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Wilderness Ways By William J. Long Characters: 21768

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

This is the story of one day, the last one, in the life of Kagax the Weasel, who turns white in winter, and yellow in spring, and brown in summer, the better to hide his villainy.

It was early twilight when Kagax came out of his den in the rocks, under the old pine that lightning had blasted. Day and night were meeting swiftly but warily, as they always meet in the woods. The life of the sunshine came stealing nestwards and denwards in the peace of a long day and a full stomach; the night life began to stir in its coverts, eager, hungry, whining. Deep in the wild raspberry thickets a wood thrush rang his vesper bell softly; from the mountain top a night hawk screamed back an answer, and came booming down to earth, where the insects were rising in myriads. Near the thrush a striped chipmunk sat chunk-a-chunking his sleepy curiosity at a burned log which a bear had just torn open for red ants; while down on the lake shore a cautious plash-plash told where a cow moose had come out of the alders with her calf to sup on the yellow lily roots and sip the freshest water. Everywhere life was stirring; everywhere cries, calls, squeaks, chirps, rustlings, which only the wood-dweller knows how to interpret, broke in upon the twilight stillness.

Kagax grinned and showed all his wicked little teeth as the many voices went up from lake and stream and forest. "Mine, all mine-to kill," he snarled, and his eyes began to glow deep red. Then he stretched one sinewy paw after another, rolled over, climbed a tree, and jumped down from a swaying twig to get the sleep all out of him.

Kagax had slept too much, and was mad with the world. The night before, he had killed from sunset to sunrise, and much tasting of blood had made him heavy. So he had slept all day long, only stirring once to kill a partridge that had drummed near his den and waked him out of sleep. But he was too heavy to hunt then, so he crept back again, leaving the bird untasted under the end of his own drumming log. Now Kagax was eager to make up for lost time; for all time is lost to Kagax that is not spent in killing. That is why he runs night and day, and barely tastes the blood of his victims, and sleeps only an hour or two of cat naps at a time-just long enough to gather energy for more evil doing.

As he stretched himself again, a sudden barking and snickering came from a giant spruce on the hill just above. Meeko, the red squirrel, had discovered a new jay's nest, and was making a sensation over it, as he does over everything that he has not happened to see before. Had he known who was listening, he would have risked his neck in a headlong rush for safety; for all the wild things fear Kagax as they fear death. But no wild thing ever knows till too late that a weasel is near.

Kagax listened a moment, a ferocious grin on his pointed face; then he stole towards the sound. "I intended to kill those young hares first," he thought, "but this fool squirrel will stretch my legs better, and point my nose, and get the sleep out of me-There he is, in the big spruce!"

Kagax had not seen the squirrel; but that did not matter; he can locate a victim better with his nose or ears than he can with his eyes. The moment he was sure of the place, he rushed forward without caution. Meeko was in the midst of a prolonged snicker at the scolding jays, when he heard a scratch on the bark below, turned, looked down, and fled with a cry of terror. Kagax was already halfway up the tree, the red fire blazing in his eyes.

The squirrel rushed to the end of a branch, jumped to a smaller spruce, ran that up to the top; then, because his fright had made him forget the tree paths that ordinarily he knew very well, he sprang out and down to the ground, a clear fifty feet, breaking his fall by catching and holding for an instant a swaying fir tip on the way. Then he rushed pell-mell over logs and rocks, and through the underbrush to a maple, and from that across a dozen trees to another giant spruce, where he ran up and down desperately over half the branches, crossing and crisscrossing his trail, and dropped panting at last into a little crevice under a broken limb. There he crouched into the smallest possible space and watched, with an awful fear in his eyes, the rough trunk below.

Far behind him came Kagax, grim, relentless, silent as death. He paid no attention to scratching claws nor swaying branches, never looking for the jerking red tip of Meeko's tail, nor listening for the loud thump of his feet when he struck the ground. A pair of brave little flycatchers saw the chase and rushed at the common enemy, striking him with their beaks, and raising an outcry that brought a score of frightened, clamoring birds to the scene. But Kagax never heeded. His whole being seemed to be concentrated in the point of his nose. He followed like a bloodhound to the top of the second spruce, sniffed here and there till he caught the scent of Meeko's passage through the air, ran to the end of a branch in the same direction and leaped to the ground, landing not ten feet from the spot where the squirrel had struck a moment before. There he picked up the trail, followed over logs and rocks to the maple, up to the third branch, and across fifty yards of intervening branches to the giant spruce where his victim sat half paralyzed, watching from his crevice.

