A rakish cowboy, stealing a dogsled and running from the Canadian Mounties, faces destiny on an island in the Yukon River. London’s depiction of societal strata, his icy white cataclysm, and the darkness combine to form a stupendous achievement in pathos.
(The universe will crush us. We will be wiped from the earth. This is why we read poetry, this is why we tell jokes, this is why we write…)
⁓The Voice before the Void
“At the Rainbow’s End”
It was for two reasons that Montana Kid discarded his “chaps” and Mexican spurs, and shook the dust of the Idaho ranges from his feet. In the first place, the encroachments of a steady, sober, and sternly moral civilization had destroyed the primeval status of the western cattle ranges, and refined society turned the cold eye of disfavor upon him and his ilk. In the second place, in one of its cyclopean moments the race had arisen and shoved back its frontier several thousand miles. Thus, with unconscious foresight, did mature society make room for its adolescent members. True, the new territory was mostly barren; but its several hundred thousand square miles of frigidity at least gave breathing space to those who else would have suffocated at home.
Montana Kid was such a one. Heading for the sea-coast, with a haste several sheriff’s posses might possibly have explained, and with more nerve than coin of the realm, he succeeded in shipping from a Puget Sound port, and managed to survive the contingent miseries of steerage sea-sickness and steerage grub. He was rather sallow and drawn, but still his own indomitable self, when he landed on the Dyea beach one day in the spring of the year. Between the cost of dogs, grub, and outfits, and the customs exactions of the two clashing governments, it speedily penetrated to his understanding that the Northland was anything save a poor man’s Mecca. So he cast about him in search of quick harvests. Between the beach and the passes were scattered many thousands of passionate pilgrims. These pilgrims Montana Kid proceeded to farm. At first he dealt faro in a pine-board gambling shack; but disagreeable necessity forced him to drop a sudden period into a man’s life, and to move on up trail. Then he effected a corner in horseshoe nails, and they circulated at par with legal tender, four to the dollar, till an unexpected consignment of a hundred barrels or so broke the market and forced him to disgorge his stock at a loss. After that he located at Sheep Camp, organized the professional packers, and jumped the freight ten cents a pound in a single day. In token of their gratitude, the packers patronized his faro and roulette layouts and were mulcted cheerfully of their earnings. But his commercialism was of too lusty a growth to be long endured; so they rushed him one night, burned his shanty, divided the bank, and headed him up the trail with empty pockets.
Ill-luck was his running mate. He engaged with responsible parties to run whisky across the line by way of precarious and unknown trails, lost his Indian guides, and had the very first outfit confiscated by the Mounted Police. Numerous other misfortunes tended to make him bitter of heart and wanton of action, and he celebrated his arrival at Lake Bennett by terrorizing the camp for twenty straight hours. Then a miners’ meeting took him in hand, and commanded him to make himself scarce. He had a wholesome respect for such assemblages, and he obeyed in such haste that he inadvertently removed himself at the tail-end of another man’s dog team. This was equivalent to horse-stealing in a more mellow clime, so he hit only the high places across Bennett and down Tagish, and made his first camp a full hundred miles to the north.
Now it happened that the break of spring was at hand, and many of the principal citizens of Dawson were travelling south on the last ice. These he met and talked with, noted their names and possessions, and passed on. He had a good memory, also a fair imagination; nor was veracity one of his virtues.
Dawson, always eager for news, beheld Montana Kid’s sled heading down the Yukon, and went out on the ice to meet him. No, he hadn’t any newspapers; didn’t know whether Durrant was hanged yet, nor who had won the Thanksgiving game; hadn’t heard whether the United States and Spain had gone to fighting; didn’t know who Dreyfus was; but O’Brien? Hadn’t they heard? O’Brien, why, he was drowned in the White Horse; Sitka Charley the only one of the party who escaped. Joe Ladue? Both legs frozen and amputated at the Five Fingers. And Jack Dalton? Blown up on the “Sea Lion” with all hands. And Bettles? Wrecked on the “Carthagina,” in Seymour Narrows,–twenty survivors out of three hundred. And Swiftwater Bill? Gone through the rotten ice of Lake LeBarge with six female members of the opera troupe he was convoying. Governor Walsh? Lost with all hands and eight sleds on the Thirty Mile. Devereaux? Who was Devereaux? Oh, the courier! Shot by Indians on Lake Marsh.
