Google
Search WWW Search www.jacklondons.net
Jack London: The Stories
« View Series Index Read Stories »

“I am only a wild girl, and
I am afraid of the world....”

Part XVIII of a Series
by Dale L. Walker

AMONG Jack London's certifiable masterpieces of short fiction is "War" (The Nation [London], July 29, 1911). Charmian London says her husband wrote "what he called a picture, or, rather, two successive pictures, entitled 'War,' which he deemed one of his gems; and the story 'To Kill a Man,' which he also greatly liked." (The Book of Jack London; New York: The Century Co., 1921, II, 194).

Like "To Build a Fire" (The Century Magazine, August, 1908), "War" confronts the reader with a single character who voice is not heard and whose history is a blank. In the 2,084 words of "War" we learn little about the young man at the center of the story save that he has "quick black eyes," is of 24 or 25 years in age and sits his horse "with the careless grace of his youth had he not been so catlike and tense." At least in his present circumstance, he is high-strung, vigilant, sweating, littered with leaves and dusted with yellow pollen and rides a roan horse north across the unnamed countryside that is silent "save for the boom of heavy guns from far to the west."

He follows a cow path through dense scrub. The path swings west; the lone horseman abandons it and continues north, seemingly away from the booming guns: "The pulse of war that beat from the West suggested the companionship of battling thousands; here was naught but silence, and himself, and possible death-dealing bullets from a myriad ambushes. And yet his task was to find what he feared to find. He must go on, and on, till somewhere, some time, he encountered another man, or other men, from the other side, scouting, as he was scouting, to make report, as he must make report, of having come in touch."

He passes a farmhouse, the kitchen door open, but there are no signs of life. He comes to a stream and after a silent and careful wait, carbine on his knee, the bushes on the far side part, twenty feet distant, and a blue-eyed man with several days' growth of ginger-colored beard fills a water-bottle.

“...the detested tongue of the alien invader.”At another deserted farmhouse he finds rifle clips and empty cartridges, green with verdigris, scattered in and outside the house. There are stains of blood in the house indicating that it may have served as a place for wounded. There are a number of graves near the house and hanging from an oak tree nearby are the tattered corpses of two men.

In an orchard the rider gathers apples in a bag he fashions from his shirt. He hears hooves and sees a dozen men strung out and approaching from the opposite side of the clearing, some dismounting, others remaining in their saddles. "They seemed to be holding a council, for he could hear them talking excitedly in the detested tongue of the alien invader."

As he rides away he sees men springing to their horses, rifles to shoulders. He hears the crack of rifle fire, leans low in the saddle, one hand on his shirt-bag of apples, leaps a fence as a bullet pierces his hat, another through the saddle pommel, another striking a stone between his horse's legs.

As the men reload, the young horseman looks back and sees the man with the unmistakable ginger beard kneel down to make a long shot.

"And then he heard it, the last thing he was to hear, for he was dead ere he hit the ground in the long crashing fall from the saddle. And they, watching at the house, saw him fall, saw his body bounce when it struck the earth, and saw the burst of red-cheeked apples that rolled about him. They laughed at the unexpected eruption of apples, and clapped their hands in applause of the long shot by the man with the ginger beard."

NOTES: In 1973, in a little book titled The Alien Worlds of Jack London (Grand Rapids, MI: Wolf House Books), which I believe was the first attempt to survey London's science fiction and fantasy stories, I identified "War" as an "unclassifiable fantasy," a contradiction in terms which still seems appropriate to me.

I later included the story in two Jack London anthologies (Curious Fragments: Jack London's Tales of Fantasy Fiction and In a Far Country: Jack London's Tales of the West), and have not changed my belief that "War" is not about a specific time or place, nor about a specific war, but about war and the ironies of war, in a universal, timeless sense.

(I wrote that "War" was comparable to Ambose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" [in his Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, 1891] but in retrospect I believe London's is a far superior story.)

I read "War" the way I read Wilfred Owen's war poems. A lieutenant in the British army, Owen was killed in action in France in November, 1918. His specific war was World War I, but his poems, though containing references to the "Boche," trenches, the Western Front, the hissing of gas shells and other words and phrases identifiable with the 1914-1918 war — his "subject," he said, "is War, and the pity of War."

