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   Chapter 13 No.13

The World of Ice By R. M. Ballantyne Characters: 14353

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Journey resumed-The hunters meet with bears and have a great fight, in which the dogs are sufferers-A bear's dinner-Mode in which Arctic rocks travel-The ice-belt.

On the abating of the great storm referred to in the last chapter, the hunters sought to free themselves from their snowy prison, and succeeded in burrowing, so to speak, upwards after severe labour, for the hut was buried in drift which the violence of the gale had rendered extremely compact.

O'Riley was the first to emerge into the upper world. Having dusted the snow from his garments, and shaken himself like a Newfoundland dog, he made sundry wry faces, and gazed round him with the look of a man that did not know very well what to do with himself.

"It's a quare place, it is, intirely," he remarked, with a shake of the head that betokened intense sagacity, while he seated himself on a mound of snow and watched his comrades as they busied themselves in dragging their sleeping-bags and cooking utensils from the cavern they had just quitted. O'Riley seemed to be in a contemplative mood, for he did not venture any further remark, although he looked unutterable things as he proceeded quietly to fill his little black pipe.

"Ho! O'Riley, lend a hand, you lazy fellow," cried Fred; "work first and play afterwards, you skulker."

"Sure that same is what I'm doin'," replied O'Riley with a bland smile, which he eclipsed in a cloud of smoke. "Haven't I bin workin' like a naagur for two hours to git out of that hole, and ain't I playin' a tune on me pipe now? But I won't be cross-grained. I'll lind ye a hand av ye behave yerself. It's a bad thing to be cross-grained," he continued, pocketing his pipe and assisting to arrange the sledge; "me owld grandmother always towld me that, and she wos wise, she wos, beyand ordn'r. More like Salomon nor anything else."

"She must have directed that remark specially to you, I think," said Fred-"(Let Dumps lead, West, he's tougher than the others)-did she not, O'Riley?"

"Be no manes. It wos to the pig she said it. Most of her conversation (and she had a power of it) wos wid the pig; and many's the word o' good advice she gave it, as it sat in its usual place beside the fire fore-nint her. But it wos all thrown away, it wos, for there wosn't another pig in all the length o' Ireland as had sich a will o' its own; and it had a screech, too, when it wosn't plaazed, as bate all the steam whistles in the world, it did. I've often moralated on that same, and I've noticed that, as it is wid pigs, so it is wid men and women-some of them at laste-the more advice ye give them, the less they take."

"Down, Poker! quiet, good dog!" said West, as he endeavoured to restrain the ardour of the team, which, being fresh and full fed, could scarcely be held in by the united efforts of himself and Meetuck, while their companions lashed their provisions, etc., on the sledge.

"Hold on, lads!" cried Fred, as he fastened the last lashing. "We'll be ready in a second. Now, then, jump on, two of you! Catch hold of the tail-line, Meetuck! All right!"

"Hall right!" yelled the Esquimau, as he let go the dogs and sprang upon the sledge.

The team struggled and strained violently for a few seconds in their efforts to overcome the vis inerti? of the sledge, and it seemed as if the traces would part; but they were made of tough walrus-hide, and held on bravely, while the heavy vehicle gradually fetched way, and at length flew over the floes at the rate of seven or eight miles an hour. Travelling, however, was not now quite so agreeable as it had been when they set out from the ship; for the floes were swept bare in some places by the gale, while in other places large drifts had collected, so that the sledge was either swaying to and fro on the smooth ice, and swinging the dogs almost off their feet, or it was plunging heavily through banks of soft snow.

As the wind was still blowing fresh, and would have been dead against them had they attempted to return by a direct route to the ship, they made for the shore, intending to avail themselves of the shelter afforded by the ice-belt. Meanwhile the carcass of the walrus-at least as much of it as could not be packed on the sledge-was buried in the hut, and a spear planted above it to mark the spot.

"Ha! an' it's cowld," said O'Riley, wrapping himself more closely in his fur jumper as they sped along. "I wish we wos out o' the wind, I do."

