Turning his back on the plump charms of the dark-eyed girl, the young hunter unquestioningly gambled his life against the terror of the snows in his hunger for the magic blade
A GRAPHIC STORY OF THE HIGH ARCTIC
KULEE HELD MEKSAK’S JACKET TIGHTLY, looking into the black slit of his good eye. He felt warm inside, as he always felt when she looked at him, and he had no thought of rebuking her for her chattering tongue.
The people of the village were busy storing seal blubber in sealskin bags and piling up meat on dirt shelves behind their huts, preparing for the cold weather that would soon lash them to their village with the frozen chains of the long winter night.
“Somebody is foolishly going off to hunt when others are staying with their wives in warm houses,’’ Kulee murmured, looking with undisguised longing at his father Angut’s hut.
Meksak looked away so that he could speak without seeing her dark eyes. Sometimes looking at her eyes changed the words he was about to utter before the sound came through his throat. His single eye, gazing over the girl’s uncovered head, saw the white overflow of ice, lying like an immense tongue against the dark background of the rocky ridges that framed Arnaluark Nuna.
The sight of the “great ice” gave him strength to overlook Kulee’s pleading eyes. Out on the ice plain there was a man’s work to be done ; and when it was done he would go southward again with Ikyak, carrying on their sled a pile of blue fox furs
that would he a fit gift for the bearded white men who had more Great Knives than a hunter had dogs.
Meksak remained silent for some time, and finally Kulee said in a soft voice: “A foolish girl will stay in her house during the long night!”
“You won’t go into the Young People's House. Kulee? You will wait for me?”
She nodded and bit her lip. Her mouth was curved in a slight smile, but her eyes were not laughing. She held the rough flap of his coat tightly, and her body lay close against his.
He took her hands away from his coat, although it was
pleasant to have her close to him. He knew it was necessary
to be firm, since he had some experience with Kulee’s methods of persuasion.
“Somebody will scrape a sealskin and chew it into softness so that there may be new kamiks in the spring.” she said. “F.ven a foolish girl may learn to place the grass properly in the kamiks!”
Meksak laughed, and went off to see about starting across the ice with his sled and dogs, which Ikyak had already harnessed. Fhe girl stood at the door of her hut, watching him
disappear in the flurry of snow that was blowing in from the
Within a few days the two boys had taken several sled loads of meat up to the lower end of the valley, which was now dark except for a short time each day when the sun rolled briefly across the southern edge of the sea. By the time they stored the last of the meat in caches the sun had disappeared and it would be four moons before it would return to the southern sky.
The ice on the coast below, spreading out across the bay, glimmered faintly in the last opal dusk as they drove their dogs up into the valley. From deep crevices in the glacier came the noise of cracking ice, and now and then when the packed snow along the slopes of the gorge broke loose there was the deafening roar of an avalanche, sounding like thunder in the distance.
Fhe lights of the stars and the occasional ripples of color from the northern lights shed enough radiance for the boys to see where they were going. Meksak as usual ran ahead of the dogs, guiding them past cracks in the ice, which was covered with a layer of snow from the Negark blowing in from the west.
1 he valley was several miles wide at the foot of the glacier, but it soon narrowed so that the grey walls of the mountain ridges, extending down Continued on paye
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to the sea on both sides, drew together like the narrowing walls of a great corridor.
They soon came to the ancient bird cliffs which faced the sea; and they knew that a few miles beyond lay the steep gorge that opened into the "great ice.” There were remains of ancient villages at the foot of these cliffs, broken piles of stone which had been the houses of people who had lived at the foot of the cliffs in some distant age, but who had long since disappeared.
Meksak ran back to warn Ikyak to stay near the edge of the river of ice.
"The ice will become more dangerous as we go up toward the top,” he said. "There are great cracks where an entire sled may drop and be lost in the snow that will pour down upon it.”
Ikyak, his round face a small grinning blob in the white frame of his hood, nodded vigorously.
"The dogs know where to go,” he said. "I cannot drive them out on the ice.”
Meksak went back to beating the trail. The snow was packed hard on the surface of the glacier and it was difficult to tell how strong the crust would be: their only safety lay in hugging the edge of the glacier. Meksak remembered the remains of the giant bear the great hunter Karangak had killed at the foot of the glacier near the crimson cliffs, and he watched the white surface closely.
The boys planned to lay their fox traps along the edge of the great ice above the cleft of the valley where the glacier poured out. It would he necessary to build a shelter of skins, which they had brought for this purpose, to protect them from the fierce winds that blew across the icecap. Within the shelter they would throw their clothing and food in the warmth of a seal-oil fire. For this purpose they had brought several bags of blubber to use as fuel for the lamp, for thawing and drying their clothes, and also for drying fox skins in the spring. They did not bring much food, relying upon the meat of the foxes they would trap, as well as ptarmigan and caribou, and also ravens and owls, which were the only creatures to be found out on the ice plains.
It was several days after they had left Agpat that the hoys reached a point just below the edge of the icecap. Here they planned to set up their shelter at least for a time, and perhaps for the winter.
Beyond this was the steep rim of the icecap—that vast desolate expanse of unbroken whiteness that had lain upon a continent since human time began. Beneath these immense ice plains was the sunken earth, part of it below the level of the sea outside. The formation of rock or packed vegetable matter, the skeletons of ancient animals that lay in that frozen depth of ice must remain one of the dark secrets of time. Perhaps in future centuries an explosion of searing flame, hot enough to melt the earth, might reduce the mighty icecap to a caldron of boiling seas or an eruption of molten slime from the earth beneath the seas.
But for the two hoys scaling the last steep slope of the glacier the icecap was not a land of mystery. It was a place where foxes ran along the shallow slopes that rimmed the ice plains, retreating into this frozen hideaway during the long, starving months of the winter night.
THERE were several methods of catching foxes, but the simplest was to dig a pit and lay stone slabs over it. These slabs were propped up with sticks, cleverly balanced so that the prop would be dislodged by a prowling fox; the slab would fall over the pit, imprisoning the intruder.
There was a certain amount of psychology involved in this method of fox trapping. At first the bait had to be exposed and the stick wedged firmly in place so that it would not be dislodged. The foxes would snatch the meat and after several such thefts
would lose all fear of the trap.
Then the traps would be covered with the slabs to keep the hungry animals out and after a time their frenzy would drive them to scratch and dig for the meat. When marks of digging were observed, the trappers would then lift the slabs off the pits, arranging the props so that they would be dislodged easily. The famished foxes would break into the trap and in their violence they would quickly spring it.
The boys first made a shelter of skins banked with blocks of packed snow, facing toward the northeast where the
rim of the ice plains rose above them, so that the Negark would bank the snow around the sides of the shelter and leave a pile of drifted snow in front.
For a time the north wind blew, clearing the clouds from the sky so that the moon gave them light to work by. The boys laid many traps during these weeks, baiting hut not setting them, so that the foxes would know where to find food when the deep cold settled upon the ice plains and hunger drove them to madness.