Jack London's "War," I believe, is also about the pity of War — any war, anywhere, any time.

There was a purpose behind the moment when the young rider hears the horsemen "talking excitedly in the alien tongue of the invader." Here is the most significant clue in the entire story that "War" is timeless, placeless — metaphoric. If a Civil War story as some insist why an "alien tongue"? A southern drawl is not an "alien tongue," nor is a northerner's twang to a southerner. A "tongue" is a language, not a dialect, patois, or vernacular, and an "alien tongue" is what any person of another language hears when we talk and what we hear when they talk. And if they are our enemy in time of war, their tongue is "detested" by us, as ours is to them.

As well, the valley into which the young rider proceeds is unnamed but vaguely familiar to all of us. It is a universal valley.

The rider's destination seems to be northward, at least "He worked always to the north, though his way was devious," and it is to the north that he seems to "apprehend that for which he was looking." What he is looking for is as obscure as is his direction: "He must go on, and on," until he meets another man, or other men, "from the other side," who are also scouting. These men will "make report," as the young rider must, "of having come in touch." Why, the reader should ask, is this young horseman seeking men "from the other side"? Doesn't "the other side" ordinarily mean the enemy? (The young rider is clearly riding in enemy territory isn't he?). And what would the enemy report to the young rider? What would he report to them? And if both he and the "other side" came in touch, who would they report to of having come in touch?

It is not important to Jack London in "War" what the rider's mission was, where he was going, who the other scouts from the other side were, what kind of report he would make or the other scouts would make. It makes no difference what direction the rider was headed except that "north" tells us he was not riding in the direction of the "heavy guns from far to the West." (We do not know whose guns they are to begin with, only that if they ceased firing they would come to the rider's attention.)

Nor does it matter that the young rider is a cavalryman, that he carries a carbine in a boot on his horse, that he finds verdigris-covered ammunition clips around the hanged corpses or that he is killed by an exceedingly long shot by the man with the ginger-beard.

It doesn't even matter that he would not have heard the shot that killed him. "War" is a "vignette" as some have characterized it, a "gem," as Charmian London called it, "a little masterpiece," in Earle Labor's words. It is also a tableau, a still picture with movement; an out-of-time incident occurring in a directionless, alien place.

It is purposefully inexact.

It means much more than it says.

divider

"Under the Deck Awnings" (The Saturday Evening Post, November 19, 1910), on the other hand, means just about what it says.

There are some men on a cruise ship somewhere when a Dr. Dawson asks his friends, "Can any man — a gentleman, I mean — call a woman a pig?" and a man named Treloar tells the story of a particular woman, a Miss Caruthers, he met on a P. & O. boat several years ago.

“She was a sea-woman, true.”She was a young, charming lady traveling with her mother and two maids. She was athletic and talented, could sing and play and as a swimmer could stay under water for two minutes and no one aboard the ship, except a man named Tom Dennitson, could retrieve as many coins in a single dive. "She was a sea-woman, true. But she was a land-woman, a horse-woman — she was the universal woman" and everybody aboard, "Young puppies and old gray dogs . . . .crawled around her skirts and whined and fawned when she whistled."

At Columbo, in Ceylon, the native boys dove for coins in the shark-infested bay and there, while she was holding court under the deck awnings, Miss Caruthers collected some coins and tossed them over the side to watch the boys jump feet-first after them.

One lad dove particularly well, perhaps taught by white men. "He was a beautiful boy, a lithe young god in breathing bronze. . . .Looking at him, it was as if a whiff of ozone came to one's nostrils — so fresh and young was he, so resplendent with health, so wildly wild."

There was a dangerous shark in the water and Miss Caruthers saw it as some of the other boys came up on the promenade deck, clustering close to the rail. Despite Captain Bentley's motioning to the boys to clear out, Miss Caruthers said "I have always understood that the natives are not afraid of sharks," and summoned the young god in breathing bronze who previously dove so well. She signed to him to dive over again but he shook his head — "Shark" — but she says, "No, there is no shark."

She holds up a half-crown and tosses it overboard but no one follows it; she is warned by Dennitson and Captain Bentley not to throw another crown over the side but she does so and the boy follows it over the rail.

