If worse came to worst, then it would be up to Jack to rescue him.
He barged through the doors into the bar. Looking around, he spied Merritt quickly, slumped over the same table in the far corner that he and Jack had occupied months before. A whiskey bottle sat on the table in front of him, half empty, and the man’s grizzled features seemed somehow blurred by drunkenness. Jack recognized well enough the appearance of an alcoholic, but Merritt seemed to be cursed even more—here was a man driven to drink who did not enjoy it one bit.
Opposite Merritt sat Hal, the boy Jack had rescued from Archie and William. He looked up as Jack stood by the doors, his eyes went wide, and he whispered, “Jack London.”
“Dead,” Merritt said. “Taken by the monster.” Several people close to Merritt groaned, and a couple even laughed, throwing casual abuse his way. “You’ll laugh!” Merritt said, voice rising. “When it has you by the legs so it can chew on your guts, you’ll…you’ll…” He slumped to the tabletop again, mumbling something into the pool of dribble spreading from his mouth.
“No, Merritt,” Hal said. He stood up from the table and smiled. “Jack’s here!”
Merritt looked up at Jack. A few other people seemed interested, but Jack only had eyes for Merritt, this wreck of his friend.
“Jack London’s dead,” Merritt said.
“I’m here, Merritt,” Jack said. “And it seems to me you’re the one who’s almost lost.”
Jack sat at their table and accepted Hal’s offer of a drink. The boy regarded him with wide-eyed fascination, hardly able to talk, and when he did, it was in hushed, almost reverential tones. Jack sat quietly for a while, letting Merritt examine him from a drunken distance. The big man had changed so much, but then Jack remembered that so had he. The stranger in the mirror still haunted him.
At last Merritt slipped into a troubled sleep, the hubbub in the bar around them went back to normal, and Hal stared blinking at Jack.
Jack had to remind himself that Hal was only a couple of years younger than him. He looked like a kid—he was a kid—yet Jack was happy to see a friendly face.
“So what is it?” Jack asked at last. Though he spoke to Hal, he watched Merritt, hoping that his friend would wake with recognition in his eyes, but he was far gone. Perhaps tomorrow.
“Well…Merritt has such stories,” Hal said. “He talks about…”
“Monsters?” Jack said.
“Well, he’ll find a lot of ugly things at the bottom of a glass.”
“He was talking about them as soon as he got back, long before he started on the booze.”
“Trail madness.” Jack took a drink, closing his eyes and savoring the harsh taste.
“Then he ain’t the only madman from that trail,” Hal said.
Jack glanced at the kid. Held the glass up, breathed in the whiskey fumes. I saw them all die!
“That bastard Archie’s back in Dawson,” Hal said quietly. “Ain’t nearly so brutish now—had that shot outa him, by all accounts. But he’s hooked up with the same types, an’ there’s talk that they’re goin’ out again.”
“Archie,” Jack said. “You’re sure?” William shot him, left him for dead, the Wendigo killed William, and then…? But the memory ended there.
“Sure I’m sure.” Hal nodded, but he couldn’t hold Jack’s gaze for more than a few moments.
Jack sat back, looked around the bar, and took another drink. It seemed his adventures might not yet be over. Hal poured him another, music played, men and women drank and smoked, and though depressing in many ways, the familiar surroundings managed to relax Jack at last. Merritt snored softly on the table beside him, and this could have been a bar anywhere.
Later, after Hal and Jack had all but finished the whiskey, Hal leaned in close. Here it comes, Jack thought. Here’s what he’s been trying to say all evening.
“So tell me what happened,” Hal said.
Jack frowned for a while, staring into an unseen distance, and he strove to hear a wolf howl that was far from there. Perhaps it was the whiskey, but he smiled.
“All right, Hal. I’m headed home, and once I leave Dawson, I’m never going to tell the story again,” he said. “So you’ll be the only one to hear it. And it will be up to you what you believe.”
And into the early hours, Jack London told his tale.
