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Beasts of the Field
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MIDNIGHT in the wilderness. The belated moon wheels slowly above the eastern ridge, where for a few minutes past a mighty pine and hundreds of pointed spruce tops have been standing out in inky blackness against the gray and brightening background. The silver light steals swiftly down the evergreen tops, sending long black shadows creeping before it, and falls glistening and shimmering across the sleeping waters of a forest lake. No ripple breaks its polished surface; no plash of musquash or leaping trout sends its vibrations up into the still, frosty air; no sound of beast or bird awakens the echoes of the silent forest. Nature seems dying, her life frozen out of her by the chill of the October night; and no voice tells of her suffering.
A moment ago the little lake lay all black and uniform, like a great well among the hills, with only glimmering star-points to reveal its surface. Now, down in a bay below a grassy point, where the dark shadows of the eastern shore reach almost across, a dark object is lying silent and motionless on the lake. Its side seems gray and uncertain above the water; at either end is a dark mass, that in the increasing light takes the form of human head and shoulders. A bark canoe with two occupants is before us; but so still, so lifeless apparently, that till now we thought it part of the shore beyond.
There is a movement in the stern the profound stillness is suddenly broken by a frightful roar: M-wah-úh! M-waah-úh! M-w-wã~a-ã~a! The echoes rouse themselves swiftly, and rush away confused and broken, to and fro across the lake. As they die away among the hills there is a sound from the canoe as if an animal were walking in shallow water, splash, splash, splash, klop! then silence again, that is not dead, but listening.
A half-hour passes; but not for an instant does the listening tension of the lake relax. Then the loud bellow rings out again, startling us and the echoes, though we were listening for it. This time the tension increases an hundredfold; every nerve is strained; every muscle ready. Hardly have the echoes been lost when, from far up the ridges, comes an ugly roar that penetrates the woods like a rifle-shot.
Again it comes, and nearer! Down in the canoe a paddle blade touches the water noiselessly from the stern; and over the bow there is the glint of moonlight on a rifle barrel. The roar is now continuous on the summit of the last low ridge. Twigs crackle, and branches snap. There is the thrashing of mighty antlers among the underbrush, the pounding of heavy hoofs upon the earth; and straight down the great bull rushes like a tempest, nearer, nearer, till he bursts with tremendous crash through the last fringe of alders out upon the grassy point. — And then the heavy boom of a rifle rolling across the startled lake.
Such is moose calling.
The call of the cow moose, which the hunter always uses at first, is an explosive bellow, quite impossible to describe accurately. Before ever hearing it, I had frequently asked Indians and hunters what it was like. The answers were rather unsatisfactory. “ Like a tree falling,” said one. Like the sudden swell of a cataract at night,” said another. “Like a rifle-shot, or a man shouting hoarsely,” said a third; and so on, till like a menagerie at feeding time was my idea of it.
One night, as I sat with my friend at the door of our bark tent, eating our belated supper in tired silence, while the rush of the salmon pool near and the sigh of the night wind in the spruces were lulling us to sleep as we ate, a sound suddenly filled the forest, and was gone. Strangely enough, we pronounced the word moose together, though neither of us had ever heard the sound before. Like a gun in a fog would describe the sound to me better than anything else; though after hearing it many times the simile is not at all accurate. This first indefinite sound is heard early in the season. Later it is prolonged and more definite, as I have given it.
The answer of the bull varies but little. It is a short, hoarse, grunting roar, frightfully ugly when close at hand, and leaving no doubt as to the mood he is in. Sometimes, when a bull is shy and the hunter thinks he is near and listening, though no sound gives any idea of his whereabouts, he follows the bellow of the cow by the short roar of the bull, at the same time snapping the sticks under his feet, and thrashing the bushes with a club. Then, if the bull answers, look out. Jealous, and fighting mad, he hurls himself out of his concealment and rushes straight in to meet his rival. Once aroused in this way he heeds no danger, and the eye must be clear and the muscles steady to stop him surely ere he reaches the thicket where the hunter is concealed.
The trumpet with which the calling is done is a piece ot birch bark, rolled up cone-shape, with the smooth side within. It is fifteen or sixteen inches long, about five inches in diameter at the larger, and one inch at the smaller end. The right hand is folded round the smaller end for a mouth-piece; into this the caller grunts and roars and bellows, at the same time swinging the trumpet’s mouth in sweeping curves to imitate the peculiar quaver of the cow’s call. If the bull is near and suspicious, the sound is deadened by holding the mouth of the trumpet close to the ground. This, to me, imitates the real sound more accurately than any other attempt.
