Read Jason's Gold Online

Authors: Will Hobbs

Jason's Gold (7 page)

BOOK: Jason's Gold

Under a big spruce at Canyon City, Jason found the outfit as promised. At first light on the eighteenth of August, he headed north once again. He was carrying seventy-five pounds and the husky fifty; he'd weighed it all out at the blacksmith's at Canyon City.

Half a mile up the wagon road, his pack already felt like lead, but his walking staff helped, and he found he could perch the pack on a waist-high boulder when he had to get the weight off his shoulders. King, with his long tongue lolling like a wolf's, was thriving on the work.

Jason employed London's strategy: Carry three miles up the trail, cache everything under the tarp. Return three miles downhill with an empty pack. Load up, turn around, climb.

He made four trips that first day. Together, he and
King advanced five hundred pounds three miles up the trail. They'd walked twenty-four miles, twelve of it under loads.

He was exhausted, but he'd done it. Don't lie down, he warned himself. Take the ax, find firewood, start a fire, cook up some grub, make some tea. Cut boughs to sleep on while there's still light. Sleep.

Every day, do it again.

And he did. Whenever he started feeling like a packhorse, he'd think about Jack's hundred and fifty pounds.

Just keep moving. You have become an ant. You are one ant in this endless train of ants. You are tireless. You can lift twenty times your weight. You don't need to see beyond your antennas. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Stay in line and keep moving!

One day he found himself marching behind a wizened old man with a grindstone strapped to a pack-board, a large grindstone. Jason couldn't help but ask what it was for.

“Lots of miners gonna need picks and shovels and axes sharpened,” the weary old man explained, panting. “Pay me in nuggets, they will—I done it in the Cariboo and the Cassiar.”

The following day, as Jason leaned against a boulder at trailside and struggled for breath, he saw King's erect ears swivel around. The husky froze, alertly studying something on the slope below.

“What do you see, King?”

Here came the strangest sight, a team of five longhaired goats pulling a sledge with a camera and tripod lashed to a big boxy contraption.

A few minutes later Jason met the young man who was wrangling the goats, as he in turn stopped to wheeze for breath. His name was Eric Hegg, and he was a pho
tographer from Bellingham, Washington. The boxy contraption turned out to be his darkroom. Hegg wasn't even interested in the gold. His gold was going to be the photos he was taking. He was headed over the Chilkoot and down to Dawson City just to photograph the rush.

One of the times Jason was overnighting at Sheep Camp he pitched his tarp next to a Canadian party from Lake Winnipeg. They waved him over so they could admire King, then invited him for bannock—simple camp bread, more like sweet cake with the berries they'd thrown in. Before he left they told him how to make it. The batter was a combination of flour, lard, and baking powder, all of which he had in strong supply.

The Canadians even showed him what berries he was after: high- and low-bush cranberries, raspberries, blueberries. And he learned a valuable tip for starting fires in wet weather: Keep a supply of birch bark handy.

In the morning Jason began the push up Long Hill to the Scales. From now until the top of the Chilkoot he faced steep climbing all the way.

Through every sort of weather, he and the husky kept it up: nine backbreaking trips up Long Hill, nine agonizing times up the Golden Stairs. The last time up the pass, on the first day of September, he was wearing his winter clothes and winter boots. They climbed the Stairs in a blinding snowstorm with flakes the size of silver dollars. When they reached the top, fifteen inches of new snow covered the tarp over the outfit they'd brought in stages to the summit. The sight of the mountains under snow scared him. “All downhill now,” he told King bravely. “All we have to do is move twelve hundred pounds nine miles and catch a ride.”

The snow melted, but hard freezes came every night.
The tundra grasses around Crater Lake and Long Lake flamed orange and red, and by the time he'd moved the outfit far enough along to see Lake Lindeman below, the birches along its shores were all blazing scarlet.

All along the trail, outfits were piled high as houses. When would breakup come? people were asking, figuring they'd have to spend the winter.

The end of May seemed to be the answer.

