Seek their Meat from God.
ONE side of
the ravine was in darkness. The darkness was soft and
rich, suggesting thick foliage. Along the crest of the
slope tree-tops came into view—great pines and hemlocks
of the ancient unviolated forest—revealed against
the orange disk of a full moon just rising. The low rays
slanting through the moveless tops lit strangely the upper
portion of the opposite steep,—the western wall
of the ravine, barren, unlike its fellow, bossed with
great rocky projections [Page 11], and
harsh with stunted junipers. Out of the sluggish dark
that lay along the ravine as in a trough, rose the brawl
of a swollen, obstructed stream.
Out of a shadowy hollow behind
a long white rock, on the lower edge of that part of the
steep which lay in the moonlight, came softly a great
panther. In common daylight his coat would have shown
a warm fulvous hue, but in the elvish decolorizing rays
of that half hidden moon he seemed to wear a sort of spectral
gray. He lifted his smooth round head to gaze on the increasing
flame, which presently he greeted with a shrill cry. That
terrible cry, at once plaintive and menacing, with an
undertone like the fierce protestations of a saw beneath
the file, was a summons to his mate, telling her that
the hour had come when they should seek their prey. From
the lair behind the rock, where the cubs [Page
12] were being suckled by their dam, came no
immediate answer. Only a pair of crows, that had their
nest in a giant fir-tree across the gulf, woke up and
croaked harshly their indignation. These three summers
past they had built in the same spot, and had been nightly
awakened to vent the same rasping complaints.
The panther walked restlessly
up and down, half a score of paces each way, along the
edge of the shadow, keeping his wide-open green eyes upon
the rising light. His short, muscular tail twitched impatiently,
but he made no sound. Soon the breadth of confused brightness
had spread itself further down the steep, disclosing the
foot of the white rock, and the bones and antlers of a
deer which had been dragged thither and devoured.
By this time the cubs had made
their meal, and their dam was ready for such enterprise
as must be accomplished [Page 13] ere
her own hunger, now grown savage, could hope to be assuaged.
She glided supplely forth into the glimmer, raised her
head, and screamed at the moon in a voice as terrible
as her mate’s. Again the crows stirred, croaking
harshly; and the two beasts, noiselessly mounting the
steep, stole into the shadows of the forest that clothed
the high plateau.
The panthers were fierce with
hunger. These two days past their hunting had been wellnigh
fruitless. What scant prey they had slain had for the
most part been devoured by the female; for had she not
those small blind cubs at home to nourish, who soon must
suffer at any lack of hers? The settlements of late had
been making great inroads on the world of ancient forest,
driving before them the deer and smaller game. Hence the
sharp hunger of the panther parents, and hence it [Page
14] came that on this night they hunted together.
They purposed to steal upon the settlements in their sleep,
and take tribute of the enemies’ flocks.
Through the dark of the thick
woods, here and there pierced by the moonlight, they moved
swiftly and silently. Now and again a dry twig would snap
beneath the discreet and padded footfalls. Now and again,
as they rustled some low tree, a pewee or a nuthatch would
give a startled chirp. For an hour the noiseless journeying
continued, and ever and anon the two gray, sinuous shapes
would come for a moment into the view of the now well-risen
moon. Suddenly there fell upon their ears, far off and
faint, but clearly defined against the vast stillness
of the Northern forest, a sound which made those stealthy
hunters pause and lift their heads. It was the voice of
a child crying,—crying [Page 15] long
and loud, hopelessly, as if there were no one by to comfort
it. The panthers turned aside from their former course
and glided toward the sound. They were not yet come to
the outskirts of the settlement, but they knew of a solitary
cabin lying in the thick of the woods a mile and more
from the nearest neighbor. Thither they bent their way,
fired with fierce hope. Soon would they break their bitter
Up to noon of the previous day
the lonely cabin had been occupied. Then its owner, a
shiftless fellow, who spent his days for the most part
at the corner tavern three miles distant, had suddenly
grown disgusted with a land wherein one must work to live,
and had betaken himself with his seven-year-old boy to
seek some more indolent clime. During the long lonely
days when his father was away at the tavern the little
boy had been wont to visit the [Page 16] house
of the next neighbor, to play with a child of some five
summers, who had no other playmate. The next neighbor
was a prosperous pioneer, being master of a substantial
frame house in the midst of a large and well-tilled clearing.
