Burning daylight, p.1
Burning Daylight, p.1Jack London
Produced by John Bean. HTML version by Al Haines.
It was a quiet night in the Shovel. At the bar, which ranged along oneside of the large chinked-log room, leaned half a dozen men, two ofwhom were discussing the relative merits of spruce-tea and lime-juiceas remedies for scurvy. They argued with an air of depression and withintervals of morose silence. The other men scarcely heeded them. In arow, against the opposite wall, were the gambling games. Thecrap-table was deserted. One lone man was playing at the faro-table.The roulette-ball was not even spinning, and the gamekeeper stood bythe roaring, red-hot stove, talking with the young, dark-eyed woman,comely of face and figure, who was known from Juneau to Fort Yukon asthe Virgin. Three men sat in at stud-poker, but they played with smallchips and without enthusiasm, while there were no onlookers. On thefloor of the dancing-room, which opened out at the rear, three coupleswere waltzing drearily to the strains of a violin and a piano.
Circle City was not deserted, nor was money tight. The miners were infrom Moseyed Creek and the other diggings to the west, the summerwashing had been good, and the men's pouches were heavy with dust andnuggets. The Klondike had not yet been discovered, nor had the minersof the Yukon learned the possibilities of deep digging and wood-firing.No work was done in the winter, and they made a practice of hibernatingin the large camps like Circle City during the long Arctic night. Timewas heavy on their hands, their pouches were well filled, and the onlysocial diversion to be found was in the saloons. Yet the Shovel waspractically deserted, and the Virgin, standing by the stove, yawnedwith uncovered mouth and said to Charley Bates:--
"If something don't happen soon, I'm gin' to bed. What's the matterwith the camp, anyway? Everybody dead?"
Bates did not even trouble to reply, but went on moodily rolling acigarette. Dan MacDonald, pioneer saloonman and gambler on the upperYukon, owner and proprietor of the Tivoli and all its games, wanderedforlornly across the great vacant space of floor and joined the two atthe stove.
"Anybody dead?" the Virgin asked him.
"Looks like it," was the answer.
"Then it must be the whole camp," she said with an air of finality andwith another yawn.
MacDonald grinned and nodded, and opened his mouth to speak, when thefront door swung wide and a man appeared in the light. A rush offrost, turned to vapor by the heat of the room, swirled about him tohis knees and poured on across the floor, growing thinner and thinner,and perishing a dozen feet from the stove. Taking the wisp broom fromits nail inside the door, the newcomer brushed the snow from hismoccasins and high German socks. He would have appeared a large manhad not a huge French-Canadian stepped up to him from the bar andgripped his hand.
"Hello, Daylight!" was his greeting. "By Gar, you good for sore eyes!"
"Hello, Louis, when did you-all blow in?" returned the newcomer. "Comeup and have a drink and tell us all about Bone Creek. Why, dog-goneyou-all, shake again. Where's that pardner of yours? I'm looking forhim."
Another huge man detached himself from the bar to shake hands. OlafHenderson and French Louis, partners together on Bone Creek, were thetwo largest men in the country, and though they were but half a headtaller than the newcomer, between them he was dwarfed completely.
"Hello, Olaf, you're my meat, savvee that," said the one calledDaylight. "To-morrow's my birthday, and I'm going to put you-all onyour back--savvee? And you, too, Louis. I can put you-all on yourback on my birthday--savvee? Come up and drink, Olaf, and I'll tellyou-all about it."
The arrival of the newcomer seemed to send a flood of warmth throughthe place. "It's Burning Daylight," the Virgin cried, the first torecognize him as he came into the light. Charley Bates' tight featuresrelaxed at the sight, and MacDonald went over and joined the three atthe bar. With the advent of Burning Daylight the whole place becamesuddenly brighter and cheerier. The barkeepers were active. Voiceswere raised. Somebody laughed. And when the fiddler, peering into thefront room, remarked to the pianist, "It's Burning Daylight," thewaltz-time perceptibly quickened, and the dancers, catching thecontagion, began to whirl about as if they really enjoyed it. It wasknown to them of old time that nothing languished when Burning Daylightwas around.
