This is a repost of a story previously submitted under the name of drksideofthemoon.
While this story is fictional, the facts surrounding this story are true. On August 16th, 1896 gold was discovered at Bonanza Creek by three men, George Carmacks, Skookum Jim, and Tagish Charlie. Most of the world was oblivious to the gold strike until the steamship Excelsior docked in San Francisco on July 15th, 1897. On board were miners and a half million dollars in gold. Three days later a crowd of five thousand greeted the arrival of sixty-eight miners on the steamship Portland in Seattle. Also on board was a million dollars in gold from the Klondike. The rush was on. It is said that over one hundred thousand stampeders headed for the gold fields and only thirty thousand completed the journey.
Cheechako was a Chinook word to describe newcomers. In the Klondike it was used to describe a person who hadn't spent a full winter in the Yukon.
I had journeyed north from Seattle to the Klondike as soon as I heard the whisperings of gold being discovered. I arrived in Dyea in January of eighteen-hundred and ninety-eight. All of my fellow passengers had the same dream. Pull that damned bitch called Gold from the ground, fill my pockets with her and return a rich man.
She had held me in her grip, she was like a sickness. I was like a drunk following her siren's song. I had sold everything I had and left my life behind. I had been told that miners were being met at the Canadian border and weren't being allowed to cross unless they had a years worth of supplies. I was glad that I had purchased most everything that I would need in Seattle and paid the cost of having it transported on the ship that brought me north. Merchants in Dyea and Skagway were charging ten times and more what the goods had sold for in Seattle.
There were men in Skagway that would transport goods up over the White Pass by horse and pack mule. I lacked the necessary funds, so like most; I hauled my supplies up over the Chilkoot Trail. Fifty-three trips I made up and down that stairway to Hell. A solid string of men, and yes, even some women snaked their way up that grueling trail. I heard stories of men falling and taking hours to get back in the line. No one wanted to stop and let someone in the line for fear of stopping and not having the energy to start again. It was mind-numbing and back-breaking, one step after another, and each step was up. There was no respite, no flat areas to catch one's breath. Just one more step, moving ever higher up the side of the mountain with the weight of the pack tearing at my shoulders.
I paid what little money I had left to a brawling, boozing woman, Two-Gun Tessie to stand guard over my stash at the top of the trail. She guarded my goods, and the goods of many other would be gold miners with an eagle eye and a shotgun in her hand and a pistol on her hip. Tess had a lusty laugh and bawdy sense of humor. From what I saw of her, she could out-drink, out-fight, and out-shoot most of the men in the Klondike. I lost track of her once we set sail on Lake Bennett. I never did know what became of her.
I lost count of the number of days I climbed that murderous trail. I spent both night and day following the back of the man directly in front of me until the top of the trail was breeched. How I cursed that bitch named Gold with every step I took. I screamed in agony for my release from her. I had sworn no oath, nor had I signed any pledge, but still, she held me like none other. She came to me in my dreams, making promises I knew she would not keep. I swore each time before I reached the top, that once back at the bottom I would find passage back south and leave that cursed land behind. Each time, when I got to the bottom I would be back in the grip of gold-lust, and I would load my pack once again and make my way back up that chain of human misery.
There would be no rest for the seekers of Satan's Horde. The supplies still had to be hauled overland to Lake Bennett. Two thousand pounds of goods to be moved from the summit of the Chilkoot to the shores of Lake Bennett, and a detachment of the Northwest Mounted Police at the border to ensure each man had the required ton of supplies.
There were a stern looking lot, those men with their scarlet tunics and Stetson hats. There were thousands of men like myself and scarcely a dozen of them. Straight as an arrow they were. Stern, but fair, money could not sway them from their duty sworn.
I saw one yegg draw down on one them one day. The constable was going to confiscate the sixteen barrels of cheap, watered-down-hooch the man had hauled up from the coast. I never had seen a man so cool, and so calm while staring death in the eye. He pointed to his uniform and said to the whiskey trader, "Don't you see? I am a Queen's man. You may put me down, of that there is no doubt as you have the draw on me, but the men like me will be on your trail. They will come in twos and threes. There will be no trail too harsh for them to travel, and no place too remote for you to hide. So, if you do not want to spend the rest of your days looking back over your shoulder, listening for their avenging cries, I suggest you holster you piece and let me get on with my work."
