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AFTER apple harvest came the late fall ploughing, although the ground had already begun to freeze nights. It was at about this time that the Old Squire became much interested in a new farming project. For a number of evenings he figured away steadily at it but said little. Gram, however, grew uneasy and evidently had misgivings; she was very apprehensive as to the Old Squire's ambitious new departures in business.
This time the new departure was hop-raising. A sudden demand for hops had risen throughout the country. Many of our older readers will remember it. Eighty cents, and even a dollar, a pound was paid for hops. Fortunes bade fair to come from the new crop, and the Old Squire — along with many other Maine farmers — had resolved to embark in it, and to put in six acres the following spring.
It was then that the question of hop-poles arose. Not far from two thousand poles to the acre are required. Cedar is best for this purpose, and the poles need to be about fifteen feet in length.
But twelve thousand hop-poles of the right size are not everywhere procurable. Up in the Great Woods, however, five miles from the old farm, in a swamp bordering Sheepskin Pond, there was just what was wanted in the way of cedar; and early in November that fall, after the swamp had frozen, all hands went up there to get out those hop-poles. A little log camp was rolled up near the pond shore, a "bean-hole" dug, a "pudding-oven" built, and best of all, Theodora and Ellen went along with us, to cook our meals and make things cheery.
As fast as we cut the poles we brought them together, so as to have them handy to haul home after snow came; and as days passed, long piles of poles, seven or eight feet high, were stacked up round the camp. What appetites we had there, too, in that crisp, cold air, and how good it seemed to come into camp at night, when the bean-hole was uncovered and the pudding-oven was opened! There were deer about the swamp, and we boys wished very much to hunt them and have some venison; but one cannot cut a hundred hop-poles a day and hunt, too.
Beautiful, clear Indian-summer weather prevailed for four days, but on the fifth day there came a change. A thin white haze gathered high in the sky, and a halo formed about the sun.
The Old Squire, who had been counting up the piles of poles, cast his weather-eye round.
"There's a snow-storm coming soon," he said. "We shall have to go down home to-night. We must get in the young cattle, drive the sheep down to the barns, and make things snug for winter."
"Shall we go, too?" Ellen asked.
"You wouldn't want to stay up here alone overnight, would you?" the old gentleman asked her. "There is no real danger, if you would not be lonesome," he added.
"I'll stay if Doad will!" Ellen exclaimed.
Theodora seemed a little reluctant, but it was such a long, hard tramp home through the woods that she concluded it was better for them to remain. "But you will surely be back to-morrow forenoon," she said, a little anxiously.
Aside from the lonesomeness, however, none of us thought there was any danger. Wolves and panthers had even then wholly disappeared from the Maine forests; and as for bears, the most of them were already in their winter dens. It seemed better for the girls to stay and keep camp than to tramp home and back. Addison rigged a bar for the camp door; there was a candlestick and candles. Halstead and I brought in several big armfuls of dry wood, and we bade them good night and left them.
We went home, and till long after dark were busy at the barns by lantern-light. Winter was evidently at hand, and there was much to do. The sky had become completely overcast, and that chill, dead, stony silence was in the air which presages a snowfall in Maine.
In the meantime, at the camp up in the woods, the evening was proving an eventful one. By four o'clock it had grown dusk. The girls fastened their door, then lighted a candle and prepared their supper.
From the first both felt rather lonely. Now and then either Ellen or Theodora would go to the door to peep out and listen. Not a breath of air stirred the cedars. It was one of those utterly silent nights in November, so still that even the faint tinkling of the new ice, forming along the pond shore, came to their ears.
Then, suddenly, loud, uncouth bellowings arose at a distance in the swamp.
"Now what can that be?" Ellen exclaimed. "It sounds like a cow, only wilder."
They heard it several times; and a little later they heard some large animal or animals coming along the pond shore.
Ten or fifteen minutes passed, when from the other side of the swamp a prodigious crashing of the undergrowth began, accompanied by short, fierce snorts. These drew an immediate response from directly across the pond, and were followed a moment later by loud splashings, which seemed to come nearer every moment.
"It must be moose," Theodora said.
What followed was sufficiently alarming to startle even an experienced woodsman. The moose that was swimming across the arm of the pond opposite the camp floundered ashore with a hoarse snort, and at almost the same instant the one the girls had first heard came rushing through the swamp from the other side.
With a clash of their antlers, the two forest giants met among the thick cedars. To the alarmed girls it seemed as if the animals were beating down the whole swamp, and might at any moment overrun the little camp. Round and about they circled, and went crashing up and down the pond shore. After a few moments, however, one appeared to have worsted the other, and either pushed or pursued him to a distance, the defeated one turning at bay here and there, when again the clash of antlers would be heard.
