Mammoths were huge, hairy, elephant-like mammals that inhabited cold
regions of Earth from 4 million to 10,000 years ago. These beasts were
ideally suited for the Ice Age, and cave paintings from that period depict
prehistoric men hunting them for food. Today, the fossil remains of
mammoths are commonplace in Alaska, often unearthed as prospectors pan
gravel for gold. Well preserved frozen bodies of mammoths have also been
found in Siberia.
I wash my hands of him at the start. I cannot father his tales, nor will I be responsible for them. I make these preliminary reservations, observe, to guard my own integrity. I possess a certain definite position in a small way, also a wife; and for the good name of the community that honors my existence with its approval, and for the sake of her posterity and mine, I cannot take the chances I once did, nor foster probabilities with the careless improvidence of youth. So, I repeat, I wash my hands of him, this Nimrod, this mighty hunter, this homely, blue-eyed, freckle-faced Thomas Stevens.
Having been honest to myself, and to whatever prospective olive branches my wife may be pleased to tender me, I can now afford to be generous. I shall not criticize the tales Thomas Stevens told me, and, further, I shall withhold judgment. If asked why, I can only add that judment I have none. Long have I pondered, weighed, and balanced, but never have my conclusions been twice the same--forsooth! because Thomas Stevens is a greater man than I. If he has told truths, well and good; if untruths, still well and good. For who can prove? Or disprove? I eliminate myself from the proposition, while those of little faith may do as I have done--go find the said Thomas Stevens, and discuss to his face the various matters which, if fortune serve, I shall relate. As to where he may be found? The directions are simple: anywhere between 53 north latitude and the Pole, on the one hand; and, on the other, the likeliest hunting grounds that lie between the east coast of Siberia and the farthermost Labrador. That he is there, somewhere, within that clearly defined territory, I pledge the word of an honorable man whose expectations entail straight speaking and right living.
Thomas Stevens may have toyed prodigiously with truth, but when we first met (it were well to mark this point), he wandered into my camp when I thought myself a thousand miles beyond the outermost post of civilization. At the sight of his human face, the first in weary months, I could have sprung forward and folded him in my arms (and I am not by any means a demonstrative man); but to him his visit seemed the most casual thing under the sun. He just strolled into the light of my camp, passed the time of day after the custom of men on beaten trails, threw my snowshoes the one way and a couple of dogs the other, and so made room for himself by the fire. Said he'd just dropped in to borrow a pinch of soda and see if I had any decent tobacco. He plucked forth an ancient pipe, loaded it with painstaking care, and, without as much as a by your leave, whacked half the tobacco of my pouch into his. Yes, the stuff was fairly good. He sighed with the contentment of the just, and literally absorbed the smoke from the crisping yellow flakes, and it did my smoker's heart good to behold him.
Hunter? Trapper? Prospector? He shrugged his shoulders No; just sort of knocking about. Had come up from the Great Slave some time since, and was thinking of trapesing over into the Yukon. The Factor of Koshim had spoken about the discoveries on the Klondike, and he was of a mind to run over for a peep. I noticed that he spoke of the Klondike in the archaic vernacular, calling it the Reindeer River--a conceited custom the Old Timers employ against the chechaquos and all tenderfeet in general. But he did it so naively and as such a matter of course that there was no sting, and I forgave him. He also had it in view, he said, before he crossed the divide into the Yukon, to make a little run up Fort o' Good Hope way.
Now Fort o' Good Hope is a far journey to the north, over and beyond the Circle, in a place where the feet of few men have trod; and when a nondescript ragamuffin comes in out of the night, from nowhere in particular, to sit by one's fire and discourse on such in terms of "trapesing" and "a little run", it is fair time to rouse up and shake off the dream. Wherefore I looked about; saw the fly, and, underneath, the pine boughs spread for the sleeping furs; saw the grub sacks, the camera, the frosty breaths of the dogs circling on the edge of the light; and, above, a great streamer of the aurora bridging the zenith from southeast to northwest. I shivered. There is a magic in the northland night, that steals in on one like fevers from malarial marshes. You are clutched and downed before you are aware. Then I looked to the snowshoes, lying prone and crossed where he had flung them. Also I had an eye on my tobacco pouch. Half, at least, of its goodly store had vamoosed. That settled it. Fancy had not tricked me after all.
