If it hadn’t been for the pelican, Jack London would have been murdered by the wolves.
Even lulled by the gentle motion of the ship, he had been unable to sleep or rest, though in truth that was all his body craved. His mind burned with memories of his adventures in the north, and each ache, pain, and wound recalled those experiences as surely as a smell or sound. Confined in a cramped ship’s cabin with his friend Merritt Sloper and three weary men whose eyes were flat with defeat, Jack felt his senses sing with yearning. It had been only days since they had departed Alaska. After so long in the wilderness—and with his own wild nature urging him to run, to climb, to live—he felt stifled by that room, and it was inevitable that the pressure would drive him up here, onto the deck.
And so it had been for the last three nights. The days were easier, filled with casual conversations and hours spent gazing into the hazy distance, wrapped against the cold and yet buffeted by the sun. But the nights were more difficult. It was as if the darkness called him into its embrace—not just the false shade of a room without light, but the darkness of infinity.
Jack breathed in the fresh air and held on to the railing, legs shifting slightly as the ship dipped and rose through the gentle Pacific swell. His hair was ruffled by the breeze, and it felt like the hand of a loved one soothing his brow. Perhaps I do need soothing, he thought, because the memory of all he had been through—the deadly Chilkoot Trail, his near death in the great white silence, Lesya, and the dreadful Wendigo—were enough to drive any ordinary person mad. But one thing Jack had learned during his months in the frozen north: he was far from ordinary.
“I’m Jack London,” he said, and the name was amazing to him. This was no self-aggrandizement, no hubris; he had begun to learn what a single human being might be capable of, and wanted to explore that potential to its fullest.
There was a light mist settled on the sea, and a heavier bank of it some distance to starboard. He could make out the waxing moon and the stars as vague smudges above and, turning around, he saw the captain and the best of his crew hunkered in the wheelhouse, doing their utmost to ensure that the Umatilla sailed true and safe. Two men sat in the crow’s nest thirty feet above, their vague shapes and gentle chatter lost to the mist and darkness. Jack walked forward toward the bow, where he knew it was dark and quiet.
He wondered what it would feel like to make a solitary journey across these seas. On his way to Alaska so many months before, he had appreciated the immensity of the ocean, its power, and the respect it required to master it. Now he saw its wildness.
There was movement at the bow. At first he thought it was a clump of impacted snow, or a tangle of material shivering in the breeze. But when he approached, he saw the heavy beak and beady eye, the wings folded in, and the pelican huddled there regarded him with neither trust nor fear.
“Hello, bird,” Jack said softly. He glanced back and up, but no one else seemed to have noticed the creature. Swirls of moisture played across the deck, and the rolling bank of mist to starboard seemed to have moved closer. No one else strolled the deck this late at night. He turned back to the bird, and it had raised its head and half spread its wings.
Jack went to his hands and knees, trying to present no threat to this magnificent creature. He looked it over for signs of injury but could see none. The bird had simply seen the ship as a place to rest, and perhaps it had done so many times before, recognizing the bow as one of the quietest places on board come nighttime.
“I’ll not harm you,” he said softly, and his throat seemed to throb with an unusual vibration. He realized that he had no real idea what sound these birds made, but it bobbed its head, flapped its mighty wings several times, and then hunkered down again. Jack grew still, and found himself staring into the bird’s eye. He was reflected in there. He wondered how it viewed him—threat, something interesting, or simply part of the scenery?
He watched the pelican as Lesya, the forest spirit, had taught him to watch, and before long he did not perceive this tableau as man and beast at all. It was simply observer and observed. Though in the end she had proved to be a mad thing, Lesya had given him a gift, opening his mind and senses so that if he focused he could touch the thoughts of other creatures. Reaching out to the pelican, he sensed the same feeling of foreboding that had only just started to settle over him.
In the distance, Jack heard several resounding thuds of waves striking a hull. He frowned. The Umatilla rode smooth as ever, and he had not felt even the smallest impact vibration. The pelican lifted and opened its heavy beak.
