I took a contract to bury the body
of blasphemous Bill MacKie
Whenever, wherever or whatsoever
the manner of death he die --
Whether he die in the light o' day
or under the peak-faced moon;
In cabin or dance-hall, camp or dive,
mucklucks or patent shoon1;
On velvet tundra or virgin peak,
by glacier, drift or draw;
In muskeg hollow or canyon gloom,
by avalanche, fang or claw;
By battle, murder or sudden wealth,
by pestilence, "hooch" or lead --
I swore on the Book I would follow and look
till I found my tombless dead.
For Bill was a dainty kind of cuss,
and his mind was mighty sot
On a dinky patch with flowers and grass
in a civilized boneyard lot.
And where he died or how he died,
it didn't matter a damn
So long as he had a grave with frills
and a tombstone epigram.
So I promised him, and he paid the price
in good cheechako2 coin
(Which the same I blowed on that very night
down in the Tenderloin).
Then I painted a three-foot slab of pine:
"Here lies poor Bill MacKie,"
And I hung it up on my cabin wall
and I waited for Bill to die.
Years passed away, and at last one day
came a squaw with a story strange,
Of a long-deserted line of traps
'way back of the Bighorn range;
Of a little hut by the great divide,
and a white man stiff and still,
Lying there by his lonesome self,
and I figured it must be Bill.
So I thought of the contract I'd made with him,
and I took down from the shelf
The swell black box with the silver plate
he'd picked out for hisself;
And I packed it full of grub and "hooch,"
and I slung it on the sleigh;
Then I harnessed up my team of dogs
and was off at dawn of day.
You know what it's like in the Yukon wild
when it's sixty-nine below;
When the ice-worms wriggle their purple heads
through the crust of the pale blue snow;
When the pine trees crack like little guns
in the silence of the wood,
And the icicles hang down like tusks
under the parka hood;
When the stovepipe smoke breaks sudden off,
and the sky is weirdly lit,
And the careless feel of a bit of steel
burns like a red-hot spit;
When the mercury is a frozen ball,
and the frost-fiend stalks to kill --
Well, it was just like that that day
when I set out to look for Bill.
Oh, the awful hush that seemed to crush
me down on every hand,
As I blundered blind with a trail to find
through that blank and bitter land;
Half dazed, half crazed in the winter wild,
with its grim heart-breaking woes,
And the ruthless strife for a grip on life
that only the sourdough knows!
North by the compass, North I pressed;
river and peak and plain
Passed like a dream I slept to lose
and I waked to dream again.
River and plain and mighty peak --
and who could stand unawed?
As their summits blazed, he could stand undazed
at the foot of the throne of God.
North, aye, North, though a land accurst,
shunned by the scouring brutes,
And all I heard was my own harsh word
and the whine of the malamutes,
Till at last I came to a cabin squat,
built in the side of a hill,
And I burst in the door, and there on the floor,
frozen to death, lay Bill.
Ice, white ice, like a winding-sheet,
sheathing each smoke-grimed wall;
Ice on the stove-pipe, ice on the bed,
ice gleaming over all;
Sparkling ice on the dead man's chest,
glittering ice in his hair,
Ice on his fingers, ice in his heart,
ice in his glassy stare;
Hard as a log and trussed like a frog,
with his arms and legs outspread.
I gazed at the coffin I'd brought for him
and I gazed at the gruesome dead,
And at last I spoke: "Bill liked his joke;
but still, goldarn his eyes,
A man had ought to consider his mates
in the way he goes and dies."
Have you ever stood in an Arctic hut
in the shadow of the Pole,
With a little coffin six by three
and a grief you can't control?
Have you ever sat by a frozen corpse
that looks at you with a grin,
And that seems to say: "You may try all day,
but you'll never jam me in"?
I'm not a man of the quitting kind,
but I never felt so blue
As I sat there gazing at that stiff
and studying what I'd do.
Then I rose and I kicked off the husky dogs
that were nosing round about,
And I lit a roaring fire in the stove,
and I started to thaw Bill out.
Well, I thawed and thawed for thirteen days,
but it didn't seem no good;
His arms and legs stuck out like pegs,
as if they was made of wood.
Till at last I said: "It ain't no use --
he's froze to hard to thaw;
He's obstinate and he won't lie straight,
so I guess I got to -- saw."
So I sawed off poor Bill's arms and legs,
and I laid him snug and straight
In the little coffin he picked hisself,
with the dinky silver plate;
And I came nigh near to shedding a tear
as I nailed him safely down;
Then I stowed him away in my Yukon sleigh,
and I started back to town.
So I buried him as the contract called
in a narrow grave and deep,
And there he's waiting the Great Clean-up,
when the Judgment sluice-heads sweep;
And I smoke my pipe and I meditate
in the light of the Midnight Sun,
and sometimes I wonder if they was,
the awful things I done.
And as I sit and the parson talks,
expounding on the Law,
I often think of poor old Bill --
and how hard he was to saw.
Robert William Service, from The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses, published 1907. Service's poetry was innovative in its time - evocative and full of imagery, but slangy and with a seamy underbelly that opened it to a wider audience. Poetry for the common man, that a turn-of-the-century sourdough might quote between sips of whiskey and seem no less masculine for it. See also The Cremation of Sam McGee, probably Service's most famous work.
A couple of footnotes for the sake of clarity:
1: Mucklucks are thick moosehide eskimo boots, while "patent shoon" is Scottish slang for fancy court shoes of the sort that rich aristocrats wore.
2: Cheechako is a uniquely Alaskan slang term used to refer to greenhorns or tenderfoots (newbies). The word is derived from the Chinook Indian "chee", meaning new and the Nootka Indian "chako", meaning to come or approach.