There was, in fact, a man named Sam McGee.
When I wrote about him, I had not met him in the flesh, but his name was on a form that came across my desk – I was a clerk for the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Whitehorse, in the Yukon – and I was instantly captivated by the rhythm of his name, the perfect Cretic meter of it. Sam McGee. There was a hero worthy to hang a ballad on.
At the time my poems were still unpublished. If I'd had a contract in my pocket and my words already in bound print, shelved in bookcases across North America and Europe, I wouldn't have been so shy. I'd have written my song of Sam McGee as though I'd invented him myself from dirt and raw ore, made him my own creation in every particular. Upon meeting the man for the first time I would have laughed, and said, "Well, Sam McGee. What a coincidence it is to meet you! Did you know that once I wrote something about a chap with that very same name?"
But I was only an ordinary bank clerk with a few scribbled verses hidden in the back of my desk. I wrote to Sam McGee – William Samuel McGee, a builder of roads in the Klondike, a prosperous man with a good deal of money invested with the Canadian Bank of Commerce – and begged permission to use his beautifully metrical name for a ballad.
"Sam McGee was from Tennessee," I wrote. "And if you are not truly from Tennessee, you ought to be, for it makes a most perfect rhyme."
He replied that Sam McGee was in fact from Lindsay, Ontario, but he agreed it made an excellent rhyme, and that if I cared to use it I should do so with his blessing.
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 'round the Pole, God only knows.
That was as far as I set down before God finally deigned to share the rest of the story. I'd gone to a party that night; there was a mining man from Dawson in attendance, a big fellow with strong shoulders and a voice like the foghorn on a steamship. He had a tale to tell of the Klondike, he said, and so all the company gathered 'round. Then he spun a yarn about a prospector who had cremated his partner, with a surprise at the end that left everybody laughing – and there was my ballad.
The Cremation of Sam McGee was published along with other verses in '07. The book did pretty well, and in a few years I had enough money of my own to quit the work of handling that of others. By then I had moved to Dawson City, where I had a small cabin on 8th Avenue, suitable for a bachelor writer of modest habits. On occasion, a friend would drop by; or a stranger would, clutching a copy of The Songs of a Sourdough, drawn to this beautiful, dangerous, seductive, expansive, harsh and brilliant land by my verses, and I'd feel bound to autograph it for him in exchange for the trouble I had caused him in the writing of them.
And then one day I opened the door, and there stood Sam McGee.
As we had only exchanged letters, and that had been many years before, I did not know him at first. I saw only a big man of about my own age, wearing fur and leather against the chill January wind. His nose was reddened and ice thickly rimed his beard. He asked if I was the poet and I said I was, and invited him inside. Straightaway he moved to the potbellied wood stove and warmed his gloved hands by the fire.
"This damned country gets into a man's blood," he muttered, rubbing his palms together. I offered to take his coat but he would not remove it. Instead he pulled it more tightly around himself, and stepped even closer to the stove. Water dripped from the icicles hanging from his beard and his fur hat, sizzling and hissing on the cast iron.
"Are you newly arrived, then?"
His laugh was a harsh bark that filled the corners of the small room, and a bitter grimace twisted his face. "What, you don't recognize me? No, of course you wouldn't. But I tell you, if I had known what would become of me after you wrote that God-damned verse, I'd have told you to write about some other poor fool and leave me alone!"
"I have written many poems," I said uneasily.
"It's the cursed cold, and it's got right hold till I'm chilled clean through to the bone," he quoted at me, and at that I recognized him.
"Well, if it isn't Sam McGee," I said, and I felt myself smiling. I had forgotten about the road-building man who had loaned me the use of his name five years before, and I felt an odd pleasure in having him standing there in my cabin, dripping melted snow onto the wooden floor-boards. "Let me pour you some whiskey." That was my most popular and most oft-quoted poem, the ballad that had formed the cornerstone of my success, and if nothing else I owed him a drink.
He took the glass I handed him and tossed it back in one gulp. "I apologize," I went on, "if by putting your name into my verse I caused you any distress. It was only intended to be a bit of humour, and I didn't mean it to be at your expense."
"Humour?" he roared, and I was afraid he would crush the glass in his hand, so angry did he look. His eyes blazed hotter than the wood stove. "You have set me to freeze with that verse of yours. I have lived in this country since '98…I have mushed my dogs across the tundra…I have slept in a snowdrift…but then you write a poem about me and I can no longer bear the weather! Humour, bah!" He slammed the glass down onto my table. "I find nothing amusing in my situation!"
"It is a cold night," I began, but he cut me off.
"It is always a cold night. In January, in August – it doesn't matter. In August I get by with only two sweaters and a knit cap. Now I am wearing two pairs of woolen long-johns and four coats, and I still shake so much my teeth rattle. Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail." When he said this, I looked at him more closely. What I had taken for the bulk of a large man was really only a small man, wrapped in many layers. I could see the checked pattern of a wool parka peeking out from under the fur coat. And he was shivering despite the warmth coming from the wood stove.
"I am sorry for your condition," I said. "Although I don't see as how I can possibly have had anything to do with it."
"You wrote the poem."
"I wrote a poem, yes. But surely that has no power over the living man."
"Does it not?" He gripped my arm with surprising strength. "You see what you have done to me. I am asking you, sir, please to undo it."
There was something in his eyes that made me shiver, or maybe it was the icy grip on my arm. The cold and isolation of the Klondike has touched more than one man with madness. I laughed, to hide my unease, and said lightly, "A book can't be unpublished once it's printed."
