Read CHAPTER FOUR - WAR PREVAILS of The Walrus Hunters A Romance of the Realms of Ice , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

It would seem, at times, as if there were really some sort of spiritual communication between people whose physical frames are widely sundered.

For at the very time that the Eskimos, in their remote home on the ice-encumbered sea, were informally debating the propriety of making an unprovoked attack on the Dogrib Indians-whom they facetiously styled Fire-spouters-the red men were also holding a very formal and solemn council of war as to the advisability of making an assault on those presumptuous Eskimos, or eaters-of-raw-flesh, who ventured to pay an uncalled-for visit to the Greygoose River-their ancestral property- every spring.

One of their chiefs, named Nazinred, had just returned from a visit to the river, and reported having met and fought with one of the Eskimos.

Immediately on hearing this, the old or head chief summoned the council of war.  The braves assembled in the council-tent in solemn dignity, each classically enveloped in his blanket or leathern robe, and inflated, more or less, with his own importance.  They sat down silently round the council fire with as much gravity as if the fate of nations depended on their deliberations,-and so, on a small scale, it did.

After passing round the pipe-by way of brightening up their intellects-the old chief held forth his hand and began in a low voice and deliberate manner.

“My braves,” said he, “those filthy eaters-of-raw-flesh have, as you know, been in the habit of coming to Greygoose River every spring and trespassing on the borders of our hunting-grounds.”

He paused and looked round.

“Waugh!” exclaimed his audience, in order to satisfy him.

With a dark frown the old chief went on.

“This is wrong.  It is not right.  It is altogether unbearable, and more than the Dogribs can stand.  They won’t stand it!”

“Waugh!” again said the audience, for the old man had delivered the last sentence with considerable vehemence, and meant that it should tell.

Being apparently destitute of a flow of ideas at that time, the speaker had recourse to a not uncommon device among civilised orators:  he cleared his throat, looked preternaturally wise, and changed the subject.

“When the sun of spring rises over the ice-hills of the great salt lake,” he continued, pointing towards the Pole, “when it melts the snow, opens the lakes and rivers, and brings the summer birds to our land, the braves of the great Dogrib nation take their guns, and bows, and canoes, and women, and travel nearly as far as the icy sea, that they may hunt and feed-and-sleep, and-and-enjoy the land.  Nobody dares to stop us.  Nobody dares to hinder us.  Nobody dares even to look at us!”

He paused again, and this flight of oratory was received with a very decided “ho!” of assent, as it well might be, for during nearly all the year there was nobody in that uninhabited land to attempt any of those violent proceedings.  Dilating his eyes and nostrils with a look of superlative wisdom, he continued: 

“But at last the Eskimos dared to come and look at our hunting-grounds.  We were peacefully disposed.  We warned them not to come again.  They came again, notwithstanding.  We took our guns and swept them away like leaves that are swept by the winter winds.  Are not their scalps drying in our lodges?  What we did then we will do again.  Has not one of our chiefs-Nazinred-been attacked by one of them?  No doubt more will follow that one.  My counsel is to send out a band of our braves on the war-path.  But first we would like to know something.  As the Eskimo did not take the scalp of Nazinred, how is it that Nazinred did not bring home the scalp of the Eskimo?”

The old chief ceased, amid many “ho’s!” and “hoo’s!” with the air of one who has propounded an unanswerable riddle, and all eyes were at once turned upon Nazinred.  Accepting the challenge at once he stretched forth his hand: 

“My father has spoken,” he said, “but his words are not the words of wisdom.  Why should we fight the Eskimos again, and lose some of our best young men, as we lost them in the last great fight?  The Eskimos have come near our lands, but they have not of late hunted on them.  They have only looked and gone away.  And even if they did hunt, what then?  The land is wide.  We cannot use it all.  We cannot kill all the birds and deer, and even if we could we cannot eat them all.  Would it not be wise to live at peace with the Eskimos?  They have many great teeth of the walrus and skins of the seal.  Might not the white traders, who take our furs and give us guns and powder, be willing to take these things too?  Thus we could buy from the one and sell to the other, and fill our lodges with tobacco, and guns, and beads, and cloth, and powder and ball, and other good things.”

