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

FLOAT-SHOOTING.-- A GENERAL FIELD-DAY.-- CHANGES OF THE ICE.

The next morning, the boats, which were all provided with runners, were drawn to the bar, and Carlo’s sled carried, besides the lunch and ammunition of the party, a dozen wooden duck decoys, weighted and roped, for open water.

Davies and Creamer gave up their box and outfit to one-armed Peter, as they were about to try their new paddle-boat. She was duly launched, and Ben placed himself forward, between the paddle-boxes, ready to do the steering and shooting, while Creamer acted as the motive power, transmitted by a belt and pulleys. Although somewhat high out of water, she moved off easily, and made little noise when running slowly; and taking the first of the ebb, the pair moved eastward into the opening ice.

George and Ben Lund, in their new-fashioned centre-wheel, made poorer progress, but hurried out “to get ahead of the skimmin’-dish,” as they styled La Salle’s light, shallow craft. He let them go, and stationing George and Regnar in the ice-boat, put out his floating decoys in the nearest waters, and, cutting slabs of ice, built a high wall around his own boat, which he drew up on the ice. Carlo incontinently plunged into the straw under the half-deck of the larger boat, and soon all was ready for the expected birds.

Meanwhile, upon the stranded berg which lay immovable off the southern face of the island, gathered the new comers, whose Bacchanal approach has of late been chronicled. Had they had any outfit of decoys, and known how to use them, they could not but have had good sport; and even as it was, so many birds passed and repassed them, that a good shot could not have failed to secure at least a few ducks. But, however unfortunate in securing any trophies, they failed not in the weight or constancy of their fire.

Not a flock passed within a quarter of a mile but received a volley; not a loon that showed his distant head above water but went down under the fire of a platoon; and not a frightened duck darted overhead but heard the air behind him torn with whistling shot enough to have exterminated his whole tribe.

From time to time a lull in the storm would occur, and then peals of laughter would come across the intervening waters; and looking up, the irritated sportsmen generally beheld a tableau of inverted pocket-flasks, and feats of strength with a rapidly lightening ale-keg. But, although our friends bore the proximity of these city gunners with great patience for a while, an event soon occurred which brought matters to a focus.

A flock of geese were seen approaching from the eastward, and La Salle, cautioning the boys, crouched down in his boat and “called.” Peter followed suit, and so did the party on the bergs. The flock swung within a hundred yards of Peter, who held his fire, and then, seeing the floating decoys, swung round to leeward of them, and setting their wings, scaled slowly in, passing within about two hundred and fifty yards of the party on the berg.

Of course they opened fire at once, with shot of all sorts and sizes, doing no execution but sending a bullet from one of their guns straight over the heads of La Salle and his friends. A flock or two of ducks and brent made similar attempts to alight, but every shot was spoiled in the same way.

La Salle was indignant, and the boys were at a white heat, when, without any birds being between them, the report of a heavily charged gun was heard, and a few heavy shot struck the ice near the boats, while the drunken crowd yelled in triumph as the water, by its ripples, showed the great distance attained by the shot.

“I’ll shoot, too, the next chance, and so may you, boys. Elevate well, and fire when the birds are between us and the berg,” said La Salle.

It was not long before three geese attempted to scale in as the others had done, and were fired at as before, the bullet this time striking the water in line of the boat, and whistling a few feet above it. The birds, somewhat frightened, got within a hundred yards before swinging off, and all three discharged their large shot simultaneously. A single goose fell with a broken wing, and Carlo, springing out of the boat, plunged into the water. Charley watched the effect of his shot on the party on the berg. One stood just then in bold relief against the distant horizon, displaying the broader part of his physique to view while taking an observation with a brandy-bottle. Suddenly a faint yell was heard, the bottle dropped on the berg, the hands that had held it frantically clutched at the coat-tails of the victim, and an agonized pas seul told that the “Baby” had well avenged the wrongs of her owner.

Half an hour later, the party had evacuated their position, bag and baggage, “carrying their wounded,” who, from the stern-sheets of their boat, shook his fist in savage pantomime at the innocent La Salle and his amused companions. Some weeks later he learned that a single large shot had, without piercing the cloth, raised a contusion about the size of a pigeon’s egg, on muscles whose comfort, for a fortnight after, emphatically tabooed the use of chairs, and made a feather bed an indispensable adjunct to repose.

After a long chase Carlo secured his bird, and swimming to the nearest shore, ran around the edge of the ice, in a way which showed his appreciation of the difference between running, and swimming against a five-knot tide. Securing the bird, he was allowed to shake himself, and was then called into the boat, from which a good lookout was kept, as there now existed some chance for good management and skilful shooting.

The first victims were a flock of black ducks, which with the usual readiness to decoy of these birds, had flown in and lit among the decoys before La Salle could warn his boys, who had their backs turned at the time. They managed, however, to hear him, and poured in a sharp volley, killing four in the water, while La Salle picked a brace out on the wing.

Regnar, who had a breech-loader, got ready in time to kill a brace of Moniac duck out of a flock which swept past uttering their singularly desolate call of “Ouac-a-wee, ouac-a-wee!” and by the time these birds were retrieved, several faint reports to the eastward were heard, and a vast cloud of geese of both kinds rose just above the floating ice, and swept up towards the bar. Most of these settled down among the floes; but one large flock of brent swept over Peter, in answer to his almost perfect calling. The leaders of the flock were in the very act of alighting when he fired, and a dozen, at least, lay dead when the white smoke of his volley cleared away.

