The Scourge by Rex Ellingwood Beach
Coming down coast from the Kotzebue country they stumbled onto the little camp in the early winter, and as there was food a plenty, of its kind, whereas they had subsisted for some days on puree of seal oil and short ribs of dog, Captain and Big George decided to winter. A maxim of the north teaches to cabin by a grub-pile.
It was an odd village they beheld that first day. Instead of the clean moss-chinked log shelters men were wont to build in this land, they found the community housed like marmots in holes and burrows.
It seemed that the troop had landed, fresh from the States, a hundred and a quarter strong, hot with the lust for gold, yet shaken by the newspaper horrors of Alaska's rigorous hardships and forbidding climate.
Debouching in the early fall, they had hastily prepared for an Associated Press-painted Arctic winter.
Had they been forced to winter in the mountains of Idaho, or among Montana's passes, they would have prepared simply and effectively. Here, however, in a mystic land, surrounded by the unknown, they grew panic stricken and lost their wits.
Thus, when the two "old timers" came upon them in the early winter they found them in bomb-proof hovels, sunk into the muck, banked with log walls, and thatched over with dirt and sod.
"Where are your windows and ventilators?" they were asked, and collectively the camp laughed at the question. They knew how to keep snug and warm even if half-witted "sourdoughs" didn't. They weren't taking any chances on freezing, not on your tin-type, no outdoor work and exposure for them!
As the winter settled, they snuggled back, ate three meals and more daily of bacon, beans, and baking-powder bread; playing cribbage for an appetite. They undertook no exercise more violent than seven-up, while the wood-cutting fell as a curse upon those unfortunates who lost at the game. They giggled at Captain and the big whaler who daily, snow or blow, hit the trail or wielded pick and shovel.
However, as the two maintained their practice, the camp grew to resent their industry, and, as is possible only in utterly idle communities, there sprung up a virulence totally out of proportion, and, founded without reason, most difficult to dispel. Before they knew it, the two were disliked and distrusted; their presence ignored; their society shunned.
Captain had talked to many in the camp. "You'll get scurvy, sure, living in these dark houses. They're damp and dirty, and you don't exercise. Besides, there isn't a pound of fresh grub in camp."
Figuratively, the camp's nose had tilted at this, and it stated pompously that it were better to preserve its classic purity of features and pro rata of toes, than to jeopardize these adjuncts through fear of a possible blood disease.
"Blood disease, eh?" George snorted like a sea-lion. "Wait till your legs get black and you spit your teeth out like plum-pits--mebbe you'll listen then. It'll come, see if it don't."
He was right. Yet when the plague did grip the camp and men died, one in five, they failed to rise to it. Instead of fighting manfully they lapsed into a frightened, stubborn coma.
There was one, and only one, who did not. Klusky the Jew; Klusky the pariah. They said he worked just to be ornery and different from the rest, he hated them so. They enjoyed baiting him to witness his fury. It sated that taint of Roman cruelty inherent in the man of ignorance. He was all the amusement they had, for it wasn't policy to stir up the two others--they might slop over and clean up the village. So they continued to goad him as they had done since leaving 'Frisco. They gibed and jeered till he shunned them, living alone in the fringe of the pines, bitter and vicious, as an outcast from the pack will grow, whether human or lupine. He frequented only the house of Captain and George, because they were exiles like himself.
The partners did not relish this overmuch, for he was an odious being, avaricious, carping, and dirty.
"His face reminds me of a tool," said George, once, "nose an' chin shuts up like calipers. He's got the forehead of a salmon trout, an' his chin don't retreat, it stampedes, plumb down ag'in his apple. Look out for that droop of the mouth. I've seen it before, an' his eyes is bad, too. They've stirred him up an' pickled all the good he ever had. Some day he'll do a murder."
"I wonder what he means by always saying he'll have revenge before spring. It makes me creep to hear him cackle and gloat. I think he's going crazy."
"Can't tell. This bunch would bust anybody's mental tugs, an' they make a mistake drivin' him so. Say! How's my gums look tonight?" George stretched his lips back, showing his teeth, while Captain made careful examination.
"All right. How are mine?"
"Red as a berry."
