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A Dead Narwhal.—Snowy Owls.—Two Bears in Sight.—Firing on them with the Howitzer.—A Bear-Hunt among the Ice.—An Ice "Jungle."—An Exciting Chase.—The Bear turns.—Palmleaf makes "a Sure Shot."—"Run, you Black Son!"
About two o'clock a dead narwhal came floating out with the ice from the north-east arm, and passed quite near the schooner,—so near, that we could judge pretty accurately as to its length, which we estimated to be twenty or twenty-two feet; and its horn, or tusk, which was partly under water, could not have been less than five feet.
"Killed among the ice there, I reckon," said Capt. Mazard. "Crushed up. I should not wonder if there were a great many large fish killed so."
It seemed not improbable; for we had seen several snowy owls hovering over the ice-packs; and, about an hour afterwards, as we were reading in the cabin, Weymouth came down to say that a couple of bears were in sight up there among the ice. We went up immediately. None of us had ever seen a white bear, save at menageries, where they had to keep the poor brutes dripping with ice-water, they were so near roasting with our climate. To see a white bear prowling in his native ice-fastnesses was, therefore, a novel spectacle for us.
They were distant from the schooner, at a rough guess, five hundred yards, and seemed to have a good deal of business about a hole, or chasm, among the loose ice at some distance up the arm.
"Seal or a dead finner in there, I'll be bound," said the captain. "Now, boys, there's a chance for a bear-hunt!"
"Suppose we give 'em a shot from my cannon-rifle," I suggested.
"Better take the howitzer," said Raed. "Load it with a grist of those bullets."
"That'll be the most likely to fetch 'em," laughed the captain.
Wade ran down after the powder and balls. The rest of us unlashed the gun, got off the rubber-cloth, and trundled it along to point it over the starboard rail. Raed then swabbed it out; Kit poured in the powder; while Wade and I rammed down a wad of old newspaper.
"Now, put in a good dose of these blue-pills," advised the captain, scooping up both hands full from the bag in which we kept them.
"Ef you war ter jest tie 'em up, or wrop 'em in a bit of canvas, they'd go straighter, and wouldn't scatter round so bad," remarked old Trull, who was not an uninterested spectator of the proceedings.
"Make them up sort of grape or canister shot fashion, you mean," said Raed.
"Yes; that's what I mean,—ter keep 'em frum scatterin'."
"Not a bad idea," said Capt. Mazard. "Weymouth, bring a piece of old canvas and a bit of manila-yarn."
About a quart of the ounce balls were hastily wrapped in the canvas, and lashed up with the hempen twine. The bag was then rammed down upon the powder, and the howitzer pointed.
"Let old Trull do the shooting," whispered Kit. "He will be as likely to hit as any of us."
"Mr. Trull," Capt. Mazard began, "we must look to you to shoot those bears for us. Pepper 'em good, now!"
At that we all stood away from the gun. The old fellow grinned, hesitated a moment, then stepped forward, evidently not a little flattered by the confidence reposed in him. First he sighted the piece very methodically. The schooner lay perfectly still. A better chance for a shot could hardly have been asked for. Palmleaf now came up with a bit of tarred rope lighted at the stove, and smoking after the manner of a slow match, with a red coal at the end. Trull took the rope, and, watching his chance till both the bears were in sight and near each other, touched the priming,—Tizz-z-z-whang!
The carriage recoiled almost as smartly as my big rifle had done. Why is it that a person standing near a gun—especially a heavy gun—can never see what execution is done during the first second or two? He may have his eye on the mark at the discharge, but somehow the report always throws his ocular apparatus out of gear. In a moment I espied one of the bears scrambling over an ice-cake. The other had already disappeared; or else was killed, and had fallen down some fissure.
"Man the boat!" exclaimed Raed. "I'm anxious to see the result of that shot! Bring up those muskets, Wade!"
"Who goes on the bear-hunt, and who stays?" cried the captain.
"I'll stand by the vassel," said old Trull. "Guard and I will look out for things on board."
"Den I'll take his place, sar!" exclaimed Palmleaf, catching the enthusiasm of the thing.
Wade appeared with the muskets. Five of them were already loaded. Cartridges were soon clapped into six more. Wade handed us each one, including Palmleaf.
"See that you don't shoot any of us with it, you lubber!" he said.
"Neber fear, sar," replied the negro with a grin. "I'se called a berry good shot at Petersburg, sar. Fit there, sar,—on the Linkum side."
