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.