White FangJack London
Transcribed from the 1915 Methuen and Co edition by David Price, [email protected].
CHAPTER I--THE TRAIL OF THE MEAT
Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The treeshad been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, andthey seemed to lean towards each other, black and ominous, in the fadinglight. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was adesolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spiritof it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter,but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness--a laughter that wasmirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost andpartaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful andincommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life andthe effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-heartedNorthland Wild.
But there _was_ life, abroad in the land and defiant. Down the frozenwaterway toiled a string of wolfish dogs. Their bristly fur was rimedwith frost. Their breath froze in the air as it left their mouths,spouting forth in spumes of vapour that settled upon the hair of theirbodies and formed into crystals of frost. Leather harness was on thedogs, and leather traces attached them to a sled which dragged alongbehind. The sled was without runners. It was made of stout birch-bark,and its full surface rested on the snow. The front end of the sled wasturned up, like a scroll, in order to force down and under the bore ofsoft snow that surged like a wave before it. On the sled, securelylashed, was a long and narrow oblong box. There were other things on thesled--blankets, an axe, and a coffee-pot and frying-pan; but prominent,occupying most of the space, was the long and narrow oblong box.
In advance of the dogs, on wide snowshoes, toiled a man. At the rear ofthe sled toiled a second man. On the sled, in the box, lay a third manwhose toil was over,--a man whom the Wild had conquered and beaten downuntil he would never move nor struggle again. It is not the way of theWild to like movement. Life is an offence to it, for life is movement;and the Wild aims always to destroy movement. It freezes the water toprevent it running to the sea; it drives the sap out of the trees tillthey are frozen to their mighty hearts; and most ferociously and terriblyof all does the Wild harry and crush into submission man--man who is themost restless of life, ever in revolt against the dictum that allmovement must in the end come to the cessation of movement.
But at front and rear, unawed and indomitable, toiled the two men whowere not yet dead. Their bodies were covered with fur and soft-tannedleather. Eyelashes and cheeks and lips were so coated with the crystalsfrom their frozen breath that their faces were not discernible. Thisgave them the seeming of ghostly masques, undertakers in a spectral worldat the funeral of some ghost. But under it all they were men,penetrating the land of desolation and mockery and silence, punyadventurers bent on colossal adventure, pitting themselves against themight of a world as remote and alien and pulseless as the abysses ofspace.
They travelled on without speech, saving their breath for the work oftheir bodies. On every side was the silence, pressing upon them with atangible presence. It affected their minds as the many atmospheres ofdeep water affect the body of the diver. It crushed them with the weightof unending vastness and unalterable decree. It crushed them into theremotest recesses of their own minds, pressing out of them, like juicesfrom the grape, all the false ardours and exaltations and undueself-values of the human soul, until they perceived themselves finite andsmall, specks and motes, moving with weak cunning and little wisdomamidst the play and inter-play of the great blind elements and forces.
An hour went by, and a second hour. The pale light of the short sunlessday was beginning to fade, when a faint far cry arose on the still air.It soared upward with a swift rush, till it reached its topmost note,where it persisted, palpitant and tense, and then slowly died away. Itmight have been a lost soul wailing, had it not been invested with acertain sad fierceness and hungry eagerness. The front man turned hishead until his eyes met the eyes of the man behind. And then, across thenarrow oblong box, each nodded to the other.
A second cry arose, piercing the silence with needle-like shrillness.Both men located the sound. It was to the rear, somewhere in the snowexpanse they had just traversed. A third and answering cry arose, alsoto the rear and to the left of the second cry.
"They're after us, Bill," said the man at the front.
His voice sounded hoarse and unreal, and he had spoken with apparenteffort.
"Meat is scarce," answered his comrade. "I ain't seen a rabbit sign fordays."
Thereafter they spoke no more, though their ears were keen for thehunting-cries that continued to rise behind them.
