Watchers of the Camp-Fire
five years the big panther, who ruled the ragged plateau
around the head waters of the Upsalquitch, had been well
content with his hunting-ground. This winter, however,
it had failed him. His tawny sides were lank with hunger.
Rabbits — and none too many of them — were
but thin and spiritless meat for such fiery blood of his.
His mighty and restless muscles consumed too swiftly the
unsatisfying food; and he was compelled to hunt continually,
foregoing the long, recuperative sleeps which the tense
springs of his organism required. Every fibre in his body
was hungering for a full meal of red-blooded meat, the
sustaining flesh of deer or caribou. The deer, of course,
he did not expect on these high plains and rough hills
of the Upsalquitch. They loved the well-wooded ridges
of the sheltered, low-lying lands. But the caribou —
for five years their wandering herds had thronged these
plains, where the mosses they loved [Page 241]
grew luxuriantly. And now, without warning or excuse,
they had vanished.
The big panther knew the caribou.
He knew that, with no reason other than their own caprice,
the restless gray herds would drift away, forsaking the
most congenial pastures, journey swiftly and eagerly league
upon inconsequent league, and at last rest seemingly content
with more perilous ranges and scanter forage, in a region
remote and new.
He was an old beast, ripe in the
craft of the hunt; and the caribou had done just what
he knew in his heart they were likely to do. Nevertheless,
because the head waters of the Upsalquitch were much to
his liking, — the best hunting-ground, indeed, that
he had ever found, — he had hoped for a miracle;
he had grown to expect that these caribou would stay where
they were well off. Their herds had thriven and increased
during the five years of his guardianship. He had killed
only for his needs, never for the lust of killing. He
had kept all four-foot poachers far from his preserves;
and no hunters cared to push their way to the inaccessible
Upsalquitch while game was abundant on the Tobique and
the Miramichi. He knew all these wilderness waters of
northern New [Page 242] Brunswick, having
been born not far from the sources of the Nashwaak, and
worked his way northward as soon as he was full-grown,
to escape the hated neighbourhood of the settlements.
He knew that his vanished caribou would find no other
pastures so rich and safe as these which they had left.
Nevertheless, they had left them. And now, after a month
of rabbit meat, he would forsake them, too. He would move
down westward, and either come upon the trail of his lost
herds, or push over nearer to the St. John valley and
find a country of deer.
The big panther was no lover of
long journeyings, and he did not travel with the air of
one bent on going far. He lingered much to hunt rabbits
on the way; and wherever he found a lair to his liking
he settled himself as if for a long sojourn. Nevertheless
he had no idea of halting until he should reach a land
of deer or caribou, and his steady drift to westward carried
him far in the course of a week. The snow, though deep,
was well packed by a succession of driving winds, and
his big, spreading
paws carried him over its surface as if he had been
shod with snow-shoes.
By the end of the week, however,
the continuous travelling on the unsubstantial diet of
rabbit meat [Page 245] had begun to tell
upon him. He was hungry and unsatisfied all the time,
and his temper became abominable. Now and then in the
night he was fortunate enough to surprise a red squirrel
asleep in its nest, or a grouse rooting in its thicket;
but these were mere atoms to his craving, and moreover
their flesh belonged to the same pale order as that of
his despised rabbits. When he came to a beaver village,
the rounded domes of the houses dotting the snowy level
of their pond, a faint steam of warmth and moisture arising
from their ventilating holes like smoke, he sometimes
so far forgot himself as to waste a few minutes in futile
clawing at the roofs, though he knew well enough that
several feet of mud, frozen to the solidity of rock, protected
the savoury flat-tails from his appetite.
Once, in a deep, sheltered river-valley,
where a strong rapid and a narrow deep cascade kept open
a black pool of water all through the winter frost, his
luck and his wits working together gained him a luncheon
of fat porcupine. Tempted from its den by the unwonted
warmth of noonday, the porcupine had crawled out upon
a limb to observe how the winter was passing, and to sniff
for signs of spring in the air. At the sight of the panther,
who had climbed the tree and cut off its retreat, it [Page
246] bristled its black and white quills, whirled
abut on its branch, and eyed its foe with more anger than
terror, confident in its pointed spines.
