me. Pekquam the fisher is cunning and patient; he can catch what he will. Lhoks the panther is strong and tireless; nothing can get away from him, not even the great moose. And Mooween the bear sleeps all winter, when game is scarce, and in summer eats everything, — roots and mice and berries and dead fish and meat and honey and red ants. So he is always full and happy. But my eyes are no good; they are bright, like Cheplahgan the eagle’s, yet they cannot see anything unless it moves; for you have made every creature that hides just like the place he hides in. My nose is worse; it cannot smell Seksagadagee the grouse, though I walk over him asleep in the snow. And my feet make a noise in the leaves, so that Moktaques the rabbit hears me, and hides, and laughs behind me when I go to catch him. And I am always hungry. Make me now like the shadows that play, in order that nothing may notice me when I go hunting.”
So Clote Scarpe, the great chief who was kind to all animals, gave Upweekis a soft gray coat that is almost invisible in the woods, summer or winter, and made his feet large, and padded them with soft fur; so that indeed he is like the shadows that play, for you can neither see nor hear him. But Clote Scarpe remembered Moktaques the rabbit also, and gave him two coats, a brown one for summer and a white one for winter. Consequently he is harder than. ever to see when he is quiet; and Upweekis must still depend upon his wits to catch him. As Upweekis has few wits to spare, Moktaques often sees him close at hand, and chuckles in his form under the brown ferns, or sits up straight, under the snow-covered hemlock tips, to watch the big lynx at his hunting.
Sometimes, on a winter night, when you camp in the wilderness, and the snow is sifting down into your fire, and the woods are all still, a fierce screech breaks suddenly out of the darkness just behind your windbreak of boughs. You jump to your feet and grab your rifle; but Simmo, who is down on his knees before the fire, frying pork, only turns his head to listen a moment, and says: “Upweekis catch-um rabbit dat time.” Then he gets closer to the fire and goes on with his cooking.
You are more curious than he, or you want the big cat’s skin to take home with you. You steal away towards the cry, past the little commoosie that you made hastily at sundown when the trail ended. There, with your back to the fire, the light does not dazzle your eyes; you can trace the shadows creeping in and out among the underbrush. But if Upweekis is there — and he probably is — you do not see him. He is a shadow among the shadows. Only there is this difference: shadows move no bushes. As you watch, a fir-tip stirs; a bit of snow drops down. You gaze intently at the spot. Then out of the deep shadow two living coals are suddenly kindled. They grow larger and larger, glowing, flashing, burning your eyes till you brush them swiftly with your hand. Your rifle jumps to position; the glowing coals are quenched on the instant. Then, when your eyes have blinked the fascination out of them, the shadows go creeping in and out again, and Upweekis is lost amongst them.
Sometimes you see him again. Moktaques, the big white hare, who forgets a thing the moment it is past, sees you standing there and is full of curiosity. He forgets that he was being hunted a moment ago, and comes to see what you are. You back away toward the fire. He scampers off in a fright, but presently comes hopping after you. Watch the underbrush behind him sharply. In a moment it stirs stealthily, as if a shadow were moving it; and there is the lynx, stealing along in the snow with his eyes blazing. Again Moktaques feels that he is hunted, and does the only safe thing; he crouches low in the snow, where a fir-tip bends over him, and is still as the earth. His color hides him perfectly.
Upweekis has lost the trail again; he wavers back and forth, like a shadow under a swinging lamp, turning his great head from side to side. He cannot see nor hear nor smell his game; but he saw a bit of snow fly a moment ago, and knows that it came from Moktaques’ big pads. Don’t stir now; be still as the great spruce in whose shadow you stand; and, once in a hunter’s lifetime, you will see a curious tragedy.
The lynx settles himself in the snow, with all four feet close together, ready for a spring. As you watch and wonder, a screech rings out through the woods, so sharp and fierce that no rabbit s nerves can hear it and be still. Moktaques jumps straight up in the air. The lynx sees it, whirls, hurls himself at the spot. Another screech, a different one, and then you know that it ‘s all over.