The Indian stopped at this point to ascertain the effect of his remarks, but only a few faint “ho’s!” greeted him.  The councillors did not feel quite sure of their own minds.  His remarks about peace and war were not palatable, and his suggestions about trade were a novelty.  Evidently Nazinred was born much in advance of his time.

“It is true,” he continued, “that I had a struggle with a young Eskimo; but he was very strong, and so was I. Before I could kill him he caught hold of my gun, but he could not force it from me, and I could not force it from him.  As we strove we looked into each other’s eyes and we each saw peace and good-will there!  So we ceased to fight.  We kindled a fire and sat down and fed together.  As the light slowly increases while the sun rises, so light came into my mind.  The Dogribs have always talked of the Eskimos as if they were fools.  I found that this young man was not a fool-that he was wise-wiser than some of our own braves.  His mind was deep and wide.  He did not talk only of food and sleep and hunting.  He spoke of things past and present and future, and of the Great Spirit, and the world to come.  Also of peace and war; and we both agreed that peace was good and war hateful.  More than that, we found that it was foolish.  Then we parted.  He went, I suppose, to his people on the sea of ice, and I came home.

“He told me that none of his people were with him-that he was alone.  There is therefore no occasion for the young men to look fierce or go on the war-path.”

Having thus tried to throw oil on the troubled waters Nazinred came to an abrupt pause.

Instantly one of the younger councillors, named Magadar, sprang to his feet.  He was unusually excitable for an Indian.  Indeed, he differed a good deal from his companions in other respects, being passionate, impulsive, hasty, and matter-of-fact; in his speech-making too he scorned the use of symbol and metaphor, but went straight to the point at once in the simplest and most forcible language at his command.

“Braves,” he said, looking at the previous speaker with a dark frown, “the Dogribs know nothing of those strange and stupid notions that have just come out of the lips of Nazinred.  He says that this dirty Eskimo is a deep thinker and a man who loves peace.  How does he know that one of that sort may not think so deeply as to deceive him?  How does he know that the young man is not a liar-that many of his warriors may not be in our hunting-grounds even at this moment, though he says there are none?  As for his talk about the Great Spirit and the future, what does he know about either the one or the other?  Is he wiser than the Dogribs?  Does his attack on Nazinred look like a lover of peace?  His leaving off when he found that Nazinred was his match seems to me more like sly wisdom than the hatred of war.  My advice is not to trust these dirty men of the ice, but to take our guns at once and drive them from the land.”

It was quite evident from the way in which this speech was received that the war-party was in the ascendant, and there is no doubt that Magadar’s advice would have prevailed, and a war-party been organised forthwith, but for the arrival of a band of successful hunters, who had been out for some time in quest of food.

For a considerable part of that winter those Indians had been in a condition of semi-starvation.  They had managed with difficulty to sustain themselves and families on rabbits, which were scarce that year.  With the return of spring and the wild-fowl, however, things had begun to improve, and the hunting party above referred to was the first of the season that had returned to camp heavily laden with geese, ducks, plover, and other supplies of food, so that the half-famished people gave themselves up to feasting, and had no time to think further of war.

Thus many days were passed without any reference being made to a fight with the Eskimos, and Nazinred, believing that the fancy to go on the war-path had passed away, set off on what was to be a long hunting expedition with three of his comrades who were like-minded with himself.  Among other plans, this party intended to visit the establishment of the fur-traders on Great Bear Lake.

Thus when the belligerent party of Eskimos arrived at the mouth of Greygoose, or Whale, River, they found the place, as they had been accustomed to find it, a complete solitude.

At first they expected to overtake their comrade Cheenbuk there, but he was not found, having gone a considerable way inland in pursuit of game.  Being aware of his peaceful proclivities, however, the Eskimos were not sorry to miss him, and they set about making an encampment on the shore at the mouth of the river, intending to leave the women there while they should be engaged in hunting and in searching for the Fire-spouters.

Meanwhile these Fire-spouters, having eaten and slept, and eaten and slept again, to the extent of their capacities, began to experience a revival of the war-spirit.

In front of one of the lodges or leather tents, one morning early, there sat two squaws engaged in ornamenting moccasins and discussing the news of their little world.

