The Wild Page 1



JACK LONDON STOOD on the deck of the Umatilla and looked out upon the docks of San Francisco, wondering how long it would be before he saw the city again. He had been born with a wandering heart, and he embraced adventure, unafraid to face the dangers often presented by journeys into unknown places. When the Umatilla sailed out of the port of San Francisco, he would be bound for the Yukon, leaving civilization behind for the wilds of the frozen north, where rumor claimed vast quantities of gold awaited discovery and any man could become King Midas.

Yet gold represented only one part of the Yukon’s allure for Jack. Given the chance, he’d have gone purely for the sake of going, dared all for the sake of daring. And there was the idea in his adventure-yearning heart that those northern wilds were waiting for him.

Now he leaned against the Umatilla’s railing and breathed in the smells, took in the sights, and listened to the sounds of chaos and excitement around them. Never had he seen such a mixed group of people. Every race, every nationality, every creed was represented here. Even with the scent of the ocean so strong, dozens of other odors drifted on the breeze. On the dock, a vendor sold roasted nuts. A man at Jack’s shoulder reeked of cheap whiskey. Others gave off the strong smells of spices or smoke or food, and several stank from need of a bath. Jack had been a tramp, oyster pirate, and convict, and had been friends with men who hadn’t bathed properly in decades, but he shuddered to think what the ship’s quarters would smell like by the time they reached Alaska.

He’d heard whispers that the steamer had twice as many passengers as it was licensed to carry, and he could well believe it. Having stowed their equipment in the ship’s hold themselves, Jack and Shepard, his aging and ailing brother-in-law, had shouldered their way through a bustle of gold prospectors, from sailors and rough-handed laborers to the sons of the wealthy elite who were setting out to seek their own fortunes.

Now, from the ship’s railing, they prepared to bid farewell to San Francisco.

“No need for good-byes,” said Shepard. “It’ll still be here when we get back, same as ever.” He looked sidelong at Jack, and his usually glittering eyes seemed wan and empty. “Do you think we’re going to change?”

Jack thought of the hardships ahead of them. He’d lived seventeen eventful years, and for him the future was a vastness of opportunities, calling to him with a voice like the wind across the desert, or the echo that sang through trees heavy with the weight of a blizzard’s snowfall. He thought of that voice as the call of the wild, and it set Jack’s heart pumping like nothing else.

“We’ll change, James, but only in a good way,” he replied at last. “Adventure makes a man grow.” He refrained from voicing that other possibility: Adventure can kill a man. But he could see in Shepard’s eyes that he knew the brutal truth of things.

James Shepard was a big man made small by sickness. His eyes still held the vigor of youth, but his body betrayed the cruelness of time, lined and worn by successive assaults and currently defending against this one final attack. His heart was weakening, but his mind remained as strong as ever. Jack had always liked the gray-haired, gray-eyed Shepard; though much older than Jack’s sister, Eliza, the man seemed to make her happy. Eliza’s happiness meant everything to Jack.

And though Jack knew the dangers inherent in Shepard’s making this journey—and he knew that Eliza knew, as well—the older man held all the finances. Jack hated staining adventure with the taint of money, but that was the stark truth. Besides, embarking upon this journey, Shepard seemed more alive than he had in a very long time. That could only bode well for all of them.

Leaving port at last, waving madly at the well-wishers on shore, Jack had never been so excited. Ahead of them lay sixteen hundred miles of ocean, wild rivers, snow-covered mountains, treacherous passes, and some of the most inhospitable country known to man.

He was embarking upon the greatest adventure of his life.

But to achieve greatness, one must sometimes risk pain.

The voyage from San Francisco took eight days, and despite the overcrowding aboard the Umatilla, the time passed quickly. Jack kept a close eye on Shepard and was pleased to see that the man lost none of his resolve during the journey.

When they aproached Dyea, sailing toward the breathtaking views of mainland Alaska, rather than seeming worse for the trip Shepard shone with a new vitality. His heart might no longer be pumping blood with its former vigor, but its essence remained strong.

He was embarking upon the greatest adventure of his life.