And that is why Upweekis’ cry is so fierce and sudden on a winter night. Your fire attracts the rabbits. Upweekis knows this, and comes to hide among the shadows. But he never catches anything unless he blunders onto it. That is why he wanders so much in winter, and passes twenty rabbits before he catches one. So when he knows that Moktaques is near, watching the light, but remaining himself invisible, Upweekis crouches for a spring; then he screeches fearfully. Moktaques hears it and is startled, as anybody else would be, hearing such a cry near him. He jumps in a fright and pays the penalty.
If the lynx is a big one, and very hungry, as he generally is in winter, you may get some unpleasant impressions of him in another way when you venture far from your fire. His eyes blaze out at you from the darkness, just two big glowing spots, which are all you see, and which disappear at your first motion. Then as you strain your eyes, and watch and listen, you feel the coals upon you again from another place; and there they are, under a bush on your left, creeping closer and blazing deep red. They disappear suddenly as the lynx turns his head, only to reappear and fascinate you from another point. So he plays with you, as if you were a great mouse, creeping closer all the time, swishing his stub tail fiercely to lash himself up to the courage point of springing. But his movements are so still and shadowy that unless he follows you as you back away to the fire, and so comes within the circle of light, the chances are that you will never see him.
Indeed the chances are always that way, day or night, unless you turn hunter and set a trap for him in the rabbit paths which he follows nightly, and hang a bait over it to make him look up and forget his steps. In summer he goes to the burned lands for the rabbits that swarm in the thickets, and to rear his young in seclusion. You find his tracks there all about, and the marks of his killing; but though you watch and prowl all day and come home in the twilight, you will learn little. He hears you and skulks away amid the lights and shadows of the hillside, and so hides himself — in plain sight, sometimes, like a young partridge — that he manages to keep a clean record in the notebook where you hoped to write down all about him.
In winter you cross his tracks, great round tracks that wander everywhere through the big woods, and you think: Now I shall find him surely. But though you follow for miles and learn much about him, finding where he passed this rabbit close at hand, without suspecting it, and caught that one by accident, and missed the partridge that burst out of the snow under his very feet, — still Upweekis himself remains only a shadow of the woods. Once, after a glorious long tramp on his trail, I found the spot where he had been sleeping a moment before. But beside that experience I must put fifty other trails that I have followed, of which I never saw the end nor the beginning. And whenever I have found out anything about Upweekis, it has generally come unexpectedly, as most good things do.
Once the chance came as I was watching a muskrat at his supper. It was twilight in the woods. I had drifted in close to shore in my canoe to see what Musquash was doing on top of a rock. All muskrats have favorite eating places — a rock, a stranded log, a tree boll that leans out over the water, and always a pretty spot — whither they bring food from a distance, evidently for the purpose of eating it where they feel most at home. This one had gathered a half-dozen big fresh-water clams upon his dining table, and sat down in the midst to enjoy the feast. He would take a clam in his fore paws, whack it a few times on the rock till the shell cracked, then open it with his teeth and devour the morsel inside. He ate leisurely, tasting each clam critically before swallowing, and sitting up often to wash his whiskers or to look out over the lake. A hermit thrush sang marvelously sweet above him; the twilight colors glowed deep and deeper in the water below, where his shadow was clearly eating clams also, in the midst of heaven’s splendor. — Altogether a pretty scene, and a moment of peace that I still love to remember. I quite forgot that Musquash is a villain.
But the tragedy was near, as it always is in the wilderness. Suddenly a movement caught my eye on the bank above. Something was waving nervously under the bushes. Before I could make out what it was, there was a fearful rush, a gleam of wild yellow eyes, a squeak from the muskrat. Then Upweekis, looking gaunt and strange in his summer coat, was crouched on the rock with Musquash between his great paws, growling fiercely as he cracked the bones. He bit his game all over, to make sure that it was quite dead, then took it by the neck, glided into the bushes with his stub tail twitching, and became a shadow again.
Another time I was perched up in a lodged tree, some twenty feet from the ground, watching a big bait of fish which I had put in an open spot for anything that might choose to come and get it. I was hoping for a bear, and so climbed above the ground that he might not get my scent, should he come from leeward. It was early autumn, and my intentions were wholly peaceable. I had no weapon of any kind.
