Read CHAPTER TWENTY SIX - A MYSTERIOUS JOURNEY AND A GREAT DISCOVERY. of The Walrus Hunters A Romance of the Realms of Ice , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on

Putting on the wings of imagination, good reader, let us once more fly over the snow-fields of the lone Nor’-west and return to the regions of thick-ribbed ice.  We have to apologise humbly for asking you also to fly back a little in time, and plunge once more into the dreary winter, from which, no doubt, you thought you had fairly escaped.

One morning toward the beginning of spring, referred to in last chapter, while yet the northern seas were covered with their solid garment, Cheenbuk announced to all whom it might concern that he intended to go off on a long journey to the eastward-he called it the place where the Great Light rises-for purposes which he did not see fit publicly to reveal.

At that time the Great Light to which he referred had begun to show symptoms of intention to return to the dark regions which it had forsaken for several months.  The glimmer on the eastern sky had been increasing perceptibly each day, and at last had reached the point of producing a somewhat rosy twilight for two or three hours before and after noon.  King Frost, however, still reigned supreme, and the dog-sledge as yet was the only mode of travelling among the islands or on the sea.

“Why go you towards the rising sun?” asked Nazinred when Cheenbuk invited him to be one of the party.

“Because it is from my countrymen who dwell there that we get the hard stuff that is so good for our spear-heads, and lances, and arrows.  We know not where they find the stuff, and they won’t tell.  I shall go and find out for myself, and take back plenty of it to our people.”

The “hard stuff” referred to was hoop-iron, which, as well as nails and a few hatchets, the Eskimos of the eastern parts of the Arctic shores obtained from whale-ships and passed on to their friends in the more remote regions of the farther north.

“I can tell you how they get it,” said the Indian.  “White traders to whom our people go with their furs have spoken of such things, and my ears have been open.  They say that there are white men who come over the great salt lake from far-off lands in big big canoes.  They come to catch the great whales, and it is from them that the hard stuff comes.”

For some minutes the Eskimo was silent.  A new idea had entered his head and he was turning it over.

“Have you ever seen these white men or their big canoes?” asked Cheenbuk with great interest.

“Never.  The salt lake where they kill the whale is too far from my people’s hunting-grounds.  But the white traders I have visited have seen them.  Some traders have come from the same far-off lands in big canoes of the same sort.”

“Is it very far from here to the seas to which these whale-killers come?”

“Very far from the hunting-grounds of the Dogribs, but it may not be far from here.”

“I will go and see,” said Cheenbuk, with much decision, and he went off forthwith to make preparations.  The expedition consisted of one large sledge with a team of twelve dogs.  Being resolved not to risk failure by taking too many companions, the Eskimo limited the number to seven, besides himself-namely, Nazinred, with his fire-spouter; Oolalik, whom he deemed the strongest and bravest among the young men; Anteek, the most plucky of the big boys; Aglootook, the medicine-man, whom he took “for luck;” and Nootka, as being the most vigorous and hardworking among the women.  She could repair the boots, etcetera, and do what little cooking might be required.  Cowlik the easy-going was also taken to keep Nootka company.

It was high noon when the party set out on their mysterious journey, and a brighter glow than usual was suffusing the eastern sky, while a gleam of direct sunshine, the first seen that spring, was tipping the peaks of the higher bergs as if with burnished gold.

It was merely a whim that induced Cheenbuk to throw an air of mystery over the expedition.  Having no definite idea himself of what he was going in search of, or how long he should be away, he thought it wisest to look solemn and keep his thoughts to himself; thereby impressing his kinsmen with the belief that he was one of the wisest men of the tribe, which in truth he was.  Being, as we have said elsewhere, a man of humour and a good-natured fellow, he thought that the presence of the magician, whom he believed to be an arrant humbug, would add mystery as well as interest to the expedition.

Aglootook was himself thoroughly convinced on this point, and sought by every means to induce the leader to disclose his object and plans, but as Cheenbuk maintained inflexible reticence on this matter, the magician made a virtue of necessity, shook his head solemnly when spoken to about it, and gave it to be understood generally that in his and the leader’s minds there were rolling about thoughts and intentions that were far too deep for utterance.

Cheenbuk would have offered a seat to Adolay, but her father thought it better to decline for her.  She was therefore left in the camp in care of old Mangivik and his amiable spouse.

Travelling by dog-sledge among the Eskimos is rapid and exhilarating when the ice is unbroken.  When the explorers left the village and made for the far east, the plain of ice before them was level and smooth as far as the eye could reach.  They therefore went along at a swinging pace, the team stretching out at full gallop, a crack from the whip resounding only now and then, when one of the dogs inclined to become refractory.

The short day soon vanished, and the long night with its galaxy of stars and shooting aurora still found them gliding swiftly over the white plain.

At last a line of hummocks and icebergs rose up before them, as if to bar their further progress, and the dogs reduced their speed to a trot, until, on reaching the broken ice, they stopped altogether.

