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Джек Лондон
Smoke Bellew


“Let Shorty stake,” she urged.

“Go on, Shorty,” Smoke said, as he attacked her moccasins, already stiff with ice. “Pace off a thousand feet and place the two center-stakes. We can fix the corner-stakes afterwards.”

With his knife Smoke cut away the lacings and leather of the moccasins. So stiff were they with ice that they snapped and crackled under the hacking and sawing. The Siwash socks and heavy woollen stockings were sheaths of ice. It was as if her feet and calves were encased in corrugated iron.

“How are your feet?” he asked, as he worked.

“Pretty numb. I can’t move nor feel my toes. But it will be all right. The fire is burning beautifully. Watch out you don’t freeze your own hands. They must be numb now from the way you’re fumbling.”

He slipped his mittens on, and for nearly a minute smashed the open hands savagely against his sides. When he felt the blood-prickles, he pulled off the mittens and ripped and tore and sawed and hacked at the frozen garments. The white skin of one foot appeared, then that of the other, to be exposed to the bite of seventy below zero, which is the equivalent of one hundred and two below freezing.

Then came the rubbing with snow, carried on with an intensity of cruel fierceness, till she squirmed and shrank and moved her toes, and joyously complained of the hurt.

He half-dragged her, and she half-lifted herself, nearer to the fire. He placed her feet on the blanket close to the flesh-saving flames.

“You’ll have to take care of them for a while,” he said.

She could now safely remove her mittens and manipulate her own feet, with the wisdom of the initiated, being watchful that the heat of the fire was absorbed slowly. While she did this, he attacked his hands. The snow did not melt nor moisten. Its light crystals were like so much sand. Slowly the stings and pangs of circulation came back into the chilled flesh. Then he tended the fire, unstrapped the light pack from her back, and got out a complete change of foot-gear.

Shorty returned along the creek bed and climbed the bank to them. “I sure staked a full thousan’ feet,” he proclaimed. “Number twenty-seven an’ number twenty-eight, though I’d only got the upper stake of twenty-seven, when I met the first geezer of the bunch behind. He just straight declared I wasn’t goin’ to stake twenty-eight. An’ I told him – ”

“Yes, yes,” Joy cried. “What did you tell him?”

“Well, I told him straight that if he didn’t back up plum five hundred feet I’d sure punch his frozen nose into ice-cream an’ chocolate eclaires. He backed up, an’ I’ve got in the center-stakes of two full an’ honest five-hundred-foot creek claims. He staked next, and I guess by now the bunch has Squaw Creek located to head-waters an’ down the other side. Ourn is safe. It’s too dark to see now, but we can put out the corner-stakes in the mornin’.”

When they awoke, they found a change had taken place during the night. So warm was it, that Shorty and Smoke, still in their mutual blankets, estimated the temperature at no more than twenty below. The cold snap had broken. On top of their blankets lay six inches of frost crystals.

“Good morning! how are your feet?” was Smoke’s greeting across the ashes of the fire to where Joy Gastell, carefully shaking aside the snow, was sitting up in her sleeping-furs.

Shorty built the fire and quarried ice from the creek, while Smoke cooked breakfast. Daylight came on as they finished the meal.

“You go an’ fix them corner-stakes, Smoke,” Shorty said. “There’s gravel under where I chopped ice for the coffee, an’ I’m goin’ to melt water and wash a pan of that same gravel for luck.”

Smoke departed, axe in hand, to blaze the stakes. Starting from the down-stream center-stake of ‘twenty-seven,’ he headed at right angles across the narrow valley towards its rim. He proceeded methodically, almost automatically, for his mind was alive with recollections of the night before. He felt, somehow, that he had won to empery over the delicate lines and firm muscles of those feet and ankles he had rubbed with snow, and this empery seemed to extend to the rest and all of this woman of his kind. In dim and fiery ways a feeling of possession mastered him. It seemed that all that was necessary was for him to walk up to this Joy Gastell, take her hand in his, and say “Come.”

It was in this mood that he discovered something that made him forget empery over the white feet of woman. At the valley rim he blazed no corner-stake. He did not reach the valley rim, but, instead, he found himself confronted by another stream. He lined up with his eye a blasted willow tree and a big and recognizable spruce. He returned to the stream where were the center-stakes. He followed the bed of the creek around a wide horseshoe bend through the flat and found that the two creeks were the same creek. Next, he floundered twice through the snow from valley rim to valley rim, running the first line from the lower stake of ‘twenty-seven,’ the second from the upper stake of ‘twenty-eight,’ and he found that THE UPPER STAKE OF THE LATTER WAS LOWER THAN THE LOWER STAKE OF THE FORMER. In the gray twilight and half-darkness Shorty had located their two claims on the horseshoe.

Smoke plodded back to the little camp. Shorty, at the end of washing a pan of gravel, exploded at sight of him.

“We got it!” Shorty cried, holding out the pan. “Look at it! A nasty mess of gold. Two hundred right there if it’s a cent. She runs rich from the top of the wash-gravel. I’ve churned around placers some, but I never got butter like what’s in this pan.”


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