Something fell on Jack’s back and drove him down on top of the skinny man. Archie. But he was not there for long.
“Up ya get!” Merritt said, and Jack rolled in time to see Archie flung once again against the side of the hotel.
The boy had picked up the skinny man’s gun.
“Steady now, kid,” Merritt said.
“My name’s Hal,” the boy said. “I hate it when people call me kid.”
Jack chuckled as he stood. He’s scared witless, he thought, but he was still impressed by Hal’s composure. The gun was heavy, but the boy’s hands barely shook at all. And Jack shared his detestation of being referred to as a kid.
“Going to shoot them?” Jack asked the boy. Merritt glanced at him sharply, and he saw Archie stiffen where he lay against the building. But Jack was confident that he knew Hal’s capabilities. He might think himself grown-up and brave, he might even think himself strong. But he was no killer.
He handed the gun to Jack, who in turn passed it to Merritt.
“You have no idea who you’re messin’ with here,” the thin man said. He stood, holding his injured arm across his chest. Dutch advanced on him and growled again, edging forward so that the man backed up against the wall next to Archie.
“A big dumb mule,” Jack said, pointing at Archie; then he aimed his finger at the thin man. “And what comes out of a mule’s backside.”
Hal giggled; Merritt sighed. Jack knew what his friend was thinking. Less than an hour in Dawson City, and already they’d made two enemies. Well…they wouldn’t be here for long. And it was yet another reason to head on as soon as they could.
“Funny kid,” the thin man said.
“Come on, William,” Archie said.
Jack gave a small nod. At least the big guy knew when to admit defeat.
“Be seeing you,” William said.
“Sure thing, Billy,” Jack said. “Go get that arm seen to. Looking at the dog’s teeth, here, I’ll bet he’s been eating all sorts of tasty treats from off the street.”
William glanced down at the dog, which growled again. Then he looked up and pointedly fixed Hal, Merritt, and then Jack with his gaze. He’d composed himself quickly, dropping the grimace of pain and replacing it once again with that cool smile.
It spooked Jack, but he did his best not to show it.
“Dawson City’s a small place,” William said. “But it’s already got a big cemetery.” With that, he turned and walked back along the alley. Archie followed, glancing around nervously at Dutch as the dog watched them go.
“Well,” Merritt said, holding the gun as if he didn’t know what to do with it. At last he slipped it into his coat pocket. “Well,” he said again.
“Couldn’t just let it happen,” Jack said quietly. He looked at Hal. “You all right?”
Hal nodded, but Jack saw that he was far from all right. As well as being scared and shaking with the upset of what had happened, he was malnourished, weak from lack of food, and his clothes were hardly suited to the cold. However he’d come to be here, something had gone badly wrong along the way.
“Come with us,” Jack said.
“No.” Hal knelt down next to Dutch, and the dog nuzzled at his neck. There was a devotion there, and even a love, and Jack felt a momentary pang of…something. Jealousy? Mourning? He was not sure. But his mind flashed back to that great white wilderness and the wolf that had guided him through.
“You sure, Hal?” Merritt asked. “Those were bad men. You cross paths with them again, they’ll likely do you harm.”
“I can look after myself,” Hal said, his bravado offset by the quaver in his voice.
“Well, we’ll be staying here if you change your mind,” Jack said, nodding at the side of the hotel.
“No one’s come to see what the commotion was about,” Merritt said. He was looking back nervously at the street, his hand still in the pocket where he’d slipped the gun.
“No one will,” Hal said. “There are mounted police, but they spend more time up north. It’s wilder up there. Dawson’s often left on its own.” His eyes darkened.
“What are you doing here?” Jack asked, and the boy looked at him with an expression Jack recognized: pride.
“Surviving,” Hal said. Then he turned away, whistling for the dog. Dutch followed his master along the alley and back onto the main street. Hal paused and glanced back. “Much obliged,” he said, nodding to Jack. He offered a smile. “And good luck.”
