Part 1 out of 3
This etext was prepared by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
from the 1919 Mills and Boon edition.
by Jack London
To Build a Fire
Flush of Gold
The Passing of Marcus O'Brien
The Wit of Porportuk
It was the end. Subienkow had travelled a long trail of bitterness
and horror, homing like a dove for the capitals of Europe, and here,
farther away than ever, in Russian America, the trail ceased. He sat
in the snow, arms tied behind him, waiting the torture. He stared
curiously before him at a huge Cossack, prone in the snow, moaning in
his pain. The men had finished handling the giant and turned him
over to the women. That they exceeded the fiendishness of the men,
the man's cries attested.
Subienkow looked on, and shuddered. He was not afraid to die. He
had carried his life too long in his hands, on that weary trail from
Warsaw to Nulato, to shudder at mere dying. But he objected to the
torture. It offended his soul. And this offence, in turn, was not
due to the mere pain he must endure, but to the sorry spectacle the
pain would make of him. He knew that he would pray, and beg, and
entreat, even as Big Ivan and the others that had gone before. This
would not be nice. To pass out bravely and cleanly, with a smile and
a jest--ah! that would have been the way. But to lose control, to
have his soul upset by the pangs of the flesh, to screech and gibber
like an ape, to become the veriest beast--ah, that was what was so
There had been no chance to escape. From the beginning, when he
dreamed the fiery dream of Poland's independence, he had become a
puppet in the hands of Fate. From the beginning, at Warsaw, at St.
Petersburg, in the Siberian mines, in Kamtchatka, on the crazy boats
of the fur-thieves, Fate had been driving him to this end. Without
doubt, in the foundations of the world was graved this end for him--
for him, who was so fine and sensitive, whose nerves scarcely
sheltered under his skin, who was a dreamer, and a poet, and an
artist. Before he was dreamed of, it had been determined that the
quivering bundle of sensitiveness that constituted him should be
doomed to live in raw and howling savagery, and to die in this far
land of night, in this dark place beyond the last boundaries of the
He sighed. So that thing before him was Big Ivan--Big Ivan the
giant, the man without nerves, the man of iron, the Cossack turned
freebooter of the seas, who was as phlegmatic as an ox, with a
nervous system so low that what was pain to ordinary men was scarcely
a tickle to him. Well, well, trust these Nulato Indians to find Big
Ivan's nerves and trace them to the roots of his quivering soul.
They were certainly doing it. It was inconceivable that a man could
suffer so much and yet live. Big Ivan was paying for his low order
of nerves. Already he had lasted twice as long as any of the others.
Subienkow felt that he could not stand the Cossack's sufferings much
longer. Why didn't Ivan die? He would go mad if that screaming did
not cease. But when it did cease, his turn would come. And there
was Yakaga awaiting him, too, grinning at him even now in
anticipation--Yakaga, whom only last week he had kicked out of the
fort, and upon whose face he had laid the lash of his dog-whip.
Yakaga would attend to him. Doubtlessly Yakaga was saving for him
more refined tortures, more exquisite nerve-racking. Ah! that must
have been a good one, from the way Ivan screamed. The squaws bending
over him stepped back with laughter and clapping of hands. Subienkow
saw the monstrous thing that had been perpetrated, and began to laugh
hysterically. The Indians looked at him in wonderment that he should
laugh. But Subienkow could not stop.
This would never do. He controlled himself, the spasmodic twitchings
slowly dying away. He strove to think of other things, and began
reading back in his own life. He remembered his mother and his
father, and the little spotted pony, and the French tutor who had
taught him dancing and sneaked him an old worn copy of Voltaire.
Once more he saw Paris, and dreary London, and gay Vienna, and Rome.
And once more he saw that wild group of youths who had dreamed, even
as he, the dream of an independent Poland with a king of Poland on
the throne at Warsaw. Ah, there it was that the long trail began.
Well, he had lasted longest. One by one, beginning with the two
executed at St. Petersburg, he took up the count of the passing of
those brave spirits. Here one had been beaten to death by a jailer,
and there, on that bloodstained highway of the exiles, where they had
marched for endless months, beaten and maltreated by their Cossack
guards, another had dropped by the way. Always it had been savagery-
-brutal, bestial savagery. They had died--of fever, in the mines,
under the knout. The last two had died after the escape, in the
battle with the Cossacks, and he alone had won to Kamtchatka with the
stolen papers and the money of a traveller he had left lying in the
It had been nothing but savagery. All the years, with his heart in
studios, and theatres, and courts, he had been hemmed in by savagery.
He had purchased his life with blood. Everybody had killed. He had
killed that traveller for his passports. He had proved that he was a
man of parts by duelling with two Russian officers on a single day.
He had had to prove himself in order to win to a place among the fur-
thieves. He had had to win to that place. Behind him lay the
thousand-years-long road across all Siberia and Russia. He could not
escape that way. The only way was ahead, across the dark and icy sea
of Bering to Alaska. The way had led from savagery to deeper
savagery. On the scurvy-rotten ships of the fur-thieves, out of food
and out of water, buffeted by the interminable storms of that stormy
sea, men had become animals. Thrice he had sailed east from
Kamtchatka. And thrice, after all manner of hardship and suffering,
the survivors had come back to Kamtchatka. There had been no outlet
for escape, and he could not go back the way he had come, for the
mines and the knout awaited him.
Again, the fourth and last time, he had sailed east. He had been
with those who first found the fabled Seal Islands; but he had not
returned with them to share the wealth of furs in the mad orgies of
Kamtchatka. He had sworn never to go back. He knew that to win to
those dear capitals of Europe he must go on. So he had changed ships
and remained in the dark new land. His comrades were Slavonian
hunters and Russian adventurers, Mongols and Tartars and Siberian
aborigines; and through the savages of the new world they had cut a
path of blood. They had massacred whole villages that refused to
furnish the fur-tribute; and they, in turn, had been massacred by
ships' companies. He, with one Finn, had been the sole survivor of
such a company. They had spent a winter of solitude and starvation
on a lonely Aleutian isle, and their rescue in the spring by another
fur-ship had been one chance in a thousand.
But always the terrible savagery had hemmed him in. Passing from
ship to ship, and ever refusing to return, he had come to the ship
that explored south. All down the Alaska coast they had encountered
nothing but hosts of savages. Every anchorage among the beetling
islands or under the frowning cliffs of the mainland had meant a
battle or a storm. Either the gales blew, threatening destruction,
or the war canoes came off, manned by howling natives with the war-
paint on their faces, who came to learn the bloody virtues of the
sea-rovers' gunpowder. South, south they had coasted, clear to the
myth-land of California. Here, it was said, were Spanish adventurers
who had fought their way up from Mexico. He had had hopes of those
Spanish adventurers. Escaping to them, the rest would have been
easy--a year or two, what did it matter more or less--and he would
win to Mexico, then a ship, and Europe would be his. But they had
met no Spaniards. Only had they encountered the same impregnable
wall of savagery. The denizens of the confines of the world, painted
for war, had driven them back from the shores. At last, when one
boat was cut off and every man killed, the commander had abandoned
the quest and sailed back to the north.
The years had passed. He had served under Tebenkoff when
Michaelovski Redoubt was built. He had spent two years in the
Kuskokwim country. Two summers, in the month of June, he had managed
to be at the head of Kotzebue Sound. Here, at this time, the tribes
assembled for barter; here were to be found spotted deerskins from
Siberia, ivory from the Diomedes, walrus skins from the shores of the
Arctic, strange stone lamps, passing in trade from tribe to tribe, no
one knew whence, and, once, a hunting-knife of English make; and
here, Subienkow knew, was the school in which to learn geography.
For he met Eskimos from Norton Sound, from King Island and St.
Lawrence Island, from Cape Prince of Wales, and Point Barrow. Such
places had other names, and their distances were measured in days.
It was a vast region these trading savages came from, and a vaster
region from which, by repeated trade, their stone lamps and that
steel knife had come. Subienkow bullied, and cajoled, and bribed.
Every far-journeyer or strange tribesman was brought before him.
Perils unaccountable and unthinkable were mentioned, as well as wild
beasts, hostile tribes, impenetrable forests, and mighty mountain
ranges; but always from beyond came the rumour and the tale of white-
skinned men, blue of eye and fair of hair, who fought like devils and
who sought always for furs. They were to the east--far, far to the
east. No one had seen them. It was the word that had been passed
It was a hard school. One could not learn geography very well
through the medium of strange dialects, from dark minds that mingled
fact and fable and that measured distances by "sleeps" that varied
according to the difficulty of the going. But at last came the
whisper that gave Subienkow courage. In the east lay a great river
where were these blue-eyed men. The river was called the Yukon.
South of Michaelovski Redoubt emptied another great river which the
Russians knew as the Kwikpak. These two rivers were one, ran the
Subienkow returned to Michaelovski. For a year he urged an
expedition up the Kwikpak. Then arose Malakoff, the Russian half-
breed, to lead the wildest and most ferocious of the hell's broth of
mongrel adventurers who had crossed from Kamtchatka. Subienkow was
his lieutenant. They threaded the mazes of the great delta of the
Kwikpak, picked up the first low hills on the northern bank, and for
half a thousand miles, in skin canoes loaded to the gunwales with
trade-goods and ammunition, fought their way against the five-knot
current of a river that ran from two to ten miles wide in a channel
many fathoms deep. Malakoff decided to build the fort at Nulato.
Subienkow urged to go farther. But he quickly reconciled himself to
Nulato. The long winter was coming on. It would be better to wait.
Early the following summer, when the ice was gone, he would disappear
up the Kwikpak and work his way to the Hudson Bay Company's posts.
Malakoff had never heard the whisper that the Kwikpak was the Yukon,
and Subienkow did not tell him.
Came the building of the fort. It was enforced labour. The tiered
walls of logs arose to the sighs and groans of the Nulato Indians.
The lash was laid upon their backs, and it was the iron hand of the
freebooters of the sea that laid on the lash. There were Indians
that ran away, and when they were caught they were brought back and
spread-eagled before the fort, where they and their tribe learned the
efficacy of the knout. Two died under it; others were injured for
life; and the rest took the lesson to heart and ran away no more.
The snow was flying ere the fort was finished, and then it was the
time for furs. A heavy tribute was laid upon the tribe. Blows and
lashings continued, and that the tribute should be paid, the women
and children were held as hostages and treated with the barbarity
that only the fur-thieves knew.
Well, it had been a sowing of blood, and now was come the harvest.
The fort was gone. In the light of its burning, half the fur-thieves
had been cut down. The other half had passed under the torture.
Only Subienkow remained, or Subienkow and Big Ivan, if that
whimpering, moaning thing in the snow could be called Big Ivan.
Subienkow caught Yakaga grinning at him. There was no gainsaying
Yakaga. The mark of the lash was still on his face. After all,
Subienkow could not blame him, but he disliked the thought of what
Yakaga would do to him. He thought of appealing to Makamuk, the
head-chief; but his judgment told him that such appeal was useless.