The panther understood and respected
that fine array of needle-points, and ordinarily would
have gone his way hungry rather than risk the peril of
getting his paws and nose stuck full of those barbed weapons.
But just now his cunning was very keenly on edge. He crawled
within striking distance of the porcupine, and reached
out his great paw, gingerly enough, to clutch the latter’s
unprotected face. Instantly the porcupine rolled itself
into a bristling ball of needle-points and dropped to
the ground below.
The panther followed at a single
bound; but there was no need whatever of hurry. The porcupine
lay on the snow, safely coiled up within its citadel of
quills; and the panther lay down beside it, waiting for
it to unroll. But after half an hour of this vain waiting,
patience gave out and he began experimenting. Extending
his claws to the utmost, so that the quill-points should
not come in contact with the fleshy pads of his foot,
he softly turned the porcupine over. Now it chanced that
the hard, glassy snow whereon it lay sloped toward the
open pool, and the bristling ball moved several feet [Page
247] down the slope. The panther’s pale
eyes gleamed with a sudden though. He
pushed the ball again, very, very delicately. Again,
and yet again; till, suddenly, reaching a spot where the
slope was steeper, it rolled of its own accord, and dropped
with a splash into the icy current.
As it came to the surface the
porcupine straightened itself out to swim for the opposite
shore. But like a flash the panther’s paw scooped
under it, and the long keen claws caught it in the unshielded
belly. Unavailing now were those myriad bristling spear-points;
and when the panther continued his journey he left behind
him but a skin of quills and some blood-stains on the
snow, to tell the envious lucifees that one had passed
that way who knew how to outwit the porcupine.
On the following day, about noon,
he came across an astonishing and incomprehensible trail,
at the first sight and scent of which the hair rose along
The scent of the trail he knew,
— and hated it, and feared it. It was the man-scent.
But the shape and size of the tracks at first appalled
him. He had seen men, and the footprints of men; but never
men with feet so vast as these. The trail was perhaps
an hour old. He sniffed at it and [Page 248]
puzzled over it for a time; and then, perceiving that
the man-scent clung only in a little depression about
the centre of each track, concluded that the man who had
made the track was no bigger than such men as he had seen.
The rest of the trail was a puzzle, indeed, but it presently
ceased to appal. Thereupon he changed his direction, and
followed the man’s trail at a rapid pace. His courage
was not strung up to the pitch of resolving to attack
this most dangerous and most dreaded of all creatures;
but his hunger urged him insistently, and he hoped for
some lucky chance of catching the man at a disadvantage.
Moreover, it would soon be night, and he knew that with
darkness his courage would increase, while that of the
man — a creatures who could not see well in the
dark — should by all the laws of the wilderness
diminish. He licked his lean chops at the thought of what
would happen to the man unawares.
For some time he followed the
trail at a shambling lope, every now and then dropping
into an easy trot for the easement of the change. Occasionally
he would stop and lie down for a few minutes at full length,
to rest his overdriven lungs, being short-winded after
the fashion of his kind. But when, toward sundown, when
the shadows [Page 251] began to lengthen
and turn blue upon the snow, and the western sky, through
the spruce-tops, took upon a bitter wintry orange dye,
he noticed that the trail was growing fresher. So strong
did the man-scent become that he expected every moment
to catch a glimpse of the man through the thicket. Thereupon
he grew very cautious. No longer would he either lope
or trot; but he crept forward, belly to the ground, setting
down each paw with delicacy and precaution. He kept turning
the yellow flame of his eyes from side to side continually,
searching the undergrowth on every hand, and often looking
back along his own track. He knew that men were sometimes
inconceivably stupid, but at other times cunning beyond
all the craft of the wood folk. He was not going to let
himself become the hunted instead of the hunter, caught
in the old device of the doubled trail.
