The dogs run – six miles an hour – on the trail , which puts a gray spot in the immense whiteness of the landscape: stunted, stylized pines, stiff branches weep snowflakes; a few clumps of aspens, willows.
Gregory Land sits in the sleigh, disappearing under his Indian blanket; only his head comes out, hilarious:
He sings :
I’m coming. I’m coming.
For my head is bending low;
I hear their gentle voices calling
“Old Black Joe”.
Hurricane is at the helm, running behind the sled, careful to straighten the line or to hold back the team’s effort which gives a lively pace.
Tired of singing, Gregory whistles his tune. The whistle excites the beasts, which pull on their harnesses with all the strength of their muscles; hard fingernails scratch the frozen earth; sometimes an animal skates, falls on its knees, a back stroke relieves it.
The dogs are harnessed in the Indian manner; the team has the shape of a fan which folds in the bends. The leader alone is in front, his muzzle close to the ground, looking for his way.
A gray screed crushes the earth; the sun showed itself just thirty minutes to remind that there existed, a saffron ball, without a ray; then dusk fell.
The trees look like phantoms watching impassively the vain agitation of these living beings: seven beasts, two men, lost under the polar circle.
Then the aspect changes; steep mountains accompany the track.
– Hell’s mount , announces Gregory, who immediately begins a new song:
Back Home in Tennessee…
But he stops at the first line. With a sudden gesture, he throws back his blanket and, at full speed, he jumps up, swearing:
– Sacred thousand devils, watch out, boy! Can’t you see? The track is cut.
As he speaks he grabs one side of the sled and with a fantastic effort kicks it off; the dogs instinctively sensed the danger; they brake; the front of the sleigh hits two howling beasts.
Hurricane is clinging to the bar.
Men and beasts stop six feet from the abyss.
They left the right road and followed a false trail .
Why this bad lead? For who?
– Pigs! pigs! Gregory grumbles… while visiting the paws of his dogs.
– Here, Boby! Peace, Chappy… Boby, my son, the songs are good, aren’t they?
His fingers feel the muscles of the beast which, grateful, licks him.
The postman gets up, takes a look at the abyss, works his lungs, takes a deep breath and says:
– We narrowly escaped it, you know, boy?
Hurricane, a newcomer to the North Lands, does not understand the peril from which he has just escaped.
Gregory, on all fours, smells like an animal; he takes handfuls of snow which he pulverizes in his fingers. He clicks his tongue:
– The blow was not mounted for us … Wait, comrade.
And, before Hurricane has had time to intervene, he jumps into the break and leaps from boulder to boulder, clinging to the tree trunks, helping himself to the branches, sliding, getting up, rolling.
Hurricane, leaning over the abyss, suddenly sees it disappear.
Without a cry, without a hesitation, after having untied his snowshoes, he in turn sets off in the footsteps of the postman.
The descent is painful. Hands bleeding, his face scratched, his knees bare, he finally reaches the bottom of the abyss.
It is a corridor between the sheer granite of the high walls. To the left and to the right a strangled passage, where, in summer, the waters must rush in.
Gregory Land is crouched in the snow. At the noise, he turns around.
– Ah! there you are… it’s a great job.
– What is good work?
Gregory steps back and Hurricane sees, among the wreckage of a sled, the body of a man, frozen to the ground …
The postman tries to lift it, but in vain. He leans in again. With his thumb, he removes the ice from the left side of the face, among the hairs of the beard … Behind the ear, the thumb disappears:
– Of course! I suspected it!
And addressing his companion:
– See, he was “pulled” from behind… a famous blow… Poor guy!
Hurricane then understands: “the accident” has been prepared. A retrospective fear shakes his trembling carcass, his jaws twitch, the veins of his temples protrude.
Gregory continues his examination with the seriousness of a sheriff and the seriousness of a medical examiner. The man’s belt is empty except for a chrome steel watch that rust is already biting off.
The postman scratches the leather; his fingernail brings back a few “pay” parcels.
And the apprentice miner suddenly begins to hate this gold, this gold which makes men bend, their spines bent, to tear it from the earth, which demands, to the point of exasperation, the will of the soul to put down the suffering flesh; this gold, what is it after all? Less than nothing, a yellow line that covers the nail. But you see, however tiny it may be, the orb rising from some unknown star. The poet’s verse sings in his memory:
Desire rises in me like a bad sun.
Yes, bad sun, bad desire, which make crowds rush and place the man lying in wait for the man in ambush.
Gregory continues his search. He found a wallet under the waistcoat; he guts it open with a knife … Leaves fall with a photograph … Leaves? One of them said of the imminent joy of returning after the rough hours. The house is waiting. There it is, the house; among the trees in the garden, in the middle of which is a young woman with a serious forehead, in her hand a large, chubby boy with large, astonished eyes. In the background, laughing eyes under glasses, a good old woman holding a newspaper on her knees.
” Back home in Tennessee ” you sang, Gregory Land, just now… Here is one who will not return to the home, whose joys he will never taste again. The Christmases will pass and the worried woman, shivering at the slightest noise, will hope in vain against all hope.
