A Cry in the Night by William J. Long

This is the rest of the story, just as I saw it, of the little fawns that I found under the mossy log by the brook. There were two of them, you remember; and though they looked alike at first glance, I soon found out that there is just as much difference in fawns as there is in folks. Eyes, faces, dispositions, characters,—in all things they were as unlike as the virgins of the parable. One of them was wise, and the other was very foolish. The one was a follower, a learner; he never forgot his second lesson, to follow the white flag. The other followed from the first only his own willful head and feet, and discovered too late that obedience is life. Until the bear found him, I have no doubt he was thinking, in his own dumb, foolish way, that obedience is only for the weak and ignorant, and that government is only an unfair advantage which all the wilderness mothers take to keep little wild things from doing as they please.

The wise old mother took them both away when she knew I had found them, and hid them in a deeper solitude of the big woods, nearer the lake, where she could the sooner reach them from her feeding grounds. For days after the wonderful discovery I used to go in the early morning or the late afternoon, while mother deer are away feeding along the watercourses, and search the dingle from one end to the other, hoping to find the little ones again and win their confidence. But they were not there; and I took to watching instead a family of mink that lived in a den under a root, and a big owl that always slept in the same hemlock. Then, one day when a flock of partridges led me out of the wild berry bushes into a cool green island of the burned lands, I ran plump upon the deer and her fawns lying all together under a fallen treetop, dozing away the heat of the day.

They did not see me, but were only scared into action as a branch, upon which I stood looking for my partridges, gave way beneath my feet and let me down with a great crash under the fallen tree. There, looking out, I could see them perfectly, while Kookooskoos himself could hardly have seen me. At the first crack they all jumped like Jack-in-a-box when you touch his spring. The mother put up her white flag—which is the snowy underside of her useful tail, and shows like a beacon by day or night—and bounded away with a hoarse Ka-a-a-a-h! of warning. One of the little ones followed her on the instant, jumping squarely in his mother's tracks, his own little white flag flying to guide any that might come after him. But the second fawn ran off at a tangent, and stopped in a moment to stare and whistle and stamp his tiny, foot in an odd mixture of curiosity and defiance. The mother had to circle back twice before he followed her, at last, unwillingly. As she stole back each time, her tail was down and wiggling nervously—which is the sure sign, when you see it, that some scent of you is floating off through the woods and telling its warning into the deer's keen nostrils. But when she jumped away the white flag was straight up, flashing in the very face of her foolish fawn, telling him as plain as any language what sign he must follow if he would escape danger and avoid breaking his legs in the tangled underbrush.

I did not understand till long afterwards, when I had watched the fawns many times, how important is this latter suggestion. One who follows a frightened deer and sees or hears him go bounding off at breakneck pace over loose rocks and broken trees and tangled underbrush; rising swift on one side of a windfall without knowing what lies on the other side till he is already falling; driving like an arrow over ground where you must follow like a snail, lest you wrench a foot or break an ankle,— finds himself asking with unanswered wonder how any deer can live half a season in the wilderness without breaking all his legs. And when you run upon a deer at night and hear him go smashing off in the darkness at the same reckless speed, over a tangled blow-down, perhaps, through which you can barely force your way by daylight, then you realize suddenly that the most wonderful part of a deer's education shows itself, not in keen eyes or trumpet ears, or in his finely trained nose, more sensitive a hundred times than any barometer, but in his forgotten feet, which seem to have eyes and nerves and brains packed into their hard shells instead of the senseless matter you see there.

Watch the doe yonder as she bounds away, wig-wagging her heedless little one to follow. She is thinking only of him; and now you see her feet free to take care of themselves. As she rises over the big windfall, they hang from the ankle joints, limp as a glove out of which the hand has been drawn, yet seeming to wait and watch. One hoof touches a twig; like lightning it spreads and drops, after running for the smallest fraction of a second along the obstacle to know whether to relax or stiffen, or rise or fall to meet it. Just before she strikes the ground on the down plunge, see the wonderful hind hoofs sweep themselves forward, surveying the ground by touch, and bracing themselves, in a fraction of time so small that the eye cannot follow, for the shock of what lies beneath them, whether rock or rotten wood or yielding moss. The fore feet have followed the quick eyes above, and shoot straight and sure to their landing; but the hind hoofs must find the spot for themselves as they come down and, almost ere they find it, brace themselves again for the push of the mighty muscles above.

