– Shall we leave, master ?
Every morning, it’s Billikins’ request, Hurricane’s response. We go, we run, we stop, we scan the horizon and, in the night, we come back to start again at dawn. The dogs are exhausted. Hâve, Billikins can only support himself by dint of pride. Hurricane is in splendid shape. With hard muscles, his will dominating his nerves, he is as handsome as an ancient hero.
The thermometer went down to 50. The mercury froze in the glass tube. The two men walked the trail for the unnecessary trip. Eleven times, the harnessed dogs, the men have left. Men and animals returned eleven times harassed.
– Shall we leave, master ?
And, without waiting for the answer, Billikins is about to leave.
– No stay.
Surprised, the Indian half turned.
Hurricane shakes his head.
And, without saying anything more, Billy settles on a stepladder, removes his moccasins and grills his feet with bliss.
Facing him, arms crossed, legs outstretched, Hurricane smokes a pipe, which he holds askew between his teeth. He roasts his paws: one hour, two hours, three hours. Especially if you think that at this very moment you could be treading in the snow, it gives you selfish thoughts, yes, but, in the long run, it is tiresome.
Bill tries to strike up a conversation.
Hurricane chews his pipe. A growl comes out, something like: “I don’t care …”
Dogs don’t interest him. Silence. Usually the white man is sensitive to the stories of the natives.
– My father, who accompanied Labarge in 1867 …
– I don’t care …
Billikins is hurt in his filial love. But he is tenacious and does not consider himself beaten.
– One day, the Indians of Tanana, known as Gens de la Butte, went up the Yukon to Pelly River . There, they found the Birch Indians , of the Birch tribe, with whom they made an alliance to fight the Rat tribe, installed on the other side of the river, on the Porcupine …
Hey, hey, Hurricane doesn’t care. Billy listens. Alas! the dear boy is sleeping; a trickle of smoke emerges, which becomes thinner, from the bowl of his pipe.
Annoyed, Billikins stands up. He puts on his moccasins, the laces of which he disdains and, behind the glass, he freezes in contemplation of the thermometer.
From April 11 to 23, we ran the trail in a terrible temperature; today, 24, the thermometer has risen several rungs. 16 °, it’s exquisite… And we stay at home. Really, what the brains of white men are made of.
And Billy is having fun watching the passing boys.
Here, Mac Waddington has put a beaver collar on his skin jacket. William N. Flattery has new boots. Espérance Picard, the Canadian from the parish of Quebec, has his snowshoes under his arm.
But the only street in the camp is bleak. There is no longer any animation, and Billikins, abandoning the earth, lets his thoughts wander towards the sky.
The sky, less heavy with snow, is a pearl gray. Clouds pursue an uncertain route there. It’s a lot of fun, the clouds. There are all the figures carved on the totems : the owl, the bear, the wolverine, the fox, the elk, the seal, the walrus, the wolf and the raven. Human figures too… A silent laugh narrows the eyes of Billy who recognizes some of his tribe.
Suddenly, he blinks his eyelids… No, he is not dreaming: over there, rising from the horizon, it is not a cloud, he is sure of it… These are geese, the geese that come from the South, the geese heralding the new season. The earth will leave its icy dress, tumultuous torrents will run, the river will bubble… The grasses, the flowers, the spring!
He repeats mechanically:
– The geese! the geese!
– What do you say?
Hurricane was therefore not sleeping as deeply as we thought.
– Yes, geese.
Pushing back his stepladder, which falls with four feet in the air, with a leap, Hurricane is at the door which he opens.
The flight passes obliquely over their heads.
Hurricane’s joy is given free rein. He holds Billikins shoulders, which he shakes.
– Yes, old man, geese! The Yukon will break its ice barrier; before eight days the debacle will be complete and, on open water, the boats will descend – the paddle steamer , the flatboats, the native canoes… It’s the devil if Gregory Land is not among the first to arrive.
