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Jack London 6 страница




chance of my striking it and coming out a millionaire. Now tell

me, Alma, don`t you think I`m very moderate?"

 

And Alma could hardly think otherwise. Besides, had not her own

cousin,--though a remote and distant one to be sure, the black

sheep, the harum-scarum, the ne`er-do-well,--had not he come down

out of that weird North country with a hundred thousand in yellow

dust, to say nothing of a half-ownership in the hole from which it

came?

 

David Rasmunsen`s grocer was surprised when he found him weighing

eggs in the scales at the end of the counter, and Rasmunsen himself

was more surprised when he found that a dozen eggs weighed a pound

and a half--fifteen hundred pounds for his thousand dozen! There

would be no weight left for his clothes, blankets, and cooking

utensils, to say nothing of the grub he must necessarily consume by

the way. His calculations were all thrown out, and he was just

proceeding to recast them when he hit upon the idea of weighing

small eggs. "For whether they be large or small, a dozen eggs is a

dozen eggs," he observed sagely to himself; and a dozen small ones

he found to weigh but a pound and a quarter. Thereat the city of

San Francisco was overrun by anxious-eyed emissaries, and

commission houses and dairy associations were startled by a sudden

demand for eggs running not more than twenty ounces to the dozen.

 

Rasmunsen mortgaged the little cottage for a thousand dollars,

arranged for his wife to make a prolonged stay among her own

people, threw up his job, and started North. To keep within his

schedule he compromised on a second-class passage, which, because

of the rush, was worse than steerage; and in the late summer, a

pale and wabbly man, he disembarked with his eggs on the Dyea

beach. But it did not take him long to recover his land legs and

appetite. His first interview with the Chilkoot packers

straightened him up and stiffened his backbone. Forty cents a

pound they demanded for the twenty-eight-mile portage, and while he

caught his breath and swallowed, the price went up to forty-three.

Fifteen husky Indians put the straps on his packs at forty-five,

but took them off at an offer of forty-seven from a Skaguay Croesus

in dirty shirt and ragged overalls who had lost his horses on the

White Pass trail and was now making a last desperate drive at the

country by way of Chilkoot.

 

But Rasmunsen was clean grit, and at fifty cents found takers, who,

two days later, set his eggs down intact at Linderman. But fifty

cents a pound is a thousand dollars a ton, and his fifteen hundred

pounds had exhausted his emergency fund and left him stranded at

the Tantalus point where each day he saw the fresh-whipsawed boats

departing for Dawson. Further, a great anxiety brooded over the

camp where the boats were built. Men worked frantically, early and

late, at the height of their endurance, caulking, nailing, and

pitching in a frenzy of haste for which adequate explanation was

not far to seek. Each day the snow-line crept farther down the

bleak, rock-shouldered peaks, and gale followed gale, with sleet

and slush and snow, and in the eddies and quiet places young ice

formed and thickened through the fleeting hours. And each morn,

toil-stiffened men turned wan faces across the lake to see if the

freeze-up had come. For the freeze-up heralded the death of their

hope--the hope that they would be floating down the swift river ere

navigation closed on the chain of lakes.

 

To harrow Rasmunsen`s soul further, he discovered three competitors

in the egg business. It was true that one, a little German, had

gone broke and was himself forlornly back-tripping the last pack of

the portage; but the other two had boats nearly completed, and were

daily supplicating the god of merchants and traders to stay the

iron hand of winter for just another day. But the iron hand closed

down over the land. Men were being frozen in the blizzard which

swept Chilkoot, and Rasmunsen frosted his toes ere he was aware.

He found a chance to go passenger with his freight in a boat just

shoving off through the rubble, but two hundred hard cash, was

required, and he had no money.

 

"Ay tank you yust wait one leedle w`ile," said the Swedish boat-

builder, who had struck his Klondike right there and was wise

enough to know it--"one leedle w`ile und I make you a tam fine

skiff boat, sure Pete."

 

With this unpledged word to go on, Rasmunsen hit the back trail to

Crater Lake, where he fell in with two press correspondents whose

tangled baggage was strewn from Stone House, over across the Pass,

and as far as Happy Camp.

 

"Yes," he said with consequence. "I`ve a thousand dozen eggs at

Linderman, and my boat`s just about got the last seam caulked.

Consider myself in luck to get it. Boats are at a premium, you

know, and none to be had."

