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The Settlers in Canada
Chapter XXXIII Tapping the Maple Trees

It was now April, and for some days Malachi and John had been very busy, assisted by the Strawberry; for the time had come for tapping the maple-trees, to make the maple-sugar, and Mrs Campbell had expressed a wish that she could be so supplied with an article of such general consumption, and which they could not obtain but by thebateaux which went to Montreal. In the evening, when Malachi and John were, as usual, employed in cutting small trays out of the soft wood of the balsam-fir, and of which they had already prepared a large quantity, Mrs Campbell asked Malachi how the sugar was procured.

“Very easily, ma’am; we tap the trees.”

“Yes, so you said before; but how do you do it? Explain the whole affair to me.”

“Why, ma’am, we pick out the maple-trees which are about a foot wide at the bottom of the trunk, as they yield most sugar. We then bore a hole in the trunk of the tree, about two feet above the ground, and into that hole we put a hollow reed, just the same as you would put a spigot in a cask. The liquor runs out into one of these trays that we have been digging out.”

“Well, and then what do you do?”

“We collect all the liquor every morning till we have enough to fill the coppers, and then we boil it down.”

“What coppers will you use, then?”

“There are two large coppers in the store-room, not yet put up, which will answer our purpose very well, ma’am. They hold about a hogshead each. We shall take them into the woods with us, and pour the liquor into them, and boil them down as soon as they are ready. You must come and see us on the boiling-day, and we can have a frolic in the woods.”

“With all my heart,” replied Mrs Campbell. “How much liquor do you get from one tree?”

“A matter of two or three gallons,” replied Malachi; “sometimes more and sometimes less. After we have tapped the trees and set our trays, we shall have nothing more to do for a fortnight. The Strawberry can attend to them all, and will let us know when she is ready.”

“Do you tap the trees every year?”

“Yes, ma’am, and a good tree will bear it for fifteen or twenty years; but it kills them at last.”

“So I should suppose, for you take away so much of the sap of the tree.”

“Exactly, ma’am; but there’s no want of sugar-maples in these woods.”

“You promised us some honey, Malachi,” said Emma, “but we have not seen it yet. Can you get us some?”

“We had no time to get it last autumn, miss, but we will try this autumn what we can do. When John and I are out in the woods, we shall very probably find a honey-tree, without going very far. I did intend to have looked out for some, if you had not mentioned it.”

“I know one,” said Martin; “I marked it a fortnight ago, but I quite forgot all about it. Since the mill has been in hand, I have had little time for anything else. The fact is, we have all plenty to do just now.”

“That we certainly have,” replied Henry, laughing; “I wish I could see the end of my work in the barn; I doubt if I shall be able to get out with my rifle this winter.”

“No, sir, you must leave the woods to John and me,” replied Malachi. “Never mind, you shan’t want for venison. Do you require the sledge to-morrow, Mr Alfred?”

Malachi referred to a small sledge which they had made in the winter, and which was now very useful, as they could, with one horse, transport things from place to place. It was used by Alfred for bringing down to the store-house the sacks of flour as fast as they were ground in the mill.

“I can do without it for a day. What do you want it for?”

“To bring all the honey home,” said Emma, laughing.

“No, miss, to take the coppers out into the woods,” replied Malachi, “that they may be ready for the liquor. As soon as we have tapped the trees we will look for the honey.”

“Did you send your skins down to Montreal by the bateaux?” inquired Mr Campbell.

“Yes, father,” replied Alfred; “Mr Emmerson took charge of them, and promised to deliver them to the agent; but we have not so many this year as we had last. John has the largest package of all of us.”

“Yes, he beats me this year,” said Malachi; “he always contrives to get the first shot. I knew that I should make a hunter of the boy. He might go out by himself now, and do just as well as I do.”

The next morning Malachi went out into the woods, taking with him the coppers and all the trays on the sledge; during that day he was busy boring the trees and fitting the reed-pipes to the holes. Strawberry and John accompanied him, and by sunset their work was complete.

