Alaska Gold Rush Tales: George “Stumpy” Sinclair
George “Stumpy” Sinclair
Co-Owner, The Blind Husky
“I call him Danny. Everyone else calls him Daniels. Or Colored. I don’t give a jolly red
rip if he’s black. Or Negro. Or whatever the else they call those people down south. I’m not from down south and none of my people fought in the Civil War. I’m from San Francisco and the only people I care about are people with money. Cash. No credit here at The Blind Husky. Gold. No script. Cash.
Like everyone else in Ophir, I’m here for the gold. As long as there’s gold here, I’m here. When the gold runs out, I’ll be gone. Actually, that’s not true. I’m here as long as the Bering Sea is ice-free. I come with the first steamer in, about June first, and I’m gone with on the last steamer of the season, about September 15. Danny spends the winter here. Keeps a sharp eye on the inventory.
Winter is no time to be in Ophir for anyone, young or old. It gets 20 below and with the wind blasting over from Siberia, a lot colder than that. Danny goes through a lot of coal ’cause The Blind Husky doesn’t have walls the way we know them in San Francisco. Oh, we have wood walls, but they are not tight. It’s scavenged wood and there are all manner of gaps and holes. Next summer, if Ophir is still howling, we’ll have better walls and a real wood floor. Now, that will be a sign of the times! If Danny and I are going to buy wood rather than scavenge, we’ll be here for the long term. Then maybe I would be settling year-round in San Francisco for my old age.
I know my history. The last time I was in school I was in the third grade. I’m not as educated as the college boys but I’m not stupid. I read. I’m getting Danny to read too. He’s not stupid; clever yes, and is discovering being smart means reading. Danny’s got no choice. He’s 30 years younger than me. I’m saving money for cheap digs in San Francisco just in case Ophir dies. I’m not going to die rich, but I will not have to scrounge in the gutter for bean money. Danny’s got 30 more years to make his nut.
Like I said, I read my history. Ophir’s on the edge. It’s at the survive or go ghost junction. Towns up here in Alaska are going boom or ghost. Any place can boom. All it takes is a flash in someone’s pan and stampeders appear like insects after a storm. If the findings are good, cabins go up. Saloon comes next and then a general store. Then more cabins, then more saloons and general stores. It’s a force of nature: gold makes all things happen.
Ophir’s in boom time. Stampeders are still coming in, boomers are pushing land further out, timber industry has started up, there are six hard rock operations going full bore and town’s got five banks, three legitimate. Got three doctors, one a veterinarian and another a back person, whatever they call those kinds of docs. Too many ministers for a town what’s got no morals and a dozen soldiers with one lieutenant young enough to be my grandson.
Ophir looks like it might survive. The gold supply is steady. I know because The Blind Husky stays profitable. No change there. Winter is slow, ‘course, but steady. Like I said, Ophir might survive. We’ve got regular steamer traffic in ice-free months and Army folk are talking about at telegraph. That’s civilization! When the telegraph goes in, the town survives. Thrives. We’ve got a Post Office and the next thing we need to be truly civilized is a police force and a court we can trust.
Ophir needs two more things to survive, water and an honest court. Right now, the only fresh water is the Walrus River. But only upriver. And further upriver this year than last. The closer to Ophir it is, the more sewer it is. It’s getting worse because more and more stampeders are sluicing upstream. There’s plenty of fresh water in the mountains; it’s just a matter of getting it to the city. That’s the Ophir City Council’s job and the reason Danny and I pay taxes. Ophir will die without fresh water, drinking water.
And plank sidewalks. So far, all the saloon owners agree. That’s why no one is complaining about taxes. Except Sid McKenzie. He’s so tight he squeaks when he walks. He wants everyone else to pay his bills. Wants fresh water but doesn’t want to pay for it. I don’t blame him. The Blind Husky wants fresh water and doesn’t want to pay for it. But that’s not the way the world works. So far everyone is paying and the City Council is getting bids for the aqueduct. We’re just like Rome. The city wasn’t a civilization until the water came in, their aqueduct. The Roman aqueduct is still here and so is Rome, 2,000 years later. If Ophir survives
long enough to get the aqueduct built, it might last as long as Rome!
The last thing Ophir needs to survive is a court that can be trusted. I’m from San Francisco so I know what a crooked court is. San Francisco survived its crooked court ’cause the bad judges got weeded out. You could be a crooked judge in San Francisco but not that long. Newspapers got you. Lots of newspapers. The crooked judges knew they were on borrowed time when they took the job. They took what they could and left for Hawaii an hour before the lynch mob got to their courtroom.
