Read CHAPTER VIII - ANXIOUS TIMES of The Wreckers of Sable Island, free online book, by J. Macdonald Oxley, on

“How would I like it?” cried Eric, his face beaming. “Why, above all things. I’ve often seen pictures of the great ugly creatures, and I think it would be just splendid to shoot one and get his tusks.”

“All right, my boy,” replied Ben. “We’ll start the first thing in the morning.”

Accordingly, the next morning the two set out upon their ponies for the west end. Ben carried a heavy musket that would send a load of slugs through a ship’s side, and Eric a light smooth-bore, the accuracy of which he had proved by frequent practice. As they would be away all day, they took plenty of biscuits with them. Prince, of course, accompanied them, and as soon as they had disposed of breakfast they started.

There were many creatures to be found on Sable Island in those days which would be vainly sought for now. Besides the ponies, a large number of wild cattle and hogs roamed about the interior, and furnished the wreckers with abundant meat; while during the winter the morse, or walrus, and the great Greenland seal paid the beaches regular visits. The common harbour seal was there all the year round. Of these animals, only the ponies and common seals still remain; the others have been all killed off.

When Ben and Eric drew near the end of the island they dismounted and tethered the ponies, so that they could not run back to the corral. They then made their way cautiously to the edge of the bank thrown up by the waves. Ben was a little ahead of Eric, and the moment he peeped over the bank he turned and motioned Eric to follow.

“Look, lad!” said he, in a voice full of excitement, as he pointed to the beach in front. “There they are! Aren’t they beauties?”

Eric looked, and his face showed the surprise he had too much sense to put into words. “Beauties!” he thought to himself. “Why, they are the most hideous monsters I ever saw in my life.”

And they certainly were hideous, with their huge, dun-coloured, ungainly bodies, their bullet heads, their grizzly beards, their terrible tusks, and their bulging eyes. They looked as ugly as some nightmare vision. Plucky as he was, Eric could not restrain a tremor as he gazed at them. But he had no time to indulge his feelings, for Ben said in a hoarse whisper,

“You take that tusker right in front of you, and I’ll take the big fellow to the right, and when I say ‘Fire!’ let drive. Be sure and aim right at the nose.”

Eric’s heart was beating wildly, and he could scarcely breathe for excitement; but his hand was steady as he drew the musket to his shoulder, and took careful aim at the nose of the walrus Ben had assigned to him. Giving a quick glance to see that all was ready, Ben called “Fire!”

Like the report of one the two muskets cracked together, and the marksmen peered eagerly through the smoke to see the result. Clearly enough their aim had been good; for while the remainder of the little pack of walruses lumbered off into the water snorting with terror, the two that had been picked out as targets did not follow. Ben’s fell over on the sand, to all appearance dead; but Eric’s plunged madly about, seeming to be too bewildered to take refuge in flight.

Hastily reloading, the hunters rushed upon their prey, and Ben, seizing a good opportunity, put another charge of slugs into the struggling creature’s head, just behind the ear, which cut short its sufferings.

“Hurrah!” cried Ben, radiant with pride and satisfaction. “We’ve got them both, and no mistake. We’ll each have a fine pair of tusks, won’t we?”

Eric was no less delighted, and all his nervousness having vanished, executed a sort of war-dance around the prostrate forms of the sea-monsters, which looked all the uglier the closer he got to them. Drawing a big knife from his belt, Ben approached his walrus to sever the head from the body, Eric standing a little distance off to watch him. They were quite sure the creature was dead; but the instant the sharp steel touched its neck it came to life, for it had been only stunned. With a sudden sweep of its fore-flipper, it hurled Ben over upon his back, sending the knife flying from his hand.

“Eric! quick! for God’s sake!” cried Ben, as he fell.

