Old Three Toes and Other Tales of Survival and Extinction

Old Three Toes and Other Tales of Survival and Extinction

by John Joseph Mathews, Susan Kalter

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The nine short stories in this collection by distinguished Osage author John Joseph Mathews are sure to be recognized as classics of twentieth-century nature writing and the wildlife conservation movement. The characters in Old Three Toes and Other Tales of Survival and Extinction are coyotes, mountain lions, deer, owls, sandhill cranes, prairie chickens—and human beings, who sometimes kill their prey but are often outsmarted by the largest and smallest animals.

Mathews shows us the world through the animals’ eyes and ears and noses. His convincing portrayals of their intelligence recall the fiction of Jack London and Ernest Thompson Seton. Like these literary ancestors, Mathews originally intended his nature stories for boys, but the stories transcend boundaries of age, gender, and geography. Mathews writes not just to inspire his readers with nature’s beauty but also to demonstrate the interrelatedness of humans, animals, and the landscapes in which they interact. Timely and relevant to discussions of ecology and the environment, his stories will reach a wide audience today, more than fifty years after they were written.

These stories show Mathews’s ability to write precise descriptions—of a coyote catching a field mouse, a crane eating a frog, a mountain lion playing. A hunter himself, Mathews understood both the animals’ readiness to fight and man’s instinct to survive. And he let readers share the dignity of the animal characters and their refusal to acquiesce to their own extinction, particularly in the face of human ignorance and carelessness.

Susan Kalter’s afterword provides a poignant portrait of Mathews and traces the inspirations for the short stories in this collection. Thoughtfully annotated, these stories are the only published examples of Mathews’s hitherto unknown short fiction and will add to his stature as an important American Indian writer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806149820
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 01/09/2015
Series: American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series , #63
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 200
File size: 726 KB

About the Author

John Joseph Mathews (1895–1979), a mixed-blood Osage, was the author of  Wah’Kon-Tah: The Osage and the White Man’s Road;Talking to the Moon; Sundown; Life and Death of an Oilman: The Career of E. W. Marland;and Twenty Thousand Mornings: An Autobiography.  
Susan Kalter is editor of Twenty Thousand Mornings, an autobiography by John Joseph Mathews, and Professor of American Literature and Native American Studies at Illinois State University.

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Old Three Toes and Other Tales of Survival and Extinction

By John Joseph Mathews, Susan Kalter


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4982-0


Singers to the Moon

CEDAR CANYON HEADS IN THE WEST PASTURE, and the water that flows down the watercourse in the bottom of the canyon flows into Bird Creek. Some of the elms, hackberries, sycamores, bur oaks, and pin oaks have tried to climb up the canyon from the creek, but the rich alluvium of the bottoms did not reach very far up the canyon and they never attained the height of their parents along the creek. The cedars of course did much better, and at the very head of the canyon there was a tremendous bur oak. He was on the edge of the prairie, and he must have found a private water supply.

The canyon was like a gash in the earth. It looked as if a giant had slashed the earth with his sword and the edges of the gash had fallen away like flesh when a venison haunch is slashed.

It would seem that after the giant's anger had passed and he had thrust his sword back into its scabbard, he had walked away, pleased with himself.

The elms, sycamores, hackberries, pin oaks, and cedars grew so thick in the slash canyon that the sunlight only dappled the water of the watercourse during the summer months and made fretwork with the shadows of the bare limbs and twigs in the winter. On each side of the watercourse, the canyon bottom was carpeted with leaves of several seasons.

It was a wild spot, and you could only get there by horseback or afoot. If you went there in the late afternoon and sat on the sandstone ledges and were careful to wear clothing that blended with the moss and the lichen of the rocks and the twisted boles of the cedars, and if you kept absolutely still, you might hear and see strange things.

First, about four o'clock, you might hear the "whoo, whoo-WHO-whoo, whoo" of the great horned owl. It is a lazy hunting call for such a savage bird and it would come at intervals and one might think that the owl was disinterested since his voice was so quiet and casual, but he was one of the fiercest hunters of the creek bottoms, the blackjack ridges, and the prairie.

