Alaska, p.75
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       Alaska, p.75

           James A. Michener
 

  My idea is this. You have a lot of interests here in Dawson City and two of your riverboats come here. Why not let me organize things in Dawson so that you get more business for your boats and sell more of your goods after the boats get here? Everything must be done in three months while the river is open. If you lose time, you lose money.

  I think you ought to open a serious store here and put me in charge, and your business will double or even double double. I am sixteen years old and understand business like a man. Please let me hear from you.

  He was only fifteen when he wrote, but by the time his letter reached Seattle he would probably be the sixteen he claimed. However, all thoughts of such an opportunity were forgotten when Dawson experienced one of those periodic fires which at one time or another ravaged most boomtowns. This one, unlike the two more famous ones which would gut the heart of the city, merely roamed the tents and shacks along the waterfront, and one of the first it consumed was the Venn restaurant, whose canvas side walls, heavy with splatter grease, disappeared in minutes, leaving Missy and Tom with only the surplus goods still stacked in the half-demolished Aurora.

  While the extensive blaze was still ravaging the huts along the riverfront, two men elbowed their way through the crowd explicitly to advise Missy Peckham. The first was Superintendent Steele, who said simply: 'Miss Peckham, this is the kind of disaster I warned about, I'm in charge of government emergency funds, which will allow me to ship you and the boy back to Seattle. Frankly, ma'am, I believe that's what you should do.'

  Even as he spoke, the Belgian Mare came along the waterfront, assessing the damage and consoling those who had lost heavily. Waiting till Superintendent Steele went about other business, she sidled up to Missy and said, with the aid of one of her girls who spoke English: 'How sad. If you need help, let me know.' Saying no more, she patted Missy on the cheek and wandered on.

  The second man to arrive was John Klope, with his dog Breed, and all he said was:

  'Now you two need me as much as I need you.'

  That dismal night, when Missy and Tom took shelter in the theater with some fifty other people deprived of their homes, they did not even try to reach any decisions, but in the morning when they returned to where their tent restaurant had been, they saw with sickening clarity that reopening it or anything like it was impossible.

  They never really said 'Klope's offer is all that's left,' but each recognized the inevitability, and Tom poked about till he found a handcart which a defeated miner was willing to sell for one dollar.

  When Klope saw him pushing it along the waterfront he hurried up, took over, and then helped Missy pack the few things she had saved from the fire. By midafternoon they were on their way to Lousetown, Tom and Klope each pulling a rope tied to the front of the cart, Missy pushing from behind.

  From Lousetown they followed the left bank of the Klondike till they came to Bonanza Creek, the tributary on which the squaw man George Carmack had made the first big discovery. Up it they trudged, past claims now famous around the world Seven Above, Nine Below until they reached the confluence with the Eldorado with its less famous but far richer claims, and after they had passed a score of these immensely productive sites along the stream, they climbed sharply to reach the upper ridge, far above the gold-producing placers, and there, on the high ridge, they came to John Klope's cabin.

  It stood on a plot five hundred feet long, paralleling the stream below, by about fifteen hundred feet wide: this gave him about seventeen acres, but the effective portion would be an area close to wherever gold-producing muck was found. 'Technically,' he explained as they neared the hole which already went deep into the earth, 'what we're looking for is bedrock.'

  'Do we have to blast solid rock?' Tom asked, and Klope said: 'No. The gold will be resting on the bedrock the bottom of some old river.'

  'How do you know a river used to run down there?'

  'How did those fellows down there know the present river had gold? They panned. We dig.'

  By gold-field standards his cabin was superior, but it was still a miserable affair: nine by twelve feet, four log walls, a solitary window cut into the logs and carefully caulked, a wooden floor, a single bed, stove, pegs jutting from the wall to dry the clothes which seemed always to be soaked, and a change of boots, which also seemed to be permanently wet and mud-caked. It had a chimney which carried away the smoke, but the long exposed run of the piping meant that when the stove was working, the heat inside the cabin was intense, often higher than eighty-five degrees; when the fire was out, the cold could drop to twenty-below.

