Wild at HeartShasta of the Wolves by Olaf Baker

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Gomposh’s lair was in the black heart of the cedar swamp. Old though the cedars were, Gomposh had the feeling of being even older. He liked the ancientness of the place; its dankness and darkness, and, above all, its silence--the silence of green decaying things. It was so silent that he could almost hear himself thinking, and his thoughts seemed to make more noise even than his great padded feet. Under the grey twisted trunks, the ground oozed with moisture, which fed the pits of black water that never went dry even in the summer drought. Whatever life stirred in those black pits, occasionally disturbing their stagnant surfaces with oily ripples, it did not greatly affect Gomposh. He preferred not to bother about them, and to devote his mind instead to the clumps of fat fungus--white, red, pink and orange--which glowed like dull lamps in the heart of the gloom. The taste of their flabby fatness pleased his palate. It was not exactly an exciting form of food; but it grew on your doorstep, so to speak, and saved a lot of trouble. And when you wanted to vary your diet, there were the skunk cabbages and other damp vegetables.

Another thing that recommended the place to the old bear was its comparative freedom from other animals. Goohooperay, it is true, inhabited the hollow hemlock on the farther side of the swamp, but he seldom came near Gomposh’s lair, since his activities took him generally to the open slopes of the Bargloosh where the hunting was fair to medium, and sometimes even good. His voice, of course, was a thing to be regretted, and when, on first getting out of bed, he would perch at the top of his tree and send the loudest parts of him self shrilling lamentably far out into the twilight, Gomposh’s little eyes would shine with disapproval, and he would make remarks to himself deep down in his throat. But a voice cannot be cuffed into silence, when it has wings that carry it out of the reach of your paw, and so Gomposh had to content himself with a little wholesome grumbling which, after all, kept him from becoming all fungus and fat, and made him change his feeding-ground from place to place. The only other bird that ever intruded upon his privacy was the nuthatch. But as this little bird, being one of the quietest of all the feathered folk, spent its time mainly in sliding up and down the cedar trunks like a shadow without feet, only now and then giving forth a tiny faint note in long silences, as if it were apologizing to itself for being there at all--Gomposh couldn’t find it in his heart to lodge a complaint. He would lie in his lair for hours and hours, listening contentedly to the fat, oozy silence, and observing the solemn gloom in which the colours of the red and orange toadstools seemed loud enough to make a noise, and wish that the nuthatch needn’t go on apologizing.

The lair was in a deep hollow, between the humpy roots of a large old cedar. It was dry enough, except when the rains were very heavy, as it was tunnelled out on the edge of one of the Hardwood knolls which rose up from the swamp here and there, like the last remaining hill-tops of a drowned world. To make this hole still more rainproof, and at the same time warmer, Gomposh had covered the cedar roots with boughs which he had contrived cunningly into a roof! Oh, he was a wise, wary old person, was Gomposh! and the experience of unnumbered winters had taught him that when the blizzards come swirling over the Bargloosh from the northeast, it is a grand and comforting thing to have a good roof over you, thatched thick and warm with snow. So to this deep cave in the roots of the cedar when the wind moaned in the draughty tops of the spruce woods and the frost bit with invisible teeth, Gomposh, bulging with berries and fat, would retire for the winter, and sleep, and sleep, and sleep!

Toadstools and various sorts of berries made up the principal part of his diet; but as berries did not grow in the swamp, and after a time he had eaten all the best toadstools in the neighbourhood of his den, he occasionally found it pleasant to leave the swamp and ascend to the blueberry barrens high up on the slopes of the Bargloosh.

One morning, not many days after Shasta’s return to his wolf kin, Gomposh got up with the berry feeling in him very bad. It was a little early for blueberries, but there were other things he might find--perhaps an Indian pear with its sweet though tasteless fruit, ripened early in some sunny spot. And anyhow there were always confiding beetles under stones, and whole families of insects that live in rotten logs.