 

Whereupon and almost with bodily violence the correspondents

clamoured to go with him, fluttered greenbacks before his eyes, and

spilled yellow twenties from hand to hand. He could not hear of

it, but they over-persuaded him, and he reluctantly consented to

take them at three hundred apiece. Also they pressed upon him the

passage money in advance. And while they wrote to their respective

journals concerning the Good Samaritan with the thousand dozen

eggs, the Good Samaritan was hurrying back to the Swede at

Linderman.

 

"Here, you! Gimme that boat!" was his salutation, his hand

jingling the correspondents` gold pieces and his eyes hungrily bent

upon the finished craft.

 

The Swede regarded him stolidly and shook his head.

 

"How much is the other fellow paying? Three hundred? Well, here`s

four. Take it."

 

He tried to press it upon him, but the man backed away.

 

"Ay tank not. Ay say him get der skiff boat. You yust wait--"

 

`Here`s six hundred. Last call. Take it or leave it. Tell `m

it`s a mistake.`

 

The Swede wavered. "Ay tank yes," he finally said, and the last

Rasmunsen saw of him his vocabulary was going to wreck in a vain

effort to explain the mistake to the other fellows.

 

The German slipped and broke his ankle on the steep hogback above

Deep Lake, sold out his stock for a dollar a dozen, and with the

proceeds hired Indian packers to carry him back to Dyea. But on

the morning Rasmunsen shoved off with his correspondents, his two

rivals followed suit.

 

`How many you got?" one of them, a lean little New Englander,

called out.

 

"One thousand dozen," Rasmunsen answered proudly.

 

"Huh! I`ll go you even stakes I beat you in with my eight

hundred."

 

The correspondents offered to lend him the money; but Rasmunsen

declined, and the Yankee closed with the remaining rival, a brawny

son of the sea and sailor of ships and things, who promised to show

them all a wrinkle or two when it came to cracking on. And crack

on he did, with a large tarpaulin square-sail which pressed the bow

half under at every jump. He was the first to run out of

Linderman, but, disdaining the portage, piled his loaded boat on

the rocks in the boiling rapids. Rasmunsen and the Yankee, who

likewise had two passengers, portaged across on their backs and

then lined their empty boats down through the bad water to Bennett.

 

Bennett was a twenty-five-mile lake, narrow and deep, a funnel

between the mountains through which storms ever romped. Rasmunsen

camped on the sand-pit at its head, where were many men and boats

bound north in the teeth of the Arctic winter. He awoke in the

morning to find a piping gale from the south, which caught the

chill from the whited peaks and glacial valleys and blew as cold as

north wind ever blew. But it was fair, and he also found the

Yankee staggering past the first bold headland with all sail set.

Boat after boat was getting under way, and the correspondents fell

to with enthusiasm.

 

"We`ll catch him before Cariboo Crossing," they assured Rasmunsen,

as they ran up the sail and the Alma took the first icy spray over

her bow.

 

Now Rasmunsen all his life had been prone to cowardice on water,

but he clung to the kicking steering-oar with set face and

determined jaw. His thousand dozen were there in the boat before

his eyes, safely secured beneath the correspondents` baggage, and

somehow, before his eyes were the little cottage and the mortgage

for a thousand dollars.

 

It was bitter cold. Now and again he hauled in the steering-sweep

and put out a fresh one while his passengers chopped the ice from

the blade. Wherever the spray struck, it turned instantly to

frost, and the dipping boom of the spritsail was quickly fringed

with icicles. The Alma strained and hammered through the big seas

till the seams and butts began to spread, but in lieu of bailing

the correspondents chopped ice and flung it overboard. There was

no let-up. The mad race with winter was on, and the boats tore

along in a desperate string.

 

"W-w-we can`t stop to save our souls!" one of the correspondents

chattered, from cold, not fright.

 

"That`s right! Keep her down the middle, old man!" the other

encouraged.

 

Rasmunsen replied with an idiotic grin. The iron-bound shores were

in a lather of foam, and even down the middle the only hope was to

keep running away from the big seas. To lower sail was to be

overtaken and swamped. Time and again they passed boats pounding

among the rocks, and once they saw one on the edge of the breakers

about to strike. A little craft behind them, with two men, jibed

over and turned bottom up.

 

"W-w-watch out, old man," cried he of the chattering teeth.

 

Rasmunsen grinned and tightened his aching grip on the sweep.

Scores of times had the send of the sea caught the big square stern

of the Alma and thrown her off from dead before it till the after

leach of the spritsail fluttered hollowly, and each time, and only

with all his strength, had he forced her back. His grin by then

had become fixed, and it disturbed the correspondents to look at

him.

 

They roared down past an isolated rock a hundred yards from shore.

