Charles George Douglas Roberts.

The watchers of the trails : a book of animal life online

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Matchers of the trails

a oofc of Snimal ILife





Author of

"The Kindred of the Wild/ 9 " The Heart of
the Ancient Wood," "Barbara Ladd," "The

Forge in the

With many






Copyright, 1904, by

Copyright, 1304, by,


Copyright, 1903, '904, by

Copyright, 1903, by


Copyright, 1903, by

Copyright, 1902, 1903, by

Copyright, 1902, by


Copyright, 1904, by


All rights reserved

Published, June, 1904

Colonial \9rtss

Electrotyped and Printed by C. H. Slrrc'ds & Co.

Boston, Mass., U. S. A.


fellow ot tbe
Erne0t Gbompson Seton


prefatory mote

iN the preface to a former volume 1 I have
endeavoured to trace the development of
the modern animal story and have indi-
cated what appeared to me to be its tendency and
scope. It seems unnecessary to add anything here
but a few words of more personal application.

The stories of which this volume is made up
are avowedly fiction. They are, at the same time,
true, in that the material of which they are moulded
consists of facts, facts as precise as painstaking
observation and anxious regard for truth can make
them. Certain of the stories, of course, are true
literally. Literal truth may be attained by stories
which treat of a single incident, or of action so
restricted as to lie within the scope of a single ob-
servation. When, on the other hand, a story follows
the career of a wild creature of the wood or air or
water through wide intervals of time and space, it
is obvious that the truth of that story must be of

'The Kindr-d of the Wild."

via pretator^ IRote

a different kind. The complete picture which such
a story presents is built up from observation neces-
sarily detached and scattered ; so that the utmost it
can achieve as a whole is consistency with truth.
If a writer has, by temperament, any sympa-
thetic understanding of the wild kindreds; if he
has any intimate knowledge of their habits, with
any sensitiveness to the infinite variation of their
personalities; and if he has chanced to live much
among them during the impressionable periods of
his life, and so become saturated in their atmosphere
and their environment ; then he may hope to
make his most elaborate piece of animal biography
not less true to nature than his transcript of an
isolated fact. The present writer, having spent
most of his boyhood on the fringes of the forest,
with few interests save those which the forest
afforded, may claim to have had the intimacies of
the wilderness as it were thrust upon him. The
earliest enthusiasms which he can recollect are con-
nected with some of the furred or feathered kin-
dred; and the first thrills strong enough to leave
a lasting mark on his memory are those with which
he used to follow furtive, apprehensive, expect-
ant, breathlessly watchful the lure of an unknown

prefatory IRote

There is one more point which may seem to claim
a word. A very distinguished author to whom
all contemporary writers on nature are indebted,
and from whom it is only with the utmost diffidence
that I venture to dissent at all has gently called
me to account on the charge of ascribing to my ani-
mals human motives and the mental processes of
man. The fact is, however, that this fault is one
which I have been at particular pains to guard
against. The psychological processes of the ani-
mals are- so simple, so obvious, in comparison with
those of man, their actions flow so directly from
their springs of impulse, that it is, as a rule, an
easy matter to infer the motives which are at any
one moment impelling them. In my desire to avoid
alike the melodramatic, the visionary, and the sen-
timental, I have studied to keep well within the
limits of safe inference. Where I may have seemed
to state too confidently the motives underlying the
special action of this or that animal, it will usually
be found that the action itself is very fully pre-
sented; and it will, I think, be further found that
the motive which I have here assumed affords the
most reasonable, if not the only reasonable, explana-
tion of that action. C. G. D. R.

NEW YORK, April, 1904.

Contents of the Book


prefatory mote ..... vii

ffreeoom of tbe Blacfe=faceo IRam 3

faster of Ooloen pool ... 25

ft be "Return to tbe trails ... 45

Ube Xittle Wolf of tbe pool . . 65

Ube Xittle Wolf of tbe Hir . . . 73

Ube alien of tbe Wilo .... 83

Ube Silver frost ..... Ill

Bs tbe Winter TTi&e .... 121

ZTbe IRivals of IRingwaaft . . .131

Ube Decoy ....... 155

Ube %augb in tbe Barf? . . . . 173

ftbe fjings of tbe flnterxmle . . . 185

TTbe -Rill ....... 197


Watchers of tbe tTraits

jfreebom of tbe Blacfc*facet> IRam

;N the top of Ringwaak Hill the black-
faced ram stood motionless, looking off
with mild, yellow eyes across the wooded
level, across the scattered farmsteads of the settle-
ment, and across the bright, retreating spirals of
the distant river, to that streak of scarlet light on
the horizon which indicated the beginning of sun-
rise. A few paces below him, half-hidden by a
gray stump, a green juniper bush, and a mossy
brown hillock, lay a white ewe with a lamb at her
side. The ewe's jaws moved leisurely, as she chewed
her cud and gazed up with comfortable confidence
at the sturdy figure of the ram silhouetted against
the brightening sky.

