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Boyhood in Norway(13)

2006-09-07 22:15

  SONDS IV

  To have been routed by a woman was a terrible humiliation to the valiant Sons of the Vikings. They were silent and moody during the evening, and sat staring into the big bonfire on the saeter green with stern and melancholy features. They had suffered defeat in battle, and it behooved them to avenge it. About nine o'clock they retired into their bunks in the log cabin, but no sooner was Brumle-Knute's rhythmic snoring perceived than Wolf-in-the-Temple put his head out and called to his comrades to meet him in front of the house for a council of war. Instantly they scrambled out of their alcoves, pulled on their coats and trousers; and noiselessly stole out into the night. The sun was yet visible, but a red veil of fiery mist was drawn across his face; and a magic air of fairy-tales and strange unreality was diffused over mountains, plains and lakes. The river wound like a huge, blood-red serpent through the mountain pastures, and the snow-hooded peaks blazed with fiery splendor.

  The boys were quite stunned at the sight of such magnificence, and stood for some minutes gazing at the landscape, before giving heed to the summons of the chief.

  "Comrades," said Wolf-in-the-Temple, solemnly, "what is life without honor?"

  There was not a soul present who could answer that conundrum, and after a fitting pause the chief was forced to answer it himself.

  "Life without honor, comrades," he said, severely, "life——without honor is——nothing."

  "Hear, hear!" cried Ironbeard; "good for you, old man!"

  "Silence!" thundered Wolf-in-the-Temple, "I must beg the gentlemen to observe the proprieties."

  This tremendous phrase rarely failed to restore order, and the flippant Ironbeard was duly rebuked by the glances of displeasure which met him on all sides. But in the meanwhile the chief had lost the thread of his speech and could not recover it. "Vikings," he resumed, clearing his throat vehemently, "we have been——that is to say——we have sustained——"

  "A thrashing," supplied the innocent Skull-Splitter.

  But the awful stare which was fixed upon him convinced him that he had made a mistake; and he shrunk into an abashed silence. "We must do something to retrieve our honor," continued the chief, earnestly; "we must——take steps——to to get upon our legs again," he finished, blushing with embarrassment.

  "I would suggest that we get upon our legs first, and take the steps afterward," remarked the flippant Ironbeard, with a sly wink at Thore the Hound.

  The chief held it to be beneath his dignity to notice this interruption, and after having gazed for a while in silence at the blood-red mountain peaks, he continued, more at his ease:

  "I propose, comrades, that we go on a bear hunt. Then, when we return with a bear-skin or two, our honor will be all right; no one will dare laugh at us. The brave boy-hunters will be the admiration and pride of the whole valley."

  "But Brummle-Knute," observed the Skull-Splitter; "do you think he will allow us to go bear-hunting?"

  "What do we care whether he allows us or not?" cried Wolf-in-the-Temple, scornfully; "he sleeps like a log; and I propose that we tie his hands and feet before we start."

  This suggestion met with enthusiastic approval, and all the boys laughed heartily at the idea of Brumle-Knute waking up and finding himself tied with ropes, like a calf that is carried to market.

  "Now, comrades," commanded the chief, with a flourish of his sword, "get to bed quickly. I'll call you at four o'clock; we'll then start to chase the monarch of the mountains."

  The Sons of the Vikings scrambled into their bunks with great despatch; and though their beds consisted of pine twigs, covered with a coarse sheet, and a bat, of straw for a pillow, they fell asleep without rocking, and slept more soundly than if they had rested on silken bolsters filled with eiderdown. Wolf-in-the-Temple was as good as his word, and waked them promptly at four o'clock; and their first task, after having filled their knapsacks with provisions, was to tie Brumle-Knute's hands and feet with the most cunning slip-knots, which would tighten more, the more he struggled to unloose them. Ironbeard, who had served a year before the mast, was the contriver of this daring enterprise; and he did it so cleverly that Brumle-Knute never suspected that his liberty was being interfered with. He snorted a little and rubbed imaginary cobwebs from his face; but soon lapsed again into a deep, snoring unconsciousness.

  The faces of the Sons of the Vikings grew very serious as they started out on this dangerous expedition. There was more than one of them who would not have objected to remaining at home, but who feared to incur the charge of cowardice if he opposed the wishes of the rest. Wolf-in-the-Temple walked at the head of the column, as they hastened with stealthy tread out of the saeter inclosure, and steered their course toward the dense pine forest, the tops of which were visible toward the east, where the mountain sloped toward the valley. He carried his fowling-piece, loaded with shot, in his right hand, and a powder-horn and other equipments for the chase were flung across his shoulder. Erling the Lop-Sided was similarly armed, and Ironbeard, glorying in a real sword, unsheathed it every minute and let it flash in the sun. It was a great consolation to the rest of the Vikings to see these formidable weapons; for they were not wise enough to know that grown-up bears are not killed with shot, and that a fowling-piece is a good deal more dangerous than no weapon at all, in the hands of an inexperienced hunter.