From its wave-drenched top a man shrieked wildly, for the instant

cutting the storm with his voice. But the next instant the Alma

was by, and the rock growing a black speck in the troubled froth.

 

"That settles the Yankee! Where`s the sailor?" shouted one of his

passengers.

 

Rasmunsen shot a glance over his shoulder at a black square-sail.

He had seen it leap up out of the grey to windward, and for an

hour, off and on, had been watching it grow. The sailor had

evidently repaired damages and was making up for lost time.

 

"Look at him come!"

 

Both passengers stopped chopping ice to watch. Twenty miles of

Bennett were behind them--room and to spare for the sea to toss up

its mountains toward the sky. Sinking and soaring like a storm-

god, the sailor drove by them. The huge sail seemed to grip the

boat from the crests of the waves, to tear it bodily out of the

water, and fling it crashing and smothering down into the yawning

troughs.

 

"The sea`ll never catch him!"

 

"But he`ll r-r-run her nose under!"

 

Even as they spoke, the black tarpaulin swooped from sight behind a

big comber. The next wave rolled over the spot, and the next, but

the boat did not reappear. The Alma rushed by the place. A little

riffraff of oats and boxes was seen. An arm thrust up and a shaggy

head broke surface a score of yards away.

 

For a time there was silence. As the end of the lake came in

sight, the waves began to leap aboard with such steady recurrence

that the correspondents no longer chopped ice but flung the water

out with buckets. Even this would not do, and, after a shouted

conference with Rasmunsen, they attacked the baggage. Flour,

bacon, beans, blankets, cooking-stove, ropes, odds and ends,

everything they could get hands on, flew overboard. The boat

acknowledged it at once, taking less water and rising more

buoyantly.

 

"That`ll do!" Rasmunsen called sternly, as they applied themselves

to the top layer of eggs.

 

"The h-hell it will!" answered the shivering one, savagely. With

the exception of their notes, films, and cameras, they had

sacrificed their outfit. He bent over, laid hold of an egg-box,

and began to worry it out from under the lashing.

 

"Drop it! Drop it, I say!"

 

Rasmunsen had managed to draw his revolver, and with the crook of

his arm over the sweep head, was taking aim. The correspondent

stood up on the thwart, balancing back and forth, his face twisted

with menace and speechless anger.

 

"My God!"

 

So cried his brother correspondent, hurling himself, face downward,

into the bottom of the boat. The Alma, under the divided attention

of Rasmunsen, had been caught by a great mass of water and whirled

around. The after leach hollowed, the sail emptied and jibed, and

the boom, sweeping with terrific force across the boat, carried the

angry correspondent overboard with a broken back. Mast and sail

had gone over the side as well. A drenching sea followed, as the

boat lost headway, and Rasmunsen sprang to the bailing bucket

 

Several boats hurtled past them in the next half-hour,--small

boats, boats of their own size, boats afraid, unable to do aught

but run madly on. Then a ten-ton barge, at imminent risk of

destruction, lowered sail to windward and lumbered down upon them.

 

"Keep off! Keep off!" Rasmunsen screamed.

 

But his low gunwale ground against the heavy craft, and the

remaining correspondent clambered aboard. Rasmunsen was over the

eggs like a cat and in the bow of the Alma, striving with numb

fingers to bend the hauling-lines together.

 

"Come on!" a red-whiskered man yelled at him.

 

"I`ve a thousand dozen eggs here," he shouted back. "Gimme a tow!

I`ll pay you!"

 

"Come on!" they howled in chorus.

 

A big whitecap broke just beyond, washing over the barge and

leaving the Alma half swamped. The men cast off, cursing him as

they ran up their sail. Rasmunsen cursed back and fell to bailing.

The mast and sail, like a sea anchor, still fast by the halyards,

held the boat head on to wind and sea and gave him a chance to

fight the water out.

 

Three hours later, numbed, exhausted, blathering like a lunatic,

but still bailing, he went ashore on an ice-strewn beach near

Cariboo Crossing. Two men, a government courier and a half-breed

voyageur, dragged him out of the surf, saved his cargo, and beached

the Alma. They were paddling out of the country in a Peterborough,

and gave him shelter for the night in their storm-bound camp. Next

morning they departed, but he elected to stay by his eggs. And

thereafter the name and fame of the man with the thousand dozen

eggs began to spread through the land. Gold-seekers who made in

before the freeze-up carried the news of his coming. Grizzled old-

timers of Forty Mile and Circle City, sour doughs with leathern

jaws and bean-calloused stomachs, called up dream memories of

chickens and green things at mention of his name. Dyea and Skaguay

took an interest in his being, and questioned his progress from

every man who came over the passes, while Dawson--golden,

omeletless Dawson--fretted and worried, and way-laid every chance

arrival for word of him.

