The Passing of
by Jack London
"It is the judgment of this court that you vamose the camp . . . in
the customary way, sir, in the customary way."
Judge Marcus O'Brien was absent-minded, and Mucluc Charley nudged him
in the ribs. Marcus O'Brien cleared his throat and went on -
"Weighing the gravity of the offence, sir, and the extenuating
circumstances, it is the opinion of this court, and its verdict, that
you be outfitted with three days' grub. That will do, I think."
Arizona Jack cast a bleak glance out over the Yukon. It was a
swollen, chocolate flood, running a mile wide and nobody knew how
deep. The earth-bank on which he stood was ordinarily a dozen feet
above the water, but the river was now growling at the top of the
bank, devouring, instant by instant, tiny portions of the top-
standing soil. These portions went into the gaping mouths of the
endless army of brown swirls and vanished away. Several inches more,
and Red Cow would be flooded.
"It won't do," Arizona Jack said bitterly. "Three days' grub ain't
"There was Manchester," Marcus O'Brien replied gravely. "He didn't
get any grub."
"And they found his remains grounded on the Lower River an' half
eaten by huskies," was Arizona Jack's retort. "And his killin' was
without provocation. Joe Deeves never did nothin', never warbled
once, an' jes' because his stomach was out of order, Manchester ups
an' plugs him. You ain't givin' me a square deal, O'Brien, I tell
you that straight. Give me a week's grub, and I play even to win
out. Three days' grub, an' I cash in."
"What for did you kill Ferguson?" O'Brien demanded. "I haven't any
patience for these unprovoked killings. And they've got to stop.
Red Cow's none so populous. It's a good camp, and there never used
to be any killings. Now they're epidemic. I'm sorry for you, Jack,
but you've got to be made an example of. Ferguson didn't provoke
enough for a killing."
"Provoke!" Arizona Jack snorted. "I tell you, O'Brien, you don't
savve. You ain't got no artistic sensibilities. What for did I kill
Ferguson? What for did Ferguson sing 'Then I wisht I was a little
bird'? That's what I want to know. Answer me that. What for did he
sing 'little bird, little bird'? One little bird was enough. I
could a-stood one little bird. But no, he must sing two little
birds. I gave 'm a chanst. I went to him almighty polite and
requested him kindly to discard one little bird. I pleaded with him.
There was witnesses that testified to that.
"An' Ferguson was no jay-throated songster," some one spoke up from
O'Brien betrayed indecision.
"Ain't a man got a right to his artistic feelin's?" Arizona Jack
demanded. "I gave Ferguson warnin'. It was violatin' my own nature
to go on listening to his little birds. Why, there's music sharps
that fine-strung an' keyed-up they'd kill for heaps less'n I did.
I'm willin' to pay for havin' artistic feelin's. I can take my
medicine an' lick the spoon, but three days' grub is drawin' it a
shade fine, that's all, an' I hereby register my kick. Go on with
O'Brien was still wavering. He glanced inquiringly at Mucluc
"I should say, Judge, that three days' grub was a mite severe," the
latter suggested; "but you're runnin' the show. When we elected you
judge of this here trial court, we agreed to abide by your decisions,
an' we've done it, too, b'gosh, an' we're goin' to keep on doin' it."
"Mebbe I've been a trifle harsh, Jack," O'Brien said apologetically--
"I'm that worked up over those killings; an' I'm willing to make it a
week's grub." He cleared his throat magisterially and looked briskly
about him. "And now we might as well get along and finish up the
business. The boat's ready. You go and get the grub, Leclaire.
We'll settle for it afterward."
Arizona Jack looked grateful, and, muttering something about "damned
little birds," stepped aboard the open boat that rubbed restlessly
against the bank. It was a large skiff, built of rough pine planks
that had been sawed by hand from the standing timber of Lake
Linderman, a few hundred miles above, at the foot of Chilcoot. In
the boat were a pair of oars and Arizona Jack's blankets. Leclaire
brought the grub, tied up in a flour-sack, and put it on board. As
he did so, he whispered--"I gave you good measure, Jack. You done it
"Cast her off!" Arizona Jack cried.
