THE LAW OF LIFE
by Jack London
Old Koskoosh listened greedily. Though his
sight had long since faded, his hearing
was still acute, and the slightest sound
penetrated to the glimmering intelligence
which yet abode behind the withered forehead,
but which no longer gazed forth upon the
things of the world. Ah! that was Sit-cum-to-ha,
shrilly anathematizing the dogs as she
cuffed and beat them into the harnesses.
Sit-cum-to-ha was his daughter's daughter,
but she was too busy to waste a thought
upon her broken grandfather, sitting alone
there in the snow, forlorn and helpless.
Camp must be broken. The long trail waited
while the short day refused to linger. Life
called her, and the duties of life, not
death. And he was very close to death now.
The thought made the old man panicky for the
moment, and he stretched forth a palsied hand
which wandered tremblingly over the small heap
of dry wood beside him. Reassured that it was
indeed there, his hand returned to the shelter
of his mangy furs, and he again fell to listening.
The sulky crackling of half-frozen hides told
him that the chief's moose-skin lodge had been
struck, and even then was being rammed and
jammed into portable compass. The chief was
his son, stalwart and strong, head man of the
tribesmen, and a mighty hunter. As the women
toiled with the camp luggage, his voice rose,
chiding them for their slowness. Old Koskoosh
strained his ears. It was the last time he
would hear that voice. There went Geehow's
lodge! And Tusken's! Seven, eight, nine; only
the Shaman's could be still standing. There!
They were at work upon it now. He could hear
the shaman grunt as he piled it on the sled.
A child whimpered, and a woman soothed it with
soft, crooning gutturals. Little Koo-tee, the
old man thought, a fretful child, and not
overstrong. It would die soon, perhaps, and
they would burn a hole through the frozen
tundra and pile rocks above to keep the
wolverines away. Well, what did it matter? A
few years at best, and as many an empty belly
as a full one. And in the end, Death waited,
ever-hungry and hungriest of them all.
What was that? Oh, the men lashing the sleds
and drawing tight the thongs. He listened,
who would listen no more. The whip-lashes
snarled and bit among the dogs. Hear them
whine! How they hated the work and the trail!
They were off! Sled after sled churned slowly
away into the silence. They were gone. They
had passed out of his life, and he faced the
last bitter hour alone. No. The snow crunched
beneath a moccasin; a man stood beside him;
upon his head a hand rested gently. His son
was good to do this thing. He remembered other
old men whose sons had not waited after the
tribe. But his son had. He wandered away into
the past, till the young man's voice brought
"Is it well with you?" he asked.
And the old man answered, "It is well."
"There be wood beside you," the younger man
continued, "and the fire burns bright. The
morning is gray, and the cold has broken. It
will snow presently. Even now is it snowing."
"Ay, even now is it snowing."
"The tribesmen hurry. Their bales are heavy,
and their bellies flat with lack of feasting.
The trail is long and they travel fast. I go
now. It is well?"
"It is well. I am as a last year's leaf,
clinging lightly to the stem. The first
breath that blows, and I fall. My voice is
become like an old woman's. My eyes no longer
show me the way of my feet, and my feet are
heavy, and I am tired. It is well."
He bowed his head in content till the last
noise of the complaining snow had died away,
and he knew his son was beyond recall. Then
his hand crept out in haste to the wood. It
alone stood betwixt him and the eternity which
yawned in upon him. At last the measure of
his life was a handful of fagots. One by one
they would go to feed the fire, and just so,
step by step, death would creep upon him.
When the last stick had surrendered up its
heat, the frost would begin to gather strength.
First his feet would yield, then his hands;
and the numbness would travel, slowly, from
the extremities to the body. His head would
fall forward upon his knees, and he would
rest. It was easy. All men must die.
He did not complain. It was the way of life,
and it was just. He had been born close to
the earth, close to the earth had he lived,
and the law thereof was not new to him. It
was the law of all flesh. Nature was not
kindly to the flesh. She had no concern for
that concrete thing called the individual.
Her interest lay in the species, the race.
This was the deepest abstraction old Koskoosh's
barbaric mind was capable of, but he grasped
it firmly. He saw it exemplified in all life.
The rise of the sap, the bursting greenness
of the willow bud, the fall of the yellow
leaf--in this alone was told the whole
history. But one task did nature set the
individual. Did he not perform it, he died.
