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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XXX. 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 amidst 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 (the Pyrenean wolf, Canis lupus) 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 characterised by a gaunt appearance, a pointed snout, long jaws, high ears, long legs, and feet very narrow. It is possible, notwithstanding 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 forests of Mexico some that possessed all that “gaunt” form and “sneaking” aspect that characterise the latter. It would be interesting to inquire whether the wolves of Siberia and Lapland, inhabiting 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 had 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 François 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 François 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 François, “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 François, “where even a beetle could have gone down. Let us look for one.”

At François’ 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 (Sorex parvus), 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.

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