In the Wake of the Thaw by Zoe Meyer
On a day in early March, when the wilderness lay wrapped in its
snowy mantle and the winter sleepers had not yet ventured abroad, a big
skunk, curled snug and warm in his den, sighed and opened his eyes. The
sunlight streaming in at the mouth of the little cave attracted him and
he stepped forth. A warm south wind had risen during the night and the
faint sound of running water was borne to the keen ears of the animal,
a sound which reminded him pleasantly of spring.
Wide awake now, he began to feel the pangs of hunger, and
accordingly he sallied forth to see what tempting morsel might be
brought his way. Instinctively he turned south towards the nearest
farm, stopping occasionally, his head cocked on one side, to listen for
mice which had their runways beneath the snow. He paused a moment on a
high ridge to look about him and decide upon his course.
Across a snowy pasture, broken by clumps of juniper and bay and
steep upthrusts of rock, he saw the rude but substantial buildings of a
backwoods farm. The smoke rising lazily from the chimney into the clear
air was the only sign of life about the place. The prospect looked
inviting and the skunk quickly made his way down the ridge and across
the pasture to the nearest building. A delectable odour assailed his
nostrils and he paused to sniff appreciatively. It was the warm,
tempting odour of poultry.
The skunk walked around the building, the delicious odour meeting
him at every turn. As he reached the front there arose a furious
barking and a dog appeared around the farther corner. At sight of the
skunk, the dog stopped so precipitately as to skid for almost a foot in
the soft snow. The skunk stopped and regarded him in a haughty manner.
Then with his forefeet he stamped upon the ground, a warning which the
dog, versed in the ways of skunks, was quick to recognize. A moment
longer they looked into each other's eyes; then the dog turned and
strolled back in the direction of the house, his whole bearing
indicating a lack of interest in his immediate surroundings. The skunk,
too, turned his back indifferently.
At one side he found a place where the soil had been partly washed
away from beneath the building. He soon succeeded in enlarging the hole
enough to permit his entrance. A few minutes later he might have been
seen making for the ridge, a plump duck accompanying him.
When about half-way across the pasture, the skunk stopped and
deposited his limp burden upon the snow. Then he turned and looked back
toward the building which he had just left and which was so easy of
access. Possibly he reflected that if one duck were good, two ducks
would be better. At any rate he hid his prize under a convenient ledge
of rock and retraced his steps.
He had scarcely turned his back when a sleek, red-brown animal
appeared on the ridge a short distance away and with bright eyes
watched the skunk until he disappeared around the corner of the
building. The fox was acquainted with that building and its contents
and at once became interested. Deciding on a closer investigation, he
crossed the pasture jauntily, until abreast of the ledge under which
the skunk had concealed his trophy. Here he came to an abrupt halt, his
nose twitching. There could be no doubt about it. The odour was that of
freshly killed fowl.
Now the skunk, unaware of the presence of this other poultry lover,
had taken no pains to conceal his booty and it was soon located by the
keen nose of the fox. He drew it forth, threw it over his shoulder and
departed for the ridge, where he paused to gloat over his find. This
pause, however, proved his undoing. Upon reaching the poultry house,
the skunk had encountered an unexpected difficulty. A man was boarding
up the hole by which the thief had so recently entered and departed.
Knowing it would be useless to proceed, the skunk had turned back
unobserved, just in time to see his first prize being carried away on
the back of the fox. His eyes turned red with anger and the hair along
his back stiffened.
The attention of the fox, meanwhile, had been attracted by a sound
from the woods on his right. So it was that the skunk reached the ridge
before the second thief was aware of his presence. A slight sound
caused the fox to turn quickly and the two stood eyeing each other
belligerently across the body of the duck.
The fox knew well enough with whom he had to deal; nevertheless he
was hungry and not inclined to relinquish easily his fat prize. He
seized a leg of the duck just as the skunk laid hold of its head. Both
glared but refused to let go. It was a comical sight but, not being
blessed with a sense of humor, neither animal was aware of this fact.
