I’m in full battle gear and I’m sweating my ass off. It’s gotta be at least 110 degrees and it’s not even daylight yet! We’re going out to man a checkpoint north of the city and we’re all kinda skittish. The day before, three of our outfit were blown to bits, one of them my best friend.
I should never have enlisted, but sitting in my dorm room on that Tuesday morning watching the towers fall, I felt I had to do something. But I didn’t get to go to Afghanistan. No, I get deployed to Iraq to fight a murderous thug that had nothing to do with 9/11. And now the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that we don’t know who we’re fighting.
Because replacements for those killed and wounded yesterday have not yet been assigned to our unit, I find myself in command. I am only a corporal, but I outrank the other five men. We’re supposed to set up a checkpoint on a lightly-traveled road into the city. The captain told me we would not encounter more than twenty vehicles all day, which is probably why he put a twenty-three year old corporal in charge.
We are traveling in a two-vehicle convoy. I am in the lead Humvee and with me are Hernandez and Scott. Behind us are Reilly, Simms, Grabowski, and our interpreter. Simms is sitting in his sling, manning the .50 cal machine gun. The night is dark in spite of the half-moon hanging in the western sky; electricity is sporadic, sometimes it’s on and sometimes not. Because of the darkness, the stars seem close and bright. As we make our way into the desert, I think of Jimmy, my friend that was killed yesterday, and what a waste of a life his death was.
Without warning, I peripherally see a flash and then I hear the explosion; it came from behind. Turning, I see the Humvee in flames; no one is moving. They’ve been hit with an IED, an improvised exploding device. Reilly has pulled off to the side of the road and we three run back to help our comrades. But we might as well have continued on. They are all dead.
Hernandez shouts, he is pointing to the east. He tells me he saw a shadowy figure running towards a house about one hundred meters away. I am in command and I must make a decision. I tell Scott to call in what has happened and stay here until help arrives. Hernandez and I start off for the house.
At the door, I do not knock, I kick at the latch. The door swings inward, it had not been locked. Hernandez and I stand at the threshold, moonlight slants in through a window, illuminating the room before us. Against one wall are two couches facing a television that sits against the opposite wall. To the left, at the far end of the room, is a rectangular table with six chairs around it. To the right is a hallway that leads off into darkness. On the far side of the room is another hallway with four closed doors, two on either side. Figuring that the hallway on the right leads to a kitchen, and if the man we are looking for came to this house, he would most likely be in one of the four rooms, I send Hernandez to the right with a nod of my head and I go toward the four doors.
A few minutes ago, I was angry. Now, as I approach the first door on the right I am angry and scared. I flatten myself against the wall, and with my gun at the ready, I push the door open. I expect bullets to come flying out, but nothing happens. In the dim light, I see two mattresses lying on the floor and not much else. Then I cross the hall and open that door in the same manner and see just about the same thing, two mattresses on the floor and a bureau against the far wall.
I don’t know what makes me so sure the man we’re after is in this particular house. Maybe because it’s the building closest to the explosion, but whatever the reason, I am sure he’s here. And I’m just as sure that he’s behind one of the two doors that I have yet to open. My mouth is dry, my heart is racing, and I’m scared. Where the hell is Hernandez?
I guess it doesn’t matter where he is. He’s doing his job and I must do mine. Because I’m closest to the door on the left, I choose that one to open next.
The door swings in easily. I am not against the wall this time because I have come to the realization that the walls are so thin they offer no protection from bullets. This room is different, there is very little light. There are curtains on the window and they are drawn shut, but a little moonlight comes in from around the edges. A mattress sits on a box spring and a frame, it is a double bed. Great, now I’ll have to get down and look under it, but first the rest of the room. There’s a dresser and an old-fashioned wardrobe against the near wall. In the far corner, there is something indistinct. Is that the glint of moonlight on metal that I see? It is! It’s a man holding a gun!
Without hesitation I open fire. I rake my gun back and forth, twice, and then stop firing. By now Hernandez is by my side, looking for a target. That’s when we hear the scream. Before we can react, the lights come on; the electricity must be working again.
I wish the lights had stayed off. The sight before me is too much to bear. There is a woman sitting on the floor, screaming, and as far as I’m concerned, she has something to scream about. Her face is covered with blood and she’s holding a baby or what used to be a baby. It is now a corpse with half its head missing. Next to the woman lie two children, both boys. One is about twelve and the other looks to be nine or ten. They are both dead, their eyes open, but not seeing. The younger of the two holds a puppy, a mutt, also dead.
In front of the boys and next to the woman is a man. In his left arm and tight to his chest, he holds a little girl, and in his right hand he holds a knife. I can’t help but fixate on the knife. It is just like the one my father used on Thanksgiving. How many times did I watch him as he sharpened that knife in anticipation of carving up a big, juicy turkey? The man and the little girl are dead, and still the woman screams. She holds the baby in her right arm, and with her left, she shakes the boy nearest her, the one with the puppy, as though trying to wake him from a deep sleep. And still she screams.
Hernandez now turns from the carnage and says the words I will never forget.
“That’s not the man I saw running. He was dressed in dark clothes. This man is wearing white.”
This man was only trying to protect his family. That was his crime.
The house is now filling with soldiers. The captain is beside me, he’s saying something, but his words are inaudible, there’s just too much damn noise … I can’t think straight.
My eyes are locked onto the woman’s eyes. She has now stopped screaming, she is quiet. She is looking right into my eyes. I want to turn and run, but I cannot break off the eye contact. To do so would prove me the coward that I am, so we look into each other’s souls until someone lifts her from the pooling blood of her loved ones, still clutching the dead baby. She is being led out of the room. She is docile, but at the door she stops and turns to give me one last look. I think she is trying to memorize my face. Her face, I will never forget—it is burned into my memory.
I’m brought back to the base where they try to debrief me, but I refuse to speak. Hernandez is brought in and is asked what happened. He explains that he was in another part of the house before and during the shooting, he did not know what precipitated the incident. Hernandez is then dismissed. It is decided that I must be in shock, so I am sent to the base hospital for treatment and observation. Three days later, I am released and sent back to my unit.
While I’m in the hospital, a sergeant has been assigned to our platoon, and the replacements for Reilly, Simms, and Grabowski are also in residence. I am surprised, and a little mystified, when I am not summoned to explain the shooting of an entire unarmed family. It seems the incident has been hushed up. Officially it never happened.
I no longer feel the comradeship or the esprit de corps of our unit; I just want to be left alone. Eventually the men do leave me to myself, after a few attempts to bring me “out of my funk” have been rebuffed.
The platoon has been idle since the night I murdered an entire family … all but the mother. I spend my days lying on my bunk, staring at the ceiling and seeing her face. I try to find out her name and where she is, not that I have the courage to approach her. But I’m told to let the matter lie, that there is nothing I can do to change what happened. I have to agree. Then I make a decision that is the first, small step to my redemption.
