It was the perfect place for the slavers to stop. If one of their slaves did run, he’d have to climb from the creek first, then make it across open ground before he hit the trees. Plenty of time for a bullet to blast out his lungs.
They strung the men along the stream—keeping some distance between them to prevent talking—gave them each a pan, and told them to start searching for gold. When one of the men asked what share of any gold they would receive, he received a rifle butt across the throat in response.
They’ll kill us before they’d let us go, Jack thought then. The realization was chilling, but hardly surprising. Somewhere in the woods there awaited twelve areas destined to be turned into shallow graves. It would not be soon, he knew. The men wanted as much gold as they could find first. But perhaps when suspicions were aroused in fellow prospectors in the area, or when the jealousies between slavers grew too great, there would come a day when the forced march began again. And this time its end would be marked by a bullet to the back of the head.
He would not be here long enough for that to happen. And, he swore, neither would Merritt.
He scooped up another panful of grit and stones from the bottom of the stream, doing his best to shut out what had happened and enjoy the simple act of panning. He focused all his attention down so that he could not see their surroundings, nor the cruel men guarding them. Thinking of his mother and Eliza, he swilled water around the pan in a gentle circular motion, spilling a little more mud and water each time until the heavier elements were a slick across the bottom. This was what he had been traveling so long to do. All that effort, all those months trapped in the cabin in the middle of the greatest winter he had ever known, coming closer to death than he had ever been before, and now he was looking for the glint of gold amid the gritty brown sediment of this Yukon creek. He tried to feel enlivened by the act, excited. But he could not. However much he kept his head down, Jack could not shake the knowledge that he was a prisoner, and any wealth he discovered would line the pockets of thugs and killers.
“If only they knew who they were messing with,” he said to himself, but even he was not sure. He felt that he was beginning to understand himself better out here, as if he could perceive more of his bright outline set against a dazzling sunset. But there was still a great mystery to Jack London. That thrilled and terrified him in equal measures; he could not help believing that there were wonders in his future, that his life had led him here with some purpose, but he had to overcome this terrible present for them to offer themselves up for view.
“Jack,” someone whispered.
He frowned, looking around without raising his head. Across from him up on the rim of the creek stood a slaver, rifle resting in the crook of his arm as he smoked. He was looking into the distance. Upstream to Jack’s right, a black man Jack knew only as Jonas was kneeling in the water.
“Jack,” he heard again, and Jonas glanced up. “Our voices flow with the stream. They can’t hear. Do you see?”
Jack looked across at the slaver again. The man was closer to him than Jonas by at least ten steps, but he seemed to hear nothing.
“Stream’s flowing down, so you can hear me but I won’t hear you.”
Jack coughed as acknowledgment, and Jonas smiled in understanding.
“Big man, Reese, he wants to make a break. Tonight after they’ve fed us, when they think we’ll be tired and ready for sleep. He says if we’re all in, then most of us will make it.”
Jack frowned and tried to glare at Jonas, but he wasn’t certain the man understood. They both kept panning, kept swilling. Damn, if only I could whisper back. It’s crazy! They’ll slaughter us all. Reese was a huge bear of a man, and Jack had been surprised that William and his men had dared club him into slavery. But from the little that he’d seen of Reese’s interaction with the other slaves, Jack already knew that he was a bully. William must have recognized that in him, and understood that it meant Reese was no threat on his own. Bullies were inevitably cowards, who could only act with others around to support them or urge them on.
Jack glanced at the slaver and risked a shake of his head to Jonas.
Jonas frowned. “You want to stay here?”
Jack shook his head again.
“Then this is a chance. Longer we stay, weaker we get.”
Jack coughed, harsher than last time in an effort to communicate disagreement.
“Back to work!” the slaver said. He came closer by several steps and kicked at the stream, splashing cold water across Jack’s face. Jack wiped it quickly away and glared at Jonas, offering a single shake of the head again. But Jonas was already looking back down into his pan.
