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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Pull for Life and Love

By Theodore Winthrop (1828–1861)

[Love and Skates.—The Atlantic Monthly. 1862.]

PERRY looked in at the cap’n’s office. He beheld a three-legged stool, a hacked desk, an inky steel-pen, an inkless inkstand; but no Cap’n Ambuster.

Perry inspected the cap’n’s state-room. There was a cracked looking-glass, into which he looked; a hair-brush suspended by the glass, which he used; a lair of blankets in a berth, which he had no present use for; and a smell of musty boots, which nobody with a nose could help smelling. Still no Captain Ambuster, nor any of his crew.

Search in the unsavory kitchen revealed no cook, coiled up in a corner, suffering nightmares for the last greasy dinner he had brewed in his frying-pan. There were no deck-hands bundled into their bunks. Perry rapped on the chain-box and inquired if anybody was within, and nobody answering, he had to ventriloquize a negative.

The engine-room, too, was vacant, and quite as unsavory as the other dens on board. Perry patronized the engine by a pull or two at the valves, and continued his tour of inspection.

The Ambuster’s skiff, lying on her forward deck, seemed to entertain him vastly.

“Jolly!” says Perry. And so it was a jolly boat in the literal, not the technical sense.

“The three wise men of Gotham went to sea in a bowl; and here’s the identical craft,” says Perry.

He gave the chubby little machine a push with his foot. It rolled and wallowed about grotesquely. When it was still again, it looked so comic, lying contentedly on its fat side like a pudgy baby, that Perry had a roar of laughter, which, like other laughter to one’s self, did not sound very merry, particularly as the north-wind was howling ominously, and the broken ice on its downward way was whispering and moaning and talking on in a most mysterious and inarticulate manner.

“Those sheets of ice would crunch up this skiff, as pigs do a punkin,” thinks Perry.

And with this thought in his head he looked out on the river, and fancied the foolish little vessel cast loose and buffeting helplessly about in the ice.

He had been so busy until now, in prying about the steamboat and making up his mind that captain and men had all gone off for a comfortable supper on shore, that his eye had not wandered toward the stream.

Now his glance began to follow the course of the icy current. He wondered where all this supply of cakes came from, and how many of them would escape the stems of ferry-boats below and get safe to sea.

All at once, as he looked lazily along the lazy files of ice, his eyes caught a black object drifting on a fragment in a wide way of open water opposite Skerrett’s Point, a mile distant.

Perry’s heart stopped beating. He uttered a little gasping cry. He sprang ashore, not at all like a Doge quitting a Bucentaur. He tore back to the foundry, dashing through the puddles, and, never stopping to pick up his cap, burst in upon Wade and Bill Tarbox in the office.

The boy was splashed from head to foot with red mud. His light hair, blown wildly about, made his ashy face seem paler. He stood panting.

His dumb terror brought back to Wade’s mind all the bad omens of the morning.

“Speak!” said he, seizing Perry fiercely by the shoulder.

The uproar of the works seemed to hush for an instant, while the lad stammered faintly:

“There’s somebody carried off in the ice by Skerrett’s Point. It looks like a woman. And there’s nobody to help.”

“Help! help!” shouted the four trip-hammers, bursting in like a magnified echo of the boy’s last word.

“Help! help!” all the humming wheels and drums repeated more plaintively.

Wade made for the river.

This was the moment all his manhood had been training and saving for. For this he had kept sound and brave from his youth up.

As he ran, he felt that the only chance of instant help was in that queer little bowl-shaped skiff of the Ambuster.

He had never been conscious that he had observed it; but the image had lain latent in his mind, biding its time. It might be ten, twenty precious moments before another boat could be found. This one was on the spot to do its duty at once.

“Somebody carried off,—perhaps a woman,” Wade thought. “Not—No, she would not neglect my warning! Whoever it is, we must save her from this dreadful death!”

He sprang on board the little steamboat. She was swaying uneasily at her moorings, as the ice crowded along and hammered against her stem. Wade stared from her deck down the river, with all his life at his eyes.

