The Fur Country, by Jules Verne

Chapter VI.

A Wapiti Duel.

Two hundred miles had been traversed since the expedition left Fort Reliance. The travellers, taking advantage of the long twilight, pressed on day and night, and were literally overcome with fatigue when they reached Fort Enterprise, near the shores of Lake Snare.

This fort was no more than a depôt of provisions, of little importance, erected a few years before by the Hudson’s Bay Company. It served as a resting-place for the men taking the convoys of furs from the Great Bear Lake, some three hundred miles further to the north-west. About a dozen soldiers formed the garrison. The fort consisted of a wooden house surrounded by palisades. But few as were the comforts it offered, Lieutenant Hobson’s companions gladly took refuge in it and rested there for two days.

The gentle influence of the Arctic spring was beginning to be felt. Here and there the snow had melted, and the temperature of the nights was no longer below freezing point. A few delicate mosses and slender grasses clothed the rugged ground with their soft verdure; and from between the stones peeped the moist calices of tiny, almost colourless, flowers. These faint signs of reawakening vegetation, after the long night of winter, were refreshing to eyes weary of the monotonous whiteness of the snow; and the scattered specimens of the Flora of the Arctic regions were welcomed with delight.

Mrs Paulina Barnett and Jaspar Hobson availed themselves of this leisure time to visit the shores of the little lake. They were both students and enthusiastic lovers of nature. Together they wandered amongst the ice masses, already beginning to break up, and the waterfalls created by the action of the rays of the sun. The surface itself of Lake Snare was still intact, not a crack denoted the approaching thaw; but it was strewn with the ruins of mighty icebergs, which assumed all manner of picturesque forms, and the beauty of which was heightened when the light, diffracted by the sharp edges of the ice, touched them with all manner of colours. One might have fancied that a rainbow, crushed in a powerful hand, bad been flung upon the ground, its fragments crossing each other as they fell.

“What a beautiful scene!” exclaimed Mrs Paulina Barnett. “These prismatic effects vary at every change of our position. Does it not seem as if we were bending over the opening of an immense kaleidoscope, or are you already weary of a sight so new and interesting to me?”

“No, madam,” replied the Lieutenant; “although I was born and bred on this continent, its beauties never pall upon me. But if your enthusiasm is so great when you see this scenery with the sun shining upon it, what will it be when you are privileged to behold the terrible grandeur of the winter? To own the truth, I think the sun, so much thought of in temperate latitudes, spoils my Arctic home.”

“Indeed!” exclaimed Mrs Barnett, smiling at the Lieutenant’s last remark; “for my part, I think the sun a capital travelling companion, and I shall not be disposed to grumble at the warmth it gives even in the Polar regions!”

“Ah, madam,” replied Jaspar Hobson, “I am one of those who think it best to visit Russia in the winter, and the Sahara Desert in the summer. You then see their peculiar characteristics to advantage. The sun is a star of the torrid and temperate zones, and is out of place thirty degrees from the North Pole. The true sky of this country is the pure frigid sky of winter, bright with constellations, and sometimes flushed with the glory of the Aurora Borealis. This land is the land of the night, not of the day; and you have yet to make acquaintance with the delights and marvels of the long Polar night.”

“Have you ever visited the temperate zones of Europe and America?” inquired Mrs Barnett.

“Yes, madam; and I admired them as they deserved. But I returned home with fresh love and enthusiasm for my native land. Cold is my element, and no merit is due to me for braving it. It has no power over me; and, like the Esquimaux. I can live for months together in a snow hut.”

“Really, Lieutenant Hobson, it is quite cheering to hear our dreaded enemy spoken of in such terms. I hope to prove myself worthy to be your companion, and wherever you venture, we will venture together.”

“I agree, madam, I agree; and may all the women and soldiers accompanying me show themselves as resolute as you. If so, God helping us, we shall indeed advance far.”

“You have nothing to complain of yet,” observed the lady. “Not a single accident has occurred, the weather has been propitious, the cold not too severe-everything has combined to aid us.”

“Yes, madam; but the sun which you admire so much will soon create difficulties for us, and strew obstacles in our path.”

“What do you mean, Lieutenant Hobson?”

“I mean that the heat will soon have changed the aspect of the country; that the melted ice will impede the sliding of the sledges; that the ground will become rough and uneven; that our panting dogs will no longer carry us along with the speed of an arrow; that the rivers and lakes will resume their liquid state, and that we shall have to ford or go round them. All these changes, madam, due to the influence of the solar rays, will cause delays, fatigue, and dangers, the very least of which will be the breaking of the brittle snow beneath our feet, or the falling of the avalanches from the summits of the icebergs. For all this we have to thank the gradual rise of the sun higher and higher above the horizon. Bear this in mind, madam: of the four elements of the old creation, only one is necessary to us here, the air; the other three, fire, earth, and water, are de trop in the Arctic regions.”

