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The House In The Water





CHAPTER I

The Sound in the Night


UPON the moonlit stillness came suddenly a far-off, muffled, crashing
sound. Just once it came, then once again the stillness of the
wilderness night, the stillness of vast, untraversed solitude. The Boy
lifted his eyes and glanced across the thin reek of the camp-fire at
Jabe Smith, who sat smoking contemplatively. Answering the glance, the
woodsman muttered "old tree fallin'," and resumed his passive
contemplation of the sticks glowing keenly in the fire. The Boy, upon
whom, as soon as he entered the wilderness, the taciturnity of the
woodsfolk descended as a garment, said nothing, but scanned his
companion's gaunt face with a gravely incredulous smile.

So wide-spread and supreme was the silence that five seconds after
that single strange sound had died out it seemed, somehow, impossible
to believe it had ever been. The light gurgle of the shallow and
shrunken brook which ran past the open front of the travellers'
"lean-to" served only to measure the stillness. Both Jabe and the Boy,
since eating their dinner, had gradually forgotten to talk. As the
moon rose over the low, fir-crested hills they had sunk into reverie,
watching the camp-fire die down.

At last, with a sort of crisp whisper a stick, burnt through the
middle, fell apart, and a flicker of red flame leaped up. The woodsman
knocked out his pipe, rose slowly to his feet, stretched his gaunt
length, and murmured, "Reckon we might as well turn in."

"That's all right for you, Jabe," answered the Boy, rising also,
tightening his belt, and reaching for his rifle, "but I'm going off to
see what I can see. Night's the time to see things in the woods."

Jabe grunted non-committally, and began spreading his blanket in the
lean-to. "Don't forgit to come back for breakfast, that's all," he
muttered. He regarded the Boy as a phenomenally brilliant hunter and
trapper spoiled by sentimental notions.

To the Boy, whose interest in all pertaining to woodcraft was much
broader and more sympathetic than that of his companion, Jabe's
interpretation of the sound of the falling tree had seemed hasty and
shallow. He knew that there was no better all-round woodsman in these
countries than Jabe Smith; but he knew also that Jabe's interest in
the craft was limited pretty strictly to his activities as hunter,
trapper and lumberman. Just now he was all lumberman. He was acting as
what is called a "timber-cruiser," roaming the remoter and less-known
regions of the wilderness to locate the best growths of spruce and
pine for the winter's lumbering operations, and for the present
his keen faculties were set on the noting of tree growths, and
water-courses, and the lay of the land for the getting out of a
winter's cutting. On this particular cruise the Boy--who, for all
the disparity in their years and the divergence in their views, was
his most valued comrade--had accompanied him with a special object
in view. The region they were cruising was one which had never been
adequately explored, and it was said to be full of little unnamed,
unmapped lakes and streams, where, in former days, the Indians had
had great beaver hunting.

When the sound of the falling tree came to his ears across the
night-silence, the Boy at once said to himself, "Beavers, at work!" He
said it to himself, not aloud, because he knew that Jabe also, as a
trapper, would be interested in beavers; and he had it in his mind to
score a point on Jabe. Noiseless as a lynx in his soft-soled
"larrigans," he ascended the half-empty channel of the brook, which
here strained its shrunken current through rocks and slate-slabs,
between steep banks. The channel curved steadily, rounding the
shoulder of a low ridge. When he felt that he had travelled somewhat
less than half a mile, he came out upon a bit of swampy marsh, beyond
which, over the crest of a low dam, spread the waters of a tranquil
pond shining like a mirror in the moonlight.

The Boy stopped short, his heart thumping with excitement and
anticipation. Here before him was what he had come so far to find.
From his books and from his innumerable talks with hunter and trapper,
he knew that the dam and the shining, lonely pond were the work of
beavers. Presently he distinguished amid the sheen of the water a
tiny, grassy islet, with a low, dome-shaped, stick-covered mound at
one end of it. This, plainly, was a beaver house, the first he had
ever seen. His delighted eyes, observing it at this distance, at once
pronounced it immeasurably superior to the finest and most pretentious
muskrat-house he had ever seen--a very palace, indeed, by comparison.
Then, a little further up the pond, and apparently adjoining the
shore, he made out another dome-shaped structure, broader and less
conspicuous than the first, and more like a mere pile of sticks. The
pond, which was several acres in extent, seemed to him an extremely
spacious domain for the dwellers in these two houses.

Presently he marked a black trail, as it were, moving down in the
middle of the radiance from the upper end of the pond. It was
obviously the trail of some swimmer, but much too broad, it seemed, to
be made by anything so small as a beaver. It puzzled him greatly. In
his eagerness he pushed noiselessly forward, seeking a better view,
till he was within some thirty feet of the dam. Then he made out a
small dark spot in the front of the trail,--evidently a beaver's head;
and at last he detected that the little swimmer was carrying a bushy
branch, one end held in his mouth while the rest was slung back
diagonally across his shoulders.

The Boy crept forward like a cat, his gray eyes shining with
expectancy. His purpose was to gain a point where he could crouch in
ambush behind the dam, and perhaps get a view of the lake-dwellers
actually at work. He was within six or eight feet of the dam,
crouching low (for the dam was not more than three feet in height),
when his trained and cunning ear caught a soft swirling sound in the
water on the other side of the barrier. Instantly he stiffened to a
statue, just as he was, his mouth open so that not a pant of his
quickened breath might be audible. The next moment the head of a
beaver appeared over the edge of the dam, not ten feet away, and
stared him straight in the face.

The beaver had a stick of alder in its mouth, to be used, no doubt, in
some repairing of the dam. The Boy, all in gray as he was, and
absolutely motionless, trusted to be mistaken for one of the gnarled,
gray stumps with which the open space below the dam was studded. He
had read that the beaver was very near-sighted, and on that he based
his hopes, though he was so near, and the moonlight so clear, that he
could see the bright eyes of the newcomer staring straight into his
with insistent question. Evidently, the story of that near-sightedness
had not been exaggerated. He saw the doubt in the beaver's eye fade
gradually into confidence, as the little animal became convinced that
the strange gray figure was in reality just one of the stumps. Then,
the industrious dam-builder began to climb out upon the crest of the
dam, dragging his huge and hairless tail, and glancing along as if to
determine where the stick which he carried would do most good. At this
critical moment, when the eager watcher felt that he was just about to
learn the exact methods of these wonderful architects of the wild, a
stick in the slowly settling mud beneath his feet broke with a soft,
thick-muffled snap.



