THE MEN OF FORTY-MILE
"MALEMUTE KID" DEALS WITH A DUEL
by Jack London
When Big Jim Belden ventured the apparently
innocuous proposition that mush-ice was
"rather pecooliar," he little dreamed of
what it would lead to. Neither did Lon McFane,
when he affirmed that anchor-ice was even
more so; nor did Bettles, as he instantly
disagreed, declaring the very existence of
such a form to be a bugaboo.
"An' ye'd be tellin' me this," cried Lon,
"after the years ye've spint in the land!
An' we atin' out the same pot this many's
"But the thing's agin reason," insisted
Bettles. "Look you, water's warmer than
"An' little the difference, once ye break
"Still it's warmer, because it ain't froze.
An' you say it freezes on the bottom?"
"Only the anchor-ice, David, only the anchor-ice.
An' have ye niver drifted along, the water
clear as glass, whin suddin, belike a cloud
over the sun, the mushy-ice comes bubblin'
up an' up, till from bank to bank an' bind
to bind it's drapin' the river like a first
"Unh, hunh! more'n once when I took a doze
at the steering-oar. But it allus come out
the nighest side-channel, an' not bubblin'
up an' up."
"But with niver a wink at the helm?"
"No; nor you. It's agin reason. I'll leave
it to any man!"
Bettles appealed to the circle about the
stove, but the fight was on between himself
and Lon McFane.
"Reason or no reason, it's the truth I'm
tellin' ye. Last fall, a year gone, 'twas
Sitka Charley and meself saw the sight,
droppin' down the riffle ye'll remember
below Fort Reliance. An' regular fall weather
it was,--the glint o' the sun on the golden
larch an' the quakin' aspens; an' the glister
of light on ivery ripple; an' beyand, the
winter an' the blue haze of the North comin'
down hand in hand. It's well ye know the
same, with a fringe to the river an' the
ice formin' thick in the eddies,--an' a snap
an' sparkle to the air, an' ye a-feelin' it
through all yer blood, a-takin' new lease
of life with ivery suck of it. 'Tis then,
me boy, the world grows small an' the
wandtherlust lays ye by the heels.
"But it's meself as wandthers. As I was
sayin', we a-paddlin', with niver a sign
of ice, barrin' that by the eddies, when
the Injun lifts his paddle an' sings out,
'Lon McFane! Look ye below! So have I
heard, but niver thought to see!' As ye
know, Sitka Charley, like meself, niver
drew first breath in the land; so the
sight was new. Then we drifted, with a
head over ayther side, peerin' down through
the sparkly water. For the world like
the days I spint with the pearlers,
watchin' the coral banks a-growin' the
same as so many gardens under the sea.
There it was, the anchor-ice, clingin'
an' clusterin' to ivery rock, after the
manner of the white coral.
"But the best of the sight was to come.
Just after clearin' the tail of the riffle,
the water turns quick the color of milk,
an' the top of it in wee circles, as when
the graylin' rise in the spring, or there's
a splatter of wet from the sky. 'Twas the
anchor-ice comin' up. To the right, to the
lift, as far as iver a man cud see, the
water was covered with the same. An' like
so much porridge it was, slickin' along the
bark of the canoe, stickin' like glue to
the paddles. It's many's the time I shot
the self-same riffle before, and it's many's
the time after, but niver a wink of the same
have I seen. 'Twas the sight of a lifetime."
"Do tell!" dryly commented Bettles. "D'ye
think I'd b'lieve such a yarn? I'd ruther
say the glister of light'd gone to your
eyes, and the snap of the air to your tongue."
"'Twas me own eyes that beheld it, an' if
Sitka Charley was here, he'd be the lad to
"But facts is facts, an' they ain't no
gettin' round 'em. It ain't in the nature
of things for the water furtherest away
from the air to freeze first."
"But me own eyes--"
"Don't git het up over it," admonished
Bettles, as the quick Celtic anger began
"Then yer not after belavin' me?"
"Sence you're so blamed forehanded about
it, no; I'd b'lieve nature first, and facts."
"Is it the lie ye'd be givin' me?" threatened
Lon. "Ye'd better be askin' that Siwash
wife of yours. I'll lave it to her, for
the truth I spake."
