Umquenawis the Mighty
U MQUENAWIS the Mighty is lord of the woodlands. None other among the wood folk is half so great as he; none has senses so keen to detect a danger, nor powers so terrible to defend himself against it. So he fears nothing, moving through the big woods like a master; and when you see him for the first time in the wilderness pushing his stately, silent way among the giant trees, or plunging like a great engine through underbrush and over windfalls, his nose up to try the wind, his broad antlers far back on his mighty shoulders, while the dead tree that opposes him cracks and crashes down before his rush, and the alders beat a rattling, snapping tattoo on his branching horns,—when you see him thus, something within you rises up, like a soldier at salute, and says: "Milord the Moose!" And though the rifle is in your hand, its deadly muzzle never rises from the trail.
That great head with its massive crown is too big for any house. Hung stupidly on a wall, in a room full of bric-a-brac, as you usually see it, with its shriveled ears that were once living trumpets, its bulging eyes that were once so small and keen, and its huge muzzle stretched out of all proportion, it is but misplaced, misshapen ugliness. It has no more, and scarcely any higher, significance than a scalp on the pole of a savage's wigwam. Only in the wilderness, with the irresistible push of his twelve-hundred pound, force-packed body behind it, the crackling underbrush beneath, and the lofty spruce aisles towering overhead, can it give the tingling impression of magnificent power which belongs to Umquenawis the Mighty in his native wilds. There only is his head at home; and only as you see it there, whether looking out in quiet majesty from a lonely point over a silent lake, or leading him in his terrific rush through the startled forest, will your heart ever jump and your nerves tingle in that swift thrill which stirs the sluggish blood to your very finger tips, and sends you quietly back to camp with your soul at peace—well satisfied to leave Umquenawis where he is, rather than pack him home to your admiring friends in a freight car.
Though Umquenawis be lord of the wilderness, there are two things, and two things only, which he sometimes fears: the smell of man, and the spiteful crack of a rifle. For Milord the Moose has been hunted and has learned fear, which formerly he was stranger to. But when you go deep into the wilderness, where no hunter has ever gone, and where the roar of a birch-bark trumpet has never broken the twilight stillness, there you may find him still, as he was before fear came; there he will come smashing down the mountain side at your call, and never circle to wind an enemy; and there, when the mood is on him, he will send you scrambling up the nearest tree for your life, as a squirrel goes when the fox is after him. Once, in such a mood, I saw him charge a little wiry guide, who went up a spruce tree with his snowshoes on—and never a bear did the trick quicker—spite of the four-foot webs in which his feet were tangled.
We were pushing upstream, late one afternoon, to the big lake at the headwaters of a wilderness river. Above the roar of rapids far behind, and fret of the current near at hand, the rhythmical clunk, clunk of the poles and the lap, lap of my little canoe as she breasted the ripples were the only sounds that broke the forest stillness. We were silent, as men always are to whom the woods have spoken their deepest message, and to whom the next turn of the river may bring its thrill of unexpected things.
Suddenly, as the bow of our canoe shot round a point, we ran plump upon a big cow moose crossing the river. At Simmo's grunt of surprise she stopped short and whirled to face us. And there she stood, one huge question mark from nose to tail, while the canoe edged in to the lee of a great rock, and hung there quivering, with poles braced firmly on the bottom.
We were already late for camping, and the lake was still far ahead. I gave the word, at last, after a few minutes' silent watching, and the canoe shot upward. But the big moose, instead of making off into the woods, as a well-behaved moose ought to do, splashed straight toward us. Simmo, in the bow, gave a sweeping flourish of his pole, and we all yelled in unison; but the moose came on steadily, quietly, bound to find out what the queer thing was that had just come up river and broken the solemn stillness.
"Bes' keep still; big moose make-um trouble sometime," muttered Noel behind me; and we dropped back silently into the lee of the friendly rock, to watch awhile longer and let the big creature do as she would.