So soft was the sound that it barely reached the Boy's ears. To the
marvellously sensitive ears of the beaver, however, it was a warning
more than sufficient. It was a noisy proclamation of peril. Swift as a
wink of light, the beaver dropped his stick and dived head first into
the pond. The Boy straightened up just in time to see him vanish. As
he vanished, his broad, flat, naked tail hit the water with a cracking
slap which resounded over the pond like a pistol-shot. It was reechoed
by four or five more splashes from the upper portion of the pond.
Then all was silence again, and the Boy realized that there would be
no more chance that night for him to watch the little people of the
House in the Water. Mounting the firm-woven face of the dam and
casting his eyes all over the pond, he satisfied himself that two
houses which he had first seen were all that it contained. Then,
resisting the impulse of his excitement, which was to explore all
around the pond's borders at once, he resolutely turned his face back
to camp, full of thrilling plans for the morrow.




CHAPTER II

The Battle in the Pond


AT breakfast, in the crisp of the morning, while yet the faint
mists clung over the brook and the warmth of the camp-fire was
attractive, the Boy proclaimed his find. Jabe had asked no questions,
inquisitiveness being contrary to the backwoodsman's code of
etiquette; but his silence had been full of interrogation. With his
mouth half-full of fried trout and cornbread, the Boy remarked:

"That was no windfall, Jabe, that noise we heard last night!"

"So?" muttered the woodsman, rather indifferently.

Without a greater show of interest than that the Boy would not divulge
his secret. He helped himself to another flaky pink section of trout,
and became seemingly engrossed in it. Presently the woodsman spoke
again. He had been thinking, and had realized that his prestige had
suffered some kind of blow.

"Of course," drawled the woodsman sarcastically, "it wa'n't no
windfall. I jest said that to git quit of bein' asked questions when I
was sleepy. I knowed all the time it was beaver!"

"Yes, Jabe," admitted the Boy, "it was beavers. I've found a big
beaver-pond just up the brook a ways--a pond with two big beaver-houses
in it. I've found it--so I claim it as mine, and there ain't to be
any trapping on that pond. Those are my beavers, Jabe, every one of
them, and they sha'n't be shot or trapped!"

"I don't know how fur yer injunction'd hold in law," said Jabe dryly,
as he speared a thick slab of bacon from the frying-pan to his tin
plate. "But fur as I'm concerned, it'll hold. An' I reckon the boys of
the camp this winter'll respect it, too, when I tell 'em as how it's
your own partic'lar beaver pond."

"Bless your old heart, Jabe!" said the Boy. "That's just what I was
hoping. And I imagine anyway there's lots more beaver round this
region to be food for the jaws of your beastly old traps!"

"Yes," acknowledged Jabe, rising to clear up, "I struck three likely
ponds yesterday, as I was cruisin over to west'ard of the camp. I
reckon we kin spare you the sixteen or twenty beaver in 'Boy's
Pond!'"

The Boy grinned appreciation of the notable honour done him in the
naming of the pond, and a little flush of pleasure deepened the red of
his cheeks. He knew that the name would stick, and eventually go upon
the maps, the lumbermen being a people tenacious of tradition and not
to be swerved from their own way.

"Thank you, Jabe!" he said simply. "But how do you know there are
sixteen or twenty beaver in my pond?"

"You said there was two houses," answered the woodsman. "Well, we
reckon always from eight to ten beaver to each house, bein' the old
couple, and then three or four yearlin's not yet kicked out to set up
housekeeping fer themselves, and three or four youngsters of the
spring's whelping. Beavers' good parents, an' the family holds
together long's the youngsters needs it. Now I'm off. See you here at
noon, fer grub!" and picking up his axe he strode off to southwestward
of the camp to investigate a valley which he had located the day
before.

Left alone, the Boy hurriedly set the camp in order, rolled up the
blankets, washed the dishes, and put out the last of the fire. Then,
picking up his little Winchester, which he always carried,--though he
never used it on anything more sensitive than a bottle or a tin
can,--he retraced his steps of the night before, up-stream to the
beaver pond.

Knowing that the beavers do most of their work, or, at least, most of
their above-water work, at night, he had little hope of catching any
of them abroad by daylight. He approached the dam, nevertheless, with
that noiseless caution which had become a habit with him in the woods,
a habit which rendered the woods populous for him and teeming with
interest, while to more noisy travellers they seemed quite empty of
life. One thing his study of the wilderness had well taught him, which
was that the wild kindreds do not by any means always do just what is
expected of them, but rather seem to delight in contradicting the
naturalists.

When he reached the edge of the open, however, and peered out across
the dam, there was absolutely nothing to break the shining morning
stillness. In the clear sunlight the dam, and the two beaver-houses
beyond, looked larger and more impressive than they had looked the
night before. There was no sign of life anywhere about the pond,
except a foraging fish-hawk winging above it, with fierce head
stretched low in the search for some basking trout or chub.



Following the usual custom of the wild kindreds themselves, the Boy
stood motionless for some minutes behind his thin screen of bushes
before revealing himself frankly in the open. His patient watch being
unrewarded, he was on the very verge of stepping forth, when from the
tail of his eye he caught a motion in the shallow bed of the brook,
and ducked himself. He was too wary to turn his head; but a moment
later a little brown sinuous shape came into his field of view. It was
an otter, making his way up-stream.

The otter moved with unusual caution, glancing this way and that
and seeming to take minute note of all he saw. At the foot of the
dam he stopped, and investigated the structure with the air of one
who had never seen it before. So marked was this air that the Boy
concluded he was a stranger to that region,--perhaps a wanderer
from the head of the Ottanoonsis, some fifteen miles southward,
driven away by the operations of a crew of lumbermen who were
building a big lumber-camp there. However that might be, it was
evident that the brown traveller was a newcomer, an outsider. He
had none of the confident, businesslike manner which a wild animal
wears in moving about his own range.

When he had stolen softly along the whole base of the dam, and back
again, nosing each little rivulet of overflow, the otter seemed
satisfied that this was much like all other beaver dams. Then he
mounted to the crest and took a prolonged survey of the stretch of
water beyond. Nothing unusual appearing, he dived cleanly into the
pond, about the point where, as the Boy guessed, there would be the
greatest depth of water against the dam. He was apparently heading
straight up for the inlet of the pond, on a path which would take him
within about twenty-five or thirty yards of the main beaver-house on
the island. As soon as he had vanished under the water the Boy ran
forward, mounted the crest of the dam, and peered with shaded eyes to
see if he could mark the swimmer's progress.



