A Strange Combat by C. A. Stephens

WE are told that the old Romans greatly delighted in witnessing the combats of wild beasts, as well as gladiators, and that they used to ransack their whole broad empire for new and unheard-of animals—anything and everything that had fierceness and fight in it. Those vast amphitheatres, like the Coliseum, were built to gratify these rather sanguinary tastes in that direction.

But I doubt whether even the old Romans, with all their large experience, ever beheld so strange and grotesque a “set-to” (I’m pretty sure none of our American boys ever did) as the writer once stumbled upon, on the shores of one of our Northern Maine lakes—Lake Pennesseewassee, if you can pronounce that; it trips up editors sometimes.

I had been spending the day in the neighboring forest, hunting for a black squirrel I had seen there the evening before, having with me a great, red-shirted lumberman, named Ben—Ben Murch. And not finding our squirrel, we were making our way, towards evening, down through the thick alders which skirted the lake, to the shore, in the hope of getting a shot at an otter, or a mink, when all at once a great sound, a sort of quock, quock, accompanied by a great splashing of the water, came to our ears.

“Hush!” ejaculated Ben, clapping his hand to his ear (as his custom was), to catch the sound. “Hear that? Some sort of a fracas.”

And cautiously pushing through the dense copse, a very singular and comical spectacle met our eyes. For out some two or three rods from the muddy, grassy shore stood a tall, a very tall bird,—somewhere from four to five feet, I judged,—with long, thin, black legs, and an awkward body, slovenly clad in dull gray-blue plumage. The neck was as long as the legs, and the head small, and nearly bare, with a long, yellowish bill. Standing knee deep in the muddied water, it was, on the whole, about the most ungainly-looking fowl you can well imagine; while on a half-buried tree trunk, running out towards it into the water, crouched a wiry, black creature, of about average dog size, wriggling a long, restless tail, and apparently in the very act of springing at the long-legged biped in the water. Just now they were eying each other very intently; but from the splashed and bedraggled appearance of both, it was evident there had been recent hostilities, which, judging from the attitude of the combatants, were about to be renewed.

“Show!” exclaimed Ben, peering over my shoulder from behind. “An old hairn—ain’t it? Regular old pokey. Thought I’d heered that quock before. And that creatur’? Let’s see. Odd-looking chap. Wish he’d turn his head this way. Fisher—ain’t it? Looks like one. Should judge that’s a fisher-cat. What in the world got them at loggerheads, I wonder?”

By “hairn” Ben meant heron, the great blue heron of American waters—Ardea Herodias of the naturalists. And fisher, or fisher-cat, is the common name among hunters for Pennant’s marten, or the Mustela canadensis, a very fierce carnivorous animal, of the weasel family, growing from three to four feet in length, called also “the black cat.”

The fisher had doubtless been the assailant, though both had now that intent, tired-down air which marks a long fray. He had probably crept up from behind, while old long-shanks was quietly frogging along the shore.

 But he had found his intended victim a game one. The heron had a character to sustain; and although he might easily have flown away, or even waded farther out, yet he seemed to scorn to do either.

Not an inch would it budge, but stood with its long, javelin-like beak poised, ready to strike into the fisher’s eye, uttering, from moment to moment, that menacing, guttural quock, which had first attracted our attention.

This sound, mingling with the eager snarling and fretting of the cat, made the most dismal and incongruous duet I had ever listened to. For some moments they stood thus threatening and defying each other; but at length, lashing itself up to the proper pitch of fury, the fisher jumped at his antagonist with distended jaws, to seize hold of the long, slender throat. One bite at the heron’s slim neck would settle the whole affair. But this attempt was very adroitly balked by the plucky old wader’s taking a long step aside, when the fisher fell into the water with a great splash, and while struggling back to the log, received a series of strokes, or, rather, stabs, from the long, pointed beak, dealt down with wonderful swiftness, and force, too; for we distinctly heard them prod into the cat’s tough hide, as he scrambled upon the log, and ran spitting up the bank. This defeat, however, was but temporary, as any one acquainted with the singular persistence and perseverance of the whole weasel family will readily guess. The fisher had soon worked his way down the log again, the heron retiring to his former position in the water.

Another succession of quocks and growlings, and another spring, with even less success, on the side of the cat. For this time the heron’s bill wounded one of his eyes; and as he again retreated up the log, we could see the bloody tears trickling down over his shaggy jowl.

