Out of their spare skins they had made a small tent. This was to be carried along by Marengo in a light sledge, which they had long since constructed, and taught the dog to draw. Nothing else remained but to pack their provisions in the smallest bulk possible, and this was done, according to the custom of the country, by making "pemmican." The dry meat was first pounded until it became a powder; it was then put into small skin bags, made for the purpose, and the hot melted fat was poured in and well mixed with it. This soon froze hard, and the mixture—that resembled "potted meat,"—was now ready for use, and would keep for an indefinite time without the least danger of spoiling. Buffalo-beef, moose-meat, or venison of any sort, thus prepared, is called "pemmican," and is more portable in this shape than any other. Besides no further cooking is required—an important consideration upon those vast prairie deserts, where firewood is seldom to be procured without the trouble of carrying it a great distance.
Norman, who was the maker of the pemmican, had produced a superior article upon this occasion. Besides the pounded meat and fat, he had mixed another ingredient with it, which rendered it a most delicious food. This third ingredient was a small purple-coloured berry—of which we have already spoken—not unlike the whortleberry, but sweeter and of a higher flavour. It grows through most of the Northern regions of America; and in some places, as upon the Red River and the Elk, the bushes that produce it are seen in great plenty.
Previous to the setting in of winter, our voyageurs had collected a large bagful upon the banks of the Elk, which they had dried and stored away—expecting to stand in need of them for this very purpose. They now came into use, and enabled Norman to make his pemmican of the very choicest quality. Five bags of it were put up, each weighing over thirty pounds. One of these was to be drawn upon the sledge, along with the tent, the axe, and a few other articles. The rest were to be carried by the voyageurs themselves—each shouldering one, which, along with their guns and accoutrements, would be load enough.
These arrangements being at length complete, the party bid adieu to their log-hut—gave a parting look to their little canoe, which still rested by the door—and then, shouldering their guns and bags of pemmican, set out over the frozen surface of the snow.
Of course before starting they had decided upon the route they were to take. This decision, however, had not been arrived at until after much discussion. Lucien advised that they should follow the shore of the lake until they should reach the Mackenzie River—which of course was now frozen up. Its channel, he argued, would then guide them; and, in case their provisions should run short, they would be more likely to find game upon its banks than elsewhere, as these were wooded almost to the sea—in consequence of its head-waters rising in southern latitudes, and carrying with them a warmer climate.
There was plausibility in Lucien's argument, combined with much prudence. Norman, however, advised a contrary course. He said that they would have to make a considerable journey westward before reaching the place where the Mackenzie River flows out of the lake; and, moreover, he knew that the river itself was very crooked—in some places winding about in great curves, whose ends come near meeting each other. Should they keep the course of the river, Norman believed it would almost double their journey. A much shorter route, he said, would be obtained by striking across the country in a north-westerly direction, so as to reach the Mackenzie near where another great stream—the River of the Mountains—empties into it from the west. This would certainly be a more direct route, and they would avoid the windings of the river channel.
Norman's reasoning prevailed. Basil and Francois readily agreed to his plan, and Lucien at length also gave his assent, but with some reluctance. Norman knew nothing whatever of the route he was advising them to take. His former journeys up and down the Mackenzie had been made in summer, and of course he had travelled by canoe, in company with the traders and voyageurs. He only knew that to strike across the country would be the shorter way. But "the shortest way is not always the nearest," says the proverb; and although Lucien remembered this prudent maxim, the others did not give it a thought. Before the end of their journey they received a practical lesson of its wisdom—a lesson they were not likely to forget. But they knew not what was before them, and they started off in high spirits.
Their first three or four days' journeys were without any event worth being chronicled. They travelled full twenty miles each day. The Southerners had become quite skilful in the management of their snow-shoes, and they skimmed along upon the icy crust at the rate of three or four miles an hour.
Marengo and his sledge gave them very little trouble. There was full sixty pounds weight upon it; but to the huge dog this was a mere bagatelle, and he pulled it after him without any great strain. His harness was neatly made of moose-skin, and consisted of a collar with a back strap and traces—the traces meeting behind, where they were attached to the head of the sledge. No head-gear was necessary, as Marengo needed not to be either led or driven. The sledge consisted of two or three light planks of smooth wood, laid alongside each other, and held together by transverse bands. In front it turned up with a circular sweep, so as not to "plough" the snow; and at the top of this curved part the traces were adjusted. The load was, of course, carefully packed and tied, so that the overturning of the vehicle did no damage whatever, and it could be easily righted again. Marengo required no one to guide him, but followed quietly in the tracks of the snow-shoes, and thus avoided the trees, rocks, and other inequalities. If a rabbit or other creature started up, Marengo knew better than to go galloping after it; he felt that he had a more important duty to perform than to throw away his time upon rabbit-hunting.
Each night a spot was chosen for the camp by the side of some lake or stream, where wood could be obtained for their fire. Water was got by breaking a hole in the ice, and the little tent was always set up in a sheltered situation.
Upon the fifth day after leaving the log-hut the woods began to grown thinner and more straggling; and towards night of the same day they found themselves travelling through a country, where the timber only grew here and there in small clumps, and the individual trees were small and stunted. Next day still less timber was seen upon their route; and when camping-time came, they were obliged to halt at a spot where nothing but willows could be procured for their fire. They had, in fact, arrived upon the edge of that vast wilderness, the Barren Grounds, which stretches in all its wild desolation along the Northern half of the American continent from the Great Slave Lake even to the shores of the Arctic Sea on the north, and to those of Hudson's Bay on the east.
This territory bears an appropriate name, for, perhaps, upon the whole surface of the earth there is no tract more barren or desolate—not even the Saaera of Africa. Both are deserts of immense extent, equally difficult to cross, and equally dangerous to the traveller. On both the traveller often perishes, but from different causes. On the Saaera it is thirst that kills; upon the Barren Grounds hunger is more frequently the destroyer. In the latter there is but little to be feared on the score of water. That exists in great plenty; or where it is not found, snow supplies its place. But there is water everywhere. Hill succeeds hill, bleak, rocky, and bare. Everywhere granite, gneiss, or other primitive rocks, show themselves.
No vegetation covers the steep declivities of the hills, except the moss and lichen upon the rocks, a few willows upon the banks of streams, the dwarf birch-tree or the scrub-pines, rising only to the height of a few inches, and often straggling over the earth like vines. Every hill has its valley, and every valley its lake—dark, and deep, and silent—in winter scarce to be distinguished under the snow-covered ice. The prospect in every direction exhibits a surface of rocks, or bleak hills, half covered with snow. The traveller looks around and sees no life. He listens and hears no sound. The world appears dead and wrapped in its cold winding-sheet!
Amidst just such scenes did our voyageurs find themselves on the seventh day after parting from the lake. They had heard of the Barren Grounds—had heard many fearful stories of the sufferings of travellers who had attempted to cross them; but the description had fallen far short of the actual reality. None of them could believe in the difficulties to be encountered, and the desolateness of the scene they were to witness, until now that they found themselves in its midst; and, as they proceeded on their journey, getting farther and farther from the wooded region, their apprehensions, already aroused by the wild aspect of the country, grew stronger and stronger. They began to entertain serious fears, for they knew not how far the barren tract extended along their route.
On calculation they found they had provisions enough to last them for a month. That in some measure restored their confidence; but even then, they could not help giving way to serious reflections. Should they get lost or retarded in their course by mountains, or other obstacles, it might take them longer than a month to reach some place where game was to be met with. Each day, as they advanced, they found the country more hilly and difficult. Precipices often bounded the valleys, lying directly across their track; and as these could not be scaled, it was necessary to make long detours to pass them, so that some days they actually advanced less than five miles upon their journey.
Notwithstanding these impediments, they might still have got over the Barren Grounds without further suffering than the fatigue and necessary exposure to cold; but at this time an incident occurred, that not only frustrated all their calculations, but placed them in imminent danger of perishing.
THE BARREN GROUNDS
The Barren Grounds are not entirely destitute of animal life. Even in winter—when they are almost covered with snow, and you would suppose that no living creature could procure subsistence upon them—even then they have their denizens; and, strange to say, there are many animals that choose them for their home. There is no part of the earth's surface so sterile but that some animated being can find a living upon it, and such a being Nature adapts to its peculiar situation. For instance, there are animals that prefer the very desert itself, and would not thrive were you to place them in a country of mild climate and fertile soil. In our own species this peculiarity is also found—as the Esquimaux would not be happy were you to transplant him from his icy hut amid the snows of the Arctic regions, and give him a palace under the genial skies of Italy.
Among other creatures that remain all winter upon the Barren Grounds are the wolves. How they exist there is almost a question of the naturalists. It is true they prey upon other animals found at times in the same district; but wolves have been met with where not the slightest traces of other living creatures could be seen!