He left his lair, picking his way carefully between the humpy roots that made the ground lift itself into such strange shapes, and setting his great padded feet on the thick moss as delicately as a fox, so that, in case some mouse or water-rat should be out of its hole, he might catch it unawares with one of the lightning movements of his immense paw. At the edge of the swamp he pushed his way stealthily through a thicket of Indian willows and then paused to sniff the air with that old sensitive nose of his which brought him tidings of the trails as to what was abroad, with a fine certainty that could not err. But, sniff as he would, nothing came to his questing nostrils except the smell that was as old as the centuries--the raw, keen sweetness of the wet spruce and fir forests, mixed with the homely scent of the cedar swamp. Yet in spite of this, he did not move without the utmost caution, and, for all his apparent clumsiness, his vast furry bulk seemed to drift in among the spruces with the quietness of smoke.

Far away on the other side of the lake, a great bull moose was making his way angrily through the woods, looking for the cow he had heard calling to him at dawn, and thrashing the bushes with his mighty antlers as a challenge to any one who should be rash enough to dispute his title of Lord of the Wilderness. But as he was travelling up-wind, and was, moreover, too far away for the sound of his temper to carry, Gomposh’s unerring nose did not receive the warning as he ascended the Bargloosh with the berry want in his inside.

He was half-way up the mountain, when, all at once, he stopped, and swung his nose into the wind. Something was abroad now--something with a warmer, thicker scent than the sharp tang of the spruces. What was it? There was a smell of wolf in it, and yet again something which was not wolf. It was a mixture of scents so finely jumbled together that only a nose like Gomposh’s could have disentangled them. In spite of his immense knowledge of the thousand ways in which the wilderness kindreds spill themselves upon the air, the old bear was puzzled. So, in order to give his mind perfect leisure to attend to his nose, Gomposh sank back on his haunches, and then sat bolt upright with his paws hanging idly in the air.

The scent came more and more plainly. And as it grew, Gomposh’s brain worked faster and faster. The smell was half strange and half familiar. Where had he smelt it before? And then, suddenly, he knew.

Shasta, stealing through the spruces as noiselessly as any of the wild brotherhood, thought he had done an extremely clever thing. He fully believed he had caught an old black bear unawares, sitting up on the trail and sniffing at nothing, with his paws dangling foolishly before him. It was not until the boy was close upon him that Gomposh quickly turned his head, and pretended to be surprised. Shasta, recognizing his old friend, came slowly forward with shining eyes.

At first Gomposh did not speak, but, that was not surprising. Gomposh was not one to rush into speech when you could express so much by saying nothing. To be able to express a good deal, and yet not to put it into the shape of words--to say things with your whole body and mind without making noises with your mouth and throat--is a wonderful faculty. Few people know anything about it; because half the business of people’s lives is carried on in the mouth, and they are not happy or wise enough to be quiet; but the beasts use it continually; because they are very happy and very wise.

So Gomposh looked at Shasta, and Shasta looked at Gomposh, and for a long time neither of them made a sound. But the mind that was in Gomposh’s big body, and the body that was outside Gomposh’s big mind, went on quietly making all sorts of observations which Shasta easily understood. So he knew, just as well as if Gomposh had said it, that the bear was telling him he had been on his travels; also that things were different in him; that he was another sort of person, because many things had happened to him in the meantime. Exactly what those things were, Gomposh did not know; but he knew what the effect was which they had produced in Shasta. He knew that the part of Shasta that was not wolf had mingled with that part of the world which also is not wolf, and that therefore he was a little less wolfish than before.

At first Shasta felt a little uncomfortable at the way Gomposh looked him calmly through and through. It was as if Gomposh said: “We are a long way off, little Brother. We have travelled far apart. But I catch you with the mind.”

And Shasta couldn’t help feeling as if he had done something of which he was ashamed. He had left the wild kindred--the wolf-father, the wolf-mother, all that swift, stealthy, fierce wolf-world that had its going among the trees. He bad gone out to search for another kindred, almost as swift, stealthy and fierce as the wolves themselves, yet of a strange, unnamable cunning, and of a smell stranger still. And yet with all this strangeness, the new kindred had fastened itself upon him with a hold which Shasta could not shake off, as of something which his half-wolf nature could neither resist nor deny. And the more Gomposh looked at him out of his little piercing eyes, the more keenly he felt that the old bear was realizing this hold upon him of the new kindred, far off beyond the trees.

When at last Gomposh Spoke--that is, when he allowed the wisdom that was in him to ooze out in bear language--what he remarked amounted to this:

“You have found the new kindred. You have learnt the new knowledge. You are less wolf than you were.”

Shasta did not like being told that he had grown less a wolf. It was just as if Gomposh had accused him of having lost something which was not to be recovered.

