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Джек Лондон
Smoke Bellew


To another, who hailed him with: “Where away, little one? Do you really expect to stake a claim?” Shorty answered:

“Me? I’m the discoverer of Squaw Creek. I’m just comin’ back from recordin’ so as to see no blamed chechako jumps my claim.”

The average pace of the stampeders on the smooth going was three miles and a half an hour. Smoke and Shorty were doing four and a half, though sometimes they broke into short runs and went faster.

“I’m going to travel your feet clean off, Shorty,” Smoke challenged.

“Huh! I can hike along on the stumps an’ wear the heels off your moccasins. Though it ain’t no use. I’ve been figgerin’. Creek claims is five hundred feet. Call ‘em ten to the mile. They’s a thousand stampeders ahead of us, an’ that creek ain’t no hundred miles long. Somebody’s goin’ to get left, an’ it makes a noise like you an’ me.”

Before replying, Smoke let out an unexpected link that threw Shorty half a dozen feet in the rear. “If you saved your breath and kept up, we’d cut down a few of that thousand,” he chided.

“Who? Me? If you’d get outa the way I’d show you a pace what is.”

Smoke laughed, and let out another link. The whole aspect of the adventure had changed. Through his brain was running a phrase of the mad philosopher – “the transvaluation of values.” In truth, he was less interested in staking a fortune than in beating Shorty. After all, he concluded, it wasn’t the reward of the game but the playing of it that counted. Mind, and muscle, and stamina, and soul, were challenged in a contest with this Shorty, a man who had never opened the books, and who did not know grand opera from rag-time, nor an epic from a chilblain.

“Shorty, I’ve got you skinned to death. I’ve reconstructed every cell in my body since I hit the beach at Dyea. My flesh is as stringy as whipcords, and as bitter and mean as the bite of a rattlesnake. A few months ago I’d have patted myself on the back to write such words, but I couldn’t have written them. I had to live them first, and now that I’m living them there’s no need to write them. I’m the real, bitter, stinging goods, and no scrub of a mountaineer can put anything over on me without getting it back compound. Now, you go ahead and set pace for half an hour. Do your worst, and when you’re all in I’ll go ahead and give you half an hour of the real worst.”

“Huh!” Shorty sneered genially. “An’ him not dry behind the ears yet. Get outa the way an’ let your father show you some goin’.”

Half-hour by half-hour they alternated in setting pace. Nor did they talk much. Their exertions kept them warm, though their breath froze on their faces from lips to chin. So intense was the cold that they almost continually rubbed their noses and cheeks with their mittens. A few minutes’ cessation from this allowed the flesh to grow numb, and then most vigorous rubbing was required to produce the burning prickle of returning circulation.

Often they thought they had reached the lead, but always they overtook more stampeders who had started before them. Occasionally, groups of men attempted to swing in behind to their pace, but invariably they were discouraged after a mile or two and disappeared in the darkness to the rear.

“We’ve been out on trail all winter,” was Shorty’s comment. “An’ them geezers, soft from layin’ around their cabins, has the nerve to think they can keep our stride. Now, if they was real sour-doughs it’d be different. If there’s one thing a sour-dough can do it’s sure walk.”

Once, Smoke lighted a match and glanced at his watch. He never repeated it, for so quick was the bite of the frost on his bared hands that half an hour passed before they were again comfortable.

“Four o’clock,” he said, as he pulled on his mittens, “and we’ve already passed three hundred.”

“Three hundred and thirty-eight,” Shorty corrected. “I been keepin’ count. Get outa the way, stranger. Let somebody stampede that knows how to stampede.”

The latter was addressed to a man, evidently exhausted, who could no more than stumble along and who blocked the trail. This, and one other, were the only played-out men they encountered, for they were very near to the head of the stampede. Nor did they learn till afterwards the horrors of that night. Exhausted men sat down to rest by the way and failed to get up again. Seven were frozen to death, while scores of amputations of toes, feet, and fingers were performed in the Dawson hospitals on the survivors. For the stampede to Squaw Creek occurred on the coldest night of the year. Before morning, the spirit thermometers at Dawson registered seventy degrees below zero. The men composing the stampede, with few exceptions, were new-comers in the country who did not know the way of the cold.

The other played-out man they found a few minutes later, revealed by a streamer of aurora borealis that shot like a searchlight from horizon to zenith. He was sitting on a piece of ice beside the trail.

“Hop along, sister Mary,” Shorty gaily greeted him. “Keep movin’. If you sit there you’ll freeze stiff.”

The man made no response, and they stopped to investigate.

“Stiff as a poker,” was Shorty’s verdict. “If you tumbled him over he’d break.”

“See if he’s breathing,” Smoke said, as, with bared hand, he sought through furs and woollens for the man’s heart.

Shorty lifted one ear-flap and bent to the iced lips. “Nary breathe,” he reported.

“Nor heart-beat,” said Smoke.