There is no animal more generally distributed over the earth's surface than the wolf. He exists in nearly every country, and most likely has at one time existed in all. In America there are wolves in its three zones. They are met with from Cape Horn to the farthest point northward that man has reached. They are common in the tropical forests of Mexico and South America. They range over the great prairies of the temperate zones of both divisions of the continent, and in the colder regions of the Hudson's Bay territory they are among the best known of wild animals. They frequent the mountains, they gallop over the plains, they skulk through the valleys, they dwell everywhere—everywhere the wolf seems equally at home.
In North America two very different kinds are known. One is the "prairie" or "barking" wolf, which we have already met with and described. The other species is the "common" or "large" wolf; but it is not decided among naturalists that there are not several distinct species of the latter. At all events, there are several varieties of it—distinguished from each other in size, colour, and even to some extent in form. The habits of all, however, appear to be similar, and it is a question, whether any of these varieties be permanent or only accidental. Some of them, it is well known, are accidental—as wolves differing in colour have been found in the same litter—but late explorers, of the countries around and beyond the Rocky Mountains, have discovered one or two kinds that appear to be specifically distinct from the common wolf of America—one of them, the "dusky wolf," being much larger.
This last is said to resemble the wolf of Europe more than the other American wolves do—for there is a considerable difference between the wolves of the two continents. Those of the Northern regions of America have shorter ears, a broader snout and forehead, and are of a stouter make, than the European wolves. Their fur, too, is finer, denser, and longer; their tails more bushy and fox-like; and their feet broader. The European wolf, on the contrary, is characterized by a gaunt appearance, a pointed snout, long jaws, high ears, long legs, and feet very narrow. It is possible, nothwithstanding these points of difference, that both may be of the same species, the difference arising from a want of similitude in the circumstances by which they are surrounded.
For instance, the dense wool of the Hudson's Bay wolf may be accounted for by the fact of its colder habitat, and its broader feet may be the result of its having to run much upon the surface of the snow. The writer of this little book believes that this peculiar adaptation of Nature—which may be observed in all her kingdoms—may explain the difference that exists between the wolves of the Northern parts of America and those of the South of Europe. He believes, moreover, that those of the Southern parts of the American continent approximate more nearly to the Pyrenean wolves, as he has seen in the tropical forest of Mexico some that possessed all that "gaunt" form and "sneaking" aspect that characterize the latter.
It would be interesting to inquire whether the wolves of Siberia and Lapland, inhabitating a similar climate to that of the Northern parts of America, do not possess the same peculiarities as the North American kind—a point which naturalists have not yet considered, and which you, my boy reader, may some day find both amusement and instruction in determining for yourself.
With regard to colour the wolves of both continents exhibit many varieties. In North America there are more than half-a-dozen colours of them, all receiving different names. There is the "grey wolf," the "white," the "brown," the "dusky," the "pied," and the "black." These trivial names will give a good enough idea of the colours of each kind, but there are even varieties in their markings. "Yellow" wolves, too, have been seen, and "red" ones, and some of a "cream colour." Of all these the grey wolf is the most common, and is par excellence the wolf; but there are districts in which individuals of other colours predominate. Wolves purely black are plenty in many parts, and white wolves are often seen in large packs.
Even those of the same colour differ in size, and that to a considerable extent. And what is also strange, large wolves will be found in one district of country, while much smaller ones of the same colour and species inhabit another. The largest in size of American wolves are about six feet in length, the tail included; and about three feet in height, measuring to the tips of the standing fur. The tail is usually about one-third of the whole length.
The habits of the American wolf are pretty much like those of his European cousin. He is a beast of prey, devouring all the smaller animals he can lay hold of. He pursues and overtakes the deer, and often runs down the fox and makes a meal of it. He will kill and eat Indian dogs, although these are so near his own species that the one is often taken for the other. But this is not all, for he will even eat his own kind, on a pinch. He is as cunning as the fox himself, and as cowardly; but at times, when impelled by hunger, he becomes bolder, and has been known to attack man. Instances of this kind, however, are rare.
The American wolves burrow, and, like the fox, have several entrances to their holes. A litter of young wolves numbers five puppies, but as many as eight are often produced at one birth.
During their journey through the Barren Grounds our voyageurs had frequently observed wolves. They were mostly grey ones, and of great size, for they were travelling through a district where the very largest kind is found. At times they saw a party of five or six together; and these appeared to be following upon their trail—as each night, when they came barking about the camp, our travellers recognised some of them as having been seen before. They made no attempt to shoot any of them—partly because they did not want either their skins or flesh, and partly because their ammunition had been reduced to a small quantity, and they did not wish to spend it unnecessarily.
The wolves, therefore, were allowed to approach very near the camp, and howl as much as they liked—which they usually did throughout the livelong night. What they found to allure them after our travellers, the latter could not make out; as they had not shot an animal of any kind since leaving the lake, and scarcely a scrap of anything was ever left behind them. Perhaps the wolves were living upon hope.
One evening our travellers had made their camp on the side of a ridge—which they had just crossed—and under the shelter of some rough rocks. There was no wood in the neighbourhood wherewith to make a fire; but they had scraped the snow from the place over which their tent was pitched, and under it their skins were spread upon the ground. As the tent was a very small one, Marengo's sledge, with the utensils and pemmican bags, was always left outside close by the opening. Marengo himself slept there, and that was considered sufficient to secure all these things from wolves, or any other creatures that might be prowling about.
On the evening in question, the sledge was in its usual place—the dog having been taken from it—and as our voyageurs had not yet had their supper, the pemmican bags were lying loosely about, one or two of them being open. There was a small rivulet at the foot of the ridge—some two hundred paces distant—and Basil and Francois had gone down to it to get water. One of them took the axe to break the ice with, while the other carried a vessel. On arriving near the bank of the rivulet, the attention of the boys was attracted to a singular appearance upon the snow. A fresh shower had fallen that morning, and the surface was still soft, and very smooth. Upon this they observed double lines of little dots, running in different directions, which, upon close inspection, appeared to be the tracks of some animal.
At first, Basil and Francois could hardly believe them to be such, the tracks were so very small. They had never seen so small ones before—those of a mouse being quite double the size. But when they looked more closely at them, the boys could distinguish the marks of five little toes with claws upon them, which left no doubt upon their minds that some living creature, and that a very diminutive one, must have passed over the spot. Indeed, had the snow not been both fine-grained and soft, the feet of such a creature could not have made any impression upon it.
The boys stopped and looked around, thinking they might see the animal itself. There was a wide circle of snow around them, and its surface was smooth and level; but not a speck upon it betrayed the presence of any creature.
"Perhaps it was a bird," said Francois, "and has taken flight."
"I think not," rejoined Basil. "They are not the tracks of a bird. It is some animal that has gone under the snow, I fancy."
"But I see no hole," said Francois, "where even a beetle could have gone down. Let us look for one."
At Francois' suggestion, they walked on following one of the dotted lines. Presently they came to a place, where a stalk of long grass stood up through the snow—its seedless panicle just appearing above the surface. Round this stalk a little hole had been formed—partly by the melting of the snow, and partly by the action of the wind upon the panicle—and into this hole the tracks led. It was evident that the animal, whatever it was, must have gone down the culm of the grass in making its descent from the surface of the snow!
They now observed another track going from the hole in an opposite direction, which showed that the creature had climbed up in the same way. Curious to know what it might have been, the boys hailed Lucien and Norman, telling them to come down. These, followed by Marengo, soon arrived upon the spot. When Lucien saw the tracks, he pronounced them at once to be those of the little shrew-mouse, the smallest of all the quadrupeds of America. Several of them had evidently been out upon the snow—as there were other dotted lines—and the tops of many stalks of grass were seen above the surface, each of which had formed a little hole around it, by which the mice were enabled to get up and down.
Norman, who had seen these little animals before, cautioned his companions to remain quiet awhile, and perhaps some of them might come to the surface. They all stopped therefore, and stood some time without moving, or speaking to one another. Presently, a little head not much bigger than a pea was seen peeping up, and then a body followed, which in size did not exceed that of a large gooseberry! To this a tail was suspended, just one inch in length, of a square shape, and tapering from root to point, like that of any other mouse. The little creature was covered with a close smooth fur, of a clove-brown colour above, but more yellowish upon the belly and sides; and was certainly, as it sat upon the even surface of the snow, the most diminutive and oddest-looking quadruped that any of the party had ever beheld.
They were just whispering to one another what means they should use to capture it, when Marengo, whom Basil had been holding quiet, all at once uttered a loud bay; and, springing out of the hands of his master, galloped off towards the camp. All of them looked after, wondering what had started the dog; but his strange behaviour was at once explained, and to their consternation. Around the tent, and close to its entrance, several large wolves were seen. They were leaping about hurriedly, and worrying some objects that lay upon the ground. What these objects were was too plain. They were the bags of pemmican! Part of their contents was seen strewed over the snow, and part was already in the stomachs of the wolves.
The boys uttered a simultaneous shout, and ran forward. Marengo was by this time among the wolves, and had set fiercely upon one of them. Had his masters not been at hand, the fierce brutes would soon have settled the account with Marengo. But the former were now close by, and the wolves, seeing them, ran off; but, to the consternation of the boys, each of them carried off a bag of the pemmican in his mouth with as much lightness and speed as if nothing encumbered them!