The captain walks in and tells the sergeant to have the squad assemble. The men stop what they are doing and gather in front of the captain. I remain where I am, lying on my bunk. I see the captain nod to the sergeant, who in turn yells, “Blair, front and center!” I remain where I am. The sergeant comes to my bunk, and standing over me, says, “On your feet, soldier.” I remain where I am. He turns to the captain for guidance. The captain nods and the sergeant grabs the mattress and flips it and me onto the floor. The mattress and I remain where we land. The sergeant once again looks to the captain. I cannot see the captain from my vantage point on the floor, but the sergeant retreats and I hear a whispered conversation followed by the captain’s voice giving orders for a mission.
The captain leaves and everyone gives me a wide berth lest they be contaminated by whatever is afflicting me. A few minutes later, I am surrounded by four MPs, very large MPs. Without preamble, I am hoisted to my feet and half dragged and half walked out the door. Once outside, I am given the option of walking under my own power or being knocked out and carried. I choose the former.
The base has no jail or holding cells. If someone has to be incarcerated, he is sent to Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein’s infamous prison now run by the coalition. I, on the other hand, am thrown unceremoniously into a small, windowless room. The door is closed and I hear the click of the lock. There is nothing in the room but four bare walls and the floor.
About an hour later, sitting on the floor, I once again here the click of the lock. The door opens and in walks the captain with a major that I am not familiar with. “Attention!” the captain barks. I remain seated. The captain and major look at one another and then the major raises his hand as a sign for the captain to let him handle things.
“What’s the problem, son? What happened the other night bothering you?” asks the major. His voice is soft and kind, like he really wants to know what is on my mind. I stand and face him, “Yes sir, I wiped out a family and I will not take another order that will put me in that position again. You can court-martial me, hang me, shoot me, or draw and quarter me, but I’m not going out there again … sir.”
The major nods as though he understands. Without another word, he turns and waits for the captain to open the door. Then they are gone and I am left with the vision of her eyes. They are dark, and surprisingly enough, there is no hate in them. Only the one question, “Why?”
Because I was afraid, that’s why.
I am given an honorable discharge with the proviso that if I ever speak of that night to anyone, especially a member of the media, I will be prosecuted for murder. They need not worry on that account. I have no need to speak of it, I see her eyes, her face, and I think of those dead bodies every moment of my existence … especially in my dreams.
Variations on a Theme
I write this preamble to the following story for a reason. I recently posted a story entitled Hank and Me that had a dead guy in a cabin filled with gold. Guess what? There’s a dead guy in this story and he is also found in a cabin filled with gold. But please hear me out. I wrote the bulk of my short stories about seven years ago. I wrote them for myself and then forgot about them. I did not imagine they would ever see the light of day. I did not have a blog at the time and my first novel had yet to be written.
This story came about because one day I was tooling down the road listening to an oldies station on the radio and up comes Against the Wind by Bob Seger. A few miles later, on comes North to Alaska by Johnny Horton. That was all I needed. When I got home, I banged out this story never thinking of the Hank and Me story. They are two completely different stories. The only overlap is the dead geezer and his gold.
One last thing: There is a twist at the end of this story. It is not self-evident. Only the most astute among you will get the irony. To those that do, I offer a prize of an all-expense-paid weekend with the famous Danny the Dog. Of course, by “all-expense-paid,” I mean you will have to pay the expenses, but Danny is worth it.
Now, here is my story:
Against the Wind
I had been running against the wind most of my life. My mother died in childbirth. My father was shot and killed when he accidentally bumped into a drunk in the Alhambra Bar on New Year’s Day of 1886. I was ten years old at the time, and having no siblings or other relations, that left me on my own. For the next ten years, I cadged a living any way I could. Mostly sweeping out saloons 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 bellhop 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 just rolled in off the bay, and I was holding down the fort for the night clerk. He was a laudanum user and had gone into the office, as he did every night, to catch his forty winks. That’s 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. 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 would address me in such a manner because he seemed only a few years older than me. Later, I learned 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 bellboy. 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 himself a half-way honest game of poker?”
Reaching out to take his bag, I answered his query, “If you’re looking for a gentleman’s game of poker, then I can’t help you. All I know is 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.”
He smiled and said, “I’m Samuel McCord. My friends call me Sam.”
“I’m George, George Pratt.”
“Well, George Pratt, seeing as how I’m new in town, and you know your way around better than me, why not accompany me? You’ll be my guide.”
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 have only three days, I don’t want to waste my 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—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.” He then flicked something in my direction. I caught it in mid-air. It was a twenty-dollar gold piece! “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’d 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 all 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 any more, except to decline his kind offer. It wasn’t until much later that I learned his wife, whose name was Maria, 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, the coins went into my pants pockets. 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 and then grew quiet. It was obvious 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 on to 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 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 heading 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 portable stove, a tent, and things of that sort. Sam had said they would be a tenth of the cost of what we would pay up 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 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.
“We get the lay of the land,” was the answer. “And the best way to do that is in a saloon. Let’s go and see what the ‘old ladies’ have to say.” By old ladies, Sam meant the men who hung out in saloons and gossiped the day away.
We found a place to store our things and made our way down Stewart Street. The first place we came to was called The Moose. It had a fine rack of antlers nailed above the entrance.
We went inside, ambled to the bar, and Sam named our poison. With drinks in hand and our feet upon the brass rail, we surveyed the room. Off to the right, at the faro table, stood a gent with garters on his sleeves, dealing to the few men who stood around the table—to our left, a table with six men sitting at it, playing poker. And at the bar, besides Sam and me, were three men studying the contents of their glasses, not saying a word.
Sam looked at me and hoisted his glass, saying, “To gold!”
That got the attention of two of our three bar companions. 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 at all. 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.” Picking up the coin, the barkeep said, “Yes, sir! You need anything else, just let me know.”
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 was right neighborly of him. 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 speaker was named Ed Mulroney. The other man’s name 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 traveled 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 at The Moose.
Eventually Sam steered the conversation to 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 had been 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 on us 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 oughta let them make their own mistakes, like we did. And who knows? Maybe they’ll get lucky.”
After a moment, Mulroney smiled and said, “I think you’re right, Jess.” 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. But 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 those 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. “If a man was dumb or crazy enough to go traipsing into that land, how would he get there?” asked Sam.
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 left two very happy men sitting in 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 up 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 mouth. 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). 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. Sam digested the information for a moment and then said, “Reckon we’ll need us a whipsaw.” So we went out and bought us one. 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 on earth 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, 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, where do you have to be that you can’t spend the time?” asked 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. If we get moving, then we can get to where we want to be by the time the first snow 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 up 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 to spring 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, 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. And 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, 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 when I was cleaning spittoons, 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! 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 from her kneeling position 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. But then she smiled, and 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’re finished? I used to do the same thing.”
That was a stupid thing to say. But I wanted to get 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.
“It’s not my habit to mix with Mr. Smith’s clientele.”
