March is a weary month for the wood folk. One who follows them then has it borne in upon him continually that life is a struggle,—a keen, hard, hunger-driven struggle to find enough to keep a-going and sleep warm till the tardy sun comes north again with his rich living. The fall abundance of stored food has all been eaten, except in out-of-the-way corners that one stumbles upon in a long day's wandering; the game also is wary and hard to find from being constantly hunted by eager enemies.
It is then that the sparrow falleth. You find him on the snow, a wind-blown feather guiding your eye to the open where he fell in mid-flight; or under the tree, which shows that he lost his grip in the night. His empty crop tells the whole pitiful story, and why you find him there cold and dead, his toes curled up and his body feather-light. You would find more but for the fact that hunger-pointed eyes are keener than yours and earlier abroad, and that crow and jay and mink and wildcat have greater interest than you in finding where the sparrow fell.
It is then, also, that the owl, who hunts the sparrow o' nights, grows so light from scant feeding that he cannot fly against the wind. If he would go back to his starting point while the March winds are out, he must needs come down close to the ground and yewyaw towards his objective, making leeway like an old boat without ballast or centerboard.
The grouse have taken to bud-eating from necessity—birch buds mostly, with occasional trips to the orchards for variety. They live much now in the trees, which they dislike; but with a score of hungry enemies prowling for them day and night, what can a poor grouse do?
When a belated snow falls, you follow their particular enemy, the fox, where he wanders, wanders, wanders on his night's hunting. Across the meadow, to dine on the remembrance of field mice—alas! safe now under the crust; along the brook, where he once caught frogs; through the thicket, where the grouse were hatched; past the bullbrier tangle, where the covey of quail once rested nightly; into the farmyard, where the dog is loose and the chickens are safe under lock and key, instead of roosting in trees; across the highway, and through the swamp, and into the big bare empty woods; till in the sad gray morning light he digs under the wild apple tree and sits down on the snow to eat a frozen apple, lest his stomach cry too loudly while he sleeps the day away and tries to forget that he is hungry.
Everywhere it is the same story: hard times and poor hunting. Even the chickadees are hard pressed to keep up appearances and have their sweet love note ready at the first smell of spring in the air.
This was the lesson that the great woods whispered sadly when a few idle March days found me gliding on snowshoes over the old familiar ground. Wild geese had honked an invitation from the South Shore; but one can never study a wild goose; the only satisfaction is to see him swing in on broad wings over the decoys—one glorious moment ere the gun speaks and the dog jumps and everything is spoiled. So I left gun and rifle behind, and went off to the woods of happy memories to see how my deer were faring.
The wonder of the snow was gone; there was left only its cold bitterness and a vague sense that it ought no longer to cumber the ground, but would better go away as soon as possible and spare the wood folk any more suffering. The litter of a score of storms covered its soiled rough surface; every shred of bark had left its dark stain where the decaying sap had melted and spread in the midday sun. The hard crust, which made such excellent running for my snowshoes, seemed bitterly cruel when I thought of the starving wild things and of the abundance of food on the brown earth, just four feet below their hungry bills and noses.
The winter had been unusually severe. Reports had come to me from the North Woods of deep snows, and of deer dying of starvation and cold in their yards. I confess that I was anxious as I hurried along. Now that the hunt was over and the deer had won, they belonged to me more than ever—more even than if the stuffed head of the buck looked down on my hall, instead of resting proudly over his own strong shoulders. My snowshoes clicked a rapid march through the sad gray woods, while the March wind thrummed an accompaniment high up among the bare branches, and the ground-spruce nodded briskly, beating time with their green tips, as if glad of any sound or music that would break the chill silence until the birds came back.
Here and there the snow told stories; gay stories, tragic stories, sad, wandering, patient stories of the little woods-people, which the frost had hardened into crust, as if Nature would keep their memorials forever, like the records on the sun-hardened bricks of Babylon. But would the deer live? Would the big buck's cunning provide a yard large enough for wide wandering, with plenty of browse along the paths to carry his flock safely through the winter's hunger? That was a story, waiting somewhere ahead, which made me hurry away from the foot-written records that otherwise would have kept me busy for hours.
Crossbills called welcome to me, high overhead. Nothing can starve them out. A red squirrel rushed headlong out of his hollow tree at the first click of my snowshoes. Nothing can check his curiosity or his scolding except his wife, whom he likes, and the weasel, whom he is mortally afraid of. Chickadees followed me shyly with their blandishments—tsic-a-deeee? with that gentle up-slide of questioning. "Is the spring really coming? Are—are you a harbinger?"
But the snowshoes clicked on, away from the sweet blarney, leaving behind the little flatterers who were honestly glad to see me in the woods again, and who would fain have delayed me. Other questions, stern ones, were calling ahead. Would the cur dogs find the yard and exterminate the innocents? Would Old Wally—but no; Wally had the "rheumatiz," and was out of the running. Ill-wind blew the deer good that time; else he would long ago have run them down on snowshoes and cut their throats, as if they were indeed his "tarnal sheep" that had run wild in the woods.