The next morning, when they went out, only Malachi and John took their axes with them, for John could use his very well for so young a lad. They first went to the tree which Martin had discovered; he had given a description where to find it. They cut it down, but did not attempt to take the honey till the night, when they lighted a fire, and drove away the bees by throwing leaves on it, and making a great smoke; they then opened the tree, and gained about two pails full of honey, which they brought in just as the family were about to go to bed. When they went out the next morning they found a bear very busy at the remains of the comb, but the animal made off before they could get a shot at him.

Every morning the Strawberry collected all the sap which had run out of the trees, and poured it into the coppers which had been fixed up by Malachi, ready for a fire to be lighted under them. They continued their search and found three more hives of bees, which they marked and allowed to remain till later in the season, when they could take them at their leisure. In a fortnight they had collected sufficient liquor from the trees to fill both the coppers to the brim, besides several pails. The fires were therefore lighted under the coppers, and due notice given to Mrs Campbell and the girls that the next day they must go out into the woods and see the operation, as the liquor would, towards the afternoon, be turned into the coolers, which were some of the large washing-tubs then in use, and which had been thoroughly cleansed for the purpose.

As this was to be a holiday in the woods, they prepared a cold dinner in a large basket, and gave it in charge of Henry. Mr Campbell joined the party, and they all set off to the spot, which was about two miles distant. On their arrival, they examined the trees and the trays into which the juice first ran, the boilers in which the liquor was now simmering over the fire, and asked questions of Malachi, so that they might, if necessary, be able to make the sugar themselves; after which the first cooler was filled with the boiling liquor, that they might see how the sugar crystallised as the liquor became cold. They then sat down under a large tree and dined. The tree was at some distance from the boilers, as there was no shade in the open spot where Malachi had placed them, and the afternoon was passed very agreeably in listening to Malachi’s and Martin’s stories of their adventures in the woods. While  they were still at dinner, Oscar and the other dogs which had accompanied them, had strayed to about a hundred yards distant, and were soon very busy scraping and barking at a large hole.

“What are the dogs after?” said Alfred.

“Just what the Strawberry wants, and told me to get for her,” replied Malachi; “we will dig him out to-morrow.”

“What is it, Strawberry?” said Mary.

The Strawberry pointed to her mocassins, and then put her finger on the porcupine-quills with which they were embroidered.

“I don’t know the English name,” said she, softly.

“A porcupine you mean,” said Mary; “the animal those quills come from.”

“Yes,” replied the Strawberry.

“Is there a porcupine there, Malachi?” said Mrs Campbell.

“Yes, ma’am, that is certain; the dogs know that well enough, or they would not make such a noise. If you like, we will go for the shovels and dig him out.”

“Do, pray; I should like to see him caught,” said Emma; “it shall be our evening’s amusement.”

Martin got up, and went for the shovels; during his absence, the dinner was cleared away, and the articles replaced in the basket; they then all adjourned to where the dogs were still barking and scratching.

It was more than an hour before they could dig out the animal, and when, at last, it burst away from the hole, they could not help laughing as they witnessed the way in which one or two of the dogs were pricked with the quills of the animal, who needed no other defence; the dogs ran back, pawed their noses, and then went on again. Oscar was too knowing to attack it in that way; he attempted to turn it over, so that he might get at its stomach, when he would soon have killed it, but Martin dispatched the poor beast with a blow on the nose, and the dogs then rushed in upon it. They amused themselves selecting all the best of the quills for the Strawberry, and then they went back again to the coolers, to see the sugar which had been made.

As they neared the spot, Emma cried out, “There is a bear at the cooler; look at him.”

Malachi and John had their rifles ready immediately. Mrs Campbell and Mary were much alarmed, as the animal was not one hundred yards from them.

“Do not be afraid, ma’am,” said Malachi; “the animal is only after the sugar. He likes sugar just as well as honey.”

“I don’t doubt but he’s the same beast that you saw at the honeycomb the other day,” said Martin. “Let us stay where we are, and watch him. We may lose a few pounds of sugar, but I expect he will make you laugh.”