"We are lost!" cried Norman, in a voice of terror. "Our provisions are gone!—all gone!"
It was true. The next moment the wolves disappeared over the summit of the ridge; and although each of the boys had seized his gun, and ran after, the pursuit proved an idle one. Not a wolf was overtaken.
Scarce a scrap of the pemmican had been left—only some fragments that had been gnawed by the ravenous brutes, and scattered over the snow. That night our travellers went to bed supperless; and, what with hunger, and the depression of spirits caused by this incident, one and all of them kept awake nearly the whole of the night.
They left their skin-couch at an early hour, close after daybreak. Hunger and anxiety drove them out of their tent. Not a morsel of anything for breakfast! They looked abroad over the country, in order, if possible, to descry some living creature. None could be seen—nothing but the wilderness waste of snow, with here and there the side of a steep hill, or a rock showing cold and bleak. Even the wolves that had robbed them were no longer to be seen, as if these creatures knew that they had got all that was worth having, and had now taken themselves off to hunt for plunder elsewhere.
The situation of our travellers was really one of extreme peril, although it may be difficult for you, young reader, to conceive why it should be so. They, however, knew it well. They knew that they might travel for days through that inhospitable region, without falling in with anything that would make a single meal for them. But less time than that would suffice to starve them all. Already they felt the pangs of hunger—for they had not eaten since their breakfast of the preceding day, the wolves having interrupted their preparations for dinner.
It was of no use remaining where they were; so, striking their tent once more, they travelled forward. It was but poor consolation to them that they travelled much lighter than before. They had nothing to carry but their guns, and these they had got ready for work—so that their journey partook somewhat of the character of a hunting excursion. They did not even follow a direct course, but occasionally turned to one side or the other, wherever a clump of willows, or any other roughness on the ground, looked like it might be the shelter of game. But during that whole day—although they travelled from near sunrise to sunset—not a living thing was seen; and for the second night they went supperless to bed.
A man will bear hunger for many days—some more, some less—without actually dying of it; but at no period will his sufferings be greater than during the third or fourth day. He will grow more feeble afterwards, but the pain which he endures will not be greater.
On the third day the sufferings of our party were extreme. They began to chew pieces of their skin-tent and blankets; but although this took the sharp edge off their appetites, it added nothing to their strength; and they still craved for food, and grew feebler.
To use a poetical phrase, Marengo now became the "cynosure of every eye." Marengo was not very fat. The sledge and short rations had thinned him down, and his ribs could be easily traced. Although the boys, and Basil in particular, would have suffered much before sacrificing him, yet starvation will reconcile a man to part with his best friend. In spite of their friendship for Marengo, his masters could not help scanning him from time to time with hungry looks. Marengo was an old dog, and, no doubt, as tough as a piece of tan-leather; but their appetites were made up for anything.
It was near mid-day. They had started early, as on the day before. They were trudging wearily along, and making but little progress. Marengo was struggling with his sledge, feeble as any of the party. Basil saw that the eyes of his companions were from time to time bent upon the dog; and though none of them said anything, he understood the thoughts that were passing within them. He knew that none of them wished to propose it—as Basil was the real master of Marengo—but their glances were sufficiently intelligible to him. He looked at the downcast countenance of the once merry Francois—at the serious air of Norman—at the wan cheek and sunken eye of Lucien, whom Basil dearly loved. He hesitated no longer. His duty to his companions at once overcame his affection for his faithful dog.
"We must kill him!" said he, suddenly stopping, and pointing to Marengo.
The rest halted.
"I fear there's no help for it," said Norman, turning his face in every direction, and sweeping the surface of the snow with hopeless glances.
Francois also assented to the proposal.
"Let us make a condition," suggested Lucien; "I for one could walk five miles farther." And as Lucien said this, he made an effort to stand erect, and look strong and brave; but Basil knew it was an effort of generosity.
"No," said he,—"no, dear Luce. You are done up. We must kill the dog!"
"Nonsense, Basil, you mistake," replied the other; "I assure you I am far from being done up. I could go much farther yet. Stay!" continued he, pointing ahead; "you see yonder rocks? They are about three miles off, I should think. They lie directly in our course. Well, now, let us agree to this condition. Let us give poor Marengo a chance for his life. If we find nothing before reaching those rocks, why then——"
And Lucien, seeing Marengo gazing up in his face, left the sentence unfinished. The poor brute looked up at all of them as though he understood every word that they were saying; and his mute appeal, had it been necessary, would not have been thrown away. But it did not require that to get him the proposed respite. All agreed willingly with Lucien's proposition; and, shouldering their pieces, the party moved on.
Lucien had purposely understated the distance to the rocks. It was five, instead of three miles; and some of them made it full ten, as they were determined Marengo should have the benefit of every chance. They deployed like skirmishers; and not a brake or brush that lay to the right or left of the path but was visited and beaten by one or other of them. Their diligence was to no purpose. After two hours' weary work, they arrived among the rocks, having seen not a trace of either quadruped or bird.
"Come!" cried Lucien in his now feeble voice, still trying to look cheerful, "we must pass through them. There is a chance yet. Let him have fair play. The rocks were to be the limit, but it was not stated what part of them. Let us pass through to the other side—they do not extend far."
Encouraged by the words of Lucien, the party entered among the rocks, moving on separate paths. They had gone only a few paces, when a shout from Norman caused the rest to look to him for an explanation. No animal was in sight. Had he seen any? No; but something that gratified him certainly, for his voice and manner expressed it.
"What is it?" inquired the others, all speaking at the same time.
"Tripe de roche!" answered he.
"Tripe de roche?"
"Yes," replied Norman, "look there!" and he pointed to one of the rocks directly ahead of them, at the same time moving forward to it. The others hastened up after. On reaching the rock, they saw what Norman had meant by the words tripe de roche (rock-tripe). It was a black, hard, crumply substance, that nearly covered the surface of the rock, and was evidently of a vegetable nature. Lucien knew what it was as well as Norman, and joy had expressed itself upon his pale cheeks at the sight. As for Basil and Francois they only stood waiting an explanation, and wondering what value a quantity of "rock moss," as they deemed it, could be to persons in their condition.
Lucien soon informed them that it was not a "moss," but a "lichen," and of that celebrated species which will sustain human life. It was the Gyrophora. Norman confirmed Lucien's statement, and furthermore affirmed, that not only the Indians and Esquimaux, but also parties of voyageurs, had often subsisted upon it for days, when they would otherwise have starved. There are many species,—not less than five or six. All of them possess nutritive properties, but only one is a palatable food—the Gyrophora vellea of botanists. Unfortunately this was not the sort which our voyageurs had happened upon, as it grows only upon rocks shaded by woods, and is rarely met with in the open barrens. The one, however, which Norman had discovered was the "next best," and they were all glad at finding even that.
The first thing to be thought of was to collect it, and all four set to peeling and scraping it from the rocks. The next thought was to make it ready for eating. Here a new difficulty stared them in the face. The tripe de roche had to be boiled,—it could not be eaten else,—and where was the fire? where was the wood to make one? Not a stick was to be seen. They had not met with a tree during all that day's journey!
They were now as badly off as ever. The tripe de roche would be of no more use to them than so much dry grass. What could they do with it?
In the midst of their suspense, one of them thought of the sledge.—Marengo's sledge. That would make a fire, but a very small one. It might do to cook a single meal. Even that was better than none. Marengo was not going to object to the arrangement. He looked quite willing to part with the sledge. But a few hours before, it came near being used to cook Marengo himself. He was not aware of that, perhaps, but no matter. All agreed that the sledge must be broken up, and converted into firewood.
They were about taking it to pieces, and had already "unhitched" Marengo from it, when Basil, who had walked to the other side of the rocky jumble, cried back to them to desist. He had espied some willows at no great distance. Out of these a fire could be made. The sledge, therefore, was let alone for the present. Basil and Francois immediately started for the willows, while Norman and Lucien remained upon the spot to prepare the "tripe" for the pot.
In a short time the former parties returned with two large bundles of willows, and the fire was kindled. The tripe de roche, with some snow—for there was no water near—was put into the pot, and the latter hung over the blaze.
After boiling for nearly an hour, the lichen became reduced to a soft gummy pulp, and Norman thickened the mess to his taste by putting in more snow, or more of the "tripe," as it seemed to require it. The pot was then taken from the fire, and all four greedily ate of its contents. It was far from being palatable, and had a clammy "feel" in the mouth, something like sago; but none of the party was in any way either dainty or fastidious just at that time, and they soon consumed all that had been cooked. It did not satisfy the appetite, though it filled the stomach, and made their situation less painful to bear.
Norman informed them that it was much better when cooked with a little meat, so as to make broth. This Norman's companions could easily credit, but where was the meat to come from? The Indians prefer the tripe de roche when prepared along with the roe of fish, or when boiled in fish liquor.
