“Whatcha mean thisa claim ain’a my claim?” Bad Luck Salvatore was beside himself with rage as he sat in the makeshift courtroom in the alcove of the Ivory Cradle Saloon in Talkeetna. He’d been working the chilly waters of Cache Creek north of town for most of the spring of 1903 and now that it looked like some tinhorn was going to jump his claim without so much as getting his legal feet wet. Bad Luck was ready to chew nails.

“Your Honor,” the attorney for the Stockton Mining Company, a loosely connected conglomerate of rich Seattle stockbrokers and Alaskan scalawags, smoothed his greased mustache to his face as he waved his hand delicately in the air. “Your Honor, I will show, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the claim in question, to which Mr. Salvatore lays claim, is, indeed, that of the Stockton Mining Company. As you can see, your Honor, from the papers I lay here before you, the failure of the defendant to properly fill out and file the necessary documentation two years ago, and failing again to rectify this shortcoming at the end of 365 days, clearly left the claim open to re-staking which my company did. Your Honor, this is clearly a case in which the negligence of Mr. Salvatore simply caught up with him. The fact of the matter is that Mr. Salvatore is currently mining on Stockton Company property.”

The Stockton Mining Company had been in Talkeetna for just over six months, carefully examining the paperwork on all the claims filed, choosing the richest ones and moving in on them with legal writs and high-priced lawyers. It was easy pickings. Most of the miners didn’t hanker too much for paperwork and preferred to believe that all men were honest. After all, they were honest. But Alaska was changing. Just as the fences had spelled the end of the cowboy, in Alaska, the end of the frontier was coming with writs and lawyers.

“I see.” The circuit judge beat two days of saddle dust out of his pants and mumbled to himself as he pulled the mining certificate up to his nose as if he was going to smell the ink. The only sound in the courtroom was the rustling of paper as the judge stared at the deed with a myopic stare. “An’ this here’s where you say Bad Luck, I mean Mr. Salvatore, didn’t fill out the paperwork properly?”

“That’s right, your Honor,” the Attorney said as he pointed to line on the claim filing. “Here, here and,” he flipped the sheet over, “Here. As you can see, Your Honor, the proper lines are not filled in.”

The courtroom was packed. Everyone who lived or worked within a three days ride or two hours crawl of Talkeetna was in the Ivory Cradle. Some sourdoughs had come representing miners’ councils from as far away as Fiddler’s Bend and Hog Flats. Others were local, hoping to learn how to protect their claims from Bad Luck’s case. Everyone had a stake in what going to happen in this court.

So they all came, flooding into Talkeetna. Some were drinking but most were mesmerized by the trial and its implications. Claim jumpers were universally detested, especially the legal kind who stole a claim with the scratch of a pen. In one afternoon a lawyer could steal ten years of a man’s work — no miner was safe. They also came to see the tricks of the Stockton Mining Company. Those in the know predicted that right after the trial there would be a mad stampede to the claims office with miners checking and double-checking their own claims.

Feelings had been running hot all week and the focus of the ugly crowds was the trial set for this hot Tuesday. The threats of violence were so intense that the Marshal had taken the wise precaution of removing all firearms from the belts of those walking the streets of Talkeetna. (Shortly thereafter all talk of a necktie party for the Stockton Company and its scalawags dissipated like a plume of yellow-brown dust on the Noonan Trail that rose at noon on a wild oats Saturday in July right after the gold exchange closed.) Too many sourdoughs believed in the law and these bush codgers unwillingly surrendered to the inevitable progress of mankind.

“I see. Well, Mr. Salvatore, what do you have to say ‘bout that?” The Judge set the papers on his desk with a great show of utter helplessness.

“Well, Harry, er, Your Honor, I’ma just a working man. I, uh, do the work anda I takea the gold outa the ground. Now you’re a tellin’ me that it ain’a my gold. Now what’sa wrong witha my paper? I fill it out justa like all the others, see?”

The wizened miner pulled a sheaf of papers out of a leather handbag and put them on the desk in front of the judge. “Chu a tellin’ me thata alla these claims, theya filled outa wrong?”

There was a collective gasp in the crowd. The Stockton Company had been stealing one claim after another; the less they knew about anyone’s claim the better. This was particularly true of Bad Luck Salvatore’s which were renown for their good color. Bringing his claims out into the open was like the lamb inviting the wolf to dinner.

The attorney for the Mining Company, feeling the heat of the crowd on his neck, benevolently examined the papers one at a time, giving the appearance of professional interest.

“No. Unlike the claim in question on Cache Creek, Mr. Salvatore, it appears that all of these documents are filled out correctly. Wouldn’t you agree, your Honor?”

The Judge nodded his head in tired agreement as he put down the pile of papers he had just examined one by one.

“That’sa good,” swore Bad Luck Salvatore. “I dinna wanna pay no lawyer to examine each ofa my claims to makea sure they wasa legal. Nowa I know for sure and ina open court. I’ve beena workin’ a dry hole alla summer just waitin’ for you to move in on me so’s we coulda go to court. Now you can hav’a dat claim on Cache Creek if you want it ‘caus’a it ain’ worth’a plug nickel.”

This is a story from Steven Levi’s Alaska Gold Rush Tales: DERELICTS, SCOUNDRELS, BUMMERS AND DOVES



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