|Hanging by your toes on the sheer face of a mountain of ice, waiting to slip into space, probably isn't exactly the kind of half-hour's exercise most of you would pick out—if you had your choice. Tying a man around your waist and then wondering when the avalanche is going to cut loose, doesn't help much. But it makes corking good reading—especially in the way Jack London tells it. And that's the main thing. This story, of course, centers about "Smoke." It is a tale of one of the strange adventures and tests of nerve that come as part of the day's work in the wild gold scramble of the Yukon country|
Illustrated by Anton Otto Fischer
The Little Man
IT was a hard, hot climb. The sun blazed
dazzingly on the ice-surface, and with streaming pores they panted from the
exertion. There were places, criss-crossed by countless fissures, and
crevasses, where an hour of dangerous toil advanced them no more than a hundred
yards. At two in the afternoon, beside a pool of water bedded in the ice, Smoke
called a halt.
"Let's tackle some of that jerky," he said. "I've been on short allowance, and my knees are shaking. Besides, we're across the worst. Three hundred yards will fetch us to the rocks, and it's easy going, except for a couple of nasty fissures and one bad one that heads us down toward the bulge. There's a weak ice-bridge there, but Shorty and I managed it."
Over the jerky, the two men got acquainted, and Andy Carson unbosomed himself of the story of his life. "I just knew I'd find Surprise Lake," he mumbled in the midst of mouthfuls. "I had to. I missed the French Hill Benches, the Big Skookum, and Monte Cristo, adn then it was Surprise Lake or bust. And here I am. My wife knew I'd strike it. I've got faith enough, but hers knocks mine galleywest. She's a corker, a crackerjack—dead game, grit to her finger-ends, never-say-die, a fighter from the drop of the hat, the one woman for me, true blue and all the rest. Take a look at that."
He sprung open his watch, and on the inside cover Smoke saw a small, pasted photograph of a bright-haired woman, framed on either side by the laughing face of a child.
"Boys!" he queried.
"Boy and girl," Carson answered proudly. "He's a year and a half older." He sighed. "They might have been some grown, but we had to wait. You see, she was sick. Lungs. But she put up a fight. What'd we know about such stuff? I was clerking, railroad clerk, Chicago, when we got married. Her folks were tuberculosis. Doctors didn't know much in those days. They said it was hereditary. All her family had it. Caught it from each other, only they never guessed it. Thought they were born with it. Fate. She and I lived with them the first couple of years. I wasn't afraid. No tuberculosis in my family. And I got it. That set me thinking. It was contagious. I caught it from breathing their air.
We talked it over, she and I. Then I jumped the family doctor and consulted an up-to-date expert. He told me what I'd figured out for myself, and said Arizona was the place for us. We pulled up stakes and went down—no money, nothing. I got a job sheep-herding, and left her in town—a lung town. It was filled to spilling with lungers.
"Of course, living and sleeping in the clean open, I started right in to mend. I was away months at a time. Every time I came back, she was worse. She just couldn't pick up. But we were learning. I jerked her out of that town, and she went to sheep-herding with me. In four years, winter and summer, cold and heat, rain, snow, and frost, and all the rest, we never slept under a roof, and we were moving camp all the time. You ought to have seen the change—brown as berries, lean as Indians, tough as rawhide. When we figured we were cured, we pulled out for San Francisco. But we were too previous. By the second month we both had slight hemorrhages. We flew the coop back to Arizona and the sheep. Two years more of it. That fixed us. Perfect cure. All her family's dead. Wouldn't listen to us.
"Then we jumped cities for keeps. Knocked around on the Pacific coast, and southern Oregon looked good to us. We settled in the Rogue River Valley—apples. There's a big future there, only nobody knows it. I got my land—on time, of course—for forty an acre. Ten years from now it'll be worth five hundred.
"We've done some almighty hustling. Takes money, and we hadn't a cent to start with, you know—had to build a house and barn, get horses and plows, and all the rest. She taught school two years. Then the boy came. But we've got it. You ought to see those trees we planted—a hundred acres of them, almost mature now. But it's all been outgo, and the mortgage working overtime. That's why I'm here. She'd 'a' come along only for the kids and the trees. She's handlin' that end, and here I am, a gosh-danged expensive millionaire-in prospect."
