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The Adventures of Kagh, The Porcupine by Zoe Meyer


As the moon swung clear of the pointed fir tops and shone full upon a tall spruce tree in the wilderness, a dark object, looking not unlike a great bird's nest upon one of the branches, suddenly came to life. Kagh, the porcupine, had awakened from his dreamless slumber and, though scarce two hours had elapsed since his last satisfying meal upon tender poplar shoots, he decided that it was time to eat. With a dry rustling of quills and scratching of sharp claws upon the bark, he scrambled clumsily down the tree. Then, with an air of calm fearlessness which few of the wilderness folk can assume, he set off toward the east, his short legs moving slowly and awkwardly as if unaccustomed to travel upon the ground.

Now, when Kagh left the spruce tree, it seemed he had in mind a definite goal; yet he had not gone far when his movements took on the aimlessness characteristic of most of a porcupine's wanderings. Here and there he paused to browse upon a young willow shoot or to sniff inquiringly at the base of some great tree. Once he turned sharply aside to poke an inquisitive nose into a prostrate, hollow log, where a meal of fat white grubs rewarded his search.

Kagh emerged from the thick, tangled underbrush upon a faint trail, invisible to all save the keen eyes of the forest folk. Here travel was easier and he made better time, though it could not be said that he hurried. He had not gone far upon the trail when he heard behind him a soft pad, pad. At the sound he paused a moment to stare indifferently, expecting to be given a wide berth, for, though Kagh seldom takes the offensive, even the savage lynx, unless crazed by winter hunger, will let him severely alone. This time, however, Kagh was disappointed, for the newcomer was a furry bear cub who had never had experience with a porcupine to teach him wisdom.

The cub stopped and sat upon his haunches to stare curiously at the strange creature in his path, while Kagh, incensed by the delay, tucked his nose under him until he resembled nothing so much as a huge bristling pincushion. He lay still, his small eyes shining dully among his quills. The cub regarded him for a moment; then he advanced and reached out an inquisitive paw toward the queer-looking ball. For this Kagh had been waiting. There was a lightning swing of his armed tail which, if it had reached its mark, would have filled the paw with deadly quills. Fortunately, however, the cruel barbs failed to reach their mark, for, an instant before the swing, the small bear received a cuff which sent him sprawling into the bushes, and Mother Bruin stood in the trail confronting the porcupine.

Kagh, like most of the wilderness folk, knows that there is a vast difference between a full-grown bear and a furry, inquisitive cub. Though he was not afraid, the appearance of the mother bear was more than he had bargained for, and he immediately rolled himself into a ball again, every quill bristling defiantly. The old bear, however, wise in the lore of the dim trails, paid no more attention to him. Calling her cub, she shambled off through the bushes, the youngster casting many a backward glance at this little, but seemingly very dangerous creature. Kagh went on his way well satisfied with himself. As before, he traveled leisurely, pausing often to browse or to stare at some larger animal upon whose path he chanced.

Of all the creatures of the wilderness the porcupine seems the most slow and stupid, yet he bears a charmed life. In the woods, where few may cross the path of the hunter and live, the porcupine is usually allowed to go unhurt. Because he can easily be killed without a gun, his flesh has more than once, it is said, been the means of saving a lost hunter from starvation. As a rule, the creatures of the wilderness, too, let him strictly alone, knowing well the deadly work of his quills, which, when embedded in the flesh, sink deeper and deeper with every frantic effort toward dislodgment.

Only under the stress of winter hunger will an animal sometimes throw caution to the winds and attack this living pincushion. And then his dinner is usually the price of his life, for there is no escaping the lightning-like swing of the barbed tail.

In the course of time Kagh came to the edge of a tamarack swamp. Here the ground was soft and spongy. The prostrate trunks of a number of great trees lay half submerged in lily-choked pools, beside which stalks of the brilliant cardinal flower flamed by day in the green dimness. Scrambling upon one of these decaying logs the porcupine made his way, almost eagerly for him, far out among the lily-pads. Kagh reveled in succulent lily stems and buds, and as he feasted he uttered little grunts of satisfaction.

