Home > Jack London > 2. A SELECTION OF JACK LONDON STORIES > "A Klondike Christmas" and other stories of the Far North, by Jack London
"A Klondike Christmas" and other stories of the Far North, by Jack London
Monday 13 December 2021, by
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. A KLONDIKE CHRISTMAS (1898) Two brothers are writing home at Christmas describing their life on a mining claim in the Yukon, but are somewhat embarrassed to have to reveal that all they have for Xmas dinner is the miners’ standard fare of beans, bread and bacon. But then things surprisingly start looking up. (2,500 words).
2. THE MEN OF FORTY-MILE (1899) In the middle of winter in the rough settlement town of Forty Miles, an animated discussion about different kinds of ice becomes violent, so a duel to the finish by gunfire is quickly agreed upon, as was the way of the world in those parts in those days. (3.200 words).
3. JAN, THE UNREPENTANT (1900) Three men are struggling with a fourth in a tent in wintertime, intent on lynching him in accordance with the rough law of the north for having just slain another member of their group. They can’t understand why Jan won’t submit to his fate quietly and let them hang him without fuss. (2,700 words).
4. A RELIC OF THE PLIOCENE (1901) The narrator recounts how a stranger had walked into his isolated camp a thousand miles from nowhere and given him a pair of snow-boots made from the hide of a mammoth that he claimed to have killed in an isolated mountain valley in unexplored territory far away. (4,250 words).
5. TO BUILD A FIRE (Juvenile Version) (1902) A prospector sets out in very cold weather for a long trek back to his group’s campsite in the Yukon and lives to regret not having listened to an old-timer’s advice never to go out alone in winter. (2,600 words). 
6. THE MEAT (1911) “Smoke” Bellew is working his way along the Klondike trail as a packer and has to manage a double workload on the half-rations doled out by the two very wealthy and very miserly entrepreneurs who have hired him. The meat of the title is bear-meat, the gauge of a tough guy, and he and his companion Shorty both earn that honoured title before they finally make it to Dawson. (8,100 words).
7. SHORTY DREAMS (1911) Shorty has a hunch that he’s about to get lucky at the roulette tables in Dawson but has to concede defeat after losing a pile of gold dust. His companion “Smoke” Bellow declares however that he’s found a system to beat the roulette and soon starts applying his new method most successfully. (4,800 words).
8. THE HANGING OF CULTUS GEORGE (1912) Cultus George is an Indian who has long worked for and traded with white men, but when asked to participate in a desperate rush to save a tribe of Indians who are dying of hunger, he will only say “How much?”. Outraged at this insensibility, the others in his group threaten to hang him, and when he persists they carry out the act. (5,900 words).
An e-book containing all of these stories is available for downloading below.
1. A KLONDIKE CHRISTMAS
Mouth of the Stuart River, North West Territory, December 25, 1897.
My dearest Mother:
Here we are, all safe and sound, and snugly settled down in winter quarters.
Have received no letters yet, so you can imagine how we long to hear from home. We are in the shortest days of the year, and the sun no longer rises, even at twelve o’clock.
Uncle Hiram and Mr. Carter have gone to Dawson to record some placer claims and to get the mail, if there is any. They took the dogs and sled with them, as they had to travel on the ice. We did expect them home for Christmas dinner, but I guess George and I will have to eat alone.
I am to be cook, so you can be sure that we’ll have a jolly dinner. We will begin with the staples first. There will be fried bacon, baked beans, bread raised from sour-dough, and
He seemed perplexed, and after dubiously scratching his head a couple of times, laid down the pen. Once or twice, he tried to go on, but eventually gave it up, his face assuming a very disgusted expression. He was a robust young fellow of eighteen or nineteen, and the merry twinkle which lurked in his eyes gave the lie to his counterfeited displeasure.
It was a snug little cabin in which he sat. Built of unbarked logs, measuring not more than ten by twelve feet on the inside, and heated by a roaring Yukon-stove, it seemed more homelike to him than any house he had ever lived in, except-of course, always the one, real home.
Two bunks, table and stove, occupied two-thirds of the room, but every inch of space was utilized. Revolvers, rifles, hunting-knives, belts and clothes, hung from three of the walls in picturesque confusion; the remaining one being hidden by a set of shelves, which held all their cooking utensils. Though already eleven o’clock in the morning, a sort of twilight prevailed outside, while it would have been quite dark within, if it had not been for the slush-lamp. This was merely a shallow, tin cup, filled with bacon grease. A piece of cotton caulking served for a wick; the heat of the flame melting the grease as fast as required.
He leaned his elbows on the table and became absorbed in a deep scrutiny of the lamp. He was really not interested in it, and did not even know he was looking at it, so intent was he in trying to discover what else there could possibly be for dinner.
The door was thrown open at this moment, and a stalwart young fellow entered with a rush of cold air, kicking off his snow shoes at the threshold.
"Bout time for dinner, isn’t it?" he asked gruffly, as he took off his mittens. But his brother Clarence had just discovered that "bacon," "beans" and "bread" all began with "b," and did not reply. George’s face was covered with ice, so he contented himself with holding it over the stove to thaw. The rattle of the icy chunks on the sheet-iron was getting monotonous, when Clarence deigned to reply by asking a question.
"What’s ’b’ stand for?" "Bad, of course," was the prompt answer. "Just what I thought," and he sighed with great solemnity.
"But how about the dinner? You’re cook. It’s time to begin. What have you been doing? Oh! Writing! Let’s see."
His jaw fell when he got to "bacon, beans and bread," and he said, "It won’t do to write home that that’s all we’ve got for Christmas dinner. It would make them worry, you know. Say, haven’t we some dried apples?
"Half a cup. Not enough for a pie."
"They’ll swell, you ninny. Sit down and add apple pie to that list of yours. And say dumplings, too, while you’re at it. We can make a stagger at them-put two pieces of apple in two lumps of dough and boil them. Never say die. We’ll make them think we’re living like princes when they read that."
Clarence did as directed, and then sat with such a look of query on his face as to make George nervous and doubtful.
"Pretty slim after all," he mused. "Let’s see if we can’t find something else-bread, flapjacks and-and-why flour-gravy, of course."
"We can bake, and boil, and fry the beans," Clarence suggested; "but what’s to be done with the bacon except to fry it, I can’t see."
"Why parboil it; that makes another course, nine altogether. How much more do you want, anyway?" And then to change the subject, "How cold do you think it is?"
Clarence critically studied the ice which had crept far up the cracks in the door, and then gave his judgment; "Past fifty."
"The spirit thermometer gives sixty-five, and it’s still falling." George could not prevent an exultant ring in his voice, though if he had been asked why, he would not have known.
"And water freezes at thirty-two degrees above zero," Clarence began to calculate. "That makes ninety-seven degrees of frost. Phew! Wouldn’t that open the eyes of the folks at home!"
So, like the two boys that they were, they temporarily forgot their monotonous fare in an exciting discussion of the whys and wherefores of cold. But when one is afflicted with a healthy appetite he can not escape from it very long at a time, and at twelve o’clock they set about cooking their slender meal.
George went into the cache for bacon, and begun to rummage about in odd places to see what he could find. Now the cache, or place where their food was stored to keep it away from the perpetually-hungry native dogs, was built onto the back of the cabin. Clarence heard the racket he was making, and when he began to cheer and cry out "Eureka! Eureka!" he ran out to see what had happened.
"Manna! brother mine! Manna! dropped from the clouds for the starving children of Israel!" he cried, waving a large can above his head. "Mock-turtle soup. Found it in the tool box," he went on, as they carried it into the cabin.
True enough; it was a quart-can of specially prepared and very rich mock-turtle soup. They sang and danced and were as jubilant as though they had found a gold mine. Clarence added the item to the bill of fare in his letter, while George strove to divide it up into two items, or even more. He showed a special aptitude for this kind of work; but how many tempting dishes he would have finally succeeded in evolving out of it, shall never be known, for at that moment they heard a dog team pull up the river bank before the cabin.
The next instant the door opened, and two strangers came in. They were grotesque sights. Their heads were huge balls of ice, with little holes where their mouths should have been through which they breathed. Unable to open their mouths or speak, they shook hands with the boys and headed for the stove. Clarence and George exchanged glances and watched their strange visitors curiously.
"Wal, it’s jes’ this way," one of them began, as he shook the remaining chunks of ice from his whiskers; "me an’ my pard ha’ ben nigh on two months, now, over on the Mazy May, with nothin’ to eat but straight meat. Nary flour, nary beans, nary bacon. So me an’ him sorto’ talked it over, an’ figgered it out. At last I sez, ’Wot yeh say, Jim? Let’s cross the divide an’ strike some camp on the Yukon, an’git some civilized grub again? Git a reg’lar Christmas dinner? An’ he sez ’I’ll go yeh, by gum.’An’ here we be. How air yeh off fer meat? Got a hundred pound or so, on the sled outside."
Just as Clarence and George were assuring him that he was heartily welcome, the other man tore away the last hindrance to his speech, and broke in; "Say, lads; yeh haint got a leetle bit o’ bread yeh might spare. I’m thet hungry fer jes’ a leetle bit,"
"Yeh jes’ shet up, Jim!" cried his partner indignantly. "Ye’d make these kids think yeh might be starvin’. Haint yeh had all yeh wanted to eat?"
"Yes," was the gloomy reply; "but nothin’ but straight meat."
However, Clarence put an end to the discussion by setting the table with sour-dough bread and cold bacon, having first made them promise not to spoil their appetites for the dinner. The poor fellows handled the heavy bread reverently, and went into ecstasies of delight over it. Then they went out, unharnessed the dogs, and brought some magnificent pieces of moose meat in with them. The boys’ mouths watered at the sight, for they were longing for it just as much as the others longed for the bread.
"Porterhouse moose-steak," whispered George; "tenderloin, sirloin and round; liver and bacon; rib-roast of moose, moose stew and fried sweet breads. Hurry, Clarence, and add them to the bill of fare."
"Now don’t bother me. I’m cook, and I’m going to boss this dinner, so you obey orders. Take a piece of that meat and go down to the cabin on the next island. They’d give most anything for it, so see that you make a good trade."
The hungry strangers sat on the bunk and watched proceedings with satisfied countenances, while Clarence mixed and kneaded the dough for a baking of bread. In a short time George returned, with one cup of dried apples and five prunes. Yet they were all disappointed at his failure to get sugar. But the dinner already promised to be such a grand affair that they could readily forego such trifling matter as sweets.
Just as Clarence was shortening the pie-dough with bacon grease, a second sled pulled up at the door, and another stranger entered. A vivid picture he made, as he stood for an instant in the doorway. Though his eyebrows and lashes were matted with ice, his face was clean-shaven, and hence, free from it. From his beaded moccasins to his great gauntleted mittens and wolf-skin cap from Siberia, every article of wearing apparel proclaimed him to be one of the "Eldorado Kings," or millionaire mine-owners of Dawson.
He was a pleasant man to look at, though his heavy jaw and steel-blue eyes gave notice of a firm, indomitable will. About his waist was clasped a leather belt, in which reposed two large Colt’s revolvers and a hunting-knife, while in his hand, besides the usual dog whip, he carried a smokeless rifle of the largest bore and latest pattern. They wondered at this, for men in the Klondike rarely go armed, and then because of necessity.
His story was soon told. His own team of seven dogs, the finest in the country and for which he had recently refused five thousand dollars, had been stolen five days before. He had found the clue, and discovered that the thieves had started out of the country on the ice. He had borrowed a team of dogs from a friend and taken their trail.
They marvelled at his speed, for he had left Dawson at midnight, having traveled the seventy-five miles in twelve hours. He wished to rest the animals and take a few hours sleep, before going on with the chase. He was sure of overtaking them, he said, for they had foolishly started with an eighteen-inch sled, while the regular, trail Yukon-sleds were only sixteen inches wide. Thus, they had to break trail constantly for one of the runners, while his was already broken.
They recognized the party he was after, and assured him that he was certain to catch them in another twelve hours’ run. Then he was made welcome and invited to dinner. To their surprise, when he returned from unhitching and feeding his dogs he brought several pounds of sugar and two cans of condensed milk.
"Thought you fellows, up river here, would be out of luxuries," he said, as he threw them upon the table; "and as I wanted to travel light, I brought them along, intending to trade for beans and flour whenever I got a chance. No, never mind thanks. I’m going to eat dinner with you. Call me when it’s ready." And he climbed into one of the bunks, falling asleep a moment later.
"I say, Jim. Thet’s travelin’, aint it?" said the Man from Mazy May, with as much pride as though he had done it himself. "Seventy-five mile in twelve hours, an’ thet cold he wa’nt able to ride more’n half the time. Bet ye’d be petered clean out if yeh done the like o’ thet."
"Maybe yeh think I can’t travel," his partner replied. But before he could tell what a wonderful traveler he was, their dogs and the dogs of the new arrival started a fight, and had to be separated.
At last the dinner was ready, and just as they were calling the "Eldorado King," Uncle Hiram and Mr. Carter arrived.
"Not an ounce of sugar or can of milk to be bought in Dawson," he said. But his jaw dropped as he caught sight of the sugar and milk on the table, and he sheepishly held up a quart-can of strained honey as his contribution.
This addition necessitated a change in the bill of fare; so when they finally sat down, the first course of mock-turtle soup was followed by hot cakes and honey. While one after another the delicacies of "civilized grub," as they called it, appeared, the eyes of the Men from Mazy May opened wider and wider, and speech seemed to fail them.
But one more surprise was in store for them. They heard a jingle of bells, and another ice-covered traveler entered and claimed their hospitality. The new-comer was an Associated Press reporter, on his way to Dawson from the United States. His first question was concerning the whereabouts of a Mr. Hiram Donaldson, "said to be camped on the Yukon near the mouth of the Stuart River." On Uncle Hiram being pointed out to him, the reporter handed him a letter of introduction from the Mining Syndicate which he, Mr. Donaldson, was representing. Nor was this all. A fat package of letters was also passed over-the longed-looked for letters from home.
"By gum! This do beat all," said the Man from Mazy May, after a place had been made for the last arrival. But his partner had his mouth so full of apple dumpling that he could only roll his eyes in approval.
"I know what ’b’ stands for." whispered George across the table to Clarence.
"So do I. It stands for ’Bully’ with a big ’B’."
2. THE MEN OF FORTY-MILE
When Big Jim Belden ventured the apparently innocuous proposition that mush-ice was ’rather pecooliar,’ he little dreamed of what it would lead to.
Neither did Lon McFane, when he affirmed that anchor-ice was even more so; nor did Bettles, as he instantly disagreed, declaring the very existence of such a form to be a bugaboo.
’An’ ye’d be tellin’ me this,’ cried Lon, ’after the years ye’ve spint in the land! An’ we atin’ out the same pot this many’s the day!’ ’But the thing’s agin reasin,’ insisted Bettles.
’Look you, water’s warmer than ice—’ ’An’ little the difference, once ye break through.’
’Still it’s warmer, because it ain’t froze. An’ you say it freezes on the bottom?’ ’Only the anchor-ice, David, only the anchor-ice. An’ have ye niver drifted along, the water clear as glass, whin suddin, belike a cloud over the sun, the mushy-ice comes bubblin’ up an’ up till from bank to bank an’ bind to bind it’s drapin’ the river like a first snowfall?’ ’Unh, hunh! more’n once when I took a doze at the steering-oar. But it allus come out the nighest side-channel, an’ not bubblin’ up an’ up.’ ’But with niver a wink at the helm?’
’No; nor you. It’s agin reason. I’ll leave it to any man!’ Bettles appealed to the circle about the stove, but the fight was on between himself and Lon McFane.
’Reason or no reason, it’s the truth I’m tellin’ ye. Last fall, a year gone, ’twas Sitka Charley and meself saw the sight, droppin’ down the riffle ye’ll remember below Fort Reliance. An’ regular fall weather it was—the glint o’ the sun on the golden larch an’ the quakin’ aspens; an’ the glister of light on ivery ripple; an’ beyand, the winter an’ the blue haze of the North comin’ down hand in hand. It’s well ye know the same, with a fringe to the river an’ the ice formin’ thick in the eddies—an’ a snap an’ sparkle to the air, an’ ye a-feelin’ it through all yer blood, a-takin’ new lease of life with ivery suck of it. ’Tis then, me boy, the world grows small an’ the wandtherlust lays ye by the heels.
’But it’s meself as wandthers. As I was sayin’, we a-paddlin’, with niver a sign of ice, barrin’ that by the eddies, when the Injun lifts his paddle an’ sings out, "Lon McFane! Look ye below!" So have I heard, but niver thought to see! As ye know, Sitka Charley, like meself, niver drew first breath in the land; so the sight was new. Then we drifted, with a head over ayther side, peerin’ down through the sparkly water. For the world like the days I spint with the pearlers, watchin’ the coral banks a-growin’ the same as so many gardens under the sea. There it was, the anchor-ice, clingin’ an’ clusterin’ to ivery rock, after the manner of the white coral.
’But the best of the sight was to come. Just after clearin’ the tail of the riffle, the water turns quick the color of milk, an’ the top of it in wee circles, as when the graylin’ rise in the spring, or there’s a splatter of wet from the sky. ’Twas the anchor-ice comin’ up. To the right, to the lift, as far as iver a man cud see, the water was covered with the same.
An’ like so much porridge it was, slickin’ along the bark of the canoe, stickin’ like glue to the paddles. It’s many’s the time I shot the self-same riffle before, and it’s many’s the time after, but niver a wink of the same have I seen. ’Twas the sight of a lifetime.’ ’Do tell!’ dryly commented Bettles. ’D’ye think I’d b’lieve such a yarn? I’d ruther say the glister of light’d gone to your eyes, and the snap of the air to your tongue.’ ’’Twas me own eyes that beheld it, an’ if Sitka Charley was here, he’d be the lad to back me.’ ’But facts is facts, an’ they ain’t no gettin’ round ’em. It ain’t in the nature of things for the water furtherest away from the air to freeze first.’ ’But me own eyes-’ ’Don’t git het up over it,’ admonished Bettles, as the quick Celtic anger began to mount.
’Then yer not after belavin’ me?’ ’Sence you’re so blamed forehanded about it, no; I’d b’lieve nature first, and facts.’
’Is it the lie ye’d be givin’ me?’ threatened Lon. ’Ye’d better be askin’ that Siwash wife of yours. I’ll lave it to her, for the truth I spake.’ Bettles flared up in sudden wrath. The Irishman had unwittingly wounded him; for his wife was the half-breed daughter of a Russian fur-trader, married to him in the Greek Mission of Nulato, a thousand miles or so down the Yukon, thus being of much higher caste than the common Siwash, or native, wife. It was a mere Northland nuance, which none but the Northland adventurer may understand.
’I reckon you kin take it that way,’ was his deliberate affirmation.
The next instant Lon McFane had stretched him on the floor, the circle was broken up, and half a dozen men had stepped between.
Bettles came to his feet, wiping the blood from his mouth. ’It hain’t new, this takin’ and payin’ of blows, and don’t you never think but that this will be squared.’ ’An’ niver in me life did I take the lie from mortal man,’ was the retort courteous. ’An’ it’s an avil day I’ll not be to hand, waitin’ an’ willin’ to help ye lift yer debts, barrin’ no manner of way.’
’Still got that 38-55?’ Lon nodded.
’But you’d better git a more likely caliber. Mine’ll rip holes through you the size of walnuts.’
’Niver fear; it’s me own slugs smell their way with soft noses, an’ they’ll spread like flapjacks against the coming out beyand. An’ when’ll I have the pleasure of waitin’ on ye? The waterhole’s a strikin’ locality.’ ’’Tain’t bad. Jest be there in an hour, and you won’t set long on my coming.’ Both men mittened and left the Post, their ears closed to the remonstrances of their comrades. It was such a little thing; yet with such men, little things, nourished by quick tempers and stubborn natures, soon blossomed into big things.
Besides, the art of burning to bedrock still lay in the womb of the future, and the men of Forty-Mile, shut in by the long Arctic winter, grew high-stomached with overeating and enforced idleness, and became as irritable as do the bees in the fall of the year when the hives are overstocked with honey.
There was no law in the land. The mounted police was also a thing of the future. Each man measured an offense, and meted out the punishment inasmuch as it affected himself.
Rarely had combined action been necessary, and never in all the dreary history of the camp had the eighth article of the Decalogue been violated.
Big Jim Belden called an impromptu meeting. Scruff Mackenzie was placed as temporary chairman, and a messenger dispatched to solicit Father Roubeau’s good offices. Their position was paradoxical, and they knew it. By the right of might could they interfere to prevent the duel; yet such action, while in direct line with their wishes, went counter to their opinions. While their rough-hewn, obsolete ethics recognized the individual prerogative of wiping out blow with blow, they could not bear to think of two good comrades, such as Bettles and McFane, meeting in deadly battle. Deeming the man who would not fight on provocation a dastard, when brought to the test it seemed wrong that he should fight.
