Authors: A.B. Michaels
The Self-Made Man
inally,” August Wolff muttered as he heard the first groan of ice breaking along the Fortymile’s frozen riverbed. The sun had worked hard that day. Now, in the late afternoon, the sharp blue of the sky had given way to a muddy dusk and the cold had once again seeped through his worn leather gloves and flannel shirt. But change was coming and he welcomed it.
He walked by Shorty Calhoun’s stake; the old prospector was half-heartedly sifting through his tailing pile.
“Won’t be long now,” Gus remarked.
“Yessir,” Shorty said. “Cain’t come too soon for these old bones.” The old man grinned, his remaining teeth yellowed by the tobacco chew he habitually stored in the pouch of his cheek. He spat on the ground. “How’s your take? Hit pay dirt?”
Gus gave his standard reply to the daily question. “Not yet. You’ll be the first to know.”
Shorty completed the verbal ritual. “Same goes.” He turned to the rucksack lying next to him. “Listen now, I made somethin’ for the young’un.” He pulled out a burlap bag and handed it to Gus. “Her first birthday and all.”
“Thank you kindly,” Gus said, taking the bag. He hefted it. “Feels heavy.”
“Just some painted blocks is all.” Shorty went back to his sifting. “You best get back to your pretty little family. They’ll be waitin’ on you.”
Gus nodded and continued on toward the camp, slinging the bag over one shoulder and his shovel over the other. Shorty was like so many miners he’d met over the past few years: kept to himself most of the time, but had a soft spot a mile wide. Gus had invited the old man to dinner a time or two, but Mattie’d felt uncomfortable around him, so he’d stopped. Maybe she’d change her tune about Shorty once she saw the gift he’d made for little Annabelle.
He trudged up the final hill to the main section of Forty Mile, the mining town where he, Mattie, and Annabelle lived. With the beginning of the spring thaw, the streets, if you could call them that, had turned to a grayish-brown, murky slush. Raised wooden sidewalks fronted the trading posts and saloons, but you were on your own when you crossed to the other side. Mattie complained almost daily about her perpetually dirty hems; back in Seattle she’d been a seamstress, so it made sense she’d worry about such things. Still, the town wasn’t so bad. Porter Wilson had sold Gus his claim on a little crick upriver and opened a restaurant just last fall. Hell, there was even an opera house, though the season only ran from June through August.
Gus stopped in Fannie Beringer’s general store to pick up the porcelain doll with blonde ringlets he’d put a deposit on the week before. “You’re in luck,” Fannie had told him. “Just got this in from Billy Fortuna. His little gal told him to sell it so he could get a new pickax. Ain’t that sweet?” Gus pulled out his pouch and measured out the gold dust he needed to pay the balance. Fannie threw in some scraps of leftover cloth along with the doll. “On the house,” she said. “Little something for the poppet.” Fannie knew Mattie could sew a set of clothes for the doll that would keep little Annabelle occupied for hours. At least Gus hoped that would happen.
A few blocks later he turned up the street someone had jokingly named “Nob Hill.” Along the road were several log houses—really no more than shacks, truth be told. Gus was lucky to have gotten one the year before; still, Maggie hadn’t been impressed. He remembered the look she’d given him when she first saw it. “Flour sacks for curtains?” She hadn’t been smiling.
He could hear Annabelle’s cries three houses away. His little blonde girl was as pretty as her mama; the only things she seemed to have inherited from him were her dark eyes and the tiny cleft in her chin. Unfortunately, her nature seemed to mirror Mattie’s as well. Gus was big and he was strong. The roughness of life in the Yukon gold fields suited him fine. Mattie, and now Annabelle, well, they were a different story altogether. But they would adjust. Eventually.
He set his shovel and packages outside the door, pausing to crack the thin layer of ice that had formed on the basin of water left out for him to use. He picked up the sliver of lye soap next to the basin and lathered up as best he could, splashing water along the back of his neck and up his arms before grabbing the towel left on a nearby hook.
A woman’s touch
, he thought with satisfaction as he dried off, a reminder that despite the surroundings, they were all civilized human beings. He’d needed the prompt more than once.
“Is there a little Annabelly in here?” he announced as he entered the small front room that served as both kitchen and parlor. Annabelle stopped fussing as soon as she heard his deep voice.
“Dada!” she cried, waving her hands in the age-old sign language of children that said
Pick me up!
Gus put down the two presents he’d brought in and scooped his sweet-smelling baby daughter into his arms. He bussed her neck loudly, causing Annie to squeal with delight. He leaned over to kiss Mattie hello as well; she gave him her cheek and turned abruptly, wiping her hands quickly with the towel she had tucked into her apron.
“Sit yourself down for supper,” she said.
