A Wild-Goose Chase (Balmer)/Chapter 20

CHAPTER XX

CAN I STARVE LIKE A SAVAGE

FIVE of the men were gathered in one of the snow huts after an absolutely bootless day.

"We've got to get out of here," Latham said desperately.

"Where to?" McNeal questioned practically.

"We can't get through the winter here."

"Then we can't do it anywhere else. This is the Eskimos' country. They know it. If we can't get along with them giving us food, we'll be worse off by ourselves with no one to help us."

Eric Hedon looked about; he had been warming his fingers, which were frostbidden badly.

"It doesn't seem to me a problem as to whether we ought to get out," he suggested quietly. "I should say it was rather the Eskimos' problem as to whether they ought to put us out."

"They would if they were even half civilised," Geoff said grimly.

"Found that out?" Eric looked at him.

"Some one's got to make a try for the ship—the Kadiack," Latham persisted.

"What for?" asked Hedon.

"For help, of course."

"For himself?" Eric returned.

"What do you mean?"

"The Kadiack's over four hundred miles from here," Hedon replied patiently. The discussion was old. "Before any one gets there and back we'll need no help or be beyond it."

"Besides," said Koehler, "how many days' supplies for eight people would a sledge party coming from the Kadiack four hundred miles away have left when it got here? And what would you live on while you're getting to the Kadiack? That's the first thing."

"To-day some of the Eskimos had luck," Latham replied. "There'll be more than a sledge supply of meat and oil left to-night."

Eric turned upon him directly. "Exactly what do you mean by that?"

"That the thing to do is for some one to take that food and fuel and make a try for the Kadiack," Latham replied.

"Take it?" repeated Hedon. "How?"

"Take it," iterated Latham indefinitely.

"When you ask the Eskimos to give you that food and fuel, the first that they've had ahead for weeks, what's the inducement you're going to offer them? Assuming they give you enough to see a man through to the ship, does he bring back from the Kadiack relief for all the Eskimos too? Or when we get our own food from the ship is it the idea to say: 'Thanks, savages, we've finished your food. Here's some of our own for us. Good-bye'?"

"Of course we can't bring enough for them," Latham answered angrily.

"Then how do you get their meat to take you to the ship?"

"Any way!" Latham defied.

You mean?"

"We'll starve here!"

"Then," Koehler cut in, "let's try to starve like gentlemen."

Hedon shook his head and smiled. "You know better than that, doc," he said. "Let's try to starve like savages."

"Like savages?" Geoff repeated.

Hedon looked away. "If you've read the unexpurgated accounts of our own people starving in the North you'll know what I mean, Geoff. If we come to it—and I don't say we will, for we'll stand a lot of starving yet before we'll be finished—but if we do come to it, let's try to do it decently and as part of the day's work, like Eskimos."

Some one without the igloo shouted and entered, and the daughter of a Palugmiut hunter stood before them, bearing portions of a freshly killed seal.

"Here's our hand-out," said Geoff, as Linn took the meat and put it into the pot suspended by a cord over the oil lamp.

Geoff went into the small igloo close by, which had been built for him and his sister. He roused her, and after they returned to the large snow house the nine guests of the Eskimos dined, not with uniform delicacy, on the donated meat. The messenger who had brought the meal went out; and soon two seal hunters, old men, entered.

They squatted before their guests, one silently shaping a new wooden shaft for his spear, the other speaking with Hedon and Koehler, who understood his tongue.

"What have they come for?" Latham asked nervously.

"Don't worry," Koehler returned; "they haven't come with an eviction or to cut off our credit at the butcher's."

Eric spoke to Margaret, indicating the hunter working on his spear. "I asked him to come and show us the next time he was shaping a handle."

"Why?" She observed the man with closer interest.

"Look at his blue eyes. No Eskimo of pure blood ever has light eyes. See, his hair is not black, as usual. There's been no contact of this tribe with the whites in any historic time."

"Then how does he have light eyes?"

"We can only guess; but perhaps the spear handle will tell us."

The Eskimo, pleased with the white man's interest in his work, looked up and then continued his cutting.

"You see, Otto," said Hedon, continuing with Koehler a discussion they had begun before, "counting this man, there are at least three people in this tribe with eyes and hair lighter than any true Eskimo can have. Stefansson met and described a number of such types in tribes to the south of here. He was positive that the blond Eskimo he met had not come in contact with recent explorers; and if we didn't know that these people had no memory of meeting white men, the age of these three light-eyed people would tell that they got their European characteristics far back. One of them is this man's mother."

"European characteristics?" Geoff repeated.

"Watch him," Eric warned quietly.

The Eskimo, having finished the shaping of his spear handle, turned it under his stone knife, and carefully, slowly and with precision carved upon it a few strange lines. When he had finished it he nodded and extended the spear handle to Hedon. Eric studied the marks and with a smile handed the wood to Koehler.

"What are you two looking at?" Margaret cried.

"What do you make of them, doctor?" Eric appealed.

"Runes!" Koehler announced.