But a scurry of moccasins and loud cries, rounded off with a pistol-shot, interrupted the discussion. Then the storm-doors opened and Malemute Kid entered, a smoking Colt’s in his hand, and a merry light in his eye.
’I got him.’ He replaced the empty shell, and added, ’Your dog, Scruff.’ ’Yellow Fang?’
’No; the lop-eared one.’ ’The devil! Nothing the matter with him.’ ’Come out and take a look.’ ’That’s all right after all. Buess he’s got ’em, too. Yellow Fang came back this morning and took a chunk out of him, and came near to making a widower of me. Made a rush for Zarinska, but she whisked her skirts in his face and escaped with the loss of the same and a good roll in the snow. Then he took to the woods again. Hope he don’t come back. Lost any yourself?’ ’One—the best one of the pack—Shookum. Started amuck this morning, but didn’t get very far. Ran foul of Sitka Charley’s team, and they scattered him all over the street. And now two of them are loose, and raging mad; so you see he got his work in. The dog census will be small in the spring if we don’t do something.’
’And the man census, too.’ ’How’s that? Who’s in trouble now?’ ’Oh, Bettles and Lon McFane had an argument, and they’ll be down by the waterhole in a few minutes to settle it.’ The incident was repeated for his benefit, and Malemute Kid, accustomed to an obedience which his fellow men never failed to render, took charge of the affair. His quickly formulated plan was explained, and they promised to follow his lead implicitly.
’So you see,’ he concluded, ’we do not actually take away their privilege of fighting; and yet I don’t believe they’ll fight when they see the beauty of the scheme. Life’s a game and men the gamblers. They’ll stake their whole pile on the one chance in a thousand.
’Take away that one chance, and—they won’t play.’ He turned to the man in charge of the Post. ’Storekeeper, weight out three fathoms of your best half-inch manila.
’We’ll establish a precedent which will last the men of Forty-Mile to the end of time,’ he prophesied. Then he coiled the rope about his arm and led his followers out of doors, just in time to meet the principals.
’What danged right’d he to fetch my wife in?’ thundered Bettles to the soothing overtures of a friend. ’’Twa’n’t called for,’ he concluded decisively. ’’Twa’n’t called for,’ he reiterated again and again, pacing up and down and waiting for Lon McFane.
And Lon McFane—his face was hot and tongue rapid as he flaunted insurrection in the face of the Church. ’Then, father,’ he cried, ’it’s with an aisy heart I’ll roll in me flamy blankets, the broad of me back on a bed of coals. Niver shall it be said that Lon McFane took a lie ’twixt the teeth without iver liftin’ a hand! An’ I’ll not ask a blessin’. The years have been wild, but it’s the heart was in the right place.’ ’But it’s not the heart, Lon,’ interposed Father Roubeau; ’It’s pride that bids you forth to slay your fellow man.’ ’Yer Frinch,’ Lon replied. And then, turning to leave him, ’An’ will ye say a mass if the luck is against me?’ But the priest smiled, thrust his moccasined feet to the fore, and went out upon the white breast of the silent river. A packed trail, the width of a sixteen-inch sled, led out to the waterhole. On either side lay the deep, soft snow. The men trod in single file, without conversation; and the black-stoled priest in their midst gave to the function the solemn aspect of a funeral. It was a warm winter’s day for Forty-Mile—a day in which the sky, filled with heaviness, drew closer to the earth, and the mercury sought the unwonted level of twenty below. But there was no cheer in the warmth. There was little air in the upper strata, and the clouds hung motionless, giving sullen promise of an early snowfall. And the earth, unresponsive, made no preparation, content in its hibernation.
When the waterhole was reached, Bettles, having evidently reviewed the quarrel during the silent walk, burst out in a final ’’Twa’n’t called for,’ while Lon McFane kept grim silence. Indignation so choked him that he could not speak.
Yet deep down, whenever their own wrongs were not uppermost, both men wondered at their comrades. They had expected opposition, and this tacit acquiescence hurt them. It seemed more was due them from the men they had been so close with, and they felt a vague sense of wrong, rebelling at the thought of so many of their brothers coming out, as on a gala occasion, without one word of protest, to see them shoot each other down. It appeared their worth had diminished in the eyes of the community. The proceedings puzzled them.
’Back to back, David. An’ will it be fifty paces to the man, or double the quantity?’
’Fifty,’ was the sanguinary reply, grunted out, yet sharply cut.
But the new manila, not prominently displayed, but casually coiled about Malemute Kid’s arm, caught the quick eye of the Irishman, and thrilled him with a suspicious fear.
’An’ what are ye doin’ with the rope?’ ’Hurry up!’ Malemute Kid glanced at his watch.
’I’ve a batch of bread in the cabin, and I don’t want it to fall. Besides, my feet are getting cold.’ The rest of the men manifested their impatience in various suggestive ways.
’But the rope, Kid’ It’s bran’ new, an’ sure yer bread’s not that heavy it needs raisin’ with the like of that?’ Bettles by this time had faced around. Father Roubeau, the humor of the situation just dawning on him, hid a smile behind his mittened hand.
’No, Lon; this rope was made for a man.’ Malemute Kid could be very impressive on occasion.
’What man?’ Bettles was becoming aware of a personal interest.
’The other man.’ ’An’ which is the one ye’d mane by that?’ ’Listen, Lon—and you, too, Bettles! We’ve been talking this little trouble of yours over, and we’ve come to one conclusion. We know we have no right to stop your fighting-’ ’True for ye, me lad!’ ’And we’re not going to. But this much we can do, and shall do—make this the only duel in the history of Forty-Mile, set an example for every che-cha-qua that comes up or down the Yukon. The man who escapes killing shall be hanged to the nearest tree. Now, go ahead!’
Lon smiled dubiously, then his face lighted up. ’Pace her off, David—fifty paces, wheel, an’ niver a cease firin’ till a lad’s down for good. ’Tis their hearts’ll niver let them do the deed, an’ it’s well ye should know it for a true Yankee bluff.’
He started off with a pleased grin on his face, but Malemute Kid halted him.
’Lon! It’s a long while since you first knew me?’ ’Many’s the day.’ ’And you, Bettles?’
’Five year next June high water.’ ’And have you once, in all that time, known me to break my word’ Or heard of me breaking it?’ Both men shook their heads, striving to fathom what lay beyond.
’Well, then, what do you think of a promise made by me?’ ’As good as your bond,’ from Bettles.
’The thing to safely sling yer hopes of heaven by,’ promptly endorsed Lon McFane.
’Listen! I, Malemute Kid, give you my word—and you know what that means that the man who is not shot stretches rope within ten minutes after the shooting.’ He stepped back as Pilate might have done after washing his hands.
A pause and a silence came over the men of Forty-Mile. The sky drew still closer, sending down a crystal flight of frost—little geometric designs, perfect, evanescent as a breath, yet destined to exist till the returning sun had covered half its northern journey.
Both men had led forlorn hopes in their time—led with a curse or a jest on their tongues, and in their souls an unswerving faith in the God of Chance. But that merciful deity had been shut out from the present deal. They studied the face of Malemute Kid, but they studied as one might the Sphinx. As the quiet minutes passed, a feeling that speech was incumbent on them began to grow. At last the howl of a wolf-dog cracked the silence from the direction of Forty-Mile. The weird sound swelled with all the pathos of a breaking heart, then died away in a long-drawn sob.
’Well I be danged!’ Bettles turned up the collar of his mackinaw jacket and stared about him helplessly.
’It’s a gloryus game yer runnin’, Kid,’ cried Lon McFane. ’All the percentage of the house an’ niver a bit to the man that’s buckin’. The Devil himself’d niver tackle such a cinch—and damned if I do.’ There were chuckles, throttled in gurgling throats, and winks brushed away with the frost which rimed the eyelashes, as the men climbed the ice-notched bank and started across the street to the Post. But the long howl had drawn nearer, invested with a new note of menace. A woman screamed round the corner. There was a cry of, ’Here he comes!’ Then an Indian boy, at the head of half a dozen frightened dogs, racing with death, dashed into the crowd. And behind came Yellow Fang, a bristle of hair and a flash of gray. Everybody but the Yankee fled.
The Indian boy had tripped and fallen. Bettles stopped long enough to grip him by the slack of his furs, then headed for a pile of cordwood already occupied by a number of his comrades. Yellow Fang, doubling after one of the dogs, came leaping back. The fleeing animal, free of the rabies, but crazed with fright, whipped Bettles off his feet and flashed on up the street. Malemute Kid took a flying shot at Yellow Fang. The mad dog whirled a half airspring, came down on his back, then, with a single leap, covered half the distance between himself and Bettles.
But the fatal spring was intercepted. Lon McFane leaped from the woodpile, countering him in midair. Over they rolled, Lon holding him by the throat at arm’s length, blinking under the fetid slaver which sprayed his face. Then Bettles, revolver in hand and coolly waiting a chance, settled the combat.
’’Twas a square game, Kid,’ Lon remarked, rising to his feet and shaking the snow from out his sleeves; ’with a fair percentage to meself that bucked it.’ That night, while Lon McFane sought the forgiving arms of the Church in the direction of Father Roubeau’s cabin, Malemute Kid talked long to little purpose.
’But would you,’ persisted Mackenzie, ’supposing they had fought?’ ’Have I ever broken my word?’ ’No; but that isn’t the point. Answer the question. Would you?’ Malemute Kid straightened up. ’Scruff, I’ve been asking myself that question ever since, and—’
’Well, as yet, I haven’t found the answer.’
3. JAN, THE UNREPENTANT
“For there’s never a law of God or man
Runs north of Fifty-three.”
Jan rolled over, clawing and kicking. He was fighting hand and foot now, and he fought grimly, silently. Two of the three men who hung upon him, shouted directions to each other, and strove to curb the short, hairy devil who would not curb. The third man howled. His finger was between Jan’s teeth.
“Quit yer tantrums, Jan, an’ ease up!” panted Red Bill, getting a strangle-hold on Jan’s neck. “Why on earth can’t yeh hang decent and peaceable?”
But Jan kept his grip on the third man’s finger, and squirmed over the floor of the tent, into the pots and pans.
“Youah no gentleman, suh,” reproved Mr. Taylor, his body following his finger, and endeavoring to accommodate itself to every jerk of Jan’s head. “You hev killed Mistah Gordon, as brave and honorable a gentleman as ever hit the trail aftah the dogs. Youah a murderah, suh, and without honah.”
“An’ yer no comrade,” broke in Red Bill. “If you was, you’d hang ‘thout rampin’ around an’ roarin’. Come on, Jan, there’s a good fellow. Don’t give us no more trouble. Jes’ quit, an’ we’ll hang yeh neat and handy, an’ be done with it.”
“Steady, all!” Lawson, the sailorman, bawled. “Jam his head into the bean pot and batten down.”
“But my fingah, suh,” Mr. Taylor protested.
“Leggo with y’r finger, then! Always in the way!”
“But I can’t, Mistah Lawson. It’s in the critter’s gullet, and nigh chewed off as ’t is.”
“Stand by for stays!” As Lawson gave the warning, Jan half lifted himself, and the struggling quartet floundered across the tent into a muddle of furs and blankets. In its passage it cleared the body of a man, who lay motionless, bleeding from a bullet-wound in the neck.
All this was because of the madness which had come upon Jan—the madness which comes upon a man who has stripped off the raw skin of earth and grovelled long in primal nakedness, and before whose eyes rises the fat vales of the homeland, and into whose nostrils steals the whiff of bay, and grass, and flower, and new-turned soil. Through five frigid years Jan had sown the seed. Stuart River, Forty Mile, Circle City, Koyokuk, Kotzebue, had marked his bleak and strenuous agriculture, and now it was Nome that bore the harvest,—not the Nome of golden beaches and ruby sands, but the Nome of ’97, before Anvil City was located, or Eldorado District organized. John Gordon was a Yankee, and should have known better. But he passed the sharp word at a time when Jan’s blood-shot eyes blazed and his teeth gritted in torment. And because of this, there was a smell of saltpetre in the tent, and one lay quietly, while the other fought like a cornered rat, and refused to hang in the decent and peacable manner suggested by his comrades.
“If you will allow me, Mistah Lawson, befoah we go further in this rumpus, I would say it wah a good idea to pry this hyer varmint’s teeth apart. Neither will he bite off, nor will he let go. He has the wisdom of the sarpint, suh, the wisdom of the sarpint.”
“Lemme get the hatchet to him!” vociferated the sailor. “Lemme get the hatchet!” He shoved the steel edge close to Mr. Taylor’s finger and used the man’s teeth as a fulcrum. Jan held on and breathed through his nose, snorting like a grampus. “Steady, all! Now she takes it!”
“Thank you, suh; it is a powerful relief.” And Mr. Taylor proceeded to gather into his arms the victim’s wildly waving legs.
But Jan upreared in his Berserker rage; bleeding, frothing, cursing; five frozen years thawing into sudden hell. They swayed backward and forward, panted, sweated, like some cyclopean, many-legged monster rising from the lower deeps. The slush-lamp went over, drowned in its own fat, while the midday twilight scarce percolated through the dirty canvas of the tent.
“For the love of Gawd, Jan, get yer senses back!” pleaded Red Bill. “We ain’t goin’ to hurt yeh, ’r kill yeh, ’r anythin’ of that sort. Jes’ want to hang yeh, that’s all, an’ you a-messin’ round an’ rampagin’ somethin’ terrible. To think of travellin’ trail together an’ then bein’ treated this-a way. Wouldn’t ’bleeved it of yeh, Jan!”
“He’s got too much steerage-way. Grab holt his legs, Taylor, and heave’m over!”
“Yes, suh, Mistah Lawson. Do you press youah weight above, after I give the word.” The Kentuckian groped about him in the murky darkness. “Now, suh, now is the accepted time!”
There was a great surge, and a quarter of a ton of human flesh tottered and crashed to its fall against the side-wall. Pegs drew and guy-ropes parted, and the tent, collapsing, wrapped the battle in its greasy folds.
“Yer only makin’ it harder fer yerself,” Red Bill continued, at the same time driving both his thumbs into a hairy throat, the possessor of which he had pinned down. “You’ve made nuisance enough a’ ready, an’ it’ll take half the day to get things straightened when we’ve strung yeh up.”
“I’ll thank you to leave go, suh,” spluttered Mr. Taylor.
Red Bill grunted and loosed his grip, and the twain crawled out into the open. At the same instant Jan kicked clear of the sailor, and took to his heels across the snow.
“Hi! you lazy devils! Buck! Bright! Sic’m! Pull ’m down!” sang out Lawson, lunging through the snow after the fleeing man. Buck and Bright, followed by the rest of the dogs, outstripped him and rapidly overhauled the murderer.
There was no reason that these men should do this; no reason for Jan to run away; no reason for them to attempt to prevent him. On the one hand stretched the barren snow-land; on the other, the frozen sea. With neither food nor shelter, he could not run far. All they had to do was to wait till he wandered back to the tent, as he inevitably must, when the frost and hunger laid hold of him. But these men did not stop to think. There was a certain taint of madness running in the veins of all of them. Besides, blood had been spilled, and upon them was the blood-lust, thick and hot. “Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord, and He saith it in temperate climes where the warm sun steals away the energies of men. But in the Northland they have discovered that prayer is only efficacious when backed by muscle, and they are accustomed to doing things for themselves. God is everywhere, they have heard, but he flings a shadow over the land for half the year that they may not find him; so they grope in darkness, and it is not to be wondered that they often doubt, and deem the Decalogue out of gear.
Jan ran blindly, reckoning not of the way of his feet, for he was mastered by the verb “to live.” To live! To exist! Buck flashed gray through the air, but missed. The man struck madly at him, and stumbled. Then the white teeth of Bright closed on his mackinaw jacket, and he pitched into the snow. To live! To exist! He fought wildly as ever, the centre of a tossing heap of men and dogs. His left hand gripped a wolf-dog by the scruff of the back, while the arm was passed around the neck of Lawson. Every struggle of the dog helped to throttle the hapless sailor. Jan’s right hand was buried deep in the curling tendrils of Red Bill’s shaggy head, and beneath all, Mr. Taylor lay pinned and helpless. It was a deadlock, for the strength of his madness was prodigious; but suddenly, without apparent reason, Jan loosed his various grips and rolled over quietly on his back. His adversaries drew away a little, dubious and disconcerted. Jan grinned viciously.
“Mine friends,” he said, still grinning, “you haf asked me to be politeful, und now I am politeful. Vot piziness vood you do mit me?”
“That’s right, Jan. Be ca’m,” soothed Red Bill. “I knowed you’d come to yer senses afore long. Jes’ be ca’m now, an’ we’ll do the trick with neatness and despatch.”
“Vot piziness? Vot trick?”
“The hangin’. An’ yeh oughter thank yer lucky stars for havin’ a man what knows his business. I’ve did it afore now, more’n once, down in the States, an’ I can do it to a T.”
“Hang who? Me?”
“Ha! ha! Shust hear der man speak foolishness! Gif me a hand, Bill, und I vill get up und be hung.” He crawled stiffly to his feet and looked about him. “Herr Gott! listen to der man! He vood hang me! Ho! ho! ho! I tank not! Yes, I tank not!”
“And I tank yes, you swab,” Lawson spoke up mockingly, at the same time cutting a sled-lashing and coiling it up with ominous care. “Judge Lynch holds court this day.”
“Von liddle while.” Jan stepped back from the proffered noose. “I haf somedings to ask und to make der great proposition. Kentucky, you know about der Shudge Lynch?”
“Yes, suh. It is an institution of free men and of gentlemen, and it is an ole one and time-honored. Corruption may wear the robe of magistracy, suh, but Judge Lynch can always be relied upon to give justice without court fees. I repeat, suh, without court fees. Law may be bought and sold, but in this enlightened land justice is free as the air we breathe, strong as the licker we drink, prompt as—”
“Cut it short! Find out what the beggar wants,” interrupted Lawson, spoiling the peroration.
“Vell, Kentucky, tell me dis: von man kill von odder man, Shudge Lynch hang dot man?”
“If the evidence is strong enough—yes, suh.”
“An’ the evidence in this here case is strong enough to hang a dozen men, Jan,” broke in Red Bill.
“Nefer you mind, Bill. I talk mit you next. Now von anodder ding I ask Kentucky. If Shudge Lynch hang not der man, vot den?”
“If Judge Lynch does not hang the man, then the man goes free, and his hands are washed clean of blood. And further, suh, our great and glorious constitution has said, to wit: that no man may twice be placed in jeopardy of his life for one and the same crime, or words to that effect.”
“Unt dey can’t shoot him, or hit him mit a club over der head alongside, or do nodings more mit him?”
“Goot! You hear vot Kentucky speaks, all you noddleheads? Now I talk mit Bill. You know der piziness, Bill, und you hang me up brown, eh? Vot you say?”
“’Betcher life, an’, Jan, if yeh don’t give no more trouble ye’ll be almighty proud of the job. I’m a connesoor.”
“You haf der great head, Bill, und know somedings or two. Und you know two und one makes tree—ain’t it?”
“Und when you haf two dings, you haf not tree dings—ain’t it? Now you follow mit me close und I show you. It takes tree dings to hang. First ding, you haf to haf der man. Goot! I am der man. Second ding, you haf to haf der rope. Lawson haf der rope. Goot! Und tird ding, you haf to haf someding to tie der rope to. Sling your eyes over der landscape und find der tird ding to tie der rope to? Eh? Vot you say?”
Mechanically they swept the ice and snow with their eyes. It was a homogeneous scene, devoid of contrasts or bold contours, dreary, desolate, and monotonous,—the ice-packed sea, the slow slope of the beach, the background of low-lying hills, and over all thrown the endless mantle of snow. “No trees, no bluffs, no cabins, no telegraph poles, nothin’,” moaned Red Bill; “nothin’ respectable enough nor big enough to swing the toes of a five-foot man clear o’ the ground. I give it up.” He looked yearningly at that portion of Jan’s anatomy which joins the head and shoulders. “Give it up,” he repeated sadly to Lawson. “Throw the rope down. Gawd never intended this here country for livin’ purposes, an’ that’s a cold frozen fact.”
Jan grinned triumphantly. “I tank I go mit der tent und haf a smoke.”
“Ostensiblee y’r correct, Bill, me son,” spoke up Lawson; “but y’r a dummy, and you can lay to that for another cold frozen fact. Takes a sea farmer to learn you landsmen things. Ever hear of a pair of shears? Then clap y’r eyes to this.”
The sailor worked rapidly. From the pile of dunnage where they had pulled up the boat the preceding fall, he unearthed a pair of long oars. These he lashed together, at nearly right angles, close to the ends of the blades. Where the handles rested he kicked holes through the snow to the sand. At the point of intersection he attached two guy-ropes, making the end of one fast to a cake of beach-ice. The other guy he passed over to Red Bill. “Here, me son, lay holt o’ that and run it out.”
