This excited the indignation of Francois, who immediately took up his "double-barrel," and proceeded towards the tree where the bird, as before, had carried this last victim. The tree was a low one, of the locust or pseud-acacia family, and covered all over with great thorny spikes, like all trees of that tribe. Francois paid no attention to this; but, keeping under shelter of the underwood, he crept forward until within shot. Then raising his gun, he took aim, and pulling trigger, brought the bird fluttering down through the branches. He stepped forward and picked it up—not that he cared for such unworthy game, but Lucien had called to him to do so, as the naturalist wished to make an examination of the creature.
He was about turning to go back to camp, when he chanced to glance his eye up into the locust-tree. There it was riveted by a sight which caused him to cry out with astonishment. His cry brought the rest running up to the spot, and they were not less astonished than he, when they saw the cause of it. I have said that the branches of the tree were covered with long thorny spikes that pointed in every direction; but one branch in particular occupied their attention. Upon this there was about a dozen of these spikes pointing upward, and upon each spike was impaled a ruby-throat!
The little creatures were dead, of course, but they were neither torn nor even much ruffled in their plumage. They were all placed back upwards, and as neatly spitted upon the thorns as if they had been put there by human hands. On looking more closely it was discovered that other creatures as well as the humming-birds, had been served in a similar manner. Several grasshoppers, spiders, and some coleopterous insects were found, and upon another branch two small meadow-mice had been treated to the same terrible death.
To Basil, Norman, and Francois, the thing was quite inexplicable, but Lucien understood well enough what it meant. All these creatures, he informed them, were placed there by the bird which Francois had shot, and which was no other than the "shrike" or "butcher-bird"—a name by which it is more familiarly known, and which it receives from the very habit they had just observed. Why it follows such a practice Lucien could not tell, as naturalists are not agreed upon this point. Some have asserted that it spits the spiders and other insects for the purpose of attracting nearer the small birds upon which it preys; but this cannot be true, for it preys mostly upon birds that are not insect-eaters, as the finches: besides, it is itself as fond of eating grasshoppers as anything else, and consumes large quantities of these insects.
The most probable explanation of the singular and apparently cruel habit of the butcher-bird is, that it merely places its victims upon the thorns, in order to keep them safe from ground-ants, rats, mice, raccoons, foxes, and other preying creatures—just as a good cook would hang up her meat or game in the larder to prevent the cats from carrying it off. The thorny tree thus becomes the storehouse of the shrike, where he hangs up his superfluous spoil for future use, just as the crows, magpies and jays, make their secret deposits in chinks of walls and the hollows of trees. It is no argument against this theory, that the shrike sometimes leaves these stores without returning to them. The fox, and dog, as well as many other preying creatures have the same habit.
Wondering at what they had seen, the voyageurs returned to their camp, and once more embarked on their journey.
A few days after, another incident occurred to our voyageurs, which illustrated the habits of a very interesting bird, the "osprey," or fish-hawk, as it is more familiarly known in America.
The osprey is a bird of the falcon tribe, and one of the largest of the genus—measuring two feet from bill to tail, with an immense spread of wing in proportion, being nearly six feet from tip to tip. It is of a dark brown colour above, that colour peculiar to most of the hawk tribe, while its lower parts are ashy white. Its legs and bill are blue, and its eyes of a yellow orange. It is found in nearly all parts of America, where there are waters containing fish, for on these it exclusively feeds. It is more common on the sea-coast than in the interior, although it also frequents the large lakes, and lives in the central parts of the continent during summer, when these are no longer frozen over. It is not often seen upon muddy rivers, as there it would stand no chance of espying its victims in the water. It is a migratory bird, seeking the South in winter, and especially the shores of the Great Mexican Gulf, where large numbers are often seen fishing together.
In the spring season these birds move to the northward, and make their appearance along the Atlantic coast of the continent, where they diffuse joy into the hearts of the fishermen—because the latter know, on seeing them, that they may soon expect the large shoals of herring, shad, and other fish, for which they have been anxiously looking out. So great favourites are they with the fisherman, that they would not knowingly kill an osprey for a boat-load of fish, but regard these bold fishing birds in the light of "professional brethren." In this case the old adage that "two of a trade never agree" is clearly contradicted.
The farmer often takes up his gun to fire at the osprey—mistaking it for the red-tailed buzzard or some other hawk, several species of which at a distance it resembles—but, on discovering his mistake, brings down his piece without pulling trigger, and lets the osprey fly off unharmed. This singular conduct on the part of the farmer arises from his knowledge of the fact, that the osprey will not only not kill any of his ducks or hens, but that where he makes a settlement he will drive off from the premises all the hawks, buzzards, and kites, that would otherwise prey upon the poultry. With such protection, therefore, the osprey is one of the securest birds in America. He may breed in a tree over the farmer's or fisherman's door without the slightest danger of being disturbed in his incubation.
I say his incubation; but the male takes no part in this domestic duty, further than to supply his loved mate with plenty of fish while she does the hatching business. Of course, thus protected, the osprey is not a rare bird. On the contrary, fish-hawks are more numerous than perhaps any other species of the hawk tribe. Twenty or thirty nests may be seen near each other in the same piece of woods, and as many as three hundred have been counted on one little island. The nests are built upon large trees—not always at the tops, as those of rooks, but often in forks within twenty feet of the ground. They are composed of large sticks, with stalks of corn, weeds, pieces of wet turf, and then lined plentifully with dry sea-grass, or any other grass that may be most convenient.
The whole nest is big enough to make a load for a cart, and would be heavy enough to give any horse a good pull. It can be seen, when the woods are open, to an immense distance, and the more easily, as the tree upon which it is built is always a "dead wood," and therefore without leaves to conceal it. Some say that the birds select a dead or decaying tree for their nest. It is more probable such is the effect and not the cause, of their building upon a particular tree. It is more likely that the tree is killed partly by the mass of rubbish thus piled upon it, and partly by the nature of the substances, such as sea-weed in the nest, the oil of the fish, the excrement of the birds themselves, and the dead fish that have been dropped about the root, and suffered to remain there; for when the osprey lets fall his finny prey, which he often does, he never condescends to pick it up again, but goes in search of another.
Boys "a-nesting" might easily discover the nest of the osprey; but were they inclined to despoil it of its three or four eggs (which are about the size of a duck's, and blotched with Spanish brown), they would find that a less easy task, for the owners would be very likely to claw their eyes out, or else scratch the tender skin from their beardless cheeks: so that boys do not often trouble the nest of the osprey.
A very curious anecdote is related of a negro having climbed up to plunder a nest of these birds. The negro's head was covered with a close nap of his own black wool, which is supposed by a certain stretch of fancy to have the peculiarity of "growing in at both ends." The negro, having no other protection than that which his thick fur afforded him, was assailed by both the owners of the nest, one of which, making a dash at the "darkie's" head, struck his talons so firmly into the wool, that he was unable to extricate them, and there stuck fast, until the astonished plunderer had reached the foot of the tree. We shall not answer for the truthfulness of this anecdote, although there is nothing improbable about it; for certain it is that these birds defend their nests with courage and fury, and we know of more than one instance of persons being severely wounded who made the attempt to rob them.
The ospreys, as already stated, feed exclusively on fish. They are not known to prey upon birds or quadrupeds of any kind, even when deprived of their customary food, as they sometimes are for days on account of the lakes and rivers, in which they expected to find it being frozen over to a later season than usual. Other birds, as the purple grakles, often build among the sticks of the osprey's nest, and rear their young without being meddled with by this generous bird. This is an important point of difference between the osprey and other kinds of hawks; and there is a peculiarity of structure about the feet and legs of the osprey, that points to the nature of his food and his mode of procuring it. His legs are disproportionately long and strong. They are without feathers nearly to the knees. The feet and toes are also very long, and the soles are covered with thick, hard scales, like the teeth of a rasp, which enable the bird to hold securely his slippery prey. The claws, too, are long, and curved into semicircles, with points upon them almost as sharp as needles.
I have stated that an incident occurred to our party that illustrated some of the habits of this interesting bird. It was upon the afternoon of a Saturday, after they had fixed their camp to remain for the following day. They had landed upon a point or promontory that ran out into the river, and from which they commanded a view of a fine stretch of water. Near where they had placed their tent was the nest of an osprey, in the forks of a large poplar. The tree, as usual, was dead, and the young were plainly visible over the edge of the nest. They appeared to be full-grown and feathered; but it is a peculiarity of the young ospreys that they will remain in the nest, and be fed by the parent birds, until long after they might be considered able to shift for themselves. It is even asserted that the latter become impatient at length, and drive the young ones out of the nest by beating them with their wings; but that for a considerable time afterwards they continue to feed them—most likely until the young birds learn to capture their finny prey for themselves.