For ten minutes more we tried every kind of threat and persuasion to get the moose out of the way, ending at last by sending a bullet zipping into the water under her body; but beyond an angry stamp of the foot there was no response, and no disposition whatever to give us the stream. Then I bethought me of a trick that I had discovered long before by accident. Dropping down to the nearest bank, I crept up behind the moose, hidden in the underbrush, and began to break twigs, softly at first, then more and more sharply, as if something were coming through the woods fearlessly. At the first suspicious crack the moose whirled, hesitated, started nervously across the stream, twitching her nostrils and wigwagging her big ears to find out what the crackle meant, and hurrying more and more as the sounds grated harshly upon her sensitive nerves. Next moment the river was clear and our canoe was breasting the rippling shallows, while the moose watched us curiously, half hidden in the alders.
That is a good trick, for occasions. The animals all fear twig snapping. Only never try it at night, with a bull, in the calling season, as I did once unintentionally. Then he is apt to mistake you for his tantalizing mate, and come down on you like a tempest, giving you a big scare and a monkey scramble into the nearest tree before he is satisfied.
Within the next hour I counted seven moose, old and young, from the canoe; and when we ran ashore at twilight to the camping ground on the big lake, the tracks of an enormous bull were drawn sharply across our landing. The water was still trickling into them, showing that he had just vacated the spot at our approach.
How do I know it was a bull? At this season the bulls travel constantly, and the points of the hoofs are worn to a clean, even curve. The cows, which have been living in deep retirement all summer, teaching their ungainly calves the sounds and smells and lessons of the woods, travel much less; and their hoofs, in consequence, are generally long and pointed.
Two miles above our camp was a little brook, with an alder swale on one side and a dark, gloomy spruce tangle on the other—an ideal spot for a moose to keep her little school, I thought, when I discovered the place a few days later. There were tracks on the shore, plenty of them; and I knew I had only to watch long enough to see the mother and her calf, and to catch a glimpse, perhaps, of what no man has ever yet seen clearly; that is, a moose teaching her little one how to hide his bulk; how to move noiselessly and undiscovered through underbrush where, one would think, a fox must make his presence known; how to take a windfall on the run; how to breast down a young birch or maple tree and keep it under his body while he feeds on the top,—and a score of other things that every moose must know before he is fit to take care of himself in the big woods.
I went there one afternoon in my canoe, grasped a few lily stems to hold the little craft steady, and snuggled down till only my head showed above the gunwales, so as to make canoe and man look as much like an old, wind-blown log as possible. It was getting toward the hour when I knew the cow would be hungry, but while it was yet too light to bring her little one to the open shore. After an hour's watching, the cow came cautiously down the brook. She stopped short at sight of the big log; watched it steadily for two or three minutes, wigwagging her ears; then began to feed greedily on the lily pads that fringed all the shore. When she went back I followed, guided now by the crack of a twig, now by a swaying of brush tops, now by the flip of a nervous ear or the push of a huge dark body, keeping carefully to leeward all the time, and making the big unconscious creature guide me to where she had hidden her little one.
Just above me, and a hundred yards in from the shore, a tree had fallen, its bushy top bending down two small spruces and making a low den, so dark that an owl could scarcely have seen what was inside. "That's the spot," I told myself instantly; but the mother passed well above it, without noting apparently how good a place it was. Fifty yards farther on she turned and circled back, below the spot, trying the wind with ears and nose as she came on straight towards me.
"Aha! the old moose trick," I thought, remembering how a hunted moose never lies down to rest without first circling back for a long distance, parallel to his trail and to leeward, to find out from a safe distance whether anything is following him. When he lies down, at last, it will be close beside his trail, but hidden from it; so that he hears or smells you as you go by. And when you reach the place, far ahead, where he turned back he will be miles away, plunging along down wind at a pace that makes your snowshoe swing like a baby's toddle. So you camp where he lay down, and pick up the trail in the morning.
When the big cow turned and came striding back I knew that I should find her little one in the spruce den. But would she not find me, instead, and drive me out of her bailiwick? You can never be sure what a moose will do if she finds you near her calf. Generally they run—always, in fact—but sometimes they run your way. And besides, I had been trying for years to see a mother moose teaching in her little school. Now I dropped on all fours and crawled away down wind, so as to get beyond ken of the mother's inquisitive nose if possible.
