Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
The Husky Chief.—Palmleaf Indignant.—A Gun.—Sudden Apparition of the Company's Ship.—We hold a Hasty Council.—In the Jaws of the British Lion.—An Armed Boat.—Repel Boarders!—Red-Face waxes wrathful.—Fired on, but no Bones Broken.
By the time we had fairly parted from our Esquimau friends it was near eleven o'clock, P.M.,—after sunset. Instead of standing out into the straits, we beat up for about a mile along the ice-field, and anchored in thirteen fathoms, at about a cable's length from the island, to the east of the ice-island. The weather had held fine. The roadstead between the island and the main was not at present much choked with ice. It was safe, to all appearance. We wanted rest. Turning out at three and half-past three in the morning, and not getting to bunk till eleven and twelve, made an unconscionable long day. Once asleep, I don't think one of us boys waked or turned over till the captain stirred us up to breakfast.
"Six o'clock, boys!" cried he. "Sun's been up these four hours!"
"Don't talk about the sun in this latitude," yawned Raed. "I can sit up with him at Boston; but he's too much for me here."
While we were at breakfast, Weymouth came down to report a kayak coming off.
"Shall we let him come aboard, sir?"
"Oh, yes!" said the captain.
"Let's have him down to breakfast with us for the nonce!" cried Kit. "Here, Palmleaf, set an extra plate, and bring another cup of coffee."
"And see that you keep out of sight," laughed the captain: "the Huskies don't much like the looks of you."
"I tink I'se look as well as dey do, sar!" exclaimed the indignant cook.
"So do I, Palmleaf," said Raed; "but then opinions differ, you know. These Esquimaux are nothing but savages."
"Dey're berry ill-mannered fellars, sar, to make de best of dem. I wouldn't hev 'em roun', sar, stinkin' up de ship."
"I don't see that they smell much worse than a pack of niggers," remarked Wade provokingly; at which the darky went back to the galley muttering.
"Wade, some of these big negroes will pop you over one of these days," said Kit.
"Well, I expect it; and who'll be to blame for that? We had them under good control: you marched your hired Canadians down among us, and set them 'free,' as you say; which means that you've turned loose a class of beings in no way fit to be free. The idea of letting those ignorant niggers vote!—why, they are no more fit to have a voice in the making of the laws than so many hogs! You have done us a great wrong in setting them free: you've turned loose among us a horde of the most indolent, insolent, lustful beasts that ever made a hell of earth. You can't look for social harmony at the South! Why, we are obliged to go armed to protect our lives! No lady is safe to walk half a mile unattended. I state a fact when I say that my mother and my sisters do not dare to walk about our plantation even, for fear of those brutish negroes."
"I think you take a rather one-sided view, Wade," said Raed.
"It's the only side I can see."
"Perhaps; but there is another side, nevertheless."
Here a tramping on the stairs was heard, and Weymouth came down, followed by a large Esquimau.
"He's been trying to make out to us that he's the chief, boss, sachem, or whatever they call it, of the crowd that was aboard yesterday," said Weymouth.
"What does he want?" the captain asked.
"Wants to chymo."
Raed made signs for him to sit down in the chair at the table and eat with us; which, after some hesitation, he did rather awkwardly, and with a great knocking of his feet against the chairs. He had on a gorgeous bearskin jacket, with the hood drawn over his head. His face was large; his nose small, and nearly lost between the fat billows of his cheeks; his eyes were much drawn up at the corners, and very far apart; and his mouth, a very wide one, was fringed about with stiff, straggling black bristles. The cast of his countenance was decidedly repulsive. Kit made signs for him to drink his coffee; but he merely eyed it suspiciously. I then helped him to a heavy spoonful of mashed potatoes. He looked at it a while; then, seeing us eating of it, plunged in his fingers, and, taking up a wad, thrust it into his mouth, but immediately spat it out, with a broad laugh, all over his plate and over the other dishes, and kept spitting at random.