Then, too, he thought of bursting his bonds and dying fighting. Such
an end would be quick. But he could not break his bonds. Caribou
thongs were stronger than he. Still devising, another thought came
to him. He signed for Makamuk, and that an interpreter who knew the
coast dialect should be brought.
"Oh, Makamuk," he said, "I am not minded to die. I am a great man,
and it were foolishness for me to die. In truth, I shall not die. I
am not like these other carrion."
He looked at the moaning thing that had once been Big Ivan, and
stirred it contemptuously with his toe.
"I am too wise to die. Behold, I have a great medicine. I alone
know this medicine. Since I am not going to die, I shall exchange
this medicine with you."
"What is this medicine?" Makamuk demanded.
"It is a strange medicine."
Subienkow debated with himself for a moment, as if loth to part with
"I will tell you. A little bit of this medicine rubbed on the skin
makes the skin hard like a rock, hard like iron, so that no cutting
weapon can cut it. The strongest blow of a cutting weapon is a vain
thing against it. A bone knife becomes like a piece of mud; and it
will turn the edge of the iron knives we have brought among you.
What will you give me for the secret of the medicine?"
"I will give you your life," Makamuk made answer through the
Subienkow laughed scornfully.
"And you shall be a slave in my house until you die."
The Pole laughed more scornfully.
"Untie my hands and feet and let us talk," he said.
The chief made the sign; and when he was loosed Subienkow rolled a
cigarette and lighted it.
"This is foolish talk," said Makamuk. "There is no such medicine.
It cannot be. A cutting edge is stronger than any medicine."
The chief was incredulous, and yet he wavered. He had seen too many
deviltries of fur-thieves that worked. He could not wholly doubt.
"I will give you your life; but you shall not be a slave," he
"More than that."
Subienkow played his game as coolly as if he were bartering for a
"It is a very great medicine. It has saved my life many times. I
want a sled and dogs, and six of your hunters to travel with me down
the river and give me safety to one day's sleep from Michaelovski
"You must live here, and teach us all of your deviltries," was the
Subienkow shrugged his shoulders and remained silent. He blew
cigarette smoke out on the icy air, and curiously regarded what
remained of the big Cossack.
"That scar!" Makamuk said suddenly, pointing to the Pole's neck,
where a livid mark advertised the slash of a knife in a Kamtchatkan
brawl. "The medicine is not good. The cutting edge was stronger
than the medicine."
"It was a strong man that drove the stroke." (Subienkow considered.)
"Stronger than you, stronger than your strongest hunter, stronger
Again, with the toe of his moccasin, he touched the Cossack--a grisly
spectacle, no longer conscious--yet in whose dismembered body the
pain-racked life clung and was loth to go.
"Also, the medicine was weak. For at that place there were no
berries of a certain kind, of which I see you have plenty in this
country. The medicine here will be strong."
"I will let you go down river," said Makamuk; "and the sled and the
dogs and the six hunters to give you safety shall be yours."
"You are slow," was the cool rejoinder. "You have committed an
offence against my medicine in that you did not at once accept my
terms. Behold, I now demand more. I want one hundred beaver skins."
"I want one hundred pounds of dried fish." (Makamuk nodded, for fish
were plentiful and cheap.) "I want two sleds--one for me and one for
my furs and fish. And my rifle must be returned to me. If you do
not like the price, in a little while the price will grow."
Yakaga whispered to the chief.
"But how can I know your medicine is true medicine?" Makamuk asked.
"It is very easy. First, I shall go into the woods--"
Again Yakaga whispered to Makamuk, who made a suspicious dissent.
"You can send twenty hunters with me," Subienkow went on. "You see,
I must get the berries and the roots with which to make the medicine.
Then, when you have brought the two sleds and loaded on them the fish
and the beaver skins and the rifle, and when you have told off the
six hunters who will go with me--then, when all is ready, I will rub
the medicine on my neck, so, and lay my neck there on that log. Then
can your strongest hunter take the axe and strike three times on my
neck. You yourself can strike the three times."
Makamuk stood with gaping mouth, drinking in this latest and most
wonderful magic of the fur-thieves.
"But first," the Pole added hastily, "between each blow I must put on
fresh medicine. The axe is heavy and sharp, and I want no mistakes."
"All that you have asked shall be yours," Makamuk cried in a rush of
acceptance. "Proceed to make your medicine."
Subienkow concealed his elation. He was playing a desperate game,
and there must be no slips. He spoke arrogantly.
"You have been slow. My medicine is offended. To make the offence
clean you must give me your daughter."
He pointed to the girl, an unwholesome creature, with a cast in one
eye and a bristling wolf-tooth. Makamuk was angry, but the Pole
remained imperturbable, rolling and lighting another cigarette.
"Make haste," he threatened. "If you are not quick, I shall demand
In the silence that followed, the dreary northland scene faded before
him, and he saw once more his native land, and France, and, once, as
he glanced at the wolf-toothed girl, he remembered another girl, a
singer and a dancer, whom he had known when first as a youth he came
"What do you want with the girl?" Makamuk asked.
"To go down the river with me." Subienkow glanced over her
critically. "She will make a good wife, and it is an honour worthy
of my medicine to be married to your blood."
Again he remembered the singer and dancer and hummed aloud a song she
had taught him. He lived the old life over, but in a detached,
impersonal sort of way, looking at the memory-pictures of his own
life as if they were pictures in a book of anybody's life. The
chief's voice, abruptly breaking the silence, startled him
"It shall be done," said Makamuk. "The girl shall go down the river
with you. But be it understood that I myself strike the three blows
with the axe on your neck."
"But each time I shall put on the medicine," Subienkow answered, with
a show of ill-concealed anxiety.
"You shall put the medicine on between each blow. Here are the
hunters who shall see you do not escape. Go into the forest and
gather your medicine."
Makamuk had been convinced of the worth of the medicine by the Pole's
rapacity. Surely nothing less than the greatest of medicines could
enable a man in the shadow of death to stand up and drive an old-
"Besides," whispered Yakaga, when the Pole, with his guard, had
disappeared among the spruce trees, "when you have learned the
medicine you can easily destroy him."
"But how can I destroy him?" Makamuk argued. "His medicine will not
let me destroy him."
"There will be some part where he has not rubbed the medicine," was
Yakaga's reply. "We will destroy him through that part. It may be
his ears. Very well; we will thrust a spear in one ear and out the
other. Or it may be his eyes. Surely the medicine will be much too
strong to rub on his eyes."
The chief nodded. "You are wise, Yakaga. If he possesses no other
devil-things, we will then destroy him."
Subienkow did not waste time in gathering the ingredients for his
medicine, he selected whatsoever came to hand such as spruce needles,
the inner bark of the willow, a strip of birch bark, and a quantity
of moss-berries, which he made the hunters dig up for him from
beneath the snow. A few frozen roots completed his supply, and he
led the way back to camp.
Makamuk and Yakaga crouched beside him, noting the quantities and
kinds of the ingredients he dropped into the pot of boiling water.
"You must be careful that the moss-berries go in first," he
"And--oh, yes, one other thing--the finger of a man. Here, Yakaga,
let me cut off your finger."
But Yakaga put his hands behind him and scowled.
"Just a small finger," Subienkow pleaded.
"Yakaga, give him your finger," Makamuk commanded.
"There be plenty of fingers lying around," Yakaga grunted, indicating
the human wreckage in the snow of the score of persons who had been
tortured to death.
"It must be the finger of a live man," the Pole objected.
"Then shall you have the finger of a live man." Yakaga strode over
to the Cossack and sliced off a finger.
"He is not yet dead," he announced, flinging the bloody trophy in the
snow at the Pole's feet. "Also, it is a good finger, because it is
Subienkow dropped it into the fire under the pot and began to sing.
It was a French love-song that with great solemnity he sang into the
"Without these words I utter into it, the medicine is worthless," he
explained. "The words are the chiefest strength of it. Behold, it
"Name the words slowly, that I may know them," Makamuk commanded.
"Not until after the test. When the axe flies back three times from
my neck, then will I give you the secret of the words."
"But if the medicine is not good medicine?" Makamuk queried
Subienkow turned upon him wrathfully.
"My medicine is always good. However, if it is not good, then do by
me as you have done to the others. Cut me up a bit at a time, even
as you have cut him up." He pointed to the Cossack. "The medicine
is now cool. Thus, I rub it on my neck, saying this further
With great gravity he slowly intoned a line of the "Marseillaise," at
the same time rubbing the villainous brew thoroughly into his neck.
An outcry interrupted his play-acting. The giant Cossack, with a
last resurgence of his tremendous vitality, had arisen to his knees.
Laughter and cries of surprise and applause arose from the Nulatos,
as Big Ivan began flinging himself about in the snow with mighty
Subienkow was made sick by the sight, but he mastered his qualms and
made believe to be angry.
"This will not do," he said. "Finish him, and then we will make the
test. Here, you, Yakaga, see that his noise ceases."
While this was being done, Subienkow turned to Makamuk.
"And remember, you are to strike hard. This is not baby-work. Here,
take the axe and strike the log, so that I can see you strike like a
Makamuk obeyed, striking twice, precisely and with vigour, cutting
out a large chip.
"It is well." Subienkow looked about him at the circle of savage
faces that somehow seemed to symbolize the wall of savagery that had
hemmed him about ever since the Czar's police had first arrested him
in Warsaw. "Take your axe, Makamuk, and stand so. I shall lie down.
When I raise my hand, strike, and strike with all your might. And be
careful that no one stands behind you. The medicine is good, and the
axe may bounce from off my neck and right out of your hands."
He looked at the two sleds, with the dogs in harness, loaded with
furs and fish. His rifle lay on top of the beaver skins. The six
hunters who were to act as his guard stood by the sleds."
"Where is the girl?" the Pole demanded. "Bring her up to the sleds
before the test goes on."
When this had been carried out, Subienkow lay down in the snow,
resting his head on the log like a tired child about to sleep. He
had lived so many dreary years that he was indeed tired.
"I laugh at you and your strength, O Makamuk," he said. "Strike, and
He lifted his hand. Makamuk swung the axe, a broadaxe for the
squaring of logs. The bright steel flashed through the frosty air,
poised for a perceptible instant above Makamuk's head, then descended
upon Subienkow's bare neck. Clear through flesh and bone it cut its
way, biting deeply into the log beneath. The amazed savages saw the
head bounce a yard away from the blood-spouting trunk.
There was a great bewilderment and silence, while slowly it began to
dawn in their minds that there had been no medicine. The fur-thief
had outwitted them. Alone, of all their prisoners, he had escaped
the torture. That had been the stake for which he played. A great
roar of laughter went up. Makamuk bowed his head in shame. The fur-
thief had fooled him. He had lost face before all his people. Still
they continued to roar out their laughter. Makamuk turned, and with
bowed head stalked away. He knew that thenceforth he would be no
longer known as Makamuk. He would be Lost Face; the record of his
shame would be with him until he died; and whenever the tribes
gathered in the spring for the salmon, or in the summer for the
trading, the story would pass back and forth across the camp-fires of
how the fur-thief died peaceably, at a single stroke, by the hand of
"Who was Lost Face?" he could hear, in anticipation, some insolent
young buck demand, "Oh, Lost Face," would be the answer, "he who once
was Makamuk in the days before he cut off the fur-thief's head."