  Because Klope was essentially a neat man who attended to his appearance, he had built an outside stand for washing and shaving and had started his occupancy with a determination to remain clean-shaven, but this resolve had lasted less than a month, for shaving in the Klondike, whether in summer or winter, was a drudgery which he gladly avoided.

  Now his beard, which he often forgot to trim with his rusty scissors, was long and masked his true age; he could have been either a well-preserved forty or a determined twenty. Actually, he was twenty-eight that year and one of the most dedicated miners on any of the famous streams.

  When Missy saw that the cabin had only one bed, she stiffened, but Klope eased the situation by stating: 'First thing, we've got to build two more beds,' and with Tom's expert help, this was promptly accomplished. However, the supplies they had brought with them could not all fit into the cabin, and this required some ingenuity on Klope's part. He found a solution by bringing the cart flush against one of the windowless walls and erecting over it a kind of sloping roof with two side walls. The front, of course, had to be left open, but none of the gold-field cabins had locked doors, and Klope said: 'No danger of anyone stealing things. The Mounties don't permit it.'

  During the first months of the occupancy, each of the three kept to a separate bed, but as the routine settled into boredom, with Klope down in the hole nine and ten hours a day during the long, cold winter, and Tom topside managing the loads of muck that came up on the windlass, it became obvious that when Klope climbed the ladder at the end of his stint, he was interested in Missy as a woman and not only as the person who prepared his morning flapjacks. So one very cold February night, when the temperature hovered about the minus-thirty mark, Missy, quietly and without a gesture of any kind toward Tom, crept in with Klope, and shortly thereafter, while the men were working the mine, she moved her former bed out into the shed.

  So for a third time young Tom was a bystander when this practical-minded woman moved in with a man to whom she was not married. His education in the ways of men and women had not been a conventional one, so he was not troubled by this, and he still felt that Missy was the most nearly perfect woman he had known. As the long months passed, with endless work and little promise of gold at the bottom of the deep mine, it was she who kept the spirits of the place buoyant, the cabin livable and the work moving forward.

  In this she was abetted by a new friend whose support she could not have anticipated, the husky Breed. DhTerent from most sled dogs, hence his name and the willingness of Sarqaq to part with him, he had more or less liked his three principal companions, Sarqaq, Klope and Tom Venn, but during the long hours when Klope and Tom were working the mine, he found himself increasingly with Missy. She fed him, summoned him to help her drag logs for the stove, played with him, and spoke to him twenty times to the men's one, so before long he was adjusting his life to hers. Always a dog who appreciated being with humans, he now focused his entire affection on Missy.

  He became her dog, and once when two miners from the lower claims along Eldorado appeared suddenly to make inquiries about whether Klope could supply them with meat, their moves toward Missy were too abrupt, and within two seconds Breed was at their throats, and only Missy's prompt intervention saved them.

  'You ought to keep that one on a chain,' one of the men complained as he moved back.

  'He's that way only if he thinks we're in trouble,' Missy sai
d, hoping that the men would relay that information to the camps below.

  'You got any surplus meat?'

  'Not right now. But maybe Tom will get some the next few days.'

  'We'd pay well.'

  And so Tom and Breed went out on Sundays and after work to scout for deer or bear or caribou, and when they were lucky and had butchered the carcass, Missy peddled the cuts along the river.

  She was doing this one wintry morning in 1899 when a Mountie came riding along the river, asking for her whereabouts, and when one of the miners shouted: 'Hey, Missy! Someone to see you!' she looked up to see Sergeant Kirby, as neat and trim as ever in his blue uniform.

  He led his horse as they climbed the hill to Klope's shaft on the upper ridge, and when he saw the cabin with two beds inside and one stacked beside the cart, he asked no questions: 'I came to see Tom Venn, really. Important news for the boy. Startling news, really.'

  Calling for Breed, she told the dog: 'Fetch Tom!' and before long the boy reported.

  'Superintendent Steele wants to see you.'

  'I haven't done anything.'