This sunrise was the breaking of the black-faced
ram's first day in the wilderness. Never before

4 ^be TKHatcbers of tbe trails

had he stood on an open hilltop and watched the
light spread magically over a wide, wild landscape.
Up to the morning of the previous day, his three
years of life had been passed in protected, green-
hedged valley pastures, amid tilled fields and well-
stocked barns, beside a lilied water. This rugged,
lonely, wide-visioned world into which fortune
had so unexpectedly projected him filled him with
wonder. Yet he felt strangely at ease therein.
The hedged pastures had never quite suited him;
but here, at length, in the great spaces, he felt at
home. The fact was that, alike in character and in
outward appearance, he was a reversion to far-off
ancestors. He was the product of a freak of

In the fat-soiled valley-lands, some fifteen miles
back of Ringwaak Hill, the farmers had a heavy,
long-wooled, hornless strain of sheep, mainly of
the Leicester breed, which had been crossed, years
back, by an imported Scotch ram of one of the
horned, courageous, upland, black-faced varieties.
The effect of this hardy cross had apparently all
been bred out, save for an added stamina in the
resulting stock, which was uniformly white and
hornless. When, therefore, a lamb was born with
a black face and blackish-gray legs, it was cherished

Ube ffreeoom of tbe JBlacft*face& 1Ram 5

as a curiosity; and when, in time, it developed a
splendid pair of horns, it became the handsomest
ram in all the valley, and a source of great pride
to its owner. But when black-faced lambs began
to grow common in the hornless and immaculate
flocks, the feelings of the valley folks changed, and
word went around that the strain of the white-faced
must be kept pure. Then it was decreed that the
great horned ram should no longer sire the flocks,
but be hurried to the doom of his kind and go to
the shambles.

Just at this time, however, a young farmer from
the backwoods settlement over behind Ringwaak
chanced to visit the valley. The sheep of his set-
tlement were not only hornless, but small and light-
wooled as well, and the splendid, horned ram took
his fancy. Here was a chance to improve his breed.
He bought the ram for what he was worth to the
butcher, and proudly led him away, over the hills
and through the great woods, toward the settlement
on the other side of Ringwaak.

The backwoodsman knew right well that a flock
of sheep may be driven, but that a single sheep
must be led ; so he held his new possession securely
by a piece of stout rope about ten feet long. For
an hour or two the ram followed with an exemplary

6 Ube TKHatcbets of tbe Urails

docility quite foreign to his independent spirit.
He was subdued by the novelty of his surround-
ings, the hillocky, sloping pastures, and the shad-
owy solemnity of the forest. Moreover, he per-
ceived, in his dim way, a kind of mastery in this
heavy -booted, homespun -clad, tobacco -chew ing,
grave-eyed man from the backwoods, and for a
long time he felt none of his usual pugnacity. But
by and by the craving for freedom began to stir in
his breast, and the blood of his hill-roving ances-
tors thrilled toward the wild pastures. The glances
which, from time to time, he cast upon the back-
woodsman at the other end of the rope became
wary, calculating, and hostile. This stalwart form,
striding before him, was the one barrier between
himself and freedom. Freedom was a thing of
which he knew, indeed, nothing, a thing which,
to most of his kind, would have seemed terrifying
rather than alluring. But to him, with that in-
herited wildness stirring in his blood, it seemed the
thing to be craved before all else.

Presently they came to a little cold spring, bub-
bling up beside the road and tinkling over the steep
bank. The road at this point ran along a hillside,
and the slope below the road was clothed with blue-
berry and other dense shrubs. The backwoodsman

ffreefcom of tbe Blacfe^faceD 1Ram 7

was hot and thirsty. Flinging aside his battered
hat, he dropped down on his hands and knees be-
side the spring and touched his lips to the water.

