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Poetic, swift with violence and action.1 An Odyssey of the North2 The Son of the Wolf3 Law of Life4 To Build a Fire5 Love of Life6 A Piece of Steak7 Lost Face8 The Heathen9 The Wit of Porportuk10 The Pearls of Parlay
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THE BEST SHORT STORIES
Table of Contents
An Odyssey of the North
The Son of the Wolf
The Law of Life
To Build a Fire
Love of Life
A Piece of Steak
The Wit of Porportuk
The Pearls of Parlay
First published: 1900
a short story
The sleds were singing their eternal lament to the creaking of the harness and the tinkling bells of the leaders; but the men and dogs were tired and made no sound. The trail was heavy with new-fallen snow, and they had come far, and the runners, burdened with flint- like quarters of frozen moose, clung tenaciously to the unpacked surface and held back with a stubbornness almost human.
Darkness was coming on, but there was no camp to pitch that night. The snow fell gently through the pulseless air, not in flakes, but in tiny frost crystals of delicate design. It was very warm — barely ten below zero — and the men did not mind. Meyers and Bettles had raised their ear flaps, while Malemute Kid had even taken off his mittens.
The dogs had been fagged out early in the after noon, but they now began to show new vigor. Among the more astute there was a certain restlessness — an impatience at the restraint of the traces, an indecisive quickness of movement, a sniffing of snouts and pricking of ears. These became incensed at their more phlegmatic brothers, urging them on with numerous sly nips on their hinder quarters. Those, thus chidden, also contracted and helped spread the contagion. At last the leader of the foremost sled uttered a sharp whine of satisfaction, crouching lower in the snow and throwing himself against the collar. The rest followed suit.
There was an ingathering of back hands, a tightening of traces; the sleds leaped forward, and the men clung to the gee poles, violently accelerating the uplift of their feet that they might escape going under the runners. The weariness of the day fell from them, and they whooped encouragement to the dogs. The animals responded with joyous yelps. They were swinging through the gathering darkness at a rattling gallop.
‘Gee! Gee!’ the men cried, each in turn, as their sleds abruptly left the main trail, heeling over on single runners like luggers on the wind.
Then came a hundred yards’ dash to the lighted parchment window, which told its own story of the home cabin, the roaring Yukon stove, and the steaming pots of tea. But the home cabin had been invaded. Threescore huskies chorused defiance, and as many furry forms precipitated themselves upon the dogs which drew the first sled. The door was flung open, and a man, clad in the scarlet tunic of the Northwest Police, waded knee-deep among the furious brutes, calmly and impartially dispensing soothing justice with the butt end of a dog whip. After that the men shook hands; and in this wise was Malemute Kid welcomed to his own cabin by a stranger.
Stanley Prince, who should have welcomed him, and who was responsible for the Yukon stove and hot tea aforementioned, was busy with his guests. There were a dozen or so of them, as nondescript a crowd as ever served the Queen in the enforcement of her laws or the delivery of her mails. They were of many breeds, but their common life had formed of them a certain type — a lean and wiry type, with trail-hardened muscles, and sun- browned faces, and untroubled souls which gazed frankly forth, clear-eyed and steady.
They drove the dogs of the Queen, wrought fear in the hearts of her enemies, ate of her meager fare, and were happy. They had seen life, and done deeds, and lived romances; but they did not know it.
And they were very much at home. Two of them were sprawled upon Malemute Kid’s bunk, singing chansons which their French forebears sang in the days when first they entered the Northwest land and mated with its Indian women. Bettles’ bunk had suffered a similar invasion, and three or four lusty voyageurs worked their toes among its blankets as they listened to the tale of one who had served on the boat brigade with Wolseley when he fought his way to Khartoum.
And when he tired, a cowboy told of courts and kings and lords and ladies he had seen when Buffalo Bill toured the capitals of Europe. In a corner two half-breeds, ancient comrades in a lost campaign, mended harnesses and talked of the days when the Northwest flamed with insurrection and Louis Riel was king.
Rough jests and rougher jokes went up and down, and great hazards by trail and river were spoken of in the light of commonplaces, only to be recalled by virtue of some grain of humor or ludicrous happening. Prince was led away by these uncrowned heroes who had seen history made, who regarded the great and the romantic as but the ordinary and the incidental in the routine of life. He passed his precious tobacco among them with lavish disregard, and rusty chains of reminiscence were loosened, and forgotten odysseys resurrected for his especial benefit.