 

But of this Rasmunsen knew nothing. The day after the wreck he

patched up the Alma and pulled out. A cruel east wind blew in his

teeth from Tagish, but he got the oars over the side and bucked

manfully into it, though half the time he was drifting backward and

chopping ice from the blades. According to the custom of the

country, he was driven ashore at Windy Arm; three times on Tagish

saw him swamped and beached; and Lake Marsh held him at the freeze-

up. The Alma was crushed in the jamming of the floes, but the eggs

were intact. These he back-tripped two miles across the ice to the

shore, where he built a cache, which stood for years after and was

pointed out by men who knew.

 

Half a thousand frozen miles stretched between him and Dawson, and

the waterway was closed. But Rasmunsen, with a peculiar tense look

in his face, struck back up the lakes on foot. What he suffered on

that lone trip, with nought but a single blanket, an axe, and a

handful of beans, is not given to ordinary mortals to know. Only

the Arctic adventurer may understand. Suffice that he was caught

in a blizzard on Chilkoot and left two of his toes with the surgeon

at Sheep Camp. Yet he stood on his feet and washed dishes in the

scullery of the PAWONA to the Puget Sound, and from there passed

coal on a P. S. boat to San Francisco.

 

It was a haggard, unkempt man who limped across the shining office

floor to raise a second mortgage from the bank people. His hollow

cheeks betrayed themselves through the scraggy beard, and his eyes

seemed to have retired into deep caverns where they burned with

cold fires. His hands were grained from exposure and hard work,

and the nails were rimmed with tight-packed dirt and coal-dust. He

spoke vaguely of eggs and ice-packs, winds and tides; but when they

declined to let him have more than a second thousand, his talk

became incoherent, concerning itself chiefly with the price of dogs

and dog-food, and such things as snowshoes and moccasins and winter

trails. They let him have fifteen hundred, which was more than the

cottage warranted, and breathed easier when he scrawled his

signature and passed out the door.

 

Two weeks later he went over Chilkoot with three dog sleds of five

dogs each. One team he drove, the two Indians with him driving the

others. At Lake Marsh they broke out the cache and loaded up. But

there was no trail. He was the first in over the ice, and to him

fell the task of packing the snow and hammering away through the

rough river jams. Behind him he often observed a camp-fire smoke

trickling thinly up through the quiet air, and he wondered why the

people did not overtake him. For he was a stranger to the land and

did not understand. Nor could he understand his Indians when they

tried to explain. This they conceived to be a hardship, but when

they balked and refused to break camp of mornings, he drove them to

their work at pistol point.

 

When he slipped through an ice bridge near the White Horse and

froze his foot, tender yet and oversensitive from the previous

freezing, the Indians looked for him to lie up. But he sacrificed

a blanket, and, with his foot incased in an enormous moccasin, big

as a water-bucket, continued to take his regular turn with the

front sled. Here was the cruellest work, and they respected him,

though on the side they rapped their foreheads with their knuckles

and significantly shook their heads. One night they tried to run

away, but the zip-zip of his bullets in the snow brought them back,

snarling but convinced. Whereupon, being only savage Chilkat men,

they put their heads together to kill him; but he slept like a cat,

and, waking or sleeping, the chance never came. Often they tried

to tell him the import of the smoke wreath in the rear, but he

could not comprehend and grew suspicious of them. And when they

sulked or shirked, he was quick to let drive at them between the

eyes, and quick to cool their heated souls with sight of his ready

revolver.

 

And so it went--with mutinous men, wild dogs, and a trail that

broke the heart. He fought the men to stay with him, fought the

dogs to keep them away from the eggs, fought the ice, the cold, and

the pain of his foot, which would not heal. As fast as the young

tissue renewed, it was bitten and scared by the frost, so that a

running sore developed, into which he could almost shove his fist.

