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Brown Brother by Zoe Meyer

 

For some distance the silvery thread of the Little Vermilion crept between low banks lined with half-grown fir and spruce, and clumps of wild cherry, through which the sunlight sifted to the ground in innumerable flecks of light and shadow. On the north bank, in the densest part of the thicket, lay a fawn, his dappled coat like a garment of invisibility against the sun-flecked background of brown leaves. The little animal lay as motionless as the mossy old log at his back, but the brown eyes looked out upon the forest world with wonder and keen interest.

Suddenly the sensitive ears came forward at the crackling of a twig and the fawn half rose to his feet. The newcomer was not the mother deer, however, and the fawn shrank noiselessly back, though he continued to watch with interest. He had never seen a man before and the sight filled him with wonder.

[Illustration: Instantly the fawn thrust out his delicate muzzle and licked the outstretched hand.]

The Hermit, with his bag of roots on his back, would have passed by unheeding had not a troublesome gnat crept into the fawn's nostril, causing him to sneeze. The faint sound caught the man's keen ear and, like one of the wilderness folk, he instantly became immovable, every sense alert. His glance at once sought the thicket, but it was several moments before he saw the fawn, so closely did the little animal's colors blend with the background. The man found himself staring into a pair of great, appealing brown eyes, wide with interest but containing no fear.

Very slowly, pausing at every step, the Hermit moved forward until he stood close to the little creature. Then he stretched forth his hand. Instantly the fawn thrust out his delicate muzzle and licked the outstretched hand, finding it very palatable with its faint taste of salt. The Hermit then drew from his pocket a lump of sugar which the fawn eagerly devoured, nosing about for more.

As the Hermit sat on the end of the log, gently stroking the velvety ears of the fawn who nestled confidingly against him, he suddenly became aware of another figure in this little woodland scene. Looking up he encountered the gaze of a pair of great brown eyes, wide with terror. The doe had returned to find her baby being fondled by one of the dreaded man-creatures, a sight which caused her to tremble in every limb.

Instantly, with a hoarse cry of danger, she threw up her head and bounded away, her tail carried high, showing the white flag as a signal to the little one to follow. From the time a fawn comes into the world he learns to obey this signal and now, instinctively, he sprang to his feet. Then the Hermit held out his hand and the fawn stopped perplexed. Again came the warning cry but the little animal was licking the man's palm and made no movement to obey.

The Hermit felt a thrill of pride at the trust shone in him by this beautiful woodland creature. He was sorely tempted to prolong the pleasure of the moment but, knowing that the fawn's life might some day depend upon his instant response to the doe's signal, he felt that he had no right to allow the little creature to remain. Accordingly, with a last pat he sprang to his feet, clapping his hands sharply. Fear leaped at once into the brown eyes which had been raised so trustingly to his, and the Hermit felt a stab of pain at the sight; yet, knowing that trust in mankind is scarcely an asset to a fawn, he hardened his heart and said aloud, “Go, little Brown Brother. Never desert the flag.”

At sound of his voice the fawn bounded away, his own flag raised, and the man had the satisfaction of seeing the doe join him and lead the way into the wilderness, their progress marked now and then by a flash of white in the green gloom.

Brown Brother grew fast and soon became wise in the ways of the wilderness. He learned when to lie still and trust to his peculiar marking and color to remain invisible, and when to rely upon his long legs to carry him away from danger. And in spite of the enemies all about him his life was far from being one of fear.

Once, as the mother deer and her small companion roamed the woods together, a fawn not much older than Brown Brother ran up to them and nestled tremblingly against the doe. At the same instant there sounded the crackling of a twig and away the three bounded, keeping together and never stopping until the invisible danger was left behind. The lonely orphan became one of the family, following the doe as if she had been his own mother.

Late one afternoon as the three were drinking from a clear forest stream, they were joined by a lordly buck, his antlers bristling like a thicket, each point needle-sharp. At once he took command of the little herd, showing them the best feeding grounds and protecting them from danger. One night he led them southward to the very edge of the wilderness. Immediately before them a low stone wall bordered a garden patch, the rows of peas and beans and round heads of cabbage bathed in the bright moonlight.

The low wall was no obstacle, even to the fawns. With graceful leaps they cleared it and found themselves in a land of plenty. They sampled everything, but soon came back to the long rows of peas, sweet and tender in their green pods. Here they gorged themselves until the first light of day appeared, when they returned to the wilderness, leaving the garden a sorry sight indeed.

The next night the enraged farmer lay in wait with a gun but the wily old buck knew better than to return to the same place. He again led his family southward, but this time they left the wilderness at a point several miles east of the spot where the man lay in wait.

Here they paused at an old rail fence to stare curiously at a cabin bathed in the moonlight, and a much smaller cabin set upon the top of a tall pole. The old buck sniffed the wind suspiciously. As no danger seemed to threaten, he decided upon a closer investigation and led the others a short distance along the fence which terminated in another low stone wall. The next moment they were stepping daintily between the Hermit's rows of beets, stopping here and there to browse upon anything that took their fancy.