She came on steadily, moving with astonishing silence through the tangle, till she stood where I had been a moment before, when she started violently and threw her head up into the wind. Some scent of me was there clinging faintly to the leaves and the moist earth. For a moment she stood like a rock, sifting the air in her nose; then, finding nothing in the wind, she turned slowly in my direction to use her ears and eyes. I was lying very still behind a mossy log by this time, and she did not see me. Suddenly she turned and called, a low bleat. There was an instant stir in the spruce den, an answering bleat, and a moose calf scrambled out and ran straight to the mother. There was an unvoiced command to silence that no human sense could understand. The mother put her great head down to earth—"Smell of that; mark that, and remember," she was saying in her own way; and the calf put his little head down beside hers, and I heard him sniff-sniffing the leaves. Then the mother swung her head savagely, bunted the little fellow out of his tracks, and drove him hurriedly ahead of her away from the place—"Get out, hurry, danger!" was what she was saying now, and emphasizing her teaching with an occasional bunt from behind that lifted the calf over the hard places. So they went up the hill, the calf wondering and curious, yet ever reminded by the hard head at his flank that obedience was his business just now, the mother turning occasionally to sniff and listen, till they vanished silently among the dark spruces.
For a week or more I haunted the spot; but though I saw the pair occasionally, in the woods or on the shore, I learned no more of Umquenawis' secrets. The moose schools are kept in far-away, shady dingles, beyond reach of inquisitive eyes. Then, one morning at daylight as my canoe shot round a grassy point, there were the mother and her calf standing knee-deep among the lily pads. With a yell I drove the canoe straight at the little one.
Now it takes a young moose or caribou a long time to learn that when sudden danger threatens he is to follow, not his own frightened head, but his mother's guiding tail. To young fawns this is practically the first thing taught by the mothers; but caribou are naturally stupid, or trustful, or burningly inquisitive, according to their several dispositions; and moose, with their great strength, are naturally fearless; so that this needful lesson is slowly learned. If you surprise a mother moose or caribou with her young at close quarters, and rush at them instantly, with a whoop or two to scatter their wits, the chances are that the mother will bolt into the brush, where safety lies, and the calf into the lake or along the shore, where the going is easiest.
Several times I have caught young moose and caribou in this way, either swimming or stogged in the mud, and after turning them back to shore have watched the mother's cautious return and her treatment of the lost one. Once I paddled up beside a young bull moose, half grown, and grasping the coarse hair on his back had him tow me a hundred yards, to the next point, while I studied his expression.
As my canoe shot up to the two moose, they did exactly what I had expected; the mother bolted for the woods in mighty, floundering jumps, mud and water flying merrily about her; while the calf darted along the shore, got caught in the lily pads, and with a despairing bleat settled down in the mud of a soft place, up to his back, and turned his head to see what I was.
I ran my canoe ashore and approached the little fellow quietly, without hurry or excitement. Nose, eyes, and ears questioned me; and his fear gradually changed to curiosity as he saw how harmless a thing had frightened him. He even tried to pull his awkward little legs out of the mud in my direction. Meanwhile the big mother moose was thrashing around in the bushes in a terrible swither, calling her calf to come.
I had almost reached the little fellow when the wind brought him the strong scent that he had learned in the woods a few days before, and he bleated sharply. There was an answering crash of brush, a pounding of hoofs that told one unmistakably to look out for his rear, and out of the bushes burst the mother, her eyes red as a wild pig's, and the long hair standing straight up along her back in a terrifying bristle. "Stand not upon the order of your mogging, but mog at once—eeeunh! unh!" she grunted; and I turned otter instantly and took to the lake, diving as soon as the depth allowed and swimming under water to escape the old fury's attention. There was little need of fine tactics, however, as I found out when my head appeared again cautiously. Anything in the way of an unceremonious retreat satisfied her as perfectly as if she had been a Boer general. She went straight to her calf, thrust her great head under his belly, hiked him roughly out of the mud, and then butted him ahead of her into the bushes.
