"North" by Joseph Fick

Chapter 32 The Offer p387~393

Morton Jenson and Tobias Smith sat near a small fire
trying to absorb what little warmth it gave off. Though
together, each man was alone with his own thoughts,
remembering the past with a certain imagined fondness
that people often do when their present conditions are
miserable and their future uncertain.
In the dark desolate place the men occupied, memories
of distant London didn’t seem so bad, Warm Gin, harsh
laughter, a vulgar joke, the pinch of a woman’s bottom,
songs around a smokey piano, arm and arm with your
mates, hoisting a glass of beer. Good tobacco, Roast beef
with all the trimmings, blood pudding, yellow gas lights
burning over the streets when evening fell, the sounds of
carriages rolling over city streets, dandy’s with canes and
top hats, ladies with long silk gloves and opera glasses.
They were wishful memories, perhaps memories they
thought they should have, regardless if they were true or
not.
The recollections the two men should have had were in
truth, different. Tobias Smith never had roast beef with
all the trimmings nor did he ever enjoy songs around a
smoky piano with smiling comrades. Warm gin was the
only truth in his memory and it was rare when he could
afford to buy it himself, very rare indeed. He had to play
the fool to satisfy any need there, a clown that caused
others to laugh and throw a coin or two. He was an
outcast, always had been, hell, his own mother didn’t
even love him. With his looks and mental capacity, he
was an easy target for anyone to blow off some steam, be
it physical or verbal. Still, that didn’t mean he didn’t
have feelings. He wanted to be accepted like other people,
like the people he’d seen laughing in England, seen,
mind you, never joining in on their merriment, but often
the subject of it. He sighed and took a drink from the
bottle in his hand.
Jenson looked at the ugly little man and reached out.
“Gimmie that bottle,” he said, Smith meekly complied
and handed it over. He put the bottle to his lips and
tipped it back receiving only a thin trickle of the bitter
alcohol it had contained. Disgusted, he threw it out into
the darkness and heard the glass shatter against a stone
which had interrupted its flight.
“Get another bottle Smith!” slurred Jenson more surly
than usual. The ugly little man knew that he couldn’t
win any argument he might try to engage in and instead
silently got up and walked over to a crude wooden case
that held what they needed.
For a moment Jenson was by himself, which suited
him fine. He wasn’t that fond of Smith, but with Rodgers
dead, he was the only one Jenson could have a somewhat
mindless half ass conversation with in this camp of
thieves they found themselves in. Like Smith, Jenson
knew memories he would have liked to have had, but
knew it was foolish to try to pretend. He had a wife or at
least he used to, years back. She left him after a very
loud and violent argument. He had beat her one too
many times, not that she didn’t deserve it, she was
always holdin’ out on him for one thing or another, bitch!
Certainly wasn’t worth all the trouble he put up with, he
was best rid of her. The London he knew was filthy, with
bad air and equally bad water. Beggars and thieves
roamed the streets in search of easy marks. With the
rent man due and his woman gone, earning her money
against a dirty wall for somebody else, Jenson had to get
out of town in a hurry to avoid being sent to a debtor’s
prison and a whaling ship leaving to parts unknown and
asking no questions seemed the best way to do it. He had
his regrets about leaving with Keelut and that idiot
Smith but ever the opportunist, maybe Jenson could
work the situation to his advantage.
Smith returned with a bottle which Jenson quickly
opened taking a large gulp to satisfy his thirst. “That’s
good,” burped Jenson, who wiped his mouth afterwards.
“Hey Morton, how long ya think we’ll be heres?”
Jenson shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know Tobias,
how the hell could I knows that?”
Smith shrugged his shoulders in return. “I don’t know
Morton, I just thought ya might, that’s all.”
“Well, I don’t,” said his companion gruffly. “So don’t
asks me again.”
“Ok, ok Morton, don’t get mad at me.”
Jenson sighed and looked at the fire. Well this place is
as good as any, He thought, might as well make the best
of it. He felt someone standing above him and looked
over his shoulder to see Ogwah standing there.
“Lak,” the Eskimo said simply.
“What? Lak wants to see me?” asked Jenson.
“Lak,” said Ogwah again in a manner that showed he
was indifferent to whether the former English whale
man understood him or not.
Knowing he wouldn’t get anything else from the
Eskimo, he stood up with some annoyance and walked
over the cold rocky ground to the fire where Lak kept his
consul. Upon Jenson’s arrival Lak invited him to sit
down and dismissed all there with the exception of Thah,
who spoke the Englishman’s tongue.
After taking his place, Jenson looked at the older