Ophir’s got the chance to survive. We’ve got two newspapers, one of them labor and another anarchist. The labor one is solid, good reporting and great writing. Everyone who’s anyone reads the paper. We need to know what’s happening. The more writing there is, the less corruption there is — and being from San Francisco, I certainly know corruption when I see it.
His honor, Judge Xenophon Atchison is not a bad guy. He isn’t your usual john who stands you good when you are down or laughs if you get a hot foot, but he isn’t the sort who goes out of his way to be malicious. He’s a sober drunk, the kind of man who will drink all night and show no effect. He is friendly when potted and still waxes eloquent when called upon for an opinion. But he has the spine of a jellyfish.
Tonight, as usual, he ordered a bottle and then drank until someone else paid for it. That isn’t hard when you’re the only judge in town, a town with more than 50 lawyers. Every lawyer knows where the judge drinks and more than a few are willing to see if buying a bottle would be good for their case. I don’t know if it works because I never go to court. But the judge gets a lot of bottles and I have never saw him pay for one, at least not in The Blind Husky, so it must be successful, at least from his point of view.
Now I don’t know much about the law. No reason that I should. I know what a court is, of course, and I can usually steer clear of the edge of the law. Don’t know exactly where it is but I do know when I’m getting close to the lip of the abyss.
I like that word: abyss. It’s kind of like a place with no return. Maybe a cliff. One step over and you are gone. Forever.
Like selling liquor to Indians — Eskimos up here in Ophir. You can’t sell them booze. Period. It’s against the law. But it’s not against the law to give it without charge. Least ways I’ve never heard of a man going to court for it. Most of the boys who get arrested up here for selling liquor to the Indians are really selling it. That’s plumb illegal. But getting arrested for selling booze to the Eskimos shows you ain’ got brains. I mean, it’s not hard for an Eskimo to get liquor. Hell, they make their own. But they do get liquored up and then there is hell to pay. It’s not like they go off and scalp people, they don’t. They’re the gentlest people I’ve ever met — and considering what we whites do to them it’s a miracle they are still gentle. But liquor makes ’em crazy. They might strip naked and pass out in the snow. Or they might start a fight just for some excitement. Or they might sell all their food for booze. It’s not a pretty sight, a drunken Eskimo.
If there was anything you could say for certain in Ophir it would be that it is a city of lawyers. There are lawyers behind every whiskey bottle and under every rock — and they all specialize in something expensive. A goodly percentage of them were mining people, men who had spent their time in the field before going to law. These guys knew their metes and bounds. They understood quadrants, baselines and the apex theory along with a smattering of writs, rights and lex talonis. Those guys got snapped up by the big mining companies quickly. The rest of the lawyers scrambled for defense work. There isn’t a lot of that kind of work here but there are sure a lot of lawyers to do it. Every steamer comes in with more of ‘em.
Until Judge Atchison came north there wasn’t a real court here. I guess a lot of people don’t know what having a court meant. Danny didn’t. When he first got to Ophir there wasn’t a court. Wasn’t much law and order either. It was kind of like every man for himself. That didn’t work very long. Pretty soon the big boys were squeezing out the little boys and the little boys were forming groups to steal from the big boys and the big boys were, in turn, buying their own hired guns. You can see what I mean. If you weren’t big enough to fend for yourself, you got together with your neighbors to protect yourself from everyone who wasn’t in your group.
It was the gang system, just like I saw in San Francisco. Every block in San Francisco had its own toughs. Whether you did business in the railyards, uptown or downtown you were dealing with some gang and every gang wanted money. Point is, if you came to Ophir from any city in the lower states, it wasn’t all that different. There was no law and order, there was no cop on the beat, there was no court ‘cept when they wanted to arrest anyone for anything to show someone uptown that they were doing something about law and order. We called it the anything-for-someone pinch. It was just the luck of the draw who got hooked.
Running a saloon in San Francisco, even one the size of The Blind Husky, was a paying business. But it wasn’t someone else who was doin’ the payin’ to you. It was you doing the payin’. You had to pay the city for the license and then you had to pay the police to keep the license. Then you had to pay the Mics to keep them from burglarizing you and you had to pay the health inspector to get blind when he came through the door. That was just the start. There was the liquor dealer and his special prices. There was the stevedore union on the dock and the teamsters. There was the liquor dealers’ protection organization and the saloon owner’s guild and the restaurant association and the chamber of commerce. That was a lot of paying. A bit of that up here. Not as bad as San Francisco. But it’s coming. When the payin’ days come, God willing, I’ll under a patch of tulips.
