Here to return to
“THE FEAST OF THE OLD SEAL’S HEAD”
THE igloo in which Joe and Harry were confined was unlighted except by sundry chinks in the stones through which rays of light pierced the gloom. These showed, as soon as their eyes had become accustomed to the semi-darkness, the customary raised bench at one side covered with some ancient deerskins for a couch, a stone blubber lamp, a stone fireplace in the centre, where charred willow twigs showed that some one had once used it, and nothing more. Yet so weary were the boys with their day’s toil that they threw themselves on this questionable couch and soon slept the sleep of utter fatigue. Some hours later they roused refreshed, and were greeted by a cautious “‘St! ‘st!” from the blocked entrance. Stepping quickly there, Joe, saw through an opening in the stones a good-natured Eskimo face that lighted up with a smile at sight of him.
“Here,” it said in Eskimo. “Plenty eat. By and by have trouble.”
A fur-clad arm thrust what looked to be a bundle of grass through the aperture in the stones, and the Eskimo hurried away. Joe opened this bundle and found in it several small white fish, just warm from the fire and cooked without salt, yet appetizing to the hungry boys, who made a meal of them forthwith. Nevertheless, though it was evident that they had a friend, his words were far from reassuring, and the boys speculated much as to what was to happen to them. Through the chinks in their rough stone prison they managed to see a good deal that was going on in the little village, and it did not take them long to guess something of its ways of life. It was evident that it was a highbinder stronghold, and that a band of a dozen or so of these marauders lorded it over the rest of the community, which seemed to consist of a dozen more Eskimos, one or two men, but mainly women and boys and girls. They saw these latter bring fish from the river and firewood from along its banks, one or two women cooking, boys and girls doing menial service at the bidding of the Ankuts, who stalked among them with airs of superiority that were comical. Not so comical was their brutality to their youthful slaves, whom they did not hesitate to strike or kick brutally at little provocation. These seemed to be in a state of abject submission to their oppressors, and the sight made the blood of the boys hot with indignation, not unmixed with apprehension as to their own treatment in the near future. They discussed the situation, and tried to make plans for an escape, but it did not seem that this could be attempted immediately. To get out of their stone prison would be an easy matter, but once free, the chances of further escape from among the band of well-armed men who surrounded them would be slight, indeed. They must wait a more favorable opportunity, reserving the chances of a dash for a last resort.
As they talked and watched, they heard low moans of pain that came from a near-by igloo, and a wail of “Ah-nu-nah! Ah-nu-nah!” (Sick! Sick!) This was repeated at intervals and seemed to grow louder. By and by a boy issued from this igloo and went with seeming reluctance to another one some distance away, whence he issued with one of the Ankuts. The two came back to the first igloo, and the wizard took up his position in the open space directly in front of it. This was in plain view of the boys, and they watched further proceedings with much interest.
Soon the Eskimo boy appeared again, bringing a couple of white fox skins. These he laid at the feet of the wizard, who regarded them contemptuously for a moment and then spurned them with his foot. The boy retired again, and after a longer time reappeared with several small ermine pelts. These he added to the fox skins and waited. The wizard shook his head, but the boy also shook his despondently, saying “Naume” (No more).
This seemed to satisfy the wizard that he was receiving all that he could get in payment for his services, and he finally picked up the pelts and laid them behind him. The boy reentered the igloo and came out leading an old woman, whose wails of “Ah-nu-nah!” were louder as they reached the spot where stood the wizard. She pressed both hands to her head, as if that were in great pain, and crouched before the Ankut, who was immediately transformed from an immobile and haughty personage into a sort of wild skirt dancer. He whirled about the old woman in a circle, and from his clothes somewhere appeared a couple of great knives with which he juggled in an astonishing manner, tossing and catching them deftly, and surrounding himself with a circle of flashing steel. Harry gave an exclamation of astonishment at this. It was so little like the clumsy and awkward manner of the every-day Eskimo. A crowd of people had surrounded the group, and gazed with wonder and awe on this performance, scattering like leaves in the wind when the dancing juggler of knives swung too near them. The wizard soon began to howl and clap his hands to his own head, still in some mysterious manner keeping the knives whirling. The sick woman had forgotten her own pain in wonder at this exhibition, and sat mute and open-mouthed. Suddenly the wizard shouted, “Come out, spirit! Leave the woman’s head and come out!” He whirled up to the side of the sick woman before she could recover from her astonishment, slipped one of the knives out of sight again in his own clothes and with the other made a slash that cut deep into her temple, and pretended to draw something from the wound. This he held up in the sight of the surrounding crowd.
