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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 his head.

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 encounter.

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 wild animal.

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 him.”

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.

 
 
 

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