Also, from the creek bottoms you might hear the much more fearful cry of the barred owl. One might think that only a very savage beast could utter such a hunting cry and in imagination might see him aprowl, and there might be prickles on the back of the listener's neck. Unless a listener had been assured that the terrific booming "whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo—whooohoo-ah-ah-h-h-ha" was only the hunting cry of the barred owl, he might believe that only the savage great horned owl could utter such a cry.

The smaller, round-faced barred owl was not savage at all. He had no great ear tufts as did the horned owl, and he really looked too sleepy and silly to be the frightener of birds and animals.

If you sat very still on your ledge of sandstone which formed the edge of the canyon and your clothing blended with the moss and the lichen and it was late afternoon and there was no air stirring, then a moss-spotted and lichen-splashed stone you had been looking at might suddenly move and become a grey-tawny animal with speckled belly and legs. He would be as large as a medium-sized dog whose tail had been docked and therefore had only a stub for a tail.

This animal would stop and look about him, then walk on in the gloom of the late afternoon, lifting and setting each foot down as if he were afraid to hurt the earth. Sometimes when he stopped to look about, his ridiculous stub of a tail would twitch. He would be interested in everything, smelling of the leaves and the twigs and investigating among the large sandstones that had broken off from the canyon's edge and had rolled down the flank, finally coming to rest near the bottom.

The hunter-cat would disappear up the canyon, and the observer, who had been so still so long, must now stretch his legs and change position. And anyway it would be growing late, and there would be only the sad little voice of the phoebe who had a mud nest under the edge of the sandstone outcrop, and he would start to scold you for being so close to his nest.

Sammy of the ranch came here to sit quite often. He had heard the owls from the creek bottoms and he had seen the bobcat coming up the canyon in the gloom of the later afternoon, and the phoebe had scolded him many times.

One day in May he came there to sit with his back to the sandstone ledge and wait for something to happen. He tied his mare, Peg, back on the shelf of land higher up. He loved her very much; they had grown up together and they had become companions, but when you wanted to hear things and watch animals and birds who didn't know you were near, you couldn't have success with restless Peg near you. She could certainly see movements you couldn't possibly see, and she could hear the faintest sound of a twig being stepped on, and best of all she could smell the faintest of musky odors. But that was no good when Sammy wanted to sit in his favorite position under the sandstone outcrop of Cedar Canyon. Peg would soon become restive, and prance about; then she would start pawing the earth, and if she were close to you she might sniff the back of your neck, and cause you to move clumsily.

So this day, as he did every day, he tied Peg a hundred yards back from the canyon, and he had sat for an hour when his eye caught movement at the head of the canyon. There by the bur oak stood a coyote. She had come softly to the tree and then stopped behind it and froze. She was watching something and he followed her gaze and there he saw two coyote whelps having a tug-of-war with a chicken wing. They tugged and tugged, and they might have been growling at each other, in play of course, but Sammy couldn't hear them. One was larger than the other and seemed very dark.

The mother was unseen by them and she stayed behind the tree and watched them for some time; then she showed herself and the two whelps left their wing and rushed to her, nuzzling the hair of her belly. She lifted her hind legs and stepped over them, and they followed her to the mouth of the den among the loose rocks, just under the caprock at the very head of the canyon. Here she lay down and the whelps had their dinner.

As she lay there, the great horned owl boomed from a nearby post oak that had had its top blown off by high winds. The mother coyote paid no attention to him, and certainly the whelps paid no attention.

When the whelps had finished, the mother got up and started off on her night's hunting. The little ones, now like furry balls with their bellies like little balloons, started to follow, then stood and watched her go. She stopped when a little way off and came back and stood and looked at them. They seemed to understand; they turned and disappeared into the den.