This Lucien gave as a popular statement, but did not vouch for its truth. It was not long, however, before both he and his companions witnessed its complete verification.
The old birds, after the arrival of the voyageurs upon the promontory, had remained for some time around the nest, and at intervals had shot down to where the party was, uttering loud screams, and making the air whizz with the strokes of their wings. Seeing that there was no intention of disturbing them, they at length desisted from these demonstrations, and sat for a good while quietly upon the edge of their nest. Then first one, and shortly after the other, flew out, and commenced sailing in circles, at the height of an hundred feet or so above the water. Nothing could be more graceful than their flight. Now they would poise themselves a moment in the air, then turn their bodies as if on a pivot, and glide off in another direction.
All these motions were carried on with the most perfect ease, and as if without the slightest aid from the wings. Again they would come to a pause, holding themselves fixed in mid-air by a gentle flapping, and appearing to scrutinise some object below. Perhaps it was a fish; but it was either too large a one, or not the species most relished, or maybe it had sunk to too great a depth to be easily taken. Again they sail around; one of them suddenly arrests its flight, and, like a stone projected from a sling, shoots down to the water. Before reaching the surface, however, the fish, whose quick eye has detected the coming enemy, has gone to the dark bottom and concealed himself; and the osprey, suddenly checking himself by his wings and the spread of his full tail, mounts again, and re-commences his curvilinear flight.
After this had gone on for some time, one of the birds—the larger one, and therefore the female—was seen to leave off hunting and return to the nest. There she sat only for a few seconds, when, to the astonishment of the boys, she began to strike her wings against the young ones, as if she was endeavouring to force them from the nest. This was just what she designed doing. Perhaps her late unsuccessful attempt to get them a fish had led her to a train of reflections, and sharpened her determination to make them shift for themselves. However that may be, in a few moments she succeeded in driving them up to the edge, and then, by half pushing, and half beating them with her wings, one after the other—two of them there were—was seen to take wing, and soar away out over the lake.
At this moment, the male shot down upon the water, and then rose again into the air, bearing a fish, head-foremost, in his talons. He flew directly towards one of the young, and meeting as it hovered in the air, turned suddenly over and held out the fish to it. The latter clutched it with as much ease as if it had been accustomed to the thing for years, and then turning away, carried the fish to a neighbouring tree, and commenced devouring it.
The action had been perceived by the other youngster, who followed after, and alighted upon the same branch, with the intention of sharing in the meal. In a few minutes the best part of the fish was eaten up, and both, rising from the branch, flew back to their nest. There they were met by the parents, and welcomed with a loud squeaking, that was intended, no doubt, to congratulate them upon the success of their first "fly."
THE OSPREY AND HIS TYRANT.
After remaining for some time on the nest along with the others, the old male again resolved to "go a-fishing," and with this intent he shot out from the tree, and commenced wheeling above the water. The boys, having nothing better to engage them, sat watching his motions, while they freely conversed about his habits and other points in his natural history. Lucien informed them that the osprey is a bird common to both Continents, and that it is often seen upon the shores of the Mediterranean, pursuing the finny tribes there, just as it does in America. In some parts of Italy it is called the "leaden eagle," because its sudden heavy plunge upon the water is fancied to resemble the falling of a piece of lead.
While they were discoursing, the osprey was seen to dip once or twice towards the surface of the water, and then suddenly check himself, and mount upward again. These manoeuvres were no doubt caused by the fish which he intended to "hook" having suddenly shifted their quarters. Most probably experience had taught them wisdom, and they knew the osprey as their most terrible enemy. But they were not to escape him at all times. As the boys watched the bird, he was seen to poise himself for an instant in the air, then suddenly closing his wings, he shot vertically downward.
So rapid was his descent, that the eye could only trace it like a bolt of lightning. There was a sharp whizzing sound in the air—a plash was heard—then the smooth bosom of the water was seen to break, and the white spray rose several feet above the surface. For an instant the bird was no longer seen. He was underneath, and the place of his descent was marked by a patch of foam. Only a single moment was he out of sight. The next he emerged, and a few strokes of his broad wing carried him into the air, while a large fish was seen griped in his claws. As the voyageurs had before noticed, the fish was carried head-foremost, and this led them to the conclusion that in striking his prey beneath the water the osprey follows it and aims his blow from behind.
After mounting a short distance the bird paused for a moment in the air, and gave himself a shake, precisely as a dog would do after coming out of water. He then directed his flight, now somewhat slow and heavy, toward the nest. On reaching the tree, however, there appeared to be some mismanagement. The fish caught among the branches as he flew inward. Perhaps the presence of the camp had distracted his attention, and rendered him less careful. At all events, the prey was seen to drop from his talons; and bounding from branch to branch, went tumbling down to the bottom of the tree.
Nothing could be more opportune than this, for Francois had not been able to get a "nibble" during the whole day, and a fresh fish for dinner was very desirable to all. Francois and Basil had both started to their feet, in order to secure the fish before the osprey should pounce down and pick it up; but Lucien assured them that they need be in no hurry about that, as the bird would not touch it again after he had once let it fall. Hearing this, they took their time about it, and walked leisurely up to the tree, where they found the fish lying. After taking it up they were fain to escape from the spot, for the effluvium arising from a mass of other fish that lay in a decomposed state around the tree was more than any delicate pair of nostrils could endure.
The one they had secured proved to be a very fine salmon of not less than six pounds weight, and therefore much heavier than the bird itself! The track of the osprey's talons was deeply marked; and by the direction in which the creature was scored, it was evident the bird had seized it from behind. The old hawks made a considerable noise while the fish was being carried away; but they soon gave up their squealing, and, once more hovering out over the river, sailed about with their eyes bent upon the water below.
"What a number of fish they must kill!" said Francois. "They don't appear to have much difficulty about it. I should think they get as much as they can eat. See! there again! Another, I declare!"
As Francois spoke the male osprey was seen to shoot down as before, and this time, although he appeared scarcely to dip his foot in the water, rose up with a fish in his talons.
"They have sometimes others to provide for besides themselves," remarked Lucien. "For instance, the bald eagle——"
Lucien was interrupted by a cackling scream, which was at once recognised as that of the very bird whose name had just escaped his lips. All eyes were instantly turned in the direction whence it came—which was from the opposite side of the river—and there, just in the act of launching itself from the top of a tall tree, was the great enemy of the osprey—the white-headed eagle himself!
"Now a chase!" cried Francois, "yonder comes the big robber!"
With some excitement of feeling, the whole party watched the movements of the birds. A few strokes of the eagle's wing brought him near; but the osprey had already heard his scream, and knowing it was no use carrying the fish to his nest, turned away from it, and rose spirally upward, in the hope of escaping in that direction. The eagle followed, beating the air with his broad pinions, as he soared after. Close behind him went the female osprey, uttering wild screams, flapping her wings against his very beak, and endeavouring to distract his attention from the chase. It was to no purpose, however, as the eagle full well knew her object, and disregarding her impotent attempts, kept on in steady flight after her mate. This continued until the birds had reached a high elevation, and the ospreys, from their less bulk, were nearly out of sight. But the voyageurs could see that the eagle was on the point of overtaking the one that carried the fish.
Presently, a glittering object dropped down from the heavens, and fell with a plunge upon the water. It was the fish, and almost at the same instant was heard the "whish!" of the eagle, as the great bird shot after it. Before reaching the surface, however, his white tail and wings were seen to spread suddenly, checking his downward course; and then, with a scream of disappointment, he flew off in a horizontal direction, and alit upon the same tree from which he had taken his departure. In a minute after the ospreys came shooting down, in a diagonal line, to their nest; and, having arrived there, a loud and apparently angry consultation was carried on for some time, in which the young birds bore as noisy a part as either of their parents.
"It's a wonder," said Lucien, "the eagle missed the fish—he rarely does. The impetus which he can give his body enables him to overtake a falling object before it can reach the earth. Perhaps the female osprey was in his way, and hindered him.
"But why did he not pick it up in the water?" demanded Francois.
"Because it went to the bottom, and he could not reach it—that's clear."
It was Basil who made answer, and the reason he assigned was the true one.
"It's too bad," said Francois, "that the osprey, not half so big a bird, must support this great robber-tyrant by his industry."
"It's no worse than among our own kind," interposed Basil. "See how the white man makes the black one work for him here in America. That, however, is the few toiling for the million. In Europe the case is reversed. There, in every country, you see the million toiling for the few—toiling to support an oligarchy in luxurious case, or a monarch in barbaric splendour."
"But why do they do so? the fools!" asked Francois, somewhat angrily.
