The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras/Chapter 2.XVII

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The next day the doctor and his two companions woke up after a perfectly quiet night. The cold, although not keen, increased towards daybreak, but they were well covered, and slept soundly under the watch of the peaceful animals.

The weather being pleasant, they resolved to consecrate the day to a reconnoissance of the country, and the search of musk-oxen. Altamont insisted on shooting something, and they decided that, even if these oxen should be the gentlest animals in the world, they should be shot. Besides, their flesh, although strongly flavored with musk, was pleasant eating, and they all hoped to carry back to Fort Providence a good supply of it.

During the early morning hours nothing noteworthy took place; the land grew different in the northeast; a few elevations, the beginning of a mountainous district, indicated a change. If this New America were not a continent, it was at any rate an important island; but then they did not have to trouble themselves about its geography.

Duke ran ahead, and soon came across some traces of a herd of musk-oxen; he then advanced rapidly, and soon disappeared from the eyes of the hunters.

They followed his clear barking, which soon grew so hasty that they knew he had discovered the object of their search.

They pushed on, and in an hour and a half they came up to two of these animals; they were large, and formidable in appearance. They appeared much surprised at Duke's attacks, but not alarmed; they were feeding off a sort of reddish moss which grew on the thin soil. The doctor recognized them at once from their moderate height, their horns, which were broad at the base, the absence of muzzle, their sheep-like forehead, and short tail; their shape has earned for them from naturalists the name of “ovibos,” a compound, and which expresses the two sorts of animals whose characteristics they share. Thick, long hair and a sort of delicate brown silk formed their fur.

They ran away when they saw the two hunters, who came running up after them.

It was hard to reach them for men who were out of breath after running half an hour. Hatteras and his companions stopped.

“The Devil!” said Altamont.

“That's just the word,” said the doctor, as soon as he could take breath. “I'll grant they are Americans, and they can't have a very good idea of your countrymen.”

“That proves we are good hunters,” answered Altamont.

Still, the musk-oxen, seeing they were not pursued, stopped in a posture of surprise. It became evident that they could never be run down; they would have to be surrounded; the plateau on which they were aided this manœuvre. The hunters, leaving Duke to harass them, descended through the neighboring ravines, so as to get around the plateau. Altamont and the doctor hid behind a rock at one end, while Hatteras, suddenly advancing from the other end, should drive the oxen towards them. In half an hour each had gained his post.

“You don't object any longer to our shooting?” asked Altamont.

“No, it's fair fighting,” answered the doctor, who, in spite of gentleness, was a real sportsman.

They were talking in this way, when they saw the oxen running and Duke at their heels: farther on Hatteras was driving them, with loud cries, towards the American and the doctor, who ran to meet this magnificent prey.

At once the oxen stopped, and, less fearful of a single enemy, they turned upon Hatteras. He awaited them calmly, aimed at the nearest, and fired; but the bullet struck the animal in the middle of his forehead, without penetrating the skull. Hatteras's second shot produced no other effect than to make the beasts furious; they ran to the disarmed hunter, and threw him down at once.

“He is lost,” cried the doctor.

At the moment Clawbonny pronounced these words with an accent of despair, Altamont made a step forward to run to Hatteras's aid; then he stopped, struggling against himself and his prejudices.

“No,” he cried, “that would be cowardice.”

He hastened with Clawbonny to the scene of combat. His hesitation had not lasted half a second. But if the doctor saw what was taking place in the American's heart, Hatteras understood it, who would rather have died than have implored his rival's interference. Still, he had hardly time to perceive it, for Altamont appeared before him. Hatteras, lying on the ground, was trying to ward off the horns and hoofs of the two animals. But he could not long continue so unequal a struggle. He was about to be torn in pieces, when two shots were heard. Hatteras heard the bullets whistling by his head.

“Don't be frightened!” shouted Altamont, hurling his gun to one side, and rushing upon the angry animals.

One of the oxen fell, shot through the heart; the other, wild with rage, was just going to gore the captain, when Altamont faced him, and plunged into his mouth his hand, armed with a snow-knife; with the other he gave him a terrible blow with a hatchet on the head. This was done with marvellous rapidity, and a flash of lightning would have lit up the whole scene.

The second ox fell back dead.

“Hurrah! hurrah!” cried Clawbonny.

Hatteras was saved. He owed his life to the man whom he detested most in the world. What was going on in his mind at this time? What emotion was there which he could not master? That is one of the secrets of the heart which defy all analysis.

However that may be, Hatteras advanced to his rival without hesitation, and said to him seriously,—

“You have saved my life, Altamont.”

“You saved mine,” answered the American. There was a moment's silence. Then Altamont added, “We are now quits, Hatteras!”

“No, Altamont,” answered the captain; “when the doctor took you from your icy tomb, I did not know who you were, and you have saved me at the risk of your own life, knowing who I was.”

“You are a fellow-being,” answered Altamont; “and whatever else he may be, an American is not a coward.”

“No, he is not,” said the doctor; “he is a man! a man like you, Hatteras!”

“And like me he shall share the glory which is awaiting us!”

“The glory of going to the North Pole?” said Altamont.

“Yes,” said the captain, haughtily.

“I had guessed it!” exclaimed the American. “So you dared conceive of this bold design! You dared try to reach that inaccessible point! Ah, that is great! It is sublime!”

“But you,” asked Hatteras, hurriedly, “were you not on your way to the Pole?”

Altamont seemed to hesitate about replying.

“Well?” said the doctor.

“Well, no,” answered the American,—“no; tell the truth, and shame the Devil! No, I did not have this great idea, which has brought you here. I was trying simply to sail through the Northwest Passage, that is all.”

“Altamont,” said Hatteras, holding out his hand to the American, “share our glory, and go with us to the North Pole!”

The two men then shook hands warmly.

When they turned towards the doctor, they saw his eyes full of tears.

“Ah, my friends,” he murmured, as he dried his eyes, “how can my heart hold the joy with which you fill it? My dear companions, you have sacrificed a miserable question of nationality in order to unite in your common success! You know that England and America have nothing to do with all this; that mutual sympathy ought to bind you together against the dangers of the journey! If the North Pole is discovered, what difference does it make who does it? Why stand bickering about English or American, when we can be proud of being men?”

The doctor embraced the reconciled foes; he could not restrain his joy. The two new friends felt themselves drawn closer together by the friendship this worthy man had for them both. Clawbonny spoke freely of the vanity of competition, of the madness of rivalry, and of the need of agreement between men so far from home. His words, his tears and caresses, came from the bottom of his heart.

Still, he grew calm after embracing Hatteras and Altamont for the twentieth time.

“And now,” he said, “to work, to work! Since I was no use as a hunter, let me try in another capacity!”

Thereupon he started to cut up the ox, which he called the “ox of reconciliation,” but he did it as skilfully as if he were a surgeon conducting a delicate autopsy. His two companions gazed at him in amusement. In a few minutes he had cut from the body a hundred pounds of flesh; he gave each one a third of it, and they again took up their march to Fort Providence. At ten o'clock in the evening, after walking in the oblique rays of the sun, they reached Doctor's House, where Johnson and Bell had a good supper awaiting them.

But before they sat down to table, the doctor said in a voice of triumph, as he pointed to his two companions,—

“Johnson, I carried away with me an Englishman and an American, did I not?”

“Yes, Dr. Clawbonny,” answered the boatswain.

“Well, I've brought back two brothers.”

The two sailors gladly shook Altamont's hand; the doctor told them what the American captain had done for the English captain, and that night the snow-house held five perfectly happy men.