The shark cuts him in half.

"'I. . .I never dreamed,'" Miss Caruthers says "and laughed a short, hysterical laugh."

Trealor is asked to classify her. "I have nothing to say. . .I have nothing to say," he says.

divider

A second story in a row about a bad woman is "To Kill a Man" (The Saturday Evening Post, December 10, 1910) wherein London's familiar cap-twisting working stiff has lost his livelihood through the grinding of the capitalist machine.

Mrs. Setliffe, clad in a sweeping negligee, delicately beautiful with her massed yellow hair and blue eyes of the chameleon sort, " walks through her mansion searching for a book of verse. The butler has retired early, the maid is out. She presses the button for the lights.

An intruder is there, flat against the wall, a Colt's revolver in his hand. He says he wants to get out, "I've kind of lost my way in this here shebang, and if you'll kindly show me the door I'll cause no trouble and sure vamoose." He admits he came to rob Mr. Setliffe and assumes she is the old man's daughter. He says he needs the money for a friend waiting for him out West and that this is his first burglary job.

She pretends to be interested in him, says she is not afraid of him because "I am confident you are not the sort of creature that would harm a woman," and offers him a drink of whisky. "You are too decent-looking a man to be a robber," she says while under the table she presses a bell with her foot to summon the butler.

The burglar, Hughie Luke, tells her how he once "had a little hole in the ground" — a "one-horse outfit of a mine"— and that Mr. Setliffe came to Idaho with his money and Luke was "scratched off the card before the first heat."

He continues to try to leave but she stalls him, inviting him to smoke while mentally measuring the distance to his revolver laying on the table.

“Ma'am, hell is full of people like you.”She offers Luke a job, $75 a week for working with horses on the Setliffe stock farm and Luke brightens and accepts. She pretends she has to go upstairs to fetch her purse and advance him the $300 he needs to help his friend but when the butler's door opens she snatches Luke's revolver and tells the butler to alert the police. "To her it was an experience keen with enjoyment, and in her mind was the gossip of her crowd, and she saw notes in the society weeklies of the beautiful Mrs. Setliffe capturing an armed robber single-handed. It would create a sensation, she was sure."

Luke tells her, "It ain't much to kill a man, but you ain't got it in you . . . I reckoned I'd seen your kind before, and now I sure know I have. I spoke to you true and trusting, and all the time you was lying like hell to me . . . . I'd sooner be poor Hughie Luke, doing his ten years, than be in your skin. Ma'am, hell is full of people like you."

After this splendid example of thief sanctimony he gets up and walks to the door, daring her to shoot. He turns for a moment before walking out, a sneer on his lips. "He spoke to her in a low voice, almost drawling, but it was the quintessence of all loathing as he called her a name unspeakable and vile."

divider

"The Eternity of Forms" (Red Book, March, 1911) is a ghost story that begins with an extract from the Newton Courier-Times on the death of Sedley Crayden of Crayden Hill, "victim of a strange delusion that kept him pinned, night and day, in his chair for the last two years of his life." The mysterious disappearance of his elder brother, James Crayden, the newspaper account explained, "seems to have preyed upon his mind, for it was shortly after that event that his delusion began to manifest itself."

This account was followed by a statement from Rudolph Heckler, confidential servant and valet for the last eight months of Sedley Crayden's life, telling of his employer's assiduous work on a manuscript which Heckler recovered and "abstracted" after he found his employer dead in his chair. Heckler adds the opinion that if an excavation were to made in the main basement, "a collection of bones will be found which should very closely resemble those which James Crayden once clothed in mortal flesh."

In the "lucid fragments" of the manuscript Crayden begins by saying "I never killed my brother," that they were old men who never disagreed on anything, scholars who cared nothing for the outside world, only their companionship and their books, and that "in short, we lived at high and friendly intellectual altitudes." Sedley Crayden says that when his brother disappeared he spent nearly $50,000 on private detectives and rewards to find him.

After James's disappearance Crayden began having hallucinations — seeing his brother seated at the desk, writing. James, Crayden says, "believed in the eternity of the form of things." His brother appears over and again and Crayden recalls that he once has a conversation with James after picking up a poker. James maintained if his brother struck him dead he would "go on. . . .as a conscious entity."

