The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven

  Munro had only been gone four days when Williamson took McKinlay aside and suggested that it might not be a good idea, after all, to get Munro and the others back from Rodger’s Harbour. While both Williamson and Breddy had been adamant about Munro returning, Williamson was now afraid of having three more mouths to feed. Right now they were experiencing trouble enough feeding themselves.

  The sharing of the food was the point of contention. Hadley asked the men in Williamson’s tent each time if they were satisfied with the division of the game. Lately, even when they had been agreeable and claimed to be satisfied, they would return to their tents and eat their entire allowance and then begin to complain loudly that Hadley and the others were cheating them out of their rightful share.

  Meanwhile, in Hadley’s tent, Auntie worked magic with the portions. She was in charge of the food and she made it last. Hadley, McKinlay, Kuraluk, and Auntie were still hungry, but they were nourished and she could make their meager rations go a long way. Always, they made sure that neither the little girls nor the kitten went hungry. All three were well fed and fussed over, and the men were more likely to give up shares of their own meals than to let the children or the cat suffer.

  All that fuss over a cat might have seemed unlikely, but they were devoted to her. She helped sustain them on long, dark days. She gave them something to think about other than themselves, just as having Helen and Mugpi to worry over helped to take the focus off their own suffering. As long as the cat was alive, they felt they would survive. She was, after all, their good luck charm.

  One evening, Hadley came back with ten gulls, which Auntie divided evenly between the two camps. An hour or so later, Breddy returned from hunting claiming there wasn’t a crowbill to be seen, and McKinlay saw Chafe come back not long afterward with four gulls. Chafe slipped into his own tent without seeing the scientist and emerged with four more.

  On June 24, Williamson’s tent ran out of food. They had eaten all of their shares greedily and carelessly, and now they had nothing left. Hadley had warned them countless times about the importance of rationing themselves, but they never listened. Now they claimed they were being swindled by Hadley, McKinlay, and the Eskimos out of their rightful share of the catch. They grumbled all day and threatened to keep everything they shot for themselves. To prove their word, Breddy and Chafe returned from hunting with two good-sized eggs and five birds and made no move to share these with the other tent. Instead, they cooked the entire lot and had their own private feast.

  The crew had lived separately aboard the Karluk, and now they insisted on living separately here. The camp was bitterly divided and there was nothing McKinlay could do about it. He agonized. He had, after all, promised the captain to keep the peace. Even though he and Munro were on the outs, he had done the best he could. But he hadn’t accounted for hunger and greed. He had not foreseen the stealing and the betrayal and the paranoia that seemed to plague all of them when it came to their precious supplies and food. There was no rational thought. There was only fear and hunger and survival—and now every man for himself.

  MUNRO WAS NEVER SO THANKFUL as he was upon reaching Rodger’s Harbour. He and Maurer were exhausted from the trek and worn out from the conflagration up at Cape Waring. Munro was relieved to be safely back at this camp, miles away from the rest of the party. Now that they were back, they could concentrate on getting game, surveying the area more closely, and settling themselves into their new home.

  He was glad, once and for all, to be done with the others. He was sick to death of the whole miserable lot of them, especially Williamson and Breddy, who never seemed to do anything but complain. He hoped he would have some peace and quiet. As far as he was concerned, he and Maurer and Templeman would just wait it out at Rodger’s Harbour. There was no reason to go back to Cape Waring, or to see the others until the rescue ship arrived.

  The weather was raw and cold and a heavy mist lingered in the air. Munro, Maurer, and Templeman stayed near camp until the fog lifted enough for the engineer and Maurer to go in search of seal down by the river. They also set out a net for catching birds. Whenever they went hunting, Templeman remained at camp, too weak to join them. Lately, he was suffering from indigestion because he’d eaten too much pemmican and—like the rest of them—had not had enough fresh meat.

