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A Little Brother to the Bear by  William J. Long
Table of Contents


 

 

PEKOMPF'S CUNNING

[193]

P
EKOMPF the wildcat is one of the savage beasts that have not yet vanished from the haunts of men. Sometimes, as you clamber up the wooded hillside above the farm, you will come suddenly upon a fierce-looking, catlike creature stretched out on a rock sunning himself. At sight of you he leaps up with a snarl, and you have a swift instant in which to take his measure. He is twice as big as a house-cat, with round head and big expressionless eyes that glare straight into yours with a hard, greenish glitter. His reddish-brown sides are spotted [194] here and there, and the white fur of his belly is blotched with black—the better to hide himself amid the lights and shadows. A cat, sure enough, but unlike anything of the kind you have ever seen before.

As you look and wonder there is a faint sound that you will do well to heed. The muscles of his long thick legs are working nervously, and under the motion is a warning purr, not the soft rumble in a contented tabby's throat, but the cut and rip of ugly big claws as they are unsheathed viciously upon the dry leaves. His stub tail is twitching—you had not noticed it before, but now it whips back and forth angrily, as if to call attention to the fact that Nature had not altogether forgotten that end of Pekompf. Whip, whip,—it is  a tail—k'yaaaah!  And you jump as the fierce creature screeches in your face.

If it is your first wildcat, you will hardly know what to do,—to stand perfectly quiet is always best, unless you have a stick or gun in [195] your hand,—and if you have met Pekompf many times before, you are quite as uncertain what he will do this time. Most wild creatures, however fierce, prefer to mind their own business and will respect the same sentiment in you. But when you stumble upon a wildcat you are never sure of his next move. That is because he is a slinking, treacherous creature, like all cats, and never quite knows how best to meet you. He suspects you unreasonably because he knows you suspect him with reason. Generally he slinks away, or leaps suddenly for cover, according to the method of your approach. But though smaller he is naturally more savage than either the Canada lynx or the panther, and sometimes he crouches and snarls in you face, or even jumps for your chest at the first movement.

Once, to my knowledge, he fell like a fury upon the shoulders of a man who was hurrying homeward through the twilight, and who happened to stop unawares under the tree where Pekompf was watching the runways. The man had no idea that a wildcat was near, [196] and he probably never would have known had he gone steadily on his way. As he told me afterwards, he felt a sudden alarm and stopped to listen. The moment he did so the savage creature above him thought himself discovered, and leaped to carry the war into Africa. There was a pounce, a screech, a ripping of cloth, a wild yell for help; then the answering shout and rush of two woodsmen with their axes. And that night Pekompf's skin was nailed to the barn-door to dry in the sun before being tanned and made up into a muff for the woodman's little girl to warm her fingers withal in the bitter winter weather.

Where civilization has driven most of his fellows away, Pekompf is a shy, silent creature; but where the farms are scattered and the hillsides wild and wooded, he is bolder and more noisy than in the unpeopled wilderness. From the door of the charcoal-burner's hut in the Connecticut hills you may still hear him screeching and fighting with his fellows as the twilight falls, and the yowling uproar causes a colder chill in your back than anything you will ever hear in the wilderness. [197] As you follow the trout stream, from which the charcoal man daily fills his kettle, you may find Pekompf stretched on a fallen log under the alders, glaring intently into the trout pool, waiting, waiting—for what?

It will take many seasons of watching to answer this natural question, which every one who is a follower of the wild things has asked himself a score of times. All the cats have but one form of patience, the patience of quiet waiting. Except when hunger-driven, their way of hunting is to watch beside the game paths or crouch upon a big limb above the place where their game comes down to drink. Sometimes they vary their programme by prowling blindly through the woods, singly or in pairs, trusting to luck to blunder upon their game; for they are wretched hunters. They rarely follow a trail, not simply because [198] their noses are not keen—for in the snow, with a trail as plain as a deer path, they break away from it with reckless impatience, only to scare the game into a headlong dash for safety. Then they will crouch under a dwarf spruce and stare at the trail with round unblinking eyes, waiting for the frightened creatures to come back, or for other creatures to come by in the same footprints. Even in teaching her young a mother wildcat is full of snarling whims and tempers; but now let a turkey gobble far away in the woods, let Musquash dive into his den where she can see it, let but a woodmouse whisk out of sight into his hidden doorway,—and instantly patience returns to Pekompf. All the snarling ill-temper vanishes. She crouches and waits, and forgets all else. She may have just fed full on what she likes best, and so have no desire for food and no expectation of catching more; but she must still watch, as if to [199] reassure herself that her eyes are not deceived and that Tookhees is really there under the mossy stone where she saw the scurry of his little legs and heard his frightened squeak as he disappeared.

