Alaska Gold Rush Tales: Billy the Loon
Billy the Loon
It is a myth to believe that there are solid lines in real life. The term itself is designed for children who are not old enough to think for themselves. When you tell a child “No” there is no discussion of “Why not?” It is just “No.” When the child asks “Why Not?” the child is now a little person and all lines of demarcation are gone.
Another example is the word “now.” When is “now?” It shifts from moment to moment. In actuality the present does not exist. It is simply the razor’s edge of the past slicing into the future. The problems of the so-called future are simply the maturing of mistakes of the past. This binds the past and the future into a single entity and “now” has nothing whatsoever to do with time.
There is also no definitive line between drunk and sober, rich and wealthy, healthy and sickly or sane or insane. Only when the cases become extreme are they recognizable as stand-alone labels. Anyone can distinguish between a sober man and a stumbling drunk, a family living up-town and one on Park Avenue or a miner and a bookkeeper. But when it comes to the sane and insane there are unexpected twists. Only when the matter becomes extreme is it recognizable. Worse, the so-called line of demarcation between the two becomes fuzzy if the individual in question is rich. When the wits of the poor run astray they are quickly identified for what they are and sent to the loony bin. If they are rich they are coddled by their family. But until they prove to be a danger of the community there is no recourse but to put up with their antics because — and particularly in Hootlani — there were a lot of strange people walking the plank sidewalks and who was to say which ones were sane and which were not?
Billy the Loon was not crazy; he was eccentric. He was eccentric because he had money. He may have been made as a March hare but he was not stupid. He came with the first visit of the Bella Ann with hammers, saws and plenty of nails. He could see the future and it was carpentry. Everyone with money was going to want quality wood work so he opened a carpentry shop. He started in a tent-cabin and trained a half-dozen street urchins to do the work. The urchins performed magnificently. That was because Billy overpaid them for what they did, trained them to do the work he didn’t want to do and let them sleep in the tent-cabin at night. He built a full-fledge cabin by winter with a rugged bunkhouse in the back, the best living the urchins had ever had. He also fed them and for most of them that was the first time that the word “regular” had any meaning. By the next spring, the urchins were running the business.
Billy then moved into the lumber industry. He used family money to buy massive saws and a power plant and then set about to make his nut. He went across the Caribou River where the City of Hootlani had not yet claimed any acreage and staked 160 acres as his homestead. He built a small sawmill with an attic room as his cabin and had his brother in Portland file the land paperwork. When the City of Hootlani extended its boundaries to include the sawmill, Billy the Loon claimed he was grandfathered in. When the City said that didn’t matter, Billy the Loon said he’d take the case to court and no one on the City Council wanted any representative of the law or court to come to Hootlani. So they let him be.
Billy the Loon bought out Dave the Demon when he left town and ran the outhouse concession. He also started a small blacksmith shop that sharpened knives and axes, straightened shovels and pans, and repaired the metal braces for the dogsleds. His square nails went for 75% of their weight in gold which effectively killed the importation of the same in every other community on the Noonan Trail. He brewed beer, hired Native women to repair shirts and trousers and bought furs from Native men. With the exception of the Natives he was totally urchin-powered.
But Billy the Loon was a loon and thus his name. He wore women’s clothing year round, from the lace-up shoes to a dress and blouse. He had long hair which he braided and he shaved regularly. He doused himself with eau de toilette and put rouge on his cheeks. He did not frequent the brothel nor did he dally with his workforce which left many a man in Hootlani to wonder what fantasies he was living. But then again, he was Billy the Loon, the loon part being named for the bird of the same name which had a distinctive call that sounded like the laughter of a crazy man. The term loony probably came from the French word for moon because it was the full moon that supposedly made men crazy. The piercing cry of the loon was similar enough to that of a crazy man and this may have been the origin of the bird’s name.
Insanity, like political corruption, is a progressive disease. It starts as a bead off normal and then life tips the level further. Unless it is re-oriented, the affliction goes from idiosyncrasy to affliction and thereafter to plague in quick order. Personal cash and powerful friends accelerate the process and if allowed to grow too pernicious it can only be stopped by implosion.
Billy the Loon’s implosion came with an explosion. On a hot-by-Hootlani-standards afternoon Billy the Loon rolled a half-filed barrel of whiskey onto and down the plank sidewalk toward the two, side-by-side taverns. No one gave much thought to Billy the Loon’s action as barrels of whiskey being rolled down the plank sidewalks were not unusual in a community which maintained its economy buying, selling and smuggling liquor. The rolling cask did attract the attention of Robert the Dude when it came to his front door and the man asked Billy the Loon what he was going to do with the barrel as he, Robert the Dude, bought by the full barrel, not half-empty ones. Billy the Loon stated that the whiskey therein was not potable, a very strange statement to make considering the caliber of whiskey being sold to less sophisticated clientele. Why the barrel had been rolled to the front door of Robert the Dude’s establishment was never made clear.