And to his horror, Jan saw his gallows rise in the air. “No! no!” he cried, recoiling and putting up his fists. “It is not goot! I vill not hang! Come, you noddleheads! I vill lick you, all together, von after der odder! I vill blay hell! I vill do eferydings! Und I vill die pefore I hang!”
The sailor permitted the two other men to clinch with the mad creature. They rolled and tossed about furiously, tearing up snow and tundra, their fierce struggle writing a tragedy of human passion on the white sheet spread by nature. And ever and anon a hand or foot of Jan emerged from the tangle, to be gripped by Lawson and lashed fast with rope-yarns. Pawing, clawing, blaspheming, he was conquered and bound, inch by inch, and drawn to where the inexorable shears lay like a pair of gigantic dividers on the snow. Red Bill adjusted the noose, placing the hangman’s knot properly under the left ear. Mr. Taylor and Lawson tailed onto the running-guy, ready at the word to elevate the gallows. Bill lingered, contemplating his work with artistic appreciation.
“Herr Gott! Vood you look at it!”
The horror in Jan’s voice caused the rest to desist. The fallen tent had uprisen, and in the gathering twilight it flapped ghostly arms about and titubated toward them drunkenly. But the next instant John Gordon found the opening and crawled forth.
“What the flaming—!” For the moment his voice died away in his throat as his eyes took in the tableau. “Hold on! I’m not dead!” he cried out, coming up to the group with stormy countenance.
“Allow me, Mistah Gordon, to congratulate you upon youah escape,” Mr. Taylor ventured. “A close shave, suh, a powahful close shave.”
“ Congratulate hell! I might have been dead and rotten and no thanks to you, you—!” And thereat John Gordon delivered himself of a vigorous flood of English, terse, intensive, denunciative, and composed solely of expletives and adjectives.
“Simply creased me,” he went on when he had eased himself sufficiently. “Ever crease cattle, Taylor?”
“Yes, suh, many a time down in God’s country.”
“Just so. That’s what happened to me. Bullet just grazed the base of my skull at the top of the neck. Stunned me but no harm done.” He turned to the bound man. “Get up, Jan. I’m going to lick you to a standstill or you’re going to apologize. The rest of you lads stand clear.”
“I tank not. Shust tie me loose und you see,” replied Jan, the Unrepentant, the devil within him still unconquered. “Und after as I lick you, I take der rest of der noddleheads, von after der odder, altogedder!”
4. A RELIC OF THE PLIOCENE
I wash my hands of him at the start. I cannot father his tales, nor will I be responsible for them. I make these preliminary reservations, observe, as a guard upon my own integrity. I possess a certain definite position in a small way, also a wife; and for the good name of the community that honours my existence with its approval, and for the sake of her posterity and mine, I cannot take the chances I once did, nor foster probabilities with the careless improvidence of youth. So, I repeat, I wash my hands of him, this Nimrod, this mighty hunter, this homely, blue-eyed, freckle-faced Thomas Stevens.
Having been honest to myself, and to whatever prospective olive branches my wife may be pleased to tender me, I can now afford to be generous. I shall not criticize the tales told me by Thomas Stevens, and, further, I shall withhold my judgment. If it be asked why, I can only add that judgment I have none. Long have I pondered, weighed, and balanced, but never have my conclusions been twice the same—forsooth! because Thomas Stevens is a greater man than I. If he have told truths, well and good; if untruths, still well and good. For who can prove? or who disprove? I eliminate myself from the proposition, while those of little faith may do as I have done—go find the same Thomas Stevens, and discuss to his face the various matters which, if fortune serve, I shall relate. As to where he may be found? The directions are simple: anywhere between 53 north latitude and the Pole, on the one hand; and, on the other, the likeliest hunting grounds that lie between the east coast of Siberia and farthermost Labrador. That he is there, somewhere, within that clearly defined territory, I pledge the word of an honourable man whose expectations entail straight speaking and right living.
Thomas Stevens may have toyed prodigiously with truth, but when we first met (it were well to mark this point), he wandered into my camp when I thought myself a thousand miles beyond the outermost post of civilization. At the sight of his human face, the first in weary months, I could have sprung forward and folded him in my arms (and I am not by any means a demonstrative man); but to him his visit seemed the most casual thing under the sun. He just strolled into the light of my camp, passed the time of day after the custom of men on beaten trails, threw my snowshoes the one way and a couple of dogs the other, and so made room for himself by the fire. Said he’d just dropped in to borrow a pinch of soda and to see if I had any decent tobacco. He plucked forth an ancient pipe, loaded it with painstaking care, and, without as much as by your leave, whacked half the tobacco of my pouch into his. Yes, the stuff was fairly good. He sighed with the contentment of the just, and literally absorbed the smoke from the crisping yellow flakes, and it did my smoker’s heart good to behold him.
Hunter? Trapper? Prospector? He shrugged his shoulders No; just sort of knocking round a bit. Had come up from the Great Slave some time since, and was thinking of trapsing over into the Yukon country. The factor of Koshim had spoken about the discoveries on the Klondike, and he was of a mind to run over for a peep. I noticed that he spoke of the Klondike in the archaic vernacular, calling it the Reindeer River—a conceited custom that the Old Timers employ against the che-chaquas and all tenderfeet in general. But he did it so naively and as such a matter of course, that there was no sting, and I forgave him. He also had it in view, he said, before he crossed the divide into the Yukon, to make a little run up Fort o’ Good Hope way.
Now Fort o’ Good Hope is a far journey to the north, over and beyond the Circle, in a place where the feet of few men have trod; and when a nondescript ragamuffin comes in out of the night, from nowhere in particular, to sit by one’s fire and discourse on such in terms of “trapsing” and “a little run,” it is fair time to rouse up and shake off the dream. Wherefore I looked about me; saw the fly and, underneath, the pine boughs spread for the sleeping furs; saw the grub sacks, the camera, the frosty breaths of the dogs circling on the edge of the light; and, above, a great streamer of the aurora, bridging the zenith from south-east to north-west. I shivered. There is a magic in the Northland night, that steals in on one like fevers from malarial marshes. You are clutched and downed before you are aware. Then I looked to the snowshoes, lying prone and crossed where he had flung them. Also I had an eye to my tobacco pouch. Half, at least, of its goodly store had vamosed. That settled it. Fancy had not tricked me after all.
Crazed with suffering, I thought, looking steadfastly at the man—one of those wild stampeders, strayed far from his bearings and wandering like a lost soul through great vastnesses and unknown deeps. Oh, well, let his moods slip on, until, mayhap, he gathers his tangled wits together. Who knows?—the mere sound of a fellow-creature’s voice may bring all straight again.
So I led him on in talk, and soon I marvelled, for he talked of game and the ways thereof. He had killed the Siberian wolf of westernmost Alaska, and the chamois in the secret Rockies. He averred he knew the haunts where the last buffalo still roamed; that he had hung on the flanks of the caribou when they ran by the hundred thousand, and slept in the Great Barrens on the musk-ox’s winter trail.
And I shifted my judgment accordingly (the first revision, but by no account the last), and deemed him a monumental effigy of truth. Why it was I know not, but the spirit moved me to repeat a tale told to me by a man who had dwelt in the land too long to know better. It was of the great bear that hugs the steep slopes of St Elias, never descending to the levels of the gentler inclines. Now God so constituted this creature for its hillside habitat that the legs of one side are all of a foot longer than those of the other. This is mighty convenient, as will be reality admitted. So I hunted this rare beast in my own name, told it in the first person, present tense, painted the requisite locale, gave it the necessary garnishings and touches of verisimilitude, and looked to see the man stunned by the recital.
Not he. Had he doubted, I could have forgiven him. Had he objected, denying the dangers of such a hunt by virtue of the animal’s inability to turn about and go the other way—had he done this, I say, I could have taken him by the hand for the true sportsman that he was. Not he. He sniffed, looked on me, and sniffed again; then gave my tobacco due praise, thrust one foot into my lap, and bade me examine the gear. It was a mucluc of the Innuit pattern, sewed together with sinew threads, and devoid of beads or furbelows. But it was the skin itself that was remarkable. In that it was all of half an inch thick, it reminded me of walrus-hide; but there the resemblance ceased, for no walrus ever bore so marvellous a growth of hair. On the side and ankles this hair was well-nigh worn away, what of friction with underbrush and snow; but around the top and down the more sheltered back it was coarse, dirty black, and very thick. I parted it with difficulty and looked beneath for the fine fur that is common with northern animals, but found it in this case to be absent. This, however, was compensated for by the length. Indeed, the tufts that had survived wear and tear measured all of seven or eight inches.
I looked up into the man’s face, and he pulled his foot down and asked, “Find hide like that on your St Elias bear?”
I shook my head. “Nor on any other creature of land or sea,” I answered candidly. The thickness of it, and the length of the hair, puzzled me.
“That,” he said, and said without the slightest hint of impressiveness, “that came from a mammoth.”
“Nonsense!” I exclaimed, for I could not forbear the protest of my unbelief. “The mammoth, my dear sir, long ago vanished from the earth. We know it once existed by the fossil remains that we have unearthed, and by a frozen carcase that the Siberian sun saw fit to melt from out the bosom of a glacier; but we also know that no living specimen exists. Our explorers—”
At this word he broke in impatiently. “Your explorers? Pish! A weakly breed. Let us hear no more of them. But tell me, O man, what you may know of the mammoth and his ways.”
Beyond contradiction, this was leading to a yarn; so I baited my hook by ransacking my memory for whatever data I possessed on the subject in hand. To begin with, I emphasized that the animal was prehistoric, and marshalled all my facts in support of this. I mentioned the Siberian sand-bars that abounded with ancient mammoth bones; spoke of the large quantities of fossil ivory purchased from the Innuits by the Alaska Commercial Company; and acknowledged having myself mined six- and eight-foot tusks from the pay gravel of the Klondike creeks. “All fossils,” I concluded, “found in the midst of débris deposited through countless ages.”
“I remember when I was a kid,” Thomas Stevens sniffed (he had a most confounded way of sniffing), “that I saw a petrified water-melon. Hence, though mistaken persons sometimes delude themselves into thinking that they are really raising or eating them, there are no such things as extant water-melons?”
“But the question of food,” I objected, ignoring his point, which was puerile and without bearing. “The soil must bring forth vegetable life in lavish abundance to support so monstrous creations. Nowhere in the North is the soil so prolific. Ergo, the mammoth cannot exist.”
“I pardon your ignorance concerning many matters of this Northland, for you are a young man and have travelled little; but, at the same time, I am inclined to agree with you on one thing. The mammoth no longer exists. How do I know? I killed the last one with my own right arm.”
Thus spake Nimrod, the mighty Hunter. I threw a stick of firewood at the dogs and bade them quit their unholy howling, and waited. Undoubtedly this liar of singular felicity would open his mouth and requite me for my St. Elias bear.
“It was this way,” he at last began, after the appropriate silence had intervened. “I was in camp one day—”
“Where?” I interrupted.
He waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the north-east, where stretched a terra incognita into which vastness few men have strayed and fewer emerged. “I was in camp one day with Klooch. Klooch was as handsome a little kamooks as ever whined betwixt the traces or shoved nose into a camp kettle. Her father was a full-blood Malemute from Russian Pastilik on Bering Sea, and I bred her, and with understanding, out of a clean-legged bitch of the Hudson Bay stock. I tell you, O man, she was a corker combination. And now, on this day I have in mind, she was brought to pup through a pure wild wolf of the woods—grey, and long of limb, with big lungs and no end of staying powers. Say! Was there ever the like? It was a new breed of dog I had started, and I could look forward to big things.
“As I have said, she was brought neatly to pup, and safely delivered. I was squatting on my hams over the litter—seven sturdy, blind little beggars—when from behind came a bray of trumpets and crash of brass. There was a rush, like the wind-squall that kicks the heels of the rain, and I was midway to my feet when knocked flat on my face. At the same instant I heard Klooch sigh, very much as a man does when you’ve planted your fist in his belly. You can stake your sack I lay quiet, but I twisted my head around and saw a huge bulk swaying above me. Then the blue sky flashed into view and I got to my feet. A hairy mountain of flesh was just disappearing in the underbrush on the edge of the open. I caught a rear-end glimpse, with a stiff tail, as big in girth as my body, standing out straight behind. The next second only a tremendous hole remained in the thicket, though I could still hear the sounds as of a tornado dying quickly away, underbrush ripping and tearing, and trees snapping and crashing.
“I cast about for my rifle. It had been lying on the ground with the muzzle against a log; but now the stock was smashed, the barrel out of line, and the working-gear in a thousand bits. Then I looked for the slut, and—and what do you suppose?”
I shook my head.
“May my soul burn in a thousand hells if there was anything left of her! Klooch, the seven sturdy, blind little beggars—gone, all gone. Where she had stretched was a slimy, bloody depression in the soft earth, all of a yard in diameter, and around the edges a few scattered hairs.”
I measured three feet on the snow, threw about it a circle, and glanced at Nimrod.
“The beast was thirty long and twenty high,” he answered, “and its tusks scaled over six times three feet. I couldn’t believe, myself, at the time, for all that it had just happened. But if my senses had played me, there was the broken gun and the hole in the brush. And there was—or, rather, there was not—Klooch and the pups. O man, it makes me hot all over now when I think of it Klooch! Another Eve! The mother of a new race! And a rampaging, ranting, old bull mammoth, like a second flood, wiping them, root and branch, off the face of the earth! Do you wonder that the blood-soaked earth cried out to high God? Or that I grabbed the hand-axe and took the trail?”
“The hand-axe?” I exclaimed, startled out of myself by the picture. “The hand-axe, and a big bull mammoth, thirty feet long, twenty feet—”
Nimrod joined me in my merriment, chuckling gleefully. “Wouldn’t it kill you?” he cried. “Wasn’t it a beaver’s dream? Many’s the time I’ve laughed about it since, but at the time it was no laughing matter, I was that danged mad, what of the gun and Klooch. Think of it, O man! A brand-new, unclassified, uncopyrighted breed, and wiped out before ever it opened its eyes or took out its intention papers! Well, so be it. Life’s full of disappointments, and rightly so. Meat is best after a famine, and a bed soft after a hard trail.
“As I was saying, I took out after the beast with the hand-axe, and hung to its heels down the valley; but when he circled back toward the head, I was left winded at the lower end. Speaking of grub, I might as well stop long enough to explain a couple of points. Up thereabouts, in the midst of the mountains, is an almighty curious formation. There is no end of little valleys, each like the other much as peas in a pod, and all neatly tucked away with straight, rocky walls rising on all sides. And at the lower ends are always small openings where the drainage or glaciers must have broken out. The only way in is through these mouths, and they are all small, and some smaller than others. As to grub—you’ve slushed around on the rain-soaked islands of the Alaskan coast down Sitka way, most likely, seeing as you’re a traveller. And you know how stuff grows there—big, and juicy, and jungly. Well, that’s the way it was with those valleys. Thick, rich soil, with ferns and grasses and such things in patches higher than your head. Rain three days out of four during the summer months; and food in them for a thousand mammoths, to say nothing of small game for man.
“But to get back. Down at the lower end of the valley I got winded and gave over. I began to speculate, for when my wind left me my dander got hotter and hotter, and I knew I’d never know peace of mind till I dined on roasted mammoth-foot. And I knew, also, that that stood for skookum mamook pukapuk—excuse Chinook, I mean there was a big fight coming. Now the mouth of my valley was very narrow, and the walls steep. High up on one side was one of those big pivot rocks, or balancing rocks, as some call them, weighing all of a couple of hundred tons. Just the thing. I hit back for camp, keeping an eye open so the bull couldn’t slip past, and got my ammunition. It wasn’t worth anything with the rifle smashed; so I opened the shells, planted the powder under the rock, and touched it off with slow fuse. Wasn’t much of a charge, but the old boulder tilted up lazily and dropped down into place, with just space enough to let the creek drain nicely. Now I had him.”
“But how did you have him?” I queried. “Who ever heard of a man killing a mammoth with a hand-axe? And, for that matter, with anything else?”
“O man, have I not told you I was mad?” Nimrod replied, with a slight manifestation of sensitiveness. “Mad clean through, what of Klooch and the gun. Also, was I not a hunter? And was this not new and most unusual game? A hand-axe? Pish! I did not need it. Listen, and you shall hear of a hunt, such as might have happened in the youth of the world when cavemen rounded up the kill with hand-axe of stone. Such would have served me as well. Now is it not a fact that man can outwalk the dog or horse? That he can wear them out with the intelligence of his endurance?”
The light broke in on me, and I bade him continue.
“My valley was perhaps five miles around. The mouth was closed. There was no way to get out. A timid beast was that bull mammoth, and I had him at my mercy. I got on his heels again hollered like a fiend, pelted him with cobbles, and raced him around the valley three times before I knocked off for supper. Don’t you see? A race-course! A man and a mammoth! A hippodrome, with sun, moon, and stars to referee!
“It took me two months to do it, but I did it. And that’s no beaver dream. Round and round I ran him, me travelling on the inner circle, eating jerked meat and salmon berries on the run, and snatching winks of sleep between. Of course, he’d get desperate at times and turn. Then I’d head for soft ground where the creek spread out, and lay anathema upon him and his ancestry, and dare him to come on. But he was too wise to bog in a mud puddle. Once he pinned me in against the walls, and I crawled back into a deep crevice and waited. Whenever he felt for me with his trunk, I’d belt him with the hand-axe till he pulled out, shrieking fit to split my ear drums, he was that mad. He knew he had me and didn’t have me, and it near drove him wild. But he was no man’s fool. He knew he was safe as long as I stayed in the crevice, and he made up his mind to keep me there. And he was dead right, only he hadn’t figured on the commissary. There was neither grub nor water around that spot, so on the face of it he couldn’t keep up the siege. He’d stand before the opening for hours, keeping an eye on me and flapping mosquitoes away with his big blanket ears. Then the thirst would come on him and he’d ramp round and roar till the earth shook, calling me every name he could lay tongue to. This was to frighten me, of course; and when he thought I was sufficiently impressed, he’d back away softly and try to make a sneak for the creek. Sometimes I’d let him get almost there—only a couple of hundred yards away it was—when out I’d pop and back he’d come, lumbering along like the old landslide he was. After I’d done this a few times, and he’d figured it out, he changed his tactics. Grasped the time element, you see. Without a word of warning, away he’d go, tearing for the water like mad, scheming to get there and back before I ran away. Finally, after cursing me most horribly, he raised the siege and deliberately stalked off to the water-hole.
“That was the only time he penned me,—three days of it,—but after that the hippodrome never stopped. Round, and round, and round, like a six days’ go-as-I-please, for he never pleased. My clothes went to rags and tatters, but I never stopped to mend, till at last I ran naked as a son of earth, with nothing but the old hand-axe in one hand and a cobble in the other. In fact, I never stopped, save for peeps of sleep in the crannies and ledges of the cliffs. As for the bull, he got perceptibly thinner and thinner—must have lost several tons at least—and as nervous as a schoolmarm on the wrong side of matrimony. When I’d come up with him and yell, or lain him with a rock at long range, he’d jump like a skittish colt and tremble all over. Then he’d pull out on the run, tail and trunk waving stiff, head over one shoulder and wicked eyes blazing, and the way he’d swear at me was something dreadful. A most immoral beast he was, a murderer, and a blasphemer.
“But towards the end he quit all this, and fell to whimpering and crying like a baby. His spirit broke and he became a quivering jelly-mountain of misery. He’d get attacks of palpitation of the heart, and stagger around like a drunken man, and fall down and bark his shins. And then he’d cry, but always on the run. O man, the gods themselves would have wept with him, and you yourself or any other man. It was pitiful, and there was so I much of it, but I only hardened my heart and hit up the pace. At last I wore him clean out, and he lay down, broken-winded, broken-hearted, hungry, and thirsty. When I found he wouldn’t budge, I hamstrung him, and spent the better part of the day wading into him with the hand-axe, he a-sniffing and sobbing till I worked in far enough to shut him off. Thirty feet long he was, and twenty high, and a man could sling a hammock between his tusks and sleep comfortably. Barring the fact that I had run most of the juices out of him, he was fair eating, and his four feet, alone, roasted whole, would have lasted a man a twelvemonth. I spent the winter there myself.”
“And where is this valley?” I asked
He waved his hand in the direction of the north-east, and said: “Your tobacco is very good. I carry a fair share of it in my pouch, but I shall carry the recollection of it until I die. In token of my appreciation, and in return for the moccasins on your own feet, I will present to you these muclucs. They commemorate Klooch and the seven blind little beggars. They are also souvenirs of an unparalleled event in history, namely, the destruction of the oldest breed of animal on earth, and the youngest. And their chief virtue lies in that they will never wear out.”
Having effected the exchange, he knocked the ashes from his pipe, gripped my hand good-night, and wandered off through the snow. Concerning this tale, for which I have already disclaimed responsibility, I would recommend those of little faith to make a visit to the Smithsonian Institute. If they bring the requisite credentials and do not come in vacation time, they will undoubtedly gain an audience with Professor Dolvidson. The muclucs are in his possession, and he will verify, not the manner in which they were obtained, but the material of which they are composed. When he states that they are made from the skin of the mammoth, the scientific world accepts his verdict. What more would you have?
