“The spirits are closer to you than you think,” she’d say. “And if you’re bad, I can invite them in.”
For days after these séances he’d be angry and resentful, sad at his mother’s treatment of him. And come sunset and bed, alone in the dark, he’d also be terrified that perhaps she was right. Now he could hardly bear to think of it. And yet despite all this she was still his mother, and he loved her.
Such musings confused Jack, and he became angry at those confusions.
He cursed and led his horses to the side of the trail. He had crested the top of the pass whilst buried in introspection, and that moment of success had passed uncelebrated. Damn these melancholy thoughts—they would not do here!
He decided to make a brew and let the hot coffee mark the moment the rest of his journey began.
“Just the man I was hoping to run into,” a voice said.
Settled into a windbreak he’d built by piling up his pack and hauling boxes and satchels down from his horses, Jack looked up from his small fire into the ruddy-cheeked, smiling face of Merritt Sloper. The man had frost in his ginger beard and a thick cap pulled down over his ears, so he looked like some deranged Father Christmas.
“I suppose you want a cup of coffee,” Jack said. He could not hold back a small smile. He was comfortable in his own company, but right now he welcomed the company of another, even someone he knew only vaguely.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“I hope you brought your own cup,” Jack told him. “I’ve only got the one.”
Sloper grunted as he settled onto the ground beside Jack, shucking off his own pack. He banged his gloved hands together, pulled the gloves off, and held his palms out to the small fire. Primarily, however, his attention was on the small black coffeepot that Jack had propped beside the fire.
Sloper dug a tin cup from his pack. As Jack poured him half a cup of strong coffee, another man approached, this one holding the tether of a horse.
“Damn it, Merritt, you could have waited for me!” the man chided. Thin and bespectacled, he had the air of a fussy schoolmaster gone to seed.
“The smell of coffee drew me on, friend Jim,” Sloper replied with mock penitence, hanging his head. “Do not curse me for my one indulgence.” Then he shrugged an apology, sipped his coffee, and let out a loud sigh of contentment, settling more comfortably on the crusty snow, closing his eyes.
“You left me with the horse,” Jim began, then lowered his voice. “Those two fellows from Texas have been eyeing our supplies ever since the last of their own horses died, and you—”
“Besides!” Sloper said, eyes springing open. “We made it over the top! Despite all your doubts, my friend, here we are! I hadn’t the energy for a victory dance, but a cup of coffee is celebration enough.”
Rolling his eyes, Jim gave up. He led his burdened, exhausted horse over beside Jack’s two, knocked a peg into the snow with the heel of his boot, and tethered the beast to it.
Then he held out a hand, leaning over the fire. “Jim Goodman. I believe we arrived on the same ship.”
Jack smiled and shook. “Jack London. I remember you.”
A rush of good feeling filled him. Odd as they were, here were two men hardy enough to crest the Chilkoot Pass, to face the challenge and not turn back. In the short time since he had set out from Dyea, he had seen enough failure and breathed in enough death to last him a lifetime. Now he found the companionship of these two men very welcome indeed.
“I don’t suppose you have another cup of coffee,” said the morose Goodman.
Jack shook the pot. “Only a drop, I’m afraid. Merritt took the last of it.”
Goodman’s shoulders drooped. “Of course,” he said, as though used to being left out.
Suffused with this new feeling of bonhomie, Jack reached for his pack. “Actually, there’s more where that came from. I’ll fix us another pot.”
“Really?” the two men said together, both raising their eyebrows in surprise.
“Why not?” Jack replied. “We made it to the top, boys. We’re in this together now.”
After almost a week spent climbing the Chilkoot Trail, Jack’s bones ached and his muscles burned, but he felt alive in a way he believed few people would ever experience. Unshaven, unwashed, he nevertheless perceived himself as clean, somehow purified by the icy mountain air and his own backbreaking efforts. Away from his mother and her spiritual charlatanism—but more important, away from every job he’d ever had, every version of himself he’d ever tried to create—at last he could strip away the world’s expectations and find the man within.
