|Age Range:||9 - 13 Years|
Chapter 1 - Lone Wanderer
Dusk softened the outlines of rimrocks along Willow Creek. The sun's last
rays lighted the naked peaks of Crazy Mountains, turning the somber gray
granite spires rising thousands of feet above timberline to a soft bluish
color. This was country south of the Canadian border, unsettled country
without statehood. One day covered wagons moving west would find its
fertile valleys and homes would be built and the soil tilled.
This was the time of day when the hunters and the hunted ventured into the open seeking food. Crickets were sawing lustily in the warm June twilight in the meadows along Willow Creek. A coyote howled mournfully from a hilltop, his muzzle pointed toward the evening star. The smaller animals welcomed the protecting dusk that was deepening into night. The predators came seeking the rabbits, ground squirrels, and mice that were feeding in the lush grass of the meadows. The killers varied in size from the blood-thirsty weasel to the tawny cougar. Few of the hunted creatures moved far from the gnarled scrub willow thickets lining the stream. The thickets offered them safe refuge from the killers.
Dusk furnished the hunted ones cover from the sharp eyes of the golden eagles and from eyes of the sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks. All of the killers of the air were now roosting except the great horned owls. The big owls flew low along the thickets keeping a sharp watch for movement of the smaller animals. The round eyes of the big owls are designed for night hunting and their big talons are formidable weapons.
To the big cat stretched out on a flat rock at the base of the rimrocks bordering the stream, this was a familiar scene. The sounds and smells were all well known to him. The hour when he usually started hunting was approaching. He yawned lazily and stretched his stringy muscles. The blazing eyes and stumpy tail marked him as a bobcat, a youngster just two weeks away from his mother and two sisters. He was now on his own, and for months he would be a lone wanderer, dependent upon himself for food and shelter. He had learned much from his mother but he still had many things to discover for himself. The wild animal that makes too many mistakes does not survive, but the instincts Rufus was born with would help him a great deal.
Rufus sat looking around him for a few minutes before he bounded off the rock into the meadow. By nature he was a cautious creature. When he landed in the tall grass he raised his head and scanned the willow thicket bordering the stream. Finally he spotted a rabbit that had hopped out of the thicket to feed. In his eagerness to catch the small cottontail he forgot some of the rules for catching a rabbit his mother had taught him. He forgot to crouch low and walk softly. He forgot to avoid shrubs whose branches would snap loudly if he brushed against them. The rabbit both heard and saw Rufus, and ducked into a tangle of scrub willows. Rufus snarled as he moved off looking for another rabbit. This time he crouched low and moved silently, staying away from shrubs and wild rose bushes. To people he known by many names-bobcat, bay lynx, tiger cat, cat of the mountain, and several others. He is officially known as lynx rufus. Bobcat was the name most outdoor men used, perhaps because of his short, stumpy tail.
Some trappers along the beaver streams called him bay lynx or red lynx because he resembled his cousin the Canada lynx. In many ways the bobcat is a lynx but he lacks the huge fur-covered feet of the Canada lynx. He has tufted ears like the northern lynx but the tufts are much shorter. He has a white eye ring, and his whiskers spring form black stripes. His feet resemble those of a house cat. Like the lynx, he has an impudent and abbreviated tail.
Rufus had recently lost the noticeable black spots that had covered his body while he was a kitten. He had now taken on a reddish-brown coloring that matched his surroundings. Wherever a bobcat lives, his coloring adapts to the color of his surroundings.
Rufus was big and heavy for his age. He weighed sixteen pounds and was twenty-three inches long, including his four inch tail. When fully grown he might weigh as much as thirty pounds or more. He was still of an age that made him an inviting target for other predators like wolves or cougars or bears. But already much of his body was muscle, fangs, and claws. He had been born with the instincts of a killer. Meat was the only food he had ever eaten and to have fresh meat he had to kill.
On that evening hunt Rufus made a lot of mistakes, but he also learned much. Many rabbits escaped him; however, he was able to catch a few.
He spotted on rabbit bounding toward cover. It was a brush rabbit and it had foraged quite a distance from cover. Rufus was sure he could intercept it for he could leap well over twenty feet at a bound. He closed in on the rabbit and leaped, sailing well above the tall grass. As he arced upward, he heard a whistling sound in the air above him. A big horned owl, beating his way along the edge of the thicket, had also spotted the moving rabbit and was diving down upon it with talons extended.
