He was Huck Finn, the celebrated lawman. In his day, back when the frontier was still wild, he had tracked men through fiery deserts, up impassable mountain trails, and into places no sane man would venture. He’d been shot at and wounded; his blood had marked his back trail. Once, in the Sonora Desert, he went without water for an agonizing four days and had almost died of thirst. But he had always traced his man and brought him back to face justice, or if the hombre put up a fight—buried him where he had found him. However, he was younger in those days. Time had not taken as much a toll on him as it does on some men. But all men slow down with age, and yes, even Huck Finn.
He walked the valley as in a dream. He would halt his forward movement every five steps. And standing knee-deep in the snow, swaying back and forth like a sapling in the wind, he would wait for his life-force to return. He had set that measure for himself. Five steps at a time. No more, and certainly no less.
Bright, frustrated with the slow pace, ran up ahead and then back to urge his master on. Huck smiled at the dog and thought, Good boy. Keep me going, don’t let me stand still for too long. So much depends on me—and on you, old friend.
He lost track of time and before he knew it, it was dark, though his situation was not entirely dire. There was sufficient light from the stars and the borealis to allow him to find wood enough for a small fire. He had to attend to his feet. They were like blocks of ice and almost as white as the snow that he crouched in. Another few hours and they would have started to turn black. After vigorously rubbing them with snow for a hour, the feeling started to come back. As the painful tingling moved from his ankles to his toes, he moved his feet nearer to the fire. Then he had to deal with his blackened and scarred face.
Will I ever feel warm again?
With blood once again flowing to all parts of his body, he took a moment to raise his gaunt eyes to the heavens to take in the wonder of God in the form of the aurora borealis. He was not a religious man. He hadn’t had much truck with God over the years, but on that night he said his first prayer in many a year. He prayed that he might live to get to Jass’ cabin. He had no concern for himself. He had to live for Molly and John. If not for the thoughts of them, he would have lain down in the snow a long time ago and fallen off to his final, blessed sleep.
When Bright had finished his last ration of bird and weasel bones, Huck stood up, and on pure willpower, he plodded on—he trudged on—to the west . . . always to the west.
I had been running against the wind most of my life. My mother died in childbirth and my father was shot and killed when he accidently bumped into a drunk in the Alhambra Bar on New Year’s Day 1886. I was ten years old at the time, and having no siblings or other relatives, that left me on my own. For the next ten years I cadged a living any way I could. Mostly sweeping out salons and cleaning spittoons. I fed myself from the free lunch tables and slept in back rooms. Finally I got a job that paid me in cash and gave me a small room of my own to live in. At twenty years of age I was working as the night bell hop at the Hayden in San Francisco. But I was still running against the wind. My name is George Pratt, and this is my story.
The night was 16 August 1896. It was a cool night, the fog had rolled in off the bay, and I was holding down the fort for the night clerk. He was a laudanum user, so he was in the office catching his forty winks. That is how I came to be behind the desk when a man I had never seen before came through the front door. He was a big man, about six feet, four inches tall with broad shoulders. His hair was the color of corn, his eyes sky blue, and he was carrying a small valise.
Walking directly to the desk he said, “Evening sonny, I’d like a room.”
I thought it odd that he addressed me as sonny because he seemed only a few years older than me. Later I learned that he was thirty-two, but in his bearing and in his manner he was many years my senior.
“I’m sorry sir; I’m only the bell boy. If you will excuse me, I’ll go fetch the desk clerk.”
“Don’t bother. Here, take my grip, I’ll do the formalities later. Right now, I’m looking for a little action. Can you recommend a place where a man can get a decent drink and find a half-way-honest game of poker?”
Reaching out to take his bag I answered, “If you’re looking for a gentleman’s game of poker then I can’t help you. I’m familiar only with the Barbary Coast. I’ve worked in every saloon down there. If you like, I can recommend one or two where you won’t get shanghaied and you won’t go blind from the liquor, but as far as the games go, you’ll have to determine for yourself if they’re honest or not. Some are, some aren’t.”
When I finished speaking, he smiled and said, “I’m Samuel McCord. My friends call me Sam.”
I told him my name. “I’m George, George Pratt.”
“Well George Pratt, seeing as how I’m new in town and you know your way around, why not accompany me. You’ll be my guide.”
To me he didn’t look like he needed a guide. Sam looked like he could take care of himself. However, I only said, “I’m sorry sir, but I’m working and I can’t leave the premises.”
He looked thoughtful for a moment then said. “I’m going north to Alaska Territory. My ship leaves in three days and I don’t intend to sleep until I’m out to sea. I only wanted a room to freshen up in between bouts of drinkin’ and gamblin’. And because I only have three days, I don’t want to waste any time going to the wrong bucket of blood. What do they pay you for sittin’ around all night?”
Normally, if someone asked me a question like that, I’d tell him that it was none of his concern what I was paid. But for some reason, and why I don’t know, I answered him. “I’m paid two dollars a week with room and board and any tips I may garner.”
Looking around the small lobby he said, “Don’t reckon you make a fortune in tips working nights.” And then he flicked something in my direction. I caught it in midair. It was a twenty dollar gold piece!
Then he said, “I don’t think I’ll need to freshen up after all. Hell, it’s only three days and I’ve got a long time on the ship to rest up. Hand me back my bag George, and if you’re coming let’s go. If not, tell me how to find this Barbary Coast.”
I was dumbstruck to say the least. If I left, I’d lose the best job I’ve ever had. But there was something about Sam McCord that made me want to be around him. And that was a feeling I hadn’t had since my father died. I said, “Give me a minute to get out of this uniform and I’d be honored to show you some of the better buckets of blood on the Coast.” I didn’t know it at the time, but that wind I’d been running against most of my life slackened at that moment.
Sam wasn’t interested in the whores of the Coast. At one point when I was in my cups, I pointed to a particularly attractive whore and asked him if he might be interested. He looked over at her, then to me. He had a funny look on his face. At the time we were standing at the bar of the Alhambra, it was our second day of non-stop drinking and he was taking a break from a game. Well, Sam had this faraway look and said nothing for a few moments. Then he straightened and looked me dead in the eyes. ‘Yes George, a man has his needs. If you want her I’ll buy her for you, but for me, no. My flower is planted in the ground.” There was a sad countenance about him when he said that. I didn’t know what he meant, but I knew enough not to say anymore except to decline his kind offer. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that his wife had died in childbirth a few years back; the baby was stillborn.
For three days we made the rounds. Sam drank and played poker. I drank and watched him play poker. At noon of the third day, we were sitting at a table in The Bella Union on Pacific Street. “You’ve been good luck for me,” said Sam as he counted his winnings, “I’m glad you came along.”
I had stopped drinking hours earlier and was relatively sober, but I was awfully tired. Yawning, I told him it had been my pleasure. It was then that he shoved a stack of bills and some gold coins across the table toward me saying, “Here’s your ten percent.”
I must have looked surprised because that is exactly how I felt. When I made no move to pick up the money he said, “Go ahead, take it. You’ve earned it. You watched my back for three days, and you’ve been a good drinkin’ partner. There’s a thousand dollars there; it’ll be a good grub stake for you. I know I cost you your job at the hotel, not to mention a roof over your head.”
Hesitantly, I reached for the money. It was more money than I had ever envisioned possessing in my entire life. Hell, it was more money than I had even seen in my entire life. I didn’t count it. I folded the paper and put it in my shirt pocket, and the coins went into my pants’ pockets. Then I looked at Sam and simply said, “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it George. But may I ask you what you plan to do now?”
“First of all, I’m getting me a room at the best hotel in town, and I plan on sleeping for three days.”
Sam laughed at that and then grew quiet. It was obvious that he was thinking something over in his mind. Finally he said, “A thousand dollars is a lot of money, but it won’t last long staying in fancy hotels. Why don’t you come to Alaska with me? You’ve got enough for your passage and to outfit. You’ll need some warm clothes, but that’s all. It’s a new country up there. A place where a man can make his fortune if he’s the right kind of man, and I think you are.” During the course of our carousing, I had told him about being on my own and making my own way since I was ten.
Then he continued, “I’m catching The City of Pueblo at the tide. She stops at Seattle where I’m outfitting and then onto Victoria where I’m taking the Queen to Juneau. I’m going looking for gold. There’s been a few small strikes over the years, and I figure where’s there’s smoke there’s gotta be fire. Even if I don’t strike it rich it’ll be an adventure of a lifetime. So what do you say, are you in or out?”
I didn’t hesitate. “I’m in!”
“Good. Go pack some clothes and meet me at the wharf in an hour.”
Three hours later we were passing through the Golden Gate and headed north, north to Alaska. And for the first time in my life the wind was at my back.
We slept for the first twelve hours in a shared cabin. After that we enjoyed the sea, the salt air and the view of the California and Oregon coasts as we made our way north. In Seattle, we bought the things we would need for prospecting; shovels, pick axes, a stove, a tent. Things of that sort. Sam said they would be a tenth of the cost of what we would have to pay in Alaska. We also bought some warm clothes, but Sam wanted to wait until Alaska to buy the furs and such we’d need to survive the winter. “They’ll have what we need up there. And it will be a better quality than anything we can get down here,” said Sam.
Two days later we transferred to the Queen and three days after that we were standing on a dock in Juneau. “Well, what now?” I asked Sam.
“We get the lay of the land,” he answered. “And the best way to do that is in some saloon. Let’s go and see what the ‘old ladies’ have to say.” By old ladies, Sam meant the men who hung in saloons and gossiped their day away.
We found a place to store our things and made our way down the street. The first place we came to was a place called The Moose. It had a fine rack of antlers nailed above the entrance.
We went inside, ambled to the bar and named our poison. With drinks in hand and our feet upon the brass rail, we surveyed the room. Off to the right was a faro table with a gent with garters on his sleeves dealing to the few men who stood around the table. To our left was a table with six men sitting at it. It looked like they were playing poker. And at the bar besides Sam and me were three men studying what was in their glasses before them, not saying a word.
Then Sam looked at me and hoisted his glass saying, “To gold!”
That got two of our companion’s attention. They turned to us at the word “gold,” but then went back to contemplating the liquid in their glasses. The third man paid us no mind. Sam winked at me and downed his whiskey. I followed suit.
After the barkeep refilled our glasses, Sam told him to leave the bottle and flicked a ten dollar gold piece onto the bar, saying, “Keep the change.”
“Yes sir. You need anything you just let me know.” He then picked up the coin and retreated from whence he came.
