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The Big Otter

The Big Otter

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


Cold comfort is naturally suggested by a bed of snow, yet I have enjoyed great comfort and much warmth in such a bed. My friend Lumley was particularly fond of warmth and of physical ease, yet he often expressed the opinion, with much emphasis, that there was nothing he enjoyed so much as a night in...
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  Cold comfort is naturally suggested by a bed of snow, yet I have enjoyedgreat comfort and much warmth in such a bed.

  My friend Lumley was particularly fond of warmth and of physical ease,yet he often expressed the opinion, with much emphasis, that there wasnothing he enjoyed so much as a night in a snow-bed. Jack Lumley was mychum--a fine manly fellow with a vigorous will, a hardy frame, and akindly heart. We had a natural leaning towards each other--a sort ofundefinable sympathy--which inclined us to seek each other's company ina quiet unobtrusive way. We were neither of us demonstrative; we didnot express regard for each other; we made no protestations of undyingfriendship, but we drew together, somehow, especially in our huntingexpeditions which were numerous.

  On holidays--we had two in the week at the outpost in the Americanbackwoods where we dwelt--when the other young fellows were cleaninggulls or arranging snow-shoes for the day's work, Lumley was wont to sayto me:--

  "Where d'you intend to shoot to-day, Max?"

Max was an abbreviation; myreal name is George Maxby.

  "I think I'll go up by the willows and round by Beaver Creek."

  "I've half a mind to go that way too."

  "Come along then."

  And so we would go off together for the day.

  One morning Lumley said to me, "I'm off to North River; will you come?"

  "With pleasure, but we'll have to camp out."

  "Well, it won't be the first time."

  "D'you know that the thermometer stood at forty below zero this morningbefore breakfast?"

  "I know it; what then? Mercurial fellows like you don't freeze easily."

  I did not condescend to reply, but set about preparing for ourexpedition, resolving to carry my largest blanket with me, for campingout implied sleeping in the snow.

  Of course I must guard my readers--especially my juvenile readers--fromsupposing that it was our purpose that night to undress and calmly liedown in, or on, the pure white winding-sheet in which the frozen worldof the Great Nor'-west had been at that time wrapped for more than fourmonths. Our snow-bed, like other beds, required making, but I willpostpone the making of it till bed-time. Meanwhile, let us follow thesteps of Lumley, who, being taller and stronger than I, _always_ led theway.

  This leading of the way through the trackless wilderness in snowaveraging four feet deep is harder work than one might suppose. Itcould not be done at all without the aid of snow-shoes, which, varyingfrom three to five feet in length, enable the traveller to walk on thesurface of the snow, into which he would otherwise sink, more or less,according to its condition. If it be newly fallen and very soft, hesinks six, eight, or more inches. If it be somewhat compressed by timeor wind he sinks only an inch or two. On the hard surface of exposedlakes and rivers, where it is beaten to the appearance of marble, hedispenses with snow-shoes altogether, slings them on his gun, andcarries them over his shoulder.

  Our first mile lay through a clump of pine-wood, where snow had recentlyfallen. When I looked at my comrade's broad back, and observed thevigour of his action as he trod deep into the virgin snow at everystride, scattering it aside like fine white powder as he lifted eachfoot, I thought how admirably he was fitted for a pioneer in thewilderness, or for the work of those dauntless, persevering men who goforth to add to the world's geographical knowledge, and to lead theexpeditions sent out in search of such lost heroes as Franklin andLivingstone.

  My own work was comparatively light. I had merely to tread in thebeaten path. I was not, however, thereby secured from disaster, as Ifound when, having advanced about half a mile, my right shoe caught atwig to which it held for a moment, and then, breaking loose, allowed meto pitch head down with such violence that I almost reached mother earthfour 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 stuffsitself into neck, ears, nose, eyes, mouth--if open--and any convenientcrevice of person or garments. The snow-shoes, too, which are soserviceable when you are above them, become exasperatingly obstructivewhen you are below them. After a struggle of two minutes I got my headclear, winked the snow out of my eyes, blew it from my mouth andnostrils, and looked up. Lumley was standing there with a bland smileon 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?" heretorted, "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 meto rise.

  In a few minutes we were clear of the pine-wood, and came out upon apiece of swampland, where the stunted willow bushes just showed theirtops above the surface of the snow. This led us to a bend of the broadriver, near to which, further down, stood our outpost--Fort Dunregan.

  For four months there had been neither sight nor sound of water in thatriver. It was frozen to the bottom, except in the middle where its darkunseen waters flowed silently under six feet or more of solid icethrough many a river-channel and lake to the distant sea. In fact, savefor the suggestive form of its banks, the river might have been mistakenfor an elongated plain or piece of open land. The surface of the snowhere was, from exposure to wind and sun, as hard as pavement. Wetherefore took off our snow-shoes, and, the necessity for maintainingthe Indian-file position being removed, we walked abreast.

  "The air is keen here," remarked Lumley, pulling the thick shawl thatwas round his neck as far up over his mouth as his well-developed nosewould permit.

