Where the Trail Forks
by Jack London
“Must I, then, must I, then, now leave this town –
And you, my love, stay here?”–Schwabian Folk-song.
The singer, clean-faced and cheery-eyed, bent over and added water to a pot of simmering beans, and then, rising, a stick of firewood in hand, drove back the circling dogs from the grub-box and cooking-gear. He was blue of eye, and his long hair was golden, and it was a pleasure to look upon his lusty freshness. A new moon was thrusting a dim horn above the white line of close-packed snow-capped pines which ringed the camp and segregated it from all the world. Overhead, so clear it was and cold, the stars danced with quick, pulsating movements. To the southeast an evanescent greenish glow heralded the opening revels of the aurora borealis. Two men, in the immediate foreground, lay upon the bearskin which was their bed. Between the skin and naked snow was a six-inch layer of pine boughs. The blankets were rolled back. For shelter, there was a fly at their backs,–a sheet of canvas stretched between two trees and angling at forty-five degrees. This caught the radiating heat from the fire and flung it down upon the skin. Another man sat on a sled, drawn close to the blaze, mending moccasins. To the right, a heap of frozen gravel and a rude windlass denoted where they toiled each day in dismal groping for the pay-streak. To the left, four pairs of snowshoes stood erect, showing the mode of travel which obtained when the stamped snow of the camp was left behind.
That Schwabian folk-song sounded strangely pathetic under the cold northern stars, and did not do the men good who lounged about the fire after the toil of the day. It put a dull ache into their hearts, and a yearning which was akin to belly-hunger, and sent their souls questing southward across the divides to the sun- lands.
“For the love of God, Sigmund, shut up!” expostulated one of the men. His hands were clenched painfully, but he hid them from sight in the folds of the bearskin upon which he lay.
“And what for, Dave Wertz?” Sigmund demanded. “Why shall I not sing when the heart is glad?”
“Because you’ve got no call to, that’s why. Look about you, man, and think of the grub we’ve been defiling our bodies with for the last twelvemonth, and the way we’ve lived and worked like beasts!”
Thus abjured, Sigmund, the golden-haired, surveyed it all, and the frost-rimmed wolf-dogs and the vapor breaths of the men. “And why shall not the heart be glad?” he laughed. “It is good; it is all good. As for the grub–” He doubled up his arm and caressed the swelling biceps. “And if we have lived and worked like beasts, have we not been paid like kings? Twenty dollars to the pan the streak is running, and we know it to be eight feet thick. It is another Klondike–and we know it–Jim Hawes there, by your elbow, knows it and complains not. And there’s Hitchcock! He sews moccasins like an old woman, and waits against the time. Only you can’t wait and work until the wash-up in the spring. Then we shall all be rich, rich as kings, only you cannot wait. You want to go back to the States. So do I, and I was born there, but I can wait, when each day the gold in the pan shows up yellow as butter in the churning. But you want your good time, and, like a child, you cry for it now. Bah! Why shall I not sing:
“In a year, in a year, when the grapes are ripe,
I shall stay no more away.
Then if you still are true, my love,
It will be our wedding day.
In a year, in a year, when my time is past,
Then I’ll live in your love for aye.
Then if you still are true, my love,
It will be our wedding day.”
The dogs, bristling and growling, drew in closer to the firelight. There was a monotonous crunch-crunch of webbed shoes, and between each crunch the dragging forward of the heel of the shoe like the sound of sifting sugar. Sigmund broke off from his song to hurl oaths and firewood at the animals. Then the light was parted by a fur-clad figure, and an Indian girl slipped out of the webs, threw back the hood of her squirrel-skin parka, and stood in their midst. Sigmund and the men on the bearskin greeted her as “Sipsu,” with the customary “Hello,” but Hitchcock made room on the sled that she might sit beside him.
“And how goes it, Sipsu?” he asked, talking, after her fashion, in broken English and bastard Chinook. “Is the hunger still mighty in the camp? and has the witch doctor yet found the cause wherefore game is scarce and no moose in the land?”
“Yes; even so. There is little game, and we prepare to eat the dogs. Also has the witch doctor found the cause of all this evil, and to-morrow will he make sacrifice and cleanse the camp.”
