The wolf-brothers were playing in the sun. There were four little brown cubs, very fat and puppy-like, and full of fun. They chased each other up and down, and had wrestling matches and biting competitions, and all sorts of rough-and-tumble games. Shasta sat in the mouth of the cave watching them and laughing softly to himself. He had known many a lot of wolf-brothers, and they were always the same funny, fat, frolicsome little rascals until they grew too old to frolic, and began to get their fighting fangs and be ready for the fierce work of the grown-up world. Shasta loved all his foster-brothers and never forgot them, even after they had gone out into the world. And not a single wolf-brother ever forgot him, or would have refused to fight for him to the death if he were in danger. Every year Shasta looked forward to the appearing of the fresh lot of cubs, and loved them with all his heart as soon as they were born. Only he had an instinct which warned him that when they were very new babies they were not to be touched; for although Nitka remained devoted to her man-cub, she would not allow him to meddle with the babies while they were very new, and partly out of respect for her wishes, and partly for fear of what she might do if he disobeyed, Shasta never touched a cub until it was a moon old; while Nitka, though she would never allow anything to approach the cave--not even Shoomoo himself--while the cubs were small, would let Shasta come in and go out as he chose, so long as he kept to his own end of the cave and did not interfere with her while she mothered the new family.
This morning she had gone down to the stream to drink, and lie awhile by the runway to see what might come by. She only intended to be a short time away, and had left Shasta on guard while she was gone. Shasta liked to feel that Nitka trusted him, and that he was doing an important thing. It was a very warm morning, and everything seemed at peace. A sweet, clean air blew along the trails, and those who used them scented it delicately and went springily, because of the pent-up life that was in them, and the goodness of the world.
High up on the opposite ridge a lynx was sunning herself and her kittens outside her den. With her keen eyes she swept the landscape near and distant in a glance that noted everything and lost nothing. Though Shasta could not see her, she saw him and the cubs perfectly. She was no friend of the wolves, as they knew full well, but this morning the historic enmity between them seemed to lie low, and she stared at the little group calmly with no blazing hate in her green eyes.
A big red fox came down to the edge of the lake. He stood with one forefoot up, all ears and nose, scenting and listening for any hint that should come from the trail; and, as he listened be wrinkled his nose, wobbling it quaintly to catch whatever faint smell might come drifting his way.
In the shallows the buffalo-fish were basking on the bottom with the water flowing softly over their gills, and the sunlight shining on their scales. Up in the high blue a pair of fish-hawks sailed airily on the look-out for food. But the buffalo-fish were so busy doing nothing that they escaped observation. They guessed the hawks were somewhere about, but they just lay low and didn’t say a word; and it is surprising how much mischief may be avoided simply by doing nothing! Old Gomposh was having a good rub against his favourite tree. It was plastered with mud and hair, and was quite as plain to read as a book, if you only knew how to read the “rub.” He set his back against the rough bark, and rubbed and rubbed till the most exquisite sensations went thrilling down his spine.
But all these quiet little happenings were really of no consequence to the wolves. What did matter was--although they didn’t know it--that, high up on the tall crags, Kennebec, the great eagle, was thinking wickedly.
When Kennebec thought wickedly someone was sure to suffer. He would sit on the pointed summit of a crag, which was now worn smooth with the constant gripping of his great claws, and his wonderful eyes would shine with a strong light. Down below him, for a thousand feet, the tops of the spruces made the forest look like a green carpet worn into holes. And beyond that, to the south, the lake glimmered and shone, and the Sakuska showed in loops of silver. Over the lake Kennebec could see the fish-hawks at their fishing. He looked at them in his lordly way, watching them, ready to swoop at the first sign of a fish. He could not catch fish himself, but that made no difference to his diet. When he felt like fish, he waited till one of the hawks swooped and rose with a fish in its claws. Then Kennebec would sail out majestically from his crag and bully the hawk till it dropped his prey. Before the fish touched the water Kennebec, falling in a dizzy rush, would seize it in his talons and bear it off in triumph. But this morning he was for bigger game, and the glare that came and went in his eyes was a danger-light to any who should be so unfortunate as to see it. About fifty yards to the left of where he sat a cleft rock held his nest. It was a huge mass of sticks, filling the cleft from side to side. In the middle of it two young eaglets sat and gawped for food. Their mother would bring it to them presently. Kennebec was not in a mood to worry about that! They could gawp and gawp till she came! And if they thought their gawping would have any effect upon him, they might gawp their silly heads off without upsetting him!
