Authors: A.B. Michaels
“They’s in too much of a hurry to live,” Shorty would comment when news hit of the latest fatality. “Well, they sure got to the end of their lives right quick, now didn’t they?”
Waiting for the freeze, Gus and Shorty’s men had built some basic log cabins to replace the tents they’d been using up in Dawson, the settlement Gus had told Porter about. The new restaurant had also been started with an eye toward feeding the growing ranks of hungry miners. By now, however, the smaller creeks, like the Bonanza and Eldorado, had frozen over, which meant the real work could begin.
Unlike gold fields on the Outside, the best time to work a claim this far north was in the winter. Finding placer gold meant digging down through permafrost to bedrock where ancient streams had flowed, usually near currently running rivers and creeks. Much heavier than rock, the metal had washed down from higher places eons before, often getting stuck in the stones, boulders, and crevices of the older streambed. Sometimes signs of that journey showed up on a canyon wall high above the current water flow. More often than not, the real payoff lay in figuring out where the gold had finally settled, sometimes thirty or forty feet below the surface. Digging holes that deep was only possible in the winter because the walls were too frozen to collapse, and running water wouldn’t turn the shaft into a dangerous, muddy mess.
Gus and Shorty supervised the crews as they began the process of sinking holes through the permafrost. Estimating where the old river channel had run along their claims, they first cleared away the snow and vegetation before starting fires that would thaw the ground enough to start digging. The process was slow and required hard work: build several fires in the morning, let the ground thaw, dig it out in the evening, build another fire, let the ground thaw overnight, dig it out, build another fire in the morning, and so on. Having worked a number of claims the same way at only two to three feet of progress per day, Gus was struck again by how inefficient it all seemed.
“There’s gotta be a faster, easier way to dig,” he complained one day as they watched the time-consuming excavation.
“Yessir, there should be,” Shorty said. “Mebbe if we poured hot water down there, it’d move a might faster.”
Gus stared at the hole. “What about steam?” he finally said.
Shorty scratched his beard. “That mebbe could work. You get enough pressure going, you’d melt that frost lickety-split. But how you gonna get a steam engine down in that there hole?”
“I don’t know,” Gus said. “But just about anything’s better than this.”
As the hole grew deeper, the crew set up a winch system to haul the excavated dirt up in buckets. The men would dump the dirt, called “tailings,” by the side of the hole, to be sifted through during the “spring cleanup” when the creek water started flowing again and could be used to “sluice” or filter the gold from the lighter sand, rock, and gravel.
After work each day, Gus would return to his cabin, much more rustic than even the cabin in Forty Mile, and go over his ledgers. Money, on paper at least, was flowing out at an alarming rate. If nothing panned out…well, he couldn’t think that way. Instead he prayed his claims on Bonanza and Eldorado would produce the kind of pay dirt he’d been searching for.
Mattie and Annabelle were never far from his thoughts.
This is all for them
, he often told himself. But several days into the dig, when no appreciable signs of gold had surfaced in any of the holes, he forced himself to take stock. He’d gone back to his cabin early, eaten a plate of warmed-over stew, and drunk a larger than usual measure of liquid courage. Lying in his bunk after the whiskey had taken the edge off, he faced the truth about himself:
This isn’t about Mattie and Annabelle at all. It’s about me.
He remembered his father’s funeral, and his older brother Jonas sitting him down for a man-to-man talk.
“Look, the farm’s barely holding on and I’ve got a lot of mouths to feed,” he’d told Gus. “You don’t like farmin’ and you make that known every day you’re asked to do chores. So, I’m suggestin’ you head off on your own, see what’s out there for you.”
Gus could still recall the cold sense of panic washing over him at his brother’s words.
on my own?
What will I do? Where will I go?
Jonas had spoken the truth: Gus had never taken to farming, and he’d always felt there was something better out there. But what? There’d been no money for college, so at the age of sixteen he was challenged to find some other way to make his mark. Now he was twice that old and still had nothing to show for it. The specter of failure burned inside him, the flames licking at his soul. His mama used to say that when you got to feeling sorry for yourself, it was the Devil laughing at you; lately it felt as though Ol’ Beelzebub was the life of the party.
If all his claims went bust, could he pack up his pride and go back to Mattie, hat in hand? The thought curdled his stomach. She seemed to have lost her fire for him already; he could just imagine how she’d feel to have a ne’er do well of a husband hanging on to her skirts.
No. He’d go back for a while, make sure she and Annabelle were taken care of, and then head back up north. Somehow, some way, he’d find a way to make a fortune in the Yukon. By God , it was there for the taking—why couldn’t he find it?!