5. TO BUILD A FIRE (Juvenile Version)
For land travel or seafaring, the world over, a companion is usually considered desirable. In the Klondike, as Tom Vincent found out, such a companion is absolutely essential. But he found it out, not by precept, but through bitter experience.
"Never travel alone," is a precept of the north. He had heard it many times and laughed; for he was a strapping young fellow, big-boned and big-muscled, with faith in himself and in the strength of his head and hands.
It was on a bleak January day when the experience came that taught him respect for the frost, and for the wisdom of the men who had battled with it.
He had left Calumet Camp on the Yukon with a light pack on his back, to go up Paul Creek to the divide between it and Cherry Creek, where his party was prospecting and hunting moose.
The frost was sixty-degrees below zero, and be had thirty miles of lonely trail to cover, but he did not mind. In fact, be enjoyed it, swinging along through the silence, his blood pounding warmly through veins, and his mind carefree and happy. For he and his comrades were certain they had struck "pay" up there on the Cherry Creek Divide; and, further, he was returning to them from Dawson with cheery home letters from the States.
At seven o’clock, when he turned the heels of his moccasins toward Calumet Camp, it was still black night. And when day broke at half past nine he had made the four-mile cut-off across the flats and was six miles up Paul Creek. The trail, which had seen little travel, followed the bed of the creek, and there was no possibility of his getting lost. He had gone to Dawson by way of Cherry Creek and Indian River, so Paul Creek was new and strange. By half past eleven he was at the forks, which bad been described to him, and he knew he had covered fifteen miles, half the distance. He knew that in the nature of things the trail was bound to grow worse from there on, and thought that, considering the good time he had made, he merited lunch. Casting off his pack and taking a seat on a fallen tree, he unmittened his right hand, reached inside his shirt next to the skin, and fished out a couple of biscuits sandwiched with sliced bacon and wrapped in a handkerchief — the only way they could be carried without freezing solid.
He had barely chewed the first mouthful when his numbing fingers warned him to put his mitten on again. This he did, not without surprise at the bitter swiftness with which the frost bit in. Undoubtedly it was the coldest snap he had ever experienced, he thought.
He spat upon the snow,— a favorite northland trick, — and the sharp crackle of the instantly congealed spittle startled him. The spirit thermometer at Calumet had registered sixty below when he left, but he was certain it had grown much colder, how much colder he could not imagine.
Half of the first biscuit was yet untouched, but he could feel himself beginning to chill — a thing most unusual for him. This would never do, he decided, and slipping the packstraps across his shoulders, he leaped to his feet and ran briskly up the trail.
A few minutes of this made him warm again, and he settled down to a steady stride, munching the biscuits as be went along. The moisture that exhaled with his breath crusted his lips and mustache with pendent ice and formed a miniature glacier on his chin. Now and again sensation forsook his nose and cheeks, and he rubbed them till they burned with the returning blood.
Most men wore nose-straps; his partners did, but he had scorned such "feminine contraptions," and till now had never felt the need of them. Now he did feel the need, for he was rubbing constantly.
Nevertheless he was aware of a thrill of joy, of exultation. He was doing something, achieving something, mastering the elements. Once he laughed aloud in sheer strength of life, and with his clenched fist defied the frost. He was its master. What he did he did in spite of it. It could not stop him. He was going on to the Cherry Creek Divide.
Strong as were the elements, he was stronger. At such times animals crawled away into their holes and remained in hiding. But he did not hide. He was out in it, facing it, fighting it. He was a man, a master of things.
In such fashion, rejoicing proudly, he tramped on. After an hour he rounded a bend, where the creek ran close to the mountainside, and came upon one of the most insignificant-appearing but most formidable dangers in northern travel.
The creek itself was frozen solid to its rocky bottom, but from the mountain came the outflow of several springs. These springs never froze, and the only effect of the severest cold snaps was to lessen their discharge. Protected from the frost by the blanket of snow, the water of these springs seeped down into the creek and, on top of the creek ice, formed shallow pools.
The surface of these pools, in turn, took on a skin of ice which grew thicker and thicker, until the water overran, and so formed a second ice-skinned pool above the first.
Thus at the bottom was the solid creek ice, then probably six to eight inches of water, then the thin ice-skin, then another six inches of water and another ice-skin. And on top of this last skin was about an inch of recent snow to make the trap complete.
To Tom Vincent’s eye the unbroken snow surface gave no warning of the lurking danger. As the crust was thicker at the edge, he was well toward the middle before he broke through.
In itself it was a very insignificant mishap, - a man does not drown in twelve inches of water, but in its consequences as serious an accident as could possibly befall him.
At the instant he broke through he felt the cold water strike his feet and ankles, and with half a dozen lunges he made the bank. He was quite cool and collected. The thing to do, and the only thing to do, was to build a fire. For another precept of the north runs: Travel with wet socks down to twenty below zero; after that build a fire. And it was three times twenty below and colder, and he knew it.
He knew, further, that great care must be exercised; that with failure at the first attempt, the chance was made greater for failure at the second attempt. In short, he knew that there must be no failure. The moment before a strong, exulting man, boastful of his mastery of the elements, he was now fighting for his life against those same elements — such was the difference caused by the injection of a quart of water into a northland traveller’s calculations.
In a clump of pines on the rim of the bank the spring high-water had lodged many twigs and small branches. Thoroughly dried by the summer sun, they now waited the match.
It is impossible to build a fire with heavy Alaskan mittens on one’s hands, so Vincent bared his, gathered a sufficient number of twigs, and knocking the snow from them, knelt down to kindle his fire. From an inside pocket he drew out his matches and a strip of thin birch bark. The matches were of the Klondike kind, sulphur matches, one hundred in a bunch.
He noticed how quickly his fingers had chilled as he separated one match from the bunch and scratched it on his trousers. The birch bark, like the dryest of paper, burst into bright flame. This be carefully fed with the smallest twigs and finest debris, cherishing the flame with the utmost care. It did not do to hurry things, as he well knew, and although his fingers were now quite stiff, he did not hurry.
After the first quick, biting sensation of cold, his feet had ached with a heavy, dull ache and were rapidly growing numb. But the fire, although a very young one, was now a success; he knew that a little snow, briskly rubbed, would speedily cure his feet.
But at the moment he was adding the first thick twigs to the fire a grievous thing happened. The pine boughs above his head were burdened with a four months snowfall, and so finely adjusted were the burdens that his slight movement in collecting the twigs had been sufficient to disturb the balance.
The snow from the topmost bough was the first to fall, striking and dislodging the snow on the boughs beneath. And all this snow, accumulating as it fell, smote Tom Vincent’s head and shoulders and blotted out his fire.
He still kept his presence of mind, for be knew how great his danger was. He started at once to rebuild the fire, but his fingers were now so numb that he could not bend them, and he was forced to pick up each twig and splinter between the tips of the fingers of either hand.
When he came to the match he encountered great difficulty in separating one from the bunch. This he succeeded in managing, however, and also, by great effort, in clutching the match between his thumb and forefinger. But in scratching it, he dropped it in the snow and could not pick it up again.
He stood up, desperate. He could not feel even his weight on his feet, although the ankles were aching painfully. Putting on his mittens, he stepped to one side, so that the snow would not fall upon the new fire he was to build, and beat his hands violently against a tree-trunk.
This enabled him to separate and strike a second match and to set fire to the remaining fragment of birch bark. But his body had now begun to chill and he was shivering, so that when be tried to add the first twigs his hand shook and the tiny flame was quenched.
The frost had beaten him. His hands were worthless. But he had the foresight to drop the bunch of matches into his wide-mouthed outside pocket before he slipped on his mittens in despair , and started to run up the trail. One cannot run the frost out of wet feet at sixty below and colder, however, as he quickly discovered.
He came round a sharp turn of the creek to where he could look ahead for a mile. But there was no help, no sign of help, only the white trees and the white hills, and the quiet cold and the brazen silence! If only he had a comrade whose feet were not freezing, he thought, only such a comrade to start the fire that could save him!
Then his eyes chanced upon another high-water lodgement of twigs and branches. If he could strike a match, all might yet be well. With stiff fingers which he could not bend, he got out a bunch of matches, but found it impossible to separate them.
He sat down and awkwardly shuffled the bunch about on his knees, until he got it resting on his palm with the sulphur ends projecting, somewhat in the manner the blade of a hunting-knife would project when clutched in the fist.
But his fingers stood straight out. They could not clutch. This he overcame by pressing the wrist of the other hand against them, and so forcing them down upon the bunch. Time and again, holding thus by both bands, he scratched the bunch on his leg and finally ignited it. But the flame burned into the flesh of his hand, and he involuntarily relaxed his hold. The bunch fell into the snow, and while he tried vainly to pick it up, sizzled and went out.
Again he ran, by this time badly frightened. His feet were utterly devoid of sensation. He stubbed his toes once on a buried log, but beyond pitching him into the snow and wrenching his back, it gave him no feelings.
He recollected being told of a camp of moose-hunters somewhere above the forks of Paul Creek. He must be somewhere near it, he thought, and if he could find it be yet might be saved. Five minutes later he came upon it, lone and deserted, with drifted snow sprinkled inside the pine-bough shelter in which the hunters had slept. He sank down, sobbing. All was over, and in an hour at best, in that terrific temperature, he would be an icy corpse.
But the love of life was strong in him, and he sprang again to his feet. He was thinking quickly. What if the matches did burn his hands? Burned hands were better than dead hands. No hands at all were better than death. He floundered along the trail until be came upon another high-water lodgment. There were twigs and branches, leaves and grasses, all dry and waiting the fire.
Again he sat down and shuffled the bunch of matches on his knees, got it into place on his palm, with the wrist of his other hand forced the nerveless fingers down against the bunch, and with the wrist kept them there. At the second scratch the bunch caught fire, and he knew that if he could stand the pain he was saved. He choked with the sulphur fumes, and the blue flame licked the flesh of his hands.
At first he could not feel it, but it burned quickly in through the frosted surface. The odor of the burning flesh — his flesh — was strong in his nostrils. He writhed about in his torment, yet held on. He set his teeth and swayed back and forth, until the clear white flame of the burning match shot up, and he had applied that flame to the leaves and grasses.
An anxious five minutes followed, but the fire gained steadily. Then he set to work to save himself. Heroic measures were necessary, such was his extremity, and he took them.
Alternately rubbing his hands with snow and thrusting them into the flames, and now and again beating them against the hard trees, he restored their circulation sufficiently for them to be of use to him. With his hunting-knife he slashed the straps from his pack, unrolled his blanket, and got out dry socks and footgear.
Then be cut away his moccasins and bared his feet. But while he had taken liberties with his hands, he kept his feet fairly away from the fire and rubbed them with snow. He rubbed till his bands grew numb, when he would cover his feet with the blanket, warm his hands by the fire, and return to the rubbing.
For three hours he worked, till the worst effects of the freezing had been counteracted. All that night he stayed by the fire, and it was late the next day when be limped pitifully into the camp on the Cherry Creek Divide.
In a month’s time he was able to be about on his feet, although the toes were destined always after that to be very sensitive to frost. But the scars on his hands he knows be will carry to the grave. And — "Never travel alone!" he now lays down the precept of the North.
6. THE MEAT
Half the time the wind blew a gale, and Smoke Bellew staggered against it along the beach. In the gray of dawn a dozen boats were being loaded with the precious outfits packed across Chilkoot. They were clumsy, home-made boats, put together by men who were not boat-builders, out of planks they had sawed by hand from green spruce-trees. One boat, already loaded, was just starting, and Kit paused to watch.
The wind, which was fair down the lake, here blew in squarely on the beach, kicking up a nasty sea in the shallows. The men of the departing boat waded in high rubber boots as they shoved it out toward deeper water. Twice they did this. Clambering aboard and failing to row clear, the boat was swept back and grounded. Kit noticed that the spray on the sides of the boat quickly turned to ice. The third attempt was a partial success. The last two men to climb in were wet to their waists, but the boat was afloat. They struggled awkwardly at the heavy oars, and slowly worked off shore. Then they hoisted a sail made of blankets, had it carry away in a gust, and were swept a third time back on the freezing beach.
Kit grinned to himself and went on. This was what he must expect to encounter, for he, too, in his new role of gentleman’s man, was to start from the beach in a similar boat that very day.
Everywhere men were at work, and at work desperately, for the closing down of winter was so imminent that it was a gamble whether or not they would get across the great chain of lakes before the freeze-up. Yet, when Kit arrived at the tent of Messrs. Sprague and Stine, he did not find them stirring.
By a fire, under the shelter of a tarpaulin, squatted a short, thick man smoking a brown-paper cigarette.
“Hello,” he said. “Are you Mister Sprague’s new man?”
As Kit nodded, he thought he had noted a shade of emphasis on the MISTER and the MAN, and he was sure of a hint of a twinkle in the corner of the eye.
“Well, I’m Doc Stine’s man,” the other went on. “I’m five feet two inches long, and my name’s Shorty, Jack Short for short, and sometimes known as Johnny-on-the-Spot.”
Kit put out his hand and shook. “Were you raised on bear-meat?” he queried.
“Sure,” was the answer; “though my first feedin’ was buffalo-milk as near as I can remember. Sit down an’ have some grub. The bosses ain’t turned out yet.”
And despite the one breakfast, Kit sat down under the tarpaulin and ate a second breakfast thrice as hearty. The heavy, purging toil of weeks had given him the stomach and appetite of a wolf. He could eat anything, in any quantity, and be unaware that he possessed a digestion. Shorty he found voluble and pessimistic, and from him he received surprising tips concerning their bosses and ominous forecasts of the expedition. Thomas Stanley Sprague was a budding mining engineer and the son of a millionaire. Doctor Adolph Stine was also the son of a wealthy father. And, through their fathers, both had been backed by an investing syndicate in the Klondike adventure.
“Oh, they’re sure made of money,” Shorty expounded. “When they hit the beach at Dyea, freight was seventy cents, but no Indians. There was a party from Eastern Oregon, real miners, that’d managed to get a team of Indians together at seventy cents. Indians had the straps on the outfit, three thousand pounds of it, when along comes Sprague and Stine. They offered eighty cents and ninety, and at a dollar a pound the Indians jumped the contract and took off their straps. Sprague and Stine came through, though it cost them three thousand, and the Oregon bunch is still on the beach. They won’t get through till next year.
“Oh, they are real hummers, your boss and mine, when it comes to sheddin’ the mazuma an’ never mindin’ other folks’ feelin’s. What did they do when they hit Linderman? The carpenters was just putting in the last licks on a boat they’d contracted to a ’Frisco bunch for six hundred. Sprague and Stine slipped ’em an even thousand, and they jumped their contract. It’s a good-lookin’ boat, but it’s jiggered the other bunch. They’ve got their outfit right here, but no boat. And they’re stuck for next year.
“Have another cup of coffee, and take it from me that I wouldn’t travel with no such outfit if I didn’t want to get to Klondike so blamed bad. They ain’t hearted right. They’d take the crape off the door of a house in mourning if they needed it in their business. Did you sign a contract?”
Kit shook his head.
“Then I’m sorry for you, pardner. They ain’t no grub in the country, and they’ll drop you cold as soon as they hit Dawson. Men are going to starve there this winter.”
“They agreed—” Kit began.
“Verbal,” Shorty snapped him short. “It’s your say-so against theirs, that’s all. Well, anyway, what’s your name, pardner?”
“Call me Smoke,” said Kit.
“Well, Smoke, you’ll have a run for your verbal contract just the same. This is a plain sample of what to expect. They can sure shed mazuma, but they can’t work, or turn out of bed in the morning. We should have been loaded and started an hour ago. It’s you an’ me for the big work. Pretty soon you’ll hear ’em shoutin’ for their coffee—in bed, mind you, and them grown men. What d’ye know about boatin’ on the water? I’m a cowman and a prospector, but I’m sure tenderfooted on water, an’ they don’t know punkins. What d’ye know?”
“Search me,” Kit answered, snuggling in closer under the tarpaulin as the snow whirled before a fiercer gust. “I haven’t been on a small boat since a boy. But I guess we can learn.”
A corner of the tarpaulin tore loose, and Shorty received a jet of driven snow down the back of his neck.
“Oh, we can learn all right,” he muttered wrathfully. “Sure we can. A child can learn. But it’s dollars to doughnuts we don’t even get started to-day.”
It was eight o’clock when the call for coffee came from the tent, and nearly nine before the two employers emerged.
“Hello,” said Sprague, a rosy-cheeked, well-fed young man of twenty-five. “Time we made a start, Shorty. You and—” Here he glanced interrogatively at Kit. “I didn’t quite catch your name last evening.”
“Well, Shorty, you and Mr. Smoke had better begin loading the boat.”
“Plain Smoke—cut out the Mister,” Kit suggested.
Sprague nodded curtly and strolled away among the tents, to be followed by Doctor Stine, a slender, pallid young man.
Shorty looked significantly at his companion. “Over a ton and a half of outfit, and they won’t lend a hand. You’ll see.”
“I guess it’s because we’re paid to do the work,” Kit answered cheerfully, “and we might as well buck in.”
To move three thousand pounds on the shoulders a hundred yards was no slight task, and to do it in half a gale, slushing through the snow in heavy rubber boots, was exhausting. In addition, there was the taking down of the tent and the packing of small camp equipage. Then came the loading. As the boat settled, it had to be shoved farther and farther out, increasing the distance they had to wade. By two o’clock it had all been accomplished, and Kit, despite his two breakfasts, was weak with the faintness of hunger. His knees were shaking under him. Shorty, in similar predicament, foraged through the pots and pans, and drew forth a big pot of cold boiled beans in which were imbedded large chunks of bacon. There was only one spoon, a long-handled one, and they dipped, turn and turn about, into the pot. Kit was filled with an immense certitude that in all his life he had never tasted anything so good.
“Lord, man,” he mumbled between chews, “I never knew what appetite was till I hit the trail.”
Sprague and Stine arrived in the midst of this pleasant occupation.
“What’s the delay?” Sprague complained. “Aren’t we ever going to get started?”
Shorty dipped in turn, and passed the spoon to Kit. Nor did either speak till the pot was empty and the bottom scraped.
“Of course we ain’t been doin’ nothing,” Shorty said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “We ain’t been doin’ nothing at all. And of course you ain’t had nothing to eat. It was sure careless of me.”
“Yes, yes,” Stine said quickly. “We ate at one of the tents—friends of ours.”
“Thought so,” Shorty grunted.
“But now that you’re finished, let us get started,” Sprague urged.
“There’s the boat,” said Shorty. “She’s sure loaded. Now, just how might you be goin’ about to get started?”
“By climbing aboard and shoving off. Come on.”
They waded out, and the employers got on board, while Kit and Shorty shoved clear. When the waves lapped the tops of their boots they clambered in. The other two men were not prepared with the oars, and the boat swept back and grounded. Half a dozen times, with a great expenditure of energy, this was repeated.
Shorty sat down disconsolately on the gunwale, took a chew of tobacco, and questioned the universe, while Kit baled the boat and the other two exchanged unkind remarks.
“If you’ll take my orders, I’ll get her off,” Sprague finally said.
The attempt was well intended, but before he could clamber on board he was wet to the waist.
“We’ve got to camp and build a fire,” he said, as the boat grounded again. “I’m freezing.”
“Don’t be afraid of a wetting,” Stine sneered. “Other men have gone off to-day wetter than you. Now I’m going to take her out.”
This time it was he who got the wetting and who announced with chattering teeth the need of a fire.
“A little splash like that!” Sprague chattered spitefully. “We’ll go on.”
“Shorty, dig out my clothes-bag and make a fire,” the other commanded.
“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Sprague cried.
Shorty looked from one to the other, expectorated, but did not move.
“He’s working for me, and I guess he obeys my orders,” Stine retorted. “Shorty, take that bag ashore.”
Shorty obeyed, and Sprague shivered in the boat. Kit, having received no orders, remained inactive, glad of the rest.
“A boat divided against itself won’t float,” he soliloquized.
“What’s that?” Sprague snarled at him.
“Talking to myself—habit of mine,” he answered.
His employer favoured him with a hard look, and sulked several minutes longer. Then he surrendered.
“Get out my bag, Smoke,” he ordered, “and lend a hand with that fire. We won’t get off till morning now.”
Next day the gale still blew. Lake Linderman was no more than a narrow mountain gorge filled with water. Sweeping down from the mountains through this funnel, the wind was irregular, blowing great guns at times and at other times dwindling to a strong breeze.
“If you give me a shot at it, I think I can get her off,” Kit said, when all was ready for the start.
“What do you know about it?” Stine snapped at him.
“Search me,” Kit answered, and subsided.