Did he perform it, it was all the same, he
died. Nature did not care; there were plenty
who were obedient, and it was only the
obedience in this matter, not the obedient,
which lived and lived always. The tribe of
Koskoosh was very old. The old men he had
known when a boy, had known old men before
them. Therefore it was true that the tribe
lived, that it stood for the obedience of
all its members, way down into the forgotten
past, whose very resting-places were unremembered.
They did not count; they were episodes. They
had passed away like clouds from a summer sky.
He also was an episode, and would pass away.
Nature did not care. To life she set one task,
gave one law. To perpetuate was the task of
life, its law was death. A maiden was a good
creature to look upon, full-breasted and
strong, with spring to her step and light in
her eyes. But her task was yet before her.
The light in her eyes brightened, her step
quickened, she was now bold with the young
men, now timid, and she gave them of her own
unrest. And ever she grew fairer and yet
fairer to look upon, till some hunter, able
no longer to withhold himself, took her to
his lodge to cook and toil for him and to
become the mother of his children. And with
the coming of her offspring her looks left
her. Her limbs dragged and shuffled, her
eyes dimmed and bleared, and only the little
children found joy against the withered cheek
of the old squaw by the fire. Her task was
done. But a little while, on the first pinch
of famine or the first long trail, and she
would be left, even as he had been left, in
the snow, with a little pile of wood. Such
was the law.
He placed a stick carefully upon the fire
and resumed his meditations. It was the same
everywhere, with all things. The mosquitoes
vanished with the first frost. The little
tree-squirrel crawled away to die. When age
settled upon the rabbit it became slow and
heavy, and could no longer outfoot its enemies.
Even the big bald-face grew clumsy and blind
and quarrelsome, in the end to be dragged down
by a handful of yelping huskies. He remembered
how he had abandoned his own father on an upper
reach of the Klondike one winter, the winter
before the missionary came with his talk-books
and his box of medicines. Many a time had
Koskoosh smacked his lips over the recollection
of that box, though now his mouth refused to
moisten. The "painkiller" had been especially
good. But the missionary was a bother after
all, for he brought no meat into the camp, and
he ate heartily, and the hunters grumbled. But
he chilled his lungs on the divide by the Mayo,
and the dogs afterwards nosed the stones away
and fought over his bones.
Koskoosh placed another stick on the fire and
harked back deeper into the past. There was
the time of the Great Famine, when the old
men crouched empty-bellied to the fire, and
from their lips fell dim traditions of the
ancient day when the Yukon ran wide open for
three winters, and then lay frozen for three
summers. He had lost his mother in that famine.
In the summer the salmon run had failed, and
the tribe looked forward to the winter and the
coming of the caribou. Then the winter came,
but with it there were no caribou. Never had
the like been known, not even in the lives of
the old men. But the caribou did not come,
and it was the seventh year, and the rabbits
had not replenished, and the dogs were naught
but bundles of bones. And through the long
darkness the children wailed and died, and
the women, and the old men; and not one in
ten of the tribe lived to meet the sun when
it came back in the spring. That was a famine!
But he had seen times of plenty, too, when
the meat spoiled on their hands, and the dogs
were fat and worthless with overeating--times
when they let the game go unkilled, and the
women were fertile, and the lodges were
cluttered with sprawling men-children and
women-children. Then it was the men became
high-stomached, and revived ancient quarrels,
and crossed the divides to the south to kill
the Pellys, and to the west that they might
sit by the dead fires of the Tananas. He
remembered, when a boy, during a time of
plenty, when he saw a moose pulled down by
the wolves. Zing-ha lay with him in the snow
and watched--Zing-ha, who later became the
craftiest of hunters, and who, in the end,
fell through an air-hole on the Yukon. They
found him, a month afterward, just as he had
crawled half-way out and frozen stiff to the
But the moose. Zing-ha and he had gone out
that day to play at hunting after the manner
of their fathers. On the bed of the creek
they struck the fresh track of a moose, and
with it the tracks of many wolves. "An old
one," Zing-ha, who was quicker at reading
the sign, said--"an old one who cannot
keep up with the herd. The wolves have cut
him out from his brothers, and they will
never leave him." And it was so. It was their
way. By day and by night, never resting,
snarling on his heels, snapping at his nose,
they would stay by him to the end. How Zing-ha
and he felt the blood-lust quicken! The finish
would be a sight to see!