Well, you could have heard a pin drop that day up there on top. The man looked like a beaten cur. He turned around and took his load of devil's brew back down to the saloons of Skagway.
They treated me fair and checked over my goods. With a smile and a nod they let me through.
Lake Bennett was froze up solid by the time I had arrived. I parded up with a grizzled old miner who had been on the trail for gold for most of his life. "Stick with me, chum," he said. "An' I'll show ya the ropes." And thus started my association with Swede Knudsen.
We spent our days cutting logs and hauling to our stash on the shore of that lake. By nights we would sit by the fire and talk like men do when alone and so far from home. Some man had hauled up a piano on the back of a horse. It sat cockeyed on the shore, and he would stretch out his talon-like fingers and begin to play. Tess would get half-liquored up and begin to sing. I would lay on my bedroll, and look at the stars, and drift away in the words of her songs.
Our raft was as sturdy a craft as there was on the shores of that frozen lake. We had found a clear spot on the bank and had our camp set up there. It seemed that near every tree had been cut down to build rafts and to fuel the fires at night. As far as the eye could see, there were all manners of barges and rafts ready to make the five hundred mile trip to Dawson.
I thought the spring thaw would never come. The days turned to weeks, and the weeks turned slowly into months. There were all manner of people gathered in that spot. Some were hard working and honest. Others were shiftless and cunning, they were willing and ready to take advantage of some unsuspecting miner. Confidence men and card sharks roamed the shores looking for easy pickings. The men in red sent more than one of these ne'er-do-wells packing back across the border with a stern warning to never return.
At nights the tales were told, and some by men who professed to have known Tagish Charlie, Skookum Jim and George Carmacks. They told of stories of men moving rocks in the creeks of the Klondike and finding gold as thick as cheese on a sandwich. Their eyes would glaze over as they told the tales, and I have to admit, that I was as caught up in their tales as the next man. Some pretended to have secret maps or knowledge of places that lay untouched. And maybe, just maybe, for the right amount of coin, they could be persuaded to share in their secrets.
We had heard the sounds of the ice creaking and groaning for several days. Swede's face lit up and he smiled at me. "It won't be long now, lad, the ice, she's ready to go."
On the morning of May 29th, a roar arose from the banks of the lake. People were running, yelling and pointing. The ice had left! The lake was clear! We hastily packed the remaining goods on our raft and set out. It has been said that seven-thousand rafts and barges set out on that morning. I will not argue that estimate as the lake seemed near covered with home-built craft of every size and manner.
The weather was warmer now and as we made our way through Windy Arm and Tagish Lake the signs of spring were apparent. The journey up river was fraught with peril. More than one poorly built craft broke up going through the rapids to the south of Lake Labarge.
I soon learned to curse the warmer weather, for with it came the mosquito, that wicked little vampiric creature with its incessant buzzing. My arms and face were covered with the bites. I had bites upon my bites. We tried all manner of remedies to stop the itching; none were entirely successful I wondered if I would make it to the gold fields with any blood left in my veins.
The sun barely set at that time of the year in those northern climes. By the time we arrived in Dawson, the snow and ice were but a memory. Dawson City was a booming city, and some say the largest city north of San Francisco. Tents had sprung up like mushrooms after the rain. The streets were mucky ribbons of mud. A few wooden sidewalks had been built by owners of the more prestigious and permanent establishments.
Swede and I spent little time in Dawson, the lure of that yellow metal held us in her grip. We set out to the creeks to stake our claims and make our fortune. A steady stream of fortune seekers poured forth from Dawson, each eager to mine the treasure from the ground and streams. Gold, it was the fuel that drove the engine of excess called Dawson in the summer of eighteen-hundred and ninety-eight.
Men fresh from the creeks would toss a nugget the size of man's thumb to a dancehall girl for nothing more than a quick cuddle and a kiss. Bad whiskey was five dollars for a watered down shot and a can of oysters would cost a man close to a month's wages from what he made back in the south.