Who is Jack London? he wondered, certain that this journey would bring him the answer.
Seen from the top of the pass, the remainder of the trail seemed like a gift. It leveled out and then began a gentle descent toward distant canyons.
“How far to Lake Lindeman?” Sloper asked.
Jack cocked an eyebrow at Jim Goodman, for he himself had heard varying estimates.
Goodman did not hesitate. “Nine miles.”
“We’ll be all right,” Jack said, gesturing around them. “Nobody’s turning back after making it through the pass.”
And it was true. The traffic all trudged in the same direction now. There were still bits of abandoned equipment on the sides of the trail, and looking ahead, Jack could see at least two dead horses—poor beasts that had handled the worst of it but couldn’t go a step farther—but for the most part, the prospectors were getting on with it.
“But we need to hurry,” he said.
The laconic, gloomy Goodman seemed to come awake at that. “Hurry? I’m just happy to be alive.”
Ahead of them were two men, German by the accents he’d heard, who slowed down a bit as if to eavesdrop. Holding the leads of his horses tightly, Jack slowed his own pace, and Sloper and Goodman followed suit.
“Maybe there’s enough gold for everyone,” Jack said. “Maybe the whole of the Klondike is El Dorado. But I look at every man on this trail as competition, and you’d do well to think the same way.”
Merritt Sloper scratched at his thick ginger beard. His normally jovial expression had faded into an almost childlike sadness. “Even us, Jack? Are we competition?”
Jack grinned. “You sure are, boys. But with us, it’s a friendly competition. And listen, there’s another reason we need to hurry. Winter’s coming on.”
Goodman scoffed, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “Winter! Jack, in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s always winter up here.”
“You know what I mean. It’ll all be frozen soon. If we don’t get to Dawson before the rivers freeze, we may never make it.”
“It’s barely September,” Sloper said.
“I talked to a fellow on the climb up, a Tlingit tribesman, who told me the signs were pointing to an early freeze. He said that once, when his grandfather was a boy, the rivers froze in the middle of August.”
Goodman tutted, gripped the lead of his weary horse, and picked up the pace again. “Impossible.”
Sloper, though, gazed at Jack with worry creasing his brow. “Is that the truth?”
Jack loosened his grip on the leads and followed Goodman, with Sloper beside him and the horses behind. “I mean to survive this adventure, Merritt. Survive, and go back to California with a mighty pile. You visit an inhospitable land, you have to rely on the wisdom of the people who make it their home. Besides, can’t you feel it? The wind makes my teeth rattle.”
Sloper nodded at this, and when the trail widened a bit, the three men walked abreast. They spoke of home and of their dreams, of books and adventure. Jack entertained them with stories of his time as an oyster pirate, and of riding the rails with hoboes and brawling on the docks. He chose not to mention his thirty days in prison.
His two companions managed to surprise him, however, when he discovered that neither was much older than Jack himself. Sloper, a stonemason, was twenty-five, a decade younger than Jack had presumed, while Goodman—who actually was a schoolteacher—had recently celebrated his twenty-second birthday. The two men hailed from Illinois, not far from Chicago, and had become acquainted due to a long friendship between their families. While their personalities could not have been more different, Sloper and Goodman had the rapport of lifelong friends, yet they easily and willingly incorporated Jack into their dynamic.
They camped that night in the shelter of a copse of trees, stacking their belongings around three sides to try to protect themselves from the worst of the wind. After tending to his horses first, Jack sat with his two new friends around the campfire. They shared coffee and dried fruit, cooking a weak stew that tasted better than it had any right to taste, and then Jack felt exhaustion overtaking him. He fell asleep blinking up at the stars, imagining the time to come when he would spend his days panning for gold.
At some point this daydreaming slipped away, and he was adrift in his own subconscious. The relative peace with which he imagined the prospecting passed away also; men were killed for the best claims, and wild creatures came from the forests to snatch away the unwary, leaving behind only bloody red smears in the snow. But such a mundane dream death did not stalk Jack.
