The Black Fox
The Black Fox
SKULKING, boldly hunting, killing, hiding, sleeping, and rising to skulk and hunt and kill again, Morgan, the black fox, was living out his wild life. That night, while Hargraves the trapper stood in his cabin doorway, in the snow-swept north, he was in the zenith of his power and beauty.
The room behind Hargraves was warm from the noisy fire; there were thick blankets and tobacco and grub and "hooch"—everything that a man needs in the north. Before him lay the wilds, in all their ruggedness and cruelty; brilliant with their snows; awful in their heavy, brooding silence; weird with the sharp-lined, grotesque shadows of bush and scrubbed tree—always unconquered and mysterious and untamed.
The cabin, with its rough comfort, was the home of Hargraves, as was fitting to his nature; and the outside was the home of Morgan, the fox, as was fitting to his nature. The fox changed it from a barren, empty place to a habitation, of which he was the center, much as a woman can change with her presence a shack of boards into a home.
No one knew much about this Morgan, the black fox of the Chilkoot River. It was his river, his valley, yet no one knew why, for there were creatures inhabiting it with him that could crush him with one blow in a pitched battle. There were wolves and bears and moose; but for all that, the Chilkoot was Morgan's valley. He was so swift that not one of the larger beasts could overtake him to pitch a battle. He was so wise that no man had ever endangered him. He was so clever that he fed well and was sleek and trim and strong when the other beasts about him were dying of starvation. And Morgan was the king of all the foxes.
As trappers know, the black and silver foxes are smaller than the southern breed of foxes. While the latter are fifty-six inches long from their pointed noses to the end of their brushes, their northern cousins measure hardly forty-five. Morgan, to conform to the dimensions of his breed, should have stood but thirteen or fourteen inches. Instead, men who had seen Morgan—and they could be counted on the fingers of two hands—knew that he was not only bigger than other black foxes, but bigger than the largest of the southern breeds.
His coal-black body, like an ink-spot against the snow, had seemed as large as a wolf's. His track was half again as large as those of the rest of the foxes. His fur was more beautifully black.
No one knew exactly how he got the name of Morgan. Some said that an old soldier, who had fought in the Civil War, and in his last days had prospected in the Chilkoot Valley, had named him Morgan after the famous Confederate raider.
"They're both daring robbers," he was reported to have said.
There was another story—more widely believed—as to the origin of his name. It was said that a French Canadian, a trapper, who had known French mythology, had named the elusive creature after Morgan the Fay, the shadowy and mystic figure of medieval romance. He was fortune, opportunity, that must be grasped in the golden moment.
His age was unknown. None knew how many years he had reigned in the Chilkoot Valley or how many trappers had wasted seasons in pursuit of him. The most skilful men had always come back empty-handed, swearing that Morgan was a ghost fox who could not be caught.
And Morgan had continued to catch his mice and ptarmigan and hare, and grow sleeker and wiser and stronger.
Now Hargraves, standing in the door of his cabin in the hills beside the Chilkoot River, had waged the greatest campaign of all against Morgan's life. Even now, while the stars were signaling from the cold skies, the net was closing around the fox. There were traps, carefully hidden and baited, in every cross way.
The trapper was little and rather bent, but his brown, gentle eyes were squinted with determination. In the few minutes that he stood in the doorway, his eyelashes were silvering with frost. His throat was brown and sinewy.
He stared out across the snow—first to the north, where streaks of colored light shot intermittently across the sky. Then he looked southward, toward home. A distant farm it was, where lived his wife and children, and only the beautiful skin of the black devil of a fox was needed to bring happiness to them and him. With the great price it would bring he could pay off the debt at home, and could go out of this horrible land of cold and cruelty and death.
Beside his door lay the malemutes, crouching in the snow. How easy it would be to hitch them to his sled, loaded with his grub and blankets, and mush away homeward! How easy—all that he needed was Morgan's coat of fur.
He knew that even now the fox was skulking or boldly hunting or hiding or sleeping, no more than a few hours' journey from him. Perhaps this minute Morgan was eating the poisoned meat, or was caught in one of the hidden traps.