He mittened his hand and beat it violently for a minute before exposing it to the frost to strike a match. It was an old man, incontestably dead. In the moment of illumination, they saw a long grey beard, massed with ice to the nose, cheeks that were white with frost, and closed eyes with frost-rimmed lashes frozen together. Then the match went out.

“Come on,” Shorty said, rubbing his ear. “We can’t do nothin’ for the old geezer. An’ I’ve sure frosted my ear. Now all the blamed skin’ll peel off, and it’ll be sore for a week.”

A few minutes later, when a flaming ribbon spilled pulsating fire over the heavens, they saw on the ice a quarter of a mile ahead two forms. Beyond, for a mile, nothing moved.

“They’re leading the procession,” Smoke said, as darkness fell again. “Come on, let’s get them.”

At the end of half an hour, not yet having overtaken the two in front, Shorty broke into a run.

“If we catch ‘em we’ll never pass ‘em,” he panted. “Lord, what a pace they’re hittin’. Dollars to doughnuts they’re no chechakos. They’re the real sour-dough variety, you can stack on that.”

Smoke was leading when they finally caught up, and he was glad to ease to a walk at their heels. Almost immediately he got the impression that the one nearer him was a woman. How this impression came, he could not tell. Hooded and furred, the dark form was as any form; yet there was a haunting sense of familiarity about it. He waited for the next flame of the aurora, and by its light saw the smallness of the moccasined feet. But he saw more – the walk, and knew it for the unmistakable walk he had once resolved never to forget.

“She’s a sure goer,” Shorty confided hoarsely. “I’ll bet it’s an Indian.”

“How do you do, Miss Gastell?” Smoke addressed her.

“How do you do,” she answered, with a turn of the head and a quick glance. “It’s too dark to see. Who are you?”

“Smoke.”

She laughed in the frost, and he was certain it was the prettiest laughter he had ever heard. “And have you married and raised all those children you were telling me about?” Before he could retort, she went on. “How many chechakos are there behind?”

“Several thousand, I imagine. We passed over three hundred. And they weren’t wasting any time.”

“It’s the old story,” she said bitterly. “The new-comers get in on the rich creeks, and the old-timers, who dared and suffered and made this country, get nothing. Old-timers made this discovery on Squaw Creek – how it leaked out is the mystery – and they sent word up to all the old-timers on Sea Lion. But it’s ten miles farther than Dawson, and when they arrive they’ll find the creek staked to the skyline by the Dawson chechakos. It isn’t right, it isn’t fair, such perversity of luck.”

“It is too bad,” Smoke sympathized. “But I’m hanged if I know what you’re going to do about it. First come, first served, you know.”

“I wish I could do something,” she flashed back at him. “I’d like to see them all freeze on the trail, or have everything terrible happen to them, so long as the Sea Lion stampede arrived first.”

“You’ve certainly got it in for us hard,” he laughed.

“It isn’t that,” she said quickly. “Man by man, I know the crowd from Sea Lion, and they are men. They starved in this country in the old days, and they worked like giants to develop it. I went through the hard times on the Koyukuk with them when I was a little girl. And I was with them in the Birch Creek famine, and in the Forty Mile famine. They are heroes, and they deserve some reward, and yet here are thousands of green softlings who haven’t earned the right to stake anything, miles and miles ahead of them. And now, if you’ll forgive my tirade, I’ll save my breath, for I don’t know when you and all the rest may try to pass dad and me.”

No further talk passed between Joy and Smoke for an hour or so, though he noticed that for a time she and her father talked in low tones.

“I know ‘em now,” Shorty told Smoke. “He’s old Louis Gastell, an’ the real goods. That must be his kid. He come into this country so long ago they ain’t nobody can recollect, an’ he brought the girl with him, she only a baby. Him an’ Beetles was tradin’ partners an’ they ran the first dinkey little steamboat up the Koyukuk.”

“I don’t think we’ll try to pass them,” Smoke said. “We’re at the head of the stampede, and there are only four of us.”

Shorty agreed, and another hour of silence followed, during which they swung steadily along. At seven o’clock, the blackness was broken by a last display of the aurora borealis, which showed to the west a broad opening between snow-clad mountains.

“Squaw Creek!” Joy exclaimed.

“Goin’ some,” Shorty exulted. “We oughtn’t to been there for another half hour to the least, accordin’ to my reckonin’. I must ‘a’ been spreadin’ my legs.”

It was at this point that the Dyea trail, baffled by ice-jams, swerved abruptly across the Yukon to the east bank. And here they must leave the hard-packed, main-travelled trail, mount the jams, and follow a dim trail, but slightly packed, that hovered the west bank.

Louis Gastell, leading, slipped in the darkness on the rough ice, and sat up, holding his ankle in both his hands. He struggled to his feet and went on, but at a slower pace and with a perceptible limp. After a few minutes he abruptly halted.
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