The Field of Ice

Chapter IV

The Last Charge of Powder

Jules Verne

JOHNSON was obliged to take the dogs inside the hut, for they would have been soon frozen outside in such dry weather. Had it been snowing they would have been safe enough, for the snow served as a covering, and kept in the natural heat of the animals.

The old sailor, who made a first-rate dog-driver, tried his beasts with the oily flesh of the seal; and found, to his joyful surprise, that they ate it greedily. The Doctor said he was not astonished at this, as in North America the horses were chiefly fed on fish; and he thought that what would satisfy an herbivorous horse might surely content an omnivorous dog.

The whole party were soon buried in deep sleep, for they were fairly overcome with fatigue. Johnson awoke his companions early next morning, and the march was resumed in haste. Their lives depended now on their speed, for provisions would only hold out three days longer.

The sky was magnificent; the atmosphere extremely clear, and the temperature very low. The sun rose in the form of a long ellipse, owing to refraction, which made his horizontal diameter appear twice the length of his vertical.

The Doctor, gun in hand, wandered away from the others, braving the solitude and the cold in the hope of discovering game. He had only sufficient powder left to load three times, and he had just three balls. That was little enough should he encounter a bear, for it often takes ten or twelve shots to have any effect on these enormous animals.

But the brave Doctor would have been satisfied with humbler game. A few hares or foxes would be a welcome addition to their scanty food; but all that day, if even he chanced to see one, either he was too far away, or he was deceived by refraction, and took a wrong aim. He came back to his companions at night with crestfallen looks, having wasted one ball and one charge of powder.

Next day the route appeared more difficult, and the weary men could hardly drag themselves along. The dogs had devoured even the entrails of the seal, and began to gnaw their traces.

A few foxes passed in the distance, and the Doctor lost another ball in attempting to shoot them.

They were forced to come to a halt early in the evening, though the road was illumined by a splendid Aurora Borealis; for they could not put one foot before the other.

Their last meal, on the Sunday evening, was a very sad one—if no providential help came, their doom was sealed.

Johnson set a few traps before going to sleep, though he had no baits to put inside them. He was very disappointed to find them all empty in the morning, and was returning gloomily to the hut, when he perceived a bear of huge dimensions. The old sailor took it into his head that Heaven had sent this beast specially for him to kill; and without waking his comrades, he seized the Doctor’s gun, and was soon in pursuit of his prey. On reaching the right distance, he took aim; but, just as his finger touched the trigger, he felt his arm tremble. His thick gloves hampered him, and, flinging them hastily off, he took up the gun with a firmer grasp. But what a cry of agony escaped him! The skin of his fingers stuck to the gun as if it had been red-hot, and he was forced to let it drop. The sudden fall made it go off, and the last ball was discharged in the air.

The Doctor ran out at the noise of the report, and understood all at a glance. He saw the animal walking quietly off, and poor Johnson forgetting his sufferings in his despair.

“I am a regular milksop!” he exclaimed, “a cry-baby, that can’t stand the least pain! And at my age, too!”

“Come, Johnson; go in at once, or you will be frost-bitten. Look at your hands—they are white already! Come, come this minute.”

“I am not worth troubling about, Mr. Clawbonny,” said the old boatswain. “Never mind me!”

“But you must come in, you obstinate fellow. Come, now, I tell you; it will be too late presently.”

At last he succeeded in dragging the poor fellow into the tent, where he made him plunge his hands into a bowl of water, which the heat of the stove kept in a liquid state, though still cold. Johnson’s hands had hardy touched it before it froze immediately.

“You see it was high time you came in; I should have been forced to amputate soon,” said the Doctor.

Thanks to his endeavours, all danger was over in about an hour, but he was advised to keep his hands at a good distance from the stove for some time still.

That morning they had no breakfast. Pemmican and salt beef were both done. Not a crumb of biscuit remained. They were obliged to content themselves with half a cup of hot coffee, and start off again.

They scarcely went three miles before they were compelled to give up for the day. They had no supper but coffee, and the dogs were so ravenous that they were almost devouring each other.

Johnson fancied he could see the bear following them in the distance, but he made no remark to his companions. Sleep forsook the unfortunate men, and their eyes grew wild and haggard.

Tuesday morning came, and it was thirty-four hours since they had tasted a morsel of food. Yet these brave, stout-hearted men continued their march, sustained by their superhuman energy of purpose. They pushed the sledge themselves, for the dogs could no longer draw it.

At the end of two hours, they sank exhausted. Hatteras urged them to make a fresh attempt, but his entreaties and supplications were powerless; they could not do impossibilities.

“Well, at any rate,” he said, “I won’t die of cold if I must of hunger.” He set to work to hew out a hut in an iceberg, aided by Johnson, and really they looked like men digging their own tomb.