“And what does the sacrifice chance to be?–a new-born babe or some poor devil of a squaw, old and shaky, who is a care to the tribe and better out of the way?”
“It chanced not that wise; for the need was great, and he chose none other than the chief’s daughter; none other than I, Sipsu.”
“Hell!” The word rose slowly to Hitchcock’s lips, and brimmed over full and deep, in a way which bespoke wonder and consideration.
“Wherefore we stand by a forking of the trail, you and I,” she went on calmly, “and I have come that we may look once more upon each other, and once more only.”
She was born of primitive stock, and primitive had been her traditions and her days; so she regarded life stoically, and human sacrifice as part of the natural order. The powers which ruled the day-light and the dark, the flood and the frost, the bursting of the bud and the withering of the leaf, were angry and in need of propitiation. This they exacted in many ways,–death in the bad water, through the treacherous ice-crust, by the grip of the grizzly, or a wasting sickness which fell upon a man in his own lodge till he coughed, and the life of his lungs went out through his mouth and nostrils. Likewise did the powers receive sacrifice. It was all one. And the witch doctor was versed in the thoughts of the powers and chose unerringly. It was very natural. Death came by many ways, yet was it all one after all,– a manifestation of the all-powerful and inscrutable.
But Hitchcock came of a later world-breed. His traditions were less concrete and without reverence, and he said, “Not so, Sipsu. You are young, and yet in the full joy of life. The witch doctor is a fool, and his choice is evil. This thing shall not be.”
She smiled and answered, “Life is not kind, and for many reasons. First, it made of us twain the one white and the other red, which is bad. Then it crossed our trails, and now it parts them again; and we can do nothing. Once before, when the gods were angry, did your brothers come to the camp. They were three, big men and white, and they said the thing shall not be. But they died quickly, and the thing was.”
Hitchcock nodded that he heard, half-turned, and lifted his voice. “Look here, you fellows! There’s a lot of foolery going on over to the camp, and they’re getting ready to murder Sipsu. What d’ye say?”
Wertz looked at Hawes, and Hawes looked back, but neither spoke. Sigmund dropped his head, and petted the shepherd dog between his knees. He had brought Shep in with him from the outside, and thought a great deal of the animal. In fact, a certain girl, who was much in his thoughts, and whose picture in the little locket on his breast often inspired him to sing, had given him the dog and her blessing when they kissed good-by and he started on his Northland quest.
“What d’ye say?” Hitchcock repeated.
“Mebbe it’s not so serious,” Hawes answered with deliberation. “Most likely it’s only a girl’s story.”
“That isn’t the point!” Hitchcock felt a hot flush of anger sweep over him at their evident reluctance. “The question is, if it is so, are we going to stand it? What are we going to do?”
“I don’t see any call to interfere,” spoke up Wertz. “If it is so, it is so, and that’s all there is about it. It’s a way these people have of doing. It’s their religion, and it’s no concern of ours. Our concern is to get the dust and then get out of this God-forsaken land. ‘T isn’t fit for naught else but beasts? And what are these black devils but beasts? Besides, it’d be damn poor policy.”
“That’s what I say,” chimed in Hawes. “Here we are, four of us, three hundred miles from the Yukon or a white face. And what can we do against half-a-hundred Indians? If we quarrel with them, we have to vamose; if we fight, we are wiped out. Further, we’ve struck pay, and, by God! I, for one, am going to stick by it!”
“Ditto here,” supplemented Wertz.
Hitchcock turned impatiently to Sigmund, who was softly singing, –
“In a year, in a year, when the grapes are ripe,
I shall stay no more away.”
“Well, it’s this way, Hitchcock,” he finally said, “I’m in the same boat with the rest. If three-score bucks have made up their mind to kill the girl, why, we can’t help it. One rush, and we’d be wiped off the landscape. And what good’d that be? They’d still have the girl. There’s no use in going against the customs of a people except you’re in force.”
“But we are in force!” Hitchcock broke in. “Four whites are a match for a hundred times as many reds. And think of the girl!”
Sigmund stroked the dog meditatively. “But I do think of the girl. And her eyes are blue like summer skies, and laughing like summer seas, and her hair is yellow, like mine, and braided in ropes the size of a big man’s arms. She’s waiting for me, out there, in a better land. And she’s waited long, and now my pile’s in sight I’m not going to throw it away.”