Somebody untied the painter and threw it in. The current gripped the
boat and whirled it away. The murderer did not bother with the oars,
contenting himself with sitting in the stern-sheets and rolling a
cigarette. Completing it, he struck a match and lighted up. Those
that watched on the bank could see the tiny puffs of smoke. They
remained on the bank till the boat swung out of sight around the bend
half a mile below. Justice had been done.
The denizens of Red Cow imposed the law and executed sentences
without the delays that mark the softness of civilization. There was
no law on the Yukon save what they made for themselves. They were
compelled to make it for themselves. It was in an early day that Red
Cow flourished on the Yukon--1887--and the Klondike and its populous
stampedes lay in the unguessed future. The men of Red Cow did not
even know whether their camp was situated in Alaska or in the North-
west Territory, whether they drew breath under the stars and stripes
or under the British flag. No surveyor had ever happened along to
give them their latitude and longitude. Red Cow was situated
somewhere along the Yukon, and that was sufficient for them. So far
as flags were concerned, they were beyond all jurisdiction. So far
as the law was concerned, they were in No-Man's land.
They made their own law, and it was very simple. The Yukon executed
their decrees. Some two thousand miles below Red Cow the Yukon
flowed into Bering Sea through a delta a hundred miles wide. Every
mile of those two thousand miles was savage wilderness. It was true,
where the Porcupine flowed into the Yukon inside the Arctic Circle
there was a Hudson Bay Company trading post. But that was many
hundreds of miles away. Also, it was rumoured that many hundreds of
miles farther on there were missions. This last, however, was merely
rumour; the men of Red Cow had never been there. They had entered
the lone land by way of Chilcoot and the head-waters of the Yukon.
The men of Red Cow ignored all minor offences. To be drunk and
disorderly and to use vulgar language were looked upon as natural and
inalienable rights. The men of Red Cow were individualists, and
recognized as sacred but two things, property and life. There were
no women present to complicate their simple morality. There were
only three log-cabins in Red Cow--the majority of the population of
forty men living in tents or brush shacks; and there was no jail in
which to confine malefactors, while the inhabitants were too busy
digging gold or seeking gold to take a day off and build a jail.
Besides, the paramount question of grub negatived such a procedure.
Wherefore, when a man violated the rights of property or life, he was
thrown into an open boat and started down the Yukon. The quantity of
grub he received was proportioned to the gravity of the offence.
Thus, a common thief might get as much as two weeks' grub; an
uncommon thief might get no more than half of that. A murderer got
no grub at all. A man found guilty of manslaughter would receive
grub for from three days to a week. And Marcus O'Brien had been
elected judge, and it was he who apportioned the grub. A man who
broke the law took his chances. The Yukon swept him away, and he
might or might not win to Bering Sea. A few days' grub gave him a
fighting chance. No grub meant practically capital punishment,
though there was a slim chance, all depending on the season of the
Having disposed of Arizona Jack and watched him out of sight, the
population turned from the bank and went to work on its claims--all
except Curly Jim, who ran the one faro layout in all the Northland
and who speculated in prospect-holes on the sides. Two things
happened that day that were momentous. In the late morning Marcus
O'Brien struck it. He washed out a dollar, a dollar and a half, and
two dollars, from three successive pans. He had found the streak.
Curly Jim looked into the hole, washed a few pans himself, and
offered O'Brien ten thousand dollars for all rights--five thousand in
dust, and, in lieu of the other five thousand, a half interest in his
faro layout. O'Brien refused the offer. He was there to make money
out of the earth, he declared with heat, and not out of his fellow-
men. And anyway, he didn't like faro. Besides, he appraised his
strike at a whole lot more than ten thousand.
The second event of moment occurred in the afternoon, when Siskiyou
Pearly ran his boat into the bank and tied up. He was fresh from the
Outside, and had in his possession a four-months-old newspaper.
Furthermore, he had half a dozen barrels of whisky, all consigned to
Curly Jim. The men of Red Cow quit work. They sampled the whisky--
at a dollar a drink, weighed out on Curly's scales; and they
discussed the news. And all would have been well, had not Curly Jim
conceived a nefarious scheme, which was, namely, first to get Marcus
O'Brien drunk, and next, to buy his mine from him.
