And as Jack realized what Archie’s plans were for the two boys—that he was still in the business of enslaving others to do his prospecting—the big, hairy bastard got up, clapped the boys on their backs, and exhorted them to accompany him. What lure he used Jack didn’t know. Over the roar of the place, he could not hear. But the boys seemed game enough. They rose and joined Archie, as did one of the other men at the table, and without a glance back, the four of them started to weave their way out of the Dawson Bar, where the dark of night and a grim future awaited.
Jack got up to follow.
Merritt grabbed his arm, and he spun to stare at his friend.
“Don’t tell me not to get involved,” Jack said.
Anger colored Merritt’s cheeks. “Not a chance. I just don’t want you getting there before me.”
“Or me,” Hal said.
Jack fixed him with a hard look. “No. You stay.”
The young man bristled. “Not a chance.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Jack said. “Merritt and I are leaving Dawson tomorrow—or at least I hope he’s leaving with me?”
Merritt nodded in agreement. “Apologies, my friend, but Jack’s right. You’ve started to make a home here. You have your job at the newspaper and that girl whose name always makes you blush. If you come out there with us now, you’ll have to leave with us tomorrow, or they’ll kill you when we’re gone.”
Hal looked as though he might argue further, but then the realization sank in and he relented. “I’m going to have a drink. Come back when it’s over, and we’ll go have that dinner.”
“Agreed,” Jack replied, and then he and Merritt departed.
As they left the bar, he and Merritt walked right by Archie’s other partners, who did not give them so much as a glance. They stepped onto the darkened street, the moon a scimitar overhead, providing only haunted, golden gloom. Archie and his confederate had herded the two boys off to the left—toward the river and away from town—and as Jack gazed after them, he wondered again what the black-hearted man had used for a lure. Girls? Gold? A free room? It didn’t matter. All they would get from Archie was a knock on the back of the head and a short life of violence and hard labor.
“Come on,” Jack said quietly.
He began to run, guns slapping his hips, his heavy coat dragging on him. He heard Merritt coming up behind him, drew one of his guns, and handed it over.
“If I’ve learned anything, it’s that things aren’t always what they seem.”
“I don’t want it,” Merritt huffed, far too used to sitting on a bar stool to be exerting himself so.
“It’s to keep the other fellow out of it,” Jack explained.
And then they had no more time to talk. Archie and the others had heard their approach. In dim moonlight that transformed them all to ghosts, the two slavers and their young prey all turned to see who pursued them.
Archie—little more than a hulking, bristling silhouette—reached for a weapon as Jack and Merritt caught up.
Jack drew his remaining gun and cocked it, and Archie froze.
“We don’t got nuthin’ worth stealin’!” one of the boys said, putting up his hands as if it were a robbery.
“Shut up, idiot!” hissed Archie’s sidekick.
Merritt moved half a dozen feet from Jack, off to the left, gun trained on the tall, thin slaver. The man had a long jaw and sunken cheeks that gave him a strangely horselike appearance, and he had a terrible, malevolent light in his eyes that came as no surprise.
Archie’s hand still hovered near his hip.
“Let’s see,” Jack said. “Pull back your coat, slowly.”
Archie did as instructed, drawing open his coat to reveal a long, wicked-looking blade hanging in a sheath on his hip. When he saw the knife, Jack grinned. He felt it bubbling up from inside him and he could not help it. It was a savage, wild grin, and it must have unnerved the others, for Archie’s equine sidekick muttered something and the two boys started whispering to each other.
“Take off your coat,” Jack said.
“Who the hell are you?” Archie replied.
That surprised Jack. He moved a little closer, turning to face the moon more fully, and though it took a few seconds, Archie’s eyes widened in astonishment.
“I figured you for dead,” the slaver said.
“No. I’m very much alive,” Jack declared, and it had never felt so true.
Archie nodded slowly. “That’s good. I always regretted not getting the chance to kill you myself.”
Now he did take off his coat, shrugging out of it like a man about to do a job that badly needed doing. Jack knew how he felt.
“What do they want?” Horse Face asked.
Merritt cocked his gun. “Just those boys. Send them on their way and there’ll be no trouble.”
“But we—,” one of the boys began.
“Shut up,” Archie snarled.
Jack looked at the boys now. In their frightened eyes he saw Hal again, from months earlier, and yet Hal had been defiant. He had never been as scared as these two lambs. Jack had seen boys like this plenty of times growing up, had defended them often, but they nearly always came to a rough end.
“You two should never have come here,” he said. “You’re far more likely to find blood than gold. You should go home.”
