“To the Man on the Trail”, sometimes titled “To the Man on Trail”, is a short story by Jack London about a stranger who stops to rest at Malemute Kid’s cabin. He tells the other men a little about himself. A little later, the men hear another story about the stranger from the authorities. Here’s a summary of “To the Man on the Trail”.
“To the Man on the Trail” Summary
Men from various camps and trails are gathered at the Malemute Kid’s cabin for the holidays. He serves strong liquor, which reminds Big Jim Belden of the time they took Ruth from the Tanana tribe. Mason wanted to marry her but her father, the chief, objected, as did the rest of the tribe. After giving the tribe some strong drink, they were able to get away with Ruth. By the time the tribe caught up, Mason and Ruth were married and the townspeople were ready to fend them off.
The men drink, sing, joke and tell stories of past adventures.
Soon, the men hear a sled stop at the cabin. He tends to his dogs before coming in, which tells them he’s an experienced traveler. There’s a knock, and a tall, handsome man enters. He’s armed with several guns and a knife. He and the Malemute Kid recognize each other, although they’ve never met.
The stranger sits and has a drink. He asks about a sled with three men and eight dogs, which they say left two days ago. They stole his dogs and he’s in pursuit. He’s gained on them and is confident he’ll catch up. He’s already covered 75 miles in 12 hours.
The Malemute Kid gives the stranger some coffee and meat. He studies the man’s face, deciding he’s fair, firm and honest, but also with an appropriate softness. Belden tells the story of how he got married, which makes the stranger pass around a picture of his wife and baby. Everyone is moved by the image.
“To the Man on the Trail” Summary, Cont’d
The stranger goes to bed, with instructions he be woken up in three hours. Malemute Kid tells the group the man is Jack Westondale, a good worker who’s had bad luck. He has nothing to show for his three years of effort.
The men continue their merry-making but Malemute Kid is distracted. He preps Jack’s dogs and wakes him fifteen minutes early. Everyone sees Jack off and wishes him well. Malemute Kid travels with Jack to the main trail. Before parting he tells Jack he’s stocked his sled with food for the dogs, and that it’s 200 miles before he can get more. He tells him to avoid open water on the Thirty Mile River.
Jack asks how Malemute Kid knows the truth—certainly the news hasn’t reached him yet. Malemute Kid doesn’t know what’s going on, but he knows those men didn’t steal his dogs; they bought them from Sitka Charley. Siktka Charley told him Jack was a good man and he believes it. He offers Jack money and tells him how to cover as much ground as possible.
Back at the cabin fifteen minutes later, a policeman and two dog drivers arrive. The officer’s looking for Jack Westondale, who stole $40,000 from a gambling house. The men can tell from the look in Malemute Kid’s eyes that they shouldn’t say much. The policeman asks Father Roubeau, who he knows won’t lie. Roubeau tells him Westondale left fifteen minutes ago but was fully rested. The officer sits down; he’s tired and so are his dogs.
The policeman has a drink and orders the dog drivers to follow Westondale. They say the dogs are too tired to go again.
The policeman wants to borrow or buy dogs from Malemute Kid but he refuses both. He says he’ll take the dogs on the authority of the law, but Malemute Kid glances at his own guns and the officer realizes he can’t take them.
Angrily, the policeman leaves and orders the dog drivers to come. The men admire the policeman’s effort. The dogs resist standing up and are whipped. The men load their sled and leave.
The men are angry that Westondale lied to them and that they were fooled. They look to Malemute Kid for an answer. He says not to judge a man without knowing the full story.
Last year, Jack Westondale gave all his earnings, $40,000, to Joe Castrell to buy a share in a mining company for him while he looked after a sick companion. Castrell went to the gambling house instead and lost it all. He was found dead in the snow the next day. Westondale took back only the amount of money he lost.
The men’s faces soften. Malemute Kid raises his glass and is joined by the others. He toasts to the success of Westondale, the man on the trail.
I hope this summary of “To the Man on the Trail” by Jack London was helpful.