It was the summer of 1897, and there was trouble in the Tarwater family. Grandfather Tarwater, after remaining properly subdued and crushed for a quiet decade, had broken out again. This time it was the Klondike fever. His first and one unvarying symptom of such attacks was song. One chant only he raised, though he remembered no more than the first stanza and but three lines of that. And the family knew his feet were itching and his brain was tingling with the old madness, when he lifted his hoarse-cracked voice, now falsetto-cracked, in:
Like Argus of the ancient times,
We leave this modern Greece,
Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum, tum, tum-tum,
To shear the Golden Fleece.
Ten years earlier he had lifted the chant, sung to the air of the “Doxology,” when afflicted with the fever to go gold-mining in Patagonia. The multitudinous family had sat upon him, but had had a hard time doing it. When all else had failed to shake his resolution, they had applied lawyers to him, with the threat of getting out guardianship papers and of confining him in the state asylum for the insane — which was reasonable for a man who had, a quarter of a century before, speculated away all but ten meagre acres of a California principality, and who had displayed no better business acumen ever since.
The application of lawyers to John Tarwater was like the application of a mustard plaster. For, in his judgment, they were the gentry, more than any other, who had skinned him out of the broad Tarwater acres. So, at the time of his Patagonian fever, the very thought of so drastic a remedy was sufficient to cure him. He quickly demonstrated he was not crazy by shaking the fever from him and agreeing not to go to Patagonia.
Next, he demonstrated how crazy he really was, by deeding over to his family, unsolicited, the ten acres on Tarwater Flat, the house, barn, outbuildings, and water-rights. Also did he turn over the eight hundred dollars in bank that was the long-saved salvage of his wrecked fortune. But for this the family found no cause for committal to the asylum, since such committal would necessarily invalidate what he had done.
“Grandfather is sure peeved,” said Mary, his oldest daughter, herself a grandmother, when her father quit smoking.
All he had retained for himself was a span of old horses, a mountain buckboard, and his one room in the crowded house. Further, having affirmed that he would be beholden to none of them, he got the contract to carry the United States mail, twice a week, from Kelterville up over Tarwater Mountain to Old Almaden — which was a sporadically worked quick-silver mine in the upland cattle country. With his old horses it took all his time to make the two weekly round trips. And for ten years, rain or shine, he had never missed a trip. Nor had he failed once to pay his week’s board into Mary’s hand. This board he had insisted on, in the convalescence from his Patagonian fever, and he had paid it strictly, though he had given up tobacco in order to be able to do it.
“Huh!” he confided to the ruined water wheel of the old Tarwater Mill, which he had built from the standing timber and which had ground wheat for the first settlers. “Huh! They’ll never put me in the poor farm so long as I support myself. And without a penny to my name it ain’t likely any lawyer fellows’ll come snoopin’ around after me.”
And yet, precisely because of these highly rational acts, it was held that John Tarwater was mildly crazy!
The first time he had lifted the chant of “Like Argus of the Ancient Times,” had been in 1849, when, twenty-two years’ of age, violently attacked by the Californian fever, he had sold two hundred and forty Michigan acres, forty of it cleared, for the price of four yoke of oxen, and a wagon, and had started across the Plains.
“And we turned off at Fort Hall, where the Oregon emigration went north’ard, and swung south for Californy,” was his way of concluding the narrative of that arduous journey. “And Bill Ping and me used to rope grizzlies out of the underbrush of Cache Slough in the Sacramento Valley.”
Years of freighting and mining had followed, and, with a stake gleaned from the Merced placers, he satisfied the land-hunger of his race and time by settling in Sonoma County.
During the ten years of carrying the mail across Tarwater Township, up Tarwater Valley, and over Tarwater Mountain, most all of which land had once been his, he had spent his time dreaming of winning back that land before he died. And now, his huge gaunt form more erect than it had been for years, with a glinting of blue fires in his small and close-set eyes, he was lifting his ancient chant again.
“There he goes now — listen to him,” said William Tarwater.
“Nobody at home,” laughed Harris Topping, day labourer, husband of Annie Tarwater, and father of her nine children.
The kitchen door opened to admit the old man, returning from feeding his horses. The song had ceased from his lips; but Mary was irritable from a burnt hand and a grandchild whose stomach refused to digest properly diluted cows’ milk.
“Now there ain’t no use you carryin’ on that way, father,” she tackled him. “The time’s past for you to cut and run for a place like the Klondike, and singing won’t buy you nothing.”
“Just the same,” he answered quietly. “I bet I could go to that Klondike place and pick up enough gold to buy back the Tarwater lands.”
“Old fool!” Annie contributed.
“You couldn’t buy them back for less’n three hundred thousand and then some,” was William’s effort at squelching him.
“Then I could pick up three hundred thousand, and then some, if I was only there,” the old man retorted placidly.
“Thank God you can’t walk there, or you’d be startin’, I know,” Mary cried. “Ocean travel costs money.”
“I used to have money,” her father said humbly.
“Well, you ain’t got any now — so forget it,” William advised. “Them times is past, like roping bear with Bill Ping. There ain’t no more bear.”
“Just the same —”
But Mary cut him off. Seizing the day’s paper from the kitchen table, she flourished it savagely under her aged progenitor’s nose.
“What do those Klondikers say? There it is in cold print. Only the young and robust can stand the Klondike. It’s worse than the north pole. And they’ve left their dead a-plenty there themselves. Look at their pictures. You’re forty years older ‘n the oldest of them.”
John Tarwater did look, but his eyes strayed to other photographs on the highly sensational front page.
“And look at the photys of them nuggets they brought down,” he said. “I know gold. Didn’t I gopher twenty thousand outa the Merced? And wouldn’t it a-ben a hundred thousand if that cloudburst hadn’t busted my wing-dam? Now if I was only in the Klondike —”
“Crazy as a loon,” William sneered in open aside to the rest.
“A nice way to talk to your father,” Old Man Tarwater censured mildly. “My father’d have walloped the tar out of me with a single-tree if I’d spoke to him that way.”
“But you ARE crazy, father —” William began.
“Reckon you’re right, son. And that’s where my father wasn’t crazy. He’d a-done it.”
