Read CHAPTER ONE - A ROMANCE OF THE ICE-WORLD. of The Walrus Hunters A Romance of the Realms of Ice , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

A surprise, A combat, and A feed.

There is a river in America which flows to the north-westward of Great Bear Lake, and helps to drain that part of the great wilderness into the Arctic Sea.

It is an insignificant stream compared with such well-known waterways as the Mackenzie and the Coppermine; nevertheless it is large enough to entice the white-whale and the seal into its waters every spring, and it becomes a resting-place for myriads of wild-fowl while on their passage to and from the breeding-grounds of the Far North.

Greygoose River was the name given to it by the Dogrib Indians who dwelt in its neighbourhood, and who were wont, every spring and autumn, to descend its waters nearly to the sea in quest of game.  The Eskimos, who, coming from the mysterious north, were in the habit of ascending it a short way during open water in pursuit of their peculiar prey, named it Whale River.

The Indians and Eskimos did not often meet while on these trips.  They did not like meeting, because the result was apt to be disastrous.  Besides, the land was wide and the game plentiful enough for both, so that they were not much tempted to risk a meeting.  Occasionally, however, meetings and encounters did take place, and sometimes bitter feuds arose, but the possession of fire-arms by the Indians-who were supplied by the fur-traders-rendered the Eskimos wary.  Their headstrong courage, however, induced the red men to keep as much as possible out of their way.  In short, there was a good deal of the spirit of “let-be for let-be” between the two at the time of which we write.

One morning in the spring-time of the year, soon after the floods caused by the melting snows had swept the ice clean out of Greygoose or Whale River, a sturdy young Eskimo urged his sharp kayak, or skin-covered canoe, up the stream in pursuit of a small white-whale.  But the creature gave him the slip, so that, after an energetic chase, he turned his light vessel towards the left bank of the stream, intending to land.

Cheenbuk, for such was his name, was one of those sedate beings whose energies run calm and deep, like a mighty river.  This feelings, whatever they might be, did not usually cause much agitation on the surface.  Disappointment did not visibly depress, nor did success unduly elate him.  The loss of the whale failed to disturb the placid look of grave contentment which sat on his good-looking countenance.

For it must be noted here that Cheenbuk was a handsome savage-if, indeed, we are entitled to style him a savage at all.  His features were good, and strongly marked.  His young beard and moustache were black, though not bushy.  His dark eyes were large and full of tenderness, which expression, by an almost imperceptible raising of eyelid and contraction of brow, was easily transmuted into a gaze of ferocity or indignation.  His bulky frame was clothed in the seal-skin garb peculiar to his people; his hair was straight, voluminous, and unkempt, and his motions gave indication of great strength combined with agility.

And no wonder, for a large part of our young Eskimo’s life had been spent in battling with the forces of Nature, and the hardships of life as displayed in the Arctic regions-to say nothing of frequent conflicts with the seal, the walrus and the polar bear.

Running his kayak among the rushes of a small inlet, Cheenbuk stepped out of the hole in its centre into the stream.  The water was ankle-deep, but the youth suffered no discomfort, for he wore what may be styled home-made waterproof boots reaching to above the knees.  These had been invented by his forefathers, no doubt, in the remote ages of antiquity-at all events, long before india-rubber had been discovered or Macintosh was born.

Drawing his little craft out of the water, the young man took some food from its interior, and was about to begin his truly simple meal by eating it raw, when a distant sound arrested his hand on the way to his mouth.  He turned his head slightly on one side and remained for some moments like a singularly attentive statue.

Presently the voice of a wild-goose was faintly heard in the far distance.  Evidently the young Eskimo desired a change of fare, for he laid down the slice of raw seal, on which he had been about to regale himself, and disengaged a long slender spear from the bow of his kayak.

It is well-known that wild-geese will, with proverbial stupidity, answer to an imitation of their cry, particularly in spring.  Indeed, they will answer to a very bad imitation of it, insomuch that the poorest counterfeit will turn them out of their course and attract them towards the crier.

Availing himself of this weakness, our Eskimo hid himself behind a bush, and was opening his mouth to give vent to a stentorian goose-call when he was checked, and apparently petrified, by a loud report, which echoed among the neighbouring cliffs.

The youth knew the sound well.  He had heard it only once before, but, once heard, it could never be forgotten.  It was the gun, or, as his people called it, the fire-spouter, of an Indian.  Plunging quietly into the underwood, he hastened towards the spot where a little wreath of smoke betrayed the position of what may be almost styled his hereditary foe.

Cautiously, carefully, and with a catlike motion that could hardly have been excelled by an Indian brave, Cheenbuk advanced until he reached the edge of a partially clear space, in which he beheld an Indian leisurely engaged in pushing the head of a large grey goose under his belt.  At his side, leaning against a tree, was the long-barrelled fowling-piece, which he had just reloaded.  It was one of those common, cheap, flint-lock affairs which were supplied by the fur-traders in those days.

The Indian was a tall, powerfully built middle-aged man, and, from his look and manner, was evidently unsuspicious of the presence of a foe.  He seemed to be quite alone.