After we finished our second drink, Sam turned to the man closest to him and said, “My partner and I just got into town and we’d be honored if you’d let us buy you a drink.” The man smiled and told Sam that that was right neighborly of him. Then Sam extended the offer to the other two men at the bar. The one who showed no interest at the word gold said nothing. He placed a coin on the bar and left without looking in our direction. The other man accepted Sam’s offer of libation and said, “Don’t pay no never mind to Charley, he just ain’t sociable.”
The man that said that was named Ed Mulroney. The other man’s named was Jess Tapper. And by the time the bottle was half gone we were all fast friends. By then we had moved to a table and they were telling us tall tales of the north. They had both been in Alaska many years and had travel throughout the territory. They too had come seeking their fortunes, but somewhere along the way the dream had faded. Now they were happy to cadge a few free drinks in The Moose.
Eventually Sam steered the conversation onto the topic we were interested in. “George and me came up here to see if we could find a little gold. Any advice you gents could give us would be mighty appreciated.”
Mulroney held his empty glass and looked from it to the bottle a few times before Sam caught on. “Help yourself Ed and pour one for Jess.”
After the niceties were attended to, Mulroney looked to Tapper and shook his head. Then he said, “You boys seem like nice folk. The best advice me and Jess here can give you is to go back from where you came. This here is a hard country and winter will be here soon. You chekekos (new comers) don’t know what you’ll be up against. Ain’t that right Jess?”
“If you say so Ed, but I think we outta let them make their own mistakes like we did. Who knows, maybe they’ll get lucky.”
After a moment, Mulroney smiled and said, I think you’re right Jess.” Then to Sam and me he said, “What do you want to know?”
Sam asked where they would go if they were seeking gold. “To the Bank of San Francisco,” answered Mulroney. Then he said he was just funnin’. “Well,” he dawdled, “there was a strike back in ’78 by a man named Holt. And then in ’85 someone hit pay dirt on the Stewart River, and in ’93 a couple of half breeds made out pretty good up by Circle City. But the gold played out fast. There ain’t none in that neck of the woods no more.” Sam and I looked to one another, and then Sam asked where these places were.
“They’re up the Yukon River. But I’m a tellin’ ya there ain’t no more gold.”
Sam emptied the bottle into our glasses and we drank the last of the whiskey. Then he said, “If a man was dumb or crazy enough to go traipsing into that land how would he get there? Both men shook their heads, and Jess Tapper said, “Go to Skagway from there anyone can point you in the right direction.” Sam laid a ten-dollar gold piece on the table and told Tapper and Mulroney to get another bottle on us. We then we left The Moose.
When we were outside, I asked Sam if we were going to Skagway. “Hell George, I got me a feeling. There’s gold up there; maybe not where the strikes were, but above. Gold is heavy and it flows downward. It has to start from somewhere, and you and me partner are going to find that somewhere!”
The next two days went by fast. I followed Sam around and tried to stay out of his way as he completed our outfit. Then we found a man with a small steam driven boat that could hardly accommodate us and our outfit, but he got us the eighty-six miles to Skagway in under twenty-four hours.
Skagway was a revelation to me. Never had I envisioned a town so lawless and corrupt. The unofficial mayor was one Soapy Smith. I liked him immediately, but Sam told me he wasn’t to be trusted. He had a feeling. Sam was always having a feeling about one thing or another. And you know what? He was usually right. He told me that a con man’s stock in trade was making you like him so he could get close enough to you to steal the gold fillings out of your teeth. And then you’d thank him for doing so. It goes without saying that we gave Soapy Smith a wide berth.
We found out that the strikes we had heard about took place about four or five hundred miles to the north of Skagway along the Yukon River (Yukon is Chilkoot Indian talk for Great River). Then we were told that we’d have to get to Lake Bennett thirty-fives miles to the north through White Pass, and once there build ourselves a boat to make the five hundred mile journey into the Yukon Territory. When we heard that, Sam said, “Reckon we’ll need us a whipsaw.” So we went out and bought us one. Of course, the whipsaw was to fell trees and plank them for our boat.
By now our outfit was substantial and we hadn’t even bought the flour and bacon and such that we’d need to get us through a Yukon winter. I told Sam that we could each carry a hundred pounds or so. But how were we going to get the five or six hundred pounds of our outfit to Lake Bennett.
“Simple,” said Sam, “We’ll carry as much as we can to the lake and then cache it and come back for another load. It shouldn’t take us more than three, four trips.”
“Four trips!” I said. “At seventy miles roundtrip for each!”
“So,” said Sam “where do you have to be that you can’t spend the time?”
“Well Sam, I don’t have to be anywhere. But winter’s comin’ on and I was just wondering if we’ll have the time before the river freezes.”
“This is the way I figure it George. We’ve got a week left in August and then maybe two months before the river freezes. So if we get moving then we can get to where we want to be by the time the first snows hits.”
Sam was a force to be reckoned with, so I shrugged and told him that he was in charge and that I was just following along behind. That stopped him in his tracks. He turned to me, put a hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. “George, you’re my partner. You may be a little wet behind the ears, but I wouldn’t have partnered with you in the first place if I didn’t know I could count on you in a pinch. We’ve got us a long winter ahead and if we make it through will depend on us relying and trusting in one another. Just remember we’re equal partners for good or bad. You may be following my lead now, but before this is all over, you’ll pull my bacon out of the fire more than once. Now come with me, we’ve got to buy us a couple of guns if we want fresh meat this winter.” As I said, he was a force to be reckoned with.
Later that day, after we had bought us two rifles and enough ammunition to start a small war, the flour, bacon and beans, and some dried fruit to ward off scurvy that we would need, we were sitting in our hotel room tying up our outfit into manageable lots that could be carried on our backs when Sam said, “It’s gonna be a long hike tomorrow, so I think we should go downstairs for a drink or two. Anyway, we’re gonna need a couple of bottles to get us through the winter.”
A couple of bottles to get us through the winter. The way Sam drank, a couple of bottles wouldn’t get us through the first day!
We were billeted in Soapy Smith’s place, a saloon with a few rooms over it. It was called The Dead Horse Saloon. We went downstairs and took up our usual stance, feet on the rail, elbows on the bar. We were both in a contemplative mood and thinking about tomorrow’s trek, so there wasn’t much talk between us. Instead, I looked around the room until my gaze fell upon a familiar sight. Over in the corner, behind the bar, was a boy cleaning spittoons. His back was to me and he looked as I must have looked except he wore a rag on his head. Seeing as how I was on my third shot, I thought I’d go over and discuss the finer points of cuspidor polishing.
Taking my glass with me, I walked down to that end of the bar and asked, “Need some help?” thinking I was being funny. Well, I got the shock of my life when he turned around because he wasn’t a he, he was a she! He, I mean she, was a girl! Wearing boy’s clothes and with her hair hidden by the dust rag it was hard to tell from the back, but when she turned to me, I saw the most beautiful girl in the world, at least to me. And that was in spite of the black smudge on her nose. She was my age, maybe a year or two younger. Then she looked up to me (she was down on her knees) and answered, “Yes, if you don’t mind I could use some help. I have a cotillion to go to.”
I didn’t know what to make of that and then she smiled, and then I fell in love.
I started to say something, but she cut me off. “Please, Mr. Smith will be angry if you distract me from my work.”
My thought at the moment was Damn Mr. Smith, but instead of giving voice to the thought I said, “Can we talk when you are finished. I used to do the same thing.”
Now that was a stupid thing to say. But I wanted to know this goddess of the spittoons. And if I could have thought of something more intelligent to say, I assure you I would have done so.
Once again she smiled and told me that it was not her habit to mix with Mr. Smith’s clientele.
“The hell with Mr. Smith!” I want to talk to you and I’m leaving for the Yukon tomorrow at first light. So tell me what time I can meet you and where.”
She smiled and said, “Such a forceful gentleman. How can a girl refuse such a gallant offer?” Then returning to her duties and with her back to me she said, “I’ll be out back in an hour eating my supper. If you happen by maybe I’ll deign to speak with you.” She laughed, and I fell in love all over again.
When I was back standing next to Sam, I realized that I had neglected to ask her name. But no matter, I was going to see her in an hour. Sam then said he was gonna play a little poker and that he would see me up in the room later. I thought of reminding him of the seventy mile walk we were going take the next day, but then thought better of it and held my tongue. I poured myself another shot (Sam always had the barkeep leave the bottle) and waited for an hour to drag by.
Somehow, the hour did pass and I took myself outside. I walked around to the back. There she was, sitting on a box with a plate on her lap and a fork in her hand. She had taken off the dust rag and her hair, now that I could see it, was long and dark. It was black as the ace of spades and her green eyes sparkled that much more because of it.
I walked up to her, and standing there I asked her name. “My name is Jenny Bligh, what do they call you?”
“I’m George Pratt and it is a pleasure to meet you.”
Then she said I made her nervous standing over her and for me to grab a box and sit down. Which I did. She didn’t have much time, but in the time she did have I learned her story and in some respects it was very similar to mine.
She had come to Alaska with her father about a year ago. Her mother had run off with a notions drummer a few years earlier and her father believed it was because of the hardscrabble life they led, he was a sharecropper. So he decided to seek his fortune in the new land that was Alaska. When they hit Skagway her father left her in the care of Soapy Smith thinking he was an honorable man; he didn’t want her to go through the hardship of spending a winter in the wild.
As soon as her father left for the Yukon, Soapy started making advances on her. When Jenny rebuffed him, he told her that if she wanted to eat and have a roof over her head she’d have to work for him. Then he gave her the most menial jobs he could think of hoping that she would come to him for succor. When I heard that I thought of going to the room and retrieving my new gun and confronting Mr. Soapy Smith. But I didn’t, I stayed to hear the rest of her story.
About six months ago a trapper came into town with word that he had found a man frozen to death a couple of hundred miles up the Yukon. He had fallen through the ice to his waist and had frozen solid before he could get out of the water. (At seventy below your spit freezes before it can hit the ground.) The trapper said he looked like a statue with his arms reaching out in an eternal effort to extricate himself from the ice.
He went through the man’s kit looking for things of value and came across a picture of Jenny. And one day in The Dead Horse while he was telling his story and showing the picture to his drinking companions Jenny walked in. He recognized her right away and that is how Jenny learned of her father’s fate. Well, she had no one, and no place to go, so she stayed working for Smith. She told me it was either that or become a lady of the night.
When she said that, I shouted, “No! Don’t even think that.” She then told me she had to go back to work and stood prepared to go inside.
