"The wapiti utters a whistling sound, that can be heard far off, and often guides the hunter to the right spot. In the rutting season the bucks make other noises, which somewhat resemble the braying of an ass, and are equally disagreeable to listen to.
"The wapiti travel about in small herds, rarely exceeding fifty, but often of only six or seven. Where they are not much hunted they are easily approached, but otherwise they are shy enough. The bucks, when wounded and brought to bay, become dangerous assailants; much more so than those of the common deer. Hunters have sometimes escaped with difficulty from their horns and hoofs, with the latter of which they can inflict very severe blows. They are hunted in the same way as other deer; but the Indians capture many of them in the water, when they discover them crossing lakes or rivers. They are excellent swimmers, and can make their way over the arm of a lake or across the widest river.
"They feed upon grass, and sometimes on the young shoots of willows and poplar trees. They are especially fond of a species of wild rose which grows in the countries they frequent.
"The wapiti at one time ranged over a large part of the continent of North America. Its range is now restricted by the spread of the settlements. It is still found in most of the Northern parts of the United States, but only in remote mountainous districts and even there it is a rare animal. In Canada it is more common; and it roams across the continent to the shores of the Pacific. It it not an animal of the tropical countries, as it is not found in Mexico proper. On the other hand, wapiti do not go farther north than about the fifty-seventh parallel of latitude, and then they are not in their favourite habitat, which is properly the temperate zone."
Lucien was interrupted by an exclamation from Basil, who stood up looking out upon the prairie. They all saw that he had been observing the wapiti.
"What is it?" cried they.
"Look yonder!" replied Basil, pointing in the direction of the herd. "Something disturbs them. Give me your glass, Luce."
Lucien handed the telescope to his brother, who, drawing it to the proper focus, pointed it towards the deer. The rest watched them, with the naked eye. They could see that there was some trouble among the animals. There were only six in the herd, and even at the distance our voyageurs could tell that they were all bucks, for it was the season when the does secrete themselves in the woods and thickets to bring forth their young. They were running to and fro upon the prairie, and doubling about as if playing, or rather as if some creature was chasing them. With the naked eye, however, nothing could be seen upon the ground but the bucks themselves, and all the others looked to Basil, who held the glass, for an explanation of their odd manoeuvres.
"There are wolves at them," said Basil, after regarding them for a second or two.
"That's odd," rejoined Norman. "Wolves don't often attack full-grown wapiti, except when wounded or crippled somehow. They must be precious hungry. What sort of wolves are they?"
To you, boy reader, this question may seem strange. You, perhaps, think that a wolf is a wolf, and there is but one kind. Such, however, is not the exact truth. In America there are two distinct species or wolves, and of these two species there are many varieties, which differ so much in colour and other respects, that some authors have classed them as so many distinct species instead of considering them mere varieties. Whether they may be species or not is still a question among naturalists; but certain it is that two well-defined species do exist, which differ in size, form, colour, and habits.
These are the large or common wolf, and the barking or prairie wolf. The first species is the American representative of the common wolf of Europe; and although an animal of similar nature and habits, it differs very much from the latter in form and appearance. It is, therefore, not the same, as hitherto supposed. This American wolf is found in greater or less numbers throughout the whole continent; but in the Northern regions it is very common, and is seen in at least five different varieties, known by the characteristic names of black, pied, white, dusky, and grey wolves. Of these the grey is the most numerous kind; but as I shall have occasion to speak of the large wolves hearafter, I shall say no more of them at present, but direct your attention to the second and very different species, the prairie wolves.
These are a full third smaller than the common kind. They are swifter, and go in larger packs. They bring forth their young in burrows on the open plain, and not among the woods, like the other species. They are the most cunning of American animals, not excepting their kindred the foxes. They cannot be trapped by any contrivance, but by singular manoeuvres often themselves decoy the over-curious antelope to approach too near them. When a gun is fired upon the prairies they may be seen starting up on all sides, and running for the spot in hopes of coming in for a share of the game. Should an animal—deer, antelope, or buffalo—be wounded, and escape the hunter, it is not likely to escape them also. They will set after it, and run it down if the wound has been a mortal one.
On the other hand, if the wound has been only slight, and is not likely in the end to cripple the animal, the wolves will not stir from—the spot. This extraordinary sagacity often tells the hunter whether it is worth his while to follow the game he has shot at; but in any case he is likely to arrive late, if the wolves set out before him, as a dozen of them will devour the largest deer in a few minutes' time. The prairie wolves as well as the others follow the herds of buffaloes, and attack the gravid cows and calves when separated from the rest. Frequently they sustain a contest with the bulls, when the latter are old or wounded, but on such occasions many of them get killed before the old bull becomes their prey.
They resemble the common grey wolf in colour, but there are varieties in this respect, though not so great as among the larger species. Their voice is entirely different, and consists of three distinct barks, ending in a prolonged howl. Hence the specific and usual name "barking wolf." They are found only in the Western or prairie half of the continent, and thence west to the Pacific. Their Northern range is limited to the fifty-fifth parallel of latitude—but they are met with southward throughout Mexico, where they are common enough, and known by the name of "coyote."
Their skins are an article of trade with the Hudson's Bay Company. The fur is of about the same quality with that of other wolves, and consists of long hairs, with a thick wool at the base. In commerce they are termed "cased wolves," because their skins, on being removed, are not split open as with the large wolf-skins, but are stript off after the manner of rabbits, and then turned inside out, or "cased," as it is termed.
"Prairie wolves!" said Basil, in answer to the question put by his cousin.
"There must be something the matter with one of the bucks, then," remarked Norman, "or else there's a good big pack of the wolves, and they expect to tire one down. I believe they sometimes do try it that way."
"There appears to be a large pack," answered Basil, still looking through the glass; "fifty at least—See! they have separated one of the bucks from the herd—it's running this way!"
Basil's companions had noticed this as soon as himself, and all four now leaped to their guns. The wapiti was plainly coming towards them, and they could now distinguish the wolves following upon his heels, strung out over the prairie like a pack of hounds. When first started, the buck was a full half-mile distant, but in less than a minute's time he came breasting forward until the boys could see his sparkling eyes and the play of his proud flanks. He was a noble animal to look at. His horns were full grown, but still "in the velvet," and as he ran with his snout thrown forward, his antlers lay along both sides of his neck until their tips touched his shoulders.
He continued on in a direct line until he was within less than an hundred paces of the camp; but, perceiving the smoke of the fire, and the figures crouching around it, he swerved suddenly from his course, and darted into the thicket of willows, where he was for the moment hidden from view. The wolves—fifty of them at least—had followed him up to this point; and as he entered the thicket several had been close upon his heels. The boys expected to see the wolves rush in after him—as there appeared to be no impediment to their doing so—but, to the astonishment of all, the latter came to a sudden halt, and then went sneaking back—some of them even running off as if terrified!
At first the hunters attributed this strange conduct to their own presence, and the smoke of the camp; but a moment's reflection convinced them that this could not be the reason of it, as they were all well acquainted with the nature of the prairie wolf, and had never witnessed a similar exhibition before.
They had no time to think of the wolves just then. The buck was the main attraction, and, calling to each other to surround the thicket, all four started in different directions. In a couple of minutes they had placed themselves at nearly equal distances around the copse, and stood watching eagerly for the reappearance of the wapiti.
The willows covered about an acre of ground, but they were tolerably think and full-leaved, and the buck could not be seen from any side. Wherever he was, he was evidently at a stand-still, for not a rustle could be heard among the leaves, nor were any of the tall stalks seen to move.
Marengo was now sent in. This would soon start him, and all four stood with guns cocked and ready. But before the dog had made three lengths of himself into the thicket, a loud snort was heard, followed by a struggle and the stamping of hoofs, and the next moment the wapiti came crashing through the bushes. A shot was fired—it was the crack of Lucien's small rifle—but it had missed, for the buck was seen passing onward and outward. All ran round to the side he had taken, and had a full view of the animal as he bounded off. Instead of running free as before, he now leaped heavily forward, and what was their astonishment on seeing that he carried another animal upon his back!
The hunters could hardly believe their eyes, but there it was, sure enough, a brown shaggy mass, lying flat along the shoulders of the wapiti, and clutching it with large spreading claws. Francois cried out, "A panther!" and Basil at first believed it to be a bear, but it was hardly large enough for that. Norman, however, who had lived more in those parts where the animal is found, knew it at once to be the dreaded "wolverene." Its head could not be seen, as that was hid behind the shoulder of the wapiti, whose throat it was engaged in tearing. But its short legs and broad paws, its bushy tail and long shaggy hair, together with its round-arching back and dark-brown colour, were all familiar marks to the young fur-trader; and he at once pronounced it a "wolverene."
When first seen, both it and the wapiti were beyond the reach of their rifles; and the hunters, surprised by such an unexpected apparition, had suddenly halted. Francois and Basil were about to renew the pursuit, but were prevented by Norman, who counselled them to remain where they were.