When conversation dropped and the travelers filled the last pipes and lashed their tight- rolled sleeping furs. Prince fell back upon his comrade for further information.
‘Well, you know what the cowboy is,’ Malemute Kid answered, beginning to unlace his moccasins; ‘and it’s not hard to guess the British blood in his bed partner. As for the rest, they’re all children of the coureurs du bois, mingled with God knows how many other bloods. The two turning in by the door are the regulation ‘breeds’ or Boisbrules. That lad with the worsted breech scarf — notice his eyebrows and the turn of his jaw — shows a Scotchman wept in his mother’s smoky tepee. And that handsome looking fellow putting the capote under his head is a French half-breed — you heard him talking; he doesn’t like the two Indians turning in next to him. You see, when the ‘breeds’ rose under the Riel the full-bloods kept the peace, and they’ve not lost much love for one another since.’ ‘But I say, what’s that glum-looking fellow by the stove? I’ll swear he can’t talk English. He hasn’t opened his mouth all night.’ ‘You’re wrong. He knows English well enough. Did you follow his eyes when he listened? I did. But he’s neither kith nor kin to the others.
When they talked their own patois you could see he didn’t understand. I’ve been wondering myself what he is. Let’s find out.’ ‘Fire a couple of sticks into the stove!’
Malemute Kid commanded, raising his voice and looking squarely at the man in question.
He obeyed at once.
‘Had discipline knocked into him somewhere.’ Prince commented in a low tone.
Malemute Kid nodded, took off his socks, and picked his way among recumbent men to the stove. There he hung his damp footgear among a score or so of mates.
‘When do you expect to get to Dawson?’ he asked tentatively.
The man studied him a moment before replying. ‘They say seventy-five mile.
So? Maybe two days.’ The very slightest accent was perceptible, while there was no awkward hesitancy or groping for words.
‘Been in the country before?’ ‘No.’ ‘Northwest Territory?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Born there?’ ‘No.’
‘Well, where the devil were you born? You’re none of these.’ Malemute Kid swept his hand over the dog drivers, even including the two policemen who had turned into Prince’s bunk. ‘Where did you come from? I’ve seen faces like yours before, though I can’t remember just where.’ ‘I know you,’ he irrelevantly replied, at once turning the drift of Malemute Kid’s questions.
‘Where? Ever see me?’ ‘No; your partner, him priest, Pastilik, long time ago. Him ask me if I see you, Malemute Kid. Him give me grub. I no stop long. You hear him speak ‘bout me?’ ‘Oh! you’re the fellow that traded the otter skins for the dogs?’ The man nodded, knocked out his pipe, and signified his disinclination for conversation by rolling up in his furs. Malemute Kid blew out the slush lamp and crawled under the blankets with Prince.
‘Well, what is he?’ ‘Don’t know — turned me off, somehow, and then shut up like a clam.
But he’s a fellow to whet your curiosity. I’ve heard of him. All the coast wondered about him eight years ago. Sort of mysterious, you know. He came down out of the North in the dead of winter, many a thousand miles from here, skirting Bering Sea and traveling as though the devil were after him. No one ever learned where he came from, but he must have come far. He was badly travel-worn when he got food from the Swedish missionary on Golovin Bay and asked the way south. We heard of all this afterward. Then he abandoned the shore line, heading right across Norton Sound. Terrible weather, snowstorms and high winds, but he pulled through where a thousand other men would have died, missing St. Michaels and making the land at Pastilik. He’d lost all but two dogs, and was nearly gone with starvation.
‘He was so anxious to go on that Father Roubeau fitted him out with grub; but he couldn’t let him have any dogs, for he was only waiting my arrival, to go on a trip himself. Mr. Ulysses knew too much to start on without animals, and fretted around for several days. He had on his sled a bunch of beautifully cured otter skins, sea otters, you know, worth their weight in gold. There was also at Pastilik an old Shylock of a Russian trader, who had dogs to kill. Well, they didn’t dicker very long, but when the Strange One headed south again, it was in the rear of a spanking dog team. Mr. Shylock, by the way, had the otter skins. I saw them, and they were magnificent. We figured it up and found the dogs brought him at least five hundred apiece. And it wasn’t as if the Strange One didn’t know the value of sea otter; he was an Indian of some sort, and what little he talked showed he’d been among white men.
