Read CHAPTER SIX - A SURPRISE, A STRUGGLE, AND A CAPTURE. of The Walrus Hunters A Romance of the Realms of Ice , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

When the Eskimo women, as before related, made up their minds to discard the cooking-lamp and indulge in the luxury of a wood fire, they sent one of their number into the bush to gather sticks.  The one selected for this duty was Rinka, she being active and willing, besides being intelligent, which last was a matter of importance in one totally unaccustomed to traversing the pathless woods.

The girl obeyed orders at once, and soon had collected a large armful of dried branches, with which she prepared to return to the encampment.  But when she looked up at the small trees by which she was surrounded, she felt considerably puzzled as to the direction in which she ought to walk.  Of course, remembering that her back had been toward the sea when she set out, nothing seemed simpler than to turn round with her face towards it and proceed.  But she had not done this for many minutes, when it occurred to her that she must have turned about more or less, several times, during her outward journey.  This brought her to an abrupt halt.  She looked up and around several times, and then, feeling quite sure that the shore must lie in a certain direction pointed out by Hope, set off in that direction at a good round pace.  As the wood seemed to get thicker, however, she concluded that she was wrong, and changed direction again.  Still the undergrowth became more dense, and then, suddenly coming to the conclusion that she was lost, she stood stock-still and dropped her bundle of sticks in dismay.

For a few moments she was stunned, as if her position were unbelievable.  Then she became horrified and shouted to her companions, but her feeble, unassertive voice was unable to travel far, and drew forth no response.  Indeed, she had wandered so far into the forest that, even if possessed of a man’s voice, she might have failed to attract the attention of the women.  Then the sound of distant firing began to salute her ears, and in an agony of anxiety she ran hither and thither almost blindly.

But there were other ears besides those of Rinka which were startled by the guns.

Sitting under a tree-all ignorant of the presence of his brethren or of the warlike Indians-Cheenbuk was regaling himself on the carcass of a fat willow-grouse which he had speared a little before the firing began.

Our Eskimo was making for the coast where he had left his kayak, and had halted for a feed.  The sport in the woods, after its novelty wore off, had lost interest for one whose natural game, so to speak, was bears and walruses, and he was on his way back when this rattle of musketry arrested him.

The sudden eruption of it was not more puzzling to him than its abrupt cessation.  Could it be that some of his tribe had followed him to the river and fallen in with the men of the woods?  He thought it not unlikely, and that, if so, his assistance, either as fighter or peacemaker, might be required.

Bolting the remainder of the willow-grouse precipitately, he jumped up, grasped his weapons, and made for the coast, as near as he could guess, in the direction of the firing.

It happened, at the same time, that one of the young Indians, who was on his first war-path, and thirsted for scalps as well as distinction, chanced to keep a more easterly direction than his fellows, when they took to the bush, as already related.  This man, coming to an open glade whence he could see the shore, beheld the Eskimo women launching their oomiak in a state of frantic alarm.  They were also signalling or beckoning eagerly as if to some one in the woods.  Casting a hurried glance to his right, he observed poor Rinka, who had just got clear of the forest, and was running towards her companions as fast as her short legs could carry her.

Without a moment’s hesitation, he took aim at her and fired.  The poor girl uttered a loud shriek, threw up her arms, and fell to the ground.  It chanced that Cheenbuk was within a hundred yards of the spot at the moment, but the bushes prevented his seeing what had occurred.  The report, however, followed by the woman’s shriek, was a sufficient spur to him.  Darting forward at full speed, he quickly cleared the underwood and came suddenly in view of a sight that caused every nerve in his body to tingle-Rinka prostrate on the ground with blood covering her face and hands, and the young Indian standing over her about to operate with the scalping-knife.

The howl of concentrated rage and horror uttered by Cheenbuk instantly checked the savage, and made him turn in self-defence.  He had run to finish his horrible work, and secure the usual trophy of war without taking time to re-load his gun, and was thus almost unarmed.  Grasping his powder-horn he attempted to rectify this error-which would never have been committed by an experienced warrior,-but before he could accomplish half the operation, the well-aimed spear of Cheenbuk went whistling through the air, and entering his chest came out at his back.  He fell dead almost without a groan.

Cheenbuk did not stop to finish the work by stabbing or scalping, but he kneeled beside the wounded girl and gently raised her.

“Rinka,” he said, softly, while he undid her jacket and sought for the wound, “is it bad?  Has he killed you?”

