Jack London.

A Daughter of the Snows online

. (page 4 of 20)
Online LibraryJack LondonA Daughter of the Snows → online text (page 4 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


learned the way of his legs, Jacob Welse had wandered a-horse through a
thousand miles of wilderness, and wintered in a hunting-lodge on the
head-waters of the Red River of the North. His first foot-gear was
moccasins, his first taffy the tallow from a moose. His first
generalizations were that the world was composed of great wastes and
white vastnesses, and populated with Indians and white hunters like his
father. A town was a cluster of deer-skin lodges; a trading-post a
seat of civilization; and a factor God Almighty Himself. Rivers and
lakes existed chiefly for man's use in travelling. Viewed in this
light, the mountains puzzled him; but he placed them away in his
classification of the Inexplicable and did not worry. Men died,
sometimes. But their meat was not good to eat, and their hides
worthless, - perhaps because they did not grow fur. Pelts were
valuable, and with a few bales a man might purchase the earth. Animals
were made for men to catch and skin. He did not know what men were
made for, unless, perhaps, for the factor.

As he grew older he modified these concepts, but the process was a
continual source of naive apprehension and wonderment. It was not
until he became a man and had wandered through half the cities of the
States that this expression of childish wonder passed out of his eyes
and left them wholly keen and alert. At his boy's first contact with
the cities, while he revised his synthesis of things, he also
generalized afresh. People who lived in cities were effeminate. They
did not carry the points of the compass in their heads, and they got
lost easily. That was why they elected to stay in the cities. Because
they might catch cold and because they were afraid of the dark, they
slept under shelter and locked their doors at night. The women were
soft and pretty, but they could not lift a snowshoe far in a day's
journey. Everybody talked too much. That was why they lied and were
unable to work greatly with their hands. Finally, there was a new
human force called "bluff." A man who made a bluff must be dead sure
of it, or else be prepared to back it up. Bluff was a very good
thing - when exercised with discretion.

Later, though living his life mainly in the woods and mountains, he
came to know that the cities were not all bad; that a man might live in
a city and still be a man. Accustomed to do battle with natural
forces, he was attracted by the commercial battle with social forces.
The masters of marts and exchanges dazzled but did not blind him, and
he studied them, and strove to grasp the secrets of their strength.
And further, in token that some good did come out of Nazareth, in the
full tide of manhood he took to himself a city-bred woman. But he
still yearned for the edge of things, and the leaven in his blood
worked till they went away, and above the Dyea Beach, on the rim of the
forest, built the big log trading-post. And here, in the mellow of
time, he got a proper focus on things and unified the phenomena of
society precisely as he had already unified the phenomena of nature.
There was naught in one which could not be expressed in terms of the
other. The same principles underlaid both; the same truths were
manifest of both. Competition was the secret of creation. Battle was
the law and the way of progress. The world was made for the strong,
and only the strong inherited it, and through it all there ran an
eternal equity. To be honest was to be strong. To sin was to weaken.
To bluff an honest man was to be dishonest. To bluff a bluffer was to
smite with the steel of justice. The primitive strength was in the
arm; the modern strength in the brain. Though it had shifted ground,
the struggle was the same old struggle. As of old time, men still
fought for the mastery of the earth and the delights thereof. But the
sword had given way to the ledger; the mail-clad baron to the
soft-garbed industrial lord, and the centre of imperial political power
to the seat of commercial exchanges. The modern will had destroyed the
ancient brute. The stubborn earth yielded only to force. Brain was
greater than body. The man with the brain could best conquer things
primitive.

He did not have much education as education goes. To the three R's his
mother taught him by camp-fire and candle-light, he had added a
somewhat miscellaneous book-knowledge; but he was not burdened with
what he had gathered. Yet he read the facts of life understandingly,
and the sobriety which comes of the soil was his, and the clear
earth-vision.

And so it came about that Jacob Welse crossed over the Chilcoot in an
early day, and disappeared into the vast unknown. A year later he
emerged at the Russian missions clustered about the mouth of the Yukon
on Bering Sea. He had journeyed down a river three thousand miles
long, he had seen things, and dreamed a great dream. But he held his
tongue and went to work, and one day the defiant whistle of a crazy
stern-wheel tub saluted the midnight sun on the dank river-stretch by
Fort o' Yukon. It was a magnificent adventure. How he achieved it
only Jacob Welse can tell; but with the impossible to begin with, plus
the impossible, he added steamer to steamer and heaped enterprise upon
enterprise. Along many a thousand miles of river and tributary he
built trading-posts and warehouses. He forced the white man's axe into
the hands of the aborigines, and in every village and between the
villages rose the cords of four-foot firewood for his boilers. On an
island in Bering Sea, where the river and the ocean meet, he
established a great distributing station, and on the North Pacific he
put big ocean steamships; while in his offices in Seattle and San
Francisco it took clerks by the score to keep the order and system of
his business.