“I am just the same as I was,” he replied stoutly; but he knew it was not true.

“The moons have gone by, and the moons have gone by,” Gomposh said. “The runways have been filled with folk. But you have not come along them. You have not watched them. You have missed everything that has gone by.”

Shasta made it clear that one could not be everywhere at the same time, and that, anyhow, he had not missed the moons.

“ No one misses the moons,” Gomposh remarked gravely, “except those of us who go to sleep. It is a pleasant sleep in the winter when we go sleeping through the moons.”

“Nitka and Shoomoo do not sleep,” Shasta said boastfully. “We do not sleep the winter sleep--we of the wolves!”

“And so you do not find the world beautifully new when you wake up in the spring,” Gomposh said.

That was a fresh idea to Shasta. He knew what a wonderful thing it was to find the world new every day, but it must seem terribly new indeed to you after the winter sleep. The thought of hunger came to his rescue.

“You must be very hungry,” he said triumphantly.

“It is better to be very hungry once and get it over,” Gomposh said composedly, “than to go on being hungry all the winter when they tell me food is scarce.”

Another fresh thought for Shasta! If Gomposh kept on putting new ideas into him at this rate, he felt as if something unpleasant must happen in his head. If he had been rather more of a boy, and rather less of a wolf, he might have been inclined to argue with Gomposh, just for the sake of arguing. As it was, he was wise enough to realize that Gomposh knew more than he did; and that however new or uncomfortable the things were that Gomposh said, they were most likely true. So he said nothing more for some time, but kept turning over in his head the fresh ideas about newness and hunger, and the being less a wolf.

“You will not stay among us,” Gomposh said after a long pause. “You will go back to the new kindred, and the new smell.”

Shasta felt frightened at that--so frightened as to be indignant. He was afraid lest the old bear might be saying what was true. And the memory of the hide thong that had cut into his flesh and of the horrible captivity when he had been forced to stay in one small space, whether he liked it or not, made him feel more and more strongly that he would not go back whatever happened.

As Gomposh did not seem inclined to talk any more, Shasta thought he would continue his walk. It was good to be out on the trails again, passing where the wild feet passed that had never known what it was to be held prisoners in one place. And as he went, all his senses were on the watch to see and hear and smell everything that was going on. Softly he went, without the slightest sound, putting his hands and feet so delicately to the ground that not a leaf rustled, not a twig snapped.

But wary though he was, other things were even warier. Gleaming eyes he did not see watched him out of sight. Keen noses winded him--noses of creatures that kept their bodies a secret almost from themselves And so when Shasta suddenly found himself face to face with a big bull moose he nearly jumped out of himself with astonishment.

It was not the first time that he had seen moose. In the early summer, down in the alder thicket at the edge of the lake, Shasta, watching motionless between the leaves, had seen a big cow and her lanky calf come down into the lake. The cow began to busy herself by pulling water-lily roots, and the calf nosed along the bank in an inquisitive manner as if it still found the world a most bewildering place. They did not seem animals to be frightened at; and even the big cow looked a harmless sort of being whose mind, what there was of it, was in her mouth and ears. But the huge bull now in front of Shasta was a very different sort of beast. From the ground to the ridge of the immense fore shoulders, he measured a good six feet. That great humped ridge covered with thick black hair seemed to mound itself over some enormous strength which lay solid and compact ready to hurl itself forth at an instant’s notice in one terrifying blow which would smash any object that dared to challenge it. But what impressed Shasta more than anything else was the great spread of polished antlers on each side of his head. Antlers like those he had never seen. It was like wearing a forest on your forehead: it made you uncomfortable to look at: it was like being an animal and a tree at the same time.

The moose was equally surprised at Shasta. With all the creatures of the forest--lynxes, catamounts, raccoons, wolves, deer, foxes, bears and chipmunks--he was familiar. But this smooth, hornless, round-headed thing was like none of them. It had a shape and a character extraordinarily different; and the big moose was not pleased. There was another thing that he did not like, and that was Shasta’s smell. Not that this was so unfamiliar as his shape. Indeed, something like it the moose had often smelt before. Moreover, it was a smell that always made him angry. It was that of the wolves. And yet, mingled with it in a curious and bewildering way, there was another odour, not so pungent as the wolf scent, but hardly less objectionable to the moose, and that was the smell of man. What this might mean, the moose did not know. Along all the lonely trails of his wild and adventurous life, he had never yet come within sight or scent of the creature that went always upon its hind legs, with cunning in its hornless head, and death that it shot out with its hands.

