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A Little Brother to the Bear by  William J. Long
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A LITTLE BROTHER TO THE BEAR

[15]

F
EW knew the way to the little house in the rocks where the Little Brother to the Bear lived. It was miles away from every other house but one, in the heart of the big still woods. You had to leave the highway where it dipped into a cool dark hollow among the pines, and follow a lonely old road that the wood-choppers sometimes used in winter, that led you, if you followed it far enough, to a tumble-down old mill on another cross-road, where the brook chattered and laughed all day long at the rusty wheel, and the phœbe built unmolested [16] under the sagging beams, and you could sometimes hear a trout jumping among the foam bubbles in the twilight. But you did not go so far if you wanted to find where the Little Brother to the Bear lived.

As you followed the wood road you came suddenly to a little clearing, with a brook and a wild meadow and a ledge all covered with ferns. The road twisted about here, as a road always does in going by a pretty place, as if it were turning back for another look. There was a little old house under the ledge wherein some shy, silent children lived; and this was the only dwelling of man on the three-mile road. Just beyond, at a point where the underbrush was thickest, an unnoticed cart path stole away from the wood road and brought you to a little pond in the big woods, at the spot where, centuries ago, the beavers had made a dam and a deep place for stowing their winter's wood. If you took a long pole and prodded deep in the mud here, you would sometimes find a cut stick of the beaver's food wood, its conical ends showing the strong tooth [17] marks plainly, its bark still fresh and waiting to be eaten when the little owner should come back again; for that is what he cut it and put it there for, untold years ago. Very few ever thought of this, however; those who came to the spot had all their thoughts for the bullpouts that swarmed in the beaver's old storehouse and that would bite well on dark days. There were ledges all about the ancient dam and on both sides of the woodsy valley below; and among the mossy, fern-covered rocks of these ledges one of the shy children, with whom I had made friends, pointed out an arched doorway made by two great stones leaning against each other.

"Thome animal livth in there. I theen him. I peeked, one day, an' I theen hith eyeth wink; an', an', an' then I ran away," he said, his own eyes all round with the wonder of the woods.

We made no noise, but lay down under a bush together and watched the wonderful old doorway until it was time for the shy child to go home; but nothing came out, nor even showed a shining inquisitive eye [18] in the doorway behind the screen of hanging ferns. Still we knew something was in there, for I showed my little woodman, to his great wonder and delight, a short gray hair tipped with black clinging to the rocks. Then we went away more cautiously than we came.

"Maybe it's a coon," I told the shy child, "for they are sleepyheads and snooze all day. Foxy, too; they don't come out till dark and go in again before daylight, so that boys can't find out where they live."

When the time of full moon came I went back to the little house among the ledges, one afternoon, and hid under the same bush to watch until something should come out. But first I looked all about and found near by a huge hollow chestnut tree that the wood-choppers had passed by for years as not worth the cutting. There were scratches and claw pits everywhere in the rough bark, and just under the lower limbs was a big dark knot hole that might be a doorway to a den. So I lay down in hiding where I could see [19] both the tree and the fern-screened archway among the rocks by simply turning my head.

At twilight there were sudden scratchings in the hollow tree, mounting higher and higher; then muffled grunts and whinings and expostulations, as if little voices inside the tree were saying: My turn first. No, mine! E-e-e-e-ahh, get out!  The whinings stopped abruptly and a face appeared in the dark knot hole—a sharp, pointed face with alert ears and bright eyes that looked out keenly over the still woods where only shadows were creeping about and only a wild duck disturbed the silence, quacking softly to her brood in the little pond. Then the whining began again in the hollow tree, and four other little faces pushed their sharp noses into the knot hole, filling it completely, all watching and listening, and wiggling their chins down on their fellows' heads so as to get a better view point, yet all eager as children to be out and at play after their long sleep.