Late in the afternoon something took to chasing a red squirrel near me I heard them scurrying through the trees, but could see nothing. The chase passed out of hearing, and I had almost forgotten it, for something was moving in the underbrush near my bait, when back it came with a rush. The squirrel, half dead with fright, leaped from a spruce tip to the ground, jumped to the tree in which I sat, and raced up the incline to my feet before seeing me, when he sprang to a branch and sat chattering hysterically between two fears. After him came a pine marten, following swiftly, catching the scent of his game, not from the bark or the ground, but apparently from the air. Scarcely had he jumped upon my tree when there was a screech and a rush in the underbrush just below him, and out of the bushes came a young lynx to join in the chase. He missed the marten on the ground, but sprang to my tree like a flash. I remember that the only sound I was conscious of at the time was the ripping of his nails in the dead bark. He had been seeking my bait undoubtedly — it was a good lynx country, and Upweekis loves fish like a cat — when the chase passed under his nose and he joined it on the instant.
Halfway up the incline the marten smelled me, or was terrified by the noise behind him, and leaped aside. A branch upon which I was leaning swayed or snapped, and the lucivee stopped as if struck, crouching lower and lower against the tree, his big, yellow, expressionless eyes glaring straight into mine. A moment only he stood the steady look; then his eyes wavered; he turned his head, leaped for the underbrush, and was gone.
Another moment, and Meeko the squirrel had forgotten his fright and peril and everything else save his curiosity to find out who I was and all about me. He had to pass quite close to me to get to another tree, but anything was better than going back where the marten might be waiting; so he was presently over my head, snickering and barking to make me move, and scolding me soundly for disturbing the peace of the woods.
In summer Upweekis is a solitary creature, rearing his young on the wildest burned lands, where game is plenty and where it is almost impossible to find him, except by accident. In winter also he roams alone for the most part; but occasionally, when rabbits are scarce, as they are periodically in the northern woods, he gathers in small bands for the purpose of pulling down big game that he would never attack singly. Generally Upweekis is skulking and cowardly with man; but when driven by hunger or when hunting in bands, he is a savage beast and must be followed cautiously.
I had heard much of the fierceness of these hunting bands from settlers and hunters; and once a friend of mine, an old backwoodsman, had a narrow escape from them. He had a dog, Grip, a big brindled cur, of whose prowess in killing “ varmints “he was always bragging, calling him the best “lucififer” dog in all Canada. Lucififer, by the way, is a local name for the lynx on the upper St. John, where Grip and his master lived.
One day the master missed a young heifer and went on his trail, with Grip and his axe for companions. Presently he came to lynx tracks, then to signs of a struggle, then plump upon six or seven of the big cats snarling savagely over the body of the heifer. Grip, the lucififer dog, rushed in blindly, and in two minutes was torn to ribbons. Then the lynxes came creeping and snarling towards the man, who backed away, shouting and swinging his axe. He killed one by a lucky blow, as it sprang for his chest. The others drove him to his own door; but he would never have reached it, so he told me, but for a long strip of open land that he had cleared back into the woods. He would face and charge the beasts, which seemed more afraid of his voice than of the axe, then run desperately to keep them from circling and getting between him and safety. When he reached the open strip they followed a little way along the edges of the underbrush, but returned, one at a time, when they were sure he had no further mind to disturb their feast or their fighting.
It is curious that, when Upweekis and his hunting pack pull down game in this way, the first thing they do is to fight over it. There may be meat enough and to spare, but under their fearful hunger is the old beastly instinct for each one to grab all for himself; so they fall promptly to teeth and claws before the game is dead. The fightings at such times are savage affairs, both to the eye and ear. One forgets that Upweekis is a shadow, and thinks that he must be a fiend.
One day in winter, when after caribou I came upon a very large lynx track, the largest I have ever seen. It was two days old; but it led in my direction, toward the caribou barrens, and I followed it to see what I should see.
Presently it joined four other lynx trails; and a mile farther on all five trails went forward in great flying leaps, each lynx leaving a hole in the snow as big as a bucket at every jump. A hundred yards of this kind of traveling and the trails joined another trail,— that of a wounded caribou from the barrens. His tracks showed that he had been traveling with difficulty on three legs. Here was a place where he had stood to listen; and there was another place where even untrained eyes might see that he had plunged forward with a start of fear. It was a silent story, but full of eager interest in every detail.
