Panoply of Spears
was a pleasant humming all about the bee-tree, where it
stood solitary on the little knoll upon the sunward slope
of the forest. It was an ancient maple, one side long
since blasted by lightning, and now decayed to the heart;
while the other side yet put forth a green bravery of
branch and leaf. High up under a dead limb was a hole,
thronged about with diligent bees who came and went in
long diverging streams against the sun-steeped blue. A
mile below, around the little, straggling backwoods settlement,
the buckwheat was in bloom; and the bees counted the longest
day too short for the gathering of its brown and fragrant
fine contrast to their bustle and their haste was a moveless
dark brown figure clinging to a leafy branch on the other
and living side of the tree. From a distance it might
easily have been taken for a big bird’s-nest. Far
out on the limb it sat, huddled into a bristling ball.
Its nose, its whole head indeed, [Page 349]
were hidden between its fore paws, which childishly but
tenaciously clutched at a little upright branch. In this
position, seemingly so precarious, but really, for the
porcupine, the safest and most comfortable that could
be imagined, it dozed away the idle summer hours.
the thick woods at the foot of the knoll emerged a large
black bear, who lifted his nose and eyes shrewdly the
humming streams of workers converging at the hole in the
bee-tree. For some time the bear stood contemplative,
till an eager light grew in his small, cunning, half-humourous
eyes. His long red tongue came out and licked his lips,
as he thought of the summer’s sweetness now stored
in the hollow tree. He knew all about that prosperous
bee colony. He remembered when, two years before, the
runaway swarm from the settlement had taken possession
of the hole in the old maple. That same autumn he had
tried to rifle the treasure-house, but had found the wood
about the entrance still too sound and strong for even
such powerfully rending claws as his. He had gone away
surly with disappointment, to scratch a few angry bees
out of his fur, and wait for the natural processes of
decay to weaken the walls of the citadel.
On this particular day he decided
to try again. [Page 350] He had no expectation
that he would succeed; but the thought of the honey grew
irresistible to him as he dwelt upon it. He lumbered lazily
up the knoll, reared his dark bulk against the trunk,
and started to climb to the attack.
But the little workers in the
high-set hive found an unexpected protector in this hour
of their need. The dozing porcupine woke up, and took
it into his head that he wanted to go somewhere else.
Perhaps in his dreams a vision had come to him of the
lonely little oat-field in the clearing, where the young
grain was plumping out and already full of milky sweetness.
As a rule he preferred to travel and feed by night. But
the porcupine is the last amid the wild kindreds to let
convention interfere with impulse, and he does what seems
good to the whim of the moment. His present whim was to
descend the bee-tree and journey over to the clearing.
The bear had climbed but seven
or eight feet, when he heard the scrapings of claws on
the bark above. He heard also the light clattering noise,
unlike any other sound in the wilderness. He knew it at
once as the sound of the loose-hung, hollow quills in
a porcupine’s active tail; and looking up angrily,
he saw the porcupine curl himself downward [Page
351] from a crotch and begin descending the trunk
to meet him.
The bear weighed perhaps four
hundred or five hundred pounds. The porcupine weighed
perhaps twenty-five pounds. Nevertheless, the bear stopped;
and the porcupine came on. When he saw the bear, he gnashed
his teeth irritably, and his quills, his wonderful panoply
of finely barbed spears, erected themselves all over his
body till his usual bulk seemed doubled. At the same time
his colour changed. It was almost as if he had grown suddenly
pale with indignation; for when the long quills stood
up from among his blackish-brown fur they showed themselves
all white save for their dark keen points. Small as he
was in comparison with his gigantic opponent, he looked,
nevertheless, curiously formidable. He grunted and grumbled
querulously, and came on with confidence, obstinately
proclaiming that no mere bear should for a moment divert
him from his purpose.
Whether by instinct, experience,
or observation, the bear knew something about porcupines.
What would be honey to him, with two or three of those
slender and biting spear-points embedded in his nose?