Our weary voyageurs resolved to remain among the rocks for that night at least; and with this intent they put up their little tent. They did not kindle any fire, as the willows were scarce, and there would be barely enough to make one or two more boilings of the rock-tripe. They spread their skins within the tent, and creeping in, kept one another as warm as they could until morning.
THE POLAR HARE AND GREAT SNOWY OWL.
Of course hunger kept them from sleeping late. They were up and out of the tent by an early hour. Their fire was re-kindled, and they were making preparations for a fresh pot of rock-tripe, when they were startled by the note of a well-known bird. On looking up, they beheld seated upon the point of a rock the creature itself, which was the "cinereous crow," or, as it is better known, the "whiskey Jack." The latter name it receives from the voyageurs, on account of the resemblance of its Indian appellation, "whiskae-shaw-neesh" to the words "whiskey John." Although sometimes called the "cinereous crow," the bird is a true jay.
It is one of the most inelegant of the genus, being of a dull grey colour, and not particularly graceful in its form. Its plumage, moreover, does not consist of webbed feathers, but rather more resembles hair; nor does its voice make up for the plainness of its appearance, as is the case with some birds. On the contrary, the voice of "whiskey Jack" is plaintive and squeaking, though he is something of a mocker in his way, and frequently imitates the notes of other birds. He is one of those creatures that frequent the habitations of man, and there is not a fur post, or fort, in all the Hudson's Bay territory, where "whiskey Jack" is not familiarly known.
He is far from being a favourite, however, as, like his near relative the magpie, he is a great thief, and will follow the marten-trapper all day while baiting his traps, perching upon a tree until the bait is set, and then pouncing down, and carrying it off. He frequently pilfers small articles from the forts and encampments, and is so bold as to enter the tents, and seize food out of any vessel that may contain it. Notwithstanding all this, he is a favourite with the traveller through these inhospitable regions. No matter how barren the spot where the voyageur may make his camp, his tent will hardly be pitched, before he receives a visit from "whiskey Jack," who comes, of course, to pick up any crumbs that may fall. His company, therefore, in a region where all other wild creatures shun the society of man, endears him to the lonely traveller.
At many of their camps our voyageurs had met with this singular bird, and were always glad to receive him as a friend. They were now doubly delighted to see him, but this delight arose from no friendly feelings. Their guest was at once doomed to die. Francois had taken up his gun, and in the next moment would have brought him down, had he not been checked by Norman. Not that Norman intended to plead for his life, but Norman's eye had caught sight of another "whiskey Jack,"—which was hopping among the rocks at some distance—and fearing that Francois' shot might frighten it away, had hindered him from firing. It was Norman's design to get both.
The second "whiskey Jack," or, perhaps, it was the "whiskey Jill," soon drew near; and both were now seen to hop from rock to rock, and then upon the top of the tent, and one of them actually settled upon the edge of the pot, as it hung over the fire, and quietly looking into it, appeared to scrutinize its contents!
The boys could not think of any way of getting the birds, except by Francois' gun; and it was at length agreed that Francois should do his best. He was sure of one of them, at least; so telling the others to get behind him, he fired at the more distant one where it sat upon the tent, and took the other on the wing.
Both shots were successful. The two jays fell, and were soon divested of their soft, silky, hair-like plumage, and dropped into the boiling pot. They did not weigh together more than about six or seven ounces; but even that was accounted something under present circumstances; and, with the tripe de roche, a much better breakfast was made than they had anticipated.
No more of the lichen could be found. The rocks were all searched, but only a few patches—not enough for another full meal—could be obtained. The travellers had no other resource, therefore, but to continue on, and passing through the rocky ground, they once more embarked upon the wilderness of snow.
During that whole day not a living creature gladdened their eyes. They saw nothing that was eatable—fish, flesh, fowl, or vegetable. Not even a bit of rock-tripe—in these parts the last resource of starving men—could be met with. They encamped in a plain, where not a tree stood—not even a rock to shelter them.
Next morning a consultation was held. Marengo was again the subject of their thoughts and conversation. Should they kill him on the spot or go a little farther? That was the question. Lucien, as before, interposed in his favour. There was a high hill many miles off, and in their proper course. "Let us first reach yonder hill," proposed Lucien. "If nothing is found before that, then we must part with Marengo."
The proposal was agreed to, and, striking their tent, they again set out.
It was a toilsome long way to that hill—feeble and weary as they all were—but they reached it without having observed the slightest trace of animal life.
"Up the hill!" cried Lucien, beckoning to the others, and cheering them with his weak voice, "Up the hill!"
On they went, up the steep declivity—Marengo toiling on after them. The dog looked downcast and despairing. He really appeared to know the conditions that had been made for his life. His masters, as they crept upward, looked sharply before them. Every tuft that appeared above the snow was scrutinized, and every inch of the ground, as it came into view, was examined.
At length they crossed the escarpment of the hill, and stood upon the summit. They gazed forward with disappointed feelings. The hill-top was a sort of table plain, of about three hundred yards in diameter. It was covered with snow, nearly a foot in depth. A few heads of withered grass were seen above the surface, but not enough to subdue the uniform white that prevailed all over. There was no creature upon it; that was evident. A bird as big as a sparrow, or a quadruped as large as a shrew-mouse, could have been seen upon any part of it. A single glance satisfied all of them that no living thing was there.
They halted without proceeding farther. Some of them could not have gone another mile, and all of them were tottering in their tracks. Marengo had arrived upon the summit, and stood a little to one side, with the sledge behind him.
"You must do it!" said Basil, speaking to Norman in a hoarse voice, and turning his head away. Lucien and Francois stepped aside at the same time, and stood as if looking down the hill. The countenances of all three betokened extreme sorrow. There was a tear in Basil's eye that he was trying to wipe away with his sleeve.
The sharp click of Norman's gun was heard behind them, and they were all waiting for the report, when, at that moment, a dark shadow passing over the white declivity arrested their attention! It was the shadow of a bird upon the wing. The simultaneous exclamation of all three stayed Norman's finger—already pressing upon the trigger—and the latter, turning round, saw that they were regarding some object in the air. It was a bird of great size—almost as large as an eagle, but with the plumage of a swan. It was white all over—both body and wings—white as the snow over which it was sailing. Norman knew the bird at a glance. Its thick short neck and large head—its broad-spreading wings, of milky whiteness, were not to be mistaken. It was the "great snowy owl" of the Arctic regions.
Its appearance suddenly changed the aspect of affairs. Norman let the butt of his rifle fall to the ground, and stood, like the rest, watching the bird in its flight.
The snowy owl is, perhaps, the most beautiful, as it is one of the most powerful birds of its genus—of which there are more than a dozen in North America. It is a bird of the Polar regions—even the most remote—and in the dead of winter it is found within the Arctic circle, on both Continents—although at the same season it also wanders farther south. It dwells upon the Barren Grounds as well as in wooded districts. In the former it squats upon the snow, where its peculiar colour often prevents it from being noticed by the passing hunter. Nature has furnished it with every protection from the cold. Its plumage is thick, closely matted, and downy, and it is feathered to the very eyes—so that its legs appear as large as those of a good-sized dog. The bill, too, is completely hidden under a mass of feathers that cover its face, and not even a point of its whole body is exposed.
The owl is usually looked upon as a night-bird, and in Southern latitudes it is rarely seen by day; but the owls of the Northern regions differ from their congeners in this respect. They hunt by day, even during the bright hours of noon. Were it not so, how could they exist in the midst of an Arctic summer, when the days are months in duration? Here we have another example of the manner in which Nature trains her wild creatures to adapt themselves to their situation.
At least a dozen species of owls frequent the territory of the Hudson's Bay Company—the largest of which is the cinereous owl, whose wings have a spread of nearly five feet. Some species migrate south on the approach of winter; while several, as the snowy owl, remain to prey upon the ptarmigan, the hares, and other small quadrupeds, who, like themselves, choose that dreary region for their winter home.
Our travellers, as I have said, stood watching the owl as it soared silently through the heavens. Francois had thrown his gun across his left arm, in hopes he might get a shot at it; but the bird—a shy one at all times—kept away out of range; and, after circling once or twice over the hill, uttered a loud cry and flew off.
Its cry resembled the moan of a human being in distress; and its effect upon the minds of our travellers, in the state they then were, was far from being pleasant. They watched the bird with despairing looks, until it was lost against the white background of a snow-covered hill.
They had noticed that the owl appeared to be just taking flight when they first saw it. It must have risen up from the hill upon which they were; and they once more ran their eyes along the level summit, curious to know where it had been perched that they had not seen it. No doubt, reflected they, it had been near enough, but its colour had rendered it undistinguishable from the snow.
"What a pity!" exclaimed Francois.
While making these reflections, and sweeping their glances around, an object caught their eyes that caused some of them to ejaculate and suddenly raise their guns. This object was near the centre of the summit table, and at first sight appeared to be only a lump of snow; but upon closer inspection, two little round spots of a dark colour, and above these two elongated black marks, could be seen. Looking steadily, the eye at length traced the outlines of an animal, that sat in a crouching attitude. The round spots were its eyes, and the black marks above them were tips of a pair of very long ears. All the rest of its body was covered with a soft white fur, hardly to be distinguished from the snow upon which it rested.