MORNING BROUGHT NO EPIPHANY. When he had learned that Merritt was still alive, he had wondered if the big man would still hold him responsible for Jim Goodman’s death, or if the tensions that had strained their friendship in the days before the Wendigo’s attack would remain. He could never have guessed that Merritt’s reaction would be so much worse than anger or resentment.
When they encountered each other over breakfast in the hotel parlor, Merritt still did not recognize him. He continued to insist that Jack London had died that night in the slavers’ camp. When Jack pressed him on it, the big man seemed to become confused and sad and angry in almost equal measures, and then his eyes grew distant in a way that had nothing to do with the alcohol in which he’d been stewing his brain for weeks. It wasn’t madness, however. Jack had met his share of madmen. Rather, he thought that a part of Merritt remained in the north, in the ruined camp on the bank of the creek, that he had never entirely returned.
Jack feared he never would, but he resolved to treat Merritt with care. Further shock might be more than the man could handle. Picking at the biscuits and gravy on his plate, Merritt tugged his bushy red beard and seemed to start at sounds no one else could hear. Still broad shouldered and imposing, he had thinned since their ordeal in the wilderness, and though only a few years Jack’s senior, he now appeared much older.
Over the rim of his coffee cup, Jack watched his friend closely. Merritt needed to be woken out of his fog, the parts of his thinking self brought back together, but it had to be done with caution.
If, Jack thought, it can ever be done at all.
After breakfast, he went to see the hotel’s owner, who turned out to have the somewhat unlikely name of Mortimer Dowd. The man glanced up from the morning’s mail—which he was sorting into piles for the hotel’s guests—and a sheepish look came over his face.
“I supposed it was too much to hope that a decent night’s rest would make you forget,” the man said, straightening the bow tie he wore, seemingly to give the Yukon Hotel an air of sophistication—or even merely civilization—that it could never establish on its own merits. Like a prostitute with a parasol, Jack thought, but did not say.
“And a good morning to you, Mr. Dowd,” he said.
The man’s gaze flicked down to the twin gun belts Jack wore. He had almost hesitated to don them again this morning but quickly decided they would be his companions on the journey home, along with the other weapons he had brought back from the slavers’ camp. As it was, he felt uncomfortable leaving the saddlebags in his hotel room. He hadn’t breathed a word about the gold he had found to anyone, not even young Hal the night before, but there were some men in Dawson who hungered for it so badly that he would not put it past them to somehow sense its presence.
“I’m truly sorry,” Dowd said, glancing at the guns again. “But the way your friend Sloper talked, and from the whispers I’d heard ’bout what went on up there…and it had been so long since you left—”
“I’ll put it to you plainly, sir,” Jack interrupted. “I’m no stranger to bloodshed, and I can think of a couple of dozen ways to hurt or even kill you just with the things here in this room and with the blades and guns I’m carrying.”
Dowd swallowed, wetted his lips, and shook his head in a silent plea. Back in the spring, when Jack had first encountered him, the man would likely have laughed and hurled him bodily into the street—or tried. This morning, he did not dare make the attempt.
“Come now, Mr. London—”
Jack laughed. Mr. London, indeed, and him still years off from twenty. The laugh must have had a hysterical edge to it, for Dowd dropped the mail he’d been sorting and moved to put a dark wooden table between them.
“I’ve done a little thinking, Dowd. I’ve had enough of blood and enough of trouble, so you can breathe easily.”
The man blinked warily, untrusting.
“Honestly,” Jack said. “I don’t have the time or the inclination to give you the thrashing I’d like to deliver, or even to argue about how long you ought to have waited. My friends and I paid you to store our things. Instead, you sold them. I understand your reasoning, and can’t really say I blame you, much. But that doesn’t excuse the act.”
Dowd, now realizing no violence seemed likely to erupt, nodded cooperatively. “I agree. And again, I can’t say how sorry I am. If I still had the money, I’d pay you back every cent, but I put it into improvements on the hotel.”
Jack cocked an eyebrow and glanced around. If any improvements had been made to the shabbily constructed and decorated establishment, he had not noticed them. But no matter….