Yet even above the din of conflict the girls heard plaintive bleating notes, and at last dimly discerned two or three shadowy forms huddled among the piles of cedar poles close to the camp. Moose appeared to be all round them.
There was quiet for a time. Then the battle was suddenly renewed, the combatants coming headlong among the piles of poles, bounding over them, scattering poles as if they had been jack-straws. Down crashed pile after pile, some of the poles flying against the camp, and even lodging on the roof.
The rush soon passed, however, the fighters going off as suddenly as they had approached. But distressed outcries were now heard close at hand.
"Some of them got hurt, I guess," Ellen whispered; but neither she nor Theodora dared to open the door.
The notes of distress continued, and the fight now having passed to a distance, Theodora unfastened the door and peered forth. Hop-poles lay aslant and crisscross in every direction. The girls went out with a candle, and saw a small black and gray animal half-buried by the poles of a pile which had fallen on it.
For some time they were too much alarmed to attempt anything for the relief of the animal; but at last, while Theodora held the candle, Ellen attempted to pull away the poles.
It was a moose calf.
Even after the poles were pulled away, the little creature was unable to get up. One of its long gray fore legs was broken. Whenever they approached, it bleated frantically; and fearful lest the cow moose might return, the girls retired into the camp.
They were not disturbed further, and that was the condition of affairs there in the cedar swamp when we returned the next morning. The sky was darkly overcast. It had snowed a little. Addison and I were ahead of the others; and when we came in sight of the camp, we did not know what to think. On all sides the great piles of hop-poles were knocked down. Poles lay every which way. The camp seemed half buried by them; and never shall I forget the sense of horror that fell on me as we approached — for through the thin film of snow I caught sight of faint bloodstains where the moose had fought and gored each other.
Addison, too, had stopped short and stood staring around. He was quite white. "Something awful has happened!" he whispered. Then, throwing aside the poles, we made a rush to the camp door — only to find the girls smiling and all right inside.
Breathlessly they related what had happened. We then examined the moose calf, still lying there helpless. The others now came up; and the Old Squire thought it would be more merciful to put the disabled creature out of its misery at once. Addison, however, wished to set its leg with splints, as is sometimes done in the case of lambs and little colts with broken legs. After a fashion this was accomplished, and we afterward put the little moose in a sling, so that its feet would not touch the ground. In this position it was fed and watered. It would eat apples; merely the odor of an apple would set it wagging its stubby tail.
A week later, when we had finished cutting poles there, we hauled the moose calf home on a horse-sled, and slung it up again for a month or more in a stall at the west barn. Gradually its leg knit, but our splint had become displaced several times; and altogether, our rude surgery proved rather a bad job. That left fore leg projected stiffly outward, so that when the animal finally began to walk, it had so odd a gait that the Old Squire nicknamed it Sprangle-Legs.
A moose calf is a tall, odd-shaped creature, not easy to describe. I only wish I had a photograph of Sprangle-Legs, but we did not have many cameras in those days. His legs were much longer than those of a young colt's, and his body looked disproportionately short. His nose and muzzle were relatively huge; his ears, too, were very large, and black on the outside, but shaded to a pearly soft gray within. This gave him an odd, wild look when he raised them or turned them sidewise. Those ears, indeed, seemed to be constantly in motion. Down to his knees his legs were faced in black, but below the knee were a bright drab, as were also the entire under parts of his body.
While in the sling the girls had made a pet of him, feeding him with apples, and also carrots, of which he was very fond. Whenever they entered the barn, Sprangle-Legs would give forth a peculiar throaty "bla-art," and come sprangling to meet them. One might suppose, perhaps, that a fawn, or a moose calf, being of a wild species, would display shyness and be inclined to escape from captivity. But this is not so. Young deer or moose soon become as tame as cosset lambs.
Sprangle-Legs had absolutely no fear of human beings. Unless the gates and doors were carefully shut, he would follow the girls tumultuously back to the house and come rushing into the kitchen, much to Gram's disgust. We kept him in a pen with four little colts, but he formed a habit — his legs were so long — of stepping over bars.
In the spring we turned him out to pasture with the four colts.
Addison thought that he would probably take to the woods as the season advanced, but he did nothing of the sort. He liked domesticated life — particularly apples, carrots and potatoes. He was greedy for salt, too, and for oats, crusts of bread, or anything else from the kitchen. Several times that summer he got out of the pasture and came sprangling to the house; and toward the end of the season we were obliged to put a "yoke" on him — not to prevent him from escaping to the forest, but to keep him away from the house!
