“Reese will get you killed, Jonas.” Jack saw the man’s face drop, and he could perceive the desperation there. Who had he left back at home? A wife and child? A mother, like Jack’s, hoping for help from her gold-hunting son? And here Jonas was, captured and put to slavery like members of his family mere decades before him, and there was a man ready to fight to free him. Jack could see the allure of Reese and his plans. He felt it himself. But he also knew that if the big man was allowed to act on his plan, then most of them would be dead by midnight.
And Jack would be the first.
Food came, handed out by a couple of men he’d never heard speak. Jack received the same share as everyone else. William and Archie must have had other things on their minds.
As the men ate, Jack slowly edged his way into the center of their group. There sat Merritt, and beside him Reese. And they were fully aware of Jack’s approach.
“Merritt,” Jack said, chewing on another piece of tough jerky. Merritt barely acknowledged him; a quick glance, a blink.
“Kid,” Reese said, “you still being a fool?”
“I’m no fool,” Jack said. “You’re set to get us killed, and I’ll be the first one put down.” He looked at Merritt as he said this, hoping for some reaction, but there was none.
“What makes you think you’re so special?” Reese asked.
“I’ve already beaten the hell out of Archie,” Jack said. “Back in Dawson. He holds a grudge, and he’s set to act on it sometime soon. Do what you plan tonight, and I’ll get the first bullet.” Reese grunted and shrugged, and Jack’s foot flashed out and connected with the big man’s lower leg. Reese glared at him. “You’ll get the second,” Jack said. “I’m betting William will want some sort of revenge for his slaves rebelling. Means he’ll have to get all the way back to Dawson to get more, or maybe he’ll just attack one of the other prospectors’ camps around here, maybe one with women and kids. So your bullet will be in the hip or gut, just something to stop you cold. Then when everyone else is dead, they’ll get to work on you properly.” He bit another chunk of jerky and chewed. Merritt had his eyes downcast.
“We’ll surprise them,” Reese said. “They’ve got the upper hand now; we’re all shocked by what’s happened to us, confused. They’re relying on that. We act now, it’s the best chance at surprise we have. Longer we leave it, more on guard they’ll be.”
“Who will you take first?” Jack asked, retying his boot-laces. He and Reese could never keep eye contact for long, never let the guards know there was a conversation going on.
“Nearest one. Get his guns, then move on.”
“You ever shot a man?” Jack asked, and he could already see the answer in the big man’s eyes. For a moment, he actually looked scared.
“Not yet,” Reese said.
Jack was aware of the rest of the men listening. He glanced around to make sure none of the slavers could hear, and they seemed safe for now.
“You need to go for the strongest first,” Jack said. “Not the loudest, or the cruelest, but the one who’ll coolly shoot a man in the back in cold blood. We already know one of them, but there’ll be more. We have to spend time marking them.”
“You’re just a damn kid!” Reese said.
“And you’re just a bear with no bite.”
“No one talks to me like that!”
“I just did,” Jack said. And he realized then what he had to do. He’d known for a while, he supposed—most of that day—but here and now, he saw the way this would play out. Most of the men were behind Reese, because the lure of freedom was greater than the wisdom of caution. So he had to prove to the men who was wisest, and who was strongest. He had to show them who could really lead them to freedom, and in the wild, that wasn’t done by talking politics.
Reese was already keen to fight.
Jack took a deep breath, glanced around at the others—expectant faces, sad eyes, some of them already beaten men—and then his gaze settled on Merritt.
His friend’s eyes went wide as he saw what Jack was about to do. “Jack, don’t—”
Jack pushed himself forward, swinging a heavy right at Reese’s head. With the thunk of fist against skull, and the excited shouting of men, the fight of his life began.
Reese had not been prepared for it. Though he acted the hard man, he was exactly what Jack had suspected: a coward enjoying the scent of leadership. Jack’s flailing fists drove him over sideways, and both of them fell dangerously close to the fire.