Bettles flared up in sudden wrath. The
Irishman had unwittingly wounded him;
for his wife was the half-breed daughter
of a Russian fur-trader, married to him
in the Greek Mission of Nulato, a thousand
miles or so down the Yukon, thus being
of much higher caste than the common
Siwash, or native, wife. It was a mere
Northland nuance, which none but the
Northland adventurer may understand.
"I reckon you kin take it that way," was
his deliberate affirmation.
The next instant Lon McFane had stretched
him on the floor, the circle was broken
up, and half a dozen men had stepped
Bettles came to his feet, wiping the blood
from his mouth. "It hain't new, this takin'
and payin' of blows, and don't you never
think but that this will be squared."
"An' niver in me life did I take the lie
from mortal man," was the retort courteous.
"An' it's an avil day I'll not be to hand,
waitin' an' willin' to help ye lift yer
debts, barrin' no manner of way."
"Still got that 38-55?"
"But you'd better git a more likely caliber.
Mine'll rip holes through you the size of
"Niver fear; it's me own slugs smell their
way with soft noses, an' they'll spread
like flapjacks against the coming out
beyand. An' when'll I have the pleasure
of waitin' on ye? The water-hole's a strikin'
"'Tain't bad. Jest be there in an hour,
and you won't set long on my coming."
Both men mittened and left the Post, their
ears closed to the remonstrances of their
comrades. It was such a little thing; yet
with such men, little things, nourished by
quick tempers and stubborn natures, soon
blossomed into big things. Besides, the art
of burning to bedrock still lay in the womb
of the future, and the men of Forty-Mile,
shut in by the long Arctic winter, grew
high-stomached with overeating and enforced
idleness, and became as irritable as do the
bees in the fall of the year when the hives
are overstocked with honey.
There was no law in the land. The Mounted
Police was also a thing of the future. Each
man measured an offense, and meted out the
punishment in as much as it affected himself.
Rarely had combined action been necessary,
and never, in all the dreary history of the
camp, had the eighth article of the Decalogue
Big Jim Belden called an impromptu meeting.
"Scruff" Mackenzie was placed as temporary
chairman, and a messenger dispatched to
solicit Father Roubeau's good offices.
Their position was paradoxical, and they
knew it. By the right of might could they
interfere to prevent the duel; yet such
action, while in direct line with their
wishes, went counter to their opinions.
While their rough-hewn, obsolete ethics
recognized the individual prerogative of
wiping out blow with blow, they could not
bear to think of two good comrades, such
as Bettles and McFane, meeting in deadly
battle. Deeming the man who would not fight
on provocation a dastard, when brought to
the test, it seemed wrong that he should
But a scurry of moccasins and loud cries,
rounded off with a pistol-shot, interrupted
the discussion. Then the storm-doors opened
and Malemute Kid entered, a smoking Colt's
in his hand, and a merry light in his eye.
"I got him." He replaced the empty shell,
and added, "Your dog, Scruff."
"Yellow Fang?" Mackenzie asked.
"No; the lop-eared one."
"The devil! Nothing the matter with him."
"Come out and take a look."
"That's all right after all. Guess he's
got 'em, too. Yellow Fang came back this
morning and took a chunk out of him, and
came near to making a widower of me. Made
a rush for Zarinska, but she whisked her
skirts in his face and escaped with the
loss of the same and a good roll in the
snow. Then he took to the woods again.
Hope he don't come back. Lost any yourself?"
"One--the best one of the pack--Shookum.
Started amuck this morning, but didn't
get very far. Ran foul of Sitka Charley's
team, and they scattered him all over the
street. And now two of them are loose,
and raging mad; so you see he got his
work in. The dog census will be small in
the spring if we don't do something."
"And the man census, too."
"How's that? Who's in trouble now?"
"Oh, Bettles and Lon McFane had an argument,
and they'll be down by the water-hole in a
few minutes to settle it."
The incident was repeated for his benefit,
and Malemute Kid, accustomed to an obedience
which his fellow-men never failed to
render, took charge of the affair. His
quickly-formulated plan was explained,
and they promised to follow his lead
"So you see," he concluded, "we do not
actually take away their privilege of
fighting; and yet I don't believe they'll
fight when they see the beauty of the
scheme. Life's a game, and men the gamblers.
