The White Silence
“Carmen won’t last more than a couple of days.” Mason spat out a chunk of ice and surveyed the poor animal ruefully, then put her foot in his mouth and proceeded to bite out the ice which clustered cruelly between the toes.
“I never saw a dog with a highfalutin’ name that ever was worth a rap,” he said, as he concluded his task and shoved her aside. “They just fade away and die under the responsibility. Did ye ever see one go wrong with a sensible name like Cassiar, Siwash, or Husky? No, sir! Take a look at Shookum here, he’s”–
Snap! The lean brute flashed up, the white teeth just missing Mason’s throat.
“Ye will, will ye?” A shrewd clout behind the ear with the butt of the dogwhip stretched the animal in the snow, quivering softly, a yellow slaver dripping from its fangs.
“As I was saying, just look at Shookum, here–he’s got the spirit. Bet ye he eats Carmen before the week’s out.”
“I’ll bank another proposition against that,” replied Malemute Kid, reversing the frozen bread placed before the fire to thaw. “We’ll eat Shookum before the trip is over. What d’ ye say, Ruth?”
The Indian woman settled the coffee with a piece of ice, glanced from Malemute Kid to her husband, then at the dogs, but vouchsafed no reply. It was such a palpable truism that none was necessary. Two hundred miles of unbroken trail in prospect, with a scant six days’ grub for themselves and none for the dogs, could admit no other alternative. The two men and the woman grouped about the fire and began their meagre meal. The dogs lay in their harnesses, for it was a midday halt, and watched each mouthful enviously.
“No more lunches after to-day,” said Malemute Kid. “And we’ve got to keep a close eye on the dogs,–they’re getting vicious. They’d just as soon pull a fellow down as not, if they get a chance.”
“And I was president of an Epworth1 once, and taught in the Sunday school.” Having irrelevantly delivered himself of this, Mason fell into a dreamy contemplation of his steaming moccasins, but was aroused by Ruth filling his cup. “Thank God, we’ve got slathers of tea! I’ve seen it growing, down in Tennessee. What would n’t I give for a hot corn pone just now! Never mind, Ruth; you won’t starve much longer, nor wear moccasins either.”
The woman threw off her gloom at this, and in her eyes welled up a great love for her white lord,–the first white man she had ever seen,–the first man whom she had known to treat a woman as something better than a mere animal or beast of burden.
“Yes, Ruth,” continued her husband, having recourse to the macaronic jargon in which it was alone possible for them to understand each other; “wait till we clean up and pull for the Outside. We’ll take the White Man’s canoe and go to the Salt Water. Yes, bad water, rough water,–great mountains dance up and down all the time. And so big, so far, so far away,–you travel ten sleep, twenty sleep, forty sleep” (he graphically enumerated the days on his fingers), “all the time water, bad water. Then you come to great village, plenty people, just the same mosquitoes next summer. Wigwams oh, so high,–ten, twenty pines. Hi-yu shookum!”
He paused impotently, cast an appealing glance at Malemute Kid, then laboriously placed the twenty pines, end on end, by sign language. Malemute Kid smiled with cheery cynicism; but Ruth’s eyes were wide with wonder, and with pleasure; for she half believed he was joking, and such condescension pleased her poor woman’s heart.
“And then you step into a–a box, and pouf! up you go.” He tossed his empty cup in the air by way of illustration, and as he deftly caught it, cried: “And biff! down you come. Oh, great medicine-men! You go Fort Yukon, I go Arctic City,2–twenty-five sleep,–big string, all the time,–I catch him string,–I say, ‘Hello, Ruth! How are ye?’–and you say, ‘Is that my good husband?’–and I say, ‘Yes,’–and you say, ‘No can bake good bread, no more soda,’–then I say, ‘Look in cache, under flour; good-by.’ You look and catch plenty soda. All the time you Fort Yukon, me Arctic City. Hi-yu medicine-man!”
Ruth smiled so ingenuously at the fairy story, that both men burst into laughter. A row among the dogs cut short the wonders of the Outside, and by the time the snarling combatants were separated, she had lashed the sleds and all was ready for the trail.
“Mush! Baldy! Hi! Mush on!” Mason worked his whip smartly, and as the dogs whined low in the traces, broke out the sled with the gee-pole. Ruth followed with the second team, leaving Malemute Kid, who had helped her start, to bring up the rear. Strong man, brute that he was, capable of felling an ox at a blow, he could not bear to beat the poor animals, but humored them as a dog-driver rarely does,–nay, almost wept with them in their misery.
“Come, mush on there, you poor sorefooted brutes!” he murmured, after several ineffectual attempts to start the load. But his patience was at last rewarded, and though whimpering with pain, they hastened to join their fellows.
No more conversation; the toil of the trail will not permit such extravagance. And of all deadening labors, that of the Northland trail is the worst. Happy is the man who can weather a day’s travel at the price of silence, and that on a beaten track.
And of all heart-breaking labors, that of breaking trail is the worst. At every step the great webbed shoe sinks till the snow is level with the knee. Then up, straight up, the deviation of a fraction of an inch being a certain precursor of disaster, the snowshoe must be lifted till the surface is cleared; then forward, down, and the other foot is raised perpendicularly for the matter of half a yard. He who tries this for the first time, if haply he avoids bringing his shoes in dangerous propinquity and measures not his length on the treacherous footing, will give up exhausted at the end of a hundred yards; he who can keep out of the way of the dogs for a whole day may well crawl into his sleeping-bag with a clear conscience and a pride which passeth all understanding; and he who travels twenty sleeps on the Long Trail is a man whom the gods may envy.
The afternoon wore on, and with the awe, born of the White Silence, the voiceless travelers bent to their work. Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity,–the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven’s artillery,–but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot’s life, nothing more. Strange thoughts arise unsummoned, and the mystery of all things strives for utterance. And the fear of death, of God, of the universe, comes over him,–the hope of the Resurrection and the Life, the yearning for immortality, the vain striving of the imprisoned essence,–it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God.
So wore the day away. The river took a great bend, and Mason headed his team for the cut-off across the narrow neck of land. But the dogs balked at the high bank. Again and again, though Ruth and Malemute Kid were shoving on the sled, they slipped back. Then came the concerted effort. The miserable creatures, weak from hunger, exerted their last strength. Up–up–the sled poised on the top of the bank; but the leader swung the string of dogs behind him to the right, fouling Mason’s snowshoes. The result was grievous. Mason was whipped off his feet; one of the dogs fell in the traces; and the sled toppled back, dragging everything to the bottom again.
Slash! the whip fell among the dogs savagely, especially upon the one which had fallen.
Excerpted from Klondike Tales by Jack London. Copyright © 2001 by Jack London. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.