TO BUILD A FIRE
by Jack London
Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man
turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earthbank
where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat
spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the
top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine
o'clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud
in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall
over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that
was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry the man. He was
used to the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun, and
he knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due
south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.
The man flung a look back along the way he had come. The Yukon lay a
mile wide and hidden under three feet of ice. On top of this ice were as
many feet of snow. It was all pure white, rolling in gentle undulations
where the ice-jams of the freeze-up had formed. North and south, as far
as his eye could see, it was unbroken white, save for a dark hairline
that curved and twisted from around the spruce-covered island to the
south, and that curved and twisted away into the north, where it
disappeared behind another spruce-covered island. This dark hairline
was the trail--the main trail--that led south five hundred miles to the
Chilcoot Pass, Dyea, and salt water; and that led north seventy miles to
Dawson, and still on to the north a thousand miles to Nulato, and finally
to St. Michael on Bering Sea, a thousand miles and half a thousand more.
But all this--that mysterious, far-reaching hairline trail, the absence
of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and
weirdness of it all--made no impression on the man. It was not because
he was long used to it. He was a new-comer in the land, a chechaquo,
and this was his first winter. The trouble with him was that he was without
imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in
the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant
eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and
uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon
his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in
general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and
cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of
immortality and man's place in the universe. Fifty degrees below zero
stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by
the use of mittens, ear flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty
degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero.
That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that
never entered his head.
As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp,
explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in the
air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew
that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had
crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below--how
much colder he did not know. But the temperature did not matter. He was
bound for the old claim on the left fork of Henderson Creek, where the
boys were already. They had come over across the divide from the Indian
Creek country, while he had come the roundabout way to take a look at
the possibilities of getting out logs in the spring from the islands
in the Yukon. He would be in to camp by six o'clock; a bit after dark,
it was true, but the boys would be there, a fire would be going, and a
hot supper would be ready. As for lunch, he pressed his hand against the
protruding bundle under his jacket. It was also under his shirt, wrapped
up in a handkerchief and lying against the naked skin. It was the only
way to keep the biscuits from freezing. He smiled agreeably to himself
as he thought of those biscuits, each cut open and sopped in bacon
grease, and each enclosing a generous slice of fried bacon.
He plunged in among the big spruce trees. The trail was faint. A foot
of snow had fallen since the last sled had passed over, and he was glad
he was without a sled, traveling light. In fact, he carried nothing but
the lunch wrapped in the handkerchief. He was surprised, however, at the
cold. It certainly was cold, he concluded, as he rubbed his numb nose
and cheek-bones with his mittened hand. He was a warm-whiskered man, but
the hair on his face did not protect the high cheekbones and the eager
nose that thrust itself aggressively into the frosty air.
At the man's heels trotted a dog, a big native husky, the proper
wolf-dog, grey-coated and without any visible or temperamental
difference from its brother, the wild wolf. The animal was depressed
by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for traveling.
Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the
man's judgment. In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty below
zero; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below. It was
seventy-five below zero. Since the freezing point is thirty-two above
zero, it meant that one hundred and seven degrees of frost obtained.
The dog did not know anything about thermometers. Possibly in its
brain there was no sharp consciousness of a condition of very cold
such as was in the man's brain. But the brute had its instinct. It
experienced a vague but menacing apprehension that subdued it and
made it slink along at the man's heels, and that made it question
eagerly every unwonted movement of the man as if expecting him
to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire.
The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else to burrow
under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.
The frozen moisture of its breathing had settled on its fur in a fine
powder of frost, and especially were its jowls, muzzle, and eyelashes
whitened by its crystalled breath. The man's red beard and moustache
were likewise frosted, but more solidly, the deposit taking the form of
ice and increasing with every warm, moist breath he exhaled. Also, the
man was chewing tobacco, and the muzzle of ice held his lips so rigidly
that he was unable to clear his chin when he expelled the juice. The
result was that a crystal beard of the color and solidity of amber was
increasing its length on his chin. If he fell down it would shatter
itself, like glass, into brittle fragments. But he did not mind the
appendage. It was the penalty all tobacco-chewers paid in that country,
and he had been out before in two cold snaps. They had not been so cold
as this, he knew, but by the spirit thermometer at Sixty Mile he knew
they had been registered at fifty below and at fifty-five.
