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   Chapter 25 THE COMING SHADOW

Among the Esquimaux; or, Adventures under the Arctic Circle By Edward Sylvester Ellis Characters: 8157

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Docak, the Esquimau, had no wish to affect any mystery as to the cause of his misgiving. He had not mentioned it of his own accord, because he was debating in his mind which of two courses to adopt: to remain longer in the cavern or to set out at once for his home on the coast. It may be said that except for the appearance of the wolves he would have insisted that the start should be made without delay, and pushed with the utmost vigor until their destination was reached.

But this was not to be thought of under the circumstances. To venture outside the cavern was to invite an instant attack by the brutes who were in that state that they possessed a daring foreign to their nature.

Docak explained that an alarming change of weather was at hand. He knew the signs so well that there was no mistake on his part. As he had promised, it was not in the nature of a thaw or rising temperature, but may be explained by that expressive word with which the reader is familiar-blizzard.

Whoever has gone through one of those frightful visitations will never forget it. That one of a few years ago was so general throughout our country that the memory must remain through life with us.

But a blizzard in the Arctic regions is a terror, indeed. It meant in the present instance a snowstorm that might last for days, a hurricane of wind, and a temperature of such fearful cold that would consume almost like fire.

With several feet of snow on the surface of that which now covered the ground, and too fine to bear the weight of the lightest animal, with the air white with billions of particles, eddying, whirling, and flying hither and thither, so that one could not see a step in advance-with the gale careering like a demon across the snowy wastes-the strongest hunter might well shrink from attempting a journey one-tenth of that which lay between them and the coast.

When Jack suggested that Docak might be mistaken, he shook his head so decisively that it sent a chill through the boys, who were watching his dusky countenance and listening to his words. Such a man spoke that whereof he knew. He would hold out hope, if he had justification for doing so, but he saw none.

That the blizzard was at hand, that it was already careering from the far North and must speedily arrive, was as good as demonstrated. The only chance that Docak saw was that it might prove of shorter duration than he feared. If it should last no more than twelve or possibly twenty-four hours, they might struggle through it, without serious consequences, but if beyond that (as he was almost certain it would be), there was little hope.

However, since they must stay where they were until the following morning, preparations were made for spending the night, which, it will be borne in mind, was by no means as long as many which they have at certain seasons in the high latitudes.

It was decided that Rob should sit up until midnight and then awake Fred, who, after standing guard for several hours, would arouse Jack to take charge until daylight. Inasmuch as this was the Esquimau's own proposition, which, as will be perceived, relieved him of duty for any part of the night, the others understood its significance. He was reserving himself for the time when there was likely to be more urgent need of his services.

No comment was made on the fact, and the simple preparations were quickly finished. Docak added a caution to his friends that they should be as sparing as possible in the use of the fuel. They had already consumed a moiety of it, and the approach of the blizzard would render it valuable beyond estimate. Enough only to hold the wolves at a safe distance was to be burned.

Thus it came about that an hour later Rob Carrol was the only one awake in the cavern. The others were huddled together on the bear skin, quietly sleeping, while he kept off drowsiness by pacing slowly back and forth over the brief space within.

"It's getting colder," he said to himself more than once; "I had a hope that Docak might be wrong, but he isn't; we shall catch

it within a few hours. This is a bad place to be snowed up."

He glanced continually toward the entrance, for he could not forget the wolves which were the indirect cause of their coming peril. They seemed, in spite of the disgusted remarks of Jack, to have become satisfied that nothing was to be gained by hovering about the refuge. So many of their comrades had fallen, and the fire burned so persistently, that the others must have felt a certain degree of discouragement.

Now and then a howl echoed among the desolate hills, with a strange power, and was immediately answered by scores from as many different points, but there was no such eager crowding as marked the first appearance of the brutes. Rob glanced repeatedly at the opening without seeing one of them.

But the youth was too wise to be caught off his guard. He allowed the fire to smolder until the figures of his friends were only barely visible in the gloom, and his own form became shadowy, as it slowly moved back and forth over the floor of the cavern, with his rifle ready for instant use.

He heard a soft tip tipping on the snow, and there was no mistaking its meaning.

"They're there," he said, peering outward in the gloom and listening intently, "and are as watchful for a chance as ever."

Turning toward the crevice which admitted light, and was too straight to allow the smallest wolf to pass through, he caught the glow of a pair of eyes.

They were motionless, and the wolf evidently was studying the interior with a view of learning the prospect for an excursion within.

The temptation to fire was strong, but the eyes noiselessly vanished before the gun could be brought to a level.

Rob stood intently listening. He heard the stealthy footsteps pass along the side of the cavern toward the front, and he moved in that direction, but placed himself at one side, so as to be out of sight of any one looking directly into the mouth. He had not long to wait, when the same keenness of ear told him that the brute was cautiously entering. The fire was smoldering lower than ever, the brand at the entrance had died out long before, and no one could be seen on guard. The brute must have made up his mind that he had "struck it rich." In his selfishness he did not summon his friends to the feast, but resolved to devour the four persons all by himself, and that, too, after having had his full share of the musk ox and his fallen friends!

There was just enough light in the cavern for Rob to note everything. Being at one side of the entrance, he could not be detected by the sneaking brute, which also was invisible to him. He must come further forward before they could discern each other.

The wolf, one of the largest of his species, stood just outside with his ears pricked, his head raised, and his eyes roaming over the interior. Everything looked promising, but he had learned to be suspicious of those bipeds, whose hands were always against them.

He stood in this attitude for several minutes, as stationary as if carved in stone. Then he lifted one of his fore-feet, held it suspended, as though he were pointing game, and then advanced a couple of steps. This brought him far enough into the cavern for the lad to see the end of his nose, but the beast still failed to detect that shadow at one side of the entrance that was calmly awaiting the critical moment.

But he saw the dimly outlined forms near the smoldering fire, and licked his chops in anticipation. Nothing could be more favorable for the grandest feast of his life.

THE WOLF LICKED HIS CHOPS IN ANTICIPATION

(See page 232)

At that moment a howl rent the air at no great distance. It must have startled this prowler, and told him that, if he delayed his meal any longer, he must share it with an unlimited number.

He started on a silent walk, straight for the forms, heedless of the figure that had pointed the rifle at him, while he was yet out of sight. All was like the tomb until the gun was fired. Then since the muzzle almost touched the brute, why-enough has been said.

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