"De nasty dog!" ejaculated Palmleaf, rushing forward from the galley: "spit all ober de clean plates!"
The savage turned his eye upon the black, and, with a horrible shout, sprang up from his chair, nearly upsetting the table-shelf, and made a bolt for the stairway. We called to him, and followed as quickly as we could: but, before we were fairly on deck, he was over into his kayak, plying his paddle as if for dear life; and the more we called, the faster he dug to it.
Suddenly, as we were looking after him and laughing, the heavy report of cannon sounded from the southward. Looking around, we saw a large ship coming to below the islands, at a distance of about three miles. A thrill of apprehension stole over us. Without a word, we went for our glasses. It was a large, staunch-looking ship, well manned, from the appearance of her deck. As we were looking, the English flag went up. We had expected as much.
"It's one of the Hudson-bay Company's ships," remarked Raed.
"Of course," said Kit.
"Not likely to be anything else," said the captain.
"I suppose you're aware that those fellows may take a notion to have us accompany them to London," remarked Raed.
"If they can catch us," Kit added.
"Persons caught trading with the natives within the limits of the Hudson-bay Company's chartered territory are liable to be seized, and carried to London for trial," continued Raed. "It's best to keep that point well in view. Nobody would suppose that, in this age, the old beef-heads would have the cheek to try to enforce such a right against Americans, citizens of the United States, who ought to have the inside track of everything on this continent. Still they may."
"It will depend somewhat on the captain of the vessel—what sort of a man he is," said Kit. "He may be one of the high and mighty sort, full of overgrown notions of the company's authority."
Another jet of white smoke puffed out from the side of the ship, followed in a few seconds by another dull bang.
"We'll stand by our colors in any case," remarked Capt. Mazard, attaching our flag to the signal halliards.
Raed and Kit ran to hoist it. Up it went to the peak of the bright-yellow mast,—the bonny bright stars and stripes.
"All hands weigh anchor!" ordered Capt. Mazard.
"Load the howitzer!" cried Kit. "Let's answer their gun in coin!"
While we were loading, the schooner was brought round.
Wade must have got in a pretty heavy charge; for the report was a stunner.
"Load again," said Kit; "and put in a ball this time. Let's load the rifle too."
The captain turned and regarded us doubtfully, then looked off toward the ship. "The Curlew" was driving lazily forward, and, crossing the channel between the island under which we had been lying and the ice-field, passed slowly along the latter at a distance of a hundred and fifty or two hundred yards. We thus had the ice-island between us and the possibly hostile ship. With our glasses we now watched her movements attentively. A number of officers were on the quarter-deck.
"You don't call that a ship-of-war?" Wade said at length.
"Oh, no!" replied the captain; "though it is probably an armed ship. All the company's ships go armed, I've heard."
"There!" exclaimed Kit. "They're letting down a boat!"
"That's so!" cried Wade. "They're going to pay us a visit sure!"
"They probably don't want to trust their heavy-laden ship up here among the islands," said the captain.
"It's their long-boat, I think," said Kit. "One, two, three, four, five!—why, there are not less than fifteen or twenty men in it! And see there!—weapons!"
As the boat pulled away from the side, the sun flashed brightly from a dozen gleaming blades.
"Cutlasses!" exclaimed Raed, turning a little pale.
I am ready to confess, that, for a moment, I felt as weak as a rag. The vengeful gleam of the light on hostile steel is apt, I think, to give one such a feeling the first time he sees it. The captain stood leaning on the rail, with the glass to his eye, evidently at his wits' end, and in no little trepidation. Very likely at that moment he wished our expedition had gone to Jericho before he had undertaken it. Raed, I think, was the first to rally his courage. I presume he had thought more on the subject previously than the rest of us had done. The sudden appearance of the ship had therefore taken him less by surprise than it did us.
"It looks as if they were going to board us—if we let them," he said quietly. "That's the way it looks; isn't it, captain?"