"Because they know no better. That oligarchy, and those monarchs, have taken precious care to educate and train them to the belief that such is the natural state of man. They furnish them with school-books, which are filled with beautiful sophisms—all tending to inculcate principles of endurance of wrong, and reverence for their wrongers. They fill their rude throats with hurrah songs that paint false patriotism in glowing colours, making loyalty—no matter to whatsoever despot—the greatest of virtues, and revolution the greatest of crimes; they studiously divide their subjects into several creeds, and then, playing upon the worst of all passions—the passion of religious bigotry—easily prevent their misguided helots from uniting upon any point which would give them a real reform. Ah! it is a terrible game which the present rulers of Europe are playing!"
It was Basil who gave utterance to these sentiments, for the young republican of Louisiana had already begun to think strongly on political subjects. No doubt Basil would one day be an M.C.
"The bald eagles have been much blamed for their treatment of the ospreys, but," said Lucien, "perhaps they have more reason for levying their tax than at first appears. It has been asked: Why they do not capture the fish themselves? Now, I apprehend, that there is a natural reason why they do not. As you have seen, the fish are not always caught upon the surface. The osprey has often to plunge beneath the water in the pursuit, and Nature has gifted him with power to do so, which, if I am not mistaken, she has denied to the eagles. The latter are therefore compelled, in some measure, to depend upon the former for a supply. But the eagles sometimes do catch the fish themselves, when the water is sufficiently shallow, or when their prey comes near enough to the surface to enable them to seize it."
"Do they ever kill the ospreys?" inquired Francois.
"I think not," replied Lucien; "that would be 'killing the goose,' etc. They know the value of their tax-payers too well to get rid of them in that way. A band of ospreys, in a place where there happens to be many of them together, have been known to unite and drive the eagles off. That, I suppose, must be looked upon in the light of a successful revolution."
The conversation was here interrupted by another incident. The ospreys had again gone out fishing, and, at this moment, one of them was seen to pounce down and take a fish from the water. It was a large fish, and, as the bird flew heavily upward, the eagle again left its perch, and gave chase. This time the osprey was overtaken before it had got two hundred yards into the air, and seeing it was no use attempting to carry off the prey, it opened its claws and let it drop.
The eagle turned suddenly, poised himself a moment, and then shot after the falling fish. Before the latter had got near the ground, he overtook and secured it in his talons. Then, arresting his own flight by the sudden spread of his tail, he winged his way silently across the river, and disappeared among the trees upon the opposite side. The osprey, taking the thing as a matter of course, again descended to the proper elevation, and betook himself to his work. Perhaps he grinned a little, like many another royal taxpayer, but he knew the tax had to be paid all the same, and he said nothing.
An incident soon after occurred that astonished and puzzled our party not a little. The female osprey, that all this time seemed to have had but poor success in her fishing, was now seen to descend with a rush, and plunge deeply into the wave. The spray rose in a little cloud over the spot, and all sat watching with eager eyes to witness the result. What was their astonishment when, after waiting many seconds, the bird still remained under water! Minutes passed, and still she did not come up. She came up no more! The foam she had made in her descent floated away—the bosom of the water was smooth as glass—not a ripple disturbed its surface. They could have seen the smallest object for a hundred yards or more around the spot where she had disappeared.
It was impossible she could have emerged without them seeing her. Where, then, had she gone? This, as I have said, puzzled the whole party; and formed a subject of conjecture and conversation for the rest of that day, and also upon the next. Even Lucien was unable to solve the mystery. It was a point in the natural history of the osprey unknown to him. Could she have drowned herself? Had some great fish, the "gar pike," or some such creature, got hold of and swallowed her? Had she dashed her head against a rock, or become entangled in weeds at the bottom of the river?
All these questions were put, and various solutions of the problem were offered. The true one was not thought of, until accident revealed it. It was Saturday when the incident occurred. The party, of course, remained all next day at the place. They heard almost continually the cry of the bereaved bird, who most likely knew no more than they what had become of his mate. On Monday our travellers re-embarked and continued down-stream. About a mile below, as they were paddling along, their attention was drawn to a singular object floating upon the water. They brought the canoe alongside it.
It was a large fish, a sturgeon, floating dead, with a bird beside it, also dead! On turning both over, what was their astonishment to see that the talons of the bird were firmly fixed in the back of the fish! It was the female osprey! This explained all. She had struck a fish too heavy for her strength, and being unable to clear her claws again, had been drawn under the water and had perished along with her victim!
THE VOYAGE INTERRUPTED.
About ten days' rapid travelling down the Elk River brought our party into the Athabasca Lake—sometimes called the "Lake of the Hills." This is another of those great bodies of fresh water that lie between the primitive rocks of the "Barren Grounds," and the more fertile limestone deposit upon the west. It is nearly two hundred miles long from west to east, and it is only fifteen miles in breadth, but in some places it is so narrow and full of islands that it looks more like a broad river than a lake. Its shores and many of its islands are thickly wooded, particularly upon the southern and western edges; and the eye of the traveller is delighted with many a beautiful vista as he passes along. But our voyageurs took little heed of these things.
A gloom had come over their spirits, for one of their party had taken ill, and was suffering from a painful and dangerous disease—an intermittent fever. It was Lucien—he that was beloved by all of them. He had been complaining for several days—even while admiring the fair scenery of the romantic Elk—but every day he had been getting worse, until, on their arrival at the lake, he declared himself no longer able to travel. It became necessary, therefore, to suspend their journey; and choosing a place for their camp, they made arrangements to remain until Lucien should recover. They built a small log-hut for the invalid, and did everything to make him as comfortable as possible. The best skins were spread for his couch; and cooling drinks were brewed for him from roots, fruits, and berries, in the way he had already taught his companions to prepare them.
Every day Francois went forth with his gun, and returned with a pair of young pigeons, or a wood-partridge, or a brace of the beautiful ruffed grouse; and out of these he would make delicate soups, which he was the better able to do as they had procured salt, pepper, and other ingredients, at the Fort. They had also brought with them a stock of tea—the real China tea—and sugar; and as the quantity of both was but small, this luxurious beverage was made exclusively for Lucien, and was found by him exceedingly beneficial during his illness.
To the great joy of all the invalid was at length restored to health, and the canoe being once more launched and freighted, they continued their journey.
They coasted along the shores of the lake, and entered the Great Slave River, which runs from the Athabasca into the Great Slave Lake. They soon came to the mouth of another large river, called the Peace. This runs into the Great Slave a short distance below Lake Athabasca, and, strange to say, the sources of the Peace River lie upon the western side of the Rocky Mountains, so that this stream actually runs across the mountain-chain! It passes through the mountains in a succession of deep gorges, which are terrible to behold. On both sides dizzy cliffs and snow-capped peaks rise thousands of feet above its rocky bed, and the scenery is cold and desolate.
Its head-waters interlock with those of several streams that run into the Pacific; so that, had our voyageurs wished to travel to the shores of that ocean, they might have done so in their birch-bark canoe nearly the whole of the way. But this was not their design at present, so they passed the debouchure of the Peace, and kept on for the Great Slave Lake. They were still upon the same water as the Elk, for the Great Slave is only another name for that part of the river lying between the two lakes—Athabasca and Great Slave. Of course the river had now become much larger by the influx of the Peace, and they were travelling upon the bosom of a magnificent stream, with varied scenery upon its banks.
They were not so happy, however, as when descending the Elk—not but that they were all in good health, for Lucien had grown quite strong again. No, it was not any want of health that rendered them less cheerful. It was the prospect before them—the prospect of coming winter, which they now felt certain would arrive before they had got to the end of their journey. The delay of nearly a month, occasioned by Lucien's illness, had deranged all their calculations; and they had no longer any hope of being able to finish their voyage in what remained of the short summer. The ice would soon make its appearance; the lakes and rivers would be frozen up; they could no longer navigate them in their canoe. To travel afoot would be a most laborious undertaking, as well as perilous in an extreme degree.
In this way it is only possible to carry a very small quantity of provisions—for the traveller is compelled to load himself with skin-clothing in order to keep out the cold. The chances of procuring game by the way in that season are precarious, and not to be depended upon. Most of the birds and many of the quadrupeds migrate to more southern regions; and those that remain are shy and rare. Besides, great snow-storms are to be encountered, in which the traveller is in danger of getting "smoored." The earth is buried under a deep covering of snow, and to pass over this while soft is difficult, and at times quite impossible. All these circumstances were known to our young voyageurs—to Norman better than any of them—and of course the prospect was a cheerless one—much more so than those unacquainted with the winter of these dreary regions would be willing to believe.
It was the month of August, near its end, when they reached the Great Slave Lake, in the latitude of 62 deg.. The days had now become very short, and their journeys grew short in proportion. They already experienced weather as cold as an English winter. There were slight frosts at night—though not yet enough to cover the water with ice—and the mid-day hours were hot, sometimes too hot to be comfortable. But this only caused them to feel the cold the more sensibly when evening set in; and all their robes and skins were necessary to keep them warm during the night.