All lines had been cast off, and the Seattle No. 4 was pulling slowly
out from the shore. Her decks were piled high with freight and
baggage, and swarmed with a heterogeneous company of Indians, dogs,
and dog-mushers, prospectors, traders, and homeward-bound gold-
seekers. A goodly portion of Dawson was lined up on the bank, saying
good-bye. As the gang-plank came in and the steamer nosed into the
stream, the clamour of farewell became deafening. Also, in that
eleventh moment, everybody began to remember final farewell messages
and to shout them back and forth across the widening stretch of
water. Louis Bondell, curling his yellow moustache with one hand and
languidly waving the other hand to his friends on shore, suddenly
remembered something and sprang to the rail.
"Oh, Fred!" he bawled. "Oh, Fred!
The "Fred" desired thrust a strapping pair of shoulders through the
forefront of the crowd on the bank and tried to catch Louis Bondell's
message. The latter grew red in the face with vain vociferation.
Still the water widened between steamboat and shore.
"Hey, you, Captain Scott!" he yelled at the pilot-house. "Stop the
The gongs clanged, and the big stern wheel reversed, then stopped.
All hands on steamboat and on bank took advantage of this respite to
exchange final, new, and imperative farewells. More futile than ever
was Louis Bondell's effort to make himself heard. The Seattle No. 4
lost way and drifted down-stream, and Captain Scott had to go ahead
and reverse a second time. His head disappeared inside the pilot-
house, coming into view a moment later behind a big megaphone.
Now Captain Scott had a remarkable voice, and the "Shut up!" he
launched at the crowd on deck and on shore could have been heard at
the top of Moosehide Mountain and as far as Klondike City. This
official remonstrance from the pilot-house spread a film of silence
over the tumult.
"Now, what do you want to say?" Captain Scott demanded.
"Tell Fred Churchill--he's on the bank there--tell him to go to
Macdonald. It's in his safe--a small gripsack of mine. Tell him to
get it and bring it out when he comes."
In the silence Captain Scott bellowed the message ashore through the
"You, Fred Churchill, go to Macdonald--in his safe--small gripsack--
belongs to Louis Bondell--important! Bring it out when you come!
Churchill waved his hand in token that he had got it. In truth, had
Macdonald, half a mile away, opened his window, he'd have got it,
too. The tumult of farewell rose again, the gongs clanged, and the
Seattle No. 4 went ahead, swung out into the stream, turned on her
heel, and headed down the Yukon, Bondell and Churchill waving
farewell and mutual affection to the last.
That was in midsummer. In the fall of the year, the W. H. Willis
started up the Yukon with two hundred homeward-bound pilgrims on
board. Among them was Churchill. In his state-room, in the middle
of a clothes-bag, was Louis Bondell's grip. It was a small, stout
leather affair, and its weight of forty pounds always made Churchill
nervous when he wandered too far from it. The man in the adjoining
state-room had a treasure of gold-dust hidden similarly in a clothes-
bag, and the pair of them ultimately arranged to stand watch and
watch. While one went down to eat, the other kept an eye on the two
state-room doors. When Churchill wanted to take a hand at whist, the
other man mounted guard, and when the other man wanted to relax his
soul, Churchill read four-months' old newspapers on a camp stool
between the two doors.
There were signs of an early winter, and the question that was
discussed from dawn till dark, and far into the dark, was whether
they would get out before the freeze-up or be compelled to abandon
the steamboat and tramp out over the ice. There were irritating
delays. Twice the engines broke down and had to be tinkered up, and
each time there were snow flurries to warn them of the imminence of
winter. Nine times the W. H. Willis essayed to ascend the Five-
Finger Rapids with her impaired machinery, and when she succeeded,
she was four days behind her very liberal schedule. The question
that then arose was whether or not the steamboat Flora would wait for
her above the Box Canon. The stretch of water between the head of
the Box Canon and the foot of the White Horse Rapids was unnavigable
for steamboats, and passengers were transhipped at that point,
walking around the rapids from one steamboat to the other. There
were no telephones in the country, hence no way of informing the
waiting Flora that the Willis was four days late, but coming.
When the W. H. Willis pulled into White Horse, it was learned that
the Flora had waited three days over the limit, and had departed only
a few hours before. Also, it was learned that she would tie up at
Tagish Post till nine o'clock, Sunday morning. It was then four
o'clock, Saturday afternoon. The pilgrims called a meeting. On
board was a large Peterborough canoe, consigned to the police post at
the head of Lake Bennett. They agreed to be responsible for it and
to deliver it. Next, they called for volunteers. Two men were
needed to make a race for the Flora. A score of men volunteered on
the instant. Among them was Churchill, such being his nature that he
volunteered before he thought of Bondell's gripsack. When this
thought came to him, he began to hope that he would not be selected;
but a man who had made a name as captain of a college football
eleven, as a president of an athletic club, as a dog-musher and a
stampeder in the Yukon, and, moreover, who possessed such shoulders
as he, had no right to avoid the honour. It was thrust upon him and
upon a gigantic German, Nick Antonsen.
While a crowd of the pilgrims, the canoe on their shoulders, started
on a trot over the portage, Churchill ran to his state-room. He
turned the contents of the clothes-bag on the floor and caught up the
grip, with the intention of entrusting it to the man next door. Then
the thought smote him that it was not his grip, and that he had no
right to let it out of his possession. So he dashed ashore with it
and ran up the portage changing it often from one hand to the other,
and wondering if it really did not weigh more than forty pounds.
It was half-past four in the afternoon when the two men started. The
current of the Thirty Mile River was so strong that rarely could they
use the paddles. It was out on one bank with a tow-line over the
shoulders, stumbling over the rocks, forcing a way through the
underbrush, slipping at times and falling into the water, wading
often up to the knees and waist; and then, when an insurmountable
bluff was encountered, it was into the canoe, out paddles, and a wild
and losing dash across the current to the other bank, in paddles,
over the side, and out tow-line again. It was exhausting work.
Antonsen toiled like the giant he was, uncomplaining, persistent, but
driven to his utmost by the powerful body and indomitable brain of
Churchill. They never paused for rest. It was go, go, and keep on
going. A crisp wind blew down the river, freezing their hands and
making it imperative, from time to time, to beat the blood back into
the numbed fingers.
As night came on, they were compelled to trust to luck. They fell
repeatedly on the untravelled banks and tore their clothing to sheds
in the underbrush they could not see. Both men were badly scratched
and bleeding. A dozen times, in their wild dashes from bank to bank,
they struck snags and were capsized. The first time this happened,
Churchill dived and groped in three feet of water for the gripsack.
He lost half an hour in recovering it, and after that it was carried
securely lashed to the canoe. As long as the canoe floated it was
safe. Antonsen jeered at the grip, and toward morning began to curse
it; but Churchill vouchsafed no explanations.
Their delays and mischances were endless. On one swift bend, around
which poured a healthy young rapid, they lost two hours, making a
score of attempts and capsizing twice. At this point, on both banks,
were precipitous bluffs, rising out of deep water, and along which
they could neither tow nor pole, while they could not gain with the
paddles against the current. At each attempt they strained to the
utmost with the paddles, and each time, with heads nigh to bursting
from the effort, they were played out and swept back. They succeeded
finally by an accident. In the swiftest current, near the end of
another failure, a freak of the current sheered the canoe out of
Churchill's control and flung it against the bluff. Churchill made a
blind leap at the bluff and landed in a crevice. Holding on with one
hand, he held the swamped canoe with the other till Antonsen dragged
himself out of the water. Then they pulled the canoe out and rested.
A fresh start at this crucial point took them by. They landed on the
bank above and plunged immediately ashore and into the brush with the
Daylight found them far below Tagish Post. At nine o'clock Sunday
morning they could hear the Flora whistling her departure. And when,
at ten o'clock, they dragged themselves in to the Post, they could
barely see the Flora's smoke far to the southward. It was a pair of
worn-out tatterdemalions that Captain Jones of the Mounted Police
welcomed and fed, and he afterward averred that they possessed two of
the most tremendous appetites he had ever observed. They lay down
and slept in their wet rags by the stove. At the end of two hours
Churchill got up, carried Bondell's grip, which he had used for a
pillow, down to the canoe, kicked Antonsen awake, and started in
pursuit of the Flora.
"There's no telling what might happen--machinery break down, or
something," was his reply to Captain Jones's expostulations. "I'm
going to catch that steamer and send her back for the boys."
Tagish Lake was white with a fall gale that blew in their teeth.
Big, swinging seas rushed upon the canoe, compelling one man to bale
and leaving one man to paddle. Headway could not be made. They ran
along the shallow shore and went overboard, one man ahead on the tow-
line, the other shoving on the canoe. They fought the gale up to
their waists in the icy water, often up to their necks, often over
their heads and buried by the big, crested waves. There was no rest,
never a moment's pause from the cheerless, heart-breaking battle.
That night, at the head of Tagish Lake, in the thick of a driving
snow-squall, they overhauled the Flora. Antonsen fell on board, lay
where he had fallen, and snored. Churchill looked like a wild man.
His clothes barely clung to him. His face was iced up and swollen
from the protracted effort of twenty-four hours, while his hands were
so swollen that he could not close the fingers. As for his feet, it
was an agony to stand upon them.
The captain of the Flora was loth to go back to White Horse.
Churchill was persistent and imperative; the captain was stubborn.
He pointed out finally that nothing was to be gained by going back,
because the only ocean steamer at Dyea, the Athenian, was to sail on
Tuesday morning, and that he could not make the back trip to White
Horse and bring up the stranded pilgrims in time to make the
"What time does the Athenian sail?" Churchill demanded.
"Seven o'clock, Tuesday morning."
"All right," Churchill said, at the same time kicking a tattoo on the
ribs of the snoring Antonsen. "You go back to White Home. We'll go
ahead and hold the Athenian."
Antonsen, stupid with sleep, not yet clothed in his waking mind, was
bundled into the canoe, and did not realize what had happened till he
was drenched with the icy spray of a big sea, and heard Churchill
snarling at him through the darkness:-
"Paddle, can't you! Do you want to be swamped?"
Daylight found them at Caribou Crossing, the wind dying down, and
Antonsen too far gone to dip a paddle. Churchill grounded the canoe
on a quiet beach, where they slept. He took the precaution of
twisting his arm under the weight of his head. Every few minutes the
pain of the pent circulation aroused him, whereupon he would look at
his watch and twist the other arm under his head. At the end of two
hours he fought with Antonsen to rouse him. Then they started. Lake
Bennett, thirty miles in length, was like a millpond; but, half way
across, a gale from the south smote them and turned the water white.