Swede had studied the maps of the area before we set out to seek our fortune. He had spotted a creek on the map on the wall of the claims office that everyone else had bypassed. He tapped the stub end of his pipe on the thin, squiggly line on the map and winked at me. "That's where we're heading off to."
We purchased a map and we set out to make our fortune. Somehow Swede had managed to get into a card game in one of the many gambling dens in Dawson and had ended up winning a bit of gold and four burros. We figured that it would take us two or three trips to haul all of our gear and provisions with the mules. That was a far sight better than the dozen or more trips we thought it would take with just the two of us.
Once we arrived, it was easy to see why this creek had been bypassed. The first half mile of the trail that led to the creek was a steep climb of over thirty degrees. It took maximum effort on the part of man and beast to traverse the steep incline. By the end of the week we had hauled all of our belongings to where we had staked our claims.
Swede's hunch had paid off. There was gold in the creek. My hands began to shake the first time I saw that glittering dust in the bottom of my gold pan. It was gold, real gold, and it was mine. At that moment all of the sacrifices I had made were forgotten. I had struck gold! I was going to be rich! Rich beyond my wildest dreams!
The days were still long and I spent from the early arctic dawn until the late night sunset gleaning the dust and nuggets from the creek. I didn't need sleep. What man needs sleep where there are riches to be plucked from the ground?
When I did sleep, I would hide my poke of gold. Each night I would place it in a new place. I was almost afraid to sleep at night for fear that I might forget where I had placed my loot. There were nights that I would get up and move it for fear that someone may have seen where I hid my rawhide sacks of gold.
Swede had moved about mile upstream and was planning on building a small sluice and shaker to pull even more gold from the waters of that hitherto unknown creek. I hate to admit this, but, I was even suspicious of Swede. I was sure that he wanted what I had mined from the gravel of the creek. I began to sleep with my pistol in my hand under my blankets.
The days turned into weeks. As my horde grew, I found my paranoia slowly ebbing away. I found myself trusting Swede once again. Summer was going to be over soon, especially this far north.
"You need to take some time and build yourself a cabin. Winter, she be comin', and it will be here sooner than you think." Swede pointed to where the creek had once run, and had hollowed out part of the bank. "I'd dig back in there a ways, and then build a log wall in the front. That would do for the winter."
"What about you?" I asked, and with a bit of suspicion in the back of my mind.
"I already got my place finished," he answered. "I'm about ready for winter. When the leaves start dropping, we need to take a week off and head into town for supplies for the winter. We won't want to be trying to get into town after the snow comes."
I had to admit that his advice was sage. He knew what he was talking about when it came to living in the woods. So far there was no evidence that he had ever tried to steer me wrong, and I could find no reason to doubt him now.
I divided my days up. I would spend the morning with pick and shovel digging into the bank. The afternoons and evenings I would spend in the creek, shoveling load after load of gravel and muck into my pan. I would kneel there carefully trying to separate the gold from the dirt. After each pan was finished I carefully placed each nugget and grain of dust into my pouch.
At night, by the yellowy light of my kerosene lantern, I would line up my pouches of wealth and mentally calculate how much money I had. It was more than I had seen in my entire life. But, it wasn't enough, especially knowing that there was more of it just outside of my door, waiting to be panned from the creek. When I had ten thousand, I wanted fifteen. At twenty thousand, I wanted twenty-five. Now I was near thirty thousand, and it wasn't enough. There were occasional brief moments of lucidity where I recognized my madness for gold, but they never lasted long enough to make any sort of change.
Swede helped me cut the logs for the front of my cabin. Once it was done, I was quite pleased with my new home. I had noticed the some of the leaves on the trees beginning to change color, and the days were noticeably shorter than when we had first arrived.
One frosty morning, Swede appeared at sun-up with the burros in tow. "It's time we went to Dawson to pick up our winter supplies."
I was nervous at leaving our claim unguarded. "Do you think it's wise that both of us go? Don't you think one of us should stick around?"
He shook his grizzled head. "Nah. We ain't seen hide nor hair of another soul since we been here."