When he approached, he saw the heavy beak and beady eye, the wings folded in, and the pelican huddled there regarded him with neither trust nor fear.
Jack heard that sound again, the thud-wash, thud-wash of a hull cutting across the waves instead of going with them. Something was out there. He looked up at the two men in the crow’s nest, but they were vague shadows behind a gentle haze of mist, and he could not even tell which direction they were looking.
“What’s this, then?” he asked the pelican, and the bird spread its wings. But it remained behind the railing, turning on its big feet so that it could look directly back along the deck. I could call to the lookouts, Jack thought. But what would he say? Darkness and the mist stirred his senses, and that feeling of things slightly askew might be only in his mind.
He leaned on the railing and looked down, ghostly whitecaps breaking gently away from the ship. They were cutting through the water, not impacting against the waves, and the spray that reached him up here was carried on the gentlest of breezes.
A shadow moved far out across the waves. Jack held on to the railing and scanned the skeins of mist that played like curtains across the ocean’s surface. Something huge, he thought.
And then he saw the shadow again. A hardening of the mists, a solidifying of shapes that danced where no one normally watched, and a boat emerged. It was cutting a diagonal that would intercept the Umatilla within twenty seconds. Three masts, maybe a hundred feet long, the craft was dwarfed by the Umatilla. And yet there was something about the way it moved that seemed almost predatory.
The vessel’s masts sported dark sails that swallowed the weak moonlight, and it slipped through the water as if it were hardly there at all, a phantom ship. The only sign of its existence was the intermittent thump of waves against its hull, but that lessened as the ship came close to matching the Umatilla’s course.
Jack could see shadows busy in the rigging, and more on deck. The booms swung as the schooner drew down alongside the Umatilla. And Jack knew then that something was very wrong indeed.
From above, he heard the lookouts’ muttering rise in alarm. Then something whistled, the two men groaned, and their speaking ceased.
Behind him the white pelican grumbled like an old man. Jack ducked behind the solid railing and peered over the top. There was a flurry of activity on board the phantom schooner—rigging whispered, shadows moved, and he heard the soft impact of the vessel’s buffered hull striking the Umatilla.
It was only as the first of several muffled grappling hooks appeared over the railing, thirty feet back along the deck from where he hid, that Jack realized the truth. We’re being boarded!
He went to shout a warning, but no one would hear. If he moved, he might have time to get belowdecks before the first of the aggressors came on board … but he could already see the rope attached to the first grappling hook tensing as it was subjected to weight from below.
Instinct told him to duck down and stay where he was, and the pelican flapped its wings and lifted away from the deck, following its own instinct. It grumbled again as it flew, disappearing quickly across the port side and away into the thickening mist. For a fleeting instant Jack knew its freedom, but then he was back in his cumbersome and heavy flesh again, searching for shadows in which to conceal himself as the first head appeared above the railing.
The man slipped over onto the deck, and Jack felt a tingle of awe. He breathed out a gentle gasp. The man moved like a shadow himself, completely silent, and he stood crouched low while his head turned left and right. His arms were held out from his sides, and he seemed to be holding something in his right hand. There was so much threat in that shape—energy coiled like a wound spring, violence gathering like distant, silent storm clouds.
The man sniffed like an animal, head tilted. Then he glanced up at the crow’s nest, gave a brief hand signal over the railing, and dashed for the first doorway leading belowdecks. His shadow was large—easily half a foot taller than Jack’s five feet eight inches, and broad across the chest—and his head was topped with a mane of hair that seemed to writhe its own shadowy pattern as he moved. Jack did not hear a sound, and he breathed the word that his mother had made him fear since childhood.
But the other five men who appeared on deck over the next few seconds were not ghosts. With a sigh of clothing against metal, the soft exhalation of effort, they boarded the ship and quickly dispersed, full of purpose and oozing menace.