Hargraves had hunted long and hard, and his gains had been slow. He had spent months, baiting and pursuing and studying. He wouldn't let himself count up the weeks he had spent in the hunt, for they were so many that if he had worked through them for wages he could perhaps have saved enough to pay off the debt; but always he had thought the fox just within his grasp.
Always had the creature broken through his lines or passed by the poisoned meat. How many times he had found the trap empty and sprung, and the great fox-tracks streaking away! How many times he had followed the tracks with his rifle in his hands! But always his prey had eluded him.
He had learned almost every one of Morgan's hiding-places. In the months he had lived in the valley he had cut down Morgan's food supply—ptarmigan and rabbit. He had taken the last of the ermines. Now Morgan would surely have to eat the poisoned meat or take the bait from the traps! Surely the capture was but a few days off!
And then—the hitching of the malemutes to the sled, the mushing out of the barren land, the far-off trading-post, and at last—home!
As Hargraves stood listening and watching, he began to grow cold. Not a shadow wavered on the white expanse. Not even a dog whined or stirred in its sleep. It was a vast region, seeming almost of death.
Yes—something was stirring. He saw for an instant the quick movement of a shadow in an open place. He vanished into his cabin; and when he reappeared, his rifle lay across his arm. His eyes squinted as he stared out over the starlit snow, trying to see what moved upon it.
He watched steadily a while, but did not see the movement again. At last he turned to go inside.
His gaze rested for an instant on the hill that marked the entrance into the Chilkoot Valley; he did not know why. He watched steadily again, and this time what had seemed a shadow became a spot of living black. There could be no mistake.
Hargraves's heart was in his mouth. He knew at once what was happening; never before had Morgan climbed that hill. The trapper knew too well where it led—out of the valley and northward, to new hunting-grounds.
The spot of black was Morgan; Hargraves knew it. Somewhere through the brush clumps the fox was slinking, watchful and vigilant as ever. He was stealing out of the valley where lived such a persistent enemy. Perhaps his food supply was nearly gone; but the man did not stop to think why Morgan was going. His eyes were fast upon a bare patch of the hillside that the fox would have to cross. But the distance was too great, the chance too remote.
At last a shadow hovered for an instant on the bare place. The gun came to the trapper's shoulder, and once—twice—the bullet screamed away.
He strained his eyes, his face working; but the spot on the hill was empty again.
"You devil!" he howled after the vanished fox. His self-control gave way momentarily. "You devil! You think you've got by me, but you haven't! I'll chase you to the pole and get you yet!"
He shook his fists and listened to his own wild words. A great resolve, half-formed, made his eyes widen.
Why not harness the dogs, and track the beast down as he would a man? He had ample supplies, and there was little danger of fresh snow covering the tracks so late in winter. Of course, there were other dangers, but every game in the north was full of them.
That almost priceless skin was worth almost any chance. It was even better to die than to go back without it! He spoke again, but his words were no longer wild.
"I'll do it!" he told the malemutes. "We'll follow him down—over the hill, out of the valley. It's worth while as a last, long chance. And it's more than a chance, because, at the end of the chase"—his body crouched in anticipation of it—"we'll get that skin!"
Early the next morning the silence of the Chilkoot Valley was broken by a cry.
"Mush on!" roared Hargraves to his dogs.
They strained and pulled, and at last the sled lunged forward.
Only one creature saw Hargraves and his dogs depart—an eagle that flapped wearily above the tree-tops, the last of a noble family of eagles whose home had been in the Chilkoot Valley. His mother, when he was young, had once started to fly to him with a black bundle of fur in her talons—a half-grown fox. But before long the other natives of the valley—the ermine, hovering in a pile of snow, a ptarmigan, just emerging from hiding, and a wolf—noticed that the eagle flew with sick, unsteady strokes. She flew lower and lower, and at last dropped the bundle of fur upon the snow, unhurt. But she herself dropped a little later, her breast torn open by the sharp teeth of her captive.
So perhaps the eagle bade Hargraves godspeed.
The tracks of Morgan were distinct in the snow; but to follow them the trapper had to walk much of the way in front, instead of behind his dogs.