So it went. The word was passed along. Men shouldered in to ask after friends and partners, and in turn were shouldered out, too stunned for blasphemy. By the time Montana Kid gained the bank he was surrounded by several hundred fur-clad miners. When he passed the Barracks he was the centre of a procession. At the Opera House he was the nucleus of an excited mob, each member struggling for a chance to ask after some absent comrade. On every side he was being invited to drink. Never before had the Klondike thus opened its arms to a che-cha-qua. All Dawson was humming. Such a series of catastrophes had never occurred in its history. Every man of note who had gone south in the spring had been wiped out. The cabins vomited forth their occupants. Wild-eyed men hurried down from the creeks and gulches to seek out this man who had told a tale of such disaster. The Russian half-breed wife of Bettles sought the fireplace, inconsolable, and rocked back and forth, and ever and anon flung white wood-ashes upon her raven hair. The flag at the Barracks flopped dismally at half-mast. Dawson mourned its dead.
Why Montana Kid did this thing no man may know. Nor beyond the fact that the truth was not in him, can explanation be hazarded. But for five whole days he plunged the land in wailing and sorrow, and for five whole days he was the only man in the Klondike. The country gave him its best of bed and board. The saloons granted him the freedom of their bars. Men sought him continuously. The high officials bowed down to him for further information, and he was feasted at the Barracks by Constantine and his brother officers. And then, one day, Devereaux, the government courier, halted his tired dogs before the gold commissioner’s office. Dead? Who said so? Give him a moose steak and he’d show them how dead he was. Why, Governor Walsh was in camp on the Little Salmon, and O’Brien coming in on the first water. Dead? Give him a moose steak and he’d show them.
And forthwith Dawson hummed. The Barracks’ flag rose to the masthead, and Bettles’ wife washed herself and put on clean raiment. The community subtly signified its desire that Montana Kid obliterate himself from the landscape. And Montana Kid obliterated; as usual, at the tail-end of some one else’s dog team. Dawson rejoiced when he headed down the Yukon, and wished him godspeed to the ultimate destination of the case-hardened sinner. After that the owner of the dogs bestirred himself, made complaint to Constantine, and from him received the loan of a policeman.
With Circle City in prospect and the last ice crumbling under his runners, Montana Kid took advantage of the lengthening days and travelled his dogs late and early. Further, he had but little doubt that the owner of the dogs in question had taken his trail, and he wished to make American territory before the river broke. But by the afternoon of the third day it became evident that he had lost in his race with spring. The Yukon was growling and straining at its fetters. Long detours became necessary, for the trail had begun to fall through into the swift current beneath, while the ice, in constant unrest, was thundering apart in great gaping fissures. Through these and through countless airholes, the water began to sweep across the surface of the ice, and by the time he pulled into a woodchopper’s cabin on the point of an island, the dogs were being rushed off their feet and were swimming more often than not. He was greeted sourly by the two residents, but he unharnessed and proceeded to cook up.
Donald and Davy were fair specimens of frontier inefficients. Canadian-born, city-bred Scots, in a foolish moment they had resigned their counting-house desks, drawn upon their savings, and gone Klondiking. And now they were feeling the rough edge of the country. Grubless, spiritless, with a lust for home in their hearts, they had been staked by the P. C. Company to cut wood for its steamers, with the promise at the end of a passage home. Disregarding the possibilities of the ice-run, they had fittingly demonstrated their inefficiency by their choice of the island on which they located. Montana Kid, though possessing little knowledge of the break-up of a great river, looked about him dubiously, and cast yearning glances at the distant bank where the towering bluffs promised immunity from all the ice of the Northland.
After feeding himself and dogs, he lighted his pipe and strolled out to get a better idea of the situation. The island, like all its river brethren, stood higher at the upper end, and it was here that Donald and Davy had built their cabin and piled many cords of wood. The far shore was a full mile away, while between the island and the near shore lay a back-channel perhaps a hundred yards across. At first sight of this, Montana Kid was tempted to take his dogs and escape to the mainland, but on closer inspection he discovered a rapid current flooding on top. Below, the river twisted sharply to the west, and in this turn its breast was studded by a maze of tiny islands.
“That’s where she’ll jam,” he remarked to himself.
Half a dozen sleds, evidently bound up-stream to Dawson, were splashing through the chill water to the tail of the island. Travel on the river was passing from the precarious to the impossible, and it was nip and tuck with them till they gained the island and came up the path of the wood-choppers toward the cabin. One of them, snow-blind, towed helplessly at the rear of a sled. Husky young fellows they were, rough-garmented and trail-worn, yet Montana Kid had met the breed before and knew at once that it was not his kind.
“Hello! How’s things up Dawson-way?” queried the foremost, passing his eye over Donald and Davy and settling it upon the Kid.
