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Chaffer, the Chamois by Ellen Velvin

On one of the craggy heights of the Alpine mountains, in Switzerland, Chaffer stood, one fine, clear day in October, looking out over the landscape, and wondering what he should do and where he should go.

For, sad to relate, he had just been turned out of the herd by an old chamois, who considered that he and those of his own age had a better right there than some of the young males. So, with a few others, Chaffer had been driven off, but not until he had made a good fight for it. He was fairly strong, and did not at all relish getting the worst of anything, but he was young yet and knew his time was coming— the time when he would drive that old chamois out of the herd far quicker than he had been driven, and get the best of him in more ways than one.

He was a fine young animal, and as he stood there at that dizzy height, his four feet planted firmly on the peak, he showed to very best advantage. Chaffer stood about two feet high at the shoulders, and was about three feet in length, not counting his short, black tail; his yellowish-brown body was streaked down the back with a black line, which defined the spine, while his beautiful head—the face and throat a peculiar yellowish-white, with a brownish-black mark which went from his mouth to his eyes—was surmounted by a splendid pair of horns nearly come to perfection.

These horns were from six to eight inches long, black and shiny, slender and round, rising from the forehead perpendicularly, and curving sharply at the extremities into hooks. Very proud Chaffer was of them, for they meant; so much to him. They meant, for one thing, that he was now almost full grown, and that he would soon be of an age to take his place in the antelope world as a champion and fighter. He could hold his own now with some of the males, and, although he had just been driven out of the herd, several others had been forced out with him, so he did not trouble himself much about it.

The only thing he was puzzled about was what he should do next, but this little matter was decided for him in a manner he never dreamed of. He was some way from the herd now, but at that moment he heard the well-known whistle of the sentinel chamois.[Footnote: Each herd has a chamois who acts as a sentinel. At the slightest sign of danger this sentinel gives a peculiar whistle, not particularly shrill or piercing, but which has a curious, penetrating power and carries a great distance. Not only does this sentinel give warning of danger, but he indicates from which direction it is coming.—Author.] In an instant Chaffer was off, leaping over wide chasms, climbing over crags and dizzy heights, sliding down dangerous, slippery places, but always going in the opposite direction to the approaching enemy.

For Chaffer knew now what the danger was—it was a man; and he could, with his wonderful power of scent, smell him, although he was still a great distance away. Once having realized that it was a man, Chaffer lost no time, but made his way at once up the steepest crag he could find. It was much easier for him to go up than down, for his legs were adapted for this purpose, The hind ones being much longer than the front ones.

His small, neat feet were formed for climbing; his forefeet had very sharp hoofs, which, when descending, Chaffer would dig into the ground to gain a foothold, and his hind feet had curious, false hoofs. That is to say, the outer hoofs were higher than the soles, and this enabled him to have a grip on the slightest notch or projection on the face of the rocks, so that it was almost impossible for him to slip. In descending the rocks, he would place his forefeet close together and push them in front of him; he could then slide down the face of an almost perpendicular cliff with the greatest ease and safety, and alight at the bottom without so much as a scratch.

In going up a very steep hill, he would stand up on his hind legs, put his forefeet on some narrow shelf or ledge of rock, and then, with a sharp little bound, draw his body up, and stand with all four feet on a space scarcely big enough for a full-grown man.

Chaffer tried this plan now, and with good effect for a time, but he could smell the man coming nearer and nearer, and began to be terribly frightened. Timid and nervous to a wonderful degree, and of a cautious, suspicious nature, Chaffer's excitement grew intense, and his small, pointed ears quivered painfully. On he went, never stopping to glance round for a single instant, for it was not necessary; he knew only too well what was behind him, and his one object was to get away.

At this moment, however, there was another whistle from the sentinel of the herd, much fainter this time because farther off, but containing the information that there was danger at the top of the mountains as well as at the base. Chaffer hesitated a moment, but he decided to go on now, whatever came; he was far more at home on these sharp crags and dangerous heights than he was on smooth, even ground, and he could go where it was quite impossible for a man to follow.

So he gave a few more leaps, a few more bounds, although the scent of the man now was so strong as to bewilder him, and then landed on a tiny ledge face to face with a hunter!