It was a curious, brown, many-legged worm, such as are found in rotten wood, and which no doubt infest the tundra moss, or might have been obtained from driftwood from the sources of the Kukpowrak, which has its rise far inland in the timber line. The crowd murmured with astonishment at this, the wizard retired to his igloo with his fox and ermine pelts, and only the boy remained, sitting in stolid grief beside the old woman, who lay where she had dropped at the slash of the knife. It had cut deeper than the wizard perhaps intended. Certainly he had cured her headache, for she was dead.
The barbarous cruelties of the Ankuts, in their attempts to deal with the sick, are beyond description, and the boys had seen only one of the least, but they turned away, sick at heart, and willing to believe that the little oasis in the midst of the barren wastes was anything but an Eden to those who must live there under the cruel rule of the pretended wizards.
It seemed, however, that they were soon to be released from their confinement. When they again looked out, they saw that the body of the old woman had been removed, and there was a considerable stir among the inhabitants of the little village. In the open within the circle of igloos sat the Ankuts, cross-legged, each with a rifle in his lap and a big knife at his hand. About them, at a respectful distance, stood the others of the community: two men, dejected and spiritless looking chaps, among whom Joe thought he recognized his friend of the fishes, three women, and six or seven boys and girls. All had the indifferent and apathetic air of slaves, which they were. As they looked, the boys saw two of the Ankuts approaching, and a moment after the stones which blocked the entrance of their prison were removed and they were bidden to come out. The two Ankuts marched them to the circle and stood by them.
Harry had a singular feeling of weakness in the knees in this march, a wild desire to put out across the hills at top speed coupled with this feeling that his legs might give way under him at any moment. Somehow he had not feared these men before, but now things looked ominous. He glanced at Joe, who was watching him narrowly. Joe walked erect and defiant.
“Whatever you do,” said Joe, “don’t let them see that you are afraid of them. Put on a bold front; it may help us.”
So Harry braced himself and tried to get the limp feeling out of his knees, and hoped he succeeded in looking brave and cool. It was evident that they were before a sort of self-constituted board of judges. The evil-faced half-breed seemed to be the head of these, at once chief judge and prosecuting attorney. He spoke somewhat at length, always referring to Harry and Joe as “our white brothers.” He told of their interference between the Eskimos at Icy Cape and the “ghost wolves of the Nunatak.” Such interference with the Nunatak people, who were the fathers of wizards, he explained, was deserving of punishment. He told how the two had battled with the Ankuts in the snow igloo and outside, that night. How they bad driven them away with fire spirits, robbed them of their bearskins, and otherwise ill-treated them. Such actions were deserving of punishment. He told how one of their comrades had fallen before the rifle of Harluk when the Ankuts had captured the two. For this also, he argued, they were deserving of punishment. The slayer of the Ankut was not there. Then these, his friends, must answer for his misdeed. This is the barbarous idea of atonement the world over.
To all these statements the other Ankuts solemnly wagged their heads and chorused: “It is so.” Especially were they vigorous in their wagging when the half-breed said: “They are deserving of punishment.”
“And yet,” continued the half-breed with a malicious smile, “the white men are our brothers. They, too, are wizards. They work with spirits of fire, and they rob the Innuit, the people, even as we do.”
“It is not so,” broke in Joe fiercely. “We do not rob the people. Instead, we trade with them, and give them good things in exchange. We are the friends of the people, as you well know. We are truly their brothers, as you call us in derision. But have a care. The white men are very many. They are more than the grass in summer in number. They are very wise, and can see far. Have a care how you punish us. The great chief of the white men will know of it, and will send his thunder ships to punish you, if you do us harm. If you do not set us free, there shall be no more Ankuts among the tribes. The great white chief will see to that.”
Thus spake Joe, indignantly and fearlessly. Harry thought him very handsome as he stood erect and thus poured out defiance at his armed enemies; but he could not help wondering what the effect would be and whether such talk was wise. He was surprised to see the apparent change in attitude of the Ankuts after it was made. They looked at one another in silence. Then the half-breed spoke again.
