Read CHAPTER V of Adrift in the Ice-Fields , free online book, by Charles W. Hall, on ReadCentral.com.

A MAD SPORTSMAN.-- SNOW-BLIND.-- A NIGHT OF PERIL.

The next morning shone bright and clear, and the gunners were at their posts in expectation of a good day’s sport. They looked in vain, however, for any indications of open water, and a hole, sunk with the axe to the depth of eighteen inches, failed to reach salt water, although several layers of sweet, fresh water were struck; and the little hollow furnished them many draughts of an element nowhere more welcome than upon the spring ice. The sun shone brightly, their faces, still sore and feverish with yesterday’s exposure, became sorer than ever, and the neck became chafed wherever it rubbed against the coat collar.

Still, these were minor evils amid the excitement of their occupation, for many flocks of wild geese were seen; and the appearance of a flock, however remote, is always the signal for every gunner to get under cover at once. A small flock of seven were completely destroyed that morning, in a manner that deserves recording here.

They were first seen striking in from the Gulf, and swinging well to leeward, for the wind was westerly, scaled in to the stand occupied by Davies and Creamer, who were lying down taking their noon lunch, and received no warning of their approach until they saw the flock scaling over their heads. Seizing their guns, both fired as quickly as possible, Ben a little the first. His first barrel missed, but the second, aimed at the same bird, brought it down. Creamer’s first barrel went off in the act of cocking, in the hurry and agitation of the surprise; and letting the muzzle of his gun drop, he stood stupidly gazing at the departing flock, until roused by Davies’s “Give them t’other barrel, any way.” Raising his gun, he fired instantly, and killed a fine gander, which fell dead a hundred and twelve yards from the stand.

As if blinded by the unexpected danger, the remaining five swung just inside of the ice-boat, where La Salle and his companion, who had seen them from the first, picked out a brace at long but practicable range, while the retreating birds flew up the channel towards Nine Mile Creek, where two more fell to Risk and the elder Davies. For over an hour the remaining bird flew with clamorous cries about the scene of his bereavement, until a stranger, who had erected an ice-house, and placed a few rude decoys a few hundred yards from the bar, called him down, and fired a shot which dropped him on the ice.

He seemed to be little hurt, however; for, getting to his feet, he walked rapidly away in the direction of the sea ice, followed by the stranger, who did not attempt to use the long gun which he carried with him even when the bird took wing and flew heavily between the ice-houses on the East Bar, where a long shot from La Salle’s gun brought him down dead. La Salle brought in the bird, and while reloading his gun, the stranger came up and claimed it as his.

He was a tall, lean, sharp-featured man, with long, lank hair, a dark complexion, and large lack-luster eyes, imbedded in cavernous hollows. His gun was not loaded, nor did he wear either shot-bag or powder-horn; and his weapon, an ancient Highland Scotch “fusee” changed to percussion, seemed as worn out and dilapidated as the owner.

“Gie me my guse, mon, and dinna delay me, for I hae much to do the day, and I munna be hindered in my mission,” was the strange salutation of the original, as he leaned upon his gun at the side of the boat.

You are welcome to your goose, friend, although I fear that you would have had a long chase, if the Baby there had not put in her word in the matter. Here is your bird, sir; and La Salle handed the body to the unknown, who, after examining it closely, sighed heavily, and replied,

“It’s a braw bird, but it’s nae the king o’ the geese.”

“The king of the geese, friend? What do you mean?” said Kennedy, sharply.

“O, naething; that is, naething to ye, sirs; but to me, O yes, to me everything. Ah,” said he, plaintively, “how mony days hae I sat through storm, and frost, and sleet! how mony nights hae I watched in the still moonlight, amang the reedy creeks! how mony times I hae weized a slug through a bird a’maist amang the clouds! but I hae had a’ my labor in vain, in vain.”

“But how do you know that you have not already shot the king of the geese?” said La Salle, anxious to investigate the peculiar monomania of this poor lunatic; for such, indeed, he evidently was.

“Why, mon,” said he, evidently surprised at the absurdity of the question, “by his croun, of course. The king has ae braw croun o’ white an black fedders, an’ I’se reckon ye’s never seen a guse like that ava’ hae ye now?” he asked, anxiously.

“I have never seen any such bird,” said La Salle; “but why do you care so much about shooting this rare bird?”

“Weel, I’ll tell ye, sin ye were kin’ till me, an’ did na keep the guse fra’ me. Ye must promise me that ye will na try to kill it wi’ your ain hands, for I must kill it mysel’.”