He held on through the level stretch of woods for several miles, crossed
a wide flat of nigger-heads, and dropped down a bank to the frozen bed
of a small stream. This was Henderson Creek, and he knew he was ten
miles from the forks. He looked at his watch. It was ten o'clock. He was
making four miles an hour, and he calculated that he would arrive at the
forks at half-past twelve. He decided to celebrate that event by eating
his lunch there.
The dog dropped in again at his heels, with a tail drooping
discouragement, as the man swung along the creek-bed. The furrow
of the old sled-trail was plainly visible, but a dozen inches of
snow covered the marks of the last runners. In a month no man had
come up or down that silent creek. The man held steadily on. He
was not much given to thinking, and just then particularly he had
nothing to think about save that he would eat lunch at the forks
and that at six o'clock he would be in camp with the boys. There
was nobody to talk to; and, had there been, speech would have been
impossible because of the ice-muzzle on his mouth. So he continued
monotonously to chew tobacco and to increase the length of his
Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold
and that he had never experienced such cold. As he walked along he
rubbed his cheekbones and nose with the back of his mittened hand.
He did this automatically, now and again changing hands. But rub as
he would, the instant he stopped his cheekbones went numb, and the
following instant the end of his nose went numb. He was sure to frost
his cheeks; he knew that, and experienced a pang of regret that he
had not devised a nose-strap of the sort Bud wore in cold snaps.
Such a strap passed across the cheeks, as well, and saved them. But
it didn't matter much, after all. What were frosted cheeks? A bit
painful, that was all; they were never serious.
Empty as the man's mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and he
noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber-jams,
and always he sharply noted where he placed his feet. Once, coming
around a bend, he shied abruptly, like a startled horse, curved away from
the place where he had been walking, and retreated several paces back
along the trail. The creek he knew was frozen clear to the bottom--no
creek could contain water in that arctic winter--but he knew also that
there were springs that bubbled out from the hillsides and ran along
under the snow and on top the ice of the creek. He knew that the coldest
snaps never froze these springs, and he knew likewise their danger. They
were traps. They hid pools of water under the snow that might be three
inches deep, or three feet. Sometimes a skin of ice half an inch thick
covered them, and in turn was covered by the snow. Sometimes there were
alternate layers of water and ice-skin, so that when one broke through he
kept on breaking through for a while, sometimes wetting himself to the
That was why he had shied in such panic. He had felt the give under his
feet and heard the crackle of a snow-hidden ice-skin. And to get his
feet wet in such a temperature meant trouble and danger. At the very
least it meant delay, for he would be forced to stop and build a fire,
and under its protection to bare his feet while he dried his socks and
moccasins. He stood and studied the creek-bed and its banks, and decided
that the flow of water came from the right. He reflected awhile, rubbing
his nose and cheeks, then skirted to the left, stepping gingerly and
testing the footing for each step. Once clear of the danger, he took a
fresh chew of tobacco and swung along at his four-mile gait.
In the course of the next two hours he came upon several similar traps.
Usually the snow above the hidden pools had a sunken, candied appearance
that advertised the danger. Once again, however, he had a close call;
and once, suspecting danger, he compelled the dog to go on in front.
The dog did not want to go. It hung back until the man shoved it forward,
and then it went quickly across the white, unbroken surface. Suddenly
it broke through, floundered to one side, and got away to firmer footing.
It had wet its forefeet and legs, and almost immediately the water that
clung to it turned to ice. It made quick efforts to lick the ice off
its legs, then dropped down in the snow and began to bite out the ice
that had formed between the toes. This was a matter of instinct. To
permit the ice to remain would mean sore feet. It did not know this.
It merely obeyed the mysterious prompting that arose from the deep
crypts of its being. But the man knew, having achieved a judgment on
the subject, and he removed the mitten from his right hand and helped
tear out the ice-particles. He did not expose his fingers more than a
minute, and was astonished at the swift numbness that smote them. It
certainly was cold. He pulled on the mitten hastily, and beat the hand
savagely across his chest.