As he thought of it, he backed away with increasing alacrity.
He checked a rash impulse [Page 352]
to dash the arrogant little hinderer from the tree and
annihilate him with one stoke of his mighty paw —
but the mighty paw cringed, winced, and drew back impotent,
as its sensitive nerves considered how it would feel to
be stuck full, like a pin-cushion, with inexorably penetrating
points. At last, thoroughly outfaced, the bear descended
to the ground, and stood aside respectfully for the porcupine
The porcupine, however, on reaching
the foot of the trunk, discovered an uncertainty in his
mind. His whim wavered. He stopped, scratched his ears
thoughtfully first with one fore paw and then with the
other, and tried his long, chisel-like front teeth, those
matchless gnawing machines, on a projecting edge of bark.
The bear eyed him
for some moments, then lumbered off into the woods indifferently,
convinced that the bee-tree would be just as interesting
on some other day. But before that other day came around,
the bear encountered Fate, lying in wait for him, grim
and implacable, beneath a trapper’s deadfall in
the heart of the tamarack swamp. And the humming tribes
in the bee-tree were left to possess their honeyed commonwealth
Soon after the bear had left the
knoll, the porcupine [Page 355] appeared
to make up his mind as to what he wanted to do. With an
air of fixed purpose he started down the knoll, heading
for the oat-field and the clearing which lay some half-mile
distant through the woods. As he moved on the ground,
he was a somewhat clumsy and wholly grotesque figure.
He walked with a deliberate and precise air, very slowly,
and his legs worked as if the earth were to them an unfamiliar
element. He was about two and a half feet long, short-legged,
solid and sturdy looking, with a nose curiously squared
off so that it should not get in the way of his gnawing.
As he confronted you, his great chisel teeth, bared and
conspicuous, appeared a most formidable weapon. Effective
as they were, however, they were not a weapon which he
was apt to call into use, save against inanimate and edible
opponents; because he could not do so without exposing
his weak points to attack, — his nose, his head,
his soft, unprotected throat. His real weapon of offence
was his short, thick tail, which was heavily armed with
very powerful quills. With this he could strike slashing
blows, such as would fill an enemy’s face or paws
with spines, and send him howling from the encounter.
Clumsy and inert it looked, on ordinary occasions; but
when need arose, its muscles had the lightning action
of a strong steel spring. [Page 356]
As the porcupine made his resolute
way through the woods, the manner of his going differed
from that of all the other kindreds of the wild. He went
not furtively. He had no particular objection to making
a noise. He did not consider it necessary to stop every
little while, stiffen himself to a monument of immobility,
cast wary glances about the gloom, and sniff the air for
the taint of enemies. He did not care who knew of his
coming; and he did not greatly care who came. Behind his
panoply of biting spears he felt himself secure, and in
that security he moved as if he held in fee the whole
green, shadowy, perilous woodland world.
A wood-mouse, sitting in the door
of his burrow between the roots of an ancient fir-tree,
went on washing his face with his dainty paws as the porcupine
passed within three feet of him. Almost any other forest
traveller would have sent the timid mouse darting to the
depths of his retreat; but he knew that the slow-moving
figure, however terrible to look at, had no concern for
wood-mice. The porcupine had barely passed, however, when
a weasel came in view. In a flash the mouse was gone,
to lie hidden for an hour, with trembling heart, in the
furthest darkness of his burrow.
Continuing his journey, the porcupine
passed [Page 357] under a fallen tree.
Along the horizontal trunk lay a huge lynx, crouched flat,
movelessly watching for rabbit, chipmunk, mink, or whatever
quarry might come within his reach. He was hungry, as
a lynx is apt to be. He licked his chaps, and his wide
eyes paled with savage fire, as the porcupine dawdled
by beneath the tree, within easy clutch of his claws.
