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The Young Voyageurs
Chapter XXXVIII. A Battle with Wolves

Next morning they were up by early daybreak. The days were now only a few hours in length, for it was mid-winter, and they were but three or four degrees south of the Arctic circle. Of course they would require all the day for the intended hunt of the caribou, as they might have to follow the track of the herd for many miles before coming up with the animals. Lucien was to remain by the camp, as it would never do to leave the animals they had already lulled without some guard. To have hung them on the trees, would have put them out of the reach of both wolves and foxes; but the lynx and wolverene are both tree-climbers, and could easily have got at them there. They had reason to believe there were wolverenes about; for these fierce and destructive beasts are found in every part of the fur countries—wherever there exist other animals upon which they can prey. Eagles, hawks, and owls, moreover, would have picked the partridges from the branches of the trees without difficulty. One proposed burying them in the snow; but Norman assured them that the Arctic foxes could scent them out, and dig them up in a few minutes. Then it was suggested to cover them under a pile of stones, as there were plenty of these lying about. To this Norman also objected, saying that the wolverene could pull off any stones they were able to pile upon them—as this creature in its fore-legs possesses more than the strength of a man. Besides, it was not unlikely that one of the great brown bears,—a species entirely different from either the black or grizzly bears, and which is only met with on the Barren Grounds—might come ranging that way; and he could soon toss over any stone-heap they might build. On the whole it was better that one of the four should remain by the camp; and Lucien, who cared less about hunting than any of them, willingly agreed to be the one.

Their arrangements were soon completed, and the three hunters set out. They did not go straight towards the place where Norman had found the deer upon the preceding day, but took a cross-cut over the hills. This was by Norman’s advice, who guided himself by the wind—which had not changed since the previous day. He knew that the caribou in feeding always travel against the wind; and he expected therefore to find them somewhere in the direction from which it was blowing. Following a course, which angled with that of the wind, they kept on, expecting soon to strike the trail of the herd.

Meanwhile Lucien, left to himself, was not idle. He had to prepare the flesh of the different animals, so as to render it fit to be carried along. Nothing was required farther than to skin and cut them up. Neither salting nor drying was necessary, for the flesh of one and all had got frozen as stiff as a stone, and in this way it would keep during the whole winter. The wolf was skinned with the others, but this was because his fine skin was wanted. His flesh was not intended to be eaten—although only a day or two before any one of the party would have been glad of such a meal. Not only the Indians, but the voyageurs and fur-traders, while journeying through these inhospitable wilds, are often but too delighted to get a dinner of wolf-meat. The ermine and the little mouse were the only other creatures of the collection that were deemed uneatable. As to the Arctic fox and the lynx, the flesh of both these creatures is highly esteemed, and is white and tender, almost as much so as the hares upon which they feed. The snowy owl too, the jerfalcon, and the eagle, were looked upon as part of the larder—the flesh of all being almost as good as that of the grouse. Had it been a fishing eagle—such as the bald-head—the case would have been different, for these last, on account of their peculiar food, taste rank and disagreeable. But there was no danger of their falling in with a fishing eagle at that place. These can only exist where there is open water. Hence the cause of their annual migrations to the southward, when the lakes and rivers of the fur countries become covered with their winter ice.

Though Lucien remained quietly at the camp he was not without adventures to keep him from wearying. While he was singeing his grouse his eye happened to fall upon the shadow of a bird passing over the snow. On looking up he saw a very large bird, nearly as big as an eagle, flying softly about in wide circles. It was of a mottled-brown colour; but its short neck and great round head told the naturalist at a glance that it was a bird of the owl genus. It was the largest of the kind that Lucien had ever seen, and was, in fact, the largest known in America—the “great cinereous owl” (Strix cinerea). Now and then it would alight upon a rock or tree, at the distance of an hundred yards or so from the camp; where it would watch the operations of Lucien, evidently inclined to help him in dissecting some of the animals. Whenever he took up his gun and tried to approach within shot, it would rise into the air again, always keeping out of range. Lucien was provoked at this—for he wished, as a naturalist, to examine the bird, and for this purpose to kill it, of course; but the owl seemed determined that he should do no such thing.