Thus far the battle seemed favorable to the heron; but the fisher again rallied, and, now thoroughly maddened, rushed down the log, and leaped blindly upon his foe. Again and again his attacks were parried. The snarling growls now rose to shrieks, and the croaking quocks to loud, dissonant cries.

“Faugh!” muttered Ben. “Smell his breath—fisher’s breath—clean here. Always let that out somehow when they’re mad.”

Even at our distance, that strong, fetid odor, sometimes perceptible when a cat spits, could plainly be discerned.

“Old hairn seems to be having the best of it,” continued Ben. “I bet on him. How cool he keeps! Fights like a machine. See that bill come down now! Look at the marks it makes, too!” For the blood, oozing out through the thick fur of the cat in more than a dozen spots, was attesting the prowess of the heron’s powerful beak.

But at length, with a sudden bound upward, the fisher fell with his whole weight upon the back of his lathy antagonist. Old long-legs was upset, and down they both went in the water, where a prodigious scuffle ensued. Now one of the heron’s big feet would be thrust up nearly a yard; then the cat would come to the top, sneezing and strangling; and anon the heron’s long neck would loop up in sight, bending and doubling about in frantic attempts to peck at its foe, its cries now resembling those of a hen when seized in the night, save that they were louder and harsher. Over and over they floundered and rolled. The mud and water flew about. Long legs, shaggy paws, wet, wriggling tail, and squawking beak, fur and feathers—all turning and squirming in inextricable confusion. It was hard telling which was having the best of the mêlée, when, on a sudden, the struggle stopped, as if by magic.

The marten about to attack the heron

“One or t’other has given in,” muttered Ben.

Looking more closely, we saw that the fisher had succeeded in getting the heron’s neck into his mouth. One bite had been sufficient. The fray was over. And after holding on a while, the victor, up to his back in water, began moving towards the shore, dragging along with him, by the neck, the body of the heron, whose great feet came trailing after at an astonishing distance behind. To see him, wet as a drowned rat, tugging up the muddy bank with his ill-omened and unsightly prey, was indeed a singular spectacle. Whatever had brought on this queer contest, the fisher had won—fairly, too, for aught I could see; and I hadn’t it in my heart to intercept his retreat. But Ben, to whom a “black cat” was particularly obnoxious, from its nefarious habit of robbing traps, had no such scruples, and, bringing up his rifle with the careless quickness of an old woodsman, fired before I could interpose a word. The fisher dropped, and after writhing and snapping a few moments, stretched out—dead.

Leaving Ben to take off its skin,—for the fur is worth a trifle,—I was strolling along the shore, when upon coming under a drooping cedar, some six or seven rods from the scene of the fight, another large heron sprang out of a clump of brambles, and stalked off with a croak of distrust. It at once occurred to me that there might be a nest here; and opening the  brambles, lo, there it was, a broad, clumsy structure of coarse sticks, some two or three feet from the ground, and lined with moss and water grasses. In it, or, rather, on it, were two chicks, heron chicks, uncouth little things, with long, skinny legs and necks, and sparsely clad with tufts of gray down. And happening to glance under the nest, I perceived an egg, lodged down among the bramble-stalks. It had probably rolled out of the nest. It struck me, however, as being a very small egg from so large a bird; and having a rule in my pocket, I found it to be but two and a half inches in length by one and a half in width. It was of a dull, bluish-white color, without spots, though rather rough and uneven. I took it home as a curiosity.

On the edge of the nest I saw several small perch, a frog, and a meadow-mouse, all recently brought, though the place had a suspicious odor of carrion.

All this while the old heron had stood at a little distance away, uttering now and then an ominous croak. I could easily have shot it from where I stood, but thought the family had suffered enough for one day.

The presence of the nest accounted for the obstinacy with which the old male heron had contested the ground with the fisher.

Both old birds are said to sit by turns upon the eggs. But the nests are not always placed so near the ground as this one. Last summer, while fishing from the “Pappoose’s Pond,” I discovered one in the very top of a lofty Norway pine—a huge bunch of sticks and long grass, upon the edge of which one of the old herons was standing on one foot, perfectly motionless, with its neck drawn down, and seemingly asleep.

The artist who could have properly sketched that nest and bird would have made his fortune then and there.