It was stern, rough discipline; but the youngster needed it to teach him the wisdom of the woods. From a distance I watched the quivering line of brush tops that marked their course, and then followed softly. When I found them again, in the twilight of the great spruces, the mother was licking the sides of her calf, lest he should grow cold too suddenly after his unwonted bath. All the fury and harshness were gone. Her great head lowered tenderly over the foolish, ungainly youngster, tonguing him, caressing him, drying and warming his poor sides, telling him in mother language that it was all right now, and that next time he would do better.
There were other moose on the lake, all of them as uncertain as the big cow and her calf. Probably most of them had never seen a man before our arrival, and it kept one's expectations on tiptoe to know what they would do when they saw the strange two-legged creature for the first time. If a moose smelled me before I saw him, he would make off quietly into the woods, as all wild creatures do, and watch from a safe distance. But if I stumbled upon him unexpectedly, when the wind brought no warning to his nostrils, he was fearless, usually, and full of curiosity.
The worst of them all was the big bull whose tracks were on the shore when we arrived. He was a morose, ugly old brute, living apart by himself, with his temper always on edge ready to bully anything that dared to cross his path or question his lordship. Whether he was an outcast, grown surly from living too much alone, or whether he bore some old bullet wound to account for his hostility to man, I could never find out. Far down the river a hunter had been killed, ten years before, by a bull moose that he had wounded; and this may have been, as Noel declared, the same animal, cherishing his resentment with a memory as merciless as an Indian's.
Before we had found this out I stumbled upon the big bull one afternoon, and came near paying the penalty of my ignorance. I had been still-fishing for togue, and was on my way back to camp when, doubling a point, I ran plump upon a bull moose feeding among the lily pads. My approach had been perfectly silent,—that is the only way to see things in the woods,—and he was quite unconscious that anybody but himself was near.
He would plunge his great head under water till only his antler tips showed, and nose around on the bottom till he found a lily root. With a heave and a jerk he would drag it out, and stand chewing it endwise with huge satisfaction, while the muddy water trickled down over his face. When it was all eaten he would grope under the lily pads for another root in the same way.
Without thinking much of the possible risk, I began to creep towards him. While his head was under I would work the canoe along silently, simply "rolling the paddle" without lifting it from the water. At the first lift of his antlers I would stop and sit low in the canoe till he finished his juicy morsel and ducked for more. Then one could slip along easily again without being discovered.
Two or three times this was repeated successfully, and still the big, unconscious brute, facing away from me fortunately, had no idea that he was being watched. His head went under water again—not so deep this time; but I was too absorbed in the pretty game to notice that he had found the end of a root above the mud, and that his ears were out of water. A ripple from the bow of my canoe, or perhaps the faint brush of a lily leaf against the side, reached him. His head burst out of the pads unexpectedly; with a snort and a mighty flounder he whirled upon me; and there he stood quivering, ears, eyes, nose—everything about him reaching out to me and shooting questions at my head with an insistence that demanded instant answer.
I kept quiet, though I was altogether too near the big brute for comfort, till an unfortunate breeze brushed the bow of my canoe still nearer to where he stood, threatening now instead of questioning. The mane on his back began to bristle, and I knew that I had but a small second in which to act. To get speed I swung the bow of the canoe outward, instead of backing away. The movement brought me a trifle nearer, yet gave me a chance to shoot by him. At the first sudden motion he leaped; the red fire blazed out in his eyes, and he plunged straight at the canoe—one, two splashing jumps, and the huge velvet antlers were shaking just over me and the deadly fore foot was raised for a blow.
I rolled over on the instant, startling the brute with a yell as I did so, and upsetting the canoe between us. There was a splintering crack behind me as I struck out for deep water. When I turned, at a safe distance, the bull had driven one sharp hoof through the bottom of the upturned canoe, and was now trying awkwardly to pull his leg out from the clinging cedar ribs. He seemed frightened at the queer, dumb thing that gripped his foot, for he grunted and jumped back, and thrashed his big antlers in excitement; but he was getting madder every minute.
