Authors: Herbert Ashe
The Call of the Wild
(Klondike Cannibals, Vol. 2)
Text copyright © 2014 Christopher Laxer
All Rights Reserved
Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views/Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, New York Public Library/Wikimedia Commons
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
* * * * *
To Jack, and the hunt
* * * * *
I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.
Jack London’s credo
* * * * *
Klondike cannibals – An old friend – Afternoon aboard the
– Boy socialist – The commotion at the Call building – Into the sierras – The partnership – Buying an outfit – Annie – The streetcar – Selling an outfit – Shell-game – Evening on the street – Return of the oyster pirate – Evening on the ship – The Klondike King – Theory of immortality – The voyage begins
* * * * *
The Call of the Wild
Jack London first heard of the Klondike cannibals in Johnny
Heinhold’s First and Last Chance saloon. Later, they would be all anyone wanted to talk about. But in the beginning they were just another rumour, just another tall story told by men about the wild world beyond San Francisco Bay, and all the adventure paths that lay upon it.
was crowded and noisy, full of sailors from the four corners of the Earth, and Jack’s head was roaring with whisky. Though Jack could throw back as many drinks as any sailor on shore-leave, he kept his liquor well: his mind remained razor sharp, and his ears hunted about the room for stories. He perked up at the mention of cannibalism, and he moved closer to the sandy-haired prospector, who was telling the story to a half-dozen men crowded around him.
I guess that it was early January. The mail-runner brings this kid into Fortymile. He was beat up pretty bad. Half-dead and delirious. Ranting about losing his gold, out on some creek somewhere. Name of Buck Henderson, I think. Young kid. Not much to look at.
The Mounties question him for days. Like did he kill Sam McGee? And just where had he stashed all that gold?
Where indeed? We were all thinking it. Some said he’d lost nearly two hundred thousand dollars out there in the snows. They keep him in jail night and day and meantime he just gets sicker and sicker. Starts talking really crazy, about how he wants a taste. Just a taste. Just to try it.
they keep asking him. Just a taste, he says.
So they bring in the
nurses and the doctors and the priests but not one of them can figure him out. Eventually they give up, thinking he was struck plain crazy out there. Not unusual for men living on the edge to crack, now is it? How about some poor kid lost out in the woods for a week with the dead body of his only friend in the world? He barely made it to Fortymile alive.
You want to know something else? The son-of-a-bitch told the Mounties he had sung to the corpse at times, just to keep himself going. Hell of a thing, when you think about it.
Now no one in Fortymile really believes this kid murdered his partner. What kind of fool murders his partner for gold and then loses that gold and then tells everyone all about it? Why not believe him when he says he crashed his sled on a creek somewhere, and cremated the body of his partner aboard a derelict? Stranger things have happened.
But then Buck bites a Mountie in the jail.
Tries to eat him. He eats most of the man’s face before they shoot him dead. That changed people’s minds in a hurry. We all figured if the kid could’ve done that then he could have done his partner for certain. What kind of man eats another man’s face? Maybe Buck had eaten Sam out there on the
on Lake Lebarge. Just fried him up and ate him like so much corned beef and bacon. Guess we will never know.”
When the prospector finished his story, t
he saloon grew quiet. Jack could hear seagulls shrieking in the distance, out over the Bay. “What do you think happened?” Jack asked the prospector earnestly.
The prospector thought about it a moment, then shrugged.
“The cold does strange things to a man. The truth’s between him and God, I wager.”
hat happened to the Mountie?”
“I don’t know. I left
Fortymile the next day. Like everybody else, I was clearing out, heading down to Bonanza…”
Another man asked him a question about his wages. Someone else asked him about securing provisions in the North. Soon the conversation moved on to the topic of dancehall girls, paid a dollar a dance by lonely prospectors.
His name was Flapjack Frank and he’d just stepped off a steamer from Alaska. He hadn’t struck gold on his own claim, but rather ended up working another man’s, which didn’t sound like much to anyone until he said he was paid $50 a day to do so. This when a man might earn ten cents an hour shovelling coal in a factory, or pressing laundry in some sweatshop.
