Because the wild was where he had truly found his spirit.
He went hunting the next morning and caught a small rabbit. He did not shoot or trap it, but simply sat still beside a fallen tree for a while, making small rabbit noises and imagining himself down there in the grass with the creatures. One of them emerged from the scrub and jumped on the tree, staring at him and wrinkling its nose as it tried to discern his scent. Before it could sniff below the pretense, Jack reached out and grabbed the creature, breaking its neck before it knew what was happening. He experienced a moment of strange dislocation as he shed the rabbit senses—it was as if one of his own lay dead in his lap, and a sadness crept over him—and then he returned to camp, gutting and stripping the rabbit expertly before spitting it over the fire.
As the rabbit cooked, Jack went about tidying the camp. There were shreds of the dead men’s belongings scattered among the grasses, and the detritus of the massacre littered the ground. He wanted the place to be as far back to nature as was possible before he left, both in honor of the men who had died here and as acknowledgment that the Wendigo was no more. It was a part of the history of this place now, and the site of its great feeding also had to move on.
He left the saddle upon which he had scored that grim epitaph atop the pile of collected debris. It seemed a fitting marker, and though it would last no more than a year or two in these harsh climes, in his mind he would read those words forever.
Eating the rabbit seemed to purge the memory of the Wendigo’s flesh from his mind. His hands were greasy with cooked meat, his stomach full of it, and his hunger was sated by the time he collected his goods and set off for Dawson City. He went east and south, determined that the shreds of civilization would be in that direction, and over his shoulders he carried the saddlebags heavy with gold.
The previous day’s brief snowstorm had passed, and though snow still lay on the ground here and there, the sun was quickly melting it away. Autumn had arrived, true, but the harshest weather was still several weeks distant. For the first time in a long while, Jack felt that he was now safe, and that his immediate future was mapped out before him—a return to Dawson, a journey back across the Chilkoot pass to Dyea, then passage south to San Francisco. Once there, he would try to track down Jim’s and Merritt’s families, and the gold he carried over his left shoulder was for them. The gold on his right…that was for his own family. There was enough there to cover the money that Shepard had invested in the journey and, if not to get his mother out of debt, at least to stave off the moneylenders for a time. It would be plenty. Jack had other ideas about how he could benefit from his adventures.
His own terrible tales of the north he could never tell. But there were surely a million others that he could. Stories he had heard. Lessons learned. Glimpses into the heart of the wild, but not into that wild’s shadows.
Around noon of that day he encountered a small group of men and women heading north. He sat and waited by a rock when he saw them, starting to build a small fire in the hope that they’d have food they would share. He kept his guns at the ready, but by the time they drew closer, any worries had evaporated. They were stampeders—their gold pans rattled and swung from their packs—and their ready smiles put him at ease.
“Afternoon, friend,” one of the men called, and Jack suddenly felt his throat burning. These were the first ordinary people he had spoken to since the Wendigo attack on the camp, and that had been…how long ago? He had trouble mapping the time between then and now, but he knew it had been months.
“Afternoon,” Jack replied. “Strange time of year to be heading out from Dawson.”
“We know what we’re doing,” one of the women said. She dropped her pack next to Jack, and he saw the weapons on her belt—knives, and two pistols.
“The winters up here don’t much care whether you know or not,” he said. The woman glared at him, but she soon averted her gaze. What does she see? Jack thought. What stares at her from these eyes?
“Only a short trip, this one,” another man said. “We been out four times from Dawson now and found nothin’. This is our last try before we head on home.”
“Good luck to you,” Jack said.
“You found any luck?” the woman asked. She glanced down at his saddlebags, then back up at his face. He smiled and she looked away again. He felt that he should not be enjoying such power, but he couldn’t help himself.
“Some,” he said. He glanced away from the group, back the way he’d come, and for a moment he pondered on luck and what it meant.
“Then can you point us the right way?” the first man asked.
“No,” Jack said. “Back that way, what little good luck there was found itself outweighed by the bad.”
The six people were quiet for a moment, shrugging their packs off and sinking to the ground. Two of them went about finishing and lighting the fire, and soon a pot of coffee was brewing. Jack handed over his metal coffee mug, and a man placed it on the ground next to their own. Jack nodded his thanks.
“You look like you’ve been out there for a while,” the same woman said. “Seen men like you before. Got a wild look in your eyes, like you’ve seen things that shouldn’t be seen.”
Jack shrugged and looked into the fire.
“Seen men like that who were mad, too,” she continued.
Jack merely shrugged again, but this time he let a smile touch his lips. Who’s to say? he almost replied, but he didn’t want to alarm these people. They seemed good-natured enough, and they were sharing their coffee, but all of them carried guns. And he could see that none of them had any inkling of the true nature of things out in the wild.
They sat together for a couple of hours, drinking coffee and talking about gold, and the wilderness, and the equally wild place that was Dawson. One of the men grabbed Jack’s attention when he talked of crazy people in Dawson spending their time in the bars spouting “rubbish about flesh-eating monsters and dead men.” When Jack asked what they looked like, and whether the man knew their names, the woman asked, “Friends of yours?” That one question weighed on the atmosphere around the campfire, and it never quite recovered.
Jack was the first to rise and wish them well. He sensed eyes upon him as he lifted the heavy saddlebags, but he never once felt any threat from these people. They were like children watching an adult readying to hunt—ironic, considering his own youth—and Jack felt that the least he could do was spare them a word of advice.
“West is best from here,” he said. “Into the low hills.”
“We were told northwest,” the woman said. “Up into the wild forests and the valleys between mountains.”
“No,” Jack said, and he glanced at each one of them to get his message across. “Those places are cursed.” Then, shrugging off the few muttered questions that came after him, Jack turned his back on those naive explorers and went on his way.
