NEXT morning, as the fine weather still continued, the hunters determined to have another search for the musk ox. It was only fair to give Altamont a chance, with the distinct understanding that he should have the right of firing, however fascinating the game they might meet. Besides, the flesh of the musk ox, though a little too highly impregnated with the smell, is savoury food, and the hunters would gladly carry back a few pounds of it to Fort Providence.
During the first part of the day, nothing occurred worth mentioning, but they noticed a considerable change in the aspect of the country, and appearances seemed to indicate that they were approaching a hilly region. This New America was evidently either a continent or an island of considerable extent.
Duke was running far ahead of his party when he stopped suddenly short, and began sniffing the ground as if he had caught scent of game. Next minute he rushed forward again with extreme rapidity, and was speedily out of sight. But loud distinct barking convinced the hunters that the faithful fellow had at last discovered the desired object.
They hurried onwards, and after an hour and a half’s quick walking, found him standing in front of two formidable looking animals, and barking furiously. The Doctor recognized them at once as belonging to the musk ox, or Ovibos genus, as naturalists call it, by the very wide horns touching each other at their base, by the absence of muzzle, by the narrow square chanfrin resembling that of a sheep, and by the very short tail. Their hair was long and thickly matted, and mixed with fine brown, silky wool.
These singular-looking quadrupeds were not the least afraid of Duke, though extremely surprised; but at the first glimpse of the hunters they took flight, and it was no easy task to go after them, for half an hour’s swift running brought them no nearer, and made the whole party so out of breath, that they were forced to come to a halt.
“Confound the beasts!” said Altamont.
“Yes, Altamont, I’ll make them over to you,” replied Clawbonny; “they are true Americans, and they don’t appear to have a very favourable idea of their fellow countrymen.”
“That proves our hunting prowess,” rejoined Altamont.
Meantime the oxen finding themselves no longer pursued, had stopped short. Further pursuit was evidently useless. If they were to be captured at all they must be surrounded, and the plateau which they first happened to have reached, was very favourable for the purpose. Leaving Duke to worry them, they went down by the neighbouring ravines; and got to the one end of the plateau, where Altamont and the Doctor hid themselves behind projecting rocks, while Hatteras went on to the other end, intending to startle the animals by his sudden appearance, and drive them back towards his companions.
“I suppose you have no objection this time to bestow a few bullets on these gentry?” said Altamont.
“Oh, no, it is ‘a fair field now and no favour,’” returned Clawbonny.
The oxen had begun to shake themselves impatiently at Duke, trying to kick him off, when Hatteras started up right in front of them, shouting and chasing them back. This was the signal for Altamont and the Doctor to rush forward and fire, but at the sight of two assailants, the terrified animals wheeled round and attacked Hatteras. He met their onset with a firm, steady foot, and fired straight at their heads. But both his balls were powerless, and only served still further to madden the enraged beasts. They rushed upon the unfortunate man like furies, and threw him on the ground in an instant.
“He is a dead man!” exclaimed the Doctor, in despairing accents.
A tremendous struggle was going on in Altamont’s breast at the sight of his prostrate foe, and though his first impulse was to hasten to his help, he stopped short, battling with himself and his prejudices. But his hesitation scarcely lasted half a second, his better self conquered, and exclaiming,
“No, it would be cowardly!” he rushed forward with Clawbonny.
Hatteras full well understood how his rival felt, but would rather have died than have begged his intervention. However, he had hardly time to think about it, before Altamont was at his side.
He could not have held out much longer, for it was impossible to ward off the blows of horns and hoofs of two such powerful antagonists, and in a few minutes more he must have been torn to pieces. But suddenly two shots resounded, and Hatteras felt the balls graze his head.
“Courage!” shouted Altamont, flinging away his discharged weapon, and throwing himself right in front of the raging animals. One of them, shot to the heart, fell dead as he reached the spot, while the other dashed madly on Hatteras, and was about to gore the unfortunate captain with his horns, when Altamont plunged his snow knife far into the beast’s wide open jaws with one hand, with the other dealt him such a tremendous blow on the head with his hatchet, that the skull was completely split open.
It was done so quickly that it seemed like a flash of lightning, and all was over. The second ox lay dead, and Clawbonny shouted “Hurrah! hurrah!” Hatteras was saved.
He owed his life to the man he hated the most. What a storm of conflicting passions this must have roused in his soul! But where was the emotion he could not master?
However, his action was prompt, whatever his feeling might be. Without a moment’s hesitancy, he went up to his rival, and said in a grave voice—
“Altamont, you have saved my life!”
“You saved mine,” replied the American.
There was a moment’s silence, and then Altamont added—
“We’re quits, Hatteras.”
“No, Altamont,” said the captain; “when the Doctor dragged you out of your icy tomb, I did not know who you were; but you saved me at the peril of your own life, knowing quite well who I was.”
“Why, you are a fellow-creature at any rate, and whatever faults an American may have, he is no coward.”
“No, indeed,” said the Doctor. “He is a man, every inch as much as yourself, Hatteras.”
“And like me, he shall have part in the glory that awaits us.”
“The glory of reaching the North Pole?” asked Altamont.
“Yes,” replied Hatteras, proudly.
“I guessed right, then,” said Altamont.
“And you have actually dared to conceive such a project? Oh! it is grand; I tell you it is sublime even to think of it?”
“But tell me,” said Hatteras in a hurried manner; “you were not bound for the Pole then yourself?”
“Come, speak out, man,” urged the Doctor.
“Well, to tell the truth, I was not, and the truth is better than self-love. No, I had no such grand purpose in view. I was trying to clear the North-West Passage, and that was all.”
“Altamont,” said Hatteras, holding out his hand; “be our companion to glory, come with us and find the North Pole.”
The two men clasped hands in a warm, hearty grasp, and the bond of friendship between them was sealed.
When they turned to look for the Doctor they found him in tears.
“Ah! friends,” he said, wiping his eyes; “you have made me so happy, it is almost more than I can bear? You have sacrificed this miserable nationality for the sake of the common cause. You have said, ‘What does it matter if only the Pole is discovered, whether it is by an Englishman or an American?’ Why should we brag of being American or English, when we can boast that we are men?”
The good little man was beside himself with joy He hugged the reconciled enemies to his bosom, and cemented their friendship by his own affection to both.
At last he grew calm after at least a twentieth embrace, and said—
“It is time I went to work now. Since I am no hunter, I must use my talents in another direction”
And he began to cut up the oxen so skilfully, that he seemed like a surgeon making a delicate autopsy.
His two companions looked on smiling. In a few minutes the adroit operator had cut off more than a hundred pounds of flesh. This he divided into three parts. Each man took one, and they retraced their steps to Fort Providence.
At ten o’clock they arrived at Doctor’s House, where Johnson and Bell had a good supper prepared for them.
But before sitting down to enjoy it, the Doctor exclaimed in a jubilant tone, and pointing to his two companions—
“My dear old Johnson, I took out an American and an Englishman with me, didn’t I?”
“Yes, Mr. Clawbonny.”
“Well, I bring back two brothers.”
This was joyous news to the sailors, and they shook hands warmly with Altamont; while the Doctor recounted all that had passed, and how the American captain had saved the English captain’s life. That night no five happier men could have been found than those that lay sleeping in the little snow house.