There are strange things done in the midnight sun
       By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
       That would make your blood run cold; . . .

                     From The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert W. Service

Gold Fever - A Tale of Yukon Madness

The door slammed open with a bang against the wall as a man came into the tiny cabin and stood by the door for a moment. He was huge, with wild eyes peering out from between a greasy mane and a vast red beard that spread wide across his belly.  He caught the door with his heel and kicked it shut behind him, then dropped the load of wood he carried by the stove.  Outside, the wind roared across the frozen river at the foot of the hill, picking up snow from the drifts and blowing it in a ground blizzard that rattled like birdshot against the log walls.  The stovepipe moaned as the wind blew across the top, and inside the cabin the stove glowed red with its efforts to fight back the cold.  It created a small island of warmth in a back corner, but the rest of the room was frigid.  But it was only ten below now along the Yukon River, and winter was having its last, hard gasp. 

“We got ‘er made, don’t we Fred?”  the man said as he turned away from the stove and shed his bearskin coat.  “Winter’s near about over.”  A pot bubbled on the stove, and the scent of stew filled the room.  He glanced at a man in a chilly corner by the front door, where frost whiskers grew on the logs.

“Mighty quiet, ain’t ya?  Not much to say no more, seems like.  Well, it don’t matter,  I expect.  We said it all, didn’t we?”  He ladled a steaming load of stew onto a tin plate and walked to a rough-made, split-log table, where he sat on an upended chunk of log and began to eat.

He went on, speaking around a mouthful of stew. “It was a hard season, workin’ up blisters buildin’ this place and then shovelin’ mud and sand into the sluice box and runnin’ her, then standin’ up to our nuts in the freezin’ water, pannin’ out the last of the dust from the pockets under the rocks.  But she was a good’un, this claim.  Rich men now, ain’t we?”  He stopped and took a big slurp of the stew.  What spilled into his beard stayed there, as it apparently had for a long time.

“Hard winter, though, godawful hard.  Told you in October we should leave ‘fore it got too cold, but no, no; you said we could hang around another couple weeks, really clean ‘er up.  Early blizzard, and here we are still.  Some fool I am! Teach me to listen to you, by God!  Wintered in – a cheechako trick, for sure!”  He snorted in disdain at Fred’s foolishness.

He stood up from the table and walked over to the stove.  Hand wrapped in a rag, he grabbed the handle on the door and twisted it open with a squeak, to reveal the inferno inside.  Another chunk of dry fir went in, throwing sparks up the stovepipe.  They died quickly in the night wind.

“Gonna run outa stove wood pretty soon.  And food.  I’m gonna wind up walking outa here, down the river to Fairbanks before she breaks up.  But I’ll get there a rich man, yes, by God, I will.  Then I’m gonna go out to Seattle and buy a box of cigars and a case of whiskey and a hoor and use ‘em all up before I even come up fer air and head fer home.  You just ain’t my kinda company, Fred.  But I expect you know that now, don’t ya?”

He walked over and gave Fred a poke in the stomach with a dirty finger.  Fred swung back and forth from a rafter by his ankles, an arm hanging free, his stiff-frozen fingertips touching the stamped-earth floor.

“Lost some weight, huh?  Hardly anything left of ya, a mere shadow of yer former self, you are.  Winter like this’ll really take it out of ya, won’t she?  Goddam you, Fred, yer too quiet.  A man could go cabin crazy here, no more company than you are.  Might as well be alone.”

“But I’d never of got through it without you, Fred, nossir, couldn’ta done it.  Havin’ you around’s been mighty good for me.  Nobody would of thought that neither, what with the way you used to bad-mouth me to my face and all.”

“Gotta go back out for a minute, Fred.  Don’t you go nowhere now; hear?”

At the end of the porch he pissed onto a tall cone of yellow ice, then buttoned up his thick, wool pants.  He turned to the wind and let the snow blow in his face while he looked up at the aurora.  Out on the river the ice groaned deeply, and in the distance a wolf howled his challenge to the wild.

“Yessir,” he said to the frozen world, “like the fella said, this is great country for a man, but it’s purely hell on women and horses.”  He went back inside, where he shook his head and slapped it once, as though to knock a thought free.  Then he ran his food-greasy fingers through his hair. He stared at Fred for a moment with a gaze as empty as the tundra.

“Fred, I coulda stood the way you talked to me and all, but I ain’t crazy, not by a damn sight, no matter what you say.”  Fred got another poke in the stomach as the man walked away, back to the table to finish supper.

“Nossir.  You think I couldn’t see you was fixin’ to take all that gold fer yerself?  Use it up on women and whiskey without me?  Plottin’ and plannin’ and stayin’ up by the stove til’ way late?  And the way you kept looking at me whilst you thought I was asleep . . . fit to give a man the fantods.  Oh, yeah, Fred.  I knew what was goin’ on in yer head.   Plain as the nose on yer face – well,  ‘scuse me, Fred,” he said with a chortle, “plain as the nose that was on yer face.”