The Eskimo poised his light spear, but hesitated to launch it.  He shrank from killing a defenceless foe.  The hesitation betrayed him, for at the moment the sharp ear of the red man heard, and his eye discovered him.

The gun flew to the Indian’s shoulder, and the Eskimo launched his spear, but by good fortune both weapons failed.  The well-directed spear was cleverly dodged, and the gun missed fire.

To re-cock the weapon, take a more deadly aim, and pull the trigger, was the work of three seconds; but again the flint proved faithless.  Cheenbuk, however, divined the meaning of the attempt, and sprang upon his foe to prevent a repetition of the action, though he was now practically unarmed,-for the little stone knife which he carried in his bosom was but ill suited for deadly combat.

The Indian clubbed his gun to meet the onset, but the Eskimo, evading the first blow, caught hold of the weapon with both hands, and now began a fierce and prolonged struggle for possession of the “fire-spouter.”

Both hands of each combatant being engaged, neither could venture to draw his knife, and, as the men were pretty equally matched, both as to size and strength, they swayed to and fro with desperate energy for a considerable time, each endeavouring to throw the other, while the sweat poured down their faces and their breathing came in fitful gasps.

At length there was a pause in the conflict.  It seemed as if they had stopped by mutual consent to recover breath for a final effort.

As they glared into each other’s faces, each felt surprised to see little or nothing of the evidence of that deadly hatred which usually characterises implacable foes.  Suddenly Cheenbuk relaxed his grip of the gun and stepped back a pace.  In so doing he put himself, to some extent at least, at the mercy of his adversary.  With quick perception the Indian recognised the fact.  He drew himself up and dropped the gun on the ground.

“Why should we fight?  The hunting-grounds are wide enough!” he said, in the grave sententious tones peculiar to his race.

“That is just what came to my thought when I let go,” answered the more matter-of-fact Eskimo.

“Let us part, then, as friends,” returned the red man, “and let us do it in the manner of the pale-faced traders.”

He extended his right hand as he spoke.  Cheenbuk, who had heard a rumour of the white man’s customs-probably from men of his race who had met with the crews of whalers-advanced, grasped the extended hand, and shook it in a way that might have done credit to any Englishman!  He smiled at the same time with a slightly humorous expression, but the other maintained his solemnity.  Fun is not a prominent characteristic of the red man.

“But there is no need that we should part before feeding,” said the Eskimo.

“Waugh!” replied the Indian, by which it is to be presumed he signified assent.

The reconciled foes being both adepts in the art of cookery, and-one of them at least-in woodcraft, it was not long before a large fire was blazing under a convenient fir-tree, and the grey goose soon hissed pleasantly in front of it.  They were a quiet and self-contained couple, however, and went about their work in profound silence.  Not that they lacked ideas or language-for each, being naturally a good linguist, had somehow acquired a smattering of the other’s tongue,-but they resembled each other in their disinclination to talk without having something particular to say, and in their inclination to quietness and sobriety of demeanour.

Here, however, the resemblance ceased, for while the Eskimo was free and easy, ready to learn and to sympathise, and quick to see and appreciate a joke, the Indian was sternly conservative, much impressed with his own rectitude of intention, as well as his capacity for action, and absolutely devoid of the slightest tinge of humour.  Thus the Eskimo’s expression varied somewhat with the nature of the subjects which chased each other through his mind, while that of the red man never changed from the calm of dignified immobility-except, of course, when, as during the recent struggle, his life was in danger.

While the goose was roasting, the erstwhile foes sat down to watch the process.  They had not to watch long, for the fire was strong and neither of them was particular.  Indeed, the Eskimo would gladly have eaten his portion raw, but waited patiently, out of deference to what he deemed his companion’s prejudices.

“You are alone?” said the Eskimo interrogatively.

“Yes-alone,” returned the Indian.

To such men, this was mental food for at least a quarter of an hour.  By the end of that time one side of the bird was sufficiently done.  The Indian turned the stick on which it was impaled, drew his scalping-knife, and commenced on the side that was ready while the other side was being done.  Cheenbuk drew his stone knife, cut a large slice of the breast, and also fell to work.  They ate vigorously, yet the process was not soon over, for the goose was large and their appetites were strong.  Of course they had no time or inclination for conversation during the meal.  When it was finished, the grey goose was reduced to a miserable skeleton.  Then both men sighed the sigh of contentment, wiped their knives on the grass, and looked gravely at each other.

Cheenbuk seemed as if about to speak, but was arrested in his intention by the strange and unaccountable proceedings of his companion, who now drew forth a gaily decorated bag which hung at his belt behind him.  From this he extracted a whitish implement with a little bowl at one end, and having leisurely filled it with a brown substance, also drawn from the bag, he put the other or small end of the instrument between his teeth.  Then he took up a burning stick and applied it to the bowl.

The Eskimo had been gazing at him with ever-widening eyes, but at this his mouth also began to open, and he gave vent to a gentle “ho!” of unutterable surprise, for immediately there burst from the Indian’s lips a puff of smoke as if he had suddenly become a gun, or fire-spouter and gone off unexpectedly.