At last, as twilight was gathering
headway among the thickets, he was startled by a succession
of sharp sounds just ahead of him. He stopped, and crouched
motionless in his tracks. But presently he recognised
and understood the sharp sounds, especially when they
were followed by a crackling and snapping of dry branches.
They were axe-strokes. He had heard them in the neighbourhood
[Page 252] of the lumber camps, before
his five years’ retirement on the head waters of
the Upsalquitch. With comprehension came new courage,
— for the wild folk put human wisdom to shame in
their judicious fear of what they do not understand. He
crept a little nearer, and from safe hiding watched the
man at his task of gathering dry firewood for the night.
From time to time the man looked about him alertly, half
suspiciously, as if he felt himself watched; but he could
not discover the pale, cruel eyes that followed him unwinking
from the depths of the hemlock thicket.
In a few minutes the panther was
surprised to see the man take one of his heavy snow-shoes
and begin digging vigorously at the snow. In a little
while there was a circular hole dug so deep that when
the man stood up in it little more than his head and shoulders
appeared over the edge. Then he carried in a portion of
the wood which he had cut, together with a big armful
of spruce boughs; and he busied himself for awhile at
the bottom of the hole, his head appearing now and then,
but only for a moment. The panther was filled with curiosity,
but restrained himself from drawing nearer to investigate.
Then, when it had grown so dark that he was about to steal
from his hiding [Page 253] and creep
closer, suddenly there was a flash of light, and smoke
and flame arose from the hole, throwing a red, revealing
glare on every covert; and the panther, his lips twitching
and his hair rising, shrank closer into his retreat.
The smoke, and the scent of the
burning sticks, killed the scent of the man in the panther’s
nostrils. But presently there was a new scent, warm, rich,
and appetising. The panther did not know it, but he liked
it. It was the smell of frying bacon. Seeing that the
man was much occupied over the fire, the hungry beast
made a partial circuit of the camp-fire, and noiselessly
climbed a tree whence he could look down into the mysterious
From this post of vantage he watched
the man make his meal, smoke his pipe, replenish the fire,
and finally, rolling himself in his heavy blanket, compose
himself to sleep. Then, little by little, the panther
crept nearer. He feared the fire; but the fire soon began
to die down, and he despised it as he saw it fading. He
crept out upon a massive hemlock limb, almost overlooking
the hole, but screened by a veil of fine green branches.
From this post he could spring upon the sleeper at one
bound, — as soon as he could make up his mind to
the audacious enterprise. He feared the man, [Page
254] even asleep; in fact, he stood in strange
awe of the helpless, slumbering form. But little by little
he began to realise that he feared his own hunger more.
Lower and lower sank the fainting fire; and he resolved
that as soon as the sleeper should stir in his sleep,
beginning to awake, he would spring. But the sleeper slept
unstirring; and so the panther, equally unstirring, watched.
little beyond the camp-fire where the man lay sleeping
under those sinister eyes, rose the slopes of a wooded
ridge. The ridge was covered with a luxuriant second
growth of birch, maple, Canada fir, moose-wood, and
white spruce, the ancient forest having fallen years
before under the axes of the lumbermen. Here on the
ridge, where the food they loved was abundant, a buck,
with his herd of does and fawns, had established his
winter “yard.” With their sharp, slim hoofs
which cut deep into the snow, if the deer were compelled
to seek their food at large they would find themselves
at the mercy of every foe as soon as the snow lay deep
enough to impede their running. It is their custom,
therefore, at the beginning of winter, to select a locality
where the food supply will not fail them, [Page
255] and intersect the surface of the snow
in every direction with an inextricable labyrinth of
paths. These paths are kept well trodden, whatever snow
may fall. If straightened out they would reach for many
a league. To unravel their intricacies is a task to
which only the memories of their makers are equal, and
along them the deer flee like wraiths at any alarm.