Crazed with suffering, I thought, looking steadfastly at the man--one of those wild stampeders, strayed far from his bearings and wandering like a lost soul through great vastnesses and unknown deeps. Oh well, let his moods slip on, until, mayhap, he gathers his tangled wits together. Who knows?--the mere sound of a fellow creature's voice may bring all straight again.
So I led him on in talk, and soon I marveled, for he talked of game and the ways thereof. He had killed the Siberian wolf of westernmost Alaska, and the chamois in the secret Rockies. He averred he knew the haunts where the last buffalo still roamed; that he had hung on the flanks of the caribou when they ran by the hundred thousand, and slept in the Great Barrens on the musk ox's winter trail.
And I shifted my judgment accordingly (the first revision, but by no account the last), and deemed him a monumental effigy of truth. Why it was I know not, but the spirit moved me to repeat a tale told me by a man who had dwelt in the land too long to know better. It was of the great bear that hugs the steep slopes of St. Elias, never descending to the levels of the gentler inclines. Now God so constituted this creature for its hillside habitat that the legs of one side are all of a foot longer than those of the other. This is mighty convenient, as will be readily admitted. So I hunted this rare beast in my own name, told it in the first person, present tense, painted the requisite locale, gave it the necessary garnishings and touches of verisimilitude, and looked to see the man stunned by the recital.
Not he. Had he doubted, I could have forgiven him. Had he objected, denying the dangers of such a hunt by virtue of the animal's inability to turn about and go the other way, I could have taken him by the hand for the true sportsman he was. Not he. He sniffed, looked at me, and sniffed again; then gave my tobacco due praise, thrust one foot into my lap, and bade me examine the gear. It was a mukluk of the Innuit pattern, sewn together with sinew threads, and devoid of beads or furbelows. But it was the skin itself that was remarkable. In that it was all of half an inch thick, it reminded me of walrus hide; but there the resemblance ceased, for no walrus ever bore so marvelous a growth of hair. On the side and ankles this hair was well-nigh worn away, from friction with underbrush and snow; but around the top and down the more sheltered back it was coarse, dirty black, and very thick. I parted it with difficulty and looked beneath for the fine fur that is common with northern animals, but found it in this case to be absent. This however, was compensated for by the length. Indeed, the tufts that had survived wear and tear measured all of seven or eight inches.
I looked up into the man's face, and he pulled his foot down and asked, "Find hide like that on your St. Elias bear?"
I shook my head. "Nor on any other creature of land or sea," I answered candidly. The thickness of it, and the length of the hair, puzzled me.
"That," he said, and said without the slightest hint of impressiveness, "that came from a mammoth."
"Nonsense!" I exclaimed, for I could not forbear the protest of my unbelief. "The mammoth, my dear sir, long ago vanished from the earth. We know it once existed by the fossil remains we have unearthed, and by a frozen carcass the Siberian sun saw fit to melt out from the bosom of a glacier; but we also know that no living specimen exists. Our explorers--"
At this word he broke in impatiently. "Your explorers? Pish! A weakly breed. Let us hear no more of them. But tell me, O man, what you may know of the mammoth and his ways."
Beyond contradiction, this was leading to a yarn; so I baited my hook by ransacking my memory for whatever data I possessed on the subject in hand. To begin with, I emphasized that the animal was prehistoric, and marshaled all my facts in support of this. I mentioned the Siberian sandbars that abounded with ancient mammoth bones; spoke of the large quantities of fossil ivory purchased from the Innuits by the Alaska Commercial Company; and acknowledged having myself mined six- and eight-foot tusks from the pay gravel of the Klondike creeks. "All fossils," I concluded, "found amidst debris deposited through countless ages."
