North Of Fifty-three





Big George was drinking, and the activities of the little Arctic

mining camp were paralysed. Events invariably ceased their progress

and marked time when George became excessive, and now nothing of

public consequence stirred except the quicksilver, which was retiring

fearfully into its bulb at the song of the wind which came racing

over the lonesome, bitter, northward waste of tundra.



He held the centre of the floor at the Northern Club, and proclaimed

his modest virtues in a voice as pleasant as the cough of a

bull-walrus.



"Yes, me! Little Georgie! I did it. I've licked 'em all from

Herschel Island to Dutch Harbour, big uns and little uns. When they

didn't suit I made 'em over. I'm the boss carpenter of the Arctic

and I own this camp; don't I, Slim? Hey? Answer me!" he roared at

the emaciated bearer of the title, whose attention seemed wandering

from the inventory of George's startling traits toward a card game.



"Sure ye do," nervously smiled Slim, frightened out of a heart-solo

as he returned to his surroundings.



"Well, then, listen to what I'm saying. I'm the big chief of the

village, and when I'm stimulated and happy them fellers I don't like

hides out and lets me and Nature operate things. Ain't that right?"

He glared inquiringly at his friends.



Red, the proprietor, explained over the bar in a whisper to Captain,

the new man from Dawson: "That's Big George, the whaler. He's a

squaw-man and sort of a bully--see? When he's sober he's on the

level strickly, an' we all likes him fine, but when he gets to

fightin' the pain-killer, he ain't altogether a gentleman. Will he

fight? Oh! Will he fight? Say! he's there with chimes, he is!

Why, Doc Miller's made a grub-stake rebuildin' fellers that's had a

lingerin' doubt cached away about that, an' now when he gets the

booze up his nose them patched-up guys oozes away an' hibernates till

the gas dies out in him. Afterwards he's sore on himself an'

apologizes to everybody. Don't get into no trouble with him, cause

he's two checks past the limit. They don't make 'em as bad as him

any more. He busted the mould."



George turned, and spying the new-comer, approached, eyeing him with

critical disfavour.



Captain saw a bear-like figure, clad cap-a-pie in native fashion.

Reindeer pants, with the hair inside, clothed legs like rock pillars,

while out of the loose squirrel parka a corded neck rose, brown and

strong, above which darkly gleamed a rugged face seamed and scarred

by the hate of Arctic winters. He had kicked off his deer-skin

socks, and stood bare-footed on the cold and draughty floor, while

the poison he had imbibed showed only in his heated face, Silently he

extended a cracked and hardened hand, which closed like the armoured

claw of a crustacean and tightened on the crunching fingers of the

other. Captain's expression remained unchanged and, gradually

slackening his grip, the sailor roughly inquired:



"Where'd you come from?"



"Just got in from Dawson yesterday," politely responded the stranger.



"Well! what're you goin' to do now you're here?" he demanded.



"Stake some claims and go to prospecting, I guess. You see, I wanted

to get in early before the rush next spring."



"Oh! I 'spose you're going to jump some of our ground, hey? Well,

you ain't! We don't want no claim jumpers here," disagreeably

continued the seaman; "we won't stand for it. This is my camp--see?

I own it, and these is my little children." Then, as the other

refused to debate with him, he resumed, groping for a new ground of

attack.



"Say! I'll bet you're one of them eddicated dudes, too, ain't you?

You talk like a feller that had been to college," and, as the other

assented, he scornfully called to his friends, saying "Look here,

fellers! Pipe the jellyfish! I never see one of these here animals

that was worth a cuss; they plays football an' smokes cigareets at

school; then when they're weaned they come off up here an' jump our

claims 'cause we can't write a location notice proper. They ain't no

good. I guess I'll stop it."



Captain moved toward the door, but the whaler threw his bulky frame

against it and scowlingly blocked the way.



"No, you don't. You ain't goin' to run away till I've had the next

dance, Mister Eddication! Humph! I ain't begun to tell ye yet what

a useless little barnacle you are."



Red interfered, saying: "Look 'ere, George, this guy ain't no

playmate of yourn. We'll all have a jolt of this disturbance

promoter, an' call it off." Then, as the others approached he winked

at Captain, and jerked his head slightly toward the door.