At the southern end of a great hardwood ridge I found the first path of their yard. It was half filled with snow, unused since the last two storms. A glance on either side, where everything eatable within reach of a deer's neck had long ago been cropped close, showed plainly why the path was abandoned. I followed it a short distance before running into another path, and another, then into a great tangle of deer ways spreading out crisscross over the eastern and southern slopes of the ridge.
In some of the paths were fresh deer tracks and the signs of recent feeding. My heart jumped at sight of one great hoof mark. I had measured and studied it too often to fail to recognize its owner. There was browse here still, to be had for the cropping. I began to be hopeful for my little flock, and to feel a higher regard for their leader, who could plan a yard, it seemed, as well as a flight, and who could not be deceived by early abundance into outlining a small yard, forgetting the late snows and the spring hunger.
I was stooping to examine the more recent signs, when a sharp snort made me raise my head quickly. In the path before me stood a doe, all a-quiver, her feet still braced from the suddenness with which she had stopped at sight of an unknown object blocking the path ahead. Behind her two other deer checked themselves and stood like statues, unable to see, but obeying their leader promptly.
All three were frightened and excited, not simply curious, as they would have been had they found me in their path unexpectedly. The widespread nostrils and heaving sides showed that they had been running hard. Those in the rear (I could see them over the top of the scrub spruce, behind which I crouched in the path) said in every muscle: "Go on! No matter what it is, the danger behind is worse. Go on, go on!" Insistence was in the air. The doe felt it and bounded aside. The crust had softened in the sun, and she plunged through it when she struck, cr-r-runch, cr-r-runch, up to her sides at every jump. The others followed, just swinging their heads for a look and a sniff at me, springing from hole to hole in the snow, and making but a single track. A dozen jumps and they struck another path and turned into it, running as before down the ridge. In the swift glimpses they gave me I noticed with satisfaction that, though thin and a bit ragged in appearance, they were by no means starved. The veteran leader had provided well for his little family.
I followed their back track up the ridge for perhaps half a mile, when another track made me turn aside. Two days before, a single deer had been driven out of the yard at a point where three paths met. She had been running down the ridge when something in front met her and drove her headlong out of her course. The soft edges of the path were cut and torn by suspicious claw marks.
I followed her flight anxiously, finding here and there, where the snow had been softest, dog tracks big and little. The deer was tired from long running, apparently; the deep holes in the snow, where she had broken through the crust, were not half the regular distance apart. A little way from the path I found her, cold and stiff, her throat horribly torn by the pack which had run her to death. Her hind feet were still doubled under her, just as she had landed from her last despairing jump, when the tired muscles could do no more, and she sank down without a struggle to let the dogs do their cruel work.
I had barely read all this, and had not yet finished measuring the largest tracks to see if it were her old enemy that, as dogs frequently do, had gathered a pirate band about him and led them forth to the slaughter of the innocents, when a far-away cry came stealing down through the gray woods. Hark! the eager yelp of curs and the leading hoot of a hound. I whipped out my knife to cut a club, and was off for the sounds on a galloping run, which is the swiftest possible gait on snowshoes.
There were no deer paths here; for the hardwood browse, upon which deer depend for food, grew mostly on the other sides of the ridge. That the chase should turn this way, out of the yard's limits showed the dogs' cunning, and that they were not new at their evil business. They had divided their forces again, as they had undoubtedly done when hunting the poor doe whose body I had just found. Part of the pack hunted down the ridge in full cry, while the rest lay in wait to spring at the flying game as it came on and drive it out of the paths into the deep snow, where it would speedily be at their mercy. At the thought I gripped the club hard, promising to stop that kind of hunting for good, if only I could get half a chance.
Presently, above the scrape of my snowshoes, I heard the deer coming, cr-r-runch! cr-r-runch! the heavy plunges growing shorter and fainter, while behind the sounds an eager, whining trail-cry grew into a fierce howl of canine exultation. Something was telling me to hurry, hurry; that the big buck I had so often hunted was in my power at last, and that, if I would square accounts, I must beat the dogs, though they were nearer to him now than I. The excitement of a new kind of hunt, a hunt to save, not to kill, was tingling all over me when I circled a dense thicket of firs with a rush, and there he lay, up to his shoulders in the snow before me.
He had taken his last jump. The splendid strength which had carried him so far was spent now to the last ounce. He lay resting easily in the snow, his head outstretched on the crust before him, awaiting the tragedy that had followed him for years, by lake and clearing and winter yard, and that burst out behind him now with a cry to make one's nerves shudder. The glory of his antlers was gone; he had dropped them months before; but the mighty shoulders and sinewy neck and perfect head showed how well, how grandly he had deserved my hunting.
He threw up his head as I burst out upon him from an utterly unexpected quarter—the very thing that I had so often tried to do, in vain, in the old glorious days. "Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? Well, here am I." That is what his eyes, great, sad, accusing eyes, were saying as he laid his head down on the snow again, quiet as an Indian at the torture, too proud to struggle where nothing was to be gained but pity or derision.