“We will camp here,” said Cheenbuk, jumping off and stretching himself.  “Make the igloe there,” he added, pointing to a convenient spot in the lee of a small berg.

The whole party went to work, and in a wonderfully short time had constructed one of their snow bee-hives large enough to contain them all.

Here they ate a hasty supper and spent several hours in a slumber so profound and motionless that it seemed as if they were all dead; not a sigh, not even a snore, broke the stillness of the night.  Next morning they were up and off long before the first glimmer of dawn proclaimed the advent of a new day.

Fortunately a passage among the ridges of broken ice was found, through which the sledge was hauled with comparative ease, and before noon they had reached the open sea-ice beyond, over which they again set forth at full swing.

Little food had been brought, for they depended chiefly on their weapons to supply them, and as seals abounded everywhere, as well as walruses, they had no lack.

Thus they advanced for several days, sometimes being retarded a little by broken ice, but for the most part dashing at full speed over smooth surfaces.

One day they came to a long stretch of land, extending to the right and left as far as the eye could reach, which seemed to be a check to their progress, for it was extensively covered with willow bushes.  Cheenbuk climbed a neighbouring berg with Nazinred to have a look at it.  The Eskimo looked rather glum, for the idea of land-travelling and struggling among willows was repugnant to him.

“I don’t like the look of this,” he said, turning to his companion; “there seems no end to it.”

“Let not my son be cast down,” returned the Indian; “men-of-the-woods understand the nature of land.  This looks like a low flat, running out from the mainland.  If so, it is not likely to be very wide, and we shall be sure to find the great salt lake on the other side of it.  Besides, away to the left I see something like a small lake.  If we go there we may find hard snow on which the dogs can run.”

“There is bad fortune here,” said Aglootook, endeavouring to look oracular, as he came up at that moment with Anteek.  “We must go far away in that direction,” he added, pointing to the right, and looking at his leader with the aspect as well as the wisdom of an owl.

The fact was that from the start the magician had been thirsting for some opportunity to display his profound sagacity, and in his opinion the time had arrived, for in other men’s extremity he was wont to find his opportunity.  True, he knew no more than the king of Ashantee which was the best line to take-right or left,-but much of the power he had acquired over his fellows was due to his excessive self-sufficiency, coupled with reckless promptitude in taking action.  If things went well he got the credit; if wrong-well, he was ingenious in devising explanations!

“Aglootook is wise,” said Cheenbuk, with gravity and a glance at Anteek; “I will act on his advice, but first I must take just a little run to the left, to find out something that I see there.”

Anteek was not naturally rude, but there was a sensation in him at that moment which induced him to turn his back on the magician and become absorbed in the contemplation of a neighbouring berg.  When he turned round again his face was a little flushed.

Nazinred was right.  There was not only a lake at the place which he pointed out, but a chain of small lakes, over which the dogs scampered as well as if they had been on the open sea.  That night, however, they were obliged to encamp among the willows, but next night they reached the other side of what was evidently a large promontory, and finally swept out again on the familiar frozen sea.

The day following they arrived at an obstruction which it appeared as if neither the wisdom of Aglootook, the sagacity of Nazinred, nor the determination of Cheenbuk could enable them to surmount.

This was a mighty barrier of broken ice, which had probably been upheaved by the flow of cross currents when the sea was setting fast in autumn, or the action of conflicting bergs, many of which were imbedded in the mass, thus giving to it the appearance of a small mountain range with higher peaks rising above the general elevation.

On beholding it Aglootook recovered some of his self-respect, and, with a look of wisdom quite inconceivable by those who have not seen it, expressed his solemn belief that they would have escaped this difficulty if they had only acted on his advice, and travelled to the right.

Cheenbuk admitted that he seemed to have been mistaken, in a tone which again set Anteek contemplating one of the neighbouring bergs with a countenance not altogether devoid of colour, and the leader drove the team towards the least forbidding part of the ridge.

“You will never get across,” said Aglootook in a low voice.

“I will try,” returned Cheenbuk.

“It is madness,” said the magician.

“People have often called me mad,” responded Cheenbuk, “so if they were right I am well fitted to do it.”

It was an exceedingly difficult crossing.  In some places the blocks and masses were heaped together in such confusion that it seemed as if the attempt to pass were useless, and the magician solaced himself by frequent undertoned references to the advantage in general of travelling right instead of left.  But always when things looked most hopeless the indefatigable Cheenbuk found a passage-often very narrow and crooked, it is true,-through which they managed to advance, and when the way was blocked altogether, as it was more than once, Cheenbuk and the Indian cleared a passage with their axes, while Anteek led the dogs over the obstruction, and Oolalik guided the sledge over it.  Nootka usually stood on a convenient ice-mound and admired the proceedings, while Aglootook, who had no axe, stood beside her and gave invaluable advice, to which nobody paid the slightest attention.

At last, after many a fall and slip and tremendous slide, they reached the other side of the ridge, and once again went swiftly and smoothly over the level plain.