  The sun, who had exchanged his flaming robe de nuit for the rosy colors of morning, was now shooting his bright shafts of light across the mountain plain, and cheering the hearts of the Sons of the Vikings. The air was fresh and cool; and it seemed a luxury to breathe it. It entered the lungs in a pure, vivifying stream like an elixir of life, and sent the blood dancing through the veins. It was impossible to mope in such air; and Ironbeard interpreted the general mood when he struck up the tune:

  "We wander with joy on the far mountain path,We follow the star that will guide us;"

  but before he had finished the third verse, it occurred to the chief that they were bear-hunters, and that it was very unsportsmanlike behavior to sing on the chase. For all that they were all very jolly, throbbing with excitement at the thought of the adventures which they were about to encounter; and concealing a latent spark of fear under an excess of bravado. At the end of an hour's march they had reached the pine forest; and as they were all ravenously hungry they sat down upon the stones, where a clear mountain brook ran down the slope, and unpacked their provisions. Wolf-in-the-Temple had just helped himself, in old Norse fashion, to a slice of smoked ham, having slashed a piece off at random with his knife, when Erling the Lop-Sided observed that that ham had a very curious odor. Everyone had to test its smell; and they all agreed that it did have a singular flavor, though its taste was irreproachable.

  "It smells like a menagerie," said the Skull-Splitter, as he handed it to Thore the Hound.

  "But the bread and the biscuit smell just the same," said Thore the Hound; "in fact, it is the air that smells like a menagerie."

  "Boys," cried Wolf-in-the-Temple, "do you see that track in the mud?"

  "Yes; it is the track of a barefooted man," suggested the innocent Skull-Splitter.

  Ironbeard and Erling the Lop-Sided flung themselves down among the stones and investigated the tracks; and they were no longer in doubt as to where the pungent wild odor came from, which they had attributed to the ham.

  "Boys," said Erling, looking up with an excited face, "a she-bear with one or two cubs has been here within a few minutes."

  "This is her drinking-place," said Ironbeard: "the tracks are many and well-worn; if she hasn't been here this morning, she is sure to come before long."

  "We are in luck indeed," Wolf-in-the-Temple observed, coolly; "we needn't go far for our bear. He will be coming for us."

  At that moment the note of an Alpine horn was heard; but it was impossible to determine how far it was away; for the echo took up the note and flung it back and forth with clear and strong reverberations from mountain to mountain.

  "It is Brumle-Knute who is calling us," said Thore the Hound. "The dairymaid must have released him. Shall we answer?"

  "Never," cried the chief, proudly; "I forbid you to answer. Here we have our heroic deed in sight, and I want no one to spoil it. If there is a coward among us, let him take to his heels; no one shall detain him."

  There were perhaps several who would have liked to accept the invitation; but no one did. Skull-Splitter, by way of diversion, plumped backward into the brook, and sat down in the cool pool up to his waist. But nobody laughed at his mishap; because they had their minds full of more serious thoughts. Wolf-in-the-Temple, who had climbed up on a big moss-grown boulder, stood, gun in hand, and peered in among the bushes.

  "Boys," he whispered, "drop down on your bellies——quick."

  All, crowding behind a rock, obeyed, pushing themselves into position with hands and feet. With wildly beating hearts the Vikings gazed up among the gray wilderness of stone and underbrush, and first one, then another, caught sight of something brown and hairy that came toddling down toward them, now rolling like a ball of yarn, now turning a somersault, and now again pegging industriously along on four clumsy paws. It was the prettiest little bear cub that ever woke on its mossy lair in the woods. Now it came shuffling down in a boozy way to take its morning bath. It seemed but half awake; and Skull-Splitter imagined that it was a trifle cross, because its mother had waked it too early. Evidently it had made no toilet as yet, for bits of moss were sticking in its hair; and it yawned once or twice, and shook its head disgustedly. Skull-Splitter knew so well that feeling and could sympathize with the poor young cub. But Wolf-in-the-Temple, who watched it no less intently, was filled with quite different emotions. Here was his heroic deed, for which he had hungered so long. To shoot a bear——that was a deed worthy of a Norseman. One step more——then two——and then——up rose the bear cub on its hind legs and rubbed its eyes with its paws. Now he had a clean shot——now or never; and pulling the trigger Wolf-in-the-Temple blazed away and sent a handful of shot into the carcass of the poor little bear. Up jumped all the Sons of the Vikings from behind their stones, and, with a shout of triumph, ran up the path to where the cub was lying. It had rolled itself up into a brown ball, and whimpered like a child in pain. But at that very moment there came an ominous growl out of the underbrush, and a crackling and creaking of branches was heard which made the hearts of the boys stand still.

  "Erling," cried Wolf-in-the-Temple, "hand me your gun, and load mine for me as quick as you can."