In this position, still holding the rope in a firm
grasp, he had his back to the ram. Moreover, he
no longer looked either formidable or commanding.
The ram saw his chance. A curious change came
over his mild, yellow eyes. They remained yellow,
indeed, but became cold, sinister, and almost cruel
in their expression.

The backwoodsman, as he drank, held a tight
grip on the rope. The ram settled back slightly,
till the rope was almost taut. Then he launched
himself forward. His movement was straight and
swift, as if he had been propelled by a gigantic
spring. His massive, broad-horned forehead struck
the stooping man with terrific force.

With a grunt of pain and amazement, the man
shot sprawling over the bank, and landed, half-
stunned, in a clump of blueberry bushes. Dazed
and furious, he picked himself up, passed a heavy
hand across his scratched, smarting face, and turned
to see the ram disappearing among the thickets
above the road. His disappointment so overcame
his wrath that he forgot to exercise his vigorous
backwoods vocabulary, and resumed his homeward

8 Ube THUatcbers of tbe trails

way with his head full of plans for the recapture
of his prize.

The ram, meanwhile, trailing the length of rope
behind him, was galloping madly through the
woods. He was intoxicated with his freedom.
These rough, wild, lonely places seemed to him
his home. With all his love for the wilderness,
the instinct which had led him to it was altogether
faulty and incomplete. It supplied him with none
of the needful forest lore. He had no idea of cau-
tion. He had no inkling of fear. He had no
conception of the enemies that might lurk in thicket
or hollow. He went crashing ahead as if the green
world belonged to him, and cared not who might
hear the brave sound of his going. Now and then
he stepped on the rope, and stumbled; but that
was a small matter.

Through dark strips of forest, over rocky, tan-
gled spaces, across slopes of burnt barren, his prog-
ress was always upward, until, having traversed
several swampy vales and shadowy ravines, toward
evening he came out upon the empty summit of
Ringwaak. On the topmost 'hillock he took his
stand proudly, his massive head and broad, curled
horns in splendid relief against the amber sky.

As he stood, surveying his new realm, a low

yreeoom ot tbe 3Blacfe*facet> 1Ram 9

bleat came to him from a sheltered hollow close
by, and, looking down, he saw a small white ewe
with a new-born lamb nursing under her flank.
Here was his new realm peopled at once. Here
were followers of his own kind. He stepped briskly
down from his hillock and graciously accepted the
homage of the ewe, who snuggled up against him
as if afraid at the loneliness and the coming on
of night. All night he slept beside the mother and
her young, in the sheltered hollow, and kept no
watch because he feared no foe. But the ewe kept
watch, knowing well what perils might steal upon
them in the dark.

As it chanced, however, no midnight prowler
visited the summit of Ringwaak Hill, and the first
of dawn found the great ram again at his post of
observation. It is possible that he had another
motive besides his interest in his new, wonderful
world. He may have expected the woodsman to
follow and attempt his recapture, and resolved not
to be taken unawares. Whatever his motive, he
kept his post till the sun was high above the hori-
zon, and the dew-wet woods gleamed as if sown
with jewels. Then he came down and began to
feed with the ewe, cropping the short, tfcn grass

io tlbe Tldatcbera of tbe trails

with quick bites and finding it far more sweet than
the heavy growths of his old pasture.

Late in the morning, when pasturing was over
for the time, the ram and the little ewe lay down
in the shade of a steep rock, comfortably chewing
their cud, while the lamb slept at its mother's side.
The ram, deeply contented, did not observe two
gray-brown, stealthy forms creeping along the slope,
from bush to rock, and from stump to hillock.
But the ewe, ever on the watch, presently caught
sight of them, and sprang to her feet with a snort
of terror. She knew well enough what a lynx was.
Yet for all her terror she had no thought of flight.
Her lamb was too young to flee, and she would
stay by it in face of any fate.

The ram got up more slowly, turned his head,
and eyed the stealthy strangers with grave curiosity.
Curiosity, however, changed into hostility as he
saw by the ewe's perturbation that the strangers
were foes ; and a sinister glitter came into the great
gold eyes which shone so brilliantly from his black

Seeing themselves discovered, the two lynxes
threw aside their cunning and rushed ravenously
upon what they counted easy prey. They knew
something of the timorous hearts of sheep, and


ZTbe jfreefcom of tbe Blacfe*facefc IRam n

had little expectation of resistance. But being,
first of all, hungry rather than angry, they pre-
ferred what seemed easiest to get. It was upon
the lamb and the ewe that they sprang, ignoring
the ram contemptuously.