As the Negark blew with increasing fury, the light snow, which did not lie
long upon the ground, sifted across the ice crust so that in the moonlight the vast plain looked like the sea, with constantly moving tides and waves. These ripples of snow often brought a kind of hypnotic state to the observer; one might crouch for hours, staring in silent fascination at the sliding surface. This was the "ice madness” that caused hunters to freeze to death on the icecap.
Soon the bitter cold settled over the lonely icecap and Meksak and Ikyak spent much of the time building a firm wall of snow around the skin shelter. There was little heat in the interior of the shelter except the heat of their bodies. They had only a small amount of seal blubber for burning, and when the fire went out it could he started again only by rubbing wood against wood.
During the periods when the full fury of the wind howled through the gorge and over the edge of the ice plain, the hoys stayed behind the barricade of snow-packed skins. But when the wind died down and the snow was sufficiently frozen to form blocks, they packed these into a solid wall around the shelter so that the air between the snow blocks and the skins retained inside the shelter the warmth of their bodies and of the stone lamp.
This shelter served as a protection against intense cold, but it offered few other comforts. Outside the dogs were tethered, their fretful whines mingling with the droning sound of the wind. This subdued roar kept the icy silence alive with constant overtones of vague and restless noises.
Fine ice crystals filled the air with a glittering whiteness when the "winter moon” rose over the vast ice plains, shortly after the two boys reached the cleft high up in the rocky gorge where they established their shelter. This was an advance warning of the intense cold that was to come, and Meksak explained to Ikyak that they must complete the snow wall around the shelter before the first of the great winter storms struck the icecap.
Ikyak was vaguely troubled at the severity of his older cousin’s manner. It seemed to him that Meksak had lost his cheerfulness, and no longer laughed as he worked. He watched Meksak’s face as they worked hard to finish the wall of snow blocks, and finally he said: "Why is the Great Knife something you must have, Meksak?”
Meksak turned and looked at his cousin. His face, framed in the round circle of white fur, glistened from the covering of grease. His good eye looked at Ikyak through the half-closed slit of his eyelids.
For a time he did not reply, but continued to stare at his cousin. Then he said: "We must have enough fox skins to make a gift to the bearded white men. Until we have these it is useless to travel south.”
"But if you do not need to have a Great Knife you do not need the skins,” Ikyak said impatiently. "We can go back to the village and sleep in the warmth of our own hut!”
Meksak thought a moment and then said: "Get on with the work, Ikyak.
The Negark will blow again before we have finished the shelter, and we will freeze along with the dogs.”
IN SPITE of his resolution, Meksak often thought of the warm hut back at Agpat, with the stone lamp and the glow of warmth, and the smell of rotting meat, warm and savory under the seal blubber which sealed it from the air. There was no meat except fox bait on the icecap, and at times it seemed necessary to stifle the angry protests of a starving stomach by beating himself in the belly.
As he lay under a covering of caribou skins, while the wind blew outside, he thought also of Kulee, with her row of white teeth that flashed like tiny white shells when she smiled. Kulee’s waist and legs were getting fatter, and she was becoming more desirable as a wife. Meksak decided that after he and Ikyak returned, with a Great Knife, he would throw his old kamiks at the girl and, when she took them, he would slap her a bit as a reminder not to chatter and then he would drag her into his hut. All the people in the village would see him, and old women would cackle, and then it would be known to everyone—including Rupanok—that Meksak had taken himself a wife.
Meksak was awakened from his dreaming by a hand, pushing against his shoulder. He looked up, and in the dim light he saw Ikyak crouching in front of the shelter. He could hear the low sharp whine of the dogs, and thought for an instant a fox might have strayed into the place where they had camped.
Ikyak was pointing toward the coastline, dimly outlined in the darkness
below. The glacier in the valley of Arnaluark Nuna below, pouring out through the crack in the rim of the icecap, spread like a white tail; and the vague shapes of shadowy clouds rose from the pallor of the icefield into the sky.
Meksak pulled himself out of the shelter, and stared at the rising shadows. The moon had dropped toward the edge of the clouds, rimming them with a faint glow.
"It will last three turns of the moon,” he said. "We must stretch a cover across the front of our shelter for the dogs. Go and give them some food, Ikyak—we may not be able to reach them for some time.”
IKYAK set about following instructions. He had learned much in the summer hunting, and had killed walrus as well as seal, so that he was now a man; yet he accepted Meksak’s leadership without question.
There was a confused rush of sound in the valley below, among the stones of the ancient village—an undercurrent of sound, like a bellows when the air is suddenly sucked in. The rise of the wind came more like a premonition than an actual sound. At first there was silence, then a rushing noise, and quick blasts of air sweeping up through the cleft in the valley, racing among the broken remnants of stone houses and the sharp jutting rocks.
By the time the impact of the wind struck the slope where Meksak and Ikyak had erected the shelter, they had stretched a skin cover over the shed and drawn the dogs together, quieting them as they snarled at the sudden interruption.
The shadow of the clouds by this time had completely obscured the dying moon. They rose like an immense blanket against the already darkened sky. Soon the last vestige of light was gone and the great ice plateau was in utter blackness, and the wind rose to a howling fury.
The shelter was solidly built, partly in the lee of an outcropping of rock, so
that the wind, roaring through the canyon and out over the measureless slopes of the icecap, did not strike the snow walls with full force. However, as the strength of the wind increased, its rolling echoes rose in a crescendo of tormented sound and the shelter quivered under the impact. Meksak wondered whether anything could stand the blast of the Negark.
The boys crawled back into the shelter, pulling over them two heavy bearskins. All that could be done had been done. There was no power that could stay the force of the gale. Meksak and Ikyak closed their eyes and huddled together, as close to each other as possible in the cheerless shelter, waiting for the galloping fury of the wind to ride itself into exhaustion.
For hours the wind howled through the cleft at the top of the valley, above the ledge where the shelter had been built, until the noise drowned out all thinking and feeling. Now and then Meksak could hear the sharp whine of a dog, rising in sharper and sharper cries amid the shrieking of the wind, and he wondered vaguely if they were well tied in their harness. Then, as the sound of the dogs died out, he tried to shut the sounds from his mind by closing his eyes.
Once he heard a slight moan from Ikyak, and he rolled over toward his cousin, and called out to him above the howl of the wind.
"Are you sick?”
In the darkness Ikyak pushed his hand against Meksak’s chest. The hand was frozen solid and Meksak realized that it must have become warm from the pressure of Ikyak’s body and then thrust through the flap into the freezing air outside. Anything warm and damp, when exposed to the air would freeze instantly.
He forced Ikyak, who seemed numb and unable to move, to shift into a sit ting position, and felt of the hand. It was cold and hard as a rock.
"There is only one place that is warm,” he muttered to his cousin, although he knew Ikyak did not hear him. "Stay here!” He drew the bearskin around the boy and, after allowing himself to be exposed slowly to the freezing air, to avoid a quick chill, he began to crawl across the few feet separating the shelter from the sled.