There was profound interest as well as astonishment in the gaze of our Eskimo, for he now became aware that he was about to witness a remarkable custom of the red men, of which he had often heard, but which he had never clearly understood.

“Does it not burn?” he asked in breathless curiosity.

“No,” replied his friend.

“Do you like it?  Hi-i!”

The exclamation was induced by the Indian, who at the moment sent a stream of smoke from each nostril, shut his eyes as he did so, opened his mouth, and otherwise exhibited symptoms of extreme felicity.

“Would you like to try it?” he asked after one or two more whiffs.

Cheenbuk accepted the offer and the pipe, drew a voluminous whiff down into his lungs and exploded in a violent fit of coughing, while the tears overflowed his eyes.

“Try again,” said the Indian gravely.

For some minutes the Eskimo found it difficult to speak; then he returned the pipe, saying, “No.  My inside is not yet tough like yours.  I will look-and wonder!”

After being admired-with wonder-for a considerable time, the Indian looked at his companion earnestly, again offered him the pipe, and said, “Try again.”

The obliging Eskimo tried again, but with the caution of a child who, having been burnt, dreads the fire.  He drew in a little smoke by means of the power of inhalation and choked again slightly, but, being now on his mettle, he resolved not to be beaten.  The Indian regarded him meanwhile with grave approval.  Then it occurred to Cheenbuk to apply the power of suction instead of inhalation.  It was successful.  He filled his mouth instead of his lungs, and, in his childlike delight at the triumph, he opened his mouth to its full extent, and sent forth a cloud with a gasp which was the combined expression of a puff and a “ho!” Again he tried it, and was again successful.  Overjoyed at this, like a child with a new toy, he went in for quite a broadside of puffs, looking round at his friendly foe with a “ho!” between each, and surrounding his head with an atmosphere of smoke.

Suddenly he stopped, laid down the pipe, rose up, and, looking as if he had forgotten something, retired into the bush.

The Indian took up the discarded pipe, and for the first time displayed a few wrinkles about the corners of his eyes as he put it between his lips.

Presently Cheenbuk returned, somewhat paler than before, and sat down in silence with a look, as if of regret, at the skeleton-goose.

Without any reference to what had passed, the Indian turned to his companion and said, “Why should the men of the ice fight with the men of the woods?”

“Why?” asked Cheenbuk, after a few moments’ profound meditation, “why should the men of the woods attack the men of the ice with their fire-spouters?”

This question seemed to puzzle the Indian so much that he proceeded to fill another pipe before answering it.  Meanwhile the Eskimo, being more active-minded, continued-

“Is it fair for the men of the woods to come to fight us with fire-spouters when we have only spears?  Meet us with the same weapons, and then we shall see which are the best men.”

The Indian looked at his companion solemnly and shook his head.

“The strongest warriors and the best fighters,” he said, “are not always the best men.  He who hunts well, keeps his wives supplied with plenty of food and deerskin robes, and is kind to his children, is the best man.”

Cheenbuk looked suddenly in the face of his sententious companion with earnest surprise in every feature, for the sentiments which had just been expressed were in exact accordance with his own.  Moreover, they were not what he expected to hear from the lips of a Dogrib.

“I never liked fighting,” he said in a low voice, “though I have always been able to fight.  It does nobody any good, and it always does everybody much harm, for it loses much blood, and it leaves many women and children without food-providers-which is uncomfortable for the men who have enough of women and children of their own to hunt for.  But,” continued the youth with emphasis, “I always thought that the men of the woods loved fighting.”

“Some of them do, but I hate it!” said the Indian with a sudden look of such ferocity that the Eskimo might have been justified in doubting the truth of the statement.

The flash, however, quickly disappeared, and a double wreath of smoke issued from his nose as he remarked quietly, “Fighting lost me my father, my two brothers, and my only son.”

“Why, then, do you still come against us with fire-spouters?” asked Cheenbuk.

“Because my people will have it so,” returned the red man.  “I do what I can to stop them, but I am only one, and there are many against me.”

“I too have tried to stop my people when they would fight among themselves,” returned the Eskimo in a tone of sympathy; “but it is easier to kill a walrus single-handed than to turn an angry man from his purpose.”

The Indian nodded assent, as though a chord had been struck which vibrated in both bosoms.

“My son,” he said, in a patronising tone, “do not cease to try.  Grey hairs are beginning to show upon my head; I have seen and learned much, and I have come to know that only he who tries, and tries, and tries again to do what he knows is right will succeed.  To him the Great Manitou will give his blessing.”

“My father,” replied the other, falling in readily with the fictitious relationship, “I will try.”

Having thus come to a satisfactory agreement, this Arctic Peace Society prepared to adjourn.  Each wiped his knife on the grass and sheathed it as he rose up.  Then they shook hands again after the fashion of the pale-faces, and departed on their respective ways.  The red man returned to the wigwams of his people, while the young Eskimo, descending the river in his kayak, continued to hunt the white-whale and pursue the feathered tribes which swarmed in the creeks, rivulets, and marshes that bordered the ice-encumbered waters of the polar seas.