To save the canoe from being pounded to pieces was now the only pressing business on hand. All other considerations took to the winds in the thought that, if the bull's fury increased and he leaped upon the canoe, as he does when he means to kill, one jump would put the frail thing beyond repair, and we should have to face the dangerous river below in a spruce bark of our own building. I swam quickly to the shore and splashed and shouted and then ran away to attract the bull's attention. He came after me on the instant—unh! unh! chock, chockety-chock! till he was close enough for discomfort, when I took to water again. The bull followed, deeper and deeper, till his sides were awash. The bottom was muddy, and he trod gingerly; but there was no fear of his swimming after me. He knows his limits, and they stop him shoulder deep.
When he would follow no farther I swam to the canoe and tugged it out into deep water. Umquenawis stood staring now in astonishment at the sight of this queer man-fish. The red light died out of his eyes for the first time, and his ears wigwagged like flags in the wind. He made no effort to follow, but stood as he was, shoulder deep, staring, wondering, till I landed on the point above, whipped the canoe over, and spilled the water out of it.
The paddle was still fast to its cord—as it should always be in trying experiments—and I tossed it into the canoe. The rattle roused Umquenawis from his wonder, as if he had heard the challenging clack of antlers on the alder stems. He floundered out in mighty jumps and came swinging along the shore, chocking and grunting fiercely. He had seen the man again, and knew it was no fish—Unh! unh! eeeeeunh-unh! he grunted, with a twisting, jerky wriggle of his neck and shoulders at the last squeal, as if he felt me already beneath his hoofs. But before he reached the point I had stuffed my flannel shirt into the hole in the canoe and was safely afloat once more. He followed along the shore till he heard the sound of voices at camp, when he turned instantly and vanished into the woods.
A few days later I saw the grumpy old brute again in a curious way. I was sweeping the lake with my field glasses when I saw what I thought was a pair of black ducks near a grassy shore. I paddled over, watching them keenly, till a root seemed to rise out of the water between them. Before I could get my glasses adjusted again they had disappeared. I dropped the glasses and paddled faster; they were diving, perhaps—an unusual thing for black ducks—and I might surprise them. There they were again; and there again was the old root bobbing up unexpectedly between them. I whipped my glasses up—the mystery vanished. The two ducks were the tips of Umquenawis' big antlers; the root that rose between them was his head, as he came up to breathe.
It was a close, sultry afternoon; the flies and mosquitoes were out in myriads, and Umquenawis had taken a philosophical way of getting rid of them. He was lying in deep water, over a bed of mud, his body completely submerged. As the swarm of flies that pestered him rose to his head he sunk it slowly, drowning them off. Through my glass, as I drew near, I could see a cloud of them hovering above the wavelets, or covering the exposed antlers. After a few moments there would be a bubbling grumble down in the mud, as Umquenawis blew the air from his great lungs. His head would come up lazily, to breathe among the popping bubbles; the flies would settle upon him like a cloud, and he would disappear again, blinking sleepily as he went down, with an air of immense satisfaction.
It seemed too bad to disturb such comfort, but I wanted to know more about the surly old tyrant that had treated me with such scant courtesy; so I stole near him again, running up when his head disappeared, and lying quiet whenever he came up to breathe. He saw me at last, and leaped up with a terrible start. There was fear in his eyes this time. Here was the man-fish again, the creature that lived on land or water, and that could approach him so silently that the senses, in which he had always trusted, gave him no warning. He stared hard for a moment; then as the canoe glided rapidly straight towards him without fear or hesitation he waded out, stopping every instant to turn, and look, and try the wind, till he reached the fringe of woods beyond the grasses. There he thrust his nose up ahead of him, laid his big antlers back on his shoulders, and plowed straight through the tangle like a great engine, the alders snapping and crashing merrily about him as he went.
In striking contrast was the next meeting. I was out at midnight, jacking, and passed close by a point where I had often seen the big bull's tracks. He was not there, and I closed the jack and went on along the shore, listening for any wood folk that might be abroad. When I came back a few minutes later, there was a suspicious ripple on the point. I opened the jack, and there was Umquenawis, my big bull, standing out huge and magnificent against the shadowy background, his eyes glowing and flashing in fierce wonder at the sudden brightness. He had passed along the shore within twenty yards of me, through dense underbrush,—as I found out from his tracks next morning,—yet so silently did he push his great bulk through the trees, halting, listening, trying the ground at every step for telltale twigs ere he put his weight down, that I had heard no sound, though I was listening for him intently in the dead hush that was on the lake.