"Yes, sar. Called a berry sure shot, sar."
Kit and Raed began to laugh.
"Come, tumble in, boys!" shouted the captain, who didn't see the point quite so clearly as we did.
We got into the boat,—eleven of us; about as many as could find room. Hobbs and Bonney lay back at the oars. Kit steered us up to the low ledges of the small island on the west side of the ice-packed arm, where the bears had been seen. We landed, and pulled the boat up after us. No danger from the tide at this time of day. The captain and Raed led off, climbing over the rocks, and following along the jam of ice, which was piled considerably higher than the shore of the arm. Palmleaf, jolly as a darky need be, kept close behind them. The rest followed as best they might, clambering from ledge to ledge. Wade and I brought up the rear.
"Only look at that nigger!" muttered my kinsman of Southern blood. "Impudent dog! I would like to crack his head with the butt of this musket! Hear how he wagged his tongue to me?"
"Well, you called him a lubber."
"What of that?"
"What of that? Why, you must expect him to talk back: that's all. He's a free man, now, you know."
"The more's the pity!"
"I don't see it."
"I'd like to have the handling of that nigger a while!"
"No doubt. But you might just as well get over those longings first as last," I said; for I was beginning to get sick of his foolish spirit. "You had better forget the war, bury your old-time prejudices, and start new in the world, resolved to live and let live; to be a good fellow, and treat everybody alike and well. That's the way we do in the North,—or ought to."
Wade said not a word. I rather pity the fellow. He has got some mighty hard, painful lessons to learn before he will be able to start right in life.
Raed and the captain had stopped.
"They were right opposite here, over among the ice," Raed was saying. "I marked the spot by that high cake sticking up above the rest."
"We need scaling-ladders to get up among it," laughed Kit. "Talk of impenetrable jungles! here is a jungle of ice!"
Imagine, reader, a thousand ice-cakes from six to thirty feet square, and of every grade of thickness, piled sidewise, edgewise, slantwise, cross-wise, and flatwise on top of that, and you may, perhaps, gain some idea of the vast jam which filled the arm and lay heaped up twenty and thirty feet above us. For a moment we were at a loss how to surmount it; then all began looking along for some available cranny or rift which might offer a foothold.
"Here's a breach!" Weymouth shouted.
He had gone along a dozen rods farther. We followed to see him mounting by the jagged edge of a vast cake five or six feet thick which projected out over the ledges. Kit followed; and they stood at the top, stretching down helping hands. In five minutes we were all up, standing, clinging, and balancing on the glassy edges of ice, and hopping and leaping from cake to cake. Cracks, crevices, and jagged holes opened ten, fifteen, and twenty feet sheer down all about us. A single misstep would send us head-foremost into them.
"I say," exclaimed Capt. Mazard, barely saving himself from a tumble, "this is a devil of a funny place for a bear-hunt! No chance for rapid retreats! It will be fight bear, or die!"
The place where the bears had stood when old Trull had fired was back fifteen or twenty rods to the right. We worked off in that direction, getting occasional glimpses of the water down in the deep holes, and stopping once to pull Corliss out of a wedge-shaped crevice into which he had slipped. Arriving on a big broad cake,—which, for a wonder, lay flat side up,—we paused to reconnoitre.
"Don't see any thing of 'em," said the captain.
"Gone, I'll bet my musket!" said Kit disappointedly. "More'n a league away by this time, I'll warrant you."
"Doubt if the old man touched 'em!" said Hobbs.
"Guess he suspected as much!" laughed the captain. "Perhaps that was why he wouldn't come."
"But we haven't half searched yet!" exclaimed Wade, pushing out along the edge of a tilted-up fragment, and jumping across to another.
As he jumped the ticklish cake tipped, slid back, and toppled over into a great chasm to the right with a tremendous crash and spattering,—for there was water at the bottom,—Wade barely saving himself. Almost at the same instant, I thought I heard a low growl not far off.
"Hark!" exclaimed Kit. "Wasn't that the bear?"
"Sounded like one!" muttered the captain. "Down among the ice!"
"May be wounded down there," said Kit. "Crawled in under the ice."
"Spread out round here, boys," cried the captain, "and peep sharp into the holes!"
I knew we were near where the bullets from the howitzer had hit; for I saw several of them lying down in the cracks, flattened by striking against the ice: and, a few rods farther on, Weymouth and I came to a large irregular hole sixteen or seventeen feet deep, along the bottom of which we saw the bones of some fish.