I couldn’t let her go without saying something, something to give her hope and something to save her for me. It took all the courage I had in me, but I blurted out, “Jenny I love you and I’m going to be rich, no don’t say anything let me finish. I want to marry you and I promise you I’ll give you the life of a fine lady. But I’ll understand if you can’t wait, I’ve cleaned enough spittoons in my day to know what you’re going through. Tomorrow me and my partner head north and we’ll be back and forth for the next few days while we get our outfit to Lake Bennett, but after that I’ll be gone until the ice melts next spring. When it does I’ll come to you and take you far from this accursed town. Then I turned and left her standing there with her fork and plate in one hand and a smile upon her face.
The next day we set out for Lake Bennett with one hundred pound packs on our backs. I only got a mile before I had to stop and rest. Sam didn’t see me stop and kept walking and I was too tired and too winded to call out after him. He probably went fifty yards before he noticed I wasn’t with him anymore. Turning in my direction, he yelled, “I know it’s tough, but you’ll get used to it. Rest awhile and I’ll come back and give you a hand after I drop this pack up the trail a bit. Well, that was about the only thing in the world that could have gotten me to my feet. I was going to carry my own weight even if it killed me. After that, I noticed Sam slowed his stride so that I could keep up with him. Because of my slowness, we made only nine miles that day. However, after a good night’s rest, and a good breakfast of bacon and beans, I got my second wind and kept up with Sam most of the day. But still I had to stop numerous times to rest and every time I did so, Sam stopped with me. Once I apologized for slowing him down and he said, “Don’t be foolish. I told you we was in no hurry. We got time before the rivers ice up, and besides who says I don’t need the rest as much as anybody?” Then he added, “You’ll get the hang of it. I think by the time we’re haulin’ our third load, you’ll be waiting for me to catch up with you.”
When I heard “third load,” I groaned to myself, adjusted the pack straps (they were cutting into my shoulders), stood and said, “Let’s go. I can’t wait for that third load!” Around three o’clock that the afternoon I started to flag. At that point Sam said we should stop for the night because he reckoned White Pass was right up ahead and we should traverse it when we were fresh.
The next morning at the pass we had to walk over sharp rocks that tore our boots, and there were mud holes to be avoided if we didn’t want to be swallowed up whole. Then there was the place where the trail was only two feet wide with a five hundred foot drop-off if we weren’t careful. And the whole way all I could do was think of Jenny Bligh.
It took us the better part of three days to get to the lake. By then the sun was going down and we weren’t about to go back over White Pass in the dark. We made camp and spent the night. We didn’t bother to put up the tent because we didn’t want to undo our outfit; we had it bundled to cache, so we laid out two blankets a tried to sleep. I said tried to because the damn mosquitoes would not leave us alone. When I was back in San Francisco I never thought of mosquitoes, but in Alaska, in the summer, that is all that occupies your mind. And the mosquitoes up there, like the land, are big.
Without the packs on our backs we made it back to Skagway in ten hours. And the first thing I did was search out Jenny. She wasn’t working in the saloon, but the barkeep told me she had a small room off the kitchen and told me how to find it.
I knocked on her door and when she opened it I wanted to rush to her and kiss her. However, I refrained from doing so. I was happy that she smiled when she saw me. I started to walk in, but she said, “It would not be proper for you to be in my room. Why don’t we go for a walk?” Which is what we did.
While I hiked the trail, I thought of all the things I would tell her when I got back to Skagway, but now my tongue was tied and I couldn’t utter a word. We walked in silence until Jenny said, “How was the trek? And what did you think of White Pass? I’ve overheard many stories about men and animals that died trying to cross it.”
“White Pass wasn’t so bad. What was bad were the damn mosquitoes. Oh, I’m sorry. I reckon I’m not proper company for such a fine lady like yourself. I never should have used that word to describe the mosquitoes.”
She gave me a queer look and then tilted her head back and laughed. “I’ve heard worse from my father, and I hear much worse every night in the saloon.”
That tore it! I took her by the hand and said, “Come with me.” We were on Broadway Street and I marched her up to a boarding house I’d noticed when we hit town. Right inside we went and I asked for the lady that ran the place. Shortly, an elderly woman emerged from upstairs and asked what we wanted.
Releasing Jenny’s hand I said, “This girl will be boarding with you until spring and I will pay her board in advance.”
The lady was stout and had a kind face. When I had finished speaking she looked from me to Jenny and then back to me and smiled. “You’re lucky I’ve got a room, but even if I didn’t I’d find a place for her. I know young love when I see it. Both Jenny and I blushed.
Then Jenny did something that astounded me. She looked at me and said, “I can take care of myself I don’t need a man to pay my way.”
I smiled at her and said, “Sure you can take care of yourself, but you’re going to be my wife and no future wife of mine is going to clean spittoons if I’ve got anything to say about it.”
The lady, who was named Mrs. Bellew, again smiled and said she’d show us the room. I thought it suitable for Jenny and paid eight months board which covered Jenny until May. By then I expected to be back in Skagway a rich man. On the way out I told Mrs. Bellew that Jenny would help out around the house so as to keep busy. And to her credit, Jenny said she’d be more than happy to pitch in.
On the way back to the Dead Horse, Jenny had a pensive look on her face and said not a word. It kind of made me uncomfortable, so I had to ask. “Is it because I didn’t propose properly? Or is it you don’t want to marry me?”
She suddenly stopped walking and turned to me.
“George, I am honored and humbled that you want me for your wife. And I can think of nothing finer. I promise you that I’ll make you a good wife, rich or poor. I know I can’t stop you from seeking your fortune, but I want you to know I’d love you if we both had to clean spittoons until out dotage.”
“Excuse me. Did you just say that you loved me?”
“Of course I did. You don’t think I’d marry a man I didn’t love.”
“Then why the pensive look?”
“Well, it’s just that I don’t know how Mr. Smith is going to take my leaving.”
It took a moment before I said, “Leave Mr. Smith to me. He won’t give you any trouble.” Then we continued on our way to the Dead Horse. When we reached her room, I told her to pack her things and go and get settled in at Mrs. Bellew’s and I’d meet her there presently.
I still had a few dollars in my poke, so I set out to buy myself a pistol. For what I had in mind a rifle wouldn’t do. Now, I have never handled a gun before, pistol or rifle. But I figured they couldn’t be that hard to operate. I’ve seen many a shooting on the Coast. Besides, if I did things right I wouldn’t have to pull the trigger and kill the sonavabitch.
As luck would have it, I didn’t have to leave the Dead Horse to find what I was after. Some old sourdough who didn’t have much luck at the roulette wheel was going from person to person trying to sell an old Colt .45. When he approached me, I asked him if it was loaded. In way of an answer, he spun the chambers and showed me that five of them contained bullets. The chamber under the hammer was kept empty for safety reasons. We concluded our business and he returned to the roulette table and I went in search of Mr. Soapy Smith.
I found Smith across the street at the Elkhorn Saloon and Dance Hall. He was speaking with two gentlemen and when I ask if I might speak with him alone about a business matter he smiled and winked at the men (I wasn’t supposed to see the wink) and said he’d speak with me outside.
When we stood on the boardwalk, I told him it was too public a place and suggested that the adjacent alley way would be better suited to discuss our business. And of course, he readily agreed. After all, to him I was a greenhorn sucker just ripe for the plucking.
As soon as we were in the alley, I whipped out the revolver and stuck it up under his chin. Then I said, “Miss Jenny Bligh has left your employ. If you see her walking down the street you cross to the other side, you say nothing to her. I’m leaving town for a while and when I come back if I hear that you’ve been within one hundred feet of her, I’ll kill you. Do you understand?”
He was a little man; he barely came up to my chin. He was shaking pretty bad about then, but when he didn’t answer me right away I shoved the barrel of the gun deeper into his flesh and said, “Maybe I’ll just kill you now, it’ll save me the trouble of having to do it later.”
Then he found his voice. “No! Please! If I see her coming I’ll run the other way. You won’t have no trouble from me.”
“I don’t mind trouble from you, but she better not have any trouble from you. And if she is even suffering from a cold or a hang-nail when I return, I’ll think it was your doing and I’ll kill you like the dog that you are. Got it?”
“Good. Now get out outta my sight while you’re still vertical.”
That, I hoped, took care of Mr. Soapy Smith. I then went to see Jenny and made sure that she was settled in. I told her that I had spoken to Smith and that he was amiable to her leaving his employ. I then told her I had to catch some shuteye, we were leaving in the morning for a return trip to Lake Bennett and that I would see her when Sam and I came back for our last load. Kissing her on her forehead I left her standing at the door of her new digs.
Sam and I got an early start the next morning and my pack was not so formidable this go round. I think the thought of Jenny helped. Sam noticed something in my manner and asked, “Where were you last night? You got in pretty late; I thought you’d be all tuckered out after the last three days.”
I wasn’t about to tell anyone about Jenny just yet. I wanted to keep her to myself for the time being. So I said, “I went out to buy me a pistol, thought we might need it.”
Sam rejoined, “Yeah, I see it sticking in your belt. But you were gone an awful long time just to buy a gun.” He then smiled and winked at me.
We made Lake Bennett in less than two days this time. After a short rest we headed back and made Skagway in under fifteen hours. We would have made it in less time but at White Pass we had to wait for daylight.
Sam wanted to grab our kits and start off right away, but I tried to entice him into staying over one night. Telling him we should get rip roarin’ drunk because it would be our last chance for quite a while. Of course, I only wanted to stay over to be with Jenny, but I felt I couldn’t tell Sam that.
Sam then surprised me by saying, “Why don’t I get rip roarin’ drunk and you go see Jenny.” How he knew, I’ll never know, but it taught me a valuable lesson. Never keep anything from your partner.
I ran to the bath house and paid my twenty-five cents for the use of some bath water that had only been used once. Then I went to see my Jenny. We had dinner at the Elkhorn and we talked of things to come. When I left her, I gave her all that was left in my poke, about ninety dollars, and told her I’d see her in the spring. Before I turned to go, she kissed me on the mouth and then ran upstairs to her room. That kiss kept me going through some mighty dark days; I can sure tell you that.
This time we made Lake Bennett in under twenty-four hours. We then proceeded to make our boat. A whip saw is also called a pit saw because when you’re planking lumber, a pit is dug and the log is rolled over it. One man is in the pit and one man stands on top. The saw cuts only one way, downward. The man in the pit pulls the saw to him and the man on top then pulls the saw back up. Also, the man in the pit gets sawdust in his eyes and mouth. So because of that, Sam and I alternated positions every half hour.
