Thus equipped, they could go far, and might count on a good supply of game.
At eight o’clock they started, accompanied by Duk, who frisked and gambolled with delight. They went up the hill to the east, across the cone, and down into the plain below.
The Doctor next took his departure, after agreeing with Johnson on a signal of alarm in case of danger.
The old boatswain was left alone, but he had plenty to do. He began by unfastening the Greenland dogs, and letting them out for a run after their long, wearisome confinement. Then he attended to divers housekeeping matters. He had to replenish the stock of combustibles and provisions, to arrange the store-houses, to mend several broken utensils, to repair the rents in coverlets, and get new shoes ready for summer excursions. There was no lack of work, and the old sailor’s nimble clever fingers could do anything.
While his hands were busy, his mind was occupied with the conversation of the preceding evening. He thought with regret over the captain’s obstinacy, and yet he felt that there was something grand and even heroic in his determination that neither an American nor an American ship should first touch the Pole.
The hunters had been gone about an hour when Johnson suddenly heard the report of a gun.
“Capital!” he exclaimed. “They have found something, and pretty quickly too, for me to hear their guns so distinctly. The atmosphere must be very clear.”
A second and a third shot followed.
“Bravo!” again exclaimed the boatswain; “they must have fallen in luck’s way!”
[Illustration: Hatteras could only manage to keep off his pursuers by flinging down one article after another—P.120]
But when three more shots came in rapid succession, the old man turned pale, and a horrible thought crossed his mind, which made him rush out and climb hastily to the top of the cone. He shuddered at the sight which met his eyes. The three hunters, followed by Duk, were tearing home at full speed, followed by the five huge bears! Their six balls had evidently taken no effect, and the terrible monsters were close on their heels. Hatteras, who brought up the rear, could only manage to keep off his pursuers by flinging down one article after another—first his cap, then his hatchet, and, finally, his gun. He knew that the inquisitive bears would stop and examine every object, sniffing all round it, and this gave him a little time, otherwise he could not have escaped, for these animals outstrip the fleetest horse, and one monster was so near that Hatteras had to brandish his knife vigorously, to ward off a tremendous blow of his paw.
At last, though panting and out of breath, the three men reached Johnson safely, and slid down the rock with him into the snow-house. The bears stopped short on the upper plateau, and Hatteras and his companions lost no time in barring and barricading them out.
“Here we are at last!” exclaimed Hatteras; “we can defend ourselves better now. It is five against five.”
“Four!” said Johnson in a frightened voice.
“The Doctor!” replied Johnson, pointing to the empty sitting-room.
“Well, he is in Isle Johnson.”
“A bad job for him,” said Bell.
“But we can’t leave him to his fate, in this fashion,” said Altamont.
“No, let’s be off to find him at once,” replied Hatteras.
He opened the door, but soon shut it, narrowly escaping a bear’s hug.
“They are there!” he exclaimed.
“All?” asked Bell.
“The whole pack.”
Altamont rushed to the windows, and began to fill up the deep embrasure with blocks of ice, which he broke off the walls of the house.
His companions followed his example silently. Not a sound was heard but the low, deep growl of Duk.
To tell the simple truth, however, it was not their own danger that occupied their thoughts, but their absent friend, the Doctor’s. It was for him they trembled, not for themselves. Poor Clawbonny, so good and devoted as he had been to every member of the little colony! This was the first time they had been separated from him.