For a couple of minutes, perhaps, the surface of the pond gave no
indication of the otter's whereabouts. Then, just opposite the main
beaver-house, there was a commotion in the water, the surface curled
and eddied, and the otter appeared in great excitement. He dived again
immediately; and just as he did so the head of a huge beaver poked up
and snatched a breath. Where the two had gone under, the surface of
the pond now fairly boiled; and the Boy, in his excitement over this
novel and mysterious contest, nearly lost his balance on the frail
crest of the dam. A few moments more and both adversaries again came
to the surface, now at close grips and fighting furiously. They were
followed almost at once by a second beaver, smaller than the first,
who fell upon the otter with insane fury. It was plain that the
beavers were the aggressors. The Boy's sympathies were all with the
otter, who from time to time tried vainly to escape from the battle;
and once he raised his rifle. But he bethought him that the otter,
after all, whatever his intentions, was a trespasser; and that the
beavers had surely a right to police their own pond. He remembered an
old Indian's having told him that there was always a blood feud
between the beaver and the otter; and how was he to know how just the
cause of offence, or the stake at issue? Lowering his gun he stared in
breathless eagerness.

The otter, however, as it proved, was well able to take care of
himself. Suddenly rearing his sleek, snaky body half out of the water,
he flashed down upon the smaller beaver and caught it firmly behind
the ear with his long, deadly teeth--teeth designed to hold the
convulsive and slippery writhings of the largest salmon. With mad
contortions the beaver struggled to break that fatal grip. But the
otter held inexorably, shaking its victim as a terrier does a rat, and
paid no heed whatever to the slashing assaults of the other beaver.
The water was lashed to such a turmoil that the waves spread all over
the pond, washing up to the Boy's feet on the crest of the dam, and
swaying the bronze-green grasses about the house on the little island.
Though, without a doubt, all the other citizens of the pond were
watching the battle even more intently than himself, the Boy could not
catch sight of so much as nose or ear. The rest of the spectators kept
close to the covert of grass tuft and lily pad.


WATER."]

All at once the small beaver stiffened itself out convulsively on top
of the water, turned belly up, and began to sink. At the same time the
otter let go, tore free of his second and more dangerous adversary,
and swam desperately for the nearest point of shore. The surviving
beaver, evidently hurt, made no effort to follow up his victory, but
paddled slowly to the house on the island, where he disappeared.
Presently the otter gained the shore and dragged himself up. His
glossy brown skin was gashed and streaming with blood, but the Boy
gathered that his wounds were not mortal. He turned, stared fixedly at
the beaver-house for several seconds as if unwilling to give in, then
stole off through the trees to seek some more hospitable water. As he
vanished, repulsed and maltreated, the Boy realized for the first time
how hostile even the unsophisticated wilderness is to a stranger.
Among the wild kindreds, even as among men, most things worth having
are preempted.

When the Boy's excitement over this strange fight had calmed down, he
set himself with keen interest to examining the dam. He knew that by
this time every beaver in the pond was aware of his presence, and
would take good care to keep out of sight; so there was no longer
anything to be gained by concealment. Pacing the crest, he made it to
be about one hundred feet in length. At the centre, and through a
great part of its length, it was a little over three feet high, its
ends diminishing gradually into the natural rise of the shores. The
base of the dam, as far as he could judge, seemed to be about twelve
feet in thickness, its upper face constructed with a much more gradual
slope than the lower. The whole structure, which was built of poles,
brush, stones, and earth, appeared to be very substantial, a most
sound and enduring piece of workmanship. But along the crest, which
was not more than a foot and a half in width, it was built with a
certain looseness and elasticity for which he was at a loss to
account. Presently he observed, however, that this dam had no place of
overflow for letting off the water. The water stood in the pond at a
height that brought it within three or four inches of the crest. At
this level he saw that it was escaping, without violence, by
percolating through the toughly but loosely woven tissue of sticks and
twigs. The force of the overflow was thus spread out so thin that its
destructive effect on the dam was almost nothing. It went filtering,
with little trickling noises, down over and through the whole lower
face of the structure, there to gather again into a brook and resume
its sparkling journey toward the sea.

The long upper slope of the dam was smoothly and thoroughly faced with
clay, so that none of its framework showed through, save here and
there the butt of a sapling perhaps three or four inches in diameter,
which proclaimed the solidity of the foundations. The lower face, on
the other hand, was all an inexplicable interlacing of sticks and
poles which seemed at first glance heaped together at haphazard. On
examination, however, the Boy found that every piece was woven in so
firmly among its fellows that it took some effort to remove it. The
more he studied the structure, the more his admiration grew, and his
appreciation of the reasoning intelligence of its builders; and he
smiled to himself a little controversial smile, as he thought how
inadequate what men call instinct would be to such a piece of work as
this.

But what impressed him most, as a mark of engineering skill and sound
calculation on the part of the pond-people, was the direction in which
the dam was laid. At either end, where the water was shoal, and
comparatively dead even in time of freshet, the dam ran straight,
taking the shortest way. But where it crossed the main channel of the
brook, and required the greatest strength, it had a pronounced upward
curve to help it resist the thrust of the current. He contemplated
this strong curve for some time; then, a glance at the sun reminding
him that it was near noon, he took off his cap to the low-domed house
in the water and made haste back to camp for dinner.




CHAPTER III

In the Under-water World


MEANWHILE, in the dark chamber and the long, dim corridors of the
House in the Water there was great perturbation. The battle with the
otter had been a tremendous episode in their industrious, well-ordered
lives, and they were wildly excited over it. But much more important
to them--to all but the big beaver who was now nursing his triumphant
wounds--was the presence of Man in their solitude. Man had hitherto
been but a tradition among them, a vague but alarming tradition. And
now his appearance, yesterday and to-day, filled them with terror.
That vision of the Boy, standing tall and ominous on the dam, and
afterwards going forward and backward over it, pulling at it,
apparently seeking to destroy it, seemed to portend mysterious
disasters. After he was gone, and well gone, almost every beaver in
the pond, not only from the main house but also from the lodge over
on the bank, swam down and made a flurried inspection of the dam,
without showing his head above water, to see if the structure on which
they all depended had been tampered with. One by one, each on his own
responsibility, they swam down and inspected the water-face; and one
by one they swam back, more or less relieved in their minds.

All, of course, except the big beaver who had been in the fight. If it
had not been for that vision of the Boy, he would have crept out upon
the dry grass of the little island and there licked and comforted his
wounds in the comforting sunlight. Now, however, he dared not allow
himself that luxury. His strong love of cleanliness made him reluctant
to take his bleeding gashes into the house; but there was nothing else
to be done. He was the head of the household, however, so there was
none to gainsay him. He dived into the mouth of the shorter of the two
entrances, mounted the crooked and somewhat steep passage, and curled
himself upon the dry grass in one corner of the dark, secluded
chamber. His hurts were painful, and ugly, but none of them deadly,
and he knew he would soon be all right again. There was none of that
foreknowledge of death upon him which sometimes drives a sick animal
to abdicate his rights and crawl away by himself for the last great
contest.