"They won't go far," said he; "let us watch them a bit. See! the buck takes the water!"
The wapiti, on leaving the willows, had run straight out in the first direction that offered, which happened to be in a line parallel with the edge of the lake. His eye, however, soon caught sight of the water, and, doubling suddenly round, he made directly towards it, evidently with the intention of plunging in. He had hopes, no doubt, that by this means he might rid himself of the terrible creature that was clinging to his shoulders, and tearing his throat to pieces.
A few bounds brought him to the shore. There was no beach at the spot. The bank—a limestone bluff—rose steeply from the water's edge to a height of eight feet, and the lake under it was several fathoms in depth. The buck did not hesitate, but sprang outward and downwards. A heavy plash followed, and for some seconds both wapiti and wolverene were lost under the water. They rose to the surface, just as the boys reached the bank, but they came up separately. The dip had proved a cooler to the fierce wolverene; and while the wapiti was seen to strike boldly out into the lake and swim off, the latter—evidently out of his element—kept plunging about clumsily, and struggling to get back to the shore.
Their position upon the cliff above gave the hunters an excellent opportunity with their rifles, and both Basil and Norman sent their bullets into the wolverene's back. Francois also emptied his double-barrelled gun at the same object, and the shaggy brute sank dead to the bottom of the lake. Strange to say, not one of the party had thought of firing at the buck. This persecution by so many enemies had won for him their sympathy, and they would now have suffered him to go free, but the prospect of fresh venison for supper overcame their commiseration, and the moment the wolverene was despatched all set about securing the deer.
Their guns were reloaded, and, scattering along the shore, they prepared to await his return. But the buck, seeing there was nothing but death in his rear, swam on, keeping almost in a direct line out into the lake. It was evident to all that he could not swim across the lake, as its farther shore was not even visible. He must either return to where they were, or drown; and knowing this to be his only alternative, they stood still and watched his motions. When he had got about half-a-mile from the shore, to the surprise of all, he was seen to rise higher and higher above the surface, and then all at once stop, with half of his body clear out of the water! He had come upon a shoal, and, knowing the advantage of it, seemed determined to remain there.
Basil and Norman ran to the canoe, and in a few minutes the little craft was launched, and shooting through the water. The buck now saw that it was likely to be all up with him, and, instead of attempting to swim farther, he faced round, and set his antlers forward in a threatening attitude. But his pursuers did not give him the chance to make a rush. When within fifty yards or so, Norman, who used the paddles, stopped and steadied the canoe, and the next moment the crack of Basil's rifle echoed over the lake, and the wapiti fell upon the water, where, after struggling a moment, he lay dead.
The canoe was paddled up, and his antlers being made fast to the stern, he was towed back to the shore, and carried into camp. What now surprised our voyageurs was, their finding that the wapiti had been wounded before encountering either the wolves, wolverene, or themselves. An arrow-head, with a short piece of the shaft, was sticking in one of his thighs. The Indians, then, had been after him, and very lately too, as the wound showed. It was not a mortal wound, had the arrow-head been removed; but of course, as it was, it would have proved his death in the long run. This explained why the wolves had assailed an animal, that otherwise, from his great size and strength, would have defied them.
The wolverene, moreover, rarely attacks game so large as the wapiti; but the latter had, no doubt, chanced upon the lair of his fierce enemy, who could not resist such a tempting opportunity of getting a meal. The wolves had seen the wolverene as they approached the thicket, and that accounted for their strange behaviour in the pursuit. These creatures are as great cowards as they are tyrants, and their dread of a wolverene is equal to that with which they themselves often inspire the wounded deer.
A PAIR OF DEEP DIVERS.
THE wapiti was carefully skinned, and the skin spread out to dry. Since their mishap our voyageurs had been very short of clothing. The three skins of the woodland caribou had made only a pair of jackets, instead of full hunting-shirts, and even these were pinched fits. For beds and bed-clothes they had nothing but the hides of buffaloes, and these, although good as far as they went, were only enough for two. Lucien, the most delicate of the party, appropriated one, as the others insisted upon his so doing. Francois had the other.
As for Basil and Norman, they were forced each night to lie upon the naked earth, and but for the large fires which they kept blazing all the night, they would have suffered severely from cold. Indeed, they did suffer quite enough; for some of the nights were so cold, that it was impossible to sleep by the largest fire without one-half of their bodies feeling chilled. The usual practice with travellers in the West is to lie with their feet to the fire, while the head is at the greatest distance from it. This is considered the best mode, for so long as the feet are warm, the rest of the body will not suffer badly; but, on the contrary, if the feet are allowed to get cold, no matter what state the other parts be in, it is impossible to sleep with comfort.
Of course our young voyageurs followed the well-known practice of the country, and lay with their feet to the fire in such a manner that, when all were placed, their bodies formed four radii of a circle, of which the fire was the centre. Marengo usually lay beside Basil, whom he looked upon as his proper master.
Notwithstanding a bed of grass and leaves which they each night spread for themselves, they were sadly in want of blankets, and therefore the skin of the wapiti, which was a very fine one, would be a welcome addition to their stock of bedding. They resolved, therefore, to remain one day where they had killed it, so that the skin might be dried and receive a partial dressing. Moreover, they intended to "jerk" some of the meat—although elk-venison is not considered very palatable where other meat can be had. It is without juice, and resembles dry short-grained beef more than venison. For this reason it is looked upon by both Indians and white hunters as inferior to buffalo, moose, caribou, or even the common deer. One peculiarity of the flesh of this animal is, that the fat becomes hard the moment it is taken off the fire. It freezes upon the lips like suet, and clings around the teeth of a person eating it, which is not the case with that of other species of deer.
The skin of the wapiti, however, is held in high esteem among the Indians. It is thinner than that of the moose, but makes a much better article of leather. When dressed in the Indian fashion—that is to say, soaked in a lather composed of the brains and fat of the animal itself, and then washed, dried, scraped, and smoked—it becomes as soft and pliable as a kid-glove, and will wash and dry without stiffening like chamois leather. That is a great advantage which it has, in the eyes of the Indians, over the skins of other species of deer, as the moose and caribou—for the leather made from these, after a wetting, becomes harsh and rigid and requires a great deal of rubbing to render it soft again.
Lucien knew how to dress the elk-hide, and could make leather out of it as well as any Indian squaw in the country. But travelling as they were, there was not a good opportunity for that; so they were content to give it such a dressing as the circumstances might allow. It was spread out on a frame of willow-poles, and set up in front of the fire, to be scraped at intervals and cleared of the fatty matter, as well as the numerous parasites that at this season adhere to the skins of the wapiti.
While Lucien was framing the skin, Basil and Norman occupied themselves in cutting the choice pieces of the meat into thin slices and hanging them up before the fire. This job being finished, all sat down to watch Lucien currying his hide.
"Ho, boys!" cried Francois, starting up as if something had occurred to him; "what about the wolverene? It's a splendid skin—why not get it too?"
"True enough," replied Norman, "we had forgotten that. But the beast's gone to the bottom—how can we get at him?"
"Why, fish him up, to be sure," said Francois. "Let's splice one of these willow-poles to my ram rod, and I'll screw it into him, and draw him to the surface in a jiffy. Come!"
"We must get the canoe round, then," said Norman. "The bank's too steep for us to reach him without it."
"Of course," assented Francois, at the same time going towards the willows; "get you the canoe into the water, while I cut the sapling."
"Stay!" cried Basil, "I'll show you a shorter method. Marengo!"
As Basil said this, he rose to his feet, and walked down to the bluff where they had shot the wolverene. All of them followed him as well as Marengo, who bounded triumphantly from side to side, knowing he was wanted for some important enterprise.
"Do you expect the dog to fetch him out?" inquired Norman.
"No," replied Basil; "only to help."
"Wait a moment—you shall see."
Basil flung down his 'coon-skin cap, and stripped off his caribou jacket, then his striped cotton shirt, then his under-shirt of fawn skin, and, lastly, his trousers, leggings, and mocassins. He was now as naked as Adam.
"I'll show you, cousin," said he, addressing himself to Norman, "how we take the water down there on the Mississippi."
So saying, he stepped forward to the edge of the bluff; and having carefully noted the spot where the wolverene had gone down, turned to the dog, and simply said,—
"Ho! Marengo! Chez moi!"
The dog answered with a whimper, and a look of intelligence which showed that he understood his master's wish.
Basil again pointed to the lake, raised his arms over his head, placing his palms close together, launched himself out into the air, and shot down head-foremost into the water.
Marengo, uttering a loud bay, sprang after so quickly that the plunges were almost simultaneous, and both master and dog were for some time hidden from view. The latter rose first, but it was a long time before Basil came to the surface—so long that Norman and the others were beginning to feel uneasy, and to regard the water with some anxiety. At length, however, a spot was seen to bubble, several yards from where he had gone down, and the black head of Basil appeared above the surface. It was seen that he held something in his teeth, and was pushing a heavy body before him, which they saw was the wolverene.
