Read CHAPTER SEVENTEEN of Red Rooney The Last of the Crew , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

TELLS OF DESPAIR AND A WILD PURSUIT.

On discovering that Nunaga and the children were not at Moss Bay, and that there were no fresh sledge tracks in that region to tell of their whereabouts, Simek drove back to the village at a wild scamper, in a state of mind very much the reverse of jovial.  His hope was that the girl might have been to some other locality, and had perhaps returned during his absence; but the first glance at Nuna put that hope to flight, for the poor woman was in a state of terrible anxiety.

Cheery little Kunelik and her mild son did their best to comfort her, but without success, for she knew well the determined character of the man who had probably carried off her children.

“Has she not come back?” demanded Simek, appearing, like an infuriated Polar bear, at the inside opening of the passage to Okiok’s mansion.

“No,” gasped Nuna.

Simek said no more, but backed out faster than he had come in.  Ippegoo followed him.

“Run, Ippe; tell all the men to get all their sledges and dogs ready, and come here to me.”

Ippegoo ran off at once, while the energetic hunter rearranged the fastenings of his own sledge and team as if for a long journey.

He was thus engaged when Okiok and Angut were seen approaching the village at an easy trot.  Evidently they knew nothing of what had occurred.  Simek ran out to meet them.  A few words sufficed to explain.  The news seemed to stun both men at first, but the after-effect on each was wonderfully different.  The blood rushed to Okiok’s face like a torrent.  He clenched his hands and teeth, glared and stamped, and went on like one deranged ­as indeed for the moment he was.  Angut, on the other hand, was perfectly self-possessed and subdued, but his heaving chest, quivering nostrils, compressed lips, and frowning brows told that a volcano of emotion raged within.

Turning suddenly to Okiok, he seized him by both arms as if his hands were vices.

“Listen,” he said, with a sort of subdued intensity, that had the effect of quieting his friend; “get out your sledge and dogs.”

“All are ready,” interposed Simek, eagerly.

Angut waited for no more, but, leaving his friends, ran off at full speed towards the village.  Okiok and Simek leaped on their respective sledges and followed.

On arriving, it was found that most of the active men of the tribe were already assembled, with dogs harnessed, provisions and hunting-gear strapped down, and all ready for a journey of any length.

To these Angut gave directions in a tone and manner that deeply impressed his friends.  Not that he was loud or eager or violent; on the contrary, he was unusually calm, but deadly pale, and with an air of tremendous resolution about him that made the men listen intently and obey with promptitude.  In a very few minutes he had sent off one and another in almost every direction, with instructions where to go, what to do, and how and when to return, in the event of failure.  Then he leaped on his own sledge, and turned to Red Rooney, who was standing by.

“Ridroonee,” he said, in a somewhat sad tone, “I go to find Nunaga.  If I succeed not, you will see me no more.”

He held out his hand to take farewell in the Kablunet’s fashion.

“What say you?” exclaimed Rooney, taken by surprise, “Nonsense! see you no ­Pooh! ­hold on a bit.”

He ran into his friend’s hut, and quickly returned with his bear-skin sleeping-bag and a small wallet which contained his little all.

“Now then,” he cried, jumping on the sledge, “away you go as soon as you like.  I’m with ’ee, lad.”

Angut shook his head.

“But the Kablunet is not yet strong enough to travel,” said the Eskimo, doubtfully.

“The Kablunet is strong enough to pitch you over his head; and he’ll do it too, if you don’t drive on.”

With another doubtful look and shake of the head, Angut seized his whip.  The dogs, knowing the signal well, sprang up.  At that moment Angut observed the little eyes of Kannoa peering at him wistfully.

“Come,” he said, holding out a hand.

The old woman’s visage beamed with joy, as she seized the hand, and scrambled on the sledge.  Then the lash came round with the wonted crack.  The dogs winced, but did not suffer, for Angut was merciful to his beasts, and away they went at full speed ­Okiok having dashed off in similar fashion with his two sons and Simek in another direction a few minutes before them.

