The Movie That Could N't Be Screened: Reel Iii. Rescue
REEL III. RESCUE
BY NELL SHIPMAN
ONE morning, a handful of days later, I awoke with the surety that something very terrible was going to happen and that I must be very brave. It could hardly have been a premonition, because I surely knew that events had reached a climax. My Dear had not slept for three nights, sitting all through the dark in a rustic chair by the front-room stove, rubbing — rubbing — rubbing with the palms of his hands on the smooth ends of the chair arms. Sometimes I could hear him moan, but when I ‘d call out, the answer was always the same: ‘I ‘m all right, all right.’
This morning the cabin was very quiet. We had mired our mare on the trail the day before and the men had been with her all night trying to save her. They mercifully shot her, just before dawn, and now they all slept, worn out. The armchair with the rubbed places was empty when I came out into the sitting-room. I lighted the kitchen stove and put the kettle on. Then I went outside to look. I found him wandering about in the snow. He said, quite rationally, that he had tried to go to our nearest neighbors, three miles away, for help to take him outside, but that he could not make it — his foot would not drag through the slush-ice. Now he was determined to harness the dog team and go out alone. I was not to go with him, nor was either of the men; he would go alone.
It was then that I saw his eyes and realized that the worst had happened. Human beings, no matter how brave and strong they may be, can stand just so much, and then a little more; but finally comes the breaking-point. He had broken. He was quite out of his head, and with not the slightest idea of what he was doing, except that he must get outside and to a hospital. He seemed to hate me. I was some terrible creature who had kept him suffering and was even now executing a fiendish dance of glee over his condition. It was very sad. The doctor told me later that these strange delusions often occur in extreme cases and the dislike is usually aimed at some loved one.
Somehow he harnessed the team — nine dogs on the big Alaskan toboggan, which still bears the mail stamp of its old service on the Dawson trail. I put in coats, robes, and food, but all this he persistently threw out, refusing everything but his own suitcase and a sack of meat for the dogs. He seemed to have an idea that he would leave the team at a ranch halfway down the lake and walk the remainder of the way. When he saw me dressed and ready to go he flew into a terrible rage. I was not to stir from the place — not one step! In his temper his fever raced so high I was afraid to cross him further, so I slipped out by the back trail and got ahead of him. I knew the ice was good from our place to Canoe Point, two miles away, but from there on it would be hell. Before going I woke the dazed men and told them to make for the nearest help.
Keeping a good half-mile ahead of the sled, I broke trail on snowshoes. There were two feet of snow on the ice and most of it slushy. The going was very bad. Looking back over my shoulder I could see My Dear trying to run behind the sled and urging the dogs on. At the Point he overtook me and ordered me to take the dogs back to camp. He could not drive them, he said. I begged him to get into the sled and allow me to drive, but he mumbled that this would be impossible — I must take it back. Then the horrible delusion of his fever gripped him and he cursed me — not as me, understand, but just some unknown beast of a thing standing in his way.
Then he stumbled on ahead, and every step he took threw his great weight upon a toe that was eaten away to the bone. All I could do was follow with the team and sled. If he fell and did not get up again perhaps I might be there to lift him up, if I could, or build a fire, or something. Anyway, I knew I must follow, and the team must follow.
We had reached the end of the ice now and must travel the shore line for three miles. Here again there was no beach — just a rocky ledge with dense forest upon one side and open water on the other. A day or so before, it had taken five men several hours to snake an almost empty hand-sled through this same place. I was tackling it with a great mail-toboggan, ten feet long and heavy with ironwork. There was no trail. Sometimes I guided the sled along the ice cakes at the lake’s edge; again we ploughed through waist-deep snow, obstinately sticky snow that would ball up into a mound before the runners. Then a great rock would loom up in front of us, jutting out into the lake and forcing a detour into the timber, where the long sled would become tangled in the small growth and brush, jamming between tree trunks and hanging over stumps. The dogs would pull and pull, the leader looking back at me with his soft eyes, assuring me he was doing his best, but filled with wonder that I should pick so impossible a place.
