Shepard grunted in amusement. After eight days at sea, they both stank. “First we have to get there.”
It was an excellent point. The entire street was a muddy mess of hoof-and boot prints, and furrows cut by wagon wheels. In some places the dirt had dried and hardened into ridges, and in others water filled the crevices.
As they navigated the runnels and potholes, mud sucking at their boots, Shepard’s breathing grew labored under the weight of his fifty-odd-pound pack. Jack gave him a surreptitious glance and saw that rather than glowing red with exertion, his brother-in-law’s face had paled. Before long, Shepard would be unable to carry his own pack.
“You doing all right?” Jack asked.
“I’ll manage,” Shepard muttered.
They’d been amiable traveling companions all through the voyage, but now a growing tension enveloped them. In all the world there was no one Jack loved as much as his stepsister, Eliza. She had practically raised him, and against her wishes, and with full knowledge of the man’s deteriorating health, he had plotted with her husband to embark upon this adventure, knowing that Shepard was able and keen to finance the entire journey himself.
Perhaps Jack had been selfish, but there was nothing to be done for it now. Besides, Shepard was a willing and insistent partner.
Jack tried to assuage his guilt by considering the other purpose for this adventure: to aid his mother. On the day of their departure, Eliza had revealed to him that their mother was close to losing her home. She had relied on Jack’s income for a long time, and his recent month-long absence—a stretch in jail for vagrancy, though none of his family knew of it—had caused her to fall deeper into debt. She had even returned to conducting séances and other rituals as a spiritual medium, an absurdity that she touted as the truth and that made Jack distinctly uncomfortable. He had persuaded himself that it was nothing more than a charade and a fraud. So though the woman had little love in her heart—all the nurturing he had needed as a boy he had found in Eliza—still she was his mother. If he found gold, she would be able to keep her home, and to abandon the charlatanry of spiritualism. Yet that seemed a distant concern right now; it was Shepard who worried him most.
But Shepard had his own mind. He was a man, not some sickly child to be coddled, and Jack believed that every man must be master of his own fate. Nevertheless, he dreaded having to deliver the news to Eliza should calamity befall her husband.
Eyes front, chin high, Jack marched across the muddy ruin of Dyea’s main street toward the boardwalk in front of Hayley’s Hotel. Only when he had stepped up onto the wood and kicked mud from his boots did he glance back to check on Shepard’s progress.
The man had stopped a dozen feet back.
“James?” he said.
Shepard’s face had gone slack and he stared eastward with wide eyes, bent slightly forward to manage the weight of his pack. He’d been pale before, but now he looked dreadfully sick. He blinked, coughed lightly, and then set off into a deeper fit of coughing that bent him double. The old soldier let his pack slip from his back and fall into the mud.
Jack dropped his own pack on the boardwalk and ran to Shepard’s side.
“What is it, James?” he asked, gripping the man’s elbow. “You’re all right. Try to catch your breath.”
Shepard was shaking, his skin hot, and blood freckled his lips and chin. He’d been ill almost ever since Jack had known him, but he had never seen the older man looking so frail.
“James?” he said again, softly.
James nodded and took several long, steadying breaths. He stared to the east, wheezing and coughing some more, eyes watering the entire time. Still bent double, hands on his knees, he gestured with a nod.
“Is that it, boy? Is that the pass?”
Jack turned to see that the mist had thinned, providing a clearer view of the nearby hills. It might be August, but they were in Alaska, and to the east white walls of ice rose up from the land like the forbidding landscape in a dream of endless winter. The gap in the ice, visible only as a shadow from here, was the Chilkoot Pass. The trail that would take them to Dawson City began at the foot of those frozen cliffs.
Even from this distance Jack could make out the dark line of men and horses trekking up the Chilkoot Trail toward the forbidding pass—men with dreams of gold, and the Tlingit Indians making their own fortunes just getting the stampeders and their gear over the mountains.
Shepard started coughing again, and this time when he wiped at his lips, Jack saw a larger smear of blood.
It did not bode well. Dark thoughts of resentment and frustration flitted at the edges of Jack’s mind, but he pushed them away. They had made a pact, the two of them, and Jack London always kept his word.
