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   Chapter 24 UNWELCOME CALLERS

Among the Esquimaux; or, Adventures under the Arctic Circle By Edward Sylvester Ellis Characters: 8136

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Within the following fifteen minutes it seemed as if a thousand wolves had arrived on the plateau, and were fighting, feasting, snarling, and rending the bodies of the musk oxen to fragments. They were far enough removed from the cavern for the inmates to hear each other readily, while discussing the curious occurrence.

The boys could not contemplate a visit from the ravening beasts with the indifference of their companions. To them it seemed that the brutes would be rendered ten-fold fiercer by their taste of blood, and would not stop until they had devoured them.

"Do you think they will visit us?" asked Rob of Docak.

The latter was standing in the middle of the cavern, in the attitude of listening. He nodded his head, and replied:

"Yes-eat ox-den come here."

"If that is so I think we ought to prepare for them," suggested Fred, who shared the nervousness of his friend.

"How can we prepare more than we're prepared now?" asked Jack; "they've got to come in that opening one at a time, and it will be fun for us to set back here and pick 'em off."

"Provided they don't crowd in so fast that we can't do it."

"With four guns, I reckon we oughter take care of ourselves."

"Dere fire, too," remarked the Esquimau, jerking his head in the direction of the flames.

"Ah, I forgot that," said Rob, with a sigh of relief, recalling the dread which all animals have of fire. Indeed, he felt certain at the moment that the burning wood would prove far more effective than their weapons in keeping off the wolves.

It would be supposed that the bodies on the plateau were enough to keep the brutes occupied for a long time, and to afford them a meal sufficient to satisfy them for the night; but who ever saw a wolf when not ravenously hungry? They howled, and snarled, and fought, and pressed around the carcasses in such numbers that, when only the bones remained, it may be said that their appetites were but fairly whetted, and they were more eager than ever after additional prey.

Fully a score, in their keenness of scent, had been quick to strike the trail of the surviving musk oxen that had fled from the hot fire of the hunters. The scent was the more easily followed since a couple of the animals had been wounded, and there can be little doubt that all fell before the ferocity of their assailants, though the musk ox makes a brave fight ere he succumbs to those cowardly creatures.

Darting hither and yon, with their pointed snouts skimming over the ground, it was not Long before several struck the footprints of the party that had taken refuge in the cavern. A dozen or, perhaps, a score would not have dared attack them had they not been inflamed by the taste of food already secured. As it was, they were aroused to that point that they were ready to assail any foe that could help to satisfy their voracity.

"Here they come!" exclaimed Rob Carrol, springing to his feet, with rifle ready.

"Yes-dey come-dat so."

While the native was speaking he stood motionless, but with inimitable dexterity brought his gun to a level, and, apparently without any aim at all, let drive into the pack crowding toward the entrance to the cavern.

No aim was necessary, for the wolves pressed so close that no one person could fail to bring down one at least of them.

Amid the snarling and growling rang out a single sharp yelp, which proved that some member of the pack was "hit hard." Whether struck mortally or not made no difference, for the moment blood appeared upon him his comrades fell upon him with unspeakable ferocity and tore him limb from limb.

The shot had the effect, too, of driving them away from the entrance for a brief while, but they speedily returned, crowding so far forward that their eyes, lank jaws, and noses showed plainly in the reflection of the firelight.

It was evident that the shot of the Esquimau produced no permanent effect upon them. It may have been, indeed, that they wished for a second that it might afford them the pretext for feasting upon another of their fellow-

citizens.

But the fire was burning brightly, and they dreaded that. So long as it was going and the hunters kept close to the flame, they were safe against the fangs of the wolves.

"That's too good a chance to be lost," remarked Rob, discharging his rifle among the animals.

Fred was but a moment behind him, so that two, if not more, of the brutes were slain and afforded an appetizer for the rest. Docak had lost no time in ramming another charge into his gun, while Jack Cosgrove held his fire, as if expecting some emergency, when a quick shot was likely to be necessary.

"It don't strike me as a good thing for all our guns to be empty at the same time," was his sensible remark, "so s'pose we take turns in banging into 'em."

"Dat right-dat good," commented the Esquimau, and the boys promised to follow the suggestion.

The scene at this time was striking. Looking toward the entrance to the cavern, nothing could be observed but the fronts of the fierce animals, all fighting desperately to get at the opening, all eager beyond expression to reach the serene hunters within, but restrained by the glowing fire beyond, to which they dared not go.

Quick to note their dread of this element, the boys became more composed, though both could not help thinking how it would be if there were no fire. The fuel if judiciously used was sufficient to last until daylight, by which time the courage of the brutes would ooze away to that extent that they would be likely to withdraw.

But the party could not spend all their time in the cavern, and, if attacked on the open plain, it would require the hardest kind of fighting to beat off their assailants.

"But what is the use of speculating about the future?" Rob asked himself, as, seeing that it was his turn, he drove another bullet among the brutes, doubling up one like a jack-knife, while his comrades proceeded to "undouble" him in the usual style.

"Suppose," said Fred, "we should keep this up until we killed a hundred, wouldn't the rest have enough to eat by that time?"

"No," replied Jack, who had seen the animals before; "the rest of 'em would be as hungry as ever after eating 'em. You may keep the thing going till there is only two left, and then shoot one of 'em; the other will gulp him down in a dozen mouthfuls, and then lick his chops and whine for more."

Docak looked at his friend and grinned at this graphic illustration of the voracity of the lupus species.

However, it was quite clear that our friends were wasting a good deal of ammunition, which might be needed before their return. So they seated themselves on the floor of the cavern near the fire, that was kept going with moderate vigor, and exchanging a few words now and then as the turmoil permitted, they sent a shot into the pack, when some of the foremost ventured to thrust their snouts too far into the cavern.

"If they only had sense enough to combine into one rush," said Fred, "they could wipe us out in a twinkling."

"That's just what they would do if it wasn't for the fire," was the reply of his friend; "but it does seem to me that they must get tired after awhile."

"I can't detect any signs of it yet. Let me try something."

Catching a brand from the fire, Rob whirled it about his head until it was fanned into a roaring blaze, when he hurled it right among the howling horde.

The scampering that followed was laughable. In a second or two not a wolf was visible, and only the smoking torch lay on the ground where it had fallen just outside the entrance.

It was expected they would soon return, and some of them did sneak back within a short distance, but the smoldering brand was a terror to them so long as it held any life, and they waited until it was utterly extinguished before venturing closer.

Meanwhile, Docak showed such disquiet and concern over something else that Jack Cosgrove, well knowing it must be serious, determined to force him to an explanation, for he had racked his brain in vain to think what grisly dread was looming in front of them.

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