“The old man’s been reading some of them magazine articles about men who succeeded after forty,” Annie jibed.
“And why not, daughter?” he asked. “And why can’t a man succeed after he’s seventy? I was only seventy this year. And mebbe I could succeed if only I could get to the Klondike —”
“Which you ain’t going to get to,” Mary shut him off.
“Oh, well, then,” he sighed, “seein’s I ain’t, I might just as well go to bed.”
He stood up, tall, gaunt, great-boned and gnarled, a splendid ruin of a man. His ragged hair and whiskers were not grey but snowy white, as were the tufts of hair that stood out on the backs of his huge bony fingers. He moved toward the door, opened it, sighed, and paused with a backward look.
“Just the same,” he murmured plaintively, “the bottoms of my feet is itching something terrible.”
Long before the family stirred next morning, his horses fed and harnessed by lantern light, breakfast cooked and eaten by lamp fight, Old Man Tarwater was off and away down Tarwater Valley on the road to Kelterville. Two things were unusual about this usual trip which he had made a thousand and forty times since taking the mail contract. He did not drive to Kelterville, but turned off on the main road south to Santa Rosa. Even more remarkable than this was the paper-wrapped parcel between his feet. It contained his one decent black suit, which Mary had been long reluctant to see him wear any more, not because it was shabby, but because, as he guessed what was at the back of her mind, it was decent enough to bury him in.
And at Santa Rosa, in a second-hand clothes shop, he sold the suit outright for two dollars and a half. From the same obliging shopman he received four dollars for the wedding ring of his long~dead wife. The span of horses and the wagon he disposed of for seventy-five dollars, although twenty-five was all he received down in cash. Chancing to meet Alton Granger on the street, to whom never before had he mentioned the ten dollars loaned him in ‘74, he reminded Alton Granger of the little affair, and was promptly paid. Also, of all unbelievable men to be in funds, he so found the town drunkard for whom he had bought many a drink in the old and palmy days. And from him John Tarwater borrowed a dollar. Finally, he took the afternoon train to San Francisco.
A dozen days later, carrying a half-empty canvas sack of blankets and old clothes, he landed on the beach of Dyea in the thick of the great Klondike Rush. The beach was screaming bedlam. Ten thousand tons of outfit lay heaped and scattered, and twice ten thousand men struggled with it and clamoured about it. Freight, by Indian-back, over Chilcoot to Lake Linderman, had jumped from sixteen to thirty cents a pound, which latter was a rate of six hundred dollars a ton. And the sub-arctic winter gloomed near at hand. All knew it, and all knew that of the twenty thousand of them very few would get across the passes, leaving the rest to winter and wait for the late spring thaw.
Such the beach old John Tarwater stepped upon; and straight across the beach and up the trail toward Chilcoot he headed, cackling his ancient chant, a very Grandfather Argus himself, with no outfit worry in the world, for he did not possess any outfit. That night he slept on the flats, five miles above Dyea, at the head of canoe navigation. Here the Dyea River became a rushing mountain torrent, plunging out of a dark canyon from the glaciers that fed it far above.
And here, early next morning, he beheld a little man weighing no more than a hundred, staggering along a foot-log under all of a hundred pounds of flour strapped on his back. Also, he beheld the little man stumble off the log and fall face-downward in a quiet eddy where the water was two feet deep and proceed quietly to drown. It was no desire of his to take death so easily, but the flour on his back weighed as much as he and would not let him up.
“Thank you, old man,” he said to Tarwater, when the latter had dragged him up into the air and ashore.
While he unlaced his shoes and ran the water out, they had further talk. Next, he fished out a ten-dollar gold-piece and offered it to his rescuer.
Old Tarwater shook his head and shivered, for the ice-water had wet him to his knees.
“But I reckon I wouldn’t object to settin’ down to a friendly meal with you.”
“Ain’t had breakfast?” the little man, who was past forty and who had said his name was Anson, queried with a glance frankly curious.
“Nary bite,” John Tarwater answered.
“Where’s your outfit? Ahead?”
“Expect to buy your grub on the Inside?”
“Nary a dollar to buy it with, friend. Which ain’t so important as a warm bite of breakfast right now.”
In Anson’s camp, a quarter of a mile on, Tarwater found a slender, red-whiskered young man of thirty cursing over a fire of wet willow wood. Introduced as Charles, he transferred his scowl and wrath to Tarwater, who, genially oblivious, devoted himself to the fire, took advantage of the chill morning breeze to create a draught which the other had left stupidly blocked by stones, and soon developed less smoke and more flame. The third member of the party, Bill Wilson, or Big Bill as they called him, came in with a hundred-and-forty-pound pack; and what Tarwater esteemed to be a very rotten breakfast was dished out by Charles. The mush was half cooked and mostly burnt, the bacon was charred carbon, and the coffee was unspeakable.
Immediately the meal was wolfed down the three partners took their empty pack-straps and headed down trail to where the remainder of their outfit lay at the last camp a mile away. And old Tarwater became busy. He washed the dishes, foraged dry wood, mended a broken pack-strap, put an edge on the butcher-knife and camp-axe, and repacked the picks and shovels into a more carryable parcel.
What had impressed him during the brief breakfast was the sort of awe in which Anson and Big Bill stood of Charles. Once, during the morning, while Anson took a breathing spell after bringing in another hundred-pound pack, Tarwater delicately hinted his impression.
“You see, it’s this way,” Anson said. “We’ve divided our leadership. We’ve got specialities. Now I’m a carpenter. When we get to Lake Linderman, and the trees are chopped and whipsawed into planks, I’ll boss the building of the boat. Big Bill is a logger and miner. So he’ll boss getting out the logs and all mining operations. Most of our outfit’s ahead. We went broke paying the Indians to pack that much of it to the top of Chilcoot. Our last partner is up there with it, moving it along by himself down the other side. His name’s Liverpool, and he’s a sailor. So, when the boat’s built, he’s the boss of the outfit to navigate the lakes and rapids to Klondike.
“And Charles — this Mr. Crayton — what might his speciality be?” Tarwater asked.
“He’s the business man. When it comes to business and organization he’s boss.”
“Hum,” Tarwater pondered. “Very lucky to get such a bunch of specialities into one outfit.”
