Secrets of the Woods  by William J. Long

Part 1 of 6

I WAS camping one summer on a little lake—Deer Pond, the natives called it—a few miles back from a quiet summer resort on the Maine coast. Summer hotels and mackerel fishing and noisy excursions had lost their semblance to a charm; so I made a little tent, hired a canoe, and moved back into the woods.

It was better here. The days were still and long, and the nights full of peace. The air was good, for nothing but the wild creatures breathed it, and the firs had touched it with their fragrance. The faraway surge of the sea came up faintly till the spruces answered it, and both sounds went gossiping over the hills together. On all sides were the woods, which, on the north especially, stretched away over a broken country beyond my farthest explorations.

Over against my tenting place a colony of herons had their nests in some dark hemlocks. They were interesting as a camp of gypsies, some going off in straggling bands to the coast at daybreak, others frogging in the streams, and a few solitary, patient, philosophical ones joining me daily in following the gentle art of Izaak Walton. And then, when the sunset came and the deep red glowed just behind the hemlocks, and the gypsy bands came home, I would see their sentinels posted here and there among the hemlock tips—still, dark, graceful silhouettes etched in sepia against the gorgeous afterglow—and hear the mothers croaking their ungainly babies to sleep in the tree tops.

Down at one end of the pond a brood of young black ducks were learning their daily lessons in hiding; at the other end a noisy kingfisher, an honest blue heron, and a thieving mink shared the pools and watched each other as rival fishermen. Hares by night, and squirrels by day, and wood mice at all seasons played round my tent, or came shyly to taste my bounty. A pair of big owls lived and hunted in a swamp hard by, who hooted dismally before the storms came, and sometimes swept within the circle of my fire at night. Every morning a raccoon stopped at a little pool in the brook above my tent, to wash his food carefully ere taking it home. So there was plenty to do and plenty to learn, and the days passed all too swiftly.

I had been told by the village hunters that there were no deer; that they had vanished long since, hounded and crusted and chevied out of season, till life was not worth the living. So it was with a start of surprise and a thrill of new interest that I came upon the tracks of a large buck and two smaller deer on the shore one morning. I was following them eagerly when I ran plump upon Old Wally, the cunningest hunter and trapper in the whole region.

"Sho! Mister, what yer follerin?"

"Why, these deer tracks," I said simply.

Wally gave me a look of great pity.

"Guess you're green—one o' them city fellers, ain't ye, Mister? Them ere's sheep tracks—my sheep. Wandered off int' th' woods a spell ago, and I hain't seen the tarnal critters since. Came up here lookin' for um this mornin'."

I glanced at Wally's fish basket, and thought of the nibbled lily pads; but I said nothing. Wally was a great hunter, albeit jealous; apt to think of all the game in the woods as being sent by Providence to help him get a lazy living; and I knew little about deer at that time. So I took him to camp, fed him, and sent him away.

"Kinder keep a lookout for my sheep, will ye, Mister, down 't this end o' the pond?" he said, pointing away from the deer tracks. "If ye see ary one, send out word, and I'll come and fetch 'im.—Needn't foller the tracks though; they wander like all possessed this time o' year," he added earnestly as he went away.

That afternoon I went over to a little pond, a mile distant from my camp, and deeper in the woods. The shore was well cut up with numerous deer tracks, and among the lily pads everywhere were signs of recent feeding. There was a man's track here too, which came cautiously out from a thick point of woods, and spied about on the shore, and went back again more cautiously than before. I took the measure of it back to camp, and found that it corresponded perfectly with the boot tracks of Old Wally. There were a few deer here, undoubtedly, which he was watching jealously for his own benefit in the fall hunting.

When the next still, misty night came, it found me afloat on the lonely little pond, with a dark lantern fastened to an upright stick just in front of me in the canoe. In the shadow of the shores all was black as Egypt; but out in the middle the outlines of the pond could be followed vaguely by the heavy cloud of woods against the lighter sky. The stillness was intense; every slightest sound,—the creak of a bough or the ripple of a passing musquash, the plunk  of a water drop into the lake or the snap of a rotten twig, broken by the weight of clinging mist,—came to the strained ear with startling suddenness. Then, as I waited and sifted the night sounds, a dainty plop, plop, plop!  sent the canoe gliding like a shadow toward the shore whence the sounds had come.

When the lantern opened noiselessly, sending a broad beam of gray, full of shadows and misty lights, through the even blackness of the night, the deer stood revealed—a beautiful creature, shrinking back into the forest's shadow, yet ever drawn forward by the sudden wonder of the light.

She turned her head towards me, and her eyes blazed like great colored lights in the lantern's reflection. They fascinated me; I could see nothing but those great glowing spots, blazing and scintillating with a kind of intense fear and wonder out of the darkness. She turned away, unable to endure the glory any longer; then released from the fascination of her eyes, I saw her hurrying along the shore, a graceful living shadow among the shadows, rubbing her head among the bushes as if to brush away from her eyes the charm that dazzled them.

I followed a little way, watching every move, till she turned again, and for a longer time stared steadfastly at the light. It was harder this time to break away from its power. She came nearer two or three times, halting between dainty steps to stare and wonder, while her eyes blazed into mine. Then, as she faltered irresolutely, I reached forward and closed the lantern, leaving lake and woods in deeper darkness than before. At the sudden release I heard her plunge out of the water; but a moment later she was moving nervously among the trees, trying to stamp herself up to the courage point of coming back to investigate. And when I flashed my lantern at the spot she threw aside caution and came hurriedly down the bank again.


Stared steadfastly at the light

Later that night I heard other footsteps in the pond, and opened my lantern upon three deer, a doe, a fawn and a large buck, feeding at short intervals among the lily pads. The buck was wild; after one look he plunged into the woods, whistling danger to his companions. But the fawn heeded nothing, knew nothing for the moment save the fascination of the wonderful glare out there in the darkness. Had I not shut off the light, I think he would have climbed into the canoe in his intense wonder.