But his claws made no least motion of attack. He, too,
like the bear, knew something about porcupines. In a few
moments, however, when the porcupine had gone on some
ten or twelve feet beyond his reach, his feelings overcame
him so completely that he stood up and gave vent to an
appalling scream of rage. All the other wild things within
hearing trembled at the sound, and were still; and the
porcupine, startled out of his equipoise, tucked his nose
between his legs, and bristled into a ball of sharp defiance.
The lynx eyed him venomously for some seconds, then dropped
lightly from the perch, and stole off to hunt in other
neighbourhoods, realising that his reckless outburst of
bad temper had warned all the coverts for a quarter of
a mile around. The porcupine, uncurling, grunted scornfully
and resumed his journey.
Very still, and lonely and bright
the clearing lay in the flooding afternoon sunshine. It
lay along [Page 358] beside a deeply
rutted, grass-grown backwoods road which had been long
forgotten by the attentions of the road-master. It was
enclosed from the forest in part by a dilapidated wall
of loose stones, in part by an old snake fence, much patched
with brush. The cabin which had once presided over its
solitude had long fallen to ruin; but its fertile soil
had saved it from being forgotten. A young farmer-lumberman
from the settlement a couple of miles away held possession
of it, and kept its boundaries more or less intact, and
made it yield him each year a crop of oats, barley, or
Emerging from the woods, the porcupine
crawled to the top of the stone wall and glanced about
him casually. Then he descended into the cool, light-green
depths of the growing oats. Here he was completely hidden,
though his passage was indicated as he went by the swaying
and commotion among the oat-tops.
The high plumes of the grain,
of course, were far above the porcupine’s reach;
and for a healthy appetite like his it would have been
tedious work indeed to pull down the stalks one by one.
At this point, he displayed an ingenious resourcefulness
with which he is seldom credited by observers of his kind.
Because he is slow in movement, folk are apt to conclude
[Page 359] that he is slow in wit; whereas
the truth is that he has fine reserves of shrewdness to
fall back on in emergency. Instead of pulling and treading
down the oats at haphazard, he moved through the grain
in a small circle, leaning heavily inward. When he had
thus gone around the circle several times, the tops of
the grain lay together in a convenient bunch. This succulent
sheaf he dragged down, and devoured with relish.
When he had abundantly satisfied
his craving for young oats, he crawled out upon the open
sward by the fence, and carelessly sampled the bark of
a seedling apple-tree. While he was thus engaged a big,
yellow dog came trotting up the wood-road, poking his
nose inquisitively into every bush and stump in the hope
of finding a rabbit or chipmunk to chase. He belonged
to the young farmer who owned the oat-field; and when,
through the rails of the snake fence, he caught sight
of the porcupine, he was filled with noisy wrath. Barking
and yelping, — partly with excitement, and partly
as a signal to his master who was trudging along the road
far behind him, — he clambered over the fence, and
bore down upon the trespasser.
The porcupine was not greatly
disturbed by this loud onslaught, but he did not let confidence
make [Page 360] him careless. He calmly
tucked his head under his breast, set his quills in battle
array, and awaited the event with composure.
Had he discovered the porcupine
in the free woods, the yellow dog would have let him severely
alone. But in his master’s oat-field, that was a
different matter. Moreover, the knowledge that his master
was coming added to his zeal and rashness; and he had
long cherished the ambition to kill a porcupine. He sprang
forward, open-jawed, — and stopped short when his
fangs were just within an inch or two of those bristling
and defiant points. Caution had come to his rescue just
For perhaps half a minute he ran,
whining and baffled, around the not-to-be daunted ball
of spines. Then he sat down upon his haunches, lifted
up his muzzle, and howled for his master to come and help
As his master failed to appear
within three seconds, his impatience got the better of
him, and he again began running around the porcupine,
snapping fiercely, but never coming within two or three
inches of the militant points. For a few minutes these
two or three inches proved to be a safe distance. Such
a distance from the shoulders, back, and sides was all
well enough. But suddenly, he was so misguided [Page
361] as to bring his teeth together within a
couple of inches of the armed but quiescent tail. This
was the instant for which the porcupine had been waiting.