  On June 24, they found one duck in their net, and then Munro went out that afternoon and saw two seals. He crept toward one of them, careful not to make a sound, but that seal escaped. Munro then headed for the other one, lying down on the ice about seventy-five yards away from it. He studied the creature and tried to get up his nerve to fire his gun. For five minutes, he lay there on his stomach, trying to convince himself to shoot. His heart was beating so loudly that he was sure the seal would hear it. The creature was stretched gloriously in the sun, unaware of Munro, whose hands were shaking as he aimed the rifle. For minutes, Munro aimed his gun at the seal until he realized that his hands were too shaky to hit his target.

  “It was a terrible20 predicament,” he said. “Our very lives were at stake, and here I was with an acute attack of something akin to ‘buck fever,’ although much more serious than that well-known affliction.”

  He tried to get himself together, to clear his mind and gather his courage before the seal disappeared. He aimed again but, as he noted, he was so nervous that “in that state21 I could not have hit a barn, so I had to wait.”

  In an effort to cheer himself on, he clenched his teeth and called the seal all sorts of names. “I’ll get you!” he threatened over and over again. And then the thought came to him. “If you miss him you will starve.. . .”

  He aimed and fired. He had done it. His first seal.

  Maurer loaded it on the sled and that night they had a grand “stew up,” which they had promised themselves upon getting their first seal. There was so much food that Templeman was unable to finish his meal.

  The next day, with new confidence, Munro and Maurer headed out on the ice again. There were numerous seals in the distance and they were sure to get at least one. But they couldn’t get near enough to the animals to get off a decent shot, so they had to return to camp empty-handed. The next day they tried again, but they still couldn’t get close enough. On the twenty-seventh, they returned to the hunting ground, but a heavy fog quickly sent them back to camp, where they were forced to amuse themselves for the rest of the day with various odd jobs. They repaired their gear, mended their sled, and found a flag pole—or a piece of wood that would make a perfect flag pole—and set it aside for later. As soon as they had the strength and as soon as the frozen ground allowed, they would plant the pole and raise the British flag they had saved from the Karluk. They also created a storage space for their meat—a hole in the ground, lined with skins and blubber. They threw the seals in and then packed ice on top of them. Even with this, the seal meat rotted, but they ate every scrap of it, except for the hides and the blubber. Afterward, when there was nothing else, they were forced to eat those, too.

  The mist lingered, but on the twenty-ninth it cleared enough for Munro and Maurer to go sealing. This time, they managed to kill two seals, and that evening they dined on fried liver. They were feeling more hopeful now, their moods much improved by all the food. Indeed, they felt like kings, and Templeman kept busy cooking all the time. As Munro said, “We are living22 high.”

  IT WAS BETWEEN 6:45 and 7:15 on the morning of June 25 when they heard the gunshot. Hadley had awakened McKinlay at 6:30 a.m. when he left the tent, but the magnetician soon drifted off again. When he awoke the second time, he stuck his head out of the tent to look for Hadley, figuring he was out shooting at the ducks. Instead the old man was lying in bed.

  A few seconds later, they heard a shout. It was Williamson. “Clam! Call Hadley! Breddy has shot himself!”23

  McKinlay was out of the tent in a flash. Hadley and the Eskimo were on his heels. They ran to the other tent, tore open the door, and burst inside.

  “What is the24 matter her
e?” Hadley demanded.

  Williamson was sitting up in his bed. Now, he pointed at Breddy and said simply, “Breddy has shot himself.”

  Clam and Williamson both said they were asleep when it happened. The shot woke them up. Chafe was out hunting. He had gone the night before.

  Breddy lay in his bed, rolled partially on his left side, his right arm stretched alongside his body, his left flung across his breast, his hands open, his eyes closed. Hadley turned Breddy over and they could see the damage. The bullet had entered the right eye, exiting on the left side of his head, just two inches or so above the ear. His right eye was “powder-burned and blackened25” where the bullet had entered. It must have made a perfect pass through his brain. He would have died instantly.

  Williamson handed Hadley the gun—a Colt revolver—which he picked up from Breddy’s left side. Hadley snapped, “Have you another26 gun in here?”


  “Give it to me and I will look after it. You don’t need guns in here, anyway. You . . . are scarcely able to move.”

