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The Haunter of the Trail by Zoe Meyer

 

Toward the close of an early autumn day the Hermit might have been seen leaning comfortably against an angle of the old rail fence, pleasantly engaged in doing nothing. At his feet lay a bundle of freshly dug roots, the rich forest mold still adhering to their leathery, brown surfaces. At his back stretched an upland pasture covered with coarse brown grass and dotted with clumps of jumper and wild berry-bushes; before him lay the wilderness, the golden tints of birch and poplar and the scarlet of maples in sharp contrast with the dark green of pine and spruce.

The Hermit was puzzled. On several occasions when harvesting in the woods, he had become conscious of being watched by unfriendly eyes, yet when he turned there was nothing to be seen, save perhaps an inquisitive chickadee or a squirrel peeping at him from behind a tree trunk. That very afternoon, while digging his roots, he had experienced the unpleasant sensation and, stopping his work, had searched the forest all about him. Yet, a little later, the feeling had returned, and Pal had growled deep in his throat, the hair along his back bristling defiantly. The dog, however, did not leave his master and after a moment of silent waiting the Hermit had turned again to his work, resolutely dismissing the matter from his mind.

Now, as he leaned against the fence looking back toward the forest, he resolved to visit it again the following afternoon for the sole purpose of seeking out this mysterious haunter of his trail. In the mean time the shadows were growing long and a number of tasks were still to be done, so he picked up his roots, whistled to Pal, who was investigating a woodchuck hole, and turned his face homeward.

The next afternoon the Hermit entered the wilderness alone, for he wanted no excitable small dog to balk his quest. Seating himself comfortably with his back against a log and partly screened by a thicket of young alders, he waited motionless. A deep hush seemed to clothe the forest as in a garment. All about him rose great trees, their branches shutting out the sunlight and making a mysterious green dimness.

For a long time nothing unusual appeared and the Hermit grew impatient, half believing that his experience had been but a trick of the imagination. He had just about made up his mind to abandon the quest when suddenly he caught his breath, thankful that he had not stirred. He was aware of neither sound nor motion, yet not many paces distant stood a tawny, gray-brown animal whose round, moon-like face, pale savage eyes and tufted ears proclaimed it to be a lynx, or, as it is more commonly known in the backwoods settlements, a lucivee.

The animal stood a trifle over twenty inches in height, his hind legs somewhat longer than his front ones, giving him a queer, humped-up appearance. His feet were huge, furry pads which could tread a cracking forest floor as silently as shadows; his eyes beneath the tassels of stiff dark hair glowed with a pale fire, giving the beast a most sinister appearance. Save for the nervous twitching of his stubby tail, the lucivee stood as motionless as the trees about him.

As the wind was blowing toward him, the Hermit felt sure that the lynx was not yet aware of his presence. He was glad of this, as it would give him an opportunity to study the beast. The attention of the lynx was directed elsewhere, and even the ears of the man, dull in comparison with those of the wild creature, gradually became aware of a faint rustling which grew momentarily louder. The animal drifted behind a tree where he melted into the shadows and became invisible. The effect was uncanny and the Hermit ceased to wonder that he had been unable to catch a glimpse of this haunter of his trail.

Now the rustling sound grew louder and, turning his eyes, the Hermit beheld a strange spectacle. Coming slowly between the trees was something which resembled a huge burr covered with brown leaves. The Hermit stared for a moment, scarce believing the evidence of his eyes; then, as the queer object came nearer, his face relaxed in a broad grin. The apparition was Kagh, the porcupine, who had apparently been enjoying a nap in a bed of dry leaves which had adhered thickly to his spiky covering. He was indeed an odd looking object as he blundered along. The Hermit had much ado to keep from chuckling aloud, especially as he watched the lynx who seemed interested but altogether puzzled. The animal peered out from behind the tree trunk, round eyes fixed unwaveringly upon this stranger who advanced, calmly indifferent to the scrutiny.

As the porcupine passed, the lynx came cautiously forth from his concealment and padded after him, his curiosity still unsatisfied. Kagh had not gone far when some whim caused him to turn about as if to retrace his steps. The lucivee was close behind, but with a motion like the bounding of a rubber ball he quickly vacated the spot and again stood peering from behind a tree.