Sammy was happy. The coyotes had not the slightest hint of his presence and he was filled with his own importance. He rose and stretched and walked back of the canyon to the spot where he had tied Peg. He was careful not to go near the den; the mother would get the man scent when she returned and she would probably move her babies.

Peg watched him approach with her head high and her forelock over one eye. He refused to roach her mane, as one did with cow horses, so that there would be no interference with the rope. Her mane, like her tail, was too beautiful.

She had dug a depression in the earth with her hooves in her impatience over his absence, and when he had untied her, he had to rein her in a tight circle in order to mount. Before he got his right leg over and his right foot into the stirrup, she was off in a lope.

He reined her in when they climbed out of the west canyon, or she would have jump-walked up the steep, twisting cattle trail. On the divide she fought the tight rein and was shaking her head; then she noticed the full moon climbing out of the prairie and stared at it. A big red moon will often startle men and horses and other animals, when it first appears.

At this moment it began. It began with a wolf-like howl, long drawn out; then it broke into yipping, then a long-drawn-out yowl. Almost immediately there was a chorus, and then coyotes to the east and the north of the divide joined in. Suddenly the chorus near Sammy and Peg stopped abruptly, as if some director had brought his baton down sharply. After the coyote songs, the prairie seemed to be without life.

Sammy didn't get back to the head of Cedar Canyon as soon as he wished, and when he did the whelps had left the den. There were some bones there, part of the dried skin of a calf that had died just after birth in February. The skin had been a favorite plaything of the whelps.

The summer passed with lightning over the prairie that looked like trees upside down, and before each summer storm, the coyotes howled, moved by the low pressure, and when they howled in a certain manner you would say that there would be a change of weather within twenty-four hours. Sometimes they howled close to the ranch house and the two stockdogs and the bird dog swore at them, with the hair on the back of their necks and shoulders standing erect.

In August Sammy would often ride over the prairie with Sheb Simpson, the cowhand, who had great sport roping the young coyotes, who were now practically grown but not as smart as they thought themselves to be. When they saw one of the coyotes, they rode toward him; then Sheb with his rope whirling over his head would spur his horse after the young coyote and throw his loop. Sometimes the coyote would slip through the loop, but sometimes Sheb caught one, then played it as it pulled back against the rope. The cow horses of the ranch thought this to be queer business and they would snort and back up.

When Sheb was by himself, he would kill them and hang them from the fence posts so that people could see them from the County Road. This was probably a queer sort of boasting. However, when Sammy was with him, he turned them loose, seeming to agree with Sammy that it was much more fun running them with greyhounds.

That autumn Sammy was riding along the edge of the canyon, and he saw two coyotes near the den at the head of the canyon. They didn't see him since they were busy sniffing around the old den. Then suddenly he noted something he had not noted last May when he had watched the whelps tug at the chicken wing. He had noted then that, of the two whelps, one was much larger and much darker than the other and now he saw that the larger one had a black line down his back like a "coyote dun" horse. Peg stood still as well since she was watching the two coyotes intently. Here they were then, come back to visit their old den and there was the one with the black stripe down his back. He was very large for a coyote, and very beautiful, Sammy thought. Just then a blue jay saw the boy and the horse and came close to swear at them, and both coyotes raised their heads and looked in their direction, and almost immediately identifying them as man and horse, loped over the prairie looking back over their shoulders.

A few days later Sheb said as they rode along, "They's a lineback whelp uses 'round Cedar Canyon that looks like a mountain coyote—half wolf. Why, when he gits his full growth, he'll be as big as a staghoun.'"

A fear passed through Sammy, and he hadn't the least idea why. Then he realized that he didn't want anything to happen to this special coyote. They had ridden a quarter of a mile before his vague worry left him. It was cleared away with the thought that running hounds wouldn't have a chance to catch his coyote when he got to the breaks of Bird Creek. Surely he would have sense enough to make for the canyon when the great high-backed greyhound-staghound crosses of his father's ran him.