Twice we encountered deadfalls that stretched out into the water, too high to jump over, too low for the high-sided sled to pass under. The last of these almost stumped me, for, pull and tug as I might, I could not lift the front end of that sled over the fallen tree.
I could have cried then—but I did n’t. I do not remember that I felt any emotion whatsoever on all that trip. I had not eaten, and yet I was not hungry. There had not been time to find proper clothing, but I was n’t cold. I knew my arms and back strained with the lifting and tugging, and yet I felt no hurt. Every thought was centred upon that swaying figure ahead, sometimes in sight, sometimes hidden by a rock or bend, sometimes falling in the snow only to stagger up and pull on — that and the thought of his foot pounding unmercifully down into the ice-crust beneath the snow.
I got my sled by the last deadfall by overturning it and digging a trail under the log with my hands. This lowered the sled and I pushed it through on its side. Once I unhitched the dogs and led them, one by one, over a very precipitous place, tying them to trees on the other side and returning for another dog via the lake. The water reached above my knees and I did not want to wade the dogs through it. This way I led the whole team over, then carried the suitcase and the sack of meat through the water. The sled I brought the same way, turning it end-over-end.
I was very wet when I harnessed up again on the other side.
My Dear had fallen and stayed a long time in the snow. I had almost overtaken him when help came. A big fellow from the logging camp answered my SOS. I can never quite forget the sight of his huskiness emerging over the last hump, huge hands outstretched in help, a grin a thousand times more helping on his face.
Joe bucked up things quite a lot. He could not get My Dear to ride in the sled, but they walked along together, and I breathed easier and loitered behind to wring out my wet socks. While I was doing this there was a cry from up ahead. My Dear had fallen again, collapsed in utter exhaustion and pain. I yelped up the dogs and raced behind them, barefooted, and when we reached the men a strange thing happened. My Dear saw my bare feet and all the vacant horror left his face. ‘What is wrong?’ he whispered. I told him my shoes and stockings were wet and I was afraid of freezing. It worked like a charm. Instantly he snapped out of his delusion and was back to sanity and kindliness. I was in danger. I needed care. He knelt by me on the ice and rubbed my feet and fussed in a perfectly natural manner. After that we persuaded him to sit on the handlebars and drive the sled with me in it. We were on good smooth ice by then and we gained the first inhabited house, a ranch halfway down the lake, by nightfall.
That winter the Lone Star Ranch had been leased by four young Californians, a strange crew about whom there was much surmising. They were vaguely supposed to have been connected with ‘oil’ in the South and, always on the lookout for people with dramatic pasts and possible reactions, I was in hopes that these youths might have been mixed up in some oil-well swindle and were hiding out in our lonely country; but on sight they
proved to be most innocuous, running for the greater part to unbarbered hair and Main Street bandying. And they were shocking housekeepers. I shuddered to think what the dear widehearted owners of the ranch would say when they saw their domicile in the spring!
The ranch is a low, log, scrambling affair picturesquely perched upon a hill overlooking the lake and backed by an unconquered and unclimbed peak called the Chimney. In summer the Lone Star, with its unfailing supply of fresh vegetables, milk, and butter, is a haven for fishermen and campers. The previous winter when, as tenderfoot movie-actors from Hollywood, we made our first up-lake journey, the owners were at home and we reveled in their cheery welcome, the huge, crackling fire in the living-room, and the platter of cookies and tumblers of milk set forth for our benefit.
This winter it was very different; the ranch was cold and deserted and it took a hasty run around the outbuildings before I found the four transplanted Native Sons sawing wood. When I hailed they stared at me blankly, and I realized for the first time what an extraordinary picture I presented. In my haste to leave the camp ahead of My Dear, I had donned the first pair of pants available — washed-out, threadbare khaki of the baggy type so unbecoming to feminine legs. I had taken off my rubber pacs down on the ice, and the only dry things I could change to were a pair of My Dear’s ‘ city ‘ boots, size nine. Between the wide shining tan-leather uppers of these and the scraggly ends of my breeches was an expanse of bare and very red leg. Above the trousers was a nondescript sweater; and a jaunty stocking-cap, relic of some French-Canadian rôle, topped my haggard, unwashed, unpowdered, wan and worried face.