Hour after hour they repeated the struggle on Tagish, over the side,
pulling and shoving on the canoe, up to their waists and necks, and
over their heads, in the icy water; toward the last the good-natured
giant played completely out. Churchill drove him mercilessly; but
when he pitched forward and bade fair to drown in three feet of
water, the other dragged him into the canoe. After that, Churchill
fought on alone, arriving at the police post at the head of Bennett
in the early afternoon. He tried to help Antonsen out of the canoe,
but failed. He listened to the exhausted man's heavy breathing, and
envied him when he thought of what he himself had yet to undergo.
Antonsen could lie there and sleep; but he, behind time, must go on
over mighty Chilcoot and down to the sea. The real struggle lay
before him, and he almost regretted the strength that resided in his
frame because of the torment it could inflict upon that frame.
Churchill pulled the canoe up on the beach, seized Bondell's grip,
and started on a limping dog-trot for the police post.
"There's a canoe down there, consigned to you from Dawson," he hurled
at the officer who answered his knock. "And there's a man in it
pretty near dead. Nothing serious; only played out. Take care of
him. I've got to rush. Good-bye. Want to catch the Athenian."
A mile portage connected Lake Bennett and Lake Linderman, and his
last words he flung back after him as he resumed the trot. It was a
very painful trot, but he clenched his teeth and kept on, forgetting
his pain most of the time in the fervent heat with which he regarded
the gripsack. It was a severe handicap. He swung it from one hand
to the other, and back again. He tucked it under his arm. He threw
one hand over the opposite shoulder, and the bag bumped and pounded
on his back as he ran along. He could scarcely hold it in his
bruised and swollen fingers, and several times he dropped it. Once,
in changing from one hand to the other, it escaped his clutch and
fell in front of him, tripped him up, and threw him violently to the
At the far end of the portage he bought an old set of pack-straps for
a dollar, and in them he swung the grip. Also, he chartered a launch
to run him the six miles to the upper end of Lake Linderman, where he
arrived at four in the afternoon. The Athenian was to sail from Dyea
next morning at seven. Dyea was twenty-eight miles away, and between
towered Chilcoot. He sat down to adjust his foot-gear for the long
climb, and woke up. He had dozed the instant he sat down, though he
had not slept thirty seconds. He was afraid his next doze might be
longer, so he finished fixing his foot-gear standing up. Even then
he was overpowered for a fleeting moment. He experienced the flash
of unconsciousness; becoming aware of it, in mid-air, as his relaxed
body was sinking to the ground and as he caught himself together, he
stiffened his muscles with a spasmodic wrench, and escaped the fall.
The sudden jerk back to consciousness left him sick and trembling.
He beat his head with the heel of his hand, knocking wakefulness into
the numbed brain.
Jack Burns's pack-train was starting back light for Crater Lake, and
Churchill was invited to a mule. Burns wanted to put the gripsack on
another animal, but Churchill held on to it, carrying it on his
saddle-pommel. But he dozed, and the grip persisted in dropping off
the pommel, one side or the other, each time wakening him with a
sickening start. Then, in the early darkness, Churchill's mule
brushed him against a projecting branch that laid his cheek open. To
cap it, the mule blundered off the trail and fell, throwing rider and
gripsack out upon the rocks. After that, Churchill walked, or
stumbled rather, over the apology for a trail, leading the mule.
Stray and awful odours, drifting from each side of the trail, told of
the horses that had died in the rush for gold. But he did not mind.
He was too sleepy. By the time Long Lake was reached, however, he
had recovered from his sleepiness; and at Deep Lake he resigned the
gripsack to Burns. But thereafter, by the light of the dim stars, he
kept his eyes on Burns. There were not going to be any accidents
with that bag.
At Crater Lake, the pack-train went into camp, and Churchill,
slinging the grip on his back, started the steep climb for the
summit. For the first time, on that precipitous wall, he realized
how tired he was. He crept and crawled like a crab, burdened by the
weight of his limbs. A distinct and painful effort of will was
required each time he lifted a foot. An hallucination came to him
that he was shod with lead, like a deep-sea diver, and it was all he
could do to resist the desire to reach down and feel the lead. As
for Bondell's gripsack, it was inconceivable that forty pounds could
weigh so much. It pressed him down like a mountain, and he looked
back with unbelief to the year before, when he had climbed that same
pass with a hundred and fifty pounds on his back. If those loads had
weighed a hundred and fifty pounds, then Bondell's grip weighed five
The first rise of the divide from Crater Lake was across a small
glacier. Here was a well-defined trail. But above the glacier,
which was also above timber-line, was naught but a chaos of naked
rock and enormous boulders. There was no way of seeing the trail in
the darkness, and he blundered on, paying thrice the ordinary
exertion for all that he accomplished. He won the summit in the
thick of howling wind and driving snow, providentially stumbling upon
a small, deserted tent, into which he crawled. There he found and
bolted some ancient fried potatoes and half a dozen raw eggs.
When the snow ceased and the wind eased down, he began the almost
impossible descent. There was no trail, and he stumbled and
blundered, often finding himself, at the last moment, on the edge of
rocky walls and steep slopes the depth of which he had no way of
judging. Part way down, the stars clouded over again, and in the
consequent obscurity he slipped and rolled and slid for a hundred
feet, landing bruised and bleeding on the bottom of a large shallow
hole. From all about him arose the stench of dead horses. The hole
was handy to the trail, and the packers had made a practice of
tumbling into it their broken and dying animals. The stench
overpowered him, making him deadly sick, and as in a nightmare he
scrambled out. Half-way up, he recollected Bondell's gripsack. It
had fallen into the hole with him; the pack-strap had evidently
broken, and he had forgotten it. Back he went into the pestilential
charnel-pit, where he crawled around on hands and knees and groped
for half an hour. Altogether he encountered and counted seventeen
dead horses (and one horse still alive that he shot with his
revolver) before he found Bondell's grip. Looking back upon a life
that had not been without valour and achievement, he unhesitatingly
declared to himself that this return after the grip was the most
heroic act he had ever performed. So heroic was it that he was twice
on the verge of fainting before he crawled out of the hole.
By the time he had descended to the Scales, the steep pitch of
Chilcoot was past, and the way became easier. Not that it was an
easy way, however, in the best of places; but it became a really
possible trail, along which he could have made good time if he had
not been worn out, if he had had light with which to pick his steps,
and if it had not been for Bondell's gripsack. To him, in his
exhausted condition, it was the last straw. Having barely strength
to carry himself along, the additional weight of the grip was
sufficient to throw him nearly every time he tripped or stumbled.
And when he escaped tripping, branches reached out in the darkness,
hooked the grip between his shoulders, and held him back.
His mind was made up that if he missed the Athenian it would be the
fault of the gripsack. In fact, only two things remained in his
consciousness--Bondell's grip and the steamer. He knew only those
two things, and they became identified, in a way, with some stern
mission upon which he had journeyed and toiled for centuries. He
walked and struggled on as in a dream. As part of the dream was his
arrival at Sheep Camp. He stumbled into a saloon, slid his shoulders
out of the straps, and started to deposit the grip at his feet. But
it slipped from his fingers and struck the floor with a heavy thud
that was not unnoticed by two men who were just leaving. Churchill
drank a glass of whisky, told the barkeeper to call him in ten
minutes, and sat down, his feet on the grip, his head on his knees.
So badly did his misused body stiffen, that when he was called it
required another ten minutes and a second glass of whisky to unbend
his joints and limber up the muscles.
"Hey not that way!" the barkeeper shouted, and then went after him
and started him through the darkness toward Canyon City. Some little
husk of inner consciousness told Churchill that the direction was
right, and, still as in a dream, he took the canon trail. He did not
know what warned him, but after what seemed several centuries of
travelling, he sensed danger and drew his revolver. Still in the
dream, he saw two men step out and heard them halt him. His revolver
went off four times, and he saw the flashes and heard the explosions
of their revolvers. Also, he was aware that he had been hit in the
thigh. He saw one man go down, and, as the other came for him, he
smashed him a straight blow with the heavy revolver full in the face.
Then he turned and ran. He came from the dream shortly afterward, to
find himself plunging down the trail at a limping lope. His first
thought was for the gripsack. It was still on his back. He was
convinced that what had happened was a dream till he felt for his
revolver and found it gone. Next he became aware of a sharp stinging
of his thigh, and after investigating, he found his hand warm with
blood. It was a superficial wound, but it was incontestable. He
became wider awake, and kept up the lumbering run to Canyon City.
He found a man, with a team of horses and a wagon, who got out of bed
and harnessed up for twenty dollars. Churchill crawled in on the
wagon-bed and slept, the gripsack still on his back. It was a rough
ride, over water-washed boulders down the Dyea Valley; but he roused
only when the wagon hit the highest places. Any altitude of his body
above the wagon-bed of less than a foot did not faze him. The last
mile was smooth going, and he slept soundly.
He came to in the grey dawn, the driver shaking him savagely and
howling into his ear that the Athenian was gone. Churchill looked
blankly at the deserted harbour.
"There's a smoke over at Skaguay," the man said.
Churchill's eyes were too swollen to see that far, but he said:
"It's she. Get me a boat."
The driver was obliging and found a skiff, and a man to row it for
ten dollars, payment in advance. Churchill paid, and was helped into
the skiff. It was beyond him to get in by himself. It was six miles
to Skaguay, and he had a blissful thought of sleeping those six
miles. But the man did not know how to row, and Churchill took the
oars and toiled for a few more centuries. He never knew six longer
and more excruciating miles. A snappy little breeze blew up the
inlet and held him back. He had a gone feeling at the pit of the
stomach, and suffered from faintness and numbness. At his command,
the man took the baler and threw salt water into his face.
The Athenian's anchor was up-and-down when they came alongside, and
Churchill was at the end of his last remnant of strength.
"Stop her! Stop her!" he shouted hoarsely.
"Important message! Stop her!"
Then he dropped his chin on his chest and slept. When half a dozen
men started to carry him up the gang-plank, he awoke, reached for the
grip, and clung to it like a drowning man.
On deck he became a centre of horror and curiosity. The clothing in
which he had left White Horse was represented by a few rags, and he
was as frayed as his clothing. He had travelled for fifty-five hours
at the top notch of endurance. He had slept six hours in that time,
and he was twenty pounds lighter than when he started. Face and
hands and body were scratched and bruised, and he could scarcely see.
He tried to stand up, but failed, sprawling out on the deck, hanging
on to the gripsack, and delivering his message.
"Now, put me to bed," he finished; "I'll eat when I wake up."
They did him honour, carrying him down in his rags and dirt and
depositing him and Bondell's grip in the bridal chamber, which was
the biggest and most luxurious state-room in the ship. Twice he
slept the clock around, and he had bathed and shaved and eaten and
was leaning over the rail smoking a cigar when the two hundred
pilgrims from White Horse came alongside.
By the time the Athenian arrived in Seattle, Churchill had fully
recuperated, and he went ashore with Bondell's grip in his hand. He
felt proud of that grip. To him it stood for achievement and
integrity and trust. "I've delivered the goods," was the way he
expressed these various high terms to himself. It was early in the
evening, and he went straight to Bondell's home. Louis Bondell was
glad to see him, shaking hands with both hands at the same time and
dragging him into the house.