It took us a week to build the boat. She was twenty-two feet long and had a beam of ten feet. It looked more like a barge than a boat, but she was sturdy and would hold us and our outfit. When we finished filling the seams with pitch we boiled out of spruce gum Sam said, “She a fine vessel and she ought to have a name that befits her. What do you think George, would you like to proffer a name?”
“Jenny,” I said without hesitating.
“Sounds good to me George, Jenny it is. The good ship ‘Jenny.’ May God protect her, and us as well.” Then he took a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and unfolded it onto the bottom of the boat.
“Come around here,” said Sam.
When I got to his side of the boat, I looked down and saw a hand drawn map. “Whatcha got there Sam?”
‘It’s a map of where we’re going. I had an old timer draw it for me last night while you were . . . um . . . busy. Now see here,” and he pointed to a spot on the map, “is where we’re at. When we leave the lake we’ll be on the Yukon River and it will take us northwest and get us above those previous strikes. This other line is the Klondike River, and this spot here where the two rivers meet is Dawson City. It’s a small burg. Maybe two hundred people, but it’s the closest civilization to where we’ll be, and it’s where we’ll have to go to file our claims when we hit pay dirt.”
After he pointed out the locale of Dawson City he went on, “See where the two X’s are along the river? Well, those are the two rapids we have to traverse. The old timer said if the first one didn’t kill us the second one was sure to do the job. The first rapids go through a place called Miles Canyon, and the second place is called White Horse Rapids.”
Seeing the quizzical look on my face he asked, “What’s the matter? The rapids got you worried?”
“No, it’s not that. I was just wondering if the old timer was maybe pulling your leg when he told you about the rapids. Maybe they’re not so bad.”
Sam was thoughtful for a moment and then he said, “I don’t know how rough they’ll be, but I did ask him if anyone ever made it through, and he said sure, but more didn’t make it than did. So I figure if they can be ridden without being smashed up and drowned then we’re just the two fellas to do it. Now give me a hand turning this boat right side up and let’s get her loaded and get going.”
After we got her in the water, we loaded our outfit, and with me at the front, Sam pushed us out into the lake and climbed in. We had made two crude oars and now we used them to send us north to the Yukon River. Once on the Yukon, we flowed north at about six miles an hour and only used the oars to keep us in the middle of the river.
It was on the sixth day that we heard the rushing water. The sound was so fierce that we paddled to the north shore, left the boat tied to a tree and walked until we came to Miles Canyon.
I was astonished at the site before us. The river funneled into a narrow gorge. The precipitous walls went up to the sky and there was no shore upon which to land if things went wrong. The rapids themselves were the devil incarnate; no boat could make that passage.
“Sam,” said I, “I sure don’t look forward to packing our outfit the rest of the way, but I can’t see how we can get through there in one piece.”
Sam didn’t answer me right away. He stood there looking at the raging water like he was studying it, which made me nervous. Finally he turned to me and said, “Let’s make camp and give this some thought.”
“What’s there to think about? If we go into that canyon we’ll be smashed into one of those rock walls.”
“Just the same George, let’s make camp. I want to study on the situation.”
I shrugged my shoulders and started for the boat, but got only a few steps when I noticed Sam was still standing there as though mesmerized. Leaving him as he was, I went and fetched the boat, walking her to a place just before the river picked up speed.
I figured Sam was still entranced with the rapids, so I set up camp by myself. When I finished and Sam still didn’t show, I went looking for him. He wasn’t where I had left him, so I shouted his name. Then I realized I was being foolish. He couldn’t hear me over the water’s roar unless he was standing right next to me. So, shrugging once again, I went back to camp and built a fire. The coffee was just about ready when Sam walked up.
“Where you been partner? I couldn’t find you.”
“I went up to the rim of the canyon so I could get a good look-see at the whole shebang. And I’ll tell you something George; I think we can make it. That coffee smells good, how about a cup?”
After I poured the coffee, I asked Sam to explain himself.
“I was up above it, and I watched the flow of the river. Of course, we have to stay dead center, but I think we can do it if we use one of the oars as a rudder. We can attach it to the back and one of us will steer and the other one will be at the front to fend us off if we get too close to one of the walls.”
When he had finished speaking, I slowly shook my head and said, “Sam McCord, if you ain’t the livin’ end. But you’re my partner and I’ll be proud to go down those rapids with you, even though I don’t think we have a chance in hell of making it.” Sam smiled and told me we should eat something because if he was going to drown he wanted to do it on a full stomach.
Within two hours we had eaten and readied our rudder. Because Sam was bigger, he would steer. It would take a lot strength to hold the swing arm in the water. I would be at the front, ready and waiting if needed. We still had a few hours of daylight left, so we decided to go for broke before sanity reasserted itself and we scrapped the whole thing.
I walked the boat out until I was waist deep. Then saying a silent prayer, I pushed off and climbed on board. Sam was letting the current take us to mid-stream. I was shaking, because I was wet from the cold water or just plain scared, I know not. But tremble I did. And I felt that old wind I’d been running against all my life start a blowin., gale force once again; directly in front of me.
The speed of the water picked up and Sam steered us right for the middle of the funnel. As we neared it, the boat started rocking to and forth. Then we hit the mouth of the gorge and it got dark, the sun was too low to shed light over those high cliffs. So, in twilight, we entered Miles Canyon and sped to what I was sure was our death.
When we entered the gorge I was standing, but within seconds I found myself sitting on my backside, thrown there by the turbulence of the river. I tried standing, but could not gain purchase and stayed down on my knees, one hand holding the oar and the other gripping the side of the boat. I was holding on for dear life. Just then the boat dipped into the water and I thought we were going straight down, but then she rebounded and flew into the air. Of course, I was now thoroughly drenched. I hazarded a look back at Sam and he was standing, legs spread, working the swing arm for all he was worth. There was no use in trying to converse with him, the roar of the water precluded all conversation.
I turned back just in time to see the front of the boat falling into a valley of water, we, the front of the boat and I, went under, and if I hadn’t a firm grip, I’d been gone for sure. When she came back out of the water, she turned and we were heading sideways. In fear, I looked to Sam who was swinging the oar in a futile attempt to get us straightened out. Then we hit another valley with the resultant mayhem, and swung in a half circle. We were now heading at an alarming rate of speed for the south rock wall.
There was nothing Sam could do, and I knew we had breathed our last, but I wanted to go down fighting. Somehow I had managed to hold on to the oar through the tempest. I stood, feet apart, and watched that damn wall of rock rush right to me. At the last moment, when the boat was less than three feet from destruction, I extended the oar and pushed off from the wall. The oar cracked in half, but my effort was enough to get us caught in another current and it pulled us away from the rock and brought us to the middle of the torrent once again.
By now we were pointed in the right direction and I chanced a look back at Sam. He stood there soaking wet, and he had a big smile on his face. He waved to me and then started working the swing arm. Then we were in calm waters. Sam steered us to the bank, jumped off and pushed us into the shore, wedging the boat onto sand.
We looked like two drown rats, but drowned rats with big smiles on their faces, and alive! I started to get off the boat, but Sam said to wait a minute. He got back on and headed for his pack. As he undid the ties he said, “I don’t know about you partner, but I could sure use a drink after that experience.”
Shaking the water from my hair I replied, “You and me both Sam!”
So, two thoroughly wet prospectors sat on the floor of a boat that they had named “Jenny” and got absolutely inebriated. We finished off the bottle about sunset, and rather then make camp we got out our blankets. Though still damp, we covered ourselves in a futile attempt at protection from the mosquitoes and lay down on the floor of the boat. I don’t know about Sam, but I slept the sleep of the just.
We wanted to get White Horse behind us, so the next morning we didn’t take the time to fashion a new oar to replace the one lost the previous day. We realized we should have had the rudder from the beginning. It was easier to keep “Jenny” in the middle of the river with a rudder than paddling first on one side of the boat and then the other. And there would be no rock walls that needed fending off from at White Horse.
We made White Horse Rapids near the end of the second day and this time we decided to just keep going. We figured we’d either sleep on the bottom of the Yukon or in our tent that night. It’s called White Horse for a reason. The rapids also funnel like Miles Canyon, but there are no rock walls. Instead there are rocks on both sides that push the water to the center. And in that center, the water is agitated into a white froth. That is the white mane of the horse. And if we were to traverse White Horse Rapids we would have to ride his mane or be smashed against the rocks on either side.
We entered White Horse on an even keel. We both, Sam and me, were at the back holding on to the swing arm. It would take the two of us to keep her steered right. But right away things went wrong. Try as we might, we could not steer her where we wanted to go. Within seconds of hitting the mane, we were sideways and heading for the biggest boulder I think I ever did see. We bounced off of it with only a minor hole in the side. But it was alright, it was above the water line. By then Sam and I knew there would be no controlling her. We still held on to the swing arm, but only to keep from being pitched into the water. Then we were sucked into a swirling whirlpool between two groups of boulders. We circled it twice and somehow managed to steer out of it and back onto the mane on the third go round. And by the Grace of God we hit no more boulders. Next, before we knew it, we were out of the maelstrom and gently floating backwards up the Yukon. I turned to Sam and said, “You’re looking at a mighty lucky man. For a while there I thought I’d never see my Jenny again.”
“George, we’re both just plum lucky son of bitches. That White Horse aged me years. Now let’s try to get this tub turned around and make for shore. This ought to be our last night before we hit Dawson.” Sam wasn’t that far off. It was just before dark of the second day that we came to the bend in the river that showed us Dawson City.
We edged the boat onto the shore, made sure she was secure and then we retrieved a change of clothes out of our kits, we were wet up to our waists. Then we went up the incline and headed for town.
The first establishment we came to was the Red Dog Saloon, and without hesitation we went inside. Sam ordered a bottle of rye from the barkeep and then asked for the use of a room where we could change our clothes.
“The privy’s out back,” said the barkeep in a truculent manner.
Sam looked at the man with a strange countenance, and for a moment I thought we’d have some trouble. But Sam only smiled and said, “Thanks friend.” Then to me he said, ‘You go and get into some dry clothes. I want to sample this here rye first.”
When I returned, Sam had put a dent in the bottle and was in a more congenial frame of mind. I told him that the privy was his anytime he wanted it, but Sam was happy imbibing his rye and told me that standing next to the stove, which he was, had dried him out considerably.
