Here to return to
BUCKING ICE IN BERING SEA
HARRY sat at the mess-room table one morning a few days later, writing the first chapter in what he rather shyly called his “report.” He had learned much from Captain Nickerson of the habits of the humpback whale, which frequents the Aleutian Islands, and the dangerous circumstances under which vessels would work while whaling in these waters. The captain had declared that it was not worth while to hunt the humpback, that the dangers and losses would more than balance the gain, and Harry believed him. Nevertheless it was on such things as these that Mr. Adams wanted knowledge, and so he was jotting down what he had learned.
The old humpbacks are born fighters. The shoals and currents, the fogs and gales, of the islands are their allies and right well do they know how to take advantage of them. Once an iron is fast to a humpback, his first impulse is to turn and crush the puny boat which has stung him. Failing in this, he rushes to a shoal, and rolling on the bottom tries to roll the iron out, or he swings in and out the narrow, reef-studded passages, and often wrecks the boat that is fast to him. Even if he fails in all these attempts and is killed, the swift currents and the fog which surrounds make the bringing of the carcass to the ship difficult and dangerous. Hence, now that the Aleuts have passed from the islands, he is left to pursue his ways in peace. “Why bother with him,” say the whalemen, “when just a little way to the northward are the bowheads, far more valuable, and as a rule killed almost without a struggle?”
Now and then Harry lifted his head from his work to listen to a peculiar grating sound that seemed to come from the side of the ship. It was the same sound that a small boat makes when it touches a gravelly bottom, and he noted also that steam was up on the vessel, and knew by the slow pulsations of the screw that they were proceeding at half speed. He was curious about all this, but decided that he would finish his work before he went on deck. Then a faint, far-away cry came to his ear. The man at the masthead had sung out — “A–h–h blow!”
The next cry was neither faint nor far, for it came from the mighty lungs of the great boatswain. “Whale — o!” he shouted; “tumble up lively, lads. There’s a bowhead out here in the ice.”
Harry tumbled up lively, indeed, but he was at the heels of the members of the crew, who had been below at the call, for all that. He found himself in a new world. During the early morning hours the ship had entered the southern edge of the Bering Sea ice, and was steaming steadily northward into it. Thus far the ice was neither thick nor in force, scattered floes to the right and left leaving open leads through which the vessel pressed, rubbing her sides against floating fragments as she passed. It was this scattered “slush “that had made the grating sound on the ship’s side. A big bowhead was playing leisurely along in the broken ice some distance ahead, now diving beneath a floe, now appearing in an open space, feeding, and unconscious of danger. The open water and the ice round about was no longer the clear green which it had been, but was turbid with a brownish substance like mother-of-vinegar.
“What’s that stuff?” asked Harry.
“Whale food,” answered Joe; “the sea is full of it about here at this time of year.”
“Well, I’m glad I’m not a whale,” said Harry; “I’d hate to eat that.” The brown, muddy, clotted messes were even frozen into the ice. They consist of minute forms of low-grade animal life, and are certainly not palatable in appearance. Yet the bowhead is fond of them. He sculls along with his mouth wide open, the bone in his upper jaw reaching down to his lower lip on either side, and making of his mouth a cavern into which food, water, and all enter. Once the great mouth is full he pushes his enormous spongy tongue up into it, squeezes the water out through the whalebone sieve, and swallows the food left behind.
One bell sounded in the engine-room. The throb of the screw ceased, and the Bowhead glided gently along an open space of water toward her namesake.
“That fellow will go sixty barrels, and a good lot of bone,” said Captain Nickerson. “Lower away there!”
Two whaleboats were swung over the side, the first mate in charge of one, Captain Nickerson in the other. Joe was left behind, nominally in charge of the ship, and Harry, of course, remained with him. His nerves were a-tingle with the excitement of the chase, and he ardently wished he might be in one of the two boats.
“Hard luck, isn’t it?” said Joe, who noticed his excitement. “Tell you what, we’ll get ready for a strike ourselves. There’s likely to be more than one bowhead about, and we’ll get up some gear in case they want more of it. Here, Billy,” — this to one of the Kanakas on deck, — “get up a couple of tubs of that extra line.”
“There’s no knowing how soon we’ll want another boat away. I’ll get up another bomb gun and a supply of ammunition. Then we’ll be heeled, as they say in Frisco.”
