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   Chapter 18 No.18

The World of Ice By R. M. Ballantyne Characters: 14444

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The hunting-party-Reckless driving-A desperate encounter with a walrus, etc.

Late in the day, by the bright light of the stars, the sailors and the Esquimaux left the snow-huts of the village, and travelling out to seaward on the floes, with dogs and sledges, lances and spears, advanced to do battle with the walrus.

The northern lights were more vivid than usual, making the sky quite luminous; and there was a sharp freshness in the air, which, while it induced the hunters to pull their hoods more tightly round their faces, also sent their blood careering more briskly through their veins, as they drove swiftly over the ice in the Esquimau sledges.

"Did ye ever see walruses afore, Davie?" inquired Buzzby, who sat beside Summers on the leading sledge.

"None but what I've seed on this voyage."

"They're remarkable creeturs," rejoined Buzzby, slapping his hand on his thigh. "I've seed many a one in my time, an' I can tell ye, lad, they're ugly customers. They fight like good uns, and give the Esquimaux a deal o' trouble to kill them-they do."

"Tell me a story about 'em, Buzzby-do, like a good chap," said Davie Summers, burying his nose in the skirts of his hairy garment to keep it warm. "You're a capital hand at a yarn; now, fire away."

"A story, lad; I don't know as how I can exactly tell ye a story, but I'll give ye wot they calls a hanecdote. It wos about five years ago, more or less, I wos out in Baffin's Bay, becalmed off one o' the Esquimau settlements, when we wos lookin' over the side at the lumps of ice floatin' past, up got a walrus not very far off shore, and out went half-a-dozen kayaks, as they call the Esquimau men's boats, and they all sot on the beast at once. Well, it wos one o' the brown walruses, which is always the fiercest; and the moment he got the first harpoon he went slap at the man that threw it. But the fellow backed out; and then a cry was raised to let it alone, as it wos a brown walrus. One young Esquimau, howsiver, would have another slap at it, and went so close that the brute charged, upset the kayak, and ripped the man up with his tusks. Seein' this, the other Esquimaux made a dash at it, and wounded it badly; but the upshot wos that the walrus put them all to flight and made off, clear away, with six harpoons fast in its hide."

"Busby's tellin' ye gammon," roared Tom Green, who rode on the second sledge in rear of that on which Davie Summers sat. "What is't all about?"

"About gammon, of coorse," retorted Davie. "Keep yer mouth shut for fear your teeth freeze."

"Can't ye lead us a better road?" shouted Saunders, who rode on the third sledge; "my bones are rattlin' about inside o' me like a bag o' ninepins."

"Give the dogs a cut, old fellow," said Buzzby, with a chuckle and a motion of his arm to the Esquimau who drove his sledge.

The Esquimau did not understand the words, but he quite understood the sly chuckle and the motion of the arm, so he sent the lash of the heavy whip with a loud crack over the backs of the team.

"Hold on for life!" cried Davie, as the dogs sprang forward with a bound.

The part they were about to pass over was exceedingly rough and broken, and Buzzby resolved to give his shipmates a shake. The pace was tremendous. The powerful dogs drew their loads after them with successive bounds, which caused a succession of crashes, as the sledges sprang from lump to lump of ice, and the men's teeth snapped in a truly savage manner.

"B-a-ck ye-r t-to-p-sails, will ye?" shouted Amos Parr.

But the delighted Esquimau leader, who entered quite into the joke, had no intention whatever of backing his top-sails; he administered another crack to the team, which yelled madly, and, bounding over a wide chasm in the ice, came down with a crash, which snapped the line of the leading dog and set it free. Here Buzzby caused the driver to pull up.

"Stop, ye varmint. Come to an anchor," said he. "Is that a way to drive the poor dogs?"

"Ye might have stopped him sooner, I think," cried the second mate in wrath.

"Hai!" shouted the band of Esquimaux, pointing to a hummock of ice a few hundred yards in advance of the spot on which they stood.

Instantly all were silent, and gazing intently ahead at a dark object that burst upwards through the ice.

"A walrus!" whispered Buzzby.

"So it is," answered Amos Parr.