The first half of the scheme worked beautifully. It began in the
early evening, and by nine o'clock O'Brien had reached the singing
stage. He clung with one arm around Curly Jim's neck, and even
essayed the late lamented Ferguson's song about the little birds. He
considered he was quite safe in this, what of the fact that the only
man in camp with artistic feelings was even then speeding down the
Yukon on the breast of a five-mile current.
But the second half of the scheme failed to connect. No matter how
much whisky was poured down his neck, O'Brien could not be brought to
realize that it was his bounden and friendly duty to sell his claim.
He hesitated, it is true, and trembled now and again on the verge of
giving in. Inside his muddled head, however, he was chuckling to
himself. He was up to Curly Jim's game, and liked the hands that
were being dealt him. The whisky was good. It came out of one
special barrel, and was about a dozen times better than that in the
other five barrels.
Siskiyou Pearly was dispensing drinks in the bar-room to the
remainder of the population of Red Cow, while O'Brien and Curly had
out their business orgy in the kitchen. But there was nothing small
about O'Brien. He went into the bar-room and returned with Mucluc
Charley and Percy Leclaire.
"Business 'sociates of mine, business 'sociates," he announced, with
a broad wink to them and a guileless grin to Curly. "Always trust
their judgment, always trust 'em. They're all right. Give 'em some
fire-water, Curly, an' le's talk it over."
This was ringing in; but Curly Jim, making a swift revaluation of the
claim, and remembering that the last pan he washed had turned out
seven dollars, decided that it was worth the extra whisky, even if it
was selling in the other room at a dollar a drink.
"I'm not likely to consider," O'Brien was hiccoughing to his two
friends in the course of explaining to them the question at issue.
"Who? Me?--sell for ten thousand dollars! No indeed. I'll dig the
gold myself, an' then I'm goin' down to God's country--Southern
California--that's the place for me to end my declinin' days--an'
then I'll start . . . as I said before, then I'll start . . . what
did I say I was goin' to start?"
"Ostrich farm," Mucluc Charley volunteered.
"Sure, just what I'm goin' to start." O'Brien abruptly steadied
himself and looked with awe at Mucluc Charley. "How did you know?
Never said so. Jes' thought I said so. You're a min' reader,
Charley. Le's have another."
Curly Jim filled the glasses and had the pleasure of seeing four
dollars' worth of whisky disappear, one dollar's worth of which he
punished himself--O'Brien insisted that he should drink as frequently
as his guests.
"Better take the money now," Leclaire argued. "Take you two years to
dig it out the hole, an' all that time you might be hatchin' teeny
little baby ostriches an' pulling feathers out the big ones."
O'Brien considered the proposition and nodded approval. Curly Jim
looked gratefully at Leclaire and refilled the glasses.
"Hold on there!" spluttered Mucluc Charley, whose tongue was
beginning to wag loosely and trip over itself. "As your father
confessor--there I go--as your brother--O hell!" He paused and
collected himself for another start. "As your frien'--business
frien', I should say, I would suggest, rather--I would take the
liberty, as it was, to mention--I mean, suggest, that there may be
more ostriches . . . O hell!" He downed another glass, and went on
more carefully. "What I'm drivin' at is . . . what am I drivin' at?"
He smote the side of his head sharply half a dozen times with the
heel of his palm to shake up his ideas. "I got it!" he cried
jubilantly. "Supposen there's slathers more'n ten thousand dollars
in that hole!"
O'Brien, who apparently was all ready to close the bargain, switched
"Great!" he cried. "Splen'd idea. Never thought of it all by
myself." He took Mucluc Charley warmly by the hand. "Good frien'!
Good 's'ciate!" He turned belligerently on Curly Jim. "Maybe
hundred thousand dollars in that hole. You wouldn't rob your old
frien', would you, Curly? Course you wouldn't. I know you--better'n
yourself, better'n yourself. Le's have another: We're good frien's,
all of us, I say, all of us."
