THE CALLING OF THE BROW-PLATE BULL
BY DOUGLAS WETMORE CLINCH
THE only legacy I ever got was my name. It was handed down from a great uncle. He was a full chested, straight-spined uncle, with a long beard and a horde of forest fables, and he was credited with many achievements, from the body guarding of royalty to the "creeping" of much big game. As a relative he was tolerated; as a boy's idol, unreservedly adored. But, lo, he had a friend, Sebatis, an Indian chief, and, because of the name, they sometimes abandoned their smoke tans for the sandals of civilization and came to call on me. That was many moons ago, back in the 80's, when smooth-bores were still in favor. Then both of them went on the Long Trail and I had to work out my salvation alone.
The next stage was more typical. From a small boy I became a youth who, of Friday afternoons, was wont to gather with kindred souls in whom the spirit of Esau lingered. In a storeroom or backyard, as occasion offered, we devoured the Youth's Companion and the sketches of one Dan Beard. At these clandestine meetings the hoarding of many weeks assumed definite form in uncouth "first rifles," single-barrel shotguns. Of a partridge or a duck we were thankful, and for want of a better name we called ourselves "The Moose Hunters."
But the members of that small band were scattered to the four winds of heaven and I alone still followed the trail. Then it was that I cultivated a sturdy man who smoked "plug" tobacco and wore, as a watch guard, a glass-encircled salmon fly. As a shooter of cock he had no rival, and millionaires forsook foreign travel that they might consort with him. His low-heeled shoes were as broad and steady as the plane which smoothed his rods, and his speech as slow and even as his eyes. Mid the odor of rod varnish and the sweet smell of rod shavings I listened, after the manner of the millionaires, with interest and awe, and of a September morning we shook off the dust of civilization from our shoe packs. It was a morning of promise, and I will always remember that, as I swayed toward the depot and looked out of the four-wheeler's window, I beheld the sturdy man. It impressed me greatly that his entire kit, in a single bag, hung suspended from an axe.
Recall your first night in the North Woods—the clink of the teamster's harness, the splutter of the camp-fire, the background of balsams, the gurgle of the brook and the smell of sizzling bacon. And the night was dreamless, and the next day it rained. But on the second morning the sturdy man rolled out of his blankets and murmured something which set me wide awake. The rain had passed, and, though the Morning Star still tarried, I remember that, away to the East, the curtain of night was frayed at the edges. As, with occasional sips at our tea pints, we laced on our moccasins, the glow of the fire was welcome, and it seemed the cook who served us was a lifelong friend. "It's a grand morning for calling," muttered the sturdy man. "Come on."
On the portage the occasional "squeak" of the lantern seemed loud, the clatter of a stone deafening. Not a leaf stirred or a bird chirruped as the light quivered from one background to another—now atthe foot of a huge pine, again in crossing the brook. Slowly the dawn asserted itself, and a' hundred yards from the barren the light of the lantern was no more. The sturdy man motioned for silence, and the first low call ranged over the meadow to be lost on the ridge beyond. There had not been the slightest unnecessary movement of any kind.
By now the first angling rays of the sun were playing like searchlights on the tips of the evergreens. Suddenly the grayspeckled eyebrows of the caller lowered, his lips hinted at a smile, for, off to our left, a bull moose "spoke." Then he "spoke" again, and the sturdy man toyed with him till the meadow grass parted, the bushes "swisshed," and my "30-30" yapped and clicked. That evening the sturdy man called another, and one the following morning, the three heads averaging fifty inches. Down in my heart I knew I was a destined hunter of moose till some day I would call a "dammer."
Then I met another man. He was just a little wilder than any animal I knew, but no canoe pole he ever planed stood straighter than he, no fly of his ever dropped lighter than his moccasin, and to him the trails of the forest folk were the only print he could read. In the old days he and his "fadder" followed the moose on snowshoes, the beaver with a diving dog. With one sweep of his knife the longest salmon would be opened, with a single call he made moose jump over gun barrels by moonlight; not once would his feet move as he ran the Narrows at midnight. To still-hunt with him through the"second growth" (at that uncertain period before the moose reach the ridges) was beyond the bestowing of any academic mantle. He, too, had a son whom he schooled in all that he knew, and, of a September full moon, we beached our canoes, in a land of mountains and ponds, to take a trail beyond the hills where no blazes led.