The latter, heeding the signal, started out, but George leaped after

him and, seizing an arm, whirled him back, roaring:



"Well, of all the cussed impidence I ever see! You're too high-toned

to drink with us, are you? You don't get out of here now till you

take a lickin' like a man."



He reached over his head and, grasping the hood of his fur shirt,

with one movement he stripped it from him, exposing a massive naked

body, whose muscles swelled and knotted beneath a skin as clear as a

maiden's, while a map of angry scars strayed across the heavy chest.



As the shirt sailed through the air. Red lightly vaulted to the bar

and, diving at George's naked middle, tackled beautifully, crying to

Captain: "Get out quick; we'll hold him."



Others rushed forward and grasped the bulky sailor, but Captain's

voice replied: "I sort of like this place, and I guess I'll stay a

while. Turn him loose."



"Why, man, he'll kill ye," excitedly cried Slim. "Get out!"



The captive hurled his peacemakers from him and, shaking off the

clinging arms, drove furiously at the insolent stranger.



In the cramped limits of the corner where he stood. Captain was

unable to avoid the big man, who swept him with a crash against the

plank door at his back, grasping hungrily at his throat. As his

shoulders struck, however, he dropped to his knees and, before the

raging George could seize him, he avoided a blow which would have

strained the rivets of a strength-tester and ducked under the other's

arms, leaping to the cleared centre of the floor.



Seldom had the big man's rush been avoided and, whirling, he swung a

boom-like arm at the agile stranger. Before it landed, Captain

stepped in to meet his adversary and, with the weight of his body

behind the blow, drove a clenched and bony fist crashing into the

other's face. The big head with its blazing shock of hair snapped

backward and the whaler drooped to his knees at the other's feet.



The drunken flush of victory swept over Captain as he stood above the

swaying figure; then, suddenly, he felt the great bare arms close

about his waist with a painful grip. He struck at the bleeding face

below him and wrenched at the circling bands which wheezed the breath

from his lungs, but the whaler squeezed him writhing to his breast,

and, rising, unsteadily wheeled across the floor and in a shiver of

broken glass fell crashing against the bar and to the floor.



As the struggling men writhed upon the planks the door opened at the

hurried entrance of an excited group, which paused at the sight of

the ruin, then, rushing forward, tore the men apart.



The panting Berserker strained at the arms about his glistening body,

while Captain, with sobbing sighs, relieved his aching lungs and

watched his enemy, who frothed at the interference.



"It was George's fault," explained Slim to the questions of the

arrivals. "This feller tried to make a get-away, but George had to

have his amusement."



A new-comer addressed the squaw-man in a voice as cold as the wind.

"Cut this out, George! This is a friend of mine. You're making this

camp a regular hell for strangers, and now I'm goin' to tap your

little snap. Cool off--see?"



Jones's reputation as a bad gun-man went hand in hand with his name

as a good gambler, and his scanty remarks invariably evoked attentive

answers, so George explained: "I don't like him Jones, and I was jus'

makin' him over to look like a man. I'll do it yet, too," he flashed

wrathfully at his quiet antagonist.



"'Pears to me like he's took a hand in the remodelling himself,"

replied the gambler, "but if you're lookin' for something to do,

here's your chance. Windy Jim just drove in and says Barton and Kid

Sullivan are adrift on the ice."



"What's that?" questioned eager voices, and, forgetting the recent

trouble at the news, the crowd pressed forward anxiously.



"They was crossing the bay and got carried out by the off-shore

gale," explained Jones. "Windy was follerin' 'em when the ice ahead

parted and begun movin' out. He tried to yell to 'em, but they was

too far away to hear in the storm. He managed to get back to the

land and follered the shore ice around. He's over at Hunter's cabin

now, most dead, face and hands froze pretty bad."



A torrent of questions followed and many suggestions as to the fate

of the men.



"They'll freeze before they can get ashore," said one.



"The ice-pack'll break up in this wind," added another, "and if they

don't drown, they'll freeze before the floe comes in close enough for

them to land."



From the first announcement of his friends' peril, Captain had been

thinking rapidly. His body, sore from his long trip and aching from

the hug of his recent encounter, cried woefully for rest, but his

voice rose calm and clear:



"We've got to get them off," he said. "Who will go with me? Three

is enough."