At length, however, Lucien resolved upon a plan to decoy the creature within shot. Taking up one of the grouse, he flung it out upon the snow some thirty yards from the fire. No sooner had he done so, than the owl, at sight of the tempting morsel, left aside both its shyness and prudence, and sailed gently forward; then, hovering for a moment over the ground, hooked the grouse upon its claws, and was about to carry it off, when a bullet from Lucien’s rifle, just in the “nick of time,” put a stop to its further flight, and dropped the creature dead upon the snow.

Lucien picked it up and brought it to the camp, where he passed some time in making notes upon its size, colour, and other peculiarities. The owl measured exactly two feet in length from the point of the bill to the end of the tail; and its “alar spread,” as naturalists term it, was full five feet in extent. It was of a clove-brown colour, beautifully mottled with white, and its bill and eyes were of a bright gamboge yellow. Like all of its tribe that winter in the Arctic wilds, it was feathered to the toes. Lucien reflected that this species lives more in the woods than the “great snowy owl,” and, as he had heard, is never found far out on the Barren Grounds during winter. This fact, therefore, was a pleasant one to reflect upon, for it confirmed the testimony which the travellers had already obtained from several of the other creatures they had killed—that is to say, that they must be in the neighbourhood of some timbered country.

Lucien had hardly finished his examination of the owl when he was called upon to witness another incident of a much more exciting nature. A hill, as already mentioned, or rather a ridge, rose up from the opposite shore of the lake by which the camp was pitched. The declivity of this hill fronted the lake, and sloped gradually back from the edge of the water. Its whole face was smooth and treeless, covered with a layer of pure snow. The camp commanded a full view of it up to its very crest.

As Lucien was sitting quietly by the fire a singular sound, or rather continuation of sounds, fell upon his ear. It somewhat resembled the baying of hounds at a distance; and at first he was inclined to believe that it was Marengo on a view-hunt after the deer. On listening more attentively, however, he observed that the sounds came from more than one animal; and also, that they bore more resemblance to the howling of wolves than the deep-toned bay of a bloodhound. This, in fact, it was; for the next moment a caribou shot up over the crest of the hill, and was seen stretching at full gallop down the smooth declivity in the direction of the lake. Not twenty paces in its rear followed a string of howling animals, evidently in pursuit of it. There were a dozen of them in all, and they were running exactly like hounds upon the “view holloa.” Lucien saw at a glance they were wolves. Most of them were dappled-grey and white, while some were of a pure white colour. Any one of them was nearly as large as the caribou itself; for in these parts—around Great Slave Lake—the wolf grows to his largest size.

The caribou gained upon them as it bounded down the slope of the hill. It was evidently making for the lake, believing, no doubt, that the black ice upon its surface was water, and that in that element it would have the advantage of its pursuers, for the caribou is a splendid swimmer. Nearly all deer when hunted take to the water—to throw off the dogs, or escape from men—and to this habit the reindeer makes no exception.

Down the hill swept the chase, Lucien having a full view both of pursuers and pursued. The deer ran boldly. It seemed to have gathered fresh confidence at sight of the lake, while the same object caused its pursuers a feeling of disappointment. They knew they were no match for a caribou in the water, as no doubt many a one had escaped them in that element. It is not likely, however, that they made reflections of this sort. There was but little time. From the moment of their appearance upon the crest of the hill till the chase arrived at the edge of the lake, was but a few seconds. On reaching the shore the caribou made no stop; but bounded forward in the same way as if it had been springing upon water. Most likely it expected to hear a plunge; but, instead of that, its hoofs came down upon the hard ice; and, by the impulse thus given, the animal shot out with the velocity of a skater. Strange to say, it still kept its feet; but, now seemingly overcome by surprise, and knowing the advantage its pursuers would have over it upon the slippery ice, it began to plunge and flounder, and once or twice came to its knees. The hungry pursuers appeared to recognise their advantage at once, for their howling opened with a fresh burst, and they quickened their pace. Their sharp claws enabled them to gallop over the ice at top speed; and one large brute that led the pack soon came up with the deer, sprang upon it, and bit it in the flank. This brought the deer upon its haunches, and at once put an end to the chase. The animal was hardly down upon the ice, when the foremost wolves coming up precipitated themselves upon its body, and began to devour it.