Farther up the stream, several men away, Jack could see Merritt. He was in his own world, working slowly and methodically. With Jim dead, Merritt’s whole journey was soured.
I should feel that as well, Jack thought. But sad though he was, the future was still an exciting place, and he had the unerring conviction that his journey had only just begun.
Jack could not help but revel in the beauty of this place. The creek was marred by the cruelty of man, but the hills and forests surrounding them exuded the pure, untainted wildness of nature. He breathed in the scents of stream and forest, and felt the welcome heat of sunlight warming his skin.
Beyond the constant rush of water he heard occasional birdcalls, but though he listened hard, the cry of the wolves eluded him. He tried to extend his senses to find anything watching them from the forests. Just because he had heard no wolf cry, that did not mean the wolf was not there. Always watching me, he thought, but right then he would have welcomed some sign that this was the case. He could feel the immensity of the wilderness, the pull of the wild on his adventurous soul. It called him, and he swore that he would answer.
Jack hated these men for their cruelty, their ignorance, and their inhumanity. But more than all that, he hated them because they were stealing from him the experience he most desired: freedom to explore the wilderness and the chance to be a part of it.
The work was hard, and Jack took frequent drinks from the stream. The water was still icy cold from snow-melt, and the more he drank, the hungrier he grew. They’ve got to feed us something, he thought. Or eventually we’ll be too weak to do them any good.
Just when hunger had begun to claw at his insides in earnest, their captors called out a pause for lunch. As the men put aside their pans, Jack glanced up at the steep hillside to the south of the creek. It was heavily wooded, and the trees smoothed the rough contours of the land. Something there, he thought. When he closed his eyes, he felt nothing, but part of the hillside was blurred to his senses or immune to them. A blank on the wilderness. An area of mystery, and fear. He shivered.
“Sit down and don’t move!” Archie shouted to them all. “You need to piss, do it where you are.”
Jack sat thankfully, pulling his freezing feet from the water. He wondered for the first time what had happened to all their equipment. Gathering dust in the storage barns behind the Yukon Hotel, no doubt. In there were his warm boots, extra clothing, gloves, and hats, and now he wore some rough clothing that William’s men had given him. It might be spring, but it was still cold.
Archie made his way down the line with a bag of food. He gave each man a chunk of bread and a finger of jerky, and the slaves all bit in ravenously. Reese took his food with a nod of thanks, and though Archie did not acknowledge him, Jack knew how clever this was. Makes them think he’s subdued, he thought. Perhaps Reese was a bully, but he was preparing well for his escape attempt. Not well enough, though! Jack glanced around at the slave drivers—their guns and knives, their cruel faces—and he knew that the slaves would need more than determination and speed to escape. If they really were to get away, they’d need to kill William and his men first.
“Why d’you think it won’t work?” Jonas asked. A dozen steps away from Jack, still his voice carried. No one intervened. Perhaps the slavers were allowing the men this brief contact.
“Foolish,” Jack said. “They’ve got guns! We have to pick our chance well, we have to—”
“Wait,” Jonas said. Then he turned, and Jack knew that he was talking to the next man along from him in the other direction. He watched, fascinated, as he saw the conversation pass from man to man without the slavers knowing anything was awry. Heads dipped slightly, or tilted to aid hearing, and Jack tracked the voices even though he could not hear them.
The string of whispers reached Merritt. He nodded once, but then Archie was before him, handing him the food. Merritt took it without looking up or saying anything, and Archie moved on. Jack saw Merritt bring the food to his mouth, and just before he chewed, his jaw worked as he said several words.
The message reached Reese. He was wiping his mouth after his food, his actions slow and deliberate. His long hair hung down beside his face, heavy beard obscuring his mouth. He leaned forward and took a handful of water from the stream. As he drank, Jack saw him say a few words in response.
“Here you are, a meal fit for a king,” Archie said. He’d reached Jack, and he delved into the bag for a chunk of bread. Jack found his mouth watering, and he could actually smell the stale bread above the scents of the woods and stream.
He held out his hand.
