• Gold Rushers – Part Two

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    Part One left our three adventurers arriving in Skagway, making a round of the saloons before they began their journey up over the Chilkoot Pass into Canada. 

    THE KLONDIKE

    At the next watering hole, the Red Onion Saloon, they were standing at the bar when a huge man with animal skins for a coat came from their left. Anger and violence radiated from his flushed face.  His eyes were red-rimmed, his jaw slack – on a three-day drunk, whiskey breath proceeding him.  He staggered up the bar; pushing drinkers out of the way, and then crashed into Kate with a curse, knocking her down.  Then he unleashed a torrent of profanity heard a block away. 

    Kate wasn’t hurt but Will jumped in front of the fur-draped miner, who was even taller than he.  “Sir, I’d expect an apology to this young lady for your rude behavior.”  The man cursed again and fumbled for a pistol.  Jack wrapped the man up from behind and the gun dropped to the floor.  “Partner, have you ever practiced falling down?” said Will, thinking about an old adage from Cairo Missouri.  “The hell you say,” said his opponent. “What you talkin’ bout?”  “Too bad, you should have, you stinking polecat,” and with that he swept the man’s feet out from under him. Jack threw the miner to the ground and tapped him on the head with the pistol butt.  Argument over. 

    But then a smaller man came up behind Will, his hand hiding a case knife against his wool coat.  As he started to open the blade, the fat end of a Cutty Sark whiskey bottle appeared from his right and collided with his temple, courtesy of Kate. It was Mugs.  He glared at them, gnashed his teeth and shouted, “One more thing for me to avenge.  You mark my words, you’ll never see the gold fields.”  Then he dragged his unconscious friend out of sight.

    They decided to each carry only a heavily loaded pack up the Chilkoot Trail out of Dyea, just above Skagway. Of the thirty-three miles, the last four were at a 30% grade, the last half-mile thirty-five. When they got on top of the Golden Stairs, just outside the tent camp of Scales, a Mountie was waiting to check their supplies.  When he saw they had none, he laughed and said, “Turn around right now, I don’t want to find your frozen bodies at winter’s end.”  But in three hours, Kate had rounded up enough equipment to pass muster, and horses to carry the required equipment and food on down to lake Bennett. The water there so cold it appeared black.  Jack shook, saying each time he took a breath the sides of his nose froze together.  

    At the lake they were still 500 miles up river from Dawson.  Boat building of all kinds was underway – canoe’s, barges, rafts, even sailboats.  Kate told them they would want a three level raft with sweeps at either end to run the rapids in Whitehorse Canyon and to be able to paddle with the current (no canoes, that was a sure way to drown.)  “Even better if we can mount a sail.”

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    “Let’s see if we can find someone who has gotten so discouraged that he might sell us a good rig we can depend on.”  She was back in two hours with a disheveled man in his 30’s.  His partner had died from fever two days ago.  He’d had enough and was heading back to Peoria, Illinois.  The deal was fair and they were ready to go by noon the next day.  That night someone lit their raft on fire, but the flames were quickly doused, no damage other than some blackened logs.  “Mugs again,” thought Jack.  

    The Yukon was slow in thawing and they did not get on the lake until the 25th of May –  leaving at night under a full moon.  The silence was eerie, even with thirty other boats that were rowing or sailing along with them.  Suddenly Kate burst out with “In The Sweet By and By” in her clear contralto.  Soon other voices joined in.  She followed with “Abide With Me,”  “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen,” “Sweet Adeline,” and other favorites of the day.  The lake soon rang with the voices of a ninety-man chorus floating across its wide, dark surface.

    The trip to Dawson was long, but shorter than most since they had a main sail and a head sail.  The Yukon only dropped 1200 feet between Lake Bennett and Dawson, so most of the time two were always rowing through the sluggish water. Their rig crashed into a stone cliff running the Whitehorse Rapids, tearing away one sweep.  But there was a spare, and the raft was built like a battleship.  They could see others on shore whose attempt had failed, now they were stranded, depending on the Mounties to help them get back to civilization or down river to Dawson, or start hiking hundreds of miles out of the wilderness. Arriving in Dawson, they beached their rig along with hundred’s of others and headed into town.  Kate knew some of the town’s best prospectors and was warmly greeted.  The man who had inherited her claim said that it yielded another $900 and then played out.

    Kate arranged for them to stay in town while they got the lay of the land from some of her former compatriots.  Jack stared up at the heavens that evening and wondered if he would ever see the Red River Valley again – maybe this was all a mistake.  He felt he was at the top of the world, a world of wind and icy nights, of space and brilliant stars, far from Texas.  It was so cold Will said his teeth hurt down to the roots.  Mercury froze at -35ºF, whiskey at -55º’s and Kerosene at -65º’s – that was the best way to gauge the temperature. 