Ophir may have been a boomtown with lots of folks moving around and about but when it came to the solid citizenry, we were a small lot. The people who were running the businesses tended to stay the same. We knew a lot of people in town, most of whom would be gone come September, but among those of us who stayed the winter, we are a small community. We don’t have a lot of secrets. That doesn’t sit well with lawyers because they make their money on people’s secrets. There are no secrets in Ophir.
But there were plenty of lawyers.
That’s always a problem because it does not take long for the lawyers to start suing each other to make a living. That’s the way money circulated. Harry sues George so he can pay Bill who owes Jeremy who borrowed from James who had lost big to George in a poker game. Round and round the money goes, everyone getting a taste but no one making a killing.
Except Judge Atchison.
He wanders from saloon to saloon all evening, making his rounds the way a police patrolman would cover a city. In and out of saloon after saloon he drinks his way from Back Street to the beach. Then he goes back to his room abutting his is courtroom, complete with a secretary, the Montana Filly, with a frame that would make stop a railroad in its tracks. She’s a high class, good-time girl, and one day she’ll buy a steamship ticket and disappear. She will have made her nut in Ophir or she’ll find a man who doesn’t ask too many questions.
Jane Williams, the Montana Filly, is all woman. She knows it. She sold it. She lived it. In the lower states, I guess you could call her a prostitute or a soiled dove. Up here she’s a good-time girl. ‘Course that don’t mean a lot in Ophir. It just means you are a single woman who knows what being a woman means. You could be a married woman too. It doesn’t matter much. I know quite a few women who aren’t sure if they were married or not, least of all to the men they marry, skin and then divorce. There aren’t a lot of legalities when it came to marriages here. The magistrate is just as willing to divorce as marry; it’s the same fee.
The Montana Filly came to Ophir with a steamer trunk of feathered boas and skimpy underwear. Trashy is how she described her outfits. Everything else she bought here. It might have been expensive, but she had no trouble rustling up the cash. It is not hard when you are a woman with few standards. Doesn’t pay to have standards; just common sense. With a face and body like she has, she didn’t need a lot of common sense either. She was tall for a woman, about six feet tall, had curves that would make a figurehead jealous and long legs which she displays frequently and always to her advantage. She wears just enough makeup to be alluring but never so much she looked like a painted doll. She would have been considered a beauty anywhere in America. In Ophir, she is a stunner. She is here to make money and that is exactly what she is doing. But she is more a tease than a prostitute, more a businesswoman than a floozy, and sharp as a tack when it came to taking advantage of every situation that comes her way. She is making so much money she had to keep it in a safe, next door, as a matter of fact, and the reason she is in The Blind Husky so frequently. She does not trust anyone, least of all the banks, and keeps a sharp eye on that back door of the Collins Corporation, the company of the six leprechauns.
One day she is going to take her money and disappear on a steamship. She is smart, like I said, and all smart people know when it is time to leave. And when you leave, you do not say goodbye. You just pack your money in a valise and walk onto a steamer and go. If no one knows you are going so no one can rob them on the way to the gangplank — and that’s been done many a time here in Ophir. So, you don’t say goodbye to Ophir on shore; you do it from Unalaska.
This evening, when the Montana Filly sashayed into The Blind Husky, she brought conversation to a halt. Even though she is a regular — as regular as anyone of her caliber and charm could be — she is still an eye opener. She is always all woman. Danny and I like the Montana Filly to be in The Blind Husky because when she comes, so did the men. In the end, she is an advantage to us. The men pay for the drinks, hers and theirs. She attracts men. She is welcome in The Blind Husky. She didn’t cost anything. She never drinks alone and never pays a bill — and keeps her eye on that back door of the Collins Corporation.