It was the first time he had worked for wages in his life, but he was learning the discipline of it fast. Obediently and cheerfully he joined in various vain efforts to get clear of the beach.
“How would you go about it?” Sprague finally half panted, half whined at him.
“Sit down and get a good rest till a lull comes in the wind, and then buck in for all we’re worth.”
Simple as the idea was, he had been the first to evolve it; the first time it was applied it worked, and they hoisted a blanket to the mast and sped down the lake. Stine and Sprague immediately became cheerful. Shorty, despite his chronic pessimism, was always cheerful, and Kit was too interested to be otherwise. Sprague struggled with the steering-sweep for a quarter of an hour, and then looked appealingly at Kit, who relieved him.
“My arms are fairly broken with the strain of it,” Sprague muttered apologetically.
“You never ate bear-meat, did you?” Kit asked sympathetically.
“What the devil do you mean?”
“Oh, nothing; I was just wondering.”
But behind his employer’s back Kit caught the approving grin of Shorty, who had already caught the whim of his metaphor.
Kit steered the length of Linderman, displaying an aptitude that caused both young men of money and disinclination for work to name him boat-steerer. Shorty was no less pleased, and volunteered to continue cooking and leave the boat work to the other.
Between Linderman and Lake Bennett was a portage. The boat, lightly loaded, was lined down the small but violent connecting stream, and here Kit learned a vast deal more about boats and water. But when it came to packing the outfit, Stine and Sprague disappeared, and their men spent two days of back-breaking toil in getting the outfit across. And this was the history of many miserable days of the trip—Kit and Shorty working to exhaustion, while their masters toiled not and demanded to be waited upon.
But the iron-bound arctic winter continued to close down, and they were held back by numerous and unavoidable delays. At Windy Arm, Stine arbitrarily dispossessed Kit of the steering-sweep and within the hour wrecked the boat on a wave-beaten lee shore. Two days were lost here in making repairs, and the morning of the fresh start, as they came down to embark, on stern and bow, in large letters, was charcoaled “The Chechako.”
Kit grinned at the appropriateness of the invidious word.
“Huh!” said Shorty, when accused by Stine. “I can sure read and spell, an’ I know that chechako means tenderfoot, but my education never went high enough to learn me to spell a jaw-breaker like that.”
Both employers looked daggers at Kit, for the insult rankled; nor did he mention that the night before, Shorty had besought him for the spelling of that particular word.
“That’s ’most as bad as your bear-meat slam at ’em,” Shorty confided later.
Kit chuckled. Along with the continuous discovery of his own powers had come an ever-increasing disapproval of the two masters. It was not so much irritation, which was always present, as disgust. He had got his taste of the meat, and liked it; but they were teaching him how not to eat it. Privily, he thanked God that he was not made as they. He came to dislike them to a degree that bordered on hatred. Their malingering bothered him less than their helpless inefficiency. Somewhere in him, old Isaac Bellew and all the rest of the hardy Bellews were making good.
“Shorty,” he said one day, in the usual delay of getting started, “I could almost fetch them a rap over the head with an oar and bury them in the river.”
“Same here,” Shorty agreed. “They’re not meat-eaters. They’re fish-eaters, and they sure stink.”
They came to the rapids; first, the Box Canyon, and, several miles below, the White Horse. The Box Canyon was adequately named. It was a box, a trap. Once in it, the only way out was through. On either side arose perpendicular walls of rock. The river narrowed to a fraction of its width and roared through this gloomy passage in a madness of motion that heaped the water in the center into a ridge fully eight feet higher than at the rocky sides. This ridge, in turn, was crested with stiff, upstanding waves that curled over yet remained each in its unvarying place. The Canyon was well feared, for it had collected its toll of dead from the passing goldrushers.
Tying to the bank above, where lay a score of other anxious boats, Kit and his companions went ahead on foot to investigate. They crept to the brink and gazed down at the swirl of water. Sprague drew back, shuddering.
“My God!” he exclaimed. “A swimmer hasn’t a chance in that.”
Shorty touched Kit significantly with his elbow and said in an undertone:
“Cold feet. Dollars to doughnuts they don’t go through.”
Kit scarcely heard. From the beginning of the boat trip he had been learning the stubbornness and inconceivable viciousness of the elements, and this glimpse of what was below him acted as a challenge. “We’ve got to ride that ridge,” he said. “If we get off it we’ll hit the walls.”
“And never know what hit us,” was Shorty’s verdict. “Can you swim, Smoke?”
“I’d wish I couldn’t if anything went wrong in there.”
“That’s what I say,” a stranger, standing alongside and peering down into the Canyon, said mournfully. “And I wish I were through it.”
“I wouldn’t sell my chance to go through,” Kit answered.
He spoke honestly, but it was with the idea of heartening the man. He turned to go back to the boat.
“Are you going to tackle it?” the man asked.
“I wish I could get the courage to,” the other confessed. “I’ve been here for hours. The longer I look, the more afraid I am. I am not a boatman, and I have with me only my nephew, who is a young boy, and my wife. If you get through safely, will you run my boat through?”
Kit looked at Shorty, who delayed to answer.
“He’s got his wife with him,” Kit suggested. Nor had he mistaken his man.
“Sure,” Shorty affirmed. “It was just what I was stopping to think about. I knew there was some reason I ought to do it.”
Again they turned to go, but Sprague and Stine made no movement.
“Good luck, Smoke,” Sprague called to him. “I’ll—er—” He hesitated. “I’ll just stay here and watch you.”
“We need three men in the boat, two at the oars and one at the steering-sweep,” Kit said quietly.
Sprague looked at Stine.
“I’m damned if I do,” said that gentleman. “If you’re not afraid to stand here and look on, I’m not.”
“Who’s afraid?” Sprague demanded hotly.
Stine retorted in kind, and their two men left them in the thick of a squabble.
“We can do without them,” Kit said to Shorty. “You take the bow with a paddle, and I’ll handle the steering-sweep. All you’ll have to do is just to help keep her straight. Once we’re started, you won’t be able to hear me, so just keep on keeping her straight.”
They cast off the boat and worked out to middle in the quickening current. From the Canyon came an ever-growing roar. The river sucked in to the entrance with the smoothness of molten glass, and here, as the darkening walls received them, Shorty took a chew of tobacco and dipped his paddle. The boat leaped on the first crests of the ridge, and they were deafened by the uproar of wild water that reverberated from the narrow walls and multiplied itself. They were half-smothered with flying spray. At times Kit could not see his comrade at the bow. It was only a matter of two minutes, in which time they rode the ridge three-quarters of a mile and emerged in safety and tied to the bank in the eddy below.
Shorty emptied his mouth of tobacco juice—he had forgotten to spit—and spoke.
“That was bear-meat,” he exulted, “the real bear-meat. Say, we want a few, didn’t we? Smoke, I don’t mind tellin’ you in confidence that before we started I was the gosh-dangdest scaredest man this side of the Rocky Mountains. Now I’m a bear-eater. Come on an’ we’ll run that other boat through.”
Midway back, on foot, they encountered their employers, who had watched the passage from above.
“There comes the fish-eaters,” said Shorty. “Keep to win’ward.”
After running the stranger’s boat through, whose name proved to be Breck, Kit and Shorty met his wife, a slender, girlish woman whose blue eyes were moist with gratitude. Breck himself tried to hand Kit fifty dollars, and then attempted it on Shorty.
“Stranger,” was the latter’s rejection, “I come into this country to make money outa the ground an’ not outa my fellow critters.”
Breck rummaged in his boat and produced a demijohn of whiskey. Shorty’s hand half went out to it and stopped abruptly. He shook his head.
“There’s that blamed White Horse right below, an’ they say it’s worse than the Box. I reckon I don’t dast tackle any lightning.”
Several miles below they ran in to the bank, and all four walked down to look at the bad water. The river, which was a succession of rapids, was here deflected toward the right bank by a rocky reef. The whole body of water, rushing crookedly into the narrow passage, accelerated its speed frightfully and was up-flung into huge waves, white and wrathful. This was the dread Mane of the White Horse, and here an even heavier toll of dead had been exacted. On one side of the Mane was a corkscrew curl-over and suck-under, and on the opposite side was the big whirlpool. To go through, the Mane itself must be ridden.
“This plum rips the strings outa the Box,” Shorty concluded.
As they watched, a boat took the head of the rapids above. It was a large boat, fully thirty feet long, laden with several tons of outfit, and handled by six men. Before it reached the Mane it was plunging and leaping, at times almost hidden by the foam and spray.
Shorty shot a slow, sidelong glance at Kit and said: “She’s fair smoking, and she hasn’t hit the worst. They’ve hauled the oars in. There she takes it now. God! She’s gone! No; there she is!”
Big as the boat was, it had been buried from sight in the flying smother between crests. The next moment, in the thick of the Mane, the boat leaped up a crest and into view. To Kit’s amazement he saw the whole long bottom clearly outlined. The boat, for the fraction of an instant, was in the air, the men sitting idly in their places, all save one in the stern, who stood at the steering-sweep. Then came the downward plunge into the trough and a second disappearance. Three times the boat leaped and buried itself, then those on the bank saw its nose take the whirlpool as it slipped off the Mane. The steersman, vainly opposing with his full weight on the steering-gear, surrendered to the whirlpool and helped the boat to take the circle.
Three times it went around, each time so close to the rocks on which Kit and Shorty stood that either could have leaped on board. The steersman, a man with a reddish beard of recent growth, waved his hand to them. The only way out of the whirlpool was by the Mane, and on the third round the boat entered the Mane obliquely at its upper end. Possibly out of fear of the draw of the whirlpool, the steersman did not attempt to straighten out quickly enough. When he did, it was too late. Alternately in the air and buried, the boat angled the Mane and was sucked into and down through the stiff wall of the corkscrew on the opposite side of the river. A hundred feet below, boxes and bales began to float up. Then appeared the bottom of the boat and the scattered heads of six men. Two managed to make the bank in the eddy below. The others were drawn under, and the general flotsam was lost to view, borne on by the swift current around the bend.
There was a long minute of silence. Shorty was the first to speak.
“Come on,” he said. “We might as well tackle it. My feet’ll get cold if I stay here any longer.”
“We’ll smoke some,” Kit grinned at him.
“And you’ll sure earn your name,” was the rejoinder. Shorty turned to their employers. “Comin’?” he queried.
Perhaps the roar of the water prevented them from hearing the invitation.
Shorty and Kit tramped back through a foot of snow to the head of the rapids and cast off the boat. Kit was divided between two impressions: one, of the caliber of his comrade, which served as a spur to him; the other, likewise a spur, was the knowledge that old Isaac Bellew, and all the other Bellews, had done things like this in their westward march of empire. What they had done, he could do. It was the meat, the strong meat, and he knew, as never before, that it required strong men to eat such meat.
“You’ve sure got to keep the top of the ridge,” Shorty shouted at him, the plug of tobacco lifting to his mouth, as the boat quickened in the quickening current and took the head of the rapids.
Kit nodded, swayed his strength and weight tentatively on the steering-gear, and headed the boat for the plunge.
Several minutes later, half-swamped and lying against the bank in the eddy below the White Horse, Shorty spat out a mouthful of tobacco juice and shook Kit’s hand.
“Meat! Meat!” Shorty chanted. “We eat it raw! We eat it alive!”
At the top of the bank they met Breck. His wife stood at a little distance. Kit shook his hand.
“I’m afraid your boat can’t make it,” he said. “It is smaller than ours and a bit cranky.”
The man pulled out a row of bills.
“I’ll give you each a hundred if you run it through.”
Kit looked out and up the tossing Mane of the White Horse. A long, gray twilight was falling, it was turning colder, and the landscape seemed taking on a savage bleakness.
“It ain’t that,” Shorty was saying. “We don’t want your money. Wouldn’t touch it nohow. But my pardner is the real meat with boats, and when he says yourn ain’t safe I reckon he knows what he’s talkin’ about.”
Kit nodded affirmation, and chanced to glance at Mrs Breck. Her eyes were fixed upon him, and he knew that if ever he had seen prayer in a woman’s eyes he was seeing it then. Shorty followed his gaze and saw what he saw. They looked at each other in confusion and did not speak. Moved by the common impulse, they nodded to each other and turned to the trail that led to the head of the rapids. They had not gone a hundred yards when they met Stine and Sprague coming down.
“Where are you going?” the latter demanded.
“To fetch that other boat through,” Shorty answered.
“No, you’re not. It’s getting dark. You two are going to pitch camp.”
So huge was Kit’s disgust that he forebore to speak.
“He’s got his wife with him,” Shorty said.
“That’s his lookout,” Stine contributed.
“And Smoke’s and mine,” was Shorty’s retort.
“I forbid you,” Sprague said harshly. “Smoke, if you go another step I’ll discharge you.”
“And you, too, Shorty,” Stine added.
“And a hell of a pickle you’ll be in with us fired,” Shorty replied. “How’ll you get your blamed boat to Dawson? Who’ll serve you coffee in your blankets and manicure your finger-nails? Come on, Smoke. They don’t dast fire us. Besides, we’ve got agreements. If they fire us they’ve got to divvy up grub to last us through the winter.”
Barely had they shoved Breck’s boat out from the bank and caught the first rough water, when the waves began to lap aboard. They were small waves, but it was an earnest of what was to come. Shorty cast back a quizzical glance as he gnawed at his inevitable plug, and Kit felt a strange rush of warmth at his heart for this man who couldn’t swim and who couldn’t back out.
The rapids grew stiffer, and the spray began to fly. In the gathering darkness, Kit glimpsed the Mane and the crooked fling of the current into it. He worked into this crooked current, and felt a glow of satisfaction as the boat hit the head of the Mane squarely in the middle. After that, in the smother, leaping and burying and swamping, he had no clear impression of anything save that he swung his weight on the steering-oar and wished his uncle were there to see. They emerged, breathless, wet through, the boat filled with water almost to the gunwale. Lighter pieces of baggage and outfit were floating inside the boat. A few careful strokes on Shorty’s part worked the boat into the draw of the eddy, and the eddy did the rest till the boat softly touched the bank. Looking down from above was Mrs. Breck. Her prayer had been answered, and the tears were streaming down her cheeks.
“You boys have simply got to take the money,” Breck called down to them.
Shorty stood up, slipped, and sat down in the water, while the boat dipped one gunwale under and righted again.
“Damn the money,” said Shorty. “Fetch out that whiskey. Now that it’s over I’m getting cold feet, an’ I’m sure likely to have a chill.”
In the morning, as usual, they were among the last of the boats to start. Breck, despite his boating inefficiency, and with only his wife and nephew for crew, had broken camp, loaded his boat, and pulled out at the first streak of day. But there was no hurrying Stine and Sprague, who seemed incapable of realizing that the freeze-up might come at any time. They malingered, got in the way, delayed, and doubled the work of Kit and Shorty.
“I’m sure losing my respect for God, seein’ as he must ’a’ made them two mistakes in human form,” was the latter’s blasphemous way of expressing his disgust.
“Well, you’re the real goods, at any rate,” Kit grinned back at him. “It makes me respect God the more just to look at you.”
“He was sure goin’ some, eh?” was Shorty’s fashion of overcoming the embarrassment of the compliment.
The trail by water crossed Lake Labarge. Here was no fast current, but a tideless stretch of forty miles which must be rowed unless a fair wind blew. But the time for fair wind was past, and an icy gale blew in their teeth out of the north. This made a rough sea, against which it was almost impossible to pull the boat. Added to their troubles was driving snow; also, the freezing of the water on their oar-blades kept one man occupied in chopping it off with a hatchet. Compelled to take their turn at the oars, Sprague and Stine patently loafed. Kit had learned how to throw his weight on an oar, but he noted that his employers made a seeming of throwing their weights and that they dipped their oars at a cheating angle.
At the end of three hours, Sprague pulled his oar in and said they would run back into the mouth of the river for shelter. Stine seconded him, and the several hard-won miles were lost. A second day, and a third, the same fruitless attempt was made. In the river mouth, the continually arriving boats from White Horse made a flotilla of over two hundred. Each day forty or fifty arrived, and only two or three won to the northwest shore of the lake and did not come back. Ice was now forming in the eddies, and connecting from eddy to eddy in thin lines around the points. The freeze-up was very imminent.
“We could make it if they had the souls of clams,” Kit told Shorty, as they dried their moccasins by the fire on the evening of the third day. “We could have made it to-day if they hadn’t turned back. Another hour’s work would have fetched that west shore. They’re—they’re babes in the woods.”
“Sure,” Shorty agreed. He turned his moccasin to the flame and debated a moment. “Look here, Smoke. It’s hundreds of miles to Dawson. If we don’t want to freeze in here, we’ve got to do something. What d’ye say?”
Kit looked at him, and waited.
“We’ve got the immortal cinch on them two babes,” Shorty expounded. “They can give orders an’ shed mazuma, but as you say, they’re plum babes. If we’re goin’ to Dawson, we got to take charge of this here outfit.”
They looked at each other.
“It’s a go,” said Kit, as his hand went out in ratification.
In the morning, long before daylight, Shorty issued his call. “Come on!” he roared. “Tumble out, you sleepers! Here’s your coffee! Kick into it! We’re goin’ to make a start!”
Grumbling and complaining, Stine and Sprague were forced to get under way two hours earlier than ever before. If anything, the gale was stiffer, and in a short time every man’s face was iced up, while the oars were heavy with ice. Three hours they struggled, and four, one man steering, one chopping ice, two toiling at the oars, and each taking his various turns. The northwest shore loomed nearer and nearer. The gale blew ever harder, and at last Sprague pulled in his oar in token of surrender. Shorty sprang to it, though his relief had only begun.
“Chop ice,” he said, handing Sprague the hatchet.
“But what’s the use?” the other whined. “We can’t make it. We’re going to turn back.”
“We’re going on,” said Shorty. “Chop ice. An’ when you feel better you can spell me.”
It was heart-breaking toil, but they gained the shore, only to find it composed of surge-beaten rocks and cliffs, with no place to land.
“I told you so,” Sprague whimpered.
“You never peeped,” Shorty answered.
“We’re going back.”
Nobody spoke, and Kit held the boat into the seas as they skirted the forbidding shore. Sometimes they gained no more than a foot to the stroke, and there were times when two or three strokes no more than enabled them to hold their own. He did his best to hearten the two weaklings. He pointed out that the boats which had won to this shore had never come back. Perforce, he argued, they had found a shelter somewhere ahead. Another hour they labored, and a second.
“If you fellows’d put into your oars some of that coffee you swig in your blankets, we’d make it,” was Shorty’s encouragement. “You’re just goin’ through the motions an’ not pullin’ a pound.”
A few minutes later, Sprague drew in his oar.
“I’m finished,” he said, and there were tears in his voice.
“So are the rest of us,” Kit answered, himself ready to cry or to commit murder, so great was his exhaustion. “But we’re going on just the same.”
“We’re going back. Turn the boat around.”
“Shorty, if he won’t pull, take that oar yourself,” Kit commanded.
“Sure,” was the answer. “He can chop ice.”
But Sprague refused to give over the oar; Stine had ceased rowing, and the boat was drifting backward.
“Turn around, Smoke,” Sprague ordered.
And Kit, who never in his life had cursed any man, astonished himself.
“I’ll see you in hell, first,” he replied. “Take hold of that oar and pull.”
It is in moments of exhaustion that men lose all their reserves of civilization, and such a moment had come. Each man had reached the breaking-point. Sprague jerked off a mitten, drew his revolver, and turned it on his steersman. This was a new experience to Kit. He had never had a gun presented at him in his life. And now, to his surprise, it seemed to mean nothing at all. It was the most natural thing in the world.
“If you don’t put that gun up,” he said, “I’ll take it away and rap you over the knuckles with it.”
“If you don’t turn the boat around, I’ll shoot you,” Sprague threatened.
Then Shorty took a hand. He ceased chopping ice and stood up behind Sprague.
“Go on an’ shoot,” said Shorty, wiggling the hatchet. “I’m just aching for a chance to brain you. Go on an’ start the festivities.”
“This is mutiny,” Stine broke in. “You were engaged to obey orders.”
Shorty turned on him. “Oh, you’ll get yours as soon as I finish with your pardner, you little hog-wallopin’ snooper, you.”
“Sprague,” Kit said, “I’ll give you just thirty seconds to put away that gun and get that oar out.”
Sprague hesitated, gave a short hysterical laugh, put the revolver away, and bent his back to the work.
For two hours more, inch by inch, they fought their way along the edge of the foaming rocks, until Kit feared he had made a mistake. And then, when on the verge of himself turning back, they came abreast of a narrow opening, not twenty feet wide, which led into a land-locked enclosure where the fiercest gusts scarcely flawed the surface. It was the haven gained by the boats of previous days. They landed on a shelving beach, and the two employers lay in collapse in the boat, while Kit and Shorty pitched the tent, built a fire, and started the cooking.
“What’s a hog-walloping snooper, Shorty?” Kit asked.
“Blamed if I know,” was the answer; “but he’s one just the same.”