At twelve o'clock the day was at its brightest. Yet the sun was too
far south on its winter journey to clear the horizon. The bulge of the
earth intervened between it and Henderson Creek, where the man walked
under a clear sky at noon and cast no shadow. At half-past twelve, to
the minute, he arrived at the forks of the creek. He was pleased at the
speed he had made. If he kept it up, he would certainly be with the boys
by six. He unbuttoned his jacket and shirt and drew forth his lunch. The
action consumed no more than a quarter of a minute, yet in that brief
moment the numbness laid hold of the exposed fingers. He did not put the
mitten on, but, instead, struck the fingers a dozen sharp smashes against
his leg. Then he sat down on a snow-covered log to eat. The sting that
followed upon the striking of his fingers against his leg ceased so
quickly that he was startled. He had had no chance to take a bite of
biscuit. He struck the fingers repeatedly and returned them to the
mitten, baring the other hand for the purpose of eating. He tried to
take a mouthful, but the ice-muzzle prevented. He had forgotten to build
a fire and thaw out. He chuckled at his foolishness, and as he chuckled
he noted the numbness creeping into the exposed fingers. Also, he noted
that the stinging which had first come to his toes when he sat down was
already passing away. He wondered whether the toes were warm or numbed.
He moved them inside the moccasins and decided that they were numbed.
He pulled the mitten on hurriedly and stood up. He was a bit frightened.
He stamped up and down until the stinging returned into the feet. It
certainly was cold, was his thought. That man from Sulphur Creek had
spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country.
And he had laughed at him at the time! That showed one must not be too
sure of things. There was no mistake about it, it was cold. He strode
up and down, stamping his feet and threshing his arms, until reassured
by the returning warmth. Then he got out matches and proceeded to make
a fire. From the undergrowth, where high water of the previous spring
had lodged a supply of seasoned twigs, he got his firewood. Working
carefully from a small beginning, he soon had a roaring fire, over which
he thawed the ice from his face and in the protection of which he ate his
biscuits. For the moment the cold of space was outwitted. The dog took
satisfaction in the fire, stretching out close enough for warmth and far
enough away to escape being singed.
When the man had finished, he filled his pipe and took his comfortable
time over a smoke. Then he pulled on his mittens, settled the ear-flaps
of his cap firmly about his ears, and took the creek trail up the left
fork. The dog was disappointed and yearned back toward the fire. This
man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had
been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven
degrees below freezing-point. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew,
and it had inherited the knowledge. And it knew that it was not good to
walk abroad in such fearful cold. It was the time to lie snug in a hole
in the snow and wait for a curtain of cloud to be drawn across the face
of outer space whence this cold came. On the other hand, there was no keen
intimacy between the dog and the man. The one was the toil slave of the
other, and the only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of
the whiplash and of harsh and menacing throat-sounds that threatened the
whiplash. So the dog made no effort to communicate its apprehension to
the man. It was not concerned in the welfare of the man; it was for its
own sake that it yearned back toward the fire. But the man whistled, and
spoke to it with the sound of whiplashes, and the dog swung in at the
man's heels and followed after.
The man took a chew of tobacco and proceeded to start a new amber beard.
Also, his moist breath quickly powdered with white his moustache,
eyebrows, and lashes. There did not seem to be so many springs on the
left fork of the Henderson, and for half an hour the man saw no signs of
any. And then it happened. At a place where there were no signs, where
the soft, unbroken snow seemed to advertise solidity beneath, the man
broke through. It was not deep. He wetted himself half-way to the knees
before he floundered out to the firm crust.