One impatient little fellow clawed his way upon his mother's back and thrust his face [20] out between her ears, and then I had a chance to se it better—a wonderful face, full of whims and drollery, with a white ring about its pointed muzzle, and a dark line running from the top of its nose and spreading into ebony rings around each eye, as if he were wearing queer smoked goggles, behind which the eyes twinkled and shone, or grew sober with much gravity as he heard the duck quacking. A keen face, yet very innocent, in which dog intelligence and fox cunning and bear drollery mingled perfectly; a face full of surprises, that set you smiling and thinking at once; a fascinating, inquisitive face, the most lovable and contradictious among the Wood Folk,—the face of Mooweesuk the coon, the Little Brother to the Bear, as Indian and naturalist unite in calling him.

The mother came out first and sagged away backwards down the tree, swinging her head from side to side to look down and see how far yet, in true bear fashion. The four little ones followed her, clawing and whining their way to the bottom—all but one, who when half-way down turned and jumped, [23] landing on his mother's soft back to save himself trouble. Then she led the way to the doorway among the rocks, and the young followed in single file, winding about on her trail, stopping and sniffing when she did, and imitating her every action, just as young bear cubs do when roaming about the woods.

At the mouth of the den she stepped aside, and the young filed in out of sight one after another. The mother looked and listened for a moment, then scuttled away through the woods as a clear tremulous whinny came floating in through the twilight. A moment later I saw her on the shore of the pond with a larger coon, her mate probably, who had been asleep in another hollow tree by himself; and the two went off along the shore frogging and fishing together.

The mother had scarcely disappeared when the little ones came out of their den and began playing together, rolling and tumbling about like a litter of fox cubs, doing it for fun purely, yet exercising every claw and muscle for the hard work that a coon must do when he is called upon to take care [24] of himself. After a time one of the cubs left his brothers playing and went back to the chestnut tree by the same way that he had come, following every turn and winding of the back trail as if there were a path there—as there probably was, to his eyes and nose, though mine could not find any. He climbed the tree as if he were after something, and disappeared into the knot hole, where I could hear the little fellow whining and scratching his way down inside the tree. In a moment he reappeared with something in his mouth. In the dusk I could not make out what it was, but as he came back and passed within ten feet of where I was hiding I had my field-glasses upon him and saw it plainly—a little knot of wood with a crook in it, the solitary plaything which you will find, all smooth from much handling, in almost every house where the Little Brother to the Bear has lived.

He carried it back to where the young coons were playing, lay down among them, and began to play by himself, passing the plaything back and forth through his wonderful [25] front paws, striking it up, catching it, and rolling it around his neck and under his body, as a child does who has but one plaything. Some of the other coons joined him, and the little crooked knot went whirling back and forth between them, was rolled and caught, and hidden and found again,—all in silent intentness and with a pleasure that even in the twilight was unmistakable.

In the midst of this quiet play there came a faint ripple and splash of water, and the little coons dropped their plaything and stood listening, eyes all bright behind their dark goggles, noses wiggling, and ears cocked at the plashing on the pond shore. The mother was there diligently sousing something that she had caught; and presently she appeared and the little ones forgot their play in the joy of eating. But it was too far away and the shadows were now too dark to see what it was that she had brought home, and how she divided it among them. When she went away again it had grown dark enough for safety, and the young followed her in single file to the pond shore, where I soon lost them among the cool shadows.

[26] That was the beginning of a long acquaintance, cultivated sometimes by day, more often by night; sometimes alone, when I would catch one of the family fishing or clamming or grubbing roots or nest robbing; sometimes with a boy, who caught two of the family in his traps; and again with hunters under the September moon, when some foxy old coon would gather a freebooter band about him and lead them out to a raid on the cornfields. There each coon turned himself promptly into an agent of destruction and, reveling in the unwonted abundance, would pull down and destroy like a child savage, and taste twenty milky ears of corn before he found one that suited him perfectly; and then, too full for play or for roaming about to find all the hollow trees in the woods, he would take himself off to the nearest good den and sleep till he was hungry again and the low whinny of the old leader called him out for another raid.

