Under Arctic Ice
Chapter 8: The Duel

Public Domain

Upon seeing this, all hope for life left Ken. He had only six shells left, and at best he could kill only six sealmen. Already, there were more than twenty about him, completely encircling the torpoon. They seemed afraid of it, and yet desirous of finishing it--they hung back, watching warily the thing that could strike and hurt from either end; but Ken knew, of course, that he could not count on their inaction long. One concerted charge would mean his quick end, and the death of most of the men above.

Well, there was only one thing to do--try to hold them off until those men above had climbed out, every one.

With this plan in mind, he maneuvered for a commanding position. Quietly he slid his motor into gear, and slowly the torpoon rose. At this first movement, the wall of hesitating brown bodies broke back a little. It quickly pressed in again, however, as the torpoon came to a halt where Ken wanted it--a position thirty feet beneath, and slightly to one side, of the escaping men above, with an angle of fire commanding the area the sealmen would have to cross to attack them.

Almost at once came action. One of the surrounding creatures swerved suddenly up toward the men. Instinctively angling the torp, Ken sent a nitro-shell at it; and the chance aim was good. The projectile caught the sealman squarely, and, after the convulsion, it began to drift downward, its body torn apart.

“That’ll teach you, damn you!” Ken muttered savagely, and, to heighten the effect he had created, he brought his sights to bear on another sealman in the circle around him--and fired and killed.

This sight of sudden death told on the others. They grew obviously more fearful and gave back, though still forming a solid circle around the torpoon. The circle was ever thickening and deepening downward as more of those that the explosion had rendered unconscious returned to life.

And then, above, the first man reached the hole, clawed at its rough edges and levered himself through.

That was a signal. From somewhere beneath, two brown bodies flashed upward in attack. Fearing a general rush at any second, Ken fired twice swiftly. One shell missed, but the other slid to its mark. Almost alongside its fellow, one of the creatures was shattered and torn, and that evidently altered the other’s intentions, for it abandoned the attack and sought safety in the mass of its fellows on the farther side.

Another respite. Another man through the hole. And but two nitro-shells left!

The deadly circle, like wolves around a lone trapper who crouches close to his dying fire, pressed in a little; and by their ominous quietness, by the sight of their eyes all turned in on him, their concerted inching closer, Ken sensed the nearness of the charge that would finish him. All this in deep silence, there in the gloomy quarter-light. He could not yell and brandish his fists at them as the trapper by the fire might have done to win a few extra minutes. The only cards he had to play were two shells--and one was needed now!

He fired it with deliberate, sure aim, and grunted as he saw its victim convulse and die, with dark blood streaming. Again the swarm hesitated.

Ken risked a glance above. Only three men left, he saw; and one was pulled through the hole as he watched. Below, in one place, several seal-creatures surged upward.

“Get back, damn you!” he cursed harshly. “All right--take it! That’s the last!”

And the last shell hissed out from the gun even as the last man, above, was pulled through up into the air and safety.

Ken felt that he had given half his life with that final shell. Completely surrounded by a hundred or more of the sealmen, he could not possibly hope to maneuver the torpoon up to the hole in the ice and leave it, without being overwhelmed. He had held off the swarm long enough for the others to escape, but for himself it was the end.

So he thought, and wondered just when that end would come. Soon, he knew. It would not take them long to overcome their fear when they saw that he no longer reached out and struck them down in sudden bloody death. Now it was their turn.

“Anyway,” the torpooner murmured, “I got ‘em out. I saved them.”

But had he? Suddenly his mind turned up a dreadful thought. He had saved them from the sealmen, but they were up on the ice without food. There had been no time to apportion rations in the submarine; all the supplies were stacked around him in the torpoon!

Searching planes would eventually appear overhead, but if he could not get the food up to the men it meant their death as surely as if they had stayed locked in the Peary!

But how could he do it without shells, and with that living wall edging inch by inch upon him, visibly on the brink of rushing him. Some carried ropes with which they would lash the torpoon down as they had the others. Must all he and those men had gone through, be in vain? Must he die--and the others? For certainly without food, those men above on the lonely ice fields, all of them weakened by the long siege in the submarine, would perish quickly...

And then a faintly possible plan came to him. It involved an attempt to bluff the seal-creatures.

Thirty feet above the lone man in the torpoon was the hole he had blasted in the ice. He knew that from the cone of light which filtered down; he did not dare to take his eyes for a second from the creatures around him, for all now depended on his judging to a fraction just when the lithe, living wall would leap to overwhelm him.

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