Harry handled the bomb gun when it arrived, — a short, ponderous weapon of brass, clumsy indeed to one accustomed to handle an ordinary rifle or shotgun, but very efficient in the service for which it is intended. Joe showed him how it was used, and even loaded it, placing it carefully against the rail. The two boats, zigzag fashion, approached the whale through the floes, the captain’s much in advance, and finally came up with him. Cautiously they glided on till the bow of the foremost just grazed the black back. Then the harpooner, with a mighty thrust, sent the iron deep into the blubber, and the boat backed rapidly away.
“The gun missed fire! The gun missed fire!” shouted Joe excitedly; “they’ll lose him!”
So it seemed, for there was no sound of an explosion, only the welt of the whale’s flukes on the water as he sprang into action at the thrust of the harpoon. With this one great splash he went below the surface, sounded, as the whalemen say, and there was no sign of his presence except the two boats and the rapidly whizzing line as it ran out through the chock.
“They’re heading this way,” said Harry; and so they were, the captain’s boat standing bow on beside a floe, with the line whizzing against the edge of the ice, and the first mate’s men pulling with all their strength toward the ship. Then they heard the warning shout from the captain, —
“Watch for him, we’ve parted.” The rough edge of ice had cut the line, and the whale was free.
The bowhead’s chances for getting away were good. He would come to the surface again only for a breath, and then continue his flight to safety in the distant ice fields. But now came one of those happenings which prove how wise it is to be prepared for any emergency. Joe, in getting up that extra gear and the gun, had unwittingly saved the day. As both boys stood by the rail gazing toward the boats, there came a crash . in the weak ice just alongside, a black bulk crushed up through it, and with a gasp like that of a steam exhaust a puff of vapor shot up right in their faces.
“There he is! There he is!” yelled Joe frantically; “give it to him!”
With the words he snatched up the iron at his side, and hurled it downward with all his strength into the head of the whale, where it stuck quivering. At the same time Harry, yelling like mad in his excitement, caught up the bomb gun, put it to his shoulder as if it were a toy, and discharged it full into the middle of the black mass, which he saw as through a mist heaving in the crushed ice. There was a dull, heavy sound of a muffled explosion, and the whale quivered and stopped. Then came a wild hurrah from the ship, and an answering one from the boats. The boatswain sprang up the short ladder from amidships to their side.
Mighty good, young fellers,” he shouted, almost as excited as they; “you plunked him fair, and just one chance out of a thousand. Whoop! but we’re a whaling crew. Greenhorn bagged the first bull right from the quarter deck. Whoop!”
The bowhead lay motionless, evidently dead, and the boatswain made the line fast to a cleat. Then he sang a variation of an old sea chantey, cutting a ponderous pigeon wing to the tune —
“Tra la la, tra la la, tra la la boom,
Lorenzo was no sailor,
Tra la la, tra la la, tra la la boom,
He shipped on board a whaler.”
“‘Vast there, bosun,” he said to himself, suddenly sober; “no monkeyshines on the quarter-deck. Get down amidships where you belong. Hi there, you Kanakas! clear away that cuttin’-in gear. Step lively now, they’re alongside.”
The boats were no sooner at the davits than preparations for cutting-in the whale were made. He was hauled alongside, head toward the stern, and a heavy tackle was rigged to the mainmast head. Then the cutting-in stage of planking, rigged so as to swing from the side of the ship out over the carcass, was put outboard. Two men, each with the great steel chisel which the whale-men call a spade, took stations on this. A longitudinal slit was cut in the blubber just back of the flipper. Then cuts were made from this round the carcass, a hook from the tackle was made fast in the end of the strip, and hoisting away on the tackle the blubber was peeled from the dark meat beneath in a spiral peeling, somewhat as one might peel an apple. As the weight on the tackle grew great, the strip was cut away and hoisted upon the deck amidships. Meanwhile, others of the crew had started fires beneath the great kettles forward, and the blubber, cut into small cubes, was put in these. At first this fire was of wood, but as the work progressed the scraps from the blubber were thrown into the grate and burned fiercely, giving off a thick black smoke that had a disagreeable odor of burnt flesh.
