Текст книги

Джек Лондон
Smoke Bellew


“No, I won’t. I’ll work. I’ve learned to work since I went on The Billow.”

“Each man has to take a year’s supplies in with him. There’ll be such a jam the Indian packers won’t be able to handle it. Hal and Robert will have to pack their outfits across themselves. That’s what I’m going along for – to help them pack. If you come you’ll have to do the same.”

“Watch me.”

“You can’t pack,” was the objection.

“When do we start?”

“To-morrow.”

“You needn’t take it to yourself that your lecture on the hard has done it,” Kit said, at parting. “I just had to get away, somewhere, anywhere, from O’Hara.”

“Who is O’Hara? A Jap?”

“No; he’s an Irishman, and a slave-driver, and my best friend. He’s the editor and proprietor and all-round big squeeze of The Billow. What he says goes. He can make ghosts walk.”

That night Kit Bellew wrote a note to O’Hara. “It’s only a several weeks’ vacation,” he explained. “You’ll have to get some gink to dope out instalments for that serial. Sorry, old man, but my health demands it. I’ll kick in twice as hard when I get back.”

Kit Bellew landed through the madness of the Dyea beach, congested with thousand-pound outfits of thousands of men. This immense mass of luggage and food, flung ashore in mountains by the steamers, was beginning slowly to dribble up the Dyea Valley and across Chilkoot. It was a portage of twenty-eight miles, and could be accomplished only on the backs of men. Despite the fact that the Indian packers had jumped the freight from eight cents a pound to forty, they were swamped with the work, and it was plain that winter would catch the major portion of the outfits on the wrong side of the divide.

Tenderest of the tenderfeet was Kit. Like many hundreds of others he carried a big revolver swung on a cartridge-belt. Of this, his uncle, filled with memories of old lawless days, was likewise guilty. But Kit Bellew was romantic. He was fascinated by the froth and sparkle of the gold rush, and viewed its life and movement with an artist’s eye. He did not take it seriously. As he said on the steamer, it was not his funeral. He was merely on a vacation, and intended to peep over the top of the pass for a “look see” and then to return.

Leaving his party on the sand to wait for the putting ashore of the freight, he strolled up the beach toward the old trading-post. He did not swagger, though he noticed that many of the be-revolvered individuals did. A strapping, six-foot Indian passed him, carrying an unusually large pack. Kit swung in behind, admiring the splendid calves of the man, and the grace and ease with which he moved along under his burden. The Indian dropped his pack on the scales in front of the post, and Kit joined the group of admiring gold-rushers who surrounded him. The pack weighed one hundred and twenty-five pounds, which fact was uttered back and forth in tones of awe. It was going some, Kit decided, and he wondered if he could lift such a weight, much less walk off with it.

“Going to Lake Linderman with it, old man?” he asked.

The Indian, swelling with pride, grunted an affirmative.

“How much you make that one pack?”

“Fifty dollar.”

Here Kit slid out of the conversation. A young woman, standing in the doorway, had caught his eye. Unlike other women landing from the steamers, she was neither short-skirted nor bloomer-clad. She was dressed as any woman travelling anywhere would be dressed. What struck him was the justness of her being there, a feeling that somehow she belonged. Moreover, she was young and pretty. The bright beauty and colour of her oval face held him, and he looked over-long – looked till she resented, and her own eyes, long-lashed and dark, met his in cool survey.

From his face they travelled in evident amusement down to the big revolver at his thigh. Then her eyes came back to his, and in them was amused contempt. It struck him like a blow. She turned to the man beside her and indicated Kit. The man glanced him over with the same amused contempt.

“Chechako,” the girl said.

The man, who looked like a tramp in his cheap overalls and dilapidated woollen jacket, grinned dryly, and Kit felt withered, though he knew not why. But anyway she was an unusually pretty girl, he decided, as the two moved off. He noted the way of her walk, and recorded the judgment that he would recognize it over the lapse of a thousand years.

“Did you see that man with the girl?” Kit’s neighbor asked him excitedly. “Know who he is?”

Kit shook his head.

“Cariboo Charley. He was just pointed out to me. He struck it big on Klondike. Old-timer. Been on the Yukon a dozen years. He’s just come out.”

“What’s ‘chechako’ mean?” Kit asked.

“You’re one; I’m one,” was the answer.

“Maybe I am, but you’ve got to search me. What does it mean?”

“Tenderfoot.”

