Jim nodded. “On that we can agree. Big damn thing, too.”
“Eventually we reckoned we had to check it out,” Merritt went on. “I took the rifle, and we went over to the spot in the trees where it had been standing for hours, only when we got there, the wolf wasn’t there—”
“Vanished deeper into the woods,” Jim interrupted.
Merritt glanced away, as if to say there might be more to the story.
“So you followed it?” Jack asked. His fingers were still stiff and painful, and his feet still felt like slabs of frozen beef. The cold had gotten down deep inside of him, and no matter how hot the fire, he felt like he would never get warm.
“We followed it,” Jim echoed.
“We did nothing of the sort,” Merritt grumbled. He gave a murmur of dissatisfaction and stared at Jack. “When I say the wolf wasn’t there, that’s precisely what I mean. There were no tracks. No sign of the wolf at all, as if…”
He trailed off.
Jim wouldn’t look at either of them. He’d set about cleaning his glasses with the edge of his sleeve.
“Then how did you find me?” Jack asked, inching closer to the stove even as he stared at the flecks of gold and green in Merritt’s eyes.
“A shadow in the forest, that’s all,” the big man replied. “Jim will tell you it was the wolf, but I didn’t see anything but its eyes and its shadow. It kept ahead of us, pausing to wait when we fell behind. It wasn’t long before it led us right to you. When we saw all that blood, and the rabbits and such all torn up, we were sure you’d been mauled by a bear.”
Jim got up and dusted off the seat of his pants. “There’d been new snow. It covered the tracks. The wolf led us to you.” He turned his back and walked away.
Jack and Merritt exchanged a glance, but they didn’t talk any more about it. Neither of them had any desire to do so.
The weeks passed, and Jack’s rescue seemed to mark a turning point in their fortunes. Their supplies still dwindled to almost nothing, but hunting trips were more often successful than not. And several times when they’d gone days without fresh meat, one of the men found a wounded rabbit or squirrel somewhere close to the cabin, leaving a bloody trail in the snow as it crawled away from whatever had wounded it. As soon as Jack felt well enough, and the cold no longer felt as though it ate at his bones, he resumed his daily walk. This time, however, he did not wander from camp in an attempt to make contact with his observer. To his great confusion, and a mixture of relief and strange sadness, the feeling of being watched had significantly abated, existing on the periphery of his mind. If the wolf—the creature he had come to think of as his spirit guide—was still with him, it did not deign to show itself or to make itself known in any other way. From time to time he would hear distant howls, but he felt no shiver of recognition. They were ordinary wolves trying to survive the white silence, no different from Jack, Merritt, and Jim.
Some days he walked up to the spot where his friends had discovered him—the patch of snow-covered earth where Jack felt certain he had actually died, if only for a handful of minutes. Yet no trace remained of the event itself. New snow had long since blanked out the bright crimson of the blood, and though he tried several times to dredge up a dead rabbit, hare, or wolverine by dragging his boots through the snow, he never came up with even a bone. Merritt and Jim had been far too superstitious to eat any of the meat on those animals, so Jack knew that his companions had not removed the carcasses. Yet the spot seemed untouched, somehow cleansed. If the others had not discovered him there and seen the dead animals for themselves, he would have thought the long winter had taken a terrible toll on his mind.
When first weeks and then months had elapsed since that day, his routine had become little more than exercise. He made his body work to keep himself limber, though as their supplies had decreased, they had all grown weaker. Now, on the day they had gauged as the first of April, he could move his teeth, loosened by scurvy, around in his mouth. They had no mirror, and for that he was glad. He wouldn’t have liked to see his own reflection if his features were as gaunt and his gums as black as those of his companions.
Spring must not be far, although the white silence still reigned and the snow and ice made it impossible for him to imagine the earth ever flowering, the sun ever shining brightly, the river ever flowing again. The past few weeks had brought visitors to the cabin, drawn by the smoke and willing to travel far afield from their own camps now that the cold did not bite as deeply and their own supplies had run low. Trappers and prospectors and even Indians paid visits, hoping for a bit of anything they had run out of themselves. The best Jack and his friends could offer was a cup of weak tea and good conversation, but surprisingly that seemed to be enough. These veterans of the Yukon, of the gold fever and the wilderness life, came full of stories, and when Jack regaled them with his tales of life as an oyster pirate and vagabond, they repaid him in kind. He squirreled these stories away as a miser would pennies, hoarding them only to take them out and examine them later.