“I’m going home,” Jack said, and the word felt strangely, and somehow wonderfully, unfamiliar on his lips. “I’m sure you’ll be happy to see the back of me, so I want you to help make that happen as soon as possible. For the next couple of days, I’ll be visiting several shops in town to put together the supplies I’ll need to get me to Dyea.”
“Certainly,” Dowd said.
Jack smiled. “You’ll be paying for everything.”
Dowd frowned, and it seemed as though he might suddenly find the courage to argue.
“The cost will be far less than what you garnered by selling my things,” Jack observed. “And the farther I am from Dawson, the easier you’ll breathe.”
Now Dowd actually smiled. “There is that.”
“Then we’re agreed?” Jack asked.
Dowd thrust out a hand to shake. Jack did not so much as glance at it.
“Not so fast. There’s also the matter of my bill.”
Now that he believed he would be quit of Jack soon, and without any bullet holes or other wounds incurred in the meantime—and at a tidy profit, all things considered—the man stood straighter, almost magnanimous.
“Think nothing of it, Jack. If you’ll be only a few days, there’ll be no charge for your room or your meals. It’s the least I can do.”
“It would be,” Jack agreed. “But you’re also going to make Merritt Sloper’s bill disappear.”
Dowd blanched. “For how long?”
“Is he paid up to today?”
“Until Friday,” Dowd replied.
Jack took a breath. Today could have been Sunday or Thursday, for all he knew, but he wasn’t about to admit that.
“He doesn’t pay you another dime until I leave Dawson. Not for a drink or a meal or a bed. Not even if he wants you to shine his shoes.”
Reluctantly, lifting his chin in slight defiance, Dowd gave a tilt of his head that Jack took as acceptance. “Will Sloper be leaving with you?”
“I hope so.”
After a moment, the man held his hand out again. This time Jack shook it.
“I didn’t come here to make enemies, Mr. Dowd,” Jack said, softening a little. “I came for an adventure, and got more than I bargained for.”
“Consider yourself fortunate. Most get less.”
Before he could stop himself, Jack laughed. It broke the tension between them.
“I really didn’t think you were coming back,” Dowd said.
“I know. For a long time, neither did I.”
Over the next few days, as Jack made his preparations, he saw Merritt half a dozen times in the street, on the hotel stairs, or in the Dawson Bar, but somehow Merritt could no longer see him. Twice Jack ventured to speak to him, but his words fell on deaf ears. Merritt did not acknowledge his presence with even the slightest twitch or glance, until Jack began to feel like a ghost haunting the shattered man and decided to leave him alone.
But when all his preparations had been made, his departure scheduled for the following morning, Jack knew he simply could not leave Dawson without talking to his friend. Merritt’s mind had slipped. He gazed at some middle distance, never quite aware of the solidity of the world around him, and Jack feared that if he did not do something to bring Merritt back into the real world, he would be lost inside himself forever, just as gone as if he had died at the Wendigo’s hands.
Yet Jack knew his previous efforts to get through to Merritt had been spectacularly unsuccessful. His chances, he determined, would be greatly improved if he had someone there Merritt would acknowledge.
Thus he found himself, that Monday afternoon, standing just inside the city’s newspaper office. Hal sat behind a makeshift desk writing in longhand, his fingers stained with ink from the printing press that sat somewhere in the rear of the building, silent for the moment. His dog, Dutch, lay on the floor beside the desk, ears pricking up at Jack’s arrival.
“A pretty girl,” Jack said.
Hal glanced up, brightening instantly. “Jack!”
The boy—no longer a boy, really, if he even had been one before—jumped from his chair and rushed over. Dutch raised his head, watched them a moment, and then rested it on his forepaws again, utterly uninterested in that way only dogs can ever manage. But Hal had enough enthusiasm for both of them. He thrust out his hand with such energetic bonhomie that Jack could not have refused to shake it, despite the ink. Only after a moment did Hal frown at him.
“What’s this about a pretty girl?”
“At the saddlery: blond hair, pale as winter—”
Jack nodded, noting the light flush that came to Hal’s cheeks when he spoke the girl’s name. “She told me where to find you. You hadn’t mentioned working for the newspaper.”