“Yes, Altamont, I’ll make them over to you,” replied Clawbonny; “they are true Americans, and they don’t appear to have a very favourable idea of their fellow countrymen.”
“That proves our hunting prowess,” rejoined Altamont.
Meantime the oxen finding themselves no longer pursued, had stopped short. Further pursuit was evidently useless. If they were to be captured at all they must be surrounded, and the plateau which they first happened to have reached, was very favourable for the purpose. Leaving Duk to worry them, they went down by the neighbouring ravines; and got to the one end of the plateau, where Altamont and the Doctor hid themselves behind projecting rocks, while Hatteras went on to the other end, intending to startle the animals by his sudden appearance, and drive them back towards his companions.
“I suppose you have no objection this time to bestow a few bullets on these gentry?” said Altamont.
“Oh, no, it is ‘a fair field now and no favour,’” returned Clawbonny.
The oxen had begun to shake themselves impatiently at Duk, trying to kick him off, when Hatteras started up right in front of them, shouting and chasing them back. This was the signal for Altamont and the Doctor to rush forward and fire, but at the sight of two assailants, the terrified animals wheeled round and attacked Hatteras. He met their onset with a firm, steady foot, and fired straight at their heads. But both his balls were powerless, and only served still further to madden the enraged beasts. They rushed upon the unfortunate man like furies, and threw him on the ground in an instant.
“He is a dead man!” exclaimed the Doctor, in despairing accents.
A tremendous struggle was going on in Altamont’s breast at the sight of his prostrate foe, and though his first impulse was to hasten to his help, he stopped short, battling with himself and his prejudices. But his hesitation scarcely lasted half a second, his better self conquered, and exclaiming,
“No, it would be cowardly!” he rushed forward with Clawbonny.
Hatteras full well understood how his rival felt, but would rather have died than have begged his intervention. However, he had hardly time to think about it, before Altamont was at his side.
He could not have held out much longer, for it was impossible to ward off the blows of horns and hoofs of two such powerful antagonists, and in a few minutes more he must have been torn to pieces. But suddenly two shots resounded, and Hatteras felt the balls graze his head.
[Ilustration: Dealt him such a tremendous blow on the head with his hatchet, that the skull was completely split open.—P.177]
“Courage!” shouted Altamont, flinging away his discharged weapon, and throwing himself right in front of the raging animals. One of them, shot to the heart, fell dead as he reached the spot, while the other dashed madly on Hatteras, and was about to gore the unfortunate captain with his horns, when Altamont plunged his snow knife far into the beast’s wide open jaws with one hand, with the other dealt him such a tremendous blow on the head with his hatchet, that the skull was completely split open.
It was done so quickly that it seemed like a flash of lightning, and all was over. The second ox lay dead, and Clawbonny shouted “Hurrah! hurrah!” Hatteras was saved.
He owed his life to the man he hated the most. What a storm of conflicting passions this must have roused in his soul! But where was the emotion he could not master?
However, his action was prompt, whatever his feeling might be. Without a moment’s hesitancy, he went up to his rival, and said in a grave voice—
“Altamont, you have saved my life!”
“You saved mine,” replied the American.
There was a moment’s silence, and then Altamont added—
“We’re quits, Hatteras.”
“No, Altamont,” said the captain; “when the Doctor dragged you out of your icy tomb, I did not know who you were; but you saved me at the peril of your own life, knowing quite well who I was.”
“Why, you are a fellow-creature at any rate, and whatever faults an American may have, he is no coward.”
“No, indeed,” said the Doctor.