They'll stake their whole pile on the one
chance in a thousand. Take away that one
chance, and--they won't play."
He turned to the man in charge of the Post.
"Storekeeper, weigh out three fathoms of
your best half-inch manila."
"We'll establish a precedent which will
last the men of Forty-Mile to the end of
time," he prophesied. Then he coiled the
rope about his arm and led his followers
out of doors, just in time to meet the
"What danged right'd he to fetch my wife
in?" thundered Bettles to the soothing
overtures of a friend. "'Twa'n't called
for," he concluded decisively. "'Twa'n't
called for," he reiterated again and again,
pacing up and down and waiting for Lon
And Lon McFane--his face was hot and tongue
rapid, as he flaunted insurrection in the
face of the Church. "Then, father," he cried,
"it's with an aisy heart I'll roll in me
flamy blankets, the broad of me back on a
bed of coals. Niver shall it be said that
Lon McFane took a lie 'twixt the teeth
without iver liftin' a hand! An' I'll not
ask a blessin'. The years have been wild,
but it's the heart was in the right place."
"But it's not the heart, Lon," interposed
Father Roubeau; "It's pride that bids you
forth to slay your fellow man."
"Yer Frinch," Lon replied. And then, turning
to leave him, "An' will ye say a mass if the
luck is against me?"
But the priest smiled, thrust his moccasined
feet to the fore, and went out upon the white
breast of the silent river. A packed trail,
the width of a sixteen-inch sled, led out to
the water-hole. On either side lay the deep,
soft snow. The men trod in single file, without
conversation; and the black-stoled priest in
their midst gave to the function the solemn
aspect of a funeral. It was a warm winter's
day for Forty-Mile--a day in which the sky,
filled with heaviness, drew closer to the
earth, and the mercury sought the unwonted
level of twenty below. But there was no cheer
in the warmth. There was little air in the
upper strata, and the clouds hung motionless,
giving sullen promise of an early snowfall.
And the earth, unresponsive, made no preparation,
content in its hibernation.
When the water-hole was reached, Bettles,
having evidently reviewed the quarrel during
the silent walk, burst out in a final
"'Twa'n't called for," while Lon McFane
kept grim silence. Indignation so choked
him that he could not speak.
Yet deep down, whenever their own wrongs
were not uppermost, both men wondered at
their comrades. They had expected opposition,
and this tacit acquiescence hurt them. It
seemed more was due them from the men they
had been so close with, and they felt a
vague sense of wrong, rebelling at the
thought of so many of their brothers
coming out, as on a gala occasion, without
one word of protest, to see them shoot
each other down. It appeared their worth
had diminished in the eyes of the community.
The proceedings puzzled them.
"Back to back, David. An' will it be fifty
paces to the man, or double the quantity?"
"Fifty," was the sanguinary reply, grunted
out, yet sharply cut.
But the new manila, not prominently displayed,
but casually coiled about Malemute Kid's arm,
caught the quick eye of the Irishman, and
thrilled him with a suspicious fear.
"An' what are ye doin' with the rope?"
"Hurry up!" Malemute Kid glanced at his
watch. "I've a batch of bread in the cabin,
and I don't want it to fall. Besides, my
feet are getting cold."
The rest of the men manifested their impatience
in various suggestive ways.
"But the rope, Kid! It's bran' new, an'
sure yer bread's not that heavy it needs
raisin' with the like of that?"
Bettles by this time had faced around.
Father Roubeau, the humor of the situation
just dawning on him, hid a smile behind his
"No, Lon; this rope was made for a man."
Malemute Kid could be very impressive on
"What man?" Bettles was becoming aware of
a personal interest.
"The other man."
"An' which is the one ye'd mane by that?"
"Listen, Lon--and you, too, Bettles! We've
been talking this little trouble of yours
over, and we've come to one conclusion. We
know we have no right to stop your fighting--"
"True for ye, me lad!"
