Even hunkered down around the fire, welcoming its heat and light, he could barely connect with his ancestors of many thousands of years ago. Here, he and his two companions relied on these flames to survive. And yet beside them lay the boat with its food and guns, furs and prospecting equipment, saws and axes. Into this wilderness they had brought the tools of civilization, and Jack felt like a stranger here.
They dried their wet socks and boots, warming their feet and hands, but with every breath Jack knew that they would have to move soon.
“We could split up,” Jim said. “Take a different point of the compass each, meet back here in an hour.”
“That’s crazy talk,” Jack said. “If you fall and break your ankle, Jim? Merritt, if you collapse under the weight of ice on your beard?” They all laughed, but it was a subdued humor.
“I can feel the wild all around us,” Merritt said, glancing beyond the reach of the fire’s light. Is he still spooked? Jack wondered, but Merritt said no more.
“I can feel the wild all around us,” Merritt said.
“We’ll be all right,” Jack said. “We were all wild once. But man rose up from his primitive origins, conquered the wildness both within him and without. We have minds, gentlemen. Thoughts that separate us from the lower animals. Passion and ingenuity enough to tame the wild, and to survive. But only if we respect its dangers. I say we leave the boat here, take only essentials for now, and head toward Dawson City. I figure we’re seventy miles away at least, and we’d be dead in ten. But the closer we get to the city, the more likely we’ll find some sort of shelter.”
“Trappers,” Jim said. “Prospectors.”
“Are there Indian villages around here?” Merritt laughed.
“I think they’d have more sense,” Jack said. “And besides, I doubt they’d welcome three soft prospectors. No, it’s up to us to get through this on our own. It’s a challenge, that’s all. You up for it, boys?”
He saw a glimmer of annoyance pass across Jim’s features at his use of the word boys, but then all three of them clapped hands and huddled closer around the fire, eager to get moving.
Jack was very aware of the darkness behind him. And if it hadn’t been for the fire stretching the skin of his face and glittering in his eyes, he would have been swallowed by the darkness before him as well. Hope was kept alive by the flames. Beyond them, in this cold, brutal wilderness, the coming months could bring anything.
Yet still you’ll die in the snow, that vision of his mother had told him, cold…and almost alone.
“No,” he vowed, rocking on his heels. “No, no.” Jim and Merritt glanced at him, but neither of them spoke, or even seemed perturbed by Jack’s muttering. It seemed that all three men were considering their own fates that evening.
They found an abandoned fur traders’ cabin. It was built into the base of a steep hillside, protected from the worst of the winds. It consisted of two large rooms, and in the center of one they found an old Klondike stove. Jack had left his own stove way back in Dyea, and it was a welcome sight for all of them. An hour after arriving, they had a good fire going, and there was even a lean-to behind the cabin beneath which a pile of logs had been drying for some time. The wood spat and sizzled, but it burned well enough. The cabin grew warmer, and the three men could go about without gloves and hats.
Over the course of the next few days they brought all their possessions up from the boat. It was a three-mile hike across the base of a hill and down to the river, and after each excursion they had to rest for several hours to gather their strength. The journey along the treacherous rivers had weakened them more than they realized, and it took many days for them to regain some of their lost energy. The cabin was just big enough for the three of them; they used one room for storage and sleeping, and the other was where they spent most of their days talking, cooking, and dreaming of the gold they would find come spring.
Young though Jack was, he sensed the two men looking up to him. This appealed not to his pride, but rather to his intellect. He had always felt himself the leader of their little team, and their time in the cabin confirmed that. He had his books, and he took to reading long passages to the other two men. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and others, each of which seemed particularly pertinent to the situation they found themselves in. For their part, Jim and Merritt welcomed Jack’s readings, and the men often spent a long time after each discussing the merits or otherwise of the passage.
“Godless heathen,” Jim muttered after Jack read yet again from Darwin’s book.
Jack blinked in surprise and glanced at Merritt.