The Great Slave Lake, like the Athabasca, is very long and very narrow. It extends full 260 miles from east to west, but at its widest part is not over thirty, and in some places much less. Along its northern shores lies the edge of the "Barren Grounds," and there nothing meets the eye but bleak and naked hills of primitive rock. On its southern side the geology is entirely of a different character. There the limestone prevails, and scarcely anything that deserves the name of hill is to be seen. There are fine forests too, in which poplars, pines, and birches, are the principal trees. The lake is filled with islands, many of which are wholly or partially covered with timber of these kinds, and willows also are abundant.
There are fish of several species in its waters—which are in many places of great depth—sixty fathoms deep—and in some of the islands, and around the wooded shores, game exists in abundance in the summer season. Even in winter it is not scarce, but then it is difficult to follow it on account of the deep snow. Many of the animals, too, at this season become torpid, and are of course hidden in caves and hollow trees, and even in the snow itself, where no one can find them. Notwithstanding all this, our voyageurs knew that it would be the best place for them to make their winter camp. They saw that to complete their journey during that season would be impossible. Even had it been a month earlier it would have been a difficult undertaking.
In a few days winter would be upon them. They would have to stop somewhere. There was no place where they could so safely stay as by the lake. One thing they would have there, which might not be found so plenty elsewhere, that was wood for their fire; and this was an inducement to remain by the lake. Having made up their minds, therefore, to encamp on some part of it, they looked from day to day for a place that would be most suitable, still continuing their journey towards its western end. As yet no place appeared to their liking, and as the lake near its western point trends away towards the south, Norman proposed that they should follow the shore no longer, but strike across to a promontory on the northern shore of the lake, known as "Slave Point."
This promontory is of the limestone formation, and as Norman had heard, is well wooded, and stocked with game. Even buffaloes are found there. It is, in fact, the farthest point to the north-east that these animals range, and this presents us with a curious fact. It is the farthest point that the limestone deposit extends in that direction. Beyond that, to the east and north, lie the primitive rocks of the Barren Grounds, into which the buffaloes never stray. Thus we observe the connexion that exists between the fauna of a country and its geological character.
Of course they all agreed to Norman's proposal. The canoe was, therefore, headed for the open waters; and, after a hard day's paddling—for there was a head-wind—the voyageurs landed upon a small wooded island, about half-way over the lake, where they encamped for the night, intending next day to cross the remaining part.
FISHING UNDER THE ICE.
On awaking next morning, to their great surprise, they saw that the lake was frozen over! They had almost anticipated as much, for the night was one of the coldest they had yet experienced—so cold that one and all of them had slept but badly. As yet the ice was thin, but so much the worse. It was thick enough to prevent them from using the canoe, but too thin to bear their weight, and they now saw that they were prisoners upon the island!
It was not without some feelings of alarm that they made this discovery; but their fears were allayed by reflecting, that they could remain upon the island until the ice either thawed away or become strong enough to bear them, and then they could cross upon it to the northern shore. With this consolation, therefore, they set about making their temporary quarters upon the island as snug as circumstances would permit. Their apprehensions, however, began to return again, when several days had passed over, and the ice neither grew any thinner nor any thicker, but seemed to remain at a stand-still. In the early part of the morning it was almost strong enough to bear them; but during the day the sun melted it, until it was little better than a scum over the surface of the water.
The alarm of our voyageurs increased. Their provisions were nearly out. There was no game on the islet—not so much as a bird—for they had beaten every bush, and found nothing. Once or twice they thought of launching their canoe and breaking a way for it through the ice. But they knew that this proceeding would be one of much labour as well as danger. The islet was full ten miles from the shore, and they would therefore have to break the ice for ten miles. Moreover, to stand up in a bark canoe, so as to get at the work, would be a difficult task. It could not be accomplished without endangering the equilibrium of the vessel, and indeed without upsetting it altogether. Even to lean forward in the bow would be a perilous experiment; and under these considerations the idea of breaking a way was abandoned.
But their provisions were at length entirely exhausted, and what was to be done? The ice was still too weak to carry them. Near the shore it might have been strong enough, but farther out lay the danger. There they knew it was thinner, for it had not frozen over until a later period. It would have been madness to have risked it yet. On the other hand, they were starving, or likely to starve from hunger, by staying where they were. There was nothing eatable on the island. What was to be done? In the water were fish—they doubted not that—but how were they to catch them? They had tried them with hook and line, letting the hook through a hole in the ice; but at that late season the fish would not take a bait, and although they kept several continually set, and "looked" them most regularly and assiduously, not a "tail" was taken.
They were about to adopt the desperate expedient, now more difficult than ever, of breaking their way through the ice, when, all at once, it occurred to Norman, that, if they could not coax the fish to take a bait, they might succeed better with a net, and capture them against their will. This idea would have been plausible enough, had there been a net; but there was no net on that islet, nor perhaps within an hundred miles of it. The absence of a net might have been an obstacle to those who are ever ready to despair; but such an obstacle never occurred to our courageous boys. They had two parchment skins of the caribou which they had lately killed, and out of these Norman proposed to make a net.
He would soon do it, he said, if the others would set to work and cut the deer-skins into thongs fine enough for the purpose. Two of them, therefore, Basil and Lucien, took out their knives, and went briskly to work; while Francois assisted Norman in twining the thongs, and afterwards held them, while the latter wove and knotted them into meshes. In a few hours both the skins were cut into fine strips, and worked up; and a net was produced nearly six yards in length by at least two in width. It was rude enough, to be sure, but perhaps it would do its work as well as if it had been twined out of silk. At all events, it was soon to have a trial—for the moment it was finished the sinkers were attached to it, and it was carried down to the edge of the water.
The three "Southerners" had never seen a net set under ice—for in their country ice is an uncommon thing, and indeed never freezes of sufficient thickness to carry the weight of a man. They were therefore very curious to know how the thing was to be done. They could not conceive how the net was to be stretched under the ice, in such a manner as to catch the fish. Norman, however, knew all about it. He had seen the Indians, and had set many a one himself. It was no new thing for him, and he set about it at once.
He first crept out upon the ice to the distance of about twenty or thirty yards from the shore. He proceeded cautiously, as the ice creaked under him. Having arrived at the place where he intended to set the net, he knelt down, and with his knife cut several holes in the ice, at the distance of about six feet from each other, and all in one line. He had already provided himself with a straight sapling of more than six feet in length, to one end of which he had attached a cord. The other end of this cord was tied to the net, at one of its corners. He now thrust the sapling through the first hole he had made, and then guided it so as to pass directly under the second.
At this hole he took a fresh hold of the stick, and passed it along to the next, and so on to the last, where he pulled it out again, and of course along with it the string. The net was not drawn into the first hole, and by means of the cord already received through, was pulled out to its full length. The sinkers, of course, fell down in the water, and drew it into a vertical position. At both its upper corners the net was made fast above the ice, and was now "set." Nothing more could be done until the fish came into it of their own accord, when it could be drawn out upon the ice by means of the cord attached; and, of course, by the same means could easily be returned to its place, and set again.
All of them now went back to the fire, and with hungry looks sat around it, waiting the result. They had made up their minds, should no fish be caught, to get once more into the canoe and attempt breaking their way to the shore. Summoning all their patience, therefore, they waited for nearly two hours, without examining the net. Then Norman and Basil crawled back upon the ice, to see what fortune had done for them. They approached the spot, and, with their hearts thumping against their ribs, untied the knot and commenced hauling out.
"It certainly feels heavy," said Basil, as the net was being drawn. "Hurrah!" he shouted, "Something kicks, hurrah!" and with the second "hurrah!" a beautiful fish was pulled up through the hole, and landed upon the ice. A loud "hurrah" was uttered in response by Lucien and Francois—who, fearing the ice might not bear so many, had remained upon the shore. A yard or two more of the net was cleared, and a second fish still larger than the former was greeted with a general "hurrah!" The two fish were now taken out—as these were all that had been caught—and the net was once more carefully set. Basil and Norman came back to the shore—Norman to receive quite a shower of compliments from his companions.
The fish—the largest of which weighed nearly five pounds—proved to be trout; and it was not long before their quality was put to the proof. All declared they had never eaten so fine trout in their lives; but when the condition of their appetites is taken into account, we may infer that there was, perhaps, a little exaggeration in this statement. If hunger really makes good sauce, our voyageurs had the best of sauce with their fish, as each of them was as hungry as a half-famished wolf.
They felt quite relieved, as far as present appetite went, but they were still uneasy for the future. Should they not succeed in taking more fish—and it was by no means certain they should succeed—they would be no better off than ever. Their anxiety, however, was soon removed. Their second "haul" proved even more successful than the first—as five fish, weighing together not less than twenty pounds, were pulled up.