Suddenly he lifted his great wings, loosed the pinnacle with his horny feet, and plunged into space.
Below him the world seemed scooped out into a vast abyss. He rose higher and higher till he was nothing but a speck in the surrounding blue.
* * * * * * *
Shasta, watching the foster-brothers lazily, saw the speck appear in the high blue. At first it was no larger than a fly. Then it grew and grew till it was the size of a grasshopper, then of a fish-hawk. And then the blue jays began to scold.
Shasta had never forgotten the lesson of the blue jays. When they scolded he knew that something was happening, and that you had better watch out. He looked quickly about him on every side, throwing the keen glance of his piercing eyes down into the forest and up among the rocks. So far as he could see, nothing stirred. If any enemy was approaching, it was coming unseen, unheard, along the mossy ways. Yet there was no sign of any living creature upon the Bargloosh, nor in all the wide world beside, except that solitary fish-hawk circling overhead.
Yet, although he couldn’t see anything, Shasta had a sort of feeling that he ought to drive the cubs back into the den. They would be safe there whether anything happened or whether it didn’t. And the blue jays went on scolding all the time. But surely Nitka must hear them and know what was going on! If she didn’t take the warning and come racing back, then it was because nothing was going to happen.
Moment after moment went by, and still she did not appear. Shasta was growing more and more uneasy. In spite of not seeing anything, there was a vague feeling that something was wrong. That strange warning which comes to the wild creatures, no man can tell how, came to him now. The screaming of the blue jays had aroused him, but the warning had come independently of them. It was so clear, so unmistakable, that he made a wolf-noise in his throat to attract the attention of the cubs. Then suddenly he was aware of something overhead.
He looked up quickly. The fish-hawk had disappeared. Instead, a winged thunderbolt was dropping out of the sky. It fell from a dizzy height with a rush so swift that it seemed as if it must dash itself to pieces on the earth before it could stop.
Shasta was spellbound. He could not stir. Then, before he had time to understand, the thunderbolt had spread wide wings, and Kennebec was hovering overhead.
Shasta heard the rustle of those tremendous wings, and a swift fear shot into his heart. But his courage did not forsake him, and, with a howl, he sprang to protect the cubs.
It was too late. Before he could reach them Kennebec had swooped, and, when he rose again, he bore a wolf-cub in his claws.
Just as he did so, however, and while he was still beating his wings for the ascent, a few feet from the ground, Nitka, her hair on end with fury, came leaping up the slope.
As she reached the spot she made a mighty bound in the air, springing at the eagle with a snarl. But Kennebec was already under way. Nitka’s bared fangs clicked together six inches short of his tail, and she fell back to the earth with a moan of grief and rage.
Shasta, looking on, felt his body shivering like a maple leaf in the wind. He was terrified of what Nitka might do in the present state of her mind. As Kennebec, flying heavily, passed slowly over the tree-tops in his gradual ascent, the she-wolf’s eyeballs, riveted upon him, blazed with fury. As long as he remained in sight, growing gradually smaller in the distance, she raged up and down, with the saliva dropping from her jaws. She had been roused by the screaming of the jays, and had come racing back as soon as she realized that something was wrong. But she was too late to prevent the tragedy. And now the horrible thing had happened, and she would never see her cub again!
As soon as her straining eyes could no longer follow the flight of the robber, she hustled the other cubs back into the cave. But that was all. She did not turn on Shasta, nor even so much as growl at him as he sat shivering in the sun. He waited miserably at the mouth of the cave, wondering if Nitka would come out and comfort him; but she remained inside for the rest of the afternoon, trying to console herself for her loss by fondling the three remaining cubs. And after a while Shasta crept away to his look-out above the valley, where he had met Gomposh for the first time.