The infuriated monster was right over him. In another moment those terrible tusks would have been buried in his body, when, with a roar like that of a lion, Prince launched himself full at the walrus’s head, and his great fangs closed tightly in the soft part where the head joins the neck. Uttering a roar quite equal to the dog’s, the morse turned upon his new assailant; but just as he did so, Eric’s rifle spoke again. Its bullet crashed into the monster’s brain, and with a mad flurry, which loosened even Prince’s hold, it rolled over upon the sand, this time dead beyond question.

Ben sprang to his feet, and rushing upon Eric flung his arms around him, and gave him a hug that fairly squeezed the breath out of him. Then, without a word, he turned to Prince, and repeated the operation. He then expressed his gratitude in these words,

“It was a good day for me when I saved your lives. You’ve done me good ever since; and now you’ve saved my life, and it’s only tit for tat. All right, my lad; so long as there’s a drop of blood in my body, no harm shall come to either of you that Ben Harden can fend off.”

The business of beheading, which had been so startlingly interrupted, was now resumed. From the way Ben handled his knife, he was evidently quite experienced at the work. They wanted only the tusks, but to get them out in perfect condition, it would be necessary to boil the heads until the flesh came off readily; so they had to take them back to the hut for that purpose.

Well satisfied with the result of their hunt, they ate their lunch and took a good rest before returning to the hut, which they reached early in the afternoon. They both felt that they were now bound to each other by ties of peculiar strength. Eric, uncertain and full of difficulty as to the future, somehow felt convinced that Ben would bring it out all right for him. He little imagined how much he would help himself in escaping.

Chasing ponies and hunting walruses were not the only amusements Sable Island afforded Eric. As has been already mentioned, the grassy dells abounded with rabbits and the marshy lake and ponds with wild fowl. The rabbit-shooting was really capital sport. The bunnies were fine big fellows, as lively and wary as any sportsman could wish, and to secure a good bag of them meant plenty of hard work.

It was the rabbit-hunting that found Prince in his glory. Had he been a greyhound instead of a mastiff he could not have entered more heartily into the chase. To be sure, he proved, upon the whole, rather more of a hindrance than a help; but no suspicion of this fact ever dashed his bright spirit, and not for the world would Eric have hinted it to him. His redeeming quality lay in his retrieving, for he had been carefully trained to fetch and carry, and he quickly learned to hunt out and bring to them the victims of their muskets. The rabbits were not killed in the mere wantonness of sport. There was always an active demand for them at the hut, where Black Joe made them into savoury stews.

About the same time as the walruses came great numbers of the Greenland seal, which a little later brought forth their funny little whelps. These looked like amphibious puppies as they sprawled about the beach or scuttled off into the water. They took Eric’s boyish fancy so strongly that he longed to have one for a pet.

Ben soon gratified him by creeping cautiously upon the pack one day, and grasping by the tail a fine, sleek, shiny little fellow. After a couple of weeks’ confinement in a pen, that Eric built for him, with constant, kind attention, the captive became so contented with his new life, and so attached to his young master, that he was allowed his liberty. He showed not the slightest disposition to run away. Eric found him quite as intelligent and docile as a dog, and taught him many amusing tricks.

So long as the weather was fine Eric had plenty of cures for low spirits. But in the winter the proportion of fine days to foul is very small on Sable Island. For a whole week at a time the sun would not appear, and long storms were frequent. Happily, there was one resource at hand for the stormy weather.

Among the spoils of the Francis was a leather-covered box, so handsome and so heavy that one of the wreckers, feeling sure it contained something valuable, brought it carefully ashore. When he broke it open he was much disgusted to find that it contained nothing but books. He flung it into a corner, boasting that “he had no book larnin’, and what’s more, didn’t want none.”

Eric afterwards picked it up, and was delighted to find in it a large assortment of interesting books. He stowed the box carefully away at the back of his bunk, and thenceforth, when compelled to stay indoors, was never without a book in his hands. He read over and over those well-selected volumes, enriching his mind with their finest passages.