But why should a cat watch at a trout pool, out of which nothing ever comes to reward his patience? That was a puzzling question for many years. I had seen Pekompf many times stretched on a log, or lying close to a great rock over the water, so intent on his watching that he heard not my cautious approach. Twice from my canoe I had seen Upweekis the lynx on the shore of a wilderness lake, crouched among the weather-worn roots of a stranded pine, his great paws almost touching the water, his eyes fixed with unblinking stare on the deep pool below. And once, when trout fishing on a wild river just opposite a great jam of logs and driftwood, I had stopped casting suddenly with an uncanny feeling of being watched by unseen eyes at my solitary sport.

It is always well to heed such a warning in the woods. I looked up and down quickly; [200] but the river held no life above its hurrying flood. I searched the banks carefully and peered suspiciously into the woods behind me; but save for the dodging of a winter wren, who seems always to be looking for something that he has lost and that he does not want you to know about, the shores were wild and still as if just created. I whipped out my flies again. What was that, just beyond the little wavelet where my Silver Doctor had fallen? Something moved, curled, flipped and twisted nervously. It was a tail, the tip end that cannot be quiet. And there—an irrepressible chill trickled over me as I made out the outlines of a great gray beast stretched on a fallen log, and caught the gleam of [201] his wild eyes fixed steadily upon me. Even as I saw the thing it vanished like a shadow of the woods. But what was the panther watching there before he watched me?

The answer came unexpectedly. It was in the Pemigewasset valley in midsummer. At daybreak I had come softly down the wood road to the trout pool and stopped to watch a mink dodging in and out along the shore. When he passed out of sight under some logs I waited quietly for other Wood Folk to show themselves. A slight movement on the end of a log—and there was Pekompf, so still that the eye could hardly find him, stretching a paw down cautiously and flipping it back with a peculiar inward sweep. Again he did it, and I saw the long curved claws, keen as fish-hooks, stretched wide out of their sheaths. He was fishing, spearing his prey with the patience of an Indian; and even as I made the discovery there was a flash of silver following the quick jerk of his paw, and Pekompf leaped to the shore and crouched over the fish that he had thrown out of the water.

[202] So Pekompf watches the pools as he watches a squirrel's hole, because he has seen game there and because he likes fish above everything else that the woods can furnish. But how often must he watch the big trout before he catches one? Sometimes, in the late twilight, the largest fish will move out of the pools and nose along the shore for food, their back fins showing out of the shallow water as they glide along. It may be that Pekompf sometimes catches them at this time, and so when he sees the gleam of a fish in the depths he crouches where he is for a while, following the irresistible impulse of all cats at the sight of game. Herein they differ from all other savage beasts, which, when not hungry, pay no attention whatever to smaller animals.

It may be, also, that Pekompf's cunning is deeper than this. Old Noel, a Micmac hunter, tells me that both wildcat and lynx, whose cunning is generally the cunning of stupidity, have discovered a remarkable way of catching fish. They will lie with their heads close to the water, their paws curved for a quick [205] grab, their eyes half shut to deceive the fish, and their whiskers just touching and playing with the surface. Their general color blends with that of their surroundings and hides them perfectly. The trout, noticing the slight crinkling of the water where the long whiskers touch it, but not separating the crouching animal from the log or rock on which he rests, rise to the surface, as is their wont when feeding, and are snapped out by a lightning sweep of the paws.

Whether this be so or not I am not sure. The raccoon undoubtedly catches crabs and little fish in this way; and I have sometimes surprised cats—both wildcats and Canada lynxes, as well as domestic tabbies—with their heads down close to the water, so still that they seemed part of the log or rock on which they crouched. Once I tried for five minutes to make a guide see a big lynx that was lying on a root in plain sight within thirty yards of our canoe, while the guide assured me in a whisper that he could see perfectly and that it was only a stump. Then, hearing us, the lynx rose, stared, and leaped for the brush.