    After three days, they found several miners willing to sell their claims – they had made their money and releasing the gold from its rocky grasp was becoming more and more difficult.  Kate took her prospector friends out to evaluate different diggings.  The best one was the furthest away, sixteen miles, very isolated – ten miles on a horse over horrific terrain of hills covered with birch, cottonwood, spruce, pine, prickly rose and soapberry – and then a six-mile scramble through rough ravines with deep streams and peat moss bogs.  They were eleven miles north of Solomon’s Dome.  The two partners who owned the claim were worn out.  They had mined $22,000 in gold, and wanted to head back home to their families in Georgia.  After rigorous negotiations, the site was sold for $2,500 –– including all their equipment: shaker boxes, a 200-foot sluice, a whipsaw, picks, shovels, chisels, caulking irons, and replacement handles for the digging implements.  They warned the three that the closest active mine was a mile and a half away, that they had been robbed once, and had frequently shot at bears and wolves.  Nevertheless, the three were anxious to start in the eighteen-hour daylight, and with Kate’s lead they cut and burned timber over the next level of permafrost and started to dig, just using the lean-to that was there for shelter.

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    Each day the three would work from sunup til sundown.  The hardest task was removing the overburden of permafrost.  Once they had gotten to the ore bearing quartz, the results were inconsistent – even using the sluice and rocker box.  Some days they pulled out $100, sometimes nothing.  Panning in the stream returned only a few flakes of dust.  They were discouraged to say the least.  Finally Will said, “We are spending more time getting timber and burning holes in the permafrost than we are in actually digging.  My idea is to hire some of the broke miners from town and let them do the tasks that don’t involve finding the gold traces.”  Kate and Jack agreed, and Jack went to Dawson to recruit laborers.  The journey was arduous; he fell twice in icy snowmelt streams. Like most of the low lying areas of Alaska, there were pools and ponds of standing water, bogs, swamps and spiky underbrush. He rented a horse at the Jangles outpost for the ten-mile ride into town.  In all, the journey to Dawson took an sixteen hours; Jack was faint when he finally arrived.

    The four men that Jack brought back were good workers, To get them to come out this far he had to promise that they would be employed through October 1st.   He had offered $20 a day and a $200 bonus if they stayed the entire time.  Everyone fought and complained about the mosquitoes – which were ferocious even with protective nets over their faces.  There were millions, especially at dusk and dawn, arriving from the bogs.  Kate threw a blanket in the air to wipe out a thousand or so, but before the blanket hit the ground, a similar number filled the void.

    The four hired hands build a rough cabin for the three and then a rougher structure for themselves.  Day after day they cut dead pine and stacked it over the permafrost, clearing the burnt ash the next morning.  Everyone had soot embedded in their skin – including Kate – that would not release no matter how hard they scrubbed.  She laughed, and told the other two that they could get work in a minstrel show if the mine didn’t turn out.

    The work went faster now, but a good week only yielded about $700.  The three were downhearted; the bears kept coming into camp,( especially one big grizzly), even though their food had been hoisted up in the birch trees.  One hand quit the first part of September – said he had continual stomach pains – probably from the watercress and deer meat that constituted their main diet.  He was the worst of the workers, so it wasn’t a big loss.  At this point, they all were filthy, their bodies were covered with lice, chiggers and fleas, and they stunk to high heavens.  The three all slept together at night under fur pelts – their body heat keeping them warm.

    Then fortune struck on September 20th.  Jack was digging in an area just uncovered on the edge of their claim.  At first he thought what he saw was iron pyrite – fool’s gold – it was so bright, but it was real gold – imbedded in the large rich quartz running through the granite.  He covered the find and then got Kate and Will together just before sundown and showed them the  streaks.

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    The next morning, they told the remaining miners that they were done; paid their wages, including bonus, and sent them away.  As soon as they were out of sight, the three rushed for the find, each digging as rapidly as possible, the vein widening as they burrowed.  The nuggets kept accumulating until there was pile a three inches high.  Over the next two weeks, they harvested 2875 ounces of gold – almost $46,000 at current prices.  Then the glory hole ran dry and even though they worked around it in all directions, only a few traces were found.  By this time the first blizzard had blown through leaving a foot of snow.