Eager-footed, they took the trail, and even
he, Koskoosh, slow of sight and an unversed
tracker, could have followed it blind, it
was so wide. Hot were they on the heels of
the chase, reading the grim tragedy,
fresh-written, at every step. Now they came
to where the moose had made a stand. Thrice
the length of a grown man's body, in every
direction, had the snow been stamped about
and uptossed. In the midst were the deep
impressions of the splay-hoofed game, and
all about, everywhere, were the lighter
footmarks of the wolves. Some, while their
brothers harried the kill, had lain to one
side and rested. The full-stretched impress
of their bodies in the snow was as perfect
as though made the moment before. One wolf
had been caught in a wild lunge of the
maddened victim and trampled to death. A
few bones, well picked, bore witness.
Again, they ceased the uplift of their snowshoes
at a second stand. Here the great animal had
fought desperately. Twice had he been dragged
down, as the snow attested, and twice had he
shaken his assailants clear and gained footing
once more. He had done his task long since,
but none the less was life dear to him. Zing-ha
said it was a strange thing, a moose once down
to get free again; but this one certainly had.
The Shaman would see signs and wonders in this
when they told him.
And yet again, they come to where the moose
had made to mount the bank and gain the timber.
But his foes had laid on from behind, till
he reared and fell back upon them, crushing
two deep into the snow. It was plain the kill
was at hand, for their brothers had left them
untouched. Two more stands were hurried past,
brief in time-length and very close together.
The trail was red now, and the clean stride
of the great beast had grown short and slovenly.
Then they heard the first sounds of the battle--not
the full-throated chorus of the chase, but
the short, snappy bark which spoke of close
quarters and teeth to flesh. Crawling up the
wind, Zing-ha bellied it through the snow,
and with him crept he, Koskoosh, who was to
be chief of the tribesmen in the years to come.
Together they shoved aside the under branches
of a young spruce and peered forth. It was the
end they saw.
The picture, like all of youth's impressions,
was still strong with him, and his dim eyes
watched the end played out as vividly as in
that far-off time. Koskoosh marveled at this,
for in the days which followed, when he was a
leader of men and a head of councilors, he
had done great deeds and made his name a curse
in the mouths of the Pellys, to say naught of
the strange white man he had killed, knife to
knife, in open fight.
For long he pondered on the days of his youth,
till the fire died down and the frost bit deeper.
He replenished it with two sticks this time,
and gauged his grip on life by what remained.
If Sit-cum-to-ha had only remembered her grandfather,
and gathered a larger armful, his hours would
have been longer. It would have been easy. But
she was ever a careless child, and honored not
her ancestors from the time the Beaver, son of
the son of Zing-ha, first cast eyes upon her.
Well, what mattered it? Had he not done likewise
in his own quick youth? For a while he listened
to the silence. Perhaps the heart of his son
might soften, and he would come back with the
dogs to take his old father on with the tribe
to where the caribou ran thick and the fat hung
heavy upon them.
He strained his ears, his restless brain for
the moment stilled. Not a stir, nothing. He
alone took breath in the midst of the great
silence. It was very lonely. Hark! What was
that? A chill passed over his body. The familiar,
long-drawn howl broke the void, and it was
close at hand. Then on his darkened eyes was
projected the vision of the moose--the old
bull moose--the torn flanks and bloody sides,
the riddled mane, and the great branching horns,
down low and tossing to the last. He saw the
flashing forms of gray, the gleaming eyes, the
lolling tongues, the slavered fangs. And he
saw the inexorable circle close in till it
became a dark point in the midst of the stamped
A cold muzzle thrust against his cheek, and
at its touch his soul leaped back to the
present. His hand shot into the fire and
dragged out a burning faggot. Overcome for
the nonce by his hereditary fear of man, the
brute retreated, raising a prolonged call to
his brothers; and greedily they answered,
till a ring of crouching, jaw-slobbered gray
was stretched round about. The old man listened
to the drawing in of this circle. He waved
his brand wildly, and sniffs turned to snarls;
but the panting brutes refused to scatter.
Now one wormed his chest forward, dragging
his haunches after, now a second, now a third;
but never a one drew back. Why should he cling
to life? he asked, and dropped the blazing
stick into the snow. It sizzled and went out.
The circle grunted uneasily, but held its own.
Again he saw the last stand of the old bull
moose, and Koskoosh dropped his head wearily
upon his knees. What did it matter after all?
Was it not the law of life?
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~