“We promise,” said La Salle, encouragingly, while Kennedy gave a half-pitying nod of the head.

“Weel, when I was young I cared for naething but the gun, an’ mony a beating I got for wark negleckit, an’ schule-days wasted in the woods, or on the ice. As I grew older I cared more an’ more for huntin’, an’ although I killed mair than ony three in the settlement, I was never satisfied. Ance I sat here on a could day in April; the ice had gane off the bar, but the flats were yet covered, and I knew that until the win’ changed the ice would not be carried off.

“Sae, as I sat an’ saw the breakers roolin’ in an’ breakin’ an’ heavin’ the outer ice, I saw mony flecks pass under the lee of the Governor’s Island, an’ then I grew mad like, an’ swore an’ cursed at my ill luck.

“‘Ay, my lad, but you’re right;’ an’ turnin’, I saw an ould man wi’ dark eyes an’ a coat of black furs stannin’ beside me.

“‘I’ve seen i’ the Bible,’ said I, ’that man was gi’en “dominion ower the beasts o’ the earth an’ the fowls o’ the air,” but I canna do as I’d wush wi’ thae cursed geese ower there.’

“‘Verra richt; ye’re verrà richt, young man,’ said he. ’What wud ye gie to be able to kill as mony fowl as ye list, an’ never miss ava?’

“It seemed as I were mad at th’ thocht. ‘I’d gie my saul,’ said I.

“‘Well, hae your wish, laddie,’ said he; ‘it’s a sma’ penny fee for so dear a bargain;’ and, turnin’, I fand mysel’ alone, an’ not a saul upon the ice, far or near. Weel, that day I killed birds until I had nae mair pouther an’ grit-shot; an’ ilka day I went I had the like luck; but my min’ was ill at ease, an’ I grew sad, an’ dared na gae to prayers, or the kirk; for then hell seemed to yawn under me. At last they said I was mad, an’ I went awee tae th’ ‘sylum yonder i’ th’ town, an’ then I gat some sleep; an’ ane nicht I saw in a dream a woman a’ in white, an’ she laid her cool, moist han’ on my hot forehead, an’ tauld me she would save me yet. ‘It was th’ auld enemy that ye forgathered wi’ on th’ ice, an’ ye are his until ye can kill th’ king o’ th’ geese; an’ then ye ken whaever carries his croun o’ black an’ white feathers can unnerstand th’ language o’ all fowl, an’, wha’ is more, call them to himsel’, sae that he canna’ fail to hae his wull o’ them. Then, laddie, ye wull hae earned yoursel’ th’ penny-fee for whilk ye hae perilled your saul.

“‘But,’ said she, ‘my ain bairn, when ye hae won the croun, use it na’ at all, though a’ the fiends fra’ hell tempted ye, but carry it to the kirkyard at mirk midnight; an’ when ye hae cannily lichted a bit bleeze, burn the king’s croun, an’ say wha’ I shall tell ye. “I gie back more than I hae taken, an’ I rest on Christ’s smercy;” an’ then shall ye be safe an’ happy if ye fail na’ to be constant in gude warks.’

“Then, sirs, the vision faded, an’ I woke calmer an’ happier than for many a lang day; an’ a few days after, they aye sent me hame, but the folk say I’ve a bit bee in my bannet yet. But sin’ that time, I hae hunted a’ I can. I get mony birds, an’,” lowering his voice, “yesterday I killed thretty-seven.”

A long whistle from the astonished Kennedy broke up the conference, and the offended lunatic walked angrily away.

“He hasn’t had a gun until to-day, to my certain knowledge,” said Kennedy; “and I saw him yesterday afternoon taking aim at a goose that had lighted among his decoys, along the helve of his axe.”

“Well, well! No one believed him, of course; but, for Heaven’s sake, when you express incredulity again, wait until the lie is finished, if I am in the party!” grumbled La Salle.

“Well, never mind; he got through with the best part of it; and the great wonder is, how a distempered brain could imagine all that impossible but well-connected delusion.”

“Kennedy,” said La Salle, with unusual gravity, “how can we decide that it is all a delusion? Few men, indeed, have claimed to see the devil, to whom they sell themselves daily for trifles lighter than the hunter’s meed of unrivaled success; and who can say that the story of yonder madman is more or less than the fruit of the idle habits and unbridled temper which burned up happiness, and consumed his reason? There are few who go mad who would have done so had they at the first governed and denied themselves, and been content to enjoy in reason the benefits of the great Giver.”

