This story, set during the Klondike Gold Rush, is a quintessential Western about the bond between two men. At the start Johnny and Mort are, “partners, trail-mates, brothers in soul if not in blood,” not even letting rivalries between women get in their way. Hearing news of gold, they set off on a many-month trek through a desolate wilderness, where the knee-deep snow is chalky and undrinkable and they soon have problems with water.
Then Mort saves Johnny’s life. This causes, for the first time, an imbalance between them, an unspoken implication that Johnny is weaker than Mort. As they trek for weeks on the trail, with nothing to distract them, their bond frays as they dwell on this more and more until they loathe each other. But they’re in the middle of this cold desert with limited supplies and neither can do anything but fantasise about killing each other. This sums up their situation nicely:
“There were two robes and these the partners shared nightly, but their hatred had grown so during the past few hours that the thought of lying side by side, limb by limb, was distasteful. Yet neither dared suggest a division of the bedding, for that would have brought further words and resulted in the crash which they longed for, but feared. They stripped off their furs, and lay down beside each other with the same repugnance they would have felt had there been a serpent in the couch.”
A wonderfully told tale of a friendship slowly unravelling, and the bleak setting only serves to give the story an air of inevitability, that the emptiness of the landscape itself is tearing the two apart.
The Weight of Obligation by Rex Beach
Availability: Out of copyright in Canada, otherwise print only
Word count: 7,700
First published: The Crimson Gardenia & other tales of adventure, 1905
Where to find it: For Canadians and other countries where copyright extends only fifty years after the death of the author, you can find it here.
A Century of Great Western Stories, edited by John Jakes, 2000, Forge Books
Great Western Stories, edited by John Jakes, 1982, Arbor House