"I remember when I was a kid," Thomas Stevens sniffed (he had a most confounded way of sniffing), "that I saw a petrified watermelon. Hence, though mistaken persons sometimes delude themselves into thinking they are really growing or eating them, there are no such things as extant watermelons."
"But the question of food," I objected, ignoring his point, which was puerile and without bearing. "The soil must bring forth vegetable life in lavish abundance to support so monstrous creatures. Nowhere in the North is the soil so prolific. Ergo, the mammoth cannot exist."
"I pardon your ignorance concerning many matters of this Northland, for you are a young man and have traveled little; but, at the same time, I am inclined to agree with you on one thing. The mammoth no longer exists. How do I know? I killed the last one with my own right arm."
Thus spake Nimrod, the Mighty Hunter. I threw a stick of firewood at the dogs and bade them quit their unholy howling, and waited. Undoubtedly this liar of singular felicity would open his mouth and requite me for my St. Elias bear.
"It was this way," he at last began, after the appropriate silence had intervened. "I was in camp one day--"
"Where?" I interrupted.
He waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the northeast, where stretched a terra incognita into which vastness few men have strayed and fewer emerged. "I was in camp one day with Klooch. Klooch was as handsome a little kamooks as ever whined betwixt the traces or shoved nose into a camp kettle. Her father was a full-blood malemute from Russian Pastilik on Bering Sea, and I bred her, and with understanding, out of a clean-legged bitch of the Hudson Bay stock. I tell you, O man, she was a corker companion. And now, on this day I have in mind, she was brought to pup through a pure wild wolf of the woods--gray, and long of limb, with big lungs and no end of staying powers. Say! Was there ever the like? It was a new breed of dog I had started, and I could look forward to big things.
"As I have said, she was brought neatly to pup, and safely delivered. I was squatting on my hams over the litter--seven sturdy, blind little beggars--when from behind came a bray of trumpets and crash of brass. There was a rush, like the wind squall that kicks the heels of the rain, and I was midway to my feet when knocked flat on my face. At the same instant I heard Klooch sigh, very much as a man does when you've planted your fist in his belly. You can stake your sack I lay quiet, but I twisted my head around and saw a huge bulk swaying above me. Then the blue sky flashed into view and I got to my feet. A hairy mountain of flesh was just disappearing in the underbrush on the edge of the open. I caught a rear-end glimpse, with a stiff tail, as big in girth as my body, standing out straight behind. The next second only a tremendous hole remained in the thicket, though I could still hear sounds like a tornado dying quickly away, underbrush ripping and tearing, and trees snapping and crashing.
"I cast about for my rifle. It had been lying on the ground with the muzzle against a log; but now the stock was smashed, the barrel out of line, and the working gear in a thousand bits. Then I looked for the slut, and--and what do you suppose?"
I shook my head.
"May my soul burn in a thousand hells if there was anything left of her! Klooch, the seven sturdy, blind little beggars--gone, all gone. Where she had stretched was a slimy, bloody depression in the soft earth, all of a yard in diameter, and around the edges a few scattered hairs."
I measured three feet on the snow, threw about it a circle, and glanced at Nimrod.
"The beast was 30 long and 20 high," he answered, "and its tusks scaled over six times three feet. I couldn't believe, myself, at the time, for all that it had just happened. But if my senses had played me, there was the broken gun and the hole in the bush. And there was--or, rather, there was not--Klooch and the pups. O man, it makes me hot all over now when I think of it. Klooch! Another Eve! The mother of a new race! And a rampaging, ranting, old bull mammoth, like a second flood, wiping them, root and branch, off the face of the earth! Do you wonder that the blood-soaked earth cried out to high God? Or that I grabbed the hand axe and took the trail?"