It was one of those bright genial mornings in spring peculiar to Arctic lands, in which Warmth comes out with a burst victorious, and Cold shrinks away discomfited.  Everything looked as if a great revival of Nature were at hand-as in truth it was, for the long Arctic winter is always driven away with a rush by the vigour, if not the violence, of the brief Arctic spring.

One of the women was young and pretty-yes, we might almost say beautiful.  It is quite a mistake to suppose that all savages are coarse, rough, and ugly.  Many of them, no doubt-perhaps most of them- are plain enough, but not a few of the Indian squaws are fairly good-looking, and this one, as we have said at the risk of being doubted, was beautiful; at all events she had a fine oval face, a smooth warm-coloured skin, a neat little nose, a well-formed mouth, and jet-black hair, with large lustrous eyes, to say nothing of her teeth, which, like the teeth of most Indians, were regular and brilliantly white.  Her name was Adolay-that being the Indian name for Summer.

The other squaw was her mother.  She was usually styled Isquay-which means woman-by her husband when he was at home, but, being a great hunter, he was not often at home.  Poor Isquay might have been good-looking in her youth, but, alas! hard work, occasional starvation, and a rough life, had prematurely dissipated her beauty, whatever it might have been; yet these conditions could not put to flight the lines and dimples of kindliness which played about her weatherworn eyes and cheeks.  You see, she had a gentle, indulgent husband, and that made her happy and kept her so.

“Magadar is stirring up the young men again to go on the war-path,” said the younger woman, without looking up from the embroidered moccasin with which she was engaged.

“Yes, I know it.  I heard him as he passed our tent talking to Alizay.  I don’t like Alizay; he is like gunpowder:  the least thing sets him off, and he flashes up horribly.”

“But many of our other braves have no desire to quarrel with the Eskimos,” said Adolay; “indeed, some are even fond of them.  And some of the men of the ice are very handsome.  Don’t you remember that one, mother, that we met when we went last spring with some of our men to shoot at the Greygoose River?  He was a fine man-big and strong, and active and kind-almost good enough to be a Dogrib.”

“I remember him well,” returned Isquay, “for he saved my life.  Have you forgotten that already?”

“No, I have not forgotten it,” answered the girl, with a slight smile.  “Did I not stand on the riverbank with my heart choking me when I saw the ice rushing down with the flood and closing on your canoe-for I could do nothing to help you, and none of our men were near!  And did I not see the brave man of the ice, when he heard my cry, come running like the deer and jump into the river and swim like the otter till he got to you, and then he scrambled on a big bit of ice and lifted you and the canoe out of the water as if he had the strength of a moose-deer, after which he guided the ice-lump to the bank with one of your paddles!  Forget it! no.  I only wish the brave Eskimo was an Indian.”

“I think you would be offering to be his squaw if he was,” said the mother with a short laugh.

“Perhaps I would.  But he’s only an eater-of-raw-flesh!” Adolay sighed as gently as if she had been a civilised girl!  “But he has gone away to the great ice lake, so I suppose we shall never see him again.”

“Unless,” said Isquay, “he comes back this spring with his people, and our braves have a fight with them-then you would be likely to see his scalp again, if not himself.”

Adolay made no reply to this; neither did she seem shocked at the suggestion.  Indeed, Indian women are too much accustomed to real shocking to be much troubled with shocks of the imagination.  Holding out her moccasin at arm’s-length, the better to note the effect of her work, she expressed regret that her father had gone off with the hunters, for she felt sure he would have been able to allay the war-fever among the young braves if he had remained at home.

“Ay, he would easily have put down Alizay and Magadar; but the old chief can do nothing, he is growing too old.  The young men don’t mind him now.  Besides, he is warlike as well as they.”

While they were conversing thus, the young men referred to had finally decided to go on the war-path-to search for the Eskimo who had fought with their chief Nazinred, find him and kill him, and then continue the search for his companions; for they had set him down as a liar, believing that no Eskimo had the courage to visit their hunting-grounds by himself.

To resolve and to act were almost simultaneous proceedings with those energetic savages.  In a very short time between twenty and thirty of them left the village in single file, armed with the deadly gun, besides tomahawks and scalping-knives, and took their way to a neighbouring creek on the banks of which their canoes were lying.