So many conditions must be met at once for successful calling, and so warily does a bull approach, that the chances are always strongly against the hunter’s seeing his game. The old bulls are shy from much hunting; the younger ones fear the wrath of an older rival. It is only once in a lifetime, and far back from civilization where the moose have not been hunted, that one’s call is swiftly answered by a savage old bull that knows no fear. Here one is never sure what response his call will bring; and the spice of excitement, and perhaps danger, is added to the sport.
In illustration of the uncertainty of calling, the writer recalls with considerable pride his first attempt, which was somewhat startling in its success. It was on a lake, far back from the settlements, in northern New Brunswick. One evening, while returning from fishing, I heard the bellow of a cow moose on a hardwood ridge above me. Along the base of the ridge stretched a bay with grassy shores, very narrow where it entered the lake, but broadening out to fifty yards across, and reaching back half a mile to meet a cold stream that came down from a smaller lake among the hills. All this I noted carefully while gliding past; for it struck me as an ideal place for moose calling, if one were hunting.
The next evening, while fishing alone in the stream, I heard the moose again, on the same ridge, and in a sudden spirit of curiosity determined to try the effect of a roar or two on her, in imitation of an old bull. I had never heard of a cow answering the call; and I had no suspicion then that the bull was anywhere near. I was not an expert caller. Under tuition of my Indian I had practised two or three times, till he told me, with charming frankness, that possibly a man might mistake me for a moose, if he had not heard one very often. Here was a chance for more practice and a bit of variety. If it frightened the moose it would do no harm, as we were not hunting.
Running the canoe ashore, below where the moose had called, I peeled the bark from a young birch, rolled it into a trumpet and, standing on the grassy bank, uttered the deep grunt of a bull two or three times in quick succession. The effect was tremendous. From the summit of the ridge, not two hundred yards above where I stood, the angry challenge of a bull was hurled down upon me out of the woods. Then it seemed as if a steam engine were crashing full speed through the underbrush. In fewer seconds than it takes to write it, the canoe was well out into deep water, lying motionless with the bow inshore. A moment later a huge bull plunged through the fringe of alders to the open bank, gritting his teeth, grunting, chocking, stamping the earth savagely, and thrashing the bushes with his great antlers — as ugly a picture as one would care to see in the woods.
He seemed bewildered at not seeing his rival, ran swiftly along the bank, turned and came swinging back again, all the while uttering his hoarse challenge. Then the canoe swung in the slight current; in getting control of it again the movement attracted his attention, and he saw me for the first time. In a moment he was down the bank into shallow water, striking with his hoofs and tossing his huge head up and down like an angry bull. Fortunately the water was deep, and he did not try to swim out; for there was not a weapon of any kind in the canoe.
When I started down towards the lake, after baiting the bull’s fury awhile by shaking the paddle and splashing water at him, followed me along the bank, keeping up his threatening demonstrations. Down near the lake he plunged suddenly ahead before I realized the danger, splashed out into the narrow opening in front of the canoe — and there I was, trapped.
It was dark when I at last got out of it. To get by the ugly beast in that narrow opening was out of the question, as I found out after a half-hour’s trying. Just at dusk I turned the canoe and paddled slowly back; and the moose, leaving his post, followed as before along the bank. At the upper side of a little bay I paddled close up to shore, and waited till he ran round, almost up to me, before backing out into deep water. Splashing seemed to madden the brute, so I splashed him, till in his fury he waded out deeper and deeper, to strike the exasperating canoe with his antlers. When he would follow no further, I swung the canoe suddenly and headed for the opening at a racing stroke. I had a fair start before he understood the trick; but I never turned to see how he made the bank and circled the little bay. The splash and plunge of hoofs was fearfully close behind me as the canoe shot through the opening; and as the little bark swung round on the open waters of the lake, for a final splash and flourish of the paddle, and a yell or two of derision, there stood the bull in the inlet, still thrashing his antlers and chocking his teeth; and there I left him.
The season of calling is a short one, beginning early in September and lasting till the middle of October. Occasionally a bull will answer as late as November, but this is unusual. In this season a perfectly still night is the first requisite. The bull, when he hears the call, will often approach without making a sound. It is simply wonderful how still the great brute can be as he moves slowly through the woods. Then he makes a circuit, till he has gone completely round the spot where he heard the-call; and if there is the slightest breeze blowing he scents the danger and is off on the instant.
On a still night his big trumpet-shaped ears are marvelously acute. Only absolute silence on the hunter’s part can insure success.
Another condition quite as essential is moonlight. The moose sometimes calls just before dusk and just before sunrise; but the bull is more wary at such times, and very loth to show himself in the open. Night diminishes his extreme caution and, unless he has been hunted, he responds more readily. Only a bright moonlight can give any accuracy to a rifle-shot. To attempt it by starlight would result simply in frightening the game, or possibly running into danger.