‘And who are you?’ the four men asked. I might just as well have said ‘The Queen of England!’ for all the belief my name and station registered. ‘Well, well!’ one of them remarked. ‘So you are Nell Shipman, the movie star? And how did you leave Mary and Doug? Or perhaps it’s Charlie Chaplin in disguise!’ glancing at the number nines.
But I finally persuaded them, persiflage aside, that their presence in the house, or at least the presence of some of the wood they were cutting, was very imperative and they came along, kind enough when the situation was made clear to them. We were soon settled around the fireplace, boots and socks steaming in every direction, while outside the dog team was unhitched, fed, and tied to various stumps and stakes.
With heat and food came relaxation and the need of rest, but this was out of the question in the noisy, overcrowded room, our hosts evidently feeling called upon to entertain their ‘distinguished’ company with blaring jazz-records, bleated forth incongruously from the old-fashioned horn of the ranch gramophone, and ancient, rehashed gossip of Hollywood, while My Dear sat numbly smoking cigarette after cigarette and praying that morning might come.
An addition to our party arrived in the form of Joe’s brother, an older replica of the big woodsman who had been our Gibraltar that afternoon, and it was decided that Fred should continue the journey with us by boat while Joe returned to camp with the dog team. Egged on by the brothers, two of our hosts were pried away from the fire and gave help in dragging the big ranch rowboat over the ice to the open water at Cape Horn. It was planned to attach an Evinrude to this boat in the morning and make the bay ice at the village, a distance of about nine miles.
On their way across the ice with the heavy boat the men broke through, but fortunately they were all hanging to her sides and escaped with a wetting. When they reached home there were more clothes to steam, more records to play, and more conversation to chew, but by midnight they sought their bunks and left us in possession of the wet wash and the fire. We sat through the night, sometimes dozing, watching for daybreak and making little prayers of thankfulness for the shelter of the ranch roof, for the boat and the open water, for Joe and his brother Fred, and for the hospital that was drawing nearer.
After daylight and the delay of breakfast we started with the dogs to cover the remainder of the ice, taking care to skirt the jagged wound where the boat had gone through in the evening. At Cape Horn we faced a great stretch of open water lying blue and sparkling in the sunshine. I thought of the Lena and wondered where the poor old thing might be. The boat was launched, the motor attached to her stern, and we embarked, first wishing Joe luck on his maiden trip as a Malamute ‘musher.’ Poor Joe! He looked his alert-eared, bushy-tailed, sharp-tusked charges over with a dubious eye. ‘If them was mules, now,’ he said, ‘ I could shore skin ‘em, but these here houn’ pups—’ His brother thoughtfully suggested that the best method to take the team home, since Joe was strange to the ways of dog-mushing, would be to let the lead dog chase him, providing he kept just two leaps ahead of that worthy’s jaws!
So we were laughing when we said good-bye, heard Joe ‘mush’ the dogs on, cracking the long blacksnake whip over their backs like an old-timer, and set forth upon the last leg of our trip. After the hell of yesterday things looked so bright and easy! My Dear was in better spirits and, for the time, more nearly sane than he had been for many days. And, by the grace of the gods, our motor worked, although it was very cold. Sometimes, even in good weather, motors are doubtful critters and, as Fred whirled and wiggled things, I sat in the bow and prayed hard: ‘Dear Lord, make her start!' And she did, after a few coughs.