"He had always been so obstinate in this metaphysical belief of his," Crayden says, "The next thing I knew, he was lying on the hearth. Blood was running. It was terrible." After this incident, Crayden began sitting in the chair all day and having his meals brought to him. "As long as I occupy the chair I am quit of him," he says.

"The weeks pass, the months come and go, the seasons change, the servants replace each other, while I remain. . .He comes no more. There is no eternity of forms. I have proved it. For nearly two years now, I have remained in this chair, and have not seen him once. . . .I am afraid to leave the chair."

divider

“. . .'high-grade feeb' who plays drums. . .”Any doubt about Jack London's versatility as a writer will be permanently laid to rest by a reading of such stories as "O Haru,", "All Gold Canon," "The Apostate," "Goliah," "The Chinago," "Samuel," "War," "The Mexican," "The Red One," "Like Argus of the Ancient Times," and the inimitable "Told in a Drooling Ward" (Bookman, June, 1914). The latter story, the last published in London's lifetime, is narrated by Tom, age 28, who makes it clear that he is not a drooler but an assistant working with and feeding the 55 "low grade droolers" in the ward. He has been an inmate of the institution [presumably the State Hospital for the Insane at Napa, renamed in 1924 as the Napa State Hospital] for 25 years, can walk and talk, run errands, and "do things." He likes the Home, not the "outside," and is a "high-grade feeb" who plays drums in the band and can read music. His mouth "lops down" and his teeth are bad. He takes special care of little Albert, a drooler.

Tom explains that there are also "high grade epilecs" at the Home, and "micros," with little heads no bigger than a fist, usually droolers, who live a long time; and "hydros," with big heads who don't drool, never grow up, and die young.

Tom would like to be married and has been in love with a nurse. He was adopted once and went away on the railroad over 40 miles to live on a ranch with a man named Peter Bopp and his wife. Mrs. Bopp was scared to death of Tom who slept in a woodshed, got up at four to feed horses, milk cows and carry milk to neighbors — his chores. He was not allowed to play with the Bopp children and was called "Looney Tom."

Peter Bopp took a strap to Tom and one day when he was given $3 by Mrs Brown to pay for her milk, he walked down to the station and rode a train back to the Home.

Once he joined some epilecs running away to a mountain said to have a gold mine on its summit. He carried little Albert in his arms but they got hungry, heard strange noises at night, and went back to the Home. Tom says the next time he runs away he won't take the epilecs with him but will take little Albert. Anyway, he says he won't be running away: "The drooling ward's a better snap than gold mines," Tom says, "and now I hear there's a new nurse coming. Besides little Albert's bigger than I am now, and I could never carry him over a mountain. And he's growing bigger every day. It's astonishing."

Tom wants to be a real assistant at the Home, with a $40 a month pay plus board.

divider

"The Hobo and the Fairy" (The Saturday Evening Post, February 11, 1911) is a sweet but not quit saccharin moral story involving a man of the indomitable down-and-out whose life is transformed by a little girl named Joan.

Ross Shanklin, the hobo of the title, lays sleeping in the dry grass of a glade near a stream and a wagon road in the Napa Valley as wagons loaded with grapes go by toward the winery. He is a rough customer — hair matted with burrs and foxtails, several teeth missing, flies buzzing and lighting on him, remains of blood on his cheek bones, toil-distorted hands, alcohol breath. He is ex-convict 4379, a Texas-born former cowboy apprehended at age seventeen for horse-theft and sentenced to fourteen years despite no priors on his record. He toiled in hell, escaped more than once, was triced up and lashed until he fainted then was thrown in the dungeon for ninety days. He had been strait-jacketed, trailed through swamps by bloodhounds, and shot twice. He had cut a cord and a half of wood a day in a convict lumber camp, seen convicts goaded to murder, lived through a mutiny and had "known every infamy of human cruelty" before he was freed and given five dollars for his years of labor.