The form and colour of the animal, but more especially its long erect ears, made it easy for them to tell what it was. All of them saw it was a hare.
"Hush!" continued Norman, as soon as he saw it, "keep still all of you—leave it to me."
"What shall we do?" demanded Basil. "Can we not assist you?"
"No," was the reply, uttered in a whisper, "stay where you are. Keep the dog quiet. I'll manage puss, if the owl hasn't scared her too badly. That scream has started her out of her form. I'm certain she wasn't that way before. Maybe she'll sit it out. Lucky the sun's high—don't move a step. Have the dog ready, but hold him tight, and keep a sharp look out if she bolts."
After giving these instructions, that were all uttered quickly and in an under tone, Norman moved off, with his gun carried across his arm. He did not move in the direction of the hare, but rather as if he was going from her. His course, however, bent gradually into a circle of which the hare was the centre—the diameter being the full breadth of the summit level, which was about three hundred yards. In this circle he walked round and round, keeping his eye fixed upon the crouching animal. When he had nearly completed one circumference, he began to shorten the diameter—so that the curve which he was now following was a spiral one, and gradually drawing nearer to the hare. The latter kept watching him as he moved—curiosity evidently mingling with her fears. Fortunately, as Norman had said, the sun was nearly in the vertex of the heavens, and his own body cast very little shadow upon the snow. Had it been otherwise, the hare would have been frightened at the moving shadow, and would have sprung out of her form, before he could have got within range.
When he had made some four or five circuits, Norman moved slower and slower, and then stopped nearly opposite to where the others were. These stood watching him with beating hearts, for they knew that the life of Marengo, and perhaps their own as well, depended on the shot. Norman had chosen his place, so that in case the hare bolted, she might run towards them, and give them the chance of a flying shot. His gun was already at his shoulder—his finger rested on the trigger, and the boys were expecting the report, when again the shadow of a bird flitted over the snow, a loud human-like scream sounded in their ears, and the hare was seen to spring up, and stretch her long legs in flight. At the same instant the great snowy owl was observed wheeling above, and threatening to pounce upon the fleeing animal!
The hare ran in a side direction, but it brought her as she passed within range of the party by the sledge. The owl kept above her as she ran. A dozen leaps was all the hare ever made. A loud crack was heard, and she was seen to spring up and fall back upon the snow, dead as a door-nail. Like an echo another crack followed—a wild scream rang through the air, and the great white owl fell fluttering to the earth. The reports were not of a rifle. They were the louder detonations of a shot gun. All eyes were turned towards Francois, who, like a little god, stood enveloped in a halo of blue smoke. Francois was the hero of the hour.
Marengo rushed forward and seized the struggling owl, that snapped its bill at him like a watchman's rattle. But Marengo did not care for that; and seizing its head in his teeth, gave it a crunch that at once put an end to its flapping.
Marengo was reprieved, and he seemed to know it, as he bounded over the snow, waving his tail, and barking like a young fool.
They all ran up to the hare, which proved to be the "Polar hare" and one of the largest of its species—not less than fifteen pounds in weight. Its fur, soft and white like swan-down, was stained with red blood. It was not quite dead. Its little heart yet beat faintly, and the light of life was still shining from its beautiful honey-coloured eyes. Both it and the owl were taken up and carried to the sledge, which was once more attached to Marengo, as the party intended to go forward and halt under the shelter of the hill.
"There must be some wood in this quarter," remarked Norman; "I never knew this sort of hare far from timber."
"True," said Lucien, "the Polar hare feeds upon willows, arbutus, and the Labrador tea-plant. Some of these kinds must be near."
While they were speaking, they had reached the brow of the hill, on the opposite side from where they had ascended. On looking into the valley below, to their great joy they beheld some clumps of willows, and good-sized trees of poplar, birch, and spruce-pine, and passing down the hill, the travellers soon stood in their midst. Presently was heard the chipping sound of an axe and crash of falling timber, and in a few moments after a column of smoke was seen soaring up out of the valley, and curling cheerfully towards the bright blue sky.
THE JUMPING MOUSE AND THE ERMINE.
Large as the hare was, she would have made but a meal for our four hungry voyageurs, had they eaten at will. By Lucien's advice, however, they restrained themselves, and half of her was left for supper, when the "cook" promised to make them hare-soup. The head, feet, and other spare bits, fell to Marengo's share. The owl, whose flesh was almost as white as its plumage, and, as Norman well knew, most delicate eating, was reserved for to-morrow's breakfast.
They had pitched their tent with the intention of remaining at that place all night, and continuing their journey next day; but, as it still wanted several hours of sunset, and the strength of all was considerably recruited, they resolved to hunt about the neighbourhood as long as they had light. It was of great importance that they should procure more game. The owl would make but a spare breakfast, and after that where was the next meal to come from? They had had a temporary relief, and while their strength lasted, they must use every effort to procure a further supply. The valley in which their new camp was placed looked well for game.
It was a sort of oaesis in the Barren Grounds. There was a lake and a considerable skirting of timber around it—consisting, as we have said, of willows, poplars, spruce-pine, and dwarf birch-trees. The Alpine arbutus, whose berries are the food of many species of animals, also grew upon the side of the hills; and the Labrador tea-plant was found upon the low ground around the lake. The leaves of this last is a favourite food of the Polar hare, and our voyageurs had no doubt but that there were many of these animals in the neighbourhood. Indeed, they had better evidence than conjecture, for they saw numerous hare-tracks in the snow. There were tracks of other animals too, for it is a well-known fact that where one kind exists, at least two or three others will be found in the same habitat—all being connected together by a "chain of destruction."
A singular illustration of this was afforded to Lucien, who remained at the camp while the rest went out hunting. He had gathered some of the leaves of the Labrador tea, and was drying them over the coals, intending to cheer his comrades with a cup of this beverage after supper. The hare-soup was boiling, and the "cook" sat listening to the cheerful sounds that issued from the pot—now and then taking off the lid to examine its savoury contents, and give them a stir. He would then direct his attention to the tea-leaves that were parching in the frying-pan; and, having shifted them a little, felt himself at liberty to look about for a minute or two.
On one of these occasions, while glancing up, his attention was attracted to an object which appeared upon the snow at a short distance from where he sat. A wreath of snow, that had formed under the shelter of the hill, extended all around its base, presenting a steep front in every direction. This front was only two or three feet in height; but the top surface of the wreath was many yards wide—in fact, it extended back until it became blended with the slope of the hill. It was smooth and nearly level, but the hill above was steep, and somewhat rough and rocky. The steep front of the wreath came down within half-a-dozen paces of the fire where Lucien was seated; and it was upon the top or scarpment of it that the object appeared that had drawn his attention. It was a small creature, but it was in motion, and thus had caught his eye.
A single glance showed him that the little animal was a mouse, but of a somewhat singular species. It was about the size of the common mouse, but quite different in colour. The upper half of its body was of a light mahogany tint, while the lower half, including the legs and feet, were of a milky whiteness. It was, in fact, the "white-footed mouse" (Mus leucopus), one of the most beautiful of its kind.
Here and there above the surface of the snow protruded the tops of arbutus-trees; and the little creature was passing from one of these to the other, in search, no doubt, of the berries that remain upon these trees all the winter. Sometimes it ran from point to point like any other mouse, but now and then it would rear itself on its hind-legs, and leap several feet at a single bound! In this it evidently assisted itself by pressing its tail—in which it possesses muscular power—against the snow. This peculiar mode of progression has obtained for it the name of the "jumping-mouse," and among the Indians "deer"-mouse, because its leap reminds them of the bounding spring of the deer. But there are still other species of "jumping-mice" in America that possess this power to a greater degree even than the Mus leucopus.
Lucien watched its motions without attempting to interfere with it, until it had got nearly out of sight. He did not desire to do injury to the little creature, nor was he curious to obtain it, as he had already met with many specimens, and examined them to his satisfaction. He had ceased to think of it, and would, perhaps, never have thought of it again, but, upon turning his eyes in the opposite direction, he observed another animal upon the snow. This creature had a far different aspect from the mouse. Its body was nearly a foot in length, although not much thicker than that of the other! Its legs were short, but strong, and its forehead broad and arched convexly. It had a tail more than half the length of the body, hairy, and tapering like that of a cat. Its form was the well-known form of the weasel, and it was, in fact, a species of weasel.
It was the celebrated ermine, celebrated for its soft and beautiful fur, so long prized as an ornament for the robes of the rich. It was white all over, with the exception of its tail; and that, for about an inch or so at the tip, was covered with black silky hair. On some parts of the body, too, the white was tinged with a primrose yellow; but this tinge is not found in all animals of this species, as some individuals are pure white. Of course it was now in its winter "robes"; but in the summer it changes to a colour that does not differ much from that of the common weasel.