[206] Such hiding would easily deceive even a trout, for I have often taken my position at the edge of a jam and after lying perfectly still for ten minutes have seen the wary fish rise from under the logs to investigate a straw or twig that I held in my fingers and with which I touched the water here and there, like an insect at play.

So Old Noel is probably right when he says that Pekompf fishes with his whiskers, for the habits of both fish and cats seem to carry out his observations.

But deeper than his cunning is Pekompf's inborn suspicion and his insane fury at being opposed or cornered. The trappers catch him, as they catch his big cousin the lucivee, by setting a snare in the rabbit paths that he nightly follows. Opposite the noose and attached to the other end of the cord is a pole, which jumps after the cat as he [207] starts forward with the loop about his neck. Were it a fox, now, he would back away out of the snare, or lie still and cut the cord with his teeth and so escape. But, like all cats when trapped, Pekompf flies into a blind fury. He screeches at the unoffending stick, claws it, battles with it, and literally chokes himself with his rage. Or, if he be an old cat and his cunning a bit deeper, he will go off cautiously and climb the biggest tree he can find, with the uncomfortable thing that he is tied to dangling and clattering behind him. When near the top he will leave the stick hanging on one side of a limb while he cunningly climbs down the other, thinking thus to fool his dumb enemy and leave him behind. One of two things always happens. Either the stick catches in the crotch and Pekompf hangs himself on his own gibbet, or else it comes over with a sudden jerk and falls to the ground, pulling Pekompf with it and generally killing him in the fall.

It is a cruel, brutal kind of device at best, and fortunately for the cat tribe has almost vanished from the northern woods, except in [208] the far Northwest, where the half-breeds still use it for lynx successfully. But as a study of the way in which trappers seize upon some peculiarity of an animal and use it for his destruction, it has no equal.

That Pekompf's cunning is of the cat kind, suspicious without being crafty or intelligent like that of the fox or wolf, is curiously shown by a habit which both lynx and wildcat have in common, namely, that of carrying anything they steal to the top of some lofty evergreen to devour it. When they catch a rabbit or fish fairly themselves, they generally eat it on the spot; but when they steal the same animal from snare or cache, or from some smaller hunter, the cat suspicion returns—together with some dim sense of wrong-doing, which all animals feel more or less—and they make off with the booty and eat it greedily where they think no one will ever find them.

Once, when watching for days under a fish-hawk's nest to see the animals that came [209] in shyly to eat the scraps that the little fish-hawks cast out when their hunger was satisfied, this cat habit was strikingly manifest. Other animals would come in and quietly eat what they found and slip away again; but the cats would seize on a morsel with flashing eyes, as if defying all law and order, and would either growl horribly as they ate or else would slink away guiltily and, as I found out by following, would climb the biggest tree at hand and eat the morsel in the highest crotch that gave a foothold. And once, on the Maine coast in November, I saw a fierce battle in the tree-tops where a wildcat crouched, snarling like twenty fiends, while a big eagle whirled and swooped over him, trying to take away the game that Pekompf had stolen.

By far the most curious bit of Pekompf's cunning came under my eyes, one summer, a few years ago. Until recently I had supposed it to be a unique discovery; but last summer a friend, who goes to Newfoundland every year for the salmon fishing, had a similar experience with a Canada lynx, which [210] emphasizes the tendency of all cats to seek the tree-tops with anything that they have stolen; though curiously enough I have never found any trace of it with game that they had caught honestly themselves. It was in Nova Scotia, where I was trout fishing for a little season, and where I had no idea of meeting Pekompf, for the winters are severe there and the wildcat is supposed to leave such places to his more powerful and longer-legged cousin, the lynx, whose feet are bigger than his and better padded for walking on the snow. Even in the southern Berkshires you may follow Pekompf's trail and see where he makes heavy weather of it, floundering belly-deep like a domestic tabby through the soft drifts in his hungry search for grouse and rabbits, and lying down in despair at last to wait till the snow settles. But to my surprise Pekompf was there, bigger, fiercer, and more cunning than I had ever seen him; though I did not discover this till after a long search.