She did a slow meander around the room, what of it there was, and then sat next to Judge Atchison. Actually, for her, sat is a bad word. The Montana Filly never sat. Sat is what a man does. A man drops into a chair like a sack of corn on a barn floor and his weight drops downward. Erect, a heavy man’s belly is pulled taut by his muscles. When he sits, the muscles relax and the belly surges forward, straining his shirt and trouser waist. A thin man sits and his clothes show their fullness, billowing no matter how well they fit when he is erect. Even a perfectly proportioned man has a difficult time sitting. No matter how well a man is dressed, his clothes will bend, wrinkle and twist when he sits down. The most elegant jacket looks like a sack when a man is seated. As he turns and wiggles in a chair, wrinkles rise on folds and strains until even the best suit looks like a collection of canyons. The best men’s clothes are made to be seen only while the man in standing — and not moving.
Women’s clothing is skin tight and bends with the body. It does not bunch. It expands in the positive sense of the word and reveals as it stretches. The swell of the breasts, expanse of the hips and length of the legs are all suggested by the strain on the fabric. Women do not sit in the same sense as men. Women settle rather than plop. Like birds, they chose their roost and then lower themselves gracefully. They settle like seed puffs floating to earth. Once seated they keep themselves erect, regal. Shoulders back with breast thrust outward they survey the world which is, quite literally, theirs.
The Montana Filly settled next to the Judge and waited gracefully for Danny to bring her an empty glass. She examined it, giving a speck of dust a flick with the red nail of her right index finger. She gave him a nod of thanks — more than men usually do in The Blind Husky — and instantly broke into conversation with Atchison.
She knew how to butter toast.
Danny and I are not privy to conversations that go on in The Blind Husky. We don’t listen in the sense we carry on conversation with our patrons. We just serve drinks. Our purpose is to collect money. That’s it. What gets said in The Blind Husky is not our business. That does not mean we are deaf. It just means we don’t particularly care what is being said. Like I said, our purpose in life is to serve drinks and collect money. We like it that way and so does everyone who drinks here.
All was going well in the don’t-listen-to-other-people’s-business until Alexander Foxworthy came into The Blind Husky. This man was the incarnation of evil — and even an uneducated man such as myself knows what the word incarnation means. I learned the word, concept and reality of such men in San Francisco. They are an ill wind blowing no one good news.
Foxworthy even looks like Satan. He is just swarthy enough to be dark but not so dark you’d take him for a Negro or Italian. He’s a good six feet tall, perfectly proportioned and has every hair in place — which is quite a feat for Ophir where the wind is always blowing. He has a neatly trimmed, jet-black beard which does not do a good job of hiding a jagged scar starting on his right cheekbone and disappearing into the undergrowth. His eyes are black and always darting around as if he was expecting trouble from every quadrant of the compass — and, in his case, for good reason. His clothes are dark even though he is always dressed for the field. He wears a pistol which was mighty strange because no one in town packs iron. Even the United States Marshal does not walk the streets with a gun.
In the case of Foxworthy, I knew why he carries a gun.
He is a hated man.
He is the premier officer of the court and when he shows up at your mine, it means he is going to take your gold. All of it. Legally. Leaving you no choice but to go to court. Which is expensive because you must hire a lawyer which is not cheap. And the judge is a jellyfish. And it may take months for a hearing and what are you going to do to pay your bills for those months?
Foxworthy is part and parcel of this new law and order in Ophir. But there wasn’t any law with it and no order at all. It took everyone about two weeks to figure out what the scam was; but no one knows how to stop it — yet.
Here’s how the flimflam was working. When a case of claim jumping came up — and there were a lot of cases — the Judge would order all gold in the disputed claims seized. Both sides. All sides. Foxworthy would do the seizing. The gold was then transported to a bank for safe keeping. Since the ownership of the gold is in dispute, the Judge will hold the seized gold until the case was concluded.
But the cases never conclude. They just linger like an infectious disease.
And the gold keeps piling up in the bank’s vault.
And everybody is watching the Judge closely because everyone expected him to slip town onto an outgoing steamship with all of the gold he’s been storing in the bank’s vault.
Foxworthy is always on the move collecting more gold from more claims. He is not fool enough to ever come alone. He comes with a half-dozen men none of whom have broken a smile since Lincoln was President. They are all heavily armed and carry paper saying they are officers of the court. No one says ‘No’ to Foxworthy but word on the street is that the matter was coming to a head quickly.
It has to. Once the gold goes, that will be the end of law and order in Ophir.
The lawyers have formed a committee and sent a representative to the Federal Court in San Francisco to have Atchison removed. The lawyers went out on the first steamboat of the seasons. In June. But courts are notoriously slow. Would the lawyers from San Francisco be back in Ophir before the last steamboat left in September, the one everyone expected Atchison to use when he flees south with the gold he had legally seized for the court?