  The weapon that killed Breddy was a ’41 .345 caliber Colt DA revolver, owned by Hadley and loaned to Breddy. Clam and Williamson handed over their other gun, a .401 Winchester rifle, which had also belonged to Hadley, loaned to Williamson at Shipwreck Camp, back in the old days when Hadley had thought Williamson was a decent guy.

  Williamson and Clam also gave Hadley all that remained of their ammunition, just twenty-four revolver cartridges and three of the original 83 to 100 rounds of rifle ammunition, “and there has27 been nothing to show for it,” observed McKinlay.

  The men carried Breddy’s body outside and, in the presence of everyone, Williamson went through Breddy’s personal effects. The dead man had kept everything on his person, apparently not having trusted his tent mates any more than he trusted Hadley and the others. All of the missing articles from McKinlay’s knapsack were there, including his compass, which was hidden in a sock.

  Chafe had gotten in the habit of going out every night to hunt. He usually left around 8:00 or 8:30 P.M., returning the next morning, and Breddy usually went with him to help carry the birds. The snow on the ice was melting daily and deep pools of water were forming. Chafe had to wade through these every night, up to his knees or his waist, until his legs became numb from the cold. Each morning, he couldn’t wait to get back to camp so that he could take off his wet clothes and warm himself.

  His foot was still so painful from the operation that it was hard for him to walk. For this reason, it would sometimes take Chafe twelve hours to make the trip to the cliffs and back again, even though they were only two to five miles from camp. “Of course,” he said,28 “a lot of the time was wasted, for every time a shot is fired the birds leave the cliffs and fly away to sea; then I would have to wait till they returned and settled, before firing another shot.” The crowbills went out to sea every third or fourth day to feed, staying away twenty-four hours or more. Whenever these went away, Chafe tried to shoot seagulls, which nested on top of the cliffs.

  Chafe had landed a goldmine on his hunting trip of June 24, killing twenty-three birds, an exceptional night’s work. Because the birds were too heavy and because Breddy wasn’t there to help him this time, he dragged them along behind him over the ice as he headed back to camp on the morning of the twenty-fifth.

  Half a mile from the camp at Cape Waring, Chafe spotted McKinlay coming to meet him.

  “Charlie, there has29 been more trouble in camp,” McKinlay said by way of greeting.

  “What is the matter now, Mac?”

  McKinlay told him about Breddy. Chafe felt all his strength leave him. He could not believe what he was hearing. McKinlay took the birds from him and they returned to camp, where Chafe saw his friend’s body lying in the open, covered with a blanket, and stretched out beside a log.

  According to Chafe, Breddy had come to him the night before, as Chafe prepared to go hunting. “Breddy . . . said30 he was not going with me, but was going to get up early in the morning and clean his revolver, and was going to go out to one of the seal holes to try and get a seal. The poor fellow must have done as he intended—got up early, and was in the act of cleaning his revolver when it accidentally went off and shot him.”

  The birds Chafe had killed were divided between the two tents, twelve going to Hadley’s larder and nine to Williamson’s. This time no one grumbled at having to share, and Williamson confessed to McKinlay that Chafe had admitted he and Breddy had been cheating on birds. “Wednesday last, they31 really obtained 6 eggs and 5 birds instead of 2 eggs and 4 birds, as they had reported, and also. . . Breddy stole the bird noted on June 16.”

  Kuraluk and McKinlay worked all day at digging a grave. They chose a small hill beyond the camp, but the ground was still frozen. They used an axe to break up the earth and a piece of board for a shovel.

  That night, they had a quiet supper and later, about 8:00 P.M., after the invalids and Chafe had turned in, Hadley, Kuraluk, and McKinlay carried Breddy up the hill on an improvised stretcher made of poles and canvas. They lowered him into the grave, but it wasn’t deep enough. His body was still so swollen from the mystery illness that they had to take him out and lay him on the ground. Covering Breddy’s body with the canvas, they agreed to finish the work tomorrow and started back down the hill.

  There was something odd about the body, which had nagged at Hadley since he had first seen it on the floor of the tent. Something strange about the way Breddy’s shooting hand was positioned.