He put a hand on Shepard’s shoulder. “I’ll help you every step of the way. I’ll get you there, so help me God, or else we’ll share an icy grave. And I don’t mean to die, so that means we’ll both have our stake on the Klondike come spring, and bring back a pile.”
At last able to breathe evenly, Shepard gently pushed Jack’s hand away.
“I’ve been a fool,” he said, words burning with a fury obviously reserved for himself. “I won’t allow you to become one.”
“James,” Jack said, “you’ve come all this way.”
“Yes, and now I have to go all that way.” He looked again at the pass, eyes wide. And even as he watched, Jack saw James’s expression change from fear to resignation to sorrow and regret.
Shepard slowly stood upright. He shouldered his pack, taking deep breaths. And finally he turned his back on the frozen mountains.
“I’ve got to get back to the beach before the Umatilla sails for home,” Shepard said. “I’ll bring your love to Eliza and your mother.”
Jack said nothing. Shepard would clearly brook no argument.
“I’ve invested a great deal in this journey,” the old soldier went on. “More than money, you understand? Every wish I’ve ever made. I’m leaving them all here with you, and I expect you to carry them to Dawson and beyond. Don’t let me down, boy.”
Jack shook his head. “Of course I won’t.”
“See you don’t,” Shepard said. And with that he left, trudging back through half-frozen mud toward the shore, leaving Jack with all their supplies and equipment and enough determination for both of them.
Jack watched him go and hoped he would make it home in good health, so that Eliza would not have to grieve. He found himself untroubled by the idea of making the journey alone, for most of his life’s journeys had been undertaken as solo ventures, even when he was surrounded by others pursuing their own paths.
Shepard walked to the edge of town and vanished on the road down to the beach without once turning to look back. The moment he was out of sight, a huge grin broke out on Jack’s face. He felt a strange elation growing within him. Freed of his obligations to and concern for Shepard—and, yes, shorn of the guilt he’d been feeling at bringing the older man along—he felt more confident than ever in his course of action.
He turned to look up into the mist at the Chilkoot Pass. He felt it drawing him almost physically, and he was tempted to run there now and climb it all tonight, supplies or not. Throughout the voyage they had heard tales of men who had died on the trail, and thousands who had faltered and turned back. Shepard had wilted at the mere sight of the ominous terrain.
Not Jack. The frozen north would not defeat him. Only death could stop him now.
MARCH OF THE DEAD
THE WORD AROUND DYEA was that a man with no destination could have camped on the Chilkoot Trail for months without wanting for anything. Warm clothes, dried and salted meats, canned beans, guns for hunting, tents…the trading post and the hardware store down in Dyea would have gone out of business if the stampeders landing by the thousands on the beach had but known that they could pick up all the supplies they needed right on the side of that trail. Especially on the westward side, making the climb up to 3,500 feet, where frigid winds buffeted travelers even in late summer, abandoned gear lay everywhere.
And if the desire was for fresh meat, the cruel terrain of the Chilkoot Trail provided that in ample supply. Horses collapsed of exhaustion, broke their legs in crevices, or fractured their spines falling backward when the trail became too steep. Some were put down to end their misery, while others were left to die in agony by hard-hearted men who stripped them of their saddles and went on, not wishing to waste a bullet.
Without Shepard accompanying him, Jack made the decision to travel light. Opening crates, he sorted through food stores and put aside essentials. Much of what they had brought on the voyage he sold to the proprietor of Hayley’s Hotel. Shepard’s clothes he traded to a burly, bearded fellow named Merritt Sloper, whom he’d met on board the Umatilla. Sloper had a particularly fine skillet and several bags of coffee with which he was willing to part, provided Jack wouldn’t refuse him a brew if their paths crossed on the trail.
The deal struck, Jack took an extra blanket from Shepard’s supplies and then went through his own clothes. By the time he fell asleep that night, he had set aside, sold, or given away three-quarters of what they had brought with them. More confident than ever, contentedly exhausted, he fully expected to sleep through to dawn.