The tail flicked smartly. The big dog jumped, gave a succession
of yelping cries, pawed wildly at his nose, then tucked
his tail between his legs, scrambled over the fence, and
fled away to his master. The porcupine unrolled himself,
and crawled into an inviting hole in the old stone wall.
About ten minutes later a very
angry man, armed with a fence-stake, appeared at the edge
of the clearing with a cowed dog at his heels. He wanted
to find the porcupine which had stuck those quills into
his dog’s nose. Mercifully merciless, he had held
the howling dog in a grip of iron while he pulled out
the quills with his teeth; and now he was after vengeance.
Knowing a little, but not everything, about porcupines,
he searched every tree in the immediate neighbourhood,
judging that the porcupine, after such an encounter, would
make all haste to his natural retreat. But he never looked
in the hole in the wall; and the yellow dog, who had come
to doubt the advisability of finding porcupines, refused
firmly to assist in the search. In a little while, when
his anger began to cool, he gave over the hunt in disgust,
threw away the fence-stake, [Page 362]
bit off a goodly chew from the fig of black tobacco which
he produced from his hip-pocket, and strode away up the
perhaps half an hour the porcupine dozed in the hole among
the stones. Then he woke up, crawled out, and moved slowly
along the top of the wall.
was a sound of children’s voices coming up the road;
but the porcupine, save for a grumble of impatience, paid
no attention. Presently the children came in sight, —
a stocky little boy of nine or ten, and a lank girl of
perhaps thirteen, making their way homeward from school
by the short cut over the mountain. Both were barefooted
and barelegged, deeply freckled, and with long, tow-coloured
locks. The boy wore a shirt and short breeches of blue-gray
homespun, the breeches held up precariously by one suspender.
On his head was a tattered and battered straw; and in
one hand he swung a little tin dinner-pail. The girl wore
the like glue-gray homespun for a petticoat, with a bright
red calico, and carried a limp pink sunbonnet on her arm.
see the porkypine!” cried the girl, as they came
abreast of the stone wall.
“By gosh! Let’s kill
it!” exclaimed the stocky [Page 363]
little boy, starting forward eagerly, with a prompt efflorescence
of primitive instincts. But his sister clutched him by
the arm and anxiously restrained him.
lands, Jimmy, you musn’t go near a porkypine like
that!” she protested, more learned than her brother
in the hoary myths of the settlements. “Don’t
you know he can fling them quills of his’n at you
, an’ they’ll go right through an’ come
out the other side?”
gosh!” gasped the boy, eyeing the unconcerned animal
with apprehension, and edging off to the furthermost ditch.
Hand in hand, their eyes wide with excitement, the two
children passed beyond the stone wall. Then, as he perceived
that the porcupine had not seemed to notice them, the
boy’s hunting instinct revived. He stopped, set
down the tin dinner-pail, and picked up a stone.
you don’t, Jimmy!” intervened the girl, with
mixed emotions of kindliness and caution, as she grabbed
his wrist and dragged him along.
“Why, Sis?” protested
the boy, hanging back, and looking over his shoulder longingly.
“Jest let me fling a stone at him!”
“No!” said his sister,
with decision. “He ain’t a-hurtin us, an’
he’s mindin’ his own business. An’ [Page
364] I reckon maybe he can fling quills as fur
as you can fling stones!”
Convinced by this latter argument,
the boy gave up his design, and suffered his wise sister
to lead him away from so perilous a neighbourhood. The
two little figures vanished amid the green glooms beyond
the clearing, and the porcupine was left untroubled in
autumn, late one moonlight night, the porcupine was
down by a little forest feasting on lily pads. He occupied
a post of great advantage, a long, narrow ledge of rock
jutting out into the midst of the lilies, and rising
but an inch or two above the water. Presently, to his
great indignation, he heard a dry rustling of quills
behind him, and saw another porcupine crawl out upon
his rock. He faced about, bristling angrily and gnashing
his teeth, and advanced to repel the intruder.