He was angry, and cursed his luck aloud. He had hoped to get into
camp with the boys at six o'clock, and this would delay him an hour,
for he would have to build a fire and dry out his foot-gear. This was
imperative at that low temperature--he knew that much; and he turned
aside to the bank, which he climbed. On top, tangled in the underbrush
about the trunks of several small spruce trees, was a high-water deposit
of dry firewood--sticks and twigs principally, but also larger portions
of seasoned branches and fine, dry, last-year's grasses. He threw down
several large pieces on top of the snow. This served for a foundation
and prevented the young flame from drowning itself in the snow it
otherwise would melt. The flame he got by touching a match to a small
shred of birch-bark that he took from his pocket. This burned even more
readily than paper. Placing it on the foundation, he fed the young flame
with wisps of dry grass and with the tiniest dry twigs.
He worked slowly and carefully, keenly aware of his danger. Gradually,
as the flame grew stronger, he increased the size of the twigs with which
he fed it. He squatted in the snow, pulling the twigs out from their
entanglement in the brush and feeding directly to the flame. He knew
there must be no failure. When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must
not fail in his first attempt to build a fire--that is, if his feet are
wet. If his feet are dry, and he fails, he can run along the trail for
half a mile and restore his circulation. But the circulation of wet and
freezing feet cannot be restored by running when it is seventy-five
below. No matter how fast he runs, the wet feet will freeze the harder.
All this the man knew. The old-timer on Sulphur Creek had told him about
it the previous fall, and now he was appreciating the advice. Already
all sensation had gone out of his feet. To build the fire he had been
forced to remove his mittens, and the fingers had quickly gone numb.
His pace of four miles an hour had kept his heart pumping blood to the
surface of his body and to all the extremities. But the instant he
stopped, the action of the pump eased down. The cold of space smote the
unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected tip,
received the full force of the blow. The blood of his body recoiled
before it. The blood was alive, like the dog, and like the dog it wanted
to hide away and cover itself up from the fearful cold. So long as he
walked four miles an hour, he pumped that blood, willy-nilly, to the
surface; but now it ebbed away and sank down into the recesses of his
body. The extremities were the first to feel its absence. His wet feet
froze the faster, and his exposed fingers numbed the faster, though they
had not yet begun to freeze. Nose and cheeks were already freezing,
while the skin of all his body chilled as it lost its blood.
But he was safe. Toes and nose and cheeks would be only touched by the
frost, for the fire was beginning to burn with strength. He was feeding
it with twigs the size of his finger. In another minute he would be able
to feed it with branches the size of his wrist, and then he could remove
his wet foot-gear, and, while it dried, he could keep his naked feet warm
by the fire, rubbing them at first, of course, with snow. The fire was
a success. He was safe. He remembered the advice of the old-timer on
Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very serious in laying
down the law that no man must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty
below. Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he
had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them,
he thought. All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all
right. Any man who was a man could travel alone. But it was surprising,
the rapidity with which his cheeks and nose were freezing. And he had
not thought his fingers could go lifeless in so short a time. Lifeless
they were, for he could scarcely make them move together to grip a twig,
and they seemed remote from his body and from him. When he touched a
twig, he had to look and see whether or not he had hold of it. The wires
were pretty well down between him and his finger-ends.
All of which counted for little. There was the fire, snapping and
crackling and promising life with every dancing flame. He started to
untie his moccasins. They were coated with ice; the thick German socks
were like sheaths of iron half-way to the knees; and the mocassin strings
were like rods of steel all twisted and knotted as by some conflagration.
For a moment he tugged with his numbed fingers, then, realizing the folly
of it, he drew his sheath-knife.
But before he could cut the strings, it happened. It was his own fault
or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the
spruce tree. He should have built it in the open. But it had been
easier to pull the twigs from the brush and drop them directly on the
fire. Now the tree under which he had done this carried a weight of snow
on its boughs. No wind had blown for weeks, and each bough was fully
freighted. Each time he had pulled a twig he had communicated a slight
agitation to the tree--an imperceptible agitation, so far as he was
concerned, but an agitation sufficient to bring about the disaster.
High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow. This fell on
the boughs beneath, capsizing them. This process continued, spreading
out and involving the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it
descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was
blotted out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and disordered
The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his own sentence
of death. For a moment he sat and stared at the spot where the fire had
been. Then he grew very calm. Perhaps the old-timer on Sulphur Creek
was right. If he had only had a trail-mate he would have been in no
danger now. The trail-mate could have built the fire. Well, it was up
to him to build the fire over again, and this second time there must be
no failure. Even if he succeeded, he would most likely lose some toes.