If I had the Great Knife, this would not be difficult, he thought, but I have no such knife.
THE DOGS were huddled together, and he separated one of them, dragging the half-stiff animal toward the shelter. Once he had pulled the dog out of the wind, he grabbed the snout, caked with ice, and thrust the head back until he could hear the neck crack.
The dog whimpered and died, and Meksak shook his head.
"Somebody hates to do this, old dog, but we have other dogs and Ikyak has only two hands.”
With the saw-tooth knife he managed to cut open the belly, and as the warm blood spread over the dog’s chest, he grabbed Ikyak’s hand and plunged it into the dog’s belly.
This grim treatment soon took effect. In the warmth of the dog’s body, Ikyak began to feel the sharp pains of returning life in his hand.
After that Meksak took Ikyak’s hand and thoroughly rubbed and massaged it.
"It will hurt,” Meksak said, "but it is not frozen.”
The "winter moon” rose over the mass of clouds, and Meksak knew that the worst of the storm was over. In a few hours it was calm enough for him to crawl out and look at the dogs. Ikyak, his hands swollen and still
painful, turned with stoical indifference to gathering blubber in the stone pan and began to make a fire with the fire sticks. Neither of the boys had eaten for two days, yet Ikyak made no effort to eat until Meksak returned from the dogs.
"They are all alive,” Meksak said, shaking the snow from his mittens. "Let’s eat something, and then we’ll look at the fox traps. They will be filled with snow.”
The boys ate without talking, gulping great mouthfuls of the meat, which had been soaked in blubber and was hardly frozen in spite of the cold. When they left the shelter the wind had gone down and only a steady moaning remained from the unleashed fury of the storm of a few hours before. In the dim light of the moon, which slid again into a clear sky, they could see the glistening edge of the icecap stretching upward toward the east.
"We’ll go in two directions,” Meksak said. "You take the lower traps. Don’t go too far or you will not be able to find your way back.”
Behind the boys, in the darkness below, nothing was clearly discernible in the great blanket of blackness vaguely outlined by the moon. Ahead was the limitless expanse of unbroken ice.
"The Negark often comes like twins,” Meksak said, as a final warning. "Do not go too far.”
Ikyak nodded. Although his hand hurt painfully, he knew it was necessary to clear the snow from the traps or the rising temperature might cause it to soften and when the cold came again it would freeze into solid ice. This would make useless all the hard work they had accomplished, and they would lose their meat as well, since it would be frozen into the ice.
The snow had blown off the rocks, and they could follow the trail up the valley in the dim moonlight. The boys separated at the trap lines at the head of the gorge. Meksak found the first trap easily, and cleaned out the snow. The second one was more difficult to locate, since the snow had piled in small drifts that covered every rock, and it was difficult to discern which were rocks and which were the traps.
BY THE time Meksak had reached his third trap, some distance away, the blanket of clouds to the southwest had climbed high in the sky. The wind was blowing harder and colder.
There is another storm coming, he
thought, but perhaps I can reach two or three more traps.
The fourth trap was almost on the edge of the great ice. Meksak plunged on across the rocky slope. He had increasing difficulty finding his way in the faint light of the moon. At the rate at which the blanket of clouds was mounting in the sky, he knew he must work fast. Suddenly he stopped.
If a new storm comes, he thought, it will surely blow more snow into the traps—and if the snow is already frozen, I can do nothing about it, anyway. Therefore it would be foolish to go on.
Meksak wondered if Ikyak would come to the same conclusion. He hoped he would, because otherwise he would have to follow his cousin’s trail across the lower trap line. He knew Ikyak was strong enough to stand up under the buffeting force of the storm, but he might become lost in the furious confusion of the howling wind, which destroyed all sense of direction.
The fox traps were spaced along the edge of the ice where it spilled over the top of the mountain into the valley below; but there was no shelter on these barren plains. The great ice extended eastward in ghostly undulations, like irregular ground swells, with no sharp
contours or sheltering outcroppings of rock behind which one might find refuge from the wind.
The snow, driven by the rising wind, crawled across the surface in shallow waves, making the earth seem alive; and it also seemed to Meksak, as he lowered his face and plunged against the sudden force of the wind, that the entire world had now become a demon, howling its rage against him.
If the full force of the storm strikes before Ikyak and I are back in the shelter, it will destroy us, he thought; and he bent closer to the ground, driving his short sturdy legs against the slippery surface of the snow-swept rocks.
Meksak stumbled through the milky darkness until he could see the outline of the gap leading down to the shelter. There was no light below and he wondered if it had blown out.
There was no one in the shelter when he reached it. He looked at the dogs, and saw that they were the same as when he left, huddled close together, and whimpering. With a pounding heart he started back toward the trap line, letting the force of the wind drive him forward at a rapid pace. He stopped several times to shout, but the rising wind, which came up through the gorge, drowned out the sound of his voice.
Once he thought he heard an answering shout, but the wind was blowing toward the fox traps, and he knew he could not hear from that direction.
Meksak reached the first trap on the lower line and here he found marks where Ikyak had cleared the snow from the pit. Then the storm struck with full fury.
THIS time the wind came without preliminaries, driving gusts of snow through the valley and over the rim of the icecap. Meksak pushed stolidly ahead, but he could see nothing. If Ikyak had not turned back and reached the trail into the valley, Meksak was sure he would be unable to find his way back in this maelstrom of fury.
"The terrible Negark!” he muttered, and was startled to find that he was talking aloud, although he could not have heard his own voice if he had shouted.
He almost stumbled over the second trap, which was at the foot of the cliffs that faced the ice plain. Knowing that it was useless to go on, he crouched down in the lee of the heavy stone slab, where the soft drift of snow had piled up. It was difficult to see any tracks in the snow, but he reached into the trap and found that the snow had been partly cleaned out. Ikyak had been there, also.
Now the wind was sweeping with unrestrained fury across the barren expanse of the icecap, sucking up the lightly drifted snow and driving it with new violence, like torn veils sweeping across the plain. Meksak knew he could not face the force of the wind. It would drive snow into his face, where it would freeze; and it would suck his breath away.
He crouched behind the rocks, clearing away as much of the drifted snow as he could. Then he huddled against the side of the stone slab. The snow began to pile up around him. That is good, Meksak thought; the snow will keep me warm.
In a short time the wind seemed to lessen, and he thought, the storm is stopping! But he soon realized that this was only momentary. Each lull was followed hy increasing fury, until it seemed the wind would not be content until it had destroyed every moving thing on the surface of the ice plain.
If Ikyak has not reached the shelter now. Meksak thought, he may never
reach it. He tried to remember where it was he had heard the sound of someone calling, but the roaring of the wind now seemed to blot out his thoughts as well as all noise.
Suddenly Meksak realized that he was no longer as cold as he had been at first, and he knew this was the beginning of the "cold madness” that seized men before they became frozen as solid as the ice itself. He began to beat his arms against his sides, and then against the rock behind him, to keep the blood moving in his body.
If Ikyak is out on the trap line, he must be dying now, Meksak thought.
