How to keep his friend the fisher from raiding his father's trapline poses a problem for young fourteen-year-old Terry Carter. For Pekan regards the trap baits of fresh meat as a good source of food in the deep winters when all wildlife battles for survival. He not only springs empty traps and eats the bait, but will devour any trapped animal he finds as well. Pekan survives both the deadly set gun and the snares with which Long Joe attempts to rid himself of his unwelcome trapline guest, and what Pekan learns provides Terry with a way of protecting his father's traps. Eventually a bond of friendship forms between Terry and Sheba, the pet cougar that he raised from a kitten, and Pekan the Shadow.
|Age Range:||13 - 17 Years|
Chapter 1 - The Shadow
Pekan, the tireless hunter of the pine woods and marshy valleys of the Snowy
Range Mountains, was on an early-morning hunt. He was a member of the
weasel tribe, and as bloodthirsty as any member of the weasel clan to which
he belonged, a group which ranges in weight from the six-ounce least weasel
to the thirty-pound wolverine. Yet he differed from all other weasels in
many ways. He also differed from other members of his own family.
Among mountain men and all others who knew him he was spoken of as a fisher. He did not fish, and no one knows why he was called "fisher," but that is the name he is known by. The French-Canadian trappers always called him le Pekan, which had its origin in Canadian Indian languages. Pekan was just a youngster facing life in the woods alone. His mother had abandoned him as soon as he was able to hunt for himself. While he was with her she hadn't bothered to teach him much. But he was bigger than his mother and bigger than his father. He had turned out to be a lusty fellow weighing eighteen pounds. His total length, including his bushy tail, was forty inches, his height at the shoulder was twelve inches. Pekan had his own private coloring which was unlike that of any fisher. His long soft hair was grayish brown. His muzzle tapered to a point, his eyes were small, his ears broad and rounded, his legs short but powerful.
A red squirrel had spotted him because Pekan disdained cover and walked in the open. The chickaree squirrel sounded a wild alarm when he sighted the hunter, then fled through the tops of a stand of young pine trees. He was the watchdog of the woods who warned all other dwellers fl the approach of danger. But he didn't linger a second because he was terrified of a fisher. He knew that the clumsy-looking hunter could climb a tree faster than any squirrel. He had learned that few squirrels ever escaped once a fisher had sighted him.
Pekan heard the chickaree. He hated the noisy little squirrels because they told every rabbit, grouse, or other dweller that he was abroad hunting. He stopped and raised himself to a sitting position. With forepaws pressed against his chest, he peered up into the trees around him. His small eyes were not very sharp. Like his cousin, the wolverine, he did not depend much on vision. He wasn't sure which tree the chattering came from. He failed to catch a glimpse of the fleeing chickaree who was now leaping silently from tree to tree, intent upon putting as much distance as he could between himself and the killer. Pekan gave voice to a low angry cry, then blasted a savage whistle. Dropping to all fours he moved through the trees. He was hungry, and missing the squirrel filled him with fury.
Pekan feared few of the other predators who prowled his hunting range. The lynx cat, the fox, and even the surliest old he raccoon avoided him. The bears and the cougars left him strictly alone. Man was the only animal he feared. But if cornered he would not hesitate to attack a man. Like the wolverine, he was smarter than most members of the weasel tribe. He knew that it was prudent to avoid a man carrying a rifle. And he had learned that man's steel traps were dangerous.
He had learned about steel traps the hard way. Tempted by a trap baited with half of a cottontail rabbit, he had lost two toes off one forepaw. In trying to get the tempting piece of rabbit, he had stepped on the pan of a large No. 3 steel trap. Luckily, the jaws had caught him low on his paw. But in order to free himself from the steel haws he had been forced to chew off two toes. He didn't cut off the toes until after a savage battle with the trap.
Losing those toes did make him stay away from Long Joe Carter's traps. He had learned that where there was tempting bait there would be a steel trap or two. He soon discovered that they were usually cunningly hidden by grass or leaves on a trail or at the entrance to a hollow tree or cave. The bait was placed so that a hungry animal eager for the meat would step into one of the traps. The traps he robbed were mostly set to catch his smaller cousin, the marten. Long Joe knew that a marten is seldom trap-wise so he didn't hide his traps very carefully. Pekan usually spotted them at once and turned them over or kicked them aside. He never carried the traps away and buried them the way a wolverine did, nor did he smear them with his musk. Pekan always killed and ate any marten he found caught in one of Long Joe's traps. This always angered the trapper. Every time the fisher devoured a marten it cost Long Joe ten dollars, the amount he could get for a prime marten pelt. Pekan always ate hide and fur along with the flesh, so there was never any pelt left for Long Joe. But Long Joe had never been able to shoot the fisher. In fact he had never been able to catch a glimpse of the robber. His fourteen-year-old son Terry had seen Pekan many times. This was because the fisher was sure the boy was harmless. He never carried a gun, and he never set steel traps or built deadfalls.