‘After the ice passed out of the sea, word came up from Nunivak Island that he’d gone in there for grub. Then he dropped from sight, and this is the first heard of him in eight years. Now where did he come from? and what was he doing there? and why did he come from there? He’s Indian, he’s been nobody knows where, and he’s had discipline, which is unusual for an Indian. Another mystery of the North for you to solve, Prince.’ ‘Thanks awfully, but I’ve got too many on hand as it is,’ he replied.
Malemute Kid was already breathing heavily; but the young mining engineer gazed straight up through the thick darkness, waiting for the strange orgasm which stirred his blood to die away. And when he did sleep, his brain worked on, and for the nonce he, too, wandered through the white unknown, struggled with the dogs on endless trails, and saw men live, and toil, and die like men. The next morning, hours before daylight, the dog drivers and policemen pulled out for Dawson. But the powers that saw to Her Majesty’s interests and ruled the destinies of her lesser creatures gave the mailmen little rest, for a week later they appeared at Stuart River, heavily burdened with letters for Salt Water.
However, their dogs had been replaced by fresh ones; but, then, they were dogs.
The men had expected some sort of a layover in which to rest up; besides, this Klondike was a new section of the Northland, and they had wished to see a little something of the Golden City where dust flowed like water and dance halls rang with never-ending revelry. But they dried their socks and smoked their evening pipes with much the same gusto as on their former visit, though one or two bold spirits speculated on desertion and the possibility of crossing the unexplored Rockies to the east, and thence, by the Mackenzie Valley, of gaining their old stamping grounds in the Chippewyan country.
Two or three even decided to return to their homes by that route when their terms of service had expired, and they began to lay plans forthwith, looking forward to the hazardous undertaking in much the same way a city-bred man would to a day’s holiday in the woods.
He of the Otter Skins seemed very restless, though he took little interest in the discussion, and at last he drew Malemute Kid to one side and talked for some time in low tones.
Prince cast curious eyes in their direction, and the mystery deepened when they put on caps and mittens and went outside. When they returned, Malemute Kid placed his gold scales on the table, weighed out the matter of sixty ounces, and transferred them to the Strange One’s sack. Then the chief of the dog drivers joined the conclave, and certain business was transacted with him.
The next day the gang went on upriver, but He of the Otter Skins took several pounds of grub and turned his steps back toward Dawson.
‘Didn’t know what to make of it,’ said Malemute Kid in response to Prince’s queries; ‘but the poor beggar wanted to be quit of the service for some reason or other — at least it seemed a most important one to him, though he wouldn’t let on what. You see, it’s just like the army: he signed for two years, and the only way to get free was to buy himself out. He couldn’t desert and then stay here, and he was just wild to remain in the country.
Made up his mind when he got to Dawson, he said; but no one knew him, hadn’t a cent, and I was the only one he’d spoken two words with. So he talked it over with the lieutenant-governor, and made arrangements in case he could get the money from me- loan, you know. Said he’d pay back in the year, and, if I wanted, would put me onto something rich. Never’d seen it, but he knew it was rich.
‘And talk! why, when he got me outside he was ready to weep. Begged and pleaded; got down in the snow to me till I hauled him out of it. Palavered around like a crazy man.
Swore he’s worked to this very end for years and years, and couldn’t bear to be disappointed now. Asked him what end, but he wouldn’t say.
Said they might keep him on the other half of the trail and he wouldn’t get to Dawson in two years, and then it would be too late. Never saw a man take on so in my life. And when I said I’d let him have it, had to yank him out of the snow again. Told him to consider it in the light of a grubstake. Think he’d have it? No sir! Swore he’d give me all he found, make me rich beyond the dreams of avarice, and all such stuff. Now a man who puts his life and time against a grubstake ordinarily finds it hard enough to turn over half of what he finds. Something behind all this, Prince; just you make a note of it. We’ll hear of him if he stays in the country-’ ‘And if he doesn’t?’ ‘Then my good nature gets a shock, and I’m sixty some odd ounces out.’ The cold weather had come on with the long nights, and the sun had begun to play his ancient game of peekaboo along the southern snow line ere aught was heard of Malemute Kid’s grubstake. And then, one bleak morning in early January, a heavily laden dog train pulled into his cabin below Stuart River. He of the Otter Skins was there, and with him walked a man such as the gods have almost forgotten how to fashion. Men never talked of luck and pluck and five- hundreddollar dirt without bringing in the name of Axel Gunderson; nor could tales of nerve or strength or daring pass up and down the campfire without the summoning of his presence. And when the conversation flagged, it blazed anew at mention of the woman who shared his fortunes.