Of course the Lieutenant was exaggerating, and Mrs Barnett could easily have retorted with counter-arguments; but she liked to hear his raptures in praise of his beloved country, and she felt that his enthusiasm was a guarantee that he would shrink from no obstacle.

Yet Jaspar Hobson was right when he said the sun would cause difficulties. This was seen when the party set out again on the 4th May, three days later. The thermometer, even in the coldest part of the night, marked more than 32° Fahrenheit. A complete thaw set in, the vast white sheet of snow resolved itself into water. The irregularities of the rocky soil caused constant jolting of the sledges, and the passengers were roughly shaken. The roads were so heavy that the dogs had to go at a slow trot, and the reins were therefore again entrusted to the hands of the imprudent Corporal

Joliffe. Neither shouts nor flourishings of the whip had the slightest effect on the jaded animals.

From time to time the travellers lightened the sledges by walking little way. This mode of locomotion suited the hunters, who were now gradually approaching the best districts for game in the whole of English America. Mrs Paulina Barnett and Madge took a great interest in the chase, whilst Thomas Black professed absolute indifference to all athletic exercise. He had not come all this distance to hunt the polecat or the ermine, but merely to look at the moon at the moment when her disc should cover that of the sun. When the queen of the night rose above the horizon, the impatient astronomer would gaze at her with eager eyes, and one day the Lieutenant said to him

“It would be a bad look-out for you, Mr Black, if by any unlucky chance the moon should fail to keep her appointment on the 16th July 1860.”

“Lieutenant Hobson,” gravely replied the astronomer, “if the moon were guilty of such a breach of good manners, I should indeed have cause to complain.”

The chief hunters of the expedition were the soldiers Marbre and Sabine, both very expert at their business. Their skill was wonderful; and the cleverest Indians would not have surpassed them in keenness of sight, precision of aim, or manual address. They were alike trappers and hunters, and were acquainted with all the nets and snares for taking sables, otters, wolves, foxes, bears, &c. No artifice was unknown to them, and Captain Craventy had shown his wisdom in choosing two such intelligent men to accompany the little troop.

Whilst on the march however, Marbre and Sabine had no time for setting traps. They could not separate from the others for more than an hour or two at a time, and were obliged to be content with the game which passed within range of their rifles. Still they were fortunate enough to kill two of the large American ruminants, seldom met with in such elevated latitudes.

On the morning of the 15th May the hunters asked permission to follow some fresh traces they had found, and the Lieutenant not only granted it, but himself accompanied them with Mrs Paulina Barnett, and they went several miles out of their route towards the east.

The impressions were evidently the result of the passage of about half-a-dozen large deer. There could be no mistake about it; Marbre and Sabine were positive on that point, and could even have named the species to which the animals belonged.

“You seem surprised to have met with traces of these animals here, Lieutenant,” said Mrs Barnett.

“Well, madam,” replied Hobson, “this species is rarely seen beyond 57° N. lat. We generally hunt them at the south of the Slave Lake, where they feed upon the shoots of willows and poplars, and certain wild roses to which they are very partial.”

“I suppose these creatures, like those with valuable furs, have fled from the districts scoured by the hunters.”

“I see no other explanation of their presence at 65° N. lat.,” replied the Lieutenant-”that is, if the men are not mistaken as to the origin of the footprints.”

“No, no, sir,” cried Sabine; “Marbre and I are not mistaken. These traces were left by deer, the deer we hunters call red deer, and the natives wapitis.”

“He is quite right,” added Marbre; “old trappers like us are not to be taken in; besides, don’t you hear that peculiar whistling sound?”

The party had now reached the foot of a little hill, and as the snow had almost disappeared from its sides they were able to climb it, and hastened to the summit, the peculiar whistling noticed by Marbre becoming louder, mingled with cries resembling the braying of an ass, and proving that the two hunters were riot mistaken.

Once at the top of the hill, the adventurers looked eagerly towards the east. The undulating plains were still white with snow, but its dazzling surface was here and there relieved with patches of stunted light green vegetation. A few gaunt shrubs stretched forth their bare and shrivelled branches, and huge icebergs with precipitous sides stood out against the grey background of the sky.

“Wapitis! wapitis!-there they are!” cried Sabine and Marbre at once, pointing to a group of animals distinctly visible about a quarter of a mile to the east.