“The hell with Mr. Smith! I want to talk to you, but I’m leaving for the Yukon tomorrow at first light, so it has to be tonight. Now, 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?” Returning to her duties and with her back to me, she continued in a soft voice, “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 the goddess her name. But no matter, I was going to see her in an hour. Sam 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 to 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. I took myself outside and 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 blue eyes sparkled that much more because of it.
I walked up to her and asked what name she went by. “My name is Jenny Bligh, what do they call you?”
“I’m George Pratt and it’s a pleasure to meet you, Jenny Bligh.”
She told me 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; 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, a sharecropper, believed it was because of the hardscrabble life they led. 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 it. Then he gave her the most menial jobs he could think of, hoping that she would come to him for relief. When I heard that, I thought of going up to the room and getting my new gun and confronting Mister Soapy Smith. But I didn’t, I stayed to hear the rest of her story.
About six months earlier, a trapper had come into town with word that he had found a man frozen to death a couple of hundred miles up the Yukon. Seems he had fallen through the ice up 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 the man 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. One day, while in The Dead Horse 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.
I shouted, “No! Don’t even think that.” That’s when she told me she had to go back to work and stood, preparing 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 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 in the spring. When it does, I’ll come to you and take you far from this accursed town.” Without another word, I turned and left her standing there, with her fork and plate in one hand and a smile on her face.
The next day, Sam and I 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 notice I wasn’t right behind him and kept walking, and I was too tired and winded to call out after him. He probably went fifty yards before he noticed my absence. Turning back in my direction, he yelled, “I know it’s tough, but you’ll get used to it. Rest awhile, and I’ll come back to 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. But, after a good night’s rest and a big breakfast of bacon and beans, I got my second wind and kept up with Sam most of the day. However, I still 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 Yukon ices up, and besides, who says I don’t need the rest as much as anybody?” 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 four o’clock that 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 it would be best to 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. And 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. The whole way across the pass, all I could do was think of Jenny Bligh.
It took us the better part of three days to get to the lake, and by then the sun was going down. We weren’t about to go back over White Pass in the dark, so we made camp and spent the night where we were. 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 and tried to sleep. I say “tried” 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 itself, 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 was happy that she smiled when she saw me. I wanted to rush in and kiss her; however, I refrained from doing so. 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?”
While I was hiking the trail, I’d 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 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 who 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. 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.
Jenny looked at me and said, “I can take care of myself … and I don’t need a man to pay my way.”
“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, whose named was Mrs. Bellew, said she’d show us the room. After seeing it, and thinking it suitable for Jenny, I 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 be glad to help out around the house so as to keep busy. 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. I can think of nothing finer than being married to you. And I promise 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 our 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 gloomy look?”
“Well, it’s just that I don’t know how Mr. Smith is going to take my leaving.”
I took a moment before I said, “Leave Mr. Smith to me. He won’t give you any trouble.” We then continued on our way to The Dead Horse. When we reached her room, I told her to pack her things and go get settled in at Mrs. Bellew’s, and that I would 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. I have never handled a gun before, pistol or rifle. But I figured they couldn’t be that hard to operate. I’d seen many a shooting on the Coast. Besides, if I did things right, I wouldn’t have to pull the trigger.
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 to show 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. 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 asked 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 were standing on the boardwalk, I told him it was too public a place and suggested that the adjacent alleyway would be better suited to discuss our business. Of course, he readily agreed. After all, to him I was a greenhorn sucker just ripe for the picking.
As soon as we were in the alley, I whipped out the revolver and stuck it up under his chin and 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, and 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. And if she is suffering from even a cold or a hangnail when I return, I’ll think it was your doing and I’ll kill you slow. Got it?”
“Good. Now get out outta my sight while you’re still vertical.”
That, I hoped, took care of Soapy Smith. I went to see Jenny to make sure she was settled in. I 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 the cheek, I left her standing at the door of her new digs.
Sam and I got an early start the next morning. 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 with a wink and a smile, “Yeah, I see it sticking in your belt. But you were gone an awful long time just to buy a gun.”
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 overnight, 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 surprised me by saying, “Why don’t I get rip-roarin’ drunk and you go and 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. 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 toward himself and the man on top pulls it back up. Because the man in the pit gets sawdust in his eyes and mouth, 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 six feet. She was sturdy and would hold us and our outfit with a little room to spare. When we finished filling the seams with pitch that we had boiled out of spruce gum, Sam said, “She’s 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 hesitation.
“Sounds good, George, then Jenny it is. The good ship Jenny. May God protect her … and all those that sail on her.” 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,” he said pointing to a spot on the map, “this is where we’re at. When we leave the lake, we’ll be on the Yukon River, which 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.”
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 spooked?”
“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, 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 a man can ride those damn rapids 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. Let’s get her loaded and get going.”
After we got her into 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. We only used the oars to avoid the numerous sandbars that dotted the river.
On the sixth day, we heard rushing water up ahead. 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, which accelerated the force of the water considerably. 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 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. Shrugging my shoulders 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 to 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.”
As he finished speaking, I slowly shook my head from side to side 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.” 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.
Two hours later, we had eaten and readied our rudder. Because Sam was bigger, he would steer. It would take a lot of strength to hold the swing arm in that churning 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. Saying a silent prayer, I pushed off and climbed on board. Sam was letting the current take us to mid-stream. I was shaking—maybe because I was wet from the cold water or maybe I was just plain scared, I know not which. But tremble I did. And I felt that old wind I’d been running against all my life start blowing again—gale force—directly into my face.
The speed of the water picked up as Sam steered us right for the middle of the funnel. As we neared the mouth of the gorge, the boat started rocking to and forth and it got dark. The sun was too low to shed light over those high cliffs. In twilight, we entered Miles Canyon and sped to what I was sure would be our doom.
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 rudder 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 had a firm grip, I’d have 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 rudder 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 at 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 that 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—he had a big smile on his face. He waved to me and started working the rudder. When we were in calm waters, Sam steered us to the bank, jumped off, and pushed us onto the shore, wedging the boat on sand.
We looked like two drowned 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.”
Shaking the water from my hair, I replied, “You and me both, Sam!”
We two thoroughly-wet prospectors got ourselves absolutely inebriated. We finished off the bottle around sunset, and rather than make camp, we got out our blankets and covered ourselves in a futile attempt to keep the mosquitoes at bay. I don’t know about Sam, but I slept the sleep of The Just lying on the wooden and wet floor of the good ship Jenny.
We decided not to replace the oar we lost the previous day. Instead, we made ourselves a full swing arm and attached it to the back our boat. It would be easier to keep Jenny in the middle of the river that way.
We neared White Horse two days later, as the sun was hitting the western horizon. This time we decided to just keep going. We figured we’d either sleep in our tent that night or on the bottom of the fast moving and cold Yukon River.
They call it White Horse for a reason. The rapids also funnel like Miles Canyon, but there are no rock walls. Instead there are large boulders on both sides that drive the water to the center. And in the center are more boulders that agitate the water 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.
