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   Chapter 11 No.11

The World of Ice By R. M. Ballantyne Characters: 20166

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


A hunting-expedition, in the course of which the hunters meet with many interesting, dangerous, peculiar, and remarkable experiences, and make acquaintance with seals, walruses, deer, and rabbits.

We must now return to Fred Ellice and his companions, Meetuck the Esquimau, O'Riley, and Joseph West, whom we left while they were on the point of starting on a hunting-expedition.

They took the direction of the ice-hummocks out to sea, and, seated comfortably on a large sledge, were dragged by the team of dogs over the ice at the rate of ten miles an hour.

"Well! did I iver expect to ride a carriage and six?" exclaimed O'Riley in a state of great glee as the dogs dashed forward at full speed, while Meetuck nourished his awful whip, making it crack like a pistol-shot ever and anon.

The sledge on which they travelled was of the very curious and simple construction peculiar to the Esquimaux, and was built by Peter Grim under the direction of Meetuck. It consisted of two runners of about ten feet in length, six inches high, two inches broad, and three feet apart. They were made of tough hickory, slightly curved in front, and were attached to each other by cross-bars. At the stern of the vehicle there was a low back composed of two uprights and a single bar across. The whole machine was fastened together by means of tough lashings of raw seal-hide, so that, to all appearance, it was a rickety affair, ready to fall to pieces. In reality, however, it was very strong. No metal nails of any kind could have held in the keen frost-they would have snapped like glass at the first jolt-but the sealskin fastenings yielded to the rude shocks and twistings to which the sledge was subjected, and seldom gave way, or if they did, were easily and speedily renewed without the aid of any other implement than a knife.

But the whip was the most remarkable part of the equipage. The handle was only sixteen inches in length, but the lash was twenty feet long, made of the toughest seal-skin, and as thick as a man's wrist near the handle, whence it tapered off to a fine point. The labour of using such a formidable weapon is so great that Esquimaux usually, when practicable, travel in couples, one sledge behind the other. The dogs of the last sledge follow mechanically and require no whip, and the riders change about so as to relieve each other. When travelling, the whip trails behind, and can be brought with a tremendous crack that makes the hair fly from the wretch that is struck; and Esquimaux are splendid shots, so to speak. They can hit any part of a dog with certainty, but usually rest satisfied with simply cracking the whip-a sound that produces an answering yell of terror, whether the lash takes effect or not.

Our hunters were clothed in their Esquimau garments, and cut the oddest imaginable figures. They had a soft, rotund, cuddled-up appearance, that was powerfully suggestive of comfort. The sledge carried one day's provisions, a couple of walrus harpoons with a sufficient quantity of rope, four muskets with the requisite ammunition, an Esquimau cooking-lamp, two stout spears, two tarpaulins to spread on the snow, and four blanket sleeping-bags. These last were six feet long, and just wide enough for a man to crawl into at night, feet first.

"What a jolly style of travelling, isn't it?" cried Fred, as the dogs sprang wildly forward, tearing the sledge behind them, Dumps and Poker leading and looking as lively as crickets.

"Well now, isn't it true that wits jump?-that's jist what I was sayin' to meself," remarked O'Riley, grinning from ear to ear as he pulled the fur-hood farther over his head, crossed his arms more firmly on his breast, and tried to double himself up as he sat there like an overgrown rat. "I wouldn't exchange it wid the Lord Mayor o' London and his coach an' six-so I wouldn't.-Arrah! have a care, Meetuck, ye baste, or ye'll have us kilt."

This last exclamation was caused by the reckless driver dashing over a piece of rough ice that nearly capsized the sledge. Meetuck did not answer, but he looked over his shoulder with a quiet smile on his oily countenance.

"Ah, then, ye may laugh," said O'Riley with menacing look, "but av ye break a bone o' me body I'll-"

Down went the dogs into a crack in the ice as he spoke, over went the sledge and hurled them all out upon the ice.

"Musha! but ye've done it!"

"Hallo, West! are you hurt?" cried Fred anxiously, as he observed the sailor fall heavily on the ice.

"Oh no, sir; all right, thank you," replied the man, rising alertly and limping to the sledge. "Only knocked the skin off my shin, sir."

West was a quiet, serious, polite man, an American by birth, who was much liked by the crew in consequence of a union of politeness and modesty with a disposition to work far beyond his strength. He was not very robust, however, and in powers of physical endurance scarcely fitted to engage in an Arctic expedition.

