Текст книги

Джек Лондон
Smoke Bellew


“You were engaged – ”

“To take your outfit to Dawson,” Shorty caught him up. “Well, we’re takin’ it, ain’t we?” He punctuated his query by bringing half the tent down on top of them.

They broke their way through the thin ice in the little harbor, and came out on the lake, where the water, heavy and glassy, froze on their oars with every stroke. The water soon became like mush, clogging the stroke of the oars and freezing in the air even as it dripped. Later the surface began to form a skin, and the boat proceeded slower and slower.

Often afterwards, when Kit tried to remember that night and failed to bring up aught but nightmare recollections, he wondered what must have been the sufferings of Stine and Sprague. His one impression of himself was that he struggled through biting frost and intolerable exertion for a thousand years, more or less.

Morning found them stationary. Stine complained of frosted fingers, and Sprague of his nose, while the pain in Kit’s cheeks and nose told him that he, too, had been touched. With each accretion of daylight they could see farther, and as far as they could see was icy surface. The water of the lake was gone. A hundred yards away was the shore of the north end. Shorty insisted that it was the opening of the river and that he could see water. He and Kit alone were able to work, and with their oars they broke the ice and forced the boat along. And at the last gasp of their strength they made the suck of the rapid river. One look back showed them several boats which had fought through the night and were hopelessly frozen in; then they whirled around a bend in a current running six miles an hour.

Day by day they floated down the swift river, and day by day the shore-ice extended farther out. When they made camp at nightfall, they chopped a space in the ice in which to lay the boat and carried the camp outfit hundreds of feet to shore. In the morning, they chopped the boat out through the new ice and caught the current. Shorty set up the sheet-iron stove in the boat, and over this Stine and Sprague hung through the long, drifting hours. They had surrendered, no longer gave orders, and their one desire was to gain Dawson. Shorty, pessimistic, indefatigable, and joyous, at frequent intervals roared out the three lines of the first four-line stanza of a song he had forgotten. The colder it got the oftener he sang:

“Like Argus of the ancient times,
We leave this Modern Greece;
Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tum,
To shear the Golden Fleece.”

As they passed the mouths of the Hootalinqua and the Big and Little Salmon, they found these streams throwing mush-ice into the main Yukon. This gathered about the boat and attached itself, and at night they found themselves compelled to chop the boat out of the current. In the morning they chopped the boat back into the current.

The last night ashore was spent between the mouths of the White River and the Stewart. At daylight they found the Yukon, half a mile wide, running white from ice-rimmed bank to ice-rimmed bank. Shorty cursed the universe with less geniality than usual, and looked at Kit.

“We’ll be the last boat this year to make Dawson,” Kit said.

“But they ain’t no water, Smoke.”

“Then we’ll ride the ice down. Come on.”

Futilely protesting, Sprague and Stine were bundled on board. For half an hour, with axes, Kit and Shorty struggled to cut a way into the swift but solid stream. When they did succeed in clearing the shore-ice, the floating ice forced the boat along the edge for a hundred yards, tearing away half of one gunwale and making a partial wreck of it. Then, at the lower end of the bend, they caught the current that flung off-shore. They proceeded to work farther toward the middle. The stream was no longer composed of mush-ice but of hard cakes. In between the cakes only was mush-ice, that froze solidly as they looked at it. Shoving with the oars against the cakes, sometimes climbing out on the cakes in order to force the boat along, after an hour they gained the middle. Five minutes after they ceased their exertions, the boat was frozen in. The whole river was coagulating as it ran. Cake froze to cake, until at last the boat was the center of a cake seventy-five feet in diameter. Sometimes they floated sideways, sometimes stern-first, while gravity tore asunder the forming fetters in the moving mass, only to be manacled by faster-forming ones. While the hours passed, Shorty stoked the stove, cooked meals, and chanted his war-song.

Night came, and after many efforts, they gave up the attempt to force the boat to shore, and through the darkness they swept helplessly onward.

“What if we pass Dawson?” Shorty queried.

“We’ll walk back,” Kit answered, “if we’re not crushed in a jam.”

The sky was clear, and in the light of the cold, leaping stars they caught occasional glimpses of the loom of mountains on either hand. At eleven o’clock, from below, came a dull, grinding roar. Their speed began to diminish, and cakes of ice to up-end and crash and smash about them. The river was jamming. One cake, forced upward, slid across their cake and carried one side of the boat away. It did not sink, for its own cake still upbore it, but in a whirl they saw dark water show for an instant within a foot of them. Then all movement ceased. At the end of half an hour the whole river picked itself up and began to move. This continued for an hour, when again it was brought to rest by a jam. Once again it started, running swiftly and savagely, with a great grinding. Then they saw lights ashore, and, when abreast, gravity and the Yukon surrendered, and the river ceased for six months.

On the shore at Dawson, curious ones, gathered to watch the river freeze, heard from out of the darkness the war-song of Shorty:

“Like Argus of the ancient times,
We leave this Modern Greece;
Tum-tum, tum-tum; tum-tum, tum-tum,
To shear the Golden Fleece.”