Jason already knew he wasn't going to ride out the winter at Lindeman. Even if he had a proper tent and a Klondike stove, even if he was willing to go back to Dyea or Skagway and find work until he could buy them, even if he were to carry them back over the Chilkoot, he couldn't possibly sit still for eight months. For him that would be eight years.

Maybe another man in Jack's party had taken sick, dropped out.

It was the eighth of September when he reached the tent city at Lake Lindeman with the first portion of his outfit. Pistol shots and running Klondikers drew him to the lakeshore, where hundreds were seeing off a newly launched skiff.

“How many have been launching?” he asked the first person he saw, a woman at a makeshift laundry.

“For the last week, five to ten a day.”

Running to a high point, he counted the boats under construction. Close to sixty!

He found Jack on the bottom end of a whipsaw, making lumber in the saw pits. The man standing up above was Big Jim Goodman. On every upstroke, the fresh sawdust fell into Jack's face, though he'd pulled his hobo cap low over his forehead.

Jack recognized him, came out of the pits for a
moment, and gestured toward the mountainsides all covered with snow. “Close contest!” he exclaimed. “Winter's coming hard.”

“I brought my first load. The rest is close—Long Lake. Anybody looking for a partner?”

“No change with us…but ask around…. Good luck!”

Jason did ask. He asked at every single boat. He even started offering half a share in the claim he would stake in the Klondike.

No room.

Back for another load. Don't give up yet.

In three more days his outfit was complete and within a stone's throw of the lakeshore. It was all here. All he needed now was a miracle.

Jack's skiff, the twenty-seven-foot
Yukon Belle
, was fully framed and now the lumber was going on—soft green spruce boards an inch thick. It was a flat-bottomed boat, pointed at the bow and squared off at the stern, six feet or so across the beam.

Whenever a boat was finished, word was hollered and Jason joined dozens of Klondikers who ran from all directions to lift it into the water where it could be loaded.

At almost all the boatworks, he heard worried talk about the One Mile River, the narrow stretch of water connecting Lindeman and Bennett. Almost all the parties who had launched up through the first week of September had rowed down to the end of Lake Lindeman, then portaged around the One Mile River. It meant completely unloading the boats, packing the outfits around on foot, skidding the skiffs a mile on logs over extremely uneven terrain.

But now freeze-up was like an avenger on their
heels. The day before, six boats had reached the far end of Lindeman. Three had tried to run the One Mile River to avoid the time-consuming portage. Two of them had broken to splinters on the rocks. No one was drowned, but eleven men had lost everything and gone bust before they even reached Lake Bennett.

Now there were thirty boats left on the shore, with very few days remaining before the middle of September. A Yellow Legs hiked up from Lake Bennett to spread the word that any launch after the next few days would have little chance of making Dawson City. Lake Laberge, a thirty-mile-long deadwater stretch of the Yukon River, was especially prone to early freeze-up. Outfits were going to be inspected extra carefully at customs, just below Tagish Lake, at Fort Sifton. “Seven hundred pounds of foodstuffs per person, or you
be turned back.”

Five boats launched on the fourteenth, two on the fifteenth. Crude improvised sails appeared; the slightest advantage might spell the margin of victory over the ice. On the night of the fifteenth it snowed on the tent city at Lake Lindeman. Now the mountainsides rising from the lake and into the distance were entirely shrouded with snow.

On the sixteenth, Jason helped to launch and load the
Yukon Belle
. He was going to run around the side of the lake to see Jack and the others attempt the One Mile River. They'd decided they had to run it—no time to portage—and Jack was going to be doing the steering with the big sweep oar at the stern.

The time had come to say good-bye again. As Jack took his hand, the Californian looked as chagrined as he looked exhausted. “I was sure hoping you'd find a spot on one of the boats.”

Jason fought to keep his head up. “It was worth a try.”

“What do you think you'll do now?”

“I don't know,” Jason allowed. “I just don't know.”

They wished each other luck. Without really believing it, Jason added, “I'll see you in the Golden City!” then started around the shore of the lake.

He and King were halfway around the shore when the pistol shots rang out signaling the launch of the
Yukon Belle
. “We're in for a show,” he said to the husky.