Everyone wanted to talk about the Klondike. The local Oakland and San Francisco newspapers had been buzzing with wild stories ever since the steamers from Alaska began arriving in port. There were all sorts of crazy theories working their way around, mostly about the location of the best strikes, or about the essential items every
Stampeder needed in their outfit. Already there was a company in New York that sold “ice bicyles” and another in California that sold “boatsleds.” Suddenly the papers were full of ads for Klondike compressed meats and Klondike tonics, for Klondike guide books and Klondike maps. Jack had met a young Swede who planned on ballooning to Dawson city, if only he could find investors foolish enough to fund the scheme.
But there was stranger stuff circulating, too. That very morning Jack had read in the
San Francisco Examiner
of a naturalist at Oxford or Cambridge who believed the giant beaver or woolly mammoth might still roam the far reaches of Northwest. He was offering a cash reward to any Argonaut who could get him a photograph of Northern megafauna.
But this talk of cannibalism was perhaps the strangest thing yet.
Jack slunk off to digest what he’d heard. He knew of cannibals, of course, but he had always imagined them in the Caribbean, or upon some remote South Sea island in the Pacific. They were dark-skinned savages with tattoos or war paint on their faces.
He had never really considered the possibility of a white cannibal before. The idea struck him as queer enough to make for a good ghost story: perhaps something to submit to a pulp magazine upon his return from the North? Now that he had quit the laundry for good he would have to live by his wits, if he were to live at all.
Yes, the thought pleased him. He would pen a little horror of a story that would zip quickly along. Something to please readers who liked their rip-roarers infused with a twist of the gothic.
He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out one of his notebooks, quickly scribbling down the outlines of the tale.
Such fine stories collected already and he hadn’t even left yet!
This was exactly what he needed to become an author. He needed experience; he knew that. And this was it. This Klondike madness seemed the greatest thing that had ever happened. It seemed like everybody you talked to
was going North. “Klondike or bust!” they boasted, and grinned, and patted each other on the back. He couldn’t even count the number of people he met who were in. All in. What incredible foolishness! You read a couple of lines in a newspaper and then you drop everything and just go.
Because maybe you never really had anything anyway, right?
According to the newspapers, almost every man coming ashore had struck it rich in the Northlands. The feeling was that maybe, just maybe, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, any man might be able to do the same. Men left their wives, doctors left their patients, aristocrats left their estates: all in search of a quick fix for their lives.
Folks said it was the biggest rush since ‘49.
Jack felt the electric shock of excitement more than most men. Life seemed suddenly glorious again, full of adventure and possibility. He wrote and scribbled joyfully amidst the hubbub of the saloon for over an hour, blissfully unaware of his surroundings. When he finally left Heinhold’s, he felt rough and ready and raw, full of the spirit of destiny. It was almost six p.m., and he was on his way to his sister’s house for dinner.
From her, he would borrow the money for the steamer tickets he planned
on buying, first thing tomorrow morning…
* * * * *
When Jack walked back outside, the sun was still blazing in the sky to the West.
ore people than usual were milling about on Oakland’s dockland streets, though Jack hardly noticed. How could he convince Eliza to lend him the money he would need for steamship passage, let alone the ton of supplies he’d need to purchase before he left?
The problem was
they’d already argued about his future prospects a number of times in the past year. He knew that, in her eyes, he’d already failed at a number of grandiose schemes. What made striking it rich in the North any different? To Eliza, it was all pretty clear: what Jack needed was a proper career, some stability.
Maybe a wife.
Jack frowned at the idea. How the hell could I afford one? he thought, with a sudden twinge of bitterness. If I can’t marry Mabel Applegarth, maybe I won’t marry at all.
He kicked a loose cobblestone and watched it skitter along the gutter.
Deep in the tangle of his thoughts, he crossed Oak Street, oblivious to the traffic of horse-drawn carriages and carts.
* * * * *
Half a year earlier Jack had dropped out of the University of California.
couldn’t afford it, not with his father John sick and probably dying. Day by day his family’s situation grew more precarious. They were barely hanging on as it was.
Even though Jack had loved his time as a “college man” at Berkeley, and had torn into his courses on history, philosophy, and literature like a starving man at a banquet, he had no deep regrets about dropping out. He knew he needed to make his way in the real world.
Besides, he’d realized early on the smallness of college men. They preened and hid behind fancy words, and didn’t know the first thing about life. Their grand ideas didn’t seem to mean all that much to them in the end: after they graduated all they thought about was making money.
Although Jack felt himself to be superior to his classmates in almost every way, he
couldn’t seem to outfox them at their own game.