Marengo, who swam near, now seized hold of the object, and pulled it away from his master, who, calling to the dog to follow, struck out towards a point where the bank was low and shelving. In a few minutes Basil reached a landing-place, and shortly after Marengo arrived towing the wolverene, which was speedily pulled out upon the bank, and carried, or rather dragged, by Norman and Francois to the camp. Lucien brought Basil's clothes, and all four once more assembled around the blazing fire.
There is not a more hideous-looking animal in America than the wolverene. His thick body and short stout legs, his shaggy coat and bushy tail, but, above all, his long curving claws and dog-like jaws, gave him a formidable appearance. His gait is low and skulking, and his look bold and vicious. He walks somewhat like a bear, and his tracks are often mistaken for those of that animal. Indians and hunters, however, know the difference well. His hind feet are plantigrade, that is, they rest upon the ground from heel to toe; and his back curves like the segment of a circle. He is fierce and extremely voracious—quite as much so as the "glutton," of which he is the American representative.
No animal is more destructive to the small game, and he will also attack and devour the larger kinds when he can get hold of them; but as he is somewhat slow, he can only seize most of them by stratagem. It is a common belief that he lies in wait upon trees and rocks to seize the deer passing beneath. It has been also asserted that he places moss, such as these animals feed upon under his perch, in order to entice them within reach; and it has been still further asserted, that the arctic foxes assist him in his plans, by hunting the deer towards the spot where he lies in wait, thus acting as his jackals.
These assertions have been made more particularly about his European cousin, the "glutton," about whom other stories are told equally strange—one of them, that he eats until scarce able to walk, and then draws his body through a narrow space between two trees, in order to relieve himself and get ready for a fresh meal. Buffon and others have given credence to these tales upon the authority of one "Olaus Magnus," whose name, from the circumstance, might be translated "great fibber." There is no doubt, however, that the glutton is one of the most sagacious of animals, and so, too, is the wolverene. The latter gives proof of this by many of his habits; one in particular fully illustrates his cunning. It is this.
The marten trappers of the Hudson Bay territory set their traps in the snow, often extending over a line of fifty miles. These traps are constructed out of pieces of wood found near the spot, and are baited with the heads of partridges, or pieces of venison, of which the marten is very fond. As soon as the marten seizes the bait, a trigger is touched, and a heavy piece of wood falling upon the animal, crushes or holds it fast. Now the wolverene enters the trap from behind, tears the back out of it before touching the bait, and thus avoids the falling log! Moreover, he will follow the tracks of the trapper from one to another, until he has destroyed the whole line.
Should a marten happen to have been before him, and got caught in the trap, he rarely ever eats it, as he is not fond of its flesh. But he is not satisfied to leave it as he finds it. He usually digs it from under the log, tears it to pieces, and then buries it under the snow. The foxes, who are well aware of this habit, and who themselves greedily eat the marten, are frequently seen following him upon such excursions. They are not strong enough to take the log from off the trapped animal, but from their keen scent can soon find it where the other has buried it in the snow. In this way, instead of their being providers for the wolverene, the reverse is the true story. Notwithstanding, the wolverene will eat them too, whenever he can get his claws upon them; but as they are much swifter than he, this seldom happens.
The foxes, however, are themselves taken in traps, or more commonly shot by guns set for the purpose, with the bait attached by a string to the trigger. Often the wolverene, finding the foxes dead or wounded, makes a meal of them before the hunter comes along to examine his traps and guns. The wolverene kills many of the foxes while young, and sometimes on finding their burrow, widens it with his strong claws, and eats the whole family in their nests. Even young wolves sometimes become his prey. He lives, in fact, on very bad terms with both foxes and wolves, and often robs the latter of a fat deer which they may have just killed, and are preparing to dine upon. The beaver, however, is his favourite food, and but that these creatures can escape him by taking to the water—in which element he is not at all at home—he would soon exterminate their whole race. His great strength and acute scent enable him to overcome almost every wild creature of the forest or prairie. He is even said to be a full match for either the panther or the black bear.
The wolverene lives in clefts of rock, or in hollow trees, where such are to be found; but he is equally an inhabitant of the forest and the prairie. He is found in fertile districts, as well as in the most remote deserts. His range is extensive, but he is properly a denizen of the cold and snowy regions. In the southern parts of the United States he is no longer known, though it is certain that he once lived there when those countries were inhabited by the beaver. North of latitude 40 deg. he ranges perhaps to the pole itself, as traces of him have been found as far as man has yet penetrated.
He is a solitary creature, and, like most predatory animals, a nocturnal prowler. The female brings forth two, sometimes three and four, at a birth. The cubs are of a cream colour, and only when full grown acquire that dark brown hue, which in the extreme of winter often passes into black. The fur is not unlike that of the bear but is shorter-haired, and of less value than a bear-skin. Notwithstanding, it is an article of trade with the Hudson's Bay Company, who procure many thousands of the skins annually.
The Canadian voyageurs call the wolverene "carcajou;" while among the Orkney and Scotch servants of the Hudson's Bay Company he is oftener known as the "quickhatch." It is supposed that both, these names are corruptions of the Cree word okee-coo-haw-gew (the name of the wolverene among the Indians of that tribe). Many words from the same language have been adopted by both voyageurs and traders.
Those points in the natural history of the wolverene, that might be called scientific, were imparted by Lucien, while Norman furnished the information about its habits. Norman knew the animal as one of the most common in the "trade"; and in addition to what we have recorded, also related many adventures and stories current among the voyageurs, in which this creature figures in quite as fanciful a manner as he does in the works either of Olaus Magnus, or Count de Buffon.
A GRAND SUNDAY DINNER.
After remaining a day at their first camp on the lake, our voyageurs continued their journey. Their course lay a little to the west of north, as the edge of the lake trended in that direction. Their usual plan, as already stated, was to keep out in the lake far enough to shun the numerous indentations of the shore, yet not so far as to endanger their little craft when the wind was high. At night they always landed, either upon some point or on an island. Sometimes the wind blew "dead ahead," and then their day's journey would be only a few miles. When the wind was favourable they made good progress, using the skin of the wapiti for a sail. On one of these days they reckoned a distance of over forty miles from camp to camp.
It was their custom always to lie by on Sunday, for our young voyageurs were Christians. They had done so on their former expedition across the Southern prairies, and they had found the practice to their advantage in a physical as well as a moral sense. They required the rest thus obtained; besides, a general cleaning up is necessary, at least, once every week. Sunday was also a day of feasting with them. They had more time to devote to culinary operations, and the cuisine of that day was always the most varied of the week. Any extra delicacy obtained by the rifle on previous days, was usually reserved for the Sunday's dinner.
On the first Sunday after entering Lake Winnipeg the "camp" chanced to be upon an island. It was a small island, of only a few acres in extent. It lay near the shore, and was well wooded over its whole surface with trees of many different kinds. Indeed, islands in a large lake usually have a great variety of trees, as the seeds of all those sorts that grow around the shores are carried thither by the waves, or in the crops of the numerous birds that flit over its waters. But as the island in question lay in a lake, whose shores exhibited such a varied geology, it was natural the vegetation of the island itself should be varied. And, in truth, it was so.
Among the low bushes and shrubs there were rose and wild raspberry; there were apple and plum trees, and whole thickets of the "Pembina." There is, in fact, no part of the world where a greater variety of wild fruit has been found indigenous than upon the banks of the Red River of the North, and this variety extended to the little island where our voyageurs had encamped.
The camp had been placed under a beautiful tree—the tacamahac, or balsam poplar. This is one of the finest trees of America, and one of those that extend farthest north into the cold countries. In favourable situations it attains a height of one hundred and fifty feet, with a proportionate thickness of trunk; but it is oftener only fifty or eighty feet high. Its leaves are oval, and, when young, of a rich yellowish colour, which changes to a bright green. The buds are very large, yellow, and covered with a varnish, which exhales a delightful fragrance, and gives to the tree its specific name.
It was near sunset on the afternoon of Saturday, the travellers had just finished their repast, and were reclining around a fire of red cedar, whose delicate smoke curled up among the pale green leaves of the poplars. The fragrant smell of the burning wood, mixed with the aromatic odour of the balsam-tree, filled the air with a sweet perfume, and, almost without knowing why, our voyageurs felt a sense of pleasure stealing over them. The woods of the little island were not without their voices.
The scream of the jay was heard, and his bright azure wing appeared now and then among the foliage. The scarlet plumage of the cardinal grosbeak flashed under the beams of the setting sun; and the trumpet-note of the ivory-billed woodpecker was heard near the centre of the island. An osprey was circling in the air, with his eye bent on the water below, watching for his finny prey; and a pair of bald eagles were winging their way towards the adjacent mainland. Half-a-dozen turkey vultures were wheeling above the beach, where some object, fish or carrion, had been thrown up by the waves.
For some time the party remained silent, each contemplating the scene with feelings of pleasure. Francois, as usual, first broke the silence.
