Alaska Gold Rush Tales: Rufus
No one knew what kind of an Indian Rufus was. Or if he was an Indian at all. He had to be some kind of a Native because he was dark. Since Hootlani was close to the Bering Sea and all the Natives here were Eskimo, it was a good bet that Rufus was an Eskimo. But he didn’t look like an Eskimo and everyone who had been in the Interior said he didn’t look like an Athabaskan either. His name was hardly an Indian or Eskimo name. It was Southern, southern United States, and rural. It was also derogatory. Rufus was the brain-addled darky in the community who stole chicken and watermelons. But he was Rufus, looked to be an Indian and did not seem to mind living in the abandoned cabin about a mile from the Caribou River, downriver, where no white folk wanted to live because that was black water country.
Rufus had to have been the dumbest Indian, Eskimo, colored person in Hootlani. This, in its own way, was actually a blessing. There were occupations that required someone of very limited intelligence. Everyone else in Hootlani believed themselves to be above such labors so it naturally fell to Rufus to keep the privy levels low, swab the floors of the three taverns and clean effluvium from the brothel floor. Just to make sure he didn’t leave town and force someone of a higher station to do these jobs, he was included in many games of chance as the stick man. This was the stupid man salted in a poker game who would appear to be winning. His winnings would entice a high roller to take a chance on the game because if Rufus was winning, why anyone could win. Rufus made enough money as a shill to be happy and in beans.
Most of the residents of Hootlani and all of those passing through the community treated Rufus as if he had Down’s syndrome. He was one of God’s innocent and treated better than other Indians that came to town. Or Eskimos. He was not treated with pity as if he were a Spanish-American War amputee on crutches but more with benign compassion, a “there but for the grace of God go I” sensitivity. But this feeling was not to a man. Dave the Demon felt that compassion was a human weakness and that Rufus was the symbol of why Indians — or Eskimo — were an inferior race.
There was a wrinkle to the relationship. Dave the Demon was one of the three tavern owners and, as it happened, the man who owned the privies. Before Rufus, it had been Dave the Demon’s unenviable task to clean out his own enterprise. Until the arrival of Rufus he had been the butt of every joke that involved any hint of scatology. It was said his liquor had been brewed in a latrine, he had a shi**y attitude, he should wipe the smile off his face, there was a hole in the roof that let God urinate through and he should not make an ass of himself. He took the abuse until Rufus came to Hootlani; then Rufus took the abuse.
Except that Rufus either did not care or did not understand. In either case, he made no comment that indicated he even knew people were talking about him. He just did his job and every few months asked for more money. Dave the Demon never said no because the amount of money he was paying Rufus was so low that any increase was chicken feed — as if Hootlani had had chickens. Dave the Demon needed Rufus to clean privies and Rufus needed the money that came from cleaning the privies. It was hardly a beautiful relations but it was, nevertheless, a relationship.
But, as is the way of all on God’s earth, all good things must come to an end. It was the day after the last steamship of the year had headed down the Caribou River for southern ports that Rufus did not show up to clean the privies. This surprised Dave the Demon because he had come to depend on Rufus the way a farmer depends upon a crowing rooster. Rufus and the rooster were perennial. They would always be. But on that day, Rufus was not.
There was a brief but fruitless search for the man, many worried that he might have been the victim of foul play or been laid low by some infection brought about by associating with Indians or Baptists. But, no, he was not festering in his cabin. Someone said that they had seen him board the Bella Ann but this was deemed to be an irrational sighting as passage on the steamship would cost real money, money that Rufus did not have. Besides, why would an Indian take passage on a steamship?
Dave the Demon cursed the passing of Rufus with great fervor. But only because he was left to clean his own privies. That was the extent of his love for Rufus. Rufus had been his lap dog and now that the man was gone, Dave the Demon had to find another. In the meantime he cleaned his own privies.
It is often said that the Alaskan calendar only has three months and they all begin with the letter “J.” This was true and it was for an entire month, that month being January, that Dave the Demon cleaned his own privies. It was not an odious task for Mother Nature had provided him with cover: three feet of it to be sure, so deep that the snow covered the outhouse to the crescent moon that was not on the doorway. By the beginning of the month of June, Dave the Demon was able to find an urchin to do the dirty work.
It was not until well after break-up that the Bella Ann made it back to Hootlani. It docked in mid-June and Captain Alonso Shepherd immediately hired day labor to offload the cargo — and one of the first hired was the urchin who had been cleaning Dave the Demon’s privies. Dave the Demon was cursing the foul turn of luck brought about by the arrival of the Bella Ann when Captain Shepherd approached him at the gaming table in his, Dave the Demon’s, tavern.
“I have a delivery for you,” the Captain said as he placed a manila envelope on the table. “The man who gave it to me in Portland said you would know who he was.”
This came as a shock to Dave the Demon because he did not know anyone in Portland, had no desire to know anyone in Portland, was suspicious of anyone from Portland (for good reason) and wanted nothing more in his life but to never return to that city, dead or alive. But there the manila envelope sat, alone, forlorn on the gaming table with everyone looking at Dave the Demon to see if he was going to open the missive.
As Dave the Demon made no effort to open the envelope, Nellie the Pig did. She daintily ripped the flap and extracted a copy of a newspaper. She looked inside to see if there was an accompanying letter. There was not. So the three men at the table looked over the shoulder of Nellie the Pig as she read the paper aloud, from masthead to classifieds looking for a clue as to who would have sent a special package to, of all people, Dave the Demon whom, everyone knew, could barely read.
Close to the bottom of Page Three was an interview of a swarthy sourdough by the name of Rutherford Postulus, a Portuguese Greek mix, who was living modestly but well in a Portland suburb. Unlike many other sourdoughs, he had not made his fortune by digging in muck for gold. “I knew I was not strong enough or lucky enough to strike it big as a miner,” he told the Portland paper. “So I had to be clever. I had to find gold where it was but no one knew it was there. I found it by sweeping out taverns and cleaning privies. There is always a goodly amount of gold dust on floor and it sticks to the bottom of miners’ boots. I just collected the mud on tavern floors and in the privy standing areas and panned it. It was a long year but I’m here now. But there’s still a lot of gold on the floor of those s*** houses.”
— 30 —
[This story is from Steven Levi’s Alaska Gold Rush short stories “BEST BOOTS I EVER ATE”
available on Kindle.]