It was about the middle of the lake where the caribou had been overtaken. At the time it first reached the ice, Lucien had laid hold of his rifle and run forward in order to meet the animal halfway, and, if possible, get a shot at it. Now that the creature was killed, he continued on with the design of driving off the wolves, and securing the carcass of the deer for himself. He kept along the ice until he was within less than twenty yards of the pack, when, seeing that the fierce brutes had torn the deer to pieces, and perceiving, moreover, that they exhibited no fear of himself, he began to think he might be in danger by advancing any nearer. Perhaps a shot from his rifle would scatter them, and without further reflection he raised the piece, and fired. One of the wolves kicked over upon the ice, and lay quite dead; but the others, to Lucien’s great surprise, instead of being frightened off, immediately sprang upon their dead companion, and commenced tearing and devouring it, just as they had done the deer!

The sight filled Lucien with alarm; which was increased at seeing several of the wolves—that had been beaten by the others from the quarry—commence making demonstrations towards himself! Lucien now trembled for his safety, and no wonder. He was near the middle of the lake upon slippery ice. To attempt running back to the camp would be hazardous; the wolves could overtake him before he had got halfway, and he felt certain that any signs of fear on his part would be the signal for the fierce brutes to assail him.

For some moments he was irresolute how to act. He had commenced loading his gun, but his fingers were numbed with the cold, and it was a good while before he could get the piece ready for a second fire. He succeeded at length. He did not fire then, but resolved to keep the charge for a more desperate crisis. Could he but reach the camp there were trees near it, and one of these he might climb. This was his only hope, in case the wolves attacked him, and he knew it was. Instead of turning and running for this point, he began to back for it stealthily and with caution, keeping his front all the while towards the wolves, and his eyes fixed upon them. He had not got many yards, when he perceived to his horror, that the whole pack were in motion, and coming after him! It was a terrible sight, and Lucien, seeing that by retreating he only drew them on, stopped and held his rifle in a threatening attitude. The wolves were now within twenty yards of him; but, instead of moving any longer directly towards him, they broke into two lines, swept past on opposite sides of him, and then circling round, met each other in his rear. His retreat was cut off!

He now stood upon the ice with the fierce wolves forming a ring around him, whose diameter was not the six lengths of his gun, and every moment growing shorter and shorter. The prospect was appalling. It would have caused the stoutest heart to quail, and Lucien’s was terrified. He shouted at the top of his voice. He fired his rifle at the nearest. The brute fell, but the others showed no symptoms of fear; they only grew more furious. Lucien clubbed his gun—the last resort in such cases—and laid around him with all his might; but he was in danger of slipping upon the ice, and his efforts were feeble. Once down he never would have risen again, for his fierce assailants would have sprung upon him like tigers. As it was, he felt but little hope. He believed himself lost. The teeth of the ferocious monsters gleamed under his eyes. He was growing weaker and weaker, yet still he battled on, and swept his gun around him with the energy of despair. Such a struggle could not have continued much longer. Lucien’s fate would have been sealed in a very few minutes more, had not relief arrived in some shape or other. But it did come. A loud shout was heard upon the hill; and Lucien, glancing suddenly towards it, saw several forms rushing downward to the lake! It was the hunting party returned, and in a moment more they were crossing the ice to his rescue. Lucien gaining confidence fought with fresh vigour. The wolves busy in their attack had either not heard or were regardless of the new-comers; but the “crack, crack” of the guns—repeated no less than four times—and then the nearer reports of pistols, made a speedy impression upon the brutes, and in a short while half their number were seen tumbling and kicking upon the ice. The rest, uttering their hideous howls, took to flight, and soon disappeared from the valley; and Lucien, half dead with fatigue, staggered into the arms of his deliverers.

No less than seven of the wolves were killed in the affray—two of which Lucien had shot himself. One or two were only wounded, but so badly, that they could not get away; and these were handed over to the tender mercies of Marengo, who amused himself for some time after by worrying them to death.

The hunting party had made a good day of it. They had fallen in with the caribou, and had killed three of them. These they were bringing to camp, but had dropped them upon the hill, on perceiving the perilous position of Lucien. They now went back, and having carried the deer to their camping-place, were soon engaged in the pleasant occupation of eating a savoury dinner. Lucien soon recovered from his fright and fatigue, and amused his companions by giving an account of the adventures that had befallen him in their absence.

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