Read CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN - THEIR FIRST WALRUS. of Steve Young , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

But they were not kept waiting long.  A quarter of a mile farther on the coast trended round to the east, and there the open sheet of water became encumbered with masses of ice, upon several of which Jakobsen, whose eyes were wonderfully good and admirably trained, pointed out walrus asleep or on the watch with head thrown back.

That was enough.  Andrew uttered no more gibes, but tugged at his oar with the rest, and as silently; for all knew how much depended upon their surprising the wary beasts.

“Have you ever shot walrus, sir?” asked Johannes suddenly.

“Never,” replied the captain; “but I think I shall be able to hit one.”

“Of course, sir.  What I meant was, that as soon as you have hit one it will make for the water and sink.  So do not be surprised after you have shot if I harpoon the beast to save it from being lost.”

“They do sink, then?”

“Yes, sir; fat as they are they go right down.  I have seen many a one lost after being shot.”

“But they are so fat,” said the captain.  “An animal laden like that with blubber ought surely to float.”

“You would think so, sir,” replied the Norseman, who had now replaced the spear along the thwarts and taken up a harpoon; “but they do not float.”

“Well, don’t let us lose any if you can prevent it,” said the captain; and Johannes smiled, and then answered Steve’s questions, as he busily made ready for the coming fight by thrusting the lance heads well up into the box which protected them from injury right up toward the bows, and then examined the harpoon head and shank round which the line was firmly secured.

“How long is the line, Johannes?”

“About fifteen fathoms, sir.”

“Oh, but isn’t that too short?  Suppose the walrus comes to the end of the line after being harpooned.  It would pull the boat under.”

“No, sir,” said the man, smiling, “because then we should cut the line.”

“But that would be a pity.  Why not have it longer?”

“Because it would only be in the way, sir.  A walrus seldom takes out fifteen fathoms when it dives after being struck.”

“How’s that?”

“Before it has run out that much it has to come up again to breathe.”

“I see.  But suppose it swims away along the surface?”

“Ah! you’ll see then, sir,” said Johannes, smiling, “if I am lucky enough to harpoon one.”

Steve was silent for the time as, in obedience to the captain’s orders, the men rowed gently toward a huge bull which lay on the ice, displaying a magnificent pair of tusks.  But suddenly something took the boy’s attention, and he seized the Norseman’s arm.

“Look!” he cried.  “How lucky I saw!  That harpoon is not fastened to the shaft.”

“No, sir.  It ought not to be.”

“But why?  Won’t it come off when you throw it?”

“I hope so, sir; we don’t want it broken.  Don’t you see that the line is fastened to the head?  We want the shaft to come out and float on the water, so that we can pick it up and use it again.  It is almost the same as with the harpoons for the beluga.”

“Oh, I see.  But wouldn’t they be better if they were made thicker?”

“No, sir,” said the man, giving the harpoon head a twist and taking it easily from the pointed end of the light pine shaft and replacing it.  “That is just right, sir.”

Steve gave the Norseman a droll look.

“I say,” he whispered, “what an ignorant fellow you must think me!”

“No,” said the man, smiling.  “You did not understand the things that long experience has taught us are the best; but they are very simple, and you know them now.”

“Yes, I know now.  But tell me one more thing, and then I will not bother you any more.”

“Quick, then,” said the Norseman good-humouredly.

“I want to know how near you have to get before you throw.”

“We don’t throw the harpoon at all if we can help it,” replied Johannes, “but get close enough to thrust it into the seal, give it a twist to entangle it in the tough hide, and draw out the shaft.”

“Oh, look!” said Steve in a disappointed tone; for, when they were about a hundred yards away, the big bull raised his head, stared at them, and then shuffled off the block on which he lay, gave two or three heavy flops, and slid down softly into the water.

“Never mind, sir,” said Johannes calmly; “there is another yonder with finer tusks ­that one to the left; and you can steer the boat so that it will be out of sight till we are quite close.”

The captain’s face, which had looked gloomy, brightened, and he followed out the instructions given; while Skene, after twice over being on the point of barking loudly at the huge beasts scattered about amongst the icefloes, appeared as if he grasped the position and the meaning of the talking-to he had received, and stood there with his feet upon one of the thwarts well out of the way of the harpooner and his line, and watched the walrus with his ears quivering and playing about, taking evidently as much interest in the proceedings as his master.

This time the boat passed several of the heavy animals, which stared at them stupidly, but did not attempt to stir, so that there would have been no difficulty twice over in striking and making fast; but the huge fellow with the grand tusks was the one they aimed for, the walrus they passed having shorter or broken teeth.

“How is it so many have their teeth damaged?” whispered Steve.

“No dentists up here to attend to them,” said the doctor, who had heard the query.

“Some break them fighting,” said Johannes seriously, for he did not comprehend Mr Handscombe’s allusion; “but very often they snap off the points through digging, them into the ice.”

“What for?”

“To drag themselves up out of the water,” replied Johannes with a look of surprise.  “Now, hist!”

Steve was silent, and sat with his rifle across his lap watching the animals, several of those swimming about being young of various sizes, great, fat, shapeless creatures, more like inflated india-rubber sacks cut short than anything else.