It was to give more happiness to this home that he had set out full of daring. The vision of this roof, of these trees, of these madly loved beings, supported her heart against any weakness on the gloomy evenings when the soul is fearful under the great breath of the winds which descend from the pole.
He had toiled, he had suffered, so that you might have well-being and he came back, counting the steps, a refrain to his lips: ” Back home in Tennessee … ”
… And the song continues:
The roses round the door
Make me love mother more;
I’ll see my sweetheart Flo.
And friends I used to know.
Why, they’ll be right there to meet me,
Just imagine how they’ll greet me,
When I get back, when I get back to
My home in Tennessee …
The old mother, the wife, the friends: the sweet vision stands on the horizon, on the trail that stretches among the barking dogs.
The faster my dogs, the faster the roses are around the door. We got the house ready for me, my mom, my sweetheart Flo. What a nice surprise: “Hello! it’s me… Back home in Tennessee… ”
Man and beasts are happy. A sharp snap, a prodigious leap into the void… Through an eight-millimeter hole, hope has fled forever.
The man died in a dream.
Did he even see death coming?
Gregory Land shoves the wallet in his chest. He shakes his head, repeating:
– Poor guy!
This is his funeral oration.
With the postman, Hurricane transports the man to a small plateau which overlooks the bed of the torrent; then they cover the body with snow which they sprinkle as they go. Snow freezes instantly, it is harder than a rock. Gregory made a cross with two branches of fir trees.
When spring awakens nature, when tumultuous waters pass, perhaps they will sing to a wandering soul, weeping for its sorrow:
Back home in Tennessee …
Under the Arctic Circle, life has greater demands than under civilized skies.
Question of latitude, nerves too. And then the customary work grabs you and does not let go. There is the snow, which falls tirelessly; there is the storm which howls at the bottom of basalt gorges or which sweeps the plain like an imperious mistress chases herds of slaves before her; there are the thousand things, the smallest of which is the jagged point of a cog essential to the good running of the whole machine, the dogs which are hungry, the human beast which is cold, the food to be prepared, the igloo to build if you want to sleep tonight under a roof, a roof of ice, but security and comfort all the same.
What are we on the plain that unfolds endlessly, immense as a pain? Less than nothing, men! Men who have to defend themselves against everything and against everyone. The other one over there died from not taking heed.
Gregory Land, having planted a fir cross on the frozen mound, considers that he has done his duty, all his duty.
– On the way, boy, and let’s keep our eyes open.
– You think?
– I don’t believe anything and I believe everything.
In a low voice, as if chewing his quid, he mutters:
– Here, I fear nature less than men.
The dogs took advantage of our absence to take a serious snooze.
Alone, Tempest and Hurricane sleep with only one eye, one ear folded, the other half raised. As soon as they hear a step, they stand up and, with a bark, warn their companions who are awakening and lazily stretching their limbs.
– Wait a little, boys, just a minute , said the postman to his dogs.
For his boyfriend, he adds:
– A helping hand, old chap .
And the two men seize end to end the trunks of fir trees which cut the false trail, make them roll into the abyss where they fall with a thud; then, with a shovel, they fill the trench and level the ground.
Then Hurricane drives the team by hand, while, behind, Gregory Land, walking backwards, clears the wrong trail with his snowshoes.
Half a mile away, the post office trail is recognizable. He unrolls a dark gray band in the pearl gray of the coming twilight.
In the evening, the mail stage reached, after a hard stage where dogs and men did not spare their trouble, an old hut, built and abandoned by those who, in the heroic times of 1865, had formed the project to reunite America. and Asia by an aerial telegraph wire.
Pioneer housing? Telegraph station? What did you think of those who built you up with their hands?
What does it matter! She gives us shelter, just as she has taken in a thousand and a thousand other boys, trappers or miners, trail runners who, in the evening, were happy to find her standing.
Everyone being aware of the value, even more moral than practical, of the hut, made a point of supporting it. Her cariboo skin roof is always replaced at the first sign of weariness, so she always has a welcoming air that seems to say, “Come in, take a rest; for one night you will be safe ”.
It dominates, on the height, a mile from the river, the landscape. Close by, you can see, between its two banks of gloomy fir trees, the Yukon, which at this bend is more than sixteen hundred meters wide.
Over low heat, Gregory melts the seal quarters that will be used as food for the animals. Hurricane carefully opens a tin can.
The postman resumed his happy mood, he resumed whistling.
By Jove! it’s still his song from Tennessee that he has, so that Hurricane, annoyed, said to him:
– So you are from Nashville, not possible, or from Chattanooga?
– I? no, answers the postman laconic.
“My word, I thought you were from the Highlands or from Cumberland , or were they Alleghanys ?” Plain or mountains, but Tennessee, sure .
Gregory stirs the mash with a wooden spoon. He adds fish bran and oil to the porridge.
The nauseating smell looks pleasant to the nose of the postmaster, whose nostrils part, flattered. Lit from below, the mask is comical; one would say of an Indian face carved with great blows by primitive plans.
Hurricane is trying to decipher the hieroglyphics of the face, when Gregory replies:
– Don’t look. I’m from Frisco …
– From Frisco, like me.