In the mornings, when he first put his weight upon it, his head

went dizzy, and he was near to fainting from the pain; but later on

in the day it usually grew numb, to recommence when he crawled into

his blankets and tried to sleep. Yet he, who had been a clerk and

sat at a desk all his days, toiled till the Indians were exhausted,

and even out-worked the dogs. How hard he worked, how much he

suffered, he did not know. Being a man of the one idea, now that

the idea had come, it mastered him. In the foreground of his

consciousness was Dawson, in the background his thousand dozen

eggs, and midway between the two his ego fluttered, striving always

to draw them together to a glittering golden point. This golden

point was the five thousand dollars, the consummation of the idea

and the point of departure for whatever new idea might present

itself. For the rest, he was a mere automaton. He was unaware of

other things, seeing them as through a glass darkly, and giving

them no thought. The work of his hands he did with machine-like

wisdom; likewise the work of his head. So the look on his face

grew very tense, till even the Indians were afraid of it, and

marvelled at the strange white man who had made them slaves and

forced them to toil with such foolishness.

 

Then came a snap on Lake Le Barge, when the cold of outer space

smote the tip of the planet, and the force ranged sixty and odd

degrees below zero. Here, labouring with open mouth that he might

breathe more freely, he chilled his lungs, and for the rest of the

trip he was troubled with a dry, hacking cough, especially

irritable in smoke of camp or under stress of undue exertion. On

the Thirty Mile river he found much open water, spanned by

precarious ice bridges and fringed with narrow rim ice, tricky and

uncertain. The rim ice was impossible to reckon on, and he dared

it without reckoning, falling back on his revolver when his drivers

demurred. But on the ice bridges, covered with snow though they

were, precautions could be taken. These they crossed on their

snowshoes, with long poles, held crosswise in their hands, to which

to cling in case of accident. Once over, the dogs were called to

follow. And on such a bridge, where the absence of the centre ice

was masked by the snow, one of the Indians met his end. He went

through as quickly and neatly as a knife through thin cream, and

the current swept him from view down under the stream ice.

 

That night his mate fled away through the pale moonlight, Rasmunsen

futilely puncturing the silence with his revolver--a thing that he

handled with more celerity than cleverness. Thirty-six hours later

the Indian made a police camp on the Big Salmon.

 

"Um--um--um funny mans--what you call?--top um head all loose," the

interpreter explained to the puzzled captain. "Eh? Yep, clazy,

much clazy mans. Eggs, eggs, all a time eggs--savvy? Come bime-

by."

 

It was several days before Rasmunsen arrived, the three sleds

lashed together, and all the dogs in a single team. It was

awkward, and where the going was bad he was compelled to back-trip

it sled by sled, though he managed most of the time, through

herculean efforts, to bring all along on the one haul. He did not

seem moved when the captain of police told him his man was hitting

the high places for Dawson, and was by that time, probably, half-

way between Selkirk and Stewart. Nor did he appear interested when

informed that the police had broken the trail as far as Pelly; for

he had attained to a fatalistic acceptance of all natural

dispensations, good or ill. But when they told him that Dawson was

in the bitter clutch of famine, he smiled, threw the harness on his

dogs, and pulled out.

 

But it was at his next halt that the mystery of the smoke was

explained. With the word at Big Salmon that the trail was broken

to Pelly, there was no longer any need for the smoke wreath to

linger in his wake; and Rasmunsen, crouching over lonely fire, saw

a motley string of sleds go by. First came the courier and the

half-breed who had hauled him out from Bennett; then mail-carriers

for Circle City, two sleds of them, and a mixed following of

ingoing Klondikers. Dogs and men were fresh and fat, while

Rasmunsen and his brutes were jaded and worn down to the skin and

bone. They of the smoke wreath had travelled one day in three,

resting and reserving their strength for the dash to come when

broken trail was met with; while each day he had plunged and

floundered forward, breaking the spirit of his dogs and robbing

them of their mettle.

 

As for himself, he was unbreakable. They thanked him kindly for

his efforts in their behalf, those fat, fresh men,--thanked him

kindly, with broad grins and ribald laughter; and now, when he

understood, he made no answer. Nor did he cherish silent

bitterness. It was immaterial. The idea--the fact behind the

idea--was not changed. Here he was and his thousand dozen; there

was Dawson; the problem was unaltered.

 

At the Little Salmon, being short of dog food, the dogs got into

his grub, and from there to Selkirk he lived on beans--coarse,

brown beans, big beans, grossly nutritive, which griped his stomach

and doubled him up at two-hour intervals. But the Factor at

Selkirk had a notice on the door of the Post to the effect that no

steamer had been up the Yukon for two years, and in consequence

grub was beyond price. He offered to swap flour, however, at the

rate of a cupful of each egg, but Rasmunsen shook his head and hit

the trail. Below the Post he managed to buy frozen horse hide for

the dogs, the horses having been slain by the Chilkat cattle men,

and the scraps and offal preserved by the Indians. He tackled the

hide himself, but the hair worked into the bean sores of his mouth,







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