The Unexpected by Jack London
It is a simple matter to see the obvious, to do the expected. The
tendency of the individual life is to be static rather than
dynamic, and this tendency is made into a propulsion by
civilization, where the obvious only is seen, and the unexpected
rarely happens. When the unexpected does happen, however, and when
it is of sufficiently grave import, the unfit perish. They do not
see what is not obvious, are unable to do the unexpected, are
incapable of adjusting their well-grooved lives to other and
strange grooves. In short, when they come to the end of their own
groove, they die.
On the other hand, there are those that make toward survival, the
fit individuals who escape from the rule of the obvious and the
expected and adjust their lives to no matter what strange grooves
they may stray into, or into which they may be forced. Such an
individual was Edith Whittlesey. She was born in a rural district
of England, where life proceeds by rule of thumb and the unexpected
is so very unexpected that when it happens it is looked upon as an
immorality. She went into service early, and while yet a young
woman, by rule-of-thumb progression, she became a lady's maid.
The effect of civilization is to impose human law upon environment
until it becomes machine-like in its regularity. The objectionable
is eliminated, the inevitable is foreseen. One is not even made
wet by the rain nor cold by the frost; while death, instead of
stalking about grewsome and accidental, becomes a prearranged
pageant, moving along a well-oiled groove to the family vault,
where the hinges are kept from rusting and the dust from the air is
swept continually away.
Such was the environment of Edith Whittlesey. Nothing happened.
It could scarcely be called a happening, when, at the age of
twenty-five, she accompanied her mistress on a bit of travel to the
United States. The groove merely changed its direction. It was
still the same groove and well oiled. It was a groove that bridged
the Atlantic with uneventfulness, so that the ship was not a ship
in the midst of the sea, but a capacious, many-corridored hotel
that moved swiftly and placidly, crushing the waves into submission
with its colossal bulk until the sea was a mill-pond, monotonous
with quietude. And at the other side the groove continued on over
the land - a well-disposed, respectable groove that supplied hotels
at every stopping-place, and hotels on wheels between the stopping-
In Chicago, while her mistress saw one side of social life, Edith
Whittlesey saw another side; and when she left her lady's service
and became Edith Nelson, she betrayed, perhaps faintly, her ability
to grapple with the unexpected and to master it. Hans Nelson,
immigrant, Swede by birth and carpenter by occupation, had in him
that Teutonic unrest that drives the race ever westward on its
great adventure. He was a large-muscled, stolid sort of a man, in
whom little imagination was coupled with immense initiative, and
who possessed, withal, loyalty and affection as sturdy as his own
"When I have worked hard and saved me some money, I will go to
Colorado," he had told Edith on the day after their wedding. A
year later they were in Colorado, where Hans Nelson saw his first
mining and caught the mining-fever himself. His prospecting led
him through the Dakotas, Idaho, and eastern Oregon, and on into the
mountains of British Columbia. In camp and on trail, Edith Nelson
was always with him, sharing his luck, his hardship, and his toil.
The short step of the house-reared woman she exchanged for the long
stride of the mountaineer. She learned to look upon danger clear-
eyed and with understanding, losing forever that panic fear which
is bred of ignorance and which afflicts the city-reared, making
them as silly as silly horses, so that they await fate in frozen
horror instead of grappling with it, or stampede in blind self-
destroying terror which clutters the way with their crushed
Edith Nelson met the unexpected at every turn of the trail, and she
trained her vision so that she saw in the landscape, not the
obvious, but the concealed. She, who had never cooked in her life,
learned to make bread without the mediation of hops, yeast, or
baking-powder, and to bake bread, top and bottom, in a frying-pan
before an open fire. And when the last cup of flour was gone and
the last rind of bacon, she was able to rise to the occasion, and
of moccasins and the softer-tanned bits of leather in the outfit to
make a grub-stake substitute that somehow held a man's soul in his
body and enabled him to stagger on. She learned to pack a horse as
well as a man, - a task to break the heart and the pride of any
city-dweller, and she knew how to throw the hitch best suited for
any particular kind of pack. Also, she could build a fire of wet
wood in a downpour of rain and not lose her temper. In short, in
all its guises she mastered the unexpected. But the Great
Unexpected was yet to come into her life and put its test upon her.
The gold-seeking tide was flooding northward into Alaska, and it
was inevitable that Hans Nelson and his wife should he caught up by
the stream and swept toward the Klondike. The fall of 1897 found
them at Dyea, but without the money to carry an outfit across
Chilcoot Pass and float it down to Dawson. So Hans Nelson worked
at his trade that winter and helped rear the mushroom outfitting-
town of Skaguay.