“Well partner, the first leg of our adventure is over. Now all we’ve gotta do is fine that mountain of gold,” said Sam as he hoisted his glass. At that moment all I could think of was food, but because my poke was empty I didn’t say anything.
After my second shot, and feeling ashamed, I said to Sam, “My poke’s empty and I can’t pay my share, I should have said something before, but I wanted a drink as much as you.”
Sam looked at me with a queer look. Shook his head and then said, “George, you are my partner and I am your partner. That leagues us. I’ve still got my winnings from San Francisco plus the stake I started out with. After we hit the bonanza, if you feel so inclined, then we’ll settle up. Hell, just so we don’t have this conversation again take this.” He then reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of bills. Separating them in half he flung down a stack and said, “Now, until we’re millionaires or until I see you in perdition, let’s never mention money again!”
I stood there flummoxed and didn’t move toward the bills. Sam, with an exasperated look, picked up the money and shoved it in my shirt pocket saying, “If I hear one more word from you, partner or no partner, I’ll …” He trailed off and smiled at me and said we should get something to eat, that as long as we were in civilization we might as well enjoy ourselves because it was going to be a long winter.
Two things took place at that moment. The first was that I knew if the time ever came, I would give my life for Sam McCord. The other was I turned to the barkeep and asked for two steaks with all the fixin’s.
“All we got are caribou steaks.”
A steak is a steak my good man.”
He nodded, and padded off to the kitchen.
Sam wasn’t in an eating mood. He sat at the table with me and with his steak before him, but the bottle held his attention, not the food. Looking about the room, he observed that the clientele was rather sparse. I hadn’t noticed, but he was right, the place was downright empty. The gaming tables were shut down and besides us, there were only three other patrons.
Said Sam: “It’s dark out now, you’d think some of the people in this one-horse town would be flocking in for the gay nightlife.”
Of course, he was being sarcastic, but still, where were the people?
Just then the door flew open and an old timer came in along with some cold air. To no one in particular he stated, “It’s gonna snow tonight, I can feel it in my bones. It’s getting mighty cold out there.” After his pronouncement he shuffled to the bar and ordered a whiskey.
The barkeep, while wiping a glass, gave him some words instead. “You know the boss said no more credit until your bill’s paid. Sorry White Water.”
Sam and I overheard the exchange and Sam winked at me before calling out, “Hey White Water, join us for a drink?”
At the mention of his name the man turned and squinted in our direction. “You speaking to me?” was his answer to Sam’s query.
“I sure am, if your name’s White Water, responded Sam.
The man came over to our table, stuck out his hand to Sam and said, “I don’t reckon I know you, but the name’s Buford Cage. I’m called White Water because I was the first white man to go through Miles Canyon and the White Horse. Least wise the first to make it in one piece.”
Sam shook his hand, and indicating me said, “My partner, George Pratt. And we’ve just come up the Yukon and did the rapids ourselves.”
We shook hands and White Water took a seat at our table after asking the barkeep for a glass.
We talked around things for a while until we came down to brass tacks. Sam started things off by asking White Water where he’d go looking for gold. White Water in turn threw back his head and let out with a prodigious laugh. Then when the laughing had subsided a bit he said, “I knew you boys were shave-tails and new in town, but ain’t you heard?”
“Heard what? I blurted out.
Looking aggrieved, White Water said, “The find on Rabbit Creek. That’s why the town is empty. All them fools are out chasing I don’t know what. Why, a month ago when George Cormack come in with a nugget as big as his thumb and filed a claim, this town was as hot as a whore house on nickel night.”
Of course, we wanted to know where Rabbit Creek was and duly asked.
While pouring himself a healthy shot, White Water said. “I’d let it slide gents. George Cormack is also known as “Lying George.” I put no stock in anything he says. But I cain’t say the same for the rest of the fools in this here town.”
Now, here is something I didn’t know at the time, but learned of later. On the 16th of August, the very day I met Sam McCord in San Francisco, three men, George Cormack, Skookum Jim Mason and Tagish Charlie were out salmon fishing and wandered down creek to a claim held by a man named Henderson. Henderson, not liking strangers, and especially Indian strangers, (Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie were Chilkoot Indians) told the interlopers that they were not welcomed and for them to vamoose. The three then went down a little ways on Rabbit Creek and set up camp. And while washing out a dinner pan, one of them (the history is a little cloudy as to who) found a thumb sized nugget. Thus, setting off the last, and some say the greatest, gold rush in history, the Klondike Gold Rush. However, the rush would not start for almost a year. It would take that long for word to get to the outside world. And here were Sam and me, at the right place at the right time. That old wind was now pushing me from behind!
So where was I? Oh yes. White Water was just telling us that there weren’t no gold in the Klondike. But Sam and I knew better. How we knew I can’t say, but we were there to find our fortunes; me for Jenny, Sam for his own reasons.
After pouring a shot into White Water’s glass, Sam drew the map from his pocket, and spreading it out on the table said, “Maybe you’re right, and there ain’t no gold, but why don’t you show us were Rabbit Creek is situated?”
White Water, taking a pull from his glass, said in turn, “So, you’re going to Rabbit Creek no matter what a geezer like me says?”
“No,” answered Sam, “we want to know where not to go.”
Smiling and looking down at the map, White Water said, “Your map ain’t much on detail, but Rabbit Creek is right about here.” His finger lay between the Yukon and Klondike Rivers.
Looking over to me, Sam said, “We’re goin’ north, north of that place, too many people to suit me. Is that alright with you partner?
My answer to his query: “Whatever you say partner.”
“I’ve been thinking,” interjected White Water, “there was this one geezer, oh about ten years back. Ed, Ed something was his name. Now let me think a minute. Collins! That’s it, Ed Collins! Well, he would come to town every spring with a bag full of nuggets. No dust for him, nuggets only. And the strange thing was that he never filed a claim. He said he just picked them up while crossing streams and creeks. Most folks didn’t believe him, and some tried to follow him when he headed out at the end of summer. But they got nowhere. Old Ed was a crafty one. He’d just wander north and south, east and west, until the last of the followers gave up and came back to Dawson. Then we wouldn’t see hide nor hair of him until spring. Then one spring he didn’t show at all. Never did find out what happened to him.”
At this point in his narrative, White Water halted to pour himself another shot. After making short work of it, he continued, “The reason I mention it is that we all thought his stompin’ grounds was up in the neck of the woods you gents are headin’. “Sam and I looked at each other, but we said nothing.
By now the bottle was down to its dregs, but there were still things to find out and questions to be asked. One of the things I wanted to know was how the hell we were going to get our outfit twenty or fifty miles out of Dawson. Were we going to have do it in stages like we did at Skagway?
White Water came through with an answer: “You can git some Indians to do your haulin’ for you. That’s what the ones without horses or mules did when they all skedaddled up to Rabbit Creek. The Indians charge by the pound and the mile. Each one can pack a hundred pounds like you and me can carry a whiskey bottle. Damndest thing I ever saw.”
Now there was only one question left to be asked, and Sam did the honors. “Tell me,” said Sam, “how did this town get built? I mean the liquor we’re drinking, that piano over there, they didn’t come down the Yukon and through the rapids.”
As always, White Water had a ready answer. “No they didn’t. They came up the Yukon.” Then he went on to explain that the Yukon empties into the sea. And every spring when the ice melts, a steamer comes up river, and then during the summer one or two others will call.
We thanked White Water for his information, left the Red Dog and headed for our boat. White Water had been right, it was snowing. On the way down, I asked Sam why he was interested in how Dawson got built. “Because we’re going to need a way to transport our gold once we find it. Gold’s heavy. Maybe we can get some Indians to haul it to Dawson, but getting it back to the states is another matter.” Of course, I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I was mighty pleased I had Big Sam McCord as my partner.
We figured if we were going to spend a winter in the Klondike where the temperature can go down to seventy below (that’s one hundred and two degrees below freezing!) that it wouldn’t hurt us none to spend the night on our boat. After all, it was only a brisk twenty-nine degrees when we left the Red Dog. So we slept huddled in our sleeping skins that night, the night of our first snow.
The next morning we got going before daylight and went looking for Indians to haul our outfit. After a few hours of asking around, we came across a Tutchone Indian by the name of Kaska Pete. He told us he could round up some of his relations and get us to where we wanted to go, but first of all he wanted to see our outfit.
When we got to the boat, he poked into our bundles and hefted a few. Finally he said, “Twenty cents a pound and twenty cents a mile for me. For the others, you pay them seventeen cents and three cents to me. We will need five more men. Do we leave from here?”
We told him we were taking the boat to where the Klondike and Yukon meet, but we didn’t know how long it would take to get there.
He informed us, “It will take you one sleep (day). We will be there this time on the morrow. How you pay, in gold or paper?”
Sam answered for the both of us, “Paper.”
Pete nodded his acceptance and departed.
Seeing as how we hadn’t eaten anything yet, and it was getting on to noon, we went back to town and had a big, fine meal and then set out to find our fortunes.
We floated northwest until just before dark. It was still cold, but it had not snowed again, and being played out, we slept on the boat rather than set up a camp.
The Indians were waiting for us the next day right at the bend in the Yukon where it meets the Klondike. Pete didn’t bother to introduce us to the other Indians. He told us that they did not speak our language. Instead, he barked out orders and the men got to work off-loading our gear. As they did so, Pete asked where we intended to go.
“Northwest of here,” said Sam.
“How far?” asked Pete.
“I don’t rightly know,” said Sam, “but I’ll know when we get there.”
Pete shrugged and hefted his pack. Sam, the Indians and I did likewise. With Sam leading the way, and me right behind, we set out.
For three days we traveled to the north and west. At night it was cold, it was now the middle of October, but the mosquitoes were no more, so the cold was welcomed. At mid-day of the third day we came to the base of a mountain and Sam said, “This is the place.”
I wanted to ask him why this particular locale, but we had to pay off the Indians and send them on their way. When they had departed I asked Sam, “Why here?” He didn’t answer me then, he said we had to set up camp, but later around the fire that night he opened up to me. He told me of his wife (whose name was Maria) and how she had died; that they had no children and how he was at loose ends. Then about a year after his wife died he had a dream.
“And you know how dreams are George. At first I didn’t pay it no mind. But I couldn’t get it out of my head and it bothered me. Then I had the same dream a second time. In the dream I went to San Francisco, met a man and then he and I went to Alaska and found a mountain of gold. The mountain in my dream was this one,” he said pointing to the mountain before us.
