Extreme peril, and most likely a frightful death awaited him, for he might return unsuspectingly to Fort Providence, and find himself in the power of these ferocious animals.
“And yet,” said Johnson, “unless I am much mistaken, he must be on guard. Your repeated shots cannot but have warned him. He must surely be aware that something unusual has happened.”
“But suppose he was too far away to hear them,” replied Altamont, “or has not understood the cause of them? It is ten chances to one but he’ll come quickly back, never imagining the danger. The bears are screened from sight by the crag completely.”
“We must get rid of them before he comes,” said Hatteras.
“But how?” asked Bell.
It was difficult to reply to this, for a sortie was out of the question. They had taken care to barricade the entrance passage, but the bears could easily find a way in if they chose. So it was thought advisable to keep a close watch on their movements outside, by listening attentively in each room, so as to be able to resist all attempts at invasion. They could hear them distinctly prowling about, growling and scraping the walls with their enormous paws.
However, some action must be taken speedily, for time was passing. Altamont resolved to try a port-hole through which he might fire on his assailants. He had soon scooped out a hole in the wall, but his gun was hardly pushed through, when it was seized with irresistible force, and wrested from his grasp before he could even fire.
“Confound it!” he exclaimed, “we’re no match for them.”
And he hastened to stop up the breach as fast as possible.
This state of things had lasted upwards of an hour, and there seemed no prospect of a termination. The question of a sortie began now to be seriously discussed. There was little chance of success, as the bears could not be attacked separately, but Hatteras and his companions had grown so impatient, and it must be confessed were also so much ashamed of being kept in prison by beasts, that they would even have dared the risk if the captain had not suddenly thought of a new mode of defence.
He took Johnson’s furnace-poker, and thrust it into the stove while he made an opening in the snow wall, or rather a partial opening, for he left a thin sheet of ice on the outer side. As soon as the poker was red hot, he said to his comrades who stood eagerly watching him, wondering what he was going to do—
“This red-hot bar will keep off the bears when they try to get hold of it, and we shall be able easily to fire across it without letting them snatch away our guns.”
“A good idea,” said Bell, posting himself beside Altamont.
Hatteras withdrew the poker, and instantly plunged it in the wall. The melting snow made a loud hissing noise, and two bears ran and made a snatch at the glowing bar; but they fell back with a terrible howl, and at the same moment four shots resounded, one after the other.
“Hit!” exclaimed Altamont.
“Hit!” echoed Bell.
“Let us repeat the dose,” said Hatteras, carefully stopping up the opening meantime.
The poker was again thrust into the fire, and in a few minutes was ready for Hatteras to recommence operations.
Altamont and Bell reloaded their guns, and took their places; but this time the poker would not pass through.
“Confound the beasts!” exclaimed the impetuous American.
“What’s the matter?” asked Johnson.
“What’s the matter? Why, those plaguey animals are piling up block after block, intending to bury us alive!”
“Look for yourself; the poker can’t get through. I declare it is getting absurd now.”
It was worse than absurd, it was alarming. Things grew worse. It was evident that the bears meant to stifle their prey, for the sagacious animals were heaping up huge masses, which would make escape impossible.
“It is too bad,” said old Johnson, with a mortified look. “One might put up with men, but bears!”
Two hours elapsed without bringing any relief to the prisoners; to go out was impossible, and the thick walls excluded all sound.