His feet must be badly frozen by now, and there would be some time before
the second fire was ready.
Such were his thoughts, but he did not sit and think them. He was busy
all the time they were passing through his mind. He made a new foundation
for a fire, this time in the open; where no treacherous tree could blot
it out. Next, he gathered dry grasses and tiny twigs from the high-water
flotsam. He could not bring his fingers together to pull them out, but
he was able to gather them by the handful. In this way he got many rotten
twigs and bits of green moss that were undesirable, but it was the best
he could do. He worked methodically, even collecting an armful of the
larger branches to be used later when the fire gathered strength. And
all the while the dog sat and watched him, a certain yearning wistfulness
in its eyes, for it looked upon him as the fire-provider, and the fire
was slow in coming.
When all was ready, the man reached in his pocket for a second piece of
birch-bark. He knew the bark was there, and, though he could not feel it
with his fingers, he could hear its crisp rustling as he fumbled for it.
Try as he would, he could not clutch hold of it. And all the time, in
his consciousness, was the knowledge that each instant his feet were
freezing. This thought tended to put him in a panic, but he fought
against it and kept calm. He pulled on his mittens with his teeth, and
threshed his arms back and forth, beating his hands with all his might
against his sides. He did this sitting down, and he stood up to do it;
and all the while the dog sat in the snow, its wolf-brush of a tail
curled around warmly over its forefeet, its sharp wolf-ears pricked
forward intently as it watched the man. And the man, as he beat and
threshed with his arms and hands, felt a great surge of envy as he
regarded the creature that was warm and secure in its natural covering.
After a time he was aware of the first far-away signals of sensation in
his beaten fingers. The faint tingling grew stronger till it evolved
into a stinging ache that was excruciating, but which the man hailed with
satisfaction. He stripped the mitten from his right hand and fetched
forth the birch-bark. The exposed fingers were quickly going numb again.
Next he brought out his bunch of sulphur matches. But the tremendous
cold had already driven the life out of his fingers. In his effort to
separate one match from the others, the whole bunch fell in the snow. He
tried to pick it out of the snow, but failed. The dead fingers could
neither touch nor clutch. He was very careful. He drove the thought of
his freezing feet, and nose, and cheeks, out of his mind, devoting his
whole soul to the matches. He watched, using the sense of vision in
place of that of touch, and when he saw his fingers on each side the
bunch, he closed them--that is, he willed to close them, for the wires
were down, and the fingers did not obey. He pulled the mitten on the
right hand, and beat it fiercely against his knee. Then, with both
mittened hands, he scooped the bunch of matches, along with much snow,
into his lap. Yet he was no better off.
After some manipulation he managed to get the bunch between the heels
of his mittened hands. In this fashion he carried it to his mouth. The
ice crackled and snapped when by a violent effort he opened his mouth.
He drew the lower jaw in, curled the upper lip out of the way, and
scraped the bunch with his upper teeth in order to separate a match. He
succeeded in getting one, which he dropped on his lap. He was no better
off. He could not pick it up. Then he devised a way. He picked it up
in his teeth and scratched it on his leg. Twenty times he scratched
before he succeeded in lighting it. As it flamed he held it with his
teeth to the birch-bark. But the burning brimstone went up his nostrils
and into his lungs, causing him to cough spasmodically. The match fell
into the snow and went out.
The old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right, he thought in the moment of
controlled despair that ensued: after fifty below, a man should travel
with a partner. He beat his hands, but failed in exciting any sensation.
Suddenly he bared both hands, removing the mittens with his teeth. He
caught the whole bunch between the heels of his hands. His arm muscles
not being frozen enabled him to press the hand heels tightly against
the matches. Then he scratched the bunch along his leg. It flared into
flame, seventy sulphur matches at once! There was no wind to blow them
out. He kept his head to one side to escape the strangling fumes, and
held the blazing bunch to the birch-bark. As he so held it, he became
aware of sensation in his hand. His flesh was burning. He could smell
it. Deep down below the surface he could feel it. The sensation
developed into pain that grew acute. And still he endured it, holding
the flame of the matches clumsily to the bark that would not light
readily because his own burning hands were in the way, absorbing most
of the flame.
