Wild at Heart Homepage | Contents | Previous Chapter
SHASTA COMES VERY NEAR
BEING EATEN BY A BEAR
The weeks and the months went by. Only Shasta did not know anything about time, and if the months ticked themselves off into years, he took no account of them. Each month he became more and more wolf-like, and less and less like a human child. And because he wore no clothes, hair began to grow over his naked body, so that soon there was a soft brown silky covering all over him, and the hair of his head fell upon his shoulders like a mane. And as he grew older much knowledge came to him, which is hidden from human folk, or which perhaps they have forgotten in their building of the world. He learnt not only how to see things very far off, and clearly, as if they were near, but he learnt also to bring them close by smelling, to know what manner of meat they were. And if his nose or his eyes brought him no message, then his ears gave him warning, and he caught the footsteps that creep stealthily along the edges of the night. And he learnt the difference between the three hunting calls of the wolf: the howl that is long and deep, and which dies among the spruces, or is echoed dismally among the lonely crags; the high and ringing voice of the united pack, on a burning scent; and that last terrible bark that is half a howl, when the killing is at hand.
Yet it was not only of the wolves that Shasta learnt the speech of the Wild. He knew the things the bears rumbled to each other as they went pad-padding on enormous feet. Of the black bears be had no fear, but for the grizzlies he had a feeling that warned him it was wiser to keep out of their way. The feeling was not there in the beginning, but it grew after a thing that happened one never-to-be-forgotten day.
He had been sleeping in the cave during the hot hours, and woke up as the light began to yellow in the waning of the afternoon. He stretched his little hairy arms and legs with a great feeling of rest and of happiness. He felt so well and strong in every part of him that the joyful life inside him seemed bubbling up and spilling over. He was alone in the cave, for his wolf-brothers were now grown up and were gone out into the world. Sometimes, at sundown or dawn, he heard them sing the strange wolf-song--the song that is as old as the world itself--or a familiar scent would drift to him, as he sat in the entrance of the cave, and he would know it for the sweet good smell of some wolf-brother as he passed across the world. And sometimes Shasta would lift his childs voice into that wild, unearthly wolf-song that is so very old.
This afternoon, something seemed to call Shasta to go out into the sun. Nitka had made him understand that it was not safe for him to go far from the cave when she was away. Now she was out hunting, and Shoomoo was off on one of his mysterious journeys, nobody knew where, so there was all the more need for Shasta to stay close at home. Shasta did not see why he should remain in the dull den all the time that his foster-parents were away. Besides, were not his wolf-brothers all far out in the world? Perhaps he might fall in with one of them, and sniff noses together for the sake of old times. He determined to go out and try.
As he passed out, he heard the Blue Jays scolding in the trees.
Now there is a rule which all wise forest folk observe. It is this: When the Blue Jay scolds, look out!
Sometimes, of course, the Blue Jays simply scold at each other, because somebody has taken somebody elses grub, or just because they have a falling-out for fun; but the wise wild folk pay no attention to this, knowing it to be what it is. And when the Blue Jays scold in a peculiar manner, then the wise ones now that there is danger afoot, and that you niust keep a sharp look out.
Now, although Shasta was so young, he was quite old enough to understand the difference in the sounds. Unfortunately, this afternoon he was in a mad mood, and he just didnt care! He saw the autumn sun bright on the rocks at the dens mouth; he saw the glimmer of the blue over the tall tops of the pines. High above the canyon, a dark blob circled slowly against the sky. Far off though it was, Shasta saw that it was Kennebec, the great eagle, who was lord of all the eagles between the mountains and the sea. Shasta watched him for a little while making wide circles on his mighty sweep of wing. Then he ran up the mountainside, and, as he ran, the Blue Jays scolded more and more.
If Shasta had not been in so mad a mood, he would have known by the chatter of the Jays that the danger was coming up-hill. Also, if he himself had not been running down-wind, he would have smelt what the danger was creeping up behind. But the something that had seemed to call him in the cave was calling to him now from the high rocks. So on he climbed, careless of what might be going on below. He climbed higher and higher. Close by one of the big rocks a birch-tree hung itself out into the air. When he reached it he stopped to look back.