Here he would probably have been content to spend the remainder of the night had not an interruption occurred. Another porcupine crawled out upon the same log and proceeded confidently toward the choice position at its farther end. At sight of Kagh he paused a moment; then he went on, his quills raised. Kagh looked up from his feasting, astonished that any one should thus intrude upon his hunting-ground.

And then on the end of the old log in the tamarack swamp was fought a bloodless battle, a conflict mainly of pushing and shoving. Much to his disgust, Kagh was hustled to the very end of the log and was at length pushed off, splashing into the cool water beneath. For a moment the victor peered down at him with indifferent eyes, then deliberately turned his back and began to feed upon the lilies, leaving Kagh either to sink or swim. The latter, however, was in no danger. Buoyed up by his hollow quills he soon reached the shore, none the worse for his sudden bath, save for his sorely ruffled feelings. For the time being his hunger for lily-pads had been satisfied but, as he shambled out of the swamp toward the dryer woods, he grunted complainingly.

A dim light among the trees warned him of the approach of day, and Kagh looked about for a place to take a nap. Immediately in his path a prostrate pine trunk with a snug hollow at the center offered an inviting shelter, but when the porcupine poked in his blunt black nose, he found the retreat occupied. A red fox lay curled in a furry ball, fast asleep. Even in slumber, however, a fox is alert. At the sound of Kagh's heavy breathing the occupant of the log was instantly wide awake.

By right of discovery and occupation the hollow trunk belonged to the fox, but Kagh's moral sense was either lacking or undeveloped. He wanted the hollow. Therefore he set about securing it in the easiest and most effective way. By pressing his quills close to his body and backing into the log, the sharp points presented a formidable front against which the fox had no protection. So, as Kagh backed in, the fox backed out, incensed but helpless. In a very few moments the porcupine was fast asleep, his conscience quite untroubled. As the sun rose higher, a bloodthirsty weasel thrust its pointed nose into the log and glared with red eyes of hate upon the sleeping porcupine, then went his way, spreading terror and destruction among the smaller wood folk.

About noon Kagh awoke and, crawling to the opening of the log, looked about him. As a rule the porcupine travels and feeds by night, but Kagh was a creature of whims and he decided that he had been fasting quite long enough. Accordingly he set out in a leisurely search for food, loafing along the base of a sunny ledge of rock. A meal of grubs and peppery wake-robin roots left him happy, but still he rambled on, following his nose and alert for any new adventure.

Suddenly he lifted his head and sniffed the air. To his nostrils drifted the faint scent of smoke, and smoke in Kagh's mind was associated with campfires and delectable bits of bacon rind or salty wood. For the first time since leaving his spruce tree the evening before, Kagh hurried. He blundered along the trail in a way which would have scandalized the other forest inhabitants, among whom silence is the first law of preservation.

Near the camp a rabbit had crept timidly from the forest and was sitting erect upon its haunches, its quivering nose testing the wind, its bulging eyes missing nothing that went on around it. Kagh paid no more attention to the rabbit than to the bush under which it sat. He blundered into the camp, from which the hunter was absent in search of game, but the next moment he backed off, squeaking with pain and surprise. He had walked straight into the warm ashes of the campfire.

His discomfort was soon forgotten, however, as he came upon a board saturated with bacon grease. Kagh's teeth were sharp as chisels and the sound of his gnawing could be heard far in the still air. He ate all he could hold of the toothsome wood, then started upon a tour of inspection of the camp.

An open tent-flap drew his attention. Forthwith he walked inside, knocking down as he went, an axe which had been propped close beside the entrance. Kagh sampled the axe-helve and, finding to his liking the faint taste of salt from the hand of the man who had wielded it, he succeeded in rendering it almost useless before his interest flagged. His inquisitive nose now drew him to a small bag of tobacco beside which lay a much blackened cob pipe. Whether Kagh did not care for tobacco, or whether some new fancy at that moment took possession of him, no one can tell. At any rate he nosed the pipe from its place, scattered the tobacco to the four winds, and then shambled from the tent and disappeared among the trees.