He turned from the bar and saw the woman by the stove and the eagerlook of welcome she extended him.
"Hello, Virgin, old girl," he called. "Hello, Charley. What's thematter with you-all? Why wear faces like that when coffins cost onlythree ounces? Come up, you-all, and drink. Come up, you unburieddead, and name your poison. Come up, everybody. This is my night, andI'm going to ride it. To-morrow I'm thirty, and then I'll be an oldman. It's the last fling of youth. Are you-all with me? Surge along,then. Surge along.
"Hold on there, Davis," he called to the faro-dealer, who had shovedhis chair back from the table. "I'm going you one flutter to seewhether you-all drink with me or we-all drink with you."
Pulling a heavy sack of gold-dust from his coat pocket, he dropped iton the HIGH CARD.
"Fifty," he said.
The faro-dealer slipped two cards. The high card won. He scribbledthe amount on a pad, and the weigher at the bar balanced fifty dollars'worth of dust in the gold-scales and poured it into Burning Daylight'ssack. The waltz in the back room being finished, the three couples,followed by the fiddler and the pianist and heading for the bar, caughtDaylight's eye.
"Surge along, you-all" he cried. "Surge along and name it. This is mynight, and it ain't a night that comes frequent. Surge up, youSiwashes and Salmon-eaters. It's my night, I tell you-all--"
"A blame mangy night," Charley Bates interpolated.
"You're right, my son," Burning Daylight went on gaily.
"A mangy night, but it's MY night, you see. I'm the mangy old he-wolf.Listen to me howl."
And howl he did, like a lone gray timber wolf, till the Virgin thrusther pretty fingers in her ears and shivered. A minute later she waswhirled away in his arms to the dancing-floor, where, along with theother three women and their partners, a rollicking Virginia reel wassoon in progress. Men and women danced in moccasins, and the place wassoon a-roar, Burning Daylight the centre of it and the animating spark,with quip and jest and rough merriment rousing them out of the sloughof despond in which he had found them.
The atmosphere of the place changed with his coming. He seemed to fillit with his tremendous vitality. Men who entered from the street feltit immediately, and in response to their queries the barkeepers noddedat the back room, and said comprehensively, "Burning Daylight's on thetear." And the men who entered remained, and kept the barkeepersbusy. The gamblers took heart of life, and soon the tables werefilled, the click of chips and whir of the roulette-ball risingmonotonously and imperiously above the hoarse rumble of men's voicesand their oaths and heavy laughs.
Few men knew Elam Harnish by any other name than Burning Daylight, thename which had been given him in the early days in the land because ofhis habit of routing his comrades out of their blankets with thecomplaint that daylight was burning. Of the pioneers in that farArctic wilderness, where all men were pioneers, he was reckoned amongthe oldest. Men like Al Mayo and Jack McQuestion antedated him; butthey had entered the land by crossing the Rockies from the Hudson Baycountry to the east. He, however, had been the pioneer over theChilcoot and Chilcat passes. In the spring of 1883, twelve yearsbefore, a stripling of eighteen, he had crossed over the Chilcoot withfive comrades.
In the fall he had crossed back with one. Four had perished bymischance in the bleak, uncharted vastness. And for twelve years ElamHarnish had continued to grope for gold among the shadows of the Circle.
Heroes are seldom given to hero-worship, but among those of that youngland, young as he was, he was accounted an elder hero. In point oftime he was before them. In point of deed he was beyond them. Inpoint of endurance it was acknowledged that he could kill the hardiestof them. Furthermore, he was accounted a nervy man, a square man, anda white man.