By and by the blubber was all aboard, filling the space between decks with its quivering oily masses, among which the crew plunged and worked like demons. The furnaces spouted smoke and oil, and remnants of blubber made the decks slippery. Last of all the tackle was carefully made fast to the head, and the ship listed to one side as the donkey engine put a strain on the great mass. Then the great backbone was severed by the spades, and the tense tackle sang as the enormous bulk was swung inboard and landed safely on the deck.
“What for goodness’ sake is that in his mouth?” asked Harry.
“That’s the bone,” replied Joe; “and a fine head of bone it is. Some of the slabs are eight or nine feet long.”
“Well, I never thought whalebone looked like that,” said Harry, gazing in astonishment at the black slabs varying in length from one foot to eight that extended down from the upper jaw. They were flattened, nearly a foot in greatest diameter at the base, and tapering to a thin tip. This was fringed far up on the sides with what resembled horsehair.
“Can he shut his mouth with all that in it?” asked Harry.
“Oh, yes,” replied Joe. “The tips fit into the groove between the tongue and the lip, and point backward when he shuts his jaws. They are very elastic, as you know, and they spring and bend close together.”
The boatswain and the mate busied themselves cutting out these slabs of bone, which were piled away to be cleansed before stowing them. The boatswain was jovial and talkative. He sang snatches of sea songs, made jokes, and tried to draw out his companion as they worked; but the taciturn mate was as silent as ever. Not so Harry and Joe, who put on oilskins and worked with them. After the bone was removed, the head was tipped overboard, and floated away with the stripped and abandoned carcass. Arctic gulls had gathered in troops from no one knew where, and dogfish were already nibbling at it. It would not be many days before the meat would be stripped from the bones, and the latter resting on the shallow bottom of Bering Sea.
“Pity the mersinkers could not have that meat,” said the boatswain. “It would make a feast for a whole village for a week.”
“Who are the mersinkers?” asked Harry.
“The natives over at East Cape,” said the boatswain; “that’s what they call themselves. You’ll see them in a day or two, probably.”
The twilight of early June lasts in Bering Sea until almost eleven o’clock; then flares were lighted of scraps and blubber in wire baskets, making torches that lighted up the gloom with weird, fantastic glare, and still the work of trying out went on. The men loomed in and out of the shadows like strange goblins at uncanny sport. The fires illumined a brief circle of the desolate ice, and showed only a part of the rigging which made ladders into an unknown gloom, and the whole was like a midnight assembly of goblins of the strange ice world, working spells about witch kettles that far outdid the wild work of the witch sisters in “Macbeth.” The brief night had passed, and the morning sun was shining on the ice again, yet the incantations did not cease, and it was two days before the last of the bowhead’s oil was stowed in casks below decks. Then only the weary crew had a brief rest, before the ship was cleaned and scrubbed down. Nearly a thousand pounds of whalebone was the most valuable result of this first catch, and as the market price of bone at San Francisco was something over three dollars a pound, Harry had matter of interest to jot down in his report as to the methods and profits of the pursuit of the bowhead.
The vessel now found herself in the middle of the Bering Sea pack ice. Here and there were open leads still, but they were fewer, more narrow, and much less connected. Now and again there were places where contrary winds and currents had crushed the floes together, piling the crumpled cakes high on one another in wild confusion, often to a height of twenty or thirty feet. Joe called these hummocks icebergs, and Harry and he had much friendly controversy as to the correct use of that term. Harry explained that he had learned that icebergs were the product of glaciers alone, that there were no glaciers on the Alaskan coast north of the Aleutians, and that these should properly be called hummocks. In this he was right, but Joe, with the pride of the man who “has been there,” would not concede it. Whatever they were, they totally prevented the progress of the vessel, and when they appeared in the path, the Bowhead was obliged to make a detour to avoid them. Now and then they were obliged to “buck ice “to get from one lead to another, and the process was very exciting. The vessel under a full head of steam would plunge straight at the field of heavy ice, striking it with a thump that entirely stopped progress and shook the structure from stem to stern. The masts would spring under the blow, and at each shock Harry fully expected to see Captain Nickerson jolted from his perch in the crow’s nest, high on the fore-mast. Then the ship would back away again at the captain’s order, leaving a three-cornered dent in the ice. Again and again she would rush at this dent with her great weight under full head of steam, till the floe would split, and leave a narrow crack through which the vessel could crowd her way. Thus for several days they hammered their way on through the pack, until they reached its northwestern edge, where open water gave them free passage to the ice-bound shores of east Siberia. There they came to anchor under a headland, and though it was mid-June and did not seem cold, were greeted by a storm of snow that came scurrying down from the snow-clad hills inland.