He looked happily across the sun-dazzle on the ice to the green water of the lake along the farther shore, took a final look at the photograph, and murmured:
"She's some woman, that. She's hung on. She just wouldn't die, though she was pretty close to skin and bone all wrapped around a bit of fire when she went out with the sheep. Oh, she's thin now. Never will be fat. But it's the prettiest thinness I ever saw, and when I get back, and the trees begin to bear, and the kids get going to school, she and I are going to do Paris. I don't think much of that burg, but she's just hankered for it all her life."
"Well, here's the gold that will take you to Paris," Smoke assured him. "All we've got to do is get our hands on it."
Carson nodded with glistening eyes. "Say—that farm of ours is the prettiest piece of orchard land on all the Pacific coast. Good climate, too. Our lungs will never get touched again there. Ex-lungers have to be almighty careful, you know. If you're thinking of settling, well, just take a peep in at our valley before you settle, that's all. And fishing! Say!—did you ever get a thir y five-pound salmon on a six-ounce rod? Some fight, bo', some fight!"
"I'M lighter than you by forty pounds,"
Carson said. "Let me go first."
They stood on the edge of the crevasse. It was enormous and ancient, fully a hundred feet across, with sloping, age-eaten sides instead of sharp-angled rims. At this one place it was bridged by a huge mas of pressure-hardened snow that was itself half ice. Even the bottom of this mass they could not see, much less the bottom of the crevasse. Crumbling and melting, the bridge threatened imminent collapse. There were signs where recent portions had broken away, and even as they studied it a mass of half a ton dislodged and fell.
"Looks pretty bad," Carson admitted with an ominous head-shake. "And it looks much worse than if I wasn't a millionaire."
"But we've got to tackle it," Smoke said. "We're almost across. We can't go back. We can't camp here on the ice all night." And there's no other way. Shorty and I explored for a mile up. It was in better shape, though, when we crossed."
"It's one at a time, and me first."
Carson took the part coil of rope from Smoke's hand. "You'll have to cast
off. I'll take the rope and the pick. Gimme your hand so I can slip down
Slowly and carefully he lowered himself the several feet to the bridge, where he stood, making final adjustments for the perilous traverse. On his back was his pack outfit. Around his neck, resting on his shoulders, he coiled the rope, one end of which was still fast to his waist.
"I'd give a mighty good part of my millions right now for a bridge-construction gang," he said, but his cheery, whimsical smile belied the words. Also, he added, "It's all right; I'm a cat."
The pick, and the long stick he used as an alpenstock, he balanced horizontally after the manner of a rope-walker. He thrust one foot forward tentatively, drew it back, and steeled himself with a visible physical effort.
"I wish I was flat broke," he smiled
up. "If ever I get out of being a millionaire this time, I'll never be one
again. It's too uncomfortable."
Joy Gastell looked at him with glowing eyes,
while her father and Carson were busy coiling the rope. "How could you cut
loose in that splendid way?" she cried. "It was—it was glorious,
If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or constructive criticism,
please send e-mail to Carl Bell.
Back to the Jack London index.
"It's all right," Smoke encouraged. "I've been over it before. Better let me try it first."
"And you forty pounds to the worse," the little man flashed back. "I'll be all right in a minute. I'm all right now." And this time the nerving-up process was instantaneous. "Well, here goes for Rogue River and the apples," he said, as his foot went out, this time to rest carefully and lightly while the other foot was brought up and past. Very gently and circumspectly he continued on his way until two-thirds of the distance was covered. Here he stopped to examine a depression he must cross, at the bottom of which was a fresh crack. Smoke, watching, saw him glance to the side and down into the crevasse itself, and the begin a slight swaying.
"Keep your eyes up!" Smoke commanded sharply. "Now! Go on!"
The little man obeyed, nor faltered on the rest of the journey. The sun-eroded slope of the farther edge of the crevasse was slippery, but not steep, and he worked his way up to a narrow ledge, faced about, and sat down.
