I T was now near the calling season, and the nights grew keen with excitement. Now and then as I fished, or followed the brooks, or prowled through the woods in the late afternoon, the sudden bellow of a cow moose would break upon the stillness, so strange and uncertain in the thick coverts that I could rarely describe, much less imitate, the sound, or even tell the direction whence it had come. Under the dusk of the lake shore I would sometimes come upon a pair of the huge animals, the cow restless, wary, impatient, the bull now silent as a shadow, now ripping and rasping the torn velvet from his great antlers among the alders, and now threatening and browbeating every living thing that crossed his trail, and even the unoffending bushes, in his testy humor.
One night I went to the landing just below my tent with Simmo and tried for the first time the long call of the cow moose. He and Noel refused absolutely to give it, unless I should agree to shoot the ugly old bull at sight. Several times of late they had seen him near our camp, or had crossed his deep trail on the nearer shores, and they were growing superstitious as well as fearful.
There was no answer to our calling for the space of an hour; silence brooded like a living, watchful thing over sleeping lake and forest,—a silence that grew only deeper and deeper after the last echoes of the bark trumpet had rolled back on us from the distant mountain. Suddenly Simmo lowered the horn, just as he had raised it to his lips for a call.
"Moose near!" he whispered.
"How do you know?" I breathed; for I had heard nothing.
"Don' know how; just know," he said sullenly. An Indian hates to be questioned, as a wild animal hates to be watched. As if in confirmation of his opinion, there was a startling crash and plunge across the little bay over against us as a bull moose leaped the bank into the lake, within fifty yards of where we crouched on the shore.
"Shoot! shoot-um quick!" cried Simmo; and the fear of the old bull was in his voice. There was a grunt from the moose—a ridiculously small, squeaking grunt, like the voice of a penny trumpet—as the huge creature swung rapidly along the shore in our direction. "Uh! young bull, lil fool moose," whispered Simmo, and breathed a soft, questioning Whooowuh? through the bark horn to bring him nearer.
He came close to where we were hidden, then entered the woods and circled silently about our camp to get our wind. In the morning his tracks, within five feet of my rear tent pole, showed how little he cared for the dwelling of man. But though he circled back and forth for an hour, answering Simmo's low call with his ridiculous little grunt, he would not show himself again on the open shore.
I stole up after a while to where I had heard the last twig snap under his hoofs. Simmo held me back, whispering of danger; but there was a question in my head which has never received a satisfactory answer: Why does a bull come to a call anyway? It is held generally—and with truth, I think—that he comes because he thinks the sound is made by a cow moose. But how his keen ears could mistake such a palpable fraud is the greatest mystery in the woods. I have heard a score of hunters and Indians call, all differently, and have sometimes brought a bull into the open at the wail of my own bark trumpet; but I have never yet listened to a call that has any resemblance to the bellow of a cow moose as I have often heard it in the woods. Nor have I ever heard, or ever met anybody who has heard, a cow moose give forth any sound like the "long call" which is made by hunters, and which is used successfully to bring the bull from a distance.
Others claim, and with some reason, that the bull, more fearless and careless at this season than at other times, comes merely to investigate the sound, as he and most other wild creatures do with every queer or unknown thing they hear. The Alaskan Indians stretch a skin into a kind of tambourine and beat it with a club to call a bull; which sound, however, might not be unlike one of the many peculiar bellows that I have heard from cow moose in the wilderness. And I have twice known bulls to come to the chuck of an ax on a block; which sound, at a distance, has some resemblance to the peculiar chock-chocking that the bulls use to call their mates—just as a turkey cock gobbles, and a partridge drums, and a bull caribou pounds a stump or a hollow tree with the same foolish-fond expectations.
From any point of view the thing has contradictions enough to make one wary of a too positive opinion. Here at hand was a "lil fool moose," who knew no fear, and who might, wherefore, enlighten me on the obscure subject. I told Simmo to keep on calling softly, while I crept up into the woods to watch the effect.
It was all as dark as a pocket beyond the open shore. One had to feel his way along, and imitate the moose himself in putting his feet down. Spite of my precaution, a bush swished sharply; a twig cracked. Instantly there was a swift answering rustle ahead as the bull glided towards me. He had heard the motion and was coming to see if it were not his tantalizing mate, ready to whack her soundly, according to his wont, for causing him so much worry, and to beat her out ahead of him to the open, where he could watch her closely and prevent any more of her hiding tricks.
I stood motionless behind a tree, grasping a branch above, ready to swing up out of reach when the bull charged. A vague black hulk thrust itself out of the dark woods, close in front of me, and stood still. Against the faint light, which showed from the lake through the fringe of trees, the great head and antlers stood out like an upturned root; but I had never known that a living creature stood there were it not for a soft, clucking rumble that the bull kept going in his throat,—a ponderous kind of love note, intended, no doubt, to let his elusive mate know that he was near.
He took another step in my direction, brushing the leaves softly, a low, whining grunt telling of his impatience. Two more steps and he must have discovered me, when fortunately an appealing gurgle and measured plop, plop, plop—the feet of a moose falling in shallow water—sounded from the shore below, where Simmo was concealed. Instantly the bull turned and glided away, a shadow among the shadows. A few minutes later I heard him running off in the direction whence he had first come.