Rufus could not check himself in midair. He hit the big owl a smashing blow just as its talons gripped the rabbits back. The impact of the blow hurled the owl over on its back. The owl's grip on the rabbit loosened and it lay on its back with wings beating the grass and talons lashing out. Rufus saw the big talons reaching for him. It was his first encounter with a horned owl but he realized that this large bird was a dangerous opponent. He grabbed the dead rabbit and bounded backward. The lethal talons raked some fur out of his rump and sent stabs of pain through him as he jumped. He bounded away to the nearest rock pile where he leaped upon a big rock, dropping the dead rabbit at his feet. He snarled and screamed and made hideous faces. Savagely triumphant over his victory, he was still screaming when the owl righted himself, got into air, and beat its way down along the creek.
Rufus devoured every bit of the brush rabbit, crunching bones and swallowing hair as well as flesh. Brush rabbits are not very big though bigger than the cottontails. He decided he could eat one more so he started to move upstream. He kept an eye on the air above as well as on the ground. The meadow where Rufus had staked out his hunting ground was ideal beaver country. The tough scrub willows were used by the beavers to build dams and lodges. Quaking aspen trees grew on the slopes above the creek, and aspens were a favorite food of beavers. They stored the branches and trunks on the bottom of their ponds, sinking them into the mud to anchor them. When the ponds froze over during the winter, the beavers had plenty of food handy. Streams like Willow Creek were sought after by trappers.
One trapper named Pierre had found Willow Creek. He had run trapline in Canada when he was a boy. Now in his fifties he was still able to run a trapline. Pierre packed out his winter's catch every spring and sent the hides and pelts to a St. Louis fur company. He owned three mules and a greyhound. One mule he rode and he used the other two as pack animals. Being an expert trapper, Pierre knew that skins, except for beaver hides, were of no value if taken in the summer. Summer pelts were never prime. When cold weather came, the fur bearers grew new fur that was thick and fine.
Pierre had scouted Willow Creek to its source, looking for beaver dams and ponds. He had found many beaver colonies and was happy because this told him that no other trapper had yet found the creek. He had four large ponds in which he wanted to trap. One of the ponds was above Rufus' hunting grounds. He was sure he could get several months trapping in the fall before the ponds froze over. Summer-caught beaver skins could be sold, but Pierre was a perfectionist; he wanted only the best skins.
Rufus had never seen Pierre. The trapper had built his cabin a mile below the bobcat's hunting area, where he would be close to several other beaver ponds. When Pierre scouted the pond above Rufus' meadow, he had missed the meadow because he had ridden his mule up a ridge above Willow Creek. From the ridge he could spot any beaver ponds on the creak. When he spotted a pond he would ride down examine it, then return to the ridge. Rufus liked the meadows upstream, so he never found Pierre's log cabin.
Pierre had gotten his greyhound from a teamster on a wagon train going west to Oregon. He had traded a Green River skinning knife for the dog after its owner had assured him greyhounds were great coyote and wolf dogs as well as good at tree cougars and other big cats.
Old Charlie hadn't turned out to be much of a coyote hunter. He ran by sight and a wily coyote was able to elude him by ducking into a ravine or over a hill. As for gray wolves, Old Charlie was afraid of them. But Pierre liked him. He was better company than the three Missouri mules. The mules were good at spotting unfriendly Indians but they just weren't sociable.
Old Charlie liked to catch bobcats, and he was fast enough to catch a bobcat if he flushed one in a meadow along Willow Creek. The bobcat had to reach a rock pile to get away from him. Compared to Old Charlie, the bobcat was a slow runner.
The creek suited Rufus. It was ideal bobcat country. The rock piles furnished dens and snug hiding places. The thickets along the creek furnished rabbits. It was the same kind of country he had been born in. A bobcat's hunting range is never very large anyway. Unlike the cougar, who will travel hundreds of miles, the bobcat prefers a small range. Rufus no longer missed his mother and sisters. They were now only a vague memory. He would remain a lone hunter until the time came for him to seek a mate. Rufus was not like his cousin the lynx cat, who is by nature a dweller of the dense forests. The lynx cat prefers the green twilight under the big trees, where underbrush furnishes dense cover and, he shuns the bright sunlight of the open range. But Rufus, true to bobcat nature, liked broken, open country. The lumberman's ax was a friend to the bobcat. Cunning as a cougar or gray wolf, a bobcat could take care of himself.