To the United States Federal court in San Francisco this was getting to be a very old story very fast. It was a lot easier to steal gold legally than mine for it so there is no shortage of scoundrels between Metlakatla to Barrow who are using the good name of the court to legally collect gold from miners and then abscond with the goods just before the ice freezes the Northland for the winter. The cases are piling up in San Francisco and it was a good bet they will not be settled before the ice closes in for the winter. It would be a good bet but, in Ophir, there was no such thing as a good bet — unless you are with the one dealing the cards.
But then you are not gambling; the suckers are.
When it comes to what is normal in the District of Alaska, God is undoubtedly shaking his head in despair and muttering “For this I made Adam and Eve?” For Ophir, He does not even bother to work in mysterious ways. He doesn’t work at all. Even the devil would have trouble keeping up with the schemes, scams, shams and every manner of fraud under the sun, moon and stars. Saints and scoundrels sit side-by-side in the saloons, eateries and campfires. Alexander Foxworthy sits in the same saloons as the men whose gold he was impounding. He has the law, such as it was, on his side. The miners have common sense on theirs. They sit and drink with him because they have to keep an eye on him at all times. There was no doubt in their mind that he was going to flee with the gold. It was only a matter of time. What is going to happen when he goes rabbit is anyone’s guess.
Foxworthy came through the door of The Blind Husky at the head of a long line of men. Armed men. Immediately behind him were his men, bodyguards, all armed, and trailing them, a passel of claimers. They were armed too. It was odd seeing openly-armed men in town. Sure, if you were saloon in San Francisco slumming you carried a weapon, maybe, but in Ophir, most of the time a gun was something you had but didn’t carry around. You might have it in your pocket or waistband if it was a hog leg, but not visible. All these men had visible firearms. With hands on pistol butts. These men were telling each other they were armed and ready to use those weapons.
For those of us who were not miners or mine owners, this was not good news. A bullet does not have a mind of its own. It goes in a straight line and hits what it hits. Bullets also have a tendency to come in groups and fly every which way. Having a passel of armed men in The Blind Husky was not pleasant.
But they were all paying for their drinks.
I never tell a customer not to pay for their drinks.
Atchison sat at a table in the center of the noon, drinking and oblivious to the men seated around him — both groups, facing each other with blood in their eyes. Atchison’s eyes were focused on the half-filled bottle on what was called a table in our saloon.
Then The Blind Husky filled to the walls. The tide was up and it was time to drink. The beach crowd — that’s what Danny and I call them — came in with the tide. It was a mix of humanity you could find no other place else on the planet: Negroes, Laplanders, Germans, Georgians, pinch-faced blue bloods, corn-fed Iowa boys and an occasional woman. Most were soaked from their belt loops to the soles of their boots and were looking for a medicinal swig rather than a binge. Bingers came later. The beach crowd was here to wet their whistle and warm up for the night.
They came in as a wave and inundated The Blind Husky. I liked this crowd. It was gold from the diggings and they were paying by the shot. That’s where the best percentage is. Sales by the bottles are fine but the real money is the shot. $.25 a shot, three times what it was going for in Seattle. But no one was complaining. Bottles went for $5 but that was for bottom rung liquor. The better you wanted, the more you had to pay. It didn’t matter to me what you wanted as long as you could pay for it. The Blind Husky was not, as I always say, ‘an eleemosynary establishment.’ I have said it so often even the patrons mimicked me. Eleemosynary is just a fancy name for a charity — and the ‘an’ in front of was my way of saying I had just as good an education as the college boys. ‘We’re not an eleemosynary establishment’ I’d say when someone asked for a drink on credit.
Ophir may be a boomtown, but it is still a small town. Our first summer in Ophir we were considered opportunists. But after Danny had spent the first winter in Ophir, we were considered bonafide residents. After all, we had a business and had stayed the winter. That accounted for quite a bit in Ophir. Danny and I actually knew people who had been there the summer before — and that’s saying a lot in boomtown. It’s not as if we were friends or even acquaintances. We recognized each other on the street and often exchanged information on what was happening uptown and out of town. Gossip is a bad term to use. A woman’s term. Gossip is about what someone was doing that was just so, so, so out of place or putting on airs. The conversations Danny and I had were more about what was happening with the mines, price of goods or the war in Cuba. Subjects like that.
There are no secrets in a small town.
You cannot keep a secret in a small town.