“And you can go to hell!” one of them said, baring his teeth like a little dog guarding his dinner.
Ah. Maybe they’ll be all right after all, Jack thought. If the wild gets into him, maybe he’ll survive.
“These men would enslave you,” Merritt said. “They’ll beat you and put you to work for them, and any gold you find would be theirs. They did it to us. Most of the men who were with us are dead now.”
Jack was glad that Merritt said it. The boys were less afraid of him, and from the way they shifted away from Archie and Horse Face, it was obvious they believed him. Merritt had always had that honest quality.
“Get out of here,” Jack told the boys, gesturing with the barrel of his gun.
Archie sneered in disgust and fury but did not try to stop them. The boys fled back up the street, toward the bar.
“You think that makes them safe?” Archie asked.
“I think next time they’ll see you coming,” Jack replied, and in his own voice he heard a familiar growl. His heartbeat sped up in anticipation, and though he knew that if he looked around he would not see it, he felt the wolf nearby.
The wolf would always be nearby, because he carried it within himself.
Jack holstered his gun and slipped out of his heavy coat, letting it fall to the street. Archie took half a step forward, but Merritt leveled the Colt at him and the slaver thought better of it. With the two slavers watching, Jack unbuckled both gun belts, carried them over to Merritt, and laid them on the ground.
Then he moved toward Archie until they were only about four feet apart. Horse Face was forgotten—Merritt would cover him. Jack locked eyes with Archie, feeling the wolf rising. He reached down and patted his knife where it hung sheathed on his belt.
“Now we’re even,” Jack said. “You have a knife, and I have a knife.”
“You could’ve made me throw my knife away,” Archie said.
Jack grinned again. “I don’t want you to.”
He took a step toward Archie, and the man took a step back, his gaze uncertain now, as if he sensed something in Jack that confused him. Frightened him. And it had nothing to do with guns or knives.
That gave Jack pause. He felt the wolf in him, the wildness, and knew he had gathered its deadly calm and cunning into himself along with its ferocity and speed. Archie had sensed it as well.
But Jack didn’t want that. The wolf would kill this man, and Jack would become a murderer. Even if they had the same weapons, it would be murder. He had left the wilderness behind, and if he meant to return to civilization now, he had to leave the wild as well. All along he had been asking himself, Who is Jack London? Now he looked into Archie’s skittish eyes, and he knew.
He took a deep breath and let it out, pushing the wolf away. It might be his spirit guide, part of his very soul, but it was not him. Another cleansing breath, and the grin vanished from his face. He stood up straighter.
Jack didn’t need the wolf to beat Archie. He needed the boy and the young man he had been, the wharf rat and bar fighter and back-alley scrapper.
“If you end up with my knife in your gut, and flies buzzing around your corpse when the sun comes up, who’s going to cry for you?” Jack asked.
Horse Face looked confused, but Archie flinched.
“That’s what I thought,” Jack said. “So I’m going to give you a choice. You can fight, or you can forget about those kids and pan for your own damned gold. Maybe you’ll get lucky, strike it rich, but you’ll do it yourself.”
“Archie—,” Horse Face began.
Jack shook his head, never taking his eyes off of Archie. “Don’t listen. He’s a greedy son of a bitch, just like you. Your last partner shot you. I shouldn’t have to remind you, but it seems like you need reminding. Anyway, those are your choices. Walk away, or fight. But if you fight, know that I’ll win. And though I don’t want to kill you, we’ve both got knives, and people die in knife fights. It’s the way of things.”
For several long seconds, Jack wasn’t sure which way it would go.
Then Archie seemed to deflate. He smiled a little, almost in admiration, and he picked up his coat.
“You must be joking,” Horse Face said, striding toward him. “You’re not really gonna let this—”
Archie punched him so hard that a tooth shot from his split and bloody mouth, catching the moonlight as it landed in the dirt. Horse Face hit the ground, tried to rise, and then only lay there, dazed.
Dragging on his coat, Archie walked away without so much as a backward glance.
“You had me scared there for a minute,” Merritt said. Jack picked up his gun belts and buckled them into place.
As he put his coat back on, Jack gave Merritt a reassuring smile but said nothing. He had come to the Yukon to conquer the wild, and finally he had done so, though not in a way he ever would have dreamed. It had become a part of him, deep inside, and no matter where he wandered in the world, he would carry the wild with him, and would always hear its call.
Part of him would forever be the wolf, but first and foremost, Jack London was a man. A son, a brother, a friend. He had responsibilities, a truth that had been lost to him in the wild.
It was time to go home.