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WHEN WE HUNTED THE STRIPED CATAMOUNT
THE following week Tom Edwards and I had a somewhat exciting adventure which, however, by no means covered us with glory. During the previous winter and, indeed, for several winters before that, there had been rumors current of a strange, fierce animal which came down from the "great woods" to devour dead lambs that were cast forth from the farmers' barns in February and March.
At that time nearly every farmer in the vicinity kept a flock of from fifty to a hundred sheep. During the warm season the animals got their own living in the back pastures; in winter they were fed on nothing better than hay. The animals usually came out in the spring thin and weak, with the ewes in poor condition to raise their lambs. In consequence, many of the lambs died soon after birth, and were thrown out on the snow for the crows and wild animals to dispose of.
The old Squire had begun to feed corn to his flock during the latter part of the winter, and urged his neighbors to do so; but many of them did not have the corn and preferred to let nature take its course.
The mysterious animal that the boys were talking about seemed to have formed the habit of visiting that region every spring. Not even the older people knew to what species it belonged. It came round the barns at night, and no one had ever seen it distinctly. Some believed it to be a catamount or panther; others who had caught glimpses of it said that it was a black creature with white stripes.
Traps had been set for it, but always without success. Mr. Wilbur, one of the neighbors, had watched from his barn and fired a charge of buckshot at it; but immediately the creature had disappeared in the darkness, carrying off a lamb. It visited one place or another nearly every night for a month or more — as long, indeed, as the supply of lambs held out. Then it would vanish until the following spring.
On the day above referred to I saw Tom coming across the snowy fields that lay between the Edwards' farm and the old Squire's. Guessing that he had something to tell me, I hastened forth to meet him.
"That old striped catamount has come round again!" Tom exclaimed. "He was at Batchelder's last night and got two dead lambs. And night before last he was at Wilbur's. I've got four dead lambs saved up. And old Hughy Glinds has told me a way to watch for him and shoot him."
Hughy Glinds was a rheumatic old man who lived in a small log house up in the edge of the great woods and made baskets for a living. In his younger days he had been a trapper and was therefore a high authority in such matters among the boys.
"We shall have to have a sleigh or a pung to watch from," Tom explained. "Old Hughy says to carry out a dead lamb and leave it near the bushes below our barn, and to haul a sleigh there and leave it a little way off, and do this for three or four nights till old Striped gets used to seeing the sleigh. Then, after he has come four nights, we're to go there early in the evening and hide in the sleigh, with a loaded gun. Old Striped will be used to seeing the sleigh there, and won't be suspicious.
"Pa don't want me to take our sleigh so long," Tom went on. "He wants to use it before we'd be through with it. But" — and I now began to see why Tom had been so willing to share with me the glory of killing the marauder — "there's an old sleigh out here behind your barn. Nobody uses it now. Couldn't we take that?"
I felt sure that the old Squire would not care, but I proposed to ask the opinion of Addison. Tom opposed our taking Addison into our confidence.
"He's older, and he'd get all the credit for it," he objected.
Addison, moreover, had driven to the village that morning; and after some discussion we decided to take the sleigh on our own responsibility. It was partly buried in a snowdrift; but we dug it out, and then drew it across the fields on the snow crust — lifting it over three stone walls — to a little knoll below the Edwards barn.
We concluded to lay the dead lamb on the top of the knoll at a little distance from the woods; the sleigh we left on the southeast side about fifteen paces away. Tom thought that he could shoot accurately at that distance, even at night.
For my own part I thought fifteen paces much too near. Misgivings had begun to beset me.
"What if you miss him, Tom?" I said.
"I shan't miss him," he declared firmly.
"But, Tom, what if you only wounded him and he came rushing straight at us?"
"Oh, I'll fix him!" Tom exclaimed. But I had become very apprehensive; and at last, Tom helped me to bring cedar rails and posts from a fence near by to construct a kind of fortress round the sleigh. We set the posts in the hard snow and made a fence, six rails high — to protect ourselves. Even then I was afraid it might jump the fence.
"He won't jump much with seven buckshot and a ball in him!" said Tom.
We left the empty sleigh there for three nights in succession; and every morning Tom came over to tell me that the lamb had been taken.
"The plan works just as old Hughy told me it would," he said; "but I've got only one lamb more, so we'll have to watch to-night. Don't tell anybody, but about bedtime you come over." Tom was full of eagerness.
I was in a feverish state of mind all day, especially as night drew on. If I had not been ashamed to fail Tom, I think I should have backed out. At eight o'clock I pretended to start for bed; then, stealing out at the back door, I hurried across the fields to the Edwards place. A new moon was shining faintly over the woods in the west.
