Read CHAPTER II - THE FIGHT OF THE OLD BULL SEALS of The Boy With the U. S. Fisheries , free online book, by Francis Rolt-Wheeler, on

The quick, uneasy pitching of the boat and a sudden dash of ice-cold spray roused the captain from the fit of abstraction into which the sinking of his ship had plunged him.

“Step the mast, men,” he said; “we’ve got to make for the nearest land. It’s going to be a dirty night, too.”

“Did you want us to put a reef in, sir?” asked the old whaler.

“When I want a sail reefed,” the captain answered shortly, “I’ll tell you.”

As the mast fell into place and the sail was hoisted, the whale-boat heeled sharply over and began to cut her way through the water at a good speed, leaving the two prams far in the rear. The captain, who was steering mechanically, paid no heed to them, staring moodily ahead into the darkness. Hank looked around uneasily from time to time, then in a few moments he spoke.

“The mate’s signaling, I think, sir,” he said.

Colin looked round but could only just see the outline of the larger of the two boats, and knew it was too dark to distinguish any motions on board her. He looked inquiringly at Hank, but the old gunner was watching the captain.

“What does he want?” questioned the captain angrily.

“Orders, sir, I suppose,” the whaler answered.

The captain felt the implied rebuke and looked at him sharply, but although he was a strict disciplinarian, he knew Hank’s worth as a seaman of experience and kept back the sharp reply which was upon his lips. Then turning in his seat he realized how rapidly they had sped away from the boats they were escorting, and said:

“I’ll bring her up.”

He put the tiller over and brought the whale-boat up into the wind, and in a few minutes the mate’s boat and the smaller pram came alongside.

“Don’t you want us to keep together, sir?” cried the mate as soon as he was within hearing.

“Of course,” the captain answered. “You can’t keep up, eh?”

“Not in a breeze like this, sir,” the mate declared.

“All right, then,” was the response; “we’ll reef.” He nodded to the gunner and the reef points were quickly tied, thus enabling the three boats to keep together.

As the night wore on the wind increased until quite a gale was blowing, and the whale-boat began to plunge into the seas, throwing spray every time her nose went into it. The oilskins shone yellow and dripping in the feeble light of a lantern and although it was nearly the end of June a cold wind whipped the icy spume-drift from the breaking whitecaps.

“Doesn’t feel much like summer, Hank!” said Colin, shivering from cold and fatigue, also partly from reaction following his exciting adventure with the gray whale.

“Behring Sea hasn’t got much summer to boast of,” the old whaler replied; “leastwise not often. You may get one or two hot days, but when the sun goes down the Polar current gets in its work an’ it’s cold.”

“Where do you suppose we’re going, Hank?” the boy asked, with a firm belief that the old whaler knew everything. “I don’t like to bother Captain Murchison.”

“Nor I,” the gunner answered, looking toward the stern of the boat; “let him fight his troubles out alone. As for where we’re goin’, I don’t know. I can’t even see the stars, so I don’t know which way we’re headin’.”

“Do you suppose we’ll strike Alaska?” Colin queried. “Or perhaps the north of Japan? Say, it would be great if we fetched up at Kamchatka or somewhere that nobody had ever been before!”

The lad’s delight in the thought of landing at some inhospitable northern island off the coast of Asia was so boyish that in spite of the discomfort of their present position, the old whaler almost laughed outright.

“Japan’s a long ways south of here,” he said. “We’d strike the Aleutian or the Kuril Islands before we got near there. I reckon we ought to try for some place on the Alaska coast, but as I remember, the wind was dead east when we left the Gull an’ I don’t think it’s changed much.”

Colin gave a long yawn and then shivered.

“I wouldn’t mind being in my berth on the Gull!” he said longingly; “I’m nearly dead with sleep.”

“Why don’t you drop off?” Hank advised. “There’s nothin’ you can do to help. Here, change places with me an’ you won’t get so much spray.”

“But you’ll get it then!” the boy protested.

“If I had a dollar for every time I’ve got wet in a boat,” the old whaler answered, “I wouldn’t have to go to sea any more.”

He got up and made Colin change places.

“Are you warmer now?” he asked a minute or two later.

