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THE TASTE OF THE MEAT
In the beginning he was Christopher Bellew. By the time he was at college he had become Chris Bellew. Later, in the Bohemian crowd of San Francisco, he was called Kit Bellew. And in the end he was known by no other name than Smoke Bellew. And this history of the evolution of his name is the history of his evolution. Nor would it have happened had he not had a fond mother and an iron uncle, and had he not received a letter from Gillet Bellamy.
"I have just seen a copy of The Billow," Gillet wrote from Paris. "Of course O'Hara will succeed with it. But he's missing some tricks." Here followed details in the improvement of the budding society weekly. "Go down and see him. Let him think they're your own suggestions. Don't let him know they're from me. If you do, he'll make me Paris correspondent, which I can't afford, because I'm getting real money for my stuff from the big magazines. Above all, don't forget to make him fire that dub who's doing the musical and art criticism. Another thing. San Francisco has always had a literature of her own. But she hasn't any now. Tell him to kick around and get some gink to turn out a live serial, and to put into it the real romance and glamour and color of San Francisco."
And down to the office of The Billow went Kit Bellew faithfully to instruct. O'Hara listened. O'Hara debated. O'Hara agreed. O'Hara fired the dub who wrote criticisms. Further, O'Hara had a way with him, the very way that was feared by Gillet in distant Paris. When O'Hara wanted anything, no friend could deny him. He was sweetly and compellingly irresistible. Before Kit Bellew could escape from the office, he had become an associate editor, had agreed to write weekly columns of criticism till some decent pen was found, and had pledged himself to write a weekly instalment of ten thousand words on the San Francisco serial—and all this without pay. The Billow wasn't paying yet, O'Hara explained; and just as convincingly had he exposited that there was only one man in San Francisco capable of writing the serial and that man Kit Bellew.
"Oh, Lord, I'm the gink!" Kit had groaned to himself afterward on the narrow stairway.
And thereat had begun his servitude to O'Hara and the insatiable columns of The Billow. Week after week he held down an office chair, stood off creditors, wrangled with printers, and turned out twenty-five thousand words of all sorts. Nor did his labors lighten. The Billow was ambitious. It went in for illustration. The processes were expensive. It never had any money to pay Kit Bellew, and by the same token it was unable to pay for any additions to the office staff. Luckily for Kit, he had his own income. Small it was, compared with some, yet it was large enough to enable him to belong to several clubs and maintain a studio in the Latin quarter. In point of fact, since his associate-editorship, his expenses had decreased prodigiously. He had no time to spend money. He never saw the studio any more, nor entertained the local Bohemians with his famous chafing-dish suppers. Yet he was always broke, for The Billow, in perennial distress, absorbed his cash as well as his brains. There were the illustrators, who periodically refused to illustrate; the printers, who periodically refused to print; and the office-boy, who frequently refused to officiate. At such times O'Hara looked at Kit, and Kit did the rest.
When the steamship Excelsior arrived from Alaska, bringing the news of the Klondike strike that set the country mad, Kit made a purely frivolous proposition.
"Look here, O'Hara," he said. "This gold rush is going to be big—the days of '49 over again. Suppose I cover it for The Billow? I'll pay my own expenses."
O'Hara shook his head. "Can't spare you from the office, Kit. Then there's that serial. Besides, I saw Jackson not an hour ago. He's starting for the Klondike to-morrow, and he's agreed to send a weekly letter and photos. I wouldn't let him get away till he promised. And the beauty of it is that it doesn't cost us anything."
The next Kit heard of the Klondike was when he dropped into the club that afternoon and in an alcove off the library encountered his uncle.
"Hello, avuncular relative," Kit greeted, sliding into a leather chair and spreading out his legs. "Won't you join me?"
He ordered a cocktail, but the uncle contented himself with the thin native claret he invariably drank. He glanced with irritated disapproval at the cocktail and on to his nephew's face. Kit saw a lecture gathering.
"I've only a minute," he announced hastily. "I've got to run and take in that Keith exhibition at Ellery's and do half a column on it."
"What's the matter with you?" the other demanded. "You're pale. You're a wreck."
Kit's only answer was a groan.
"I'll have the pleasure of burying you. I can see that."
Kit shook his head sadly. "No destroying worm, thank you. Cremation for mine."
John Bellew came of the old hard and hardy stock that had crossed the plains by ox-team in the fifties, and in him was this same hardness and the hardness of a childhood spent in the conquering of a new land. "You're not living right, Christopher. I'm ashamed of you."
"Primrose path, eh?" Kit chuckled.
The older man shrugged his shoulders.
"Shake not your gory locks at me, avuncular. I wish it were the primrose path. But that's all cut out. I have no time."
"Then what in—?"
John Bellew laughed harshly and incredulously.
Again came the laughter.
"Men are the products of their environment," Kit proclaimed, pointing at the other's glass. "Your mirth is thin and bitter as your drink."
"Overwork!" was the sneer. "You never earned a cent in your life."
"You bet I have, only I never got it. I'm earning five hundred a week right now, and doing four men's work."