It may have been curiosity, or the uncomfortable sense of being watched and followed by the man-fish, who neither harmed nor feared him, that brought Umquenawis at last to our camp to investigate. One day Noel was washing some clothes of mine in the lake when some subtle warning made him turn his head. There stood the big bull, half hidden by the dwarf spruces, watching him intently. On the instant Noel left the duds where they were and bolted along the shore under the bushes, calling me loudly to come quick and bring my rifle. When we went back Umquenawis had trodden the clothes into the mud, and vanished as silently as he came.
The Indians grew insistent at this, telling me of the hunter that had been killed, claiming now, beyond a doubt, that this was the same bull, and urging me to kill the ugly brute and rid the woods of a positive danger. But Umquenawis was already learning the fear of me, and I thought the lesson might be driven home before the summer was ended. So it was; but before that time there was almost a tragedy.
One day a timber cruiser—a lonely, silent man with the instincts of an animal for finding his way in the woods, whose business it is to go over timber lands to select the best sites for future cutting—came up to the lake and, not knowing that we were there, pitched by a spring a mile or two below us. I saw the smoke of his camp fire from the lake, where I was fishing, and wondered who had come into the great solitude. That was in the morning. Towards twilight I went down to bid the stranger welcome, and to invite him to share our camp, if he would. I found him stiff and sore by his fire, eating raw-pork sandwiches with the appetite of a wolf. Almost at the same glance I saw the ground about a tree torn up, and the hoof marks of a big bull moose all about.—
"Hello! friend, what's up?" I hailed him.
"Got a rifle?" he demanded, with a rich Irish burr in his voice, paying no heed to my question. When I nodded he bolted for my canoe, grabbed my rifle, and ran away into the woods.
"Queer Dick! unbalanced, perhaps, by living too much alone in the woods," I thought, and took to examining the torn ground and the bull's tracks to find out for myself what had happened.
But there was no queerness in the frank, kindly face that met mine when the stranger came out of the bush a half hour later.—
"Th' ould baste! he's had me perrched up in that three there, like a blackburrd, the last tin hours; an' divil th' song in me throat or a bite in me stomach. He wint just as you came—I thought I could return his compliments wid a bullet," he said, apologetically, as he passed me back the rifle.
Then, sitting by his fire, he told me his story. He had just lit his fire that morning, and was taking off his wet stockings to dry them, when there was a fierce crashing and grunting behind him, and a bull moose charged out of the bushes like a fury. The cruiser jumped and dodged; then, as the bull whirled again, he swung himself into a tree, and sat there astride a limb, while the bull grunted and pushed and hammered the ground below with his sharp hoofs. All day long the moose had kept up the siege, now drawing off cunningly to hide in the bushes, now charging out savagely as the timber cruiser made effort to come down from his uncomfortable perch.
A few minutes before my approach a curious thing happened; which seems to indicate, as do many other things in the woods, that certain animals—perhaps all animals, including man—have at times an unknown sixth sense, for which there is no name and no explanation. I was still half a mile or more away, hidden by a point and paddling silently straight into the wind. No possible sight or sound or smell of me could have reached any known sense of any animal; yet the big brute began to grow uneasy. He left his stand under the tree and circled nervously around it, looking, listening, wigwagging his big ears, trying the wind at every step, and setting his hoofs down as if he trod on dynamite. Suddenly he turned and vanished silently into the brush. McGarven, the timber cruiser, who had no idea that there was any man but himself on the lake, watched the bull with growing wonder and distrust, thinking him possessed of some evil demon. In his long life in the woods he had met hundreds of moose, but had never been molested before.
With the rifle at full cock and his heart hot within him, he had followed the trail, which stole away, cautiously at first, then in a long swinging stride straight towards the mountain.—"Oh, 't is the quare baste he is altogether!" he said as he finished his story.