Could we have followed the family on this first night of their wanderings, before the raids began and the dogs had scattered them, [27] we would have understood why Mooweesuk is called a brother to the bear. Running he steps on his toes like a dog; and anatomically, especially in the development of the skull and ear bones, he suggests the prehistoric ancestor of both dog and wolf; but otherwise he is a pocket-edition of Mooween in all his habits. The mother always leads, like a bear, and the little ones follow in single file, noting everything that the mothers calls attention to. They sit on their haunches and walk flat-footed, like a bear, leaving a track from their hind feet like that of a dwarf baby. Everything eatable in the woods ministers to their hunger, as it does to that of the greedy prowler in the black coat. Now they stir up an ant's nest; now they grub into a rotten log for worms and beetles. If they can find sweet sap, or a bit of molasses in an old camp, they dip their paws in it and then lick them clean, as Mooween does. They hunt now for wintergreen berries, and now for a woodmouse. They find a shallow place in the brook when the suckers are running and wait there till the big fish go by, when they [28] flip them out with their paws and scramble after them. From this fishing they turn to lush water-grass, or to digging frogs and turtles out of the mud; and the turtle's shell is cracked by dropping a stone upon it. Now they steal into the coop and scuttle away with a chicken; and after eating it they come back to the garden to crack a pumpkin open and make a dessert of the seeds. Now they see a muskrat swimming by in the pond with a mussel in his mouth, and they follow after him along the bank; for Musquash has a curious habit of eating in regular places—a flat rock, a stranded log, a certain tussock from which he has cut away the grass—and will often gather half a dozen or more clams and mussels before he sits down to dine. Mooweesuk watches till he finds the place; then, while Musquash is gone away after more clams, he will run off with all that he finds on the dining table. A score of times, on the ponds and streams, I have read the record of this little comedy. You can always [29] tell the place where Musquash eats by the pile of mussel shells in the water below it; and sometimes you will find Mooweesuk's track stealing down to the place, and if you follow it you will find where he cracked the clams that Musquash had gathered.

There is another way in which Mooweesuk is curiously like a bear: he wanders very widely, but he has regular beats, like Mooween, and if not disturbed always comes back with more or less regularity to any place where you have once seen him, and comes by the same unseen path. Like Mooween, his knowledge of the woods is wide and accurate. He knows—partly by searching them out, and partly from his mother, who takes him and shows him where they are—every den and hollow tree that will shelter a coon in times of trouble. He has always one den near a cornfield, where he can sleep when too full or too lazy to travel; he has one dry tree for stormy weather, and one cool mossy shell in deep shadow for the hot summer days. He has at least one sunny nook in the top of a hollow stub, where he loves to lie and soak [30] in the fall sunshine; and one favorite giant tree with the deepest and warmest hollow, which he invariably uses for his long winter sleep. And besides all these he has at least one tower of refuge near every path of his, to which he can betake himself when sudden danger threatens from dogs or men.

Though he walks and hunts and fights and feeds like a bear, Mooweesuk has many habits of his own that Mooween has never approached. One of these is his habit of nest robbing. Mooween does that, to be sure, for he is fond of eggs; but he must confine himself largely to ground-birds and to nests that he can reach by standing on his hind legs. Therefore are the woodpeckers all safe from him. Mooweesuk, on his part, can never see a hole in a tree without putting his nose into it to find out whether it contains any eggs or young woodpeckers. If it does contain them, he will reach a paw down, clinging close to the tree and stretching and pushing his arm into the hole clear to his shoulder, to see if perchance the nest be not a foolishly shallow and the eggs lie within reach of [31] his paw—which suggests a monkey's, by the way, in its handlike flexibility.

Once, on the edge of a wild orchard, I saw him rob a golden-winged woodpecker's nest in this way. The mother bird flew out as Mooweesuk came scratching up the tree, which assured him that he would find something worth while within. He stretched in a paw, caught an egg, and appeared to be rolling it up, holding it against the side of the tunnel. When the egg was almost up to the entrance he put in his nose to see the treasure. Then it slipped and fell back, and probably broke. He tried another, got it up safely, and ate it whole where he was. He tried a third, which slipped and broke like the first. At this, with the taste of fresh egg in his mouth, he seemed to grow impatient, or perhaps he got an idea from the yellow streaks on his claws. He jabbed his paw down hard to break all the eggs, and drew it up dripping. He licked it clean with his tongue and put it back again into the yellow mess at the bottom. This was easy, and he kept it up until his moist paw brought up only shells and rotten wood, [32] when he backed away down the tree and shuffled off into the woods, leaving a sad mess for a mother woodpecker to face behind him.