If close pressed by an enemy they will leap, light as
birds, from one deep path to another, leaving no mark
on the intervening barrier of snow, and breaking the
trail effectually. Thus when the snow lies deep, the
yard becomes their spacious citadel, and the despair
of pursuing lynx or panther. A herd of deer well yarded,
under the leadership of an old and crafty buck, will
come safe and sleek through the fiercest wilderness
The little herd which occupied
this particular yard chanced to be feeding, in the glimmer
of the winter twilight, very near the foot of the ridge,
when suddenly a faint red glow, stealing through the
branches, caught the old buck’s eye. There was
a quick stamp of warning, and on the instant the herd
turned to statues, their faces all one way, their sensitive
ears, vibrating nostrils, and wide attentive eyes all
striving to interpret the prodigy. They were a herd
of the deep woods. Not one of them [Page 256]
had ever been near the settlements. Not even the wise
old leader had ever seen a fire. This light, when the
sun had set and no moon held the sky, was inexplicable.
But to the deer a mystery means
something to be solved. He has the perilous gift of
curiosity. After a few minutes of moveless watching,
the whole herd, in single file, began noiselessly threading
the lower windings of the maze, drawing nearer and nearer
to the strange light. When the first smell of burning
came to their nostrils they stopped again, but not for
long. That smell was just another mystery to be looked
into. At the smell of the frying pork they stopped again,
this time for a longer period and with symptoms of uneasiness.
To their delicate nerves there was something of a menace
in that forbidding odour. But even so, it was to be
investigated; and very soon they resumed their wary
A few moments more and they
came to a spot where, peering through a cover of spruce
boughs, their keen eyes could see the hole in the snow,
the camp-fire, and the man seated beside it smoking
his pipe. It was all very wonderful; but instinct told
them it was perilous, and the old buck decided that
the information they had acquired was sufficient [Page
257] for all practical purposes of a deer’s
daily life. He would go no nearer. The whole herd stood
there for a long time, forgetting to eat, absorbed in
the novelty and wonder of the scene.
The whole herd, did I say? There
was one exception. To a certain young doe that fire
was the most fascinating thing in life. It drew her.
It hypnotised her. After a few minutes of stillness
she could resist no longer. She pushed past the leader
of the herd and
stole noiselessly toward the shining lovely thing.
The old buck signalled her back, — first gently,
then angrily; but she had grown forgetful of the laws
of the herd. She had but one thought, to get nearer
to the camp-fire, and drench her vision in the entrancing
Nevertheless, for all her infatuation,
she forgot not her ancestral gift of prudence. She went
noiselessly as a shadow, drifting, pausing, listening,
sniffing the air, concealing herself behind every cover.
The rest of the herd gazed after her with great eyes
of resignation, then left her to her wayward will and
resumed their watching of the camp-fire. When one member
of a herd persists in disobeying orders, the rest endure
with equanimity whatever fate may befall her.
Step by step, as if treading
on egg-shells, the [Page 258] fascinated
doe threaded the path till she came to the lowest limit
of the yard. From that point the path swerved back up
the ridge, forsaking the ruddy glow. The doe paused,
hesitating. She was still too far from the object of
her admiration and wonder; but she feared the deep snow.
Her irresolution soon passed, however. Getting behind
a thick hemlock, she cautiously raised herself over
the barrier and made straight for the camp-fire.
Packed as the snow was, her
light weight enabled her to traverse it without actually
floundering. She sank deep at every step, but had perfect
control of her motions, and made no more sound than
if she had been a bunch of fur blown softly over the
surface. Her absorption and curiosity, moreover, did
not lead her to omit any proper precaution of woodcraft.
As she approached the fire she kept always in the dense,
confusing, shifting shadows which a camp-fire cast in
the forest. These fitful shadows were a very effectual
At last she found herself so
close to the fire that only a thicket of young spruce
divided her from the edge of the hole.
