No, he tried to say again. His mouth opened, and ice sprinkled into his throat.
His mother was with him. She walked in from the silent white distance, visible even though the snow still poured heavily from the sky. She looked sad, but there was condemnation on her face as well, and when she opened her mouth, he knew that she was going to blame him for everything.
And then the wolf was there again, Death, standing between Jack and the image of his mother. It snarled, and she turned away. Then it disappeared into the blizzard once more, leaving him alone.
Jack felt his heart slow, as if the blood were freezing in his veins just as the waters of the mighty Yukon had drawn to an icy standstill. He had read that the last sense to leave a dying man was hearing, and when he opened his eyes he saw nothing; when he drew in a breath he smelled only void.
In the distance, just as his hearing faded into oblivion, he heard the mournful howl of a wolf.
Jack came back from nothing, rising out of a different sort of white silence with a huge gasping breath, as though waking from an awful dream. Pain clutched at his chest, a giant’s fist pressing down upon it, crushing, and then abruptly it pulled away. He breathed in ragged gulps of air, all his senses rushing back to life, and with every breath his nostrils filled with the stink of blood and his throat gurgled with it.
He choked, let his head fall to the right, gagged, and spat.
Blood. There could be no mistaking the iron taste; the rich, meaty odor; and beneath it the smell of animal fear and death. He could not feel his hands or feet—he was paralyzed, a prisoner inside the frozen slab of flesh that his body had become. But he was slowly growing aware of a warmth trickling down his sides and spreading across his chest. In some places it soaked through his clothing.
Savaged, torn apart, not even given the dignity of a frozen death…
Steam rose from his face and throat, and as he managed to crane his neck slightly, thoughts dull and sluggish, his eyes widened. The blood that coated his tongue and filled his nostrils, that warmed his face and neck and chest, was not his own. His heart might have stopped—in the back of his mind he believed it had, though for how long he could not guess, and how the cold might have preserved him he did not know—but the weight upon his chest came not only from pain.
The rabbits had been torn open, their steaming entrails spilled onto Jack and strung along his arms and legs. They had bled all over him and now covered him in a heap of dead flesh. And there were things other than rabbits as well, including a pair of owls, three wolverines, and a ravaged cougar nestled against his left side. A rush of fear and revulsion swept through Jack, and his vision blurred.
The stink was rich in his nose, the taste in his throat causing him to gag slightly. But he did not retch; he hadn’t the strength for it. In the deep perpetual gloom of that Yukon winter, he studied the dead things. Those that had spilled off him to lie in the snow had frozen rigid by now, dried blood rimed with ice. They had been replaced by fresher kills. Replaced on purpose. Their lives had been stolen to save him, their blood warming him and—hideous as the thought was—feeding him.
Once more the darkness encroached upon his vision, but he dared not close his eyes again. If he did not move, he would die here. He knew that. Here was meat, and in the meat, life. He had been given a chance. He had a hunting knife in its sheath at his hip, as well as flint. Get up, Jack. You have to build a fire, or you’re done.
His right hand tingled with a trickle of warmth. Though his fingers were numb, he thought he felt the brush of fur on the frozen skin. With deep concentration, he tried to lift his hand, and though his limbs felt like lead, he just managed it. But he would need more than dull clubs made from frigid fists to survive, and so he tried to move his fingers.
Pain lanced up into his hand and all the way to his elbow, like red-hot wires feeding through his veins. Jack cried out, but the only sound that emerged from his throat was a ragged hiss, a sort of death rattle. The sound terrified him more than anything. What sort of death was this for a man who had lived by his wits and his fists, and who had extinguished from his heart any trace of fear he had ever found? No, this was not a fitting end. Jack had been determined to conquer the wild, and he would not let it destroy him now.
He heard something, the twitch of a nearby tree branch, and stiffened.
“Hello?” he rasped, barely a whisper. “Is someone there?”
There was no reply, but then he felt it, that familiar presence, the weight of the wolf’s regard. With a shuddering breath, he let his head loll once more to the side, and there it was, standing in the trees off to his right with its head high, some kind of small, furred creature in its jaws. Blood stained the wolf’s chest. Its eyes gleamed in the smoke-dark winter evening.