Another habit in which he has improved upon Mooween is his fishing. He knows how to flip fish out of water with his paw, as all bears do; but he has also learned how to attract them when they are not to be found on the shallows. Many times in the twilight I have found Mooweesuk sitting very still on a rock or gray log beside the pond or river, his soft colors and his stillness making him seem like part of the shore. Other naturalists and hunters have mentioned the same thing, and their testimony generally agrees in this: that Mooweesuk's eyes are half shut at such times, and his sensitive feelers, or whiskers, are playing on the surface of the water. The fish below, seeing this slight motion but not seeing the animal above, attracted either by curiosity or, more likely, by the thought of insects playing, rise to the surface and are snapped out by a sweep of Mooweesuk's paw.

[33] In a lecture, many years ago, Dr. Samuel Lockwood, a famous naturalist, first called attention to this curious way of angling. Since then I have many times seen Mooweesuk at his fishing; but I have never been fortunate enough to see him catch anything, though I have seen a wildcat do the trick perfectly in the same cunning way. Remembering his fondness for fish, and the many places where I have seen that he has eaten them and where the water was too deep to flip them out in the ordinary bear way, I have no doubt whatever that Dr. Lockwood has discovered the true secret of his patient waiting above the pools where the fish are feeding.

There is another curious habit of the coon which distinguishes him from the bear and from all other animals. That is, his habit of washing, or rather sousing, everything he catches in water. No matter what he finds to eat,—mice, chickens, roots, grubs, fruit—everything, in fact, but fish,—he will take it to water, if he be anywhere near a pond or brook, and souse it thoroughly before eating. [34] Why he does this is largely a matter of guesswork. It is not to clean it, for much of it is already clean; not to soften it, for clams are soft enough as they are, and his jaws are powerful enough to crush the hardest shells, yet he souses them just the same before eating. Possibly it is to give things the watery taste of fish, of which he is very fond; more probably it is a relic, like the dog's turning around before he lies down, or like the unnecessary migration of most birds, the inheritance from some forgotten ancestor that had a reason for the habit, and that lived on the earth long, long years before there was any man to watch him or to wonder why he did it.

Deep in the wilderness Mooweesuk is shy and alert for danger, like most of the wild things there; but if approached very quietly, or if he find you unexpectedly near him, he is filled with the Wood Folk's curiosity to know who you are. Once, on the long tote-road from St. Leonards to the headwaters of the Restigouche, I saw Mooweesuk sitting on a rock by a trout brook diligently sousing something that he had just caught. I crept [35] near on all fours to the edge of an old bridge, when the logs creaked under my weight and he looked up from his washing and saw me. He left his catch on the instant and came up the brook, part wading, part swimming, put his forepaws on the low bridge, poked his head up over the edge, and looked at me steadily, his face within ten feet of mine. He disappeared after a few moments and I crawled to the edge of the bridge to see what it was that he was washing. A faint scratching made me turn round, and there he was, his paws up on the other edge of the bridge, looking back at the queer man-thing that he had never seen before. He had passed under the bridge to look at me from the other side, as a fox invariably does if you keep still enough. The game that he was washing was a big frog, and after a few moments he circled the bridge, grabbed his catch, and disappeared into the woods.

Near towns where he is much hunted Mooweesuk has grown wilder, like the fox, and learned a hundred tricks that formerly [36] he knew nothing about. Yet ever here, if found young, he shows a strange fearlessness and even a rare confidence in man. Once, in the early summer, I found a young coon at the foot of a ledge, looking up at a shelf a few feet above his head and whimpering because he could not get up. It was a surprise to him, evidently, that his claws could not make the same impression on the hard rock that they did on the home tree in which he was born. He made no objection—indeed, he seemed to take it as the most natural thing in the world—when I picked him up and put him on the shelf that he was whimpering about; but in a moment, like a baby, he wanted to get down again, and again I ministered to his necessities. When I went away he followed after me whimpering, forgetting his own den and his fellows in the ledge hard by, and was not satisfied till I took him up, when he curled down in the hollow of my arm and went to sleep perfectly contented.