"Runes?" Geoff asked.

"Runic writing—the kind of characters carved by the Norsemen at the time they were in Greenland!" Hedon cried. He took back the spear handle and, turning to the Eskimo who had carved the characters, he began asking him some questions.

"The writing of the Norsemen in Greenland?" Geoff stared from Hedon to the Eskimo.

"What are you asking him?" Margaret said to Eric.

"I was trying to find out if he knew what the marks mean. He says he doesn't. He didn't even understand that the marks should have any meaning."

"Then why did he make them, did he say?"

"He was taught to; that's all he knows. In his tribe long ago—he's one of the survivors of a tribe that was almost wiped out by starvation; and he came to the Palugmiuts when he was a boy—he had been taught to scratch his spears that way."

"Then what do you think the marks mean?"

Eric looked at Koehler, who took the handle again and studied it. "They aren't real runes, of course," Koehler said conservatively. "They're only marks that suggest runes—as you'd expect runes to be made if they'd been taught from one generation to another after their meaning was forgotten. But when I first saw the marks they made me think of runes I'd seen on stones in Greenland spelling the name of Sigur."

"Sigur?"

"That was a powerful family in the old Norse colony there, one of the families that disappeared."

The man who had made the marks on the spear gazed about the circle, and seeing that his work had interested them so much he put forth his hand to receive his spear back. When it was returned to him he looked down at his carving and studied it patiently, and then, more puzzled, gazed up at the strange white people and smiled. His Eskimo companion rose to go and the spear-maker followed. For a moment, before crouching to go out through the low snow tunnel of the igloo, the man straightened and stood before his comrade, who was a dark-eyed, black-haired man of the short Eskimo type. The blue-eyed man was not much taller; but for the instant he seemed to tower over the dark-eyed native, and his figure was straighter. Suddenly there seemed a sternness, almost a majesty, in the spear-maker's bearing entirely absent from that of his companion. He looked once more about the company staring at him, and as he met their gaze a gleam of fire flashed from his eyes, his lips tightened and straightened. Then he stooped and on all fours crawled after his companion out of the snow hut.

The whites, left alone, looked at one another. Had they seen there before them a son of the old vikings of Greenland? If that was so, what a story was told in those scratches on the handle of the spear! First, as the wrecking of the ships cut off communication with Europe, the intermarrying and mixing of the Norsemen with the Eskimos; then, for reasons which no one yet could know, the travelling of white men with the Eskimos away from the shores of Greenland. The lonely stone houses scattered through the Arctic next took up the story. The Norsemen had mingled with the Eskimos and moved to other lands with them, but here and there a family still tried to keep up the traditions of their race and built a house of stone, which had stood through the centuries after the snow igloos of the Eskimos, which had been built beside it, had melted with the first summer's sun. Then, though the houses of stone still stood, no one lived in them any longer. The sons of the men who had built them lived in the igloos of Eskimos and stared at the stone walls and, calling them the work of spirits, feared to enter. But some viking's determination to keep known his name still persisted. He had carved it on his spear, and when his son shaped a spear he copied the carving. Then his son in turn did the same, and so on and on down the generations the custom held, and the men still bore their name upon their spears centuries after the name itself was forgotten and with it all tradition of the past of the people.

At least, that was the way in which Eric Hedon that night spelled the story of the spear. Whether it might be true, or only half true or not true at all, for an hour it furnished warm but friendly discussion and took minds away from the fears of famine. Then those thoughts returned.

Geoff, in the igloo with his sister, lay awake again for long hours. Eric undoubtedly was right; there was nothing they could do to relieve their situation. If all the food in camp were given them it would not be more than enough to enable one man to reach the Kadiack far off at the other end of the land. And over that distance no relief party could bring in sledges from the ship more food than would be needed to supply the sledge drivers themselves. The party must pass the winter where they were, trusting to their guns and the spears of the Eskimos to supply them.

Geoff wondered whether he could, as Eric put it, starve like a savage. Though for many weeks now he had recognised that starvation might be close ahead, still he could not realise it as a way for him to die.

In the Eskimo life, death by starvation was an any-day possibility, constantly and calmly considered. And when such death was inevitable it was met by these savage men with resignation. Geoff knew it was true, as Eric had said, that in parties of civilised men, starving in the Arctic, unspeakable horrors were done. As he lay in the dark he thought of Rae's report of the finding of the final camp of the last of Franklin's men who starved; of the subjects silenced in the public reports of some of the great expeditions; of the record left by another captain of the discovering of a plan among his men to kill their Eskimo hunters when they brought in no more food, in order that the remaining provisions need not be shared with those who had provided them. As he read the account at home such things had seemed to Geoff impossible for civilised beings to conceive. Doubtless even a few days before they were planned or done those deeds had seemed as impossible to the men who planned or carried them out.

Now he knew that there was nothing in a man's experience in civilisation to make any one certain what another might or might not do in the last savage struggles for self-preservation in starvation. Before the end would that party of whites determine to die decently? or must some one break under the test of the savage?