Jason took his position on the rocky bluff above the lake's outlet, the same vantage point from which he'd seen Jamie and her father make their unforgettable run. Here came the
Yukon Belle
, with Big Jim Goodman pushing at the oars and Jack standing at the stern with the long sweep oar in hand. The other three—tall, thin, orange-whiskered Fred Thompson; the small, wiry Merritt Sloper; and their graybeard, Tarwater—were hunkered low and hanging on tight.

Down the glassy tongue of water pouring out of the lake they came. From the corner of his eye, Jason suddenly became aware of a stranger pounding headlong down the shore. A young man of twenty-five or so, the fellow was wearing a plaid mackinaw like Jason's, but much cleaner, and a new-looking felt hat. “Got to see the route they pick!” the stranger exclaimed, all out of breath, as he reached Jason's shoulder.

The skiff passed almost beneath them and shot downstream into the white water.

It was close, so close. Several times the
seemed certain to crash on the rocks midriver. Braced at the stern and leaning into the sweep oar with all of his might, Jack steered them around each of the deadly obstacles.

Jason cheered them on their way, and they were gone.

“And now it's my turn,” the stranger said nervously. “I've left my canoe up the shore there. Came running to see this, and I'm glad I did.”

“Canoe?” Jason repeated, barely listening.

“I had it packed over the pass. I just got here—came all the way from Boston. Still seems strange to me that the rivers up here run north. Everything's different up here.”

Now Jason was fully alert. “Take me and my dog with you! I've got a world of grub if you need any, and I'll help out all along the way.”

The man waved him off. “I'm overloaded as it is. But would you like to make a little money?”

“I guess,” Jason allowed through his disappointment.

“Wait for me at the bottom, then, with a rope.”

“A rope? What for?”

“To fish me out if I spill,” the man explained, greatly agitated. “Ten dollars. I'll pay ten dollars. Tell me quick—will you do it?”

“Of course I will, but…” Jason looked the stranger over.
was written all over him. “Are you sure you don't want to portage your outfit around the rapids?”

“No time!” the stranger cried, nearly frantic. “I'll do exactly as he did. You stay here. I'll be back with my canoe in twenty minutes.”

The canoe was identical to Jamie and Homer Dunavant's—eighteen feet long and painted dark green. A beauty, but heavily loaded. Too heavy for these rapids, Jason thought.

The man jumped out of his canoe, pushed a ten
dollar bill and a coil of rope at Jason, then yelled, “I'll start in twenty minutes. Now go!”

Jason started briskly down the trail with King at his heels. They positioned themselves at the slow water below the rapids.

It wasn't long before Jason saw a flash of green upstream. It was the canoe, but the canoe had capsized. He caught sight of the man from Boston clawing to hang on. Odds and ends of the unfortunate's outfit came bobbing down the river, but most of it had sunk.

Jason threw the man the rope. “Busted, by God!” he sputtered when Jason hauled him out. “God help my wife and children!”

Still upside-down, the canoe was caught against the right bank not far downstream. So was the canoe paddle.

Suddenly Jason could see his chance. Finally, his lucky break. “I'll give you your money back if you let me have the canoe.”

The man cried, “Give it, then! The canoe is yours.”

All the next day and the following morning Jason carried his own outfit along the shore past the rapids, then packed it into the canoe. He loaded up as much of his supplies as he could until he started losing too much freeboard between the water and the gunwales. It was easy enough to picture the wind-driven waves out on the lake swamping the canoe.

He had all his clothes on board, the cookware, the hatchet, the ax, the whetstone, two buckets, the rifle, the ammunition, candles, matches, his blankets, his tarp, the rope, King's remaining salmon, and as much food for himself as he could fit in.

As for the rest, he had to leave it behind.

Jason packed carefully, tied everything in, slid the
rifle under the ropes, then showed the husky his spot at the bow. King jumped into the canoe and Jason took his own place at the stern.

He could hardly believe he was finally under way, paddling onto Lake Bennett under the snow-shrouded mountains. It was the eighteenth of September. The cloud line was halfway down to the lake, gloomy like a permanent fixture.

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