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The Call of the Spring by Zoe Meyer

 

As the days began to lengthen and the sun climbed higher, the forest country of the north stirred under the icy fetters that had bound it for long, weary months, during which the snow had drifted deep and famine had stalked the trails. Under the influence of a warm south wind the sunlit hours became musical with the steady drip, drip of melting snow, while new life seemed to flow in the veins of the forest creatures grown gaunt under the pinch of hunger. Only Kagh, the porcupine, had remained full fed, but Kagh had been unusually blessed by a kind Providence, in that every tree held a meal for him in its soft inner fibers.

It was yet too early to expect the final breaking up of winter. There would still be days when the cold would be intense and snow would drift in the trails. Nevertheless spring had called, and even the sluggish blood of the porcupine responded. Every day the earth's white mantle grew more frayed about the edges, leaving a faint tinge of green on warm southward slopes.

It was on one of these mild days that Mokwa, the black bear, shouldered aside the underbrush which concealed the mouth of the snug cave where he had hibernated, and stepped forth into the awakening world. Half blinded by the glare of sunlight upon the snow, he stood blinking in the doorway before he shambled down the slope to a great oak tree where a vigorous scratching among the snow and leaves brought to light a number of acorns. These he devoured greedily and, having crunched the last sweet morsel, sniffed eagerly about for more. Mokwa had fasted long, and now his appetite demanded more hearty fare than nuts and acorns.

The nights were chill, but each day brought a perceptible shrinking of the snowy mantle, leaving bare patches of wet, brown earth. One day Mokwa, breaking through a thick clump of juniper bushes, came out upon the bank of the Little Vermilion, its glassy surface as yet apparently unaffected by the thaw. For a moment the bear hesitated, his little near-sighted eyes searching the opposite bank and his nose sniffing the wind inquiringly; then, as if reassured, he stepped out upon the ice and made for the opposite shore.

On the surface the ice appeared solid enough, but in reality it was so honeycombed by the thaw that it threatened to break up at any moment and go out with a rush. Mokwa was in mid-stream when a slight tremor beneath his feet warned him of danger. He broke into a shuffling trot, but had gone only a few steps when, with a groaning and cracking which made the hair rise upon his back, the entire surface of the river seemed to heave. A great crack appeared just before him. With a frantic leap he cleared it, only to be confronted the next moment by a lane of rushing black water too wide for even his powerful muscles to bridge. Mokwa crouched down in the center of his ice cake, which was now being swept along in mid-stream with a rapidity which made him giddy. The weight of the bear helped to steady his queer craft, and unless it should strike another floating cake, Mokwa was in no immediate danger.

Thus he drifted for miles, while the banks seemed to glide swiftly to the rear and the stream grew gradually wider. At length a faint roar, growing louder every moment, caused Mokwa to stir uneasily as he peered ahead across the seething mass of black water and tumbling ice cakes. Suddenly his body stiffened and his eyes took on new hope. His cake had entered a side current which carried him near shore. Closer and closer drifted the great cakes all about him until at length, with a hoarse grinding, they met, piling one upon the other, but making a solid bridge from shore to shore. The jam lasted but a moment, but in that moment the bear leaped, as if on steel springs, and as the ice again drifted apart and swept on to the falls not far below, he scrambled ashore, panting but safe. Here, with tongue hanging out, he stood a moment watching the heaving waters which seemed maddened at the loss of their prey. Then he turned and vanished into the forest.

Mokwa now found himself in unknown territory, but, as he managed to find food to supply his needs, he accepted the situation philosophically and was far from being unhappy.

One day his wanderings brought him to the edge of the wilderness where, inclosed by a zigzag fence of rails, he caught his first glimpse of human habitation. Concealed in a clump of young poplars, he gazed curiously at the Hermit who was chopping wood at the rear of his cabin, and at Pal who ran about, sniffing eagerly here and there, but never far from his adored master.

At length one of his excursions into the border of the forest brought to Pal's keen nostrils the scent of the bear. Pal hated bears. The hair stiffened along his back while a growl grew in his throat, rumbled threateningly and broke forth into a volley of shrill barks.

“Bear! Bear! Bear!” he called in plain dog language; but the ears of the Hermit seemed to be strangely dull and, thinking that the dog had taken up the trail of a rabbit or at the most that of a fox, he whistled Pal back to the clearing. Pal obeyed reluctantly, stopping every few steps to look back and voice his opinion of the intruder; but, by the time he had joined his master, the bear had slipped into the forest.

Late that same afternoon, as Mokwa stood at the top of a small hill, a bright glitter from a grove of straight, smooth trees below, caught his eye. The glitter was alluring and, with no thought save to gratify his curiosity, the bear shambled quickly down the slope and brought up before a tree on the trunk of which hung a small, shining bucket. The sunlight reflected from the tin dazzled his little eyes, while to his ears came a curious, musical “plop, plop.”