  "It is," said I, following his example with greater success, my own nosebeing a snub.

  There was no wind; not even a breeze--there seldom is at suchtemperature--but there was a very slight movement of the air, caused byour own advance, which was just sufficient to make one appreciate theintensity of the cold. It became necessary now to pay frequentattention to our noses and cheek-bones and toes, to prevent frostbite.But the sun was brilliant and the air invigorating. So was the aspectof nature, for although there was no grandeur in the character of thescenery, there was extreme beauty in the snow lacework of the trees andleafless shrubs; in the sky, whose bright blue was intensified by thewhite drapery of earth; and in the myriads of snow-crystals whichreflected the dazzling sun with prismatic splendour.

  Indeed, the scene was too dazzling, and as there was a tendency in it toproduce snow-blindness, we soon returned to the friendly shelter of thewoods.

  "Tracks!" exclaimed Lumley, in a low voice, pointing to the ground,where footmarks were clearly visible, "and fresh," he added, turning upthe snow under the track with the butt of his gun.

  "Ptarmigan!" said I in a whisper, pointing towards a little knoll, notquite a gunshot ahead of us, where some dozens of the beautifulsnow-white creatures stood gazing at us in motionless surprise. Theirplumage was so white that we had not observed them at first, almost theonly black specks about them being their sparkling eyes, and the tips oftheir wings and tails.

  Our guns were pointed instantly. I am ashamed to say that we wereguilty of shooting them as they stood! In that land we shot for food asmuch as for amusement, and, some of us being poor shots, we were glad totake our game sitting! Nay, more, we tried to get as many of the birdsin line as possible, so as to make the most of our ammunition. We werenot sportsmen in the civilised sense of that term.

  The extreme stillness of the woods was broken by the report of our gunsin quick succession. A very cloud of pure white birds arose, as ifNature had taken to snowing upwards in rather large flakes, and sevenvictims 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 itsuffice to say that a little before nightfall we arrived at a placewhere was a snowy mound capped by a clump of spruce firs of small sizebut picturesque appearance.

  "Behold our camp!" said Lumley.

  "Not inviting at present," said I, as we slowly toiled up the mound, forwe were weary, having walked about twenty miles, weighted with heavyflannel-lined deerskin-coats, blankets, and cooking utensils, besides asmall quantity of pemmican, sugar, tea, and ship's biscuit, axes andfirebags. 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 gotto the top of it. By that time the sun had set, and a universal ghostlygrey, fast deepening into night, banished every sensation of joy arousedby the previous lightness. Although the scene and circumstances werenothing new to us we could not shake off the depressing influence, butwe did not allow that to interfere with our action. Silently, butvigorously--for the cold was increasing--we felled several small deadtrees, which we afterwards cut into lengths of about four feet. Then wecleared a space in the snow of about ten or twelve feet in diameteruntil we reached the solid earth, using our snow-shoes as shovels. Whatwe threw out of the hole formed an embankment round it, and as the snowlay at that spot full four feet deep, we thus raised the surroundingwall of our chamber to a height of six feet, if not more. Standing onthe edge of it in the ever-deepening twilight, and looking down into theabyss, which was further darkened by the overspreading pines, this holein the snow suggested a tomb rather than a bed.

  At one end of it we piled up the firewood. Extending from that towardsthe other end, we spread a carpet of pine-branches, full six inchesthick. 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 timebecome profoundly dark, insomuch that we had to grope for the variousarticles we required.

  "We've been rather late of beginning to make the camp," said I, as Iwatched the sparks.

  "Never mind, Max, my boy, we shall soon be all right," replied myfriend, as one of the sparks at last caught on the tinder. In a fewseconds the spark was blown into a blaze, and placed in the midst of ahandful of dry moss and thin chips. This was applied to some dry twigsunder our piled-up logs, and a vivid tongue of flame shot upward.

  Blessed fire! Marvellous light! It is a glorious, wonder-workinginfluence, well chosen by the Almighty as one of his titles. There isno change in Nature so intense as that from darkness to light as well inphysical as in spiritual things. No sudden change from heat to cold, orfrom calm to storm; no transformation ever achieved in the most gorgeousof pantomimes, could have the startling effect, or produce the splendidcontrast that resulted from the upward flash of that first tongue offire. It was a vivid tongue, for the materials had been well laid; afew seconds later it was a roaring tongue, with a host of lesser tonguesaround it--all dancing, leaping, cheering, flashing, as if withineffable joy at their sudden liberation, and the resulting destructionof dismal darkness.

  Our snow-abyss was no longer black and tomb-like. Its walls sparkled asthough encrusted with diamonds; its carpet of pine-branches shonevividly green; the tree-stems around rose up like red-hot pillars, moreor less intense in colour, according to distance; the branching canopyoverhead appeared to become solid with light, and the distance aroundequally solid with ebony blackness, while we, who had caused thetransformation, stood in the midst of the ruddy blaze like jovialred-hot men!

  "There's nothing like a fire," I remarked with some enthusiasm.

  "Except supper," said Lumley.