"You'll have your wish soon, then," answered West, "for that row of icebergs we're coming to will shelter us nearly all the way to the land."

"Surely you are taking us too much off to the right, Meetuck," said Fred; "we are getting farther away from the ship."

"No fee. De win' too 'trong. We turn hup 'long shore very quick, soon-ha!"

Meetuck accompanied each word with a violent nod of his head, at the same time opening and shutting his mouth and winking with both eyes, being apparently impressed with the conviction that such contortions of visage rendered his meaning more apparent.

"Look! look! ho! Nannook, nannook!" (a bear, a bear!) whispered the Esquimau with sudden animation, just as they gained the lee of the first iceberg.

The words were unnecessary, however, for the whole party were looking ahead with the most intense eagerness at a bear which their sudden advent had aroused from a nap in the crevice of the iceberg. A little cub was discerned a moment after standing by her side, and gazing at the intruders with infantine astonishment. While the muskets were being loosened and drawn out, Meetuck let slip all the dogs, and in a few seconds they were engaged in active warfare with the enemy.

"Oh! musha! Dumps is gone intirely!" The quadruped referred to was tossed to a height of about thirty feet, and alighted senseless upon the ice. The bear seized him with her teeth and tossed him with an incredibly slight effort. The other dogs, nothing daunted by the fate of their comrade, attacked the couple in the rear, biting their heels, and so distracting their attention that they could not make an energetic attack in any direction. Another of the dogs, however, a young one, waxing reckless, ventured too near the old bear, and was seized by the back, and hurled high into the air, through which it wriggled violently, and descended with a sounding whack upon the ice. At the same moment a volley from the hunters sent several balls into the carcass of both mother and cub; but, although badly wounded, neither of them evinced any sign of pain or exhaustion as they continued to battle with the remaining dogs.

The dogs that had already fallen in the fray had not been used to bear-hunting; hence their signal defeat. But this was not the case with the others, all of which were old campaigners; and Poker especially, although not old in years, was a practical fighter, having been trained not to attack but to harass. The systematic and steady way in which they advanced before the bear, and retired, right and left, leading her into a profitless pursuit, was very interesting to witness. Another volley from the hunters caused them to make off more rapidly, and wounded the

cub severely, so much so that in a few minutes it began to flag. Seeing this, the mother placed it in front of her, and urged it forward with her snout so quickly that it was with the utmost difficulty the men could keep up with them. A well-directed shot, however, from Fred Ellice brought the old bear to the ground; but she rose instantly, and again advanced, pushing her cub before her, while the dogs continued to embarrass her. They now began to fear that, in spite of dogs and men, the wounded bears would escape, when an opportune crack in the ice presented itself, into which they both tumbled, followed by the yelping, and we may add limping, dogs. Before they could scramble up on the other side, Meetuck and Fred, being light of foot, gained upon them sufficiently to make sure shots.

"There they go," cried Fred, as the she-bear bounced out of the crack with Poker hanging to her heels. Poker's audacity had at last outstripped his sagacity, and the next moment he was performing a tremendous somersault. Before he reached the ice, Meetuck and Fred fired simultaneously, and when the smoke cleared away the old bear was stretched out in death. Hitherto the cub had acted exclusively on the defensive, and intrusted itself entirely to the protection of its dam; but now it seemed to change its character entirely. It sprang upon its mother's body, and, assuming an attitude of extreme ferocity, kept the dogs at bay, snapping and snarling right and left until the hunters came up.

For the first time since the chase began a feeling, of intense pity touched Fred's heart, and he would have rejoiced at that moment had the mother risen up and made her escape with her cub. He steeled his heart, however, by reflecting that fresh provisions were much wanted on board the Dolphin; still, neither he nor his shipmates could bring themselves to shoot the gallant little animal, and it is possible that they might have made up their minds to allow it to escape after all, had not Meetuck quietly ended their difficulty by putting a ball through its heart.

"Ah! then, Meetuck," said O'Riley, shaking his head as they examined their prize, "ye're a hardhearted spalpeen, ye are, to kill a poor little baby like that in cowld blood. Well, well, it's yer natur', an' yer trade, so I s'pose it's all right."