Once only I found where a fawn with untrained feet had broken its leg; and once I heard of a wounded buck, driven to death by dogs, that had fallen in the same way never to rise again. Those were rare cases. The marvel is that it does not happen to every deer that fear drives through the wilderness.

And that is another reason why the fawns must learn to obey a wiser head than their own. Till their little feet are educated, the mother must choose the way for them; and a wise fawn will jump squarely in her tracks. That explains also why deer, even after they are full grown, will often walk in single file, a half-dozen of them sometimes following a wise leader, stepping in his tracks and leaving but a single trail. It is partly, perhaps, to fool their old enemy, the wolf, and their new enemy, the man, by hiding the weakling's trail in the stride and hoof mark of a big buck; but it shows also the old habit, and the training which begins when the fawns first learn to follow the flag.

After that second discovery I used to go in the afternoon to a point on the lake nearest the fawns' hiding-place, and wait in my canoe for the mother to come out and show me where she had left her little ones. As they grew, and the drain upon her increased from their feeding, she seemed always half starved. Waiting in my canoe I would hear the crackle of brush, as she trotted straight down to the lake almost heedlessly, and see her plunge through the fringe of bushes that bordered the water. With scarcely a look or a sniff to be sure the coast was clear, she would jump for the lily pads. Sometimes the canoe was in plain sight; but she gave no heed as she tore up the juicy buds and stems, and swallowed them with the appetite of a famished wolf. Then I would paddle away and, taking my direction from her trail as she came, hunt diligently for the fawns until I found them.

This last happened only two or three times. The little ones were already wild; they had forgotten all about our first meeting, and when I showed myself, or cracked a twig too near them, they would promptly bolt into the brush. One always ran straight away, his white flag flying to show that he remembered his lesson; the other went off zigzag, stopping at every angle of his run to look back and question me with his eyes and ears.

There was only one way in which such disobedience could end. I saw it plainly enough one afternoon, when, had I been one of the fierce prowlers of the wilderness, the little fellow's history would have stopped short under the paw of Upweekis, the shadowy lynx of the burned lands. It was late afternoon when I came over a ridge, following a deer path on my way to the lake, and looked down into a long, narrow valley filled with berry bushes, and with a few fire-blasted trees standing here and there to point out the perfect loneliness and desolation of the place.

Just below me a deer was feeding hungrily, only her hind quarters showing out of the underbrush. I watched her awhile, then dropped on all fours and began to creep towards her, to see how near I could get and what new trait I might discover. But at the first motion (I had stood at first like an old stump on the ridge) a fawn that had evidently been watching me all the time from his hiding sprang into sight with a sharp whistle of warning. The doe threw up her head, looking straight at me as if she had understood more from the signal than I had thought possible. There was not an instant's hesitation or searching. Her eyes went direct to me, as if the fawn's cry had said: "Behind you, mother, in the path by the second gray rock!" Then she jumped away, shooting up the opposite hill over roots and rocks as if thrown by steel springs, blowing hoarsely at every jump, and followed in splendid style by her watchful little one.

At the first snort of danger there was a rush in the underbrush near where she had stood, and a second fawn sprang into sight. I knew him instantly—the heedless one—and knew also that he had neglected too long the matter of following the flag. He was confused, frightened, chuckle-headed now; he came darting up the deer path in the wrong direction, straight towards me, to within two jumps, before he noticed the man kneeling in the path before him and watching him quietly.

At the startling discovery he stopped short, seeming to shrink smaller and smaller before my eyes. Then he edged sidewise to a great stump, hid himself among the roots, and stood stock-still,—a beautiful picture of innocence and curiosity, framed in the rough brown roots of the spruce stump. It was his first teaching to hide and be still. Just as he needed it most, he had forgotten absolutely the second lesson.