He mushed over the hill, and creepingly crossed the divide. He was long in crossing, but always the tracks in the snow led him on. He made his wretched camps, and built his fires; the snow was silent and interminable, and the stars looked down unchangingly. He would rise in the morning and go on again, steadily upward, in the trail of Morgan. The days were growing colder—it was midwinter.
At first he would find blood in the snow, where the fox had made a kill. Sometimes Morgan moved in a vast circle, until the animal came to know that he could not throw his pursuer off the trail by such tactics. Then the tracks went straight northward.
At last Hargraves stood at the top of the divide. On the other side stretched miles of snow-covered prairie on which grew scattering clumps of brush and a few scrubby bull-pines. Into these Morgan had dipped.
Down the long slope Hargraves descended, his eyes always on the trail. This was the sixth day of the chase, and he felt that Morgan must be nearly exhausted. The fox had not made a kill for four days, as far as the trapper could see.
Morgan did not stop to hunt, and at first the man did not understand why. Then he came to know that there was nothing to hunt. The land that he mushed through was a great, white, empty desert, where nothing lived except himself, his dogs, and the fleeing fox.
There were no tracks of the snow-shoe rabbit—none even of mice, no eyes gleaming from the brush clumps, no bark ripped from trees, no tundra cut off close by the teeth of caribou. The fox knew by his unerring instinct that he must go straight on to the next valley before his strength was gone.
The desert was utterly still, with a silence that almost hurt the ear-drums The sled creaked a little, and feet crunched into the snow, but the sound of them died quickly, as if smothered.
Hargraves began to talk aloud to break the awful silence. He shouted at his dogs, but they hardly seemed to hear. They grew slower of foot, and bright-eyed, and looked down always at the trail. They did not bark as they sped across the snow in level places, or even snore as they slept at night. They ate what food was allotted them—with little noise, for malemutes.
The man knew that he was growing afraid. He found that the scarcity of game, which would soon put the fox into his hands, was hurting him, too. He had counted on many caribou and ptarmigan along the way. His food supply was running low. There was hardly anything left for the dogs. But the tracks of the fox were fresher every day; and once in a while, far ahead of him, Hargraves caught a glimpse of the black body.
His cheeks were growing thin, and strange dreams came at night, when he was not too tired to dream.
"You can't get away now!" he shouted to the fox ahead of him.
He began to realize that his attitude toward Morgan was changing. No longer did he think of the two thousand dollars that such a marvelous skin would bring, or of the debt at home. He thought only of the fur itself, how he would rub his cheek on it and gloat over it. He wanted it for itself alone, as a miser wants his gold. He was maddened in the pursuit of it.
He clasped his hands tighter; his eyes were more squinted. Sometimes he had to work to open them at all, for the lashes would freeze together. The nights were cold almost beyond comprehension—so cold that each breath seemed to burn his lungs, and his fingers grew numb as he walked.
The trees about him burst open with the frost. The bushes bent low with their load of snow. But still the fox kept ahead of him.
The man was not going by track now. In the first place, Morgan hardly made a track, so hard was the frozen snow. The trapper could see the black body many times a day only a little way ahead of him. Northward went the fox and northward his pursuer.
The man's food supply was nearly gone, and he began to kill the dogs. They looked pleadingly at him, as he pointed his rifle at them. He wondered if he only imagined the look of appeal in their eyes, for why should a creature be afraid of death in that land of cold and misery?
Death was nothing to be dreaded by Hargraves, but he could not die until he had Morgan's skin.
"You don't care," he said to the first dog he shot. "You are half-starved now, and the chase is not over. You don't want to draw the sled forever, do you? There!"
He fired, and the sound startled him. It was the first time he had discharged the gun since the night in his cabin. There was no echo, and Hargraves looked about, frightened. The dog was dying at his feet.
"You must be youth!" he said to the gasping animal. "And I have killed youth!"
He brought himself together with a jerk. He must keep better self-control—but the eternal silence, the endless chase, were enough to madden any one. If he lost complete control of himself the fox would evade him, and he had to have the skin.