No one had been there since spring, but the shore of that back pond was harrowed with tracks. We had not lingered one quarter of an hour before a bull moose came out. But he was a small bull, and we did not molest him, though we called him very, very close. "Say noddings," whispered the Son; "bye-n-bye there'll be another; maybe in half an hour." At the end of this period the breeze had grown weary, the sun rested on the tips of the black spruce, and the atmosphere gradually assumed that wonderful, bell-like hollowness so dear to the moose caller's heart. As my perspiration-soaked clothes commenced to stiffen the surface of the pond relaxed to that restful, oil-like appearance which comes on the wings of night. Blinking —as if shaken by the echo of the first call—the sun dropped lower, from the direction of the Western ridge a limb "cracked," and the earth quivered beneath the "tum-tum" of a trotting moose.
"By the Holy Sweeter, did you hear that? He must be an old dammer to hit his head coming through them woods! Listen!"
From behind an abandoned beaver house I listened. To move in that sacred stillness I dared not, and the whispered for sure. Don't orders of the Son were my only guide. The bull had meanwhile slowed down to a walk, swung his antlers to clear what was ordinarily a wide expanse between two trees, and poked his head through the foliage. For what seemed fully fifteen minutes not a hair or muscle moved, and all this time he had not "answered" once.
"I never saw such a head; the blade's a terror."
"Is it sixty?"
"N—o; fifty-five, move; he'll be out in a second. Is there a shell in that barrel ? All right he's out now—get on your feet. No! over there, to your left!
He was there, blending with a background so perfect I well-nigh forgot to shoot. All that eight years of hunting could convey to an understanding mind; the innumerable tales of "dammer moose"; the environment of that back-pond country; all created an appetite which seemed at last about to be satisfied, and contemplation and anticipation juggled for the supremacy of my mind. And still not a muscle moved, an ear flick, nor did the pans of that inspiring head quiver an eighth of an inch. Just then the Son breathed quickly and the Indian feeling vanished away.
"It's not fifty-five," I murmured to myself, "but never, no never, grew such a pan," and, between exhilarations and shivers of genuine cold, I slipped the strap under my elbow and spent, it seemed, a year of my life finding a suitable spot above two straight fore legs. Then I pressed or pulled, I know not which, and he crouched, swinging, and I longed for the lever action. It seemed about a year later, I pressed again.
"After him! Never mind those shells! Don’t let him get away! This side!" Once, away off, I saw him as he topped a ridge —"Yes"—there was blood all right, and on the morrow we would trail him. As we slunk back to camp, a cow called from the lower pond and a bull roared. As the cook scalloped the tomatoes, the flare of the campfire threw our shadows dancing about, and for the first time in an hour we smiled.
Now, this backpond country had for only three years known the "creak" of a packstrap and had been cruised by toboggan. The Son had not cruised it at all, and of damp days we took a lunch and "struck her." Some day, perhaps, you may hear of "Clinch's Lakes," and if you cruise carefully, you may, on the east side of the lower one, find the Son's name and my own. It was the first time the Son had ever hunted there, and the first night he called a fifty-inch head. This somewhat revived our spirits, and we returned to the now "rested" pond. Alone we prepared our lunch, alone we watched by that pond, till the place where the sun ought to have been was in no way different from the rest of the western horizon. "If only," I had so many times said to myself, "I could have that shot again."
"I think," said the Son, "you must be one of them Jonahs."
"I think," said I, "you'd better begin to call." But I spoke in a listless manner, which hard luck seems to create.
The Son was lying in the grass am! Laughing, as he does most things, vigorously. A few minutes previous to our conversation I had, while playing with the cinematography, frightened a huge cow from the pond, and even now we could hear her "bark."
"Call yourself," said the Son, "maybe one will come; give her a try." Strange to say, the suggestion staggered me, but, very low, I called twice, at which the Son laughed harder than ever.
"All right," I replied, rather tartly, "give me that note again—ah! —How’s that?" For this time the undulating roll, which is so deceptive, was in perfect harmony and order. And so I called, and called again, and the echoes came back, and with them, confidence, which vibrated through my entire system, just as the echoes, had ranged up the water to the ridges beyond. First I thought it was my throat; the second time I beckoned to the Son. "Hist!" I whispered. "Come here, I've heard something; there it is again! —There, I heard it that time!"