“What my white brother says may be true. Yet the white chief is a long way off, and the Ankuts are very near, if they choose to punish. Still, a feast is better than a fight. What say you?” he said to the other Ankuts, looking from one to another with his evil smile still on his face. “Shall our white brothers suffer punishment, or shall we bid them to a feast?”
The same smile seemed to run around the circle of Ankut faces, and they all wagged their heads vigorously. “It shall be a feast!” they affirmed in unison, and there was something sinister in their satisfaction in this change of programme.
Harry poked Joe with his elbow. “Great Scott!” he said in a low tone, “but we are pulling out of this in great luck.”
His knees ceased to feel weak under him, and he had great admiration for Joe’s boldness, which had seemingly brought this happy change about. But Joe did not altogether share his delight.
“I don’t know about this,” he replied in an equal undertone. “They don’t look very feasty.”
It was a fact that they did not, nor did the listening drudges who stood outside the circle. A certain wide-eyed horror seemed to pierce their stolidity and apathy, and their faces, as they looked at the boys, showed it. The two wizards who had brought them out conducted them back to the igloo with much ceremony.
“Our brothers will rest here,” they said, “while the feast is prepared for them. It will be a great feast, — and there will be nothing but the bones left when it is over.”
Joe and Harry entered the igloo and sat down on the bench. The doorway was not blocked again, but the two Ankuts stood just outside, rifle in hand, as if on guard. A little later one of the Eskimo servants appeared bearing on a flat slate stone the head of an old seal. This he placed on the floor in the middle of the igloo, looking appealingly at the boys, but hastening away without a word. Then two Ankuts appeared, each leading by the leash three heavy-chested, wide-jawed dogs that snarled and fought one another as they came. These six dogs were hurriedly released at the igloo door and driven in. Then the Ankuts again blocked the entrance with the heavy, flat slate stones, making it much more secure than before; so secure, in fact, that escape from within would be well-nigh impossible. Then one of them cried out in a loud, jeering voice:
“This is the feast, O white men, to which you are bidden, — the feast of the old seal’s head. Eat and be merry, — and there shall be nothing but bones left.”
The sound of retreating footsteps was drowned in the snarling and scrambling of the six wolf dogs, already fighting in a blurred mass in the centre of the igloo over the old seal’s head.
The Eskimo wolf dog that one sees in Arctic Alaska is quite different from the Eskimo dog of the Yukon and the lower mining camps on the great northwest possession. The latter are more often mongrels, interbred with all sorts of dogs from civilization, and lack much of the robust fierceness of the Arctic type. On the desolate northern shores the pure type is much like the gray wolf, and is no doubt a descendant from him, sometimes intermixed with latter-day blood from the same source. Indeed, it used to be no uncommon thing in the Eskimo villages to see a captured wolf tied to a stake in the village and used for breeding purposes. The usual color is a dingy gray black; sometimes almost pure black, as is the occasional wolf. These dogs are large, very agile, and have a jaw that is full of great teeth and as strong as iron. Ordinarily, when well fed, they are not vicious; oftentimes they are even frolicsome, like the civilized dog; yet such is the strength of their iron jaws that even a playful nip from them is a serious matter, and hence the Eskimos never encourage them to sportiveness. Neither do white men who have once experienced a grip from those jaws. Their wolf blood, while making them hardy and strong, gives them an understrain of fierceness which is apt to make them dangerous neighbors, especially when hungry. Their fights among themselves are tremendous and bloody, and at such times a man who would separate them must enter the combat armed with a heavy weapon capable of laying one out at a blow. Otherwise his own life is in danger. It was six magnificent specimens of this type that were walled into the igloo with the boys and were already battling fiercely at the feast of the old seal’s head. Purposely left unfed since the boys arrived, they were in a ferocious mood. Joe and Harry drew together and tried hard to make themselves very small against the wall at the farthest corner of the igloo. As yet the dogs paid no attention to them, and after the seal skull had been well polished and the battle subsided, they still were unmolested. Yet the intent of their captors was evident. Such is the cruel custom that has come down in the traditions of the Ankuts of Eskimo land from time immemorial. The enemy of the wizards is put to the feast of the old seal’s head. If he survives, he, too, is a wizard, and wins the equal respect of the tribe. If he is not a wizard, in very truth, his polished bones are all that remain when the igloo is opened and the famished wolf dogs are taken out.