“More than luck,” Anson agreed. “It was all accident, too. Each of us started alone. We met on the steamer coming up from San Francisco, and formed the party. — Well, I got to be goin’. Charles is liable to get kicking because I ain’t packin’ my share’ just the same, you can’t expect a hundred-pound man to pack as much as a hundred-and-sixty-pounder.”
“Stick around and cook us something for dinner,” Charles, on his next load in and noting the effects of the old man’s handiness, told Tarwater.
And Tarwater cooked a dinner that was a dinner, washed the dishes, had real pork and beans for supper, and bread baked in a frying-pan that was so delectable than the three partners nearly foundered themselves on it. Supper dishes washed, he cut shavings and kindling for a quick and certain breakfast fire, showed Anson a trick with foot-gear that was invaluable to any hiker, sang his “Like Argus of the Ancient Times,” and told them of the great emigration across the Plains in Forty-nine.
“My goodness, the first cheerful and hearty-like camp since we hit the beach,” Big Bill remarked as he knocked out his pipe and began pulling off his shoes for bed.
“Kind of made things easy, boys, eh?” Tarwater queried genially.
All nodded. “Well, then, I got a proposition, boys. You can take it or leave it, but just listen kindly to it. You’re in a hurry to get in before the freeze-up. Half the time is wasted over the cooking by one of you that he might be puttin’ in packin’ outfit. If I do the cookin’ for you, you all’ll get on that much faster. Also, the cookin’ ‘ll be better, and that’ll make you pack better. And I can pack quite a bit myself in between times, quite a bit, yes, sir, quite a bit.”
Big Bill and Anson were just beginning to nod their heads in agreement, when Charles stopped them.
“What do you expect of us in return?” he demanded of the old man.
“Oh, I leave it up to the boys.”
“That ain’t business,” Charles reprimanded sharply. “You made the proposition. Now finish it.”
“Well, it’s this way —”
“You expect us to feed you all winter, eh?” Charles interrupted.
“No, siree, I don’t. All I reckon is a passage to Klondike in your boat would be mighty square of you.”
“You haven’t an ounce of grub, old man. You’ll starve to death when you get there.”
“I’ve been feedin’ some long time pretty successful,” Old Tarwater replied, a whimsical light in his eyes. “I’m seventy, and ain’t starved to death never yet.”
“Will you sign a paper to the effect that you shift for yourself as soon as you get to Dawson?” the business one demanded.
“Oh, sure,” was the response.
Again Charles checked his two partners’ expressions of satisfaction with the arrangement.
“One other thing, old man. We’re a party of four, and we all have a vote on questions like this. Young Liverpool is ahead with the main outfit. He’s got a say so, and he isn’t here to say it.”
“What kind of a party might he be?” Tarwater inquired.
“He’s a rough-neck sailor, and he’s got a quick, bad temper.”
“Some turbulent,” Anson contributed.
“And the way he can cuss is simply God-awful,” Big Bill testified.
“But he’s square,” Big Bill added.
Anson nodded heartily to this appraisal.
“Well, boys,” Tarwater summed up, “I set out for Californy and I got there. And I’m going to get to Klondike. Ain’t a thing can stop me, ain’t a thing. I’m going to get three hundred thousand outa the ground, too. Ain’t a thing can stop me, ain’t a thing, because I just naturally need the money. I don’t mind a bad temper so long’s the boy is square. I’ll take my chance, an’ I’ll work along with you till we catch up with him. Then, if he says no to the proposition, I reckon I’ll lose. But somehow I just can’t see ‘m sayin’ no, because that’d mean too close up to freeze-up and too late for me to find another chance like this. And, as I’m sure going to get to Klondike, it’s just plumb impossible for him to say no.”
Old John Tarwater became a striking figure on a trail unusually replete with striking figures. With thousands of men, each back~tripping half a ton of outfit, retracing every mile of the trail twenty times, all came to know him and to hail him as “Father Christmas.” And, as he worked, ever he raised his chant with his age-falsetto voice. None of the three men he had joined could complain about his work. True, his joints were stiff — he admitted to a trifle of rheumatism. He moved slowly, and seemed to creak and crackle when he moved; but he kept on moving. Last into the blankets at night, he was first out in the morning, so that the other three had hot coffee before their one before-breakfast pack. And, between breakfast and dinner and between dinner and supper, he always managed to back-trip for several packs himself. Sixty pounds was the limit of his burden, however. He could manage seventy-five, but he could not keep it up. Once, he tried ninety, but collapsed on the trail and was seriously shaky for a couple of days afterward.
Work! On a trail where hard-working men learned for the first time what work was, no man worked harder in proportion to his strength than Old Tarwater. Driven desperately on by the near-thrust of winter, and lured madly on by the dream of gold, they worked to their last ounce of strength and fell by the way. Others, when failure made certain, blew out their brains. Some went mad, and still others, under the irk of the man-destroying strain, broke partnerships and dissolved life-time friendships with fellows just as good as themselves and just as strained and mad.
Work! Old Tarwater could shame them all, despite his creaking and crackling and the nasty hacking cough he had developed. Early and late, on trail or in camp beside the trail he was ever in evidence, ever busy at something, ever responsive to the hail of “Father Christmas.” Weary back-trippers would rest their packs on a log or rock alongside of where he rested his, and would say: “Sing us that song of yourn, dad, about Forty–Nine.” And, when he had wheezingly complied, they would arise under their loads, remark that it was real heartening, and hit the forward trail again.
“If ever a man worked his passage and earned it,” Big Bill confided to his two partners, “that man’s our old Skeezicks.”
“You bet,” Anson confirmed. “He’s a valuable addition to the party, and I, for one, ain’t at all disagreeable to the notion of making him a regular partner —”
“None of that!” Charles Crayton cut in. “When we get to Dawson we’re quit of him — that’s the agreement. We’d only have to bury him if we let him stay on with us. Besides, there’s going to be a famine, and every ounce of grub’ll count. Remember, we’re feeding him out of our own supply all the way in. And if we run short in the pinch next year, you’ll know the reason. Steamboats can’t get up grub to Dawson till the middle of June, and that’s nine months away.”