There is a bungalow near Shanklin's grass billet and from it a little girl emerges with a parasol, perhaps eight years old, delicately fragile, "a little, delicious blond, with hair spun of gossamer gold and wild blue eyes." She comes upon Shanklin and shades him with her parasol and brushes the flies off him till he wakes. He says, "I thought you was a fairy when I first seen you." She says she is "just a good Samaritan," is not afraid of Shanklin and tells him that her mother once gave food to a robber and even got him work to do.

Her name is Joan. Shanklin says, "I wish I had a little girl like you" but confesses he is unmarried — "Nobody would have me" — and when the girl glances at his rags and dirt he says, "If I was washed — if I wore good clothes — if I was respectable — if I had a job and worked regular — if I wasn't what I am."

She asks in a strange non sequitur, "What do you think of God?" and he says, "I ain't never met him . . . . He never done anything for me . . . . And work never done anything for me neither."

She offers him some food but he declines and says goodbye to the "little fairy. He stumbles on down the road, stops and stares at a saloon and finds a dime in his pocket, but moves on. At a farm he asks for a job, a steady job. He knows horses and is willing to prove it. The farmer says he is short a teamster and will give him a chance to make good.

divider

London's Smoke Bellew stories, a dozen of them, published in Cosmopolitan between June, 1911, and May-June, 1912, have been dismissed as unimportant by many of the author's biographers and critics — and by the author himself. Charmian London wrote, "He [Jack] always referred to 'Smoke Bellew' as 'hackwork,' strictly excluding the last story, 'Love of Women' ["Wonder of Women"], which he strove to make one of his best." (The Book of Jack London, New York: The Century Co., 1921; II, 202.) But while London was guilty of occasional "hackwork," the Smoke Bellew stories are not in that category. They are in fact polished, witty, and captivating adventure tales for young and old, and a return to a venue he loved: the Yukon in gold rush days. Best of all for the always cash-strapped Jack, Cosmopolitan paid $750 each for them.

The first of the series, "The Taste of the Meat" (Cosmopolitan, June, 1911) tells of the transformation of Christopher "Kit," later "Smoke," Bellew, from an effete, 27-year-old San Francisco club man, Bohemian hanger-on and sometime magazine writer, into a hardened Klondiker of '97.

Bellew becomes associate editor of The Billow, writing criticism and a weekly installment of a serial about San Francisco — all without pay, at about the time the steamship Excelsior arrives from Alaska with news of the Klondike gold strike. Kit's uncle John Bellew, who came west in an ox-team in the 1850s, is taking his sons north and so Kit quits The Billow to go along.

They land on Dyea beach and portage across Chilkoot Pass, Kit making the trips from Dyea Flats while John Bellew's boys are sent ahead to construct a boat that will take them on the Yukon River to Dawson City, center of Klondike gold strike.

“Did you see my smoke?”Kit meets Joy Gastell whose sourdough father has found gold on the Klondike. She was born in a trading post on the Great Slave Lake, crossed the Rockies as a child with her and came down the Yukon. Smoke is smitten. Joy gives him his Yukon nickname after he devises a tarpaulin sled to carry a half a ton of goods by sliding the cargo down a glacier. "Did you see my smoke?" he asks Joy. She then "baptizes" him "Smoke."

With the arctic winter coming on, Uncle John Bellew intends pulling out, back to Dyea and a steamer home. But Kit decides to stay. "I've got my taste of meat, and I like it," he says. "I'm going on."

divider

In the second of the series, "The Meat" (Cosmopolitan, July, 1911), Smoke takes a job with two rich malingerers, Sprague and Stine, wanting to get to Dawson before the freeze up but unwilling to do any work. Smoke meets Jack Short ("Shorty"), also hired by Sprague and Stine, who have overpaid Indian packers to get them to Lake Lindeman and have bought a boat for $1,000. "They'd take the crape off the door of a house in mourning if they needed it," Shorty says of these "humdingers."

Sprague, a rosy-cheeked, well-fed specimen of 25; Stine, a pallid young man, fight amongst themselves (like the Kilkenny Cats of "In a Far Country") both lazy and demanding servant-like work from those they employ. Smoke and Shorty take them in their boat across Lake Lindeman and portage on to Lake Bennett in two days of backbreaking toil. At Windy Arm, Stine wrecks the boat on a lee shore, requiring two days making repairs.