“I really see nothing laughable in such a terrific brute,” said Mrs Campbell.

“You are quite safe, ma’am,” said Martin, “Malachi and Mr John have both their rifles.”

“Well, then, I will trust to them,” said Mrs Campbell; “but I should prefer being at home, nevertheless. What a great brute it is.”

“Yes, ma’am; it is a very large animal, that’s certain; but they are not very fat at this time of the year. See how he’s smelling at the liquor, now he’s licking the top of it with his tongue: He won’t be satisfied with that, now that he has once tasted it. I told you so.”

The eyes of the whole party, some frightened and some not, were now fixed upon the bear, who, approving of what he had tasted as a sample, now proceeded to help himself more liberally.

He therefore placed his paw down into the contents of the cooler, but, although the surface of the liquor was cool, the lower part was still scalding hot, and he had not put his paw in for a moment, when he withdrew it with a loud roar, rearing up and sitting upon his hind legs, and throwing his burnt paw in the air.

“I said so,” observed Malachi, chuckling; “he has found it hotter than he expected.”

John, Alfred, and Martin burst out laughing at the sight; and even Mrs Campbell and the two girls could not help being amused.

“He’ll try it again,” said Martin.

“Yes, that he will,” replied Malachi. “John, be all ready with your rifle, for the brute has seen us.”

“Why, he won’t come this way, will he?” exclaimed Mrs Campbell.

“Yes, ma’am, that he most likely will when he is angry; but you need not fear.”

“But I’m afraid, Malachi,” said Mary.

“Then perhaps you had better go about fifty yards back with Mr Campbell, where you will see the whole without danger. There he goes to it again; I knew he would.”

Martin, who had got all the dogs collected together and fast by a piece of deer’s-hide, as soon as they had discovered the bear, went back with Mr and Mrs Campbell and the girls.

“You need have no fear, ma’am,” said Martin; “the rifles won’t miss their mark, and, if they did, I have the dogs to let loose upon him; and I think Oscar, with the help of the others, would master him. Down—silence, Oscar—down, dogs, down. Look at the Strawberry, ma’am, she’s not afraid, she’s laughing like a silver bell.”

During this interval the bear again applied to the cooler, and burnt himself as before; and this time, being more angry, he now gave another roar, and, as if considering that the joke had been played upon him by the party who were looking on, he made directly for them at a quick run.

“Now, John,” said Malachi, “get your bead well on him, right between his eyes.”

John kneeled down in front of Malachi, who had his rifle all ready. Much to the horror of Mrs Campbell, John permitted the bear to come within twenty yards of him. He then fired, and the animal fell dead without a struggle.

“A good shot, and well put in,” said Malachi, going up to the bear. “Let the dogs loose, Martin, that they may worry the carcase; it will do them good.”

Martin did so; the dogs were permitted to pull and tear at the dead animal for a few minutes, and then taken off; in the mean time, Mr Campbell and the ladies had come up to where the animal lay.

“Well, ma’am, isn’t John a cool shoot?” said Malachi. “Could the oldest hunter have done better?”

“My dear John, you quite frightened me,” said Mrs Campbell; “why did you allow the beast to come so near to you?”

“Because I wanted to kill him dead, and not wound him,” replied John.

“To be sure,” replied Malachi; “to wound a bear is worse than leaving him alone.”

“Well, Malachi, you certainly have made a hunter of John,” said Mr Campbell. “I could not have supposed such courage and presence of mind in one so young.”

John was very much praised, as he deserved to be, by the whole party; and then Malachi said, “The skin belongs to John, that of course.”

“Is the bear good eating now?” said Mrs Campbell.

“Not very, ma’am,” replied Malachi, “for he has consumed all his fat during the winter; but we will cut off the legs for hams, and when they are salted and smoked with the other meat, you will acknowledge that a bear’s ham is, at all events, a dish that anyone may say is good. Come, John, where’s your knife? Martin, give us a hand here, while Mr Campbell and the ladies go home.”

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