We watched each other full five minutes without moving an eyelash. Then his first lesson ebbed away. He sidled out into the path again, came towards me two dainty, halting steps, and stamped prettily with his left fore foot. He was a young buck, and had that trick of stamping without any instruction. It is an old, old ruse to make you move, to startle you by the sound and threatening motion into showing who you are and what are your intentions.

But still the man did not move; the fawn grew frightened at his own boldness and ran away down the path. Far up the opposite hill I heard the mother calling him. But he heeded not; he wanted to find out things for himself. There he was in the path again, watching me. I took out my handkerchief and waved it gently; at which great marvel he trotted back, stopping anon to look and stamp his little foot, to show me that he was not afraid.

"Brave little chap, I like you," I thought, my heart going out to him as he stood there with his soft eyes and beautiful face, stamping his little foot. "But what," my thoughts went on, "had happened to you ere now, had a bear or lucivee lifted his head over the ridge? Next month, alas! the law will be off; then there will be hunters in these woods, some of whom leave their hearts, with their wives and children, behind them. You can't trust them, believe me, little chap. Your mother is right; you can't trust them."

The night was coming swiftly. The mother's call, growing ever more anxious, more insistent, swept over the darkening hillside. "Perhaps," I thought, with sudden twinges and alarms of conscience, "perhaps I set you all wrong, little chap, in giving you the taste of salt that day, and teaching you to trust things that meet you in the wilderness." That is generally the way when we meddle with Mother Nature, who has her own good reasons for doing things as she does. "But no! there were two of you under the old log that day; and the other,—he's up there with his mother now, where you ought to be,—he knows that old laws are safer than new thoughts, especially new thoughts in the heads of foolish youngsters. You are all wrong, little chap, for all your pretty curiosity, and the stamp of your little foot that quite wins my heart. Perhaps I am to blame, after all; anyway, I'll teach you better now."

At the thought I picked up a large stone and sent it crashing, jumping, tearing down the hillside straight at him. All his bravado vanished like a wink. Up went his flag, and away he went over the logs and rocks of the great hillside; where presently I heard his mother running in a great circle till she found him with her nose, thanks to the wood wires and the wind's messages, and led him away out of danger.

One who lives for a few weeks in the wilderness, with eyes and ears open, soon finds that, instead of the lawlessness and blind chance which seem to hold sway there, he lives in the midst of law and order— an order of things much older than that to which he is accustomed, with which it is not well to interfere. I was uneasy, following the little deer path through the twilight stillness; and my uneasiness was not decreased when I found on a log, within fifty yards of the spot where the fawn first appeared, the signs of a big lucivee, with plenty of fawn's hair and fine-cracked bones to tell me what he had eaten for his midnight dinner.

Down at the lower end of the same deer path, where it stopped at the lake to let the wild things drink, was a little brook. Outside the mouth of this brook, among the rocks, was a deep pool; and in the pool lived some big trout. I was there one night, some two weeks later, trying to catch some of the big trout for my next breakfast.

Those were wise fish. It was of no use to angle for them by day any more. They knew all the flies in my book; could tell the new Jenny Lind from the old Bumble Bee before it struck the water; and seemed to know perfectly, both by instinct and experience, that they were all frauds, which might as well be called Jenny Bee and Bumble Lind for any sweet reasonableness that was in them. Besides all this, the water was warm; the trout were logy and would not rise.

By night, however, the case was different. A few of the trout would leave the pool and prowl along the shores in shallow water to see what tidbits the darkness might bring, in the shape of night bugs and careless piping frogs and sleepy minnows. Then, if you built a fire on the beach and cast a white-winged fly across the path of the firelight, you would sometimes get a big one.