“There is much that is true in what you say, and I’ve got a piece in this very Tribune which bears on that point. I’ll read it to you. Hang me if ever I saw the like! Where’s Davies’ ice-house? Is there a fog coming up, or am I dizzy?”

“O, that’s nothing,” said La Salle, laughing. “You’re only going blind snow-blind, I mean. You know that Kane tells about his people using goggles to prevent snow-blindness; and you left yours off yesterday and to-day.”

“Well, it’s a curious thing. I can barely see you now; and I know I could not find my way home to save my life. But what shall I do? Will it last long?”

“If I had but a handkerchief full of clay, I could cure it in half an hour; but lie down in the straw, and get your head under the half-deck, where you can see neither sun nor snow, and I think you will rest yourself enough to see pretty well by the time we want to go home.”

But Kennedy was fated to lie in impatient helplessness during the remainder of the afternoon. Several fine flocks came in to the decoys; and La Salle, using the double-barrel first, and firing the huge duck-gun at long range, killed three, and sometimes four, out of each flock, while Kennedy groaned in anguish of spirit. At last he could bear it no longer.

“Keep close, Kennedy; there’s another flock coming, and the finest I’ve seen this year. There’s twenty at the least, and they’re coming right in.”

“Give me my gun, Charley. I can’t see much, but I can a little, and I can fire where I hear them call. This is my last day; for Patrick is coming out to-night with the boys, and I go in with them. Where are the birds now?”

“Right dead to leeward. Ah-h-huk! ah-h-huk! Here they come, low down, and ready to light. Ah-h-huk! ah-h-huk! Now, Kennedy, can you see them?”

“Yes; that is, I see something like flies in a black gauze net. Are those geese?”

“Yes, and close to us; so up and fire.”

Bang! bang! crashed the heavy double-barrel, with both reports nearly blended in one, and Kennedy was driven back by the recoil against the rear top board of the boat. Nearly bursting with laughter, La Salle “lined” the flock as they swung off, killing and wounding three.

“Are you hurt, Kennedy?” he inquired, jumping out of the boat to catch the wounded birds.

“Dot buch, but by dose bleeds a little, a’d I’ve cut by lip. How baddy have I killed, Charley? for I cad see dothing,” inquired the victim, anxiously.

“One, two, three, four, FIVE, by jingo! Faith, you’ve beat the crowd, so far, this spring, and when you were stone-blind, almost, at that. Well, it’s pretty dark, and we’d better be getting home now, I think.”

The geese were picked up, and, with the others, about twenty in all, were loaded upon the “taboggin,” which the two hunters with some difficulty drew through the drifts to the house where, on their arrival, they found that Pat had arrived from the city with some small stores, papers, letters, &c., but the boys had not accompanied him.

“They’ll be out on skates wid Carlo and his slid on Monday,” he said. “Now, Misther Kennedy, whiniver you’re ready, ye’ll find me to the fore in the kitchen.”

“Mr. Kennedy mustn’t go until he gives us a story in his turn. Now the moon rises to-night, at about nine o’clock, and it will be much pleasanter and safer on the ice by moonlight. What say you, Pat?”

“Faith, I’m agreeable, and I’d a little rather, to tell the truth; for there’s an ugly bit of road across the Pint there.”

“Well, Kennedy will have time to eat supper, and then we’ll have his story, when it will be time for us to go to bed, and just right for him to start for town.”

“Or, in other words,” said La Salle, “it will be ’time for honest folk to be abed, and rogues on the road.’”

All sat down to supper, including Pat, to whom a plate of roast goose and two or three cups of strong, hot, black tea were very refreshing after his ten-mile drive; and then, after the little preparations for the next day’s shooting, and Kennedy’s little arrangements for his departure, the little group gathered round the blazing hearth, and Kennedy, with some little hesitation, began the story of

“A NIGHT OF PERIL.

“I am but a short man, and, as my time is short, you must not complain if my story is short, too.

“I am not so imaginative as the captain; I haven’t pestered all the old men and women of the island to death for legends and stories, like my friend Charley here, who will surely bore you to death when his turn comes; I am sure I cannot make you laugh as Hughie and Mr. Risk have done with their very interesting narratives, and I can only detail a little adventure which I unexpectedly got into on this coast last summer, and which I as unexpectedly got out of alive.”

