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The Trail of the Moose by Zoe Meyer

 

On a bare, rocky promontory far up in the north country, where the turbulent waters of the Little Vermilion cut through lanes of pointed fir and dark spruce, a gigantic moose stood, his ungainly body and huge antlers silhouetted against the sky of sunset. Below him the noisy, hurrying waters were churned into foam over innumerable hidden rocks; to the rear lay the wilderness, green, shadowy and mysterious.

The moose was a magnificent beast, the ridge of his shoulders rising to a height of little less than seven feet. His great antlers, the admiration and desire of every hunter in the Little Vermilion country, showed a spread of almost six feet from tip to tip. As if carved from the rock the big moose stood, his eyes on the distant waters, only his ears moving slightly to test the wind. Then, as some vagrant whiff from the gently moving air assailed the sensitive nostrils, or some faint sound reached his ears, the great beast turned and vanished into the forest, as light and soundless as thistledown for all his twelve hundred pounds of bulk. Not even a twig snapped under his feet.

[Illustration: As if carved from the rock the big moose stood.]

As night shrouded the dim trails, the moose turned southward through the darkness. In spite of the dense wilderness he advanced rapidly, his huge antlers laid along his back that they might impede his progress as little as possible, his nose thrust upward, sifting the wind. In about an hour he came out upon the shore of a lonely pond among the hills. A faint breeze ruffled the mirror-like surface upon which the delicate white cups of water-lilies seemed to hold a light of their own among the dark green pads.

With a sigh of satisfaction the moose waded in and plunged his muzzle into the clear water, breaking the star reflections into innumerable points of light as the ripples widened over the pond. For some time he fed greedily, moving slowly along the shore. At times his great head was wholly submerged as his long, flexible upper lip sought out the succulent roots and buds; again it was raised, while from the gently moving jaws the water dripped with a musical plash into the pond.

Suddenly the wilderness was startled from its calm by the appearance of a dazzling finger of light which crept across the pond and came to rest upon the dark bulk of the moose at his feeding. The great beast raised his head to stare into the strange, blinding radiance. He could not see the dark form crouched in the boat behind the light, nor the long sinister object leveled upon him. He could only stare, fascinated, an easy mark for the hunter behind the jack-light.

From the forest in the rear of the moose came a faint sound. It was only the crackling of a twig, yet it served to break the spell under which the beast stood, for in the wilderness the snap of a twig is one of the most ominous of sounds. The animal wheeled sharply just as the hunter pulled the trigger. There was the sharp crack of a rifle which woke the echoes and startled the wilderness into an added alertness, while the ball sped across the water, barely missing the form of the moose. Before the disappointed hunter could again pull the trigger the great beast had reached the shore with a bound and was crashing through the forest, over windfalls and through thickets with the speed of an express train. Lesser wilderness folk watched his flight with startled eyes, keeping well out of his path. Even the fierce Canada lynx knew better than to attack that living whirlwind, though his pale eyes gleamed maliciously and his claws dug deep into the bark as the moose passed directly beneath the branch on which the big cat crouched. The fleeing animal did not see him.

That night, far from the pond, the moose made his bed on a wooded knoll, lying, as is the custom of his kind, with his back to the wind. Should danger approach from the rear his keen nose would give him warning, while eyes and ears would protect him from anything approaching against the wind.

With the first light of day he was on his feet, enjoying a breakfast of birch twigs, obtained by breasting down a sapling and holding it beneath his body while he fed upon the tender tips. His meal finished, he backed off, leaving the sapling to spring up again unharmed. His fear of the night before had vanished and once more he was lord of the wilderness, a beast to be admired but let severely alone.

Again he turned southward, stepping daintily, the “bell,” or tuft of coarse hair beneath his chin, swinging to his pace. Occasionally a cottontail leaped from his path and paused to stare, big ears alert and nose twitching sensitively; or a red squirrel, that saucy mischief-maker of the woods, chattered derisively at him from the safe side of a spruce trunk. But the moose paid no more heed to them than to the lofty trees which arched above his path.

Gradually the shadows lengthened and again dusk swathed the forest aisles in gray mystery. As the darkness deepened, the moose moved more cautiously, testing each step for crackling twigs. His great head swung much lower than the ridge of his shoulders as he paused occasionally to listen, his gray-brown form melting into the shadows as if he wore a cloak of invisibility.

Thus he came again to the wilderness pond where he had so nearly met fate in the form of the hunter's bullet. The glare was gone and peace once more brooded over the placid water. For a long moment he stood upon the bank, listening and looking; then a vagrant puff of air brought to his nostrils a strange odor. His great muscles tightened, but, as no sound broke the stillness, he moved cautiously in the direction of the scent.