The clamouring voices ceased, and the men wheeled at the sound,

gazing incredulously at the speaker. "What!"--"In this

storm?"--"You're crazy," many voices said.



He gazed appealingly at the faces before him. Brave and adventurous

men he knew them to be, jesting with death, and tempered to perils in

this land where hardship rises with the dawn, but they shook their

ragged heads hopelessly.



"We must save them!" resumed Captain hotly. "Barton and I played

as children together, and if there's not a man among you who's got

the nerve to follow me--I'll go alone by Heavens!"



In the silence of the room, he pulled the cap about his ears and,

tying it snugly under his chin, drew on his huge fur mittens; then

with a scornful laugh he turned toward the door.



He paused as his eye caught the swollen face of Big George. Blood

had stiffened in the heavy creases of his face like rusted stringers

in a ledge, while his mashed and discoloured lips protruded thickly.

His hair gleamed red, and the sweat had dried upon his naked

shoulders, streaked with dirt and flecked with spots of blood, yet

the battered features shone with the unconquered, fearless light of a

rough, strong man.



Captain strode to him with outstretched hand. "You're a man," he

said. "You've got the nerve, George, and you'll go with me, won't

you?"



"What! Me?" questioned the sailor vaguely. His wondering glance

left Captain, and drifted round the circle of shamed and silent

faces--then he straightened stiffly and cried: "Will I go with you?

Certainly! I'll go to ---- with you."



Ready hands harnessed the dogs, dragged from protected nooks where

they sought cover from the storm which moaned and whistled round the

low houses. Endless ragged folds of sleet whirled out of the north,

then writhed and twisted past, vanishing into the grey veil which

shrouded the landscape in a twilight gloom.



The fierce wind sank the cold into the aching flesh like a knife and

stiffened the face to a whitening mask, while a fusillade of frozen

ice-particles beat against the eyeballs with blinding fury.



As Captain emerged from his cabin, furred and hooded, he found a long

train of crouching, whining animals harnessed and waiting, while

muffled figures stocked the sled with robes and food and stimulants.



Big George approached through the whirling white, a great squat

figure with fluttering squirrel tails blowing from his parka, and at

his heels there trailed a figure, skin-clad and dainty.



"It's my wife," he explained briefly to Captain. "She won't let me

go alone."



They gravely bade farewell to all, and the little crowd cheered

lustily against the whine of the blizzard as, with cracking whip and

hoarse shouts, they were wrapped in the cloudy winding sheet of snow.





Arctic storms have an even sameness; the intense cold, the heartless

wind which augments tenfold the chill of the temperature, the air

thick and dark with stinging flakes rushing by in an endless cloud.

A drifting, freezing, shifting eternity of snow, driven by a ravening

gale which sweeps the desolate, bald wastes of the Northland.



The little party toiled through the smother till they reached the

"egloos" under the breast of the tall, coast bluffs, where coughing

Eskimos drilled patiently at ivory tusks and gambled the furs from

their backs at stud-horse poker.



To George's inquiries they answered that their largest canoe was the

three-holed bidarka on the cache outside. Owing to the small

circular openings in its deck, this was capable of holding but three

passengers, and Captain said; "We'll have to make two trips, George."



"Two trips, eh?" answered the other. "We'll be doin' well if we last

through one, I'm thinking."



Lashing the unwieldy burden upon the sled, they fought their way

along the coast again till George declared they were opposite the

point where their friends went adrift. They slid their light craft

through the ragged wall of ice hummocks guarding the shore pack, and

dimly saw, in the grey beyond them, a stretch of angry waters mottled

by drifting cakes and floes.



George spoke earnestly to his wife, instructing her to keep the team

in constant motion up and down the coast a rifle-shot in either

direction, and to listen for a signal of the return. Then he picked

her up as he would a babe, and she kissed his storm-beaten face.



"She's been a good squaw to me," he said, as they pushed their

dancing craft out into the breath of the gale, "and I've always done

the square thing by her; I s'pose she'll go back to her people now,

though."