We crossed Indian Bay and passed Eight-Mile Island, our spirits rising with every onward chug, but with SixMile came a blow. Since my up-lake trip, such a short time before, the bay ice had extended a good two miles and we were up against it. At first it was just a thin, crackly sheet, which we ploughed through and ignored. Then it grew more solid and we turned frantically — a half-mile to the left — a mile to the right — hoping for a channel. But there was none. The lake, here at its widest, was frozen completely across. Soon the ice became too hard for the boat to buck, and yet not solid enough to hold us. There was nothing to do but break it with the oars, bit by bit, and force a channel to the shore, over two miles away.
Have you ever traveled two miles by inches? And with a passenger bound for the hospital and to whom your speed means life or death?
Chip — chip — bit by bit; drive ahead a foot and back up three. Again and again; dripping with perspiration in the bitter cold, hands and forearms wet and red, the oars wearing down to splintered slivers under the punishing blows. On and on, little by little, only looking up once in a while to gauge distance — try to keep a straight line. The sick man sitting, ominously still, in the stern. No sound but the endless hammering of oar-blade on ringing ice. One foot gained! Another! The shore still a dim blur of black. A new method is discovered — to lie out over the bow and press the oar, lengthwise, into the ice, thus breaking off a two-foot section but wetting one’s self to the armpits. What does it matter? It is all a nightmare anyway, and we shall wake up soon, or the movie will flicker to a fadeout and a happy ending! Another heave — crack — plunge. Do you see that little hillock of rough ice on our port? We’re nearly abreast of it and fifteen minutes ago it was ahead of us. So we are gaining! Heave—crack — plunge!
But things do end, even nightmare things, and after seeming centuries we did reach good ice, a few hundred yards from shore, and disembarked. Then I flew, stopping not on the order of my going, my one object being to reach the village and beg on my knees, or with the barrel of a gun if need be, some men and a hand-sled to bring My Dear in. I say ‘flew.’ Really my progress was a sort of drunken goose-step through the foot-deep slush covering the ice; slush that was oh, so cunningly camouflaged under a smooth blanket of snow. With every painful step I sank down, the slush-ice cruelly grasping my tired feet and making the up-pull ten pounds heavier. Whole half-acres were completely submerged and I skirted these rotten spots, more by luck than knowledge. My Dear and Fred, the Good Samaritan, plugged along behind me, and it was well that they did, for with the sunset came the sickening drop in the temperature, and if they had stayed still they might have frozen.
No Doré-like dream will ever equal, in my mind, the inferno of that ice— the swift sinking through, the deadly grip on foot and ankle, the slush and suck of the water, the slow pull out only to sink again. My Dear was following in my tracks as best he could, sinking deeper than I and pulling out a mangled, dead foot at every step! It is a merciful God that takes away our minds at these times. Afterward he remembered nothing of this last stage of the trip, nothing except that endless trail of tracks, etched, it seems, on his very eyeballs, because for a long time after, at night or when he tried to read, those tracks leaped out at him from the darkness or the printed pages of his book.
As I approached the village the buildings seemed to recede, to get farther away with every heartbreaking step. I could see the captain of the boat and his boys down on the shore, and as I came nearer and they did not seem to see me they became like figures in a dream — visionary and unreal. I tried to call out to them, to beg them to hurry, above all things not to fade away like ghosts on the silver screen, but I could not make a sound except harsh breath-cackles. I thought, ‘If they do not hear me call, surely they must hear my heart thumping!’ But they did not turn from whatever it was that occupied them, and I was beside them before they saw me. Then they stood and stared, dumbly. The captain’s wife came from her house, and she too stared dumbly. I suppose I looked queer with my funny clothes and white face. They said later that from my expression they thought someone had drowned — out there in the lake.
So we just stood and stared at one another and I was afraid to speak; afraid that with the first rush of words I should faint and cause a delay. And truly I did. I managed but three syllables— the name of My Dear, ‘sled,’ and ‘ice’ — when I fell into a black place. But when I rushed out of the tunnel again it was to see five husky man-figures back-tracking on my trail, bound for My Dear and dragging a hand-sled.