He felt his thoughts floating off into senseless channels, like a man's at the verge of sleep.
"Youth, you are my first sacrifice, for surely my youth is gone! Isn't my beard gray? Or is it only gray with frost? And always in the hunt for the fox—for Morgan—youth is the first to go!"
Part of the dog-meat went to feed the other malemutes, and part of it Hargraves ate himself. He mushed on, the fox but three miles ahead of him. If the trapper had had more cartridges he would have tried to shoot him now, but he determined to wait till he drew closer.
Again the fox made a kill. Hargraves's heart sank when he saw the blood-red patch of snow. He did not know whether a sparrow or a ptarmigan had crossed Morgan's path, for only one white feather lay in the red spot.
That day Morgan gained a little. But Hargraves was not discouraged; he could still see the black form of his prey. The next day the fox gained still more, and might have escaped, had not the snow softened a little in the afternoon, so that his tracks grew distinct again. By the following day Hargraves had gained what he had lost.
His dreams were more unpleasant. He always saw himself an old, old man, with bald head and white hair and wasted, stringy legs. His teeth were gone, and he could not eat. And Morgan still led him on!
"I am an old man," he heard himself say as he was awakening. "I have killed youth in the chase!"
The northern lights shot their joyous bands across the sky in front of him.
"I'll name you before you go," he said drunkenly. "I'll call you happiness; for after youth, happiness is the next sacrifice."
In his delirium the man was living out a lifetime within a few days.
When he had to kill another dog the animal's eyes were pleading, and again Hargraves found it bard to shoot. The other malemutes leaped forward when the report came, and snarled as the blood poured warm and wet upon the snow. The trapper forced them back until he had quartered the body with his ax.
"Happiness is a harder sacrifice than youth," he said to the other dogs. He laughed a little, mirthless laugh. "I'm going mad, I guess!"
He tried to smoke, to think clearly again, but nothing removed the feeling of strange depression. He sat with his head in his hands while the night came down and the color brightened and faded in the northern sky.
His craving for Morgan's skin did not diminish, but the joy of the chase was gone. It had become a bitter passion instead of a fierce joy. He swore angrily at the dogs, the stars, the fox in front. The crackle of his flame was no longer cheerful.
His dog-team cut down, his speed was reduced. The load was too heavy for the two remaining dogs. Hargraves began to throw off all except the utmost necessities of his meager life. But still his weakened dogs could hardly draw the sled, and the distance between them and Morgan remained almost the same.
He was living entirely on dog-meat now, and drinking a little tea and melted snow. Always he left his sleeping-bag in the dawn, and relentlessly mushed on. Often he had to force the malemutes with his whip; and when they fell in their traces, it took hours to get them to their feet. But the exhausted fox could not escape while his pursuer rested. He stretched out in the snow, and only rose to flee when Hargraves mushed on again.
The next night the third malemute was killed. He had been a favorite of the trapper, but was not so strong as the remaining dog.
Hargraves found it hardest of all to kill his pet.
"I'm a fool!" he said, snarling. "I've got to eat—if I don't I won't get the skin. I shouldn't have a heart anyway; so I guess I'll kill it off!"
He pulled the trigger, and was startled when the dog fell at his feet.
"There goes my heart!" he said. "A man that's got to win can't monkey with a heart. He can't have one, that's all. It's the next thing that goes after happiness!"
He cruelly beat off the last of his team while he divided the body between himself and the surviving malemute. His eyes were gleaming and cold.
The fire was built, and a piece of dogflesh broiled. Again the stars came out, and the trapper's dreams were evil. He saw himself heartless and unhappy and old.
The fox was only a mile away now—too far to try to hit him with a rifle. Hargraves wanted to wait till he was sure before he fired again. He could see the black body, moving as he moved, resting as he rested; but he could hardly gain on it—a few hundred yards a day. The man had forgotten everything but his lust for Morgan's fur.
The last dog fell at noon, and his master struck at him with vicious cruelty. Hargraves had beaten the dogs before, but always because it was necessary to force them on. Now he laughed savagely as his club thwacked against the animal's side. But the beast rose at last, to stagger slowly on.