"I've my doobts on that point," remarked Saunders.

Before the doubts of the second mate could be resolved, the Esquimaux uttered another exclamation, and pointed to another dark object a quarter of a mile to the right. It was soon found that there were several of these ocean elephants sporting about in the neighbourhood, and bursting up the young ice that had formed on several holes, by using their huge heads as battering-rams. It was quickly arranged that the party should divide into three, and while a few remained behind to watch and restrain the dogs, the remainder were to advance on foot to the attack.

Saunders, Buzzby, Amos Parr, Davie Summers, and Awatok formed one party, and advanced with two muskets and several spears towards the walrus that had been first seen, the sailors taking care to keep in rear of Awatok in order to follow his lead, for they were as yet ignorant of the proper mode of attack.

Awatok led the party stealthily towards a hummock, behind which he caused them to crouch until the walrus should dive. This it did in a few minutes, and then they all rushed from their place of concealment towards another hummock that lay about fifty yards from, the hole. Just as they reached it and crouched, the walrus rose, snorting the brine from its shaggy muzzle, and lashing the water into foam with its flippers.

"Losh, what a big un!" exclaimed Saunders in amazement; and well he might, for this was an unusually large animal, more like an elephant in size than anything else.

It had two enormous ivory tusks, with which it tore and pounded large fragments from the ice-tables, while it barked like a gigantic dog, and rolled its heavy form about in sport.

Awatok now whispered to his comrades, and attempted to get them to understand that they must follow him as fast as possible at the next run. Suddenly the walrus dived. Awatok rushed forward, and in another instant stood at the edge of the hole with his spear in readiness in his right hand and the coil of line in his left. The others joined him instantly, and they had scarcely come up when the huge monster again rose to the surface.

Saunders and Buzzby fired at his head the moment it appeared above water, and Awatok at the same time planted a spear in his breast, and ran back with the coil. The others danced about in an excited state, throwing their spears and missing their mark, although it was a big one, frequently.

"Give him a lance-thrust, Amos," cried Saunders, reloading his piece.

But Amos could not manage it, for the creature lashed about so furiously that, although he made repeated attempts, he failed to do more than prick its tough sides and render it still more savage. Buzzby, too, made several daring efforts to lance it, but failed, and nearly slipped into the hole in his recklessness. It was a wild scene

of confusion-the spray was dashed over the ice round the hole, and the men, as they ran about in extreme excitement, slipped and occasionally tumbled in their haste; while the maddened brute glared at them like a fiend, and bellowed in its anger and pain.

Suddenly it dived, leaving the men staring at each other. The sudden cessation of noise and turmoil had a very strange effect.

"Is't away?" inquired Saunders, with a look of chagrin.

He was answered almost instantly by the walrus reappearing, and making furious efforts by means of its flippers and tusks to draw itself out upon the ice, while it roared with redoubled energy. The shot that was instantly fired seemed to have no effect, and the well-directed harpoon of Awatok was utterly disregarded by it. Amos Parr, however, gave it a lance-thrust that caused it to howl vehemently, and dyed the foam with its blood.

"Hand me a spear, Buzzby," cried Saunders; "the musket-balls seem to hurt him as little as peas. Oot o' my gait."

The second mate made a rush so tremendous that something awful would infallibly have resulted, had he not struck his foot against a bit of ice and fallen violently on his breast. The impetus with which he had started shot him forward till his head was within a foot of the walrus's grim muzzle. For one moment the animal looked at the man, as if it were surprised at his audacity, and then it recommenced its frantic struggles, snorting blood, and foam, and water into Saunders's face as he scrambled out of its way. Immediately after, Awatok fixed another harpoon in its side, and it dived again.

The struggle that ensued was tremendous, and the result seemed for a long time to be doubtful. Again and again shots were fired and spear-thrusts made with effect, but the huge creature seemed invulnerable. Its ferocity and strength remained unabated, while the men-sailors and Esquimau alike-were nearly exhausted. The battle had now lasted three hours; the men were panting from exertion; the walrus, still bellowing, was clinging to the edge of the ice, which for several yards round the hole was covered with blood and foam.