  MCKINLAY COULDN’T IMAGINE why Breddy would have killed himself. Breddy had been a cocky, self-assured young man in good health, especially compared to some of the others. He had always done exactly what he wanted to, including stealing food from his fellowmen, and he had never allowed himself to be burdened with work he didn’t feel like doing. Perhaps Chafe was right, and maybe he had been cleaning his gun when it accidentally went off.

  Williamson and Chafe were doing all they could now to ingratiate themselves to Hadley and the rest. Indeed they seemed quite chastened and frightened by what had occurred, worried about losing favor with their estranged comrades. They even seemed a little scared of Hadley, McKinlay, and the Eskimos. To the best of McKinlay’s knowledge, Clam had not participated in the lying, the stealing, and the cheating, and as far as he could tell, Clam had little in common with his tent mates, aside from being a crewman. He was instead stoic and silent, and when he did talk, he was soft-spoken and polite and seemed to have little reason to need to ingratiate himself as Williamson and Chafe were doing.

  Williamson, in particular, was eager to make peace with Hadley, McKinlay, and the Eskimos. The night before, he had been all too happy to volunteer the fact that Chafe and Breddy had been cheating at birds—so generous of him to turn them in while not implicating himself when he had been, most likely, participating in their scheme. If not, he had almost surely reaped the benefits. Also, he was suddenly now making a habit of giving little presents to the children, scraps of pemmican and useless trinkets, in the hopes of bribing Auntie into giving his tent some seal meat.

  McKinlay spent the day after the shooting deepening Breddy’s grave while Hadley sat by a seal hole for hours, with no luck. There were no seals anywhere on the ice. That night, they had a quiet supper and for the first time since they’d reached the island, both tents ate together. Williamson, Chafe, and Clam not only shared their store of food with McKinlay, Hadley, and the Eskimos, but they ate with much more restraint than usual.

  McKinlay was tempted to tell them about Adolphus Greely and the way he had sentenced a man to death for stealing seal thongs, which was all he and his men had to eat when they were stranded in the Arctic for a winter of 250 days and only forty days’ rations. “The temptation recurred32, but I resisted it,” he said. “They would have failed entirely to appreciate my grim sense of humour. What a sorry bunch we were!”

  After supper, McKinlay, Hadley, and Kuraluk walked back up the hill to the grave and deepened it fu
rther. They lifted Breddy’s swollen body from the ground and at last laid him to rest, to be covered later with wood, skins, and moss.

  Keep the peace, the captain had told McKinlay. But Bartlett could not have foreseen a tragedy like this.

  Of the rules they were used to—the laws that had governed them back home—none of them applied in this strange world. It had truly become every man for himself.

  If the tension subsided between the two tents, at least for the time being, it was now building violently between Hadley and Kuraluk. It was hard to tell what the problem was except that Hadley was his usual surly self, and Kuraluk was intimidated by him. Hadley, too, had been in a fury lately over having to cook breakfast because Auntie, who usually performed the task, now refused or slept in.

  Unfortunately, he and the Eskimo were the two best hunters, and the ones everyone else relied upon for nearly all of their food. Kuraluk, especially, was skilled and indefatigable. The only thing was, they had to keep him happy. The moment he felt unwanted, unneeded, or depressed, he would refuse to hunt. He was as stubborn as Hadley; in fact they were very much alike.

  The days passed as usual, with Kuraluk and Hadley hunting each morning, and Chafe hunting each night. The weather turned warmer so that McKinlay’s tent had to sleep with the flap entirely open to let in fresh air.

  Hadley and McKinlay lengthened the egging ladder, which was now about thirty-five feet tall. As soon as it was ready, they took it to the cliffs and McKinlay climbed to the top, fetching twenty-one eggs. As Chafe observed, the eggs were in a well-advanced state of development, “and would not33 have been considered marketable under the Pure Food laws of any country. But there were no Pure Food laws on Wrangel Island, so we ate anything that would sustain life.” Ever since moving to Cape Waring, they had been lucky with birds and seals. Even McKinlay had been out hunting now and then, enjoying feeling useful and active.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]