By far the best place for calling, if one is in a moose country, is from a canoe on some quiet lake or river. A spot is selected midway between two open shores, near together if possible. On whichever side the bull answers, the canoe is backed silently away into the shadow against the opposite bank; and there the hunters crouch motionless till their game shows himself clearly in the moonlight on the open shore.
If there is no water in the immediate vicinity of the hunting ground, then a thicket in the midst of an open spot is the place to call. Such spots are found only about the barrens, which are treeless plains scattered here and there throughout the great northern wilderness. The scattered thickets on such plains are, without doubt, the islands of the ancient lakes that once covered them. Here the hunter collects a warm nest of dry moss and fir tips at sundown, and spreads the thick blanket that he has brought on his back all the weary way from camp; for without it the cold of the autumn night would be unendurable to one who can neither light a fire nor move about to get warm. When a bull answers a call from such a spot he will generally circle the barren, just within the edge of the surrounding forest, and unless enraged by jealousy will seldom venture far out into the open. This fearfulness of the open characterizes the moose in all places and seasons. He is a creature of the forest, never at ease unless within quick reach of its protection.
An exciting incident happened to Mitchell, my Indian guide, one autumn, while hunting on one of these barrens with a sportsman whom he was guiding. He was moose calling, one night, from a thicket near the middle of a barren. No answer came to his repeated call, though he felt quite sure that a bull was near, somewhere within the dark fringe of forest. He was about to try the roar of the bull, when it suddenly burst out of the woods behind them, in exactly the opposite quarter from that in which they believed their game was concealed. Scarcely had the echoes answered when, in front of them, a second challenge sounded sharp and fierce; and they saw, directly across the open, the underbrush at the forest’s edge sway violently, as the bull they had long suspected broke out in a towering rage. He was slow in advancing, however, and Mitchell glided rapidly across the thicket, whither, a moment later, his excited hiss called his companion. From the opposite fringe of forest the second bull had hurled himself out, and was plunging straight towards them.
Crouching low among the firs they awaited his headlong rush; not without many a startled glance backward, and a very uncomfortable sense of being trapped and frightened, as Mitchell confessed to me afterward. He had left his gun in camp; his employer had insisted upon it, in his eagerness to kill the moose himself.
The bull came rapidly within rifle-shot. In a minute more he would be within their hiding place; the rifle sight was trying to cover a vital spot, when, right behind them — at the thicket’s edge, it seemed — a frightful roar and a furious pounding of hoofs brought them to their feet with a bound. A second later the rifle was lying among the bushes, and a panic-stricken hunter was scratching and smashing in a desperate hurry up among the branches of a low spruce, as if only the tip-top were half high enough. Mitchell was nowhere to be seen; unless one had the eyes of an owl to find him down among the roots of a fallen pine.
But the first moose smashed straight through the thicket, without looking up or down; and out on the open barren a tremendous struggle began. There was a minute’s confused uproar, of savage grunts and clashing antlers and hoarse, labored breathing; then the excitement of the fight was too strong to be resisted; a dark form wriggled out from among the roots, only to stretch itself flat under a bush and peer cautiously at the struggling brutes, not thirty feet away. Twice Mitchell hissed for his employer to come down; but that worthy was safe astride the highest branch that would bear his weight, with no desire evidently for a better view of the fight. Then Mitchell found the rifle among the bushes and, waiting till the bulls backed away for one of their furious charges, killed the larger one in his tracks. The second stood startled an instant, with raised head and quivering muscles, then dashed away across the barren and into the forest.
Such encounters are often numbered among the tragedies of the great wilderness. In tramping through the woods one sometimes comes upon two sets of huge antlers locked firmly together, and white bones, picked clean by hungry prowlers.
It needs no written record to tell their story.
Once I saw a duel that resulted differently. I heard a terrific uproar, and crept through the woods, thinking to have a savage wilderness spectacle all to myself. Two young bulls were fighting desperately in an open glade, without any cause for fighting that I could discover — except, perhaps, that both were immensely strong and over-proud of their first big horns.
But I was not alone, as I expected. A great flock of crossbills swooped down into the spruces, and stopped whistling in their astonishment. A dozen red squirrels snickered and barked their approval, as the bulls butted each other. Meeko is always glad when mischief is afoot. High overhead floated a rare woods’ raven, his head bent sharply downward to see. Moose-birds flitted in restless excitement from tree to bush. Kagax the weasel postponed his bloodthirsty errand to the young rabbits. And just beside me, under the fir tips, Tookhees the wood mouse forgot his fear of the owl and the fox and his hundred enemies, and sat by his den in broad daylight, rubbing his whiskers nervously.
So we watched, till the bull that was getting the worst of it backed near me, and got my wind, and the fight was over.