The intruder hesitated, then
came on again with confidence, but making no hostile
demonstrations whatever. When the two met, the expected
conflict was by some sudden agreement omitted. They
touched blunt noses, squeaked and grunted together awhile
till a perfect understanding was established; [Page
365] then crawled ashore and left the lily
pads to rest, broad, shiny, and unruffled in the moonlight,
little platters of silver on the dark glass of the lake.
The newcomer was a female; and
with such brief wooing the big porcupine had taken her
for his mate. Now he led her off to show her the unequalled
den which he had lately discovered. The den was high
in the side of a heap of rocks, dry in all weathers,
and so overhung by a half-uprooted tree as to be very
well concealed from passers and prowlers. Its entrance
was long and narrow, deterrent to rash investigators.
In fact, just after the porcupine had moved in, a red
fox had discovered the doorway and judged it exactly
to his liking; but on finding that the occupant was
a porcupine, he hastily decided to seek accommodations
elsewhere. In this snug house the two porcupines settled
contentedly for the winter.
The winter passed somewhat uneventfully
for them, though for the rest of the wood-folk it was
a season of unwonted hardship. The cold was more intense
and more implacable than had been known about the settlement
for years. Most of the wild creatures, save those who
could sleep the bitter months away and abide the coming
of spring, found [Page 366] themselves
face to face with famine. But the porcupines feared
neither famine nor cold. The brown fur beneath their
quills was thick and warm, and hunger was impossible
to them with all the trees of the forest for their pasturage.
Sometimes, when the cold made them sluggish, they would
stay all day and night in a single balsam-fir or hemlock,
stripping one branch after another of leaf and twig,
indifferent to the monotony of their diet. At other
times, however, they were as active and enterprising
as if all the heats of summer were loosing their sinews.
On account of the starvation-madness that was everywhere
ranging the coverts, they were more than once attacked
as they crawled lazily over the snow; but on each occasion
the enemy, whether lynx or fox, fisher or mink, withdrew
discomfited, with something besides hunger in his hide
to think about.
Once, in midwinter, they found
a prize which added exquisite variety to their bill
of fare. Having wandered down to the outskirts of the
settlements, they discovered, cast aside among the bushes,
an empty firkin which had lately contained salt pork.
The wood, saturated with brine, was delicious to the
porcupines. Greedily they gnawed at it, returning night
after night to the novel banquet [Page 367]
till the last sliver of the flavoured wood was gone.
Then, after lingering a day or two longer in the neighbourhood,
expecting another miracle, they returned to their solitudes
and their hemlock.
When winter was drawing near
its close, but spring had not yet sent the wilderness
word of her coming, the porcupines got her message in
their blood. They proclaimed it abroad in the early
twilight from the tops of the high hemlocks, in queer,
half-rhythmical choruses of happy grunts and squeaks.
The sound was far from melodious, but it pleased every
one of the wild kindred to whose ears it came; for they
knew that when the porcupines got trying to sing, then
the spring thaws were hurrying up from the south.
At last the long desired one
came; and every little rill ran a brawling brook in
the fulness of its joy. And the ash-buds swelled rich
purple; and the maples crimsoned with their misty blooms;
and the skunk cabbage began to thrust up bold knobs
of emerald, startling in their brightness, through the
black and naked leaf-mould of swamp. And just at this
time, when all the wild kindred, from the wood-mouse
to the moose, felt sure that life was good, a porcupine
baby was born in the snug den among the rocks. [Page
It was an astonishingly
big baby, — the biggest, in proportion to the
size of its parents, of all the babies of the wild.
In fact it was almost as big as an average bear cub.
It was covered with long, dark brown, silky fur, under
which the future panoply of spear-points was already
beginning to make way through the tender skin. Its mother
was very properly proud, and assiduous in her devotion.