This supply would enable them to hold out for a long time, but they had not much longer to remain on the islet. Upon that very night there was one of those severe frosts known only in high latitudes, and the ice upon the lake became nearly a foot in thickness. They had no longer any fear of its breaking under their weight; and taking their canoe with all their "traps," they set out to cross over upon the ice. In a few hours they reached the shore of the lake, near the end of the promontory, where they chose a spot, and encamped.
AN ODD ALARM.
The first thing our voyageurs did after choosing a suitable situation, was to build a log-hut. Being young backwoodsmen this was but a trifle to them. All four of them knew how to handle an axe with dexterity. The logs were soon cut and notched, and a small cabin was put up, and roofed with split clap-boards. With the stones that lay near the shore of the lake they built a chimney. It was but a rude structure, but it drew admirably. Clay was wanted to "chink" the cabin, but that could not be had, as the ground was hard frozen, and it was quite impossible to make either clay or mud.
Even hot water poured out would freeze into ice in a few minutes. This was a serious want—for in such a cold climate even the smallest hole in the walls will keep a house uncomfortable, and to fill the interstices between the logs, so as to make them air-tight, some soft substance was necessary. Grass was suggested, and Lucien went off in search of it. After awhile he returned with an armful of half-withered grass, which all agreed would be the very thing; and a large quantity was soon collected, as it grew plentifully at a short distance from the cabin.
They now set to work to stuff it into the chinks; when, to their astonishment, they found that this grass had a beautiful smell, quite as powerful and as pleasant as that of mint or thyme! When a small quantity of it was flung into the fire it filled the cabin with a fragrance as agreeable as the costliest perfumes. It was the "scented grass," which grows in great profusion in many parts of the Hudson's Bay territory, and out of which the Indians often make their beds, burning it also upon the fire to enjoy its aromatic perfume.
For the first day or two, at their new abode, the travellers had lived altogether on fish. They had, of course, brought their net with them from the island, and had set it near the shore in the same way as before. They had captured as many as they wanted, and, strange to say, at one haul they found no less than five different species in the net! One kind, a white fish, the Coregonus albus of naturalists, but which is named "tittameg" by the fur-traders, they caught in great plenty. This fish is found in nearly all the lakes and rivers of the Hudson's Bay territory, and is much prized both by whites and Indians for its delicate flavour. At some of the trading posts it often forms, for weeks together, the only food which the residents can obtain; and they are quite satisfied when they can get enough of it. The tittameg is not a large fish; the largest attain to the weight of about eight pounds.
There was another and still smaller species, which, from its colour, the voyageurs call the "poisson bleu," or blue fish. It is the Coregonus signifer of ichthyologists. It is a species of grayling, and frequents sharp-running water, where it will leap at the fly like a trout. Several kinds of trout also inhabit the Great Slave Lake, and some of these attain to the enormous weight of eighty pounds! A few were caught, but none of so gigantic proportions as this. Pike were also taken in the net, and a species of burbot. This last is one of the most voracious of the finny tribe, and preys upon all others that it is able to swallow. It devours whole quantities of cray-fish, until its stomach becomes crammed to such a degree as to distort the shape of its whole body. When this kind was drawn out, it was treated very rudely by the boys—because its flesh was known to be extremely unsavoury, and none of them cared to eat it. Marengo, however, had no such scruples, and he was wont to make several hearty meals each day upon the rejected burbot.
A fish diet exclusively was not the thing; and as our party soon grew tired of it, the hunter Basil shouldered his rifle, and strode off into the woods in search of game. The others remained working upon the cabin, which was still far from being finished.
Basil kept along the edge of the lake in an easterly direction. He had not gone more than a quarter of a mile, when he came upon a dry gravelly ridge, which was thickly covered with a species of pine-trees that resembled the Scotch fir. These trees were not over forty feet in height, with very thick trunks and long flexible branches. No other trees grew among them, for it is the nature of this pine—which was the "scrub" or grey pine—to monopolise the ground wherever it grows. As Basil passed on, he noticed that many of the trees were completely "barked," particularly on the branches; and small pieces of the bark lay scattered over the ground, as though it had been peeled off and gnawed by some animal. He was walking quietly on and thinking what creature could have made such a wreck, when he came to a place where the ground was covered with fine sand or dust.
In this, to his astonishment, he observed what he supposed to be the tracks of human feet! They were not those of a man, but small tracks, resembling the footsteps of a child of three or four years of age. He was about stooping down to examine them more closely, when a voice sounded in his ears exactly like the cry of a child! This brought him suddenly to an erect attitude again, and he looked all round to discover who or what had uttered that strange cry. He could see no one—child or man—and strange, too, for he had a clear view through the tree-trunks for several hundred yards around. He was filled with curiosity, not unmixed with alarm; and, stepping forward a few paces, he was about to bend down and examine the tracks a second time, when the singular cry again startled him.
This time it was louder than before, as if he was closer to whatever had uttered it, but Basil now perceived that it proceeded from above him. The creature from which it came was certainly not upon the ground, but high up among the tops of the trees. He looked up, and there, in the fork of one of the pines, he perceived a singular and hideous-looking animal—such as he had never before seen. It was of a brown colour, about the size of a terrier-dog, with thick shaggy hair, and clumped up in the fork of the tree—so that its head and feet were scarcely distinguishable.
Its odd appearance, as well as the peculiar cry which it had uttered, would have alarmed many a one of less courage than our young hunter, and Basil was at first, as he afterwards confessed, "slightly flurried;" but a moment's reflection told him what the animal was—one of the most innocent and inoffensive of God's creatures—the Canada porcupine. It was this, then, that had barked the scrub pines—for they are its favourite food; and it was its track—which in reality very much resembles that of a child—that Basil had seen in the sand.
The first thought of the young hunter was to throw up his rifle, and send a bullet through the ungainly animal; which, instead of making any effort to escape, remained almost motionless, uttering, at intervals, its child-like screams. Basil, however, reflected that the report of his rifle would frighten any large game that might chance to be near; and as the porcupine was hardly worth a shot, he concluded, upon reflection, it would be better to leave it alone. He knew—for he had heard Lucien say so—that he would find the porcupine at any time, were it a week, or even a month after—for these creatures remain sometimes a whole winter in the same grove. He resolved, therefore, should no other game turn up, to return for it; and, shouldering his rifle again, he continued his course through the woods.
As he proceeded, the timber became thinner. The scrub-pines gave place to poplar-trees, with here and there an undergrowth of willows. The trees stood far apart, and the willows grew only in clumps or "islands," so that the view was nearly open for many hundred yards around. Basil walked on with all the silence and watchfulness of a true "still" hunter—for, among backwoodsmen, this species of hunting is so called. He ascended a low hill, and keeping a tree in front of him, looked cautiously over its crest. Before him, and stretching from the bottom of the hill, was a level tract of considerable extent.
It was bounded on one side by the edge of the lake, and on all the others by thin woods, similar to those through which the hunter had been for some time travelling. Here and there, over the plain, there stood trees, far apart from each other, and in nowise intercepting the view for a mile or more. The ground was clear of underwood, except along the immediate edge of the lake, which was fringed by a thicket of willows.
As Basil looked over the hill, he espied a small group of animals near the interior border of the willows. He had never seen animals of the same species before, but the genus was easily told. The tall antlered horns, that rose upon the head of one of them, showed that they were deer of some kind; and the immense size of the creature that bore them, together with his ungainly form, his long legs, and ass-like ears, his huge head with its overhanging lip, his short neck with its standing mane, and, above all, the broad palmation of the horns themselves, left Basil without any doubt upon his mind that the animals before him were moose-deer—the largest, and perhaps the most awkward, of all the deer kind.
The one with the antlers was the male or bull-moose. The others were the female and her two calves of the preceding year. The latter were still but half-grown, and, like the female, were without the "branching horns" that adorned the head of the old bull. They were all of a dark-brown colour—looking blackish in the distance—but the large one was darker than any of the others.
Basil's heart beat high, for he had often heard of the great moose, but now saw it for the first time. In his own country it is not found, as it is peculiarly a creature of the cold regions, and ranges no farther to the south than the northern edge of the United States territory. To the north it is met with as far as timber grows—even to the shores of the Polar Sea! Naturalists are not certain, whether or not it be the same animal with the elk of Europe. Certainly the two are but little, if anything, different; but the name "elk" has been given in America to quite another and smaller species of deer—the wapiti.
The moose takes its name from its Indian appellation, "moosoea," or "wood-eater;" and this name is very appropriate, as the animal lives mostly upon the leaves and twigs of trees. In fact, its structure—like that of the camelopard—is such that it finds great difficulty in reaching grass, or any other herbage, except where the latter chances to be very tall, or grows upon the declivity of a very steep hill. When it wishes to feed upon grass, the moose usually seeks it in such situations; and it may often be seen browsing up the side of a hill, with its legs spread widely on both sides of its neck. But its favourite food is found at a more convenient height, and consists of the young shoots of many species of trees. It prefers those of the poplar, the birch-tree, and willows, and one kind of these last, the red willow, is its particular favourite.