It would have been hard to say which was the most surprised—the hunter or Chaffer. As a matter of fact, the hunter had been carefully watching another chamois a little lower down—a young male who had been turned out of the herd with Chaffer—and had no idea a second chamois was so close to him until Chaffer alighted on the ledge of rock at his very feet. The two looked at one another for an instant in deathlike silence, their eyes wide open with surprise and fright; for, had the chamois only known it, he could, with one touch of his horns, have sent the hunter whirling through space and onto the rocks beneath, where he would have been dashed to pieces.

Then, with a wild leap, Chaffer sprang—sprang down the precipitous chasm which yawned beneath them, a distance of nearly thirty feet. As he went down, with his graceful body hanging in the air, and his handsome head, with its curved horns, thrown back, he turned himself diagonally, striking his feet sharply every now and then against the face of the rock in his descent, and alighted at the foot in perfect safety.

Meanwhile, the hunter, although he was a hardy Swiss mountaineer, was so frightened at his narrow escape that he gave up the chase for that day and went home, followed by the other hunters. They had been out on this expedition four days already, and had faced great dangers without getting a single chamois. They were brave and patient men, and as they earned their living by chamois hunting—one of the most dangerous and precarious ways of earning a living—had been ready and prepared for a certain amount of risk. But four days in the mountains, with nothing but dried meat for food, added to the intense cold and exposure, not to speak of risking their lives several times a day, was about as much as any man could stand, so, when Chaffer and his companions got away, the hunters decided to go home and hunt them another time.

But the chamois were also frightened, and more nervous and timid than usual for some time after this, and kept a sharp lookout themselves, not trusting so much to the sentinel, for they considered he had not given them warning enough the last time.

Chaffer had been so thoroughly scared that he kept himself hidden in chasms and crevices for days, only coming out every now and then to feed and to give a hurried glance round. Food was getting scarce now, too, and he would very soon have to go without the fresh grass and herbage which grew on the mountains, and make the buds of the pine, fir and juniper trees do instead. But he could treat himself to an occasional bit of salt from the sandstone rocks which are to be found in the Alps, and of this he was extremely fond; it also helped to keep him in good health.

It was a hard winter that year, and when the snow lay thick and white not only on the mountains, but in the valleys, Chaffer had as much as he could do to find enough to eat. Occasionally he would be able to scrape away the snow, and get tiny bits of grass and other green stuff, but it was not enough to keep him alive, and he was obliged to content himself with the buds of trees and any little bit of vegetation he could find.

He did not mind the cold in the least, for he often stayed on the snow-clad heights in summer from preference; but when this winter had really set in, with its exceptional severity, Chaffer betook himself to the wooded land which lay just below the glaciers, and roamed about there until spring once more appeared. But he did not care for wooded districts; he preferred peaks and ravines which had a northern aspect. So, as soon as he possibly could, he left the low lands and once more climbed his beloved mountains.

The cold was still intense, but underneath his ordinary covering of hair Chaffer had another coat of short, thick, greyish wool, and this protected him, and kept him nice and warm. His outer coat had changed during the winter from a golden brown to a dark chestnut, and, as the spring advanced, it changed again to a pretty, light color, which was almost grey.

Chaffer never forgot the first spring day after that awful winter, when the snow, having melted from some of the mountain ranges, disclosed fresh young grass and tender herbage. How delicious it was, and how Chaffer enjoyed it! He had grown quite thin and gaunt, his finely formed muscular neck was lean and scraggy, and his limbs felt weak.

But a week or two of good feeding, with an occasional bit of salt, soon put him right, and by the time summer arrived Chaffer had not only regained the strength he had lost in the winter, but had developed more power and growth in many ways. He had rejoined the herd, for the old chamois had left it by this time, and Chaffer and some other young males had determined that, come what might, they would allow no old chamois to turn them out again.

It was a beautiful summer, and the herd, which numbered about twenty, had a fine time. They sported and leaped from crag to crag—climbed up to the highest and most inaccessible peaks, where they would stand sniffing the clear air, and look out with their beautiful eyes over the picturesque landscape which lay like a vast panorama before them— glide down the chasms and precipices, and take leaps and bounds which would have made almost any animal but a chamois giddy.