North, south, east, and west, on land and sea, did those Eskimos search for tracks of the fugitives; but the whole immediate neighbourhood was so cut up in all directions by the daily out-going and in-coming of their own hunters, that the discovering of a special track was not easy ­indeed, almost impossible.  All day they sped over the ice and snow in widening circles.  When night came, they waited till the moon arose, and then continued the search.  It was not till the forenoon of the following day that the unsuccessful searchers began to drop in one by one, worn-out and disheartened.

Nuna and the other women had breakfast ready for them.  Little was said, for the women were depressed, and the men, after eating, immediately sought much-needed repose.  It was nearly evening before Okiok and his sons returned.

“No sign anywhere,” he said in reply to his poor wife’s mute inquiry.  “Ippegoo,” he added, turning to the youth, whose woe-begone expression at another time would have been ludicrous, “I will sleep for some time.  Let the dogs be well fed all round, and be ready to start with me when the moon rises.”

Without another word, he stretched himself on the floor, pillowed his head on a deerskin, and went to sleep almost on the instant.

Meanwhile Angut had driven straight to Moss Bay.  His search was not one of a wild haphazard nature.  Despite the agitation of his breast, his mind was clear and his head cool.  Judging that Nunaga must at least have started for her intended destination, whatever might afterwards have induced her to change her mind, he drove slowly along, observing with a lynx eye everything that looked in the slightest degree like a divergence from the route.  The consequence was, that on reaching the place where the divergence had actually taken place, he pulled up, and got off the sledge to examine.

“You’re right,” remarked Rooney, who accompanied his friend, while old Kannoa remained with the dogs.  “It’s easy to see that a sledge has turned off here.”

“Quite easy,” responded the Eskimo, with suppressed eagerness; “we will follow.”

Running back, they turned the dogs into the fresh track, and soon came to the place where Ujarak had joined the women.  Angut pointed to the footprints with a gleam of unusual ferocity in his eyes.  For some time they could easily follow the track, and went along at a rapid pace; but when it led them to the point where it joined other tracks, the difficulty of following became great.  Of course Angut at once understood the object of this ruse, and became more attentive to every mark that seemed in the remotest degree to indicate another divergence, but failed to hit upon the spot, and finally came to a halt when far out on the floes where drift had obliterated the old sledge-marks, and a recent track could not have escaped notice.  Then he made a wide circular sweep, which was meant to cut across all the tracks that radiated from the village.

In this manoeuvre he was more successful.

Towards evening he came upon a recent track which led straight to the southward.

“Got him at last!” exclaimed Rooney, with a shout of excitement and satisfaction.

“I think so,” said Angut, as he went down on his knees and carefully examined the marks on the floe.  His opinion was clearly shown by his starting up suddenly, jumping on the sledge again, flourishing his whip savagely, and setting off at a pace that obliged Rooney to seize the lashings with both hands and hold on tight.  Old Kannoa did the same, and stuck to the sledge like a limpet, with her chin resting on her knees and her sharp little eyes gazing anxiously ahead.

Soon they came to the rough ground that had tried the quality of the wizard’s sledge, and the vehicle bumped over the ice at such a rate that the poor old woman was almost pitched out.

“Hallo! hold on!” cried Rooney, as they went over a hummock with a crash that made Kannoa gasp, “you’ll kill the poor thing if you ­”

He stopped short, for another crash almost tumbled himself over the stern of the vehicle.

Angut was roused to desperation.  He scarcely knew what he was doing, as he lashed the yelping team furiously, hoping that when he should pass the cape ahead of him he would come in sight of the fugitives.

“Here, catch hold of me, old woman,” cried Rooney, putting an arm round the poor creature’s waist; “sit on my legs.  They’ll act something like a buffer to your old bones.”

Kannoa gave a sort of lively chuckle at the novelty of the situation, let go her hold of the sledge, and made a sudden plunge at Rooney, grasping him tight round the neck with both arms.  She was little more than a baby in the seaman’s huge grasp, nevertheless, having only one arm to spare, and with a sledge that not only bumped, but swung about like a wild thing, he found her quite as much as he could manage.

The night had fairly set in when the cape was rounded, so that nothing could be distinguished, not even the track they had been following ­and travelling became dangerous.