“I feel that I am dying.  There is something here.”  She laid her hand upon her side, from a small wound in which blood was issuing freely.

The heart of the man was at once torn by tender pity and bitter indignation, when he thought of the gentle nature of the poor creature who had been thus laid low, and of the savage cruelty of the Indian who had done it-feelings which were not a little complicated by the reflection that the war-spirit-that is, the desire to kill for mere self-glorification-among some of his own people had probably been the cause of it all.

“It is useless.  I am dying,” gasped the girl, drawing her bloody hand across her forehead.  “But don’t leave me to fall into the hands of these men.  Take me home and let me die beside my mother.”

She was yet speaking when old Uleeta and her companions came forward.  Seeing that no other Indian appeared, and that the one who had shot Rinka was dead, they had quelled their alarm and come to see what had occurred.  Cheenbuk, after stanching the flow of blood, availed himself of their aid to carry the wounded girl to the oomiak more comfortably than could have been possible if he had been obliged to carry her in his own strong arms.

With much care they placed her in the bottom of the boat, then the women got in, and Cheenbuk was about to follow, when the report of a gun was heard, and a bullet whizzed close past old Uleeta’s head-so close, indeed, that it cut off some of her grey hair.  But the old creature was by no means frightened.

“Quick, jump in!” she cried, beginning to push off with her paddle.

Cheenbuk was on the point of accepting the invitation, but a thought intervened-and thought is swifter than the lightning-flash.  He knew from slight, but sufficient, experience that the spouters could send only one messenger of death at a time, and that before another could be spouted, some sort of manipulation which took time was needful.  If the Indian should get the manipulation over before the oomiak was out of range, any of the women, as well as himself, might be killed.

“No,” he cried, giving the boat a mighty shove that sent it out to sea like an arrow, “be off!-paddle!-for life!  I will stop him!”

Old Uleeta did not hesitate.  She was accustomed to obedience-even when there were no fire-spouters astern.  She bent to her paddle with Arctic skill and vigour.  So did her mates, and the oomiak darted from the shore while the Indian who had fired the shot was still agonising with his ramrod-for, happily, breech-loaders were as yet unknown.

Cheenbuk was quite alive to his danger.  He rushed up the beach towards his foe with a roar and an expression of countenance that did not facilitate loading.  Having left his spear in the body of the first Indian, he was unarmed, but that did not matter much to one who felt in his chest and arms the strength of Hercules and Samson rolled into one.  So close was he to the Indian when the operation of priming was reached, that the man of the woods merely gave the stock of his gun a slap in the desperate hope that it would prime itself.

This hope, in the artillery used there at that time, was not often a vain hope.  Indeed, after prolonged use, the “trade gun” of the “Nor’-west” got into the habit of priming itself-owing to the enlarged nature of the touch-hole-also of expending not a little of its force sidewise.  The consequence was that the charge ignited when the trigger was pulled, and the echoes of the cliffs were once more awakened; but happily the Eskimo had closed in time.  Grasping the barrel he turned the muzzle aside, and the ball that was meant for his heart went skipping out to sea, to the no small surprise of the women in the oomiak.

And now, for the second time since he had landed on those shores, was Cheenbuk engaged in the hated work of a hand-to-hand conflict with a foe!

But the conditions were very different, for Alizay was no match for the powerful Eskimo-in physique at least, though doubtless he was not much, if at all, behind him in courage.

Cheenbuk felt this the moment they joined issue, and on the instant an irresistible sensation of mercy overwhelmed him.  Holding the gun with his right hand, and keeping its muzzle well to one side, for he did not feel quite certain as to its spouting capacities, he grasped the Indian’s throat with his left.  Quick as lightning Alizay, with his free hand, drew his scalping-knife and struck at the Eskimo’s shoulder, but not less quick was Cheenbuk in releasing the throat and catching the Indian’s wrist with a grip that rendered it powerless.

For a minute the Eskimo remained motionless, considering how best to render his adversary insensible without killing him.

That minute cost him dear.  Five of Alizay’s comrades, led by Magadar, came upon the scene, and, as it happened, Cheenbuk’s back chanced to be towards them.  They did not dare to fire, for fear of hitting their comrade, but they rushed unitedly forward with tomahawk and scalping-knife ready.

“Take him alive,” said Magadar.

