These are short stories put up each Friday that you can read for free. By the next Friday the post will be taken down and a new one will go up. Enjoy!
The beaver of the Upper Missouri and its Rocky Mountain tributaries was truly a sight to behold. Colter never would forget the first few he’d seen when they’d been heading up into the wilds, nor the amazing structures they built up on the sides of rivers, and often over large parts as well. The critters were like a rat, though larger and with different tails. The tails were a tool more than anything, used for paddling, steering like a rudder, and slapping and patting down mud for their dams. It was used to warn as well, and many times the men of the expedition had been thwarted in their attempts to catch the animals because of a well-sounded warning.
The hind legs of the beast were webbed, the better to swim with, while the front paws were clawed and perfect for clutching sticks. Usually the animals would clutch them to their chests while paddling furiously with their back legs to move through the water. Sometimes when the going was tough they’d tuck the bundle under their chins and put all four legs to work.
The creatures were perfect at gnawing on wood, and that was because of their teeth. They only had enamel on the outside, something that allowed the edges to achieve razor sharpness. And the jaws were even more powerful than the traps used to catch them. Thank goodness, Colter thought, the animals only cowered in fear when cornered and didn’t put up any fight – one bite and a hand could well be crushed for good.
Their dams truly were a marvel of engineering, and one Colter would truly never fully understand. That didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate them, however, and he’d done so, hours at a time sometimes, when the creatures went about their task. The fact that they typically built their dams in the dark, after the sun had gone down and even in the wee hours of the morning, often without any moonlight, was also something to behold…when you could see it. The creatures didn’t take too well to torches, and the slightest hint of a flame would send them underwater mighty quick.
As near enough as he could tell, the beaver built the dams first by erecting a system of poles, each one anchored to the bottom of the river, stuck into the mud as far as possible. That’s what Colter supposed, for he had no way of knowing and certainly wasn’t going to dive down to check. From there he suspected that branches were taken down and anchored to those poles, slowly at first but then in greater number as a latticework of twigs, sticks and river debris was built up. The weave had to be tight, for there could be no seepage of water. Clumps of grass took care of that, and when they in turn were covered over with clumps of mud the little critters had quite the watertight design.
It was clear the things were smart, too, and changed their designs based on conditions. For instance, Colter had seen straight dams built across calm streams, but curved dams across those that had a swifter current or rapids to contend with. Some of the dams had even been hundreds of feet in length, the work of a generation, perhaps a few. And there were even dams more ancient than that, with their bottoms now petrified into almost solid stone by the looks of it, the true work of decades or even centuries. And the effect on the surrounding land was clear. Canals sprouted out from the larger dams, with waterways crisscrossing and bisecting a whole range of wetlands, wetlands that wouldn’t exist without the industrious creatures.
By the time winter came the animals were set. The vast canal network branching out from the larger dams filled a section of woods and enabled the beaver to move to and fro easily, gathering the bark they needed to make it through the winter. The precious food would be ferried back to the dam and placed underwater around it, something that made it easily accessible when the rivers froze over. After all, each dam had a hidden passage that led far away from it, and which afforded the protection from the elements the animals needed.
The beaver’s work didn’t end when the freeze set in, however. On the contrary, the dams had to be maintained, the burrows and canals had to be excavated of debris, trees needed to be gnawed to the right size, food stores had to be gathered, and extra sticks for repairs had to be collected. It was a lot of work, and Colter had seen it all, hours of it in fact, during the expedition. Forest and Joe hadn’t though, and he frequently caught the pair eyeing the larger dams, looks of amazement on their faces.
They’d trapped extensively further down the Missouri, but that stretch was a lot different than this primitive and wild land they were entering. Here it was a land right out of time, a place untouched by man, or at least the kind of man that always had money in his eye.
The beaver saw those dollar signs as well, and viewed them with trepidation and later fear. The creatures slapped their large tails down on the water whenever there was a sign of trouble. Colter often wondered if some mental message was sent as well, to those of its kin further upriver, a warning of sorts on what was to come.
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