He laughed at himself. “That’s the fever talking,” Mattie would say. And she’d be right…again. The thing about Mattie was, she was a good woman. She’d been a good wife and a fine mother to little Annie. But—and here was the hardest thing of all to face—he’d started to lose his feeling for her too. Maybe that was the price he had to pay for following the head in his pants instead of the one on his shoulders.
Three days later, shirtless and sweating, Gus spent the morning working down in the number three hole on his Eldorado claim. Too impatient to wait for others to make progress, he’d climbed down the thirty-foot shaft with a pickax and shovel, bound and determined to work off the anxiety that had begun to sink its talons into him. He hoped to find something—
to keep this from being one more busted hole. He dug his shovel into the newly thawed earth and heaved it into the bucket, pausing to run his hand through the tailings before sending them topside.
That’s when the glint caught his eye. In the dim light of the lantern, clumped along with the dirt and rock and gravel, he saw several nuggets the size of fat ripe blackberries, looking as if they’d been dipped in gold.
“Goddamn,” he muttered, not quite believing his eyes. He ran the nuggets through his fingers, then knelt down to check the dirt next to the bucket he’d filled. It too was sprinkled with gold. “Like cheese on a sandwich,” he said out loud, echoing Dawson Charlie’s description. “Damned if he wasn’t right on the money.” He tapped on the bucket to signal the crew topside. “Daniel!” he yelled up to the miner who’d been operating the winch for him. “Pay dirt rising! Comin’ up gold!”
Gus climbed up out of the hole and called for the crew from the other nearby holes to gather around. He fought to keep his voice calm and rational. “Looks like we got ourselves a winner here, boys. Now you all know we’re workin’ as a team and we all got our stake in this. So I don’t expect to see anybody tryin’ to steal what doesn’t rightly belong to them, ’cause the rest of us won’t be too happy. Am I right, boys? We’re agreed on this?”
The men agreed, saying “Yessir” and “Damn right” and “Hell yes,” and began celebrating in earnest. One man pulled out a flask and handed it all around. Two men who’d been workin’ another shaft were eager to go down the hole, and others got in line to see the strike for themselves. Gus sent one of the men to fetch Shorty on Bonanza, but before the man had even gotten on his horse, Shorty came riding up.
“Good news boys—number sixteen above is startin’ to pay,” he said as he rushed up to the group. When he saw that they were all standing around and not working, he said, “What are you all lollygaggin’ for?”
Gus scooped a handful of dirt from the bucket and showed it to his partner. “I just brought his up,” he said. “What do you think?”
“Goddamn, I think we’s gonna be rich!” Shorty said, grinning a picket-fence smile. “Lord a mercy, when it rains, it surely pours.”
That night, Gus emptied the pouch of nuggets that had been brought up just in that one bucket. The bag that Shorty had brought from Bonanza was almost as full. Gus could tell without a doubt that sluicing the tailings from both claims, although it wouldn’t take place until the spring, was going to yield more gold than he or Shorty or any of the crew members had ever dreamed of.
He couldn’t believe it: he, August Wilkerson Wolff, had struck it rich! At that moment he wished more than anything to hold little Annabelly in his arms and tell her she could have whatever doll she wanted. One with eyes that opened and shut, one with clothes made of silk and satin and lace and bows and even little gems if she wanted them. He’d give her a dollhouse too, and a big beautiful mansion to put the dollhouse in, and a pony, and…and everything. And he would give Mattie whatever she wanted too. She deserved it, after all. She’d put up with him, and waited for him, and given him a beautiful little girl to love. And maybe she’d put up with him enough to have more babies. They could afford them now that Gus had made it. And maybe they’d rekindle that fire that used to burn between them too.
Then again, even if she wanted to stay together, how could he be sure she’d love him for him and not his newfound fortune? Could he put up with being with someone who only tolerated him because of the money in his bank account?
He put the gold back in its bags and stashed the bags under his mattress. And for the first time ever, he thought about locking the door to his cabin. He shook his head at the irony of it all. Just a few days prior he’d been worried about all the things that could go wrong if he didn’t hit pay dirt. Now that he had, he realized his problems had just begun.
July 17, 1897
us woke up at three in the morning to the mournful blast of a tugboat’s horn. Curious as to the need for a tug in the middle of the night, he got dressed and headed to the main deck. Sure enough, a tugboat named the
had maneuvered alongside the
and a young man in a pinstriped suit was in the process of boarding the ship. Gus ambled over to his long-time and now very rich friend C.J., who had also come topside to see what was going on.
“Ethel will be sorry she slept through this,” C.J. said with a grin.