He was on the edge of things, and throughout the winter he heard
all Alaska calling to him. Latuya Bay called loudest, so that the
summer of 1898 found him and his wife threading the mazes of the
broken coast-line in seventy-foot Siwash canoes. With them were
Indians, also three other men. The Indians landed them and their
supplies in a lonely bight of land a hundred miles or so beyond
Latuya Bay, and returned to Skaguay; but the three other men
remained, for they were members of the organized party. Each had
put an equal share of capital into the outfitting, and the profits
were to he divided equally. In that Edith Nelson undertook to cook
for the outfit, a man's share was to be her portion.
First, spruce trees were cut down and a three-room cabin
constructed. To keep this cabin was Edith Nelson's task. The task
of the men was to search for gold, which they did; and to find
gold, which they likewise did. It was not a startling find, merely
a low-pay placer where long hours of severe toil earned each man
between fifteen and twenty dollars a day. The brief Alaskan summer
protracted itself beyond its usual length, and they took advantage
of the opportunity, delaying their return to Skaguay to the last
moment. And then it was too late. Arrangements had been made to
accompany the several dozen local Indians on their fall trading
trip down the coast. The Siwashes had waited on the white people
until the eleventh hour, and then departed. There was no course
left the party but to wait for chance transportation. In the
meantime the claim was cleaned up and firewood stocked in.
The Indian summer had dreamed on and on, and then, suddenly, with
the sharpness of bugles, winter came. It came in a single night,
and the miners awoke to howling wind, driving snow, and freezing
water. Storm followed storm, and between the storms there was the
silence, broken only by the boom of the surf on the desolate shore,
where the salt spray rimmed the beach with frozen white.
All went well in the cabin. Their gold-dust had weighed up
something like eight thousand dollars, and they could not but be
contented. The men made snowshoes, hunted fresh meat for the
larder, and in the long evenings played endless games of whist and
pedro. Now that the mining had ceased, Edith Nelson turned over
the fire-building and the dish-washing to the men, while she darned
their socks and mended their clothes.
There was no grumbling, no bickering, nor petty quarrelling in the
little cabin, and they often congratulated one another on the
general happiness of the party. Hans Nelson was stolid and easy-
going, while Edith had long before won his unbounded admiration by
her capacity for getting on with people. Harkey, a long, lank
Texan, was unusually friendly for one with a saturnine disposition,
and, as long as his theory that gold grew was not challenged, was
quite companionable. The fourth member of the party, Michael
Dennin, contributed his Irish wit to the gayety of the cabin. He
was a large, powerful man, prone to sudden rushes of anger over
little things, and of unfailing good-humor under the stress and
strain of big things. The fifth and last member, Dutchy, was the
willing butt of the party. He even went out of his way to raise a
laugh at his own expense in order to keep things cheerful. His
deliberate aim in life seemed to be that of a maker of laughter.
No serious quarrel had ever vexed the serenity of the party; and,
now that each had sixteen hundred dollars to show for a short
summer's work, there reigned the well-fed, contented spirit of
And then the unexpected happened. They had just sat down to the
breakfast table. Though it was already eight o'clock (late
breakfasts had followed naturally upon cessation of the steady work
at mining) a candle in the neck of a bottle lighted the meal.
Edith and Hans sat at each end of the table. On one side, with
their backs to the door, sat Harkey and Dutchy. The place on the
other side was vacant. Dennin had not yet come in.
Hans Nelson looked at the empty chair, shook his head slowly, and,
with a ponderous attempt at humor, said: "Always is he first at
the grub. It is very strange. Maybe he is sick."
"Where is Michael?" Edith asked.
"Got up a little ahead of us and went outside," Harkey answered.
Dutchy's face beamed mischievously. He pretended knowledge of
Dennin's absence, and affected a mysterious air, while they
clamored for information. Edith, after a peep into the men's bunk-
room, returned to the table. Hans looked at her, and she shook her
"He was never late at meal-time before," she remarked.
"I cannot understand," said Hans. "Always has he the great
appetite like the horse."
"It is too bad," Dutchy said, with a sad shake of his head.
They were beginning to make merry over their comrade's absence.
"It is a great pity!" Dutchy volunteered.
"What?" they demanded in chorus.
"Poor Michael," was the mournful reply.
"Well, what's wrong with Michael?" Harkey asked.
"He is not hungry no more," wailed Dutchy. "He has lost der
appetite. He do not like der grub."