leader a little more carefully in the flickering light. Lak
was obviously a man who was used to hardship, his
scarred and weather beaten features attested to that. His
hair was long and greasy with streaks of grey. He rarely
smiled and when he did, it usually meant something bad
had happened or was about to happen and his eyes could
bore through a man with a fierce intensity that could
unsettle even the most stalwart of individuals.
Lak shifted his gaze from the flickering flames of
warmth and looked at the man whom he had invited to
share his fire, though Jenson wasn’t much to look at that
much was for sure. Pale skin, thin in frame and heavily
bearded, Lak could see his yellowing rotten teeth when
he opened his mouth.
Not the most intelligent man in the group, his
following Keelut was proof of that, but smarter than that
other blubbering fool and bully enough for Lak had in
mind. Lak turned his attention back to the fire and
began to speak with Thah translating.
“I’ve been watching you,” said Lak without preamble.
Jenson stiffened, what did Lak know? He wondered,
hoping his nervousness wasn’t showing. Lak lit up a
cigar and puffed on it until it began to glow.
“I don’t understand why you follow Keelut,” said the
Inuit leader blowing out a cloud of white smoke into the
cold night air, “You appear to be a man who can handle
things pretty well on your own.”
Jenson shrugged his shoulders trying to act nonchalant.
“Well, I don’t exactly follow Keelut, Mr. Lak, but there
was a bit a trouble away back an me and Tobias, we had
to get out in a hurry,” he said, hoping his words might
bind him a little more to the leader with whom he was
speaking and the group he was living with.
Lak nodded, he knew all about the incidents that
Keelut and his small group of incompetent fools were
responsible for, the rape of Ahnah, the thefts. Not that
Lak disapproved, he just thought they showed
desperation and lacked any style.
“Do you know how to handle guns?” asked Lak.
Jenson nodded his head and smiled. “Sergeant I was
Mr. Lak, British Army. Fought against the Zulu’s in
Africa I did. Savages, heathen savages, each and every
one of ’em!”
Thah translated Jenson’s words with some skepticism.
“He says he was a sergeant, but I don’t think so. He says
he fought in a place called “Africa” against people he
calls savages.”
“Where is “Africa” and what are savages?” asked Lak.
Thah thought for a moment. “It’s a far place, a hot
place, much different than here.”
“And savages?” asked Lak again.
Thah smiled, “It’s what the outsiders call anyone who
is not like them.”
“So we are savages?” said Lak.
“Yes.”
“What’s a sergeant?”
“In the Army it’s a man who leads others, but this
man…” said Thah, letting his statement trail.
Lak nodded his head, “Yes, I understand your meaning,
still people follow in army, was he in the army,
truthfully?”
“Army, true?” asked Thah, looking impressed with
what Jenson had told them.
Jenson smiled. “Absolutely, Guv, wore the red tunic
myself, service to the Queen and country, ya know.”
Lak spoke through Thah. “You’re going with some men
with guns. I need a good man to train and lead them.”
“You can count on me Mr. Lak.”
“Thah will go with you he will be your second.”
Jenson nodded his head, he knew he had little choice in
the matter but he thought he’d better put up a front to
show them he was no push over. “Ok,” he said, “you need
me, what do I get out of this?”
Lak smiled, he had never needed anyone but let the
outsider think what he wanted. “I need a good second
man,” said Lak. “I think you might be the one. You do
this and you will be rewarded.”
Jenson looked relieved, finally he thought, his true
worth was being accepted, an offer worthy of him or so he
believed and he wasn’t far from the truth.
“Let us drink,” said Lak, which Jenson readily agreed
to. This was going to be a great partnership.
Smith was sitting alone when Jenson staggered back
and looking very pleased with himself sat down with a
heavy thud, his back resting against the crate which held
their drink.
“What’d he want Morton? Huh? What’d Mr. Lak want?”
questioned Smith in a whining manner.
Jenson tilted his head back and grinned, “Well Tobias
let’s just say old Lak was impressed with my army
experience.”
“But Morton, you was only in the army a year, afore
they kicked ya out.”
“It don’t matter!” said Jenson angrily, “I got experience
and know how.”
“Experience and know how in what Morton? You said
yourself, you was in irons most of the time, ya never even
left the country.”
“It don’t matter, I got experience, and that’s what
counts. An if ya know what’s good for ya, you’ll keep your
fuckin’ mouth shut!”
Smith looked hurt. “Ahh, jeez Morton, I wasn’t gonna
say nothing, I mean I just wanted to know, that’s all.
Really, I won’t say nothing Morton, really.”
Jenson narrowed his eyes, “See, that you don’t Tobias,
be a shame if ya missed out.”
Smith nodded his head, he understood Jenson’s
meaning all too well. He knew when to be quiet.

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