More than a mile away, below the hemlock-crested point, was the dark object Perry had seen, still stirring along the edges of the floating ice. A broad avenue of leaden-green water wrinkled by the cold wind separated the field where this figure was moving from the shore. Dark object and its footing of gray ice were drifting deliberately farther and farther away.

For one instant Wade thought that the terrible dread in his heart would paralyze him. But in that one moment, while his blood stopped flowing and his nerves failed, Bill Tarbox overtook him and was there by his side.

“I brought your cap,” says Bill, “and our two coats.”

Wade put on his cap mechanically. This little action calmed him.

“Bill,” said he, “I’m afraid it is a woman,—a dear friend of mine,—a very dear friend.”

Bill, a lover, understood the tone.

“Well take care of her between us,” he said.

The two turned at once to the little tub of a boat.

Oars? Yes,—slung under the thwarts,—a pair of short sculls, worn and split, but with work in them still. There they hung ready, and a rusty boat-hook, besides.

“Find the thole-pins, Bill, while I cut a plug for her bottom out of this broom-stick,” Wade said.

This was done in a moment. Bill threw in the coats.

“Now, together!”

They lifted the skiff to the gangway. Wade jumped down on the ice and received her carefully. They ran her along, as far as they could go, and launched her in the sludge.

“Take the sculls, Bill. I’ll work the boat-hook in the bow.”

Nothing more was said. They thrust out with their crazy little craft into the thick of the ice-flood. Bill, amidships, dug with his sculls in among the huddled cakes. It was clumsy pulling. Now this oar and now that would be thrown out. He could never get a full stroke.

Wade in the bow could do better. He jammed the blocks aside with his boat-hook. He dragged the skiff forward. He steered through the little open ways of water.

Sometimes they came to a broad sheet of solid ice. Then it was “Out with her, Bill!” and they were both out and sliding their bowl so quick over, that they had not time to go through the rotten surface. This was drowning business; but neither could be spared to drown yet.

In the leads of clear water, the oarsman got brave pulls and sent the boat on mightily. Then again in the thick porridge of brash ice they lost headway, or were baffled and stopped among the cakes. Slow work, slow and painful; and for many minutes they seemed to gain nothing upon the steady flow of the merciless current.

A frail craft for such a voyage, this queer little half-pumpkin! A frail and leaky shell. She bent and cracked from stem to stern among the nipping masses. Water oozed in through her dry seams. Any moment a rougher touch or a sharper edge might cut her through. But that was a risk they had accepted. They did not take time to think of it, nor to listen to the crunching and crackling of the hungry ice around. They urged straight on, steadily, eagerly, coolly, spending and saving strength.

Not one moment to lose! The shattering of broad sheets of ice around them was a warning of what might happen to the frail support of their chase. One thrust of the boat-hook sometimes cleft a cake that to the eye seemed stout enough to bear a heavier weight than a woman’s.

Not one moment to spare! The dark figure, now drifted far below the hemlocks of the Point, no longer stirred. It seemed to have sunk upon the ice and to be resting there weary and helpless, on one side a wide way of lurid water, on the other half a mile of moving desolation.

Far to go, and no time to waste!

“Give way, Bill! Give way!”

“Ay, ay!”

Both spoke in low tones, hardly louder than the whisper of the ice around them.

By this time hundreds from the foundry and the village were swarming upon the wharf and the steamboat.

“A hundred tar-barrels wouldn’t git up my steam in time to do any good,” says Cap’n Ambuster. “If them two in my skiff don’t overhaul the man, he’s gone.”

“You’re sure it’s a man?” says Smith Wheelwright.

“Take a squint through my glass. I’m dreffully afeard it’s a gal; but suthin’s got into my eye, so I can’t see.”

Suthin’ had got into the old fellow’s eye,—suthin’ saline and acrid,—namely, a tear.

“It’s a woman,” says Wheelwright,—and suthin’ of the same kind blinded him also.

Almost sunset now. But the air was suddenly filled with perplexing snow-dust from a heavy squall. A white curtain dropped between the anxious watchers on the wharf and the boatmen.