"Pictures that won't sell? Or—er—fancy work of some sort? Can you swim?"
"I used to."
"Sit a horse?"
"I have essayed that adventure."
John Bellew snorted his disgust. "I'm glad your father didn't live to see you in all the glory of your gracelessness," he said. "Your father was a man, every inch of him. Do you get it? A man. I think he'd have whaled all this musical and artistic tomfoolery out of you."
"Alas! these degenerate days," Kit sighed.
"I could understand it, and tolerate it," the other went on savagely, "if you succeeded at it. You've never earned a cent in your life, nor done a tap of man's work. What earthly good are you, anyway? You were well put up, yet even at university you didn't play football. You didn't row. You didn't—"
"I boxed and fenced—some."
"When did you box last?"
"Not since, but I was considered an excellent judge of time and distance, only was—er—"
"Lazy, you mean."
"I always imagined it was an euphemism."
"My father, sir, your grandfather, old Isaac Bellew, killed a man with a blow of his fist when he was sixty-nine years old."
"No, you graceless scamp! But you'll never kill a mosquito at sixty-nine."
"The times have changed, O my avuncular! They send men to prison for homicide now."
"Your father rode one hundred and eighty-five miles, without sleeping, and killed three horses."
"Had he lived to-day he'd have snored over the same course in a Pullman."
The older man was on the verge of choking with wrath, but swallowed it down and managed to articulate, "How old are you?"
"I have reason to believe—"
"I know. Twenty-seven. You finished college at twenty-two. You've dabbled and played and frilled for five years. Before God and man, of what use are you? When I was your age I had one suit of underclothes. I was riding with the cattle in Coluso. I was hard as rocks, and I could sleep on a rock. I lived on jerked beef and bear-meat. I am a better man physically right now than you are. You weigh about one hundred and sixty-five. I can throw you right now, or thrash you with my fists."
"It doesn't take a physical prodigy to mop up cocktails or pink tea," Kit murmured deprecatingly. "Don't you see, my avuncular, the times have changed. Besides, I wasn't brought up right. My dear fool of a mother—"
John Bellew started angrily.
"—as you once described her, was too good to me, kept me in cotton wool and all the rest. Now, if when I was a youngster I had taken some of those intensely masculine vacations you go in for—I wonder why you didn't invite me sometimes? You took Hal and Robbie all over the Sierras and on that Mexico trip."
"I guess you were too Lord-Fauntleroyish."
"Your fault, avuncular, and my dear—er—mother's. How was I to know the hard? I was only a chee-ild. What was there left but etchings and pictures and fans? Was it my fault that I never had to sweat?"
The older man looked at his nephew with unconcealed disgust. He had no patience with levity from the lips of softness. "Well, I'm going to take another one of those what you call masculine vacations. Suppose I asked you to come along?"
"Rather belated, I must say. Where is it?"
"Hal and Robert are going in to Klondike, and I'm going to see them across the pass and down to the lakes, then return—"
He got no further, for the young man had sprung forward and gripped his hand. "My preserver!"
John Bellew was immediately suspicious. He had not dreamed the invitation would be accepted. "You don't mean it?" he said.
"When do we start?"
"It will be a hard trip. You'll be in the way."
"No, I won't. I'll work. I've learned to work since I went on The Billow."
"Each man has to take a year's supplies in with him. There'll be such a jam the Indian packers won't be able to handle it. Hal and Robert will have to pack their outfits across themselves. That's what I'm going along for—to help them pack. If you come you'll have to do the same."
"You can't pack," was the objection.
"When do we start?"
"You needn't take it to yourself that your lecture on the hard has done it," Kit said, at parting. "I just had to get away, somewhere, anywhere, from O'Hara."
"Who is O'Hara? A Jap?"
"No; he's an Irishman, and a slave-driver, and my best friend. He's the editor and proprietor and all-round big squeeze of The Billow. What he says goes. He can make ghosts walk."
That night Kit Bellew wrote a note to O'Hara. "It's only a several weeks' vacation," he explained. "You'll have to get some gink to dope out instalments for that serial. Sorry, old man, but my health demands it. I'll kick in twice as hard when I get back."
Kit Bellew landed through the madness of the Dyea beach congested with the thousand- pound outfits of thousands of men. This immense mass of luggage and food, flung ashore in mountains by the steamers, was beginning slowly to dribble up the Dyea Valley and across Chilkoot. It was a portage of twenty-eight miles, and could be accomplished only on the backs of men. Despite the fact that the Indian packers had jumped the freight from eight cents a pound to forty, they were swamped with the work, and it was plain that winter would catch the major portion of the outfits on the wrong side of the divide.
Tenderest of the tenderfeet was Kit. Like many hundreds of others, he carried a big revolver swung on a cartridge-belt. Of this his uncle, filled with memories of old lawless days, was likewise guilty. But Kit Bellew was romantic. He was fascinated by the froth and sparkle of the gold rush, and viewed its life and movement with an artist's eye. He did not take it seriously. As he said on the steamer, it was not his funeral. He was merely on a vacation, and intended to peep over the top of the pass for a "look see" and then return.