At the edge of a small natural clearing among the trees he paused to reconnoiter. In the center of the clearing glowed the embers of a campfire, the smoke of which had reached him at the pond. A small tongue of flame occasionally leaped up, illuminating a circle of darkness. On the side opposite the moose lay a still, dark form wrapped in a blanket.

For some time the animal stood, the pupils of his eyes contracting or expanding as the glow of the embers waxed or waned. Then a brand in the campfire burned through and broke with a snap, sending up a shower of sparks. Whether the sound reminded him of the rifle report of the previous night or whether the man-smell at that moment startled him, is uncertain. At any rate his eyes suddenly grew red with anger and, with a roar, he charged straight toward the sleeping form beside the fire.

Immediately the hunter awoke to action. In order to free himself of the entangling blanket he rolled over, a fortunate move which accomplished a double purpose in that it took him just out of reach of the charging animal. Before the moose could stay his mad rush and turn, the man had scrambled up a tree. From that safe perch he watched helplessly the destruction of his camp. The hunter being out of reach, the big moose charged upon his camp supplies, and the night was made hideous with the crashing of pots and pans.

The noise seemed to drive the brute to a frenzy. With a wild bellow he crashed away through the forest, the remains of a frying pan impaled upon the sharp point of an antler. As he rushed, it banged against trees and drove him to greater speed until it was left behind on a branch. As for the hunter, he could only gaze wrathfully upon his wrecked camp and bemoan the fate which had twice brought to him the coveted game, only to snatch it away again unharmed.

The night tumult had aroused the Hermit in his cabin, a mile distant at the edge of the forest. With the coming of daylight he set out to ascertain what had happened. By good fortune he stumbled upon the camp just as the disgusted hunter was leaving and he heard the story of the charging moose, the evidence of whose mad flight was apparent for some distance. He invited the hunter to spend a few days in his cabin, an invitation which the man thankfully accepted. Though each morning found him abroad, armed and eager, he caught no further glimpse of the big moose.

Meanwhile, the wilderness was becoming an uncomfortable place for the hunter. The myriad swarms of insects gave him no peace by day or night, while the big moose was spending long peaceful hours far away at the edge of a tiny, wood-girt lake. During the day the moose dozed on a cool mud bed in the shallows, his body submerged save for the tip of his nose. This, too, disappeared from sight occasionally as the flies became too persistent. At night he wandered abroad, searching out the best feeding-grounds.

Late summer gave place to autumn with its warm mellow days and its nights tinged with frost. The sun shone through a faint haze, touching to glowing color the maples in the swamp and the golden birches on the knolls. Now and then a leaf drifted to the ground with a faint rustle.

At the edge of the wilderness where stood the cabin of the Hermit and those of his widely scattered neighbors, the aromatic smell of burning leaves hung all day in the still air, while the early stars looked down on bright heaps of burning rubbish. It was the outdoor cleaning time.

On several occasions, as the Hermit stood dreamily watching the thin wisps of smoke curl upward from the burning heap, he heard the call of a moose to its mate or its challenge to a rival. The sound thrilled him as no sound had for years. He longed to answer the summons. Accordingly, one day he made a trip into the borders of the wilderness where a group of slender birch trees huddled. Like Hiawatha he stripped one of a section of its bark.

The next evening found him seated comfortably on the top rail of the snake fence which separated his upland pasture from the closely pressing forest. The sun had set, and a mellow twilight with a tang of frost in the air was fast obscuring the black stumps and welding together the clumps of blueberries and wild raspberries.

The man sat so still that gradually the small inhabitants of the wilderness went fearlessly about their hunting or playing. If they noticed him at all, perhaps they mistook him for a stake of the fence upon which he sat. As he watched dreamily, the dusk grew deeper and the first stars came out, one by one. Then the harvest moon appeared, peeping over the tops of the firs and finally riding clear in the dark sky, throwing a mysterious radiance over the clumps of juniper in the pasture and trying vainly to penetrate the thick stand of second-growth fir, spruce and maple at the edge of the forest.

Now the Hermit slowly raised to his lips the birch-bark trumpet which he had fashioned. The next moment the brooding silence of the night was startled by a harsh roar. The Hermit chuckled softly. “If there is a moose within a mile he can't help hearing that,” he thought.

He waited, his heart beating fast with excitement. The echoes rolled for a moment among the hills, then died away, leaving the silence unbroken.