Yet, despite all those exertions, Eric was far from being really happy or content. His one thought was deliverance from his strange situation, and he could not disguise from himself how dark his future looked. Ben, of course, could now be relied upon to the uttermost. But while his protection availed so long as they remained upon the island, matters would, no doubt, be different when the time came to leave the place. Then not only Evil-Eye, but all the other wreckers, would undoubtedly see to it that there was no fear of his becoming an informer, and placing them in peril of the law.

As the winter wore away, they often talked about going to Boston; and Eric gathered from their conversation that with the coming of spring they looked for a schooner sent out by confederates to take them and their booty home. This schooner now became the supreme object of his concern. In it he saw his best, if not, indeed, his only hope of deliverance. Many an evening when he seemed deep in his books he was, in reality, with strained ears and throbbing pulses, listening to the wreckers discussing their plans for the future. Tax his brains as he might, he could invent no satisfactory scheme.

More than once he tried to talk with Ben about the matter. But whether Ben did not wish to confess that he had no plan himself, or whether he thought it best not to excite uncertain hope, he always refused to talk about it, generally saying,

“We’ll see, my lad, we’ll see. I’ll do my best for ye, never you fear.”

As spring drew near, signs of excitement and eager expectation became visible among the wreckers. They spent most of the clear days upon the highest hills, peering out across the waves in search of the schooner. They did not know just when to expect her. Indeed, had a date been fixed, they would not have been any better off, for they were without any means of keeping an account of the days, except by observing the sun and moon.

The days grew steadily longer and warmer, and yet no schooner appeared. Hope long deferred did not make the hot temper of the wreckers any more amiable, and Eric, worried as he was with his own troubles, found life harder than ever. Moreover, a new danger presently appeared.

The majority of the wreckers showed entire indifference toward him. He and his big dog were Ben’s belongings, and so long as they got in nobody’s way they were let alone. But when day after day and week after week slipped by, and the schooner did not arrive, the boy began to notice a change. Ugly, suspicious, threatening glances were cast upon him, and interchanged. Beyond a doubt, the peril of his position was alarmingly on the increase.

The explanation was simple enough. Like all men of their class, the wreckers were intensely superstitious, and the wily villain Evil-Eye, though indirectly, shrewdly seized upon the delay of the schooner to strike at Eric. He suggested to the men that the boy’s presence was the cause of the vessel’s non-appearance. He had brought them ill-luck, for not a wreck had come their way since his life had been spared. Now he was playing them another scurvy trick and, by some witchery, interfering with the carrying out of their plans.

The seed so craftily sown took root at once. Only the curious feeling, half-fear, half-admiration, that they held toward Ben saved Eric for a time from falling a victim to their superstition.

Even his influence would not have availed much longer, had not, one fine morning in May, the welcome cry of “Sail ho! sail ho!” rung out lustily from a watcher on the highest hill. Soon the broad sails of a schooner appeared.

Everything else was forgotten in the joy occasioned by this sight. But Evil-Eye, again foiled in his base designs, snarled savagely at Eric, and swore that he would have his own way yet.

The water being too shallow, the schooner hove-to about a mile from shore, and fired a gun to announce her arrival. But that was not necessary. All the inhabitants of the island were already on the beach to welcome her. Presently a boat was lowered, and three persons getting in, it was rowed swiftly ashore. The breakers were successfully passed with the aid of a number of the wreckers, who dashed into the surf, and drew the boat up high and dry upon the beach.

The new-comers were very heartily if somewhat roughly greeted. After the first excitement was over, Eric noticed they were looking at him curiously.

Evil-Eye whispered among them, whereupon they shook their heads as though to say,

“Oh no, that can’t be done. We’re quite sure that won’t do at all.”

Eric’s heart sank when he saw this, and rightly guessed its meaning. There seemed, at best, but two chances for him. He would either be left behind upon the island in helpless solitude, or be taken to Boston, and there got rid of somehow in such a way that he could give no trouble to the wreckers. On the latter, surrounded although it was with uncertainties and dangers innumerable, he pinned all his hopes. It offered some faint chance of ultimate deliverance. But would they take him on board the schooner?