The Trail of the Sandhill Stag
It was a very hot day. The water in the ponds was warm with the heat of the sun. So Yan went to the spring, the only place where he could find a cool drink. As he bent down beside the spring, his eye fell on a small hoof-mark in the sand — a sharp and elegant track. He became excited, because he knew it was the track of a wild deer.
"There are no deer in those hills now," the hunters told him. But when the first snow came, Yan, remembering the foot-mark in the sand, took his rifle and said to himself, "I am going into the hills every day till I bring back a deer."
Yan was a tall, strong lad of about nineteen. He was no hunter yet, but he was a wonderful runner, and full of energy. Day after day he was in the hills, and night after night he returned to his shanty, disappointed. But one day, far from his shanty, he found at last the trail of a deer, — and again he was excited. He thought, "At the other end of that line of tracks in the snow is the creature that made them. In time I shall find the maker."
The tracks were not fresh, so he did not know in which direction to go. But, going up hill, he came to a clear track in a sandy place. Away he went with a new fire in his blood. The trail grew fresher as he ran over hills and through woods. He followed the trail all day, until it became too dark to see any marks; then he returned home.
In the morning he went out again. There were tracks so fresh that he could easily follow them. As he stole along, watching the marks at his feet, suddenly two gray animals sprang out of a grove close by. They ran to a bank fifty yards away and then turned to gaze at him. He felt rather than saw the softness of their gaze and he stood still, as if in a spell. Only the sound, "Oh, oh-h-h!" came from his throat. They seemed to forget him completely and began to bound up and down in play. It was wonderful to watch them. By a very light touch of their toes they could rise six or eight feet in the air. Yan could not take his eyes off these beautiful creatures. Higher and higher they rose each time, swinging their bodies gracefully. Sometimes these birds without wings seemed to hang in the air, when they sprang across some deep canyon. They were already far away, but he watched them until they were all out of sight. Then he realized that he forgot to shoot at them.
He went back to the place where they began to play, and found one track. But where was the next? He found another track fifteen feet away, and then another twenty feet away. Then the distances between the tracks increased to twenty-five and sometimes to thirty feet. "Oh!" Yan thought, "they do not run at all, they fly; and once in a while they come down again to touch the ground with their elegant hoofs. Well, I'm glad they got away. I have seen something today that no one else has ever seen."
Yet, when the morning came, the old hunting instinct was again in his heart. "I must go to the hills," he said, "and follow the trail of those deer. My strength against their strength, my gun against their speed." He walked and ran all day, looking for their tracks in the snow, but now snow began to fall and covered up every track.
The next day and the next, and Yan was still in the hills, but he did not find any tracks or signs of deer. The weeks went by, and he ran many miles and spent many cold days and freezing nights in the snow-covered hills, but all in vain. Soon the hunting season was over.
A year passed. The desire to hunt arose again in Yan's heart. Hunters talked of a large and beautiful buck that lived in the hills, — they called him the Sandhill stag. They told of his size, his speed and of his wonderful antlers that looked like bronze, with shining ivory points. So when the first snow came, Yan set out for the hills again. The woods were full of hares and grouse, but he could find no deer-track. He left the woods and went to the plains, where, the hunters said, they saw the wonderful buck.
After a few miles, Yan found a deer-track, so large and clear and with such great distances between the bounds that he knew it was the trail of the Sandhill stag. He followed the trail till it was almost dark, and then had to return. His shanty was many miles away, but his legs were like iron, and it was easier for him to run ten miles than for another man to run one mile. And always when alone in the lonely hills he felt a wild joy within him. Oh, what a beautiful sunset he saw on the plains that day, with the snow red from the rays of the sun and the trees all red and gold! What a wonderful walk he had through the woods as the yellow moon came out!
"These are the best days of my life!" he sang. As if in answer, he heard the howling of wolves far away over the plain. He imitated their cry and quickly got a reply. The' howls came nearer and nearer, and suddenly he thought, "It's my trail you are hunting. You are hunting me."
The road now led across a little open plain. In such a terrible frost it would be madness to climb a tree. So he went out in the middle of the open plain, where the light of the moon fell on the snow, and sat down in the snow, the rifle in his hands. The howls were very near now, at the very edge of the wood, and then there was silence. The wolves saw him sitting there, for the light was like day. Yan felt that they were quite close and strained his eyes to see something that he could shoot, but in vain. However, after a council of war, the wolves evidently decided to let him alone. He waited for twenty minutes, and hearing nothing, rose and went home. And as he walked, he said to himself, "Now I know how a deer feels when it hears the sound of a gun in the trail behind it."
