Man of Iron

by LLEWELLYN HOWLAND

1

ON A mid-June morning, two hours after sunrise, the Skipper and I on board my little singiehanded cruising boat Fox were nearing the anchorage — a roadstead open to all but southerly winds — at the island of Noonans Land.

How it had come about that I had this ship of my own I have explained in another tale. On the launching day, late in September of the previous year, I had made a bargain with the Skipper that he should be the first to cruise with me and that we should visit Nomans for a box of Jethro Gifford’s salt codfish. And now here we were, thawing out. in the warmth of a clear morning after a breezy night’s sail that had chilled the very marrow in our bones. The Island in all its early summer greenery looked welcoming.

As we came close under the laud, we passed to leeward of a double-sprit-rigged Island fishing boat with one man aboard her. In a big, hearty voice that balanced well with the rest of him he sang out to us: “Father’s ashore there, Skipper, and ‘ll be glad to see you. I’ll underrun a trawl and be back again by noon. Make yourselves to home.”

“That’s Jethro,” said the Skipper as he waved his arm in acknowledgment of the hail, “and it’s good news his father’s ashore; he’s the world’s champion man of iron, and if he’ll talk you’ll hear a yarn worth a trip round Cape Horn.”

Within a half hour we had anchored off’ the landing place, a little beach of white sand, and I had launched the Feapod, my six-foot punt, and brought her alongside ready to go ashore. It was with some doubt as to her carrying us both that we cautiously lowered ourselves into this cockleshell and, sitting back to back, let her drift out and away from the Fox.

Finding we had an inch or more freeboard, I took

up the short oar and started to scull quietly, when the Skipper without so much as turning his head said: “She’ll do, I think, if we neither of us cough or sneeze,” and so with “wanton heed and giddy cunning” we brought her to the land.

Toting the Feapod between us, we set her down on the dry sand well above high-water mark. Straightening up to look around, I saw a giant in faded blue shirt and overalls hurrying towards us. Svend of the Forked Beard grown old, thought I as he came near enough for me to see the silvery, double-pointed beard and a pair of hot blue eyes tamed and a shade bewildered by life’s experience. But in spite of a helplessly palsied right hand that he tried to control in his waistband, I could feel strength and abiding courage in the grip of the great left hand he gave me in greeting.

“Sim,” said the Skipper, “we’ve come over on the chance we can see those black duck nesting and carry home a box of Jethro’s salt cod — and how have you all wintered over here?”

“I can show yer them ducks, Skipper, ef yer feel like walkin’ a piece. And as for the folks, we’re all in good health and thankee kindly — includin’ a new baby girl that arrove about a month ago. Viola, we call her, ‘count of her cornin’ on the day the dogtooth violets blossomed. But Cortes, that infernal Kanaka, he’s up to his same old tricks. I seen him yesterday dodgin’ round lookin’ mournful at me as if he wanted to be friendly, but do what I could, I couldn’t come nigh him. He hides on me, Skipper! An’ by the Great Hook Bloek, I’m gettin’ sort o’ riled up with his antics,” and Sim turned to look furtively behind him as if he’d felt a presence stealing up, while the Skipper looked at me and tapped his forehead.

Turning back to us Sim said, “Would it pleasure you to go now to see them ducks and then come back to the house for some dinner with us — for Dicey” (short for Boadicea, Jethro’s wife) “she’d never forgive any of us ef yer was to go off without seein’ Viola.”

“Good!” said the Skipper. “That suits us—so lead away!”

Sim was an inspiring guide to follow that morning, for, as if turning the pages of a miraculous picture book, he exposed the secrets of every dip, rise, and twist of our path. There was a hummingbird’s nest clamped in a crotch of a wind-shorn, stunted gray poplar; a bumblebee’s hole in a sandy bank laced with crimson runners of wild strawberry; a vista that opened across a reed-rimmed pool the color of old brown sherry, to end in a wedge of blue ocean between two distant hillocks of green. And as if to refresh us and add to the pleasures of sight, innumerable shy blossoms of wild flowers, — some of them subtropical aliens, — together with patches of bayberry warmed by the strengthening sunshine, added their fragrance to that of the salty breeze.