It was fascinating sport always, whether the trout were rising or not. One had to fish with his ears, and keep most of his wits in his hand, ready to strike quick and hard when the moment came, after an hour of casting. Half the time you would not see your fish at all, but only hear the savage plunge as he swirled down with your fly. At other times, as you struck sharply at the plunge, your fly would come back to you, or tangle itself up in unseen snags; and far out, where the verge of the firelight rippled away into the darkness, you would see a sharp wave-wedge shooting away, which told you that your trout was only a musquash. Swimming quietly by, he had seen you and your fire, and slapped his tail down hard on the water to make you jump. That is a way Musquash has in the night, so that he can make up his mind what queer thing you are and what you are doing.

All the while, as you fish, the great dark woods stand close about you, silent, listening. The air is full of scents and odors that steal abroad only by night, while the air is dew-laden. Strange cries, calls, squeaks, rustlings run along the hillside, or float in from the water, or drop down from the air overhead, to make you guess and wonder what wood folk are abroad at such unseemly hours, and what they are about. So that it is good to fish by night, as well as by day, and go home with heart and head full, even though your creel be empty.

I was standing very still by my fire, waiting for a big trout that had risen and missed my fly to regain his confidence, when I heard cautious rustlings in the brush behind me. I turned instantly, and there were two great glowing spots, the eyes of a deer, flashing out of the dark woods. A swift rustle, and two more coals glow lower down, flashing and scintillating with strange colors; and then two more; and I know that the doe and her fawns are there, stopped and fascinated on their way to drink by the great wonder of the light, and by the witchery of the dancing shadows that rush up at timid wild things, as if to frighten them, but only jump over them and back again, as if inviting them to join the silent play.

I knelt down quietly beside my fire, slipping on a great roll of birch bark which blazed up brightly, filling the woods with light. There, under a spruce, where a dark shadow had been a moment agone, stood the mother, her eyes all ablaze with the wonder of the light; now staring steadfastly into the fire; now starting nervously, with low questioning snorts, as a troop of shadows ran up to play hop-scotch with the little ones, which stood close behind her, one on either side.

A moment only it lasted. Then one fawn—I knew the heedless one, even in the firelight, by his face and by his bright-dappled Joseph's coat— came straight towards me, stopping to stare with flashing eyes when the fire jumped up, and then to stamp his little foot at the shadows to show them that he was not afraid.

The mother called him anxiously; but still he came on, stamping prettily. She grew uneasy, trotting back and forth in a half circle, warning, calling, pleading. Then, as he came between her and the fire, and his little shadow stretched away up the hill where she was, showing how far away he was from her and how near the light, she broke away from its fascination with an immense effort: Ka-a-a-h! ka-a-a-h! the hoarse cry rang through the startled woods like a pistol shot; and she bounded away, her white flag shining like a wave crest in the night to guide her little ones.

The second fawn followed her instantly; but the heedless one barely swung his head to see where she was going, and then came on towards the light, staring and stamping in foolish wonder.

I watched him a little while, fascinated myself by his beauty, his dainty motions, his soft ears with a bright oval of light about them, his wonderful eyes glowing like burning rainbows kindled by the firelight. Far behind him the mother's cry ran back and forth along the hillside. Suddenly it changed; a danger note leaped into it; and again I heard the call to follow and the crash of brush as she leaped away. I remembered the lynx and the sad little history written on the log above. As the quickest way of saving the foolish youngster, I kicked my fire to pieces and walked out toward him. Then, as the wonder vanished in darkness and the scent of the man poured up to him on the lake's breath, the little fellow bounded away—alas! straight up the deer path, at right angles to the course his mother had taken a moment before.

Five minutes later I heard the mother calling a strange note in the direction he had taken, and went up the deer path very quietly to investigate. At the top of the ridge, where the path dropped away into a dark narrow valley with dense underbrush on either side, I heard the fawn answering her, below me among the big trees, and knew instantly that something had happened. He called continuously, a plaintive cry of distress, in the black darkness of the spruces. The mother ran around him in a great circle, calling him to come; while he lay helpless in the same spot, telling her he could not, and that she must come to him. So the cries went back and forth in the listening night,—Hoo-wuh, "come here." Bla-a-a, blr-r-t, "I can't; come here." Ka-a-a-h, ka-a-a-h! "danger, follow!"—and then the crash of brush as she rushed away followed by the second fawn, whom she must save, though she abandoned the heedless one to prowlers of the night.