They had family connections, polished manners,
nice clothes. They had Italian shoes. They took piano lessons, played golf, went riding in the hills. They looked and acted the part of success much better than Jack ever could, and to them life would come easy.
The best Jack could expect from trying to make it in their world would be to become some rich man’s flunky, or a clerk in an office somewhere, deadening his mind for wages scarcely higher than that of a common labourer.
Still, office work was better than nothing, and he would take it if he could get it.
But nobody was hiring.
All across the country honest people were suffering, caught in the trap. America was stuck in the deepest economic depression in its history. It had been four years since the Panic of ’93, when the speculators and industrialists suddenly realized that, in their mad rush to get rich, they’d built too many damned railroads.
here’d been a run on the banks.
The bankers and the railroad
tycoons took a hit, of course, but they were still in charge of things: running—some said ruining—the country from their gilded mansions and gentlemen’s clubs. As always, it was the ordinary people, the nobodies like Jack or his sister, who got hurt the most.
Jack wasn’t going to give in without a fight.
Despite Eliza’s reservations, after
dropping out of university he had been crazy and desperate enough to try to make a living as an author. Typing—often in a mad fury—for up to eighteen hours a day, sometimes for weeks on end, only taking occasional breaks to play a game of chess or go for a night ride on his bicycle, Jack wrote manifestos, ghost stories, and scientific prophecy.
He tried his hand at mystery and romance.
He had good reason to. When he was seventeen, he’d won first prize in a literary contest sponsored by the
San Francisco Morning Call
. The newspaper awarded him twenty-five dollars—about two weeks wages—for a descriptive tale about his experiences aboard a sealing ship six months earlier.
In three frenzied nights of writing and revision, Jack had spun four thousand words into pure electricity.
His description of the storm was riveting: the ship had been caught in a typhoon off the coast of Japan, and Jack had proven himself by taking his turn at the wheel, where he’d held the lives of his fellow sailors in his hands for a full hour, fighting the wind and waves.
In principle, this literary success proved to everyone that it was at least
for Jack to earn money from his writing. Hadn’t he beaten out a number of other young would-be authors, some of whom had attended Stanford and Berkeley?
But Jack’s recent literary exertions had, for the most part, turned out poorly. One look at his lunatic pages, typed in cramped capital letters on the cheap typewriter th
at he had to continually re-borrow, and most editors simply tossed his work in the trash.
His pile of rejection slips was growing by the day.
It was only while slaving away in the steam-laundry at the Belmont Academy that he’d figured out why. The things he’d written since he left university were infected with unreality, crippled by art and jumbled learning. His words rang hollow: he hated the sound they made, the way they looked on the page.
In contrast, the truth of his typhoon sketch stood out plain upon the page, even now
, nearly four years later.
Because it was derived from his own experience.
That was the reason, he was sure of it. What he needed above all else was to sharpen himself through hardship and adventure, to obtain a rich catalogue of perceptions through his own struggles with life and death.
Only then could he capture a reader’s attention and hold it.
Jack had experienced such periods of soul-stretching before: first when he became an oyster pirate at the age of fifteen, and then two years later when he’d gone to sea aboard the
. And of course, there had been his glorious months on the road the following year, riding the rails across the country to Reno, Chicago, Niagara Falls, and everywhere in between. These experiences had left him larger somehow. More hungry.
was precisely why he needed to go to the Klondike. But how could he convince Eliza of the necessity of this? She worried about him too much…
“Jack? Is that you?”
The raspy voice startled him out of his thoughts.
Jack turned and saw a pale
and bruised face emerging from the shadows of an alleyway. At first he didn’t recognize the young man.
Jack hesitated. He knew
Eliza hated lateness, especially from him. But he was not one to turn his back on a man in need.
Recognition dawned on him.
to his friend’s side, grabbed him by the shoulders, and propped him up against the brick wall of the warehouse.
took everything…” Scotty mumbled under his breath. He was shivering, and covered in a thin film of sweat. “…cheated me at a damn shell game, and now I’m done for…”
Without another thought,
Jack threw Scotty’s arm over his shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “That’s it… Let’s get you a drink.” He helped Scotty stumble half a block to a saloon he knew nearby, which gave out free crackers with every whisky.
were generally stale, but a poor man couldn’t find a cheaper meal, and Jack suspected they would do the trick.