"Not from the way he pitches into it up to his ears," remarked
"He does dot shust to be politeful to Mrs. Nelson," was Dutchy's
quick retort. "I know, I know, and it is too pad. Why is he not
here? Pecause he haf gone out. Why haf he gone out? For der
defelopment of der appetite. How does he defelop der appetite? He
walks barefoots in der snow. Ach! don't I know? It is der way der
rich peoples chases after der appetite when it is no more and is
running away. Michael haf sixteen hundred dollars. He is rich
peoples. He haf no appetite. Derefore, pecause, he is chasing der
appetite. Shust you open der door und you will see his barefoots
in der snow. No, you will not see der appetite. Dot is shust his
trouble. When he sees der appetite he will catch it und come to
They burst into loud laughter at Dutchy's nonsense. The sound had
scarcely died away when the door opened and Dennin came in. All
turned to look at him. He was carrying a shot-gun. Even as they
looked, he lifted it to his shoulder and fired twice. At the first
shot Dutchy sank upon the table, overturning his mug of coffee, his
yellow mop of hair dabbling in his plate of mush. His forehead,
which pressed upon the near edge of the plate, tilted the plate up
against his hair at an angle of forty-five degrees. Harkey was in
the air, in his spring to his feet, at the second shot, and he
pitched face down upon the floor, his "My God!" gurgling and dying
in his throat.
It was the unexpected. Hans and Edith were stunned. They sat at
the table with bodies tense, their eyes fixed in a fascinated gaze
upon the murderer. Dimly they saw him through the smoke of the
powder, and in the silence nothing was to be heard save the drip-
drip of Dutchy's spilled coffee on the floor. Dennin threw open
the breech of the shot-gun, ejecting the empty shells. Holding the
gun with one hand, he reached with the other into his pocket for
He was thrusting the shells into the gun when Edith Nelson was
aroused to action. It was patent that he intended to kill Hans and
her. For a space of possibly three seconds of time she had been
dazed and paralysed by the horrible and inconceivable form in which
the unexpected had made its appearance. Then she rose to it and
grappled with it. She grappled with it concretely, making a cat-
like leap for the murderer and gripping his neck-cloth with both
her hands. The impact of her body sent him stumbling backward
several steps. He tried to shake her loose and still retain his
hold on the gun. This was awkward, for her firm-fleshed body had
become a cat's. She threw herself to one side, and with her grip
at his throat nearly jerked him to the floor. He straightened
himself and whirled swiftly. Still faithful to her hold, her body
followed the circle of his whirl so that her feet left the floor,
and she swung through the air fastened to his throat by her hands.
The whirl culminated in a collision with a chair, and the man and
woman crashed to the floor in a wild struggling fall that extended
itself across half the length of the room.
Hans Nelson was half a second behind his wife in rising to the
unexpected. His nerve processed and mental processes were slower
than hers. His was the grosser organism, and it had taken him half
a second longer to perceive, and determine, and proceed to do. She
had already flown at Dennin and gripped his throat, when Hans
sprang to his feet. But her coolness was not his. He was in a
blind fury, a Berserker rage. At the instant he sprang from his
chair his mouth opened and there issued forth a sound that was half
roar, half bellow. The whirl of the two bodies had already
started, and still roaring, or bellowing, he pursued this whirl
down the room, overtaking it when it fell to the floor.
Hans hurled himself upon the prostrate man, striking madly with his
fists. They were sledge-like blows, and when Edith felt Dennin's
body relax she loosed her grip and rolled clear. She lay on the
floor, panting and watching. The fury of blows continued to rain
down. Dennin did not seem to mind the blows. He did not even
move. Then it dawned upon her that he was unconscious. She cried
out to Hans to stop. She cried out again. But he paid no heed to
her voice. She caught him by the arm, but her clinging to it
merely impeded his effort.
It was no reasoned impulse that stirred her to do what she then
did. Nor was it a sense of pity, nor obedience to the "Thou shalt
not" of religion. Rather was it some sense of law, an ethic of her
race and early environment, that compelled her to interpose her
body between her husband and the helpless murderer. It was not
until Hans knew he was striking his wife that he ceased. He
allowed himself to be shoved away by her in much the same way that
a ferocious but obedient dog allows itself to be shoved away by its
master. The analogy went even farther. Deep in his throat, in an
animal-like way, Hans's rage still rumbled, and several times he
made as though to spring back upon his prey and was only prevented
by the woman's swiftly interposed body.
Back and farther back Edith shoved her husband. She had never seen
him in such a condition, and she was more frightened of him than
she had been of Dennin in the thick of the struggle. She could not
believe that this raging beast was her Hans, and with a shock she
became suddenly aware of a shrinking, instinctive fear that he
might snap her hand in his teeth like any wild animal. For some
seconds, unwilling to hurt her, yet dogged in his desire to return
to the attack, Hans dodged back and forth. But she resolutely
dodged with him, until the first glimmerings of reason returned and
he gave over.
Both crawled to their feet. Hans staggered back against the wall,
where he leaned, his face working, in his throat the deep and
continuous rumble that died away with the seconds and at last
ceased. The time for the reaction had come. Edith stood in the
middle of the floor, wringing her hands, panting and gasping, her
whole body trembling violently.