Without even taking the precaution to glance around him, Mokwa reared upon his haunches and examined the pail into which a clear fluid splashed, drop by drop, from a little trough inserted in the tree. A faint but delectable odour drifted to the sniffing black nose of the bear. It was Mokwa's first experience with maple sap and he proceeded to make the most of it.

Though unable to reach the liquid, owing to the smallness of the pail, he could easily lick the spile which conveyed the sap from the tree, and this Mokwa did with evident relish. His tongue sought out every crevice and even greedily lapped the tree about the gash; then, growing impatient at the slowness with which the wonderful fluid appeared, he turned his attention to the pail. Mokwa wished, no doubt, that several inches might have been added to the length of his tongue, but, though that useful member failed him, necessity found a way. He soon discovered that it was possible to dip in one paw from which the sweetness could easily be licked. However, the pressure of his other paw upon the rim of the pail caused it to tip, and sliding from the spile, it rolled upon the ground.

The accident did not dismay the bear. On the contrary it filled him with joy, for it served to bring the contents of the pail within reach, and he lapped up every drop before it could soak into the earth. The pail, too, was cleansed of sap as far as the eager tongue could reach, though, during the process, it rolled about in a way which sorely tried the bear's patience. At length it came to rest against the trunk of a tree, with which solid backing Mokwa was enabled to thrust in his muzzle far enough to lap up the last sweet drops.

But alas! when he attempted to withdraw his head, Mokwa found himself a prisoner. With the pressure against the tree the sap-bucket had become wedged so tightly upon his head that it refused to come off. Though the bear twisted and turned, banging the tin upon the ground and against trunks of trees, the endeavor to rid himself of this uncomfortable and unwelcome headdress was in vain. Mokwa grew more and more frantic and the din was so terrific that a horrified cottontail, with eyes bulging until they seemed in danger of rolling down his nose, sat frozen in his tracks at the edge of a spruce thicket. The Hermit, on his way to inspect his sap-buckets, broke into a run.

Mokwa, in his mad scramble, had paused a moment for breath. He heard the man's footfalls and the sound filled him with fresh alarm. With a last despairing effort he rose upon his haunches and tugged at the battered pail. This time his efforts were rewarded. A peculiar twist sent it flying, and the bear, free at last, made quick time to the friendly shelter of the spruce thicket, sped by the loud laughter of the Hermit.

“Guess that bear will never bother my sap-buckets again,” the man chuckled, as he picked up his bright new pail, battered now past all recognition.

On the day following his harrowing experience in the sugar-maple grove Mokwa was a much chastened bear, but the incident soon faded from his memory and he once more trod the forest trails as if they had been presented to him for his sole use by Dame Nature herself. In the swamp the pointed hoods of skunk cabbage were appearing, the heat generated by their growth producing an open place in the snow about them. The odour from which the name is derived was not at all offensive to the bear who eagerly devoured many of the plants, varying the diet with roots and small twigs swelling with sap.

In the damp hollows the coarse grass was turning green, and before long the swamps were noisy with the shrill voice of the hylas, while the streams once more teemed with fish.

As the season advanced Mokwa grew fat and contented, exerting himself only enough to shuffle from one good feeding ground to another. He would grunt complainingly at any extra exertion, as, for instance, that which was required to reach the small wild sweet apples which he dearly loved, and which were clustered thickly on their small trees at the edge of the forest. At this season Mokwa's diet was almost strictly vegetarian and the smaller creatures of the wilderness, upon which he sometimes preyed, had little to fear from him.

The long summer days drifted by and autumn was not far away. Mokwa grew restless; both his food and surroundings palled upon him. At length, following a vague though persistent inner impulse, he turned his face northward toward the hills which had been his birthplace and from which he had been so strangely carried.

Long before daylight he had taken the trail and, in spite of the protests of his overfed body, had pushed steadily on, pausing at the edge of the tamarack swamp long enough to open with his sharp claws a rotting log that lay in his path, a log which yielded him a meal of fat grubs. Then he shambled on, drawn by some irresistible force. The mist which hung like a white veil over the low ground bordering the swamp was fast dissolving in curling wisps of vapor under the ardent rays of the sun. The forest was alive with bird song; squirrels chattered to him from the trees and the rattle of the kingfisher was in his ears, but Mokwa held a steady course northward, his little eyes fixed on some unseen goal.