We entered White Horse on an even keel. 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 it with only a minor hole in the side. But it was all right, 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. 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 plumb lucky sons-of-bitches. 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 retrieved a change of clothes out of our kits. We were wet up to our waists. We went up the incline and headed for town.
The first establishment we came to was the Red Dog Saloon. Without hesitation we went inside. Sam ordered a bottle of rye from the barkeep and asked for the use of a room where we could change our clothes.
“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 eventually smiled and said, “Thanks, friend.” To me he said, “You go and get into some dry clothes. I want to sample this here rye first.”
By the time 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 whiskey. He said that standing next to the stove had dried him out considerably.
“Well, partner, the first leg of our adventure is over. Now all we’ve gotta do is find 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 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 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. I didn’t make a 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, 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 gladly give my life for Sam McCord. The other was, I turned to the barkeep and asked for two steaks and all the fixin’s.
“All we got are caribou steaks.”
“A steak is a steak.”
He nodded and padded off towards the kitchen.
Sam wasn’t in an eating mood. He sat at the table with his steak before him, but the bottle held his attention, not the food. Looking about the room, he observed 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 in the joint.
Sam observed, “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.”
He was being sarcastic … but still … where were the people?
Just then the door flew open and an old-timer came in along with a good portion of frigid 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?”
“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. Leastwise, the first to go through and come out in one piece.”
Sam shook his hand, and pointing in my direction, he said, “My partner, George Pratt. We’ve just come up the Yukon and did the rapids ourselves.”
White Water took a seat at our table, after asking the barkeep for a glass.
We talked around things for a while until we got down to brass tacks. Sam started things off by asking White Water where he’d go if he were looking for gold. White Water threw back his head and let out with a prodigious laugh. 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 wanted to know.
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. 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 whorehouse on nickel night.”
Of course, we wanted to know where Rabbit Creek was located 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, 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 by the name of 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 went down a little ways and crossed over to another creek, Rabbit Creek, and set up camp. While washing out a dinner pan, one of them (the history is a little cloudy as to who) found the 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 reach the outside world. And here were Jim and me, at the right place, and at the right time. That old wind was now pushing me from behind something fierce!
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 rightly 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 spread it out on the table. “Maybe you’re right, and there ain’t no gold, but why don’t you show us where Rabbit Creek is situated anyway?”
White Water took a pull from his glass and said, “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.”
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?”
“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. And 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 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 to 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.” 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 length of the summer, two or three 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!) 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.
“It will take you one sleep (day). You 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 and I did likewise, and with Sam leading the way, with 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 chilly weather 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. After they had departed, I asked Sam, “Why here?” He didn’t answer me right away. He said we had to set up camp, but later, around the fire that night, he opened up. He told me of his wife 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.
“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 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.
“How’d you know to come to this place?”
“Something in my head said just 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. I was also happy to have met Sam McCord and become his partner. I fell asleep that night looking at the blue-green northern lights dance across the Alaskan sky.
There were three small creeks in the vicinity of where we were camped. The next morning, after a breakfast of bacon and pan biscuits, we went panning for gold. Panning is cold, wet work. Your legs hurt, your arms and shoulders ache, your 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 panful of gravel at the first creek. After half an hour, Sam said, “Let’s try the next one.” I started to say something, but decided to let it slide. Two hours later, we had panned all three creeks and decided to stop our endeavors and go back to camp for something to eat. 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 an 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 a few pieces of dried fruit and handed me some, saying, “Here, eat this. We got to remember to eat a little every day; some of this or a potato. We can’t come down with scurvy or we’re done for.” (On the advice of Pete, we had bought fifty pounds of potatoes in Dawson.)
Once the fire was going and I had some bacon frying, 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.” He poked at the fire with a stick and sat back on his heels.
I thought for a moment, but said nothing. 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. He added, “We gotta do some of the work for ourselves. The dream got us this far, the rest is up to us.”
As we ate, we made our 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 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 sure was work to get them to the clearing we had made. We fashioned a couple of harnesses from rope that fit around our shoulders. The other end of the rope, we tied to a log. As a work horse would do, we dragged the logs to the clearing where our cabin would stand. After getting three of them to where they had to be, I told Sam I needed a break. He agreed that wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
He told me to take it easy while he heated up some coffee and cooked us a little bacon. It was getting colder by the day. 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.
About two hundred feet above our camp, I discovered what, at first, I thought was a cave. The opening was about fifteen feet high and six feet wide. Being an inquisitive gent, I decided to explore my find. I figured I’d go in until I couldn’t proceed any further or until it got too dark to see.
At about thirty feet, 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 when something caught my eye. It looked like a small light in the distance, but that couldn’t be. Still, I’d be damned if it didn’t look like a light! I kept going, telling myself that as soon as I lost sight of the light or whatever it was, I would turn around and retrace my steps. 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’ve ever taken.
It was a light. Or to be more precise, it was daylight I had been seeing. What I had taken for a cave was, in actuality, a natural tunnel through the mountain. Upon reaching the opening, I could not believe what I beheld. There before me was a small valley about two miles in length and half as wide with 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 mountains cut off the wind. The little valley was perfectly enclosed on all sides by rock walls shooting into the sky. But the most amazing thing was that there was a log cabin off to my right. It was nestled up against a shear rock face. The cabin wasn’t big, about thirty feet long and maybe fifteen feet wide, with a chimney protruding through the roof, but no smoke came from it and there were no windows. 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 too darn curious to turn around 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, I ventured to push open the door.
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 were a rough-hewed table and a single chair, also roughly hewed from pine—to my right, a log wall and nothing else. To my left, I saw a bed up against the wall, and on the bed lay 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, closing the door behind me.
As I made my way back to the tunnel, 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 four days we had been neighbors. It was obvious that he wasn’t in the valley, unless he was hiding behind a tree.
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!” 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 had been 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. He kicked dirt onto the fire, putting it out, and started on up the mountain.
Sam is a big man and his stride matches his size. It’s hard to keep up with him when he’s moving 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, and I’ll follow.”
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. We entered and 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 fella 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.”
And 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 had died in winter. We both doffed our hats for a moment as a sign of respect. 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; turning to Sam, I asked if there was anything important written on the paper.
“It’s his last will and testament,” answered Sam.
Handing the paper to me, he said, “Here, take a look at this.”
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 and I 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 its effects. I could have gone back to the States years ago and never would have had to work another day in my life. 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 passage 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 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.” He pulled out a match and set fire to the wick. It took a moment or two to catch, but then he had a good light going. Turning to me he said, “Let’s see this here 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. 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 and more than three feet deep. Collins had mined along the vein to a distance of fifty feet. The gold was just sitting there waiting for us to chip it from the rock! The vein looked like it would go on forever. Besides that, there was a small mountain of gold rock piled up over in the corner.
“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 Mr. Collins was in his final resting place, Sam sat at the table and I sat on the bed so we could figure out 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 decided that we’d climb that fence when we got to it.
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 time 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 cabin. By the end of February, we speculated we had more than a half a ton of gold. Most of it was fist size or at least the size of a hen’s egg.