The two men jostled for space at the railing as the ship came into port. One of the reasons Jack had been so pleased with the Umatilla was that it could actually land them at Dyea, thanks to having a shallower draft than some larger ships. Most had to settle for docking in Skagway, near the entrance to White Pass, which could be even more treacherous and time-consuming than the perilous route Jack intended to follow.

“Where are the docks?” Shepard asked. He coughed into his fist and then spat a wad of phlegm over the side.

At Jack’s tender age, most young men tended to ignore the cautions of their elders. Impulsive and quick-tempered, he had never been an exception. But where this trip—and gold—were concerned, Shepard behaved more like an excitable boy than Jack himself. So when he heard that wary tone, Jack frowned and studied the shore.

The crew began to drop anchor with no dock in sight. Jack could see the beach from here, and smoke rising from chimneys in the town beyond, but nowhere for them to put in. Small boats were already heading out toward the Umatilla, locals intent upon earning a little money helping to off-load the ship.

“Excuse me!” Jack said to a grizzled crewman—a pale, drawn figure about thirty years of age—who tried to hurry by even as Jack accosted him. “Where’s the dock?”

The man tugged his arm from Jack’s grasp. “No docks in Dyea, kid. You’ll land on the beach.”

Shepard cleared his throat, sounding like an angry bear as he clamped a firm hand on the crewman’s wrist. “Now hold on. That’s lunacy! It’ll take hours to get all the supplies out of your hold, sorted, and off the beach before the tide comes in.”

A dangerous glint had appeared in the crewman’s eyes, and he glanced down at the grip Shepard had on him.

“James…?” Jack began, looking around to make sure no one else would jump into the fight. He reached around to the small of his back, where he’d tucked a small, sheathed knife.

Shepard released the man’s hand but did not back off.

The crewman smiled. “If you’re worried about the tide, you’d better hurry.”

With that, he rushed off through the crowd, many of whom appeared to have been aware of this little detail, though others were only just now learning. A chorus of complaints rumbled across the deck, but there was nothing any of them could do about it. They’d come too far and spent too much money to turn back now.

If Jack had thought the preparation for the journey a breathless scramble, it seemed nothing in comparison to the chaotic rush as the Umatilla’s more than four hundred passengers attempted to get their supplies and equipment onto the beach, and from there to higher ground. Would-be prospectors, who’d been dubbed “stampeders” by the press, cursed one another and fought for space aboard the many small boats ferrying goods and people ashore.

Many of the men and women must have become lethargic during the voyage, and some already seemed to be having second thoughts about the journey they’d set out upon. Jack, on the other hand, felt as though he might burst into song as he and Shepard sat in a small rowboat, clinging to packs full of their most vital belongings. Though only late August, it was already growing cold up here, but Jack was warmed by the thrill of adventure.

During their last few days in the city, he had used Shepard’s money to buy equipment and provisions. Adequate clothing was a necessity: heavy mittens, hats, fur-lined coats and trousers, warm underwear, boots with thick grips and straps to seal them against the ingress of water and snow. He purchased tools with which they could chop trees and construct boats and cabins, a year’s supply of food in sealed containers—dried, preserved, and pickled. Camping equipment was vital, and Jack had the money to buy two of everything, including tents and blankets, shovels, groundsheets, and the Klondike stoves that would keep them warm whilst camping, cook their food, and give them light.

He had also packed his all-important books. Jack never traveled without at least some work of Melville’s, and Moby-Dick rode in his pack now.

He breathed in the Alaskan air, caught the scent of the wild, and after eight long days aboard ship, felt ready to run the Chilkoot Pass. All of the preparations here in Dyea would only make him more anxious to begin. If he could have set off that very day and left all the supplies behind, he would have done so, and eagerly. But though he had come to the northlands to dare much and would not be discouraged by whatever obstacles might be put in his path, only a fool took unnecessary risks.

Best to be cautious, and smart. There was a lot riding on this expedition.

A grin stretched his lips as the rowboat slid onto the shore of Dyea Beach. Jack took two steps—quite used to the sway of the surf by now—and then stood on dry land for the first time in more than a week. He turned to watch Shepard climb out of the boat and nearly offered his brother-in-law a hand before realizing the man would never take it. To do so would be a sign of weakness.