Men drifted into the land. Hitherto famine had driven them out, but
Jacob Welse was there now, and his grub-stores; so they wintered in the
frost and groped in the frozen muck for gold. He encouraged them,
grub-staked them, carried them on the books of the company. His
steamers dragged them up the Koyokuk in the old days of Arctic City.
Wherever pay was struck he built a warehouse and a store. The town
followed. He explored; he speculated; he developed. Tireless,
indomitable, with the steel-glitter in his dark eyes, he was everywhere
at once, doing all things. In the opening up of a new river he was in
the van; and at the tail-end also, hurrying forward the grub. On the
Outside he fought trade-combinations; made alliances with the
corporations of the earth, and forced discriminating tariffs from the
great carriers. On the Inside he sold flour, and blankets, and
tobacco; built saw-mills, staked townsites, and sought properties in
copper, iron, and coal; and that the miners should be well-equipped,
ransacked the lands of the Arctic even as far as Siberia for
native-made snow-shoes, muclucs, and parkas.

He bore the country on his shoulders; saw to its needs; did its work.
Every ounce of its dust passed through his hands; every post-card and
letter of credit. He did its banking and exchange; carried and
distributed its mails. He frowned upon competition; frightened out
predatory capital; bluffed militant syndicates, and when they would
not, backed his bluff and broke them. And for all, yet found time and
place to remember his motherless girl, and to love her, and to fit her
for the position he had made.




CHAPTER VI

"So I think, captain, you will agree that we must exaggerate the
seriousness of the situation." Jacob Welse helped his visitor into his
fur great-coat and went on. "Not that it is not serious, but that it
may not become more serious. Both you and I have handled famines
before. We must frighten them, and frighten them now, before it is too
late. Take five thousand men out of Dawson and there will be grub to
last. Let those five thousand carry their tale of famine to Dyea and
Skaguay, and they will prevent five thousand more coming in over the
ice."

"Quite right! And you may count on the hearty co-operation of the
police, Mr. Welse." The speaker, a strong-faced, grizzled man,
heavy-set and of military bearing, pulled up his collar and rested his
hand on the door-knob. "I see already, thanks to you, the newcomers
are beginning to sell their outfits and buy dogs. Lord! won't there be
a stampede out over the ice as soon as the river closes down! And each
that sells a thousand pounds of grub and goes lessens the proposition
by one empty stomach and fills another that remains. When does the
Laura start?"

"This morning, with three hundred grubless men aboard. Would that they
were three thousand!"

Amen to that! And by the way, when does your daughter arrive?"

"'Most any day, now." Jacob Welse's eyes warmed. "And I want you to
dinner when she does, and bring along a bunch of your young bucks from
the Barracks. I don't know all their names, but just the same extend
the invitation as though from me personally. I haven't cultivated the
social side much, - no time, but see to it that the girl enjoys herself.
Fresh from the States and London, and she's liable to feel lonesome.
You understand."

Jacob Welse closed the door, tilted his chair back, and cocked his feet
on the guard-rail of the stove. For one half-minute a girlish vision
wavered in the shimmering air above the stove, then merged into a woman
of fair Saxon type.

The door opened. "Mr. Welse, Mr. Foster sent me to find out if he is
to go on filling signed warehouse orders?"

"Certainly, Mr. Smith. But tell him to scale them down by half. If a
man holds an order for a thousand pounds, give him five hundred."

He lighted a cigar and tilted back again in his chair.

"Captain McGregor wants to see you, sir."

"Send him in."

Captain McGregor strode in and remained standing before his employer.
The rough hand of the New World had been laid upon the Scotsman from
his boyhood; but sterling honesty was written in every line of his
bitter-seamed face, while a prognathous jaw proclaimed to the onlooker
that honesty was the best policy, - for the onlooker at any rate, should
he wish to do business with the owner of the jaw. This warning was
backed up by the nose, side-twisted and broken, and by a long scar
which ran up the forehead and disappeared in the gray-grizzled hair.