Meanwhile the duck was stretched to an alarming length between them.
[Illustration: Both glared but refused to let go.]
The skunk now believed the time had come to insist firmly upon his
rights which were being seriously threatened by this sleek brown
upstart. He possessed a weapon against which the fox would be helpless
and in this extremity he prepared to use it. Still, the skunk was a
gentleman and scorned to attack without warning.
He stamped sharply with his forefeet. This had been sufficient
warning for the farmer's dog but, though the fox looked uneasy, he
clung to the duck. Surprised, the skunk raised his plumy tail like a
flag of battle. The fox backed an inch, keeping his eyes on the enemy,
but still inclined to ignore the hint. Amazed at this defiance, the
skunk glared at him a moment. There was no need of further
demonstration, however. The courage of the fox seemed suddenly to fail,
for he relinquished his hold upon the duck and fled, not pausing until
he had put the ridge between himself and the dangerous black and white
poultry thief. The victor then calmly picked up his prize and retired
to his den among the rocks, where he feasted royally.
The next sunshiny day found the skunk abroad. Though the snow-crust
had frozen once more, and the air was biting cold, there was a feeling
in the atmosphere which stirred the blood of the skunk. He stepped
blithely forth, gobbling up a plump wood mouse that had rashly ventured
forth from its safe retreat under the snow.
High up in a sapling a fat porcupine swayed contentedly with the
motion of the branches as he uttered a peculiar sound between a grunt
and a squeal. It was his Spring Song and, though to sensitive ears it
might have been entirely lacking in melody, to the ears of the forest
world it was sweetest music, for it presaged the breaking up of winter.
The skunk paused a moment to gaze up at the contented little beast,
then went on his way strangely light of heart.
Meanwhile, a gaunt gray form was drifting southward through the
forest, its passing as silent as a shadow. The lone wolf, having been
injured and separated from the pack, had found it increasingly
difficult to secure food. Now, emboldened by hunger, he had thrown
caution to the winds and was about to invade the haunts of man, and
that in broad daylight.
Suddenly the wolf paused, his uplifted muzzle searching the breeze.
Then, his eyes glowing with a fierce fire, he glided forward, a
sinister shadow. Between the trees a short distance away he had
glimpsed a small black and white animal trotting down the trail. It was
Pal, returning from an excursion of his own into the woods.
For a short distance the wolf slipped along parallel to the dog, but
to leeward so that no scent betrayed his presence. Several times he
could have sprung upon his unsuspecting prey, but caution restrained
him. He had seen Pal before but always protected by a man with a heavy
club or gun. Now, though the man was not visible, the wolf was
suspicious, and not inclined to rush into danger.
It was not long, however, before he decided that the Hermit was not
about. Gradually he closed in, and Pal, for the first time scenting
this deadly enemy, gave a frightened bark, then bravely turned at bay
with his back against a tree. He was no match for the wolf and all
would have been over in a moment had not the big skunk unwittingly
stepped between them.
Ordinarily the skunk did not court trouble; on the other hand, he
did not run away from it. Thus, when he beheld the wolf apparently
bearing down upon him, he was startled, but not to the point of losing
Immediately he assumed the defensive. He noticed Pal backed up to
the tree, but of dogs he had no fear. It was the wolf upon whom his
battery was turned. Pal, at sight of the newcomer, backed discreetly
away and then fled for his life. The wolf, however, was not so
fortunate, for, before he saw his mistake, he had leaped. In his effort
to save himself he turned a complete backward somersault and wallowed
upon the snow, his eyes smarting and blinded and his lungs gasping for
breath. A moment later he was racing away in a vain endeavor to escape
from himself, while the skunk returned to his den quite unshaken by the
A few nights after the skunk's little affair with the timber wolf he
returned to the clearing from which he had purloined the fat duck. Much
to his disappointment he found the building protected against
four-footed marauders and, though the same enticing odour drifted to
his nostrils, he was unable to gratify his appetite. In the course of
his wanderings he discovered a small structure with latticed front, in
which was a good-sized opening. The skunk walked up indifferently and
looked within; then his eyes brightened and he stepped quickly inside
to procure the chicken's head lying in a corner. As he did so, he heard
a click behind him and jumped back, only to find his retreat cut off by
a board which had fallen into place across the opening. The big skunk
was a prisoner.