"Wot a brute it is!" said Buzzby, sitting down on a lump of ice and looking at it in despair.

"We might have killed it lang ago had I not wet my gun," growled Saunders, regarding his weapon, which was completely drenched, with a look of contempt.

"Give it another poke, Awatok," cried Amos Parr; "you'll know best whereabouts its life lies; I can make nothin' o't."

Awatok obeyed, and gave it a thrust under the left flipper that seemed to reach its heart, for it fell back into the water and struggled violently. At the same moment Davie Summers mounted to the top of a hummock, part of which overhung the pool, and launched a harpoon down upon its back. This latter blow seemed to revive its ferocity, for it again essayed to clamber out on the ice, and looked up at Davie with a glance of seeming indignation; while Buzzby, who had approached, fell backward as he retreated from before it. At the same time Saunders succeeded in getting his musket to go off. The ball struck it in the eye, and entering the brain, caused instant death, a result which was greeted with three enthusiastic cheers.

The getting of this enormous creature out of the water would have been a matter of no small difficulty had there not been such a large party present. Even as it was it took them a considerable time to accomplish this feat, and to cut it up and pack it on the sledges.

While the battle above described was going on, two smaller walruses had been killed and secured, and the Esquimaux were in a state of great glee, for previous to the arrival of the sailors they had been unsuccessful in their hunts, and had been living on short allowance. On returning home there was a general feasting and merrymaking, and Saunders felt that if he remained there long they would not only eat up their own meat, but his also. He therefore resolved to return immediately to the ship with his prize, and leave part of his men behind to continue the hunt until he should return with the sledge.

But he was prevented from putting this intention into practice by a hurricane which burst over the Arctic Regions with inconceivable bitterness, and for two days kept all the inhabitants of the snow-village confined to their huts. This hurricane was the fiercest that had swept over these bleak regions of ice since the arrival of the Dolphin. The wind shrieked as it swept round the cliffs, and down the ravines, and out upon the frozen sea, as if a legion of evil spirits were embodied and concentrated in each succeeding blast. The snow-drift rose in solid masses, whirled madly round for a few seconds, and then was caught by the blast and swept away like sheets of white flame. The thermometer stood at 25° below zero, a temperature that was mild compared with what it usually had been of late, but the fierce wind abstracted heat from everything exposed to it so rapidly that neither man nor beast could face it for a moment. Buzzby got a little bit of his chin frozen while he merely put his head out at the door of the hut to see how the weather looked; and Davie Summers had one of his fingers slightly frozen while in the act of carrying in one of the muskets that had been left outside by mistake.

As for the Esquimaux, they recked not of the weather. Their snow-huts were warm, and their mouths were full, so like wise men and women they waited patiently within doors till the storm should blow itself out. The doings of these poor people were very curious. They ate voraciously, and evidently preferred their meat raw. But when the sailors showed disgust at this, they at once made a small fire of moss mingled with blubber, over which they half-cooked their food.

Their mode of procuring fire was curious. Two small stones were taken-one a piece of white quartz, the other a piece of iron-stone-and struck together smartly. The few sparks that flew out were thrown upon a kind of white down, found on the willows, under which was placed a lump of dried moss. It was usually a considerable time before they succeeded in catching a spark; but, once caught, they had no difficulty in blowing it into a flame.

They had also an ingenious contrivance for melting snow. This was a flat stone, supported by two other stones, and inclined slightly at one end. Upon this flat stone a lump of snow was placed, and below it was kindled a small fire of moss and blubber. When the stone became heated, the snow melted and flowed down the incline into a small seal-skin cup placed there to catch it.

During the continuance of the storm the sailors shared the food and lodging of these Esquimaux. They were a fat, oily, hospitable, dirty race, and vied with each other in showing kindness to those who had been thus thrown into their society. As Davie Summers expressed it, "they were regular trumps;" and according to Buzzby's opinion, "they wos the jolliest set o' human walruses wot he had ever comed across in all his travels; and he ought to know, for he had always kep' his weather-eye open, he had, and wouldn't give in on that p'int, he wouldn't, to no man livin'."

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