Every day they searched thus for the symptoms, looking for discolouration, and anxiously watching bruises on limb or body. Men live in fear when their comrades vanish silently from their midst. Each night upon retiring they felt legs nervously, punching here and there to see that the flesh retained its resiliency.
So insidious is the malady's approach that it may be detected only thus. A lassitude perhaps, a rheumatic laziness, or pains and swelling at the joints. Mayhap one notes a putty-like softness of the lower limbs. Where he presses, the finger mark remains, filling up sluggishly. No mental depression at first, nor fever, only a drooping ambition, fatigue, enlarging parts, now gradual, now sudden.
The grim humour of seeing grown men gravely poking their legs with rigid digits, or grinning anxiously into hand-mirrors had struck some of the tenderfeet at first, but the implacable progress of the disease; its black, merciless presence, pausing destructively here and there, had terrorized them into a hopeless fatalism till they cowered helplessly, awaiting its touch.
One night Captain announced to his partner. "I'm going over to the Frenchmen's, I hear Menard is down."
"What's the use of buttin' in where ye ain't wanted? As fer me, them frogeaters can all die like salmon; I won't go nigh 'em an' I've told 'em so. I give 'em good advice, an' what'd I get? What'd that daffy doctor do? Pooh-poohed at me an' physiced them. Lord! Physic a man with scurvy--might as well bleed a patient fer amputation." George spoke with considerable heat.
Captain pulled his parka hood well down so that the fox-tails around the edge protected his features, and stepped out into the evening. He had made several such trips in the past few months to call on men smitten with the sickness, but all to no effect. Being "chechakos" they were supreme in their conceit, and refused to heed his advice.
Returning at bed time he found his partner webbing a pair of snow-shoes by the light of a stinking "go-devil," consisting of a string suspended in a can of molten grease. The camp had sold them grub, but refused the luxury of candles. Noting his gravity, George questioned:
"Well, how's Menard?"
"Dead!" Captain shook himself as though at the memory. "It was awful. He died while I was talking to him."
"Don't say! How's that?"
"I found him propped up in a chair. He looked bad, but said he was feeling fine--"
"That's the way they go. I've seen it many a time--feelin' fine plumb to the last."
"He'd been telling me about a bet he had with Promont. Promont was taken last week, too, you know, same time. Menard bet him twenty dollars that he'd outlast him."
"'I'm getting all right,' says he, 'but poor Promont's going to die. I'll get his twenty, sure!' I turned to josh with the boy a bit, an' when I spoke to Menard he didn't answer. His jaw had sagged and he'd settled in his chair. Promont saw it, too, and cackled. 'H'I 'ave win de bet! H'I 'ave win de bet!' That's all. He just slid off. Gee! It was horrible."
George put by his work and swore, pacing the rough pole floor.
"Oh, the cussed fools! That makes six dead from the one cabin--six from eighteen, an' Promont'll make seven to-morrow. Do ye mind how we begged 'em to quit that dug-out an' build a white man's house, an' drink spruce tea, an' work! They're too ---- lazy. They lie around in that hole, breath bad air, an' rot."
"And just to think, if we only had a crate of potatoes in camp we could save every man jack of 'em. Lord! They never even brought no citric acid nor lime juice--nothin'! If we hadn't lost our grub when the whale-boat upset, eh? That ten-gallon keg of booze would help some. Say! I got such a thirst I don't never expect to squench it proper;" he spoke plaintively.
"Klusky was here again while you was gone, too. I itch to choke that Jew whenever he gets to ravin' over these people. He's sure losin' his paystreak. He gritted his teeth an' foamed like a mad malamoot, I never see a low-downer lookin' aspect than him when he gets mad."
"'I'll make 'em come to me,' says he, 'on their bellies beggin'. It ain't time yet. Oh, no! Wait 'till half of 'em is dead, an' the rest is rotten with scurvy. Then they'll crawl to me with their gums thick and black, an' their flesh like dough; they'll kiss my feet an' cry, an' I'll stamp 'em into the snow!' You'd ought a heard him laugh. Some day I'm goin' to lay a hand on that man, right in my own house."