"I say, cook, what's for dinner to-morrow?"
It was to Lucien this speech was addressed. He was regarded as the maitre de cuisine.
"Roast or boiled—which would you prefer?" asked the cook, with a significant smile.
"Ha! ha! ha!" laughed Francois; "boiled, indeed! a pretty boil we could have in a tin cup, holding less than a pint. I wish we could have a boiled joint and a bowl of soup. I'd give something for it. I'm precious tired of this everlasting dry roast."
"You shall have both," rejoined Lucien, "for to-morrow's dinner. I promise you both the soup and the joint."
Again Francois laughed increduously.
"Do you mean to make soup in your shoe, Luce?"
"No; but I shall make it in this."
And Lucien held up a vessel somewhat like a water-pail, which the day before he had himself made out of birch-bark.
"Well," replied Francois, "I know you have got a vessel that holds water, but cold water ain't soup; and if you can boil water in that vessel, I'll believe you to be a conjuror. I know you can do some curious things with your chemical mixtures; but that you can't do, I'm sure. Why, man, the bottom would be burned out of your bucket before the water got blood-warm. Soup, indeed!"
"Never mind, Frank, you shall see. You're only like the rest of mankind—incredulous about everything they can't comprehend. If you'll take your hook and line, and catch some fish, I promise to give you a dinner to-morrow, with all the regular courses—soup, fish, boiled, roast, and dessert, too! I'm satisfied I can do all that."
"Parbleu! brother, you should have been cook to Lucullus. Well, I'll catch the fish for you."
So saying, Francois took a fish-hook and line out of his pouch, and fixing a large grasshopper upon the hook, stepped forward to the edge of the water, and cast it in. The float was soon seen to bob and then sink, and Francois jerked his hook ashore with a small and very pretty fish upon it of a silver hue, with which the lake and the waters running into it abound. Lucien told him it was a fish of the genus Hyodon. He also advised him to bait with a worm, and let his bait sink to the bottom, and he might catch a sturgeon, which would be a larger fish.
"How do you know there are sturgeon in the lake?" inquired Francois.
"I am pretty sure of that," answered the naturalist; "the sturgeon is found all round the world in the northern temperate zone—both in its seas and fresh waters; although, when you go farther south into the warmer climate, no sturgeons exist. I am sure there are some here, perhaps more than one species. Sink your bait for the sturgeon is a toothless fish, and feeds upon soft substances at the bottom."
Francois followed the advice of his brother, and in a few minutes he had a "nibble," and drew up and landed a very large fish, full three feet in length. Lucien at once pronounced it a sturgeon, but of a species he had not before seen. It was the Acipenser carbonarius, a curious sort of fish found in these waters. It did not look like a fish that would be pleasant eating; therefore Francois again took to bobbing for the silver fish which, though small, he knew to be excellent when broiled.
"Come," said Basil, "I must furnish my quota to this famous dinner that is to be. Let me see what there is on the island in the way of game;" and shouldering his rifle, he walked off among the trees.
"And I," said Norman, "am not going to eat the produce of other people's labour without contributing my share."
So the young trader took up his gun and went off in a different direction.
"Good!" exclaimed Lucien, "we are likely to have plenty of meat for the dinner. I must see about the vegetables;" and taking with him his new-made vessel, Lucien sauntered off along the shore of the islet. Francois alone remained by the camp and continued his fishing. Let us follow the plant-hunter, and learn a lesson of practical botany.
Lucien had not gone far, when he came to what appeared to be a mere sedge growing in the water. The stalks or culms of this sedge were full eight feet high, with smooth leaves, an inch broad, nearly a yard in length, and of a light green colour. At the top of each stalk was a large panicle of seeds, somewhat resembling a head of oats. The plant itself was the famous wild rice so much prized by the Indians as an article of food, and also the favourite of many wild birds especially the reed-bird or rice-bunting. The grain of the zizania was not yet ripe, but the ears were tolerably well filled, and Lucien saw that it would do for his purpose. He therefore waded in, and stripped off into his vessel as much as he wanted.
"I am safe for rice-soup, at all events," soliloquised he, "but I think I can do still better;" and he continued on around the shore, and shortly after struck into some heavy timber that grew in a damp, rich soil. He had walked about an hundred yards farther, when he was seen to stoop and examine some object on the ground.
"It ought to be found here," he muttered to himself; "this is the very soil for it—yes, here we have it!"
The object over which he was stooping was a plant, but its leaves appeared shrivelled, or rather quite withered away. The upper part of a bulbous root, however, was just visible above the surface. It was a bulb of the wild leek. The leaves, when young, are about six inches in length, of a flat shape and often three inches broad; but, strange to say, they shrivel or die off very early in the season—even before the plant flowers, and then it is difficult to find the bulb.
Lucien, however, had sharp eyes for such things; and in a short while he had rooted out several bulbs as large as pigeons' eggs, and deposited them in his birchen vessel. He now turned to go back to camp, satisfied with what he had obtained. He had the rice to give consistency to his soup, and the leek roots to flavour it with. That would be enough.
As he was walking over a piece of boggy ground his eye was attracted to a singular plant, whose tall stem rose high above the grass. It was full eight feet in height, and at its top there was an umbel of conspicuous white flowers. Its leaves were large, lobed, and toothed, and the stem itself was over an inch in diameter, with furrows running longitudinally. Lucien had never seen the plant before, although he had often heard accounts of it, and he at once recognised it from its botanical description. It was the celebrated "cow parsnip." Its stem was jointed and hollow, and Lucien had heard that the Indians called it in their language "flute stem," as they often used it to make their rude musical instruments from, and also a sort of whistle or "call," by which they were enabled to imitate and decoy several kinds of deer. But there was another use to which the plant was put, of which the naturalist was not aware. Norman who had been wandering about, came up at this moment, and seeing Lucien standing by the plant, uttered a joyful "Hulloh!"
"Well," inquired Lucien, "what pleases you, coz?"
"Why, the flute-stem, of course. You talked of making a soup. It will help you, I fancy."
"How?" demanded Lucien.
"Why, the young stems are good eating, and the roots, if you will; but the young shoots are better. Both Indians and voyageurs eat them in soup, and are fond of them. It's a famous thing, I assure you."
"Let us gather some, then," said Lucien; and the cousins commenced cutting off such stems as were still young and tender. As soon as they had obtained enough, they took their way back to the camp. Basil had already arrived with a fine prairie hen which he had shot, and Sandy had brought back a squirrel; so that, with Francois's fish, of which a sufficient number had been caught, Lucien was likely to be able to keep his promise about the dinner.
Francois, however, could not yet comprehend how the soup was to be boiled in a wooden pot; and, indeed, Basil was unable to guess. Norman, however, knew well enough, for he had travelled through the country of the Assinoboil Indians, who take their name from this very thing. He had also witnessed the operation performed by Crees, Chippewas, and even voyageurs, where metal or earthen pots could not be obtained.
On the next day the mystery was cleared up to Basil and Francois. Lucien first collected a number of stones—about as large as paving-stones. He chose such as were hard and smooth. These he flung into the cinders, where they soon became red-hot. The water and meat were now put into the bark pot, and then one stone after another,—each being taken out as it got cooled,—until the water came to a fierce boil. The rice and other ingredients were added at the proper time, and in a short while an excellent soup was made. So much, then, for the soup, and the boiled dishes with vegetables. The roast, of course, was easily made ready upon green-wood spits, and the "game" was cooked in a similar way. The fish were broiled upon the red cinders, and eaten, as is usual, after the soup. There were no puddings or pies, though, no doubt, Lucien could have made such had they been wanted.
In their place there was an excellent service of fruit. There were strawberries and raspberries, one sort of which found wild in this region is of a most delicious flavour. There were gooseberries and currants; but the most delicious fruit, and that which Francois liked best, was a small berry of a dark blue colour, not unlike the huckleberry, but much sweeter and of higher flavour. It grows on a low bush or shrub with ovate leaves; and this bush when it blossoms is so covered with beautiful white flowers, that neither leaves nor branches can be seen. There are no less than four varieties of it known, two of which attain to the height of twenty feet or more. The French Canadians call it "le poire," but in most parts of America it is known as the "service-berry," although several other names are given to it in different districts. Lucien informed his companions, while they were crushing its sweet purplish fruit between their teeth, that its botanical name is Amelanchier.
"Now," remarked Francois, "if we only had a cup of coffee and a glass of wine, we might say that we had dined in fashionable style."
"I think," replied Lucien, "we are better without the wine, and as for the other I cannot give you that, but I fancy I can provide you with a cup of tea if you only allow me a little time."
"Tea!" screamed Francois; "why, there's not a leaf of tea nearer than China; and for the sugar, not a grain within hundreds of miles!"
"Come, Frank," said Lucien, "nature has not been so ungenerous here, even in such luxuries as tea and sugar. Look yonder! You see those large trees with the dark-coloured trunks. What are they?"
"Sugar-maples," replied Francois.