    Two days after that, Kate said, “Boys, its now the 5th of October and I don’t relish being frozen in for the winter.  I’d say its time to get the blazes out of here, take our gold, deposit it in the bank in Dawson, and head down stream.  The freeze usually comes in sometime after the 20th.  We can always come back next season, although it looks like our find may have been just a stray pocket.  I can carry 50 pounds if the two of you can pack out 70 apiece.  We won’t need to take anything other than our weapons.  Might take an extra half-day to get to town but we can make it to Jangles by tonight for sure – just dress real warm in case we get caught out.”

    “You all know when you get a funny feeling, like someone is watching you.  I’ve had that feeling for a couple of days now.  Looked around but couldn’t find any tracks,”  said Kate.  “I’m sure we’ve left Mugs for good,” said Will.  “Let’s get out of here at daybreak and look forward to that first drink at the Emery Saloon.”

    They slept soundly that night, but Jack kept his rifle in his bedroll.  The next morning the three started off with light hearts and feeling rich.  When they were about a mile and a half from the mine, crossing an ice-covered creek on a log bridge a shot rang out –– then another.  Kate was knocked off her feet down through the ice and into the stream.  Jack and Will jumped in after her.  Fortunately there was an overhanging bank and they huddled under it, knee deep in the milky glacial water, the logs above them.  Kate had taken a bullet through her pack – no other damage.  “What do you think?” asked Jack.  Just then a voice yelled down.  “All we want is what you are carrying in your packs.  Just leave them on the logs and we’ll let you go.  Your life isn’t worth a few ounces of gold.”  Will hollered back, “You have us at a disadvantage sir, give us a few moments to decide.”  “Make it quick, you are surrounded, there is no chance of getting away.”

    Below them the stream steepened and the water rushed faster below the ice, but the depth was roughly the same – knee high.  “Here is what I propose,” Jack whispered.  The two of you starting firing. Just shoot in their general direction and empty your magazines.  That will draw their fire, and I’ll start shooting – I’m by far the best shot. As soon as I start to fire, the two of you get down on your bellies and slide down the ice – it will hold if you spread out.  After sixty yards you’ll be out of sight, but able to climb up the bank, even with your rifles and packs. I fell in here once before when I went to get our help.  If I see you have made it I’ll do the same.  We’re not surrounded, it’s too steep down this next cut, they are just on the upper side.”  “No,” Kate said, “We’re in this together, I want to fight em.”

    “That won’t work, we’ll all be dead and the gold long gone.  Whoever is out there will never let us leave alive.  In thirty seconds I’ll start yelling – get ready to go.”  Will yelled out, “Here is our decision.  If you want the gold we are carrying, then ‘By God’ you are going to have to come and get it.  I doubt that any of you have enough grit to charge us.”  And with that Kate and Will fired fifteen quick shots towards where they thought the original shots had come from.  Immediately the shots were returned and Jack thought he could see someone to his left.  He fired at a too-fat aspen and was rewarded with a yell as the chips flew.  Kate and Will had gotten down stream about fifty yards when someone spotted them and started to shoot, but by then they were out of sight. 

    Jack thought he was soon to be a dead man, but saving his friends somehow made it worthwhile.  He reloaded and began firing again. Then fate and luck intervened. Over to his right he could see a huge Grizzly with two cubs.  The cubs had separated from her, drifting behind the shooters.  Jack took careful aim and shot to wound the bear in the shoulder.  With a woof, she bit at her shoulder and started charging for her cubs, right though the men above Jack.  They yelled and started to shoot.  Exposed, Jack now had clear shots.  He hit one man in the shoulder and another in the leg. Another had climbed a tree.  The fourth was running right towards him, firing as he came.  Jack hadn’t ever killed anyone, and took the most precise shot he could, through the man’s shoulder, then started downstream. Kate and Will helped him up.  “Let’s move right now – parallel the trail for a half mile and then get back on – keep moving so our feet don’t freeze, our body heat will help.”  He related what he thought were the injuries he had brought about.  When we cut back to the trail, I’ll hang back and just make sure they aren’t following us.

    It was an hour after sundown that they finally rode into Dawson.  There were very few people on the muddy streets.  At the Emery Saloon, they found out that there had been a huge strike in Nome, and it was much easier mining especially along the seashore.  Tens of Thousands had headed down river.  “Well, Kate said, “Maybe that’s what we’ll do.”  “No you won’t the barkeep said, “The river froze over five days ago.  “What! this early; we’ll have to get some dogs and sled down.”  “No dogs or sleds to be had.  Course it’s only about 1500 hundred miles if you got a hankering to walk.”