The lucivee tracks now showed different tactics. They crossed and crisscrossed the trail, appearing now in front, now behind, now on either side the wounded bull, evidently closing in upon him warily. Here and there was a depression in the snow where one had crouched, growling, as the game passed. Then the struggle began. First, there was a trampled place in the snow where the bull had taken a stand and the big cats went creeping about him, waiting for a chance to spring all together. He broke away from that, but the three-legged gallop speedily exhausted him. Only when he trots is a caribou tireless. The lynxes followed; the deadly cat-play began again. First one, then another leaped, only to be shaken off; then two, then all five were upon the poor brute, which still struggled forward. The record was written red all over the snow.
As I followed it cautiously, a snarl sounded just ahead. I kicked off my snowshoes and circled noiselessly to the left, so as to look out over a little opening. There lay the stripped carcass of the caribou with two lynxes still upon it, growling fearfully at each other as they pulled at the bones. Another lynx crouched in the snow, under a bush, watching the scene. Two others circled about each other snarling, looking for an opening, but too well fed to care for a fight just then. Two or three foxes, a pine marten, and a fisher moved ceaselessly in and out, sniffing hungrily, and waiting for a chance to seize every scrap of bone or skin that was left unguarded for an instant. Above them a dozen moose birds kept the same watch vigilantly. As I stole nearer, hoping to get behind an old log where I could lie and watch the spectacle, some creature scurried out of the underbrush at one side. I was watching the movement, when a loud kee-yaaah! startled me; I whirled towards the opening. From behind the log a fierce round head with tasseled ears rose up, and the big lynx, whose trail I had first followed, sprang into sight snarling and spitting viciously.
The feast stopped at the first alarm. The marten disappeared instantly. The foxes and the fisher and one lynx slunk away. Another, which I had not seen, stalked up to the carcass and put his fore paws upon it, and turned his savage head in my direction. Evidently other lynxes had come in to the kill beside the five I had followed. Then all the big cats crouched in the snow and stared at me steadily out of their wild yellow eyes.
It was only for a moment. The big lynx on my side of the log was in a fighting temper; he snarled continuously. Another sprang over the log and crouched beside him, facing me. Then began a curious scene, of which I could not wait to see the end. The two lynxes hitched nearer and nearer to where I stood motionless, watching. They would creep forward a step or two, then crouch in the snow, like a cat warming her feet, and stare at me unblinkingly for a few moments. Then another hitch or two, which brought them nearer, and another stare. I could not look at one steadily, to make him waver; for the moment my eyes were upon him the others hitched closer; and already two more lynxes were coming over the log. I had to draw the curtain hastily with a bullet between the yellow eyes of the biggest lynx, and a second straight into the chest of his fellow-starer, just as he wriggled down into the snow for a spring. The others had leaped away snarling as the first heavy report rolled through the woods.
Another time, in the same region, a solitary lynx made me uncomfortable for half an afternoon. It was Sunday, and I had gone for a snowshoe tramp, leaving my rifle behind me. On the way back to camp I stopped for a caribou head and skin, which I had cached on the edge of a barren the morning before. The weather had changed; a bitter cold wind blew after me as I turned toward camp. I carried the head with its branching antlers on my shoulder; the skin hung down, to keep my back warm, its edges trailing in the snow.
Gradually I became convinced that something was following me; but I turned several times without seeing anything. “It is only a fisher,” I thought, and kept on steadily, instead of going back to examine my trail; for I was hoping thus to catch a glimpse of the cunning creature, whose trail you find so often running side by side with your own, and who follows you, if you have any trace of game about you, hour after hour through the wilderness, without ever showing himself in the light. Then I whirled suddenly, obeying an impulse; and there was Upweekis, a big, savage-looking fellow, just gliding up on my trail in plain sight, following the broad snowshoe track and the scent of the fresh caribou skin without difficulty, poor trailer though he be.
He stopped and sat down on his feet, as a lucivee generally does when you surprise him, and stared at me steadily. When I went on again I knew that he was after me, though he had disappeared from the trail.