"Well," said Lucien, "I think even at this late season we might contrive to extract sap enough from them to sweeten a cup of tea. You may try, while I go in search of the tea-plant."
"Upon my word, Luce, you are equal to a wholesale grocery. Very well. Come, Basil, we'll tap the maples; let the captain go with Luce."
The boys, separating into pairs, walked off, in different directions. Lucien and his companion soon lighted upon the object of their search in the same wet bottom where they had procured the Heracleum. It was a branching shrub, not over two feet in height, with small leaves of a deep green colour above, but whitish and woolly underneath. It is a plant well known throughout most of the Hudson's Bay territory by the name of "Labrador tea-plant;" and is so called because the Canadian voyageurs, and other travellers through these northern districts, often drink it as tea. It is one of the Ericaceae, or heath tribe, of the genus Ledum—though it is not a true heath, as, strange to say, no true heath is found upon the continent of America.
There are two kinds of it known,—the "narrow-leafed" and "broad-leafed" and the former makes the best tea. But the pretty white flowers of the plant are better for the purpose than the leaves of either variety; and these it was that were now gathered by Lucien and Norman. They require to be dried before the decoction is made; but this can be done in a short time over a fire; and so in a short time it was done, Norman having parched them upon heated stones.
Meanwhile Basil and Francois had obtained the sugar-water, and Lucien having washed his soup-kettle clean, and once more made his boiling stones red-hot, prepared the beverage; and then it was served out in the tin cup, and all partook of it. Norman had drunk the Labrador tea before, and was rather fond of it, but his Southern cousins did not much relish it. Its peculiar flavour, which somewhat resembles rhubarb, was not at all to the liking of Francois. All, however, admitted that it produced a cheering effect upon their spirits; and, after drinking it, they felt in that peculiarly happy state of mind which one experiences after a cup of the real "Bohea."
THE MARMOTS OF AMERICA.
From such a luxurious dinner you may suppose that our young voyageurs lived in prime style. But it was not always so. They had their fasts as well as feasts. Sometimes for days they had nothing to eat but the jerked deer-meat. No bread—no beer—no coffee, nothing but water—dry venison and water. Of course, this is food enough for a hungry man; but it can hardly be called luxurious living. Now and then a wild duck, or a goose, or perhaps a young swan, was shot; and this change in their diet was very agreeable. Fish were caught only upon occasions, for often these capricious creatures refused Francois' bait, however temptingly offered.
After three weeks' coasting the Lake, they reached the Saskatchewan, and turning up that stream, now travelled in a due westerly direction. At the Grand Rapids, near the mouth of this river, they were obliged to make a portage of no less than three miles, but the magnificent view of these "Rapids" fully repaid them for the toil they underwent in passing them.
The Saskatchewan is one of the largest rivers in America, being full 1600 miles in length, from its source in the Rocky Mountains to its debouchure, under the name of the "Nelson River," in Hudson's Bay. For some distance above Lake Winnipeg, the country upon its banks is well wooded. Farther up, the river runs through dry sandy prairies that extend westward to the foot-hills of the Rocky Mountains. Many of these prairies may be properly called "deserts." They contain lakes as salt as the ocean itself, and vast tracts—hundreds of square miles in extent—where not a drop of water is to be met with. But the route of our voyageurs did not lie over these prairies. It was their intention, after reaching Cumberland House, to turn again in a northerly direction.
One evening, when within two days' journey of the Fort, they had encamped upon the bank of the Saskatchewan. They had chosen a beautiful spot for their camp, where the country, swelling into rounded hills, was prettily interspersed with bushy copses of Amelanchiers, and Rosa blanda whose pale red flowers were conspicuous among the green leaves, and filled the air with a sweet fragrance, that was wafted to our voyageurs upon the sunny breeze. The ground was covered with a grassy sward enamelled by the pink flowers of the Cleome, and the deeper red blossoms of the beautiful wind-flower.
Upon that day our travellers had not succeeded in killing any game, and their dinner was likely to consist of nothing better than dry venison scorched over the coals. As they had been travelling all the morning against a sharp current, and, of course, had taken turn about at the paddles, they all felt fatigued, and none of them was inclined to go in search of game. They had flung themselves down around the fire, and were waiting until the venison should be broiled for dinner.
The camp had been placed at the foot of a tolerably steep hill, that rose near the banks of the river. There was another and higher hill facing it, the whole front of which could be seen by our travellers as they sat around their fire. While glancing their eyes along its declivity, they noticed a number of small protuberances or mounds standing within a few feet of each other. Each of them was about a foot in height, and of the form of a truncated cone—that is, a cone with its top cut off, or beaten down.
"What are they?" inquired Francois.
"I fancy," answered Lucien, "they are marmot-houses."
"They are," affirmed Norman; "there are plenty of them in this country."
"Oh! marmots!" said Francois. "Prairie-dogs, you mean?—the same we met with on the Southern prairies?"
"I think not," replied Norman: "I think the prairie-dogs are a different sort. Are they not, cousin Luce?"
"Yes, yes," answered the naturalist; "these must be a different species. There are too few of them to be the houses of prairie-dogs. The 'dogs' live in large settlements, many hundreds of them in one place; besides, their domes are somewhat different in appearance from these. The mounds of the prairie-dogs have a hole in the top or on one side. These, you see, have not. The hole is in the ground beside them, and the hill is in front, made by the earth taken out of the burrow, just as you have seen it at the entrance of a rat's hole. They are marmots, I have no doubt, but of a different species from the prairie-dog marmots."
"Are there not many kinds of marmots in America? I have heard so," said Francois.
This question was of course addressed to Lucien.
"Yes," answered he. "The fauna of North America is peculiarly rich in species of these singular animals. There are thirteen kinds of them, well known to naturalists; and there are even some varieties in these thirteen kinds that might almost be considered distinct species. I have no doubt, moreover, there are yet other species which have not been described. Perhaps, altogether, there are not less than twenty different kinds of marmots in North America. As only one or two species are found in the settled territories of the United States, it was supposed, until lately, that there were no others. Latterly the naturalists of North America have been very active in their researches, and no genus of animals has rewarded them so well as the marmots—unless, perhaps, it may be the squirrels. Almost every year a new species of one or the other of these has been found—mostly inhabiting the vast wilderness territories that lie between the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean.
"These little animals seem to form a link between the squirrels and rabbits. On the side of the squirrels they very naturally join on, if I may use the expression, to the ground-squirrel, and some of them, differ but little in their habits from many of the latter. Other species, again, are more allied to the rabbits, and less like the squirrels; and there are two or three kinds that I should say—using a Yankee expression—have a 'sprinkling' of the rat in them. Some, as the ground-hog, or wood-chuck of the United States, are as large as rabbits, while others, as the leopard-marmot, are not bigger than Norway rats.
"Some species have cheek-pouches, in which they can carry a large quantity of seeds, nuts, and roots, when they wish to hoard them up for future use. These are the spermophiles, and some species of these have more capacious pouches than others. Their food differs somewhat, perhaps according to the circumstances in which they may be placed. In all cases it is vegetable. Some, as the prairie-dogs, live upon grasses, while others subsist chiefly upon seeds, berries, and leaves.
"It was long supposed that the marmots, like the squirrels, laid up stores against the winter. I believe this is not the case with any of the different species. I know for certain that most of them pass the winter in a state of torpidity, and of course require no provisions, as they eat nothing during that season. In this we observe one of those cases in which Nature so beautifully adapts a creature to its circumstances. In the countries where many of the marmots are found, so severe are the winters, and so barren the soil, that it would be impossible for these creatures to get a morsel of food for many long months.
"During this period, therefore, Nature suspends her functions, by putting them into a deep, and, for aught we know to the contrary, a pleasant sleep. It is only when the snow melts, under the vernal sun, and the green blades of grass and the spring flowers array themselves on the surface of the earth, that the little marmots make their appearance again. Then the warm air, penetrating into their subterranean abodes, admonishes them to awake from their protracted slumber, and come forth to the enjoyment of their summer life. These animals may be said, therefore, to have no winter. Their life is altogether a season of summer and sunshine."
"Some of the marmots," continued Lucien, "live in large communities, as the prairie dogs; others, in smaller tribes, while still other species lead a solitary life, going only in pairs, or at most in families. Nearly all of them are burrowing animals, though there are one or two species that are satisfied with a cleft in the rock, or a hole among loose stones for their nests. Some of them are tree-climbers, but it is supposed they only ascend trees in search of food, as they do not make their dwellings there. Many of the species are very prolific, the females bringing forth eight, and even ten young at a birth.
"The marmots are extremely shy and watchful creatures. Before going to feed, they usually reconnoitre the ground from the tops of their little mounds. Some species do not have such mounds, and for this purpose ascend any little hillock that may be near. Nearly all have the curious habit of placing sentries to watch while the rest are feeding. These sentries station themselves on some commanding point, and when they see an enemy approaching give warning to the others by a peculiar cry. In several of the species this cry resembles the syllables 'seek-seek' repeated with a hiss. Others bark like 'toy-dogs,' while still other kinds utter a whistling noise, from which one species derives its trivial name of 'whistler' among the traders, and is the 'siffleur' of the Canadian voyageurs.