The room wherein the big beaver lay down to recover himself was not
spacious nor particularly well ventilated, but in every other respect
it was very admirably adapted to the needs of its occupants. Through
the somewhat porous ceiling, a three-foot thickness of turf and
sticks, came a little air, but no light. This, however, did not matter
to the beavers, whose ears and noses were of more significance to them
than their eyes. In floor area the chamber was something like five
feet by six and a half, but in height not much more than eighteen
inches. The floor of this snug retreat was not five inches above the
level of the water in the passages leading in to it; but so
excellently was it constructed as to be altogether free from damp. It
was daintily clean, moreover; and the beds of dry grass around the
edges of the chamber were clean and fresh.

From this room the living, sleeping, and dining room of the beaver
family, ran two passageways communicating with the outside world. Both
of these were roofed over to a point well outside the walls of the
house, and had their opening in the bottom of the pond, where the
water was considerably more than three feet in depth. One of these
passages was perfectly straight, about two feet in width, and built on
a long, gradual slope. It was by this entrance that the house-dwellers
were wont to bring in their food supplies, in the shape of sticks of
green willow, birch and poplar. When these sticks were stripped clean
of their bark, which was the beavers' chief nourishment, they were
then dragged out again, and floated down to be used in the repair of
the dam. The other passage, especially adapted to quick exit in case
of danger from the way of the roof, was about as spacious as the
first, but much shorter and steeper. It was crooked, moreover,--for a
reason doubtless adequate to the architects, but obscure to mere human
observers. The exits of both passages were always in open water, no
matter how fierce the frosts of the winter, how thick the armour of
ice over the surface of the pond. In the neighbourhood of the house
were springs bubbling up through the bottom, and keeping the
temperature of the pond fairly uniform throughout the coldest weather,
so that the ice, at worst, never attained a thickness of more than a
foot and a half, even though in the bigger lakes of that region it
might make to a depth of three feet and over.



While the wounded beaver lay in the chamber licking his honourable
gashes, two other members of the family entered and approached him. In
some simple but adequate speech it was conveyed to them that their
presence was not required, and they retreated precipitately, taking
different exits. One swam to the grassy edge of the islet, poked his
head above water under the covert of some drooping weeds, listened
motionless for some minutes, then wormed himself out among the long
grasses and lay basking, hidden from all the world but the whirling
hawk overhead. The other, of a more industrious mould, swam off toward
the upper end of the pond where, as he knew, there was work to be
done.

Still as was the surface of the pond, below the surface there was life
and movement. Every little while the surface would be softly broken,
and a tiny ripple would set out in widening circles toward the shore,
starting from a small dark nose thrust up for a second. The casual
observer would have said that these were fish rising for flies; but
in fact it was the apprehensive beavers coming up to breathe, afraid
to show themselves on account of the Boy. They were all sure that he
had not really gone, but was in hiding somewhere, waiting to pounce
upon them.

It was the inhabitants of the House in the Water who were moving
about the pond, this retreat being occupied by their wounded and
ill-humoured champion. The inhabitants of the other house, over on
the shore, who had been interested but remote spectators through
all the strange events of the morning, were now in comfortable
seclusion, resting till it should be counted a safe time to go
about their affairs. Some were sleeping, or gnawing on sappy
willow sticks, in the spacious chamber of their house, while others
were in the deeper and more secret retreats of their two burrows
high up in the bank, connecting with the main house by roomy
tunnels partly filled with water. The two families were quite
independent of each other, except for their common interest in
keeping the great dam in repair. In work upon the dam they acted not
exactly in harmony but in amicable rivalry, all being watchful and all
industrious.

In the under-water world of the beaver pond the light from the
cloudless autumn sun was tawny gold, now still as crystal, now
quivering over the bottom in sudden dancing meshes of fine shadow as
some faint puff of air wrinkled the surface. When the dam was first
built the pond had been of proper depth--from three to four feet--only
in the channel of the stream; while all the rest was shallow, the old,
marshy levels of the shore submerged to a depth of perhaps not more
than twelve or fifteen inches. Gradually, however, the industrious
dam-builders had dug away these shallows, using the material--grass,
roots, clay, and stones--for the broadening and solidifying of the
dam. The tough fibred masses of grass-roots, full of clay and almost
indestructible, were just such material as they loved to work with,
the ancient difficulty of making bricks without straw being well known
to them. Over a large portion of the pond the bottom was now clean
sand and mud, offering no obstacle to the transportation of cuttings
to the houses or the dam.

The beavers, moving hither and thither through this glimmering golden
underworld, swam with their powerful hind feet only, which drove them
through the water like wedges. Their little forefeet, with flexible,
almost handlike paws, were carried tucked up snugly under their chins,
while their huge, broad, flat, hairless tails stuck straight out
behind, ready to be used as a powerful screw in case of any sudden
need. Presently two of the swimmers, apparently by chance, came upon
the body of the beaver which the journeying otter had slain. They knew
that it was contrary to the laws of the clan that any dead thing
should be left in the pond to poison the waters in its decay. Without
ceremony or sentiment they proceeded to drag their late comrade toward
shore,--or rather to shove it ahead of them, only dragging when it got
stuck against some stone or root. At the very edge of the pond, where
the water was not more than eight or ten inches deep, they left it, to
be thrust out and far up the bank after nightfall. They knew that some
hungry night prowler would then take care of it for them.

Meanwhile an industriously inclined beaver had made his way to the
very head of the pond. Here he entered a little ditch or canal which
led off through a wild meadow in a perfectly straight line, toward a
wooded slope some fifty yards or so from the pond. This ditch, which
was perhaps two feet and a half deep and about the same in width,
looked as if it had been dug by the hand of man. The materials taken
from it had been thrown up along the brink, but not on one side only,
as the human ditch-digger does it. The beavers had thrown it out on
both sides. The ditch was of some age, however, so the wild grasses
and weeds had completely covered the two parallel ridges and now
leaned low over the water, partly hiding it. Under this screen the
beaver came to the surface, and swam noiselessly with his head well
up.

At the edge of the slope the canal turned sharply to the left, and ran
in a gradual curve, skirting the upland. Here it was a piece of new
work, raw and muddy, and the little ridges of fresh earth and roots
along its brink were conspicuous. The beaver now went very cautiously,
sniffing the air for any hint of peril. After winding along for some
twenty or thirty yards, the new canal shoaled out to nothingness
behind a screen of alder; and here, in a mess of mud and water, the
beaver found one of his comrades hard at work. There was much of the
new canal yet to do, and winter coming on.