“Lots,” the boy murmured drowsily, and in a few seconds he was fast asleep. The old whaler gently drew the boy towards him, so that he would be sheltered from the wind and spray, and held him safe against the rolling and pitching of the little boat. The long hours passed slowly, and Colin stirred and muttered in his dreams, but still he slept on through all the wild tumult of the night, his head pillowed against Hank and the old whaler’s arm around him.

He wakened suddenly, with a whistling, roaring sound ringing in his ears. Dawn had broken, though the sun was not yet up, and Colin shivered with the wakening and the cold, his teeth chattering like castanets. A damp, penetrating fog enwrapped them. Four of the sailors were rowing slowly, and the sail had been lowered and furled while he was asleep. Every few minutes a shout could be heard in the distance, which was answered by one of the sailors in the whale-boat.

“Where’s the mate’s boat, Hank?” asked the boy, realizing he had heard only one shout.

“She got out of hailin’ distance, a little while before breakfast,” the other answered, “but that doesn’t matter so much, because she can’t very well get lost now.”

“But why is the sail down?”

The old whaler held up his hand.

“Do you hear that noise?” he asked.

“Of course I hear it,” the boy answered; “that’s what woke me up. But what is it?” he continued, as the roar swelled upon the wind.

“What does it sound like?” the gunner asked him.

The boy listened carefully for a minute or two and then shook his head.

“Hard to say,” he answered. “It sounds like a cross between Niagara and a circus.”

Scotty, who had overheard this, looked round.

“That’s not bad,” he said; “that’s just about what it does sound like.”

“But what is the cause of it, Hank?” the boy queried again. “I never heard such a row!”

“Fur seals!” was the brief reply.

“Seals?” said Colin, jumping up eagerly. “Oh, where?”

“Sit down, boy,” interrupted the captain sternly; “you’ll see enough of seals before you get home.”

“All right, Captain Murchison,” Colin answered; “I’m in no hurry to be home.”

In spite of his recent loss the captain could not help a grim smile stealing over his face at the boy’s readiness for adventure, no matter where it might lead. But he had been a rover in his boyhood himself, and so he said no more.

“Why, there must be millions of seals to make as much noise as that!” Colin objected.

“There aren’t; at least, not now,” was Hank’s reply. “There were tens of millions of fur seals in these waters when I made my first trip out here in 1860, but they’ve been killed off right an’ left, same as the buffalo. The government has to protect ’em now, an’ there’s no pelagic sealin’ allowed at all.”

“What’s pelagic sealing?” asked Colin.

“Killing seals at sea,” the whaler answered. “That’s wrong, because you can’t always tell a young male from a female seal in the water, an’ the females ought never to be killed. But you’ll learn all about it. Beg pardon, sir,” Hank continued, speaking to the captain, “but by the noise of the seals those must be either the Pribilof or the Commander Islands?”

“Pribilof, by my reckoning,” the captain answered. “Do you hear anything of the third boat?”

“No, sir,” answered the old whaler, after shouting a loud “Ahoy!” to which but one answer was returned, “but we’ll see her, likely, when the fog lifts.”

“Doesn’t lift much here,” the captain said. “But with this offshore wind, they ought to hear the seals three or four miles away.”

In the meantime the whale-boat was forging through the water slowly and the noise of the seals grew louder every minute. The sun was rising, but the fog was so dense that it was barely possible to tell which was the east.

“Funny kind of fog,” said Colin; “seems to me it’s about as wet as the water!”

“Reg’lar seal fog,” Hank replied. “If it wasn’t always foggy the seals wouldn’t haul out here, an’ anyway, there’s always a lot of fog around a rookery. Must be the breath of so many thousands o’ seals, I reckon.”

“Pretty things, seals,” said the boy.

“Where did you ever see any?” his friend queried.

“Oh, lots of places,” Colin answered, “circuses and aquariums and places like that. I even saw a troupe of them on the stage once, playing ball. They put up a good game, too.”

“Those weren’t the real fur seals,” Hank replied; “what you saw were the common hair seals, an’ they’re not the same at all. You can’t keep fur seals alive in a tank!”

“There are two fur seals in the aquarium of the Fisheries Building at Washington,” interposed the captain, “but those are the only two.”

“There!” cried the boy, pointing at the water; “there’s one now!”

“You’ll see them by hundreds in a few minutes, boy,” the captain said. “I think I make out land.”