Stories were in Jack London’s blood. Tales of adventure fed him when other sustenance became meager at best. And now he had one hell of a story of his own, and wanted only to survive to live the next one.
Such were the thoughts that lingered in his mind when he trod the by-now-familiar path back toward the cabin that morning. The daylight hours lasted longer and longer, and he felt reinvigorated every time the sun appeared. As he reached a turn in the path and came in sight of the clearing where the cabin stood, he heard Merritt bellowing.
“Jack!” the big man shouted. “Jack, where are you?”
The excitement in his voice was unmistakable and contagious. Something had happened, some piece of good news, and Jack could think of only one thing that would give Merritt Sloper such happiness. Jack picked up his pace, tromping along the path as swiftly as he could manage.
“Merritt?” he called, bursting from the trees into the clearing. He glanced around, confounded for a moment by the absence of anyone in the clearing. “Merritt, what is it?”
Then the door opened and Jim Goodman stepped out wrapped in one of the furs they had sewn over the long winter.
“What’s all the shouting?” Jim asked as Jack hurried toward him.
“Not a clue. I heard Merritt, but—”
“I’m here!” Merritt called, and they both turned to see him ambling around the side of the cabin. The winter had been hard on all of them, but Merritt remained a big, burly man in spite of the weight he’d lost. He gave them a good-natured grin.
“Let’s have the last of the good coffee,” Merritt told them. “The bit we’ve been saving to celebrate.”
Jack gripped Merritt’s shoulders. “The river?”
For weeks they had taken turns visiting the river every day, waiting and hoping.
Merritt nodded. “The ice is breaking. You should hear it. It sounds like the whole planet is cracking in half. There’s movement as well, shifting here and there.”
Jack whooped loudly and embraced him, then spun toward the cabin. “Pack your things, gentlemen! We’re going to Dawson!”
But Jim still stood in the open door of the cabin. He hadn’t moved. Jack thought, at first, that something awful had happened to him—some madness or illness. Then he heard the man’s soft, shuddery breaths, and the prayer he spoke with a hitch in his voice.
“It’s all right, Jim,” Jack said, putting a firm hand on his shoulder. “We’re going to be all right now. We made it through.”
Only then did Jim lift his eyes to look at his friends. Only then did he smile, and begin to laugh, and moments later they were all laughing and whooping with elation.
Merritt clapped Jack on the back. “Go on, then, kid. Make that pot of coffee. We’ve earned it!”
Jack did as he was asked, not even minding that Merritt had called him “kid.” And a cup of coffee had never tasted so good.
The three days that followed were some of the longest of Jack’s life. With the snow beginning to melt and the sun showing its face, a sense of renewal filled him—renewal of life and of purpose. The world seemed to be awakening around him, and as the winter retreated, so did the aura of mysticism that had blanketed the land. Both Merritt’s and Jim’s conflicting superstitions seemed to burn off like fog.
Trees dripped with melting ice, which glittered like diamonds when the morning sun spread across the landscape. The days grew longer, and Jack spent a good portion of every one down at the river.
He stood well back from the bank, wary of the tumult caused by the spring snow melt. As if the great machinery of the world had churned back to life, the Yukon Rriver now flowed fast beneath the ice. Cracks had formed, floes shifted, and on the third day of his vigilance, the entire river seemed to lift itself up and start downstream.
“It’s beautiful,” Jim Goodman whispered.
Jack had not heard him approach but was so entranced that he could not tear his gaze away from the sight. The ice buckled and broke, and the pieces jostled and collided as they were carried along. The river groaned as though the earth itself might tear asunder.
“It sure is.”
The two of them stood there for over an hour before Merritt joined them, and then all three of them watched the spectacle in shared awe. The river churned so powerfully that huge chunks of ice, blue-white and gleaming, were hurled from the water onto the snowy bank, only to slide back down into the flow as the snow melted beneath them.