Robert the Dude was totally unprepared for what happened next.
Billy the Loon kicked out the bung and stepped back to light a cigar. The cigar, cheap, sputtered and popped and then became lighted. Billy the Loon took a mighty drag on the tobacco tube and while the end was glowing red-hot, he stuck the cigar next to the open bung hole. Instantaneously there was a massive explosion. The barrel blew apart sending broken staves and burning liquid in all directions. Robert the Dude was drenched and burned at the same time and he had to roll about on the ground to extinguish the flames on his clothes. His tavern could not do the same. Neither could the tavern/brothel next to his or the one across the street. In an instant the sidewalk front of Hootlani was ablaze with splattered, burning whiskey.
Hootlani was fortunate that the summer had been a wet one. The building timbers were moist which greatly slowed the spread of the fire. The sound of the explosion brought everyone in town out onto the plank sidewalk and men soon fell to tamping out the splattered flames with their shirtsleeves and jackets. Within 15 minutes the only indications that there had been a fire were scorch marks on the façade of the taverns and the smoldering of Robert the Dude’s beard.
Oddly, Billy the Loon was both untouched by the blaze and unmoved by his actions. After the explosion he had walked back to his cabin and was changing dresses when members of the City Council arrived with blood in their collective eye. Billy the Loon was surprised at their arrival and gave every indication that he had absolutely no idea why they were in his cabin and said that if they were going to arrive at the cotillion on time they had better hurry and change to their dress clothes. Three members of the City Council did not know what a cotillion. Two had come armed to shoot the dirty dog where he was and Jakob Lefkowitz — who stated he had a relative with a similar affliction — asked Billy the Loon if he knew what he had done. Billy the Loon gave the City Council a questioning stare to show he did not know what they were talking about and started talking about how the telegraph wire could read their thoughts before they even knew what they were going to think about. At that point it was clear to all concerned that Billy the Loon was mad as a bedbug. He had been odd, eccentric, batty and deranged before but now he was a full-blown lunatic and clearly a danger to everyone in town.
This presented the City Council of Hootlani with a triplet of very serious problems. First, Billy the Loon could not stay in town. A message was sent to his family in Portland advising them of his condition. Leaping forward in time just to leap back which is possible since this is a story, the family would not have him back. He had burned every bridge he had with the family and the reason he was in Hootlani was because it was the best place to send a rich man in his condition: as far from the family hearth as possible. He had gone and he was not going to be allowed return. The family wanted nothing whatsoever to do with Bill or his businesses, profitable or not, — and the letter had been sent by the family lawyer so that settled any question of follow-up correspondence.
Which led to the second problem. Even if there was a place to send Billy the Loon there was the question of what would happen to his property in and around Hootlani. His enterprises were turning a profit. But he couldn’t run them from where he was going and it was against the grain of every member of the City Council to abandon a paying proposition. So who owned the businesses that Billy the Loon could not run?
Thirdly, and most dangerous, there was no loony-bin in Hootlani much less Alaska. So there was no place to send him. He could not stay in Hootlani. He could not return to Portland. He could not be packed off down the Noonan Trail in either direction, Alonso Shepherd, Captain of the Bella Ann would not take him aboard as a passenger and shooting him outright was called murder.
With no other option left, the City Council did the one thing it had sworn never to do: contact the United States Marshal and ask that William Reynolds of Hootlani be escorted out of Alaska to a sanitarium in the lower states.
Thus it came to pass that on the last inbound voyage of the Bella Ann, the United States Marshal from Juneau came to Hootlani. He held a perfunctory hearing into the mental state of one William Reynolds and took testimony from a collection of individuals who would rather have swallowed a porcupine backwards then speak to an officer of the law. He seized all properties of William Reynolds in the name of the United States government and set a hearing for their disposal in May of the next year. He ordered every member of the City Council of Hootlani to be in Juneau for that hearing because they, collectively, would be responsible for disposing of the property of William Reynolds. To the pleasure of the City Council the United States Marshal hinted that it was likely that the property would be turned over the City of Hootlani for disposition. That was a lot of money to go into the City of Hootlani treasury.
That was the carrot.
Then came the boot.
The United States Marshal gave every member of the City Council a subpoena to be present at the same hearing to answer charges that they, collectively, were allowing the sale of illegal substances — alcohol and opium — within the limits of a city over which they had jurisdiction and, individually, because they were owners of establishments that were doing the actual selling of those illegal substances. Then the United States Marshal took Billy the Loon aboard the Bella Ann. As the steamship was pulling out Billy the Loon waved at his friends. The United States Marshal, waving at the City Council bunched together at the end of the dock, yelled “See you in May!”
— 30 —
[This story is from Steven Levi’s Alaska Gold Rush short stories “BEST BOOTS I EVER ATE”
available on Kindle.]