We came across the water when the moon was just starting to rise above the fiord’s frozen flank, a light mist falling on the bay, like the tears of the seraphim. There were the three of us, Frank, Jason Williams, the card hustler, and me. The Klondike Gold Rush was yet a trickle. The tide was up. Where there was a gravel beach on the inlet, we pulled the canoe ashore, the rocks rattling beneath our feet, dragging our vessel a good hundred feet inward to where there was a small, sandy meadow. Frank and I camped there many a night before, sleeping scores of nights under the silent stars. Not infrequently, the Northern Lights floated above us, wavering as if they were green bunting at some Christmas festival. Panning for the precious powder, we grew hungry. We decided to take the next day off and head for Juneau. Frank and I reckoned we were about twenty-some miles from the boom town, where Joe Juneau had struck pay dirt not one year prior, and others seeking the precious metal had not yet panned it out.
Frank gathered rocks to make a small fire pit, while Jason and I gathered dead wood. When we had gathered enough, Frank put a slight light to a piece of wood he had carved to accommodate the flame from a kitchen match. In time, the sticks and logs took; we dried in warmness to the comfort of the fire, while Jason pulled out some elk jerky and a bottle, no less precious despite its poor provenance.
After panning the creek, that had no name, for six solid weeks, our sacks of gold dust half full, we decided we needed a break, even if it was only for a day. I soon hit it off in with Frank Pierce when the two of us found ourselves together searching above the crags of Telluride for ore that glittered. But we were entirely too late. The good stakes had already been claimed. We were two sailors on a storm-tossed sea. Then there was word of the strike in Alaska. Having no better recourse, Frank and I pooled our resources and became partners and headed north.
The canoe that bore us that morning to Juneau, we bought from an old-timer, well stove in by penury, just trying to raise the funds to return to the lower Forty-Eight. The town perched in a half-broken bowl, circumscribed on one side by glaciers with dozens of rocky spires, and on the other by the ocean. Damp as an abandoned bride’s kerchief, Juneau forever seemed slipping into the grip of the briny deep, its clapboard houses and buildings coated in fading enamel, much like a coat of paint on a ship’s hull. But faded as it was, much as an aging whore’s make-up, that morning it shone as clear as the surrounding glaciers that carved the mountains. In the dry forbearance of spring, the citizens of the small berg were out shopping, playing, or tending to tasks they’d put off to drier times. Bald eagles skated through the air for unattended freshly caught fish, while gulls glided farther out over the bay.
Finding a secure spot for our canoe, we headed for O’Brien’s for a bit of belated breakfast. Only after we filled our bellies with omelets, bacon, we found old Ed Suskind’s for a bath, a shave, and a haircut. Before stopping we wasted most of the early afternoon purchasing supplies. Having done we intended to drinking it, measured our pay dirt on a chemist’s set of scales. Maggie acted as something of a banker, taking the ore in payment and paying out the rest, and I had more faith in getting a fair deal from here than from some of the banks in town.
Cashing in what we had, Frank and I sat in on a poker game that was already in progress. Four were sitting at the table, one man looking gussied up in a proper man’s suit. Frank sat in the empty seat to his left, while I propped myself in the one to his right. The more we played, the more we lost to Jason Williams, one engaged in our own chosen endeavor. When Frank had a full house, Williams threw down four aces. When Frank produced a flush later in the game, Williams had one too: a royal flush. His play was uncanny. I winked at Frank and he winked back. However Williams was cheating us, he was slick: never a wasted or suspicious motion. There was nothing we could prove. But we were no less certain. The others at the table were losing just as badly to him. The barber had restored Frank’s boyish face, and he looked as innocent as an altar boy. Frank and I were getting to the end of the profit of our diggings. “Say, would you be interested in coming in as a partner on our dig? We need someone. We’ve got a pretty good play. We’d go equal shares.”
“I’ve always been something of a loner.”
“You could teach us to play poker like you.” I quaffed another shot of whisky.
“What are you implying?” he replied, his clear, boyish face grew red.
“Forget I said anything.”
“There’s just the two of us.” It took a great deal more persuasion to convince Williams to throw in with us.
“But with the three of us, we’d make short work extracting the gold dust,” said Frank. When Jason looked away, Frank winked at me.
So that night, in the boreal twilight that kept the skies bright until nine or ten in the Alaskan panhandle, we found ourselves paddling back to our digs with a twilight sky. In this twilight, the land around us alive and quivering. We made the campsite by nine.
Squatting around the fire pit with flames spurting from the dead wood, we lured Williams to the sense of security that was almost maternal. Frank keeping the merry banter asked him where he hailed from.
“Where you been before you came here.
“Here and there. I’ve been all over the west, making my time valuable to others.”
“Just what does that mean?” Frank asked him as he passed him a half-finished bottle of Jack Daniels. Younger than either Frank or me, Jason’s features were coarse, but he adorned his face with a finely honed handlebar mustache. But his blue eyes were shifty, never looking you directly in the eye. I had known too many men like Williams in the past. When the sun sank beneath the horizon, it cooled down quickly. Putting on our mukluks and fur coats, Frank, who was closest to him in size, loaned him one of his. “You never answered my question.”
“No, I guess I didn’t. I did a little of everything. I busted horses in New Mexico, I herded cattle in Wyoming, I dug for gold in Colorado…”
“Ain’t that a coincidence: so did Jim and I! Ever make much from it?”
“Naw, not much. Then I got by on my cards. I’m a good card player.”
“Yeah, a little bit of luck can go a long ways in these parts,” said I.
“That’s why I decided to buddy up with you guys. I was hoping my luck will change.”
“Don’t worry. It will.”
The fire roared, sparks flying up into the heavens, undiminished by the drizzle. Frank got up to get another log for the fire. Walking up with a large piece of wood, Frank walked behind Williams, and with all the strength he could muster, he brought the maze-like piece down on William’s skull. In the stillness of the night, the report of it striking the poor boy’s head was like a ripe melon bursting. Death for Jason came instantly. Securing his wallet, Frank and I quickly found the funds he cheated us out of.
“Best bury him near the fringe of Aspen trees.” Frank nodded. We carried him to a copse of Aspen trees, digging out a proper burial site. We covered his body with rocks to keep any of the forest’s feral denizens from being Frank went back for the shovels, while I scraped out a proper burial site.
“We best be leaving in the morning,” Frank said.
“I say we go north, towards Skagway.”
“Do you really think he was cheating us?”
“You found a hell of a time to bring it up. It don’t matter none now.”
By Joseph Dylan