As he spoke, an eddy of wind blew aside part of the fog, revealing through the rift a low-lying island. Within a minute the fog had closed down again, but the glimpse had been enough to give the captain his bearings. The noise from the seal-rookery had grown deafening, so that the men had to shout to one another in the boat and presently and quite unexpectedly the boat was in the midst of dozens upon dozens of seals, throwing themselves out of the water, standing on their hind flippers, turning somersaults, and performing all manner of antics.

“Why don’t we land?” asked Colin, as he noticed that the boat was running parallel with the shore instead of heading directly for it.

“Land on a seal-rookery?” said Hank. “Haven’t you had trouble enough with whales so far?”

“Would seals attack a boat?” asked Colin in surprise.

“No, you couldn’t make ’em,” was the instant reply, “but I never heard of a boat landin’ at a rookery. The row would begin when you got ashore.”

Gradually the boat drew closer to the land, as close, indeed, as was possible along the rocky shore, and then the land receded, forming a shallow bay flanked by two low hills on one side and one sharper hill on the other. The captain rolled up his chart and headed straight for the shore.

“St. Paul, I reckon,” said Hank, as the outlines of the land showed clearly, “but I don’t jus’ seem to remember it.”

“Yes, that’s St. Paul,” the captain agreed. “It has changed since your time, Hank. There has been a lot of building since the government took hold.”

“Why, it looks quite civilized!” exclaimed Colin in surprise, as he saw the well-built, comfortable frame houses and a stone church-spire which stood out boldly from the hill above the wharf.

“When I first saw St. Paul,” said the old whaler, “it looked just about the way it was when the Russians left it huts and shacks o’ the worst kind an’ the natives were kep’ just about half starved.”

“It’s different nowadays,” said the captain as they drew near the wharf, putting under his arm the tin box that held the ship’s papers. “The Aleuts are regular government employees now and they have schools and good homes and fair wages. Everything is done to make them comfortable. I was here last year and could hardly believe it was the same settlement I saw fifteen years ago.”

It was still early morning when the boat was made fast to the wharf, and Colin was glad to stretch his legs after having slept in a cramped position all night. The damp fog lay heavily over everything, but the villagers had been aroused and the group of sailors was soon surrounded by a crowd, curious to know what had happened. Hank, who could speak a ‘pigeon’ language of mixed Russian and Aleut, was the center of a group composed of some of the older men, while Colin graphically described to all those who knew English (the larger proportion) the fight with the gray whale, and told of the sinking of the Gull by the big finback, maddened by the attack of the killers. He had just finished a stirring recital of the adventures when the other two boats from the Gull loomed up out of the fog and made fast to the wharf.

Hearing that the only breakfast the shipwrecked men had been able to get was some cold and water-soaked provender from the boat, two or three of the residents hurried to their homes on hospitable errands bent, and in a few minutes most of the men were thawing out and allaying the pangs of hunger with steaming mugs of hot coffee and a solid meal. So, when the captain came looking for Colin that he might take him to the Fisheries agent’s house, he found the lad who was thoroughly democratic in his ways breakfasting happily with the sailors and recounting for the second time the thrills and perils of the preceding day.

Rejoining the captain an hour or so later at the house to which he had been directed, Colin was effusively greeted by the assistant to the agent, a young fellow full of enthusiasm over the work the Bureau of Fisheries was doing with regard to fur seals. A natural delicacy had kept him from troubling Captain Murchison, but as soon as he discovered that Colin was interested in the question and anxious to find out all he could about seals, he hailed the opportunity with delight.

“I’ve just been aching for a chance to blow off steam,” he said. “It’s an old story to the people here. Obviously! I don’t think they half realize how worth while it all is. I’m glad to have you here,” he continued, “not only so that we can help you after all your dangers, but so that I can show you what we do.”

“I’m still more glad to be here,” Colin replied, after thanking him. “I’ve been trying to persuade Father to let me join the Bureau, but this is such an out-of-the-way place that I never expected to be able to see it for myself.”

“It is a little out of the way,” the official replied. “But in some ways, I think it’s the most important place in the entire world so far as fisheries are concerned. It’s the one strategic point for a great industry. Of course!”

“Why is it so important, Mr. Nagge?” Colin queried. “Just because of the seals, or are there other fisheries here?”

“Just seals,” was the reply, in the jerky speech characteristic of the man. “Greatest breeding-place in the world. You’ll see. Nothing like it anywhere else. And, what’s more, it’s almost the last. This is the only fort left to prevent the destruction not of a tribe but of an entire species in the world of life. Certainly!”