"And we're not going to. But this much
we can do, and shall do,--make this the
only duel in the history of Forty-Mile,
set an example for every che-cha-qua that
comes up or down the Yukon. The man who
escapes killing shall be hanged to the
nearest tree. Now, go ahead!"
Lon smiled dubiously, then his face lighted
up. "Pace her off, David--fifty paces,
wheel, an' niver a cease firin' till a
lad's down for good. 'Tis their hearts'll
niver let them do the deed, an' it's well
ye should know it for a true Yankee bluff."
He started off with a pleased grin on his
face, but Malemute Kid halted him.
"Lon! It's a long while since you first
"Many's the day."
"And you, Bettles?"
"Five year next June high water."
"And have you once, in all that time,
known me to break my word? Or heard of
me breaking it?"
Both men shook their heads, striving to
fathom what lay beyond.
"Well, then, what do you think of a promise
made by me?"
"As good as your bond," from Bettles.
"The thing to safely sling yer hopes
of heaven by," promptly endorsed Lon McFane.
"Listen! I, Malemute Kid, give you my
word--and you know what that means--that
the man who is not shot, stretches rope
within ten minutes after the shooting."
He stepped back as Pilate might have done
after washing his hands.
A pause and a silence came over the men
of Forty-Mile. The sky drew still closer,
sending down a crystal flight of frost,--little
geometric designs, perfect, evanescent
as a breath, yet destined to exist till
the returning sun had covered half its
northern journey. Both men had led forlorn
hopes in their time,--led, with a curse or
a jest on their tongues, and in their souls
an unswerving faith in the God of Chance.
But that merciful deity had been shut out
from the present deal. They studied the
face of Malemute Kid, but they studied as
one might the Sphinx. As the quiet minutes
passed, a feeling that speech was incumbent
on them, began to grow. At last, the howl
of a wolf-dog cracked the silence from the
direction of Forty-Mile. The weird sound
swelled with all the pathos of a breaking
heart, then died away in a long-drawn sob.
"Well I be danged!" Bettles turned up the
collar of his mackinaw jacket and stared
about him helplessly.
"It's a gloryus game yer runnin', Kid,"
cried Lon McFane. "All the percentage of
the house an' niver a bit to the man that's
buckin'. The Devil himself'd niver tackle
such a cinch--and damned if I do."
There were chuckles, throttled in throats,
and winks brushed away with the frost
which rimed the eyelashes, as the men
climbed the ice-notched bank and started
across the street to the Post. But the
long howl had drawn nearer, invested with
a new note of menace. A woman screamed
round the corner. There was a cry of,
"Here he comes!" Then an Indian boy, at
the head of half a dozen frightened dogs,
racing with death, dashed into the crowd.
And behind came Yellow Fang, a bristle of
hair and a flash of gray. Everybody but
the Yankee fled. The Indian boy had tripped
and fallen. Bettles stopped long enough
to grip him by the slack of his furs,
then headed for a pile of cordwood already
occupied by a number of his comrades.
Yellow Fang, doubling after one of the
dogs, came leaping back. The fleeing
animal, free of the rabies, but crazed
with fright, whipped Bettles off his
feet and flashed on up the street.
Malemute Kid took a flying shot at
Yellow Fang. The mad dog whirled a half
airspring, came down on his back, then,
with a single leap, covered half the
distance between himself and Bettles.
But the fatal spring was intercepted.
Lon McFane leaped from the woodpile,
encountering him in mid-air. Over they
rolled, Lon holding him by the throat
at arm's length, blinking under the
fetid slaver which sprayed his face.
Then Bettles, revolver in hand and
coolly waiting a chance, settled the
"'Twas a square game, Kid," Lon remarked,
rising to his feet and shaking the snow
from out his sleeves; "with a fair percentage
to meself that bucked it."
That night, while Lon McFane sought the
forgiving arms of the Church in the direction
of Father Roubeau's cabin, Malemute Kid
and Scruff Mackenzie talked long to little
"But would you," persisted Mackenzie,
"supposing they had fought?"
"Have I ever broken my word?"
"No; but that isn't the point. Answer the
question. Would you?"
Malemute Kid straightened up. "Scruff,
I've been asking myself that question ever
"Well, as yet, I haven't been able to answer."
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~