The object of this new ditch was to tap a new food supply. The food
trees near enough to the pond to be felled into it or rolled down to
it had long ago been used. Then the straight canal across the meadow
to the foot of the upland had opened up a new area, an area rich in
birch and poplar. But trees can be rolled easily down-hill that cannot
be dragged along an uneven side-hill; so, at last, it had become
necessary to extend the canal parallel with the bottom of the slope.
Working in this direction, every foot of new ditch brought a lot of
new supplies within reach.



The extremity of the canal was dug on a slant, for greater ease in
removing the material. Here the two beavers toiled side by side,
working independently. With their teeth they cut the tough sod as
cleanly as a digger's spade could do it. With their fore paws they
scraped up the soil--which was soft and easily worked--into sticky
lumps, which they could hug under their chins and carry up the slope
to be dumped upon the grass at the side. Every minute one or the other
would stop, lift his brown head over the edge, peer about, and sniff,
and listen, then fall to work again furiously, as if the whole future
and fortune of the pond were hanging upon his toil. After a
half-hour's labour the canal was lengthened very perceptibly--fully
six or eight inches--and as if by common consent the two brown
excavators stopped to refresh themselves by nibbling at some succulent
roots. While they were thus occupied, and apparently absorbed, from
somewhere up the slope among the birch-trees came the faint sound of a
snapping twig. In half a second the beavers had vanished noiselessly
under water, down the canal, leaving but a swirl of muddy foam to mark
their going.




CHAPTER IV

Night Watchers


WHEN the Boy came creeping down the hillside, and found the water in
the canal still muddy and foaming, he realized that he had just missed
a chance to see the beavers actually at work on their ditch-digging.
He was disappointed. But he found ample compensation in the fact that
here was one of the much-discussed and sometimes doubted canals,
actually in process of construction. He knew he could outdo the
beavers in their own game of wariness and watchfulness. He made up his
mind he would lie out that very night, on the hillside close by--and
so patiently, so unstirringly, that the beavers would never suspect
the eager eyes that were upon them.

All around him, on the nearer slopes, were evidences of the purpose
for which the canal was designed, as well as of the diligence with
which the little people of the pond were labouring to get in their
winter stores. From this diligence, so early in the season, the Boy
argued an early and severe winter. He found trees of every size up to
two feet in diameter cleanly felled, and stripped of their branches.
With two or three exceptions--probably the work of young beavers
unskilled in their art--the trees were felled unerringly in the
direction of the water, so as to minimize the labour of dragging down
the cuttings. Close to the new part of the canal, he found the tree
whose falling he and Jabe had heard the night before. It was a tall
yellow birch, fully twenty inches through at the place where it was
cut, some fifteen inches from the ground. The cutting was still fresh
and sappy. About half the branches had been gnawed off and trimmed,
showing that the beavers, after being disturbed by the Boy's visit to
the dam, had returned to work later in the night. Much of the smaller
brush, from the top, had been cleared away and dragged down to the
edge of the canal. As the Boy knew, from what trappers and woodsmen
had told him, this brush, and a lot more like it, would all be
anchored in a huge pile in mid-channel, a little above the dam, where
it would serve the double purpose of breaking the force of the floods
and of supplying food through the winter.

Very near the newly felled birch the Boy found another large tree
about half cut through; and he vowed to himself that he would see the
finish of that job that very night. He found the cutting done pretty
evenly all around the tree, but somewhat lower and deeper on the side
next to the water. In width the cut was less than that which a good
axeman would make--because the teeth of a beaver are a more frugal
cutting instrument than the woodsman's axe, making possible a
straighter and less wasteful cut. At the foot of this tree he picked
up chips fully eight inches in length, and was puzzled to imagine how
the beavers imitated the effect of the axe in making the chips fly
off.

For a couple of hours the Boy busied himself joyously, observing the
work of these cunning woodsmen's teeth, noting the trails by which the
remoter cuttings had been dragged down to the water, and studying the
excavations on the canal. Then, fearing to make the little citizens of
the pond so nervous that they might not come out to business that
night, he withdrew over the slope and made his way back to camp. He
would sleep out the rest of the afternoon to be fresh and keen for the
night's watching.

At supper that evening, beside the camp-fire, when the woods looked
magical under the still, white moon, Jabe Smith gradually got fired
with the Boy's enthusiasm. The Boy's descriptions of the canal
digging, of the structure of the dam, and, above all, of the battle
between the otter and the beavers, filled him with a new eagerness to
observe these wonderful little engineers with other eyes than those of
the mere hunter and trapper. In the face of all the Boy's exact
details he grew almost deferential, quite laying aside his usual
backwoods pose of indifference and half derision. He made no move to
go to bed, but refilled his pipe and watched his young comrade's face
with shrewd, bright eyes grown suddenly boyish.

At last the Boy rose and picked up his rifle.

"I must hurry up and get myself hidden," said he, "or I'll see nothing
to-night. Good night, Jabe. I'll not be back, likely, till along
toward morning."

The backwoodsman's usual response was not forthcoming. For some
seconds he fingered his rugged chin in silence. Then, straightening
himself up, he spoke with an air of mingled embarrassment and
carelessness.

"Them beaver of yourn's certainly an interestin' kind of varmint.
D'ye know, blam'd if I ain't got a notion to go along with you
to-night, an' watch 'em myself!"

The Boy, though secretly delighted at this evidence of something like
conversion, eyed Jabe doubtfully. He was not sure of the latter's
capacity for the tireless patience and long self-effacement necessary
for such an adventure as this.

"Well, Jabe," he answered hesitatingly, "you know well how more than
glad I'd be of your company. It would just about double my fun, having
you along, if you were really interested, as I am, you know. And are
you sure you could keep still long enough to see anything?"

Jabe would have resented this halting acceptance of his companionship
had he not known in his heart that it was nothing more than he well
deserved. But the doubt cast upon his woodcraft piqued him.

"Hain't I never set for hours in the wet ma'sh, never movin' a finger,
waitin' for the geese?" he asked with injury in his voice. "Hain't I
never sneaked up on a watchin' buck, or laid so still I've fooled a
bear?"

The Boy chuckled softly at this outbreak, so unexpected in the
taciturn and altogether superior Jabe.

"You're all right, Jabe!" said he. "I reckon you can keep still. But
you must let me be captain, for to-night! This is my trick."

"Sartain," responded the woodsman with alacrity. "I'll eat mud if you
say so! But I'll take along a hunk of cold bacon if you hain't got no
objection."

On the trail through the ghostly, moonlit woods, Jabe followed
obediently at the Boy's heels. Silently as shadows they moved,
silently as the lynx or the moose or the weasel goes through the
softly parting undergrowth. The Boy led far away from the brook, and
over the crest of the ridge, to avoid alarming the vigilant sentries.
As they approached the head of the canal, their caution redoubled, and
they went very slowly, bending low and avoiding every patch of
moonlight. The light breeze, so light as to be almost imperceptible,
drew upward toward them from the meadow, bringing now and then a scent
of the fresh-dug soil. At last the Boy lay down on his belly; and Jabe
religiously imitated him. For perhaps fifty yards they crept forward
inch by inch, till at length they found themselves in the heart of a
young fir thicket, through whose branches they could look out upon the
head of the canal and the trees where the beavers had most recently
been cutting.