Hans looked at nothing, but Edith's eyes wandered wildly from
detail to detail of what had taken place. Dennin lay without
movement. The overturned chair, hurled onward in the mad whirl,
lay near him. Partly under him lay the shot-gun, still broken open
at the breech. Spilling out of his right hand were the two
cartridges which he had failed to put into the gun and which he had
clutched until consciousness left him. Harkey lay on the floor,
face downward, where he had fallen; while Dutchy rested forward on
the table, his yellow mop of hair buried in his mush-plate, the
plate itself still tilted at an angle of forty-five degrees. This
tilted plate fascinated her. Why did it not fall down? It was
ridiculous. It was not in the nature of things for a mush-plate to
up-end itself on the table, even if a man or so had been killed.
She glanced back at Dennin, but her eyes returned to the tilted
plate. It was so ridiculous! She felt a hysterical impulse to
laugh. Then she noticed the silence, and forgot the plate in a
desire for something to happen. The monotonous drip of the coffee
from the table to the floor merely emphasized the silence. Why did
not Hans do something? say something? She looked at him and was
about to speak, when she discovered that her tongue refused its
wonted duty. There was a peculiar ache in her throat, and her
mouth was dry and furry. She could only look at Hans, who, in
turn, looked at her.
Suddenly the silence was broken by a sharp, metallic clang. She
screamed, jerking her eyes back to the table. The plate had fallen
down. Hans sighed as though awakening from sleep. The clang of
the plate had aroused them to life in a new world. The cabin
epitomized the new world in which they must thenceforth live and
move. The old cabin was gone forever. The horizon of life was
totally new and unfamiliar. The unexpected had swept its wizardry
over the face of things, changing the perspective, juggling values,
and shuffling the real and the unreal into perplexing confusion.
"My God, Hans!" was Edith's first speech.
He did not answer, but stared at her with horror. Slowly his eyes
wandered over the room, for the first time taking in its details.
Then he put on his cap and started for the door.
"Where are you going?" Edith demanded, in an agony of
His hand was on the door-knob, and he half turned as he answered,
"To dig some graves."
"Don't leave me, Hans, with - " her eyes swept the room - "with
"The graves must be dug sometime," he said.
"But you do not know how many," she objected desperately. She
noted his indecision, and added, "Besides, I'll go with you and
Hans stepped back to the table and mechanically snuffed the candle.
Then between them they made the examination. Both Harkey and
Dutchy were dead - frightfully dead, because of the close range of
the shot-gun. Hans refused to go near Dennin, and Edith was forced
to conduct this portion of the investigation by herself.
"He isn't dead," she called to Hans.
He walked over and looked down at the murderer.
"What did you say?" Edith demanded, having caught the rumble of
inarticulate speech in her husband's throat.
"I said it was a damn shame that he isn't dead," came the reply.
Edith was bending over the body.
"Leave him alone," Hans commanded harshly, in a strange voice.
She looked at him in sudden alarm. He had picked up the shot-gun
dropped by Dennin and was thrusting in the shells.
"What are you going to do?" she cried, rising swiftly from her
Hans did not answer, but she saw the shot-gun going to his
shoulder. She grasped the muzzle with her hand and threw it up.
"Leave me alone!" he cried hoarsely.
He tried to jerk the weapon away from her, but she came in closer
and clung to him.
"Hans! Hans! Wake up!" she cried. "Don't be crazy!"
"He killed Dutchy and Harkey!" was her husband's reply; "and I am
going to kill him."
"But that is wrong," she objected. "There is the law."
He sneered his incredulity of the law's potency in such a region,
but he merely iterated, dispassionately, doggedly, "He killed
Dutchy and Harkey."
Long she argued it with him, but the argument was one-sided, for he
contented himself with repeating again and again, "He killed Dutchy
and Harkey." But she could not escape from her childhood training
nor from the blood that was in her. The heritage of law was hers,
and right conduct, to her, was the fulfilment of the law. She
could see no other righteous course to pursue. Hans's taking the
law in his own hands was no more justifiable than Dennin's deed.
Two wrongs did not make a right, she contended, and there was only
one way to punish Dennin, and that was the legal way arranged by
society. At last Hans gave in to her.
"All right," he said. "Have it your own way. And to-morrow or
next day look to see him kill you and me."
She shook her head and held out her hand for the shot-gun. He
started to hand it to her, then hesitated.
"Better let me shoot him," he pleaded.
Again she shook her head, and again he started to pass her the gun,
when the door opened, and an Indian, without knocking, came in. A
blast of wind and flurry of snow came in with him. They turned and
faced him, Hans still holding the shot-gun. The intruder took in
the scene without a quiver. His eyes embraced the dead and wounded
in a sweeping glance. No surprise showed in his face, not even
curiosity. Harkey lay at his feet, but he took no notice of him.