“What are they doing?” asked Mrs Barnett.

“They are fighting, madam,” replied Hobson; “they always do when the heat of the Polar sun inflames their blood-another deplorable result of the action of the radiant orb of day!”

From where they stood the party could easily watch the group of wapitis. They were fine specimens of the family of deer known under the various names of stags with rounded antlers, American stags, roebucks, grey elks and red elks, &c. These graceful creatures have slender legs and brown skins with patches of red hair, the colour of which becomes darker in the warmer season. The fierce males are easily distinguished from the females by their fine white antlers, the latter being entirely without these ornaments. These wapitis were once very numerous all over North America, and the United States imported a great many; but clearings were begun on every side, the forest trees fell beneath the axe of the pioneer of civilisation, and the wapitis took refuge in the more peaceful districts of Canada; but they were soon again disturbed, and wandered to the shores of Hudson’s Bay. So that although the wapiti thrives in a cold country, Lieutenant Hobson was right in saying that it seldom penetrates beyond 57° N. latitude; and the specimens now found had doubtless fled before the Chippeway Indians, who hunt them without mercy.

The wapitis were so engrossed in their desperate struggle that they were unconscious of the approach of the hunters; but they would probably not have ceased fighting, had they been aware of it. Marbre and Sabine, aware of their peculiarity in this respect, might therefore have advanced fearlessly upon them, and have taken aim at leisure.

Lieutenant Hobson suggested that they should do so.

“Beg pardon, sir,” replied Marbre; “but let us spare our powder and shot. These beasts are engaged in a war to the death, and we shall arrive in plenty of time to pick up the vanquished.”

“Have these wapitis a commercial value?” asked Mrs Paulina Barnett.

“Yes, madam,” replied Hobson; “and their skin, which is not quite so thick as that of the elk, properly so called makes very valuable leather. By rubbing this skin with the fat and brains of the animal itself, it is rendered flexible, and neither damp nor dryness injures it. The Indians are therefore always eager to procure the skins of the wapitis.”

“Does not the flesh make admirable venison?”

“Pretty good, madam; only pretty good. It is tough, and does not taste very nice; the fat becomes hard directly it is taken from the fire, and sticks to the teeth. It is certainly inferior as an article of food to the flesh of other deer; but when meat is scarce we are glad enough to eat it, and it supports life as well as anything else.”

Mrs Barnett and Lieutenant Hobson had been chatting together for some minutes, when, with the exception of two, the wapitis suddenly ceased fighting. Was their rage satiated?- or had they perceived the hunters, and felt the approach of danger? Whatever the cause, all but two fine creatures fled a towards the east With incredible speed; in a few instants they were out of sight, and the swiftest horse could not have caught them up.

Meanwhile, however, two magnificent specimens remained on the field of battle. Heads down, antlers to antlers, hind legs stretched and quivering, they butted at each other without a moment’s pause. Like two wrestlers struggling for a prize which neither will yield, they would not separate, but whirled round and round together on their front legs as if riveted to one another. What implacable rage!” exclaimed Mrs Barnett.

“Yes,” replied the Lieutenant; “the wapitis really are most spiteful beasts. I have no doubt they are fighting out an old quarrel.”

“Would not this be the time to approach them, when they are blinded with rage?”

“There’s plenty of time, ma’am,” said Sabine; “they won’t escape us now. They will not stir from where they are when we are three steps from them, the rifles at our shoulders, and our fingers on the triggers!”

Indeed? Yes, madam,” added Hobson, who had carefully examined the wapitis after the hunter’s remark; “and whether at our hands or from the teeth of wolves, those wapitis will meet death where they now stand.”

“I don’t understand what you mean, Lieutenant,” said Mrs Barnett.

“Well, go nearer, madam,” he replied; “don’t be afraid of startling the animals; for, as our hunter says, they are no longer capable of flight.”

The four now descended the hill, and in a few minutes gained the theatre of the struggle. The wapitis had not moved. They were pushing at each other like a couple of rams, and seemed to be inseparably glued together.

In fact, in the heat of the combat the antlers of the two creatures had become entangled together to such an extent that they could no longer separate without breaking them. This often happens in the hunting districts. It is not at all uncommon to find antlers thus connected lying on the ground; the poor encumbered animals soon die of hunger, or they become an easy prey to wild beasts.

Two bullets put an end to the fight between the wapitis; and Marbre and Sabine taking immediate possession, carried off their skins to be subsequently prepared, leaving their bleeding carcasses to be devoured by wolves and bears.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:24