Harry had felt fear and discouragement before in the midst of his strange adventures in this strange land, yet never had terror possessed him so completely as now. In the gloom of the igloo he could see the glare of the eyes of the savage creatures as they crouched on the floor, half lazily, yet half ready for a spring, and he expected every moment that one would attack him. This he well knew would be the signal for a rush from them all, for the instinct of the wolf pack is strong even in the most docile Eskimo dog, and when one fights they all do. He could feel the quiver of Joe’s elbow where it touched his as they shrank to the igloo wall side by side, and knew that his consciousness of the danger was equal to his own. Yet though filled with a dumb terror of what was to come, neither lost his self-control. Their hardy, independent life, the dangers and disasters which they had already faced, had bred in each the courage of strong men, the self-reliance of pioneers, and, though their case was desperate, neither was willing to think that it was hopeless. Quietly Joe was feeling with one hand along the rough stones of their prison. By and by he found something, and passed it over to Harry without a word. It was a long, angular piece of the slaty rock, something like a rude stone hatchet. Such a weapon might save a man’s life. Yet it could save but one. The man who wielded it might escape in the mêlée which was liable to come at any moment. It was a slim chance, but it was all there was. The weaponless man would be torn to pieces. Harry felt the devotion and courageous self-sacrifice which could make this priceless gift to a friend at such a moment, and his heart swelled within him as he clasped Joe’s hand in the dim light. He tried not to take this rude weapon, but Joe pressed it on him, and after a little he consented, mentally resolved that he would wield it in Joe’s defense in preference to his own. It is such deeds and such resolves that try the temper of men’s souls and prove them truly noble.
Time passed, how slowly only those who have faced similar terrors can tell. Moments seemed to stretch out into hours that in turn became an eternity. It seemed to Harry as if he were growing numb with waiting, and he had wild thoughts of forcing the attack with his primitive weapon. He even suggested it to Joe, who promptly vetoed the idea. Their low voices seemed to rouse the dogs and make them more uneasy, and they said no more. By and by, in the passing of what seemed weeks, they began to hear sounds from outside. It was a low murmuring, which grew louder into sounds of hilarity. There seemed to be shouts and laughter and the rude music of tom-toms. The Ankuts were feasting in celebration of the cruel death which they thought might be already coming to their enemies. About this time both pricked up their ears with a vague feeling of hope.
Somebody or something was scratching and working at the wall of the igloo outside, — the wall directly behind them and toward the low bluffs that rimmed the little valley. The change from dull expectation of calamity to a thought of hope sent a thrill of energy through each. Yet there was renewed danger in it, too, for the sound roused the wolf dogs, and made them more restless. They began to growl and move uneasily about. It was an ominous moment. Then there was the scraping of a stone, and a bar of light shone into the gloom of the igloo, bringing with it a voice, — the voice of Harluk. It was tremulous with excitement and apprehension.
“Oh, my brothers,” it cried, “are you there?”
“Yes, yes,” answered Joe. “Quick! Something to fight with.”
The need was indeed great, for the six wolf dogs were already crouching and snarling. Another moment would bring the conflict which they so feared. Quick as a wink Harluk’s hand was thrust through the aperture with his sheevee, his long knife, in it. Joe snatched this with a cry of delight. It was long, heavy, and keen, — an admirable weapon for a fight to the death at close quarters. The flash of this knife in their faces had its effect on the pack. They drew back and hesitated. In their lives they had learned well the prowess of a man with a weapon in his hands; and the wolf dog of the tribes is as wise as he is fearless.
Joe took a single step, coolly, toward them. “Help Harluk,” he said briefly to Harry; “I’ll keep these devils at bay. But for God’s sake, hurry!”
There was no need of this admonition. Harluk and Harry pried and tugged desperately at the stones. They came slowly, but surely. The pack were bounding over one another now on the far side of the igloo, lashing themselves into a fury of onslaught.
“Quick, my brothers!” cried Harluk. “It is big enough.”
Harry looked at Joe. Moments were precious, yet still the pack hesitated, awed partly by the flash of the big knife, partly by his cool and constant gaze. “Go!” cried Joe. “I’ll follow you.”
