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   Chapter 14 THE ESCAPE FROM THE WHITE INDIANS

Connie Morgan in Alaska By James B. Hendryx Characters: 14703

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The man, O'Brien, despite the fact that he spent half his time mooning and muttering to himself about quarts of gold and the delights of a torrid clime, proved himself no mean strategist, and his intimate knowledge of the lay of the land and the habits and language of the natives, was invaluable in formulating the plan of escape.

Far into the night the three lay, Connie and Waseche Bill in their sleeping bags under the little shelter tent pitched close against the rounded side of the igloo, and O'Brien lying inside the igloo upon his vile-smelling bed of skins with his face to the hole he had bored low in the snow wall.

Their only hope in getting out of the Lillimuit lay in saving the dogs, and it was decided that this could be accomplished only by a quick dash for the Ignatook, which joined the larger river a quarter of a mile to the northward.

On the sleds remained about five hundred pounds of caribou venison, besides a small quantity of tea, coffee, bacon, and flour.

"Ut's loike this," concluded O'Brien, when the situation had been carefully reviewed from every slant and angle, "Oi'll go to owld Metlutak, tomorry, an' Oi'll say: 'Chayfe,' Oi'll say, 'thim dogs is a plinty soight ribbier thin phwat Oi thought they wuz. We can't git no fat onto um insoide av a wake or tin days but we kin hav' th' potlatch jist th' same-ondly we'll hav' two potlatchs instead av th' wan. They is foive hunder' pounds av caribou mate on th' sleds an' we'll hav' th' caribou potlatch fur-rust, an' th' dog potlatch lather, phwin they've bin give a chanst to lay on some fat.'

"Th' owld b'y won't loike th' caribou so much as th' dog but Oi'll pint out to um that av we use th' caribou fur-rust th' dogs can't shlip along in th' noight an' ate it up on us, whoilst av we kill th' dogs an' lave th' caribou, ye can't tell phwat w'd happin."

"But the dogs couldn't eat the meat if they were dead!" objected Connie.

"Whisht lad! Th' chayfe don't know no 'rithmetic. Two potlatches is bether thin wan, an' beyant that he ain't goin' to study.

"We'll wor-rk ut loike this: they's about tin pound av mate apiece-no gr-reat glut-but enough to kape um busy afther th' dance. Th' dance'll begin phwin th' sun jist edges yondher peaks, an' wanst they git het to the wor-rk, 'twill kape up till mid-noight. We'll dhrag th' mate over, an' Bill, here, he'll shtand ridy wid his axe to cut ut in chunks, an' Oi'll toss ut to wan an' another so they'll all git a piece. They'll ghrab ut an' dhrive their har-rpoons into ut so they kin howld ut over th' foir-re an' thaw ut out. They'll ate ut raw off th' ind av th' har-rpoons-'tis a gr-rand soight!

"Now, her-re's phwere th' b'y comes in: as soon as Bill shtar-rts choppin' mate, ye must shlip over here an' har-rness th' dogs f'r all ye're worth. Ye must finish befoor th' mate's all doled out. Hav' th' loight grub an' th' robes an' shlapin' bags on th' sleds, but lave th' tint shtand. Lave th' roifles in th' pack; they've niver kilt me, an' Oi won't see har-rm come to thim-but av Oi c'd git a good cr-rack at wan or two wid me fisht, 'tw'd aise th' mimry av thim, twinty-wan toimes they've dhrug me back over th' tundra.

"Wanst their har-rpoons gits dhrove into th' fr-rozen mate, they'll niver git um out till they're thawed out. They'll be too heavy to run wid, an' be th' toime they kin fr-ree thim, we'll be safe on th' Ignatook, phwere they wudn't come afther us av they doied fur-rst.

"We kin take our own toime gittin' to th' outsoide. They's plinty av grub in th' tunnel-an' plinty av gold, too-all put away in tomatty cans; an' they're heavy-foorty pound apiece they weigh, av they weigh an ounce-an' that's wan rayson they've tur-med me back thim twinty-wan toimes.

"How far-r did ye say ut wuz to Flor-ridy, afther ye cr-ross th' muskeg?"

"I reckon it's quite a spell, O'Brien," answered Waseche. "But yo' c'n bet yo' last blue one, me an' th' kid'll see yo' git theah-an' don't yo' fo'get it!"