At last, when he could endure no more, he jerked his hands apart. The
blazing matches fell sizzling into the snow, but the birch-bark was
alight. He began laying dry grasses and the tiniest twigs on the flame.
He could not pick and choose, for he had to lift the fuel between the
heels of his hands. Small pieces of rotten wood and green moss clung to
the twigs, and he bit them off as well as he could with his teeth. He
cherished the flame carefully and awkwardly. It meant life, and it must
not perish. The withdrawal of blood from the surface of his body now
made him begin to shiver, and he grew more awkward. A large piece of
green moss fell squarely on the little fire. He tried to poke it out
with his fingers, but his shivering frame made him poke too far, and he
disrupted the nucleus of the little fire, the burning grasses and tiny
twigs separating and scattering. He tried to poke them together again,
but in spite of the tenseness of the effort, his shivering got away
with him, and the twigs were hopelessly scattered. Each twig gushed
a puff of smoke and went out. The fire provider had failed. As he looked
apathetically about him, his eyes chanced on the dog, sitting across
the ruins of the fire from him, in the snow, making restless, hunching
movements, slightly lifting one forefoot and then the other, shifting
its weight back and forth on them with wistful eagerness.
The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered the
tale of the man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and crawled
inside the carcass, and so was saved. He would kill the dog and bury
his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them. Then
he could build another fire. He spoke to the dog, calling it to him;
but in his voice was a strange note of fear that frightened the animal,
who had never known the man to speak in such way before. Something was
the matter, and its suspicious nature sensed danger--it knew not what
danger, but somewhere, somehow, in its brain arose an apprehension of
the man. It flattened its ears down at the sound of the man's voice,
and its restless, hunching movements and the liftings and shiftings of
its forefeet became more pronounced; but it would not come to the man.
He got on his hands and knees and crawled toward the dog. This unusual
posture again excited suspicion, and the animal sidled mincingly away.
The man sat up in the snow for a moment and struggled for calmness. Then
he pulled on his mittens, by means of his teeth, and got upon his feet.
He glanced down at first in order to assure himself that he was really
standing up, for the absence of sensation in his feet left him unrelated
to the earth. His erect position in itself started to drive the webs
of suspicion from the dog's mind; and when he spoke peremptorily, with
the sound of whiplashes in his voice, the dog rendered its customary
allegiance and came to him. As it came within reaching distance, the man
lost his control. His arms flashed out to the dog, and he experienced
genuine surprise when he discovered that his hands could not clutch, that
there was neither bend nor feeling in the fingers. He had forgotten for
the moment that they were frozen and that they were freezing more and
more. All this happened quickly, and before the animal could get away,
he encircled its body with his arms. He sat down in the snow, and in
this fashion held the dog, while it snarled and whined and struggled.
But it was all he could do, hold its body encircled in his arms and
sit there. He realized that he could not kill the dog. There was no
way to do it. With his helpless hands he could neither draw nor hold
his sheath knife nor throttle the animal. He released it, and it
plunged wildly away, with tail between its legs, and still snarling.
It halted forty feet away and surveyed him curiously, with ears
sharply pricked forward. The man looked down at his hands in order
to locate them, and found them hanging on the ends of his arms. It
struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order
to find out where his hands were. He began threshing his arms back
and forth, beating the mittened hands against his sides. He did
this for five minutes, violently, and his heart pumped enough blood
up to the surface to put a stop to his shivering. But no sensation
was aroused in the hands. He had an impression that they hung like
weights on the ends of his arms, but when he tried to run the
impression down, he could not find it.
A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to him. This fear
quickly became poignant as he realized that it was no longer a mere
matter of freezing his fingers and toes, or of losing his hands and feet,
but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against him.