Then a dramatic thing, far beyond my most turbulent scenario-izing, occurred — out on the lake the rescue party almost passed by the two men they sought in the heavy fog that came up and blotted out everything. They would have gone by them completely had not the voice of the Good Samaritan been heard, asking through the fog, ‘All right, old man?’ and the other answering, game to the finish,‘All right, old man!’
I wish all urbanites might do for a day without electricity, good roads, and transportation facilities! They would be a more contented lot when the science-sent gifts came back to them. Our journey cityward was like a condensed era of civilized progress, for following our trek on foot, by dog team, and by boat, came the comparative ease of a horse-drawn bobsled, then a swift-moving seven-passenger car and a lucky connection with the Westbound Limited at the railroad junction.
We were safely installed in a drawingroom on the train before I awoke to the fact that we were almost famous! Conductors, brakemen, and passengers gathered with helpful hints, kindly inquiries, and curious eyes. At length it was disclosed that outsiders had become alarmed over my first trip up-lake and journalism had done the rest. The condition of My Dear and the possibility of my never having reached camp at all had stirred up a pother of front-page excitement. No less than five rescueparties were being organized! One was by the lodge owning the allegiance of My Dear, another by the mighty matchmakers who control the timber of our land, a third by our dear boys, the Disabled War Veterans of Spokane (bless them, I suppose they would have come hop-and-jump, stick and crutch). A lone and singularly efficient effort was planned by our doctor, who was already packing his tool kit and bidding farewell to his large practice, and the fifth entry was a most spectacular rescue by an ex-ace who decided to fly in and land on the ice at our cabin door. This last thrilling stunt was stopped only by the fact that the ace had been arrested for rum-running out of Canada on the previous night!
Oh, what gorgeous publicity! And if it had amounted to a two-line squib in a small-town paper we could not have cared less! This was not moving pictures, it was the real thing, and I actually dodged reporters and photographers when we got off the train at Spokane. Such traffic merely blocked our progress to the hospital and my mind’s eye could still vision only an operating-table and the saving knife.
Both came soon enough, early one bleak, gray morning and without the blessed oblivion of ether. The strain upon My Dear’s poor heart had proved too heavy for the extra draft. He asked if smoking would be allowed and they said ‘No,’ so I promptly slipped a packet of cigarettes into his hand before they wheeled him away. They say he smoked quite gayly throughout the ordeal, much to the admiration of his pretty nurse and the amusement of the doctor. When he came back there was less of him, but he still had his grin — and one lone cigarette!
Good clean blood did the mending and in ten days he was allowed to hobble out again, but only so far as his hotel, and any possibility of a return to camp was severely frowned upon. Meanwhile the camera man had arrived and gone up-lake with the Boy. It was necessary for me to get home and start things moving on our first picture.
On this third trip I had company galore, for three new men joined our outfit and traveled up with me, and in addition we had the society of two cougar-hunters and their dogs. We made quite a cavalcade as we ploughed up through the slush-ice, wet to the knees, but one of us, at least, idiotically happy. I felt that I had licked the ice, the lake, and the whole snow-hushed, hard-bitten country. In fact I was dancing a mental jig on the prone foe when one of the men gurgled and disappeared without so much as a warning creak from the treacherous ice. Instantly we all leaped to his rescue, the additional weight hurtling the wouldbe heroes into the lake. Blind luck had led us into a shallow place and we stood up in about four feet of water, looking very foolish! After that there were no further adventures to record, for we gingerly followed the shore line to camp, stepping lightly and cautiously, like careful cats.
I might have known that neither professional decrees nor proverbial wild horses would keep that man buttoned up in town when there was work to do at camp! I had scarcely got the place cleaned up and a few bites of food in the gaping cupboards when My Dear came sliding around the point, perched upon a hand-sled and pulled by two weary men.
‘When do we start shooting?’ he demanded.
The very next day saw us at work in the woods filming the first of our little pictures of the ‘Big Places,’ the camera rhythmically recording our ‘play-true’ adventures while our hearts kept time to a bigger theme—the memory of a ‘for-true’ movie that was not screened.