"Oh, thanks, old man; it was good of you to bring it out," Bondell
said when he received the gripsack.
He tossed it carelessly upon a couch, and Churchill noted with an
appreciative eye the rebound of its weight from the springs. Bondell
was volleying him with questions.
"How did you make out? How're the boys? What became of Bill
Smithers? Is Del Bishop still with Pierce? Did he sell my dogs?
How did Sulphur Bottom show up? You're looking fine. What steamer
did you come out on?"
To all of which Churchill gave answer, till half an hour had gone by
and the first lull in the conversation had arrived.
"Hadn't you better take a look at it?" he suggested, nodding his head
at the gripsack
"Oh, it's all right," Bondell answered. "Did Mitchell's dump turn
out as much as he expected?"
"I think you'd better look at it," Churchill insisted. "When I
deliver a thing, I want to be satisfied that it's all right. There's
always the chance that somebody might have got into it when I was
asleep, or something."
"It's nothing important, old man," Bondell answered, with a laugh.
"Nothing important," Churchill echoed in a faint, small voice. Then
he spoke with decision: "Louis, what's in that bag? I want to
Louis looked at him curiously, then left the room and returned with a
bunch of keys. He inserted his hand and drew out a heavy Colt's
revolver. Next came out a few boxes of ammunition for the revolver
and several boxes of Winchester cartridges.
Churchill took the gripsack and looked into it. Then he turned it
upside down and shook it gently.
"The gun's all rusted," Bondell said. "Must have been out in the
"Yes," Churchill answered. "Too bad it got wet. I guess I was a bit
He got up and went outside. Ten minutes later Louis Bondell went out
and found him on the steps, sitting down, elbows on knees and chin on
hands, gazing steadfastly out into the darkness.
TO BUILD A FIRE
Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man
turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-
bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the
fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath
at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It
was nine o'clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was
not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an
intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the
day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not
worry the man. He was used to the lack of sun. It had been days
since he had seen the sun, and he knew that a few more days must pass
before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-
line and dip immediately from view.
The man flung a look back along the way he had come. The Yukon lay a
mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice
were as many feet of snow. It was all pure white, rolling in gentle
undulations where the ice-jams of the freeze-up had formed. North
and south, as far as his eye could see, it was unbroken white, save
for a dark hair-line that curved and twisted from around the spruce-
covered island to the south, and that curved and twisted away into
the north, where it disappeared behind another spruce-covered island.
This dark hair-line was the trail--the main trail--that led south
five hundred miles to the Chilcoot Pass, Dyea, and salt water; and
that led north seventy miles to Dawson, and still on to the north a
thousand miles to Nulato, and finally to St. Michael on Bering Sea, a
thousand miles and half a thousand more.
But all this--the mysterious, far-reaching hairline trail, the
absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness
and weirdness of it all--made no impression on the man. It was not
because he was long used to it. He was a new-comer in the land, a
chechaquo, and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was
that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the
things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.
Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost. Such
fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all.
It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of
temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live
within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it
did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's
place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of
frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of
mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees
below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That
there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that
never entered his head.
As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp,
explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in
the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He
knew that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this
spittle had crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than
fifty below--how much colder he did not know. But the temperature
did not matter. He was bound for the old claim on the left fork of
Henderson Creek, where the boys were already. They had come over
across the divide from the Indian Creek country, while he had come
the roundabout way to take a look at the possibilities of getting out
logs in the spring from the islands in the Yukon. He would be in to
camp by six o'clock; a bit after dark, it was true, but the boys
would be there, a fire would be going, and a hot supper would be
ready. As for lunch, he pressed his hand against the protruding
bundle under his jacket. It was also under his shirt, wrapped up in
a handkerchief and lying against the naked skin. It was the only way
to keep the biscuits from freezing. He smiled agreeably to himself
as he thought of those biscuits, each cut open and sopped in bacon
grease, and each enclosing a generous slice of fried bacon.
He plunged in among the big spruce trees. The trail was faint. A
foot of snow had fallen since the last sled had passed over, and he
was glad he was without a sled, travelling light. In fact, he
carried nothing but the lunch wrapped in the handkerchief. He was
surprised, however, at the cold. It certainly was cold, he
concluded, as he rubbed his numbed nose and cheek-bones with his
mittened hand. He was a warm-whiskered man, but the hair on his face
did not protect the high cheek-bones and the eager nose that thrust
itself aggressively into the frosty air.
At the man's heels trotted a dog, a big native husky, the proper
wolf-dog, grey-coated and without any visible or temperamental
difference from its brother, the wild wolf. The animal was depressed
by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling.
Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the
man's judgment. In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty
below zero; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below. It
was seventy-five below zero. Since the freezing-point is thirty-two
above zero, it meant that one hundred and seven degrees of frost
obtained. The dog did not know anything about thermometers.
Possibly in its brain there was no sharp consciousness of a condition
of very cold such as was in the man's brain. But the brute had its
instinct. It experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that
subdued it and made it slink along at the man's heels, and that made
it question eagerly every unwonted movement of the man as if
expecting him to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build
a fire. The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else to
burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.
The frozen moisture of its breathing had settled on its fur in a fine
powder of frost, and especially were its jowls, muzzle, and eyelashes
whitened by its crystalled breath. The man's red beard and moustache
were likewise frosted, but more solidly, the deposit taking the form
of ice and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled.
Also, the man was chewing tobacco, and the muzzle of ice held his
lips so rigidly that he was unable to clear his chin when he expelled
the juice. The result was that a crystal beard of the colour and
solidity of amber was increasing its length on his chin. If he fell
down it would shatter itself, like glass, into brittle fragments.
But he did not mind the appendage. It was the penalty all tobacco-
chewers paid in that country, and he had been out before in two cold
snaps. They had not been so cold as this, he knew, but by the spirit
thermometer at Sixty Mile he knew they had been registered at fifty
below and at fifty-five.
He held on through the level stretch of woods for several miles,
crossed a wide flat of nigger-heads, and dropped down a bank to the
frozen bed of a small stream. This was Henderson Creek, and he knew
he was ten miles from the forks. He looked at his watch. It was ten
o'clock. He was making four miles an hour, and he calculated that he
would arrive at the forks at half-past twelve. He decided to
celebrate that event by eating his lunch there.
The dog dropped in again at his heels, with a tail drooping
discouragement, as the man swung along the creek-bed. The furrow of
the old sled-trail was plainly visible, but a dozen inches of snow
covered the marks of the last runners. In a month no man had come up
or down that silent creek. The man held steadily on. He was not
much given to thinking, and just then particularly he had nothing to
think about save that he would eat lunch at the forks and that at six
o'clock he would be in camp with the boys. There was nobody to talk
to and, had there been, speech would have been impossible because of
the ice-muzzle on his mouth. So he continued monotonously to chew
tobacco and to increase the length of his amber beard.
Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold
and that he had never experienced such cold. As he walked along he
rubbed his cheek-bones and nose with the back of his mittened hand.
He did this automatically, now and again changing hands. But rub as
he would, the instant he stopped his cheek-bones went numb, and the
following instant the end of his nose went numb. He was sure to
frost his cheeks; he knew that, and experienced a pang of regret that
he had not devised a nose-strap of the sort Bud wore in cold snaps.
Such a strap passed across the cheeks, as well, and saved them. But
it didn't matter much, after all. What were frosted cheeks? A bit
painful, that was all; they were never serious.
Empty as the man's mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and
he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber-
jams, and always he sharply noted where he placed his feet. Once,
coming around a bend, he shied abruptly, like a startled horse,
curved away from the place where he had been walking, and retreated
several paces back along the trail. The creek he knew was frozen
clear to the bottom--no creek could contain water in that arctic
winter--but he knew also that there were springs that bubbled out
from the hillsides and ran along under the snow and on top the ice of
the creek. He knew that the coldest snaps never froze these springs,
and he knew likewise their danger. They were traps. They hid pools
of water under the snow that might be three inches deep, or three
feet. Sometimes a skin of ice half an inch thick covered them, and
in turn was covered by the snow. Sometimes there were alternate
layers of water and ice-skin, so that when one broke through he kept
on breaking through for a while, sometimes wetting himself to the
That was why he had shied in such panic. He had felt the give under
his feet and heard the crackle of a snow-hidden ice-skin. And to get
his feet wet in such a temperature meant trouble and danger. At the
very least it meant delay, for he would be forced to stop and build a
fire, and under its protection to bare his feet while he dried his
socks and moccasins. He stood and studied the creek-bed and its
banks, and decided that the flow of water came from the right. He
reflected awhile, rubbing his nose and cheeks, then skirted to the
left, stepping gingerly and testing the footing for each step. Once
clear of the danger, he took a fresh chew of tobacco and swung along
at his four-mile gait.
In the course of the next two hours he came upon several similar
traps. Usually the snow above the hidden pools had a sunken, candied
appearance that advertised the danger. Once again, however, he had a
close call; and once, suspecting danger, he compelled the dog to go
on in front. The dog did not want to go. It hung back until the man
shoved it forward, and then it went quickly across the white,
unbroken surface. Suddenly it broke through, floundered to one side,
and got away to firmer footing. It had wet its forefeet and legs,
and almost immediately the water that clung to it turned to ice. It
made quick efforts to lick the ice off its legs, then dropped down in
the snow and began to bite out the ice that had formed between the
toes. This was a matter of instinct. To permit the ice to remain
would mean sore feet. It did not know this. It merely obeyed the
mysterious prompting that arose from the deep crypts of its being.
But the man knew, having achieved a judgment on the subject, and he
removed the mitten from his right hand and helped tear out the ice-
particles. He did not expose his fingers more than a minute, and was
astonished at the swift numbness that smote them. It certainly was
cold. He pulled on the mitten hastily, and beat the hand savagely
across his chest.
At twelve o'clock the day was at its brightest. Yet the sun was too
far south on its winter journey to clear the horizon. The bulge of
the earth intervened between it and Henderson Creek, where the man
walked under a clear sky at noon and cast no shadow. At half-past
twelve, to the minute, he arrived at the forks of the creek. He was
pleased at the speed he had made. If he kept it up, he would
certainly be with the boys by six. He unbuttoned his jacket and
shirt and drew forth his lunch. The action consumed no more than a
quarter of a minute, yet in that brief moment the numbness laid hold
of the exposed fingers. He did not put the mitten on, but, instead,
struck the fingers a dozen sharp smashes against his leg. Then he
sat down on a snow-covered log to eat. The sting that followed upon
the striking of his fingers against his leg ceased so quickly that he
was startled, he had had no chance to take a bite of biscuit. He
struck the fingers repeatedly and returned them to the mitten, baring
the other hand for the purpose of eating. He tried to take a
mouthful, but the ice-muzzle prevented. He had forgotten to build a
fire and thaw out. He chuckled at his foolishness, and as he
chuckled he noted the numbness creeping into the exposed fingers.
Also, he noted that the stinging which had first come to his toes
when he sat down was already passing away. He wondered whether the
toes were warm or numbed. He moved them inside the moccasins and
decided that they were numbed.