So far as he was concerned, Harkey's body did not exist.
"Much wind," the Indian remarked by way of salutation. "All well?
Hans, still grasping the gun, felt sure that the Indian attributed
to him the mangled corpses. He glanced appealingly at his wife.
"Good morning, Negook," she said, her voice betraying her effort.
"No, not very well. Much trouble."
"Good-by, I go now, much hurry", the Indian said, and without
semblance of haste, with great deliberation stepping clear of a red
pool on the floor, he opened the door and went out.
The man and woman looked at each other.
"He thinks we did it," Hans gasped, "that I did it."
Edith was silent for a space. Then she said, briefly, in a
"Never mind what he thinks. That will come after. At present we
have two graves to dig. But first of all, we've got to tie up
Dennin so he can't escape."
Hans refused to touch Dennin, but Edith lashed him securely, hand
and foot. Then she and Hans went out into the snow. The ground
was frozen. It was impervious to a blow of the pick. They first
gathered wood, then scraped the snow away and on the frozen surface
built a fire. When the fire had burned for an hour, several inches
of dirt had thawed. This they shovelled out, and then built a
fresh fire. Their descent into the earth progressed at the rate of
two or three inches an hour.
It was hard and bitter work. The flurrying snow did not permit the
fire to burn any too well, while the wind cut through their clothes
and chilled their bodies. They held but little conversation. The
wind interfered with speech. Beyond wondering at what could have
been Dennin's motive, they remained silent, oppressed by the horror
of the tragedy. At one o'clock, looking toward the cabin, Hans
announced that he was hungry.
"No, not now, Hans," Edith answered. "I couldn't go back alone
into that cabin the way it is, and cook a meal."
At two o'clock Hans volunteered to go with her; but she held him to
his work, and four o'clock found the two graves completed. They
were shallow, not more than two feet deep, but they would serve the
purpose. Night had fallen. Hans got the sled, and the two dead
men were dragged through the darkness and storm to their frozen
sepulchre. The funeral procession was anything but a pageant. The
sled sank deep into the drifted snow and pulled hard. The man and
the woman had eaten nothing since the previous day, and were weak
from hunger and exhaustion. They had not the strength to resist
the wind, and at times its buffets hurled them off their feet. On
several occasions the sled was overturned, and they were compelled
to reload it with its sombre freight. The last hundred feet to the
graves was up a steep slope, and this they took on all fours, like
sled-dogs, making legs of their arms and thrusting their hands into
the snow. Even so, they were twice dragged backward by the weight
of the sled, and slid and fell down the hill, the living and the
dead, the haul-ropes and the sled, in ghastly entanglement.
"To-morrow I will put up head-boards with their names," Hans said,
when the graves were filled in.
Edith was sobbing. A few broken sentences had been all she was
capable of in the way of a funeral service, and now her husband was
compelled to half-carry her back to the cabin.
Dennin was conscious. He had rolled over and over on the floor in
vain efforts to free himself. He watched Hans and Edith with
glittering eyes, but made no attempt to speak. Hans still refused
to touch the murderer, and sullenly watched Edith drag him across
the floor to the men's bunk-room. But try as she would, she could
not lift him from the floor into his bunk.
"Better let me shoot him, and we'll have no more trouble," Hans
said in final appeal.
Edith shook her head and bent again to her task. To her surprise
the body rose easily, and she knew Hans had relented and was
helping her. Then came the cleansing of the kitchen. But the
floor still shrieked the tragedy, until Hans planed the surface of
the stained wood away and with the shavings made a fire in the
The days came and went. There was much of darkness and silence,
broken only by the storms and the thunder on the beach of the
freezing surf. Hans was obedient to Edith's slightest order. All
his splendid initiative had vanished. She had elected to deal with
Dennin in her way, and so he left the whole matter in her hands.
The murderer was a constant menace. At all times there was the
chance that he might free himself from his bonds, and they were
compelled to guard him day and night. The man or the woman sat
always beside him, holding the loaded shot-gun. At first, Edith
tried eight-hour watches, but the continuous strain was too great,
and afterwards she and Hans relieved each other every four hours.
As they had to sleep, and as the watches extended through the
night, their whole waking time was expended in guarding Dennin.
They had barely time left over for the preparation of meals and the
getting of firewood.
Since Negook's inopportune visit, the Indians had avoided the
cabin. Edith sent Hans to their cabins to get them to take Dennin
down the coast in a canoe to the nearest white settlement or
trading post, but the errand was fruitless. Then Edith went
herself and interviewed Negook. He was head man of the little
village, keenly aware of his responsibility, and he elucidated his
policy thoroughly in few words.