“Darn,” Archie said, and dropped the bread into the stream. It floated away, already sinking as it took on water. Jack reached out for his lunch, and Archie struck him on the right shoulder. It was not a hard punch, but Jack was unbalanced, and it sent him headlong into the stream.
He came up spluttering, welcomed back above the surface by Archie’s heavy laughter.
“Don’t tease the animals,” someone said. William. He had emerged from the tents the slavers had set up, and now he was crossing the grassy floodplain to the stream.
“This one won’t bite back,” Archie said, still smiling.
Jack crawled from the stream, shivering.
“Not anymore,” William said. Once again Jack saw the coldness in the leader’s eyes. It’s like there’s nothing in there at all, he thought, and he was glad that his soaking provided an excuse for the next shiver that shook his body.
“Here,” Archie said. He dropped a scrap of jerky onto the ground, and as he turned away he stepped on it.
Jack pressed his lips together. His heartbeat increased. Not now, he thought, but the temptation was strong. He could be on Archie in moments, slipping the man’s knife from his own belt, then around and up into his neck—
“Reese says you’re just a kid,” Jonas whispered. “Says you don’t know nothin’. Says to shut up and listen to him if you want to live.”
Jack blinked softly at Jonas, aware of Archie still walking away chuckling. Aware also of William staring at him, eyes calculating and cold.
Jack sat down, brushed the dirt from his scrap of jerky, and started chewing.
They worked through that long afternoon. There was a break around midafternoon when another of the slavers brought around a handful of biscuits, and this time Jack had his share. To most of the men he must be just another worker; it was Archie and William who bore grudges. He stored this information away.
Several times he risked a look upstream. Past several other men he saw Merritt working away, and he thought his friend seemed reduced by what had happened. Still stocky and strong, there was a weakness about him now, as if a part of him had withered when Jim had been shot. He saw his friend die, Jack thought. That must have been terrible.
Beyond Merritt there was Reese. Once, the big man caught Jack looking at him, and he offered a grimace in response. The two men were too far away to communicate effectively, so Jack simply turned away and started panning again, disregarding Reese’s look and turning his back. Man’s a fool, he thought. But Jack was worried: If Reese made a move that evening as he’d planned, then Jack and Merritt would also be dragged into it. Events could move on without him, and he’d have to pay for the foolishness of another man’s decisions.
And if there was an uprising among the new slaves, he knew for sure who would be the first target of the slavers’ wrath. Jack paused in his panning, staring down into the trickling water and seeing the beautiful, deep blue sky reflected there. Maybe Reese knew about him and Archie and William, and was relying on that to aid his own escape.
Maybe Merritt had told him.
A shadow passed before him and he shifted the pan again, spilling water and dirt back into the stream.
They worked into the evening until it became too dark to see, and then the slavers ushered them all back into the space between the encircled tents. There were five tents in all, though Jack already knew that none of them were for the slaves. Their place would be around the fire and beneath the stars, ankles bound together and tied to heavy stakes. There was a pile of rough, uncured hides close to the fire, and he could already smell the stench on them. By morning he’d stink of death, and a dip in the freezing stream would likely do nothing to wash that away.
The slavers’ dogs barked as the exhausted men were told to sit and await their food. The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafted from the can above the fire, and Jack closed his eyes and tried to push the smell away. But his watering mouth was an unconscious reaction. He remembered drinking coffee on the Chilkoot Pass with Merritt and Jim, and how the two men had seemed close even then.
“It’s gonna be tonight,” Jonas whispered, when he managed to get close enough.
“Stupid!” Jack said. “We need to get their measure first, figure out their weaknesses. Seen the guns?”
“Seen how much we’ve had to eat today?”
Jack sighed. He looked at Jonas, lips pursed, then noticed a slaver staring right at him. “I reckon we’ll be moved on upstream,” he said, louder.
“Yeah, toward where the first strike was made,” Jonas said. The slaver looked away, and Jonas pressed on in a quieter voice. “We’ve got to get away! Reese, he has a plan, he knows what he’s doing and—”