Among the trees and in the water, all was still, with the mystic,
crystalline stillness of the autumn moonlight. In that light
everything seemed fragile and unreal, as if a movement or a breath
might dissolve it. After a waiting of some ten minutes Jabe had it on
the tip of his tongue to whisper, derisively, "Nothin' doin'!" But he
remembered the Boy's injunction, as well as his doubts, and checked
himself. A moment later a faint, swirling gurgle of water caught his
ear, and he was glad he had kept silence. An instant more, and the
form of a beaver, spectral-gray in the moonlight, took shape all at
once on the brink of the canal. For several minutes it stood there
motionless, erect upon its hind quarters, questioning the stillness
with eyes and ear and nose. Then, satisfied that there was no danger
near, it dropped on all fours and crept up toward the tree that was
partly cut through.

This pioneer of the woodcutters was followed immediately by three
others, who lost no time in getting down to work. One of them went to
help the leader, while the other two devoted themselves to trimming
and cutting up the branches of the big birch which they had felled
the night before. The Boy wondered where the rest of the pond-people
were, and would have liked to consult Jabe about it; but he remembered
the keenness of the beaver's ears, and held his tongue securely. It
seemed to him probably that they were still down in the pond, working
on the houses, the brush pile, or the dam. Presently one more was
accounted for. A renewed splashing in the canal turned the attention
of the watchers from the tree-cutting, and they saw that a single wise
excavator was at work, carrying forward the head of the ditch.

There was no impatience or desire to fidget left in Jabe Smith now. As
he watched the beavers at work in the moonlight, looking very
mysterious in their stealthy, busy, tireless diligence, and conducting
their toil with an ordered intelligence which seemed to him almost
human, he understood for the first time the Boy's enthusiasm for this
kind of bloodless hunting. He had always known how clever the beavers
were, and allowed them full credit; but till now he had never actually
realized it. The two beavers engaged in cutting down the tree sat
erect upon their haunches, supported by their huge tails, chiseling
indefatigably. Cutting two deep grooves, one about six or eight
inches, perhaps, above the other, they would then wrench off the chips
by main force with their teeth and forepaws, jerking their powerful
necks with a kind of furious impatience. As he noted how they made the
cut deeper and lower on one side than the other, that the tree might
fall as they wished, he was so delighted that he came dangerously near
vowing he would never trap a beaver again. He felt that it was almost
like ensnaring a brother woodsman.

Equally exciting was the work on the other tree, which was being
trimmed. The branches, according to their size, were cut into neat,
manageable lengths, of from three to six or seven feet--the less the
diameter the greater the length, each piece being calculated to be
handled in the water by one beaver. These pieces were then rolled,
shoved or dragged, as the case might require, down the smooth trails
already made in hauling the brush, and dumped into the canal. Other
beavers presently appeared, and began towing the sticks and brush down
the canal to the pond. This part of the process was hidden from the
eager watchers in the thicket; but the Boy guessed, from his own
experience in pushing a log endwise before him while in swimming, that
the beavers would handle the sticks in the same way. With the brush,
however, it was different. In hauling it down the trail each beaver
took a branch in his teeth, by the butt, twisted it across his
shoulders, and let it drag behind him. It was obvious that in the
water, too, this would be the most convenient way to handle such
material. The beavers were not the kind of people to waste their
strength in misdirected effort.


HIM."]

While all this cutting and hauling was going on, the big beaver down
at the head of the canal was attending strictly to his task, running
his lines straight, digging the turf and clay, shoving his loads up
the slope and out upon the edge of the ditch. The process was all in
clear, easy view of the watchers, their place of hiding being not more
than eight or ten paces distant.

They had grown altogether absorbed in watching the little canal-builder,
when a cracking sound made them turn their eyes. The tree was toppling
slowly. Every beaver now made a mad rush for the canal, not caring
how much noise he made--and plunged into the water. Slowly,
reluctantly, majestically, the tall birch swung forward straight down
the slope, its top describing a great arc against the sky and
gathering the air in its branches with a low but terrifying roar. The
final crash was unexpectedly gentle,--or rather, would have seemed so
to one unfamiliar with tree-felling. Some branches snapped, some
sticks flew up and dropped, there was a shuddering confusion in the
crystal air for a few seconds, then the stillness fell once more.

But now there was not a beaver to be seen. Jabe wondered if they had
been scared by the results of their own work; or if one of their
sentinels had come and peered into the thicket from the rear. As
minute after minute dragged by, and nothing happened, he began to
realize that his muscles were aching savagely from their long
restraint. He was on the point of moving, of whispering to ask the Boy
what it meant, when the latter, divining his unrest, stealthily laid a
restraining hand upon his arm. He guessed that the beavers were on the
alert, hiding, and watching to see if any of their enemies should be
attracted by the noise.



Not five seconds later, however, he forgot his aches. Appearing with
uncanny and inexplicable suddenness, there was the big pioneer again,
sitting up by the edge of the canal. As before, he sat absolutely
motionless for a minute or two, sniffing and listening. Then,
satisfied once more that all was well, he moved lazily up the slope to
examine the tree; and in half a minute all were at work again, except
that there was no more tree-felling. The great business of the hour
was cutting brush.

For some time longer the watchers lay motionless, noting every detail
of the work, till at last the Boy began to think it was time to
release Jabe from his long and severe restraint and break up the
beaver "chopping-bee." Before he had quite made up his mind, however,
his eyes chanced to wander a little way up the slope, and to rest,
without any conscious purpose, on a short gray bit of log. Presently
he began to wonder what a piece of log so short and thick--not much
more than three feet long--would be doing there. No beavers would
waste time cutting up a twelve-inch log into lengths like that. And
there had been no lumberman in the neighbourhood. Then, in a flash,
his eyes cleared themselves of their illusion. The log had moved, ever
so slightly. It was no longer a log, but a big gray lynx, creeping
slowly, inexorably, down upon the unsuspecting people of the pond.

For perhaps ten seconds the Boy stared in uncertainty. Then he saw the
lynx gather his muscles for the final, fatal rush. Without a whisper
or a warning to the astonished Jabe, he whipped up his rifle, and
fired.