And, during that summer, Chaffer grew fat and sleek and handsomer than ever, and by the time October came again was the largest animal in the herd. Only the year before he had been wretched and miserable and very lonely; now he was settled and contented and very happy, for, not only had he refused to allow the old chamois to enter the herd again, but he had chosen a pretty and graceful little wife, and was just as proud of her as he could be.

She was a beautiful creature, and her dark, liquid eyes looked timidly and pathetically out from beneath her nicely developed horns—for both male and female chamois have these appendages—while every movement of her delicately formed body was full of grace. It was no wonder Chaffer was proud of her, and when she presented him later on with a fine little kid, he was prouder than ever.

The baby chamois was a pretty little creature, and quick and active to a remarkable degree. But she had also inherited her parents' sensitiveness and timidity, and never left her mother's side; where the mother chamois went, there the little one followed closely, and when a chasm or ravine was too wide to cross with a leap of her small body, the mother made a bridge of her own body by throwing herself across, with feet planted firmly on either side of the chasm, and on it the little one sprang lightly and gracefully over in safety.

Chaffer was not always with them; he had a good many other things to attend to, but he kept careful and watchful guard over them, and his keen senses of sight and hearing were always on the alert for danger.

One fine day in the following spring, when the kid was growing big and strong, the herd had collected on a favorite feeding-ground, and was browsing in calm enjoyment. Suddenly the sentinel lifted his head, and, stamping his fore feet on the ground, gave the whistle of warning.

The chamois were on the alert in an instant, and, scenting danger to windward, flew wildly in the opposite direction. As a rule, they were able to escape, but this time they had been trapped, for the same hunters, who had tried in vain so many times to catch them, had formed a circle round them now, and had narrowed it until they were close to their prey.

Chaffer leaped and bounded, followed by his wife and little one, and was one of the very first to leave the feeding-ground behind; but he was also the first to meet the hunters face to face—not at such close quarters as at that memorable time when he had sprang on the same ledge with the hunter, but just close enough for those hunters to take a good, steady aim at him.

There was a loud report—another—and another, and Chaffer, stunned and bewildered, found himself lying at full length on the ground, while a horrible pain in his body made him feel sick and faint. In vain he lifted his head, and tried to raise himself; his head sank slowly down again on the soft grass, and his body would not move. He kept his eyes fixed on the hunters, who crowded round eagerly, but a misty veil floated in front of them, and everything looked blurred and dim. He made one more brave effort, and, with a spasmodic jerk, half lifted his body; but the exertion made the stream of blood, which was oozing out of his side, spurt out in quick, sharp rushes, and with a pathetic sigh and a convulsive movement of the beautiful form, which had been so full of life and activity only a few short minutes before, Chaffer let his handsome head fall back for the last time, and died.

The hunters, seeing he was dead, directed their attention to the mother chamois and her little one. The little chamois was on the ground, quite dead, and the mother was standing over her beloved one, her feet on either side of the poor little carcass, dyed a deep red with the blood of her offspring. During Chaffer's life, his wife had left it to him to defend her, but, deprived of his help, and bereft of her little one, she stood at bay—no longer the gentle, timid chamois, but an indignant, furious animal, ready to defend her kid with her life.

Not being sure whether the baby chamois was dead or not, the hunters tried to make the mother leave the small body, but in vain. Not only did she stamp her feet in defiance, but butted at them with her horns in a savage manner that surprised them. At last there was nothing to do but to shoot her, for they could not waste time, and the skin of a very young chamois was exceedingly valuable.


So, as she stood there, reckless and daring, and absolutely fearless through her motherhood, there was a quick flash, another report, and the mother chamois, the pretty wife of Chaffer, of whom he had been so proud, dropped over the body of her baby and mingled her blood with his. She died quicker than Chaffer, and she did not look at her murderers as he had done, but kept her eyes fixed on her little one, and her last movement was made towards it.

So Chaffer, his wife and little one all died on the same day, and in the same manner, and even the hunters, rough and hardy mountaineers as they were, had an uncomfortable feeling whenever they thought of the brave death of the mother, and her pathetic defense of her little one.

But they were hunters, and it was their living, and so in due course of time Chaffer's fine pair of horns were sold, the skin of his wife was turned into soft, yellow leather, and the skin of his little one was made into gloves.