And so it went, and so went the whisky, and so went Curly Jim's hopes
up and down. Now Leclaire argued in favour of immediate sale, and
almost won the reluctant O'Brien over, only to lose him to the more
brilliant counter-argument of Mucluc Charley. And again, it was
Mucluc Charley who presented convincing reasons for the sale and
Percy Leclaire who held stubbornly back. A little later it was
O'Brien himself who insisted on selling, while both friends, with
tears and curses, strove to dissuade him. The more whiskey they
downed, the more fertile of imagination they became. For one sober
pro or con they found a score of drunken ones; and they convinced one
another so readily that they were perpetually changing sides in the
The time came when both Mucluc Charley and Leclaire were firmly set
upon the sale, and they gleefully obliterated O'Brien's objections as
fast as he entered them. O'Brien grew desperate. He exhausted his
last argument and sat speechless. He looked pleadingly at the
friends who had deserted him. He kicked Mucluc Charley's shins under
the table, but that graceless hero immediately unfolded a new and
most logical reason for the sale. Curly Jim got pen and ink and
paper and wrote out the bill of sale. O'Brien sat with pen poised in
"Le's have one more," he pleaded. "One more before I sign away a
hundred thousan' dollars."
Curly Jim filled the glasses triumphantly. O'Brien downed his drink
and bent forward with wobbling pen to affix his signature. Before he
had made more than a blot, he suddenly started up, impelled by the
impact of an idea colliding with his consciousness. He stood upon
his feet and swayed back and forth before them, reflecting in his
startled eyes the thought process that was taking place behind. Then
he reached his conclusion. A benevolent radiance suffused his
countenance. He turned to the faro dealer, took his hand, and spoke
"Curly, you're my frien'. There's my han'. Shake. Ol' man, I won't
do it. Won't sell. Won't rob a frien'. No son-of-a-gun will ever
have chance to say Marcus O'Brien robbed frien' cause frien' was
drunk. You're drunk, Curly, an' I won't rob you. Jes' had thought--
never thought it before--don't know what the matter 'ith me, but
never thought it before. Suppose, jes' suppose, Curly, my ol'
frien', jes' suppose there ain't ten thousan' in whole damn claim.
You'd be robbed. No, sir; won't do it. Marcus O'Brien makes money
out of the groun', not out of his frien's."
Percy Leclaire and Mucluc Charley drowned the faro dealer's
objections in applause for so noble a sentiment. They fell upon
O'Brien from either side, their arms lovingly about his neck, their
mouths so full of words they could not hear Curly's offer to insert a
clause in the document to the effect that if there weren't ten
thousand in the claim he would be given back the difference between
yield and purchase price. The longer they talked the more maudlin
and the more noble the discussion became. All sordid motives were
banished. They were a trio of philanthropists striving to save Curly
Jim from himself and his own philanthropy. They insisted that he was
a philanthropist. They refused to accept for a moment that there
could be found one ignoble thought in all the world. They crawled
and climbed and scrambled over high ethical plateaux and ranges, or
drowned themselves in metaphysical seas of sentimentality.
Curly Jim sweated and fumed and poured out the whisky. He found
himself with a score of arguments on his hands, not one of which had
anything to do with the gold-mine he wanted to buy. The longer they
talked the farther away they got from that gold-mine, and at two in
the morning Curly Jim acknowledged himself beaten. One by one he led
his helpless guests across the kitchen floor and thrust them outside.
O'Brien came last, and the three, with arms locked for mutual aid,
titubated gravely on the stoop.
"Good business man, Curly," O'Brien was saying. "Must say like your
style--fine an' generous, free-handed hospital . . . hospital . . .
hospitality. Credit to you. Nothin' base 'n graspin' in your make-
up. As I was sayin'--"
But just then the faro dealer slammed the door.
The three laughed happily on the stoop. They laughed for a long
time. Then Mucluc Charley essayed speech.
"Funny--laughed so hard--ain't what I want to say. My idea is . . .
what wash it? Oh, got it! Funny how ideas slip. Elusive idea--
chasin' elusive idea--great sport. Ever chase rabbits, Percy, my
frien'? I had dog--great rabbit dog. Whash 'is name? Don't know
name--never had no name--forget name--elusive name--chasin' elusive
name--no, idea--elusive idea, but got it--what I want to say was--O
Thereafter there was silence for a long time. O'Brien slipped from
their arms to a sitting posture on the stoop, where he slept gently.
Mucluc Charley chased the elusive idea through all the nooks and
crannies of his drowning consciousness. Leclaire hung fascinated
upon the delayed utterance. Suddenly the other's hand smote him on
"Got it!" Mucluc Charley cried in stentorian tones.