The sharp report seemed to shatter the whole scene. Its echoes were
mixed with the scattering of the horrified beavers as they rushed for
the water--with the short screech of the lynx, as it bounced into the
air and fell back on its side, dead--with an exclamation of
astonishment from Jabe--and with a crashing of branches just behind
the thicket. The Boy looked around, triumphant--to see that Jabe's
exclamation was not at all the result of his clever shot. The woodsman
was on his hands and knees, his back turned, and staring at the form
of a big black bear as it lumbered off in a panic through the bushes.
Like the unfortunate lynx, the bear had been stalking the beavers on
his own account, and had almost stepped upon the silent watchers in
the thicket.






CHAPTER V

Dam Repairing and Dam Building


AS the Boy trudged triumphantly back toward camp, over the crest of
the moon-bright ridge, he carried the limp, furry body of the lynx
slung by its hind legs over his shoulder. He felt that his prestige
had gone up incalculably in the woodsman's eyes. The woodsman was
silent, however, as silent as the wilderness, till they descended the
other slope and came in sight of the little solitary camp. Then he
said: "That was a mighty slick shot of yourn, d'ye know it? Ye're
quicker'n chain lightnin', an' dead on!"

"Just luck, Jabe!" replied the Boy carelessly, trying to seem properly
modest.

This different suggestion Jabe did not take the trouble to controvert.
He knew the Boy did not mean it.

"But I thought as how ye wouldn't kill anything?" he went on,
teasingly.

"Had to!" retorted the Boy. "That was self-defence! Those beavers are
my beavers. An' I've always wanted a real good excuse for getting a
good lynx skin, anyway!"

"I don't blame ye a mite fer standin' by them beaver!" continued Jabe.
"They're jest all right! It was better'n any circus; an' I don't know
when I've enjoyed myself more."

"Then the least you can do, Jabe, is promise not to trap any more
beavers!" said the Boy quickly.

"Wa'al," answered Jabe, as they entered camp and began spreading their
blankets, "leastwise I'll do my best to see that no harm comes to them
beaver, nor to the pond."

Next morning, as the woodsman was starting out for the day's cruise,
the Boy said to him:

"If you're game for another night's watching, Jabe, I'll show you
something altogether different up at the pond to-night."

"Try me!" responded the woodsman.

"You'll have to be back earlier than usual, then," said the Boy.
"We'll have to get hidden earlier, and in a new place."

"I'll come back along a couple of hours afore sundown, then," answered
Jabe, swinging off on his long, mooselike stride. It was contrary to
his backwoods etiquette to ask what was in store for him; but his
curiosity was excited, and kept him company through the solitude all
day.

When Jabe was gone, the Boy went straight up-stream to the dam, taking
no special care to hide his coming. His plan was one in regard to
which he felt some guilty qualms. But he consoled himself with the
thought that whatever harm he might be doing to the little citizens of
the pond would be more than compensated by the protection he was
giving them. He was going to make a break in the dam, for the sake of
seeing just how the beavers would mend it.

On reaching the dam, however, it occurred to him that if he made the
break now the beavers might regard the matter as too urgent to be left
till nightfall. They might steal a march on him by mending the damage
little by little, surreptitiously, through the day. He had no way of
knowing just how they would take so serious a danger as a break in
their dam. He decided, therefore, to postpone his purpose till the
afternoon, so that the beavers would not come to the rescue too early.
In the meantime, he would explore the stream above the pond, and see
if there were other communities to study.

Skirting the hither side of the pond to near its head, he crossed the
little meadow and the canal, and reached the brook again about fifty
yards beyond. Here he found it flowing swift and narrow, over a rocky
bottom, between high banks; and this was its character for nearly half
a mile, as he judged. Then, emerging once more upon lower ground, he
came upon a small dam. This structure was not much over eighteen
inches in height, and the pond above it, small and shallow, showed no
signs of being occupied. There was no beaver house to be seen, either
in the water or on shore; and the water did not seem to be anywhere
more than a foot and a half in depth. As he puzzled over this--for he
did not think the beavers were likely to build a dam for nothing--he
observed a second and much larger dam far away across the head of the
pond.

Hastening to investigate this upper dam, he found it fully three feet
high, and very massive. Above it was a narrow but deep pond, between
comparatively steep shores; and along these shores he counted three
low-roofed houses. Out in the middle of the pond there was not one
dwelling; and he came presently to the conclusion that here, between
the narrow banks, the current would be heavy in time of freshet. The
lower dam, pretty obviously, was intended to reinforce the upper, by
backing a foot and a half of water against it and taking off just that
much of the pressure. He decided that the reason for locating the
three houses along the shore was that the steep bank afforded special
facilities for shore burrows.

The explorer's fever being now hot upon him, the Boy could not stay to
examine this pond minutely. He pressed on up-stream with breathless
eagerness, thrilling with expectation of what the next turn might
reveal. As a matter of fact, the next turn revealed nothing--nor the
next, nor yet the next. But as the stream was full of turns in this
portion of its course, that was not greatly discouraging.

About a quarter of a mile, however, above the head of the narrow pond,
the ardent explorer came upon a level of sparse alder swamp. Here he
found the stream just beginning to spread over its low banks. The
cause of this spreading was a partial obstruction in mid-channel--what
looked, at first glance, like an accidental accumulation of brush and
stones and mud. A second look, however, and his heart jumped with
excitement and delight. Here was the beginning of a new pond, here
were the foundations of a new dam. He would be able to see what few
indeed of the students of the wilderness had had the opportunity to
watch--the actual process by which these wilderness engineers achieved
their great work.

All about the place the straightest and brushiest alders had been cut
down, those usually selected being at least ten or twelve feet in
height. Many of them were still lying where they fell; but a number
had been dragged to the stream and anchored securely, with stones and
turfy clay, across the channel. The Boy noted, with keenest
admiration, that these were all laid with the greatest regularity
parallel with the flow of the current, butts up stream, brushy tops
below. In this way, the current took least hold upon them, and was
obstructed gradually and as it were insidiously, without being
challenged to any violent test of strength. Already it was lingering
in some confusion, backing up, and dividing its force, and stealing
away at each side among the bushes. The Boy had heard that the
beavers were accustomed to begin their dams by felling a tree across
the channel and piling their materials upon that as a foundation. But
the systematic and thorough piece of work before him was obviously
superior in permanence to any such slovenly makeshift; and moreover,
further to discredit such a theory, here was a tall black ash close to
the stream and fairly leaning over it, as if begging to be put to some
such use.

At this spot the Boy stayed his explorations for the day. Choosing a
bit of dry thicket close by, to be a hiding-place for Jabe and himself
that night, a bunch of spruce and fir where he knew the beavers would
not come for supplies, he hurried back to the camp for a bite of
dinner, giving wide berth to all the ponds on the way. Building a tiny
camp-fire he fried himself a couple of slices of bacon and brewed a
tin of tea for his solitary meal, then lay down in the lean-to, with
the sun streaming in upon him, for an hour's nap.