"I should say that it did, decidedly," Capt. Mazard replied.
"Boys!" exclaimed Raed, looking round to us, and to the sailors, who had gathered about us in some anxiety,—"boys! if we let those fellows yonder board us, in an hour we shall all be close prisoners, in irons perhaps, and down in the hold of that ship. We shall be carried out to Fort York, kept there a month in a dungeon likely as any way, then sent to England to be tried—for daring to sail into Hudson Bay and trade with the Esquimaux! What say, boys?—shall we let them come aboard and take us?"
"No, sir!" cried Kit.
"Not much!" exclaimed Donovan. "We'll fight first!"
"Capt. Mazard," continued Raed, "I'm really sorry to have been the means of placing you in such a predicament. 'The Curlew' will undoubtedly be condemned if seized. They would clap a prize-crew into her the first thing, and start her for England. But there's no need of giving her up to them. That's not a ship-of-war. We've got arms, and can fight as well as they. We can beat off that boat, I'll be bound to say: and as for their ship, I don't believe they'll care to take her up here between the islands; and if they do,—why, we can sail away from them. But, for my own part, I had rather fight, and take an even chance of being killed, than be taken prisoner, and spend five months below decks."
"Fight it is, then!" exclaimed the captain doggedly.
By this time the boat was pulling up the channel to the north of the ice-field, within a mile of us.
"We might crowd sail, and stand away to the north of the islands here," I argued.
"Yes; but we don't know how this roadstead ends farther on," replied Raed.
"It may be choked up with ice or small islets," said Kit. "In that case we should run into a trap, where they would only have to follow us to be sure of us. We might abandon the schooner, and get ashore; but that would be nearly as bad as being taken prisoner—on this coast."
"Here's clear sailing round this ice-field," remarked the captain. "My plan is to keep their ship on the opposite of it from us. If they give chase, we'll sail round it."
"But how about their boat?" demanded Wade.
"We must beat it off!" exclaimed the captain determinedly.
"Then we've not a moment to lose!" cried Raed.—"Here, Donovan! help me move the howitzer to the stern.—Kit, you and Wash and Wade get up the muskets and load them. Bring up the cartridges, and get caps and everything ready."
The howitzer went rattling into the stern, and was pointed out over the taffrail. The big rifle followed it. To the approaching boat their muzzles must have looked a trifle grim, I fancy. Matches and splints were got ready, as well as wads and balls. The muskets were charged, and the bayonets fixed. The schooner was kept moving gradually along at about the same distance from the ice. Bonney was stationed at the wheel, and Corliss at the sheets. Old Trull stood by the howitzer. The rest of us took each a musket, and formed in line along the after-bulwarks. Palmleaf, who in the midst of these martial preparations had been enjoying a pleasant after-breakfast snooze, was now called, and bade to stand by Corliss at the sheets. His astonishment at the sight which the deck presented to his lately-awakened optics was very great; the greater, that no one would take the trouble to answer his anxious questions.
The boat had now come up to within a quarter of a mile. With cutlasses flashing, and oars dipping all together, they came closing in with a long, even stroke.
"We don't want them much within a hundred yards of us," said Capt. Mazard in a low tone.
"I'll hail them," replied Raed, taking the speaking-trumpet, which the captain had brought along.
The crisis was close at hand. We clutched the stocks of our rifles, and stood ready. There was, I am sure, no blenching nor flinching from the encounter which seemed imminent. We could see the faces of the men in the boat, the red face of the officer in the stern. The men were armed with carbines and broad sabers. They had come within easy hail.
"Present arms!" commanded Capt. Mazard in clear tones.
Eight of us, with our rifles, stood fast.
Instantly we dropped on one knee, and brought our pieces to bear over the rail, the bayonets flashing as brightly as their own.
"Boat ahoy!" shouted Raed through the trumpet.
"Ahoy yourself!" roared the red-faced man in the stern. "What ship is that, anyway?"