Here Kagax was more deliberate. Left and right, up and down he went with deadly patience, from the lowest branch to the top, a hundred feet above, following every cross and winding of the trail. A dozen times he stopped, went back, picked up the fresher trail, and went on again. A dozen times he passed within a few feet of his victim, smelling him strongly, but scorning to use his eyes till his nose had done its perfect work. So he came to the last turn, followed the last branch, his nose to the bark, straight to the crevice under the broken branch, where Meeko crouched shivering, knowing it was all over.

There was a cry, that no one heeded in the woods; there was a flash of sharp teeth, and the squirrel fell, striking the ground with a heavy thump. Kagax ran down the trunk, sniffed an instant at the body without touching it, and darted away to the form among the ferns. He had passed it at daylight when he was too heavy for killing.

Halfway to the lake, he stopped; a thrilling song from a dead spruce top bubbled out over the darkening woods. When a hermit thrush sings like that, his nest is somewhere just below. Kagax began twisting in and out like a snake among the bushes, till a stir in a tangle of raspberry vines, which no ears but his or an owl's would ever notice, made him shrink close to the ground and look up. The red fire blazed in his eyes again; for there was Mother Thrush just settling onto her nest, not five feet from his head.

To climb the raspberry vines without shaking them, and so alarming the bird, was out of the question; but there was a fire-blasted tree just behind. Kagax climbed it stealthily on the side away from the bird, crept to a branch over the nest, and leaped down. Mother Thrush was preening herself sleepily, feeling the grateful warmth of her eggs and listening to the wonderful song overhead, when the blow came. Before she knew what it was, the sharp teeth had met in her brain. The pretty nest would never again wait for a brooding mother in the twilight.

All the while the wonderful song went on; for the hermit thrush, pouring his soul out, far above on the dead spruce top, heard not a sound of the tragedy below.

Kagax flung the warm body aside savagely, bit through the ends of the three eggs, wishing they were young thrushes, and leaped to the ground. There he just tasted the brain of his victim to whet his appetite, listened a moment, crouching among the dead leaves, to the melody overhead, wishing it were darker, so that the hermit would come down and he could end his wicked work. Then he glided away to the young hares.

There were five of them in the form, hidden among the coarse brakes of a little opening. Kagax went straight to the spot. A weasel never forgets. He killed them all, one after another, slowly, deliberately, by a single bite through the spine, tasting only the blood of the last one. Then he wriggled down among the warm bodies and waited, his nose to the path by which Mother Hare had gone away. He knew well she would soon be coming back.

Presently he heard her, put-a-put, put-a-put, hopping along the path, with a waving line of ferns to show just where she was. Kagax wriggled lower among his helpless victims; his eyes blazed red again, so red that Mother Hare saw them and stopped short. Then Kagax sat up straight among the dead babies and screeched in her face.

The poor creature never moved a step; she only crouched low before her own door and began to shiver violently. Kagax ran up to her; raised himself on his hind legs so as to place his fore paws on her neck; chose his favorite spot behind the ears, and bit. The hare straightened out, the quivering ceased. A tiny drop of blood followed the sharp teeth on either side. Kagax licked it greedily and hurried away, afraid to spoil his hunt by drinking.

But he had scarcely entered the woods, running heedlessly, when the moss by a great stone stirred with a swift motion. There was a squeak of fright as Kagax jumped forward like lightning-but too late. Tookhees, the timid little wood mouse, who was digging under the moss for twin-flower roots to feed his little ones, had heard the enemy coming, and dove headlong into his hole, just in time to escape the snap of Kagax's teeth.

That angered the fiery little weasel like poking a stick at him. To be caught napping, or to be heard running through the woods, is more than he can possibly stand. His eyes fairly snapped as he began digging furiously. Below, he could hear a chorus of faint squeaks, the clamor of young wood mice for their supper. But a few inches down, and the hole doubled under a round stone, then vanished between two roots close together. Try as he would, Kagax could only wear his claws out, without making any progress. He tried to force his shoulders through; for a weasel thinks he can go anywhere. But the hole was too small. Kagax cried out in rage and took up the trail. A dozen times he ran it from the hole to the torn moss, where Tookhees had been digging roots, and back again; then, sure that all the wood mice were inside, he tried to tear his way between the obstinate roots. As well try to claw down the tree itself.

All the while Tookhees, who always has just such a turn in his tunnel, and who knows perfectly when he is safe, crouched just below the roots, looking up with steady little eyes, like two black beads, at his savage pursuer, and listening in a kind of dumb terror to his snarls of rage.