We were running out of fresh meat, so we thought we’d go out and get us a caribou or a moose. That would last us till the thaw. We left our 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 we 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 a while, we’d have to hit our cheeks and nose repeatedly to get the circulation going; when we felt the sting of the pins and needles, we knew our blood was flowing once again.
We had planned on staying out for 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 would stretch a piece of canvas from a branch to the ground as a wind break and make our fire.
On the third day out, 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. And we did run across 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, 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 in a scrap with a bear, probably a grizzly. Part of his scalp was missing and he had claw marks down his right cheek. We saw a few black spots on his face and on the tip of his nose that denoted dead flesh. Because night was fast approaching, we removed his snow shoes, and with Sam carrying him, we made for some trees fifty or so yards to the south.
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 shook my head and 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 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 situated back on the boy’s head. He tied the canvas strip around his head and under his chin to hold the piece of scalp in place.
“There, that oughta 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.”
Sam said we had to save what was left of the boy’s face. It was 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. Sam lifted his outer fur, opened his shirt, and placed the boy’s head on his belly. He lowered the fur and cuddled the boy to share his body heat.
We were pretty tuckered out and it didn’t look like the boy was going to regain consciousness, so we thought we’d try to get a little shuteye. But we didn’t get much sleep that night. Sam was like a nervous mother hen. He kept sending me out for 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 a 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. He looked over to me, and with a smile, he said, “Good morning, partner, I hope you slept well.”
The Indians said nothing. One of them was kneeling down and bending over the boy. Two others came into our camp carrying two pine poles. They tore our canvas down and attached it to the 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 placed onto the make-shift stretcher, 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 before 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 sitting there in the snow, but was probably no more than 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 you 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 on the trail yesterday. It looked like he’d had a run-in with a bear. We couldn’t leave him there, so we carried him to our camp.”
“You also tied his scalp back on and I am most grateful. Our medicine man says that he will live, but if you had not happened upon him, he would surely now be dead.” Sam looked a little uncomfortable and neither one of us said anything.
“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 moons 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 nice warm fire.”
We were brought to one of the fires and given a stew of some sort by a beautiful Indian girl. It tasted like caribou, but maybe I was imagining things, seeing as how they were the People of the Caribou. When we had finished eating and declined more, Neekaii Laii 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, Neekaii Laii said, “That is my daughter. Her name is Oozrii’ Oonjit, or Moon Woman in your tongue. She is still a maiden, but she will build her fire this year.”
Sam wanted to know what he meant by “build her fire.” Two Dog proceeded 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 said 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 getting dark and I was feeling the rigors of the day. I asked Two Dog where we were going to sleep.
“In my lodge, of course, there is room enough.” So that night, Sam and me slept on one side of the lodge. Two Dog, his two wives, 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 cap, 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 fire. 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 broken off. However, no one paid me any mind, and when I had finished, I saw Sam approaching me at a fast clip.
“Good morning, George. I’m glad to see you’re finally 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.”
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 whatever 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.”
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. Shortly thereafter, Sam showed up and took the bowl from her hand. She smiled a dazzling smile at him and didn’t even look at me. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have thought 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, “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 informed 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. And as soon as the snow stopped blowing, little White Dog set out on his quest once again. 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.
“Armed with only a knife, he crept into the cave and when he saw his quarry, he leapt upon it with a vengeance. 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 came 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’re 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 the cabin and out of that small mine, swinging a pick axe. 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 us passage, I was hell-bent on making Dawson, catching the first steamer to Juneau, and then making my way to Skagway … and 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. I could think of nothing 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. And 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.
Taking my reticence for disapproval, he 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.”
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,” was his answer.
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 if I need it.”
I guess he had a point. 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. “How do you aim to get the gold to Dawson?”
Being a bit insulted about the hand slap, I hesitated in answering. But 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?”
I said, “You got a better idea?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
While I was pondering what he had said, fifteen braves walked up. They were dressed and outfitted for travel. Sam then 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 just fine.
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 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 some thought and came up with an answer. With Two Dog’s blessing, he had some of the Indian women sew up skins, with double stitching for strength, in which to carry the gold.
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 to eight months earlier 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 since then while swinging that pick axe all winter. We got to Dawson without incident. I thanked the Indians and they went on their way. The next steamer was due in about a week. 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 informed that only one of the girls now employed by her was from Mr. Collins’ time. I told her that was all right. “I’m sure if the girls had been around in Mister 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-sized rock to the dear lady 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 by the name of 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 newfound 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. But 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 even docked, almost falling in the water. I ran to Jenny’s boarding house and found her in the kitchen peeling 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 in edgewise, I took her by the hand and dragged her to the nearest store 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 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 for the next seven days, we enjoyed a perfect honeymoon. We didn’t leave our cabin very much; just to take our meals and an occasional constitutional around the deck.
We landed in Seattle on July 20th 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 $265,248.30!
The whole town got gold fever when they heard our story. 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. 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.
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 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
I had just left an Apache Reservation in Arizona after having spent a night there. I was hitching west and had been picked up by a guy named Jimmy. I never did learn his last name. He was a full-blooded Apache and he invited me to crash on his couch. I didn’t get much sleep because we stayed up most of the night and talked … well … he did most of the talking. He told me of the Denéé—The People—as he referred to the Apache. I learned of their history, their medicine, or religion, as we would call it. I even did some peyote with him and spoke with God. But that’s another story. Today, I want to tell you about Hank.
Jimmy was still asleep when I left. I didn’t have it in me to wake him and ask for a ride back to the highway. The sun was just over the horizon, it was still cool out even though it was the desert and it was summertime. I had been brought onto the reservation in the back of a pickup truck and had not followed our progress as we drove the back road onto the reservation; after all, I was facing backwards, looking at where we’d been, not where we were going.
As I started my walk, I saw the mountain I had been looking at as we drove onto the Apache homeland. It seemed as though it had taken us about half an hour to get from Highway 90 to Jimmy’s house. So, I reckoned that if I just kept the mountain in front of me and walked in a relatively straight line, it would not take me more than a few hours to make my way back to the highway. Boy, was I mistaken.
I started my trek across the desert full of vim and vigor. After all, I was nineteen years old; I was immortal, as are all young people. Of course, I had no water with me; ha … who needs water! Well, as it turned out, I needed water, and I needed a lot more than just water. I needed a sense of distance, and maybe even a sense of direction.
Allow me to explain. I set out at sunrise, headed towards a particular mountain, and after four hours treading the desert floor, that damn mountain seemed no closer than when I started. I had no watch with me, so I did not know the exact time, but judging by the sun, it must have been mid-morning—about ten o’clock—when I realized I had made a colossal mistake. When I first set out, I thought the walk to the highway would take two, maybe three hours at the most. But here I was four hours later with not a car—hell, with not even another human being—in sight. I was not even smart enough to follow the winding road we came in on. No, I had to play it cool, thinking I could shave off some time by cutting across the desert and walking in a straight line. Well, once I left the road, I never found it again. I pressed on, keeping the mountain in my sights.