Terry was very much interested in the fisher. He often saw Pekan because the fisher visited a deep pool in Willow Creek where Terry went swimming. It was the only pool deep enough for diving within hiking distance from the log cabin where Terry lived with his father. Two other creeks running down the steep slopes of the Snowy Range moved swiftly, plunging over rocks and boulders. Willow Creek had found a course across a small meadow which was flat enough so that the creek had to take a meandering course in crossing it. So it moved slowly. A granite ledge cut across the meadow. This up-thrust barrier had acted as a dam. The deep pool had formed back of it, impounding a lot of water.
Above the pool there was a marsh filled with cattail reeds. It was the shallow marsh which attracted Pekan. It was an ideal place to catch frogs, water snakes and an occasional trout which ventured into the shallow water. Any fisher would have considered it a bit of paradise. At first Pekan was cautious about the boy who came to swim in the deep pool. He kept well hidden while he watched Terry swimming and diving from a big rock at the lower end of the pool, never showing himself until Terry had left.
After a while Pekan decided that Terry was harmless. He was just a two-legged animal who, like the otter, liked to swim. Pekan himself wasn't a swimmer who took to the water because he liked it. When he swam across a stream or a lake it was because he wanted to reach the other side, and he didn't want to make a long detour. He was disdainful of the sleek otters who swam so expertly that they could and did catch swift-running trout. Pekan eagerly stole any fish an otter caught if the otter tried to devour his catch on the bank. He would have devoured the otter along with the fish if he could have caught one of them. They always eluded him by taking to the water. He was very fond of fish, but he never learned to catch them as the otter did. If he had bothered to learn to swim expertly he would have been the most accomplished hunter in the woods.
Terry first saw Pekan while he was sitting on his diving rock sunning himself. Pekan had discovered a bittern building her nest among the bulrushes. He had tried to leap upon the sharp-billed swamp dweller, but she had heard him coming, and had fled toward the deep pool. She burst, flapping and squawking, from the marsh with Pekan in hot pursuit. He was so eager to catch the bittern that he did not see Terry.
With a loud squawk the bittern sailed out and settled down in the middle of the pool. The fisher's fangs tweaked several feathers from her tail as she took off. Pekan halted on the bank, hissing furiously. He sat with his jaws open exposing rows of sharp teeth. The frustrated fisher looked so comical that Terry laughed loudly. Pekan spotted him at once, and glared at him with little eyes blazing. He seemed to blame Terry for the bittern's escape. If Terry had remained silent and unmoving the fisher would have thought he was just a part of the rock he was seated upon. The breeze was blowing downstream, which carried the man scent away from the sensitive nose of the fisher. Without scent, any wild animal depends upon sound or movement to warn it against the presence of man.
A big green frog surfaced close to where Pekan was sitting. The frog pulled itself up on top of a half-submerged log that had lodged against the shore. The frog interested the fisher more than Terry did. Here at last was food he could catch. With a swift movement he slapped a paw down on the frog, then reached down and sank his teeth into the morsel of food. Terry watched him devour his meal. It wouldn't satisfy his hunger, but helped a lot. Terry decided the fisher wasn't such a fierce animal as his father had described him. A few minutes later he was convinced of this. Pekan began washing his face and chest in a leisurely manner, much as a house cat would slick up after a meal. It was clear that he wasn't afraid of Terry. When he had finished washing, he seized a head that had broken off a cattail reed. He tossed the fuzzy seedpod about playfully, batting it back and forth.
It suddenly occurred to Terry that he might be able to make friends with the fisher. He had once tamed a raccoon by feeding it green corn from his father's garden. His father had certainly been wrong about fishers. He reached into a pocket and pulled out the sandwich which he had brought along for his lunch. He had wrapped it in a piece of newspaper. He unwrapped it and removed the leg of fried rabbit from between the two flapjacks he had saved from breakfast. He tossed the rabbit leg across the pond toward the fisher.
"Sample that," he called across the water.
The rabbit leg landed beside Pekan. He bent and sniffed at it. He jerked back quickly, but the meat had smelled good. Cautiously he leaned down again and took another sniff. This time his tongue flicked out, and he tasted the meat. He was wary, but he couldn't resist the tempting morsel. He took a bite, chewed once, then swallowed. Then he picked up the rabbit leg and started stripping the meat off the bone. When he had eaten all of the meat he crunched the bones and swallowed him.