A strange, uncanny silence had settled over the woods. Wolves cease their cry in the last swift burst of speed that will bring the game in sight. Then the dogs broke out of the cover behind him with a fiercer howl that was too much for even his nerves to stand. Nothing on earth could have met such a death unmoved. No ears, however trained, could hear that fierce cry for blood without turning to meet it face to face. With a mighty effort the buck whirled in the snow and gathered himself for the tragedy.
Gathered himself for the tragedy
Far ahead of the pack came a small, swift bulldog that, with no nose of his own for hunting, had followed the pirate leader for mere love of killing. As he jumped for the throat, the buck, with his last strength, reared on his hind legs, so as to get his fore feet clear of the snow, and plunged down again with a hard, swift sabre-cut of his right hoof. It caught the dog on the neck as he rose on the spring, and ripped him from ear to tail. Deer and dog came down together. Then the buck rose swiftly for his last blow, and the knife-edged hoofs shot down like lightning; one straight, hard drive with the crushing force of a ten-ton hammer behind it—and his first enemy was out of the hunt forever. Before he had time to gather himself again the big yellow brindle, with the hound's blood showing in nose and ears,—Old Wally's dog,—leaped into sight. His whining trail-cry changed to a fierce growl as he sprang for the buck's nose.
I had waited for just this moment in hiding, and jumped to meet it. The club came down between the two heads; and there was no reserve this time in the muscles that swung it. It caught the brute fair on the head, where the nose begins to come up into the skull,—and he too had harried his last deer.
Two other curs had leaped aside with quick instinct the moment they saw me, and vanished into the thickets, as if conscious of their evil doing and anxious to avoid detection. But the third, a large collie,—a dog that, when he does go wrong, becomes the most cunning and vicious of brutes,—flew straight at my throat with a snarl like a gray wolf cheated of his killing. I have faced bear and panther and bull moose when the red danger-light blazed into their eyes; but never before or since have I seen such awful fury in a brute's face. It swept over me in an instant that it was his life or mine; there was no question or alternative. A lucky cut of the club disabled him, and I finished the job on the spot, for the good of the deer and the community.
The big buck had not moved, nor tried to, after his last great effort. Now he only turned his head and lifted it wearily, as if to get away from the intolerable smell of his dog enemies that lay dying under his very nose. His great, sorrowful, questioning eyes were turned on me continually, with a look that only innocence could possibly meet. No man on earth, I think, could have looked into them for a full moment and then raised his hand to slay.
I approached very quietly, and dragged the dogs away from him, one by one. His eyes followed me always. His nostrils spread, his head came up with a start when I flung the first cur aside to leeward. But he made no motion; only his eyes had a wonderful light in them when I dragged his last enemy, the one he had killed himself, from under his very head and threw it after the others. Then I sat down quietly in the snow, and we were face to face at last.
He feared me—I could hardly expect otherwise, while a deer has memory—but he lay perfectly still, his head extended on the snow, his sides heaving. After a little while he made a few bounds forward, at right angles to the course he had been running, with marvelous instinct remembering the nearest point in the many paths out of which the pack had driven him. But he stopped and lay quiet at the first sound of my snowshoes behind him. "The chase law holds. You have caught me; I am yours,"—this is what his sad eyes were saying. And sitting down quietly near him again, I tried to reassure him. "You are safe. Take your own time. No dog shall harm you now."—That is what I tried to make him feel by the very power of my own feeling, never more strongly roused than now for any wild creature.
I whistled a little tune softly, which always rouses the wood folk's curiosity; but as he lay quiet, listening, his ears shot back and forth nervously at a score of sounds that I could not hear, as if above the music he caught faint echoes of the last fearful chase. Then I brought out my lunch and, nibbling a bit myself, pushed a slice of black bread over the crust towards him with a long stick.
It was curious and intensely interesting to watch the struggle. At first he pulled away, as if I would poison him. Then a new rich odor began to steal up into his hungry nostrils. For weeks he had not fed full; he had been running hard since daylight, and was faint and exhausted. And in all his life he had never smelled anything so good. He turned his head to question me with his eyes. Slowly his nose came down, searching for the bread. "If he would only eat!—that is a truce which I would never break," I kept thinking over and over, and stopped eating in my eagerness to have him share with me the hunter's crust. His nose touched it; then through his hunger came the smell of the man—the danger smell that had followed him day after day in the beautiful October woods, and over white winter trails when he fled for his life, and still the man followed. The remembrance was too much. He raised his head with an effort and bounded away.
I followed slowly, keeping well out to one side of his trail, and sitting quietly within sight whenever he rested in the snow. Wild animals soon lose their fear in the presence of man if one avoids all excitement, even of interest, and is quiet in his motions. His fear was gone now, but the old wild freedom and the intense desire for life—a life which he had resigned when I appeared suddenly before him, and the pack broke out behind—were coming back with renewed force. His bounds grew longer, firmer, his stops less frequent, till he broke at last into a deer path and shook himself, as if to throw off all memory of the experience.
From a thicket of fir a doe, that had been listening in hiding to the sounds of his coming and to the faint unknown click, which was the voice of my snowshoes, came out to meet him. Together they trotted down the path, turning often to look and listen, and vanished at last, like gray shadows, into the gray stillness of the March woods.