“You’re not a fan of Mr. Darwin’s?” Merritt asked.
“Fan?” Jim said. He sat up, becoming more animated than Jack had seen him in hours. “The man denies centuries of teaching. He shuns God, who put him here, gave him his ship, the means to explore, the knowledge to—”
“And God gave him his intelligence?” Jack asked. “A mind to inquire?”
“Of course he did,” Jim said. “It was Darwin’s choice to misuse it.”
Jack leaned forward, ready to say some more, but he bit back his words. For him, God was as real as many other things he had never witnessed, and he wasn’t ignorant enough to dismiss him out of hand. But similarly, a work of such scientific genius and aesthetic beauty as Darwin’s book—his theories bold, extravagant, and challenging—should not be shunned. If God had given Darwin such a mind, he had surely meant for him to use it.
“So where’s your book?” Merritt asked, voice raised in surprise and growing angry.
“I have it all up here,” Jim said, touching his temple. “And I believe it here.” He tapped his chest.
“Well, if Darwin was right and it’s survival of the fittest, I’ll see you get a good burial,” Merritt snapped.
Jack stood and raised both hands, imploring the men to calm down. He changed the subject quickly, reading another long passage from Paradise Lost, exaggerating his reading voice to try and break the icy atmosphere with warm humor. But the first of many tensions that would build through the winter had found root in that cabin.
The weather grew worse. The temperature dropped, the cold now freezing the men’s breath, crackling their saliva if they spat. Often when they woke in the morning, ice had frozen on their beards and glued their eyelashes together, so they had to warm their eyes before they could open them. Snow fell day after day, and when it stopped several weeks into their stay, it was three feet deep and crunching underfoot.
That first morning without blizzard, Jack was more determined than ever to capture them something to cook and eat. He and Merritt went farther than they had before, staying out longer, and they returned past midday with a skinny rabbit. As Jack started gutting and skinning it, Jim asked why he was so cheerful.
“I’ve spent another year living in this amazing world,” Jack said quietly. He could hardly feel his fingers, and the knife slipped from his hand several times.
“It’s your birthday,” Merritt said.
Jack nodded and smiled.
“How old?” Jim asked.
“Eighteen. I feel eighty.” He looked up from the rabbit, and the two men were staring sadly at him. What? he thought, but he glanced down at his hands again and knew. He was the only one of the three of them who, in the depths of their despair and more and more convinced that this winter would be their last, could still find wonder in their surroundings. The other men recognized only harshness and impending death. Jack saw beauty.
“Happy birthday, Jack,” he whispered to himself.
Jack took to walking on his own. It was against his own earlier advice, and the other two objected vehemently, but Jack would have his way. He always carried a rifle, ready to shoot any game he saw, but he was never fast enough. There were snow rabbits and squirrels, but they always avoided his sight once the barrel was pointed their way. In truth, though, Jack did not venture out from the cabin to hunt. He went on his own because something was happening to him, and the more it happened, the more he relished the experience. He was falling in love with this wilderness. The cold hurt his bones and made his muscles slow and heavy, but inside him a new warmth sparked to life.
The landscape was incredible. He came to see it as the great white silence, because if he stood still out in the snowfield, all he could hear was his own breathing and the thudding of his own heart. There was not a breath of wind out there, as if the air itself were frozen into immobility. The land slept beneath the thick carpet of snow. Sometimes it snowed some more, but other times the air was crisp and clear, and even though the sun didn’t rise so high above the horizon, he could see a long way. Closing his eyes, standing out in the snow, he always knew from which direction his watcher observed.
Because it was still there. Jack had grown used to its presence, though never comfortable with it. He had not seen the wolf since that incident on the river. But here in the wild it felt like an echo of the land, a manifest wildness that observed him perhaps as an invader, and certainly not as an equal. He felt examined. He felt insignificant, less than a forgotten breath exhaled by this place. And for someone of such a strong mind, the sensation was curiously welcome.