“Ya had to go to sleep sometime, and ya done it.  Right there on that stool by the stove, dead to the world you was.”  His manic cackle filled the room.  “That was a good’un, wasn’t it Fred; ‘dead to the world.’  Hee, hee,  hee.”  He slapped his knee in glee and pirouetted, one hand over his head, in a dance strangely graceful for one so large.

“You’re about used up now, though, Fred, so I’m fixin’ to be on my way come the dawn; goin’ right down the river to Fairbanks, I am.  Then, after Seattle, I’m goin’ home.  Build me a big, fancy place, get me some servants and one o’ them motorcars I seen once and live high.  I got plans, so I do.  I’ll die a rich man; just you wait and see.  But I got to get some sleep now.  G’night, Fred.”

And with that he went over to his pile of blankets and furs on the floor, wrapped  himself in a bearskin, and fell sound asleep.

“Gotta pack up for a couple days of walkin’,” he said to the world in the morning as he added to the golden cone at the end of the porch.  He looked up at a clear, blue sky.  The pale sun, still low on the southern horizon, made the frost crystals on the evergreens sparkle like God’s own Christmas ornaments.  The wind had died overnight, and it had warmed up.  Now, for the first time in months, the temperature stood above zero. 

“Hey, Fred!” he yelled over his shoulder.  "A right fair day for it - too bad you can’t come along.  Yer gonna have to stay here, but I’ll cut ya down from there when I leave.  Let you lay on the floor with the door open so’s you’ll have some fresh air.  Mighty odiferous in there it is now; it’s been a long winter.  Place can stand some airin’ out.”  He came back inside, buttoning most of the buttons on his pants as he walked.

“I bet we got fifteen pounds o’ gold here, Fred, and I thank ya kindly for yer share.”  He carefully packed half a dozen leather pouches into the bottom of a canvas knapsack.  “Yessiree, bob.  I’m a rich man for sure.”

“I’m afraid yer gonna have to help me out again, Fred,” he said as he took a an axe covered with frozen blood from the corner and walked over to the corpse.  “But I’m sure you won’t mind giving me a hand one more time.  Hee, hee, hee!  Ain’t that a killer, though, ‘give me a hand’?”   A stroke of the axe hacked the remaining frozen arm off at the shoulder, followed by a lower leg.  They went into the knapsack atop the sacks of gold.  Another stroke cut the rope suspending Fred, and what remained of the carved-up torso dropped to the floor with a hard thud.  Then the axe went into the sack as well. 

He laced snowshoes on over his mukluks, donned his coat, set his fur hat atop his tangled mop of hair, and then shrugged the knapsack onto this shoulders.  After one last glance around the cabin he set off across the drifts to the river.  The door stood open; he never looked back.

“Bear sign,” he said out loud when he came across the trail pushed through the snow.  “Lookit the size of them paws - a big old griz just out of his den, from the look of it.  He’ll be hungry after layin’ up for the winter, bigger’n hell.”  He reached back over his shoulder, grabbed the axe handle and pulled it out of the sack.  “Big, hungry ole bear, and me with no gun!  God damn Fred for throwin’ all them bullets in the river.  Bet he thought he was bein’ smart.  Hee, hee, hee - got him anyway.”

Turning away from the bear’s path, he continued on toward the river.  “Better get out in the open – don’t wanta come up on that critter in the woods.”

He stumbled down the bank to the river and slogged out to the center before turning downstream towards Fairbanks.  A glance back over his shoulder after a while showed him a black spot on the riverbank where he had come down. 

“Awww, hell and be damned,” he said, “he’s got my scent.”  He broke into a slow trot, ungainly in his snowshoes.  Made awkward by the axe in his hand, he reached back over his shoulder and dropped it into the knapsack once more.  The bear was closer, moving along the shoreline at a lope; he could see now that it was brown.  And big.

“Got to get where he can’t smell me.”  He angled crosswind, toward the far bank, hoping he could break the scent trail carried on the feeble breeze, and that the bear’s weak eyesight would lose him against the backdrop of the forest.  He ran, and he became drenched with the sweat of exertion and fear.  The bear still followed, beginning his own crossing of the river in giant bounds, a nightmare of claws and teeth and hunger.  He was a winter bear, crusted in ice from the snow his body melted as he slept.  The water froze on his fur as he stood, then broke as he moved.  The ice rattled loud with each leap.  The sound emphasized his growing nearness.

“Hungry.  He’s hungry.  Feed him, make him stop,” he gasped.  Fred’s arm and leg became bait, tossed out into the snow, where they sank into a drift.  Already frozen, they left little smell on the breeze compared to the scent of fresh, hot flesh that was strong in the bear’s nose.  It came on, relentless, huge, terrifying.  It was so close now he could hear it panting like a locomotive, and as he looked over his shoulder he could see the fog of its hot breath on the air. 

Utter panic, running, fumbling for the axe, when SNAP!  With a sound like a breaking window, the ice shattered under him, saving him from a savage death.  Trapped in his bearskin coat and knapsack straps and pulled down by the weight of the gold and the axe, he sank to the bottom - where he died a rich man. 

Copyright Gold Fever, Kent Lundgren, 2008

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