The shock of the jolt broke the continuity of Leclaire's mental
"How much to the pan?" he demanded.
"Pan nothin'!" Mucluc Charley was angry. "Idea--got it--got leg-
hold--ran it down."
Leclaire's face took on a rapt, admiring expression, and again he
hung upon the other's lips.
" . . . O hell!" said Mucluc Charley.
At this moment the kitchen door opened for an instant, and Curly Jim
shouted, "Go home!"
"Funny," said Mucluc Charley. "Shame idea--very shame as mine. Le's
They gathered O'Brien up between them and started. Mucluc Charley
began aloud the pursuit of another idea. Leclaire followed the
pursuit with enthusiasm. But O'Brien did not follow it. He neither
heard, nor saw, nor knew anything. He was a mere wobbling automaton,
supported affectionately and precariously by his two business
They took the path down by the bank of the Yukon. Home did not lie
that way, but the elusive idea did. Mucluc Charley giggled over the
idea that he could not catch for the edification of Leclaire. They
came to where Siskiyou Pearly's boat lay moored to the bank. The
rope with which it was tied ran across the path to a pine stump.
They tripped over it and went down, O'Brien underneath. A faint
flash of consciousness lighted his brain. He felt the impact of
bodies upon his and struck out madly for a moment with his fists.
Then he went to sleep again. His gentle snore arose on the air, and
Mucluc Charley began to giggle.
"New idea," he volunteered, "brand new idea. Jes' caught it--no
trouble at all. Came right up an' I patted it on the head. It's
mine. 'Brien's drunk--beashly drunk. Shame--damn shame--learn'm
lesshon. Trash Pearly's boat. Put 'Brien in Pearly's boat. Casht
off--let her go down Yukon. 'Brien wake up in mornin'. Current too
strong--can't row boat 'gainst current--mush walk back. Come back
madder 'n hatter. You an' me headin' for tall timber. Learn 'm
lesshon jes' shame, learn 'm lesshon."
Siskiyou Pearly's boat was empty, save for a pair of oars. Its
gunwale rubbed against the bank alongside of O'Brien. They rolled
him over into it. Mucluc Charley cast off the painter, and Leclaire
shoved the boat out into the current. Then, exhausted by their
labours, they lay down on the bank and slept.
Next morning all Red Cow knew of the joke that had been played on
Marcus O'Brien. There were some tall bets as to what would happen to
the two perpetrators when the victim arrived back. In the afternoon
a lookout was set, so that they would know when he was sighted.
Everybody wanted to see him come in. But he didn't come, though they
sat up till midnight. Nor did he come next day, nor the next. Red
Cow never saw Marcus O'Brien again, and though many conjectures were
entertained, no certain clue was ever gained to dispel the mystery of
Only Marcus O'Brien knew, and he never came back to tell. He awoke
next morning in torment. His stomach had been calcined by the
inordinate quantity of whisky he had drunk, and was a dry and raging
furnace. His head ached all over, inside and out; and, worse than
that, was the pain in his face. For six hours countless thousands of
mosquitoes had fed upon him, and their ungrateful poison had swollen
his face tremendously. It was only by a severe exertion of will that
he was able to open narrow slits in his face through which he could
peer. He happened to move his hands, and they hurt. He squinted at
them, but failed to recognize them, so puffed were they by the
mosquito virus. He was lost, or rather, his identity was lost to
him. There was nothing familiar about him, which, by association of
ideas, would cause to rise in his consciousness the continuity of his
existence. He was divorced utterly from his past, for there was
nothing about him to resurrect in his consciousness a memory of that
past. Besides, he was so sick and miserable that he lacked energy
and inclination to seek after who and what he was.
It was not until he discovered a crook in a little finger, caused by
an unset breakage of years before, that he knew himself to be Marcus
O'Brien. On the instant his past rushed into his consciousness.
When he discovered a blood-blister under a thumb-nail, which he had
received the previous week, his self-identification became doubly
sure, and he knew that those unfamiliar hands belonged to Marcus
O'Brien, or, just as much to the point, that Marcus O'Brien belonged
to the hands. His first thought was that he was ill--that he had had
river fever. It hurt him so much to open his eyes that he kept them
closed. A small floating branch struck the boat a sharp rap. He
thought it was some one knocking on the cabin door, and said, "Come
in." He waited for a while, and then said testily, "Stay out, then,
damn you." But just the same he wished they would come in and tell
him about his illness.
