In some men’s hearts the ice “went out” at the sound, and the melting welled up in their eyes. Summer and liberty were very near.
“Oh, hurry, Yukon Inua; let the ice go out and let the boats come in.”
But the next few days hung heavily. The river-ice humped its back still higher, but showed no disposition to “git.” The wonder was it did not crack under the strain; but Northern ice ahs the air of being strangely flexile. Several feet in depth, the water ran now along the margin.
More geese and ducks appeared, and flocks of little birds—Canada jays, robins, joined the swelling chorus of the waters.
Oh, hurry, hurry Inua, and open the great highway! Not at Minook alone: at every wood camp, mining town and mission, at every white post and Indian village, all along the Yukon, groups were gathered waiting the great moment of the year. No one had ever heard of the ice breaking up before the 11th of May or later than the 28th. And yet men had begun to keep a hopeful eye on the river from the 10th of April, when a white ptarmigan was reported wearing a collar of dark-brown feathers, and his wings tipped brown. That was a month ago, and the great moment could not possibly be far now.
The first thing everybody did on getting up, and the last thing everybody did on going to bed, was to look at the river. It was not easy to go to bed; and even if you got so far it was not easy to sleep. The sun poured into the cabins by night as well as by day, and there was nothing to divide one part of the twenty-four hours from another. You slept when you were too tired to watch the river. You breakfasted, like as not, at six in the evening; you dined at midnight. Through all your waking hours you kept an eye on the window overlooking the river. In your bed you listened for that ancient Yukon cry, “The ice is going out!”
For ages it had meant to the timid: Beware the fury of the shattered ice-fields; beware the caprice of the flood. Watch! lest many lives go out with the ice as aforetime. And for ages to the stout-hearted it had meant: Make ready the kyaks and the birch canoes; see that tackle and traps are strong—for plenty or famine wait upon the hour. As the white men waited for boats to-day, the men of the older time had waited for the salmon—for those first impatient adventurers that would force their way under the very ice-jam, tenderest and best of the season’s catch, as eager to prosecute that journey from the ocean to the Klondyke as if they had been men marching after the gold boom.
No one could settle to anything. It was by fits and starts that the steadier hands indulged even in target practice, with a feverish subconsciousness that events were on the way that might make it inconvenient to have lost the art of sending a bullet straight. After a diminutive tin can, hung on a tree, had been made to jump at a hundred paces, the marksman would glance at the river and forget to fire. It was by fits and starts that they even drank deeper or played for higher stakes.