“Well, you put as much money and outfit in as the rest of us,” Big Bill conceded, “and you’ve a say according.”
“And I’m going to have my say,” Charles asserted with increasing irritability. “And it’s lucky for you with your fool sentiments that you’ve got somebody to think ahead for you, else you’d all starve to death. I tell you that famine’s coming. I’ve been studying the situation. Flour will be two dollars a pound, or ten, and no sellers. You mark my words.”
Across the rubble-covered flats, up the dark canyon to Sheep Camp, past the over-hanging and ever-threatening glaciers to the Scales, and from the Scales up the steep pitches of ice-scoured rock where packers climbed with hands and feet, Old Tarwater camp-cooked and packed and sang. He blew across Chilcoot Pass, above timberline, in the first swirl of autumn snow. Those below, without firewood, on the bitter rim of Crater Lake, heard from the driving obscurity above them a weird voice chanting:
“Like Argus of the ancient times,
We leave this modern Greece,
Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum, tum, tum-tum,
To shear the Golden Fleece.”
And out of the snow flurries they saw appear a tall, gaunt form, with whiskers of flying white that blended with the storm, bending under a sixty-pound pack of camp dunnage.
“Father Christmas!” was the hail. And then: “Three rousing cheers for Father Christmas!”
Two miles beyond Crater Lake lay Happy Camp — so named because here was found the uppermost fringe of the timber line, where men might warm themselves by fire again. Scarcely could it be called timber, for it was a dwarf rock-spruce that never raised its loftiest branches higher than a foot above the moss, and that twisted and grovelled like a pig-vegetable under the moss. Here, on the trail leading into Happy Camp, in the first sunshine of half a dozen days, Old Tarwater rested his pack against a huge boulder and caught his breath. Around this boulder the trail passed, laden men toiling slowly forward and men with empty pack-straps limping rapidly back for fresh loads. Twice Old Tarwater essayed to rise and go on, and each time, warned by his shakiness, sank back to recover more strength. From around the boulder he heard voices in greeting, recognized Charles Crayton’s voice, and realized that at last they had met up with Young Liverpool. Quickly, Charles plunged into business, and Tarwater heard with great distinctness every word of Charles’ unflattering description of him and the proposition to give him passage to Dawson.
“A dam fool proposition,” was Liverpool’s judgment, when Charles had concluded. “An old granddad of seventy! If he’s on his last legs, why in hell did you hook up with him? If there’s going to be a famine, and it looks like it, we need every ounce of grub for ourselves. We only out-fitted for four, not five.”
“It’s all right,” Tarwater heard Charles assuring the other. “Don’t get excited. The old codger agreed to leave the final decision to you when we caught up with you. All you’ve got to do is put your foot down and say no.”
“You mean it’s up to me to turn the old one down, after your encouraging him and taking advantage of his work clear from Dyea here?”
“It’s a hard trail, Liverpool, and only the men that are hard will get through,” Charles strove to palliate.
“And I’m to do the dirty work?” Liverpool complained, while Tarwater’s heart sank.
“That’s just about the size of it,” Charles said. “You’ve got the deciding.”
Then old Tarwater’s heart uprose again as the air was rent by a cyclone of profanity, from the midst of which crackled sentences like:—“Dirty skunks! . . . See you in hell first! . . . My mind’s made up! . . . Hell’s fire and corruption!.. . The old codger goes down the Yukon with us, stack on that, my hearty! . . . Hard? You don’t know what hard is unless I show you! . . . I’ll bust the whole outfit to hell and gone if any of you try to side-track him! . . . Just try to side-track him, that is all, and you’ll think the Day of Judgment and all God’s blastingness has hit the camp in one chunk!”
Such was the invigoratingness of Liverpool’s flow of speech that, quite without consciousness of effort, the old man arose easily under his load and strode on toward Happy Camp.
From Happy Camp to Long Lake, from Long Lake to Deep Lake, and from Deep Lake up over the enormous hog-back and down to Linderman, the man-killing race against winter kept on. Men broke their hearts and backs and wept beside the trail in sheer exhaustion. But winter never faltered. The fall gales blew, and amid bitter soaking rains and ever-increasing snow flurries, Tarwater and the party to which he was attached piled the last of their outfit on the beach.
There was no rest. Across the lake, a mile above a roaring torrent, they located a patch of spruce and built their saw-pit. Here, by hand, with an inadequate whipsaw, they sawed the spruce~trunks into lumber. They worked night and day. Thrice, on the night-shift, underneath in the saw-pit, Old Tarwater fainted. By day he cooked as well, and, in the betweenwhiles, helped Anson in the building of the boat beside the torrent as the green planks came down.
The days grew shorter. The wind shifted into the north and blew unending gales. In the mornings the weary men crawled from their blankets and in their socks thawed out their frozen shoes by the fire Tarwater always had burning for them. Ever arose the increasing tale of famine on the Inside. The last grub steamboats up from Bering Sea were stalled by low water at the beginning of the Yukon Flats hundreds of miles north of Dawson. In fact, they lay at the old Hudson Bay Company’s post at Fort Yukon inside the Arctic Circle. Flour in Dawson was up to two dollars a pound, but no one would sell. Bonanza and Eldorado Kings, with money to burn, were leaving for the Outside because they could buy no grub. Miners’ Committees were confiscating all grub and putting the population on strict rations. A man who held out an ounce of grub was shot like a dog. A score had been so executed already.
And, under a strain which had broken so many younger men, Old Tarwater began to break. His cough had become terrible, and had not his exhausted comrades slept like the dead, he would have kept them awake nights. Also, he began to take chills, so that he dressed up to go to bed. When he had finished so dressing, not a rag of garment remained in his clothes bag. All he possessed was on his back and swathed around his gaunt old form.
“Gee!” said Big Bill. “If he puts all he’s got on now, when it ain’t lower than twenty above, what’ll he do later on when it goes down to fifty and sixty below?”
They lined the rough-made boat down the mountain torrent, nearly losing it a dozen times, and rowed across the south end of Lake Linderman in the thick of a fall blizzard. Next morning they planned to load and start, squarely into the teeth of the north, on their perilous traverse of half a thousand miles of lakes and rapids and box canyons. But before he went to bed that night, Young Liverpool was out over the camp. He returned to find his whole party asleep. Rousing Tarwater, he talked with him in low tones.