“And shamed I would be to look into the girl’s blue eyes and remember the black ones of the girl whose blood was on my hands,” Hitchcock sneered; for he was born to honor and championship, and to do the thing for the thing’s sake, nor stop to weigh or measure.
Sigmund shook his head. “You can’t make me mad, Hitchcock, nor do mad things because of your madness. It’s a cold business proposition and a question of facts. I didn’t come to this country for my health, and, further, it’s impossible for us to raise a hand. If it is so, it is too bad for the girl, that’s all. It’s a way of her people, and it just happens we’re on the spot this one time. They’ve done the same for a thousand-thousand years, and they’re going to do it now, and they’ll go on doing it for all time to come. Besides, they’re not our kind. Nor’s the girl. No, I take my stand with Wertz and Hawes, and–“
But the dogs snarled and drew in, and he broke off, listening to the crunch-crunch of many snowshoes. Indian after Indian stalked into the firelight, tall and grim, fur-clad and silent, their shadows dancing grotesquely on the snow. One, the witch doctor, spoke gutturally to Sipsu. His face was daubed with savage paint blotches, and over his shoulders was drawn a wolfskin, the gleaming teeth and cruel snout surmounting his head. No other word was spoken. The prospectors held the peace. Sipsu arose and slipped into her snowshoes.
“Good-by, O my man,” she said to Hitchcock. But the man who had sat beside her on the sled gave no sign, nor lifted his head as they filed away into the white forest.
Unlike many men, his faculty of adaptation, while large, had never suggested the expediency of an alliance with the women of the Northland. His broad cosmopolitanism had never impelled toward covenanting in marriage with the daughters of the soil. If it had, his philosophy of life would not have stood between. But it simply had not. Sipsu? He had pleasured in camp-fire chats with her, not as a man who knew himself to be man and she woman, but as a man might with a child, and as a man of his make certainly would if for no other reason than to vary the tedium of a bleak existence. That was all. But there was a certain chivalric thrill of warm blood in him, despite his Yankee ancestry and New England upbringing, and he was so made that the commercial aspect of life often seemed meaningless and bore contradiction to his deeper impulses.
So he sat silent, with head bowed forward, an organic force, greater than himself, as great as his race, at work within him. Wertz and Hawes looked askance at him from time to time, a faint but perceptible trepidation in their manner. Sigmund also felt this. Hitchcock was strong, and his strength had been impressed upon them in the course of many an event in their precarious life. So they stood in a certain definite awe and curiosity as to what his conduct would be when he moved to action.
But his silence was long, and the fire nigh out, when Wertz stretched his arms and yawned, and thought he’d go to bed. Then Hitchcock stood up his full height.
“May God damn your souls to the deepest hells, you chicken-hearted cowards! I’m done with you!” He said it calmly enough, but his strength spoke in every syllable, and every intonation was advertisement of intention. “Come on,” he continued, “whack up, and in whatever way suits you best. I own a quarter-interest in the claims; our contracts show that. There’re twenty-five or thirty ounces in the sack from the test pans. Fetch out the scales. We’ll divide that now. And you, Sigmund, measure me my quarter-share of the grub and set it apart. Four of the dogs are mine, and I want four more. I’ll trade you my share in the camp outfit and mining-gear for the dogs. And I’ll throw in my six or seven ounces and the spare 45-90 with the ammunition. What d’ye say?”
The three men drew apart and conferred. When they returned, Sigmund acted as spokesman. “We’ll whack up fair with you, Hitchcock. In everything you’ll get your quarter-share, neither more nor less; and you can take it or leave it. But we want the dogs as bad as you do, so you get four, and that’s all. If you don’t want to take your share of the outfit and gear, why, that’s your lookout. If you want it, you can have it; if you don’t, leave it.”
“The letter of the law,” Hitchcock sneered. “But go ahead. I’m willing. And hurry up. I can’t get out of this camp and away from its vermin any too quick.”