“Calling it a fort seems strange,” Colin remarked.

“Well, isn’t it? It’s the heroic post, the forlorn hope, the last stand of the battle-line,” the Fisheries enthusiast replied. “All the nations of the world were deliberately allowing all the fur seals to be killed off. Uncle Sam stopped it. It’s not too late yet. The Japanese seal-pirates must be exterminated absolutely! Could you run a ranch if every time a steer or cow got more than three miles away from the corral anybody could come along and shoot it? Of course not. Obviously!”

“But this isn’t a ranch!”

“Why not? Same principle,” the assistant agent answered. “Ranchers breed cattle in hundreds or thousands. We breed seals in hundreds of thousands; yes, in millions. And a fur seal is worth more than a steer. Oh, yes!”

“Do seals breed as largely still?” Colin asked in surprise.

“Would if they had the chance,” was the indignant answer. “Undoubtedly millions and millions have been killed in the last fifty years. Takes time to build up, too! Only one baby seal is born at a time. A run-down herd can’t increase so very fast. But we’re getting there. Certainly!”

“Our gunner was telling me,” Colin said, “that killing seals at sea was the cause of all the trouble.”

“Yes. Lately. Before that, rookery after rookery had been visited and every seal butchered. Old and young alike. No mercy. Worst kind of cruelty.”

“But hasn’t the sea trouble been stopped?” queried the boy. “I thought it had, but you said something just now about seal-pirates.”

“Stopped officially,” his informant said. “Can’t kill a seal in the ocean, not under any consideration. That is, by law. Not in American waters. Nor in Russian waters. Nor in Japanese waters. Nor in the open sea. International agreement determines that. Of course. But lots of people break laws. Obviously! Big profit in it. There’s a lot of killing going on still. Stop it? When we can!”

“But how about killing them on land?” Colin asked. “You do that, I know, because I’ve read that the Bureau of Fisheries even looks after the selling of the skins. While it may be all right, it looks to me as though you were killing them off, anyhow. What’s the good of saving them in the water if you wipe them out when they get ashore.”

“You don’t understand!” his friend said. “Got anything to do right now?”

“Not so far as I know,” Colin answered.

“You’ve had breakfast?”

“Yes, thanks,” the boy answered, “and I tell you it tasted good after a night in the boat.”

“Come over to the rookery,” the assistant agent said. “I’m going. I count the seals every day. That is, as nearly as I can. Tell you all about it. If you like, we’ll go on to the killing grounds afterwards. Yes? Put on your hat.”

Colin realized that his host seldom had a listener, and as he was really anxious to learn all that he could about the fur seals, these creatures that kept up the deafening roar that sounded like Niagara, he followed interestedly.

“Looks a little as if it might clear,” he suggested, as they left the house. “We could stand some sunshine after this fog.”

The other shook his head.

“Don’t want sunshine,” he said. “Fog’s much better.”

“What for?” asked Colin in surprise. “Why should any one want fog rather than sunshine?”

“Fur seals do,” was the emphatic response. “No seals on any other groups of islands in the North Pacific. Just here and Commander Islands. Why?”

“Because they are foggier than others?” hazarded Colin at a guess.

“Exactly. Fur seals live in the water nearly all year. Water is colder than air. Seals are warm-blooded animals, too not like fish. They’ve got to keep out the cold.”

“Is that why they have such fine fur?”

“Obviously. And,” the Fisheries official continued, “under that close warm fur they have blubber. Lots of it.”

“Blubber like whales?”

“Just the same. Fur and blubber keeps ’em warm in the cold water. Too much covering for the air. Like wearing North Pole clothing at the Equator. If the sun comes out they just about faint. On bright days the young seals make for the water. Those that have to stay on the rookery lie flat on their back and fan themselves. Certainly! Use their flippers just the way a woman uses a regular fan. See ’em any time.”

Colin looked incredulously at his companion.

“I’m not making it up,” the other said. “They fan themselves with their hind flippers, too. Just as easy.”

“I think they must be the noisiest things alive,” said Colin, putting his fingers in his ears as they rounded the point and the full force of the rookery tumult reached them.