Perhaps the Hermit's garden also would have suffered greatly, had not Pal soon discovered the visitors and advanced upon them barking shrilly. The buck lowered his head and pawed the ground threateningly, inclined to defend his position and his herd, while the dog paused uncertainly before the bristling array. His continued barking soon aroused his master who leaped from his hammock and hurriedly rounded the corner of the cabin.

At the appearance of the man the buck's courage deserted him. He knew men and their far-reaching instrument of death and he did not stop to argue even the question of fresh vegetables. Instead, he presented the flag of truce and his little family lost no time in following his example. Only Brown Brother hesitated. Between the rows of beets his tongue had come into contact with the handle of a hoe. The Hermit had that day been using the hoe and his hands, damp with perspiration, had left a faint suggestion of salt upon the handle.

The taste recalled to the mind of the fawn a long forgotten impression. His rough tongue caressed the handle, then he looked up, vaguely troubled. The Hermit, seeing the deer and hoping that it was his old friend, called Pal to heel and advanced slowly with outstretched hand. Brown Brother trembled but stood his ground. It is impossible to say whether or not the old association would have held him, for while the Hermit was yet several yards away, a hoarse warning sounded from the darkness beyond the fence. The sound seemed to release a spring, for instantly the fawn bounded away, his white flag raised, and joined the others in the safety of the wilderness.

Providence was kind to the buck and his family and in spite of their many enemies late autumn found them still together. Through October, the hunters' month, when the law permits the shooting of males, they all grew exceedingly wary. The sound of a gun in the still forest would send them fleeing swiftly and tirelessly toward the denser coverts to the north.

Now Brown Brother heard the whining of the wind among the branches and he would pause to look up wonderingly at their swaying tops. Woodchucks, so fat from their summer feeding that it seemed as if their coats must split, were locating their winter homes where they might sleep comfortably during the cold months. Often during the night a wedge of flying geese went honking over the forest, driven south by Arctic gales.

The first snow came drifting down like white feathers from some giant flock of birds, falling softly among the spruce and hemlock and covering the wilderness with a carpet that left a tell-tale record of every foot which crossed its smooth expanse. And as the face of the wilderness changed, its inhabitants, also, changed. Some went into hiding for the cold months; others, fierce beasts such as the wolf and wildcat, simply donned warmer coats; still others, notably the hare and the ptarmigan, weaker and therefore in greater danger during the months of famine, put on coats of white which made them almost indistinguishable against the snowy background of the forest.

The snow found the herd of deer, under command of the big buck, heading northward to the country of evergreens. Here, deep in a balsam swamp, the winter “yard” was made, a labyrinth of intersecting paths leading to the best food supplies and providing safety and shelter for the deer. The fragrant balsam tips made excellent feeding and, by scraping away the snow, the herd found plenty of moss and lichens for browsing. Here they were quartered safe from all enemies, for though the deer were familiar with the winding paths, an enemy soon became bewildered in their many ramifications and was glad to get out alive without its dinner.

As the cold increased, the snow grew deeper. The paths were kept trodden to the ground and, sheltered between their warm banks, the deer did not suffer from the cutting winds. Food was still plentiful, though the lower branches of the hemlocks had been stripped and the tender tips had long since been devoured.

One night in midwinter Brown Brother, in spite of the safety of his fortress, had a narrow escape. The herd had wandered to the edge of the yard where they stood looking out across the great lonely barrens. The snow was deep and soft and the deer knew better than to venture forth. With their tiny, sharp hoofs they would have floundered helplessly at every step, and so become an easy prey to the first enemy that came along.

The wind had died away with the setting of the sun, and the night was very still. Across the barrens a faint tinge of green appeared upon the horizon, spreading outward like a great fan across the sky, changing from green to violet and from violet to pink, while great flaming streamers spread upward to the zenith, pulsating as if with life. It was a magnificent display of the Northern Lights and the little herd stood like black statues in the glow.

There they remained, staring out across the vast expanse of snow, until suddenly the buck threw up his head and stamped a warning. Immediately the herd came to attention; then, silent as shadows, they turned and vanished along their sheltering paths—all save Brown Brother. Alert but curious, he paused to see for himself what had alarmed the leader. The next moment a lean, tawny beast launched itself toward him and only his extreme quickness saved his life. Like the wind he fled down the path in the direction which the herd had taken, the hungry panther close behind. Upon rounding a corner, he gave a sudden leap which carried him over the intervening wall of snow into the next path, where after several turnings he found the rest of the herd and knew that he was safe. The panther paused, bewildered, at the spot where the trail ended abruptly and the fugitive seemed to have vanished into thin air. He sniffed hungrily about, then turned and slunk back the way he had come, his stomach still empty and his temper boding ill for any unfortunate whose trail he might cross.