Kagax gave it u

p at last and took to running in circles. Wider and wider he went, running swift and silent, his nose to the ground, seeking other mice on whom to wreak his vengeance. Suddenly he struck a fresh trail and ran it straight to the clearing where a foolish field mouse had built a nest in a tangle of dry brakes. Kagax caught and killed the mother as she rushed out in alarm. Then he tore the nest open and killed all the little ones. He tasted the blood of one and went on again.

The failure to catch the wood mouse still rankled in his head and kept his eyes bright red. Suddenly he turned from his course along the lake shore; he began to climb the ridge. Up and up he went, crossing a dozen trails that ordinarily he would have followed, till he came to where a dead tree had fallen and lodged against a big spruce, near the summit. There he crouched in the underbrush and waited.

Up near the top of the dead tree, a pair of pine martens had made their den in the hollow trunk, and reared a family of young martens that drew Kagax's evil thoughts like a magnet. The marten belongs to the weasel's own family; therefore, as a choice bit of revenge, Kagax would rather kill him than anything else. A score of times he had crouched in this same place and waited for his chance. But the marten is larger and stronger every way than the weasel, and, though shyer, almost as savage in a fight. And Kagax was afraid.

But to-night Kagax was in a more vicious mood than ever before; and a weasel's temper is always the most vicious thing in the woods. He stole forward at last and put his nose to the foot of the leaning tree. Two fresh trails went out; none came back. Kagax followed them far enough to be sure that both martens were away hunting; then he turned and ran like a flash up the incline and into the den.

In a moment he came out, licking his chops greedily. Inside, the young martens lay just as they had been left by the mother; only they began to grow very cold. Kagax ran to the great spruce, along a branch into another tree; then to the ground by a dizzy jump. There he ran swiftly for a good half hour in a long diagonal down towards the lake, crisscrossing his trail here and there as he ran.

Once more his night's hunting began, with greater zeal than before. He was hungry now; his nose grew keen as a brier for every trail. A faint smell stopped him, so faint that the keenest-nosed dog or fox would have passed without turning, the smell of a brooding partridge on her eggs. There she was, among the roots of a pine, sitting close and blending perfectly with the roots and the brown needles. Kagax moved like a shadow; his nose found the bird; before she could spring he was on her back, and his teeth had done their evil work. Once more he tasted the fresh brains with keen relish. He broke all the eggs, so that none else might profit by his hunting, and went on again.

On some moist ground, under a hemlock, he came upon the fresh trail of a wandering hare-no simple, unsuspecting mother, coming back to her babies, but a big, strong, suspicious fellow, who knew how to make a run for his life. Kagax was still fresh and eager; here was game that would stretch his muscles. The red lust of killing flamed into his eyes as he jumped away on the trail.

Soon, by the long distances between tracks, he knew that the hare was startled. The scent was fresher now, so fresh that he could follow it in the air, without putting his nose to the ground.

Suddenly a great commotion sounded among the bushes just ahead, where a moment before all was still. The hare had been lying there, watching his back track to see what was following. When he saw the red eyes of Kagax, he darted away wildly. A few hundred yards, and the foolish hare, who could run far faster than his pursuer, dropped in the bushes again to watch and see if the weasel was still after him.

Kagax was following, swiftly, silently. Again the hare bounded away, only to stop and scare himself into fits by watching his own trail till the red eyes of the weasel blazed into view. So it went on for a half hour, through brush and brake and swamp, till the hare had lost all his wits and began to run wildly in small circles. Then Kagax turned, ran the back track a little way, and crouched flat on the ground.

In a moment the hare came tearing along on his own trail-straight towards the yellow-brown ball under a fern tip. Kagax waited till he was almost run over; then he sprang up and screeched. That ended the chase. The hare just dropped on his fore paws. Kagax jumped for his head; his teeth met; the hunger began to gnaw, and he drank his fill greedily.

For a time the madness of the chase seemed to be in the blood he drank. Keener than ever to kill, he darted away on a fresh trail. But soon his feast began to tell; his feet grew heavy. Angry at himself, he lay down to sleep their weight away.

Far behind him, under the pine by the partridge's nest, a long dark shadow seemed to glide over the ground. A pointed nose touched the leaves here and there; over, the nose a pair of fierce little eyes glowed deep red as Kagax's own. So the shadow came to the partridge's nest, passed over it, minding not the scent of broken eggs nor of the dead bird, but only the scent of the weasel, and vanished into the underbrush on the trail.