When Lucien first saw it, it was running along the top of the wreath, and coming from the same direction from which the mouse had come. Now and then it paused awhile, and then ran on again. Lucien observed that it kept its nose to the ground, and as it drew nearer he saw that it was following on the same path which the other had taken. To his astonishment he perceived that it was trailing the mouse! Whatever the latter had doubled or made a detour, the ermine followed the track; and where the mouse had given one of its long leaps, there the ermine would stop, and, after beating about until it struck the trail again, would resume its onward course at a gallop. Its manoeuvres were exactly like those of a hound upon the fresh trail of a fox!
Lucien now looked abroad to discover the mouse. It was still in sight far off upon the snow, and, as Lucien could see, busily gnawing at the arbutus, quite unconscious that its greatest enemy was so near. I say greatest enemy, for the Mus leucopus is the natural prey of the Mustela erminea.
The mouse was soon made aware of the dangerous proximity, but not until the ermine had got within a few feet of it. When it perceived the latter it shrunk, at first, among the leaves of the arbutus; but seeing there would be no protection there—as the other was still springing forward to seize it—it leaped up, and endeavoured to escape by flight. Its flight appeared to be in alternate jumps and runs, but the chase was not a long one. The ermine was as active as a cat, and, after a few skips, its claws were struck into the mouse. There was a short, slender squeak, and then a "crunch," like the cracking of a hazel-nut. This last sound was produced by the teeth of the ermine breaking through the skull of its victim.
THE ARCTIC FOX AND WHITE WOLF.
Lucien turned round to get hold of his rifle, intending to punish the ermine, although the little creature, in doing what it did, had only obeyed a law of nature. But the boy had also another design in killing it: he wished to compare it with some ermines he had seen while travelling upon Lake Winnipeg, which, as he thought, were much larger—one that he had caught having measured more than a foot in length, without including the tail. He wished, also, to make some comparison between it and the common weasel; for in its winter dress, in the snowy regions, the latter very much resembles the ermine; and, indeed, the trappers make no distinction between them.
With these ideas Lucien had grasped his gun, and was raising himself to creep a little nearer, when his eye was arrested by the motions of another creature coming along the top of the wreath. This last was a snow-white animal, with long, shaggy fur, sharp-pointed snout, erect ears, and bushy tail. Its aspect was fox-like, and its movements and attitudes had all that semblance of cunning and caution so characteristic of these animals. Well might it, for it was a fox—the beautiful white fox of the Arctic regions.
It is commonly supposed that there are but two or three kinds of foxes in America; and that these are only varieties of the European species.
This is an erroneous idea, as there are nearly a dozen varieties existing in North America, although they may be referred to a less number of species. There is the Arctic fox, which is confined to the cold Northern regions, and which in winter is white.
The "sooty-fox" is a variety of the "Arctic," distinguished from it only by its colour, which is of a uniform blackish brown.
The "American fox" or, as it is commonly called, the "red fox," has been long supposed to be the same as the European red fox. This is erroneous. They differ in many points; and, what is somewhat curious, these points of difference are similar to those that exist between the European and American wolves, as already given.
The "cross fox" is supposed by the Indians and some naturalists to be only a variety of the last. It derives its name from its having two dark stripes crossing each other upon the shoulders. Its fur from this circumstance, and perhaps because the animal is scarce, is more prized than that of the red variety. When a single skin of the latter is worth only fifteen shillings, one of the cross fox will bring as much as five guineas.
Another variety of the red fox, and a much more rare one, is the "black," or "silver" fox. The skins of these command six times the price of any other furs found in America, with the exception of the sea-otter. The animal itself is so rare that only a few fall into the hands of the Hudson's Bay Company in a season; and Mr. Nicholay, the celebrated London furrier, asserts that a single skin will fetch from ten to forty guineas, according to quality. A remarkable cloak, or pelisse, belonging to the Emperor of Russia, and made out of the skins of silver-foxes, was exhibited in the Great London Exposition of 1851. It was made entirely from the neck-part of the skins—the only part of the silver-fox which is pure black. This cloak was valued at 3400l.; though Mr. Nicholay considers this an exaggerated estimate, and states its true value to be not over 1000l. George the Fourth had a lining of black fox-skins worth 1000l.
The "grey fox" is a more southern species than any already described. Its proper home is the temperate zone covered by the United States; although it extends its range into the southern parts of Canada. In the United States it is the most common kind, although in that district there is also a "red fox," different from the Vulpus fulvus already noticed; and which, no doubt, is the red fox of Europe, introduced by the early colonists of America.
Still another species, the smallest and perhaps the most interesting of any, is the "kit fox." This little creature is an inhabitant of the prairies, where it makes its burrows far from any wood. It is extremely shy, and the swiftest animal in the prairie country—outrunning even the antelope!
When Lucien saw the fox he thought no more of the ermine, but drew back and crouched down, in hopes he might get a shot at the larger animal. He knew well that the flesh of the Arctic fox is highly esteemed as food, particularly by persons situated as he and his companions were, and he hoped to be able to add it to their larder.
When first seen it was coming towards him, though not in a direct line. It was engaged in hunting, and, with its nose to the snow, was running in zig-zag lines, "quartering" the ground like a pointer dog. Presently it struck the trail of the ermine, and with a yelp of satisfaction followed it. This of course brought it close past where Lucien was; but, notwithstanding his eagerness to fire, it moved so rapidly along the trail that he was unable to take sight upon it. It did not halt for a moment; and, as Lucien's gun was a rifle, he knew that a flying shot would be an uncertain one. In the belief, therefore, that the fox would stop soon—at all events when it came up with the ermine—he restrained himself from firing, and waited.
It ran on, still keeping the track of the ermine. The latter, hitherto busy with his own prey, did not see the fox until it was itself seen, when, dropping the half-eaten mouse, it reared up on its hind-quarters like a squirrel or a monkey, at the same time spitting as spitefully as any other weasel could have done. In a moment, however, it changed its tactics—for the open jaws of the fox were within a few paces of it—and after making a short quick run along the surface, it threw up its hind-quarters, and plunged head-foremost into the snow! The fox sprang forward, and flinging his brush high in the air, shot after like an arrow!
Both had now disappeared from Lucien's sight. For a moment the surface of the snow was disturbed above the spot where they had gone down, but the next moment all was still, and no evidence existed that a living creature had been there, except the tracks, and the break the two creatures had made in going down. Lucien ran forward until he was within a few yards of the place, and stood watching the hole, with his rifle ready—thinking that the fox, at least, would soon come up again.
He had waited for nearly five minutes, looking steadily at this point, when his eye was attracted by a movement under the snow, at a considerable distance, quite fifty paces, from where he stood. The frozen crust was seen to upheave: and, the next moment, the head of the fox, and afterwards his whole body, appeared above the surface. Lucien saw that the ermine lay transversely between his jaws, and was quite dead! He was about to fire, but the fox, suddenly perceiving him, shot off like an arrow, carrying his prey along with him.
He was soon out of reach, and Lucien, seeing that he had lost his chance, was about to return to the fire, when, all at once, the fox was observed to stop, turn suddenly in his tracks, and run off in a new direction! Lucien looked beyond to ascertain the cause of this strange manoeuvre. That was soon ascertained. Coming down from among the rocks was a large animal—five times the fox's size—but in other respects not unlike him. It was also of a snow-white colour, with long hair, bushy tail, and short erect ears, but its aspect was not to be mistaken. It was the great white wolf.
When Lucien first saw this new-comer, the latter had just espied the fox, and was about stretching out into a gallop towards him. The fox, watching backwards as he ran, had not seen the wolf, until the latter was within a few springs of him; and now when he had turned, and both were in full chase, there was not over twenty yards between them. The direction in which they ran would bring them near to Lucien; and so they came, and passed him—neither of them seeming to heed his presence. They had not got many yards farther, before Lucien perceived that the wolf was fast closing on the fox, and would soon capture him. Believing he would then stop, so as to offer him a fairer chance for a shot, Lucien followed. The wolf, however, had noticed him coming after, and although the next moment he closed his great jaws upon the fox, he did not pause for a single instant, but, lifting the latter clear up from the ground, ran on without the slightest apparent diminution of speed!
Reynard was seen to struggle and kick, while he squeaked like a shot puppy; but his cries each moment grew feebler, and his struggles soon came to an end. The wolf held him transversely in his jaws—just as he himself but the moment before had carried the ermine.
Lucien saw there was no use in following them, as the wolf ran on with his prey. With some disappointment, therefore, he was about to return to the fire, where, to add to his mortification, he knew he would find his tea-leaves parched to a cinder. He lingered a moment, however, with his eyes still fixed upon the departing wolf that was just about to disappear over the crest of a ridge. The fox was still in his jaws, but no longer struggling. Reynard looked limber and dead, as his legs swung loosely on both sides of the wolf's head Lucien at that moment saw the latter suddenly stop in his career, and then drop down upon the surface of the snow as if dead! He fell with his victim in his jaws, and lay half doubled up, and quite still.
