Dutch Courage by Jack London
"Just our luck!"
Gus Lafee finished wiping his hands and sullenly threw the towel upon
the rocks. His attitude was one of deep dejection. The light seemed gone
out of the day and the glory from the golden sun. Even the keen mountain
air was devoid of relish, and the early morning no longer yielded its
"Just our luck!" Gus repeated, this time avowedly for the edification of
another young fellow who was busily engaged in sousing his head in the
water of the lake.
"What are you grumbling about, anyway?" Hazard Van Dorn lifted a
soap-rimmed face questioningly. His eyes were shut. "What's our luck?"
"Look there!" Gus threw a moody glance skyward. "Some duffer's got ahead
of us. We've been scooped, that's all!"
Hazard opened his eyes, and caught a fleeting glimpse of a white flag
waving arrogantly on the edge of a wall of rock nearly a mile above his
head. Then his eyes closed with a snap, and his face wrinkled
spasmodically. Gus threw him the towel, and uncommiseratingly watched
him wipe out the offending soap. He felt too blue himself to take stock
"Does it hurt—much?" Gus queried, coldly, without interest, as if it
were no more than his duty to ask after the welfare of his comrade.
"I guess it does," responded the suffering one.
"Soap's pretty strong, eh?—Noticed it myself."
"'Tisn't the soap. It's—it's that!" He opened his reddened eyes
and pointed toward the innocent white little flag. "That's what hurts."
Gus Lafee did not reply, but turned away to start the fire and begin
cooking breakfast. His disappointment and grief were too deep for
anything but silence, and Hazard, who felt likewise, never opened his
mouth as he fed the horses, nor once laid his head against their arching
necks or passed caressing fingers through their manes. The two boys were
blind, also, to the manifold glories of Mirror Lake which reposed at
their very feet. Nine times, had they chosen to move along its margin
the short distance of a hundred yards, could they have seen the sunrise
repeated; nine times, from behind as many successive peaks, could they
have seen the great orb rear his blazing rim; and nine times, had they
but looked into the waters of the lake, could they have seen the
phenomena reflected faithfully and vividly. But all the Titanic grandeur
of the scene was lost to them. They had been robbed of the chief
pleasure of their trip to Yosemite Valley. They had been frustrated in
their long-cherished design upon Half Dome, and hence were rendered
disconsolate and blind to the beauties and the wonders of the place.
Half Dome rears its ice-scarred head fully five thousand feet above the
level floor of Yosemite Valley. In the name itself of this great rock
lies an accurate and complete description. Nothing more nor less is it
than a cyclopean, rounded dome, split in half as cleanly as an apple
that is divided by a knife. It is, perhaps, quite needless to state that
but one-half remains, hence its name, the other half having been carried
away by the great ice-river in the stormy time of the Glacial Period. In
that dim day one of those frigid rivers gouged a mighty channel from out
the solid rock. This channel to-day is Yosemite Valley. But to return to
the Half Dome. On its northeastern side, by circuitous trails and stiff
climbing, one may gain the Saddle. Against the slope of the Dome the
Saddle leans like a gigantic slab, and from the top of this slab, one
thousand feet in length, curves the great circle to the summit of the
Dome. A few degrees too steep for unaided climbing, these one thousand
feet defied for years the adventurous spirits who fixed yearning eyes
upon the crest above.
One day, a couple of clear-headed mountaineers had proceeded to insert
iron eye-bolts into holes which they drilled into the rock every few
feet apart. But when they found themselves three hundred feet above the
Saddle, clinging like flies to the precarious wall with on either hand a
yawning abyss, their nerves failed them and they abandoned the
enterprise. So it remained for an indomitable Scotchman, one George
Anderson, finally to achieve the feat. Beginning where they had left
off, drilling and climbing for a week, he had at last set foot upon that
awful summit and gazed down into the depths where Mirror Lake reposed,
nearly a mile beneath.
In the years which followed, many bold men took advantage of the huge
rope ladder which he had put in place; but one winter ladder, cables and
all were carried away by the snow and ice. True, most of the eye-bolts,
twisted and bent, remained. But few men had since essayed the hazardous
undertaking, and of those few more than one gave up his life on the
treacherous heights, and not one succeeded.