Kagax woke with a start and ran on. A big bullfrog croaked down on the shore. Kagax stalked and killed him, leaving his carcass untouched among the lily pads. A dead pine in a thicket attracted his suspicion. He climbed it swiftly, found a fresh round hole, and tumbled in upon a mother bird and a family of young woodpeckers. He killed them all, tasting the brains again, and hunted the tree over for the father bird, the great black logcock that makes the wilderness ring with his tattoo. But the logcock heard claws on the bark and flew to another tree, making a great commotion in the darkness as he blundered along, but not knowing what it was that had startled him.

So the night wore on, with Kagax killing in every thicket, yet never satisfied with killing. He thought longingly of the hard winter, when game was scarce, and he had made his way out over the snow to the settlement, and lived among the chicken coops. "Twenty big hens in one roost-that was killing," snarled Kagax savagely, as he strangled two young herons in their nest, while the mother bird went on with her frogging, not ten yards away among the lily pads, and never heard a rustle.

Toward morning he turned homeward, making his way back in a circle along the top of the ridge where his den was, and killing as he went. He had tasted too much; his feet grew heavier than they had ever been before. He thought angrily that he would have to sleep another whole day. And to sleep a whole day, while the wilderness was just beginning to swarm with life, filled Kagax with snarling rage.

A mother hare darted away from her form as the weasel's wicked eyes looked in upon her. Kagax killed the little ones and had started after the mother, when a shiver passed over him and he turned back to listen. He had been moving more slowly of late; several times he had looked behind him with the feeling that he was followed. He stole back to the hare's form and lay hidden, watching his back track. He shivered again. "If it were not stronger than I, it would not follow my trail," thought Kagax. The fear of a hunted thing came upon him. He remembered the marten's den, the strangled young ones, the two trails that left the leaning tree. "They must have turned back long ago," thought Kagax, and darted away. His back was cold now, cold as ice.

But his feet grew very heavy ere he reached his den. A faint light began to show over the mountain across the lake. Killooleet, the white-throated sparrow, saw it, and his clear morning song tinkled out of the dark underbrush. Kagax's eyes glowed red again; he stole toward the sound for a last kill. Young sparrows' brains are a dainty dish; he would eat his fill, since he must sleep all day. He found the nest; he had placed his fore paws against the tree that held it, when he dropped suddenly; the shivers began to course all over him. Just below, from a stub in a dark thicket, a deep Whooo-hoo-hoo! rolled out over the startled woods.

It was Kookooskoos, the great horned owl, who generally hunts only in the evening twilight, but who, with growing young ones to feed, sometimes uses the morning twilight as well. Kagax lay still as a stone. Over him the sparrows, knowing the danger, crouched low in their nest, not daring to move a claw lest the owl should hear.

Behind him the same shadow that had passed over the partridge's nest looked into the hare's form with fierce red eyes. It followed Kagax's trail over that of the mother hare, turned back, sniffed the earth, and came hurrying silently along the ridge.

Kagax crept stealthily out of the thicket. He had an awful fear now of his feet; for, heavy with the blood he had eaten, they would rustle the leaves, or scratch on the stones, that all night long they had glided over in silence. He was near his den now. He could see the old pine that lightning had blasted, towering against the sky over the dark spruces.

Again the deep Whooo-hoo-hoo! rolled over the hillside. To Kagax, who gloats over his killing except when he is afraid, it became an awful accusation. "Who has killed where he cannot eat? who strangled a brooding bird? who murdered his own kin?" came thundering through the woods. Kagax darted for his den. His hind feet struck a rotten twig that they should have cleared; it broke with a sharp snap. In an instant a huge shadow swept down from the stub and hovered over the sound. Two fierce yellow eyes looked in upon Kagax, crouching and trying to hide under a fir tip.

Kagax whirled when the eyes found him and two sets of strong curved claws dropped down from the shadow. With a savage snarl he sprang up, and his teeth met; but no blood followed the bite, only a flutter of soft brown feathers. Then one set of sharp claws gripped his head; another set met deep in his back. Kagax was jerked swiftly into the air, and his evil doing was ended forever.

There was a faint rustle in the thicket as the shadow of Kookooskoos swept away to his nest. The long lithe form of a pine marten glided straight to the fir tip, where Kagax had been a moment before. His movements were quick, nervous, silent; his eyes showed like two drops of blood over his twitching nostrils. He circled swiftly about the end of the lost trail. His nose touched a brown feather, another, and he glided back to the fir tip. A drop of blood was soaking slowly into a dead leaf. The marten thrust his nose into it. One long sniff, while his eyes blazed; then he raised his head, cried out once savagely, and glided away on the back track.

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