Now, I’ll tell you folks something I didn’t know at the time. A mountain is a pretty big item. I was heading south, so I could wander a few miles either east or west and still have the same perspective of my destination, the mountain. And without a compass that is just what I did. I was zig-zagging all over the place, but I thought I was walking in a straight line.
By noon, or when the sun was directly overhead, the desert had started to heat up. And so did I. At that point, I would have killed for a glass of cool water. Maybe even with some ice in it. Those were my thoughts as I walked towards that goddamn mountain that kept retreating from me.
So as not to bore you all to tears, I will not tell you about that afternoon. Suffice it to say the afternoon consisted of walking and thoughts of water. The sun was on a slow descent to the other side of the world, and I had been walking for about ten hours when I saw it. There up ahead, unless it was a mirage, was a shack. I thanked God I saw it when I did. Complete darkness was less than an hour away, and I might have walked right past it in the night.
I was too tired to run, but I did pick up my pace a bit. When I got to within twenty yards of the place I saw my salvation—an old fashioned water pump, long handle and all. I ran right to the pump and without asking anyone’s permission, pumped that handle up and down like there was no tomorrow. And from my point of view, if I didn’t get some water in me, there would be no tomorrow, at least not for me. For all my effort, only a few dust swirls and a few grains of sand emanated from the spout. Then I remembered something, a pump has to be primed, and you need water to prime a pump. It’s kind of like—you need money to make money, and I needed water to get water. A catch-22.
Now that I was not going to have my fondest wish granted—a few measly drops of water—I turned my attention to the shack. I could tell right away that the place was abandoned; the fauna, or sagebrush, or whatever the hell grows in a desert, was three feet tall and blocking the door. The shack was about thirty feet wide, and after circumnavigating it, I discerned it was also thirty feet deep. There were no windows, so my ingress would have to be through the door.
As the night was fast approaching, I returned from my excursion of circling the shack and proceeded to the door, expecting to do battle with it to affect entry. However, to my everlasting surprise, the door flew open upon my touch. How inviting. With no windows, the only light entering said shack came from behind me and from the spaces between the boards that made up the walls of the shack. They were more like the walls of an old barn; there was about an eighth of an inch of open space between most of the boards. Some did join together, but they were of the minority. The wood was warped and old. This place has been here for a while.
The gloom within the shack made it hard to see what, if anything, was inside. As my eyes adjusted to the low light, I saw a table in the middle of the room. I started for it, and then saw a single chair about five feet to the right. I had not noticed it sooner because it was in the shadows. The only light, as I’ve said, came mostly from the door. And that light was only as wide as the door, about three feet. It did not reach the corners or the far side of the room. Upon the back of the chair were draped some clothes.
For the time being, the chair and its accouterments held no interest for me. My attention was focused on the table. For upon the table stood a clear bottle about twelve inches high with a candle stuck into its mouth. It looked almost new, only an inch of its ten-inch length had been used. Maybe I would not have to spend the night in darkness after all.
I did not (and still do not) smoke. But I always carried a book of matches with me. One never knew when one might want to start a small fire and heat up a can of beans or a can of soup to get one through the night.
I went right for the candle, pulled out my trusty matches, and lit it. The light it gave off did not reach very far, maybe a couple feet past the table’s edge. By the way, the table was only about four foot square, and there was nothing else on it but the candle in the clear bottle.
Once I had a little light, I figured I could relax. I was still dying of thirst, but there was nothing I could do about that. I was thankful that the sun had retreated, giving me a respite from the heat for a few hours.
I pulled the chair over to the table and sat down. As I leaned back, I felt something bulky and hard. I stood and removed the clothing, which consisted of a “duster,” and two flannel shirts. You folks know what a duster is, don’t you? I am sure most of you have seen them in Westerns. But for those who are unfamiliar with the term, I will describe one. They were white, made of cotton, and looked something like a modern-day raincoat, except they were full length, falling to almost the ankle. And as the name implies, they were worn over one’s regular attire to keep the dust from soiling one’s clothes.
However, it was not the duster that caught my attention; it was the old-time six-shooter, lying in its holster, which hung from the back of the chair. Cool. Then I saw what was also hanging on the back of the chair, a canteen. I placed the candle on the table and with fear and trepidation, the fear and trepidation coming from the fact that the bloody thing might be empty, I lifted the strap attached to the canteen. I could tell by the weight that it was full. But even if there was water, chances of it being any good after sitting there in the desert for God knows how long were not good.
After returning the duster and shirts to where I had found them, I pulled the chair up to the table, sat down, and turned my attention once again to the canteen. I quickly pulled the cork from the opening and sniffed the contents. It didn’t smell bad, so I dribbled a few drops onto my tongue. It didn’t taste great, but I was thirsty enough to chance being sick, because at that point I was very dehydrated and would die in the desert the next day if I didn’t get some moisture in me.
Just as I was tilting my head back and raising the canteen to my mouth, a thought struck me. I did not have to chance anything. I could use half of the canteen’s contents to prime the pump, and if the well was dry, I would still have the other half for tonight and tomorrow. One way or the other, I was going to drink water that night even if it killed me. At least I would not die with my tongue hanging out, swollen from thirst.
I grabbed the candle, for it had gotten dark by then, and went out to the pump. I’m a city boy, there was only one other time I have had the pleasure of meeting a hand pump that pumped water up from a well. On that occasion, the pump needed priming and I watched my associate as he repeatedly primed and pumped, primed and pumped. So I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t screw things up by putting the water in the wrong place, like the spout, which is probably what I would have done if not for my previous experience with a pump.
I placed the candle on the ground so I could uncork the canteen; the candle gave just enough light so I could see what I was doing. With one hand, I poured water into the pump, and with the other, I took hold of the long handle at its end and started to pump. Up and down, faster and faster. The water seemed to be going in at an alarming rate, but I still poured and pumped. I had gone through more than half of that precious liquid and was about to halt my endeavor when the first few drops came out of the spout. And with every downward motion of the handle, more water came pouring out onto the ground until it was a raging torrent … a small raging torrent granted, but I had no complaints.
Then I could stand it no longer. I put my head under the spout, face up and mouth open, as I continued to pump. I have never tasted water so sweet in my entire life. And that would include any bottled water you may wish to proffer. After I had drunk my fill, I poured the contents of the canteen onto the ground and pumped a small quantity of water into it. I sloshed it around for a moment and emptied that also onto the ground. Then I filled the canteen, recorked it, and went back into the shack. Now that the water situation was taken care of, I could have gone for a light dinner, but hey … ya cain’t have everything.
I know most of you are asking: “Where the hell is Hank in all of this?”
Well, just hold on to your pantaloons. He’s on his way.
When I got back into the shack, I closed the door. As I’ve said, I’m a city boy. I didn’t want any desert critters coming in during the night, looking to start up a friendship with Yours Truly. In all likelihood, if any of the denizens of the desert did enter during the night, it would have been for the warmth of my body rather than my friendship. I allude to Crotalus Oreganu, better known as the western rattlesnake. I’ve heard that they like to snuggle up with human beings at night for our body heat. So the door would remain closed until morning.