But Gus Lafee and Hazard Van Dorn had left the smiling valley-land of
California and journeyed into the high Sierras, intent on the great
adventure. And thus it was that their disappointment was deep and
grievous when they awoke on this morning to receive the forestalling
message of the little white flag.
"Camped at the foot of the Saddle last night and went up at the first
peep of day," Hazard ventured, long after the silent breakfast had been
tucked away and the dishes washed.
Gus nodded. It was not in the nature of things that a youth's spirits
should long remain at low ebb, and his tongue was beginning to loosen.
"Guess he's down by now, lying in camp and feeling as big as Alexander,"
the other went on. "And I don't blame him, either; only I wish it were
"You can be sure he's down," Gus spoke up at last. "It's mighty warm on
that naked rock with the sun beating down on it at this time of year.
That was our plan, you know, to go up early and come down early. And any
man, sensible enough to get to the top, is bound to have sense enough to
do it before the rock gets hot and his hands sweaty."
"And you can be sure he didn't take his shoes with, him." Hazard rolled
over on his back and lazily regarded the speck of flag fluttering
briskly on the sheer edge of the precipice. "Say!" He sat up with a
start. "What's that?"
A metallic ray of light flashed out from the summit of Half Dome, then a
second and a third. The heads of both boys were craned backward on the
instant, agog with excitement.
"What a duffer!" Gus cried. "Why didn't he come down when it was cool?"
Hazard shook his head slowly, as if the question were too deep for
immediate answer and they had better defer judgment.
The flashes continued, and as the boys soon noted, at irregular
intervals of duration and disappearance. Now they were long, now short;
and again they came and went with great rapidity, or ceased altogether
for several moments at a time.
"I have it!" Hazard's face lighted up with the coming of understanding.
"I have it! That fellow up there is trying to talk to us. He's flashing
the sunlight down to us on a pocket-mirror—dot, dash; dot, dash; don't
The light also began to break in Gus's face. "Ah, I know! It's what they
do in war-time—signaling. They call it heliographing, don't they? Same
thing as telegraphing, only it's done without wires. And they use the
same dots and dashes, too."
"Yes, the Morse alphabet. Wish I knew it."
"Same here. He surely must have something to say to us, or he wouldn't
be kicking up all that rumpus."
Still the flashes came and went persistently, till Gus exclaimed: "That
chap's in trouble, that's what's the matter with him! Most likely he's
hurt himself or something or other."
"Go on!" Hazard scouted.
Gus got out the shotgun and fired both barrels three times in rapid
succession. A perfect flutter of flashes came back before the echoes had
ceased their antics. So unmistakable was the message that even doubting
Hazard was convinced that the man who had forestalled them stood in some
"Quick, Gus," he cried, "and pack! I'll see to the horses. Our trip
hasn't come to nothing, after all. We've got to go right up Half Dome
and rescue him. Where's the map? How do we get to the Saddle?"
"'Taking the horse-trail below the Vernal Falls,'" Gus read from the
guide-book, "'one mile of brisk traveling brings the tourist to the
world-famed Nevada Fall. Close by, rising up in all its pomp and glory,
the Cap of Liberty stands guard——"
"Skip all that!" Hazard impatiently interrupted. "The trail's what we
"Oh, here it is! 'Following the trail up the side of the fall will bring
you to the forks. The left one leads to Little Yosemite Valley, Cloud's
Rest, and other points.'"
"Hold on; that'll do! I've got it on the map now," again interrupted
Hazard. "From the Cloud's Rest trail a dotted line leads off to Half
Dome. That shows the trail's abandoned. We'll have to look sharp to find
it. It's a day's journey."
"And to think of all that traveling, when right here we're at the bottom
of the Dome!" Gus complained, staring up wistfully at the goal.
"That's because this is Yosemite, and all the more reason for us to
hurry. Come on! Be lively, now!"
Well used as they were to trail life, but few minutes sufficed to see
the camp equipage on the backs of the packhorses and the boys in the
saddle. In the late twilight of that evening they hobbled their animals
in a tiny mountain meadow, and cooked coffee and bacon for themselves at
the very base of the Saddle. Here, also, before they turned into their
blankets, they found the camp of the unlucky stranger who was destined
to spend the night on the naked roof of the Dome.
Dawn was brightening into day when the panting lads threw themselves
down at the summit of the Saddle and began taking off their shoes.