He walked far that day, and at dusk he camped by a stream where there were the remains of several other campfires. He shot a duck and ate well, and lying beneath the stars, he listened to the night sounds closing in. None of them frightened him anymore. The cry of a wolf accompanied him into sleep, and in his mind he howled back, adding his own voice to the history of the wild.
He walked from dawn to dusk the next day, coming across the remains of several camps, and the farther southeast he went, the more Dawson seemed to exert its influence. These wilds were no longer just that—there was a taint of humanity on the places he walked through now—and much as he looked forward to his journey and eventual arrival back with his family, still Jack mourned the passing of this part of his life. It felt as if he were leaving a part of himself behind, and that night he sat by the campfire and howled, once more, like a wolf. There was no answering call—the wolves kept far to the north and west of here, away from the guns of civilization—but neither was there a reply in his mind. He went to sleep sad that night, and he carried that same emotion with him the next morning when he approached Dawson at last.
The final sight he’d had of Dawson had been the inside of that wretched hotel room, where Archie and William had come at him with clubs and fists. That felt like a lifetime away, but as he caught sight of Dawson in the distance, huddled beside the river at the bottom of a gently sloping valley, he knew that places like this would never change. Built on ambition and the quest for adventure, they would always be corrupted by greed and cynicism. He would enter Dawson now with his eyes open, but he swore that he would maintain hope in his heart. Not all men were bad. Merritt and Jim had shown him that.
Dawson was bustling as Jack entered, and he drew only a few casual glances. He was one of many men and women returning from the wilds, and though he had seen more than most, his physical appearance at least seemed unremarkable. Indeed, the time he had spent with Lesya—able to shave, wash his clothes, and eat enough food to stave off hunger and illness—seemed to have fended off some of the worst effects of the wilderness, and some of the people he saw looked like little more than walking skeletons.
One man had a toothless mouth, lips rotted away by sores, one of his eyes milky white from blindness. Another had lost both hands to frostbite, and he wandered the streets muttering words to himself that no one seemed keen to hear. Jack passed them by and approached the Yukon Hotel, its familiarity both depressing and comforting: comforting because it was somewhere he had been happy with his friends, if just for a moment; and depressing because entering seemed like turning his back on his own incredible adventures.
“Jack London,” he said to the man behind the counter.
“London,” the man said. “Huh. That’s no easy name to forget. Sorry, friend, but the boy you seek is dead.”
Jack blinked several times, trying to keep a straight face. One second he felt tears threatening, the next, laughter. And then the man’s face sagged and his eyes grew wide as he realized who he was talking to.
He was given one of the last rooms in the hotel, a small, dingy place that nonetheless had a bed and a basin. The hotel man brought him some food and arranged a line of credit for his stay.
“I’ll only be here for a couple of days,” Jack said. “I’m heading home.”
“Well good luck to you,” the man said, and he sounded genuine. “Enough people make it this far and just stay.”
“Have many returned?”
The man shrugged. “Some.”
“It’s a fool’s game,” Jack said, and as the man turned to leave he nodded in agreement. “Wait!” Jack called, suddenly remembering. “Do you still have my gear?”
“I…” The man stood in the open doorway, eyes averted, mouth working even though no noise emerged.
“You don’t,” Jack said. “You sold it.”
“I thought you were dead.”
“And what gave you that idea?” Jack asked harshly. “A man goes for gold, and you steal everything he has to his name?”
“After you left, there were whispers around town about who’d taken you. You and your mates. And after so much time went by, I just assumed…”
Jack was angry, but he was also suddenly very tired. He waved at the man, closed his eyes, and said, “You can pay me back tomorrow.”
“I’ll pay you what I can. And for the record, I’m glad to see you back. Good to know you’re not the only one who got away from those murdering bastards.”
“Not the only one?” Jack said, eyes snapping open again.
“Your big friend, Sloper. Spends his days drinking in the Dawson Bar.”
“Merritt,” Jack said, and he did not even notice when the man shut the door and clomped downstairs. Merritt is alive! For a few heartbeats he could not move. Then he rose stiffly from the bed and stood swaying in the center of the room. He tried to cast his mind back to the Wendigo attack, the slaughter, the screaming and blood, and though he’d been pressed down at the time—the wolf on his back, preventing him from going to try to help Merritt—he’d convinced himself since that he had seen Merritt killed. He could never remember the actual moment but had thought perhaps it had been his mind protecting him from the awful bloody truth.
“Merritt Sloper,” he said, and the name sounded good spoken aloud. He smiled. Then he went to the basin, splashed in some cold water from the jug, and swilled his face.
Above the basin was a mirror, and without thinking Jack looked at his reflection.
A stranger stared back at him. This stranger had the same wild hair, laughing eyes, and askew smile—a grin still on his lips at the thought of Merritt’s survival—but he was someone Jack had never seen before. This was a far older man than he had last seen in a mirror. His skin was weathered, and grazed all down one side of his face. And those smiling eyes were also cautious, as if constantly expecting to see something terrible beyond the smile.
“I’m Jack London,” Jack said, and his reflection said the same.
Turning away from that version of himself, he shrugged on his coat and headed downstairs.
He crossed the street and paused outside the Dawson Bar. The last time he’d been here had been with Merritt, the same evening that Archie and William had jumped them in their room and cracked them all across the heads. Then, the bar had smelled of desperation, a place between destinations where some people lived their lives in a state of perpetual suspension. He’d looked down on those people, swearing to Merritt that he’d never be like that, and he felt some satisfaction that he’d gone on to have such adventures, though such adventures had been brought on by events rather than choice.
What gave him pause now was what the hotel’s owner had said. Spends his days drinking in the Dawson Bar. Merritt was a big man with an expansive heart, and Jack had no wish to see him reduced in such a way.