A first meeting in the wilderness is not characterized by formality. The talk quickly became general, and the news of the Upper and Lower Countries was swapped equitably back and forth. But the little the newcomers had was soon over with, for they had wintered at Minook, a thousand miles below, where nothing was doing. Montana Kid, however, was fresh from Salt Water, and they annexed him while they pitched camp, swamping him with questions concerning the outside, from which they had been cut off for a twelvemonth.
A shrieking split, suddenly lifting itself above the general uproar on the river, drew everybody to the bank. The surface water had increased in depth, and the ice, assailed from above and below, was struggling to tear itself from the grip of the shores. Fissures reverberated into life before their eyes, and the air was filled with multitudinous crackling, crisp and sharp, like the sound that goes up on a clear day from the firing line.
From up the river two men were racing a dog team toward them on an uncovered stretch of ice. But even as they looked, the pair struck the water and began to flounder through. Behind, where their feet had sped the moment before, the ice broke up and turned turtle. Through this opening the river rushed out upon them to their waists, burying the sled and swinging the dogs off at right angles in a drowning tangle. But the men stopped their flight to give the animals a fighting chance, and they groped hurriedly in the cold confusion, slashing at the detaining traces with their sheath-knives. Then they fought their way to the bank through swirling water and grinding ice, where, foremost in leaping to the rescue among the jarring fragments, was the Kid.
“Why, blime me, if it ain’t Montana Kid!” exclaimed one of the men whom the Kid was just placing upon his feet at the top of the bank. He wore the scarlet tunic of the Mounted Police and jocularly raised his right hand in salute.
“Got a warrant for you, Kid,” he continued, drawing a bedraggled paper from his breast pocket, “an’ I ‘ope as you’ll come along peaceable.”
Montana Kid looked at the chaotic river and shrugged his shoulders, and the policeman, following his glance, smiled.
“Where are the dogs?” his companion asked.
“Gentlemen,” interrupted the policeman, “this ‘ere mate o’ mine is Jack Sutherland, owner of Twenty-Two Eldorado–”
“Not Sutherland of ’92?” broke in the snow-blinded Minook man, groping feebly toward him.
“The same.” Sutherland gripped his hand. “And you?”
“Oh, I’m after your time, but I remember you in my freshman year,–you were doing P. G. work then. Boys,” he called, turning half about, “this is Sutherland, Jack Sutherland, erstwhile full-back on the ‘Varsity. Come up, you gold-chasers, and fall upon him! Sutherland, this is Greenwich,–played quarter two seasons back.”
“Yes, I read of the game,” Sutherland said, shaking hands. “And I remember that big run of yours for the first touchdown.”
Greenwich flushed darkly under his tanned skin and awkwardly made room for another.
“And here’s Matthews,–Berkeley man. And we’ve got some Eastern cracks knocking about, too. Come up, you Princeton men! Come up! This is Sutherland, Jack Sutherland!”
Then they fell upon him heavily, carried him into camp, and supplied him with dry clothes and numerous mugs of black tea.
Donald and Davy, overlooked, had retired to their nightly game of crib. Montana Kid followed them with the policeman.
“Here, get into some dry togs,” he said, pulling them from out his scanty kit. “Guess you’ll have to bunk with me, too.”
“Well, I say, you’re a good ‘un,” the policeman remarked as he pulled on the other man’s socks. “Sorry I’ve got to take you back to Dawson, but I only ‘ope they won’t be ‘ard on you.”
“Not so fast.” The Kid smiled curiously. “We ain’t under way yet. When I go I’m going down river, and I guess the chances are you’ll go along.”
“Not if I know myself–”
“Come on outside, and I’ll show you, then. These damn fools,” thrusting a thumb over his shoulder at the two Scots, “played smash when they located here. Fill your pipe, first–this is pretty good plug–and enjoy yourself while you can. You haven’t many smokes before you.”
The policeman went with him wonderingly, while Donald and Davy dropped their cards and followed. The Minook men noticed Montana Kid pointing now up the river, now down, and came over.
“What’s up?” Sutherland demanded.
“Nothing much.” Nonchalance sat well upon the Kid. “Just a case of raising hell and putting a chunk under. See that bend down there? That’s where she’ll jam millions of tons of ice. Then she’ll jam in the bends up above, millions of tons. Upper jam breaks first, lower jam holds, pouf!” He dramatically swept the island with his hand. “Millions of tons,” he added reflectively.
“And what of the woodpiles?” Davy questioned.
The Kid repeated his sweeping gestures and Davy wailed, “The labor of months! It canna be! Na, na, lad, it canna be. I doot not it’s a jowk. Ay, say that it is,” he appealed.