“You mean your crossing the straits in a sixteen-foot boat?” said Captain Lund. “I want to hear about that myself.”

“Well, in the early part of last August, my wife and I decided to visit some friends, who reside a few miles up the River Jean, on the opposite side of the straits, I suppose about twenty miles from here. We could reach no port by steamer that was nearer our destination than Pictou, and there remained a long, tedious stage ride when we got there. I concluded to take a boat, and procured of Frank Stanley a little row-boat, with a spritsail for running before the wind; for I intended to choose my own time for crossing. We set out from C. early one morning, and arrived in the afternoon after a very pleasant passage, and we enjoyed our visit to that section very much.

“After waiting a day or two for a fair wind down the river, we set sail, but, owing to the lightness of the breeze, were nearly all the afternoon in getting down. Still, on reaching the harbor, I determined to proceed, as the lights on both shores could be plainly seen, and I did not like to lose a favorable wind.

“Accordingly I put boldly out, heading for Point Prime Light, although my mind misgave me a little as I got clear of the lee of the land; for the sea rose rapidly, and a tremendous breeze, each moment growing stronger, carried us on with frightful rapidity. When we were about half way across, the wind was blowing a gale, and it was only for a moment, while on the crest of the waves, that I could see the light for which I was steering.

“The spray was breaking over us so that my wife had to bale continually to keep our craft free, and I dared not leave the helm to lessen sail, although I expected that each slat of the canvas, as we took the wind on the crest of a wave, would run us under, or carry away the mast, and leave us at the mercy of the waves.

“On we went before the breeze, darting down into the hollow between two seas, toiling heavily up the next wave, with death apparently close behind on the crests of two or three pursuing breakers, and then, with a puff which made every timber and plank quiver, the gale would almost lift us through a breaking wall of white foam, and, with more or less of the sea aboard, away we would go down the incline, a plaything of a boat, with a frightened little man at the tiller, and a little woman baling incessantly, with nerves that never gave way for a moment in our long struggle for life.

“I felt that if I could get that sprit down we were safe; but my wife dared not attempt it, and she would not trust herself at the tiller. Fortunately the boat steered ‘very small,’ and seizing my opportunity, I set the tiller amidships, darted forward, cleared the end of the sprit from its becket, and got back just in time to meet her as she began to broach to, on the crest of a wave, which nearly half filled us with water.

“I felt now as if we were safe; for no longer cumbered with a press of sail, we shipped less water, and had a better chance to lay out our course. Keeping Point Prime Light, as I supposed, well to starboard, I headed up the bay, seeking to make the Blockhouse Light, when suddenly I saw the coast dead ahead, and a bar, which must have been the West Bar, which I dared not attempt to cross.

“I therefore bore away until I made a harbor, and running in, got aboard a vessel, from whose captain I learned that we had mistaken the Blockhouse Light for that on Point Prime, and had at last made Crapaud River.”

“Leaving the boat to be brought around by the next steamer, we drove up to town the next day, and found, to our surprise, that we had crossed close on the heels of that hurricane, which unroofed so many buildings, and uprooted so many trees. I consider that passage as the most stirring incident in my short life, gentlemen, and in the language of an old story, ‘my wife thinks so, too.’”

“And you may well think so, Mr. Kennedy,” said Lund. “For all the money in the banks of C. wouldn’t tempt me to run the risk, the almost certainty, of death, I mean, that you two did. Your wife is a brave woman, sir, and there are very few men who would have borne themselves as she did.”

“Well, gentlemen, I see Pat is ready, and I must bid you good night. Charley, I’ll give the boys the list of things you want them to bring out Monday. I suppose you’ll get through in a couple of weeks, and come back to civilized life. Good night.”

Followed by a dozen expressions of adieu and goodwill, the travellers entered the sleigh, and drove merrily off on the ice. Charley stood still a moment alone in the moonlight, listening to the last tinkle of the bells as they died away in the distance.

“What nonsense to stand here bareheaded, and getting cold! and yet it seems as if something urged me to go back to the city. Yet, why should I dread anything here? or rather, why should I fear anything with such a prospect as I have before me?”

He turned, and entered the house; a dainty letter from his betrothed, brought that night from the city, lay upon his breast; but honey and gall mingled strangely in its offerings, and many a bitter word bore heavy on his heart. No one of all that merry party was readier for song, or jest, or manly sport, than he; and yet he, too, had his share of that bitter cup which mortals call sorrow.