They struggle through Miles Canyon, White Horse rapids, and across Lake LeBarge, water freezing on oar-blades, the water like mush, the malingerers rousted from their blankets to get to work while Shorty sings a verse that will become familiar in a later Klondike story:

Like Argus of the ancient times,
We leave this Modern Greece,
Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tum, tum-tum,
To shear the Golden Fleece.

They are swept along and barely make it to Dawson before the six-month freeze-up.

There, after three days of moving a ton and a half outfit ashore to a log cabin Stine and Sprague have purchased, and with the temperature at 65 below, the employers pay off Smoke and Shorty. They also renege on their promise to share their food cache with them, this while Dawson is suffering a famine — while, as Shorty puts it, "Moose meat's sellin' for two dollars a pound and they ain't none."

Shorty bruises his knuckles on his former employers then teams up with Smoke to hunt moose and sell the meat.

divider

"The Stampede to Squaw Creek" (Cosmopolitan, August, 1911), third of the Smoke Bellew tales, has Smoke and Shorty tipped about a strike on Squaw Creek, the two packing the bare necessities and traveling on foot, passing over 300 stampeders before catching up with the two in the vanguard, Joy Gastell and her father Louis. She bemoans the fact that the cheechakos are taking claims that ought rightfully to go to the sourdoughs who founded the country.

Joy leads them to Norway Creek, two hours away from the main strike. They are careful about the springs, water flowing out from banks and lying in pools "cuddled from the cold by later surface freezings and snowfalls." It is known in the Yukon country that if a man makes a break-through, at 70 below zero, in five minutes the man could lose his feet unless his wet gear removed and his feet thawed.

Joy steps through one; Smoke gets a fire started quickly, hacks off her moccasins and socks, rubs her feet with snow and sends Shorty off to stake their claims above Discovery.

Shorty stakes 1,000 foot claims but when Smoke investigates he finds the claim, which is rich, was staked on a horseshoe bend but the upper stake is ten feet below the lower stake and a result they have staked 10 feet less than nothing.

divider

"Shorty Dreams" (Cosmopolitan, September, 1911) is the fourth of the Smoke Bellew series and deals with Smoke's "system" in playing roulette at the Elkhorn in Dawson. Shorty firmly believes there are no "systems" but watches Smoke play and rack up winnings and the house back down its limit. Smoke has a peculiar playing style but in the end he has $70,000 in gold dust including $30,000 from the game owners in Dawson to whom he sells his "system." It is simply that Smoke has observed "sequences" of numbers where the ball lands — perhaps because the table is too close to the fire and that the wheel is warped and has a way of landing on certain numbers at certain times.

divider

In "The Man on the Other Bank" (Cosmopolitan, October, 1911) Smoke gets lost in a blizzard, spends a night in a snowdrift, and awakens on the shore of Surprise Lake whose bottom is believed paved with gold. Nearby are three graves, a small ramshackle cabin, some rotting furs, a skeleton, a lump of gold and a pepper can full of rough nuggets. Four days later, after he loses sight of the lake in -40 weather, somebody fires a rifle and a bullet tears through Smoke's parka, there is a jingle of dog bells, and Smoke is taken prisoner by a group of men and accused of killing a man named Joe Kinade. At a miner's meeting 38 men want to lynch Smoke but Breck is among the miners and it was his friend Breck who Smoke once helped at Lake Lindeman. Smoke directs him to the gold from Surprise Lake to use to start a fake stampede. When all but a few of the miners have left, Smoke tells Breck he is going after the real killer, but the man is captured after raiding a cache and dies of starvation and the cold.

divider

In "The Race for Number Three" (Cosmopolitan, November, 1911), sixth of the series, Smoke joins the race for a claim, No. 3 below Discovery, on Mono Creek, worth a million dollars. The man who has staked it has disappeared and 45 men, with dog teams in relays, are racing from the staking of No. 3 to the recorder's office in Dawson, 110 miles distant. Shorty helps, as does Joy Gastell and Sitka Charley, from whom Smoke has purchased a team. In the end it is a race between Smoke and Big Alec of Circle City — most famous dog-driver in the North — and the two arrive at the recorder's office in a dead heat and must split the claim between them.