"Your turn," he called across. "But just keep a-coming and don't look down. That's what got my goat. Just keep a-coming, that's all. And get a move on. It's almighty rotten."
Balancing his own stick horizontally, Smoke essayed the passage. That the bridge was on its last legs was patent. He felt a jar under foot, a slight movement of the mass, and a heavier jar. This was followed by a single sharp crackle. Behind him he knew something was happening. If for no other reason, he knew it by the strained, tense face of Carson. From beneath, thin and faint, came the murmur of running water, and Smoke's eyes involuntarily wavered to a glimpse of the shimmering depths. He jerked them back to the way before him. Two-thirds over, he came to the depression. The sharp edges of the crack, but slightly touched by the sun, showed how recent it was. His foot was lifted to make the step across, when the crack began slowly widening, at the same time emitting numerous sharp snaps. He made the step quickly, increasing the stride of it, but the worn nails of his shoe skated on the farther slope of the depression. He fell on his face, and without pause slipped down and into the crack, his legs hanging clear, his chest supported by the stick which he had managed to twist crosswise as he fell.
His first sensation was the nausea caused by the sickening up-leap of his pulse; his first idea was of surprise that he had fallen no farther. Behind him was crackling and jar and movement to which the stick vibrated. From beneath, in the heart of the glacier, came the soft and hollow thunder of the dislodged masses striking bottom. And still the bridge, broken from its farthest support and ruptured in the middle,held, though the portion he had crossed tilted downward at a pitch of twenty degrees. He could see Carson, perched on his ledge, his feet braced against the melting surface, swiftly recoiling the rope from his shoulders to his hands.
"Wait!" he cried. "Don't move, or the whole shooting match will come down."
He calculated the distance with a quick glance, took the bandanna from his neck and tied it to the rope, and increased the length by a second bandanna from his pocket. The rope, manufactured from sled-lashings and short lengths of plaited rawhide knotted together, was both light and strong. The first cast was lucky as well as deft, and Smoke's fingers clutched it. He evidenced a hand-over-hand intention of crawling out of the crack. But Carson, who had refastened the rope around his own waist, stopped him.
"Make it fast around yourself as well," he ordered.
"If I go I'll take you with me," Smoke objected.
The little man became very peremptory.
"You shut up," he ordered. "The sound of your voice is enough to start the whole thing going."
"If I ever start going ——" Smoke began.
"Shut up! You ain't going to ever start going. Now do what I say. That's right—under the shoulders. Make it fast. Now! Start! Get a move on, but easy as you go. I'll take in the slack. You just keep a-coming. That's it. Easy. Easy."
Smoke was still a dozen feet away when the final collapse of the bridge began. Without noise, but in a jerky way, it crumbled an increasing tilt.
"Quick!" Carson called, coiling in hand-over-hand on the slack of the rope which Smoke's rush gave him.
When the crash came, Smoke's fingers were clawing into the hard face of the wall of the crevasse, while his body dragged back with the falling bridge. Carson, sitting up, feet wide apart and braced, was heaving on the rope. This effort swung Smoke in to the side wall, but it jerked Carson out of his niche. Like a cat, he faced about, clawing wildly for a hold on the ice and slipping down. Beneath him, with forty feet of taut rope between them, Smoke was clawing just as wildly; and ere the thunder from below announced the arrival of the bridge, both men had come to rest. Carson had achieved this first, and the several pounds of pull he was able to put on the rope had helped bring Smoke to a stop.
Each lay in a shallow niche, but Smoke's was so shallow that, tense with the strain of flattening and sticking, nevertheless he would have slid on had it not been for the slight assistance he took from the rope. He was on the verge of a bulge and could not see beneath him. Several minutes passed, in which they took stock of the situation and made rapid strides in learning the art of sticking to wet and slippery ice. The little man was the first to speak.
"Gee!" he said; and, a minute later, "If you can dig in for a moment and slack on the rope, I can turn over. Try it."