“If only I could fly,” Jack whispered. Because he could not remain where he was. Without a plan, and yet also without fear, Jack pulled his knife from his belt and started to follow after the last of the men.
That first one to board is in charge, he thought, and there had been something about the man’s silhouette that troubled Jack. He slipped across the deck, moving from shadow to shadow, glancing back at the grappling hooks to make sure no one else would overtop the railing in that moment and see him. He ducked quickly through a doorway, into the poorly lit corridor that led to a staircase down toward the cabin deck. Gentle footsteps shuffled on the metal stairs, and he followed, keeping low so that his shadow was not cast ahead of him by the sputtering oil lamps.
Down the stairs, and three treads from the bottom he heard something that changed everything. Until now the boat’s appearance from the mist, the boarding, the fleeting shadows, all had been part of some strange dream ghost-witnessed by the pelican. The rush of adventure flushed through Jack’s veins.
“You got gold?” a voice asked, low, threatening.
“No … no.”
And Jack knew very well the sound of a knife cleaving flesh.
“Jesus!” he whispered, backing up a step because suddenly this was very real.
That question again, another negative answer, another murder, and then there was a flurry of movement from the cabin as other men came awake. And yet it took only seconds for the intruder to reappear from the cabin.
He turned away from Jack and paused, head cocked. Not the first man Jack had seen board, but still he was big, and strong. He was dressed in loose dark clothing, his hair was long and black, and in his right hand he carried a heavy knife. The blade was wet. The man was not even breathing hard.
How many men did he just kill? Jack wondered, letting out a slow, gentle breath, mouth slightly open, conscious all the time that a click of his throat or a whistle from his nose would give him away.
Then there would be knives.
The man walked to the next cabin and opened the door without a sound. He entered, Jack descended to the corridor floor and crouched, and he heard the same question muttered.
“No … we didn’t…”
“Who’s got gold?”
Merritt! Jack thought. His friend was sleeping in their cabin on the next deck down, and this man’s mates had disappeared into other doors. Bastards will go for Merritt as well as anyone else.
There were maybe three hundred people aboard the Umatilla on this return journey from the Yukon Territory gold rush, and right now most of them were asleep. Sleeping men and women were often haunted by shadows, especially people who had been through such hardships, and waking to a nightmare such as this would cause confusion and panic. How someone could do what this man was doing…
Jack gripped his blade and faced a decision. He could dash forward and engage this murderer, press a knife to his throat and demand that he submit, and then wake everyone on the corridor and tell them what was happening. In that urgent instant, it felt like the best course of action—it would reduce their enemy by one, and increase those who knew of the attack by a score.
But then the man stepped into the corridor and stood facing away from Jack once again, and his knife hand was so soaked in blood that droplets spattered to the wooden deck. He moved to the next door and opened it, and before Jack could make a decision, the man had disappeared inside.
“Who has gold?” the man’s voice came, muffled and low.
“Jack London has gold!” Jack shouted, and his heart galloped, his blood surged, the decision snatched from him by impetuosity. The Umatilla’s crew and passengers needed time. Jack might be the only person who could give them that.
He turned and bolted up the narrow, steep stairway, emerging onto the deck and breathing in the cold, mist-shrouded air. He left the door hanging open and slid to the side, dropping to the deck, grateful for the thickening mist. He pressed himself against the wall across from where the door hung against the bulkhead, the darkened passage below yawning in between. He’ll expect me to be hiding behind the door, Jack thought. Or to have run. But Jack would not run. He felt flushed with fear, but there was also a cold and primal strength rising in him, a wild determination. He was sickened at the bloodshed but ready for a fight.
He heard the man’s footsteps, still quiet but no longer so cautious. At the top of the staircase the murderer gave the creaking, swaying door a mighty kick, crashing it back against the bulkhead. Jack moved quickly, grabbing his leg behind the knee and standing, pushing up, lifting and tipping him so that he tumbled hard back down the stairs. The man did not cry out as he fell—made no noise at all, other than the shocking impact of his head against the stairs and the crack of something breaking.