This was rather insulting talk: nevertheless, Raed answered civilly and promptly,—
"The schooner-yacht 'Curlew' of Portland."
"Where bound? What are you doing here?"
"Bound on a cruise into Hudson Bay!" responded Raed coolly; "for scientific purposes," he added.
"Scientific devils!" blustered the officer. "You can't fool us so! You're in here on a trading-voyage. We saw a kayak go off from you not an hour ago."
Not caring to bandy words, Raed made no reply; and we knelt there, with our muskets covering them, in silence. They had stopped rowing. and were falling behind a little; for "The Curlew" plowed leisurely on.
"Why don't you heave to?" shouted the irate commander of the boat. "I must look at your papers! Heave to while I come alongside!"
"You can't bring that armed boat alongside of this schooner!" replied Raed. "No objections to your examining our papers; but we're not green enough to let you bring an armed crew aboard of us."
"Then we shall come without letting! Give way there!"
But his men hesitated. The sight of our muskets, and old Trull holding a blazing splinter over the howitzer, was a little too much even for the sturdy pluck of English sailors.
"Bring that boat another length nearer," shouted Raed, slow and distinctly, "and we shall open fire on you!"
"The devil you will!"
"Yes, we will!"
At that we all cocked our muskets. The sharp clicking was, no doubt, distinctly audible in the boat. The officer thundered out a torrent of oaths and abuse; to all of which Raed made no reply. They did not advance, however. We meant business; and I guess they thought so. Our stubborn silence was not misconstrued.
"How do I know that you're not a set of pirates?" roared the Englishman. "You look like it! But wait till I get back to 'The Rosamond.' and I'll knock some of the impudence out of you, you young filibusters!" And with a parting malediction, which showed wonderful ingenuity in blasphemy, he growled out an order to back water; when the boat was turned, and headed for the ship.
"Give 'em three cheers!" said Kit.
Whereupon we jumped up, gave three and a big groan; at which the red face in the stern turned, and stared long and evilly at us.
"No wonder he's mad!" exclaimed Raed. "Had to row clean round this ice-field, and now has got to row back for his pains! Thought he was going to scare us just about into fits. Got rather disagreeably disappointed."
"He was pretty well set up, I take it," remarked the captain. "Had probably taken a drop before coming off. His men knew it. When he gave the order to 'give way,' they hung back: didn't care about it."
"They knew better," said Donovan. "We could have knocked every one of them on the head before they could have got up the side. It ain't as if 'The Curlew' was loaded down, and lay low in the water. It's about as much as a man can do to get from a boat up over the bulwarks. They might have hit some of us with their carbines; but they couldn't have boarded us, and they knew it."
"You noticed what he said about knocking the impudence out of us?" said Wade. "That means that we shall hear a noise and have cannon-shot whistling about our ears, I suppose."
"Shouldn't wonder," said Kit.
"Have to work to hurt us much, I reckon," remarked the captain. "The distance across the ice-island here can't be much under two miles and a half."
"Still, if they've got a rifled Whitworth or an Armstrong, they may send some shots pretty near us," said Wade.
"The English used to kindly send you Southern fellows a few Armstrongs occasionally, I have heard," said Raed.
"Yes, they did,—just by way of testing Lincoln's blockade. Very good guns they were too. We ought to have had more of them. I tell you, if they have a good twenty-four-pound Armstrong rifle, and a gunner that knows anything, they may give us a job of carpenterwork—to stop the holes."
"We might increase the distance another quarter of a mile," remarked Kit, "by standing off from the ice and making the circle a little larger."
"We'll do so," said the captain. "Port the helm, Bonney!"
During the next half-hour the schooner veered off two or three cables' lengths. We watched the boat pulling back to the ship. It was nearly an hour getting around the ice-island. Finally it ran in alongside, and was taken up. With our glasses we could see that there was a good deal of running and hurrying about the deck.