The wind hurried them out from land, while it drove the sea-water in

freezing spray over their backs and changed their fur garments into

scaly armour, as they worked through the ice cakes, peering with

strained eyes for a sign of their friends.



The sailor, with deft strokes, steered them, between the grinding

bergs, raising his voice in lone signals like the weird cry of a

siren.



Twisting back and forth through the floes, they held to their quest,

now floating with the wind, now paddling desperately in a race with

some drifting mass which dimly towered above them and splintered

hungrily against its neighbour close in their wake.



Captain emptied his six-shooter till his numbed fingers grew rigid as

the trigger, and always at his back swelled the deep shouts of the

sailor, who, with practised eye and mighty strokes, forced their way

through the closing lanes between the jaws of the ice pack.



At last, beaten and tossed, they rested disheartened and hopeless.

Then, as they drifted, a sound struggled to them against the wind--a

faint cry, illusive and fleeting as a dream voice--and, still

doubting, they heard it again.



"Thank God! We'll save 'em yet," cried Captain, and they drove the

canoe boiling toward the sound.



Barton and Sullivan had fought the cold and wind stoutly hour after

hour, till they found their great floe was breaking up in the heaving

waters.



Then the horror of it had struck the Kid, till he raved and cursed up

and down their little island, as it dwindled gradually to a small

acre.



He had finally yielded to the weight of the cold which crushed

resistance out of him, and settled, despairing and listless, upon the

ice. Barton dragged him to his feet and forced him round their

rocking prison, begging him to brace up, to fight it out like a man,

till the other insisted on resting, and dropped to his seat again.



The older man struck deliberately at the whitening face of his

freezing companion, who recognized the well-meant insult and refused

to be roused into activity. Then to their ears had come the faint

cries of George, and, in answer to their screams, through the gloom

they beheld a long, covered, skin canoe, and the anxious faces of

their friends.



Captain rose from his cramped seat, and, ripping his crackling

garments from the boat where they had frozen, he wriggled out of the

hole in the deck and grasped the weeping Barton.



"Come, come, old boy! It's all right now," he said.



"Oh, Charlie, Charlie!" cried the other. "I might have known you'd

try to save us. You're just in time, though, for the Kid's about all

in." Sullivan apathetically nodded and sat down again.



"Hurry up there; this ain't no G. A. R. Encampment, and you ain't got

no time to spare," said George, who had dragged the canoe out and,

with a paddle, broke the sheets of ice which covered it. "It'll be

too dark to see anything in half an hour."



The night, hastened by the storm, was closing rapidly, and they

realized another need of haste, for, even as they spoke, a crack had

crawled through the ice-floe where they stood, and, widening as it

went, left but a heaving cake supporting them.



George spoke quietly to Captain, while Barton strove to animate the

Kid. "You and Barton must take him ashore and hurry him down to the

village. He's most gone now."



"But you?" questioned the other. "We'll have to come back for you,

as soon as we put him ashore."



"Never mind me," roughly interrupted George. "It's too late to get

back here. When you get ashore it'll be dark. Besides Sullivan's

freezing, and you'll have to rush him through quick. I'll stay here."



"No! No! George!" cried the other, as the meaning of it bore in

upon him. "I got you into this thing, and it's my place to stay

here. You must go--"



But the big man had hurried to Sullivan, and, seizing him in his

great hands, shook the drowsy one like a rat, cursing and beating a

goodly share of warmth back into him. Then he dragged the listless

burden to the canoe and forced him to a seat in the middle opening.



"Come, come," he cried to the others; "you can't spend all night

here. If you want to save the Kid, you've got to hurry. You take

the front seat there, Barton," and, as he did so, George turned to

the protesting Captain: "Shut up, curse you, and get in!"



"I won't do it," rebelled the other. "I can't let you lay down your

life in this way, when I made you come."



George thrust a cold face within an inch of the other's and grimly

said: "If they hadn't stopped me, I'd beat you into dog-meat this

morning, and if you don't quit this snivelling I'll do it yet. Now

get in there and paddle to beat ---- or you'll never make it back.

Quick!"



"I'll come back for you then, George, if I live to the shore,"

Captain cried, while the other slid the burdened canoe into the icy

waters.