This strange action would have been a difficult thing for Lucien to explain, but, almost at the same instant in which he observed it, a puff of blue smoke shot up over the ridge, and quickly following was heard the sharp crack of a rifle. Then a head with its cap of raccoon skin appeared above the snow, and Lucien, recognising the face of Basil, ran forward to meet him.
Both soon stood over the body of the dead wolf, wondering at what they saw; but Basil, far more than Lucien—for the latter already knew the circumstances of that strange scene of death. First there was the great gaunt body of the wolf stretched along the snow, and quite dead. Cross-ways in his mouth was the fox, just as he had been carried off; and across the jaws of the latter, lay the long worm-like body of the ermine, still retaining between its teeth the half-devoured remains of the white-footed mouse! A very chain of destroyers! These creatures died as they had lived, preying one upon the other! Of all four the little mouse alone was an innocent victim. The other three, though morally guilty by the laws of man, yet were only acting in obedience to the laws of Nature and necessity.
Man himself obeys a similar law, as Basil had just shown. Philosophize as we will, we cannot comprehend why it is so—why Nature requires the sacrifice of one of her creatures for the sustenance of another. But although we cannot understand the cause, we must not condemn the fact as it exists; nor must we suppose, as some do, that the destruction of God's creatures for our necessities constitutes a crime. They who think so, and who, in consistency with their doctrines, confine themselves to what they term "vegetable" food, are at best but shallow reasoners. They have not studied Nature very closely, else would they know that every time they pluck up a parsnip, or draw their blade across the leaf of a lettuce, they cause pain and death!
How much pain we cannot tell; but that the plant feels, as well as the animal, we can clearly prove. Probably it feels less, and it may be each kind of plant differs from others in the amount, according to its higher or lower organism. Probably its amount of pleasure—its capability of enjoyment—is in a direct proportion to the pain which it endures; and it is highly probable that this double line of ratios runs in an ascending scale throughout the vegetable kingdom, gradually joining on to what is more strictly termed the "animal." But these mysteries of life, my young friend, will be interesting studies for you when your mind becomes matured.
Perhaps it may be your fortune to unravel some of them, for the benefit of your fellow-men. I feel satisfied that you will not only be a student of Nature, but one of her great teachers; you will far surpass the author of this little book in your knowledge of Nature's laws; but it will always be a happiness to him to reflect, that, when far advanced upon the highway of science, you will look back to him as one you had passed upon the road, and who pointed you to the path.
Though Basil had shot the wolf, it was plain that it was not the first nor yet the second time he had discharged his rifle since leaving the camp. From his game-bag protruded the curving claws and wing-tips of a great bird. In one hand he carried a white hare—not the Polar hare—but a much smaller kind, also an inhabitant of these snowy regions; and over his shoulders was slung a fierce-looking creature, the great wild-cat or lynx of America. The bird in his bag was the golden eagle, one of the few feathered creatures that brave the fierce winter of a northern climate, and does not migrate, like its congeners, the "white-head" and the osprey, to more southern regions.
Basil had returned alone—for the three, Basil, Norman, and Francois, had taken different directions at setting out. This they had done, in order to have as great a number of chances as possible of finding the game. Norman came in a few minutes after, bearing a whole deer upon his shoulders—a glad sight that was—and, a short interval having passed, Francois's "hurrah" sounded upon their ears, and Francois himself was seen coming up the valley loaded like a little donkey with two bunches of large snow-white birds.
The camp now exhibited a cheering sight. Such a variety was never seen even in the larder of a palace kitchen. The ground was strewed with animals like a dead menagerie. There were no less than a dozen kinds upon it!
The hare-soup was now quite ready, and was accordingly served up by Lucien in the best style. Lucien had dried a fresh "grist" of the tea leaves, and a cheering cup followed; and then the party all sat around their log-fire, while each of them detailed the history of his experience since parting with the others.
Francois was the first to relate what had befallen him.
THE JERFALCON AND THE WHITE GROUSE.
"Mine," began Francois, "was a bird adventure, as you all see—though what kind of birds I've shot, I can't tell. One of them's a hawk, I'm sure; but it's a white hawk, and that I never saw before. The rest, I suppose, are white partridges. Everything appears to be white here. What are they, Luce?"
"You are right about this first," answered Lucien, taking up one of the birds which Francois had brought back with him, and which was white all but a few spots of clove-brown upon its back. "This is a hawk, as you may tell, by its appearance, or rather I should say a 'falcon,' for you must know there is a difference."
"What difference?" demanded Francois, with some eagerness of manner.
"Why the principal difference is the formation of their beaks or bills. The bills of the true falcons are stronger, and have a notch in the lower mandible answering to a tooth in the upper one. Their nostrils, too, are differently formed. But another point of distinction is found in their habits. Both feed on warm-blooded animals, and neither will eat carrion. In this respect the hawks and falcons are alike. Both take their prey upon the wing; but herein lies the difference. The hawks capture it by skimming along horizontally or obliquely, and picking it up as they pass; whereas the true falcons 'pounce' down upon it from above, and in a line nearly vertical."
"Then this must be a true falcon," interrupted Francois, "for I saw the gentleman do that very thing; and beautifully he did it, too."
"It is a falcon," continued Lucien; "and of the many species of hawks which inhabit North America—over twenty in all—it is one of the boldest and handsomest. I don't wonder you never saw it before; for it is truly a bird of the Northern regions, and does not come so far south as the territory of the United States, much less into Louisiana. It is found in North Europe, Greenland, and Iceland, and has been seen as far north on both continents as human beings have travelled. It is known by the name of 'jerfalcon,' or 'gyrfalcon,' but its zoological name is Falco Islandicus."
"The Indians here," interposed Norman, "call it by a name that means 'winter bird,' or 'winterer'—I suppose, because it is one of the few that stay in these parts all the year round, and is therefore often noticed by them in winter time. The traders sometimes call it the 'speckled partridge-hawk,' for there are some of them more spotted than this one is."
"True," said Lucien; "the young ones are nearly of a brown colour, and they first become spotted or mottled after a year or two. They are several years old before they get the white plumage, and very few individuals are seen of a pure white all over, though there are some without a spot."
"Yes," continued the naturalist, "it is the jerfalcon; and those other birds which you call 'white partridges,' are the very creatures upon which it preys. So you have killed both the tyrant and his victims. They are not partridges though, but grouse—that species known as 'willow grouse.'"
And as Lucien said this, he began to handle the birds, which were of a beautiful white all over, with the exception of the tail feathers. These last were pitch-black.
"Ho!" exclaimed Lucien, in some surprise, "you have two kinds here! Were they all together when you shot them?"
"No," answered Francois; "one I shot along with the hawk out in the open ground. All the others I killed upon a tree in a piece of woods that I fell in with. There's no difference between them that I can see."
"But I can," said Lucien, "although I acknowledge they all look very much alike. Both are feathered to the toes—both have the black feathers in the tail—and the bills of both are black; but if you observe closely, this kind—the willow-grouse—has the bill much stronger and less flattened. Besides, it is a larger bird than the other, which is 'the rock-grouse.' Both are sometimes, though erroneously, called 'ptarmigan;' but they are not the true ptarmigan—such as exist in North Europe—though these last are also to be met with in the Northern parts of America. The ptarmigan are somewhat larger than either of these kinds, but in other respects differ but little from them.
"The habits of the 'rock' and 'willow' grouse are very similar. They are both birds of the snowy region, and are found as far north as has been explored. The willow-grouse in winter keep more among the trees, and are oftener met with in wooded countries; whereas the others like best to live in the open ground, and, from your statement, it appears you found each kind in its favourite haunt."
"Just so," said Francois. "After leaving here, I kept down the valley, and was just crossing an open piece of high ground, when I espied the white hawk, or falcon as you call it, hovering in the air as I'd often seen hawks do. Well, I stopped and hid behind a rock, thinking I might have a chance to put a few drops into him. All at once he appeared to stand still in the air, and, then closing his wings, shot down like an arrow. Just then I heard a loud 'whur-r-r,' and up started a whole covey of white partridges—grouse, I should say—the same as this you call the 'rock-grouse.' I saw that the hawk had missed the whole of them, and I marked them as they flew off.
"They pitched about a hundred yards or so, and then went plunge under the snow—every one of them making a hole for itself just like where one had poked their foot in! I guess, boys, this looked funny enough. I thought I would be sure to get a shot at some of these grouse as they came out again; so I walked straight up to the holes they had made, and stood waiting. I still saw the hawk hovering in the air, about an hundred yards ahead of me.
"I was considering whether I ought to go farther on, and tramp the birds out of the snow; for I believed, of course, they were still under the place where the holes were. All at once I noticed a movement on the crust of the snow right under where the hawk was flying, and then that individual shot down to the spot, and disappeared under the snow! At the same instant, the crust broke in several places, and up came the grouse one after another, and whirred off out of sight, without giving me any sort of a chance. The hawk, however, had not come up yet; and I ran forward, determined to take him as soon as he should make his appearance. When I had got within shooting distance, up he fluttered to the surface, and—what do you think?—he had one of the grouse struggling in his claws! I let him have the right barrel, and both he and grousy were knocked dead as a couple of door-nails!