"We throw off the lines in an hour, sir; so I've come for the last
word."

"Good." Jacob Welse whirled his chair about. "Captain McGregor."

"Ay."

"I had other work cut out for you this winter; but I have changed my
mind and chosen you to go down with the Laura. Can you guess why?"

Captain McGregor swayed his weight from one leg to the other, and a
shrewd chuckle of a smile wrinkled the corners of his eyes. "Going to
be trouble," he grunted.

"And I couldn't have picked a better man. Mr. Bally will give you
detailed instructions as you go aboard. But let me say this: If we
can't scare enough men out of the country, there'll be need for every
pound of grub at Fort Yukon. Understand?"

"Ay."

"So no extravagance. You are taking three hundred men down with you.
The chances are that twice as many more will go down as soon as the
river freezes. You'll have a thousand to feed through the winter. Put
them on rations, - working rations, - and see that they work. Cordwood,
six dollars per cord, and piled on the bank where steamers can make a
landing. No work, no rations. Understand?"

"Ay."

"A thousand men can get ugly, if they are idle. They can get ugly
anyway. Watch out they don't rush the caches. If they do, - do your
duty."

The other nodded grimly. His hands gripped unconsciously, while the
scar on his forehead took on a livid hue.

"There are five steamers in the ice. Make them safe against the spring
break-up. But first transfer all their cargoes to one big cache. You
can defend it better, and make the cache impregnable. Send a messenger
down to Fort Burr, asking Mr. Carter for three of his men. He doesn't
need them. Nothing much is doing at Circle City. Stop in on the way
down and take half of Mr. Burdwell's men. You'll need them. There'll
be gun-fighters in plenty to deal with. Be stiff. Keep things in
check from the start. Remember, the man who shoots first comes off
with the whole hide. And keep a constant eye on the grub."

"And on the forty-five-nineties," Captain McGregor rumbled back as he
passed out the door.

"John Melton - Mr. Melton, sir. Can he see you?"

"See here, Welse, what's this mean?" John Melton followed wrathfully
on the heels of the clerk, and he almost walked over him as he
flourished a paper before the head of the company. "Read that! What's
it stand for?"

Jacob Welse glanced over it and looked up coolly. "One thousand pounds
of grub."

"That's what I say, but that fellow you've got in the warehouse says
no, - five hundred's all it's good for."

"He spoke the truth."

"But - "

"It stands for one thousand pounds, but in the warehouse it is only
good for five hundred."

"That your signature?" thrusting the receipt again into the other's
line of vision.

"Yes."

"Then what are you going to do about it?"

"Give you five hundred. What are you going to do about it?"

"Refuse to take it."

"Very good. There is no further discussion."

"Yes there is. I propose to have no further dealings with you. I'm
rich enough to freight my own stuff in over the Passes, and I will next
year. Our business stops right now and for all time."

"I cannot object to that. You have three hundred thousand dollars in
dust deposited with me. Go to Mr. Atsheler and draw it at once."

The man fumed impotently up and down. "Can't I get that other five
hundred? Great God, man! I've paid for it! You don't intend me to
starve?"

"Look here, Melton." Jacob Welse paused to knock the ash from his
cigar. "At this very moment what are you working for? What are you
trying to get?"

"A thousand pounds of grub."

"For your own stomach?"

The Bonanzo king nodded his head.

"Just so." The lines showed more sharply on Jacob Welse's forehead.
"You are working for your own stomach. I am working for the stomachs
of twenty thousand."

"But you filled Tim McReady's thousand pounds yesterday all right."

"The scale-down did not go into effect until to-day."

"But why am I the one to get it in the neck hard?"

"Why didn't you come yesterday, and Tim McReady to-day?"

Melton's face went blank, and Jacob Welse answered his own question
with shrugging shoulders.

"That's the way it stands, Melton. No favoritism. If you hold me
responsible for Tim McReady, I shall hold you responsible for not
coming yesterday. Better we both throw it upon Providence. You went
through the Forty Mile Famine. You are a white man. A Bonanzo
property, or a block of Bonanzo properties, does not entitle you to a
pound more than the oldest penniless 'sour-dough' or the newest baby
born. Trust me. As long as I have a pound of grub you shall not
starve. Stiffen up. Shake hands. Get a smile on your face and make
the best of it."