I had to ask him. “How’d you know to come to this place?”
“Something in my head said keep going northwest. I told you what you wanted to know, but now I think we ought to turn in. Tomorrow we start the search.”
I thought it was crazy to go through all we had gone through just because of a dream, but I was happy to be out of San Francisco, and I was happy to have met Sam McCord and become his partner. I fell asleep that night looking at the blue-green northern lighst dance across the sky.
There were three small creeks in the vicinity of where we were camped. And the next morning after a breakfast of beans and bacon, we went panning for gold. Now, panning is cold, wet work. Your legs hurt, your arms and shoulders ache, you neck throbs; but all that is forgotten when you see that yellow sand at the bottom of your pan.
Sam wanted to try all three creeks even though we were gathering dust with every pan-full of gravel. After a half hour at the first creek, Sam said, “Let’s try the next one.” I started to say something, but then decided to let it slide. In the next two hours we panned all three creeks. Then we stopped and went back to camp for something to eat, and as I was making the fire I asked Sam how much he reckoned we panned.
Hefting the bag of dust in his right hand he said, “Feels about ten ounces.”
With a big grin on my face, I shot back, “At sixteen dollars and ounce that’s one hundred sixty dollars! Not bad for a morning’s work.”
Sam didn’t respond to what I said. Instead he pulled out some dried fruit and handed me some saying, “Here, eat this. We got to remember to eat some everyday; some of this or a potato. We can’t come down with scurvy or we’re done for. (On the counsel of Pete we picked up fifty pounds of potatoes in Dawson.)
Once the fire was going and I had some bacon cooking, Sam finally told me what was on his mind. “Yes, the streams around here are filled with gold. But I didn’t come up here to squat in cold water all day for a few measly ounces. And once the streams freeze, what then? No George, we’re sitting under a mountain of gold. I only wanted to make sure we were in the right place. That’s why we panned this morning.” Then he poked at the fire with a stick he had in his hand and sat back on his heels.
I said nothing right off and I thought for a moment. It was going to be hard ignoring all that gold just sitting there waiting for us and our pans. But then I mentally shrugged and said to Sam. “All right partner, we’ll play it your way. But tell me, did your dream tell you where to start digging?”
Smiling, he told me no, the dream did not tell him where to start digging. Then he added, “We gotta do some of the work for ourselves. The dream got us here, now it’s up to us.”
As we ate, we made ours plans. We decided to build a small cabin before the snows hit. Even though we had a small wood stove, a flimsy tent would not afford us much protection in the depth of a Yukon winter. Once the cabin was finished we would start our prospecting in earnest. We would poke and prod the ground as deep as we could. If we found no gold near the surface, we’d build fires to thaw the ground and then go deeper. “Come spring partner, you and me are gonna be mighty rich men,” said Big Sam McCord. And you know, when he said it, I believed him.
Within a few days we had enough trees felled and stripped for the foundation of our cabin. But it was sure work to get them to the clearing we had made. We fashioned a couple of harnesses that fit around our shoulders and then hooked up to the tree we would drag it like horses. After the third pull I told Sam that I needed a break and he agreed that that wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
He suggested I take it easy while he heated up some coffee and cooked us a little bacon. It was getting colder by the day. And while we worked we were able to keep warm enough, but when we stopped, the cold had a way of seeping into our bones. I was wondering how we were going to make it through the winter as I walked a little ways up the mountain. I wanted to keep moving so as to keep warm.
It was about a hundred feet above our camp when I saw the cave. Actually I had walked right by it without seeing it. It was only after I felt a draft on the back of my neck and turned around to see where it had come from that I saw it. The opening was about fifteen feet high and six feet wide. Then I thought it might not be a cave after all. It was probably only a fissure in the rock. But I decided to explore my find anyway. I figured I’d go in until I couldn’t proceed further or until it got too dark to see.
I was about thirty feet in when the passage widened to ten or twelve feet. The ceiling stayed at fifteen feet. At a hundred feet in it started to get dark and I was just about to turn around and start back out when something caught my eye. It looked like a light in the distance, but that couldn’t be true. Still, I’d be damned if it didn’t look like a light! Telling myself that as soon as I lost sight of the light or whatever it was, I would turn around and retrace my steps I kept going. Looking behind me I saw that the entrance was still visible, but not by much. A few more steps and I wouldn’t be able to see it. But I took those steps and they were the luckiest steps I’d ever taken.
It was a light, or to be more precise it was daylight I was seeing. What I had taken for a cave or a rock fissure was in actuality a natural tunnel through the mountain. As I got closer, I could see that it was about the same size as the opening I had gone through. The tunnel had narrowed back down to six feet wide.
Upon reaching the opening in the rock, I could not believe what I beheld. There before me was a small valley about two miles in length and half as wide. And there were pine trees clustered in the center.
After a moment’s hesitation, I exited the tunnel and walked into the bright sunlight. It seemed warmer somehow. Maybe because there was no wind blowing. I reckon the surrounding mountain, or mountains, cut off the wind. The little valley was perfectly enclosed, on all sides were rock walls shooting up into the sky. But that wasn’t most amazing thing; there was a log cabin off to my right. It was nestled up against a shear rock wall. It wasn’t big, about thirty feet long and maybe fifteen feet wide. There was a chimney protruding through the roof, but no smoke came from it. My first thought was that I had obtruded onto someone’s land and that I should retreat to whence I came. However, I was just to darn curious to turn and leave. So I walked towards the cabin.
When I reached it, I knocked upon the door and called out. “Howdy. Anyone to home?” After a few silent moments with no answer forthcoming to my query, I ventured to push open the door.
I shall describe what I saw when the sunlight illuminated that dark space (there were no windows). The far wall was all rock. In the center of the wall was another tunnel, but this one looked man made because it was square in shape. Directly in front of me was a rough hewed table and a single chair, also roughly hewed from pine. To my right was a log wall and nothing else. To my left was a bed up against the log wall and upon the bed was a lump of furs. Next to the bed was a portable wood stove like we had, but a little bigger. Thinking the owner would soon be back and not wanting to be caught trespassing, I left the cabin, closing the door behind me.
As I made my way back, I looked around for signs of human life and saw none. I thought it queer that whoever lived in the secret valley had not approached us during the three days we had been neighbors. It was obvious that he wasn’t in the valley, unless he was hiding behind a tree. So he had to have seen Sam and me when he exited the tunnel. Or at the very least heard us as we felled the trees. How strange. Then I thought he might just want to be left alone. You know, one of them hermit fellas.
When I got back to camp, Sam was in a high state of agitation. In a staccato burst he laid into me. “Where in Sam Hill have you been? Didn’t you hear me calling you? I thought a grizzly got you. You shouldn’t go traipsing out in the woods alone without your gun.” Then, after taking a breath, he added, “The bacon’s burned, so you’ll have to eat it that way. I’m not cooking another batch!” I think Sam was worried about me.
When he had run down, I told him of my find. He immediately forgot about the burnt bacon. He started to pace back and forth with a worried look on his face. “Just who is this geezer,” Sam wanted to know. “Does he have a claim filed? Did he find our mother lode? Take me to him, show me the way. We’ve got to have this out now.”
I tried to tell him there was no one around, but he didn’t care. “We’ll wait for him,” was all he said. Then kicking dirt onto the fire, putting it out, he started off up the way I had just come from.
Sam is a big man and his stride matches his size. It was hard to keep up with him. He was walking so fast he walked right past the entrance to the tunnel, and I had to call to him to bring him back. When he got to me; I pointed to the entrance and said, “Here it is.”
“Lead the way George. I’ll slow down and follow you.” From then on, Sam was his old calm self.
We came out of the tunnel and made straight for the cabin. Once again I knocked and received no answer. Sam stepped past me and pushed open the door. Following him, we entered. Everything was as it had been an hour previously.
Sam went to the table where there were some papers held down by a lantern. I walked over to the bed to inspect the furs. Before I got there, Sam exclaimed, “You know who this geezer is?” He didn’t wait for my reply. “This cabin belongs to that geezer White Water told us about, that Ed Collins; his name is here on this paper.”
Sam wasn’t looking at me when he said that. He was looking at the paper in his hand. But he sure looked in my direction when I said, “And here is Mr. Collins himself.”
Sam walked over to where I was standing and together we looked down at a skeleton lying on the bed. He was dressed in skins and lay under a pile of fur. It was apparent that he died in winter. We both doffed our hats for a moment as a sign of respect for the dead. Then, replacing his hat Sam said, “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
Sam read the paper as I moseyed over to the hole in the wall of rock. It was dark inside and I couldn’t see anything, so turning to Sam I asked if there was anything of import written on the paper.
“Just his last will and testament,” answered Sam.
Handing the paper to me he said, “Here, take a look at this.”
I can accurately report what I read that day because I kept the paper and it sits before me as I write these words. This is what it said:
My name is Edward Michael Collins, and being of somewhat sound mind I make this my last will and testament.
While chopping firewood a few days ago my axe slipped cut into my leg. Now I can smell the gangrene. The pain is not too bad, but I am going to die.
I have no kin to speak of. There is a niece somewhere in Kansas, but I can’t remember her given name. So to whoever finds what is left of me, and if you would be so kind as to bury my poor carcass, I bequeath my fortune, but before I tell you where to find it, a few words.
I am an educated man, or perhaps I should say I was an educated man, for I am now dead. I spent most of my life, the life the Good Lord granted me, in the pursuit of gold. At first I only wanted enough to get a start on life. I didn’t want to be a millionaire, just comfortable. Then I made my strike and after that there was never enough. Year after year I toiled in my mine. Every spring I went to Dawson for a rest. But when summer was fast approaching its end I always high-tailed it back here to mine more gold. Yes my friend, there is a sickness known as “Gold Fever.” I know only too well of its effects. I could have gone back to the states years ago and never would have had to work another day. But I stayed on and dug deeper into the mountain.
The mine is now yours, and as you probably already know it’s through the hole I made in the rock. Take what you can and leave the rest for the mountain. Go and live the good life the gold will afford you. Do not make the mistake I made.
Just two more things: I never did file a claim, for to do so would have brought hundreds into my little valley, and at the end, seeing the sun on the green pine needles was more valuable than all the gold in this land.
The other thing is that the girls at Miss Bradford’s House of Blue Lights have always been good to me. So if you would please bestow some of my gold upon them I would be most grateful.
January (or maybe it’s February already) 1887
I folded the paper a stuck in my pocket. Then I asked Sam, “What’s next?”
