Secrets of the Woods  by William J. Long

Following the Deer

Part 2 of 6

I saw the little fellow again, in a curious way, a few nights later. A wild storm was raging over the woods. Under its lash the great trees writhed and groaned; and the "voices"—that strange phenomenon of the forest and rapids—were calling wildly through the roar of the storm and the rush of rain on innumerable leaves. I had gone out on the old wood road, to lose myself for a little while in the intense darkness and uproar, and to feel again the wild thrill of the elements. But the night was too dark, the storm too fierce. Every few moments I would blunder against a tree, which told me I was off the road; and to lose the road meant to wander all night in the storm-swept woods. So I went back for my lantern, with which I again started down the old cart path, a little circle of wavering, jumping shadows about me, the one gray spot in the midst of universal darkness.

I had gone but a few hundred yards when there was a rush—it was not the wind or the rain—in a thicket on my right. Something jumped into the circle of light. Two bright spots burned out of the darkness, then two more; and with strange bleats a deer came close to me with her fawn. I stood stockstill, with a thrill in my spine that was not altogether of the elements, while the deer moved uneasily back and forth. The doe wavered between fear and fascination; but the fawn knew no fear, or perhaps he knew only the great fear of the uproar around him; for he came close beside me, rested his nose an instant against the light, then thrust his head between my arm and body, so as to shield his eyes, and pressed close against my side, shivering with cold and fear, pleading dumbly for my protection against the pitiless storm.

I refrained from touching the little thing, for no wild creature likes to be handled, while his mother called in vain from the leafy darkness. When I turned to go he followed me close, still trying to thrust his face under my arm; and I had to close the light with a sharp click before he bounded away down the road, where one who knew better than I how to take care of a frightened innocent was, no doubt, waiting to receive him.

I gave up everything else but fishing after that, and took to watching the deer; but there was little to be learned in the summer woods. Once I came upon the big buck lying down in a thicket. I was following his track, trying to learn the Indian trick of sign-trailing, when he shot up in front of me like Jack-in-a-box, and was gone before I knew what it meant. From the impressions in the moss, I concluded that he slept with all four feet under him, ready to shoot up at an instant's notice, with power enough in his spring to clear any obstacle near him. And then I thought of the way a cow gets up, first one end, then the other, rising from the fore knees at last with puff and grunt and clacking of joints; and I took my first lesson in wholesome respect for the creature whom I already considered mine by right of discovery, and whose splendid head I saw, in anticipation, adorning the hall of my house—to the utter discomfiture of Old Wally.

At another time I crept up to an old road beyond the little deer pond, where three deer, a mother with her fawn, and a young spike-buck, were playing. They kept running up and down, leaping over the trees that lay across the road with marvelous ease and grace—that is, the two larger deer. The little fellow followed awkwardly; but he had the spring in him, and was learning rapidly to gather himself for the rise, and lift his hind feet at the top of his jump, and come down with all fours together, instead of sprawling clumsily, as a horse does.

I saw the perfection of it a few days later. I was sitting before my tent door at twilight, watching the herons, when there was a shot and a sudden crash over on their side. In a moment the big buck plunged out of the woods and went leaping in swift bounds along the shore, head high, antlers back, the mighty muscles driving him up and onward as if invisible wings were bearing him. A dozen great trees were fallen across his path, one of which, as I afterwards measured, lay a clear eight feet above the sand. But he never hesitated nor broke his splendid stride. He would rush at a tree; rise light and swift till above it, where he turned as if on a pivot, with head thrown back to the wind, actually resting an instant in air at the very top of his jump; then shoot downward, not falling but driven still by the impulse of his great muscles. When he struck, all four feet were close together; and almost quicker than the eye could follow he was in the air again, sweeping along the water's edge, or rising like a bird over the next obstacle.

Just below me was a stream, with muddy shores on both sides. I looked to see if he would stog himself there or turn aside; but he knew the place better than I, and that just under the soft mud the sand lay firm and sure. He struck the muddy place only twice, once on either side the fifteen-foot stream, sending out a light shower of mud in all directions; then, because the banks on my side were steep, he leaped for the cover of the woods and was gone.

I thought I had seen the last of him, when I heard him coming, bump! bump! bump!  the swift blows of his hoofs sounding all together on the forest floor. So he flashed by, between me and my tent door, barely swerved aside for my fire, and gave me another beautiful run down the old road, rising and falling light as thistle-down, with the old trees arching over him and brushing his antlers as he rocketed along.

The last branch had hardly swished behind him when, across the pond, the underbrush parted cautiously and Old Wally appeared, trailing a long gun. He had followed scarcely a dozen of the buck's jumps when he looked back and saw me watching him from beside a great maple.

"Just a-follerin one o' my tarnal sheep. Strayed off day 'fore yesterday. Hain't seen 'im, hev ye?" he bawled across.

"Just went along; ten or twelve points on his horns. And say, Wally"—

The old sinner, who was glancing about furtively to see if the white sand showed any blood stains,—looked up quickly at the changed tone—

"You let those sheep of yours alone till the first of October; then I'll help you round 'em up. Just now they're worth forty dollars apiece to the state. I'll see that the warden collects it, too, if you shoot another."

"Sho! Mister, I ain't a-shootin' no deer. Hain't seen a deer round here in ten year or more. I just took a crack at a pa'tridge 'at kwitted  at me, top o' a stump"—

But as he vanished among the hemlocks, trailing his old gun, I knew that he understood the threat. To make the matter sure I drove the deer out of the pond that night, giving them the first of a series of rude lessons in caution, until the falling leaves should make them wild enough to take care of themselves.