Authors: A.B. Michaels
“I’m telling you, by this time next year, Forty Mile will be a ghost town,” he told Porter over a cup of coffee in the restaurant’s kitchen. “There’s an Indian fish camp upriver where the Klondike flows into the Yukon and it’s already being taken over by miners wantin’ easy access to Bonanza and Eldorado. Hell, my own crews have set up camp there. Now all those prospectors are gonna need food, aren’t they?”
“What have you got in mind?” Porter asked.
“Fifty-fifty split on a restaurant in the new location. We make it a fancy place where miners with pockets full of gold won’t mind spending it. What do you say?”
“I like the way you think,” Porter said, refilling Gus’s cup. “How about we call it the ‘Wilson-Wolff Restaurant’?”
“Nah, keep my name out of it,” Gus said. “You’re the front man. You know the business. People know Porter Wilson means good food. I’ll just bankroll you and we’ll see how it goes.”
The two men came to terms and shook hands on the deal. Gus then headed over to McCraig’s, where he found a man talking with a miner who was handing over a packet along with a small leather pouch.
“Ed Barlow?” Gus asked the man who was taking the packet.
“One and the same,” Barlow said. He was fresh-faced, young, and rotund, with pale skin and coppery-red hair that had already begun to recede.
“I hear you’ve booked passage on the
headin’ down to St. Michael’s tomorrow morning, and on to Seattle.”
“Yessir. And you probably heard I’m takin’ letters to people on the Outside for a small service fee.”
Gus smiled. “I like a man of business. So how much to take a letter for me?”
“Ten dollars,” Barlow said.
Gus took off his hat and rubbed his head. “Whew, that’s a stiff price, young man.”
“It’s a long way down to Seattle.”
“Tell you what,” Gus offered. “I’ll double your fee if you promise you’ll deliver my letter first.”
“Right in Seattle?”
“All right, then. Done deal.” Barlow stuck out his hand and Gus shook it.
“I’ll bring the letter back in less than an hour. You gonna be here?”
Barlow held up a wad of money he’d already collected from various prospectors eager to connect with their loved ones on the Outside. “Yessir. I’m feelin’ lucky.”
Gus walked back to his cabin on Nob Hill. He’d spent little time there over the past few months, and he knew he’d be locking it up for good in the next few days. The energy was shifting upriver, and he needed to be where that energy was.
Looking around the tiny front room, he felt the emptiness closing in on him. So little remained: a few woolen blankets and a blue china teapot with a cracked spout, some mismatched dishes and a large tin washbasin. No one seeing the place now would ever think a woman had lived there.
He’d given the golden-haired doll back to Janey Fortuna, and the little girl had cried as she clung to it. Mattie had been right about that; he just hoped the doll didn’t end up back at the dry goods store, because he didn’t want to come to blows with Janey’s dad over such a trifle.
The only things he had left to remind him of his own family were a little tintype of Mattie they’d taken at a carnival in Seattle, and a lock of Annabelle’s hair. Those and the sack of blocks that Shorty had made. He took out a sheet of paper and a fountain pen and began to write, pausing only a second before expressing the lie that he hoped would turn out to be true:
How does it feel to be a rich woman? I struck it big on the Klondike (like I said I would) and we are never going to have to worry about money again. I have to stay here to supervise the mining operation I have set up, but I promise I will come down for good next spring. Just hold tight and use the money included with this letter to keep you and our baby girl safe and happy. Give my darling Annabelly a big sloppy kiss for me. I will come back as soon as I can after the spring thaw. See you soon.
P.S. Please remember the time and day that you received this letter.
Gus put a few bank notes in the letter and sealed it, addressing it to “Mattie Wolff at the Empire Rooming House, Seattle.” He took it back down to McCraig’s and stood in the background while Barlow finished a hand of poker. The pile of bills and claims and nuggets in the center of the table was large, and the man across from Barlow smiled broadly while he chomped on a cigar.
“Read ’em and weep,” the man said, laying out his winning hand. Barlow tossed his cards in the center pile and muttered, “Goddamnation.”
“Barlow,” Gus called out.