And the big father, though seemingly quite indifferent,
kept his place contentedly in the den instead of going
off sourly by himself to another lair as the porcupine
male is apt to do on the arrival of the young.
One evening about dusk,
when the young porcupine was but three days old, a weasel
up to the door of the den, and sniffed. His eyes, set
close together and far down toward his malignant, pointed
nose, were glowing red with the lust of the kill. Fierce
and fearless as he was, he knew well enough that a porcupine
was something for him to let alone. But this, surely,
was his chance to feed fat an ancient grudge; for he
hated everything that he could not hope to kill. He
had seen the mother porcupine feeding comfortably in
the top of a near-by poplar. And now he made assurance
doubly sure by sniffing at her trail, which came out
from the den and did not return. As [Page 371]
for the big male porcupine, the prowler took it for
granted that he had followed the usage of his kind,
and gone off about other business. Like a snake, he
slipped in, and found the furry baby all alone. There
was a strong, squeaking cry, a moment’s struggle;
and the weasel drank eagerly at the blood of his easy
prey. The blood, and the fierce joy of the kill, were
all he wanted, for his hunting was only just begun.
The assassin stayed
but a minute with his victim, then turned swiftly to
the door of the den. But the door was blocked. It was
filled by an ominous, bristling bulk, which advanced
upon him slowly, inexorably, making a sharp, clashing
sound with its long teeth. The big porcupine had come
home. And his eyes blazed more fiercely red than those
of the weasel.
The weasel, fairly
caught, felt that doom was upon him. He backed away,
over the body of his victim, to the furthest depth of
the den. But, though a ruthless murderer, the most cruel
of all the wild kindred, he was no coward. He would
evade the slow avenger if he could; but if not, he would
fight to the last gasp.
Against this foe the
porcupine scorned his customary tactics, and depended
upon his terrible cutting [Page 372]
teeth. At the same time he knew that the weasel was
desperate and deadly. Therefore he held his head low,
shielding his tender throat. When he reached the wider
part of the den, he suddenly swung sideways, thus keeping
the exit still blocked.
Seeing now that there
was no escape, the weasel gathered his forces for one
last fight. Like lightning he sprang, and struck; and
being, for speed, quite matchless among the wild folk,
he secured a deadly hold on the porcupine’s jaw.
The porcupine squeaked furiously and tried to shake
his adversary off. With a sweep of his powerful neck,
he threw the weasel to one side, and then into the air
over his head.
The next instant the
weasel came down, sprawling widely, full upon the stiffly
erected spears of the porcupine’s back. They pierced
deep into his tender belly. With a shrill cry he relaxed
his hold on the avenger’s jaw, shrank together
in anguish, fell to the ground, and darted to the exit.
As he passed he got a heavy slap from the porcupine’s
tail, which filled his face and neck with piercing barbs.
Then he escaped from the den and fled away toward his
own lair, carrying his death with him. Before he had
gone a hundred yards one of the quills in his [Page
373] belly reached a vital part. He faltered,
fell, stretched his legs out weakly, and died. Then
a red squirrel, who had been watching him in a quiver
of fear and hate, shot from his hiding-place, ran wildly
up and down his tree, and made the woods ring with his
sharp, barking chatter of triumph over the death of
the universal enemy.
In the midst of the
squirrel’s shrill rejoicings the porcupine emerged
from his den. He seemed to hesitate, which is not the
way of a porcupine. He looked at his mate, still foraging
in the top of her poplar, happily unaware for the present
of how her little world had changed. He seemed to realise
that the time of partings had come, the time he must
resume his solitude. He turned and looked at his den,
— he would never find another like it! Then he
crawled off through the cool, wet woods, where the silence
seemed to throb sweetly with the stir and fullness of
the sap. And in a hollow log, not far from the bee-tree
on the knoll, he found himself a new home, small and
THE END. [Page 374]