He glanced left and right, watching for the watcher. He searched deep to identify the strange sensation he felt, wondering whether his own thoughts were perpetuating the belief that unseen eyes were upon him. But then he remembered Merritt’s observation that this was a spooky place, and the screaming water whispered things he could never understand.
They followed the canyon deeper into wilderness, riding the wildest stretch of the river, which had been named the Mane of the Horse. And the river bucked like an untamed horse, lifting their boat and tossing it from crest to crest as though it were made of balsa wood and contained nothing. Jack wondered at the weight being thrown around, and it was beyond his calculation. Jim stared at him with something approaching madness, and Jack could only guess at what he saw. A madman myself, he thought. Sprayed with the river, battered by the boat. Is the gleam of gold still in my eyes? Or is there the look of a watched man about me?
Merritt shouted something then, and his voice was stolen by the river’s roar. He glanced back at Jack, eyes wide, jaw hanging open, and Jack looked beyond his friend, at the rolling back of the river funneled between two banks of rock ahead of them. It narrowed to half its original width in the space of a dozen feet, and the pressures and energies forcing the water through that narrow gap were immense.
Just ride the crest, Jack thought, and he leaned on the tiller.
The boat sailed through, almost as if it were apart from the raging torrent below and around it. And on the other side, drifting down into a comparatively calm stretch, Jack lost control. One second he was fine, steering and commanding the boat like the boatbuilder and sailor he was. The next moment the craft was no longer his. The sense of smooth passage left them, and the Yukon Belle was tilting sideways down the river, cresting each wave with a sickening sway, impacting each trough with a head-rattling thump. Wood creaked and cracked, and Jim fell sideways as a splinter as long as his arm broke from the hull and scored across his face. Two inches higher and Jim would have lost both eyes.
“Jack!” Merritt called, but Jack would not look his way. He was too annoyed at himself, too involved in trying to bring the craft back under his control. The river had them clasped in its torrential hand, and it was only a matter of time before it spilled them and their belongings into the water or dashed them against the ragged banks. Either way would be the end of them, and as the water splashed his eyes, Jack saw his mother between blinks, sitting at the table and smiling over the final meal they had shared together.
The spirits will go with you was the last thing she’d said as he’d left, more spiritual foolishness masquerading as affection. Yet as he remembered them now, those words seemed to whisper through the river-water spray.
Jack glanced about. There above, on a cliff under which the river tore itself apart, stood a wolf. It was the largest wolf he had ever seen, its gray fur mottled with streaks of dark brown, muzzle shorter and stumpier than usual. Its ears were pricked up and forward, and all its attention was focused on Jack.
Only on Jack.
“You…?” he whispered, leaning toward the wolf with his right arm outstretched. As his body shoved against and shifted the tiller, the boat creaked and rolled, and with a rush they were reconnected with the river, going with the flow rather than fighting against it.
Jack glanced at Merritt and Jim and saw the two men were grinning at him. Merritt said something in praise of Jack’s boatmanship, but Jack looked away again, back upriver at the rock they had now passed by. The wolf was gone. He scanned the bank, but the creature was nowhere to be seen, and already Jack doubted himself. The canyon here was narrow, the cliff walls sheer. Where there were banks, they consisted of boulders tumbled down from above over time, abraded by the river to suit its own shape. From what he could see, there really was no way down here for an animal of that size.
It was the largest wolf he had ever seen.
They sailed on, shooting more rapids and moving farther toward the Thirty Mile River. Jack no longer feared the waters. Something was guiding his way, and he could not shake the idea that seeing the wolf had caused him to shift the tiller at just the right moment.
That wasn’t me, he thought, though he tried to smile at the men’s praise. None of that was me.
The farther they moved from the deadly rapids that should have killed them, the more unsettled Jack became.
THE DEATH OF HIM
WHEN THEY CAMPED THAT EVENING, Jack was quiet and withdrawn. The wolf preyed on his memory. He had felt watched for a long time, and now, though the sensation seemed to have passed, he could still sense that lupine influence in the land around them. This was an altogether wild place, and while he had it in his mind that his presence could affect his surroundings, the idea that the opposite might be true was troubling. In a struggle of man versus nature, he felt sure, man—a man of determination and conviction such as himself—would be victorious. Now his certainty wavered.