“Frankie Drake and his Lady,” as Sim called the pair of black duck we had come across the Island to see, were very much at home when we came to their pitch. While keeping a wary eye on the Skipper and me, they waddled fearlessly over and around Sim’s feet, waggling their short, perky tails and greeting him with friendly, marshy voices as he dribbled cracked corn from one of his pockets. The grass around them — half last year’s dead dun and half this year’s tender green — seemed blown about with little whirlwinds until I suddenly saw a fluff of pale yellow, streaked with brown, scuttle across a tiny bare spot, and realized the agitations came from the ceaseless activities of the brood of, as Sim told us, eight ducklings.

At first glance this grassy slope near the crest of the highest headland, from which the land broke sheer to the south beach, seemed a most indefensible spot for a duck’s nest. But with the suddenness of magic the birds disappeared as the shadow of an osprey circling out to sea skimmed across the hillside, and Sim remarked: “Trust black ducks to know their business. Gould and Vanderbilt wouldn’t stand a chanst in a tangle with ‘em. Them city sharks’d starve ef ducks was all they could get at to pluck.” And at the end of the half hour we watched this competent family, we had to agree with Sim.

2

LEAVING the ducks, Sim brought us to a height of land from which we had a bird’s-eye view of the entire Island. Slowly boxing the compass with his eyes, the Skipper said as he sat down: —

“Sim, I somehow can never feel sure when I’m here whether I’m a giant in a small country or a pygmy in a big one. Here’s a continent that we can see the whole of at a glance, which leaves me uncertain. But there’s one thing I am sure of—and that is, I’d rather be here than on that floe you spent some time on — back in ‘71, wasn’t it? — on the Northwrest Coast, chasing bowheads. What’s your opinion of it?”

“Well,” said Sim after a long pause, while his eyes roamed over the folded country that lay between us and the white landing beach with its ragged fringe of weather-worn cabins, “there’s been considerable wind blow by me since that time and my opinion’s growed to a tolerable heft” — and then for an hour he held us spellbound as he set before us the tale of his odyssey of a month or more and the simple philosophy he had evolved from this experience. It was obviously the very core of his life. The years before and since were but the web of an intensely practical dream, with the fitful appearances of Cortes, his Kanaka boatsteerer, the only misplaced and tangled thread.

We shared with him that morning the tedious, anxious voyage of sixty days from San Francisco through Seventy-Two Pass into Bering Sea —■ much of it a beat in bitterly cold weather with northerly gales. We felt the growing irritation of all hands at the exceptionally adverse conditions; our “bile soured down” with Sim’s “til! there warn’t nothin’ in mind except to get fast to somethin’ alive to kill.”

And so it came about on a June morning, in spite of the heavy ice and infrequent leads of open water that were inclined to “pinch off,” that Sim “beezled” Captain Jones into letting him lower his boat to hunt a whale that had been “raised” from aloft “off yonder beyond considerable ice.” And as they shoved off from the ship Captain Jones had said: “Mister, if you’ve got to be a damned fool, I’d ruther you’d be one off this ship than aboard her. All I hope is God Almighty ‘ll larn you some sense today — an’ don’t you lose nothin’ more than your temper or I’ll cut your comb for yer!”

Uncounted hours of Arctic daylight followed as Sim relentlessly drove his crew of five men in an attempt to gain the open water where it was hoped the quarry might be met. Miles of devious channels were explored, leading sometimes to windward and often to leeward, with the ship finally lost to sight and the direction in which she lay but a conjecture. There came a time when Sim himself was forced by cold and spent energy to allow he was “beat” and put his mind to getting aboard the ship again. And then, as Sim put it, “the wind chopped round to the east’ard and petered out,” while the ice, which had tended to pack, loosened and cleared off, leaving the boat in a rapidly widening area of open sea. Under these changed conditions the boat was allowed to drift while Sim “figgered a traverse of where we’d come to.”

3

RESTING on their oars in silence, Sim and his crew were suddenly startled by an enormous sigh as a whale broke water almost alongside, exhaling her long-held breath in a double column of feathery steam that plumed seven feet or more into the chilly air. In a twinkling the weariness of the laborious hours was gone; the oars were shipped, the paddles wielded, and still in profound silence the boat stole alongside that islet of black flesh, with Cortes balanced in the bows ready to “strike.”

