L ATE one winter afternoon, when the sun was gilding the pines on the western mountains and the shadows stretched long and chill through the snow-laden woods, a huge bull moose broke out of the gloom of the spruces and went swinging up the long, sunlit barren at a stride whose length and power would have discouraged even a wolf from following. Five minutes later I came out of the same tunnel under the spruces just as the fringe of green across the barren swished back to cover the flanks of the plunging bull, and then nodded and nodded in twenty directions—This way! that way! here! yonder!—to mislead any that might follow on his track. For at times even the hemlocks and the alders and the waters and the leaves and the creaking boughs and the dancing shadows all seem to conspire to shield the innocent Wood Folk from the hostile eyes and hands of those that pursue them. And that is one reason why it is so hard to see game in the woods.
The big moose had fooled me that time. When he knew that I was following him he ran far ahead, and then circled swiftly back to stand motionless in a hillside thicket within twenty yards of the trail that he had made scarcely an hour agone. There he could see perfectly, without being seen, what it was that was following him. When I came by, following swiftly and silently the deep tracks in the snow, he let me pass below him while he took a good look and a sniff at me; then he glided away like a shadow in the opposite direction. Unfortunately a dead branch under the snow broke with a dull snap beneath his cautious hoof, and I turned aside to see—and so saved myself the long tramp up and down the cunning trails. When he saw that his trick was discovered he broke away for the open barren, with all his wonderful powers of eye and ear and tireless legs alert to save himself from the man whom he mistook for his deadly enemy.
It was of small use to follow him further, so I sat down on a prostrate yellow birch to rest and listen awhile in the vast silence, and to watch anything that might be passing through the cold white woods.
Under the fringe of evergreen the soft purple shadows jumped suddenly, and a hare as white as the snow bounded out. In long nervous jumps, like a bundle of wire springs, he went leaping before my face across a narrow arm of the barren to the shelter of a point below. The soft arms of the ground spruces and the softer shadows beneath them seemed to open of their own accord to let him in. All nodding branches and dropping of snow pads and jumping of shadows ceased instantly, and all along the fringe of evergreen silent voices were saying, There is nothing here; we have not seen him; there is nothing here.
Now why did he run that way, I thought; for Moktaques is a crazy, erratic fellow, and never does things in a businesslike way unless he has to. As I wondered, there was a gleam of yellow fire under the purple shadows whence Moktaques had come, and the fierce round head of a Canada lynx was thrust out of the tunnel that the hare had made only a moment before. His big gray body had scarcely pushed itself into sight when the shadows stirred farther down the fringe of evergreen; another and another lynx glided out; and I caught my breath as five of the savage creatures swept across the narrow arm of the barren, each with his head thrust out, his fierce eyes piercing the gloom ahead like golden lances, and holding his place in the stately, appalling line of fierceness and power as silent as the shadow of death. My nerves tingled at the thought of what would happen to Moktaques when one of the line should discover and jump him. Indeed, having no rifle, I was glad enough myself to sit very still and let the savage creatures go by without finding me.
The middle lynx, a fierce old female, was following the hare's trail; an din a moment it flashed across me who she was and what they were all doing. Here, at last, was the secret of the lynx bands that one sometimes finds in the winter woods, and that occasionally threaten or appall one with a ferocity that the individual animals never manifest. For Upweekis, though big and fierce, is at heart a slinking, cowardly, treacherous creature—like all cats—and so loves best to be alone. Knowing that the rest of his tribe are like himself, he suspects them all and is fearful that in any division of common spoils somebody else would get the lion's share. And so I have never found among the cats any trace of the well-defined regulations that seem to prevail among nearly all other animals.
In winter, however, it is different. Then necessity compels Upweekis to lay aside some of his feline selfishness and hunt in savage bands. Every seven years, especially, when rabbits are scarce in the woods because of the sickness that kills them off periodically, you may stumble upon one of these pirate crews haunting the deer yards or following after the caribou herds; but until the ferocious line swept out of the purple shadows under my very eyes I had no idea that these bands are—almost invariably, as I have since learned—family parties that hold together through the winter, just as fawns follow the old doe until the spring comes, in order that her wisdom may find them food, and her superior strength break a way for them when snows are deep and enemies are hard at heel.
The big lynx in the middle was the mother; the four other lynxes were her cubs; and they held together now, partly that their imperfect education might be finished under her own eyes, but chiefly that in the hungry winter days they might combine their powers and hunt more systematically, and pull down, if need be, the larger animals that might defy them individually.
As she crossed the fresh trail of the bull moose the old mother lynx thrust her big head into it for a long sniff. The line closed up instantly and each lynx stood like a statue, his blunt nose down into a reeking hoof mark, studying through dull senses what it was that had just passed. The old lynx swung her head up and down the line of her motionless cubs; then with a ferocious snarl curling under her whiskers she pushed forward again. A score of starving lynxes all together would scarcely follow a bull of that stride and power. Only the smell of blood would drag them unwillingly along such a trail; and even then, if they overtook the author of it, they would only squat around him in a fierce solemn circle, yawning hungrily and hoping he would die. Now, somewhere just ahead, easier game was hiding. An unvoiced command seemed to run up and down the line of waiting cubs. Each thrust his head out at the same instant and the silent march went on.