"Some tall swearing going on there!" laughed Kit.
"Now look out for your heads!" said Raed. "They are pointing a gun! I can see the muzzle of it! It has an ugly look!"
Some five minutes more passed, when puff came a little cloud of smoke. We held our breaths. It gives a fellow a queer sensation to know that a deadly projectile is coming for him. It might have been four seconds, though it seemed longer, when we saw the ice fly up rapidly in three or four places half a mile from the schooner as the ball came skipping along, and, bounding off the edge of the ice-field, plunged into the sea with a sullen sudge, throwing up a white fountain ten or a dozen feet high, which fell splashing back. We all felt immensely relieved.
"That didn't come within three hundred yards of us," said Kit.
"They'll give her more elevation next time," said Wade. "I don't believe that was an Armstrong slug, though: it acted too sort of lazy."
"Look out, now!" exclaimed Raed. "They are going to give us another!"
Puff—one—two—three—four! The ball struck near the edge of the ice-field, rose with a mighty bound twenty or thirty feet, and, describing a fine curve, struck spat upon the water; and again, rose, to plunge heavily down into the ocean two hundred feet off the port quarter.
"That was better," said Raed. "They are creeping up to us! The next one may come aboard!"
"But that's nothing more than an ordinary old twenty-four-pounder," said Wade. "Bet they haven't got a rifled gun. Lucky for us!"
"I wish we had a good Dahlgren fifty-pound rifle!" exclaimed Kit: "we would just make them get out of that quick! Wouldn't it be fun to chase them off through the straits here, with our big gun barking at their heels!"
"There they go again!" shouted the captain. "Look out!"
We caught a momentary glimpse of the shot high in air, and held our breaths again as it came whirling down with a quick thud into the sea a few hundred feet astern, and a little beyond us.
"Gracious!" cried Kit. "If that had struck on the deck, it would have gone down, clean down through, I do believe!"
"Not so bad as that, I guess," said the captain. "That heap of sand-ballast in the hold would stop it, I reckon."
There was real comfort in that thought. It was therefore with diminished apprehension that we saw a fourth shot come roaring down a cable's length forward, and beyond the bows, and, a few seconds after, heard the dull boom following the shot. The report was always two or three seconds behind the ball.
They fired three more of the "high ones," as Kit called them. None of these came any nearer than the fourth had done. Then they tried another at a less elevation, which struck on the ice-field, and came skipping along as the first had done; but it fell short.
"Old Red-face will have to give it up, I guess."' said Kit. "He wants to hit us awfully, though! If he hadn't a loaded ship, bet you, we should see him coming up the channel between the islands there, swearing like a piper."
"In that case we would just 'bout ship, and lead him on a chase round this ice-island till he got sick of it," remarked the captain. "'The Curlew' can give him points, and outsail that great hulk anywhere."
"He's euchred, and may as well go about his business," laughed Weymouth.
"And that's just what he's concluding to do, I guess," said Donovan, who had borrowed my glass for a moment. "The ship's going round to the wind."
"Yes, there she goes!" exclaimed Wade.
"Possibly they may bear up through the channel to the west of the ice-island," said Raed.
"Hope he will, if he wants to," remarked Capt. Mazard. "Nothing would suit me better than to race with him."
In fifteen or twenty minutes the ship was off the entrance of the channel; but she held on her course, and had soon passed it.
"Now that old fellow feels bad!" laughed Kit. "How savage he will be for the next twenty-four hours! I pity the sailors! He will have two or three of them 'spread-eagled' by sunset to pay for this, the old wretch! He looked just like that sort of a man."
"I wonder what our Husky friends thought of this little bombardment!" exclaimed Wade, looking off toward the mainland. "Don't see anything of them."
"Presume we sha'n't get that old 'sachem' that saw Palmleaf to visit us again in a hurry," said Kit.
We watched the ship going off to the south-west for several hours, till she gradually sank from view.