“The row never stops,” the assistant agent admitted. “Just as much at night as daytime. Seals are used to swimming under water where light is dimmer. Darkness makes little difference. Seemingly! Don’t notice it after a while.”

“The queer part of it is,” the boy said, listening intently, “that there seem to be all sorts of different noises. It’s just as I said coming into the bay, it sounds like a menagerie. I’m sure I can hear sheep!”

“Can’t tell the cry of a cow fur seal from the bleating of an old sheep,” was the reply. “The pup seal ‘baa-s’ just like a lamb, too. Funny, sometimes. On one of the smaller islands one year we had a flock of sheep. Caused us all sorts of trouble. The sheep would come running into the seal nurseries looking for their lambs when they heard a pup seal crying. The lambs would mistake the cry of the cow seal for the bleating of their mothers.”

“Why do you call the mother seal a cow seal?” asked the boy.

“Usual name,” was the reply.

“Then why is a baby seal a pup?” asked Colin bewildered. “I should think it ought to be called a calf!”

The Fisheries official laughed.

“Seal language is the most mixed-up lingo I know,” he said. “Mother seal is called a ‘cow,’ yet the baby is called a ‘pup.’ The cow seals are kept in a ‘harem,’ which usually means a group of wives. The whole gathering is called a ‘rookery,’ though there are no rooks or other birds around. The big ‘bull’ seals are sometimes called ‘Sea-Catches’ or ‘Beachmasters.’ The two-year-olds and three-year-olds are called ‘Bachelors.’ The ‘pups,’ too, have their ‘nurseries’ to play in.”

But Colin still looked puzzled.

“Our gunner was talking about ’holluschickie’?” he said. “Are those a different kind of seal?”

“No,” was the reply, “that’s the old Russian-native name for bachelors. There are a lot of native words for seals, but we only use that one and ‘kotickie’ for the pups.”

“If the cow seals bleat,” said Colin, “and the pups ‘baa’ like a lamb, what is the cry of the beachmaster?”

“He makes the most noise,” the agent said. “Never stops. Can you hear a long hoarse roar? Sounds like a lion!”

“Of course I can hear it,” the boy answered; “I thought that must be a sea-lion.”

“A sea-lion’s cry is deeper and not so loud,” his friend replied. “No. That roar is the bull seal’s challenge. You’re near enough to hear a sort of gurgling growl?”

“Yes,” said Colin, “I can catch it quite clearly.”

“That’s a bull talking to himself. Then there’s a whistle when a fight is going on. When they’re fighting, too, they have a spitting cough. Sounds like a locomotive starting on a heavy grade. Precisely!”

“Do they fight much?” the boy asked.

“Ever so often!” his informant replied. “Can’t you hear the puffing? That shows there’s a fight going on. I’ve seldom seen a rookery without a mix-up in progress. That is, during the early part of the season after the cows have started to haul up. There’s not nearly as much of it now, though, as there used to be.”

“Could I see a fight?” the boy asked eagerly.

“Hardly help seeing one,” was the reply. “Watch now. We’re just at the rookery. Immediately!”

Turning sharply to the left, the older man led the way between two piles of stones heaped up so as to form a sort of wall, and shut off at the sea end.

“What’s this for?” asked Colin.

“Path through the rookery. Want to count the seals every once in a while,” the agent said. “Must have some sort of gangway. Obviously! Couldn’t get near enough, otherwise.”

“Why not?” queried Colin. “Would the beachmasters attack you?”

“They won’t start it,” was the reply. “Sea-catch keeps quiet unless he thinks you’re going to attack his harem. About two weeks ago, I only just escaped. Narrow squeeze. Wanted to get a photograph of one of the biggest sea-catches I had ever seen. Took a heavy camera. The sea-catch didn’t seem excited. Not particularly. So, I came up quite close to him.”

“How close, Mr. Nagge?”

“Ten or twelve feet. Just about. I got under the cloth. Focused him all right. Then slipped in my plate. Just going to press the bulb when he charged. Straight for me. No warning. I squeezed the bulb, anyhow; grabbed the camera and ran. Promptly!”

“Did he chase you far?”

“A few yards. I knew there was no real danger. Best of it was that the plate caught the bull right in the act of charging! I’ve got a print up at the house. Show you when we get home!”

“I’d like to see it, ever so much,” the boy answered.

As they came to a gap in the wall, the agent halted.

“There!” he said. “That’s a rookery.”