The gale, which had been dying quickly, ceased at nightfall, and it came on clear and cold. A cup of coffee, set aside to cool and forgotten, a few minutes later was found coated with half an inch of ice. At eight o’clock, when Sprague and Stine, already rolled in their blankets, were sleeping the sleep of exhaustion, Kit came back from a look at the boat.
“It’s the freeze-up, Shorty,” he announced. “There’s a skin of ice over the whole pond already.”
“What are you going to do?”
“There’s only one thing. The lake of course freezes first. The rapid current of the river may keep it open for days. This time to-morrow any boat caught in Lake Labarge remains there until next year.”
“You mean we got to get out to-night? Now?”
“Tumble out, you sleepers!” was Shorty’s answer, couched in a roar, as he began casting off the guy-ropes of the tent.
The other two awoke, groaning with the pain of stiffened muscles and the pain of rousing from the sleep of exhaustion.
“What time is it?” Stine asked.
“It’s dark yet,” was the objection.
Shorty jerked out a couple of guy-ropes, and the tent began to sag.
“It’s not morning,” he said. “It’s evening. Come on. The lake’s freezin’. We got to get acrost.”
Stine sat up, his face bitter and wrathful. “Let it freeze. We’re not going to stir.”
“All right,” said Shorty. “We’re goin’ on with the boat.”
“You were engaged—”
“To take your outfit to Dawson,” Shorty caught him up. “Well, we’re takin’ it, ain’t we?” He punctuated his query by bringing half the tent down on top of them.
They broke their way through the thin ice in the little harbor, and came out on the lake, where the water, heavy and glassy, froze on their oars with every stroke. The water soon became like mush, clogging the stroke of the oars and freezing in the air even as it dripped. Later the surface began to form a skin, and the boat proceeded slower and slower.
Often afterwards, when Kit tried to remember that night and failed to bring up aught but nightmare recollections, he wondered what must have been the sufferings of Stine and Sprague. His one impression of himself was that he struggled through biting frost and intolerable exertion for a thousand years, more or less.
Morning found them stationary. Stine complained of frosted fingers, and Sprague of his nose, while the pain in Kit’s cheeks and nose told him that he, too, had been touched. With each accretion of daylight they could see farther, and as far as they could see was icy surface. The water of the lake was gone. A hundred yards away was the shore of the north end. Shorty insisted that it was the opening of the river and that he could see water. He and Kit alone were able to work, and with their oars they broke the ice and forced the boat along. And at the last gasp of their strength they made the suck of the rapid river. One look back showed them several boats which had fought through the night and were hopelessly frozen in; then they whirled around a bend in a current running six miles an hour.
Day by day they floated down the swift river, and day by day the shore-ice extended farther out. When they made camp at nightfall, they chopped a space in the ice in which to lay the boat and carried the camp outfit hundreds of feet to shore. In the morning, they chopped the boat out through the new ice and caught the current. Shorty set up the sheet-iron stove in the boat, and over this Stine and Sprague hung through the long, drifting hours. They had surrendered, no longer gave orders, and their one desire was to gain Dawson. Shorty, pessimistic, indefatigable, and joyous, at frequent intervals roared out the three lines of the first four-line stanza of a song he had forgotten. The colder it got the oftener he sang:
“Like Argus of the ancient times,
We leave this Modern Greece;
Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tum,
To shear the Golden Fleece.”
As they passed the mouths of the Hootalinqua and the Big and Little Salmon, they found these streams throwing mush-ice into the main Yukon. This gathered about the boat and attached itself, and at night they found themselves compelled to chop the boat out of the current. In the morning they chopped the boat back into the current.
The last night ashore was spent between the mouths of the White River and the Stewart. At daylight they found the Yukon, half a mile wide, running white from ice-rimmed bank to ice-rimmed bank. Shorty cursed the universe with less geniality than usual, and looked at Kit.
“We’ll be the last boat this year to make Dawson,” Kit said.
“But they ain’t no water, Smoke.”
“Then we’ll ride the ice down. Come on.”
Futilely protesting, Sprague and Stine were bundled on board. For half an hour, with axes, Kit and Shorty struggled to cut a way into the swift but solid stream. When they did succeed in clearing the shore-ice, the floating ice forced the boat along the edge for a hundred yards, tearing away half of one gunwale and making a partial wreck of it. Then, at the lower end of the bend, they caught the current that flung off-shore. They proceeded to work farther toward the middle. The stream was no longer composed of mush-ice but of hard cakes. In between the cakes only was mush-ice, that froze solidly as they looked at it. Shoving with the oars against the cakes, sometimes climbing out on the cakes in order to force the boat along, after an hour they gained the middle. Five minutes after they ceased their exertions, the boat was frozen in. The whole river was coagulating as it ran. Cake froze to cake, until at last the boat was the center of a cake seventy-five feet in diameter. Sometimes they floated sideways, sometimes stern-first, while gravity tore asunder the forming fetters in the moving mass, only to be manacled by faster-forming ones. While the hours passed, Shorty stoked the stove, cooked meals, and chanted his war-song.
Night came, and after many efforts, they gave up the attempt to force the boat to shore, and through the darkness they swept helplessly onward.
“What if we pass Dawson?” Shorty queried.
“We’ll walk back,” Kit answered, “if we’re not crushed in a jam.”
The sky was clear, and in the light of the cold, leaping stars they caught occasional glimpses of the loom of mountains on either hand. At eleven o’clock, from below, came a dull, grinding roar. Their speed began to diminish, and cakes of ice to up-end and crash and smash about them. The river was jamming. One cake, forced upward, slid across their cake and carried one side of the boat away. It did not sink, for its own cake still upbore it, but in a whirl they saw dark water show for an instant within a foot of them. Then all movement ceased. At the end of half an hour the whole river picked itself up and began to move. This continued for an hour, when again it was brought to rest by a jam. Once again it started, running swiftly and savagely, with a great grinding. Then they saw lights ashore, and, when abreast, gravity and the Yukon surrendered, and the river ceased for six months.
On the shore at Dawson, curious ones, gathered to watch the river freeze, heard from out of the darkness the war-song of Shorty:
“Like Argus of the ancient times,
We leave this Modern Greece;
Tum-tum, tum-tum; tum-tum, tum-tum,
To shear the Golden Fleece.”
For three days Kit and Shorty labored, carrying the ton and a half of outfit from the middle of the river to the log-cabin Stine and Sprague had bought on the hill overlooking Dawson. This work finished, in the warm cabin, as twilight was falling, Sprague motioned Kit to him. Outside the thermometer registered sixty-five below zero.
“Your full month isn’t up, Smoke,” Sprague said. “But here it is in full. I wish you luck.”
“How about the agreement?” Kit asked. “You know there’s a famine here. A man can’t get work in the mines even, unless he has his own grub. You agreed—”
“I know of no agreement,” Sprague interrupted. “Do you, Stine? We engaged you by the month. There’s your pay. Will you sign the receipt?”
Kit’s hands clenched, and for the moment he saw red. Both men shrank away from him. He had never struck a man in anger in his life, and he felt so certain of his ability to thrash Sprague that he could not bring himself to do it.
Shorty saw his trouble and interposed.
“Look here, Smoke, I ain’t travelin’ no more with a ornery outfit like this. Right here’s where I sure jump it. You an’ me stick together. Savvy? Now, you take your blankets an’ hike down to the Elkhorn. Wait for me. I’ll settle up, collect what’s comin’, an’ give them what’s comin’. I ain’t no good on the water, but my feet’s on terry-fermy now an’ I’m sure goin’ to make smoke.”
Half an hour afterwards Shorty appeared at the Elkhorn. From his bleeding knuckles and the skin off one cheek, it was evident that he had given Stine and Sprague what was coming.
“You ought to see that cabin,” he chuckled, as they stood at the bar. “Rough-house ain’t no name for it. Dollars to doughnuts nary one of ’em shows up on the street for a week. An’ now it’s all figgered out for you an’ me. Grub’s a dollar an’ a half a pound. They ain’t no work for wages without you have your own grub. Moose-meat’s sellin’ for two dollars a pound an’ they ain’t none. We got enough money for a month’s grub an’ ammunition, an’ we hike up the Klondike to the back country. If they ain’t no moose, we go an’ live with the Indians. But if we ain’t got five thousand pounds of meat six weeks from now, I’ll—I’ll sure go back an’ apologize to our bosses. Is it a go?”
Kit’s hand went out, and they shook. Then he faltered. “I don’t know anything about hunting,” he said.
Shorty lifted his glass.
“But you’re a sure meat-eater, an’ I’ll learn you.”
7. SHORTY DREAMS
“Funny you don’t gamble none,” Shorty said to Smoke one night in the Elkhorn. “Ain’t it in your blood?”
“It is,” Smoke answered. “But the statistics are in my head. I like an even break for my money.”
All about them, in the huge bar-room, arose the click and rattle and rumble of a dozen games, at which fur-clad, moccasined men tried their luck. Smoke waved his hand to include them all.
“Look at them,” he said. “It’s cold mathematics that they will lose more than they win to-night, that the big proportion are losing right now.”
“You’re sure strong on figgers,” Shorty murmured admiringly. “An’ in the main you’re right. But they’s such a thing as facts. An’ one fact is streaks of luck. They’s times when every geezer playin’ wins, as I know, for I’ve sat in such games an’ saw more’n one bank busted. The only way to win at gamblin’ is wait for a hunch that you’ve got a lucky streak comin’ and then play it to the roof.”
“It sounds simple,” Smoke criticized. “So simple I can’t see how men can lose.”
“The trouble is,” Shorty admitted, “that most men gets fooled on their hunches. On occasion I sure get fooled on mine. The thing is to try an’ find out.”
Smoke shook his head. “That’s a statistic, too, Shorty. Most men prove wrong on their hunches.”
“But don’t you ever get one of them streaky feelin’s that all you got to do is put your money down an’ pick a winner?”
Smoke laughed. “I’m too scared of the percentage against me. But I’ll tell you what, Shorty. I’ll throw a dollar on the ’high card’ right now and see if it will buy us a drink.”
Smoke was edging his way in to the faro table, when Shorty caught his arm.
“Hold on. I’m gettin’ one of them hunches now. You put that dollar on roulette.”
They went over to a roulette table near the bar.
“Wait till I give the word,” Shorty counselled.
“What number?” Smoke asked.
“Pick it yourself. But wait till I say let her go.”
“You don’t mean to say I’ve got an even chance on that table?” Smoke argued.
“As good as the next geezer’s.”
“But not as good as the bank’s.”
“Wait an’ see,” Shorty urged. “Now! Let her go!”
The game-keeper had just sent the little ivory ball whirling around the smooth rim above the revolving, many-slotted wheel. Smoke, at the lower end of the table, reached over a player, and blindly tossed the dollar. It slid along the smooth, green cloth and stopped fairly in the center of “34.”
The ball came to rest, and the game-keeper announced, “Thirty-four wins!” He swept the table, and alongside of Smoke’s dollar, stacked thirty-five dollars. Smoke drew the money in, and Shorty slapped him on the shoulder.
“Now, that was the real goods of a hunch, Smoke! How’d I know it? There’s no tellin’. I just knew you’d win. Why, if that dollar of yourn’d fell on any other number it’d won just the same. When the hunch is right, you just can’t help winnin’.”
“Suppose it had come ’double naught’?” Smoke queried, as they made their way to the bar.
“Then your dollar’d been on ’double naught,’” was Shorty’s answer. “They’s no gettin’ away from it. A hunch is a hunch. Here’s how. Come on back to the table. I got a hunch, after pickin’ you for a winner, that I can pick some few numbers myself.”
“Are you playing a system?” Smoke asked, at the end of ten minutes, when his partner had dropped a hundred dollars.
Shorty shook his head indignantly, as he spread his chips out in the vicinities of “3,” “11,” and “17,” and tossed a spare chip on the green.
“Hell is sure cluttered with geezers that played systems,” he exposited, as the keeper raked the table.
From idly watching, Smoke became fascinated, following closely every detail of the game from the whirling of the ball to the making and the paying of the bets. He made no plays, however, merely contenting himself with looking on. Yet so interested was he, that Shorty, announcing that he had had enough, with difficulty drew Smoke away from the table.
The game-keeper returned Shorty the gold-sack he had deposited as a credential for playing, and with it went a slip of paper on which was scribbled, “Out—$350.00.” Shorty carried the sack and the paper across the room and handed them to the weigher, who sat behind a large pair of gold-scales. Out of Shorty’s sack he weighed three hundred and fifty dollars, which he poured into the coffer of the house.
“That hunch of yours was another one of those statistics,” Smoke jeered.
“I had to play it, didn’t I, in order to find out?” Shorty retorted. “I reckon I was crowdin’ some just on account of tryin’ to convince you they’s such a thing as hunches.”
“Never mind, Shorty,” Smoke laughed. “I’ve got a hunch right now—”
Shorty’s eyes sparkled as he cried eagerly: “What is it? Kick in an’ play it pronto.”
“It’s not that kind, Shorty. Now, what I’ve got is a hunch that some day I’ll work out a system that will beat the spots off that table.”
“System!” Shorty groaned, then surveyed his partner with a vast pity. “Smoke, listen to your side-kicker an’ leave system alone. Systems is sure losers. They ain’t no hunches in systems.”
“That’s why I like them,” Smoke answered. “A system is statistical. When you get the right system you can’t lose, and that’s the difference between it and a hunch. You never know when the right hunch is going wrong.”
“But I know a lot of systems that went wrong, an’ I never seen a system win.” Shorty paused and sighed. “Look here, Smoke, if you’re gettin’ cracked on systems this ain’t no place for you, an’ it’s about time we hit the trail again.”
During the several following weeks, the two partners played at cross purposes. Smoke was bent on spending his time watching the roulette game in the Elkhorn, while Shorty was equally bent on travelling trail. At last Smoke put his foot down when a stampede was proposed for two hundred miles down the Yukon.
“Look here, Shorty,” he said, “I’m not going. That trip will take ten days, and before that time I hope to have my system in proper working order. I could almost win with it now. What are you dragging me around the country this way for, anyway?”
“Smoke, I got to take care of you,” was Shorty’s reply. “You’re gettin’ nutty. I’d drag you stampedin’ to Jericho or the North Pole if I could keep you away from that table.”
“It’s all right, Shorty. But just remember I’ve reached full man-grown, meat-eating size. The only dragging you’ll do, will be dragging home the dust I’m going to win with that system of mine, and you’ll most likely have to do it with a dog-team.”
Shorty’s response was a groan.
“And I don’t want you to be bucking any games on your own,” Smoke went on. “We’re going to divide the winnings, and I’ll need all our money to get started. That system’s young yet, and it’s liable to trip me for a few falls before I get it lined up.”
At last, after long hours and days spent at watching the table, the night came when Smoke proclaimed he was ready, and Shorty, glum and pessimistic, with all the seeming of one attending a funeral, accompanied his partner to the Elkhorn. Smoke bought a stack of chips and stationed himself at the game-keeper’s end of the table. Again and again the ball was whirled, and the other players won or lost, but Smoke did not venture a chip. Shorty waxed impatient.
“Buck in, buck in,” he urged. “Let’s get this funeral over. What’s the matter? Got cold feet?”
Smoke shook his head and waited. A dozen plays went by, and then, suddenly, he placed ten one-dollar chips on “26.” The number won, and the keeper paid Smoke three hundred and fifty dollars. A dozen plays went by, twenty plays, and thirty, when Smoke placed ten dollars on “32.” Again he received three hundred and fifty dollars.
“It’s a hunch!” Shorty whispered vociferously in his ear. “Ride it! Ride it!”
Half an hour went by, during which Smoke was inactive, then he placed ten dollars on “34” and won.
“A hunch!” Shorty whispered.
“Nothing of the sort,” Smoke whispered back. “It’s the system. Isn’t she a dandy?”
“You can’t tell me,” Shorty contended. “Hunches comes in mighty funny ways. You might think it’s a system, but it ain’t. Systems is impossible. They can’t happen. It’s a sure hunch you’re playin’.”
Smoke now altered his play. He bet more frequently, with single chips, scattered here and there, and he lost more often than he won.
“Quit it,” Shorty advised. “Cash in. You’ve rung the bull’s-eye three times, an’ you’re ahead a thousand. You can’t keep it up.”
At this moment the ball started whirling, and Smoke dropped ten chips on “26.” The ball fell into the slot of “26,” and the keeper again paid him three hundred and fifty dollars.
“If you’re plum crazy an’ got the immortal cinch, bet ’em the limit,” Shorty said. “Put down twenty-five next time.”
A quarter of an hour passed, during which Smoke won and lost on small scattering bets. Then, with the abruptness that characterized his big betting, he placed twenty-five dollars on the “double naught,” and the keeper paid him eight hundred and seventy-five dollars.
“Wake me up, Smoke, I’m dreamin’,” Shorty moaned.
Smoke smiled, consulted his notebook, and became absorbed in calculation. He continually drew the notebook from his pocket, and from time to time jotted down figures.
A crowd had packed densely around the table, while the players themselves were attempting to cover the same numbers he covered. It was then that a change came over his play. Ten times in succession he placed ten dollars on “18” and lost. At this stage he was deserted by the hardiest. He changed his number and won another three hundred and fifty dollars. Immediately the players were back with him, deserting again after a series of losing bets.
“Quit it, Smoke, quit it,” Shorty advised. “The longest string of hunches is only so long, an’ your string’s finished. No more bull’s-eyes for you.”
“I’m going to ring her once again before I cash in,” Smoke answered.
For a few minutes, with varying luck, he played scattering chips over the table, and then dropped twenty-five dollars on the “double naught.”
“I’ll take my slip now,” he said to the dealer, as he won.
“Oh, you don’t need to show it to me,” Shorty said, as they walked to the weigher. “I been keepin’ track. You’re something like thirty-six hundred to the good. How near am I?”
“Thirty-six-sixty,” Smoke replied. “And now you’ve got to pack the dust home. That was the agreement.”
“Don’t crowd your luck,” Shorty pleaded with Smoke, the next night, in the cabin, as he evidenced preparations to return to the Elkhorn. “You played a mighty long string of hunches, but you played it out. If you go back you’ll sure drop all your winnings.”
“But I tell you it isn’t hunches, Shorty. It’s statistics. It’s a system. It can’t lose.”
“System be damned. They ain’t no such a thing as system. I made seventeen straight passes at a crap table once. Was it system? Nope. It was fool luck, only I had cold feet an’ didn’t dast let it ride. If it’d rid, instead of me drawin’ down after the third pass, I’d ’a’ won over thirty thousan’ on the original two-bit piece.”
“Just the same, Shorty, this is a real system.”
“Huh! You got to show me.”
“I did show you. Come on with me now, and I’ll show you again.”
When they entered the Elkhorn, all eyes centered on Smoke, and those about the table made way for him as he took up his old place at the keeper’s end. His play was quite unlike that of the previous night. In the course of an hour and a half he made only four bets, but each bet was for twenty-five dollars, and each bet won. He cashed in thirty-five hundred dollars, and Shorty carried the dust home to the cabin.
“Now’s the time to jump the game,” Shorty advised, as he sat on the edge of his bunk and took off his moccasins. “You’re seven thousan’ ahead. A man’s a fool that’d crowd his luck harder.”
“Shorty, a man would be a blithering lunatic if he didn’t keep on backing a winning system like mine.”
“Smoke, you’re a sure bright boy. You’re college-learnt. You know more’n a minute than I could know in forty thousan’ years. But just the same you’re dead wrong when you call your luck a system. I’ve been around some, an’ seen a few, an’ I tell you straight an’ confidential an’ all-assurin’, a system to beat a bankin’ game ain’t possible.”
“But I’m showing you this one. It’s a pipe.”
“No, you’re not, Smoke. It’s a pipe-dream. I’m asleep. Bimeby I’ll wake up, an’ build the fire, an’ start breakfast.”
“Well, my unbelieving friend, there’s the dust. Heft it.”
So saying, Smoke tossed the bulging gold-sack upon his partner’s knees. It weighed thirty-five pounds, and Shorty was fully aware of the crush of its impact on his flesh.
“It’s real,” Smoke hammered his point home.
“Huh! I’ve saw some mighty real dreams in my time. In a dream all things is possible. In real life a system ain’t possible. Now, I ain’t never been to college, but I’m plum justified in sizin’ up this gamblin’ orgy of ourn as a sure-enough dream.”
“Hamilton’s ’Law of Parsimony,’” Smoke laughed.
“I ain’t never heard of the geezer, but his dope’s sure right. I’m dreamin’, Smoke, an’ you’re just snoopin’ around in my dream an’ tormentin’ me with system. If you love me, if you sure do love me, you’ll just yell, ’Shorty! Wake up!’ An’ I’ll wake up an’ start breakfast.”
The third night of play, as Smoke laid his first bet, the game-keeper shoved fifteen dollars back to him.
“Ten’s all you can play,” he said. “The limit’s come down.”
“Gettin’ picayune,” Shorty sneered.