Looking down from the great height, they seemed perched upon the
ridgepole of the world, and even the snow-crowned Sierra peaks seemed
beneath them. Directly below, on the one hand, lay Little Yosemite
Valley, half a mile deep; on the other hand, Big Yosemite, a mile.
Already the sun's rays were striking about the adventurers, but the
darkness of night still shrouded the two great gulfs into which they
peered. And above them, bathed in the full day, rose only the majestic
curve of the Dome.
"What's that for?" Gus asked, pointing to a leather-shielded flask which
Hazard was securely fastening in his shirt pocket.
"Dutch courage, of course," was the reply. "We'll need all our nerve in
this undertaking, and a little bit more, and," he tapped the flask
significantly, "here's the little bit more."
"Good idea," Gus commented.
How they had ever come possessed of this erroneous idea, it would be
hard to discover; but they were young yet, and there remained for them
many uncut pages of life. Believers, also, in the efficacy of whisky as
a remedy for snake-bite, they had brought with them a fair supply of
medicine-chest liquor. As yet they had not touched it.
"Have some before we start?" Hazard asked.
Gus looked into the gulf and shook his head. "Better wait till we get up
higher and the climbing is more ticklish."
Some seventy feet above them projected the first eye-bolt. The winter
accumulations of ice had twisted and bent it down till it did not stand
more than a bare inch and a half above the rock—a most difficult object
to lasso as such a distance. Time and again Hazard coiled his lariat in
true cowboy fashion and made the cast, and time and again was he baffled
by the elusive peg. Nor could Gus do better. Taking advantage of
inequalities in the surface, they scrambled twenty feet up the Dome and
found they could rest in a shallow crevice. The cleft side of the Dome
was so near that they could look over its edge from the crevice and gaze
down the smooth, vertical wall for nearly two thousand feet. It was yet
too dark down below for them to see farther.
The peg was now fifty feet away, but the path they must cover to
get to it was quite smooth, and ran at an inclination of nearly fifty
degrees. It seemed impossible, in that intervening space, to find a
resting-place. Either the climber must keep going up, or he must slide
down; he could not stop. But just here rose the danger. The Dome was
sphere-shaped, and if he should begin to slide, his course would be, not
to the point from which he had started and where the Saddle would catch
him, but off to the south toward Little Yosemite. This meant a plunge of
half a mile.
"I'll try it," Gus said simply.
They knotted the two lariats together, so that they had over a hundred
feet of rope between them; and then each boy tied an end to his waist.
"If I slide," Gus cautioned, "come in on the slack and brace yourself.
If you don't, you'll follow me, that's all!"
"Ay, ay!" was the confident response. "Better take a nip before you
Gus glanced at the proffered bottle. He knew himself and of what he was
capable. "Wait till I make the peg and you join me. All ready?"
He struck out like a cat, on all fours, clawing energetically as he
urged his upward progress, his comrade paying out the rope carefully. At
first his speed was good, but gradually it dwindled. Now he was fifteen
feet from the peg, now ten, now eight—but going, oh, so slowly! Hazard,
looking up from his crevice, felt a contempt for him and disappointment
in him. It did look easy. Now Gus was five feet away, and after a
painful effort, four feet. But when only a yard intervened, he came to a
standstill—not exactly a standstill, for, like a squirrel in a wheel,
he maintained his position on the face of the Dome by the most desperate
He had failed, that was evident. The question now was, how to save
himself. With a sudden, catlike movement he whirled over on his back,
caught his heel in a tiny, saucer-shaped depression and sat up. Then his
courage failed him. Day had at last penetrated to the floor of the
valley, and he was appalled at the frightful distance.
"Go ahead and make it!" Hazard ordered; but Gus merely shook his head.
"Then come down!"
Again he shook his head. This was his ordeal, to sit, nerveless and
insecure, on the brink of the precipice. But Hazard, lying safely in his
crevice, now had to face his own ordeal, but one of a different nature.
When Gus began to slide—as he soon must—would he, Hazard, be able to
take in the slack and then meet the shock as the other tautened the rope
and darted toward the plunge? It seemed doubtful. And there he lay,
apparently safe, but in reality harnessed to death. Then rose the
temptation. Why not cast off the rope about his waist? He would be safe
at all events. It was a simple way out of the difficulty. There was no
need that two should perish. But it was impossible for such temptation
to overcome his pride of race, and his own pride in himself and in his
honor. So the rope remained about him.