For three days Kit and Shorty labored, carrying the ton and a half of outfit from the middle of the river to the log-cabin Stine and Sprague had bought on the hill overlooking Dawson. This work finished, in the warm cabin, as twilight was falling, Sprague motioned Kit to him. Outside the thermometer registered sixty-five below zero.

“Your full month isn’t up, Smoke,” Sprague said. “But here it is in full. I wish you luck.”

“How about the agreement?” Kit asked. “You know there’s a famine here. A man can’t get work in the mines even, unless he has his own grub. You agreed – ”

“I know of no agreement,” Sprague interrupted. “Do you, Stine? We engaged you by the month. There’s your pay. Will you sign the receipt?”

Kit’s hands clenched, and for the moment he saw red. Both men shrank away from him. He had never struck a man in anger in his life, and he felt so certain of his ability to thrash Sprague that he could not bring himself to do it.

Shorty saw his trouble and interposed.

“Look here, Smoke, I ain’t travelin’ no more with a ornery outfit like this. Right here’s where I sure jump it. You an’ me stick together. Savvy? Now, you take your blankets an’ hike down to the Elkhorn. Wait for me. I’ll settle up, collect what’s comin’, an’ give them what’s comin’. I ain’t no good on the water, but my feet’s on terry-fermy now an’ I’m sure goin’ to make smoke.”

Half an hour afterwards Shorty appeared at the Elkhorn. From his bleeding knuckles and the skin off one cheek, it was evident that he had given Stine and Sprague what was coming.

“You ought to see that cabin,” he chuckled, as they stood at the bar. “Rough-house ain’t no name for it. Dollars to doughnuts nary one of ‘em shows up on the street for a week. An’ now it’s all figgered out for you an’ me. Grub’s a dollar an’ a half a pound. They ain’t no work for wages without you have your own grub. Moose-meat’s sellin’ for two dollars a pound an’ they ain’t none. We got enough money for a month’s grub an’ ammunition, an’ we hike up the Klondike to the back country. If they ain’t no moose, we go an’ live with the Indians. But if we ain’t got five thousand pounds of meat six weeks from now, I’ll – I’ll sure go back an’ apologize to our bosses. Is it a go?”

Kit’s hand went out, and they shook. Then he faltered. “I don’t know anything about hunting,” he said.

Shorty lifted his glass.

“But you’re a sure meat-eater, an’ I’ll learn you.”

III. THE STAMPEDE TO SQUAW CREEK

Two months after Smoke Bellew and Shorty went after moose for a grub-stake, they were back in the Elkhorn saloon at Dawson. The hunting was done, the meat hauled in and sold for two dollars and a half a pound, and between them they possessed three thousand dollars in gold dust and a good team of dogs. They had played in luck. Despite the fact that the gold-rush had driven the game a hundred miles or more into the mountains, they had, within half that distance, bagged four moose in a narrow canyon.

The mystery of the strayed animals was no greater than the luck of their killers, for within the day four famished Indian families, reporting no game in three days’ journey back, camped beside them. Meat was traded for starving dogs, and after a week of feeding, Smoke and Shorty harnessed the animals and began freighting the meat to the eager Dawson market.

The problem of the two men now was to turn their gold-dust into food. The current price for flour and beans was a dollar and a half a pound, but the difficulty was to find a seller. Dawson was in the throes of famine. Hundreds of men, with money but no food, had been compelled to leave the country. Many had gone down the river on the last water, and many more, with barely enough food to last, had walked the six hundred miles over the ice to Dyea.

Smoke met Shorty in the warm saloon, and found the latter jubilant.

“Life ain’t no punkins without whiskey an’ sweetenin’,” was Shorty’s greeting, as he pulled lumps of ice from his thawing moustache and flung them rattling on the floor. “An’ I sure just got eighteen pounds of that same sweetenin’. The geezer only charged three dollars a pound for it. What luck did you have?”

“I, too, have not been idle,” Smoke answered with pride. “I bought fifty pounds of flour. And there’s a man up on Adam Creek who says he’ll let me have fifty pounds more to-morrow.”

“Great! We’ll sure live till the river opens. Say, Smoke, them dogs of ourn is the goods. A dog-buyer offered me two hundred apiece for the five of them. I told him nothin’ doin’. They sure took on class when they got meat to get outside of; but it goes against the grain, feedin’ dog-critters on grub that’s worth two an’ a half a pound. Come on an’ have a drink. I just got to celebrate them eighteen pounds of sweetenin’.”

Several minutes later, as he weighed in on the gold-scales for the drinks, he gave a start of recollection.

“I plum forgot that man I was to meet in the Tivoli. He’s got some spoiled bacon he’ll sell for a dollar an’ a half a pound. We can feed it to the dogs an’ save a dollar a day on each’s board-bill. So long.”

“So long,” said Smoke. “I’m goin’ to the cabin an’ turn in.”

Hardly had Shorty left the place, when a fur-clad man entered through the double storm-doors. His face lighted at sight of Smoke, who recognized him as Breck, the man whose boat they had run through the Box Canyon and White Horse Rapids.

“I heard you were in town,” Breck said hurriedly, as they shook hands. “Been looking for you for half an hour. Come outside, I want to talk with you.”

Smoke looked regretfully at the roaring, red-hot stove.

“Won’t this do?”

“No; it’s important. Come outside.”
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