But there are many levels of secret. There are some things that everyone knows and then, of course, there are facts that are only known within certain circles. Mining chitchat stays within the mining community because that’s where the babble is most valuable. Claim line disputes may even be in the newspaper but the only people who are hot under the collar are those who have the same problem. Mining chitchat does not affect them so it is uninteresting and not worthy of discussing or passing on. Then there are matters which take place in lawyers’ offices which do not leak out often and legal decisions being appealed on grounds that are so convoluted even lawyers do not understand what is being said. There is always spillover and over time you pick up tidbits like pieces of a puzzle. Sometimes a complete picture appears but most of the time it is just many loose pieces of many puzzles.
While there are many breeds of secrets, the one place they are all discussed is in the saloons of Ophir. Everyone goes to the saloons and everyone talks with everyone else, in sequence and sometimes in anger. I do not listen, but I do hear.
I was giving two Laplanders the boot when I saw Ole Johnson come down the boardwalk. His name isn’t really Ole but that’s what everyone calls him. He comes across as a stupid Norwegian and no one is sure whether he is stupid or crazy like a fox. He tells a lot of Ole and Lena jokes, the reason everyone calls him Ole, and does things that make him appear stupid. On more than one occasion I’ve seen him mix water from the fire bucket with his whiskey. No one else does that. The biggest complain I get is that I put water in the whiskey to begin with. Actually, The Blind Husky doesn’t do that. We want people coming back so we give them a solid shot for their money. When you water drinks you lose customers. We want our customers coming back.
We also keep the fire water buckets filled. A lot of other saloons depend on sand. I guess they figure that if they have a fire a bucket of sand will do just as well as water. I’m betting they think that if there is a fire they are going to lose everything so even putting fire water buckets on the walls is an expense. But if that’s what the city council requires they will do it. After all, the fire buckets with sand or water are cheaper than the fine. We put water in our buckets because if there is a fire we want to keep the liquor wet. The building we can replace but liquor comes from a long way away. That’s why we keep it below ground level. If the building goes the liquor will be just fine.
Ole is always a joy to see because you are never sure what’s going to happen next. He is a devious little man who looks like a gremlin. He walks with kind of a hop-and-skip and wears clothes that have never seen a washtub and boots held together with nails. Carpenter’s nails, not cobblers’. His beard is a stringy gray-black and hangs to his belt — a rope — and is packed with grease and what could have been food. He smells like a campfire, which is not uncommon in Ophir, but it’s sweeter, like pine boughs. Most of the campfire smell from the beach crowd come from driftwood, packing cases and dried horse manure.
Ole gave me kind of a half-salute as I was chasing off the Laplanders. They smelled like the caribou they were bringing to Ophir. They did not speak English, wore clothing that had to be from Lapland — wherever the hell that was — had boots covered with manure and smelled like a privy. They did not want to pay for their drinks, so they were gone, out the door. I told them to go find an eleemosynary establishment. They didn’t know what that was but, then again, they didn’t speak English so it didn’t matter.
Back inside I saw that Ole had settled himself between Judge Atchison and the Montana Filly. This I found surprising — which is quite a feat considering what I have seen in Ophir. I have to say that I am surprised when I see anyone in the mining business talking with the Judge outside of court. It’s not as if the two parties are like oil and water; they are like sheen of oil on top of the water with the oil on fire.
In spite of the fact that I do not listen to conversations, this one was going to be an exception. I knew because the Judge called Danny over as soon as I came back through the double doors. I do not like it when this happens. I do not like to drink with my customers and I do not like to chat with them. Danny feels the same way. When you chat, you get asked for an opinion and every opinion — and any opinion — is bad for business. Even the time of day.
Atchison slide a glass toward Danny and indicated the bottle on the table, a bottle he had not paid for, let me add. (Someone else had; it wasn’t a free bottle. Not in The Blind Husky. We’re not an eleemosynary establishment.) Danny and I do not disappoint someone who has paid for a drink. Danny poured a modest slug into the glass and gave a here’s-to-you and swallowed it.
This did not look good. I waited for something bad to happen.
I did not have to wait long.