"Come down!" he ordered; but Gus seemed to have become petrified.
"Come down," he threatened, "or I'll drag you down!" He pulled on the
rope to show he was in earnest.
"Don't you dare!" Gus articulated through his clenched teeth.
"Sure, I will, if you don't come!" Again he jerked the rope.
With a despairing gurgle Gus started, doing his best to work sideways
from the plunge. Hazard, every sense on the alert, almost exulting in
his perfect coolness, took in the slack with deft rapidity. Then, as the
rope began to tighten, he braced himself. The shock drew him half out of
the crevice; but he held firm and served as the center of the circle,
while Gus, with the rope as a radius, described the circumference and
ended up on the extreme southern edge of the Saddle. A few moments later
Hazard was offering him the flask.
"Take some yourself," Gus said.
"No; you. I don't need it."
"And I'm past needing it." Evidently Gus was dubious of the bottle and
Hazard put it away in his pocket. "Are you game," he asked, "or are you
going to give it up?"
"Never!" Gus protested. "I am game. No Lafee ever showed the
white feather yet. And if I did lose my grit up there, it was only for
the moment—sort of like seasickness. I'm all right now, and I'm going
to the top."
"Good!" encouraged Hazard. "You lie in the crevice this time, and I'll
show you how easy it is."
But Gus refused. He held that it was easier and safer for him to try
again, arguing that it was less difficult for his one hundred and
sixteen pounds to cling to the smooth rock than for Hazard's one hundred
and sixty-five; also that it was easier for one hundred and sixty-five
pounds to bring a sliding one hundred and sixteen to a stop than vice
versa. And further, that he had the benefit of his previous
experience. Hazard saw the justice of this, although it was with great
reluctance that he gave in.
Success vindicated Gus's contention. The second time, just as it seemed
as if his slide would be repeated, he made a last supreme effort and
gripped the coveted peg. By means of the rope, Hazard quickly joined
him. The next peg was nearly sixty feet away; but for nearly half that
distance the base of some glacier in the forgotten past had ground a
shallow furrow. Taking advantage of this, it was easy for Gus to lasso
the eye-bolt. And it seemed, as was really the case, that the hardest
part of the task was over. True, the curve steepened to nearly sixty
degrees above them, but a comparatively unbroken line of eye-bolts, six
feet apart, awaited the lads. They no longer had even to use the lasso.
Standing on one peg it was child's play to throw the bight of the rope
over the next and to draw themselves up to it.
A bronzed and bearded man met them at the top and gripped their hands in
"Talk about your Mont Blancs!" he exclaimed, pausing in the midst of
greeting them to survey the mighty panorama. "But there's nothing on all
the earth, nor over it, nor under it, to compare with this!" Then he
recollected himself and thanked them for coming to his aid. No, he was
not hurt or injured in any way. Simply because of his own carelessness,
just as he had arrived at the top the previous day, he had dropped his
climbing rope. Of course it was impossible to descend without it. Did
they understand heliographing? No? That was strange! How did they——
"Oh, we knew something was the matter," Gus interrupted, "from the way
you flashed when we fired off the shotgun."
"Find it pretty cold last night without blankets?" Hazard queried.
"I should say so. I've hardly thawed out yet."
"Have some of this." Hazard shoved the flask over to him.
The stranger regarded him quite seriously for a moment, then said,
"My dear fellow, do you see that row of pegs? Since it is my honest
intention to climb down them very shortly, I am forced to decline.
No, I don't think I'll have any, though I thank you just the same."
Hazard glanced at Gus and then put the flask back in his pocket. But
when they pulled the doubled rope through the last eye-bolt and set foot
on the Saddle, he again drew out the bottle.
"Now that we're down, we don't need it," he remarked, pithily. "And I've
about come to the conclusion that there isn't very much in Dutch
courage, after all." He gazed up the great curve of the Dome. "Look at
what we've done without it!"
Several seconds thereafter a party of tourists, gathered at the margin
of Mirror Lake, were astounded at the unwonted phenomenon of a whisky
flask descending upon them like a comet out of a clear sky; and all the
way back to the hotel they marveled greatly at the wonders of nature,