Текст книги

Джек Лондон
Smoke Bellew


Breck rummaged in his boat and produced a demijohn of whiskey. Shorty’s hand half went out to it and stopped abruptly. He shook his head.

“There’s that blamed White Horse right below, an’ they say it’s worse than the Box. I reckon I don’t dast tackle any lightning.”

Several miles below they ran in to the bank, and all four walked down to look at the bad water. The river, which was a succession of rapids, was here deflected toward the right bank by a rocky reef. The whole body of water, rushing crookedly into the narrow passage, accelerated its speed frightfully and was up-flung into huge waves, white and wrathful. This was the dread Mane of the White Horse, and here an even heavier toll of dead had been exacted. On one side of the Mane was a corkscrew curl-over and suck-under, and on the opposite side was the big whirlpool. To go through, the Mane itself must be ridden.

“This plum rips the strings outa the Box,” Shorty concluded.

As they watched, a boat took the head of the rapids above. It was a large boat, fully thirty feet long, laden with several tons of outfit, and handled by six men. Before it reached the Mane it was plunging and leaping, at times almost hidden by the foam and spray.

Shorty shot a slow, sidelong glance at Kit and said: “She’s fair smoking, and she hasn’t hit the worst. They’ve hauled the oars in. There she takes it now. God! She’s gone! No; there she is!”

Big as the boat was, it had been buried from sight in the flying smother between crests. The next moment, in the thick of the Mane, the boat leaped up a crest and into view. To Kit’s amazement he saw the whole long bottom clearly outlined. The boat, for the fraction of an instant, was in the air, the men sitting idly in their places, all save one in the stern, who stood at the steering-sweep. Then came the downward plunge into the trough and a second disappearance. Three times the boat leaped and buried itself, then those on the bank saw its nose take the whirlpool as it slipped off the Mane. The steersman, vainly opposing with his full weight on the steering-gear, surrendered to the whirlpool and helped the boat to take the circle.

Three times it went around, each time so close to the rocks on which Kit and Shorty stood that either could have leaped on board. The steersman, a man with a reddish beard of recent growth, waved his hand to them. The only way out of the whirlpool was by the Mane, and on the third round the boat entered the Mane obliquely at its upper end. Possibly out of fear of the draw of the whirlpool, the steersman did not attempt to straighten out quickly enough. When he did, it was too late. Alternately in the air and buried, the boat angled the Mane and was sucked into and down through the stiff wall of the corkscrew on the opposite side of the river. A hundred feet below, boxes and bales began to float up. Then appeared the bottom of the boat and the scattered heads of six men. Two managed to make the bank in the eddy below. The others were drawn under, and the general flotsam was lost to view, borne on by the swift current around the bend.

There was a long minute of silence. Shorty was the first to speak.

“Come on,” he said. “We might as well tackle it. My feet’ll get cold if I stay here any longer.”

“We’ll smoke some,” Kit grinned at him.

“And you’ll sure earn your name,” was the rejoinder. Shorty turned to their employers. “Comin’?” he queried.

Perhaps the roar of the water prevented them from hearing the invitation.

Shorty and Kit tramped back through a foot of snow to the head of the rapids and cast off the boat. Kit was divided between two impressions: one, of the caliber of his comrade, which served as a spur to him; the other, likewise a spur, was the knowledge that old Isaac Bellew, and all the other Bellews, had done things like this in their westward march of empire. What they had done, he could do. It was the meat, the strong meat, and he knew, as never before, that it required strong men to eat such meat.

“You’ve sure got to keep the top of the ridge,” Shorty shouted at him, the plug of tobacco lifting to his mouth, as the boat quickened in the quickening current and took the head of the rapids.

Kit nodded, swayed his strength and weight tentatively on the steering-gear, and headed the boat for the plunge.

Several minutes later, half-swamped and lying against the bank in the eddy below the White Horse, Shorty spat out a mouthful of tobacco juice and shook Kit’s hand.

“Meat! Meat!” Shorty chanted. “We eat it raw! We eat it alive!”

At the top of the bank they met Breck. His wife stood at a little distance. Kit shook his hand.

“I’m afraid your boat can’t make it,” he said. “It is smaller than ours and a bit cranky.”

The man pulled out a row of bills.

“I’ll give you each a hundred if you run it through.”

Kit looked out and up the tossing Mane of the White Horse. A long, gray twilight was falling, it was turning colder, and the landscape seemed taking on a savage bleakness.

“It ain’t that,” Shorty was saying. “We don’t want your money. Wouldn’t touch it nohow. But my pardner is the real meat with boats, and when he says yourn ain’t safe I reckon he knows what he’s talkin’ about.”

Kit nodded affirmation, and chanced to glance at Mrs Breck. Her eyes were fixed upon him, and he knew that if ever he had seen prayer in a woman’s eyes he was seeing it then. Shorty followed his gaze and saw what he saw. They looked at each other in confusion and did not speak. Moved by the common impulse, they nodded to each other and turned to the trail that led to the head of the rapids. They had not gone a hundred yards when they met Stine and Sprague coming down.