Speaking of rattlesnakes, I said to myself, maybe a few are already squatting in this shack. I better take the candle to look around the perimeter, and into the far shadows to see if there are any ensconced hereabouts.
I saw nothing in the first three corners. But in the fourth, leaning against the wall, was a shovel and pickaxe, and on the floor lay a saddle and reins. There were no Crotalus Oreganu present, thank God, but there was a presence of another kind. Of course, I am speaking of Hank.
A bed stood against the back wall. I had not noticed it earlier because of my preoccupation with the canteen and the darkness of the room vis-à-vis the limited light of the candle. Upon the bed lay Hank. Now Hank wasn’t the most talkative hombre I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. But that might have been because he was dead.
Holding the candle over the bed, I saw a human skeleton completely intact, probably because it was a bit mummified. The dry desert air will do that to a corpse. The skin was drawn tight and shrunken. For some reason, the eyeballs were missing.
The skull was still attached to the neck. The hair of the cadaver was jet black and full. If the hair had been all that I could see, I’d have sworn it belonged to a young man who was still among the living. The eye sockets, as I’ve said, were empty and dark. The missing eyeballs were a mystery I was in no hurry to solve. Years later when I mentioned it to someone, I was told that insects had probably eaten them.
Keeping the candle high over the bed, I saw that his hands were clasped together and resting on his belly. Hank—and I’ll tell you in a moment how I came to know that Hank was his name—was fully dressed.
Starting from the top and working down, he had a red bandana tied around his neck, and a faded cotton shirt (because of the light I could not tell what the original color was). He had on a pair of Levi’s, held up—well, not at the moment, but in life—by a belt with a square buckle that looked to be tarnished silver, with the name “Hank” engraved onto it. And on the belt was a knife in a sheath. His feet were covered by beige-colored socks. It seems his boots were off when he died. I don’t know if it’s more advantageous to die with your boots on or off, I’ll leave that up to the individual. I then moved the candle a little lower still, and perceived on the wooden floor, next to the bed, a pair of scuffed boots, black in color, one lying on its side. Oh yeah … I forgot to tell you. Everything—Hank, the table, the floor, the bed … I mean everything—in that shack was covered with a thick layer of dust.
There we were, Hank and me, staring at one another—me with eyes, him without. I needed to sit down after that.
I sat at the table, purposely not looking over to where Hank lay in repose. I was staring at the table, the top of it to be precise, when I noticed what looked like a small depression on the edge closest to me. It looked like someone had carved something into the wood. I took a deep breath and blew the dust from that area. It allowed me to read clearly what had been carved. The message was a simple one: “Hank Wiley 1889.”
I reckon ol’ Hank had been hangin’ out here waiting for me, or someone like me, to come along for eighty years. The year was 1969. However, more surprising than finding Hank, and almost as spiritually uplifting as getting the pump to work, was what I was about to stumble upon next.
When I first saw the shack, I was so tired from the day’s march that I envisioned being asleep almost before the sun went down. However, “The best laid plans …” Finding the canteen and then finding Hank kinda got my juices flowing if ya know what I mean. So here I am, sittin’ in a one-room, thirty-by-thirty-foot, broken-down shack in the middle of the Arizona desert with an eighty-year old skeleton and I’m wide-awake with nothing to do. So, like any good ex-Boy Scout, I went exploring.
I took the candle and retraced my steps back to the bed and Hank. I knelt down next to the bed and placed the candle so the bottle that held it rested against Hank’s neck and chin. I first felt the two pockets of his shirt. Nothing. I rummaged in the left front pocket of his jeans, then the right. Nothing. I picked up the candle from its resting place and placed it on the floor. I wanted to check his back pockets. I put a hand on his shoulder and a hand on his hip, and I turned Hank onto his side. It was easy, I could have done it one handed he was so light. I held him in that position while I felt in the Levi’s rear pockets. The left pocket held nothing, but in the right, I felt something that might have been a wallet. I extracted it and lowered Hank back onto the bed. As I did so, his head became detached from the rest of his body and rolled onto its side, facing me. Those empty eye sockets seemed to say, “Why have you defiled me?”
I did not want to touch that withered skin, so I left Hank’s head where it was.
I picked up the candle and returned to the table. It was not a wallet, but a piece of leather cut into a rectangle, about eight inches long and folded in half. Lying between the folds were an envelope, a piece of folded paper, and an old, faded photograph. It showed who I believed to be Hank (the man had the same thick, black mane) and a woman with hair as light as Hank’s was dark, standing at the tailgate of a wagon. And on the wagon was a banner of sorts. Because Hank and the woman were standing in front of it, there were only eight letters visible, two to the right of Hank (“JU”) and six to the left of the woman (“ARRIED”). The banner obviously read “JUST MARRIED.”
I looked at the picture for a long time. I thought of the unnamed woman and wondered whatever had become of her. She was quite pretty, and now as I write these words and I see once again that picture in my mind, I recall they were also very young, although, at the time, that did not enter into my thinking. Being nineteen and believing myself fully grown, I considered anyone else my age to also be an adult. But as I think of that picture today, at the tender age of sixty-seven, I know they were just kids; they couldn’t have been more than nineteen themselves.
I next removed the letter from its envelope. It had a return address of Boston, Massachusetts, and it was addressed to Mr. Henry Wiley c/o Forrester’s Hotel, Tucson, Arizona. Surprisingly, the paper was not brittle; it was old and brown, but did not fall apart in my hands. The handwriting was feminine and it was addressed to “My dearest husband.” I did not read the letter just then. I put it to one side and opened the piece of folded paper. It also was a letter, but written in a different hand. This handwriting was masculine, and it started with “Dearest Andy.”
Before I go on, I would like to digress, or jump ahead, whichever term is proper. All this happened forty-eight years ago, and for forty-eight years I’ve held on to those two letters, never knowing the reason why. Through many incarnations—business man, criminal, fugitive, junkie, and now writer—I have kept these letters. While my mother was alive, they were kept safely at her home, and then in a bank safety deposit box. They sit before me as I write these words and I now know the reason I’ve kept them all these years. It was so that one day I might share them with you.
I will present them in the order they were written. The first one is dated 9 July 1888, and it is from an Andrea Wiley to her dearest husband Hank Wiley. Without comment, this is the text of the letter.
My Dearest Husband,
I hope this letter finds you well and happy. I am sending it to the address you gave me in Tucson.
Do you know it has been twenty months since you went away? I write you every week. Some of my letters are returned with the notation that you are not known at that locale. I pray that this letter gets to you, my love. This November will mark the second year of your absence. I miss you so very much.
I am fine. I am making dresses for the ladies of society. My work is very well thought of, and I am kept quite busy. I do miss Kansas, but you were right, it is better that I stay with my mother while you are gone. Mother sends her love.