The division was effected without further comment. He lashed his meagre belongings upon one of the sleds, rounded in his four dogs, and harnessed up. His portion of outfit and gear he did not touch, though he threw onto the sled half a dozen dog harnesses, and challenged them with his eyes to interfere. But they shrugged their shoulders and watched him disappear in the forest.
A man crawled upon his belly through the snow. On every hand loomed the moose-hide lodges of the camp. Here and there a miserable dog howled or snarled abuse upon his neighbor. Once, one of them approached the creeping man, but the man became motionless. The dog came closer and sniffed, and came yet closer, till its nose touched the strange object which had not been there when darkness fell. Then Hitchcock, for it was Hitchcock, upreared suddenly, shooting an unmittened hand out to the brute’s shaggy throat. And the dog knew its death in that clutch, and when the man moved on, was left broken-necked under the stars. In this manner Hitchcock made the chief’s lodge. For long he lay in the snow without, listening to the voices of the occupants and striving to locate Sipsu. Evidently there were many in the tent, and from the sounds they were in high excitement. At last he heard the girl’s voice, and crawled around so that only the moose- hide divided them. Then burrowing in the snow, he slowly wormed his head and shoulders underneath. When the warm inner air smote his face, he stopped and waited, his legs and the greater part of his body still on the outside. He could see nothing, nor did he dare lift his head. On one side of him was a skin bale. He could smell it, though he carefully felt to be certain. On the other side his face barely touched a furry garment which he knew clothed a body. This must be Sipsu. Though he wished she would speak again, he resolved to risk it.
He could hear the chief and the witch doctor talking high, and in a far corner some hungry child whimpering to sleep. Squirming over on his side, he carefully raised his head, still just touching the furry garment. He listened to the breathing. It was a woman’s breathing; he would chance it.
He pressed against her side softly but firmly, and felt her start at the contact. Again he waited, till a questioning hand slipped down upon his head and paused among the curls. The next instant the hand turned his face gently upward, and he was gazing into Sipsu’s eyes.
She was quite collected. Changing her position casually, she threw an elbow well over on the skin bale, rested her body upon it, and arranged her parka. In this way he was completely concealed. Then, and still most casually, she reclined across him, so that he could breathe between her arm and breast, and when she lowered her head her ear pressed lightly against his lips.
“When the time suits, go thou,” he whispered, “out of the lodge and across the snow, down the wind to the bunch of jackpine in the curve of the creek. There wilt thou find my dogs and my sled, packed for the trail. This night we go down to the Yukon; and since we go fast, lay thou hands upon what dogs come nigh thee, by the scruff of the neck, and drag them to the sled in the curve of the creek.”
Sipsu shook her head in dissent; but her eyes glistened with gladness, and she was proud that this man had shown toward her such favor. But she, like the women of all her race, was born to obey the will masculine, and when Hitchcock repeated “Go!” he did it with authority, and though she made no answer he knew that his will was law.
“And never mind harness for the dogs,” he added, preparing to go. “I shall wait. But waste no time. The day chaseth the night alway, nor does it linger for man’s pleasure.”
Half an hour later, stamping his feet and swinging his arms by the sled, he saw her coming, a surly dog in either hand. At the approach of these his own animals waxed truculent, and he favored them with the butt of his whip till they quieted. He had approached the camp up the wind, and sound was the thing to be most feared in making his presence known.
“Put them into the sled,” he ordered when she had got the harness on the two dogs. “I want my leaders to the fore.”
But when she had done this, the displaced animals pitched upon the aliens. Though Hitchcock plunged among them with clubbed rifle, a riot of sound went up and across the sleeping camp.
“Now we shall have dogs, and in plenty,” he remarked grimly, slipping an axe from the sled lashings. “Do thou harness whichever I fling thee, and betweenwhiles protect the team.”
He stepped a space in advance and waited between two pines. The dogs of the camp were disturbing the night with their jangle, and he watched for their coming. A dark spot, growing rapidly, took form upon the dim white expanse of snow. It was a forerunner of the pack, leaping cleanly, and, after the wolf fashion, singing direction to its brothers. Hitchcock stood in the shadow. As it sprang past, he reached out, gripped its forelegs in mid-career, and sent it whirling earthward. Then he struck it a well-judged blow beneath the ear, and flung it to Sipsu. And while she clapped on the harness, he, with his axe, held the passage between the trees, till a shaggy flood of white teeth and glistening eyes surged and crested just beyond reach. Sipsu worked rapidly. When she had finished, he leaped forward, seized and stunned a second, and flung it to her. This he repeated thrice again, and when the sled team stood snarling in a string of ten, he called, “Enough!”