Leaving his party on the sand to wait for the putting ashore of the freight, he strolled up the beach toward the old trading-post. He did not swagger, though he noticed that many of the be-revolvered individuals did. A strapping, six-foot Indian passed him, carrying an unusually large pack. Kit swung in behind, admiring the splendid calves of the man, and the grace and ease with which he moved along under his burden. The Indian dropped his pack on the scales in front of the post, and Kit joined the group of admiring gold-rushers who surrounded him. The pack weighed one hundred and twenty-five pounds, which fact was uttered back and forth in tones of awe. It was going some, Kit decided, and he wondered if he could lift such a weight, much less walk off with it.
"Going to Lake Linderman with it, old man?" he asked.
The Indian, swelling with pride, grunted an affirmative.
"How much you make that one pack?"
Here Kit slid out of the conversation. A young woman, standing in the doorway, had caught his eye. Unlike other women landing from the steamers, she was neither short- skirted nor bloomer-clad. She was dressed as any woman traveling anywhere would be dressed. What struck him was the justness of her being there, a feeling that somehow she belonged. Moreover, she was young and pretty. The bright beauty and color of her oval face held him, and he looked overlong—looked till she resented, and her own eyes, long lashed and dark, met his in cool survey. From his face, they traveled in evident amusement down to the big revolver at his thigh. Then her eyes came back to his, and in them was amused contempt. It struck him like a blow. She turned to the man beside her and indicated Kit. The man glanced him over with the same amused contempt.
"Chekako," the girl said.
The man, who looked like a tramp in his cheap overalls and dilapidated woolen jacket, grinned dryly, and Kit felt withered, though he knew not why. But anyway she was an unusually pretty girl, he decided, as the two moved off. He noted the way of her walk, and recorded the judgment that he would recognize it after the lapse of a thousand years.
"Did you see that man with the girl?" Kit's neighbor asked him excitedly. "Know who he is?"
Kit shook his head.
"Cariboo Charley. He was just pointed out to me. He struck it big on Klondike. Old-timer. Been on the Yukon a dozen years. He's just come out."
"What does 'chekako' mean?" Kit asked.
"You're one; I'm one," was the answer.
"Maybe I am, but you've got to search me. What does it mean?"
On his way back to the beach, Kit turned the phrase over and over. It rankled to be called tenderfoot by a slender chit of a woman. Going into a corner among the heaps of freight, his mind still filled with the vision of the Indian with the redoubtable pack, Kit essayed to learn his own strength. He picked out a sack of flour which he knew weighed an even hundred pounds. He stepped astride it, reached down, and strove to get it on his shoulder. His first conclusion was that one hundred pounds were real heavy. His next was that his back was weak. His third was an oath, and it occurred at the end of five futile minutes, when he collapsed on top of the burden with which he was wrestling. He mopped his forehead, and across a heap of grub-sacks saw John Bellew gazing at him, wintry amusement in his eyes.
"God!" proclaimed that apostle of the hard. "Out of our loins has come a race of weaklings. When I was sixteen I toyed with things like that."
"You forget, avuncular," Kit retorted, "that I wasn't raised on bear-meat."
"And I'll toy with it when I'm sixty."
"You've got to show me."
John Bellew did. He was forty-eight, but he bent over the sack, applied a tentative, shifting grip that balanced it, and with a quick heave stood erect, the sack of flour on his shoulder.
"Knack, my boy, knack—and a spine."
Kit took off his hat reverently. "You're a wonder, avuncular, a shining wonder. D' ye think I can learn the knack?"
John Bellew shrugged his shoulders. "You'll be hitting the back trail before we get started."
"Never you fear," Kit groaned. "There's O'Hara, the roaring lion, down there. I'm not going back till I have to."
Kit's first pack was a success. Up to Finnegan's Crossing they had managed to get Indians to carry the twenty-five-hundred-pound outfit. From that point their own backs must do the work. They planned to move forward at the rate of a mile a day. It looked easy—on paper. Since John Bellew was to stay in camp and do the cooking, he would be unable to make more than an occasional pack; so to each of the three young men fell the task of carrying eight hundred pounds one mile each day. If they made fifty-pound packs, it meant a daily walk of sixteen miles loaded and of fifteen miles light—"Because we don't back-trip the last time," Kit explained the pleasant discovery. Eighty-pound packs meant nineteen miles travel each day; and hundred-pound packs meant only fifteen miles.
"I don't like walking," said Kit. "Therefore I shall carry one hundred pounds." He caught the grin of incredulity on his uncle's face, and added hastily: "Of course I shall work up to it. A fellow's got to learn the ropes and tricks. I'll start with fifty."
He did, and ambled gaily along the trail. He dropped the sack at the next camp-site and ambled back. It was easier than he had thought. But two miles had rubbed off the velvet of his strength and exposed the underlying softness. His second pack was sixty-five pounds. It was more difficult, and he no longer ambled. Several times, following the custom of all of all packers, he sat down on the ground, resting the pack behind him on a rock or stump.
Excerpted from Smoke Bellew by JACK LONDON, P.J. Monahan. Copyright © 1992 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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