Songs of a Sourdough

Robert W. Service

Preview: Issue 1 of 11

The Law of the Yukon

This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain: "Send not your foolish and feeble; send me your strong and your sane. Strong for the red rage of battle; sane, for I harry them sore; Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core; Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat, Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace heat. Send me the best of your breeding, lend me your chosen ones; Them will I take to my bosom, them will I call my sons; Them will I gild with my treasure, them will I glut with my meat; But the others—the misfits, the failures—I trample under my feet. Dissolute, damned, and despairful, crippled and palsied and slain, Ye would send me the spawn of your gutters—Go! take back your spawn again.

"Wild and wide are my borders, stern as death is my sway; From my ruthless throne I have ruled alone for a million years and a day; Hugging my mighty treasure, waiting for man to come: Till he swept like a turbid torrent, and after him swept—the scum. The pallid pimp of the deadline, the enervate of the pen, One by one I weeded them out, for all that I sought was—Men. One by one I dismayed them, frighting them sore with my glooms; One by one I betrayed them unto my manifold dooms. Drowned them like rats in my rivers, starved them like curs on my plains, Rotted the flesh that was left them, poisoned the blood in their veins; Burst with my winter upon them, searing forever their sight, Lashed them with fungus-white faces, whimpering wild in the night; Staggering blind through the storm-whirl, stumbling mad through the snow, Frozen stiff in the ice pack, brittle and bent like a bow; Featureless, formless, forsaken, scented by wolves in their flight, Left for the wind to make music through ribs that are glittering white; Gnawing the black crust of failure, searching the pit of despair, Crooking the toe in the trigger, trying to patter a prayer; Going outside with an escort, raving with lips all afoam; Writing a cheque for a million, drivelling feebly of home; Lost like a louse in the burning ... or else in tented town Seeking a drunkard's solace, sinking and sinking down; Steeped in the slime at the bottom, dead to a decent world, Lost 'mid the human flotsam, far on the frontier hurled; In the camp at the bend of the river, with its dozen saloons aglare, Its gambling dens a-riot, its gramophones all a-blare; Crimped with the crimes of a city, sin-ridden and bridled with lies, In the hush of my mountained vastness, in the flush of my midnight skies. Plague-spots, yet tools of my purpose, so natheless I suffer them thrive, Crushing my Weak in their clutches, that only my Strong may survive.

"But the others, the men of my mettle, the men who would 'stablish my fame, Unto its ultimate issue, winning me honour, not shame; Searching my uttermost valleys, fighting each step as they go, Shooting the wrath of my rapids, scaling my ramparts of snow; Ripping the guts of my mountains, looting the beds of my creeks, Them will I take to my bosom, and speak as a mother speaks. I am the land that listens, I am the land that broods; Steeped in eternal beauty, crystalline waters and woods. Long have I waited lonely, shunned as a thing accurst, Monstrous, moody, pathetic, the last of the lands and the first; Visioning campfires at twilight, sad with a longing forlorn, Feeling my womb o'er-pregnant with the seed of cities unborn. Wild and wide are my borders, stern as death is my sway, And I wait for the men who will win me—and I will not be won in a day; And I will not be won by weaklings, subtile, suave, and mild, But by men with the hearts of vikings, and the simple faith of a child; Desperate, strong, and resistless, unthrottled by fear or defeat, Them will I gild with my treasure, them will I glut with my meat.

"Lofty I stand from each sister land, patient and wearily wise, With the weight of a world of sadness in my quiet, passionless eyes; Dreaming alone of a people, dreaming alone of a day, When men shall not rape my riches, and curse me and go away; Making a bawd of my bounty, fouling the hand that gave— Till I rise in my wrath and I sweep on their path and I stamp them into a grave. Dreaming of men who will bless me, of women esteeming me good, Of children born in my borders, of radiant motherhood; Of cities leaping to stature, of fame like a flag unfurled, As I pour the tide of my riches in the eager lap of the world."

This is the Law of the Yukon, that only the Strong shall thrive; That surely the Weak shall perish, and only the Fit survive. Dissolute, damned, and despairful, crippled and palsied and slain, This is the Will of the Yukon—Lo! how she makes it plain!

The Parson's Son

This is the song of the parson's son, as he squats in his shack alone, On the wild, weird nights when the Northern Lights shoot up from the frozen zone, And it's sixty below, and couched in the snow the hungry huskies moan.

"I'm one of the Arctic brotherhood, I'm an old-time pioneer. I came with the first—O God! how I've cursed this Yukon—but still I'm here. I've sweated athirst in its summer heat, I've frozen and starved in its cold; I've followed my dreams by its thousand streams, I've toiled and moiled for its gold.

"Look at my eyes—been snow-blind twice; look where my foot's half gone; And that gruesome scar on my left cheek where the frost-fiend bit to the bone. Each one a brand of this devil's land, where I've played and I've lost the game, A broken wreck with a craze for 'hooch,' and never a cent to my name.

"This mining is only a gamble, the worst is as good as the best; I was in with the bunch and I might have come out right on top with the rest; With Cormack, Ladue and Macdonald—O God! but it's hell to think Of the thousands and thousands I've squandered on cards and women and drink.

"In the early days we were just a few, and we hunted and fished around, Nor dreamt by our lonely campfires of the wealth that lay under the ground. We traded in skins and whiskey, and I've often slept under the shade Of that lone birch-tree on Bonanza, where the first big find was made.

"We were just like a great big family, and every man had his squaw, And we lived such a wild, free, fearless life beyond the pale of the law; Till sudden there came a whisper, and it maddened us every man, And I got in on Bonanza before the big rush began.

"Oh, those Dawson days, and the sin and the blaze, and the town all open wide! (If God made me in His likeness, sure He let the devil inside.) But we all were mad, both the good and the bad, and as for the women, well— No spot on the map in so short a space has hustled more souls to hell.

"Money was just like dirt there, easy to get and to spend. I was all caked in on a dance-hall jade, but she shook me in the end. It put me queer, and for near a year I never drew sober breath, Till I found myself in the bughouse ward with a claim staked out on death.

"Twenty years in the Yukon, struggling along its creeks; Roaming its giant valleys, scaling its godlike peaks; Bathed in its fiery sunsets, fighting its fiendish cold, Twenty years in the Yukon ... twenty years—and I'm old.

"Old and weak, but no matter, there's 'hooch' in the bottle still. I'll hitch up the dogs tomorrow, and mush down the trail to Bill. It's so long dark, and I'm lonesome—I'll just lay down on the bed, Tomorrow I'll go ... tomorrow ... I guess I'll play on the red.

"... Come, Kit, your pony is saddled. I'm waiting, dear, in the court ... ... Minnie, you devil, I'll kill you if you skip with that flossy sport ... ... How much does it go to the pan, Bill? ... play up, School, and play the game ... ... Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name ..."

This was the song of the parson's son, as he lay in his bunk alone, Ere the fire went out and the cold crept in, and his blue lips ceased to moan, And the hunger-maddened malamutes had torn him flesh from bone.

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