There was something else.
He dreamed himself working upriver from the main strike in Rabbit Creek, existing on his own with little more than a campfire and a torn, tattered tent. He panned by day and read by firelight at night, and all the time something lurked at the edges of the flickering illumination of the campfire, watching. It followed him across the landscape, one day observing from the heights of a great mountain, the next day spying on him from the darkness beneath the trees. He could never make out what it was, but the sense of foreboding was terrible.
And it was only at night that he saw it. Eyes like fallen stars stared at him from the shadows, waiting for the opportunity to pounce.
In the late morning of September 8, the three men came at last to the shore of Lake Lindeman. Goodman’s horse had collapsed the night before, and it was Sloper who put the animal out of its misery. With the echo of the gunshot ringing out along the trail and across the green-black mountain slopes, Merritt Sloper finally lost his smile.
Nor did it return the next morning when they came in sight of the lake. The scene ought to have been beautiful. Lake Lindeman sat nestled in a basin surrounded by white-capped mountains whose foothills were thick with dark pines and powdered with a light snow. Around the lake grew scrub grass, and at other times animals must have come to the water to drink and nibble at what little vegetation grew there.
But a vast swath had been cut out of the pine woods around the shore of the lake. Stampeders worked like an ant colony, cutting trees and sawing timber. Men unwilling to go farther had set up a nice business for themselves building boats and rafts and selling them at outrageous prices.
“We’ll be flat broke before we even get to Dawson if we pay that,” Goodman said, anxiously cleaning his glasses with a kerchief he kept in his front pocket.
The three of them stood with Jack’s two horses, now carrying the additional weight of Sloper’s and Goodman’s equipment, and watched the buzz of activity on the lake-shore. There were planks and boat frames everywhere, and a couple of acres’ worth of sawdust that covered the ground like snow, the sweet smell of pine in the air.
Thunderous hammering and the ragged sound of saws on wood resounded, along with shouts and laughter and the crash and crack of more trees being felled. They watched a new boat set off across the lake, and it immediately began to leak.
“We’re not paying that,” Jack said.
Sloper scratched his red beard and glanced nervously at Goodman. “You don’t mean to walk around the lake, Jack? We’d be better off turning back.”
Jack shot him a harsh look, raising his chin. “I set myself a goal, Merritt. I mean to keep it. My whole life, I never turned back from anything, and I won’t start now.”
He opened a long satchel that hung from the saddle of the gray mare he’d bought in Dyea. From within he drew out a leather case, and from the leather case an ax.
“Besides, I don’t think you boys were listening to the stories I told you. I’ve been on boats my whole life. Why, I spent so much time at the docks and out on the bay that they used to call me the Sailor Kid.”
Jack slung the ax over his shoulder and took up the horses’ tethers again. “Now you go and talk to the men who already have boats, the ones who are putting them in the water. See if you can’t buy us another ax or two, and a saw. That’ll cost a lot less than a boat. Then come and find me. I’ll get started felling some pines.”
Goodman slipped his glasses back on, fixing them as though not quite sure if he could see Jack clearly.
“Are you suggesting that we build our own boat?”
Jack tipped him a wink. “You catch on quick, Jimmy.”
Sloper had taken his jacket off and hung it over his arm. The sun felt warm today, at least by comparison to what they’d grown used to. It would be a long while before they were truly warm again.
“If you say you know boats, then I believe you, Jack,” the burly stonemason said. “And I’m not afraid of a little work. But you were worried about the winter coming. Won’t this delay be costly?”
“I won’t lie to you, Merritt,” Jack said. “This is an unfortunate complication. But the boatbuilders down there on the shore have a long line of customers ahead of us. If we work hard and don’t make mistakes, building our own boat might actually be faster than waiting for them to make one for us.”
With that he left them to their own tasks, walking toward the line of trees with the horses behind him, whistling happily with the ax slung over his shoulder. He could see in his mind the boat he would build, every plank and joint. And he knew what he would name her.