Jack saw a dark shape amid the ice. Raising a hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun off the snow, he peered at the shape and realized it was the broken and splintered curve of a small boat. A team of hopeful prospectors behind them must have become stuck in the winter freeze just as they had been, but not been as swift in getting their boat out of the water before the rapid icing had crushed it.
He narrowed his eyes to slits, trying to make out a second dark shape that bobbed up beside the first. Massive slabs of ice shifted and things flowed with the river, and for a moment he assumed the sodden, rigid thing to be an uprooted tree. Then he saw pale fingers, a marble-white arm, and understood that whoever had been steering that boat had never made it out of the ice. The winter had preserved them well, but now spring had come and the river would take them.
Jack glanced at Merritt and Jim. They were smiling and trying to converse despite the roar of the ice grinding together. His friends had not noticed the body, and he had not the heart to point it out. Spring had come, after all. For them, if not for everyone.
“Come on, friends!” he called. “Let’s pack up. Another few days and we put the Yukon Belle back in the water. Dawson, here we come!”
From miles upriver they saw the smoke of Dawson’s chimneys rising. Jim bailed water from the leaking boat even as Merritt tried to keep their supplies from getting wet; they had made furs to keep warm during the winter and wanted those to stay dry most of all. Sodden with water, the furs would stink, but worse, they would be dreadfully heavy. It would have been best for the men to wear them, but spring had arrived and their heavy coats and caps were enough.
Jack kept a steady hand on the tiller, though the oars were shipped. With the rush of the current, the Yukon high and churning with the spring melt, they had no need to row. The river hurtled them onward as though on the crest of a wave, and Jack sat in the stern guiding the Yukon Belle with his head high, breathing in the crisp air, which smelled to him of victory. He had not yet tamed the wild, he was not a conqueror, but he had survived and thus become its master.
When at last they rounded a bend in the river and came in sight of Dawson City, Jack laughed out loud. Merritt slapped Jim on the back with such vigorous bonhomie that the lanky teacher nearly tumbled overboard.
Dawson wasn’t much to look at. After Dyea, Jack would have expected more from this newly fabled land than the sprawl of tents on the riverbank and the blocks and blocks of shabby one-and two-story buildings, muddy streets, and gutters running with filth. If anything, the place looked grittier and less substantial than Dyea, despite the massive extent of Dawson. But he steered toward the half-collapsed docks, and his friends dipped their oars into the water to help guide the boat, and he began to understand.
Whatever people wanted to call it, Dawson wasn’t a city at all. There might be saloons and gambling halls, music and whores, a newspaper and a dentist and other signs of civilization. There might be buildings and board-walks of wood, and bank vaults filled with money. But those things were only by-products of the reality of Dawson. Smoke swirled away in the chill breezes and the sun shone down, dogs pulled sleds full of goods along worn tracks, and people by the hundreds rushed or milled about, all of them on their way to dig for gold, or pray for gold, or beg for gold, or sell their bodies and souls for gold.
Dawson wasn’t a city. It was a mining camp, rough and grim and alive with greed and jealousy. And hope. Yes, that, too. It’s a wild place, Jack thought. Dreams could be built or crushed there, entirely dependent upon destiny and courage. But the courageous man makes his own destiny.
With that thought resonating in his mind, he bent the tiller up out of the water, grabbed a rope, and leaped to the dock. Merritt and Jim paddled against the current as Jack tied off the Yukon Belle.
Dawson wasn’t a city. It was a mining camp, rough and grim and alive with greed and jealousy.
“Quick, now, boys,” Merritt said, already dumping the furs onto the dock. “Get the gear out of the boat. The Belle’s sinking.”
Jack saw that it was true. Jim had been forced to give up bailing in order to paddle, and the water sluiced into the boat between planks, filling the bottom. Without someone emptying it out, the boat would be at the bottom of the Yukon in minutes. Jack didn’t mind. The Yukon Belle had done her job.
“She got us here,” he told Merritt as he hauled a heavy pack up onto the dock. “That’s all that matters. The rest is up to us.”