"No. But you could write another verse or two. A second part to the poem."
Naturally, my artist's soul rebelled against this idea. "The work is complete as it stands. And there are thousands of copies now – surely you understand that I can't change what is done."
"For your next book, then." Finally he let go my arm and stalked moodily back toward the stove.
"And what should this sequel be?"
He snorted. "You're the poet. You can think of something. Anything will serve, as long as it warms me up so I'm not so damned cold all the time!"
"McGee gets plenty warm at the end," I reminded him.
"True – after he's dead and cremated! I'd just as soon not wait so long."
I pretended to consider the scheme. "I'll tell you what, Mr. McGee. If I can think of a proper sequel I will put it to paper straightaway. That's all I can promise."
"I suppose that's all I can ask of you," he allowed. He moved to the door slowly, reluctantly, as though trying to put off the moment when he must leave the warmth of my cabin. "If nothing comes of it, I'll just have to move back to Tennessee."
"You wrote me that you hailed from Ontario."
"Ontario. Yes, of course." He shook his head as though trying to dislodge snowflakes from his ears. "The cold makes me forgetful. But Tennessee has the sound of a good, warm place. Maybe I'll go there anyway."
He held out his hand and I shook it; and with that he resolutely turned the knob and stepped out into the cold.
I thought it a curious encounter, and might have sought out McGee again, but I soon had other things on my mind. That spring I left Dawson City for the Balkans as war correspondent for the Toronto Star; from there I went to Paris, where I lived for many years. For medical reasons I could not serve my country as a soldier in the Great War, but I did what I could: I carried a stretcher, and I drove an ambulance, and throughout it all I wrote my thoughts and experiences into articles for the Star and poems for – well, for myself, and for my publishers and readers, I suppose. And for my brother Albert, who was killed in action in 1916.
In 1921 I took my family – my Parisian wife and our young daughter – on a visit to North America. The Shooting of Dan McGrew – my second most popular work – was to be filmed in Hollywood, and we jumped at the chance to stay for a season in that fabled city.
On our way to California we made a grand tour of the United States and Canada. I showed them the places I had visited in that glorious time when I'd first quit my banking job and explored the continent, introducing them to my old friends in New York and New Orleans, staying with my mother at her farm in Alberta. In mid-September we came to Dawson, which I had left nearly ten years before.
It was not as I remembered it. The rough old mining town had been on a downward swing from its Gold Rush heyday when I'd lived there, and now it had fallen onto even harder times. The broad dirt avenues that had once bustled with thousands of miners, loggers and ne'er-do-wells now seemed like the bare bones of a carcass, picked clean by ravens who had moved on to richer fare. Travelers passed through but did not remain long.
I'd entertained romantic notions of returning one day to settle with Germaine and our children, but it was clear at once that none of us would be happy there. I would be grasping at ghosts, trying to live among the memories of a time long since vanished. Things had changed in the Klondike.
And I had changed too, I suppose; I'd become famous. My cabin – which I still held title to – had a plaque on it, declaring it the residence, 1909-1912, of the well-known author and poet of the Klondike. The store on Main Street where I'd once bought candles and paper now also sold a curious assortment of knickknacks intended for the tourist trade. One shelf held miniature urns with glass stoppers, each claiming to hold the ashes of Sam McGee.
I took one up to the counter and had a laugh with the proprietor. "An odd coincidence," he remarked, "there's a fellow named Sam McGee died just the other day." He brought out the Whitehorse newspaper, folded to the obituary section, to show me. It was my old friend. The funeral was to be held in three days; I reckoned I had just enough time to make it.
As it turned out I missed the church service, but the verger gave me directions to the cemetery. "A sad thing," he said, shaking his head mournfully.
I was not yet fifty, and McGee had been about my own age. The news column had not given a cause of death. "Do you know how…" I began, and let my voice trail off, hoping to convey the appropriate sense of delicacy.
"Ah, you weren't here at the time," he said. I had the newspaper tucked under my arm – in a way it was a certificate of my legitimate interest, and so I had carried it with me – and he gently took it from me and refolded it so the front page, which I had not yet looked at, was visible, and handed it back to me.
FIRE DESTROYS CITY BLOCK; ONE DEAD
"It was an accident," he said.
"Of course," I said, and left the church.
I arrived just in time to see the coffin laid into the ground. McGee had left a wife and a grown daughter, and I shook their hands and said I had been a friend. Fortunately they did not press me for my name.
As the gravediggers began to shovel dirt onto the coffin, I quietly slipped deeper into the cemetery. A low stone bench stood modestly near a grove of trees, dappled in the slanting sun. I pulled my coat tighter about my shoulders, took my notebook and a pen from my pocket, sat on the bench, and began to write.
I finished my task as the cemetery men finished theirs. The widow, who had stayed to the last, placed flowers by the stone; I waited until she'd left before approaching. Carefully I tore out the sheet of paper I'd written on, then rolled it into a tight cylinder and poked it into the loose dirt under the bouquet of lilies. I'd been shamefully tardy making good on my promise, but I was a man of my word.
When down to hell McGee's soul fell, he said, "Now here's a treat!
Though Lucifer, I'd much prefer if you'd turn up the heat."
The flame was raised, and hellfire blazed, and the temperature grew and grew
But McGee said still, "I'm feeling chill – is that the best that you can do?"
At this rude snub, old Beelzebub began to curse and swear
"I wash my hands of your demands – just get on out of here!"
On the leaping fire, as the sparks shot higher, that soul began to rise
And that, you see, is how Sam McGee made it into Paradise.