But at this instant a young buck, the forerunner of the tribe, and swift of limb, wading through the dogs and cuffing right and left, attempted the passage. The butt of Hitchcock’s rifle drove him to his knees, whence he toppled over sideways. The witch doctor, running lustily, saw the blow fall.
Hitchcock called to Sipsu to pull out. At her shrill “Chook!” the maddened brutes shot straight ahead, and the sled, bounding mightily, just missed unseating her. The powers were evidently angry with the witch doctor, for at this moment they plunged him upon the trail. The lead-dog fouled his snowshoes and tripped him up, and the nine succeeding dogs trod him under foot and the sled bumped over him. But he was quick to his feet, and the night might have turned out differently had not Sipsu struck backward with the long dog-whip and smitten him a blinding blow across the eyes. Hitchcock, hurrying to overtake her, collided against him as he swayed with pain in the middle of the trail. Thus it was, when this primitive theologian got back to the chief’s lodge, that his wisdom had been increased in so far as concerns the efficacy of the white man’s fist. So, when he orated then and there in the council, he was wroth against all white men.
“Tumble out, you loafers! Tumble out! Grub’ll be ready before you get into your footgear!”
Dave Wertz threw off the bearskin, sat up, and yawned.
Hawes stretched, discovered a lame muscle in his arm, and rubbed it sleepily. “Wonder where Hitchcock bunked last night?” he queried, reaching for his moccasins. They were stiff, and he walked gingerly in his socks to the fire to thaw them out. “It’s a blessing he’s gone,” he added, “though he was a mighty good worker.”
“Yep. Too masterful. That was his trouble. Too bad for Sipsu. Think he cared for her much?”
“Don’t think so. Just principle. That’s all. He thought it wasn’t right–and, of course, it wasn’t,–but that was no reason for us to interfere and get hustled over the divide before our time.”
“Principle is principle, and it’s good in its place, but it’s best left to home when you go to Alaska. Eh?” Wertz had joined his mate, and both were working pliability into their frozen moccasins. “Think we ought to have taken a hand?”
Sigmund shook his head. He was very busy. A scud of chocolate- colored foam was rising in the coffee-pot, and the bacon needed turning. Also, he was thinking about the girl with laughing eyes like summer seas, and he was humming softly.
His mates chuckled to each other and ceased talking. Though it was past seven, daybreak was still three hours distant. The aurora borealis had passed out of the sky, and the camp was an oasis of light in the midst of deep darkness. And in this light the forms of the three men were sharply defined. Emboldened by the silence, Sigmund raised his voice and opened the last stanza of the old song:-
“In a year, in a year, when the grapes are ripe–“
Then the night was split with a rattling volley of rifle-shots. Hawes sighed, made an effort to straighten himself, and collapsed. Wertz went over on an elbow with drooping head. He choked a little, and a dark stream flowed from his mouth. And Sigmund, the Golden-Haired, his throat a-gurgle with the song, threw up his arms and pitched across the fire.
The witch doctor’s eyes were well blackened, and his temper none of the best; for he quarrelled with the chief over the possession of Wertz’s rifle, and took more than his share of the part-sack of beans. Also he appropriated the bearskin, and caused grumbling among the tribesmen. And finally, he tried to kill Sigmund’s dog, which the girl had given him, but the dog ran away, while he fell into the shaft and dislocated his shoulder on the bucket. When the camp was well looted they went back to their own lodges, and there was a great rejoicing among the women. Further, a band of moose strayed over the south divide and fell before the hunters, so the witch doctor attained yet greater honor, and the people whispered among themselves that he spoke in council with the gods.
But later, when all were gone, the shepherd dog crept back to the deserted camp, and all the night long and a day it wailed the dead. After that it disappeared, though the years were not many before the Indian hunters noted a change in the breed of timber wolves, and there were dashes of bright color and variegated markings such as no wolf bore before.