"I will be dead, too,” he said aloud, and again he was startled to hear his own voice in the fury of the wind. If I die, he thought, I can never have a Great Knife.
This thought struck him with a spasm of pain that was more physical than the coldness in his body, and the shock of realizing that if he died he would never have the Great Knife revived him. He began to beat again on the rock behind him, thinking that the spirits might know that he wanted to live and would prevent the Negark from destroying him.
Meksak thought he was heating furiously with his arms, but he was barely lifting them, and finally he stopped, utterly oppressed hy the weight of his arms.
THE SNOW meanwhile had piled around him, encasing his body like a cocoon. He had not opened his eye for some time, because of the blinding force of the particles of snow and sleet that swirled past him; but now he realized that the wind was much less severe. The snow was like a buffer, or a heavy coat that shut out the force of the storm.
The snow is good, he thought; it is like a tornadek—the spirit of good—and it will keep the wind away from me.
By this time Meksak had identified the Negark in his thoughts as the tupilek, an evil charm created to destroy him, and he huddled in the snow believing that it would protect him.
Meksak realized that he was becoming less cold. He twisted his body, to get his blood moving again, and now he found he could turn partly around inside the ball of snow that covered him without breaking the crust. The heat of his body, like lamps burning within a snow house, had melted the snow and it had frozen, making a small snow house for him. And as the heat gathered in the ball-like shelter, his mind seemed to become clear again.
He thrust a mittened hand into the wall of snow, and found the snow was crusted thickly. It would be necessary to make a hole in order to let in some air. He was able finally to jab a small hole, no bigger than the end of his hand, through the crust of freezing snow.
The thought came to him that if the snow froze around him he would be buried in the ice. And if Ikyak had died in the storm, there would be no one to break through the snow house to free him. Meksak turned this over in his mind for some time, hut could think of no solution.
By this time exhaustion, after the battle against the storm, had begun to weight down his body with a creeping paralysis. He found himself dozing in spite of the cramped position of his body.
I must be careful not to remain still very long, he thought. Otherwise the blood will stop moving and my body will freeze! He had been cold before— even colder than he was now—but always he had been able to move around. Now, if the bitter cold should enter any part of his body, as it had lkyak’s hand, nothing could be done.
Meksak closed his eyes, thinking. This is a bad way to die . . .
THE SOUND of the wind was muffled by the snow that had formed like a giant beehive around him. Only the constant drone of the wind could be heard through the air hole. It was better to lie here, Meksak thought, than to go out into the storm again. He finally stopped thinking, and dropped off into a kind of semiconsciousness in which he knew he was encased in the ice, but he did not seem to care any more.
Meksak did not know how long he dozed, but suddenly he awakened. He tried to move and found he was imprisoned. It had become almost warm in his snow cocoon, but he had not turned around sufficiently to create enough room, and he found his position cramped. The inside surface had become solid ice. He tried to break it by pressing his back against one side, but the drift had packed snow around it and the inner walls were frozen to a thickness of a man’s hand, due to the penetrating warmth of his body.
Quite suddenly Meksak thought, I’ve been foolish! The snow around him was on only one side of the fox trap. Snow drifted on the side away from the wind, and the other side would be clear!
He managed to twist his shoulder so that he could wedge his upper body into the space under the slab of stone. The snow was not caked or frozen, and he found he could push it away easily.
Meksak began pushing back the snow in the fox trap. He quickly forced his body halfway through the space under the slab. By turning, he would be able to push himself backward through the hole where the meat had been laid.
By this time he had removed enough snow to realize that the wind was still blowing furiously outside. He wondered whether he should push himself through against the force of the wind or lie under the stone slab until the wind died down. His body, /ounded out with heavy clothes, barely fitted into the hollow space under the frozen snow, and he could hardly move. Sometimes a storm such as this, coming after the first storm, was known to last as long as twelve days. He might have to lie under the slab of stone all that time, and meanwhile the snow in the trap might freeze to his body.
Meksak knew that he had to get out of the fox trap, and with a mighty effort he pushed through. Immediately he felt the wind in his face. By twisting his body, he managed to turn over on his belly.
If I can get my shoulders through, he thought, I can drag myself out. He pushed his feet, clad in heavy kamiks, against the wall of the trap hole. Before he realized it he was out of the trap, crawling across the frozen ground into the face of the gale.
Meksak continued to crawl across the open ice, unconsciously turning away from the force of the wind. His heavy kamiks pushed against the frozen surface, his legs driving mechanically, thrusting his body forward until he finally lay face down on the ice, closing his eye against the blinding snow.
1%/TEKSAK did not know how long he lTjLlay that way. When he aroused himself, his mind was almost as numb as his arms and legs. He looked back into the force of the wind, and suddenly realized he had been crawling away from the edge of the ice rim, driven by the wind.
This is the way hunters die on the great ice, he thought, and fear made strength flow back into his limbs.
He rose slowly to his feet, drawing his short legs under him so he could get to his knees, and then stand. The wind was blowing in such fierce gusts across the barren plains that he gasped for breath; and now and then there was a lull, in which the real force of the wind seemed to have passed overhead, whistling off into the inland fastness where there were no living things, and not even the shelter of a rock ledge to break the force of the storm.
Meksak knew he must fight his way back to the rim of cliffs and find the gap leading down to his camp. He bent down, partly to shield his face from the wind and partly to give his body leverage as his legs drove forward, step by step, into the bitter lash of the storm. The exposed part of his face was rimmed with crusted snow, and his body was so cold that he no longer had any feeling except the constant pressure of the wind against him as he struggled forward.
Meksak knew that the Negark blew shallow ripples across the ice, and he thought by following the direction of these ripples he would be moving parallel to the edge of the ice plain. This would bring him to the cleft, where the rocky ridge of the mountain broke away and the glacier spilled down into the valley.
This was all he could remember to guide him; and so he began to follow the ripples across the ice. Somewhere ahead was the cleft, below which lay the shelter he and Ikyak liad built.
Many times he slipped and plunged, sprawling on the ice; hut he no longer felt any shock or pain when he struck the frozen surface. Each time he
climbed back to his feet, turning sideways against the force of the gale, and continued to drive forward.
Finally he no longer tried to get to his feet, but continued to crawl, turning his head away from the wind and gasping for breath. Each time he
sucked the icy air into his lungs, the shock revived him and he pushed on.
He could not tell how long or how far he had crawled. At times he lay on the ground, beating his fists against the hard surface to get the blood moving again.
JKYAK must be dead, he thought;
and this notion worked through his numbed brain like a monotone: Ikyak must be dead, Ikyak must be dead. He wanted to lie down and go to sleep, hut some force deeper than his own consciousness drove his legs again and again against the ice as he crawled slowly along the ripples of shifting snow.
For a time lie would lie on the ground, blinded by the wind and snow, unt il the white drifts began to build up against him; and then each time he would pull himself to his knees and drive forward into the wind that roared like the sound of an avalanche in his muffled ears.