“We shall not find them,” remarked Oolalik, becoming despondently prophetic as he surveyed the wide expanse of frozen sea, with nothing but bergs and hummocks here and there to break its uniformity.

“We must find them,” replied Cheenbuk, with that energy of resolution which usually assails a man of vigorous physique and strong will when difficulties accumulate.

“But, my son, if we do not find them it will not matter much, for the white traders of the woods have plenty of the hard stuff, and all other things also, and when we return to the Greygoose River at the opening of the waters, we may take the teeth of the walrus and the skins of the seal and begin a trade with them.  I have much of their goods in my own wigwam, and Cheenbuk knows that I can guide him to the home of the trader on the great fresh lake.”

Oolalik glanced at Nootka while the Indian spoke, as if he felt that a splendid prospect of decorative, ornamental, and other delights was opening up to her.  Nootka returned the glance as if she felt that a splendid opportunity of securing such delights for her was opening up to him.

Cheenbuk did not reply, being engaged in the profound abysses of thought which had been opened up by his red friend’s suggestion.

Before he could find words to reply, Nazinred, whose vision was keen and practised, pointed out something that appeared like a cloud on the horizon ahead of them, and which he declared to be land.

“I have noticed that the eyes of the man-of-the-woods are sharper than those of the Eskimo,” said Cheenbuk.

The Indian received this compliment with a gaze of calm indifference, as though he heard it not.

Just then an exclamation from Anteek attracted general attention.  He pointed to a mound of snow on the ice a short way to the left of the track which had a peculiar shape.

“Something covered over with snow,” said Cheenbuk, turning the dogs in that direction by the simple but significant expedient of sending his long whip with a resonant crack to the right of the team.

“It is a man,” remarked Nazinred as they drew near.

He was right.  On clearing away the snow they found the dead body of a man, some portions of whose costume resembled that of a sailor, though of course none of those who discovered it were aware of that fact.

“Kablunet!” exclaimed Cheenbuk, using the Eskimo term for white man.

How long the poor man had lain there it was not easy to guess, for the body was frozen stiff, so that decay was impossible, but the fact that it had not been discovered by bears argued that it could not have lain long.  Its emaciated appearance and the empty sack slung across the shoulder showed that death must have been the result of starvation.  There was a short loaded carbine lying beside the body, and in a pouch a flask of powder with a few bullets.

“I think,” said Nazinred, after careful inspection of the remains, “that this is one of the white men who come over the salt lake in their big canoes.”

“If so,” said Cheenbuk, “we will follow his track, and may come to the big canoe itself; perhaps some of the Kablunets may be yet alive.”

The Indian shook his head.

“Men do not start off alone on a journey to nowhere,” he replied.  “The big canoe must have been crushed in the ice, and the men must have started off together to search for Eskimos.  I think they must all have died on the way, and this one walked farthest.”

“The man-of-the-woods is wise,” said Oolalik.  “If we follow the track we shall soon find out.”

“Yes,” said Aglootook, putting on his most prophetic air.  “Go on the track straight as we can go-that is my advice, and we shall be quite sure to come to something.”

Cheenbuk acted on the advice.  Having buried the body of the unfortunate sailor in a snow-grave, and taken possession of the carbine and other things, they leaped on the sledge again, and continued to advance along the track, which, though in some places almost obliterated, was easily followed.  They had not advanced more than a mile when another mound was discovered, with another seaman below it, whom they buried in the same way, and close to it a third, whose costume being in some parts a little finer, they correctly guessed to be a chief.

At last they came in sight of a large mound, and on uncovering it found a boat with four dead men lying near it.  All seemed to have died of starvation, and the reason why some of them had forsaken the boat was obvious, for it was crushed out of shape by ice; the bottom having been cut completely away, so that all the provisions they had to depend on had no doubt been lost.

“This is not the big canoe,” remarked the Indian, while they examined it.  “The big one must have been sunk, and they had to try to escape in the little one.”

The party spent a long time in examining the boat, and as there was a good deal of iron about it which might be useful, they resolved to re-visit it on the homeward journey.

Setting off again, they now made straight for the land discovered by Nazinred, which now lay like a dark blue line of hills in the far distance.  From the abrupt termination of the land at either extremity of the range it was judged to be a large island.

As the night was clear and the ice level, the party travelled all that night, and arrived at the island about daybreak the following morning.

The shore was rocky and desolate, with high cliffs behind it, so that further progress to the eastward was evidently impossible, unless by passing round the island to the north or south of it.

“I said you would come to something,” said the magician, sententiously, as they drew near to the forbidding coast.

“You were right, Aglootook.  Indeed, it would be impossible for you to be wrong,” replied Cheenbuk, with one of those glances at Anteek which rendered it hard for the boy to preserve his gravity; yet he was constrained to make the effort, for the magician was very sensitive on the point, and suspected the boy.

They were by this time running between the headlands of a small bay, and suddenly came in sight of an object which caused them all to exclaim with surprise and excitement-for there, under the shelter of a high cliff, lay a three-masted ship, or, as the Indian termed it, the white man’s big canoe.