“It’s a recent development,” Hal said.
Jack took a deep breath, his smile faltering. “Can you spare a few minutes?”
“Of course. What—?”
“I’m leaving tomorrow. Before I go, I mean to talk to Merritt. I thought it might help if you were there. A face he’ll let himself see.”
Hal nodded, glanced back at his desk, and then reached into his pocket for a key. “Stay, Dutch,” he said to the dog, then looked at Jack. “He’ll be at the bar by now. If we hurry, we can get him before he’s too drunk to see either of us.”
Jack didn’t expect Merritt to be the only one in the bar, not in a place as blanketed in lost hope as Dawson, but still it startled him to find the place murmuring with life, ale and whiskey flowing freely. It would be much louder, and much busier, when night came on and the darkness reminded lost souls, and even those still hopeful, how far they were from home. But, still, there were twenty-five or thirty people in the bar, a handful of them eating the meager fare the place offered because they couldn’t be bothered to seek a proper meal elsewhere. They’d put down roots in the place.
Roots. The word put images of Leshii and his beautiful daughter into Jack’s head, and he shook them off like cobwebs. The sooner he left the vast emptiness of the north behind, the better.
“In the back,” Hal said, nodding toward the farthest corner.
It seemed strange to Jack that Merritt would take up a post there, at a small round table on the opposite side of the room from the actual bar. He would have to get up and trek over to the counter to order himself another drink, and there were plenty of stools to be had within arm’s reach of the bartender. He seemed almost to be hiding, there in the corner, and there in his glass, as well.
Hal led the way and they threaded through the tables, passing men mostly sullen and women falsely garrulous, all of them waiting for something to happen to shake them from their stupor and trying not to wonder what would become of them if nothing ever did.
Jack craved simple, unaffected, genuine laughter, and he knew he would find it back home in California. But he would not have earned it until he had thrown the heavy gray cloak of this place from his shoulders. He wanted an ordinary girl with bright, intelligent eyes and a smile both shy and full of promise. The Yukon held some of the greatest beauty he had ever beheld, but it was an uncaring place, and he yearned for a warm Pacific sunset.
But not yet.
“Merritt,” he began, as they approached the table.
Hal held up a hand to stop him from saying anything else. The kid who was no longer a kid slid into the chair opposite the man with the shaggy red beard, who had once been Jack’s friend. Jack hung back, watching, and after a moment, Merritt looked up at Hal.
“Thought you got yourself a job,” Merritt said. He cocked his head as if he weren’t entirely sure Hal was there.
“I quit early today,” Hal said. “Figured I’d come over and see if you wanted to have some dinner with me.”
Merritt ran his fingers through his overgrown beard. “Bit early for dinner.”
“But not for whiskey?”
That actually got a smile out of Merritt, but it lasted only a moment before it became a sneer. “Never too early for whiskey. Not here, so far from the world.”
“This is part of the world, Merritt,” Jack said.
Hal shot him a look meant to silence him, but Jack had run out of time to wait for Merritt to recover from the trauma he had endured. He grabbed a chair from another table and dragged it over, and now the three of them sat together. Merritt, as always, seemed not to see him.
Jack rapped his knuckles on the table. Merritt flinched.
“There you go,” Jack said. “I’m not a ghost.”
“I don’t know who the hell you are,” Merritt said. “But you watch yourself in here. Man could get a knife in the belly as easy as a drink in this place.”
Jack smiled. Progress. Merritt wouldn’t look him in the eyes, acted like the chair had just dragged itself over and nobody sat there, but he had responded. That was a start.
“Merritt, you’ve got to stop,” Hal said. “You’ve gotta see. It’s—”
“Hush,” Jack said.
Hal clammed up and gestured for him to continue.
Jack reached out and grabbed Merritt’s arm. The big man recoiled at the touch, the chair scraping on the floorboards, and his chest started to rise and fall with ragged, panicked breaths. But Merritt didn’t go for a weapon.