With his great over-hanging muzzle lifted up, and his nostrils quivering, he looked at Shasta viciously out of his little gleaming eyes.

It was the wolf in Shasta that made the creature angry. From the endless generations behind him--grandfathers and grandfathers’ grandfathers that reached back beyond the flood--there had come down to him, through the uncounted ages, this hatred, born of fear, of the wolves. It was not that he feared any single wolf. Few wolves in all that immense North Land would have dared to attack him singly, or dispute his lordship of the world. But when the snows lay heavy on the hemlocks, and the nights were keen with a bitter air from the white heart of the Pole, those long shadow-like shapes that came floating over the barrens in packs, with the hunting note in their throats, were not things to be treated contemptuously by even the lordliest moose, at home in his winter “Yard.”

Shasta, on his side, felt no enmity towards the moose. He was not wolf enough to have the moose-hatred--handed down, pack after pack, since the beginning of the world--running in his blood. What he inherited from his grandfathers’ grandfathers were Indian instincts, though, in his utter ignorance of his nature, lie did not know them for what they were. So he just stared at the moose with a great astonishment, and wondered what would be the right thing to do.

In spite of himself, he felt a little uneasy. Something--he didn’t know what--warned him that the moose did not like him, and therefore was not going to be his friend. Left to himself, Shasta was willing to be friends--if they would let him--with all the forest folk. And as he never frightened them, or attempted to do them any hurt, most of the creatures came to regard him as a harmless sort of person. Those that did not, respected him too much to molest him because of his strange man-smell, which was so dangerously mixed with that of wolf. But now, here was a beast which, he felt sure, was so far from being his friend that it would take only some very little thing to turn him into a dangerous enemy. A movement, a look, a puff of air to make scent stronger--and some terrible thing might happen: you could never tell.

Now Shasta knew several ways of making himself a bigger person, as it were, and so more to be respected. One was to keep as still as a stone, and to put all of himself into his eyes, staring and staring till it seemed as if they must suddenly become mouths and bite; which made the creatures so uneasy that very few could stand it for long, and would politely melt away among the trees. Another was to make some sudden, violent movement, and to give the hunting cry of the wolves with his full throat. That struck fear into most animals; and they would flee in panic, never stopping till they had put long lengths of trail between them and the little naked Terror that had the wolf-cry in its throat. But now, though Shasta put everything that was in him into his eyes, the big bull bore the stare in an unflinching manner, and stared back defiantly. He did more. He began to paw the ground im patiently with one of his hoofs, as if to show that he was tired of this duel with the eyes, and wanted to try some more complete trial of strength. If Shasta had looked particularly at the pawing hoof, he would have noticed how deeply cleft it was, and what sharp cutting edges it had. A terrible instrument that, when it descended like a sledge-hammer with all the weight of the huge seven-hundred-pound body behind it to give it driving force! But Shasta was too much occupied in attending to the expression in the animal’s eyes, and in fearful admiration of the huge spreading antlers that made so grand an ornament to the mighty head.

And then, because the Spirit of the wild things did not tell him what to do, or because, if it did, his attention was too much taken up to give heed to its warning, he did the wrong thing instead of the right one. With a sudden spring in the air, he loosed the wolf-cry from his throat.

If anything was needed to make the moose furious this action of Shasta’s was sufficient. At the boy’s unexpected movement and cry he bounded to one side. Then he stood snorting and stamping the ground viciously. But he did not turn tail. Instead, he began to thrash the underwood furiously with his antlers.

Shasta was no coward. Yet what could he do, naked and utterly defenceless against this enormous animal, armed with those dreadful antlers and those pitiless hatchets on his feet? He looked quickly round, measuring the distance between himself and the nearest tree. To dart to it and climb into safety would be done in less time than it would take to tell it. But quick though he was, he knew, by exfperience, that some of the wild things were even quicker. What the moose could do in the way of quickness he had just seen. The whole of that great body was a mass of sinews and muscles that could hurl it this way or that like a flash of lightning before you had time to blink. And the moose, like the wolves and the bears, could make up his mind in less than a thousandth part of a minute, and be somewhere else almost before he had started, and finish a thing completely almost before it was begun!