“Where are you going?” the latter demanded.

“To fetch that other boat through,” Shorty answered.

“No, you’re not. It’s getting dark. You two are going to pitch camp.”

So huge was Kit’s disgust that he forebore to speak.

“He’s got his wife with him,” Shorty said.

“That’s his lookout,” Stine contributed.

“And Smoke’s and mine,” was Shorty’s retort.

“I forbid you,” Sprague said harshly. “Smoke, if you go another step I’ll discharge you.”

“And you, too, Shorty,” Stine added.

“And a hell of a pickle you’ll be in with us fired,” Shorty replied. “How’ll you get your blamed boat to Dawson? Who’ll serve you coffee in your blankets and manicure your finger-nails? Come on, Smoke. They don’t dast fire us. Besides, we’ve got agreements. If they fire us they’ve got to divvy up grub to last us through the winter.”

Barely had they shoved Breck’s boat out from the bank and caught the first rough water, when the waves began to lap aboard. They were small waves, but it was an earnest of what was to come. Shorty cast back a quizzical glance as he gnawed at his inevitable plug, and Kit felt a strange rush of warmth at his heart for this man who couldn’t swim and who couldn’t back out.

The rapids grew stiffer, and the spray began to fly. In the gathering darkness, Kit glimpsed the Mane and the crooked fling of the current into it. He worked into this crooked current, and felt a glow of satisfaction as the boat hit the head of the Mane squarely in the middle. After that, in the smother, leaping and burying and swamping, he had no clear impression of anything save that he swung his weight on the steering-oar and wished his uncle were there to see. They emerged, breathless, wet through, the boat filled with water almost to the gunwale. Lighter pieces of baggage and outfit were floating inside the boat. A few careful strokes on Shorty’s part worked the boat into the draw of the eddy, and the eddy did the rest till the boat softly touched the bank. Looking down from above was Mrs. Breck. Her prayer had been answered, and the tears were streaming down her cheeks.

“You boys have simply got to take the money,” Breck called down to them.

Shorty stood up, slipped, and sat down in the water, while the boat dipped one gunwale under and righted again.

“Damn the money,” said Shorty. “Fetch out that whiskey. Now that it’s over I’m getting cold feet, an’ I’m sure likely to have a chill.”

In the morning, as usual, they were among the last of the boats to start. Breck, despite his boating inefficiency, and with only his wife and nephew for crew, had broken camp, loaded his boat, and pulled out at the first streak of day. But there was no hurrying Stine and Sprague, who seemed incapable of realizing that the freeze-up might come at any time. They malingered, got in the way, delayed, and doubled the work of Kit and Shorty.

“I’m sure losing my respect for God, seein’ as he must ‘a’ made them two mistakes in human form,” was the latter’s blasphemous way of expressing his disgust.

“Well, you’re the real goods, at any rate,” Kit grinned back at him. “It makes me respect God the more just to look at you.”

“He was sure goin’ some, eh?” was Shorty’s fashion of overcoming the embarrassment of the compliment.

The trail by water crossed Lake Labarge. Here was no fast current, but a tideless stretch of forty miles which must be rowed unless a fair wind blew. But the time for fair wind was past, and an icy gale blew in their teeth out of the north. This made a rough sea, against which it was almost impossible to pull the boat. Added to their troubles was driving snow; also, the freezing of the water on their oar-blades kept one man occupied in chopping it off with a hatchet. Compelled to take their turn at the oars, Sprague and Stine patently loafed. Kit had learned how to throw his weight on an oar, but he noted that his employers made a seeming of throwing their weights and that they dipped their oars at a cheating angle.

At the end of three hours, Sprague pulled his oar in and said they would run back into the mouth of the river for shelter. Stine seconded him, and the several hard-won miles were lost. A second day, and a third, the same fruitless attempt was made. In the river mouth, the continually arriving boats from White Horse made a flotilla of over two hundred. Each day forty or fifty arrived, and only two or three won to the northwest shore of the lake and did not come back. Ice was now forming in the eddies, and connecting from eddy to eddy in thin lines around the points. The freeze-up was very imminent.

“We could make it if they had the souls of clams,” Kit told Shorty, as they dried their moccasins by the fire on the evening of the third day. “We could have made it to-day if they hadn’t turned back. Another hour’s work would have fetched that west shore. They’re – they’re babes in the woods.”

“Sure,” Shorty agreed. He turned his moccasin to the flame and debated a moment. “Look here, Smoke. It’s hundreds of miles to Dawson. If we don’t want to freeze in here, we’ve got to do something. What d’ye say?”

Kit looked at him, and waited.

“We’ve got the immortal cinch on them two babes,” Shorty expounded. “They can give orders an’ shed mazuma, but as you say, they’re plum babes. If we’re goin’ to Dawson, we got to take charge of this here outfit.”
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