"It is white man's trouble", he said, "not Siwash trouble. My
people help you, then will it be Siwash trouble too. When white
man's trouble and Siwash trouble come together and make a trouble,
it is a great trouble, beyond understanding and without end.
Trouble no good. My people do no wrong. What for they help you
and have trouble?"
So Edith Nelson went back to the terrible cabin with its endless
alternating four-hour watches. Sometimes, when it was her turn and
she sat by the prisoner, the loaded shot-gun in her lap, her eyes
would close and she would doze. Always she aroused with a start,
snatching up the gun and swiftly looking at him. These were
distinct nervous shocks, and their effect was not good on her.
Such was her fear of the man, that even though she were wide awake,
if he moved under the bedclothes she could not repress the start
and the quick reach for the gun.
She was preparing herself for a nervous break-down, and she knew
it. First came a fluttering of the eyeballs, so that she was
compelled to close her eyes for relief. A little later the eyelids
were afflicted by a nervous twitching that she could not control.
To add to the strain, she could not forget the tragedy. She
remained as close to the horror as on the first morning when the
unexpected stalked into the cabin and took possession. In her
daily ministrations upon the prisoner she was forced to grit her
teeth and steel herself, body and spirit.
Hans was affected differently. He became obsessed by the idea that
it was his duty to kill Dennin; and whenever he waited upon the
bound man or watched by him, Edith was troubled by the fear that
Hans would add another red entry to the cabin's record. Always he
cursed Dennin savagely and handled him roughly. Hans tried to
conceal his homicidal mania, and he would say to his wife: "By and
by you will want me to kill him, and then I will not kill him. It
would make me sick." But more than once, stealing into the room,
when it was her watch off, she would catch the two men glaring
ferociously at each other, wild animals the pair of them, in Hans's
face the lust to kill, in Dennin's the fierceness and savagery of
the cornered rat. "Hans!" she would cry, "wake up!" and he would
come to a recollection of himself, startled and shamefaced and
So Hans became another factor in the problem the unexpected had
given Edith Nelson to solve. At first it had been merely a
question of right conduct in dealing with Dennin, and right
conduct, as she conceived it, lay in keeping him a prisoner until
he could be turned over for trial before a proper tribunal. But
now entered Hans, and she saw that his sanity and his salvation
were involved. Nor was she long in discovering that her own
strength and endurance had become part of the problem. She was
breaking down under the strain. Her left arm had developed
involuntary jerkings and twitchings. She spilled her food from her
spoon, and could place no reliance in her afflicted arm. She
judged it to be a form of St. Vitus's dance, and she feared the
extent to which its ravages might go. What if she broke down? And
the vision she had of the possible future, when the cabin might
contain only Dennin and Hans, was an added horror.
After the third day, Dennin had begun to talk. His first question
had been, "What are you going to do with me?" And this question he
repeated daily and many times a day. And always Edith replied that
he would assuredly be dealt with according to law. In turn, she
put a daily question to him, - "Why did you do it?" To this he
never replied. Also, he received the question with out-bursts of
anger, raging and straining at the rawhide that bound him and
threatening her with what he would do when he got loose, which he
said he was sure to do sooner or later. At such times she cocked
both triggers of the gun, prepared to meet him with leaden death if
he should burst loose, herself trembling and palpitating and dizzy
from the tension and shock.
But in time Dennin grew more tractable. It seemed to her that he
was growing weary of his unchanging recumbent position. He began
to beg and plead to be released. He made wild promises. He would
do them no harm. He would himself go down the coast and give
himself up to the officers of the law. He would give them his
share of the gold. He would go away into the heart of the
wilderness, and never again appear in civilization. He would take
his own life if she would only free him. His pleadings usually
culminated in involuntary raving, until it seemed to her that he
was passing into a fit; but always she shook her head and denied
him the freedom for which he worked himself into a passion.
But the weeks went by, and he continued to grow more tractable.
And through it all the weariness was asserting itself more and
more. "I am so tired, so tired," he would murmur, rolling his head
back and forth on the pillow like a peevish child. At a little
later period he began to make impassioned pleas for death, to beg
her to kill him, to beg Hans to put him our of his misery so that
he might at least rest comfortably.
The situation was fast becoming impossible. Edith's nervousness
was increasing, and she knew her break-down might come any time.
She could not even get her proper rest, for she was haunted by the
fear that Hans would yield to his mania and kill Dennin while she
slept. Though January had already come, months would have to
elapse before any trading schooner was even likely to put into the
bay. Also, they had not expected to winter in the cabin, and the
food was running low; nor could Hans add to the supply by hunting.