When he woke in the middle of the night, disoriented, he sat up and breathed in the darkness. I’m in Hayley’s Hotel in Dyea, he thought, and then heard a groan.
Jack held his breath. He had never been afraid of the dark, but he had learned to respect it.
The groan came again: a floorboard, protesting under a weight that should not be there. Whoever walked tried to do so quietly.
“Who’s there?” Jack whispered.
A door drifted open where he did not remember seeing one before. He was so unsettled that it took a few seconds before he saw the hand splayed flat against the wood, and a few seconds more before he followed it back along the arm, across the shoulder, and to the face hanging behind it in the gloom.
“Mother?” he asked. With recognition came the familiar smells of home—stale cooking and incense.
“There will be doom,” his mother said, but not in her own voice. The tone was flat, cool as ice, almost disinterested. “Doom in the north, a cry of death in the great white silence, and the spirits will bear witness.” She entered the room, and Jack caught his breath. That’s not my mother, he thought, and though the idea was ridiculous—the woman standing before him was his mother, with her hair, face, and nightdress—he could not shake the idea. There was something disquieting about her appearance, as if a stranger hiding beneath her skin was trying to force itself out. She was dreadfully stiff, skin almost translucent and the shade of freshly fallen snow.
There was something disquieting about her appearance, as if a stranger hiding beneath her skin was trying to force itself out.
He had seen something like this before. She had told him it was her spirit guide speaking through her. He had never before believed a word of such foolishness, and he hated her false spiritualism. She fooled people with it, preyed on their suffering, and—
Is she fooling me now? Am I here, or am I at home? He thought he was dreaming, but such knowledge usually granted the dreamer control. Here, he was the one being controlled.
“Get out of my room,” he whispered.
“Something follows,” his mother said, smiling. It was a sickly expression, and it did not touch her voice. “Yet still you’ll die in the snow, cold…and almost alone.” Then she turned and left.
It was a few minutes before Jack could leave his bed, but when he approached the door, he found a blank wall. He touched it, and it was only wood. I’m awake now for sure, he thought, and after returning to bed he could not return to sleep. He watched dawn cast its cleansing light over Dyea.
Unsettled by the nightmare, yet determined to let daylight blanch it away, Jack was the first to leave town that day on his way toward the Chilkoot Pass.
He’d left Dyea with two horses carrying his kit, his own pack twenty pounds lighter than it had been the day before. His shoulders were padded so the straps did not cut into him, and he’d set off at speed as the sun rose over the white peaks, the crack of Chilkoot Pass gleaming on the horizon.
That had been four days ago.
Now his eyes watered at the stench of rotting horseflesh beside the trail, and he kept as much distance as possible from the others jostling for position as they climbed. He’d been making excellent time, outpacing most of the white men and even some of the Indian carriers, who were used to the terrain and the climate.
He kept his focus fixed on the mountaintops, his goal in sight, and kept to himself. Several times fights had broken out, and he’d had to guide his two horses around the stinking combatants as well as others who had slowed to exhort them on, grateful for the distraction of potential bloodshed. Jack had never been one to shy away from a fight, but he could already feel a cold bite in the air as he climbed higher and higher, and feared winter would arrive sooner than any of them had bargained for.
The debris of surrender littered the sides of the trail. He passed men who had given up and were making their way back to Dyea, eyes downcast in defeat. They had failed and were ashamed, and Jack vowed that he would never be one of them. Such failure must be hard to live with, and there was no sense of relief in their bearing, even though their physical hardships were behind them.
As he walked on, the trail rising higher, the going steeper, memories of his dream flashed across his mind. He often dreamed of his mother, sometimes fancies of the perfect relationship they had never had, more often interpretations of her lovelessness and occasional cruelty. She could be a stone-hearted woman: When Jack was a boy she had often exhorted his stepfather to beat him when he misbehaved, and the only affection she gave to Jack came on days when he managed to bring a paycheck into the house. And there were those times when she’d made him lie on the kitchen table during a séance and called upon the spirits of the dead to damn him for some boyish wrongdoing. Even back then he’d never really believed, but she’d done her best to ensure that the process scared him.