Harry plunged through the narrow opening with a great thrill of delight as he felt himself in the outer air. As he disappeared from the igloo, the pack surged forward, but Joe had been waiting for this. He met the foremost with a reach of the long knife full in the breast. With a howl of pain that was his death cry, the brute turned, biting the animal next to him in his agony, and starting a fight among themselves, which took their attention from Joe for a moment. Deftly and quickly he backed through the opening, keeping his eye upon the whirling pack, and holding the bloody knife still in readiness for instant use. A moment and he was safe outside, where he found Harluk and Harry, each with a rifle cocked and ready in his defense.
Without a word Harluk passed his rifle to Joe and hurriedly thrust the stones back into the wall of the igloo, shutting in the struggling and bloody pack. They were safe from this danger, but outside a new one menaced them. The hilarity among the dozen well-armed Ankuts was rapidly approaching a state of frenzy. A chief item of their feast was a peculiar liquor made by steeping toadstools in water, which produces what is known to the whalers as a “toadstool drunk.” This potion first induces an ordinary sort of intoxication, but this soon passes into a sort of fury, in which its victims seem possessed with a demoniacal strength and ferocity. Under its influence the Ankuts were far more to be feared than before. Hiding behind the igloo, the three watched them carefully. As yet they had no suspicion that their prisoners were escaping, and after a little Harluk touched each of his friends. “Come,” he said quietly, and they followed where he led.
To make the situation clear, we must go back to Harluk’s previous movements. He had followed the band of Ankuts warily on their way to the stronghold with their prisoners. Not once had he lost sight of them, not once had they suspected that he followed. He had not been sure, however, in which igloo the boys were confined until he had seen them taken out for the trial and then escorted again to the prison. He had seen the wolf dogs shut in with them, and knew that he must act at once if he would rescue them. The beginning of the Ankut feast had favored this, as well as the lay of the land. From the low bluffs a narrow ridge ran down nearly to the igloo. This gave him shelter in his approach, and it was behind this that he led the boys away from the igloo, but only for a little way. Then, still sheltered by the intervening rise of ground, he turned and led them down to the bank of the stream of warm water, just where it emptied into the larger river. Here was an umiak, turned bottom side up on the bank, with a couple of paddles beside it. As they stooped to lift this umiak into the water, there was a wild howl from the direction of the village.
“Hurry, my brothers!” cried Harluk; “they are coming.”
There was now a tremendous uproar, and the Ankuts were seen tearing down the slope toward them at full speed. They hurriedly pushed off, and Joe and Harluk seized paddles and sent the light boat spinning out into the stream. There was the sound of shots and the spattering of bullets around them as they did so. The Ankuts had opened fire. Harry reached for a rifle and Joe nodded to him.
“See if you can’t stop some of that,” he said. “Plug that white-faced one, if you can.”
Harry hesitated a second. He had never before attempted the life of a fellow creature. Then something stung his left arm. One of the Eskimo shots had grazed him. His hesitation vanished in a second, and he fired coolly at the foremost Ankut. The man stumbled and fell headlong.
“Good!” cried Joe. “You poked him. Give ‘em another.”
Again Harry fired, and another Ankut spun round like a top and rolled in a heap. Had not the toadstool poison been working in the Ankut veins, they would have been more cautious, and it would no doubt have gone hard with the three, but in their drunken frenzy the wizards came right on, firing a wild fusillade and yelling at the top of their lungs. They ran faster than Joe and Harluk could paddle, and drew steadily nearer. Two shots pierced the skin boat, and the water began to come into it. Joe laid down his paddle and took up the other rifle.
“We’ll fight it out right here,” he said.
The interchange of shots grew more rapid. Two more Ankuts fell, and even their crazy ferocity began to waver before so well-directed a fire. The umiak was a third full of water now, and Harluk turned its prow back toward the shore. There was an ugly gleam in Harluk’s eye, and he gritted his strong white teeth together, and now and then snapped them as a dog might. The Ankuts hesitated and stopped. Then an unexpected thing happened. Two shots came from behind them, and a fifth wizard sank to the ground.
“Nagouruk!” yelled Harluk, in his own language. “Kill some more; I come!”