“No use to push on, Angut,” remarked Rooney, as his friend pulled up; “we must have patience.”

“Yes; the moon will be up soon,” returned his friend; “we will now rest and feed.”

The resting meant sitting there in the dark on the side of the sleigh, and the feeding consisted in devouring a lump of seal’s flesh raw.  Although not very palatable, this was eminently profitable food, as Angut well knew.  As for Rooney, he had learned by that time to eat whatever came in his way with thankfulness ­when hungry, and not to eat at all when otherwise.

The moon rose at last, and revealed the sheet of glassy ice which had previously disconcerted Ujarak.  Angut also beheld it with much concern, and went on foot to examine it.  He returned with an anxious look.

“They have crossed,” he said moodily, “but the ice has cracked much, and my sledge is, I fear, heavier than theirs.”

“We can walk, you know, and so lighten it,” said Rooney.

“No; it is only by a dash at full speed that we can do it.  Will my friend run the risk?”

“He would not be your friend if he were not willing,” returned the seaman gravely; “but what about Kannoa?  It’s not fair to risk her life.”

“We cannot leave her behind,” said Angut, with a perplexed glance at the cowering figure on the sledge.  “She could not return to the village on foot.  That would be greater risk to her than going on with us.”

At this point the old woman looked up with a sort of pleasant grin, and croaked ­

“Kannoa is not heavy.  Take her with you.  She is quite willing to live or die with Angut and Ridroonee.”

With a slight smile the Eskimo resumed his place and whip.  Rooney patted Kannoa on the head as he sat down beside her, and called her a “brave old girl.”

Another moment, and the dogs were out on the glassy plain, galloping as well as they could, and yelping as much from fear of the rending and bending ice as the cracking whip.

They had not advanced twenty yards when one of the sledge-runners broke through.  This brought them to a sudden halt.  Next moment the sledge went down, and Angut found himself struggling with the dogs in the sea.  Fortunately Rooney, being near the back part of the sledge, was able to roll off in a sort of back-somersault before the vehicle was quite submerged.  Even in the act he did not forget Kannoa.  He made a blind grasp at her in passing, but found her not, for that remarkable woman, at the first alarm, and being well aware of what was coming, had sprawled off at the rear, and was already on the ice in safety.

The two now set to work to rescue Angut and the dogs.  The former had cut the latter free from the sledge, so that it was not difficult to haul them out along with their master.  For it must be remembered that, although the thin ice had failed to bear the sledge, it was sufficiently strong to support the individuals singly.

To get the sledge out of the water was, however, a matter of much greater difficulty, but they accomplished it in the course of an hour or so.  The process of doing this helped to dry Angut’s garments, which was fortunate.  It was also fortunate that the sharp spring frost, which had set fast the space of open water, had by that time given way, so that there was no fear of evil consequences from the ducking either to dogs or man.

But now came the serious question, What was to be done?

“It is of no use trying it again,” said Angut, in a frame of mind amounting almost to despair.

“Could we not send Kannoa back with the sledge, and you and I make sail after them on foot?” asked Rooney.

Angut shook his head despondingly.

“Of no use,” he said; “they have the best dogs in our village.  As well might a rabbit pursue a deer.  No; there is but one course.  The land-ice is impassable, but the floes out on the sea seem still to be fast.  If they break up while we are on them we shall be lost.  Will Ridroonee agree to take old Kannoa back to her friends, and I will go forward with the sledge alone?”

“What say you, Kannoa?” asked Rooney, turning to the old woman with a half-humorous look.

“Kannoa says she will live or die with Angut and Ridroonee,” she replied firmly.

“You’re a trump!” exclaimed the seaman in English.  Then, turning to the Eskimo ­

“You see, Angut, it’s impossible to get rid of us, so up anchor, my boy, and off we go seaward.  The truth is, I ought to feel more in my element when we get out to sea.”

Seeing that they were resolved, Angut made no further objection, but, directing the dogs’ heads away from the land, flourished his long whip over them, and set off at as break-neck a pace as before over the seaward ice-floes.