"An' don't ye think it's worth makin' inquiries about me?" cried O'Riley, who had been tossed into a crevice in the hummock, where he lay jammed and utterly unable to move.

Fred and the Esquimau laughed heartily while O'Riley extricated himself from his awkward position. Fortunately no damage was done, and in five minutes they were flying over the frozen sea as madly as ever in the direction of the point at the opposite side of Red-Snow Valley, where a cloud of frost-smoke indicated open water.

"Now, look you, Mr. Meetuck, av ye do that again ye'll better don't, let me tell ye. Sure the back o' me's brack entirely," said O'Riley, as he re-arranged himself with a look of comfort that belied his words. "Och, there ye go again," he cried, as the sledge suddenly fell about six inches from a higher level to a lower, where the floe had cracked, causing the teeth of the whole party to come together with a snap. "A man durs'n't spake for fear o' bitin' his tongue off."

"No fee," said Meetuck, looking over his shoulder with a broader smirk.

"No fee, ye lump of pork! it's a double fee I'll have to pay the dacter an ye go on like that."

No fee was Meetuck's best attempt at the words no fear. He had picked up a little English during his brief sojourn with the sailors, and already understood much of what was said to him; but words were as yet few, and his manner of pronouncing them peculiar.

"Holo! look! look!" cried the Esquimau, suddenly checking the dogs and leaping off the sledge.

"Eh! what! where?" ejaculated Fred, seizing his musket.

"I think I see something, sir," said West, shading his eyes with his hand, and gazing earnestly in the direction indicated by Meetuck.

"So do I, be the mortial," said O'Riley in a hoarse whisper. "I see the mountains and the sky, I do, as plain as the nose on me face!"

"Hush! stop your nonsense, man," said Fred. "I see a deer, I'm certain of it."

Meetuck nodded violently to indicate that Fred was right.

"Well, what's to be done? Luckily we are well to leeward, and it has neither sighted nor scented us."

Meetuck replied by gestures and words to the effect that West and O'Riley should remain with the dogs, and keep them quiet under the shelter of a hummock, while he and Fred should go after the reindeer. Accordingly, away they went, making a pretty long detour in order to gain the shore, and come upon it under the shelter of the grounded floes, behind which they might approach without being seen. In hurrying along the coast they observed the footprints of a musk-ox, and also of several Arctic hares and foxes; which delighted them much, for hitherto they had seen none of these animals, and were beginning to be fearful lest they should not visit that part of the coast at all. Of course Fred knew not what sort of animals had made the tracks in question, but he was an adept at guessing, and the satisfied looks of his companion gave him reason to believe that he was correct in his surmises.

In half-an-hour they came within range, and Fred, after debating with himself for some time as to the propriety of taking the first shot, triumphed over himself, and stepping back a pace, motioned to the Esquimau to fire. But Meetuck was an innate gentleman, and modestly declined; so Fred advanced, took a good aim, and fired.

The deer bounded away, but stumbled as it went, showing that it was wounded.

"Ha! ha! Meetuck," exclaimed Fred, as he recharged in tremendous excitement (taking twice as long to load in consequence), "I've improved a little, you see, in my shoot-oh bother this-ramrod!--tut! tut! there, that's it."

Bang went Meetuck's musket at that moment, and the deer tumbled over upon the snow.

"Well done, old fellow!" cried Fred, springing forward. At the same instant a white hare darted across his path, at which he fired, without even putting the gun to his shoulder, and knocked it over, to his own intense amazement.

The three shots were the signal for the men to come up with the sledge, which they did at full gallop, O'Riley driving, and flourishing the long whip about in a way that soon entangled it hopelessly with the dogs' traces.

"Ah, then, ye've done it this time, ye have, sure enough. Musha! what a purty crature it is. Now, isn't it, West? Stop, then, won't ye (to the restive dogs); ye've broke my heart entirely, and the whip's tied up into iver so many knots. Arrah, Meetuck! ye may drive yer coach yerself for me, you may; I've had more nor enough of it."

In a few minutes the deer and the hare were lashed to the sledge-which the Irishman asserted was a great improvement, inasmuch as the carcass of the former made an excellent seat-and they were off again at full gallop over the floes. They travelled without further interruption or mishap, until they drew near to the open water, when suddenly they came upon a deep fissure or crack in the ice about four feet wide, with water in the bottom. Here they came to a dead stop.