Then began a double-quick of four miles, the object being to reach camp before night should fall and give the lucivee the advantage. It was already late enough to make one a bit uneasy. He knew that I was hurrying; he grew bolder, showing himself openly on the trail behind me. I turned into an old swamping road, which gave me a bit of open before and behind. Then I saw him occasionally on either side, or crouching half hid until I passed. Clearly he was waiting for night; but to this day I am not sure whether it was the man or the caribou skin upon which he had set his heart. The scent of flesh and blood was in his nose, and he was too hungry to control himself much longer.
I cut a good club with my big jack-knife and, watching my chance, threw off the caribou head and jumped for him as he crouched in the snow. He leaped aside untouched, but crouched again instantly, showing all his teeth, snarling horribly. Three times I swung at him warily. Each time he jumped aside and watched for his opening; but I kept the club in play before his eyes, and it was not yet dark enough. Then I yelled in his face, to teach him fear, and went on again.
Near camp I shouted for Simmo to bring my rifle; but he was slow in understanding, and his answering shout alarmed the savage creature near me. His movements became instantly more wary, more hidden. He left the open trail; and once, when I saw him well behind me, his head was raised high, listening. I threw down the caribou head to keep him busy, and ran for camp. In a few minutes I was stealing back again with my rifle; but Upweekis had felt the change in the situation and was again among the shadows, where he belongs. I lost his trail in the darkening woods.
There was another lynx which showed me, one day, a different side to Upweekis’ nature. It was in summer, when every animal in the wilderness seems an altogether different creature from the one you knew last winter, with new habits, new duties, new pleasures, and even a new coat to hide him better from his enemies.
Opposite my island camp, where I halted a little while in a summer’s roving, was the best cover for game that I have ever found in the wilderness. Years ago the fire had swept over it; now it was a perfect tangle, with sunny open spots here and there, where berries grew by handfuls. Rabbits swarmed there, and grouse were plenty. As it was forty miles back from the settlements, it seemed a perfect place for Upweekis to make a den in. And so it was. I have no doubt there were a dozen litters of kittens on that two miles of ridge; but the cover was so dense that nothing smaller than a deer could be seen moving.
For two weeks I hunted the ridge whenever I was not fishing, stealing in and out among the thickets, depending more upon ears than eyes, but seeing nothing of Upweekis, save here and there a trampled fern, or a blood-splashed leaf, with a bit of rabbit fur, or a great round cat track, to tell the story. Once I came upon a bear and two cubs among the berries; and once, when the wind was blowing down the hill, I walked almost up to a bull caribou without seeing him. He was watching my approach curiously, only his horns showing above the tangle where he stood.
Down in the coverts it was always intensely still, with a stillness that I took good care not to break. So when the great brute whirled, with a snort and a tremendous crash of bushes, almost under my nose, it raised my hair for a moment, not knowing what the creature was, nor which way he was heading. But though every day brought its experience, and its knowledge, and its new wonder at the ways of wild things, I found no trace of the den, nor of the kittens I had hoped to watch. All animals are silent near their little ones, so there was never a cry by night or day to guide me.
Late one afternoon, when I had climbed to the top of the ridge and was on my way back to camp, I ran into an odor, — the strong, disagreeable odor that always hovers about the den of a carnivorous animal. I followed it through a thicket, and came to an open stony place, with a sharp drop of five or six feet to dense cover below. The odor came from this cover, so I jumped down; when —yeow, karrrr, pft-pft! Almost under my feet a gray thing leaped away snarling, followed by another. I had the merest glimpse of them; but from the way they bristled and spit and arched their backs, I knew that I had stumbled upon a pair of the lynx kittens, for which I had searched so long in vain.
They had, probably, been lying out on the warm stones, until, hearing strange footsteps, they glided away to cover. When I crashed down near them they had been scared into showing their temper; else I had never seen them in the underbrush. Fortunately for me, the fierce old mother was away. Had she been there, I should have had more serious business on hand than watching her kittens.
They had not seen more of me than my shoes and stockings; so when I stole after them, to see what they were like, they were waiting under a bush to see what I was like. They jumped away again, spitting, without seeing me, alarmed by the rustle which I could not avoid making in the cover. So I followed them, just a quiver of leaves here, a snarl there, and then a rush away, until they doubled back towards the rocky place, where, parting the underbrush cautiously, I saw a dark hole among the rocks of a little opening. The roots of an upturned tree arched over the hole, making a broad doorway. In this doorway stood two half-grown lucivees, fuzzy and gray and savage-looking, their backs still up, their wild eyes turned in my direction apprehensively. Seeing me, they drew farther back into the den, and I saw nothing more of them save, now and then, their round heads, or the fire in their yellow eyes.