One thing which they had not reckoned with,
however, was the temper of the ewe. Before one
fierce claw could reach her lamb, she had butted
the assailant so fiercely in the flank that he forgot
his purpose and turned with a snarl of rage to
rend her. Meanwhile the other lynx, springing for
her neck, had experienced the unexpected. He had
been met by the lightning charge of the ram, fair
in the ribs, and hurled sprawling into a brittle,
pointed tangle of dead limbs sticking up from the
trunK of a fallen tree.

Having delivered this most effective blow, the
ram stepped back a pace or two, mincing on his
slender feet, and prepared to repeat it. The lynx
was struggling frantically among the branches,
which stuck into him and tore his fine fur. Just
in time to escape the second assault he got free,
but free not for fight but for flight. One tre-
mendous, wildly contorted leap landed him on the
other side of the dead tree ; and, thoroughly cowed,
he scurried away down the hillside.

12 Ube matcbers of tbe trails

The ram at once turned his attention to the ewe
and her antagonist. But the second lynx, who
had not found his task so simple as he had ex-
pected it to be, had no stomach left for one more
difficult. The ewe was bleeding about the head,
and would, of course, if she had been left to fight
it out, have been worsted in a very short time.
But the enemy had felt the weight of her blows
upon his ribs, and had learned his lesson. For
just a fraction of a second he turned, and defied
the ram with a screeching snarl. But when that
horned, black, battering head pitched forward at
him he bounded aside like a furry gray ball and
clambered to the top of the rock. Here he crouched
for some moments, snarling viciously, his tufted
ears set back against his neck, and his stump of a
tail twitching with rage, while the ram minced to
and fro beneath him, stamping defiance with his
dainty hoofs. All at once the big cat doubled upon
itself, slipped down the other side of the rock, and
went gliding away through the stumps and hillocks
like a gray shadow ; and the ram, perhaps to conceal
his elation, fell to grazing as if nothing out of the
ordinary had happened. The ewe, on the other
hand, seeing the danger so well past, took no

jfreefcom ot tbe Blach-face& IRam 13

thought of her torn face, but set herself to comfort
and reassure the trembling lamb.

After this, through the slow, bright hours while
the sun swung hotly over Ringwaak, the ram and
his little family were undisturbed. An eagle, wheel-
ing, wheeling, wheeling in the depths of the blue,
looked down and noted the lamb. But he had no
thought of attacking so well guarded a prey. The
eagle had a wider outlook than others of the wild
kindred, and he knew from of old many matters
which the lynxes of Ringwaak had never learned
till that day.

There were other visitors that came and glanced
at the little family during the quiet content of their
cud-chewing. A weasel ran restlessly over a hillock
and peered down upon them with hard, bright eyes.
The big ram, with his black face and huge, curling
horns, was a novel phenomenon, and the weasel
disappeared behind the hillock, only to appear again
much nearer, around a clump of weeds. His curi-
osity was mingled with malicious contempt, till the
ram chanced' to rise and shake his head. Then the
weasel saw the rope that wriggled from the ram's
neck. Was it some new and terrible kind of snake?
The weasel respected snakes when they were large

14 Ube TKHatcbers of tbe trails

and active; so he forgot his curiosity and slipped
away from the dangerous neighbourhood.

The alarm of the weasel, however, was nothing
to that of the wood-mice. While the ram was lying
-down they came out of their secret holes and played
about securely, seeming to realize that the big ani-
mal's presence was a safeguard to them. But when
he moved, and they saw the rope trail sinuously
behind him. through the scanty grass, they were
almost paralyzed with panic. Such a snake as that
would require all the wood-mice on Ringwaak to
assuage his appetite. They fairly fell backward
into their burrows, where they crouched quivering
in the darkest recesses, not daring to show their
noses again for hours.