Next day it cleared, and the skin topeks of a Chuckchis village could be seen on the barren shore. A strip of shore ice still separated them from the land, but the natives came dragging their umiaks across this and then put to sea in them, soon paddling alongside. There were a dozen or more in each boat, men, women, and children, all clad much alike in walrus-hide seal-top boots, sealskin trousers, and a hooded coat of reindeer fur which extended nearly to the knee. Men and women and the older children alike paddled, and the walrus-hide boats made rapid progress over the waves. Once alongside they made fast and came aboard, all hands, smiling and silent, sitting or standing for a time until addressed by some one who was or seemed to be in authority. Then they spoke, and conversation was soon general. It was limited, however. Many of the men know considerable English of the “pigeon” variety, and most of the whalers are familiar with the trade language of the Eskimos of Bering Sea and the straits, which consists of Eskimo, mingled with words and phrases picked up from the whalers and traders, and originating Heaven knows where. Possibly some are Kanaka words transplanted far north. Others are words invented by the sailors on the spur of the moment, which, once applied by the natives, have been adopted into general use.
Each native had a sealskin poke which he carried slung over his shoulder by a rawhide thong, and which consisted of the skin of the ordinary Arctic seal taken off whole, and tanned with the hair on. A slit was cut in the side of this, making a sort of traveling-bag, in which he carried articles which he was to offer for trade. Within these pokes were walrus tusks, plain and carved, some elaborately; walrus teeth carved into grotesque imitations of little animals; “muckalucks,” the trade word for the native skin-boot; “artekas,” or coats of reindeer skin; furs of ermine, mink, otter, and the hair seal; in fact, anything which the mersinker could find at home that he thought the whalemen might fancy. None of these goods were offered on deck, however. Each waited until the captain, sitting in state in his cabin, sent for him; then one by one they went down to trade. After each man had made what bargain he could with Captain Nickerson, he brought what was left to the deck, and there traded freely with the sailors.
As supercargo, Harry sat in the cabin with Captain Nickerson, and kept account of each trade as it was made, having good opportunity to watch the methods of the natives. He found them very clever at barter, Captain Nickerson, Yankee that he was, often meeting his match in some stolid native, who seemed to have a very clear idea of what he wanted, and how to get it. The first day of trading was merely preliminary, however, the natives bringing off their least valuable goods for barter, reserving the best of the ivory, and all the bone, until they found how prices were going, and whether the ship held such supplies as they needed or not. Their first demand seemed to be for hard bread, of which they are very fond. For this they offered, as a rule, the muckaluck, or native boot. Calico, as they had learned to call all forms of cloth, came next; then flour in bags, and later ammunition, rifles, and trade goods. Of brown sugar they were desirous, and chewing tobacco was asked for almost as soon as the hard-tack. This they called kowkow tobacco, or eating tobacco, from their trade word “kowkow,” meaning to eat. Harry made note of the Eskimo words as he heard them used, and picked up a working vocabulary, with the help of his notebook, in a very short time. Before the first day’s trading was over he had begun to understand what was meant, and by the end of the third day he astonished Joe with his fluency. As a matter of fact, his vocabulary thus far consisted of only forty words or so; but as they were the ones in most constant use, it made him seem quite a linguist. From this time forward he took great pains to jot down a new word and its meaning as soon as he heard it, getting many from the officers and crew, and this quick acquisition of the language was to stand him in good stead later on.
At the end of the third day trading had. ceased. There were great piles of deerskins, muckalucks, and small furs, several hundred pounds of not very good bone, quite a quantity of ivory, and many trinkets and curios. Harry wondered greatly as to the destination of much of this stuff.
“Are reindeer skins worth much in the States?” he asked Captain Nickerson once, as the pile grew larger at the expense of much flour and calico.
“I don’t think there is any market,” replied the captain, “though it is hard to see why. The fur is very thick and warm, the skin light, and should make most excellent lap robes and carriage robes, just as the buffalo fur once did. We shall trade them again when we meet the Eskimos on the other side of the straits. The caribou is scarce over there, and they gladly exchange fox, ermine, and bear skins for them. These we can dispose of readily in Frisco.”