He pulled the mitten on hurriedly and stood up. He was a bit
frightened. He stamped up and down until the stinging returned into
the feet. It certainly was cold, was his thought. That man from
Sulphur Creek had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes
got in the country. And he had laughed at him at the time! That
showed one must not be too sure of things. There was no mistake
about it, it was cold. He strode up and down, stamping his feet and
threshing his arms, until reassured by the returning warmth. Then he
got out matches and proceeded to make a fire. From the undergrowth,
where high water of the previous spring had lodged a supply of
seasoned twigs, he got his firewood. Working carefully from a small
beginning, he soon had a roaring fire, over which he thawed the ice
from his face and in the protection of which he ate his biscuits.
For the moment the cold of space was outwitted. The dog took
satisfaction in the fire, stretching out close enough for warmth and
far enough away to escape being singed.
When the man had finished, he filled his pipe and took his
comfortable time over a smoke. Then he pulled on his mittens,
settled the ear-flaps of his cap firmly about his ears, and took the
creek trail up the left fork. The dog was disappointed and yearned
back toward the fire. This man did not know cold. Possibly all the
generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold,
of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing-point. But the
dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge.
And it knew that it was not good to walk abroad in such fearful cold.
It was the time to lie snug in a hole in the snow and wait for a
curtain of cloud to be drawn across the face of outer space whence
this cold came. On the other hand, there was keen intimacy between
the dog and the man. The one was the toil-slave of the other, and
the only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whip-
lash and of harsh and menacing throat-sounds that threatened the
whip-lash. So the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension
to the man. It was not concerned in the welfare of the man; it was
for its own sake that it yearned back toward the fire. But the man
whistled, and spoke to it with the sound of whip-lashes, and the dog
swung in at the man's heels and followed after.
The man took a chew of tobacco and proceeded to start a new amber
beard. Also, his moist breath quickly powdered with white his
moustache, eyebrows, and lashes. There did not seem to be so many
springs on the left fork of the Henderson, and for half an hour the
man saw no signs of any. And then it happened. At a place where
there were no signs, where the soft, unbroken snow seemed to
advertise solidity beneath, the man broke through. It was not deep.
He wetted himself half-way to the knees before he floundered out to
the firm crust.
He was angry, and cursed his luck aloud. He had hoped to get into
camp with the boys at six o'clock, and this would delay him an hour,
for he would have to build a fire and dry out his foot-gear. This
was imperative at that low temperature--he knew that much; and he
turned aside to the bank, which he climbed. On top, tangled in the
underbrush about the trunks of several small spruce trees, was a
high-water deposit of dry firewood--sticks and twigs principally, but
also larger portions of seasoned branches and fine, dry, last-year's
grasses. He threw down several large pieces on top of the snow.
This served for a foundation and prevented the young flame from
drowning itself in the snow it otherwise would melt. The flame he
got by touching a match to a small shred of birch-bark that he took
from his pocket. This burned even more readily than paper. Placing
it on the foundation, he fed the young flame with wisps of dry grass
and with the tiniest dry twigs.
He worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware of his danger.
Gradually, as the flame grew stronger, he increased the size of the
twigs with which he fed it. He squatted in the snow, pulling the
twigs out from their entanglement in the brush and feeding directly
to the flame. He knew there must be no failure. When it is seventy-
five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a
fire--that is, if his feet are wet. If his feet are dry, and he
fails, he can run along the trail for half a mile and restore his
circulation. But the circulation of wet and freezing feet cannot be
restored by running when it is seventy-five below. No matter how
fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder.
All this the man knew. The old-timer on Sulphur Creek had told him
about it the previous fall, and now he was appreciating the advice.
Already all sensation had gone out of his feet. To build the fire he
had been forced to remove his mittens, and the fingers had quickly
gone numb. His pace of four miles an hour had kept his heart pumping
blood to the surface of his body and to all the extremities. But the
instant he stopped, the action of the pump eased down. The cold of
space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that
unprotected tip, received the full force of the blow. The blood of
his body recoiled before it. The blood was alive, like the dog, and
like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up from the
fearful cold. So long as he walked four miles an hour, he pumped
that blood, willy-nilly, to the surface; but now it ebbed away and
sank down into the recesses of his body. The extremities were the
first to feel its absence. His wet feet froze the faster, and his
exposed fingers numbed the faster, though they had not yet begun to
freeze. Nose and cheeks were already freezing, while the skin of all
his body chilled as it lost its blood.
But he was safe. Toes and nose and cheeks would be only touched by
the frost, for the fire was beginning to burn with strength. He was
feeding it with twigs the size of his finger. In another minute he
would be able to feed it with branches the size of his wrist, and
then he could remove his wet foot-gear, and, while it dried, he could
keep his naked feet warm by the fire, rubbing them at first, of
course, with snow. The fire was a success. He was safe. He
remembered the advice of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek, and smiled.
The old-timer had been very serious in laying down the law that no
man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here
he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved
himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he
thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all
right. Any man who was a man could travel alone. But it was
surprising, the rapidity with which his cheeks and nose were
freezing. And he had not thought his fingers could go lifeless in so
short a time. Lifeless they were, for he could scarcely make them
move together to grip a twig, and they seemed remote from his body
and from him. When he touched a twig, he had to look and see whether
or not he had hold of it. The wires were pretty well down between
him and his finger-ends.
All of which counted for little. There was the fire, snapping and
crackling and promising life with every dancing flame. He started to
untie his moccasins. They were coated with ice; the thick German
socks were like sheaths of iron half-way to the knees; and the
mocassin strings were like rods of steel all twisted and knotted as
by some conflagration. For a moment he tugged with his numbed
fingers, then, realizing the folly of it, he drew his sheath-knife.
But before he could cut the strings, it happened. It was his own
fault or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire
under the spruce tree. He should have built it in the open. But it
had been easier to pull the twigs from the brush and drop them
directly on the fire. Now the tree under which he had done this
carried a weight of snow on its boughs. No wind had blown for weeks,
and each bough was fully freighted. Each time he had pulled a twig
he had communicated a slight agitation to the tree--an imperceptible
agitation, so far as he was concerned, but an agitation sufficient to
bring about the disaster. High up in the tree one bough capsized its
load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This
process continued, spreading out and involving the whole tree. It
grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man
and the fire, and the fire was blotted out! Where it had burned was
a mantle of fresh and disordered snow.
The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own
sentence of death. For a moment he sat and stared at the spot where
the fire had been. Then he grew very calm. Perhaps the old-timer on
Sulphur Creek was right. If he had only had a trail-mate he would
have been in no danger now. The trail-mate could have built the
fire. Well, it was up to him to build the fire over again, and this
second time there must be no failure. Even if he succeeded, he would
most likely lose some toes. His feet must be badly frozen by now,
and there would be some time before the second fire was ready.
Such were his thoughts, but he did not sit and think them. He was
busy all the time they were passing through his mind, he made a new
foundation for a fire, this time in the open; where no treacherous
tree could blot it out. Next, he gathered dry grasses and tiny twigs
from the high-water flotsam. He could not bring his fingers together
to pull them out, but he was able to gather them by the handful. In
this way he got many rotten twigs and bits of green moss that were
undesirable, but it was the best he could do. He worked
methodically, even collecting an armful of the larger branches to be
used later when the fire gathered strength. And all the while the
dog sat and watched him, a certain yearning wistfulness in its eyes,
for it looked upon him as the fire-provider, and the fire was slow in
When all was ready, the man reached in his pocket for a second piece
of birch-bark. He knew the bark was there, and, though he could not
feel it with his fingers, he could hear its crisp rustling as he
fumbled for it. Try as he would, he could not clutch hold of it.
And all the time, in his consciousness, was the knowledge that each
instant his feet were freezing. This thought tended to put him in a
panic, but he fought against it and kept calm. He pulled on his
mittens with his teeth, and threshed his arms back and forth, beating
his hands with all his might against his sides. He did this sitting
down, and he stood up to do it; and all the while the dog sat in the
snow, its wolf-brush of a tail curled around warmly over its
forefeet, its sharp wolf-ears pricked forward intently as it watched
the man. And the man as he beat and threshed with his arms and
hands, felt a great surge of envy as he regarded the creature that
was warm and secure in its natural covering.
After a time he was aware of the first far-away signals of sensation
in his beaten fingers. The faint tingling grew stronger till it
evolved into a stinging ache that was excruciating, but which the man
hailed with satisfaction. He stripped the mitten from his right hand
and fetched forth the birch-bark. The exposed fingers were quickly
going numb again. Next he brought out his bunch of sulphur matches.
But the tremendous cold had already driven the life out of his
fingers. In his effort to separate one match from the others, the
whole bunch fell in the snow. He tried to pick it out of the snow,
but failed. The dead fingers could neither touch nor clutch. He was
very careful. He drove the thought of his freezing feet; and nose,
and cheeks, out of his mind, devoting his whole soul to the matches.
He watched, using the sense of vision in place of that of touch, and
when he saw his fingers on each side the bunch, he closed them--that
is, he willed to close them, for the wires were drawn, and the
fingers did not obey. He pulled the mitten on the right hand, and
beat it fiercely against his knee. Then, with both mittened hands,
he scooped the bunch of matches, along with much snow, into his lap.
Yet he was no better off.
After some manipulation he managed to get the bunch between the heels
of his mittened hands. In this fashion he carried it to his mouth.
The ice crackled and snapped when by a violent effort he opened his
mouth. He drew the lower jaw in, curled the upper lip out of the
way, and scraped the bunch with his upper teeth in order to separate
a match. He succeeded in getting one, which he dropped on his lap.
He was no better off. He could not pick it up. Then he devised a
way. He picked it up in his teeth and scratched it on his leg.
Twenty times he scratched before he succeeded in lighting it. As it
flamed he held it with his teeth to the birch-bark. But the burning
brimstone went up his nostrils and into his lungs, causing him to
cough spasmodically. The match fell into the snow and went out.
The old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right, he thought in the moment of
controlled despair that ensued: after fifty below, a man should
travel with a partner. He beat his hands, but failed in exciting any
sensation. Suddenly he bared both hands, removing the mittens with
his teeth. He caught the whole bunch between the heels of his hands.
His arm-muscles not being frozen enabled him to press the hand-heels
tightly against the matches. Then he scratched the bunch along his
leg. It flared into flame, seventy sulphur matches at once! There
was no wind to blow them out. He kept his head to one side to escape
the strangling fumes, and held the blazing bunch to the birch-bark.
As he so held it, he became aware of sensation in his hand. His
flesh was burning. He could smell it. Deep down below the surface
he could feel it. The sensation developed into pain that grew acute.
And still he endured it, holding the flame of the matches clumsily to
the bark that would not light readily because his own burning hands
were in the way, absorbing most of the flame.
At last, when he could endure no more, he jerked his hands apart.