In spite of all that he had heard before of the numbers of seals, and although the deafening noise was in a sense a preparation, Colin was dazed at his first sight of a big seal rookery. For a moment he could not take it in. He seemed to be overlooking a wonderful beach of rounded boulders, smooth and glistening like polished steel; here and there pieces of gaunt gray rock projected above and at intervals of about every fifteen to forty feet towered a huge figure like a walrus with a mane of grizzled over-hair on the shoulders and long bristly yellowish-white whiskers. For a moment the boy stood bewildered, then suddenly it flashed upon him that this wonderful carpet of seeming boulders, this gleaming, moving pageantry of gray, was composed of living seals.

“Why, there are millions of them!” he cried.

Right from the water’s edge back halfway to the cliffs, and as far as the eye could see into the white sea-mist, every inch of the ground was covered. Looking at those closest to him, Colin noticed that they lay in any and every possible attitude, head up or down, on their backs or sides, or curled up in a ball; wedged in between sharp rocks or on a level stretch position seemed to make no difference. Nor were any of them still for a minute, for even those which were asleep twitched violently and wakened every few minutes. And over the thousands of silver-gray cow seals, the sea-catches, the lords of the harem, three or four times the size of their mates, stood watch and ward unceasingly.

“Why do you herd them so close together?” asked Colin. “I should have thought there was lots of room on the beaches of the island.”

“They herd themselves,” the agent said. “Don’t go anywhere unless it is crowded. The more a place is jammed, the more anxious they are to get there. Newcomers won’t go to empty harems. Unhappy with only one or two other cows. Try and find room in a crowded bunch where one sea-catch is looking after thirty females.”

“But,” said Colin, looking at the group which was nearest to him, “there are a lot of little baby seals in there! They’ll get trodden on!”

“They are trodden on. Often,” said the agent. “Can’t be helped. Only a few pups right in the harems and they are all small. Obviously! Go away when they are a week old. Wander from the harem to find playfellows. Make up ‘pods’ or nurseries. Sometimes four or five hundred in one nursery. Stay until the end of the season. There’s a pod of pups,” he continued, pointing up the beach; “about sixty of them, I should judge. Happy-looking? Clearly!”

“They look like big black kittens,” said Colin, as he watched them tumbling about on the pebbly beach, “and just as full of fun. Can they swim as soon as they are born, Mr. Nagge?”

“Seals have to learn to swim. Same as boys,” he answered. “They teach themselves, apparently! Young seal, thrown into deep water, will drown. Queer. Become wonderful swimmers, too.”

“About how long does it take them to learn?” Colin asked.

“Don’t begin until they are three weeks old,” was the reply. “Practise several hours a day. Swim well in about a month.”

“Why don’t the father or the mother seals teach them?” queried the boy.

“A sea-catch doesn’t see anything outside the harem. As long as a pup is within twelve feet of him, he will fight on the instant if the baby is in danger. Once it is in the nursery the bull seal forgets the little one’s existence. He couldn’t leave, anyway. Some other sea-catch would seize the harem.”

“You mean that the old seal can’t get away at all?”

“Not at all,” was the reply.

“Then what does he get to eat?” asked Colin in surprise, “do the cow seals bring him food?”

“Not a bite. No. He doesn’t eat at all. Not all summer.”

“Never gets a bite of anything? I should think he’d starve to death,” cried the lad.

“Fasts for nearly four months. From the time a sea-catch hauls up in May and preempts the spot he has chosen for his harem he doesn’t leave that spot eight to sixteen feet square until late in August. Stays right there. He’s active enough in some ways. No matter how much he flounders around, he keeps right on his own harem ground. He could hardly get away from it if he tried.”

“Why not?”

“He couldn’t leave his own harem without getting into the next one. Obviously!” the agent promptly replied. “And he’d have to fight that beachmaster. Evidently! And so on every few feet he went. Besides, the very moment his back was turned a neighboring bull would steal some of his cows. Certainly! Or, an idle bull would try and beat him out.”

“Which are the idle bulls?” asked Colin.

“Those fellows at the back who came late or were beaten in the fight for places. They would charge down and take the harem, if he left it.”

“Well, then, how does he sleep?”