Once on land, though, Shepard threw his head back and breathed deeply. Jack expected another of his ragged coughing fits to follow, but it did not come. An auspicious sign. Shepard peered up the beach toward the smoke rising from the town’s chimneys and nodded as if to himself.

“Let’s get to work, boy,” Shepard said.

Boy. That dreaded word. Yet today, Jack did not object. Perhaps it was merely a term of endearment, or the way the old soldier chose to remind himself and his young wife’s stepbrother which of them was in charge here. It didn’t matter. Jack would not be broken by the frozen north, and certainly, despite his often quick-draw temper, he would not allow himself to be irked by a single word.

And so they set to work.

With Jack as the runner and foreman and Shepard as the paymaster, they quickly corralled a group of willing locals. As their equipment began to arrive on the beach in crates and packs, those enterprising Tlingit Indians carried them to higher ground and arranged them neatly in a spot Jack had chosen. Trusting no one but themselves, Jack remained on the beach with their equipment while Shepard oversaw its safe delivery.

The tide came in fast that afternoon, and three large crates were partially dampened by the encroaching surf. Jack exhorted the men to work faster or they wouldn’t be paid a dime, and the last crate he half dragged several feet to avoid having the contents swamped before it, too, was finally hauled away to safety.

Halfway through the job, the price changed. The Indians charged twenty dollars an hour when the tide was low—already an astronomical sum—but as the waves grew closer and the tide rolled in, the price went up to fifty dollars an hour.

“They ought to have been pointing guns at us, asking that price!” Jack fumed, indignant, as the men raced away to enrich themselves from the plight of some other passenger.

Shepard seemed barely to have heard him. The man wore a smile Jack had never seen on him before, not even in his most tender moments with Eliza.

“I’ve sent a boy ahead to secure rooms for tonight,” Shepard said. “We’ll depart at first light.”

Then he noticed Jack studying him.

“What are you staring at?” Shepard demanded.

“You look well,” Jack told him, surprised. “Ready for adventure?”

Shepard appeared to give the question a moment’s thought. Jack had expected a lighthearted reply, a rallying moment before they set about engaging more Indian porters to carry their equipment into town, but his brother-in-law seemed apprehensive.

“I’m sixty-one years old, boy, and God gave me a weak heart.” Shepard gazed at the packs and crates piling up all along the beach. “At night, I dream of gold. It might be the only thing keeping me alive.”

Jack nodded. “Fair enough. Let’s go find some.”

Having engaged Indian porters to carry their supplies and equipment to the hotel—and paid handsomely—Jack and Shepard shouldered their packs and walked from the rocky beach up toward Dyea proper. The word town was generous. The single main street and few outlying homes and buildings were more a settlement than anything remotely permanent. Coming upon it from the coast, Jack had a queer moment of disconnection and felt as though they had found themselves not in Alaska but in Deadwood, during that town’s run of gold fever.

The sky had been a crystalline blue when the Umatilla dropped anchor, but on the shore a light mist seemed to hang permanently above Dyea, and the plumes of chimney smoke from the settlement only added to the gauzy veil that obscured the eastward view. They could see the outline of icy hills in the distance, but as they started along the main street, their focus remained on the town.

On the right they passed a row of nearly identical barnlike buildings, each with a small window just below its peaked roof and with a shop entrance below. Jack glanced at the signs: YUKON TRADING POST, U.S. POST OFFICE, COUGHLIN-LANDRY HARDWARE, DUTCHER BILL’S SALOON.

The left side of the street seemed more familiar, with a brightly painted façade on a stand-alone structure whose sign read only DANCE HALL. Beyond that stood Hayley’s Hotel, a big box of a building—clapboard like all the others—with its sign painted right on the side wall.

“Looks like it’s about to fall down,” Shepard muttered.

“I’ve slept in much worse,” Jack said, thinking about railroad sidings and jail cells. “It’ll be nice to have a soft bed for a night, especially since it’s going to be a long while before we encounter another. And a bath wouldn’t go amiss for either of us.”

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