The blazing matches fell sizzling into the snow, but the birch-bark
was alight. He began laying dry grasses and the tiniest twigs on the
flame. He could not pick and choose, for he had to lift the fuel
between the heels of his hands. Small pieces of rotten wood and
green moss clung to the twigs, and he bit them off as well as he
could with his teeth. He cherished the flame carefully and
awkwardly. It meant life, and it must not perish. The withdrawal of
blood from the surface of his body now made him begin to shiver, and
he grew more awkward. A large piece of green moss fell squarely on
the little fire. He tried to poke it out with his fingers, but his
shivering frame made him poke too far, and he disrupted the nucleus
of the little fire, the burning grasses and tiny twigs separating and
scattering. He tried to poke them together again, but in spite of
the tenseness of the effort, his shivering got away with him, and the
twigs were hopelessly scattered. Each twig gushed a puff of smoke
and went out. The fire-provider had failed. As he looked
apathetically about him, his eyes chanced on the dog, sitting across
the ruins of the fire from him, in the snow, making restless,
hunching movements, slightly lifting one forefoot and then the other,
shifting its weight back and forth on them with wistful eagerness.
The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered
the tale of the man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and
crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved. He would kill the dog
and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of
them. Then he could build another fire. He spoke to the dog,
calling it to him; but in his voice was a strange note of fear that
frightened the animal, who had never known the man to speak in such
way before. Something was the matter, and its suspicious nature
sensed danger,--it knew not what danger but somewhere, somehow, in
its brain arose an apprehension of the man. It flattened its ears
down at the sound of the man's voice, and its restless, hunching
movements and the liftings and shiftings of its forefeet became more
pronounced but it would not come to the man. He got on his hands and
knees and crawled toward the dog. This unusual posture again excited
suspicion, and the animal sidled mincingly away.
The man sat up in the snow for a moment and struggled for calmness.
Then he pulled on his mittens, by means of his teeth, and got upon
his feet. He glanced down at first in order to assure himself that
he was really standing up, for the absence of sensation in his feet
left him unrelated to the earth. His erect position in itself
started to drive the webs of suspicion from the dog's mind; and when
he spoke peremptorily, with the sound of whip-lashes in his voice,
the dog rendered its customary allegiance and came to him. As it
came within reaching distance, the man lost his control. His arms
flashed out to the dog, and he experienced genuine surprise when he
discovered that his hands could not clutch, that there was neither
bend nor feeling in the lingers. He had forgotten for the moment
that they were frozen and that they were freezing more and more. All
this happened quickly, and before the animal could get away, he
encircled its body with his arms. He sat down in the snow, and in
this fashion held the dog, while it snarled and whined and struggled.
But it was all he could do, hold its body encircled in his arms and
sit there. He realized that he could not kill the dog. There was no
way to do it. With his helpless hands he could neither draw nor hold
his sheath-knife nor throttle the animal. He released it, and it
plunged wildly away, with tail between its legs, and still snarling.
It halted forty feet away and surveyed him curiously, with ears
sharply pricked forward. The man looked down at his hands in order
to locate them, and found them hanging on the ends of his arms. It
struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order
to find out where his hands were. He began threshing his arms back
and forth, beating the mittened hands against his sides. He did this
for five minutes, violently, and his heart pumped enough blood up to
the surface to put a stop to his shivering. But no sensation was
aroused in the hands. He had an impression that they hung like
weights on the ends of his arms, but when he tried to run the
impression down, he could not find it.
A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him. This fear
quickly became poignant as he realized that it was no longer a mere
matter of freezing his fingers and toes, or of losing his hands and
feet, but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances
against him. This threw him into a panic, and he turned and ran up
the creek-bed along the old, dim trail. The dog joined in behind and
kept up with him. He ran blindly, without intention, in fear such as
he had never known in his life. Slowly, as he ploughed and
floundered through the snow, he began to see things again--the banks
of the creek, the old timber-jams, the leafless aspens, and the sky.
The running made him feel better. He did not shiver. Maybe, if he
ran on, his feet would thaw out; and, anyway, if he ran far enough,
he would reach camp and the boys. Without doubt he would lose some
fingers and toes and some of his face; but the boys would take care
of him, and save the rest of him when he got there. And at the same
time there was another thought in his mind that said he would never
get to the camp and the boys; that it was too many miles away, that
the freezing had too great a start on him, and that he would soon be
stiff and dead. This thought he kept in the background and refused
to consider. Sometimes it pushed itself forward and demanded to be
heard, but he thrust it back and strove to think of other things.
It struck him as curious that he could run at all on feet so frozen
that he could not feel them when they struck the earth and took the
weight of his body. He seemed to himself to skim along above the
surface and to have no connection with the earth. Somewhere he had
once seen a winged Mercury, and he wondered if Mercury felt as he
felt when skimming over the earth.
His theory of running until he reached camp and the boys had one flaw
in it: he lacked the endurance. Several times he stumbled, and
finally he tottered, crumpled up, and fell. When he tried to rise,
he failed. He must sit and rest, he decided, and next time he would
merely walk and keep on going. As he sat and regained his breath, he
noted that he was feeling quite warm and comfortable. He was not
shivering, and it even seemed that a warm glow had come to his chest
and trunk. And yet, when he touched his nose or cheeks, there was no
sensation. Running would not thaw them out. Nor would it thaw out
his hands and feet. Then the thought came to him that the frozen
portions of his body must be extending. He tried to keep this
thought down, to forget it, to think of something else; he was aware
of the panicky feeling that it caused, and he was afraid of the
panic. But the thought asserted itself, and persisted, until it
produced a vision of his body totally frozen. This was too much, and
he made another wild run along the trail. Once he slowed down to a
walk, but the thought of the freezing extending itself made him run
And all the time the dog ran with him, at his heels. When he fell
down a second time, it curled its tail over its forefeet and sat in
front of him facing him curiously eager and intent. The warmth and
security of the animal angered him, and he cursed it till it
flattened down its ears appeasingly. This time the shivering came
more quickly upon the man. He was losing in his battle with the
frost. It was creeping into his body from all sides. The thought of
it drove him on, but he ran no more than a hundred feet, when he
staggered and pitched headlong. It was his last panic. When he had
recovered his breath and control, he sat up and entertained in his
mind the conception of meeting death with dignity. However, the
conception did not come to him in such terms. His idea of it was
that he had been making a fool of himself, running around like a
chicken with its head cut off--such was the simile that occurred to
him. Well, he was bound to freeze anyway, and he might as well take
it decently. With this new-found peace of mind came the first
glimmerings of drowsiness. A good idea, he thought, to sleep off to
death. It was like taking an anaesthetic. Freezing was not so bad
as people thought. There were lots worse ways to die.
He pictured the boys finding his body next day. Suddenly he found
himself with them, coming along the trail and looking for himself.
And, still with them, he came around a turn in the trail and found
himself lying in the snow. He did not belong with himself any more,
for even then he was out of himself, standing with the boys and
looking at himself in the snow. It certainly was cold, was his
thought. When he got back to the States he could tell the folks what
real cold was. He drifted on from this to a vision of the old-timer
on Sulphur Creek. He could see him quite clearly, warm and
comfortable, and smoking a pipe.
"You were right, old hoss; you were right," the man mumbled to the
old-timer of Sulphur Creek.
Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable
and satisfying sleep he had ever known. The dog sat facing him and
waiting. The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight.
There were no signs of a fire to be made, and, besides, never in the
dog's experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and
make no fire. As the twilight drew on, its eager yearning for the
fire mastered it, and with a great lifting and shifting of forefeet,
it whined softly, then flattened its ears down in anticipation of
being chidden by the man. But the man remained silent. Later, the
dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and
caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back
away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that
leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned
and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where
were the other food-providers and fire-providers.
I don't think much of Stephen Mackaye any more, though I used to
swear by him. I know that in those days I loved him more than my own
brother. If ever I meet Stephen Mackaye again, I shall not be
responsible for my actions. It passes beyond me that a man with whom
I shared food and blanket, and with whom I mushed over the Chilcoot
Trail, should turn out the way he did. I always sized Steve up as a
square man, a kindly comrade, without an iota of anything vindictive
or malicious in his nature. I shall never trust my judgment in men
again. Why, I nursed that man through typhoid fever; we starved
together on the headwaters of the Stewart; and he saved my life on
the Little Salmon. And now, after the years we were together, all I
can say of Stephen Mackaye is that he is the meanest man I ever knew.
We started for the Klondike in the fall rush of 1897, and we started
too late to get over Chilcoot Pass before the freeze-up. We packed
our outfit on our backs part way over, when the snow began to fly,
and then we had to buy dogs in order to sled it the rest of the way.
That was how we came to get that Spot. Dogs were high, and we paid
one hundred and ten dollars for him. He looked worth it. I say
LOOKED, because he was one of the finest-appearing dogs I ever saw.
He weighed sixty pounds, and he had all the lines of a good sled
animal. We never could make out his breed. He wasn't husky, nor
Malemute, nor Hudson Bay; he looked like all of them and he didn't
look like any of them; and on top of it all he had some of the white
man's dog in him, for on one side, in the thick of the mixed yellow-
brown-red-and-dirty-white that was his prevailing colour, there was a
spot of coal-black as big as a water-bucket. That was why we called
He was a good looker all right. When he was in condition his muscles
stood out in bunches all over him. And he was the strongest-looking
brute I ever saw in Alaska, also the most intelligent-looking. To
run your eves over him, you'd think he could outpull three dogs of
his own weight. Maybe he could, but I never saw it. His
intelligence didn't run that way. He could steal and forage to
perfection; he had an instinct that was positively gruesome for
divining when work was to be done and for making a sneak accordingly;
and for getting lost and not staying lost he was nothing short of
inspired. But when it came to work, the way that intelligence
dribbled out of him and left him a mere clot of wobbling, stupid
jelly would make your heart bleed.
There are times when I think it wasn't stupidity. Maybe, like some
men I know, he was too wise to work. I shouldn't wonder if he put it
all over us with that intelligence of his. Maybe he figured it all
out and decided that a licking now and again and no work was a whole
lot better than work all the time and no licking. He was intelligent
enough for such a computation. I tell you, I've sat and looked into
that dog's eyes till the shivers ran up and down my spine and the
marrow crawled like yeast, what of the intelligence I saw shining
out. I can't express myself about that intelligence. It is beyond
mere words. I saw it, that's all. At times it was like gazing into
a human soul, to look into his eyes; and what I saw there frightened
me and started all sorts of ideas in my own mind of reincarnation and
all the rest. I tell you I sensed something big in that brute's
eyes; there was a message there, but I wasn't big enough myself to
catch it. Whatever it was (I know I'm making a fool of myself)--
whatever it was, it baffled me. I can't give an inkling of what I
saw in that brute's eyes; it wasn't light, it wasn't colour; it was
something that moved, away back, when the eyes themselves weren't
moving. And I guess I didn't see it move either; I only sensed that
it moved. It was an expression--that's what it was--and I got an
impression of it. No; it was different from a mere expression; it
was more than that. I don't know what it was, but it gave me a
feeling of kinship just the same. Oh, no, not sentimental kinship.
