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In the Beavers Lodge by Zoe Meyer

 

Ahmeek, the beaver, swimming slowly with only his eyes and the tip of his nose above the water, came to a stop at a spot where the shores of the stream were low and flat. He was soon joined by his mate and the two clambered out upon the bank where they looked about with satisfaction.

It was an ideal location for a beaver settlement. Poplars, yellow birches and willows on the banks offered material for a dam and assured an abundance of winter food; the low banks would enable the stream to spread out, making a pond deep enough to prevent freezing to the bottom in winter; best of all, it was a lonely spot where there was no evidence of man.

Dusk had fallen like a gray mantle upon the wilderness when the beavers began their work. Ahmeek selected a poplar to his liking, not far from the bank of the stream. Grasping the trunk with his hand-like paws and turning his head to one side in order to bring his great cutting teeth into play, he bit out a huge chunk, following it with another and another until the tree swayed and crashed to the ground. Then both beavers set to work to strip it of branches and lay the foundations for the dam.

The dam, when finished, was a work worthy of a trained engineer. The twigs and trunks of trees Ahmeek and his mate laid lengthwise with the current. On the upper face, where the force of the water would but drive it the more tightly, the mass was plastered and bound together with a cement of mud and stones, which in the freezing days of winter would become impenetrable. Here again the beavers showed their wisdom by leaving several low places over which the water could trickle, thus relieving the pressure that otherwise would have broken the dam. Now the stream overflowed its low banks, making a deep pond, soon to become the home of pickerel and trout and of a great colony of water-lilies, a delicacy for the beaver larder.

The next work was the construction of the lodge, a hollow mound of mud, sticks and stones twelve feet in width and four in height, within which was a dry room, its floor safely above the high-water mark. Two passages led to this room, one straight, for carrying food, the other winding. The main entrance was cleverly concealed beneath the roots of a great tree which had fallen across the stream.

[Illustration: The dam, when finished, was a work worthy of a trained engineer.]

Ahmeek and his mate were soon joined by other beavers, pioneers from farther south, who, finding the spot to their liking, decided to establish a colony. As with the human pioneers, there was a great felling of trees and hours of heavy labor before the dwellings were finished and the various families ensconced in their snug homes.

That first winter in the new colony was uneventful and when the ice broke up in the spring the beaver city was swarming with sleek brown youngsters who, while learning the serious business of life, found time to indulge in play just as do the children of their human neighbors. At twilight one after another would appear upon the bank, where he would make his toilet, combing his thick, chestnut brown fur until it shone like satin. No beaver is untidy about his dress.

Among the young beavers there was one who from the first took the lead. Born in the lodge of old Ahmeek, king of the beavers, he showed every indication of following in the footsteps of his father. He it was who led the others in their frolic in the pond and upon the banks, and when the sharp slap of a tail upon the water told of danger, none was more quick to obey its warning.

The young beavers did not spend all their time in play. The dam constantly needed repair; wood must be cut and stored at the bottom of the pond, so that the colony might have food through the winter. At this work Flat Tail, son of Ahmeek, laboured manfully. His teeth were not yet long and sharp enough for felling trees, but they could cut off the smaller branches. Flat Tail was very proud when he could swim back to the lodge with one of these branches over his shoulder, kept in place by his fore-paws held close to his body.

One day toward the end of the summer Flat Tail had a narrow escape. He was sitting on the bank, combing his glossy brown fur, of which he was very proud, when a prowling panther discovered him. The big cat's mouth watered, for beaver at all times is a delicate morsel for the flesh-eating animals. The green eyes narrowed to mere slits as, silent as a shadow, the panther climbed a tree and made its way out to a point from which a straight drop would land it upon its unsuspecting quarry. In another moment Flat Tail, intent upon his toilet and oblivious of his danger, would undoubtedly have furnished a meal for the panther had not old Ahmeek appeared, swimming upward from the lodge. Immediately his keen eyes discovered the crouching animal and, with a sound like the crack of a rifle, his flat, horny tail descended upon the water.

It was a sound which all beavers are taught to obey instantly and without question. Even as the big cat dropped, Flat Tail dived backward into the stream. The panther, with a scream of rage, dug its claws into the earth where its prey had been sitting a moment before. The beaver was out of reach, however, and there was nothing for the panther to do but continue on his hungry way, his scream having warned every animal for miles around to hide. As for Flat Tail, he swam directly to the lodge where he crouched trembling.