"The 'whistler's' call of alarm can be heard at a great distance; and when uttered by the sentinel is repeated by all the others as far as the troop extends.
"The marmots are eaten both by Indians and white hunters. Sometimes they are captured by pouring water into their burrows; but this method only succeeds in early spring, when the animals awake out of their torpid state, and the ground is still frozen hard enough to prevent the water from filtering away. They are sometimes shot with guns; but, unless killed upon the spot, they will escape to their burrows, and tumble in before the hunter can lay his hands upon them."
THE BLAIREAU, THE "TAWNIES," AND THE "LEOPARDS."
Perhaps Lucien would have carried his account of the marmots still farther—for he had not told half what he knew of their habits—but he was at that moment interrupted by the marmots themselves. Several of them appeared at the mouths of their holes; and, after looking out and reconnoitring for some moments, became bolder, and ran up to the tops of their mounds, and began to scatter along the little beaten paths that led from one to the other. In a short while as many as a dozen could be seen moving about, jerking their tails, and at intervals uttering their seek-seek.
Our voyageurs saw that there were two kinds of them, entirely different in colour, size, and other respects. The larger ones were of a greyish yellow above, with an orange tint upon the throat and belly. These were the "tawny marmots," called sometimes "ground-squirrels," and by the voyageurs, "siffleurs," or "whistlers."
The other species seen were the most beautiful of all the marmots. They were very little smaller than the tawny marmots; but their tails were larger and more slender, which rendered their appearance more graceful. Their chief beauty, however, lay in their colours and markings. They were striped from the nose to the rump with bands of yellow and chocolate colour, which alternated with each other, while the chocolate bands were themselves variegated by rows of yellow spots regularly placed. These markings gave the animals that peculiar appearance so well known as characterising the skin of the leopard, hence the name of these little creatures was "leopard marmots."
It was plain from their actions that both kinds were "at home" among the mounds, and that both had their burrows there. This was the fact, and Norman told his companion that the two kinds are always found together, not living in the same houses, but only as neighbours in the same "settlement." The burrows of the "leopard" have much smaller entrances than those of their "tawny kin," and run down perpendicularly to a greater depth before branching off in a horizontal direction. A straight stick may be thrust down one of these full five feet before reaching an "elbow."
The holes of the tawny marmots, on the contrary, branch off near the surface, and are not so deep under ground. This guides us to the explanation of a singular fact—which is, that the "tawnies" make their appearance three weeks earlier in spring than the "leopards," in consequence of the heat of the sun reaching them sooner, and waking them out of their torpid sleep.
While these explanations were passing among the boys, the marmots had come out, to the number of a score, and were carrying on their gambols along the declivity of the hill. They were at too great a distance to heed the movements of the travellers by the camp fire. Besides, a considerable valley lay between them and the camp, which, as they believed, rendered their position secure. They were not at such a distance but that many of their movements could be clearly made out by the boys, who after a while noticed that several furious battles were being fought among them. It was not the "tawnies" against the others, but the males of each kind in single combats with one another.
They fought like little cats, exhibiting the highest degree of boldness and fury; but it was noticed that in these conflicts the leopards were far more active and spiteful than their kinsmen. In observing them through his glass Lucien noticed that they frequently seized each other by the tails, and he further noticed that several of them had their tails much shorter than the rest. Norman said that these had been bitten off in their battles; and, moreover, that it was a rare thing to find among the males, or "bucks," as he called them, one that had a perfect tail!
While these observations were being made, the attention of our party was attracted to a strange animal that was seen slowly crawling around the hill. It was a creature about as big as an ordinary setter dog, but much thicker in the body, shorter in the legs, and shaggier in the coat. Its head was flat, and its ears short and rounded. Its hair was long, rough, and of a mottled hoary grey colour, but dark-brown upon the legs and tail. The latter, though covered with long hair, was short, and carried upright; and upon the broad feet of the animal could be seen long and strong curving claws. Its snout was sharp as that of a greyhound—though not so prettily formed—and a white stripe, passing from its very tip over the crown, and bordered by two darker bands, gave a singular expression to the animal's countenance.
It was altogether, both in form and feature, a strange and vicious-looking creature. Norman recognised it at once as the "blaireau," or American badger. The others had never seen such a creature before—as it is not an inhabitant of the South, nor of any part of the settled portion of the United States.
The badger when first seen was creeping along with its belly almost dragging the ground, and its long snout projected horizontally in the direction of the marmot "village." It was evidently meditating a surprise of the inhabitants. Now and then it would stop, like a pointer dog when close to a partridge, reconnoitre a moment, and then go on again. Its design appeared to be to get between the marmots and their burrows, intercept some of them, and get a hold of them without the trouble of digging them up—although that would be no great affair to it, for so strong are its fore-arms and claws that in loose soil it can make its way under the ground as fast as a mole.
Slowly and cautiously it stole along, its hind-feet resting all their length upon the ground, its hideous snout thrown forward, and its eyes glaring with a voracious and hungry expression. It had got within fifty paces of the marmots, and would, no doubt, have succeeded in cutting off the retreat of some of them, but at that moment a burrowing owl that had been perched upon one of the mounds, rose up, and commenced hovering in circles above the intruder. This drew the attention of the marmot sentries to their well-known enemy, and their warning cry was followed by a general scamper of both tawnies and leopards towards their respective burrows.
The blaireau, seeing that further concealment was no longer of any use, raised himself higher upon his limbs, and sprang forward in pursuit. He was too late, however, as the marmots had all got into their holes, and their angry "seek-seek" was heard proceeding from various quarters out of the bowels of the earth. The blaireau only hesitated long enough to select one of the burrows into which he was sure a marmot had entered; and then, setting himself to his work, he commenced throwing out the mould like a terrier. In a few seconds he was half buried, and his hind-quarters and tail alone remained above ground.
He would soon have disappeared entirely, but at that moment the boys, directed and headed by Norman, ran up the hill, and, seizing him by the tail, endeavoured to jerk him back. That, however, was a task which they could not accomplish, for first one and then another, and then Basil and Norman—who were both strong boys—pulled with all their might, and could not move him. Norman cautioned them against letting him go, as in a moment's time he would burrow beyond their reach. So they held on until Francois had got his gun ready. This the latter soon did, and a load of small shot was fired into the blaireau's hips, which, although it did not quite kill him, caused him to back out of the hole, and brought him into the clutches of Marengo.
A desperate struggle ensued, which ended by the bloodhound doubling his vast black muzzle upon the throat of the blaireau, and choking him to death in less than a dozen seconds; and then his hide—the only part which was deemed of any value—was taken off and carried to the camp. The carcass was left upon the face of the hill, and the red shining object was soon espied by the buzzards and turkey vultures, so that in a few minutes' time several of these filthy birds were seen hovering around, and alighting upon the hill.
But this was no new sight to our young voyageurs, and soon ceased to be noticed by them. Another bird, of a different kind, for a short time engaged their attention. It was a large hawk, which Lucien, as soon as he saw it, pronounced to be one of the kind known as buzzards. Of these there are several species in North America, but it is not to be supposed that there is any resemblance between them and the buzzards just mentioned as having alighted by the carcass of the blaireau. The latter, commonly called "turkey buzzards," are true vultures, and feed mostly, though not exclusively, on carrion; while the "hawk buzzards" have all the appearance and general habits of the rest of the falcon tribe.
The one in question, Lucien said, was the "marsh-hawk," sometimes also called the "hen-harrier." Norman stated that it was known among the Indians of these parts as the "snake-bird," because it preys upon a species of small green snake that is common on the plains of the Saskatchewan, and of which it is fonder than of any other food.
The voyageurs were not long in having evidence of the appropriateness of the Indian appellation; for these people, like other savages, have the good habit of giving names that express some quality or characteristic of the thing itself. The bird in question was on the wing, and from its movements evidently searching for game. It sailed in easy circlings near the surface, quartering the ground like a pointer dog. It flew so lightly that its wings were not seen to move, and throughout all its wheelings and turnings it appeared to be carried onwards or upwards by the power of mere volition.
Once or twice its course brought it directly over the camp, and Francois had got hold of his gun, with the intention of bringing it down, but on each occasion it perceived his motions; and, soaring up like a paper-kite until out of reach, it passed over the camp, and then sank down again upon the other side, and continued its "quarterings" as before. For nearly half-an-hour it went on manoevring in this way, when all at once it was seen to make a sudden turning in the air as it fixed its eyes upon some object in the grass.
The next moment it glided diagonally towards the earth, and poising itself for a moment above the surface, rose again with a small green-coloured snake struggling in its talons. After ascending to some height, it directed its flight towards a clump of trees, and was soon lost to the view of our travellers.