Tom was in the wood-house, loading the gun, an old army rifle, bored out for shot. "I've got in six fingers of powder," he whispered.
We took a buffalo skin and a horse blanket from the stable, and armed with the gun, and an axe besides, proceeded cautiously out to the sleigh. Tom had laid the dead lamb on the knoll.
Climbing over the fence, we ensconced ourselves in the old sleigh. It was a chilly night, with gusts of wind from the northwest. We laid the axe where it would be at hand in case of need; and Tom trained the gun across the fence rail in the direction of the knoll.
"Like's not he won't come till toward morning," he whispered; "but we must stay awake and keep listening for him. Don't you go to sleep."
I thought that sleep was the last thing I was likely to be guilty of. I wished myself at home. The tales I had heard of the voracity and fierceness of the striped catamount were made much more terrible by the darkness. My position was so cramped and the old sleigh so hard that I had to squirm occasionally; but every time I did so, Tom whispered:
"Sh! Don't rattle round. He may hear us."
An hour or two, which seemed ages long, dragged by; the crescent moon sank behind the tree-tops and the night darkened. At last, in spite of myself, I grew drowsy, but every few moments I started broad awake and clutched the handle of the axe. Several times Tom whispered:
"I believe you're asleep."
"I'm not!" I protested.
"Well, you jump as if you were," he retorted.
By and by Tom himself started spasmodically, and I accused him of having slept; but he denied it in a most positive whisper. Suddenly, in an interval between two naps, I heard a sound different from the soughing of the wind, a sound like claws or toenails scratching on the snow crust. It came from the direction of the knoll, or beyond it.
"Tom, Tom, he's coming!" I whispered.
Tom, starting up from a nap, gripped the gunstock. "Yes, siree," he said. "He is." He cocked the gun, and the barrel squeaked faintly on the rail. "By jinks, I see him!"
I, too, discerned a shadowy, dark object at the top of the snow-crusted knoll. Tom was twisting round to get aim across the rail — and the next instant both of us were nearly kicked out of the sleigh by the recoil of the greatly overloaded gun. We both scrambled to our feet, for we heard an ugly snarl. I think the animal leaped upward; I was sure I saw something big and black rise six feet in the air, as if it were coming straight for the sleigh!
The instinct of self-preservation is a strong one. The first thing I realized I was over the fence rails, on the side toward the Edwards barn, running for dear life on the snow crust — and Tom was close behind me! We never stopped, even to look back, till we were at the barn and round the farther corner of it. There we pulled up to catch our breath. Nothing was pursuing us, nor could we hear anything.
After we had listened a while, Tom ran into the house and waked his father. Mr. Edwards, however, was slow to believe that we had hit the animal, and refused to dress and go out. It was now about two o'clock. I did not like to go home alone, and so went to bed with Tom. In consequence of our vigils we slept till sunrise. Meanwhile, on going out to milk, Tom's father had had the curiosity to visit the scene of our adventure. A trail of blood spots leading from the knoll into the woods convinced him that we had really damaged the prowler; and picking up the axe that I had dropped, he followed the trail. Large red stains at intervals showed that the animal had stopped frequently to grovel on the snow. About half a mile from the knoll, Mr. Edwards came upon the beast, in a fir thicket, making distressful sounds, and quite helpless to defend itself. A blow on the head from the poll of the axe finished the creature; and, taking it by the tail, Mr. Edwards dragged it to the house. The carcass was lying in the dooryard when Tom's mother waked us.
"Get up and see your striped catamount!" she called up the chamber stairs.
Hastily donning our clothes we rushed down. Truth to say, the "monster" of so many startling stories was somewhat disappointing to contemplate. It was far from being so big as we had thought it in the night — indeed, it was no larger than a medium-sized dog. It had coarse black hair with two indistinct, yellowish-white stripes, or bands, along its sides. Its legs were short, but strong, its claws white, hooked and about an inch and a quarter long. The head was broad and flat, and the ears were low and wide apart. It was not in the least like a catamount. In short, it was, as the reader may have guessed, a wolverene, or glutton, an animal rarely seen in Maine even by the early settlers, for its habitat is much farther north.
As Tom and I stood looking the creature over, my cousin Theodora appeared, coming from the old Squire's to make inquiries for me. They had missed me and were uneasy about me.
During the day every boy in the neighborhood came to see the animal, and many of the older people, too. In fact, several people came from a considerable distance to look at the beast. The "glory" was Tom's for making so good a shot in the night, yet, in a way, I shared it with him.
"Don't you ever say a word about our running from the sleigh," Tom cautioned me many times that day, and added that he would never have run except for my bad example.
I was obliged to put up in silence with that reflection on my bravery.