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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XXVI. 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 a while 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 (Gadus lota). 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 (Pinus sylvestris). 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 (Pinus Banksiana) 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 (Cervus alces) 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 (Cervus Canadensis). The moose takes its name from its Indian appellation, “moosoa,” 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 (Acer striatum) 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 (Nympha); 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 drift, 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 deerskins 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 mosquitoes 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 détour, 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 yet 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.

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