Lucien now pointed out to his companions a characteristic of the hawk and buzzard tribe, by which these birds can always be distinguished from the true falcon. That peculiarity lay in the manner of seizing their prey. The former skim forward upon it sideways—that is, in a horizontal or diagonal direction, and pick it up in passing; while the true falcons—as the merlin, the peregrine, the gerfalcon, and the great eagle-falcons—shoot down upon their prey perpendicularly like an arrow, or a piece of falling lead.
He pointed out, moreover, how the structure of the different kinds of preying birds, such as the size and form of the wings and tail, as well as other parts, were in each kind adapted to its peculiar mode of pursuing its prey; and then there arose a discussion as to whether this adaption should be considered a cause, or an effect. Lucien succeeded in convincing his companions that the structure was the effect and not the cause of the habit, for the young naturalist was a firm believer in the changing and progressive system of nature.
AN ODD SORT OF DECOY-DUCK.
Two days after the adventure with the blaireau, the young voyageurs arrived at Cumberland House—one of the most celebrated posts of the Hudson's Bay Company. The chief factor, who resided there, was a friend of Norman's father, and of course the youths were received with the warmest hospitality, and entertained during their stay in the best manner the place afforded. They did not make a long stay, however, as they wished to complete their journey before the winter should set in, when canoe-travelling would become impossible.
During winter, not only the lakes, but the most rapid rivers of these Northern regions, become frozen up, and remain so for many months. Nearly the whole surface of the earth is buried under deep snow, and travelling can only be done with snow-shoes, or with sledges drawn by dogs. These are the modes practised by the Indians, the Esquimaux, and the few white traders and trappers who have occasion in winter to pass from one point to another of that icy and desolate region.
Travelling under such circumstances is not only difficult and laborious, but is extremely perilous. Food cannot always be obtained—supplies fall short, or become exhausted—game is scarce, or cannot be found at all, as at that season many of the quadrupeds and most of the birds have forsaken the country, and migrated to the South—and whole parties of travellers—even Indians, who can eat anything living or dead, roast or raw—often perish from hunger.
Our travellers were well acquainted with these facts; and being anxious, therefore, to get to the end of their journey before the winter should come down upon them, made all haste to proceed. Of course they obtained a new "outfit" at the Fort; but they took with them only such articles as were absolutely necessary, as they had many portages to make before they could reach the waters of the Mackenzie River. As it required two of the party to carry the canoe, with a few little things besides, all the baggage was comprised in such loads as the others could manage; and of course that was not a great deal, for Francois was but a lad, and Lucien was far from being in robust health. A light axe, a few cooking utensils, with a small stock of provisions, and of course their guns, formed the bulk of their loads.
After leaving the Fort they kept for several days' journey up the Saskatchewan. They then took leave of that river, and ascended a small stream that emptied into it from the north. Making their first portage over a "divide," they reached another small stream that ran in quite a different direction, emptying itself into one of the branches of the Mississippi, or Churchill River. Following this in a north-westerly course, and making numerous other portages, they reached Lake La Crosse, and afterwards in succession, Lakes Clear, Buffalo, and Methy.
A long "portage" from the last-mentioned lake brought them to the head of a stream known as the "Clear Water;" and launching their canoe upon this, they floated down to its mouth, and entered the main stream of the Elk, or Athabasca, one of the most beautiful rivers of America. They were now in reality upon the waters of the Mackenzie itself, for the Elk, after passing through the Athabasca takes from thence the name of Slave River, and having traversed Great Slave Lake, becomes the Mackenzie—under which name it continues on to the Arctic Ocean.
Having got, therefore, upon the main head-water of the stream which they intended to traverse, they floated along in their canoe with light hearts and high hopes. It is true they had yet fifteen hundred miles to travel, but they believed that it was all down-hill work now; and as they had still nearly two months of summer before them, they doubted not being able to accomplish the voyage in good time.
On they floated down stream, feasting their eyes as they went—for the scenery of the Elk valley is of a most picturesque and pleasing character; and the broad bosom of the stream itself, studded with wooded islands, looked to our travellers more like a continuation of lakes than a running river. Now they glided along without using an oar, borne onward by the current; then they would take a spell at the paddles, while the beautiful Canadian boat-song could be heard as it came from the tiny craft, and the appropriate chorus "Row, brothers, row!" echoed from the adjacent shores. No part of their journey was more pleasant than while descending the romantic Elk.
They found plenty of fresh provisions, both in the stream itself and on its banks. They caught salmon in the water, and the silver-coloured hyodon, known among the voyageurs by the name of "Dore." They shot both ducks and geese, and roast-duck or goose had become an everyday dinner with them. Of the geese there were several species. There were "snow-geese," so called from their beautiful white plumage; and "laughing geese," that derive their name from the circumstance that their call resembles the laugh of a man.
The Indians decoy these by striking their open hand repeatedly over the mouth while uttering the syllable "wah." They also saw the "Brent goose," a well-known species, and the "Canada goose," which is the wild goose par excellence. Another species resembling the latter, called the "barnacle goose," was seen by our travellers. Besides these, Lucien informed them that there were several other smaller kinds that inhabit the northern countries of America. These valuable birds are objects of great interest to the people of the fur countries for months in the year. Whole tribes of Indians look to them as a means of support.
With regard to ducks, there was one species which our travellers had not yet met with, and for which they were every day upon the look-out. This was the far-famed "canvass-back," so justly celebrated among the epicures of America. None of them had ever eaten of it, as it is not known in Louisiana, but only upon the Atlantic coast of the United States. Norman, however, had heard of its existence in the Rocky Mountains—where it is said to breed—as well as in other parts of the fur countries, and they were in hopes that they might fall in with it upon the waters of the Athabasca.
Lucien was, of course, well acquainted with its "biography," and could have recognised one at sight; and as they glided along he volunteered to give his companions some information, not only about this particular species, but about the whole genus of these interesting birds.
"The canvass-back," began he, "is perhaps the most celebrated and highly-prized of all the ducks, on account of the exquisite flavour of its flesh—which is thought by some epicures to be superior to that of all other birds. It is not a large duck—rarely weighing over three pounds—and its plumage is far from equalling in beauty that of many other species. It has a red or chestnut-coloured head, a shining black breast, while the greater part of its body is of a greyish colour; but upon close examination this grey is found to be produced by a whitish ground minutely mottled with zig-zag black lines. I believe it is this mottling, combined with the colour, which somewhat resembles the appearance and texture of ship's canvass, that has given the bird its trivial name; but there is some obscurity about the origin of this.
"Shooting the canvass-backs is a source of profit to hundreds of gunners who live around the Chesapeake Bay, as these birds command a high price in the markets of the American cities. Disputes have arisen between the fowlers of different States around the Bay about the right of shooting upon it; and vessels full of armed men—ready to make war upon one another—have gone out on this account. But the government of these States succeeded in settling the matter peacefully, and to the satisfaction of all parties."
The canoe at this moment shot round a bend, and a long smooth expanse of the river appeared before the eyes of our voyageurs. They could see that upon one side another stream ran in, with a very sluggish current; and around the mouth of this, and for a good stretch below it, there appeared a green sedge-like water-grass, or rushes. Near the border of this sedge, and in a part of it that was thin, a flock of wild fowl was diving and feeding. They were small, and evidently ducks; but the distance was yet too great for the boys to make out to what species they belonged.
A single large swan—a trumpeter—was upon the water, between the shore and the ducks, and was gradually making towards the latter. Francois immediately loaded one of his barrels with swan, or rather "buck" shot, and Basil looked to his rifle. The ducks were not thought of—the trumpeter was to be the game. Lucien took out his telescope, and commenced observing the flock. They had not intended to use any precaution in approaching the birds, as they were not extremely anxious about getting a shot, and were permitting the canoe to glide gently towards them.
An exclamation from Lucien, however, caused them to change their tactics. He directed them suddenly to "hold water," and stop the canoe, at the same time telling them that the birds ahead were the very sort about which they had been conversing—the "canvass-backs." He had no doubt of it, judging from their colour, size, and peculiar movements.
The announcement produced a new excitement. All four were desirous not only of shooting, but of eating, a canvass-back; and arrangements were set about to effect the former. It was known to all that the canvass-backs are among the shyest of water-fowl, so much so that it is difficult to approach them unless under cover. While feeding, it is said, they keep sentinels on the look-out. Whether this be true or not, it is certain that they never all dive together, some always remaining above water, and apparently watching while the others are under.
A plan to get near them was necessary, and one was suggested by Norman, which was to tie bushes around the sides of the canoe, so as to hide both the vessel and those in it. This plan was at once adopted—the canoe was paddled up to the bank—thick bushes were cut, and tied along the gunwale; and then our voyageurs climbed in, and laying themselves as low as possible, commenced paddling gently downward in the direction of the ducks. The rifles were laid aside, as they could be of little service with such game. Francois' double-barrel was the arm upon which dependence was now placed; and Francois himself leaned forward in the bow in order to be ready, while the others attended to the guidance of the vessel. The buckshot had been drawn out, and a smaller kind substituted. The swan was no longer cared for or even thought of.
