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   Chapter 23 IN THE CAVERN

Among the Esquimaux; or, Adventures under the Arctic Circle By Edward Sylvester Ellis Characters: 8174

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


That which the astonished visitors looked upon was a pile of wood at one side of the cavern big enough to build a roaring fire that would last for hours. This place must have formed the headquarters of Docak when indulging in the occasional hunts that are anything but popular among the coast natives.

The Esquimau did not carry lucifer matches with him, but, on the other hand, he was not forced to use the primitive means common among savages. He possessed a flint and tinder such as our forefathers used and are still popular in some parts of the world.

But Rob and Fred did not exhaust their supply of matches in trying to scorch the bear steak on the iceberg, and when everything was ready to start the blaze they did so with little trouble. The smoke bothered them at first, but it gradually wound its way through the opening, so that breathing became quite comfortable.

Docak cooked the tongues with a skill born of long experience. There was just the faintest trace of musk, but not enough to interfere with the vigorous appetites, which could afford to disregard trifles. The meal proved to be what he had promised-one of the most grateful they had ever eaten.

There was a good deal left after the supper was finished, and this was laid aside for future contingencies, since the experience of their approach to this spot taught them to be prepared for an extended deprivation of food. Indeed, the native Esquimau sometimes goes for days, apparently with no craving in that direction, though it must be there all the same. When he finally secures nourishment, he stuffs prodigiously-so much so indeed that a civilized person would die of gluttony. He calmly waits, however, until able to hold a little more, when he resumes cramming the food down his throat, keeping it up until at last he is satisfied. Then he sleeps, hour after hour, and, on waking, is ready to resume his frightful gormandizing.

By the time the meal was finished the long Arctic night began closing in. Looking through the crevice on the side, and the entrance, they saw that the day was fast fading. The air was as clear as crystal and very cold. The boys had no extra garments to bring with them, but Docak, despite his cumbrous suit, carried the fur of a polar bear that he had shot a couple of years before. This was not only warm, but had the advantages over many pelts of being vermin proof.

When traveling over the snow Docak had a way of using this extra garment, like a shawl, so that his arms were free. It was now spread upon the solid rock, and, though it was not extensive enough to wrap about the forms of the four, it furnished a couch for all, as they lay with their bodies near together, and it was most welcome indeed.

It might seem that our friends ran an imprudent risk in venturing this far from the coast without snow-shoes; for, in the event of a thaw, the work of traveling the thirty miles would tax their endurance to the utmost. The snow was several feet deep on a level, and was drifted in places as high as a house. Who could make his way through instead of over this?

But all misgivings on that score were ended by Docak telling his friends there would be no thaw for days, weeks, and, perhaps, not for months. It was more likely to be the other way.

The surface, as I have intimated, was as easily walked upon as the floor of a house. So long as it remained thus there was no need of snow-shoes or anything like artificial help.

The fire made it so cheerful and the warmth was so pleasant that it was decided to keep it going for an hour or two, and then let it die out after they fell asleep. There would be considerable fuel left for morning, and the blaze was not really necessary, unless the weather should take one of those appalling plunges during which a red-hot stove seems to lose all power.

As was Docak's custom, when staying in an inclosed place like this, he sauntered out doors before lying down to slumber, in order to take a look at the weather and the surroundings. The life of the Esquimaux makes them wonderfully skillful rea

ders of impending changes of temperature. Signs which are invisible to others are as intelligible to them as the pages of a printed book to us.

The native remained absent a considerable while, until his friends began speculating as to the cause.

"Maybe he has caught sight of another of those musk oxen, and wants to bring him down," suggested Rob.

"There is no call to do that when so many of them lie on the frozen ground, where they will keep for months unless the wolves find them."

"They'll be pretty certain to do that," continued Rob; "but then he may have caught sight of a bull, and both may want to try a race by starting in opposite directions and seeing which can travel first around the world."

"That would be a sight worth seeing," Fred hastened to say, "unless he fell down and bawled for some one to come to his help, after firing his gun and missing the game by about a rod."

Jack Cosgrove looked wonderingly at his young friends, puzzled to know what this curious talk meant. To him there was no sense in it. Rob and Fred thought they had ventured as far upon forbidden ground as was prudent, so they veered off.

While they were talking Docak reappeared. His feet were heard on the crust of the snow for several seconds before he was visible, for there was no call to guard against noise.

As he straightened up in the cavern he stood a moment without speaking. Then, stepping to the wood, he threw a number of sticks on the blaze, causing an illumination that made the interior as light as day.

Jack was better acquainted with the native's moods than the boys could be expected to be, and the first sight of the honest fellow's countenance by the added light told him he was troubled over something. Evidently he had made some unpleasant discovery.

"He'll let me know what it is," concluded the sailor, deeming it best not to question him; "I can't imagine what would make him feel so uneasy, but he's got something on his mind-that's sartin."

Docak was on the point of speaking more than once, but some impulse led him to close his lips at the moment the all-important matter was about to become known. He probably would have kept it to himself altogether had not a question of Rob given him an opportunity too inviting to be resisted.

"Which course will we take to-morrow, Docak?"

"Dat way-we trabel fast as can, too."

The astonishment of the three may be understood when they saw him point directly toward his own home-that is, in the direction of the seacoast, and over the course they had just completed.

Their purpose when they set out was to penetrate at least double the distance in the interior, and now he declared for a withdrawal.

Not only that, but the manner of the native proved that he considered the crisis imminent, and that no time was to be lost in carrying out his unexpected decision.

Jack knew him so well that he was right in deciding that his hesitancy of manner was caused by his doubt whether he should insist upon his friends starting at once, or allow them to defer it until morning.

"What's the trouble, Docak?" asked the sailor, now that the subject was broached; "I never saw you look so scared-"

At that moment the dismal cry of a wolf reached their ears, quickly followed by others. The gaunt creatures that seem born ravenously hungry, and always remain so, had scented the rich feast that awaited them on the plateau, and were hurrying thither from all directions. Soon nothing would be left but the bones of the game brought down by the rifles of the hunters.

Rob and Fred naturally concluded the moment these sounds were identified that it was because of them the native was frightened, he having discovered them before the rest; but Jack knew it was from some other reason. He saw nothing alarming in the approach of a pack of wild animals. The four were well armed, they had a fire, were in a cavern, and could stand off all the wolves in Greenland for a time at least.

"No, it isn't that," muttered the sailor; "but if he doesn't choose to tell I sha'n't coax him."

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