Smoke made the effort, then rested on the rope again. "I can do it," he said. "Tell me when you're ready. And be quick."
"About three feet down is holding for my heels," Carson said "It won't take a moment. Are you ready?"
It was hard work ot slide down a yard, turn over and sit up; but it was even harder for Smoke to remain flattened and maintain a position that from instant to instant made a greater call upon his muscles. As it was, he could feel the almost perceptible beginning of the slip when the rope tightened and he looked up into his companion's face. Smoke noted the yellow pallor of sun-tan forsaken by the blood, and wondered what his own complexion was like. But when he saw Carson, with shaking fingers, fumble for his sheath-knife, he decided the end had come. The man was in a funk and was going to cut the rope.
"Don't m-mind m-m-me," the little man chattered. "I ain't scared. It's only my nerves, gosh-dang them. I'll b-b-be all right in a minute."
And Smoke watched him, doubled over, his shoulders between his knees, shivering and awkward, holding a slight tension on the rope with one hand while the other he hacked and gouged holes for his heels in the ice.
"Carson," he breathed up to him, "you're some bear, some bear."
The answering grin was ghastly and pathetic. "I never could stand height," Carson confessed. "It always did get me. Do you mind if I stop a minute and clear my head? Then I'll make those heel-holds deeper so I can heave you up."
Smoke's heart warmed. "Look here, Carson. The thing for you to do is to cut the rope. You can never get me up, and there's no use both of us being lost. You can make it out with your knife."
"You shut up!" was the hurt retort. "Who's running this?"
And Smoke could not help but see that anger was a good restorative for the other's nerves. As for himself, it was the more nerve-racking strain, lying plastered against the ice with nothing to do but strive to stick on.
A groan and a quick cry of "Hold on!" warned him. With face pressed against the ice, he made a supreme sticking effort, felt the rope slacking, and knew Carson was slipping toward him. He did not dare look up until he felt the rope tighten and knew the other had again come to rest.
"Gee, that was a near go," Carson chatted. "I came down over a yard. Now you wait. I've got to dig new holds. If this danged ice wasn't so melty we'd be hunky-dory."
Holding the few pounds of strain necessary for Smoke with his left hand, the little man jabbed and chopped at the ice with his right. Ten minutes of this passed.
"Now, I'm going to ditch mine," he called down. "You just take it easy and wait."
Five minutes later the upward struggle began. Smoke, after drying his hands on the insides of his arm-sleeves, clawed into the climb—bellied, and clung, and stuck, and plastered—sustained and helped by the pull of the rope. Alone, he could not have advanced. Despite his muscles, because of his forty pounds' handicap, he could not cling as did Carson. A third of the way up, where the pitch was steeper and the ice less eroded, he felt the strain on the rope decreasing. He moved slower and slower. Here was no place to stop and remain. His most desperate effort could not prevent the stop, and he could feel the down-slip beginning.
"I'm going," he called up.
"So am I," was the reply, gritted through Carson's teeth.
"Then cast loose."
Smoke felt the rope tauten in a futile effort, then the pace quickened, and as he went past his previous lodgment and over the bulge the last glimpse he caught of Carson he was turned over, with madly moving hands and feet striving to overcome the downward draw. To Smoke's surprise, as he went over the bulge, there was no sheer fall. The rope restrained him as he slid down a steeper pitch, which quickly eased until he came to a halt in another niche on the verge of another bulge. Carson was now out of sight, ensconced in the place previously occupied by Smoke.
"Gee!" he could hear Carson shiver. "Gee!"
An interval of quiet followed, and then Smoke could feel the rope agitated.
"What are you doing?" he called up.
"Making more hand- and foot-holds," came the trembling answer. "You just wait. I'll have you up here in a jiffy. Don't mind the way I talk. I'm just excited. But I'm all right. You wait and see."
"You're holding me by main strength," Smoke argued. "Soon or late, with the ice melting, you'll slip down after me. The thing for you to do is to cut loose. Hear me! There's no use both of us going. Get that? You're the biggest little man in creation, but you've done your best. You cut loose."
"You shut up. I'm going to make holes this time deep enough to haul up a span of horses."