He had not been there very long before he heard a sound of rustling and tearing to the left. Then the great form of Gomposh himself pushed itself into the glare of the golden afternoon. He had been refreshing himself in his clumsy way among the wild raspberry bushes, and as he came out was licking the juice from his mouth. He came along slowly, his little eyes glancing right and left for any sign of food. There was a hollow log lying full in his path. He gave it a heavy blow with his paw, and then put his ear close to listen to the insects in its crevices which he had disturbed. Evidently what he had heard satisfied him, for he ripped open the log with one slash of his paw, and then proceeded to lick up the grubs and scurrying insects. When he had finished, he caught sight of Shasta and came lumbering towards him.
As before, they sat together on the rock, and said nothing in a very wise way. But presently Shasta unladed himself of his heavy heart, and told Gomposh all his grief.
And old Gomposh wagged his head slowly, and let Shasta understand that that was only what had happened many, many times before in his memory, and was likely to happen as many times again. Eagles would be eagles, he said, as long as feathers were feathers and fur was fur. And if wolf-cubs would also be fat and juicy and lollop in the sun, then what were you to expect if Kennebec came by, and admired the fat rolls at the back of their absurd little necks?
But besides that, he gave Shasta to understand that Kennebec was worse than other eagles, and had worked more destruction in his time than any other person with wings.
Shasta’s talk with Gomposh was a very long one, for the thoughts that were in them oozed out slowly, and trickled drop by drop into each other’s minds. Yet though the dripping was slow, the thoughts were clear as crystal, and plain to understand. That is the difference between animals’ talk and ours. The beasts speak seldom and with perfect understanding; while we humans stir up our thick brains with a stick that we call an idea, and pour out floods of muddy talk!
At sunset Gomposh lumbered back into the woods, and Shasta took himself home. He crept very softly into the den, because he felt that he was in disgrace. But Nitka was off hunting and the cubs were fast asleep.
Very early in the morning Shasta stole out again. He went along swiftly, following a caribou trail that trended south. It was one of the old forest trails which had been used for centuries by the journeying caribou in their autumn and spring migrations. He went on steadily, following the directions which Gomposh had given him the evening before. Gomposh knew all the trails of the forest; where they came from and where they led to; also what sort of company you were likely to meet on the way.
Shasta met but few travellers in that pale time just before dawn, and of those he met he had no fear. One was a big timber wolf travelling slowly after a kill. His eyes flashed when he saw Shasta; but Shasta spoke to him in the wolf language, and in a moment they were friends. And although Shasta did not recognize the wolf, the wolf remembered Shasta, for he was one of those who had taken part in the great wolf chorus on the memorable night.
Then, when they had spoken a little and rubbed noses together, to show that they were members of the wolf family, they parted, each going on his separate way.
It was late that evening before Shasta reached the end of his journey. It was a place monstrously tall, and everything there shot up to an immense growth as if it had been sucked upwards by the white lips of the moon ill the tremendous nights. Right before him a precipice glimmered vast, and built itself up and up towards the stars.
He lost no time, but curled himself up at the foot and fell asleep; and all night long his dreams were of Kennebec, whose eyrie was at the top.
With dawn he was up, and began to climb. Though the precipice looked one huge unbroken wall, it had many crannies and crevices where you might get a foothold if you knew how to climb; and that is just what Shasta could do beyond everything else. He could climb a tree like a marten, and among the rocks his foothold was as sure as that of a mountain sheep.
He went up and up steadily; sometimes he had to wait while he searched for a sure foot hold in the gigantic wall. Here and there a shrub or tree would grow out of a crevice, and with the aid of these he pulled himself up, hand over hand, while half his body hung in air; and then the muscles of his back stood out like whipcord and rippled along his arms.