Sometimes he thought it was death waiting to take him away. The end was ever closer; he understood that as well as his two friends back in the cabin. The chances of their surviving were becoming starker by the day. And he remembered what that vision of his mother had said: Doom in the north, a cry of death in the great white silence, and the spirits will bear witness. He watched for this spirit watching him and dreaded meeting its eyes.
Yet in some ways, Jack was more contented than he had ever been before. This is where I belong, he would think as the weeks and months went by. I’m a stranger here no more. He thought that perhaps his spirit had always dwelled here in the wild, watched over by the wolf and whatever it represented, and that it had taken eighteen years for his body to find its way here. Perhaps that explained his constant wanderlust, and the way he had always felt unsettled, until now. He felt whole for the first time in his life, and though he was nothing compared to the greatness of this place, that pleased him.
He might be one snowflake in a billion, but he was starting to know himself at last.
ON THE DAY JACK LONDON died for the first time, the snow came without warning.
He was out on one of his walks. Almost twelve weeks had passed with them sheltering in the cabin, and they had fallen into a routine. Jim and Merritt would hunt together in the morning while Jack prepared the cabin for the coming day. He would cook whatever they caught or, if they caught nothing, he would prepare a meal from their dwindling supplies. Then they would talk for a while, sometimes over a coffee, and Jack would venture out for his daily walk. The two men rarely questioned him about where he went or what he did, and Jack would never tell them.
But behind the routine lay the dawning comprehension that the three of them were going to die. The supplies would not last for much longer, and when a few days came during which they caught nothing to eat, they’d start growing weak. The weaker they became, the harder the hunting. The cold would bite in more. The darkness would haunt them. Jack saw this knowledge in his friends’ eyes when he looked at them, and it hung heavy when the three of them talked together.
He struggled to fight off the feeling, but his acknowledgement of the fear seemed to bring that thing watching him from the wilderness much closer. He looked for prints in the snow and listened for distant howls. A cry of death in the great white silence.
He had walked up the hillside. Far up, with the cabin out of sight below, he had spent some time in the shelter of a fallen tree, looking out over the great river valley and trying to imagine a world without people. It was not a difficult scene to conjure, and the sense of loneliness unsettled him more than he could have expected.
He thought of Eliza back at home and hoped that James had returned to her safely. He thought of his mother and wondered whether the house was still hers.
And then the blizzard came in.
Like a predator stalking its tender prey, the storm broke silently over the head of the hillside and started shedding its load into the valley. The first flake drifted down in front of Jack and he glanced up, expecting to see a small creature disturbing the snow-laden branches of the tree above him. Another flake landed on his cheek, another on his nose, and then it was snowing wildly.
He was unconcerned at first. The way to get back to the cabin was to continue downhill as far as he could, so he was not worried about becoming lost. They’d had a decent breakfast that day, so his body was warm, busy digesting the rabbit meat. He carried a rifle.
And then he saw the shadow in the snow, passing from tree to tree just out of sight above him on the hillside.
He started running downhill. The snow fell more heavily, completely silent and unflustered by even the hint of a breeze. He glanced back, but already he could barely see more than a dozen paces. Working his way downhill, looking back every few steps to make sure nothing was closing on him under cover of the snowfall, Jack did not see the hollow scooped from the hillside until it was too late. The ground disappeared beneath him, and for a while he was held in space. There was no sensation of falling. It was as if the snow bore him through the air. And then he hit the ground, snow cushioning the impact, but still the wind was knocked from him, and he banged his head against a buried stone.
Looking directly up at the lip of the hollow as he blacked out, Jack saw a gray shape leaning over and staring down upon him.
When he came to, he knew he was dying from the cold.
Yet still you’ll die in the snow, cold…and almost alone.
No! he tried to say, but his lips were frozen together.
He tried to move, but his arms would not obey his commands. He looked down across his body, and it was buried. He blinked quickly to clear snow from his eyes. His lashes were heavy with ice.