Vainly he sought a loophole. There was none. Having assured himself
of this fact, he turned to the chicken head which had been his undoing,
and calmly devoured it. Then he settled himself at the front of the box
to wait, manifesting little of the anxiety usually shown by a trapped
Early the next morning the farmer's boy, on his way to feed the
poultry, discovered the captive. My, he's a beauty! the boy said
aloud, gazing in admiration at the skunk's thick, glossy fur. That
pelt ought to bring a good price, but I believe I'll see if I can tame
Thus the life of the big skunk was saved, at least for the time
being. Although the boy made many friendly advances, the animal told
him in plain language, Hands off! With an air of condescension he
would accept the choice morsels brought to him, but if a hand were
thrust through the bars, at once would come his warning. And the farm
boy, who understood skunks, never forced his attentions.
It was thus that matters stood when one day the skunk had a new
visitor. The animal had just finished his dinner and was busy cleaning
his fur when a small hand was thrust between the bars of his prison and
a voice said, coaxingly, Pretty kitty!
The skunk paused to stare at this person who was unquestionably a
human being, yet who was so very small. Surely here was no enemy. The
big skunk sniffed daintily at the hand. It was a very small hand and,
as it stroked his soft fur, the animal crowded closer. The baby laughed
delightedly and thrust her hand through the bars as far as possible.
Then she worked at the fastening of the cage door until she succeeded
in wriggling her small body through. There she was, inside the cage
with her new playmate.
Thus her mother found her when, a half hour later, she rounded a
corner of the house in a search for the runaway. The woman turned pale
and with a cry snatched the child away, never stopping until what she
considered a safe distance had been placed between them and the skunk.
She sniffed suspiciously and was astonished to find that not the
slightest odour adhered to the child's garments, for the skunk, as is
the way of his kind, was scrupulously clean about his person.
The baby refused to be separated from her pet and, when it was found
that the skunk meant no harm, but seemed, on the contrary, quite happy
in her company, she was permitted to play with him to her heart's
content. Sometimes with a string around his neck she led him about the
clearing and, though the big animal could easily have broken away, he
made no effort to do so. He was fed with good things until his gait
became an undignified waddle. Moreover he loved the petting which was
lavished upon him by this small backwoods maiden.
One day after a week of intense cold, during which the baby was
confined to the house and the skunk to the warmest corner of his box,
the two companions were again abroad, the skunk as usual being led
happily along. The baby's wanderings took her farther and farther from
the house until, upon rounding the corner of the poultry house which
overlooked the lonely pasture, she suddenly found herself face to face
with a gaunt, gray timber wolf.
She did not scream, but stood as if rooted to the spot. Both were
surprised but the wolf was the first to recover. He was starving and
here was food close at hand, to be had for the taking. His eyes flamed
as he crouched for the spring. Still the child stood, unable to move,
her eyes fixed as if fascinated on the savage ones so near.
It was a tense moment but the tragedy was averted by the big skunk.
With banner unfurled he stepped between the wolf and his prey. One
moment the wolf glared at the small black and white animal, whom he
remembered only too well. The blood lust quickly faded from his eyes,
replaced by a great fear. The next moment, with tail between his legs,
he was in full retreat, running as he had never run before, while the
child rushed screaming to the house.
The big skunk stood where they had left him, looking across the
snowy pasture. The sight of the ridge with its group of birch trees and
the gray rocks of the pasture recalled the memory of his old free life,
and of the den where he had slept so snugly. His weeks of pampered life
seemed to fall from him as if they had not been. Without a backward
glance he crossed the pasture and vanished over the ridge, the white
string trailing behind, the only link remaining between him and the
life of the settlements.