Down at the edge of the forest he saw a thing that made him shiver. From between the shadowy trunks of the pine-trees, the shape of a huge Grizzly swung out into the sun. It came on steadily up the mountain, its nose well into the wind. Shasta knew that he himself was doing the fatal thing; he was spilling himself into the wind, and even now the Grizzly was eating him through his nose!
By this time Shasta was very frightened. He looked this way and that, to see how to escape. He knew that he could not get back to the cave in time, for it lay close to the Grizzlys upward path, and already the bear was half-way there. The moving of his great limbs sent all his fur robe into ripples that were silver in the sun. He was coming at a steady pace. And, if he wanted to quicken it, Shasta knew with what a terrible quickness those furry limbs could move. As for himself, his wolf-training had taught him to run very swiftly, but he ran in a stooping way, using his hands as well as his feet. Only he doubted whether his swiftness could save him from the Grizzly over the broken ground. And far away over the canyon Kennebec swept his vast circles as calmly as though nothing was happening, because all went so very well in the blue lagoons of the air. Nothing was happening up there; but here upon the Bargloosh every thing was happening, and poor little Shasta felt that everything was happening wrong.
In his terrible fear Shasta started to run up the mountain. As he ran, he looked back. He saw to his horror that the Grizzly had seen him and had also started to run. Up the rocky slopes came the terrible pad-pad of those cruel paws. And Shasta knew well that the paws had teeth in them; many cruel teeth to each paw. And still Shasta went darting upward, running swiftly like a mountain-fox.
As he ran, a thought came into his head. If he could circle down the mountain, he might hide behind the rocks till the Grizzly had passed, and so reach the cave in time. For he had the sense to know that although a Grizzly is more than a match for wolves in the open, it thinks many times before it will attack them in their den.
Again Shasta looked back. He saw that the Grizzly was gaining upon him. He turned swiftly among the boulders to the left, dodging as he went so as to be out of sight of his enemy. The longer he could keep up the flight the more chance there was that either Nitka or Shoomoo might return. He ran on wildly, the terror in him, like the Grizzly behind, gaining ground.
He saw the long mountainside stretching out far and far before him to the northwest. He looked eagerly to see if any grey shadows should be moving eastwards along it--the long, gliding shadows that would be his wolf-parents coming home. But nothing broke the lines of grey boulders that lay so still along the slopes. All the great mountains seemed dead or asleep. Nothing living moved. Shasta ran on and on, looking fearfully back wards now and then, and expecting every moment to see the form of the great Grizzly come bounding over the rocks. Far below him in the timber he heard the screaming of the Jays. There was a fresh tone in the cry. Before, it had been a scolding of the bear: now it was a cry to Shasta:
Run, little brother, run!
It did not need the crying of the Blue Jays to make Shasta run. He was covering the ground almost with the speed of the wolves themselves.
Now he began to slant down towards the timber, darting down the mountain, leaping from boulder to boulder in the manner of the mountain-sheep. Yet behind him, faster and faster, as the rush of his great body gathered force, the Grizzly launched himself downwards, an avalanche of fur!
Shasta knew only too well that, unless something happened, the chase could not go on much longer. It might be a little sooner or a little later, but the Grizzly must have him at the last unless he could reach the trees in time. The trees were his only hope. If he could reach them, he could escape. For among the many things he had learnt of the ways of the forest folk, he had learnt this also: a Grizzly does not climb. And it was in this one thing only that he could outdo his wolf-brothers: he could climb into the trees!
He looked back. The thing was hurling itself nearer--the fearful avalanche of fur! Now he began to fear that he could not reach the timber in time. The Grizzly was gaining at a terrible pace. And then a thing happened.
Down aslant the mountain-side there came leaping in tremendous bounds the form of a big she-wolf. On it came at a furious speed, every spring of the powerful haunches sending the long grey body forward like an arrow loosed from a bow. And as she came, there rose from deep in her throat a long-drawn howl--the mustering cry of the wolves when the prey is too heavy for one to pull down alone.
The Grizzly saw her coming but could not stop. He was going too fast to turn so as to avoid the first onslaught. With a snarl of fury Nitka sprang.