As has been noted, in the making of Axel Gunderson the gods had remembered their old- time cunning and cast him after the manner of men who were born when the world was young. Full seven feet he towered in his picturesque costume which marked a king of Eldorado. His chest, neck, and limbs were those of a giant. To bear his three hundred pounds of bone and muscle, his snowshoes were greater by a generous yard than those of other men. Rough-hewn, with rugged brow and massive jaw and unflinching eyes of palest blue, his face told the tale of one who knew but the law of might. Of the yellow of ripe corn silk, his frost-incrusted hair swept like day across the night and fell far down his coat of bearskin.
A vague tradition of the sea seemed to cling about him as he swung down the narrow trail in advance of the dogs; and he brought the butt of his dog whip against Malemute Kid’s door as a Norse sea rover, on southern foray, might thunder for admittance at the castle gate.
Prince bared his womanly arms and kneaded sour-dough bread, casting, as he did so, many a glance at the three guests — three guests the like of which might never come under a man’s roof in a lifetime. The Strange One, whom Malemute Kid had surnamed Ulysses, still fascinated him; but his interest chiefly gravitated between Axel Gunderson and Axel Gunderson’s wife. She felt the day’s journey, for she had softened in comfortable cabins during the many days since her husband mastered the wealth of frozen pay streaks, and she was tired. She rested against his great breast like a slender flower against a wall, replying lazily to Malemute Kid’s good-natured banter, and stirring Prince’s blood strangely with an occasional sweep of her deep, dark eyes. For Prince was a man, and healthy, and had seen few women in many months. And she was older than he, and an Indian besides. But she was different from all native wives he had met: she had traveled — had been in his country among others, he gathered from the conversation; and she knew most of the things the women of his own race knew, and much more that it was not in the nature of things for them to know. She could make a meal of sun-dried fish or a bed in the snow; yet she teased them with tantalizing details of many-course dinners, and caused strange internal dissensions to arise at the mention of various quondam dishes which they had well-nigh forgotten. She knew the ways of the moose, the bear, and the little blue fox, and of the wild amphibians of the Northern seas; she was skilled in the lore of the woods, and the streams, and the tale writ by man and bird and beast upon the delicate snow crust was to her an open book; yet Prince caught the appreciative twinkle in her eye as she read the Rules of the Camp. These rules had been fathered by the Unquenchable Bettles at a time when his blood ran high, and were remarkable for the terse simplicity of their humor.
Prince always turned them to the wall before the arrival of ladies; but who could suspect that this native wife — Well, it was too late now.
This, then, was the wife of Axel Gunderson, a woman whose name and fame had traveled with her husband’s, hand in hand, through all the Northland. At table, Malemute Kid baited her with the assurance of an old friend, and Prince shook off the shyness of first acquaintance and joined in. But she held her own in the unequal contest, while her husband, slower in wit, ventured naught but applause. And he was very proud of her; his every look and action revealed the magnitude of the place she occupied in his life. He of the Otter Skins ate in silence, forgotten in the merry battle; and long ere the others were done he pushed back from the table and went out among the dogs. Yet all too soon his fellow travelers drew on their mittens and parkas and followed him.
There had been no snow for many days, and the sleds slipped along the hardpacked Yukon trail as easily as if it had been glare ice. Ulysses led the first sled; with the second came Prince and Axel Gunderson’s wife; while Malemute Kid and the yellow-haired giant brought up the third.
‘It’s only a hunch, Kid,’ he said, ‘but I think it’s straight. He’s never been there, but he tells a good story, and shows a map I heard of when I was in the Kootenay country years ago. I’d like to have you go along; but he’s a strange one, and swore point-blank to throw it up if anyone was brought in. But when I come back you’ll get first tip, and I’ll stake you next to me, and give you a half share in the town site besides.’ ‘No! no!’ he cried, as the other strove to interrupt. ‘I’m running this, and before I’m done it’ll need two heads.
If it’s all right, why, it’ll be a second Cripple Creek, man; do you hear? — a second Cripple Creek! It’s quartz, you know, not placer; and if we work it right we’ll corral the whole thing — millions upon millions. I’ve heard of the place before, and so have you. We’ll build a town — thousands of workmen — good waterways — steamship lines — big carrying trade — lightdraught steamers for head reaches — survey a railroad, perhaps — sawmills- electriclight plant — do our own banking — commercial company — syndicate — Say! Just you hold your hush till I get back!’ The sleds came to a halt where the trail crossed the mouth of Stuart River. An unbroken sea of frost, its wide expanse stretched away into the unknown east.