The two Eskimo men whom Harry and Joe had seen treated as slaves had slipped up to the dead Ankuts, taken their rifles, and joined the fray. The Ankuts were bewildered. Drunk as they were, they realized that the tide was turned against them. Five of their number were already dead, and shots were coming upon them from seemingly all sides. They wavered. The bow of the umiak struck the bank and Harluk, with a yell, sprang from it and ran toward the wizards. His big knife flashed in his hand, and he yelled in a berserker rage. The stumbling, shambling run of the coast native was no longer his. He seemed to bound like a panther toward his prey. The apotheosis of the timid Eskimo had come, and he was a barbaric war god, glorying in the fray.
Cowards always at heart, the Ankuts turned and fled across the tundra toward the hills, pursued by shots from Joe’s and Harry’s rifles and those of the two village Eskimos. All but the white-faced half-breed. He stood his ground and reserved his fire as Harluk approached. His lip curled in that evil smile, and he leveled his rifle coolly. Harluk was face to face with doom.
Yet he never hesitated, but leaped on, shouting his defiance and swinging the big knife, yet red with the blood of the wolf dog. At ten feet the half-breed pressed the trigger. Surely Harluk’s amulet was potent that day, for the cartridge failed to explode. The half-breed cursed, snatched at the lever, then cursed again, for that, too, failed to work. The cartridge was jammed. Then he clubbed the rifle and swung it full at Harluk’s head. The Eskimo yelled derisively, clucked, and sent the big knife home to the heart of the chief of the Ankuts. His blood mingled with that of the wolf dog that had been less fierce and vindictive than he.
A moment Harluk stood over him with the dripping knife in hand, then turned with Joe and Harry to the pursuit of the other Ankuts; but fear added to their toadstool frenzy lent them speed, and they disappeared over the hills, plunging through the soft tundra moss. The battle was over.
Harry sat down on the battlefield, feeling faint and sick. The horror of carnage was on him. True, they had fought in self-defense, and the Ankuts richly deserved death, yet the sight of men slain with his own hand filled him with remorse, and he felt for a time that his own safety was clearly bought. The sting in his arm, unnoticed during the excitement of the battle, came back and turned his thoughts away from this after a moment. He examined it. The Ankut bullet had cut a slit in the fleshy part and passed on, doing little damage. He bandaged it as best he could, and, though Joe was solicitous, declared it was nothing.
The Eskimos came flocking about, and their gratitude at their deliverance was so great that he felt better. After all, great good had surely come to these poor people, and he felt that the traditions of his nation justified a war of emancipation. That was the way Joe put it, and he was no doubt right. They buried the dead wizards in the unfrozen earth, not far from the hot spring, and then ate a hearty meal, prepared for them by the grateful Eskimo women.
Not until then did they remember the wolf dogs shut up in what had been their prison. Harluk and the two Eskimo men released them from the igloo, nor did they, at Joe’s orders, attempt to either harm or tie them up. He said that he had no wish for revenge on them, but he did not care to have such animals around, and in this Harry agreed with him. Some time afterward the two Eskimos reported to Joe that the other dogs had also vanished. No doubt they had joined the fugitives, and the dominant wolf blood would again make a wild pack of them. It was really a serious matter, but somehow the boys did not care. They found the presence of an Eskimo dog of any sort very distasteful to them.
For some days they waited in the Ankut stronghold, keeping watch lest the enemy return, but seeing no signs of them. Harluk declared that they probably would not. They had received such a trouncing, and the odds were so much against them, that they would no doubt go on either to some other outlaw rendezvous, or else take up peaceful life with some Eskimo community for a while. This is the way of the defeated Ankut. And now, rested and recuperated, the problem of further action came up, and was discussed in a council of the whole. To travel across the fast softening tundra toward Point Hope, without dogs, was a difficult, if not impossible, matter, and they decided not to try it. By this time the ice must be out of the sea, and there was a chance of a ship. Their wisest course would be to proceed again to the coast. This would not be difficult. There were two umiaks at the village. They patched the one riddled by Ankut bullets, and, loading their belongings into the two, the whole community set gayly forth downstream. To the Eskimos who had been held in subjection it was a happy deliverance, and their gentle natures brightened up wonderfully at the thought of escape. They would not allow either the boys or Harluk to do any work. They paddled, prepared meals, made camp, and showed their gratitude in a hundred ways, till they bade fair to spoil their deliverers.