The Return Of The Moose





"TO the best of my knowledge, ther' ain't been no moose seen this side

the river these eighteen year back."



The speaker, a heavy-shouldered, long-legged backwoodsman, paused in

his task of digging potatoes, leaned on the handle of his broad-tined

digging fork, and bit off a liberal chew from his plug of black

tobacco. His companion, digging parallel with him on the next row,

paused sympathetically, felt in his trousers' pocket for his own plug

of "black jack," and cast a contemplative eye up the wide brown slope

of the potato-field toward the ragged and desolate line of burnt woods

which crested the hill.



The woods, a long array of erect, black, fire-scarred rampikes,

appeared to scrawl the very significance of solitude against the

lonely afternoon sky. The austerity of the scene was merely heightened

by the yellow glow of a birch thicket at the further upper corner of

the potato-field, and by the faint tints of violet light that flowed

over the brown soil from a pallid and fading sunset. As the sky was

scrawled by the gray-and-black rampikes, so the slope was scrawled by

zigzag lines of gray-and-black snake fence, leading down to three log

cabins, with their cluster of log barns and sheds, scattered

irregularly along a terrace of the slope. A quarter of a mile further

down, beyond the little gray dwellings, a sluggish river wound between

alder swamps and rough wild meadows.



As the second potato-digger was lifting his plug of tobacco to his

mouth, his hand stopped half way, and his grizzled jaw dropped in

astonishment. For a couple of seconds he stared at the ragged

hill-crest. Then, it being contrary to his code to show surprise, he

bit off his chew, returned the tobacco to his pocket, and coolly

remarked: "Well, I reckon they've come back."



"What do you mean?" demanded the first speaker, who had resumed his

digging.



"There be your moose, after these eighteen year!" said the other.



Standing out clear of the dead forest, and staring curiously down upon

the two potato-diggers, were three moose,--a magnificent, black,

wide-antlered bull, an ungainly brown cow, and a long-legged,

long-eared calf. A potato-field, with men digging in it, was something

far apart from their experience and manifestly filled them with

interest.



"Keep still now, Sandy," muttered the first speaker, who was wise in

the ways of the wood-folk. "Keep still till they git used to us. Then

we'll go for our guns."



The men stood motionless for a couple of minutes, and the moose came

further into the open in order to get a better look at them. Then,

leaving their potato forks standing in their furrows, the men strode

quietly down the field, down the rocky pasture lane, and into the

nearest house. Here the man called Sandy got down his gun,--an old

muzzle-loading, single-barrelled musket,--and hurriedly loaded it with

buckshot; while the other, who was somewhat the more experienced

hunter, ran on to the next cabin and got his big Snider rifle. The

moose, meanwhile, having watched the men fairly indoors, turned aside

and fell to browsing on the tiny poplar saplings which grew along the

top of the field.




BROWN COW, AND A LONG-LEGGED, LONG-EARED CALF."]



Saying nothing to their people in the houses, after the reticent

backwoods fashion, Sandy and Lije strolled carelessly down the road

till the potato-field was hidden from sight by a stretch of young

second-growth spruce and fir. Up through this cover they ran eagerly,

bending low, and gained the forest of rampikes on top of the hill.

Here they circled widely, crouching in the coarse weeds and dodging

from trunk to trunk, until they knew they were directly behind the

potato-field. Then they crept noiselessly outward toward the spot

where they had last seen the moose. The wind was blowing softly into

their faces, covering their scent; and their dull gray homespun

clothes fitted the colour of the desolation around them.



Now it chanced that the big bull had changed his mind, and wandered

back among the rampikes, leaving the cow and calf at their browsing

among the poplars. The woodsmen, therefore, came upon him unexpectedly.

Not thirty yards distant, he stood eying them with disdainful

curiosity, his splendid antlers laid back while he thrust forward his

big, sensitive nose, trying to get the wind of these mysterious

strangers. There was menace in his small, watchful eyes, and

altogether his appearance was so formidable that the hunters were

just a trifle flurried, and fired too hastily. The big bullet of

Lije's Snider went wide, while a couple of Sandy's buckshot did no

more than furrow the great beast's shoulder. The sudden pain and the

sudden monstrous noise filled him with rage, and, with an ugly

grunting roar, he charged.



"Up a tree, Sandy!" yelled Lije, setting the example. But the bull was

so close at his heels that he could not carry his rifle with him. He

dropped it at the foot of the tree, and swung himself up into the dead

branches just in time to escape the animal's rearing plunge.



Sandy, meanwhile, had found himself in serious plight, there being no

suitable refuge just at hand. Those trees which were big enough had

had no branches spared by the fire. He had to run some distance. Just

as he was hesitating as to what he should do, and looking for a rock

or stump behind which he might hide while he reloaded his gun, the

moose caught sight of him, forgot about Lije, and came charging

through the weeds. Sandy had no more time for hesitation. He dropped

his unwieldy musket, and clambered into a blackened and branchy

hackmatack, so small that he feared the rush of the bull might break

it down. It did, indeed, crack ominously when the headlong bulk

reared upon it; but it stood. And Sandy felt as if every branch he

grasped were an eggshell.



Seeing that the bull's attention was so well occupied, Lije slipped

down the further side of his tree and recaptured his Snider. He had by

this time entirely recovered his nerve, and now felt master of the

situation. Having slipped in a new cartridge he stood forth boldly and

waited for the moose to offer him a fair target. As the animal moved

this way and that, he at length presented his flank. The big Snider

roared; and he dropped with a ball through his heart, dead instantly.

Sandy came down from his little tree, and touched the huge dark form

and mighty antlers with admiring awe.



In the meantime, the noise of the firing had thrown the cow and calf

into a panic. Since the woods behind them were suddenly filled with

such thunders, they could not flee in that direction. But far below

them, down the brown slopes and past the gray cabins, they saw the

river gleaming among its alder thickets. There was the shelter they

craved; and down the fields they ran, with long, shambling, awkward

strides that took them over the ground at a tremendous pace. At the

foot of the field they blundered into the lane leading down to

Sandy's cabin.



Now, as luck would have it, Sandy had that summer decided to build

himself a frame house to supplant the old log cabin. As a preliminary,

he had dug a spacious cellar, just at the foot of the lane. It was

deep as well as wide, being intended for the storage of many potatoes.

And, in order to prevent any of the cattle from falling into it, he

had surrounded it with a low fence which chanced to be screened along

the upper side with a rank growth of burdock and other barnyard

weeds.



When the moose cow reached this fence, she hardly noticed it. She was

used to striding over obstacles. Just now her heart was mad with

panic, and her eyes full of the gleam of the river she was seeking.

She cleared the fence without an effort--and went crashing to the

bottom of the cellar. Not three paces behind her came the calf.



By this time, of course, all the little settlement was out, and the

flight of the cow and calf down the field had been followed with eager

eyes. Everyone ran at once to the cellar. The unfortunate cow was seen

to have injured herself so terribly by the plunge that, without

waiting for the owner of the cellar to return, the young farmer from

the third cabin jumped down and ended her suffering with a butcher

knife. The calf, however, was unhurt. He stood staring stupidly at his

dead mother and showed no fear of the people that came up to stroke

and admire him. He seemed so absolutely docile that when Sandy and

Lije came proudly down the hill to tell of their achievement, Sandy

declared that the youngster should be kept and made a pet of.



"Seems to me," he said to Lije, "that seein' as the moose had been so

long away, we hain't treated them jest right when they come back. I

feel like we'd ought to make it up to the little feller."





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