“And he got home good with the first iron,” said Sim, “and he shoved in his second clean up to the hitches, and we was fast. Then she sounded till she’d run out most two tubs o’ line — when up she come a-tearin’ and raced off into the eyes of a heavy squall o’ wind and snow that come drivin’ from the north’ard. ‘Haul!’ says I, and we all hove on that line to raise the dead. But gain much on her we couldn’t and the spray begun to fly.”

At this stage of the hunt — a “Nantucket sleigh ride” — Cortes had come aft to take the long steering oar and Sim had gone forward into the bows to stand by until finally, alongside the whale, he could shove the long razor-edged lance into her vitals and direct the maneuvering of the boat during the death “flurry.” Blinded by the spray and oblivious to all else except gain on the line, he failed to see a “ growler ” (a small pan of ice) that lay just afloat in the body of an approaching wave. Jumping from crest to crest with a third of her length out of water, the boat met a sharp tongue of this ice with no more than a tremor but with the appalling result, as Sim described it, that “her belly was slit from gills to vent.”

Sickeningly aware of the deadly peril into which he had betrayed the lives and property for wdiich he was responsible, Sim yanked a knife from its sheath that was tacked on the “box” for such emergency and in one stroke severed the straining whale line. This sudden parting of the rope threw the men off balance, an untimely wave crest caught the already staggering, half-waterlogged boat under her port bilge, and over she rolled.

Twenty minutes later Sim was tasting the bitter dregs of despair and contrition; for in spite of his coolheaded and untiring efforts to encourage, — bullying here, cajoling there, and always ready with a hand or supporting shoulder, — he had to see his struggling crew lose heart and strength in the icy water and one after another let go a slippery hold on some part of the overturned boat or her gear until Cortes and he were left alone.

And here it became difficult to follow Sim’s account — time and sequence shifting crazily while Cortes flitted about, a dreaded and pursuing specter at one moment, at another a warmly alive and loved companion, repelling every advance toward contact. One thing alone was clear —that Sim, to anchor his hold, shoved his right hand through the plug strap and succeeded in pulling himself and perhaps Cortes onto the boat’s bottom astraddle of the keel so that, as he described it, “thar he sot and thar I sot and thar we both sot and it growed almighty cold.”

How long they “sot thar” and what happened until Sim found himself alone, lying in slushy snow beside a “ litter o’ kindlings,” — the utterly smashed boat, — has to be guesswork. Undoubtedly Sim, and Cortes if he were there, lost consciousness within a few minutes, in which state Cortes would have been washed from his perch and drowned, while Sim, held firmly by the plug strap, would have stayed with the boat until the wind and sea crashed her on a shelving spur of a providentially large and solid floe.

“An’ I riz to my knees,” said Sim, “an’ I give a look round. But except for the ice, there warn’t nothin’ solid or comfortin’ in sight. Then way off yonder, dodgin’ round among the hummocks, I seen Cortes and I hollered and hollered, but he didn’t come no nigher, so I made shift to get onto my legs and tried to run him down — but I was so stiff I wallered round like an old cow in a swale hole. Then I warmed up some and could move pretty good, but the faster I went, the more Cortes doubled and dodged on me, till I guess I lost my head and begun to run and beller, blind-crazy. When I was well wore out and sweatin’-scared, I says to myself, ‘Sim! Quit bein’ all kinds of a fool now an’ forever, an’ go back to what’s left of the boat and set a spell and think’; and so I done.”

The result of this “spell” of thought was that a balance sheet took shape in Sim’s mind about as follows: —

For assets: he was alive; his strenuous bout of running had revived his circulation to warm and dry him; the floe was large and seemed solid; the contents of the boat’s cuddy — the fresh-water breaker, the keg of ship’s bread, the tight tin of matches, a knife, light lines and twine, a hatchet, a

fetch bag with needles, palm, and a gub of oakum — had “stayed put”; the mast and sail, the long steering oar, the waif and a spare iron had survived the wreck in “fair condition”; there would be no long, dark nights and it was the bearable season of the year.