The same white curtain hid the dark floating object from its pursuers. There was nothing in sight to steer by now.

Wade steered by his last glimpse,—by the current,—by the rush of the roaring wind,—by instinct.

How merciful that in such a moment a man is spared the agony of thought! His agony goes into action, intense as life.

It was bitterly cold. A swash of icewater filled the bottom of the skiff. She was low enough down without that. They could not stop to bail, and the miniature icebergs they passed began to look significantly over the gunwale. Which would come to the point of foundering first, the boat or the little floe it aimed for?

Bitterly cold! The snow hardly melted upon Tarbox’s bare hands. His fingers stiffened to the oars; but there was life in them still, and still he did his work, and never turned to see how the steersman was doing his.

A flight of crows came sailing with the snow-squall. They alighted all about on the hummocks, and curiously watched the two men battling to save life. One black impish bird, more malignant or more sympathetic than his fellows, ventured to poise on the skiff’s stern!

Bill hissed off this third passenger. The crow rose on its toes, let the boat slide away from under him, and followed croaking dismal good wishes.

The last sunbeams were now cutting in everywhere. The thick snow-flurry was like a luminous cloud. Suddenly it drew aside.

The industrious skiff had steered so well and made such headway, that there, a hundred yards away, safe still, not gone, thank God! was the woman they sought.

A dusky mass flung together on a waning rood of ice,—Wade could see nothing more.

Weary or benumbed, or sick with pure forlornness and despair, she had drooped down and showed no sign of life.

The great wind shook the river. Her waning rood of ice narrowed, foot by foot, like an unthrifty man’s heritage. Inch by inch its edges wore away, until the little space that half-sustained the dark heap was no bigger than a coffin-lid.

Help, now!—now, men, if you are to save! Thrust, Richard Wade, with your boat-hook! Pull, Bill, till your oars snap! Out with your last frenzies of vigor! For the little raft of ice, even that has crumbled beneath its burden, and she sinks,—sinks, with succor close at hand!

Sinks! No,—she rises and floats again.

She clasps something that holds her head just above water. But the unmannerly ice has buffeted her hat off. The fragments toss it about,—that pretty Amazonian hat, with its alert feather, all drooping and draggled. Her fair hair and pure forehead are uncovered for an astonished sunbeam to alight upon.

“It is my love, my life, Bill! Give way, once more!”

“Way enough! Steady! Sit where you are, Bill, and trim boat, while I lift her out. We cannot risk capsizing.”

He raised her carefully, tenderly, with his strong arms.

A bit of wood had buoyed her up for that last moment. It was a broken oar with a deep fresh gash in it.

Wade knew his mark,—the cut of his own skate-iron. This busy oar was still resolved to play its part in the drama.

The round little skiff just bore the third person without sinking.

Wade laid Mary Damer against the thwart. She would not let go her buoy. He unclasped her stiffened hands. This friendly touch found its way to her heart. She opened her eyes and knew him.

“The ice shall not carry off her hat to frighten some mother, down stream,” says Bill Tarbox, catching it.

All these proceedings Cap’n Ambuster’s spy-glass announced to Dunderbunk.

“They’re h’istin’ her up. They’ve slumped her into the skiff. They’re puttin’ for shore. Hooray!”

Pity a spy-glass cannot shoot cheers a mile and a half!

Perry Purtett instantly led a stampede of half Dunderbunk along the railroad track to learn who it was and all about it.

All about it was, that Miss Damer was safe and not dangerously frozen,—and that Wade and Tarbox had carried her up the hill to her mother at Peter Skerrett’s.

Missing the heroes in chief, Dunderbunk made a hero of Cap’n Ambuster’s skiff. It was transported back on the shoulders of the crowd in triumphal procession. Perry Purtett carried round the hat for a contribution to new paint it, new rib it, new gunwale it, give it new sculls and a new boat-hook,—indeed, to make a new vessel of the brave little bowl.

“I’m afeard,” says Cap’n Ambuster, “that, when I git a harnsome new skiff, I shall want a harnsome new steamboat, and then the boat will go cruisin’ round for a harnsome new cap’n.”