Darkness-not the black darkness of the States, but the long twilight of the early Arctic night-descended upon the Lillimuit. Upon the narrow plateau overlooking the unnamed river, squat fur-clad figures emerged from the tunnel-like entrances of the igloos and, harpoon in hand, moved slowly through the gloom toward a circular level of hard-packed snow immediately in front of the house of the chief, where other figures were busily heaping brushwood and frozen pieces of drift upon a fire that smoked and smouldered in the centre of the area.

At the edge of the circle, Waseche Bill, Connie Morgan, and O'Brien sat upon the haunches of venison and watched the strange men and women take their places about the fire where they ranged themselves in two circles, one within the other, and waited in stolid silence for the appearance of the two chiefs.

Presently they approached, carrying queer shaped drums which consisted of a narrow frame or hoop of split willow about two feet in diameter. Upon these frames were stretched the thin, tough membranes that form the abdominal lining of the seal. A handle of carved walrus ivory was affixed to the hoop with lashings of sealskin. The chiefs carried no harpoons, and as each took his place, the old chief in the inner circle, and the young chief in the outer, they raised their drums and struck sharply upon the edges of the rims with their short ivory drumsticks. The sound produced was a resonant, rather musical note, and at the signal the circles moved, the inner from right to left, the outer from left to right. Slowly, at first, they moved to the measured beat of the drums. The scene was weird and impressive, with the strange, silent people circling in the firelight whose red flare now and then illumined their flat grease-glistening faces. The drums beat faster and between the beats could be heard the husk of the mukluks as they scraped upon the hard surface of the snow.

Gloom deepened into darkness and still they danced. Suddenly out of the north flashed a broad band of light-mystic illusive light writhing and twisting-now bright-now dim. Rose flashed into amethyst and vivid scarlet into purple and pale yellow colouring the whole white world with its reflected light.

Instantly the scene changed. Faster and faster beat the drums; faster and faster circled the dancers, and suddenly from every throat burst the strange words of a weird, unearthly chant:

"Kioya ke, Kioya ke,

A, ya?a, ya?a, ya,

Hwi, hwi, hwi, hwi!>

Tudlimana, tudlimana,

A, ya?a, ya?a, ya,

Hwi, hwi, hwi, hwi!

Kaluta?a, Kaluta?a,

A, ya?a, ya?a, ya,

Hwi, hwi, hwi, hwi!"

Eerie and impressive the sight, and eerie the rise and fall of the chant with which the children of the frozen wastes greet the Aurora-the flashing, hissing warning of the great Tua?a, the bad man, who lies dead at the end of the earth.

The words ceased, the drums struck into a measured, monotonous, pom, pom, pom, and the dancers continued to circle about the fire. A man separated himself from the others and, stepping into the fire-lit circle, began to chant of his deeds of valour in the hunt, of his endurance on the trail, and his fortitude in accident and famine. As he chanted he danced, swaying and contorting his body, and then, either his tale was told, or he became weary and dropped back into the ci

rcle and gave place to another. Hour after hour the white men watched the strange incantations, moving about at intervals to keep warm. The endurance of the natives was a source of wonder to Connie and Waseche Bill. They had been continuously at it for nine hours, and it was midnight when O'Brien reached swiftly over and touched Connie upon the shoulder.

"Look aloive, now, b'y! The owld chayfe is th-radin' his dhrum f'r a har-rpoon, an 'tis th' sign f'r th' potlatch!"

Sure enough! With amazing suddenness the circles broke up and the dancers made a concerted rush for the caribou meat. Connie slipped unnoticed into the shadows and ran for the sleds, while Waseche Bill swung his ax and O'Brien distributed the chunks to the crowding Indians.

As soon as one received his portion he placed it upon the snow and drove his harpoon in past the barbs to prevent its being jerked off in the wild scramble for a place at the fire. As O'Brien had said, the orgy that started as a religious ceremony was winding up like a Donnybrook fair, for the natives fought and pummelled each other with spear and fist in their efforts to thaw out their meat.

At the end of half an hour all were served and not a shred remained that was not firmly transfixed upon the point of a harpoon. Most of the Indians still fought by the fire, but some of the more fortunate had retreated to a distance and were gnawing and tearing at the raw chunks, using the harpoons in the manner of a huge fork.

"Now's our chanst!" whispered O'Brien; and with an eye upon those who were eating, they dodged swiftly behind the chief's igloo.

When Connie reached the shelter tent he fell immediately to work harnessing the dogs which he roused from their snug beds in a huge snowdrift. At first his fingers trembled with excitement so that he fumbled clumsily at the straps, but he soon regained his nerve and, one after another, the malamutes were fastened into their proper places. He slipped the collar on to McDougall's gaunt leader and waited, tense with anxiety, listening and peering into the darkness for sound or sight of his two companions.