  The words were scarcely out of his mouth when the head of a big brown she-bear became visible among the bushes. She paused in the path, where her cub was lying, turned him over with her paw, licked his face, grumbled with a low soothing tone, snuffed him all over and rubbed her nose against his snout. But unwarily she must have touched some sore spot; for the cub gave a sharp yelp of pain and writhed and whimpered as he looked up into his mother's eyes, clumsily returning her caresses. The boys, half emerged from their hiding-places, stood watching this demonstration of affection not without sympathy; and Skull-Splitter, for one, heartily wished that the chief had not wounded the little bear. Quite ignorant as he was of the nature of bears, he allowed his compassion to get the better of his judgment. It seemed such a pity that the poor little beast should lie there and suffer with one eye put out and forty or fifty bits of lead distributed through its body. It would be much more merciful to put it out of its misery altogether. And accordingly when Erling the Lop-Sided handed him his gun to pass on to the chief, Skull-Splitter started forward, flung the gun to his cheek, and blazed away at the little bear once more, entirely heedless of consequences. It was a random, unskilful shot, which was about equally shared by the cub and its mother. And the latter was not in a mood to be trifled with. With an angry roar she rose on her hind legs and advanced against the unhappy Skull-Splitter with two uplifted paws. In another moment she would give him one of her vigorous "left-handers," which would probably pacify him forever. Ironbeard gave a scream of terror and Thore the Hound broke down an alder-sapling in his excitement. But Wolf-in-the-Temple, remembering that he had sworn foster-brotherhood with this brave and foolish little lad, thought that now was the time to show his heroism. Here it was no longer play, but dead earnest. Down he leaped from his rock, and just as the she-bear was within a foot of the Skull-Splitter, he dealt her a blow in the head with the butt end of his gun which made the sparks dance before her eyes. She turned suddenly toward her new assailant, growling savagely, and scratched her ear with her paw. And Skull-Splitter, who had slipped on the pine needles and fallen, scrambled to his feet again, leaving his gun on the ground, and with a few aimless steps tumbled once more into the brook. Ironbeard, seeing that he was being outdone by his chief, was quick to seize the gun, and rushing forward dealt the she-bear another blow, which, instead of disabling her, only exasperated her further. She glared with her small bloodshot eyes now at the one, now at the other boy, as if in doubt which she would tackle first. It was an awful moment; one or the other might have saved himself by flight, but each was determined to stand his ground. Vikings could die, but never flee. With a furious growl the she-bear started toward her last assailant, lifting her terrible paw. Ironbeard backed a few steps, pointing his gun before him; and with benumbing force the paw descended upon the gun-barrel, striking it out of his hands.

  It seemed all of a sudden to the boy as if his arms were asleep up to the shoulders; he had a stinging sensation in his flesh and a humming in his ears, which made him fear that his last hour had come. If the bear renewed the attack now, he was utterly defenceless. He was not exactly afraid, but he was numb all over. It seemed to matter little what became of him.

  But now a strange thing happened. To his unutterable astonishment he saw the she-bear drop down on all fours and vent her rage on the gun, which, in a trice, was bent and broken into a dozen fragments. But in this diversion she was interrupted by Wolf-in-the-Temple, who hammered away again at her head with the heavy end of his weapon. Again she rose, and presented two rows of white teeth which looked as if they meant business. It was the chief's turn now to meet his fate; and it was the more serious because his helper was disarmed and could give him no assistance. With a wildly thumping heart he raised the butt end of his gun and dashed forward, when as by a miracle a shot was heard——a sharp, loud shot that rumbled away with manifold reverberations among the mountains. In the same instant the huge brown bear tumbled forward, rolled over, with a gasping growl, and was dead.

  "O Brumle-Knute! Brumle-Knute!" yelled the boys in joyous chorus, as they saw their resuer coming forward from behind the rocks, "how did you find us?"

  "I heard yer shots and I saw yer tracks," said Brumle-Knute, dryly; "but when ye go bear-hunting another time ye had better load with bullets instead of bird-shot."

  "But Brumle-Knute, we only wanted to shoot the little bear," protested Wolf-in-the-Temple.

  "That may be," Brumle-Knute replied; "but the big bears, they are a curiously unreasonable lot——they are apt to get mad when you fire at their little ones. Next time you must recollect to take the big bear into account."

  I need not tell you that the Sons of the Vikings became great heroes when the rumor of their bear hunt was noised abroad through the valley. But, for all that, they determined to disband their brotherhood. Wolf-in-the-Temple expressed the sentiment of all when, at their last meeting, he made a speech, in which these words occurred:

  "Brothers, the world isn't quite the same now as it was in the days when our Viking forefathers spread the terror of their name through the South. We are not so strong as they were, nor so hardy. When we mingle blood, we have to send for a surgeon. If we steal princesses we may go to jail for it——or——or——well——never mind——what else may happen. Heroism isn't appreciated as once it was in this country; and I, for one, won't try to be a hero any more. I resign my chieftainship now, when I can do it with credit. Let us all make our bows of adieu as bear hunters; and if we don't do anything more in the heroic line it is not because we can't, but because we won't."

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