Still savage of spirit, though rapidly toning down, the king shook
hands and flung out of the room. Before the door could close on his
heels, a loose-jointed Yankee shambled in, thrust a moccasined foot to
the side and hooked a chair under him, and sat down.

"Say," he opened up, confidentially, "people's gittin' scairt over the
grub proposition, I guess some."

"Hello, Dave. That you?"

"S'pose so. But ez I was saying there'll be a lively stampede fer the
Outside soon as the river freezes."

"Think so?"

"Unh huh."

"Then I'm glad to hear it. It's what the country needs. Going to join
them?"

"Not in a thousand years." Dave Harney threw his head back with smug
complacency. "Freighted my truck up to the mine yesterday. Wa'n't a
bit too soon about it, either. But say . . . Suthin' happened to the
sugar. Had it all on the last sled, an' jest where the trail turns off
the Klondike into Bonanzo, what does that sled do but break through the
ice! I never seen the beat of it - the last sled of all, an' all the
sugar! So I jest thought I'd drop in to-day an' git a hundred pounds
or so. White or brown, I ain't pertickler."

Jacob Welse shook his head and smiled, but Harney hitched his chair
closer.

"The clerk of yourn said he didn't know, an' ez there wa'n't no call to
pester him, I said I'd jest drop round an' see you. I don't care what
it's wuth. Make it a hundred even; that'll do me handy.

"Say," he went on easily, noting the decidedly negative poise of the
other's head. "I've got a tolerable sweet tooth, I have. Recollect
the taffy I made over on Preacher Creek that time? I declare! how time
does fly! That was all of six years ago if it's a day. More'n that,
surely. Seven, by the Jimcracky! But ez I was sayin', I'd ruther do
without my plug of 'Star' than sugar. An' about that sugar? Got my
dogs outside. Better go round to the warehouse an' git it, eh? Pretty
good idea."

But he saw the "No" shaping on Jacob Welse's lips, and hurried on
before it could be uttered.

"Now, I don't want to hog it. Wouldn't do that fer the world. So if
yer short, I can put up with seventy-five - " (he studied the other's
face), "an' I might do with fifty. I 'preciate your position, an' I
ain't low-down critter enough to pester - "

"What's the good of spilling words, Dave? We haven't a pound of sugar
to spare - "

"Ez I was sayin', I ain't no hog; an' seein' 's it's you, Welse, I'll
make to scrimp along on twenty-five - "

"Not an ounce!"

"Not the least leetle mite? Well, well, don't git het up. We'll jest
fergit I ast you fer any, an' I'll drop round some likelier time. So
long. Say!" He threw his jaw to one side and seemed to stiffen the
muscles of his ear as he listened intently. "That's the Laura's
whistle. She's startin' soon. Goin' to see her off? Come along."

Jacob Welse pulled on his bearskin coat and mittens, and they passed
through the outer offices into the main store. So large was it, that
the tenscore purchasers before the counters made no apparent crowd.
Many were serious-faced, and more than one looked darkly at the head of
the company as he passed. The clerks were selling everything except
grub, and it was grub that was in demand. "Holding it for a rise.
Famine prices," a red-whiskered miner sneered. Jacob Welse heard it,
but took no notice. He expected to hear it many times and more
unpleasantly ere the scare was over.

On the sidewalk he stopped to glance over the public bulletins posted
against the side of the building. Dogs lost, found, and for sale
occupied some space, but the rest was devoted to notices of sales of
outfits. The timid were already growing frightened. Outfits of five
hundred pounds were offering at a dollar a pound, without flour;
others, with flour, at a dollar and a half. Jacob Welse saw Melton
talking with an anxious-faced newcomer, and the satisfaction displayed
by the Bonanzo king told that he had succeeded in filling his winter's
cache.

"Why don't you smell out the sugar, Dave?" Jacob Welse asked, pointing
to the bulletins.

Dave Harney looked his reproach. "Mebbe you think I ain't ben
smellin'. I've clean wore my dogs out chasin' round from Klondike City
to the Hospital. Can't git yer fingers on it fer love or money."

They walked down the block-long sidewalk, past the warehouse doors and
the long teams of waiting huskies curled up in wolfish comfort in the
snow. It was for this snow, the first permanent one of the fall, that
the miners up-creek had waited to begin their freighting.