For minutes that seemed like hours the boy crawled across the ice— a small spot of human life crawling across the lonely rim of a frozen world in the blackness of night, a thousand miles of ice behind him, and ahead the Negark blowing out of a black caldron with the fury of a thousand demons. Somewhere far below was the tiny cluster of huts at. the foot of the bird cliffs of Agpat where his father and his brother and old Pekrornik lived . . . and there, too, was Kulee, possibly chewing on sealskin for thi; new kamiks that Meksak would have in the spring.
None of these thoughts stayed long in Meksak’s mind. They came unexpectedly, and were lost almost as quickly in the thunder of the wind as it raced across the ice plains. But the fear that came with the thought that it was
an evil spirit stayed with him. This was a personal thing that he could understand, and so he fought it personally, struggling against it as he would have struggled against a maddened bear.
He remembered that it was possible to scare off the spirits by shouting a name. This sort of thing would work if the spirit was in the shape of a dog, and it might work when the spirit was a shrieking storm. So Meksak raised his head and screamed back at the wind:
“Ikyak! . . . Ikyak!”
Then he remembered that Ikyak probably was dead; the Negark had destroyed him. So he muffled his face against the brittle surface of his coat and called, "Kulee!”
The sound of his own voice calling her name seemed to revive him. Kulee was down there in the black valley, in the warm hut below the bird cliffs; and Meksak knew that if he could reach the cleft in the rim of the icecap he could make his way down the valley and across the frozen sea to the warm hut, where a seal-oil lamp burned with a flickering flame.
Then he remembered Ikyak. He must wait until the storm died, and go back and find Ikyak. Perhaps he had crawled into a fox trap, where his own warmth would keep him alive. Meksak did not think there was much chance of this, and his way of thinking —like that of all his people who lived on the ice—did not allow for self-deception. Nevertheless, he could not leave the icecap until he knew whether Ikyak was alive.
i"LUITE suddenly Meksak knew from \Tthe sinking of the ice that he was near the rim. Somewhere in the black wind was the shelter. However, as he came near the place where the ice flowed down into the valley the wind struck even harder. The storm, sweeping up from the rocky chasm, hurtled through this gap with even greater force, leaping across the thin protection of the mountain rim and roaring off into the limitless expanse of the ice plains.
The force of the wind here was greater than anything Meksak had ever known, and he cringed down against the bare ice, holding his arms in front of his face and trying to suck short gasps of freezing air into his lungs. For several moments it was impossible for him to go forward, and once, when the wind struck with increasing fury, he was thrown backwards, rolling over and over until his body was caught by a sharp outcropping of-rock along the edge of the ice, left bare on the side from which the wind blew.
Meksak held to this slippery outcropping and managed to push back toward the place where the ice sank away. He knew that nothing in all his experience had been like this; the trips he had made with his father, out across the frozen sea during the early break of spring when the wind swept in from the west, had not been like this. The wind had become a relentless demon, and only the blind force of life deep within the boy kept him moving forward when all nature seemed to have poured its rage upon him.
When he thought of Ikyak now it was like a sob in his threat; and at these moments, when the bedlam of the wind rushing out of the valley rose in howling fury, he lost all notion of what lay ahead and struggled blindly and senselessly against the battering gale.
He had long since lost any feeling of pain. The numbness in his body was like an opiate, and his tired legs drove mechanically against the icy surface, whether he was staggering forward on foot or crawling. There were times
when the full force of the wind seemed to converge upon the place where he crawled, as if it would grind him into the very ice, pulverizing him as it pulverized the clouds of snow that were driven in towering flurries across the icecap.
When he was driven against the ice or swept back in a tumbling ball of helpless life, caught in the vortex of nature’s primitive fury, he lost all sense of bearings or purpose, battered and bruised in the reckless clutch of the storm. Each time, however, he gathered the resources of his draining strength and pushed forward again into the face of the storm.
The cold was so intense that finally he was about to lie down in complete exhaustion when unexpectedly he felt the ground drop away. He reached out with his hands, pushing himself forward foot by foot. He suddenly realized that he had reached the place where the ice poured over the rim. He struggled to his feet and staggered forward. He now knew, with the instinct of those who live on the ice, that he had reached the top of the valley where the shelter was built.
His weight and momentum carried him down the steep slant of smooth surface, and he had no thought except the need of keeping his feet moving as fast as his body. The surface was open and bare, and while he seemed to be plunging downward he actually stumbled along slowly, his short legs barely driving him against the wind.
He started to fall, then struck violently against something. He heard a voice calling his name, and sank into oblivion.
He had tripped and sprawled on the ground. That was all he remembered until he saw the shining face of Ikyak above him. His first thought was that they were both dead, but his cousin kept slapping his face until his senses returned and he understood that he was in the shelter.
There was a faint glow of the seal-oil lamp, throwing flickering shadows against t,he skins that lined the walls. Finally he heard through the roaring in his ears the voice of his cousin.
“You are alive again!” Ikyak exclaimed. "Lie still! I’ll get some more snow.”
IKYAK came back in a few seconds with a pile of hard crusted snow cupped in his hands. He dropped this beside Meksak, and began to rub the snow against his frozen face, chafing it with fine needlelike prickling.
Meksak closed his eye and felt , his mind swimming back into the void from which it had just emerged.
After Ikyak had rubbed Meksak’s face with snow and then smeared it with blubber, Meksak became sufficiently awake to listen. Ikyak told his cousin what had happened. He had turned back at the second trap, knowing the new storm was coming, and had lost his way coming down the valley in the darkness.
Once he heard Meksak’s voice and he had called back. The two boys apparently had passed close together, but neither had seen the other. Ikyak had found the shelter and waited for many hours, thinking his cousin was still out on the upper traps.
Meksak had a lively imagination, but it did not dwell on the drama of danger.
His thoughts were on foxes. He understood, from what Ikyak had told him, that the moon had come and gone twice in the sky since they had started out to clear the snow around the fox traps. Therefore, the wind would blow itself out in perhaps another turn of the moon—unless it was one of the long Negarks.
"When the Negark dies, the sky will he cleaj,” Meksak said. "Then we must hurry to dig the snow out of the fox traps again. The foxes will be coming out looking for food. We will need some fr«sh meat for the traps.”
It was decided that Ikyak would take the dogs down through the valley, where the meat caches were located, and bring back enough meat to rebait the traps. Then the frozen meat in the traps would be brought back and thawed for use in the early spring, after the traps had been closed and the foxes were ravenous again.
By the time the next moon was up the storm had blown itself out and the sky was clear. Meksak made the circuit of the traps, digging out the snow and bringing back the frozen meat. By this time the winter gale had howled its last, and the gentler Arsanark—the south wind—was beginning to blow up from warmer waters.
"When the next full moon comes, the foxes will begin to come out for the meat,” Meksak said to his cousin. "By the time the sun returns we will have many frozen foxes to skin.”
Ikyak looked at his cousin.