As they prepared for bed. Captain remarked:
"By the way, speaking of potatoes, I heard to-night that there was a crate in the Frenchmen's outfit somewhere, put in by mistake. perhaps, but when they boated their stuff up river last fall it couldn't be found--must have been lost."
It was some days later that, returning from a gameless hunt, Captain staggered into camp, weary from the drag of his snow-shoes.
Throwing himself into his bunk he rested while George prepared the meagre meal of brown beans, fried salt pork, and sour-dough bread. The excellence of this last, due to the whaler's years of practice, did much to mitigate the unpleasantness of the milkless, butterless, sugarless menu.
Captain's fatigue prevented notice of the other's bearing. However, when he had supped and the dishes were done George spoke, quietly and without emotion.
"Well, boy, the big thing has come off."
"What do you mean?"
For reply he took the grease dip and, holding it close, bared his teeth.
With a cry Captain leaped from his bunk, and took his face between his hands.
"Great God! George!"
He pushed back the lips. Livid blotches met his gaze--the gums swollen and discoloured. He dropped back sick and pale, staring at his bulky comrade, dazed and uncomprehending.
Carefully replacing the lamp, George continued:
"I felt it comin' quite a while back, pains in my knees an' all that--thought mebbe you'd notice me hobblin' about. I can't git around good--feel sort of stove up an' spavined on my feet."
"Yes, yes, but we've lived clean, and exercised, and drank spruce tea, and--everything," cried the other.
"I know, but I've had a touch before; it's in my blood I reckon. Too much salt grub; too many winters on the coast. She never took me so sudden an' vicious though. Guess the stuff's off."
"Don't talk that way," said Captain, sharply. "You're not going to die--I won't let you."
"Vat's the mattaire?" came a leering voice and, turning they beheld Klusky, the renegade. He had entered silently, as usual, and now darted shrewd inquiring glances at them.
"George has the scurvy."
"Oi! Oi! Oi! Vat a peety." He seemed about to say more but refrained, coming forward rubbing his hands nervously.
"It ain't possible that a 'sour dough' shall have the scoivy."
"Well, he has it--has it bad but I'll cure him. Yes, and I'll save this whole ---- camp, whether they want it or not." Captain spoke strongly, his jaws set with determination. Klusky regarded him narrowly through close shrunk eyes, while speculation wrinkled his low forehead.
"Of course! Yes! But how shall it be, eh? Tell me that." His eagerness was pronounced.
"I'll go to St. Michaels and bring back fresh grub."
"You can't do it, boy," said George. "It's too far an' there ain't a dog in camp. You couldn't haul your outfit alone, an' long before you'd sledded grub back I'd be wearin' one of them gleamin' orioles, I believe that's what they call it, on my head, like the pictures of them little fat angelettes. I ain't got no ear for music, so I'll have to cut out the harp solos."
"Quit that talk, will you?" said Captain irritably. "Of course, one man can't haul an outfit that far, but two can, so I'm going to take Klusky with me." He spoke with finality, and the Jew started, gazing queerly. "We'll go light, and drive back a herd of reindeer."
"By thunder! I'd clean forgot the reindeer. The government was aimin' to start a post there last fall, wasn't it? Say! Mebbe you can make it after all, Kid." His features brightened hopefully. "What d' ye say, Klusky?"
The one addressed answered nervously, almost with excitement.
"It can't be done! It ain't possible, and I ain't strong enough to pull the sled. V'y don't you and George go together. I'll stay--"
Captain laid a heavy hand on his shoulder.
"That'll do. What are you talking about? George wouldn't last two days, and you know it. Now listen. You don't have to go, you infernal greasy dog, there are others in camp, and one of them will go if I walk him at the muzzle of a gun. I gave you first chance, because we've been good to you. Now get out."
He snatched him from his seat and hurled him at the door, where he fell in a heap.
Klusky arose, and, although his eyes snapped wildly and he trembled, he spoke insidiously, with oily modulation.
"Vait a meenute, Meestaire Captain, vait a meenute. I didn't say I vouldn't go. Oi! Oi! Vat a man! Shoor I'll go. Coitenly! You have been good to me and they have been devils. I hope they die." He shook a bony fist in the direction of the camp, while his voice took on its fanatical shrillness. "They shall be in h---- before I help them, the pigs, but you--ah, you have been my friends, yes ?"