It was too late for further observation that day. The fierce old mother lynx would presently be back; they would let her know of the intruder in some way; and they would all keep close in the den. I found a place, some dozen yards above, where it would be possible to watch them, marked the spot by a blasted stub, to which I made a compass of broken twigs; and then went back to camp.
Next morning I omitted the early fishing, and was back at the place before the sun looked over the ridge. Their den was all quiet, in deep shadow. Mother Lynx was away on the early hunting. I intended to kill her when she came back. My rifle lay ready across my knees. Then I would watch the kittens a little while, and kill them also. I wanted their skins, all soft and fine with their first fur. And they were too big and fierce to think of taking them alive. My vacation was over. Simmo was already packing up, to break camp that morning. So there would be no time to carry out my long-cherished plan of watching young lynxes at play, as I had before watched young foxes and bears and owls and fish-hawks, and indeed almost everything, except Upweekis, in the wilderness.
Presently one of the lucivees came out, yawned, stretched, raised himself against a root. In the morning stillness I could hear the cut and rip of his claws on the wood. We call the action sharpening the claws; but it is only the occasional exercise of the fine flexor muscles that a cat uses so seldom, yet must use powerfully when the time comes.
The second lucivee came out of the shadow a moment later and leaped upon the fallen tree, where he could better watch the hillside below. For half an hour or more, while I waited expectantly, both animals moved restlessly about the den, or climbed over the roots and trunk of the fallen tree. They were plainly cross; they made no attempt at play, but kept well away from each other with a wholesome respect for teeth and claws and temper. Breakfast hour was long past, evidently, and they were hungry.
Suddenly one, who was at that moment watching from the tree trunk, leaped down; the second joined him, and both paced back and forth excitedly. They had heard the sounds of a coming that were too fine for my ears. A stir in the underbrush, and Mother Lynx, a great savage creature, stalked out proudly. She carried a dead hare gripped across the back. The long ears on one side, the long legs on the other hung limply, showing a fresh kill. She walked to the doorway of her den, crossed it back and forth two or three times, still carrying the hare as if the lust of blood were raging within her and she could not drop her prey even to her own little ones, which followed her hungrily, one on either side. Once, as she turned toward me, one of the kittens seized a leg of the hare and jerked it savagely. The mother whirled on him, growling deep down in her throat; the youngster backed away, scared but snarling. At last she flung the game down. The kittens fell upon it like furies, growling at each other, as I had seen the stranger-lynxes growling, once before, over the caribou. In a moment they had torn the carcass apart and were crouched, each one over his piece, gnarling like a cat over a rat, and stuffing themselves greedily, in utter forgetfulness of the mother lynx, who lay under a bush some distance away and watched them.
In a half hour the savage meal was over. The little ones sat up, licked their chops, and began to tongue their broad paws. The mother had been blinking sleepily; now she rose and came to her young. A change had come over the family. The kittens ran to meet the dam as if they had not seen her before, rubbing softly against her legs, or sitting up to rub their whiskers against hers — a tardy thanks for the breakfast she had provided. The fierce old mother, too, seemed altogether different. She arched her back against the roots, purring loudly, while the little ones arched and purred against her sides. Then she bent her savage head and licked them fondly with her tongue, while they rubbed as close to her as they could get, passing between her legs as under a bridge, and trying to lick her face in return; till all three tongues were going at once and the family lay down together.
It was time to kill them now. The rifle lay ready. But a change had come over the watcher too. Hitherto he had seen Upweekis as a ferocious brute, whom it was good to kill. This was altogether different. Upweekis could be gentle, it seemed, and give herself for her little ones. And a bit of tenderness, like that which lay so unconscious under my eyes, gets hold of a man, and spikes his guns better than moralizing.
So the watcher stole away, making as little noise as possible, following his compass of twigs to where the canoes lay ready and Simmo was waiting.