Joy brings the boys to the Willow Branch saloon , and we drink to death in the bad season. The long arctic night is over, the uncertain labor is gone … We drink to fortune which will finally make its favorites known; the water will flow in the sluice-boxes , we will see the color of the pay! In the meantime, we see that of alcohol. The dream is tenacious in the hearts of young men. And, in the rising drunkenness, projects are born whose fate will burst the bubble of illusion.
What does it matter! if at the present hour we enjoy the happiness that is offered.
The whiskey warms the brains and the game dulls the souls.
Isn’t their life a constant game? It is played against good or bad fortune, at the mine, on the trail , against the climate, against animals, against men.
The action is everything. On the fields of Alaska, from Dyea to Point Barrow , from the mouths of the Yukon to the Mackenzie Delta, nothing suffers from mediocrity. There is no room for the “golden mean”. Extremes, yes, but no compromise. All the strength or all the weakness. The selection operates on its own. Not brute force, but the best tempered soul. The so-called civilized nations die or will die of the good little life smoothly, they will pass from immobility to death without transition and without taking care.
Happy peoples have stories which are history.
Exaltation of courage. Civic virtues are better than warlike virtues. To die for a good cause is right, but to die without knowing why or for whom is ungodly.
Fate is in the leather cone where the dice collide, it is he who holds “the hand”.
The vanquished is not the one who loses, but the one who passes; this one eliminates itself. It is the suicide. The loser vibrated a minute, an hour, a life. He lived.
” I take a chance ” is the phrase on everyone’s lips, and most are not there for the appetite for gold, but for the emotions of the game.
Of creeks neglected up hope the next harvest; the heavy pestles of the mill which crushes the gold chant the promise of future riches.
Outside, the frozen landscape comes to a stop, but we know that tomorrow will come. So, in the saloon , the boys have their hearts in celebration, the stakes are shouted, the songs mingle their refrains, the accordion moans out of tune with the guitar, while the phonograph turns nasal things that make us laugh the gold diggers.
There are the sounds of glasses, the stamping of dances, the cries of drunkards, offers of bets.
– Whiskey and gin, half and half.
– James, you will be “my lady” for the next foxtrot.
– I bet twenty dollars that the debacle will happen on the 25th.
– Fifty dollars that she will start in the morning.
– All right. I am your man.
And, suddenly, the two leaves of the door open under a push, a waterspout rushes in with clamors, barks, the cracking of a whip. It is Gregory Land and his mail stage who pay for a fanciful “entry” in the bar of the Branche de Saule .
– Waiter , a double martini for me; fish, meat, bran, corn or bootsticks, anything for my dogs.
One would not have to know the postmaster to believe a word of what he says, not for the order of the double martini, which is firm, but for his animals.
He goes, he comes from the kitchen to the counter and, while talking, he disembowels with the point of the knife boxes of corned beef ; corn flour is brought to him, he makes a mixture which he kneads with his hands.
– They didn’t steal it, sure . Forty-five miles since this morning, and the last five, ah! my elders! I thought we would never arrive. We are the last to take the Yukon trail . It cracks everywhere. Before two days, the river will have burst its ice belt. Since Cariboo Kid, mosquitoes have been making a hell of a music to us, right, dear thing?
And Gregory pats his leader , Tempest, on the neck , who gives him a sideways nod of approval.
– A helping hand, boys, will you? to unhitch these individuals from the devil. Peace, you guys, eh! It’s for you, be wise.
The dogs, relieved of their harnesses, snort. They shake their bristling hairs; they stretch their paws and bark around the master.
And Gregory, carrying the mash in an enamel bowl, leaves, followed by his team .
Two minutes later he’s back.
– Dogs first, eh! it is justice. Then me, if you don’t mind.
And, all at once, he empties the double martini. There are good drinkers, of course, at Last Chance , but the postman’s throatiness is famous. No one would risk a fight with Gregory, not even Douglas Bighorn who, however, swallows ten pitchers of stout at the same time as the referee claps his hands ten times.