And now the Hermit witnessed an amusing performance. Some strange freak seemed to possess the porcupine, for he slowly circled the tree behind which the lynx crouched, stopping every few steps to sniff at the bark or to peer up into the branches. For a moment the big cat held his ground, but the sight of the queer apparition bearing down upon him was too much for his high-strung nerves. With a snarl he scrambled up the tree, where he crouched upon a branch, glaring down at the animated leaf-pile. Kagh shambled around the tree, his nose to the ground as if hunting for something. Then he continued on his placid way, disappearing down the gray vista of the forest, apparently ignorant of the fact that there was a lucivee in the woods.

[Illustration: He crouched upon a branch, glaring down at the animated leaf-pile.]

A sudden puff of wind now carried the scent of the man to the crouching lynx. By a stiffening of the animal's muscles the Hermit knew that his presence had been detected. As the branch was close enough to bring the cat within springing distance, he deemed it time to assert himself. Accordingly, he sprang to his feet with a shout, while the lynx, horrified at the sudden clamor, dropped to the ground. Shrinking off into the shadows the lucivee vanished as completely as if swallowed up by the earth.

The setting sun was casting long shadows among the trees and the air was fast growing chill with the coming of night when the Hermit climbed the rail fence into his clearing, to be met by an enthusiastic Pal. The man had learned what it was that had been haunting his trail and, his mind at rest, he felt no further uneasiness. He did not believe that the lynx would attack him, at least while food was abundant. Though he rarely carried a gun, he always bore his mattock or something which could be used as a weapon in case of need.

The big cat, too, had come to know all he desired of the man whose footsteps he had been dogging for days. His savage nature craved the deeper solitudes and the next evening found him journeying northward, away from the settlements with their danger from men and guns. Wood mice were plentiful and once the lynx caught a deer, dropping upon it from an overhanging branch. In this feast he was joined by another lynx, smaller but more savage, and thereafter the two traveled together, selecting their home among the ledges of a heavily wooded country.

Autumn passed. The wild geese drifted southward in search of open waterways, and the moon of snowshoes was ushered in. For days a fierce storm raged, the keen wind lashing the branches of the forest trees and piling the drifts deep. Few indeed of the forest folk ventured abroad, most of them keeping to their dens until the storm should pass. When the sun again appeared, it shone upon a world of pure, glistening white, where the frost particles in the air sparkled like diamond dust.

Hunger drove the creatures forth, and by evening the snow was interlaced with their innumerable trails. The bigger lynx emerged from his dark den high up under an overhanging ledge, stretched himself and yawned mightily, then set off in search of a meal. For a long time he was unsuccessful. The creatures were shy and frightened by their own shadows upon this white coverlet which made the night woods almost as light as day. The lynx was obliged to be content with a rabbit caught at the edge of a snow drift, though his fierce appetite craved stronger food.

Weeks passed and the plight of the forest creatures grew steadily worse. Icy gales swept down from the far north, following each other in rapid succession and making it impossible for any forest creature to stir abroad, sometimes for days at a time. The lynxes grew steadily leaner and their temper more savage. Like gaunt shadows of doom they drifted down the snowy aisles of the forest, now and then coming upon a grouse, which had burrowed into a drift for the night, only to find itself imprisoned by the freezing of the crust above. Even wood mice were difficult to obtain, though their runways branched everywhere deep down under the snow, which to them was a blessing. The nights were cold and still, lit by the great fan of the Aurora Borealis which pulsed upward to the zenith, glowing with its ever-changing colors—delicate green fading into violet and blue, flaming redly or dying away in a pure white light.

About this time the female lynx met her fate in an encounter with a fat porcupine who dawdled across her trail. The sight of good eating so tantalizingly near caused her to lose all caution. With her long claws she endeavored to turn the porcupine over that she might reach his unprotected under parts. In her eagerness, however, she forgot the barbed tail which dealt her a smashing blow, full in the face. One of the quills mercifully penetrated the brain and at once put an end to the painful struggles. Thus the male lynx was left to walk the trails alone, but in spite of the odds against him, he succeeded in holding his own.

The beginning of March saw no break in the intense cold. In fact, March in the wilderness is the most bitter month of the winter. Food is reduced to a minimum and the survivors of cold and hunger are exceedingly wary.

