CRAFTSMEN IN FUR.
AMONG books which always remain with everybody, "The Last of the Mohicans " takes a foremost place. Who has forgotten Uncas, or Magna le subtil, or the stately and sententious Chingachgook, or above all, Hawkeye, most real of American
creations of fancy, and real in so many aspects, as the Pathfinder, as Leatherstockings, as La Longue Carabine ? Who has not Killdeer in an imaginary gun-rack, and, hanging on a peg in the store-house of memory, the blanket which the Delaware chief threw back, that he might display the tortoise on his breast to his ancient tribe ? Who has not seen, in air-drawn pictures, the cavern, with the sassafras screen, behind which the " Palefaces" lurked, while the deadly fight raged between the Mohicans and the Mingoes, who had " dared to set the print of their mocassins in the woods " that once owned the sway of the Delaware tribe ; the grave of Cora, beneath the young pines ; the dead Sagamore, attired in the full-dress of his tribe and rank, with the children of the Lenape listening for the lament from the stern old warrior, whose lips remain silent, as he looks his last on Uncas ? Do we altogether disbelieve in them, because a hundred writers have " belittled " the American Indians, and because modern followers of Fenimore Cooper in the frontier lands and on the path of the setting sun are merely animated by a spirit of butchery, and their records are usually lists of slaughter, whether of Indians, or of the animals that are being "thinned out" like them? No more than we altogether disbelieve in Man Friday, or accept special corre- spondents' accounts of Bagdad, in exchange for our own old notions of the glorified city where the hunchback lived who made that wonderful rally, after prolonged suffocation by a fishbone, which had such surprising results.
It is pleasant to know that the wonders of the forests, the plains, and the rivers are true to the pictures which Cooper gave us of them. The pioneers of civilisation, as they are called, who begin, it must be admitted, with a good deal of extermination, do
not fall in with noble human beings like the Scout ; the hunters are as likely to meet the goddess Diana herself upon the hunting- grounds as "the Bounding Deer" of that beautiful story, him
whose " feet were like the wings of eagles, his arm heavier than falling branches from the pine, and his voice like the Manito when he speaks in the clouds ;" but the frontiermen may learn lessons in the hunter's craft from Hawkeye, and behold scenes like that on which Duncan Heyward looks down during Hawkeye's momentary absence, when they are following the trail of the Hurons and their fair prisoners :—
" The trees of many acres had been felled, and tho glow of a mild summer evening had fallen on the clearing, in beautiful contrast to the grey light of the forest. A short distance from the place whore Duncan stood, the stream had seemingly expanded into a little lake, covering most of the low land from mountain to mountain. The water foil ont of this wide basin in a cataract so regular and gentle that it appeared rather to be the work of human hands than fashioned by nature. A hundred earthen dwellings stood on the margin of the lake, and oven in its waters, as though the latter had overflowed its usual banks. Their rounded roofs, admirably moulded for defence against the weather, denoted more of industry and free-thought than the natives were wont to bestow on their regular habitations, much less on those they occupied for the temporary purposes of hunting and war The village appeared to be deserted, at least so Duncan thought for many minutes ; but at length ho fancied ho discovered several human forms advancing towards him on all-fours, and apparently dragging in their train some heavy and formidable engine. Just then a few dark-looking heads gleamed out of the dwellings, and the place Boomed suddenly alive with beings, which, however, glided from cover to cover so swiftly as to allow no opportunity of examining their humours or pursuits."
How perfect the illusion is, as we gaze with Heyward, only beginning to suspect that the neatly-kept camp is no Indian village, when the voiceless laughter of the Scout quickens our per- ception. Then, as William Howitt says,- " We know they are but Beavers small, Dwelling at peace in their own mud walL" In the " frontier "-country — which sounds vague and rust enough for the old times—is Wet-Mountain Valley, a dip- trict enclosed by interlocking peaks which belong to VA
Rocky Mountains, wherein marvellous timber grows, and mountain whirlwinds rush which uproot the trees, and leave them to the busy burial of vines and brambles and every kind of luxuriant growth, so that there are great stretches of dense jungle, secure lairs for the bear, the puma, and
the grey mountain wolf, the fiercest savage of his kind. The
streams that water the valley come from the inaccessible summits
that shut it in, are fed by the everlasting snow, and in their turn feed the main river, broad, tortuous, and troubled, that cuts its way through the eastern boundary range by a deep oaten, and debouches by a cleft in the rocks, called " The Gate of the Plains," into a vast open valley, which leads to the "great American prairie." The banks of these streams are the still comparatively unmolested homes of the wonderful North-American beaver, of tribes of the strange creature who may be seen at his miniature industry in the Zoological Gardens, handling his invalu- able tail with incomparable skill, and presenting an absurd likeness to Cruikshank's Methodist parsons in the aspect of his damp and shiny bullet-head. Perhaps of all the captive creatures there, the beaver finds it hardest to reconcile himself to circum- stances, for his kind has a special and well founded abhorrence of man, so deep-rooted and so intelligent that the trapping of beaver, as a frontierman of great experience tells us, is a game of skill of the nicest description, and the faintest sus- picion of " human taint" upon the "beaver medicine" (its in- gredients are a secret) will disconcert the most careful arrange- ments, so that the trapper may as well move on at once .to a distant clime, for not only will he take no fur in the waters which the taint has touched, but the " office" will be given down stream. Mr. Campion was instructed in the art of beaver- trapping by the famous Captain John Connor, who is, notwith- standing his name, thoroughbred, and head chief of the Delaware Indians—the tribe of Chingachgook and Uncas—and he holds that as a sport it compares with every other field-sport, as chess does with most indoor games, combining the maximum of skill with the minimum of chance, for it is " a con- test between acquired skill, knowledge, unremitting care and attention, and the natural instinct—if we may not call it reason —of the most sagacious, acute, and wary of all the brute creation."