This threw him into a panic, and he turned and ran up the creek bed along
the old, dim trail. The dog joined in behind and kept up with him. He
ran blindly, without intention, in fear such as he had never known in his
life. Slowly, as he ploughed and floundered through the snow, he began
to see things again--the banks of the creek, the old timber-jams, the
leafless aspens, and the sky. The running made him feel better. He did
not shiver. Maybe, if he ran on, his feet would thaw out; and, anyway,
if he ran far enough, he would reach camp and the boys. Without doubt he
would lose some fingers and toes and some of his face; but the boys would
take care of him, and save the rest of him when he got there. And at the
same time there was another thought in his mind that said he would never
get to the camp and the boys; that it was too many miles away, that
the freezing had too great a start on him, and that he would soon be
stiff and dead. This thought he kept in the background and refused to
consider. Sometimes it pushed itself forward and demanded to be heard,
but he thrust it back and strove to think of other things.
It struck him as curious that he could run at all on feet so frozen that
he could not feel them when they struck the earth and took the weight of
his body. He seemed to himself to skim along above the surface and to
have no connection with the earth. Somewhere he had once seen a winged
Mercury, and he wondered if Mercury felt as he felt when skimming over
His theory of running until he reached camp and the boys had one flaw in
it: he lacked the endurance. Several times he stumbled, and finally he
tottered, crumpled up, and fell. When he tried to rise, he failed. He
must sit and rest, he decided, and next time he would merely walk and
keep on going. As he sat and regained his breath, he noted that he was
feeling quite warm and comfortable. He was not shivering, and it even
seemed that a warm glow had come to his chest and trunk. And yet, when
he touched his nose or cheeks, there was no sensation. Running would
not thaw them out. Nor would it thaw out his hands and feet. Then
the thought came to him that the frozen portions of his body must be
extending. He tried to keep this thought down, to forget it, to think
of something else; he was aware of the panicky feeling that it caused,
and he was afraid of the panic. But the thought asserted itself, and
persisted, until it produced a vision of his body totally frozen. This
was too much, and he made another wild run along the trail. Once he
slowed down to a walk, but the thought of the freezing extending itself
made him run again.
And all the time the dog ran with him, at his heels. When he fell down
a second time, it curled its tail over its forefeet and sat in front of
him facing him, curiously eager and intent. The warmth and security of
the animal angered him, and he cursed it till it flattened down its ears
appeasingly. This time the shivering came more quickly upon the man. He
was losing in his battle with the frost. It was creeping into his body
from all sides. The thought of it drove him on, but he ran no more than
a hundred feet, when he staggered and pitched headlong. It was his last
panic. When he had recovered his breath and control, he sat up and
entertained in his mind the conception of meeting death with dignity.
However, the conception did not come to him in such terms. His idea of
it was that he had been making a fool of himself, running around like
a chicken with its head cut off--such was the simile that occurred to
him. Well, he was bound to freeze anyway, and he might as well take it
decently. With this new-found peace of mind came the first glimmerings
of drowsiness. A good idea, he thought, to sleep off to death. It was
like taking an anesthetic. Freezing was not so bad as people thought.
There were lots worse ways to die.
He pictured the boys finding his body next day. Suddenly he found
himself with them, coming along the trail and looking for himself.
And, still with them, he came around a turn in the trail and found
himself lying in the snow. He did not belong with himself any more,
for even then he was out of himself, standing with the boys and
looking at himself in the snow. It certainly was cold, was his
thought. When he got back to the States he could tell the folks
what real cold was. He drifted on from this to a vision of the
old-timer on Sulphur Creek. He could see him quite clearly, warm
and comfortable, and smoking a pipe.
"You were right, old hoss; you were right," the man mumbled to the
old-timer of Sulphur Creek.
Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and
satisfying sleep he had ever known. The dog sat facing him and waiting.
The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight. There were no
signs of a fire to be made, and, besides, never in the dog's experience
had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire. As the
twilight drew on, its eager yearning for the fire mastered it, and with a
great lifting and shifting of forefeet, it whined softly, then flattened
its ears down in anticipation of being chidden by the man. But the man
remained silent. Later, the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept
close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal
bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the
stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then
it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew,
where were the other food providers and fire providers.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~