“Listen, dad,” he said. —“You’ve got a passage in our boat, and if ever a man earned a passage you have. But you know yourself you’re pretty well along in years, and your health right now ain’t exciting. If you go on with us you’ll croak surer’n hell. — Now wait till I finish, dad. The price for a passage has jumped to five hundred dollars. I’ve been throwing my feet and I’ve hustled a passenger. He’s an official of the Alaska Commercial and just has to get in. He’s bid up to six hundred to go with me in our boat. Now the passage is yours. You sell it to him, poke the six hundred into your jeans, and pull South for California while the goin’s good. You can be in Dyea in two days, and in California in a week more. What d’ye say?”
Tarwater coughed and shivered for a space, ere he could get freedom of breath for speech.
“Son,” he said, “I just want to tell you one thing. I drove my four yoke of oxen across the Plains in Forty-nine and lost nary a one. I drove them plumb to Californy, and I freighted with them afterward out of Sutter’s Fort to American Bar. Now I’m going to Klondike. Ain’t nothing can stop me, ain’t nothing at all. I’m going to ride that boat, with you at the steering sweep, clean to Klondike, and I’m going to shake three hundred thousand out of the moss-roots. That being so, it’s contrary to reason and common sense for me to sell out my passage. But I thank you kindly, son, I thank you kindly.”
The young sailor shot out his hand impulsively and gripped the old man’s.
“By God, dad!” he cried. “You’re sure going to go then. You’re the real stuff.” He looked with undisguised contempt across the sleepers to where Charles Crayton snored in his red beard. “They don’t seem to make your kind any more, dad.”
Into the north they fought their way, although old-timers, coming out, shook their heads and prophesied they would be frozen in on the lakes. That the freeze-up might come any day was patent, and delays of safety were no longer considered. For this reason, Liverpool decided to shoot the rapid stream connecting Linderman to Lake Bennett with the fully loaded boat. It was the custom to line the empty boats down and to portage the cargoes across. Even then many empty boats had been wrecked. But the time was past for such precaution.
“Climb out, dad,” Liverpool commanded as he prepared to swing from the bank and enter the rapids.
Old Tarwater shook his white head.
“I’m sticking to the outfit,” he declared. “It’s the only way to get through. You see, son, I’m going to Klondike. If I stick by the boat, then the boat just naturally goes to Klondike, too. If I get out, then most likely you’ll lose the boat.”
“Well, there’s no use in overloading,” Charles announced, springing abruptly out on the bank as the boat cast off.
“Next time you wait for my orders!” Liverpool shouted ashore as the current gripped the boat. “And there won’t be any more walking around rapids and losing time waiting to pick you up!”
What took them ten minutes by river, took Charles half an hour by land, and while they waited for him at the head of Lake Bennett they passed the time of day with several dilapidated old-timers on their way out. The famine news was graver than ever. The North~west Mounted Police, stationed at the foot of Lake Marsh where the gold-rushers entered Canadian territory, were refusing to let a man past who did not carry with him seven hundred pounds of grub. In Dawson City a thousand men, with dog-teams, were waiting the freeze-up to come out over the ice. The trading companies could not fill their grub-contracts, and partners were cutting the cards to see which should go and which should stay and work the claims.
“That settles it,” Charles announced, when he learned of the action of the mounted police on the boundary. “Old Man, you might as well start back now.”
“Climb aboard!” Liverpool commanded. “We’re going to Klondike, and old dad is going along.”
A shift of gale to the south gave them a fair wind down Lake Bennett, before which they ran under a huge sail made by Liverpool. The heavy weight of outfit gave such ballast that he cracked on as a daring sailor should when moments counted. A shift of four points into the south-west, coming just at the right time as they entered upon Caribou Crossing, drove them down that connecting link to lakes Tagish and Marsh. In stormy sunset and twilight — they made the dangerous crossing of Great Windy Arm, wherein they beheld two other boat-loads of gold-rushers capsize and drown.
Charles was for beaching for the night, but Liverpool held on, steering down Tagish by the sound of the surf on the shoals and by the occasional shore-fires that advertised wrecked or timid argonauts. At four in the morning, he aroused Charles. Old Tarwater, shiveringly awake, heard Liverpool order Crayton aft beside him at the steering-sweep, and also heard the one-sided conversation.
“Just listen, friend Charles, and keep your own mouth shut,” Liverpool began. “I want you to get one thing into your head and keep it there: OLD DAD’S GOING BY THE POLICE. UNDERSTAND? HE’S GOING BY. When they examine our outfit, old dad’s got a fifth share in it, savvee? That’ll put us all ‘way under what we ought to have, but we can bluff it through. Now get this, and get it hard: THERE AIN’T GOING TO BE ANY FALL-DOWN ON THIS BLUFF—”
“If you think I’d give away on the old codger —” Charles began indignantly.
“You thought that,” Liverpool checked him, “because I never mentioned any such thing. Now — get me and get me hard: I don’t care what you’ve been thinking. It’s what you’re going to think. We’ll make the police post some time this afternoon, and we’ve got to get ready to pull the bluff without a hitch, and a word to the wise is plenty.”
“If you think I’ve got it in my mind —” Charles began again.
“Look here,” Liverpool shut him off. “I don’t know what’s in your mind. I don’t want to know. I want you to know what’s in my mind. If there’s any slip-up, if old dad gets turned back by the police, I’m going to pick out the first quiet bit of landscape and take you ashore on it. And then I’m going to beat you up to the Queen’s taste. Get me, and get me hard. It ain’t going to be any half-way beating, but a real, two-legged, two-fisted, he-man beating. I don’t expect I’ll kill you, but I’ll come damn near to half-killing you.”
“But what can I do?” Charles almost whimpered.
“Just one thing,” was Liverpool’s final word. “You just pray. You pray so hard that old dad gets by the police that he does get by. That’s all. Go back to your blankets.”