As the long winter dragged on, food became more scarce. The ground had been cropped clean of lichens and moss and it was necessary to reach high for the balsam twigs. The doe and fawns would have fared ill had not the buck helped them by bending down the higher branches which only he could reach. As it was, their sides grew lean and their skin hung loosely upon them. In March the big buck shed his antlers, leaving them lying upon the snow where the fawns sniffed curiously at them.

At length the cold was broken, and when the drifts began to shrink together and fill the streams to overflowing, the herd left the yard, glad to be free once more. The buck, shorn of his lordly headdress, craved solitude and wandered away by himself. Soon afterward the doe, too, disappeared, leaving the fawns to shift for themselves. Though lonely at first, they soon recovered their spirits and rejoiced in the freedom of the woods after the narrow confines of the yard, and in the abundance of food which appeared everywhere. Some weeks later the doe reappeared, accompanied by a wobbly, long-legged fawn, its dappled coat giving the effect of sunlight sifting through a leafy screen of branches. At times the herd could be found together, but more often Brown Brother and the orphan wandered off, each by himself.

That summer Brown Brother grew his first antlers. Mere prongs they were, but the deer felt very proud of them as he carefully rubbed off the velvet. He often visited alone the gardens of the farmers at the edge of the wilderness. Sometimes in the dark hours before the dawn he went close to the cabin of the Hermit, drawn, it seemed, simply by curiosity. Occasionally at his harvesting in the forest the Hermit would look up to find himself regarded by a pair of great brown eyes. At such times he would assume his old position, standing perfectly still with outstretched hand, his eyes narrowed to mere slits lest they make the wild thing uneasy.

The animal, also, would stand immovable for a moment; then training would conquer curiosity and, with a snort of fear, he would bound gracefully away, his white flag gleaming occasionally between the trees until the animal was lost to sight. One day the Hermit left a lump of sugar upon the log beside which he had been standing and, secreting himself at a safe distance, waited. As he had hoped, the deer returned, eagerly licked up the sweet morsel and nosed about for more. After that the Hermit made it a practice, upon sighting the deer, to leave a bit of salt or sugar in a conspicuous place. The animal would invariably return to it. And so the Hermit was content to have their friendship rest, never attempting to force himself upon the wary but courageous animal.

The summer that Brown Brother attained his first full set of antlers a forest fire devastated a great section of the wilderness to the northward. The animals fled in terror before it, lynx and deer, fox and rabbit, side by side, all personal feuds forgotten in the great common danger. Many perished, overtaken by the flames which, fanned by a brisk wind from the north, traveled with lightning-like rapidity. It had been weeks since rain had fallen upon the forest and the underbrush was like tinder. Great trees became in an instant towers of flame as the fire roared onward like a living thing. The animals, their fur singed by sparks and their eyes red and smarting with smoke, sought the water holes, the strong shouldering the weak aside to get the best places, great fierce animals, once the terror of the forest, whimpering like frightened cubs.

For days the air about the cabin of the Hermit had been hazy and had carried the faint scent of smoke, which grew ever thicker. By day the sun shone red through the haze and at night the dark sky above the forest to the north alternately glowed and dulled as with the pulsations of the Aurora.

The farmers had dug wide fire guards about their clearings and kept cloths saturated with water ready for instant use. The Hermit no longer took trips far into the forest, but remained near the cabin, Pal always trotting uneasily at his heels. Like his neighbors, the Hermit watched and hoped for a change in the wind, which would be the only means of saving their homes.

Early one morning, as he was preparing his breakfast, a slight noise at the door caused him to look up. There, framed in the doorway, stood a noble buck, its great antlers proclaiming it a king of its kind. For a moment the two gazed at each other; then the Hermit held out his hand. At the movement the deer backed away, blowing out his breath gustily. The Hermit laid a lump of sugar upon the doorsill and stepped back.

Brown Brother, for it was he, looked at the sugar a moment, then advanced warily but with a certain dignity, and daintily accepted the offering. The Hermit did not force his advantage, but did everything in his power to gain the confidence of the noble beast which had been driven by the fire to his protection.

“The forest fire brought me one blessing, anyway, didn't it, Brown Brother?” the Hermit said softly, as he watched the buck eagerly drinking from a pail of water which he had thought to provide. Pal, strange to say, paid scant attention to the deer. Something in the heavy atmosphere seemed to weigh upon his spirits, for he crowded close upon the heels of his master. When the man seated himself the dog crept between his knees.

Then suddenly the wind veered, blowing strongly from the west and bringing with it the rain. The fire was checked while yet many miles from the border of the wilderness and was soon extinguished, leaving blackened ground and bare, charred trees to show where it had passed.

With the rain and the fresh air, once more free of smoke, new strength seemed to flow into the veins of humans and animals alike. Pal took a new interest in life and once more roamed about by himself. Brown Brother returned to the forest, stepping with the dignity which befitted the position he was soon to hold as leader of a herd.

 
 
 

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