The weight of this bear, which was not of the largest size, was afterwards found to be above five hundred pounds, and her length was eight feet nine inches. The cub weighed upwards of a hundred pounds, and was larger than a Newfoundland dog.

The operation of cutting out the entrails, preparatory to packing on the sledge, was now commenced by Meetuck, whose practised hand applied the knife with the skill, though not with the delicacy, of a surgeon.

"She has been a hungry bear, it seems," remarked Fred, as he watched the progress of the work, "if we may judge from the emptiness of her stomach."

"Och! but she's had a choice morsel, if it was a small wan," exclaimed O'Riley in surprise, as he picked up a plug of tobacco. On further examination being made, it was found that this bear had dined on raisins, tobacco, pork, and adhesive plaster! Such an extraordinary mixture of articles, of course, led the party to conclude that either she had helped herself to the stores of the Dolphin placed on Store Island, or that she had fallen in with those of some other vessel. This subject afforded food for thought and conversation during the next hour or two, as they drove towards the ship along the ice-belt of the shore.

The ice-belt referred to is a zone of ice which extends along the shore from the unknown regions of the North. To the south it breaks up in summer and disappears altogether, but in the latitude which our travellers had now reached, it was a permanent feature of the scenery all the year round, following the curvatures and indentations of bays and rivers, and increasing in winter or diminishing in summer, but never melting entirely away. The surface of this ice-belt was covered with immense masses of rock many tons in weight, which had fallen from the cliffs above. Pointing to one of these as they drove along, West remarked to Fred,-

"There is a mystery explained, sir. I have often wondered how huge, solitary stones, that no machinery of man's making could lift, have come to be placed on sandy shores where there were no other rocks of any kind within many miles of them. The ice must have done it, I see."

"True, West. The ice, if it could speak, would explain many things that now seem to us mysterious; and yonder goes a big rock on a journey that may perhaps terminate at a thousand miles to the south of this."

The rock referred to was a large mass that became detached from the cliffs and fell, as he spoke, with a tremendous crash upon the ice-belt, along which it rolled for fifty yards. There it would lie all winter, and in spring the mass of ice to which it was attached would probably break off and float away with it to the south, gradually melting until it allowed the rock to sink to the bottom of the sea, or depositing it, perchance, on some distant shore, where such rocks are not wont to lie-there to remain an object of speculation and wonderment to the unlearned of all future ages.

Some of the bergs close to which they passed on the journey were very fantastically formed, and many of them were more than a mile long, with clear, blue, glassy surfaces, indicating that they had been but recently thrown off from the great glacier of the North. Between two of these they drove for some time, before they found that they were going into a sort of blind alley.

"Sure the road's gittin' narrower," observed O'Riley, as he glanced up at the blue walls, which rose perpendicularly to a height of sixty feet on either hand. "Have a care, Meetuck, or ye'll jam us up, ye will."

"'Tis a pity we left the ice-belt," remarked Fred, "for this rough work among the bergs is bad for man and dog. How say you, Meetuck-shall we take to it again when we get through this place?"

"Faix, then, we'll nive'r git through," said O'Riley, pointing to the end of the chasm, where a third iceberg had entirely closed the opening.

The Esquimau pulled up, and after advancing on foot a short way to examine, returned with a rueful expression on his countenance.

"Ha! no passage, I suppose?" said Fred.

"Bad luck to ye!" cried O'Riley, "won't ye spaak?"

"No rod-muss go bock," replied Meetuck, turning the dogs in the direction whence they had come, and resuming his place on the sledge.

The party had to retrace their steps half-a-mile in consequence of this unfortunate interruption, and return to the level track of the ice-belt, which they had left for a time and taken to the sea-ice, in order to avoid the sinuosities of the land. To add to their misfortunes, the dogs began to flag, so that they were obliged to walk behind the sledge at a slow pace, and snow began to fall heavily. But they pressed forward manfully, and having regained the shore-ice, continued to make their way northward towards the ship, which was now spoken of by the endearing name of home.

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