When the last of the line had glided out of sight among the bushes of the point below, I ran swiftly through the woods, making no noise in the soft snow, and crouched motionless under the spruces on the lower side of the point, hoping to see the cunning hunters again. There was but a moment to wait. From under a bending evergreen tip Moktaques leaped out and went flying across the open for the next wooded point. Close behind him sounded a snarl, and with a terrific rush as she sighted the game the old lynx burst out, calling savagely to her line of hunters to close in. Like the blast of a squall they came, stretching out in enormous bounds and closing in from either end so as to cut off the circling run of the flying game. In a flash the two ends of the line had met and whirled in sharply; in another flash Moktaques was crouching close in the snow in the center of a fierce circle that rolled in upon him like a whirlwind. As the smallest lynx leaped for his game an electric shock seemed to touch the motionless hare. He shot forward as if galvanized, leaping high over the crouching terror before him, striving to break out of the terrible circle. Then the lynx over whose head he passed leaped straight up, caught the flying creature fairly in his great paws, fell over backwards, and was covered in an instant by the other lynxes that hurled themselves upon him like furies, snapping and clawing ferociously at the mouthful which he had pulled down at the very moment of its escape.
There was an appalling scrimmage for a moment; then, before I could fairly rub my eyes, the hare had vanished utterly, and a savage ring of lynxes were licking their chops hungrily, glaring and growling at each other to see which it was that had gotten the biggest mouthful.
When they disappeared at last, slinking away in a long line under the edge of the barren, I took up the back track to see how they had been hunting. For a full mile straight back toward my camp, I followed the tracks and read the record of as keen a bit of bush beating as was ever seen in the woods. They had swept along all that distance in an almost perfect line, starting every living thing that lay athwart their path. Here it was a ruffed grouse that one had jumped for and missed, as the startled bird whirred away into the gloom. There one had climbed a tree and shaken something off into the snow, where the others licked up every morsel so clean that I could not tell what the unfortunate creature was; but a curious bit of savage daring was manifest, for the lynx that had gone up the tree after the game had hurled himself down like a catapult, leaving a huge hole in the snow, so as to be in at the death before his savage fellows, which had come flying in with great bounds, should have eaten everything and left not even a smell for his own share. And there, at last, at the very end of the line, another hare had been started and, running in a short circle, as hares often do, had been met and seized by the fourth lynx as the long line swung in swiftly to head him off.
Years later, and miles away on the Renous barrens, I saw another and more wonderful bit of the same keen hunting. From a ridge above a small barren I saw a herd of caribou acting strangely and went down to investigate. As I reached the fringe of thick bushes that lined the open I saw the caribou cluster excitedly about the base of a big rock across the barren, not more than two hundred yards away. Something was there, evidently, which excited their curiousity,—and caribou are the most inquisitive creatures, at times, in all the woods,—but I had to study the rock sharply through my field-glasses before I made out the round fierce head of a big lynx pressed flat against the gray stone. One side of the rock was almost perpendicular, rising sheer some fifteen or twenty feet above the plain; the other side slanted off less abruptly toward the woods; and the big lynx, which had probably scrambled up from the woods to spy on the caribou, was now hanging half over the edge of rock, swaying his savage head from side to side and stretching one wide paw after another at the animals beneath.
The caribou were getting more excited and curious every moment. Caribou are like turkeys; when they see some new thing they must die or find out about it. Now they were spreading and closing their ranks, wavering back and forth, stretching ears and noses at the queer thing on the rock, but drawing nearer and nearer with every change.
Suddenly the lynx jumped, not at the caribou, for they were still too far away, but high in the air with paws outspread. He came down in a flurry of snow, whirled round and round as if bewitched, then vanished silently in two great jumps into the shelter of the nearest evergreens.
The caribou broke wildly at the strange sight, but turned after a startled bound or two to see what it was that had frightened them. There was nothing in sight, and like a flock of foolish sheep they came timidly back, nosing the snow and stretching their ears at the rock again; for there at the top was the big lynx, swinging his round head from side to side as before, and reaching his paws alternately at the herd, as if to show them how broad and fine they were.
Slowly the little herd neared the rock and the lynx drew back, as if to lure them on. They were full of burning curiosity, but they had seen one spring, at least, and measured its power, and so kept at a respectful distance. Then one young caribou left the others and went nosing along the edge of the woods to find the trail of the queer thing, or get to leeward of the rock, and so find out by smell—which is the only sure sense that a caribou possesses—what it was all about. A wind seemed to stir a dried tuft of grass on the summit of the great rock. I put my glasses upon it instantly, then caught my breath in suppressed excitement as I made out the tufted ears of two or three other lynxes crouching flat on their high tower, out of sight of the foolish herd, but watching every movement with fierce, yellow, unblinking eyes.
The young caribou found the trail, put his nose down into it, then started cautiously back toward the rock to nose the other hole in the snow and be sure that it smelled just like the first one. Up on the rock the big lynx drew further back; the herd pressed close, raising their heads high to see what he was doing; and the young caribou stole up and put his nose down into the trail again. Then three living catapults shot over the high rim of the rock and fell upon him. Like a flash the big lynx was on his feet, drawing himself up to his full height and hurling a savage screech of exultation after the flying herd. Then he, too, shot over the rock, fell fair on the neck of the struggling young caribou, and bore him down into the snow.
Upweekis is a stupid fellow. He will poke his big head into a wire noose as foolishly as any rabbit, and then he will fight savagely with the pole at the other end of the noose until he chokes himself. But no one could follow that wonderful trail in the snow, or sit with tingling nerves under the spruces watching that wild bit of fox-play, without a growing respect for the shadowy creature of the big round tracks that wander, wander everywhere through the winter woods, and without wondering intensely in what kind of savage school Mother Upweekis trains her little ones.