The Wild

Page 9

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CHAPTER SIX

CITY OF HOPE AND GREED

FROM A DISTANCE, Dawson City had looked grim. Closer in—actually walking its streets and smelling its air—Jack realized it was worse than that. It was a wild place draped in false civilization. Like the rough clapboard buildings lining the streets behind extravagant, colorful façades, its reality was dour and gray. Here is a place that was never meant to be, Jack thought, and even his newfound enthusiasm seemed to wither somewhat under Dawson’s gaze.

Leaving Jim back at the riverside with their belongings, Jack and Merritt ventured in, hoping to find cheap accommodation and somewhere to store their gear. The smell hit Jack hard: raw sewage, rotting food, the stench of beasts of burden kept out in the open. Beneath that, however, were the aromas of cooking food and spilled drinks, and both made his mouth water.

They passed a crude sign daubed with the words FRONT STREET, and before them lay the early results of the Yukon gold rush. Rough buildings rose on either side with timber walkways laid before them, and the buildings’ frontages belied the true nature of their construction. Saloons, dress shops, a dentist, outfitters, markets, hotels, a laundry—a whole new town built in this wild place with the river as its real source of life. And yet, where Jack had expected enthusiasm and excitement to hold sway, so many people seemed possessed of a strange listlessness that he worried that an illness had swept through the city. Some of the men and women who walked along the street had a dazed expression, their haggard, thin faces drooping and their eyes vacant.

“What’s wrong with them?” Merritt muttered, and Jack could tell how unsettled the big man was.

“I don’t know,” Jack said. “Let’s ask.”

“But—” Merritt tried to grab him, but Jack was too fast.

“Friend,” Jack said, grabbing the hand of a passing man. He was taller than Jack, with a bald head mottled with scabby skin and a huge, drooping mustache that hid his mouth and dipped below his chin. “What’s the matter with Dawson?” It was a strange question, but Jack could think of no other way of posing it.

“Dawson?” the man said. His accent was pure northeast, containing the New York lilt that Jack remembered so well. “Dawson’s a ghost town.”

“Doesn’t look like a ghost town to me!” Jack said, trying to sound enthusiastic.

The man looked from Jack to Merritt and back again. “Jus’ get in? Been out in the wilds for the winter, huh?”

“That’s right,” Merritt said.

“Come to stake your claim and find your gold, huh?”

Jack nodded. There was something like mockery creeping into the man’s voice now, and Jack didn’t like it.

But the man sighed, as if to mock was too much effort, and his eyes seemed to sigh along with him. They were weak, Jack saw. Pale. As if this rough land had leached the color even from those.

“I been here close on six months,” the man said. “Never went any farther. From what I hear up the trail, there’s no need. Gold? There’s some. But no new strikes fer some time now. So Dawson’s jus’ where the weak ones finish their journey an’ stay. The strong ones turn around and head home.”

“We haven’t come all this way to turn tail and run,” Jack said, angry now. “Haven’t been through all we’ve been through—”

“Think you’ve been through tough times?” the man said, his voice dropping low as he leaned in closer. “Don’t compare to what you’ll find here, or beyond. There are stories—”

“Listen here,” Jack said, and he took a step forward. He felt his fury rising, his fists clenching; and a few heads turned their way. But nobody seemed particularly alarmed, or even interested, and he wondered how many fights these people saw on the streets of Dawson every day.

“Jack, come on,” Merritt said, grabbing his arm.

“Yeah,” Jack said. He glanced back at Merritt and nodded. I’m fine, that look said, but Merritt’s expression spoke otherwise. Perhaps he saw something in Jack that he’d never seen before.

The man walked on, squelching through the mud. He did not once look back but stared down at his feet as if in an effort to not see anything else.

“Let’s find a place to stay first,” Merritt said. “Then we need to store our stuff, rest, get our strength up. See if we can find some damn fruits and vegetables to eat, stave off the scurvy. What do you say?”

“I say yes,” Jack said, again nodding. But the listless man preyed on his mind, and he vowed to himself that he would not remain in Dawson any longer than necessary.