A good quantity of bone was in hand, but it was only a part of what the natives had taken, as the captain knew. Two whales had been their good fortune as the ice came down the fall before, and a third had come to them that spring as the gift of the orcas. These eat the lip and the soft tongue of the bowhead, leaving the carcass to float ashore. Hence the mersinker looks upon the orca with a sort of veneration as a provider of great and valuable gifts, and has certain ceremonies which he goes through each year as an invocation to him and an expression of gratitude. The mersinker, in fact, is a man of many ceremonials, the reason for which he does not know, but which he follows because his father did the same before him. These three whales had been small ones, but there must have been far more bone from them than the natives brought to the ship for sale. The balance they were keeping back for further trading with other ships, nor was it possible to get them to bring this out, even by offering increased value for it. They held it in reserve, as is their custom, hoping that the next ship would bring goods which they would care for more than those at hand.
Captain Nickerson wished to purchase some reindeer for fresh meat, but none were at the coast. The deermen were said to be stationed in a valley half a dozen miles in the interior, and he decided to send an expedition inland in search of some. A coast native volunteered as guide, and brought along a sledge and dog team for the transportation of supplies. Mr. Jones, the taciturn first mate, was detailed in command of this expedition, and Harry and Joe were allowed to go, with many injunctions to be careful not to get into trouble with the Chow Chuen, as the deermen call themselves.
It was a perfect June day when they set off. There was no breath of wind, and the sun shone brilliantly as they landed on the shore ice, transferred their supplies to the sledge, and set off through the native village toward the hills. They had instructions not to be gone longer than over one night, and it was agreed that a signal of trouble and need of assistance should be three shots repeated in quick succession. Such precautions were necessary as the Chow Chuen, though generally willing to barter, are of uncertain temper, and even the mersinkers are not to be trusted when they seem to have an advantage. Harry and Joe tramped on ahead of the company, the Eskimo following with his team and sledge, and Mr. Jones bringing up the rear. The air was warm, and on bare spots the spring grass was already growing through the tundra moss, but the snow still covered most of the earth, and the trail lay across it, well trodden.
Each boy carried a rifle and was well supplied with cartridges, while Harry had in addition a small camera slung over his shoulder by a strap. The boys were in high glee at the outing, after the long confinement aboard ship, and rollicked along well ahead of the others. Yet their progress was slow, the way winding, and it was lunch time and yet they had not reached the upland valley, where the camp of the deermen was said to be. A few dry twigs of willow — the only growth of wood, and this in the main creeping vine fashion, and rising only to a height of two or three feet — were found to feed a fire, and a pot of tea was boiled. Then after the men had taken a hasty smoke, the journey was resumed. It was mid-afternoon when they seemed to be reaching the summit of a low divide. The six miles had stretched into a dozen, and there was no sign of human life among the hills, only the beaten trail leading steadily on over the snow. The mate had seemed anxious for an hour or so, and had swung into the lead along with the boys.
“Home pretty soon,” he said, wasting no words; “most far enough.” A moment after, they rounded a ledge of broken basaltic rock, and looked down upon a scene of pastoral life such as only the extreme north of Asia can show. A brown and sheltered valley wound among the rude hills. It was bare of snow in the main, and the golden brown moss, with which it was carpeted, showed green with grasses already springing in it. In scattered groups about this grazed several hundred reindeer, many brown in color, some piebald, the old ones bearing branching antlers, the fawns spotted, and gamboling like any young deer. Here and there, fur-clad herders watched them, and there was a little group of large skin topeks at one side of the valley not far off, the homes of the herders and their families. Thither they turned, the coast native taking the lead now. They were near the little hut hamlet before any one took notice of them, when a man suddenly appeared with a rifle in his hands. He was taller than the coast native, and seemed more robust. He fearlessly pointed the rifle at the approaching party.
“Way enough!” shouted Mr. Jones. “Hold water!”
At a wave of his hand the Eskimo went ahead resolutely, his hands held up palm forward as a sign of peace, and shouting, “Nagouruk! Nagouruk!”