For liabilities: he had a right arm and hand the nerves and sinews of which had been strained and tortured “till they warn’t no account then nor hain’t been since,” that shook and ached distractingly; summer ice was at best an uncertain support; the chances of rescue a hundred to one against; his supply of food so scant and of such a nature that he could count on it for a few days only; he must constantly battle panic at thought of his future; he was haunted by his drowned crew and at moments almost beside himself as to the whereabouts of Cortes.

The summation of his situation, as he gave it, was: —

“When I’d totted up my chances, I seen my capital to get goin’ on was jest about minus nothin’. This give me a kind of a jolt in my midriff — but twarn’t long till this wore off and I begun to feel better. If yer hain’t got nothin’, yer can’t lose much, — and I tell you, this is a real comfortin’ thought in times o’ trouble, — so I set right out to forget what might happen, by raisin’ a stir o’ things to happen right now”

And here it was evident that, together with his future, Sim jettisoned all account of time as it is reckoned in days and nights, hours and minutes; for, as he said, “there was a sight o’ jobs that all oughter been done yesterday and I got flustered thinkin’ how behind time I was; so as there warn’t much difference between nighttime and daytime, I quit talcin’ any account of it.”

4

HERE it took much questioning by the Skipper to draw from Sim an account of his material achievements. To his intensely practical mind it was evident we would assume, for instance, that his first job would be to “lash up a pung” from the wreck of the boat, which would lift him and his stores above the ice and snow — a base that could be moved and on which he could eat, sleep, and “carry on with considerable comfort” when he had rigged a shelter cloth from part of the sail.

He refused to do more than mention the difficulty of this accomplishment, handicapped as he was by the injury to his right hand and the frequent interruptions of violent exercise to keep his fingers and toes from “numbin’.” He would not admit that his patience must have been tried high or that, in the gusts of discouragement that must have come to him, his fare of hardtack washed down with a little water from the breaker and as much snow as could be mingled with it gave small encouragement or satisfaction. We had finally to let our imaginations fill in the gaps he left in his story until he described himself as “keepin’ house handy to the blasted carcass of a bull walrus that give me plenty o’ cheap meat — not too stinkin’ — with the waif set up solid and fiyin’ good on the highest hummock o’ the floe and the weather set fair and warmish.”

By further questioning, the Skipper pushed Sim to confess that the discovery of the walrus came at the moment when he was “losin’ ambition” on the unvarying fare of hardtack and water, with the further discouragement that only crumbs and weevils were left in the “bread barge.” But he quickly qualified this dismal picture by explaining the immediate renewal of his strength by the change of diet and the syst ematic hunt he instituted to fortify his situation further. The spare iron and a club, split from the loggerhead of the boat, were his weapons, anything that would furnish meat his quarry. And again his dogged patience bore fruit, for he finally killed a seal — from which flowed comparative abundance.

In describing this incident, Sim became expansive. He told us how from the sealskin he “cobbled” a pair of shoepacks stuffed with oakum, a pair of drawers “to warm up my nether parts,” and mittens that “was a comfort.” All these made possible longer spells of sleep, an inexpressible luxury. With the oil tried out from the blubber — a pitifully small quantity at a time, in the match tin held over a feeble, tenderly guarded flame of shavings — he first “gaumed” the troublesome sores on his right arm and hand and then, of even more importance, fueled a cooking lamp “fixed up from the conch shell horn” as a font and with a braid of oakum for the wick. His gusto over the first whiff of fresh red meat a-broil made our mouths water; his “housekeeping” seemed a shade warmer and less dreary.

And then, just as I was pleasurably anticipating the climax of this saga, — his delivery from the floe, — Sim said, “But it warn’t long after I got to havin’ cooked vittles and warm water till I woke up stone-blind — nothin’ really but snow blindness, but I didn’t know then there was such a complaint, and with my eyes feelin’ as if they was full of sharp burrs I thought they wars done for, for all time, and I ain’t ashamed to say J took it hard.”

How long he lay on the pung chewing the cud of despair he could not tell. Fortunately “the horrors” that took possession of his mind immobilized his body until they were gradually dispelled by a cold, angry determination “to beat Fate and go on livin’.” Finally the orientation of his surroundings came uppermost and he began to plan the conduct of his new life in the dark.