The summer passed, and autumn with its flaming colors and hint of frost came to the wilderness. On a warm Indian summer day the Hermit, in his search for healing roots, came out upon the shore of the stream which sheltered the beaver colony. As he approached he heard a resounding slap and saw a number of sleek brown forms dive into the water. Thus, when he stepped out upon the shore, there was not a beaver in sight, though evidences of their work were all about. The Hermit's eyes had grown keen and his brain wise in the lore of the wilderness, so that now he knew beyond a doubt that the colony was busy building the dam higher and raising the lodges farther above the stream.

“Must be expecting a freshet,” he mused.

For some time he waited, concealed in a clump of bushes, hoping to catch sight of the inhabitants of the pond or perhaps even watch them at work. His waiting was vain, however, for the bright eyes of the wily little beasts had penetrated his hiding place and not one ventured forth until the Hermit gave up in despair and went on his way. Then immediately the shining face of Ahmeek appeared at the surface and the pond once more swarmed with activity.

Under Ahmeek's direction the dam was made much higher and the floors of the lodges were raised above the highest mark which the stream had ever reached. Then the whole colony turned its attention to providing food for the winter. Aspen, poplar and willow branches were carried to the pond where, as they became waterlogged, they sank to the bottom, there to remain until needed. Lily-pads floating lightly upon the surface of the pond gave promise of white succulent roots which penetrated the ooze beneath. Sweet flag was abundant, and close by grew a clump of dark green, spicy mint.

The warm, hazy days of Indian summer passed. The leaves drifted to the ground where they spread a rustling carpet, hiding the sweet three-cornered beechnuts upon which squirrels and raccoons waxed fat and contented. The activities of the beavers continued until, one morning after a clear cold night, when the stars seemed to twinkle immeasurably far above the wilderness, a film of ice covered the surface of the pond.

Then, in a night, winter descended upon the forest. The ice grew thick and solid. The domes of the lodges froze as hard as stone and only a thin, almost imperceptible wisp of steam, arising from the ventilating holes, gave indication of the life within. This was the beavers' season of rest and they made the most of it. Snow covered land and water alike. Icy gales swept over the wilderness, sending the inhabitants to cover and lashing the great trees until it seemed as if they could not stand. For most of the wilderness folk it was the hunger time, when game is scarce and exceedingly wary.

For the beavers, however, it was a time of plenty. On their warm beds of leaves under the frozen domes where never a cold breeze touched them, they dreamed away the hours or, waking, nibbled a bit of aspen bark thoughtfully provided on the floor of the lodge. The sticks were then carried out and used in strengthening the dam. Occasionally a black, whiskered face would appear beneath the ice where the snow had been blown away, and stare out for a moment at the wintry world, but it would be quickly withdrawn as the beaver returned to his comfortable lodge.

One day in midwinter, when the sun shone upon a world of sparkling white, the Hermit, this time upon snowshoes, again visited the beaver pond. The white domes of the lodges dotted the snowy surface but there was no sign of life. The man stepped out upon the dam and hacked at it with an axe which he had brought to provide himself with firewood. There was no penetrating its stony surface, and, as he looked out across the hard, rounded domes, he smiled to himself, picturing the beavers in their snug retreats. He knew that beneath the ice was a fortune in valuable furs, but the thought brought with it no desire for possession. In the Hermit's opinion the skins were of far greater value to the beavers than to himself.

Knowing that the forest folk, after having been storm-bound for days, would now be driven abroad by hunger, the Hermit concealed himself in a fir thicket not far from the pond and waited to see what of interest chance would bring to him. He had waited scarcely ten minutes when a lithe, tawny form appeared, sniffing at his trail and pausing often to look suspiciously about. “Panther,” thought the Hermit, with a thrill of pleasure that his watching had so soon yielded results.

It was the same panther who had so nearly made a meal of Flat Tail several months before. The beast, finding food scarce, had drifted south far from its usual haunts and, locating the beaver lodges, had decided to winter in the locality. Following the man's trail the panther, too, stepped out upon the dam. It soon caught the faint, warm scent rising from the ventilating hole of a near-by lodge. Frantically it dug at the top of the dome, but it yielded no more than had the dam under the man's axe.

Baffled, the big cat gave up its useless scratching and again turned to the trail which had led it to the pond. As the beast came nearer, and the Hermit realized that it was probably made bold by hunger, he blessed the forethought which had led him to bring his axe along when he left his pile of firewood and struck off through the forest to visit the beaver pond.