The wariness of the object of their pursuit is a characteristic of the trappers also ; only after cautious observation has con- vinced them that the stranger is really one of the craft will they discuss its mysteries and requirements. Among the latter, am- phibiousness, or at least insensibility to every human ailment likely to be produced by wet and cold, seems to hold an important place. It is pleasanter to think of the wise and industrious creatures in the great solitudes, where no trapper has yet found them, if any such there be (and we believe there are, in the Alaska Territory, where the cold beats even the cupidity of the fur-bunter and the cruelty of the sportsman), where the deep waters and the impenetrable jungle on the river banks are all their own ; where unmolested they dam up their pools and build their houses, with winter bath-rooms, dwelling and store-rooms, and apartments appropriated to interesting events (which are frequent), without any risk of the head of the family coming home minus a hind or forepaw, left in a trap, according to the construction of the horrible instru- ment. Mr. Campion says the beaver is the only animal he is acquainted with who will amputate his own leg in order to escape from a trap ; but other frontiermen tell us that the wolverine exhibits similar sagacity and courage, when he gets into trouble. David Gamut was not annoyed by the sugges- tion of Hawkeye that the sweet singer had meditated teaching the canning beavers to sing to the praise and glory of God, but gravely opined that such intelligent creatures would be glad to thank their Creator, if they did but know how, for His gifts of skill and senses of scent and hearing so far beyond the human, even in a land where those senses are trained to their highest capacity, by constant need and ever present danger. We are reminded of David Gamut's notion, as we read of the beaver of Wet-Mountain Valley, of their spacious houses, with every convenience except air in them—how do the creatures live without it ?—which are entered by a round hole in the river bank a foot under water, with a vestibule varying from four to ten feet, leading to a circular basin four feet deep and of the same width, with a vaulted roof a foot above the level at which the water stands. " This," Mr. Campion tells us, "is the winter bath-room, its depth below the surface of the ground (the bank of the river being any number of feet high) and its distance back ensuring that the water in it will remain unfrozen." Surely the first man who violated the sanctity of a beaver's domicile by demolishing it from the top must have had some compunction, as well as much astonishment, awakened by the spectacle of the radiating passages and the admirably kept rooms in which the little family dwelt ! Surely he must have marvelled exceedingly at the stores of osier twigs, of the inner bark of cotton-wood trees, swamp maples, alders, and willows, cleanly cut, and neatly packed in the moist receptacle, where no frost could get at them, and the family food would remain fresh and tender until spring ! Mr. Campion tells us that the beaver is " a good theoretical and practical engineer, who cuts down trees larger in proportion to his size than the greatest forest mammoths are to us, choosing them with great judgment, felling them to the exact spot required ; building dams capable of resisting mountain torrents, constructing dwellings showing some knowledge of hydrostatics, and not doing all these things invariably and always alike, as if instinctively only, but changing and adapting his ways and modes of proceeding according to the circumstances of each particular case." He is also a keen observer of his most suspected enemy, for an elaborately contrived scare- crow, made to imitate a man, and placed, club in hand, astride a ditch made by a party of diggers for mining purposes, and which took the water from a pool belonging to some beavers, so that it was lowered a few inches, failed to deter them from effectually damming the ditch. They simply pulled the dummy down, took his club from him, cut off his stone feet, floated him down the ditch to a spot where there was a short flume, stuffed him into it, middle first, tucked his head and legs into the corners, and plastered all the crevices up neatly with river-mud. Thus did the beavers " outsmart" the men, the beavers no doubt having a Havelock or a Wolseley for their leader, in that favoured portion of the wilderness. Mr. Campion has watched them making their wonderful dams—getting well out of scent, or they would have disappeared in an instant—and amazing as the whole process is, has been most puzzled to conceive how they can estimate the height of a standing tree, since they cannot climb, and the absence of stumps in the scene of their operations shows that they never cut down one which is too short to reach from bank to bank of the stream they mean to dam. Authority worthy of respect has said that the beaver does not use his tail as a trowel, but Mr. Campion opposes this statement with the testimony of his sight. "Many times," he says, "I have seen the unmistakable print of the beaver's tail on his mud-mortar." The construction of these wonderful dams varies in excellence ; there are beavers who scamp their work. Are there contract houses among them, and is their " lath and plasture " ever, like that of Miss Miggs's garret, warranted "not to bear, but the contrairy ?"
These clever, diligent, provident creatures are among the inno- cent and happy races of the animal world. The fierce beasts in the jungle on the river-banks may prowl over their hidden homes, but cannot harm them, and they harm no living thing. Their intense pleasure in the mysterious perfume which forms an in- gredient of the " beaver medicine " seems to be one of the cunning cruelties of Nature, like the attraction of the winged-insect tribes to the deadly flame. They are merry, too ; their system is not that of all work and no play (which seems to be a defect of the ant tribes, unless, indeed, it be applied exclusively to the servile races), and the human watcher, from a distance which renders the " taint " impossible, may see them, when the moonlight silvers the wastes and the waters, climbing out in groups upon the banks, chasing each other playfully, with funny antics, plunging, dipping, and splashing with their broad, flat tails ; laughing and talking, too, no doubt, after a fashion of their own, and knowing nothing of that which decrees that beaver bonnets shall " come in" again and sealskin jackets be trimmed with sleek, fine, beaver fur.