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Text - "The Big Otter" R.M. Ballantyne


Our first mile lay through a clump of pine-wood, where snow had recently fallen. When I looked at my comrade's broad back, and observed the vigour of his action as he trod deep into the virgin snow at every stride, scattering it aside like fine white powder as he lifted each foot, I thought how admirably he was fitted for a pioneer in the wilderness, or for the work of those dauntless, persevering men who go forth to add to the world's geographical knowledge, and to lead the expeditions sent out in search of such lost heroes as Franklin and Livingstone. My own work was comparatively light. I had merely to tread in the beaten path. I was not, however, thereby secured from disaster, as I found when, having advanced about half a mile, my right shoe caught a twig to which it held for a moment, and then, breaking loose, allowed me to pitch head down with such violence that I almost reached mother earth four feet below the surface. This kind of plunge is always awkward owing to the difficulty of rising, and usually disagreeable, owing to the manner in which snow stuffs itself into neck, ears, nose, eyes, mouth-if open-and any convenient crevice of person or garments. The snow-shoes, too, which are so serviceable when you are above them, become exasperatingly obstructive when you are below them. After a struggle of two minutes I got my head clear, winked the snow out of my eyes, blew it from my mouth and nostrils, and looked up. Lumley was standing there with a bland smile on his amiable face; he seldom laughed, though he sometimes chuckled! "What do you mean by grinning there like a Cheshire cat?" I exclaimed, "why don't you lend a hand?" "What do you mean by tumbling there like a Christmas goose?" he retorted, "why don't you look out for stumps and twigs as I do?" He made some amends for this reply by extending his hand and helping me to rise. In a few minutes we were clear of the pine-wood, and came out upon a piece of swampland, where the stunted willow bushes just showed their tops above the surface of the snow. This led us to a bend of the broad river, near to which, further down, stood our outpost-Fort Dunregan. For four months there had been neither sight nor sound of water in that river. It was frozen to the bottom, except in the middle where its dark unseen waters flowed silently under six feet or more of solid ice through many a river-channel and lake to the distant sea. In fact, save for the suggestive form of its banks, the river might have been mistaken for an elongated plain or piece of open land. The surface of the snow here was, from exposure to wind and sun, as hard as pavement. We therefore took off our snow-shoes, and, the necessity for maintaining the Indian-file position being removed, we walked abreast. "The air is keen here," remarked Lumley, pulling the thick shawl that was round his neck as far up over his mouth as his well-developed nose would permit. "It is," said I, following his example with greater success, my own nose being a snub. There was no wind; not even a breeze-there seldom is at such temperature-but there was a very slight movement of the air, caused by our own advance, which was just sufficient to make one appreciate the intensity of the cold. It became necessary now to pay frequent attention to our noses and cheek-bones and toes, to prevent frostbite. But the sun was brilliant and the air invigorating. So was the aspect of nature, for although there was no grandeur in the character of the scenery, there was extreme beauty in the snow lacework of the trees and leafless shrubs; in the sky, whose bright blue was intensified by the white drapery of earth; and in the myriads of snow-crystals which reflected the dazzling sun with prismatic splendour. Indeed, the scene was too dazzling, and as there was a tendency in it to produce snow-blindness, we soon returned to the friendly shelter of the woods. "Tracks!" exclaimed Lumley, in a low voice, pointing to the ground, where footmarks were clearly visible, "and fresh," he added, turning up the snow under the track with the butt of his gun. "Ptarmigan!" said I in a whisper, pointing towards a little knoll, not quite a gunshot ahead of us, where some dozens of the beautiful snow-white creatures stood gazing at us in motionless surprise. Their plumage was so white that we had not observed them at first, almost the only black specks about them being their sparkling eyes, and the tips of their wings and tails. Our guns were pointed instantly. I am ashamed to say that we were guilty of shooting them as they stood! In that land we shot for food as much as for amusement, and, some of us being poor shots, we were glad to take our game sitting! Nay, more, we tried to get as many of the birds in line as possible, so as to make the most of our ammunition. We were not sportsmen in the civilised sense of that term. The extreme stillness of the woods was broken by the report of our guns in quick succession. A very cloud of pure white birds arose, as if Nature had taken to snowing upwards in rather large flakes, and seven victims remained behind. "A good supper," remarked Lumley, as we bagged the game and re-loaded. It is not my intention here to describe a day's shooting. Let it suffice to say that a little before nightfall we arrived at a place where was a snowy mound capped by a clump of spruce firs of small size but picturesque appearance. "Behold our camp!" said Lumley. "Not inviting at present," said I, as we slowly toiled up the mound, for we were weary, having walked about twenty miles, weighted with heavy flannel-lined deerskin-coats, blankets, and cooking utensils, besides a small quantity of pemmican, sugar, tea, and ship's biscuit, axes and firebags. It is true, the cooking utensils were few and simple, consisting of only two tin kettles and two tin mugs. Dreary indeed-lonesome, desolate, and eerie was our mound when we got to the top of it. By that time the sun had set, and a universal ghostly grey, fast deepening into night, banished every sensation of joy aroused by the previous lightness. Although the scene and circumstances were nothing new to us we could not shake off the depressing influence, but we did not allow that to interfere with our action. Silently, but vigorously-for the cold was increasing-we felled several small dead trees, which we afterwards cut into lengths of about four feet. Then we cleared a space in the snow of about ten or twelve feet in diameter until we reached the solid earth, using our snow-shoes as shovels. What we threw out of the hole formed an embankment round it, and as the snow lay at that spot full four feet deep, we thus raised the surrounding wall of our chamber to a height of six feet, if not more. Standing on the edge of it in the ever-deepening twilight, and looking down into the abyss, which was further darkened by the overspreading pines, this hole in the snow suggested a tomb rather than a bed. At one end of it we piled up the firewood. Extending from that towards the other end, we spread a carpet of pine-branches, full six inches thick. To do all this took a considerable amount of time and labour, and when Lumley stood up at last to strike a light with flint, steel, and tinder, we felt pretty well exhausted. The night had by that time become profoundly dark, insomuch that we had to grope for the various articles we required. "We've been rather late of beginning to make the camp," said I, as I watched the sparks. "Never mind, Max, my boy, we shall soon be all right," replied my friend, as one of the sparks at last caught on the tinder. In a few seconds the spark was blown into a blaze, and placed in the midst of a handful of dry moss and thin chips. This was applied to some dry twigs under our piled-up logs, and a vivid tongue of flame shot upward. Blessed fire! Marvellous light! It is a glorious, wonder-working influence, well chosen by the Almighty as one of his titles. There is no change in Nature so intense as that from darkness to light as well in physical as in spiritual things. No sudden change from heat to cold, or from calm to storm; no transformation ever achieved in the most gorgeous of pantomimes, could have the startling effect, or produce the splendid contrast that resulted from the upward flash of that first tongue of fire. It was a vivid tongue, for the materials had been well laid; a few seconds later it was a roaring tongue, with a host of lesser tongues around it-all dancing, leaping, cheering, flashing, as if with ineffable joy at their sudden liberation, and the resulting destruction of dismal darkness.

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