I know you are seldom where you can post a letter, but please try to write more often. Only three letters in all this time makes me miss you all the more.
Henry, I know we discussed this before you left, however, can you not come home now? Yes, our farm in Kansas was doing poorly, and we both worked very hard. But you never heard me complain because I had no complaints. I loved you, and I loved our farm. I know you wanted things better for me. You did not want me to work so hard, you wanted to buy me fancy clothes and nice things. Henry, I never wanted any of that, I only wanted you. And by going away you have taken away the only thing I truly desired.
Will you please come home? There is a reason I ask this of you now. I know how stubborn you can be. Until you find your fortune in gold you will stay away. You will think that you have failed me. Henry, the only time you have failed me is when you went away.
I have not wanted you to worry so I have refrained from telling you this before, but Henry, you have a son. He was born eight months after you left. His name is Henry Addison Wiley, Jr. and he looks just like you. His eyes are the same, and so is his smile. However, his hair is fair like mine. He needs a father. All the riches in all the world cannot take your place. Henry, you are not a failure, not with a son like Henry Jr. Please come home.
I am starting to drop tears onto the paper and they will make the ink run. So I will close for now. Henry, know that I love you with all my heart and that I need you with me; you are my treasure, you are my riches. Henry Jr. and I need you, please come home.
Your adoring wife,
P.S. I miss being called Andy. You are the only person who has ever addressed me as such.
The other letter was from Hank to his wife.
I have just received your letter. I see by the date that you wrote it seven months ago. I don’t get down here that often, but my friend who works in the hotel kept the letter for me. The reason some of your letters have come back is if the owner of the hotel sees them before my friend, he sends them back. He and I do not get along.
So I have a boy? I cannot wait to see him and you too. I will be coming home shortly. I stumbled upon an abandoned shack and decided to use it as my headquarters. And what do you know, not two miles to the west I found my fortune. It is in a small outcropping of rock. It comes out of the ground and gradually slants upwards to about the height of three feet. The rock is about four feet thick, and right in the middle of it, running the whole length of the outcrop is a vein of pure gold nine inches thick. I shoveled the dirt away from where she comes out of the ground and the vein continues. It could go on for miles. But I have no plans to find out. I too miss you.
I broke my pickaxe trying to break the rock away. I came down to Tucson to buy another one and to buy some chisels and a sledgehammer. If I had not found what I was desperately searching for these last two years, I would be leaving for home today. I just need to go back for one or two weeks. I am not greedy. I will only mine as much as I can carry on my horse. With it we can go back to Kansas and buy us a really good farm and hire us some help. You will not have to work so hard.
I will mail this when I come back to Tucson so you will know that I am om my way. I want to write more, but will do so at night in the shack. Until then, kiss Henry Jr. for me.
Hello, I am back in the shack. I have been here ten days and have all the gold I can carry. Tomorrow I start for Tucson, then for home. I cannot wait to see you and Henry Jr. As you know I am not much of a letter writer, so I’ll save my words until I see you.
All my love,
There was more to Hank’s letter, but it was written in a different hand, a hand that seemed to shake as it wrote. It is hard to read, but after all these years, I know what it says. The script is in one continuous sentence without punctuation. For ease of reading, I have added the correct punctuation and separated the words into sentences and the sentences into paragraphs. Here are the last words of Henry Addison Wiley, Sr.
Wouldn’t you know it? The night before leaving for home and you, I have to go and get myself bit by a rattlesnake. I lanced the punctures and sucked out the venom, but I don’t think it was enough, or I wasn’t fast enough. I am feeling light headed.
I was getting packed up so I could get an early start in the morning, and I reached under the bed to pull out the box I keep the gold in, and a rattler bit me. I made short work of him with the shovel. But that doesn’t help me. I was going to transfer the gold from the box to canvas bags for the trip to Tucson.
I don’t think I have much time so I better get down to what I want to say. You were right, Andy; we were rich back in Kansas. I am so sorry I did not know it at the time. I guess staring Death in the face changes a man’s way of looking at things.
I know of your love of animals. Before I got too weak I took the saddle and reins off my horse and set her free. You taught me of the dignity of animals.
You were my shining light. I must have been crazy to have ever left you, now I will never know my son, and he will never know his father. Tell him of his father’s folly so he will know what is important in this life. Tell him that is something his father learned far too late. I have botched things up good. I write these words in the hope that someday someone will find them and forward them on to you. I want you to know that my last thoughts were of you. In the end, I have failed you … I am so sorry. Not for me, but for leaving you and Henry Jr. to the mercy of this world while I am in another. If possible, I will look after you from my new world as I have never looked after you in this one. All my love …
The last few words were almost impossible to decipher because the writing had deteriorated to such an extent that they ran together, but I think I got it right.
After reading the two letters, I sat in the chair and just watched the candle burn. My thoughts were of Andrea and Hank, of their life on the farm in Kansas. I thought of Hank Jr. and wondered what kind of man he grew up to be. I think … no, I am pretty damn sure that reading those two letters is the reason I have had a life-long aversion to acquiring material wealth.
By now it was getting light out, but I kept the candle burning because I wanted to see something. I went over to the bed and knelt down. I used the candle to see if there were any snakes under the bed. When I didn’t see any, I grabbed the box that was under there by one hand and pulled. It did not move. I put the candle down, and using both hands, I dragged the box from under the bed. It was very heavy. When I slid it far enough out so I could see the contents, I lifted the candle and held it over the box. What I saw were two canvas bags lying on top of something. With my right hand, I removed the bags to expose rocks that reflected the light of the candle as a prism would. The light bounced off those rocks and reflected on the wall like one of those disco ball things that hang over dance floors in night clubs.
The rocks, of course, were pure gold. I call them rocks because that is what they were. They were not puny, little nuggets of gold; no, they were substantial rocks of gold. I looked on in amazement for a few minutes before replacing the canvas bags and sliding the box back under the bed. I can see how some can easily come down with gold fever. I must admit, for one half a second, I too had the fever. But the memory of what I had just read was all I needed to cure me.
I got up off my knees and walked over to the table. I folded the two letters, putting Andrea’s back in its envelope. I put them both in the back pocket of my jeans. Leaving the piece of leather on the table, I picked up the picture of Hank and Andrea. I walked over and unclasped Hank’s hands, now I had no qualms about touching him. I placed the picture between his hands and laid his hands back on his belly. Then I gently put his head back into the position it was when I found him.
I stood over him for a moment or two before saying out loud: “Hank old buddy, if you don’t mind, I’m goin’ borrow your canteen. I am sorry for disturbing you last night, but you and your lovely wife have been very good company. The rocks that you gave up so much for are where you left them. I have no need for them any more than you have. I know Andrea and your son are with you now, and I am glad for all of you. Thank you for your hospitality, and I’ll be seein’ you someday up yonder.”
I left the shack, closing the door behind me. Three hours later, I could hear the highway’s whine. An hour after that, I was standing on the side of US Highway 90, hitchin’ my way to California.