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Silver Spot by Zoe Meyer

 

Near the southern border of the wilderness the aisles of lofty spruce give place to second-growth birch, maple and ash, and these in turn to wild meadows and stump lots. The country is rugged, broken here and there by upthrusts of gray rock. Protruding ledges shelter dark caves, and protect their moss-carpeted entrances from sun and wind. Dense thickets of pawpaw, hazel and wild cherry offer coverts for the shy and furtive kindred of the forest: goggle-eyed rabbits, restless as wind-blown leaves; mice, with their intricate system of runways among the grass roots; slow-moving porcupines, prickly as huge sandburs; and occasionally a stately buck or savage-eyed Canada lynx.

In such a country, in a cleverly concealed den about a mile from the Hermit's cabin, Silver Spot was born. A projecting ledge, crowned with hazel brush, concealed the mouth of the den which looked out upon a small mossy clearing, sloping warmly toward the rising sun. It was an ideal location, for, though it lay so near the outposts of civilization, no human foot had ever trodden the spot until the Hermit discovered it quite by accident one day while harvesting a store of golden seal, a root of great value in the drug market.

Drawn by the peace and seclusion of this shadowy, green world, he laid aside his mattock and wandered to the edge of the hazel thicket. Thinking the spot a likely one for a fox den, he parted the bushes and, as noiselessly as one of the forest creatures, crept forward until he could look into the mossy clearing under the ledge. He had been there but a moment when out into the sunshine rolled a furry ball which, upon dissolving, proved to be three sturdy fox cubs. For a moment they sat on their tails, blinking in the sunlight; then, as if at a signal, they rose upon their haunches and began a good-natured rough and tumble, biting and clawing as they rolled over and over on the moss.

All were appealing, as are young animals at play the world over, but to one the Hermit's eyes turned in admiration again and again. He was larger than the others, with a snowy white spot on breast and tail. His movements were quick and sure and, though he still possessed some of the awkwardness of the kitten, he showed every indication of making a splendid animal when grown.

[Illustration: A full grown fox stood motionless in the sunlight, a rabbit hanging limply from her jaws.]

In his study of the wild creatures of the forest the Hermit had learned a valuable art, that of keeping still. Assuming a comfortable position with his back against a tree, he let himself blend into his background of green and brown until even the keen eyes of the forest people were deceived. A chickadee regarded him inquisitively from a branch over his head, talking softly to itself the while; a rabbit, hopping by on some apparently urgent business, came upon the motionless figure, stopped suddenly and then, as the Hermit did not move, went on indifferently. It was a busy and interesting world, but the attention of the man was upon the fox cubs.

Suddenly the play came to a halt as all eyes turned toward the thicket on the opposite side of the little clearing. Following their gaze, the man saw a full grown fox standing motionless in the sunlight, a rabbit hanging limply from her jaws. Now a singular thing happened. The cubs, who had made a wild dash toward the mother, stopped abruptly, stood an instant, and then, silent as little shadows, vanished into the dark cave. So far as the Hermit could observe, the mother fox had made no sound, yet some communication had passed from her to the cubs and they had instantly and unquestioningly obeyed. The mother stood a moment longer, alert but unmoving; then, instead of entering the den, she slipped away. The Hermit caught a glimpse of her circling the thicket suspiciously, so, not wishing to alarm her unnecessarily, he stole quietly away, leaving her free to return to the cubs.

Almost daily he paid a visit to the den, keeping well out of sight but becoming more and more interested in the big cub that he had named Silver Spot. Often, as he waited, the mother fox would return with food, and before many days she appeared to become accustomed to the motionless figure among the hazel bushes, for she no longer sent the cubs to the den with her silent warning.

The meal finished, she would lie down in the warm sunshine and let the cubs play rough and tumble games about her, such as those of puppies or kittens. Worrying her plumy tail and tobogganing from her back seemed to be favorite pastimes with two of the cubs. Silver Spot had a mind of his own and would sometimes wander alone to the edge of the clearing, his attitude expressing intense interest in the world beyond. He never went farther, however, for his mother, apparently engrossed in the play of the others, would suddenly raise her head and look intently at the big cub, who would at once return to the family circle. The Hermit could but wonder at the perfect understanding which needed no sound audible to human ears.

The cubs grew fast, but Silver Spot outstripped the others. His fur grew long and thick and glossy, his brush magnificent. His trim, pointed ears allowed nothing to escape his active brain. The family, when grown, soon separated, but Silver Spot, much to the satisfaction of the Hermit, remained near the home den. Occasionally Pal, in his private explorations into the edge of the forest, would take up the trail of the fox. At such a time it would have been difficult to decide which animal more enjoyed the chase, the dog or the big fox.