“This is part of the world,” Jack repeated. “It may not be a pleasant part. Ugly things happen. Maybe things that seem impossible. But you haven’t stepped outside the world. You can go back to houses and restaurants and shops, to cities and towns, to the friends and family you left behind. I can take you back, Merritt, if you’ll let me.”
Merritt gave Hal a desperate sort of smile. “I’m gonna get another drink, Hal. Can I buy you one?”
“Look at him, Merritt,” Hal said, pleading. “Just look at him. It’s really him. It’s Jack.”
Merritt roared then, rising up with such force that he knocked over his chair, and amber liquid sloshed out of the glass on the table.
“Goddammit, kid, Jack is dead! Don’t you listen? Don’t any of you ever listen? It got him. Gobbled him up just like the rest!”
Nearly everyone in the bar turned for a curious glance, but only a quick one. Really, none of them cared if violence erupted as long as it didn’t involve them.
Jack started to rise, reaching for him, but Merritt lifted a shaking hand to his face. He gave a quiet laugh that set Jack’s teeth on edge and made him fearful that he had been wrong—that Merritt might be truly deranged after all, not just scared and heartbroken. Then Merritt righted his chair and sat back down, a horrible sadness on his face. He wiped at his eyes.
“I’m sorry, Hal,” he said. “I know how you hate to be called ‘kid.’”
“It’s all right,” Hal said.
Merritt rapped the knuckles of his right fist against his skull. “No, it isn’t. It’s all just like broken glass up here, now. And I don’t like to talk about…about him. I let him down, Hal. Those bastards, William and Archie, they killed Jim and I blamed Jack for it, when all he’d done was stand up to them. He tried to be my friend, tried to look out for me even after they took us, and I turned my back on him.”
Then he just stopped, clamping his mouth shut, lips pressed together. A single tear ran down Merritt’s face as he reached for his glass. With a thumb he caressed the glass, but he did not lift it to drink, only gazed off now into that middle distance, into nothing, maybe into a past where he blamed himself for the horror that had befallen him.
Hal sighed, started to rise.
“No,” Jack said.
“I’m leaving in the morning,” he said, staring at the big man. “Do you hear me, Merritt? I’m going home. You could come with me. Look at me, damn you! I’m not dead! You didn’t kill me. And you were right to be angry. I knew they were dangerous men the first time I set eyes on them. I should’ve been more careful. But I’m back now. We’re both alive.”
Merritt did not even blink. It seemed almost as if whatever tenant had been living inside him had gone out for the night.
Emotion welled up inside Jack. He’d been bruised and battered, yes, but he had emerged otherwise unscathed from the terror and slaughter of that night, and he would not leave Merritt like this. He rose from the chair and slid over to block Merritt’s view, bent low to try to catch his eye, but the big man would not focus on him.
Anger and remorse drove Jack onward. He reached out both hands and gripped Merritt’s head between them, forcibly swiveling the man’s head to face him. Merritt tried to back away, but his chair hit the rear wall of the bar and Jack managed to keep a viselike hold.
“Look at me, damn you!” Jack rasped. “I’m your friend, Merritt. I’m Jack London, and I’m not dead. The Wendigo got nearly everyone else, but it didn’t get me. I’m here with you, right now!”
Merritt tried to twist his head away, but Jack held on, bumping into the table and spilling more whiskey. He bent over, putting his face only inches from Merritt’s.
“Look at me!”
And at last, Merritt did. The man’s eyes narrowed and his eyebrows knitted, and he took long, steadying breaths.
“You resemble him,” Merritt whispered. “I’ll grant you that. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that things aren’t always what they seem.”
Jack let him go, thinking that perhaps there would be no getting through to him, that the parts of his mind that were broken could never be put back together again.
Merritt reached for his glass. Jack snatched it from the table, kept it out of his reach.
“You told me once that coffee was your one indulgence. I know you’ve found another one, but think for a moment about the smell of fresh coffee, and not the swill they serve here. Coffee beans from South America, brewed dark and rich, with fresh cream on the side and a chocolate pastry.”