"I thought I might fall in with the others again; and kept on in the direction they had taken, which brought me at last to a piece of woodland consisting of birches and willow-trees. As I was walking along the edge of this, I noticed one of the willows, at some distance off, covered with great white things, that at first I took for flakes of snow; but then I thought it curious that none of the other trees had the same upon them. As I came a little nearer, I noticed one of the things moving, and then I saw they were birds, and very like the same I had just seen, and was then in search of. So I crept in among the trees; and, after some dodging, got within beautiful shooting distance, and gave them both barrels. There, you see the result!"
Here Francois triumphantly pointed to the pile of birds, which in all, with the jerfalcon, counted four brace and a half.
One was the rock-grouse, which the falcon had itself killed, and the others were willow-grouse, as Lucien had stated. Francois now remained silent, while Basil related his day's adventure.
THE HARE, THE LYNX, AND THE GOLDEN EAGLE.
"Frank," began he, "has called his 'a bird adventure.' I might give mine somewhat of the same title, for there was a bird mixed up with it—the noblest of all birds—the eagle. But you shall hear it.
"On leaving the camp, I went, as you all know, up the valley. After travelling for a quarter of a mile or so, I came upon a wide open bottom, where there were some scattered willows and clumps of dwarf birch-trees. As Luce had told me that such are the favourite food of the American hare, or, as we call it in Louisiana, 'rabbit,' I looked out for the sign of one, and, sure enough, I soon came upon a track, which I knew to be that of 'puss.' It was fresh enough, and I followed it. It kept me meandering about for a long while, till at last I saw that it took a straight course for some thick brushwood, with two or three low birches growing out of it.
"As I made sure of finding the game there, I crept forward very quietly, holding Marengo in the leash. But the hare was not in the brush; and, after tramping all through it, I again noticed the track where she had gone out on the opposite side. I was about starting forth to follow it, when all at once an odd-looking creature made its appearance right before me. It was that fellow there!" And Basil pointed to the lynx. "I thought at first sight," continued he, "it was our Louisiana wild cat or bay lynx, as Luce calls it, for it is very like our cat; but I saw it was nearly twice as big, and more greyish in the fur. Well, when I first sighted the creature, it was about an hundred yards off.
"It hadn't seen me, though, for it was not running away, but skulking along slowly—nearly crosswise to the course of the hare's track—and looking in a different direction to that in which I was. I was well screened behind the bushes, and that, no doubt, prevented it from noticing me. At first I thought of running forward, and setting Marengo after it. Then I determined on staying where I was, and watching it a while. Perhaps it may come to a stop, reflected I, and let me creep within shot. I remained, therefore, crouching among the bushes, and kept the dog at my feet.
"As I continued to watch the cat, I saw that, instead of following a straight line, it was moving in a circle!
"The diameter of this circle was not over an hundred yards; and in a very short while the animal had got once round the circumference, and came back to where I had first seen it. It did not stop there, but continued on, though not in its old tracks. It still walked in a circle, but a much smaller one than before. Both, however, had a common centre; and, as I noticed that the animal kept its eyes constantly turned towards the centre, I felt satisfied that in that place would be found the cause of its strange manoeuvring. I looked to the centre. At first I could see nothing—at least nothing that might be supposed to attract the cat. There was a very small bush of willows, but they were thin. I could see distinctly through them, and there was no creature there, either in the bush or around it. The snow lay white up to the roots of the willows, and I thought that a mouse could hardly have found shelter among them, without my seeing it from where I stood.
"Still I could not explain the odd actions of the lynx, upon any other principle than that it was in the pursuit of game; and I looked again, and carefully examined every inch of the ground as my eyes passed over it. This time I discovered what the animal was after. Close into the willows appeared two little parallel streaks of a dark colour, just rising above the surface of the snow. I should not have noticed them had there not been two of them, and these slanting in the same direction. They had caught my eyes before, but I had taken them for the points of broken willows. I now saw that they were the ears of some animal, and I thought that once or twice they moved slightly while I was regarding them.
"After looking at them steadily for a time, I made out the shape of a little head underneath. It was white, but there was a round dark spot in the middle, which I knew to be an eye. There was no body to be seen. That was under the snow, but it was plain enough that what I saw was the head of a hare. At first I supposed it to be a Polar hare—such as we had just killed—but the tracks I had followed were not those of the Polar hare. Then I remembered that the 'rabbit' of the United States also turns white in the winter of the Northern regions. This, then, must be the American rabbit, thought I.
"Of course my reflections did not occupy all the time I have taken in describing them. Only a moment or so. All the while the lynx was moving round and round the circle, but still getting nearer to the hare that appeared eagerly to watch it. I remembered how Norman had manoeuvred to get within shot of the Polar hare; and I now saw the very same ruse being practised by a dumb creature, that is supposed to have no other guide than instinct. But I had seen the 'bay lynx' of Louisiana do some 'dodges' as cunning as that,—such as claying his feet to make the hounds lose the scent, and, after running backwards and forwards upon a fallen log, leap into the tops of trees, and get off in that way."
"Believing that his Northern cousin was just as artful as himself" (here Basil looked significantly at the "Captain,") "I did not so much wonder at the performance I now witnessed. Nevertheless, I felt a great curiosity to see it out. But for this curiosity I could have shot the lynx every time he passed me on the nearer edge of the circle. Round and round he went, then, until he was not twenty feet from the hare, that, strange to say, seemed to regard this the worst of her enemies more with wonder than fear. The lynx at length stopped suddenly, brought his four feet close together, arched his back like an angry cat, and then with one immense bound, sprang forward upon his victim.
"The hare had only time to leap out of her form, and the second spring of the lynx brought him right upon the top of her. I could hear the child-like scream which the American rabbit always utters when thus seized; but the cloud of snow-spray raised above the spot prevented me for a while from seeing either lynx or hare. The scream was stifled in a moment, and when the snow-spray cleared off, I saw that the lynx held the hare under his paws, and that 'puss' was quite dead.
"I was considering how I might best steal up within shooting distance, when, all at once, I heard another scream of a very different sort. At the same time a dark shadow passed over the snow. I looked up, and there, within fifty yards of the ground, a great big bird was wheeling about. I knew it to be an eagle from its shape; and at first I fancied it was a young one of the white-headed kind—for, as you are aware, these do not have either the white head or tail until they are several years old. Its immense size, however, showed that it could not be one of these. It must be the great 'golden' eagle of the Rocky Mountains, thought I.
"When I first noticed it, I fancied that it had been after the rabbit; and, seeing the latter pounced upon by another preying creature, had uttered its scream at being thus disappointed of its prey. I expected, therefore, to see it fly off. To my astonishment it broke suddenly out of the circles in which it had been so gracefully wheeling, and, with another scream wilder than before, darted down towards the lynx!
"The latter, on hearing the first cry of the eagle, had started, dropped his prey, and looked up. In the eagle he evidently recognised an antagonist, for his back suddenly became arched, his fur bristled up, his short tail moved quickly from side to side, and he stood with glaring eyes, and claws ready to receive the attack.
"As the eagle came down, its legs and claws were thrown forward, and I could then tell it was not a bald eagle, nor the great "Washington eagle," nor yet a fishing eagle of any sort, which both of these are. The fishing eagles, as Lucien had told me, have always naked legs, while those of the true eagles are more feathered. So were his, but beyond the feathers I could see his great curved talons, as he struck forward at the lynx. He evidently touched and wounded the animal, but the wound only served to make it more angry: and I could hear it purring and spitting like a tom-cat, only far louder.
"The eagle again mounted back into the air, but soon wheeled round and shot down a second time. This time the lynx sprang forward to meet it, and I could hear the concussion of their bodies as they came together. I think the eagle must have been crippled, so that it could not fly up again, for the fight from that time was carried on upon the ground. The lynx seemed anxious to grasp some part of his antagonist's body—and at times I thought he had succeeded—but then he was beaten off again by the bird, that fought furiously with wings, beak, and talons."
"The lynx now appeared to be the attacking party, as I saw him repeatedly spring forward at the eagle, while the latter always received him upon its claws, lying with its back upon the snow. Both fur and feathers flew in every direction, and sometimes the combatants were so covered with the snow-spray that I could see neither of them.
"I watched the conflict for several minutes, until it occurred to me, that my best time to get near enough for a shot was just while they were in the thick of it, and not likely to heed me. I therefore moved silently out of the bushes; and, keeping Marengo in the string, crept forward. I had but the one bullet to give them, and with that I could not shoot both; but I knew that the quadruped was eatable, and, as I was not sure about the bird, I very easily made choice, and shot the lynx. To my surprise the eagle did not fly off, and I now saw that one of its wings was disabled! He was still strong enough, however, to scratch Marengo severely before the latter could master him. As to the lynx, he had been roughly handled. His skin was torn in several places, and one of his eyes, as you see, regularly 'gouged out.'"