Planting herself rigidly, her
gray form an indeterminate shadow among the blotches
and streaks of shadow, her wild mild eyes watched the
man [Page 261] with intensest interest,
as he knocked out his pipe, mended the fire, and rolled
himself into his blanket on the spruce boughs. When
she saw that he was asleep, she presently forgot about
him. Her eyes returned to the fire and fixed themselves
upon it. The veering, diminishing flames held her as
by sorcery. All else was forgotten, — food, foes,
and the herd alike, — as she stared with childlike
eagerness at the bed of red coals. The pupils of her
eyes kept alternately expanding and contracting, as
the glow in the coals waxed and waned under the fluctuating
breath of passing airs.
early that same morning, a brown and grizzled chopper
in Nicholson’s camp, having obtained a brief leave
of absence from the Boss, had started out on his snow-shoes
for a two days’ tramp to the settlements.
He had been seized the night
before with a sudden and irresistible homesickness.
Shrewd, whimsical, humourous, kind, ever ready to stand
by a comrade, fearless in all the daunting emergencies
which so often confront the lumbermen in their strenuous
calling, these sudden attacks of homesickness were his
one and well-known failing in the eyes of his fellows.
At least once in every [Page 262] winter
he was sure to be so seized; and equally sure to be
so favoured by the Boss. On account of his popularity
in the camp, moreover, this favour excited no jealousy.
It had come to be taken as a matter of course that Mac
would go home for a few days if one of his “spells”
came upon him. He was always “docked,” to
be sure, for the time of his absence, but as he never
stayed away more than a week, his little holiday made
no very serious breach in his roll when pay-day came.
Though not a hunter, the man
was a thorough woodsman. He knew the woods, and the
furtive inhabitants of them; and he loved to study their
ways. Trails, in particular, were a passion with him,
and he could read the varying purposes of the wild things
by the changes in their footprints on the snow. He was
learned, too, in the occult ways of the otter, whom
few indeed are cunning enough to observe; and he had
even a rudimentary knowledge of the complex vocabulary
of the crow. He had no care to kill the wild things,
great or small; yet he was a famous marksman, with his
keen gray eye and steady hand. And he always carried
a rifle on his long, solitary tramps.
He had two good reasons for
carrying the rifle. The first of these was the fact
that he had never [Page 263] seen a
panther, and went always in the hope of meeting one.
The stories which he had heard of them, current in all
the lumber camps of northern New Brunswick, were so
conflicting that he could not but feel uncertain as
to the terms on which the encounter was likely to take
place. The only point on which he felt assured was that
he and the panther would some day meet, in spite of
the fact that the great cat had grown so scarce in New
Brunswick that some hunters declared it was extinct.
The second reason was that he had a quarrel with all
lucifees or lynxes, — “Injun devils,”
he called them. Once when he was a baby, just big enough
to sit up when strapped into his chair, a lucifee had
come and glared at him with fierce eyes through the
doorway of his lonely backwoods cabin. His mother had
come rushing from the cow-shed, just in time; and the
lucifee, slinking off to the woods, had vented his disappointment
in a series of soul-curdling screeches. The memory of
this terror was a scar in his heart, which time failed
to efface. He grew up to hate all lucifees; and from
the day when he learned to handle a gun he was always
ready to hunt them.
On this particular day of his
life he had travelled all the morning without adventure,
his face set [Page 264] eagerly toward
the west. Along in the afternoon he was once or twice
surprised by a creeping sensation along his backbone
and in the roots of the hair on his neck. He stopped
and peered about him searchingly, with a feeling that
he was followed. But he had implicit faith in his eyesight;
and when that revealed no menace he went onward reassured.
But when the diversion of gathering
firewood and digging the hole that serve him for a camp
came to an end, and he stooped to build his camp-fire,
that sensation of being watched came over him again.