They walked farther along the street, watching men and women guiding teams of dogs and packhorses through the mud. They passed a bar and heard the noise of jollity from inside, and that raised Jack’s spirits more than it should have. At least someone here still has a grasp on the good things, he thought, glancing around the street at faces that hovered like ghosts. He looked up at the bar’s name where it was painted across the façade: DAWSON BAR. Original. As with Front Street, and the Dawson Food and Clothing Market, it seemed that those who came here lost their strength of imagination along the way, and named their places purely for functionality. Nevertheless, he promised himself a visit to the Dawson Bar later that day. It would be good to take a drink, and he saw from the look on Merritt’s face—the slightly wider eyes, the flicker of tongue across lips—that he was thinking the same.

They passed a place that advertised GOLD DUST BOUGHT FOR CASH. Merritt grinned, and Jack grinned back.

“Be doing some business here soon,” the big man said, and Jack nodded, looking through the shop’s dusty window. A wizened little man sat behind a table in the small room, spectacles perched on his nose. Before him on the table were a pair of weighing scales and a set of weights. The man was nodding off to sleep, the rest of the shop empty. He did not seem very busy.

“Jack!” Merritt called from along the walkway. He was pointing across the street at the Yukon Hotel. Jack smiled and managed a chuckle. The name might not inspire, but the thought of a bed, a warm bath, and a good meal suddenly made him almost dizzy.

“Let’s go, then,” Jack said. “We’ll arrange for rooms, then go and help Jim bring the stuff into town.”

“How’ll we manage that?” Merritt asked.

“Look around you! We’ll hire a team of dogs.”

“We’ll need to buy them,” Merritt said, voice lowering.

“Come on, now. We’re not quite ready, I’ll give you that. But we still have the hunger! Not like that poor son of a bitch.” Jack waved along the street back the way they had come, but he knew that his friend was right, and he’d been thinking on that for the last few minutes. They had lots of equipment, nothing to haul it, and very little money. Either they’d be faced with working for someone else or they’d have to come up with some other means of procuring the dogs and sled they’d need to continue their adventure.


A problem for later that day, Jack decided. For now—

“Get off me!”

The raised voice came from the narrow alley between the Yukon Hotel and a neighboring building, one proudly extolling itself as THE ONLY SHAVING PARLOR AND LAUNDRY IN DAWSON.

“Give us the dog and we’ll leave you be.”

“He’s my dog, I found him, I—”

“Found him, did ya?”

Jack hurried across the street and heard Merritt on his tail.

“It’s got nothing to do with us, Jack,” Merritt warned. And although he knew the big man was right, there was something about this place that called itself a city that was already grating on Jack’s nerves. It was the curious lethargy of some of its inhabitants, the falseness of many of the buildings, the haphazard way in which the streets had been laid out, as if such things as order did not matter. But more than anything, he thought, it was the sense of defeatism that pervaded the air. He was used to rough places—the waterfront in San Francisco, his months on the road, the terrible four weeks he’d spent in jail—but such atmospheres were usually created by the people. Here, the city itself felt dangerous. For a fleeting instant, he thought of the wilderness that had been here before the first stampeders arrived.

And he wondered what the wild must think of their intrusion.

“Hey!” Jack called. “Leave the kid alone!” In truth, the kid was probably only a year or two younger than Jack, but he looked like a child.

“Get lost and mind your own business!” one of the men said. There were two of them troubling the boy. The one who’d spoken was tall and stout, with a shaggy black beard that entirely covered the lower half of his face. His eyes were hard, his skin pale and blotchy, and he wore a long gray coat, which he now shifted aside, displaying the two pistols slung around his hips. The other man was shorter, thinner, and the smile he directed at Jack chilled him to the core. It was bereft of anything approaching humanity. This man—with his short-cropped hair, neatly trimmed mustache, and wide-brimmed hat—was cold as the heart of this land, and Jack sensed a simmering brutality that made his skin crawl.

Wish we hadn’t left our damn guns with Jim, Jack thought. And he said, “What’s your business, beating on the kid like that?”

“We haven’t even started beating on him, yet. Just getting around to it, in fact,” the short man said, and his voice was a knife across ice.

“They’re trying to take my dog!” the boy said. “My Dutch. I found him, I fed him, he’s my friend!”