"Well, captain," said Raed, "you are not going to let this adventure frighten you, I hope."
"Oh, no! I guess we can take care of ourselves. Only, in future, I think we had better keep a sharper lookout, not to let another ship come up within three miles without our knowing it."
It was now after four o'clock, P.M. Not caring to follow too closely after the company's ship, we beat back to our anchorage of the previous evening, and anchored for the night.
Saw nothing more of the Esquimaux; and, early the next morning, sailed out into the straits, and continued on during the whole day, keeping the mountains of the mainland to the northward well in sight at a distance of eight or ten miles, and occasionally sighting high islands to the south of the straits.
By five o'clock, afternoon, we were off a third group of islands on the north side, known as the "Upper Savage Isles." During the evening and night we passed them a few miles to the south,—a score of black, craggy islets. Even the bright light of the waning sun could not enliven their utter desolation. Drear, oh, how drear! with their thunder-battered peaks rising abruptly from the ocean, casting long black shadows to the eastward. Many of them were mere tide-washed ledges, environed by ice-fields.
About nine o'clock, evening, the ice-patches began to thicken ahead. By ten we were battering heavily among it, with considerable danger of staving in the bows. The foresail was accordingly taken in, and double reefs put in the mainsail. The weather had changed, with heavy lowering clouds and a rapidly-falling thermometer. Nevertheless we boys turned in, and went to sleep. Experience was beginning to teach us to sleep when we could. The heavy rumble of thunder roused us. Bright, sudden flashes gleamed through the bull's-eyes. The motion of the schooner had changed.
"What's up, I wonder?" asked Kit, sitting up on the side of his mattress.
Another heavy thunder-peal burst, rattling overhead. Hastily putting on our coats and caps, we went on deck, where a scene of such wild and terrible grandeur presented itself, that I speak of it, even at this lapse of time, with a shudder; knowing, too, that I can give no adequate idea of it in words. I will not say that I am not glad to have witnessed it; but I should not want to see it again. To the lovers of the awfully sublime, it would have been worth a journey around the earth. It seemed as if all the vast antagonistic forces of Nature had been suddenly confronted with each other. The schooner had been hove to in the lee of an ice-field engirdling one of the smaller islets, with all sail taken in save the jib. Weymouth was at the wheel; the captain stood near him; Hobbs and Donovan were in the bow; Bonney stood by the jib-halliards. On the port side the ice-field showed like a pavement of alabaster on a sea of ink, contrasting wildly with the black, rolling clouds, which, like the folds of a huge shroud, draped the heavens in darkness. On the starboard, the heaving waters, black as night, were covered with pure white ice-cakes, striking and battering together with heavy grindings. The lightnings played against the inky clouds, forked, zigzag, and dazzling to the eye. The thunder-echoes, unmuffled by vegetation, were reverberated from bare granitic mountains and naked ice-fields with a hollow rattle that deafened and appalled us; and, in the intervals of thunder, the hoarse bark of bears, and their affrighted growlings, were borne to our ears with savage distinctness. Mingled with these noises came the screams and cries of scores of sea-birds, wheeling and darting about.
It was half-past two, morning.
"What a fearfully grand scene!" exclaimed Wade.
And I recollect that we all laughed in his face, the words seemed so utterly inadequate to express what, by common consent, was accorded unutterable. An hour later, the blackness of the heavens had rolled away to the westward, a fog began to rise, and morning light effaced the awful panorama of night.
By six o'clock the fog was so dense that nothing could be seen a half cable's length, and continued thus till afternoon, during which time we lay hove to under the lee of the ice. But by two o'clock a smart breeze from the north lifted it. The schooner was put about, and, under close-reefed sails, went bumping through the interminable ice-patches which seem ever to choke these straits. The mountains to the northward showed white after the squalls of last night; and the seals were leaping as briskly amid the ice-cakes as if the terrific scenery of the previous evening had but given zest to their unwieldy antics.