"You've held me up long enough," Smoke urged. "Let me go."
"How many times have I held you up?" came the truculent query.
"Some several, and all of them too many. You've been coming down all the time."
"And I've been learning the game all the time. I'm going on holding you up until we get out of here. Savvy? When God made me a light-weight I guess he knew what he was about. Now, shut up. I'm busy."
Several silent minutes passed. Smoke could hear the metallic strike and hack of the knife, and occasional driblets of ice slid over the bulge and came down to him. Thirsty, clinging on hand and foot, he caught the fragments in his mouth and melted them to water, which he swallowed.
He heard a gasp that slid into a groan of despair, and felt a slackening of the rope that made him claw. Immediately the rope tightened again. Straining his eyes in an upward look along the steep slope, he stared a moment, than saw the knife, point first, slide over the verge of the bulge and down upon him. He tucked his cheek to it, shrank from the pang of cut flesh, tucked more tightly, and felt the knife come to rest.
"I'm a slob," came the wail down the crevasse.
"Cheer up, I've got it," Smoke answered.
"Say! Wait! I've a lot of string in my pocket. I'll drop it down to you, and you send the knife up."
Smoke made no reply. He was battling with a sudden rush of thought.
"Hey! You! Here comes the string. Tell me when you've got it."
A small pocket-knife, weighted on the end of the string, slid down the ice. Smoke got it, opened the larger blade by a quick effort of his teeth and one hand, and made sure that the blade was sharp. Then he tied the sheath-knife to the end of the string.
"Haul away!" he called.
With strained eyes he saw the upward progress of the knife. But he saw more—a little man, afraid and indomitable, who shivered and chattered, whose head swam with giddiness, and who mastered his qualms and distresses and played a hero's part. Not since his meeting with Shorty had Smoke so quickly liked a man. Here was a proper meat-eater, eager with friendliness, generous to destruction, with a grit that shaking fear could not shake. Then, too, he considered the situation cold-bloodedly. There was no chance for two. Steadily, they were sliding into the heart of the glacier, and it was his greater weight that was dragging the little man down. The little man could stick like a fly. Alone, he could save himself.
"Bully for us!" came the voice from above, down and across the bulge of ice. "Now we'll get out of here in two shakes."
The awful struggle for good cheer and hope in Carson's voice, decided Smoke.
"Listen to me," he said steadily, vainly striving to shake the vision of Joy Gastell's face from his brain. "I sent that knife up for you to get out with. Get that? I'm going to chop loose with the jack-knife. It's one or both of us. Get that?"
"Two or nothing," came the grim but shaky response. "If you'll hold on a minute ——"
"I've held on for too long now. I'm not married. I have no adorable thin woman nor kids nor apple-trees waiting for me. Get me? Now, you hike up and out of that!"
"Wait! For God's sake, wait!" Carson screamed down. "You can't do that! Give me a chance to get you out. Be calm, old horse. We'll make the turn. You'll see. I'm going to dig holds that'll lift a house and barn."
Smoke made no reply. Slowly and gently, fascinated by the sight, he cut with the knife until one of the three strands popped and parted.
"What are you doing? Carson cried desperately. "If you cut, I'll never forgive you—never. I tell you it's two or nothing. We're going to get out. Wait! For God's sake!"
And Smoke, staring at the parted strand, five inches before his eyes, knew fear in all its weakness. He did not want to die; he recoiled from the shimmering abyss beneath him, and his panic brain urged all the preposterous optimism of delay. It was fear that prompted him to compromise.
"All right," he called up. "I'll wait. Do your best. But I tell you, Carson, if we both start slipping again I'm going to cut."
"Huh! Forget it. When we start, old horse, we start up. I'm a porous plaster. I could stick here if it was twice as steep. I'm getting a sizable hole for one heel already. Now, you hush, and let me work."