Before they gained Lake Le Barge, the land was sheeted with snow that would not melt for half a year. Nor could they lay their boat at will against the bank, for the rim-ice was already forming. Inside the mouth of the river, just ere it entered Lake Le Barge, they found a hundred storm-bound boats of the argonauts. Out of the north, across the full sweep of the great lake, blew an unending snow gale. Three mornings they put out and fought it and the cresting seas it drove that turned to ice as they fell inboard. While the others broke their hearts at the oars, Old Tarwater managed to keep up just sufficient circulation to survive by chopping ice and throwing it overboard.
Each day for three days, beaten to helplessness, they turned tail on the battle and ran back into the sheltering river. By the fourth day, the hundred boats had increased to three hundred, and the two thousand argonauts on board knew that the great gale heralded the freeze-up of Le Barge. Beyond, the rapid rivers would continue to run for days, but unless they got beyond, and immediately, they were doomed to be frozen in for six months to come.
“This day we go through,” Liverpool announced. “We turn back for nothing. And those of us that dies at the oars will live again and go on pulling.”
And they went through, winning half the length of the lake by nightfall and pulling on through all the night hours as the wind went down, falling asleep at the oars and being rapped awake by Liverpool, toiling on through an age-long nightmare while the stars came out and the surface of the lake turned to the unruffledness of a sheet of paper and froze skin-ice that tinkled like broken glass as their oar-blades shattered it.
As day broke clear and cold, they entered the river, with behind them a sea of ice. Liverpool examined his aged passenger and found him helpless and almost gone. When he rounded the boat to against the rim-ice to build a fire and warm up Tarwater inside and out, Charles protested against such loss of time.
“This ain’t business, so don’t you come horning in,” Liverpool informed him. “I’m running the boat trip. So you just climb out and chop firewood, and plenty of it. I’ll take care of dad. You, Anson, make a fire on the bank. And you, Bill, set up the Yukon stove in the boat. Old dad ain’t as young as the rest of us, and for the rest of this voyage he’s going to have a fire on board to sit by.”
All of which came to pass; and the boat, in the grip of the current, like a river steamer with smoke rising from the two joints of stove-pipe, grounded on shoals, hung up on split currents, and charged rapids and canyons, as it drove deeper into the Northland winter. The Big and Little Salmon rivers were throwing mush-ice into the main river as they passed, and, below the riffles, anchor~ice arose from the river bottom and coated the surface with crystal scum. Night and day the rim-ice grew, till, in quiet places, it extended out a hundred yards from shore. And Old Tarwater, with all his clothes on, sat by the stove and kept the fire going. Night and day, not daring to stop for fear of the imminent freeze~up, they dared to run, an increasing mushiness of ice running with them.
“What ho, old hearty?” Liverpool would call out at times.
“Cheer O,” Old Tarwater had learned to respond.
“What can I ever do for you, son, in payment?” Tarwater, stoking the fire, would sometimes ask Liverpool, beating now one released hand and now the other as he fought for circulation where he steered in the freezing stern-sheets.
“Just break out that regular song of yours, old Forty–Niner,” was the invariable reply.
And Tarwater would lift his voice in the cackling chant, as he lifted it at the end, when the boat swung in through driving cake~ice and moored to the Dawson City bank, and all waterfront Dawson pricked its ears to hear the triumphant paean:
Like Argus of the ancient times,
We leave this modern Greece,
Tum-tum, tum-tum, tum, tum, tum-tum,
To shear the Golden Fleece,
Charles did it, but he did it so discreetly that none of his party, least of all the sailor, ever learned of it. He saw two great open barges being filled up with men, and, on inquiry, learned that these were grubless ones being rounded up and sent down the Yukon by the Committee of Safety. The barges were to be towed by the last little steamboat in Dawson, and the hope was that Fort Yukon, where lay the stranded steamboats, would be gained before the river froze. At any rate, no matter what happened to them, Dawson would be relieved of their grub-consuming presence. So to the Committee of Safety Charles went, privily to drop a flea in its ear concerning Tarwater’s grubless, moneyless, and aged condition. Tarwater was one of the last gathered in, and when Young Liverpool returned to the boat, from the bank he saw the barges in a run of cake-ice, disappearing around the bend below Moose-hide Mountain.
Running in cake-ice all the way, and several times escaping jams in the Yukon Flats, the barges made their hundreds of miles of progress farther into the north and froze up cheek by jowl with the grub-fleet. Here, inside the Arctic Circle, Old Tarwater settled down to pass the long winter. Several hours’ work a day, chopping firewood for the steamboat companies, sufficed to keep him in food. For the rest of the time there was nothing to do but hibernate in his log cabin.
Warmth, rest, and plenty to eat, cured his hacking cough and put him in as good physical condition as was possible for his advanced years. But, even before Christmas, the lack of fresh vegetables caused scurvy to break out, and disappointed adventurer after disappointed adventurer took to his bunk in abject surrender to this culminating misfortune. Not so Tarwater. Even before the first symptoms appeared on him, he was putting into practice his one prescription, namely, exercise. From the junk of the old trading post he resurrected a number of rusty traps, and from one of the steamboat captains he borrowed a rifle.
Thus equipped, he ceased from wood-chopping, and began to make more than a mere living. Nor was he downhearted when the scurvy broke out on his own body. Ever he ran his trap-lines and sang his ancient chant. Nor could the pessimist shake his surety of the three hundred thousand of Alaskan gold he as going to shake out of the moss-roots.
“But this ain’t gold-country,” they told him.
“Gold is where you find it, son, as I should know who was mining before you was born, ‘way back in Forty–Nine,” was his reply. “What was Bonanza Creek but a moose-pasture? No miner’d look at it; yet they washed five-hundred-dollar pans and took out fifty million dollars. Eldorado was just as bad. For all you know, right under this here cabin, or right over the next hill, is millions just waiting for a lucky one like me to come and shake it out.”
At the end of January came his disaster. Some powerful animal that he decided was a bob-cat, managing to get caught in one of his smaller traps, dragged it away. A heavy snow-fall put a stop midway to his pursuit, losing the trail for him and losing himself. There were but several hours of daylight each day between the twenty hours of intervening darkness, and his efforts in the grey light and continually falling snow succeeded only in losing him more thoroughly. Fortunately, when winter snow falls in the Northland the thermometer invariably rises; so, instead of the customary forty and fifty and even sixty degrees below zero, the temperature remained fifteen below. Also, he was warmly clad and had a full matchbox. Further to mitigate his predicament, on the fifth day he killed a wounded moose that weighed over half a ton. Making his camp beside it on a spruce-bottom, he was prepared to last out the winter, unless a searching party found him or his scurvy grew worse.