If only Nitka or Shoomoo, or one of the wolf-brothers, could know the danger he was in, and come to the rescue! Big though he might be, it would be a bold moose who would lightly tackle Shoomoo, or any of his terrible brood, when once their blood was roused. But though Shasta looked wildly on every side, hoping that the call he had given might have attracted attention, not a dead leaf rustled in response under swiftly padding feet!

He turned his gaze again upon his enemy--for enemy he had now undoubtedly become--to catch the first sign of what he might be about to do. The moose was still thrashing the thicket as if to lash himself into increasing fury, and glaring at Shasta passionately out of his shining eyes. Because he did not know what was best to be done, Shasta threw back his head, and once again sent out the long ringing wolf-cry that was a summons to the pack. But as luck would have it, not one of all the wolf kindred was within ear-shot, and the Bargloosh was as empty of wolves as the sky of clouds.

At the second cry, the moose stopped thrashing the bushes, and stood still. But along his neck and shoulders the coarse black hair rose threateningly. A red light burned dangerously in his eyes. Suddenly, without warning, he sprang. Quick as a wolf, Shasta leaped aside. If he had been the fraction of a second later he would have been trampled to death. The murderous hoof of the moose missed its mark by a quarter of an inch. Snorting with rage, he raised himself on his hind legs to strike again.

And then the wonderful thing happened. Even as the moose rose, a huge black form hurled itself through the air, descending upon him like a thunderbolt. Before he could deliver the blow intended for Shasta, even before he could change his position in order to protect himself, a huge paw, armed with claws like curved daggers, had ripped his shoulder half-way to the bone.

So great was the force of the blow, with the whole weight of Gomposh’s body behind it, that the moose was hurled to the ground. He had hardly touched it, however, before he was on his feet, quivering with pain and fury. Seeing that his assailant was one of the hated bears, his fury redoubled. In spite of his wounds, now streaming with blood, he rushed savagely at the bear, striking again with his hoofs. But Gomposh, though now old, was no novice at boxing. He simply gathered his great hind quarters under him and sat well back upon them, with his forepaws lifted. Each time the moose struck, Gomposh parried the blow with a lightning sweep of his gigantic paw; and each time the paw swept, the moose bled afresh. Only once did he do Gomposh any injury, and that was when, with a sudden charge of his left-hand antler, he caught the bear in the ribs. But he paid dearly for the action. Gomposh, though nearly losing his balance, brought his right paw down with such sledge-hammer force on his opponent’s shoulder, that the moose staggered, and almost fell. The blow was so tremendous that the great bull did not care to receive another. With a harsh bellow of rage and anguish he turned, plunged into the underwood, and disappeared.

The whole forest seemed to quake as he went.

While all this was happening, Shasta, crouched behind his tree, had watched with intense excitement the progress of the fight. Now that Gomposh had proved himself conqueror, and that the moose had disappeared, he came out from his refuge.

He wanted to thank Gomposh, to make him feel how glad he was that he had beaten the moose. But for some reason peculiar to him self, Gomposh evidently did not want to be thanked. And when Shasta went up to lay his hand on his thick black coat, he rumbled something rude in his chest and moved sulkily away. As he went he turned once to look back at the boy, and then, like the moose, disappeared among the trees.

Left alone on the spot where the great battle had been fought, and where he had come so near losing his life, Shasta looked about him carefully. The ground was torn up and trampled, the grass and leaves blotched with dark stains. A faint smell of newly-spilt blood filled the air. And all round crowded the trees, dark, solemn, full of unnameable things.

As Shasta watched, a feeling of dread came over him. He could not have explained the feeling. All he knew was that it was a bad place where bad things could happen, and where even Gomposh had not cared to remain. Without lingering another moment, he fled away on noiseless naked feet.

And down in the cedar swamp, among the skunk cabbage and the bad black pools, old Gomposh sat in his lair and licked his wound. It did not heal for several days; but the big slavery tongue kept busily at work, and Nature, the old unfailing nurse, attended to her job. A good deal of grumbling accompanied the licking, and acted like a tongue on Gomposh’s mind. So it was not long before he went about as usual, and the nuthatches perceived that Gomposh was so very much Gomposh again that the toadstools were being punished for having grown so fat!

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