"Why do we have to stay here, Meksak?” he asked. "The storms will come again, and we will be destroyed if we stay here. What is the use of dying this way—without a chance to kill a seal or a walrus?”
MEKSAK knew thatall hunters preferred to die properly—not hunting foxes, which were small animals, unable to light off the attacks of man, hut in great hunts for walrus and white bear. A man could be killed in such a battle and his spirit would go on its way rejoicing at such a fine end to his life.
He understood Ikyak’s words; more than that, he now understood that if Ikyak remained on the great ice he might be destroyed by Karangak’s tupilek.
"If you want to go back,” he said slowly, "I’ll go hack with you.”
"And we can stay until the sun comes up again—and then come back for the foxes?” Ikyak’s eyes were eager. Meksak shook his head.
"I can’t stay with you,” he said solemnly, "If I don’t come back now we will not get all the fox skins . . . and if we have nothing to give to the white men, the Oopernadleet, they won’t give us a Great Knife.”
Ikyak was as close as he ever came to outright disagreement with his cousin.
"Why do we have to have a Great Knife, Meksak? We have enough small stones from Saviksu to make another
knife. We can make one sharper than the one you have, and you can have the new one.”
Meksak shook his head again. Then he told about Amorok, the old man the hunter Karangak had killed.
"If we don’t get another Great Knife, the spirit of the old man will become sick and may even grow angry at us.”
"Is the old man dead?” Ikyak asked.
"You must not speak of this. The old man was killed because be had a Knife—not a Great Knife like Karangak’s, but a much smaller one. It belonged to Kretlok, who was the leader of our people when we were very young.”
"Who killed the old man?” Ikyak asked, avoiding the use of Amorok’s name.
"Karangak killed him,” Meksak said. "His face was beaten with a rock. Nothing like this has ever happened before. A man may be killed for many reasons, but not for having a Knife that is of no use to anyone.”
Ikyak looked at his cousin, his eyes contracted in a puzzled frown.
"Did you see the old man—after he was killed?”
"I found him,” Meksak said. "I put some food into his mouth, so that he would have a good journey to the place of the spirits.”
"How do you know Karangak killed him?”
"He was angry at the old man because he had the Knife of Kretlok. Maybe the spirit of Kretlok’s Knife was stronger than his— and he was afraid of it. He knew about the Knife of Kretlok, because he spoke to me about it.”
Meksak stopped talking. He had recalled how it was that Karangak knew of the Knife of Kretlok.
"Don’t say anything about this to anyone,” he finally advised his cousin. "Particularly to any woman.” And, by way of explanation, he added, "A woman who has nothing to do is always chattering like an auk.”
MEKSAK had not been able to explain—even to himself—exactly why he wanted a Great Knife so badly. He had thought many times of the things Amorok had told him, that the evil was not in the Great Knife itself, but in the man who possessed it.
Yet the spirit of Karangak’s Great Knife had once bitten him. And it was cpiite apparent that either the spirit of the Great Knife or Karangak or perhaps both—had sought to destroy Ikyak and himself with the fury of the Negark.
"Why will the spirit of the old man become sick?” Ikyak asked curiously.
"Because the old man knows that there must be more than one Great Knife. 1 don’t know how he knows this, Ikyak. There are many things that an old man knows.” Meksak stopped speaking. When these ideas were put into words they made very little sense.
Ikyak looked at his cousin wonderingly. His round cheerful face seldom lost its expression of good humor, even when he was puzzled, and now he was trying to understand Meksak’s words. Finally he shrugged and tugged his white hood over the straggling mop of black hair.
"We’ll go hunt foxes then,” he said. "If the old man said we should get another Great Knife like Karangak’s— then we’d better get it.”
Meksak frowned, and there was as much puzzlement in his single eye as there was in both his cousin’s.
The old man said there are many such Knives,” he said finally. "If Karangak is the only hunter who has such a Knife, it will be bad—-but if there are many other hunters with Knives, it will be good. 1 don’t know why that is true—any more than you do, Ikyak. But that is what the old man said.”
Ikyak thought a long time, and then smiled. "I will stay here with you, Meksak.”
BACK at Agpat there were conflicting stories about the boys. No one knew exactly where they had gone or what they were doing. Rupanok told everyone that they had gone like wild men to the icecap to trap foxes, hut no one believed this. It seemed preposterous to trap foxes in the winter, when there were no foxes; they could be trapped in the spring, when they were hungry and came down from the high mountains.
A few of the hunters thought perhaps the boys had taken girls and gone into the valley somewhere to be alone during the winter night, but since practically all the girls in the village were accounted for, in one way or another, this notion was given little credence.
Kulee said nothing, because she was now sure she would be a wife in the spring when Meksak came back. When the second winter moon came up, she looked toward the distant mountains, glittering under scales of crusted snow; and once when great clouds of an avalanche rolled down the valley of Arnaluark Nuna, she watched anxiously, knowing that these slides of snow which broke off the rim and poured down the steep gorges would carry everything before them.
Most of the time she sat in her father s hut and chewed sealskins until they were soft and pliable, since she would have the grave responsibility of making new kamiks and laying the grass properly in the soles of the boots when Meksak came hack in the spring.
Out on the icecap, Meksak and Ikyak watched their fox traps. Before the ice broke up in the spring, the hoys had piled their sled high with blue fox skins, and then they came down from the rim of the icecap. Meksak counted his fingers ten times on each hand, and knew that there were more skins than the people of the village trapped in a season . . . and if there were not enough, he and Ikyak could return for more!
They drove their dogs, spreading fan wise as they came down across the Arnaluark glacier, out upon the rough ice, but they did not turn across the sea to Agpat. Instead they headed south, toward the crimson cliffs where they had gone the summer before to look for the giant umiak of the Oopernadleet.
This time, however, they continued beyond the red cliffs, where a great cape
lay like a massive paw on the icebound sea. Stretching away to the southward was a curving coastline, with jagged ledges of ice extending into the waters of the sea, where the winter ice was already breaking up.
MEKSAK knew, from what old Amorok had told him, that giant umiaks sometimes came up when the spring thaw was beginning, in order to hunt the first whales moving northward for summer feeding. There was no way of telling when the whale-hunting Oopernadleet would come north, so there was nothing to do but wait. But Meksak and Ikyak were of a race of hunters and patience is the virtue of a hunter.
They built a skin shelter on the edge of a shelf overlooking the ice ledge, close to the white cliffs of the cape, and waited. There were many kinds of food, since the spring had broken and the auks were coming in to nest. Along the cliffs they hunted for bird eggs, lying on the ledges and dropping loops of string made of strips of soft sealskin over the heads of the birds. At times they traveled inland among the snowfilled ravines, crouched above the rocks where tender shoots of wildflowers sprang up and, using the same loops, trapped rabbits.
In this way they were busy and happy for many weeks, during which they scraped the fox skins and softened them by chewing, which was a woman’s work but there was no woman around to help them, or to laugh with them. The boys laughed at each other, but they continued to soften the skins, because the finer they were the better gifts they would make for the bearded men with the Great Knives.