In November the trail hounds could be heard chorusing along the creek bottoms, and Sammy would go out into the darkness and listen, hoping that they were not after Lineback. As he stood convincing himself that trail hounds seldom made a kill, no matter what their owners said, he realized that he had named his coyote Lineback.

In the meantime, Lineback was learning fast. He and his brother and mother, and sometimes his father, formed a sort of pack, but it was not a close one. They were often together, but it seemed that they stayed together long enough for the young ones to complete their schooling for survival.

One night, all four of them, the father who was anything except a faithful father and mate, the mother, and the two young ones, were on the floodplain of Bird Creek catching field mice in the long grass. Field mice were like oysters—an appetizer—but apparently they cherished them. They would cock their heads and listen intently; then, standing on their hind legs, they would pounce and land on all four feet close together on the mouse's runway, either catching him under their feet or blocking his run in both directions.

It was very faint at first, then became louder and increased in volume, and the father stood like a statue, as did the mother. Both became nervous and trotted off toward the prairie, but the young ones didn't want to leave the wonderful game of mouse-catching and paid no attention to the increasing volume of the hound chorus. They had heard them several times during the damp nights of the later summer and the early autumn, and nothing had happened.

Suddenly the yelping broke out after a silence of several minutes, just across the creek, only a few hundred yards away. The hounds had come upon the very warm scent of the family since they had hunted mice on the other side of the creek earlier. There was jubilance and high excitement in the yelping now and Lineback and his brother ran at full speed up the flank of a ridge and onto the prairie, but the pack were running with great excitement behind them.

They came to the County Road, but just as they were about to cross it, they were blinded by headlights; but fortunately the pickup stopped and they ran off north into the darkness. The men in the pickup had guessed that the race would go this way, and they were as excited as the hounds and almost in ecstasies when the pack crossed the road, hot on the trail; then, not daring to turn off the road, they sped at sixty miles an hour in order to get to a crossroad so that they could see the coyotes and the hounds again.

As the coyotes crossed the divide between Bird Creek and Sand Creek, their tongues were out and their fright was effecting their cunning as well as their speed. Lineback had left his brother a quarter of a mile behind by this time, and the brother, almost exhausted, turned down a ravine that flowed into Sand Creek.

Lineback could still hear the hounds behind him, at least part of the pack. As he came over a prairie ridge, he could see and smell cattle. They were standing around a salt block. He couldn't see them very well, but his nose led him to them and, as he entered among them, several swung around and faced him and several followed him a short distance, bawling. He paid no attention to them but kept on and came to the pond where they had been standing previously, and here he stopped for a moment to lap up some water; then he loped on down the ravine. He stopped. He was panting so hard he made a noise in his throat, and his front legs shivered. He climbed a little way up among the rocks of the ravine's side and there flopped down heavily. His panting interfered both with his hearing and his scenting, so he had to close his mouth on his lolling tongue and, with his ears forward, listen and point his nose toward his back trail. He could do this only for a moment before he had to break into a gurgling pant again.

He would rest and wait until the hounds were started down the ravine; then he would run on, so he closed his mouth at short intervals and listened with ears forward and held his nose high.

He heard the hounds as they came to the herd of cattle, and they were in full cry; then, with every nerve taut, he waited, but they came no closer than the pond. The cattle had milled there as well as around the salt block all the afternoon and into the night, and the earth where they had trampled was hot and heavy with beeby scent, and the air above the earth was heavy with the acrid odor of their droppings and the hot odors of their bodies and their slobberings.


Excerpted from Old Three Toes and Other Tales of Survival and Extinction by John Joseph Mathews, Susan Kalter. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Editor's Note,
Singers to the Moon,
Grus, The Sandhill Crane,
Alfredo and the Jaguar,
The White Sack,
Arrowflight, The Story of a Prairie Chicken,
The Last Dance,
The White Gobbler of Rancho Seco,
The Royal of Glen Orchy,
Old Three Toes of Buffalo Fork,
Notes to the Stories,

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