But at the end of two weeks there had been no sign of search, while his scurvy had undeniably grown worse. Against his fire, banked from outer cold by a shelter-wall of spruce-boughs, he crouched long hours in sleep and long hours in waking. But the waking hours grew less, becoming semi-waking or half-dreaming hours as the process of hibernation worked their way with him. Slowly the sparkle point of consciousness and identity that was John Tarwater sank, deeper and deeper, into the profounds of his being that had been compounded ere man was man, and while he was becoming man, when he, first of all animals, regarded himself with an introspective eye and laid the beginnings of morality in foundations of nightmare peopled by the monsters of his own ethic~thwarted desires.
Like a man in fever, waking to intervals of consciousness, so Old Tarwater awoke, cooked his moose-meat, and fed the fire; but more and more time he spent in his torpor, unaware of what was day-dream and what was sleep-dream in the content of his unconsciousness. And here, in the unforgetable crypts of man’s unwritten history, unthinkable and unrealizable, like passages of nightmare or impossible adventures of lunacy, he encountered the monsters created of man’s first morality that ever since have vexed him into the spinning of fantasies to elude them or do battle with them.
In short, weighted by his seventy years, in the vast and silent loneliness of the North, Old Tarwater, as in the delirium of drug or anaesthetic, recovered within himself, the infantile mind of the child-man of the early world. It was in the dusk of Death’s fluttery wings that Tarwater thus crouched, and, like his remote forebear, the child-man, went to myth-making, and sun-heroizing, himself hero-maker and the hero in quest of the immemorable treasure difficult of attainment.
Either must he attain the treasure — for so ran the inexorable logic of the shadow-land of the unconscious — or else sink into the all~devouring sea, the blackness eater of the light that swallowed to extinction the sun each night . . . the sun that arose ever in rebirth next morning in the east, and that had become to man man’s first symbol of immortality through rebirth. All this, in the deeps of his unconsciousness (the shadowy western land of descending light), was the near dusk of Death down into which he slowly ebbed.
But how to escape this monster of the dark that from within him slowly swallowed him? Too deep-sunk was he to dream of escape or feel the prod of desire to escape. For him reality had ceased. Nor from within the darkened chamber of himself could reality recrudesce. His years were too heavy upon him, the debility of disease and the lethargy and torpor of the silence and the cold were too profound. Only from without could reality impact upon him and reawake within him an awareness of reality. Otherwise he would ooze down through the shadow-realm of the unconscious into the all~darkness of extinction.
But it came, the smash of reality from without, crashing upon his ear drums in a loud, explosive snort. For twenty days, in a temperature that had never risen above fifty below, no breath of wind had blown movement, no slightest sound had broken the silence. Like the smoker on the opium couch refocusing his eyes from the spacious walls of dream to the narrow confines of the mean little room, so Old Tarwater stared vague-eyed before him across his dying fire, at a huge moose that stared at him in startlement, dragging a wounded leg, manifesting all signs of extreme exhaustion; it, too, had been straying blindly in the shadow-land, and had wakened to reality only just ere it stepped into Tarwater’s fire.
He feebly slipped the large fur mitten lined with thickness of wool from his right hand. Upon trial he found the trigger finger too numb for movement. Carefully, slowly, through long minutes, he worked the bare hand inside his blankets, up under his fur parka, through the chest openings of his shirts, and into the slightly warm hollow of his left arm-pit. Long minutes passed ere the finger could move, when, with equal slowness of caution, he gathered his rifle to his shoulder and drew bead upon the great animal across the fire.
At the shot, of the two shadow-wanderers, the one reeled downward to the dark and the other reeled upward to the light, swaying drunkenly on his scurvy-ravaged legs, shivering with nervousness and cold, rubbing swimming eyes with shaking fingers, and staring at the real world all about him that had returned to him with such sickening suddenness. He shook himself together, and realized that for long, how long he did not know, he had bedded in the arms of Death. He spat, with definite intention, heard the spittle crackle in the frost, and judged it must be below and far below sixty below. In truth, that day at Fort Yukon, the spirit thermometer registered seventy-five degrees below zero, which, since freezing~point is thirty-two above, was equivalent to one hundred and seven degrees of frost.
Slowly Tarwater’s brain reasoned to action. Here, in the vast alone, dwelt Death. Here had come two wounded moose. With the clearing of the sky after the great cold came on, he had located his bearings, and he knew that both wounded moose had trailed to him from the east. Therefore, in the east, were men — whites or Indians he could not tell, but at any rate men who might stand by him in his need and help moor him to reality above the sea of dark.
He moved slowly, but he moved in reality, girding himself with rifle, ammunition, matches, and a pack of twenty pounds of moose~meat. Then, an Argus rejuvenated, albeit lame of both legs and tottery, he turned his back on the perilous west and limped into the sun-arising, re-birthing east. . . .
Days later — how many days later he was never to know — dreaming dreams and seeing visions, cackling his old gold-chant of Forty~Nine, like one drowning and swimming feebly to keep his consciousness above the engulfing dark, he came out upon the snow~slope to a canyon and saw below smoke rising and men who ceased from work to gaze at him. He tottered down the hill to them, still singing; and when he ceased from lack of breath they called him variously: Santa Claus, Old Christmas, Whiskers, the Last of the Mohicans, and Father Christmas. And when he stood among them he stood very still, without speech, while great tears welled out of his eyes. He cried silently, a long time, till, as if suddenly bethinking himself, he sat down in the snow with much creaking and crackling of his joints, and from this low vantage point toppled sidewise and fainted calmly and easily away.
In less than a week Old Tarwater was up and limping about the housework of the cabin, cooking and dish-washing for the five men of the creek. Genuine sourdoughs (pioneers) they were, tough and hard-bitten, who had been buried so deeply inside the Circle that they did not know there was a Klondike Strike. The news he brought them was their first word of it. They lived on an almost straight~meat diet of moose, caribou, and smoked salmon, eked out with wild berries and somewhat succulent wild roots they had stocked up with in the summer. They had forgotten the taste of coffee, made fire with a burning glass, carried live fire-sticks with them wherever they travelled, and in their pipes smoked dry leaves that bit the tongue and were pungent to the nostrils.