The snowshoes were withdrawn from the lashings of the sleds. Axel Gunderson shook hands and stepped to the fore, his great webbed shoes sinking a fair half yard into the feathery surface and packing the snow so the dogs should not wallow. His wife fell in behind the last sled, betraying long practice in the art of handling the awkward footgear, The stillness was broken with cheery farewells; the dogs whined; and He of the Otter Skins talked with his whip to a recalcitrant wheeler.
An hour later the train had taken on the likeness of a black pencil crawling in a long, straight line across a mighty sheet of foolscap.
II One night, many weeks later, Malemute Kid and Prince fell to solving chess problems from the torn page of an ancient magazine. The Kid had just returned from his Bonanza properties and was resting up preparatory to a long moose hunt.
Prince, too, had been on creek and trail nearly all winter, and had grown hungry for a blissful week of cabin life.
‘Interpose the black knight, and force the king. No, that won’t do. See, the next move-’
‘Why advance the pawn two squares? Bound to take it in transit, and with the bishop out of the way-’ ‘But hold on! That leaves a hole, and-’ ‘No; it’s protected. Go ahead! You’ll see it works.’ It was very interesting. Somebody knocked at the door a second time before Malemute Kid said, ‘Come in.’ The door swung open. Something staggered in.
Prince caught one square look and sprang to his feet. The horror in his eyes caused Malemute Kid to whirl about; and he, too, was startled, though he had seen bad things before. The thing tottered blindly toward them. Prince edged away till he reached the nail from which hung his Smith & Wesson.
‘My God! what is it?’ he whispered to Malemute Kid.
‘Don’t know. Looks like a case of freezing and no grub,’ replied the Kid, sliding away in the opposite direction. ‘Watch out! It may be mad,’ he warned, coming back from closing the door.
The thing advanced to the table. The bright flame of the slush lamp caught its eye. It was amused, and gave voice to eldritch cackles which betokened mirth.
Then, suddenly, he — for it was a man — swayed back, with a hitch to his skin trousers, and began to sing a chantey, such as men lift when they swing around the capstan circle and the sea snorts in their ears: Yan-kee ship come down de ri-ib-er, Pull! my bully boys! Pull! D’yeh want — to know de captain ru-uns her? Pull! my bully boys! Pull! Jon-a-than Jones ob South Caho-li-in-a, Pull! my bullyHe broke off abruptly, tottered with a wolfish snarl to the meat shelf, and before they could intercept was tearing with his teeth at a chunk of raw bacon. The struggle was fierce between him and Malemute Kid; but his mad strength left him as suddenly as it had come, and he weakly surrendered the spoil. Between them they got him upon a stool, where he sprawled with half his body across the table.
A small dose of whiskey strengthened him, so that he could dip a spoon into the sugar caddy which Malemute Kid placed before him. After his appetite had been somewhat cloyed, Prince, shuddering as he did so, passed him a mug of weak beef tea.
The creature’s eyes were alight with a somber frenzy, which blazed and waned with every mouthful. There was very little skin to the face. The face, for that matter, sunken and emaciated, bore little likeness to human countenance.
Frost after frost had bitten deeply, each depositing its stratum of scab upon the half- healed scar that went before. This dry, hard surface was of a bloody-black color, serrated by grievous cracks wherein the raw red flesh peeped forth. His skin garments were dirty and in tatters, and the fur of one side was singed and burned away, showing where he had lain upon his fire.
Malemute Kid pointed to where the sun-tanned hide had been cut away, strip by strip — the grim signature of famine.
‘Who — are — you?’ slowly and distinctly enunciated the Kid.
The man paid no heed.
‘Where do you come from?’ ‘Yan-kee ship come down de ri-ib-er,’ was the quavering response.
‘Don’t doubt the beggar came down the river,’ the Kid said, shaking him in an endeavor to start a more lucid flow of talk.
But the man shrieked at the contact, clapping a hand to his side in evident pain. He rose slowly to his feet, half leaning on the table.
‘She laughed at me — so — with the hate in her eye; and she — would — not — come.’ His voice died away, and he was sinking back when Malemute Kid gripped him by the wrist and shouted, ‘Who? Who would not come?’ ‘She, Unga. She laughed, and struck at me, so, and so. And then-’ ‘Yes?’