"Arrah! what's to be done now?" inquired O'Riley.

"Indeed I don't know," replied Fred, looking toward Meetuck for a

dvice.

"Hup, cut-up ice, mush, hurroo!" said that fat individual. Fortunately he followed his advice with a practical illustration of its meaning. Seizing an axe, he ran to the nearest hummock, and chopping it down, rolled the heaviest pieces he could move into the chasm. The others followed his example, and in the course of an hour the place was bridged across, and the sledge passed over. But the dogs required a good deal of coaxing to get them to trust to this rude bridge, which their sagacity taught them was not to be depended on like the works of nature.

A quarter of an hour's drive brought them to a place where there was another crack of little more than two feet across. Meetuck stretched his neck and took a steady look at this as they approached it at full gallop. Being apparently satisfied with his scrutiny, he resumed his look of self-satisfied placidity.

"Look out, Meetuck-pull up!" cried Fred in some alarm; but the Esquimau paid no attention.

"O morther! we're gone now for iver," exclaimed O'Riley, shutting his eyes and clenching his teeth as he laid fast hold of the sides of the sledge.

The feet of the dogs went faster and faster until they pattered on the hard surface of the snow like rain. Round came the long whip, as O'Riley said, "like the shot of a young cannon," and the next moment they were across, skimming over the ice on the other side like the wind.

It happened that there had been a break in the ice at this point on the previous night, and the floes had been cemented by a sheet of ice only an inch thick. Upon this, to the consternation even of Meetuck himself, they now passed, and in a moment, ere they were aware, they were passing over a smooth, black surface that undulated beneath them like the waves of the sea, and crackled fearfully. There was nothing for it but to go on. A moment's halt would have allowed the sledge to break through, and leave them struggling in the water. There was no time for remark. Each man held his breath. Meetuck sent the heavy lash with a tremendous crack over the backs of the whole team; but just as they neared the solid floe the left runner broke through. In a moment the men flung themselves horizontally upon their breasts, and scrambled over the smooth surface until they gained the white ice, while the sledge and the dogs nearest to it were sinking. One vigorous pull, however, by dogs and men together, dragged the sledge upon the solid floe, even before the things in it had got wet.

"Safe!" cried Fred, as he hauled on the sledge rope to drag it farther out of danger.

"So we are," replied O'Riley, breathing very hard; "and it's meself thought to have had a wet skin at this minute.-Come, West, lind a hand to fix the dogs, will ye?"

A few minutes sufficed to put all to rights and enable them to start afresh. Being now in the neighbourhood of dangerous ice, they advanced with a little more caution; the possibility of seals being in the neighbourhood also rendered them more circumspect. It was well that they were on the alert, for a band of seals were soon after descried in a pool of open water not far ahead, and one of them was lying on the ice.

There were no hummocks, however, in the neighbourhood to enable them to approach unseen; but the Esquimau was prepared for such a contingency. He had brought a small sledge, of about two feet in length by a foot and a half in breadth, which he now unfastened from the large sledge, and proceeded quietly to arrange it, to the surprise of his companions, who had not the least idea what he was about to do, and watched his proceedings with much interest.

"Is it to sail on the ice ye're goin', boy?" inquired O'Riley at last, when he saw Meetuck fix a couple of poles, about four feet long, into a hole in the little sledge, like two masts, and upon these spread a piece of canvas upwards of a yard square, with a small hole in the centre of it.

But Meetuck answered not. He fastened the canvas "sail" to a cross-yard above and below. Then placing a harpoon and coil of rope on the sledge, and taking up his musket, he made signs to the party to keep under the cover of a hummock, and, pushing the sledge before him, advanced towards the seals in a stooping posture, so as to be completely hid behind the bit of canvas.

"O the haythen! I see it now!" exclaimed O'Riley, his face puckering up with fun. "Ah, but it's a cliver trick, no doubt of it."

"What a capital dodge!" said Fred, crouching behind the hummock, and watching the movements of the Esquimau with deep interest.

"West, hand me the little telescope; you'll find it in the pack."

"Here it is, sir," said the man, pulling out a glass of about six inches long, and handing it to Fred.

"How many is there, an ye plaze?"