During the rest of the hunting season he was in those Sandhills day and night. He learned the ponds, the hills, the woods and a hundred secrets of the trail, — but he found no deer.
The end of the season was near, and Yan set off for home. On the road he met a wood-cutter who told him there was a large stag not far away. Yan at once went to that place and found the tracks—there could be no mistake about it — of the Sandhill stag. Again he flew through the woods and across the hills, like a wolf on a hot scent. He followed the trail all day, and when he saw that the marks were fresh, he began to crawl along like a snake. At last something moved among the trees some distance away. Yan lay still and watched. Then he saw what he thought was a great log, from one end of which rose two great oak boughs. The oak boughs moved again and Yan trembled, for he knew that the log among the trees was the Sandhill stag. So grand, so full of life, — a king dressed in fur with a crown on his head! To shoot him as he lay there, resting, seemed an awful crime. But here was a good chance, and he must shoot. He raised his rifle. After all it was only a deer! But at that moment the stag turned and gazed at him. Yan met that clear, calm gaze, and trembled. But the beast within him fired the gun. The stag sprang up! Another shot! Then, as the stag fled, another and another. But the shots did not hit the mark and the stag went, lightly flying, across the hills.
In a rage, Yan followed the trail for some time, but found no sign of blood. He walked for a mile or more, and then saw a new mark in the snow — a moccasin-track, the track of a Creek Indian. Yan followed, and as he walked up a hill, a tall figure rose from a log and raised one hand in peaceful greeting.
"Who are you?" said Yan angrily.
"What are you doing in my country?"
"It was my country first," answered the Indian.
"Those are my deer," said Yan.
"No man owns wild deer till he kills them," said Chaska.
"You had better keep off any trail I'm following."
"I'm not afraid," said Chaska. Then added gently, "It's no good to fight. He who is the best hunter will get the most deer anyhow."
And the end of it was that Yan stayed some days with Chaska. Yan did not get any deer, but he learned much from a man who could hunt. Sometimes they went out together and sometimes each went alone. One day, when he was alone, Yan followed a deer-track, and as he stole forward, he heard a noise in the bushes. He raised his rifle quickly and was ready to fire. But Yan wanted to see what it was, and waited a moment. Suddenly he got a glimpse of red, and at the same time Chaska stepped out.
"Chaska," Yan said, "I nearly killed you."
In reply, the Indian touched the red handkerchief round his forehead. Yan knew then the reason why an Indian who is hunting wears it. After that, he wore one himself.
One day a flock of prairie-birds flew high overhead toward the woods. Other flocks did the same. Chaska looked up at them and said, "The birds are going to hide in the woods-There will be a blizzard to-night."
The blizzard came and the hunters stayed all day by the fire. On the third day, the storm stopped a little and they hunted again. But Chaska returned with his gun broken. He smoked silently for some time and then said, v pointing to the east, "I saw the tracks of Sioux there to-day. It will be bad here now. I must go away." He went away and they never met again, and all that is left of Chaska now is his name, given to the lonely lake in the hills close by — Lake Chaska.
"There are more deer in this place than ever before, and we have seen the big stag on the plain." Yan, who now lived in the West, received a letter telling him this. He was not satisfied with his life there, and when the hunting season began again, the hunting fire was already in his blood. And so he left next day for the hills and plains.
In the hills he met a hunter who told him there were some deer near a lake far to the east — and their leader was a wonderful buck. With three other hunters, Yan set out in a sleigh to the lake, and soon found the tracks — six of different sizes. But there was another large track, evidently that of the Sandhill stag. How strongly the hunting instinct sprang up in each of the men! There was a wild, excited look in the eyes of each of them as they began to follow the seven chains of tracks. It was almost night when the trail became more clear, with bounds of twenty-five feet between the tracks. The hunters followed the tracks until it was dark, and then camped in the snow.
They got up early in the morning and continued their hunt as before. Soon they came to a place where there were seven spots of black, bare ground. It was clear that the deer slept there that night. From this place, the trail grew more and more clear. Yan trailed the deer into a great thicket, but they escaped.