Merritt and Jim were confident and upbeat. With the three of them sitting around a fire and drying their soaked clothes, Jack’s two companions made jokes and talked of the journey to come. Jack nodded in the right places, and now and then he mustered a smile, but he stared into the fire’s insides and tried to shake the idea that things were changing.
Perhaps it was the cold, and the winter bearing down on them faster than ever. Merritt and Jim still doubted Jack’s observations—surely they had weeks yet—but he felt things winding down. There had been ice on the Thirty Mile River when they reached the end of this leg of the great Yukon, and though thin and brittle, its presence had troubled Jack. They still had a long way to go, and he knew very well how their journey could be disrupted if and when the river froze.
“Why so glum, Jack?” Merritt asked. “We did well today. Rode the beast and tamed it, eh?”
“Tamed the wild horse!” Jim said, and the men chuckled. They had their mittened hands wrapped around metal cups of coffee, and the smell of the brew hung fragrant in the air. Their breaths hung also, clouding the still atmosphere with every exhalation, every word spoken.
“You know why,” Jack said. “I’m worried about that ice.” He stood and paced around the fire. “I’m worried about how cold it is now. Worried about the frost in our beards, the cold in my toes, the numbness in my hands. We don’t reach Dawson before the first freeze, we might just be stuck for months. And I don’t like our chances without shelter.”
“Jack—,” Jim began, but Jack went on. Talking made him feel better; voicing his fears, perhaps, or maybe it was simply the act of concentrating on something other than that wolf.
“If we are stuck, where will we stay? We won’t be able to camp—what little camping gear we have will become our tombs. So maybe we find an old cabin in the forest and make use of it. What will we eat? Our supplies might last through a winter, but barely, and that’ll leave nothing for afterward.”
“This doesn’t sound like you, Jack,” Merritt said quietly.
Jack thought angrily, You’ve only known me a matter of days! Never mind that though he was the youngest among them at seventeen, his friends seemed to look to him for leadership. But the big man’s words rang true. And Jack knew that there was no better way of forging close bonds than by tackling hardship together.
He sighed and shook his head. “It isn’t me, normally,” he said. “Maybe I’m just tired.”
“Then let’s sleep,” Jim said.
Merritt nodded. “Then up at dawn, and on the river all day. We’ll get there, Jack, just you see.”
Jack smiled as he turned away, but that expression soon dropped from his face. He left the fire and ventured into the woods, stomping through the snow that would likely be much deeper very soon. He needed to relieve himself, but he had other reasons for leaving the camp. He scanned between the trees, sniffed the air, and closed his eyes as he tried to sense the thing that was following him.
But if it did follow, it remained at a distance.
They spent the next day on the river, but by the time they needed to land again to eat and dry their clothes around a fire, Merritt and Jim were no longer so confident. The river was perhaps a mile wide in places, and the farther they paddled with the flow, the more ice built up around them. Cakes of ice crushed and ground together, and the river had a new sound, like the grumble of a giant slowly falling asleep.
They camped on the bank that evening with the river growling past them, but Jack vowed that from now on they would remain on the water until they reached Dawson. He reckoned it was maybe a hundred miles farther, and the chances of reaching it before the river ground to a halt completely…
Well, maybe they’d be lucky. But even Jim and Merritt were quiet that evening, staring into the fire and clasping their coffee mugs. Ice built up on their stubble and eyelashes, and the cold seemed to leach heat even from the fire.
On the river the next morning, Jack barely had need to steer.
“That way!” Merritt said, pointing ahead and to the left. Jack saw the clear channel and the sharp, raised chunks of ice guided them toward it. When they struck a cake of ice, it nudged them in the direction of the flowing water. All around them was the crunch and low rumble of colliding ice masses, and here and there Jack could still hear the comforting gurgle of water. But the sound of the river had changed completely now, and he feared their time was near.