But as he lay there, the past night began to reconstruct itself in
his brain. He hadn't been sick at all, was his thought; he had
merely been drunk, and it was time for him to get up and go to work.
Work suggested his mine, and he remembered that he had refused ten
thousand dollars for it. He sat up abruptly and squeezed open his
eyes. He saw himself in a boat, floating on the swollen brown flood
of the Yukon. The spruce-covered shores and islands were unfamiliar.
He was stunned for a time. He couldn't make it out. He could
remember the last night's orgy, but there was no connection between
that and his present situation.
He closed his eyes and held his aching head in his hands. What had
happened? Slowly the dreadful thought arose in his mind. He fought
against it, strove to drive it away, but it persisted: he had killed
somebody. That alone could explain why he was in an open boat
drifting down the Yukon. The law of Red Cow that he had so long
administered had now been administered to him. He had killed some
one and been set adrift. But whom? He racked his aching brain for
the answer, but all that came was a vague memory of bodies falling
upon him and of striking out at them. Who were they? Maybe he had
killed more than one. He reached to his belt. The knife was missing
from its sheath. He had done it with that undoubtedly. But there
must have been some reason for the killing. He opened his eyes and
in a panic began to search about the boat. There was no grub, not an
ounce of grub. He sat down with a groan. He had killed without
provocation. The extreme rigour of the law had been visited upon
For half an hour he remained motionless, holding his aching head and
trying to think. Then he cooled his stomach with a drink of water
from overside and felt better. He stood up, and alone on the wide-
stretching Yukon, with naught but the primeval wilderness to hear, he
cursed strong drink. After that he tied up to a huge floating pine
that was deeper sunk in the current than the boat and that
consequently drifted faster. He washed his face and hands, sat down
in the stern-sheets, and did some more thinking. It was late in
June. It was two thousand miles to Bering Sea. The boat was
averaging five miles an hour. There was no darkness in such high
latitudes at that time of the year, and he could run the river every
hour of the twenty-four. This would mean, daily, a hundred and
twenty miles. Strike out the twenty for accidents, and there
remained a hundred miles a day. In twenty days he would reach Bering
Sea. And this would involve no expenditure of energy; the river did
the work. He could lie down in the bottom of the boat and husband
For two days he ate nothing. Then, drifting into the Yukon Flats, he
went ashore on the low-lying islands and gathered the eggs of wild
geese and ducks. He had no matches, and ate the eggs raw. They were
strong, but they kept him going. When he crossed the Arctic Circle,
he found the Hudson Bay Company's post. The brigade had not yet
arrived from the Mackenzie, and the post was completely out of grub.
He was offered wild-duck eggs, but he informed them that he had a
bushel of the same on the boat. He was also offered a drink of
whisky, which he refused with an exhibition of violent repugnance.
He got matches, however, and after that he cooked his eggs. Toward
the mouth of the river head-winds delayed him, and he was twenty-four
days on the egg diet. Unfortunately, while asleep he had drifted by
both the missions of St. Paul and Holy Cross. And he could sincerely
say, as he afterward did, that talk about missions on the Yukon was
all humbug. There weren't any missions, and he was the man to know.
Once on Bering Sea he exchanged the egg diet for seal diet, and he
never could make up his mind which he liked least. In the fall of
the year he was rescued by a United States revenue cutter, and the
following winter he made quite a hit in San Francisco as a temperance
lecturer. In this field he found his vocation. "Avoid the bottle"
is his slogan and battle-cry. He manages subtly to convey the
impression that in his own life a great disaster was wrought by the
bottle. He has even mentioned the loss of a fortune that was caused
by that hell-bait of the devil, but behind that incident his
listeners feel the loom of some terrible and unguessed evil for which
the bottle is responsible. He has made a success in his vocation,
and has grown grey and respected in the crusade against strong drink.
But on the Yukon the passing of Marcus O'Brien remains tradition. It
is a mystery that ranks at par with the disappearance of Sir John