After what seemed hours of suspense, he saw them approaching at a run, and sprang to his place, his fingers gripping tightly the handle of his dog whip.

At the same instant, the boy became aware that the scene at the fireside had changed. In the uncertain light of the flaring flames he had been able to make out an indistinct blur of fighting figures accompanied by a jumble of growls and short, animal-like yelps, as the natives pushed and pummelled each other for a place by the coveted fire. As the figures of Waseche and O'Brien drew closer, the yelps and growls gave place to loud cries, the fighting ceased, and in the dim light Connie made out other running figures, and still others standing upon their chunks of meat and wrenching frantically to free their harpoons.

The next instant Waseche Bill leaped to his dogs and O'Brien threw himself upon Connie's waiting sled.

"Let 'em go, kid!" cried Waseche, and the sharp crack of the dog whips rang on the air to the cries of: "Mush! Hi! Hi! Mush-u! Mush-u!"

Both teams shot away toward the inclined trail of the river. Neck and neck, they ran over the crusted snow, while the three free dogs romped and raced beside them.

While most of the Indians followed directly in the wake of the retreating men, a few of the wiser ones cut straight for the head of the trail down which the outfit must pass. Waseche's eight malamutes, travelling lighter than Connie's big ten-team, forged to the front and gained the incline at the same moment that three Indians led by Annunduk, the young chief, leaped out upon the trail. The natives, tired by their long exertions at the dance, had thrown away their weighted harpoons and, except for a short club that Annunduk had snatched from a cache frame as he ran, were unarmed.

Waseche dodged a blow from the club and an Indian who tried to throw himself upon the flying sled was hurled from the trail and rolled end over end down the steep hundred-foot slope to the river.

A quarter of a minute later McDougall's big malamutes swung into the trail and would have dashed past the spot before the Indians could have collected their senses, had not O'Brien, with Irish impetuosity, leaned far over the side and aimed a mighty blow of his fist at the head of Annunduk. The blow swung wide and O'Brien, losing his balance, pitched headlong into the snow almost at the Indian's feet.

Connie, whose attention was upon the rushing dogs, felt the sled leap forward as the man's weight was removed, and without an instant's hesitation halted the dogs in their tracks and, clutching his dog whip, ran to the assistance of O'Brien, who was clawing and rolling about in the snow in a vain effort to regain his feet.

There was not a second to lose. By the light of the stars the boy saw Annunduk leap forward with club upraised, while the remaining Indian was making ready to spring upon the defenceless man from behind. Connie redoubled his efforts and, just as the chief raised his club for a long shoulder swing at O'Brien's head, the boy's fifteen-foot gut lash sang through the thin air. There was a report like a pistol-shot and, with a loud yell of pain, Annunduk dropped his club and clutched frantically at his face.

"The boy's fifteen-foot lash sang through the thin air."

Meanwhile the other Indian had almost reached the Irishman who had scrambled to his hands and knees. Connie leaped backward to get the range of his long whiplash, but before the boy could draw back his arm, the air roared with a long, throaty growl and Slasher, the savage wolf-dog, with back-curled lips and flashing fangs, leaped past and launched himself full at the throat of the Indian. With awful impact, the great tawny brute landed squarely upon the man's chest, carrying him backward into the snow. The next instant the air was filled with frightened shrieks and ferocious, full-mouthed snarls as the wolf-dog tore and wrenched at the heavy skin shirt, while the terrified Indian protected his face with his arms.

The whole incident occupied scarcely a minute, and Connie half-dragged the dazed O'Brien to his feet and hurried him to the sled. With a loud whistle to Slasher, the boy cracked his whip above the ears of the leader and, just as the head of the trail became black with pursuing Indians, the malamutes shot away, with Slasher running beside them, growling fiercely and shaking a great patch of quill-embroidered shirt front which waved from his tight-clamped jaws.

Down on the river, Waseche Bill was in the act of swinging his dogs for a dash over the back trail when the long ten-team rushed out onto the rime-carpeted ice. All danger from pursuit was past, and they jogged the teams slowly northward, while all about them fell the frost spicules in a feathery shimmer of tinsel. Ten minutes later O'Brien pointed out the trail which passed between two enormous rocks and entered the valley of the Ignatook, the creek of the stinking steam, into which the Indians dared not venture. And it was with a grateful sense of security and relief that they headed the dogs for the spot where they were to camp, in the old tunnel of the lost mine of the Ignatook-at the end of the dead man's lonely trail.

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