  'Yes,' Kirby said, with a wide smile, 'I rather think you have.'

  'I couldn't have, Sergeant Kirby. I've been here all the time.'

  Kirby reached out, grasped the boy by the left arm, and said: 'Sit down. The news is very good. In fact, it's spectacular.' Then, winking at Missy, he asked: 'Did you mail a letter from Dawson City when you arrived?'

  'Yes. To my grandmother.'

  'And maybe one to a Mr. Ross in Seattle?'

  'Yes, but I was only asking questions.'

  'You're going to be amazed, young Mr. Tom, at his reply.' And he said that whereas Superintendent Steele would no doubt want to do the explaining, he, Kirby, could reveal that Ross & Raglan had jumped at the ideas proposed by Tom and were sending, on the first R&R steamer to break through the Yukon ice, supplies for a major trade depot at Dawson, along with a Mr. Pincus to run the place, provided Thomas Venn was ready to offer the services he spoke of in his letter of such and such a date.

  Before Klope could climb out of the deep shaft twenty-nine feet straight down, with no timber supports of any kind Tom and Missy and Sergeant Kirby had agreed that the boy must leave immediately to arrange for space in which to open the R&R branch in Dawson. When Klope was informed of this fait accompli arranged in his absence, he behaved in his characteristic way. He scratched his beard, looked at Missy, then Kirby, then the boy, then said quietly: 'He's soon to be a man. Anyone would be lucky to hire a fellow as good as this one.'

  But once he had established that Tom was free to leave if he wished, he sought to forestall action. 'Let's all sit down and talk about this,' and when the session began he laid out the relevant facts: 'Tom, you and Missy have earned part ownership of this claim, and I testify before the Mountie here that when I next get in to Dawson, I'll enter the transfer legally. But only if you stay and help work it.'

  'It's time for him to go,' Missy said with great firmness.

  'And you're going with him?' Klope asked.

  'I'm staying here.'

  'Good, because I'm convinced the old river must have run along where we're digging.

  We're at twenty-nine feet now, another fifteen feet, we've got to strike it.'

  'Have you shown any color?' Kirby asked, for he had heard predictions like this from a hundred different men in a hundred different locations. The bedrock was always just a little farther down.

  'No.'

  'In all that frozen muck out there, not two cents to the pan when you wash it out this summer?'

  'Probably not, but when men started on these creeks, ten cents a pan was enough to make them dream. Then Carmack found four dollars a pan, and the boom was on. Down at that claim you can see from here, eighty dollars a pan, and that far one, they hit a thousand dollars in one pan.'

  'What he says is true,' Kirby affirmed. 'Sometimes the midnight bell did toll.'

  'What I'm shooting for, and it's got to be down there, will be something like five or six thousand dollars a pan. That's what we're hoping for.'

  His three listeners sat looking at their knuckles, each one afraid to bring him down to reality. Finally Tom said: 'I asked Mr. Ross to do something. He's doing it and I got to do my part.'

  'You understand the gamble?' Klope asked, and when Tom said he did, the tall, gangling man said with no rancor: 'It's your decision, son. I couldn't have asked for a better helper.'

  While Tom packed, with Missy throwing one useful item after another into his canvas bag, Kirby asked Klope: 'Have you any solid reason for believing there's gold down there?'

  'The lay of the land.'

  'But you can't see the lay of the land.'

  'Every inch I dig deeper tells me something new.'

  'And you're willing to risk everything... on those secrets?'

  'I don't have much to risk, Officer.'

  When the packing was done and Klope had paid Tom for his work in hauling up the muck, the time had come for goodbyes, and the boy went from Breed to Klope to Missy, close to crying as he bade farewell to those with whom he had shared a cabin on an authentic Klondike claim. He sensed that this departure marked a watershed in his life, like climbing the last six feet of Chilkoot Pass and looking down the other side toward Lake Lindeman and the thousands of boats at Bennett.

  He said brave words, then knelt and kissed Breed. 'Well,' he said matter-of-factly when he rose, 'I guess we better be going.'