It was, rather, a kinship of equality. Those eyes never pleaded like
a deer's eyes. They challenged. No, it wasn't defiance. It was
just a calm assumption of equality. And I don't think it was
deliberate. My belief is that it was unconscious on his part. It
was there because it was there, and it couldn't help shining out.
No, I don't mean shine. It didn't shine; it MOVED. I know I'm
talking rot, but if you'd looked into that animal's eyes the way I
have, you'd understand. Steve was affected the same way I was. Why,
I tried to kill that Spot once--he was no good for anything; and I
fell down on it. I led him out into the brush, and he came along
slow and unwilling. He knew what was going on. I stopped in a
likely place, put my foot on the rope, and pulled my big Colt's. And
that dog sat down and looked at me. I tell you he didn't plead. He
just looked. And I saw all kinds of incomprehensible things moving,
yes, MOVING, in those eyes of his. I didn't really see them move; I
thought I saw them, for, as I said before, I guess I only sensed
them. And I want to tell you right now that it got beyond me. It
was like killing a man, a conscious, brave man, who looked calmly
into your gun as much as to say, "Who's afraid?"
Then, too, the message seemed so near that, instead of pulling the
trigger quick, I stopped to see if I could catch the message. There
it was, right before me, glimmering all around in those eyes of his.
And then it was too late. I got scared. I was trembly all over, and
my stomach generated a nervous palpitation that made me seasick. I
just sat down and looked at the dog, and he looked at me, till I
thought I was going crazy. Do you want to know what I did? I threw
down the gun and ran back to camp with the fear of God in my heart.
Steve laughed at me. But I notice that Steve led Spot into the
woods, a week later, for the same purpose, and that Steve came back
alone, and a little later Spot drifted back, too.
At any rate, Spot wouldn't work. We paid a hundred and ten dollars
for him from the bottom of our sack, and he wouldn't work. He
wouldn't even tighten the traces. Steve spoke to him the first time
we put him in harness, and he sort of shivered, that was all. Not an
ounce on the traces. He just stood still and wobbled, like so much
jelly. Steve touched him with the whip. He yelped, but not an
ounce. Steve touched him again, a bit harder, and he howled--the
regular long wolf howl. Then Steve got mad and gave him half a
dozen, and I came on the run from the tent.
I told Steve he was brutal with the animal, and we had some words--
the first we'd ever had. He threw the whip down in the snow and
walked away mad. I picked it up and went to it. That Spot trembled
and wobbled and cowered before ever I swung the lash, and with the
first bite of it he howled like a lost soul. Next he lay down in the
snow. I started the rest of the dogs, and they dragged him along
while I threw the whip into him. He rolled over on his back and
bumped along, his four legs waving in the air, himself howling as
though he was going through a sausage machine. Steve came back and
laughed at me, and I apologized for what I'd said.
There was no getting any work out of that Spot; and to make up for
it, he was the biggest pig-glutton of a dog I ever saw. On top of
that, he was the cleverest thief. There was no circumventing him.
Many a breakfast we went without our bacon because Spot had been
there first. And it was because of him that we nearly starved to
death up the Stewart. He figured out the way to break into our meat-
cache, and what he didn't eat, the rest of the team did. But he was
impartial. He stole from everybody. He was a restless dog, always
very busy snooping around or going somewhere. And there was never a
camp within five miles that he didn't raid. The worst of it was that
they always came back on us to pay his board bill, which was just,
being the law of the land; but it was mighty hard on us, especially
that first winter on the Chilcoot, when we were busted, paying for
whole hams and sides of bacon that we never ate. He could fight,
too, that Spot. He could do everything but work. He never pulled a
pound, but he was the boss of the whole team. The way he made those
dogs stand around was an education. He bullied them, and there was
always one or more of them fresh-marked with his fangs. But he was
more than a bully. He wasn't afraid of anything that walked on four
legs; and I've seen him march, single-handed into a strange team,
without any provocation whatever, and put the kibosh on the whole
outfit. Did I say he could eat? I caught him eating the whip once.
That's straight. He started in at the lash, and when I caught him he
was down to the handle, and still going.
But he was a good looker. At the end of the first week we sold him
for seventy-five dollars to the Mounted Police. They had experienced
dog-drivers, and we knew that by the time he'd covered the six
hundred miles to Dawson he'd be a good sled-dog. I say we KNEW, for
we were just getting acquainted with that Spot. A little later we
were not brash enough to know anything where he was concerned. A
week later we woke up in the morning to the dangdest dog-fight we'd
ever heard. It was that Spot come back and knocking the team into
shape. We ate a pretty depressing breakfast, I can tell you; but
cheered up two hours afterward when we sold him to an official
courier, bound in to Dawson with government despatches. That Spot
was only three days in coming back, and, as usual, celebrated his
arrival with a rough house.
We spent the winter and spring, after our own outfit was across the
pass, freighting other people's outfits; and we made a fat stake.
Also, we made money out of Spot. If we sold him once, we sold him
twenty times. He always came back, and no one asked for their money.
We didn't want the money. We'd have paid handsomely for any one to
take him off our hands for keeps'. We had to get rid of him, and we
couldn't give him away, for that would have been suspicious. But he
was such a fine looker that we never had any difficulty in selling
him. "Unbroke," we'd say, and they'd pay any old price for him. We
sold him as low as twenty-five dollars, and once we got a hundred and
fifty for him. That particular party returned him in person, refused
to take his money back, and the way he abused us was something awful.
He said it was cheap at the price to tell us what he thought of us;
and we felt he was so justified that we never talked back. But to
this day I've never quite regained all the old self-respect that was
mine before that man talked to me.
When the ice cleared out of the lakes and river, we put our outfit in
a Lake Bennett boat and started for Dawson. We had a good team of
dogs, and of course we piled them on top the outfit. That Spot was
along--there was no losing him; and a dozen times, the first day, he
knocked one or another of the dogs overboard in the course of
fighting with them. It was close quarters, and he didn't like being
"What that dog needs is space," Steve said the second day. "Let's
We did, running the boat in at Caribou Crossing for him to jump
ashore. Two of the other dogs, good dogs, followed him; and we lost
two whole days trying to find them. We never saw those two dogs
again; but the quietness and relief we enjoyed made us decide, like
the man who refused his hundred and fifty, that it was cheap at the
price. For the first time in months Steve and I laughed and whistled
and sang. We were as happy as clams. The dark days were over. The
nightmare had been lifted. That Spot was gone.
Three weeks later, one morning, Steve and I were standing on the
river-bank at Dawson. A small boat was just arriving from Lake
Bennett. I saw Steve give a start, and heard him say something that
was not nice and that was not under his breath. Then I looked; and
there, in the bow of the boat, with ears pricked up, sat Spot. Steve
and I sneaked immediately, like beaten curs, like cowards, like
absconders from justice. It was this last that the lieutenant of
police thought when he saw us sneaking. He surmised that there were
law-officers in the boat who were after us. He didn't wait to find
out, but kept us in sight, and in the M. & M. saloon got us in a
corner. We had a merry time explaining, for we refused to go back to
the boat and meet Spot; and finally he held us under guard of another
policeman while he went to the boat. After we got clear of him, we
started for the cabin, and when we arrived, there was that Spot
sitting on the stoop waiting for us. Now how did he know we lived
there? There were forty thousand people in Dawson that summer, and
how did he savve our cabin out of all the cabins? How did he know we
were in Dawson, anyway? I leave it to you. But don't forget what I
said about his intelligence and that immortal something I have seen
glimmering in his eyes.
There was no getting rid of him any more. There were too many people
in Dawson who had bought him up on Chilcoot, and the story got
around. Half a dozen times we put him on board steamboats going down
the Yukon; but he merely went ashore at the first landing and trotted
back up the bank. We couldn't sell him, we couldn't kill him (both
Steve and I had tried), and nobody else was able to kill him. He
bore a charmed life. I've seen him go down in a dogfight on the main
street with fifty dogs on top of him, and when they were separated,
he'd appear on all his four legs, unharmed, while two of the dogs
that had been on top of him would be lying dead.
I saw him steal a chunk of moose-meat from Major Dinwiddie's cache so
heavy that he could just keep one jump ahead of Mrs. Dinwiddie's
squaw cook, who was after him with an axe. As he went up the hill,
after the squaw gave up, Major Dinwiddie himself came out and pumped
his Winchester into the landscape. He emptied his magazine twice,
and never touched that Spot. Then a policeman came along and
arrested him for discharging firearms inside the city limits. Major
Dinwiddie paid his fine, and Steve and I paid him for the moose-meat
at the rate of a dollar a pound, bones and all. That was what he
paid for it. Meat was high that year.
I am only telling what I saw with my own eyes. And now I'll tell you
something also. I saw that Spot fall through a water-hole. The ice
was three and a half feet thick, and the current sucked him under
like a straw. Three hundred yards below was the big water-hole used
by the hospital. Spot crawled out of the hospital water-hole, licked
off the water, bit out the ice that had formed between his toes,
trotted up the bank, and whipped a big Newfoundland belonging to the
In the fall of 1898, Steve and I poled up the Yukon on the last
water, bound for Stewart River. We took the dogs along, all except
Spot. We figured we'd been feeding him long enough. He'd cost us
more time and trouble and money and grub than we'd got by selling him
on the Chilcoot--especially grub. So Steve and I tied him down in
the cabin and pulled our freight. We camped that night at the mouth
of Indian River, and Steve and I were pretty facetious over having
shaken him. Steve was a funny cuss, and I was just sitting up in the
blankets and laughing when a tornado hit camp. The way that Spot
walked into those dogs and gave them what-for was hair-raising. Now
how did he get loose? It's up to you. I haven't any theory. And
how did he get across the Klondike River? That's another facer. And
anyway, how did he know we had gone up the Yukon? You see, we went
by water, and he couldn't smell our tracks. Steve and I began to get
superstitious about that dog. He got on our nerves, too; and,
between you and me, we were just a mite afraid of him.
The freeze-up came on when we were at the mouth of Henderson Creek,
and we traded him off for two sacks of flour to an outfit that was
bound up White River after copper. Now that whole outfit was lost.
Never trace nor hide nor hair of men, dogs, sleds, or anything was
ever found. They dropped clean out of sight. It became one of the
mysteries of the country. Steve and I plugged away up the Stewart,
and six weeks afterward that Spot crawled into camp. He was a
perambulating skeleton, and could just drag along; but he got there.
And what I want to know is, who told him we were up the Stewart? We
could have gone to a thousand other places. How did he know? You
tell me, and I'll tell you.
No losing him. At the Mayo he started a row with an Indian dog. The
buck who owned the dog took a swing at Spot with an axe, missed him,
and killed his own dog. Talk about magic and turning bullets aside--
I, for one, consider it a blamed sight harder to turn an axe aside
with a big buck at the other end of it. And I saw him do it with my
own eyes. That buck didn't want to kill his own dog. You've got to
I told you about Spot breaking into our meat cache. It was nearly
the death of us. There wasn't any more meat to be killed, and meat
was all we had to live on. The moose had gone back several hundred
miles and the Indians with them. There we were. Spring was on, and