At times, though rarely, because it was forbidden, the
younger child would make his way by a rough wood road
to visit his poor little disreputable playmate. At length
it had appeared that the five-year-old was learning unsavory
language from the elder boy, who rarely had an opportunity
of hearing speech more desirable. To the bitter grief
of both children, the companionship had at length been
stopped by unalterable decree of the master of the frame
Hence it had come to pass that
the little boy was unaware of his comrade’s departure.
Yielding at last to an eager longing for that comrade,
he had stolen away late in the [Page 17] afternoon,
traversed with endless misgivings the lonely stretch of
wood road, and reached the cabin only to find it empty.
The door, on its leathern hinges, swung idly open. The
one room had been stripped of its few poor furnishings.
After looking in the rickety shed, whence darted two wild
and hawklike chickens, the child had seated himself on
the hacked threshold, and sobbed passionately with a grief
that he did not fully comprehend. Then seeing the shadows
lengthen across the tiny clearing, he had grown afraid
to start for home. As the dusk gathered, he had crept
trembling into the cabin, whose door would not stay shut.
When it grew quite dark, he crouched in the inmost corner
of the room, desperate with fear and loneliness, and lifted
up his voice piteously. From time to time his lamentations
would be choked by sobs, or he would grow breathless,
and in the terrifying [Page 18] silence
would listen hard to hear if any one or anything were
coming. Then again would the shrill childish wailings
arise, startling the unexpectant night, and piercing the
forest depths, even to the ears of those great beasts
which had set forth to seek their meat from God.
The lonely cabin stood some distance,
perhaps a quarter of a mile, back from the highway connecting
the settlements. Along this main road a man was plodding
wearily. All day he had been walking, and now as he neared
home his steps began to quicken with anticipation of rest.
Over his shoulder projected a double-barrelled fowling-piece,
from which was slung a bundle of such necessities as he
had purchased in town that morning. It was the prosperous
settler, the master of the frame house. His mare being
with foal, he had chosen to make the tedious journey on
foot [Page 19].
The settler passed the mouth of
the wood road leading to the cabin. He had gone perhaps
a furlong beyond, when his ears were startled by the sound
of a child crying in the woods. He stopped, lowered his
burden to the road, and stood straining ears and eyes
in the direction of the sound. It was just at this time
that the two panthers also stopped, and lifted their heads
to listen. Their ears were keener than those of the man,
and the sound had reached them at a greater distance.
Presently the settler realized
whence the cries were coming. He called to mind the cabin;
but he did not know the cabin’s owner had departed.
He cherished a hearty contempt for the drunken squatter;
and on the drunken squatter’s child he looked with
small favor, especially as a playmate for his own boy.
Nevertheless he hesitated before resuming his journey
“Poor little devil!”
he muttered, half in wrath. “I reckon his precious
father’s drunk down at ‘the Corners,’
and him crying for loneliness!” Then he reshouldered
his burden and strode on doggedly.
But louder, shriller, more hopeless
and more appealing, arose the childish voice, and the
settler paused again, irresolute, and with deepening indignation.
In his fancy he saw the steaming supper his wife would
have awaiting him. He loathed the thought of retracing
his steps, and then stumbling a quarter of a mile through
the stumps and bog of the wood road. He was foot-sore
as well as hungry, and he cursed the vagabond squatter
with serious emphasis; but in that wailing was a terror
which would not let him go on. He thought of his own little
one left in such a position, and straightway his heart
melted. He turned, dropped his bundle behind some [Page
21] bushes, grasped his gun, and made speed back
for the cabin.