"The hand axe?" I exclaimed, startled out of myself by the picture. "The hand axe, and a big bull mammoth, 30 feet long, 20 feet--"
Nimrod joined me in my merriment, chuckling gleefully. "Wouldn't it kill you?" he cried. "Wasn't it a beaver's dream? Many's the time I've laughed about it since, but at the time it was no laughing matter, I was that danged mad, what with the gun and Klooch. Think of it, O man! A brand-new, unclassified, uncopyrighted breed, and wiped out before it opened its eyes or took out its intention papers! Well, so be it. Life's full of disappointments, and rightly so. Meat is best after a famine, and a bed softer after a hard trail.
"As I was saying, I took out after the beast with the hand axe, and clung to its heels down the valley; but when he circled back toward the head, I was left winded at the lower end. Speaking of grub, I might as well stop long enough to explain a couple of points. Up thereabouts, among the mountains, is an almighty curious formation. There is no end of little valleys, each like the other much as peas in a pod, and all neatly tucked away with straight, rocky walls rising on all sides. And at the lower ends are always openings where the drainage or glaciers must have broken out. The only way in is through these mouths, and they are small, and some smaller than others. As to grub--you've slushed around on the rain-soaked islands of the Alaskan coast down Sitka way, most likely, seeing as you're a traveler. And you know how stuff grows there--big, juicy, and jungly. Well, that's the way it was with those valleys. Thick, rich soil, with ferns and grasses and such things in patches higher than your head. Rain three days out of four during the summer months; and food in them for a thousand mammoths, to say nothing of small game for man.
"But to get back. Down at the lower end of the valley I got winded and gave over. I began to speculate, for when my wind left me my dander got hotter and hotter, and I knew I'd never know peace of mind till I dined on mammoth foot. And I knew, also, that that stood for skookum mamook pukapuk--excuse Chinook, I mean there was a big fight coming. Now the mouth of my valley was very narrow, and the walls steep. High up on one side was one of those big pivot rocks, or balancing rocks, as some call them, weighing all of a couple hundred tons. Just the thing. I hit back for camp, keeping an eye open so the bull couldn't slip past, and got my ammunition. It was worthless with the rifle smashed; so I opened the shells, planted the powder under the rock, and touched it off with slow fuse. Wasn't much of a charge, but the old boulder tilted up lazily and dropped down into place, with just space enough to let the creek drain nicely. Now I had him."
"But how did you have him?" I queried. "Who ever heard of a man killing a mammoth with a hand axe? And, for that matter, with anything else?"
"O man, have I not told you I was mad?" Nimrod replied, with a slight manifestation of sensitiveness. "Mad clean through, what of Klooch and the gun? Also, was I not a hunter? And was this not new and most unusual game? A hand axe? Pish! I did not need it. Listen, and you shall hear of a hunt, such as might have happened in the youth of the world when caveman rounded up the kill with hand axe of stone. Such would have served me well. Now is it not a fact that man can outwalk the dog or horse? That he can wear them out with the intelligence of his endurance?"
"My valley was perhaps five miles around. The mouth was closed. There was no way out. A timid beast was that bull mammoth, and I had him at my mercy. I got on his heels again, hollered like a fiend, pelted him with cobbles, and raced him around the valley three times before I knocked off for supper. Don't you see? A racecourse! A man and a mammoth! A hippodrome, with sun, moon, and stars to referee!
