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Джек Лондон
Smoke Bellew


John Bellew thrust out his hand and spoke solemnly. “Christopher, my boy, I believe you can do it. I believe you can do it with that pack on your back at the same time. You’ve made good, boy, though it’s too unthinkable to believe.”

Kit made the round trip of the last pack four times a day, which is to say that he daily covered twenty-four miles of mountain climbing, twelve miles of it under one hundred and fifty pounds. He was proud, hard, and tired, but in splendid physical condition. He ate and slept as he had never eaten and slept in his life, and as the end of the work came in sight, he was almost half sorry.

One problem bothered him. He had learned that he could fall with a hundred-weight on his back and survive; but he was confident, if he fell with that additional fifty pounds across the back of his neck, that it would break it clean. Each trail through the swamp was quickly churned bottomless by the thousands of packers, who were compelled continually to make new trails. It was while pioneering such a new trail, that he solved the problem of the extra fifty.

The soft, lush surface gave way under him; he floundered, and pitched forward on his face. The fifty pounds crushed his face in the mud and went clear without snapping his neck. With the remaining hundred pounds on his back, he arose on hands and knees. But he got no farther. One arm sank to the shoulder, pillowing his cheek in the slush. As he drew this arm clear, the other sank to the shoulder. In this position it was impossible to slip the straps, and the hundred-weight on his back would not let him rise. On hands and knees, sinking first one arm and then the other, he made an effort to crawl to where the small sack of flour had fallen. But he exhausted himself without advancing, and so churned and broke the grass surface, that a tiny pool of water began to form in perilous proximity to his mouth and nose.

He tried to throw himself on his back with the pack underneath, but this resulted in sinking both arms to the shoulders and gave him a foretaste of drowning. With exquisite patience, he slowly withdrew one sucking arm and then the other and rested them flat on the surface for the support of his chin. Then he began to call for help. After a time he heard the sound of feet sucking through the mud as some one advanced from behind.

“Lend a hand, friend,” he said. “Throw out a life-line or something.”

It was a woman’s voice that answered, and he recognized it.

“If you’ll unbuckle the straps I can get up.”

The hundred pounds rolled into the mud with a soggy noise, and he slowly gained his feet.

“A pretty predicament,” Miss Gastell laughed, at sight of his mud-covered face.

“Not at all,” he replied airily. “My favourite physical-exercise stunt. Try it some time. It’s great for the pectoral muscles and the spine.”

He wiped his face, flinging the slush from his hand with a snappy jerk.

“Oh!” she cried in recognition. “It’s Mr. – ah – Mr. Smoke Bellew.”

“I thank you gravely for your timely rescue and for that name,” he answered. “I have been doubly baptized. Henceforth I shall insist always on being called Smoke Bellew. It is a strong name, and not without significance.”

He paused, and then voice and expression became suddenly fierce.

“Do you know what I’m going to do?” he demanded. “I’m going back to the States. I am going to get married. I am going to raise a large family of children. And then, as the evening shadows fall, I shall gather those children about me and relate the sufferings and hardships I endured on the Chilkoot Trail. And if they don’t cry – I repeat, if they don’t cry, I’ll lambaste the stuffing out of them.”

The arctic winter came down apace. Snow that had come to stay lay six inches on the ground, and the ice was forming in quiet ponds, despite the fierce gales that blew. It was in the late afternoon, during a lull in such a gale, that Kit and John Bellew helped the cousins load the boat and watched it disappear down the lake in a snow-squall.

“And now a night’s sleep and an early start in the morning,” said John Bellew. “If we aren’t storm-bound at the summit we’ll make Dyea to-morrow night, and if we have luck in catching a steamer we’ll be in San Francisco in a week.”

“Enjoyed your vacation?” Kit asked absently.

Their camp for that last night at Linderman was a melancholy remnant. Everything of use, including the tent, had been taken by the cousins. A tattered tarpaulin, stretched as a wind-break, partially sheltered them from the driving snow. Supper they cooked on an open fire in a couple of battered and discarded camp utensils. All that was left them were their blankets, and food for several meals.

From the moment of the departure of the boat, Kit had become absent and restless. His uncle noticed his condition, and attributed it to the fact that the end of the hard toil had come. Only once during supper did Kit speak.

“Avuncular,” he said, relevant of nothing, “after this, I wish you’d call me Smoke. I’ve made some smoke on this trail, haven’t I?”

A few minutes later he wandered away in the direction of the village of tents that sheltered the gold-rushers who were still packing or building their boats. He was gone several hours, and when he returned and slipped into his blankets John Bellew was asleep.

In the darkness of a gale-driven morning, Kit crawled out, built a fire in his stocking feet, by which he thawed out his frozen shoes, then boiled coffee and fried bacon. It was a chilly, miserable meal. As soon as it was finished, they strapped their blankets. As John Bellew turned to lead the way toward the Chilcoot Trail, Kit held out his hand.

“Good-bye, avuncular,” he said.

John Bellew looked at him and swore in his surprise.