They were chained to the cabin by the necessity of guarding their
Something must be done, and she knew it. She forced herself to go
back into a reconsideration of the problem. She could not shake
off the legacy of her race, the law that was of her blood and that
had been trained into her. She knew that whatever she did she must
do according to the law, and in the long hours of watching, the
shot-gun on her knees, the murderer restless beside her and the
storms thundering without, she made original sociological
researches and worked out for herself the evolution of the law. It
came to her that the law was nothing more than the judgment and the
will of any group of people. It mattered not how large was the
group of people. There were little groups, she reasoned, like
Switzerland, and there were big groups like the United States.
Also, she reasoned, it did not matter how small was the group of
people. There might be only ten thousand people in a country, yet
their collective judgment and will would be the law of that
country. Why, then, could not one thousand people constitute such
a group? she asked herself. And if one thousand, why not one
hundred? Why not fifty? Why not five? Why not - two?
She was frightened at her own conclusion, and she talked it over
with Hans. At first he could not comprehend, and then, when he
did, he added convincing evidence. He spoke of miners' meetings,
where all the men of a locality came together and made the law and
executed the law. There might be only ten or fifteen men
altogether, he said, but the will of the majority became the law
for the whole ten or fifteen, and whoever violated that will was
Edith saw her way clear at last. Dennin must hang. Hans agreed
with her. Between them they constituted the majority of this
particular group. It was the group-will that Dennin should be
hanged. In the execution of this will Edith strove earnestly to
observe the customary forms, but the group was so small that Hans
and she had to serve as witnesses, as jury, and as judges - also as
executioners. She formally charged Michael Dennin with the murder
of Dutchy and Harkey, and the prisoner lay in his bunk and listened
to the testimony, first of Hans, and then of Edith. He refused to
plead guilty or not guilty, and remained silent when she asked him
if he had anything to say in his own defence. She and Hans,
without leaving their seats, brought in the jury's verdict of
guilty. Then, as judge, she imposed the sentence. Her voice
shook, her eyelids twitched, her left arm jerked, but she carried
"Michael Dennin, in three days' time you are to be hanged by the
neck until you are dead."
Such was the sentence. The man breathed an unconscious sigh of
relief, then laughed defiantly, and said, "Thin I'm thinkin' the
damn bunk won't be achin' me back anny more, an' that's a
With the passing of the sentence a feeling of relief seemed to
communicate itself to all of them. Especially was it noticeable in
Dennin. All sullenness and defiance disappeared, and he talked
sociably with his captors, and even with flashes of his old-time
wit. Also, he found great satisfaction in Edith's reading to him
from the Bible. She read from the New Testament, and he took keen
interest in the prodigal son and the thief on the cross.
On the day preceding that set for the execution, when Edith asked
her usual question, "Why did you do it?" Dennin answered, "'Tis
very simple. I was thinkin' - "
But she hushed him abruptly, asked him to wait, and hurried to
Hans's bedside. It was his watch off, and he came out of his
sleep, rubbing his eyes and grumbling.
"Go," she told him, "and bring up Negook and one other Indian.
Michael's going to confess. Make them come. Take the rifle along
and bring them up at the point of it if you have to."
Half an hour later Negook and his uncle, Hadikwan, were ushered
into the death chamber. They came unwillingly, Hans with his rifle
herding them along.
"Negook," Edith said, "there is to be no trouble for you and your
people. Only is it for you to sit and do nothing but listen and
Thus did Michael Dennin, under sentence of death, make public
confession of his crime. As he talked, Edith wrote his story down,
while the Indians listened, and Hans guarded the door for fear the
witnesses might bolt.
He had not been home to the old country for fifteen years, Dennin
explained, and it had always been his intention to return with
plenty of money and make his old mother comfortable for the rest of
"An' how was I to be doin' it on sixteen hundred?" he demanded.
"What I was after wantin' was all the goold, the whole eight
thousan'. Thin I cud go back in style. What ud be aisier, thinks
I to myself, than to kill all iv yez, report it at Skaguay for an
Indian-killin', an' thin pull out for Ireland? An' so I started in
to kill all iv yez, but, as Harkey was fond of sayin', I cut out
too large a chunk an' fell down on the swallowin' iv it. An'
that's me confession. I did me duty to the devil, an' now, God
willin', I'll do me duty to God."
"Negook and Hadikwan, you have heard the white man's words," Edith
said to the Indians. "His words are here on this paper, and it is
for you to make a sign, thus, on the paper, so that white men to
come after will know that you have heard."
The two Siwashes put crosses opposite their signatures, received a
summons to appear on the morrow with all their tribe for a further
witnessing of things, and were allowed to go.
Dennin's hands were released long enough for him to sign the
document. Then a silence fell in the room. Hans was restless, and
Edith felt uncomfortable. Dennin lay on his back, staring straight
up at the moss-chinked roof.