I had fished from dawn till almost six [211] o'clock, one morning, and had taken two good trout, which were all that the stream promised to yield for the day. Then I thought of a little pond in the woods over the mountain, which looked trouty when I had discovered it and which, so far as I knew, had never been fished with a fly. Led more by the fun of exploring than by the expectation of fish, I started to try the new waters.

The climb through the woods promised to be a hard one, so I left everything behind except rod, reel, and fly-book. My coat was hung on the nearest bush; the landing-net lay in the shade across a rock, the end of the handle wedged under a root, and I dropped my two trout into that and covered them from the sun with ferns and moss. Then I started off through the woods for the little pond.

When I came back empty-handed, a few hours later, trout and landing-net were gone. The first thought naturally was that some one had stolen them, and I looked for the thief's tracks; but, save my own, there was not a footprint anywhere beside the stream up or down. Then I looked beside the rock [212] more carefully and found bits of moss and fish-scales, and the pugs of some animal, too faint in the gravel to make out what the beast was that made them. I followed the faint traces for a hundred yards or more into the woods till they led me to a great spruce tree, under which every sign disappeared utterly, as if the creature had suddenly flown away net and all, and I gave up the trail without any idea of what had made it.

For two weeks that theft bothered me. It was not so much the loss of my two trout and net, but rather the loss of my woodcraft on the trail that had no end, which kept me restless. The net was a large one, altogether too large and heavy for trout fishing. At the last moment before starting on my trip I found that my trout net was rotten and useless, and so had taken the only thing at hand, a specially made forty-inch net which I had last used on a scientific expedition for collecting specimens from the lakes of northern New Brunswick. The handle was long, and the bow, as I had more than once tested, was powerful enough to use instead of a gaff for [213] taking a twenty-five pound salmon out of his pool after he had been played to a standstill; and how any creature could drag it off through the woods without leaving a plain trail for my eyes to follow puzzled me, and excited a most lively curiosity to know who he was and why he had not eaten the fish where he found them. Was it lynx or stray wolf, or had the terrible Injun Devil that is still spoken of with awe at the winter firesides returned to his native woods? For a week I puzzled over the question; then I went back to the spot and tried in vain to follow the faint marks in the moss. After that whenever I wandered near the spot I tried the trail again, or circled wider and wider through the woods, hoping to find the net or some positive sign of the best that had stolen it.

One day in the woods it occurred to me suddenly that, while I had followed the trail three or four times, I had never thought to examine the tree beneath which it ended. At the thought [214] I went to the big spruce and there, sure enough, were flecks of bright brown here and there where the rough outer shell had been chipped off. And there also, glimmering white, was a bit of dried slime where a fish had rested for an instant against the bark. The beast, whatever he was, had climbed the tree with his booty; and the discovery was no sooner made than I was shinning up eagerly after him.

Near the scraggy top I found my net, its long handle wedged firmly in between two branches, its bow caught on a projecting stub, its bag hanging down over empty space. In the net was a big wildcat, his round head driven through a hole which he had bitten in the bottom, the tough meshes drawn taut as fiddle-strings about his throat. All four legs had clawed or pushed their way through the mesh, till every kick and struggle served only to bind and choke him more effectually.

From marks I made out at last the outline of the story. Pekompf had found the fish and tried to steal them, but his suspicions were roused by the queer net and the [215] clattering handle. With true lynx cunning, which is always more than half stupidity, he had carried it off and started to climb the biggest tree he could find. Near the top the handle had wedged among the branches, and while he tried to dislodge it net and fish had swung clear of the trunk. In the bark below the handle I found where he had clung to the tree boll and tried to reach the swinging trout with his paw; and on a branch above the bow were marks which showed where he had looked down longingly at the fish at the bottom of the net, just below his hungry nose. From this branch he had either fallen or, more likely, in a fit of blind rage had leaped into the net, which closed around him and held him more effectually than bars of iron. When I came under the tree for the first time, following his trail, he was probably crouched on a limb over my head watching me steadily; and when I came back the second time he was dead.

That was all that one could be sure about. But here and there, in a torn [216] mesh, or a tuft of fur, or the rip of a claw against a swaying twig, were the marks of a struggle whose savage intensity one could only imagine.


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