Silver Spot possessed an abundant share of that alertness and sagacity necessary to a fox or any other animal in the wilderness. He did not fear the dog, but seemed to enjoy making the trail as complicated as possible, while Pal, nose to the ground, would patiently follow its intricacies. Solemnly the fox would trot around in a large circle, then, leaping as far to one side as possible, would saunter off with an amusing air of indifference, pausing to listen for mice or rabbits. Later, round and round in the circle would go the dog until, becoming aware of the deceit practised upon him, he would range the neighborhood until he struck the scent. Often the fox doubled on his trail. From a ridge some distance away he would sit down and watch his puzzled pursuer, who was always “it” in this game of tag.

One day, from a slight elevation, the Hermit followed the course of such a race as well as was possible in the heavy forest. Pal had profited by his experience and was, the Hermit concluded, giving Silver Spot a stiff run. As the man stood leaning comfortably against a tree, though he had caught no glimpse of the fox, he could hear the dog coming rapidly nearer. Then suddenly Silver Spot, with the lightness of a wind-blown leaf, drifted into view a few paces away among the trees. He paused at sight of the man. As the beast stood, alert and graceful, one paw daintily lifted, with no sign of fear in the eyes which questioned the motionless figure, he made a picture which the Hermit carried in his mind for many a day.

From his brief survey the fox evidently decided that the intruder was quite harmless and consequently uninteresting. Though the dog was hot on his trail, Silver Spot paused a moment longer to give an unhurried look about him. A little to one side lay a tree which, in falling, had lodged among the branches of its neighbor. At a point where it was raised about four feet from the ground Silver Spot leaped upon it and thence into the middle of a little forest stream beneath. In another moment he had disappeared, keeping to the water which he well knew would leave no tell-tale scent.

He was scarcely out of sight when the dog appeared, passing his master as unheedingly as if the latter had been a part of the tree against which he leaned. At the foot of the inclined trunk Pal stopped, plainly puzzled. No trace of the alluring scent could he catch, though he eagerly nosed all about the tree and even partly up the trunk. Not having the agility of the woodland creature, however, he could not proceed far enough to recapture the scent. So he was obliged to content himself with ranging the neighborhood in the hope of picking up the trail, a fruitless search from which he was at length recalled by the whistle of his master. And though the trail invariably ended in some such manner, Pal never seemed to weary of the chase.

As a rule a fox frequents a somewhat restricted territory in which, if he is strong enough, he rules supreme, driving away all trespassers. Silver Spot, however, was an unusual fox in many ways and often demonstrated his individuality by wandering far afield.

Late one afternoon, while ranging the woods several miles to the east of the home den, he paused beside a clear forest stream to drink. As he raised his head from the refreshing water, his alert ears caught a faint stir. Soundless as a shadow he melted into the bushes at his back just as a queer procession came into view. At the head, advancing with an air of slow dignity, walked a shining black animal with two broad white stripes down her back and fur so long that it rippled silkily in the breeze; behind, in a row, came five little ones, exact counterparts of their mother. Upon a flat stone at the edge of the stream they all crouched for a drink. Silver Spot did not offer to molest them, but watched curiously as, their thirst quenched, they again took up their slow march. He even followed at a discreet distance, watching the youngster who brought up the rear and who often had to be hustled back into the line from which his curiosity had led him.

Night found Silver Spot in an upland pasture at the edge of the forest, a place of black stumps and thickets of juniper and wild berries, silvered over with the radiance of the full moon. He drifted lightly across the pasture, alert for any adventure which the night might present, and brought up beside a rude building from which came an enticing odour. Silver Spot had not tasted chicken since, as a cub, he had rushed to meet his mother returning from a foraging expedition, but the recollection of the delicacy was still strong with him. He worked industriously, and before long dug out an entrance under the building. Then, before the plump hen which he had selected could wake and cry out, Silver Spot had killed her and was out and away. He traveled swiftly and, safe in his own den, enjoyed the feast.

Having acquired a taste for plump chicken, Silver Spot decided to revisit the henhouse the following evening. This time, however, his intentions were thwarted in a way which almost put an end to his career. Eyes other than those of the Hermit had been watching the growth of Silver Spot, eyes burning with greed when they looked upon his handsome coat. Fur such as this sold for much money in the city and the desire for money left no room for pity or admiration for the animal in the mind of the half-breed, Sam. He had bided his time, but now, though it was not the best time for furs, he dared wait no longer. Very soon he was to guide a party of hunters and fishermen far into the north, and he must take the fox now or never.