“Don’t forget, my name’s Smoke,” Kit chided.

“But what are you going to do?”

Kit waved his hand in a general direction northward over the storm-lashed lake.

“What’s the good of turning back after getting this far?” he asked. “Besides, I’ve got my taste of meat, and I like it. I’m going on.”

“You’re broke,” protested John Bellew. “You have no outfit.”

“I’ve got a job. Behold your nephew, Christopher Smoke Bellew! He’s got a job! He’s a gentleman’s man! He’s got a job at a hundred and fifty per month and grub. He’s going down to Dawson with a couple of dudes and another gentleman’s man – camp-cook, boatman, and general all-around hustler. And O’Hara and The Billow can go to the devil. Good-bye.”

But John Bellew was dazed, and could only mutter: “I don’t understand.”

“They say the baldface grizzlies are thick in the Yukon Basin,” Kit explained. “Well, I’ve got only one suit of underclothes, and I’m going after the bear-meat, that’s all.”

II. THE MEAT

Half the time the wind blew a gale, and Smoke Bellew staggered against it along the beach. In the gray of dawn a dozen boats were being loaded with the precious outfits packed across Chilkoot. They were clumsy, home-made boats, put together by men who were not boat-builders, out of planks they had sawed by hand from green spruce-trees. One boat, already loaded, was just starting, and Kit paused to watch.

The wind, which was fair down the lake, here blew in squarely on the beach, kicking up a nasty sea in the shallows. The men of the departing boat waded in high rubber boots as they shoved it out toward deeper water. Twice they did this. Clambering aboard and failing to row clear, the boat was swept back and grounded. Kit noticed that the spray on the sides of the boat quickly turned to ice. The third attempt was a partial success. The last two men to climb in were wet to their waists, but the boat was afloat. They struggled awkwardly at the heavy oars, and slowly worked off shore. Then they hoisted a sail made of blankets, had it carry away in a gust, and were swept a third time back on the freezing beach.

Kit grinned to himself and went on. This was what he must expect to encounter, for he, too, in his new role of gentleman’s man, was to start from the beach in a similar boat that very day.

Everywhere men were at work, and at work desperately, for the closing down of winter was so imminent that it was a gamble whether or not they would get across the great chain of lakes before the freeze-up. Yet, when Kit arrived at the tent of Messrs. Sprague and Stine, he did not find them stirring.

By a fire, under the shelter of a tarpaulin, squatted a short, thick man smoking a brown-paper cigarette.

“Hello,” he said. “Are you Mister Sprague’s new man?”

As Kit nodded, he thought he had noted a shade of emphasis on the MISTER and the MAN, and he was sure of a hint of a twinkle in the corner of the eye.

“Well, I’m Doc Stine’s man,” the other went on. “I’m five feet two inches long, and my name’s Shorty, Jack Short for short, and sometimes known as Johnny-on-the-Spot.”

Kit put out his hand and shook. “Were you raised on bear-meat?” he queried.

“Sure,” was the answer; “though my first feedin’ was buffalo-milk as near as I can remember. Sit down an’ have some grub. The bosses ain’t turned out yet.”

And despite the one breakfast, Kit sat down under the tarpaulin and ate a second breakfast thrice as hearty. The heavy, purging toil of weeks had given him the stomach and appetite of a wolf. He could eat anything, in any quantity, and be unaware that he possessed a digestion. Shorty he found voluble and pessimistic, and from him he received surprising tips concerning their bosses and ominous forecasts of the expedition. Thomas Stanley Sprague was a budding mining engineer and the son of a millionaire. Doctor Adolph Stine was also the son of a wealthy father. And, through their fathers, both had been backed by an investing syndicate in the Klondike adventure.

“Oh, they’re sure made of money,” Shorty expounded. “When they hit the beach at Dyea, freight was seventy cents, but no Indians. There was a party from Eastern Oregon, real miners, that’d managed to get a team of Indians together at seventy cents. Indians had the straps on the outfit, three thousand pounds of it, when along comes Sprague and Stine. They offered eighty cents and ninety, and at a dollar a pound the Indians jumped the contract and took off their straps. Sprague and Stine came through, though it cost them three thousand, and the Oregon bunch is still on the beach. They won’t get through till next year.

“Oh, they are real hummers, your boss and mine, when it comes to sheddin’ the mazuma an’ never mindin’ other folks’ feelin’s. What did they do when they hit Linderman? The carpenters was just putting in the last licks on a boat they’d contracted to a ‘Frisco bunch for six hundred. Sprague and Stine slipped ‘em an even thousand, and they jumped their contract. It’s a good-lookin’ boat, but it’s jiggered the other bunch. They’ve got their outfit right here, but no boat. And they’re stuck for next year.

“Have another cup of coffee, and take it from me that I wouldn’t travel with no such outfit if I didn’t want to get to Klondike so blamed bad. They ain’t hearted right. They’d take the crape off the door of a house in mourning if they needed it in their business. Did you sign a contract?”

Kit shook his head.
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