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   Chapter 21 CLOSE QUARTERS

Among the Esquimaux; or, Adventures under the Arctic Circle By Edward Sylvester Ellis Characters: 7729

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

At this moment, when it would be thought that the incident was at its most thrilling crisis, it assumed a ludicrous phase, at which any spectator must have laughed heartily.

Fred, as I have said, made for the protecting rocks, with all the energy of which he was capable. On the way thither he dropped one mitten, then his gun flew from his grasp, and a chill passed through his frame, at the consciousness that he had lost his only means of defense; but he dared not check himself long enough to pick it up, for in fancy he heard the whole ten thundering after him and almost upon his heels.

The distance to travel was short, but it seemed twice its real extent, and he feared he would never reach it. He was running for life, however, and he got over the ground faster than would be supposed. Panting and half-exhausted, he arrived at last, and darted breathlessly behind the rugged mass of boulders.

His heart almost gave way when he found it what he feared; a simple pile of stones, partly covered with snow, but presenting nothing that could be used for protection. The only portion was the top, but that was too high for him to climb the perpendicular sides.

It was at this moment he cast a terrified glance behind him, and uttered the single exclamation:

"Well, if that doesn't beat all creation!"

What did he see?

The whole ten musk oxen scampering in the opposite direction, apparently in as great a panic as himself.

The truth of it is the musk ox is one of the most cowardly animals in existence. All the pawing of dirt, the bellowing, and threatening advance upon an enemy is simply "bluff." At the first real danger he takes himself off like the veritable booby that he is.

As soon as Fred could recover his wind he broke into laughter at the thought of his causeless scare. He might as well have stood his ground and fired into them at his leisure.

"I'm glad Rob didn't see me," he reflected as he came from behind the rock and set out to regain his lost weapon and mitten; "he would have had it on me bad-"

A shiver ran through him, for he surely heard something like a chuckle that had a familiar sound.

He looked around, but could discover no cause for it.

"No; it wouldn't have done for him or Jack to have had a glimpse of me running away from the oxen that were going just as hard from me-"

"Hello, Fred, where's your gun?"

It was Rob Carrol and no one else, who stepped into sight from the other side of the rocks and came toward him, shaking so much with mirth that he could hardly walk.

"What's the matter with you?" demanded Fred, savagely; "you seem to find cause for laughter where no one else can."

"O Fred! if you only could have seen yourself tearing for the rocks, your gun flying one way, your mitten another, your eyes bulging out, and you too scared to look behind at the animals that were going still faster right from you, why you would have tumbled down and called it the funniest sight in the world."

"If I had seen you with your life in danger I wouldn't have stopped to laugh, but would have gone to your help."

"So would I have gone to yours, but the trouble was your neck wasn't in danger, though I guess you thought it was."

"Why didn't you fire into the herd?"

"What for? They were too far off to take the chances of bringing them down, and you had killed the leader."

"Why, then, didn't you yell to me to stop my running?"

"I tried to, but couldn't for laughing; then, too, Fred, it wasn't long before you found it out yourself. If, when we get home, you want to enter the races as a sprinter, I will back you against the field. I tell you, old fellow, you surpassed yourself."

By this time the younger lad had rallied, and saw that his exhibition of ill-temper only made him ridiculous. He turned toward his companion with a smile, and asked, in h

is quaint way:

"What'll you take, Rob, not to mention this to Jack or any of the rest of our friends?"

"I'll try not to do so, but, if it should happen to drop from me some time, don't get mad and tear your hair."

"Never mind," said Fred, significantly; "this hunt isn't finished yet, and I may get a chance to turn the laugh on you."

"If you do, then I'll make the bargain."

"Perhaps you will, but that will be as I feel about it. But, I say, did you ever know of any such cowardly animals as the musk ox? If they had gone for me, where would I have been?"

"I doubt whether they could have caught you, but they are stupid cowards, who don't know their own strength."

"I wonder whether they always act this way."

"Most of the time, but not always. I heard Docak telling Jack how he once put two bullets into a bull, which kept on for him like a steam engine. He flung himself behind a lot of rocks, just as you did, when the beast was right upon him. He struck the stones with such force that he shattered his horns and was thrown back on the ground like a ball. Before he could rise his wounds overcame him, and he gave it up, but it was a narrow escape for the Esquimau."

"It might have been the same with me," added Fred, who could not recall, without a shudder, those few seconds when he faced the leader with his herd ranged alongside of him; "but all's well that ends well. Where are Jack and Docak?"

As if in answer to the question the reports of the guns broke upon their ears at that moment, and they saw the two hunters standing on the lower edge of the plateau, firing into the terrified animals that were almost upon them. Instead of turning to run, as Fred had done, immediately after firing, they quietly held their places and began coolly reloading their pieces.

There was good ground for their self-confidence. Their shots were so well aimed that two of the oxen tumbled to the ground, while the others, whirling again, came thundering in the direction of the rocks, near which the lads were watching them.

"That sight is enough to scare any one," remarked Fred.

"If you want to turn and run again," said Rob, "I'll pick up your gun and both of your mittens, if you drop them."

"Don't fret yourself; if I can beat you when you had that polar bear at your heels no beast could overtake me."

"The difference between that and this was that the brute was at my heels, while your pursuers were running the other way. However, we'll drop the matter, old fellow, since I have had all the fun I want out of it. It may be upon me next time."

"I hope it will, and, if so, I won't forget it; but, Rob, this begins to look serious."

Although the youths were in plain view, the musk oxen continued their flight straight toward them. Unless they changed very quickly or the lads got out of the way a collision was certain.

"You may stay here if you think it smart," said Fred, a second later, "but I don't."

Despite the exhibition he had made of himself a few minutes before he moved briskly toward the rocks, behind which he whisked like one who had no time to waste.

To show him how causeless was his alarm, Rob raised his gun, and, taking a quick aim at the foremost, let fly.

"That'll settle them!" he called out; "see how quickly they will turn tail."

But they did not adopt this course as promptly as Rob expected. He had struck one of them, but without inflicting much hurt. There is a latent courage in every beast, which, under certain stress, can be aroused to activity, and this shot had done it.

Rob stood his ground for an instant or two. Then he awoke to the fact that his shot was not going to turn a single one of the eight musk oxen from his course. They thundered toward him like so many furies, and were almost upon him before he realized that he had already waited too long.

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