In about a quarter of an hour's time, the canoe, gliding silently along the edge of the sedge—which was the wild celery—came near the place where the ducks were; and the boys, peeping through the leafy screen, could now see the birds plainly. They saw that they were not all canvass-backs, but that three distinct kinds of ducks were feeding together. One sort was the canvass-backs themselves, and a second kind very much resembled them, except that they were a size smaller. These were the "red-heads" or "pochards."
The third species was different from either. They had also heads of a reddish colour, but of a brighter red, and marked by a white band that ran from the root of the bill over the crown. This mark enabled Lucien at once to tell the species. They were widgeons; but the most singular thing that was now observed by our voyageurs was the terms upon which these three kinds of birds lived with each other. It appeared that the widgeon obtained its food by a regular system of robbery and plunder perpetrated upon the community of the canvass-backs. The latter, as Lucien explained, feeds upon the roots of the valisneria; but for these it is obliged to dive to the depth of four or five feet, and also to spend some time at the bottom while plucking them up. Now the widgeon is as fond of the "celery" as the canvass-back, but the former is not a diver—in fact, never goes under water except when washing itself or in play, and it has therefore no means of procuring the desired roots. Mark, then, the plan that it takes to effect this end.
Seated as near as is safe to the canvass-back, it waits until the latter makes his somersault and goes down. It (the widgeon) then darts forward so as to be sufficiently close, and, pausing again, scans the surface with eager eye. It can tell where the other is at work, as the blades of the plant at which it is tugging are seen to move above the water. These at length disappear, pulled down as the plant is dragged from its root, and almost at the same instant the canvass-back comes up holding the root between his mandibles.
But the widgeon is ready for him. He has calculated the exact spot where the other will rise; and, before the latter can open his eyes or get them clear of the water, the widgeon darts forward, snatches the luscious morsel from his bill, and makes off with it. Conflicts sometimes ensue; but the widgeon, knowing himself to be the lesser and weaker bird, never stands to give battle, but secures his prize through his superior agility. On the other hand, the canvass-back rarely attempts to follow him, as he knows that the other is swifter upon the water than he. He only looks after his lost root with an air of chagrin, and then, reflecting that there is "plenty more where it came from," kicks up its heels, and once more plunges to the bottom.
The red-head rarely interferes with either, as he is contented to feed upon the leaves and stalks, at all times floating in plenty upon the surface.
As the canoe glided near, those on board watched these curious manoeuvres of the birds with feelings of interest. They saw, moreover, that the "trumpeter" had arrived among them, and the ducks seemed to take no notice of him. Lucien was struck with something unusual in the appearance of the swan. Its plumage seemed ruffled and on end, and it glided along in a stiff and unnatural manner. It moved its neck neither to one side nor the other, but held its head bent forward, until its bill almost touched the water, in the attitude that these birds adopt when feeding upon something near the surface. Lucien said nothing to his companions, as they were all silent, lest they might frighten the ducks; but Basil and Norman had also remarked the strange look and conduct of the trumpeter. Francois' eyes were bent only upon the ducks, and he did not heed the other.
As they came closer, first Lucien, and then Basil and Norman, saw something else that puzzled them. Whenever the swan approached any of the ducks, these were observed to disappear under the water. At first, the boys thought that they merely dived to get out of his way, but it was not exactly in the same manner as the others were diving for the roots. Moreover, none of those that went down in the neighbourhood of the swan were seen to come up again!
There was something very odd in all this, and the three boys, thinking so at the same time, were about to communicate their thoughts to one another, when the double crack of Francois' gun drove the thing, for a moment, out of their heads; and they all looked over the bushes to see how many canvass-backs had been killed. Several were seen dead or fluttering along the surface; but no one counted them, for a strange, and even terrible, object now presented itself to the astonished senses of all. If the conduct of the swan had been odd before, it was now doubly so.
Instead of flying off after the shot, as all expected it would do, it was now seen to dance and plunge about on the water, uttering loud screams, that resembled the human voice far more than any other sounds! Then it rose as if pitched into the air, and fell on its back some distance off; while in its place was seen a dark, round object moving through the water, as if making for the bank, and uttering, as it went, the same hideous human-like screams!
This dark object was no other than the poll of a human being; and the river shallowing towards the bank, it rose higher and higher above the water, until the boys could distinguish the glistening neck and naked shoulders of a red and brawny Indian! All was now explained. The Indian had been duck-hunting, and had used the stuffed skin of the swan as his disguise; and hence the puzzling motions of the bird. He had not noticed the canoe—concealed as it was—until the loud crack of Francois' gun had startled him from his work.
This, and the heads and white faces of the boys peeping over the bushes, had frightened him, even more than he had them. Perhaps they were the first white faces he had ever seen. But, whether or not, sadly frightened he was; for, on reaching the bank, he did not stop, but ran off into the woods, howling and yelling as if Old Nick had been after him: and no doubt he believed that such was the case.
The travellers picked up the swan-skin put of curiosity; and, in addition to the ducks which Francois had killed, they found nearly a score of these birds, which the Indian had dropped in his fright, and that had afterwards risen to the surface. These were strung together, and all had their necks broken.
After getting them aboard, the canoe was cleared of the bushes; and the paddles being once more called into service, the little craft shot down stream like an arrow.
THE SHRIKE AND THE HUMMING-BIRDS
The picturesque scenery of the Elk appeared to be a favourite resort with the feathered creation. Here our voyageurs saw many kinds of birds; both those that migrate into the fur countries during summer, and those that make their home there in the cold, dark days of winter. Among the former were observed—the beautiful blue bird of Wilson which, on account of its gentle and innocent habits, is quite as much esteemed in America as the "robin" in England.
Another favourite of the farmer and the homestead, the purple martin, was seen gracefully wheeling through the air; while, among the green leaves, fluttered many brilliant birds. The "cardinal grosbeak" with his bright scarlet wings; the blue jay, noisy and chattering; the rarer "crossbill" with its deep crimson colour; and many others, equally bright and beautiful, enlivened the woods, either with their voice or their gaudy plumage.
There was one bird, however, that had neither "fine feathers" nor an agreeable voice, but that interested our travellers more than any of the others. Its voice was unpleasant to the ear, and sounded more like the grating of a rusty hinge than anything else they could think of. The bird itself was not larger than a thrush, of a light grey colour above, white underneath, and with blackish wings. Its bill resembled that of the hawks, but its legs were more like those of the woodpecker tribe; and it seemed, in fact, to be a cross between the two. It was neither the colour of the bird, nor its form, nor yet its song, that interested our travellers, but its singular habits; and these they had a fine opportunity of observing at one of their "noon camps," where they had halted to rest and refresh themselves during the hot mid-day hours. The place was on one of the little islets, which was covered with underwood, with here and there some larger trees. The underwood bushes were of various sorts; but close to the spot where they had landed was a large thicket of honeysuckle, whose flowers were in full bloom, and filled the air with their sweet perfume.
While seated near these, Francois' quick eye detected the presence of some very small birds moving among the blossoms. They were at once pronounced to be humming-birds, and of that species known as the "ruby-throats" so called, because a flake of a beautiful vinous colour under the throat of the males exhibits, in the sun, all the glancing glories of the ruby. The back, or upper parts, are of a gilded green colour; and the little creature is the smallest bird that migrates into the fur countries, with one exception, and that is a bird of the same genus—the "cinnamon humming-bird." The latter, however, has been seen in the Northern regions, only on the western side of the Rocky Mountains; but then it has been observed even as far north as the bleak and inhospitable shores of Nootka Sound. Mexico, and the tropical countries of America, are the favourite home of the humming-birds; and it was, for a long time, supposed that the "ruby-throats" were the only ones that migrated farther north than the territory of Mexico itself. It is now known, that besides the "cinnamon humming-bird," two or three other species annually make an excursion into higher latitudes.
The "ruby-throats" not only travel into the fur countries, but breed in numbers upon the Elk River, the very place where our travellers now observed them.
As they sat watching these little creatures, for there were several of them skipping about and poising themselves opposite the flowers, the attention of all was attracted to the movements of a far different sort of bird. It was that one we have been speaking of. It was seated upon a tree, not far from the honeysuckles; but every now and then it would spring from its perch, dash forward, and after whirring about for some moments among the humming-birds fly back to the same tree.
At first the boys watched these manoeuvres without having their curiosity excited. It was no new thing to see birds acting in this manner. The jays, and many other birds of the fly-catching kind have this habit, and nothing was thought of it at the moment. Lucien, however, who had watched the bird more narrowly, presently declared to the rest that it was catching the humming-birds, and preying upon them—that each time it made a dash among the honeysuckles, it carried off one in its claws, the smallness of the victim having prevented them at first from noticing this fact. They all now watched it more closely than before, and were soon satisfied of the truth of Lucien's assertion, as they saw it seize one of the ruby-throats in the very act of entering the corolla of a flower.