I’ve been keeping the best till last in the April A to Z Blog Challenge, since today’s post is an 1800 word story from my writing buddy, Jon Curran. I’ll leave him to do his own introduction!
As a child, I loved Jack London’s tales of the Alaskan gold-rush and the men and dogs that strove under the northern skies in search of yellow gold. The Call of the Wild is my favourite, and I wrote Yukon Gold as a homage to that book, which I’ve read so many times I can almost quote it. If you have read The Call of the Wild, I hope you enjoy this story, and if you haven’t yet read it, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
It is now many months since I left the northlands, yet still the memories of that frozen place haunt my darkest dreams. Even here, sitting on the veranda with the warm Californian sun on my face and the sounds of the gulls as they swoop over the ocean, I only have to close my eyes and I’m back amongst the spruce and pine, and my heart once again feels that chill of ice that is only partly a memory of those arctic lands.
I left home, because we had not heard from Jack for over a year, and our mother was worried out of mind for him, and because, having just turned twenty-one, and eager to test my manhood against something other than college-books, I longed to follow my older half-brother into that most northerly state of our beloved Union, and see what I could make of myself there.
I took the steam-packet north from Frisco, and after many days in which it seemed to me that civilisation receded behind me even as a new world of great mountains, deep ocean inlets and dark primeval forests opened up around me as we steamed past.
The gold rush had brought great wealth to Anchorage, but it had also brought every kind of chancer, huckster and dreamer with it, like a magnet attracts iron shavings on a white page. I had not seen such a colourful riot of people before, and was amazed to see Americans rub shoulders with red-headed Scotchmen, Mexicans, Chinamen, wild-looking Russians, and dark-eyed native Indians, as well as dozens more from as many different countries. The sound was such that I am sure has not been heard since God struck down the Tower of Babel and caused all men of this world to speak in the multitude of languages.
I confess I was lost and alarmed at this bright and noisy confusion, and half wondered whether to get straight back on the boat and sail home with the mail back to California. But instead, a tall man pushed his way through the crowds at the dockside, and it was Mr Burnside, my father’s agent in Alaska, and my courage returned to see a friendly and familiar face.
Mr Burnside also brought good news, good news, for word had reached him just that morning of Jack, who had been seen in Skaguay, far to the east, and then in Dawson, where, it seemed, he had won a large sum of money in a wager over dogs, and had then struck out north and west in search of gold.
My spirits soared at this news for though the sighting had been more than six months past, it was the first positive news we had received for an age. I wrote to Mother and sent the letter back with the very ship that had brought me here.
Mr Burnside was every bit as good as the faith my father had in him, and had secured for me two teams of dogs, all the equipment we could need, and, most importantly, two guides that he trusted completely and who knew the territory intimately.
Laurent was Quebeçois, but had lived all his life as a woodsman, prospector, trapper and map-maker. The other man, Patuk, was a native of the Yukon and held a connection with his land so deep and so strong that I would sweat he walked half in this world and half in some other, shadowy, forested world against which ours is but a dull mirror.
I’ll say little of the months that followed, though they were amongst the best of my life. We followed trails and rivers, living off the land, hunting our food, drinking from rivers as clear and cold as when the world was first made. I lost the fat of easy living and grew strong and lean. I learned to read the skies, read the ground, to make fires and to hunt and fish. I learned from Laurent, and from Patuk and I learned from the land itself. And always we followed the trail that Jack had left, sightings, stories, sometimes leading nowhere, sometimes onto more sightings and more stories. Jack and his dogs, Jack and his dog, his great dog; the dog who became the talk of Dawson and sent Jack off searching for the lost gold that was as much folklore as real.
And so we travelled, following the mighty Yukon, and then up the Stewart River until it faded to nothing, and then on our feet for many mile and miles.
It was late one night in the early fall that I first heard the sound, and it chilled me to the core, and yet at the same time set off a pounding in my heart that I could not explain. I had read about it but had not heard until now the howling of a wolf. The moon was bright that night, and maybe this was why, but the sound rose and fell, rose and fell until it faded into a low bubbling noise. And I imagined – or could I see? I don’t know – eyes, pairs of glowing yellow eyes beyond the firelight in the dark reaches of the forest.