The postman, satisfied, takes a deep breath, stands on his legs, pulls up his panties with a gesture, buckling the belt, and says:
– Now to you, boys!
With the knife, he cuts the lead knot which strangles the mailbag and, on the table, he empties the mail.
The minors are ranged around him like children attentive to the will of the master.
The poor dear writings are there, pell-mell, with round or square, short or stocky packets, all of which bear stamps canceled by all the post offices in the world.
And the harsh voice begins the call.
The hands shake a little when they receive the letter. Immediately the happy boy withdrew to one side and, with an unskilful thumb, opened the envelope. News from the country we have left, from the father, the mother, who are waiting there for the one that, in private, we call “the burnt brain” or “the madman”, but for whom, deep down, family solicitude softens. Do we know exactly where Last Chance is ? Somewhere at the end of the earth, in a place where, on the map, there is a lot, a lot of white, because you don’t know . A blue line, a broken line, it is a river which divides the leaf; in curve, capital letters write “ALASKA”; here and there a tiny dot: a fort, if the map is old, a city,. But the camp, the placers ? Where is it? We do not know. However, what everyone knows is the murderous climate, the blizzard, the eight months of snow, the toil, this fantastic toil that amazes the imaginations of those who remain.
How did this boy who, here, did not do much? … “The plow, the hoe, the pickaxe, all the machines for scraping the soil, it’s good for the mercenaries!” Pushing back the horizon closed by the steeple, he dreamed of another future: the City, the tempting road, the port, the ocean, the mysterious lands.
His appetite is great, his muscles strong. Goodbye old people, goodbye, steeple, good bye , friends.
But the country remained dear to the heart of the exile and it was trembling that for thousands of miles he received the four sheets of paper which prove that, over there, at the other end of the round machine, beings think of him.
Sometimes, when a name is called, a replacement appears.
– Hardish? He stayed at home. Give. Thank you.
– Colville? He traps blue foxes. He’s home in ten days. Give. Thank you.
– Banks? He doesn’t need anything anymore. Yes, a piece of rock that broke his kidneys six weeks ago.
And Gregory, in his thick handwriting, writes on the back: ” Return to sender, gone without leaving an address.” ”
Why kill the poor old folks over there with the boy’s death? Not worth it. We must leave them the hope that helps them live the last beautiful days of life. ” Left without leaving an address.” We know the adventurous guy, he went further, pardienne! he will come back ; one morning, the postman will knock with his cane on the shutter, bringing news …
– William King?
A chechaquo rushes forward, knocking over two stepladders. We laugh. He grabs the letter with both hands and, under the light, he reads and, while he reads, a smile emerges on the tips of his lips; this smile gradually widens, reveals the gums; it is a silent laugh that rises to the sparkling gaze. The jokes go on the sweetheart . She is waiting. She sends her last photo. “Show it, boy. Beautiful bit of a girl! Luck on you! ”
– Thomson, Periquo, Harley, Walsh, Laramie… Laramie.
– Here! here! grasseye a Canadian in a slow voice.
He takes the letter, looks at it, feels it, turns it, turns it over and puts it in his pocket without opening it. Then he goes out. Laramie has solitary joy.
– How is that all? Really? Haven’t you forgotten anything? Turn the bag over, maybe …
A last hope clings to this “maybe”. Hurricane turned pale. His voice hesitates:
– Are you sure? Gregory.
– Sure. See for yourself.
Hurricane keeps, stupid, the bag deflated in his hands, but the fists clench on the rough canvas. A thrill shakes the boy with a great icy shiver, water clouds his eyes, his eyelids close, his eyelashes gently quiver.
The closed lips contract, then pull. Claws bridle the temples, wrinkles hollow out the forehead, slashes cut the cheeks, a mask is plastered over this face, like a soft wax on a painful face.
It lasts eight seconds, maybe ten.
The eyes wake up, the lips relax, the hands open, the bag falls. Hurricane pushes him away and, speaking to Gregory:
– Say, old chap , how about a second double martini cocktail?