The night having been a tiring one for his youthful nerves and
muscles, he slept heavily, and awoke with a start to find the sun a
good two hours nearer the horizon. Sleep was still heavy upon him, so
he went down to the edge of the brook and plunged his face into the
chilly current. Then, picking up an axe instead of his rifle, he
returned up-stream to the dam.

As he drew near, he caught sight of a beaver swimming down the pond,
towing a big branch over its shoulder; and his conscience smote him at
the thought of the trouble and anxiety he was going to inflict upon
the diligent little inhabitants. His mind was made up, however. He
wanted knowledge, and the beavers would have to furnish it, at
whatever cost. A few minutes of vigorous work with the axe, a few
minutes of relentless tugging and jerking upon the upper framework of
the dam, and he had made a break through which the water rushed
foaming in a muddy torrent. Soon, as he knew, the falling of the
pond's level would alarm the house-dwellers, and bring them out to see
what had happened. Then, as soon as darkness came, there would be a
gathering of both households to repair the break.



Hiding in the bushes near by, he saw the water slowly go down, but for
half an hour the beavers gave no sign. Then, close beside the break, a
big fellow crawled out upon the slope of the dam and made a careful
survey of the damage. He disappeared; and presently another came, took
a briefer look, and vanished. A few minutes later, far up the pond,
several bushy branches came to the surface, as if they had been
anchored on the bottom and released. They came, apparently floating,
down toward the dam. As they reached the break, the heads of several
beavers showed themselves above water, and the branches were guided
across the opening, where they were secured in some way which the
watcher could not see. They did not so very greatly diminish the
waste, but they checked the destructive violence of it. It was
evidently a temporary makeshift, this; for in the next hour nothing
more was done. Then the Boy got tired, and went back to camp to wait
for Jabe and nightfall.

That evening the backwoodsman, forgetting the fatigue of his day's
cruising in the interest of the Boy's story, was no less eager than
his companion; and the two, hurrying through an early supper, were off
for the pond in the first purple of twilight. When they reached the
Boy's hiding-place by the dam the first star was just showing itself
in the pallid greenish sky, and the surface of the pond, with its
vague, black reflections, was like a shadowed mirror of steel. There
was not a sound on the air except the swishing rush of the divided
water over the break in the dam.

The Boy had timed his coming none too early; for the pond had dropped
nearly a foot, and the beavers were impatient to stop the break. No
sooner had night fairly settled down than suddenly the water began to
swirl into circles all about the lower end of the pond, and a dozen
heads popped up. Then more brush appeared, above the island-house, and
was hurriedly towed down to the dam. The brush which had been thrust
across the break was now removed and relaid longitudinally, branchy
ends down stream. Here it was held in place by some of the beavers
while others brought masses of clayey turf from the nearest shore to
secure it. Meanwhile more branches were being laid in place, always
parallel with the current; and in a little while the rushing noise of
the overflow began to diminish very noticeably. Then a number of
short, heavy billets were mixed with shorter lengths of brush; and all
at once the sound of rushing ceased altogether. There was not even the
usual musical trickling and tinkling, for the level of the pond was
too low for the water to find its customary stealthy exits. At this
stage the engineers began using smaller sticks, with more clay, and a
great many small stones, making a very solid-looking piece of work. At
last the old level of the dam crest was reached, and there was no
longer any evidence of what had happened except the lowness of the
water. Then, all at once, the toilers disappeared, except for one big
beaver, who kept nosing over every square inch of the work for perhaps
two minutes, to assure himself of its perfection. When he, at last,
had slipped back into the water, both Jabe and the Boy got up, as if
moved by one thought, and stretched their cramped legs.

"I swan!" exclaimed the woodsman with fervour. "If that ain't the
slickest bit o' work I ever seen! Let's go over and kind of inspect
the job fer 'em!"

Inspection revealed that the spot which had just been mended was the
solidest portion of the whole structure. Wherever else the water might
be allowed to escape, it was plain the beavers intended it should have
no more outlet here.

From the mended dam the Boy now led Jabe away up-stream in haste, in
the hope of catching some beavers at work on the new dam in the
alders. Having skirted the long pond at a distance, to avoid giving
alarm, the travellers went with the utmost caution till they reached
the swampy level. Then, indifferent to the oozy, chilly mud, they
crept forward like minks stealing on their prey; and at last, gaining
the fir thicket without mishap, they lay prone on the dry needles to
rest.

As they lay, a sound of busy splashing came to their ears, which
promptly made them forget their fatigue. Shifting themselves very
slowly and with utter silence, they found that the place of ambush
had been most skilfully chosen. In perfect hiding themselves,
they commanded a clear and near view of the new dam and all its
approaches.

There were two beavers visible, paddling busily on the foundations
of the dam, while the overflowing water streamed about them,
covering their feet. At this stage, most of the water flowed
through the still uncompacted structure, leaving work on the top
unimpeded. The two beavers were dragging into place a long birch
sapling, perhaps eleven feet in length, with a thick, bushy top.
When laid to the satisfaction of the architects,--the butt, of course,
pointing straight up-stream,--the trunk was jammed firmly down
between those already placed. Then the more erect and unmanageable of
the branches were gnawed off and in some way--which the observers
with all their watchfulness could not make out--wattled down among
the other branches so as to make a woven and coherent mass. The
earth and sod and small stones which were afterwards brought and
laid upon the structure did not seem necessary to hold it in place,
but rather for the stoppage of the interstices.

While this was going on at the dam, a rustling of branches and
splashing of water turned the watchers' attention up-stream. Another
beaver came in sight, and then another, each partly floating and
partly dragging a straight sapling like the first. It seemed that the
dam-builders were not content to depend altogether on the crooked,
scraggly alder-growth all about them, but demanded in their
foundations a certain proportion of the straighter timbers and denser
branches of the birch. It was quite evident that they knew just what
they were doing, and how best to do it.

While the building was going on, yet another pair of beavers appeared,
and the work was pressed with a feverish energy that produced amazing
results. The Boy remembered a story told him by an old Indian, but
not confirmed by any natural history which he had come across, to the
effect that when a pair of young beavers set out to establish a new
pond, some of the old ones go along to lend a hand in the building of
the dam. It was plain that these workers were all in a tremendous
hurry; and the Boy could see no reason for haste unless it was that
the majority of the workers had to get back to their own affairs. With
the water once fairly brought under control, and the pond deep enough
to afford a refuge from enemies, the young pair could be trusted to
complete it by themselves, get their house ready, and gather their
supplies in for the winter. The Boy concluded to his own satisfaction





Next: The White-slashed Bull




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