The deerman lowered the muzzle of his rifle, and the two talked for a moment. Then the Eskimo made a sign for the party to come forward. The deerman met them with the word “Nagouruk,” which means “Good,” in token of friendship, and talked with the Eskimo volubly in a dialect that no one in the party could make much of. The other, who could speak some English, explained that it was doubtful if deer could be bought. It had been a bad winter, many had died in the deep snow, and they wished to let the herd increase during the spring and summer, lest they face starvation next winter. In any case, it would be necessary to consult the head deerman, and he would send for him.
“Watch out,” said Mr. Jones to Joe and Harry. “Don’t like this gang.”
The deermen’s topeks numbered about half a dozen, scattered along the sunny side of an abrupt turn in the cliff which bordered the valley’s edge. The deerman lifted the flap of one of these, and motioned them to enter. A crowd of curious women and children, the smaller of these latter perched on their mothers’ shoulders astride their necks, had begun to gather. Men came running up from the other topeks, and the little party was soon being stared at, criticised, and even poked and hustled, in half-curious, half-insolent fashion. The Chow Chuen are certainly no respecters of persons. They hate and distrust the white man, but they do not fear him.
Mr. Jones hesitated. Then he motioned to Harry to stand by the sled. “Stand watch, will you?” he said. “Keep ‘em off. Don’t get gallied.”
Harry, rifle in hand, took his stand by the sled, while the other three entered the topek. The Alaskan coast native builds a small summer shelter, but the Siberian coast native, and the deermen of the uplands inland, build great ones, sometimes thirty feet in diameter. These are covered with skins, held down with rawhide ropes and stone weights against the furious gales of that country. Within is a central common space surrounded by smaller rooms, made by deerskin curtains. They found this central room empty, but a rustling behind the curtains showed that the others were tenanted. The deerman bade them wait and went out, soon returning with another of his kind who seemed to be the head man, and followed by half a dozen others. Then the bargaining began, the Eskimo acting as interpreter, and signs filling up the spaces where words failed.
Meanwhile, Harry was very busy outside, and somewhat worried. The entire population of the hamlet seemed bent on investigating him thoroughly. They made derisive remarks about his clothing, and tried to put their hands in his pockets, which they seemed to admit to one another were good things to have. One man took off his hat and started to put it on his own head, amid laughter from his comrades. He seemed to resent it when Harry snatched it away, and touched his knife significantly. But when one attempted to relieve him of his watch and chain he was forced to draw back hastily, for Harry felt that the limit of patience was about reached, and cocked and pointed his rifle threateningly. The others seemed to enjoy the hurried retreat of this man, and to deride him for cowardice. However, the men kept out of arm’s reach after this. Not so the women and children. Their attentions were not only to himself, but to the sled; and he soon saw that under their carelessness was a systematic attempt to cast off the lashings and get at the goods there. During all this annoyance he happened to think of his camera, and decided that at least he could get a picture or two to counterbalance the trouble. So, unslinging it from his back, he slipped the little instrument from its case, drew out the bellows to the universal focus, and proceeded to point it at the most picturesque of the insolent group. The effect was magical. They tumbled backward from the machine with alarm. When they saw the flick of the shutter as he pressed the button, they threw their hands before their eyes and retreated, oft repeating a word which he did not understand, but which he learned later meant “magic.”
This amused Harry greatly, and afterward he had only to point the camera to widen the circle about him; and to take a new picture was to send arms flying to the faces that were in range. They seemed to think something would come from it to injure their eyesight. They resented this threat, however, and there were black looks on the ugly faces of the men when the mate and the head deer-man appeared from the topek followed by the others. The bargain had been satisfactorily concluded, and the deermen went off to drive in the purchased reindeer, while Jones and his lieutenants took the goods from the sled. The crowd of fur-clad Chow Chuen stood about, but kept a respectful distance from the camera.
But when the half-dozen deer were driven up, there were fresh complications. Mr. Jones was about to slaughter them at once, and had passed the goods over to the head deerman, when a great outcry arose. The deermen flocked about the Eskimo, and seemed to demand that he tell the whites something, which he did.
“No kill. No kill,” cried the Eskimo in much alarm; “Chow Chuen kill.”
“Well, tell them to go ahead and do it, then,” roared Mr. Jones, so angry that he was fluent. “It’s nightfall now, and we’ve got a long road ahead of us.”