“Who knows,” he said
to himself, “but that drunken idiot has left his
youngster without a bite to eat in the whole miserable
shanty? Or maybe he’s locked out, and the poor little
beggar’s half scared to death. Sounds as
if he was scared;” and at this thought the settler
quickened his pace.
As the hungry panthers drew near
the cabin, and the cries of the lonely child grew clearer,
they hastened their steps, and their eyes opened to a
wider circle, flaming with a greener fire. It would be
thoughtless superstition to say the beasts were cruel.
They were simply keen with hunger, and alive with the
eager passion of the chase. They were not ferocious with
any anticipation of battle, for they knew the voice was
the voice of a child, and something in the voice told
them the child was solitary [Page 22].
Theirs was no hideous or unnatural rage, as it is the
custom to describe it. They were but seeking with the
strength, the cunning, the deadly swiftness given them
to that end, the food convenient for them. On their success
in accomplishing that for which nature had so exquisitely
designed them depended not only their own, but the lives
of their blind and helpless young, now whimpering in the
cave on the slope of the moon-lit ravine. They crept through
a wet alder thicket, bounded lightly over the ragged brush
fence, and paused to reconnoitre on the edge of the clearing,
in the full glare of the moon. At the same moment the
settler emerged from the darkness of the wood road on
the opposite side of the clearing. He saw the two great
beasts, heads down and snouts thrust forward, gliding
toward the open cabin door [Page 23].
For a few moments the child had
been silent. Now his voice rose again in pitiful appeal,
a very ecstasy of loneliness and terror. There was a note
in the cry that shook the settler’s soul. He had
a vision of his own boy, at home with his mother, safe-guarded
from even the thought of peril. And here was this little
one left to the wild beasts! “Thank God! Thank God
I came!” murmured the settler, as he dropped on
one knee to take a surer aim. There was a loud report
(not like the sharp crack of a rifle), and the female
panther, shot through the loins, fell in a heap, snarling
furiously and striking with her fore-paws.
The male walked around her in
fierce and anxious amazement. Presently, as the smoke
lifted, he discerned the settler kneeling for a second
shot. With a high screech of fury, the lithe brute sprang
upon his enemy, taking a bullet full in his [Page
24] chest without seeming to know he was hit.
Ere the man could slip in another cartridge the beast
was upon him, bearing him to the ground and fixing keen
fangs in his shoulder. Without a word, the man set his
strong fingers desperately into the brute’s throat,
wrenched himself partly free, and was struggling to rise,
when the panther’s body collapsed upon him all at
once, a dead weight which he easily flung aside. The bullet
had done its work just in time.
Quivering from the swift and dreadful
contest, bleeding profusely from his mangled shoulder,
the settler stepped up to the cabin door and peered in.
He heard sobs in the darkness.
“Don’t be scared,
sonny,” he said, in a reassuring voice. “I’m
going to take you home along with me. Poor little lad,
I’ll look after you if folks that ought
to don’t [Page 25].”
Out of the dark corner came a
shout of delight, in a voice which made the settler’s
heart stand still.
it said, “I knew you’d come. I was
so frightened when it got dark!” And a little figure
launched itself into the settler’s arms, and clung
to him trembling. The man sat down on the threshold and
strained the child to his breast. He remembered how near
he had been to disregarding the far-off cries, and great
beads of sweat broke out upon his forehead.
Not many weeks afterwards the
settler was following the fresh trail of a bear which
had killed his sheep. The trail let him at last along
the slope of a deep ravine, from whose bottom came the
brawl of a swollen and obstructed stream. In the ravine
he found a shallow cave, behind a great white rock. The
cave was plainly a wild beast’s lair, and he entered
circumspectly. There were [Page 26] bones
scattered about, and on some dry herbage in the deepest
corner of the den, he found the dead bodies, now rapidly
decaying, of two small panther cubs [Page 27].