“Doesn’t sleep much,” was the reply; “just little catnaps. Five or ten minutes at a time, perhaps. Light sleepers, too. If a cow tries to leave or an intruder comes near he wakes right up. Immediately! He’s on the alert, night and day.” The agent laughed. “Eternal vigilance is the bull seal’s motto, all right!”

“But how can they stand it without food and without sleep?” Colin asked. “That’s over three months of fasting. And it isn’t like an animal that’s asleep all winter. It seems to be their busiest time, fighting and watching and all that sort of thing!”

“They live on their blubber,” the agent explained. “In the spring they haul up heavy and fat. Can hardly move around they’re so fleshy. It’s the end of June now. You see! Many bulls are loaded with fat still. By the end of next month, though, they’ll be getting thin. Some of ’em are like skeletons when they leave the rookeries in August. They’ll fight to the end, though.”

“But if they leave each other’s harems alone,” Colin objected, “I don’t see any cause for a fight.”

“The cows don’t all come at the same time. Perhaps for six weeks there are cows coming all the time. Those beachmasters who have harems nearest the water want their family first and there’s fighting all along the water’s edge, then. Other cows have to make their way inshore; any of the sea-catches may grab them. Wait a minute and watch. You’ll see the scramble going on somewhere. There are two bulls fighting there,” he added, pointing to a combat in progress some distance off, “and there’s another and another.”

“Is that one of the new cows just coming in from the water?” asked Colin, pointing to the shore, where a female seal, quietly and without attracting attention, had landed near one of the large harems.

“Yes,” the agent said. “Just watch her a while. You’ll see how the fighting begins.”

Moving quietly and slowly and making just as little disturbance as possible, the incoming seal made her way through and over the recumbent seals, keeping as far as she could from the beachmasters. Those huge monarchs of the waterside eyed her closely, but the harems were full to the last inch of ground and they let her pass, the cow seal remaining quiet as long as the beachmaster was watching, then creeping on a yard or two.

“She’ll get caught by the next one,” said Colin. “See, there’s just about room enough in his harem for one more.”

But the cow managed to make her way past, the old bull being engrossed in watching a neighboring sea-catch whom he suspected of designs upon his home. She had only succeeded in reaching a point about six harems inland, however, when a bull with a small group of only about twelve cows, suddenly reached out with his strong neck, grabbed her by the back with his sharp teeth and threw her on the rocks with the rest of his company. As the sea-catch weighed over four hundred pounds and the cow not more than eighty the poor creature was flung down most cruelly.

“The brute!” cried Colin.

But for some reason the cow was dissatisfied with her new master and tried to escape. The old sea-catch made a lunge forward and caught her by the back of the neck, biting viciously as he did so, in such wise that the teeth tore away the skin and flesh, making two raw and ugly wounds.

Colin’s indignation was without bounds.

“I’d like to smash that old beast!” he said, and if the agent had not been there to stop him the boy would have jumped over the low wall and gone to the assistance of the cow seal.

“That’s going on all the time,” the agent said. “You can’t settle the affairs of ten thousand families. Not offhand that way. You’d be kept busy if you tried to fight the battles of every female that hauls up on St. Paul rookery.”

“But see,” cried Colin, “he’s going after her again!”

This time the sea-catch was evidently angry, for he shook the cow as a dog does a rat and tossed her back into the very center of the harem, standing over her and growling angrily. The agent looked on tranquilly.

“There’s going to be trouble,” he said. “See that idle bull coming?”

He pointed to the back of the rookery, and Colin saw a sea-catch of good size, though not as large as the bull whose savage attack on the cow had excited Colin’s resentment, come plunging down through the rookery with the clumsy lope of the excited seal. The cow squirmed from under the threatening fangs of her captor, but just as he was about to punish her still more severely, he caught sight of the intruder, and, with a vicious snap, he whirled round to the defense. The newcomer, though powerful, showed the dark-brown rather than the grizzled over-hair of the older bull, but while he had youth on his side, he was not the veteran of hundreds of battles.

Both stood upright for a moment, watching each other keenly, but with their heads averted, then the younger bull, with a forward movement so rapid that it could hardly be followed, struck downward with his long teeth to the point where the front flipper joins the body. It was a clever stroke, but the old bull knew all the tricks of warfare and turned the flipper in so that the teeth of his opponent only gashed the skin, and at the same time the old bull jerked his head up and sidewise, and sank his teeth deep into the side of the neck of the younger bull.