Not death, but life!
Jack could not breathe. This huge wolf had seemed, before, to peer at him from some spirit world, from the wild heart of the Yukon. But now it trotted toward him, paws leaving tracks in the snow. His mother had spoken of a spirit accompanying his death, but Jack should have listened to his own heart more. This beast was not observing him but protecting him. She had often spoken of spirit guides, and perhaps this might be his own.
Yet the gray beast existed as more than a specter of the mind. It came to him now and dropped the small dead thing into the snow. Pinning it with its paws, the wolf tore it open, blood spattering dark against winter white, and then quickly snatched it up and edged closer. It had no fear of Jack, and rightly so. He had become so weak that he could barely move and hardly think. The blood spilled down from the dead thing. Jack tried to turn his face away, stomach growling with hunger and twisting in disgust at the same time.
The gray beast existed as more than a specter of the mind.
The wolf issued a low, warning growl. Jack went still, let the blood splash his lips and nose and throat, but pressed his mouth tightly closed. Whatever the wolf’s intentions, he’d had enough of surviving on the hot blood of dead things.
Again it growled, dropping the little corpse right on his face in a move that seemed almost petulant. The wolf sniffed at Jack as though inhaling his exhaled breath. It nudged his cheek with its snout, then grunted and moved away. Halfway to the trees it stopped, tipped its head back, and howled. The sound reached inside Jack, curling around his heart, and filled him with sorrow and frustration, and a longing unlike anything he had ever known.
The wolf glanced at him again, almost as though it wanted Jack to join it, to run with it through the snowy woods, but Jack could not run. He could not even stand.
From stillness to swiftness, the wolf bolted into the trees, howling again as it vanished into the winter forest. Jack listened for as long as he could, but when the howling seemed so distant as to disappear, he felt himself sliding back down into darkness, though whether the void beneath him might be unconsciousness or true death he had not the focus even to wonder.
There were whispers in the dark. Voices. Since one of them sounded much more like Merritt Sloper than Saint Peter, Jack decided he must still be among the living. He tried to open his eyes but could not. His lips were parted slightly, and he could feel a muzzle of ice coating long weeks’ worth of beard. Only by probing with his tongue could he find the small opening that his own breath had managed to maintain in that icy mask.
“He’s breathing. I told you he was breathing,” said one of the voices.
Jim, Jack thought. Goodman. Good man, Jim. Inside, he smiled, but his facial muscles did not seem to respond.
“He’ll have frostbite for sure,” Merritt replied. “If he lives.”
“He’ll live,” Jim retorted. “Look at him. Someone wanted him kept alive. Maybe a mountain man or Indians.”
“Look around. Do you see any footprints at all?”
“Just wolf tracks. Wait…you think a wolf did this? Caught all these animals and just left the meat here? With all due respect, Merritt, such behavior is far beyond the norm for the lupine species. It isn’t in their nature—”
The sound of their bickering warmed Jack. One of them dropped onto his knees in the snow beside him, and a moment later, when he heard the voice, he knew it was Merritt.
“There isn’t anything natural about this,” the big man said. “Now help me, Jim. We’ve got to get him back to the cabin and in front of a fire, or even the angels won’t be able to save him.”
Jack felt his head rocking slightly, but it took him a moment before he could feel Merritt’s fingers probing his face. The man cupped his hands on Jack’s cheeks, trying to warm them. The heat of his friend’s flesh brought needles of prickling pain into his cheeks as a trace of feeling returned.
He could hear Merritt blowing onto his own hands before he repeated the process.
“Jim! Come on, man!” Merritt urged.
But still Jim hesitated. “It’s like…some sort of massacre. Whatever’s watching over him, I don’t think it’s angels.”
“Damn it, Jim!” Merritt barked.
Jack blinked, the ice crust on his eyelids melting thanks to the heat of Merritt’s hands. He tried to speak. Bickering like a couple of old hens, he wanted to say. But his voice wouldn’t come. Instead, he managed only a moan. Now, at last, he could see them, although his vision remained blurry.