It was hard labour, but at length the task was accomplished. The little house was ready, and the miserable men took up their abode in it.

In the evening, while the others lay motionless, a sort of hallucination came over Johnson, and he began raving about bears.

The Doctor roused himself from his torpor, and asked the old man what he meant, and what bear he was talking about.

“The bear that is following us,” replied Johnson.

“A bear following us?”

“Yes, for the last two days!”

“For the last two days! You have seen him?”

“Yes, about a mile to leeward.”

“And you never told me, Johnson!”

“What was the good!”

“True enough,” said the Doctor; “we have not a single bail to send after him!”

“No, not even a bit of iron!”

The Doctor was silent for a minute, as if thinking. Then he said—

“Are you quite certain the animal is following us?”

“Yes, Mr. Clawbonny, he is reckoning on a good feed of human flesh!”

“Johnson!” exclaimed the Doctor, grieved at the despairing mood of his companion.

“He is sure enough of his meal!” continued the poor fellow, whose brain had begun to give way. “He must be hungry, and I don’t see why we should keep him waiting.”

“Johnson, calm yourself!”

“No, Mr Clowbonny, sine we must die, why prolong the sufferings of the poor beast? He is famished like ourselves. There are no seals for him to eat, and Heaven sends hiim men! So much the better for him, that’s all!”

Johnson was fast going mad. He wanted to get up and leave the hut, and the doctor had great difficulty in preventing him. That he succeeded at all, was not through strength, but by saying in a tone of absolute conviction, “Johnson, I shall kill that bear to-morrow!”

“To-morrow!” said Johnson, as if waking up from some bad dream.

“Yes, to-morrow.”

“You have no ball!”

“I’ll make one.”

“You have no lead!”

“No, but I have mercury.”

So saying, he took the thermometer, which stood at 50° above zero, and went outside and laid it on a block of ice. Then he came in again, and said, “Tomorrow! Go to sleep, and wait till the sun rises.”

With the first streak of dawn next day, the Doctor and Johnson rushed out to look at the thermometer. All the mercury had frozen into a compact cylindrical mass. The Doctor broke the tube and took it out. Here was a hard piece of metal ready for use.

“It is wonderful, Mr. Clawbonny; you ought to be a proud man.”

“Not at all, my friend, I am only gifted with a good memory, and I have read a great deal.”

“How did that help you?”

“Why, I just happened to recollect a fact related by Captain Ross in his voyages. He states that they pierced a plank, an inch thick, with a bullet made of mercury. Oil would even have suited my purpose, for, he adds, that a ball of frozen almond oil splits through a post without breaking in pieces.”

“It is quite incredible!”

“But it is a fact, Johnson. Well, come now, this bit of metal may save our lives. We’ll leave it exposed to the air a little while, and go and have a look for the bear.”

Just then Hatteras made his appearance, and the Doctor told him his project, and showed him the mercury.

The captain grasped his hand silently, and the three hunters went off in quest of their game.

The weather was very clear, and Hatteras, who was a little ahead of the others, speedily discovered the bear about three hundred yards distant, sitting on his hind quarters sniffing the air, evidently scenting the intruders on his domains.

“There he is!” he exclaimed.

“Hush!” cried the Doctor.

But the enormous quadruped, even when he perceived his antagonists, never stirred, and displayed neither fear nor anger. It would not be easy to get near him, however, and Hatteras said—

“Friends, this is no idle sport, our very existence is at stake; we must act prudently.”

“Yes,” replied the Doctor, “for we have but the one shot to depend upon. We must not miss, for if once the beast took to his heels we have lost all chance of him. He would outstrip a hare in fleetness!”

“We must go right up to him,” said Johnson, “that is the only way. It is risking one’s life, of course; but what does that matter? Let me risk mine.”

“No, I wish to take the risk on myself,” said the Doctor.

“I am the one to go,” said Hatteras, quietly.

“But, captain, is your life not more necessary for the safety of all than a stupid old man’s like mine?”

“No, Johnson, let me go. I’ll not risk myself unnecessarily. Besides, I may possibly need your assistance.”

“Hatteras,” asked the Doctor, “do you mean to walk right up to the bear?”

“If I were certain of getting a shot at him, I would do that if it cost me my head; but he might scamper off at my approach. No, Bruin is a cunning fellow, and we must try and be a match for him.”

“What plan have you got in your head?”

“To get within ten paces of him without letting him suspect it.”

“And how will you manage that?”

“Well, my scheme is simple enough, though rather dangerous. You kept the skin of the seal you killed, didn’t you?”

“It is on the sledge.”

“All right! Let us get back to the hut, and leave Johnson here to watch.”

Away they went, while the old boatswain slipped behind a hummock, which completely hid him from the bear, who continued still in the same place and in the same position.

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