"Curious, ain't it?" Dave hazarded suggestively, as they crossed the
main street to the river bank. "Mighty curious - me ownin' two
five-hundred-foot Eldorado claims an' a fraction, wuth five millions if
I'm wuth a cent, an' no sweetenin' fer my coffee or mush! Why,
gosh-dang-it! this country kin go to blazes! I'll sell out! I'll quit
it cold! I'll - I'll - go back to the States!"

"Oh, no, you won't," Jacob Welse answered. "I've heard you talk
before. You put in a year up Stuart River on straight meat, if I
haven't forgotten. And you ate salmon-belly and dogs up the Tanana, to
say nothing of going through two famines; and you haven't turned your
back on the country yet. And you never will. And you'll die here as
sure as that's the Laura's spring being hauled aboard. And I look
forward confidently to the day when I shall ship you out in a
lead-lined box and burden the San Francisco end with the trouble of
winding up your estate. You are a fixture, and you know it."

As he talked he constantly acknowledged greetings from the passers-by.
Those who knew him were mainly old-timers and he knew them all by name,
though there was scarcely a newcomer to whom his face was not familiar.

"I'll jest bet I'll be in Paris in 1900," the Eldorado king protested
feebly.

But Jacob Welse did not hear. There was a jangling of gongs as
McGregor saluted him from the pilot-house and the Laura slipped out
from the bank. The men on the shore filled the air with good-luck
farewells and last advice, but the three hundred grubless ones, turning
their backs on the golden dream, were moody and dispirited, and made
small response. The Laura backed out through a channel cut in the
shore-ice, swung about in the current, and with a final blast put on
full steam ahead.

The crowd thinned away and went about its business, leaving Jacob Welse
the centre of a group of a dozen or so. The talk was of the famine,
but it was the talk of men. Even Dave Harney forgot to curse the
country for its sugar shortage, and waxed facetious over the
newcomers, - _chechaquos_, he called them, having recourse to the Siwash
tongue. In the midst of his remarks his quick eye lighted on a black
speck floating down with the mush-ice of the river. "Jest look at
that!" he cried. "A Peterborough canoe runnin' the ice!"

Twisting and turning, now paddling, now shoving clear of the floating
cakes, the two men in the canoe worked in to the rim-ice, along the
edge of which they drifted, waiting for an opening. Opposite the
channel cut out by the steamer, they drove their paddles deep and
darted into the calm dead water. The waiting group received them with
open arms, helping them up the bank and carrying their shell after them.

In its bottom were two leather mail-pouches, a couple of blankets,
coffee-pot and frying-pan, and a scant grub-sack. As for the men, so
frosted were they, and so numb with the cold, that they could hardly
stand. Dave Harney proposed whiskey, and was for haling them away at
once; but one delayed long enough to shake stiff hands with Jacob Welse.

"She's coming," he announced. "Passed her boat an hour back. It ought
to be round the bend any minute. I've got despatches for you, but I'll
see you later. Got to get something into me first." Turning to go
with Harney, he stopped suddenly and pointed up stream. "There she is
now. Just coming out past the bluff."

"Run along, boys, an' git yer whiskey," Harney admonished him and his
mate. "Tell 'm it's on me, double dose, an' jest excuse me not
drinkin' with you, fer I'm goin' to stay."

The Klondike was throwing a thick flow of ice, partly mush and partly
solid, and swept the boat out towards the middle of the Yukon. They
could see the struggle plainly from the bank, - four men standing up and
poling a way through the jarring cakes. A Yukon stove aboard was
sending up a trailing pillar of blue smoke, and, as the boat drew
closer, they could see a woman in the stern working the long
steering-sweep. At sight of this there was a snap and sparkle in Jacob
Welse's eyes. It was the first omen, and it was good, he thought. She
was still a Welse; a struggler and a fighter. The years of her culture
had not weakened her. Though tasting of the fruits of the first remove
from the soil, she was not afraid of the soil; she could return to it
gleefully and naturally.

So he mused till the boat drove in, ice-rimed and battered, against the
edge of the rim-ice. The one white man aboard sprang: out, painter in
hand, to slow it down and work into the channel. But the rim-ice was
formed of the night, and the front of it shelved off with him into the
current. The nose of the boat sheered out under the pressure of a
heavy cake, so that he came up at the stern. The woman's arm flashed
over the side to his collar, and at the same instant, sharp and
authoritative, her voice rang out to the Indian oarsmen to back water.


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryJack LondonA Daughter of the Snows → online text (page 4 of 20)