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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XXXII. 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” (Garrulus Canadensis), 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. François 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 François’ 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 scrutinise its contents!

The boys could not think of any way of getting the birds, except by François’ gun; and it was at length agreed that François 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 thetripe 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 scrutinised, 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 François 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 (Strix nyctea) 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. François 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 François.

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 doornail. 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 François, who, like a little god, stood enveloped in a halo of blue smoke. François was the hero of the hour.

Marengo rushed forward and seized the struggling owl, that snapped its bill at him like a watch-man’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” (Lepus glacialis), 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 (Pinus alba), 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.

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