As they drove the boat into the storm, Captain realized the

difficulty of working their way against the gale. On him fell the

added burden of holding their course into the wind and avoiding the

churning ice cakes. The spray whipped into his face like shot, and

froze as it clung to his features. He strained at his paddle till

the sweat soaked out of him and the cold air filled his aching lungs.



Unceasingly the merciless frost cut his face like a keen blade, till

he felt the numb paralysis which told him his features were hardening

under the touch of the cold.



An arm's length ahead the shoulders of the Kid protruded from the

deck hole where he had sunk again into the death sleep, while Barton,

in the forward seat, leaned wearily on his ice-clogged paddle,

moaning as he strove to shelter his face from the sting of the

blizzard.



An endless time they battled with the storm, slowly gaining, foot by

foot, till in the darkness ahead they saw the wall of shore ice and

swung into its partial shelter.



Dragging the now unconscious Sullivan from the boat, Captain rolled

and threshed him, while Barton, too weak and exhausted to assist,

feebly strove to warm his stiffened limbs.



In answer to their signals, the team appeared, maddened by the lash

of the squaw. Then they wrapped Sullivan in warm robes, and forced

scorching brandy down his throat, till he coughed weakly and begged

them to let him rest.



"You must hurry him to the Indian village," directed Captain. "He'll

only lose some fingers and toes now, maybe; but you've got to hurry!"



"Aren't you coming, too?" queried Barton. "We'll hire some Eskimos

to go after George. I'll pay 'em anything."



"No, I'm going back to him now; he'd freeze before we could send

help, and, besides, they wouldn't come out in the storm and the dark."



"But you can't work that big canoe alone. If you get out there and

don't find him you'll never get back. Charlie! let me go, too," he

said; then apologized. "I'm afraid I won't last, though; I'm too

weak."



The squaw, who had questioned not at the absence of her lord, now

touched Captain's arm. "Come," she said; "I go with you." Then

addressing Barton, "You quick go Indian house; white man die, mebbe.

Quick! I go Big George."



"Ah, Charlie, I'm afraid you'll never make it," cried Barton, and,

wringing his friend's hand, he staggered into the darkness behind the

sled wherein lay the fur-bundled Sullivan.



Captain felt a horror of the starving waters rise up in him and a

panic shook him fiercely, till he saw the silent squaw waiting for

him at the ice edge. He shivered as the wind searched through his

dampened parka and hardened the wet clothing next to his body, but he

took his place and dug the paddle fiercely into the water, till the

waves licked the hair of his gauntlets.



The memory of that scudding trip through the darkness was always

cloudy and visioned. Periods of keen alertness alternated with

moments when his weariness bore upon him till he stiffly bent to his

work, wondering what it all meant.



It was the woman's sharpened ear which caught the first answering

cry, and her hands which steered the intricate course to the heaving

berg where the sailor crouched, for, at their approach, Captain had

yielded to the drowse of weariness and, in his relief at the finding,

the blade floated from his listless hands.



He dreamed quaint dreams, broken by the chilling lash of spray from

the strokes of the others, as they drove the craft back against the

wind, and he only partly awoke from his lethargy when George wrenched

him from his seat and forced him down the rough trail toward warmth

and safety.



Soon, however, the stagnant blood tingled through his veins, and

under the shelter of the bluffs they reached the village, where they

found the anxious men waiting.



Skilful natives had worked the frost from Sullivan's members, and the

stimulants in the sled had put new life into Barton as well. So, as

the three crawled wearily through the dog-filled tunnel of the egloo,

they were met by two wet-eyed and thankful men, who silently wrung

their hands or uttered broken words.



When they had been despoiled of their frozen furs, and the welcome

heat of whisky and fire had met in their blood, Captain approached

the whaler, who rested beside his mate.



"George, you're the bravest man I ever knew, and your woman is worthy

of you," he said. He continued slowly, "I'm sorry about the fight

this morning, too."



The big man rose and, crushing the extended palm in his grasp, said:

"We'll just let that go double, partner. You're as game as I ever

see." Then he added: "It was too bad them fellers interferred jest

when they did--but we can finish it up whenever you say," and as the

other, smiling, shook his head, he continued:



"Well, I'm glad of it, 'cause you'd sure beat me the next time."





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