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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Strayed
By Sir Charles George Douglas Roberts (1860–1943)
 
From ‘Earth’s Enigmas’

IN the Cabineau Camp, of unlucky reputation, there was a young ox of splendid build, but of a wild and restless nature.  1
  He was one of a yoke, of part Devon blood, large, dark-red, all muscle and nerve, and with wide magnificent horns. His yoke-fellow was a docile steady worker, the pride of his owner’s heart; but he himself seemed never to have been more than half broken in. The woods appeared to draw him by some spell. He wanted to get back to the pastures where he had roamed untrammeled of old with his fellow-steers. The remembrance was in his heart of the dewy mornings when the herd used to feed together on the sweet grassy hillocks; and of the clover-smelling heats of June, when they would gather hock-deep in the pools under the green willow shadows. He hated the yoke, he hated the winter; and he imagined that in the wild pastures he remembered, it would be forever summer. If only he could get back to those pastures!  2
  One day there came the longed-for opportunity; and he seized it. He was standing unyoked beside his mate, and none of the teamsters were near. His head went up in the air, and with a snort of triumph he dashed away through the forest. For a little while there was a vain pursuit. At last the lumbermen gave it up. “Let him be!” said his owner, “an’ I rayther guess he’ll turn up ag’in when he gets peckish. He kaint browse on spruce buds an’ lungwort.”  3
  Plunging on with long gallop through the snow, he was soon miles from camp. Growing weary, he slackened his pace. He came down to a walk. As the lonely red of the winter sunset began to stream through the openings of the forest, flushing the snows of the tiny glades and swales, he grew hungry, and began to swallow unsatisfying mouthfuls of the long moss which roughened the tree-trunks. Ere the moon got up he had filled himself with this fodder, and then he lay down in a little thicket for the night.  4
  But some miles back from his retreat a bear had chanced upon his footprints. A strayed steer! That would be an easy prey. The bear started straightway in pursuit. The moon was high in heaven when the crouched ox heard his pursuer’s approach. He had no idea what was coming, but he rose to his feet and waited.  5
  The bear plunged boldly into the thicket, never dreaming of resistance. With a muffled roar the ox charged upon him, and bore him to the ground. Then he wheeled, and charged again, and the astonished bear was beaten at once. Gored by those keen horns, he had no stomach for further encounter, and would fain have made his escape; but as he retreated, the ox charged him again, dashing him against a huge trunk. The bear dragged himself up with difficulty beyond his opponent’s reach; and the ox turned scornfully back to his lair.  6
  At the first yellow of dawn, the restless creature was again upon the march. He pulled more mosses by the way; but he disliked them the more intensely now, because he thought he must be nearing his ancient pastures, with their tender grass and their streams. The snow was deeper about him, and his hatred of the winter grew apace. He came out upon a hillside, partly open, whence the pine had years before been stripped, and where now grew young birches thick together. Here he browsed on the aromatic twigs; but for him it was harsh fare. As his hunger increased he thought a little longingly of the camp he had deserted; but he dreamed not of turning back. He would keep on till he reached his pastures, and the glad herd of his comrades, licking salt out of the trough beside the accustomed pool. He had some blind instinct as to his direction, and kept his course to the south very strictly, the desire in his heart continually leading him aright.  7
  That afternoon he was attacked by a panther, which dropped out of a tree and tore his throat. He dashed under a low branch, and scraped his assailant off; then, wheeling about savagely, put the brute to flight with his first mad charge. The panther sprang back into his tree, and the ox continued his quest.  8
  Soon his steps grew weaker; for the panther’s cruel claws had gone deep into his neck, and his path was marked with blood. Yet the dream in his great wild eyes was not dimmed as his strength ebbed away. His weakness he never noticed or heeded. The desire that was urging him absorbed all other thoughts,—even, almost, his sense of hunger. This however it was easy for him to assuage, after a fashion; for the long, gray, unnourishing mosses were abundant.  9
  By-and-by his path led him into the bed of a stream, whose waters could be heard faintly tinkling on thin pebbles beneath their coverlet of ice and snow. His slow steps conducted him far along this open course. Soon after he had disappeared around a curve in the distance, there came the panther, following stealthily upon his crimsoned trail. The crafty beast was waiting till the bleeding and the hunger should do its work, and the object of its inexorable pursuit should have no more heart left for resistance.  10
  This was late in the afternoon. The ox was now possessed with his desire, and would not lie down for any rest. All night long, through the gleaming silver of the open spaces, through the weird and checkered gloom of the deep forest, heedless even of his hunger,—or perhaps driven the more by it as he thought of the wild clover bunches and tender timothy awaiting him,—the solitary ox strove on. And all night, lagging far behind in his unabating caution, the panther followed him.  11
  At sunrise the worn and stumbling animal came out upon the borders of the great lake, stretching its leagues of unshadowed snow away to the south before him. There was his path, and without hesitation he followed it. The wide and frost-bound water here and there had been swept clear of its snows by the wind, but for the most part its covering lay unruffled; and the pale dove-colors and saffrons and rose-lilacs of the dawn were sweetly reflected on its surface.  12
  The doomed ox was now journeying very slowly, and with the greatest labor. He staggered at every step, and his beautiful head drooped almost to the snow. When he had got a great way out upon the lake, at the forest’s edge appeared the pursuing panther, emerging cautiously from the coverts. The round tawny face and malignant green eyes were raised to peer out across the expanse. The laboring progress of the ox was promptly marked. Dropping its nose again to the ensanguined snow, the beast resumed his pursuit, first at a slow trot, and then at a long elastic gallop. By this time the ox’s quest was nearly done. He plunged forward upon his knees, rose again with difficulty, stood still, and looked around him. His eyes were clouding over, but he saw dimly the tawny brute that was now hard upon his steps. Back came a flash of the old courage, and he turned, horns lowered, to face the attack. With the last of his strength he charged, and the panther paused irresolutely; but the wanderer’s knees gave way beneath his own impetus, and his horns plowed the snow. With a deep bellowing groan he rolled over on his side, and the longing and the dream of the pleasant pastures faded from his eyes. With a great spring the panther was upon him, and the eager teeth were at his throat,—but he knew naught of it. No wild beast, but his own desire, had conquered him.  13
  When the panther had slaked his thirst for blood, he raised his head and stood with his fore-paws resting on the dead ox’s side, and gazed all about him.  14
  To one watching from the lake shore, had there been any one to watch in that solitude, the wild beast and his prey would have seemed but a speck of black on the gleaming waste. At the same hour, league upon league back in the depth of the ancient forest, a lonely ox was lowing in his stanchions, restless, refusing to eat, grieving for the absence of his yoke-fellow.  15
 
 
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