In all lands where life is a hazard lightly played with and lightlyflung aside, men turn, almost automatically, to gambling for diversionand relaxation. In the Yukon men gambled their lives for gold, andthose that won gold from the ground gambled for it with one another.Nor was Elam Harnish an exception. He was a man's man primarily, andthe instinct in him to play the game of life was strong. Environmenthad determined what form that game should take. He was born on an Iowafarm, and his father had emigrated to eastern Oregon, in which miningcountry Elam's boyhood was lived. He had known nothing but hard knocksfor big stakes. Pluck and endurance counted in the game, but the greatgod Chance dealt the cards. Honest work for sure but meagre returnsdid not count. A man played big. He risked everything for everything,and anything less than everything meant that he was a loser. So fortwelve Yukon years, Elam Harnish had been a loser. True, on MoosehideCreek the past summer he had taken out twenty thousand dollars, andwhat was left in the ground was twenty thousand more. But, as hehimself proclaimed, that was no more than getting his ante back. Hehad ante'd his life for a dozen years, and forty thousand was a smallpot for such a stake--the price of a drink and a dance at the Tivoli,of a winter's flutter at Circle City, and a grubstake for the year tocome.
The men of the Yukon reversed the old maxim till it read: hard come,easy go. At the end of the reel, Elam Harnish called the house up todrink again. Drinks were a dollar apiece, gold rated at sixteendollars an ounce; there were thirty in the house that accepted hisinvitation, and between every dance the house was Elam's guest. Thiswas his night, and nobody was to be allowed to pay for anything.
Not that Elam Harnish was a drinking man. Whiskey meant little to him.He was too vital and robust, too untroubled in mind and body, toincline to the slavery of alcohol. He spent months at a time on trailand river when he drank nothing stronger than coffee, while he had gonea year at a time without even coffee. But he was gregarious, and sincethe sole social expression of the Yukon was the saloon, he expressedhimself that way. When he was a lad in the mining camps of the West,men had always done that. To him it was the proper way for a man toexpress himself socially. He knew no other way.
He was a striking figure of a man, despite his garb being similar tothat of all the men in the Tivoli. Soft-tanned moccasins ofmoose-hide, beaded in Indian designs, covered his feet. His trouserswere ordinary overalls, his coat was made from a blanket.Long-gauntleted leather mittens, lined with wool, hung by his side.They were connected in the Yukon fashion, by a leather thong passedaround the neck and across the shoulders. On his head was a fur cap,the ear-flaps raised and the tying-cords dangling. His face, lean andslightly long, with the suggestion of hollows under the cheek-bones,seemed almost Indian. The burnt skin and keen dark eyes contributed tothis effect, though the bronze of the skin and the eyes themselves wereessentially those of a white man. He looked older than thirty, andyet, smooth-shaven and without wrinkles, he was almost boyish. Thisimpression of age was based on no tangible evidence. It came from theabstracter facts of the man, from what he had endured and survived,which was far beyond that of ordinary men. He had lived life naked andtensely, and something of all this smouldered in his eyes, vibrated inhis voice, and seemed forever a-whisper on his lips.
The lips themselves were thin, and prone to close tightly over theeven, white teeth. But their harshness was retrieved by the upwardcurl at the corners of his mouth. This curl gave to him sweetness, asthe minute puckers at the corners of the eyes gave him laughter. Thesenecessary graces saved him from a nature that was essentially savageand that otherwise would have been cruel and bitter. The nose waslean, full-nostrilled, and delicate, and of a size to fit the face;while the high forehead, as if to atone for its narrowness, wassplendidly domed and symmetrical. In line with the Indian effect washis hair, very straight and very black, with a gloss to it that onlyhealth could give.
"Burning Daylight's burning candlelight," laughed Dan MacDonald, as anoutburst of exclamations and merriment came from the dancers.
"An' he is der boy to do it, eh, Louis?" said Olaf Henderson.
"Yes, by Gar! you bet on dat," said French Louis. "Dat boy is allgold--"
"And when God Almighty washes Daylight's soul out on the last bigslucin' day," MacDonald interrupted, "why, God Almighty'll have toshovel gravel along with him into the sluice-boxes."
"Dot iss goot," Olaf Henderson muttered, regarding the gambler withprofound admiration.
"Ver' good," affirmed French Louis. "I t'ink we take a drink on datone time, eh?"
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