But Sam was too busy fiddling with the lantern to answer me. Speaking more to himself than to me he said, “There’s still some oil in here.” Then he pulled out a match and set fire to the wick. It took a minute or two to catch, but then he had a good light going. Turning to me he said, “Let’s see this gold mine and then we’ll bury Mr. Collins.
Together we moved toward the opening in the rock face. When we got to the entrance, I held back and let Sam go in first. After Sam had progressed far enough inside so that I could enter, I did so. And the sight I beheld is one I will never forget, even if I live to a hundred and ten years old.
Sam was holding the lantern up high, about even with his head. The light that it gave off wasn’t that bright, but I had to shield my eyes when I came up and stood next to him. The light from the lantern was reflecting off a vein of gold three feet high. Collins had mined along the vein to a distance of twenty feet. And the vein looked like it would go on forever. There was also a pile of the stuff piled up on the floor of the cave. The gold was just sitting there waiting for us!
“So what do you think of my dream now?” asked Sam.
I was too stunned to answer him. I stood there, mouth open, staring at that vein of gold.
After a few minutes, while both of us were deep within our own privates thoughts, we shook our heads as if to clear them and then left the mine. We then decided that we would bury Mr. Collins and then have a pow wow as what to do next.
After Mr. Collins was in his final resting place, Sam sat at the table and I sat on the bed and we figured our next move. What we figured was that we’d move our outfit up to the cabin and make it our domicile. We also figured that we couldn’t get the gold down to Dawson by ourselves, and even if we could we’d have to sit on it for the winter because no steamer could get through until spring. So it was determined that we would mine as much of the vein as we could until spring. As to getting the gold down to Dawson, well, we’d climb that fence we when got to it.
Then, looking a little embarrassed, Sam spoke: “I know I acted a little crazy earlier and I want you to know it wasn’t because I thought we’d lost the gold. It was because I thought my dream was wrong. I might as well tell you George, it’s not gold I’m after. At first I thought it was. Then I thought it might be just for the adventure of the search. But now I don’t know. I think I was driven up here for a purpose, and now I am sure it wasn’t to get rich. If nothing else intrudes, we’ll get the gold down to Dawson and then to the States and we’ll both be rich men. I’m happy for you . . . for you and Jenny. But for me, gold will not bring my Maria back.
For the next four months we chipped gold from the mountain. Occasionally we’d take a week off to go hunting for fresh meat. But by and large we were miners.
Little by little, the vein gave way to our efforts and the yellow metal lay in piles around the cave and the cabin. By the end of February we speculated we had almost half a ton of rock. Gold rock that is! We didn’t have just nuggets; some of the rock was fist size. Most of it was the size of hen’s eggs.
About then we were running out of fresh meat, so we thought we’d get us a large caribou or a moose; enough to last us till the thaw. We left our little, hidden valley and made our way east, away from the mountain. The going was slow; we had to tramp down the snow with our snowshoes more than once in order to advance a step. We saw no animal tracks in the snow, but kept on. To be honest, we were happy to be out in the open and away from the mine.
I don’t know what the temperature was, but when I spit I heard a crack as my spittle froze in mid air. Every once in awhile we’d have to hit our cheeks and nose repeatedly, even though they were covered, to get the circulation going; when we felt the pins-and-needles sting, we knew the blood was flowing once again.
We had planned on staying out a day or two if we had to, therefore we brought along the necessities. Building a fire was no problem. There was dried wood everywhere. We’d stretch a piece of canvas from a branch to the ground as a wind break. There we would make our fire and huddle throughout the night, and in the morning we would continue our hunt.
On the third day without any sign of game we turned to head back to the mountain. We had enough bacon and beans left. We had gone out more because of cabin fever than lack of food. But as long as we were out, we made a decision to return by a different route in the hopes we’d run across some tracks in the snow. We did run across some tracks an hour later. But they were not caribou or moose tracks. They were made by a solitary man. And there was blood, bright red blood, frozen blood, trailing next to them.
At that time of year there isn’t much sun. What little sunlight we had only lasted a few hours and it was just getting dark when we saw the figure of a man laying face down in the snow a hundred yards before us.
When we reached him we discovered that he was only a boy, an Indian boy. Sam turned him over and it looked like he had been scrapping with a bear, probably a grizzly. Part of his scalp was missing and he had claw marks down the right side of his face. And we saw a few black spots on his face and the tip of his nose that denoted dead flesh. Because dark was fast approaching, we made for some trees fifty or so yards to the south, with Sam carrying the boy.
After we got a fire started, Sam looked the boy over. He couldn’t have been more than ten or maybe twelve years old. In his clenched right hand Sam found the part of the scalp that had been ripped off.
“Well, will you look at this,” said Sam.
I did, shook my head and then said, “That shows some presence of mind. I mean to have half your head ripped off and still walk away with the missing pieces.”
“Sam said nothing. He was busy prying the boy’s fingers from the piece of scalp. Then as he held the scalp near the fire to thaw it out he said, “Cut me a strip of canvas about three inches wide and long enough to go round his head.”
I did what was asked of me and handed the strip to Sam. By then Sam had the torn piece of skin and hair back on the boy’s head. Then he tied the canvas strip around his head and under his chin to hold it in place.
“There, that ought to do it for now.”
“Do what for now?” I asked.
“If we can get him back to his people, and if he lives, the torn piece should mend. When I was a boy down in Texas, an hombre had part of his scalp torn off like this boy. He just picked it up, placed it back on his head and tied a bandanna around it. A few months later he was as good as new.”
Next, Sam said we’ve got to save what’s left of his face. It’s frozen and putting him next to the fire would be the worst thing we could do. No, first we had to thaw him then the warmth of the fire would keep him safe. So Sam did a brave thing. He lifted his outer fur and placed the boy’s head on his stomach. Then he lowered the fur and cuddled the boy.
We were pretty tuckered out and it didn’t look like the boy was going to regain conciseness, so we thought we’d get a little shuteye. However, we didn’t get much sleep that night. Sam was like a nervous mother hen, and he kept sending me out for more wood to keep the fire going. He wanted the boy to be as warm as possible. And all through the night the boy did not stir. Sam would remove his mittens every once in a while to feel the boy’s skin and make sure he was still alive. Then he’d say to me, “Still warm.”
An hour or so before the feeble sun was due to rise we finally fell asleep. I was dreaming of Jenny and spittoons when a foot nudged me awake. “Come on Sam, leave me be for a little while longer.” But it wasn’t Sam’s foot. After another nudge, this one not as gentle as the first, I opened my eyes.
What I saw made my blood run cold. Standing over me were six Indians. They had our guns and they didn’t look any too friendly. Sam was sitting up and looked over to me and said, “Good morning partner, I hope you slept well.” Then he smiled.
The Indians said nothing. One of them was kneeling down and bending over the boy. Two others came into our little camp carrying two pine poles. They then proceeded to tear our canvas and attach it to the two poles. Even in my half awake stupor, I discerned that they were making a stretcher to carry the boy.
When they were finished, and the boy was hefted, we were told to rise and get moving. Of course, they didn’t convey that thought in words. They did not speak our language, but they made their desires perfectly clear. Without our guns there wasn’t much we could do except go where they pointed. We trudged in a single line southeast for about four hours. Then we came over a slight rise and saw their camp. It was small, maybe thirty or so lodges and fifty or sixty people.
We were brought to a lodge in the middle of the camp and the boy was carried inside. Then we were told, in sign, to sit; which after a four hour trek we were more than happy to do.
After what seemed a long time, but was probably no more than a half an hour, a man emerged from the lodge and surprised both Sam and me by saying in perfect English, “I welcome you. My son is alive and it seems to be your doing. Will tell me what happened?”
I looked to Sam and he looked to me. Neither one of us knew what to say, but Sam spoke up. “All we know is that we found him yesterday. It looked like he had a run in with a bear. We couldn’t leave him there, so we carried him to our camp.”
The man then said, “I am most grateful. You also tied his scalp back on. Our medicine man says that he will live, but if you had not happened upon him, he would surely now be dead.” When he had finished, Sam looked a little uncomfortable and neither one of us said anything.
When he saw that we had nothing to say, the man resumed his talk.
“I am sorry; I seem to be a bad host. My name is Neekaii Laii, Two Dog in your tongue. I am the chief of this band. We are The People of the Caribou. You whites call us Gwich’in. I speak your tongue because of the missionaries. They taught it to me when I was young, but that was many winters ago. As I said, you saved my son’s life and anything I have is yours.”
“Well,” said Sam. I reckon we could use something to eat. And maybe eat it sitting next to a fire.
We were brought to one of the fires and given a stew of some sort by a beautiful Indian maiden. It tasted like caribou, but maybe I was imagining things seeing as how they were the People of the Caribou. When we had finished and declined more, Two Dog sat down next to us.
The girl who had served us collected the bowls and then sat down across the fire from us, eyes averted to the ground. Seeing Sam looking at her, Two Dog said to him, “That is my daughter. Here name is Oozrii’ Oonjit or Moon Woman. She is still a maiden, but she will build her fire this year.”
Sam wanted to know what he meant by “build her fire.” And old Two Dog ensued to tell him.
“When a maiden is ready for marriage she builds her fire to let the young men know that they may approach her. They bring gifts and try to woo her as you whites would say.”
Sam nodded and told Two Dog that that wasn’t such a bad way of doing things. When he said it, I saw a glint in his eye. But it was now dark and I was feeling the rigors of the day and asked Two Dog where we were going to sleep.
He answered: “In my lodge, of course. There is room enough. So that night, Sam and me slept on one side of the lodge and Two Dog and Moon Woman slept on the other. Two Dog’s son was with the medicine man in his lodge.
In the morning when I awoke I was alone. Hurrying to put on my outer fur and mittens, I rushed outside only to have my ears burn before I got two steps. Realizing that I had forgotten to put on my hat, I retreated to the lodge and did so. After making sure the ear flaps were down and securely tied, I tried again.
When I emerged for the second time, I saw Indians going about their business, but there was no sign of Sam or Two Dog. There was urgent business I had to attend to and knowing I couldn’t do it without the warmth of a fire nearby, I elected to do it by Two Dog’s. It was somewhat embarrassing, but I had to relieve myself. If I had gone out into the woods to do so, parts of me would have frozen and then broke off. However, no one paid me any mind and when I had finished, Sam was fast approaching.
“Good morning George. I’m glad to see you finally got up.”