“All right,” Jim said. “Help me snap off some of these branches. We’ll need some kind of makeshift stretcher—”
Merritt scoffed. “Don’t be daft. He’s been out here long enough.”
The big man scraped ice from his red beard and then put his mittens back on. He bent down and began to pry Jack away from the snow beneath, working his hands and arms underneath Jack’s frozen, blood-stiffened clothes.
“Merritt. His eyes are open,” Jim said.
Looming above Jack, Merritt looked down and smiled beatifically, a young Father Christmas. “Well, well. So they are. Hang on, young Master London. We’ll have you warm soon enough.”
“Or as warm as it ever gets out here,” Jim added, but despite the resignation in his words, his tone was far from defeatist. “Don’t worry, Jack. You’re not alone.”
No, Jack thought as Merritt hoisted him up from the ground, snow and dead things—the wolf’s offerings of life—sliding off him. Not alone at all.
Merritt slung Jack over his shoulder and began to trudge through the snow. Every step jolted Jack so it felt as if his bones were grinding together. His mind grew vaguer, thoughts flickering like a candle flame until they guttered out. The voices of his friends became a comforting drone that accompanied him down into the darkness, and he thought he heard a lonely howl off in the distance. But perhaps it was only the wind.
Later, Jack would say that Merritt and Jim saved his life, or—when he was feeling lyrical—that the fire breathed life back into him, and that he felt like Prometheus bathed in heat for the first time. But in his heart he knew that his friends would have been too late had it not been for the gifts of warmth and blood brought to him by the wolf. Jim and Merritt knew it as well, but none of them liked to talk about it, even as the days passed by.
The two men were devoted to their younger companion. Not only did they warm him by the fire and wrap him in dry clothes and blankets, but they massaged his extremities to get the circulation running again, and as though visited by a miracle, Jack’s frostbite cost him only the tip of one toe on his left foot, which Merritt removed with a small paring knife.
They had questions, of course, some of them spoken—and answered by Jack in simple terms, including the brief story of the fall that had first knocked him unconscious and stranded him in the cold—and others unspoken. Merritt and Jim often glanced at each other when the subject came up, as though each was wary that the other might venture too far in the conversation and then not be able to retreat.
Finally, after several days’ recuperation, subsisting mostly on dried beef stores and canned beans, supplemented by the meat of a small hare Jim had found outside the cabin, limping from a fight with some predator or other, Jack asked the question they could not escape.
“How did you find me?”
His voice remained a low rasp and his teeth hurt. They were all suffering from the beginnings of scurvy, he knew, and half the winter still stretched out in front of them.
Jim smiled and glanced uneasily at Merritt. His glasses shone in the firelight. He could wear them only indoors. Outside, the cold would make the metal stick to his skin and turn the glass brittle, and he couldn’t risk the only pair of spectacles he had remaining to him. He’d broken his spare glasses on board the Umatilla during the voyage from San Francisco.
The men sat in the front room of the cabin on rough-hewn chairs, close enough to the Klondike stove that their faces were flushed. Merritt licked his lips in that way that Jack knew meant he craved a dash of whiskey, but they had none. They melted snow for water and managed tea or coffee every few days, rationing out the little pleasures to give themselves something to look forward to. But no whiskey.
“I nearly shot it, Jack,” Jim said, eyes haunted as he gazed into the middle distance at some piece of memory. “If my rifle hadn’t frozen, I might’ve killed it.”
But Merritt shook his head. “No. You couldn’t have. Not that one.”
Jim shuddered but sat up a bit straighter, his expression growing stern. Superstition seemed to offend him, and he looked around, hands fidgeting as though searching for something. Jack knew he wanted his Bible, but it must be in the other room by his bedroll, where he kept it most often to have it close to hand. Close to his heart.
“Don’t be a fool. A wolf is a wolf,” Jim said, straining his usually amiable rapport with his friend.
“Not this one,” Merritt replied darkly, a challenge in his eyes. When Jim did not debate him, he turned to Jack. “It sat out there on the edge of the clearing, half hidden in the trees, and it stared at this cabin—at me—like my mother used to wait for me at the front door when I was late for dinner. That wolf wanted our attention.”