After that day, the wolves kept pace with us, and though I never saw even a flash of fur during the day, at night the ghostly howling was our uncomfortable bed-fellow. By day we argued what to do, but I was resolute in carrying on, and as my father’s money was paying them, and a large bonus was dependent on finding Jack, they stayed, though no without many dark looks into the forest.
At last, late one afternoon, we came across a clearing, and, looking down the slope, I could see a run-down log-cabin, its tiles falling from the roof and long summer grass growing through gaps in the porch. And – my heart missed a beat at the sight – a pool of yellow, not quite hidden by the grass, that lay like melted butter, golden in the afternoon sun.
The dogs were agitated, and Patuk, too, muttered words in his native tongue.
“He says this place is haunted,” Laurent translated for me. “Bad place. He says we must move on.”
But my sense of adventure – and perhaps the sight of that spilled gold – was now fully aroused and I told them to wait while I went ahead to look.
The clearing was quiet, silent almost, and the birdsong that had been our constant companion all morning, ceased as I slid down the bank towards the shack. I turned and waved to Laurent and Patuk to indicate that I was OK, but something stopped me from calling out to them and breaking the spell of the place.
I circled the cabin, but it was clear that no-one had been there for some time. I pushed on the wooden door and it opened reluctantly. Stepping over the threshold, I entered the coolness of the interior. There was little to see; whoever had lived here had lived sparingly, and there were none of the trappings or luxuries that you would see back home, or even in Anchorage or Dawson. The only concession was a steel coffee pot, stained and tarnished, and a dark smudge that could once have been coffee.
I was about to leave when I noticed something amidst the faded blankets on the bed. I drew closer and with a shock of recognition that poured ice down my back, I saw bones. Dulled, covered in frayed material and tangled in the blankets, but unmistakeably human.
Suddenly the cabin felt like a trap and I scrambled to get out. Outside in the clearing, I noticed, first the pools of gold, real gold, that I had seen from the ridge above. Second, that my companions were nowhere to be seen.
I span on my heels, searching frantically with my eyes, and at that moment, a roar, like a lion, but louder than any lion could be, and from the edge of the trees came an animal that sprang towards me like some beast loosed from hell.
It was a wolf, but like no wolf I had ever seen. Huge, majestic almost, with a wolf’s face but fur brown, long and glossy with a white streak down his chest.
So fierce was his attack that he bowled me right over as if I were a small child, and flew over me as I fell. I heard snarls and without a moment to react, he was on me again and I felt his furious weight pinning me down.
His great jaws opened and my mind went blank with fear, waiting for the end.
And then, just as suddenly, his mouth closed, and a look came over his wolfish face, a look almost human in its puzzled confusion. He paused, then suddenly sniffed me, long and hard.
The wolf danced back, sat on his haunches and glared at me for a moment before raising his muzzle up to the sky and letting out a long-drawn howl so heart-breaking that tears came into my eyes.
He then approached me once more, and I could not move – something seemed to hold me still – and when his muzzle was scant inches from my face, he licked me, a warm wet kiss that made me think of nothing so much as the pet dogs we have back home in California.
And then he was off, disappearing into the trees, and I never saw him again.
I looked around, and there, on the ridge, as if they had not moved, were my friends, with the dogs and all our equipment, as if nothing had happened.
I told them nothing of my encounter with the wolf-dog, and agreed with Patuk that the clearing was haunted. We left the gold behind us to sink down into the earth. For a while the wolves followed us as we roamed further, and more than once in those days I fancied I saw the flash of white fur on brown just before it disappeared behind the trees.
In the end, I had to leave the wild Yukon Territory empty-handed, for Mother became ill and desired to see me before the end, though I had not yet found Jack.
Yet, strangely, and this haunts me still, I never felt closer to finding Jack than at that moment with the wolf who was not a wolf, and I pray that wherever Jack may be, he is being watched over by some creature such as he, and will one day find his way back to us.
Jon Curran is a winner of the Writers Centre Norwich Escalator, a scheme that supports promising new writers from the East of England. He is working on his first novel, The House of Wisdom set in medieval Baghdad.