  HE WAS WORKING IN THE NEW ROSS & RAGLAN STORE ON a bright June morning in 1899 when a commotion filled the main street, and he ran out to learn where the new strike had been made. It wasn't the finding of additional gold, it was the arrival of an extraordinary Klondiker come all the way from Edmonton, over the hideous route down the untamed Mackenzie River to a spot far beyond the Arctic Circle and then across hellish, barren heights to the Yukon Territory. When word flashed through Dawson that 'a tough little Irishman made it by the Mackenzie route,' hardened sourdoughs gathered to see the miracle man who had done what they would never have attempted.

  Tom, from the edge of the crowd, saw a medium-sized Irishman in his early thirties, haggard as a hungry ghost but smiling roguishly at the men about him. He had dark, uncut hair which came down about his eyes, heavy clothes tattered from his ordeal north of the Circle, and a positive passion for talking: 'Name's Matt Murphy from a town west of Belfast. Five of us from London hurried to Edmonton as soon as we heard of the Klondike find. Set out down the Mackenzie in July 1897, got lost, one man drowned, one starved to death, one died of scurvy. That tall fellow you saw come in with me, he'd had enough. Kited right back to London. Me? I'm here to stay. Determined to find meself a gold mine.'

  His listeners broke into laughter, not derisively but with a desire to straighten him out: 'Every good site taken three years ago.'

  Tom saw with admiration how the stranger reacted to this shattering news: his shoulders drooped ever so slightly, he took a deep breath, then he asked almost jocularly:

  'Any place a man can grab a beer?' and when one was provided, the first he had had in two years, he sipped it as if it were nectar, then asked quietly: 'Now, if there was to be new sites found, where would they be?' and solemnly the men replied: 'There won't be any.'

  For just a moment Tom wondered if Murphy was going to faint, but then he flashed an irrepressible Irish smile and said softly: 'Your news is not comfortin'. I've come so far, so close to starvin'...'

  The miners, ashamed that they had not acted sooner, led him to a tent restaurant where eggs, bacon and pancakes were available, and Tom, once more at the edge of the crowd, watched as the newcomer ate in a way Tom had never seen before. With infinite care, as if trying to hold back rearing horses, he cut his food into minute portions, eating them one by one like a dainty bluebird. 'Ain't you hungry?' asked the miner who was paying the bill, and the Irishman said: 'I could eat everything in this tent and in that one over there. I haven't seen food like this in two years.'

/>   'Then eat up!' the miner bellowed, but the stranger said: 'If I did, I'd drop dead,' and he continued placing in his mouth one tiny morsel after another.

  In the days that followed, Tom spent a good deal of time with the incredible Irishman, listening to his account of the epic trip north and of the dreadful deaths which had overtaken the gold seekers. 'My father died too,' he told Murphy. 'Pole doubled back on him while we were riding an ice sled with a sail.'

  The boy was impressed by the self-discipline with which Murphy continued to handle his meals, still eating them piece by piece, but always as they ate, the Irishman asked questions about gold, and Tom could see that he was obsessed by his determination to find himself a site, any kind, at which he could go through the motions of panning or digging. Not wanting to dismay Murphy by reiterating that there were no more sites, Tom threw the burden onto the able shoulders of his friend Sergeant Kirby of the North West Mounted, who had dealt with many latecomers like Murphy.

  'Spots to claim? The good ones were nailed down three years ago. Will there be any new ones? Not likely.'

  When Murphy, gaunt as a bear coming out of hibernation in April, heard this confirmation from an expert, he masked his disappointment, whereupon Kirby made a suggestion:

  'There's a chap named Klope out on a ridge. Digs day and night. Feels sure he's on to something good. He needs help.'

  'How do I fit in? Do I buy part of the claim?'

  'No, you work for him. He pays you wages, and when he runs out of money, maybe he'll offer you a share of the claim to keep you on the scene.'

  'You're sayin' he's not finding any gold?'

  'Down along the stream you pan the placers and know immediately if you've hit. Up on the benches, you dig, dig, dig and never know anything till you reach bedrock.'

 
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