Ten minutes later he was sound asleep in a poplar sapling. What the hunter said when he returned to camp and beheld the work of his visitor is not recorded.

Kagh's was a restless spirit. Moonrise again found him abroad in search of food and adventure. This time he traveled far for a slow old fellow. At length he came to the zigzag fence of split rails which prevented the wilderness from encroaching upon the clearing of the Hermit.

From the top rail of the fence he could see the gray roof of the Hermit's cabin, silvered with the radiance of the full moon. At no time was Kagh troubled with bashfulness and now, under the influence of that flooding radiance, he decided to investigate the cabin and the clearing. The fence, ending in a rough wall of field stone, made a capital highway along which he shuffled happily until brought to an abrupt halt by the appearance of another fence traveler. The white quills with their dark points erected themselves from his blackish-brown fur until he looked twice his normal size. This time, however, his armor failed to strike terror to the heart of the enemy.

Kagh, the porcupine, was scornful of man and feared but one beast, the one who now advanced toward him along the wall. That long, silky fur, jet black save for two broad white stripes running down the back, and that plumy tail, could belong to but one creature. The skunk, returning from a neighborly visit to the Hermit's cabin, probably with a view to a meal of fat chicken, advanced with its usual air of owning the earth. This time the porcupine did not dispute the passage. Instead, he curled up and dropped to the ground, whence he proceeded on his way, complaining peevishly to himself.

All was still about the cabin. Kagh circled it until he came to the lean-to at the back that served the Hermit as a storehouse. Here the animal's useful nose caught an alluring scent. The logs of the building were thick, but patient search was at length rewarded by the discovery of a large chink. His keen cutting-teeth at once came into play and the sound of his gnawing, which carried clearly in the still night air, awakened the Hermit.

[Illustration: Pal stopped, clearly astonished.]

“Only a porcy,” he said to himself, after listening a moment, and he went peacefully to sleep, little dreaming of the havoc which that same “porcy” was to make.

In a very short time Kagh had succeeded in gnawing a hole large enough to permit his entrance into the storehouse. Then indeed he found himself in rich pasturage. The first thing he came to was a small basket of eggs, a delicacy which he prized highly. When these were neatly reduced to shells, he gnawed a hole in a barrel near by and sampled the little stream of flour which ran out. This was not to be compared with eggs, however, and after scattering a goodly quantity about the floor, he finished his meal on a side of fat bacon. When at last he turned his face toward the forest, he found that the hole, which had been a tight squeeze when he entered, was now out of the question, and he must do some further gnawing before he could squeeze his fat sides through.

Once in the open he set a leisurely course toward the borders of the forest, only to be interrupted by a series of staccato barks as Pal rounded the cabin and glimpsed the night prowler. Like the bear cub, Pal had had no experience with a porcupine to teach him prudence. He felt that the beast had no business in the clearing and accordingly charged, barking furiously, only to be met by a round ball of bristling quills. Pal stopped, clearly astonished. Then, as the ball lay deceivingly still, he rashly tried closer investigation, and was met with a smashing blow from the barbed tail.

Several quills fastened themselves in the dog's soft and tender nose and there they stayed, paining him unbearably. The aggressive challenge changed to yelps of pain and, as swiftly as he had charged, Pal retreated to the cabin, vainly trying to free his muzzle of the fiery barbs. With his efforts they but sank the deeper. He suffered agony until his master, aroused by the outcry, came to his relief. Holding the struggling dog firmly with both hands, the Hermit extracted the quills with his teeth. It was a painful process and both were glad when the last quill was out.

Meanwhile, Kagh continued on his placid way toward the black forest wall, just beyond the rail fence. He had fed well and had quickly routed his enemy. Altogether he considered the world a happy place for porcupines. In the darkness which precedes the dawn he took his way to a slender poplar sapling standing near the border of the woods. This he climbed as far as his weight would permit and, seated comfortably on one branch, with his hand-like paws tightly clasping another, he went peacefully to sleep, lulled by every passing breeze.


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