“No one has to play at this table that don’t want to,” the keeper retorted. “And I’m willing to say straight out in meeting that we’d sooner your pardner didn’t play at our table.”
“Scared of his system, eh?” Shorty challenged, as the keeper paid over three hundred and fifty dollars.
“I ain’t saying I believe in system, because I don’t. There never was a system that’d beat roulette or any percentage game. But just the same I’ve seen some queer strings of luck, and I ain’t going to let this bank go bust if I can help it.”
“Gambling is just as much business, my friend, as any other business. We ain’t philanthropists.”
Night by night, Smoke continued to win. His method of play varied. Expert after expert, in the jam about the table, scribbled down his bets and numbers in vain attempts to work out his system. They complained of their inability to get a clew to start with, and swore that it was pure luck, though the most colossal streak of it they had ever seen.
It was Smoke’s varied play that obfuscated them. Sometimes, consulting his note-book or engaging in long calculations, an hour elapsed without his staking a chip. At other times he would win three limit-bets and clean up a thousand dollars and odd in five or ten minutes. At still other times, his tactics would be to scatter single chips prodigally and amazingly over the table. This would continue for from ten to thirty minutes of play, when, abruptly, as the ball whirled through the last few of its circles, he would play the limit on column, colour, and number, and win all three. Once, to complete confusion in the minds of those that strove to divine his secret, he lost forty straight bets, each at the limit. But each night, play no matter how diversely, Shorty carried home thirty-five hundred dollars for him.
“It ain’t no system,” Shorty expounded at one of their bed-going discussions. “I follow you, an’ follow you, but they ain’t no figgerin’ it out. You never play twice the same. All you do is pick winners when you want to, an’ when you don’t want to, you just on purpose don’t.”
“Maybe you’re nearer right than you think, Shorty. I’ve just got to pick losers sometimes. It’s part of the system.”
“System—hell! I’ve talked with every gambler in town, an’ the last one is agreed they ain’t no such thing as system.”
“Yet I’m showing them one all the time.”
“Look here, Smoke.” Shorty paused over the candle, in the act of blowing it out. “I’m real irritated. Maybe you think this is a candle. It ain’t. No, sir! An’ this ain’t me neither. I’m out on trail somewheres, in my blankets, lyin’ flat on my back with my mouth open, an’ dreamin’ all this. That ain’t you talkin’, any more than this candle is a candle.”
“It’s funny, how I happen to be dreaming along with you then,” Smoke persisted.
“No, it ain’t. You’re part of my dream, that’s all. I’ve hearn many a man talk in my dreams. I want to tell you one thing, Smoke. I’m gettin’ mangy an’ mad. If this here dream keeps up much more I’m goin’ to bite my veins an’ howl.”
On the sixth night of play at the Elkhorn, the limit was reduced to five dollars.
“It’s all right,” Smoke assured the game-keeper. “I want thirty-five hundred to-night, as usual, and you only compel me to play longer. I’ve got to pick twice as many winners, that’s all.”
“Why don’t you buck somebody else’s table?” the keeper demanded wrathfully.
“Because I like this one.” Smoke glanced over to the roaring stove only a few feet away. “Besides, there are no draughts here, and it is warm and comfortable.”
On the ninth night, when Shorty had carried the dust home, he had a fit. “I quit, Smoke, I quit,” he began. “I know when I got enough. I ain’t dreamin’. I’m wide awake. A system can’t be, but you got one just the same. There’s nothin’ in the rule o’ three. The almanac’s clean out. The world’s gone smash. There’s nothin’ regular an’ uniform no more. The multiplication table’s gone loco. Two is eight, nine is eleven, and two-times-six is eight hundred an’ forty-six—an’—an’ a half. Anything is everything, an’ nothing’s all, an’ twice all is cold-cream, milk-shakes, an’ calico horses. You’ve got a system. Figgers beat the figgerin’. What ain’t is, an’ what isn’t has to be. The sun rises in the west, the moon’s a pay-streak, the stars is canned corn-beef, scurvy’s the blessin’ of God, him that dies kicks again, rocks floats, water’s gas, I ain’t me, you’re somebody else, an’ mebbe we’re twins if we ain’t hashed-brown potatoes fried in verdigris. Wake me up! Somebody! Oh! Wake me up!”
The next morning a visitor came to the cabin. Smoke knew him, Harvey Moran, the owner of all the games in the Tivoli. There was a note of appeal in his deep gruff voice as he plunged into his business.
“It’s like this, Smoke,” he began. “You’ve got us all guessing. I’m representing nine other game-owners and myself from all the saloons in town. We don’t understand. We know that no system ever worked against roulette. All the mathematic sharps in the colleges have told us gamblers the same thing. They say that roulette itself is the system, the one and only system, and, therefore, that no system can beat it, for that would mean arithmetic has gone bug-house.”
Shorty nodded his head violently.
“If a system can beat a system, then there’s no such thing as system,” the gambler went on. “In such a case anything could be possible—a thing could be in two different places at once, or two things could be in the same place that’s only large enough for one at the same time.”
“Well, you’ve seen me play,” Smoke answered defiantly; “and if you think it’s only a string of luck on my part, why worry?”
“That’s the trouble. We can’t help worrying. It’s a system you’ve got, and all the time we know it can’t be. I’ve watched you five nights now, and all I can make out is that you favour certain numbers and keep on winning. Now the ten of us game-owners have got together, and we want to make a friendly proposition. We’ll put a roulette-table in a back room of the Elkhorn, pool the bank against you, and have you buck us. It will be all quiet and private. Just you and Shorty and us. What do you say?”
“I think it’s the other way around,” Smoke answered. “It’s up to you to come and see me. I’ll be playing in the barroom of the Elkhorn to-night. You can watch me there just as well.”
That night, when Smoke took up his customary place at the table, the keeper shut down the game. “The game’s closed,” he said. “Boss’s orders.”
But the assembled game-owners were not to be balked. In a few minutes they arranged a pool, each putting in a thousand, and took over the table.
“Come on and buck us,” Harvey Moran challenged, as the keeper sent the ball on its first whirl around.
“Give me the twenty-five limit,” Smoke suggested.
“Sure; go to it.”
Smoke immediately placed twenty-five chips on the “double naught,” and won.
Moran wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Go on,” he said. “We got ten thousand in this bank.”
At the end of an hour and a half, the ten thousand was Smoke’s.
“The bank’s bust,” the keeper announced.
“Got enough?” Smoke asked.
The game-owners looked at one another. They were awed. They, the fatted proteges of the laws of chance, were undone. They were up against one who had more intimate access to those laws, or who had invoked higher and undreamed laws.
“We quit,” Moran said. “Ain’t that right, Burke?”
Big Burke, who owned the games in the M. and G. Saloon, nodded. “The impossible has happened,” he said. “This Smoke here has got a system all right. If we let him go on we’ll all bust. All I can see, if we’re goin’ to keep our tables running, is to cut down the limit to a dollar, or to ten cents, or a cent. He won’t win much in a night with such stakes.”
All looked at Smoke.
He shrugged his shoulders. “In that case, gentlemen, I’ll have to hire a gang of men to play at all your tables. I can pay them ten dollars for a four-hour shift and make money.”
“Then we’ll shut down our tables,” Big Burke replied. “Unless—” He hesitated and ran his eye over his fellows to see that they were with him. “Unless you’re willing to talk business. What will you sell the system for?”
“Thirty thousand dollars,” Smoke answered. “That’s a tax of three thousand apiece.”
They debated and nodded.
“And you’ll tell us your system?”
“And you’ll promise not to play roulette in Dawson ever again?”
“No, sir,” Smoke said positively. “I’ll promise not to play this system again.”
“My God!” Moran exploded. “You haven’t got other systems, have you?”
“Hold on!” Shorty cried. “I want to talk to my pardner. Come over here, Smoke, on the side.”
Smoke followed into a quiet corner of the room, while hundreds of curious eyes centered on him and Shorty.
“Look here, Smoke,” Shorty whispered hoarsely. “Mebbe it ain’t a dream. In which case you’re sellin’ out almighty cheap. You’ve sure got the world by the slack of its pants. They’s millions in it. Shake it! Shake it hard!”
“But if it’s a dream?” Smoke queried softly.
“Then, for the sake of the dream an’ the love of Mike, stick them gamblers up good and plenty. What’s the good of dreamin’ if you can’t dream to the real right, dead sure, eternal finish?”
“Fortunately, this isn’t a dream, Shorty.”
“Then if you sell out for thirty thousan’, I’ll never forgive you.”
“When I sell out for thirty thousand, you’ll fall on my neck an’ wake up to find out that you haven’t been dreaming at all. This is no dream, Shorty. In about two minutes you’ll see you have been wide awake all the time. Let me tell you that when I sell out it’s because I’ve got to sell out.”
Back at the table, Smoke informed the game-owners that his offer still held. They proffered him their paper to the extent of three thousand each.
“Hold out for the dust,” Shorty cautioned.
“I was about to intimate that I’d take the money weighed out,” Smoke said.
The owner of the Elkhorn cashed their paper, and Shorty took possession of the gold-dust.
“Now, I don’t want to wake up,” he chortled, as he hefted the various sacks. “Toted up, it’s a seventy thousan’ dream. It’d be too blamed expensive to open my eyes, roll out of the blankets, an’ start breakfast.”
“What’s your system?” Big Burke demanded. “We’ve paid for it, and we want it.”
Smoke led the way to the table. “Now, gentlemen, bear with me a moment. This isn’t an ordinary system. It can scarcely be called legitimate, but its one great virtue is that it works. I’ve got my suspicious, but I’m not saying anything. You watch. Mr. Keeper, be ready with the ball. Wait. I am going to pick ’26.’ Consider I’ve bet on it. Be ready, Mr. Keeper—Now!”
The ball whirled around.
“You observe,” Smoke went on, “that ’9’ was directly opposite.”
The ball finished in “26.”
Big Burke swore deep in his chest, and all waited.
“For ’double naught’ to win, ’11’ must be opposite. Try it yourself and see.”
“But the system?” Moran demanded impatiently. “We know you can pick winning numbers, and we know what those numbers are; but how do you do it?”
“By observed sequences. By accident I chanced twice to notice the ball whirled when ’9’ was opposite. Both times ’26’ won. After that I saw it happen again. Then I looked for other sequences, and found them. ’Double naught’ opposite fetches ’32,’ and ’11’ fetches ’double naught.’ It doesn’t always happen, but it USUALLY happens. You notice, I say ’usually.’ As I said before, I have my suspicions, but I’m not saying anything.”
Big Burke, with a sudden flash of comprehension reached over, stopped the wheel, and examined it carefully. The heads of the nine other game-owners bent over and joined in the examination. Big Burke straightened up and cast a glance at the near-by stove.
“Hell,” he said. “It wasn’t any system at all. The table stood close to the fire, and the blamed wheel’s warped. And we’ve been worked to a frazzle. No wonder he liked this table. He couldn’t have bucked for sour apples at any other table.”
Harvey Moran gave a great sigh of relief and wiped his forehead. “Well, anyway,” he said, “it’s cheap at the price just to find out that it wasn’t a system.” His face began to work, and then he broke into laughter and slapped Smoke on the shoulder. “Smoke, you had us going for a while, and we patting ourselves on the back because you were letting our tables alone! Say, I’ve got some real fizz I’ll open if you’ll all come over to the Tivoli with me.”
Later, back in the cabin, Shorty silently overhauled and hefted the various bulging gold-sacks. He finally piled them on the table, sat down on the edge of his bunk, and began taking off his moccasins.
“Seventy thousan’,” he calculated. “It weighs three hundred and fifty pounds. And all out of a warped wheel an’ a quick eye. Smoke, you eat’m raw, you eat’m alive, you work under water, you’ve given me the jim-jams; but just the same I know it’s a dream. It’s only in dreams that the good things comes true. I’m almighty unanxious to wake up. I hope I never wake up.”
“Cheer up,” Smoke answered. “You won’t. There are a lot of philosophy sharps that think men are sleep-walkers. You’re in good company.”
Shorty got up, went to the table, selected the heaviest sack, and cuddled it in his arms as if it were a baby. “I may be sleep-walkin’,” he said, “but as you say, I’m sure in mighty good company.”
8. THE HANGING OF CULTUS GEORGE
The way led steeply up through deep, powdery snow that was unmarred by sled-track or moccasin impression. Smoke, in the lead, pressed the fragile crystals down under his fat, short snow-shoes. The task required lungs and muscle, and he flung himself into it with all his strength. Behind, on the surface he packed, strained the string of six dogs, the steam-jets of their breathing attesting their labor and the lowness of the temperature. Between the wheel-dog and the sled toiled Shorty, his weight divided between the guiding gee-pole and the haul, for he was pulling with the dogs. Every half-hour he and Smoke exchanged places, for the snow-shoe work was even more arduous than that of the gee-pole.
The whole outfit was fresh and strong. It was merely hard work being efficiently done—the breaking of a midwinter trail across a divide. On this severe stretch, ten miles a day they called a decent stint. They kept in condition, but each night crawled well tired into their sleeping-furs. This was their sixth day out from the lively camp of Mucluc on the Yukon. In two days, with the loaded sled, they had covered the fifty miles of packed trail up Moose Creek. Then had come the struggle with the four feet of untouched snow that was really not snow, but frost-crystals, so lacking in cohesion that when kicked it flew with the thin hissing of granulated sugar. In three days they had wallowed thirty miles up Minnow Creek and across the series of low divides that separate the several creeks flowing south into Siwash River; and now they were breasting the big divide, past the Bald Buttes, where the way would lead them down Porcupine Creek to the middle reaches of Milk River. Higher up Milk River, it was fairly rumored, were deposits of copper. And this was their goal—a hill of pure copper, half a mile to the right and up the first creek after Milk River issued from a deep gorge to flow across a heavily timbered stretch of bottom. They would know it when they saw it. One-Eyed McCarthy had described it with sharp definiteness. It was impossible to miss it—unless McCarthy had lied.
Smoke was in the lead, and the small scattered spruce-trees were becoming scarcer and smaller, when he saw one, dead and bone-dry, that stood in their path. There was no need for speech. His glance to Shorty was acknowledged by a stentorian “Whoa!” The dogs stood in the traces till they saw Shorty begin to undo the sled-lashings and Smoke attack the dead spruce with an ax; whereupon the animals dropped in the snow and curled into balls, the bush of each tail curved to cover four padded feet and an ice-rimmed muzzle.
The men worked with the quickness of long practice. Gold-pan, coffee-pot, and cooking-pail were soon thawing the heaped frost-crystals into water. Smoke extracted a stick of beans from the sled. Already cooked, with a generous admixture of cubes of fat pork and bacon, the beans had been frozen into this portable immediacy. He chopped off chunks with an ax, as if it were so much firewood, and put them into the frying-pan to thaw. Solidly frozen sourdough biscuits were likewise placed to thaw. In twenty minutes from the time they halted, the meal was ready to eat.
“About forty below,” Shorty mumbled through a mouthful of beans. “Say—I hope it don’t get colder—or warmer, neither. It’s just right for trail breaking.”
Smoke did not answer. His own mouth full of beans, his jaws working, he had chanced to glance at the lead-dog, lying half a dozen feet away. That gray and frosty wolf was gazing at him with the infinite wistfulness and yearning that glimmers and hazes so often in the eyes of Northland dogs. Smoke knew it well, but never got over the unfathomable wonder of it. As if to shake off the hypnotism, he set down his plate and coffee-cup, went to the sled, and began opening the dried-fish sack.
“Hey!” Shorty expostulated. “What ’r’ you doin’?”
“Breaking all law, custom, precedent, and trail usage,” Smoke replied. “I’m going to feed the dogs in the middle of the day—just this once. They’ve worked hard, and that last pull to the top of the divide is before them. Besides, Bright there has been talking to me, telling me all untellable things with those eyes of his.”
Shorty laughed skeptically. “Go on an’ spoil ’em. Pretty soon you’ll be manicurin’ their nails. I’d recommend cold cream and electric massage—it’s great for sled-dogs. And sometimes a Turkish bath does ’em fine.”
“I’ve never done it before,” Smoke defended. “And I won’t again. But this once I’m going to. It’s just a whim, I guess.”
“Oh, if it’s a hunch, go to it.” Shorty’s tones showed how immediately he had been mollified. “A man’s always got to follow his hunches.”
“It isn’t a hunch, Shorty. Bright just sort of got on my imagination for a couple of twists. He told me more in one minute with those eyes of his than I could read in the books in a thousand years. His eyes were acrawl with the secrets of life. They were just squirming and wriggling there. The trouble is I almost got them, and then I didn’t. I’m no wiser than I was before, but I was near them.” He paused and then added, “I can’t tell you, but that dog’s eyes were just spilling over with cues to what life is, and evolution, and star-dust, and cosmic sap, and all the rest—everything.”
“Boiled down into simple American, you got a hunch,” Shorty insisted.
Smoke finished tossing the dried salmon, one to each dog, and shook his head.
“I tell you yes,” Shorty argued. “Smoke, it’s a sure hunch. Something’s goin’ to happen before the day is out. You’ll see. And them dried fish’ll have a bearin’.”
“You’ve got to show me,” said Smoke.
“No, I ain’t. The day’ll take care of itself an’ show you. Now listen to what I’m tellin’ you. I got a hunch myself out of your hunch. I’ll bet eleven ounces against three ornery toothpicks I’m right. When I get a hunch I ain’t a-scared to ride it.”
“You bet the toothpicks, and I’ll bet the ounces,” Smoke returned.
“Nope. That’d be plain robbery. I win. I know a hunch when it tickles me. Before the day’s out somethin’ ’ll happen, an’ them fish’ll have a meanin’.”
“Hell,” said Smoke, dismissing the discussion contemptuously.
“An’ it’ll be hell,” Shorty came back. “An’ I’ll take three more toothpicks with you on them same odds that it’ll be sure-enough hell.”
“Done,” said Smoke.
“I win,” Shorty exulted. “Chicken-feather toothpicks for mine.”
An hour later they cleared the divide, dipped down past the Bald Buttes through a sharp elbow-canyon, and took the steep open slope that dropped into Porcupine Creek. Shorty, in the lead, stopped abruptly, and Smoke whoaed the dogs. Beneath them, coming up, was a procession of humans, scattered and draggled, a quarter of a mile long.
“They move like it was a funeral,” Shorty noted.
“They’ve no dogs,” said Smoke.
“Yep; there’s a couple of men pullin’ on a sled.”
“See that fellow fall down? There’s something the matter, Shorty, and there must be two hundred of them.”
“Look at ’em stagger as if they was soused. There goes another.”
“It’s a whole tribe. There are children there.”
“Smoke, I win,” Shorty proclaimed. “A hunch is a hunch, an’ you can’t beat it. There she comes. Look at her!—surgin’ up like a lot of corpses.”
The mass of Indians, at sight of the two men, had raised a weird cry of joy and accelerated its pace.
“They’re sure tolerable woozy,” commented Shorty. “See ’em fallin’ down in lumps and bunches.”
“Look at the face of that first one,” Smoke said. “It’s starvation—that’s what’s the matter with them. They’ve eaten their dogs.”
“What’ll we do? Run for it?”
“And leave the sled and dogs?” Smoke demanded reproachfully.
“They’ll sure eat us if we don’t. They look hungry enough for it. Hello, old skeeziks. What’s wrong with you? Don’t look at that dog that way. No cookin’-pot for him—savvy?”
The forerunners were arriving and crowding about them, moaning and plainting in an unfamiliar jargon. To Smoke the picture was grotesque and horrible. It was famine unmistakable. Their faces, hollow-cheeked and skin-stretched, were so many death’s-heads. More and more arrived and crowded about, until Smoke and Shorty were hemmed in by the wild crew. Their ragged garments of skin and fur were cut and slashed away, and Smoke knew the reason for it when he saw a wizened child on a squaw’s back that sucked and chewed a strip of filthy fur. Another child he observed steadily masticating a leather thong.
“Keep off there!—keep back!” Shorty yelled, falling back on English after futile attempts with the little Indian he did know.
Bucks and squaws and children tottered and swayed on shaking legs and continued to surge in, their mad eyes swimming with weakness and burning with ravenous desire. A woman, moaning, staggered past Shorty and fell with spread and grasping arms on the sled. An old man followed her, panting and gasping, with trembling hands striving to cast off the sled lashings, and get at the grub-sacks beneath. A young man, with a naked knife, tried to rush in, but was flung back by Smoke. The whole mass pressed in upon them, and the fight was on.
At first Smoke and Shorty shoved and thrust and threw back. Then they used the butt of the dog-whip and their fists on the food-mad crowd. And all this against a background of moaning and wailing women and children. Here and there, in a dozen places, the sled-lashings were cut. Men crawled in on their bellies, regardless of a rain of kicks and blows, and tried to drag out the grub. These had to be picked up bodily and flung back. And such was their weakness that they fell continually, under the slightest pressures or shoves. Yet they made no attempt to injure the two men who defended the sled.