"The old man saw these Oopernadleet and talked with them,” Meksak explained to his cousin one day as they waited on the cliff overlooking the sea. "They are not ashamed to take another man’s skins as we are—and since they have many Great Knives, they often throw one away. If they do this, be sure to pick it up.”
Ikyak thought about this. He still believed the Great Knife was the gift of the spirits of Karangak; but perhaps the Oopernadleet had something to do with the spirits. This was apparent from the things old Amorok had said to Meksak.
The shelf of the rock upon which the two boys had set up their shelter faced the west. South of them was the jutting land of the white cliffs and beyond these cliffs was the island of Saviksu, where they had chipped the stones for their knives. As the ice broke away from the shore, the great bay stretching to the south beyond the white cliffs became a vast expanse of shifting ice floes; and it was across this sea that the hoys gazed, day after day, waiting for the giant umiak that never came.
The ice along the shore was still solid and the snow from the winter winds was crusted on the ground, but Meksak began to fear the snows would melt and leave them isolated with their sled and dogs if the umiak did not come soon.
IKYAK, who was greatly puzzled by the strange circumstances surrounding these Knives—and particularly the Knife of Kretlok, which caused Karangak to kill the old man—asked his cousin: "What did this Knife of
Kretlok look like? Was it a Great Knife?”
Meksak shrugged his shoulders. He did not like to talk too much about it.
"It was an old Knife,” he finally said. "Besides, the old man is dead.”
Ikyak looked at his cousin, trying to understand from his face what he was thinking. He knew Meksak loved the old man, and he also knew old Amorok
had spoken only to Meksak about the Great Knives of the Oopernadleet. Ikyak was about to ask further questions about the death of Amorok when Meksak pointed to the sea.
"Look! A great umiak!”
It was true. A sailing ship had appeared, almost as if by magic, off the end of the ice and was slowly rounding the point. It was several hundred yards offshore, but was moving toward the ice cove where the boys were standing.
"Roll up the sealskin shelter!” Meksak commanded. "It would be bad if the bearded men knew we had been waiting for them.”
Ikyak quickly pulled down the sealskin shelter, rolled it and stowed it on the sled beside the piles of fox skins. He kicked snow over other evidences of their encampment, and stowed everything he could find room for on the sled.
Meanwhile Meksak had quickly harnessed the dogs; and now they went back to the edge of the cliff above the ice ledge to watch the whaler. It had come around inside the shelter of the jutting ledge, which had hidden it from their view, and the sails were lowered.
"It is the Oopernadleet!” Meksak exclaimed. He had seen a bearded man standing at the rail and looking toward the shore. In a short while a boat had been lowered over the side and several men got in and rowed to the edge of the ice ledge. They took long poles from the boat and began to spear the ice, cutting away large slabs to provide mooring space.
"They are making a hole for the umiak,” Meksak said, almost in a whisper—although they could have shouted and not been heard.
By this time the figures of the boys, standing on the ice ledge perhaps a half mile away, seemed to have been observed. Three of the men moved away from the ledge, where the whaler was being berthed in the slot cut in the ice ledge. They were coming toward the two boys.
"What will they do, Meksak?”
Meksak found himself trembling inwardly. This was the time. He closed his eye and asked the spirit of Amorok to see to it that the bearded white men offered them a gift of a Great Knife!
THE three figures moved slowly across the ice ledge, picking their way carefully, and finally came to the foot of the cliff.
"Hallo, mates! Got any water?” Meksak, understanding nothing, said nothing. In a short while the trio found a ravine that cut through the side of the cliff and climbed to the shelf of rock where the boys were. They stood a moment, looking at the sled and its contents and then at the boys.
The tallest of the three, Meksak noted with restrained ecstasy, wore a red heard. All had white faces. The other two were whiskerless, but he supposed it was required that only one Oopernadleet wear a heard. The tall man suddenly pulled something from his belt that looked like a short club used to crack a seal on the head. The man held it by the knob and suddenly there was a cracking sound like the sharp breaking of ice, followed by a whining zing. Someone below shouted, and the bearded man waved his hand.
"That’s just to give you an idea, mates . .. so you won’t start anything.” Meksak, having no previous knowledge of a pistol, had no notion of what this was all about. The big man continued to grin as he walked toward the boys.
Meksak observed that the men were dressed queerly, with black hoods pulled over their heads and jackets, which were certainly not the skin of any animal he had ever seen, drawn
about them and hanging in a ridiculous way almost to their knees, instead of being tucked into their pants. They had hard shiny kamiks that came only partway to the knees.
"We’re looking for water, mates.” The bearded man held his hands like a scoop, put them to his mouth and threw his head back. Meksak watched with interest, thinking it was perhaps a way of greeting. The Oopernadleet seemed to be friendly; and since there was no halfway between great danger and no danger in Meksak’s experience, he ceased to have any fear. If they had intended to kill Ikyak and himself they : would already have done so; therefore he gave this possibility no further thought.
One of the smaller men, who had i been prowling around the sled, let out a yell.
"Great jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!”
He was pointing to the pile of fox skins. The bearded man walked over and the third one followed.
"Look at ’em, Mr. Murdock! It’s a fortune in fox furs!”
The bearded man whistled.
"Sweet Sister Sue!” he exclaimed. He turned to the two boys, both of whom were regarding the men with stoical indifference, grinning only when they were spoken to. "Do you want to sell these?”
Meksak, still having no understanding of what was said, continued to grin.
"Sell ’em—hell!” the small man cried. "Wot do you think these people do with money up here, Mr. Murdock —eat it?”
"Shut up!” Mr. Murdock turned to the other man. "Jones, go on the double and bring the skipper. This is too important for me to handle.”
THE man called Jones touched his finger to his forehead and started back down the ravine through which they had climbed to the top of the cliff. Mr. Murdock walked over to Meksak, apparently recognizing that he was the leader of the two.
"I don’t know how I can make you understand hut, by the Great Dipper, I’m going to! Whatever you trade for up here—we’ve got it! You can have the whole damned ship’s stores for these fox furs, mates!”
Meksak continued to grin, his face rapidly stiffening into an expression of perpetual good humor. Then he walked to the sled, pulled several skins from the pile, and tossed them on the snow.
"They are worthless,” he said, "but perhaps somebody can use them to wipe the snow from his kamiks. The foxes were old and had not eaten for many moons.”
The chattering sounds, of course, meant nothing to Mr. Murdock. But the fox skins did. He grabbed them from the ground, tenderly shook off the snow, and folded them.
Meksak, to whom the exchange of gifts was regarded asa bilateral affair—a custom having a similarity, had he but known it, to more widely known methods of trading familiar to other parts of the world—waited calmly for the bearded man to produce a Great Knife.
He saw a leather case fastened to the bearded man’s belt, which he was sure contained a Great Knife; yet he knew he must wait until the Oopernadleet should throw it on the ground, indicating that it was worthless, before he or Ikyak could pick it up.