The young man got up from the table and walked over to Gus.
“Feelin’ lucky, huh?” Gus asked.
Barlow shrugged. “I’ll win it back. Only a matter of time.”
“Right. You keep telling yourself that.” Gus tried to keep the disgust out of his voice. “So, here’s my letter and twenty dollars. Like I said, I want this to be the first thing you deliver when you get off that ship. You’ll be on the
out of St. Michael’s, right?”
“Well, I’m going to find out when the
docks in Seattle, and I’ve asked my wife to tell me what time she gets the letter. If too much time has passed between those two events, I’ll want my money back…and I’ll find you to get it. Do you understand?” Gus tapped the letter onto Barlow’s chest. “I’m a man of business too.”
Barlow swallowed. “First thing. Yessir.”
Gus walked out of McCraig’s wondering if there was any other solution to his problem, because relying on Ed Barlow didn’t seem to be the best option after all.
landed at Circle City, downriver from Forty Mile, in the evening. Ed Barlow, whose luck hadn’t improved the day before, figured he’d do better in the new surroundings. They called Circle City the “Paris of Alaska” and sure enough it was full of piss and vinegar. No Mounties on the U.S. side of the border stickin’ their noses into people’s business. And it had a lot more pleasure palaces than Forty Mile ever thought of having. And who would have thought that out here in the middle of nowhere there’d be nearly
saloons—surely one of them would help him recoup his losses from the day before.
Ed slipped the rucksack full of letters to be delivered in Seattle under his bunk, pulled on his heavy wool jacket, and headed off the boat to see what kind of game he could scare up. The sky was leaden; there would be no stars tonight. It looked like a storm might be coming in.
Two streets off the river landing and up three blocks he found the Pickled Hen, which sounded just about right to him. He found a table of hapless-looking five-card-stud players and mentally licked his chops. “Whiskey,” he ordered as he sat down.
Four hours later, Ed stumbled through the snow, his pockets empty and his brain pickled worse than the hen’s. Snow was coming down thick and he wasn’t sure which direction led back to the boat. He was growing colder by the minute, which part of his addled brain told him was a good thing because it kept him awake long enough to keep going. He saw just one person out on the streets and shuffled faster to ask the fellow which street led down to the landing.
Finally getting his bearings, he lumbered onto the gangplank and found his way back to his cabin, flopping on the bunk and wrapping the bed’s wool blanket around himself. Damn, it was cold. The whiskey helped him fall asleep and he woke up the next morning with a skull that felt like it’d been split with a hatchet. He waited for the shrieks of the boat’s whistle, but heard nothing. In fact, it was quiet. Way too quiet. He waited to feel the rumble and vibration of the steam engine, but there was nothing.
Did I stumble onto the wrong boat?
he wondered. He made his way to the top deck and saw a lone crew member battening down the hatches. It was snowing much harder now and the deck hand kept wiping his eyes so he could see.
“What’s going on, why aren’t we moving?” Ed asked.
The crew member looked at Ed like he was crazy. “Look around you, man. There’s a freeze on. River’s closed up. The
won’t be goin’ anywhere anytime soon.”
“What?! Well how are we supposed to get back to Seattle, then?”
“Sad to say, we ain’t, at least not on this boat. You’d best go back below, Mister. Cap’n will come around later today and explain the situation.”
Ed shook his head, thinking about all the money he’d been paid to deliver those letters. Money that he’d lost the last two nights. He thought about the money that must be included in all those letters and thought for a moment that maybe he could borrow some of it and pay it back when he started to win again.
Would that be considered stealing, if I put it right back where it belonged? Wouldn’t it just be borrowing?
He went down to his cabin and reached under the bunk for the knapsack. First he’d see how much there was to work with, before making a decision.
But the decision wasn’t his to make, because when he reached under the bed to pull out the knapsack, it was gone.
ovember always signaled a major shift in the landscape of the northern territories. Day by day, the Yukon River transformed itself from a busy water route to a solid road of snow. Every year there were ignorant souls who thought they could read the river, and many of them died from exposure as the ice they thought was solid enough gave way to freezing water and a quick death.