His first move was to finger over the gear beside him until he had firm hold of the haft of the harpoon, which he so placed that it could be gripped by his knees as he knelt over it. Again by touch he found the harpoon line and worked it through his hand until the free end was reached. This he made fast to the pung. He then coiled the line, turned the coil so that it might run freely, and with the harpoon in his hand started to crawl from his base in the direction he felt would bring him to the carcass of the walrus. With every faculty keyed to the highest pitch, he inched forward on this vitally important quest.

“And by the steerin’ of my immortal sweatin’ soul,” said he, “I fetched my landfall— and I tell you when I struck onto it I felt sorter friendly to that old hunk o’ meat. So I patted it all over to get the bearin’s of it and then druv my iron firm into his tough old neckpiece, hauled taut the line, and there I was hitched up to home and my vittles and no chanst to get lost between.”

The impression that remains with me of this part of Sim’s struggle for existence is one of aching sympathy. Life was so evidently a continuing round of torturingly minute activities, every one to be undertaken only after deep thought, with the execution so frequently failing through some unforeseen difficulty or accident. As an example, his routine was suddenly interrupted by the loss of his knife, an almost fatal disaster, through the unperceived fraying of the lanyard on which it was slung from his neck. By the time this happened he had extended his field of activities far beyond the territory between pung and walrus by making one end of a long line fast around his waist with the other end hitched to the frame of the pung. So harnessed, he was able to explore safely his frozen surroundings in all directions within the limit of his tether; but in this case of the lost knife the wider freedom had complicated his search a thousandfold.

I was attacked by the “kinder holler feelin’” Sim said he had when he crawled away from the pung on this seemingly hopeless attempt to retrieve the knife. My solar plexus tied itself into a knot when, after uncounted time and myriad fumblings as he quartered over the rough, cold surface, he was forced back to his base by fatigue and the discouragement of failure; and when, as he lay spent and attempting to pump up his courage for another “try,” his hand, idly picking over the familiar objects that were so carefully ranged round his sleeping place, came suddenly on the knife enfolded in the loose strands of the gub of oakum, I too “broke out into a sweat o’ thanksgivin’.”

Then came the account of petty triumphs, depressing defeats, ingenious shifts, and amazing new aptitudes while for the most part Sim knew that the sun shone, torturing his sick eyes, and, had he but thought of it, rotting the surface of the floe. As time passed, this weather seemed also to soften Sim’s practical caution. He became careless in the securing of his precious necessaries on and around the pung. More and more the obsession that Cortes was near at hand and in distress occupied his thoughts to set him wandering, — on his feet, not a-crawl, — restless and aimless, shouting and shouting till exhaustion forced him to return to his base to recuperate. It was during one of these wild, fruitless sallies that Fate almost landed a knockout.

5

I’D been sleepin’,” he explained, “when I come to sudden and heard Cortes holler close by. I threw a clove hitch with the tether round my waist; and without botherin’ to set it up solid with a half hitch, I started off to where it sounded as if the cuss must be. I figure I’d run about thirty fathom o’ line out when, without any sort o’ warnin’, I soused down under water. When I come up I had to waste considerable time belchin’ up what I’d swallered as I went down, for my silly mouth was open to call when I walked overboard. Then I had to fumble round to lay hold o’ the ice, for I found it warn’t no hole I’d gone into — and then I knowed what I’d oughter guessed if I’d been more reasonable: that the floe was breakin’ up.

“When I finally found the ice, ‘twas too thick to reach up to the top and there warn’t no shelves to get a handholt on. This flustrated me some and I hove on my tether in a hurry till I’d got all the slack down under me in a mess. By the time the line was taut and I was just startin’ to put my weight on it, she come slack with a jerk and down I went under again. This time I didn’t rise very good and I knowed I was gettin’ weak with cold.

“I was in a tight clinch and I didn’t see no way out; but then I figured I might as well drown kickin’ as cryin’, so I begun coastin’ along the ice edge on the chanst there was a shelf somewheres — and by damn if before I was froze solid I didn’t come to a place where I could feel the floe was wore right down thin and I could kinder wiggle onto it and lay half afloat till I’d caught my breath. When I come to life a little I made a grab for my tether, but twarn’t there; that slippery hitch o’ mine had let go and there I was in a tighter clinch than ever.”