Voices rose around them, and a cheer as Reese recovered and launched a heavy fist into Jack’s shoulder. Then he bucked and threw Jack off, grabbing a burning stick from the fire and swinging it high over his head.
Jack rolled away and felt the stick strike the ground close to his feet. Sparks hit the bare skin above his wet socks. The heat was almost welcome. He gained his feet and turned, ready to hold back an attack. But Reese was just standing there, swinging the still-smoking stick left and right like a giant pendulum.
The whole camp had gathered to watch. The slaves had stood and pulled back into a tight circle, affecting the air of people avoiding violence rather than urging it on. Jack saw Merritt there, the only one who seemed to despair over what he saw.
He is still my friend, Jack thought. And in the midst of a fight that was partly about saving Merritt’s life, that idea pleased him immensely.
Beyond the slaves, William’s men were also watching. Jack saw five or six of them gathered within the circle of tents, William and Archie included. The others must have still been on guard duty beyond, not lured in by the sudden violence, and already Jack was learning how organized they were. Don’t you see? he wanted to shout at Reese.
But Reese was coming at him then, blackened branch swinging wide again.
Jack ducked and punched Reese in the stomach. His hand sank into flab, and the big man whoofed and staggered to the side, winded. Jack went after him and struck him across the head, but Reese surprised him by swatting him aside. Jack stumbled and hit the ground hard.
He heard the slavers betting on who would win the fight. His fall must have changed the odds.
Standing, Jack braced himself for another attack. But Reese hung back. A trickle of blood ran down from somewhere under his wild head of hair, drawing across his cheek and entering his equally unkempt beard. He looked like a forest wild man of legend, but his eyes spoke of an altogether gentler upbringing. For an instant Jack wondered where Reese came from and who waited for him back home. Then the big man came for him again—perhaps finally realizing what was at stake here—and Jack stepped sideways.
The fight became more consistent, and more brutal. Reese had seen the look in some of the other men’s eyes, and he knew that he had to win this fight to maintain his position at the top of the pecking order. And Jack caught sight of Merritt’s lost, longing expression, and knew he had to save his friend. The first bullet would be his, yes, but the thought of Merritt dying because Jack could not protect him…that was unbearable.
The men were growing wild, now, like a pack of dogs—or wolves—waiting to see which fighter would dominate, and which would offer up his throat. His fellow oppressed men, and the oppressors, all cheered and jeered. But beyond that was something else. A great awareness, a paused beat in the timelessness of the mountains and rivers, as if just for the length of this fight, time had halted, held its breath, and Jack was suddenly more than a speck in the wilderness. He was the mountains themselves, the deep rivers holding their glittering golden secrets for those brave enough to search, and that watcher from the mountains gave him strength, and it was a strength that came from fear.
Because the thing that watched was no wolf.
Reese had strength, but Jack had youth and speed, and a brutal instinct that the other man lacked—he had hurt men before, beaten them into bloody submission in dock fights and back-alley brawls. He took no pride in that history; it had merely been his way to survive the life he had led up to this day, and it would get him through this night.
The wild in him. The wolf. They came to the surface like never before, and he thought of the pack, surrounding them, howling, and he knew there was only one way this fight could end. He beat Reese, and when the big man fell, Jack beat him some more. Defeated, Reese raised his hands in supplication. Still Jack fell upon him, nuzzling down beneath the stinking beard and clasping the man’s throat between his teeth. He growled.
“Yes,” Reese panted.
Jack growled again, and he heard the sudden silence that had fallen over the slavers’ camp.
“Yes,” Reese said, whispering this time. “I submit. I submit.”
Jack released him, tasting the sweat and blood of victory on his tongue. He stood slowly. And before Archie and three other men came at him with their fists and clubs, he felt the cowed, respectful eyes of the other slaves upon him.