     “Is the bank in the same place,” asked Will, anxious to get their gold in a safe place.  “Nope, shut down.  The assayer took off for Nome and the banker headed south just before the ice came in.  No one left in town that had money anyway.  I’m sure they will have a branch in Nome, you just have to figure out how to get there.” The three spent the next day drinking and talking about their circumstances.  There really was no safe place to stash their gold, and the story of the men who tried to rob them would fuel others with the same intent.  Kate saw a man with his arm in a sling that she was sure was one of the hired hands.

    As evening approached, Kate said, “I’ve got it.  We’ll skate down the river.”  Jack and Will looked at her with astonishment.  “Are you crazy, said Will.  “Not a bit,” she said. “I think we can strap skates to our boots and make 50 miles a day, dragging a small shed with our gold.  If we skate every day we should be there in about a month and a half.  There are trading posts all along the river, the furthest apart is 90 miles.  It’s a hell of a lot better than being murdered here.”  “I won’t go, “said Jack.  We’ll get et by wolves or fall through the ice, or killed by the Indians.  Will said, “If its too tough, we’ll stay over at a trading post.  The only people left here are thieves, alcoholics and the crazy – we won’t last a week.  I say let’s go, the elevation here is only 1050 feet, so it’s almost level all the way to the ocean.”

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    No I don’t want to,” Jack again said.  “What is really the matter?” asked Kate.  “I can’t skate, that’s what’s the matter,” said Jack.  “Now I definitely want us to go, we need someone slower that Will and I to feed the bears.”  Jack wasn’t laughing, but Kate said she would teach him to skate.  She also said she had found a bicycle with two skis on the front that he could try.  “Okay he said, doubting even more he would ever see the Red River again.

    They found a small sled the next day, temperature outside, -30º degrees.  Before sunrise the following morning they left town very quietly.  One old miner said to watch out for hot springs in the river.  The ice there would be very thin.  Down the Yukon they went, averaging maybe eight miles an hour.  They stopped after about an thirty minutes to adjust their skates and to fortify themselves with some brandy.  “Look over there, something’s on the ice just off the other bank – it looks like a dead bear.”  Kate started over, before Will could stop her.  When she got close, the “bear’s ugly face” rose up and then pointed a rifle.  It was their old nemesis, Mugs, covered in a bear skin.  “I’ll kill her right now unless you start down stream without the sled.  I’ll release her just as soon as you are around the next bend. Shoulda been able to kill all of you four days ago by your claim.  But I’ve got you now.”  Kate said, “Don’t do it boys, we’ve worked too hard.  He’s bluffing.”  Mugs took a shot right between her legs that ricocheted off the ice.  “I’ve got nothing to lose – I’ve killed men, women and children for less,” then he shot again, this time the bullet whistled an inch from her fur parka.

    “Maybe you want to watch me start carving her up,” Mugs said, drawing out an eight-inch Bowie knife.  But then the self-made bad luck that Mugs had experience all his life came into play once again.  As he rushed towards Kate, the ice crumbled beneath his feet.  He had hit a warm spot in the river where there was only an inch of ice.  Plunging in with a yell, he bobbed back up trying to grab ahold on the ice edges.  Kate even got down and tried to reach him, spreading her arms and legs, but even with her lesser weight, the ice cracked.  Will and Jack got a rope from the sled and rushed over, still willing to help a fellow human being.  Mugs tried once to grab the rope, but then sunk down.  Waiting, the three watched as he floated underneath the clear ice, his eyes opened, pupils dilated, his life force faded away.

    Nothing was said and they started down the Yukon again.  They made Forty-Mile by five, but decided not to go on because their feet  were bruised and bloodied.  The next morning they were on the ice at 6:00 AM, trading off every hour on the bike.  They stuffed Alaskan spagnum moss in their skates to pad their sores.  Eagle was next – only seven hours from Forty-mile.  They were now having to rest every half hour, usually one of the skaters would hang on the bike.  The weather was bitter –– windy and teeth-chattering cold.

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    At Eagle they were so tired they just fell into bed missing dinner.  For the next two days they gave it all they had, but skated less each day, skating for four hours the last day, They stopped at log cabins or small outposts along the way.  Finally they got a quarter of the way to Circle City, but decided they were finished.  They couldn’t continue unless they all had bikes and even that was sketchy.  Twice one of them had gone through the ice.  And sometimes the snow had piled up until they had to break trail through the drifts to get to the ice.  It was doom and gloom as they sat in the back of a snow covered old cabin at a small outpost – Brown Bear Crossing – only indians around.  The thought of staying here until May or June when the ice went off depressed all three.  They constantly scratched from the bugs that roamed on their bodies; their feet blistered and raw everywhere.  “We can’t stay here,” Kate said.

