“To labour and to be content with that a man hath is a sweet life; but he that findeth a treasure is above them both.”—Ecclesiasticus.
Of course they were bound for the Klondyke. Every creature in the North-west was bound for the Klondyke. Men from the South too, and men from the East, had left their ploughs and their pens, their factories, pulpits, and easy-chairs, each man like a magnetic needle suddenly set free and turning sharply to the North; all set pointing the self-same way since that July day in ’97, when the Excelsior sailed into San Francisco harbour, bringing from the uttermost regions at the top of the map close upon a million dollars in nuggets and in gold-dust.
Some distance this side of the Arctic Circle, on the right bank of the Yukon, a little detachment of that great army pressing northward, had been wrecked early in the month of September.
They had realised, on leaving the ocean-going ship that landed them at St. Michael’s Island (near the mouth of the great river), that they could not hope to reach Dawson that year. But instead of “getting cold feet,” as the phrase for discouragement ran, and turning back as thousands did, or putting in the winter on the coast, they determined, with an eye to the spring rush, to cover as many as possible of the seventeen hundred miles of waterway before navigation closed.
They knew, in a vague way, that winter would come early, but they had not counted on the big September storm that dashed their heavy-laden boats against the floe-ice, ultimately drove them ashore, and nearly cost the little party their lives. On that last day of the long struggle up the stream, a stiff north-easter was cutting the middle reach of the mighty river, two miles wide here, into a choppy and dangerous sea.
Day by day, five men in the two little boats, had kept serious eyes on the shore. Then came the morning when, out of the monotonous cold and snow-flurries, something new appeared, a narrow white rim forming on the river margin—the first ice!
“Winter beginning to show his teeth,” said one man, with an effort at jocosity.
Day by day, nearer came the menace; narrower and swifter still ran the deep black water strip between the encroaching ice-lines. But the thought that each day’s sailing or rowing meant many days nearer the Klondyke, seemed to inspire a superhuman energy. Day by day each man had felt, and no man yet had said, “We must camp to-night for eight months.” They had looked landward, shivered, and held on their way.
But on this particular morning, when they took in sail, they realised it was to be that abomination of desolation on the shore or death. And one or other speedily.