CHAPTER XV. CUT OFF BY STORM - STARVATION THREATENED - RACE WITH A RISING TIDE - TWO DAYS WITHOUT FOOD - RETURN TO LESNOI

Early Saturday morning we moved on to the mouth of the valley, pitched our tent in a position to command a view of the approaches to the Samanka River, ballasted its edges with stones to keep the wind from blowing it down, and prepared to wait two days, according to orders, for the whale-boat. The storm still continued, and the heavy sea, which dashed sullenly all day against the black rocks under our tent, convinced me that nothing could be expected from the other party. I only hoped that they had succeeded in getting safely landed somewhere before the storm began. Caught by a gale under the frowning wall of rock which stretched for miles along the coast, the whale-boat, I knew, must either swamp with all on board, or be dashed to pieces against the cliffs. In either case not a soul could escape to tell the story.

That night Viushin astonished and almost disheartened me with the news that we were eating the last of our provisions. There was no more meat, and the hardbread which remained was only a handful of water-soaked crumbs. He and all the Kamchadals, confidently expecting to meet the whale-boat at the Samanka River, had taken only three days' food. He had said nothing about it until the last moment, hoping that the whale-boat would arrive or something turn up; but it could no longer be concealed. We were three days' journey from any settlement, and without food. How we were to get back to Lesnoi I did not know, as the mountains were probably impassable now, on account of the snow which had fallen since we crossed, and the weather did not permit us to indulge a hope that the whale-boat would ever come. Much as we dreaded it, there was nothing to be done but to attempt another passage of the mountain range, and that without a moment's delay. I had been ordered to wait for the whale-boat two days; but circumstances, I thought, justified a disobedience of orders, and I directed the Kamchadals to be ready to start for Lesnoi early the next morning. Then, writing a note to the Major, and enclosing it in a tin can, to be left on the site of our camp, I crawled into my fur bag to sleep and get strength for another struggle with the mountains.

The following morning was cold and stormy, and the snow was still falling in the mountains, and heavy rain in the valley. We broke camp at daylight, saddled our horses, distributed what little baggage we had among them, as equally as possible, and made every preparation for deep snow and hard climbing.

Our guide, after a short consultation with his comrades, now came to me and proposed that we abandon our plan of crossing the mountains as wholly impracticable, and try instead to make our way along the narrow strip of beach which the ebbing tide would leave bare at the foot of the cliffs. This plan, he contended, was no more dangerous than attempting to cross the mountains, and was much more certain of success, as there were only a few points where at low water a horse could not pass with dry feet. It was not more than thirty miles to a ravine on the south side of the mountain range, through which we could, leave the beach and regain our old trail at a point within one hard day's ride of Lesnoi. The only danger was in being caught by high water before we could reach this ravine, and even then we might save ourselves by climbing up on the rocks, and abandoning our horses to their fate. It would be no worse for them than starving and freezing to death in the mountains. Divested of its verbal plausibility, his plan was nothing more nor less than a grand thirty-mile race with a high tide along a narrow beach, from which all escape was cut off by precipitous cliffs one and two hundred feet in height. If we reached the ravine in time, all would be well; but if not, our beach would be covered ten feet deep with water, and our horses, if not ourselves, would be swept away like corks. There was a recklessness and dash about this proposal which made it very attractive when compared with wading laboriously through snow-drifts, in frozen clothes, without anything to eat, and I gladly agreed to it, and credited our guide with more sense and spirit than I had ever before seen exhibited by a Kamchadal. The tide was now only beginning to ebb, and we had three or four hours to spare before it would be low enough to start. This time the Kamchadals improved by catching one of the dogs which had accompanied us from Lesnoi, killing him in a cold-blooded way with their long knives, and offering his lean body as a sacrifice to the Evil Spirit, in whose jurisdiction these infernal mountains were supposed to be. The poor animal was cut open, his entrails taken out and thrown to the four corners of the earth, and his body suspended by the neck from the top of a long pole set perpendicularly in the ground. The Evil Spirit's wrath, however, seemed implacable, for it stormed worse after the performance of these propitiatory rites than it did before. This did not weaken at all the faith of the Kamchadals in the efficacy of their atonement. If the storm did not abate, it was only because an unbelieving American with a diabolical brass box called a "come- pass'" had insisted upon crossing the mountains in defiance of the genius loci and all his tempestuous warnings. One dead dog was no compensation at all for such a sacrilegious violation of the Evil Spirit's clearly expressed wishes! The sacrifice, however, seemed to relieve the natives' anxiety about their own safety; and, much as I pitied the poor dog thus ruthlessly slaughtered, I was glad to see the manifest improvement which it worked in the spirits of my superstitious comrades.