“We have a bit of a problem here,” said Atchison in his courtroom baritone. Here was a man made to be a judge. Or a governor. He looked like a judge or a governor and had a voice to match. “Ole Johnson, here,” Atchison indicated Ole, “has a matter before the court and has a family emergency in the lower states. He is going to be leaving on the Queen at midnight and he needs to make an official statement to the court. The court is not open and will not be open until tomorrow and by then Ole will be gone. What we need is a responsible third party to hear what he has to say and report it to the court tomorrow. I cannot use any of my staff,” Atchison said as he indicated Foxworthy who was hovering nearby. “Or anyone who is connected with any case currently being considered by the court.” He gave an imperial wave of his hand, as though he were an emperor, he indicated the passel of miners who were watching both Foxworthy and the Judge. “As you can see, this is a bit awkward — legalistically speaking.”
Danny was too young to see the disaster looming. He picked up the hint. “So, what you need me to do is listen to what Ole Johnson has to say and report it to the court tomorrow.”
I did not like where this was going.
“That’s right, Jackson.” That was quite personal. Not Danny or Daniels or even Colored. Jackson; Danny’s first name. How the judge knew it I know not. “Written would be better. Do you write?”
What a question! Because he’s a Negro you assume he cannot write?
Danny told him he did and he would do it while Ole was still in The Blind Husky. That way no one could say that he had reported the conversation wrong.
“Excellent,” Atchison said a lot more sober than he was and indicated Foxworthy should produce a piece of paper and a beaten pencil on the table. “You, Jackson Daniels, have an excellent reputation for neutrality in Ophir so there should be no problem with your credibility in court.” The judge smiled and then indicated with a raised right hand that Ole Johnson should speak his piece.
“I ain’ much of a talking person,” Ole started and then coughed. The judge poured some of the bottle into Ole’s glass. The man drained it in a gulp and shook his head. Then he continued. “Like I said I ain’ much of a talking person. Came up before the big rush here in ’98 and been here ever since. Worked the beach for a while and then moved inland. Staked a claim on the Walrus River and then moved up Muktuk Creek. Been there ever since. I . . .”
“You don’t have to write any of this down,” the Judge said to Danny. “Just write down the details concerning the land dispute.”
Danny nodded and the Judge indicated that Johnson should continue.
“Like I said I was one of the early ones on the Walrus and the first up the Muktuk. I filed the first claim, an actual claim, a paper claim, on the Muktuk when the Ophir Patent Office opened in ’99. I was one of the first in line that spring.”
The Judge indicated Danny should start writing. He scribbled as Johnson kept talking. Ole didn’t seem to mind the writing or, at least he didn’t say so.
“That was when the trouble started. See, in the old days, in the days before paper anyway, a man’s claim was his. He didn’t need a piece of paper. He just put a stake downstream and one upstream and that was his claim. Things got complicated when we had to file paper. Seems that no matter how the paper was filed that was something wrong with it. That’s the problem now. I’ve got a pencil claimant on my upstream side says he owns the top 30 feet of my claim and he ain’ even in Alaska! Then I got a pencil claimer behind me. Took me to court. Got a letter and a court order,” Ole said pointing at the judge. “An’ I’ve got a pair of rascals taking the bottom ten feet of my claim on the downstream side. Probably wouldn’t have been a problem if I was not making any money but I am getting a good clean-up. Problem is that it takes money to make money. I’m barely breaking even and now I’ve got to fight three court suits at the same time.”
Danny stopped writing and looked up. Ole looked at him and finished. “You just write it up Daniels, like I said it. The three court suits are nothing but moose squat. I filed proper on paper like the law said. The claim is on file in the Claims Office. Judge, here,” he indicated Atchison with a dip of his shoulder, “took the gold I had on hand into custody. I have a preliminary hearing tomorrow, but I got a sick brother in Seattle. Gotta go on the midnight steamer. I’ll be back in three weeks, so I am asking for all legal action to stop until I get back. I follow the law, you know,” he looked at the Judge and then at Danny. “I’ll be back.”
There was silence for a moment while Danny scratched out what he said, the basics, not a word-for-word. When Danny finished he handed the paper to Ole. Danny didn’t ask him if the writing was accurate. I wondered if Ole even knew how to read.
He could. He made a small change, signed his name and handed it back to Danny.
The judge slid it to Danny. “Just sign it, Jackson. At the bottom. I’ll sign it as well. That will make it official.” Danny signed and then the judge signed it before he put it in his pocket. Then, to Ole he said graciously, “You take care of your brother and we’ll have your court hearing in three or four weeks, after you get back. Now you are not hiding any gold out there on the claim we don’t know about?”