At the fall of darkness they swung the dogs into a cluster of sprucetrees on the edge of the waterway and made a camp. The coffin, at theside of the fire, served for seat and table. The wolf-dogs, clustered onthe far side of the fire, snarled and bickered among themselves, butevinced no inclination to stray off into the darkness.
"Seems to me, Henry, they're stayin' remarkable close to camp," Billcommented.
Henry, squatting over the fire and settling the pot of coffee with apiece of ice, nodded. Nor did he speak till he had taken his seat on thecoffin and begun to eat.
"They know where their hides is safe," he said. "They'd sooner eat grubthan be grub. They're pretty wise, them dogs."
Bill shook his head. "Oh, I don't know."
His comrade looked at him curiously. "First time I ever heard you sayanything about their not bein' wise."
"Henry," said the other, munching with deliberation the beans he waseating, "did you happen to notice the way them dogs kicked up when I wasa-feedin' 'em?"
"They did cut up more'n usual," Henry acknowledged.
"How many dogs 've we got, Henry?"
"Well, Henry . . . " Bill stopped for a moment, in order that his wordsmight gain greater significance. "As I was sayin', Henry, we've got sixdogs. I took six fish out of the bag. I gave one fish to each dog, an',Henry, I was one fish short."
"You counted wrong."
"We've got six dogs," the other reiterated dispassionately. "I took outsix fish. One Ear didn't get no fish. I came back to the bag afterwardan' got 'm his fish."
"We've only got six dogs," Henry said.
"Henry," Bill went on. "I won't say they was all dogs, but there wasseven of 'm that got fish."
Henry stopped eating to glance across the fire and count the dogs.
"There's only six now," he said.
"I saw the other one run off across the snow," Bill announced with coolpositiveness. "I saw seven."
Henry looked at him commiseratingly, and said, "I'll be almighty gladwhen this trip's over."
"What d'ye mean by that?" Bill demanded.
"I mean that this load of ourn is gettin' on your nerves, an' that you'rebeginnin' to see things."
"I thought of that," Bill answered gravely. "An' so, when I saw it runoff across the snow, I looked in the snow an' saw its tracks. Then Icounted the dogs an' there was still six of 'em. The tracks is there inthe snow now. D'ye want to look at 'em? I'll show 'em to you."
Henry did not reply, but munched on in silence, until, the meal finished,he topped it with a final cup of coffee. He wiped his mouth with theback of his hand and said:
"Then you're thinkin' as it was--"
A long wailing cry, fiercely sad, from somewhere in the darkness, hadinterrupted him. He stopped to listen to it, then he finished hissentence with a wave of his hand toward the sound of the cry, "--one ofthem?"
Bill nodded. "I'd a blame sight sooner think that than anything else.You noticed yourself the row the dogs made."
r cry, and answering cries, were turning the silence into abedlam. From every side the cries arose, and the dogs betrayed theirfear by huddling together and so close to the fire that their hair wasscorched by the heat. Bill threw on more wood, before lighting his pipe.
"I'm thinking you're down in the mouth some," Henry said.
"Henry . . . " He sucked meditatively at his pipe for some time beforehe went on. "Henry, I was a-thinkin' what a blame sight luckier he isthan you an' me'll ever be."
He indicated the third person by a downward thrust of the thumb to thebox on which they sat.
"You an' me, Henry, when we die, we'll be lucky if we get enough stonesover our carcases to keep the dogs off of us."
"But we ain't got people an' money an' all the rest, like him," Henryrejoined. "Long-distance funerals is somethin' you an' me can't exactlyafford."
"What gets me, Henry, is what a chap like this, that's a lord orsomething in his own country, and that's never had to bother about grubnor blankets; why he comes a-buttin' round the Godforsaken ends of theearth--that's what I can't exactly see."
"He might have lived to a ripe old age if he'd stayed at home," Henryagreed.
Bill opened his mouth to speak, but changed his mind. Instead, hepointed towards the wall of darkness that pressed about them from everyside. There was no suggestion of form in the utter blackness; only couldbe seen a pair of eyes gleaming like live coals. Henry indicated withhis head a second pair, and a third. A circle of the gleaming eyes haddrawn about their camp. Now and again a pair of eyes moved, ordisappeared to appear again a moment later.