"Six, I think; yes-one, two, three-I can't make them out quite, but I think there are six, besides the one on the ice. Hist! there he sees him. Ah, Meetuck, he's too quick for you."

As he spoke the seal on the ice began to show symptoms of alarm. Meetuck had approached to within shot, but he did not fire; the wary Esquimau had caught sight of another object which a lump of ice had hitherto concealed from view. This was no less a creature than a walrus, who chanced at that time to come up to take a gulp of fresh air and lave his shaggy front in the brine, before going down again to the depths of his ocean home. Meetuck, therefore, allowed the seal to glide quietly into the sea, and advanced towards this new object of attack. At length he took a steady aim through the hole in the canvas screen, and fired. Instantly the seals dived, and at the same time the water round the walrus was lashed into foam and tinged with red. It was evidently badly wounded, for had it been only slightly hurt it would probably have dived.

Meetuck immediately seized his harpoon, and rushed towards the struggling monster; while Fred grasped a gun and O'Riley a harpoon, and ran to his assistance. West remained to keep back the dogs. As Meetuck gained the edge of the ice the walrus recovered partially, and tried, with savage fury, to reach his assailant, who planted the harpoon deep in its breast, and held on to the rope while the animal dived.

"Whereabouts is he?" cried O'Riley, as he came panting to the scene of action.

As he spoke the walrus ascended almost under his nose, with a loud bellow, and the Irishman started back in terror, as he surveyed at close quarters, for the first time, the colossal and horrible countenance of this elephant of the Northern Seas. O'Riley was no coward, but the suddenness of the apparition was too much for him, and we need not wonder that in his haste he darted the harpoon far over the animal's head into the sea beyond. Neither need we feel surprised that when Fred took aim at its forehead, the sight of its broad muzzle fringed with a bristling moustache, and defended by huge tusks, caused him to miss it altogether. But O'Riley recovered, hauled his harpoon back, and succeeded in planting it deep under the creature's left flipper; and Fred, reloading, lodged a ball in its head, which finished it. With great labour the four men, aided by the dogs, drew it out upon the ice.

This was a great prize, for walrus-flesh is not much inferior to beef, and would be an acceptable addition of fresh meat for the use of the Dolphin's crew; and there was no chance of it spoiling, for the frost was now severe enough to freeze every animal solid almost immediately after it was killed.

The body of this walrus was not less than eighteen feet long and eleven in circumference. It was more like an elephant in bulk and rotundity than any other creature. It partook very much of the form of a seal, having two large paw-like flippers, with which, when struggling for life, it had more than once nearly succeeded in getting upon the ice. Its upper face had a square, bluff aspect, and its broad muzzle and cheeks were completely covered by a coarse, quill-like beard of bristles, which gave to it a peculiarly ferocious appearance. The notion that the walrus resembles man is very much overrated. The square, bluff shape of the head already referred to destroys the resemblance to humanity when distant, and its colossal size does the same when near. Spine of the seals deserve this distinction more, their drooping shoulders and oval faces being strikingly like to those of man when at a distance. The white ivory tusks of this creature were carefully measured by Fred, and found to be thirty inches long.

The resemblance of the walrus to our domestic land-animals has obtained for it, among sailors, the names of the sea-horse and sea-cow; and the records of its ferocity when attacked are numerous. Its hide is nearly an inch thick, and is put to many useful purposes by the Esquimaux, who live to a great extent on the flesh of this creature. They cut up his hide into long lines to attach to the harpoons with which they catch himself, the said harpoons being pointed with his own tusks. This tough hide is not the only garment the walrus wears to protect him from the cold. He also wears under-flannels of thick fat and a top-coat of close hair, so that he can take a siesta on an iceberg without the least inconvenience. Talking of siestas, by the way, the walrus is sometimes "caught napping." Occasionally, when the weather is intensely cold, the hole through which he crawls upon the ice gets frozen over so solidly that, on waking, he finds it beyond even his enormous power to break it. In this extremity there is no alternative but to go to sleep again, and-die! which he does as comfortably as he can. The Polar bears, however, are quick to smell him out, and assembling round his carcass for a feast, they dispose of him, body and bones, without ceremony.

As it was impossible to drag this unwieldy animal to the ship that night, for the days had now shortened very considerably, the hunters hauled it towards the land, and having reached the secure ice, prepared to encamp for the night under the lee of a small iceberg.

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