Merritt started to shake his head slowly, not looking at him, but then his slack, distant expression crumbled and his shoulders began to tremble as he took hitching breaths, which turned into quiet sobs.
THE CALL OF THE WILD
THEY DRANK COFFEE AFTER ALL, a pitiful brew, and followed it with small glasses of brandy whose sole purpose was a toast to Jim Goodman. Hal had never met him but raised his glass just the same. Merritt would not discuss in any kind of detail the night that the Wendigo had attacked their camp, but when Jack explained that he had slipped his bonds and escaped into the woods, Merritt nodded in sudden understanding.
“It was you, then, who saved me.”
“How’s that, now?” Jack asked.
Merritt smiled. “It went from man to man, finishing off those who still lived. How so much…meat…could fit in its belly and gullet I’ve no idea, but I lay there hoping it would grow full before it reached me. Two others were still alive, as far as I knew. Tom Kelso and Geoff Arsenault. I heard Geoff screaming and I knew that would be the end. I could see Kelso’s eyes. The man had been playing dead, like me, but when Geoff started screaming, Kelso’s eyes got wide, like a deer that freezes when you come upon it in a clearing. I knew he would bolt, and—God help me—I prayed he would. That the thing would chase him and forget about me.
“But then it caught some other scent and ran off. I guess that must have been you it was after. Kelso and I didn’t wait around. As soon as we couldn’t hear it anymore, we were up and stumbling along the stream a ways, and when we were too tired to run, we threw ourselves in the water and let it carry us south, only crawling out when we feared we’d drown.”
Jack watched his haunted expression as he told this tale and knew that the memory of the Wendigo still hung like a dark cloud over Merritt’s soul. He glanced around to see who might overhear, but the big man had been talking of monsters so long that no one paid him any mind.
“Kelso left Dawson the same day we got back into town,” Merritt continued, haltingly. “But I—”
“It’s dead, Merritt.”
Hal already knew the story, and he nodded.
“How?” Merritt asked.
“I killed it. It’s just bones and dust now, my friend.”
Merritt searched his eyes, and when he at last knew Jack spoke the truth, he let out a breath and actually smiled. “You’ve quite a story to tell, I take it?”
Jack shook his head. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not.”
Brow furrowing, Merritt nodded. “I understand completely. In fact, I’d be happy enough never to speak of it again.”
“Then we never shall.”
They did not have to shake on the vow. A glance between them and a nod of understanding was enough. They had put that chapter of their lives behind them, now. The Wendigo had finally, and truly, been put to rest.
By now the bar had begun to fill, and the noise level had risen so that they could no longer converse without raising their voices. Smoke clouded the room, and two women launched into a shrieking match over a scruffy man who Jack would have wagered could not possibly smell as filthy as he looked.
“I’ve made arrangements at the hotel for dinner,” Jack announced to his friends. “The owner is happy to accommodate us. I suggest we retreat to the quiet of that dining room. The food isn’t much of an improvement over the slop in this joint, but if he tries to serve us rat instead of rabbit, it won’t be hidden in a stew.”
“You make a compelling argument,” Merritt admitted. He pushed back his chair and started to rise, and then he stiffened, staring through a smoky gap in the crowd.
Jack turned to follow his gaze and felt his heart go still in his chest.
Three tables away, the man they all knew only as Archie tossed back a shot of whiskey and slammed the glass onto the table. One of his companions said something and Archie laughed, a grinning wolf leer on his face. Whatever he had found funny, it had been something cruel; that was evident from the glint in his eyes. Through the haze of smoke and in the low light, he had not noticed them. Even now, as they all stared at him, Archie remained oblivious.
All his attention seemed focused on the two young men at his table.
Young men, hell, Jack thought. They’re boys. Little more than children.
They were new to Dawson City, of course, the lust for gold bright in their eyes, along with the pride at being treated as equals in the company of such gruff men. For now Jack searched the faces of the others at Archie’s table, and while he did not recognize any of them, he knew the look of them. They were predators, like Archie, like William. A bullet in the chest had not killed Archie, and the sight of the Wendigo had not terrified him enough to shed his own greed.