    Then the devil’s own luck showed up again. A middle-aged Indian named Cheytan of the Hänkutchin tribe came to bring them supper.  He wanted to know where the three were going.  “Nome,” Jack said.  But skating has ruined our feet, we can barely walk.”  “How much you pay go to Nome?” asked the Indian.  “How much would you require?” asked Will.  “I take all three for $900.”  They talked about it for a few minutes.  “What about $900 and then a $100 dollar bonus once we get to Nome.  But how do we know you can get us there?”  “I go last winter with miners who trapped by blizzard.  I know way down river and have two good dog sled teams.  My son Payuk will drive other sled.  When get to Kaltag we leave river and take trail 200 miles to Nome.  We do about 100 miles a day  – need half money right now.”

    “Other thing – you stink, and have ticks, lice, flea’s, and other vermin on your bodies.  Give me clothes to burn, then shave bodies.  I prepare a sweat lodge for you to clean yourselves.  Then rub you with pine gum and tobacco. You itch no more.  Give you clean clothes and bedding.”

     And so they went – in ten days they were at Kaltag and then another four days over the trail to Nome.  They got there on November 21st in a blinding blizzard.  Kate was thirsty for a drink and they went to Wyatt Earp’s Dexter Saloon and Gambling hall.  The bar was upscale and filled with raucous characters, all whom had something to squawk about.  Quickly they found that the best claims were along a 35-mile stretch of beach.  Over the millennia the rivers had washed the gold down from the mountains and ground it into fine dust, mingled with the sand.  Miner’s shoveled the sand into a rocker box and collected the dust that fell to the bottom.  The best locations were just above the low tide water mark, but then hard to identify next day as the foot and a half high tide came and went.  Since it was difficult to identify the actual spot where digging had taken place there were more claim jumpers than claim holders.  Fights broke out daily; one company tried to get a court order showing they owned all the property above the beaches and therefore the beaches belonged to them.  There was no law or order in the town and the strongest prevailed.

    Will hired Cheytan and Payuk to build a cabin for all of them a mile and a half from town and paid the two Indians to guard their belongings.  The beach was not frozen like permafrost, and they started digging twenty miles outside town.  It was slow going and they noticed that anyone who hit pay dirt had to be very quiet or a group would come immediately to take the find by force.  By Christmas they had only mined about $1700 in dust – the good spots were all gone and no one could guarantee that the spot they had picked on the beach would remain in their own hands. 

    On Christmas day, Kate said she had a surprise.  “I’m pregnant,” she said.  Will just nodded and smiled sheepishly.  “What”, said Jack.  “I mean with all the flees and lice, and dirt, and soot and smells – and we were all under the same blankets.  I can’t believe it.  I guess this might be the end of our partnership, Will.  Remember I said she’d come between us, but I didn’t realize it would be in this way.”

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    “What do you say to heading south until we hit open water at Homer, then sail down to Seattle where we can split up our holdings,” said Will.  And so they did – a Journey of another 1000 miles.  The two faithful Indians took them across the ice to St. Michael, then to Emmonak where the Yukon finally empties into the Barents Sea.  “Couldn’t we cut across here and go straight to Anchorage?”  “Yes, but no survive,” said Cheytan.  “Several giant mountains, like Denali, block our path.”  So it was on to Dillingham then Naknek, where they caught a small boat to Homer after paying Cheytan and Payuk another $1000.  Then south to Seattle, each with $14,000 in gold – lice and tick free.  By the time they arrived it was almost a year to the day the three had started “rushing” for the Yukon Gold.

     Joseph Ollivier

    September 2016

    Talesuntold.net

    EPILOGUE

    Kate and Will married in Seattle and eventually made their way to Macon, Georgia where they bought a 700-acre spread and started raising horses, cattle, hay, and kids – six eventually – first boy named Jack.  In 1926 they took a steamboat up the Yukon as far as Whitehorse.  They stopped in Dawson and drove out to their original claim, now owned by a mining conglomerate.  It had been dredged down to 110 feet.

    Jack decided he still had gold fever and left Seattle in September, bound for the Kalgoorie Gold field in Western Australia.  He sent a letter back a year later saying his luck was poor and he was going to try his whiskey-makin’ skills.  They never heard from him again, and didn’t know if he got their letters.  In 1938, Will was at a gun show in Augusta when he saw a beautiful 30-06 rifle with a six-sided Damascus Barrel – and a well used stock.  As he looked closely he could see carving on the wood, Jack R. Wayman – 1898 – Yukon Bound.

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