“He’s got him, what a shame!” cried Colin, whose sympathies were all with the younger fighter.

The old sea-catch, paying no attention to the roaring and whistling of his wounded rival, kept his teeth fast-clenched in a bulldog-like grip and braced himself against the repeated lunges the other made to get free. There could be but one result to this and, with an agonized wrench, the younger bull pulled himself free tearing out several inches of skin and leaving a gaping wound from which the blood streamed down.

But he was not defeated yet!

Facing his more powerful enemy, roaring unceasingly and with the shrill piping whistle of battle, the younger bull fairly swelled with exertion and rage until he seemed almost the size of his big foe, his head darted from side to side quick as a flash, and the revengeful, passionate eyes so different from the limpid, gentle glance of the cow seals flashed furiously as the blood poured down and reddened the rocks around him.

Again it was the younger bull who took the aggressive and, after a couple of feints, he reared and struck high for the face, just grazing the cheek of the older bull and pulling out several of the stiff bristles on which his teeth happened to close, springing back in time to escape the double sickle-stroke of the sea-catch. The old bull roared loudly and sprang forward, getting a firm hold of the younger by the skin behind the muscles of the shoulders. But he was a second too late, for as he closed his grip, the smaller fighter shifted and struck down, a hard clean blow, reaching the coveted point and half-tearing the flipper from the body.

Undeterred by the injury, though the pain must have been intense, the old bull threw his weight upon the younger, bending him far over as though to break the spine. Seals cannot move backward, and the smaller fighter was almost overbalanced. Then, seizing his chance, the old beachmaster let go his hold upon the other’s back and got in a crashing blow at the same point where he had torn open the neck before, this time sinking his teeth so far in that the muscle of the shoulder showed plainly, and an instant later, although there seemed scarcely time to strike a second blow, he swept down the body with his long, sharp teeth, catching the younger at the flipper-joint, and inflicting a wound almost exactly similar to that which he had received.

Quick as a flash, the younger combatant gave up the fight. But as he turned, instead of merely crawling away defeated, he made a sudden convulsive sprawl which the older bull was not expecting, and dug his teeth into the cow who had given rise to all the trouble, and lifted her bodily. The old beachmaster, his mane bristling with rage, made after him, but the younger bull, although he was forced to move on the stump of his wounded flipper, held fast to his prize, even when the victor inflicted a fourth fearful wound.

But before the old sea-catch could turn the plucky youngster, he saw two other bulls sidling towards his harem, intending to steal his cows while he was off guard, and he lumbered back to repel the new intruders. In the meantime, the young bull was attacked on his way to his own station by three other bulls near whose harems he had to pass, but he made no resistance and, though bleeding from a dozen wounds, he struggled on, leaving a gory trail in his wake, but gripping with grim determination the cow he had almost given his life to secure. When at last he reached his own station, he was a mass of blood from head to foot, his flesh was hanging from him in strips and one of his fore-flippers was dangling uselessly.

“He put up a plucky fight, anyway,” said Colin, “even if he did get licked.”

But it was for the poor cow seal that Colin felt the most sympathy. She lay upon the rocks where her second captor had thrown her, absolutely unconscious and seemingly almost dead, wounded in several places and covered with blood and sand, a wretched contrast to the pretty, gentle animal which the boy had seen emerge from the water not fifteen minutes before.

“It’s a shame,” Colin said, speaking a little chokingly. “I didn’t know any animals could be so brutal.”

The agent glanced at him quickly.

“The beachmasters are brutes,” he said, “but mostly among themselves. Notice. The bull isn’t even licking his wounds. He’s pretty well used up, too. They’re always too proud to show that they feel their hurts. Evidently! Even when they have been almost torn to pieces.”

“Then you think he won’t die?”

“Not a bit of it,” the agent said cheerfully. “He’ll be ready for another fight to-morrow.”

“But how about the poor cow? She looks about dead now,” said Colin.

“Not as bad as it looks! She’s all right,” his friend replied. “Those wounds don’t go down into vital parts. They usually just reach the blubber. There isn’t a sea-catch on the rookery that hasn’t had from ten to twenty fights already this year. Most of ’em have been at it for several seasons. Yet you can hardly notice a scar on them. As for the mother seal, she will probably have a baby seal to-morrow. In a week the wounds will all have healed over. Cat may have nine lives, but a seal has ninety!”