"All right; be here at daylight," said Captain gruffly. Anger came slowly to him, and its trace was even slower in its leaving.
"I don't like him," said George, when he had slunk out. "He ain't on the level. Watch him close, boy, he's up to some devilment."
"Keep up your courage, old man. I'll be back in twelve days." Captain said it with decision, though his heart sank as he felt the uncertainties before him.
George looked squarely into his eyes.
"God bless ye, boy," he said. "I've cabined with many a man, but never one like you. I'm a hard old nut, an' I ain't worth what you're goin' to suffer, but mebbe you can save these other idiots. That's what we're put here for, to help them as is too ornery to help theirselves." He smiled at Captain, and the young man left him blindly. He seldom smiled, and to see it now made his partner's breast heave achingly.
"Good old George!" he murmured as they pulled out upon the river. "Good old George!" As they passed from the settlement an Indian came to the door of the last hovel.
"Hello. There's a Siwash in your cabin," said Captain. "What is he doing there ?"
"That's all right," rejoined Klusky. "I told him to stay and vatch t'ings."
"Rather strange," thought the other. "I wonder what there is to watch. There's never been any stealing around here."
To the unversed, a march by sled would seem simplicity. In reality there is no more discouraging test than to hit the trail, dogless and by strength of back. The human biped cannot drag across the snow for any distance more than its own weight; hence equipment is of the simplest. At that, the sledge rope galls one's neck with a continual, endless, yielding drag, resulting in back pains peculiar to itself. It is this eternal maddening pull, with the pitiful crawling gait that tells; horse's labour and a snail's pace. The toil begets a perspiration which the cold solidifies midway through the garments. At every pause the clammy clothes grow chill, forcing one forward, onward, with sweating body and freezing face. In extreme cold, snow pulverizes dryly till steel runners drag as though slid through sand. Occasional overflows bar the stream from bank to bank, resulting in wet feet and quick changes by hasty fires to save numb toes. Now the air is dead under a smother of falling flakes that fluff up ankle deep, knee deep, till the sled plunges along behind, half buried, while the men wallow and invent ingenious oaths. Again the wind whirls it by in grotesque goblin shapes; wonderful storm beings, writhing, whipping, biting as they pass; erasing bank and mountain. Yet always there is that aching, steady tug of the shoulder-rope, stopping circulation till the arms depend numbly; and always the weary effort of trail breaking.
Captain felt that he had never worked with a more unsatisfying team mate. Not that Klusky did not pull, he evidently did his best, but he never spoke, while the other grew ever conscious of the beady, glittering eyes boring into his back. At camp, the Jew watched him furtively, sullenly, till he grew to feel oppressed, as with a sense of treachery, or some fell design hidden far back. Every morning he secured the ropes next the sled, thus forcing Captain to walk ahead. He did not object to the added task of breaking trail, for he had expected the brunt of the work, but the feeling of suspicion increased till it was only by conscious effort that he drove himself to turn his back upon the other and take up the journey.
It was this oppression that warned him on the third day. Leaning as he did against the sled ropes he became aware of an added burden, as though the man behind had eased to shift his harness. When it did not cease he glanced over his shoulder. Keyed up as he was this nervous agility saved him.
Klusky held a revolver close up to his back, and, though he had unconsciously failed to pull, he mechanically stepped in the other's tracks. The courage to shoot had failed him momentarily, but as Captain turned, it came, and he pulled the trigger.
Frozen gun oil has caused grave errors in calculation. The hammer curled back wickedly and stuck. Waiting his chance he had carried the weapon in an outer pocket where the frost had stiffened the grease. Had it been warmed next his body, the fatal check would not have occurred. Even so, he pulled again and it exploded sharp and deafening in the rarefied morning air. In that instant's pause, however, Captain had whirled so that the bullet tore through the loose fur beneath his arm. He struck, simultaneously with the report, and the gun flew outward, disappearing in the snow.
They grappled and fell, rolling in a tangle of rope, Klusky fighting with rat-like fury, whining odd, broken curses. The larger man crushed him in silence, beating him into the snow, bent on killing him with his hands.
As the other's struggles diminished, he came to himself, however, and desisted.