One night when the moon, far off in a cloudless sky, sent pale fingers of mysterious light creeping down the dark forest lanes, the surviving lynx appeared in his endless search for food, his huge pads making no sound as he kept himself cunningly concealed among the shifting shadows. The hush of death brooded over the frozen forest, a hush in which the scratching of a dry leaf across the icy snow crust could be plainly heard for some distance. Occasionally the silence was broken by a loud report from some great tree.

The lynx drifted on, seeking vainly for food to stay his fierce appetite. Suddenly he crouched close to the ground, startled, as a weird, hollow cry rang out just above him. It was the voice of doom for many smaller creatures but not for the lynx. As the great owl drifted by on soundless wings, the animal snarled but went on his way.

At length he paused again to listen. Far away a mournful howl rose on the still air and died away, only to be taken up by another and another. At the sound the hair bristled upon the back of the listener. It was the cry of the wolf pack.

Now the lynx hesitated, uncertain whether to ignore the sound or to make good his escape. Since game had become scarce the wolves had taken to hunting the lynxes. For a single wolf the big cat felt little fear, but he realized that he would be no match for them hunting in packs. Accordingly, much against his will, he turned back toward the den, stopping occasionally to listen, the tassels of dark hairs upon his ears standing stiffly erect and his pale eyes gleaming fiercely.

It soon became apparent that the pack was coming rapidly closer and in another moment had caught the scent. On they came, silent and swift, until they sighted their quarry among the trees. Then they broke into full cry. The lynx, knowing that he could not hope to escape them upon the ground, hastily scrambled up a tree where, crouching upon a limb, he glared down at his enemies.

Maddened at the escape of their quarry, the wolves circled the tree with snapping jaws, leaping as far upward as possible, only to fall back among their fellows. Their eyes gleamed red, but the lynx, safe on his branch high above, felt only disdain. He knew that they could not reach him.

The moon sank out of sight, leaving the forest in darkness, but still the wolf pack kept watch beneath the tree, moving restlessly but always alert. In the east the darkness paled and the sky became gradually suffused with pink. The lynx thought that daylight would see the end of his imprisonment, but though a few of the pack slunk away, enough remained on guard to make a descent from the tree extremely hazardous.

Soon after sunrise, however, easier game was sighted and those beneath the tree at once joined the chase, leaving the lynx free to stretch his cramped muscles and descend from his perch. That morning he was fortunate in finding the half-devoured carcass of a doe which a panther had killed and left unguarded, and he ate greedily of the life-giving food. His fur had grown ragged and his sides gaunt with hunger, but after this satisfying meal new life and courage seemed to flow into his veins.

For some reason the panther did not return to its kill and the flesh of the deer kept the lynx in food for several days. All too soon, however, it was gone, and starvation again stared him in the face. Then he remembered the settlements, with their many dangers, but also with their promise of food. So he drifted southward and found a new den not far from the edge of the wilderness.

Thus it was that, late one afternoon, as the Hermit and Pal were returning to the cabin after a tramp through the woods, the dog became suddenly uneasy and the man again experienced the unpleasant sensation of hostile eyes staring at him. Not caring to have darkness overtake him in the woods, unarmed as he was, he whistled to Pal and went steadily on, watchful but unafraid. The lynx, from the shadows of the trees, watched him hungrily, longing to attack the small, harmless-looking animal but afraid of the man.

Day after day the lucivee watched for a time when the dog might follow the trail alone, but the Hermit did not permit Pal to wander off unaccompanied, and he was careful to arm himself on his infrequent trips into the forest. Though he was often aware of the presence of the lynx, he caught only one glimpse of him, a dim gray shadow among the grayer shadow of the woods. The animal hunted wide. He would occasionally grow so bold as to approach the outlying farms under cover of darkness, and make a raid upon a sheep-pen. This was always sure to bring pursuit, and after the lynx had received a painful flesh wound he grew wary of the abode of man.

Thus the days passed, sometimes marked by plenty, but more often by hunger, until at last the winter came to an end, as even the longest winter must do. When the wild geese returned to their northern breeding places and food grew more abundant, the lynx, too, turned his face to the vast solitudes, far from the dangers of the settlements. With him far away, Pal was once more allowed the freedom of the trails, while his master, about his work in the woods, was no longer aware of that grim, unseen haunter of his footsteps.

 
 
 

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