After that the twilight always found him near our camp. He was convinced that there was a mate hiding somewhere near, and he was bound to find her. We had only to call a few times from our canoe, or from the shore, and presently we would hear him coming, blowing his penny trumpet, and at last see him break out upon the shore with a crashing plunge to waken all the echoes. Then, one night as we lay alongside a great rock in deep shadow, watching the puzzled young bull as he ranged along the shore in the moonlight, Simmo grunted softly to call him nearer. At the sound a larger bull, that we had not suspected, leaped out of the bushes close beside us and splashed straight at the canoe. Only the quickest kind of work saved us. Simmo swung the bow off, with a startled grunt of his own, and I paddled away; while the bull, mistaking us in the dim light for the exasperating cow that had been calling and hiding herself for a week, followed after us into deep water.
There was no doubt whatever that this moose, at least, had come to what he thought was the call of a mate. Moonlight is deceptive beyond a few feet, and when the low grunt sounded in the shadow of the great rock he was sure he had found the coy creature at last, and broke out of his concealment resolved to keep her in sight and not to let her get away again. That is why he swam after us. Had he been investigating some new sound or possible danger, he would never have left the land, where alone his great power and his wonderful senses have full play. In the water he is harmless, as most other wild creatures are.
I paddled cautiously just ahead of him, so near that, looking over my shoulder, I could see the flash of his eye and the waves crinkling away before the push of his great nose. After a short swim he grew suspicious of the queer thing that kept just so far ahead, whether he swam fast or slow, and turned in towards the shore, whining his impatience. I followed slowly, letting him get some distance ahead, and just as his feet struck bottom whispered to Simmo for his most seductive gurgle. At the call the bull whirled and plunged after us again recklessly, and I led him across to where the younger bull was still ranging up and down the shore, calling imploringly to his phantom mate.
I expected a battle when the two rivals should meet; but they paid little attention to each other. The common misfortune, or the common misery, seemed to kill the fierce natural jealousy whose fury I had more than once been witness of. They had lost all fear by this time; they ranged up and down the shore, or smashed recklessly through the swamps, as the elusive smells and echoes called them hither and yon in their frantic search.
Far up on the mountain side the sharp, challenging grunt of a master bull broke out of the startled woods in one of the lulls of our exciting play. Simmo heard, and turned in the bow to whisper excitedly: "Nother bull! Fetch-um Ol' Dev'l this time, sartin." Raising his horn, he gave the long, rolling bellow of a cow moose. A fiercer trumpet call from the mountain side answered; then the sound was lost in the crash-crash of the first two bulls, as they broke out upon the shore on opposite sides of the canoe.
We gave little heed now to the nearer play; our whole attention was fixed on a hoarse, grunting roar—Uh, uh, uh! erryuh! R-r-r-runh-unh! —with a rattling, snapping crash of underbrush for an accompaniment. The younger bull heard it; listened for a moment, like a great black statue under the moonlight; then he glided away into the shadows under the bank. The larger bull heard it and came swinging along the shore, hurling a savage challenge back on the echoing woods at every stride.
There was an ominous silence up on the ridge where a moment before all was fierce commotion. Simmo was silent too; the uproar had been appalling, with the sleeping lake below us, and the vast forest, where silence dwells at home, stretching up and away on every hand to the sky line. But the spirit of mischief was tingling all over me as I seized the horn and gave the low appealing grunt that a cow would have uttered under the same circumstances. Like a shot the answer was hurled back, and down came the great bull—smash, crack, r-r-runh! till he burst like a tempest out on the open shore, where the second bull with a challenging roar leaped to meet him.
Simmo was begging me to shoot, shoot, telling me excitedly that "Ol' Dev'l," as he called him, would be more dangerous now than ever, if I let him get away; but I only drove the canoe in closer to the splashing, grunting uproar among the shadows under the bank.
There was a terrific duel under way when I swung the canoe alongside a moment later. The bulls crashed together with a shock to break their heads. Mud and water flew over them; their great antlers clashed and rang like metal blades as they pushed and tugged, grunting like demons in the fierce struggle. But the contest was too one-sided to last long. Ol' Dev'l had smashed down from the mountain in a frightful rage, and with a power that nothing could resist. With a quick lunge he locked antlers in the grip he wanted; a twist of his massive neck and shoulders forced the opposing head aside, and a mighty spring of his crouching haunches finished the work. The second moose went over with a plunge like a bolt-struck pine. As he rolled up to his feet again the savage old bull jumped for him, and drove the brow antlers into his flanks. The next moment both bulls had crashed away into the woods, one swinging off in giant strides through the crackling underbrush for his life, the other close behind, charging like a battering-ram into his enemy's rear, grunting like a huge wild boar in his rage and exultation. So the chase vanished over the ridge into the valley beyond; and silence stole back, like a Chinese empress, into her disturbed dominions.
From behind a great windfall on the point above, the first young bull stole out, and came halting and listening along the shore to the scene of the conflict. "To the discreet belong the spoils" was written in every timorous step and stealthy movement. A low grunt from my horn reassured him; he grew confident; now he would find the phantom mate that had occasioned so much trouble, and run away with her before the conqueror should return from his chase. He swung along rapidly, rumbling the low call in his throat. Then up on the ridge sounded again the crackle of brush and the roar of a challenge. Ol' Dev'l was coming back for his reward. On the instant all confidence vanished from the young bull's attitude. He slipped away into the woods. There was no sound; scarcely a definite motion. A shadow seemed to glide away into the darker shadows. The underbrush closed softly behind it, and he was gone.
Next morning at daybreak I found my old bull on the shore, a mile below; and with him was the great cow that had hunted me away from her little one, which still followed her about obediently. I left them there undisturbed, with a thought of the mighty offspring that shall some day come smashing down from the mountain to delight the heart of camper or hunter and set his nerves a-tingle, when the lake shall again be visited, and the roar of a bark trumpet roll over the sleeping lake and the startled woods. Let them kill who will. I have seen Umquenawis the Mighty as he was before fear came, and am satisfied.