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Jack London. To build a fire (fragment)




"He was quick and alert in the things of life, but
only in the things, and not in the significances."
----------------------


DAY HAD BROKEN cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man
turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank,
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 hind 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 Bearing
Sea, a thousand miles and half a thousand more.
But all this---the 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 newcomer 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 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, 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 possibility 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 ws 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, travelling 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
cheekbones 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, gray-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 travelling. Its instinct told it a truer
tale than was told to the man by the man's judgement. 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 (i.e. the dog's) 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
mustache 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 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 sung 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 amber beard.
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 waist.
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. Continuing with Jack London's "To Build A
Fire". the danger of falling through the ice has become a factor.
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 judgement 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 his 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 bit 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 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 numb. He moved them inside the moccasins and decided that they were
numb.
He pulled the mitten on hurriedly and stood up. He was a bit
frightened. He stamped up and down until the stinging returned to his feet.
It certainly was cold, was his thought. That man from Sulpher 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. The 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 whip lash and of harsh and menacing
throat sounds that threatened the whip lash. 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 whip lashes, 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 mustache,
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 wet himself halfway 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 footgear. This was imperative at that
low temperature--for 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.
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