Then he was gone.
“Well,” Merritt said again.
“Yeah,” Jack said. “Well.”
The Yukon Hotel had one large room available, and they took it. Behind the hotel there were storage barns, and for the rest of that afternoon Jack, Jim, and Merritt took turns guarding their equipment while the other two hauled it through the settlement to the hotel. By the time they’d finished, the sun was smearing the horizon, and the sounds of Dawson City had changed. The streets were still haunted by the slow, sallow ghosts of what had once been optimistic people, but now the bars were alive, and the sounds of music and revelry strove to deny the impression those people gave.
They’d told Jim about their run-in with the two men, and like Merritt, he was all for lying low that evening. But Jack would have none of it.
“If they scare us off now,” he said, “they’ll have won. We run into them again, and they’ll already know who’s in charge. They’ll think twice before getting mixed up with us.”
Jim was already lying on his cot, fully clothed and half asleep. Merritt looked ready to hit the sack as well.
“Come on, Merritt,” Jack said. “Just a quick drink?” He could already taste the beer on his lips, smell the tang of whiskey as it poured amber and gold into a glass.
Merritt sighed, but Jack knew the lure of a drink would overcome his hesitation. They bade Jim a good night and went down to the hotel lobby. Just before they stepped outside, Merritt grabbed Jack’s arm.
“Jack, I’ve got to speak plainly. I’m not sure I like what happened today. I know you’ve lived rough, at times, but that scene with the dog…I confess it shocked me a little.”
“But what they were doing to that kid—”
“They had it coming for sure, Jack! I’m no coward, and I’ll not shy away from a confrontation. But for a while there you looked…wild.”
“We’re in the wild, Merritt,” Jack said. He could think of so much more to say then—about looking after yourself, and kill or be killed—but instead he went out into the Dawson City night, and Merritt followed.
They found a table in the corner of the Dawson Bar and sat nursing their drinks as the world went on around them. It was not unlike a dozen such bars Jack had frequented along the harbor in San Francisco and Oakland, but there was something about this place that gave it a sharper, harder edge. It took a while for Jack to place it—it took two drinks, both of them nursed carefully and drunk with delectation—but then he had it:
Desperation. This place hummed with it; it wound its way into and out of every smiling face and laughing mouth, and Dawson City at night really was little different from how it had been during the day. The only slight distinction was that at night, the people’s disillusionment came out in different ways.
“I’ll never be like this, Merritt,” Jack said. “I’ll always have hope. Promise me you will, too?”
“Of course I will!” Merritt said, grinning. “Jack, I know what you see, but give these people a chance. Many of them have probably been here for over a year, separated from their loved ones, doing their best to find—”
“I’ll bet half of them haven’t even left Dawson since they arrived! Prospectors?” Jack looked around, trying to see if he could make out who spent their time prospecting, and who lived off the prospectors’ needs. Perhaps he was being unfair: After all, they were availing themselves of the limited facilities Dawson had to offer. But Jack’s spirit was free and determined, and he could not understand how someone could have come this far and then not gone that extra small step. This could well have been a bar anywhere in North America, but beyond those doors and out in the wilds, there could lie a world’s ransom just waiting to be found.
And it wasn’t all about money. It was about grabbing life and living it to the fullest. The adventure had left these people, and having hauled themselves through the wilderness and countless hardships, they were creating new lives that were probably barely discernible from their old ones.
“Young as you are, you’re a hard man,” Merritt said, and that shocked Jack. He saw that his friend meant it, and it wasn’t just about the fight they’d been in that day. It was something deeper.
Is it true? he wondered. Who is Jack London? He thought about that as he drank. And he could never have known that within weeks, that familiar question would be answered for him in a manner he could not possibly imagine.
Hollow-eyed prospectors told tales at the bar to anyone willing to spring for the price of a drink. Local merchants, lost men without the nerve to set off into the true wilderness, abandoned women, and new arrivals nearly trembling with the excitement of their dreams…all gathered around to listen to tales of epic dogsled races, fistfights and murders, and the men who’d struck it rich. The bar breathed resentment and greed, filled with a collective yearning for gold.