Most cunningly he had baited and concealed his trap, which had been purged by fire of all human touch. Then he had scented the ground all about with the carcass of a freshly killed chicken. Thus Silver Spot, the memory of his feast still upon him, caught the alluring scent. Swerving from his path, he was suddenly caught in the steel jaws which closed with an ugly click. The big fox was a prisoner, the victim of a trapper's greed.

He tore savagely at the thing which held him, straining every effort to gain his freedom, but without avail. The trap seemed only to close more tightly, cutting through fur and sinew, staining the ground red. At length, exhausted, he sank down in the leaves only to rise again and again to renew the struggle.

The hours dragged on. He was hungry and unbearably thirsty, with water only a few yards out of reach. His brave heart almost failed him, but as the darkness began to pale and the wilderness to waken, desperation gave him fresh courage. He set his sharp teeth upon the imprisoned foot and at last was free once more, two toes missing. He took a long drink from the stream before limping off to his den where morning found him licking his wound, thus cleansing it of all impurities and assuring a swift recovery.

A few hours later the half-breed visited his trap where his keen eyes read correctly the evidences of the night's struggle. Sorely disappointed, he returned to his cabin, save for the trap as empty-handed as he had left it.

For a time the big fox was lame, but nature soon healed the wound and he was able once more to roam the forest as free as the air itself. He had learned a lesson, however, and no trap could be so cleverly placed as to lead him into its cruel jaws. He paid no more visits to the farm in the clearing, but kept almost entirely to his own domain.

Late in the summer came a wet period when for days dark clouds hung over the wilderness and the rain fell steadily. When the sun did appear, scattering the clouds, the woods were soaked and dripping, and showers still fell from the heavy branches.

It was on such a day that a hunter with a pack of trained fox hounds entered the forest a mile to the west of Silver Spot's den. It was not long before the dogs had found the trail of the big fox and the chase was on, a chase destined to try the cunning and strength of the hunted to the breaking point.

At first the fox felt no anxiety. He thoroughly enjoyed mystifying a pursuer. Ordinarily in a straight-away run he could outdistance the fleetest foxhound. Now, however, even Nature seemed to conspire against him. He was soon drenched with spray. The water clung to his long fur, and his brush, usually carried blithely aloft, drooped heavily. In spite of all his tricks, circling and doubling, leaping from fallen trees and taking to the water, the hounds clung to his trail like bees to honey. Their deep baying sent the chill of fear to the staunch heart of Silver Spot. Realizing that here was no play such as he had indulged in with Pal, the Hermit's dog, he bent all his energies toward outstripping his pursuers.

For a time he kept well ahead of the dogs, but at length, as his old wound made itself felt, the pace began to tell upon him. His tail drooped lower until it all but swept the ground, while with it the courage of the fox seemed to fail. His breathing became labored. His foot-pads were cut by thorns and sharp sticks, leaving now and then a trace of blood upon the moss. He thought with longing of the home den which he was widely circling, but to which he dared not turn. With the pack in full cry, the hunted beast broke from cover at the edge of the wilderness where stood the cabin of the Hermit.

At once Silver Spot realized his mistake. Here in the open there was no means of avoiding the dogs, nor could he return to the woods. Even as he paused in despair, the leader of the pack burst into view, eyes gleaming savagely and cruel teeth bared. There was but one alternative and the fox took it.

Across the clearing the door of the log cabin stood open. For some time the Hermit had been following the course of the chase from his bench outside the door, his first feeling of exultation at the cunning and fleetness of his pet gradually giving place to uneasiness and then to genuine alarm for his safety. As Silver Spot came into view so closely pressed, the Hermit sprang to his feet, but the fox heeded him not. With a last effort he leaped the fence, sped across the clearing and through the door which the man closed in the very teeth of the foremost hound. The wild creature whom he had come to love had turned to him for sanctuary, and not in vain.

The hunt was over and, while the big fox crouched in the corner regaining his breath, the dogs raved unavailingly without. The hunter soon arrived upon the scene and coaxed and threatened, but the Hermit was firm. He told of his interest in the fox since the time he had found him, a furry cub, playing before the home den, and of how again and again he had watched him outwit his own dog. The hunter was at length won over and departed with his hounds, even going so far as to promise to hunt outside of Silver Spot's domain in the future.

The Hermit waited until man and dogs had vanished from sight; then he opened the door of the cabin and stood aside. There was a flash of reddish fur as Silver Spot bounded forth and away to the forest, his splendid brush once more aloft and new courage in his heart.

 
 
 

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