divider

"The Little Man" (Cosmopolitan, December, 1911), seventh of the series, tells of Smoke returning to the Surprise Lake area and encountering a remarkable little man named Andy Carson who has similarly blundered upon the treasure lake. Smoke and Andy begin descending a glacier, trussed together by a 40-foot length of rope. Smoke falls into a crevasse and Carson keeps from plummeting to his death by main strength. After futile efforts to chop holes in the glacier for hand-holds, the rope begins slipping and Smoke cuts it to prevent Carson from falling with him. Smoke is saved as he plunges into a freak basin of water. Carson hikes to the cabin and Joy Gastell and her father bring Smoke to safety.

divider

In the eighth of the series, "The Hanging of Cultus George" (Cosmopolitan, January, 1912), Smoke and Shorty are six days on trail en route from Mucluc to a great copper find along the Milk River. They meet with a party of 200 starving Siwash Indians along the trail. Famine has struck them, they have eaten their dogs, and have returned from the Milk River with raw, red copper nuggets which they think is gold. They are wild and dangerous and have to be beaten back with whips and fists. Shorty is left to feed them from their year's stash of grub and dried salmon while Smoke returns to Mucluc for help. He lines up the food and dog teams from the miners of Mucluc but Cultus George, a Circle City Indian "civilized" from living with whites, demands payment for his work. A noose is hastily slung over a rafter and after George does a short dance on it, he is convinced to donate his help and ends up beating everybody to the Indian camp.

divider

"The Mistake of Creation" (Cosmopolitan, February, 1912), ninth of the series, finds Smoke and Shorty eighteen days out of Dawson on the Nordbeska River. They discover tracks and five dead bodies, frozen, apparent suicides, plus several other graves and the camp of the Laura Sibley outfit out of Los Angeles, a vegetarian sect led by the seeress and professional clairvoyant. She had started out with 93 men and women. Ten of this number are now dead, two others have disappeared and the rest are stricken with scurvy, 30 too weak to be taken from their beds.

Sibley doesn't believe in doctors; Shorty calls her a "steeress" since she steered her people to the death camp on the Nordbeska.

Amos Wentworth is the only member of the party without scurvy. He claims he exercised while the others growled and became "lazy blanket-loafers." Sibley detests Westworth, says he would not lift a hand to help the others.

Smoke appoints Shorty "chief nurse" to exercise the people, bury the dead, gather firewood, make spruce tea, confiscate weapons, scrub cabins, and wash clothes.

“They're life! They're life!.”Smoke believes fresh potatoes are needed to cure the scurvy and discovers that Amos Wentworth has some. He pays $1,000 in gold for one potato and feeds the juice to two dying men who subsequently show signs of rallying. But Wentworth won't part with more potatoes so Shorty beats the snot out of him after which he and Smoke set the cabin on fire. Wentworth emerges with a big sack of potatoes screaming "They're life! They're life!" but the potatoes are appropriated and the camp is dosed with the juice. Wentworth is put on the trail to Dawson after Shorty extracts the $1,000 Smoke paid him for the single potato. As a parting shot Shorty yells to the Mistake of Creation, "Hope a skunk bites you and you get howlin' hydrophoby."

divider

"A Flutter in Eggs" (Cosmopolitan, March, 1912), the tenth Smoke Bellew tale, is a reworking of the plot of "The One Thousand Dozen" (National Magazine, March,1903).

Smoke is semi-gallantly seeking to help Lucille Arral, "the singing soubrette of the tiny stock company that performed nightly at the Palace Opera House," and to make a fast buck while putting some life into a moribund Dawson. He will corner the egg market in the Klondike. Doing so will bring Lucille and Wild Water Charley, "a strapping young giant," together, for she dotes on shirred eggs and Wild Water has more money than sense when it comes to Lucille's dotings.

In three days Smoke & Shorty corner the egg market — 973 eggs costing $2,760 which they plan to sell to Wild Water at $10 an egg (good egg, that is, rebate for any bad ones) for a profit of $6970.