Three years before, they had prospected from the head-reaches of the Koyokuk northward and clear across to the mouth of the Mackenzie on the Arctic Ocean. Here, on the whaleships, they had beheld their last white men and equipped themselves with the last white man’s grub, consisting principally of salt and smoking tobacco. Striking south and west on the long traverse to the junction of the Yukon and Porcupine at Fort Yukon, they had found gold on this creek and remained over to work the ground.
They hailed the advent of Tarwater with joy, never tired of listening to his tales of Forty–Nine, and rechristened him Old Hero. Also, with tea made from spruce needles, with concoctions brewed from the inner willow bark, and with sour and bitter roots and bulbs from the ground, they dosed his scurvy out of him, so that he ceased limping and began to lay on flesh over his bony framework. Further, they saw no reason at all why he should not gather a rich treasure of gold from the ground.
“Don’t know about all of three hundred thousand,” they told him one morning, at breakfast, ere they departed to their work, “but how’d a hundred thousand do, Old Hero? That’s what we figure a claim is worth, the ground being badly spotted, and we’ve already staked your location notices.”
“Well, boys,” Old Tarwater answered, “and thanking you kindly, all I can say is that a hundred thousand will do nicely, and very nicely, for a starter. Of course, I ain’t goin’ to stop till I get the full three hundred thousand. That’s what I come into the country for.”
They laughed and applauded his ambition and reckoned they’d have to hunt a richer creek for him. And Old Hero reckoned that as the spring came on and he grew spryer, he’d have to get out and do a little snooping around himself.
“For all anybody knows,” he said, pointing to a hillside across the creek bottom, “the moss under the snow there may be plumb rooted in nugget gold.”
He said no more, but as the sun rose higher and the days grew longer and warmer, he gazed often across the creek at the definite bench-formation half way up the hill. And, one day, when the thaw was in full swing, he crossed the stream and climbed to the bench. Exposed patches of ground had already thawed an inch deep. On one such patch he stopped, gathered a bunch of moss in his big gnarled hands, and ripped it out by the roots. The sun smouldered on dully glistening yellow. He shook the handful of moss, and coarse nuggets, like gravel, fell to the ground. It was the Golden Fleece ready for the shearing.
Not entirely unremembered in Alaskan annals is the summer stampede of 1898 from Fort Yukon to the bench diggings of Tarwater Hill. And when Tarwater sold his holdings to the Bowdie interests for a sheer half-million and faced for California, he rode a mule over a new-cut trail, with convenient road houses along the way, clear to the steamboat landing at Fort Yukon.
At the first meal on the ocean-going steamship out of St. Michaels, a waiter, greyish-haired, pain-ravaged of face, scurvy-twisted of body, served him. Old Tarwater was compelled to look him over twice in order to make certain he was Charles Crayton.
“Got it bad, eh, son?” Tarwater queried.
“Just my luck,” the other complained, after recognition and greeting. “Only one of the party that the scurvy attacked. I’ve been through hell. The other three are all at work and healthy, getting grub-stake to prospect up White River this winter. Anson’s earning twenty-five a day at carpentering, Liverpool getting twenty logging for the saw-mill, and Big Bill’s getting forty a day as chief sawyer. I tried my best, and if it hadn’t been for scurvy . . . ”
“Sure, son, you done your best, which ain’t much, you being naturally irritable and hard from too much business. Now I’ll tell you what. You ain’t fit to work crippled up this way. I’ll pay your passage with the captain in kind remembrance of the voyage you gave me, and you can lay up and take it easy the rest of the trip. And what are your circumstances when you land at San Francisco?”
Charles Crayton shrugged his shoulders.
“Tell you what,” Tarwater continued. “There’s work on the ranch for you till you can start business again.”
“I could manage your business for you —” Charles began eagerly.
“No, siree,” Tarwater declared emphatically. “But there’s always post-holes to dig, and cordwood to chop, and the climate’s fine . . . ”
Tarwater arrived home a true prodigal grandfather for whom the fatted calf was killed and ready. But first, ere he sat down at table, he must stroll out and around. And sons and daughters of his flesh and of the law needs must go with him fulsomely eating out of the gnarled old hand that had half a million to disburse. He led the way, and no opinion he slyly uttered was preposterous or impossible enough to draw dissent from his following. Pausing by the ruined water wheel which he had built from the standing timber, his face beamed as he gazed across the stretches of Tarwater Valley, and on and up the far heights to the summit of Tarwater Mountain — now all his again.
A thought came to him that made him avert his face and blow his nose in order to hide the twinkle in his eyes. Still attended by the entire family, he strolled on to the dilapidated barn. He picked up an age-weathered single-tree from the ground.
“William,” he said. “Remember that little conversation we had just before I started to Klondike? Sure, William, you remember. You told me I was crazy. And I said my father’d have walloped the tar out of me with a single-tree if I’d spoke to him that way.”
“Aw, but that was only foolin’,” William temporized.
William was a grizzled man of forty-five, and his wife and grown sons stood in the group, curiously watching Grandfather Tarwater take off his coat and hand it to Mary to hold.
“William — come here,” he commanded imperatively.
No matter how reluctantly, William came.
“Just a taste, William, son, of what my father give me often enough,” Old Tarwater crooned, as he laid on his son’s back and shoulders with the single-tree. “Observe, I ain’t hitting you on the head. My father had a gosh-wollickin’ temper and never drew the line at heads when he went after tar. — Don’t jerk your elbows back that way! You’re likely to get a crack on one by accident. And just tell me one thing, William, son: is there nary notion in your head that I’m crazy?”
“No!” William yelped out in pain, as he danced about. “You ain’t crazy, father of course you ain’t crazy!”
“You said it,” Old Tarwater remarked sententiously, tossing the single-tree aside and starting to struggle into his coat.
“Now let’s all go in and eat.”
Glen Ellen, California,
September 14, 1916.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57