Again he raised the trumpet to his lips and sent out a call into the night. This time the sound had scarcely died away when an answering challenge rolled from a pair of great lungs back in the wilderness. In his excitement the man almost lost his perch upon the fence. “That's an old bull, sure enough. Probably the same one that broke up the hunter's camp,” he said, speaking aloud, as is often the custom of those living alone.

He listened a moment. Hearing no further sound, once more he raised his trumpet, this time giving a low, seductive call. The effect was immediate and unexpected. A short distance back in the forest there came the crash of trampled undergrowth and, the next moment, a huge black bulk detached itself from the dark background and stood forth in the moonlight, alarmingly close.

[Illustration: The Hermit took the one chance that presented itself.]

The Hermit caught his breath. It was without doubt the big moose, and that he was in no gentle mood was soon apparent. He listened a moment, motionless as the trees at his back; then he brought forth a harsh roar that sent a chill to the heart of the unprotected man. When he had come to the pasture to try his trumpet, the Hermit had little expected an answer, or at best had hoped merely to call up a cow moose. Instead, he found himself confronted by the biggest bull moose he had ever seen. Though his heart thrilled at sight of the great head and antlers, he wished ardently that there might have been some stronger protection than the frail fence between them.

Absolute immovability was his only hope and, like Molly Cottontail, he “froze.” Incensed at the silence where he had expected to find either a mate or a rival, the big moose began to grumble deep in his throat and to shake his antlers threateningly. Then he advanced a few steps. Perspiration stood out upon the face of the Hermit, but he made no movement. The moonlight was deceptive and the beast did not see the man until he was uncomfortably close. Then a great bellow of rage burst from him. At the same moment the Hermit took the one chance that presented itself and dropped on the opposite side of the fence. The charge of the big moose smashed the slight barrier as if it had been straw, but it gave the man the chance he desired. He sprinted as he never had sprinted before to a wild cherry tree which stood in an angle of the fence. With an agility which he would not have believed possible, he drew himself into its branches just as the moose reached the spot. There the Hermit sat panting while the animal raged underneath, trying vainly to spear his enemy with the bayonet-sharp points of his antlers.

Finding the man out of reach, the moose turned his attention to the fence which he quickly reduced to kindling wood. The Hermit could only watch the destruction of that which had taken days of labor. He used vigorously the only weapon which he possessed, his tongue, but the big moose cared nothing for the sound of the human voice raised in protestation. Having vented his rage upon the hapless fence, he took up his position beneath the tree, rumbling threateningly and tearing up the ground with his sharp hoofs, one blow of which would have instantly killed the man.

Occasionally he stepped into the fringe of the forest but at the least movement of his prisoner in the tree he was back on guard, shaking his huge antlers threateningly. Thus the time wore on. As the air grew frostier, the Hermit shivered and huddled closer to the trunk of his tree. “Wish I had your hide!” he muttered, looking wrathfully down at his jailer.

Now and then the Hermit could hear Pal howling lonesomely. Fortunately, he had shut the dog up in the house when he set forth upon his rash adventure. “Never mind, Pal,” he said aloud, “you may be glad you are alone. I only wish I were.” He aimed a vicious kick at the antlers, which were not far below, but was forced to draw up his foot quickly.

At last, when the Hermit's cramped position had grown distressingly painful, there came a welcome interruption. Suddenly the big moose ceased his pawing and listened intently, his great ears strained to some sound which had been inaudible to the Hermit. Both waited expectantly. Far off, but unmistakable, came the call of a cow moose. Instantly the bull sent out his rumbling reply, though he did not desert his post. Again came the call, this time much nearer. The Hermit in his interest forgot that he was a prisoner, that his feet had gone to sleep, and that he was chilled through and through.

Now a crackling sounded from among the trees and a moment later a shadowy bulk, followed by a smaller one which the Hermit rightly judged to be a yearling calf, emerged from the dark forest. The bull, with a low bleat ridiculous in so large a beast, sprang to meet them. The man in the tree was forgotten as the two big animals followed by the calf, vanished, three shadows among the darker shadows of the woods. The Hermit was glad enough to lower himself from the tree and make his way painfully to the cabin and the comfort of his fire and his dog. He had had enough of moose-calling for a season.

The big moose reigned supreme in all the northland. When the snows of winter began to whiten the wilderness, he led his herd to a sheltered nook deep among the hemlocks. There the yard was formed, a labyrinth of intersecting paths, kept free from deep snow and leading to the best places for food and shelter. The herd lived in comparative comfort until spring returned to the wilderness, and the bull moose, having shed his great antlers, sought seclusion until a new pair should once more clothe him with strength and courage.

 
 
 

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