Koskoosh placed another stick on the fire and let his thoughts travel deeper into the past. There was the time of the great famine. He had lost his mother in that famine. In the summer the usual plentiful catch of fish had failed, and the tribe looked forward to the winter and the coming of the caribou. Then the winter came, but with it there were no caribou. Never had the like been known, not even in the lives of the old men. The rabbits had not produced any young and the dogs were skin and bone. And through the long darkness the children wept and died. So did the women and the old men. Not one in ten lived to meet the sun when it returned in the spring. That was a famine!
But he had seen times of plenty, too, when the meat spoiled before it could be eaten. Even the dogs grew fat and were worth nothing from eating too much. In these times they let the animals and birds go unkilled and the tents were filled with newly born children. Then it was that the men remembered old quarrels and crossed to the south and to the west to kill ancient enemies. He remembered, when a boy, during a time of plenty, when he saw a moose pulled down by the wolves. Zing-ha lay with him in the snow and watched. Zing-ha was his friend who later became the best of hunters. One day he fell through an air hole on the frozen Yukon River. They found him a month later, frozen to the ice where he had attempted to climb out.
Zing-ha and he had gone out that day to play at hunting, in the manner of their fathers. Near a creek they discovered the fresh track of a moose and with it the tracks of many wolves. “An old one,” Zing-ha said. “It is an old one who cannot travel as fast as the others. The wolves have separated him from his brothers, and they will never leave him.” And it was so. It was their way. By day and by night, never resting, biting at his heels, they would stay with him to the end. How Zing-ha and he had felt the desire to see blood! The finish would be a sight to remember!
Eagerly, they started up the trail. Even he, Koskoosh, who was not a good tracker, could have followed it blind, it was so wide. They were not far behind the hunt, reading its awful story at every step. Now they saw where the moose had stopped to face his attackers. On every side the snow had been stamped heavily. In the middle there were the deep footprints of the moose. All about, everywhere, were the lighter footmarks of the wolves. Some had moved to one side and rested while their brothers tried to seize the moose. The full-stretched impressions of their bodies in the snow were as perfect as though they’d been made the moment before. One wolf had been caught in a wild dash at the moose and had died under its heavy stamping. A few bones remained as witness.
The two boys stopped again at a second stand. Here the great animal had fought with despair. As the snow indicated, he had been dragged down twice. And twice he shook off his enemies and gained his footing once more. He had finished his task long before, but nevertheless, life was dear to him. Zing-ha said it was a strange thing for a moose once down to struggle free again. But this one certainly had done so. The medicine man would see signs and wonders in this when they told him.
Then they came to the place where the moose had tried to climb the riverbank and go into the woods. But his enemies had attacked from behind, until he leaped high and then fell back upon them, crushing two deep into the snow. It was clear that the kill was near, because the two dead wolves had been left untouched by their brothers. The trail was red with blood now, and the distance between tracks of the great beast had become shorter and shorter. Then they heard the first sounds of the battle—the quick bark of the wolves which spoke of teeth tearing flesh. On hands and knees Zing-ha and Koskoosh made their way through the snow. Together they pushed aside the low branches of a young pine tree and looked forth. It was the end that they saw.
The picture, like all of youth’s memories, was still strong with him. His eyes now watched the end acted again as clearly as in that earlier time. Koskoosh was surprised at this, because in the days which followed, he had done many great deeds. He had been a leader of men and his name had become a curse in the mouths of his enemies.
For a long time he recalled the days of his youth, until the fire grew cold and the frost bit deeper. He placed two sticks on the fire this time. Then he figured how much life was left by the amount of wood that remained in the pile. If Sit-cum-ha had remembered her grandfather, and gathered a larger armful, his hours would have been longer. It would have been easy. But she was always a selfish child. She had not honored her ancestors from the time the Beaver, son of the son of Zing-ha, first looked at her. Well, what did it matter? Had he not done the same in his own quick youth? For a while he listened to the silent forest. Perhaps the heart of his son might soften. Then he would return with the dogs to take his old father with the tribe to where the caribou ran thick and the fat hung heavy upon them.
He strained his ears. There was not a sound to be heard. Nothing. He alone took breath in the middle of the great stillness. It was very lonely. Wait! What was that? His body suddenly felt cold. A familiar cry broke the silent air, and it was close to him. Then his darkened eyes again saw the old moose—the bloody sides, the torn legs, the great branching horns, fighting to the last. He saw the flashing forms of gray, the bright eyes, the dripping tongues and the sharp teeth. And he saw the circle move closer until it became a dark point in the middle of the stamped snow.
A cold nose pushed against his face and at its touch his soul leaped back to the present. His hand shot into the fire and dragged out a burning stick. Overcome for the moment by his fear of man, the beast drew back, raising a call to his brothers. Greedily they answered, until a ring of gray was stretched around him. The old man listened to the steady breathing of this circle. He waved his flaming stick wildly, but the beasts refused to scatter. Now one moved slowly forward, dragging his legs behind. Now a second, now a third. But now, not one moved back from his flaming stick. Why should he so desire life? He asked, and dropped the burning stick into the snow. It made a slight noise and then there was no more fire. The circle murmured uncertainly but held its place. Again he saw the last stand of the old moose, and Koskoosh dropped his head hopelessly on his knees. What did it matter? Was it not the law of life?
Words in This Story
famine – n. a situation in which many people do not have enough food to eat
caribou – n. a large type of deer that lives in northern parts of the world
rabbit(s) – n. a small animal that usually lives in holes in the ground and has long ears, soft fur, and back legs that are longer than its front legs
wept – v. (past tense of: weep)to cry because you are very sad or are feeling some other strong emotion
spoil(ed) – v. to decay or lose freshness especially because of being kept too long
quarrel - n. an angry argument or disagreement
moose – n. a large animal with very large, flat antlers that lives in forests in the northern part of America, Europe and Asia
wolves - n. (plural form of: wolves) a large wild animal that is similar to a dog and that often hunts in groups
manner – n. the way that something is done or happens
creek – n. a small stream
track – n. a mark left on the ground by a moving animal, person, or vehicle
stamp(ed) – v. the act of bringing your foot down heavily and noisily
impression(s) – n. something (such as a design or a footprint) made by pressing or stamping a surface
despair – n. the feeling of no longer having any hope
indicate(d) – v. to show something
task – n. a piece of work that has been given to someone
dear – adj. loved or valued very much
leap(ed) – v. to jump from a surface
knee(s) – n. the joint that bends at the middle of your leg
branch(es) – n. a part of a tree that grows out from the trunk
youth – n. the time when a young person has not yet become an adult
frost – n. a thin layer of ice that forms on the ground or on grass when the air becomes cold
strain(ed) – v. to try very hard to do or get something
horn(s) – n. one of the hard pointed parts that grows on the head of some animals
flashing – n. (gerund) – appearing quickly or suddenly
dripping – n. (gerund) – (liquid) falling in drops
tongue(s) – n. the soft, movable part in the mouth that is used for tasting and eating food and in human beings for speaking
soul – n. the spiritual part of a person that is believed to give life to the body and in many religions is believed to live forever
flaming – n. (gerund) - having a bright or glowing red or orange color