  "Gross creature!" I responded, as he went about the preparation ofsupper with a degree of zest which caused me to feel that my epithet waswell deserved.

  "Gross creature!" he repeated some time afterwards with a pleasant smileof intense enjoyment, as he sat in front of the blaze sipping a can ofhot tea, and devouring pemmican and biscuit with avidity. "No, Max, Iam not a gross creature. Your intellects are probably benumbed by thecold. If phrenologists are right in dividing the human brain intocompartments, wherein the different intellectual powers are said to belocated, I should think that some of those chambers lying nearest to thetop of the skull are apt to freeze at a temperature of forty below zero,in which case the perfect working of the half-paralysed machine canscarcely be looked for. Hold your head to the fire, and thaw it while Iexpound this to you."

  "Stay," said I, holding out my tin pannikin for more tea; "inward heatas well as outward is necessary to my thorough comprehension of _your_expositions."

  "True, Max, all the faculties of such mind as you possess, in their mostactive condition, are required to enable you to take in the simplestproposition. Just give my bird a turn, like a good fellow."

  He referred to a ptarmigan which, plucked, split open, roughly cleaned,and impaled on a stick, was roasting in front of the fire. I turned hisbird and my own, while he continued:--

  "To gratify the appetite with thorough and hearty appreciation afterworking hard for your food, or walking far to find it, is not gross.Grossness consists in eating heavily when you have not toiled, andstimulating with fire-water, pepper, or mustard, your sluggish appetite.To call me a gross creature, then--"

  He stopped short, and, looking up, performed that operation with thenose which is styled sniffing.

  "What do I smell?"

  "My bird--burnt!" I shouted, snatching at the stick on which it wasimpaled. In doing so I capsized our can of tea. Lumley looked at itwith a sigh, while I regarded with a groan the breast of my bird burntto a cinder.

  "Max, you should remember that a fire strong enough to subdue fortydegrees below zero is intense--also, that our supply of tea is limited.All this comes of your unwisely calling me a gross creature."

  "No, it comes of the intense application of my unthawed intellect toyour absurd expositions."

  "Whatever it comes of," returned Lumley, "we must remedy the evil.Here, fall upon my ptarmigan. I'm not quite ready for it, being stillengaged with the pemmican. Meanwhile, I'll replenish the kettle."

  So saying, he took up the kettle, went to the margin of our hole, andfilled it with fresh snow well pressed down. This being put on thefire, soon melted; more snow was added, till water enough was procured,and then fresh tea was put in to boil. We were not particular, you see,as to the mode of infusion. While my friend was thus engaged, I hadplucked, split, cleansed and impaled another bird. In a marvellouslyshort time--for our fire was truly intense--the tea and ptarmigan wereready, and we proceeded with supper as comfortably as before.

  "Now I shall continue," said Lumley, with a satisfied clearing of thethroat, "the exposition of grossness,--"

  "Oh, pray spare me that," said I, quickly, "but tell me, if you can, whyit is that such a tremendous fire as that does not melt our snow walls."

  "Put your head nearer to it, Max, for some of the phrenological chambersmust still be frozen, else it would be clear to you that the intensityof the cold is the reason. You see that only a small part of the snowquite close to the fire is a little softened. If the fire were hotterit would melt more of it--melt the whole hole and us too. But the coldis so great that it keeps the walls cool and us also--too cool indeed,for while my face and knees are roasting my back is freezing, so I shallrise and give _it_ a turn. Now," he continued, rising and turning hisback to the blaze as he spoke, "I will resume my remarks on gross--"

  "You've no objection to my making our bed while you lecture?" said I,also rising.

  Lumley had not the least objection, so, while he held forth, I spread alarge green blanket over our carpet of pine-brush. A bundle of the sameunder the blanket formed a pretty good pillow. Wrapping myself tightlyround in another blanket

for physical heat evaporates quickly in thefrozen regions

I lay down. My friend lay down beside me, our feetbeing towards the fire.

  After a silent interval, while lying thus, gazing up through theoverhanging branches at the stars that twinkled in the clear frosty sky,our thoughts became more serious. The grandeur of creation led us tothink and speak of the Creator--for we were like-minded friends, and nosubject was tabooed. We conversed freely about whatever chanced toenter our minds--of things past, present, and to come. We spoke of Godthe Saviour, of redemption and of sin. Then, with that discursivetendency to which most minds are prone, we diverged to home andcivilised lands, contrasting these with life in the wild-woods of theGreat Nor'-west. After that we became sleepy, and our converse was morediscursive--at times even incoherent--in the midst of which Lumleyreverted to his unfinished exposition of grossness, and, in theenthusiasm of his nature, was slowly working himself back into a wakefulcondition, when I put an abrupt end to the discourse by drawing aprolonged snore. It was a deceptive snore, unworthy of success, yet itsucceeded.

  My friend turned round and, with a contented sigh, went to sleep. Aftera brief space the snore which had been a fiction became a reality, andthus, on our bed of snow, in the depths of an Arctic night, in the heartof the frozen wilderness, and while the mighty fire burned slowly down,we unitedly took our departure for the land of Nod.