"It took me two months to do it, but I did it. And that's no beaver dream. Round and round I ran him, me traveling on the inner circle, eating jerked meat and salmon berries on the run, and snatching winks of sleep between. Of course, he'd get desperate at times and turn. Then I'd head for soft ground where the creek spread out, and lay anathema upon him and his ancestry, and dare him to come. But he was too wise to bog in a mud puddle. Once he pinned me in against the walls, and I crawled back into a deep crevice and waited. Whenever he felt for me with his trunk, I'd belt him with the hand axe till he pulled out, shrieking fit to split my eardrums, he was that mad. He knew he had me and didn't have me, and it near drove him wild. But he was no man's fool. He knew he was safe as long as I stayed in the crevice, and he made up his mind to keep me there. And he was dead right, only he hadn't figured on the commissary. There was neither grub nor water around that spot, so on the face of it he couldn't keep up the siege. He'd stand before the opening for hours, keeping an eye on me and flapping mosquitoes away with his big blanket ears. Then the thirst would come on him and he'd ramp round and roar till the earth shook, calling me every name he could lay tongue to. This was to frighten me, of course; and when he thought I was sufficiently impressed, he'd back away softly and try to make a sneak for the creek. Sometimes I'd let him get almost there--only a couple hundred yards away it was--when out I'd pop and back he'd come, lumbering along like the old landslide he was. After I'd done this a few times, and he'd figured it out, he changed his tactics. Grasped the time element, you see. Without a word of warning, away he'd go, tearing for the water like mad, scheming to get there and back before I ran away. Finally, after cursing me most horribly, he raised the siege and deliberately stalked off to the waterhole.
"That was the only time he penned me--three days of it--but after that the hippodrome never stopped. Round, and round, and round, like a six days' go-as-I-please, for he never pleased. My clothes went to rags and tatters, but I never stopped to mend, till at last I ran naked as a son of earth, with nothing but the old hand axe in one hand and a cobble in the other. In fact, I never stopped, save for peeps of sleep in the crannies and ledges of the cliffs. As for the bull, he got perceptibly thinner and thinner--must have lost several tons at least--and nervous as a schoolmarm on the wrong side of matrimony. When I'd come up with him and yell, or lam him with a rock at long range, he'd jump like a skittish colt and tremble all over. Then he'd pull out on the run, tail and trunk waving stiff, head over one shoulder and wicked eyes blazing, and the way he'd swear at me was something dreadful. A most immoral beast he was, a murderer, and a blasphemer.
"But toward the end he quit all this, and fell to whimpering and crying like a baby. His spirit broke and he became a quivering jelly mountain of misery. He'd get attacks of palpitation of the heart, and stagger around like a drunken man, and fall down and bark his shins. And then he'd cry, but always on the run. O man, the gods themselves would have wept with him, and you yourself or any other man. It was pitiful, and there was so much of it, but I only hardened my heart and hit up the pace. At last I wore him clean out, and he lay down, broken-winded, brokenhearted, hungry and thirsty. When I found he wouldn't budge, I hamstrung him, and spent the better part of the day wading into him with the hand axe, he a-sniffing and sobbing till I worked in far enough to shut him off. 30 feet long he was, and 20 high, and a man could sling a hammock between his tusks and sleep comfortably. Barring the fact that I had run most of the juices out of him, he was fair eating, and his four feet, alone, roasted whole, would have lasted a man a twelvemonth. I spent the winter there myself."
"And where is this valley?" I asked.
He waved his hand in the direction of the northeast, and said: "Your tobacco is very good. I carry a fair share of it in my pouch, but I shall carry the recollection of it until I die. In token of my appreciation, and in return for the moccasins on your own feet, I will present to you these mukluks. They commemorate Klooch and the seven blind little beggars. They are also souvenirs of the oldest breed of animal on earth, and the youngest, and their chief virtue lies in that they will never wear out."
Having effected the exchange, he knocked the ashes from his pipe, gripped my
hand good night and wandered off through the snow. Concerning his tale, for
which I have already disclaimed responsibility, I recommend those of little
faith to visit the Smithsonian Institute. If they bring the requisite
credentials and do not come during vacation time, they will undoubtedly gain
an audience with Professor Dolvidson. The mukluks are in his possession, and
he will verify, not the manner in which they were obtained, but the material
of which they are composed. When he states that they are made from the skin
of the mammoth, the scientific world accepts his verdict. What more would
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