He filled his pipe with tobacco and lit it and puffed on it for a bit. "Don't go taking all of you gold to town with you. We don't want anyone to know how much we found up here. Just take a pouch or two, enough for supplies and maybe a night out on the town. Hide the rest here." He paused for moment and I think he saw the distrust in my eyes. "I buried mine under my stove."
I felt ashamed that I had mistrusted him. With his help, I found a spot in my cabin where I placed most of my gold. Once satisfied that it hidden from all but the most ambitious of thieves, we headed into Dawson.
Dawson was a beehive of activity. Odd how a man forgets what civilization is like when he is out in the wilds for an extended period of time. Our first stop was to purchase our supplies. I had to hand it to Swede, he knew what we needed, and was a shrewd bargainer. We paid the store owner and received a receipt for what we had purchased.
We dropped our burros off at the livery stable. The proprietor was a fellow countryman of Swede's, so they got on like long lost relatives. Swede made arrangements for the liveryman's son to accompany us back to the creeks so he could bring the burros back to town for the winter.
Swede looked at me and announced. "I need a bath. It's been a good six months, and I think it's about time."
They charged by the hour at the bath house, and it was worth every penny we paid to sit in the big copper tubs and soak up the hot water. I had forgotten what it was like to feel clean. I felt like a new man after I had my hair cut and beard trimmed. We strutted down the wooden boardwalks of the boomtown feeling like a million dollars in our new clothes.
We ate a large steak dinner with all of the trimmings. I had lived on biscuits, beans and tinned beef for so long I had almost forgotten what real food tasted like. From there we hit the saloons and drank whiskey like it was water. From one saloon to the next, it was the same wherever we went.
Smoke filled whiskey dens filled with fellow miners, just in from the creeks. There were women willing to give them thirty minutes of love for some coin or dust. Like the sirens song of yore, the sound of the piano beckoned to all that passed.
Games of chance, a few were on the level, but most were fixed in one way or another. It was free drinks for the gamblers, well, that is until their pokes dried up, and then it was the bum's rush out onto the street with them. Nothing stopped in Dawson, the town ran non-stop, fueled by the vice called gold.
We went on a three day drunk that only stopped when our gold finally ran out. I woke up feeling haggard and worn. My stomach felt like it was on fire, and my head pounded with an ache that I had never known the likes of before.
Bleary eyed, we stumbled to the livery stable and collected our burros and picked up the supplies we had purchased. The fresh air helped clear my head as headed back out to the creek.
"You see why I told ya to leave most of your gold at the cabin," Swede commented after we had been on the trail for a couple of hours. "If we would have taken it all." He pointed back towards Dawson. "We would still be there, and we wouldn't have left until we had drunk it all up, or worse."
I nodded my head in agreement. That thought had constantly run through my head since I had sobered up. I had spent more money in three days in Dawson than I had probably made in most of my life. I had a hard time believing that I had squandered that much hard earned gold in that short a period of time. After that day, I never distrusted Swede again.
When we got near to my cabin, we could see that my door had been pushed in. I panicked and began to run. 'My gold, my gold.' It was the only thought that raced through my head. Someone had come while we were gone and stolen my precious, golden stash. A blood rage burned through my body, I would track down whoever had stolen my loot and I would make them pay. Everything seemed tinged with red when I ran through the doorway. What little hope I had was dashed when I entered the cabin. All of my meager possessions were strewn about. My knees felt week, my stomach churned. All that work, all that gold—gone.
I heard Swede laughing outside. That only angered me more. How could this so-called friend of mine be laughing at a time like this? I turned on my heels and went out to confront him.
He was pointing to the ground when I came outside and saying something in Swedish to the Liveryman's son.
"What the blazes is so damned funny?" I demanded.
"Bear," said Swede as he looked up at me. "Your burglar was a bear. Look at the tracks."
I raced back into my cabin and found my hiding spot. A wave of relief poured over me when I felt the familiar gold laden pouches that I had hidden away. All that ended up missing from the cabin was a pot of beans. I found the pot later in the day, a hundred yards from the cabin, empty and licked clean.