Wild Water agrees to buy them but before the money and eggs are exchanged Shorty reports a man named Gautereaux has brought in 3,000 eggs packed in sawdust from Circle City, offering them for sale at $10 each. Smoke sends Shorty to buy them, then offers the 3,963 total eggs at $10 each to Wild Water. Charley agrees to pay the $9,620 for the original eggs (Smoke and Shorty have by now eaten a few) but wants the extra 3,000 tested. It turns out they are all frozen, four years old, and stink when cooked.

Smoke and Shorty end up losing big money on the deal and Shorty says the two of them are "the fattest suckers that ever fell for a get-rich-quick bunco."

divider

"The Town-Site of Tra-Lee" (Cosmopolitan, April, 1912), eleventh and penultimate of the series, has Smoke and Shorty scheming to get back the $17,000 they lost in the egg flutter. They buy a worthless town-site outside Dawson for $10,000 and proceed to pique the curiosity of Dawson folk by rigging up a windlass and hauling up rock from a shaft on the property. A fair-sized stampede begins, miners smelling a "mother lode" and "fissure vein," and buying up the lots. The Northwest Mounted Police come to make sure there is no riot as Smoke and Shorty sell shares in the Tra-Lee Town-site Company. Ultimately the two speculators give Dawson General Hospital a cool $37,740 and themselves $27,000 — the price of the town-site plus what they lost on the egg flutter investment.

divider

"Wonder of Women" (Cosmopolitan, May-June, 1912), twelfth and final story of the series is nearly 16,000 words in length and was published in two parts. If the plot seems familiar it is because London used it in "Grit of Women" (McClure's, August, 1900), and the essence of it in other of the author's Northland stories.

Smoke and Shorty become separated in strange country and become captives of a mysterious tribe of Caribou people whose chief is a white man, a Scotsman who goes by the Indian name of Snass. He is, Shorty exclaims, the "hi-yu skookum top chief of the whole caboodle," and the caboodle is 20,000 square miles of wilderness, home to a hundred thousand caribou hunted by a people using bone-barbed arrows and bone knives.

Snass has a beautiful daughter, Labiskwee, blue eyed, rosy faced, with light chestnut hair sparkling with frost dust. She falls in love with Smoke and tells him, "My father he is Scotch. My mother she is dead. She is French, and English, and a little Indian, too. Her father was a great man in the Hudson's Bay Company." After Shorty escapes and Snass tells Smoke that Shorty was found frozen to death, Labiskwe agrees to help Smoke escape "back to the world," and brings food, snowshoes, a rifle and belts of ammunition.

Another white man living with Snass' tribe, Danny McCan, has been a prisoner nine years and has a native wife and children. From hunting trips he made McCan claims to know a way out of Snass's domain and agrees to guide Smoke and Labiskwee.

“...weary ghosts in a dead world.”They wander, exhausted and starving, through labyrinthine canyons, across glaciers, frozen valleys and lakes. They lose track of time, go snow-blind, starve. "They crept like silent wraiths across the faces of impending avalanches, or roused from exhausted seep to the thunder of them. They made fireless camps above timber line, thawing their meat rations with the heat of their bodies before they could eat. . . .weary ghosts in a dead world."

McCan dies and soon after Labiskwee dies in Smoke's arms after giving him a pouch of food she has hoarded for him — pathetic bread fragments, strings of caribou meat, crumbles of suet. "I am only a wild girl," she had earlier said to Smoke, "and I am afraid of the world; but I am more afraid of you. You see, I love you more than anybody else in the world. I love you more than myself."

He buries her in a thawed gravel bank which he digs out with an ax then fights his way west for three days until finding the Klondike River where he is reunited with Shorty.

All Smoke says in tribute to Labiskwee is "I know what a woman is — now. And there's one woman I want to see right away."

Shorty tells him Joy Gastell is waiting for him in Dawson.

Note: To read any or all stories named in this series, see the "Read stories" link which provides an alphabetized list. Click on any story and read the entire text.
« View Series Index go to top of page
Jack London: The Stories
Part 19:  "Have you lived? What have you got to show for it?"
Home  ::  Biography  ::  Ranch Album  ::  Writings  ::  Links

For Copyright and Terms of Service Instructions - click here Valid XHTML 1.0!