– Lady! you don’t think you’ve taken a monopoly, Gregory sneers.
But the fold that draws his mouth relaxes, the bitterness disappears and the man resumes, as if talking to himself, or remembering aloud.
– True, of Frisco, not the one nowadays with its theaters, palaces, avenues, coaches and port teeming with sailors. No, the San-Francisco of the rush , of the mad rush.
“My father Mac F. Land had been taken by the hunger for gold, like so many others!
“It’s hard here, chechaquo , it’s terrible, in truth, but the others, over there, the first, those who were going, parked in the holds of the steamers , from New York to Chagres. There, yellow fever cured gold fever, eighty percent waste, rran! The survivors were chartering sailboats – and the galley is sailing! to the Golden Gate. Bah! as long as we were courageous, if we were lucky, we prospered. The father, like a good Scotsman, found that God had put the earth too low: instead of scratching the ground, he established himself as a merchant. We needed everything, then. Sugar was worth five dollars, coffee ten, an egg was usually bought between two and three dollars, for a dollar you had an onion… If you wanted to treat yourself to a boy, it was two hundred dollars a month. It was only champagne and whiskey that were relatively affordable for all budgets.
“The sheriffs? No more than on my hand. Everything was regulated with a pistol or a rifle, according to taste.
“It was the time of red shirts, tawny leather boots and velvet breeches.
“In 1856, nearly six hundred ships crossed the Bay, bringing crowds which, as soon as they landed, rushed to the assault.
“It was necessary that all this drink, eat, sleep, dress…
“The father made a fortune, settled down comfortably, took a wife and… here I am…”
About what he did in his youth, Gregory Land is silent. He thinks, like Kipling, that “this is another story”. For the moment, with the seriousness of a clergyman, he prepares the food for his dogs and, in doing so, it is he who licks his chops.
The dogs, having eaten, make their hole in the snow, curl up and fall asleep.
Hurricane cuts a piece of bacon out of a corn cookie and, while eating, he says, continuing the interrupted conversation:
– I’m from the Bay too, I studied at Berkeley.
Gregory Land rises so vividly that Hurricane wonders if he hasn’t gone completely mad.
“To Ber-ke-ley, to Ber-ke-ley,” he repeats, chanting the word.
– Good yes…
– Ah! old fellow , what did you say!
And Gregory Land grips Hurricane in his big arms. After the first effusions, the postman sits down again, then quietly announces:
– In Berkeley! I too have been to Berkeley!
It’s Hurricane’s turn to straighten Gregory and give him a hug. Youth rises at the call of remembrance. Gregory is transfigured, a flame lights his eyes.
– Do you remember the old black wooden chalet?
– If I remember, old chap , of the Faculty Club !… The ivy garlands.
– Climbing geraniums …
– And the Greek theater at the foot of the hill…
– Say, in your time, we did not serve whiskey in tea-pots ?
– Hell no! We were thirsty after baseball games.
– Ah! The matches!
– I was yell master .
– You were the scream master! Hurricane repeats with naive admiration.
– As I tell you.
And it is the sudden evocation of the games where young men, splendid fighting animals, fight for the honor of the university. The crowd rushes to support the colors of the camp, the boys must be up to their task and the shout master, who is still called ” cheer leader “, excites his troops to victory. Come on, boys, take it easy, Stanford’s are backing down, beware here, moderate yourselves, give your whole soul.
The megaphone in one hand, the banner of the University in the other, the scream master watches over everything; he stamps, he dances, he shouts, he bellow, he exults and, behind him, the students, massed like the ancient choir, resume the cry, the famous cry which is the sign of rallying. It is the ” Montjoie!” St Denis! “Of the French royal troops, the” Dieu le veult! ” “Of the Crusaders, the” Io Pean! »Of the Hellenes is the animating cry of the fighting crowds.
– Do you remember the cry?
A word falls from the postman’s disdainful lips:
And, standing, his hands in a megaphone, in the half-light of the dying hearth, in the great white silence of the polar night, the cry of Berkeley bursts forth:
Oski – Wow – Wow
Wiskee – We – We
Oleo – Mucky – ei
Oleo – Berkeley – ei
Cali – forn – ia – Wow.
As soon as it is finished, the postman resumes and begins again, Hurricane echoes.
It is the cry of victorious youth.
Evil thoughts are far away, driven away forever from the evil beasts of the night! Sleep your sleep, you, over there. May the snow be light to you; you are a vanquished; peace to your spoils.
Here we are the winners. As in the past, in university games, those at Stanford proclaim:
Rah! Rah! Rah!
Rah! Rah! Rah!
Rah! Rah! Rah!
But a furious clamor responds, which dominates:
Oski – Wow – Wow
Wiskee – We – We
Oleo – Mucky – ei
Oleo – Berkeley – ei
Cali – forn – ia – Wow.
And the dogs, astonished by these frantic cries, came out of their snow holes; they listened, they heard… for them, it is the cry of the triumphant beast. There was a battle last night and the men came back victorious. The dogs are in the men’s camp. So the dogs howl with them.