It was so strong that he straightened up sharply, and
scrutinised every thicket within eyeshot. Thereafter,
though he could see nothing to justify his curious uneasiness,
the sensation kept recurring insistently all the time
he was occupied in cooking and eating his meal. When
at last he was ready to turn in for his brief night’s
sleep, — he planned to be afoot again before dawn,
— he heaped his frugal camp-fire a little higher
than usual, and took the quite unwonted precaution of
laying his rifle within instant grasp of his hand.
In spite of these vague warnings,
wherein his instinct showed itself so much more sagacious
than his reason, he fell asleep at once. His wholesome
[Page 265] drowsiness, in that clear
and vital air, was not to be denied. But once deep asleep,
beyond the vacillation of ordered thought and the obstinacies
of will, his sensitive intuitions reasserted themselves.
They insisted sharply on his giving heed to their warnings;
and all at once he found himself wide awake with not
a vestige of sleep’s heaviness left in his brain.
With his trained woodcraft,
however, he knew that it was some peril that had thus
awakened him, and he gave no sign of his waking. Without
a movement, without a change in his slow, deep breathing,
he half opened his eyes and scanned the surrounding
trees through narrowed lids.
Presently he caught a glimmer
of big, soft, round eyes gazing at him through a tangle
of spruce boughs. Were they gazing at him?
No, it was the fire that held their harmless attention.
He guessed the owner of those soft eyes; and in a moment
or two he was able to discern dimly the lines of the
deer’s head and neck.
His first impulse was to laugh
impatiently at his own folly. Had he been enduring all
those creepy apprehensions because an inquisitive doe
had followed him? Had his nerves grown so sensitive
that the staring of a chipmunk or a rabbit had power
[Page 266] to break his sleep? But
while these thoughts rushed through his brain his body
lay still as before, obedient to the subtle dictates
of his instinct. His long study of the wild things had
taught him much of their special wisdom. He swept his
glance around the dim-lit aisle as far as he could without
perceptibly turning his head — and met the lambent
blue-green gaze of the watching panther!
Through the thin veil of the
hemlock twigs, he saw the body of the animal, gathered
for the spring, and realised with a pang that the long
expected had not arrived in just the form he would have
chosen. He knew better than to reach for his rifle,
— because he knew that the least movement of head
or hand would be the signal for the launching of that
fatal leap. There was nothing to do but wait, and keep
motionless, and think.
The strain of that waiting was
unspeakable, and under it the minutes seemed hours.
But just as he was beginning to think he could stand
it no longer, a brand in the fire burned through and
broke smartly. Flames leapt up, with a shower of sparks,
— and the panther, somewhat startled, drew back
and shifted his gaze. It was but for an instant, but
in that instant the man had laid hold of his rifle,
drawn it to him, and got it into a position where [Page
267] one more swift movement would enable him
But not the panther only had
been startled by the breaking brand, the leaping flame.
The young doe had leapt backward, so that a great birch
trunk cut off her view of the fire. The first alarm
gone by, she moved to recover her post of vantage. Very
stealthily and silently she moved, — but the motion
caught the panther’s eye.
The man noted a change in the
direction of the beast’s gaze, a change in the
light of his eyeballs. There was no more hate in them,
no more doubt and dread; only hunger, and eager triumph.
As soft as an owl’s wings move through the coverts,
the great beast drew back, and started to descend from
the tree. He would go stalk deer, drink warm deer’s
blood, and leave the dangerous sleeper to his dreams.
But the man considered. Panthers
were indeed very few in New Brunswick, and undeniably
interesting. But he loved the deer; and to this particular
doe he felt that he perhaps owed his life. The debt
should be paid in full.
As the panther turned to slip
down the trunk of the tree, the man sat up straight.
He took careful but almost instantaneous aim, at a point
[Page 268] just behind the beast’s
fore-shoulder. At the report the great body fell limp,
a huddled heap of fur and long bared fangs. The man
sprang to his feet and stirred the camp-fire to a blaze.
And the doe, her heart pounding with panic, her curiosity
all devoured in consuming terror, went crashing off
through the bushes. [Page 269]