Hargraves felt that it was the last day of the chase. The fox was almost within gunshot, and a strange, ominous grayness hung over the world of snow. The sun was not shining from its low place in the southern sky, but the trapper could not think clearly enough to know what the darkness foreshadowed. He stumbled on.
It was growing dusk when the dog fell again. With a cry of rage, Hargraves leaped toward him. He beat him mercilessly about the head, until the animal's blood made spots upon the snow. Then he stopped, frightened.
He touched the dog, and backed away a few feet. He came closer, and tried to roll up the senseless creature's eyelid. He succeeded at last, and a brown, glazing eye leered at him.
The last of the malemutes was dead!
The man looked about for a while, dazed. He looked at himself, at his hands, and then began to sob, though no tears came from his eyes.
"I've done it all now!" he said. "All that I had power to spend I have spent." He looked at the dead dog. "What are you—what is it that dies after a man's heart? I guess you are hope. Or perhaps you are life itself, or both, for one without the other isn't any good. You are hope, and I have given up!"
He fell forward, and as he fell the snow began to fall. With it came the night. He could hardly see the dead dog at his feet, so thick were the flakes and the shadows. So the chase was over—the fox could slink away or hide himself in the snow. The pursuer was beaten. But he was not sure that he cared.
All he wanted now was a place to die. Perhaps he was almost dead now, for things seemed hardly real.
Far across the snow came a gleam of light that was not part of the aurora or the sunset. What could it be? He knew what it resembled—the gleam that used to come through the window of his house at evening, as he trudged homeward across the fields. But it couldn't be that; there were hundreds, or even thousands, of snowy, desolate miles between. It must be the light of heaven!
Since he was so tired and so old and so sad, he did not care. He would go to meet this light, whatever it were. If it were heaven, he was glad.
He stumbled blindly forward into the thick snowfall toward it. He stopped an instant to shake the snow from his eyes, and to see if the light had faded. No, it had not. It was nearer now— But what was the black and white mound, ten feet off, perhaps, at the very limit of his vision?
He strained his eyes, trying to see more clearly into the blur of snowflakes. As he watched, he could see a movement, a brushing away of the white from the mound till only black remained.
Hargraves took three bounds forward, and a lithe, black body raised itself from the snow. It tried to slink away On its weak legs, unyielding to the last; but the man had lifted his gun-barrel, and brought it down with all his remaining strength. The point of the butt struck the skull of Morgan, the fox, and again the snow was stained. The slender body quivered and lay still.
Dazed and unbelieving, Hargraves sat down in the snow beside the body of his prey. Scarce knowing what he did, he drew his knife from its sheath, and began to skin the creature. He sang a strange song as he worked, as he had always done. The beautiful fur, unspoiled by the long chase, and as soft as velvet—he peeled from the flesh. He pulled it from the legs, and stretched it out.
It was huge for the skin of a black fox—the trophy of a lifetime. He rubbed his wasted cheek against it.
"I've got you at last!" he said to it, but there was little triumph in his voice. "You led me a chase, but I got you. Aren't you beautiful? I hardly think you can be real. You're as soft as~as heaven."
Heaven! It made him think of the light again. Hungrily he turned his gaze upward, and at last he saw the feeble gleam. He clambered to his feet, and staggered away into the storm; and all the way he talked to the fur he held against his face.
"I've spent everything I had to spend to get you—sacrificed 'em all, youth and happiness and heart and hope; but I've won at last!"
Then his eyes widened.
"But what good are you going to do me, now I've got you? I've spent everything that you could help me enjoy—traded it off for you. And now I am going to die—to go away forever, and I can't take you with me. The light—it is coming near me now. I shall have you only for a little while, for my time to go is almost here. The light is very bright—my little space with you is almost crossed. Was the chase worth while, fox? I gave so much, and won so late. I'm afraid that I have been a fool. And what a happy, golden light!"
Hargraves swayed back and forth, and staggered feebly forward. His hands went up before him and found a door. Then he fell upon the threshold of a miner's cabin.
The black fox's skin was still pressed tight against his cheek when the miner dragged him in, unconscious, into warmth and shelter.