About noon he came out upon the bank of the Little Vermilion, not far from the place where he had so narrowly escaped death on the floating ice. The roar of the falls came to him clearly on the still air and the big bear shivered. If he remembered his wild ride, however, the memory was quickly effaced by the discovery of a blueberry thicket, a luscious storehouse that apparently had never been rifled. Mokwa feasted greedily, at first stripping the branches of fruit and leaves alike; but at length, the keen edge of his appetite dulled, he sought only the finest berries, crushing many and ruthlessly tearing down whole bushes in his greed to get a branch of especially choice fruit. Then, his face and paws stained with the juice and his sides uncomfortably distended, he sought a secluded nook in which to sleep off his feast.

Toward evening, when the shadows grew long and the hills were touched with the red and gold of the setting sun, Mokwa again took up the northward trail, to which he held steadily most of the night. Morning found him emerging from a thicket of juniper upon the banks of the river at a place that he instantly recognized as the one from which he had begun his unwilling travels.

Turning sharply to the right, the bear's eager eyes discovered the trunk of a hemlock which had been blasted by lightning. Rearing himself upon his haunches against it, and reaching to his utmost, he prepared to leave his signature where he had so often left it, always above all rivals. Ere his unsheathed claws could leave their mark, however, he paused, gazing at another mark several inches above his own.

The hair rose along his back and his little eyes gleamed red while he growled deep in his chest; yet, stretch as he would, he could not quite reach the signature of the other bear. Mokwa dropped to all fours, rage filling his breast at this indication of a rival in what he considered his own domain. He hurried on, keenly alert, growing more and more incensed at every fresh trace of the interloper. Here he came upon evidences of a meal which the rival had made upon wake-robin roots. Satisfied before he had devoured all he had dug, some of the roots still lay scattered about, but, though Mokwa was hungry, he disdained the crumbs from the other's table. He dined, instead, upon a fat field mouse which he caught napping beside its runway. Again he pressed on, his anger steadily fanned by fresh evidences of the hated rival who seemed always just ahead.

Mokwa slept that night in his old den, but the next morning found him once more on the trail of the enemy, a trail which was still fresh. He had not gone far when his rival was, for the time being, forgotten, while he sniffed eagerly at a new odour which drifted to his sensitive nostrils. It was the scent of honey, a delicacy which a bear prizes above all else. At that moment, as if to confirm the evidence of his nose, a bee flew by, followed by another and another, all winging their way back to the hive. The red gleam faded from Mokwa's eyes as he followed their flight; then he broke into a shuffling run as he came within sight of the tree to which the bees were converging from all directions.

About half way up the great trunk Mokwa's eyes discovered a hole which he knew at once to be the mouth of the hive. He quickly climbed the tree on the side opposite the hole, peering cautiously around until he had reached a point directly opposite the hive. Then, craftily reaching one paw around the tree, with his claws he ripped off a great section of bark, disclosing a mass of bees and reeking comb.

At once the bees seemed to go mad. Their angry buzzing filled the air, but failed to strike terror to the heart of the robber. His thick fur rendered him immune to their fiery darts, though he was careful to protect his one vulnerable spot, the tender tip of his nose. In another moment he would have been enjoying the feast had he not discovered something which caused the hair to rise along his back and his eyes to glow with hate.

Advancing from the opposite direction was another bear, a bear larger than Mokwa and scarred with the evidences of many battles, a bear who trod the forest with a calm air of ownership. Across Mokwa's mind flashed the memory of a certain tree with his own signature the highest save one. The owner of that one was now approaching with the evident intention of claiming the sweet prize.

Mokwa's anger rose. He scrambled from the tree and, with a savage roar, was upon his rival almost before the latter had become aware of his presence. And then occurred a memorable battle, a battle for sovereignty and the freedom of the trails. Mokwa's rival was the larger of the two, but Mokwa had the advantage of youth. Sounds of the fray penetrated far into the woods. Delicate flowers and vigorous young saplings were trampled underfoot; timid little wild creatures watched with fast beating hearts, ready for instant retreat should they be observed, while above their heads the bees were busy carrying the exposed honey to a safer hiding-place.

Back and forth the combatants surged. For a time it was impossible to judge to whom the victory would go; but at length youth began to tell. The older bear was pushed steadily back. At last, torn and bleeding, his breath coming in laboring gasps, he turned and beat a retreat, far from the domain of the bear whose claim he had preëmpted.

[Illustration: And then occurred a memorable battle.]

Mokwa, too exhausted to follow, glared after him until he had vanished among the trees; then, much the worse for his fight, he turned again to the spoils, now doubly his by the right of conquest as well as of discovery. The owners of the hive, too busy to molest him, went on about their work of salvaging the contents and Mokwa made a wonderful meal, although he licked up a number of bees in his eagerness for the honey. Then, glutted with the feast, he crept away to lick his bruises and recover from the fray.

Mokwa fell asleep with the pleasant assurance that no more would the hated signature appear above his own on the hemlock trunk. The spring had called him to great adventure, but the summer had led him home and left him master of the forest.

 
 
 

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