Presently he waked up, cocking his ears and twisting his head dog fashion at some [37] sound that was too faint for my ears, and poked his inquisitive nose all over me, even putting it down inside my collar, where it felt like a bit of ice creeping about my neck. Not till he had clawed his way inside my coat and put his nose in my vest pocket did he find the cause of the mysterious sounds which he heard. It was my watch ticking, and in a moment he had taken it out and was playing with the bright thing, as pleased as a child with a new plaything. He made a famous pet, full of tricks and drollery, catching chickens by pretending to be asleep when they came stretching their necks for the crumbs in his dish, playing possum when he was caught in mischief, drinking out of a bottle, full of joy when he could follow the boys to the woods, where he ran wild with delight but followed them home at twilight, and at last going off by himself to his home tree to sleep away the winter—but I must tell about all that elsewhere.

Like the bear, Mooweesuk is a peaceable fellow and tends strictly to his own affairs as he wanders wide through the woods. [38] This is not from fear, for no animal, except perhaps the wolverine—who is a terrible beast—is more careless of danger or faces it with such coolness and courage when it appears. Of a dog or two he takes little heed. If he hear them on his trail, he generally climbs a tree to get out of the way; for your dog, unlike his wild brother, the wolf, is a meddlesome fellow and must needs be worrying everything; and Mooweesuk, like most other wild creatures, loves peace, hunts only when hungry, and would always prefer to avoid a row if possible. When caught on the ground, or cornered, or roused to action by a sudden attack, he backs up against the nearest tree or stone to keep his enemies from getting at him from behind, and then fights till he is dead or till none of his enemies are left to bother him, when he goes quietly on his way again. No matter how great the odds or how terribly he is punished, I have never seen a coon lose his nerve or turn his back to run away. If the dogs be many and he is near a pond or river, he will lead them into deep water, where he is at [39] home, and then swimming rapidly in circles will close with them one by one and put them out of the fight most effectively. His method here seldom varies. He will whirl in suddenly on the dog that he has singled out, grip him about the neck with one arm, saw away at his head with his powerful teeth, at the same time slashing him across the eyes with his free claws, and then pile his weight on the dog's head to sink him under and drown all the rest of the fight out of him. That is generally enough for one dog; and Mooweesuk, without a scratch and with his temper cool as ice, will whirl like a flash upon his next victim.

Fortunately such troublous times are rare in Mooweesuk's life, and the wilderness coon knows little about them. His life from beginning to end is generally a peaceable one, full of good things to eat, and of sleep and play and growing knowledge of the woods. He is born in the spring, a wee, blind, hairless little fellow, like a mole or a bear cub. As he grows he climbs to the entrance to his den, and will sit there as at a window for [40] hours at a time, just his nose and eye visible, looking out on the new, bright, rustling world of woods, and blinking sleepily in the flickering sunshine. Then come the long excursions with his mother, at first by day when savage beasts are quiet, then at twilight, and then at last the long night rambles, in which, following his leader, he learns a hundred things that a coon must know: to follow the same paths till he comprehends every crack and cranny, for the best morsels on his bill of fare hide themselves in such places; to sleep for a little nap when he is tired, resting on his forehead so as to hide his brightly marked face and make himself inconspicuous, like a rock or a lichen-covered stump; to leap down from the tallest tree without hurting himself; and when he uses a den in the earth or rocks, to have an exit some distance away from the entrance, and never under any circumstances to enter his den save by his front door. There is great wisdom in this last teaching. When a dog finds a hole with a trail that always leads out [41] of it he goes away, knowing it is of no use to bark there; but when he finds an opening into which a trail is leading, he thinks of course that his game is inside, and proceeds to howl and to dig without ever a thought in his foolish head that there may be another way out. Meanwhile, as he digs and raises an unpardonable row in the quiet woods, Mooweesuk will either wait just inside the entrance till she gets a chance to nip the dog's nose or crush his paw, or else will slip quietly out of the back door with her little ones and take them off to a hollow tree where they can sleep in peace and have no fear till the dog goes away.