On his way back to the beach, Kit turned the phrase over and over. It rankled to be called tenderfoot by a slender chit of a woman.

Going into a corner among the heaps of freight, his mind still filled with the vision of the Indian with the redoubtable pack, Kit essayed to learn his own strength. He picked out a sack of flour which he knew weighed an even hundred pounds. He stepped astride it, reached down, and strove to get it on his shoulder. His first conclusion was that one hundred pounds were real heavy. His next was that his back was weak. His third was an oath, and it occurred at the end of five futile minutes, when he collapsed on top of the burden with which he was wrestling. He mopped his forehead, and across a heap of grub-sacks saw John Bellew gazing at him, wintry amusement in his eyes.

“God!” proclaimed that apostle of the hard. “Out of our loins has come a race of weaklings. When I was sixteen I toyed with things like that.”

“You forget, avuncular,” Kit retorted, “that I wasn’t raised on bear-meat.”

“And I’ll toy with it when I’m sixty.”

“You’ve got to show me.”

John Bellew did. He was forty-eight, but he bent over the sack, applied a tentative, shifting grip that balanced it, and, with a quick heave, stood erect, the somersaulted sack of flour on his shoulder.

“Knack, my boy, knack – and a spine.”

Kit took off his hat reverently.

“You’re a wonder, avuncular, a shining wonder. D’ye think I can learn the knack?”

John Bellew shrugged his shoulders. “You’ll be hitting the back trail before we get started.”

“Never you fear,” Kit groaned. “There’s O’Hara, the roaring lion, down there. I’m not going back till I have to.”

Kit’s first pack was a success. Up to Finnegan’s Crossing they had managed to get Indians to carry the twenty-five-hundred-pound outfit. From that point their own backs must do the work. They planned to move forward at the rate of a mile a day. It looked easy – on paper. Since John Bellew was to stay in camp and do the cooking, he would be unable to make more than an occasional pack; so to each of the three young men fell the task of carrying eight hundred pounds one mile each day. If they made fifty-pound packs, it meant a daily walk of sixteen miles loaded and of fifteen miles light – “Because we don’t back-trip the last time,” Kit explained the pleasant discovery. Eighty-pound packs meant nineteen miles travel each day; and hundred-pound packs meant only fifteen miles.

“I don’t like walking,” said Kit. “Therefore I shall carry one hundred pounds.” He caught the grin of incredulity on his uncle’s face, and added hastily: “Of course I shall work up to it. A fellow’s got to learn the ropes and tricks. I’ll start with fifty.”

He did, and ambled gaily along the trail. He dropped the sack at the next camp-site and ambled back. It was easier than he had thought. But two miles had rubbed off the velvet of his strength and exposed the underlying softness. His second pack was sixty-five pounds. It was more difficult, and he no longer ambled. Several times, following the custom of all packers, he sat down on the ground, resting the pack behind him on a rock or stump. With the third pack he became bold. He fastened the straps to a ninety-five-pound sack of beans and started. At the end of a hundred yards he felt that he must collapse. He sat down and mopped his face.

“Short hauls and short rests,” he muttered. “That’s the trick.”

Sometimes he did not make a hundred yards, and each time he struggled to his feet for another short haul the pack became undeniably heavier. He panted for breath, and the sweat streamed from him. Before he had covered a quarter of a mile he stripped off his woollen shirt and hung it on a tree. A little later he discarded his hat. At the end of half a mile he decided he was finished. He had never exerted himself so in his life, and he knew that he was finished. As he sat and panted, his gaze fell upon the big revolver and the heavy cartridge-belt.

“Ten pounds of junk!” he sneered, as he unbuckled it.

He did not bother to hang it on a tree, but flung it into the underbush. And as the steady tide of packers flowed by him, up trail and down, he noted that the other tenderfeet were beginning to shed their shooting-irons.

His short hauls decreased. At times a hundred feet was all he could stagger, and then the ominous pounding of his heart against his eardrums and the sickening totteriness of his knees compelled him to rest. And his rests grew longer. But his mind was busy. It was a twenty-eight-mile portage, which represented as many days, and this, by all accounts, was the easiest part of it. “Wait till you get to Chilkoot,” others told him as they rested and talked, “where you climb with hands and feet.”

“They ain’t going to be no Chilkoot,” was his answer. “Not for me. Long before that I’ll be at peace in my little couch beneath the moss.”

A slip and a violent, wrenching effort at recovery frightened him. He felt that everything inside him had been torn asunder.
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