“I must have one turn with my float,” said La Salle, after the three had taken lunch and had their share of a pint of hot, strong coffee prepared in the Crimean lantern. “The tide will soon turn, and I shall work out into the ice and come up with it. You, boys, must look out for the flying birds, and take in the floating decoys before they are crushed or lost.”

Launching the light boat, he fitted his rowlocks, and with a light pair of sculls rowed for an hour out into the Gulf, taking care to keep well to the eastward. At the end of that time he unshipped his sculls, took in his rowlocks, fitted his sculling-oar into its muffled aperture, and getting himself comfortably settled, grasped his oar with his left hand, and with his eyes just peering over the gunwale, let the light boat drift with the returning tide, and its fantastic burden of water-worn congelations.

He had not floated two hundred yards, before a change of the ice revealed a small flock of seven geese, quietly feeding along the border of a low piece of field ice. Cocking his gun and laying it ready to hand, La Salle drifted nearer and nearer, keeping barely enough headway to steer her, bow on. The gander, a noble bird, suddenly raised his head to gaze at the advancing boat. All the rest instantly raised theirs ready for immediate flight. The anxious sportsman lay motionless, ceasing the play of his scull, and the birds, gradually relaxing their necks, turned and swam rapidly away.

Still, La Salle tried not to pursue, and the gander, finding that the boat did not get any nearer, stopped, looked, started, stopped, and went to feeding again, followed in all things, of course, by his companions. Then the delicate oar began its noiseless sweep, and gradually the sharp prow crept nearer, passing, one by one, sluggish floes and fantastic pinnacles, until again the wary leader raised his head as if in perplexity and doubt. There, to be sure, was the bit of ice he had taken fright at before, nearer than ever; but it floated as harmlessly as the cake just beside it, from whose edges he had gleaned rootlets of young and tender eel-grass not half an hour ago. So the poor overmatched bird doubtless argued; and ashamed of his fears, which were but too well founded, and doubtful of his instincts, which he should have trusted, the gander turned again to the little eddy of sea-wrack amid which, with soft guttural love-calls, he summoned his harem to many a dainty morsel.

Triumphantly shone the deadly eye which glittered beneath the snowy cap; noiselessly swung the ashen oar, and as unerringly set as Destiny, and remorseless as Death, the knife-like bow slid through the black waters. One hundred, ninety, eighty, seventy, fifty, forty yards only, divide the doomed birds from the boat, and the white gunwale is hidden from their view by the interposition of the very floe along whose edge they are feeding. Steadily La Salle drives the prow gently against the ice, then drops his oar, and grasps his heavy gun. He hazards a glance: the birds, scarce thirty yards away, are unsuspectingly feeding in a close body; he rises to a sitting posture, raises his gun, and whistles shrilly and long. Instantly the birds raise their heads, gathering around their leader. Bang! The thunder-roll of the report, reverberating amid the ice, is the death-sentence of the flock. Not one escaped; the distance was too short, the aim too sure, the charge of mitraille too close and heavy.

A flying shot at a flock of eider duck added a male, with snowy crest, and three plump, brown females; and a successful approach to a small flock of brent made up fifteen birds under the half-deck of the little craft. It was almost dark when, with little time to spare, La Salle came flying through the fast-coming ice, and dashed across the narrow lane of water, between the immovable covering of the bar, and the advancing, tide-borne ice-islands.

The boys had just drawn in their decoys, and loaded their sled with the birds taken from the boat, besides three geese and a brent, which they had shot during his absence. The other boats had already landed, and been drawn in far up on the ice. Regnar did not know if the centre-wheel had got anything, but Davies and Creamer had four geese, five brent, and a black duck. Peter had gone home with a sled-load of fowl, and, in short, the day had been generally satisfactory all round.

That night, however, all were tired, wet, and half blind with the ceaseless glare of the each-day-warmer sun; nor did any care to spend in listening to idle tales, the hours which might better be given to sleep. Such, for more than a week longer, was their experience, varied only by a few brief frosts, during which, however, the hot coffee made in their lantern-stove was unanimously voted “just the thing.”

“Snow-blindness” set in, and Ben had once or twice to leave the ice; while George Waring experienced several attacks, and had a linen cloth full of pulverized clay the best application known kept in the boat for emergencies.

By the middle of the next week, a narrow channel had opened up to the city; and Creamer and Davies, piling their decoys beside their deserted box, and leaving Lund to haul them to the shelter of his woods, took the first flood, and paddled briskly homeward, leaving Indian Peter and La Salle in the latter’s stand; while Regnar, who had become a proficient with the small boat, struck out for the broken ice lying to the east.

“Good by, Charley; when shall I tell them to expect you?” said Ben, as he started his wheels, and the boat, heavily laden with fowl, moved northward.

“O, at the end of the week, at farthest. Much obliged to you for taking those birds. I’ll have a load Saturday. Good by.”

“Good by,” said Hughie and Ben, once more; and then they bent to their task, churning into foam the rippleless surface, which bore them on its swift but unnoticeable tide towards home, leaving behind their comrade, his savage companion, and their boyish associates, to experience adventures without parallel in all the strange hunting-lore of those northern seas.