The "striped" maple is also much relished by the moose—hence the name "moose-wood," by which this tree is known among the hunters. It loves also the common water-lilies, and in summer it may be seen wading out into lakes, and plucking up their succulent leaves. It takes to the water also for other purposes—to cool its body, and rid itself of several species of gnats and mosquitoes that at this season torment it exceedingly. At such times it is more easily approached; and the Indians hunt it in their canoes, and kill it in the water, both with spears and arrows. They never find the moose, however, in large numbers—for it is a solitary animal, and only associates in pairs during one part of the year, and in families at another season—as Basil now found it.
In winter the Indians track it through the snow, following it upon snow-shoes. These give them the advantage of skimming along the surface, while the moose plunges through the deep rift, and is therefore impeded in its flight. Notwithstanding, it will frequently escape from the hunter, after a chase of several days' duration! Sometimes, in deep snow, a dozen or more of these animals will be found in one place, where they have got accidentally together. The snow will be trodden down until the place appears as if enclosed by a wall. This the hunters term a "moose-pound," and when found in such situations the moose are easily approached and surrounded—when a general battue takes place, in which few or none of the animals are allowed to escape.
I have said that Basil's heart beat high at the sight of the moose. He was very desirous of killing one—partly on account of the novelty of the thing, and partly because he and his companions at the camp were anxious for a change of diet. Moose-meat was the very thing; and he knew that if he could return to camp with a few pieces of this strung over his gun, he would receive a double welcome. He was well aware that the flesh of the moose was of the most savoury and delicate kind, and that the long pendulous upper lip is one of the "tit-bits" of the fur countries. Moreover, the fine hide would be an acceptable addition to their stock, as it is the best of all deer-skins for mocassins, as well as snow-shoes—articles which Basil knew would soon be needed. For these reasons he was unusually desirous of killing one of the moose.
He knew it would be difficult to approach them. He had heard that they were shyest at that very season—the beginning of winter—and indeed such is the case. No deer is so difficult to get a shot at as a moose in early winter. In summer it is not so—as then the musquitoes torment these animals to such a degree that they pay less heed to other enemies, and the hunter can more easily approach them. In winter they are always on the alert. Their sense of smell—as well as of sight and hearing—is acute to an extreme degree, and they are cunning besides. They can scent an enemy a long distance off—if the wind be in their favour—and the snapping of a twig, or the slightest rustle of the leaves, is sufficient to start them off.
In their journeyings through the snow, when they wish to rest themselves, they make a sort of detour, and, coming back, lie down near the track which they have already passed over. This gives them an opportunity of hearing any enemy that may be following upon their trail, and also of making off in a side-direction, while the latter will be looking steadfastly ahead for them.
Basil had heard of all these tricks of the moose—for many an old moose-hunter had poured his tale into Basil's ear. He proceeded, therefore, with all due caution. He first buried his hand in his game-bag, and after a little groping brought out a downy feather which had chanced to be there. This he placed lightly upon the muzzle of his rifle, and having gently elevated the piece above his head, watched the feather. After a moment, the breeze carried it off, and Basil noted the direction it took. This is called, in hunter phrase, "tossing the feather," and gave Basil the exact direction of the wind—an important knowledge in the present case.
To Basil's gratification he saw that it was blowing down the lake, and nearly towards himself. He was not exactly to leeward of the moose; but, what was better still, the willows that fringed the lake were, for he could see them bending from the deer, as the breeze blew freshly. He knew he could easily get among the willows; and as they were not quite leafless, and, moreover, were interspersed with tall reed grass, they formed a tolerable cover under which he might make his approach.
Without losing time, then, he made for the willows, and placing them between himself and the game, commenced "approaching" along the shore of the lake.
He had a full half-hour's creeping—at one time upon his hands and knees—at another crawling flat upon his breast like a gigantic lizard, and now and then, at favourable spots, walking in a bent attitude. A full half-hour was he, and much pain and patience did it cost him, before getting within shot. But Basil was a hunter, and knew both how to endure the pain and practise the patience—virtues that, in hunting as well as in many other occupations usually meet with their reward. And Basil was likely to meet with his, for on parting the leaves, and looking cautiously through, he saw that he had arrived at the right spot. Within fifty yards of him he saw the high shoulders of the bull-moose and his great flat antlers towering over the tops of the willows, among the leaves of which the snout of the animal was buried. He also caught a glimpse of parts of the other three beyond; but he thought only of the bull, and it was upon him that he kept his eyes fixed. Basil did not think of the quality of the meat, else he would have selected either the cow or one of the calves. Had it been buffaloes he would certainly have done so; but as he had never killed a moose, he was determined to slay the leader of the herd.
Indeed, had he wished to shoot one of the others, it might not have been so easy, as they were farther off, and he could only see the tops of their shoulders over the willows. Neither did the bull offer a fair mark. He stood face to face with the hunter, and Basil fancied that a shot on the frontal bone might not kill him. He knew it would not kill a buffalo. There was only one other part at which he could aim—the fore-shoulder; and after waiting some moments for the animal to give him a fairer chance he took aim at this and fired. He heard a loud cracking of hoofs, as the cow and calves shambled off over the plain, but he saw that the bull was not with them. He was down behind the willows. No doubt he was dead.
ENCOUNTER WITH A MOOSE.
What was a rare thing for Basil to do, he rushed forward without reloading his gun. A few springs brought him into the open ground, and in presence of the game. To his astonishment, the bull was not dead, nor down neither, but only upon his knees—of course wounded. Basil saw the "crease" of the bullet along the neck of the animal as he drew near. It was only by a quick glance that he saw this, for as soon as the bull saw him he rose to his full height—his eyes flashing like a tiger's—and settling his antlers in a forward position, sprang upon the hunter! Basil leaped aside to avoid the encounter; and in the first rush was successful, but the animal turned suddenly, and, coming up a second time, raised his fore-feet high in the air, and struck forward with his long-pointed hoofs.
Basil attempted to defend himself with his rifle, but the piece was struck out of his hand in an instant. Once more avoiding the forward rush of the infuriated beast, the young hunter looked around for some object to save him. A tree fell under his eye, and he ran towards it with all his speed. The moose followed close upon his heels, and he had just time to reach the tree and get around its trunk, when the animal brushed past, tearing the bark with his sharp antlers. Basil now slipped round the trunk, and when the moose again turned himself the two were on opposite sides of the tree! The beast, however, rushed up, and struck the tree furiously first with his brow antlers, and then with his hoofs, uttering loud snorts, and at intervals a shrill whistling sound that was terrible to hear.
The disappointment which the enraged animal felt, at seeing his enemy thus escape him, seemed to have added to his rage; and he now vented his spite upon the tree, until the trunk, to the height of six feet, was completely stripped of its bark. While this was going on, Basil remained behind the tree, "dodging" round as the moose manoeuvred, and taking care always to have the animal on the opposite side. To have got into a safer situation he would have climbed the tree; but it happened to be a poplar, without a branch for many feet from the ground, and of too great a girth to be "embraced." He could do nothing, therefore, but remain upon the ground, and keep the tree-trunk between himself and the bull.
For nearly an hour this lasted, the moose now remaining at rest for a few minutes, and then making fresh onsets that seemed to abate nothing in their fury. His rage appeared to be implacable, and his vengeance as tenacious as that of a tiger or any other beast of prey. The wound which the hunter had given him was no doubt painful, and kept his resentment from cooling. Unfortunately, it was not a mortal wound, as Basil had every opportunity of seeing. The bullet had hit the fore-shoulder; but, after tearing along the skin, had glanced off without injuring the bone. It had only enraged the bull, without crippling him in the least degree.
Basil began to dread the result. He was becoming faint with fatigue as well as hunger. When would he be relieved? When would the fierce brute feel inclined to leave him? These were questions which the hunter put to himself repeatedly, without being able to divine an answer. He had heard of hunters being killed by wounded moose. He had heard that these creatures will remain for days watching a person whom they may have "treed." He could not stand it for days. He would drop down with fatigue, and then the bull would gore and trample him at pleasure. Would they be able to trace him from the camp? They would not think of that before nightfall. They would not think of him as "lost" before that time; and then they could not follow his trail in the darkness, nor even in the light—for the ground was hard as a rock, and he had made no footmarks. Marengo might trace him. The dog had been left at the camp, as Basil preferred "still-hunting" without him. But in his present situation the hunter's apprehensions were stronger than his hopes. Even Marengo might be baffled in lifting the scent.