It was clear enough what had happened. The cries of the wilderness all have their meaning, if one but knows how to interpret them. Running through the dark woods his untrained feet had missed their landing, and he lay now under some rough windfall, with a broken leg to remind him of the lesson he had neglected so long.

I was stealing along towards him, feeling my way among the trees in the darkness, stopping every moment to listen to his cry to guide me, when a heavy rustle came creeping down the hill and passed close before me. Something, perhaps, in the sound—a heavy, though almost noiseless, onward push which only one creature in the woods can possibly make— something, perhaps, in a faint new odor in the moist air told me instantly that keener ears than mine had heard the cry; that Mooween the bear had left his blueberry patch, and was stalking the heedless fawn, whom he knew, by the hearing of his ears, to have become separated from his watchful mother in the darkness.

I regained the path silently—though Mooween heeds nothing when his game is afoot—and ran back to the canoe for my rifle. Ordinarily a bear is timid as a rabbit; but I had never met one so late at night before, and knew not how he would act should I take his game away. Besides, there is everything in the feeling with which one approaches an animal. If one comes timidly, doubtfully, the animal knows it; and if one comes swift, silent, resolute, with his power gripped tight, and the hammer back, and a forefinger resting lightly on the trigger guard, the animal knows it too, you may depend. Anyway, they always act as if they knew, and you may safely follow the rule that, whatever your feeling is, whether fear or doubt or confidence, the large and dangerous animals will sense it instantly and adopt the opposite feeling for their rule of action. That is the way I have always found it in the wilderness. I met a bear once on a narrow path—but I must tell about that elsewhere.

The cries had ceased; the woods were all dark and silent when I came back. I went as swiftly as possible—without heed or caution; for whatever crackling I made the bear would attribute to the desperate mother—to the spot where I had turned back. Thence I went on cautiously, taking my bearings from one great tree on the ridge that lifted its bulk against the sky; slower and slower, till, just this side of a great windfall, a twig cracked sharply under my foot. It was answered instantly by a grunt and a jump beyond the windfall—and then the crashing rush of a bear up the hill, carrying something that caught and swished loudly on the bushes as it passed, till the sounds vanished in a faint rustle far away, and the woods were still again.

All night long, from my tent over beyond an arm of the big lake, I heard the mother calling at intervals. She seemed to be running back and forth along the ridge, above where the tragedy had occurred. Her nose told her of the bear and the man; but what awful thing they were doing with her little one she knew not. Fear and questioning were in the calls that floated down the ridge and across the water to my little tent.

At daylight I went back to the spot. I found without trouble where the fawn had fallen; the moss told mutely of his struggle; and a stain or two showed where Mooween grabbed him. The rest was a plain trail of crushed moss and bent grass and stained leaves, and a tuft of soft hair here and there on the jagged ends of knots in the old windfalls. So the trail hurried up the hill into a wild rough country where it was of no use to follow.

As I climbed the last ridge on my way back to the lake, I heard rustlings in the underbrush, and then the unmistakable crack of a twig under a deer's foot. The mother had winded me; she was now following and circling down wind to find out whether her lost fawn were with me. As yet she knew not what had happened. The bear had frightened her into extra care of the one fawn of whom she was sure. The other had simply vanished into the silence and mystery of the great woods.

Where the path turned downward, in sight of the lake, I saw her for a moment plainly, standing half hid in the underbrush, looking intently at my old canoe. She saw me at the same instant and bounded away, quartering up the hill in my direction. Near a thicket of evergreen that I had just passed, she sounded her hoarse K-a-a-h, k-a-a-h! and threw up her flag. There was a rush within the thicket; a sharp K-a-a-h! answered hers. Then the second fawn burst out of the cover where she had hidden him, and darted along the ridge after her, jumping like a big red fox from rock to rock, rising like a hawk over the windfalls, hitting her tracks wherever he could, and keeping his little nose hard down to his one needful lesson of following the white flag.