‘And then-’ ‘And then what?’ ‘And then he lay very still in the snow a long time. He is- still in — the — snow.’ The two men looked at each other helplessly.
‘Who is in the snow?’ ‘She, Unga. She looked at me with the hate in her eye, and then-’
‘Yes, yes.’ ‘And then she took the knife, so; and once, twice — she was weak. I traveled very slow. And there is much gold in that place, very much gold.’ ‘Where is Unga?’ For all Malemute Kid knew, she might be dying a mile away. He shook the man savagely, repeating again and again, ‘Where is Unga? Who is Unga?’ ‘She — is — in — the — snow.’ ‘Go on!’ The Kid was pressing his wrist cruelly.
‘So — I — would — be — in — the snow — but — I — had — a — debt — to — pay. It — was — heavy — Ihad — a- debt — to — pay — a — debt — to — pay I — had-’ The faltering monosyllables ceased as he fumbled in his pouch and drew forth a buckskin sack. ‘A — debt — to — payfive — pounds — of — gold- grub — stake — Mal — e — mute — Kid — I-’ The exhausted head dropped upon the table; nor could Malemute Kid rouse it again.
‘It’s Ulysses,’ he said quietly, tossing the bag of dust on the table. ‘Guess it’s all day with Axel Gunderson and the woman. Come on, let’s get him between the blankets. He’s Indian; he’ll pull through and tell a tale besides.’ As they cut his garments from him, near his right breast could be seen two unhealed, hard-lipped knife thrusts.
III ‘I will talk of the things which were in my own way; but you will understand.
I will begin at the beginning, and tell of myself and the woman, and, after that, of the man.’ He of the Otter Skins drew over to the stove as do men who have been deprived of fire and are afraid the Promethean gift may vanish at any moment. Malemute Kid picked up the slush lamp and placed it so its light might fall upon the face of the narrator. Prince slid his body over the edge of the bunk and joined them.
‘I am Naass, a chief, and the son of a chief, born between a sunset and a rising, on the dark seas, in my father’s oomiak. All of a night the men toiled at the paddles, and the women cast out the waves which threw in upon us, and we fought with the storm. The salt spray froze upon my mother’s breast till her breath passed with the passing of the tide. But I — I raised my voice with the wind and the storm, and lived.
‘We dwelt in Akatan-’ ‘Where?’ asked Malemute Kid.
‘Akatan, which is in the Aleutians; Akatan, beyond Chignik, beyond Kardalak, beyond Unimak. As I say, we dwelt in Akatan, which lies in the midst of the sea on the edge of the world. We farmed the salt seas for the fish, the seal, and the otter; and our homes shouldered about one another on the rocky strip between the rim of the forest and the yellow beach where our kayaks lay. We were not many, and the world was very small.
There were strange lands to the east — islands like Akatan; so we thought all the world was islands and did not mind.
‘I was different from my people. In the sands of the beach were the crooked timbers and wave-warped planks of a boat such as my people never built; and I remember on the point of the island which overlooked the ocean three ways there stood a pine tree which never grew there, smooth and straight and tall. It is said the two men came to that spot, turn about, through many days, and watched with the passing of the light. These two men came from out of the sea in the boat which lay in pieces on the beach. And they were white like you, and weak as the little children when the seal have gone away and the hunters come home empty. I know of these things from the old men and the old women, who got them from their fathers and mothers before them. These strange white men did not take kindly to our ways at first, but they grew strong, what of the fish and the oil, and fierce. And they built them each his own house, and took the pick of our women, and in time children came. Thus he was born who was to become the father of my father’s father.
‘As I said, I was different from my people, for I carried the strong, strange blood of this white man who came out of the sea. It is said we had other laws in the days before these men; but they were fierce and quarrelsome, and fought with our men till there were no more left who dared to fight. Then they made themselves chiefs, and took away our old laws, and gave us new ones, insomuch that the man was the son of his father, and not his mother, as our way had been. They also ruled that the son, first-born, should have all things which were his father’s before him, and that the brothers and sisters should shift for themselves. And they gave us other laws. They showed us new ways in the catching of fish and the killing of bear which were thick in the woods; and they taught us to lay by bigger stores for the time of famine. And these things were good.