With the first snows he came down to the barn again with the colts. As nearly as we could guess, he was now about sixteen months old, and had a spike antler coming out, five inches long. His head was now carried full six feet high. Whenever he got loose at the barn, he made a rush for the kitchen, and he now pretty nearly filled the kitchen door. Gram did not hesitate to put him to flight with the fire poker; but even that did not prevent him from coming directly back if he smelled an apple.
Moose have the sense of smell very acutely developed. Sprangle-Legs would track any of us as readily as a dog. Time and again he got loose and followed us when we were going to the post-office or to mill. He would run till he overtook us, but I always thought he followed rather from scent than sight; his eyesight was far from keen.
While the winter school was keeping, he broke out one forenoon and came to the schoolhouse. We heard a clatter in the entry outside, and Master Pierson, thinking that some one had come and knocked, opened the outer door. Instantly, before the astonished master could stop him, in came Sprangle-Legs with that raucous bla-art of his. I imagine he knew we were there, or else smelled the apples in our lunch-baskets.
To say there were high times inside that schoolhouse for the next five or ten minutes would be to state it mildly. At last Addison and Ellen and I pushed and pulled him out, toled him home with apples and shut him up again.
About a month after that, Uncle Lucas and Aunt Barbara Bushnell came up from Portland to visit us, as they usually did in maple-syrup time. They came on the afternoon train, and did not arrive at the farm till evening.
At breakfast the next morning Addison, who had finished a little ahead of the rest and was in a hurry, went out and left the kitchen door ajar. A few moments later, quite without warning, in rushed Sprangle-Legs. Uncle Lucas and Aunt Barbara had never seen him before, nor heard of him. Beyond doubt they were much startled.
Uncle Lucas was a nervous man. He jumped up from table, nearly upsetting it. "Stars and mercies!" he exclaimed. What sort of beasts do you keep, Joseph?"
The Old Squire laughed, and Ellen and I made haste to expel the intruder; but Gram was vexed; her patience was nearly exhausted. In truth, Sprangle-Legs was getting rather too large and boisterous for a house pet. He was of no earthly use, and a great bother, yet we had grown much attached to him. Although an awkward, uncouth Creature, his black, brown and gray markings, big, clear eyes and large, soft ears rendered him rather attractive than otherwise. Besides, he was really very fond of us.
But a few weeks later, in May, another of his escapades led to our finally getting rid of him.
The celebration of Memorial Day, as it is at present observed, had not yet begun in Maine, but addresses in remembrance of the dead soldiers were given in many places. On the last Sunday in May, that spring, Mr. James Stone, formerly a chaplain in one of the Maine regiments, delivered a commemorative oration at the old meeting-house two miles from the farm. We all went, except Halstead, who was in one of his moods of discontent that week. Wagon-loads of apple blossoms, lilacs, wild cherry and pear plum were drawn to the church early in the morning, and the cheerless old interior was converted into a bower of springtide bloom.
There was a large audience for that place. Memories of the dead were still fresh and poignant.
Toward the close of the address there was a most unseemly interruption. The day was warm; the doors stood open; and on a sudden a loud clatter at the entrance caused all to turn.
It was Sprangle-Legs! Addison and I always suspected that Halstead had turned him loose. He dashed in, head aloft, stood still a moment, then, with one of his awful bla-arts, came sprangling down the aisle to the Old Squire's pew, and put his head in. It seemed to me that he banged against every pew door on the way.
Everybody jumped up. The orator paused in astonishment. Confusion and laughter rapidly succeeded to pathos and tears. Poor Gram turned pink from mortification.
We did the best we could and acted as promptly as possible. Addison seized our obstreperous pet about the neck, and the Old Squire and I helped push and pull him out of the meeting-house as expeditiously as could be done.
The old gentleman then hastened back indoors to apologize and smooth the matter over, while Addison and I got a nose halter from the wagon and set ourselves to lead Sprangle-Legs home.
We were an hour or more on the way, and the Old Squire, with Gram and the girls, arrived almost as soon as we did. Gram had not spoken at all, and the girls looked overawed at the extent of the scandal which had befallen.
It was now pretty plain that some disposition would have to be made of Sprangle-Legs. Addison advised advertising him for sale in the Portland papers. This was done, but not much came of it at first; yet in the end it led to our swapping Sprangle-Legs for a light wagon, with the keeper of a livery-stable, who had recently bought another young moose, and wished to make up a span to sell to a certain celebrated showman.
The subsequent history of our old farm pet was eventful. When he was two years old his erratic leg was successfully straightened by another surgical operation, and later he became one of a pair of "trotting moose" that travelled extensively with a circus. But this is ahead of my story.