“Ho!” said Patalamon. “Look! There’s a white seal!”
Kerick Booterin turned nearly white under his oil and smoke, for he was an Aleut, and Aleuts are not clean people. Then he began to mutter a prayer. “Don’t touch him, Patalamon. There has never been a white seal since—since I was born. Perhaps it is old Zaharrof’s ghost. He was lost last year in the big gale.”
“I’m not going near him,” said Patalamon. “He’s unlucky. Do you really think he is old Zaharrof come back? I owe him for some gulls’ eggs.”
“Don’t look at him,” said Kerick. “Head off that drove of four-year-olds. The men ought to skin two hundred to-day, but it’s the beginning of the season and they are new to the work. A hundred will do. Quick!”
Patalamon rattled a pair of seal’s shoulder bones in front of a herd of holluschickie and they stopped dead, puffing and blowing. Then he stepped near and the seals began to move, and Kerick headed them inland, and they never tried to get back to their companions. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of seals watched them being driven, but they went on playing just the same. Kotick was the only one who asked questions, and none of his companions could tell him anything, except that the men always drove seals in that way for six weeks or two months of every year.
“I am going to follow,” he said, and his eyes nearly popped out of his head as he shuffled along in the wake of the herd.
“The white seal is coming after us,” cried Patalamon. “That’s the first time a seal has ever come to the killing-grounds alone.”
“Hsh! Don’t look behind you,” said Kerick. “It is Zaharrof’s ghost! I must speak to the priest about this.”
The distance to the killing-grounds was only half a mile, but it took an hour to cover, because if the seals went too fast Kerick knew that they would get heated and then their fur would come off in patches when they were skinned. So they went on very slowly, past Sea Lion’s Neck, past Webster House, till they came to the Salt House just beyond the sight of the seals on the beach. Kotick followed, panting and wondering. He thought that he was at the world’s end, but the roar of the seal nurseries behind him sounded as loud as the roar of a train in a tunnel. Then Kerick sat down on the moss and pulled out a heavy pewter watch and let the drove cool off for thirty minutes, and Kotick could hear the fog-dew dripping off the brim of his cap. Then ten or twelve men, each with an iron-bound club three or four feet long, came up, and Kerick pointed out one or two of the drove that were bitten by their companions or too hot, and the men kicked those aside with their heavy boots made of the skin of a walrus’s throat, and then Kerick said, “Let go!” and then the men clubbed the seals on the head as fast as they could.
Ten minutes later little Kotick did not recognize his friends any more, for their skins were ripped off from the nose to the hind flippers, whipped off and thrown down on the ground in a pile. That was enough for Kotick. He turned and galloped (a seal can gallop very swiftly for a short time) back to the sea; his little new mustache bristling with horror. At Sea Lion’s Neck, where the great sea lions sit on the edge of the surf, he flung himself flipper-overhead into the cool water and rocked there, gasping miserably. “What’s here?” said a sea lion gruffly, for as a rule the sea lions keep themselves to themselves.
“Scoochnie! Ochen scoochnie!” (“I’m lonesome, very lonesome!”) said Kotick. “They’re killing all the holluschickie on all the beaches!”
The Sea Lion turned his head inshore. “Nonsense!” he said. “Your friends are making as much noise as ever. You must have seen old Kerick polishing off a drove. He’s done that for thirty years.”
“It’s horrible,” said Kotick, backing water as a wave went over him, and steadying himself with a screw stroke of his flippers that brought him all standing within three inches of a jagged edge of rock.