I started to protest that he should have awakened me, but he ignored my half spoken retort and pushed on, “I’ve been to see the boy. He’s awake now and we got his story. By the way, his name is Dagaii Laii. That means White Dog.”
At that point I held up my hand and said, “Sam, I’d like to hear his story, but I’m kind of hungry. Let’s get us some food and sit by a nice warm fire and I’ll listen to what you’ve got to say.”
“Fair enough George. You sit here by the fire and I’ll go and ask Two Dog to send us some food. I’ll be right back.”
About five minutes later Moon Woman appeared and handed me a bowl of the same concoction we had the night before. In her hand she held a second bowl, but just stood there silent. A few moments later Sam came back and took the bowl from her hand. She smile at him and didn’t look at me, then she walked away. If I didn’t know any better I’d think there was something going on between those two.
As we slurped our stew Sam told me the story of White Dog.
“It seems,” said Sam, “that he got in his head that being the son of a chief he would have to prove himself at a much younger age than the other young boys. So without telling anyone, he set out to kill his first bear. He was gone a few hours when that snow storm hit. You remember; the one that delayed our hunting excursion? It hit about five days ago.”
I told him that indeed I did remember the storm of which he spoke. So he continued.
“Well, because of that the men his father sent out to bring him back couldn’t find his tracks. So as soon as the snow stopped blowing, little White Dog set out on his quest once again. And it wasn’t long before he came upon a cave that he felt sure would hold a hibernating bear, and he was right. The little scamp’s plan was to kill the bear while it slept.
So, armed with only a knife, he crept into the cave and when he saw his quarry, he leapt upon it with a vengeance. Now you understand these are my words. I got the story from his father. White Dog does not speak English. So where was I? Oh yes, when he landed on the bear it awoke and tried to shake off the little animal that was hanging onto its back. But White Dog said he was able to hold on until the bear stood on its hind legs. It was then that he fell off onto the floor of the cave. And that is about all she wrote. The bear took a swipe at the boy and pulled off half his scalp. He says at that point he felt no pain, but did feel sick when he saw his hair lying on the ground. He reached down and scooped up his scalp and high-tailed it out of there. He was trying to make his way back to his people when his strength gave out, and that’s where we come into the picture.
Now that I had heard the boy’s story and had a full stomach, I mentioned to Sam that perhaps we should retrieve our guns and head back to our own stompin’ grounds.
“What’s the rush? We can’t go anywhere for at least a month. And we got all the gold we’ll ever gonna need, so I thought we’d spend a day or two as Two Dog’s guests. How’s that sit with you partner?”
When I thought about it, I reckoned Sam was right. And to tell the truth I was glad to be out of that small cabin and not swinging a pick axe eight or nine hours a day. Accordingly, I told Sam we’d stay as long as he liked. That is until the thaw. I was itching to get back to Jenny and as soon as the snow would allow me passage, I was hell-bent on making Dawson, catching the first steamer to Juneau and then making my way to Skagway and to Jenny.
Sam and I went out with hunting parties during the next few weeks. Our rifles were superior to anything the Gwich’in had and we had no trouble bringing down caribou from a fair distance. When we weren’t hunting, I didn’t see much of Sam, but when I did see him he was walking with Moon Woman or they had their heads together as though in deep conversation. Finally I asked Sam how he was able to converse with her.
“She speaks a little English that she learned from her father. And she’s teaching me her language. Did you know their word for eat is a’àa and water is chuu?”
“That is all very interesting Sam, but how often do you think you’ll need to know that once we’re back in the States?”
That’s when Sam hit me, figuratively speaking, with a haymaker, smack right on the chin.
‘You might as well know now George, I’m staying. Moon Woman and I are going to be married.”
I just stared at him. There was nothing I could think of to say. Sam was old enough to know his own mind, and even if I thought he was making a mistake there was no way I could force him to leave. I knew from experience that once he made up his mind to something he wasn’t about to change it no matter how much you argued or cajoled.
Sam, taking my reticence for disapproval said, “It’s no use trying to talk me out of it George. My mind’s made up. We both found something more precious than gold. You found Jenny and I found Moon Woman.
That’s when I found my voice, stuck out my hand and said, “Congratulations!”
Taking my hand, he said, “Thank you George, thank you very much.”
And before I knew it, it was time to leave. The Gwich’in’s marriage ceremonies take place at a certain time of year, always in the spring, so Sam wasn’t hitched yet and he told me he wished I could be there. “I don’t know if they have the custom of a Best Man like we do, but if you were here you’d be my Best Man.”
I thanked him for the sentiment as I packed my kit. Then I asked him what he was going to do with his share of the gold. “Hell, that yellow rock ain’t gonna do me no good out here in the wilds. I’m giving my share to you.”
As I started to protest, he raised his hand to silence me. “First of all, there’s a whole mountain of the damn stuff if I ever have need of it. I might want a little now and then to trade for ammunition or something like that, and if I do, I’ll know where to get it. And I don’t think anyone’s gonna stumble upon the place, so the gold will be there when I need it.”
I guess he had a point, so I finished packing and stood. Putting out my hand, I said, “Well this looks like the end of the partnership.”
He slapped my hand away and laughed, saying, “How do you aim to get the gold to Dawson?’
Being a bit insulted about the hand slap, I hesitated in answering. Then he answered for me. “You were gonna hike to Dawson and scare up Kaska Pete and his kin and hike back to the mountain and have them haul the goods into town. Right?”
In reply, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “You got a better idea?”
“As a matter of fact I do.”
While I was pondering that, fifteen braves walked up. They were dressed and outfitted for travel. Then Sam sprang his surprise on me.
“Two Dog is sending twelve of these men to help you and your gold get to Dawson. The other three will help me bring back our outfit. Those two portable stoves and that fifty pounds of flour will do more good here than there. Oh, and by the way, would you mind leaving your rifle and pistol behind. Good guns like them are hard to come by out here. Or so says Two Dog.”
When I went to say good-bye to Two Dog I handed him my guns and thanked him for his hospitality. I also saw White Dog at the same time. He was coming along fine. He had three scars down his cheek where the bear’s claws made contact, but he seemed to be proud of them. And his scalp, believe it or not, was growing back all right.
Sam and I said good-bye at the cabin and I marched out of there at the tail end of a line of twelve Indians carrying a half of ton of gold.
Just one point about how Sam was always one step ahead of me. I had given no thought on how the gold was to be carried to Dawson. I don’t mean who was going to carry it, but how, and in what was it to be transported. Well, Sam gave it thought and came up with an answer. With Two Dog’s blessing he had some of the Indian woman sew up skins, with double stitching for strength, to carry the gold in.
I’m proud to say that I did not flag. I was carrying the food we needed for the seven day march and the Indians carried the gold, about eighty pounds each. I thought back eight months when I had to stop after a mile when Sam and me made our first foray to Lake Bennett. I’d muscled up a bit while swinging that pick axe all winter. We got to Dawson without incident and I thanked the Indians and they went on their way. The next steamer was due in about a week and I was happy I didn’t have to wait any longer.
After securing a room at the local boarding house, I went to the House of Blue Lights with my pockets filled with nuggets and asked for Mrs. Bradford. Subsequent to telling her my reason for being there, she told me that only one of the girls now employed by her was from Mr. Collins’ time. I told her that that was alright.
“I’m sure if these girls had been around in Mr. Collins’ time they would have been just as kind to him as the other girls. When I had distributed the gold to the four girls currently employed by Mrs. Bradford, I turned and handed an egg size rock to the dear lady herself saying, “Mr. Collins wanted you to have this particular nugget and sent along his thanks for all your kindnesses.” It was a lie, but one I think I’ll be forgiven for.
I passed a mirror on my way out and had to take a second look at the disheveled and bearded stranger that I beheld. Saying that I reckoned I could use a shave, Mrs. Bradford chimed in with, “A bath would do you no harm neither.”
The short of it is that she insisted I bathe there. She sent one of the girls out to buy a new shirt and pair of pants while I bathed. And afterwards, a very nice girl (her name was Anna) shaved me. Following the bath and shave, I felt like a new man.
I wasn’t the only geezer in from the north. There were sixteen others who had struck it rich up on Rabbit Creek, which they had renamed Bonanza Creek. They too were headed for the states where they could enjoy their new found wealth and live the life of gentlemen.
Nine days later I heard the blow of the steamer’s whistle as she came up the Yukon River. However, I still had a two day wait while she unloaded and loaded freight. I booked my passage; she was going straight to Seattle after stops in Juneau and Skagway. That fit my plans perfectly.
In Skagway, I jumped from the boat before she docked, almost falling in the water. I ran to Jenny’s boardinghouse and found her in the kitchen pealing potatoes. Without a word I swept her up in my arms and gave her the kiss I’d been holding for her all winter.
Not letting her get a word out, I took her by the hand and dragged her to the nearest shop where she could buy some clothes. We were leaving within the hour, the boat was only stopping long enough to disembark a few people and take on a few new passengers.
Jenny kept asking me questions, but I held my tongue. I wanted to show her the bags of gold stored in my stateroom, not tell her about them. We made the boat in plenty of time, even though at Jenny’s insistence we went back to the boarding house so she could say good-bye to Mrs. Bellew.
On the boat we had the captain marry us, and then for the next seven days we enjoyed a perfect honeymoon, even though we didn’t leave our cabin very much; just to take our meals and an occasional constitutional around the deck.
We landed in Seattle in July of ’97. Eleven months after Big Sam McCord walked into my life. Me and the other geezers who came down from Dawson caused quite a stir. After we had our gold weighed, all told, we had two tons, more or less. My stake was the largest by far. I walked out of the bank with a letter of credit made out in the amount of $265,248.00!
The whole town got gold fever when they heard our story (I told everyone my claim was just above Bonanza Creek, which was a lie). The mayor resigned and booked passage on the next ship headed north. And he wasn’t alone, the city sold out of shovels and pick axes before nightfall. And there wasn’t a berth on a boat heading north for love nor money. If you were lucky you could buy passage on the deck, but you’d have to bring your own food.
But all that foolishness did not affect Jenny and me. We were going south, south to a new life.
Well, now here it is … ten years later. Jenny and I have two fine children. George Jr. and Mary, George is eight and Mary is five. When I sold my gold to the bank in Seattle I kept out two fist sized rocks, and as I write these words, I am looking at the small, four inch high spittoon sitting upon our mantel. It is made of solid gold. Jenny and I both thought it a good idea. We wanted to remember where we came from, so as not to get swelled heads.
That is my story. I have finally found shelter from the wind.
17 April 1906