It was the utter weakness of the Indians that saved Smoke and Shorty from being overborne. In five minutes the wall of up-standing, on-struggling Indians had been changed to heaps of fallen ones that moaned and gibbered in the snow, and cried and sniveled as their staring, swimming eyes focused on the grub that meant life to them and that brought the slaver to their lips. And behind it all arose the wailing of the women and children.
“Shut up! Oh, shut up!” Shorty yelled, thrusting his fingers into his ears and breathing heavily from his exertions. “Ah, you would, would you!” was his cry as he lunged forward and kicked a knife from the hand of a man who, bellying through the snow, was trying to stab the lead-dog in the throat.
“This is terrible,” Smoke muttered.
“I’m all het up,” Shorty replied, returning from the rescue of Bright. “I’m real sweaty. An’ now what ’r’ we goin’ to do with this ambulance outfit?”
Smoke shook his head, and then the problem was solved for him. An Indian crawled forward, his one eye fixed on Smoke instead of on the sled, and in it Smoke could see the struggle of sanity to assert itself. Shorty remembered having punched the other eye, which was already swollen shut. The Indian raised himself on his elbow and spoke.
“Me Carluk. Me good Siwash. Me savvy Boston man plenty. Me plenty hungry. All people plenty hungry. All people no savvy Boston man. Me savvy. Me eat grub now. All people eat grub now. We buy ’m grub. Got ’m plenty gold. No got ’m grub. Summer, salmon no come Milk River. Winter, caribou no come. No grub. Me make ’m talk all people. Me tell ’em plenty Boston man come Yukon. Boston man have plenty grub. Boston man like ’m gold. We take ’m gold, go Yukon, Boston man give ’m grub. Plenty gold. Me savvy Boston man like ’m gold.”
He began fumbling with wasted fingers at the draw-string of a pouch he took from his belt.
“Too much make ’m noise,” Shorty broke in distractedly. “You tell ’m squaw, you tell ’m papoose, shut ’m up mouth.”
Carluk turned and addressed the wailing women. Other bucks, listening, raised their voices authoritatively, and slowly the squaws stilled, and quieted the children near to them. Carluk paused from fumbling the draw-string and held up his fingers many times.
“Him people make ’m die,” he said.
And Smoke, following the count, knew that seventy-five of the tribe had starved to death.
“Me buy ’m grub,” Carluk said, as he got the pouch open and drew out a large chunk of heavy metal. Others were following his example, and on every side appeared similar chunks. Shorty stared.
“Great Jeminey!” he cried. “Copper! Raw, red copper! An’ they think it’s gold!”
“Him gold,” Carluk assured them confidently, his quick comprehension having caught the gist of Shorty’s exclamation.
“And the poor devils banked everything on it,” Smoke muttered. “Look at it. That chunk there weighs forty pounds. They’ve got hundreds of pounds of it, and they’ve carried it when they didn’t have strength enough to drag themselves. Look here, Shorty. We’ve got to feed them.”
“Huh! Sounds easy. But how about statistics? You an’ me has a month’s grub, which is six meals times thirty, which is one hundred an’ eighty meals. Here’s two hundred Indians, with real, full-grown appetites. How the blazes can we give ’m one meal even?”
“There’s the dog-grub,” Smoke answered. “A couple of hundred pounds of dried salmon ought to help out. We’ve got to do it. They’ve pinned their faith on the white man, you know.”
“Sure, an’ we can’t throw ’m down,” Shorty agreed. “An’ we got two nasty jobs cut out for us, each just about twicet as nasty as the other. One of us has got to make a run of it to Mucluc an’ raise a relief. The other has to stay here an’ run the hospital an’ most likely be eaten. Don’t let it slip your noodle that we’ve been six days gettin’ here; an’ travelin’ light, an’ all played out, it can’t be made back in less ’n three days.”
For a minute Smoke pondered the miles of the way they had come, visioning the miles in terms of time measured by his capacity for exertion. “I can get there to-morrow night,” he announced.
“All right,” Shorty acquiesced cheerfully. “An’ I’ll stay an’ be eaten.”
“But I’m going to take one fish each for the dogs,” Smoke explained, “and one meal for myself.”
“An’ you’ll sure need it if you make Mucluc to-morrow night.”
Smoke, through the medium of Carluk, stated the program. “Make fires, long fires, plenty fires,” he concluded. “Plenty Boston man stop Mucluc. Boston man much good. Boston man plenty grub. Five sleeps I come back plenty grub. This man, his name Shorty, very good friend of mine. He stop here. He big boss—savvy?”
Carluk nodded and interpreted.
“All grub stop here. Shorty, he give ’m grub. He boss—savvy?”
Carluk interpreted, and nods and guttural cries of agreement proceeded from the men.
Smoke remained and managed until the full swing of the arrangement was under way. Those who were able, crawled or staggered in the collecting of firewood. Long, Indian fires were built that accommodated all. Shorty, aided by a dozen assistants, with a short club handy for the rapping of hungry knuckles, plunged into the cooking. The women devoted themselves to thawing snow in every utensil that could be mustered. First, a tiny piece of bacon was distributed all around, and, next, a spoonful of sugar to cloy the edge of their razor appetites. Soon, on a circle of fires drawn about Shorty, many pots of beans were boiling, and he, with a wrathful eye for what he called renigers, was frying and apportioning the thinnest of flapjacks.
“Me for the big cookin’,” was his farewell to Smoke. “You just keep a-hikin’. Trot all the way there an’ run all the way back. It’ll take you to-day an’ to-morrow to get there, and you can’t be back inside of three days more. To-morrow they’ll eat the last of the dog-fish, an’ then there’ll be nary a scrap for three days. You gotta keep a-comin’, Smoke. You gotta keep a-comin’.”
Though the sled was light, loaded only with six dried salmon, a couple of pounds of frozen beans and bacon, and a sleeping-robe, Smoke could not make speed. Instead of riding the sled and running the dogs, he was compelled to plod at the gee-pole. Also, a day of work had already been done, and the freshness and spring had gone out of the dogs and himself. The long arctic twilight was on when he cleared the divide and left the Bald Buttes behind.
Down the slope better time was accomplished, and often he was able to spring on the sled for short intervals and get an exhausting six-mile clip out of the animals. Darkness caught him and fooled him in a wide-valleyed, nameless creek. Here the creek wandered in broad horseshoe curves through the flats, and here, to save time, he began short-cutting the flats instead of keeping to the creek-bed. And black dark found him back on the creek-bed feeling for the trail. After an hour of futile searching, too wise to go farther astray, he built a fire, fed each dog half a fish, and divided his own ration in half. Rolled in his robe, ere quick sleep came he had solved the problem. The last big flat he had short-cut was the one that occurred at the forks of the creek. He had missed the trail by a mile. He was now on the main stream and below where his and Shorty’s trail crossed the valley and climbed through a small feeder to the low divide on the other side.
At the first hint of daylight he got under way, breakfastless, and wallowed a mile upstream to pick up the trail. And breakfastless, man and dogs, without a halt, for eight hours held back transversely across the series of small creeks and low divides and down Minnow Creek. By four in the afternoon, with darkness fast-set about him, he emerged on the hard-packed, running trail of Moose Creek. Fifty miles of it would end the journey. He called a rest, built a fire, threw each dog its half-salmon, and thawed and ate his pound of beans. Then he sprang on the sled, yelled, “Mush!” and the dogs went out strongly against their breast-bands.
“Hit her up, you huskies!” he cried. “Mush on! Hit her up for grub! And no grub short of Mucluc! Dig in, you wolves! Dig in!”
Midnight had gone a quarter of an hour in the Annie Mine. The main room was comfortably crowded, while roaring stoves, combined with lack of ventilation, kept the big room unsanitarily warm. The click of chips and the boisterous play at the craps-table furnished a monotonous background of sound to the equally monotonous rumble of men’s voices where they sat and stood about and talked in groups and twos and threes. The gold-weighers were busy at their scales, for dust was the circulating medium, and even a dollar drink of whiskey at the bar had to be paid for to the weighers.
The walls of the room were of tiered logs, the bark still on, and the chinking between the logs, plainly visible, was arctic moss. Through the open door that led to the dance-room came the rollicking strains of a Virginia reel, played by a piano and a fiddle. The drawing of Chinese lottery had just taken place, and the luckiest player, having cashed at the scales, was drinking up his winnings with half a dozen cronies. The faro- and roulette-tables were busy and quiet. The draw-poker and stud-poker tables, each with its circle of onlookers, were equally quiet. At another table, a serious, concentrated game of Black Jack was on. Only from the craps-table came noise, as the man who played rolled the dice, full sweep, down the green amphitheater of a table in pursuit of his elusive and long-delayed point. Ever he cried: “Oh! you Joe Cotton! Come a four! Come a Joe! Little Joe! Bring home the bacon, Joe! Joe, you Joe, you!”
Cultus George, a big strapping Circle City Indian, leaned distantly and dourly against the log wall. He was a civilized Indian, if living like a white man connotes civilization; and he was sorely offended, though the offense was of long standing. For years he had done a white man’s work, had done it alongside of white men, and often had done it better than they did. He wore the same pants they wore, the same hearty woolens and heavy shirts. He sported as good a watch as they, parted his short hair on the side, and ate the same food—bacon, beans, and flour; and yet he was denied their greatest diversion and reward; namely, whiskey. Cultus George was a money-earner. He had staked claims, and bought and sold claims. He had been grub-staked, and he had accorded grub-stakes. Just now he was a dog-musher and freighter, charging twenty-eight cents a pound for the winter haul from Sixty Mile to Mucluc—and for bacon thirty-three cents, as was the custom. His poke was fat with dust. He had the price of many drinks. Yet no barkeeper would serve him. Whiskey, the hottest, swiftest, completest gratifier of civilization, was not for him. Only by subterranean and cowardly and expensive ways could he get a drink. And he resented this invidious distinction, as he had resented it for years, deeply. And he was especially thirsty and resentful this night, while the white men he had so sedulously emulated he hated more bitterly than ever before. The white men would graciously permit him to lose his gold across their gaming-tables, but for neither love nor money could he obtain a drink across their bars. Wherefore he was very sober, and very logical, and logically sullen.
The Virginia reel in the dance-room wound to a wild close that interfered not with the three camp drunkards who snored under the piano. “All couples promenade to the bar!” was the caller’s last cry as the music stopped. And the couples were so promenading through the wide doorway into the main room—the men in furs and moccasins, the women in soft fluffy dresses, silk stockings, and dancing-slippers—when the double storm-doors were thrust open, and Smoke Bellew staggered wearily in.
Eyes centered on him, and silence began to fall. He tried to speak, pulled off his mittens (which fell dangling from their cords), and clawed at the frozen moisture of his breath which had formed in fifty miles of running. He halted irresolutely, then went over and leaned his elbow on the end of the bar.
Only the man at the craps-table, without turning his head, continued to roll the dice and to cry: “Oh! you Joe! Come on, you Joe!” The gamekeeper’s gaze, fixed on Smoke, caught the player’s attention, and he, too, with suspended dice, turned and looked.
“What’s up, Smoke?” Matson, the owner of the Annie Mine, demanded.
With a last effort, Smoke clawed his mouth free. “I got some dogs out there—dead beat,” he said huskily. “Somebody go and take care of them, and I’ll tell you what’s the matter.”
In a dozen brief sentences, he outlined the situation. The craps-player, his money still lying on the table and his slippery Joe Cotton still uncaptured, had come over to Smoke, and was now the first to speak.
“We gotta do something. That’s straight. But what? You’ve had time to think. What’s your plan? Spit it out.”
“Sure,” Smoke assented. “Here’s what I’ve been thinking. We’ve got to hustle light sleds on the jump. Say a hundred pounds of grub on each sled. The driver’s outfit and dog-grub will fetch it up fifty more. But they can make time. Say we start five of these sleds pronto—best running teams, best mushers and trail-eaters. On the soft trail the sleds can take the lead turn about. They’ve got to start at once. At the best, by the time they can get there, all those Indians won’t have had a scrap to eat for three days. And then, as soon as we’ve got those sleds off we’ll have to follow up with heavy sleds. Figure it out yourself. Two pounds a day is the very least we can decently keep those Indians traveling on. That’s four hundred pounds a day, and, with the old people and the children, five days is the quickest time we can bring them into Mucluc. Now what are you going to do?”
“Take up a collection to buy all the grub,” said the craps-player.
“I’ll stand for the grub,” Smoke began impatiently.
“Nope,” the other interrupted. “This ain’t your treat. We’re all in. Fetch a wash-basin somebody. It won’t take a minute. An’ here’s a starter.”
He pulled a heavy gold-sack from his pocket, untied the mouth, and poured a stream of coarse dust and nuggets into the basin. A man beside him caught his hand up with a jerk and an oath, elevating the mouth of the sack so as to stop the run of the dust. To a casual eye, six or eight ounces had already run into the basin.
“Don’t be a hawg,” cried the second man. “You ain’t the only one with a poke. Gimme a chance at it.”
“Huh!” sneered the craps-player. “You’d think it was a stampede, you’re so goshdanged eager about it.”
Men crowded and jostled for the opportunity to contribute, and when they were satisfied, Smoke hefted the heavy basin with both hands and grinned.
“It will keep the whole tribe in grub for the rest of the winter,” he said. “Now for the dogs. Five light teams that have some run in them.”
A dozen teams were volunteered, and the camp, as a committee of the whole, bickered and debated, accepted and rejected.
“Huh! Your dray-horses!” Long Bill Haskell was told.
“They can pull,” he bristled with hurt pride.
“They sure can,” he was assured. “But they can’t make time for sour apples. They’ve got theirs cut out for them bringing up the heavy loads.”
As fast as a team was selected, its owner, with half a dozen aids, departed to harness up and get ready.
One team was rejected because it had come in tired that afternoon. One owner contributed his team, but apologetically exposed a bandaged ankle that prevented him from driving it. This team Smoke took, overriding the objection of the crowd that he was played out.
Long Bill Haskell pointed out that while Fat Olsen’s team was a crackerjack, Fat Olsen himself was an elephant. Fat Olsen’s two hundred and forty pounds of heartiness was indignant. Tears of anger came into his eyes, and his Scandinavian explosions could not be stopped until he was given a place in the heavy division, the craps-player jumping at the chance to take out Olsen’s light team.
Five teams were accepted and were being harnessed and loaded, but only four drivers had satisfied the committee of the whole.
“There’s Cultus George,” some one cried. “He’s a trail-eater, and he’s fresh and rested.”
All eyes turned upon the Indian, but his face was expressionless, and he said nothing.
“You’ll take a team,” Smoke said to him.
Still the big Indian made no answer. As with an electric thrill, it ran through all of them that something untoward was impending. A restless shifting of the group took place, forming a circle in which Smoke and Cultus George faced each other. And Smoke realized that by common consent he had been made the representative of his fellows in what was taking place, in what was to take place. Also, he was angered. It was beyond him that any human creature, a witness to the scramble of volunteers, should hang back. For another thing, in what followed, Smoke did not have Cultus George’s point of view—did not dream that the Indian held back for any reason save the selfish, mercenary one.
“Of course you will take a team,” Smoke said.
“How much?” Cultus George asked.
A snarl, spontaneous and general, grated in the throats and twisted the mouths of the miners. At the same moment, with clenched fists or fingers crooked to grip, they pressed in on the offender.
“Wait a bit, boys,” Smoke cried. “Maybe he doesn’t understand. Let me explain it to him. Look here, George. Don’t you see, nobody is charging anything. They’re giving everything to save two hundred Indians from starving to death.” He paused, to let it sink home.
“How much?” said Cultus George.
“Wait, you fellows! Now listen, George. We don’t want you to make any mistake. These starving people are your kind of people. They’re another tribe, but they’re Indians just the same. Now you’ve seen what the white men are doing—coughing up their dust, giving their dogs and sleds, falling over one another to hit the trail. Only the best men can go with the first sleds. Look at Fat Olsen there. He was ready to fight because they wouldn’t let him go. You ought to be mighty proud because all men think you are a number-one musher. It isn’t a case of how much, but how quick.”
“How much?” said Cultus George.
“Kill him!” “Bust his head!” “Tar and feathers!” were several of the cries in the wild medley that went up, the spirit of philanthropy and good fellowship changed to brute savagery on the instant.
In the storm-center Cultus George stood imperturbable, while Smoke thrust back the fiercest and shouted:
“Wait! Who’s running this?” The clamor died away. “Fetch a rope,” he added quietly.
Cultus George shrugged his shoulders, his face twisting tensely in a sullen and incredulous grin. He knew this white-man breed. He had toiled on trail with it and eaten its flour and bacon and beans too long not to know it. It was a law-abiding breed. He knew that thoroughly. It always punished the man who broke the law. But he had broken no law. He knew its law. He had lived up to it. He had neither murdered, stolen, nor lied. There was nothing in the white man’s law against charging a price and driving a bargain. They all charged a price and drove bargains. He was doing nothing more than that, and it was the thing they had taught him. Besides, if he wasn’t good enough to drink with them, then he was not good enough to be charitable with them, nor to join them in any other of their foolish diversions.
Neither Smoke nor any man there glimpsed what lay in Cultus George’s brain, behind his attitude and prompting his attitude. Though they did not know it, they were as beclouded as he in the matter of mutual understanding. To them, he was a selfish brute; to him, they were selfish brutes.
When the rope was brought, Long Bill Haskell, Fat Olsen, and the craps-player, with much awkwardness and angry haste, got the slip-noose around the Indian’s neck and rove the rope over a rafter. At the other end of the dangling thing a dozen men tailed on, ready to hoist away.
Nor had Cultus George resisted. He knew it for what it was—bluff. The whites were strong on bluff. Was not draw-poker their favorite game? Did they not buy and sell and make all bargains with bluff? Yes; he had seen a white man do business with a look on his face of four aces and in his hand a busted straight.
“Wait,” Smoke commanded. “Tie his hands. We don’t want him climbing.”
More bluff, Cultus George decided, and passively permitted his hands to be tied behind his back.
“Now it’s your last chance, George,” said Smoke. “Will you take out the team?”
“How much?” said Cultus George.
Astounded at himself that he should be able to do such a thing, and at the same time angered by the colossal selfishness of the Indian, Smoke gave the signal. Nor was Cultus George any less astounded when he felt the noose tighten with a jerk and swing him off the floor. His stolidity broke on the instant. On his face, in quick succession, appeared surprise, dismay, and pain.
Smoke watched anxiously. Having never been hanged himself, he felt a tyro at the business. The body struggled convulsively, the tied hands strove to burst the bonds, and from the throat came unpleasant noises of strangulation. Suddenly Smoke held up his hand.
“Slack away” he ordered.
Grumbling at the shortness of the punishment, the men on the rope lowered Cultus George to the floor. His eyes were bulging, and he was tottery on his feet, swaying from side to side and still making a fight with his hands. Smoke divined what was the matter, thrust violent fingers between the rope and the neck, and brought the noose slack with a jerk. With a great heave of the chest, Cultus George got his first breath.
“Will you take that team out?” Smoke demanded.
Cultus George did not answer. He was too busy breathing.
“Oh, we white men are hogs,” Smoke filled in the interval, resentful himself at the part he was compelled to play. “We’d sell our souls for gold, and all that; but once in a while we forget about it and turn loose and do something without a thought of how much there is in it. And when we do that, Cultus George, watch out. What we want to know now is: Are you going to take out that team?”
Cultus George debated with himself. He was no coward. Perhaps this was the extent of their bluff, and if he gave in now he was a fool. And while he debated, Smoke suffered from secret worry lest this stubborn aborigine would persist in being hanged.
“How much?” said Cultus George.
Smoke started to raise his hand for the signal.
“Me go,” Cultus George said very quickly, before the rope could tighten.
“An’ when that rescue expedition found me,” Shorty told it in the Annie Mine, “that ornery Cultus George was the first in, beatin’ Smoke’s sled by three hours, an’ don’t you forget it, Smoke comes in second at that. Just the same, it was about time, when I heard Cultus George a-yellin’ at his dogs from the top of the divide, for those blamed Siwashes had ate my moccasins, my mitts, the leather lacin’s, my knife-sheath, an’ some of ’em was beginnin’ to look mighty hungry at me—me bein’ better nourished, you see.
“An’ Smoke? He was near dead. He hustled around a while, helpin’ to start a meal for them two hundred sufferin’ Siwashes; an’ then he fell asleep, settin’ on his haunches, thinkin’ he was feedin’ snow into a thawin’-pail. I fixed him my bed, an’ dang me if I didn’t have to help him into it, he was that give out. Sure I win the toothpicks. Didn’t them dogs just naturally need the six salmon Smoke fed ’em at the noonin’?”
 Published in May 1902, this is a much shorter and notably less harsh version of one of the author’s best-known stories, published in August 1908, To Build a Fire, which is more than twice as long (7,100 words) as this 2,600-word initial version.