The trail was an exceedingly devious one, for Basil had meandered round the sides of the hill in search of game. Deer or other animals might have since crossed it, which might mislead the hound. It would be cold at night, and much colder next morning. There were many chances that no relief might reach him from the camp. Impressed with this conviction, Basil began to feel serious alarm. Not despair, however—he was not the boy to despair. His mind only grew more alive to the necessity for action. He looked around to discover some means of escape. His gun lay not a hundred yards off. Could he only get hold of the piece, and return safely to the tree again, he could there load it and put an end to the scene at once. But to reach the gun was impossible. The moose would bound after and overtake him to a certainty. The idea of getting the gun was abandoned.
In the opposite direction to that in which the gun lay, Basil perceived that there were other trees. The nearest was but a dozen yards from him; and others, again, grew at about the same distance from that one, and from each other. Basil now conceived the idea of escaping to the nearest, and from that to the next, and by this means getting back into the thick forest. Once there, he believed that he would be the better able to effect his escape, and perhaps reach the camp by dodging from tree to tree. He could beat the moose for a dozen yards—getting a little the start of him—and this he hoped to be able to do. Should he fail in his short race, however—should his foot slip—the alternative was fearful. It was no other than death!
He knew that, but it did not change his resolution to make the attempt. He only waited for the animal to work round between him and the tree towards which he intended to run. You will wonder that he did not prefer to have the moose on the other side. But he did not, for this reason—had the bull been there, he could have sprung after him at the first start; whereas, when heading the other way, Basil believed he could brush close past, and gain an advantage, as the unwieldy brute, taken by surprise, would require some time in turning himself to give chase.
The opportunity at length arrived; and, nerving himself for the race, the hunter sprang past the moose, brushing the very tips of its antlers. He ran without either stopping or even looking back, until he had reached the tree, and sheltered himself behind its trunk. The moose had followed, and arrived but the moment after, snorting and whistling furiously. Enraged at the ruse, it attacked this tree, as it had the other, with hoof and horns; and Basil nimbly evaded both by keeping on the opposite side, as before.
In a few minutes he prepared himself for a second rush, and once more started. A third tree was reached in safety—and then a fourth, and a fifth, and many others, in a similar manner—the moose all the while following in hot pursuit. Basil had begun to hope that in this way he would get off, when, to his chagrin, he saw that an open space still intervened between him and the thick woods, upon which there were only a few trees, and those so small that not one of them would have sheltered him. This tract was full two hundred yards in width, and extended all along the edge of the thick forest. He dared not cross it. The moose would overtake him before he could get half the way; and he was obliged to give up the idea of making the attempt.
As he stood behind the last tree he had reached, he saw that it branched, and the lowest branches grew but a little above his head. He could easily climb it, and at once resolved to do so. He would there be safe for the time, and could at least rest himself, for he was now weak with fatigue. He therefore stretched up his hands, and, laying hold of a branch, swung himself up into the tree. Then, climbing up a little higher, he sat down on one of the forks.
The moose appeared as furious as ever; and ran round the tree, now striking it with his horns, and then rearing upon his hind-legs, and pouncing against the trunk with his hoofs. At times his snout was so close to Basil, that the latter could almost touch it; and he had even drawn his hunting-knife, and reached down with the intent of giving the creature a stab.
This last action led to a train of thought, and Basil seemed suddenly to adopt some new resolution. Leaving the fork where he had perched himself, he climbed higher up the tree; and, selecting one of the longest and straightest branches, commenced cutting it off close to the trunk. This was soon effected; and then, drawing it along his knee, he trimmed off all the twigs and tops until the branch became a straight pole, like a spear-handle. Along one end of this he laid the handle of his knife; and with thongs, which he had already cut out of the strap of his bullet-pouch, he spliced the knife and pole together. This gave him a formidable weapon—for the knife was a "bowie," and had a long blade, with a point like a rapier. He was not slow in using it.
Descending again to the lowermost limbs, he commenced making demonstrations, in order to bring the moose within reach. This he very soon succeeded in doing; and the animal ran forward and reared up against the tree. Before it could get upon its four legs again, Basil had thrust it in the neck, giving full force to the blow. The blood rushed forth in a thick stream, as the jugular vein had been cut by the keen blade; and the huge brute was seen to totter in its steps, and then fall with a dull heavy sound to the earth. In a few moments the hunter had the satisfaction of perceiving that it was quite dead.
Basil now dropped out of the tree, and walking back to where his rifle lay, took up the piece and carefully reloaded it. He then returned to the moose, and opening the great jaws of the animal, gagged them with a stick. He next unspliced his knife, took off the gristly lips, and cut out the tongue. These he placed in his game-bag, and shouldering his rifle, was about to depart; when some new idea caused him to halt, put down his gun, and again unsheath his knife. Once more approaching the carcass, he made an incision near the kidneys; and having inserted his hand, drew forth what appeared to be a part of the intestines. It was the bladder. He then looked around as if in search of something. Presently his eye rested upon some tall reed-grass that was growing near. This was just what he wanted, and, pulling up one of the stems, he cut and fashioned it into a pipe.
With this the moose-bladder was blown out to its full dimensions, and tied at the neck by a piece of thong. The other end of the thong was fastened to one of the branches of the tree above, so that the bladder dangled within a few feet of the carcass of the moose, dancing about with the lightest breath of wind. All these precautions Basil had taken to keep the wolves from devouring the moose—for it was his intention to return and butcher it, as soon as he could get help. When he had hung the bladder to his liking, he put up his knife again; and, once more shouldering his rifle, walked off.
On reaching the camp—which he did shortly after—the tongue of the moose was broiled without delay, and, after making a delicious meal of it, the whole party went off for the remainder of the meat. They found it all quite safe; although, had it not been for the bladder, not much of it would have been there—as no less than a dozen great gaunt wolves were seen lurking about, and these would have eaten it up in the shortest possible time. The bladder, however, had kept them off; for, strange to say, these creatures, who are as cunning as foxes, and can hardly be trapped, can yet be deceived and frightened by such a simple thing as a bladder dangling from a branch.
The moose proved to be one of the largest of his kind. His height was quite equal to that of a horse; and his horns, flattened out to the breadth of shovels, weighed over sixty pounds. His carcass was not less than fifteen hundred pounds weight; and our voyageurs had to make two journeys to convey the meat to their camp. On the last journey, Francois brought the porcupine as well—having found it on the very same tree where Basil had left it!
LIFE IN A LOG-HUT.
The log-hut was finished on the 1st of September, and not a day too soon; for on that very day the winter set in with full severity. A heavy fall of snow came down in the night; and next morning, when our voyageurs looked abroad, the ground was covered to the depth of a foot, or more; and the ice upon the lake was also white. Walking through the great wreaths now became very difficult; and the next thing to be done was the making of "snow-shoes."
Snow-shoes are an invention of the Indians; and, in the winter of the Arctic regions of America, are an article almost as indispensable as clothing itself. Without them, travelling afoot would be impossible. In these countries, as already stated, the snow often covers the ground to the depth of many feet; and remains without any considerable diminution for six, and, in some years, eight or nine months. At times, it is frozen hard enough on the surface to bear a man without the snow-shoes; but oftener on account of thaws and fresh falls, it becomes quite soft, and at such times travelling over it is both difficult and dangerous. To avoid both the difficulty and the danger, the Indians make use of this very singular sort of foot-wear—called "snow-shoes" by the English, and "raquets" by the Canadian voyageurs.
They are used by all the Indian tribes of the Hudson's Bay territory; and were it not for them these people would be confined to one place for months together, and could not follow the deer or other game. As almost all savages are improvident, and none more so than the North American Indians, were they prevented for a season from going out to hunt, whole tribes would starve. Indeed, many individuals of them perish with hunger as it is; and the life of all these Indians is nothing more than one continued struggle for food enough to sustain them. In summer they are often in the midst of plenty; slaughtering deer and buffalo by hundreds, taking out only the tongues, and recklessly leaving the flesh to the wolves! In winter the very same Indians may be seen without a pound of meat in their encampment—the lives of themselves and their families depending upon the success of a single day's hunt!
But let us return to the snow-shoes. Let us see what they are, and learn how they are made.
Any boy who has snared sparrows in snow-time, has, no doubt, done so by tying his snares upon a hoop netted across with twine or other small cord. Now, if he will conceive his hoop bent into an oblong shape—something like what the figure of a boat turned on its mouth would make in snow—and if he will also fancy the netting to consist of thongs of twisted deer-hide woven somewhat closely together, he will get a very good idea of an Indian snow-shoe. It is usually from three to four feet long, by about a foot wide at the middle part, from which it tapers gently to a point, both at the heel and toe.
The frame, as I have said, is like the hoop of a boy's bird-snare. It is made of light, tough wood, and, of course, carefully bent and polished with the knife. The slender branches of the "scrub-pine" are esteemed excellent for this purpose, as their wood is light, flexible and tough in its fibres. This is also a favourite tree, where it grows, to make tent-poles, canoe-timbers, and other implements required by the Indians; and these people use so much of it for their arrows, that it has received from the Canadian voyageurs the name of bois de fleche (arrow-wood).