The fried rabbit was greasy so Pekan had to wash his face and paws again. He took his time getting cleaned up. When he had finished, he turned toward the marsh and disappeared without a backward glance.
"I'll bring you another handout the next time I come here for a swim," Terry called after the fisher.
He sat on the rock for a half hour hoping the fisher would return. Finally he ate the two flapjacks and scooped up a drink from the pool.
Pekan did not return. He moved across the marsh hunting frogs. Having a boy toss him food was a new experience. He actually did not connect Terry with the gift. The rabbit leg was just something that had fallen on the bank beside him.
Terry took his time hiking home. There was always something interesting to stop and look at. That afternoon it was four hoary marmots he spotted on a rock pile. His father called them whistle-pigs because, when they were startled by a coyote or other intruder, they always whistled loudly. One old whistler was seated on a big rock with his forepaws folded across his fat belly. He was the sentinel who watched for hunters. He scanned the sky for eagles and the bush surrounding the rock pile for coyotes, bobcats, or other predators. He spotted Terry at once and blasted a loud warning before sliding off the rock.
Terry watched the four rock chucks bound up on the rock pile and dive into crevices between the rocks. A minute after they disappeared he heard a chorus of defiant whistles coming out of the rock pile. He grinned broadly as he moved on. There was no use waiting for the whistlers to come out of hiding. He was sure their heads were poked up so they could watch him. They wouldn't show themselves until he had left.
That evening he told his father about meeting the fisher. They were eating an early supper of fried grouse and soda biscuits. Long Joe did the cooking. He had cooked their meals since the death of his wife. Terry barely remembered his mother. He had been only three years old when she passed away.
His father frowned at Terry after he had finished telling about the fisher. His stubble-covered jaw set into a grim frown.
"How big did you say he was?" he asked.
"He's pretty big. I'd guess about fifteen or twenty pounds," Terry answered.
"You better stay away from that critter," his father warned. "A while back one of them fishers lit into two boys and chewed them up bad."
"What had they done to the fisher to make it mad?" Terry asked.
"Nothing. That varmint just wanted the fish they had caught. They found him eating the fish they had stacked on a creek bank. When they tried to chase him off with sticks he lit into them," his father explained. He shook his shaggy mop of red hair. "They're as dangerous as wolverines."
"This one didn't act dangerous," Terry said stoutly.
"Don't know how you managed to see that varmint. He's been robbing bait and eating trapped martens on my sets for months, and I've never seen him once. Jest seen his tracks. He has two toes missing on one front paw."
"He didn't look or act mean," Terry insisted.
"This is just what I've been waiting for," his father said. "You can take the hunting rifle up there and shoot him next time you go swimming. When you do, skin him out. Fisher pelts bring a good price."
"I couldn't kill him," Terry said. "I like him."
Long Joe scowled at his son. Terry irritated him in many ways. When he felt like it he could act very stubborn.
"I have to put a stop to his raiding my trap sets," he said gruffly. "And it's about time you started helping me with the traplines. You'll never grow up to be a trapper the way you're acting."
Terry didn't argue. He didn't want to grow up to be a trapper. He had no desire to kill the animals he had learned to know. They had a right to live. Most of them seemed to get a lot of fun out of living. He admired his father, but he didn't want to grow up like him. So far he had managed to find excuses for not running a trapline.
"I'll give you some traps and start you out," his father had said.
"I don't think I'd be very good at it," Terry answered.
"All you have to do is study martens, minks, and muskrats, find out their ways, trails they use, and dens. Do you ever watch them?"
Terry nodded. "I watch a lot of them," he said. He decided that if he had to trap he'd let every marten or mink out of the trap if he caught any. If he didn't bring in any pelts his father might give up the idea of making a trapper out of him. He might let him go to town and live with Aunt Sarah, who ran a boardinghouse. He would get a town job and help Aunt Sarah who had a hard time making ends meet.
"I'll slip up to that pond and kill that fisher myself," his father said grimly.
Terry looked down at his scuffed boots. He'd have to think of some way to save that big fisher.
One thing was in his favor. The trapping season was over. During the summer the pelts would not be prime.
Table of Contents1 The Shadow
2 Danger Trail
3 A Plan
4 Along Dim Trails
5 Hunting, Cougar Style
6 Fall comes to the High Country
7 White World
8 Trap Set
9 A Little Progress
10 Something Good-Something Bad
11 The Earth Awakens
12 Up to Timberline
13 The Eternal Hills