Meksak would then throw more "worthless” hides on the snow. In such an exchange each man knows exactly what he has to give and what the other has to give, and the perfect exchange is one in which each giver is thoroughly satisfied with what he gets and no one has been shamed by the disclosure that he needs something.
Meksak was quite sure what gift would satisfy him; but he had no way of knowing how satisfying the gift of fox skins would be to the Oopernadleet. In order to determine this it was necessary to make an exploratory gesture, so he went over to the sled and pulled off another dozen fox skins, tossing them to the ground, and kicking them aside as an indication of their worthlessness.
"Holy Mary!” the small man muttered, in a faint voice, "He’s giving ’em away.”
Mr. Murdock gravely reached down and picked up the skins, shaking off the snow. He had no idea how long this kind of thing would go on or what the custom might be which promoted the action. But he knew what fox furs were worth and had no desire to discourage the business.
"You can have anything we got, 8on,”hesaid. "Anything!”
BY THIS time the man called Jones had returned, with several more men, many of whom, Meksak observed to his great delight, wore hair all over their faces. One man, apparently the leader, stepped forward. He was shorter than Mr. Murdock, with blue eyes and a bristling red beard.
He looked at the fox furs, and turned quickly.
"Bring some swag—quick! Biscuits bully beef — anything you find ! Might bring some slickers an’ boots. Looks like they got a lot to trade.” He leaned forward and inspected the pile of fox furs on the sled while Mr. Murdock spoke to him in a low voice.
' 'These fellows want to trade, all right, capt’n. Must be ten thousand dollars’ worth on that sled!” He turned toward Meksak, whose stoical restraint had given way to some extent to curiosity. He was looking avidly at the leather case on Mr. Murdock’s belt. Mr. Murdock looked down, and decided Meksak wanted his belt. He unbuckled the belt, pulling off the knife sheath and thrusting it into his pocket.
"You can have that as a starter, son,” he said, and handed Meksak the belt.
Meksak’s fixed grin did not change. He took the belt, held it in his hands for a minute, and then handed it back. Then he went over and pulled off another bundle of fox furs. Mr. Murdock scratched his ear.
"I don’t know what in hell he wants now, capt’n. He seemed to like the belt at first—but maybe they don’t wear ’em up here.”
The captain signaled to Mr. Murdock, who went to the edge of the cliff and bellowed down to the men who were bringing up a bundle of goods: "Bring some more junk—bring everything you can find in the ship’s locker.” A large box had been dragged up the side of the ravine, and across the snow. Meksak watched, saying nothing. It now occurred to him, from the way the Oopernadleet were talking among themselves, that perhaps the fox skins were not good enough as gifts—or maybe there were not enough skins. He watched closely, through the slit of his one good eye, to catch any sign of dissatisfaction.
Mr. Murdock looked through the box.
"There’s not much that’s worth anything to these people capt’n,” he said. He pulled out a slab of bacon, and looked around for a knife. One of the sailors handed him a long knife— exactly like the one he had shoved in his pocket. He cut off two thick slices and handed them to the boys, sticking the knife in his belt.
Meksak was almost in tears, as he watched the Great Knife disappear. He took the pieces of meat, handed one to Ikyak, and started to chew on the
other, believing now that the gift of fox skins was not enough for the bearded man.
"They’ll like that, skipper,” the short man said. "Anything that’s got fat on it.”
Meksak almost choked, and the tears actually came to his eyes this time, as he hit into the hacon. It was salty! He wiped away the tears quickly with his fist, although it was not cold enough to freeze his eye, for he feared to offend the Oopernadleet in any way.
It was impossible, however, to eat the stuff. The bearded white men must soak everything in the sea, he thought. He stole a glance at Ikyak and found that his cousin—oblivious of any offense it might give—had spit out the bacon, almost retching as he did so.
MEKSAK was now fearful that any further delay might cause the bearded men to leave—and with them would go the last hope of getting a Great Knife. He could see the others looking at the skins, and his heart died within him when he saw the man who was the leader lift one of the fox skins and examine it.
"Worth a hundred dollars apiece in Boston,” the captain muttered.
Mr. Murdock was at his wits’ end. He had tried boxes of sea biscuit, rain hats, rubber boots. Meksak had looked at each article as it was laid out, but since it had not been tossed away, he knew it would be impolite to show interest, so he handed each article back to the first mate. Otherwise these men would believe he had nothing worth while of his own. And so he made no effort to inspect the objects in detail, although several interested him, particularly the boots. They shone like melting ice, and were smooth and hard.
"I’m damned if I know what they want, capt’n,” Mr. Murdock said finally. "The big fellow with one eye seemed to like the belt—and since he threw off the pelts, I guess we can keep ’em and I’ll give him my belt when we go.”
He instructed the men to pile the skins Meksak had pulled off the sled into the box with other equipment and return to the ship. Meanwhile, he kept a sidelong glance on Meksak, to see if he reacted to this procedure.
"We want to be fair and square, capt’n,” he told the skipper. "We can’t trade with these fellows unless they want to trade—the government won’t allow it. But how in hell can you trade if they won’t trade anything?”
The captain shrugged.
"Take what furs we have, Mr. Mur-
dock—and leave the rest,” he said, gazing regretfully at the piles of fox skins still stacked on the sled. Then he turned and followed the men down the ravine. Mr. Murdock had stopped for a last look at the load of fox skins, and observed Meksak staring intently at the knife which he had thrust in his belt. He pulled it out.
"Take that too, mate,” he said, tossing it handle first. Meksak made no effort to catch it, and the knife fell to the ground.
NOW they are making a gift—in the proper way, Meksak thought. He stooped to pick up the knife. Then he quickly walked over to the sled and tossed off an armful of skins.
"My God!” Mr. Murdock yelled, enlightenment suddenly flooding his mind. "Get some knives!” he roared after the retreating sailors, who were dragging the box down the ravine.
He turned to Meksak. "Stay here, mates—I’ll be back!” He started running after the others, still calling out, "Get some knives! Get some knives!”
"They are angry,” Meksak said to his cousin. "Let’s leave quickly—or they will come and take back the gift of the Great Knife.”
The shining Knife was wrapped tenderly in a sealskin, and put quickly into the sled pack.
"We must leave the skins, or the spirits of the Oopernadleet will take back the Great Knife, or perhaps make it useless,” Meksak said. They dumped the fox skins into the snow, and Meksak shouted at the dogs.
Mr. Murdock was coming over the edge of the ravine at a dead run, his coat flapping about his knees, as Meksak got the dogs started. The runners broke free, and soon the sled was skimming across the snow, heading inland away from the coast.
The last the boys saw of the Oopernadleet was the bearded man, standing beside the pile of fox skins, and waving at them. Mr. Murdock held up a handful of knives, but the boys never saw them.
"It was well that we left as we did, Ikyak,” he said to his cousin. "The Oopernadleet were angry because the skins were not good. Perhaps they will find enough good skins among the ones we left, and will accept them as a gift.” ★
This story will be included in the book, The Knife, by Theon Wright, to be published later by Julian Messner, Inc., New York.