Gus sighed and sat down with Annabelle on his lap. After two years of marriage, he could sense Mattie’s shifting moods even when she tried to hide them. Unlike him, she wasn’t good at keeping her emotions locked up. She was easy to read, and generally Gus liked that about her; it took a lot of time-wasting guesswork out of their relationship. The problem was, when it was bad, you couldn’t dance around it for very long. But maybe, on account of it being Annabelle’s birthday, she’d keep it to herself for a little while—at least long enough to enjoy the party. “So, did you invite Marybeth and the kids over to celebrate?”
“No, it’s just us,” Mattie said. She put a bowl of rabbit stew in front of him, along with a plate of sourdough bread. Wiping her hands again, she sat down across from him, then jumped up to get him a glass of water. She sat down again, but was up once more, gesturing to him to give her the baby. Annabelle strained to go back into Gus’s arms, but Mattie held her tight.
“Aren’t you gonna join me?” Gus asked.
“No. Annie and I already ate.” She handed Annabelle a wooden duck and walked back and forth, bouncing the baby slightly to keep her distracted.
Gus began to eat his dinner. The stew wasn’t particularly good, but it was filling, and that was the main thing. He tore off a piece of bread, closed his eyes, and savored the taste; there was nothing in the world like sourdough. A moment later he opened his eyes; his wife was still pacing.
“You’re as jumpy as a frog, Mattie. What’s eatin’ you?”
Mattie took a moment before answering. “Annabelle and I have got to go,” she finally said.
The stew settled like a lump in the bottom of his stomach. “What do you mean, ‘gotta go’? Where to?”
“Seattle,” she said. She sat down and bounced Annabelle on her lap a little too forcefully.
“Here, give her to me,” Gus said, taking the baby. He took the time to marshal his thoughts. “I told you we had one or two more years here before this plays out,” he said.
“Yeah, I know, but it’s not working, Gus. It’s not the life I thought it would be. I don’t know. It’s just…”
It was Gus’s turn to stand. “Just what, Mattie? Just too cold? Just too hard?” He walked around the small confines of the cabin, using his protective instinct with Annabelle to keep his temper in check. He told himself,
only nineteen; she was just a girl when we got married
. It didn’t help much. “You knew what you were getting into. I told you what it would be like before we left. You said—”
“I know what I said,” Mattie snapped. “And I tried. I truly did. But having a baby out here was too hard, and knowing your ways, I’d be having another one before too long. Annabelle coughs all the time. I think she’s got the croup. And there’s nothing but ice to play with.”
“Now there’s where you’re wrong,” Gus said. Taking a small blue-checkered quilt from Annabelle’s crib, he spread it on the floor and placed his daughter on it. He got Shorty’s sack and knelt in front of the baby. “Happy birthday little Annabelly,” he crooned, showing her Shorty’s sack. “See what Uncle Shorty made for you.” He reached into the bag and drew out a small block, painted with letters and numbers, parts of a tree and parts of a house on each of the six sides. He drew out the others, twelve in all. Annabelle immediately picked one up and put it in her mouth. She then flung it away and picked up another, happy for the moment with her new toy. “You see?” Gus said to Mattie, hating the wheedling tone he could sense in his voice.
“Annabelle’s going to walk any day now, Gus. Just look at this place.” Mattie gestured around the small room. “Where is she gonna go once winter hits and it’s too cold to step outside for more than a minute before freezing to death? What if one of us leaves the door open and she wanders out? And why wouldn’t she? There’s nothing to do here!”
Annabelle had tired of throwing blocks and began to crawl off her blanket. The wooden floor was cold and wet in spots where Gus’s boots had tread. He put Annabelle back on the quilt, reached for the present he had brought, and handed it to her. “See what Daddy brought you,” he said softly. He helped her unwrap the package to reveal the blonde-haired doll. It was dressed in a faded blue gingham dress and its eyes, which had once opened and shut, stared permanently straight ahead. He sat back down to watch his daughter.
Mattie let out a sob. “Where did you get that?” she demanded.
Gus frowned. “Fannie sold it to me. Why?”
“That’s little Janey Fortuna’s doll, isn’t it?”
Mattie stood. “It is! Jesu, Gus! Billy’s so down on his luck he has to sell his own daughter’s most favorite thing in all the world? What is it with you miners? You get the gold fever and you’re willing to do most anything, sacrifice most anything, even your families, to strike it rich. And how many of you have done that, huh? The Fortunas up on Preacher Crick? Bob and Marybeth on Butte? The Millfords up on Deadwood? At least they’re hanging it up, finally. Heading back down. What about Shorty? You going to keep on going ’til you look like that old man? How long will it be before Annabelle has to sell her doll to the next miner with more brawn than brains? Tell me!” Mattie ran out of steam and sat down again, taking deep breaths to get herself under control.