Ole gave him a look of absolute innocence which fooled no one. “On my honor, your honor,” he said as put a hand to his chest. “There is not a single ounce of gold on that claim that is hidden. I won’t be able to get any more out of the ground until I get back,” he smiled slyly, “so you make sure none of them vultures sneak onto my claim and do any midnight panning, eh?”
Atchison kind of chuckled. “There won’t be guard on the claim all the time but some of my men will come by occasionally to make sure no vultures swoop in and take your gold.”
“Damn straight,” Ole said. “Law’s the law. It’s everyone’s business.” He laughed. “Any time you want my claim,” he says humorously, “just come and get it.” He paused for effect. “‘Course you get the bills too.”
The Judge was about to say something, but Foxworthy cut him off. Foxworthy had risen from his chair and was half-standing behind the Judge and up to this point had been very quiet. There was, of course, good reason for him to have been quiet up to this moment because he was in the cross-hairs of a half-dozen men with men with revolvers who were itching to use their fire arms. Ole Johnson was one of them and, like them, Ole had no choice but to follow the dictates of the court. The law was the law and they had all remembered the taste of anarchy before the judge got to Ophir. The previous year there had been no law, no enforcement and no courts and everyone was packing pistols and there were wild shootouts in the saloons and along the trails. If there are no consequences for violence, then violence becomes the standard. Bodies piled up and a lot of those bodies were good people who had the misfortune to have good claims. Why dig for a gold when someone can steal it and never face a jury?
So here we were a year later. We had a judge. We had law and order. But the judge was crooked. And the law was serving the judge. Ophir did what it could. It appealed to a higher authority. Not double-ought buck because that had not worked. This time the higher authority was the United States Federal Court in San Francisco. It didn’t have a holster, but it did have teeth. What we needed was the Federal Court to rule before the ice set in because we could see the future. When we were least expecting it, Foxworthy and his men would slip out of town on the most convenient steamer and that, as they say, would be that. The gold would be gone. The judge would be gone. Foxworthy would be gone and we would be back to square one when it came to law and order in Ophir. The only question was which would happen first: an order from the Federal Court in San Francisco or Foxworthy and our gold heading south never to be seen again.
Ole Johnson was just the smallest of the fish in a very dirty pool. He was so small that the judge let a saloon waiter witness his defense statement. Danny wasn’t a lawyer, so I wondered just how important Ole’s paperwork was. For Foxworthy to get involved only showed how greedy he was. He wanted every flake of gold there was. He did not intend to leave an ounce in Ophir.
But would the six mining men dogging his footsteps be able to stop him?
I did not have a dog in this fight.
I did not want to get into this fight. What happened between the judge and the miners was to be decided by them, not me. I just wanted the miners and the judge to be customers. Ophir was a boomtown and all boomtowns go ghost. The only question I had was how long it was going to be before Ophir either went ghost or became a surviving city. Danny and I did not know when either would happen but, just in case, we had our cash in the lower states. Mine was in San Francisco and Danny had a bank account in a Portland bank. But both of us wondered how much more we could save before — if and when — Ophir went ghost. I didn’t know. But I did know that if the miners and judge stopped coming to The Blind Husky I wasn’t going to get that much more. The only thing I knew for sure was that I would get more by not getting involved with other people’s business. Signing that paper was as close to the Judge as I — or Danny — wanted to get. As I said before, I did not have a dog in this fight.
As soon as the judge indicated he no longer needed Danny’s services, Danny left the table and came back behind the counter. But now we had a problem. It really didn’t make difference that we knew we were not part of the Atchison corruption, we had now been dragged into it. There was no middle ground here, no neutral party. You were either with Atchison or you were not.
It was very clear from the looks on the faces of the miners following Atchison and Foxworthy that Danny was no longer a neutral party. And by extension, me. They were now looking at Danny and me, us, with questioning faces. We were a new wrinkle in this drama. They were now viewing us with cold, piercing enemy-to-enemy stare. It was no longer the bland bartender-give-me-a-whisky neutral look either. Danny and I had been pulled out of the forest and onto the field of battle between two armies. One cannot stand between warring parties and claim you were neutral. You could, of course, but then you would be hit by bullets from both sides. I knew we were now in a very uncomfortable position — and I was a businessman, someone who took no sides in legal disputes!”
— 30 —
[This is a chapter from Steven Levi’s Alaska Gold Rush collection of stories JUDGE XENOPHON AND THE FOXWORTHY CABAL available on Kindle.]