‘But when they had become chiefs, and there were no more men to face their anger, they fought, these strange white men, each with the other. And the one whose blood I carry drove his seal spear the length of an arm through the other’s body. Their children took up the fight, and their children’s children; and there was great hatred between them, and black doings, even to my time, so that in each family but one lived to pass down the blood of them that went before. Of my blood I was alone; of the other man’s there was but a girl. Unga, who lived with her mother. Her father and my father did not come back from the fishing one night; but afterward they washed up to the beach on the big tides, and they held very close to each other.
‘The people wondered, because of the hatred between the houses, and the old men shook their heads and said the fight would go on when children were born to her and children to me. They told me this as a boy, till I came to believe, and to look upon Unga as a foe, who was to be the mother of children which were to fight with mine. I thought of these things day by day, and when I grew to a stripling I came to ask why this should be so.
And they answered, "We do not know, but that in such way your fathers did." And I marveled that those which were to come should fight the battles of those that were gone, and in it I could see no right. But the people said it must be, and I was only a stripling.
‘And they said I must hurry, that my blood might be the older and grow strong before hers. This was easy, for I was head man, and the people looked up to me because of the deeds and the laws of my fathers, and the wealth which was mine. Any maiden would come to me, but I found none to my liking. And the old men and the mothers of maidens told me to hurry, for even then were the hunters bidding high to the mother of Unga; and should her children grow strong before mine, mine would surely die.
‘Nor did I find a maiden till one night coming back from the fishing. The sunlight was lying, so, low and full in the eyes, the wind free, and the kayacks racing with the white seas. Of a sudden the kayak of Unga came driving past me, and she looked upon me, so, with her black hair flying like a cloud of night and the spray wet on her cheek. As I say, the sunlight was full in the eyes, and I was a stripling; but somehow it was all clear, and I knew it to be the call of kind to kind.
As she whipped ahead she looked back within the space of two strokes — looked as only the woman Unga could look — and again I knew it as the call of kind. The people shouted as we ripped past the lazy oomiaks and left them far behind. But she was quick at the paddle, and my heart was like the belly of a sail, and I did not gain. The wind freshened, the sea whitened, and, leaping like the seals on the windward breech, we roared down the golden pathway of the sun.’ Naass was crouched half out of his stool, in the attitude of one driving a paddle, as he ran the race anew. Somewhere across the stove he beheld the tossing kayak and the flying hair of Unga. The voice of the wind was in his ears, and its salt beat fresh upon his nostrils.
‘But she made the shore, and ran up the sand, laughing, to the house of her mother. And a great thought came to me that night — a thought worthy of him that was chief over all the people of Akatan. So, when the moon was up, I went down to the house of her mother, and looked upon the goods of Yash-Noosh, which were piled by the door — the goods of Yash-Noosh, a strong hunter who had it in mind to be the father of the children of Unga.
Other young men had piled their goods there and taken them away again; and each young man had made a pile greater than the one before.
‘And I laughed to the moon and the stars, and went to my own house where my wealth was stored. And many trips I made, till my pile was greater by the fingers of one hand than the pile of Yash-Noosh. There were fish, dried in the sun and smoked; and forty hides of the hair seal, and half as many of the fur, and each hide was tied at the mouth and big bellied with oil; and ten skins of bear which I killed in the woods when they came out in the spring. And there were beads and blankets and scarlet cloths, such as I got in trade from the people who lived to the east, and who got them in trade from the people who lived still beyond in the east.
And I looked upon the pile of Yash-Noosh and laughed, for I was head man in Akatan, and my wealth was greater than the wealth of all my young men, and my fathers had done deeds, and given laws, and put their names for all time in the mouths of the people.
‘So, when the morning came, I went down to the beach, casting out of the corner of my eye at the house of the mother of Unga. My offer yet stood untouched.
And the women smiled, and said sly things one to the other. I wondered, for never had such a price been offered; and that night I added more to the pile, and put beside it a kayak of well-tanned skins which never yet had swam in the sea. But in the day it was yet there, open to the laughter of all men. The mother of Unga was crafty, and I grew angry at the shame in which I stood before my people. So that night I added till it became a great pile, and I hauled up my oomiak, which was of the value of twenty kayaks. And in the morning there was no pile.
‘Then made I preparation for the wedding, and the people that lived even to the east came for the food of the feast and the potlatch token. Unga was older than I by the age of four suns in the way we reckoned the years. I was only a stripling; but then I was a chief, and the son of a chief, and it did not matter.