“We’ll get there,” Jim said, rowing when there was room between ice chunks to dip the oars. When there was not room, they relied on the water’s flow to drift them along.
“Of course we’ll get there,” Jack said. “There’s just no saying when.”
The great ice chunks hid the banks of the river from view, sculpting themselves into otherworldly shapes as they clung together, freezing, water splashing up only to become whorls and ridges of ice. Occasionally Jack glimpsed trees between the rearing chunks, but more often it was simply ice and water, and around midday a steady snowfall began, which limited their vision even more.
Since that time on the rock, there had been no sign of the wolf. But Jack could no longer believe that he was alone in this vast wilderness. What that feeling meant he had no idea, but he had yet to share it with the other two men. Jim, a teacher, would likely think him foolish. And he feared that Merritt would think him mad.
And perhaps he was. Ever since Dyea, the feeling had been growing that something out here was waiting for him. Expecting him.
That afternoon, with the sun barely breaking the horizon, the river slowed more than ever. Merritt stood at the bow, fending them away from chunks of ice and toward water passages that grew narrower and less common. Still they moved forward, but at a much slower rate than before. The boat nudged ice. Clumps of snow fell into the craft, and Jim scooped them up and tossed them back over the side. Ice cakes pressed into the boat to port and starboard, and several times Jack heard the straining of timber as immense forces clamped upon the hull.
Jim no longer needed to bail, because most of the water in the Yukon Belle had frozen.
“Stuck fast,” Merritt said at last. He did not turn around to look back at Jack, and neither did Jim look up. Jack could blame neither of them. On the contrary, he had respected their enthusiasm and believed that he would have been feeling the same if it were not for the wolf.
A sense of foreboding hung over him like the sword of Damocles.
“Keep shoving,” Jack said. “Maybe it’s just this part of the river. Perhaps it’s just a bottleneck.”
This time Jim did look up, and Merritt glanced back.
Half an hour later, with a deafening grinding sound that set Jack’s teeth vibrating, the river moved on with a surge. Ice broke apart, water gurgled up from beneath the floes, and their little boat found itself a fast channel again.
“To Dawson, boys!” Jack shouted, whooping and waving his hat in the air. He quickly replaced it when his ears grew numb, and though he knew that this was but a brief respite—they would not reach Dawson this side of winter—he suddenly felt a rush of confidence once again. So what if they did have to winter somewhere around here? This was part of the adventure he had vowed to give himself, the grasping of life instead of watching it drift by—
To his left, across the layers of ice and snow, something dark marred the whiteness. Jack looked, but already it was gone.
There was a tributary called the Stewart, close to Upper Island and barely seventy miles from Dawson. Where the Stewart converged with the Yukon, the ice floes piled together and caused a jam that quickly turned as solid as land. Their time was up. They managed to haul the Yukon Belle up onto the ice before she was crushed, and then came the long, laborious process of dragging the craft onto the snow-blanketed riverbank. There was no shelter out here on the ice, and if fate dictated that they had to build their own hut for the winter, then they would have to do so immediately, and use the wood from the boat as a start. The air was colder than ever, and Jack knew a man’s fingers could freeze solid without him even noticing. When it grew even colder, spit would freeze in the air, they would lose the use of their fingers, and then they would die.
The boat was heavy, weighed down with their supplies and the ice that had frozen around them, and even with three of them pulling, it took some time to reach land. Luckily they had drifted close to the bank before the ice trapped them for good, and by the time evening arrived, they were ashore. They collapsed close to the boat and built a fire, Jack gasping a silent prayer of thanks when the first dancing flame rose up.
Sometimes he tried to cast his imagination back to the first people, who needed fire for warmth and security, keeping at bay the cold, the darkness, and predators that would come to take them in the night. He had lived on the road, slept in ditches and railway cars, and gone hungry many times, but despite that Jack was like most other people he had encountered in his life—used to light and heat, food and water, all of it available virtually on demand. The daily lives of those first people, cave dwellers and savage hunters, was difficult to contemplate. There was a barrier of language and understanding, but also an obstacle thrown up by the advances of civilization.