And all this time the boat and men kept well behind a large piece of the ice-floe, which screened them effectually from the great bull.  But now the time had come when they would have to row round into sight, and the captain sat ready with his piece cocked, the doctor also being prepared to follow if necessary; and, seeing this, Steve softly raised the hammers of his own rifle, and sat prepared.

Johannes noted his action, and gave an approving nod.

The boat glided round the end of the floe, and there, some sixty yards away, lay the massive bull.

The huge animal had no idea of their approach till now, when they learned the fact that it was evidently the sentinel of the herd, for it drew itself right up with a look of surprise, and the captain raised his piece.

“Not yet, sir!” cried Johannes.  “Closer, closer!”

The men pulled, and they saw the bull go through some singular evolutions, as if it were kicking at something beyond and out of sight.  It was so, for instantly three more walrus started into sight and plunged into the water, and, the alarm being spread, the occupants of other masses of ice and the edge of the principal floe slid and splashed heavily in, their leader having evidently cried, “Danger!  Every one for himself!”

As soon as the grand old sentinel had done his duty, he prepared, with an activity not to have been expected, to take care of himself, all of this having been the work of half a minute; but the boat was now within thirty yards, and gliding nearer, when the captain fired two shots rapidly one after the other.

“Pull!” roared Johannes, and the men dragged at their stout ashen blades; and as the bull, which did not seem even staggered by the heavy bullets, plunged down from the side of the floe, the Norseman reached it and drove the harpoon right into its back, giving a twist with his wrist, and drawing back with the thin pine shaft, as the line ran rapidly out over the bows, following the walrus which had disappeared.

“No, missed!” cried one of the Norsemen from the second boat; and as Steve glanced in that direction he saw that they were pulling hard, apparently after nothing, for not a walrus could be seen.

Then, with Johannes erect in the bows, armed with his great lance, the boat was pulled in the direction in which the line was running out, and for a moment Steve was startled, for all at once a hundred heads almost together appeared above the surface some distance before them, there was a burst of sniffs and snorts as the animals took breath and instantly dived down again, their flippers appearing above the surface, and then they were gone.

The great bull appeared, too, and dived once more before the line was run out; and when the herd, after which the other boat was in full chase, had appeared in the same way two or three times, breathed, and dived again, Jakobsen began to manipulate the line so as to get a pull on the frightened beast, in whose tough hide the harpoon held fast.  The consequence was that, while the mate was urging on the men in the other boat, the captain’s was being towed and the men lying on their oars.

Just then there was a shout from the other boat, for the last of the flying herd had been overtaken by hard pulling; and, watching his opportunity so as to pick out a finely tusked head, the Norse harpooner there had made a successful thrust, and they, too, were fast in a great bull.

The end for the poor beast first struck was now near; it was growing tired of trying to overtake the flying herd, which appeared and disappeared with wonderful regularity and exactness.  It had the boat to drag as well as to force its mighty carcass through the water, and Jakobsen drew upon the line again and again, so as to get within striking distance when the animal ceased to make efforts to dive down.

“Let me come forward and send a bullet through it,” said the doctor.

“Better not, sir.  It may charge us, and we can stop it better with our lances.  If it got its tusks over the side, we should either have a plank ripped out or be overturned.”

“Do it your own way,” said the captain; and the words had hardly left his lips when Jakobsen stooped and rapidly picked up his lance, for the head of the walrus appeared above the water with its great six-inch bristles standing out above the gleaming tusks.  And now it seemed as if it were determined to fly no more, but to wreak its vengeance upon its pursuers.  With a loud, snorting noise it made a rush for the boat, its eyes looking wild and red, and the whole aspect of the great visage threatening to a degree.

Steve’s heart seemed to give a bound, for he was close to the bows, and only a few feet from the terrible-looking monster.  Involuntarily he raised and presented his piece; but Johannes uttered a warning growl that sounded exactly like that emitted by Skene, who backed away amongst the men, snarling and showing his teeth, as if saying, “I’ve got plenty of fight in me, but it isn’t fair to expect me to tackle an arctic sea-elephant like that.”

Then the huge beast was close up, with head raised, and the gleaming tusks about to strike the boat’s bows, when, whish! crish! two great lances were driven into its breast.  The recoil thrust the boat away from where the water was tossed wildly about, the animal struggling frantically, and recovering itself sufficiently from the two terrible thrusts, which dyed the clear water with crimson, to make another charge at the boat, but only to be met in the same way.

There was another desperate struggle, the poor creature scattering the water with its great flippers, and the next minute, to Steve’s great relief, it was dead and beginning to sink; but Johannes seized the line, and deftly threw a ring round the walrus’s neck, gave it a few twists, and made the monster fast, in case the harpoon should after all give way, as it had with the other boat, which was now returning disconsolate, it being impossible to overtake the swimming and diving herd.  Then all at once the animals turned, for something happened which brought them tearing back through the water as rapidly as they had tried to escape; and now, as they came swimming back, it was without any diving, but with serried front, eyes flashing, and tusks gleaming, in a grand charge upon the boats, and with a force sufficient to tear them into matchwood and drown their occupants in the first rush.