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In the evening the hunters returned, having enjoyed good sport, and being literally loaded with game; indeed, they had as much as four men could possibly carry. Top wore a necklace of teal and Jup wreaths of snipe round his body.
"Here, master," cried Neb; "here's something to employ our time! Preserved and made into pies we shall have a welcome store! But I must have some one to help me. I count on you, Pencroft."
"No, Neb," replied the sailor; "I have the rigging of the vessel to finish and to look after, and you will have to do without me."
"And you, Mr. Herbert?"
"I must go to the corral to-morrow, Neb," replied the lad.
"It will be you then, Mr. Spilett, who will help me?"
"To oblige you, Neb, I will," replied the reporter; "but I warn you that if you disclose your receipts to me, I shall publish them."
"Whenever you like, Mr. Spilett," replied Neb; "whenever you like."
And so the next day Gideon Spilett became Neb's assistant and was installed in his culinary laboratory. The engineer had previously made known to him the result of the exploration which he had made the day before, and on this point the reporter shared Harding's opinion, that although he had found nothing, a secret still remained to be discovered!
The frost continued for another week, and the settlers did not leave Granite House unless to look after the poultry-yard. The dwelling was filled with appetizing odors, which were emitted from the learned manipulation of Neb and the reporter. But all the results of the chase were not made into preserved provisions; and as the game kept perfectly in the intense cold, wild duck and other fowl were eaten fresh, and declared superior to all other aquatic birds in the known world.
During this week, Pencroft, aided by Herbert, who handled the sailmaker's needle with much skill, worked with such energy that the sails of the vessel were finished. There was no want of cordage. Thanks to the rigging which had been discovered with the case of the balloon, the ropes and cables from the net were all of good quality, and the sailor turned them all to account. To the sails were attached strong bolt ropes, and there still remained enough from which to make the halyards, shrouds, and sheets, etc. The blocks were manufactured by Cyrus Harding under Pencroft's directions by means of the turning lathe. It therefore happened that the rigging was entirely prepared before the vessel was finished. Pencroft also manufactured a flag, that flag so dear to every true American, containing the stars and stripes of their glorious Union. The colors for it were supplied from certain plants used in dyeing, and which were very abundant in the island; only to the thirty-seven stars, representing the thirty- seven States of the Union, which shine on the American flag, the sailor added a thirty-eighth, the star of "the State of Lincoln," for he considered his island as already united to the great republic. "And," said he, "it is so already in heart, if not in deed!"
In the meantime, the flag was hoisted at the central window of Granite House, and the settlers saluted it with three cheers.
The cold season was now almost at an end, and it appeared as if this second winter was to pass without any unusual occurrence, when on the night of the 11th of August, the plateau of Prospect Heights was menaced with complete destruction.
After a busy day the colonists were sleeping soundly, when towards four o'clock in the morning they were suddenly awakened by Top's barking.
The dog was not this time barking near the mouth of the well, but at the threshold of the door, at which he was scratching as if he wished to burst it open. Jup was also uttering piercing cries.
"Hello, Top!" cried Neb, who was the first awake. But the dog continued to bark more furiously than ever.
"What's the matter now?" asked Harding.
And all dressing in haste rushed to the windows, which they opened.
Beneath their eyes was spread a sheet of snow which looked gray in the dim light. The settlers could see nothing, but they heard a singular yelping noise away in the darkness. It was evident that the beach had been invaded by a number of animals which could not be seen.
"What are they?" cried Pencroft.
"Wolves, jaguars, or apes?" replied Neb.
"They have nearly reached the plateau," said the reporter.
"And our poultry-yard," exclaimed Herbert, "and our garden!"
"Where can they have crossed?" asked Pencroft.
"They must have crossed the bridge on the shore," replied the engineer, "which one of us must have forgotten to close."
"True," said Spilett, "I remember having left it open."
"A fine job you have made of it, Mr. Spilett," cried the sailor.
"What is done cannot be undone," replied Cyrus Harding. "We must consult what it will now be best to do."
Such were the questions and answers which were rapidly exchanged between Harding and his companions. It was certain that the bridge had been crossed, that the shore had been invaded by animals, and that whatever they might be they could by ascending the left bank of the Mercy reach Prospect Heights. They must therefore be advanced against quickly and fought with if necessary.
"But what are these beasts?" was asked a second time, as the yelpings were again heard more loudly than before. These yelps made Herbert start, and he remembered having heard them before during his first visit to the sources of the Red Creek.
"They are colpeo foxes!" he exclaimed.
"Forward!" shouted the sailor.
And all arming themselves with hatchets, carbines, and revolvers, threw themselves into the lift and soon set foot on the shore.
Colpeos are dangerous animals when in great numbers and irritated by hunger, nevertheless the colonists did not hesitate to throw themselves into the midst of the troop, and their first shots vividly lighting up the darkness made their assailants draw back.
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The Mysterious Island -by- Jules Verne