‘But a ship shoved her sails above the floor of the ocean, and grew larger with the breath of the wind. From her scuppers she ran clear water, and the men were in haste and worked hard at the pumps. On the bow stood a mighty man, watching the depth of the water and giving commands with a voice of thunder. His eyes were of the pale blue of the deep waters, and his head was maned like that of a sea lion. And his hair was yellow, like the straw of a southern harvest or the manila rope yarns which sailormen plait.
‘Of late years we had seen ships from afar, but this was the first to come to the beach of Akatan. The feast was broken, and the women and children fled to the houses, while we men strung our bows and waited with spears in hand. But when the ship’s forefoot smelled the beach the strange men took no notice of us, being busy with their own work.
With the falling of the tide they careened the schooner and patched a great hole in her bottom. So the women crept back, and the feast went on.
‘When the tide rose, the sea wanderers kedged the schooner to deep water and then came among us. They bore presents and were friendly; so I made room for them, and out of the largeness of my heart gave them tokens such as I gave all the guests, for it was my wedding day, and I was head man in Akatan. And he with the mane of the sea lion was there, so tall and strong that one looked to see the earth shake with the fall of his feet. He looked much and straight at Unga, with his arms folded, so, and stayed till the sun went away and the stars came out.
Then he went down to his ship. After that I took Unga by the hand and led her to my own house. And there was singing and great laughter, and the women said sly things, after the manner of women at such times. But we did not care. Then the people left us alone and went home.
‘The last noise had not died away when the chief of the sea wanderers came in by the door. And he had with him black bottles, from which we drank and made merry. You see, I was only a stripling, and had lived all my days on the edge of the world. So my blood became as fire, and my heart as light as the froth that flies from the surf to the cliff. Unga sat silent among the skins in the corner, her eyes wide, for she seemed to fear. And he with the mane of the sea lion looked upon her straight and long. Then his men came in with bundles of goods, and he piled before me wealth such as was not in all Akatan.
There were guns, both large and small, and powder and shot and shell, and bright axes and knives of steel, and cunning tools, and strange things the like of which I had never seen.
When he showed me by sign that it was all mine, I thought him a great man to be so free; but he showed me also that Unga was to go away with him in his ship.
Do you understand? — that Unga was to go away with him in his ship. The blood of my fathers flamed hot on the sudden, and I made to drive him through with my spear. But the spirit of the bottles had stolen the life from my arm, and he took me by the neck, so, and knocked my head against the wall of the house. And I was made weak like a newborn child, and my legs would no more stand under me.
Unga screamed, and she laid hold of the things of the house with her hands, till they fell all about us as he dragged her to the door. Then he took her in his great arms, and when she tore at his yellow hair laughed with a sound like that of the big bull seal in the rut.
‘I crawled to the beach and called upon my people, but they were afraid. Only Yash- Noosh was a man, and they struck him on the head with an oar, till he lay with his face in the sand and did not move. And they raised the sails to the sound of their songs, and the ship went away on the wind.
‘The people said it was good, for there would be no more war of the bloods in Akatan; but I said never a word, waiting till the time of the full moon, when I put fish and oil in my kayak and went away to the east. I saw many islands and many people, and I, who had lived on the edge, saw that the world was very large. I talked by signs; but they had not seen a schooner nor a man with the mane of a sea lion, and they pointed always to the east. And I slept in queer places, and ate odd things, and met strange faces. Many laughed, for they thought me light of head; but sometimes old men turned my face to the light and blessed me, and the eyes of the young women grew soft as they asked me of the strange ship, and Unga, and the men of the sea.
‘And in this manner, through rough seas and great storms, I came to Unalaska. There were two schooners there, but neither was the one I sought. So I passed on to the east, with the world growing ever larger, and in the island of Unamok there was no word of the ship, nor in Kadiak, nor in Atognak. And so I came one day to a rocky land, where men dug great holes in the mountain. And there was a schooner, but not my schooner, and men loaded upon it the rocks which they dug. This I thought childish, for all the world was made of rocks; but they gave me food and set me to work. When the schooner was deep in the water, the captain gave me money and told me to go; but I asked which way he went, and he pointed south. I made signs that I would go with him, and he laughed at first, but then, being short of men, took me to help work the ship. So I came to talk after their manner, and to heave on ropes, and to reef the stiff sails in sudden squalls, and to take my turn at the wheel. But it was not strange, for the blood of my fathers was the blood of the men of the sea.
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