"I can't kill him," he thought in panic. "I can't go on alone."
"Get up!" He kicked the bleeding figure till it arose lamely. "Why did you do that?" His desire to strangle the life from him was over-powering.
The man gave no answer, muttering only unintelligible jargon, his eyes ablaze with hatred.
"Tell me." He shook him by the throat but received no reply. Nor could he, try as he pleased; only a stubborn silence. At last, disgusted and baffled, he bade him resume the rope. It was necessary to use force for this, but eventually they took up the journey, differing now only in their order of precedence.
"If you make a move I'll knife you," he cautioned grimly. "That goes for the whole trip, too."
At evening he searched the grub kit, breaking knives and forks, and those articles which might be used as means of offence, throwing the pieces into the snow.
"Don't stir during the night, or I might kill you. I wake easy, and hereafter we'll sleep together." Placing the weapons within his shirt, he bound the other's wrists and rolled up beside him.
Along the coast, their going became difficult from the rough ice and soft snow, and with despair Captain felt the days going by. Klusky maintained his muteness and, moreover, to the anger of his captor, began to shirk. It became necessary to beat him. This Captain did relentlessly, deriving a certain satisfaction from it, yet marvelling the while at his own cruelty. The Jew feigned weariness, and began to limp as though foot-sore.
Captain halted him at last.
"Don't try that game," he said. "It don't go. I spared your life for a purpose. The minute you stop pulling, that minute I'll sink this into your ribs." He prodded him with his sheath knife. "Get along now, or I'll make you haul it alone." He kicked him into resentful motion again, for he had come to look upon him as an animal, and was heedless of his signs of torture--so thus they marched; master and slave. "He's putting it on," he thought, but abuse as he might, the other's efforts became weaker, and his agony more marked as the days passed.
The morning came when he refused to arise.
Klusky shook his head.
"Get up, I say!" Captain spoke fiercely, and snatched him to foot, but with a groan the man sank back. Then, at last, he talked.
"I can't do it. I can't do it. My legs make like they von't vork. You can kill me, but I can't valk."
As he ceased, Captain leaned down and pushed back his lips. The teeth were loose and the gums livid.
"Great Heavens, what have I done! What have I done!" he muttered.
Klusky had watched his face closely.
"Vat's the mattaire? Vy do you make like that, eh? Tell me." His voice was sharp.
"You've got it."
"I've got it? Oi! Oi! I've got it! Vat have I got?" He knew before the answer came, but raved and cursed in frenzied denial. His tongue started, language flowed from him freely.
"It ain't that. No! No! It is the rheumatissen. Yes, it shall be so. It makes like that from the hard vork always. It is the cold--the cold makes it like."
With despair Captain realized that he could neither go on, dragging the sick man and outfit, nor could he stay here in idleness to sacrifice the precious days that remained to his partner. Each one he lost might mean life or death.
Klusky broke in upon him.
"You von't leave me, Mistaire Captain? Please you von't go avay?"
Such frightened entreaty lay in his request that before thinking the other replied.
"No, I won't. I made you come and I'll do all I can for you. Maybe somebody will pass." He said it only to cheer, for no one travelled this miserable stretch save scattering, half-starved Indians, but the patient caught at it eagerly, hugging the hope to his breast during the ensuing days.
That vigil beside the dying creature lived long in Captain's memory. The bleak, timberless shores of the bay; their tiny tent, crouched fearfully among the willow tops; the silent nights, when in the clear, cold air the stars stared at him close and big, like eyes of wolves beyond a camp fire; the days of endless gabblings from the sinking man, and the all pervading cold.
At last, knowledge dawned upon the invalid, and he called his companion to his side. Shivering there beneath the thin tent, Captain heard a story, rambling at first, filled with hatred and bitterness toward the men who had scoffed at him, yet at the last he listened eagerly, amazedly, and upon its conclusion rose suddenly, gazing at the dying man in horror.
"My God, Klusky! Hell isn't black enough for you. It can't be true, it can't be. You're raving! Do you mean to say that you let those poor devils die like rats while you had potatoes in your cabin, fresh ones? Man! Man! The juice of every potato was worth a life. You're lying, Klusky."