Well, then, the frame of the snow-shoes being bent to its proper shape, two transverse bars are placed across near the middle, and several inches from each other. They are for the foot to rest upon, as well as to give strength to the whole structure. These being made fast, the netting is woven on, and extends over the whole frame, with the exception of a little space in front of the bars where the ball of the foot is to rest. This space is left free of netting, in order to allow play to the toes while walking. The mesh-work is made of thongs usually cut from the parchment-skin of a deer, and twisted. Sometimes twisted intestines are used, and the netting exactly resembles that seen in "racquets" for ball play.
The snow-shoe, when finished, is simply fastened upon the foot by means of straps or thongs; and a pair of them thus placed, will present a surface to the snow of nearly six square feet—more, if required, by making them larger. But this is enough to sustain the heaviest man upon the softest snow, and an Indian thus "shod" will skim over the surface like a skater.
The shoes used by all tribes of Indians are not alike in shape. There are fashions and fancies in this respect. Some are made—as among the Chippewa Indians—with one side of the frame nearly straight; and these, of course, will not do for either foot, but are "rights and lefts." Generally, however, the shape is such that the snow-shoe will fit either foot.
The snow-shoes having now become a necessary thing, our young voyageurs set about making a complete set for the whole party—that is, no less than four pairs. Norman was the "shoemaker," and Norman knew how. He could splice the frames, and work in the netting, equal to an Indian squaw. Of course all the others assisted him. Lucien cut the moose-skin into fine regular strips; Basil waded off through the snow, and procured the frames from the wood of the scrub-pine trees where he had encountered the porcupine; and then he and Francois trimmed them with their knives, and sweated them in the hot ashes until they became dry, and ready for the hands of the "shoemaker."
This work occupied them several days, and then each had a pair of shoes fitted to his size and weight.
The next consideration was, to lay in a stock of meat. The moose had furnished them with enough for present use, but that would not last long, as there was no bread nor anything else to eat with it. Persons in their situation require a great deal of meat to sustain them, much more than those who live in great cities, who eat a variety of substances, and drink many kinds of drinks. The healthy voyageur is rarely without a keen appetite; and meat by itself is a food that speedily digests, and makes way for a fresh meal; so that the ration usually allowed to the employes of the fur companies would appear large enough to supply the table of several families. For instance, in some parts of the Hudson's Bay territory, the voyageur is allowed eight pounds of buffalo-meat per diem! And yet it is all eaten by him, and sometimes deemed barely sufficient.
A single deer, therefore, or even a buffalo, lasts a party of voyageurs for a very short time, since they have no other substance, such as bread or vegetables, to help it out. It was necessary, then, that our travellers should use all their diligence in laying up a stock of dried meat, before the winter became too cold for them to hunt. There was another consideration—their clothing. They all had clothing sufficient for such weather as they had yet experienced; but that would never do for the winter of the Great Slave Lake, and they knew it. Many deer must be killed, and many hides dressed, before they could make a full set of clothing for all, as well as a set of deer-skin blankets, which would be much needed.
As soon as the snow-shoes were finished, therefore, Basil and Norman went out each day upon long hunting expeditions, from which they rarely returned before nightfall. Sometimes they brought with them a deer, of the caribou or reindeer species, and the "woodland" variety, which were in plenty at this place. They only carried to camp the best parts with the skin, as the flesh of the woodland caribou is not much esteemed. It is larger than the other kind—the "Barren Ground caribou," weighing about one hundred and fifty pounds; but both its venison and hide are of inferior quality to those of the latter species. Sometimes our hunters killed smaller game; and on several occasions they returned without having emptied their guns at all.
But there was one day that made up for several—one grand day when they were extremely successful, and on which they killed a whole herd of moose, consisting of five individuals—the old bull, a spike buck—that is, a young buck, whose horns had not yet got antlers upon them—the cow, and two calves. These they had tracked and followed for a long distance, and had succeeded, at length, in running them into a valley where the snow was exceedingly deep, and where the moose became entangled. There had been a shower of rain the day before that had melted the surface of the snow; and this had again frozen into an icy crust, upon which the deer lacerated their ankles at every plunge, leaving a track of blood behind them as they ran.
Under these circumstances they were easily trailed, and Basil and Norman, skimming along upon their snow-shoes, soon came up with them, and shot first one and then another, until the whole herd were stretched in the valley. They then butchered them, and hung the hides and quarters upon high branches, so as to secure them from wolves and wolverenes. When the job was finished, the whole place looked like a great slaughter-yard! Next day a rude sledge was constructed; and the voyageurs, returning in full force, transported the meat to camp. Huge fires were kindled outside the hut, and several days were spent in cutting up and drying the flesh. Had our travellers been certain that the frost would have continued all winter, this would not have been necessary—since the meat was already frozen as hard as a brick.
But they knew that a sudden thaw would spoil it; and, as there was plenty of good firewood on the spot, they were not going to run the risk of losing it in that way.
They had now enough provision to last them for months; and hunting became no longer necessary, except to obtain fresh meat—which was, of course, preferable to the dry stock. Hunting, also, gave them exercise and amusement—both of which were necessary to their health; for to remain idle and inactive in a situation such as that in which they were placed is the worst possible plan, and is sure to engender both sickness and ennui. Indeed, the last grew upon them, notwithstanding all the pains they took to prevent it. There were days on which the cold was so extreme, that they could not put their noses out of the door without the danger of having them frost-bitten—although each had now a complete suit of deer-skin clothing, made by Lucien, the "tailor" of the party.
Upon such days they were fain to remain shut up in their hut; and, seated around their huge log-fire, they passed the time in cleaning their guns, mending their nets, stitching their clothes, and such-like employments. These days were far from being their dullest; for, what with the varied and scientific knowledge of Lucien, which he took pleasure in imparting to his companions—what with the practical experience of Norman amid scenes of Arctic life, and the many "voyageur tales" he could tell—what with Francois merry jokes and bon mots—and what with Basil's talent for listening—not the least important element in a good conversazione,—our quartette of young voyageurs found their indoor days anything but dull.
This was all well enough for a while. For a month or two they bore their odd kind of life cheerfully enough; but the prospect of nearly six months more of it began to appal them, when they reflected upon it; and they soon found themselves longing for a change. Hunting adventures, that at other times would have interested them, now occurred without creating any excitement; and the whole routine of their employments seemed monotonous. Nearly all of them were boys of an active character of mind; and most of them were old enough to reason about the value of time. Their idea of such a long isolation from civilized life, and, above all, the being debarred from following any useful pursuit, began to impress some of them forcibly. Others, as Francois, could not be contented for a very great stretch of time with any sort of life; so that all of them began to sigh for a change.
One day, while conversing upon this theme, a bold proposal was made by Basil. It was, that they should "strike camp," and continue their journey. This proposal took the others by surprise, but they were all just in the frame of mind to entertain and discuss it; and a long consultation was held upon the point. Francois chimed in with the proposal at once; while Lucien, more cautious, did not exactly oppose, but rather offered the reasons that were against it, and pointed out the perils of the undertaking. Norman, of course, was appealed to—all of them looking to him as one whose advice, upon that question at least, was more valuable than their own.
Norman admitted the dangers pointed out by Lucien, but believed that they might overcome them by a proper caution. On the whole, Norman approved of the plan, and it was at length adopted. Perhaps Norman's habitual prudence was to some extent influenced on this occasion by the very natural desire he had of returning to what he considered his home. He had now been absent nearly two years, and was desirous of once more seeing his father and his old companions at the Fort.
There was another feeling that influenced nearly all of them: that was ambition. They knew that to make such a journey would be something of a feat, and they wished to have the credit of performing it. To minds like that of Basil, even the danger had something attractive in it. It was resolved then to break up the encampment, and continue their journey.
TRAVELLING ON SNOW-SHOES.
Once their resolution was taken, they lost but little time in making preparations to carry it out. Most of the articles required for such a journey were already in their hands. They had the proper dresses—snow-shoes, skin-blankets, and gloves. They had prepared for themselves sets of "snow spectacles." These were made out of red cedar-wood. Each pair consisted of two small thin pieces, that covered the eyes, joined together and fastened on by thongs of buckskin. In each piece an oblong slit served for the eye-hole, through which the eye looked without being dazzled by the snow. Without this, or some like contrivance, travelling in the Arctic regions is painful to the eyes, and the traveller often loses his sight. Indeed, one of the most common infirmities of both the Indians and Esquimaux of these parts is blindness or soreness of the eyes, caused by the reflexion of the sunbeams from the crystals of the frozen snow. Norman was aware of this, and had made the spectacles to guard against this peril.