When deer find themselves in danger, they split their band. These deer now did the same. Two of them — the stag and his mate — went one way, and five another way. Yan kept with him one of the men, Duff, and leaving the others to follow the five deer, he took up the trail of the two deer. Why? Because in it was the large, broad track of the Sandhill stag.
Yan and Duff soon overtook the two deer, but these two deer split again. Yan sent Duff after the doe, while he followed the trail of the famous stag. When the sun was low, the tracks led to a part of the country that was new to Yan and to the stag also. The trail was very clear now, but just as he was sure that he had the stag, he heard two shots in the distance, which frightened the stag so that it ran off in long bounds and disappeared.
Yan soon found Duff. "I fired two shots at the doe. I think the second hit her," he said. They walked half a mile and then found blood on the trail. They followed the trail for another half mile and found very large and strong tracks. Yan at once saw that these were not the tracks of the wounded doe, but of her mate, the big stag. After he himself escaped, the stag came back to save the wounded doe. This he tried to do by an old, old trick which many hunted animals use. One deer joins its tracks to those of another weaker deer that is in danger, and then leaps aside in a different direction. Thus the hunter will follow the new tracks, and the wounded or weak deer can escape. In this way the big stag wanted to save his wounded mate.
But the hunters, like wolves when they scent blood, followed the doe again. The stag, who could not make the hunters follow his own tracks, returned to the doe. At sunset, the hunters saw them both climbing up a snow-covered hill. The doe walked slowly, with head and ears down, and the buck ran about as if he did not understand why she walked so slowly. When the hunters overtook them, the doe was down in the snow. The stag moved about for a moment in doubt, then fled from an enemy against whom he was powerless.
The doe tried to rise but could not. Duff took out his knife. The poor doe looked at her enemies with her great shining eyes, full of tears, but she made no sound. Yan turned his back on the scene and covered his face with his hands; but Duff walked forward with the knife and did some terrible thing. When Duff called him, Yan slowly turned, and the doe lay quiet in the snow. An hour later, the men came with the sleigh and lifted the doe's body from the snow, red with blood.
That night, by the fire, a great struggle went on in Yan's heart between the man in him and the beast. Was this the end of the chase, — to kill a beautiful creature and turn it into an ugly, bloody mass?
But in the morning, when he heard a long howl in the distance, and thought that a wolf was on the trail of the stag, the hunting instinct in Yan returned. His friends decided to go back, and they all set out for the town. Yan made up his mind to stay. And when at last they came to a fresh track of the Sandhill stag, Yan said, "I cannot go back — I must stay — I want to see him face to face again."
The men were tired of the terrible frost, so Yan took from the sleigh a small pot, a blanket and some food, and left them.
"Good-bye — good luck!" they said and rode away.
He watched the sleigh until it disappeared in the hills, and then a feeling of loneliness came over him. He looked around him, — snow, snow everywhere, — and wanted to call his friends back, but he was too proud to do it. In a few minutes it was too late, and he was again in the power of that endless chain of tracks which he followed, a hunter beast once more. All other feelings were dead now.
Late that day the trail led into a great dense thicket. Yan knew that the stag was there, resting, but on guard for an enemy. Carefully, silently, the hunter crawled in at one side of the thicket. After many minutes, he found the track again, still leading forward. Then a twig snapped behind him, though the track was still ahead. So the stag again escaped. But Yan knew now the ways of the deer. Before the stag lay down to rest, he went back on his own trail. Thus the hunter thought that the stag was far ahead, when he was really far behind and, scenting the man, was now miles away.
When the cold, black night came, Yan found a good place near some trees, made a small fire and lay down to sleep. His hands and feet were terribly cold, for there was a great frost that night, and the ice on the lake cracked with the awful frost. A prairie-wolf passed by in the night, but he did not howl and went away. Toward morning the weather was warmer, but now it began to snow, and snow covered up the trail.
Yan did not know where he was, and walked about for a mile or two, trying to decide in which direction to go. The snow whirled through the air and almost made him blind, while the cold wind burnt his face. All around him, there seemed to be smoke and fog. Then, quite near him sticking through the snow, he saw a crosier goldenrod, dead and dry, but pointing to the north, as it always did. Now he went on, and when he was in doubt he stopped and looked for this compass-flower, and at last came to a part of the country that he knew. Here he found a good place for a camp. When the blizzard stopped, he spent the day hunting, but did not find any tracks. At night he returned to his camping place.