But when the Kid laughed harshly and turned on his heel, Davy flung himself upon the piles and began frantically to toss the cordwood back from the bank.
“Lend a hand, Donald!” he cried. “Can ye no lend a hand? ‘T is the labor of months and the passage home!” Donald caught him by the arm and shook him, but he tore free. “Did ye no hear, man? Millions of tons, and the island shall be sweepit clean.”
“Straighten yersel’ up, man,” said Donald. “It’s a bit fashed ye are.”
But Davy fell upon the cordwood. Donald stalked back to the cabin, buckled on his money belt and Davy’s, and went out to the point of the island where the ground was highest and where a huge pine towered above its fellows.
The men before the cabin heard the ringing of his axe and smiled. Greenwich returned from across the island with the word that they were penned in. It was impossible to cross the back-channel. The blind Minook man began to sing, and the rest joined in with:
“Wonder if it’s true?
Does it seem so to you?
Seems to me he’s lying –
Oh, I wonder if it’s true?”
“It’s ay sinfu’,” Davy moaned, lifting his head and watching them dance in the slanting rays of the sun. “And my guid wood a’ going to waste.”
“Oh, I wonder if it’s true,”
was flaunted back.
The noise of the river ceased suddenly. A strange calm wrapped about them. The ice had ripped from the shores and was floating higher on the surface of the river, which was rising. Up it came, swift and silent, for twenty feet, till the huge cakes rubbed softly against the crest of the bank. The tail of the island, being lower, was overrun. Then, without effort, the white flood started down-stream. But the sound increased with the momentum, and soon the whole island was shaking and quivering with the shock of the grinding bergs. Under pressure, the mighty cakes, weighing hundreds of tons, were shot into the air like peas. The frigid anarchy increased its riot, and the men had to shout into one another’s ears to be heard. Occasionally the racket from the back channel could be heard above the tumult. The island shuddered with the impact of an enormous cake which drove in squarely upon its point. It ripped a score of pines out by the roots, then swinging around and over, lifted its muddy base from the bottom of the river and bore down upon the cabin, slicing the bank and trees away like a gigantic knife. It seemed barely to graze the corner of the cabin, but the cribbed logs tilted up like matches, and the structure, like a toy house, fell backward in ruin.
“The labor of months! The labor of months, and the passage home!” Davy wailed, while Montana Kid and the policeman dragged him backward from the woodpiles.
“You’ll ‘ave plenty o’ hoppertunity all in good time for yer passage ‘ome,” the policeman growled, clouting him alongside the head and sending him flying into safety.
Donald, from the top of the pine, saw the devastating berg sweep away the cordwood and disappear down-stream. As though satisfied with this damage, the ice-flood quickly dropped to its old level and began to slacken its pace. The noise likewise eased down, and the others could hear Donald shouting from his eyrie to look down-stream. As forecast, the jam had come among the islands in the bend, and the ice was piling up in a great barrier which stretched from shore to shore. The river came to a standstill, and the water finding no outlet began to rise. It rushed up till the island was awash, the men splashing around up to their knees, and the dogs swimming to the ruins of the cabin. At this stage it abruptly became stationary, with no perceptible rise or fall.
Montana Kid shook his head. “It’s jammed above, and no more’s coming down.”
Sutherland added, “And the gamble is, which jam will break first.”
The Kid affirmed, “Exactly. If the upper jam breaks first, we haven’t a chance. Nothing will stand before it.”
The Minook men turned away in silence, but soon “Rumsky Ho” floated upon the quiet air, followed by “The Orange and the Black.” Room was made in the circle for Montana Kid and the policeman, and they quickly caught the ringing rhythm of the choruses as they drifted on from song to song.
“Oh, Donald, will ye no lend a hand?” Davy sobbed at the foot of the tree into which his comrade had climbed. “Oh, Donald, man, will ye no lend a hand?” he sobbed again, his hands bleeding from vain attempts to scale the slippery trunk.
But Donald had fixed his gaze up river, and now his voice rang out, vibrant with fear:
“God Almichty, here she comes!”
Standing knee-deep in the icy water, the Minook men, with Montana Kid and the policeman, gripped hands and raised their voices in the terrible “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But the words were drowned in the advancing roar.
And to Donald was vouchsafed a sight such as no man may see and live. A great wall of white flung itself upon the island. Trees, dogs, men, were blotted out, as though the hand of God had wiped the face of nature clean. This much he saw, then swayed an instant longer in his lofty perch and hurtled far out into the frozen hell.