JACK COULD NOT SLEEP. The beating they’d given him had been bad enough, and he was thankful that no bones appeared to be broken. Weak as he already was, thinner than he’d ever been, suffering again from the beginnings of scurvy and feeling how loose his teeth had become, the energy he’d expended that day should have slipped him into the deepest sleep. After panning for twelve hours with little food, then fighting Reese and taking the beating from Archie and the other thugs…
He could not recall ever being so exhausted, and yet sleep eluded him. He lay on his back and stared up at the stars. The night sky drew heat from the ground, and from Jack, and however many skins he draped over himself—and some of the men had thrown their own across to him—he could not stay warm. He wondered at the number of stars up there, and thought about how many other hopeful people were lying like this across the Yukon Territory, staring into the dark and dreaming of the golden days yet to come. Even though Jack’s situation was far different—the bruises, his ankles tied to a stake in the ground—he still felt free. There was more to trapping a man’s soul than tying his legs and beating him into submission.
Jack blinked, his eyes heavy and sore with tiredness. He heard snoring from the other men around him and hoped that Merritt was sleeping well. Saved your life today, he thought, and he was sure that Merritt understood. He hoped they all did, even Reese. He’d not meant the big man any lasting harm.
He tried casting his mind out beyond the camp, leaving the captors and captives behind, exploring the darkness to seek out whatever had been watching the fight. Even while Archie had beaten him with fists and a wooden club, Jack had felt observed by something far away, that terrible thing that held him in such curious regard. And, knocked almost into unconsciousness, he had felt like the observer. He’d felt a distance to his pain, as if he was both suffering it here and viewing it from afar.
Within him was a raving hunger the likes of which he had never experienced before. This was not only a hunger for food—good meat, which he’d not had since hunting from the cabin; fruits and vegetables, which they’d had little of in Dawson—but for something more spiritual. Something deeper.
Listening desperately for the familiar howl of wolves and, when he could not hear them, feeling lonelier than he ever had in his life before, Jack drifted off to sleep at last.
In his dream, something touched his face. It was cool and wet, and Jack raised a hand to brush it away. Something else brushed against his exposed foot, and a shape worked its way closer to him beneath the skins piled across his body. He felt both trapped and assaulted, and he started to panic as he felt the thing coming closer. He could feel the strange heat of it, and yet when it touched his stomach, it, too, was cold, and wet.
He opened his eyes. Shadows stood all around him, barely visible in the light of the weakened campfire, utterly silent. He gasped and sat up, and when the pain of his beating bit in, he realized that this was no dream.
Ten trail dogs stood around him, staring. They’d been nudging him with their noses, and now that he was awake, they simply watched. These animals were slaves to William and Archie and the rest, just as Jack and Merritt and the other men were. They’d stolen the dogs, just as they’d been trying to steal Hal’s mangy mutt when Jack and Merritt had first encountered them.
He looked from one to the next, and each of the dogs reflected moonlight in its dark, wet eyes. None of them made any noise. None of them glanced away, not once, even when he brought his arms from beneath the skins and folded them across his chest. It’s so damn cold, he thought, and he glanced at the fire. It had been allowed to burn down, and around it he could make out the shapes of his fellow slaves sleeping. Surrounding them, visible as pale blurs in the starlight, were the slavers’ tents. Beyond the tents somewhere, he knew, there were at least three slavers still on guard.
Or there should have been.
“They’d have come to see what was happening by now,” he whispered, and one of the dogs edged closer.
Jack pulled back. He knew how vicious trail dogs could be. But then he exhaled, sensing no threat here. They were around him but not surrounding him. He reached out a tentative hand, and a dog rolled its head against his open palm.
“Hey, boy,” Jack whispered. “What’s on your mind?”
The dog whined, low and quiet, and Jack felt its voice rumbling against his palm. The others edged closer. One of them sniffed him, another snapped at the offending dog.
What is this?
The moon emerged from behind scattered cloud cover. It was half full, and its silvery sheen fell across the landscape like a dusting of snow. The tents grew lighter, the shadows beyond less dense. Jack looked around, trying to make out the moving shapes of William’s guards, but he could not spot them. Maybe they were sitting somewhere, watching the silent camp and confident that, motionless, they’d spy any movement the instant it happened.