Her long fangs snatched horribly. There was a gash behind the bears left ear. He snorted with rage, and tried to pull up. Before he could do so, Nitka had snapped at his flank and leaped away. Then at last, by a supreme effort, the Grizzly pulled himself up, and turned upon his unexpected foe.
By this time Shasta was well within reach of the trees. But some instinct made him suddenly alter his course and turn towards the cave. The Grizzly, seeing this, started again in pursuit of his prey. Once more Nitka leaped, and the long fangs did their deadly work; but this time the bear, turning with remarkable quickness, hurled her off, and did so with such force that Nitka almost lost her balance. A wolf, however, is not easily thrown off its legs, and again Nitka attacked. Each time she sprang, the bear stopped to meet her. Nitka knew full well what she would have to expect if she came within striking distance of those terrible paws and not once did she allow the Grizzly to get his chance to strike. And every time the bear turned, Shasta was making good his escape, farther and farther up the slope. Yet still the bear continued the chase, as if determined, in spite of all Nitkas fierce defence, to have his kill at last.
But he did not reckon upon two enemies at once, and he did not know that a second one, even more to be dreaded than Nitka, would have to be faced before he could seize his prey.
Shasta had almost reached the cave now. He saw the shadowy mouth of it just beyond the clump of bushes where the great cliff broke down.
Yet if the Grizzly should follow him into the cave! At close quarters Nitka would be no match for the Grizzly. Those terrible paws would have the wolf within striking distance, and then, no matter how bravely Nitka fought, she must sooner or later be killed. Yet, just at the moment, the instinct for home was the strongest thing in Shastas little mind, and so he made blindly for the cave.
As he darted into it, something shot past it in the opposite direction--something that leaped in the air with a noise that would have sounded more like the snarl of a mad dog--if Shasta had ever heard a mad dog--than any voice of wolf!
Far away in the lonely places of the great barren, Shoomoo had caught the long-drawn hunting cry of Nitka, and had answered it on feet that swept the distance like the wind. With every hair on end, with eyes that shone like green fires, with his chops wrinkled to show the gleaming fangs, Shoomoo hurled himself downwards full in the path of the advancing bear.
The Grizzly saw his coming just in time, and raised himself suddenly to give the wolf the blow which would have been his certain death. Swift as a streak of light, Shoomoo swerved as if he actually turned himself in the air. The Grizzly missed his stroke by a hairs breadth. Before he could strike again, both wolves were upon him. They sprang as with one accord, slashing mercilessly; then, in the wolf fashion, leaping away before the enemy could close.
The fight now became a sort of game. As far as mere strength went the Grizzly was far more than a match for the wolves; but their marvellous quickness put him at a disadvantage. Directly he turned to meet the onset of one, the other sprang at him from the opposite direction. They kept circling round him in a ring. It was a ring that flew and snarled and gleamed and bristled; a ring of wild wolf bodies that seemed never to pause for a single second. Sometimes it widened, sometimes it narrowed, hemming the great bear in; but al ways it was a live, quivering, flying ring of shadowy bodies and gleaming teeth.
More and more the bear felt that he was no match for his opponents. Hitherto he had had no fear of wolves: he had held them almost in contempt. But these things that leaped and snapped and leaped again seemed scarcely wolves. They were wolfish Furies to which you could not give a name.
Slowly, step by step, he retreated down the slope. He had given up all thought of the strange wolf-cub now. His one idea was to defend himself from these terrible foes, the like of which he had never encountered before Deep in his grizzly heart he knew that he was being beaten. It was a new feeling, and he did not relish it. Till now he had been monarch of his range, and other animals had respected his undisputed right. Now the tables were being turned, and a couple of wolves larger than he had even seen were driving him steadily back. Yet he would not turn and run. Something in his little pig-like eyes told the wolves that, whatever happened, he would never take safety in flight. That is one of the ideas belonging to a king. When his back is up against a wall, he must fight to the last. And that is exactly what the bear was looking for-something against which he could place his back. To the left, about fifty yards away, a great spur of rock broke from the mountainside. If he could once reach that, he knew that he could keep his foes at bay. He knew also, that in order to reach it, he would have to fight every yard of the way.
And up above on the slope, a little wild face peered out from the shelter of the rocks, and watched and watched with shining eyes.