" ‘Tis noddings," muttered the Son, but I had thrown down the horn and turned to study the skyline. "Oh, would he get here in time; he's quite a long distance off," I muttered. Just then the Son's smile vanished and his eyelids parted in the manner of those whose ears have been faithfully trained, for he had heard him, too.
And so we sat and waited for that bull to come, and again we stood up, and pell-mell into my mind came recollections of all other trips. I have sat in a canoe in darkness and heard two bulls that I had called in a scant half hour challenge one another across the lake; by moonlight on many a heath I have lain and wagered on the movements of the clouds as six bulls "spoke" within the space of a minute; I have crouched on knolls as dead limbs snapped; swung lights from a canoe into which they attempted to jump; but never as I have done all these things have my nerves tingled as, with a grunt for every stride, that bull answered my summons in the scurrying twilight of that October night.
Nor did he pause till within fifty yards of the pond, and the hopes that had scourged now became regular. I was tempted to ask the Son to coax him, but put the thought from me and, gripping my horn very tight, bent forward. I felt of course that I would choke to death, but I didn't, and, wonder of wonders, the bull answered. I heard antlers "clang," for the first time, in the deep tone of fairy tales. I literally quivered with joy and grinned foolishly. Just then the Son pinched my arm. "Come on, we'll fool that lad yet."
We crept straight for that bull's position. It was the final move of cunning against instinct, and not fifty yards lay between him and us. He planned to come out in the shadow; we planned to come out there, too, but with the bull between the skyline and us. Had a stick snapped, or a leaf fluttered, the game was up, and we were lost.
Never, as the moments ticked off, had I relished as I did now my eight seasons of schooling. I reveled in that right of mankind since creation to be skilled in hunting, as was the father of Nimrods. About the calling there was absolutely nothing unfair and the rapidly cooling air seemed to scintillate with the uncertainty, that marvelous expectancy which the true moose caller understands. I'd had the power, with that mere bark, to summon from afar this most magnificent of animals; yet I by no means had him, for he was a wary monarch, who inch by inch advanced his huge form and massive antlers ever nearer and nearer that pond. Once, I remember, I looked through my receiver sight at the skyline and threw in the large opening. In another moment it seemed that something inside me would burst. Then I looked out toward the pond. A moose was standing there, and at first I thought it was a spike-horn —which I knew could not be true, for I had heard the antlers myself. He had brought a cow with him.
"Hist, keep quiet," grunted the Son, "he's not a hundred feet from us."
I knew he was, and nodded. Then again I looked along that sight and decided to shoot over the bead. Just the tiniest stick in the wood cracked, and the Son ventured, "He's got a hell of a head," and I wondered what a "hell of a head" could be, after some of those we had seen then I stepped alongside the Son.
Afterwards the Son said, "Them horns looked bigger than a lean-to in the night," but at that moment I looked right into the very face of a bull moose, not twenty paces away. He was, just as I had hoped, silhouetted against the skyline, and his great head was of the greatness of the giants of fairy tales, and he was looking at me, and that turned the head a little. Then I raised the rifle—the lever action this time—and held it against the skyline and dropped it low and looked over the rear sight and said, "One, two, three," and pulled.
I remember—only that we jumped around two small trees; that in the brief interval the bull had turned, and one hind leg was mired to the hock and bent; that his antlers were larger than ever. And I stood there, closer than I had ever been before to a wounded animal (with one exception), and the air seemed full of flying hair, and the moose tottered, and the Son jumped on the bull's back and, with a tine in either hand and the moose still alive, shouted, "He's sixty for sure; look at them brow-plates."
And after that nothing much mattered. I have a faint recollection of counting the points—there were thirty-two and thirteen on the brows—of almost squealing my delight as I dug the mud out of the brow-plates. Somehow we managed to get back to camp, and it was quite dark when we did get there, with no light to greet us. Somehow, too, we cooked supper, but mostly we danced with hands on one another's shoulders—to cook —to stop and dance again. Then, as the Son carried the steaming meal indoors, I looked in the direction of the pond. "Never," had the Son said, "had such a head gone down the Bathurst River, or any other river," and I wanted to believe it. But I wanted to believe still another thing, and I pondered as to what the members of the "Moose Hunters" would have said if they could that night have gathered with us. Somewhere amid the dim distance of the Milky Way one of them 011 the Long Trail might be explaining to old Sebatis and he might approve.
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