The panther advanced, its body close to the ground and its great feet bearing it upon the crust as if it wore snowshoes. It was coming uncomfortably close and the Hermit began to experience a creepy sensation. He had little fear that, armed as he was, the beast would dare attack him in broad daylight, but nevertheless it gave him an unpleasant feeling to see his trail stalked.

It was evident that the panther had scented him. It stopped and crouched lower, motionless save for the tip of its long tail which waved back and forth in a way which fascinated the man. The beast seemed more curious than ferocious, but in spite of that the Hermit thought it high time to create a diversion.

Remembering the effect of his shout upon the lynx the day he had rescued Dave Lansing, the trapper, he was about to spring to his feet. Suddenly a deer came into sight, stopped an instant, terrified at sight of its hereditary enemy, and then leaped away with the panther in pursuit. Thus the Hermit was left free to return to his firewood and the safety of his cabin.

Before leaving, however, he scraped the snow from a spot upon the surface of the pond and, putting his face close to the ice, looked down. Through the clear water he saw the storehouse of the beavers and even caught a glimpse of a brown shadow which at once vanished into a dark passage. But, though the man lingered for some time, he caught no further glimpse of the pond's interesting inhabitants.

The winter was extremely cold. Many smaller streams and ponds froze solid, though the depth of the beaver pond prevented this calamity. When spring came at last and the ice broke up, the water began to rise. Higher and higher it came, fed by the melting ice and snow toward its source. The homes of the muskrats, some distance farther upstream, were flooded, many of the occupants being drowned and others driven for refuge to higher ground. The beavers had no fear, however, for old Ahmeek had prepared for just such an emergency.

Still the water rose. It reached and passed the highest mark that it had attained for many years. And then came the big freshet. The streams became torrents, hurling great masses of driftwood and even trees before them. Constant vigilance on the part of the beavers was required to keep the dam from washing away. When a drifting log or mass of brush caught, and threatened to wreck their hope, the entire colony turned out and literally “worked like beavers” tearing away the obstruction and allowing it to slide on down stream. Each small leak was found and mended before it had become large enough to be dangerous.

The water rose within an inch of the floor of the lodges. The Hermit, remembering the beavers and concerned for their safety, made another trip to the pond, noting with anxious eye, long before he reached it, the havoc wrought on every hand by the freshet. It was with a distinct sense of relief that he found the dam still intact and the domes of the lodges still above the water. He paused at some distance from the bank and watched the beavers as they went about their repairs without a thought for his presence. And he marveled anew at their skill and forethought.

Still the water rose, spreading out into a vast lake and reaching to the floor of the lodges. Now the beavers became alarmed and watched anxiously. For if the stream rose higher, the dam must go and the lodges be flooded. The crest had been reached, however, and the flood came no higher. Instead it began to recede, vanishing as rapidly as it had come. It left the low ground around the beaver pond a mass of sticky mud and tangled wreckage.

The flood was followed by the opposite extreme and the water fell until it threatened to expose the entrance to the lodges. In that event nothing could have saved the beavers from their enemies. Fortunately, however, the stream soon returned to its normal level and life once more became peaceful for the beavers, though there was much repair work to be done. And so, by his forethought, Ahmeek had saved the whole colony from destruction.

The summer was uneventful, but the winter following the great freshet came near being a disastrous one for the thriving colony. Two half-breed trappers on their way north for furs came upon the pond. As they noted the number and size of the lodges dotting the surface, their eyes shone. Here indeed was a find, for beaver pelts brought much money.

They made their camp near the pond and the next morning set a number of snares. The ice was not thick and it was an easy matter to drive stakes about the pile of wood which was the storehouse of the beavers. The stakes were set so close together that a beaver could pass between in only one place, where a slender, pliant branch had been set. Then the trappers waited, their eyes fixed expectantly upon the tip of the branch which extended above the water.

Before long a big beaver left his lodge to visit his wood-pile which was also his pantry. Strange to say, it could only be reached in one place. Here there was a slender branch, but the beaver easily pushed past it and entered the trap. As he did so, the tip of the branch quivered and the trappers, knowing their quarry had entered the trap, closed the opening securely with stout stakes.

Thus the beaver, unable to escape and reach the air, soon perished miserably and was taken from the water. Several others were taken in the same way before the Hermit discovered what was happening and intervened to save the colony.

Knowing that sooner or later, unless protected, the beavers would be killed for their pelts, the Hermit had made a trip to the city and had purchased the land through which the stream ran. Thus the trappers found themselves poachers and were forced to leave empty-handed. The Hermit removed the snares and departed, leaving Ahmeek and his colony once more free to dream away the winter unmolested.

 
 
 

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