"I ain't. No, I ain't. I hate them! I said they should crawl on their bellies to me. Yes, and I should wring the money out. A hundred dollars for von potato. I stole them all. Ha! ha! and I kept them varm. Oh, yes! Alvays varm by the fire, so they shall be good and fine for the day."
"That's why you left the Indian there when we came away, eh? To keep a fire."
"Shoor! and I thought I shall kill you and go back alone so nobody shall make for the rescue. Then I should have the great laugh."
Captain bared his head to the cold outside the tent. He was dazed by the thought of it. The man was crazed by abuse. The camp had paid for its folly!
Then a hope sprang up in him. It was too late to go on and return with the deer; that is, too late for George, and he thought only of him; of the big, brave man sitting alone in the cabin, shunned by the others, waiting quietly for his coming, tracing the relentless daily march of the disease. Why didn't the Jew die so he could flee back? He had promised not to desert him, and he could not break his word to a dying man, even though the wretch deserved damnation. But why couldn't he die? What made him hang on so? In his idle hours he arranged a pack for the start, assembling his rations. He could not be hampered by the sled. This was to be a race--he must travel long and fast. The sick man saw the preparations, and cried weakly, the tears freezing on his cheeks, and still he lingered, lingered maddeningly, till at last, when Captain had lost count of the days, he passed without a twitch and, before the body had cooled, the northward bluffs hid the plodding, snow-shoed figure hurrying along the back trail.
He scarcely stopped for sleep or food, but gnawed raw bacon and frozen bread, swinging from shoe to shoe, devouring distance with the steady, rhythmic pace of a machine. He made no fires. As darkness settled, rendering progress a peril, he unrolled his robe, and burrowed into some overhanging drift, and the earliest hint of dawn found him miles onward.
Though the weather was clear, he grew numbed and careless under the strain of his fatigue, so that the frost bit hungrily at his features. He grew gaunt, and his feet swelled from the snow-shoe thongs till they puffed out his loose, sealskin boots, and every step in the morning hours brought forth a groan.
He was tortured by the thought that perhaps the Indian had carelessly let go the fire in Klusky's cabin. If so, the precious potatoes would freeze in a night. Then, if the native rebuilt it, he would arrive only to find a mushy, putrifying mass, worse than useless. The uncertainty sickened him, and at last, as he sighted the little hamlet, he paused, bracing his legs apart weakly.
He searched fearfully for traces of smoke above Klusky's cabin. There were none. Somehow the lone shack seemed to stare malignantly at him, as he staggered up the trail, and he heard himself muttering. There were no locks in this land, so he entered unbidden. The place was empty, though warm from recent habitation. With his remaining strength he scrambled up a rude ladder to the loft where he fumbled in the dark while his heart stopped. Then he cried hoarsely and, ripping open the box, stuffed them gloatingly into pockets and shirt front. He dropped from the platform and fled out through the open door, capless and mittenless; out and on toward the village.
His pace slackened suddenly, for he noted with a shock that, like Klusky's cabin, no smoke drifted over the house toward which he ran, and, drawing near, he saw that snow lay before the door; clean, white, and untrodden. He was too dazed to recall the light fall of the night previous, but glared blankly at the idle pipe; at the cold and desolate front.
"Too late!" he murmured brokenly. "Too late!" and stumbled to the snow-cushioned chopping block.
He dared not go in. Evidently the camp had let George die; had never come near to lift a hand. He was afraid of what lay within, afraid to face it alone. Yet a dreadful need to know pulled him forward. Three times he approached the door, retreating each time in panic. At last he laid soft hands upon the latch and entered, averting his eyes. Even so, and despite the darkness inside, he was conscious of it; saw from his eye corners the big, still bulk that sat wrapped and propped in the chair by the table. He sensed it dazedly, inductively, and turned to flee, then paused.
"Ye made it, boy! It's the twelfth to-day." George's voice came weakly, and with a great cry Captain sprang to him.
"Bout all in," the other continued. "Ain't been on my feet for two days. I knowed you'd come to-day, though; it's the twelfth."
Captain made no reply, for he had knelt, his face buried in the big man's lap, his shoulders heaving, while he cried like a little boy.