By the time the first snows blow the little coons are well grown and strong enough to take good care of themselves; and then, like the bear again, they escape the cold and the hunger of winter by going to sleep for four or five months in a warm den that they have selected carefully during their summer wanderings. They are fat as butter when they curl themselves up for the long sleep; their ringed tails cover their sensitive [42] noses, and if they waken for a time they suck their paws drowsily till they sleep again, so that, like the bear, they are often tender-footed when they come out in the spring.

Often the young coons of the same family sleep all together in the same den. The old males prefer to den by themselves, and are easily found; but the mother coon, like the mother bear, takes infinite pains to hide herself away where she can bring forth her young in peace, and where no one will ever find them.

There is one curious habit suggested by these winter dens that I have never seen explained, and for which I cannot account satisfactorily. On certain soft days in winter Mooweesuk wakes from his long sleep and wanders off into the world. At times you may follow his track for miles through the woods without finding that he goes anywhere or does anything in particular, for I have never found that he has eaten anything on these wanderings. Sometimes, miles away from his den, his track turns aside and goes straight to a hollow tree where other coons [43] are spending the winter. It may possibly be that they are his own family, who generally have a den of their own, and whom he visits to see if all is well. Sometimes from this den another coon goes out with him, and their tracks wander for miles together; more often he comes out alone, and you follow to where he has visited other coons, or gone to sleep in another tree of his own, or swung round in a vast circle to the tree from which he started, where he goes to sleep again till called out for another season by the spring sun and the chickadee's love notes.

It may be that all this is a bit of pure sociability on Mooweesuk's part, for it is certainly not his season of love-making or of finding a mate. Often, as I have said, three or four cubs will sleep the winter out in the same den; but again you may find two or three old coons in the same tree. Unlike many other animals with regard to their dens, the law of hospitality is strong with the coon, and a solitary old fellow that prefers to den by himself will never refuse to share his winter house with other coons that [44] are driven out of their snug shelter; and this holds true notwithstanding the fact that there are plenty other hollow trees that seem to belong to the tribe in general, for they are visited freely by every passing coon.

There is another way in which this love of his race is manifest, and it brings a thrill of admiration for Mooweesuk whenever it is seen: he always comes in the face of danger or death to the cry of distress from one of his own kind. I have seen this several times, and once when it gave a thrill to the wild sport of night hunting that had unexpected consequences. It was near midnight in late November, at the end of the hunting season. The dogs had treed a coon, and by the aid of a bright fire of crackling brush we were trying to "shine his eye," that is, to locate the game in the tree-tops by the fierce glow of his eyes flashing back the firelight. We saw it at last, and one of the hunters climbed the tree and tried to poke the coon from his perch with a stout pole. Instead of doing as was expected of him, Mooweesuk, who is always cool in the face of any danger, came [47] swiftly along the limb showing his teeth, and with a snarl in his nose that was unmistakable. The hunter dropped his pole, pulled a revolver from his pocket and shot the coon, which in a sudden rage turned and leaped for the howling dogs forty feet below. In a flash there was a terrible fight on. Mooweesuk, backed up against a tree, began the cool swift snaps and blows that took all the courage out of half his enemies. Now a dog was disabled by a single wolf grip on his sensitive nose; now a favorite drew back howling, half-blinded by a lightning sweep of Mooweesuk's paw across both eyes. But the dogs were too many for any one fighter however brave. They leaped in upon Mooweesuk from the sides; two powerful dogs stretched him out; then, knowing that his fight was almost lost, he twisted his head and gave a sudden fierce cry, the help call, entirely different from his screech and snarl of battle. Like a flash another coon, a young one, appeared on the scene, leaping out of the tree-top and hurling himself into the fight, clawing and snapping like a fury, and sending out his battle yell.

