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   Chapter 20 THE HERD OF MUSK OXEN

Among the Esquimaux; or, Adventures under the Arctic Circle By Edward Sylvester Ellis Characters: 8088

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


One of the most interesting animals found in the frozen regions of the North is the musk ox, his favorite haunt being on the mainland of the Continent in the neighborhood of the Arctic circle, though he is occasionally met in Greenland.

The fact that the animal has no muzzle has led some naturalists to separate him from the ox species and give him the name of Ovibos. He is smaller in size than his domestic brother, very low on his legs, and covered with a wealth of wool and dark brown hair, which, during the cold weather, almost touches the ground. A whitish spot on the back is called the saddle, though it is not to be supposed that it is ever intended for that purpose.

One of the most striking features of the musk ox is his horns, which sometimes weigh fifty or sixty pounds. They are flattened at the base, the flat sides turned outward, and form a sort of shield or protection for the face.

At certain seasons he is one of the most odoriferous animals in creation. During the spring the musky odor is so strong that it can be detected on the first knife thrust into his body. At other seasons it is hardly perceptible, and the eating is excellent.

Although his legs are so short he can travel swiftly, and shows a facility in climbing mountains that no one would suspect on looking at the animal the first time. It suggests the chamois in this respect. He feeds on lichens during a part of the year, and on grass and moss during the rest.

Some distance back of the native Esquimau's hut, the land inclined upward, becoming quite rough and mountainous not far from the coast.

It was among these wild hilly regions that a herd of musk oxen, numbering eleven, were browsing one afternoon, with no thought of disturbance from man or beast. Perhaps the last should be excepted, for the oxen are accustomed to herd together for the purpose of mutual protection against the ravening wolves who would make short work of one or two of them, when detached from the main herd. But it is not to be supposed that the thought of bipedal foes entered their thick skulls, for the Esquimau is not a hunter as a rule, and confines his operations to fishing in the waters near his home.

The herd referred to had gradually worked their way upward among the mountains, until they reached a plateau, several acres in extent. There a peculiar swirling gale had, at some time or other, swept most of the space quite clear of snow, and left bare the stubby grass and moss, which, at certain seasons, formed the only sustenance of the animals.

It was a lucky find for the oxen, for in the far North, with its ice and snow, it is an eternal battle between the wild animals and starvation, the victory not infrequently being with the latter. It was rare that the oxen found food so plentiful, and they were certain to remain there, if permitted, until hardly a spear was left for those who might come after them.

The largest ox of the party was grazing along the upper edge of the plateau, some rods removed from the others. He had struck a spot where the grass and moss were more abundant, and he was putting in his best work.

Suddenly he caught a suspicious sound. Throwing up his head, with the food dripping from the motionless jaws, he stared in the direction whence it came, possibly with the fear of wolves.

Instead of seeing one of the latter he descried an object fully as terrifying in the shape of a young man, clad in thick clothing from head to foot, and with a rifle in his hands. The name of this young man was Fred Warburton, and he had reached this advantageous spot after long and careful climbing from the plain below. He was studying the creatures closely, now that he had succeeded in gaining a nearer view, for, on the way thither, Docak had told him much concerning them, and they had become objects of great interest.

Fred was alone, and had spent several minutes in surveying the brutes before he coughed with the purpose of attracting attention for a few seconds. Then, slipping his mitten from hi

s right hand, the lad brought his rifle to his shoulder and sighted at the animal.

He had forgotten to inquire at what part to aim, but it seemed to him that the head was the most vulnerable, and he directed his weapon at a point midway between the eyes and near the centre of the forehead.

At the very instant of pressing the trigger the ox slightly lowered his head, and, instead of boring its way through the skull, the bullet impinged against the horny mass above, and glanced off without causing injury.

Fred was startled when he observed the failure, for his friends were too far away to give him support, and it was necessary to place another cartridge in the chamber of his weapon before it could be used. He proceeded to do so, without stirring a foot, and with a coolness which no veteran hunter ever excelled.

But if Fred stood still the musk ox was very far from doing so.

One glance only at the youth was enough, when, with a snort, he whirled about, galloped a few paces, and then wheeled with marked quickness, and faced the young hunter again. While engaged in this performance his snortings drew the attention of his companions, who, throwing up their heads, galloped to him, and the whole eleven speedily stood side by side, facing the point whence the attack had come.

They were of formidable appearance, indeed, for, with lowered heads, they pawed up the earth and began cautiously advancing upon the boy, who had his cartridge in place and was ready for another shot. But instead of one musk ox he was confronted by eleven!

"My gracious!" he said to himself; "this is a larger contract than I thought of. If they will only come at me one at a time I wouldn't mind. I wonder where the other folks are?"

He glanced right and left, but nothing was to be seen of Rob or Jack or Docak. It looked as if a line of retreat should be provided, and he ventured a glance to the rear.

He saw a mass of rocks within a hundred yards, against which a good deal of snow had been driven, and he concluded that that was the only available refuge, with no certainty that it would prove a refuge at all.

"Being as I shall have to fetch up there to save myself, and being that those beasts can travel faster than I, it wouldn't be a bad idea to begin edging that way now."

He would have been glad to whirl about and dash off, reserving his shot until he reached the rocks, but for his belief that such an attempt would be fatal to himself. Nothing encourages man or animal so much as the sight of a flying foe, and he was sure that he would instantly have the whole herd at his heels, and they would overhaul him too before he could attain his shelter.

It was a test of his nerves, indeed. There were eleven musk oxen, heads lowered, eyes staring, with low, muttering bellows, pawing and flinging the dirt behind them, while they continued advancing upon the motionless lad, who, having but one shot immediately at command, sought to decide where it could be sent so as to do the most good.

The fellow at which he fired was the largest of the herd, and it was plain to see that he was commander-in-chief. Upon receiving the shot on his horns he had summoned his followers about him, and no doubt told them of the outrage and whispered in their ears the single word "Vengeance."

It naturally struck Fred that the single shot should be directed at the leader, for possibly, if he fell, the others would be thrown into a panic and scatter. At any rate, it was the only hope, and, without waiting a tenth part of the time it has taken us to tell it, he brought his rifle to a level and aimed at the big fellow.

The distance was so short that there was no excuse for repeating his blunder, or, rather, accident. He sighted the best he knew how, and, while the fellow was still pawing and advancing, let fly, hitting him fairly between the eyes.

The lad paused just long enough to learn that his shot was effective, when he whirled on his heel, without waiting for more, and ran as he never ran before.

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