"An' now I'll do me duty to God," he murmured. He turned his head
toward Edith. "Read to me," he said, "from the book;" then added,
with a glint of playfulness, "Mayhap 'twill help me to forget the
The day of the execution broke clear and cold. The thermometer was
down to twenty-five below zero, and a chill wind was blowing which
drove the frost through clothes and flesh to the bones. For the
first time in many weeks Dennin stood upon his feet. His muscles
had remained inactive so long, and he was so out of practice in
maintaining an erect position, that he could scarcely stand.
He reeled back and forth, staggered, and clutched hold of Edith
with his bound hands for support.
"Sure, an' it's dizzy I am," he laughed weakly.
A moment later he said, "An' it's glad I am that it's over with.
That damn bunk would iv been the death iv me, I know."
When Edith put his fur cap on his head and proceeded to pull the
flaps down over his ears, he laughed and said:
"What are you doin' that for?"
"It's freezing cold outside", she answered.
"An' in tin minutes' time what'll matter a frozen ear or so to poor
Michael Dennin?" he asked.
She had nerved herself for the last culminating ordeal, and his
remark was like a blow to her self-possession. So far, everything
had seemed phantom-like, as in a dream, but the brutal truth of
what he had said shocked her eyes wide open to the reality of what
was taking place. Nor was her distress unnoticed by the Irishman.
"I'm sorry to be troublin' you with me foolish spache," he said
regretfully. "I mint nothin' by it. 'Tis a great day for Michael
Dennin, an' he's as gay as a lark."
He broke out in a merry whistle, which quickly became lugubrious
"I'm wishin' there was a priest," he said wistfully; then added
swiftly, "But Michael Dennin's too old a campaigner to miss the
luxuries when he hits the trail."
He was so very weak and unused to walking that when the door opened
and he passed outside, the wind nearly carried him off his feet.
Edith and Hans walked on either side of him and supported him, the
while he cracked jokes and tried to keep them cheerful, breaking
off, once, long enough to arrange the forwarding of his share of
the gold to his mother in Ireland.
They climbed a slight hill and came out into an open space among
the trees. Here, circled solemnly about a barrel that stood on end
in the snow, were Negook and Hadikwan, and all the Siwashes down to
the babies and the dogs, come to see the way of the white man's
law. Near by was an open grave which Hans had burned into the
Dennin cast a practical eye over the preparations, noting the
grave, the barrel, the thickness of the rope, and the diameter of
the limb over which the rope was passed.
"Sure, an' I couldn't iv done better meself, Hans, if it'd been for
He laughed loudly at his own sally, but Hans's face was frozen into
a sullen ghastliness that nothing less than the trump of doom could
have broken. Also, Hans was feeling very sick. He had not
realized the enormousness of the task of putting a fellow-man out
of the world. Edith, on the other hand, had realized; but the
realization did not make the task any easier. She was filled with
doubt as to whether she could hold herself together long enough to
finish it. She felt incessant impulses to scream, to shriek, to
collapse into the snow, to put her hands over her eyes and turn and
run blindly away, into the forest, anywhere, away. It was only by
a supreme effort of soul that she was able to keep upright and go
on and do what she had to do. And in the midst of it all she was
grateful to Dennin for the way he helped her.
"Lind me a hand," he said to Hans, with whose assistance he managed
to mount the barrel.
He bent over so that Edith could adjust the rope about his neck.
Then he stood upright while Hans drew the rope taut across the
"Michael Dennin, have you anything to say?" Edith asked in a clear
voice that shook in spite of her.
Dennin shuffled his feet on the barrel, looked down bashfully like
a man making his maiden speech, and cleared his throat.
"I'm glad it's over with," he said. "You've treated me like a
Christian, an' I'm thankin' you hearty for your kindness."
"Then may God receive you, a repentant sinner," she said.
"Ay," he answered, his deep voice as a response to her thin one,
"may God receive me, a repentant sinner."
"Good-by, Michael," she cried, and her voice sounded desperate.
She threw her weight against the barrel, but it did not overturn.
"Hans! Quick! Help me!" she cried faintly.
She could feel her last strength going, and the barrel resisted
her. Hans hurried to her, and the barrel went out from under
She turned her back, thrusting her fingers into her ears. Then she
began to laugh, harshly, sharply, metallically; and Hans was
shocked as he had not been shocked through the whole tragedy.
Edith Nelson's break-down had come. Even in her hysteria she knew
it, and she was glad that she had been able to hold up under the
strain until everything had been accomplished. She reeled toward
"Take me to the cabin, Hans," she managed to articulate.
"And let me rest," she added. "Just let me rest, and rest, and
With Hans's arm around her, supporting her weight and directing her
helpless steps, she went off across the snow. But the Indians
remained solemnly to watch the working of the white man's law that
compelled a man to dance upon the air.