The slow minutes passed. Smoke centered his soul on the dull hurt of a hang-nail on one of his fingers. He should have clipped it away that morning—it was hurting then—he decided; and he resolved, once clear of the crevasse, that it should immediately be clipped. Then, with short focus, he stared at the hang-nail and the finger with a new comprehension. In a minute, or a few minutes at best, that hang-nail, that finger, cunningly jointed and efficient, might be part of a mangle carcass at the bottom of the crevasse. Conscious of his fear, he hated himself. Bear-eaters were made of sterner stuff. In the anger of self-revolt he all but hacked at the rope with his knife. But fear made him draw back the hand and to stick himself again, trembling and sweating, to the slippery slope. To the fact that he was soaking wet by contact with the thawing ice he tried to attribute the cause of his shivering; but he knew, in the heart of him, that it was untrue.
A gasp and a groan and an abrupt slackening of the rope, warned him. He began to slip. The movement was very slow. The rope tightened loyally, but he continued to slip. Carson could not hold him, and was slipping with him. The digging toe of his farther-extended foot encounter vacancy, and he knew that it was over the straight-away fall. And he knew, too, that in another moment his falling body would jerk Carson's after it.
Blindly, desperately, all the vitality and life-love of him beaten down in a flashing instant by a shuddering perception of right and wrong, he brought the knife-edge across the rope, saw the strands part, felt himself slide more rapidly, and then fall.
What happened then, he did not know. He was not unconscious, but it happened too quickly, and it was unexpected. Instead of falling to his death, his feet almost immediately struck in water, and he sat violently down in water that splashed coolingly on his face. His first impression was that the crevasse was shallower than he had imagined and that he had safely fetched bottom. But of this he was quickly disabused. The opposite wall was a dozen feet away. He lay in a basin formed in an out-jut of the ice-wall by melting water that dribbled and trickled over the bulge above and fell sheer down a dozen feet. This had hollowed out the basin. Where he sat the water was two feet deep, and it was flush with the rim. He peered over the rim and looked down the narrow chasm hundreds of feet to the torrent that foamed along the bottom.
"Oh, why did you?" he heard a wail from above.
"Listen," he called up. "I'm perfectly safe, sitting in a pool of water up to my neck. And here's both our packs. I'm going to sit on them. There's room for a half-dozen here. If you slip, stick close and you'll land. In the meantime you hike up and get out. Go to the cabin. Somebody's there. I saw the smoke. Get a rope, or anything that will make rope, and come back and fish for me."
"Honest!" came Carson's incredulous voice.
"Cross my heart and hope to die. Now, get a hustle on, or I'll catch my death of cold."
Smoke kept himself warm by kicking a channel through the rim with the heel of his shoe. By the time he had drained off the last of the water, a call from Carson announced that he had reached the top.
After that Smoke occupied himself with drying his clothes. The late afternoon sun beat warmly in upon him, and he wrung out his garments and spread them about him. His match-case was water-proof, and he manipulated and dried sufficient tobacco and rice-paper to make cigarettes.
Two hours later, perched naked on the two packs and smoking, he heard a voice above that he could not fail to identify.
"Oh, Smoke! Smoke!"
"Hello, Joy Gastell!" he called back. "Where'd you drop from?"
"Are you hurt?"
"Not even any skin off!"
"Father's paying the rope down now. Do you see it?"
"Yes, and I've got it," he answered. "Now, wait a couple of minutes, please."
"What's the matter?" came her anxious query, after several minutes. "Oh, I know, you're hurt."
"No, I'm not. I'm dressing."
"Yes. I've been in swimming. Now! Ready? Hoist away!"
He sent up the two packs on the first trip, was consequently rebuked by Joy Gastell, and on the second trip came up himself.
Smoke waved the compliment away with a deprecatory hand.
"I know all about it," she persisted. "Carson tole me. You sacrificed yourself to save him."
"Nothing of the sort," Smoke lied. "I could see that swimming-pool right under me all the time."
From the December 1911 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine.
Back to Carl Bell's Web Page
Joy Gastell looked at him with glowing eyes,
while her father and Carson were busy coiling the rope. "How could you cut
loose in that splendid way?" she cried. "It was—it was glorious,
If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or constructive criticism, please send e-mail to Carl Bell.
Back to the Jack London index.