Cheenbuk heard the voice.  He disposed of poor Alizay by hurling him away as if he had been a child, and was in the act of facing round when Magadar threw his arms round his body and held him.  To be seized thus from behind is to most men a serious difficulty, but our Eskimo made short work of his assailant.  He bent forward with his head to the ground so violently that the Indian was flung completely over him, and fell flat on his back, in which position he remained motionless.  But it was impossible for Cheenbuk to cope with the other four Indians, who flung themselves on him simultaneously, and seized him by arms, legs, and throat.

Of course they could have brained or stabbed him easily, but, remembering their chief’s order to take the man alive, they sought to quell him by sheer force.  Stout and sinewy though the four braves were, they had their hands full during a good many minutes, for the Eskimo’s muscles were tougher and harder than india-rubber; his sinews resembled whip-cord, and his bones bars of iron.  So completely was he overwhelmed by the men who held him down, that little or nothing of him could be seen, yet ever and anon, as he struggled, the four men seemed to be heaved upward by a small earthquake.

Alizay, who had risen, stood looking calmly on, but rendered no assistance, first, because there was no room for him to act, and second, because his left wrist had been almost broken by the violence of the throw that he had received.  As for Magadar, he was only beginning to recover consciousness, and to wonder where he was!

Suddenly Cheenbuk ceased to strive.  He was a crafty Eskimo, and a thought had occurred to him.  He would sham exhaustion, and, when his foes relaxed their grip, would burst away from them.  He knew it was a forlorn hope, for he was well aware that, even if he should succeed in getting away, the spouters would send messengers to arrest him before he had run far.  But Cheenbuk was just the man for a forlorn hope.  He rose to difficulties and dangers as trouts to flies on a warm day.  The Indians, however, were much too experienced warriors to be caught in that way.  They eased off their grip with great caution.  Moreover Magadar, having risen, and seeing how things were going, took off his belt and made a running noose of it.  He passed the loop deftly round Cheenbuk’s legs and drew it tight, while the others were still trying vainly to compress his bull-neck.

The moment that Cheenbuk felt the noose tighten on his legs he knew that it was all over with him.  To run or fight with his legs tied would be impossible, so, like a true philosopher, he submitted to the inevitable and gave in.  His captors, however, did not deem it wise or safe to relax their hold until they had swathed his body with deerskin thongs; then they removed the belt from his legs and assisted him to rise.

It is not the custom of Indians to indulge in much conversation with vanquished foes.  They usually confine their attentions to scowling, torturing, and ultimately to killing and scalping them.  The Dogribs who had captured Cheenbuk could not speak the Eskimo tongue, and being unaware of his linguistic powers, did not think it possible to speak to him, but one of their number stood by him on guard while the others dug a grave and buried the Indian whom he had slain.

We have already made reference to our young Eskimo’s unusually advanced views in regard to several matters that do not often-as far as we know-exercise the aboriginal mind.  While he stood there watching the Indians, as they silently toiled at the grave, his thoughts ran somewhat in the following groove:-

“Poor man!  Sorry I killed him, but if I had not he would have killed me-and then, perhaps, some of the women, for they had not got far away, and I don’t know how far the spouter can send its little arrows.  I wonder if they are little.  They must be surely, for I’ve never seen one.  Hoi! hoi! what fools men are to kill one another!  How much better to let each other alone!  I have killed him, poor man! and they will kill me.  What then?  The ice and snow will come and go all the same.  No one will be the better for it when we are gone.  Some will surely be the worse.  Some wife or mother may have to rub her eyes for him.  No one will care much for me.  But the walrus and the seal-hunt will not be so big when I am gone.  I wonder if the Maker of all cares for these things!  He must-else he would not have made us and put us here!  Did he make us to fight each other?  Surely not.  Even I would not shape my spear to destroy my kayak-and he must be wiser than me.  Yet he never speaks or shows himself.  If I had a little child, would I treat it so?  No-I must be wrong, and he must be right.  Speech is not always with the tongue.  Now it comes to my mind that we speak with the eyes when we look fierce or pleased.  Perhaps he whispers to me inside, sometimes, and I have not yet learned to understand him.”

Cheenbuk had now dropped into one of his frequent reveries, or trains of thought, in which he was apt to forget all that was going on around him, and he did not waken from it until, the burial being concluded, one of the Indians touched him on the shoulder and pointed to Magadar, who had shouldered his gun and was entering the bushes.

Understanding this to be a command to follow, he stepped out at once.  The others fell into line behind him, and thus, bound and a captive, our Eskimo turned his back finally-as he believed-on what we may style his native home-the great, mysterious northern sea.