As he climbed, the depth under him deepened. He had long passed above the summits of the loftiest pines. Now the forest was far below him, and he was hanging between earth and sky in the middle air. He was climbing from the wolf-world, with its old familiar trails, to the world of the eagles, where the earth trails cease for ever in the trackless wastes of air. What had Shoomoo or Nitka, or the wolf-brothers, to do with this upper world where, surely, if you went on climbing, you must come at last to the sheep-walks of the stars where the pastures are steep about the moon ?
And the world yawned under!
A false footing, or the breaking of a shrub, and down he would go to certain death and be dashed to pieces. Yet, in spite of the awful spaces about him and that yawning gulf below, there was no fear in him, nor any dizziness when he looked down. As he rested for a moment, and let his eyes wander, he gazed down five hundred feet as calmly as if he sat by the side of a quiet pool and watched the mirrored world.
If Kennebec had known what was approaching his eyrie on the impossible crags, he would have launched himself out at the intruder with fury and dashed him down the precipice; but he and his mate were far away, having left before dawn for a long journey, and had not come back. Up in the nest in the cloven rock, the eaglets sat and wondered why neither of their parents returned with food.
After a while Shasta could see the eyrie rock and the ends of sticks which stuck out from the side. It was above him--right over the edge of the precipice. He had just reached it and was holding on to the branch of a stunted spruce which grew below the rock, when the branch cracked. Without it the foothold was not sufficient, his feet were only clinging to the roughness of the rock; and suddenly that great chasm below seemed to suck him back.
For one brief moment fear clutched at Shasta’s heart, and he seemed to feel himself failing--falling down the steep face of the world. Then the muscles of his feet braced themselves, clinging to the rock; before they relaxed, his whole body became a steel spring, and, when the branch broke, his arms were round the stem of the tree. Once his hands found firm hold there was no more danger; even with half his body hanging in air it was a simple thing for him to lift himself into the tree. In a few moments more he had scaled the rock and was looking down into the eagle’s nest.
As soon as his eyes fell on the eaglets his fingers began to twitch. They were horrible-looking things, scraggy in their bodies and covered with dark down, with short, stubby quills sticking out here and there.
Shasta hated these quillish young monsters with all his heart. They gawped up at him in their ridiculous way with their beaks open. The thing he wanted to do was to grab them at once by their ugly necks and send them spinning down the precipice; yet they looked so stupid, squatting there, that it seemed a silly thing to do. If they could have fought, and there could have been a struggle, he would not have hesitated.
The nest was surrounded by a litter of bones and odds and ends of feathers and fur. If the eaglets were hungry it was not for want of gorging themselves in the past; the whole place spoke of Kennebec’s ravages, and his constant desire to kill. Much of the food was only half-eaten, showing that there was no need for all this slaughter. It was left there to rot in the sun and to poison the sweet air.
Shasta was still hesitating what to do, when his eye fell on something which set his blood throbbing. It was the remains of the wolf-cub which Kennebec had carried off.
At the sight of it Shasta became a different being; there was wolfish rage in his brain and a strange wolfish glitter in his eyes. He saw, in the ugly forms of the eaglets before him, the hateful offspring of the hated Kennebec, the destroyer of his wolf-brother and the enemy of his race.
The note of anguish in Nitka’s voice when she beheld her cub carried away before her eyes had not haunted his ears in vain. A wild desire to avenge his wolf-kindred swept over him; and now the chance to do so lay within his power--a chance which, in the countless moons that followed, might never come again!
The thing was big; it was tremendous. If the eaglets were destroyed it would strike at the heart of Kennebec--nay, at the heart of the whole eagle world!
Shasta stooped. He seized an eaglet fiercely by the neck, lifted it, swung it, sent it spinning dizzily out into the void. He watched it fall, tumbling over and over, down the immense depth, and then strike the summits of the trees. The second followed the fate of the first. Shasta looked down savagely upon an empty nest.
But what was that driving furiously up the long steeps of the dawn? It was coming swiftly, terribly, a blazing fire in its yellow eyes; and as the great wings thrashed the air the whistling roar of the approach filled all the hollow space.
Shasta needed only to look once to realize what was upon him; and that now, if ever, he was face to face with death.
Kennebec had seen! He was coming back!
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