Amid those tales, though, were others—the stories and legends of the north. There were Indian curses, river gods, and wandering ghosts to be found in the vastness of the Yukon, if the half-drunken tellers of tales were to be believed. Some of the stories of hauntings were told by men who did look genuinely haunted, and many of the curses were detailed by those who seemed accursed. But among them were even wilder stories, of snow beasts and forest spirits and animals who walked on two legs. One little, rat-like man spoke wide-eyed of arctic bears that drank human blood and could take on the shapes of those they killed.
Another spoke of the Wendigo, and that prompted several others to share what they knew of the legend. Jack perked up at this. He had read much about the Yukon during the journey on the Umatilla, including the local lore, and the tale that had most intrigued him with its grotesquerie was that of the Wendigo. The legend began with a group of men lost in the frozen lands of the north, wandering aimlessly and slowly starving. A hideous thought, but something that must have happened in reality far too many times to count. With his friends all dead, the last man alive turned to cannibalism, feasting on his companions’ corpses. But his action brought a curse upon him, transforming him into the Wendigo, an eternally ravenous beast, his tainted spirit cursed by the wild to suffer endless hunger. It was said that anyone in the frigid northlands who ate the flesh of another human being—or of the Wendigo—would share the same fate.
And this first Wendigo was still there, an insane spirit that would take deadly physical form to consume the flesh and bones of men, women, and children, growing as it ate, always hungry, always raving. A deceitful thing, too, difficult to see. An imitator, taking on an explorer’s form to lure its victims close. A stalker.
The legend had fascinated Jack back then on the ship, and in the smoky bar, surrounded by the hopeless and the hopeful, all of them hungering for something, it fascinated him even more now. He looked at the men sharing the bits and pieces they knew of the legend—some of which jibed with the account Jack had read and some of which did not—and he wondered how desperate a man would have to be to consume the flesh of his friends. These people, for instance. Some of them seemed desperate enough to do almost anything, and they had food, drink, and a fire to warm themselves.
In the wild, there was no telling what they would become.
The thought unsettled him even more than the rest of that day’s troubling events, and after only a few drinks, Jack and Merritt left the bar, heading back across the street and past groups of people wandering without purpose.
Jack felt tired and depressed, and part of him thought it was because William and Archie had not appeared in the Dawson Bar. Jack had always been a scrapper, and the run-in earlier that day seemed to have awakened something in him. He wasn’t sure he liked what it had brought to the surface—not after their long journey, which had been all about survival. He remembered riding downriver to Dawson after the ice had finally broken up, and how he had sat proud in the stern of the boat, master of the wild that had done its best to kill him.
A shadow flashed across his mind, with padding feet and a streak of gray fur. Jack frowned. And then he heard a terrible shout.
“What the hell was that?” Merritt said.
“Came from the hotel,” Jack said. “Come on.” It’s the boy, he thought. Hal came to find us, and they found him, and God only knows what they’re doing to him now. He had never quite believed that William had been about to blow Hal’s head off earlier—or maybe he hadn’t wanted to believe—but there were other ways they could punish the boy. He’d heard rumors of people being branded out here, like cattle, marked by the outlaw slavers who drove them.
He pulled his pistol from his belt as he ran and glanced over to see Merritt do the same. Lord knew Jack didn’t want to be involved in any gunplay, but after what had happened earlier, they had all agreed that it was best to carry their weapons with them, at least until they left Dawson.
Jack burst through the hotel’s front doors. There was no one at reception. The area was dark, and it smelled stale, like the collected exhalations of everyone who had ever stayed there. From the floor above he heard the rumble of booted feet. Then, nothing. No more shouts, no more footsteps. Just a loaded silence.
“Jack,” Merritt said, “Jim had his gun on him, didn’t he?”