Here Sim stared hard at me and after a moment’s pause said: —

“Bub! I want you to remember this: if yer can once get rid o’ bein’ afraid to die, you ain’t goin’ to have to go through the hell o’ bein’ scared to death every time yer get into a hole yer can’t see no way out of. I got a firm grip o’ this lesson that time out yonder when I lost my tether, and I hain’t ever let go of it sence.”

After this, perhaps because of the blurring of his impressions by spent vitality, Sim, in resuming his tale, responded grudgingly to the Skipper’s frequent proddings for detail. Most of his answers were “Yes” or “No,” with an occasional spurt of caustic explanation.

It was evident he took the blow of the loss of his tether literally lying down, but was fortunately soon stung into feverish activity by hail that drove on him before a heavy squall of cold wind. Exercise, vigorous enough to keep life in him, was now the primary concern; and fearing another fall overboard should he walk, he started crawling in the direction in which he believed his tether lay, trusting to one outstretched, groping hand to feel out the break in the ice and, if luck were with him, the rope. At first he went forward slowly, for again and again he had to stop to beat and chafe the circulation into numbing feet and hands. But suddenly the weather cleared, he felt the sun warm on his back, — “thawing him out,” — so that presently he was making good progress.

And then came the moment when he was convinced he had overrun his mark and was headed in the wrong direction. Feeling helpless and weak, he halted his crawl and sat upright. A fit of exasperation swept over him and he kicked and scuffled childishly — when, in the height of his “tantrum,” he felt a line catch on his left instep. Revived by this unbelievably good fortune, Sim, still on his hands and knees, made his way with speed to the pung, only to discover that it had been capsized. A feverish search further disclosed the loss of most of his carefully placed gear and precious stores. He had the answer to the sudden slackening of the tether when he had been in the water. He and the wind, combined with his own carelessness in neglecting to furl his weather cloth and lash down his other valuables, had succeeded in wrecking his stronghold.

Said Sim: “I was too damned discouraged and tired to even die right then, so I followed up the line to the walrus and slumped down in a heap on him — and there I lay waitin’ for the end!”

Followed a pause, so long that I realized Sim considered the yarn had been spun to the last thread, while from my point of view there was still so much to be laid up that I finally burst out with: “But — but — how did you get off the floe and home again?”

“Oh, that,” said he, “was all wrote out in the papers at Mazatlan when them Mexican sealers that come along before it was too late took me off the ice and set me ashore there.

“I suspicion most of it was lies like all newspapers give out — but as there warn’t much I can remember till I sort o’ come to and figured I was aboard ship fingerin’ a blanket, it didn’t make no odds what kind o’ yarns them folks told. When I’d got a good holt of the idea I warn’t layin’ there on the ice, the sap begun to run in my mouth again, and I got considerable satisfaction thinkin’ about the fish chowder we had to home on the Vineyard; and when I felt a hand laid on my head and heard a voice sayin’, ‘You feel better, eh?’ I managed to make that feller know I was interested in some spoon vittles. Bean soup don’t sound real hearty for a hungry man, but when I got a mug o’ that inside me it set real good, and I took a long caulk without nothin’ on my mind.

“When I woke up it come over me slow that whenever I turned my head there was a square patch of light on one quarter. Four or five times I turned my eyes away and brought ‘em back, and every time there was that light — and then I knew my eyes was better and I warn’t blind. Skipper, you ain’t never felt grateful for anything till you’ve lost it and got it back again! I tell you, when it soaked into me I warn’t totally blind, I just laid there in my bunk for a spell with my toes and fingers and hair on my head squirmin’ with happiness and thanksgivin’.

“Twarn’t long after that till I got about on my legs. The folks aboard that schooner was goodhearted, and when I’d told the one who could talk some English about my eyes, he give me a pair o’ wooden spectacles with slits in ‘em so I could see, out in the sun, without gettin’ stabbin’ pains in my head. He told me the day they seen the waif flyin’ on the floe it was calm and they thought there might be some skins or somethin’ with value layin’ on the ice to be picked up for the trouble, so they launched a boat and rowed over, and I guess they was real disappointed when they only found a blasted walrus and a man more dead than alive. Kind o’ lucky for me though, warn’t it?

“Their schooner was the Sinaloa, built to Mystic, Connecticut — very moderate in a breeze but a good ghoster.”