The unrest of the dogs had been increasing, and they stampeded, in asurge of sudden fear, to the near side of the fire, cringing and crawlingabout the legs of the men. In the scramble one of the dogs had beenoverturned on the edge of the fire, and it had yelped with pain andfright as the smell of its singed coat possessed the air. The commotioncaused the circle of eyes to shift restlessly for a moment and even towithdraw a bit, but it settled down again as the dogs became quiet.
"Henry, it's a blame misfortune to be out of ammunition."
Bill had finished his pipe and was helping his companion to spread thebed of fur and blanket upon the spruce boughs which he had laid over thesnow before supper. Henry grunted, and began unlacing his moccasins.
"How many cartridges did you say you had left?" he asked.
"Three," came the answer. "An' I wisht 'twas three hundred. Then I'dshow 'em what for, damn 'em!"
He shook his fist angrily at the gleaming eyes, and began securely toprop his moccasins before the fire.
"An' I wisht this cold snap'd break," he went on. "It's ben fifty belowfor two weeks now. An' I wisht I'd never started on this trip, Henry. Idon't like the looks of it. I don't feel right, somehow. An' while I'mwishin', I wisht the trip was over an' done with, an' you an' mea-sittin' by the fire in Fort McGurry just about now an' playingcribbage--that's what I wisht."
Henry grunted and crawled into bed. As he dozed off he was aroused byhis comrade's voice.
"Say, Henry, that other one that come in an' got a fish--why didn't thedogs pitch into it? That's what's botherin' me."
"You're botherin' too much, Bill," came the sleepy response. "You wasnever like this before. You jes' shut up now, an' go to sleep, an'you'll be all hunkydory in the mornin'. Your stomach's sour, that'swhat's botherin' you."
The men slept, breathing heavily, side by side, under the one covering.The fire died down, and the gleaming eyes drew closer the circle they hadflung about the camp. The dogs clustered together in fear, now and againsnarling menacingly as a pair of eyes drew close. Once their uproarbecame so loud that Bill woke up. He got out of bed carefully, so as notto disturb the sleep of his comrade, and threw more wood on the fire. Asit began to flame up, the circle of eyes drew farther back. He glancedcasually at the huddling dogs. He rubbed his eyes and looked at themmore sharply. Then he crawled back into the blankets.
"Henry," he said. "Oh, Henry."
Henry groaned as he passed from sleep to waking, and demanded, "What'swrong now?"
"Nothin'," came the answer; "only there's seven of 'em again. I justcounted."
Henry acknowledged receipt of the information with a grunt that slid intoa snore as he drifted back into sleep.
In the morning it was Henry who awoke first and routed his companion outof bed. Daylight was yet three hours away, though it was already sixo'clock; and in the darkness Henry went about preparing breakfast, whileBill rolled the blankets and made the sled ready for lashing.
"Say, Henry," he asked suddenly, "how many dogs did you say we had?"
"Wrong," Bill proclaimed triumphantly.
"Seven again?" Henry queried.
"No, five; one's gone."
"The hell!" Henry cried in wrath, leaving the cooking to come and countthe dogs.
"You're right, Bill," he concluded. "Fatty's gone."
"An' he went like greased lightnin' once he got started. Couldn't 'veseen 'm for smoke."
"No chance at all," Henry concluded. "They jes' swallowed 'm alive. Ibet he was yelpin' as he went down their throats, damn 'em!"
"He always was a fool dog," said Bill.
"But no fool dog ought to be fool enough to go off an' commit suicidethat way." He looked over the remainder of the team with a speculativeeye that summed up instantly the salient traits of each animal. "I betnone of the others would do it."
"Couldn't drive 'em away from the fire with a club," Bill agreed. "Ialways did think there was somethin' wrong with Fatty anyway."
And this was the epitaph of a dead dog on the Northland trail--less scantthan the epitaph of many another dog, of many a man.