Jack nodded at the boy but said nothing.

“Jack,” Merritt whispered. “They have guns.”

The short man smiled. He’d obviously heard Merritt, and he shifted his black jacket slightly to reveal the revolver on his belt.

Jack laughed. It took everyone by surprise—even Jack, because it was a growl he’d felt building—and the tall man’s hands went to his pistols.

Behind him, Jack heard Merritt’s sharp intake of breath.

“Leave the boy alone,” Jack said casually, no sense of threat in his voice. “Come on, what’s he to you? You want his dog when there are a thousand others in Dawson, I’ll bet. Did you really come here to find gold and leave your good sense behind?”

The short man’s smile was still there, but it stopped a hundred miles from his eyes. He’s seen some things, Jack thought, and not all of them on the Yukon Trail. He wondered how many men this short man had watched die. He wondered how many he had killed.

“Archie,” the short man said mildly.

“If you know what’s good for you,” the big, bearded man—Archie—said, coming quickly along the alleyway toward Jack, “you’ll turn around and—”

Jack kicked him once, hard, between the legs. Archie folded over slightly, groaning, and Jack turned sideways and ground his boot down the man’s right shin. He cried out and staggered back, but Jack knew he had started something now that needed finishing. He’d been in enough scrapes down on the waterfront to know that once begun, a fight wasn’t over until one man was down, and that was doubly true with hard men like this. Glancing at the short man, confident that—for now, at least—he wasn’t going for his gun, Jack surged forward and laid into Archie with his fists.

It was like hammering at a side of beef. Archie was a big man beneath his layers of clothing, and heavy, and Jack wondered how someone from the trail could still retain so much meat on his bones. He was either a good hunter or a good thief. But Jack gave him no opportunity to recover from the first attack. When Archie cocked back a fist, Jack darted within his circle of reach and shouldered him in the chest, pushing him against the side of the hotel. Timber creaked, and one of Archie’s flailing fists caught Jack across the jaw.

The pain was fresh and shocking, but Jack punched through it. He kicked and swung, clawed with his hands, and when he felt Archie’s hand clasping for his throat, Jack lowered his face and bit. He tasted blood, and it was sour.

The kid’s dog, Dutch, was barking. And as Jack delivered the final kick that drove Archie to the ground, he heard the familiar sound of metal against leather.

“Jack, down!” Merritt shouted, and Jack let himself fall.

Someone laughed out loud, and Jack glanced up. The short man was holding his gun in one hand and resting his other on his left hip as he laughed.

Archie groaned.

Jack stood slowly, shaking his hand and speckling his trousers with the other man’s blood.

“Gonna shoot me?” he asked the short man.

“Oh no,” he replied. “Not you. You’re starved and underfed, but you’re strong. Jack. That your name? Be seeing you, Jack. See, I don’t shoot people who might be useful to me.” He glanced sidelong at the skinny kid, and his laughter halted so quickly that it did not even leave an echo. “This piece of dog dung, however…” He lifted his gun and pressed it against the boy’s throat.

Jack knew that he didn’t have a chance in hell. They were at least six feet away, and he’d have to cover that distance in the same time that the man’s finger had to squeeze half an inch against the trigger. But figuring the odds had never stopped him before. And he knew that there was no other choice.

As he launched himself at the short man—a man about to shoot a kid for not handing over a mangy mutt—something roared, and the pistol fired.

The boy dropped. The shot missed him, and a splintered hole appeared in the side of the Yukon Hotel where the bullet had struck. The dog shook and growled as it bit into the man’s forearm, lifted entirely from the ground as the shooter stepped back, dropped his gun, and fell onto his rump.

Then Jack was there, his momentum forcing both man and dog down into the mud. Dutch let go and withdrew, teeth bared and bloodied, but he obviously knew who the enemy was here. He never took his eyes from the short man, watching as Jack punched him several times in the jaw and nose. When the man lifted his left hand to strike back, Jack clasped the bitten right arm in both of his and twisted. He felt the sickening wetness of warm blood there, and the man bared his teeth in unconscious imitation of the dog. He tried his best not to scream—Jack saw that, and it impressed him—but then pain became too much, and he let the cry loose.

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