The Eskimo was much disturbed. He explained, with a strange mingling of Eskimo with his scant English vocabulary, that there was a ceremonial to be gone through with first. It could not be done at nightfall, they must wait the rising sun. “One sleep,” he said. “Nanaku kile. Bimeby he come,” pointing to the sun. “Mucky” (Dead), with a sweep of his hand toward the reindeer.
In vain Mr. Jones stormed with picturesque and unexpectedly voluble profanity; the deer-men were determined. The head deerman ordered the goods brought out and laid at the feet of the company, scornfully waving his hand toward the home trail, indicating plainly that they might consider the trade off, but he would not have the deer slaughtered then. Mr. Jones would not return without them, and so they waited.
“Tell him,” he said sulkily, “we’ll wait till sunrise.”
The Eskimo explained, and this seemed to clear matters somewhat. Some tobacco offered them helped still more; and the head man drove the crowd away, evidently telling them to go about their business, which they did reluctantly. He conducted the party down the line of topeks to one which was near the end, and told them that that was to be their habitation for the night.
“We’ll stand watch and watch,” said Mr. Jones, as they entered this; “no knowing what these rapscallions will try to do to us, if we all go to sleep.”
The interior of this smaller topek was all one room, and there were no traces of former occupancy, which was satisfactory. It gave promise of reasonable cleanliness, which could not be said of the others. It was no doubt a storehouse not in present use. The sled, their blankets, and belongings were hauled inside; the dogs were tied to the tent-poles outside, and the Eskimo disposed of himself as best he might. Joe stood the first watch, while Harry and Mr. Jones rolled themselves in blankets on the mossy floor of the topek and were soon asleep. It was still light, though the sun was behind the northern mountains. Indeed, in June in that latitude, there is but a brief interval of dusk at midnight. The deermen retired to their topeks, except those on watch with the herd, and save for the howl of an occasional wolf-like dog, peace reigned.
A SIBERIAN TOPEK
At midnight Joe woke Harry, and he went on guard. A gray dusk hung over everything, there was a sharp chill in the air. All things seemed touched with a white fungous growth, which was frost. From behind the northern mountains the sun shot dancing streamers like aurora halfway up the sky. The whole scene was beautiful but strange, and gave Harry a sense of the ghostly and supernatural which was hard to shake off, and which he was often to feel still more vividly as he saw more of Arctic nights. The prowling, howling bands of Chow Chuen dogs loomed large in the uncertain light, and it seemed hard not to believe that they were bands of wolves bent on destruction. He was glad indeed when the first glimpse of the sun came over the mountains to the northeast, and it was time to call Mr. Jones. The night had passed, and they were not molested.
With the sunrise the whole hamlet was astir for the ceremony of the slaughter of the reindeer. The six deer purchased were led up, and the shaman of the village appeared from his lodge, which was decorated with strange devices and carved images. He held in his band a long, sharp knife, and as he passed Harry the boy inadvertently drew back, so fierce and sinister was the look on his evil face. Each deer in turn was led up to him and faced to the east. The shaman held his knife toward the sun, recited something that seemed like a liturgy, then with one thrust sent the keen knife full to the heart of his victim. With a bleat the animal fell to its knees, then rolled over dead, and the shaman, rushing forward, caught the blood from the wound in his palm, scattering it toward the sun with more words, or perhaps the same, of the ritual. Thus each deer was slain, and in a twinkling was fallen upon by the Chow Chuen and the entrails removed. The bodies were then placed on the sled, and it was evident that the adventurers might take their departure, which they were glad to do. A mile or two down the trail they breakfasted on deer steak, broiled over the few willow twigs they were able to find, and went on, reaching the ship at midday. Captain Nickerson received them gladly and was pleased at their success, but had a long conference with the Eskimo. Then only they learned that the treacherous and ugly Chow Chuen had been much incensed at their wish to take the deer and slaughter them without the legendary rites of the tribes, and would have attempted to murder them during the night. The Eskimo had dilated upon the strange power of the little “magic box,” which he told them could take each man’s image and carry it away (he having seen photographs taken with a similar one by previous visiting white men), and crafty and superstitious as they are fierce, the deermen wisely decided to let the strangers alone. No doubt the fact that they stood armed watch had its effect as well.
The next day a southeasterly gale sprang up, and the vessel was obliged to hoist anchor and get away from the dangerous coast.