[48] Up to that moment none of us had suspected that there was a second coon anywhere near. He had remained hidden and safe in the tree-top through all the uproar, until what seemed plainly a call for help came, when he threw all thought of self aside and came down like a hero.

We had not half realized all this when the little fellow threw himself upon the dog that held the first coon's neck and crushed a paw with a single grip of his powerful jaws. Then the bigger coon was on his feet again fighting feebly.—But a curious change had come over the hunt. I had jumped forward to interfere at the unexpected heroism, but had drawn back at the thought that I was only a guest, and there by courtesy. Near me stood a big hunter, an owner of some of the dogs, whose face was twitching strangely in the firelight. He started for the fight swinging a club, then drew back ashamed to show any weak sentiment in a coon hunt. "Save him," I whispered in his ear, "the little fellow deserves his life"; and again he jumped forward. "Drag off the dogs!" he [49] roared in a terrible voice, at the same time pulling away his own. Every hunter understood. There was a sudden wild yell with a thrill in it that made one's spine tingle gloriously. The dogs were dragged away by tails and legs, struggling and howling against the indignity; the big coon lay down quietly to die; but the little fellow put his back up against a rock, his eyes glowing like coals that the wind blows upon, wrinkled his nose like a wolf, and snarled his defiance at the whole howling mob. And there he stayed till I took a pole and amid laughs and cheers drove him, still protesting savagely, into another tree where the dogs could not get at him.


That was far away from the place where my first Little Brother to the Bear lived, and many years had passed since I had visited the ledge by the old beaver dam. One day I came back, and turned swiftly into the old wood road that had a happy memory for me by every turn and rock and moldering stump. Here was [50] where the grouse used to drum; and there, at the end of the log, were signs to tell me that it still sometimes rolled off the muffled thunder of the wings above. Here was the break in the wall that the fox used as a runway; and there was a crinkly yellow hair caught on a rough rock telling its story mutely. Here was where the pines stood thickest; but they were all cut away now, and the hardwood seeds that had waited so many years under the pines for their chance at the sunlight were shooting up into vigorous life at last. And here was the place where the road twisted about to look back on the pretty spot where the shy children lived, with whom I had once made friends.

They were all gone, and the little house under the ledge was deserted. In one of the tumble-down rooms I found a rag doll beside the cold hearth, and some poor toys on a shelf under a broken window. In the whole lonely forgotten house these were the only things that brought the light to one's face and the moisture to his eyes as he beheld them. All else spoke of ruin and decay; but these poor [51] playthings that little hands had touched went straight to the heart with an eternal suggesting of life and innocence and a childhood that never grows old in the world. I dusted them tenderly with my handkerchief and put them back in their places, and went away softly down the path that led to the other house where the Little Brother to the Bear used to live.

Everything was changed here, too. The dam that the beavers had built, and that the years had covered over, still stood as strong as ever; but the woods had been cut away, and the pond had dwindled till the wild duck no longer found a refuge there. The ledges were no longer green, for the sun that came in when the big trees fell had killed most of the mosses and ferns that decked them; and the brook's song, though cheery still, was scarcely heard as it trickled and seeped where once it had rushed and tumbled down the woodsy valley, which remained woodsy still, because happily the soil there was too poor to raise anything but brush and cowslips, and so the woodsmen had spared it from desolation.

[52] The old tree that had once been the coon's house was blown down. When it missed the support and the wind-break of its fellows, it could not stand alone, and toppled over in the first storm. The old claw marks of Mooweesuk were hidden deep under lichens. From this ruined home I went to the den among the rocks by the path that the coons used to follow. The hunters had been here long ago; the den was pried open, the sheltering rocks were thrust aside, and the interior was full of last year's leaves. As I brushed them away sadly to see what the house was like, my hand struck something hard in a dark corner, and I brought it out into the light again. It was a little knot with a crook in it, all worn smooth by much handling—the plaything that I had first seen, and that was now the last memory of a home where the Little Brothers to the Bear had once lived and played together happily.


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