The next morning he went out again, for something seemed to tell him that the end of the chase was near. Soon he found some tracks. He followed and came to a spot where six deer had rested. Among them was a great broad bed, and then he saw a giant track that only the Sandhill stag could make. The track was almost fresh and there, on a hill, he saw five deer. At that moment there rose up from the top of the hill the form of the great stag. But they saw him first, and before he could fire his gun, they fled and disappeared.
The tracks led to a flat piece of land with a long, dense thicket through the middle of it. "That is where he is hiding and watching now, but he will not rest there," thought Yan. Now Yan hid himself and watched. After half an hour a dark spot left the thicket and went up a hill, far away. When the stag was out of sight over the hill, Yan ran across the valley and crawled along to look for the trail again. He found it, and there he learned that the stag was as wise as he. The stag had climbed the hill, but watched his back trail all the time. When he saw Yan, he bounded quickly away.
However, Yan knew that a strong man could run down the fastest deer. Yan was as fresh as ever, but the great stag's bounds became shorter and shorter, for he was very tired. He must get away from the hunter now, or, he was lost! He often climbed high hills, and from there looked for his enemy. At last the trail came to an end, — there were no tracks. Yan could not understand this, until he found that the stag had gone back on his own trail and then, bounding to one side, had run in another direction. Three times he did this. Then he passed through a thicket and, returning, lay down in the thicket near his own track. Yan must pass the place, so that the stag could smell and hear him before the trail led the hunter too close.
The stag was desperate, and went back along his own tracks many times, so that Yan could not find the real track. When it began to grow dark, Yan returned to his camp, but could not sleep. The next morning everything became clear to him, — the stag each time wanted Yan to follow the wrong trail. Now Yan found the real trail and saw that the distances between the tracks were short. The stag was worn out, — too tired to eat, too frightened to sleep, and with a hunter after him who was never tired.
At last the trail brought the hunter to a wood with three ways in. The trail entered the wood, but Yan knew the stag would not come out here, for the stag understood that his enemy was there. So, quickly and silently, the hunter went to the second road and, hanging his coat on the branch of a tree, he ran lo the third road and hid. After a while, Yan gave the low call that the jaybird gives when there is danger in the woods.
All deer know this call. The great stag, hearing the call, left the wood and went up a high hill, with his ears up, listening. For some minutes he stood, gazing, with his back to his enemy and watching the back trail. He thought that his enemy was behind him. Then the coat on the bough began to flutter, for the wind blew in that direction. The stag quickly disappeared, but he did not leap any more, — he was too tired for that.
Yan, hiding in the thicket, strained every nerve lo see and to hear. A twig snapped close to him, and he rose slowly with his gun ready to fire. And as he rose, there also rose, only fifteen feet away, a pair of wonderful antlers of bronze and ivory, a royal head and a noble form behind it. At last they stood face to face, — Yan and the Sandhill stag. At last — at last, the life of the stag was in Yan's hands. But the stag did not turn away. He stood still and gazed at Yan with his sad, truthful eyes.
"Shoot, shoot, shoot now! This is what you have worked so hard for!" said a weak voice within him.
But Yan's rifle sank down! He remembered the night when he himself, tired and worn out, sat in the little open plain with the wolves near him. He remembered, too, that night when the snow was red with blood and now, between him and the stag he saw the dying doe with great, sad eyes that only asked, "What harm have I done you?" Now every thought of murder went from Yan as he and the stag gazed into each other's eyes — and hearts. You could not look that stag in the eyes and take his life!
"Oh, beautiful creature! We have been enemies for a long time, — hunter and hunted, but now we stand face to face, fellow-creatures, looking into each other's eyes, not knowing each other's speech, — but knowing motives and feelings. Now I can understand you as I never did before. Can't you understand me a little at least? Your life is in my power, and yet you have no fear. I knew of a deer once that, run down by dogs, turned to the hunter for safety, and the hunter saved it. And I have run you down also and you boldly seek safety with me. Yes! You are as wise as you are beautiful, for I shall never harm a hair of you. Go now, without fear, to your pine hills. I shall never follow your trail again with the wild wolf in my heart. I may never see you again. But if you could come sometimes and look me in the eyes and make me feel as you have done to-day, you could drive the wild beast completely from my heart. And yet I feel it will never be. I shall never see you again. Farewell!