"This is the very place where they were when we first saw them," said Weymouth. "Ten to one they've crawled into some of those big cracks."
We pitched down a loose junk of ice, and again heard a growl: though just where it issued from was hard telling; for the broad faces of the cakes, set at all angles, echoed the sound in a most bewildering manner. Kit and the captain came along; and we rolled down another fragment. Another growl.
"He's in behind this great cake that sets upright against the side of the hole!" exclaimed Weymouth.
"Think so?" said Kit. "Then let's tip this large piece off on to it. May scare him out."
We managed to turn it over the edge; when it fell down smash upon the cake below, splitting it in two. Instantly the bear, a great shaggy, white fellow, sprang out, and ran round at the bottom of the hole, growling, and trying to scratch up the sides. He had several bloody streaks on him. Kit took a rapid aim, and fired a bullet into his fore-shoulder; which only made him growl the louder, however. Then the captain gave him a shot in the head; at which the creature tumbled down, and kicked his last very quietly.
But meanwhile we had heard a great uproar and shouting off to the left.
"They've started the other, I guess!" exclaimed Kit. "Come on!"
Just then a shot was fired, followed by a noise of falling ice-cakes. We could see a head bob up occasionally, and made for the mêlée as fast as we could hop. The jam in this direction was not so high. The ice-cakes lay flatter, and were less heaped one above the other. Cries of "There he is! there he goes!" burst out on a sudden; then another musket-shot.
Leaping on, we soon caught sight of the chase. The bear was jumping from cake to cake. Raed, Corliss, and Hobbs were following after him at a reckless pace; Bonney was trying to cut him off on the right; while Wade and Donovan, with Palmleaf a few rods behind them, were heading him on the left. Such a shouting and hallooing! They were all mad with excitement. We, who had killed our bear, kept after them as fast as we could run, but couldn't begin to catch up.
Bang! Somebody tired at him then.
"Cut him off!"
"Head him!" was the cry.
"Head him off there!"
Wade and Donovan were actually outstripping the bear, and getting ahead; seeing which, the frightened, maddened beast tacked sharp to the left to escape behind them on that side,—going straight for Palmleaf, who was now considerably behind Wade and Don. Instantly a yell arose from all hands.
"Look out, Palmleaf!"
"Shoot him, Palmleaf!"
"Let him have it!"
"Now's your time!"
The negro, who had been running hard, stopped short, and, seeing the bear bounding toward him, made a feint to raise his musket, when it went off, either from accident or terror, in the air. We heard the bullet zip fifty feet overhead. The bear gave a vicious growl, and made directly at him.
"He'll have the darky!"
"He'll have you, Palmleaf!"
"Run, you black son!"
Palmleaf turned to run; but, seeing a high rand of ice sticking up a few yards to his left, he leaped for it, and, jumping up, caught his hands at the top, and tried to draw himself up on to it. The bear was within six feet of him, snarling like a fury.
Raed and Corliss and Bonney had fired within twenty yards. But the bear reared, and struck with his forepaws at the darky's legs, stripping his trousers clean off the first pull. Such a howl as came from his terrified throat!
That was a better shot. The bear turned, or set out to, but fell down in a heap, then scrambled up, but immediately tumbled over again, and lay kicking.
By this time we had all got near. The negro, scared nearly into fits, still hung on to the edge of the ice, looking as if "spread-eagled" to it.
"Come, sir," said Wade. "Better get down and put on your trousers,—what there is left of them."
The darky turned an agonized, appealing visage over his shoulder, but, seeing only friends instead of bears, let go his hold, and dropped to his feet.
"That's what you call a 'sure shot,' is it," sneered Wade,—"that one you fired at the bear? Guess you didn't hurt us much at Petersburg."
"He need to be pretty thankful that somebody fired a sure shot about the time the bear was paying his compliments to him," laughed the captain.
"Yes: who fired that last shot?" I asked of Donovan, who stood near.
We had to send back to the schooner for the butcher-knives, and also for a line to hoist the bear we had first killed out of the hole.
The bears were skinned: we wanted to save their hides for trophies. As nearly as we could make out, they had been both wounded by the bullets from the howitzer, one of them—the one killed first—pretty severely. They did not, however, appear to me, in this our first encounter with them, to be nearly so fierce nor so formidable as I had expected, from accounts I had read. Hobbs cut out a piece of the haunch for steaks. Palmleaf afterwards cooked it: but we didn't much relish it, save Guard; and he ate the most of it.