Neither weasel nor wood-mice, nor the chickadees
which came to eye him saucily, seemed to the big
ram worth a moment's attention. But when a
porcupine, his quills rattling and bristling till he
looked as big around as a half-bushel basket, strolled
aimlessly by, the ram was interested and rose to
his feet. The little, deep-set eyes of the porcupine
mssed over him with supremest indifference, and
their owner began to gnaw at the bark of a hemlock
sapling which grew at one side of the rock. To
this gnawing he devoted his whole attention, with

jfreefcom of tbe J3lacfo*face& 1Ram 15

an eagerness that would have led one to think he
was hungry, as, indeed, he was, not having had
a full meal for nearly half an hour. The porcupine,
of all nature's children, is the best provided for,
having the food he loves lying about him at all
seasons. Yet he is for ever eating, as if famine
were in ambush for him just over the next. hillock.
Seeing the high indifference of this small, bris-
tling stranger, the ram stepped up and was just
about to sniff at him inquiringly. Had he done
so, the result would have been disastrous. He
would have got a slap in the face from the porcu-
pine's active and armed tail ; and his face would
have straightway been transformed into a sort of
anguished pincushion, stuck full of piercing, finely
barbed quills. He would have paid dear for his
ignorance of woodcraft, perhaps with the loss
of an eye, or even with starvation from a quill
working through into his gullet. But fortunately
for him the ewe understood the peculiarities of
porcupines. Just in time she noted his danger, and
rudely butted him aside. He turned upon her in
a fume of amazed indignation; but in some way
she made him understand that the porcupine was
above all law, and not to be trifled with even by
the lords of the wilderness. Very sulkily he lay

16 trbe IKHatcbers of tbe trails

down again, and the porcupine went on chiselling
hemlock' bark, serenely unconscious of the anger
in the inscrutable yellow eyes that watched him
from the ram's black face.

When the shadows grew long and luminous,
toward evening, the ram, following some unex-
plained instinct, again mounted the topmost point
of Ringwaak, and stood like a statue gazing over
the vast, warm-coloured solitude of his new domain.
His yellow eyes were placid with a great content.
A little below him, the white lamb wobbling on
weak legs at her side, the ewe pastured confidently,
secure in the proved prowess of her protector. As
the sun dropped below the far-off western rim of
the forest, it seemed as if one wide wave of lucent
rose-violet on a sudden flooded the world. Every-
thing on Ringwaak the ram's white fleece, the
gray, bleached stumps, the brown hillocks, the green
hollows and juniper clumps and poplar saplings
took on a palpitating aerial stain. Here and there
in the. distance the. coils of the river gleamed clear
gold; and overhead, in the hollow amber-and-lilac
arch of sky, the high-wandering night-hawks
swooped with the sweet twang of smitten strings.

Down at the foot of the northern slope of Ring-
waak lay a dense cedar swamp. Presently, out

Ube jfreeoom of tbe Blacfc^faceo 1Ram 17

from the green fringe of the cedars, a bear thrust
his head and cast a crafty glance about the open.
Seeing the ram on the hilltop and the ewe with
her lamb feeding near by, he sank back noiselessly
into the cover of the cedars, and stole around
toward the darkening eastern slope, where a suc-
cession of shrubby copses ran nearly to the top
of the hill.

The bear was rank, rusty-coated, old, and hungry ;
and he loved sheep. He was an adept in stalking
this sweet-fleshed, timorous quarry, and breaking
its neck with a well-directed blow as it dashed past
him in a panic. Emerging from the swamp, he
crept up the hill, taking cunning advantage of every
bush, stump, and boulder. For all his awkward
looking bulk, he moved as lightly as a cat, making
himself small, and twisting and flattening and effa-
cing himself; and never a twig was allowed to snap,
or a stone to clatter, under his broad, unerring feet.

About this time it chanced that the backwoods-
man, who had been out nearly all day hunting for
his lost prize, approached the edge of the forest
at the other side of Ringwaak, and saw the figure
of the ram against the sky. Then, seeing also the
ewe with the lamb beside her, he knew that the
game was his.

i8 Ube TlClatcbers of tbe trails

Below the top of the hill there was not a scrap
of cover for a distance of perhaps twenty paces.
The bear crept to the very last bush, the rrm 1 eing
occupied with the world at a distance, and the ewe
busy at her pasturing. Behind the bush a thick,
spreading juniper the bear crouched motionless
for some seconds, his little red eyes aglow, and his
jaws beginning to slaver with eagerness. Then
selecting the unconscious ewe, because he knew she
was not likely to desert the lamb, he rushed upon
his intended victim.

The ewe, as it chanced, was about thirty-five or
forty feet distant from the enemy, as he lunged
out, black and appalling, from behind the juniper.
At the same time the ram was not more than twenty
or twenty-five feet distant, straight above the lamb,

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