Every morning and evening the young bobcat hunted. If game was scarce he would hunt by day. He did not confine himself entirely to the meadows along Willow Creek. He often prowled up the slopes where the aspens grew. There he frequently found the nests of blue grouse. He never caught a blue grouse but he often feasted upon their eggs or young chicks. Many times he climbed trees to rob the nests of smaller birds as well.
Rufus' mainstay, however, was the meadow along Willow Creek. Every yard of thicket harbored three of four rabbits. Mother rabbits fought each other for choice spots in which they could raise their babies. Rufus seldom penetrated the dense thickets. He depended upon the rabbits that fed out in the tall grass meadow. The most succulent sprouts and herbs grew away from the shade of the thickets. This lured the rabbits out into the open.
The various predators hunted along the creek seeking rabbits, ground squirrels, and mice. An occasional cougar visited the meadows when the does and fawns came down to drink out of the creek. During the deep snow of winter a band of elk might hole up on a cottonwood grove to feed upon the tender twigs on the trees. The wolves and coyotes came to hunt rabbits, squirrels, and mice. Wandering bears came to dig in the meadows for roots, wild onions and other bulbs. In the sky there were other hunters-golden eagles, sharp-shinned and re-tailed hawks, and the big horned owls. Rufus did not worry much. He seldom strayed far from a rock pile. Most of the predators knew that a bobcat was a savage fighter when attacked.
Rufus had never gotten hungry enough to kill a porcupine, but they were there if the rabbits got scarce. He was one of the few predators who could devour a quill pig if he had to, but a face full of quills could be painful. One morning Rufus chased a rabbit into a thicket, which was something he seldom did. But his fangs were so close to the rabbit that, forgetting caution, he lunged in expecting to grab it. The rabbit had a decided advantage for it could duck under the low branches. It did duck and it scooted back and forth. Rufus' wrath was aroused by the resistance of the tough branches and he spent some time trying to find the rabbit. Finally he gave up and backed out of the thicket.
Then he was startled to see a strange animal moving toward him. It wasn't a coyote or a wolf; it wasn't any kind of animal he had ever seen before. Its voice wasn't a snarl or a bark; it was a loud baying sound. It was Old Charlie out looking for bobcats. With a deep baying howl Old Charlie came straight at Rufus. The loud voice disturbed Rufus more than the gaping mouth; he hated noise. The sounds were new to the bobcat but his cat instincts made him pivot swiftly and bound toward the nearest rock pile. The long-legged hound was a faster runner than the bobcat and Old Charlie caught up with Rufus when he was still ten feet away from the rock pile. Old Charlie's teeth fastened upon Rufus' furry rump. Instinctively the bobcat twisted over on his back and lashed out with claws and fangs. He voiced his rage as fury filled him. No animal could resist those claws and sharp teeth. But Old Charlie lunged in, reaching for Rufus' throat, a hold that always finished off a coyote. His lunge was met by a slashing pair of paws whose long claws cut deeply into the hound's face and ears. Old Charlie leaped backward howling with pain.
Given a chance to move, Rufus flipped over on his feet and bounded to the rock pile. He was thoroughly roused by discretion was a strong trait with him. He bounded to the top of a flat rock screaming, hissing, and growling triumphantly, daring the hound to renew his attack. Old Charlie knew that now there was no chance to catch the bobcat. The cat would dive down among the rocks if he tried. So Old Charlie turned and loped off down the creek. Rufus sat on top of the rock and watched the hound retreat around a bend in the creek. The hair on Rufus' neck and back still stood erect and he was still hissing savagely. He had met another enemy, bigger than himself, and he had routed it. He listened to the hound's baying until it faded away. Finally he leaped down off the rock and started hunting again.
When Old Charlie got back to Pierre's cabin, Pierre was in the yard splitting firewood. He leaned on his ax handle and scowled at Old Charlie.
"You've tangled with another bobcat," he said sourly. "Don't you every learn anything?"
Old Charlie whimpered as he lay down and rubbed his scratched face in the grass.
"Bobcat hides are worth money. Come cold weather that fellow's pelt will be prime; then you'll get even with him when I shoot or trap him."
Table of Contents1 The Lone Wanderer
3 Angry Water
4 Dim Trails
5 High Country
6 Dog Town
7 Indian Summer
8 White World
10 The Search